Then awareness stirred in impressions of light, sound and motion. A dream? Did the dead dream? He couldn't move, couldn't speak, but he heard, "Oh, my god, this guy's still alive!" Oh.
He was well known and given his connections to the place, unscheduled arrivals were more the norm than the rule, so it only took him a few minutes to make his way through, but it still had him seething internally at the delay, still made him wish he'd decided to hell with this and worn the armor.
The moment he stepped into the elevator he whipped out his Starkphone and used an app he'd designed for just such an occasion to override all security protocols to gain access to a floor he was technically not even supposed to know about. He snorted at the thought. All familial connections to this fortress of paranoia aside, only a total idiot would think he couldn't make his own tech do what he wanted when he wanted. Fury was just lucky he hadn't decided to crash the whole damned thing or at least make the speakers blare the director's least favorite song over and over. The only reason he hadn't was that he felt himself as much to blame for this fiasco as anyone else.
For almost 70 years Stark Industries had searched for the package finally found two days ago, only to lose it because Tony had missed that a couple of Nick Fury's minions had joined the latest team. Missed being a euphemism for 'hadn't bothered to find out otherwise' since Tony had lost hope of success long ago so why worry about who was or wasn't willing to do a turn on 'ice' duty? Worse, he'd been in Japan and out of touch until an hour ago, so there had been ample time for SHIELD to get its sticky fingers into things.
When the elevator doors opened, he strode down the hall, projecting the sort of 'I'm supposed to be here' vibe that made a person seem almost invisible, even if the person was a Stark. It wasn't that Tony disliked SHIELD. He had far too many connections to it for that and, as far as secret organizations went, they really were the good guys, but it had gotten too big and too guarded about the 'secret' part in years of late for his tastes. Being naturally curious, not to mention paranoid as shit the last bit really chaffed. No more so than when Nick was trying to steal his stuff.
He rounded the corner and entered the medical wing. Another turn took him to the observation area for the security room. It was empty but for a man and a woman clinging to each other as they watched the doctors beyond the huge window. For a moment bile churned in his stomach as he thought he'd walked in on the autopsy, but then it sunk in what he was seeing – doctors, yes, but doctors working on a patient, not a corpse. Alive? It had always been a possibility, but Tony had thought it an even remoter one than finding the man. Or maybe he could finally admit all those doubts had been his way of protecting himself against disappointment. In any case, for the moment he had other concerns. "Mum? Pops?" he said softly as he moved toward the couple.
They turned and for a moment he saw the censure in their eyes, both too much a part of this place not to know he shouldn't be here, but it was fleeting, because, as he'd known when he'd raced here, they needed him. "Tony," Peggy Carter-Barnes whispered, her face damp with tears, and reached for him, her wedding ring glinting in even the dim light.
It matched the ring worn on the hand settling on his shoulder as he held her and he shifted so James 'Bucky' Barnes could hold them both. Tony had seen those rings almost daily for 31 years, but right now they didn't symbolize the love between his mother and step-father as much as they did the reason pain laced their joy.
"He's alive," she said voicing the joy into his shoulder. "No sign of cellular damage."
Bucky's arms tightened but Tony didn't miss the tremor in them. "He'll still be Steve when he opens his eyes," he whispered and Tony heard the awe as well as the pain. "We have him back. God, Tony, we have him back."
But would the life they'd made together destroy them all?
Now there was a question. He'd promised his parents he'd fix this, but he remained uncertain how. Hence the storming of Fury's gates – he always thought far more clearly when aggravating spies. "My mother is crying," he said, not mentioning Bucky was, too, because man-code. "I don't like it."
His mother's protégé glanced away for a moment. "Can't say I'm too thrilled about it either," he admitted, and he damned well should. He only held his current position because Peggy had allowed it until he was too old to keep running the place and she took command again. "But it can't be helped."
"No, but it can be made less awful, and I want to know your plan."
Fury sighed and probably thought he was being subtle about the button he pushed, but Tony didn't miss much. It was one of his advantages. Because he was the king of multi-taskers everyone assumed he didn't focus properly on anything when in fact he did on everything. Genius – people called him that, but at times not even Nick Fury seemed to really grasp what it meant. In any case it didn't surprise him when his handler walked in.
"Stark," Agent Phil Coulson said in his usual oh, so neutral voice.
"Agent." Tony maintained that was the guy's first name -- the last gasp of passive-aggressive resistance to his replacing Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes as Tony's government watchdog. It wasn't because he had anything against Coulson – hell, he liked the guy and the man was engaged to the CEO of Tony's company – but Rhodey was one of Tony's few friends and that made him irreplaceable as far as Tony was concerned even if he did understand Rhodey didn't have the time for the job since he'd become War Machine as well as the whole 'Air Force lieutenant colonel' thing. "I hope you aren't here to show me out." Because that would get ugly fast and Pepper would be royally pissed off if either Tony or Coulson ended up with a black eye.
Nick snorted probably imagining all the ways his precious technology would rush to join Tony's side if he pushed that hard. "I can dream, but Coulson is point man on Rogers."
That made sense given the man was the biggest Cap fan boy this side of … well, Tony. "Fine, what have you got?"
Coulson briefed him on what Peggy had already told him, then added, "The doctors think we should break it all to him gradually."
That made sense. 'Welcome to the future, you've been asleep almost 70 years, your best friend is alive and married to your girl, oh, and, by the way, neither of them has aged more than a few weeks since you disappeared' did seem on the harsh side. "And the plan is?"
Fury gestured at his desk, and almost certain he wasn't going to like this, Tony walked over and looked down at a rough sketch of a 1940s hospital room with the notation of 'baseball game playing' written over a vintage radio. Yeah, it looked like something the shrinks had dreamed up, and yes, he was bitter because they kept trying to say he was hiding PTSD when creating his armor and blasting the bad guys pretty much had made him the poster boy for Post Traumatic Growth. Of course, no one beyond Peggy, Bucky, Pepper and Rhodey knew Tony was Iron Man, but he wasn't in the mood to be reasonable. "And okay, you're all fired."
"Excuse me?" Nick said, but bless Coulson's efficient little heart, he looked relieved, so strike a blow for the private sector.
"I can think of a dozen ways that can go south, so you fail, and he's coming home with me."
"And what makes you think I'm going to let you do that?" A reasonable question since SHIELD had pretty much hijacked Cap to begin with.
Tony's eyes narrowed. He could and was prepared to make HQ go dark, but he was saving that for an emergency. "Early Christmas," he answered, pulling out his phone.
Nick had the good sense to look nervous for a split-second before he recovered his badass vibe, then the LED display on his desk responded to Tony's tapping – and yes, that also might have been a not too subtle reminder that Tony could control everything – and a set of plans took form.
"Is that -?"
"Your totally awesome helicarrier? Yep." He tapped another sequence and the display went back to the boring standard SHEILD desktop display. Sometimes Tony despaired. "I can have it in production by the end of the day or the end of 2032. Your choice."
Nick did an excellent impression of a man who wasn't watering at the mouth, but Tony knew how to read him – survival necessity – and he wanted that helicarrier. Finally he said, "I might be interested, but you're going to have to sweeten the pot."
Oh, this should be good. "Keeping in mind my zero tolerance policy on offensive weapons, what else did you want in your stocking?"
"The Avengers Initiative."
Fury did his own tapping and images of Captain America, the Hulk, Thor and Iron Man filled the screen along with a lot of text Tony took in with a brief glance. "You want to start a superhero boy band?"
"They may be needed," he answered with that annoying cryptic yet scary way he had. Tony really hated that it gave him chills.
"And you want me to make sure I deliver Cap?"
"And Iron Man."
He opened his mouth to deny, deny, deny, but fuck, he'd always suspected Nick and Coulson hadn't bought into the idea that whoever was in the armor had stolen the tech from Stark Industries. "You think I can influence him?" he asked, his brain sliding into damage control mode.
Coulson snorted and Tony stared. He didn't think the man did that sort of thing, and the agent did look a little nonplussed himself at the sound.
Nick merely seemed amused. For the record, never a good sign. "If you want to go with that we can. Setting aside the whole 'you'd never let anyone else get their hands on that tech' thing."
Fuck, so they knew it was him. "Fine, but, for the record, it's a gold-titanium alloy not iron."
"I'll make a note."
"Make all the notes you like, just get Rogers released to my care five minutes ago."
Nick nodded and Coulson said, "I'll see to it," then left.
Tony moved to follow, but paused in the doorway. "You've got my word I won't do anything to influence him against SHIELD, but I'm giving him a roof over his head and an allowance. If he wants to retire and take up a career in basket weaving, you're going to let him."
Nick stared at him for a moment hopefully reading 'or else I'll black out the entire eastern seaboard' in Tony's eyes. Whether he did or not, Nick nodded.
"Given the repair rate of his cellular tissue, projections are he will be unconscious for another week," she said after looking over the data.
Tony nodded. "So Operation Talk His Ear Off is a go?" Using the theory that patients in a coma – a state most like what Steve was currently in – could often remember conversations held around them, Tony, Peggy and Bucky would take turns talking to Steve in the hopes it would lessen the mental blows to come once he was awake.
"It's better than a 40s hospital room."
"Not a fan of the original plan?" He'd known he liked this lady.
She rolled her eyes. "It was condescending at best."
He hummed his approval. "For the record, if I weren't gay, I'd be proposing right now."
She laughed. "On that note, I'm going to check on your parents. It's been a rough day for them."
"Thanks, I'm going to talk to him for an hour or two, then let us both get some sleep."
"Make certain you do. In fact, JARVIS?"
"Yes, Dr. Ross?" his AI answered immediately.
"Two hours, no more, then he goes to bed or you call me. Doctor's orders."
"Of course, Doctor."
Tony scowled. "That's abuse of power and treason in one ugly bundle. I am deeply hurt."
The unnaturally tall harpy patted him on his head. "I can live with it," she announced waltzing out of the room.
He shifted his eyes upward. "Keep it up and I'll donate you to Fox News."
"Anything, but that, Sir," JARVIS answered doing a really lousy job of sounding as petrified as the threat warranted. "And may I add you now have one hour and 59 minutes."
Muttering all the way, he walked over to the bed and dropped into the comfy chair beside it. For a moment he studied Steve Roger's face, then said, "In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you when I was three years old I informed my mother I was going to marry you. Nothing between then and now has really changed my mind."
He found the voice reassuring, but the words alarmed him. He couldn't understand them all, losing chunks at a time to the gray haze that was his current reality, but he knew they had something to do with what had happened while he'd been … dead.
Part of him desperately wanted to scream 'stop!' but he needed to know. In any case, he could do nothing but listen as the voice began to read, "While there is no “official” casualty count for the Second World War, it was clearly the greatest and deadliest war in history, costing more than 50 million lives."
The voice paused, "I should add that those you knew to be alive prior to your crash all survived the war and are not among those numbers."
Thank God. Relief made the haze return and he missed another chunk, then a voice he'd never forget said, "Steve."
Peggy. His heart ached and he wanted to reach for her, wanted to ask if she'd been happy, if she'd ever found her 'right partner.' Her hand took his. Not the first touch since his resurrection. Steve figured he'd been poked and prodded by dozens of people and gadgets, then there had been the strong, firm hand holding his last he could remember and something about marrying him. He'd liked that touch, but this one? This was Peggy. His Peggy and Steve began to hope he'd feel warm again one day.
"It's been almost 70 years since we talked," she said, confirming what other voices had said, but her voice sounded so young and strong it couldn't be true. Could it? "I missed you. Always imagined what I'd say if this day ever came, but now I hardly know where to start."
She sighed. "I've always hated those dreadful movies where everything that should have been said in the beginning is kept secret until the end, but there is so much to explain. I guess I should say this much. I missed you, mourned you, but eventually I had to move on and I've had a good life that gifted me with a wondrous son, Steve. He has my eyes, but the rest? That's all Howard. For better or ill." She sighed again. "Beyond that I guess I should go back to the beginning."
To say she hated it would be the understatement of the ages. The school shared her parents' goal of preparing her to be a proper young lady able to attract a good man. She almost ran off a number of times, but then Sargent Major Shaw joined the faculty. He taught maths, but he seemed to recognize kindred souls in Peggy and a few others, so he also schooled them in more practical matters such as self-defense and battle strategies.
When another war loomed, she was as prepared as any man to serve crown and country, but everywhere she turned doors closed. She lamented this in a letter to Shaw, who promptly arranged an introduction between herself and an old friend of his – an American colonel by the name of Chester Phillips.
