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His Fate Will Be Unlearned

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The last train was the last hope, and it was the last place that he wanted to be.

Steve Rogers hadn't been in Boston for very long, but he'd quickly learned that particular inescapable truth: the last train of the night was to be avoided. And the last train running on the MBTA's Green Line was the one he'd do anything to avoid. The Green Line trolleys were small and cramped, too hot in summer and too cold in the winter, every stop cracking the doors to circulate the stale air, never letting the passengers cool off or warm up, and every stop made things worse. There were a lot of stops on the Green Line, especially on the B line, the one that ran out to Boston College.

The one he took to get back to his small apartment.

Usually, the problem was that it was filled to overflowing, too many people in a too small space, boisterous college students and drunks with something to prove and exhausted workers scrambling to catch the T before the service ended and they were left with an expensive cab ride home. Steve, who took up entirely too much space at the best of times and the last train was never the best of times, hated the last train, hated how obvious and clumsy and out of place he felt as the trolley rattled through the city streets. Usually on the T, he would close his eyes and pretend that he was still in New York, still in a time and place he understood; the trains were old enough that it almost seemed plausible. But that wasn't possible on the last train.

Tonight, he as he fought his way through the crowd at the front of the train, heading for the back, he was shocked to find himself mostly alone on the rear trolley car.

The reason for that was obvious a minute later, when the singular drunk occupant fixed a bloodshot gaze on Steve. He was big, and bulky, a man once made of pure muscle now running to fat, but there was strength underneath that, hard bone and enough booze to make feeling any pain an impossibility.

For a moment, Steve considered getting back off, or moving back to the front of the train, but the doors slid shut with a mechanical hiss, sealing out the cold night air, and the trolley started rolling. He flicked a glance at the dark streets beyond the windows, dirty slush coating the pavement and the occasional flash of a car going by. He considered jumping off at the next stop and walking the rest of the way back to Boston University, but he was tired of being cold. He was tired of giving ground. He was tired of not having control over his own life, even something this small.

Actually, he was just tired.

Steve grabbed the strap hanging from the car roof, and heaved a mental sigh. He'd been looking forward to sitting down for the long, jerky trip back to his stop, but that wasn't going to happen. Drunks were always fun, and if he was standing, it was much less likely someone would decide to mess with him.

He risked a glance at the front of the trolley, where the driver was paying more attention to the loud group of co-eds just inside the front door than what was happening in the back of his train. Resigned, Steve leaned against the pole and tried to ignore the way his feet hurt.

The drunk was eying him with the resentment and focus of the extremely inebriated. He swayed wildly back and forth as the train turned the corner, crashing into the edge of the seats. Behind him, Steve spotted the car's only other occupant, a bum sprawled out on the back row of seats, across the aisle. The man's thin form was all but buried in a couple of layers of sweatshirts and jackets, heavy, battered sneakers poking out from under the cuffs of stained jeans. Steve shivered; the heating on the green line was inadequate at best and nonexistent at worst, and he couldn't imagine sleeping here. It seemed like just asking to not ever wake up.

Steve felt like warning him; sometimes even if you do wake up, the cold never really leaves your bones.

The drunk stumbled forward, and Steve adjusted his hand on the strap, setting his feet and preparing himself for the inevitable. Before the drunk could do more than take another shuffling step, the train stopped, sending him staggering into a row of seats. The door between him and Steve opened, and a tired looking young woman with a scraped back ponytail and her purse clutched to her chest trudged in. She had a thin face and dark circles beneath her pretty dark eyes, and she moved towards the nearest seat.

The drunk leaned into her space, making her jerk backwards, and Steve swallowed a curse. “Hey,” the drunk slurred at the girl, who took another step back, her back hitting the now closed doors. She avoided his eyes, her bag hitched up tight against her breasts, her head down. “Hey!” the drunk repeated, and it was louder now, louder and meaner and he moved forward, and the girl was looking for some way out, any way out.

“Hey-” Steve said, and that was as far as he got before the hobo in the back of the trolley suddenly threw his hands in the air.

“Will you FUCKING SHUT UP?” he yelled, making everyone jump. Even the drunk swung around, his body carrying the momentum of the train. The hobo rolled over, sitting up. In the shadowed space in the back of the train, he glared down at them, eyes like sparks beneath lowered brows. He wasn't a hobo, and he wasn't nearly as old as Steve thought he was. He would've pegged the guy, the kid, at fifteen or sixteen, at most, thin and lithe and swaddled in a bunch of layers. But his gaze was direct, even manic, and now that he was sitting up, he looked more like a college student than a bum.

The kid was still talking, not the least put off by the fact that the drunk had about fifty pounds on him, and a couple of inches. “Seriously. You are fucking annoying. I'm trying to think, and if you cannot hold your damn booze, then don't drink. Really. No one cares. Get off.”

The drunk wobbled, blinking at him. “You-” He thrust a finger at the hobo who wasn't a hobo. “You wanna come down here an' say that?”

The guy shrugged. “Sure.” He pushed himself to his feet and jumped down the stairs, landing with a faint thump. He grinned, and it was amused and sharp and brutal, perfect teeth catching the light of the passing street lights. “See, here's the thing,” he said, moving forward without even grabbing the poles to steady himself, all easy grace and smooth strides. “I ride this fucking line, like, every night, this is my train, I don't even need to take this train, and I do, this is my train, and you're annoying me. Get off.”

The drunk's hands clenched into fists, huge hammers of force. Steve held a hand out to the girl, who looked between drunk dude, crazy not-hobo and Steve, and made a beeline for Steve. He caught her elbow and pushed her behind him. “Go try to get the driver to stop,” he said, and she was scrambling down the aisle, trying to force her way through the small but thick crowd of partiers in the front.

“You want me off? Then make me,” the drunk slurred. He took a threatening step forward, and was looming over the kid, shoulders heaving and feet scraping the floor. The kid looked amused, his head back, his hands tucked in his pockets. The drunk goon raised one huge fist, and Steve stepped in behind him, slowly trying to get an angle that he could use to jump the idiot.

“If you take a swing at me,” the young man said, sounding amused now, “you're going to regret it.”

The drunk gave a bark of laughter, and lunged forward. Steve went for him, but he was a step behind and too far away, his hand closing on nothing but thin air.

The young man didn't even flinch. His hand came up, his arm an arrow leading away from his body, his elbow locked, and there was a bright flash, like a flash bulb going off, or a small explosion, and the drunk went flying into Steve. He hit so hard that Steve's feet left the ground, and for a second, the two of them were airborne, and Steve didn't know what had just happened, but as he crashed back to the floor of the trolley, he had a horrifying thought.

That reminded him of a Hydra weapon.

The trolley stopped with the shriek of grinding brakes, and someone was screaming, high and sharp and panicked, and the drunk went rolling away. Steve scrambled to his feet, finding a fighting stance and braced for the threat.

There was a pair of rangy legs hanging over the top of the nearest set of seats. “Well,” an unsteady voice said, “I didn't expect that. That, that was a bit more kick than I expected.” There was a rattling noise, and a hand came over the top of the seat, grabbing for the bar, and the guy heaved himself into view. His hair, if anything, looked worse, standing on end, but he was grinning, his eyes dancing with a fierce, maniacal spark. “Is he down?”

Confused, Steve looked at the drunk, who was face down on the ground and groaning. “Yeah, I mean-” He leaned over, checking the man's pulse. It was strong and steady. “What the heck was that?” he asked.

The young man was untangling himself from the seats. “Uh, something I'm working on.” He held up his arm, and Steve could see there was a flat white disc on his palm, a series of wires running down under his sweatshirt. As they watched, it sparked and spat. “Can't get the power source worked out, I think I just fried it, goddamn, I think that was a one off, but this is, this is a good start, that was a-”

Steve blinked at him, still braced for an attack that just didn't seem to be coming. The guy was babbling like the proverbial brook. “What IS it?” Steve asked,interrupting. “A weapon?”

“Not really, I-”

“What is going ON BACK THERE?” the driver yelled, and Steve's head jerked in the man's direction. The co-eds were gone, and the driver was holding his radio. In the distance, there was the sound of sirens, and his stomach dropped.

“Oh, no,” he said, because no, no, he was supposed to stay out of trouble, out of sight, he was supposed to be invisible, that's the only reason they let him out, let him have a life, let him see the sun again, and he could not get arrested right now.

He had no doubt that General Ross would put him right back in the hole he'd pulled Steve out of.

“What's wrong?” the young man said, and he was pulling wires free from his arm, flinching as sparks shot to the floor. “Hey, chill. You have problems with the cops?”

“What? No. No, I just can't-” The panic was there, clawing at his throat, just the memory of that cell, that featureless box, barely big enough to let him pace, and he could remember it, remember the walls pressing in on him, caged like a sideshow exhibit, like the freak that he was, and he couldn't bear it. “If he finds out- I can't get arrested.” The words were a strained whisper, cold and hard in his ears, like a prison door slamming shut behind him.

“Okay, okay, I get it, don't worry, my father's a dick, too.” And before Steve, or the driver, could stop him, he hopped up on the seat, snagging the emergency release lever above the door. He gave it a yank and kicked the doors open. “Go.” When Steve just stood there, the cold night air blowing in his face, the kid sighed. “Go! What, are you stupid? This has nothing to do with you, run!”

He shouldn't. He shouldn't leave this kid, this child alone to handle this on his own; there was something dark and cold and resigned in his face. Steve glanced at the door, and the boy jumped off the seat, putting a hand in the middle of Steve's back and giving him a shove. He wasn't strong enough to really move Steve, but Steve was already leaning in that direction. The push sent him stumbling out to the street, almost falling. Shocked, he glanced back.

The kid leaned out. “RUN!” An order, or a plea, Steve wasn't sure, but the force was there.

And just like that, Steve was running, his feet were crashing into the early winter slush, running into the dark of the night street. Behind him, he could hear the guy yelling, “Go left, you moron! Take that one way street off of Comm Ave, they can't take the cars up that way and they're too lazy to chase you on foot! RUN!”

And Steve Rogers, who'd faced down squadrons of Nazi super soldiers with nothing more than a shield in his hands, who'd stood his ground in front of every bully he'd ever faced, Steve Rogers, who'd slept for decades beneath the ice and woken to a new world and a fractured heart without flinching, Steve Rogers ran through the midnight dark streets of Boston.

He could not go back to the labs. They'd found the way to break him, to break his courage, his stubborn will, to break his heart. He could not go back to die in the white nothing under ground, to never see the sun again, to never breathe the free air or hear the wind. He would not go back there.

He risked a single glance over his shoulder, sick and ashamed and full of self-loathing, and saw the dark haired boy framed in the light of the trolley door, lit from behind, glowing in the darkness. As red and blue lights started to fracture the landscape, he took a step back in, and his palm was still glowing, bright and sharp like a star was caught in his hand.

And Steve ran.

*

Tony hip checked the door, hard, putting the full weight of his body into it, not that he had that much body weight to work with. But he figured he made the best use of what he had, and that was all that he could do unless he was willing to spend hours trying to pack on additional muscle.

That prospect sounded both boring and time consuming, and he had better things to do with his time.

The door gave way under the assault, the way it always did, cranky and creaky, but yielding to the inevitable at last. He shoved it open, and spend another intolerably long time wrestling it back closed. Once the heavy metal door was seated in the frame again, he slumped against it, letting out a long sigh, grateful to be out of the damned wind.

“Daddy's home!” he announced, pulling his scarf and hat off with a quick flick of his fingers. He tossed them in the general direction of the coat rack, and he was pretty sure the scarf hit. Gloves and jacket followed, and then he hopped in an awkward circle, finally bumping up against the wall with his back to pry his boots loose. “Hey! Let's see some signs of life here!”

The workshop floor spread out in front of him, quiet and still and dark, and he sighed. “C'mon, Dummy, are we doing this again? Really?” He dropped his boot to the floor, cursing as he stepped right into the puddle of slush and melting snow the other one had left behind, and fumbled his way through the darkened warehouse. “Jarvis, give me some light.”

There was a faint, musical tone, and the lights came up, obligingly enough, Not fast enough, though, not the kind of response he was looking for from the system. He wondered if he could get it to the point of anticipating what he was going to ask for before he could ask for it. Right now, Jarvis' programming wasn't nearly advanced enough to allow for the AI to make that kind of a inference from Tony's presence, but even a series of motion sensors that he could trigger and then leave it up to Jarvis to keep the lights on for as long as he was in the room. That wouldn't take much, not really, not if he was careful about the code usage.

Still musing on the possibilities, Tony turned the corner. “Oh, for Christ's sake,” he said. “Really? REALLY?”

There was no answer, not that he'd been anticipating one, but still. Verbal explosions allowed him to vent his rage without taking a crowbar to his hapless helper bot. Dummy was currently stuck between two benches, his wheel base hooked on one of the legs. Tony could tell at a glance what had happened. Judging by the blinking warning light on Dummy's main support strut, the bot had reached critical battery levels and attempted to return to his charging station.

“Except,” Tony said aloud, “you got stuck. You steer like a cow, Dummy, you really do, there are robotic vacuum cleaners with better spacial recognition parameters than you. I suppose I should be grateful that you didn't tip yourself over this time in that you weigh like a billion pounds and I am sick of trying to shove your busted ass back up right.”

Still, he hooked one cold hand around Dummy's support strut and yanked the bot away from the impediment. Bracing his feet, he started the tedious job of returning Dummy to his charging station. “You know what you're supposed to be?” Tony said, his teeth gritted hard. “You are supposed to be a help. Helper. And yet, you are not. You are a dam annoyance, that's what you are, another bit of grunt work I've got to get through to get on with my day, with my life.” He set his feet and shoved, hard, and Dummy trundled along ahead of him, silent and unresponsive. “I should leave you with a dead battery, it would serve you right. It really would, I just- I do not need this kind of a problem.”

Another shove, and he got the bot into place, cursing and snarling until the solid click of metal on metal indicated that Dummy was in place and charging. The faint, familiar hum of Dummy's systems starting to come back online was a warm balm on his nerves, and Tony let himself slide to the floor.

He sat there on the cold concrete, sucking in quick, hard breaths, until the whir of gears told him Dummy was back online. “You,” he said, pointing a finger in the bot's direction, “are a pain in my ass.”

Dummy's long arm came up and swung around, his camera pointed right at Tony. The whine of his gearing was pathetic, and Tony reached up to run a gentle hand over the bot's strut. “Damn pain in the ass,” he said.

He leaned his head back against the wall, staring up into the dark spaces between the beams, far above his head. He listened to the wind, blowing hard off the North Atlantic tonight, as it rattled against the battered metal and brick of the building, and made him shiver. It was cold tonight, bitter and thin and dark. He was cold tonight, more than the air, more than the wind, he was cold.

But this was what he had chosen. He had to keep reminding himself of that. This, Boston, MIT, this was his choice, the first choice he'd made that hadn't been guided by some other hand, by his father's weakness, or his mother's death, or Obie's steady grip. He was seventeen now, barely seventeen, but this was his third New England winter, and he was sick to death of them.

“When I graduate,” Tony told Dummy, who was still bouncing up and down in his charging station, “I'm going to get the hell out of here and never end up anywhere cold again. Ever.” He pushed himself up. “You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to move to fucking California. San Diego. Or Malibu. Or Los Angles. I don't know, I don't care, but I am moving to fucking California.”

Dummy studied him for a moment, and then rolled off of his charging station.

“Where are you going?” Tony called after the bot. “Hey! Get back- You are not done charging! You're going to end up broken down again, and I'm not- What are you doing.”

The bot pulled a box out from under the workbench. As Tony watched, he carefully began placing tools into the box.

“Dummy. Dummy. You idiot, not now. No. Stop packing. Bad bot. Bad-” Tony buried his face in his hands, and let out a long string of curses. It was almost a benediction by this point.

“I have degrees,” he muttered into his palms. “I have inventions, and patents and most of a dissertation! And yet, most of my time is spent trying to make you less broken! How is that possible?” He let his head fall back, looking once again into the dark, hidden spaces of the rafters, appealing to some higher power of engineering. “What did I ever do to deserve-”

Something broke with a massive crash, and Tony gritted his teeth against the urge to create new swears. “I will roll you down to long wharf and I will push you into the harbor!” he yelled, stalking across the workshop floor. “Jarvis, give me some music, it's going to be another long night.”

*

Steve unlocked his front door, rattling the keys as he pushed it open. The small space was empty and dark, but not unoccupied. He set his bag down and bent down to untie his boots one handed. He balanced a paper tray of coffee in his other, a couple of scones wedged between the steaming cups. “Hey,” he called, setting his boots aside with military precision. “I brought you a mocha.”

There was a faint chuckle from the direction of the window, and the shadows peeled away from the wall, the familiar form silhouetted in the light of the window for a second, and then Clint was padding across the room. He caught the wrapped scone that Steve caught him, a massive compound bow slung over one shoulder. “Thanks,” he said, taking a perch on the arm of the couch. “Long day, I take it?”

“Yeah.” Steve handed over the cup, pleased beyond words that he'd lured Clint out. Sometimes, he couldn't manage it. But sweets usually did the job. Steve tossed himself on the couch, not bothering to turn on the lights. His head ached, not really a headache; he hadn't had one of those since the serum. It was a sensation of cotton wool, like dehydration, or the ache that came with too little or too much sleep, and it was happening more and more lately. He rolled his head towards the window, looking at the cold light of the streetlamp. “Long and cold.”

“You have no idea,” Clint said, a mouthful of scone making the words almost unintelligible. “You at least get to spend your days inside. I spent half the night on the roof.”

“Does the army really expect you to sit on my fire escape and stare at me through the window?” Steve asked him. His coffee was hot and bitter, stinging his throat. He sighed in pleasure.

“Cap, you know they do.” Clint grinned as he pulled the lid off of his coffee, breathing in the heavy steam. “If they had their way, I'd be sitting across the way, with an arrow perpetually held at full draw.” He sipped his mocha, his eyes sliding shut. “But that'd really be a long couple of years, wouldn't it?”

Steve studied him out of the corner of his eyes. The sniper was a mystery, a loose limbed, smart mouthed, sharp eyed enigma that hovered perpetually at the edge of his world. It hadn't taken him long to realize he was being followed, being watched, but he suspected that was because Barton let him. If Clint wanted to disappear, he did. He did it very well.

Steve wasn't under any illusions. Specialist Clint Barton was not his roommate, he was not Steve's friend. If anything, he was Steve's parole officer. As long as Steve checked in regularly, as long as Clint could see him, coming and going, day and night, from his own apartment window two floors up, then there was a status quo. But in the end, he was there to keep Steve in place. And put a hopefully non-lethal projectile into him if it looked like he was going to rabbit.

He was also the only person in Steve's current life who knew the truth. He was the only one who knew that Steve Burnside had had another name, and another life, a lifetime ago. Steve knew and liked people in his classes, but those lies were always there, holding them at a distance. Clint was the only one he could even approach honesty with. He knew that was pathetic. He didn't care.

Clint shifted his weight, leaning forward. “So, what happened?” he said, popping the last of the scone in his mouth.

“Just a-” Steve rubbed the bridge of his nose with tense fingers. “Just a long day.”

Clint chewed, his jaw working for long, long after he should've swallowed. “Yeah, I hear ya.” He sipped his coffee. “Moving kinda slow out there in the street.”

“That why you came down?” Steve asked, almost without thinking.

“Nope,” Clint said, his voice a slow, low drawl. “It was cold, and you were carrying steaming cups. Cups, plural. Seemed like I might be able to steal one from you.”

“It would serve you right if I didn't share,” Steve said. He slumped a little lower into the couch. He was so tired he ached with it, and he knew better than to try to sleep, not when his brain was buzzing this way. Nothing good would come of it.

So he came home with hot cups of coffee, and prayed that the one person who actually knew who he was, the one person Steve didn't have to pretend with, the one person he didn't have to lie to, would come in from the cold. For Steve's sake, or maybe his own.

“How're classes going?” Clint said, sipping his mocha.

Steve glanced at him, not ever sure if Clint was asking for some official report somewhere, or if he was just curious about the minutiae of Steve's every day life. “Good,” he said, because there was no real point in lying or being close mouthed with Clint. Steve got the feeling he knew more than he let on, both about Steve's day to day activities, and also what Steve was thinking. “I'm enjoying my History of Eastern Art class.”

Most days, he loved his classes. He loved Boston. The museums and the libraries, the unlimited art supplies and books and knowledge this new world afforded him. Steve read everything he could get his hands on, filled his small apartment with piles of art books and catalogs, and filled his life with oil paintings, water colors, sketches, literature, sculpture, history and comic books, everything he could find.

There was a sense of timelessness and tradition about BC that was soothing to him, the old Catholic laws that still permeated the brick of the buildings were familiar. They weren't his laws, but he'd stood beside Bucky often enough on cold winter mornings for him to know what to do, and when to do it. Sunday morning services, high mass in Latin, was strangely unchanged by the passage of time.

His days were precisely scheduled, by a hand that wasn't his. The polite and distant woman from military command, crisp and efficient in a perfectly pressed uniform, had taken his list of requested classes, and handed him back a full schedule. Classes, and extra classes, in art history and fine art, commercial art, ancient history and literature. Occasional ROTC gatherings, with all the other students interest in a military career, so the brass could keep a firm grip on his collar. Medical appointments and counseling appointments and blank faced military tribunals clutching metal clipboards in featureless white rooms. And a late night job stocking shelves after closing at a local art store, where he could quietly sort paints in colors he barely dreamed of when he was a child.

Clint was looking at him over the top of his paper cup, his eyes sharp and clear. “You going to bed?”

Steve shook his head. “I've got reading to do.” He didn't need much sleep, not any more. It was a blessing, most nights, to work until he could collapse for an hour or two.

Clint nodded. “I feel like watching something. You mind? My cable's out.” His head tipped towards the television, and the lie was trasnparent, but appreciated. Steve tossed him the remote.

“It's all yours.”

“Thanks.” Clint dropped himself onto the opposite end of the couch, and after a moment, Steve grabbed his bag started pulling out some of his materials.

This felt like pity. He was so grateful for it, he could've cried.

*

“It's fine.” Tony rolled his eyes at the low, sustained bout of swearing from the other end of the line. “For God's sake,” he said, not interested in hearing this anymore. “It's not the end of the fucking world, Obie.” He padded down the stairs to the Park Street station, his feet rapid fire on the stone, ducking past the tourists and the old folks, a couple of idiots with suitcases and a confused woman with a map and two kids.

“You were arrested,” Obie said, his voice full of wrath. “Tony-”

“Not arrested. I think this is something you need to acknowledge here, Obie. I was not arrested.” He swung his messenger bag around onto his back, cutting through the crowd. “Detained. It's a big difference.”

“It's a matter of semantics.”

“No, it's really not.” Tony pinned his phone between his shoulder and his cheek, cursing the lack of his blu-tooth headset. “Look, I was attacked on the T, that's-”

“You started it.”

“I did not. I did not start it.” Tony smirked to himself, and then tried to force his face into serious lines; somehow, Obie always managed to hear his smirk. “He was drunk, I was riding the train, he was bigger than me, he attacked me.” He jammed the rolled up top of his Dunkies bag between his teeth, juggling his coffee cup and his wallet as he swiped his T pass, stepping through and onto the loading platforms for the Green Line. “It's pretty cut and dried, Obie.”

“Wipe that expression off your face, young man. I did not need to hear about this a week after it happened! You should've called me.”

Tony's nose wrinkled. No. That was not happening. That was never, ever going to be happening. He had no desire to give Obie any more ammunition than the guy already possessed. And sometimes, it felt like their relationship was less about communication and more about who had ownership of the biggest ammo dump. “Look, I had it under control.”

“You had a fake ID, a bad cover story and an unknown piece of tech on you,” Obie said. “We're lucky that you didn't end up-”

Tony considered just walking a little further down. He could kill this call just by heading down to the red line. That far underground, no one got reception. For now, though, he hovered on the upper platform, staring at his watch and letting Obie rant. He leaned against a pillar, out of the way of the commuters, and pulled a doughnut out of the bag, scarfing it down in a couple of bites. Licking chocolate frosting off of his fingers, he waited for Obie to run out of steam.

“Yeah, well, it's fine,” he said, cutting Obie off. “It was fine. See, the good thing about having unknown tech is that there's nothing to show what the hell it is. And if no one knows what it is?” Tony pulled the thumb out of his mouth with a pop. “It can't possibly be illegal.”

A stony silence greeted that response, and Tony heaved a sigh. “It's fine,” he said, and he knew he sounded sharp, too sharp, too frustrated. “And there is not a cop in New England who could pick my fake ID out of a lineup and you know it.” There was a reason for that. It was official. It was printed by an official Massachusetts RMV system. He'd had to pay a king's ransom for the damn thing, but if you looked hard enough in a government bureaucracy, you'd find someone willing to break the rules for the right price.

And there was no way Tony was going through a graduate program at MIT without drinking. There was absolutely no way that would end well. He'd pay what he had to pay, but he had an ID that was legal, for all intents and purposes.

Except, of course, for the fact that it had the wrong name, DOB, and he had never, in the most technical sense, ever passed a driving test. He could drive, he just didn't want to be bothered proving that to anyone. Mostly he avoided it in Boston, but that was because driving in Boston was for lunatics and people with suicidal tendencies.

Also the parking situation was shit.

“Look, Obie, he's the upshot. I handle my life, I handle my problems. And as long as I get my assignments done on time and do not actually bring down dishonor upon the family name,” he said, sarcasm twisting through the words like a knife, “then you leave me alone to handle both of those. Right?”

Obie's sigh was faint, light, barely an exhale, but Tony could almost see his face, see the way that his eyes slid shut, the way he rubbed hard on the bridge of his nose. “Right,” Obie said, and his voice was gentle now. Warm. “But I don't want you to have to handle these things alone, Tony. You've done that for too long, and you shouldn't have to. That's what I'm here for, to make this easier.”

“I appreciate it, I do, but...” Tony took a deep breath, watching the people stream past, letting his eyes glaze over until he couldn't focus on the kids and the parents, the workers and the students, until everything was a wash of color and movement. Until it felt like he was the only still point in a sea of motion. He shut his eyes, took a deep breath. “But I've got this. If I need you, I'll call, I promise.”

And even making that promise, even saying the words felt like a weight on his shoulders, felt like it would bend him double if he tried to bear it.

“I know you will. You've always done what I needed you to do,” Obie said, affection coming through now. “You're the-” He stopped, cleared his throat. “I'm proud of you, Tony.”

Tony shrugged, his shoulders flinching up. “Yeah,” he said. “I know.” He glanced up the length of the platform, at the trains rushing through, at the people jostling for space and time, and he started walking away from the turnstyles. “Look, Obie, I gotta go. That's my train.”

“Call me, Tony.”

“I will.” He wished he could give up on that last life line, but he knew his sense of self-delusion only went so far. Tucking the phone back in his pocket, he considered the ramp down to the Red Line, but his cup was empty. He glanced up, looking for a trashcan. There was one just a little further down the platform, and he headed in that direction, wadding the bag up into a ball. His hand came up just as the doors to the nearby green line trolley creaked shut. Something moved, just beyond his line of sight, and his head came around.

Through the window of the trolley, his eyes met a pair of brilliant blue ones, wide and startled. For a second, Tony just blinked, trying to understand why his brain was screaming at him.

And the blonde man inside the trolley lunged for the doors, too late, way too late, the train was already rolling. Tony stared at him, his lips curling up in a grin as he stared up at the man from the train. The big, gorgeous blonde man who'd been on the last train, the one who'd been behind the drunk, the man with the sad eyes and the bright red scarf who'd tried to stop the drunk douchebag from wringing Tony's neck.

Tony raised a hand, waving as the train pulled away. Through the window, the man stared at him, his beautiful mouth parted on a word that Tony couldn't hear. In an instant, the train disappeared into the darkness of the tunnels, whipping up a storm of litter and air as it went.

And then he realized he standing there like an idiot on the platform, waving and holding a crumpled up bag, with chocolate frosting on his face. “Fuck,” he muttered. “Good job. Really. Way to impress.” He heaved the bag into the trashcan and headed for the red line platform, his shoulders hunched against the stale, sharp wind that whistled up from the lower level.

Wasn't that just his fucking life?

*

Steve resisted the urge to throw himself at the door.

His heart was pounding in his chest, the thready fast sound of his pulse thudding in his ears. “No,” he said aloud. “No, no, no, no.”

His head jerked up, his eyes darting over the transit map that was posted above the door. “No,” he muttered, and he could hear the desperation in his voice. Swallowing hard, he tried to think. One stop. One stop, and he could get off and double back.

It'd been him. Steve had thought so. Had thought the ratty coat and tousled curls were familiar, but he'd been reluctant to hope. He'd wanted too much, and he knew it. It had gotten to the point where Steve had seen him everywhere. He'd had ended up following strangers through crowds, had stumbled helplessly after men who he'd never met and boys who gave him confused looks.

Steve knew it was guilt. Guilt and frustration and self-loathing that made him see the brunette with the smirk and the brilliant dark eyes everywhere he looked.

And when he'd seen that familiar form cut across the platform, he'd told himself that it was just him making things up again. Making mistakes. Seeing things he wanted to see. He hadn't moved, hadn't let go of the strap, because Park was a nightmare sometimes, you could wait forever and never catch the right train. So he'd stayed, his fingers gripping the rubber with a death grip, and when the boy had turned around, he'd been too stunned to move.

He'd waved. He'd waved and grinned. He remembered Steve, too.

“Think,” he muttered to himself, because this wasn't helping. This wasn't helping at all. He stared at the map. Green line. Green line. Which train? Which line? Steve bit back a curse. No way to know, and all four lines rolled through Park, if he chose the wrong one, he'd end up on the wrong branch of the line. Miles out of the way.

He closed his eyes, thinking. Trying to concentrate. The dark haired boy hadn't been standing at any of the loading zones. He had been walking, walking from the turnstiles. Steve remembered the smear of chocolate on the seam of his lips, the direction he'd been walking. And a crumpled paper bag that he'd been about to throw into the trashcan.

Why was he in the middle of the platform? Why wasn't he standing at one of the loading zones?

Steve's eyes snapped open. “Red line,” he said, a grin breaking on his face. “Of course, he was heading down to the Red line, that's why he wasn't at-” He scanned the map. Two directions. In, to Alewife. Out, to Braintree or Ashmont. He scanned the stops.

Young. Smart. Riding the trains in the middle of the night. College student.

He reached up, tapping them off. Harvard. Porter, where Lesley was. Davis, for Tufts. Or- His finger stabbed on the stop. “Kendall,” he said, certain of it. “Kendall, and MIT.”

The loudspeaker overhead crackled and he turned back to the door, slipping through them as soon as they opened, pushing his way through the waiting passengers, slipping out to the platform. His heart was pounding, and he didn't know why, he didn't even think he cared to figure it out.

For the first time in a long time, he stepped into the station and didn't feel trapped at all.

*

He was the first one off the train when it finally ground to a halt, and he'd wasted so much time, doubling back on the green line, catching a red line train, and waiting impatiently for the announcement for the Kendall station. He was the first one off, running through the largely empty station, ignoring the escalator and taking the stairs at full speed, shooting up and into the streets.

Steve stood there, staring at the buildings, his eyes scanning the landscape, and he felt his shoulders slump. For a crisp Saturday afternoon in mid-winter, the streets were strangely deserted, tall, featureless skyscrapers marching crisply along the edges of the street. The wind moved the air around him, cold against his exposed face, and he turned to put his back to it.

A handful of people were crossing the street, dodging through the light traffic, about a block up. Carrying overstuffed backpacks and coffee cups, they clustered together, talking or laughing as they made their way through the street, and one of them was wearing a red MIT sweatshirt, the logo visible even from this distance. Steve's heart jumped, and he started in that direction, his feet moving quickly on the frozen pavement.

By the time he reached the spot where they'd disappeared from sight, he was almost running.

“You came out of the wrong entrance, didn't you?”

Steve's head jerked to the side and he found himself almost face to face with his target. Perched easily on the top of a concrete block, one leg swinging in midair and his eyes brilliant beneath the tangle of his hair, the boy smiled at him. “That is, if you were looking for me.”

Too late, Steve realized he was gaping at the boy, his mouth hanging open, his eyes huge. His face flushing with a dawning sense of humiliation, he cleared his throat. “I- Uh, wrong entrance?” he managed at last.

The boy hooked a thumb down the street. “Two exits from the stop,” he said, and his grin was warm and wicked and very self-assured, but somehow endearing. His hands were bare, red and chapped from the cold, but he didn't bother trying to tuck them in his pockets. “Come out over there and you're on the edge of the land of boring adults doing boring things. Here-” He beat his heel against the pillar, a flick of his leg that seemed to encompass the stop and the exit right behind him. “And you're let loose right in the heart of MIT.”

He hopped down. “Hi. I'm Tony.” His grin was wide and white and brilliant, and Steve felt himself smiling back, because that grin was infectious, his brown eyes brilliant and his lips quirked. “Tony Edwards.”

“Steve. Steve Burnside.” The fake name he'd been saddled with came easily to his lips, he was conditioned to it by now. He'd kept his real first name, he'd fought them on that. Steve was still a common name, even in this strange new world, and he refused to relinquish it. There really was no point, and no reason.

No one was looking for Steve Rogers. Even the change to his last name had seemed pathetically unnecessary, but he'd given in, too tired about fighting every single battle, too sick of the struggle to push for the last thing he had rights to.

Tony's hand caught his, and his grip was firm and warm, his hand rougher than Steve had expected, the skin carrying scrapes and callouses. He glanced down, smiling at the robot covered bandage on Tony's index finger, the battered state of his knuckles.

“You were looking for me, right?” Tony asked, and he sounded eager. Happy about that.

“Yes. I mean, I saw you on the platform. I thought, I figured, I thought you might be MIT,” Steve said, and he sounded like an idiot. “I mean, I thought you might be an MIT student. Because of the, the thing?”

“I'm an MIT student because of many things,” Tony said, head tipping to the side. His smile wasn't mean, though, wasn't disdainful or patronizing. He seemed amused. “Any particular thing?”

Steve held up his hand, his elbow straight, pointed away from his body, the way that Tony had that night on the trolley.. “The thing you had on your arm. That-” He frowned. “What was that?”

“Oh! Oh, you mean the-” Tony was laughing, his big brown eyes dancing with amusement. “Repulsor.” Steve stared at him, confused, and that must've been obvious, because Tony shrugged. “It's something I'm working on. My own, uh, my design, but it didn't work right.”

Steve felt a little of the pleasure that had been percolating in his gut die away. “A weapon?”

Tony's smile went tight. “No. A propulsion system. It's- It's not really intended to be used the way I did, but depending on the energy output, it produces a certain repelling force that can knock-” He paused, shoved a hand through his hair. “Well, as you saw, it can knock me on my ass. I clearly have some bugs to work out. And the whole works fried after a single shot, it's really not supposed to do that, the materials weren't up to the stress. But it worked out, because when the police showed up, I had a fistful of wires and some smoking chunks of metal. Kept me out of trouble.”

Steve flinched. "I'm sorry-" he started, and Tony waved him off.

"For what? It was not your problem. What, you've got an over blown sense of responsibility?" One dark eyebrow arched, his head tipping to the side. "Not everything that happens in your general vicinity has anything to do with you, and I certainly didn't expect you to stick around." He shifted his weight, his bag sliding down his shoulder. He caught it with one hand and yanked it back up, his bare fingers pink in the cold. "You okay? They didn't pick you up, did they?"

"The police? No." Steve's hands were fists in his pockets, and he resented it. He took a deep breath and released it, the moist warm air of his breath a cloud around his face. "No, they didn't even-" He ended the sentence with a shrug.

"I didn't figure they would, you weren't really involved." Tony's lips quirked. “It was fine. The police are used to out of town college students doing dumbass things, and, well, the drunk was apparently a repeat offender, the driver knew him well and wasn't a fan. They dragged me downtown, glared at me for about an hour, then sent me back home.”

“I'm sor-”

“Again, not your problem,” Tony said, his eyes rolling. “Please stop.”

“It's just-” Steve started, and Tony started to laugh.

“You are not going to give up on this, are you?” He shook his head. “Okay, you want to make it up to me?”

Steve blinked. He was suddenly aware of his pulse, so very aware of the way his heartbeat was thudding in his ears. “Yes.” He was startled by how very much that was true.

“Then you can buy me an ice cream cone. C'mon.” Tony jerked his oversize backpack up over his shoulder, his back hunching a bit under its weight. He was half a dozen steps away before his words sank into Steve's brain, and then he had to scramble to catch up.

“Ice cream?”

Tony glanced at him, his eyes dancing. “What, don't you like ice cream?”

“It's the middle of winter,” Steve pointed out.

“Yeah, so?” Tony tipped his head up the street. “C'mon. This is New England. One of the perks of living here is that you can get ice cream year round. No one cares how damn cold it is outside, they'll still serve you a cone and if you can't respect that, I'm not sure we can be friends.”

Steve took a step towards him, the concept more of a lure than he'd like to admit. “Really?” he said. “That's your basis for friendship? Ice cream?”

“I've made choices based on worse,” Tony said. He was laughing. “Let's go. Tosci is like half a mile away, you game?”

Steve opened his mouth, about to ask for what, and then realized, it didn't matter. He found he was game for just about anything Tony wanted to suggest. “Yeah.”

Tony grinned at him, and Steve grinned back. “Good,” Tony said, grabbing Steve's sleeve, his fingers latching on and holding tight. He dragged Steve along in his wake, and Steve found himself laughing as he scrambled along with Tony's steps.

For a few blocks, Steve just followed Tony's lead in silence, even as Tony's hand fell away from his arm. "So, you're a freshman?" he asked at last, trying to find some reason to talk.

Tony's steps staggered, just for a second, a half skipped step in his lanky gait, and he gave Steve a stony glance. "I'm getting my masters this year," he said, his brows drawn up tight and unhappy. "And I've already started my PhD work."

Steve's face heated. "Sorry," he said, but Tony was already waving him off.

"Yeah, I look like I'm twelve, I know, I've heard it." One hand came up, rubbing his jaw and chin. "I'm thinking of growing a beard." His teeth flashed. "Might improve my chances at not getting carded every fucking time I hit a bar."

He'd probably look good with a beard. Blushing even harder, Steve ducked his head. "Can't hurt," he said.

"It might," Tony said. He shoved his hands in his pockets. "Pretty sure growing a beard is the first sign that you never intend to leave academia. It's like the first signal that you're an academic hobo. Shuffling from school to school, looking to huddle in a department here or there until the tenure committee rousts you and-" Steve was laughing, and Tony gave him an affronted look. It was undermined by the way his eyes were dancing. "What? It's a reasonable analogy, Burnside."

"There is nothing reasonable about a hobo beard," Steve told him.

"Academic hobo. It's like a hobo, but with class."

"What makes it an academic hobo beard?" Steve shot back.

"I don't know, it's neatly trimmed? A Van Dyke? A Fu Manchu? Muttonchops?" He cupped his cheeks. "I'd look damn fine with muttonchops. You know, as much as a guy who wasn't a president in the 1800's could possibly look good in muttonchops. More people should try them, maybe it would work out. Business up front, conservative on the sides." He wiggled his eyebrows at Steve.

Steve was laughing too hard to answer, not that Tony seemed to notice. His delivery was rapid-fire, and scattershot, each word pinging out with an almost zen kind of randomness, and Steve was just stumbling along in his wake, trying to keep up and not even caring that he had no chance. "Of you could just grow a mustache to start," he said, almost wheezing the words out.

"What's the fun of that?" Tony asked, a distinct pout on his face. The glance he sent Steve was wicked, matching the curve of his lips exactly. "Goatee?"

Like he wasn't enough of a devil already. Steve rubbed a hand on the back of his neck, ducking his head down. "That could work."

"Yeah?" Tony's smile relaxed into something less wicked, less sharp. Almost warm. His cheeks were pink with the cold, and he gave a nod. "I can do that."

"Did you just decide to grow a beard?" Steve asked him. He reached around Tony and pushed the door to the ice cream shop open. "Really?"

"Make a decision and stick with it," Tony told him. "Besides, if I end up looking like a seventies porn star, I can always shave. Pretty quick fix. It's not like I'm getting a full face tattoo or something."

"Please don't," Steve said, before he could remember that he'd just met this boy, this man, man, he had to be in his twenties if he was a grad student. Steve glanced at him out of the corner of his eyes, and that still seemed unbelievable. But Tony had a self-confidence out of place with his young face, so maybe he was. God knows, Steve looked around fifteen until the serum, despite his actual age.

“Fine, I'll start with a goatee.” Tony was grinning as they moved towards the counter. There were more people in here than Steve would've believed, for mid-winter. Despite the cold temperatures outside, there were a good dozen people in line, students and office workers, kids and adults, in a handful of small groups, talking and laughing and peering into the gleaming glass cases.

“What're you going to get?” Tony asked, and Steve glanced up at the menu board.

The march of flavors was confusing and unfamiliar, and sure, there was vanilla and strawberry on there, but he wondered if he'd look boring if he ordered that. “What's good?” he asked Tony, trying to buy himself some time.

“Everything,” Tony said, without a beat of pause. “It's small batch stuff, homemade, so the menu's gonna change from day to day. If you like something, it might or might not be there tomorrow, so order what you want.” He grinned. “Might be your last chance.”

“That seems like a lot of pressure for an ice cream cone,” Steve told him.

“You want the good stuff, you've got to be able to function under pressure.” Tony went onto his toes, peering between the people in front of him towards the glass cases. “Or, just, you know, order what you like. The cookie dough is good. So's the French Vanilla.”

“Orange chocolate,” the girl in front of them said, tilting her head back towards Steve. “It's an orgasm in a dish.”

Steve flushed, and Tony laughed. “Sharp, crisp bite of citrus with the mellow, rich smooth sweep of the dark chocolate,” he agreed. “Or the Ginger Snap Molasses.”

“Is that what you're getting?” Steve asked him.

“Nope.” The girl behind the counter waved him forward, and Tony went.

“What can I get you?” she asked.

“Two scoops, mixed, please. Chocolate Sluggo and Sea Salt Caramel,” Tony said, leaning forward. “On a sugar cone.”

The girl nodded, and glanced at Steve, who glanced up again. “What do you recommend?” he asked.

“Lemon Pistachio,” she said, smiling. “Or the Rum Raisin.”

“Rum Raisin, one scoop,” Steve agreed, a feeling of relief sweeping over him. “Thank you.”

She handed over their cones with a smile, and Tony reached for his pocket. Steve already had his wallet out. “I got it,” he said, repressing a flinch at the price for two ice cream cones. He had the cash, but the state of his bank account was a constant obsession. It contained a sum of money that he previously would not have believed possible as a kid, but this world was expensive.

Tony blinked at him, a strange sort of confusion sweeping over his face. “I can-”

“You said I could buy you a cone,” Steve pointed out, dropping the coins from his change in the tip jar. “Did you change your mind?”

Tony's lips twitched. “Thanks.” His tongue flicked out to lick at the soft, yielding surface of the dark ice cream, and Steve felt his cheeks flush. At this rate, he'd end up looking like a lobster. “If I'd thought you were serious, I would've gotten a large,” he added, his tone teasing.

“Let's see if you can finish that one, and if you can, I'll buy you another one,” Steve told him, making Tony laugh. To his surprise, Tony headed straight for the door, his steps brisk. A beat behind, Steve hustled to catch up with him.

“Walk and eat?” he asked.

“It's nice to eat ice cream in the sunshine without worrying if it's going to melt halfway down your arm,” Tony said, and there was ice cream on his mouth, and he didn't seem to care. He ate like he was starving, and Steve took a cautious lick of his cone. It was rich and sweet, the heavy weight of the cream tempered by the flavor of the rum. He was caught between the need to wolf the cone down as quickly as he could, and the desire to savor each lick.

“So I guess you're not an MIT student,” Tony said. “Pity. It would be nice trying to TL one of your classes.”

“No,” Steve said, licking his lips. “I, uh, I'm at Boston College.”

Tony grinned at him. “Football player?”

“What? No!” Laughing, Steve shook his head at Tony. “Fine arts.”

The look Tony gave him was disbelieving. “Really.”

“Really,” Steve said.

“What's your medium?”

“Pencil or oil paint,” Steve said, rolling his eyes. “What's yours?”

“Giant, monstrous chunks of metal. And flame. I like flame,” Tony said, making Steve laugh. Tony arched an eyebrow at him. “Wow. You were hungry.”

Steve glanced down and realized that yes, his ice cream was gone, only the sticky remains of the cone still in his hand. He shrugged. “It was good,” he said, biting into the cone.

“Should've gotten a larger one,” Tony said. He held out his cone. “Want a taste of mine?”

Steve recoiled, just a bit; it seemed oddly intimate. But Tony's face was open and guileless, his smile warm. He leaned in, and without thinking, he took hold of Tony's wrist, holding his hand steady. The chocolate was rich and bordered on bitter, a bite that hovered beneath the creaminess.

“Good?” Tony asked, and his wrist flexed in Steve's fingers. Steve let him go, jerking his hand back as if he'd touched something painfully hot.

“Really good,” he managed, and Tony's grin looked wicked for some reason.

“Not the first time someone's told me that, but I'm always happy to hear it.”

“I wasn't aware you had anything to do with the ice cream's creation,” Steve told him, going back to his cone. He finished it in a few quick bites.

“I'm holding it. I think I can take some of the credit.”

Steve gave him a look. “You are unbelievable, you know that?”

“Not the first time someone's told me that, either,” Tony said, without a hint of shame. There was a faint, whining chirp from his pocket, and he bit back a curse. “Aw, dammit,” he said, shifting his cone to his other hand, and fumbling at his coat. “I'm late, that's- That's my alarm.” He started in on his cone in earnest. “You heading back to the T?” he asked between bites.

Steve's stomach sank. “Yeah, I mean, I just-” He tucked his hands in his pockets. “I was just trying to catch up with you.”

Tony stilled for a second, and his eyes cut in Steve's direction. “I keep thinking I know you,” he said, his brilliant eyes narrowed. The wind kicked up, pushing his hair over his forehead, and he didn't seem to notice. He tossed the empty cone towards a nearby trashcan. “I feel like I've seen you before. I know your face.”

Steve frowned, that nagging sense of familiarity churning in his gut, in the way that Tony's face had lingered in his mind. “I don't think so,” he said at last, shaking his head. “I would've-” He smiled, his cheeks hot. “I think I would've remembered meeting you.”

Tony grinned at him, his cheeks red from the wind. “In a good way?”

“In a good way,” Steve agreed.

Tony took a breath. “I'm not trying to make you uncomfortable here, or anything, but you're a little hard to read, are you flirting, or are you just-” He stopped, a smile blooming on his face as his eyes flickered over Steve's face. “You are. Aren't you?”

Steve felt like his face was on fire. But he braced his feet, and brought his chin up, as much as he could. “I thought you were-”

“Oh, I sure as fuck was, but I flirt the way that most people breathe, constantly and utterly without thinking,” Tony said, grinning. He stepped forward, one step, then another, until he was in Steve's personal space, until Steve could feel the heat from his body. “Wasn't really sure that you were flirting back.”

Steve swallowed. “I... Was.”

“Good. We're on the same page, then.” Tony's eyes were laughing, warm and sweet and so hot that Steve was almost expecting the way that Tony's hand came up, cupping his chin, sliding around the side of his neck, making Steve shiver. “God, you're warm,” Tony said, his voice low and hot and Steve wanted nothing more than to lean into his touch.

“Warm blooded,” he said, and his voice didn't sound like his any more. Of course, he didn't feel like himself anymore. And that was fine with him.

Tony's lips brushed against Steve's, and it was so light, so gentle, as if Tony thought he might startle, or take a swing, or anything other than fall into the contact. Tony's fingers were warming against the nape of his neck, his body so close and so hot, and Steve's hands were in fists at his sides to keep him from reaching out and grabbing. From clinging, or begging through touch alone.

Tony's mouth tasted like burnt sugar and chocolate, rich and sweet, with just the slightest tang of salt on his lips. Steve's eyes fluttered shut, his breath coming in a sigh, his lips parting and he had expected the touch of Tony's tongue against his lips, but it still made him shudder. The kiss was slow, and sweet, and gentle, and Tony tasted good, he tasted like what Steve had always wanted and never known he could have. He sank into the pressure of Tony's lips and wished he could drown in that feeling.

Tony's nails scraped against the back of his neck, and his mouth pulled away from Steve's. Barely. Still close enough that his breath still slid against Steve's mouth. “Well,” Tony said, the words something that Steve could feel against his skin, “I think that's the answer I was looking for.”

Steve had to struggle to breath, and then to form words. “Was it?”

“Yeah.” Tony's lips brushed against the very corner of Steve's mouth. “It was nice meeting you, Steve Burnside.”

“It was nice meeting you, too, Tony Edwards” Steve said, a shudder in his breath. “Again.”

“Are you busy this Friday?” Tony asked, and Steve's heart lept.

“No. I mean-” He swept a hand through his hair. This was stupid. This was so stupid. He couldn't- They wouldn't- There was no way he could have this, whatever this was.

Except he was standing on a sidewalk, in the middle of a city, in the sunlight, and his lips still tingled from the pressure of Tony's, and no one had given them so much as a second glance.

Because no one cared. The idea was enough to swamp him, to bring him to his knees. He knew it wasn't always like this, that there wouldn't always be this kind of peace, of, if not acceptance, than simple apathy. As if the people passing by considered it none of their business what Steve was doing, none of their business that Tony's fingers were still trailing against the nape of Steve's neck, his eyebrows raised and his smile arch.

And it didn't matter how long he had this, it didn't matter what the consequences were. Steve wanted what he could get, for as long as he could get it. “I'm not busy.”

Tony's grin was amazing to see, for the split second Steve could see it before Tony darted in for another kiss, and another, light and without pressure. “Good,” he said, even as he pulled away. “Meet me at Scully Square, old man, six pm, okay?” Sticking his tongue out, he backed away.

Steve blinked after him. “Wait, where?” he asked, scrambling to catch up.

“At the T entrance,” Tony said, still talking, still laughing. He darted back, grabbed Steve's hand, and folded Steve's fingers around a thin slip of a card. “Call me if you get lost.”

And just like that, he was gone, his feet flying, his coat and bag bouncing in his wake, pushing his way through the people coming up the road. Steve stood there, feeling the winter sun on his face, and grinned at nothing and no one in particular, his fingers locked in a deathgrip around a simple business card.

*

“You're spelling it wrong.”

Steve jumped, banging his knee on the bottom of the desk. Biting back a curse, he spun his chair around. “Hi,” he said, feeling a blush crawl up his neck and not able to do anything about it. “Ah, what?”

Carol Danvers grinned at him, her blue eyes crinkling. “You're spelling it wrong,”she repeated, tucking her hands in the pockets of her battered leather bomber jacket. It dwarfed her curvy frame, and she clearly had not been its first owner. But somehow, the worn artifact suited her, it suited her sharp edges and her cocky attitude, and the very proud set of her shoulders.

Steve liked Carol, liked her smile and her laugh and the flirtatious, cocksure way she interacted with everyone around her. And he liked, most of all, that she had no time for stupidity or politics or the men who treated her like she should be grateful that they were talking to her. He liked the way she jumped feet first into anything she wanted to do, fierce and proud and very smart.

Sometimes, he wondered if Peggy would've liked Carol, too. If she would've delighted in this new military woman, who stood in Peggy's footprints, but refused to stay there. He was pretty sure she would've loved Carol, and Steve kind of did, too. He had since she'd planted herself directly in his path at an ROTC gathering, and, with a wicked grin, told him a string of New York Yankees jokes that had left him open mouthed and gaping. He didn't have many people he considered friends at BC, but he had Carol, who asked nothing from him, and was always unflinchingly cheerful.

Carol propped a hip on the edge of the desk, her jeans skimming the curves of her legs. “You're spelling it wrong,” she repeated.

Startled out of his thoughts, Steve frowned at the screen. “Scully Square,” he said. “It's not spelled-”

“S-C-O-L-L-A-Y,” she spelled out for him. “Scollay Square.” She grinned at Steve. “What, you have a history project or something?”

Shaking his head, Steve leaned back, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “Oh,” he said, feeling stupid. Stupid and frustrated. “No. I was, um, I'm supposed to meet someone there, and I couldn't find it on the maps, because I was spelling it wrong.”

“You can't find it on the maps because it doesn't exist any more.” Carol rolled away from the desk. “Most of the square was bulldozed in, like, the sixties, I think. It's long gone. Some of the old timers still refer to it that way, but it's a historical thing now.” She tossed herself into the seat next to Steve, her legs stretched out in front of her, her backpack sliding down to hit the ground with a solid thump. “You meeting an octogenarian?”

“No,” Steve said, and his face felt hot, he knew he had to look like an idiot. Ducking his head over the keyboard, he picked out the new spelling.

“Oh,” Carol said. And then again, with dawning understanding. “Oh! Oh, you found yourself a date, didn't you? Burnside, you dog!” She punched him in the shoulder, her eyes dancing, her grin wide and bright. “And she's making you work for it, good for her. Things come too easily for you, you bastard Maybe you should work for it.”

Steve's hands twitched, his fingers forming fists on the edge of the desk. He kept his head down, kept his eyes averted from her face. He knew what it would show, that strange mix of humiliation, hope, anger and resignation that was churning his gut. Things come too easily to him? That was a joke. A nasty one. He struggled for everything, he struggled with everything.

Every day, every action, every word from his mouth was a struggle. Every breath was a struggle. Every heart beat was a struggle. Nothing came easily to him. Nothing had been easy, not since his childhood, and since he'd woken up, in the empty white space of the Army's laboratory, things had only gotten harder.

Until just spelling a casually spoken word was enough to break him.

“Hey.” Carol shifted, her body angling towards him, one hand reaching out, coming to rest on his arm. Steve jerked, his whole body flinching at the touch, and Carol's fingers latched on. “Hey,” she said, leaning forward. Her face swam into his vision, pale and perfect, her blonde brows like wings over her eyes. “Hey, hey, Brooklyn,” she said, her voice gentle, her hand rubbing up and down his arm. “Wow, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, that was a bad joke, that's all.”

Steve scrubbed a quick hand over his eyes, trying to ignore how his vision swam with every blink. “Sorry,” he muttered. “I just-” He swallowed. “Sorry,” he finished, the world lame and inadequate. Just like him.

Carol's hands cupped his cheeks, urging his head up. She grinned at him, warmer now, kinder. “Shut up, you're freaking me out,” she ordered. “Let's start over. You're meeting someone in Scollay Square?” She let him go, her fingers sliding across his skin, and he savored the contact, even as her hands slipped away. “Is she pretty? Is she smart? Is she-” Steve felt his face heat, and he ducked his head again, his eyes darting away from hers. Carol paused. “Is she,” she said, her voice blunt as always, “not a she?”

Steve's eyes jerked up, and shot back down again, staring at his hands. “I-” His shoulders hunched.

