Steve helped him to the workshop, stood by while he let the machines do their work and get him out of the suit. Sometimes in these moments he really missed the Extremis suit, because whatever Steve had to say to him, it seemed important - and that probably meant Tony wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible.
He stepped out of the suit and winced a bit when he moved his shoulder.
“Are you hurt?” Steve asked, looking up from where he'd been inspecting all the little things that were lying on his work bench to finally meet his eyes. He didn't look angry, but preoccupied, like he was thinking about something important. “You were thrown down pretty hard,” he added, when Tony didn't answer fast enough.
“The suit took most of the blast, Steve. It was nothing. I'm going to be fine.” He tried to smile, but only now realized that this was the first time since he'd returned from his little imprisonment in Mandarin City that they were alone, just the two of them without anyone else hanging around, and Steve was really looking as good as he always did. Which was definitely not where his thoughts were supposed to be going at the moment. So he swallowed, his mouth suddenly terribly dry, shook his head at himself and winced again when the movement jolted his shoulder, realizing that maybe the fall had left some substantial bruises after all. Nothing to worry about, but still a little inconvenience.
He could deal with that.
“Are you sure? It looked bad.” Steve's expression gave nothing away and that was beginning to make him uncomfortable. Worried Steve he could take, angry Steve he could deal with, friendly Steve he loved, but a Steve who was controlled and keeping a lid on his emotions usually meant they were heading for an uncomfortable conversation.
The he didn't want to deal with.
“Is that why you wanted to come down here with me? To make sure I'm alright? I'm okay really. Just a little tired and feeling like I was knocked about in a tin can. Oh, wait, I was.”
There was heat in Steve's gaze as he met his eyes this time, something very close to anger. But Tony was sure he hadn't done anything to warrant that anger. Not this time. Joking and banter wasn't usually offensive without him having done something to really anger Steve before that. He hadn't even really been hurt, hadn't done anything reckless that Steve would be mad about. And although adrenaline was still coursing through his body from the fight, making him feel slightly on edge, the last thing he wanted to do now that he finally was back and alone with Steve was arguing. He tried to think of something to say, to ask, but ultimately had no idea what Steve even wanted to hear from him.
Steve stepped towards him, his eyes now taking on a focused glint. When he reached for him, Tony made himself ready to push him away, but when his hands connect with Tony's chest he grabbed the white, sweaty tank top Tony had been wearing at the time the Avengers call had gone out and used it to pull him towards himself. Tony ended up stumbling a little. With Cap being the supersoldier he was, there wasn't much point in pulling back. “Hey,” he said and pushed against Steve's shoulder, to keep himself steady, more than to get away.
“Is it true? You're going to leave?”
“What?” That had certainly not been the question he'd been expecting. Something strange was going on here and Tony wasn't sure he knew what it was. Did Steve have something to be angry about after all?
“Rhodes said you were going to...”
“Oh,” Tony said, stupidly, finally understanding what Cap was talking about. “I said I wouldn't sit around earth waiting for the future to come my way. And...” It was still something he really wanted to do. But how to explain to Steve what he'd gone through, what he'd seen and how afraid he was sometimes that one day whatever earth science could offer them just wouldn't be enough? “I was... I want...” The words didn't come and his mouth snapped shut again, setting into a hard line.
“If there hadn't been a crisis would you even have come here to say goodbye?” Steve asked, anger rising a bit. “You help us save the world by forging Asgardian weapons, it takes me weeks to figure out that you actually got drunk so you could do it. You're an Iron mess in front of the media and suddenly you're just gone!” Steve's grip on his shoulders was getting a little painful now, but Tony knew he owed this man. So he tried to stay still and let the anger wash over him. Let it run its course and maybe they'd not be at each other's throats again. “S.H.I.E.L.D. didn't know if you were still alive or not. Nobody could tell me anything. You were just gone! And then Rhodes said... Never mind. And then you come back. Hero of China. Saving the world by teaming up with a band of your enemies!” The last few words were shouted at him. “Tony! Why can't you ever ask for help? Ask me for help? I thought we were, that things were,... I asked you for those weapons and I didn't even ask what you had to do to get them... and...” Steve's grip tightened even more, getting hard enough to leave marks and Tony had to grit his teeth, and Steve took a deep breath, looked away, nearly trembling with contained anger.
“I'm sorry,” he said, because he really couldn't think of anything else to say, and unsuccessfully tried to untangle himself, put some distance between them. He really didn't want to argue now, but he hadn't even thought about what Steve would be thinking about all that had happened recently. Keeping Pepper, Rhodey, Resilient safe had been his priority, and not getting the Avengers into the line of fire had only been a very small part of it.
“Don't say you're sorry! It's just going to be the same all over again, isn't it? Every time. Every. Single. Time.”
“Steve, I really am...” He wasn't even sure what he was trying to say. Because he wasn't sorry, only a little sad that Steve was angry about it now that all of it was over and done with.
“No, you're not! And now you're here, but you are planning to leave us all behind again.”
“I'm not leaving anyone behind!” he shouted back now, his own irritation getting the better of him. “Earth is protected, damn it! But I need to stop waiting for something to happen and meet... whatever is out there to meet. I just can't...! I need to do something. For myself.”
Steve looked at him then, really looked, anger deflating suddenly. “Why didn't you tell me what you had to do to get Odin's attention?”
“You asked me for those weapons and I gave them to you, because you asked and there was nothing else we could have done. The world would have ended and nobody really wants that, now? Can we just move on?”
The expression on Steve's face changed into something different again, anger still there under the surface, the heat, the energy still in every single line of his face, but something – sad? – was also there. The look he gave him now was smoldering.
He opened his mouth to say more, to apologize for not ever coming to Steve outside of a crisis, trying to explain that it wasn't because they weren't friends, but because Steve was so damn important, but suddenly he couldn't say anything anymore. Because Steve's mouth was pressed to his own, their bodies flush against each other and Steve was holding on to him as if he needed to make sure he was real. That made him forget all the thoughts that had been racing through his mind just now. His genius mind took far too long to catch up to what was going on, realizing that this was in fact real and this was happening right now.
Lips on lips. A kiss.
He gasped, shock making him feel weak and elated and scared and happy all at the same time. He wasn't sure he could take it. Steve used the moment to deepen the kiss, and finally, finally Tony's body caught up, even when his mind didn't, his hands coming up to pull at Steve, fisting in his hair to pull him closer, kissing back, desperately, forcefully, with all he had give.
Hands wandered down, both of them desperate to touch, to feel. Tony heard the fabric of the tanktop tear as Steve pulled it from his body. He was still in full uniform and Tony's fingers caught on the stiff fabric, trying to get leverage enough to move it. Steve let go of him long enough to help, take it off and throw the top away, all in one fluid motion.
It was the sexiest thing Tony had seen in – in a long time. His mind threatened to catch up with all of it again and he nearly stumbled when the thoughts brought the emotions crashing in. This was Captain America, Steve, his friend – doing something that he had never imagined him actually doing outside of his own mind and guilty daydreams. Steve reached out to take his arm and pull him toward himself again, and Tony fought really, really hard to just silence the voice in his head that told him he would regret this very much later, that this wasn't a good idea, that this was the worst possible of ideas.
But there was the heat in Steve's gaze as he watched Tony, his exposed chest, the way he looked up to focus on Tony's lips again and the tiniest, shortest possible moment of him licking his own lips in anticipation that made Tony throw out all his doubts and second thoughts. He'd still be able to meet the future heads on tomorrow. He could go out into space and just leave this behind when Steve came to his senses and when he came back from his exploration they could be friends again. Just now, god, now he wanted this, had never wanted anything as much as he wanted this, and after month of being restrained and watched and controlled - and planning and scheming right under the eyes of the Mandarin -, he could really be allowed to be self-indulgent just this once. Just for now.
Steve still watched him, waiting for him to move, so he stepped forward to put his own hands on Steve's now naked chest, watched in fascination as these strong muscles worked under his hands. He looked up, Steve shifted and they were kissing again.
It was easy to just lose himself in the sensations, in the rush of touching and kissing and moving together.