The Colonel was the head of the newly formed Strategic Scientific Reserve, and Agent Peggy Carter quickly became what he called his right-hand man. In the course of her war career, Peggy did meet a good man, although most fools looked at his small, sickly stature and dismissed him. In truth she might have been a little guilty of that in the beginning, but Private Steve Rogers quickly won her over. She thought she might have fallen a little bit in love with him when he pulled the pin out of a flag pole to retrieve a coveted prize most had tried to win through brute strength. Impressive.
It did not surprise her when Dr. Erskine chose Steve for Project Rebirth, and she couldn't decide if she were happy for Steve or afraid. The concept of a super-soldier had undeniable appeal to a world being torn apart by war, and it could transform Steve into everything he dreamed of, but it was not without risks.
Worried about those she went to the lab the night before the procedure to discuss her concerns with the doctor one last time. His assistant told her she'd missed him by minutes that he had gone to spend a few hours with the subject. "His name is Steve," she snapped startling the young man and he dropped a vial of the serum. It shattered at Peggy's feet the sharp glass of the tube cutting into her ankle. She cursed, but knowing most of the responsibility for the accident rested with her she helped clean up the mess. An act of kindness that earned her yet another cut. Naturally the assistant remained unscathed.
Peggy hoped that meant luck was running in a masculine direction and would continue in such a manner until Steve was safely on the other side of this experiment. Depending on one's point of view it did. Steve's awkward charm on the drive to the lab convinced her that no matter what she was going to insist upon him taking her dancing. She clung to that thought as Erskine injected him with the formula then settled him into a chamber created by Howard Stark.
She knew for certain she'd fallen for Steve when she heard him scream in pain, but he wouldn't let them shut down. And in the end his courage won the prize as surely as his intelligence had captured the flag for a tall Adonis stepped out of that chamber. She forgot herself for a moment and almost touched his bare torso. She dismissed the tingle of energy seeping into her hand as amazement and attraction.
A moment later a gun sounded, killing Erskine and ending all hopes that Steve would be the first in a long line of super-soldiers. The Colonel did not take the setback well and made one of the few major mistakes Peggy ever witnessed – he sent Steve away and into the hands of a US Senator who turned him into a publicity stunt, Captain America.
Fortunately fate was kind enough to bring Steve back into her life and a caricature of a soldier became a remarkable leader in the battlefield. For a wartime romance, they spent quite a lot of time together, yet things moved very slowly. She knew he was inexperienced, but at times it was frustrating when the rest of the world moved so quickly. Still she was able to be there for him when Sergeant Barnes died – falling to his death from a moving train during the mission that allowed them to capture Dr. Zola.
It led to the raid on Hydra's main stronghold. She shared one brief, perfect kiss with Steve before he leapt into Colonel Schmidt's bomber. No one ever saw either again, but she spoke to Steve one last time, her voice his only company as he sacrificed himself to save New York and crashed the plane.
The Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division formed from many a late night conversation between herself, Phillips and Howard as they outlined an agency that would work to make certain World War II would be the last global conflict. A lofty dream that often fell short of the mark especially during times when it was difficult to see the line between the United Nations and the United States, but they soldiered on.
The remnants of Steve's Howling Commandos made up most of the first agents recruited, and she had the pleasure of calling them friends, of watching them marry and have children even as she considered herself married to her job. Phillips became the Director and again she served as his second-in-command. Time went on marked by one mission or the next and the personal events of others, then one day during a post-mission debrief Jim Morita announced his oldest was getting married. It had seemed like only the day before when he'd handed out the cigars to celebrate her birth. But twenty years had slipped by.
She shook her head and looked in the mirror searching for some sign of two decades of life lived, and saw … nothing. Of course superficial things like her hairstyle and makeup had changed with the times, but otherwise a twenty-eight-year-old woman stared back from her looking glass. Nor could she remember a single illness or an injury that hadn't healed with amazing speed. She'd attributed both to good genes and luck – despite a war and field work for SHIELD, she'd never suffered a major wound – but now it seemed time to admit the cuts from formula-laced glass and the residual energy from Howard's chamber had changed her as well as Steve. Caught up in her life she'd missed the signs. After all she hadn't grown dramatically taller or gained the 'super' abilities, but she stood looking at the evidence she'd contracted the … side effects.
A blood test proved she had a few of the markers in Steve's altered blood, but like his nothing could isolate or replicate them. Tests indicated she was aging at the rate of a week for every ten years. For the first time in decades she sat down and got blind drunk – which took amazing amounts of alcohol to achieve -- sick at heart with the knowledge that she was going to watch everyone she loved grow old and die. Their children as well, and perhaps, even their children's children.
She was still hung-over when Phillips announced his retirement and her promotion. The little girl who her parents had hoped would grow up to marry a nice boy was now Director of SHIELD.
"Will Obadiah be joining us?" she asked. Stane had joined Stark Industries twenty years ago and had quickly risen to CFO as well as becoming Howard's closet friend. She would never pry – professionally or personally – but she hoped he was more to Howard and that the excess with countless women was a way of hiding versus a denial, but she feared either answer meant misery for her friend.
"No, he's still mopping up the PR mess on Vanko's deportation."
She frowned. She hadn't liked Dr. Vanko much, but she suspected he hadn't warranted his forced return to the Soviet Union and certain exile to Siberia. Unfortunately, it was all over and done with while she'd been occupied with a crisis in Thailand. Sometimes Peggy wasn't certain she liked Howard all that much either, but she loved him in a way, too.
He had been there most of her life and with Phillips dead and all the Howling Commandos retired, he was all that remained of a time when things seemed brighter, simpler. It had put an insane idea in her mind, and she'd dismissed it at least a thousand times in the year since the General's funeral, but now she found herself saying, "Howard, I have a proposition for you."
"A new weapon?"
She shook her head. "A baby."
He sat his drink down. Picked it back up and drained it in a single swallow. "I'm listening."
"I can still have one." They didn't talk about her lack of aging any more than they discussed the growing signs of it in him. "And you should have one. Am I wrong in thinking there isn't anyone for you either?"
He hesitated and again her thoughts went to Obadiah. "No, no one like that, but you do understand I would insist on marriage."
She nodded. "We've always been friends and I would not require your fidelity, only your discretion. Nor when we inevitably divorce would I seek any settlement from you beyond our child being your heir."
"I need to think about it."
He called her three nights later and agreed. She created the identity of Maria Stark and began the duo life of leading SHIELD while married to one of the richest men in the world. Often Maria seemed trivial to Peggy, but it was also a relief to be herself, to not have to hide her youth beneath uncomfortable make-up or remain hidden. And then there was the baby.
He was conceived the old-fashioned way and she found Howard an excellent lover who left her with no desire to refuse him when he sought her bed, but he seldom did. A pregnant wife had apparently satisfied his need to tell the world he was a heterosexual, and he seemed content in a way he hadn't in years. He never told her he spent the nights with Stane when not at home, but the other man also seemed happier than he had in the past.
Both men were with her when she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. Anthony Edward Stark. The love of her life.
Tony was a wonder. Loving, curious and … a genius who often astounded even a father who bore the same label. It should have been the stuff of a modern fairy tale, but at four Tony presented them with a circuit board he'd put together. Howard called it rubbish and made the boy cry. Peggy snatched up her son and his creation, carrying them both away from the sound of Howard pouring himself a third drink.
She told Tony his father wasn't feeling well, but she thought he was brilliant and asked if she could keep the board as a special treasure. She had it mounted and displayed it in a place of honor on her desk at SHIELD. It was the first of many amazing accomplishments, each one making her prouder than the last. But Howard always reacted with indifference or, worse, with something bordering on anger.
Peggy understood what was going on. Howard felt old and despite numerous accomplishments his inability to find Steve made him see himself as a failure. The sense that his own son was surpassing him seemed to be the final straw and she watched helplessly while the eccentric, dashing charmer of her 'youth' drank himself into bitterness and barely-functional alcoholism.
She thought of all those war romance movies where two men had loved the same woman and knew she'd lived a version of it, except one man had been loved by a woman and another man. The worst thing? If Steve had lived, Peggy honestly couldn't say what would have happened. In retrospect it was clear Steve had been in love with Barnes, who loved him as a brother, not a lover. But it was equally certain Steve hadn't known himself. He hadn't the sort of guile in him that would allow him to use her to hide what their era had deemed unnatural feelings.
Had he lived would it have turned out he had been a man who could love a member of either sex or would her perfect war romance have shattered into angry betrayal? Could Steve have looked to Howard for a lover instead of her? In some other world had Howard been on the other end of the microphone so his almost-lover did not have to die alone? It made her heart ache to think of it, but mostly for them.
She'd moved on, become a different person and though a part of her would always love Steve, if Howard did find him, she knew what she and Steve might have had together was irrevocably lost. In truth she found herself hoping Howard would find him so that they could share the last years of his life – the only happy ending their cursed longevity would ever allow Steve or her.
Still as badly as she felt for Howard, he was hurting their son, and though she'd hated much of her own experience with it, when Tony turned seven, she suggested boarding school. It broke her heart how quickly Howard leapt at the idea.
She moved out the day after Tony was settled at Phillips Academy and took a flat near it. She knew she walked a thin line between a loving and a smothering parent, but even growing up with boarding school being a cultural norm, she remembered how abandoned she'd felt when her parents had sent her away. So if Tony had an event at school she attended it and most weekends she brought him home to stay with her. Howard had insisted she have a flat befitting a Stark so both were quite comfortable. It was her divorce present and Maria Stark vanished from high society although she made certain the work of her charitable foundation continued. Yes, it was a fairly stereotypical pursuit for a rich man's wife, but it had done good works and all involved agreed the end of a marriage should not be the end of that.
Away from Howard and his drinking, she managed to recover a measure of their friendship and enjoyed Tony's school breaks when they all stayed in the mansion together. It wasn't that SHIELD didn't demand any of her time during those years. It did. Frequently. That was why she was adamant about spending every second she could with her son as well as delegating everything she could as both Director Carter and Mrs. Stark. It gave her more family time, but it was more than that. She'd learned from Phillips in more ways than one. Had the World Security Council balked any harder at a woman succeeding him, there really hadn't been anyone else to take over. Obviously that had been the General's plan all along – 'Get your heads out of your asses and appoint Carter or the whole thing goes down the toilet' had been what he'd shouted at them. A valid strategy but a dangerous one. Had something happened to her there had been no contingency plan in place. During Peggy's directorship, while no one stood out, several could assume her position at any given time. But then Nick Fury joined SHIELD and she soon had a second-in-command she could rely on with total confidence.
It gave her freedom to purse special projects, including one that had captured her attention around Tony's first birthday when another enemy of the Soviet Union had been assassinated. Much as she abhorred the act, she couldn't help almost admiring the way it had been pulled off. It had required a level of strength and speed almost on the par with Steve, but, of course, that was impossible. Given she was part of the Stark household she assumed technology had made up the difference and spent many hours discussing the possibilities with Howard. The assassination also matched the same modus operandi going back to an action during the Korean War.
Between the pattern and Howard's help, SHIELD was finally ready to set a trap for an operative intelligence indicated was known as the Winter Soldier and waited. Years passed before it was sprung, unfortunately with fatal results for their prey. Or at least they should have been. Despite the damage Winter Soldier took, he managed to survive to reach the SHIELD infirmary.
The only part of his body not mangled beyond any recognition was the ruin of a cybernetic arm -- bionic if one watched the telly – proving Howard and her theories about technology. Except, the assassin refused to die, and instead began healing at an amazing rate. Within three days his shredded face began to look human again. On the fourth, it was both handsome and familiar.
Steve heard rustling, then lips pressed against his forehead. "I'll be back soon."
A door opened, soft indistinct murmurs, a faint kiss, then the door closed again. "Hey, Capsicle," … Tony, it must be Tony, said. "Miss me?"
Capsicle? No, not so much.
"Guess Mum left you with a bit of a cliffhanger, but Dr. Ross, I call her Betty, but don't worry, she's my doctor, so I'm not cheating on you with her. Anyway, Betty said that was enough talking for one day, so I'm going to sit here and work while JARVIS gets you up to speed on music. Personally, I don't care for the modern stuff, but you'll probably end up liking some techno crap that gives technology a bad name. Just not my technology, because my stuff is never crap."
Did this guy ever take a breath?
"But I'll still love you if you can't learn to appreciate classic metal. Anyway, I asked JARVIS to make a 'greatest hits from the 40s to now' playlist so I can work while you absorb. Oh, did I mention that's JARVIS with allcaps? He's an AI not a real person. Stands for artificial intelligence. I made him when I first took over Stark Industries. Anyway, I don't want you defrosting then going around looking for the guy with the sexy British accent because I'll have to make you sleep on the couch. And on that note, hit it, JARVIS, Daddy's got some work to do."
