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It’s five in the morning, and Steve is strapping his bag on the back of his motorcycle when he hears the crunch of boots behind him. He whirls around, sliding the shield off his back in the same motion. It’s just Barton and Romanoff, though, their mouths quirked in identical amused little smiles. He slings the shield back over his shoulders.

“We came to see you off,” Romanoff says, handing Steve a round black helmet. “Keep in touch.”

“Postcards from every stop,” Steve agrees, as if he doesn’t know that SHIELD will be tracking him. He turns the helmet upside down. It’s a lot lighter than it looks. “One of these days you’ll tell me how you knew that I was planning to leave this early in the morning.”

Barton snorts. “Not much she doesn’t know, Cap,” he says. “And you weren’t gonna sneak off. Even Loki got a sendoff.” His face is lined, and he’s got dark shadows under his eyes. Steve feels a spike of guilt for leaving, but Barton will be better off with Romanoff and his other people, whoever they are. The ones that belong here.

Romanoff takes the helmet back. She pulls Steve’s head down and shoves the helmet onto it. There’s an angle at the back so it doesn’t catch on the shield. She pats the helmet and smiles. “Drive safely.”

“Follow the speed limits,” Barton says, sing-song, but the light tone doesn’t match the weariness in his eyes. “No texting while driving. Red means stop and green means go and yellow means floor it as hard as you can—”

“We had traffic signals in the ‘40s,” Steve replies, but his mouth twitches. “Also colors. When we could afford them.”

The other two laugh as he swings a leg over his motorcycle and zips up his leather jacket. He wonders if they know he was colorblind before the serum. Probably, but if he wants to joke about it, they’ll laugh. They’re good agents, good people.

“You sure it’s okay if I—” he starts.

“Very sure,” Romanoff says. “We’re fine. New York can take care of its own housework.”

Steve laughs a little. “It’s some pretty difficult housework, to be fair.”

Romanoff raises an eyebrow. “Not really,” she says. “Certainly not difficult enough to require a supersoldier when he’s got something better to do. Go. If anything happens, we’ll have you back here whether you like it or not.”

Steve nods and starts the bike.

“See you later,” Barton yells over the engine’s roar. Romanoff lifts a hand. Steve nods farewell, and then tears off in a cloud of the fine dust that covers everything in New York these days.

See, the thing is that New York has become a strange mix of ghosts and destruction and the invasive brightness of the twenty-first century. And Steve knows what it’s like to be haunted, but he’s starting to think he needs a change of scene.

He’s dealt with nightmares ever since the war. Back then he’d see his men dying all over again, blood welling up from Erskine’s chest, all of them staring at him with accusing, resentful eyes. For a few terrible nights, he saw Bucky falling into the snow. Since waking up, the Red Skull and ice have joined Bucky as his most common nighttime companions.

So bad dreams? Not new.

What he doesn’t understand is why he’s now being troubled by dreams that mean nothing to his waking mind. These new dreams feature a desert cave and a man he’s never seen before. During the dreams, though, Steve is terrified because that man is his salvation, and that man is dying. There’s water, but it’s not icy like usual. He wakes up gulping for air and not knowing why he’s so upset.

It’s been a few weeks now since Thor and Loki returned to Asgard and Steve left New York. In the mornings he leaves whatever cheap motel he’s chosen, goes for a run, showers, checks out, finds a place that will serve him the enormous amounts of protein he requires for breakfast, then gets back on the road. Sometimes he rides all night. He’s been north into New England, looped back along the Canadian border through upstate New York and tracked southwest along Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. He takes winding little roads, moving slowly through the country that flew past his train window during his USO days.

Sometimes he wonders what he’s doing. He should be in New York, he thinks, helping to move rubble. He imagines putting on the uniform and hauling rubble from dawn till dusk. No one would be better at hauling rubble than Captain America. He could medal in Olympic rubble-hauling, if the serum hadn’t made him ineligible to compete. He considers how to judge Olympic rubble-hauling: would it be better measured by having competitors move the same amount and judging their performance based on speed, or giving them a fixed time to see how much weight they could move in that time? Maybe there should be two medals, one for speed and one for weight moved.

Maybe it would make him feel better to help rebuild New York, but he couldn’t handle one more day in that destroyed city that used to be his home. It still feels like the most alien world ever created.

It’s certainly not his.

The America he discovers on his trip is varied and bizarre and just familiar enough to comfort him a tad. Time hasn’t moved quite as quickly in the rural areas; he feels less out of place (out of time) when there aren’t enormous flashing LED billboards everywhere.

He wonders frequently what the rest of the Avengers are doing.

He passes through farmland and cities, crosses rivers and mountains, as twenty-first century America unfolds itself to him. It’s a more diverse country than he remembers, and he wonders if maybe he was blinder than he thought in 1943. He rides until even the serum can’t compensate for his exhaustion, and then he presses on to the next motel. Sometimes he sleeps on the ground. But no matter how much he exhausts himself every day, the cave is waiting when he falls asleep.

In Denver, Steve walks into a motel to check in.

Upon hearing his name, the clerk says, “Oh, just a second,” and darts into a back room.

Steve’s breath comes a little short, anxiety crashing over him for just a moment (the shield, should he get his shield?) until the clerk returns and hands him a thick, heavy envelope.

“This came last week,” the clerk says.

Steve stares at the envelope. The address is written in perfect, elegant calligraphy. Who could possibly have known that he would show up here?

After he gets to his room, he tears the envelope open and pulls out a second envelope, which contains an invitation to a fancy gala in LA sponsored by the Maria Stark Foundation. A note slips out of the inner envelope: “Hi Steve—Tony says you’re already headed west, so we had JARVIS plot your course, and we’re sending invitations to every hotel and motel he thinks you might stay in. We hope to see you in LA for the gala. Tony also says, ‘You’d better not be in some awful rented tux.’ Call him if you need sartorial help. Pepper and Tony.” There’s a phone number at the bottom.

Steve laughs a little. He met Pepper Potts briefly before they all left New York, and her efficiency matched with Tony’s general Tony-ness strikes him as endearingly high-handed.

He stares at the phone number for a while. He’s the team leader; his SHIELD-issue phone came pre-programmed with phone numbers for all the Avengers, plus Fury and Hill and Sitwell and a couple other SHIELD agents whom he’s never needed to call. He double-checks, anyway, and the number in his phone is different from the one on the note.

He hasn’t talked to any of the Avengers since starting his road trip. Does he really want to start with Tony Stark?

Well, why not?

So he bites the bullet and calls the number on the note. He’s both relieved and disappointed when it rings through to voicemail. A British fellow tells him to leave a message, and Steve is completely confused.

“Hello, this is Captain Steven Rogers, leaving a message for Tony Stark in regards to the gala invitation. Tony, I received the invitation and—” And what? Why had he even called? He didn’t need sartorial help. “Uh, I don’t need sartorial help. But thank you for offering. Good-bye.”

Five minutes later, he realizes that he sounded like he was rejecting Tony’s invitation, as if he really is the colossal jerk that Tony thought he was on the Helicarrier.

He calls again.

“Hello, this is Captain Rogers again, leaving a message for Tony Stark. I didn’t mean to come across as rude in my previous message. I’ll be at the gala, but I’ll have SHIELD send me my Army uniform.” He pauses, then adds, “I hope you’re doing well. Okay, good-bye.”

Then he stares at his phone, wondering how it’s leeched away his brain power.

Stark never calls back.

Two weeks later, after meandering up and then back down the Pacific coast, Steve arrives in Los Angeles. The gala invitation includes a plus-one, but Steve doesn’t know anybody to ask, even if the gala had been in New York. He wangles official permission to wear his dress uniform. He doesn’t want to admit how comforting he finds it.

When he arrives at the gala, he’s horrified by the wall of press. The camera flashes are blinding, but he plasters on his best public smile and lets himself be swept along in the crowd, like flotsam.

No one here knows him. He’s hoping to see Stark, who would at least be a familiar face, but instead all he can see is an ocean of tuxedoed men and glittering women. A few faces look vaguely familiar, as if he’s seen them on movie posters. When women smile at him, he nods politely back.

A tall, beautiful redhead catches his eye and beams at him, and he realizes with a start that she’s Pepper Potts. “Captain Rogers!” she says, slicing through the crowd.

“Miss Potts,” he replies. She looks gorgeous in emerald silk, her hair pinned back with filigreed diamond barrettes and tumbling down her back in loose curls. She’s so lovely that it makes his chest ache.

“Oh, please call me Pepper,” she says. “I know it might feel strange to you, but we’re much less formal these days.”

He feels a pang of loss for a world that never seemed orderly and formal before he arrived in the twenty-first century. “Pepper,” he tries, and she rewards him with a smile. “Then you should call me Steve.”

“I am so glad to see you, Steve,” she says, holding out her hand. He shakes it. She shakes hands well, like Peggy used to, businesslike and no-nonsense. “How was the road trip?”

Steve thinks about jagged mountains and vast golden prairies, the green and gray northwest and the bleached flats of Utah and the people, friendly and curt and selfish and kind. He thinks about thunderstorms in Kansas and a perfect beach on the California coast. He thinks about poverty and wealth and the strange changes in food.

“Diverse,” he says. “And I haven’t even been to the South yet.”

“Have you seen Tony already?”

“No,” Steve says. “You’re the only person so far that I know.”

“Well, stick with me,” she says, looping her hand through his arm. She winks at him, and his knees get a little wobbly. “I’ll watch out for you. Tony would want me to.”

“Really?” Steve blurts.

She laughs, looking surprised. “Sure. He’s been a Captain America fan since he was a kid.”

Jeez, that makes Steve feel bad. “Oh, I just—we didn’t get along very well when we met.”

“I heard about that,” she says. “I wouldn’t worry about it. Tony’s not easy—”

“Lies,” says Stark, materializing out of a cluster of elderly society matrons. He gathers Pepper to his side and kisses her cheek. “I am the very definition of easy, just ask Google. How’s it going, Cap, I can’t believe you went to the Army instead of taking me up on my offer of wardrobe help.” His eyes look a little wide, and Steve wonders uneasily if Tony’s afraid of him.

“Well, they gave me this uniform and I only have a few weeks left to wear it before I’m officially discharged,” Steve says. “I guess bureaucratic slowness hasn’t changed much.”

“I’m afraid not,” Pepper says.

Steve shrugs. “Anyway, it was better than renting something for tonight.”

“I’ll say, soldier,” Tony says, throwing him a saucy wink, and Steve’s jaw drops.

Pepper laughs. “Don’t mind him; he’s ridiculous.” She pats his arm, smiling and murmuring something in Tony’s ear. Steve feels a spike of anxiety but doesn’t know why. He watches Tony and Pepper have a silent conversation for a moment before she runs a soothing hand down Tony’s arm.

“We’d love to have you for dinner,” Tony says, a little stiffly. He looks like a little kid trying very hard to behave.

To dinner,” Pepper says, frowning at Tony. “Stop trying to scare him.”

“Oh, I couldn’t intrude,” Steve begins, but Pepper recaptures his hand.

“Steve,” she says, “we’ve invited you. By definition, you couldn’t be intruding.”

“Also, you can intrude anytime you want,” Tony adds. He smiles, and it may be a bit strained, but Steve can’t help but smile back. Tony is clearly trying to make up for the bad start, and Steve’s happy to let bygones be bygones. “Come on, we’ll figure out your favorite foods, and they will be the best you’ve ever had.”

“All right, then,” Steve says. Pepper squeezes his hand and lets go. “I hope you like liver.”

Stark stares at him, then bursts out laughing when Steve lets his mouth twitch. He reaches up to Steve’s cheek and pats it twice. “Oh, Cap, you do not want to play food chicken with me. I regularly eat things that you probably couldn’t imagine. Tomorrow night? Yes? Fantastic. Now come with me, Rhodey’s around here somewhere.”

Steve is not a little nervous to meet Colonel Rhodes properly. They’ve actually met once before, at the post-fight shawarma, when Steve had practically fallen asleep on the table. Rhodes was nice enough at the shawarma place, but that had been before he’d had the chance to hear more about Steve from Tony.

So when Tony spins Steve by the elbow and almost makes him crash into Rhodes, Steve jerks in surprise so hard that he almost dumps his glass of champagne all over himself.

“Hello, Colonel,” Steve says, shaking Rhodes’s hand. “It’s good to see you again.”

Rhodes gives him an amused look. “You seem nervous, Captain,” he says. “Worried about what Tony’s said to me?”

Steve laughs a little. “Uh, yeah, actually.”

“Well,” Rhodes says. He sips his champagne and goes straight for the heart of the matter. “Speaking as an officer, I understand why you gave the order to close the portal before Tony came back through. But speaking as Tony’s best friend, man—”

Steve closes his eyes, thinking of Bucky and knowing he deserves whatever Rhodes is about to say.

“—just try not to do it again, okay? He’s annoying, but some of us like him.”

Rhodes’s voice is mild, and Steve looks up quickly to see him smiling. “Yeah, I don’t want to lose him either,” Steve says, darting a glance over at Tony, who has drifted into conversation with one of the movie stars.

Rhodes claps Steve on the shoulder and then tells him a wildly implausible story about Tony, a nude beach, and an impromptu joust involving two prototype hovercrafts, some kind of plasma cannon, and, eventually, the Coast Guard.

“That can’t be true,” Steve says, once he stops laughing long enough to put together a complete sentence. “There’s no way they let him—”

“It is all true,” Rhodes promises as Tony and Pepper turn back to the two of them. “With Tony, it’s always true.”

“I’d claim otherwise, but what would be the use?” Tony says. He grins at Pepper, who shakes her head but laughs, too.

Hours later, Steve leaves the gala, exhausted but surprisingly happy. Tony and Pepper took him under their mutual wing, introducing him to at least two hundred people and making sure that he didn’t end up huddled in a corner, alone. By the end of the night he has plans not only to have dinner with Tony and Pepper but also to get a beer with Rhodes.

As Steve drops into bed, he realizes that in the past seven hours, he’s only thought of Bucky and Peggy once. He feels simultaneously relieved, guilty, and disloyal.

That night, Steve dreams that he’s working on the Iron Man armor in an enormous workshop filled with futuristic tech. He’s finally figured out how to boost the repulsors’ capacity without burning holes in his hands. He wakes from that dream with equations floating through his mind, and he’s elated, like he’s solved the greatest and most exciting puzzle ever invented.

The next day Steve has no idea what to do with himself, so he buys a new shirt to wear to dinner with Tony and Pepper and then goes running for several hours. By the time he gets back to his hotel room, even the mesh shorts he’s wearing are near dripping with sweat. He has to share an elevator with four teenage girls who giggle the whole way up while darting glances at him. His face and ears are burning when he leaves the elevator.

Twenty-five minutes of wasted hot water later, he stands under the spray of the shower, his shoulders hunched under the weight of an exhaustion that has nothing to do with the run. Sometimes it hits him like this, the residual force of a sacrifice that ended being so much worse than he ever planned. He was a soldier: dying for his country had always been a possibility. But sleeping through seventy years? Losing his entire world?

He was prepared to die. He’d never been prepared to survive alone.

Steve turns into the spray. He has to duck a little for it to hit his face, but then it drums sharply on his eyelids. He’s being wasteful. He should get out.

His breath comes in long, shuddering gasps as he tries to stave off the panic. Trembling, he braces his palms on the wall.

Just step out of the shower, he thinks. It takes far more effort than it should to turn off the water.

Just dry off. One thing at a time, soldier. He uses his towel to wipe the steam off the mirror so he can shave. He lathers up his face. He shaves. He hangs up the towel. He puts on a pair of underwear.

He irons his new clothes, marveling at how easy ironing is in the twenty-first century compared to home, where his mother had actually heated her irons in the stove.

He doesn’t think he’ll ever stop thinking of 1945 as home. Still, he can’t go back. This has to be his home now.

He’s standing in his underwear in front of an ironing board, and he’s afraid he might start crying. For a moment he considers calling Tony to cancel. But it’s too late to cancel: he’s supposed to be there in an hour. They’re already making dinner. He needs to leave soon.

One thing at a time.

He turns off the iron. He tugs an undershirt over his head, then shrugs into his new blue shirt. He shakes out his pants and puts them on, tucking in his shirts before zipping up the pants and drawing his belt through the loops. He buckles the belt. He combs his hair.

Five minutes later, he’s riding out to Tony’s house in Malibu, his shield slung over his shoulder.