“Is he pretty?” Carol asked, without missing a beat, and Steve's head came up. Her eyes were dancing. “Not pretty? C'mon, Brooklyn, he better be hot. I will be really pissed if he isn't.” Steve shrugged, his face on fire, his tongue a knot in his mouth, and Carol sighed. “You like him?”

Steve's eyes slid up. He nodded. “Yeah,” he said, the single word shy.

Carol braced an elbow on the edge of the desk. “Okay,” she said. “Does he like you?”

Without thinking about it, Steve reached up, trailing his fingers over his lips. He could still feel the pressure of Tony's mouth on his, could almost taste it. He gave Carol a crooked smile. “I think so?”

“If he doesn't, he's an idiot.” Carol leaned in. “He a BC student? A local?” Her eyebrows wiggled. “A professor?”

“Carol!” Steve stuttered out, and she laughed, full and bright.

“Oh, my God, you are such a straight arrow, it's not even funny.” Carol waved a hand in mid-air. “Fine, you're not banging our Econ professor. I mean, I would, damn, that man looks fine in a vest, but-”

“Carol,” Steve repeated, but he couldn't quite keep a smile off of his face.

“Oh, fine. So, he's a student? A local party boy from Northeastern? A Southie punk? A hippie activist from out in Entitlement Valley, c'mon, you've gotta give me a hint, I'm dying here.”

Steve found he was chuckling under his breath, just a little, but even a bit of laughter felt like a miracle. Carol, her expression warm and her eyes kind, was a miracle. Talking about this, saying these words, and not being met with horror or disdain or disgust, that was a miracle. Enough of a miracle for him to try.

“He's a student, a graduate student,” Steve managed.

“Cool, so he's closer to your age.” Carol stood, flipped the chair around with one hand and sat down again, bracing her folded arms on the back and leaning her chin on them. “Good, that's good. I mean, I like 'em young so I can break 'em in properly-”

“Carol.”

She was laughing at him. “Oh, don't give me that face, Brooklyn, you know I'm just messing with you.” Her smile took on a distinctly wicked cast. “But you could do worse.” Her heel bumped against the floor, a quick tattoo of sound. “He's a grad student? Where? Here? BU?” She frowned. “Tell me it's not Harvard, do not get mixed up with a Harvard boy, they've got their heads so far up their GPAs that you'll never be anything more than occasional stress relief, it's not worth the trouble, it's-”

Steve cut her off. “At MIT.”

Carol groaned. “Really? REALLY, Burnside?” Her face crumbled into an expression of agony. “No, baby, no, you can do better. Don't do this to yourself.”

Steve couldn't keep his face straight. “He's really-”

“Of course you like the geeks, I can see that, really, I can, but Christ, MIT?” She rolled her eyes, melodramatic and over blown. “Tell me he's hot, at least.”

Steve smiled, just a little, his face heating again. “He's... Yeah,” he managed. He looked at her, hopeful. “I really like him, Carol.”

She reached out and punched his shoulder. “You are an embarrassment, Brooklyn.” Settling back into her seat, she grinned. “Okay, then. Scollay Square? He told you to meet him there? He'll be at Government Center. That's what the city built on top of the old Scollay Square.” She leaned in, eyes dancing again. “But keep in mind? Before the city went and wiped it off the face of the map? Scollay Square had a reputation for being a little bit of a...” She hummed under her breath. “A redlight district. If he used that term? I think he has designs on your virtue.”

Steve blinked at her for a second, until the words sank in. He felt his face flame, but the gut-punch of lust made up for that embarrassment. “Okay,” he said, stupid about it.

Carol laughed. “Okay? That's the best you can do? A passive 'okay?'” She stood. “C'mon. It's lunchtime. We can get a burger and you can tell me all about him.”

“You don't mind?” Steve asked, shutting down the computer browser and reaching for his books. “I mean, it's- A little odd. When you think about it.”

“Hell, no. And if you buy me a frappe and I'll even promise not to gossip about you and your sad, sad little love life later,” she said, sliding her backpack onto her shoulder. Steve resisted the urge to offer to carry it for her, because she'd punch him in the solar plexus for that. He knew that from experience. “Strawberry. Chocolate is also acceptable.”

He smiled at her, a strain that he didn't even know he'd been carrying disappating. “Deal.” He paused. “Carol? Can you help me pick out something to wear?”

“I thought you would never ask. Your taste in clothes sucks.”

*

The juggler paused at the top of the precariously balanced ladder, rolling his wrists in loose circles. The broad blades in his hands caught the light, gleaming as the tourists milled below him. “Okay, now-” The wind kicked up, and the ladder swayed. The crowd muttered amongst itself, but no one moved. “Yeah, so as I was saying-” Another gust of wind, and the juggler threw his body weight forward, then back, catching his balance again, his arms spread wide.

“You know what?” he asked at last. “Let's just cut to the chase. I'm going skip the embarrassing part where I stab myself in the face, tip off this ladder, and smash my head on the pavement. I'm just going to jump, so all of you can get on with your shopping.”

“Don't do it!” Steve called. Next to him, Tony bit his lip to keep from laughing out loud. Steve was staring up at the juggler, his face rapt, his grin wide. He looked positively boyish, that sweep of blonde hair tumbling over his forehead and his cheeks flushed in the cold evening air.

“One decent individual in this audience,” the juggler said. “One moral, upstanding man. The rest of you are horrible, horrible people.”

Laughing, Tony leaned into the shelter of Steve's side. “You just can't help yourself, can you?” he asked, one eyebrow arched.

Steve glanced down at him, his cheeks flushed pink with embarrassment or cold, it was impossible to tell. But his grin was sweet and infectious, a brilliant glint in his eyes. Tony told himself that he was not turned on by that. He was used to lying to himself by this point.

Tony could kind of excuse himself in this particular instance; Steve was gorgeous. He was dressed simply tonight, in well tailored slacks and a rather battered bomber jacket, but his shoes were freshly polished and Tony had caught him studying his reflection in windows as they passed,. For most men that looked like him, it would've been an annoying sort of narcissism, but somehow that didn't fit. Steve's glances were quick, his expression hinting at something that seemed closer to self-doubt than self-obsession.

Tony told himself he didn't find that charming. He was pretty sure that was a lie, however.

“C'mon,” Tony said, weaving his arm through Steve's. “It's not a bad walk. We can catch a cab, if you want, but we have plenty of time. Want to-”

Steve's arm slid free of his, and before Tony could register that minor rejection, Steve was catching Tony's hand, his fingers tangling with Tony's. “I'm fine with walking.” He gave Tony's hand a squeeze, his grip firm, his gaze hopeful.

Grinning, Tony tugged him along. “This way, then!”

Steve kept up with him without any apparent difficulty, his long legs making the pace easier for him than it was for Tony. They cut through the evening crowds, and across the streets, weaving through traffic and heading for the harbor. As they reached the wharfs, he caught Steve looking in the direction of the Aquarium building, an unusual tumble of angles perched on the edge of the water. Laughing, Tony nudged him across the street. “You are a horrible tourist,” he said. “Didn't you do all this stuff already?”

Steve's eyes came back to his. “No,” he said, his lips twitching. “I missed a lot of the tourist stuff. Except for the art museums.” His face was lit, his eyes dancing. “Those, I've seen.”

“All of them?” Tony asked, pretending to be scandalized.

“All of them,” Steve said.

“Do you have a fav-”

“The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum,” Steve said, before Tony could even get the word out.

“Well, I guess you do. I've never been,” he said, and Steve came to a stop. Tony staggered a couple of steps forward, then turned to find Steve staring at him. “What?”

“You've never been?”

“I've never been,” Tony confirmed. He tucked his gloved hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet.

“But it's right on- It's right by you!” Steve came forward a few steps, stopping just in front of Tony. “How can you be at MIT and not go to the Isabella Stewart Gardner?”

“Because I'm at MIT?” Tony said, as if that explained it all, and apparently it did, because Steve laughed. “Why is that one your favorite? There's bigger, better museums, even here in Boston.”

It was an off-hand question, but Steve paused, his face creasing as he thought about it. They walked in silence, Steve's head down, and Tony considered him even as he considered the question. Tony didn't mind, watching Steve was quickly becoming one of his favorite past times.

“I think,” Steve said, each word weighed carefully, “it's because it still feels like someone's collection. It feels like these were paintings that someone collected because they loved them, not just because they were valuable, or noteworthy. Maybe it's the building, or the empty frames, still hanging there, but it feels less like a curated display, and more like something that filled a home, once.”

He looked at Tony. “I just like being there.”

“What's your favorite piece?”

“Childe Hassam's A New York Blizzard,” Steve said, and he didn't wait for Tony to ask him why. “It's got an amazing depth of field and a fluidity to the forms, I love the sensation of movement and the-” He caught sight of the look on Tony's face and stopped short. “Sorry.”

“What? I didn't say a word. I didn't understand a word of it, either, but I was rolling right along with you there, I promise. It's just that me and art aren't exactly best friends. I grew up around it, but my appreciation is more, well, more towards that.”

Steve followed the gesture of his hand towards the statue of the boxer on the side of the street. He paused. “Statuary?”

“Metal,” Tony said. He arched an eyebrow. “But I like a fighter. And a good looking pair of arms doesn't hurt, I'll be honest.”

Laughing, Steve moved towards the statue. “He looks like a fighter. He's got good form.”

“Do you box?” Tony asked.

“I mostly just work a bag from time to time. It helps with the frustration.” Steve glanced at him. “You?”

“It's not really my form. Too limiting.” Tony stared up at the statue, a cynical twist to his lips. He had some things in common with North End's Tony DeMarco. Like starting off public life by stealing someone else's name, and pretending to an age that he hadn't yet reached. DeMarco had fought for the first time at age sixteen, two years too young to be stepping into the ring, but had provided the birth certificate for a boy who was old enough.

The name had stuck. And was the name inscribed on the statue and the street that were part of his legacy. Tony told himself that there, the similarities would end. He also hoped to make a legacy that involved less public staggering, beatings and bleeding, but that went without saying.

“Welcome to the North End,” Tony said, catching hold of Steve's leather clad elbow and nudging him up the street. “Come on. We have reservations.”

The narrow streets of Boston's Italian district were uneven and cramped, cars and taxis proceeding at a snail's pace as people hustled between buildings and through traffic without a care for crosswalks or the rules of the road. Despite the cold, it was a Friday night, and some of the best food in town was found in these tightly packed buildings. It was a recipe for a crowd.

Tony pushed his way through the streets, dragging Steve in his wake. In a matter of minutes, they were ducking through the door of the small Trattoria. The front lobby was packed, but it was warm and well-lit, the air scented with tomatoes and garlic. Tony cut through the crowd, heading straight for the hostess stand, and she smiled when she saw him coming.

Minutes later, they were being seated at a small, isolated table in a dim corner of the restaurant. “Will this do, Mr. Edwards?” she said, giving Tony a flirtatious smile.

Tony grinned back. “It will, indeed, thank you.” He shook her hand, handing over a folded bill with an easy pass of his hand.

“Your waitress will be right over,” she said, giving Steve a curious look before disappearing through the densely packed tables.

Tony set the menu aside, watching as Steve looked around, his eyes a little too wide. “For a guy from New York,” Tony said, his lips twitching up, “you're awfully wide-eyed.”

“New York doesn't mean wealthy,” Steve said, smiling. But he shifted in his seat, visibly uncomfortable. They'd left their coats at the coat check, and without his bomber jacket, he was dressed in a simple, well tailored dress shirt in a pale, clear blue, just a shade or two lighter than his eyes, and a dark blue tie with tiny red stripes. He was handsome in a way that seemed unreal, but his gaze was direct, his eyes shy when he smiled at Tony. “This is a nice place.”

Tony couldn't hold back a grin. “That's kinda the point. To impress you.” He picked up his menu, just to occupy his hands, just to keep them out of trouble. “The food's great.”

Steve blinked and he fumbled for the menu. “Ah, what's good?”

“Everything,” Tony said. After a quick glance, he shut the menu and put it aside.

“That's not, that's not particularly helpful,” Steve said, but there was laughter in his voice.

“Well, it does kind of depend on what you like,” Tony said. “Cream sauce, or wine sauce or tomato sauce? You vegetarian? Any allergies?”

“I'll eat anything,” Steve said. “No allergies.”

Tony paused in the act of sipping from his water goblet. “Anything?” he asked. “ There's nothing you don't like?”

Steve's broad shoulders rose and fell in a quick shrug. “Not really,” he said, his voice almost apologetic. “I'll eat what's put in front of me.”

“Well, that's a leading statement,” Tony said, and a flush spread up Steve's neck. Laughing, Tony folded his arms on the edge of the table, leaning forward. For a minute or two, he just reveled in Steve's obvious embarrassment, and then he took pity on the man. “Do you like shrimp?” Steve's mouth opened, and Tony held up a hand. “Yeah, I get it, you'll eat anything. Not what I asked. Do you like shrimp?”

Steve thought about it. “Yes,” he said at last.

Tony grinned. “Go for the Capellini con Gamberi,” he said. “It's good.”

Steve nodded. “Okay.” He closed his menu, and set it aside. Tony arched an eyebrow.

“Wine?” he asked. “Salad? Appetizer?”

He seemed stymied by the question. “Yes?” he said at last, and Tony laughed.

A pretty dark haired girl paused next to the table, her white shirt and black skirt crisp beneath her white waist apron. She greeted them with a voice that carried a musical lilt of an accent, and Tony grinned at her.

“We'll have the antipasto rustico,” he said in Italian, the language flowing easily. “An order of the Bruschetta all Italiana, and the Capellini con Gamberi and the Braciolettini di Vitello for the entrees, unless you'd like to recommend something different.”

She nodded. “Both are excellent,” she said, also in Italian, her smile bright. “And to drink?” Her eyes slid in Steve's direction, curiosity alive in her features.

“Thank you, but I'm fine with the water,” Steve said, in crisp, well-accented Italian, and for a second, Tony was thrown.

“Do you like wine?” Tony asked him, and Steve nodded.

“But we don't have to-”

Tony ignored him, picking an excellent red from the wine list, not the most expensive bottle they had to offer, but not a house wine, either. He didn't care, if he was going to drink, he was going to drink the good stuff, and it was better that he made that clear now.

The waitress' smile died. “I'll need to see your ID,” she said, and Tony handed it over. She frowned down at it, and then at Tony, who gritted his teeth against saying something rude.

“Is Francisco on tonight?” he asked her. She glanced up, nodded. “Just bring it to him and tell him I'm here. He was so suspicious of it he called a friend at the RMV.”

“Did he really?” Steve asked, and Tony gave him a sideways look.

“It was not funny,” he said, but he was smiling when he said it, because, yeah, it was funny.

“Thank you, I'll be right back,” the waitress said, and she headed off, Tony's id clasped tightly in one hand. The outcome was a foregone conclusion, but Tony had never been a patient man, and it seemed to take her forever to return, bearing his ID and very abject apologies.

Tony waved them off, and as he went to return his ID to his wallet, he caught Steve's eyes sliding towards it. With a faint laugh, he handed it over. Steve took it, not pretending that he wasn't curious. There was a sweet sort of honesty to him, and Tony tried to feel bad about the fake ID that Steve was now turning over in his hands. “Do I pass?” he asked.

Steve handed it back. “You pass,” he said. “Sorry, it's just-”

“Baby face, I know it, shut up.” Tony put the license back in his wallet, then folded his arms on the edge of the table. He leaned forward, studying Steve's face in the warm glow of the candle. “You don't exactly look your age, either, you know.”

Steve shook his head with an odd, strained sounding chuckle, but before Tony could ask what was so funny, he changed the subject. “Your Italian's good.”

“So's yours.” Tony made a face. “I was trying to impress you, so I resent the fact that you can speak the language, too, I just want you to know that.”

“Sorry?” Steve said, his eyes dancing. “I didn't realize I wasn't allowed to speak other languages.”

“Well, you're not. You're the pretty one on this date, that means I get to be the smart one,” Tony told him, just to watch Steve blush again. That was quickly becoming his favorite game, to see if he could make the flush extend to Steve's ears and neck. It wasn't hard. But the way Steve's head dipped, the way his eyes slid away, even as his lips curled up, it was far hotter than it should've been.

“I'll keep that in mind.” Steve's eyes flicked up, and his lashes were ludicrously long, golden-brown and thick. “Any other stipulations of what I'm not supposed to do?” he asked, his lips twitching.

“It's a first date, I'm sure I'll think of something,” Tony said, grinning. The waitress was back, the bottle of wine in a chilled bucket, and she presented it to Tony with a sunny smile. He nodded, already less interested in the booze, no matter what the vintage. But he went through the motions, trying his best to act sophisticated. Steve watched him, his eyes curious, a faint smile hovering around his lips.

Steve took the glass of wine that was placed in front of him with a shy smile, his big hand careful on the slim stem. “Thank you,” he said. The waitress inclined her head and retreated, leaving the bottle between them on the table along with a basket of steaming bread, fragrant with garlic and herbs.

“What other languages do you speak?” Steve asked, and Tony looked up, gauging the intent of the question. But Steve looked honestly curious, his blue eyes guileless and his head tipped to the side.

“A little here and there,” Tony admitted, taking a long sip from his glass before he continued. “Spanish, Italian, French. Some Japanese and Russian, and a little German.” He shrugged. “Tech talk, mostly. But I can get by when I need to.”

Steve nodded. “That was more than a little Italian.”

Tony smiled down at his plate. “My mother was Italian, that's where I got this from,” he said, flicking at the dark curl that had slipped over his forehead. “She was younger than my father, a lot younger, and she was a very cultured lady. She wanted to raise me bilingual, thought it was important, and I picked up on language very quickly, so it wasn't hard.”

“Was?”

“She died years ago,” Tony said. He focused his attention on his drink, swirling the wine around, letting it breathe and letting the light play over the jewel-bright surface. He stared down at it, trying to find patterns in the way the legs ran down the side of the bowl of the glass. “Car crash. My father was driving. He made it, she didn't.”

“I'm sorry,” Steve said, and it sounded like he meant it.

Tony glanced up. “It was a long time ago,” he said, with a faint smile. “Your parents-”

Steve was already shaking his head. “My father died before I was born,” he said, his smile soft, his eyes sad. “And my mother died when I was a teenager.”

“Sorry,” Tony said. And he meant it.

“Your father-”

Tony shook his head. “My father and I don't get along,” he said. “He didn't deal with my mother's death well, and neither did I. And that is not a subject for a first date.” He leaned forward, folding his arms on the table, canting his body forward into the candlelight. “So where's your family? Still in New York?”

“I don't have anyone left,” Steve said, his smile faint.

Tony looked down. “Sorry,” he repeated, feeling inadequate and awkward.

“Thanks.” Tony looked up to find Steve smiling at him. “It's fine. It is. I'm...” Steve's words paused, and his face was shuttered for a second, his expression unreadable, but when he looked back at Tony, his smile was gentle. “I'm fine,” he said.

The slight rattle of plates announced their incoming food, and Tony jerked backwards, getting out of the way of his salad plate as the waitress slid it in front of him. She set the antipasto out, and the entire time Tony just watched Steve, watched the play of candlelight along the plane of his cheek, watched the soft smile that stirred his lips as he thanked the waitress, watched as he leaned forward, considering the platter.

Tony might be in a bit too deep already.

Steve looked up, catching his eye, and Tony shook off the maudlin thought. He reached for the serving spoons. “Want me to serve?” he asked, and Steve handed over his plate. “Tell me about your classes,” Tony said, because that seemed safe, that seemed to be what they needed to get their attention off of dead parents and moments of sadness and isolation. Judging by the way Steve's face relaxed, it was a pretty decent opening gambit.

Hours later, they were surrounded by empty plates and glasses, silverware and the remnants of their meals, and Tony was dizzy with alcohol and good food and better company. Steve was smiling, his face flushed, his hair tumbled lightly over his forehead, and he seemed just as reluctant to call the meal over. But when the waitress finally came for the check, Tony gave her a credit card and a smile.

“I can-” Steve started, and Tony cut him off.

“I asked you out,” he said, tossing his linen napkin onto the table. “You can get the next one.”

It was a chance, he knew it was, even as he said it, but Steve's face split in a wide smile, and Tony felt an answering stirring of heat, low in his stomach. He ignored it as he finished the last of his wine, draining the last few drops from their latest bottle. When the waitress returned with the slips, he added a massive tip, and stood. “Walk me back to the T?”

Steve got up immediately. “Sure.”

By the time they collected their coats and returned to the street, the crowds had thinned quite a bit, the night now solidly in place and the temperature dropping by the minute. Tony paused, just a few steps away from the restaurant, on the corner, to pull on his gloves. “So,” he said, focusing on his hands. “You going to give me your number, or do I have to wait for you to call me?” he asked, only half joking.

Steve blinked. “Oh, I didn't-” He fumbled at his pockets. “I don't think I have anything to write on-”

Tony pulled out his notebook and a pen. “Engineer,” he said. “Sometimes I've got to scribble.” He held them out, and Steve took it with a smile.

“Sounds reasonable,” he agreed, and he scribbled down his number, and then, almost as an afterthought, his name. He handed them back, but his hand stilled in mid-air. “Look,” he said, his voice quiet. “If you can... Le me call you, I'd appreciate it.”

Tony took the notebook, tucked it away. He considered Steve, not missing anything. “Usually I'd think that means you're cheating on someone, but, that doesn't fit here.” Steve's lips went tight, and Tony took a breath. “Someone doesn't know you're gay. But if you have no family, who are you-”

“The person paying for my education,” Steve said. His hands were jammed in his pockets, his shoulders tight beneath his clothes. “It's... Complicated.”

“It usually is,” Tony agreed. He shrugged. “Look, it's not my place to tell anyone how or when to come out, that's something you've got to choose for yourself. But living a lie?” His lips kicked up. “It fucking sucks, and I think you know that.”

Steve's face was oddly flushed in the cold night air. “Yeah. I do.”

“Okay.” Tony glanced at the sky. “Get a burner phone,” he said. “Makes things easier.” One look made it clear that Steve wasn't following. “A pre-paid phone, cheap model, you buy minutes on, you know, gift card like things. You can get them at drug stores and the like. Pay cash. It's untraceable.”

Tony spread his hands. “Then you have your 'proper' phone for your proper calls. And your basic model for your booty calls.”

Steve took a breath. “Okay,” he said. A broad grin split his face. “Thanks.”

It was insanity, this was trouble he did not need, but all of a sudden, Tony didn't want to wait any more.

Tony leaned in, slowly, giving Steve plenty of time to pull away, to take a step back, to avoid the contact of Tony's lips. Instead, Steve leaned in, meeting him halfway, his mouth soft and warm. The kiss was fleeting, almost chaste, and when Steve pulled back, Tony almost whimpered. He leaned forward, wanting more, wanting to crawl up Steve's chest like a monkey, and before he could, Steve wrapped his arms around Tony.

Tony froze, completely thrown, his usually clever brain coming to a grinding halt. There was no sexual intent in the contact, no need or demand, just the firm warmth of Steve's body, the beautiful pressure of his arms. Steve tucked his head down, his cheek against the side of Tony's head, his breath warm against the side of Tony's neck, against his ear.

Almost against his will, Tony relaxed into the contact, his arms looping around Steve's waist. His eyes slipped closed, and Tony leaned into the hug. After a moment, Steve's lips brushed gently against his temple, and it was so nice that Tony wasn't sure he could bear it.

After a moment, Steve's arms relaxed, and he stepped back, his hands sliding down the length of Tony's arms, keeping up the contact until he had to step back, had to step away.

“Who are you, Steve Burnside?” he asked, his head tipped to the side, his heart thudding beneath his breastbone. He was having trouble drawing breath, caught between arousal and a purer sort of yearning, one he wasn't really comfortable with. Horny, that was fine, he could deal with horny, he could deal with a quick fuck. But somehow, he didn't think that was what this was. He could do sex. Sex, he understood.

He wasn't sure he knew what to do with nice.

Steve looked at him, his blue eyes brilliant in the lamplight. His shoulders rose and fell in a quick flick of his muscular frame. “I'm just a kid from Brooklyn,” he said.

“Somehow, I doubt that.” Tony darted back in, stealing another kiss, a harder one, his tongue brushing against the seam of Steve's lips until Steve's mouth opened for him. It was hot and sharp and he wanted more, he wanted so much more. Steve's hands tightened on his arms, and he pushed Tony back, breaking the kiss. Tony huffed out a shuddering sigh, and Steve chuckled.

“You,” he said, his face flushed and his pupils blown wide, “are a menace, Mr. Edwards.”

Tony laughed. “When?” he asked, leaning in.

“When, what?”

“When can I see you again?”

The smile that bloomed on Steve's face was brilliant, sweet and beautiful and it made Tony's chest ache. “I'm free this weekend,” Steve said, the words hopeful.

“I can do that.” Tony snagged him by the front of his jacket and dragged him down. One more kiss. One more hot, hard kiss and then he backed off. Not willingly. But he backed off. “Sunday?”

“Sunday,” Steve agreed. His smile was bright enough to be painful.

This was probably the worst choice Tony had made in a while. He had trouble caring. He grabbed Steve's hand. “C'mon. I know just where to get dessert.”

*

“So I'm pretty sure there are worse assignments. Don't know what they could be, though.”

Clint Barton was used to being high and still and quiet, and for the most part, he was fine with that particular skill set. On occasion, though, he found himself talking to whoever would listen. In the case of the Boston landscape to which he'd found himself assigned, that pretty much meant pigeons. Which would be humiliating if he allowed himself to think about it, so he simply decided not to.

He was good at self-delusion. Very, very good at it.

“Seriously, this city is damn fucking cold. It's not Chicago, I'll give it that, but Chicago has it's own problems and one of them is that I'm really not ever going back there. Not without a warrant,” Clint explained, shifting his weight.

The bird tipped its head at him, beady little eye catching the light of the streetlamps. Clint gave it a look. “Yeah, well, you can do what you want. Ain't no skin off my ass.”

It wasn't just that this assignment was cold. It was boring. It was boring enough that he was talking to the damn pigeons, because, well, why the hell not.

He wasn't sure what he had been expecting when he'd been handed his orders. The idea was so stupid as to defy logic. The idea that a WWII era soldier, a man both benefiting from and victimized by an experimental treatment, could've survived all these years, frozen in a North Atlantic ice floe, was beyond his ability to really comprehend. He didn't question it, he'd learned a long time ago not to question anything the military put in front of him.

But he still had the occasional moment of clarity that allowed him to see just how ludicrous his life really had become. Most of those moments came when he was freezing his ass off on a Boston roof, scanning the street for a man well out of time, and hoping that Steve brought him a coffee. More often than not, Steve had.

“I think he's just lonely,” Clint said to the pigeon, who rocked back and forth on the edge of the stone railing, its feathers fluffed against the night air. “He's got sad eyes. Which, I suppose, that makes sense, doesn't it? Guy's seen some bad shit, and that was before he ended up taking a nap in the deep freeze for a couple of decades. That'd mess up anybody.”

Clint's hands flexed on the grip of his bow, keeping his fingers limber against the cold. Other than the flicker of his fingers, he was still, his chest barely flexing under the pressure of his breathing. He watched the street with hooded eyes that seldom blinked.

There was a rhythm to life on this street, a rhythm that Clint had learned quickly enough. He watched people come and go. Watched the young professionals head out first thing in the morning, and stumble home late into the evenings. Watched the students scramble out the door, dragging bags and jackets behind them as they ran for the T at all hours of the day. Watched the handful of couples come and go, often together, sometimes very much apart.

He watched middle-aged professor carry home paper bags that rattled with booze bottles every night. Watched the elderly man down the street walk slowly up the sidewalk, leaning heavily on his cane, a small cat prowling along at his side. Watched the twin girls with the rosy cheeks and sweetly rounded faces argue on the stoop every Wednesday afternoon, regular as clockwork. Watched the pizza deliveries and the Chinese food deliveries and the package handlers in brown pants and blue uniforms.

Mostly, Clint watched Steve. Watched him walk home, watched him eat quietly, a book balanced on his knee. Watched him watch the occasional game on tv, football or basketball or an old baseball game on ESPN Classic. Watched him mop his floor and fold his laundry and scrub his dishes by hand, even though he had a perfectly functional dishwasher. Clint watched him run up and down the block, and carry his gym bag over one shoulder and his backpack on the other. Watched him read and study and bend over a simple notebook late at night, and a sketchbook early in the morning.

He watched Steve, and that might be the problem.

“I knew a guy, growing up, that lived on a farm,” Clint said, watching the pretty lady with the red and yellow coat and the long sweep of black hair sashay up the sidewalk, a big golden retriever walking politely at the end of her leash, “and he said that if you wanted to keep eating well, you didn't name the animals that were gonna end up on your plate.”

The pigeon flapped its wings, and Clint sighed. “Getting emotionally attached to your meal ticket isn't a particularly bright idea, bird.” He exhaled. “Of course, I've never been particularly bright.”

The woman paused on the corner, one black gloved hand holding her phone to her cheek. She was laughing, high and bright, audible even at this distance. The dog sniffed at the light pole, and along the edge of the curb, apparently more than happy to wait. She was a distraction, Clint knew that, she was too bright, too obvious, and she lingered too obviously just below the building.

He watched her out of the corner of his eye, watching the whole of the street, watching for any movement, any sign of who she was covering for, or why. There was never any other movement as the woman paused there, seldom at the same time, always with the big yellow dog and her tall black boots.

Now, she turned away from the building, tugging lightly at the leash, and she and the dog continued up the street, her black scarf and the dog's wagging tail sweeping behind them. Clint watched them go, because it was a lovely sight, and he wasn't ashamed to admit it.

Halfway up the street, she stepped to the side, letting Steve come barreling past her. Her head swung around as he passed, her eyes tracing up Steve's impressive figure, her dark red lips curling up in an appreciative smile. Clint struggled against his own smile. If she was trolling for Steve's attention by waking her dog past the building every night, it looks like she was doomed to disappointment. Steve bolted past her as if she wasn't even there, or as if he didn't see her.

Steve was running fast up the street, his head bare and his hair gleaming in the low light. There was a white plastic bag in his hand, swinging along with the rhythm of his steps. As he got close, he looked up, towards the roof, but he didn't even pause, his long legs eating up the distance to the front door. In a matter of moments, he was out of sight.

His eyebrows arching, Clint waited, wondering if Steve was going to make the whole trip up to his apartment on foot. He took the stairs more often than not, but judging by the way he was moving, he'd run the entire way from the T stop, and there was-

The window below him opened with a bang. “Clint?”

For an instant, Clint just froze, his brain shorting out.

“Clint?” Steve's voice was a loud whisper, clearly carrying through the cold, still night air. “I know you're up there.”

Clint took a breath, expanding with it, then let it out. “Are you kidding me right now?” he asked, and the pigeon took off with a flicker of its wings. Apparently, it had a self-preservation instinct, because Clint was tempted to shoot something, anything, and the Army would probably notice an arrow sticking out of Steve's ass. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Clint?”

Clint rolled to his feet, leaning over the low stone wall. “Are you kidding me?” he gritted out, glaring down at Steve's face.

Steve's head disappeared back into the room, and then his arm appeared, holding the plastic bag. “I brought you a cannoli. From Mike's Pastry.”

Clint considered the bag. He considered his life. And headed for the fire escape.

“You are out of your fucking mind,” Clint said, sliding into the open window. “You know that, don't-”

“What is your actual assignment here?” Steve said, shutting the window behind him.

Clint rocked back on his heels. “You know better-”

“You don't follow me. You don't dig through my stuff. You don't attempt to get me to tell you anything,” Steve said, shaking his head. He wasn't breathing hard, but his cheeks were flushed pink and his hair was tumbled over his forehead. “You just watch. You check in on me. You load me into a car when I'm supposed to go to a medical check, or a military review.”

Clint opened his mouth, but before he could even get a word out, Steve continued. “Are they even trying to get you to inform on me?”

They stared at each other, eyes locked, and for an instant, Clint considered telling Steve to go to hell. But something stopped him. Maybe it was the way Steve was still holding the damn plastic bag. Maybe it was the way that he was leaning forward, his face tense with some unspoken or unspeakable emotion.

Or maybe it was just the way his eyes no longer seemed quite so empty and lifeless.

“No,” Clint said. “Which doesn't mean that they won't.”

Steve held out the bag. “They won't.”

Considering it, Clint asked, “Yeah? Why not?”

Steve's mouth curled up in a warm smile. “Because someone underestimates you, Clint. Otherwise, you wouldn't be stuck sitting on the roof.” His hand bobbed, the bag swinging between them. “I bought you a canolli.”

His stomach growled. Clint ignored it. “If they ask me-”

“You'll tell them the truth.” Steve's smile grew into a grin, and for the first time since Clint had started watching him, he was alive. Just like that, he was alive, the last of the emptiness leeched from his eyes.

“Shoulda known better,” Clint muttered. “But I never have.” He reached out, grabbing the bag from Steve's hand. “You better have gotten chocolate dipped.”

“And mini chocolate chips on both ends,” Steve agreed.

Clint gave up. “I'm making coffee.”

Steve held up a small metal thermos. “Espresso.”

“Fine.” Clint threw himself on the couch. “But I'm not moving in.”

“Understood.”

Chapter Text

The lights were on in the loft.

Gritting his teeth, Tony jammed his keys into his bag and stalked his way across the workshop. “Hey!” he called, mounting the stairs with a rapid fire clatter of his booted feet. “You know, this really counts as breaking an entering.”

“I have a key.” Tiberius Stone set the book he was reading on the flat of his stomach, giving Tony a smile that was somewhere between pitying and pure sex. “You gave it to me.”

“Asked for it back, too, if I remember correctly.” Tony gave Ty a look. He was in a graceful slump on Tony's bed, one arm behind his head and his feet bare on the covers. He'd unbuttoned the vest of his suit and hung his coat up from the hook bedside the door, and his wingtips were resting on the heater. “Making yourself at home, aren't you?” Tony asked, telling himself that he wasn't horny. He'd made that mistake before, and he tried to learn from his bad decisions.

“I would've thought that you would want me to be comfortable.” Ty's smile dissolved into a pout, and he made no move to get up. Instead, he stretched, his back arching against the pillows. “Be a good host, Tony.”

“Be less creepy, Ty.” Tony tossed his bag onto the already overflowing desk and dropped into the chair, ignoring the inviting way that Ty had left space next to him on the bed. “What do you want?”

“Can't I just check in on my favorite ex?” Ty asked, letting out a faint sigh. He had a special and very annoying talent for making Tony feel bad about, well, everything.

“You can, but you don't. Ever.” Tony spun his chair around. “What. Do you. Want?”

Ty's sigh was audible even across the room. “I was in town and-”

“Yes, I notice that's been happening more and more often, lately,” Tony said. Already bored with this conversation, he went back to his work. That's what Ty wanted him to do, anyway, that was why he was here. Ty made pretense at other things, at interest in Tony and what he wanted out of life, but in the end, he was a company man, through and through.

And in his eyes, StarkIndustries was a company Tony worked for. Not the company that Tony would someday own.

“You've been out of touch,” Ty said. “A lot of unanswered voice mails and emails, Tony.”

“I've been busy.” He had, too. Classes, paper revisions, arguing with his stubborn prick of an adviser, and Steve. Mostly Steve. He didn't like to say things aloud that would come back to humiliate him later, but he'd been seeing a lot of Steve. Nothing big, really. A lunch grabbed here, a phone call there, late night messaging sessions when they both should've been asleep. He'd walked in the park. In all seriousness, he'd walked in Boston Common like he was a damn high schooler with a crush, and really, that needed to stop.

He was not going to act like a child about this. He needed to get laid and despite some rather open invitations, he hadn't managed to get past second base with Steve. Which was a source of eternal frustration.

“What do you want, Ty?” Tony asked, trying to drag himself back to the problem at hand.

“Your father isn't answering his phone,” Ty said, and Tony's stomach sank.

“You know what I'm going to say about that,” Tony said, sparing Ty a glance. “In that we've had this discussion, we've had this discussion like, a lot. Haven't we?”

“The health aide and Happy both report that he's alive, he's been eating and-”

“Not my problem,” Tony said, cutting him off with all the ruthlessness he could manage. “It is not-”

Ty rolled to his feet. “He's your father.”

Tony's shoulders hunched forward, his body curling up, his spine bowing as he tried to concentrate on the screen of his laptop. He gritted his teeth, just a little. “Look-”

Ty leaned against the desk, propping his hip high on the wood, his arms folded over his chest and his expression disapproving. “You're the only one who can snap him out of it when he gets like this, Tony. Obie has tried, it doesn't work.”

Tony looked up, trying not to resent the angle and the way that Ty pushed, ever so subtly, into his personal space. “Yeah, but I didn't sign up to deal with his abuse.” Ignoring Ty, he reached across the desk for a stylus. “And there's no reason-”

Ty caught his wrist, his big hand closing around Tony's arm with room to spare. “He's your father, I'd say that was reason enough, wouldn't you?”

“You would. I wouldn't.” Tony gave a sharp tug, trying to pull his arm free, and Ty's fingers bit into his skin, the pressure bordering on the painful. “Ty. Seriously. Who cares if he picks up the phone? It's not like he has anything worthwhile to say. You know he's not dead, he hasn't managed to drink himself into a coma, you've got people checking his pulse every day, so why do you give a flying fuck if he picks up the phone or not?”

Ty leaned over, pushing closer to Tony, never once letting go of Tony's wrist. “Because someone needs to do more than check his pulse.”

“And I did it,” Tony said, his chin up, his ire up. “For years, I did it.”

“Obie-”

“Did what he could do, but he didn't move in, Ty. I spent years after my mom's death checking his vitals and dealing with his crazy, with his drunken ravings and whatever poison he managed to come up with and spew at me from day to day. I'm done with it, and you know it.” Tony braced himself and, with a sharp twist of his arm, pulled his wrist out of Ty's grip. The skin burned, from the pressure and the touch itself, and Tony resisted the urge to rub it. “Tell Obie to go over there. I'm not flying down to New York just because he's in a bad spell, as you've so cheerfully pointed out to me about a thousand times, I have work that needs to be done, and things that need to be passed in.”

Shoving his chair back, Tony ducked past him, going for the door. “You can show yourself out. I've got some welding to do.”

“Tony-”

Tony kept moving forward, one foot in front of the other, keeping his pace slow and steady with an act of will, because he would not run, he would flee like a scared child from whatever barrage that Ty had in store for him. He knew better than to show that kind of weakness. One foot, and then the other, quick and even.

His foot was just breaking the threshold when Ty's voice came quietly behind him. “He's your dad.”

Tony's hand latched onto the doorframe, his fingers tightening until they ached, until the skin over his knuckles was white with the strain. He held, for a moment, his pride carrying him when his exhaustion would've dragged him down again, and then his head fell forward. “What do you expect me to do?” he asked, resigned to his fate. Resigned to everything.

“Just go talk to him.” Ty was magnanimous in his victory, he always was. He slipped a hand around Tony's waist, leaning into Tony's back, pressing close from chest to knees. His body was almost as familiar to Tony as his own, the subtle shift of muscle and bone, the heat of his skin and the rhythm of his breath. “It's going to be okay, Tony.”

Tony stared blankly into the darkness, his eyes unfocused. He took a breath, and he could smell Ty's cologne, his aftershave, his hair gel. Ty's fingers stroked low on the flat of Tony's belly, his head dipping down so his mouth could brush against Tony's neck, whisper light and delicate. Tony's head tipped to the side, his body reacting automatically, even though it felt wrong. He shook off the feeling with gritted teeth. It was just sex. He liked sex.

Ty' kissed his way up Tony's neck, and Tony stood there, staring at nothing. His body reacted to the familiar stimulus, eager as always for the contact, for the warmth and the pleasure that Ty's touch promised. Ty was many things, but mostly, he was very, very good in bed. Tony reached up, trailing his fingers along the length of Ty's arm, feeling the flex of his muscles. He closed his eyes and tried to feel something beyond the physical, something deeper, something, anything.

But that had always been what this was. A desperation for contact, a need that he couldn't verbalize, when he was younger. Ty had been there, Ty had been smart and handsome and clever with his hands, and Obie approved of Ty. And for a long time, that had been all that mattered, that he could cling to Ty and blank his mind and just feel. Feel anything.

He twisted free of Ty's grip, turning in Ty's arms and leaned in for a kiss. Ty was caught off guard, his body going stiff in an instant, but he melted quickly, his hands smoothing down the arch of Tony's spine. Tony leaned into his touch, into his heat, his mouth opening under the pressure of Ty's lips.

He waited, only partially participating in the kiss, waiting to feel something, anything, some stirring of regret or anger or love or affection. But there was nothing, just lust, and lust, he understood lust. And he was pretty quick to forget it.

When they broke apart, Tony's mouth felt bruised, and his heart was pounding. He stared at Ty, his lips twitching upwards. “Well,” he said, stepping back. “That answers that.”

Ty's brow creased and his mouth twisted into a frown. “What answers what?”

“Never mind.” Tony took a deep breath, and the buzz of pleasure was already passing, already seeping away, leaving that familiar, faint numbness. “Sorry. I've got work to do. And I bet you're on the red eye, so let's just skip the slap and tickle today, shall we?”

Ty's face was a thundercloud. Tony wasn't foolish enough to think that it had anything to do with him; Ty just hated to be rejected. “Bit of a tease, aren't you?”

Tony grinned at him. “Always. Otherwise, how could I keep your attention?”

Ty gave a huff of laughter, clearly against his will. “Yeah, whatever, you dick.” He turned back to the bed, reaching for his shoes. “Obie'll get you a ticket.”

“Obie'll send me the damn jet, if he wants me to do this,” Tony said. “I'm doing him a favor? I'm not flying commercial.”

Laughing, Ty wandered back out of the bedroom. He ruffled Tony's hair as he pushed past, the gesture affectionate in an off hand sort of way. It was like Tony was a dog that belonged to a neighbor with whom he needed to stay on good terms. “I'll see what I can do.”

“You want the credit for getting me on board?” Tony said, his voice saccharine. “You'll do what needs doing.” He headed down to the workshop. “You're good at that.” Behind him, Ty was saying something, was saying something scolding or sharp or chiding, but Tony wasn't listening any more. He'd heard it all before, and he didn't really care.

His lips were tingling, and it had nothing to do with Ty, and everything to do with the memory of Steve's gentle, almost uncertain, kisses. Tony's fingers brushed against his mouth, and he grinned..

“Are you even listening to me?” Ty snapped.

“Not at all. Have a good flight, Ty.” Whistling under his breath, Tony headed for the workbench. He had some nervous energy to work off, and he probably wasn't going to get laid after that comment. The door slammed shut with a metallic clang, proving that right. He found he didn't much care.

Mostly because he just might have a boyfriend.

*

The taxi dropped him off at the front of the massive, imposing gate, the huge, wrought iron expanse that separated the Stark Mansion on Fifth Ave with the street. Tony paid the cabbie, ignoring the man's curious looks, and waited for the taxis to roll away before he moved to the intercom. He knew that his arrival had already been noted, but there were protocols to this, Obie had made sure of that.

He pressed the intercom button. “Happy? It's Anthony. Wanna let me in?”

The faint buzz reached him, a stark affirmative, and then the gates started to open. They moved slowly, awkwardly, pushing back from street, and Tony slipped in as soon as they parted enough for his slim form to make it through. Hands in his pockets, head down, he headed up the drive, trying to ignore the cold.

The black car parked right in front of the door wasn't one that he knew, and he frowned at it. However, before he could reach it, the front door opened, and a trim, ordinary looking man in a crisp black suit strode easily down the icy stone steps. He looked up, meeting Tony's eyes with a faint, unassuming smile, and then he slipped into the passenger seat of the car. It started up almost before the door was closed, and by the time Tony reached the top of the drive, the car was already rolling down, sweeping past him with a nearly soundless sweep of the tires on frozen stone.

Tony stared after it, making note of the license plate, an ordinary looking New York one, and of the unfamiliar circular logo that was on it. He turned off the main drive, heading for the guard shack.

Happy Hogan was waiting for him at the door. “Hey, Mr. Stark!” he said, grinning at Tony. The guard slash chauffeur was a fixture around the house. Nominally, he was on the Stark payroll, but Tony knew he reported to Obie.

“Hey, Happy,” Tony said, even as Happy waved him into the guard house. He stepped inside, grateful for the warmth. “Who was that?”

Happy shrugged. “I got no clue,” he admitted. “Fella showed up, said to tell your father that he wanted an audience, an' insisted Mr. Stark would wanna speak to him. Called up to the main house, and I don't claim to understand it, but Mr. Stark told me to let him right in.”

Tony frowned. “Did he give you his name?” he asked.

“Nope. Just said he had information that Mr. Stark would want. About the location of the last of the howling commandos.” Happy frowned. “I don't know what that means, but Mr. Stark just about swallowed his tongue, insisted I let the guy in.”

Tony glanced at the security monitors, where the man's pleasant face was locked in freeze frame. “Can you print that off for me?” he asked. “And, Happy? Can you give me a few minutes to talk to my father before you call Obie?”

Happy's face fell. “Aw, Mr. Stark, you know I'm supposed to tell him if there's anything-”

“I'm not saying don't tell him,” Tony said, cutting him off. “I'm just saying, give me a few minutes before you tell him. Because you know Obie will flip out about this, and maybe I can get some more information so that we can keep him from making both of our lives pure hell.”

Happy's eyes met his, then flicked away. Tony held his breath, but after an instant, Happy gave a quick nod. “I can, you know, not call him right now,” he said, even as he handed Tony the printout. Tony took it with a sigh of relief. “But I gotta call it in. You know I-”

“I know, I know.” Tony folded the sheet a couple of times and jammed it in his pocket. “You won't regret this.”

“Every time you say that, I end up regrettin' it!” Happy called after him, but they both knew that he hated the responsibility. He didn't want it, and he didn't need it, and he was happier when Tony took over and handled things. The same way everyone else was.

Tony didn't even like to think about how long he'd been handling things.

He paused at the front door, his hand still on the cold metal of the knob for a long, long second. The key turned smoothly in the lock, and he pushed it open, ignoring the way the cold night air rushed in, pushing him into the dark space beyond the door frame.

“Dad?”

Tony dropped his bag just inside the door, where he could find it easily enough when he needed to. Like, when he left. Probably tonight. If it was too late to make a run back to Boston, the city had enough hotels. And he had a credit card.

“Dad?” Stripping off his boots and coat, Tony left them where they fell. Other than his detritus, the front hall was spotless as always. Fresh cut flowers filled all the vases, the floor was waxed to a mirror shine, and the windows glittered in the reflected light of the streetlamps. It was as if no one lived here, and Tony guessed that was close enough to the truth.

The Fifth Avenue Mansion was occupied only by ghosts at this point. Tony was glad he'd left before he became one.

He paused at the bottom of the stairs. “Dad?” From someplace up above, there was a thump, something solid hitting the carpeted floor. With a minute shake of his head, Tony jogged up the stairs. “Dad? Obie said that you weren't answering the phone? Not even for him?”

He reached the top landing, and he was still talking, because startling Howard was a lousy idea. “Dad? It's Tony. Are you still alive?”

The only sliver of light on the landing came from the library, and Tony headed in that direction. “Dad?” he called, pushing the door open. Just a bit. Just a crack. Waiting. It only took a minute, and then there was a wet crash as a bottle hit the other side of the door, crashing to splinters. Tony waited, seeing if Howard was double fisting tonight. But there was silence, other than a racking, echoing cough, and Tony shoved the door open.

Howard looked up. “Welcome home,” he said, his face twisting in a macabre approximation of a smile. “Where the hell have you been?”

“Boston.” Tony stared at his father, wishing that it didn't always hurt. Howard was a mess, they both knew it, even if the rest of the world lived on in ignorance. Tony wasn't sure why, hadn't been sure when it had started, or how it had progressed this far, this fast, but Howard was a mess.

He was slumped behind his massive desk now, a gargoyle in the shadows of a single tipped desk lamp. His face was unshaven, his shirt half buttoned and filthy, his hair a rat's nest of tangles. His eyes were unfocused, and full of something dark and vicious. But he raised his head when Tony picked his way through the wreckage of the office. This room had been a showpiece, once, now it was a cave where Howard retreated to lick his wounds and nurse the bottle.

As Tony moved across the room, Howard dumped a healthy amount of brandy into the cracked crystal tumbler in front of him. “What're you doing here, boy?” he asked, his voice raw and rough, either from abuse or disuse, Tony wasn't sure.

“Checking up on you.”

“Fuck you, I don't need you poking your nose into my business,” Howard said, his lips peeling back from his teeth. He tossed back most of the glass of alcohol in one quick gulp, and his arm had a visible tremor when he brought it back down. “Saw your latest plans. They're crap.”

“Yeah, well, you can't even figure out which end of a welding torch to pick up right now, so...” Tony ignored the sting of the words. By now, they fell on scar tissue, thick with memories of past abuse, and what had once been a raw wound now was just a twitch of pain.

Howard couldn't help what he was now. And Tony couldn't help him.

He reached for his father's arm. “Let's go. I think you need to get some sleep. Somewhere that isn't here.”

Howard stirred, his head lolling on his neck as if he had no control over his movements. “They won't stop hounding me,” he snarled, but there was a melancholy note to his voice, something not unlike a sob. “They keep bringing it all back. All of it. They're all dead, why can't they just let it die?” Howard's breath came in raw pants. “Why do they ask me questions I can't answer?”

“Yeah, that's something that happens,” he said, tired of this already. “C'mon, dad, you've had enough for tonight.” He grabbed Howard's arm and pulled him to his feet, getting absolutely no help from his father. Halfway to getting upright, Howard started struggling, and Tony lost his grip, dumping him back into his seat. “Jesus, Dad!”

“You little pissant,” Howard said, swinging an arm in Tony's direction. Tony stepped back, easily avoiding it, and a decanter hit the carpet instead, the dregs of the alcohol spilling out Tony stepped around the sodden puddle, ignoring the sharp scent of whiskey. “Get- Get-” Howard swung again, and this time Tony just caught his wrist and forced it down.

“Cut it out,” Tony said, out of patience already. He didn't have much to begin with, and with his father was good at running it down. He snagged the front of Howard's shirt and muscled him up. “God, you are pain in the goddamn ass.”

Howard's hand fumbled at the desk, knocking things over and grabbing for anything in reach. He tossed a folder
at Tony's head, and Tony shoved him towards the door. “Great. Fantastic.” Howard's legs went limp, and Tony just pulled him along, ignoring what might've been passive resistance and might've been just an inability to make his legs work properly. “Time for bed, you old lush.”

“Have some respect,” Howard spat out. His head was hanging down, his words slurring. But his hands were clinging to Tony, clawing at his shirt, at his arms. “I- I don't need you- To-” Tony heard the ominous rattling sound and shoved Howard in the direction of the nearest trash can.

“You know,” he said, staring blankly at the wall as Howard vomited into the trash can, “I had other plans for this weekend. Plans that didn't include your drunk ass.” He glanced down. “You done? I think you're done.” Ignoring the mess and the stench for now, he headed for the door, Howard little more than an anchor that slowed him down with every step.

Howard's room was dark, unkept and oppressive, the gloom almost a physical weight on the skin. Tony tried not to breathe in, hating the stale smell of alcohol, unwashed clothing and his future. He shoved Howard into bed, too tired to bother with trying to get him cleaned up. He stripped Howard's shirt and pants, ignoring the abuse Howard poured over him.

Tossing the blanket over him, Tony stepped back. “You going to live til the morning?” he asked.

Howard pried one bloodshot eye open, his lips peeling back from his teeth. “You just can't wait for me to die, can you, boy?”

Tony stared at him for a second, words bubbling low in his throat, something hot and acidic caught behind his teeth. But when he opened his mouth, all that came out was a sigh. “You've been dead for years,” he said, his voice quiet. “I've been you for years.” He headed for the door. “So go fuck yourself.”

Back in the library, he looked at the mess with a jaded eye. “Great, Dad,” he mumbled. “Fan-fucking-tastic.” He picked his way across the floor, avoiding the worst of the mess, but there were discarded bottles, empty glasses, dirty dishware and the remains of books and paperwork everywhere. “Jesus Christ.”

Too exhausted to even think about it, he grabbed a folder and started shoving things back into it. Crumbled plans and blueprints, chunks of paper and photos, classified stuff that the cleaning staff shouldn't have access to. But judging by the smell of the room, the cleaning staff hadn't made much of an effort to get in.

He tossed folder after folder onto the desk, frustration rising as he jammed everything back together. Leaning over, he picked up the folder that Howard had thrown at him, shoving yellowed pages and faded pictures back into it. He pitched it onto the desk a second before his brain kicked in.

“What the fuck-” He opened it back up, pushing the pages aside. His fingers closed on the photo, and he turned on the desk lamp, twisting it around.

The face staring up from the picture was startlingly familiar.

Tony sank into the desk chair, frowning down at the picture. Howard was there, Tony spotted him immediately, a very young and cocky Howard, his chin up and his grin bright, and just behind him was a man who looked something almost like a pale, washed out photocopy of Steve. But it wasn't Steve, it couldn't be. It couldn't. This man was much smaller than Steve, thin and almost frail, definitely undersized. His narrow shoulders were held back, sharp and tight in the WWII era military uniform that seemed to dwarf him and his slight frame, but that face.

That face.

Thinner, his eyes narrowed against the light, his chin held up at a sharp angle, he stared at the camera lens with a sort of defiance. Like he wasn't sure what was coming, but he was preparing for it, anyway.

Tony flipped it over, checking the back. “Project Rebirth,” was neatly printed, along with a date, and a string of numbers that didn't mean anything to him. A string of names, or the start of names. Several of them were blacked out with a heavy application of ink. Howard's was still there, at the head of the column, and a handful of others, but no indication of what face went with what name, or who had been blotted out.

He turned it back over. The resemblance was eerie, there had to be a blood relation. There had to be. And it would explain why Tony kept feeling as if he'd seen Steve before. Not that they'd met, but rather that his face was familiar. He'd written it off to having passed Steve in the street, or on the train, or in some library, moving left when Steve was moving right.

Another face in the crowd.

But this. Maybe this was why Steve seemed familiar, and yet so alien. Because Tony was remembering someone else's face. Not that he'd ever seen this picture before. He grabbed the folder, flipped it open, dumped the documents and the pages across the desk. He sorted through them, as quick as he could, but most of them were a sea of black ink. Censored. Redacted.

On top, a bundle of letters, a dozen or more. He pulled one off the top, the neat slit of the envelope and the paperclip holding letter and envelope together were clear signs that his father's secretary had handled these, and unsure what to do with the contents, had sent them over to the house to molder and rot along with their owner. The one on top was only a few weeks old, and Tony flipped open the page without a trace of guilt.

After the initial greeting, the letter was brief, and to the point. The writer was a graduate student at Harvard, looking to speak to Howard about his thesis. Which wasn't that unusual, Tony knew that StarkIndustries got dozens, if not hundreds of these, every year. They were politely rejected, with an indication to contact the company when their studies were over, perhaps a place could be found for them.