"My pleasure, Sir."
Frank Sinatra started up, and the music slowly lulled Steve back into dreams.
"Not when my brat of a son is busy seducing my best friend," he said, slinging his arm around Tony's shoulders and reeling him in for the usual hug and kiss on the forehead. Somewhere Tony was fairly certain there was a note in some shrink's file on him suggesting PDAs and lots of attention were the best way to control Tony Stark, but he liked it too well to protest.
"Hmm, think I have a chance?"
Bucky released the hug, but kept his arm around Tony's shoulders steering him into the kitchen which meant hot chocolate and unsolicited advice, but Tony loved his step-father. More importantly he trusted him, so he'd listen. Then he'd do what he wanted. But he always listened first.
Without being told he settled into his favorite stool in front of the kitchen island and watched Bucky get out the pan, milk, chocolate and sugar. He always did it the hard way, but Mr. Modern though he might be, Tony would never deny nothing beat his pops' hot chocolate.
As he began assembling the ingredients in the pan, Bucky said, "I know you're a natural born flirt, Tony, but I think you might be serious about Steve."
Oh. They were having the 'what are your intentions' talk. "And if I am?"
"He's a good man and everything I'd want for my son's husband."
"You know him from stories, kid, not the real deal. If that disappoints you, one of you is getting hurt." He sat two mugs of chocolaty goodness on the island and took a seat across from Tony. "Besides, no matter what your mom and I think, Steve might not be gay."
Tony sipped at his drink and sighed happily. He really should have outgrown midnight cocoa with Pops, but he had no desire to do so. "Hence the outrageousness," he said after he'd indulged for a few more sips.
"I don't follow."
"If he even remembers any of this and isn't interested, I can pass it off as my flirty nature and he can go find himself a nice girl."
Bucky frowned obviously not thrilled and damn, Tony loved his pops because he could look like that and Tony knew it was because he really was worried Tony would get hurt. "Son-"
He caught hold of Bucky's hand. The newer one. "Pops, I've been in love with him since before I knew what the word meant. I was always going to get hurt, but I think I've more than proved I can survive anything."
The muscle of Bucky's jaw twitched and his voice sounded raw when he said, "That doesn't mean you should have to!"
He could see the man adding up all the times he'd failed to save Tony faster than Tony could add up his own short-comings, and no, that wouldn't do. "It's okay. I have my shiny romance with the sleeping prince. Let's all worry about reality when it comes."
He sighed. "Just don't make me break my best friend's nose."
Oh, God, he knew that voice. Bucky.
"You hear me, Steve? You're not dead. As it turned out, neither am I." His hand rested on Steve's arm like it did whenever his best friend had sat at his bedside while Steve had suffered through yet another health crisis. More than anything else that touch grounded him, kept his thoughts from flying into madness.
Bucky sighed. "The worst thing about when I sorta died was knowing you'd blame yourself. I fell the whole way looking up, praying you wouldn't lose it and jump after me. Then there was pain and a whole lot of nothing. It didn't stay that way."
Again he swam through a muck of there and not there, but the pain and harsh words didn't return. Instead he heard a woman's voice. For a long time he couldn't make out the words, but slowly he began to recognize one of them, "Tony."
He listened for it more often and began to understand this Tony was a little boy, the woman's son. Woman. Pretty. British accent. Familiar. "Agent Carter?"
Peggy Carter smiled from where she sat outside of his cell. "Hello, Sergeant. It's been a long time."
He remained in therapy for long after he was granted freedom of non-restricted areas and given quarters in the building. He had a lot to overcome. The Soviets had kept him in suspended animation for years at a time, then had used a crude, painful form of downloading information into his brain to brief him on what he'd needed to know for each assignment. As a result he'd killed people he would normally have died to defend.
Pretty sure he wouldn't have made it through those early days if she hadn't continued her daily visits, talking to him about things like he was still a person, not a monster. Mostly she talked about Tony.
"You're kidding," he insisted. "He's already built an engine?"
She grinned. "Yes, but more than a year ago, when he was six."
He whistled. "What's he gonna do when he turns eight? Build a rocket to Mars?"
"Honestly, I wouldn't be all that surprised."
Sometimes she'd decide she was babbling too much about her baby, but whenever she didn't mention him during a visit, Bucky would demand she talk about him and he got a real kick out of hearing about all the kid managed to do. For some reason it made her sad, but she'd never tell him why. Didn't take a genius like her kid to figure it out. She had a look some of his grandmother's friends got when they whispered about their husbands letting them down.
He could tell she'd never meant to say anything about Howard other than they'd been married and had divorced, but gradually he coaxed the story out of her, including her conclusions about her ex-husband's sexuality.
He nodded. "Yeah, I figured. Saw him checking Steve out more than once, but he never made a move on him so I let it pass."
"Would … it have bothered you if he had approached Steve?"
"Yeah, because Howard was a player and Steve deserved better."
She didn't disagree with either point. "But otherwise it would have been all right?"
He looked at her a moment wondering if he should admit the truth. He didn't want to hurt her, but she'd been straight with him from the beginning so he figured he owed her as much. "Steve was crazy about you, but … it was kind of too good to be true. Sort of like he …"
"Was in love with the idea of a perfect romance?"
He nodded. "I'm not gonna lie and say I didn't spend some time hoping otherwise, but well, Steve could be naïve about some things, including himself."
"You knew he was in love with you."
He sighed. "Yeah, I would have done just about anything for the guy, but I couldn't be what I wasn't. Not even for him, so I pretended not to notice and he sort of got over me before he ever realized what he was feeling." Only time he'd thanked God harder for something was when Steve hadn't jumped from the train after him.
"But it didn't disgust you?"
"Won't say figuring out he was like that wasn't a shock, but he was the best person I ever knew so it couldn't be what people said it was. What about you? Seems like you've got reason to be bitter about how things turned out."
She gave him a gentle smile. "I came to conclusions similar to your own about Steve, and he was far too sweet for me to ever hold a grudge. As for Howard well, that was an arrangement I entered into with my eyes wide open and it gave me Tony. So no regrets."
Eventually their conversations moved from official surroundings to coffeehouses or restaurants and somewhere in there he became James to her Peggy.
"Yeah?" he answered, pressing the appropriate button.
"Are you busy?"
"No, just running." Hadn't managed to work up a sweat yet and while it cleared his head, he didn't like the way his artificial arm threw off his balance. Sometimes he thought he'd be better off without the damned thing, but even the limited grasping system the techs had been able to repair seemed better than nothing. Most of the time.
"If you could come to my office, I have someone who would like to meet you."
Tony. It had to be Tony because in a rush he remembered Peggy was supposed to be staying at the mansion for a few days while Tony was home for spring break. He sighed. "Where's Howard?"
Damnit! He hadn't known Howard well back in the day, but he'd seemed okay enough. Times had changed in more than one way and not, in this case, for the better. "Give me 10 minutes to change and I'm all yours."
Sweat or no, he took a fast shower, wanting to make a good impression on the boy, then pulled on a clean SHIELD uniform. When he walked into Peggy's office a boy looked up at him with sad, large, brown eyes. A boy he knew was neglected by his father but was fascinated with Captain America. Bucky could work with that. "Sergeant Barnes reporting as requested," he announced himself, and those huge eyes got even bigger.
"Bucky?" he whispered, abandoning whatever he was doing with paper and pencil. "Are you Bucky?"
He dropped down on one knee and smiled. "Yep, that's me, and you must be Tony."
The boy nodded, then flushed as he took on the guilty look of someone who knew he'd done something he shouldn't have. "I'm sorry, Sergeant. I shouldn't have called you that."
Damn those eyes were big. Larger than Peggy's even though that's obviously where they'd come from and he found he wanted to see happiness not sadness reflected in them. "Hey, you know, Steve was the only one who called me Bucky, but I got used to it. Kind of even miss it. Maybe you could go ahead and call me that? As a favor to me?"
Those eyes lit up like he'd hoped, then shifted to look toward Peggy. Bucky saw her smile and nod out of the corner of his eye, then Tony turned his full attention back to him. "Okay."
The kid squirmed a little, like he wanted to say something. Not hard to guess. "How would you like to hear a few stories about Cap?"
They ended up in the cafeteria, talking over a cup of totally awful hot chocolate. Tony didn't seem to care and Bucky was charmed enough he didn't mind it when Tony started asking questions about him instead of Steve. "So you kind of have Cap's powers?"
"Not as strong, but yeah."
"But they include healing like Mum?"
"So why do you have a fake arm?"
Well, Peggy always had said the kid was direct. "Best we can figure my real arm was still badly damaged when the Soviet's found me so they amputated it, not knowing it would heal." He held up his bionic arm. "Then they replaced it with this." It in turn had been badly damaged during his capture and SHIELD hadn't managed more than a crude repair job.
Tony frowned at the sight of it. "When I'm older I can fix it, but if you got rid of it, wouldn't the arm grow back?"
Bucky blinked. "What?"
"Isn't it just a really bad wound so it should heal, too?"
"I … don't know." He smiled weakly. "But I guess it's worth a try."
Shortly after Tony's eleventh birthday, Bucky worked up the courage to ask him if it was okay with him if he asked Peggy to marry him. Tony had grinned and all but leapt into his arms. Peggy had a similar reaction.
"I know this has to hurt, Steve, but you'd been gone a long time. And I love them both so much." He made a sound. Something laced with tears. "I … Peggy … we hope you can forgive us. Be part of our lives." He made that sound again. "Please."
For once Steve was glad of the limbo he was lost in. Wouldn't have known what to say if he could speak. It hurt. God, it hurt, but Peggy, Bucky – they were alive. After almost 70 years they were alive and that meant he wouldn't be alone if he found a way to really be alive again. Wouldn't be liked he'd dreamed back before he'd died, but they were both still here. Still his, just in a different sort of way. He could live with that. Couldn't he?
The thought followed him through the usual music interlude then into his dreams, but he still didn't have an answer when the gray returned along with Tony's voice, "Soooo, it probably won't surprise you that Mum and Pops are all wrapped up in the guilts right now, which leaves me to 'entertain' you today." He sighed. "Plus they think the rest of it is my story. Not so sure of that, but it has been an eventful couple of decades, I'll give them that."
Howard and Obi were even among the few guests and had assured Tony they were fine with the marriage so he could enjoy it without worrying about what his father was thinking. Which was good since he was staying with them at the mansion while Peggy and Bucky were on their honeymoon. He was really looking forward to that. Been so long since his father had seemed to have any time for him, but they were going to have two weeks together.
And just as he'd thought it would be it was awesome. For the first time Howard let him come into the workshop for more than a few minutes, let him work on Howard's projects and even gave him a corner to tinker on stuff of his own. He didn't even restrict Tony's access to the place saying he trusted him not to touch anything outside of his own work area.
On the eighth night Howard and Obi had to go to some charity function, leaving Tony alone with Jarvis which was cool. Tony really liked the old butler and it wasn't like he was some little kid who expected to have anyone's attention all the time. Besides, he had some ideas he wanted to work on and after dinner he headed down to his workshop.
It was the first time he was down there by himself and he decided not to light up anything but his area so he could pretend it was all his. He flipped the first switch, then frowned at the lack of light. Was it shorted out? Wait, there, back behind his station he saw a thin sliver of light. Excited, he activated the rest of the lights and went to investigate. He quickly found the access switch to the new room and the tarp-covered car. It was weird. Looked all old-fashioned except for where the wheels should be.
He started examining then tinkering with the assembly. Took him an hour to find the flaw in the design, then another twenty minutes or so to fix it. He was standing in the doorway enjoying the results when he heard Howard call, "Tony?"
"Dad, I found the puzzle you left me!" He said, practically bouncing on his feet. "And I solved it! Come see!"
"Puzzle?" Howard echoed, looking confused. His steps were wobbly and Tony could smell the scotch practically oozing from his pores as he got closer. "What -?"
Tony stepped aside so he could see the car hovering off the floor. "It's been doing that for twenty minutes now. I –"
The world exploded in pain. Tony would never remember more than that, but it lasted a long time far beyond when he woke up in a hospital room with Peggy and Bucky sitting beside his bed. His face felt swollen, his left eye unable to open more than slit, but his right gave him a clear view of the cast covering his right arm and the smaller one around his left wrist.
"Luv?" Peggy whispered, her fingers gently pushing aside his bangs.