The drive out to Malibu clears his head. It’s a beautiful evening, and he’s learned to take delight in beautiful moments. His SHIELD therapist from those first weeks called it “being mindful.” Being mindful doesn’t often help when he has a bad spell like in the shower. Honestly, he’s not sure that it’s ever really pulled him out of a downward spiral before. But tonight, the closer he gets to his destination, the more he feels nervous and excited rather than being crushed under the weight of his grief.

The security gates open automatically for him and then close behind him as he winds up the curving driveway. When he emerges at the top of the hill, he sucks in a breath. Tony’s house looks like a spaceship perched on the cliff, white and gleaming and futuristic.

When he pulls up close to the house, he can’t help but grin. Tony’s cordoned off a parking space with velvet ropes and a sign that says, “Reserved for CAPTAIN AMERICA and his enormous, throbbing motorcycle of JUSTICE. Suck it, peons!” There’s a flag hanging on the rope at the front.

Steve leans over, unhooks the rope, and idles his motorcycle of justice into place. Then he grabs the sign to carry up with him to the door.

He doesn’t even have a chance to ring the bell before it swings open. Tony’s bouncing on his toes, holding a glass of scotch but somehow not spilling any of it. “Cap!” he says. “Come in, come in.”

Pepper stands a few feet behind Tony. “It would work better if you moved out of the doorway,” she says dryly.

Tony ignores her. “You brought your shield with you,” he says. “Presumably because you’re a Boy Scout and not because you expected to have to fight for your dinner.”

“Whereas you go so many places without the suit,” Pepper says. She gently loops a hand under Tony’s bicep and pulls him aside.

“Fair enough,” Tony says. His eyes settle on the sign in Steve’s hand. “What’s that?”

Steve holds it up. “’Suck it, peons’?” he says.

Pepper raises her eyebrows at Tony, whose grin turns sheepish. He laughs a little uneasily. “Yeah, that’s a little democracy joke, also a dick joke, but not a Captain America joke, I promise.”

Steve smiles as he moves into the house. “I was in the Army, Tony. I recognize a dick joke when I see it,” he says. “I would maybe prefer, in the future, if the word ‘peons’ didn’t appear in a context that makes it look like I endorse it.”

“Noted,” Tony says, “even though there are no peons here to see it.” He yanks the sign out of Steve’s hands and pats his shoulder. “I also note that you make no objections to the dick joke.”

Pepper leans in to kiss Steve’s cheek. “That’s a tactical error,” she whispers into his ear. He gulps and fights down an entirely inappropriate wave of desire.

“Hey, hey, hey,” Tony says. “What is that? No conspiring with the dinner guests, Pepper. Come on, let’s eat.”

Dinner is surprisingly simple, but exquisite. Steve has never tasted steak so tender and delicious and perfectly seasoned. The vegetables are crisp and bright—undercooked by his mother’s standards, but he’s amazed by how flavorful they are—and there are sweet, warm rolls with perfect pats of butter. Maybe the wealthy of his time ate like this—maybe Howard did—but Steve never has.

Pepper and Tony keep putting more food on his plate, and he just eats and eats and eats. Eventually he looks up and notices Pepper and Tony staring at him.

“Uh,” he says, suddenly aware that he hasn’t said anything in ages. “Um, this is really good.”

Tony bursts out laughing. “Apparently so,” he says. “You just downed, like, four pounds of steak.”

“Two pounds of asparagus,” Pepper adds, smirking. “Fourteen rolls.”

Steve blushes. “I’m sorry,” he begins, but Tony, still laughing, shakes his head and waves his hands.

“No, stop,” Tony says. “You have a supersoldier metabolism, I’m a billionaire, Pepper occasionally likes to show off her skills in choosing a caterer. It’s a match made in heaven. You’re the best dinner guest we’ve ever had.”

“Oh, come on,” Pepper says. She takes a sip of wine. “Bruce is a great dinner guest.”

“But he’s in New York,” Tony points out.

“True,” says Pepper.

“I have a feeling I’ll lose this contest once you have Thor to dinner,” Steve says.

Tony grins. “There’s more food, if you want.”

“And dessert,” Pepper says. “Tony, you should get another bottle of wine.”

He leaps up, and Steve puts down his fork and knife. Talking about the other Avengers reminds him that he hasn’t heard from anyone in a couple of weeks. “Have you heard from Barton or Romanoff recently?” he asks.

“No,” Pepper says. Her eyes flick over to the sideboard, where Tony is decanting the wine. “Tony’s been working in his lab a lot, and he’s not exactly great at keeping in touch with people even at the best of times.”

“I thought maybe—after New York...” Steve trails off. He’d run away, but he thought maybe Tony would keep in touch with the others.

Tony brings the wine back to the table, setting it down in front of Pepper, and drops with surprising grace back into his chair. “Let’s not talk about New York,” he says, rubbing absently at his chest.

Steve feels a pang of some unidentifiable feeling, made up of anger and grief and something else that clenches in his own chest. He pushes it aside. “So what have you been working on in the lab?” he asks.

“Armor,” Tony says. “I’ve been doing some upgrades.”

“Some upgrades?” Pepper says, her voice incredulous. “You’ve been practically living down there—”

“Okay, a fair amount of upgrades—”

“—using upgrades to avoid board meetings—”

“—but—yes, Pepper, because I’m not CEO anymore, I don’t need to—”

“You’re still Tony Stark, and they want to see you—”

“No, they don’t, they hate me. Besides,” he adds, leaning toward her and tapping her hand, “you keep me reined in.”

Pepper stops talking and stares at Tony, apparently flabbergasted by the enormity of such a lie. She turns to Steve. “I wouldn’t say I rein him in, exactly,” she says dryly.

“Well, who could?” Steve replies, and Tony and Pepper both laugh.

“Oh, you should come stay with us,” Pepper says impulsively, and Tony glances at her, surprised. “Come on, Tony. It’s wrong to make him stay in a hotel. Just for a week or two,” she tells Steve. “And then you can get back to your road trip. But it’s good to have you here.”

“Oh,” is all Steve can say. “I’ll think about it.”

They drift into a moment of silence. With a visible effort, Tony says, “We could ask JARVIS about Barton and Romanoff.”

“Who’s Jarvis?” Steve asks.

“Hello, Captain Rogers, I’m JARVIS,” says a disembodied British voice. Steve jumps about a foot, but then he realizes it’s the same voice from Tony’s voicemail.

“Hello?” Steve tries. “Are you Mr. Stark’s... butler?”

“In a sense,” the voice says. “I’m his artificial intelligence. I’m a computer who runs his house.”

Talking computers, sure, why not. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, JARVIS.”

“I have to say,” Pepper muses, “you are a lot more comfortable with that than I was expecting.”

Steve’s mouth twitches. “Well, I’m in 2012 and fought aliens alongside a giant green rage monster, a Norse god, two freakishly skilled spies, and a flying robot guy. My bar for weirdness is pretty high these days.” But his stomach twists with sudden anxiety, and he notices that Tony doesn’t look so hot, either.

“So, JARVIS,” Tony says nonetheless, “any news on Barton or Romanoff?”

“Searching,” JARVIS replies. A moment later, he says, “Agent Barton is still officially on administrative leave, but he appears to be in China; last news of Agent Romanoff places her in Russia.”

Steve frowns at his wine. “I’m sure that’s classified. Tony, are you still breaking into SHIELD’s systems?”

“I may have neglected to remove myself entirely from the Helicarrier’s servers,” Tony says.

Steve raises his eyebrows.

“I know,” Pepper says, resigned. “Tony would already be a stalker if he weren’t more interested in machines than people.”

“Pepper, Pep, spice of my life, I am wounded, I am so hurt. I love people.”

She rolls her eyes. “You love three people.”

“Three is plural! And—”

“And enjoying one-night stands during your misspent youth and early middle age doesn’t count as loving people.”

“You’re so restrictive,” Tony complains, but he’s grinning and looking at Pepper like she invented math and the laws of physics just for his entertainment.

Steve watches them, and he feels deeply content, happy like he hasn’t been since—well, maybe ever. “I’ll do it,” he says. His voice comes out scratchy. He clears his throat. “I’ll stay for a while. I think it’s a really good idea.”

Even if he weren’t sure, he would have been when he sees the way Pepper lights up. His chest clenches again. His eyes meet Tony’s, and he feels that burst of anxiety mixed with happiness and thinks about belonging.

Tony refills the glasses and raises his. “To belonging,” he says.

Steve jumps a little, sloshing red wine onto the white tablecloth. “Sorry, sorry!” he cries. He blots ineffectually at the stain. “It’s just—” He stops, shakes his head, and raises his glass. “That’s exactly what I was thinking.”

“Well, we’re all damaged misfits,” Tony says. “At least we can be misfits together. You. Me. Pepper. The tablecloth.”

Steve laughs. “Pepper’s not a misfit,” he says.

She smiles at him beatifically. “Oh, Steve,” she says. “You are sweet.” She leans over and pats his knee, and he thinks about all the awful words men used to use against Peggy when they thought he couldn’t hear.

He gets a lump in his throat and suddenly wants to brush Pepper’s bangs out of her eyes, but that would be weird. He gives her a sad smile, and she reaches out and touches his cheek gently.

Tony stands, shoves his hands in his pockets, and walks backward into the living room. “Come watch a movie, Cap.”

“Oh, yes!” Pepper cries. She stands and wobbles just a fraction, and Steve wonders how many glasses of wine she’s had. “Let’s watch The Big Sleep, Tony. Have you seen it, Steve? I can’t remember when it came out.”

“No,” he says, reaching out a hand to steady her. “Tell me about it.”

“Bogart and Bacall.” She takes his arm. “Classic noir, you’ll love it. If you love noir.”

“I love Bogart.”

“Good enough. After this, you’ll love Bacall, too.”

Steve deposits her on the couch next to Tony and starts toward the armchair, but Tony yanks him down.

“Stay,” he orders, and Steve relaxes into the corner. Tony stretches an arm around Pepper, lets his leg relax against Steve’s, and tells JARVIS to start the movie.

Steve is enthralled from the beginning. Lauren Bacall is bewitching, all long legs and smoky voice and sly eyes that remind him a little of Peggy’s. The plot baffles him, but Bogart and Bacall sizzle whenever they’re on screen.

After a while, Tony nudges Steve. “Hand me the tablet?” he says, and Steve does.

“You can’t put that away for another hour?” Pepper says.

“Idea,” Tony mumbles, not looking up from the tablet.

“I’m sorry, Steve,” Pepper says. “Pitfalls of spending time with Tony Stark.”

“No problem,” Steve replies, his eyes on the screen. “Wait, whose house are they in?”

Tony works on his tablet for the rest of the movie. He pauses during the best scenes, though, and he doesn’t ignore them entirely. Steve’s trying hard not to think about what Bucky would have said about this movie, trying not to imagine seeing it in a theatre on another double date, this time with Peggy warm and soft under his arm—

He misses them and misses them, but Tony’s leg presses comfortably against his. He could maybe make friends here, in this time.

“You doing okay, Cap?” Tony says softly when the movie ends. Pepper twists forward, giving Tony a sharp glance.

Steve does, too. “With what?”

“You know,” Tony says, and makes a gesture that encompasses the whole room. “This. The twenty-first century. Everything.”

Steve opens his mouth to give his standard answer, but something tells him Tony won’t believe it. He hesitates, then decides to be honest. “Not great, really. I try to keep busy, but...” He shrugs. “Almost everyone I know—knew—is dead.” He looks over at Tony, whose face is neutral. “I’m glad you two invited me to the gala. And here tonight. And to stay. I... It’s good to have friends.”

Tony smiles a little. “Is it,” he says. He pauses. “Too bad all you have is the Island of Misfit Toys here.”

Steve laughs. “And maybe Rhodes. We made plans for tomorrow.”

“And Rhodey,” Tony agrees. He looks over at Pepper, who’s smiling at him (so beautiful, Steve thinks). The wash of affection Tony feels is so obvious that Steve imagines he can feel it too.

He needs to change the subject. He needs to get off this dangerous emotional ground. “You were right,” Steve tells her. “Bacall is amazing.”

Pepper grins. “Isn’t she? I adore her.”

“I should get going,” Steve says. “I need to pack up everything in my hotel. Thank you so much for dinner and—and everything.”

“We can have someone do that for you,” Pepper says. “You should stay tonight. There’s a guest room all ready for you.”

“But my uniform—”

“Do you need it tonight?” Pepper asks. “You’ve had several glasses of wine, and it’s fine if you stay.”

Yes, I need it, he thinks. “I can’t get drunk,” he says.

Tony’s looking at him with an intensity that makes Steve a little uncomfortable. “Honey, I don’t think he’ll sleep without it,” Tony says, and Steve is taken aback and a little relieved. “Cap, we’ll see you first thing in the morning, right?”

“First thing,” Steve says, smiling as he slings his shield over his back. “Thanks. Really.”

“Anytime, Steve,” Pepper says.

Tony darts away, calling, “Be right back!” A moment later he returns and presses a little piece of plastic into Steve’s hand.

“It opens the gates. For tomorrow morning,” he says. “JARVIS will always let you in the house, anytime you want. I mean it. Anytime. Not limited to your stay. If Pepper and I aren’t around, make yourself at home. This gives you access to the garage whenever you want. I’ll set up a more permanent space for you. No peons, scout’s honor.”

Steve curls his fingers around the little key. This is the kindest anyone has been to him since—since Bucky used to pick on the people his own size that Steve would try to fight.

“Thank you,” he says, putting all of his sincerity into those two words.

“No problem,” says Tony. “See you soon?”

“Yeah.” Steve smiles at them both. “Very soon.”

Pepper hugs him. He puts his hand on her back, where the silky fall of her hair lies cool over her sharp shoulderblades. As he pulls away, he meets Tony’s warm brown eyes.

“Looking forward to it, Cap,” Tony says. He shakes Steve’s hand, and his left hand is warm on Steve’s arm.

Steve’s heart is so full and happy that he has to escape. “See you in the morning,” he says, his voice rough and scratchy. He squeezes Tony’s hand and heads out, looking back over his shoulder to wave at Tony and Pepper’s silhouettes in the doorway.

Steve wakes up at 0500. He lies in bed for a few minutes, chasing a dream that left him achingly hard. He can’t remember any of it.

He does remember—

No, he tells himself firmly. Completely inappropriate. And wrong.

His cock, resting hot and heavy along his belly, twitches as if in response.

He sighs and wraps a hand around himself. The sooner he takes care of this, the sooner he can get on with his day. The sooner he can see Tony and Pepper.

Thinking of them was a bad idea. His body responds with a throb, and he pulls his foreskin down even further and rubs his thumb roughly over the slick, sensitive head. He’s so far gone that even the rough handling feels good. He lets out a soft moan from the back of his throat and pumps harder.

What if—what if he goes over there, and they’re waiting for him, but it’s morning and they’re just in bathrobes—and he’s being ridiculous; he’s disgusted with himself. This is a terrible, wrong, tawdry fantasy. Who wants two people at once? Who tries to poke his nose (or other things) into someone else’s relationship?

He’s not a good man. He doesn’t deserve anything from anyone.

But the animal part of him keeps conjuring images of Tony and Pepper kissing heatedly, hands all over each other. In his imagination, Pepper unties Tony’s bathrobe and pushes it to the ground. He’s lean and strong, so naked he’s probably got defined muscles, curving round over his shoulders and arms. Steve’s mouth goes dry as he imagines Tony turning around, hard for Pepper—of course—as she lets her own robe fall to her elbows. Steve can picture the long lines of her back, the beautiful curve of her spine that he memorized the night of the gala when she wore that backless green dress. She turns to look at him over one shoulder, and her mouth curves up at the corner. “Are you going to join us, Steve?” she asks, stroking Tony’s cock, and she drops the robe to the floor—

Steve cries out and comes all over himself, back arched as he pulses and pulses and pulses, his mind blissfully blank of everything but how good it feels. Eventually he collapses back onto the bed and dozes off again.

He doesn’t sleep long; the come all over his hand and stomach is still tacky and not dried and itchy when he wakes. He’s made a huge mess—he always does, ever since the serum. It’s one of the side effects that no one warned him about. Ugh. This is why he usually jerks off in the shower.

Now that his hormones aren’t interfering with his higher brain functions, the guilt returns. He needs to stop thinking about Tony and Pepper like that. He needs to stop being a pervert. He needs to behave like the honorable person everyone expects him to be.

He thinks maybe the ice broke him, and he doesn’t know what to do about it.

Steve arrives at Tony’s house at 0900 exactly. When JARVIS swings the front door open for him, Tony is stumbling through the living room, shirtless and clutching a steaming mug of coffee. He has the worst bedhead Steve has ever seen.