Engineers and scientists and designers, all of them chased the ghost of Howard Stark, even if they had no idea that he was already gone. But this one, this one was from a historian. Tony frowned at it, reading the text with no comprehension. There was a long string of qualifications and an attempt at an introduction from a mutual acquaintance, then the purpose of the letter in a few quick, straight forward lines.

“I've been researching the so-called 'American Captain,' the battlefield legend of WWII. What I've managed to find in government archives leads me to think that you might have some insights into the identity of this particular individual, or the multiple individuals, who carried the shield. I would like to speak to you at your earliest convenience.”

The letter was signed by a Lt. James Rhodes, United States Air Force.

A quick glance through the rest of the letters revealed a similar vein to the questions, but most were years or decades old. Tony frowned down at James Rhodes letter, and the postmark. Without thinking twice, he jammed the envelope in his pocket.

Grabbing the picture, he headed back to Howard's room. Howard was tossing beneath the sheets, his breathing rough and uneven, and Tony grabbed his shoulder. Gave him a quick shake, and another, just enough to get Howard's blurry eyes open. When Howard struggled to focus on him, Tony held up the photo. “Who is this?” he asked, putting a finger just below the fragile man's chin. He tapped the picture, drawing Howard's eye. “This man. What's his name?”

Howard's lips curled up, just a little, and for an instant, he looked the way he had when Tony had been a child. “Him?” His eyes slid shut. “Just a-” He pulled free of Tony's hands. “Jus' a kid from Brooklyn.” He rolled over and in another second, he was snoring.

Tony stared down at him for a long moment, his heart still in his chest. With a bitten back curse, he walked back out of the room, pulling the door shut behind him. Halfway to the library, he pulled his phone out, dialing Obie with a flick of his thumb.

“Stop letting him get booze delivered,” he said, interrupting Obie's greeting.

There was a long beat of silence. Then a sigh. “How well has that worked out for us in the past?” Obie asked, sounding tired.

Tony slammed into the library. “Yeah, well, you know what? He needs to be in rehab. In a fucking facility that can make an attempt at drying him out without him ending up dying when the withdrawal hits him sideways. But he is going to die, Obie.”

The silence was thick with disapproval. “How do you see that going?” Obie asked. “We've been telling the public, we've been telling the board of directors, the share holders, the buyers, we've been telling everyone he's fine. If we put him in a facility, Tony, there is no way that won't end up going public.”

“Maybe we-”

“We'll lose the company,” Obie said, cutting him off. “You'll lose the company. You understand that, don't you, Tony? All of it. Gone.”

Tony stared down at the folder. And wondered if Obie would hang up on him if he just said that was what he wanted. That he didn't care any more. That he'd been doing this for years, been lying and hiding and living behind the thin bars of a cage, and now, he was almost free. He just had to finish his degree, and he would be free, he wouldn't have to lie, wouldn't have to keep making things in Howard's name. He wouldn't have to do anything he didn't want to do.

Hell, he didn't even have to be a Stark anymore.

“All those people,” Obie said. “Do you know how many people depend on StarkIndustries, Tony? How many paychecks, how many mortgages and college tuition bills? How many people who have children to feed?” He sighed. “We- No, I have a responsibility to them. I chose this company, I chose your father, as a friend, as a partner. You...” His voice trailed away.

Tony's hands were in white knuckled fists on the surface of the desk. He struggled to breathe, struggled to hold himself together. After a moment, he let his eyes fall shut. “He's drunk and agitated,” Tony said, picking up the folder. He flicked through the pages, trying not to damage the yellowed, fragile paper.

“Did he tell you why?”

Tony opened his mouth, ready to explain the mysterious visitor, the file, the strange set of coincidences, but something stopped him. He stared down at the pages, and wondered if Obie knew anything about this. If Obie could tell him what it was, or if this was a secret that Howard had kept.

He wondered if any of this was in the SI databases.

“No,” Tony said aloud. There were too many coincidences here, too many things he didn't understand. He needed info, and he didn't know where to get it. He snapped the folder shut. “He didn't. But he's asleep now, just... Just get someone over here to clean the place up, will you?”

“I'll send someone to keep an eye on him for a while,” Obie agreed, back to being placating now that he was getting his way and he knew it. “Just be patient, Tony. In a few years, when you're old enough to be-”

“I know, I know,” Tony said, cutting him off before the full weight of Obie's words could bring him to his knees. “Look, I have work to finish. For SI and for school. I'm heading back tonight.”

The silence that followed was thick with disapproval. Tony ignored it, ignored the guilt and the frustration and the sense of having failed, because that was normal by now. He held out, his jaw clenched against the urge to take it back, to agree to stay there, under Howard's thumb.

“If you're sure,” Obie said at last.

“I am. I'll talk to you tomorrow.” Without waiting for Obie to say good-bye, Tony cut the call. Taking a deep breath, he considered the folder that was clutched in one hand. Making a snap decision, he called the guard house. “Hey, Happy? Yeah, I just called Obie. I told him what happened, we're on it.”

“Great,” Happy said, relief thick in his voice, because God knows, both of them hated giving Obie bad news. His temper was not a lot of fun to deal with, and when tony was being honest with himself, he'd admit that he was scared of his nominal guardian, the man who'd stood between the Stark family and complete ruin for years. Tony might've kept the company running, but it was Obie who made it possible, and they both knew it. “Thanks, Tony.”

“Yeah, no problem. I'm heading h- Back to Boston. Can you call me a cab?”

“You got it, boss.”

Tony took a deep breath. And the folder. He needed answers. And maybe one Lt. James Rhodes was a place for him to start.

*

“How are we doing today, Captain?”

Steve stared, blank faced and resigned at the far wall of the small clinic. “Fine, sir.”

Dr. Donald Blake didn't even look from the file in his hands as he lowered himself onto his chair. He set his cane next to him, well within reach, but out of the way. “Now, why don't I believe that?” he asked, a faint smile creasing his cheeks.

Steve shrugged. “I'm sorry, sir.”

For a long moment, Dr. Blake just looked at him, his sharp gaze measuring. He looked tired, thin and far more fragile than his relatively young age would suggest. But he was fragile, his movements careful and the way he held himself cautious. His hands were steady and strong, though, and he flipped through Steve's file. “How have you been sleeping?”

Steve steeled himself from flinching. “Fine.”

Dr. Blake took a deep breath, and let it out in a sigh. He clicked his pen with a flick of his thumb and made a notation on the file. “Are you eating well?”

“Three meals a day, sir.” And more. He was always hungry. Not in the way he had been as a kid, when he'd been aware that the sustained, empty ache of hunger would be his constant companion, but in a way that was still unfamiliar. His metabolism was a blessing and a curse, and the more he exercised, the more he ate.

It was embarrassing, how much he ate.

“Any issues you'd like to report?” Dr. Blake was bent over his file, his pale hair gleaming in the light. A pair of reading glasses were tucked into the breast pocket of his crisp white lab coat, but he almost never put them on. He would hunch over Steve's reports, out of habit or because he preferred it that way, Steve was never quite sure.

“No, sir.”

Dr. Blake's head came up, and his eyes were worried. He set the file to the side and reached for Steve's arm. The nurse had already taken his pulse, his blood pressure, checked his reflexes and his vision and his hearing. He'd been weighed, and measured, his cheek swabbed and blood sample after blood sample taken. Steve was used to it. The constant, unchanging round of medical tests. Running on a treadmill, monitors beeping in time with his steps, or sensors stuck to his temples and his chest, measuring temperature and brain activity and pulse and blood pressure, all at once.

But every time, Dr. Blake would take his arm with firm, gentle hands, and tip it into the light, to check that the pinprick holes in the hollow of his elbow had disappeared, healing in a matter of minutes. He would smooth a finger over Steve's skin, his face puzzled, as if he couldn't quite believe the proof in front of him. Then he'd pull out the blood pressure cuff, and Steve would close his eyes and try to relax.

“Corporal Rushman says that you've got a full class schedule this term,” Dr. Blake said, his fingers flexing on the ball of the blood pressure cuff.

Steve blinked, caught off guard by the change in routine. “Yes,” he said. “I do.”

Dr. Blake nodded, his head down over his gauges. “You look better,” he said, and his voice was very, very quiet. His eyes came up, meeting Steve's, just for a second, and then they were flickering away. “I'm glad.” He ripped the cuff off of Steve's arm, with a harsh rattle of velcro giving way. Steve steeled himself from flinching.

He pushed his stool back, grabbing a folder from the small desk. “Here's your weekly medical questionnaire, you're used to the drill by now.”

Steve took the folder from him. “Yes, sir.”

Dr. Blake let out a faint sigh. “If you ever want to talk, Captain, I'm happy to speak to you.” He reached for his cane, using it to lever himself back into a standing position. When he was stable, he folded his hands on top of the handle, his long fingers folding together. “Whether you believe it or not, I am concerned for you.”

“I know.” Steve managed a tight lipped smile. “Thank you, sir.” He stood, his shoulders tight, his skin crawling. He hated being here. He hated this place. The blank faces and the measuring eyes and the way he felt like a bug pinned to a card to be studied.

He'd fought against it at first. For a long time. Days. Weeks. Months. He'd fought and struggled and become little more than a wild animal. He'd spent hours repeating his name, his rank, his ID number, over and over and over. He'd stared into the darkness, strapped to a metal chair, as shadowy figures discussed him as if he wasn't there, or wouldn't understand.

He had fought. Until he realized that there was no way to fight this. Until he'd realized just how alone he was. His name, his birth certificate, his social security number, his history and his background, his family history and his military history, everything had been granted to him, and could just as easily be pulled away. How could he fight without a weapon, without any hope of gaining one?

His fingers were locked tight on the folder of paperwork, and he made an effort to relax his fingers. To smooth out his breathing. Another session was almost done, another set of paperwork, another vial of blood sent somewhere he didn't want to think about.

Dr. Blake opened the door to the examination room, and Corporal Rushman was waiting, her beautiful face serene beneath her neat sweep of red hair. “Ready, Captain?” she asked, her voice polite. She held out a hand, her slim fingers reaching for his file, and he handed it over. He wondered, sometimes, if they didn't trust Blake, either.

“This way,” she said, tucking the folder under her arm. “Lt. Wilson is waiting for you.”

“Yes, ma'am.” He fell into step behind her, knowing the way, and also knowing better than to try to suggest that he'd make his way there alone. As long as he was on military property, and he had no illusions, this small combination laboratory and clinic in the heart of Boston was most certainly military property, his movements were controlled. Their way of reminding him that his relative freedom outside these walls was an illusion, and they could revoke it at any time.

Steve didn't have any delusions about his situation. Not any more.

Corporal Rushman lead the way to the elevator, where Clint was sprawled in a chair, checking his arrows. He didn't even look up when they approached, his fingers sliding slowly and carefully along the length of an arrow shaft, but he did smile. “When are you going to go out with me?” he asked.

“I'll pencil you in for somewhere between when hell freezes over and when pigs fly,” Rushman said, unruffled. Clint laughed, his teeth flashing.

“Care to translate that to the contemporary calendar?” Clint asked, still chuckling. “And maybe a particular restaurant?”

“Signs point to no,” she said, and the elevator doors slid open. She stepped in without a backwards glance, and Steve stepped in after her.

He glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes. “If you tell him to stop,” he said, cautiously, “he will. You shouldn't have to put up with him on the job.”

Rushman's head tipped in his direction, and he got the impression that she was surprised by something. “I know that,” she said, and her painted lips formed the merest hint of a smile.

“So why don't you?” Steve asked.

She turned her gaze back to the elevator doors. “Because I don't want him to stop,” she said, as if that was obvious. “If I did, Captain, I would see to it that he did. As it is? I find him amusing.” The doors opened and she stepped through them, walking briskly down the corridor, with Steve a step behind. “Feel free to continue bringing him along.”

Against his will, his mouth twitched. “I don't have a choice, ma'am. He's the one who's allowed to drive.”

“We're in Boston, Captain. Only a madman would choose to get behind the wheel of a car here.” She opened the door. “Which is why we task Specialist Barton with driving you around.”

“Keeps him off the street?” Sam Wilson glanced up, his grin easy and bright. “I'm all for that. Thank you, Corporal.”

“Lieutenant.” With a slight dip of her chin, Rushman retreated, closing the door behind her.

Sam stood up, his hands braced on his desk, his grin easing into a warm smile. “Glad to see you again, Captain.” He waved a hand towards the chairs on the other side of his desk. “Please, have a seat.”

Steve took a deep breath. And another. And sank into the chair.

He wondered how long he would continue to lie. To himself, and to them. At some point, the truth would come out, and he didn't know what he'd do when that happened.

*

Tony was pretty sure he shouldn't be looking at any of this.

It didn't stop him, of course, but there were a lot of classified stamps on these pages, a lot of notations that he didn't understand, didn't even begin to understand. Diagrams and schematics and scribbled pages, hastily ripped from a bound diary, all of them jumbled together. Tony was willing to blame the hasty way the folder had made its way across the room, but he got the feeling that most of this stuff had been in just as bad of shape before Howard had thrown it at him.

It was such a mix of material that he was left stymied as to how it all fit together. On one hand, there was a complicated series of mechanical diagrams on whisper thin tracing paper, the folds so delicate they threatened to break when he tried to flatten the sheets. On another, there was one page, an odd little drawing of a monkey in an old-fashioned army helmet, holding a stack of guns, that wasn't like anything else in there.

Most of it clearly came from Howard's personal files and notebooks. Tony could see Howard's clean, almost archetectural hand in the rest of the drawings, machines and metals, componants and concepts, but this one wasn't his. He didn't have this sort of a sense of humor.

After a day of digging through the pages, of reading and rereading the files, he gave in, digging out the letter from Lt. Rhodes. It was showing his hand, and he knew it, but he was at a dead end. Maybe Rhodes, whoever the hell he was, could throw him a rope.

He waited until a time when the average American would consider a phone call socially acceptable, then put in the call. It rang twice before being picked up. The man on the other end of the phone answered with a crisp, no-nonsense, “Hello?”

"Hello," Tony said, his voice smooth and professional, despite the fact that he was lying around in his boxers and a sweatshirt that had definately seen better days. "I'm looking to speak to a Lt. James Rhodes, please."

"This is he." Rhodes' voice was warm and firm, steady. "What can I do for you?"

Tony took a deep breath. "My name is Tony Edwards," he said, leaning back in his chair. "I handle Howard Stark's personal and professional correspondance."

There was a beat of silence. "I see. How can I help you, Mr. Edwards?"

“I'm in possession of your letter, and I have some questions for you.” Tony tapped the eraser end of his pencil against his pad. For some reason, for this project, he'd shied away from doing anything on his tablet or computer. He'd searched both Howard's personal databases as well as every one attached to SI. There was no mention of any of this in any of them.

He'd learned to follow his father's lead on some things.

“I'm not sure what I can do for you,” Lt. Rhodes said, the words cautious.

“Neither am I, but I'd like to talk to you anyway.” Tony flipped through the pages, letting the file fall open to the picture. “You aren't the first to inquire to Mr. Stark about the individual mentioned. He hasn't chosen to speak to anyone about it up until this point, but he's getting old. He's considering your request.”

“Is that so.” It wasn't a question. Tony answered it anyway.

“Yes.” Tony flipped the picture over again. Considered the names. “I'd like to meet with you, go over the situation, and determine just what it is that you hope to gain by interviewing Mr. Stark.”

“And what do you hope to gain from talking to me, Mr. Edwards?”

“Peace of mind for my employer.”

“I'm not certain that-”

Tony stared down at the picture, and took a chance. “Does Operation Rebirth mean anything to you, Lt. Rhodes?”

There was a long, heavy silence on the other end of the phone. “It does,” Rhodes said, very quietly. “And not many people know about that, and what part it plays here. What do you-”

“Not on the phone.” Tony slapped the photo down. “I'm in Boston at the moment; your letter says that you're studying at Harvard. Meet me.”

“I'm sorry, but I have no idea who you are. Why should I trust a word you say?”

Tony grinned. “Because I know more about Operation Rebirth than you, and I think that information's something you're willing to risk a lot to get. And I'm willing to share.” He stood up, grabbing for his cofee cup. It was mostly empty, and what was left was of questionable quality, but that had never even slowed him down. “But I understand. Here's what you're going to do, you're going to call StarkIndustries. Use the main listed number, I trust you know how to Google, being a Harvard man. Give them a call and tell the receptionist your name. She'll put you through to someone who will schedule your appointment with me.”

He threw back the dregs of his coffee, ignoring the taste. “Fair enough?”

“Fair enough,” Rhodes agreed. “Thank you, Mr. Edwards.”

“Save it. We'll see if we can't be of help to one another.” Tony disconnected the line, leaning back in his chair, tipping it onto two legs.

The face, so similar to Steve's, stared up at him, stern and mute. The more Tony told himself that he was crazy, the more he couldn't shake the impression that something was seriously wrong. He reached for the bottle of scotch that was sitting beside his laptop. It was almost empty, and he tossed back the last dregs in one long swallow before he discarded it.

He turned the picture over and reached for his computer. Most of the names were unreadable, but he might be able to pry them out from beneath the black ink that had been used to obscure them. The original writing had been done in pen, and that would leave pressure marks. He typed out the handful of names that hadn't been censored, saving them in a file for later investigation, and tossed the picture aside.

He was halfway through the file again when his phone rang. He snagged it without looking up from the yellowed pages. “Hey. You have something for me?”

“Grendel's Pub, Harvard Square. Tomorrow. Eight PM,” Mrs. Arbogast said, her voice crisp. “He'll bring what you're looking for.”

Tony made kissy noises into the receiver. “This is why you're my favorite,” he said.

“You are a rotten little brat,” Mrs. Arbogast said, her smile audible in her voice. “Stay out of trouble, Mr. Edwards.” She stressed the final word, making Tony laugh.

“I'll do my best,” he said. “But my best isn't particularly good.”

“Oh, that is such a lie,” she said, and she would know, she'd known Tony since he was literally too young to talk. She was one of the few of Howard's hires that still worked for SI, and one of the few he was certain he could still trust.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Of course, Mr. Edwards.” He could hear her smile. “Stop in the next time you're in town, will you?”

“If I can get a visitor's badge,” Tony told her. It should've been a joke, but it really wasn't. He had no clearance, he had no access to his own company.

“We're allowed to bring family to lunch in the cafeteria. Just let me know when you're free.”

“Thanks, Bambi.”

“That's Mrs. Arbogast to you, you smart mouthed little brat,” she said, affectionate. “Good luck, and be careful, all right?”

“I will, I will.” He made a kissing noise into the phone until she hung up on him, but he could hear her laughing at him.

Tony grabbed his jacket. He had work to do, he always had work to do, but for now, he had errands to run before he could make his latest appointment. He went to shut the folder, and just before he could pull his hand away, thought bolted through him. Tony stopped. Flipped the folder open again, and picked up the photo, tilting it up into the light.

“If Steve's parents are dead,” he said, slowly, “if he's got no family left, who was he so afraid of, that night on the T?”

The thin face stared back at him, offering no answers.

*

 

The cry of a red tail hawk brought Steve's head up.

He stared up at the roof of the building, where Clint was seated, in full view of the street, his legs dangling over the edge of the brick facade. He met Steve's eyes, and even from this distence, Steve could read the expression on his face. Clint reached up, pressing his fingers flat across his left breast, and then he rolled off the low stone wall and retreated back into the shadows.

Steve didn't allow his footsteps to falter. On the off chance that he, or both of them, were being observed, he just keep moving forward, down the sidewalk, up the stone stairs, and through the front door. He was halfway up the stairs to his apartment when the meaning of Clint's gesture clicked in his brain.

Fingers positioned like rows of medals and ribbons on the lapel of an officer.

He opened his front door and wasn't surprised to find it unlocked. He slipped in, and paused on the mat, removing his boots, cold with icy slush, and then his gloves, hat, muffler, one after another, slow, controlled. Refusing to rush or change his pattern of behavior. When everything was hung up, neat and tidy, to dry, he headed for the living room.

General Ross was on his couch, one polished shoe propped on Steve's coffee table, sipping from a cup clearly taken from Steve's kitchen. Steve got the impression that neither gesture came naturally to him; it wasn't about wanting to put his feet up, it wasn't about having a hot cup of coffee on a cold winter's day.

It was about making sure Steve understood that nothing here was really his. That Ross, or anyone else, had the right to walk in and do what they wanted, whenever they wanted. It was about making sure that Steve never felt comfortable anywhere, that he never had any sense of ownership, not only of his things, but of his own life. He was never to forget that whatever he had, it was because it had been extended to him.

And what had been gifted, could easily be taken back.

He paused, still and silent, in the door, falling into parade rest without much thought. Ross, his gaze focused on the basketball game on tv, held up a finger, a quick gesture of 'one minute,' and Steve waited. Waited, his eyes staring at nothing, struggling not to tense up.

The play continued for several minutes, and then, when the screen faded to a commercial, Ross reached for the remote, muting the sound. “Hello, Captain,” he said, smiling in Steve's direction. He had the jovial voice and face of a grandfather, but his eyes were dark and flat, sharp beneath bushy white brows. He took a sip of his coffee and released a sigh. “How're your classes?”

“I'm enjoying them, sir,” Steve said.

“I'm glad to hear that.” Ross waved a hand at the chairs in Steve's living room. “Please, Captain, please, have a seat. Rest. I know you've been working hard, and it can't be easy.”

Steve considered the minor act of rebellion of staying standing, but it didn't seem to be worth it. He was too tired for these games. Once, what seemed like a lifetime ago, pure stubbornness would've kept him up, would've demanded that the principle of the matter was enough for him to fight, to fight until he was bloody and battered and aching.

Now, however, he took the seat, saving what fight he had left in him for the things that mattered.

Ross sipped his coffee, his eyebrows arched. “So, you're adjusting very well to modern life, Captain. We're all very pleased.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“There were detractors to this idea, you understand that, don't you? There were those who felt that a weapon shouldn't be depoloyed unless it was in the field, in an actual battle. But I always felt this was better for you. For you to come to terms with what your life entailed now.” Ross paused, sipped his coffee. He paused, and let out a sigh. “It was better for you. And us.”

“Yes, sir,” Steve said, the words robotic.

“And you've done an exceptional job fitting in, really, Lt. Wilson really was concerned that the experience would be too overwhelming. That the strain might be too much, but you've picked up on everything with remarkable speed.” His smile was warm. “You're very adaptable, that will certainly come in handy later.”

Steve was bored now, bored with the veiled threats and the reminders that even though he felt like he was living his life, that he was making a life for himself, that was never going to be the case. He could run, of course. Clint might even let him go. But where would he go? What would he do?

Everything he had, the unit had supplied. Every ID, every mark of identification. If he did run, he knew it would be a matter of hours before there was an APB out for him, or a shoot to kill order. He gave Ross a faint smile. “I do my best, sir.”

“That's a good man.” Ross stood up. “We've made some changes to your schedule. Focus on your studies, we want you to double up on your social work sessions with Lt. Wilson, he'll be in a better position to track your progress that way. You're going to quit your job this week.”

Steve considered objecting; he liked the interactions with other artists, and even though his stipend from the Army was more than enough for his needs, he still liked the discount on his supplies. But if he quit, then he'd have more time, and all of a sudden, he'd found something to fill that time.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“Wonderful.” Ross set his coffee cup down on the table. He glanced at his watch. “Thanks for your hospitality, son. My car'll be here in a few minutes.” He walked past, clapping a hand lightly on Steve's shoulder. “You do your country proud, Captain.”

Steve stood. “Thank you, sir.” But Ross was already gone, and when he shut the door behind him, it was with a finality that sent a shiver down Steve's back. He waited, at parade rest, until he was sure that he was alone. Then he collected the coffee cup and brought it to the kitchen.

He rinsed it, running water over the plain white surface, turning it slowly between his hands. He had no life here. He knew that was the truth. He would be pulled out, soon enough, when they figured out what to do with him, what purpose he served, how he could be used. He had no life, he just had temporary leave from active military service.

He was a fool for thinking he could have any more than that.

Steve turned the water off and considered the cup. Walking over to the trash, he dropped it in, and heard it crack on the bottom of the empty can. He was a fool, he was an idiot, but he'd spent too long waiting. Too much time had passed, and he'd had no choice about that, but he had a choice now. He had a chance. He was taking it, whatever the cost.

Fishing his second, secret phone out of his pocket, he dialed. “Hi,” he said.

“Hello, hot stuff, what's happening in the side of the city that gives a damn about paint pigmentation forumulation?” Tony asked, and just like that, Steve felt the strain go out of his shoulders.

“Don't lie,” he said, smiling. “I've seen your secret stash of paint chips.”

Tony gave an exaggerated gasp. “Well, I never!” he said, and the line went dead. Steve stared at his phone, a feeling of bemusement sweeping over him. A second later, the phone rang, and, laughing, he answered it. “That was rash,” Tony admitted. “That was a mistake.”

“You are the strangest man,” Steve said. “You really are.”

“You like it,” Tony said, making kissy noises into the phone.

Steve paused. “Yes,” he said at last, his voice soft and gentle. “I do.”

There was a pause. “You free tonight?” Tony asked. “I kinda want to go down to Chinatown. I want dim sum so bad that it's a need.”

Steve's eyes closed, and he nodded. Realizing that Tony couldn't see it, he said, “Yeah, I'd like that.”

Because it was true.

*

Lt. James Rhodes did not seem like a man easily given to surprise. Still, for a moment after Tony took a seat on the other side of his table, he just gaped, his mouth hanging open. “I'm sorry,” he said, even as Tony was waving at the waitress. “And you are?”

“Tony Edwards.” Tony pulled out his license and handed it over. “Hello,” he said to the waitress, as Rhodes stared down at the slim piece of plastic. “Bourbon. On the rocks. Big. Please.”

She nodded, one eyebrow arched. “I just need to see your-”

Tony snagged his id back from Rhodes' lax fingers and handed it over. “Feel free to take it over to your manager,” he said. “Everyone does.”

“Thanks for your understanding,” she said without missing a beat. “I'll be back with either your drink, or the police.”

“Keep me updated on that,” Tony told her, charmed almost against his will. He turned back to Rhodes, who was staring at him. “You guys encourage a certain level of sassiness around these parts that I heartially approve of, just so you know.” Rhodes didn't say a word, and Tony waved a hand in his general direction. “You still with me, Lieutenant?”

Rhodes blinked. “I'm sorry, you are?”

“Tony Edwards,” Tony repeated, patient for now. But his voice was already a little tight. “Can we move on from this particular line of questioning?”

Rhodes' eyes narrowed. “You expect me to believe you're Mr. Stark's secretary?”

“Closer to personal assistant,” Tony said without missing a beat. “Mr. Stark likes them young. Can we please move on?” A hefty glass of alcohol was placed directly in front of him. “I passed!” he said.

“You passed,” the waitress said, tucking a strand of blonde hair behind her ear. “Anything else for you, Rhodey?”

Rhodes held up his beer mug, still mostly full. “Thanks, Gwen, but I'm all set for now.”

“Give me a holler if you need anything,” she said with a bright smile, and then she was off again, her steps bopping along with a cheerful sort of rhythm.

Tony waited until she was gone before he set his leather satchel on the table. “Why are you asking Mr. Stark about a World War II soldier?” he asked without any lead up. “What are you expecting to find?”

Rhodes' eyes narrowed, tight, dark slits in the dim light of the crowded bar. His face expressionless, he took a sip of his beer. Tony waited him out, waited for him to take a drink and set the glass back, right in the center of the coaster. Precise. Controlled. Considering.

“I think he knows the name of the man I'm looking for.”

“That's it?” Tony asked. He picked up his glass and brought it to his lips. “A name? That's all you're after?”

“That's what I need.” Rhodes leaned forward, one broad hand spreading against the battered wood of the table. “That's all I need.”

Tony thought about that, keeping his eyes down, on the surface of his drink. Rhodes waited him out, didn't press, didn't demand, didn't offer a deal or any false promises. “Why a name?” Tony asked at last.

“Because a name proves he exists,” Rhodes said. “A name proves that he was real, that this was a singular man, and allows me to find out where he came from, and maybe what happened to him.” He folded his hands on the table. “What do you want from this meeting?”

Tony nodded. “Well, to start, how about you bring the redhead over here before she strains something trying to watch us without looking like she's watching us?” Tony asked, folding his arms on the table, over the file. “Because, really, she's really bad at trying to be subtle.”

Rhodes didn't flinch. But he did raise his hand and wave at the woman. A moment later, she was sliding into the booth next to him. She had a pretty face and sharp eyes, her strawberry blonde hair pulled back in a sleek and simple pony tail. Her skirt and shirt were understated but well cut for her slim body, and she had sharp, clear eyes.

“Virginia Potts, meet Tony Edwards, the man we've come to meet,” Rhodey said. “Mr. Edwards, my research partner.”

She offered him a hand. “Call me Pepper.”

Tony shook her hand, not surprised to find her grip firm and warm. “Pleased to meet you, Pepper. I'm Tony.” He leaned back. “You're both Harvard students, then?”

“Yes,” Rhodes said. “I'm currently on leave, working on a masters degree in American history, specifically military history.” His lips twitched. “Being active duty military gives me access to certain databases and files, and being a Harvard graduate student gives me access to almost all the others.”

“Except for StarkIndustries' of course,” Tony said with a tight smile. “And you, Pepper?”

“I'm going for a double masters from Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government,” Pepper said, her voice crisp.

Tony blinked. “And this particular project satisfies which of those?” he asked.

“Neither,” she said. “I have an interest in modern folklore.”

“Okay,” Tony said, drawing the word out.

“She had compiled a rather legendary set of documentation on first person accounts of female non-combatants during WWII,” Rhodes said.

Pepper rolled her eyes, but her cheeks were pink. “In my undergraduate days,” she said, waving it off. “Out of date by now, but I did have something to offer, and the scope of his project was fascinating.”

Tony swirled his liquor in his glass, watching the ice cubes roll along with the movement. “All right then. Tell me about your research project, Lieutenant.”

Rhodes and Pepper shared a glance. She gave a faint nod, and Rhodes looked at Tony.

“I'm chasing a battlefield rumor,” Rhodes said, flatly. “One that's popped up over and over in different archives and soldiers' reports all over the world.”

“Okay,” Tony said, taking a sip of his drink.

“I'm looking into something that could be termed a ghost squadron,” Rhodes said, bracing his folded arms on the table. “A small band of soldiers that appear far, far out of the way from where the American armies and lines should be. Mostly on the Eastern front, but they pop up all through Geremany and the Axis countries. They moved fast, they appeared and disappeared in the space of a few days or even a few hours. They were very good at their jobs, very fast, very efficient, and they did a lot of damage.

Something clicked in Tony's brain. “The Howling Commandos.”

Rhodes' eyes went narrow, sharp. “Yes,” he said. He leaned forward. “They probably would've gone unnoticed, or been forgotten, or written off as a tall tale told to impressionable new arrivals, except for one thing.” He reached for his bag, swinging it up onto the table. “Their captain was rather distinctive.”

He opened the flap of his bag and pulled out a sheath of papers. He glanced around, but it was clear no one in the crowded bar was paying any attention to them. He spread the sheets out on the table between them. “These were produced by half a dozen soldiers from half a dozen countries,” he said. “Poland, Germany, France, Italy, England, Canada and Russia.” He looked up, meeting Tony's eyes. “We pulled them all from different archives or reports, some half a continent away from any other.”

Tony's heart was pounding as he picked up the top page. The face wasn't defined, but it was there, the broad cheekbones and long, chisseled jaw, the sharp eyes and winged brows. The hair was sketched in a pale mass, sweeping over the the soldier's forehead. His uniform was closer to a costume, blues and whites sketched in. And in one hand was a broad, circular shield, ringed in color and with a precise white star painted in the center, looking for all the world like a target, a dare, a deliberate fuck you to everyone who might be aiming in his general direction.

“He's called, popularly, the American Captain, or Captain America. No one had a name for him, but his rank is always the same. His own squad called him merely 'Cap.'”

Tony flipped through the images. The face was never distinct, or when it was it was almost cartoonish. But the uniform, the costume, remained virtually unchanged. And the shield was exactly the same. A bullseye, held high on the soldier's arm, or held over his shoulder, or secured to his back.

He reached for Howard's file, flipping through the pages, fast now that pieces were clicking into place in his head.

“The squad appeared and disappeared repeatedly throughout several years of WWII, and then, without any warning, they simply vanished. But there's enough 'proof' on record to make me think this isn't a fairy tale invented by men scarred by too many battles, too much death.”

“Why would it be?” Tony asked, his fingers flicking through the papers in front of him. “Classified or not, I'm certain that the US Government had forces in places, working, doing things that they shouldn't have been doing. That we won't admit now that they were doing. Why would anyone think this was anything different than any other commando unit?”

“Because the American Captain was, quite literally, superhuman,” Pepper said.

Tony's head came up. “Super human... How?”

“If even half of the stories about him, and what he did, are true, than he was not your average soldier,” Rhodes said. “He wasn't even your above average soldier. Which brings us to the next secret.”

“Operation Rebirth,” Pepper said. “A classified government program, run under the auspices of a science unit that never existed, to produce a literal super soldier. It was shuttered mid-way through the war. Officially, it never succeeded, never produced any results of note. However, there are those that believe that it did have a single viable test subject. One man, who survived.”

“And went into battle on the side of the United States, hunting an underground and highly dangerous Nazi scientific organization.” Rhodes pulled another piece of paper from the file, setting it in the middle of the table. It was a reproduction of a German poster, a piece of propoganda, with a monsterous, tentacled horror spreading around the full span of the globe.

“Where one falls, ten more rise,” Tony said, picking his way through the German. “Hail...”

“Hail Hydra,” Rhodes said.

“I've never heard of them.”

“Because someone did a very good job of wiping them out,” Pepper explained. “But there are placed in Europe where entire villages were decimated. They exprimented on the local populance, took workers, killed with impunity. Now, of course, it gets rolled in with the rest of the Nazi atrocities, but at the time, there was a distinct difference. There are still people who know the difference.”

“And let me tell you, if they're given the choice? They'll take the Nazis over Hydra, every time,” Rhodes said. He tapped one long finger against the paper. “Every where there was Hydra on the record, Captain America and the Howling Commandoes were almost always right there, destroying labratories, blowing up factories, invading strongholds. People remember.”

“Except here,” Tony pointed out.

“Here, they have no reason to remember. The soldiers who saw him in action were either written off as being shell shocked or were accused of making things up. Most stopped talking about him. But more than a few mentioned him and his squad.” Rhodes reached for his glass. “We think he was real. That he was the result of a successful experiment in extending human abilities and intelligence. But if that's true, Operation Rebirth was shuttered for reasons we can't explain.”

“What happened to him?”

“We don't now. The rumors continued through the end of the war, but at a certan point, they take on the elements of a fairy tale. Crazy things are attributed to them,” Rhodes said. “Seporating fact from fiction becomes increasingly difficult.” He took a deep breath. “I believe he was either killed, or removed from active duty prior to VE Day.”

“I'm with your crazy ass conspiracy theory up until this point,” Tony said. “So, why Howard Stark?”

“We have documentation that proves that he was involved in Operation Rebirth, in the planning stages at the very least. He was attached to the project, but we don't know what the project entailed, or how far it went. But we are fairly certain that he has information that we need to move forward.”

“And that's why we're talking to you,” Pepper said. “To see if you can arrange it.”

“We're not even sure that he's-” Rhodes started, and Tony cut him off.

“I think he did.” He pulled a sheet of paper from his folder and tossed it onto the table between them. It was a simple blueprint schematic, a simple drawing, but it was clear. It was the design for that shield, a perfect, polished arch and notations of various potential paint jobs.

“It would appear,” Tony said as Rhodes reached for the page, his eyes wide, “that whatever this is? Mr. Stark was in it up to his eyebrows.”

“So it would appear.” Rhodes frowned down at the numbers. “What is all this?”

“Material stress, use, metal fatigue,” Tony said. The numbers didn't add up, to be honest, he'd discarded the calculations his first time through. No metal could do what they implied; it was quite simply impossible. Then again, none of this added up. His heart was pounding a little too fast, a little too hard. Super soldier. What the hell did that even mean?

He pulled out the picture, the group shot that had been making him crazy for days. He laid it on the table between them. “Do you know any of these people?”

Rhodes looked at Pepper, who was staring down at the sheet, her eyes huge. She licked her lips. “Yes,” she admitted. Her fingertip, her perfectly formed nail painted a pale seashell pink, hovered over the photo. “Howard Stark, of course. And-” She glanced up. “Col. Chester Phillips.”

Rhodes leaned over her shoulder, his eyes narrowed. “Jesus. You're right.”

“This man, we know his face, but not his name.” She tapped a finger against the small, pale man standing just next to Howard, a pair of wire framed glasses perched on his nose. “He's appeared in a few photos from this period, but almost always in the background. As if he wasn't aware that the photo was being taken.” She frowned down at the picture. “And Peggy Carter.”

“Shit.” Rhodes looked at her. She looked at him, her eyes wide. “It is. But she...”

“Anyone feel like cluing me into what's going on here?” Tony asked, not really all that interested.

“Peggy Carter is-” Pepper paused. “An unusual figure in US Military history. I know of her, but not connected to this, where is this-”

Tony flipped the picture over. “Operation Rebirth,” he read aloud, and handed it over. “And that's Mr. Stark's writing. Whatever this is, or when ever it was taken-”

“Based on the uniforms and the ribbons on Col. Phillips, well into the war,” Rhodes mused, scanning the list of names that were still legible.

“These are your players,” Tony said. He leaned forward. “Think we can work together?”

“The files,” Pepper said. “The ones down in Tozzer.”

“They're in the depository, if they can be located at all, they got-”

“But we can request them, if Peggy Carter-”

“She was aide de camp to Phillips for a few years, but I've never been able to get any proof that he was part of the scientific team,” Rhodey said. “If we can make an approximation of his movements-”

“Where he was assigned-” Pepper filled in.

“Where he ended up, see if it matches-”

“The movements of the Captain.” Pepper was flushed, her grin wide and brilliant. “Of course. If he-”

“That's if we can pull up-”

Tony turned them out before they started making out at the table. It wasn't as hard as it should've been; he wanted to know what they knew, but none of what they were saying was making sense. He couldn't follow the conversation as long as they were speaking their own language. He picked up the sheet with the shield schematic and was about to slide it back into the folder when something caught his eye. He turned the page to the side, his head tilting as he found a small, penciled notation. It was faint, almost invisible now, but still legible.

“Howard, paint unimportant, do what you like.” And after that, a single, sharp capital S for a signature.

As if in a trance, Tony pulled his notebook from his pocket, flipping through the pages, until he located the one where Steve had written down his number. He held the notebook next to the note, and stared at the two identical letters, side by side, and separated by decades.

He was insane. He was completely mad. What was he thinking, that Steve was a man who'd been an adult in WWII? There was no way, it was impossible. He was only a few years older than Tony, and Tony needed to stop even considering things that were utterly fucking crazy.

“It doesn't make sense,” he said aloud, his voice distant to his own ears.

“Yes, but we have a starting point,” Rhodes said, and Tony jerked back into himself, his notebook slipping from nerveless fingers to crash to the table.

He fumbled for it. “Where?”

“Tozzer,” Potts said, her eyes dancing. “Tozzer Library, there's some files there that we've been trying to access and having no luck, but this could be what we were looking for.”

“Okay,” Tony said, jamming his notebook back in his pocket. His fingers clung to it, using the grip to keep his hand from shaking. “When are we going?”

They exchanged a glance. “They don't let non-Harvard personnel in,” Pepper explained. “You'll have to apply for a visiting academic permit, if you're trying to access their files.”

“We might be able to get you in if we vouch for you, but that won't work more than once,” Rhodes explained.

“Hopefully, we won't need more than once.” Tony finished his drink in a gulp, feeling it burn the entire way down his throat. He fished copies of the picture out of the folder, front and back, and handed them over before he slid the file back into his bag. “I'm interested in whatever you can tell me about this man,” he said, pointing to the miniature Steve on the edge of the group. “Call me when you're ready to set up another meeting. Preferably at this library of yours.”

Rhodes took the pages, sliding them into his satchel. “Will Mr. Stark be joining us?”

“Not just yet,” Tony said. “I need to find out a few more things before I involve him.”

“Does he know you're here?” Rhodes asked as Tony slid out of the booth.

“No,” Tony said after a beat of pause. Keep the lies simple. Easy to remember. Hard to fuck up. “If and when I choose to bring this to his attention, I'll let you know. However, for the time being, I'm going to give you access to his archives, what I can find, on this particular project.”

“Why?” Pepper asked.

“Because whatever you're looking for,” Tony said, baldly, “someone else is looking for, too. And if this is going to blow up in the face of StarkIndustries, it's best of we're prepared for it.” He tugged his bag up on his shoulder. “Something's happening. I'd like to know what, who the players are, and what they're looking for.” He gave them a bland smile. “Let me know, and I'll make time to meet with you.”

With that, he headed for that door, his shoulders back, his strides quick. He passed the waitress on the way out the door, passing her two twenties to pay their bill, and then he was out into the cold of Harvard Square. “Shit,” he muttered to himself. In his pocket, he clutched his notebook. “What the fuck is going on here?”

No one answered. His lips kicked up. “What do you know,” he said, heading for the red line. “Turns out Harvard doesn't have all the answers after all.”

*

"Tell me you're not tempted."

"I am not tempted."

Steve grinned. "You're lying."

Tony was barely awake, huddled over a cup of coffee and against Steve's side. The heating in the green line trolley was, as always, inadequate. "I am not lying. I am not getting on a blue line train for anything short of a winning lottery ticket."

Steve shifted so that Tony could duck under the shelter of his arm. "But Wonderland."

"No. We are not taking the blue line just so you can say you've taken the train to Wonderland."

"Seems like as good a reason as any to get on the T," Steve mused, and he felt, rather than heard Tony's sigh. He bit back a grin. Teasing Tony was far more fun than it should be.

"Steve. Steven." Tony took a long sip of his coffee. Steve waited patiently until he lowered the cup. "No."

Steve chuckled. "Wonderland!"

"It's Revere, Steve. Wonderland is Revere."

"One of my favorite patriots."

Tony was visibly shaking with the effort not to laugh now. "It's the damn greyhound track. It's dog racing. We are not going to the dog track, it's-" He stopped, shook his head. "I am not watching a bunch of neurotic dogs chase a plywood cut out of a rabbit in circles."

“Is that the only reason people go to Wonderland?” Steve asked. He flipped the map over in his hands, his eyes tracing the various lines with open curiosity. “Something else has to be out there, right?”

“Uh, during the summer, I guess swimming?” Tony said. “Revere Beach is the oldest public beach in the country.” He sipped his coffee. “Established in 1896.”

Steve grinned at him. “Really? I thought Coney Island was-” He stopped, and Tony glanced up at him.

“I think,” he said, pushing his hand through his hair, “that Coney's older, as a resort. But Revere's public. State made it a reservation, something like that.”

“We could go there,” Steve said.

“First of all, no, it's the blue line, Jesus, absolutely not, there is no reason to set foot on the blue line-”

“I don't understand your odd prejudice about the various lines,” Steve said, arching an eyebrow. “The trains are mostly the same-”

“They are not the same, you bite your tongue, you blaspheming-”

“Is this an engineering thing?”

“This is a class thing,” Tony said, and he sounded so indignant that Steve couldn't help but laugh.

“I'm not listening to you, you love the green line.”

“Green line is honest about what it is. Mechanical and cranky and I like hearing the wheels and feeling the trains rock on the tracks, and you can stick it, you like the red line.”

“I like whatever train gets me where I'm trying to GO,” Steve said, and Tony waved him off.

“I'm not even dignifying that with a response.”

“That'd be a first.”

Tony blinked at him. “Was that sass? Did I just get sassed? Aw, so proud of you, growing up, becoming bitter, it's a miracle.” He set his empty cup beside him. “And secondly, I'm not really eager to go swimming at this time of year,” Tony said, his eyes sliding to half-mast. “I'd prefer to follow our original plan, which is to go to brunch and eat, like, a metric ton of food that is not good for us.” He gave a faint chuckle. “I mean, can you imagine how cold the water is in the North Atlantic right now?”

The water crashed over his head so fast that he didn't even see the wave coming. The words were so innocuous, so off hand that it hit him broadside and sent him spiralling, and then the rip tide had him.

His breath was coming in fast, thin pants, his heart pounding hard in his chest. He couldn't see, couldn't think, he was barely aware of his arms, his hands, his whole body shaking as he struggled to reorient himself. He sucked in a breath, and another, and it tasted like ice in his throat. He couldn't seem to get clear, couldn't seem to fill his lungs, because the water was there, he had to breathe fast while his head was still above water, the waves would come soon enough.

His mouth tasted like sea water and copper and he wanted to scream and had no breath left, he was drowning, he was drowning in dry air, and he could not breathe, he could not breathe because there was water pressing in on the seam of his lips and his nostrils and his eyelids, the salt was burning on his skin, the salt and the cold and he could feel the numbness sweeping over him and he wanted to live, there was no doubt about that, he wanted so desperately to live, because she was still calling his name.

“Steve!”

He jerked back into himself so suddenly that he was completely lost for a second. And when the red cleared from his eyes, when he could blink himself back into something resembling sense, he found the trolley quiet, faces staring in his direction, confused and worried and scared.

Tony's hands were gripping his wrists, his face white, his eyes huge and dark, and his fingers were biting into Steve's skin with enough force to bruise. “Sorry,” Steve choked out, and his voice sounded raw. “I'm- I'm sorry, I don't-”

“Okay. Okay.” Tony sounded panicked, but he was handling it well, he reached up and tagged the stop strip. “C'mon, let's get some air.”

Steve scraped a hand over his face, and his skin was clammy and cold, and he was still struggling to get his breathing under control. “I'm okay.”

“Yeah, but I'm out of coffee. Let's get off now,” Tony said, and his voice was tense, tight, and humiliation swept over Steve.

The trolley screeched to a stop, and Tony tugged on Steve's arm. “Come on,” he said, his voice a lifeline that Steve couldn't help but cling to. “There's a Dunkies over there.”

He wasn't sure how he managed to get to his feet, to move himself out the door, but he managed it, because he had to, because Tony had a deathgrip on his arm. As the trolley rumbled away, Tony ducked under Steve's arm, pulling it across his shoulders. “We okay?” he asked, and it wasn't really a question.

Steve's feet felt leaden as they scraped across the cold stone of the street. “Yes,” he said, through frozen lips. “I'm fine.”

“Well, not to call you a liar, Steve, but I think you're not being completely honest with me right now.” Tony got them through the door to the donut shop, and the hot air, fragrant with sugar and coffee, was almost painful on Steve's over sensitive skin. Tony lowered Steve into an empty booth. “Stay here.”

Steve wondered if he could make it to the door. Or if he'd humiliate himself further by falling on his face halfway there. He dropped his head into his hands, and tried to steady his breathing.

“Hey.”

His head snapped up, and Tony was back, and he had no idea how much time had passed. Tony reached out, setting a small cup of coffee on the table right in front of Steve. “Here,” he said, sliding into the other side of the booth. “I want you to drink that.”

Steve studied the cup, and the steam curling from the narrow slit in the lid, and wondered idly if it would stay down. “I'm fine.”

“Yeah, okay,” Tony said, knotting his hands in front of him. “I need to know what I said. Cause I got nothing.”

Steve reached for the cup, and his hand shook. “It wasn't you.”

“Steve.” Tony leaned forward. “Hey. I know a panic attack when I see one, and if I accidentally stumbled across something that made that happen, you gotta tell me, you gotta give me a hint, because I can't be responsible for doing that again, that was-” His face crumbled, and he looked so young it hurt. “That was horrible.”

Steve flinched. “Sorry.”

“No, no, I mean, knowing I did-” Tony waved a hand. “That. That I did that to you. It sucked.” He swallowed, his mouth tight. “So just give me a hint, what do I avoid?” His eyes came up, fast, and darted back down just as quickly, and they were unreadable. “I don't want to hurt you.”

His eyes closed, because it was easier to do this if he didn't have to look at Tony. “I, uh, water,” he said at last. And that was weak, that was cowardly, how could he possibly expect to handle this at all if he couldn't even make the words form? “I, well, I drowned, I guess, that's the only way to put it, and it wasn't-” His throat closed up, and he had to force the words out. “I went down in the ocean, and, uh, obviously, I-”

“You got better?” Tony said, a faint smile on his face.

“I survived,” Steve said, because that was what this was. This was surviving. This was the painful, unending slog of trying to move forward, trying to ignore at the way his feet were sinking into the mud with each slow step. “I just...” He looked up, met Tony's eyes again. “The- The North Atlantic comment.” He buried his face behind the coffee cup, glad to have the ability to hide, even for a moment.

“Okay.” Tony's eyes were steady. “You can't swim?”

Steve took a deep breath. “No. I can. I mean, yes. I can, I can swim. I like swimming, actually. I was a sickly kid, actually, and in the water was one of the few places I could keep up with everyone else.” He paused. “I know how to swim. Bucky made sure of that.”

Tony's eyebrows arched. “Bucky? Who's Bucky?”

“My, uh, my best friend growing up,” Steve said, ignoring the ache in his chest. “Bucky Barnes.” He folded his hands around the coffee cup. “He's gone now, too, but... When we were growing up, we were always together and he sometimes, well-” He cleared his throat. “Sometimes we got out to Coney Island, even if we couldn't afford the trip.”

“Steve!” Tony clutched his chest. “Did you hop the train, you lawbreaker?”

“In a manner of speaking.” Steve's head hung down, and he realized he was smiling, just a little. “Bucky was always braver than me, and sometimes a bit less strict about morality.”

"Okay, seriously, his parents named him Bucky?" Tony asked, his voice incredulous.

Steve laughed, and it was weak, and thin, but it was a real laugh, unforced and uncoerced. "His parents named him James," he said. "And no one called him that. Even his parents."

"How does one end up with a nickname like Bucky?"

"You know, I asked him that once."

Tony glanced at him, his dark eyes gleaming. "Well? What did he say?"

"He said if I asked again, he'd pop me one in the nose." Steve grinned at him, and Tony laughed.

"Sounds like a sibling."

"He was the closest thing I had to one," Steve admitted. His smile died. "I miss him. More than anyone else I've lost. I miss him." It was an ache he didn't like to acknowledge, that he couldn't look at too closely. Peggy, and Howard, Dugan and all of them, he missed a lot of people. But the thought of Bucky was like an exposed nerve, the tiniest contact and the agony shot through to his bones.

Maybe it was because of how he'd died. Because Steve could still remember the look in his eyes as he fell out of sight.

Tony jostled his elbow, and Steve jerked back into the present. "Sorry," he managed. His skin felt clammy, too tight, too cold, and Tony stared at him, his brows drawn up tight.

Tony glanced away, and stood up. "Here's what we're going to do," he said, jamming his hands in his pockets. His coat was worn at the elbows, scuffed and just beginning to fray, stretched tight over his arms. "We're going to get our asses back onto the green line, and we're going to Hynes, and we're going to walk the block down to Newbury Street, to Trident, I'm going to eat my weight in ricotta stuffed French toast with an obscene amount of blueberries on top, I'm serious, if the blueberries don't outweigh the French Toast by an order of magnitude, I'm sending that shit back-"

Steve felt the grin stretching his cheeks. "Really, Tony?"

"I am utterly sincere right now," Tony told him. "Anyway, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, I'm going to gorge on French Toast, and you're going to try like seventeen different teas, because that's what you do at places like this, and we'll poke around Newbury Street, maybe I'll buy you a suit or something-”

“No, you won't,” Steve told him.

“Fine, see if I try to be benevolent again. But when we're done, we can get back on the green line and ride it out-” He leaned over the table, fumbling at Steve's jacket pocket. “Got your map. All right, you New York interloper, how do we get from the green line to the blue line?”

Steve's lips twitched. “Green line to Lechmere, transfer to the blue line at Government Center.”

“Correct!” Tony folded the map and jammed it into his pocket. “And after we eat, we can go all the way out to Wonderland, and you can check that off your bucket list.”

Steve took a deep breath. “Take the train to Wonderland?” he asked.

“We can. And maybe just see the ocean. If you want to.” Tony held out a hand, palm up, an open offer, and Steve took it, glad for something to hold onto.

“I used to love the ocean,” he said, his voice soft. It was achingly sad, even to his own ears.

Tony's fingers squeezed tight around Steve's hand. “We don't have to go. It's your choice.”

Steve's eyes closed. “I think-” He handed Tony his half-full coffee cup. “I think I want to.” He glanced towards the window, and the cold didn't seem so terrifying any more. There were nightmares hiding in every shadow, he knew that, but for now, all he could see was the sunshine. “If you're coming with me, I think that I do.”

Tony grinned. “I think we can manage that.”

*

 

"James Barnes."

"Excuse me?"

"It's a name," Tony said, trying for patience and judging by the icy silence on the other end of the line, failing miserably. He took a deep breath, trying not to let his internal termoil show. "James Barnes. Nickname, Bucky. From Brooklyn, New York."

"You're giving me this, why?"

"Because I think he's got a connection to your mystery man."

That got Rhodes's attention. "And you think this, why?"

"Found something in the archive that mentions him." Tony resisted the urge to punch something. "Any reason you aren't just taking the tip?"

"Because I am aware of a Sgt. James of Brooklyn, NY," Rhodes said. "501st Infantry, WWII, served with distinction, died in the line of duty."

Tony paused, stunned. He sat down, hard. "You know this, how?"

"Early on in this project, before it became an official project, I pulled files from the military database, using some basic criteria. Race, age, general enlistment dates, field of combat. A black man sent to the Pacific theater, obviously, was not who I was looking for. I was able to narrow it down, somewhat, and then just started going through files, looking for ones that felt wrong. Barnes was one of a couple hundred listed soldiers who served with distinction but has some or all of their file listed as classified. He was a sniper, very high skill level, captured by the Nazis during a major troop movement and eventually liberated after some time in what amounted to a prison camp. Rumors circulate that the camp, or rather, the factory, was a Hydra facility, but details are, shall we say, sketchy."

Tony paused, eyes closed, trying not to see Steve's face, to think about impossible things, terrifying things. "You think he's your man?"

"No. Or if he is, there were multiples. He has a listed date of death, killed in action, no further information available about the circumstanes. His death predates a major action on the part of the commando unit, and according to what we have, the Captain was still in play at that point. So either someone else picked up the shield, his date of death was falsified, or he isn't our man. I'm inclined to think it's the latter choice."

"Why?"

"Because almost all the descriptions or drawings show the Captain as being a blonde. Barnes was not. Very dark brown hair."

"What, they didn't have bleach during WWII?" Tony asked, settling in front of his computer. His heel twitched against the leg of his stool, beating a rapid tattoo.

"Why would they bother?" Rhodes shot back, practical about it. "If they were going for anonymous, then leaving him as a brunette would've been a much better choice. Far more of 'em than there are men with pale blonde hair."

Tony glanced at the picture of Steve that was pinned to his bulletan board beside his desk. He was staring at a stormy winter sea, his eyes sad, but with a faint smile. His pale hair was waving in the wind. "Yeah," Tony said aloud. "There's that." He leaned back, his chest aching. "Okay. Send me what you have on Barnes, will you? I'll see if I can find anything else in the SI databases.”