"Mum?" he croaked out, his throat dry, but a straw pressed against his lips. He drank a few sips. "Bucky?"
"Hey, kid," he answered setting down the cup and straw. His face looked so pale. Like Peggy's, and both their eyes looked red.
"What -?" But he knew of course. He might not remember the details, but he'd never forget seeing his father's open hand lashing out toward his face. Howard. His father had beaten him, had broken his bones. "Dad?"
Peggy's eyes flashed. "He will never hurt you again."
"No, he won't," Bucky hissed through a clenched jaw. "I'll see to it."
Tony knew what that meant. He'd heard enough whispers about his step-father to put together what he'd once been. It hurt like hell, but with the fingers peeking out from the plaster, he grabbed hold of Bucky before he could move away from the bed. "No! You're all I have!" he wailed, his other hand grasping at his mother. "Don't leave me!"
Sobbing, he clutched at them despite the pain it caused until they both climbed onto the bed and held him until morning. Obi arrived with breakfast.
They'd all thought Tony was still asleep and stepped into the hallway, but he was awake, and slipped over to the door to listen as Obi told them Howard had been working on trying to fix the 'flying car' off and on since the 40s, and it had been a constant source of frustration, a symbol of all his failures. When he'd come home drunk and discovered his 11-year-old son had done what he could not, he'd snapped. It had taken Obi and Jarvis to pull him away from Tony and lock him in his room.
"He's sick, Peggy," Obi said. "What he did was unforgivable, but he's sick. You can't punish him."
"The hell I can't," she hissed. "I'll see him rot for this."
"No, you won't." Obi's voice was firm, but not unsympathetic. "Not for his sake, but for yours. For Tony."
"What the hell are you taking about, Stane?" Bucky demanded.
"Lawyers and all the secrets you've shared with Howard over the decades won't lead to any result you want a part of." He let that sink in for a few moments.
It scared Tony to see the flash of worry on his mother's face, the way Bucky clinched his fists, but before Tony could decide to do anything, Obi started talking again. "I'll take Howard to California. Tony never has to see him again."
Steve wanted desperately to move, to speak. Even more so than when he'd heard Peggy's voice. And Bucky's. But not even the echoes of a hurt, frightened child could break the gray's hold on him.
Tony drew in a deep breath and his voice sounded stronger when he went on. "I graduated from Phillips at 13, went to MIT the following fall. Three years later I had my degrees. During that time Stane would bring me projects to work on. Took me longer than it should have to figure out they were failed ideas of Dad's. They were also weapons. I fixed them all."
An obvious bitterness filled Tony's voice, "Between his age and the booze, Dad's days as a genius were over. Left me the creative force behind Stark Industries – the most successful manufacturer of weapons in history."
He hated all of it, but he understood the need for the weapons he designed. Every time he forgot, Obi reminded him – they were saving lives and providing a secure livelihood for every employee of Stark Industries. Not even Peggy or Bucky disagreed with Obi on this despite the rift in their friendship, but unlike them, they encouraged Tony to also follow his heart, to diversify the company as much as he could.
Some of what SI did grew out of the weapons research – intellicrops, medical advances – some out of his imagination like the functional prosthetics he'd been working on since he'd told Bucky he could design a new arm for him – but he devoted most of his non-weapons time to what he saw as Earth's greatest need – clean, sustainable energy from non-fossil fuels. Unfortunately, that wasn't a lot of time. Not even after he hired a personal assistant with scary levels of skill in both business and making Tony do the shit he hated to do. Although even Pepper Potts had limited success with the latter because Tony was the last to deny he was a handful.
Despite that she became a friend. His best friend. His driver/body guard Happy Hogan became the next employee/friend. Then finally there was Rhodey. Unlike the other two he wasn't an employee of SI. Instead the military, Air Force to be precise, paid Major, then Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes to put up with Tony until they became friends. That seemed to be the key to lasting friendships for Tony – money.
He knew it didn't make sense. He had a mother who loved him, a step-father who doted on him, but the thing that defined him was that his father hadn't liked him. That single, horrible piece of his reality made him crazy at times and he found himself following in Howard's footsteps as more than head of the company. Despite what it had done to Howard, he tried drinking too much, even flirted with drugs, but he'd barely gotten started in that part of his downward slide before he turned 25. Apparently that was when the average human reached full development and it turned out his body had only been waiting for that moment until his own rapid healing abilities kicked in.
To his annoyance it took tedious amounts of alcohol and drugs to get drunk or high. Even then it only lasted a few minutes and there weren't any lasting after effects. He knew that was odd – to regret the lack of a hangover, but punishing himself for being such an awful son his father had hated him was as much as what he was after as the ability to forget it. So it wasn't worth it and he gave up that line of self-destruction before his parents could find out and be hurt by it.
His second attempt at raging at the universe proved more successful and his sexual escapades became the delight of first the scandal rags then the internet. It had the advantage of being fun and less hurtful to Peggy and Bucky, although both worried about him, tried to convince him he was worth something. He knew better. Worthwhile sons were loved by their fathers. And yes, he knew better again, Knew it didn't work that way, that the failing was in Howard not in himself. The two ideas fought constantly in the battlefield of his mind, but it eased every time he entered a woman's body, let a man enter his own or even better, both at the same time. Didn't even slow him down on either side of the fence when he figured out he was gay because friction and a cock up his ass worked wonders.
He'd enjoyed both the night before he left for Afghanistan – Christine Everhart and her cameraman. Good time had by all, but Rhodey was less than thrilled by Tony's escapades in the casino beforehand and his late arrival at the airport the next day. Made for a tense flight overseas while he was treated to yet another lecture about Tony being better than this that he deserved better. Blah, blah, blah. Damn he was sick of that song and dance. Almost as much as he hated weapons demonstrations.
Once he'd tried to tell Rhodey that. And how much he detested all the awards and accolades for the weapons he'd designed. It hadn't gone well. Rhodey was a good man and a good friend, but he was also a military officer and saw Tony's work as vital to national security. So Tony had learned to keep his mouth shut. It made things tense between them more and more often, but he solved the problem on the flight with too much sake. Got Rhodey nice and drunk, leaving him with a hangover to deal with in the bright desert sun.
Figuring he'd made his friend suffer enough, he was a good boy for the demonstration and poured on the Stark charm, although he let the Jericho missile do most of the 'talking.' Made millions in one explosion. As he followed Rhodey to a Humvee he called Obi and told him it looked like an early Christmas. So Rhodey happy, Obi happy. Was enough to make Tony want to scream so he threw a silent fit and decided to decline riding back to base with Rhodey. Probably saved his friend's life since everyone riding with Tony died while he got a chest full of shrapnel from one of his own missiles.
He should have died, too, but a man who hated everything he stood for saved him.
Funny how terrorists torturing him overcame all that. His head held underwater, his lungs screaming for breath and the answer came to him. Salvation. He didn't deserve it, but he was too weak to let himself die. Instead he agreed to make the weapons the Ten Rings demanded to give himself and Yinsen time to build first a miniature arc reactor then a metal suit. Should have gotten them both out alive, but his fellow captive had had a different agenda, and Tony ended up staggering through the desert sands alone almost three months to the day he'd been captured.
As he'd known it would, the explosions he'd set off during his escape registered on SHIELD's tracking equipment and within an hour Bucky and Rhodey were leaping out of a helicopter to run to him. He was too dehydrated for tears to flow, but Tony clung to the only father who really mattered and sobbed.
Tony took his advice and used the time to redevelop the armor. Not that his parents made it easy. They insisted he stop working to do unreasonable things like eat and sleep. Nor were either of them too pleased at how much of a workout he gave his healing ability. Yes, he might have been a little careless with himself while he tested things, but he was working through shit at the same time and his brain wouldn't slow down enough to appreciate more than the most basic of safety protocols.
Honestly he couldn't have told anyone why he was redesigning the metal suit beyond the idea was in his head and he couldn't let it go. Which was him bullshitting himself on the same level as denying he could do anything with the arc reactor for all those years. It had taken torture to cut through the latter, but the former went flying when Everhart showed him the photos of the Ten Rings using his weapons to destroy villages. Turned out SI wasn't above crossing lines and had been selling under the table. Worse Obi was behind it. No, not Obi. If the man he'd called that had ever existed, he was gone now. Stane remained and he had to be stopped.
Within hours Tony was suited up and flying to the Middle East. Worked like a dream, unfortunately Stane had managed to gather enough of the plans and remains of the old suit to build one of his own. SHIELD had called in Peggy and Bucky on some gamma radiation accident so Tony had been alone in the house when Stane had come to collect the last piece of tech he needed to complete Iron Monger – the arc reactor protecting Tony's heart.
Tony barely survived that and the subsequent battle. Stane didn't. Neither did any remaining denial that the armor existed.
The press dubbed his alter ego Iron Man and he thought it was catchy enough he decided to keep it even if the suit was a gold-titanium alloy. It was hard not to point that out in the press conference the next day, but not half as difficult as keeping his mouth shut about it being him inside the suit. But he wasn't an idiot and knew lawyers were already lining up to represent anyone who had gotten so much as a bruise during his battle with Stane. If he wanted to keep SI and himself out of bankruptcy court, he had to keep his ego in check and his mouth shut.
So he poured on the Stark-charm and sold some bullshit story to SHIELD and the press about tech being stolen from SI while he'd been stuck in that cave. He'd subtly implied he suspected government involvement and let the fact Iron Man had come to his rescue during last night's break-in subtly enforce the idea. He even managed to shed a tear over Stane not making it. Coulson hadn't looked remotely convinced, so Tony had sicked Pepper on him as a distraction and unwittingly had set in motion the romance of the century.
Tony spent the next six months tracking down and destroying every weapon Stane had sold under the table. Didn't leave him much free time, but he spent what little he had going through some things of Howard's that Stane had packed away. Led to rediscovering a new element and unlocking the final piece to stabilizing the arc reactor tech.
Wanting permanently out of California and a way to showcase the potential of the new reactor, he bought the old Pan Am building in New York and began renovations. Around then his parents grounded him despite his protests at being too old for it.
They'd looked unimpressed and had hauled him off to SHIELD medical. After almost a year, his body'd had time to break down and obliterate even the largest piece of shrapnel Yinsen had been unable to cut from his chest, but that still left the miniature reactor and its housing. Removing those would leave a gaping hole which would need time to heal and his heart had managed to get addicted to the reactor's support.
Grumbling all the way, Tony had set aside all the things he'd wanted to be doing and helped Betty make an out-of-body version of the reactor, then let a team of SHIELD surgeons cut the original out of him. Took four months for the lost bone, muscle and skin to regenerate, but by the time it did his heart was also back to beating on its own.
Tony paused and Steve realized he was waiting for him to open his eyes. He tried, mostly because Tony's voice sounded raw and he knew the man had cried a few times as he'd talked, but no, he couldn't do it. Not yet.
Tony huffed. "Keep this up, Capsicle, and I won't let you be my sidekick."
For some strange reason the threat actually bothered him.
Tony's eyes were red and he'd done less than a brilliant job of wiping away the tears caused by his slogging through all the reasons he hated himself. Despite this, those same eyes darted from her to her equally displeased husband and she could practically see Tony's brilliant mind trying to spin some story to save himself.
"Don't even try it, mister," James told him, his arms crossed over his chest, his face grim. "You know the rules. Nobody hurts you on our watch, especially not you."
"It was my turn," Tony protested. "My story."
Peggy nodded. "Absolutely, but you didn't have to tell it alone." She'd wanted to hold his hand while he'd told it, hold all of him if he'd needed it and he obviously had, but her son was as stubborn as he was brilliant.
His gaze dropped to the carpet. "I don't like you hearing –"
"What?" James asked. "About your mistakes? Have you met me?"
Tony's eyes flashed. He no more liked it when James spoke badly about himself than her husband liked it when Tony wallowed in guilt. "That's different! You were brainwashed!"
She reached out and cupped his beautiful face in her hands. "And underneath it all, luv, you are a traumatized little boy. Our little boy and if you forget it again, I swear I'll ground you for a month."
James nodded. "No armor, no computer, and no JARVIS."
"You can't do that! I'm 42 years old!"
"Try us," they said together.
As brilliant at assessing threats as he was dumb about himself, Tony immediately slipped into a contrite posture and turned that sodding 'puppy' stare on them. "I'm sorry."
Given she used the same look on James, Peggy lasted a few more seconds before she echoed her husband's sigh. "Fine, come here."
She saw his lips twitch in a no-doubt suppressed grin of triumph as he moved into her arms, but since the little shit let her cuddle him she decided to forgive him especially since she could feel the fine tremors coursing through his body. They began to still as she held him, then vanished when James rested his hands on Tony's shoulders.