He couldn't remember getting out of his pants, only realized he was completely naked when Steve's hand came down on his ass, pulling him up with enough force to make him lose his footing, his already hardening cock coming up against Steve's body. Arousal coursed through all his limbs, making him ache, and he wanted more and less and even more... He was biting his lip to keep himself from yelping or moaning, but he had no time to complain, because Steve had discovered the spot beneath his ear that made him shudder. “Where is the bed?” Steve whispered into his ear.
“Bed?” Tony asked back, distracted, by the sensations running through him, the feel of skin touching skin, the smell of Steve and sweat and arousal.
“You sleep down here all the time. Tell me there's a...” Steve gasped when Tony pushed forward and brought their bodies even closer together, rubbed against him, desperate and hot. This time he caught Steve's mouth in an open mouthed kiss, didn't hold back, his hands were catching the rim of Steve's pants and he pulled him toward the cot in the corner where he sometimes slept.
Steve didn't need to be told, he just followed his lead.
His own skin was feeling painfully hot by now and he watched in fascination as Steve finally slipped out of his pants. It wasn't even as if he hadn't seen him naked before. There weren't many things they hadn't done together over the years. But this, this was certainly new and different.
Steve focused back on him, made him sit down on the cot, pressed flush against his side again. “Why do I have the feeling you'll run the moment I let you think long enough?”
“If you think I'd ever run away from this, you haven't listened to enough gossip about me,” he teased back, slightly breathless, his breath competently catching in his throat when Steve smiled at him much too sweetly considering what they were doing at the moment. He could feel Steve's hardening cock against his own hip bone and it was getting really hard to think about anything else anyway, so he stopped thinking.
He needed more.
But it was again Steve who reached out first, tilted up his head slightly, and used light pressure to make him open his mouth for him. He moaned into the next kiss, turned slightly to wrap himself around Steve, and pulled him down with him onto the cot that was so not made for this and creaked and shuddered as their combined weights came down on it.
Steve chuckled into their kiss, a faint and amused rumble, but Tony was to preoccupied with letting the sensations wash over him, moaning when Steve bucked against him, the friction making delicious shivers run trough both of them. Tony rolled his hips in answer, until Steve pulled away from their frantic kissing to sigh. Such a sweet, sweet sound. Their arms tangled together and it was all messy and desperate, but Tony couldn't remember ever experiencing anything as good as this.
“God, Steve,” he moaned and clung to the ridiculously well defined shoulders and threw his had back, when another spark of pleasure ran through him. Steve's arms had found a way to sneak around him, one hand stroking along the back of his thighs and the other just loosely holding him. Then that one hand nudged his thighs a little, he moved it, opened his eyes – when had he even closed them? - to look at Steve, who looked astoundingly collected, but so perfect with his messed up hair and naked chest, smiling with kiss-bruised lips.
“Let me,” he said, and Tony wanted to point out that he hadn't put up much resistance up to this point and had no intention to start now of all times.
When Steve bucked forward this time, his hard cock slipped between Tony' thighs, and he moaned when it rubbed against the underside of his balls. “Steve,” he said, holding on harder.
Steve stroked his thigh again, the other hand finding its way into his hair, stroking and pulling until Tony's face came to rest against his neck, kissing his brow then, kissing his cheek. He leaned up for another real kiss, needing this, needing it so much it hurt. Kissing shouldn't be this sexy. He should need more than that to feel this hard, he should... He rocked forward again, his thighs squeezing Steve's cock, and his own erection trapped between them, sucking on Steve's tongue and earning a little gasp from him that was simply too perfect. Too perfect, too fast.
A hand was grasping his hip hard enough to leave five perfect marks there. He loved the feel of it, Steve's hot breath against the side of his face and then Steve was moving rhythmically, his eyes had closed, lost in the feel of it. He was panting too, rocking his hips, pushing against Steve, desperate to get more friction right now.
Steve was panting and moaning in his ear, saying his name again and again, like a chant, a perfect little chant that was edging him on. It was obvious that Steve was close already. He tried to reach between them to touch himself, but Steve's hand got there first. Strong fingers curled around him, softly squeezing and puling and urging him on. He lost all sense of self for a moment, just rocking into Steve's palm, feeling Steve's cock nudge against him.
He could feel the moment when Steve's movements became more jerky and he rocked against him harder, once, twice, and again, holding him still, painfully still, for a moment, before his palm started moving against him harder than before. Tony moaned, tried to move, his thighs sticky and warm, but Steve just needed one hand to hold him still, only slightly shifting their positions so Tony could rock his hips more freely and then kissed him once again, but now less desperate, skillfully and perfect, sucking on Tony's lower lip.
His pulse was racing, his heart beating so loud that he could hear it and Steve was just using the right kind of pressure and friction. He closed his eyes and let himself go. A rush of pleasure and with moan he came all over Steve's hand. His mind went blank.
Steve was whispering things in his ear, but he couldn't make out actual words over the sound of his own loud breathing. Soft touches and a kiss to his brow. Some maneuvering and he came to rest halfway on top of Steve.
When he came out of his daze, Steve had somehow managed to pull a blanket over them. It was one of the slightly scratchy ones he used down here when he needed them, but he was warm and comfortable and not really in any state to care about that at the moment. Steve was stroking one hand along his arm holding him close.
“What are you thinking?” he asked, his tone light, and Tony froze a little at the mere thought of having to talk just now. Couldn't they just go on like this forever and not face reality at all? The he remembered who he was and realized that there was no big chance of that happening with the way his life was usually going.
“I was just thinking that I've never had sex down here before.”
“Really?” Steve chuckled, and with the way Tony was sprawled against him he could feel the sound. “Then not everything the press says about you can be true.”
He didn't look up. “No, not everything,” he agreed lightly, happy that their positions made it easy to just not look up to meet Steve's gaze. “But I haven't been keeping up lately. I've never read about Captain America being up for something like this either.” He regretted saying it the moment it was out, fearing the conversation that apparently hadn't started yet.
“I'm sure someone would have payed a lot to get pictures. We'd have made the front page.”
“Or destroyed the Internet,” Tony said, and relaxed a little. “You actually sound smug about it. It's unbelievable. Did you hit your head today? Did you get punched a little too hard?” Steve laughed quietly, a wonderful and warm sound in the relative cold environment of the workshop. The surface of the cot was barely broad enough to hold them both and when Steve laughed, it made creaking sounds that were not boding well. “How ever did we manage to not fall off this thing yet? I didn't design it for this.”
Steve stopped laughing, but bent down, a hand coming up to softly grasp his jaw and make him finally look up at him, meet his eyes. The man was still grinning and pressed a soft kiss to his lips. It was entirely too intimate and personal – and good. Much too perfect. His chest felt heavy with unease suddenly, but he didn't move away.
A hand came down to rest on his chest right on the RT. Then Steve pulled away again and just looked at him, with a soft smile, blue eyes intent and not hiding the emotions in them. Tony tried to come up with a word to describe them, to describe the things he was seeing hiddden in the depth, but didn't dare put a name to it.
He swallowed. His throat went dry again, the feeling of unease turning into naked fear. He felt slightly dizzy. “This wasn't just because you were...?”
“Do you have to ask?” Steve shot back before he'd even voiced it.
A scary thought flashed through his mind and he did what he always did in these situations. He untangled himself from Steve, sat up. Their clothes were strewn across the floor. He got up to at least get his pants. Somewhere he should also be able to find a shirt that would still be okay to wear. Steve sat up behind him too, watched him silently as he shrugged on the jeans.
He looked back at him, tried to make his smile sincere, to not show that he was panicking. “I need to call Pepper. I promised to come back to settle some things after the fight... I think I forgot all about it for some reason, huh. She's probably going to kill me and it's your fault.”
“We can't have that,” Steve said with a smile.
The heavy feeling in his chest lifted a little. Joking, laughter and teasing obviously came easily to them. But there was no denying that something had changed tonight.
“Tony,” Steve said and his voice sounded serious now. “Sit down again.” He was sitting on the edge of the cot, the blanket wrapped around him haphazardly. Even like this, hair in disorder and naked beneath the fabric, he cut an imposing figure. He also looked extremely good and Tony couldn't bring himself to look away. “We're going to talk now. Before you have the chance to run away,” Steve said calmly.
Steve just knew him too well.
He sat down beside him and sighed, pinched the back of his nose and just waited for whatever was to come.