“Fine,” Rhodes said, sounding amused. “Can I do anything else for you today, Mr. Edwards?”

“No, thank you, Lieutenant,” Tony said, without an ounce of shame. “I think I can take it from here.”

“Good, glad to hear it.” There was a sound of papers rustling on the other end of the line. “Pepper, through some combination of favors and threats, has managed to get you a day pass for Tozzer.”

“Which is what, exactly?” Tony asked. He hit the refresh button on his email program, and considered asking Rhodes if he had sent the file yet. It seemed like a bad idea, which meant it was right up his alley.

“Tozzer library?” Rhodes asked. He seemed to take Tony's lack of response as confusion, as opposed to lack of interest, which was closer to the truth. He sighed. “Tozzer's one of Harvard's libraries, and it's got a file we're looking for, but it was in depository, and so we requested it, so-”

“I'd say this is Greek to me, but I speak enough Greek to make this even less comprehensible,” Tony said. “Can I just have a location and a time, and I'll work with that?”

There was a beat of pause. “Are you actually paying attention to anything that I'm saying right now?”

“Not really, but, you know, I'll try, I've got a pretty good memory unless I'm distracted by something.”

“I'll email you.”

“Yeah, that's probably for the best,” Tony said. “Did you send me that file?”

“Are you refreshing your inbox?”

Tony stopped. “No.”

“Were you?”

“Maybe, what's the difference?” Tony said, sounding petulant, even to his own ears.

“No difference on my end, I just wanted to know if you'd admit it.”

Tony's lips twitched. “Fine. I was hitting the F5 so fast that a woodpecker showed up in the window, okay?” He grinned as the email notification popped up. 'Thank you.”

“You're very welcome, Mr. Edwards.” Rhodes sounded amused. “I'll see you in two days.”

“Yeah,” Tony said, already focused on the file. He vaguely heard Rhodes say good bye, and took that as a cue to toss his phone to the side.

James 'Bucky' Barnes was an ordinary looking man. Handsome, certainly, with a file photo that looked serious, his sweetly curved lips set in a straight line, his dark brows lowered tight over dark eyes. He stared at the camera, proud and serious in equal parts.

Tony flipped through the electronic pages, reading what information that remained. Most of it was blacked out, truncated and clipped. Basic information remained, date of birth, his enlistment date, his next of kin, a series of medals and awards, from the beginning of his service to those awarded after the listed date of death.

Nothing much at all. Tony was about to close it when he noticed a small notation, made in pencil, on the originals, barely visible in this copy. He picked up his phone.

“What does this mean?” he asked, when Rhodes picked up.

“What does what mean?” Rhodes replied, not put off. Tony read off the sequence of notations, and Rhodes made a low humming noise. “Oh, that's a shorthand for a file connection. It means that Barnes was listed in another file.”

“Why?”

“Hard to say without pulling the file. I'll take a look, the numbers aren't familiar to me, so I don't think it was one that I've looked into. I'll see what I can find.”

Tony stared down at Barnes' face, across the span of time. “Thanks,” he said.

“Yeah. I'll see you in a couple of days.” He paused. “Right?”

“Tozzer, right,” Tony said. “Got it, really, I'll be there.”

“I appreciate that.”

Chapter Text

“Welcome to the funhouse. Watch what you touch, the cleaning crew's about... Six months late,” Tony said, throwing his jacket in the direction of a twisted shard of metal that apparently served as a coat rack. “Which is weird. You know. When you think about it.”

“Maybe,” Steve said, moving in cautiously behind him, “they're not coming.”

“Ya think?” Tony was tossing bits and pieces of outwear in all directions, wet gloves and hat falling unheeded to the ground, boots deserted in a puddle of melting snow by the door before he headed in, dodging past obstacles with grace of long practice.

Steve just stood at the door and stared, stunned by this first glimpse of Tony's life.

The space had clearly once been industrial, hell, it might've still be coded for industrial use, and it was getting used for something that might meet the qualifications. Massive and open, the concrete and metal stretched back into the darkness, flares of light from bare bulbs hanging high above the workshop floor. Everywhere, projects were scattered, tumbled over each other, lying half-built in the pale blue glow of computer monitors. There were wires and metal and flicking lights like living things in the shadows, a forest of metal and polymers and sheets of plastic.

Tony strode through, never pausing, hopping over chunks of complicated looking machinery, avoiding tangles of electrical wires, snagging a coffee cup from the top of a tower of battered and unbalanced binders. Pages littered the floor, fallen leaves that crunched beneath his feet. He glanced back over his shoulder. “You coming?”

Steve shrugged out of his jacket. “You live here?” he asked, hanging it carefully on an exposed point of metal. Somehow, he managed not to cut himself.

“Live, work, occasionally sleep,” Tony agreed. “C'mon, it's cold down here.”

“What're you working on?” Steve asked, peering at a piece of engine on the nearest bench.

“Easier to ask what I'm not working on,” Tony sounded, and his face was split with a grin, wide and bright and so alive that Steve had to grin back. “Robotics, AI, holographic technology, computers, touch screen advances, security systems, anything and everything.” He spun on one foot, a full swirl of his body, his arms out towards his workspace. “Not enough hours in the day, Steve.”

Something moved to Steve's right, and he spun to meet the threat. “What the heck?”

“Oh, that's just Dummy. Dummy! C'mon, you mechanical monster, get away, no, no do not!” Tony stalked back, snagging the metal support strut of the clunky looking collection of metal and wire. “What is wrong with you, I know you don't get to see people that often, I mean, people that aren't me, but you are an embarrassment, don't you dare-”

Steve stared at Tony as he had a fight with a metal support strut on wheels. And lost. The metal rods stretched upwards, and Tony went with it, until his feet were dangling in mid-air. He was cursing, even as the robot turned in Steve's direction, apparently unconcerned with its burden. Tony, his mouth pursed tight, kicked at the bot's main cylinder. “I hate you,” he said, and he sounded resigned.

“Don't say that,” Steve said, and he couldn't keep a grin off of his face. The bot nudged out in his direction, and it took everything he had not to retreat. He reached out, carefully. “Hi,” Steve said. “Who're you?”

“Steve, meet Dummy. Dummy, do not bother Steve.” Giving up, Tony let go and landed easily on the balls of his feet. “Dummy's a helper bot. He's not a very good one. He's an AI experiment.”

Steve grinned at the bot as his claw opened and closed. “Did you make him?”

“To my shame, yes.” Tony gave the bot a shove with one hand, and Dummy swung around in his direction. “He's never managed to get things right. But he's a first attempt, I'll do better on the second try.” Despite the harsh bite of his words, his hand was gentle on the length of Dummy's support strut. He leaned forward, his forehead resting for a second against the flex of Dummy's claws. The bot shifted, his wheels rocking on the concrete. “Idiot,” Tony told the bot with one last little pat. “Go clean something!”

He turned away, not seeming to care that the bot rolled along in his wake like a gigantic puppy. Steve fell in behind them both, laughing under his breath.

Tony reached a spiral metal staircase in the far corner of the warehouse and started jogging up it, fast now, his feet rattling against the stairs. There were broad rooms at the top of the staircase, connected by a metal cat walk. They'd probably been a series of offices once upon a time, with huge glass windows looking out over the warehouse floor so that management could keep on eye on what was happening down below, but now, they'd clearly been re-purposed.

As Tony reached the top of the stairs, the lights flared, one after another, and he grabbed the doorknob. “Try to keep up, Burnside,” he called down, and, laughing, Steve headed up the spiral stairs, his hand light on the cold metal bannister.

Tony had disappeared into the first room, the biggest one, and through the glass, Steve could see him tearing around the room, bouncing over a desk chair and sending it spinning as he stepped onto his bed, onto and over, scooping up clothing and bits and pieces of machinery as he went. Steve paused in the doorway, watching as Tony shoved everything into a closet and slammed the door shut.

There was a huge wooden desk and tilted draftman's table on the far wall, huge skylights marching across the ceiling above them. The exposed brick and metal walls were covered by scraps of paper and big, full color photos of machinery and buildings. Recessed track lighting bathed the space in a warm glow, and an impressive computer setup was half buried on the desk, lights flickering along the length of the tower.

“So. Not much. But home,” Tony said, grinning.

“How, exactly, can you afford this?” Steve asked, his head tipped back, his eyes wide.

“I programmed an adorable little twitch game involving bright colors, constant positive reinforcement, and a cheerful little sound track,” Tony explained, throwing himself onto the bed. The covers were a comforting nest of mismatched blankets and sheets, a mound of pillows spilling over to the floor. “Turns out, bored commuters like that sort of thing. In the most technical sense, I never have to work again. But I don't like living frugally, actually, I suck at living frugally, so I'm just going to have to invent something else.”

He said it with such off-handed confidence that Steve couldn't even classify it as ego. It was simply a statement of fact. “Any idea what that's going to be?”

“I have a lot of ideas,” Tony said. He snagged a laptop from the stand beside the bed. “Not much that's commercially viable.” He looked up, still grinning, still happy and sweet and looking so young that it made Steve's chest hurt. “Well? What do you think?”

Steve looked up, at the swags of wires, glittering with lights, at the tiny, intricate bits of machinery that covered the desk and table and shelves, at the massive sheets of paper, covered in detailed blueprints and hand scribbled calculations of all sorts, pinned to ever surface. He smiled. “When I was a kid,” he said, tucking his hands in his pockets, “there was this book at the library. I forgot what the story was, but I remember, there was this illustration of a wizard's workshop. All this arcane stuff, and amazing bits of magic and all this detail, hidden in every single inch. It was amazing.”

He glanced at Tony. “I never thought I'd ever see one in real life.”

Tony let out a bark of laughter. “I've been called a lot of bad words, Mr. Burnside, but I am no wizard.”

Steve tipped his head back, his fingers reaching up, ghosting over the runs of LED lights and the fragments of colored plastic, tangling them together until darts of tone rolled against every surface. “Near enough.”

Arching an eyebrow, Tony looked back down at his laptop. “I am not your magical pixie dream boy, Steve. I am not here to give your life purpose and meaning.”

He was smiling, but Steve got the feeling that he was missing something. “I have no idea what that means.”

“I know, and that's part of why I like you.” Tony's grin grew. He sat up, his legs folded on the bed, his eyes bright as they caught the flares of light. “And you have not answered the question, I noticed this, because I am an intelligent man with a sharp grasp of the obvious.” He looked oddly hopeful. “What do you think of Chez Edwards?”

“I love it,” Steve said, grinning back.

Tony rolled off the bed, the laptop under his arm, his clothing a rumpled mess, his feet light on the floor. “Can you stay for a little while?” he asked, and he didn't wait for Steve to reply. He grabbed Steve's hand and tugged him through the door and down the exposed catwalk away from the steps. “We can watch a movie. Or make out on the couch.”

Steve's felt his face heat. “Wow. What an offer,” he said, but his fingers wove into Tony's, happy for the simple contact.

They walked past a door, and Steve glanced through the glass as he passed. Dozens of computer banks were arranged on metal racks, lights flickering in the darkness, monitor screensavers rolling along. Tony gave a tug to his arm, and he hustled to catch up.

The room on the far end of the row was something close to a sitting room or a living room, a comfortable little space filled with a massive, battered couch and oversized bean bag chairs scattered across the floor, where a couple of throw rugs covered the metal plating. A huge tv hung on the brick wall, a couple of game stations tossed on the table and the floor around the base. A massive bookcase held row after row of dvds and games, and a wrought iron stove was tucked in the corner, an old hold over from the factory days, maybe, but there was a fresh stack of wood next to it, and a battered tea kettle resting on the floor next to it.

“Do you have a kitchen?” Steve asked.

“Yeah, that and the bathroom are downstairs. There's a half bath up here, but the shower and everything is down stairs, I couldn't be bothered to spend more time or money on the plumbing. Here, hold this,” he said, handing over the laptop, pushing it into Steve's hands, and Steve took it before it ended up on the floor.

Tony went over to the pile of wood, grabbing a few logs and tossing them into the stove. The little pot bellied stove was something more from Steve's time than Tony's, but Tony couldn't have known that. Steve watched him work, enjoying the view, until Tony waved him towards the couch. Steve took a seat on the overstuffed piece of furniture, a battered monstrosity of huge cushions and soft, soft cloth.

“Is this legal?” he asked, a bit worried as he watched Tony finish loading the stove and start a fire with a surprising sort of self-assurance.

“Sure,” Tony said, nurturing the first flickers of flame along with bits of newsprint and small chunks of wood, until the logs caught. Grinning, he dusted his hands off on his hips and sank down, nudging Steve to the side and taking his laptop back. “I get cold.”

“I don't think you've looked into the legality of this at all,” Steve said, and he was trying to sound disapproving, he really was, but Tony was leaning against his side, warm and so right, and that made it very hard.

“No one's shown up to arrest me, yet,” Tony said, cheerful. He tossed the laptop on the couch next to him, and slid his hands up Steve's chest. “Is that what you're here for?”

Steve let Tony push him down, laughing as his back hit the cushions. His breath caught, and accelerated as Tony shifted over him, his body pressing down against Steve's. “I thought we were going to watch a movie,” Steve managed, the words rough.

“We can,” Tony said, leaning down to brush a kiss against Steve's lips. “I got a few.” The next kiss was deeper, hotter, and Steve's hands slid up Tony's back. “We can do that.”

“I like movies,” Steve said, and he sounded simple, he really did, but so much of his brain was focused fighting the urge to just put Tony on his back and rip his clothes off. The thought was so dizzying that for a moment, he had to squeeze his eyes shut and just struggle to breathe.

Tony's fingers slid under the hem of Steve's shirt, light and tempting, and Steve's breath hitched in his throat. Tony's eyes were dark, light caught in their depths. His palm was flat on Steve's stomach, his fingers stroking on the delicate skin there. “Do you not want this?” he whispered, his lips brushing up against Steve's jaw. His hand slipped down, finding the hard arch of Steve's erection, and Steve knew he should probably be embarrassed about that, but the sound Tony made was so approving that he couldn't manage it. “You don't have to do anything, I just want to see you come.”

Steve's whole body jerked, his hips arching up off the couch, pushing against Tony's hand. Tony's chuckle was hot and wicked against Steve's skin,

“Are you sure?” Steve said, the words coming in raw pants, need and want making him dizzy. Tony's fingernails scraped against his skin, and Steve moaned. “Tony, you-”

“Am I sure?” Tony pulled back, just far enough to strip off his shirt, and go to work on the buttons of his jeans. “Baby, let me show you just how sure I am.”

*

"What the fuck is wrong with this library?" Tony resisted the urge to grab his hair in both hands and pull until his brain could escape from his skull. "This is... This is a nightmare, this is a fucking nightmare of, why is there no order?"

Pepper didn't even look up from the file that was open in front of her. "There's an order," she said, serene about it.

"Explain this to me," Tony demanded. He braced one hand on the table and leaned forward. "Explain. Now."

Her head came up slowly, with all the delicate grace of a snake considering if it would strike. Her eyes glinting, she said, "I could. But you don't listen. And I am tired of wasting my breath, my time, and my wisdom." With a sweet smile that bordered dangerously on the condescending, she inclined her head back to her work.

Tony stared at her. "I'm not certain I like you," he said at last.

"I imagine if I cared about that, Mr. Edwards, I would be deeply hurt." Her smile would've done Miss America proud. Tony was impressed, and that was annoying, he did not want to be impressed. At all.

"I can't find-" he started to say.

"Of course you can't, you're not looking in the right location, would you like to know the correct location?"

"I'm looking in the right location," Tony said.

Pepper rubbed her forehead with stiff fingers. "What, exactly, are you basing this on, Mr. Edwards? Because the information you want is not there, and therefore, it would seem to me to be pretty cut and dried. Is not the correct location."

"Listen, the Library of Congress-"

"This library predates the Library of Congress, and it's classification system."

Tony stopped. "What?"

"This library," Pepper repeated, her voice patient, "pre-dates the Library of Congress. So they do not use the Library of Congress classifications. Or the dewey decimal system."

Tony resisted the urge to slam his head off the nearest bookshelf. "But the Library of Congress exists now," he pointed out, at his wit's end. "Now. Here. In the magical realm called the present. This is a thing, a thing we have, that is universal to academic libraries all across the country. Why don't they just reorganize their collection so that people can find things?"

Pepper leaned forward, her arms folded on the tabletop. "Mr. Edwards?"

"Yes, Ms. Potts?"

"Welcome to Harvard."

"I fucking hate this fucking school," Tony said, driven beyond reason or caring.

"That's half the qualification for enrollment, so you might consider filling out an application," she said, her voice sweet.

"Only for graduate students," Rhodes said, carrying a stack of neatly tied folders. He set them carefully on the table. "The undergraduate students are still full of school pride."

"That's pretty much the case everywhere," Pepper pointed out.

"It's especially prevelant at Harvard." Rhodes flipped open the flap of one of the folders. "Here, I think this is what we need."

Tony tore his attention away from plans to burn this whole fucking place to the ground, and then salt the earth upon which the buildings had once stood, because it seemed like a lot of work. And he was too tired to figure out a way to automate the process right now. "You found it?"

"Maybe." Rhodes glanced around, snagging a chair and pulling it up. “Oh, also, I found the file that was referenced on Barnes' paperwork,” Rhodey said, bringing Tony's head up.

“Yeah?” He held out a hand, and Rhodey handed it over.

“He was listed as next-of-kin on another soldier, apparently one without any living relatives; the notation just connected the two files.”

The words were almost enough to stop him in his tracks, but the folder was already half open. It fell from his hand, floating down to the table, and he stared, stunned, down at the photo.

It was the thin, fragile young man from the Operation Rebirth photo.

“Pvt. Steve Rogers,” Rhodey said, having no way to know the chaos crashing through Tony. “Judging by the address, it would appear that he grew up in the same part of Brooklyn as Barnes. Lacking anyone else to contact, he might've listed Barnes just so someone could carry the news of his fate back to the neighborhood. It wasn't uncommon; it was either that or depend on the Red Cross to post it.”

“He's the man from the photo,” Tony said, dumbstruck.

Pepper leaned over his shoulder. “He is,” she said, glancing up at Rhodey. “He was part of Operation Rebirth?”

“So it would appear. His name isn't listed on the photo, but it could be one of the ones that was blacked out. Why, I couldn't tell you. The rest of his file is just missing. No indication of his fate.”

“Classified?” Tony asked, reading the information, and his head was spinning. Lightheaded and confused, he stared down at that face, so familiar and so foreign all at once. He'd see Steve's face in the sunlight and in the firelight and in the thin light of the streetlamps, he'd seen Steve smile and laugh and seen that face lax with sleep. He'd seen that face.

The face of a man who was born on July 4th, 1918.

Steve Burnside was Steve Rogers, and he was still alive. Somehow, miraculously, impossibly, he was still alive, and at this moment in a life drawing class at Boston College. But this morning, a handful of hours ago, he'd been asleep in Tony's bed, all sleek, beautiful muscles and smooth skin, the closest thing to a perfect human specimen as Tony had ever seen.

And he'd seen a lot of naked people, male and female both.

He stared at the brief medical history. Nothing made sense. Nothing lined up. Least of all the measurements on the medical form, that listed Steve Rogers' height at 5'7'' and his weight at just under one hundred pounds. There was no way it could be the same man.

But Tony knew that face. And however it had happened, however he came to be here, Tony knew this man.

“Missing,” Rhodey replied, bringing Tony back into the present. “Just... Gone. Might've been moved, classified or simply lost. Wartime. If he died without a next-of-kin to ask questions, it might've been put aside to be completed when things were less hectic, and then never reassembled. It happened.”

“Lowest priority,” Tony said, his voice full of bitterness. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Pepper look up, her brows drawn up tight. Tony slapped the file shut. “Something's gotta be, right?”

“Unfortunately,” Rhodes agreed. He set out the library file. “However, as lousy as that is, it pays off for researchers decades later. Otherwise, this might never have ended up here.”

“What is it?” Tony asked, his hand still resting on top of Steve Roger's file. Protectively.

“Peggy Carter, she's on your picture? The one from Operation Rebirth?” Pepper said. “She went on to, well, important things. And all of her personal and professional papers are held, either in private collections, or inaccessible in government archives, however, this... This is something different.”

She opened the file, and slipped a medium sized book from inside the protective cover. “Luckily for us, for researchers in general, the personal papers of the average woman were not considered particularly important. It was generally considered that there was unlikely to be anything of a sensitive nature in them, because women didn't know these things. So while Peggy Carter's writings were buried, these weren't.”

Pepper started flipping through the pages. “This is a vanity volume, a self-published collection of the personal correspondence of one Mrs. Jean Hall. She was a cheerful society matron, the wife of an air force general, a wealthy woman, clever and well connected. In the wake of WWII, she took the time to edit and lay out all her personal letters, thinking that the interactions between her and dozens of other women might be of interest to her descendants.”

She looked up. “One of the women she corresponded with was her cousin Margaret, called Peg or simply darling Peggy. These letters, between cousins, and collected here, slid past the censors. Mostly because Peggy was far too cautious and far too intelligent to put anything of a confidential nature in a letter to her cousin, but mostly because the majority of the letters were about their day to day lives.

“I'd read these before,” Pepper said, carefully smoothing the pages apart, the thin sheets falling in place under her fingers. “I knew that she was referring to Peggy. But at the time, I didn't realize that Carter had anything to do with our project, with the American Captain.”

“So?” Tony asked.

“So now that we do know that, things are changed.” She leaned forward, tucking her hair behind her ear. “She and Peggy talk about a man that Peggy has fallen for. Peggy refused to tell her much about him, the implication being that he was part of her unit. She was very careful about what she said, but she talks about worrying on his behalf, implying that his was in active combat.”

Pepper looked up. “And in one letter, the letter that implies, very strongly, that he was killed in action. She's heartbroken. Numb. And mourns quietly to her cousin, maybe the only person she told.” She flipped a page. “Ah, here. She said he fell, and that was all she said, she refused to say anything more, at least not in writing. But in the reply, Jean sends her condolences for the lost of 'her Steve.'”

Tony froze. “She had a name?”

Pepper nodded. “Peggy never uses it in writing, but it makes sense that she wouldn't have put it in a letter. And Jean, not understanding the need to avoid even the name, used it without thinking.”

Tony raised his hand, staring down at the file. “Steve Rogers.”

“Was with Carter at some point during Operation Rebirth.” Rhodey braced his hands on the table. “I've run the rest of the names on that photo. Almost all of them are military and scientific, most both. Known to be working for various underground efforts of the American war effort. Rogers' name is gone, so is Stark's, Carter's and Phillips'. There's two that we can't name.”

He pushed the copy of the picture Tony had given him across the table. “This man.” He tapped the wizened, small man with the wire frame glasses. “Our mystery guest. And this one.” Tall and dark haired, blank faced and looking at the camera with a fair amount of impatience. “But looking at that suit? I'm almost betting he's a government goon.”

Pepper nodded. “He's off to the side, and in the back, they had to include him, but he wasn't one of the group.”

Rhodes' eyes were gleaming, his grin wide and bright. “I think there's one other thing I can get without falling back on depository,” he said. “Give me a sec.”

“I'll go through and see if there's anything else that might be of use, then copy what we need,” Pepper said, and Rhodes nodded before he headed off. Pepper watched him go, an expression of longing on her face.

Tony went back to Steve's file. “You need to make a move,” he said.

Pepper turned to look at him. “Excuse me?” she said, her voice frosty. But her cheeks were flushed pink.

He shook his head. “He likes you. He looks at you all the time.”

“I don't see how that's any of your-” Pepper started, her lips pursing up tight. Flustered, she reached up and pushed her hair away from her face.

Tony rolled his eyes. “Listen, here's the deal. He likes you. You like him. I understand, I've got your back here, but he's not going to make the first move.” Tony grinned. “He's the kind of guy who won't take the risk of hitting on a coworker. And that's how his brain has classified you. As a woman trying to do a job, and he runs the risk of making that weird if he asks you out and you say no.”

He stood, grabbing the file. “Just ask him to go see a movie. Or, you know, get a drink, and leave his laptop at home.”

Pepper's teeth sank into her lower lip. “What if you're wrong?” she asked, and for the first time since he'd met her, she seemed unsure.

“I'm not.” Tony grinned. “You want to show me how to navigate this hellhole?” he asked.

Pepper stood. “You are helpless.”

“It works for me.”

*

Clint had seen him. Half a dozen times, on half a dozen different nights. Always passing through the crowd, always dressed in a crisp, beautifully tailored dark suit and subtle silk tie. He always had a faint smile on his mouth, and he was always alone. Every time Clint caught his eye, he was looking directly at Clint.

Despite that, the damn man never made a move.

Clint went back to his drink, telling himself that he didn't care. That the guy was clearly a business man, maybe even from out of town, out at the local gay bar behind his wife's back. His wedding ring was probably back in his hotel room, or his car, but there was nothing to see here, nothing that Clint should bother caring about.

Except the guy moved in a way that set off alarm bells in Clint's head. Sleek and smooth, assured and with a very deliberate sort of purpose. He wasn't a man given to superfluous movement, or pause, once he'd chosen his path through the crowded bar, he took it, and he moved silently and quickly. Clint wasn't used to losing track of a target, even in a place as dark and chaotic as this.

And he certainly wasn't used to glancing up to find the man he'd been watching had suddenly, silently appeared at his elbow, leaning with ease on the bar, as if he'd always been there. Clint steeled himself from flinching, from showing any outward reaction at all. Judging by the faint, puckish smile that crossed the man's features, he wasn't entirely successful.

“Can I buy you a drink?” the man asked, and he had a voice that matched his face, matched his body. Smooth and assured, polite and unremarkable.

Clint studied him, not even blinking. The man's smile didn't even waver. He just waited, the picture of patience, for Clint to respond. “I have one,” Clint said at last, going back to it.

“So you do.” The man raised a finger, and the bartender appeared as if by magic. Apparently, who ever the man in the black suit was, he tipped frequently and well. “A scotch on the rocks,” he said, and he didn't stipulate the brand, but apparently that was his standing order, because the bartender had it in front of him a second later. Giving the bartender a nod of thanks, he glanced at Clint. “Sure I can't tempt you with something?”

Clint studied him, and the bartender didn't move, waiting patiently despite the patrons that were lined up from one end of the bar to the other. Clint threw back the rest of his drink in one long gulp. “Sure,” he said, setting his glass down with a faint click. “Give me another, Stan.”

As soon as the glass was in front of him, the man handed over a large bill and pushed away from the bar, clearly expecting no change. The bartender disappeared and Clint picked up his glass. “What changed tonight?” he asked, eyebrows arched as he brought the glass to his lips. He let it linger there for a moment, but he didn't drink. Every alarm bell he had was clanging a warning that this wasn't right, that he was in over his head, even if he had no idea how.

The man's head tipped to the side, considering the question. “What do you mean?”

Clint's mouth kicked up on one side. “Yeah. Right.”

The man leaned in, close enough that Clint could see the flecks in his eyes and smell the faint, crisp smell of his cologne. “It's pretty loud here,” he said, innocence personified. “I'm going to grab a booth. Want to join me?”

“You think you're going to get a booth?” Clint asked, laughing against his will. “At this time of night?” There were only a half dozen of them, dark and secluded in the far back of the bar, and those who managed to score one tended to hoard them for the entire night, flagging down a waitress rather than risk losing their seat.

“Can't hurt to look.” The man headed off, and for some reason, Clint found himself following. Why the hell not. This was the most entertainment he'd had in weeks.

They had just reached the back wall when two men, laughing and leaning into each other, slid out of their booth, and in as smooth transition of power as he'd ever seen in his life, Clint watched them depart on one side of the table even as his black suited companion waved him towards the other side. For an instant, Clint flinched from being trapped between this man and the wall; everything in him wanted to be on the leading edge, where he could depart without issue.

And then he realized that no matter which seat he took, there was no way he was departing without a fuss. Not if this man wanted him to stay.

He slid into the booth, and the man slid in after him.

“Who the fuck are you?” Clint breathed from between smiling lips. “And why are you following me?”

The man shifted close, until his body was well into Clint's personal space. He leaned his head in, his smiling mouth almost touching Clint's cheek, close enough that Clint could feel his breath.

“I'm Agent Phil Coulson of SHIELD,” he said, his voice very soft. “I'm afraid I need a minute of your time, Specialist.”

Clint froze, adrenaline flooding his system. But he kept his smile easy and his body relaxed. “Sorry,” he drawled, his fingers sliding up the front of Coulson's chest. He set the heel of his hand against Coulson's breastbone and pushed. “You've got the wrong guy.”

Coulson didn't budge.

His hand curled around the side of Clint's neck, his thumb ghosting over the line of his jaw and up over the plane of Clint's cheek. Clint allowed his head to be turned, allowed the firm but pleasant grip to bring him around. He met Coulson's eyes without flinching. Coulson leaned in, his shoulder against Clint's, his lips almost brushing Clint's ear. “Listen to me,” he whispered, and Clint stilled, against his will, responding to something in that calm, clear voice.

“We don't have much time,” Coulson said, shifting forward, his body solid and strong against Clint's. “The man under your protection is in danger.”

“I have no idea what you're talking about, but if this is what gets you off, I can work with it,” Clint said, and Coulson's nails scraped against his skin.

The huff of breath against his shoulder, against the juncture of his neck, was a muted bit of laughter, and it raised goosebumps all the way down Clint's arms. “I'm looking for Captain America, and I suspect you know exactly where he is right now, don't you, Specialist?”

“What're you, a fanboy?” Clint whispered back. He reached up, covering Phil's hand with his own.

“I have an appreciation for what he's accomplished, for what he's done,” Coulson said. “And I believe you do, too.” His lips were warm where they brushed against the angle of Clint's jaw. “You know what he is. You know what they'll do to him, when this brief respite is over. It's already begun. They've found a way to make him useful, to test how he'll hold up in a modern field maneuver.”

Clint stilled, his heart sinking. He'd known that was the end game. For all of them. He'd known that, he wasn't a fool and he wasn't naive. The military only kept a weapon in functional condition if they planned to use it. But it was distasteful, now, because he'd made the mistake already. He'd spent too much time watching Steve, watched him come to life, watched him work and study and answer that phone that he wasn't supposed to have with the bright enthusiasm of a teenager.

He really didn't want to see that fragile light in Steve's eyes die.

“Look, I don't know what this has to do with me,” he said aloud, even as he slid a hand under the silken fabric of Coulson's jacket.

“Didn't you ever ask yourself,” Phil breathed against Clint's ear, “why you got this assignment? You are many things, Clint, but you are not a by the book soldier. You are not one to take a bad order without pushing back, and pushing back hard. And despite that, despite your record, they have left you in charge of this man.”

Clint didn't move. Barely breathed. Phil's hand was warm on his shoulder, his fingers just barely brushing against the bare skin of Clint's neck, and it felt better than Clint wanted to admit. He gritted his teeth, struggling not to whine or moan, to remain silent despite the slow burn of his arousal.

“There are those in the Army's chain of command who know the danger he is in, and they are not interested in seeing his service, his sacrifice, dishonored this way. They are the ones who arranged for him to have an ally. Not a guard.” Phil paused. Let the words sink in. “A protector.”

“So, what?” Clint said, the words a bare whisper. He smiled, relaxed and flirty as his eyes slid sideways to meet Phil's. “You think I'll sell out the US Army and help him, what, defect?”

Phil's eyes were blue, a deep, deep blue, flecks of something pale in their depths, and his lips were beautifully formed from this close. “I think that when the time comes, you'll make the right choice,” he said. He slid out of the booth, carrying his drink with him, and leaned over, one hand braced on the table. “When the time comes, we're depending on you to do just that.”

Clint leaned in, his mouth almost touching Phil's, his lips parted, waiting for Phil to flinch. But Coulson held firm, his smile still, his eyes steady. At the last second, Clint turned away, so close that he could feel Phil's breath against the skin of his cheek, his jaw. “You know what?” he said, sliding for the edge of the booth. “You're a lousy flirt. Hasn't anyone ever told you, it's bad form to spend all your time asking a guy about his more attractive friend?” He stood, glancing back over his shoulder. “It's not likely to get you laid.”

Coulson's eyebrows arched, and his lips stretched just a bit more. “I'll keep that in mind,” he said, reaching for his drink.

Clint headed for the bar, and told himself he couldn't feel Coulson's eyes burning into his back the entire way. A few minutes later, he collected an extra large scotch and soda and turned, bracing his elbows on the bar. The booth was empty, the glass sitting deserted in the small pool of light. But when he tucked a hand into the back pocket of his pants, he wasn't particularly surprised to find that there was a thin piece of cardstock there, beneath the curve of his fingers.

Later, safely out of sight of prying eyes, he pulled it out. It was blank, except for a printed phone number. He flipped it over. On the other side was a handwritten note, in crisp blue ink.

“Call me.”

He wished that the invitation was sincere. He kept it anyway.

*

"Tony?"

Steve jammed the bakery bag into his mouth, fumbling to get the door open without dropping anything. "Tony?" he called, shifting the paper tray of coffee cups to his hip as he managed to get everything in balance. “Sorry, you didn't pick up the phone, are you-”

A faint whirr of wheels gave him all the warning he was going to get, and Steve skipped backwards, holding the cups over his head as Dummy zipped up, his arm bouncing happily along. He stretched up, his claw clicking as he tried to latch onto the tray, and Steve laughed. "Hey, no, nooooooo-" He placed his foot on Dummy's main body and pushed the bot backwards. "You spilled it last time."

"He spills it every time." Tony's voice echoed through the cavernous space, and Steve headed towards the source.

"No music tonight?" he asked, cutting between a couple of active projects and ducking below a massive clump of hanging cables tied off with a bike lock.

Tony was hunched over his workbench, his feet hooked in the side bars of his stool, his shoulders folded forward, his head down. The muscles of his back were in stark relief in the light, gleaming with a thin layer of sweat despite the cold temperature. "Headache." His voice was strained, and muffled by the welding mask he was wearing.

"Uh-huh." Steve set the cups down on a nearby stool and made certain that the welding torch was off and down on the bench before he moved in. "Think it's time for a break, don't you?"

His hands settled gently on Tony's shoulders, and the muscles flexed under his palms, under the stretch of his fingers, and Tony leaned back into his touch. Tony's breath slid out in a faint sigh, but he reached for another part. "Can't, sorry, I'm too far behind."

Steve slid an arm around his chest, tugging Tony back into the shelter of his body. With his free hand, he pulled the welding helmet off. Tony's head lolled back with it as Steve lifted the shield away, leaning into Steve's shoulder. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his mouth was pinched with strain and stress, his jaw dark with stubble. Steve smoothed Tony's hair back from his forehead, and Tony's eyes fluttered closed. "Can't," Tony said, but his weight had settled against Steve, as if he was too tired to hold himself up.

"C'mon, genius. I think you need a quick nap." Tony opened his mouth to object, and Steve just kept talking. "Not sleep. Just a nap. Couple of minutes, that's all." Steve kissed his temple, even as he pulled off one of Tony's gloves, then the other. His hands were a mess, small cuts and bruises and a raw, angry looking burned patch on the inside of his wrist. Steve frowned. "How long have you been at this?"

Tony's breathing had evened out, slow and steady. "Not sure. What day is it?" he asked, and that was not a joke, that was nothing even close to a joke, but Tony was giggling under his breath, high and semi-hysterical.

"Yeah, I think we need a nap." Steve shifted him off the stool and onto his feet, and that didn't work; Tony's knees went out from under him, and only Steve's firm grip around his chest kept him upright. For an instant, Steve tried to steady him, then he gave up on subtlety and just scooped Tony into his arms, lifting him off his feet.

Tony threw an arm out. "I'm the prettiest princess!" he said, making Steve laugh.

"That you are, your highness." Steve couldn't resist brushing another kiss on Tony's forehead. "Let's get you to your royal bed chamber."

"This is great," Tony said, and his eyes were closed, the words slurred on the edges. "I wanna keep doin' this. I'm jus' gonna hire you to carry me around all the time."

"This seems like a waste of my talents," Steve said. He tipped his head in Dummy's direction. "Touch that cup and I'll boot you, mister." The bot's claw retreated, reluctance in every click of his gears, and Steve grinned at him. "Thank you, Dummy."

"Do you mean, you'll kick him or you'll get a teeny-tiny little boot for his wheels, and oh, my god, that would be hysterical. I need to do that," Tony said, struggling towards wakefulness. "I can totally make tiny little yellow parking boots and use them for punishment, it wouldn't be that hard to figure something out-"

"Wow, do you need sleep." Steve took the stairs, and Tony should've been heavier, for his size he was far too light, cut lean down to bone and muscle and skin. "And when's the last time you've eaten?"

"I ate. I eat." Tony nuzzled Steve's neck, his breath hot and his jaw rough. "I could eat."

"Oh, you could, could you?" Steve reached the top of the stairs and paused, wondering if he could push Tony through the shower. His exposed skin was filthy, streaked with oil and grime, scrapes of carbon and grease like wounds on his arms. "We have to shower first."

“Shower sex?” Tony asked, curled into Steve's shoulder.

Steve almost missed a step. His face heating, he managed a stern sounding, “No.” Tony chuckled against his shoulder. “Why do you do this to yourself?”

Tony's shoulders rose and fell in a faint shrug. “Got work to do,” he said, and he sounded resigned. “I can't work fast enough. Or hard enough.” He buried his face in Steve's shoulder. “I can't catch up.” The words were almost inaudible, but they were there.

“Working yourself into collapse isn't going to help,” Steve said. He kicked the bedroom door open with one foot and picked his way carefully across the disaster of the floor. Setting Tony down on the bed, Steve stripped him, ignoring Tony's fumbling attempts at helping get him out of his. When Tony was naked, Steve let him tumble back onto the bed. Tony went down with a laugh, his arms spread wide against the blankets.

Steve pulled his clothes off. “Okay, stick with me just a little longer,” he said, dragging Tony back up and into his arms. This time, Tony just wrapped his arms and legs around Steve and clung, letting Steve carry him into the shower.

He kept the shower hot and fast and tried his best to ignore Tony's attempts at seduction. Too tired to make it stick, Tony still went through the motions as if by rote, and Steve humored him, coaxing Tony along with gentle kisses and soft touches.

By the time he managed to get Tony dry and back into bed, Steve was winded and more than a little turned on. “You are a pain in the ass,” he told Tony.

“Yes. Yes I am.” Tony blinked up at him, looking absurdly young. “Thanks.”

Steve frowned, taking a seat on the edge of the bed. “For what?”

“For this.”

Steve stroked a hand over Tony's warm, damp hair. "For this? This is nothing.” He felt his lips twitch up. “Has no one ever taken care of you?" he asked.

Tony opened one eye. "Don't need anyone to take care of me," he said, the words dissolving into a yawn. "I can take care of myself." Rolling over, he snuggled down into the pillows. "An' I'll protect you, too. I swear, whatever you're-" Another yawn. “I'll protect you.”

Steve leaned over, kissed the top of his head. "I love you," he whispered, and it was okay, because Tony was already asleep, his breathing slow and easy, his lips parted, his eyelashes still against his cheeks. Pulling away, reluctance dogging his movements, Steve reached for the covers and dragged them up and over Tony's shoulders. "Jarvis, can you lower the lights in here?" he asked, and the lights obligingly dimmed.

He was picking up clothing, throwing it in the direction of the hamper and collecting dirty dishes when a sound from the workshop brought his head up. "Aw, Dummy, what're you up to now?" he asked, his lips curling up. Piling everything up on the edge of the desk, Steve stepped into his jeans, jerking them up over his damp skin. He headed for the stairs without bothering to button his pants.

Damp and barefoot, he jogged down the stairs, scrubbing his hair back from his face with one hand. "Hey, Dummy, what are you-"

The sight of the unfamiliar man in front of the workbench brought Steve up short. The blonde man was around Steve's age, maybe a few years older, with a neatly trimmed beard and sharp eyes. He was dressed in an impeccable overcoat, crisp trousers and gleaming black shoes visible beneath the hem. A bright red scarf was knotted around his throat, a sharp stab of color against the crisp gray of his overcoat.

Steve was very aware of the fact that he was wearing nothing but an unbuttoned pair of jeans. "Can I help you?" he asked, still moving forward.

The man's hand was on top of one of Tony's files, his fingers caught in the midst of flicking through the pages. "Who are you?"

Steve gave him a tight smile. "A friend of Tony's. Who are you?"

The smile he received was mocking. "A friend of Tony's as well." He waved a hand towards the upper rooms. "You done with him? We have business to discuss."

Steve's eyes narrowed. "He's asleep." He reached for the cups of coffee he'd left on the bench. Knowing Tony, he'd microwave the damn thing when he did manage to drag himself back to the world of the living. "Sorry. Come back tomorrow."

The man's face went tight, skin drawing up over the arch of his cheekbones, nostrils flaring for an instant, and then his expression smoothed out again. "I really can't. He's behind, and I won't be here to discuss that fact tomorrow."

"I'll be happy to take a message and have him call you, Mister?" He let his voice trail away, politely inquisitive.

His eyes were cold and flat above his slick smile. “Just call me Ty. Tony does. And you are?"

"Steve." Steve balanced the paper tray of coffee in one hand. "Like I said. Tony's asleep.”

“Then wake him up. I know, get him off and he falls right asleep, but right now, he is behind, and he needs to answer for that.” Ty gave the work in progress on the bench a disdainful look. “He's wasting our time. He can screw around with you on his own time. He can screw you on his own time. Right now? He's on our time, and he is on my last nerve.”

Steve flushed, an unreasonable spike of anger slicing through him. He took a deep breath, keeping his voice calm through an act of will. “I think you need to leave.”

Ty gave a sharp bark of laughter. “Not without what I came for.” He took a step towards the stairs, just one, and Steve moved to intercept him.

"You don't take anything out of this building without Tony's express permission," Steve said, calm and reasonable. "And you are not going to wake him up to get that permission."

"Listen, just because you're the flavor of the month that does not mean that I'm going to let you determine-"

Steve set the cups down. "Let me stop you there. You are not getting upstairs, you are not waking him up, and you are not leaving this building with anything that belongs to him." He took a step forward, just one, rearranging his weight and centering himself. "And if you really think you can fight me on this? Let me assure you. You can't."

For an instant, they stared each other down, and Steve knew, on some level, that this was overstepping, that he had no right to do this, but everything in him rebelled against the situation. He'd regret it later, but for now, he was standing his ground.

"Listen, you-" Ty started, and Steve just shook his head.

Steve held up a hand, his lips curling up in a pleasant little smile. "Son. Just don't."

For an instant, he thought Ty was going to take a swing at him. But instead, he took a step back. "Tony has responsibilities," he said, his smile tight. "And if you're a distraction from those? You won't last long. Take my advice. If you're hoping to hitch your wagon to that particular gravy train? You'd be better off getting in good with his old man."

Steve stared at him, considering that. “How's that working out for you?” he asked, and Ty flinched, just the tiniest twitch of his face, but it was a flinch.

He turned on his heel and ambled towards the door, his hands in the pockets of his coat, his head tipped back in Steve's direction. "Tony's life isn't his own. And the sooner he acknowledges that fact, the happier we will all be."

The door closed behind him with a final sounding clang, and Steve realized his hands were in fists at his sides. He took a deep breath. "I don't think I like that guy," he said to Dummy, who was holding the bakery bag in his claw. Steve took it from him with a mumbled thanks. "And I think it's time for Tony to change his locks."

*

"You're over reacting."

Tony knew he should get up, but damn, this bed was warm. He snuggled down a little further under the blankets, peering out from under the mound that he'd created. It gave him a good vantage point of Steve's ass, so that was a plus.

"You weren't part of the discussion." Steve had one hand on his hip as he waited for the microwave to finish doing its thing. Sometimes, he would watch the appliance as if he was trying to read the future in it. Or just trying to keep the liquid inside from boiling over, it was hard to tell sometimes.

Tony yawned and wrapped his arms around his pillow. "I don't need to be part of the discussion. I've had that discussion. A couple of times. Ty is nothing if not stubborn."

The microwave pinged, and Steve opened it, leaning over to retrieve the mug. Tony watched happily as his jeans pulled taut across his rear. It wasn't until Steve turned around and gave him an expectant look that Tony realized that he'd completely missed whatever Steve had been saying, his brain lost to a haze of hormones.

"Sorry, what?" he said, reaching for the mug.

Steve rolled his eyes, but there was a soft, fond smile playing around his mouth, and he was wearing one of Tony's MIT Tech Model Railroad Club t-shirts. "Of all the things in the world that should not be sexualized, I'm pretty sure model railroading is on that list," Tony said, and Steve held the mug out of reach.

"Come out from your engineer cave," he said, ignoring the undignified whining noises that Tony made, his fingers clawing the air.

"No, it's warm in here," Tony said. He wiggled forward, just an inch or two, and stretched for the mug.

Steve stared down at him, the cup held easily out of reach. "Is this normal behavior?" he asked. "Should I be concerned about this?"

"Oh, shut up." Tony sat up, stretching and pretending that he didn't want the damn cup any more. But even as he pushed his hands through his hair, disordering it even more, Steve held the steaming mug in front of his nose. Tony took it with a sniff.

Steve waited until he took the first cautious sip, then he retreated back to the desk, where open books and stacks of photocopied pages had been neatly arranged. "How do you feel?" he asked, glancing in Tony's direction, even as he went back to his work.

"Better." Tony yawned. His stomach growled, and he ignored it. "How long was I out?"

"Just a couple of hours." Steve shook his head a little, even as he bent back over his work. "I wish you'd sleep a little longer."

“I've already slept too long,” Tony said, ignoring the sensation of exhaustion that was dogging his every breath. He buried his face in his mug, gulping down half of the coffee in two swallows, savoring the heat.

“Can we have this discussion for real?” Steve asked, flipping through pages.

“No,” Tony said, hunching down over his coffee. Steve gave him a reproachful look right before he shoved a pencil in his mouth and restacked the pictures. Tony sighed. “You can go home, you know.” His fingers tightened on the empty mug. “I know you have a paper due.”

Steve hummed around his pencil. “Not leaving you alone,” he said, moving his pencil to behind his ear. It was a charming, old-fashioned sort of gesture. He also had the oddest habit of licking his pencil lead before writing. “I think he'll come back.” He grabbed the pencil again, shifting it between his fingers as if he was struggling for something to hold onto.

Tony snorted. “So what if he does?”

Steve's pencil eraser beat a rapid flicker against the cover of a heavy art reference book. “Tony?” His face twisted for a second. “A couple of weeks ago, you had a bruise on your back. Like you'd stumbled into something. On your shoulder?” His eyes were sharp when he glanced towards Tony. “What happened?”

Tony pushed out of bed with a groan. “It's not a big deal, Steve. It's... Family shit.” Naked, he padded across the bedroom, and he ached, his body and his head, everything ached. He jerked open a drawer on his dresser, digging for a pair of sweatpants that wasn't filthy. “I've known Ty forever, he was-” He stopped talking, because he didn't know what Ty was, any more. He'd thought he had, once, but he sucked at people, he always had.

He stepped into a battered pair of MIT sweats. “He was one of the few people I knew who could keep up with me, in terms of smarts, he never looked at me as if I was a freak, you know, and I've known him forever, not much for socialization so I didn't have much to judge him against, and he knew what I was dealing with, at home, so it seemed to make sense, him and me.” He jerked the drawstring tight, a little too hard, and it bit into his hipbones. “As it turns out, it doesn't.”

Steve watched him, quiet and steady. “Tony?” His hands were still on the notepad. “Did he hit you?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “He didn't hit me. We get-” He waved a hand. “Physical. We grew up together. We've been punching each other, knocking each other down, wrestling, since we were kids.” Except that Ty had always been bigger than him, bigger and older and sometimes it didn't feel precisely fair. But Tony gave as good as he got, he always had.

And he didn't let anyone put him on the ground for long.

“We were fighting. I threw a wrench in his general direction. He shoved me into the wall.” Tony shrugged. “He was a dick, so was I.”

Steve was frowning. “Were you trying to hit him?”

Tony groaned. “Are we really going to do this?” He shoved a hand through his hair, grabbed the coffee cup from the nightstand. He stared into the depths of the coffee.

Steve was writing, quick, almost angry jerks of his pencil. He muttered something under his breath, and flipped the pencil around to scrape the eraser against the paper, hard enough to crumple it. “I think we need to,” he said, his voice quiet.

“I don't think we do,” Tony said, his bare feet slapping across the floor. “Look, it's family shit, and I'm stuck with it. I have responsibilities, and they're not going to change, no matter what else I'm doing with my life, I have classwork and thesis reviews and my goddamn adviser and I have family SHIT, and yes, Ty is part of that.”

“So your family business involves a guy who breaks into your apartment to physically threaten you?” Steve asked, his head still down over his notebook. “You know what that looks like, don't you? It certainly doesn't seem like it's a business you should stay in.”

Tony resisted the urge to throw the cup against the wall. “You know what?” he said. “You want to discuss this? No. We're not. You're in my apartment, in my bed, sticking your nose into my business, and your need for information is pretty fucking one sided, isn't it? Because I've never been to your place, I've never met your friends, I don't know anything about your life after you leave here, you keep your secrets and give me what you feel like giving me, and then you have the fucking gall to be disapproving when I don't hand you my diary?”

Exhausted, frustrated, Tony slammed the empty cup back down on the nightstand. It seemed like an ineffective gesture, and he picked it up and slammed it down again. “Fuck it,” he snapped, not sure what to do or what to say, or where to look.

Steve was silent for a long minute. “You're right,” he said, his voice quiet. “I haven't been fair. I just-” He took a breath, and let it out. “I can't be. Not the way I'd like to be.”

“Yeah, great, got it.” Any desire Tony had to actually get his far overdue work done was dissipating fast. He ached, his head and his back and his arms, and everything else. He just wanted to crawl into bed and ignore everything. Ignore how many secrets they were both keeping. And how this couldn't possibly end well.

Whatever. He'd been dumped before. Steve, at least, might stick around for a little while longer. At least until the end of the school year, and maybe, by then, Tony might be able to finish his thesis, and get the hell out. It might kill him, but maybe he could finish and just start over somewhere that wasn't here.

Start over alone.

“Tony-”

“You've done your bodyguard duty, it's fine, I'll get a padlock or something, okay?” Tony risked a glance in Steve's direction, and Steve looked worried, his mouth a thin line, his forehead creased, and Tony felt a stab of guilt at just how childish he was. “It's fine,” he said, trying to modulate his voice. Trying to sound like a mature adult, even when he wanted to stomp his feet and throw things. “He's not going to hurt me, Steve, they need me to finish my work, so breaking my kneecaps is kinda counterproductive.”

If anything, Steve's face only got more pinched. “That's really not comforting, Tony.”

Tony managed a faint smile. “I know. I know, you want me to lie and I can if you really want me to, but that's the reality. I'm useful, and Ty needs me to be useful, so injuring me won't get him what he wants.”

“It's just-”

“I'm tired, and I'm sick of this conversation,” Tony snapped, stalking back to bed. He considered kicking off his pants and couldn't be bothered. Yanking the covers back, he crawled in. “Stay. Go. I don't care. But I'm going to get some sleep. Everyone that wants something from me, including you, can wait a couple of fucking hours.” He kicked the blankets out of his way, trying not to let the sensation of self-loathing swamp him. He was a fucking mess, and all he could manage was to keep proving it.

Childish. Needy. So stupid.

Tony rolled over, yanking the blankets up high on his shoulder, burrowing under the pillow, hiding his expression. He wanted, in a way that had little to do with sex, and he was more comfortable with sex, he understood sex. This childish need for something else, he didn't know what to do with, how to handle it, and he was an asshole, he knew he was.

He didn't know how to say he was sorry, so he just buried his face in his pillow so he wouldn't hear Steve pack up his stuff and leave.

The bed dipped, and he startled. Steve settled down next to him, working his legs under the blankets, dropping his books next to him in a haphazard pile. "C'mere," he said, and he was smiling, amused and warm. When Tony just stared at him, not quite trusting, Steve let out a gusty sigh and rolled his eyes. "Come here, you lousy-"

Without thinking, Tony snagged his pillow in one hand and swung it, and it hit Steve right in the side of the head.

For an instant, there was stillness, Steve's eyes huge, his mouth gaping open, and Tony's stomach cramped, the sheer weight of his stupidity sweeping over him, driving the breath from his lungs. He opened his mouth, and nothing came out, because Steve was just staring at him as if he'd lost his goddamn mind, and maybe he had. His ability to ruin everything good in his life was actually kind of amazing.

Steve's eyes narrowed, his jaw locking up, and Tony tried to say something, anything, to make that expression go away, and then a pillow smacked him right in the nose. He blinked, and blinked again, and Steve gave him another thwap with the pillow, over the head. And Tony swung back, and just like that, he was laughing, and so was Steve

The pillow fight was fast, and brutal and no holds barred. Blankets and pillows and papers went in all directions as they both fought for some sort of an upper hand, and it ended with both of them collapsing back in a tangled heap, the remains of the pillows cushioning their descent.

Only a few minutes after they had started swinging, Tony was panting and exhausted and curled into the side of Steve's body, his head nestled in the hollow of Steve's stomach, Steve's fingers carding through his hair. He let out a sigh. "You are fantastic in bed," he said, making Steve laugh.

"Go to sleep," Steve said, and there was such honest affection in his voice that Tony just wanted to curl up and cry. Instead, he nuzzled at the soft cloth of Steve's shirt, and the warm skin underneath, until Steve twitched. “Tony. Sleep.”

Tony let his eyes close. “Steve?”

“Yeah?” The comforting sound of pencil scratching across paper, quick and efficient, made it clear that Steve was already hard at work. Tony smiled.

“Will you be here when I wake up?”

The pencil paused. “Yes. I'm not leaving you alone. Go. To. Sleep.”

Tony's smile grew into a grin, wide and warm, and he turned his head to kiss the skin of Steve's stomach. Cuddling down into the blankets, he let sleep sweep over him.

*

“I'm making a horrible mistake, aren't I?”

Clint was sitting on the floor of the living room, out of the sight of the windows, cleaning his sidearm. “You're gonna have to narrow it down here, Cap,” he said, grabbing his beer bottle. He took a long swallow, ignoring the pungent smell of gun oil and slightly burnt popcorn on the table. He swore this apartment's microwave was possessed; either the popcorn ended up half-popped or it was burnt. Neither of them had managed to produce a bag that was actually properly popped.

Steve sighed, slumped low on the couch. He had a sketchbook propped on his knee, his pencil eraser bouncing lightly on the paper. “That's not a good sign, is it?”

“What, that you need to narrow down what the mistake is?” Clint's lips twitched up. “Nah.” He took another long draw off of his beer. “Welcome to the club.”

Steve smiled, but he didn't say anything, his head down over his sketchbook. Clint let his mouth linger on the mouth of his bottle, stalling for time. He drained it in a couple of long swallows, and rolled to his feet, snagging Steve's beer on the way out of the living room. A moment later, he was back with two fresh beers.