He focuses hard on the bedhead, and not on the line of dark hair that disappears under Tony’s waistband.

“Cap,” Tony says. “You’re early. When I said ‘first thing in the morning’ I thought it was clear I meant ‘as late as possible while still being technically daylight.’”

“Oh,” Steve replies. He can’t tell whether Tony is joking, and he still feels guilty about the way he woke up. “I’m really sorry.”

“Loosen up,” Tony says. “I was kidding. Sorry I’m a mess; I was up late working in the lab. Come on, I’ll show you to your room.”

Steve’s room has a breathtaking view of the ocean and the beach that, Tony informs him, is private Stark property. It’s the sort of view that makes Steve’s fingers itch for some watercolors. He drops his bags and his shield and follows Tony through a brief tour of the house. Gym. Pool. Kitchen. Living room. Other living room. Den. Library.

“Can I see your lab?” Steve asks.

Tony grimaces. “Uh, maybe later,” he says. “It’s just—now’s not a great time, I’ve got—”

“Right, sure, no problem,” Steve says hastily. He’s crossed a line. “Sorry.”

“Stop apologizing for things,” Tony says, annoyed.

“I’m just being polite,” Steve says, lifting his chin stiffly. He feels a little lost.

Tony seems to pick up on the feeling, because he sighs and rubs his eyes. “Go for a swim,” he suggests. “Get JARVIS to show you some movies. He’s good at recommendations. Do whatever you feel like. Oh, also, Rhodey will be over for lunch, but I have a thing so I need you to keep him occupied for a while. Like two hours. You had those plans with him tonight—just move those up.”

“Okay,” Steve repeats.

“Check your dresser drawers. There are some swim trunks in there that you can use. And make yourself at home,” Tony says. He claps a hand on Steve’s back, a little apologetically. “Okay. I have shit to do. JARVIS will let you know when Pepper gets home and we’ll have dinner.”

“Thanks,” Steve says, and Tony nods and waves over his shoulder as he jogs down the stairs.

Steve’s just emerged from the pool when Rhodes arrives. He waves at Steve and then heads down the stairs to the lab. Steve wonders if he should be keeping Rhodes occupied, but he figures Tony will make it clear if Rhodes isn’t welcome. He also figures that Rhodes is far more familiar with this place than he is, and far more welcome, too. Steve probably has time to rinse off the chlorine and get dressed.

He has more than enough time. He waits in the living room until his stomach is growling so loudly that JARVIS starts listing off the contents of the fridge, and then he gives up on Rhodes and makes five ham and cheese sandwiches.

Rhodes finally wanders up to the kitchen just as Steve is finishing up the fourth.

“Hey, Steve,” Rhodes says. “How’s it going?”

“All right,” Steve says. He holds out the plate. “Sandwich?”

“Thanks, man.” Rhodes takes the sandwich and stares a bit unnervingly at Steve while he eats it. “You know,” he says finally, “I’m having a hard time making stuff fit together when it comes to you.”

Steve looks down. “You heard about what I said.”

“Yeah,” Rhodes says. “You were wrong about him. He’s used to doing the Iron Man thing on his own because he’s never had a team before. I’ve been there when I can, but I can’t always be around when he needs me. If the team thing keeps going, you’ll need to be there for him. All of you.”

Steve sits in silence for a few minutes, twisting his napkin. “Thanks,” he says finally. “I appreciate your trust.”

Rhodes bursts out laughing. “You closed a portal on my best friend, who had just flown a nuclear weapon into space,” he says. “I get why you made that call. But when it comes to Tony’s life, I am so far from trusting you right now, you might as well be the one on the other side of the portal.” He stops for a moment, and he must see something in Steve’s face, because his whole bearing softens. “I appreciate that you try to do the right thing. I just want you to do right by Tony.”

“I do, too, Colonel,” Steve replies.

“Rhodey’s fine.”

“Rhodey,” Steve says. He straightens up and looks the man in the eye. “I try to do right by everyone, but I especially want to do right by Tony.”

Rhodey nods. “All right, then, Army,” he says. “Now. When I was a cadet I studied your extraction of the 107th, and I have always wondered...”

They tell war stories to each other for the rest of the afternoon, until Pepper comes home and steals a gulp of Rhodey’s beer before she even says hello. Steve watches the long line of her throat as she swallows.

“Hey, Pep,” Rhodey says, amused. “Long day?”

“The longest,” she replies. “Where’s Tony?”

“Lab,” Rhodey and Steve say in unison.

Rhodey and Pepper exchange a look, and Pepper sighs. “I’ll go get him,” she says. “He’s been working too hard recently. You two decide where you want to go for dinner.”

“Fifty bucks says it’s just the three of us,” Rhodey says.

Pepper leans in and puts her hand over his. Her face is serious. “Rhodey, it would be wrong to take money from a veteran,” she tells him. She smiles sweetly. “Again.”

He flips her off, which shocks Steve, but she’s laughing as she goes downstairs.

Sure enough, Tony follows her up. He’s covered in grease and heads straight for his shower with barely a glance at them, but Pepper smirks at them as she follows him back.

Steve watches them go and wishes he could follow, too.

“She’s really good for him,” Rhodey says. “I’ve never seen him as content as he’s been since they started dating.”

Steve makes a noncommittal noise and clears his throat. “And what about her?”

Rhodey gives him a sharp look. “He makes her happy, too.”

“No,” Steve says, “that’s not—I like Tony—”

Rhodey looks unimpressed, though, and Steve can’t really blame him. Steve’s not very impressed with himself these days, either.

He dreams that night about flying through a portal into the cold depths of space. He wakes up terrified and sweating, and for a panic-filled minute he doesn’t know where he is.

When he comes back to himself fully, he’s crouched in the corner, holding his shield in front of him. JARVIS is saying his name gently.

“JARVIS,” he croaks. “What’s wrong? Do I need to suit up?”

“No, Captain Rogers. There are no threats to report. However, my scans indicate that you are distressed. Shall I call Master Stark?”

“No!” Steve says. He drops the shield and stands up, swaying just a little. “No. It was just a bad dream.”

“Very well,” JARVIS says. “I have taken the liberty of starting your shower for you.”

Steve swallows. “Thank you,” he says.

“You’re welcome, Captain Rogers.”

Steve showers and thinks about JARVIS. Tony created him, and at first Steve had been inclined to see this as further evidence of Tony’s basic selfishness. After all, he made a machine just to take care of him. But Steve knows that Pepper used to be Tony’s assistant, and he wonders how many of JARVIS’s menial chores used to fall on her shoulders. And now that he’s interacted with JARVIS a few times, he’s seen another side of Tony, one that wants to take care of others, too. It’s very like Tony to have displaced that impulse and given it to a computer.

But Tony also built the War Machine armor for Rhodey. He’s so protective of his tech that he’ll purposefully offend an entire Senate committee to avoid giving it up (yeah, Steve watched that video from between his fingers, torn between laughter and horror), but he’ll gift-wrap a suit just for his best friend. Steve wonders if Tony’s ever tried to make armor for Pepper. He wouldn’t be surprised.

Steve doesn’t want a robot butler or a suit of armor. He does wonder what it would be like to be one of the people that Tony loves.

Staying with Tony and Pepper is relaxing in a way that Steve never expected. He runs or swims or uses the gym; he works his way through whatever movies JARVIS suggests; he sketches the amazing views. He eats meals with whoever’s available, or he eats alone if Tony and Pepper are both busy.

He feels almost peaceful, except for the periodic waves of conviction that he should be back in New York, helping somehow.

“What, exactly, do you think you can do there?” Tony asks him at dinner one day, after Steve has confessed his guilt to the most unlikely of confessors.

Steve shrugs. “Help.”

“Steve, anyone can help clean up that city right now,” Pepper says, her eyes direct and steady. “You’ve been in this century for a matter of months. You’ve lost more than anyone in New York has. It’s okay to take some time to adjust.”

Steve thinks about her words frequently. It seems selfish, but maybe it’s not. If a soldier is wounded, he needs to heal before he can fight again. Should he treat his mental wounds any differently than he would a physical one?

Days slip easily past. Steve wonders if he’s wearing out his welcome, but Tony and Pepper keep saying things like, “Tomorrow for dinner...” or “Next weekend we should go...” and before he knows it, he’s been there for three weeks. He’s been to Disneyland with Pepper—a disorienting experience, since among hundreds of characters and costumes and rides, he recognizes only Mickey Mouse and a handful of others. He goes out to various fancy restaurants with Tony and Pepper, and to various holes-in-the-wall with Tony. Mostly, though, he sticks to the grounds.

He’s eating lunch by Tony’s pool almost a month into his stay when his phone vibrates.

Tony Stark 12:10 PM
Cap. Dodgers game tomorrow afternoon. You in?

He grins a little.

Steve Rogers 12:11 PM
Tony, I’m sitting by your pool. We could just talk.

Tony Stark 12:11 PM
That is far away and I don’t want to leave the lab

Steve Rogers 12:11 PM
But you’ll leave for a baseball game?

Tony Stark 12:12 PM
For a DODGERS game with you, old man

Tony Stark 12:12 PM
Unless you prefer the Yankees

Steve’s typing a horrified response when three more texts arrive in quick succession.

Tony Stark 12:13 PM
Better idea. Be ready sat at noon

Tony Stark 12:13 PM
No Dodgers OR Yankees

Tony Stark 12:13 PM
This will make even you feel like a young whippersnapper

Steve has a vague sense of foreboding, but he’s too pleased to do anything but agree. OK. I’ll leave my cane at home, he writes.

He smiles through the rest of his lunch.

On Saturday, Tony takes him to a vintage base ball game.

“Base ball,” Tony says, pronouncing each word separately and clearly. “It was two words then. None of this modern slurring and slang, running words together, etcetera. These ballists are playin’ like it’s 1899. Or maybe 1869. I’m not really clear on the dates. But see? Even you aren’t this old.”

Steve laughs and leans back against the empty riser behind them. “It’s perfect,” he says, and it is. He’s seen modern baseball on TV, all jumbo screens and designated hitters. This anachronistic game makes him feel like the past is still something to be celebrated, or at least like some parts of it can be.

And the present is pretty good, too. The sun is hot on his face, there are people running around in 19th-century base ball uniforms (they don’t use gloves!), and he can’t believe Tony Stark is taking this much time away from his lab.

Tony hands him a bag of peanuts and a box of Cracker Jack, to Steve’s surprise. “They may not be authentic vintage base ball food,” Tony says, not looking at Steve, “but if you’ve been taken out to a ball game, someone should buy you some peanuts and Cracker Jack.”

“Do people still sing that song?” Steve asks, and he’s elated when Tony nods. Some things don’t change, he thinks.

Steve’s prize is a temporary tattoo of some cartoon character. He’s a little disappointed, but Tony grabs it from him.

“Here,” Tony says, and sticks the tattoo on his tongue to wet it. He grabs Steve’s arm and presses the tattoo against it. His left hand is callused, brown and rough and warm on Steve’s wrist. His right thumb massages the tattoo onto Steve’s forearm.

It feels good.

Tony says something, laughing and looking up at him. Steve’s mouth has gone dry, and—embarrassingly, mortifyingly—he’s starting to get hard.

It’s just the serum, he tells himself. It does this to you. It doesn’t mean...

Lying to yourself is a lot harder to do when you know you’re lying.

He tries to think about baseball, or base ball; he tries to remember the different rules of the game they’re ostensibly watching. But he can’t tear his eyes away from Tony’s nimble fingers, the play of muscle and tendon in his wrist and forearm, the glint of sweat along the crease of his elbow. Steve’s gaze slides up to the clean line of Tony’s jaw. He wonders what it would be like to trail kisses along that jaw up to the sensual curve of Tony’s mouth.

If Pepper weren’t Tony’s girlfriend, if he and Tony weren’t both public figures—if he were a different sort of man, and if Tony were too—maybe he could just lean over and find out.

He becomes suddenly aware that Tony has stopped moving his thumb. Steve looks up to find Tony watching him, barely breathing. Tony’s eyes are wide and dark, and Steve’s breath catches in his throat.

His pants are uncomfortably tight now. If Tony looks—

They’re both frozen in place. Tony’s hands are still on his arm; he’s clutching tighter, if anything. Is Tony going to punch him? Is he going to run off and leave Steve here? Is he going to tell Pepper? Has Steve just ruined two of his few developing friendships?

Then Tony relaxes, lets go of Steve’s wrist, and pulls the backing off the tattoo.

“There you go,” Tony says, his voice lower than usual. He clears his throat. “One tattoo.”

He runs his thumb across the little cartoon character, pressing down gently around the edges. Steve watches him, helplessly aroused and terrified by the strength of that arousal. Don’t look, he thinks, please don’t look.

Tony doesn’t. He just pats Steve’s arm, releases it, and leans forward with his elbows on his knees.

Okay, so they’re ignoring it. That’s how this is going to work.

Steve looks back at the game, determined to get himself under control. He does, eventually. Tony carries on the conversation mostly by himself for the rest of the afternoon.

“So you’re still coming out to dinner with us tonight, right?” Tony asks as they pull out of the parking lot.

Steve balks at the thought of facing Pepper. He’s still only a few heartbeats away from a full erection, just because Tony rubbed his arm. “No, I—” He stops. He can’t bring himself to lie. “I don’t really feel up to it,” he says, and only narrowly remembers not to bury his face in his hands at the terrible double entendre. Maybe Tony didn’t notice.

“Well, you were pretty conspicuously feeling up for something earlier,” Tony mutters.

So much for that.

Steve could jump out of the moving car. He’s a supersoldier; he’d survive. But he’d probably cause someone else to wreck.

What can he even say?

“I’m sorry,” he says finally. His face is hot, and his gut is twisting. “I know I was—it was inappropriate, and I’m so sorry. I understand if you can’t—”

“Steve,” Tony says. “Please believe me when I say that it is no big deal.”

“But,” Steve says, still wretched. “But Pepper. And we were in public.”

Tony glances at him, sidelong and amused. “I’ve read your file, you know. And my dad’s files. I know about the various side effects of the serum.”

Steve’s heartbeat thunders in his ears. “Oh,” he says after a moment.

“So you’re basically a teenager all over again. I’m sure it has lots of advantages—” Tony gives Steve a considering once-over that sets his heart racing faster—“but it must suck a lot of the time, getting turned on by just about anyone who touches you.”

It’s not “just about anyone,” but Tony doesn’t need to know that. “Uh, yeah,” Steve says.

“I’m the one who should apologize,” Tony adds. “I mean, I knew that about you, I should have thought before I did the tattoo thing. And then I should have let go when I realized. But the way you were looking at me... I mean, I’m not a saint.”

“Wait, what?”

Tony shrugs. “Come on, you’re the peak of human perfection, and you were looking at me like you wanted to tear my clothes off and do unspeakable things to me right there on the bleachers, in full view of God and LA’s most enthusiastic historical sport reenactors. Anyway. I know it didn’t mean anything; it was just the serum. And Pepper won’t mind that there was a moment. Quite the opposite, in fact.”


Tony looks over at him again and starts cackling. “Oh, shit, I think I broke you. Forget it. Basically: awkward boners happen. We’re fine, it’s all fine, just come have dinner.”

Steve buries his face in his hands, but he agrees.

In his dream that night, he’s kissing a woman. Her long legs are wrapped around him, and he’s sliding into her, and she is unbelievably slick and hot and oh, God, she feels good. He thrusts into her lazily for a little while, in rhythm with their slow, loving kisses, until she laughs and rolls them over. His eyes open, and he’s staring up at Pepper, her smile illuminated in blue-tinged light as she rides him and tells him she loves him. He loves her, he loves her more than almost anything in this world, almost as much as being Iron Man (and he fucking loves that), certainly too much for words.

Still, he has to try.

“Pepper,” he says, arching into her. “Pepper, I—”

She must be able to read it in his eyes. “I know,” she whispers, and he’s so grateful for her all-knowing perfection that, pathetically, he almost comes. Instead, he slides a hand between them, nestling into her curls to find her clit and rub circles over it, just how she likes it. Any second now she’ll make that noise and go right over the edge, and he can hold out, he can last, he can. And he does, just barely; she cries out and ripples around him, and he’s so startled by how good it feels that he comes, too.

“Jesus,” he says a few minutes later. “I... You make me feel like I’ve never done this before.”

She lets out a dazed laugh. “Like a virgin?” she says, teasing. “Touched for the very first time?”

“I can’t explain it,” he says, a little nettled. “I’m trying, Pep, I just...”