But Steve didn't say anything at first.
And that was exactly what he'd been afraid of.
So he looked up and tried to project calm and started: “Look, here, Cap. We're both adults. We were both a little out of it. You don't need to think anything of it. We had sex. It doesn't have to be more...”
He was cut off by Steve taking him by the arm and pulling him over and kissing him. There was no trace of that frantic desperation and passion there now, but this kiss was even more dangerous: focused and soft and reassuring. Tony felt himself melt against Steve before he could fight it. Even when they pulled apart he remained where he was, leaning against Steve's strong chest. “What if I want it to be more, huh?” Steve asked softly. He sat back to stare at Steve surprised then. “Don't you?” Steve asked at his reaction. A worried crease appeared between his brows.
Tony could simply sit there and stare. It was just too much to take in.
“Really, Tony, tell me you don't.”
“I do, Steve, I do,” he said, too fast. He turned away. His heart was racing again and he knew this wasn't going to end well. Steve had no idea how much power he held, how much Tony had wanted this since the beginning, so many, many years ago. But then things had been less complicated and now he wouldn't know what to do without Steve's friendship, knew what it felt like to lose that. “I do. You have no idea how much I want to try this.”
“Then what's the problem?” Steve urged. “Why are you afraid?”
Because you're going to come to your senses sooner or later and I will not know how to go on without you, he thought, but bit his lip. Steve was waiting for some kind of explanation though and he knew he had to say something. “It's just not that simple, Steve! Have you read the papers? Have you watched TV? I'm not exactly famous for my stable relationships. Do you know how my relationships end when they do?”
Steve looked at him with narrowed eyes, watching him with that stern expression he got at Avengers meetings, when he was trying to understand exactly what was at the heart of the crisis and what would be the best strategy to solve the problem. “Do you want to ask Sharon about my track record with perfect relationships? I'm sure she has a lot to say on the topic.”
“Okay, so we're both bad at the relationship thing. That only means the chance of this blowing up in our faces is exceptionally high... I mean we had sex, and it was fantastic! But before that we were arguing, Steve!”
Steve grabbed him by the shoulder and made him turn toward him. “Stop convincing yourself that this is a bad idea! We argue all the time! But we're friends. The best of friends. I was here because this was the first time I've seen you in month. You've been gone for month. And I wanted to see you. Wanted to see you for more than another battle. You were gone, Tony, without a trace. And then you are back, but I only get to see you on television, hear about you from Maria Hill and Rhodey. I wanted to see you so badly. I was so sure...” His voice broke and he let go of Tony's arm then. “I thought I had lost you. I saw all that stuff about you on the news and the last time we saw each other, I threatened to break your nose and you took a temporary leave from the Avengers.”
“I remember,” Tony said. He had tried to keep everyone at arms length back then, sure that everyone would get hurt, that he'd have enough to do with looking after his people at Resilient. “I gave you no choice. I didn't mean what I said then.” He vaguely remembered telling Carol and Cap to fuck off or something along those lines.
“I meant everything I said back then. You can be so infuriating,” Steve told him, his shoulders slumped. “I was worried and you were being stubborn. And then you were gone without a word or trace.”
“I know. I'm sorry, we never got to talk about it,” he said. “I should have accepted help, but we had a plan and I didn't want to involve any of you. I had a plan. And Mandarin was beyond crazy.”
“We could have helped,” Steve said and his jaw was set. “But you never allow that.”
Tony huffed, trying not to show how much the fact that Steve had been worried touched him.
“But you were gone and the Avenger's had no idea how to find you. After a while it seemed likely that you wouldn't return at all. But I couldn't believe you were dead. And I know I didn't do anything that helped to get you out of there, but I couldn't stop thinking about you. About us.”
Something warm settled in the pit of his stomach, a tingling feeling that felt a lot like happiness. “You thought about this?”
“No! I mean, yes. Just not like this. It wasn't supposed to go like this, I mean. I had it all planned out for the next Avengers meeting. But then someone told me that maybe you wouldn't be on planet that long and...” He clamped his mouth shut, looked furious, then sad. “You still want to go.”
And that was the hard question now. This morning he'd had a plan: Get his affairs in order, see that Pepper had all that she needed to stay on top of her game, say good-bye to his friends and go wherever the new suit could carry him. He still yearned to go, part of him thought he needed the adventure, the feeling of freedom and the discovery of something new. But this here wasn't just anyone. It was Steve. And he would be lying if he said this wasn't something he had been yearning for. But now it was just so unexpected and Tony really was afraid that messing this up would maybe be the end of their friendship. And Tony could trust himself to mess something up with this. He always did.
“I really don't want to risk losing your friendship,” he said, because sometimes the truth was the only thing that worked on Steve.
“And you still want to go.”
“Yes, I want to. Maybe one day. But it really was an impulse decision. I hadn't even made any final preparations yet. You're not the only one who'd rather see me abandoning the idea altogether.” He suspected Rhodey hadn't just informed Cap of his plans to leave because he was gossiping, but had especially decided to tell him in hopes of Steve talking some sense into him. Because Rhodey knew that Cap was the only one who could talk sense into him when everyone else had failed. “And this is complicated enough already without me running off to a big space adventure.” His fingers were twitching. “But if we do this everyone will have an opinion, and I'm not sure what my own opinion on this is yet. It's going to get more complicated.”
“Let's take it one step at a time then. We can take this slow and figure out what's best for us. Just the two of us. Lets keep it quiet until we know.”
“You're always so reasonable.”
“That's my strategy,” Steve said with a small smile. But then he went back to being serious. “Lets see where this goes, Tony. I really want it to work. It took me far too long to realize how much I wanted this. Can you honestly tell me you don't have feelings for me? After this?”
Tony shook his head. It was so surreal to even have this conversation. “We are still rushing into this,” he pointed out.
“We already had the sex, Tony. We don't have to rush things anymore. I want to have a relationship.”
“And if that doesn't work out? Can we still be friends?”
Steve gave him another long look and then reached for his hand. “I don't know. But you don't know either. Not before we give it a try.” They stayed silent for a while. Then Steve got up to gather the pieces of his uniform up, leaving the blanket behind on the cot beside Tony, who enjoyed the view of a naked Steve walking unhurriedly though the workshop.
“I think I could get used to this,” he told him when he walked back to him and held out the white T-Shirt he'd been wearing beneath his uniform.
Steve just smiled. “I ruined your shirt. You can take mine.”
There was a comment about old fashioned gentlemen right there at the tip of his tongue, but Steve's sincere smile stopped him from teasing him just now. This was all a little awkward and new still. “Thank you,” he mumbled and slid the shirt over his head. It was a little too big and sweaty from the fight, but it smelled of Steve.
“Are you going back to Seattle? Can't you stay here?”
“I still haven't called Pepper and I'm sure by now she's not happy. I should probably apologize in person.”
“I can be in Seattle on Friday,” Steve said, putting his pants on and sitting down to slip on his boots.
It hadn't even occurred to Tony to ask about anything like that before now. “Okay. Friday. If the world doesn't end before then. Again,” he said, reminding Steve that their lives rarely allowed them to keep to a set schedule. He watched in fascination as Steve pulled the armored shirt over his head and, even without the cowl, finally looked like the imposing figure of Captain America again.
“Not even the world ending could keep me from trying this, understood?”
He just nodded, still surprised that this was actually happening.
* * *
Pepper seemed quietly relieved when Tony told her that he wouldn't be running off into space right away. “I wish you would just abandon this whole thing,” she said. “But I know better than to tell Tony Stark what to do. It's not like you ever listen.”
“Whatever do you mean by that?” he asked with a smile.
“Oh, nothing, Mr. Stark. In fact I'm also not going to tell you to go down into R&D and have a look at our new Stark Phone, because that will probably only lead to you finding another emergency to run off to.”
He didn't go down to their little R&D department. He stayed right beside Pepper, had a long discussion with Cababa after lunch and stayed around the company till late in the evening. The sound of work, the smell of Pepper's office, as strange mix of paper, coffee and an unobtrusive but lingering smell of her favorite perfume, all served to make him feel at home.
“You look tired, boss,” Wyche told him when they met in the hallway.