Her poor beautiful, broken boy.
Knowing all this did not make it hurt any less when high velocity winds slammed him into one building, then the next. By the time he got a clear shot at the douche, it was a tossup as to which was more battered – Tony or his armor. Fortunately, the stealth mode still worked well enough to get him back to Stark Tower unseen and he'd had enough time for the worst of the bruises to heal.
After JARVIS and robotic crew pried the armor off of him, Tony headed for Steve's bedroom. Still high on adrenaline, he walked in and announced, "If Mum grounds me again for getting banged up, I'm blaming you. This working alone thing sucks." Was making him think Fury was seriously on to something with the Avengers thing. And he hated admitting Nick was right about anything.
"Watch back next time," came the murmured response.
Every cell in Tony's body seemed to freeze – although his mind raced enough to appreciate the irony of that thought. "Steve?" he squeaked.
The most gorgeous blue eyes he'd ever seen fluttered open, then focused on him. "Tony?"
Oh, wow. Steve knew who he was! Operation Talk His Ear Off had worked! "I-" Oh, crap, Steve had heard him. He really hadn't thought it would work this well or he'd have never done all that flirting. "Um, I'll go get-"
Steve's hand reached out. "No, stay."
Out of instinct, Tony took the offered hand and for a man who had been frozen solid Cap sure felt warm and very alive. "Okay, JARVIS, tell Mum and Pops he's awake."
"As we speak, Sir."
Steve didn't look for the source of the voice, and yeah, he'd heard and understood a lot if he wasn't startled by JARVIS. "You hurt bad?"
Tony shrugged, pleased to note his dislocated shoulder had healed enough it didn't hurt. "Had worse."
"Sorry," Steve said, his body shifting then sitting up in the bed. He cleared his throat and his speech lost some of its roughness. "I'm sorry I wasn't there to help you."
There was something in Steve's eyes that told Tony he meant far more than preventing Blowhard from bashing him around.
He nodded because for a moment he was too choked up to say anything, but the need for one burning answer pushed through it. "About Mum and Pops …"
A sadness entered the blue eyes, and Tony's gut said it was as genuine as the smile on the handsome face, but before he could say anything Peggy and Bucky burst into the room with twin looks of joyful terror on their faces. The smile wattage went way up, and Steve stood. Tony watched the three of them all grinning at each other but not moving until he couldn't stand it anymore. "Oh, for God's sake, somebody hug somebody."
That sent the three of them flying into each other's arms and there was a lot of laughing and crying and other emotional shit Tony decided he didn't want to stick around for especially since it had all meant Steve had let go of his hand. So he slipped out the door and headed for his workshop.
"JARVIS," he said the moment he was safely behind its doors, "we need to come up with plan B. Fast."
Yes, she had loved Steve, but James was the love of her life. Her body and mind both agreed on this point, letting her begin to slot an alive and finally awake Steve into his new place as her most treasured friend.
It seemed the two men were also doing some readjusting as the hug went on for several minutes, the closeness too wonderful to surrender to the awkwardness certain to follow. Finally, as it had to be, it was Steve who drew back. "I don't … I know … dang, this is hard," he muttered.
Dang. She had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing at the antiquated word. Although she would have been the first to admit it was more from nerves than true mirth. Any amusement at all vanished as he stepped out of their reach, his gaze moving from one wedding ring to the next.
"You're married. To each other."
James nodded. "For thirty-one years now," he said, reaching out to touch Steve's arm.
And, Steve, bless his soul, did not flinch away from the touch despite the pain glittering in his eyes. For him all of a few minutes had passed since she and Steve had exchanged broken promises to meet for their first dance. "I'm glad," he said. "That neither of you was alone. I'm glad." And she could tell he was. "And, God, Bucky, so damned happy you're alive."
He reached for his friend again and the two men exchanged a more manly, clap-on-the-back sort of hug, but there were tears in her husband's eyes when they drew apart. "Me, too. That you're alive," James said. "Hardest part of finally getting my mind back was finding out you were gone."
Peggy remembered well the day she'd told him. It was the first time she'd seen James cry. "We know this is hard, Steve," she said, not brave enough herself to try to touch him again. "But we want you to know you have a home here with us. That we want you to stay with us. We'll sort everything else out in time."
To her relief, Steve nodded, and James sagged in relief. Then Steve said the most extraordinary thing, "I have to look after Tony."
Oddly enough when all the noise in his head got to be too much he always craved the same thing. "JARVIS," he said, between punches, "play it again."
A moment later Tony's voice filled the gym, "In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you I've always had a serious case of hero worship for you. Nothing between then and now has really changed my mind."
It wasn't what he'd thought Tony had said. Turned out he'd misremembered more than a few of those 'conversations' and it made him wonder where his mind had been, and, to tell the truth, he was relieved. Hard enough dealing with the Peggy-Bucky thing. Adding in their son having a crush on him would have been enough to … send him packing? Break him? Steve wasn't sure, but it was a relief he didn't have to decide.
Instead he chose not to think and let Tony's voice keep him company while he demolished two more bags, his blows falling all the harder whenever he spoke of Howard. Hard to believe the man Steve had known had turned into the abusive alcoholic of Tony's youth. Made him sick to his stomach that he hadn't been there to prevent it. He even thought that failure haunted him more than Peggy with Bucky.
"Sir," JARVIS said as a final punch sent the second bag flying across the room. 'Sir?' The AI always called him 'Captain.' Must be talking to Tony and letting Steve listen in. "I'm afraid the Green Goblin is terrorizing Queens."
"What?" Tony's voice answered even as Steve raced for the door. "The Goblin? So now I'm picking up Spider-man's messes?"
"It would appear so, Sir."
"Great, just fucking great. Where is Webhead when I need him?"
"Given his suspected age, I would imagine he is in school."
"Oh, well, then, God forbid he miss a physics quiz just because his arch nemesis is on a rampage. Suit me up."
Steve burst out of the elevator on the lab level, then through the doors as the last piece of armor slid into place.
"Steve?" Iron Man's synthetic sounding voice greeted him.
"I got a suit?" he asked, so relieved to have made it in time he felt weak in the knees.
"Um, yeah, I might have whipped something up," he answered, a gauntlet-covered hand gesturing toward an alcove to the right. A dark blue suit with a silver star and stripes across the chest adorned a mannequin that matched Steve's build while a cowl with a big A on the forehead and wings on the side covered the head. To his delight and relief a much brighter red, white and blue shield rested against the legs. He dressed in less than a minute, then slid the familiar weight of his shield over his left arm. He looked at Iron Man. "I riding with you or on my own?"
A snort answered him – a strange sound coming from what looked like a red and gold robot. Iron Man held out an arm, "Saddle up, Big Fella. We've got a goblin to nail to the wall."
He stepped into Iron Man's space, his feet settling on the armored boots as an arm encircled his waist. He got the best grip he could on a metal-covered shoulder, then nodded, "Let's go."
A moment later they were airborne, then the air shimmered. "What?"
"Side effect of the stealth mode. Would hardly do to have Iron Man coming and going from my tower when I'm not supposed to have any ties to him."
"So no one can see or hear us?"
"Nope. Not for 90 seconds. Can't sustain it longer than that without draining too much power or weighing the suit down with too many bells and whistles."
Pity, but mobility was more important. The shimmering cut out when they were high above the city and Steve could see the explosions marking their target's movements. "Guess stealth isn't his thing."
"Not that I've heard, but he's not my arch nemesis. Stupid spiders."
There was more to that story and Steve wanted to hear it, but for now they were closing in on a green figure zipping around on some sort of rocket-sled. "Pitch me at him," Steve said.
Iron Man didn't question, just gave him a fast-ball toss and Steve went sailing to a perfect landing behind this Green Goblin. "Care to surrender?" he shouted over the whine of the sled-thing's engine.
The Goblin roared in outrage and sent the sled into a spin, but Steve had expected as much so his legs had a good grip on the device and his hands tightened on the Goblin. The continuous spinning was annoying, but nothing he couldn't handle. Did seem to make the green guy lose track of things and Steve jumped clear a split-second before the sled plowed into the side of the building.
Iron Man caught first him, then their quarry – although he got an arm around Steve pulling him back into the same easy carry as before while he merely snagged the Goblin by his purple tunic. Didn't look all that safe or secure and Steve would have said something, but they were descending toward the street and some waiting police officers.
Steve frowned when their mutual transport released his hold on the prisoner a good twenty feet from the ground and let him fall, then jetted back up into the sky. "Don't worry about him," Iron Man said. "He's harder to kill than a cockroach. Probably would have just bounced if I'd let him fall all the way. Pops thinks he must be another moron playing around with the super-soldier formula."
Playing around with … "I take it that happens a lot."
"Often enough. Had two guinea pigs duke it out a few months back. Almost leveled Harlem."
Steve blinked. "I don't have that sort of power."
"Gamma radiation in the mix. Makes for an impressive rage monster. Although I think there's a hell of a lot more to Banner than that."
"Dr. Bruce Banner. Press calls his alter ego the Hulk. Supposed to be totally out of control, but I think he showed a lot of it during the Harlem throwdown. The other one – Abomination – was the one doing the berserker shit."
For the rest of the short flight home, Iron Man went through his theory of why the Hulk was one of the good guys. Made a good case for it, and Steve never had been one to prejudge another. He'd make up his mind if and when he and Dr. Banner crossed paths.
Iron Man touched down on the patio of his penthouse, then released his hold on Steve. "Now watch this," he said and began to walk along the perimeter. Robot arms popped up and with every step more and more of the armor was pulled away until only Tony remained.
Steve found himself staring. Not because of the technology – although that was worth more than a long look – but because this was the first time he'd really had a chance to see the man without the haze of seventy lost years obscuring his thoughts. Young was his first thought. He knew Tony was forty-two, eleven years older than Steve if the time spent frozen wasn't counted, but beneath the exotic beard he looked younger than Steve. It was good camouflage though. When someone wasn't looking for the lack of aging, the facial hair gave a boyish face sophistication and a sense of age.
But it was the eyes that most intrigued Steve. He remember Peggy saying Tony had her eyes and there was a similarity in the shape, but Tony's eyes were bigger, browner. Peggy's eyes hadn't revealed what she was thinking unless she wanted them to, but he suspected Tony's eyes revealed everything. He found the differences … comforting. He found he didn't want to look at Tony and always see Peggy, although he wasn't certain why.
Bucky sprang for the hot dog and beers, then settled in with Steve to glower and cheer. Tony found them both highly amusing which earned him scowls from both men. That just made the brat grin all the harder. Bucky found he couldn't resist reaching over and ruffling Tony's immaculately styled hair. Tony yelped and swatted at his hand while Steve laughed. Good day all around, and one they repeated as often as Tony's schedule allowed.
"Something interesting?" Steve's voice cut into her thoughts and she looked up from her Stark Tablet as he entered the kitchen.
"Rundown of your heroics yesterday," she answered with a smile. "They almost got half the details right."
Steve grinned. "They're improving then."
"Or you two are getting predictable enough they can fudge things."
"Ah." He poured himself a cup of coffee then held up the pot in the universal gesture of 'want some?'
She held out her mostly empty cup. "Please." Steve filled it, then set about making his usual breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast. They didn't talk, but the lack of discomfort in the silence pleased her. It bordered on companionable. As they'd all known it would be, Steve's relationship with her had been the slowest to build. From the day he'd made his presence known to her until he crashed into the ice, there had always been at least an undercurrent of attraction in their interactions. That was gone now leaving them both trying to rebuild a friendship without a blueprint of the past they could rely on. It made things … difficult and awkward. So she'd been content to let him reestablish his relationship with James and to watch his friendship with Tony blossom until it was unusual to find one without the other. Steve had even taken to sketching in Tony's workshop.
"Thank you," she said when he sat down at the table with his eggs.
"For being Tony's friend. For doing what you said you would and looking out after him."
He blushed slightly, but said, "Iron Man can –"
"Handle himself, yes, I know. But every time he comes home bleeding all I see is my little boy hurt."
"I can understand that."
She sighed. "I think that's why the parents are always dead in the comic books. We fuss too much."
Steve gave her a small smile, got a thoughtful look for a moment, then said, "It might be easier on you if he didn't hate himself so much."
The relief made her feel dizzy. Steve understood. Which meant he knew to keep a watchful eye out for heroics bleeding over into self-harm. She nodded. "It's so bloody frustrating. That boy has been my life since he burst into the world and James adores him, but he can't stop defining himself as someone unworthy of a father's love when it was fucking Howard who was unworthy."