“I wasn't done with mine,” Steve said, even as Clint popped the cap off of the bottle.

“Yeah, well, you've been nursing it for two hours, it was both flat and warm,” Clint said, holding it out. He arched an eyebrow. “It takes you a month to get through a six pack. Just- Take it?”

Steve took it. But he kept it balanced on his knee, not even making a pretense at drinking it. Clint huffed out a sigh, and reached for the remote. He turned up the volume on the game. Steve looked at him, his face creasing in a frown, and Clint threw himself down on the couch. “Here's the thing,” he said, cradling his bottle between his hands. “The only choices we got are bad choices. That's not your fault, it's not my fault, it's just the reality of what we got, Steve.”

On the tv, the crowd was cheering the Bruins on, and Clint watched, his eyes half lidded, as the puck flew along the length of the ice. “So when you say that you're making lousy choices?” He glanced in Steve's direction. “I'm kind of impressed you're managing to make any choices as all.”

“Even if they're lousy?”

“Even if they're lousy,” Clint agreed. He leaned forward and braced his elbows on his knees. “You wanna talk about it?” he asked, already cursing his own poor choices.

The expression on Steve's face was pure surprise, and then pleasure. “No. That's okay. I've got a therapist.”

Clint snorted. “Lt. Wilson is part therapist, part social worker, all parole officer,” he said, his voice short. “And you don't tell him anything. So, I reiterate. You want to talk about your bad choices?”

Steve stared down at his sketchbook. And with deliberation, he turned the page.

He smoothed a hand over the blank page. “I'm gay.”

Clint didn't say anything, and that seemed to be the right response, because Steve seemed to relax.

“I always knew that what I was wasn't going to be accepted.” Steve's set the pencil lead against the clean sheet of paper. “I'd been to art school. I wasn't the only man there who liked men. Some of the others, they weren't hiding anything, they weren't pretending. But their lives were hard, and-” Steve took a deep breath. “I told myself that it wasn't that important. That I'd never been in love with anyone, well, not really, certainly not a fella. Girls weren't exactly lining up on my doorstep, and I didn't care. I'd resigned myself to being a bachelor, to a hidden sketchbook filled with my fantasies and a life that was quiet. If a little lonely.

Steve's pencil was moving, slowly, carefully, over the paper. “I knew what my life would be,” he said, his voice very soft. “I knew what I could expect. I knew what I had to do.” His eyes closed. “I knew what I had to endure, and what I could be if I could manage it.”

He took a deep breath. “Then there was the war, and the world... Changed.” He glanced at Clint, and away. “I guess it's one of those moments in history. Where things are divided into how things were before, and what they became after. But when you're standing in the middle of that moment, it's hard to see. You just...” He shook his head. “It's too big.

“And in the end, the world changes, and everyone tells you that you've changed, but you can't see it. Because...” His shoulders rose and fell. “I don't feel much different. Just taller.”

Clint chucked. “Well, is the view different from up there?”

Steve's lips twitched. “Maybe it is.” His pencil started moving again. “I was prepared to die. I didn't want to die. I was scared. I was so scared. And I was afraid Peggy knew it. But I was prepared to die, because it was necessary, because it was the best choice, because it was the only thing I could do. I was prepared, when I hit the water.

“I wasn't prepared for this.”

He looked towards the window, his eyes unfocused for a second, seeing something beyond the scope of Clint's vision. “I woke up here, and it was a nightmare,” he said, the words stark. “And I wanted it to end, I wanted it to be over. I wanted to wake up, even if that meant I was back underwater.”

On the television, some banal commercial was rolling by, the audio too loud and too sharp, and Steve paused. “But the longer I was here,” he said, almost lost under the jingle for a seasonal beer, “the more I realized that I couldn't go back. I was never good at acknowledging that I was beat. Too stubborn.” He reached for his knife and set it against the pencil lead, carving away the wood with practiced flicks of his wrist. “Too stupid, maybe. And there's no going back. There's no matter how much I'd like to.

“It might be impossible to wake up decades after I closed my eyes,” he admitted, “but even I now that's more likely than making the reverse trip. So this is where I am, this is where I'm staying, and the more I learned, the more I read and got hold of, and picked up? The more that I felt like, that for all I was trapped here, maybe I could buy myself a little more freedom.”

“At what cost?” Clint asked. He stared, morose, at his weapons kit, rows of neatly arranged tools of his trade, and he hated them sometimes. Ignoring how filthy his hand was, he scrubbed it over the back of his neck. “Just what are you going to have to pay for that?”

Steve considered that. “I don't think I care,” he said at last, and there was a note of confusion to the words. “I don't. Care. Because I kissed someone today, in the sunlight, in the middle of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, in the middle of the courtyard, and no one cared. A little old lady told me he was cute.” His eyes closed. “I... Don't know how long I'll have this. But I don't know if I care about the cost.”

His fingers tightened on his pencil, and he set it, and the sketchbook aside. The drawing was of a handsome young man, grinning, one eyebrow cocked, and Clint wondered if he should feel bad about encouraging this. If he should feel ashamed. He didn't know, and he didn't know if he cared.

“I used to be a good soldier,” Steve said, running a hand over his face. “Once. I was a good soldier.”

“Once, you fought a good war,” Clint told him.

Steve glanced at him. “There's no such thing as a good war, Clint. Just wars that are far away, far enough that you can pretend things are black and white. Up close, all wars are red.”

Clint nodded. “I know.” He watched the light gleam off the barrel of his pistol. “But once, you fought for good men. Men you trusted, and who trusted you.”

Steve took a breath. “Good men, and good women, both.”

Clint scraped at the edge of the bottle's label with one thumbnail. It shredded under the pressure. “I don't know much about good soldiers,” he said at last. “I don't know many of them, and I sure as hell ain't one myself. But what I have figured out? Being a good soldier in this unit doesn't necessarily mean you're going to end up living any longer.”

His head tipped back, and he stared at the ceiling. “They don't reward virtue around here.” His lips quirked up. “Take what you can. Steal it, fight for it, because they're not going to give you shit.”

“Okay.” Steve brought his beer bottle up, and after a moment, brought it to his mouth and drained it. Clint watched him, vaguely stymied. Steve set the empty bottle down on the coffee table. “Want to come meet my boyfriend?” Steve asked him.

Clint's jaw dropped. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Steve's gaze was remarkably steady. “Bad choice?” he asked.

Clint reached for his beer. Tossed it back. The trust inherent in the question staggered him for a second. “Fucking horrible choice,” he agreed, grinning. “Yeah, sounds like something we'd choose to do.” He glanced at Steve. “You're nuts, you know that, don't you?”

“Probably.” Steve went back to his sketchbook. “Maybe I'll regret it. But maybe I'm willing to take that risk.” He smiled, and some of the strain went out of his shoulders. “For this? I'm willing to take a lot of risks.”

“Maybe that's a sign that it's worth the risk,” Clint said. He pushed himself back up. “You know I could fuck you over, don't you. He's a threat. They could use him. They could hurt him.”

“Clint?” Steve looked up at him, his face calm. “You could. They're leaving me alone because they don't think I have anything to fight for any more.”

“Once you break a horse,” Clint said, his voice quiet, “you can just let the reins drop, 'cause you know he's not going anywhere.”

“Pretty much.” Steve swept his hair back from his face with one hand. “They leave me alone because they have nothing to fear from me. You could give them reason.”

Clint nodded. “Why are you so sure I won't?”

“Because you might not be a good soldier, but you're an exceptionally good man.”

“Yeah, well, I'm going to kill the rest of your beers,” Clint muttered. “See how good I am after that.”

“You can sleep on the couch,” Steve agreed.

“Fine,” Clint said. “Just keep me from drunk dialing anyone, okay?” He didn't have the damn card in his pocket, but he remembered the number.

*

"Which one's yours?"

Tony looked up from his computer, not really understanding the question. Steve was frowning down at his phone, his mouth drawn up tight around his milkshake straw. It was adorable for all the wrong reasons. "What's what?" Tony asked, his fingers still dancing over the keys of his laptop. “Which what?”

Steve held up his phone. "Which game's yours?" he asked, his voice hopeful.

Tony stared at the app store screen. "No," he said, going back to his work.

"I'm just going to keep asking," Steve said, and that was true, the man was stubborn when he wanted to be, which was pretty much all the time. Tony made a face and grabbed Steve's phone out of his hand.

He scrolled through the App store, but the damn thing was still in the top ten. He felt an absurd little burst of pride. "Here, it's this one." He glanced up. "It's not free."

"Good," Steve said, taking his phone back. He looked down at the screen, a smile dawning on his face.

"Shut up," Tony told him, going back to his design work.

"'Cookie Jar Jumble?'" Steve said, and he was trying so hard not to laugh.

"Shut up," Tony repeated. He slouched a little lower in his seat. He was pretty sure that he was blushing. "It tested well."

Steve made a non-committal humming sound. “I guess so.” He stared at the screen, a childish sort of pleasure lighting his face. Tony watched him under the guise of sipping his coffee. Steve's leg bounced, enthusiastically waiting for the game to finish downloading.

Tony could tell the instant that the title screen came up. “Is that Dummy?” Steve said, gleeful.

“No,” Tony said, struggling to keep a straight face. It was far harder than it should've been, Steve was already scrolling through the instructions. It wasn't a difficult game, all the player had to do was guide the silly little bot through his efforts to sort through screens of colorful cookies, his slingshot like arm flicking the little sweets across the screen into their respective jars. He'd allowed himself a certain amount of freedom in giving the game's little industrial robot personality.

Technically, he'd coded the game before he'd built Dummy. Dum-E, the goofy, clumsy little bot within the app, was a prototype for what Dummy would someday be. Tony'd hoped to improve on the coding, but as it turned out, Dummy was a little too close to his online persona. It was depressing to think about.

"Steve!"

Steve's head came up, and his face split in a grin, wide and welcoming, and Tony fought against a spike of jealousy. Which was stupid, it was ludicrous. He didn't get jealous, he knew better than that, sex was one thing, but he did not get jealous over a relationship.

But as Steve stood, hugging the pretty, statuesque blonde woman, Tony struggled against that irrational and infuriating desire to break her knees.

She went on her toes, brushing her lips against Steve's jaw. “Heya, Brooklyn!” she said, sunny and bright. Steve laughed, and then she was turning sharp, bright eyes on Tony. He gave her a tight smile, and her eyebrows arched.

“Tony, this is Carol Danvers. Carol, this is Tony Edwards.” Steve's cheeks were pink, but he was grinning as he sank back into his chair. “My, um, my-”

“Your beau,” Carol said, and it wasn't sarcastic at all. She was smiling, and Tony found himself smiling back, even if it was against his will.

“Hey,” Tony said, and he was proud of how sophisticated he sounded.

Carol rested her chin on the crown of Steve's head, her eyes narrowed in Tony's direction. She sniffed at the air, lightly at first, then making a show of it. "New Yorker," she said, her nose wrinkling.

Tony leaned back in his chair. "Screw you," he said with a grin. "What makes you think-"

"Hey, Steve," Carol said, ignoring Tony entirely, "why shouldn't laugh when you see a Yankees fan on a bike be hit by a bus?"

Steve gave her a look. "Because that's horrible?"

"Because it's probably your bike," she said without missing a beat. “What song do Yankees fans sing before the beginning of the ninth inning?”

“I don't know,” Tony said, grinning

“Neither does anyone else, there's never any of them left.”

“Carol...” Steve said, his head in his hands.

“How many Yankees fans does it take to change a tire?” she said. She didn't wait for his response before she said, “One. Unless it's a blowout and then all of them show up.”

Tony bit the inside of his mouth to keep from laughing. “I can't imagine why he didn't introduce me to you earlier,” he said.

“I've told her that I don't root for the Yankees, I've never rooted for the Yankees, but she does this,” Steve said, sounding confused. Confused and resigned.

“Who do you root for, then?”

“Dodgers.”

"So a truck driver who drives through Southie every day-"

"Oh, Lord, Carol..." Steve threw his head back, staring at the sky as if in prayer.

Carol ignored Steve. "Spends his days watching for people in Yankees gear. And when he sees one-" She pretended to be holding a steering wheel, and jerked it to the side. "He would pretend like he was going to jump the curb and hit them, just to watch them panic and scramble back."

"He sounds like a sociopath," Tony said, already laughing.

"Kinda, a little. Anyway," Carol said, her voice arch, " one day he's driving down by the North End and he sees a priest walking down the street. He pulls over and says, 'Father, can I give you a ride?' And the priest says, 'Why, thank you, my son, I'm just going to the church down the street, but I appreciate it.'"

"Carol..."

"So off they go, and out of the corner of his eye, the driver sees a man wearing a Yankees hat and shirt, and without thinking, he sends his truck barreling straight for the jerk."

"I'm not sure why he's the jerk in this story," Steve said.

"Hush, Brooklyn. Anyway," Carol continued, "at the last minute, he remembers his passenger, and jerks the wheel back. But to his horror, he hears a thump. He turns to the priest and goes, 'Father, I'm so sorry, I almost hit that Yankees fan!' And the priest says, 'It's all right, my son, I got him with the door.'"

There was a beat of pause, and Carol was grinning like a fiend, and Steve was looking at her as if she'd lost her mind and Tony burst out laughing. "Wow," Steve said, the word almost lost under Tony's gales of laughter.

"What?" Carol said.

Steve tried to keep a straight face. "We can't be friends any more, you are a horrible person."

Carol bussed him lightly on the cheek. "You love me, Brooklyn. L-U-V."

"Stop laughing, Tony," Steve said.

"It's all in her delivery," Tony managed, before he lost it again, folding forward to bury his face in his folded arms.

"I am pretty fucking awesome," Carol agreed. She took a seat at their table. "So, New Yorker-"

Tony lifted his head, his eyes still watering, his breath coming in uneven little hiccups. "My family is from New York," he said. "I'm from Massachusetts."

She grinned at him. "Bull. Shit."

"Wanna see my license?" he asked.

"Nope."

"Just like a Masshole," Tony said, grinning. "So sure that you're right that reality doesn't even make a dent on your delusions."

"Thought you were one of us," Carol shot back.

"So?" He saluted her with his coffee cup. “No one hates a Masshole like another Masshole.”

“That's true, actually.”

"Anyway, I'm from Iowa, and you're all nuts.” Everyone turned, with various amounts of surprise, to face the newcomer. The compact blonde man had his hands tucked in his jacket pockets, and he'd come up to their table silently and without being noticed. He hooked a foot around a chair leg and pulled it away from the table before flopping into it. "I'm Clint, I'm his roommate."

"Oh, you're the guy who hangs out on the roof,” Carol said, and Clint's eyes widened, just a flicker of his eyes, but it was there.

He smiled, easy and warm. “I like the pigeons.”

“Really? Pigeons? Because you seem like more of an odd duck,” Carol told him.

His lips twitched. “That a problem?”

“Not as long as you pay your half of the rent, I guess,” she said.

“At this point, he's barely ever there,” Clint said, giving Steve a sideways look, and Steve shrugged. “So I guess I should be glad he's paying his half of the rent.”

“I'm a man of my word,” Steve told him.

“Yeah,” Clint agreed. He leaned back. “So, what're we doing out here? Other than meeting your Boy Friday?”

“Oh, sorry. Clint, this is Tony. Tony, this is Clint. And I thought we could go to the Aquarium,” Steve said, and Tony stared at him.

“The Aquarium?” he asked, his voice blank. “Why?”

Carol kicked at his chair. “Because fish. Why the hell else would you go to the Aquarium?” She looked at them, her eyes bright. “Let's go.”

“No, let's not,” Tony said, hunching over his work.

“I got passes,” Steve said, and Tony resisted the urge to glare at him. It was very difficult.

“I have work to do,” he said, and he sounded petulant, he knew he sounded petulant and he didn't really care. He wasn't wrapping his arms around his laptop and clinging. That was progress.

“You always have work to do. We've all got work to do. Let's go to the Aquarium,” Steve said, his smile warm. Tony opened his mouth to object; he'd agreed to lunch and nothing else, and that only because Steve had promised to introduce him to his friends. Steve leaned forward. “We might not get another chance. Take the day off. Please?”

“Fish zoo,” Carol crowed, thrusting a fist in the air. “C'mon, Edwards. Fish zoo!”

Tony closed his laptop. “I thought you were a local.”

“I thought you were, too,” she shot back. “We're not walking the Freedom Trail here, loser, let's go.”

“Thus I don't want to do touristy crap.” But he shoved his laptop into his bag, and Carol gave a chuckle.

“He's caving. Let's go, pigeon guy.”

“Pigeon guy?” Clint asked, but he wandered off in her wake, smiling as he went.

“This is stupid,” Tony said.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. He held out a hand. “I know it is. I'm making...” He paused, and a faint smile slipped over his face, a little sad, a little resigned, but it was a smile. “I've been making a lot of really stupid choices lately.”

Tony paused. “Yeah, you're dating me, so that's-”

Steve's hand closed over his. “I regret a lot of things I've done lately,” he said. “You are not one of them.”

His grip was strong and firm and familiar. Tony shifted his bag higher on his back and wove his fingers into Steve's. “Are we really going to the Aquarium?”

“They've got penguins.”

“Is that a selling point?”

“Pretty sure it is.” Steve tugged on his hand, gently. “I used to love the sea.”

“So that means we gotta go watch penguins?” Tony asked.

“I think it does.”

Tony heaved a sigh, but he was smiling. “Okay. Let's go.”

*

The shield gleamed in the middle of the table, the paint perfect, so perfect that he almost couldn't believe that it was real.

“Took us a while to get it back in serviceable condition,” Ross said, as if he hadn't just turned Steve's world upside down. His eyebrows arched. “It really is one of a kind, isn't it? Out scientific teams ran all sorts of tests, but in the end, we decided that it was a historical relic.” He waved a hand towards it, magnanimous only a man with a winning hand could be. “I figured you might want it for this.”

“Sir?” Steve asked. He made no move to touch the shield. He knew better than to appear too eager. To do so was to give too much power to the object, to his own needs. To give Ross yet another weapon to use against him.

“We're calling you up, Captain.” Ross tossed a file down next to the shield, and that, Steve picked up.

Clipped to the front cover was a color photo, and it froze the blood in his veins.

“The Tessaract,” Ross said. “You know this, am I correct?”

“I do, yes.” Steve glanced up. “But it's-”

“It was recovered decades ago, Captain, and now, we suspect that it's at the center of a much larger series of problems.” Ross leaned back in his chair, his hands folded over his stomach, his eyes heavy lidded. “Hydra is on the move again.”

The blood in his veins iced over. “How is that possible, sir?” Steve asked. It wasn't that he didn't believe it. He believed a lot of horrible things. The modern world wasn't all positive, and having everything condensed made the good better, but it made the bad so horrible that it was difficult to bear. “I saw the Red Skull be ripped apart by this thing.”

“That's the thing about martyrs,” Ross said, one bushy eyebrow arching, “there's always those waiting to pick up where they left off, isn't there?” He leaned forward, folding his hands on his desk. “He might be gone, but what he built was always boiling just under the surface. When the war was over, Hydra stayed low, stayed quiet, but they never fully went away.

“And now they're on the move again. Looks like they're playing with some materials we'd prefer they not have access to.” He glanced up. “We'd like you to look into it.”

“Yes, sir.” Steve glanced up. “I'm not certain-”

“They've taken up residence in a few locations you might be familiar with. This particular nest is in an old Hydra facility, one you already cleaned out.” Ross pulled a cigar from his drawer and clipped the end with a sharp, efficient move. “Let's see if we can make it permanent this time, Captain.”

Steve took a breath, and another, struggling to control the sensation of panic that threatened to swamp him. He didn't want to turn the page, didn't want to look at the details. He had no desire to see which hell he'd be revisiting, didn't want to know which ghosts he'd be facing far too soon. His world narrowed, collapsed in on itself, until his mind could do nothing but replay the memories of every Hydra pit he'd ever plowed through, ever laboratory, every factory and work camp.

The faint sound of paper rattling, the sound too loud and too obvious in his ears, brought him back to the present, and he glanced down to find his fingers warping the file folder. With a force of will, he relaxed his fingers, burying everything, forcing himself back under control.

“Yes, sir,” he said, and his voice was steady and firm. He was pathetically proud of himself, for that small victory.

“Your unit is being assembled. Specialist Barton will be accompanying you,” Ross said. “He's already been given his orders, and now you have yours. You're wheels up in an hour.” He turned away. “You're dismissed, Captain.”

Steve saluted, the movement rote and empty, and collected his file and his shield before he left. Clint was waiting for him, just outside of Ross' office, his back and one foot braced up against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest. It took only a glance at his set face for Steve to know that he wasn't any more pleased about this than Steve himself was.

“We're being deployed,” Steve said, and Clint pushed away from the wall with a faint snort of displeasure.

“So I'm told.” He fell into step beside Steve, his steps lanky and loose. “You up for this?”

“I guess we'll see, won't we?”

But in reality, despite the churning sense of dread, he knew how to handle this. This, he could understand. He understood a battle with a deliberate, concrete enemy. He understood orders. He understood the requisitions and the weapons locker, he understood the paperwork that was pushed in front of him by blank faced clerks and the echoing space of an empty locker room.

He didn't really understand his new uniform, but it didn't bother him much. Another red, white and blue costume, another skin tight collection of leather and more modern materials. He slipped on the blue undershirt, and reached for the jacket.

“What do you think?” he asked Clint in an undertone. He shrugged into his uniform, tugging it into place with quick, sure movements.

Clint didn't look up from his weapon, his fingers going through his checks so quickly that his hands were a blur. “I think we've got a mission,” he said, the words almost inaudible. “I think we've got orders.”

“I think we've got another choice to make,” Steve said, and Clint looked up. Steve stopped, shocked.

Clint's eyes were full of something close to rage, or hatred. His face blank, he just stared at Steve. “I think we have to do this,” he said. “I don't think we have a choice. I don't think we've ever had a choice.”

Steve caught his arm with one hand. “There is always a choice,” he said, his voice quiet. “What do you think we should do?”

Clint's eyes closed. “Why are you asking me?”

“Because I value your opinion. Because I want to know what you think. Because I want you to start thinking about what they're doing here, and what they're going to make us do,” he said, leaning in. “Because you are my friend.”

Clint's eyes cut up. He locked gazes with Steve. “I think we're fucked.”

Steve's lips twitched. “Well, that's a start.” He stepped back, fastening up the rest of his dark blue jacket. It fit him like a glove, perfectly tailored, a bit heavier, a bit thicker than what he'd been used to, but it was light enough for him to move, and there was flexibility in the joints, where he needed it. He reached out, snagging the shield.

It was his shield. He'd been afraid, at first, that Ross had given him a replacement, a cheap knockoff or a fake. But the moment his fingers closed around the straps, the moment he slipped it onto his arm, testing the heft and the shape of it, he knew it was his shield.

For the first time in a very long time, he felt the weight of everything that had happened lift. Despite the added weight, he felt lighter than he had in a very, very long time. He shifted it off his arm and onto his back, and the handles slotted perfectly into place on the straps.

Taking a deep breath, he told himself that whatever happened, he could handle it. Because at least, he had his shield.

“Emil Blonsky.”

Steve stopped, looked over his shoulder. Clint was bent over his weapons case again, but his voice carried. “They'll send him. They always do, for these sort of missions, as a cleaner.” His eyes came up, and then dipped back to his work. “Don't trust him.”

Steve nodded. “How far?”

“Don't put your back to him if you can help it,” Clint said, and Steve felt a shiver run through him.

“That might not be possible.”

Clint took a deep breath. “Probably not.”

“So I'll keep him off your back if you'll keep him off mine,” Steve said.

Clint slammed his bow case closed. “You know what?” He looked up, and now there was a smile on his faint, lopsided and faint, but it was a smile. “You've got a deal, Cap.”

*

The buzzing of his phone would not stop. Frustrated, almost to the point of throwing it against the wall, Tony grabbed the damn thing. Even though the ringtone wasn't right, he still checked the readout, but it wasn't the number he'd been hoping for. He'd been calling Steve for days, and it just went to voice mail. He was caught between frustration and fear, wondering if on the other end, Steve was doing the same thing, checking to see who was calling before clicking 'ignore' for Tony's calls.

In the middle of the night, in his empty, cold bed, he wondered why he thought this would end differently.

But the phone would not stop ringing, and frustrated, sleep-deprived and short-tempered, he grabbed it. “I don't want whatever you're selling,” he bit out. “I don't care about saving what's left of my soul and I have absolutely no interest in whatever excuse you've got for not turning in your work on time, so go fu-”

"Edwards, shut up."

Tony stopped, drawn up short. "Who-"

"Barton. Steve's roommate." The voice was tense, sharp. “I need you to get your ass over here, and do it now. Do you understand me?” Tony sat, frozen in place, until Barton repeated, “Do you understand me?”

Tony got up so fast that his stool overturned. “What's going on? Where are you?” He grabbed his coat, his hands shaking as he dragged it on over his t-shirt and sweatpants. He had no idea where his socks were, and so he just headed for the front door and the boots that were lying there next to it.

“Harvard bridge.”

Halfway down the steps, Tony froze, his fingers locked on the railing. “Why?” he asked, through lips that had gone numb in an instant.

“I think he was heading for you. But he's stopped. He has stopped, he is on the bridge, and I don't know what he's doing but I don't fucking like it, I do not like how he's looking at the water right now, and I can't help him,” Barton's voice was raw. “I need you to get your ass out here.”

Tony was breathing hard, and he scrambled, half jumping, half falling, to the ground. It was snowing, light and powdery, it wouldn't last. But it was snowing, flakes swirling in the lamplight. “Yeah. Yeah, I'm on my way, I'm, it's not far-” He crashed into the workbench, something fell and shattered, and Dummy was creeping along on the edge of his vision, his movements jerky and uneven, and Tony could feel his pulse pounding in his temples. “Eastern or western-”

“Eastern sidewalk,” Barton said.

Tony jammed his feet into his boots. “Do not take your eyes off of him,” he snapped out.

“Trust me. I won't.”

He was out the door and running, running full out over the cold, early morning streets. Very little was moving at this hour, very few people were still awake, even here, even on the edges of one of the most obsessive campuses on Earth. Tony was alone as he ran along the streets, his booted feet slipping and sliding every other step, and the air hurt in his throat, in his lungs, but he ran.

He flew.

By the time he came into view of the bridge, his breath was coming in sounds close to sobs, and he was so focused on the single, still form in the midst of the bridge that he didn't even see Barton step out of the shadows. Barton caught him mid-step, one arm going across Tony's chest, wrenching him around, yanking him to a stop despite the force that Tony exerted on his grip.

“Let me go,” he bit out. “What the fuck-”

Barton's face swam into focus, pale in the streetlamps. “Don't. Calm down.”

Tony shoved at him, but the blow was weak, there was no strength left in him. He could barely keep himself upright. “What happened?” he hissed out, not wanting to take his eyes off of Steve's still form. He moved forward and his feet skidded on the pavement. “Where has he been?”

Barton was silent, long enough to bring Tony's head around, and their eyes locked. Something in that dark gaze shook him to the core, and the shiver that traced his way over Tony's body had nothing to do with the cold. “What happened?” Tony asked again, his lips barely moving.

“They called him up,” Barton said, and when he turned his head, when he glanced over towards Steve, Tony could see the bruise on his cheekbone. “It didn't go well.”

“What does that mean?” Tony asked, and Barton's head snapped back around, those remarkable eyes pinning Tony in place.

"Let's not play stupid, you know something's not right, don't you? You know that he's afraid, and he's trapped, and we are all hanging by a thread," Clint breathed, the words a pressure against Tony's skin. "When the powers that be cut it, we are all going to hit the pavement hard.”

Tony stared him down. "Whose side are you on?"

Barton's eyes were slits, the color barely visible, the expression unreadable. But he pulled back, just a step, his fingers falling away from Tony's coat. "Whatever side keeps him alive." He held out a folded piece of paper. “His address. You bring him back there tonight, they'll be watching, they will know if he goes missing, and we cannot risk that. I can cover for now, but you will get him back there. Tonight.” With that, he turned on his heel and disappeared into the snow, the mark of his footprints the only thing he left behind. In a matter of seconds, the snow filled them, and he was gone.

Tony sucked in a breath, letting it out to wreathe his face. Refused to let himself think about any of this. About how close he was to losing everything. To how close he was to dropping every single ball he had in the air. The strain was like a physical pressure, and he struggled against the sensation of helplessness.

He didn't have time for that right now.

Cautiously, he moved forward. “Steve?” he called. Steve didn't move, didn't speak. He just stared down into the Charles, his hands locked on the stone, his pale skin bare in the cold night air. He wasn't wearing a jacket, or a hat, just a simple blue long sleeved shirt and battered pants in a pale beige. He looked like a statue, his gaze fixated on the dark water rushing by below the bridge.

Tony took a step forward, and another, each step careful and measured. “Steve? Let's go-” He almost said home, he nearly said home, but there was no home. There was only the bed that had been cold and empty in the last few days, without Steve's solid warmth. Tony had slept on the couch last night, and that had felt better than sleeping alone.

“Let's get inside,” he said, frustrated by his inability to say the right thing, to even know what he should be saying. “Aren't you cold?”

Steve's lips parted. “Yes.”

Tony gave up. “Let's go home, okay? Get out of the cold.”

Steve didn't move. "I remember the cold.”. He barely seemed aware of Tony's presence. "I didn't... Tell anyone that. I tell them that I-" His face twisted. "I remember the cold, like a dream that I can't get out of, can't shake, it's on my skin, it's in my bones.

"When you get cold enough, it's a pain like burning. Like you're on fire, your skin can't cope with it, can't deal with the stimulus, and all your brain knows is heat. Knows what it's like to sear your skin to your bones, and that's what it's like, but you slow down. You stop being able to think, to breathe, to function." The words were coming fast now, tumbling out of his mouth, faster and faster, like he'd lost what control he had on them. "But I remember, I remember the sensation of freezing, and I wonder if this is the dream, if I'm still dead and buried, and none of this is real, it's just-"

He looked up, and his face was agonized, twisted. "I couldn't explain, didn't know how, didn't want to explain, that when they put me in there, when it was those white walls, and nothing else, no sun, no sky, no noise and no-" His fingers flexed at his side. "No contact. Nothing. There was nothing, for so long. The ice, all over again, I never got out, I never-” He broke off, his breathing ragged.

"And this is a dream," he said. His eyes were closed, his shoulders slumped, his face slack. He stood so still, and the snow was frosting his hair, building up, coating him, creeping over the curve of his head. "This is a dream, this is a dream in the middle of a nightmare, and they will come and take me back. I'll disappear, again, and there's nothing I can do-"

The wind swirled, and his lips were stained red as they parted on a sigh. "To stop it."

He looked at Tony, and for an instant, the light fell harsh on his face, making him look every inch the age Tony knew him to be. He looked old, and tired and worn thin by a pressure that Tony couldn't understand. "I'm going to disappear one day," he said, and his voice was resigned, the words were resigned. There was no emotion, no inflection. Nothing.

Like he was already gone.

Tony sucked in a breath, struggling against a rising sensation of panic. "Look," he said, and the word staggered in his mouth, stumbled, but he forced himself forward anyway. "You can, you can break up with me, and that's fine." He shook his head. "Well, no, it's not fine, but you know what I mean, right, it's-"

He swallowed, tried again, because Steve was looking at him now, with blank eyes, sad eyes. "If you say, we're done, I'll probably be a real asshole about it, but I'll..." He glanced away. "I can understand that. You know. It happens. To me. A lot." His chin came up. "If you say we're done, you can walk away.

"But if you disappear?" Tony met his eyes, ignoring the way it ached in his chest to force that tiny contact. "If you just... Go missing? If your email goes dead and your phone gets disconnected and your apartment is deserted and you go missing from classes?

"I will notice. And I will find you."

Something in Steve's vision cleared, his eyes focusing for the first time, and Tony took another step forward, his feet sliding on the icy pavement. "Do you understand me? You tell me we're done, if- If that's necessary, but if you go missing, Steve, I will look for you, and I will find you." He gave a little huff of laughter. "I don't care how long it takes, or how much it costs, or who I have to go through, if you go missing, I will not let you disappear."

Steve was breathing, Tony could see his shoulders rising and falling, could see the pale clouds that swirled around Steve's face.

"I'll remember you," Tony said. "No matter what, I'll remember."

Steve blinked. Blinked again. And there was liquid on his curve of his cheek, a tear or melting snow, Tony didn't know, but Steve's eyes were shattered. He opened his mouth, and he was breathing, fast and hard now, but he was breathing. He was breathing, his feet still on solid ground, and that was all that mattered. That he clung to life for a little longer.

Tony opened his arms, and offered him something else to cling to.

Steve crashed into him, all awkward force, too much, too fast, and Tony just wrapped his arms around him and held on as hard as he could. He closed his eyes, listening to the way Steve breathed, pretending that his breathing didn't sound like a sob. Tony closed his eyes, helpless to do anything else. "It's okay," he said, and that was the biggest lie he'd told recently, that was a lie he couldn't even pretend was anything other than a lie, and he hated himself for it.

But in the end, he was very good at ignoring reality when it suited him.

*

He tossed the picture down in the middle of Rhodey's kitchen counter. "He's going by the name Steve Burnside. But he's the one you're looking for. He's Steve Rogers, and he's your American Captain. He's alive."

Pepper and Rhodey looked at the snapshot of Steve, grinning innocently over the top of his sketchpad. He was boyish and shy in that shot, in a too tight BC t-shirt, a streak of charcoal dust on his cheekbone. He was smiling as if he was happy, happy to be sitting on Tony's couch, a can of soda and a plate of Tony's pizza crusts next to his charcoal sticks.

As if he loved the man who'd been pointing a cell phone camera at his face.

"I'm Anthony Edward Stark," Tony continued as Pepper and Rhodey stared silently at the picture. They both looked up with identical expressions of disbelief. "Howard Stark is my father. He's a barely functioning alcoholic. Any conversations he has these days are with people who have been dead for a couple of decades, or people he's made up. I'm trying to make up for his deficits, and it's going about as well as you might imagine, because I'm a fuck up."

Tony leaned forward, stabbing a finger against the picture. "I can't explain it. I don't understand it. But this is Captain Steven Rogers, US Army, and he is alive. He is alive, and he is in this city, and I need to know whatever I can, to keep him alive."

Rhodey sank into a chair, his face slack. Pepper was staring at Tony, confused. "Are you insane?" she asked at last.

"Well, probably, have you been paying attention to a single goddamn thing I've said since we've met?" Tony snapped.

"Anthony Stark is-" Rhodey started.

"Seventeen. At most. And at boarding school," Pepper finished.

"No, I'm 'away at school,'" Tony corrected, making the finger quotes in mid-air. "Which I am. Here I am! At school! Away! But I hate the dorms, so I'm not, in the most technical sense, boarding."

"You're seventeen?" Pepper said, her voice rising to an uncomfortable note on the last word. "How are you seventeen?"

"Comes after sixteen and before eighteen," Tony snapped, "where I would love to be, because I would be a legal adult and wouldn't have to have these conversations with stupid people any more!"

"Hey!" Rhodey snapped, bringing Tony's head around. "Don't take that tone with us. You walk in here with a bombshell about the fact that not only have you been hiding information this entire time, but that you've been flat out lying to us?" He snatched the picture up, shoving it in Tony's direction. "And that a man born in 1918 is ALIVE? And looks to be the same age he was in WORLD WAR II?"

He shook his head. "I think we get to be a little disbelieving here, Tony."

Tony opened his mouth. Closed it. He took a breath, and when he let it out, it brought words with it, words he hadn't intended, words he didn't even know he knew how to say, and yet, there they were, hanging in the air between them.

"I need help."

For a long moment, there was silence, and Tony bit down on the inside of his lip, hard enough to draw blood, humiliation a physical force in his chest. He hovered on the verge of flight, on the verge of breaking and telling them to go fuck themselves, when Pepper nodded. He stared at her, not understanding, not believing, but she was reaching for a chair pulling it over. Taking a seat, her motions graceful and easy, as if she thought Tony would startle easily.

Rhodey looked up, and his eyes were clear. "Tell us everything."

Tony's knees went out from under him, and he thanked God for the seat that he managed to get to before he ended up on the floor. For a second, he was lost, the words clawing at his throat, but he couldn't find the order to put them in. Panic scraped against his nerves, and then a hand closed over his. His head jerked up, and he found Pepper in front of him, smiling, her grip strong and steady. “Tell us,” she said, and her voice was so gentle.

Closing his eyes, he started talking.

It took a depressingly short time to get the whole story out, and when he was done, no one said anything for a minute. Then Rhodey took a deep breath. "You met him on the T."

"Yeah."

"Accidentally."

Tony shrugged. "Yeah."

Rhodey's eyes were sharp. "You're one of the few people left on this earth with any chance of putting this whole mess together. From what you're saying, your father isn't capable any more, and most everyone else who knew him was dead. I have the data, but no access. You, and pretty much only you, are in a rare and unique position to put the pieces together.

"And he ends up here. In the same city as you. And despite the fact that you have no reason to meet, you manage to." Rhodey leaned forward in his chair, his hands folded between his knees. "That doesn't seem a little, I don't know, coincidental? To you?"

Tony rubbed his hands over his face, scrubbing his palms hard against his skin. "Obviously. But do you really think someone's orchestrating this?"

Rhodey's shoulder rose and fell in a quick slug. "Who benefits?"

"I have no fucking idea."

"If your father's not capable of running the company," Pepper said, her voice quiet, "who is?"

"Obadiah Stane. Our chief operating officer," Tony said. "He knows about dad. Keeps it on the down low, for the most part."

"Stane's a business man, and a good one, but he's no engineer," Pepper said, because of course she'd know that. Of course she would. "StarkIndustries has been touting the fact that Howard Stark is still their lead designer and architect of their product lines.”

“Yeah, well, he's not.” Tony's foot jerked against the floor, his heel flicking silently against the worn carpet. “Hasn't been.”

“Who is?” Rhodey asked. “Because I've carried, I've used, SI munitions in the course of my duties. They're still producing some of he best on the market. So if he isn't designing them...”

Tony glanced up at them. “I am.”

“You are, what?”

“I am the designer. If you've used something that was introduced in the last decade, it's mine.” The silence was horrible. Tony listened to his own breath, echoing in his ears. "Dad only really got bad about ten years ago," Tony said, exhausted. He leaned back in his chair. "Before then, he was unstable. His drinking could consume weeks, even months, but he always came out of it long enough to do his work."

"You've been working on StarkIndustries weapons for ten years?" Rhodey said, and he sounded horrified, his face unreadable. "Tony. You're seventeen."

"At the beginning, I was just... An interpreter," Tony said. "He'd create, he'd do the design work, or the heavy lifting, but then he'd get drunk, too drunk to really follow through the whole way." He shrugged. "I was pretty much raised in the workshop, unless they caught me and sent me back to the nursery, and my brain worked enough like his that I could..." He struggled to find the right word, but there really wasn't one. "I could clarify what he meant. I did that for a couple of years, just cleaned up his work and fixed numbers, material stresses, all the nuts and bolts, you know?"

They weren't saying anything, and Pepper had a hand clapped over her mouth, hard enough that her skin was white where her fingers dug in. Tony tried to stop talking, but it wasn't going to happen, too much pressure now, too much build-up.

Words that he had never spoken to anyone were pressing hard on his teeth.

"Little by little, it ended up being more me and less him, he'd have an idea or a rough sketch or some info or an improvement that he wanted to do, and I'd start working on that when he was lucid enough to give me what I needed. Eventually, though, that just... Stopped.

"He crawled into a bottle and he didn't come back out,” Tony said, his voice leaden, “and there was this horrible couple of months where all anyone talked about was that we were going to lose everything, he'd been so secretive for so long, he refused to hire competent people in the engineering and R & D departments because they were a threat and he couldn't deal with that, so we didn't have anyone or anything to turn to, and it was like the end of the world."

Rhodey was resting his forehead on his folded hands. "So, what, you took over?"

"Seemed like the logical thing to do," Tony said. "I was pretty much, you know, doing it already. It was a little rougher at first, but there was all sorts of stuff in his files, stuff I could use, stuff I could improve on, while I figured things out. It got easier after that."

Pepper was staring at him with an expression he couldn't understand. "How old were you when you took over completely?"

Tony shrugged. "Uh, eleven? I think. Around there."

"You've been SI's chief weapons developer since you were eleven?" Rhodey asked, his voice rising in pitch with each word.

Tony stared at him, too tired to argue it. "There wasn't anyone else."

"I don't know," he said, his voice flat. "There tend to be a lot of adults around the average company. Did they try an actual adult?"

Tony didn't know if they had or not. He hadn't been part of that discussion. His discussion, the only discussion he remembered, was different. It hadn't been a discussion at all. Obie had sat him down in one of the massive chairs in his father's library, and explained how things were. Obie, bent over him, his hands braced on Tony's shoulders, his form almost blotting out the light, had told Tony the truth. He'd told Tony about just how close they were to disaster, how close they were to losing it all. His fingers digging into Tony's arms, he'd let Tony know what they needed to do.

What Tony needed to do. And Tony had done it.

“There wasn't anyone else,” he repeated, resigned, and this time, they seemed to hear him. They stared at him, eyes dark and sad and he hated that expression, something like horror or pity and he hated it. Tony's face twisted. “I did what I needed to do, I am still doing what needed to be done, what needs to be done, and I am getting out. In a year I'll be eighteen, and I can-”

“Can what?” Pepper asked, when the words died in his throat. “Where are you going to go? What are you going to do?”

“I don't know,” Tony said, his head falling forward, and it hurt to admit that, the words hurt in his throat, but they'd always been there. Even before Steve. He'd known that he was hiding that truth: that he didn't know how he was getting free, or where he was going to take that freedom. But he'd resisted verbalizing it, he'd resisted allowing himself to linger on the thought.

Now, there was no escaping it. He had no idea where he was running to. Only that he was running away. It no longer seemed like enough. He took a deep breath, and he was dizzy with it. “I don't know,” he said, and he sounded lost. Frightened. Childlike. He looked up. “I don't know what to do anymore.”

Rhodes looked down at the photo, and exhaled. “Neither do I,” he said. He looked up, looked at Tony. “But I think we need more proof than you've got here. If you're right, if he's in danger, we're going to look crazy unless we can prove it to whoever we can go to for help.”

“Who can we go to for help?” Pepper asked him.

“I don't know. But right now? There's no way we can even start figuring that out. We'll sound completely crazy.”

Tony nodded. “Okay. Yeah.” He took a breath. “I- Yeah. I know.”

“Have you talked to him about this?” Rhodes asked.

“No. No, I haven't, I won't, you haven't seen his face when something-” Tony took a deep breath. “I can't offer him anything other than a threat to his safety. I won't do it to him. Not until I've got something, some way for him to get out of this mess.”

“Tony?” He glanced at Pepper, who was holding the modern picture of Steve. She looked up. “You're in love with him. Aren't you?”

Tony didn't respond to that. Couldn't. Couldn't admit it out loud, because he was hanging on by his fingernails, he was hanging on, and it was going to slip through his fingers, no matter how hard he clung, it wasn't going to be enough. “I'll talk to my father. He's the only one we have left who can get us proof.”

“Will he be able to help us?” Pepper asked.

“He remembers the past better than the present,” Tony said, exhausted. “He might be able to.” He stood, and ignored how much everything ached. “He might be the only one who can, so let's hope so.”

Chapter Text

“I have class tomorrow,” Steve said.

“Mmmm,” Tony said. “Yeah.” He managed to get the word out, despite the fact that he was very busy sucking a dark mark on the skin just below Steve's collarbone. His hands were everywhere at once, his hips rolling against Steve's thigh. He was hard, his face flushed, his pupils blown wide with arousal.

Steve shifted under him, savoring the feeling of Tony's skin against his. His shirt was on the floor, Tony's was thrown across the back of a kitchen chair and they'd been on the couch for what felt like hours, and he didn't regret a second of it. Even with the knowledge that he was supposed to be up early tomorrow, even if he was supposed to be doing work tonight, paintings due and sketches that he was supposed to hand in, he didn't regret it at all.

“Are you even listening to me?” he asked, trying to struggle into a sitting position, and he made absolutely no headway because Tony clung stubbornly to his chest.

“No,” Tony said, and Steve could hear the laughter in his voice. “Not at all, because everything you're talking about is boring and I do not have any desire to listen to it.” His head dipped, his lips brushing against Steve's shoulder, against his breast, teeth scraping against Steve's nipple, making him arch and gasp. “I can't believe we still have our pants on, to be honest.”

“We are not doing this tonight,” Steve said, and he sounded drunk. He caught Tony's wrists and pulled them away from his body. Tony made a high pitched whining noise, and Steve had to struggle from the urge to drag him back down, strip him naked and do anything and everything he was begging for. “Tony...”

Tony's teeth flashed in the darkness. Night had fallen and they'd been on Steve's couch so long that it had caught them off-guard. Now, in the dim light from the windows, Tony was a seductive tangle that Steve couldn't get free of, an he was pretty sure he didn't want to. “Fine,” he said, pressing a kiss to the line of Steve's jaw. “Never let it be said I don't respect you.”

“I'm grateful,” Steve deadpanned. “And my GPA is grateful as well.”

He sat up, and Tony sat up with him, scrubbing both hands through his wild hair, making it stand on end. He stretched, his jeans hanging low on his hips, revealing the arch of his hipbones and the indent of his belly button, and he was so gorgeous that Steve's hands itched with the desire to reach out and take.

“You need a haircut,” he said instead, and Tony's eyes widened in mock outrage.

“Lies, you tell dirty lies,” he said.

Steve reached out and ruffled his hair with both hands, ignoring Tony's attempts to bat his fingers away. “You look like a ragamuffin,” he said.

“What- What sort of a word is that, where did you even hear that, that is not really a word,” Tony said, and then his mouth was on Steve's. Tony moved forward, straddling Steve's lap as they kissed, his body lithe and strong and perfect under Steve's hands. Whatever objections Steve had melted away, and he sank into the kiss.

The sound of the lock opening brought his head up, but Tony didn't seem to notice, kissing his way down Steve's neck. Steve had an instant to see Clint's shocked face, and the familiar red headed woman that was curled half on top of him, half around him, and then he was shoving Tony down onto the couch. Covering Tony's body with his own, he sealed their mouths together, swallowing the sound of surprise that slipped past Tony's lips.

The sound of footsteps, a high, feminine giggle, and then the door to the second bedroom, the one that Clint now used more often than his own apartment upstairs, shut with a bang. A high, breathy moan came an instant later, and Steve felt his face flush.

“What the-” Tony said, and Steve was already standing up, pulling Tony off the couch with him. “Was that-”

“Yes, it was,” Steve whispered, grabbing his shirt, and Tony's. “I have class early tomorrow, so-”

Tony was still gaping at the closed bedroom door. “Did he just-”

“Yeah, I think he didn't know we were here, and I don't know how that's possible, except yes, I do know how that's possible, she's how that's possible,” Steve muttered, and he shoved Tony into his shirt. “I'm sorry, but really, I have work to do, and he-”

Tony's head came around, and his eyes met Steve's. “What's wrong?” he asked, and all the rough arousal, all the sweet, affectionate playfulness was gone, in an instant.

Steve's eyes darted to Clint's closed door, then away. “Nothing,” he said, but he knew it was there in his face, that knowledge that he couldn't leave with Tony, and Tony couldn't stay, that whatever was happening in Clint's bedroom right now, it did have consequences for the two of them.

Tony followed his gaze. He didn't say another word. He just straightened his shirt, and brushed a kiss across Steve's over stimulated mouth, and moved silently towards the front door. Steve watched, silent and miserable, as he forced his boots on, and shrugged his coat on over his shirt. Wrapping his scarf around his neck, he tugged Steve out into the hallway.

“Someday,” he whispered, his smile lopsided, “you'll tell me your secrets.”

“I can't.” Steve leaned forward, leaned his forehead against Tony's. “I want to. I-” He exhaled. “I need you to be safe,” he said, the words barely audible. “I-” He closed his mouth, strangling the words of love and devotion, because he didn't have the right to use that particular lure. Not now, not yet.

Maybe not ever.

Tony's fingers cupped his chin, nudging his head up. “Okay,” he said, and he kissed Steve's mouth. “Call me after class?”

“I will.” Steve leaned in to steal a kiss, light and delicate and sweet. He watched as Tony headed for the stairs, and he struggled to find something to say. “Tony?” Tony turned, meeting his eyes. “Thank you,” he whispered, and Tony grinned at him.

“You're worth it,” he said, and there was gravity to those words. So much gravity. And then he blew Steve a kiss, his smile obscene, his gaze flirtatious. With that, he headed down the hall and out of sight. Steve waited, his back up against the door, listening to the sound of Tony's feet fade. His eyes closed, he waited until he knew Tony was out of the building before he reluctantly returned to his apartment.

And immediately wished for a heavy duty pair of earplugs. Corporal Rushman, it would appear, was enjoying herself immensely.

*

Howard's hand shook when he picked up the picture.

His hands often shook, to be honest, it was the alcohol, wrecking his nervous system, frying what had once been an exceptional brain, leaving him soaked, pickled, in a brine of his own choosing. Tony remembered, in some dim, far off memory, the point at which his father's hands had no longer been steady enough to the fragile, delicate detail work demanded by their chosen profession. The point at which drinking to control the tremors gave way to drinking making the tremors worse, and from that point on, it was over.

It took Howard a long time to admit it, but Tony, as small as he was, had seen that for what it was: a death sentence. Hands not steady enough to move solder and flame, to smooth the rough edges from metal, to lay down the intricate relays of an electrical system, well, those were hands that were never going to serve Howard the way he needed them to. After a lifetime of building, of creating, of being a genius of unprecedented ability, his career, and his life ended, with the trembling of a hand.

His brain followed swiftly after, and after that? He had no reason to even pretend to control his drinking.

Now, though, his hands shook, and it had nothing to do with the alcohol. "What the hell is this?" he asked, bringing the photo up. He squinted at it in the morning light, as if it was something far more complex than a simple snapshot. Tony had showed up early the night before and put Howard to bed. As soon as Howard stirred in the morning, Tony had put him in the shower, ignoring the curses thrown at his head.

Now, rested, somewhat clean and halfway sober, Howard was in the best possible frame of mind for answering all of Tony's questions. And that wasn't saying much.

Tony poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot on the counter. "I don't know," he admitted. "I was hoping you could tell me."

Howard glared at him with bloodshot eyes. "Don't sass me, boy."

Tony spread his hands wide, gesturing for peace with the coffee cup before he set it down in front of Howard. "I wouldn't dream of it, old man."

The offering was apparently acceptable, made more so when Howard added a large measure of whiskey from the bottle on the table. He stared down at the picture, his eyes narrowed, his jaw a tight mass of jumping muscles. "Where did you get this?"

"I took it. Three days ago."

Howard was white as paper, and when he brought his coffee cup to his lips, the liquid threatened to spill over the rim, it was shaking so hard. "This... Isn't possible."

"Who is he?" Tony asked, his voice soft. Doing his best not to startle his father, he poured his own cup of coffee and sank down on a kitchen chair. The kitchen, being a public area, was scrupulously clean on the surface, the counters gleaming and the floors mopped, but the fridge was empty other than some eggs and milk, and a lot of alcohol. Anything else that was put there would just sit until it rotted.

Howard huffed out a laugh. "Steve. Steve Rogers."

Tony had known. He'd believed it. Too many coincidences, too many weird things, too many echoes of old files and old statements and that face, that familiar face staring out at him from a very old photo. Too much fear and pressure and strain in Steve's eyes. He'd believed it.

But having it confirmed by someone who would know, without a doubt? That made it far more real.

“Captain Steve Rogers, US Army.” Howard tilted the picture, as if he could see it from another angle, one that might reveal the trick. “He was... He was a test subject. He was THE test subject. Erskine picked him.”

“Who?”

Howard made a face, displeased with Tony's questions. He answered, anyway. “Dr. Abraham Erskine.” He closed his eyes, and brought the cup to his lips. “He was a German scientist. Escaped at the beginning of the war, but some of his work had been perverted by the Nazis. He was eager to find a way to replicate his work, and the US Army was eager to use his work to their own ends. They both found what they were looking for in Rogers.”

"I think he's in danger," Tony said.

Howard looked up. "If he's alive? He is." He got to his feet, and it was unsteady, his body waving like a reed in the wind, but he stood on his own, under his own power and moved in a determined sort of way towards the coffee pot. "He was an experimental subject. A roaring success of one, actually." Howard managed to get a grip on the handle of the pot, but he wisely kept his hand away when he filled the cup. "But he was the only one. The... Only one."

"Why?" Tony leaned into the table, into the familiar confines of the old wood, feeling like a child again, somehow, waiting at the kitchen table for his father to show up. Some mornings, he'd waited a very long time. Eventually, he hadn't waited at all. He'd known better.

"Because there were people who didn't want us to succeed," Howard said with a snort. "And they managed to get in. Killed Erskine, blew up a big chunk of the lab. What survived of the experiment? Of the serum?" He huddled over his cup, clutching it with both hands. "Was in him. No way, back then, to get it out. All the blood samples in the world were useless. It integrated with his system." His lips kicked up in a faint ghost of his old, smug smirk. "I saw to that."

Tony arched his eyebrows, a silent question, and Howard continued, "That was my part in the whole thing. They had the serum, you see. Erskine had that, he had something that would work, at least a bit, but there was trouble getting a human body to accept it. He lost a lot of his test patients, but that was back in Germany. Nazis don't tend to care much for body counts, it's, well, it was kind of part of the job description.

"But here, it was different. Once Erskine was working for us, we needed two things." Howard held up a wobbling hand, two fingers pointed up, sharp and hard. "One, a viable test subject. And two, a system that would maximize his chances of surviving."

He sank back into his chair. "That was my part. Vitarays. It encouraged the body to accept the serum. Calibrated properly, it-" He waved a hand. "It worked. Okay? Erskine's formula worked. Took a boy barely able to support his own weight and made, well, that." He stabbed a finger into the middle of the picture. "Made the perfect soldier. The problem was, Erskine took a bullet less than five minutes after Rogers survived the treatment.”

“He didn't leave-” Tony started.

“No, nothing, or nothing useful. He'd been forced to work under the Nazi yoke for too long,” Howard said. He was struggling with his memory, Tony could see that on his pallid, pained face. “What notes he had weren't coherent to anyone else. Not in code. Just. Shorthand. Most of it was missing; he kept it in his head. I was the one who worked closest to him on the process, and I'm an engineer, not a biochemist. I struggled for years to replicate his process, and so did dozens, hundreds of others through the years.

“No one even came close. So the US Army got a single soldier, and not an army, for their massive investment.” Howard drained the rest of his coffee. “They weren't pleased, but Rogers... Rogers was far more than they could've dreamed. Fast. Strong. Smart. Fearless. He wasn't the perfect soldier, but he was the perfect weapon.”

“He's a human being,” Tony said, filling Howard's coffee cup again. “Not a weapon.”