Pepper just rolled her eyes and said: “I bet he didn't have much rest after that Avengers thing in New York yesterday evening. He's trying to hide that his shoulder was hurt, by the way,”
“You're much too observant, Potts,” Tony told her with a smirk. “It's not so bad.”
“I've worked with you and Iron Man long enough to see through your charades, Tony. Keep your PR lines for the media,” she retorted, only half teasing.
His own Stark Phone rang and he picked up without checking the caller ID, because Wyche and Pepper were chuckling together now and held all of his attention. “Stark.”
“Hey, Tony? How are you?”
Steve sounded a little out of breath and Tony mentally went through all the things that could get someone like Steve out of breath, his mind involuntarily going back to the things they had been up to in the workshop last night.
“Perfectly fine,” he said, swallowing, and threw a suspicious look at the other two people who were right there with him. “How are you? You sound out of breath.”
“Oh, I was just sparring with Carol.”
“Did she punch you through a wall?” he asked. “Because I can really see that knocking the breath out of you.”
“No,” Steve chuckled. “There was no knocking people through anything. I missed you.”
A warm feeling spreads through his body at the words and he smiled. Pepper and Wyche were watching him now and Pepper raised an eyebrow at him as if she was reading something unusual or alarming from his expression. “Honestly, Steve, I've been away less than a day. I'm still fine. No need to check up on me. I haven't done anything to get in trouble.”
Pepper rolled her eyes and said loudly: “Don't tell me. They need Iron Man. Again.”
Steve chuckled at his end of the line. “I need Tony Stark.”
Heat rose up inside of him and he was glad that he had years of training when it came to keeping his poker face, because he managed to not look flustered. The teasing was something they'd always done, but the note of flirting in it was new and unexpected. “Well,” he said, challenging, “maybe you need to do something about that then.”
Another thrill went through him when Steve chuckled. “Sound advice,” he agreed. Then his voice turned into a soft whisper. “I just wanted to hear your voice and ask about your day.”
“I appreciate that. I just need to get used to the thought.”
“Are you speaking in some kind of secret Avengers code?” Pepper asked from behind him.
He glared over his shoulder at her. “Steve and I are talking strategy, Pep, don't worry. No crisis ahead. Or is there?” he asked back into the phone.
“No sign of the world ending yet,” Steve told him.
“I'm glad to hear it.”
Pepper was giving him another strange look after the phone call was ended. “Are you and Steve getting along these days?” she asked.
“Yes, of course. Why are you asking?”
She shrugged. “No reason.”
That evening there was a knock on his door. When he opened it, Steve was standing there in casual street clothes and looking a little sheepish. “Took your advice.”
Tony simply opened the door wider to let him in, wide eyed and wondering how this was really his life now.
* * *
Behind him Thor was fighting the last of the bio-engineered slime monsters, and the smell of ozone-scourged mucus was unpleasant at best. Carol didn't look any better than he did, even her long, beautiful hair was sticking to her head, just as drenched in the stuff as the rest of her. “I hate this day,” she muttered. “I should have stayed in bed.”
“I think I need a shower,” he agreed. “I really hope this stuff isn't going to permanently ruin another uniform.”
Carol looked at him darkly and gestured at her hair. “The fabric is the least of my worries today.”
He gave her a rueful smile as she pushed herself off of the ground and got ready to return to the tower. “See you at the debriefing?”
“I think I'll head back to my own place.”
“With everyone in need of a shower, that sounds like a good plan. Tomorrow then.”
He nodded and turned back to the task at hand. After they'd played their own part in messing up the streets of New York, helping in the clean up was the least the Avengers could do.
It took another two hours before he finally arrived at his dark and cold apartment. Getting clean did take a long time too. The by now dried residue of the green stuff seemed to cling to his skin, and the smell still seemed to linger even after scrubbing himself down hard. By now he was tired enough to just give up. He soaped himself down and stepped under the water one last time. He dressed in a comfortable pair of sweat pants and a T-Shirt and then spent another half an hour trying to clean the uniform as best as he could until he finally gave up on that too and threw it into the tub to drench.
Looking at it made him miserable.
Tired and weary he returned to the dark living room, didn't bother to switch on the light, and picked up his cell phone to call Tony, ready to just lay down on the sofa after and forget about this whole day. He switched on the television set, and blinked when the first thing that came up wasn't a picture of them nearly losing against green slime. It was a feature on Iron Man, soaring above an AIM aircraft, his armor looking partly damaged, but holding his own.
His first reaction was fear and he stared at his phone again, nervous, the wish to call Tony right now to make sure he was alright suddenly much more urgent. He knew it was an overreaction, because if something worse than a little damage had happened to Iron Man the news would have said so. But he knew Tony and his talent for hiding the worst of injuries. The phone was already dialing Tony's number, when there was a knock on the door and Steve froze in his seat, listening intently for any suspicious sounds in the hallway, but the news on the television were drowning out any other sounds. “There has been no statement made by Tony Stark or his company as of yet,” he heard the announcer recite. He cautiously stepped towards the door and opened it a little to peer out and then nearly ripped it out of its hinges when the person on the other side was Tony.
Tony in a crumpled shirt and suit pants, a bruise marring his left cheek bone.
“Steve,” he said and smiled tiredly. “I had a really bad day.”
He took Tony by the arm and pulled him inside, closed the door. “I was just about to call you.”
“...Avengers in New York struggled to restrain the...” the news announcement went on behind them. Tony glanced over, caught a glimpse of him and Carol covered in green slime. He stepped further into the room to get a better look.
“I don't need to ask how your day was, huh?”
“Frustrating,” he admitted. “How did you know I would be here?”
Tony made a dismissive gesture with his hand and continued watching the broadcast. “Avengers ID location. I've made an app.”
Steve shook his head, smiled at the thought. “I think I want that. It's hard enough to keep track.”
In the dimly lit flat Tony looked even worse; tired and pale and much too quiet and still. So Steve did what he had yearned to do all through the day and stepped up to him to wrap his arms around him from behind, kissing him when he looked up. “I'm glad you're here,” he said. “You have no idea how much so.”
“I missed you,” Tony confessed, studying his face in the dark. “I mean I miss you all the time, because you're my friend, but...”
He smiled. “I know,” he whispered against Tony's ear and let his chin rest on his shoulder for a moment just holding him. It was hard not to think about how much he'd missed Tony while the Mandarin had been holding him prisoner. Even when Tony was his usual busy self, it was always possible to get a hold of him when it was about Avengers business or when they were both in New York and just wanted to talk. There had been a time when they had seen each other everyday, just as friends and team members, and Steve missed it, had missed it even harder when Tony had been gone for month without any hint of what had happened to him. And now he just wanted to hold on and make sure Tony wouldn't just leave him again.
“This is different,” Tony said, his voice sounded tired still, but wondering. “I always suspected it would be different with you.”
He planted a small kiss against the side of Tony's throat. “Always suspected?” he asked, amused, a wave of happy and warm affection welling up inside of his chest.
Tony cocked his head to the side and Steve watched his profile, the way the light shed by the TV danced over his face and made his blue eyes shine, dark and glittery. Apparently Tony had to think this over, before he said: “I think so, yes. I just never thought it might be something that would really happen.”
Steve hummed against his throat, loving the warmth and feel of his skin against his lips, and he only pulled himself away as Tony's explanation sank in. “Really?” He pulled Tony along to sit on the sofa and Tony willingly came along and then let himself fall against his shoulder. “That's a long time to...” Then he thought about it hard, remembered all the times he'd been close to Tony, all the times they'd barely been talking and all the happy times spent together. “We're a bit messed up,” he concluded.
“That's something everybody could have told you about me.”
“That's not what... I'm the one who only realized this recently.” A ball of something dark and ugly formed in his throat every time he thought about it too long. Recently had been a few month ago. Before Tony had come back... “I mean, I always loved you. I just didn't realize that you were what I wanted...” - he had to reach for the word that would describe it, but wasn't entirely sure what he even wanted to say- “romantically.”
Blue eyes opened slightly and met his own. “I know,” Tony simply said, but didn't elaborate.
When he yawned, Steve had to admit that maybe this wasn't really the best moment to have this kind of profound relationship talk. “Are you hungry? I wanted to order pizza.”