Steve's eyes widened at the profanity, but he nodded. "I think … I might have killed him if I'd been around."
Peggy could see that reality so easily. Tony begging James and her to stay, but Steve free to deal with a grown man who had all but murdered his own son. For a brief second it struck her as odd she assumed even if Steve had remained with them that she still saw him as a family friend, but no, it was the way it would have gone. "Sometimes I want that so badly I can taste it, but at other times it's hard to hate Howard as much as he deserves. He hurt Tony, but he also gave him to me, and I can't imagine life without my son."
She knew there were countless realities out there. That in some she never had a child, found a different father or even resorted to artificial insemination, but she couldn't not think all those versions of herself were the poorer for never knowing her Tony.
Steve reached over and touched her hand – the first time he'd touched her since the night he had awakened. "He's an amazing man and I'll do whatever I can to keep him safe."
She gave him a grateful, watery smile. "Thank you. I'm so glad he's willing to partner with you. He won't let James or me within miles of Iron Man."
"Guess hero worship has its advantages."
Hero worship? How could Steve think that's all it was after listening to Tony flirt with him all those hours? Certainly he hadn't remembered everything they'd told while he was sleeping, but it couldn't be possible every single flirtation had been forgotten. Suddenly she smelled a rat-shaped son.
She patted Steve's hand then gave it a squeeze as she rose. "Excuse me, I need to speak to Tony before I head out."
"Have a good day," he answered with a smile.
She returned it, then headed to the elevator. A few minutes later she walked into the workshop and found her son manipulating holograms. Good. She didn't want to startle him if he were in the middle of construction mode. "Anthony Edward," she snapped in her best 'you are in such trouble, young man' voice.
He jumped about a foot which was very gratifying then looked at her with wide eyes. "What did I do?"
"Why doesn't Steve know you flirted with him while he was sleeping?"
"Oh, that." He looked sheepish, bordering on shifty.
"Yes, that. What did you do?"
"I redubbed over some of the audio. I thought it would be easier for him."
No doubt it had been, but for a spy she'd always been oddly adverse to half-truths masking lies.
"Besides, that's all it really was, wasn't it? I mean, despite all the stories I didn't really know him."
True enough, but, it didn't sound like he believed it. "And what about now?"
"I'm content to be his friend." Mummy, when I grow up I'm going to marry Captain America.
She walked over to him, then hugged him close. She knew her son. Knew he wanted more, knew hero worship had given way to a real love, but that he didn't feel he was worthy of anyone's love, let alone Steve's. "You are so amazing," she said into his hair. "Steve would be lucky to have you."
He didn't answer. Just buried his face in her shoulder and hugged back.
They'd both given Tony a kiss on the cheek and Steve a hug before heading off to do Fury knew what. Of course, Tony could find out easily enough. "Sure I can hack the files," he said almost insulted Steve had had to ask. "But I won't."
Steve raised an eyebrow at him and yeah, the man was watching way too much Star Trek if he was doing the eyebrow stuff. "Really?"
"It's part of our deal. I keep my nose out of their spy shit if they keep theirs out of my Iron Man stuff." Didn't mean he didn't hate it, but a deal was a deal.
"And you hold up your part?" There was an air of 'don't kid a kidder, kid' to Steve's tone that sort of cut through all the bullshit queuing up in Tony's mind.
"Fine," he huffed. "So I might have JARVIS keep a low-level eye on things, but it's not like they don't have him doing the same thing to me when I've got the suit on."
"So we'll know if they need our help?"
Encouraged by the question versus the expected look of disapproval, he nodded.
Tony blinked. "Oh, well, um it's good, you think that's … good."
Steve smiled. "Good intel is never a bad thing, Tony. Now, maybe we should get some sleep."
It was late and he had been up for almost 24 hours since he'd needed to finish some refinements on the helicarrier engines to keep things on schedule. It was an insane schedule – building something in a year that should have taken at least five while keeping a sharp eye on quality-control meant a lot of money – mostly from SHIELD, thank God – and a lot of his time. But hey, sleep was overrated. "Sure, sounds good."
Steve nodded and headed off to his own floor while Tony really did try to go to bed. But while he'd finished the engines, the deadline he'd set himself for the quinjet design was looming and nagged him awake after a few hours. He didn't fight it when he woke up. Instead he showered, then went down to his workshop.
He'd finished the jet and had moved on to play catch-up with a few SI projects when Steve came down, sketchbook in hand. He handed Tony a bagel with lox and cream cheese, then sat down on his usual spot on the sofa and pointedly did not say a word despite it being obvious Tony had been up for hours and was deep into his second pot of coffee.
They didn't talk much, and Tony figured it had to be pretty boring for Steve, but the man only left long enough to get them lunch, then dinner. Guilt started setting in when Steve returned with a pizza for a 3 a.m. snack. "Maybe you should call it a night, Cap," he said after he finished his first piece.
"As soon as you do," Steve answered after swallowing a bite.
Tony sighed and opened his mouth to recite the long list of things he needed to get done yesterday. What came out was, "I can never sleep when they're on a mission." Well, fuck. "I mean I know they've got the whole badass-ninja thing down cold, but-"
"They're your parents and you worry."
He nodded. "I hate that I'm not there with them." Wherever there was. "And, yes, I know they nearly go out of their minds when I'm fighting supervillains, but turnabout being fair play doesn't cut it." He toyed with the cheese on another slice. "But I'm too well known as Tony Stark and too flashy as Iron Man to do anything but put them in further danger if I interfere."
"But you work for SHIELD, too."
"I'm a consultant." He poked at a mushroom then popped it into his mouth. "They call me in when they want new toys or someone annoyed."
"Yep. It's my super-power. I can piss off anyone on the planet in three words or less." Last time Coulson had sicked him on General Ross to head off some idiotic plan to recruit Abomination into the Avengers Initiative and to get him to lay off of hunting down Banner. He had to admit he'd enjoyed that assignment even if he couldn't quite keep the self-depreciating smile off his face.
Steve frowned -- the same distressed one Peggy and Bucky wore whenever he insulted himself. To head off any lecture about self-worth he decided now was as good a time as any to keep his deal with Nick. "They want you to sign up."
He nodded. "Idea of you as an agent makes them go all weak in the knees."
Steve shook his head. "My gear is on the flashy side, too."
Tony snorted. "You're a lot more than a flashy suit."
That frown was back, Steve way too smart not to pick up on the obvious 'unlike me' he hadn't bothered to add. This time he couldn't head off the response, "You're a lot more than a man in a suit of armor."
"Yeah, sure -- genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, that's me," he answered with his trademarked smirk. And it was an impressive resume. Tony knew that. But somehow whenever he rattled off the list it always seemed to emphasize his short-comings.
Steve nodded as if he could hear Tony's thoughts, then blew the illusion by saying, "I'd add several things to the list, including 'hero.'"
He shook his head. "No, I'm no hero. Just a mass murder trying to atone." Oh, crap, he'd said that aloud. He scrambled to his feet, but he couldn't stop his mouth. "I'm not like you. Everything special about you, you already had before Rebirth. It took a chest full of shrapnel to open my eyes." To turn a monster into something with a conscience. "Anyway, you should do it. Join SHIELD."
Steve's arms closed around him, stilling both his body and voice. "You're a good man, Tony," Steve said softly. "And I already have a job. I'm Iron Man's partner."
Tony's mouth went dry and his mind raced with the spin he wanted to put on those words, but this was good, too. Couldn't imagine why someone not related to him would put up with him, but it seemed he had a friend. Wasn't all he wanted, but it was something he could have. He sighed into Steve's shoulder. "I guess now's the time to tell you about the Avengers."
Tony ran a hand through his hair, his shoulders lowering like he was finally exhaling after holding his breath for a long time. "Usual drill, J," he said after a few moments.
"Of course, Sir," came the answer and Tony returned his attention to the gauntlet he'd been working on.
Steve sketched the scene using it as much as an excuse to keep his eye on Tony as a way to pass the time. He'd made certain Tony ate, took an occasional shower and had even gotten him to nap for a few hours at a time. From what he'd gathered Tony wouldn't have done any of the above if he hadn't been here to coax him into it, although Tony had called him Pepper at least once so he assumed Miss Potts had looked after him on more than one occasion. He was glad of that, but he was certain she'd lacked the time to do so once she'd become CEO of SI which meant a good year of Tony alone. He didn't like the thought of that. At. All.
"Sir, my analysis indicates it is a Classics night."
"Damn. Bogart and Bacall?"
"I believe Hepburn and Grant would be best."
"Shit. Okay, JARVIS," he said, then glanced at Steve. "Better double the takeout order."
Dinner arrived three hours later and almost at the very second Peggy and Bucky made it home. Tony went into their arms and they all held each other for a few moments, then they started unpacking dinner. Big bowels of chicken noodle soup and huge yeast rolls followed by a carton of ice cream each – pure comfort food while they watched Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story.
Steve could tell from the faces of his two friends that they'd been through hell. Unfortunately it wasn't an unfamiliar look to him. He'd even worn it himself more than once. He glanced at Bucky and remembered what it had felt like to lose him. Peggy had helped him through that pain enough for him to function. To do what had to be done next. Been seven months since then or more than 70 years depending on how he looked at it. Bucky alive and well had wiped away one hell, but what about losing Peggy?
The two of them were curled up on the couch together with Tony sprawled in a nearby recliner that mirrored the one Steve sat in. The perfect picture of a family and Steve felt … glad to be part of it. The regret over Peggy wasn't really there anymore. She fit with Bucky not him yet they both still wanted him in their lives. No, glad didn't begin to cover it. He was beyond grateful. He didn't know what he would have done without the three of them helping him adjust to this time. But it was more than that, too. Bucky was … well, Bucky. And Peggy? It was easy to romanticize her, to make more out of what they'd had than there had been. She was … a swell dame. Brave, smart and undeniably beautiful – everything a guy could want and getting over her shouldn't be this easy, but as he sat there enjoying the quiet evening, Steve knew he had. Knew he would always love her, but somehow the love had shifted and he could look at her and see a sister, as he looked at Bucky and saw a brother. Something about that thought tickled his brain, but he felt like he'd had enough epiphanies for one night, and turned his attention back to the screen.
Pepper Potts gave him an unimpressed look, and, okay, maybe he'd been tinkering on his phone during the meeting, but she knew him well enough to know he not only could do more than one thing at a time, in a meeting he had to or he'd lose his mind. He'd texted something along those lines to Steve and gotten back some unhelpful reply about responsibilities and respect. Tony considered both optional especially when being forced to explain his ideas to a bunch of non-scientists who were more interested in profit than the good SI could do.
"Tony," she said after making him squirm for a few moments, "we need investors. Happy investors to provide the funds we need."
He gave her a look. Tony knew damned well no company was an island, but he'd managed to get the arc reactor life up to 10 years making them more practical for power grid use and was currently working on a 50-year model. In fact they'd just finished negotiations with the Japanese to swap out his tech for the nuclear reactors damaged by the quake. That sort of deal and PR should keep everyone purring happily away for the next year or so without him doing dog and pony shows.
"All right, fine," she sighed. "We have some good will stocked up, but I'd like to build on that not spend it all. The arc reactors still aren't cost effective compared to other power sources."
No, they weren't. They would be. Soon, but not yet. Tony knew that and while part of him wanted to rant and rave about profit over all, he liked the trappings of wealth, liked what it let him have and do to not recognize the slippery slope of hypocrisy. He sighed. "Right. Okay, I'll do better, but, Pep, there's only so much I can dumb things down."
She sighed. "I know. Thank God you're rich because if you had to teach to survive you'd starve."
He glared at her. It wasn't that he couldn't explain things – he did it all the time with her, his parents, Steve and the occasional SHIELD minion – but he required a certain level of true interest and minimal intelligence to relate to. He opened his mouth to say as much when his phone pinged with a message – the special alert that meant it was from Steve.
He froze for a moment and she rolled his eyes. "Look at it before you have a seizure."
"You're the best, Pep," he said, pulling out his phone. Is the meeting over?
He gave her a quick glance, then texted back, Yes, thank fuck
Language, Tony, made him smile.
I've been tortured for hours. You should be nice to me.
I'll take you to lunch.
Meet you in the lobby in 10, he answered then shoved his phone back into his pocket. "Gotta go, Pep. Important stuff to do."
"I'm sure," she said her voice dry as a desert, but she let him give her a kiss on the check before he fled so he counted it as a win.