She leans up to look at him, serious now, and smiles, so sweet. “I know, Tony,” she says. “I love you, too.”

Steve wakes from that dream blissfully happy, thinking Oh and I never knew it could be like that until his brain kicks into gear, he feels the wet patch on his boxers (and the sheet, damn it), and that bone-deep joy turns to a creeping, horrified awareness and shame.

What is wrong with him? Two people make an effort to befriend him, invite him into their home, and his mind turns into some sort of imaginary Peeping Tom?

He’s been resigned to wet dreams ever since Project Rebirth enhanced everything about his sex drive except his ability to talk to women. This dream is different, though. He feels, inexplicably, like he’s actually been spying on Tony and Pepper in their most deeply private moment. It’s even stranger that he’s dreaming of being Tony.

Then it all comes together.

The workshop dreams. And, he suddenly realizes, the cave dreams. He knows from Tony’s file that he was held captive in a cave in Afghanistan.

Tony’s toast. To belonging.

He leaps out of bed before he remembers his wet boxers, and then he gives up, grabs his phone, and calls Tony.

“Cap?” Tony says. He sounds surprisingly alert. “We assembling?”

“No,” Steve says. “Everything’s okay. Well, sort of. Have you been having weird dreams?”

Tony’s silent for a minute. “Uh,” he finally says. “You know it’s almost five a.m., right? I just came to bed a few minutes ago. Pepper’s going to strangle me in about thirty seconds.”

“More like ten,” Pepper says. The phone picks up her sleepy voice clearly, even if it sounds a bit muffled. Steve imagines her sprawled across the bed, her long pale limbs tangled with Tony’s, her face buried in Tony’s neck so that every word is a kiss. A flash of intense longing surges through Steve’s whole body. He’s hard again, and he feels like a pervert. Again.

Steve clears his throat. “Tell her I’m sorry, but this is important!”

“Okay, okay. Look, I always have weird dreams. You’ll have to be more specific.”

“Weirder than usual. Dreams that don’t feel like yours.”

There’s a sharp intake of breath. “Maybe,” he says.

Steve wants to swear. “Because I have, too.”

“Oh, fuck,” Tony says. “Hold on.” There’s a rustling, and Steve hears a murmur and the click of a door, and then Tony’s back. “Okay. So. First of all, you should know that I read a lot of the Captain America comic books when I was a kid, and I have maybe seen all the movies, perhaps multiple times, so I just thought—with you being back and all—I didn’t think anything really out of the ordinary.”

“What did you dream?”

Tony sighs. “A train, and Bucky Barnes falling, and I can’t catch him. The plane crashing, and icy water. Once I dreamed about the Red Skull. And a bunch of weird, random shit, like using my Captain America influence to make moving rubble an Olympic sport.”

Steve laughs, and it sounds wild even to his own ears. “I have some ideas about that.”

“Of course you do,” Tony says, and then, “Shit, what have you been dreaming about?”

“Falling out of the sky,” Steve says, and Tony’s breath hisses between his teeth. “Working on the Iron Man armor in a crazy futuristic workshop. A man with glasses in a cave.” He pauses, blushing fiercely. “And that’s it, really!” he lies.

“No, it isn’t, you are a terrible liar,” Tony says. He sounds resigned. “Sleeping with socialites and starlets? Oh, well, it’s all on the internet anyway. When did this start for you?”

“Right after the Chitauri. You?”


They sit in silence for a moment.

“Well, it is deeply unsettling to be sharing my subconscious with someone else,” Tony says at last. He laughs a little, and Steve can hear the clink of ice and the soft ring of a crystal decanter. “Jesus. And I was trying so hard. I’m sorry, Steve. You never deserved to have my problems thrust on you like this.”

“You really, really don’t have anything to apologize for,” Steve says. “I do. I’m sorry. I feel like I’m spying on you.”

“I’m in your subconscious too,” Tony replies. “Saucy rubble-hauling plans and all.”

“There’s more,” Steve replies. “Remember the first time I had dinner with you and Pepper? The toast, ‘To belonging’?”

“Son of a bitch. Do you think we’re developing some sort of telepathic bond or some shit?”

“Maybe,” Steve whispers.

Tony is silent for a moment. “We should probably test this out,” he says.

Steve can hear the undertone of glee. Or can he feel it? “You mean, try to read each other’s minds?”

“Yeah,” Tony says. “Okay, okay. I’m thinking of a number—”

But Steve thinks about the way his emotions get so strong while he’s with Tony. “No,” he says. “I don’t think that will work yet. But hold on a sec and tell me how you feel.”

He sits down on the bed, opens the floodgates, and thinks about Peggy, the last time he heard her voice. He thinks about the Stork Club, eight o’clock on the dot; he thinks about that one kiss and how even then there was something desperate about it, like she knew it would be their only chance. He thinks about how strong and clever and beautiful she was. He thinks about the red of her lips, the red of that dress she loved, and the way it set off the pale curve of her throat. He thinks about the first time he saw her, punching out Hodge, and the smile she gave him when he got the flag. She always believed in him, always pushed him to be a better man. If it weren’t for her, he’d never have stopped being a dancing monkey.

Peggy, he thinks, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, and his eyes burn from missing her and missing her and—

And Bucky

And they were his. Bucky was the only family he had, and Steve would have married Peggy if she’d have had him. They were his, and now he wants Tony and Pepper to be, but he can’t ask that of them. It’s too soon, too much, and they are so perfect together.

He really needs to get hold of himself—

Tony bursts through his door. Steve jumps and drops his phone and then clutches the sheet over his crotch to cover the wet spot.

“Steve,” Tony chokes out, “oh, god, Steve, is this how you feel all the time?”

Steve clears his throat. “Not... not all the time,” he says.

“You’re not alone,” Tony says. His voice is urgent, almost frantic, and he reaches out toward Steve before dropping his hand. “You’re not, please don’t think—don’t do anything, we want you here, you don’t have to leave—”

And, now that he’s paying attention, Steve can feel Tony’s concern, the warmth of his regard. “You’re telling the truth,” he says wonderingly.

“What? Of course I am!” Tony squawks.

Steve laughs at the wash of indignation and tries to let Tony feel his gratitude and affection. Still. “I’m fine. Pepper would want you to go back to bed.”

The surge of emotions he gets from Tony in response is a confusing welter of love for Pepper and fondness for him, a drive to be helpful and useful and good, opposing anxieties about impressing Steve and not disappointing Pepper, and the powerful desire for Steve to approve of him. It takes Steve’s breath away. He gets the feeling that Tony isn’t used to grappling with emotions like this.

“It’ll be fine,” Tony says. “You—you shouldn’t be alone.”

The images from his dream flash through Steve’s mind, and he desperately tamps down those particular emotions, hoping Tony didn’t catch them. “I’m okay, Tony,” he says. “You should get back to sleep.”

Tony sighs. “Look, Cap, we have an unexplained telepathic link that seems to be intensifying. We don’t know what caused it, just that it started immediately after we fought aliens. Even if you weren’t near-suicidal with grief, we’d need to start figuring this out.”

“I’m not near-suicidal!” Steve protests, but his losses weigh so heavily on him that he can understand why Tony might think so.

“You’re staying here until we figure this thing out,” Tony says. “No arguments. Pepper will actually have me assassinated if I don’t tell her you’ve already agreed to stay.”

Steve laughs a little at Tony’s certainty on that last point. “All right. Thanks, Tony.”

Tony scoffs at him. “It’s nothing.”

There’s a little pause while both of them realize that now Steve can see right through Tony’s bullshit.

Steve clears his throat. “So,” he says. “You think this has something to do with Loki?”

“Fuck, yes. I think Loki had everything to do with this.”

“Great,” Steve replies through a jaw-cracking yawn. “That’s just what we need.”

“Get some sleep, soldier,” Tony says. “See you tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” Steve says, and he kind of hopes Tony can feel how warm and welcome he feels right now.

When Steve wakes up, JARVIS tells him the time and temperature, as usual, and then adds, “I have a message for you from Master Stark.”

Then Tony’s voice fills the room. “Cap, I’m flying Bruce out and we’re going to figure out what’s going on. Just do your normal thing. I’m in the lab. If you need me, just panic.”

Steve laughs a little. He wonders—if he sort of reaches, can he...

He gets a wave of surprised irritation in return, which quickly gives way to the same sort of SCIENCE glee that he felt last night.

His phone rings.

“Experimenting already,” Tony says as soon as Steve hits the green “Answer” button. “I’m so proud of you, baby.”

“’Baby’?” Steve repeats as his eyebrows climb upwards.

“Well, it was a joke, but now that I know you like it—”

“You do not—”

“Oh, don’t I,” Tony says, and Steve is mortified that he’s so transparent. “Oh, my god,” Tony says then, his astonishment and delight washing over Steve. “You really do like it!”

“Leave it,” Steve commands.

“Sure, sweetpea, whatever you say,” Tony replies easily.

“I’m hanging up now.”

“Go eat breakfast. You’ll be less cranky.”

“Good-bye, Tony.”

“Bye, sugar.”

Steve sends Tony a wave of annoyance and then tries to block off his emotions altogether. Maybe this telepathy thing isn’t so bad. It certainly forces him not to dwell on his entirely inappropriate feelings.

After breakfast, the effort of not having inappropriate feelings sends him out to the pool. He’s swimming the breaststroke when he sees Pepper’s legs dip into the water against the wall in front of him. Her toenails are painted bright red.

He stops swimming about four feet away and stands up, sluicing the water from his face. She’s sitting on the edge of the pool in a white sundress, her hair back in a ponytail. The sun outlines her fiery hair, glowing as if painted by Monet, and picks out freckles on her nose and collarbone.

“Hi, Pepper,” he says, not looking below her collarbone and not thinking about her long, bare legs. “How are you?”

She stares at him.

“Pepper? Are you okay?”

“Good God,” she says, her eyes traveling down and up and back down again. She starts laughing. “Did Tony get you those trunks?”

“Are they not okay? They were in my dresser,” Steve says. He looks down. They seem perfectly normal to him, just a blue pair of swim trunks like he could’ve worn in the ‘40s, except in a nicer material. The waistband’s lower than he’s used to, but all his waistbands are lower than he’s used to.

“Tony thinks he’s hilarious. They’re from a James Bond movie.” Her eyes wander downward again. “They suit you. Pun not intended. Have you actually seen any James Bond movies?”

“No,” he says. “Should I?”

“Probably,” Pepper replies. “They’re a pretty major cultural touchstone.”

He shrugs. “I suppose I’ll get around to them someday,” he says. “Uh, I haven’t seen Tony, though, if you were looking for him. I’ve been out here for a while.”

“Oh, I know. Tony’s still in his lab, keeping himself entertained while he waits for Bruce. I came out here to talk to you.”

Oh, no, Steve thinks. He closes his eyes and can’t shut off the shame that floods him. “Uh, about yesterday—” he says, just as Pepper says:

“Have you been to the Getty yet?”

“What? No,” Steve says, relieved.

“What about yesterday?” Pepper asks. “Is this about last night? Steve, I know you didn’t ask for a psychic link with Tony. I’m not angry that you woke us up.”

“Okay,” he says hastily, trying not to think about Tony’s hands on his arm or the dream he had, lest his body get any ideas. “Why do you ask about the Getty?”

“Even CEOs can occasionally take a Sunday afternoon off,” she says. “I feel like using mine to go to the art museum, and I thought you might like to come along. You like art, right?”

“Yeah.” He smiles. “That sounds great, actually.”

“Let’s get lunch, too,” she suggests. “By the time you get dressed and we get out of here, it’ll be noon.”

“Sure,” he agrees. He swims to the side of the pool, heaves himself out, and pads over to his towel. He turns to Pepper, smiling, and says, “I’ll see you in about twenty minutes?”

“Yeah,” she says. Her face looks pinker than before.

“Maybe you should get out of the sun,” he tells her as he pats himself dry.

“Oh,” she says. Her eyes seem a little glazed over. “Okay. Sure.”

He nods, loops the towel around his neck, and goes into the house. He can see Pepper’s reflection in the glass watching him. Her head tilts, and when he turns around to wave at her, she looks even redder than before.

Pepper’s wearing giant sunglasses and a pair of delicate red heels with her crisp white dress. Steve wants to draw the long, elegant lines of her: the incline of her head as she contemplates a Degas, the sharp angle of her elbow as she touches her mouth pensively.

He avoids thinking about any of the curves of her body. She’s beautiful, and she’s with Tony, and they are not for him.

He feels a sort of tug on his attention, and he actually turns around before he realizes it’s Tony, inside his head. Then his phone vibrates.

Tony Stark 2:28 PM
I can’t think this at you yet but I can tell you’re sad. Stop being sad! You are in an art museum with the perfect woman! You have no reason to be sad.

Pepper glances over and smiles at him.

Actually I have a lot of reasons to be sad, he writes back.

The wave of skepticism—and a complete lack of pity—hits him before the next message arrives.

Tony Stark 2:29 PM
BULLSHIT, right now you don’t. Just let yourself be HAPPY for once. You’re bumming me out.

It’s actually pretty refreshing not to be pitied. Jackass, he writes anyway, but he’s sure the fondness will reach Tony before the message does.

Sweetcheeks, how could you! Tony replies immediately, and Steve snorts. He can almost hear Tony’s laughter.

Pepper slides her hand under his elbow and takes his phone away. Stop flirting with Steve until we get back, she writes. She’s pressed up along Steve’s side, and his face goes blazing hot as he tries desperately not to get hard. She grins at him. We’re embarrassing him, she adds.

Did Tony feel the desire along with the embarrassment? He wishes he knew how much of his emotions transferred over. He can sense Tony’s when they’re particularly strong, but he doesn’t know how strongly he has to feel something in order for Tony to feel it, too.

Well, we can’t have that, Tony writes back. A man with assets like his and a superhuman libido should never be embarrassed by anything at all.

That answers that question.

Suddenly overwhelmed by humiliation and guilt, Steve sags onto the nearest bench. These are his friends, and he can’t be around them without turning into some sort of sex fiend. What does he think he’s doing? The last thing Erskine asked of him was for him to be a good man. And now look at him.

His phone vibrates again. He ignores it.

“Steve?” Pepper says, sitting down next to him. “What’s wrong?”

He shakes his head and closes his eyes. “I can’t...” he says. He pauses and then finally gives voice to the doubt that’s been simmering underneath the surface for weeks now. “I don’t think I can be Captain America anymore.” I don’t deserve to be, he thinks.

“Oh, Steve,” she says. Her hand slides over his back and rubs a circle between his shoulderblades. It feels good, so he shrinks away from her touch. “You don’t have to be. They can’t make you.”

“What else am I going to be?” he asks bleakly.

“Well,” she says, “you could try just being Steve Rogers for a while.”

“I don’t know how to do that, either.” He rubs his eyes. “I was okay as long as I had a mission. But now...”

“Now your mission is to settle in here,” she says. “No one said it would be easy, but when has that ever stopped you before?”

She’s right. He straightens his shoulders. Get it together, soldier. “Okay,” he says. “Thanks for listening, Pepper.”

“You’re very welcome,” she says. She pats his bicep comfortingly. “Come on, let’s go see the garden.”

Her bright conversation about the Degas and the Gauguin soon makes him forget his discomfort, and the next thing he knows the afternoon sun is drooping low in the sky and he’s been talking for half an hour about the Picasso retrospective that he saw at MoMA around Christmas of 1939.

“Oh, geez,” he says when he realizes how late it’s gotten. “I’ve just been talking your ear off.”

“No, do you have any idea what it’s like to hear about that firsthand?” she asks. She seems genuinely enthused. “I was an art history major in college. I would love to have seen that exhibition.”

Her phone vibrates. She pulls it from her purse, smiles, taps a reply, and stands up. “Bruce has arrived,” she says, extending her hand to him. “Come on, let’s go home.”

Steve looks up at her. “Home,” he says, a little bitterly. He takes her hand. “Yeah.”

Bruce and Tony are sitting at the dining room table, laughing over half a dozen pizza boxes, when Steve and Pepper walk in.

“Lovebug!” Tony says. He jumps up and kisses Pepper. “Oh, and Pepper.”

Steve ignores him and reaches out to shake Bruce’s hand. “Bruce, it’s really good to see you again.”

“I’m happy to help however I can,” Bruce replies. “Besides, I was starting to feel a little antsy in New York.”

“I’ve filled him in on the basics,” Tony says. He pulls Pepper into the chair next to him. “Come on, let’s eat, and we can start to figure this out.”