Tony hummed his agreement and with some effort, sat up straighter. “I should probably take a shower.”
“I could come along,” he offered. “My hair is still wet.”
A shake of the head as Tony got up was his only answer.
“I'd feel better if you'd let me have a look at you, before you break down in the bathroom alone.”
“Mother hen,” Tony said, affectionately. “Can I borrow some clothes? I really want to lose this sweaty shirt.”
Steve gave him a crooked smile. “I'll get you something.” He got up too then, leading Tony to the bathroom, throwing a towel at him and gesturing at the shampoo. In the light of the bathroom he also got a better look at the bruise on Tony's cheek. It would look even worse in morning, but it wasn't anything serious. He pressed a soft kiss on it and left Tony behind to clean up in peace.
“Pepperoni,” Tony said, before he was halfway out the door and Steve chuckled.
So he made the call to the delivery service and went to his bedroom to find something Tony could wear comfortably after his shower, coming up with a gray sweatshirt and a pair of track pants that should fit his slightly slimmer frame. He went back to the bathroom and watched Tony shower. When he finished and stepped out to dry himself off he caught Steve watching, but only smiled without commenting on it.
He held out the clothes and watched Tony slip them on, feeling unreasonably pleased with the results. Tony fidgeted a little and tugged on the sleeves.
They spent the rest of the evening on the sofa, munching on the pizza and not really watching the movie that was on. When Tony fell asleep, head in his lap and obviously comfortable with not doing anything, Steve felt that a bad day had in fact ended like a very good one.
Whatever chances they'd missed before, this was strangely perfect.
It wasn't even that they hadn't spend evenings like this before – they had – but then they had been friends and now they were friends who were trying their hands at a relationship, and the realization that they could still have the same quiet moments of friendship meant the world to him.
He kissed Tony's brow and settled back to watch the slow rise and fall of the sleeping man's chest.
* * *
And if he was really true to himself, maybe he had always known it too, had just never even allowed himself to think about his best friend like that, when all along he had been a little in love with Tony Stark.
Tony had admitted that he had at least always appreciated Steve in ways that went above friendship.
Was this why their relationships had been doomed to fail? Because they always ended up gravitating back to each other? Waiting for each other?
He sighed and pulled his cushion over his head in a futile attempt to stop his own thoughts from racing - and endlessly returning to Tony. Tony who was in his own room. In his own room just down the hall.
They could just have returned to Steve's apartment, instead of staying here with the other Avengers, but Tony had been out of touch for so long that Carol had practically begged him not to run off again at the first opportunity.
And this was how Steve had ended up staying here, in this room that normally felt more like home than his apartment, not able to get a moment of sleep, because Tony was so close and still much too far away. He turned to lay on his side, pushing the cushion under his head again, perfectly aware he was being childish. He'd been able to sleep on missions with the Howling Commando with bombs being dropped on them, so why was this so hard? He would see Tony again in a few hours and then he'd get him alone again, before he left for Seattle or wherever else he was needed next. He'd make sure of it.
No need to be like this.
He stared at the clock on the bedside table as if the clock was responsible for his sleepless night, watched the minutes tick away until he finally decided to give up. He might just as well get up a little early, start on his morning run and work off some of the pent up energy before breakfast, so he wouldn't give himself away when he and Tony met in front of their friends in a few hours.
With determination he did just that, practically jumped out of the bed, got ready and left, running until he finally broke a sweat, determined not to let anyone know that he'd had a restless night.
By the time he finally had returned and showered, breakfast was already in full swing, people chatting in the kitchen. He met Logan and Jess on their way out. Tony was leaning against the kitchen counter a cup of coffee clutched in his hands, talking with Thor and Carol. He was wearing dark and comfortable pants and a slightly rumpled muscle shirt, his hair still wet from a shower of his own. He often looked like that in the mornings when he'd spent the night in his workshop and Steve wondered if he actually had gone down there this morning or sometime in the night. But everything seemed normal enough. Their eyes only met for a moment. “Morning, Cap,” Tony said, a slightly crooked half-smile on his lips. Steve nodded, smiled at Thor and Carol, turned and opened the fridge.
“Do you have to leave again today?”
“Not right away, but I promised Reed to stop by in the morning,” Tony answered Carol's question. Steve immediately tried to think of a strategy that would stop Tony from spending all his time in New York with other people.
“You're not working on any weird projects again?” he asked.
Tony chuckled. “Actually we're playing chess. He wants a rematch.”
“I'm sure it is.”
“Yeah, sounds so much more exciting than spending time with your team mates, or are you the Fantastic Iron Man now?” Carol teased.
Steve closed the fridge and turned to the counter where the three of them were standing, Thor for the moment just a silent but commanding presence that stood by and watched Carol and Tony banter without interrupting. He gave Steve a small smile when he moved over to stand by him.
Tony yawned and took another gulp of his coffee.
“Hey, sleepy head,” Carol teased. “Don't tell me your bed here isn't up to your fancy standards anymore and that's why you're not showing your face around here very often these days. It's not like you can't afford a new one.”
He laughed, and Steve had to look up at the sound. He loved it when Tony's eyes, his whole face, lit up with happiness. Their eyes met and it was like an electric current springing up between them. With a thunder god standing right beside them, it was a wonder that nothing more than that happened. But Tony stopped saying whatever comeback he'd had in store for Carol, dragged his gaze away to look at her again instead of him and Steve returned to his breakfast. “I've slept better,” Tony teased back as if there hadn't been a noticeable pause. “Not sure it had anything to do with the bed though.”
Steve determinedly did not look up at that, only barley keeping himself from smiling. It was very nice to know that apparently he'd not been the only one who'd had trouble sleeping. “Was something bothering you?” he asked, with a straight face.
“No,” Tony said and shrugged. “Just a lot on my mind.”
“Well, there's a surprise,” Steve said and deliberately turned away to make himself a sandwich, but watched Tony from the corner of his eyes. For someone who had just admitted he'd had a sleepless night, he looked very relaxed now, and Steve felt something inside of himself ease in answer to that. It was simply so nice to see Tony in the mornings, even if they hadn't spend the night together. It wasn't even bothering him that nobody knew about them yet. He'd always been a private man.
Tony smiled in his direction, just a small fond smile that Steve knew said much more now, and when he caught Carol and Thor watching him questioningly he just shrugged again. “Hey guys, don't look at me like that. He's right.”
“Maybe,” Steve said, not looking away from what his hands were doing, “another workout would have been good. You might not have had trouble sleeping.”
Surprise flashed through Tony's eyes, before he schooled his features again. It was so typical for him to expect that he was the only one who could be daring enough to make covert allusions to all the things they were doing behind – mostly – closed doors. “Maybe,” he admitted, his voice low, like it was taking some effort to sound unaffected.
“Well, if you're not too busy running off to the Baxter building, maybe we could fit a little hand-to-hand-session in right after breakfast,” he said, knowing he sounded like a relentless task master to anyone but Tony. “You could use some training.”
“We've had a team session yesterday, Steve,” Carol said, frowning slightly. “Give Tony a break. He's not...”
“Actually that sounds great,” Tony said. “I think I'll go get changed. I'll meet you downstairs.” He set his empty cup down on the counter and gave Steve a last challenging look and then waved at Carol and Thor as he walked straight out of the kitchen.
When Steve looked up Carol was staring at him, something dangerous in her gaze. Obviously she had something to say.
But it was Thor who spoke first. “I can sense a strain between you and I'd rather not see my friends fight again.”
Steve sobered up immediately. He'd been so focused on winding up his lover a little that he'd not really thought about anything else. And Carol was still looking at him like she thought she should intervene or say something. But all Steve could think about was Tony waiting outside for him to follow so they could find a hiding place and finally touch again. He had to tear himself away from the mental image. “We're not fighting, not beyond some occasional hand to hand combat. And we're not arguing. Not about things that matter.”
Carol just raised an eyebrow at him, obviously not buying it at all.
“What makes you think we're fighting?”
“I cannot say,” Thor said. “Just that there seems to be a strain between you, whenever you are together.”
“There is?” he said and blinked. Because all that he could feel was a strain when he was not be able to touch and embrace Tony in front of others.
“You used to be inseparable. Now it's rare to even see you around the tower at the same time.”