JARVIS had the elevator ready for him allowing him to step right on and begin the descent from the office floors down to the lobby. He took the time to remind himself this wasn't a date and his busy brain would do well to remember it before he made a fool of himself. He sighed. A part of him had honestly hoped his crush would ease up after he'd gotten to know the 'man behind the hero,' but he'd always known it wouldn't. Yes, he'd grown up listening to stories about Captain America, but he'd heard ten times as many about Steve Rogers – hazard of having the guy's best friend as his pops. And not just the heroic, noble, good guy stuff. He'd heard about every dumb shit stunt the two friends had ever pulled, about the bad times as well as the fun ones. All in all, he'd gotten to know Steve pretty well before they'd ever even met. And although he'd always been careful to suggest otherwise, it was Steve Rogers he'd always had the crush on. Meeting him, spending time with him on top of that? He was always going to fall in love with him.
No! They were friends, damnit! Good friends! The best of friends. No, wait, that was Pops and Steve. Okay, so they were the next-best of friends. He could work with that. Had been working with that, but Steve wasn't making it easy with all of his … Steveness. Making sure he was fed and watered, keeping him company when the Tower was all too empty, hell, practically tucking him in at night – just all in all being … the best damned friend Tony could ask for. Or next-best friend. Whatever. The point was Steve was Steve and Tony was keeping him even if he never got to … have him. Fuck. He was so screwed.
Tony made it down to the lobby in three minutes. Steve walked out of the elevator at exactly the ten minute mark because he was fucking perfect like that. "So what are we having?" He asked practically bouncing over to Steve. He had to work on that. Felt like a damned puppy sometimes. "Hot dogs? Cracker Jacks? Apple pie?"
Steve gave him a smile Tony was pretty sure anyone would label fond, but he had a tendency toward self-delusion so what the fuck did he know? "I was thinking sushi."
So adorable. So completely screwed. "Sounds great! You paying? Because I'm pretty certain you asked me and that means you have to pay. Or at least that's how I've been told this works." No, idiot! That's a date. This wasn't a date. Well, not in the sort of way he wanted it to be so he really needed to stop babbling now. He'd get on that any time now.
Steve laughed like he always did when Tony opened his mouth and nonsense spilled out. "Yes, Tony, I'll pay."
"What?" he yelped, following Steve out onto the street. "No, kidding! I was kidding here. I'll get kicked out of the billionaires club if I let a veteran pay!"
"You just made that up."
"I did not! It's in the bylaws and everything."
Steve snorted. Huh, did super-soldiers snort? "You say that as if you'd have read them."
"Got me there. Still paying."
There was a screech of tires, a flash of movement and Tony found himself hugging the side of a building with Steve plastered to his front. And oh, hey, he'd had fantasies like this, but wait a minute. Guns going off, for the record, not sexy.
The solid light shield leapt into life from the band around Steve's wrist protecting them both from a burst of automatic weapons fire, and Tony hadn't been so grateful for one of his inventions since the Mark I got him out of the fucking cave. "Stay down!" Steve ordered, giving him a push into a duck and cover position, then he whirled around, following the movement of a van trying to peel away.
Steve flung out his arm and the shield hurtled away from its perch to go careening into the back wheel with enough force to make the tire burst. Calling up a second shield as the first one dissolved, Steve gave the remaining rear tire the same treatment, then leapt forward. A third shield dealt with the weapons fire from the three men pouring out of the disabled van, and, oh, ouch, Steve was pissed given how hard he put them down. The collision of a shield the back of the head of the fleeing driver made Tony flinch, but, yeah, bad guys all down for the count in five seconds or less.
Tony stood up, brushed himself off, then walked over to where Steve stood over his handiwork. "Well, that was fun. So, sushi?"
Tony's eyes narrowed even further, not at him, but at where Steve was standing at fucking parade rest on the other side of the room, his jaw clenched. It was supposed to be a 'stand down' stance, but on someone of Steve's size it could be damned intimidating. Something Bucky knew Steve was well aware of. Whatever warning his son was trying to convey didn't seem to impress Steve, and he asked, "You know what happened?"
Bucky nodded. JARVIS had shown him the footage on the way up. "Someone tried to kill Tony." Tony. Not Iron Man. And Bucky had been on the other side of town, as helpless as he had been when the Ten Rings had stolen him. He and Peggy had barely managed to stay sane when Tony threw himself into harm's way when he was inside the armor, but this? This was unendurable.
"Pops-" Tony started, no doubt to head off whatever he thought Bucky was about to say, but Steve spoke over him.
"It won't be the last time. They were members of some group called Patriot's Might, which seems to exist for the purpose of making Tony pay for not making armor and weapons for the military."
Bucky felt the sudden need to sit down and all but collapsed into a nearby chair. Tony had made a lot of enemies when he'd shut down the weapons division of SI, but his refusal to build armor had infuriated quite a few people. He'd even been hauled before Congress to explain why he couldn't make armor when someone who had stolen his technology could. He'd answered, "It's not that I can't. It's that I won't. I'm out of the weapon's business, Senator. You want those, talk to Hammer Industries."
In the end no one could force him to do it, but they could make his life miserable enough he'd finally relented enough to make Rhodey a suit of armor because he trusted Rhodey to know where to draw the line. But even then he didn't admit he'd made it. Instead it was an anonymous gift from Iron Man because even he could use back-up. They'd all thought War Machine's existence had quieted the most radical groups, but apparently not. "That's it, Tony," he said, clenching his fists to keep his hands from shaking.
"No! You're getting a bodyguard and that's final!" Damnit, they never should have let him talk them out of replacing Happy Hogan when it was decided his job description was protecting the SI CEO, not Tony, so he'd been assigned to Pepper.
"We've been through this a dozen times," his son said, and, hadn't they just. "I can take care of myself."
Yes, he could. Peggy, then Bucky had made a point of teaching the kid how to defend himself, but, "It doesn't replace a second set of eyes, Tony. And all the fancy moves in the universe don't make you bulletproof."
Tony shook his head and moved on to the point that had always made his parents give up in the past. "I have a secret identity to protect. A bodyguard will eventually figure it out." Of course, Hogan never had. For all the man's good heart, he had grown far too accustomed to Tony ditching him during his son's wilder days for him to put together Tony's disappearances with Iron Man's appearances. A new bodyguard wouldn't have that sort of selective blindness. And trust did not come easily to this family given how often it had been betrayed.
"I already know it," Steve said.
"What?" Tony said, looking something like startled.
"And I'm already almost always with him when he goes out. Not a big deal to make it always."
Tony stared at him. "You're saying you want to be my bodyguard?"
Steve shook his head. "I’m saying I already am."
Relief sizzled through Bucky, but Tony shook his head. "Steve, you're my friend. I don't want to be … your responsibility."
"You're my partner, Tony. Watching your six is always going to be my responsibility. In and out of our suits. I'm assuming that goes both ways."
"Of course, it does! But this is different!"
Steve raised a questioning eyebrow.
"It's … it's a … job. A paying job." And too many people Tony called friends already got paid to put up with him. Or at least that was how Tony saw it, but before Bucky could launch into yet another attempt to convince his rock-headed son that his friends genuinely liked him, Steve interceded again.
"Whatever the salary is – donate it to that charity we saw on television last week. Wounded Warriors. Give it all to them." Steve crossed the room in a few long strides, then cupped Tony's face in his hands. "Keeping you safe is a privilege, not a job, Tony, and nothing you say is going to stop me from doing it."
Slowly Tony reached up, his hand lightly encircling Steve's right wrist, his eyes searching Steve's face. Finally he said, "Okay."
Bucky watched their heads tilt forward until their foreheads rested together and knew two things: 1) he had some homegrown terrorists to track down and deal with as only the Winter Soldier could and 2) his best friend was in love with his son. Even if neither of them seemed to know it yet.
"I'll be flagging a few news items over the next few days. Make certain Tony sees them." It wasn't the first time they'd communicated this way, and the world being what it was, it probably wouldn't be the last. But it allowed Tony to know things without ever having to acknowledge them. She'd leave it to him to figure out how to clue Steve in.
Speak of the handsome devil. "Yes, Steve?"
He set a newspaper down in front of her, and for a second she thought … feared? … he'd figured it out already, but no. It was picture of him and Tony leaving a café. She approved of the way Steve's eyes looked vigilant, but otherwise she hadn't a clue why he was showing it to her. "Yes?"
Steve sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "I look … out of place."
Kaki slacks, plaid shirt over a white t-shirt with a haircut straight out of the 40's – he was quite the contrast to Tony in all his stylish glory, but then most people were. "Steve, you look fine."
He shook his head. "No, I look like a man living in the past."
She smiled gently. "You've coped so well with so much. No one begrudges you a few comforts."
"I know, and I appreciate it, but … well, I guess I'm ready to say I'm from the 40's, but I don't live there anymore."
Her smile broadened. "Oh, my, that's … huge, Steve. Are you sure?"
He nodded. "But I could use some help in …" he waved his hand at his image "updating."
"Why, Steven Rogers, are you asking me to help you with a make-over?"
"Yeah, I guess I am."
Peggy considered it for a moment. On the one hand, Tony would be peeved he didn't get to play, but on the other it was long past time she and Steve did something on their own. "Let's go, soldier."
Six hours later Steve showed up at the family dinner table in tight jeans, a light blue shirt and a new haircut. Tony nearly swallowed his tongue and Peggy decided it was a job well done.
He'd missed less of their stories than he'd assumed he had, but hearing them in total made it clear his two friends were doing their best to avoid saying they knew he might have been interested in Howard while implying it was okay if he had. It struck him as … odd. He'd never thought of Howard that way. In fact most of what he'd felt wasn't even friendship, but gratitude for Howard's part in Erskine's work. He might not even have liked him. Although that might simply be his memories viewed through the lens of what the man had done to Tony. So had he liked him? He didn't think so.
Sure on the surface Howard had been a lot like Tony, and he liked Tony, but no. The things he liked about Tony were the differences. Both men had been charming and vibrant when in the public eye, but while Howard had seemed to thrive on such attention, it was obvious Tony actually hated his time in the spotlight. No, Tony wasn't a shy, but he didn't like being surrounded by people who wanted things from him – be it his money, his body or his fame. And Tony was kind where his father had been merely suave. He wasn't denying Howard had had his good points, but Tony shared all of those plus had many more of his own. No, he hadn't been in denial – Steve had not been in love with Howard, but …
Now that he let himself think about the possibility, he had been in love with Bucky when they were younger and he still related to him out of those feelings even years later. Which explained why Peggy would pick up on it and again do the saying it without saying it thing.
He let himself slide down the wall to sit on the floor and let his thoughts coast until he felt the need to whisper, "I'm gay." That's why he'd always been bothered more by how much it upset Bucky than by the rejection of the ladies. That's why he'd known Peggy for more than a year and didn't kiss her until the last hour. Even then she'd initiated the kiss, not him. Although he had enjoyed it. Maybe that meant he was bisexual? And did it even matter? Because there was something else he'd noticed.
Yes, he had missed parts of what Peggy and Bucky had said, but he'd remembered every word he had heard accurately. Yet, there were whole conversations with Tony he'd misremembered. Or had he? Steve had always been intelligent, but the serum had ramped up his mind as well as his body, so he was no more a fool than he was naïve. He'd known what Bucky was going to do when he'd disappeared the morning after the assignation attempt on Tony. He couldn't even say he disapproved as long as it kept Tony safe. Tony. It always came back to Tony.
"Have you been playing the original recordings to me?"
There was a pause. "You have heard the recordings I was instructed to provide when you asked for them."
In other words, no. "Did Tony alter the originals?"
"I'm sorry, Captain, I have provided you with what I'm able to."
Okay, he wanted more confirmation than an evasive AI, but how did he get it? Hmm, Tony was so technology-oriented he might have overlooked verbal versus audio information. "In those recordings, the ones you can't give me, did he ever say he once told his mother that he was going to marry me and nothing had changed his mind since then?"
"So I didn't imagine all the times he flirted with me."
It wasn't a question, but JARVIS said, "No, Captain."
Steve didn't know how he felt about that. Naturally he was less than pleased with the deception, but he also remembered he'd been grateful when he'd thought his memory had gotten things wrong. Tony'd had a crush on Captain America most of his life. But how did he feel about Steve Rogers?
SI had already released a statement confirming Captain America had been rescued from what had turned out to be something less than an icy tomb eight months ago, but too many prominent pundits had made fools out of themselves raging against the 'stolen identity' of a national icon for them not to want a pound of flesh. Naturally Steve felt it should be his.
"No, absolutely not," Tony said in his best 'and that's final' tone, but, of course, that never worked out well for him.