Howard gave a sharp, nasty little laugh. “To you and me? Yeah. To Phillips and Carter? Sure. But to the brass? To the men who spent the war, who spent every war, moving hundreds of men around a map with sticks, and counting the dead in hundreds, then thousands? He was just a really effective weapon.”

“What happened?” Tony handed him the coffee, and this time, Howard didn't reach for the alcohol.

“He killed the bad guy and threw himself on a particularly nasty grenade,” Howard said. He met Tony's eyes. “There was a plane, carrying a weapon capable of wiping out the entire East coast. He took it down in the North Atlantic. Crashed it into the ocean. We never found the wreckage, we'd assumed that the thing disintegrated on impact.”

Tony's stomach dropped. “He drowned.”

“Probably. That was the assumption. Or he died when it hit.”

Tony couldn't breathe. The panic attack, on the green line, the way Steve's face had drained of color and how he'd started shaking. Because Tony had mentioned how cold the ocean had been. And Steve had drowned.

He'd gone down in the ocean and he had drowned.

Tony's hands were shaking when he pressed them to his face, an echo of his father now in his own bones. Weakness and clumsiness inherited and he hated himself.

Howard was still talking. “We searched. For years. We should've still been-” He stopped, a look of confusion swimming over his face. The modern was lost to him, most times, memories unformed in a sea of alcohol. He retreated back to the past, set and understandable. “We looked, thought to bring back his body, at least, and of course, they wanted what they could salvage from the Hydra plane. Weapons systems, intelligence, all that. But the war ended, and he was gone. So they stamped his file killed in action and shelved it.”

“He's alive,” Tony said, and he needed to repeat that, he needed to remember that, that the warm and solid body that had shared his bed repeatedly wasn't an illusion or a ghost. He was a real man, impossibly alive.

“Don't know...” Howard fumbled for the asprin that Tony had laid out for him, and then, even more astonishingly, for the plate of toast. “I got, I can find out.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “But if you're right, if you're- If this is real, then he's in danger. Back then, they couldn't separate the serum from him, the two were too well integrated. Now?”

He took a savage bite of the toast. “Science has come a long way.”

“And not always in the right direction.” Tony stood. “I need everything you've got on him, everything that can help us.”

Howard nodded. “Yeah. Yeah. I don't know what I have on site, but I know where to go.” His face twisted, his eyes bloodshot and his teeth bared. “I should've been told. I should've, I've financed, I have been financing... If they didn't, then where the fuck is the money...” The words trailed off and Howard lapsed into a memory where Tony couldn't follow.

It didn't matter. Tony had what he needed. He had confirmation.

Now he just needed proof.

*

"I will get it done."

"Tony-"

"No. No, we are not- No." Tony paced the length of the workshop, his blu tooth headset leaving his hands free to carry half of his project. The other half was littering the ground behind him, but he'd deal with that later. Or, judging by the thumping noises and the sound of breakage behind him, Dummy would handle that now.

Someday he would make a labor saving that wouldn't result in more work for him. Someday. He wasn't holding his breath, though.

“Tony, we have to discuss-”

“One sec, Obie, I've got to check on something,” Tony said, and put him on hold before Obie could object to that. “How're we doing?” he asked Steve.

Steve was sitting cross-legged on the floor, his head bent over a stack of undergraduate homework, a miserable and shoddy pile of work that Tony was ashamed to admit came from MIT students. Steve had taken over the grading, probably because when Tony did the grading, it resulted in a lot of swearing and drinking. Steve looked up at him. “Well, I'm a little concerned, Tony.”

“What?” Tony asked. “Why?”

"Did you seriously have a stamp made up that says 'what the fuck is this shit?'" Steve said, and it was a very, very disapproving question.

"Oddly enough, that particular grading phrase is not available through most major educational retailers," Tony told him. "I had to special order it." Steve gave him a look. A very unhappy look. "What?" Tony asked. “It's perfectly legit.”

"No, Tony."

"Steve-"

"I am not using the stamp."

"If they wanted to be CODDLED, they wouldn't have gone to MIT," Tony said, spreading his hands. "Seriously, that's not how things work, if the paper doesn't have tear stains on it, then the school is failing its students. Next thing we know, there'll be engineers with high self-esteem and poor reasoning skills, then we're going to have bridges falling over all around the world, is that really what you want? Really?"

Steve's face adequately displayed dismay and consternation. "I'm taking the stamp away from you now."

"Hey, hey, no! I need that! Without that, how can I make them understand just how badly they've fucked up the assignment?" He made a grab for the stamp, and Steve held it easily out of reach. One of his big palms caught Tony in the middle of the chest, holding him back without any effort.

"You'll just have to write out your mean things by hand," Steve said, a ghost of a smile floating over his face. “Who thought you were a good person to grade undergraduate papers?”

“I pissed off a few of the department heads,” Tony said, because there was really no point in lying about it. “I think that you should give me my stamp back and follow the directions I gave you.”

“Your directions were to 'punish the unrightous and make them regret their sins,'” Steve said, deadpan.

“Exactly.”

“No, Tony.”

Tony gave up. "Jarvis, print me some stickers, or something, I'll get some shiny paper or smiley faces or-" The earpiece beeped, and he rolled his eyes. "One sec." He triggered the call with a flick of his finger. "Yes, yes, I'm back, it's going to get done, and the more time you spend bitching me out about it, the further behind I get because I have to stand here and listen to it instead of, you know, getting shit done."

On the other end of the line, the silence stretched. Tony gritted his teeth, knowing this trick, immune to this trick, where Obie just sat in disapproving silence until Tony broke and said something, anything, to fill the empty space between them. Because he hated this, he really did, he hated the secrets and the lies and the fact that he was going to get out as soon as he could.

The safest thing he could do was ignore Obie entirely and just watch Steve, Steve who was neatly printing “Good Job!” on a page that really was shoddy work, Tony did not approve marking that particular sheet 'good,' but Steve was doing his grunt work for him. He really couldn't complain. Well, he could, but it seemed a little petty to complain about the fact that Steve had taken a little bit of pressure off of him.

Tony wasn't really used to having help. He wasn't particularly comfortable with it, but he really did like having a few extra minutes to sleep. Especially if Steve was there, and more often than not, he was.

Tony really liked that. More than he was comfortable admitting, really.

“Tony,” Obie said, bringing Tony's attention back around. “I'm concerned.”

“I'm not shocked by that, you spend a lot of time being concerned,” Tony shot back, a little too flippant, but Steve smiled, the corners of his beautiful, moveable lips twitching up.

“Do you want to tell me about your new boyfriend?”

Tony's smile died. “No. Not particularly.”

“You're not going to deny it?”

“I wasn't aware that I had to deny anything. I wasn't- It's not a secret. It doesn't have to be.” Tony leaned back against the workbench, crossing his arms over his chest. Which felt too defensive. He forced his hands down by his side. “Does it?”

A long beat of silence. “Does he know who you are?”

Tony blinked. “What?”

“Does he know who you really are? Is that why he's there, Tony?”

For a second, his vision whited out, rage sweeping over him, leaving him shaking in its wake. He sucked in a breath, and another, and glanced at Steve. He held up a finger, a quick 'one minute' gesture, and Steve mouthed 'go ahead, go.' Because Steve had tried to get up and leave the room at the beginning of this conversation, and Tony had made him sit back down. He really hadn't thought this would go on this long, to be honest.

Tony brushed a kiss across Steve's hair as he jogged past, up the stairs and into the bedroom, slamming the door behind him. "No," he said, and he was pleased his voice didn't shake. "No. Gentlemen's agreement, Obie. I do my work, I do it on time, I do it properly, and you stay the hell out of my business. That is what we agreed on."

"I have a right- No. I have a duty to protect you, Tony. That is what I'm supposed to be doing here, and I have not done as good a job as I could've hoped, I know that, that is my failing, but I have always done my best by you, Tony." His voice sounded tired. Exhausted. In the background, Tony could hear the faint clink of glass on glass, and knew that Obie was likely pouring himself a rare measure of brandy.

“You have,” Tony agreed, leaning back against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest, his shoulders tight. “I don't- I'm not arguing that, Obie. What I'm saying is, I'm allowed to have a life. To have a date once in a fucking while, wasn't that why we agreed to this? So I could have something like a normal life?” He stopped short, hating the pleading note in his voice, hating the way he was so close to begging, but not quite able to stop it from coming through his voice. “Obie, you-”

“Promised, I know, I did, and I will stand by that, Tony. I will stand by my word, because I am a man of my word, it's just...” He sighed and in the silence that followed, Tony could hear him swallow. The brandy must've burned because when he spoke again, his voice was raw. “It was just easier when it was Ty.”

Tony snorted. “Maybe for you,” he said, and yes, that was it, that was what mattered, what always mattered. That it was easier for Obie, that all of it was easier for Obie to control, to watch, to keep tabs on. Tony opened his mouth, about to ask if Ty had Obie's idea, if Obie had nudged, and Ty had went, a good company man, even then, even a young and eager employee, if he hadn't decided that was best for his career, and for Tony, and if Obie wasn't at the root of the whole thing, from the beginning.

He closed his mouth, words dying in his throat, because really, he didn't want to know the answer. Not really. He was afraid of the answer, in the end, and he knew it.

Tony scrubbed a hand over his face. “He doesn't know who I am.”

“How do you know?”

“Because you're the one who made sure my cover story was air tight, and I trust you,” Tony said, the words leaden on his tongue, but they worked.

“I know that what we put in place for you was perfect, but you inherited some of your father's poor habits,” Obie said, quietly. There was disappointment in his voice, and disapproval, and a wave of humiliation swamped Tony before he could brace himself against it.

“Is that why you went through all the trouble to get MIT to enroll me under a fake name?” Tony asked, and it was petty, petty and childish, and he didn't care. “So that if you got stuck with another embarrassment of a Stark, you's have an easier time burying me than you did dad?”

There was a long silence. “I have done nothing to deserve that,” Obie said, and Tony struggled against a spike of shame.

He stared, unseeing, at the skylight. “Well, you're in luck, Obie, he hates my drinking as much as you do.”

“He sounds like a boy after my own heart.” Obie was trying his best to sound friendly, to sound approving, but it just fell flat, the sound false and the words empty. “When do I get to meet him?”

“Sorry, Obie, but that would run the risk of him figuring out who I am, wouldn't it?” Tony pointed out. “You're too public of a figure for us to take that chance.”

A beat of silence, and another, and he could hear his own breath echoing in his ears and he steeled himself against it. “Well, I suppose you are taking this seriously,” Obie said.

“I suppose I am,” Tony agreed. “Look, Obie, I have to go. I have work to do.”

“Yes, you do. I'm expecting the new schematics by the end of the week,” Obie said. “Understood?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tony said, a smile ghosting over his lips. “You'll have them by Friday.”

“I'll hold you to that.”

“You always do,” Tony said, and the words were out before he could stop himself. But Obie chuckled, and said good bye, and for a moment, Tony stood, strained and silent, his head down, listening to the silence on the other end of the phone. He pulled the earpiece free of his ear and flung it, the movement sharp and violent, at the far wall. It hit, and before it even fell to the floor, he was out the door and heading for the stairs.

He was running by the time he hit the bottom, and Steve, caught in the middle of sticking papers to Dummy with magnets, looked up, meeting Tony's eyes. Tony didn't want to see the concern there, the frustration, the anger that bubbled just below the surface, and he grabbed the pages from Steve's hand and sent them flying, crawling into Steve's lap. Steve went stiff under him for an instant, his shoulders going tight, his hands coming up to catch Tony's arms, but Tony leaned in and kissed him.

Desperate, sharp, needy on a way that was not at all sexy or attractive, Tony just kissed him. Steve kissed him back, but he was drawing back, even as Tony was forcing his way forward.

“Hey,” Steve whispered against his mouth. “Hey, what happened?”

“Nothing.” Tony bit at his lower lip, and Steve's arms tightened on him. “Can we not talk about this?”

Steve's kiss was gentle, sweet, but his body was hot and tense. “Tell me you're okay,” he whispered, his lips trailing over Tony's jaw.

“Take me to bed and I'll be just fine,” Tony said. Steve didn't move, didn't react when Tony pulled at him, his fingers digging in. But Tony breathed, “Please,” and Steve was on his feet, on his feet and heading upstairs, Tony tangled around him, clinging tight.

Tony buried his face in Steve's shoulder, and wondered why he felt like he was going to cry.

*

Clint wasn't generally a fan of hotel bars. To expensive, too snooty, and too quick to enforce a dress code. It took a lot to convince him the problems were worth it.

Corporal Natalie Rushman counted as 'a lot.'

“Really?” Clint said, letting her tow him forward, one finger hooked in the front of his belt. “Really, you got a room? Doesn't that strike you as, I don't know, a waste of money?”

“No,” Natalie said, smiling over her shoulder at him. Her hair gleamed in the recessed lighting of the hallway. Her hips had a a distinct sway, tempting and teasing, and he found himself staring at her ass. In his defense, it was an amazing ass.

“It's a hotel in downtown Boston, it's a waste of money,” Clint said.

She gave a quick tug on his belt, twisting him around and pushing him up against the wall. She braced one hand against the wall, just over his shoulder, and leaned in. “Let's make sure we're clear here,” she said, her voice a low, soft purr that went straight to the pleasure center of his brain, “I've paid for a room here. I'm going to go enjoy myself in a very comfortable, very big bed.” Her eyelashes dipped low, and then rose, her eyes meeting his in a blatant invitation. “If you'd care to join me, you're welcome. However, if you're going to harp on the amount I just put on my credit card?”

She leaned into his body, her breasts flush up against his chest, and the soft plane of her stomach against his hips. Clint resisted the urge to whimper. “Then you can go home and jerk off,” she said, and pushed away from him, letting her body rub against his as she stepped away. Her little black dress clung in all the right places, and his palms itched to reach out and grab.

He knew better than to try, though.

“You make a very good point,” Clint said, and she was already halfway up the hallway and he had to scramble to catch up to her.

She paused at the door to the suite, holding up the keycard. “I always do,” she said, her beautiful mouth drawn up in a wicked smile. She opened the door and shoved him in. “Bedroom, now,” she said.

“You are a bossy woman, you know that?”

“You like it,” she said, closing and bolting the door behind her. Laughing, Clint headed towards the bedroom door.

He was somehow not surprised to see Agent Phil Coulson sitting at the desk on the far side of the room. He should've been, but somehow, it made far more sense than he wanted to admit. Coulson was bent over a file, a pair of stylish but understated reading glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. He didn't even glance up as Clint stopped in the doorway, or as Natalie shut and secured the door behind them with a snap of the lock.

“Please have a seat, Specialist,” Coulson said, still focused on his paperwork. Natalie walked around Clint to take a seat in the center of the big bed. She folded her legs with a graceful flick of her feet, curling them under her as she reached for the laptop from the bedside table. He looked up with a faint smile.

“This room is secure.” The shades were drawn behind him, the light of the lamps the only illumination. “You can speak freely.” He waved a hand in Rushman's direction. “May I introduce Agent Natasha Romanov, our finest undercover operative?”

“One of the finest,” Natalie, no, Natasha said, her red lips curling up in a smile.

Coulson gave her a withering look. “Too late to be fishing for compliments, I've already finished your yearly evaluation.”

“It's never too early to start kissing up for next year,” she said, arching one eyebrow. “I take the long view of these sorts of things, Phil.” Her fingers, perfectly manicured and tipped in pale, seashell pink polish, darted over the keys of her laptop. “It's why I'm so effective.”

“This is true.”

“One question,” Clint said, from the same place, just inside the suite, where he'd stopped.

Natasha looked up. “Yes?” she asked politely, her fingers still rattling away at the keyboard even though her eyes were now focused on him.

“Were you faking it?”

Her eyebrows arched, and the sound of the keystrokes stopped. “Excuse me?”

“Your orgasms. Were you faking?” Clint asked, and there was a sound suspiciously like a snort of laughter from Coulson, but he covered it exceptionally well, coughing into his hand when Clint glanced at him.

Natasha's head tipped to the side, a red wave of hair coming to rest on her porcelain cheek. “That's your question?” she asked, amusement in her voice. “Not if it was part of an assignment, not if I was manipulating you?”

“No judgments or implications,” Clint said, shrugging. “But if you were doing your job, I'd at least like to think that you were having a good time while doing it. Also, if it is part of your job, your job fucking sucks, just- Let's get that over with.” He looked at Coulson. “That fucking sucks.”

“I agree,” Coulson said, a faint smile on his face.

“Just so we're in agreement.”

Natasha's head dipped back down, not quite far enough to hide her smile. “You're more trouble than you're worth, but that was not part of the assignment, you are very good with your hands, and you get the job done.”

“Huh, that's almost word for word my year-end evaluation in high school wood shop,” Clint mused. “But the project was something completely different.”

“I imagine so.” She shook her head. “SHIELD does not give those kind of orders. Rest assured, I wouldn't take them if they did.”

“Good to know.” Clint relaxed enough to pad across the bedroom and toss himself into the armchair that was next to the bed. He considered propping his feet on the edge of the mattress. “I mean, if this is a recruitment attempt, it's nice to know that you don't work for a fucking scumbag organization.”

“True,” she said, unruffled. “And just so you're aware?” She glanced up. “If I ever do fake it, Specialist? You won't have a clue.”

“Hopefully, if there's a repeat,” Clint said, grinning, “I'll be good enough so that's not necessary. I mean, if you're only using me for a good time, there's no real point if you're not actually having a good time.”

“You are nothing if not a good time.”

“Now you're quoting my Army file,” Clint said. He slumped a little lower in his seat, raising his eyebrows in Coulson's direction. “See, she's a better honey pot than you, she at least knows how to flirt.”

“When flirting is required, Coulson usually isn't SHIELD's first choice,” Natasha said.

“That is sadly true,” Coulson said, shaking his head as he flipped open a file. “That being said-”

“How the hell was I supposed to know?” Clint asked. He hooked a thumb in Coulson's direction. “He was getting pretty frisky the first time we talked.”

Natasha's fingers stilled on her keyboard. “Is that so?” she asked her head tipping in Coulson's direction.

Clint shrugged. “Is that really such a surprise?”

“We need to discuss-” Coulson started.

“Actually, it is.” Natasha set her computer aside and stretched her legs out in front of her, crossing them at her ankles. Her toenails were the same pink as her finger nails. “Coulson, would you like to address this new information?”

“It was the easiest way to keep his attention,” Coulson said, but there was the faintest hint of color high on his cheekbones.

“It is, in fact.” Natasha closed her laptop and rolled off the bed. “I think I'll take a nice, long shower,” she said. She padded towards the bathroom, her fingernails carding through Clint's hair as she passed by. Clint leaned into her touch, just a little. A moment later, the door closed behind her.

Clint looked at Coulson. “Look me in the eye and tell me you didn't order her to seduce me. Because I don't know if that makes me, or you, more guilty of sexual assualt.”

Coulson looked at him, his expression carrying a vague hint of pity. “Specialist, the first I heard of it was when she walked into my office the morning after and announced that she had seduced you.” He smiled, just a little. “And that you were in fact quite the gentleman.”

Behind him, the water started up in the shower. Clint sat there, staring at Coulson, weighing the words, weighing the man's very presence. “Why am I here?”

“Because the situation is delicate at the moment. Despite our best efforts, we can't be assured of his continued safety without your support.” He leaned forward, holding the file folder out to Clint. “You haven't accepted my offer.”

“You didn't make one.” Clint took the file, but didn't open it. “How do you know I won't sell you out?”

“Because it would be selling him out, and you're not capable of that.”

That stung, and Clint gave him a tight lipped smile. “Maybe I just suspected your double agent. Now I have proof.”

Coulson heaved the tiniest sigh. “You didn't suspect her. She really is that good. And that also means that you could walk into Ross' office right now and announce that she tried to recruit you for another agency, and he wouldn't believe a word of it.” Coulson's head tipped to the side. “She really, really is that good.”

“So did you turn her, too?”

“No, she was always working for us. For years, we've been attempting to gain entry to your unit. Rumors were rife, even if Ross' little cabal is considered by most to be little more than a special forces urban myth. Most of the brass aren't even aware that it exists, let alone what he's doing there. But until Romanov was able to penetrate the system, we had no real intel.”

“And now?” Clint asked.

“You are aware,” Coulson said, his voice very soft, “that almost no one in your unit is there by choice? Most are under one sort of coercion or another, or fear for their life or their loved ones, and for those who aren't? They have no where to go.” He leaned forward, his hands folded between his knees. “Until now. It is our intent to offer every one of those individuals a way out, and once we're sure that they have a chance to leave, we will raze what remains of his stronghold.”

Clint shook his head. “You're delusional.” He tossed the folder towards the bed. “Once you're recruited for this particular unit, Agent Coulson, there is no way out. Except in a coffin.”

He was halfway to the door when Coulson's voice stopped him. “We know about Barney.”

Clint stared at the wall, not blinking, not moving.

“You are too young, and too strong of an asset to be wasted on wet work,” Coulson continued. “This was all we could do for you, for now. To get you assigned as Rogers' guard.”

Clint tried to relax his fingers. “For him. Or for me?”

“For both of you.” There was no sound, no sense of movement, but Coulson's voice was right behind him now, so close that Clint could have leaned back and touched him. He wanted to. He didn't.

“How far does this manipulation go? How many people around him, around me, are yours?”

“More than you suspect, fewer than you might think. SHIELD agents tend to be subtle and good at their work. You'd enjoy it.”

Clint's eyes closed. “You know about where he's been spending his nights?”

“The MIT student. Yes.”

Clint turned, fast and hard, right in Coulson's face with a single movement. “Is he one of yours?”

Coulson didn't flinch, didn't block or attack or even blink. “No. He's very important, but we can't risk approaching him, not yet. But we did arrange for them to meet.”

Shock pulsed through him. “What- How?”

“The simplest thing can result in two people being in proximity together,” Coulson said. “And a man who seems more drunk than he is can make sure that contact is made. After that, well.” His smile was gentle. Slight. “Very few things are as random as you might think they are.”

“You are fucking terrifying,” Clint said, and no, he reminded himself, this was not a turn on.

“We're working on that,” Coulson said, his tone apologetic.

Fuck, fine, it was a turn on. Clint stepped back. “Why him?”

“He has connections we need.” Coulson turned back to the bed, picked up the folder and held it out to Clint. “This is what I can tell you right now. Take it. Sit down. Read it.”

“Why?”

“Because the lives you can help us save are important.” Coulson's lips stretched into a real smile, one that reached his eyes. “And I include yours in that.”

For a long moment, they just stood there, locked in a silent battle of wills. On the verge of turning and going, Clint stopped when Coulson said, “I will get you out. I swear.”

He took the file, and he sat down.

*

“He cut the funding.”

Tony's eyes flicked towards the ceiling. “Hello, Dad,” he said, exhausted by this conversation already. “So nice to hear from you. Nice to see you still know how to dial a phone. That's a tough one to hold onto, I know that, obsolete technology and all that, but-”

“Shut you, you little pissant,” Howard growled out, but the insult lacked force. His attention was clearly somewhere else. “He cut the funding.”

“Probably,” Tony agreed. “That's kinda what he does. Money guy. Which means that mostly, he denies us money.” He clicked the phone over to speaker and tossed it down on the workbench before going back to work. His SI plans were rolled up and stacked in a pile across the room, and he should be working on them, he knew that. But instead, he leaned over his latest obsession, his fingers careful on the tiny structure.

For the first time in a very long time, he was building, designing, because he wanted to. Because he had to. Because it made him happy.

“He cut the funding!”

Howard was clearly drunk, the words slurring at the edges, the rattle of glass and metal in the background of the call. Something broke, glass by the sound of it, a cup or a decanter, something small, tipped from the table or the counter. Howard cursed.

“Don't try to pick it up,” Tony cautioned, a familiar refrain. If he was in New York, he'd already be going for the dustpan and brush.

Clearly, Howard had the same thought. He snorted. “Who's gonna do it, boy, you?”

“The cleaning crew'll be there tomorrow, and you know it,” Tony said, even if Howard probably didn't remember that. Howard's grasp on the calendar was pretty weak at times. “That's why we let Obie control the money. Because he pays for shit like that.”

“He cut the funding,” Howard said, reminded of his original bone of contention.

“Okay, yeah, probably,” Tony said. “If it's fun or interesting, it's not 'commercially viable.'” he made the finger quotes in mid-air, forgetting his father couldn't see them. Dummy could, though, and he mimicked the flickers of Tony's fingers. Tony grinned and threw a rag at him.

“He cut-”

“Yeah, I got that, Dad, you're stuck in a loop, and I don't know what you expect me to do about the loss of whatever pet project you're talking about,” Tony said. He reached for a welding torch, and his helmet. “In that Obie does what he wants in terms of the cash flow.” He did his best to keep his finances apart from the company's, and Howard's. He had a trust from his mother, but that required going through Obie, too. He'd done it a few times, but for the most part his stipend and the funds from Cookie Jar Jumble kept him afloat. He preferred it that way.

He focused on his work, the delicate, so fragile inlays of circuitry and sensors. And this was the easy part, he still had to finish the coding. Dummy was watching, his camera resting on the edge of the table, so much like a dog waiting for a treat that Tony couldn't help but laugh.

“Are you listening to me?” Howard said, infuriated.

“Not really, Dad, sorry, but it's two am and I've got another like, million things to do before I get to sleep today, and let me tell you, I resent the hell out of that,” Tony said. “You're yelling at me about something I cannot fix. You're yelling at me about money, and right now? I have less control over my money than you do.”

Howard gave a humph of displeasure, and Tony caught himself smiling. “Punk,” Howard groused.

“Yeah, yeah, old man, whatever.” Tony reached for the next set of relays. “You have anything for me, other than rantings about cash?”

“Not yet,” Howard said, and there was an odd note to his voice, one that was unfamiliar. One that hadn't been there before, one that Tony hadn't heard in a long time. He paused, caught off guard.

“What's going on in that head of yours?” he asked, peeling off his gloves. Dummy, recognizing a break when he saw one, perked right up. “Clean the bench,” Tony told him, and scooped up the phone. “Dad?”

“You're right,” Howard said, and the words were clear, they were sharp; for the moment, he was aware of his surroundings and this conversation, and there was something odd in his voice. “Follow the money, Tony. That's where your answers will be found. You can kill people, you can hide evidence, you can bury it all. But money leaves a trace, sure as blood.

“And unlike blood, they never remember to clean up after themselves.”

Tony opened his mouth, ready to ask what Howard was drinking, but he was tired, he was so tired. “Look, Dad? I'll give you a call in the morning, okay? But I don't have a clue what you're talking about right now, and... I just can't deal with it.”

“Yeah, yeah.” The slur was back, just a little, and Tony could hear the click of ice cubes and the splash of liquor on the crystal. “Tony?”

“Yeah?”

He heard his father take a drink. “I'm proud of you.”

Tony froze, his brain locking up. “What?” he said, but the line was dead. He stared down at it, not sure if he was frustrated or pleased, or a combination of both. The words rattled around in his head like a living thing, and he didn't know how to handle them, how to cope with the sentiment involved. They were foreign to his experience, they were foreign to his father and to him, and he couldn't handle it. He resisted the urge to call Howard back and just howl at him, just scream about how unfair it was. How very unfair it was that Howard could undo years of attempting to take ownership of his own life. How unfair it was that Howard could reduce him to a desperate, needy child with a handful of halfhearted words.

It wasn't fair. It wasn't right. Years, he'd been on his own, telling himself that it didn't matter what Howard thought, what he thought about Tony or what he thought in general. It didn't matter. Tony knew what he was capable of, it and it was far more than his old man could've dreamed. Years of telling himself that his worth had nothing to do with Howard's approval, and it was all wiped away by a sentence.

And he was once again a little boy, crying in the middle of the night, for the mother that couldn't come and the father that wouldn't.

He headed for his bed. He'd figure it out tomorrow.

*

Steve stared at the battered ceiling of Tony's room, struggling to breathe. “Well,” he said, his face flushed, everything flushed, his throat raw, his body aching.

Tony, sprawled face down on the bed next to him, mumbled something into his pillow. Steve tipped his head in Tony's direction, enjoying the view. The sleek, defined muscles of Tony's back were beautiful in the muted light, his golden skin covered in a sheen of sweat. His dark hair was a tumbled mess, the sprawl of his graceful limbs enough to send a fresh spiral of heat through his gut.

He closed his eyes, embarrassed by his own lack of control. He really was a pervert.

“That was amazing,” Tony said, his voice a muted purr. He shifted against the tangled sheets, his body stretching like a big, sated cat.. “Holy FUCK, that was amazing.” He rolled over, enough to meet Steve's eyes, and he was grinning like the devil that he was. “Have I mentioned how much I adore your refractory period?”

Steve winced. “Sorry.”

“Do not ever apologize for that. No. Do not.” Tony pushed himself up, draping himself across Steve's chest. He leaned in for a kiss, and let his teeth scrape against Steve's lower lip. “That was fantastic, I knew I was good at this, but you inspire me to new heights.”

Steve couldn't hold back a laugh. “What, exactly,” he said, wrapping his arms around Tony's waist, enjoying the slick slide of skin against skin, “got into you today?”

Tony wiggled his eyebrows. “Uh, you.”

Steve let him giggle for a second, then put his hand square on Tony's face and pushed him off. Still laughing like a loon, Tony tumbled back onto the bed. Trying not to laugh, Steve rolled over to lie next to him. “Seriously,” Steve said. “I'm not complaining, but that was, that was intense.”

He'd barely made it to the front stoop of the warehouse, weighed down by books and bags and the day's stresses, when Tony had flung the door open, grabbed Steve by the front of his jacket, and yanked him inside. Everything had ended up on the floor, including his clothes, and the only reason they hadn't ended up having sex on the damn workbench was because Steve had come to his senses just long enough to pick Tony up and run for the stairs.

They'd both been naked by the time Steve had stumbled through Tony's bedroom door, Tony wrapped around him, their mouths locked together. It had been fast and hard and wild, and Steve was pretty sure he had hickeys everywhere. Not that he cared.

Tony grinned at him, boyish and adorable and so hot that Steve had to give his body a firm reminder that they were done for now. “My adviser liked my latest draft,” Tony said. “So you got laid. You got laid hard.” He wiggled his eyebrows. “You're welcome.”

“That I did.” Laughing, Steve sat up, propping himself against the pillows. “That's great, Tony! I'm so proud of you!”

Tony flushed, and buried his face in his folded arms. “Thanks,” he said, his voice muffled, and Steve reached out to play with his hair. Tony batted at hm with one hand.

“Oh, fine,” Steve said, amused. “I see how this is. You use me for sex, then when I want to cuddle-”

“Cuddle, really, did you just use the word 'cuddle?'” Tony asked him, peering at him with one dark eye. “No, I'm not cuddling, Jesus, that's- That's just horrible.” He wiggled to the side, out of reach, and Steve watched him go, amused.

“Yeah, I know, you hate that. That must be why I wake up every morning with you using me as a pillow,” Steve mused.

“Shut up.”

“And why you insist on sitting in my lap when we watch tv,” Steve continued.

“Shut up!”

“Also why the last time you were frustrated by your coding, and I was trying to work, you draped yourself over my back and hung your arms over my shoulders and whined into the back of my neck?” Steve asked.

“Fine, fuck you,” Tony said, throwing a pillow in Steve's direction. Steve deflected it easily, and Tony sat up. He stretched. “I'm going to sell your birthday present on the internet.”

It took Steve a second to remember that his fictional birthday was coming up in a month or so. For an instant, his smile died, and tried not to think about where he would be in July. Instead, he tried to concentrate on what he had now, for as long as he managed to hold onto it. “Are you likely to get a good price for it?”

“Massive paycheck,” Tony said. He leaned forward and kissed Steve on the lips, gentle and sweet. “But it's yours. I made it. Just for you. Handmade and all that shit.”

Steve felt his face flush. “Thank you.”

“Don't thank me yet. You can thank me once you get it. With sex.”

“Or a thank you card,” Steve said. “That's pretty good, too, right?” Tony gave him a look. “It'll be handwritten, if that sweetens the deal.”

“You are just a- Why am I dating you?” Tony said.

“Because I laugh at your stupid jokes,” Steve said, not at all bothered when Tony launched another pillow at him.

“You staying?” Tony asked, rolling off the bed and walking naked across the room.

Steve watched him go, his brain shorting out. “Uh, no. I've got a late session tonight.”

“Meet you for dinner afterward?” Tony asked, yawning as he settled at his desk, naked and with a very visible mark on the back of his shoulder blade where Steve had apparently sucked a little harder than he'd intended. He should probably feel ashamed about that.

“I'm going to be late,” Steve cautioned.

“Eagles Deli?”

“You'll be on the green line forever.” Steve started looking for his underwear. He was pretty sure it was somewhere in the room.

“It's worth it for a place that serves fries by the pound. Besides, I like the green line.” Tony reached across his desk, and without even looking, tossed Steve his shorts.

“Thank you. Okay. I'll call you.” Steve stepped into his underwear and leaned over Tony's shoulder, brushing a kiss against his hair. “I'm proud of you,” he said, and Tony leaned back against him.

He glanced up. “Thanks, Steve.”

Steve kissed him on the nose. “I'll buy your burger tonight.”

“Score.”

Still laughing, Steve headed downstairs, collecting his clothes as he went. Dummy was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, waiting patiently with Steve's shirt draped over his support strut and his head tucked between the slats of the metal banister. Steve laughed and stroked a hand over the bot's claw. “Did you find this for me, or did it land on you?”

Dummy whined as he pushed against Steve's hand. “Yeah, you're my favorite, aren't you?”

“Hey!” Tony yelled from upstairs.

“He's more loveable than you!” Steve called back, dragging his shirt over his head. “For one thing, he doesn't steal my socks.”

“My feet were cold!”

“Yeah, yeah.” With Dummy following him the entire way, trying to help, Steve collected all of his things and headed for the door. “Thanks, buddy.” Shrugging into his jacket, he grabbed his backpack from the ground and opened the door.

Ty was standing on the stoop, looking pissed.

Steve stopped in the middle of the doorway. “Can I help you?”

“Excuse me,” Ty said, trying to push past him, and Steve braced a hand against the door frame.

“Key not working?” he asked, with a tight smile, and Ty froze. He glanced at Steve, who met his gaze evenly, and with a sense of grim satisfaction. “It won't. And he won't give you another one.”

“You changed the locks?” Ty seethed. “How dare you, you-”

“I had nothing to do with it,” Steve said, which was completely honest on his part. He had approved, that was for damn sure, but he'd had nothing to do with the decision. “Can't say I disagree, though.” He pulled on his gloves, still staying between Ty and the interior of the workshop without much effort.

He could almost see Ty pull himself together, could see the point at which rage gave way to calculation. “Do you really think this will last?” he said, and his voice was calm now, calm and with a marked note of pity. “It won't. You're a school romance, and there is a reason why he hasn't introduced you to any of his family willingly.” He leaned in. “When he graduates, he's going to leave you behind.”

Steve didn't say a word, didn't react by so much as a flicker of an eyelash, waiting to see what Ty's play was going to be.

“Unless, of course, you realize how to extend your usefulness.” Ty's smile was sharp and nasty. “If you're on the right side, we can make your life very easy, and very pleasant. You're an art student, aren't you, Mr. Burnside?”

Steve glanced up, wondering when and how Ty had acquired his name. “I am.”

“All artists need a patron,” Ty pointed out. “And if you prove amenable to our, well, our agenda, then you can keep him, because he will follow our lead. If we approve, if we sell you, then he will keep you, and you can sit in a very nice house and paint to your heart's content.”

It took Steve a second to get himself under control enough to speak. “Thanks, but I'm not for sale. And if I was, it wouldn't be to you.”

“You haven't even heard the offer,” Ty said.

“I don't have to.” Steve shut the door behind him, checking to make sure the lock had engaged. “Here's my counter offer. If I ever, and I mean ever, find a mark on him that I think came from you?” He met Ty's eyes, and Ty took a step back. “You had better never cross my path again. I think that's a fair counter, don't you?”

Ty's mouth opened, but he didn't make a sound, and Steve pushed past him, heading for the street. “Call him, tell him you're here, and maybe he'll come down and let you in. If you're lucky.”

*

"Can I just start by saying that I understand that this is a difficult time for you, in terms of you being able to get your work done, I get that, I do, but I am telling you right now, this little self-imposed 'we've got shit to do for school' thing that you're enforcing?" Tony paused, leaning one shoulder against the wall. "It fucking sucks and if I kill an undergrad it'll be on you. Just putting that out there. When the cops come to drag me away, I will have a notebook full of pages that just read 'my boyfriend was more concerned with passing his immensely expensive classes at a world-class institute of higher learning than he was about soothing my fragile and very important ego.'"

A freshman skittered along the corridor, giving him a very wide berth. Tony resisted the urge to smirk. "What I'm saying is that-" There was a faint click, and the line went dead. Tony pulled his phone away from his ear and glared at it. "I'm saying that you need to extend your voice mail length," he muttered to the uncaring piece of technology. "Really. If I want to rant at your voice mail for ten minutes, I should be allowed to do so, this is the only thing I can do for the next ten days, and that seems horribly unfair."

Steve probably wasn't even listening to them at this point. Which was annoying. Tony wanted guilt. He felt that on some level, he deserved at least guilt in exchange for enforced celibacy. He kicked idly at the nearest trash can. He'd agreed to this, he had to keep reminding himself of that, he had agreed to this, mostly because Steve was right.

Tony hated admitting that other people were right. He found it to be frustrating on a very fundamental level. And annoying as all hell.

But Steve was right, it was easier to focus, to get his work done, to plow through project after project, both for school and SI, when he didn't have to constantly remind himself that work took priority over eating Chinese food on the couch with Steve, watching whatever crappy movie he could find at two am. Even if the Chinese and a badly subtitled monster movie were so much more appealing, especially leaning back against Steve's chest, defending his schezwan chicken and laughing at how seriously Steve took even the dumbest movie.

He missed that, more than was probably healthy.

Tony redialed with a flick of his thumb. “Just so you know,” he said to Steve's voice mail, “you owe me a blowjob.” Pleased with that, he hung up and tossed his phone in the air before he tucked it into his pocket. Okay, so he was an asshole. He was fine with that. Steve would roll his eyes and smile a little and flush a bit more and chances are, Tony wouldn't end up dumped. He was fine with that.

"Edwards."

He glanced up, and saw the department head gesturing to him from the other end of the corridor. Biting back a groan, he forced a smile onto his face and headed for the office. "Look," he said, when he got close enough, "if this is about the paperwork, I think-"

"It's not." Dr. Banyon gave him a faint smile. "Step into my office, please."

Something raised the hackles on the back of Tony's neck. He hadn't been aware that 'please' was in Banyon's vocabulary, and smiling was likely to crack his face. But left with no graceful choice other than going into the man's office or throwing something at his head and running, Tony stepped past him, through the open door.

Ty was sitting in the visitor chair, his back bent, his head down. His hands were clasped together between his knees, his whole posture one of exhaustion. Tony stopped dead on the inside of the door, and Ty glanced up. He was pale and drawn, his eyes suspiciously red.

Out of the corner of his eye, Tony saw Banyon nod, and Ty nodded back, then the department head retreated, pulling the door shut as he went. It closed with a very final sounding click, and Tony shivered.

"Is there any reason," he asked, his voice strained, "why the two parts of my life are colliding right now? In ways that they are most certainly not supposed to be?"

Ty's mouth opened, and closed. He stood up. "Tony, have a seat."

Tony considered the chair like it was something that was liable to bite him. "No, thanks. Seriously, what are you doing here, Ty?"

Ty braced a hand on the back of the chair. "Tony. Sit down."

"I don't-"

"And you're not going to, until you sit your ass down," Ty snapped, and he visibly reined himself in. He pressed a hand to his face, and his fingers were shaking. "Tony, please."

The sense of something being wrong, so very wrong, was now overwhelming. He crossed the room on unsteady legs and sank into the chair, more because he was afraid his knees would not hold him than because he wanted to sit. "What."

Ty's eyes closed. "Tony, your father-" He stopped, his throat working. "He got-" A deep breath. "He took a set of keys from the guard house while Happy was patrolling, and, uh-"

Tony's stomach was ice, he could feel the cold ball at his core, and he was numb to it, there was no pain, as if his brain was preparing him for a blow. "Did he hurt someone?"

"He didn't-" Ty glanced at him, and his eyes slid away. "He didn't make it off the grounds. He crashed, Tony, into the, the wall, and-"

Tony's shoulders tightened. "Jesus. How badly did he hurt himself?"

Ty's eyes closed. "He's dead."

Tony felt his heart seize in his chest. "What?"

"He's gone." Ty's breathing was unnaturally loud in the small office. It almost drowned out the throbbing of Tony's pulse in his ears. He was staring at Ty's lips, seeing the words being formed, time at a crawl as Ty's tongue flicked over the tips of his teeth, pink on white, red on the bone, and Tony swayed in his seat.

“That's not- What- You can't-" He tried to stand and staggered, his legs going out from under him, and Ty's hands closed on his biceps, the grip painful. Tony stared at him, blank, lost, uncomprehending.

Ty gave him a slight shake. "Tony. Your father died. Obie-" He swallowed, his throat bobbing with it. "Obie identified the body. You don't, you won't have to do that."

Tony tried to say something, but he couldn't seem to form words. His mouth worked anyway, chewing on the air, trying to breathe and failing. Ty leaned forward, his face so pale that his lips were the only color he had left, startlingly red against the palor of his face. "Tony. You're the last of the Starks," he whispered, hopelessness in his voice. "You're... All that's left."

Not even Ty's grip could've kept him upright at that point. His vision whited out, and when he was aware of himself, aware of the awkward angle of his legs and the throbbing of his elbow where it had clipped the arm of the chair, aware of the ice in his stomach spreading, crackling through his veins and he wasn't aware that pain could be like this. He had never thought about it, about the possibility that he could simply lose himself in something so like agony that he couldn't feel it at all. That he would be numb, and flayed to the bone, all at once.

Tony couldn't breathe, and he was aware of Ty's hand, his familiar grip on the back of his neck, pushing Tony's head down, folding him double, his spine collapsing under the pressure, all of the pressure, and he curled up tight. He blinked hard at the floor, his head between his knees and he was dizzy, he was lost.

There was a high pitched sound echoing in his ears, and it took forever for him to realize that it was him, he was making that noise, something like a cry of pain or a wail of grief, but without any air behind it because he could not breathe. He sucked in a breath, and another, and he was shaking, he was shaking apart, his whole body disconnected, a mass of misfiring impulses.

He curled into a ball and choked on his sobs.

From a distance, he felt Ty's hands smoothing down his back, over his head, over and over, slow and firm, and if he had the ability, he would've clung to Ty's arms, his hands, his body.

"We have to go," Ty whispered, his body bowed over Tony's, pressing in, pressing down. "Tony. We have to go."

Tony couldn't even blink. He didn't know why Ty thought that he was capable of movement, but the idea was laughable. He was laughing, short and hard, little bursts of laughter that sounded like sobs. He didn't know which it was, to be honest, he didn't know anything, his brain was numb, empty, a wasteland.

Ty dragged him to his feet, ignoring the way that Tony's limbs refused to respond. “It's okay,” Ty said, forcing Tony up. “It's okay, baby, oh, baby, it's going to be okay.” He dragged his coat around Tony's shoulders, wrapping him up like he was a little boy, forcing his arms into the sleeves, and Tony let him. His head lolled forward, resting for a brief second on Ty's shoulder, and he breathed in, catching the familiar scent of Ty's soap and aftershave, and all the things that had once made up his life.

Now, they were just faint memories.

He barely registered Ty slipping his phone from his pocket. And when he realized what Ty was doing, when he watched Ty tuck it into his pants pocket, he realized he didn't care. Steve wouldn't be picking up the phone for another nine days, anyway. Tony had been such a pain in the ass by now that he doubted that Steve was even listening to his voice mails any more, or reading his texts or emails. If he had any sense, he'd put Tony on ignore for his own sanity.

Ty steered Tony down the corridor, and Tony went, his head down, his arms wrapped tight around himself, holding himself together. He had a moment of clarity, and he acknowledged the truth of the matter: right now, he was alone.

*

He didn't bother moving when Obie opened the door.

“Tony?”

He stared, vacant and empty, at the bottle of vodka that Ty had laid out for him. He hadn't touched the glass, but it was comforting having it so close. Like a security blanket that he'd never be able to let go of.

“It didn't hurt so much last time,” he said. The words came from a distance, from some depth that he hadn't been aware of. “When mom died. It didn't- It didn't hurt like this, and I didn't, I couldn't figure out why, because I loved her, I loved her so much. But it didn't hurt so much.”

“You were a child,” Obie said, pulling the door shut behind him. There were noises outside, and Tony was aware of them, he just didn't care. “You didn't understand.”

“No. I did. But I thought- When mom died, I thought dad was still there. I though he was still going to be-” His face twisted and he waited, he waited to start crying, but it didn't happen. He closed his eyes. “I thought I was going to be okay, because he was still there, that he would be better, that he would- That he would be my father first. And now, that's gone, there's nothing, there's nothing-”

Obie's hands closed on his shoulders. “I'm still here, Tony. I'm still here, and I love you, and you are not alone. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, son, but your father-” His mouth went tight. “He was weak, in some ways. It didn't mean he didn't love you.”

Tony tried to feel something, anything, to take comfort from that, but he couldn't. He didn't even bother trying. “Ty said you, that you identified him?”

“Yes.” Obie glanced at the desk. “You mind, kiddo?”

“Yeah, I mean, no. I don't mind.” Tony choked on a laugh. “There's plenty more where that came from.”

“Thank you.” Obie picked up the glass and threw back the alcohol with a couple of quick swallows. “Yes. I identified him. You won't have to.” He was pale, drawn, and his eyes were red. Tony stared at him, trying to find some reflected grief in his guardian's face. But there was nothing familiar there.

Obie sank onto Tony's spare chair, leaning forward, the empty glass hanging between his knees. “We'll talk to the school tomorrow, let them know that you'll be withdrawing. There are crews already clearing everything out downstairs. Packing things up, moving them back home, we'll have everything done in a few-”

Tony stared at him, not comprehending a word of it. “I'm not- I'm not done.”

Obie huffed out a breath. “Tony...”

“No,” Tony snapped, and it was too loud, too sharp, and he didn't care. “You promised, you and- Dad promised, I could get my degree, you couldn't, that was-”

“Tony!” Obie grabbed his arm with one hand. Gave him a shake. “Tony, you did. You got your bachelors, and I'm certain that you've finished your masters work. You got your degree, and-”

“No,” Tony repeated. “No, that wasn't the deal.”

“Your father dying wasn't part of the plan either, Tony, but there it is.”

In the wake of that, Obie released his arm, and it ached, both the memory of the grip and the letting go. “I'm sorry, Tony. But this wasn't part of the plan. And now things have to change.”

Tony's eyes closed, his head falling forward. “Yeah. Yeah, I mean- Yeah.” He folded into himself, his arms coming up, his hands scrubbing over his head, over his neck and shoulders, scrubbing at his skin, trying to feel something, anything. “I know, Obie. I know. I have to go. But I can come back, and finish things, on my own, I have a life here, Obie.”

“Yeah. We need to talk about that, too.”

Tony opened his eyes, in time to see Obie finish pouring a new tumbler of vodka. Obie's eyes were on the glass, a muscle jumping in his jaw. “Tony, I know about Steve.”

Tony's heart stopped. “I don't know-”

Obie took a breath. “Tony. Your father called me about the situation.” He handed Tony the glass of alcohol. “About the fact that Steve Rogers is alive and he is miraculously whole. Your father was too much a slave to his demons to know what he was doing, who he was telling, because I've also heard from our military liaisons, checking on what we know, what you know. They're being delicate about it, but I have no doubt that your father was not capable of being as careful as he should've been.

“He's tripped something. They know. He's-” Obie stopped, his mouth going tight. “He did. He did trip something, and he exposed you, and Rogers, and the entire company.”

Tony took a long drink, and then slammed the glass down on the desk. “We can expose them, we can-”

Obie stared at him, his face unreadable. "We make weapons, Tony," he said at last. "We do weapons manufacture for the US Government."

"Yeah, I'm aware, trust me, I'm the one doing the designing, have you noticed that?” Tony spat, his voice full of venom. “Do you know what they're doing? Did dad tell you how much danger he's in? What am I supposed to do, just-”

"Does he have any idea how old you are?"

Tony froze. For an instant, he struggled to breathe, struggled to swallow, struggled to keep his heart beating. "What the hell does that matter?"

Obie's eyes closed, slow. Tired. Deep grooves were carved beside his mouth, heavy lines like scars that bisected his face. "You're seventeen years old, Tony. Seventeen. And he is not."

"Oh, for fuck's-"

"No, you stop. You stop, right now," Obie snapped, his eyes flicking open. He leaned forward, his massive shoulders blocking out the light, pushing Tony back into his chair with the very weight of his presence. "You will listen to me. For once in your life, Anthony Edward Stark, you will listen to me."

Tony subsided, shrinking back, falling back, his head up with a force of will. Obie sucked in a breath, and it wobbled at the edges, it was watery and thick and horrible, and Tony flinched from it. "He is military," Obie said, and there was a horrible kindness in the words. "He is a man defined, and at the moment, protected by his rank and his position. You know that. You know that the fact that he is useful to the Army is the only thing allowing him something approaching a normal life. Can you imagine, can you take a moment to think about it, about what they would do to him if he ceases to be useful?"

He leaned in, one hand braced on the back of Tony's chair, the thud of impact enough to shake the wood. "Do you know what they'll do to him if it turns out that their potential public relations ploy has been sleeping with a teenage boy?"

Tony felt dizzy, his head aching, his chest aching, he couldn't breathe, he couldn't see, his whole body shaking. "It's-" He stopped, not sure of the words, not sure of anything any more. "They can't-"

"You know they can." The words were soft, chiding, gentle. Affectionate, and Tony's head fell forward, empty and dense all at once. "They can do whatever they want. That's a hell of a way to repay him, isn't it? To ruin him. And if he is not a soldier, Tony, then he is nothing more than a failed test subject, and if your father was right, how long do you suppose he'll live?”

He was aware, on some level, that he was shaking, that his body was trembling, his limbs foreign to him, his control slipping through fingers gone numb with cold and pain. His breath was coming in hard, fast pants, ragged and uneven. "I can't-"

"I know. I know." Obie's head fell forward, too heavy to hold up, and his shoulders hunched forward. "I know. We'll fix it. I'll fix it." He glanced up, his smile soft and familiar. "You know I'll fix it, don't you?" He reached for the glass, pressing it into Tony's hand. "Drink."

“No, I-”

“If you love him, you will protect him, and this is the way to do it.”

Tony stared at him, then at the clear liquid, and he couldn't think. "What do I do?" he asked, the words lost in the room.

Obie smiled, a little broader now, a little more relaxed. "We keep doing what we've always done," he said. "We will make the weapons that make us invaluable to the military. We will keep them happy, and as long as they're happy, he's safe." He straightened up. "We'll get you packed up now, everything, we scrub this place, and you come home. A clean break.” His hand cupped Tony's head, his fingers broad and strong, stroking Tony's hair as if he was a child again. “All of this, we just pretend it never happened."

Tony watched the ripples on the surface of his drink, tremors that rattled his arm and his hand and his whole body. "I don't-"

"This is what we have to do," Obie said, calm and patient and firm. "If you want to keep him safe, you will come home. And set yourself to work. To the work that has always sustained your family. That has always been part of you. Together-" He leaned over, blocking out the light, looming large in Tony's eyes, and his hand slipped from Tony's head to his shoulder, the grip too tight, too hard. "We will make StarkIndustries the company it should always have been. With me at the helm, and you doing the design work, we will make StarkIndustries the company you deserve."

He smiled. "The one your father always dreamed of, but could never achieve. Because he was a slave to his demons, and because he wouldn't let me help him." He leaned in, his breath hot on Tony's skin. "You, you're different. You're better than him, Tony. You're smarter than he ever was, you know what's at stake, you know what the consequences are for failure." His fingers tightened, a vise that sank into Tony's bones. "You know you need me. You know you can't do this without me." His free hand cupped the bottom of Tony's glass, and he brought it up to Tony's mouth. "Drink. You've had a terrible shock."

His lips parted, his eyes locked on Obie's even as he felt the liquid wash over his lips, over his tongue. It burned, caustic and sharp and he knew there was something wrong even before the first sip was fully across his lips. For a second, he considered spitting it out, spitting it in Obie's face, but he was weak, he was always weak. The alcohol promised something like respite, something like relief, and he swallowed.

“Good boy,” Obie said, and his hand was on Tony's head, stroking, petting, gentle and affectionate, but his eyes were cold and full of something Tony didn't understand.

He opened his mouth, trying to say something, trying to question that, and Obie tipped the glass up. The alcohol swept into his mouth, and he choked on it, gagging and coughing, liquid dribbling from the corners of his mouth. He struggled to breathe, to think, and all he could do was drink, to swallow the alcohol that was pushing against his closed throat.

“Finish it,” Obie said, his voice kind, but no less authoritarian, for all that. “It'll help, Tony.”

Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. His head swam, his thoughts jumbled, but he was drinking and the vodka burned in his throat. Something was wrong, but he couldn't figure out what, words and concepts beyond him now, there was just the overwhelming pressure of his grief. He'd fucked everything up, again, always, and now... His eyes closed and he was crying, the tears squeezed out of him, but it was okay, because he was still drinking, replacing what he was losing.

A thought pushed through the haze, that maybe this was what it was like for his father. When his mother died, maybe he'd traded tears for booze, that ancient concept of a body in balance, that the more of one that was he produced, the more alcohol he had to drink to make up for it, until the alcohol outweighed the grief. He thought it and then it was gone, slipping away from him as he tipped vodka down his throat.

He swallowed the last of it, Obie's hand over his, holding it there against his lips until the last drops were gone, and then Obie took it away, setting the glass down. "I need to-" He staggered up, ignoring the way his legs resisted him. "I have to-"

Obie caught him, a firm arm going around his waist, dragging him up, pulling him along. Tony hung from his grip, as weak and helpless as a child, and by the time his head cleared, he found himself being placed in bed. He struggled, fighting his way up, but even as he flailed against the covers, he knew it was pointless, the weight of his body was unnatural, he had enough experience with exhaustion and drunkenness and grief for his addled mind to know that. That something was wrong, beyond a few mouthfuls of vodka, he couldn't be this drunk, not this fast, it shouldn't be like this.

And a single memory flickered across his mind, his father's voice, saying, “He cut the funding.”

He heard voices at a distance, words that made no sense and splashed cold against his ears. A moment later, there was the solid sound of a door shutting, and he wondered, in some foggy corner of his mind, if he was locked in. In the silence that descended, a heavy blanket over the room, he scrambled at the covers of his bed, his fingers clawing against the fabric. It took work, it took far too much work, but he shoved his dead weight along the width of the bed, his limbs kicking until he tumbled to the floor. He hit with enough force to clear his head, pain sparking something like awareness.