For a while the conversation remains light and sporadic as they devour the pizzas. Eventually, though, even Steve’s appetite is satisfied. They head down to the lab.

“So your subconscious minds can pick up each other’s dreams. Have you tried consciously sending thoughts yet?” Bruce asks.

“No,” Steve says, just as Tony says, “Of course!”

“Really?” they say to each other.

“It didn’t work, obviously,” Tony says. “Emotions only, so far.”

Steve’s stomach flips when he thinks about Tony being able to read his thoughts. “What if I didn’t want to hear your thoughts?” he says.

Tony stares at him blankly. “Why on earth wouldn’t you?”

“What if I don’t want you reading my mind?”

“Well, it’s a little late on that account for both of us,” Tony says. “Okay, Steve, you think of a number between one and a million.”

Steve gives up and thinks 531. He tries reaching for Tony and thinking the number at the same time, concentrating as hard as he can—

“Jesus, Cap,” Tony says. “Nobody asked you to smolder.”

Steve grimaces at him. “Did you get that number, or were you too distracted by my face?” he asks.

“Honeybun, it’s not just your face that distracts me,” Tony replies with a leer and a wink.

Steve shoves down the responding flash of arousal and rolls his eyes. “I keep wondering: how did you ever land a classy lady like Pepper?”

“I ask myself the same question every day,” Tony says. “I think she wants me for my robots.”

Pepper grins at him. “I was expecting something so much lewder than that.”

“And, you know, the suit’s not the only reason they call me Iron Man,” he adds, sliding an arm around her.

There we go,” she says, and Tony laughs and kisses her.

Steve watches them, and his heart aches a little.

Bruce takes off his glasses and polishes them with his shirttail. “So, Tony...” he prompts.

“Oh, right, science!” Tony says. “Yeah, 531.”

Steve jumps a little. “What! I can’t believe that worked!”

“My turn!” Tony says.

After a moment staring at Tony’s lazy grin, Steve gets a sort of tug, like he’d felt at the museum, and a thought that feels like Tony saying 42.

“Forty-two,” Steve says.

“Meaning of life,” Bruce says, inexplicably. He’s taking notes, even though Steve is sure JARVIS is recording this whole experiment.

I may not have looked like a model, but it worked! Tony says inside Steve’s head, and Steve snorts.

It’s like a door has opened. Now that he knows what Tony’s mind feels like, they can communicate easily. I don’t even know what you’re talking about, he replies. I was just concentrating.

Oh, Cap, Tony thinks. I don’t believe any of this innocent act you put on.

They’re both laughing and looking into each other’s eyes, and suddenly—

Is this weird? Tony thinks.

Steve looks away. Too much, he thinks, meaning too intimate, too close to the truth, meaning nowhere to hide. He wonders if Tony can pick up on the subtext or just the surface.

“Tony,” Pepper says. “What did you say? Why is Steve blushing? I swear, if you use this to torment him—”

“Pepper! I would never!”

“You would.”

“Well, not maliciously.”

Bruce clears his throat. “Maybe we should test out some other conditions,” he says. “You feel each other’s emotions; do you feel each other’s physical sensations too?”

“I don’t think so,” Tony says.

Steve thinks about his mortifying erections and devoutly hopes not. He shakes his head.

“Only one way to find out,” Pepper says cheerfully, and she pinches Tony’s arm.

“Motherfucker!” Tony yelps. Steve feels nothing.

“Anything, Steve?” she says. “No?”

“Much as I hate to point this out,” Tony says, “I think we need to try that again. I wasn’t consciously trying to contact Steve, and that might make a difference. Also, turn around, Steve. You shouldn’t be able to see us.” He gives a martyred sigh. “Let’s go, Potts. Steve, if you feel anything, tell us where.”

This time, Steve feels that tug in his mind and a twinge on his left thigh. “Left thigh,” he says. This is followed by ghostly jabs to his right side and the back of his right hand, then a pinch on his left cheek and, finally, a bite on his neck. He gulps and tries really hard not to think about that one.

“Five for five,” Bruce says cheerfully.

They repeat the experiment with Steve being poked and pinched (but not bitten), with equally successful results.

“Okay,” Steve says. “So we need to be careful not to try to convey pain to each other. Are we done here?”

Bruce shakes his head. “No. It’s a good thing that physical pain doesn’t transfer without conscious effort, but—I just have to point this out—unexpected pleasure can be just as distracting in a crisis.”

“Why would pleasure transfer unconsciously if pain doesn’t?” Steve asks.

“I don’t know,” Bruce admits. “But then nothing about this makes scientific sense, and if we’re assuming Loki is involved, who knows what the rules are. If the myths are anything close to right, we should probably assume that the basic principles here are going to boil down to ‘whatever amuses Loki most.’”

“So, what, you want Pepper and me to have sex and see if Cap gets a hard-on?” Tony says.

Steve freezes. Oh, no, he thinks as his face goes hot. Those damned dreams weren’t actually dreams. Oh, dear God, how could he ever admit this to his friends?

“No,” Pepper says, just as Bruce says, “Tony, there are other forms of pleasure besides sex.”

“But it would be the most effective in an experiment, since sex is the best form of pleasure!”

“Can’t we just try a backrub or something first?” Steve says, despairing.

“A sexy backrub?” Tony asks, waggling his eyebrows and leaning into Pepper. “Pepper, you know how I enjoy a good backrub.”

“Oh, my god,” Pepper says. She puts her hand on Tony’s face and pushes him away. “Bruce is going to give Steve the backrub.”

Bruce shrugs. “I don’t mind,” he says.

It turns out Bruce is pretty good at giving massages. Steve hasn’t even noticed how tense he’s been until Bruce works out the knots in his neck and along his spine. At some point he realizes he’s supposed to start sending, so he nudges Bruce and does so.

“Thanks, man,” Steve says when Bruce is finished.

“No problem,” he says. “Tony?”

“Nothing beyond the emotional until two minutes and fourteen seconds ago,” Tony says.

“Good,” Bruce says. “So mild pleasure doesn’t transfer.”

“Right,” says Tony. “Now the question is whether orgasm is strong enough to punch through subconsciously. I mean, I’d rather not have to schedule my sex life around Steve’s missions.”

“Anthony Edward Stark,” Pepper says, “I am not having sex with you to find out whether Steve can feel it!”

“No, you’re right, that’s creepy,” Tony says. He kisses the side of her head apologetically. “Steve, go jerk off.”

“Absolutely not,” Steve says. He scowls at them.

“Fine, I will.” Tony stands up. “But you’re going to have to do it, too. We need to make sure there’s reciprocity.”

Steve buries his face in his hands. “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me,” he says.

“I know for a fact that it’s not,” Tony says, patting his shoulder on his way around the table. “Also, think of it this way. Bruce already knows the side effects of the serum from his research. And I told Pepper weeks ago.”

“That is not helping,” Steve says, his voice muffled.

“Superboners are nothing to be ashamed of!” Tony calls as he runs up the stairs.

Why could you not have just THOUGHT that? Steve thinks at Tony, exasperated.

Oh, come on, sugarplum, it’s Bruce and Pepper, Tony thinks back. They already know and don’t care. Besides, if you don’t leave that lab, you might be giving them a pretty good look at the supertent in your pants here in a minute.

“Augh,” Steve says, vaulting out of his chair so quickly he knocks it over. Bruce and Pepper are looking at him avidly. “No, there’s nothing, it’s just—if this does do something—”

They’re both nodding. “Go,” Pepper says.

So that’s how Steve ends up lying on his bed, trying not to think about Tony jerking off down the hall.

He’s feeling pretty good about his self-control when Tony thinks, You ready? Here we go.

Steve imagines Tony lazily pulling his cock to hardness and gets an erection so fast it hurts.

Jesus Christ, Tony thinks. Was that you?

I don’t know what you mean, Steve thinks, trying to pretend his cock isn’t already poking out of his waistband and dripping into his belly button.

You just got hard, Tony thinks. I can tell because you got me hard faster than I have in years.

Well, then I suppose that answers that question, Steve thinks. I wasn’t trying to... to send that to you. Let’s go wait out our erections.

Then he feels it: a faint, tickling pressure along his stomach, like someone is drawing a finger down past his belly button. His cock jumps.

STOP, he thinks frantically just as he feels a hand—Tony’s psychic hand, what the hell—wrapping around his dick.

Tony lets go immediately. Oh, my god, Tony sends. Did you feel that?

YES, Steve thinks.

I wasn’t trying to transmit, Tony thinks. I was just touching myself and thinking about you. That’s interesting.

Interesting?! Steve responds incredulously.

No, you’re right, I just touched you with my mind! Tony thinks. That’s awesome.

Except for the part where you’re jerking off while thinking about me, and you have a GIRLFRIEND, Steve thinks, and his horror that this stupid experiment actually worked is making his erection flag quickly. He goes to the closet, grabs his bag, and starts throwing clothes into it, not even caring whether they’re folded neatly or not. I have to go.

What?! Tony thinks, and a few seconds later he’s crashing into Steve’s room. His pants are still hanging open, though his cock is tucked back into his underwear, much to Steve’s relief.

“Why are you going?” Tony says.

“I can’t do this!” Steve exclaims. “I can’t—look, I already know that pleasure transfers, okay, because I’ve had dreams about you and Pepper, and—” I can’t have you, he thinks—”I can’t deal with it.”

“Oh,” Tony says. He stands there for a moment, then says, “JARVIS, send Pepper up here, please.”

“Ms. Potts is on her way,” JARVIS responds a moment later.

“I am not giving you a blowjob for science, Tony,” Steve hears Pepper say as she gets closer.

“Pepper, you know I love you,” Tony says.

“I know,” she says, wary.

“How do you feel about a threesome with Captain America?”

Steve’s head jerks back like he’s been punched. “What the hell, Stark!” he says.

Pepper’s frowning. “Tony, I don’t think this is—”

“Pepper,” Steve says, “Pepper, I’m so sorry, this wasn’t my idea, I would never—”

“Of course you wouldn’t,” she says. “I know that, Steve—”

“And you,” he says, turning to Tony, almost choking. “How could you, how could you treat her like this?”

“Whoa there, Cap, I think you’ve got the wrong idea—”

“Did you or did you not just suggest that we have sex?” Steve demands.

“I did, but—”

“No,” Steve says. “I have to go.”

“Steve, wait,” Pepper says. She reaches out for him, and he leans toward her, confused and miserable. “This isn’t just Tony. This is something we both want.”

He reels back, hurt even worse. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” he says, goaded beyond endurance. “Don’t commitments mean anything to anyone anymore? Don’t you know how amazing what you have is? I’m not a toy for your bedroom!”

He grabs his shield and his bag, pushes through the two of them, and almost runs to the garage for his bike, ignoring Tony’s shouting in his head.

He hasn’t even reached the gates when Tony flashes by in the Iron Man suit and drops down on the ground in front of him.

He steers around Tony. Go away, he thinks.

You’re not a toy! Tony replies, taking off and pacing him. I’m not going away.

Steve stops and yanks off his helmet.

“I thought you and Pepper loved each other!” he shouts.

“We do!” Tony says. He lands and lifts the faceplate.

“Then how can you do this?”

“Do what? Share our love with someone else?”

Steve’s hurt and so disappointed in the two of them, and he knows Tony can feel it. He can’t keep it under control. “It’s wrong, and I thought better of you.”

“What’s wrong about it, Steve?”

“You’re in a relationship!”

“And the other half of the relationship wants you, too!”

“That doesn’t make it right!” Steve says.

Tony takes a step back. His brow is furrowed; he looks puzzled, like he has no idea what Steve might object to. “Is this about me being a guy? Is this some sort of gay freakout—but the base ball game, you didn’t seem—”

Steve throws his helmet down, swings off the bike, and advances on Tony, whose breath catches. Steve cups Tony’s face in his hands. The metal of the Iron Man helmet is warm and smooth under his fingertips, Tony’s skin soft under his thumbs. Steve surrenders to the impulse he’d had the day before and caresses Tony’s mouth. Tony’s eyes go dark, and his lips part. He kisses Steve’s thumb.

“It’s not that,” Steve says, leaning closer.

“No,” Tony says, his voice hoarse, and he kisses Steve.

Steve is not exactly an experienced kisser, but even he can tell that this is something exquisite. Tony’s mouth opens under his, smooth and slick, and Steve whimpers as the bond between them turns the kiss into something deep and primal and terribly intimate. He can feel what Tony wants, how to bite Tony’s lower lip just hard enough to make him moan. Tony’s smirking into the kiss, running the back of his gauntleted hand along the length of Steve’s (inevitable) erection. He pulls Steve closer and proceeds to kiss him so thoroughly that Steve’s dazed with it. They’re both caught up in a feedback loop so intense that Steve feels like they’re inside each other, so perfect and complete—

He breaks away, breathing hard.

“More,” Tony says, his mouth wet and his eyes hot, and Steve says, “Oh, God, yes” and leans into another deep kiss before he pulls back again.

“I can’t,” he says.

“Sure you can,” Tony says, kissing Steve’s throat. “You are. It’s fantastic. Come back inside.”

Steve pushes Tony away. “No, listen to me. This is wrong because this bond should be between you and Pepper.” He thinks for a moment about what it would be like, waking up with the two of them, getting ever closer to Tony and not being able to include Pepper. How could it not lead to resentment? “I can’t do that to her,” he adds, so quietly that he’s not sure Tony even heard.

“Do you not get the part where she wants this too?” Tony demands, missing the point entirely. “She is a grown woman and more capable of making her own decisions than anyone else I know.”

“Of course she is!” Steve says. “But are you telling me now, after discovering just how—how effective this telepathy thing can be, that it won’t hurt Pepper to see us growing closer and to know that she can’t be part of it?”

“Pepper knows I love her!” Tony says, but Steve can feel the uncertainty. He picks up his helmet and gets back on his bike.

“Of course she knows that,” he says, sagging so that his white-knuckled grip on the left handlebar braces most of his weight. “And you want me, sure, but it’s just physical attraction.”

“In my experience, most relationships start with physical attraction,” Tony says.

“Tony,” Steve says wearily. He’s about to be cruel, but it’s still the truth, and he doesn’t know what else to do. “Everything special about me really did come out of a bottle.”

Tony winces.

“I am not going to push into your relationship with Pepper just because the sex would be good,” Steve says, letting Tony feel just how determined he is on this point. “I’m not going to hurt either of you. You love each other. I’m not going to be the one who messes that up.”

“Steve,” Tony says, a note of pleading in his voice, but Steve can tell he’s won.

“Good-bye,” Steve says. He puts on the helmet and starts the bike.

He can feel the nudge that means Tony’s trying to get through to him, but his own emotions are in such chaos that he can’t pick up the connection. He doesn’t turn around as he pulls away, but he watches as Tony gets smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror.

The further away he gets from Tony, the less intrusive their bond is. By the time he leaves the Rockies, it’s back to just being part of his dreams again.

He can’t stop thinking about the kiss. Sometimes he wishes he’d just gone back with Tony; it seems like he’s fated to kiss people and then never see them again. He thinks wistfully that he’d probably be pretty good at sex, once he figured out what he was doing. Maybe he should consider not being so single-minded about finding the right partner. Partners.

But he doesn’t want sex for its own sake. He wants Tony, and he wants Pepper, and sometimes he lets himself daydream about being with them. He can come three or four times in a row when he does that.

He misses them: Pepper’s take-charge, no-nonsense attitude; Tony’s flamboyant arrogance; the way they laughed with him.

He really, really has to break this bond.

So he calls Fury on a gas break in Nevada. While he drives back to New York via the quickest route possible (back through states he’s already visited; it looks like he’ll have to wait to see the South), Fury has agents working with Dr. Jane Foster to try to establish communications with Asgard.

Fury’s the one who tells him that Bruce has left Malibu, but even the spymaster doesn’t know where Bruce has gone. Tony and Pepper stay in California. Pepper occasionally texts him, which is how he learns that Tony is spending more and more time in the lab. Steve doesn’t let himself text back.

When Steve returns to New York, he goes to see Fury.

“I can’t be Captain America anymore, sir,” he says, standing at ease in front of Fury’s desk.

Fury leans back, his leather chair creaking. “Why not?” Fury asks.

Steve shakes his head. “That part of my life is over,” he says, because he can’t tell Fury that he’s a sex fiend and a bad example for anyone. “I’d still like to work for SHIELD, though, if you’ll have me.” Somebody’s got to keep an eye on you, he doesn’t say, but he suspects Fury knows that’s part of his motivation.