"It was my choice to keep quiet for this long," Steve insisted.
"Yeah, because you needed time to adjust before the feeding frenzy began," he said, putting on his cufflinks. And Steve was just lucky Tony had opted to pull on his slacks and shirt before stepping out of his dressing room for this argument because watching him blush would have been the highlight of this rotten day. "Believe me, you do not want a piece of this shit."
"And you do?"
Well, no. "Part of my job is playing dancing monkey," he said, remembering Peggy telling him about the sketch Steve had made. "You gave that up in '43."
Steve frowned although Tony wasn't certain if it was at the memory or the idea of Tony having to do it. "They're going to want to talk to me no matter what you say."
True enough. "Doesn't mean you have to." Now, which tie? Yeah, that one, he decided pulling out the red, white and blue one. Would really piss the vultures off. "At least not until I've softened them up."
"We should at least do it together."
"And how can you protect my backside if you're busy doing Q&A?" he asked all big eyes and curiosity. Total act because he already knew the answer was Steve didn't think he could. The man was slowly putting together a team to back him up when a situation called for him to be more friend than bodyguard, but so far it ranked high in theoretical and low in actual warm bodies.
Steve scowled at the ball cap and sunglasses in his hand. Those plus the new hair and clothes should keep him unnoticed by anyone looking for a 40's relic. "I don't like this."
Tony finished adjusting his tie, then pulled on his suit jacket. A quick check in the mirror confirmed his corporate armor was firmly in place so he turned to Steve. "Them's the breaks, big fella," he said, giving him a pat on the cheek. "Now, put on your cunning disguise. I've got jackals to feed."
Steve scowled, but jammed on the cap and glasses, so good enough.
It all went about as Tony had expected. He read the prepared statement about how Steve was found, why he was still alive and that yes, they had become friends and hung out a lot which was fortunate since Tony was far too beautiful to die. Well, okay, that last part had been ad lib, but it got a laugh so PR could kiss his ass. Then came the questions.
Ever there with the sticky ones, Christine Everhart asked, "How do you feel about your 'friend'," and yes, Tony could hear the air quotes, the woman was damned gifted, 'working with someone who stole Stark technology?"
"First of all, it's never been proven Iron Man actually did the stealing, so until someone can do that, I'm going to let his actions speak louder than presumed guilt; second, the city seems a lot safer with those two around and, as I live here, I'm all for it."
He bounced from that to an ET reporter for a fluffier question and wasn't disappointed. "How is the Captain adjusting to this century?"
"Surprisingly well. He likes the food better, mastered Google with scary speed, and has the good taste to prefer the original Star Wars trilogy to the new one. He is, however, majorly bummed about the whole LA Dodgers thing. Seriously, it's sad. Gets him all sulky and sad-eyed." He could feel Steve's glare on the back of his neck and couldn't help grinning.
Tony avoided the inevitable as long as he could, but he made his way through what could delusionally be called the friendly media and that left … Fox News. Double fuck. But sooner started, sooner done.
"Why was the truth kept hidden for so long?" the douche demanded.
"I think you're asking why I might want you and your network to make fools of themselves for months and all I can say is that I've never been good at denying myself pleasure. If you doubted that, maybe you should work on your Google skills."
"The public has a right to know –"
"Oh, fuck that! The public has the right to Captain America's protection and they get that every day, but they do not have the right to Steve Rogers until Steve Rogers decides they do." He shook his head giving the man his most pitying look. "Is it so difficult to understand why he might want time to deal with this era let alone losing everything? Are you really going to stand there and tell me the mystery isn't why he stayed quiet, but why he put on the suit to deal with the Green Goblin a whole three days after waking up? Because if you are, you need to go back to journalism school. … Oh, wait. Forgot who I was talking to, you lot favor bad fiction over actual reporting. My bad."
Tony stood up because he could sense he had about thirty seconds to clear out before Steve yanked off those glasses. "And on that sour note, I'm outta here, kiddies." He turned and stalked away from the podium with enough speed that his entourage had no choice but to scurry after him.
He gave Peggy a hug with the arm he had around her shoulders. "We're going to have to decide what to say to Steve."
"Yes, I believe 'hurt him and die' or some variation therein of should suffice."
"Sounds about right." He blew out a breath. Live and on television their son had just declared he saw the difference between Steve and Cap and that the difference was worth protecting. If he read his best friend right – and it had always been Bucky's super-power – it was the final push Steve needed to figure out the whole mutual love thing.
They sat there is silence for a few moments, then he said, "It's weird, isn't it? I mean, we're going to end up with a son-in-law who is older than us."
"I suppose, but then, we have a son who only looks a few years younger. After getting used to that everything else seems old hat."
He chuffed out a laugh. God, he loved this woman. He said as much, then kissed her. She kissed back. It led to other things.
Even expecting them, the words had some shock value. This was the love of her youth asking to date her son. A small part of her wanted to howl in outrage, but the rest? The rest of her was glad. It meant Tony wouldn't be alone for a very long life; that he'd have one of the best two men she'd ever met at his side; and, selfishly she couldn't help thinking it made certain Steve would always be part of their lives, and she wanted that desperately. For all of them. But she was Tony's mother so there one point she had to be clear on, even beyond the Shovel. "He's fragile, Steve. Don't do this if you aren't positive it's what you want."
He nodded. "I know. I've thought about it long and hard, Peggy – how I feel about him and myself. I'm certain."
"You sure?" James asked. "There'll be a lot of people screaming about you being a sinner corrupting your own memory. That's a lot to deal with."
"You know me, Buck. I believe in a God who deals in love not hate; and I've never much cared what other people thought as long as it felt right. Tony's right for me."
Peggy found herself nodding. If there was one thing she knew about Steve it was that he thought things through – sometimes with frightening speed, but always well. "You have my blessing."
Which was James' cue for the Shovel Speech. "Peggy and me, we have a very specific skill set, you hurt him and they'll never find your body. We clear on that?" Short, sweet and to the point. That was her, James.
Steve gave them a look indicating he understood it was no idle threat, but then she knew he had figured out what had happened to the terrorists who had targeted Tony. "Crystal."
"Okay then. Go get him."
The confidence faded from Steve's manner like air flooding from a balloon. "How?" he asked.
She blinked. What an odd question. She knew Steve hadn't much practical experience, but he had to know the basics. "You ask him out, of course."
"Yeah, you know, restaurants, movies, museums, sho, ..." James voice trailed off. "Crap, you've been dating for months."
Steve nodded. "I need to do something special, but what's left?"
Peggy's mind flashed over the last few months and, like her husband, realized not bloody much. But there was one thing. "Steve, you know."
He flushed. "But that was … our thing." Oh, the poor dear was worried about upsetting her. Well, none of that.
She shook her head. "It was our era's thing. And Tony knows it." Of course, there was still the old problem. "Do you want me to teach you how?"
"No!" he all but shouted, then his face darkened to a deeper hue of red. "Sorry, but. …"
Ah, of course. That had been their thing – using the idea of the first dance to symbolize so much more. "Well, then, I have a suggestion."
Yes, the gala was all for a good cause – as were the other three annual events the Maria Stark Foundation used as fund raisers, but fuck they were all a nightmare. A room full of self-indulgent people there to see and be seen, overly rich food, champagne on tap and an open bar to oil those checkbooks – it all meant he had to plaster on his best fake smile and glad-handle like it was going out of style. Worse, he had to do it alone. Well, sure, Pep was here, but she was on Phil's arm and not any company for him. Even if he tried to hang out with her, she'd chase him off so they'd have a wider mingling radius. But back in the old days, he'd have been his mother's date and she'd have laughed and made this a whole helluva lot easier to take. Would have looked stunning, too, despite the old lady make-up, but she'd bowed out of even those appearances five years ago. And Tony didn't begrudge her that. He was the businessman, the one who should be doing the schmoozing, not the woman who was secretly the best spy the damned country had ever had, but … He sighed, then let his gaze steal over to Steve.
Given the gala was an invitation only event with the press confined to the red carpet, it had been the perfect public event for Steve to attend and after walking the gauntlet out front, he'd quickly been surrounded by a group of veterans eager to hear his stories first hand. He seemed to be having a good time, too. Laughing and looking all relaxed and edible in his tux, while Happy and his crew kept an eye on Tony as well as Pepper. So he didn't begrudge Steve his happy time in the pseudo-spotlight, but Tony was bored, bored, bored and wanted some company.
His gaze shifted to the ornate clock over the buffet table and fuck. Only midnight. Had to keep this up for another two hours and where were Spidy's arch enemies when he needed them? Because nothing short of disaster would get him out of here without incurring the patented Potts Scowl of Disapproval – also known as her 'Damnit, Tony' look. She actually had a whole set of variations on the theme of those.
He sighed and tried to remember how many times he'd snagged a glass of champagne. Just because he couldn't get drunk didn't mean there weren't half a dozen itchy fingers in the room waiting for him to slip up on the count and Tweet away about his over-indulging. Three. He'd had three. Which meant he'd better lay off for at least another hour before he indulged in a martini. Hey, he liked the taste and his liver certainly didn't mind, but, yeah, appearances. Must. Keep. Up. Appearances. Fuck.
"Ten times." He jumped a little at Steve's voice behind him, and there was no way in hell he'd had that many. He opened his mouth to say as much, but Steve went on, "You've made your way around the room ten times. That enough?"
Yes and no. He'd talked to everyone he had to plus more, but, "I can't leave until two." Pepper's orders.
Steve grinned, obviously enjoying his pain. Or his glum delivery. Probably two parts one, three parts the other. "But it is enough I can monopolize your time now. Right?"
He sighed in relief. "Oh, God, yes, but I thought you were having fun."
"It was a great way to pass the time, but I've been waiting for this all evening."
"Waiting to spend time with me?"
"No, for this." He nodded toward the orchestra and the conductor smiled. A moment later the musicians launched into one of those big band pieces Steve still loved. "Tony Stark, may I have the honor of this dance?"
He blinked. Dance? Steve wanted to dance with him? But he knew this story. Knew what it meant. Suddenly Tony felt a little weak in the knees. Could this really be happening? And, God, he was leaving Steve hanging. He managed a nod, then took Steve's arm so he could lead him out onto the dance floor.
Steve shifted him into a hold that maintained a respectful distance, but his hands felt so warm on the small of Tony's back and around his hand. Felt like the most intimate thing Tony had ever experienced, and he almost stumbled when Steve began to move. Him. Tony Stark, who had been dancing with his mother since he was in diapers, had almost face-planted in two steps.
Strong arms kept him steady, and Tony found his footing quickly enough. It also began to penetrate Steve was good at this. "I … I thought you didn't know how to dance." Who had taught him? Tony wanted to hunt them down and destroy them. Even if he had to build a time machine to do it.
"I was never clumsy, Tony, and the serum gives me perfect balance, but, well, JARVIS showed me what to do."
"JARVIS? My JARVIS?"
He nodded. "He projected footprints on the floor and I followed them."
"Oh, so this is…."
"My first dance? Yes."
Tony trembled a little and Steve pulled him closer so he was resting against warm, strong muscle. "Me?" he whispered into the broad chest. Tony was his perfect partner? "You choose me?"
"Yes. If you'll have me."
Tony's hands tightened. "I … Steve, are you sure?"
He seemed to understand how terrified Tony was. "I told you, Tony. It's my privilege to keep you safe. I'd never hurt you."
Steve would, of course. Just as Tony would hurt him. It was part of any relationship, but, oh, God, they were going to have one of those. A relationship. Steve and Tony. Steve. With him. His perfect partner. "Okay," he whispered.
Strong arms tightened around him, then Steve went on with the dance. He didn't let go of Tony for the next two hours, guiding him through one song after another. Never once missing a step. It was … perfect. Then he finally drew back. "Tony?"
His big hand let go of Tony's smaller one so Steve could cup Tony's chin and lift his head enough they could look into each other's eyes. He smiled one of his gorgeous smiles, then Steve asked, "May I kiss you?"
Oh, God. "I think … I might cry if you don't."
The smile brightened, then Steve leaned down. Their lips brushed once with a feather light touch. A second press grew deeper and Tony shifted his arms around Steve's neck. Vaguely he knew flashbulbs were going off, but they were lost in the fireworks going on in his head. So perfect.
They drew apart, then Steve said, "Just so you know, I told your parents I was going to marry you. Nothing since then has changed my mind."
Oh. He swallowed. "Sounds good."
"This bloody idiot is telling me everything. I can't leave right now."
"Peggy, … Barnes has been compromised."
"Let me put you on hold."