Tony lay there, trying to think, trying to breathe, and one fumbling hand closed on a screwdriver. "Yeah," he said, and the word wasn't stable, but neither was he. His grip on the screwdriver, however, was just strong enough for one last act.

*

Steve stared down at his key. He glanced up at the widows, high above the street, but there was no light or movement inside. Crouching down, he managed to scrape together enough snow to make a snowball. Patting it together, he glanced around, checking for anyone nearby before he fired it towards Tony's bedroom window with a flick of his wrist.

It hit square in the middle of the pane with a wet thud. Steve waited, bouncing his key in his palm, but the windows remained dark.

Steve took a deep breath, and tried his key again, but the warehouse door refused to budge. “Goddammit,” he muttered under his breath. “C'mon, Tony. Where the hell are you?”

The calls had stopped abruptly. The emails. The voice mails. He'd told himself that Tony had just finally gotten bored with the game. It didn't feel right. It didn't seem right. But he'd held his ground, ignoring his instincts, for another three days of silence. Then he'd called Tony.

The number was out of service. And Steve had given way to the knowledge that something was seriously wrong.

Something was wrong, and he knew it, and he waited only another moment before he braced a foot on the doorframe and pulled, hard. The lock gave way with a metallic crack, and just like that, he was through the damaged panel and into the workshop. The darkness closed in behind him as he yanked the door shut, and for a moment, he was able to deny the reality of what he was seeing. But the truth hit him like a physical blow, hard enough to make him wobble on knees that threatened to give way.

The workshop floor was empty.

For an instant, he just stood there, his heart pounding in his chest, dizzy with the force of it. He heard something clatter, metallic and broken, and realized he'd dropped his key. It took him three tries to get the breath enough to say, “Jarvis? Lights. Turn the lights on, Jarvis.” No response, the darkness was oppressive, pressing down on him and he yelled out, “Tony?”

The word echoed in the empty space, disappearing into the darkness, and he was moving forward, his feet pounding against the concrete floor. “Tony? Tony!”

Stripped clean, the room seemed huge, cavernous, a black hole that he couldn't seem to get through. He found the spiral staircase in the darkness, his hand grabbing the bannister by rote, and he was flying up the steps. “Tony!” He took the steps two at a time, running faster and faster and when he got to the catwalk, he stumbled against the first door, throwing it open.

He wasn't surprised to find it empty.

Backing up, an incoherent sound of pain on his lips, he darted to the next door, and the next, all of them empty, deserted, nothing there but dust. Retreating, he ran back to the first door, the one to Tony's bedroom and plowed through it.

Nothing.

Steve slumped against the wall, his hand clutched tight on the doorknob, his head spinning. With his free hand, he fumbled for the light switch. The lights didn't come on, and he bit out a string of curses. They echoed in the darkness.

He paced along the walls, his feet stumbling like he was drunk, his whole body shaking, but there was nothing to get in his way. Even in the darkness he had nothing to fear, there was nothing to stumble over, nothing to trip him up. He circled the room two or three times, a lion caged with no way out, until his head was spinning, until he could barely breathe.

There was nothing here. Tony was gone. His phone disconnected, his emails bouncing, his odd and welcoming home stripped down to the bare floors, it was as if he'd never existed.

His back hit the wall, and he slid down to the ground. “Oh, God...”

In the silence that followed, he thought he could hear his heart pounding in his ears, an odd, arrhythmic stuttering of a thump. A sharp, metallic click brought his head up, and he scrambled across the floor. The clank came again, obvious now, and Steve followed the sound. Followed it to an air vent down at the base of the wall, tucked in a corner, hidden in the shadows. He leaned down, and something was moving inside the shadowed space.

Only one screw held the vent cover in place, the others were missing. Carefully, Steve pulled the screw out, and pried the grating loose. For an instant, he peered into the darkness, not sure what he was expecting.

The faint whine of gears and wheels was so familiar that he nearly burst into tears.

The tiny bot, a miniaturized version of Dummy, rolled out of the vent with something approaching caution. But after a couple of skittering movements, its claw swiveling around, taking in the room, the bot shot over to Steve, crashing up against his knee. The bot arched up, a piece of folded paper held in its claw. Steve's name was printed on the front in a slightly uneven hand, the ink trailing away, the single word off-center.

Steve took it, and the bot let out a faint sigh as it subsided, its head coming to rest on Steve's thigh. Without thinking about it, Steve stroked a hand over the tiny bot's support strut. It felt reassuringly solid and real beneath his fingers, and he clung, desperate for the proof that he hadn't gone mad, that his memories of this place were real.

The note was simple. “Steve- Take care of Dummy Jr. Charging station hidden in the vent. Take it. I'll be back for her.” Tony's signature was a scrawl of unreadable ink, but the note all but had his fingerprints upon it. Steve turned it over, and over again, looking for something else. Anything else. Some scrap of information of what had happened, where he'd gone, but there was nothing. Just a handful of short, clipped sentences.

It wasn't a love note. It wasn't a break-up letter. And it explained nothing.

Steve looked around, searching for something, anything else, any hint that Tony, his Tony, the changeable wizard with grease under his fingernails, had ever existed in this space. But the note in his hand was all he had, and he folded it up, crease after crease, until it was as small as he could make it. He pushed it down low in his pocket, hiding what he could.

“Hi,” he said to the tiny bot, and his voice was shaking. The bot's head came up, a faint whine of gears, and she skittered closer. Steve rubbed a hand over her tiny support strut. “He left you for me. I'm Steve. I'm going to take care of you until-” His voice broke, the sound ugly in the echoing silence. “Until he comes back for you. He said he would. I think we're going to have to trust him in that.”

He pressed a hand to his eyes, his face twisting, fear swamping him. “Tony, where the hell are you?”

*

Clint kept his eyes on the road. “Nothing else?”

“Nothing else.” Steve was staring straight ahead, his jaw set, his eyes hooded. “I went over the place with a fine tooth comb. But I didn't want to risk staying past dawn.”

“Fuck.” Clint's fingers tightened on the steering wheel.

Steve's mouth twitched, just a tiny bit. “That's a pretty good approximation of my response, actually.” He took a deep breath, and he expanded with it, to a terrifying degree. It was easy, sometimes, to forget the well-banked power that rolled through the man. “Do you think it's Ross?”

Clint's eyes flicked towards him, considering. “No,” he said after a second. “Do you?”

“No,” Steve admitted. “The note indicates that he knew what was happening. He knew, and he had no control over it, but he wasn't in fear for his life. If he had been, he could've left a note asking for help. He didn't. He wrote something very vague, but he hid it. He didn't leave the bot out in the middle of the room, he didn't send it to me, drop it off on our doorstep. He hid her. He didn't leave under his own volition.”

“Seems like a reasonable assessment,” Clint agreed. “So someone took him out of there, but he had a certain control over the situation.”

“Probably.” Steve was still. “I don't think went willingly. But he wasn't in any immediate danger.”

“Or,” Clint said, because it needed saying, “he considered the danger to you to be more immediate.”

“Or that,” Steve said, his jaw locked around the words. His head tilted away from Clint, towards the window. “I don't particularly like either choice, to be honest.”

“I can see why.” Clint's jaw was locked, his teeth gritted against the impulse to say something, to say things that would only end poorly for both of them, and he didn't know what to do here. He didn't now where his loyalties lay anymore, where his feet would fall. He concentrated on driving, on moving them through the mostly deserted early morning streets.

He wondered if his best bet was to just hit I-90 and head out of the city, as fast as the car would take them.

“The timing of this meeting feels bad,” Steve said, his voice quiet. His head was turned away from Clint, and when Clint glanced over, he could only see the muted light of the streetlamps slide over Steve's pale hair.

“When it involves Ross, it always feels bad,” Clint said, taking a turn a little faster than he should have. Steve didn't say a word. “But yeah. I don't like this, either.”

The fact that both of them disliked it made absolutely no difference in the situation, and they knew it; it went without saying that they were both being moved by events, and it also went without saying that they both hated it. As Clint pulled the car into the underground garage attached to the clinic, he saw Steve's hands go to fists where they rested on his thighs. He wondered, idly, as he drove through the deserted concrete bunker, how much farther they could push Steve Rogers before they had a very big problem on their hands.

He suspected that they were reaching a breaking point none of them were prepared for.

The clinic was deserted, the dual sounds of their footfalls echoing through the empty hallways. The office where Steve usually met with Wilson was the only one lit, the light spilling out across the floor. Clint considered saying something, anything, but a glance at Steve's set face made it clear that there wasn't any point. Whatever was coming, he could do nothing to soften the blow.

Ross was seated behind the desk, a file open in front of him. He didn't look up when the walked through the door. Steve stood just inside the threshold, at attention, and Clint pulled himself up, the gesture reluctant. They stood there, silently, until Ross flapped a hand in their direction.

“At ease, gentlemen,” he said, sounding amused. He slapped the file shut, and gave them a broad smile. “Thanks for coming out so early, but we've got a big day ahead of us. Big plans for the future, thought it best we get started on them now.”

He waved a hand towards the nearby sideboard, where two large weapons cases were waiting.

“Say good-bye to Boston, boys, we're moving on,” Ross said, spreading his hands wide, the gesture expansive and all-encompassing. “We got bigger fish to fry.”

There was a beat of silence, and then Steve said, “Sir?”

“You've passed your tests, you've shown your worth,” Ross said, clearly amused. “Your assessments have all been filed, and they all agree, you've done a fine job acclimatizing to your new life. Congratulations, Captain, as it turns out, you're ready for full time active duty. Both you and Specialist Barton.”

Behind them, the door opened, and closed, and Clint new who it was without even turning around.

“You know Corp. Rushman, don't you?” Ross said, as Natasha walked between them, crossing the room to stand just behind Ross' shoulder. “She's going to be your third.”

Clint stared at her and she stared back, her smile pleasant, and her eyes telegraphing that if he opened his mouth, she would shut it for him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Steve's gaze flick in his direction, then away. But Steve didn't say a word about the situation, other than a crisp, “Yes, sir.”

“Corp. Rushman is actually one of our finest operatives,” Ross said, sounding smug. “She's been monitoring your progress, your recuperation, and she's finally made the call.”

“Your last mission surpassed our every expectation,” Natasha said, her voice smooth. “We've gone over the data. Exceptional job, Captain.”

“Thank you, ma'am,” Steve said, his voice blank.

“And you as well, Specialist,” Natasha said to Clint, who resisted the urge to say something that would get his kneecaps broken the next time she got him alone. “You've stepped up admirably.”

“I do pretty well under pressure,” Clint said with a narrow lipped smile.

“So I've heard,” she said, her voice carrying the tiniest hook of a sting. “I haven't seen much evidence of that myself, not yet, but you've carried out your duties adequately.”

“Thank you,” Clint said. “Ma'am.”

“From this point on,” Ross said, settling back in his chair, his hands folded over his stomach, “we're done playing around. You've recovered very well, Captain, and everyone agrees, you're back in fighting form. Ready to see a little more action than just hunting a reference title in the library.”

Steve's eyelids dipped, slow, the closing of a door somewhere deep inside of him, and then when his lashes raised again, his eyes were blank. “Yes, sir,” he said, and Clint wondered where he went when he did that. If there was some secret stockpile of memories that he used to hold the world at bay, or if he could just shut himself down, until all that he needed were the basic biological functions that kept him alive, kept him breathing. Because Steve Rogers wasn't there any more, just the shell of Captain America, and Clint wished he could kill Ross where he sat for doing it.

Hell, that wouldn't even be the stupidest choice he'd ever made. That wouldn't even be the stupidest choice he'd made in relation to the US Military.

Something of what he was thinking must've shown in his face, because Natasha was watching him, her eyes hooded, and she shook her head. It was the tiniest twitch of her chin, but he could read it, as clear as day. And she waited, she held his gaze and waited, waited to see what he'd do.

So he did nothing.

“We've got a full workup for both of you,” Ross said, oblivious to the silent battle happening right around him. “New uniforms, new weapons, new toys.” He tipped his head towards the weapons case on the table. “New bow for you, Specialist.”

Clint glanced at it. “Thank you, sir.”

“We'll have your things packed up and moved out,” Ross said, and Clint couldn't keep his head from snapping back in his direction. “Maybe you'll have time for school later, Captain, but for now, your country has bigger, better things in store for you.”

“Yes, sir,” Steve said, his voice empty. Behind his back, his hands were in fists, the muscles of his arms in sharp relief. But nothing showed in his face, in his stance, in his voice.

“Good man.” Ross stood up. “I'll leave you both in Natalie's capable hands.” With that, he simply walked out, as if there was nothing of interest left here. In the silence that descended in his wake, Clint resisted the urge to spit on the ground.

Steve broke the silence. “You have our orders, ma'am?” he asked.

Natasha studied him, her eyes sharp. “No objections, Captain?”

“Even I get sick of fighting battles I'm never going to win,” he said, and there was no bitterness to the words, just a soft and smothering exhaustion. “It takes nearly a hundred years, ma'am. But even I know when I'm beat.”

Her lips parted on a soft sigh. “There's no such a thing as a battle you can't win,” she said, her lips curling up, just a tiny bit. “There are just battles where it's safer to retreat from the battle field, or risk losing what ground you've captured.”

Steve didn't say a thing, he just turned away, walking across the room to collect the cases. He hefted his with one hand and Clint's with the other. Natasha headed over to Clint's side. “Not a word,” she breathed. “The safest thing is to get him out before he does something foolish. We know what's happening.”

“So, what, you told Ross it was time?”

“So I told Ross it was time,” she said. “And he did what I told him to do. Now, you'll pack your things and get your ass out of Boston, or we will move it for you.”

“You are good, you are frighteningly good,” Clint said under his breath as Steve handed him his case.

Nat patted him lightly on his cheek, her fingernails ghosting over his skin. “Darling, you have no idea.”

Steve glanced between them. “Is this going to be difficult for either of you?” he asked at last, and both of them were shaking their heads before he got the words out.

“Not at all, sir,” Nat said, giving him a pleasant, professional smile. “Don't worry, both of us know how to do our jobs. Don't we, Clint?”

He stared at her, meeting her eyes, reading the truth there. He could tell the truth, or he could follow her lie. He could tell Steve, or back up what she was doing. He could go to Ross, or he could trust in Coulson. Army or SHIELD. Or he could pack Steve up and make a run for the border, see how far they could make it before one group or the other put a bullet in him, or Steve or both of them.

He didn't now what the odds were. He wasn't an odds kind of guy. But he trusted his gut. That's how he'd lived this long, by going on instinct and whatever judgment he was capable of.

“Yes,” he said, smiling at Nat, at Steve. “I know how to do my job.” He took a deep breath, and reached for the new weapons case. “I know what my job is.”

He would keep Steve Rogers alive. And use whatever means he had at his disposal to do it.

*

"Where the hell have you been for the last three months?"

Tony glanced up, up over the rim of his coffee cup. "Keep your damn voice down," he said, kicking the chair out from the table opposite him. "And sit down."

Pepper was staring at him, her face twisted, her lips pursed tight. Tony gave her a tight lipped smile, well aware of the picture he presented. His eyes were red, his face drawn, his hair unkempt beneath the shadow of the gray hoodie drawn up tight over his head. His hand was shaking, just a little, as he gripped his paper coffee cup, as he brought it to his mouth.

"Are you all right?" she said, her voice very low and very quiet as she sank into the chair. Rhodey took another, swinging it around to the table and sinking into it, almost unrecognizable under a ball cap and sunglasses. It should've looked stupid, but no one was giving him a second glance.

Tony shrugged. "No," he said at last, scrubbing a hand over his face.

"Are you out of your mind?" Rhodey hissed, leaning in, his arms braced on the small table. "Three months! Your phone's disconnected, your emails come back undeliverable, your place is stripped, not a word-"

Pepper touched his arm, her fingers light on the tense line of his bicep. "We're sorry," she said, her voice very soft. "For your loss."

Rhodey subsided, a muscle jumping in his jaw. He glanced at Tony, and then his eyes were sliding away. “I was sorry to hear about your father,” he said.

“Yeah, me, too.” Tony took a deep breath. “Thanks.” He ducked his head down, not able to take looking at Pepper's sad eyes. “And thanks for-” He flicked a hand at the table. “For coming.”

“Of course.” Pepper's hand came up, and then pulled back, the gesture uncertain. But she reached out, her fingers covering Tony's. “What happened? Why did you leave Boston without saying a word?”

“I didn't have much of a choice.” Tony took a deep breath, and another, choking down his nausea. Closing his eyes, he started talking. It was hard, the first few words choking him, but as he forced himself to keep talking, as he forced the words past gritted teeth, they came faster and faster. Like a dam breaking, he let it all out, all the things that he'd buried and hidden and secreted away.

By the time he finished, he was shaking, his mouth dry and his eyes wet. He looked up, and Pepper's face was white and Rhodey looked furious, and he didn't even think, he just said, “I think Obie killed my father.”

“Jesus,” Rhodey said. Pepper cupped a hand over her mouth, her eyes huge and wounded, but she didn't say a word. “God. The news said- It was a car accident, wasn't it?”

Tony's shoulders slumped. They weren't saying he was crazy, and some part of him wished that they would. He desperately wanted someone to tell him that he was wrong, that he was crazy and that Obie wouldn't, wouldn't ever do that, wouldn't have done that. But the words, in his ears, had a ring of truth, and he wasn't willing to go back to pretending. To burying himself in alcohol and work.

“It was a car crash,” he said, his voice bitter. “The jury's still out if it was an accident.”

“Do you have proof?” Pepper said. “Oh, God, Tony, have you gone to the police, or will you-”

“I don't have anything concrete. I just-” Tony reached up, rubbing his shoulder, trying not to see the blank, dark holes in the center of Obie's eyes. “If I did, I would already have gone to the police. As it is...” He stared into the last dregs of his coffee cup. “I'm not.”

“Even if you're wrong, and I don't think you are, the blackmail seems pretty straightforward,” Rhodey said. He leaned forward, folding his hands on the table, his shoulders pushed forward. “What happens to Steve when he comes looking for you? If Stane did kill your father, what happens to you, for that matter?”

“Steve can look. He won't find me.” The words hurt. They tasted like blood in his mouth.

“He's very smart, Tony. And-” Pepper gave him a faint smile. “And very determined. His whole record points to a man who doesn't give up easily, and meets his goals. If he wants to find you, Tony, how do you know that he won't manage it?”

“He won't.” Tony shoved a hand through his hair, and it shook. Just a little. “He's got the wrong name, the wrong date of birth, the wrong license number, the wrong age. The wrong everything. He's looking for the wrong man..” He sipped his coffee, savoring the bitter burn of it. “He's looking for Tony Edwards, age 23, of Massachusetts. Not Anthony Stark of Malibu, California.”

Pepper and Rhodey exchanged a look. “Malibu?” Pepper asked.

“SI does have a headquarters on the West Coast,” Tony said. “I've let Obie convince me to move our operations out there.” Sarcasm bled into the words. “He's happy to have me far away from anything that will remind me of my family.” He folded his arms on the table and leaned into them, pressing hard against his breastbone. “I'm building a house out there. He's happy that I've got a project.”

Pepper looked at Rhodey, and Rhodey looked at her. “What's the plan?” Rhodey asked, and the sense of relief was palatable. Tony sucked in a breath, and another.

“I need help,” he said. “I need-” He swallowed. “I need your help.”

“What do you need?” Pepper asked.

“An assistant.” Tony met her eyes. “You've got the training, the background, the education. I can get away with hiring you.”

Pepper blinked, and then her cheeks flushed. “Oh, well, I don't-”

“The pay will be obscene,” Tony said with a lopsided smile. “No one will question it. I'm a pain in the ass, so that's what it was going to cost to get someone to put up with me.” He rubbed a hand on the back of his neck, exhaustion swamping him. “Full benefits, all that shit, I just-”

“I'll take the job,” Pepper said, and the sense of relief that swept over Tony was dizzying.

“Okay,” he said, a thin benediction. “Yeah, well, thanks.”

Rhodey's lips twitched. “That makes things easier,” he said. “I'm out at Edwards now that my leave is over.” He reached out and Pepper caught his hand, weaving her fingers through his.

Tony's eyebrows arched. “Well, finally,” he said to Pepper, who blushed.

“I will not have my employer passing judgment on my personal life,” she said, her chin up, her lips pursed, and Rhodey laughed.

“Yeah, you will, because I'm-” Tony stopped, shook his head. “Yeah. I'm me.”

“What do you need from me?” Rhodey asked.

“Just... Keep your ear to the ground, okay?” Tony glanced at him. “I'm sorry. You can't publish your work.”

Rhodey was already shaking his head. “You shut up. I found him. I had a lot of help, but that was always the goal, to find him, and honor him. And if this is the way I honor him, and his service, then I'm glad I can do it. I'm a different branch, but there's enough scuttlebutt, I can keep my ear to the ground for you. See what I can do to keep him on the radar.”

“Thank you,” Tony said.

There was a moment of silence. Rhodey was the one to break it. “What are the chances,” he said, his voice quiet, “that the military has no idea about any of this? That it's just Stane, pulling your strings?”

“I don't know.” Tony's fingers twitched against the table, and he forced his fingers into fists. “It's possible. At this point, anything's possible.”

“If you think he killed your father-”

Tony's head came up. “It doesn't matter,” he said, his voice low. “It doesn't matter if the military doesn't know a damn thing about it. Because if he's lying about that? And I'm right about my father's accident, then that means that he will do anything, anything at all, to keep control of StarkIndustries. He considers it his company. He always has.” That had been the hardest thing to admit. To go back through everything that had happened, everything that he'd ever known, and acknowledge that everything had been Stane, maintaining the status quo. Howard's grief, and his constant access to alcohol. Tony's isolation. His relationship with Ty. His work, his efforts, the way that Obie gave him everything he needed, everything he wanted, as long as he stayed quiet and did what he was told.

As long as he was a good boy, Obie gave him everything he wanted. Made sure Tony's puppy love crush on Ty was reciprocated. Gave him affection and approval and everything Howard couldn't manage. Let Tony go to MIT, but he never let go, never let Tony move far from the path that Obie had mapped out.

If it wasn't for Steve, Tony would've probably stayed at MIT, churning out degrees and reveling in his minor freedoms. He would probably have fallen back into Ty's arms, and work and family and sex would've had him in a perfect trap. Obie would've remained the power at StarkIndustries, and Tony would've gone happily back to the workshop, his own projects forgotten, buried in a sea of work and alcohol.

But there was Steve, and Steve could not be predicted, or controlled, but he could be used.

“I don't have any doubt,” Tony said, his voice quiet, “that Obie will sacrifice him in a second if he needs to. That all he has to do is go, as the head of SI, to the military brass and pitch a fit. Make a fuss. The age of consent in Massachusetts is sixteen, but that's not going to matter. The military's had too many problems with this kind of thing to take any chances. I don't know what'll happen to him.” He looked down at his hands, raw and battered from his work. “I can't take the risk.”

“What's the end game?” Rhodey asked.

Tony stared into the dregs of his coffee. “I have four years until the company is mine, no strings, no argument. When I turn twenty-one? I'm in charge. I have four years, less than that, to convince him that I've fallen in line. That I'm going to be a good employee. That I wouldn't imagine challenging him.”

“Can you pull that off?” Pepper asked.

He took a deep breath. “Yeah. I think-” His teeth locked. “I can.” He reached for his coffee cup and Pepper was there before him, pulling it out of his hand.

“In that case,” she said, her voice crisp, “you need to stop drinking so much, Mr. Stark.”

“You're not going to wean me off of coffee, Ms. Potts,” Tony told her.

“Probably not, but I can do my best to reduce the-” She sniffed the cup. “Irish coffee.”

“Good luck with that,” Tony told her.

“If we're in this together,” Rhodey said, calm about it, “we are depending on you. That means you're sober. Right?”

Tony leaned back in his chair. “Right. But better get used to me acting drunk. Obie's going to expect that I fall into that family trap, he's going to encourage it, and he's going to let down his guard if it looks like I'm following in Daddy dearest's footsteps.”

He stood. “Anything that keeps us all safe? I'm willing to do it.”

*

The house was coming along pretty well.

Proud of himself, Tony pulled his shirt off and stretched, reveling in the sweat and dirt and pain of over stimulated muscles. Wiping his sweaty face on the filthy fabric, he balled it up and tossed it in the general direction of the marble patio. Everything was covered in saw dust and stone dust, and he was exhausted in the best possible way.

Snagging the latest blueprints from where he'd pinned them under a rock, he rolled them up and tucked them under his arm. The workmen were done for the day, but he could still find work to do, anything was better than trying and failing to sleep.

The basement still needed work, he had to decide what he was doing about the workshop. And the garage. Maybe he could combine the two. If he built in a spiral driveway from the underground shop, he could simply drive in and out, but protect his cars and avoid littering the ground with ugly outbuildings. Scrambling along the half-finished pathway, he pushed his way through the sliding glass door, padding down into the sunken living room. “Hey, Jarvis,” he said, unrolling the plans as he walked. “Can you call up the newest plans on the computers down stairs, I think I'm going to make some changes-”

Too late, he realized he wasn't alone.

His head jerked up. The figure that was silhouetted against the glass, staring out over the ocean, didn't even look in his direction. “Work's done for the night,” Tony said, his steps slowing, but not stopping. “Come back tomorrow.”

The man turned his head, and light gleamed in his single dark eye. He had an eyepatch, and was dressed entirely in black, a heavy black leather trench coat swirling around his legs. “I'm not here for that,” the man said, sounding amused. “I'm here to welcome you to a much wider world, Mr. Stark.”

“Thanks, but I like my world the way it is,” Tony said, his head tipping to the side. “Who the hell are you?”

“I'm Director Nick Fury, of SHIELD. I think we have a mutual friend.” He stepped away from the windows, moving lightly across the floor. Tony held his ground, but it was a struggle. Especially when Fury stopped directly in front of him, offering him a smile and a hand. “And a mutual goal.”

Chapter Text

“Hey! Daddy's home!”

Steve crouched down as the tiny bot rolled over, chirping wildly. “Hi!” he said, rubbing a hand over DJ's support strut.

“Are you still talking to the tiny arm on wheels?” Clint asked, his voice full of laughter.

“Yes. Yes, I am.” Steve hooked a finger under under the bot's claw and tipping it up. “She understands me.” The bot bumped against his fingertips. “Even if she doesn't talk back.”

“She's a glorified Roomba,” Clint said, clearly amused. Raising his voice, he added, “After four years, we should be able to upgrade her to a better version.” DJ rolled over and started bumping as hard as she could manage against Clint's feet. Clint tucked his hands in his pockets, grinning down at her.

“Please stop teasing her,” Steve said, picking the bot up. She cuddled down in the curve of his arm, seeming somehow smug.

“It's how I show my love,” Clint said, his eyes wide, his voice hurt. “You know that.”

“That's why Nat threatened to shoot you in your ass?” Steve asked.

“Probably,” Clint admitted. “She loves me, though.”

“I'm not sure what you're basing this on,” Steve said. “But you might be overestimating your appeal.” He headed for the kitchen, and Clint wandered in his wake.

“Nah, she's got a weak spot for my stupid. It was a mistake on her part to tell me about it, because I plan to exploit that,” Clint explained. He opened the fridge and leaned in, considering the contents. “Can I steal a beer?”

“Of course, and by 'exploit that,' do you mean you're just going to keep acting like an idiot in the field?” Steve asked, setting DJ down on the ground. She swirled in a circle around his feet and then headed off to the box where he kept her cleaning cloths. “Because, I'm going to be honest here, Clint, I really could do without that.” He paused. “Really.”

Clint stood up, a beer bottle in his hand. “I'm gonna be honest with you, Cap,” he said, using the hem of his t-shirt to twist off the cap. He flipped it over his shoulder, and it bounced off the wall, off the cabinet and landed dead center on the trash can. “This is about the best I get in the field.”

“I've noticed.”

“No, seriously, I obey you.” Clint leaned back against the counter, and took a sip of his beer. “I don't think you understand how rare that is, really. I don't do obedience particularly well.”

Steve couldn't hold back a smile. “How did you survive in the military, soldier?”

Clint considered that as he took a long drink from his beer. “Not particularly well,” he admitted at last. He grinned. “How do you think I ended up on your roof?”

“I wondered.” The bot rolled up in front of Steve, waving a rag at him. “I don't think that's a good idea,” he told her. She waved it again, stubborn. “When I let you clean the counter tops, you get over excited, and then you fall off.” She banged the cloth against the tile. “You promise that's not going to happen every single time, and every single time, you roll off the edge of the countertops.”

He looked up and found Clint staring at him, his beer at his lips, his brows arched. Steve felt his face heat. “You have something to say?” he said, hoping to head off the inevitable comment.

“You need a date,” Clint said, because Steve was not that lucky.

“No, thanks.” Steve picked up DJ and set her carefully on the counter. “Be careful,” he admonished, and she paid absolutely no attention, whipping across the countertop with an excited squeal of her wheels.

“Seriously,” Clint said.

“Seriously,” Steve said, giving him a faint smile. “I'm fine, Clint.”

Clint let out a sigh. “I hate to say it, Cap, but you don't know-”

“It's got nothing to do with him,” Steve said, and he meant it. “It's got to do with me. I know what I'm capable of, and right now, it's not a relationship.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Besides, I'd prefer not to repeat the last disaster.”

Holding up his hands, Clint shook his head. “Do not look at me. I had nothing to do with trying to introduce you to Sharon.”

“Yes, but someone in the military chain of command thought that it would be a wonderful idea to introduce me to Peggy's great-niece,” Steve said. “Do you have any idea how horrifying that was?”

“I saw your face, so I can take a guess,” Clint said.

“I'm still not sure who should be more insulted by that, her or me,” Steve said, his voice dark. “I'm not looking for a replacement for a woman I once loved, and she deserves better than a man who'd constantly be comparing her to a dead woman.”

“Fine, fine, you're going to pine forever for Tony,” Clint said, smiling.

“Maybe,” Steve said. “I'd say that's my right, don't you think?”

Clint huffed out a sigh, his shoulders rising and slumping with it. “It is, it's just a waste.” He clapped a hand on Steve's shoulder. “Dodgers game tonight.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “Wanna come back up and watch it here?”

“Sure.” Clint dropped the beer bottle in the recycling bin. “I'm gonna head to my place and take a shower, then I'll be back. We can order a pizza or something.”

Steve nodded. “You don't have to, if you-”

Clint waved him off. “Cap, I moved to Brooklyn so they'd let you have your own apartment. Least you can do is let me watch your big screen.”

“Well, when you put it that way.” Steve followed him to the front door, and let him out. “Game's in an hour.”

“I'll be back. Unless I pass out in the shower. It was a hell of a mission this time.”

“You're not kidding.” Steve gave him a light shove out the door. It had been a complete disaster of a mission, but then again, they'd all been disasters as of late. He wasn't getting the intelligence that he needed, and he was getting damn tired of being pushed around the chess board like an expendable piece. Only Clint and Nat's steady and unwavering presence at his back had kept him alive. He'd returned the favor, but every mission seemed to get closer and closer.

It was just a matter of time before one of them didn't make it out.

Heading for the bedroom, he stripped off his clothes, grabbing a pair of sweatpants from his dresser. Clint was right about one thing: a shower would probably be for the best.

There was a crash from the kitchen, and his heart stopped.

An instant later, he was skidding through the door, his bare feet scrambling against the tile. “What did I tell you?” Steve said, crouching down next to DJ, who was already righting herself. She ignored him, rolling back towards the cabinet and bumped against it. “No, I'm not going to put you back up there.” She turned her claw in his direction, and then gestured towards the top of the cabinet. “No.”

She rolled over and bumped against his ankle. Steve watched her, his hands on his hips. “I still have no idea if you're trying to intimidate me when you do this. Because it's never worked. Have you noticed this, DJ? No matter how much you attack my feet or hide my shoes, I'm still not intimidated. Stop hiding my shoes, by the way, it's not funny,” he told her, even though that was a complete lie, it was hysterical. He could always tell when he had annoyed his little companion. He'd get up to find his shoes missing from his closet and be shoved in every available nook and cranny around the apartment.

DJ dropped her cleaning cloth and grabbed hold of Steve's pant leg. She backed up, tugging on him in a very determined manner. Steve let her do it, just smiling down at her for a minute or so. Then, with a faint chuckle, he crouched down. “Hi,” he said, leaning forward. “Did you miss me?”

She bumped lightly against his forehead. “Yeah,” Steve said. “I missed you, too.” He picked her up and stood. “And since you managed to throw yourself off the counter in the five minutes I left you alone, guess what time it is? That's right. It's time for you to get your diagnostic!”

DJ curled herself into the smallest ball she could manage, folding her arm up tight. “Good try,” Steve told her. “Really. Good try. No cigar, though.”

Tucking her easily under one arm, he headed for the small back bedroom where his workbench was. She struggled the whole way, but it was pretty ineffective. “You're small and portable, DJ. Why do we have to go through this every time?” He set her down and held her in place with one hand while he reached up to turn on the desk lamp. Tilting it into place, he reached for the strap he used to keep her in place. “Every. Time.” Hooking it to her support strut, he let her go.

She immediately shot for the edge of the workbench, coming to a screeching halt when the strap pulled tight. Steve took a seat and waited for her to stop struggling. Some days she gave up in a matter of minutes, other times she really made a show of it. “I just want you to be able to function when I'm not here,” Steve told her, and she tugged against the strap one more time before she went still.

“Thank you,” Steve told her, leaning in. He waited, and she kept her claw down. “Thank you,” he repeated, and she flicked her claw in his general direction before letting her arm hang down again. Steve waited. “I missed you,” he said, and she reached out, bumping the tip of her claws against his nose. “Boop,” Steve agreed.

He sat up and reached for his toolkit. “How're you doing? Any strains? Any problem with your joints?” Her claw wiggled back and forth, and he grinned. “Okay. Stretch!” Her arm went up, and he checked the joints and linkages, as carefully as he could.

“Good. On your back.” He lifted her up and set her down so he could check her wheels. Steve rolled a finger across each one, checking them. DJ pushed against his grip, rolling her wheels in counterpoint to the pressure he exerted. “Stop that,” Steve chided, which of course, just made her push harder. “You are a stubborn little brat.” Laughing, Steve reached for the lubricant. “I need to keep you functioning, you know that, and you could make it easier for me.”

Gently, his hands big and awkward in relation to her tiny frame, he went over her joints, ignoring the way that she tried to shove the bottle away. “Hey, cut it out. Considering that your father did not give me a dang thing to go on, I'm doing the best I can.”

He'd figured out most of her systems over the last four years. But he lived in fear of the bot damaging something he couldn't fix, or was beyond his comprehension. No matter what, he wanted her to be in one piece if Tony ever came back for her.

Steve glanced up at his old fashioned cork board, hanging neatly beside his workbench. A handful of drawings had been pinned there, sketches and some reference photos, notes and a photo of Clint, sleeping with his head on Nat's lap, his mouth gaping open, his arms flopped around him like he was a rag doll. Nat was smiling down at him, her expression vaguely affectionate, despite the exhaustion on her face and her battered uniform, she was running a careful hand over his head.

There were coded notations, leads he'd followed, places he'd check, people he'd contacted, all in the desperate attempt to find Tony. He had very little to go on, a handful of facts and a few memories, a couple of rambling voice mails. And the drawings he'd made of Tony's face, both when they were together and in the years since Tony had disappeared.

And tucked behind it all, the page a bit yellowed now, was Tony's note. And folded in the center of it, out of sight, hidden away, one of the few photos Steve had of him. He didn't even have to look at it now, it was burned into his memory. Tony had been dancing to music, the volume enough to hide any sound Steve had made. His eyes closed, his head thrown back, his face split in a grin, he was a whirling dervish caught in a moment of transcendental joy. He was beautiful in a battered pair of jeans and a t-shirt over a long sleeve undershirt, his hands and arms filthy, his hair a mess, his dark eyelashes shading his cheeks. His feet were bare on the floor, a blur in the photo, caught in mid-step.

He was beautiful, and alive, and Steve missed him with an ache made all the worse by the fact that he didn't know what had happened. He was still looking, still searching, but with each passing day, he knew his chances of ever finding Tony again was slipping away.

However, Tony's promise on Harvard bridge still haunted Steve. He could hear the words still, he could hear them, and he believed that Tony had meant it. That if it had been Steve that had gone missing, Tony would still be looking. So Steve could do no less. He'd search, no matter what. No matter how long it took.

“I wonder where he is,” Steve said to DJ. She tipped her head in his direction, and then bopped him lightly on the nose again. He closed his eyes. “Thanks, DJ.”

*

“You are late.”

“Perpetually,” Tony admitted. He flicked his way through the holographic menus that floated in front of him. “Jarvis, run the new numbers, I want to know if this is sustainable.”

“Of course, sir.”

Pepper stepped in front of him, holding a suit on a hanger in one hand and a cup of espresso in the other. “You,” she said, her voice stern, “are late.”

“I know, I know, I know,” Tony said, snagging the cup and throwing back the contents in one quick gulp, shuddering as the heat and bitterness seared its way to his stomach. He shook his head quickly. “Ugh, that's- That's a-” He hissed out a breath as she took the empty cup back. “That is vile.”

“I know.” Pepper shoved the garment bag at him, and Tony took it. Pepper saw the state of his hands and took it back. “Shower! Now!”

“Why are you such a nag?” Tony said, as Pepper caught him by the shoulder, turning him around and force marching him towards the workshop bathroom. “Seriously, I pay your- Ouch! Hey!”

“Stop being such a baby,” Pepper said, amused. She pushed him through the bathroom door. “Strip. Shower. Dress. And for god's sake, comb your hair, you look like you've stuck your finger in an electrical socket!”

“I did, and it did not affect my hair, why do people get their science from Looney Tunes cartoons?” Tony stripped off his shirt, tossing it in the general direction of the sink. He saw Pepper reach for it. “You had better be putting that in the laundry and not the trash,” he warned.

“It's filthy and it has holes,” Pepper said. “Can we please work on your public image?”

Tony snatched it out of her hand. “I don't give a damn about my public image,” he said.

“No, because you have people for that,” Pepper said. “You have me for that. Tony, you can't-”

“It was the one Steve stole, all right?” Tony jammed the shirt into the hamper and slammed the lid with a sharp gesture. “The one he liked to wear. So I am keeping it.” Behind him, there was silence, and Tony kicked off his shoes. “Showering, got it.”

“I'll have the car brought around,” Pepper said, and the bathroom door shut behind her.

Tony kicked everything off, dropping clothes where they landed. Stepping into the shower, he stretched. “Jarvis, give me some serious water, we gotta make this quick.” He grabbed the cleaner and as the water started to sluice over him, he scrubbed at his grease stained hands.

“Incoming call, sir. From Lt. Rhodes.”

“Put it through, audio only, please,” Tony said. “Pretty sure he doesn't need this particular visual.”

“It would not be the first time he's seen it, sir,” Jarvis said.

Tony grinned. “Get drunk two or three times and you never live it down.” His hands passable, he grabbed the shampoo and smoothed it through his wet hair. “Put the damn call through.”

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Rhodey said.

“Good afternoon to you, too! So good to hear from you, buddy, how's the family? How's your fiance?” Tony worked up suds, rubbing hard. “Oh, that's right, she's down here, riding my ass about the fact that I'm running like five minutes behind her draconian schedule-”

“You were supposed to be on a plane an hour ago,” Rhodey said, unamused, and Tony grinned into the spray of the shower.

“I have a plane,” he pointed out. “It's my plane. I own it. It takes off when I feel like it, so I don't see how I can possibly be running late for my own plane.”

“It's not the plane,” Rhodey said. “It's the shareholder's meeting that you are planning on crashing and sending all of our lives into chaos.”

“Aren't you used to that by now?” Tony asked.

“I should be, but oddly enough, I'm not.” Rhodey sighed. “Can we please focus?”

“I'm naked, so probably not.”

“Tony-”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Tony said. He took a deep breath, breathing in steam and heat and the subtle smell of his soap and his shampoo. “I know what I'm doing, Rhodey.”

There was a long pause. “Do you?”

Tony's eyes closed. “I can't do this any longer. I can't stay locked up down here, waiting for something worse to happen. You know-” He scrubbed his hands over his face, hard, until all he could see was red in his eyes, blood staining his vision. “Everything's in place. This will work.”

He could hear Rhodey's breathing, could hear him sigh. “You're sure?”

“Pepper's sure. Coulson's sure. You might not trust me, but you can trust them,” Tony said. “You know you can. Pepper wouldn't take the risk unless she was sure that our case was air tight.”

“I do not know how she puts up with you,” Rhodey said. “I'd strangle you if I had to spend all day with you.”

Tony laughed. “You loooooooove me,” he sing-songed, just to make Rhodey laugh. It worked.

“Asshole,” Rhodey said.

“Kinda, yeah.”

“Happy birthday, you asshole.”

“You know, that's a card that American Greetings needs to get on,” Tony said, and he knew the moment that Rhodey had disconnected the call. He grinned, because it was fine. It was so fine, because Rhodey would be there. He would be there, in his dress blues, in the back of the room, watching Tony with a reassuring smile and a subtle nod of his head.

He wasn't alone.

Reasonably clean, Tony hopped out of the shower, his feet skidding on the polished tile, and he grabbed a towel, wrapping it around his hips before he stuck his head out of the bathroom. “Hey, Pepper-” he called, but the workshop was empty. About to duck back into the bathroom, his eye was caught by the neatly wrapped box that was sitting on top of his workbench.

Curious, he padded across the floor, picking it up with damp fingers. The folded card on top read, “Happy 21st birthday. We're proud of you.”

He gave a snort of amusement, trying to ignore the solid ache in his throat. He slid the top off the box and lifted out a tie. His eyebrows arched. “Really, Pep? A tie? That's the best that you could-”

His eyes narrowed, and he leaned in. He'd thought that the blue tie just had a muted pattern of red dots across the staid background. But when he got close, he realized that they were tiny replicas of the Captain's shield, red and white rings around a perfect white star. A smile burst over his face, and he flipped it over. The tag read, “He's with you today.”

“And so are you, aren't you?” Tony took a deep breath. “I can do this, Jarvis.”

“Yes, sir. You can.”

“Then let's get this done. Time I took ownership of my own damn legacy.”

*

“What was that?”

Tony didn't look away from the windows of the private airport lounge. He brought the glass of amber liquid to his lips, listening to the ice cubes rattle around as he took a swallow. Outside, the jet was being prepped and fueled. He only had to hold out for another ten to fifteen minutes.

He could do that.

“Tony? What was that?” Obie sounded disappointed. Worried. Tony turned at last, and Obie was standing just inside the door, his hands tucked in his pockets, his tie loose and his jacket tucked under his arm. He looked tired, tired and old, and his head dropped down. “Tony, Tony, Tony.”

“Obie-” Tony said.

“Tony, I know that you think that now that you've hit that magic age, that you're all grown up now, but it's not that easy,” Obie said, his voice placating. “It isn't. I'm not sure how you talked the board around to your point of view-”

“The same way I'm going to talk you around to my point of view,” Tony said. “By pointing out that their compliance is pretty much a non-issue. They, and you, can either fall in line, or you can get run over.” Tony arched his eyebrows. “I find I don't much care.”

“Tony, do you know how much-”

“There's no point in bringing up your usual leverage,” Tony said, and there was bitter satisfaction to the words. Even if he had jumped the timeline, he had faith in SHIELD. Fury was going to have his head for this, and he didn't care. He deserved this small revenge. “He's already out. I'm betting with what we've got on him, Ross'll be stripped of command. If he wasn't brass, he'd be in the stockade already, but that's just how the military works. Enlisted men get time, officers get time served. Turns out the people writing the checks had no idea what he was doing, let alone the humans rights violations he was perpetrating along the way.”

Tony took a breath. “You can tell whoever you want, whatever you want. I'll deny it. And you'll just look like you're trying to badmouth your successor. Like a bitter old man who's lost, and can't do a thing about it.” He stared down into his glass. “I know you. You don't make threats you can't back up, and that means you've got something to prove your point. Probably video.”

“Tony-”

“But it's a threat without teeth. You could release it, sure, but eventually, it could be traced back to you, and well, distributing something that is, in the most technical sense, child porn? I think even you have to draw the line somewhere.”

Obie spread his hands wide, tossing his jacket at one of the sleek armchairs. “Where is this coming from?” he asked, like it was a shock, like he'd had no idea. “Tony. If there was a problem, you could've talked it over with me. You could've told me, and I would've-”

“Would've what?” Tony interrupted. He rolled his wrist, letting the ice cubes in the glass roll over each other like dice, rattling against the confines of the crystal. “What would you have done, Obie?” He met Obie's eyes head on. “What happened when my father told you what was wrong?”

Obie's expression melted into one of shock. “I'm not sure what you're implying.”

Tony stared at him, wanting to believe. Wanting so desperately to believe that he was telling the truth. That it was all in his mind, that his father had just been a foolish drunk who'd sent his favorite convertible crashing into a wall. Who hadn't been wearing his seatbelt, and had been thrown free of the car. Tony wanted to believe it, so badly. He wanted to believe that the last person he had left, the one who'd stood next to him at his mother's grave and his father's, the man who'd tied his tie when he was seven and who'd sent him another for the graduation ceremony that had never happened, might once have loved him.

He wanted so desperately to believe that he wasn't alone. And that Obie hadn't been the one to cause it.

Tony's eyes closed. “I'm done,” he said. “We're done.”

“Tony, you have no idea what it takes to run this company,” Obie tried. “I've been doing it for years, and you have been living a very privileged life, playing around in your workshop while I handled the ugly parts of running our company-”

“Pepper's been studying the company for the last four years. And I'm capable of taking care of things.”

“You think four years is enough time-” Obie started, and Tony lost it.

“Obie, you've been playing this game for twenty years,” Tony said, his voice soft and low and vicious, “but I've been playing it my entire fucking life. And I've decided to change the rules.”

“So here's the reality of your situation, Stane. You can get on that plane, and you can come with me and contribute to an orderly transition of power. You can help me sell the Jericho, and secure our bottom line for the next ten years, and therefore, secure your very generous pension, or you can shoot yourself in the foot, and it won't make a damn bit of difference.

“Because I am the holder of an MIT masters, and you had to tell the board that I was doing all of our design work when Dad died, and the company. Belongs. To me.”

Tony took a step forward, strangely calm now that the point of contention had passed. “So be practical here. Take the buyout, publicly state that you're retiring and you couldn't be happier to see me taking hold of my father's legacy, and go quietly. But if you push me, Obie?”

He paused, right in front of Obie. “I will bury you.”

Obie's face was blank, utterly swept clean, his eyes flat and empty. “Tony,” he said, his lips turning up in a smile that didn't come close to his eyes. “There's no need for threats. All I've ever wanted was what was best for you. That's all.” One hand came up, reaching for Tony's face, and Tony stared at the fingers, not afraid, not disgusted, not anything. Indifferent.

Obie's hand dropped down to his side, and his fingers knotted into a fist. “Tony...”

Happy appeared in the door, Tony's suitcase in his hand, and he gave them a quick nod. He waited, his body language tense as his eyes jerked between them. “We're good to go,” he said quietly.

“We have a plane to catch,” Tony said, suddenly exhausted. He turned, dropping the glass on the bar. “Hope you don't mind, but I plan to sleep most of the trip. It's been a very long couple of days. And the next few are going to be just as bad.”

But he could do it. He could get through another few days. And then it was over.

Inside his pocket, he locked his fingers around the pencil stub. 3B. An artist's pencil. His artist's pencil.

He could do this.

*

“No,” Steve said to DJ. “Thank you, that's very nice, but the stove does not need to be cleaned.” DJ bumped into his foot. “You just did it, and I'm using it.”

“That bot is crazy, you know that, right?” Clint said.

“Go polish Clint's shoes,” Steve said.

“Hey, now, no, don't-”

“No, he really needs help,” Steve told DJ, who immediately perked up, her arm going straight up with pride. “Look at how filthy his boots are.”

“Hey! Hey, no, don't you dare, Cap, you utter bastard, I-”

“Don't mess with my bot, Barton,” Steve said, going back to stirring his spaghetti sauce.

“I feel asleep here once, just that one time and she tried to buff my face.”

“Pretty sure you deserved it. Go set the table, you mooch.”

“Clint.” Nat was in the kitchen doorway, and her mouth was a red slash, her face pale. “I think you need to see this.”

Both of them knew better than to question her when she used that tone of voice. Clint hopped over DJ, and Steve turned off the stove, wiping his hands on his apron before he followed them into the living room. His teammates were in front of the tv, the remote hanging from Nat's limp hand, Clint swearing up a storm in a low, determined voice.

Confused, Steve looked past them, to the tv where the news had just cut back to an anchorwoman who was discussing a business story. Steve barely noticed, because there was a very familiar face caught in the still photo superimposed just above her shoulder.

Tony.

It had been years. And that face was still almost as familiar as his own, those brilliant dark eyes and the sweep of black hair, and the wide, mobile mouth, now bracketed by a neatly trimmed goatee.

“He did it.” Steve heard his voice, as if from a distance. A bubble of laughter pressed against his throat, and he choked on it. “He actually grew...”

His knees went out from under him, and he crashed back onto the couch.

On the screen, through blurred vision, he watched as Tony greeted the press, his smile easy and his eyes brilliant. The newscaster was speaking over the visual, her voice brisk. “This was the scene just minutes ago as Anthony Stark appeared at the annual meeting of shareholders at StarkIndustries.”

Steve stared, shock washing over him. “What?”

“Mr. Stark, heir to the late tycoon Howard Stark, has announced his intention to take the reins of the company his father founded and grew into a world leader in the field of munitions production. Today, on his twenty-first birthday, he has outlined an expansive and daring plan for stabilizing and growing his company in the coming years. Despite his youth, he has the backing of a majority of the board, and will-”

Clint's hand came down on Steve's shoulder. “We need to go.”

Steve couldn't tear his eyes away from the screen, away from Tony's face. Tony. Anthony. Anthony STARK. He was Howard's son. That's why he looked so familiar, he could see it now, he could see the echo of his old friend in Tony's high cheekbones and beautiful eyes, in the quick, mercurial smile and the arch of his eyebrows. He was Howard's son, he was brilliant and beautiful and he was TWENTY-ONE.

“Yeah, all of that is true, let's go,” Clint said, and Steve realized he'd been talking aloud.

He shook his head, trying to understand anything, ANY of this, because it didn't make sense, none of it made sense, Tony... Tony was alive, and safe, and he was Anthony Stark. Steve couldn't breathe, couldn't get any of it straight in his head.

“Cap?” Clint gave him a sharp shake, and when Steve's head jerked in his direction, Clint's face was white. “We need to go.” He gave each word weight, his voice strained.

Steve straightened up, his mind clearing. “What's going on?”

“There is no time,” Clint said, and Nat had her damn guns in her hands, up and ready, her head on a swivel, her shoulders back and tight. “Cap, if I have ever given you any reason to trust me, you will grab that little bucket of bolts, and you will get your ass in gear. Now.”

“Leave the damn bot,” Nat said, and Clint was already shaking his head.

“He won't leave it. GET HER, and LET'S GO,” he snapped at Steve, who moved without another thought.

“DJ!” he called and the bot came, prompt and eager, and he picked her up, ignoring her whine of displeasure as her wheels left the ground. Clint was grabbing her charging station, and he tossed it to Steve, who caught it with one hand, and just like that, they were moving.

Nat went first, through the door, and Steve was right behind her, moving fast and low, trusting them, even though it made no sense. None of this made sense, but he was willing to take it on faith as they scrambled down the silent, empty hallways, and down the stairs. Clint was tight on his heels, and he had his bow, which was just strange, it was completely bizarre. To have them both armed here, in his home.

There was a black car waiting right in front of the stoop, and Nat opened the back door, even as a trim man slid out from behind the steering wheel and moved to the back of the car. Clint passed by him in a practiced move, and then he was in the driver's seat and pulling the door shut. Steve slipped into the back seat, and Nat slammed the door behind him before ducking into the passenger seat. The car was moving, tires squealing as it pulled away from the curb, almost before she could get her own door shut.

Steve braced his feet as Clint threw the car around the corner. “What the hell is going on?” he snapped, and neither of them said a thing.

“Hello, Captain Rogers.”

Steve's head snapped around, towards the man in the black suit that was sitting next to him in the back seat. He had a pleasant, open face, and his suit was perfectly tailored. “I'm sorry,” Steve said at last. “I think you've got the wrong man.”

The man smiled, just a little. “No. I don't. You are Captain Steven Rogers, born July fourth, 1922.” He held out a hand. “I'm Agent Phil Coulson of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.” His eyes were warm and kind. “We're here to get you out.”

Steve took his hand, shaking it by rote. “I don't understand, Agent Coulson.”

“The situation is complicated. I'd hoped we would have time to explain things, but I'm afraid that's not possible.” He gave Steve a tight smile. “It would appear that he didn't like our timeline.”

“Who?”

“Anthony Edward Stark.” Agent Coulson leaned back in his seat, folding his hands in his lap. “I had a plan, I'd like you to know. We'd planned the whole thing down to the minute.” He let out a faint sigh. “I'd thought it was a good plan.”

“You knew the chances of him following it were slim to none,” Nat said from the front seat. She was still watching out the windows.

“I had hoped,” Coulson said.

Steve resisted the urge to just grab someone by the throat and shake. “Will someone please tell me what is going on here?” he snapped.

Coulson studied him with calm eyes. “For the past few years, certain parties have been using you as leverage against Stark. As long as you were under the Army's control, he didn't have any choice but to stay in place and remain compliant to their demands.”

The words were a body blow. “I- No, that's not right, he was, he is, he is Howard's son, that means-”

“His father died while he was still a minor,” Coulson explained, his voice gentle. “Per the terms of Howard's will, Tony had no control over his own inheritance until he reached the age of twenty-one. Until then, it, and he, would be under the guardianship of Obadiah Stane. We do not believe Mr. Stane had his best interests in mind.” He opened his jacket, pulling out a pair of glasses and setting them on his nose. “Though we've never been able to prove it, there is a certain suspicion that he had a hand in Howard Stark's demise.”

Steve remembered that. He remembered the paper handed over by Lt. Wilson, with a polite but distant apology. One of the last remaining men from his previous life had passed, with Steve never getting to speak to him. He remembered the sense of loss, but it had been dwarfed by another, more pressing loss, of Tony's disappearance. It made sense now. It all made sense. Tony's sudden and confusing disappearance, at the same time at Howard's death. He hadn't had any reason to connect the two events previously.

But now, he could see what had happened so clearly.

Steve pulled himself together, pulled his scattered thoughts into something resembling coherence. “So Stane has, what, been threatening Tony?”

“In a very opaque way. We've kept careful tabs on the situation, Stark is healthy and unharmed, but he has a certain lack of...” Coulson paused, his mouth pursing. “Impulse control. The last several years have been difficult for him, which didn't help the situation.” He glanced up. “He turned twenty-one today. Which means that under the terms of Howard's will, as of this moment, he is majority shareholder of StarkIndustries.”