Fury gives him a promotion to commander and puts him in charge of “field operations,” which means that he gets to work with Barton and Romanoff again on occasion. They get to know one another slowly, through sparring sessions at the gym and infrequent dinners in the SHIELD mess hall.

Mostly he throws himself into training SHIELD agents to be more effective in different types of combat. He likes the challenge; he likes even more that casualty rates drop ten percent in his first month on the job.

He still gets Tony’s dreams, though their occurrence has decreased drastically. At first he worries that Tony’s not sleeping, but then he thinks that maybe the telepathic bond is going away on its own, atrophying the longer they stay apart.

That’s what he wants, right?

So he tries hard not to think of Tony and Pepper. Still, at least once a week in the shower he comes with their names on his lips.

The months bleed into one another. Soon it’s December in New York, gray and dreary. Steve has plans for a cozy Christmas dinner with Clint and Natasha. He’s feeling better than he has in a while—more purposeful, less lonely, and if he’s less lonely because he spends fourteen hours a day in the office, well, no one’s called him on it yet.

Then Pepper texts him that Happy Hogan has been caught in a bomb blast, and Tony is all over the news, swearing vengeance and giving out his address to everyone in the world. Steve shakes his head—reckless, Tony—and texts Rhodey and Pepper. They’re taking care of him, and that has to be good enough.

Steve still worries.

That evening he’s sitting at his desk, eating a candy cane and reading intel on a Russian operative known as Winter Soldier, when Natasha calls him on the emergency line.

“Steve,” she says, her voice tight and clipped, “you need to turn on the news. Right now.”

He does, and at first he can’t believe what he’s seeing. That’s the Malibu house, Tony’s house, being hit by missiles and crashing into the ocean.

BILLIONAIRE TONY STARK PRESUMED DEAD, reads the scrolling headline.

Steve drops the phone.

He reaches out for Tony instinctively. He can’t feel anything, but from three thousand miles away he didn’t expect to.

Still, he of all people knows that presumed dead doesn’t mean confirmed dead.

He calls Pepper, whose phone goes to voicemail. He leaves a frantic message for her. He tracks down her assistant’s line at Stark Industries and calls to see whether she was at work.

She wasn’t.

He can’t get hold of Rhodey, either, so he leaves another pair of voicemails and hangs up. His breath has gone unnaturally even as he tries to calm himself down, setting the phone down gently instead of throwing it through the wall like he wants to. Not again, Steve thinks.

He sits numbly at his desk, remembering Pepper sitting at the edge of the pool, Tony wandering shirtless through the house, the three of them laughing in the kitchen.

Remembering Tony’s mouth, sliding against his.

He’s not sure how much time has passed when his phone rings and he fumbles to answer it.

“Rogers,” he says.

“Steve,” Pepper says. She sounds like she’s in shock. “He’s gone, Tony’s gone. He fell and—”

“No,” Steve says automatically. “That can’t—he fell, that doesn’t make any sense—he can fly—” Not again, he thinks.

“He’s gone, Steve,” she says. “He got pulled down into the ocean. If he could have gotten out of the wreckage, he would be here with me.”

“Pepper,” he says. His own throat is thick with tears. “Pepper...”

She gives one great, heaving sob. “You love him, too,” she says. “I know—you—he would want me to—”

“And you,” he says. “I love you. Oh, God, Pepper, if only I’d stayed, maybe—”

She snorts. “I don’t know what you think even you could do against missiles.”

“Should I—do you want me to come out there?” Steve says. “I can, I will—Pepper, I’ll do anything, I’ll take care of you.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “I know you can. But you don’t have to.”

Pepper’s calming down again already. He can picture her wiping her tears away with brisk motions. “I need you to track down anything you can about the Mandarin,” she says. “And there’s this woman, Maya Hansen—check into her, too. I have to go.”

The call ends. Steve takes several deep breaths and then gets to work.

Steve spends Christmas Eve in the office. Something’s going on with Air Force One; he hears that Iron Man has rescued the flight crew, so Tony must be alive. When Steve sees the shaky footage, he buries his head in his arms and lets himself cry.

He sleeps on the couch in his office that night. Early Christmas morning, hunched over his computer, he finally admits that he is just not an intelligence officer. He’s glad that Pepper turned to him, but no matter how badly he wants to be the one to help, he has to acknowledge that investigations are not his strong suit. He’s just decided to give up and call in Natasha when Rhodey shows up at his door.

“You’re coming with me,” Rhodey says.

“I can’t,” Steve replies. “Pepper asked me to—”

“New orders,” Rhodey says. “Tony and Pepper are both in Miami. I’m going to pick them up right now.”

Steve closes his eyes over the sudden burst of relief. “Let’s go,” he says.

Rhodey commandeers a quinjet, flies Steve to Miami, and catches him up on the events of the past few days as much as he can. Tony’s been having anxiety attacks and not sleeping. In the past six months, he’s created over thirty suits, most of which Steve suspects were created after he left Malibu in August.

“Why does Tony always charge in without backup?” Steve says.

Rhodey snorts. “Because he’s Tony Stark, and he’s not used to having backup.”

“Well,” Steve says. He sets his jaw. “He is going to have to get used to it.”

The closer they get to Miami, the more frequently Steve tries to reach out to Tony through the bond. Finally, somewhere over central Florida, he gets a response.


It’s so tentative and tired. Steve exhales and pushes all his fear and relief and love at Tony in a giant, messy ball. Tony, I thought you were dead, I thought I’d lost you—

He turns away from Rhodey a little and tries to control his breathing.

I’m fine, Tony sends.

I’m on my way, Steve thinks. I’ll be there soon. I should have been there—

Well, I’m glad you weren’t, Tony thinks flatly, and Steve recoils.

Tony hasn’t sent him any emotions. He doesn’t seem to want to hear from Steve at all.

Well. And why should he? Steve left and hasn’t spoken to him since leaving.

Tony? he sends. I’m sorry.

There’s no response.

Steve pulls his feet up onto the chair and hugs his knees. He can curl up into a pretty compact ball. This way he can hide his face in his arms and get himself under control.

“Steve,” Rhodey says after a while.

Steve uncurls himself. “Yeah?”

“There’s something you need to know. Something happened to Pepper.”

Once they pull up to the hotel where Tony and Pepper are staying, Steve jumps out before the car’s even come to a complete stop.

Where are you, Tony? he thinks. Where’s Pepper?

Presidential Suite, Tony sends. I’m working. This close, Steve can feel how terse the thought is, how restrained Tony’s being.

It hurts.

When the elevator doors open on the penthouse floor, Steve rushes into the suite, looking for Pepper. He rounds a corner and she’s sitting on a couch, wearing a white tank top and black shorts and watching I’m a Pregnant Teenage Hoarding Dance Mom or something on TV. Her hair is mussed, like she’s just woken up.

“Pepper,” he says.

“Steve!” She jumps up and then she’s in his arms. He pulls her close and buries his face in her hair.

“Rhodey told me about Extremis. Are you okay?” Steve says. He spreads his hands out to feel the long curve of her spine. She’s so warm, pressed against him.

“I will be,” she says. She turns her face into his neck and clutches him tighter. “Tony’s fixing it.”

“He won’t talk to me,” Steve tells her, ashamed.

Pepper laughs a little. “He’s a mess,” she says. “We both are. He’s really focused on fixing Extremis.”

“I think he doesn’t want anything to do with me.” Steve bends his head a little further, breathes in the clean, citrus scent of her hair, and closes his eyes. “I missed you,” he adds softly.

She pulls back a little and cups his face in her hands. “He told me about the kiss, and about your reasons for leaving,” she says.

He stiffens.

“Shh,” she says before he can put words together. “Steve, I’m glad that you thought of me and worried. I’m glad that you tried to do the right thing. But in this case, you should have just listened to us.”

“You don’t understand,” he says. “You don’t know how deep the connection goes—”

“Tony told me,” she says, cutting him off. “Even before that day, we’d talked about it. I knew what I was getting into. So what was this really about?”

Steve takes a deep breath. “I didn’t want to be the third wheel,” he says, and then the real truth: “I didn’t want to be wanted just for what the serum did.”

“Oh, Steve,” she says, her eyes warm and sad. “If all we wanted was a hot guy with great abs, there are plenty to choose from. We want you.”

And then she kisses him.

He freezes at first, guilty and horrified. But Tony and Pepper have made their choice, and maybe he’s weak, but he wants this, too. He’s spent the past four months aching for it.

So he’s not going to make the same mistake he did before. He’s going to believe that Pepper and Tony know what they’re doing—that they want him like he wants them, out of love.

He thinks about Tony—I want you here—and then opens his mouth and kisses Pepper back.

She kisses sweetly, with delicate flicks of tongue, while her fingers dig into Steve’s neck. The contrast is so perfectly Pepper that Steve can’t help smiling into the kiss. One of her hands traces down his back and then goes lower and squeezes. He yelps a little in surprise, and his hips twitch involuntarily toward her. She laughs into his mouth, but then she rocks her hips against his and moans.

“See, I don’t need a psychic link to connect with you,” she says breathlessly between kisses. “Also, I like your new uniform.” She pulls him down, and he lowers both of them gently to the couch.

Steve kisses and kisses her, sliding one hand up into her soft hair to cradle her head while he braces himself with the other. He gasps her name as her mouth wanders along his jaw to his ear. Her hands slide up underneath his shirt, warm on his back, and she shifts so that he settles between her thighs. She presses up against him, hot and soft. It feels so good that Steve thinks it won’t be long before he comes.

“Well, isn’t this charming,” Tony says from the doorway.

Steve topples off the couch.

“Tony,” he says. His lips feel wet and swollen and he’s visibly, painfully hard. Rhodey’s behind Tony, looking first shocked and then so angry that Steve’s a little afraid.

“If you didn’t want to be interrupted, you shouldn’t have been sending me everything you felt,” Tony says.

Steve flushes. “Oh,” he says. “I didn’t mean—”

“Shut up, Steve. Rhodey,” Tony says, not taking his eyes from Steve and Pepper. “Go get the quinjet ready. I need to talk to these two in private, and then we’re going to the Tower.”

“Sure,” Rhodey says. He makes a crisp about-face and stalks off.

Tony crosses his arms and leans against the doorframe. “You’re so worried about interfering with me and Pepper that the first thing you do is walk in and dry-hump her?”

Pepper stands up and goes over to Tony. She nudges his arms apart, and he lets her take his hand. His emotions shift and flit so rapidly that Steve can’t make sense of them. The one constant is the intense, exhausting worry about Pepper.

The reminder of what Steve nearly lost gives him strength. “I made a mistake,” he says. “I didn’t realize how bad of one until I thought—” He chokes on the words. “I’ve lost everyone. I should have known to fight for you.”

“What makes you think you can just show up here and try to pick up right where we left off? Where you left us four months ago?” Tony says.

Steve swallows. “I love you,” he says. “And I thought you were dead.”

“Four months,” Tony says. A muscle in his jaw twitches. “I fell apart, Steve, I was such a mess, and you weren’t there.”

“I know,” Steve says. He ducks his head. I’m so sorry, he sends.

He gets a burst of emotion from Tony, so fast and complicated that Steve can’t even begin to tease out what’s there.

“Why are you sorry?” Tony says, with an odd intonation in his voice.

“I didn’t trust you,” Steve replies. “I thought you just wanted me for sex.”

“So what’s different now?”

Steve looks up at Tony. “I don’t care if you do,” he says bluntly. “I mean, I don’t think that’s the case, but even if it is, I’d rather be with you on those terms than spend any more time without you.”

Tony looks away and sniffs. “I need to talk to Pepper.”

Steve turns to Pepper, and his desperation must be written all over his face. She shakes her head at him. “We’ll talk on the flight home.” She squeezes Tony’s bicep. “It will all be okay, Steve. I promise.”

He’s going to trust Pepper. He swallows hard and nods, and the three of them shuffle down to the lobby to take a cab to the airport.

Steve is sitting in the back of the quinjet, where Loki sat the night Steve and Tony met, while Tony and Pepper have a hushed conversation behind Rhodey’s seat. He vaguely remembers the conversation he and Tony had that night. Mainly he remembers being confused and unimpressed, but then he spent most of his first few weeks confused and unimpressed with the twenty-first century in general. He likes to think he’d foreseen how important Tony would become to him. He’s pretty sure he didn’t, though.

The noise of the plane is sufficient to hide Tony and Pepper’s words from even Steve’s serum-enhanced hearing. He wonders what they’re saying, but he’s trying hard not to eavesdrop on Tony’s emotions. (Tony is mostly just worried about Pepper, anyway; he can’t run any tests or start working on a fix until he has access to JARVIS and his equipment in New York, and he’s going a little crazy with the forced inactivity.)

Steve dozes off for a while, emotionally spent if not physically exhausted. He jolts awake when Pepper sits down next to him and wriggles under his left arm. Her left hand holds tight to Tony, drawing him down with her.

Steve slides his hand down her arm and pulls her close. She rests her head against his shoulder with a sigh, tugging Tony toward her, as well. Tony turns and buries his face in the nape of her neck. He wraps his arms around her. Steve’s arm is trapped between their bodies, and the contact feels so right that he relaxes for what feels like the first time since he left Malibu.

“I’m just going to take a little nap,” Pepper says, yawning. Her right hand rests on the inside of Steve’s thigh, and she loops her left arm around Tony’s neck and covers his arc reactor with her palm. A shudder runs through Tony’s body.

Steve wants to hug both of them close, to hold them tight and never let them go.

I blew up the armor, Tony thinks at him, not looking up.

Steve stiffens. He looks over Pepper’s head at Tony, but all he can see is tousled dark hair. I wondered where it was, he sends.

Tony lifts his head and actually meets Steve’s eyes. Steve catches his breath. No, I mean, I blew up all the armors, Tony tells him.

Steve feels like Tony has just announced that he voluntarily amputated all his limbs. Why?

Tony closes his eyes. They were… He’s frustrated, guilty, anxious. I was using them to hide, he thinks finally, and he carefully shifts so that he can take Steve’s trapped hand and twine their fingers together. Touch amplifies the bond, and Steve falls into the memories that Tony shoves at him: Tony doing pull-ups in his lab, sending the suit to interact with Pepper because he’s a ball of jealousy and anxiety; Tony waking up to discover the suit threatening Pepper, summoned by his subconscious fear; Tony hiding from everyone and everything to create, frantically and obsessively, suit after suit after suit.

Steve clutches Tony’s hand and wishes he could hold Tony closer. Are you—will you stop being Iron Man?

Tony snorts quietly. I am Iron Man. I can’t stop being who I am. I’ll take the best ideas and build new suits. It was just—the others were unhealthy. Ask Pepper. I was destroying myself.

I should have been there, Steve thinks miserably. I could have helped.

Tony raises an eyebrow at Steve. And what do you think you could have done that Pepper couldn’t?

Steve shakes his head. No, I mean, I shouldn’t have left. I could have been there for both of you. I’m not saying I would have fixed anything. But… I love you, and I left because I was afraid. I’m... His eyes are burning. He doesn’t have language for the shame and guilt he feels, the fear he has of loving and losing again, so he just pushes his mess of emotions at Tony.

Tony squeezes his hand. I know, Steve, he sends, and then, Honeypot, just to make Steve laugh. It’s possible I could have tried harder, too, you know. So. It’s okay.

Steve’s horrified to feel a tear sliding down his cheek. He dashes it away with his free hand. Pepper is feverishly warm against his side, and Tony’s hand grips his with a solid strength. He’d nearly lost them without ever having them, just like he’d lost Peggy.

Take me home with you, Steve thinks. I know you’ll be busy fixing Extremis. I know you won’t have much time. But I want to be there for you both. He blushes. With you both.

Kitten, we aren’t letting you go again, Tony actually drawls, and somehow he’s laughing inside Steve’s head. He leans back, draws Steve’s hand up, and looks into Steve’s eyes as he smirks and kisses each finger, then sucks on them.

Steve has to stifle a groan as the bond lights up between them, desire flooding back and forth and making Steve uncomfortably hard.

I want you, Tony thinks. His eyes are dark and more earnest than Tony has ever let himself be. I want to suck you, I want to open you up and fuck you, I want you to fuck me. I want to watch you fuck Pepper, I want to show you how to make her come over and over again until the only muscles that she can operate are the ones that make her smile.

Steve swallows so loudly he’s afraid he’ll wake Pepper up. Jeez, Tony, he thinks.