He nearly flinched at the anger in her voice. When Carol was angry she wouldn't back down. But at the moment he wasn't afraid of her losing her temper, he was uncomfortable with the course this conversation had taken. Because the last thing he wanted to do was lie to his friends, good friends who were worried about them. “We're okay. Don't worry, Carol.”
“Then is he okay? He hasn't been around much lately. Since he came back, I mean...”
He sighed. “I know what you mean. I can't speak for him, Carol, but you know how it is, right? We're all busy...”
“Yes, but Tony has turned it into an art form,” she said, still sounding a little angry – or maybe more worried. “I know and I understand. But that's why I'm worried. He hides from the world when he's not okay. When he's okay he parades around and shows the world that he's a brilliant bastard. And there hasn't been much parading around – here or outside the business world.”
Of course, it was true and, of course, it was also true that Tony hadn't really been okay when he'd come back from China – not that they had really talked about that yet either. Tony was very reluctant to even mentioned his time in Mandarin City. “I... I'll talk to him, I promise.”
“Before you beat him up,” Carol said sternly. “God knows, I want to pick him up and shake him around a little sometimes myself.”
“´We're going to spar,” he said with some conviction and only then remembered that he had been about to abandon the sandwich he'd been making and run after Tony – and not for a training session. “Look, I'm going to go after him right now.”
The proud look Thor threw his way made him feel like the worst kind of liar. “It is well.”
“You were really upset by his disappearance and all that went on before, too, Steve. Maybe I should go...”
He cringed inwardly, before telling her: “No, I'm going. It's fine. I'll try to convince him to stay for a few days. How does that sound?”
“Very optimistic,” she said.
“What's going on?” Clint asked, as he appeared in the kitchen door.
“I'm going after Tony now,” Steve declared and picked up his sandwich, shoving it at Clint on his way out.
“Why? Are they arguing again?” he heard Clint say.
It was clear that he and Tony had to face this soon. For the sake of their friends alone this couldn't be a secret forever. But now that he was finally free of the entanglement he didn't stop long enough to hear Carol's answer to Clint. He just rushed towards the stairs, calculating whether it was more likely that Tony had gone up to his room to wait for him or down to the gym to keep up appearances, wondered if it was better to take the elevator, but decided against it. He rounded the corner, ready to take two steps at a time, when arms encircled him out of nowhere and his battle honed reflexes screamed at him to react and fight back. Luckily both his mind and body were quick to catch up and they knew this person, had known him for so long, and just recently had come to know a different side of him. He met Tony's lips eagerly, allowed himself to be pushed against the wall, both of them touching, grinding, reaching until it got too much and they broke apart.
“I thought you had changed your mind,” Tony gasped.
“No, never.” Steve sighed. “We have some worried friends to talk to. Everyone thinks we're at each other's throats again. Apparently we don't spend enough time together.”
“Oh,” Tony said, all his usual eloquence leaving him whenever they were together like this. Steve thought it was endearing, but had decided not to point it out to Tony any time soon. “I missed you,” Tony whispered. “This was a stupid idea.”
And Steve had to agree. This was all so fresh and new between them and after the reactions their little conversation had gotten in the kitchen, Steve had no idea how anybody would react to finding out what was really going on. Were people really still convinced that things could go bad between them at any moment? Was he convinced that they wouldn't?
His worries took a backseat when Tony kissed him, gasped into his mouth, grinding their bodies together. It was hard to tell who deepened the kiss or was the first to try to get a feel of skin, to get their hands on each other – and he knew it was a stupid idea, knew he had to break this up, or Tony had to – or someone. But after a night spent with nothing but thoughts of Tony and their relationship and all the things he really wanted to tell him, do to him, the thought of letting go was simply unbearable.
A sudden beeping noise made them spring apart, looking at each other like guilty children who'd been caught with the hand in the cookie jar. The alarm was ringing from both their pockets and Steve could hear footsteps in the hallway, sudden activity and noises coming from the direction of the kitchen.
“So much for timing,” Tony said grumbling. “Have I mentioned how much I hate supervillains and their evil schemes?”
Steve held out his hand and Tony took it without a moment of hesitation. “Let's go. I'll have to get my uniform.”
He pulled Tony along, opening the door and nearly running into Jessica Drew. She was already clad in her costume, but not wearing her mask and when she noticed them she stopped in her tracks, looking at them curiously. “What's going on?”
“No idea,” Tony said, pulling his hand from Steve's firm grip and looked around for a moment. “We'll have to postpone that hand-to-hand-session, I think. I'm so sorry.” How he managed to actually look disgruntled and distracted at the same time was anyone's guess.
Steve sighed, trying to get his head in the game. “I bet you are. I'll be sure to spirit you away for one when this is all over.”
“Yeah, but what is this?” Tony asked. “Hydra? AIM? Ultron? Not Ulrton again? I don't know whether I could take that. Aliens maybe? I think I've had enough of aliens.”
Carol appeared in the kitchen door. “Some modified Sentinels are wreaking havoc in the city.”
“Modified?” Steve asked.
“Robots I can do. I'm getting my suit,” Tony announced, already sprinting away. “Meet you there. I won't be able to miss them right?”
A loud crash could be heard from outside their windows. “No, something tells me they're close-by,” Carol said with a frown. “I'm off. Thor is already on the move. Lets do this and lets do it fast. I want to spend a nice relaxed afternoon without punching robots. Do a girl the favor, yes?”
* * *
“Iron Man? What is your status?” Cap's voice asked over the comm link and Tony didn't allow himself to be distracted by the underlying worry. He looked down and caught a glimpse of Captain America pulling his beloved shield from the remaining shell of a destroyed Sentinel.
“I'm above you, Cap. Someone did a fine job on these things.”
“No kidding,” Carol said. She was in his line of vision, hovering above another two Sentinels who were on their way to Avengers Tower. “I don't believe Sentinels are usually this much trouble.”
“Depends who you're talking to,” Tony said between gritted teeth, as a blast hit him in mid flight. Was he imagining this or were the three Sentinels on the ground ignoring Carol completely in favor of firing at him – firing heavy blasts that shouldn't even be part of their design.
“Tony? I think you've made them angry or something.”
“Or something,” he said and dropped to blast one of them from behind, elegantly swooping out of the way when another one tried to get him, instead taking down one of his own. Their A.I. had never been terribly sophisticated. But maybe he shouldn't be sneering at that, because sophisticated A.I.s had given them Ultron...
“Analyze their weapon's technology. Are these repulsors?” he asked incredulous as data streams started to appear in the HUD.
“Stark tech detected.”
“Not Resilient tech?”
“No Resilient grade repulsors detected.”
“Oooookay,” he said, dived out of the way of another blast. He had a bad feeling about this. But before he could warn the other Avengers, something hit him right out of the air, making him crash into the ground hard. The armor took most of the blast, but for a moment his ears were ringing and the HUD was glitching, before new data came streaming in and the visuals were clear again.
A Sentinel was about to step on him. How very original.
He moved to get out of the way, when the familiar shield of Captain America hit the robot right in the middle section, making it stumble backwards a little, giving Ms. Marvel enough time to tumble it over. The shield bounced back, caught easily by its owner, who had appeared in his field of vision as he finally managed to get back on his feet.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, and I think I've seen something like this before. This looks like the work of...” he had no time to end the thought when another crash sounded behind them. A suit of armor had appeared, red strands of energy seeping from its fingertips, knocking Cap out of the way to get to him. There was barely enough time for him to deflect as the strands wrapped itself around his suits arm and torso. Steve landed gracefully on his feet, taking a defensive stance and taking in the new arrival.
“Hi, Sasha,” Iron Man's modulated voice greeted her. “I was wondering when you and Zeke would resurface. Daddy no longer keeping you apart, huh?”
Another Sentinel appeared behind him and he sent a blast in its direction with his free arm, trying to get a hold of Sasha's little tentacles of red energy to pull her off balance and hopefully free himself in the process. But he knew he'd miscalculated when the remaining Sentinels all turned to him as if drawn in by a beacon – or directed by one command. He got thrown into a wall, hearing the crunching sound of concrete and metal connecting. His ears were ringing again, but he had no time to even think about what he wanted to do next, just pushed himself up, propelling himself into the air.