“And he cut the apron strings,” Steve said, and somewhere in the frustration and rage and terror that was surging through him, he felt a stirring of pride. And a rush of knowledge. Today. Today was Tony's birthday. Today was a date he needed to remember.

Tony was alive, Tony was safe and alive and HOWARD'S SON. Steve shook his head, trying to clear it.

“That he did. In a very public manner.” Coulson rubbed his forehead with tense fingers. “He's already left on a business trip, things are progressing faster than we would've liked.”

“Yeah, you think?” Clint said, his voice sharp.

“Why are you here?” Steve snapped. “Why aren't you protecting him?”

“Because just about everyone in your unit had to be evacuated simultaneously,” Coulson said.

“My-” Steve leaned forward. “How long have the two of you been-”

“Since you were discovered,” Nat said. “Sleeper agent.”

“I was recruited with promises of sex, drugs and rock and roll,” Clint said. “So far, SHIELD has failed to deliver on all counts.”

“You're not the only one who was being held under coercion,” Coulson said, his voice gentle. “Ross was running a shadow op within an established military unit. Most of the military brass had no idea what was happening, let alone the people he was using, or what he was using them for. It took us a long time to determine who was on the inside and who was moving in ignorance, and manipulate the power base to make sure that we could control the backlash.”

“Turns out we were not, in the most specific sense, working for the US Government,” Clint said. “Ain't that a kick in the ass?”

Steve stared at Coulson. “And you are the US Government?”

“SHIELD is properly accredited and audited regularly,” Coulson said. “We are a direct threat to Ross' powerbase. He's been isolating and impressing a variety of high risk and high threat individuals. Most of whom, like yourself, have no where else to go, and no one to depend on.”

He looked up. “I'm sorry, Captain Rogers. We've been looking for your for years. SHIELD has always been looking for you. But somehow, the Army found you first, and after that, things just went wrong.”

Steve stared at him. “You were- Why?”

Coulson's smile was warm. “Our first director made it a priority. Director Carter thought that it only fair that you make it home.”

Before Steve could pull himself together enough to reply to that, the car pulled into what appeared to be a parking garage, and rolled to a stop. A moment later, the door opened, and Lt. Sam Wilson leaned in. “Hey, Cap,” he said, with an easy grin. He was wearing a uniform, but it wasn't like any uniform that Steve was familiar with.

“May I introduce Special Agent Sam Wilson,” Coulson said.

“Was everyone around me more aware of what was happening in my life than I was?” Steve asked, somewhere between resigned and enraged.

“Probably,” Sam said. “Hey, I spent the last four years being your social worker, so I can say, with honesty here, if you want to talk about the situation, I'm happy to listen.”

“By this point, I've got excellent coping mechanisms,” Steve said.

“I'm glad to hear it” Coulson handed over a file. “Let's get you up to date.”

*

His father had always said that in the middle of war, there was one thing all soldiers knew: you never heard the one that killed you. Tony had never understood that saying, but as he scrambled against the burning rock and sand, blinking blood out of his eyes, he realized that he might not have heard the one that was about to kill him, but he had seen in.

And it had his name on it.

The explosion caught him off guard anyway, and as the screams of the dying and wails of falling missiles faded away, he felt the blood start to seep through his shirt. And he knew what had happened.

The darkness was a relief.

*

SHIELD made pretty decent coffee. Better than the Army, at least.

Steve poured the last of his cup down his throat, not really tasting it any more, just drinking it for the heat and the comfort of the concept. He set the empty paper cup aside on top of a stack of file folders, the ones he'd already read. There were a lot of them.

But there were more waiting for him. It suited Steve fine, for the time being, he could hide here, to a certain extent. Polite, helpful agents knocked on the office door every few hours, bringing him fresh information, cups of piping hot coffee, and paper sacks of take out food.

The coffee was just how he took it, and the sandwiches and boxed dinners were all things he'd typically order. No one ever asked him what he wanted, or what he needed, they simply provided it, quietly and without any comment. If he did ask for something, they had it for him in a matter of an hour or so, but most of what was now in his small office had arrived without him asking for it.

He wasn't sure if he was impressed or uneasy about that.

Steve rubbed his forehead with stiff fingers, pressing hard at his temples, trying to soothe the ache there. Taking a deep breath, he reached for the next folder. The throb in his head had more to do with stress and lack of sleep than anything else, but still, it was beginning to get annoying, and Steve wanted it to stop.

He should probably try to get some sleep.

Instead, he started in on the next file, his teeth gritted and his shoulders hunched. The polite rap on the closed door brought his head up. “Come in,” he called, checking his watch. The agent was early, but hopefully, might have a fresh cup of coffee.

But instead of one of the SHIELD agents, a dark skinned man in crisp Air Force dress blues walked through the door. Tall and trim, he paused just inside the door. “Hello, Captain Rogers,” he said, with a faint smile. “I'm James Rhodes, a friend of Tony's. May I come in?”

Steve was on his feet already, and he waved a hand at the small office. “Please do, Lieutenant.”

Rhodes chuckled. “Call me Rhodey, please.”

“Steve.” Steve took his hand, and wasn't surprised to find his grip was firm and strong, but with no attempt at posturing.

With his left hand, Rhodey held out a familiar cup of coffee and a single dose of aspirin in a paper sleeve. “Agent Hill asked me to bring these to you.”

“Thank you,” Steve said, meaning it. Apparently, the relief was audible in his voice, because Rhodey laughed again. Steve took the cup and ripped open the aspirin. He wasn't sure it was going to help at all, but he was willing to give it a shot. He popped the pills and washed them down with a mouthful of coffee.

“Long day?” Rhodey asked, removing his uniform hat.

“Long couple of days.” Steve gestured at the visitor chair. “Please, have a seat. What can I do for you, Rhodey?”

Rhodey took the seat that Steve offered him, nodding politely as he sat down, setting his hat on the desk. “Getting caught up?” he asked.

Steve surveyed the disaster of the office. He hadn't asked for it. He hadn't really wanted it. But he'd realized, very quickly, that Agent Coulson was giving him time and space to adjust without anyone hovering over him. Without Steve having to put on a brave face or come to terms with a sea change in his life in front of an audience.

Coulson had given him an office he hadn't wanted, and the first real intelligence he'd gotten since he'd woken up in this world, unvetted and uncensored, and Steve was desperately grateful for it. Especially for everything that Coulson had handed him on Tony's life since he'd disappeared from Boston almost four years ago.

He poured over every detail, everything they'd given him.

“Yes,” he said to Rhodey, even if that seemed inadequate. “It's taking longer than I'd like, though.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “A lot to get caught up on.”

Rhodey's face got serious. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice even and careful. “I'd hoped to be there when they brought you in. I knew that Tony wouldn't be able to, but I'd hoped that I could.”

Steve sank into his chair, his hand still locked around his coffee cup. “Any particular reason why?”

Rhodey's shoulders rose and fell in a quick shrug. “I figured you're probably more than a little angry with him. Someone needed to be here to plead his case, and somehow, it seems like I'm the man who's been nominated.”

Surprised, Steve glanced at him. “Don't you think I've got cause?” he asked, deliberately keeping his voice as calm as he could. “I've been used as a pawn by everyone, and no one seems to have included me in their plans. Including the people I thought were on my side. Don't you think that I have a reason to be a bit annoyed here?”

“Captain, to be honest, I don't know why you haven't told us all to fuck off,” Rhodey said. “You're a far more patient man than I.”

Steve's mouth twitched. “The thought has occurred to me,” he admitted. “However, it seems rash, and it'll land me right back where I started, on the outside, being manipulated by people who have power over me.” He leaned back in his chair. “SHIELD's made it clear that if I want out, they'll get me settled somewhere with a new life, no strings attached. They might not be telling the truth, but they've given me the choice.” His eyes settled on the file Coulson had given him on Tony. “They're the first ones who have. So that's something, at least.”

“And Tony didn't,” Rhodey said.

“No. Tony didn't. Tony made his choices and left me out of them.” That was still a bitter pill, sticking in his throat. That when Tony was in danger, when he was threatened, instead of coming to Steve for help, he'd done everything possible to make sure Steve never found out.

Steve knew it was irrational, but it felt like a betrayal. Like a lack of trust.

“Tony made his own choices, and mine for me, so yes. Right now, I am very angry with him.” Until the words were out of his mouth, Steve didn't realize how true they were. But acknowledging it was like the flood gates opening, and he became aware of the churning sensation of rage that was roiling low in his stomach. “It doesn't change how I feel about him, but I am very angry that he made decisions about both our lives without my input.”

There was a moment of silence, and Steve realized his hands were locked on the arms of his chair, his fingers white knuckled and the muscles of his arms standing out in sharp relief. With a deliberate effort, Steve took a deep breath and tried to relax.

“I am angry,” he admitted. “And I feel rather foolish, and that doesn't sit well.”

Rhodey's eyes were very dark, and very sharp. His hands were folded in his lap, his posture respectful and controlled. “I met Tony around about the time you did,” he said at last. “Because of you, actually.”

As he explained his research project, how he'd met Tony and why he'd been looking for Steve, Steve sipped his coffee and listened quietly. But something must have shown on his face, because when Rhodey finished, he was grinning. “You don't believe me?” he asked.

“Oh, I believe you, it just seems a little, well, unreal.” Steve shook his head. “I didn't really consider that I'd be remembered.” He paused. “By anyone other than those that knew me.” There had been a file on SHIELD's attempts to locate his crash site, financed by Howard, who'd made several technological leaps forward during the first few years. About ten years ago, the funding had been cut, leaving SHIELD doing the best they could, but by that point, locating his body had become an afterthought.

The Army had beat them to the punch, completely accidentally.

Rhodey shook his head. “You weren't forgotten,” he said. “And I'm honored to meet you, sir.”

“The feeling's mutual, Lieutenant,” Steve said, managing a faint smile. “When Tony left, he- He told you where he was going? Why?” He wasn't jealous of that, he had to remind himself of that. He needed to be glad that Tony wasn't alone, wasn't alone this whole time. He could be glad for that, he could be grateful for that.

Even if it hurt.

“Yeah,” Rhodey said. “Me and Pepper both. He took Pepper on as a PA, she's been learning every inch of SI since the beginning, so that when Tony did oust Stane, they'd be on steady footing.” He paused. “That was the endgame, all along. As soon as he had control of the company, as soon as Stane was gone, than he could be assured of your safety, SHIELD had been tracking the whole situation. But Tony jumped the gun, we didn't find that out until after he did it. We thought SHIELD had changed their timetable, as it turns out, it was only Tony.”

Steve let out a snort. “I'm not surprised,” he said, scrubbing a hand over his face. “He's not really good at letting other people in on his plans, is he?”

“No, he's not.” Rhodey leaned forward. “Did he tell you how old he was?”

“No,” Steve said. He avoided Rhodey's eyes. He should've known, though, that was what really bothered him. He'd known that Tony was a child. He'd known. And he'd ignored his own gut, because he wanted the lie.

"I figured. When he told us the truth, Pepper and I," Rhodey said, his fingers rolling a steady rhythm against his knee, "I realized just how young and isolated he was. And I realized that I should've known. I'd suspected, at first, but he had this confidence that made him seem so much older than he actually was. He was all front, and behind that, he was just a lonely, lost kid, and he was holding things together with his fingernails. That was it. That was all he had, whatever force he could manage to stir up in himself. A teenager, ready to fight the world, and, I don't know, maybe win.

"He left, after telling us everything, and I looked at Pepper and said, 'Well, he's too old to adopt. One of us is going to have to marry him.'" His lips turned up. "She promptly asked me out, so I guess that was her way of saying, 'Not it.'"

Steve laughed, the sound too sharp and too loud, but real. He cupped his fingers in front of his mouth, a little of the strain bleeding away. "But you didn't end up going through with it, I take it?" He sipped his coffee, nursing the last of it.

"Pepper's more my type," Rhodey admitted with a ghost of a smile. “But somehow, Tony's become one of my best friends over the last few years. We don't really have much in common. No common background or shared history. No shared interests, for the most part, nothing really other than the fact that I just like him.” He met Steve's eyes. “He's a very likeable ass.”

Steve grinned. “Yes. Yes, he is.”

"So let's be honest, sir," Rhodey said, and there was an edge to his voice now. "You might've been trapped, you might not have gotten a choice? You might be angry about the fact that Tony kept his plans to himself. But Tony chose a cell. It was a very nice one, I'm not discounting that, it was one of his own making, and his own choosing. But it was a cell. He knew he'd made a mistake, he knew that what was happening was because he'd made those mistakes, because he'd made those choices.

"Should he have given you a say in your own life? Probably. Was he right to do what he did? I can't say." He stood, drawing himself up, the full length of his lanky frame coming to attention. "Would I be pissed if I was in your shoes? I'd want to strangle him."

His mouth kicked up on one side. "But he was a kid, who tried to take responsibility for his mistakes, who tried to protect the people he loved, and he paid a very high price for that. So, he's a dumbass. But he's a dumbass with noble intentions and a lot of issues."

Steve scrubbed a hand over his face. “He shouldn't have done it,” he said, but the anger was gone, the anger and the rage and the frustration.

“No. He shouldn't have,” Rhodey agreed. “But he did what he thought he had to do. And I'm not sure he was wrong.” He gave Steve a faint, sad smile. “He lo-”

“Stop right there,” Steve said, holding up a hand. “That's a discussion I need to have with him, not you.” He shook his head. “No insult intended, Lieutenant, but those are not words I want to hear from you.”

Rhodey's smile grew into a grin. “That's fair. But I had to give it a try.” He stood. “If for no other reason than to embarrass the hell out of him.”

“Seems reasonable,” Steve told him.

“I figure I owe him a couple of digs.” Rhodey reached into his pocket and held out a folded piece of paper. “Here. A small apology from both of us.”

Steve took it. “What-”

“The phone number of a young air force pilot I tracked down for him. He seemed to think that you'd want to speak to Lt. Danvers.”

Steve froze, his fingers locking on the paper. “Is she-”

“She's a rising star, but she's currently back on base from maneuvers. You should call and leave her a message,” Rhodey suggested. “I'm betting she's been worried about you.”

“Thank you.” Steve looked up, stunned. “Thank you.”

“We've kept an eye on her,” Rhodey said. “Just in case Ross got any ideas about picking her up.” He gave Steve a polite nod. “I'll leave you alone.”

Steve stared down at the square of paper. “Rhodey?” When Rhodes glanced back at him, Steve met his eyes. “Tell me that he's all right,” he said, his voice quiet. “Tell me that he's safe, that he's been...” He swallowed. “Happy.”

Rhodey was silent for a moment. “He's been safe,” he said at last. “He's been drinking too much and not sleeping or eating enough. He's been isolated and lonely and angry. He hasn't been happy, Steve. He misses you.”

Steve felt his face heat. He wanted to strangle Tony all the more. “Thank you,” he said, his voice quiet. “Is it petty to say that I'm glad?”

“He deserves it,” Rhodey agreed. “You didn't.”

“No, I didn't.” Steve's lips twitched. “Can I- Would you mind talking to me? About him? A little later, but if-” Frustrated, he broke off.

“Want to get some dinner tonight?” Rhodey said, is smile easy. “Pepper can't wait to meet you. And I think you need to get out of here for a while.”

“Thank you,” Steve said, meaning it. “Yes. Thank you, that sounds... Nice.”

“It was very nice to meet you,” Rhodey said, and judging by his face, he meant it. With a nod, he was out the door, closing it quietly behind him.

Steve sank into his chair, pulling his phone out. He took a deep breath, and dialed. His eyes were closed when the line was picked up, and he was caught, for an instant, between laughter and tears. “Listen,” Carol said, her voice instantly recognizable, “I don't care where you got this number, you better have a good reason for bothering me, buddy.”

Steve took a deep breath. “Just trying to find an old friend,” he said, and there was a moment of pause, just long enough to make his heart sink.

And then, “Where the hell have you been, Brooklyn?”

Steve's eyes closed. “Would you believe that I've been part of a top secret government conspiracy?”

“No. No, I would not, you fucker.”

“Well, then, you'll just have to make up something for yourself.”

*

“How did this happen?” Steve breathed. He sounded on the verge of starting WWIII “Could someone please explain that to me?”

“Yeah, that'd be nice,” Clint said. “That'd be swell, if someone could explain that to all of us.”

The look that Coulson gave him was not amused. “The convoy was hit when they were leaving the demonstration,” he said, his voice calm. “There were causalities and two other dead from the SI group, but Stark isn't among the survivors, or the dead. We're working on the assumption that he was picked up by the insurgents.”

“Kidnapped for ransom?” Natasha asked, and Rogers was staring straight ahead, his jaw set, his eyes locked on some far off point that Clint couldn't see. He didn't say a word, he didn't even acknowledge what they were saying.

“Possibly. That, or his technological knowledge.” Coulson kept pace with them easily. “He's the only one they took, and there's no other reason to take him, rather than the money men, or some of the military brass involved. But there have been no communications, making ransom unlikely.”

“It was Stane.”

Everyone looked at Steve, who was barely under control. “It was Obadiah Stane,” he gritted out. “The whole thing. From the beginning. He used to call, Tony was-” One hand was in a vicious fist at his side, and for a second, Clint thought he was going to punch the wall. But his fingers relaxed, little by little. “Obie. He used to call him Obie. I thought it was his father, or some other relative, that it was some nickname.” He shook his head. “But I remember those calls. Tony was always weird after them, too wound up, too wired, too stressed. I didn't think they were healthy, but I couldn't do anything about it.”

He stalked ahead of them. “And he's at the heart of this. He did this. I know he did this.”

Natasha give Clint a look, and then she was off, dogging Steve's steps with silent determination. Clint knew what was coming even before Coulson spoke. “Specialist. We need to talk before we get on that plane. We need you on our side right now.”

Clint gave him a furious look. “I'm still here, what more do you want from me?”

Coulson stepped in front of him, and he didn't touch Clint, he didn't even come close, but he put himself in Clint's path, and Clint stopped. “You haven't signed your contract.”

“Really?” Clint's jaw dropped. “This is not the time.”

“It is. Why haven't you signed your contract?” Coulson asked, his eyes sharp.

“We have a plane. We have a very long trip. We have a missing man, who may or may not be in the hands of some very bad people right now,” Clint said, his voice pitched low.

“I'm aware of all of this, Specialist.” Coulson leaned in. “Why haven't you signed.”

Clint wondered if he should take a swing, if that would stop this. “Because I don't know if I'm staying.” He pushed past Coulson and stalked up the hallway.

“Any particular reason why you've made this choice?” Coulson said, and he sounded furious, his voice controlled, tight, but the fury was there. Clint glanced at him, surprised.

“Oh, is this not going the way you'd intended, sir? Really?” He stared down the hall. “Can't imagine why.”

“Rogers needs you.”

“Steve doesn't trust me any more, and he's right,” Clint snapped. “I played him, I betrayed him, I went behind his back and manipulated him and if I hadn't done any of that? We wouldn't be in this situation right now, so fuck it. He's right.” His eyes cut in Coulson's direction. “He will never trust me again, and I did that. That was my choice. But he was all that kept me here.”

“First of all,” Coulson said, his voice very soft, “you are the only one he trusts. Still. If you go in there and say you're out, he'll go with you.”

“Bullshit,” Clint said.

“No. It's not.” Coulson was walking with him, shoulder to shoulder, their footsteps matching pace. “You are the lynchpin here. And second of all, if Stark is still out there, if he is alive but being held, we need you.”

“I'm not cutting out until we find him,” Clint said. “I owe Steve that much, and I pay my debts.”

“And what about the debt we owe you?” Coulson asked.

Clint gave him a look. “I'll send you a bill.”

Coulson's hand closed on his arm, gentle, almost delicate, and it was the first time he'd laid a hand on Clint since that first night in the bar, and Clint snapped. He caught Coulson's shoulders, and pulled him around, shoving him up against the wall. Coulson's back hit the wall, and for an instant they both stared at each other, Clint breathing hard, Coulson utterly unfazed. “Accounting's a little behind at the minute,” Coulson said, his lips twitching up in the faintest smile. “So maybe the two of us should settle it between us.”

Clint took a breath, and another, and then his lips were on Coulson's.

The kiss was hard and fast and hard, and a little crazy, and he didn't think he cared, and apparently neither did Coulson, because after a moment of stunned stillness, he was actively participating. The kiss deepened and bodies pressing together until one of them, or maybe both, was making a noise perilously close to a whimper. Somewhere, a door slammed shut, and Clint sprang backwards, panting.

Coulson looked distinctly ruffled, his cheekbones flushed and his tie askew. “Well. That's... Unexpected.”

“Yeah, well, you haven't been paying attention,” Clint muttered. He turned on his heel and stalked up the hall, trying to ignore the fact that his body was more than a little eager to go back to doing that. He glanced at Coulson, he was straightening his jacket. Yeah, he wanted to do a lot of that. Instead, he forced his brain back where it belonged. “It is Stane, isn't it?”

“We'll find out soon enough. They're holding him on site. He made it through the attack with barely a scratch,” Coulson said. He was studying Clint. “We'll talk to him.”

“Damn straight we will.” Clint headed down the hall.

“Clint?” Clint looked back at him. “We're going to discuss the rest of it, too.”

“I'm sick of talking,” Clint said. He headed for the door. “Right now? I need a little action.”

*

He'd expected Obadiah Stane to look like a monster.

Steve hadn't had his name. All these years, all this time, he'd had plenty of time to imagine the man who'd been the cause of all of this. The one who'd taken Tony out of Boston, if not at gunpoint, then with his arm twisted hard behind his back. The phantom on the other end of Tony's strained phone calls, the one who drained the life from Tony's face and dragged him from his bed all hours of the day and night. The one who sent Ty as an attack dog, to push Tony to exhaustion.

He'd expected a monster.

But as he stood on the other side of the one way mirror, as he stared into the interrogation room, Stane looked like a haggard, tired business man. He was battered, a bruise on his temple and his jaw rough with beard. He stared at Coulson, who was calmly going through a file folder, as if he had all the time in the world.

It was all Steve could do to stay still. To hold himself in check.

Clint and Natasha flanked him, one on either shoulder, and he knew he was lucky that he wasn't in handcuffs at this point. There had been no discussion about this, he'd simply gone. He'd gone because he couldn't bear this any more. He needed whatever information he could get. Between the military and SHIELD, the search was already ongoing, but they needed a place to start.

And they all knew that their best chance of getting that starting point was to get it out of Obadiah Stane.

“Why am I here?” Stane asked, breaking the silence. “Why aren't you out there, looking for Tony?”

“We are, Mr. Stane.” Coulson didn't look up. He turned another page with idle ease. The lights caught on his reading glasses. “I'm sorry for the trouble. But we're talking to everyone who survived the attack. Your car took the least damage.” He glanced up, a polite smile creasing his face. “Lucky for you, wasn't it?”

“I'm not sure you can call any portion of this 'lucky,'” Stane said. He rubbed a hand over the smooth skin of his head, and he looked old. “Tony-”

“Is the only one to go missing in the chaos,” Coulson said, head tipping to the side. “Everyone else has been accounted for, either dead or recovered. Only Anthony Stark was taken. Which SHIELD finds rather odd.”

“I don't,” Stane said, his voice tight. “If you're aware of how much he's worth, then you wouldn't either, Agent Coulson.”

“Oh, I am aware,” Coulson said, almost apologetic. “I admit, he would make a tempting kidnapping target, but there's the difficulty of locating him in the chaos.” He bent over the file again, his shoulders hunching in. He looked like nothing more than an ineffective bureaucrat. “Which the attackers did, with what appears to be very little difficulty.”

Stane was staring at him with an expression of displeasure, almost disdain. “I wouldn't know,” he said, his voice brittle. “I barely survived myself.”

“So I hear.” Coulson picked up his pen and tapped the end against the metal table, an obnoxious rattle. His mouth pursed. “I'm surprised that Stark was there at all. What with the announcement that he was taking over StarkIndustries.”

The faintest flicker of an unreadable expression rolled over Stane's face, but it was gone almost before it could settle in place. “Why?” Stane asked with a tight smile. “We planned this before he made his announcement, but his plans made it all the more important that he start to make connections out where it matters. He might have been a brilliant designer, but the sort of deals we need to make to secure our bottom line? Require a personal touch. He had never developed that.”

“Why is that?” Coulson asked.

“What?”

“Why has he never developed those skills?”

Obie's mouth tightened. “Because he was always an awkward child,” he said, and his voice held a hint of disappointment. “More suited to machines than people. He was happier dealing with the tech side of things, I took care of everything else for him.”

Steve gave a bitter little laugh. “How much longer do we have to listen to this?” he gritted out.

“Give Coulson a chance,” Natasha said, her voice serene. “He's very good at this.”

Resisting the urge to put his fist through the glass, Steve closed his eyes tight and leaned his head back, drawing in slow, careful breaths.

“You've done an amazing job with StarkIndustries,” Coulson was saying, his voice soothing and smooth, unruffled. “The last few years have seen exceptional growth.”

“Yes. They have. Tony's done some of his best work for us.”

“A lot of people expected him to take more of a public role in SI once his father died. But he was never seen, not even publicly at his father's funeral.” Coulson was frowning now, vaguely concerned. “There were rumors that he was being manipulated.”

“I gave him the choice. He choose to retreat from public life, just the same way his father did. Because he had many of his father's demons.”

Steve was aware of Clint's hand on his arm, an anchor point that he wanted to shake off, he wanted to break. But that touch was the only thing keeping him in place, keeping him silent.

“So if you're implying I was 'manipulating' Tony, nothing could be farther from the truth.” Stane rubbed a hand over his mouth. “I raised Tony,” he said, his voice aching with sadness. “I love him. I was more of a father to him than his real father. I protected him, I kept him safe when there was no one else. And I gave him what he wanted, a safe and secure place to work while I handled the annoyances of day to day life.”

Coulson's fingers were still on the file. “He had a father.”

“And Howard was a drunk. I loved him, too, but he was a drunk, and that is a fact. And after the accident, the one that killed Maria, we did our best to protect him, to get him treatment.”

“It didn't work, did it.” It wasn't a question, but Stane answered anyway.

“We couldn't check him into a facility, or the company would've collapsed. We handled it at home, and we got him what he needed. Yes. He died. I did make sure he had no access to a car, but he was a crafty man when his addictions were in the driver's seat. I am not responsible for his poor choices.”

“You are responsible for which car Tony Stark got into in Afghanistan,” Coulson said. “That was one car that has your fingerprints on it, Mr. Stane.”

“I don't know what you're implying, but I don't think I appreciate it,” Stane said.

“There's no implication, Mr. Stane. There's a statement of fact. You took the lead car on the convoy, but you took your handlers aside and asked that Tony be put in another one of the Humvees, did you not?”

“I don't know what you're talking about.”

“A few of the military personnel survived the attack.” Coulson flipped through the file, his hands moving with deliberation. “Once they had Stark, it was almost like the attack was called off. As if he was the primary target.” Coulson looked up. “Their statements have been quite precise about the situation. You chose the lead vehicle, and you put Tony into the back of the pack. Almost as if you wanted to be sure that he was caught in the crossfire.”

“And why would I want to do that?” Stane said, his eyes slits.

Coulson reached for his briefcase, and flipped a folder across the table him. It hit with a thud right in front of Stane. “Perhaps because when he took over the company, he'd be likely to discover you've been making illegal, under the table deals with the very insurgents that the US Military is battling in that region.”

The silence was smothering. Steve could hear the sound of his own heartbeat in his ears, and he watched, mesmerized, as Stane struggled to keep his face calm.

“I don't know what you're talking about,” he said, but the words shook on the edges. “If someone in SI is doing this, it's without my knowledge or approval.”

“We have surveillance, wiretaps, photographs, signed contracts,” Phil said, still sounding only vaguely concerned. “You are going to jail. For a very, very long time, Mr. Stane. The question is, are you going to be up against federal charges of war profiteering? Or murder?”

Stane was white, his skin like parchment now, thin and stretched fine, the bones in stark relief beneath his flesh. His mouth was open, his breath coming in ragged pants, and Coulson stood, leaning forward.

“Where is Tony Stark?”

“I don't-”

“Is he alive?”

“I don't- I-”

Coulson leaned in, his fingers spread wide on the metal surface of the table, blades against the gleaming tabletop. “Did you know it was over when he took his company back? When he publicly disavowed you and made it clear that he was taking back what was his?”

“It wasn't-”

“Was that when you decided he had to die?”

Stane's face twisted. “The little prick got what was coming to him,” he snarled, his lips drawn back from his teeth in a vicious snarl, his eyes dark slits. Massive fists crashed down on the table, rattling the surface, his barrel like chest canting forward. “It was my company! Mine! I spent twenty, THIRTY years building it, nurturing it, pouring my life into it.

“Howard was a drunken dilettante, more interested in playing with his toys than he was in keeping his company going, he was more than happy to let me do the dirty work, to stay up for days on end to deal with labor problems and contract negotiations and legal injunctions! As long as he had a full bottle and a full wallet, he could care less what happened.”

“It was his company,” Coulson said, his voice dismissive, and it was like pouring fuel on the fire of rage that was burning through Stane.

“It was my company!” Stane roared, coming to his feet, and Coulson didn't move, his eyes just went up to track Stane's movements. The faint smile on his face never so much as wavered, as if the situation was just a minor curiosity to him. “I was the one who bled for that company, I was the one that nurtured it and grew it and made all the hard choices,” Stane spat out. “Me, it was always me. And then he was going to decide that I was nothing more than a hired hand? A mere employee that he could discard?

“It was always my company! And he had no right to try to cut me out!”

“Is that what happened?” Coulson asked, his voice mildly curious. “Did Howard Stark try to cut you out? Is that why he had to die?”

Too late, Stane saw the trap open at his feet, and tried to backpedal. “I don't know what you're talking about,” he said, but the rage was gone out of his voice, leaving nothing but petulance. He sank back into his chair, all the force gone from his form.

“Tony did cut you out,” Coulson said. “And now he's missing. Possibly dead. You realize how bad that looks, don't you, Mr. Stane?”

“I think we're done here,” Stane said, his body collapsing into itself. He slumped back into his chair, his chin up, his lips tight. “If I'm being accused of something, Agent Coulson, I want legal representation.”

Coulson's head tipped to the side, just a little, just a slight tilt of his chin. “Mr. Stane. This is your final chance. If we recover Stark alive, you have a chance to get out of this with your head still on your shoulders. You have a chance to simply spend the rest of your natural days in a very small cell in a very deep hole.”

He closed the folder, his long fingers sliding gently over the cover. “If we do not? I would not give good odds for your continued survival, let alone your continued health.”

“Is that a threat, Agent Coulson?” Stane smirked at him.

Coulson was still for a moment, that faint, pleasant smile a mask that covered unbelievable depths. “Mr. Stane? There is no point in threatening you.” He stood, gathering his papers. “But it is in your best interests to remain here in protective custody. If you choose not to do so, I cannot guarantee your continued safety.”

Stane leaned forward. “Fuck you,” he said, with a pleasant smile, “and fuck your protection.”

“Where is Tony Stark?” Coulson asked.

“I don't know,” Stane said with a tight smile.

“Is he alive?”

Stane took a deep breath, and exhaled. “I hope not,” he said, his smile grotesque.

And Steve snapped.

He had no memory of moving, he had no concept of how he got from point A to point B, all he knew was his hands were closing around the front of Stane's shirt, lifting him bodily from the chair and slamming him hard against the wall. The impact shuddered up his arms, into his shoulders, and some sense of sanity returned, enough for him to see the reflection of his own bone white face in Stane's frightened eyes.

On some level, he was aware of Stane's weight, of the size of his body. The hands that were clawing at his arms were huge, muscle backing up Stane's grip. Steve stared at him, knowing what he'd done, knowing just the way he'd controlled Tony, had used him and abused him and made a tool out of a helpless little boy.

“If he's dead,” Steve said, his voice coming from a long distance away, “so are you.”

Stane was screaming, as much as he could with the way that Steve's knuckles were digging into the flesh of his throat, choking the breath from him. “Get him off of me, get him the fuck away from me!”

Coulson was still sorting through his folders, utterly unconcerned. “You've declined our offer of protection, Mr. Stane. In very impolite terms, so I'm afraid the offer will not be repeated.”

Stane's fingers clawed at Steve's wrists, his face turning a dangerous shade of red. “Get off of me, you psycho,” he gasped out.

Steve leaned in, almost nose to nose with Stane. “Where is he?”

“I don't know! I don't-” His mouth gaped for a moment, struggling to breathe. “I don't know!” His eyes were watering, bulging in the flesh of his face. “I swear- I don't-”

“He might actually be telling the truth,” Clint said from behind Steve. He didn't sound concerned. “Or he might not be. You kill him now, we'll never know.”

Steve's fingers released, and Stane collapsed to the floor, his legs going into a heap beneath him. His hands scrabbled against his throat, trying to get his breath back. Steve stared down at him, hatred a taste like blood in the back of his throat. Stane stared up at him, his expression full of impotent rage. Steve took a breath. “He loved you. He- And you did this to him, for what, for money?”

It was beyond comprehension, it was beyond reasoning. He blinked, and behind the shade of his eyelids, he could see Tony's smile so clearly, the way his eyes sparkled, the way his hands cut through the air when he spoke. Tony, who contained multitudes, who was a genius who used his gifts for building weapons and toys, who possessed such loyalty and such wit, who had fought and had struggled, so hard to know and yet so lonely, he was the smartest, wickedest and warmest person Steve had ever met. All it took was a single blink, and Steve was back there, in that tangle of a Wizard's lair, watching Tony run full tilt at life, and dragging everyone else along in his wake.

“That's all he was to you,” he said, and his voice was unrecognizable, warped and twisted and seething “He loved you, he did everything you asked, he did it all for you. And you had him killed. For money.” Something like a laugh was in his throat, gagging him. “He would've given you anything. If you'd just asked.”

Stane's mouth opened, and Steve couldn't bear to hear it, he grabbed Stane by the front of his shirt, dragged him up with one arm and slammed a fist into his face.

“Feel better?” Clint asked as Steve let him go. Stane hit the ground, out cold, and Steve took a step back. His hands were trembling, and he shook them out, struggling with the impulse to pick the guy up and hit him again, to hit him until he could breathe easy again, until he could find some measure of justice for the lost years, until he could live with himself.

Instead, he turned on his heel and stalked away. “We find him.”

“Think you broke his nose,” Clint said, not sounding concerned.

“I damn well hope I did,” Steve said, and Clint's hand closed on his shoulder. He twisted hard, swinging his hand up, and he intended to knock Clint's hand away, intended to shove him back, push him away. But somehow, his hand closed on Clint's wrist, clutching, clinging, and something like a sob ripped through him. Uncomprehending, he just stared at Clint, his body shuddering.

Clint wrapped his free arm around Steve's shoulders, dragging him in. “We're going to find him,” he said, his voice quiet. A whisper in Steve's ear, comforting and familiar after years of ops, after years of Clint at his back and on heels, Clint watching his back, the way Bucky used to. Silent and quick and with eyes that weren't natural, but he was always there, always waiting, always right behind Steve. And he never missed. He never, ever missed his target.

And whatever resentment Steve had carried about his lies, about his divided loyalties, about his silence in the face of their assignments, melted away. He took a breath, and another, and he was holding himself together with the deathgrip he had on Clint's shirt. Clint's grip on his back was firm, and for a second, Steve buried his face in Clint's shoulder, struggling to breathe.

Clint didn't move, didn't say a word. Just hung on until Steve pulled back. Then he gave Steve a level look. “Okay?”

Steve took a deep breath. “Okay.” He pulled back, and Clint let him go. Somehow, Stane and Coulson had disappeared, and Steve was grateful for that. Also for the momentary visual of Coulson dragging Stane out by one foot. Steve looked at Clint. “C'mon. We've got work to do.”

Clint nodded. “Let's go find your boy.”

*

It was little more than a dark spot in the sea of sand. A tiny mirage in the shifting dunes.

But the black SHIELD copter wheeled around, shooting in low for another look, cutting in much lower on the second pass. And now, Steve could see the arms waving, could see that it was a human being, lost in that empty expanse. He refused to hope, he refused to allow himself to think of anything, anything other than please. Please, please let it be him.

Let him still be alive. After three months, after all this time, please let him be alive. Let that burst of fire and flight picked up by the SHIELD satellites be something more than just a missile loosed at exactly the wrong moment.

“We've got movement,” Clint announced, and his voice was smug. “And it is our boy.”

“You sure?” Rhodey asked, his hand braced on the roof of the helicopter, his fingers folded into a tight fist.

“Never doubt his eyes,” Steve said, and it was all he could do to keep his seat, to not just rip the buckles free and head for the door, and the ever decreasing distance to the ground. He wanted to jump, he didn't care about logic or fear or anything else, three months. For three months, he'd spent every waking minute looking, pouring over everything they'd pried out of StarkIndustries' databases, everything that SHIELD had to offer, every single data point and every rumor.

Three months. Tony had been held captive for three months. God know's where, and God only knew what they had done to him, three months was a long time to be in enemy hands. A long time to suffer, to wonder if anyone was even looking for you. To give in to despair or fear or pain.

Three months, and Tony had gotten out on his own. Tony, clever and stubborn and unbreakable, Tony hadn't waited for rescue, Tony had made his way out on his own, and when they finally caught up, when they finally followed the trail he'd left? They found him walking stubbornly across a trackless desert.

Wasn't that just like Tony.

He glanced at Rhodey, and he'd learned to read the other man. There was a reflection of his own humor in Rhodey's eyes, in the curve of his lips, and the copter was barely on the sands before both of them were unbuckled and running across the sands. At the peak of a dune, Tony was on his knees, wobbling as he tried to keep himself upright.

And there was a blue light in the center of his chest, some contraption of metal and light, and it frightened him in a way that he wasn't prepared for.

Steve slowed, and Rhodey glanced at him, and Steve waved him forward. “Go,” he said. “He's expecting you.”

Rhodey gave a snort of laughter. “He's been expecting you for four years,” he said, but he was running, he was shooting forward, and he was there, he was dragging Tony into his arms, and for a long moment, the two of them just clung to each other, curled into the other's body.

Steve's feet staggered to a stop and he fought against an overwhelming sense of jealousy, of anger. He'd lost years, he'd lost all this time and so many chances, and Rhodey had been there. Rhodey had been the one to be there when Steve couldn't be, and it hurt, it hurt in a way that wasn't the least bit rational.

Because while he wasn't able to do anything, or be there, or protect Tony, Rhodey had. Rhodey had been a friend and a protector, and now he was half-prostrate in the sand, holding on for dear life to his best friend, to the man that both he and Steve loved.

And when Rhodey looked back in Steve's direction, there were tears on his cheeks, tears that he didn't bother trying to hide, because Steve was crying, too.

He moved forward at last, and Tony stared at him, his eyes unfocused, his lips cracked, his face scraped and burned, and slowly, painfully, he smiled. “I didn't make it,” he said, and his exhale hurt to hear. “I thought I would- But I didn't make it.”

“Tony?” Steve went down on his knees, there in the sand, penitent in the face of that pain, laid low. His hands were shaking as he reached out, his fingers just skimming Tony's skin. “Tony, it's-”

“I didn't make it.” Tony's eyes closed, and he pitched forward, and Rhodey was there, and Steve was there, their hands tangling together, and his skin was red and battered. Every touch had to hurt, but he leaned into them, into Rhodey's hands and Steve's body and he was laughing, soft and sad. “I thought I would. I thought I'd make it back. To tell you, sorry.”

His eyes opened again, and they were huge in the hollows of his face. “I'm sorry, and I love you, I've always loved you.”

Steve wanted to cry, to howl, to find a punching bag and rip it from its moorings with a sharp right hook. “I love you,” Steve whispered instead, his arms going around Tony, shifting him with Rhodey's help, and climbing to his feet, Tony cradled in his arms. “We've got you, hang in there, just a little while longer, Tony, just hold on. We've got you.”

Tony was silent and still and limp in his arms and he was running across the sliding sand, his body folded around Tony's, providing him what protection he could, from the sun and the sand and the wind. The medics met them half way, and Steve just shot past them, back to the shelter of the copter, clinging to Tony for just that extra couple of seconds, not wanting to relinquish him to their care.

He needed to hear Tony's breath , no matter what, he needed that.

But when they were inside, when they were safe and Tony was being strapped down, an IV already working its magic in his arm, and the copter was lifting off, Rhodey looked at him. “What the fuck is that thing?” he asked, and all Steve could do was shake his head.

And clutch Tony's hand like a lifeline.

*

The soft, steady beep lured him out of the darkness. He didn't move, didn't open his eyes, the pain was hovering, just out of reach, and he was so sick of pain. He was so sick of pain and blood and guns. He kept his eyes closed, because he was so desperate not to wake to that. Not again. Not ever again.

But the beeping was soft and steady, and the air was clean, it didn't smell of dust and melted metal. There was no blood in his throat, no chains on his wrists, no binds holding him in place. And he took a deep breath, and another, risking consciousness.

“Hey, you lazy ass. You really going to leave me sitting here? This is what we're doing now?”

Tony's mouth stretched into a smile, and it hurt, God, it hurt a damn lot, but he smiled anyway, because he knew that disapproving voice. He pried his eyes open, and the world was white and blank and painful. Empty. And, if he wanted to be honest with himself, terrifying.

And then a dark point swam into his blurred vision, and Tony struggled to focus. The dark spot expanded, and evolved, until he could make out the familiar form of his best friend, haggard and tired and in crisp dress blues anyway. Rhodey smiled down at him, his teeth flashing, wide and real, and Tony wanted to cry.

“Hey,” Rhodey said, his smile fading. He leaned over, one hand braced on the shiny metal railing of the hospital bed. “Okay, so the 'lazy ass' comment might've been a bit much, but it was justified, I want you to know that.” He reached out, his broad palm smoothing Tony's hair away from his forehead.

Tony took a breath, and it hurt, it ached to try to breathe, but he did it anyway. “Seems a bit harsh,” he managed, and his voice was a raw rasp. “But maybe not unjustified.”

“Oh, you think?” Rhodey poured a glass of water from the pitcher beside his bed, and he leaned over, steering the straw to Tony's mouth. Tony drank, grateful for it. When Rhodey pulled the straw away from his mouth, he made a noise pathetically close to a whine. “Not so high and mighty now, are you?” Rhodey said, with a faint smirk.

“Just glad I'm finally getting some respect,” Tony told him, his voice still rough, but he could breathe easier now, the flexing of his ribcage was no longer a raw agony.

“I am about three seconds away from dumping this glass of water over your head.” Rhodey was fighting to keep a smile in check, his cheeks literally twitching with it. “The way you smell right now, it can only help the situation.”

“I was hoping the nurse who would be doing my sponge baths would be a bit prettier, but I suppose in the right light, you've got your charms,” Tony said, his eyes closing.

“Oh, my God, I leave you two alone for five minutes and this is what you do?”

Tony's lids lifted, and Pepper was right there, at the foot of the bed, thin and pale and washed out, but her eyes were bright red, her nose shiny. Despite the tears in her eyes, she was grinning, wide and bright.

Tony smiled back. “Your eyes are red,” he said. “Tears for your long lost boss?”

“Tears of joy,” she said, and her voice was wavering. “I hate job hunting. And, might I add, it's very rude of you to point out flaws in a lady's appearance.”

“I'll keep that in mind.” He took a breath, and another sip of water when Rhodey let him have the straw, and subsided against his pillows. “Where am I?”

“Military hospital in Germany.” Pepper moved forward, leaning against Rhodey's side, and he wrapped an arm around her, turning his head to brush a kiss against her temple, and it hurt to watch, that tiny bit of affection, so off hand and so heartfelt of a gesture. “They're not at all sure what to do about that-” Her face pinched up for a second.

“The hole in the middle of my chest?” Tony asked, his lips twitching upwards. “Trust me. They're not the only ones who don't know what to do about it.” He closed his eyes. “Got shrapnel in my heart. It's, uh, the arc reactor keeps it from killing me.”

In the silence that followed, he cleared his throat. “Was it-”

“Yes.” Rhodey answered him, flat and without any doubt, and what small bit of hope that Tony had nurtured since it all began withered and died with that one word. “We got him. He's-” He cleared his throat, and when he spoke again, it was controlled and calm. “He's out of the picture.”

Tony nodded, just a little, and it was agony to remember. He had never wanted a drink so badly in his life, and he squeezed his mouth and his eyes shut against something that he was never going to allow himself to verbalize.

Pepper made a soft, despairing sound, and then her cool, gentle fingers were sliding across his skin. “It's okay,” she said, light and warm. “It's going to be okay, Tony. You're home, you're safe, it's over.”

He hid behind his closed eyes, in the darkness there, huddled in the spot where his pain could be called physical. It was easier that way. But something was hammering at the back of his mind, a faint but unmistakable memory that he wanted to deny. He glanced at Rhodey, his heart in is throat. “I thought, in the desert, was he-”

Rhodey grinned, wide and brilliant. “He's asleep next door. We've been watching over you in shifts.”

Tony took a deep breath, and it shuddered in his chest, in his throat. “Is he- I mean-”

Pepper's hand smoothed over his hair. “He's been a wreck,” she said, her smile full of laughter. “I think he likes you.”

Tony's eyes closed. He pressed a hand against them, hard, clutching at his own face, and no one said anything. They just stayed close, the sound of their breathing and the feel of their hands as Tony struggled not to sob.

When he was fully back under control, he pushed his arm down. “How do I look?” he asked.

“Like shit,” Rhodey said, and Pepper dug her elbow into his stomach.

“You look like a man who's been through hell, and made it out the other side,” she said, and Tony laughed.

“Good. I need all the sympathy that I can get.” Tony tried to push himself upright, and Pepper let him struggle for a second before she reached over and adjusted the bed. Tony pouted at her, and got a kiss on the forehead for his trouble.

“Stop hitting on my fiance,” Rhodey told him.

“Be a better fiance and maybe she wouldn't be hitting on me,” Tony said.

“You're both idiots,” Pepper said.

Tony opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, there was a faint tap from the door, and everyone turned.

Steve Rogers was leaning against the door frame, his face creased in the faintest, sweetest smile that Tony had ever seen. Wearing a faded MIT t-shirt and an equally worn pair of battered blue jeans, he was staring at Tony like he might disappear. “Hi,” he said, his voice soft.

“Hi,” Tony said, and he dragged the sheets up higher, trying to make the arc reactor less noticeable. His hands were shaking, and he stared at Steve, trying to memorize him, trying to drink in every detail, no matter how small, because he was so afraid Steve would simply disappear.

Steve stepped inside, and Pepper took Rhodey's arm, tugging him past Steve and out the door. “We'll just go get something to eat real quick,” she said, smiling at Tony. “And let the medical staff know you're awake. They're going to want to check on you.”

“Yeah, just-” Tony swallowed. “Just- Give us a few minutes, okay?”

“We'll eat slowly,” Rhodey agreed, and then they were out the door, shutting it behind them. Silence descended, and Tony struggled to find something to say.

“I think that's my shirt,” he said, and immediately wondered if he could write that off as the painkillers talking. He doubted it, but maybe it was worth a try.

Steve glanced down at his chest. “Not anymore,” he said, a faint smile on his face. “It's mine now. You left it behind.”

“You stole it!” Tony said. “I remember, you took that-”

“Mine had whipped cream on it, for some reason,” Steve said, one eyebrow arching.

“Don't know how that happened,” Tony said, and yes, that had been a fun night. Lovely, lovely night.

“Uh-huh. Anyway, since you were the one with the whipped cream can-”

“Lies.”

“-Then I figured you owed me a shirt.” Steve shrugged. “And then you left without asking for it back. This, and your bot.”

Tony struggled into a better sitting position. “Is she, she's okay? Has she been behaving? Is she learning? I didn't quite finish everything, the spacial recognition program was a little rough, but-”

“That explains a lot. She's fine. She needs you.” Steve took a cautious step forward, his eyes locked on Tony's. “I'm sorry,” Steve said, his voice soft and careful. “We looked for you.”

“I know.” Tony shifted. He smiled. “And you found me.”

“Not in time.”

Tony shrugged. “I'm alive. Enough for me.” Steve looked sad, his eyes haunted, and Tony tried to smile. “I mean, I know, this wasn't what you were thinking you were getting when you, you know, came looking for me.” He covered the miniature arc reactor that was humming away in his chest. “It's-” He swallowed. “I know it's ugly, I don't-”

Steve reached out, his fingers brushing, ever so lightly, over Tony's cheek, and the words died unspoken in Tony's throat. When he leaned into Steve's touch, Steve's hand settled against his jaw, cupping his cheek. “Nothing that happened to you, nothing that was done to you, changes how I feel about you.” His thumb stroked carefully over Tony's cheekbone. “Nothing. Understand?”

Tony huffed out a laugh that sounded a little bit like a sob, and his eyes closed. For a second, he allowed himself to just cup a hand over Steve's, holding his hand in place, savoring the warmth. “Stay with me?”

“As long as you'll let me,” Steve agreed.

Tony nodded, his eyes closing. He clung for a second, wanting to cry, and maybe he was crying. He couldn't find it in himself to care. “So. I bet you have some questions.”

“A few,” Steve agreed. “But they can wait.” He lowered himself into the chair beside the bed, so close and yet too far away. Tony wanted to crawl out of the bed and into his lap, but he was afraid that he'd end up actually crawling, and he wasn't sure that was a humiliation that he could bear right now.

“Yeah?” he managed.

Steve smiled. “Yeah,” he said, and he pulled his hand back. “I've got time. Not going anywhere.”

Tony released a breath. “Because we can, I mean-”

“Okay, one question.” Steve glanced in his direction. “So. Seventeen.”

Tony winced. “Okay, yeah, so I never actually told you how old I was-”

“Seventeen?” Steve's eyebrows drew up tight, but his mouth was twitching. “You were seventeen.”

“As it turns out, I was, and really, there is no problem here, you-”

Steve leaned over him, and Tony's words died in his throat. “You were seventeen,” Steve said, his head tipped forward, giving Tony a disapproving look from beneath his lowered brows.

“Yeah I was,” Tony admitted. “And I should've told you.” He took a deep breath. “I'm sorry. I just... I wanted you. And I didn't think you'd stick around if you thought I was a kid.”

Steve's fingers slid through his hair, the touch so overwhelmingly gentle that Tony wanted to cry. “You were a kid,” he said, smiling, and it was sweet and soft and warm. “Did you really think I'd dump you if I knew how old you were?”

“You're a bit of a straight arrow, Rogers.” Tony reached up and caught Steve's hand in his. Weaving their fingers together, he added, “And I wanted you. I'm a selfish asshole, so I misled you and flat out lied and I was wrong.”

Steve's eyebrows arched. “Why do I get the feeling that I shouldn't get used to these little apologies?”

“Because I hate admitting I'm wrong,” Tony groused. But it was easier to do with Steve's hand holding his. “I just-” He paused. “I love you,” he said, the words slipping past his guard, with a sort of desperation that he didn't even know he possessed. “I love you, and I missed you, so much.”

Steve bent forward, resting his forehead on their clasped hands. “I love you, too, you ass, and I looked for you. I never stopped looking for you. I never-” His voice broke, and Tony tightened his grip. “I never stopped looking, not from the moment I walked into the warehouse. I-”

Tony struggled up, his free arm coming up, wrapping hard around Steve's shoulders. “I know,” he whispered against Steve's hair. “I know. I know you did, you-” He was half laughing and half crying, clinging to Steve's broad shoulders. “Don't leave me. Please.”

“Idiot.” Steve's lips were gentle against his neck. “I love you, and I'm not going to leave you. Though it would serve you right if I did. You left me.”

“I had to, I had-”

Steve's head came up. “Don't make that choice for both of us, not again. Next time, someone goes after me, if anyone ever uses me to get to you, you tell me, do you understand?”

Tony's lips twitched. “What're the chances that we'll ever be in that situation again?”

“Knowing you?” Steve said. But he leaned in, his lips ghosting across Tony's. “I missed you.”

“I missed you, too.” Tony's fingers sank into his shirt, clinging. “So. I live in Malibu now. Wanna come be a surfer and laze about on the California beaches?”

“No,” Steve whispered. “I live in Brooklyn, and I work for SHIELD now.”

“That was a very bad idea,” Tony said. “Really? We're living in Brooklyn?”

“I think you owe me this one.”

Tony tried to work up an objection, but Steve kissed him, once, and again, and he would've agreed to anything, anything this man wanted. “I can always build a new place,” he managed. “New York?”

“Time we both went home,” Steve said, and Tony tried not to think about how good that felt.

He was going home, and someone would be waiting for him.

*

He just made it through the doors of the last train.

His breath was coming a little fast now, a little heavy, and he was glad to be out of the wind. The trolley jerked on the tracks, and he grabbed for the strap. The car was mostly deserted, and he headed for the back. Passing half a dozen empty seats, he reached the last row in a couple of long steps.

“Hey,” he said to the huddled form there. “You're not allowed to sleep on the MBTA. Or use more than one seat.”

The edge of the coat moved, and from the shadows, a dark eye peered at him. “What are you, the police?” Tony asked, grinning.

“Maybe.” Steve nudged his legs out of the way and sat down next to him. “What's a billionaire like you doing on public transportation?”

“Looking to pick up a pretty boy to take home,” Tony said, sitting up with a yawn. His hair was a mess, and Steve reached out to flick at the curl that tipped over his forehead. “Interested, hot stuff?”

“Sorry.” Steve folded his hands on the metal bar that topped the seat in front of him. “I'm an engaged man.”

“So? We won't tell your ball and chain,” Tony said, his smile predatory. Under the cover of the jacket, his fingers slid across Steve's thigh, slipping low.

Steve caught his wrist. “We are not getting arrested for public lewdness,” he said, his voice soft, his lips brushing against Tony's cheek, his jaw.

“Again?” Tony asked, right before Steve's lips closed over his. “One time,” Tony said, when they finally broke apart. “One time, you get arrested for being drunk and almost naked in public one time and-”

“We're getting married in the morning,” Steve whispered against his mouth. “Can't you behave for one more night?”

“I'm just saying,” Tony said, and Steve could feel his smile, and the rush of heat, low in his stomach, was familiar and welcome, “that this is your last chance to cheat on your asshole of a soon to be husband by picking up a hot guy on the train and finding a hotel room.”

“As it turns out, I have a hotel room,” Steve said. “And my soon-to-be husband is apparently out for the night. Want to come back with me and be my last fling?”

“Let me think about that.” Tony's lips pursed. “Let's get a cab.”

Laughing, Steve let Tony shove him out of the seat. By the time they reached the next stop, they were both waiting at the door. He stepped off the green line, into a crisp, clear winter night so very similar to another night, what seemed like a lifetime ago. This time, however, Tony Stark was right beside him, his hand in Steve's, his cheeks flushed, his laughter echoing in the still street.

Steve caught him, swung him around, and as the train pulled away, Steve kissed Tony. Tony's hands slid up Steve's back, angling their bodies together. When they broke apart, laughing, shaking, Tony leaned his forehead on Steve's shoulder. “I love you.”

“Love you, too. Cab.”

Tony held up a familiar metal briefcase. “Who needs public transportation, Captain?”