You should see her, Steve. Tony kisses the palm of Steve’s hand, soft lips and scratchy beard and a flick of tongue that Steve feels as if it were on his cock. You should see how beautiful she is. You love her now, but just wait until you get to be with her. She’s so… Tony sends a fast blip of emotion, love for Pepper and a residue of anger and grief as he continues, Well, she’s perfect. And also she can do this thing with her muscles, she’s probably been doing kegels since she was fourteen—

Oh, my god, Steve thinks, a little mortified and not having any idea what kegels are. Possibly some sort of dildo. He blushes even harder.

I’ll teach you how to go down on her, Tony tells him. You can probably go for hours. We can have sex marathons!

Steve stares at Tony, his mouth dry, and imagines days in bed with both of them. He shifts a little so that his zipper isn’t digging into his erection. Yes, he sends, nearly unable to form words. He tilts his hips forward and presses his right hand against the base of his cock, hoping devoutly that Rhodey doesn’t look back. I want… I want that. All of it. I want you.

Tony presses Steve’s left hand to his own crotch. The angle is a little awkward, with Pepper still asleep between them, but Steve swallows and runs his thumb along the hard length of Tony’s dick. Tony bites his lip.

Jesus, why can’t we just do this right now? Tony thinks. Steve cups Tony’s cock, stroking as best he can, and Tony moans and says, “Fuck.”

They both freeze and glance sideways at Pepper. She’s still asleep, though.

Steve removes his hand from Tony’s crotch. Pepper needs to sleep, he thinks ruefully at Tony, and Rhodey is right up there. We should stop before things get out of hand.

If things were out of hand we wouldn’t have a problem, Tony responds.

Steve rolls his eyes.

Tony tilts his head and smirks. I bet I can get you off just by thinking at you.

Steve’s cock twitches. I know you could, he thinks. But please don’t make me go through the rest of the day with a giant sticky mess in my pants.

Giant, eh? Tony replies, looking downright wicked. He stretches an arm around Pepper and tries to reach Steve’s crotch.

Steve pushes Tony’s hand away. You have no idea. You’ll see. It’s awful.

I look forward to it, Tony thinks, and to finding out firsthand what else in your pants might be giant.

Classy, Stark, Steve sends, and then starts sending him baseball stats from the 1941 Dodgers.

You are the worst, Tony tells him, snuggling against Pepper. I’m going crazy over here and you won’t even distract me.

Steve raises his eyebrows. You want to come in your pants right now? he thinks before he can stop himself.

Tony lets his gaze drop to Steve’s lips. No. I want to come in your mouth.

The only reason Steve doesn’t blush is because all his blood is rushing back into his dick. He sighs quietly. Well, unless your penis is four feet long, that seems logistically impossible at the moment.

So all I need to do is figure out how to—

Tony, no, Steve thinks, trying not to laugh, and Tony grins at him and finally settles down.

As soon as they arrive at Stark Tower, Tony disappears into his workshop. He stays there for the next six days, frantically working to repair the Extremis and remove it from Pepper. He sleeps in brief intervals on the couch or simply collapsed over his desk.

Steve and Pepper check in on him and bring him food; in the intervening hours, they huddle together. Steve learns to administer the regulators that keep Pepper from going supernova. He’s slotted into their lives as if he never left.

He tries not to get turned on, since he knows it will distract Tony. But one of the side effects of Extremis seems to be a heightened sex drive, so Pepper excuses herself a lot. At first Steve doesn’t realize what she’s doing. Eventually, though, he hears her crying out. He rushes into the bedroom, thinking something’s wrong with Extremis, only to see her naked and arching up on the bed with her hand buried between her legs. He backs out quickly, but not before he gets hard.

He goes back to his room to calm down, but he can’t get her image out of his head. When even a cold shower can’t get rid of his erection, he gives up and takes himself in hand. It only takes four or five strokes before he’s coming.

By the time he dries off and gets dressed, he’s hard again. He wants so badly to be with her (inside her) that he unconsciously transmits his longing to Tony.

So go, Tony thinks. Jesus, you haven’t yet?

I didn’t want to without you, Steve replies.

I’m going to be a while, Tony sends. You should at least ask her. If you offer, I bet she’ll take you up on it. She’s already started round two.

Of course Tony has JARVIS monitoring her; if something were wrong, Tony would have let him know. Steve feels even worse and more foolish than before for barging in on her.

Tony’s voice in his head interrupts that train of thought. Steve. Do you trust me?

Yes, Steve thinks. He’s torn, wanting so badly to believe Tony but afraid of messing up before he’s even really gotten to be with them.

Then act like it. Go in there. I want you to, and so does she. You’re not messing anything up by asking.

Steve tucks the head of his dick up under his waistband to make his erection less obvious, then goes to knock at Tony and Pepper’s bedroom door. “Pepper?” he says. “Are you—do you want—”

“Oh, god, Steve,” she moans. “Yes. Get in here. I need you.”

He pushes the door open and makes his way over to the bed. The room smells tangy, somehow, and when he gets closer he realizes that the scent is Pepper’s sex. Her skin glows in the light, not the eerie orange of Extremis but the healthy gleam of sweat. Her eyelids are heavy, her pupils so dilated that her eyes have gone black instead of blue. She sits up suddenly, breasts bouncing, and yanks him down on top of her.

“I want you to fuck me,” she says against his mouth. She kisses him, deep and hot, and she takes his hand and slides it between her legs. She’s wet and slippery as she guides two of his fingers up into her. He slides them in and out a few times, marveling at how good she feels, so silky smooth, and she moans. “Feel how ready I am? I want you inside me, and I want it fast and hard, as many times in a row as you can.”

Pepper,” he says, his voice gone so low he barely recognizes it himself. She’s unbuckling his pants, yanking them down along with his underwear, and then her hand is on his cock.

“I’ve wanted this for so long,” she says. Her thumb drags across the head of his cock, and he twitches in her hand. A drop of fluid slips out, dripping across her knuckles. “God, you’re even better than I imagined.”

“Sorry,” he says. “I get—the Serum—I get... messy.”

“Oh, fuck, yes,” she says. “That is just—” She kisses him again, one hand on his ass and the other jerking him slowly. She pulls him closer and rubs his cock against her. She’s so slick, and he groans into her mouth.

“Come on,” she says, and with a tilt of her hips he’s sliding into her.

“Oh, God,” he says as he slides deeper. “Rubber?”

“I’m on birth control and all three of us are clean,” she replies. “Uh, not that Tony has run invasive and unknown tests on you, or that I would know anything about them if he had.”

Steve laughs. “He wouldn’t need to. Serum took care of that.” Also, this is my first time, he thinks about saying, but she doesn’t need to know that right now. She knows it’s his first time with her, after all, and she’s fine with that.

She lifts her hips, wrapping her long, beautiful legs around his waist, and he goes even deeper. “Aah, yes,” she cries as his balls come to rest against her. She squeezes around him, somehow, and he lets out a little grunt of surprise. “Come on, soldier, fuck me.”

So he does. He moves gently at first, not wanting to hurt her, but she digs her heels in and pulls him into her. “Faster,” she demands, “harder, come on, Steve, I’m not going to break.”

He shifts his weight to get better leverage, and he obeys. She feels amazing. She tightens her muscles on each thrust, so he has to drag his cock out. When he plunges back in, their joining makes a wet sort of noise that should be embarrassing but instead only brings him closer to the edge.

She braces herself against the headboard. “Harder,” she says again. He puts his back into it, staring mesmerized at her hard pink nipples as they bounce with each thrust. He wants to lick them, to suck them, but he can’t keep up this tempo if he does. He lets himself look at her: at her closed eyes, flushed cheeks, and open mouth; at the long lines of her neck, the little mounds of her breasts, the smooth planes of her stomach; at the reddish smudge of neatly trimmed pubic hair, the sweet pink lips of her pussy, the way her flesh clings to his cock as he pulls out. It’s a good thing he came just a few minutes ago, or else he’d have been done the first time he saw himself emerge shining from the tight grasp of her body.

She’s letting out little cries each time his hips meet hers. Rock up against her so you’re grinding into her clit, Tony tells him, and that’s really weird, but also really hot. So Steve follows his instructions. Pepper’s little cries turn into loud cries.

“Pepper,” he gasps. “Pepper, Pepper, you’re so beautiful. I love you. I love you both.”

She seems to be beyond words; her only response is a loud moan. She’s flushed a deep pink from her hairline to her breasts. Steve’s close to coming—his balls are drawn up high and tight, and he’s wondering how much longer he can maintain this pace—when she lets out a long wail as she pulses and flutters hard around his cock. Spasms pass through her whole body, her legs twitching. He pulls back a little at first, unsure, but she yelps, “Keep going!” So he does, pounding into her through the rolling waves of her orgasm. It’s a long time before her cry dies off and she relaxes beneath him.

“Come for me, Steve,” she says finally, her voice rough. “Come.”

Her command finally drives him over the edge. He buries himself as deep as he can inside her and comes so long and hard that afterward he’s not sure how he managed it, even with the serum.

He kisses her gently for a long time after. He stays inside her until he softens enough to slip out, accompanied by a gush of fluid.

He winces. “The sheets…” he begins, but she just arches an eyebrow at him.

“Then you’d better get down there and lick up your mess,” she says.

Lick it up?” he replies, a little shocked, and then when her other eyebrow lifts, “Yes, ma’am.” His cock gives a hopeful twitch as he kisses his way down her body.

Are you sure you can’t join us? he asks Tony while he sucks Pepper’s nipple.

Tony’s reply comes with exhaustion and worry and fondness. I’m really close to figuring this out, he sends. You keep Pepper happy. I’ll be there soon. Use your tongue to make circles around her clit. Also, she likes it when you use your teeth just a tiny bit.

Okay, Steve thinks. We love you. The answering emotion is so strong that he’s smiling as he lets Pepper’s nipple pop out of his mouth and slides down between her thighs to follow Tony’s instructions.

Steve wakes up the next morning with Pepper’s hair in his mouth. His morning erection is pressed up against her bottom, and he can’t help rocking into her a little. Maybe when she wakes up they can make love again.

He rolls away from her and almost jumps out of the bed when he realizes Tony’s curled up behind him, still asleep. The fact that he’s here must mean he’s had a breakthrough.

Steve carefully turns onto his back and wraps an arm around each of them, tugging them gently until they cuddle against him in their sleep. He drifts off again, lulled by their warmth.

When he awakens again, Tony and Pepper are having an intense whispered conversation in the bathroom.

Tony, he thinks. What’s going on?

The whispering stops, and then they emerge. Pepper is wearing an opulent red and gold brocade robe that looks unlike anything either she or Tony would have bought. Her hair is mussed. He wants to run his fingers through it.

“Good morning,” she says before his thoughts turn any dirtier. She looks happy—happier than he’s seen her since that day at the art museum.

He turns to Tony, whose hair is wet. He’s got a towel wrapped around his waist. Steve’s thoughts are plenty dirty now.

“I figured it out,” Tony says. He waves an empty syringe. “I gave her the cure a few minutes ago. She should be clear of the Extremis within about twelve hours.”

Steve lets out a whoop and vaults out of bed to hug them both close. He kisses Pepper, who makes a face at his morning breath but clutches him tight, and then he kisses Tony, who returns the kiss with interest as the bond intensifies. The towel drops. Tony’s hardening cock nudges Steve’s thigh, and Pepper wraps her hands around Steve’s dick, and finally, finally, he gets to be with them both.

But something becomes clear as he and Tony fall into each other’s heads.

Tony’s hiding something.

Steve pulls away. “Tony,” Steve says. “What did you do?”

Tony sighs. “I thought I could get away a little longer without you noticing,” he complains.

“Tony,” Pepper says.

“I… okay, so I’m not getting any younger,” Tony says. He rubs a hand through his hair. “And this thing—” he knocks on the arc reactor—”isn’t really helping matters. Well, I mean, it does help matters in that it keeps the shrapnel out of my heart. But I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few days about my tendency to hide behind the suits. And it all goes back to this. First it was a handicap, and then it was what made me Iron Man. But I am Iron Man, with or without the arc reactor.”

Steve panics a little. He sees Pepper’s eyes widen, too, as she clutches at Tony’s hand.

“No, no, no!” Tony says. “It’s not bad! I just… I need to—I did a thing, okay, and it is a good thing, and it will be freeing, but you are going to freak out.”

“What did you do,” Pepper says, her voice flat.

“I just—I fixed Extremis,” Tony says, “and I—now I have it and—look!” He yanks open a drawer, pulls out a corkscrew, opens the knife, and slices open the meaty part of his palm at the base of his thumb. Steve and Pepper gasp. “Look. I can heal!”

Steve and Pepper stare at his hand, horrified, as the skin closes up. Tony wipes the blood away, and his skin beneath is unmarked.

“It’s fine,” he says. “You trust that I could remove Extremis from Pepper! Why don’t you trust that I can stabilize it for myself?”

Steve and Pepper exchange a glance.

“Why?” Steve says.

Tony turns away. “I—I love you,” he says. He’s open and serious, uncharacteristically so. “And I need to be around, I need to have your backs, both of you. And the arc reactor makes me too vulnerable. It needs to come out. I couldn’t take it out before because so much of my sternum and ribs had to be removed to fit it in. Even though surgeons could get the shrapnel out, they couldn’t repair that much missing bone without leaving me even more vulnerable than I am now. But with Extremis—they can remove the shrapnel and the reactor, and my body will heal as if the arc reactor were never there.” He turns to Pepper. “Pep—I’ll be able to sleep on my stomach again. I’ll be able to—” He stops, and Steve thinks, take a full breath again, live without pain, fight evil without showcasing his greatest weakness.

“One more line of defense against bullet holes,” Tony adds, looking up at Pepper through dark lashes.

Pepper presses her lips together. “You are a jerk. I can’t believe you did this without talking to me about it.” She glances at Steve. “To us,” she corrects herself. But she pulls him into her arms and clutches the back of his neck. “Oh, Tony,” she says with a sigh. “When are you going to learn that you don’t have to do everything alone anymore?”

He smiles and strokes her back. “I told you everything was never going to be okay.”

“You’re such an asshole,” she says, laughing a little, and he kisses her. Steve can feel the strength of Tony’s love, the near reverence with which he holds her. The two of them are wrapped up in each other, so Steve slips off to use the bathroom and shower.

He loves them, and they love him. But no matter what happens with the telepathy, Steve will always be the latecomer. He’s the one who doesn’t belong. Tony and Pepper have a whole history that they built together while Steve slept in the ice. He’s not jealous. He’s just…

Okay, he’s a little jealous. Tony-and-Pepper, together, are beautiful and strong and perfectly balanced. He doesn’t know how to fit in without throwing everything off.

Come to bed, Tony sends. Or we could join you in the shower.

I’m okay, Steve replies. You two should—

The bathroom door slams open. “Stop being a martyr,” Tony says. Steve’s gaze drops to Tony’s dick, rising thick and hard. “You’re not alone. Also, I want to suck your cock now.”

“It’s very nice,” Pepper says from behind Tony.

“Yes, I can see that,” Tony says, staring.

She drops the robe, grabs Tony by the dick, and pulls him into the shower. “Okay?” she asks Steve.

He closes his eyes and swallows as a thousand masturbatory fantasies come true. “Yes,” he croaks. “Please.”

Tony drops to his knees, and Steve can feel the ghost weight of his own cock on his tongue as Tony’s wet mouth closes around him.

Then Pepper kisses him and pulls his hand down between her legs, and everything he’s conscious of distills into pleasure and love. He slides his other hand into Tony’s hair, thinking Yes and I love you as he kisses Pepper hungrily. He slides his fingers along her folds and traces lightly around her before slipping inside. When his thumb finds the hard little bump of her clitoris, her hips jolt toward him.

He tries to concentrate on making Pepper feel good, but Tony’s sucking him and doing this massaging thing with his tongue. The bond intensifies, radiating desire and pleasure between them. It’s building so quickly that Steve thinks he might—

Come, Tony tells him, left hand warm on Steve’s hip, and Steve does. He staggers a little with the force of it, with the way Tony’s mouth feels as he swallows and swallows and swallows, but Pepper and Tony hold him up.

He reaches out and lifts Tony so they can kiss. Tony tastes like him, and when Steve moves to kiss along Tony’s jawline, he realizes there’s come in Tony’s beard. Tony groans when Steve licks it away.

Pepper is watching them with dark eyes and parted lips. “Bed,” she says, her voice catching a little, and they all reel out of the shower. Tony snags a towel from the neat pile on the shelf, laughing as four more tumble down on top of his head. The three of them dry off as best they can on the way to the bed, but when they crash down, Pepper’s hair is cold and wet against Steve’s chest.