A rain of prickling energy was raining down on him and the Sentinel, before Mjolnir crashed into it and it exploded. The blast of the explosion made him spin, but Thor caught him easily and held him steady.
“Give it up, old man,” Zeke's voice sounded from one of the Sentinels. Tony tried to get a reading on it, to figure out where it got its signal from, but knew it would take him a moment to really pinpoint it. “You think you're so much better than anyone else. You're not better than me.”
Iron Man nodded at Thor and hovered over the gathering crowd of Sentinels beneath them, Sasha for the moment occupied with fending of Ms Marvel and Spider-Woman. “Honestly? Sending in your girlfriend while hiding behind a stolen and re-purposed robot army is seriously lame. Real couples fight side by side.” Not that he really knew where Steve was at this very moment. But nobody knew about that yet anyway. It wasn't like they needed to impress anyone here.
Maniac laughter was the only answer, sounding even worse through the modulation of the speakers. He rolled his eyes. Zeke was seriously unhinged, and for all his smarts not even a little original in his approach.
He regretted the thought instantly when at least five Sentinels fired at him all at once. He managed to dodge half of it, realizing to late that this was no repulsor energy, but a concentrated electromagnetic energy beam, meant to shut down his systems. The disturbance caused some of his systems to immediately malfunction. He was falling back to earth, once again crashing into the street, leaving a dent in the paving, and coming to lie right in the middle of the remaining Sentinels.
“Thor, get out of the way, these things are going to explode,” he called, not sure if anyone else was around as the readings weren't conclusive yet. “Get the civilians out of the way.”
“Shields at 80%,” his own armor informed him.
“Thank you, lets hope it's enough,” he murmured, not even hearing his own voice over the sound of the explosion, that even dampened by the armor shutting out incoming sound to protect him, was still loud.
The HUD lit up with warnings. “Armor integrity compromised,” the robotic voice blared in his ears.
“Great, thanks. Just what I needed,” he muttered, tried to move, the HUD flickering before it came back online. “Everyone okay?” he asked, trying to heave himself out of the little crater the explosion had left behind.
One robot was still moving, although he had no idea how, making ready to punch him. He knew that would hurt without the shields. From out of nowhere Steve's shield came flying again. The robot shrugged it aside, crunched him back into the ground hard, knocking all breath out of him.
“Ugh.” He groaned. “Anyone but me hurt?” he asked again.
“I was about to ask you if you were still alive,” Carol said, from somewhere to his left. He couldn't be sure, as his ears were still ringing and the HUD data was swimming before his eyes. It was a red gloved hand that appeared to pull him out of the crater, though, and he was glad to see Steve, dirty, but unharmed.
“Everyone is fine. How are you?” he asked.
“Banged up,” he said and knew that his voice sounded terribly out of breath even through the modulation. “Maybe he's right. I'm getting too old for this.”
“You're not old,” Steve told him with a consternated frown.
Tony had to laugh at his offended expression. “Nobody is compared to you, Steve” he said and chuckled at Steve rolling his eyes at the old joke.
“Where is Sasha?”
“Disappeared the moment the explosion happened.”
“How many are left?”
“Only these two?” Steve gestured over to where Black Widow and Hawkeye were taking down one of the two remaining robots, before Carol and Thor swooped in and got rid of the last one.
The area looked like a disaster zone. Cars had been smashed, building had taken heavy hits and smoke was rising from the remains of destroyed robots cluttering the street.
The HUD was still blaring all the warnings in the book at him. He could barely make the armor function enough to walk as long as the systems weren't properly rebooted. Steve helped him take of his helmet and he was surprised by its state when he looked at it. His head was feeling fine in comparison.
“Are you sure, you're okay?” Steve asked again. “There's blood on your face.”
He reached up to check and his fingers came away red, but he didn't yet feel anything. “I'm okay, I think. My armor is not.” He tried to look around. “Are you telling me that was it? They're gone now? I would have been an easy target for them in this state and they just leave?”
“Looks like it,” Steve nodded. People were emerging from the buildings around them, most of them looking terrified. “Give me a second,” Steve told him and started walking towards a group of police officers.
“Yeah, yeah, take your time. It's not like I'm going anywhere.”
Hawkeye appeared at his side. “Come on, Shellhead, sit down, before we have to ask Thor to scratch you up from the street again.” He tried to make the joints move enough to comply, sitting down on some rubble at the side of the street.
“Someone really doesn't like you, huh? Surprise, surprise.”
“Yeah, people bearing useless grudges and all that.” Every bone in his body ached and it was hard to focus on anything. But he caught sight of Steve, walking between the emerging civilians, taking stock and making sure people were alright. He wasn't even limping, his uniform dirty, but only slightly torn in places. Steve, unharmed and looking fine.
Something in his chest eased.
Now that all was over he allowed himself to feel the worry that he'd not allowed himself during the fight – and the relief. He was really glad that nothing had happened to him. Steve looked up as if he knew he was watching, caught his eye. Tony was too tired to even muster up a smile or look relieved – some sleep would have been helpful after all. But he really wanted to get up and hold on to Steve like a child, a tired petulant child, that would like a shower and a cuddle right about now.
He swallowed, aware that he was staring as Steve approached, reached out to him, reaching as if he wanted to touch his cheek, the way he sometimes did before leaning in for a kiss. The hand froze half-way to his face, and landed on his shoulder instead, and Tony finally mustered up a self-conscious, tired half-smile, trying to convey that he appreciated the thought, but that they both were aware that they were in public. Steve cleared his throat. “Are you sure, you're okay?”
Tony looked to the side to where Natasha was standing overlooking the battleground, her eyes passing over him and Cap. A woman was standing there, behind Natasha, behind the rubble, holding a Stark Phone of all things, and was taking a picture of them, the rubble, Avengers still busy in the middle of it all, him and Cap in the middle of destruction.
There she was: Reality crashing in. And he wasn't ready for it, not with this fragile thing between them that he was barely brave enough to admit meant the world to him.
Steve followed his gaze, took it in stride, just like he took most things and asked him again. He nodded.
But was he?
What would the world say if this got out?
He had a very good idea and no wish to let the tide of paparazzi crash down over Steve just because he had been stupid enough to choose him of all people.
* * *
“I want to go out with you,” he told him over the phone.
“We're already together, Steve.” It was hard to tell, but Tony's voice had softened a little.
“Really?” he asked, set on not being refused outright. “I really can't tell with you being in Seattle all the time and me being here.”
“You know what I mean,” Tony said with a sigh.
“You know what I mean, too.”
Before him on the table was an open paper and he looked down on it, on the picture that had made the front page after their battle with the Sentinels and Stane and Sasha Hammer – a picture of Tony sitting in the rubble, looking tired and a little dirty, raw and vulnerable. It was a wonder that the headline wasn't reading “Iron Man in love with Captain America?” because it was so painfully obvious to Steve just looking at the picture. When he'd first seen it his insides had warmed with happiness until he realized that Tony would panic the moment he got to see this, probably already had seen this and now was trying to convince himself that he had to be extra careful not to tip anyone off and was now protecting them both by staying away from Steve.
And that was a stupid idea. Steve would not allow it. Not guessing the truth, their friends were already worried about them, because they weren't stupid either and knew something was going on between them, although with the little they knew they were coming to all the wrong conclusions.
He sighed. He was terrible at lying to people. He hated lying to his friends. And he really wanted this. “I want to date like normal people do.”
“We're not not normal people, Steve, or haven't you noticed?” Tony was very good with pretending and sometimes, especially over the phone, it was hard to read what was really going on inside of him. His voice had gone even softer now, sounding like a tired breath. He'd known that this conversation was coming and probably had already decided how to deal with it a long time ago.
“It's hard to miss, watching you go from your genius routine to your business man persona and then throwing yourself from rooftops in a tin can, darling.”
Tony chuckled, an actually amused sound, and Steve was ready to count this as a win. “I'm not throwing myself from rooftops I'm surging into the sky.”
“Whatever you say, Shellhead.”
Some more laughter reached his ears, and it set his mind at ease a little. Convincing Tony when he was happy, was always easier than trying to make him do things when he was shutting himself off.