There’s a happy tangle of limbs and laughter, the heat of their skin a sharp contrast to Pepper’s hair. He’s hard again, leaving wet smears along Tony’s thigh and Pepper’s hip and belly and the sheets. Eventually he and Tony team up against Pepper: they push her back against the pillows and use the bond to coordinate their efforts.

Nipples, Steve thinks, and in unison they each suck one into their mouths.

Pepper arches up. “Oh, oh,” she says. She lets out a gasping sort of laugh. “Are you two using the bond for sex tactics?”

Tony lifts his head. “Do you mind?” he asks, serious, but a smirk curls at the edge of his mouth.

“Fuck, no,” she says, sliding her hands into their hair. “Get back to work.”

Steve laughs around her nipple, then sucks a bit harder when her fingers tighten on his scalp. Teeth, Tony tells him. Steve rolls her nipple gently against the edge of his teeth and is rewarded by the sharp little cry she lets out.

Tony’s hand has slipped between her legs to rub circles around her clit. Steve slides his hand up the inside of her thigh, encouraged by the way she draws it aside to give him easier access. He nudges under Tony’s hand to slide along her, getting his fingers slick before he pushes inside her.

“Oh, my god,” she cries. Her hips thrust upward as she tries to get more stimulation. “Oh, Tony, oh, Steve, oh god.”

Follow my rhythm, Steve sends to Tony.

Curl your fingers, Tony replies, and together they stroke Pepper to a screaming orgasm that bows her back and leaves Steve marveling again at the strength of her body as she clamps down around his fingers.

They don’t release her nipples until she pushes them away. “Give me a minute,” she says. She’s sweaty and flushed, her normally pale nipples scarlet and a little swollen. She curls her legs up to her chest and rolls onto her side, groaning a little as she stretches her back, and it’s the squish of her belly that sends a jolt of fondness through Steve.

“You’re so beautiful,” he tells her.

She smiles. “Uh huh,” she says comfortably. “Let’s go, boys. More hot man-on-man action.”

Steve sits back on his heels and looks over at Tony, the only one who hasn’t come yet. Well? he thinks.

“Well what?” Tony says. He rises to his knees, his cock twitching as Steve surveys him. “It’s my turn. Get that ass over here. I want it.”

Steve swallows and lurches toward Tony, his dick swinging heavily between his legs. He stops a bare centimeter away from touching Tony.

“Kiss!” Pepper says.

“Bossy,” Tony replies, and Pepper raises her eyebrows at him. “Yes, ma’am.”

Tony lifts a hand to curl around Steve’s jaw. “Hi,” he says, his eyes flicking down to Steve’s mouth. Steve grabs Tony’s hip and pulls him close so that their erections bump together, and then Tony’s kissing him and they’re thrusting against each other and the bond is sparking bright and hot between them.

They’re finally going to be able to complete this circuit. Steve whimpers a little as Tony nips at his ear. “Tony,” he says, and as Tony’s hands spread out over him—one splayed over his back, one sliding down to cup his ass—he thinks, Yes, more, more. Tony kisses his throat, wet tongue a soothing coda to the beard’s scratch, and Steve’s not the only one moaning.

“Pepper,” Tony says into Steve’s collarbone. “Lube.”

Steve’s cock jumps against Tony’s stomach, letting loose a small wash of precome. Yes, I want you— He can’t finish the thought, but the wave of lust that coincides with Tony’s sharp intake of breath tells him that Tony caught his meaning anyway.

“He wants me to fuck him,” Tony tells Pepper.

Lube in hand, she clambers over to them. “Oh, god, yes, please,” she says. She presses up against Steve’s back and kisses his shoulder. “Ever done this before, baby?”

Steve shivers at her breath on his skin. “No,” he says. He closes his eyes. “But I—I know what needs to happen.”

“Good,” she says, and then Tony’s pulling him forward until he falls on his hands and knees over Tony. They’re kissing again, dirty and messy. Tony splays his legs wider, spreading Steve’s thighs further apart and bringing their hips closer together.

Relax, Tony thinks as he sucks briefly on Steve’s tongue. Pepper will be gentle.

And then Pepper is touching him, running her hands along his spine, squeezing his ass, then reaching below to cup his balls in her hand. He lets out a groan as she fondles him.

“You’re tense,” she says. “Are you really okay with this?”

“Yes,” he says, pulling away from Tony’s kisses.

Tony adds, “Pep, he’s a quivering ball of lust, and he’s getting precome all over me. I think he’s into it.”

“Yes,” Steve repeats, and as Tony reaches down to grasp Steve’s cock, Pepper’s newly slick fingers press up against him. “Oh, God, Pepper,” he gasps.

One slim finger slips inside. Steve freezes for a moment, unsure about the invasion, but Pepper moves slowly. Tony strokes his cock at the same pace that Pepper is setting, apparently having achieved a telepathic bond with her without the aid of magic. The sensation goes from strange to welcome. “More,” he says over his shoulder.

He just catches the edge of her smile. She withdraws her finger, the lube bottle makes a really unsexy burping noise, and then she’s pressing back in with two. “Oh, God,” he says, louder than he intended, and Tony’s hand tightens on his cock.

Because Tony’s emotions have been so loud, his desire and love twanging like a harp with every touch, Steve doesn’t realize how unusually quiet Tony has been until he finally starts talking. “God, look at you. You’re so gorgeous, you’re so good, you feel so good. You should see his face, Pepper,” he says, as she adds a third finger. “Give him another few minutes and he’ll actually be worshiping you.”

Steve opens his mouth to retort, but Pepper’s fingers twist and curl inside him and hit something that sends a jolt straight through his dick and up his spine, like an electric shock. The accompanying moan he releases sounds more like a howl.

“If he can form words,” Tony says. “Steve, baby, look at me, this is good, right?”

Steve lowers his head to rest on Tony’s shoulder. “Stop asking questions you already know the answers to,” he says, grunting as Pepper stretches him a bit more.

“I do, but Pepper doesn’t.”

“Pepper,” Steve says, breathless. “It’s good. You’re great. I’m ready,” he adds, rolling his hips so that his cock skids along Tony’s.

“Finally,” Tony says. He nudges Pepper’s leg, and the two of them trade places. While Pepper wriggles into the space beneath him, Steve watches over his shoulder as Tony squirts more lube on his fingers and then works three into him. The stretch doesn’t really hurt anymore; it just feels strange and exciting.

Pepper draws his face down and kisses him. “Relax,” she says, sliding a thumb over the head of his cock. He twitches in her hand and bends his head to drop light kisses along her throat and nuzzle the hollow of her jaw.

Then Steve hears a crinkling sound, and when he looks back, Tony’s rolling a condom on.

“Tidier this way,” he replies to the question Steve hadn’t realized he’d even thought. “Also, I’m not sure yet what Extremis has done to my semen, but I do know that condoms still hold it. Better safe than sorry, just in case it tries to attack the superserum and eats a hole in your ass or something.”

“You sweet-talker,” Steve says dryly. Pepper and Tony laugh, and then Tony’s pushing into him and the feeling drags a bumpy gasp out of his throat. Even with the barrier of the condom, the bond intensifies beyond anything he’d felt before.

Steve, Tony thinks, and it’s as if all the walls between them have crashed to the ground. Their emotions intertwine, amplifying each other’s desire, each other’s pleasure. Steve is vaguely aware that he’s chanting Tony’s name over and over.

He’s moving slowly, not wanting to hurt Steve, but Steve just wants more of Tony, harder, deeper, closer. Pepper, underneath him, strokes his trembling arms and tucks her legs up under his chest. “Rest on me,” she says. “You’ve been holding yourself up for a long time, even for a supersoldier.”

He does, giving himself over that much more to pleasure, to the connection between him and Tony. The shift means that each thrust rubs the head of his cock along Pepper’s slick wetness, instead of her belly, and now her voice has joined the chorus. Suddenly Steve’s the linchpin; he moves forward to meet Pepper’s rising hips, nudging her clit with his dick, and then back to take Tony deeper inside him.

The three of them find a rhythm together, accelerating as Steve—physically and emotionally overstimulated—builds toward orgasm. Tony’s so overwhelmed he’s gone completely silent, focused on finding that place inside Steve that makes him scream. Steve can’t believe how full he feels with Tony inside him, how intense the sensations are. Neither can he believe how strong Pepper is, how easily her legs hold him up, especially since he can tell the tantalizing brush of his cock must be maddening. He presses harder against her, and she says, “Yes, Steve, just like that.”

His arms are rested now, so he takes his own weight again. Pepper lets her legs fall to the sides, which opens her up so that Steve rubs more firmly against her. Steve’s starting to move frantically, drawing closer to coming, pulling Tony with him through the bond. Then Tony makes an adjustment and each thrust hits at the exact right angle—one, two, three, four in a row, and Steve is coming with a groan, all over Pepper, clenching around Tony, whose own orgasm is triggered by Steve’s, and with a few more frantic twitches of her hips, rubbing her clit against Steve’s wet cock, Pepper comes too.

Tony guides Steve to the side as they collapse. Steve doesn’t want Tony to withdraw, wants to stay joined like this, but the sensible part of him understands that Tony pulls out (a sensation he dimly thinks should feel more unpleasant than it does) because it’s the smart thing to do. The bliss of afterglow makes them nearly comatose when amplified through the bond.

“I love you,” Steve says, or thinks he does, as their heart rates return to normal. Pepper strokes his hair back and repeats it, so maybe she heard. Tony, too sated to do anything else, just lets him feel how much he loves them both.

Nowhere to hide, Tony thinks just before they drift off, and Steve’s glad for it.

A few days after New Year’s, Fury calls.

“Dr. Foster has reestablished contact with Asgard,” he tells Steve. “Loki is still in captivity. He has been interrogated, and he did indeed cast a spell on you that night on the quinjet. He meant to drive you and Stark apart. According to Thor, he can be persuaded to lift the spell. Let us know when you’re ready to have it done.”

Steve restrains himself from making a sharp comment about Dr. Foster’s glacial working pace. It’s been almost five months now, but building a bridge to another world is not easy work, even for a scientist as smart as she is. All he says is, “Yes, sir.”

When he gets back to the Tower later that night—where he, Tony, and Pepper have been staying ever since Christmas—neither Tony nor Pepper is in the penthouse.

Tony? he sends.

In the lab, Tony thinks. Pepper has a dinner meeting.

Come upstairs, Steve thinks. We need to talk.

Tony’s side of the bond shuts down so quickly that Steve actually worries that Tony’s been knocked unconscious.

Tony? he sends, alarmed. Tony!

On my way, Tony replies. It feels terse.

A minute later, Tony walks into the room. He’s holding himself a little stiffly, although most people wouldn’t notice. Steve feels like he’s watching a wary deer pretending to be a tiger.

“Dr. Foster has found a way to get through to Asgard,” Steve says. He watches Tony carefully and monitors every flicker of emotion that passes over the bond.

“Oh?” Tony says. His voice is as neutral as the emotions he’s letting through.

Steve tells him what Fury said about the possibility of lifting the bond. Tony doesn’t look at him, instead going over to the bar and pouring himself a couple fingers of bourbon.

“Good,” Tony says to the bourbon. “I’ll have my mind to myself again.”

“Is that what you want?” Steve asks.

“Why wouldn’t I?”

Steve moves over to stand behind Tony, then pulls off his glove and rests his hand on the back of Tony’s neck. “Tony,” he says. He opens the bond to pour memories of the lonely weeks before and after his stay in Malibu into Tony’s mind, empty days and evenings with nothing but punching bags and SHIELD to get him through. He lets Tony feel his reluctance. “Is this really what you want?”

A shiver runs through Tony’s body. He knocks back his drink. “What happens if the Avengers get called in for something and one of us gets really badly hurt? Will you still be able to fight if I’m bleeding out? Will I still be able to if you’re crushed under a building? What do we do when one of us dies? Wouldn’t it be better to break this thing now before we get so used to having company inside our heads that we can’t function without it?”

Steve wraps his other arm around Tony’s waist and tugs him close. “You think those things won’t hurt without the bond?”

“Of course not,” he says. “I know they will. But—”

“Take it from the expert on loss,” Steve says, a little dryly. “This is worth the pain.”

Tony’s breath catches, and then he wriggles around in Steve’s arms and kisses him.

Tony never does answer in words. But the next day, after they talk about it with Pepper, Steve goes to Fury’s office.

“So when will you and Stark be going to Asgard?” Fury asks.

“Sir, we won’t, sir,” Steve says, standing at parade rest and looking straight over Fury’s shoulder. “I don’t think it’s wise to put ourselves in Loki’s debt. We don’t know how he’d call that favor in. There are also obvious tactical advantages to having a telepathic link between teammates and especially between ground and sky. Finally, sir, we don’t believe that what happens inside our heads is any of SHIELD’s business unless it starts producing observable negative impacts.”

Fury leans back in his chair, giving Steve the most amused unamused face imaginable. “Is that your considered tactical opinion, Commander?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Steve says, military blank.

“‘Sir, yes, sir,’” Fury repeats. “You’d better know what you’re doing, son. Now get out of my office.”

Tony’s surgery is a success. Steve can’t help but worry—what if Tony’s calculations were wrong; what if he doesn’t heal like he’s supposed to; what if he’s always going to have a weak spot over his heart? Rhodey and Pepper, much more used to worrying about Tony than Steve is, keep him calm in the waiting room by being so normal. But Tony was right, and only two weeks after the surgery his x-rays show a complete, healthy, and normal sternum and ribcage.

Meanwhile, the Stark Industries divers have found Dummy and You. As soon as Steve and Pepper can be persuaded that he’s healthy enough to travel, Tony flies the three of them out to Malibu.

Instead of going out to the property, Pepper decides to go straight to the Malibu campus of Stark Industries; she’s been gone for weeks and needs to catch up. “Besides,” she tells them, sliding her fingers into Tony’s hair, “I don’t want to go back there while it’s still ruined. I’ve already seen it like that. It was awful.”

Tony kisses her and kisses her until her red lipstick is all over his mouth. “Fair enough,” he says when they finally break for air. He leans his forehead against hers and moves the clasp of her necklace to the back of her neck. “Tell R&D I say hi.”

Pepper pulls away, her eyebrows rising. “You’ll tell them yourself tomorrow, you know there’s a board meeting, it’s on your schedule—”

“Schedules are more like suggestions, though—”

“Oh, no, absolutely not—”

Steve’s laughing. “I’ll make sure he follows that schedule, Pepper.”

She turns to him with a dazzling smile. “And that’s why you’re my favorite,” she says, kissing him.

“Conspiracy! JARVIS! They’re conspiring, you’re supposed to have my back here—”

“There is a demonstrable increase in your happiness, wellbeing, and physical health whenever Ms. Potts and Captain Rogers are with you, sir,” JARVIS says from Tony’s tablet.

“Well, yeah,” Tony grumbles.

Pepper kisses his cheek, then Steve’s, grabs her bag, and sashays out the door with a little wave, leaving Tony and Steve staring after her.

Me, too, buddy, Tony thinks in response to Steve’s awe. Me, too.

So Steve steels himself and goes with Tony to the site of the Malibu house. He hangs back to let Tony make peace with the ruins himself—the last time Tony was here, he’d nearly drowned.

It’s not just for Tony, though. Steve has had more than enough of seeing familiar places changed by time and acts of war.

They get the bots’ remnants loaded onto the trailer attached to Tony’s sleek sports car. Tony dismisses the work crew. Steve leans against the car, staring out over the weed-strewn ruins of the house where he first felt like he might belong.

Once the work crew is gone, Tony pulls something that looks suspiciously like the arc reactor out of the paper bag he’s brought along.

“Are you going to throw that into the sea?” Steve yells over to him.

It’s a symbol! Tony sends.

It’s a tactical mistake! Steve replies. Do you really want divers to be able to find it?

Oh, please, Tony thinks. First of all, it took weeks to find Dummy and You, and they’re considerably larger than the reactor. Also, this is just the casing. He holds it up so Steve can see. No light, see? Nothing inside. Nobody can reverse-engineer anything from this.

Oh, Steve sends, mollified. Okay.

Genius, remember? Tony responds cheerfully, and he draws his arm back and chucks the reactor casing as far as he can. He saunters back over to Steve and kisses him thoroughly.

A picture flashes into Steve’s mind, flavored like a question: Steve, Tony, and Pepper making love in the hotel. Steve laughs into Tony’s mouth.

“Yeah?” Tony says.

“Anytime,” Steve replies, still laughing as he kisses Tony’s smiling mouth. “Always.”

They don’t even have to think “I love you” anymore. Their thoughts are always tinged with it.