“Obviously you're living the life of the average American, Captain Red, White and Blue. Where would we even go on a date without the whole world standing by to watch? Don't tell me you'd feel comfortable doing this in the public eye. I know you well enough to know that you like your private life to be private.”
Of course, Tony knew him well enough to know that. But Steve knew he could deal with the press. He wouldn't like it, but if it meant he could finally tell people about how happy he was with Tony, he'd find a way to deal with it. The secrecy couldn't be kept up forever. “I nearly told Sam about us yesterday,” he admitted. “He asked me if I had seen Sharon lately, said I looked much happier, more content. And I nearly blurted out that I love you.” He fell silent and waited for Tony to react, but there was only silence in return. “I want to at least tell my friends that I'm happy. Why I'm happy.”
“I know,” Tony said, and it sounded like the admission was really hard for him. “I'm happy, too. Things are going... they're going better than I thought they would. It's scaring me a little.”
“Things are never that good for long.”
Oh, Steve knew that feeling. He knew it too well, felt it was too close to what he had been feeling too often in his life. “I know. But maybe it can be.”
“What if it can't?”
He had been thinking about that too, scared that this new thing between them wouldn't work. Their start into this relationship hadn't exactly been perfect, but at the same time so much like their friendship with them clashing and complementing each other all at once. “I believe in this, in us. I don't want to hide it.” Had he ever told Sharon that? He honestly couldn't remember. “Sometimes you have to take chances for things to work out.”
Tony remained silent for a moment, and Steve didn't say anything either, listening to the faint sounds of Tony's breathing across the line. “Are we talking strategy, Cap?”
“No, we're talking relationship. And I'm terrible at it.”
“So am I.”
“Do you think that maybe all our other relationships haven't worked out because of this?”
It was obvious that he'd stunned Tony into silence or that Tony wasn't sure what he was talking about.
So he tried to explain: “I mean, remember, when we talked about how you always wondered what things could be between us and I said...”
“You said, you always loved me, but hadn't realized that it could be more than friendship.”
“Yes.” He sighed. “What if that's why we never manged to have a stable relationship, because we're always coming back to each other.”
Tony took a deep breath. “That was a very romantic thing to say, Steve, but... not very pragmatic.”
“Don't brush me off. Just go out with me. We don't have to tell anyone.” He knew he sounded a little desperate at this point, but that usually worked on Tony. When he'd asked Tony for weapons to save the world in a voice like this, he'd found a way to forge him Asgardian weapons, whatever he'd had to do to in the process. A scary thought, but this wasn't so much to ask for in comparison, so he didn't feel bad about using every trick in his arsenal.
“I'll ask again: Where would we even go on a date without the whole world taking notice? Can you imagine the headline of the Daily Bugle? Any headline? They wouldn't just damn you for dating a man, but for showing your lack of taste in choosing me! Captain America corrupted!”
Steve was sure the media would be insufferable for a while, especially the Bugle. Paparazzi would start falling over themselves to follow them around and to get a picture of them in any kind of compromising situation. He had no doubt about it and the thought didn't scare him, disgusted him maybe, amused him a little if he didn't think too hard about it. He pinched the back of his nose with two fingers and closed his eyes for a moment to focus. He knew Tony had gone through all of this before, had lived many of his affairs and relationships out in public, in front of cameras and photographers. And although Steve had managed to keep his private life mostly private, he knew that some people were only waiting for him to do something that would give them ammunition. But what did he care what they would be thinking of him? The person he had to convince was clearly Tony. “I'm sure most people would understand the appeal, actually. You're an attractive man.”
“And we're on record for fighting each other worse than enemies.”
How he wished he could just forget all about that. But Tony was right. The moment they went public, people would bring it up and use it against them. And he knew how it must look, could imagine the questions that would be asked. He vaguely remembered a video of Tony falling apart at his funeral and realized how people would look back at all that had happened and draw their own conclusions about what might have gone under the surface. “The question will be why now and not sooner,” he said, only half admitting Tony's point.
“That'll be on me, of course, obviously I got bored and decided to seduce you only recently.”
“Tony, you're not scared of the media. You've dealt with them for all your life and you've been doing fine most of the time.”
Tony snorted, a derisive sound that let Steve know what he thought about that. But he said: “I know how to play them when I have to. But this...”
“I'm not afraid of them either. So what exactly are we afraid of.”
“Reality,” Tony answered without hesitation, without missing a beat or even having to think about it.
He blinked, replayed the last few sentences of their conversation in his mind. Startled, he realized that Tony wasn't joking, not now. “You might want to explain that.”
Tony sighed. “The last few weeks have been good. We're not arguing. After that first time I thought this was all about the spark of angry passion that would run its course and burn out. But, okay, I know I'm an idiot when it comes to the two of us, but I get it now. It's not going to burn out. I look forward to you calling me when I'm working. I'm looking forward to just crashing on your sofa, telling me how your day was. I love this.” A tiny pause, a second of hesitation. “I love you.”
His mouth went dry, but his heart was screaming out, starting to beat a little faster. They hadn't said that yet, not in this way, not right like this. Always with the underlying meaning of “I always loved you”, always with the implication that they'd always been friends, family, partners in the field.
He tried to say it back, but Tony was talking still, faster now. “I'm selfish. I don't want this to stop. And when we let the world in, it will change. There's a reason why I cut myself of from the world when I work on something, Steve, because that's the only way things can stay perfect. As soon as something gets out there, they will use it against you.”
“Against us. Last time I checked we were in this together. Tony, I...”
“I know we can trust our friends. But they'll have expectations. They'll make offhanded comments. They'll take sides. And before I even know how it happens we'll argue again. Oh, and can you imagine what will happen with A.I.M. and H.Y.D.R.A. - and people like Stane knowing?”
He could. “I don't care, Tony. I love you. I don't care who knows. And we will argue. Lets be realistic. We will argue and it will probably get bad, because we're just too different to not butt heads time and again. Makes life interesting.”
“Makes life fucking terrible, Steve,” Tony interrupted.
“Yeah, that too. But that's how it is and now that we are on the same page, maybe I can try and keep you from keeping everything to yourself until it explodes and you can teach me a bit more how the world works for you. Because I want this. And we're going to have epic fights, but I'll still love you. I can be selfish too.”
“Oh god, Steve,” Tony said and took a deep breath. Steve wasn't sure what that meant, because he couldn't see his face, longed to see his face to have something to go by. “We're going to be like Reed and Sue and that means I'm totally Reed, doesn't it?”
The distress in Tony's voice was so funny that he was startled into laughing. “I have no problem with being Sue,” he said, “but I fear we're going to be our very own brand of complicated.”
“Oh god,” Tony repeated.
Steve couldn't help chuckling again. “Does this mean we can go out now?”
“You are so stubborn!”
“Well, so are you. That's where half of our problems come from. Come on, we used to go out together all the time. This isn't different.”
“Okay,” Tony said. “But whatever goes wrong will be on you.”
“Okay,” Tony repeated and sounded now as if he was in the process of making a plan. “Choose a place we went to before. People will take pictures and probably won't even know what's going on. We'll look liike friends who have good time together. We can do that.”
“That's all I'm asking,” he said and smiled brightly, although Tony couldn't see it. “And if it goes well, we'll tell our friends.”
Tony groaned. “You know what? If it goes well, why not? There will be an Avenger's emergency anyway, before anyone gets a good look at us. Mark my words.”
* * *
Tony would be in New York for business for a few days and they'd decided to meet up at a little Italian restaurant they both liked. Nothing too fancy, but a place special to both of them. He had proposed to pick Tony up from the airport, but Tony had just joked about Steve being too much of a perfect gentleman already. So they'd meet there.
Which was why Steve had no need to be nervous.
Everything was going to plan.
Strategy put into action.
Everything would be as usual and Tony would realize that the world wouldn't end, just because the two of them went out together in public, doing harmless things like eating together.
Why was he staring at his own reflection in the mirror then as if something was wrong with the Jeans and the blue button down shirt he was wearing.
He was the one who'd asked for a casual date, had wanted to take Tony to the movies or something, away from prying eyes, but in public still, before Tony had insisted that you did not do that if you had no plans to actually make out in the dark. He'd proposed to go to a gallery and then eat something instead, something they'd used to do very often, especially in Steve's early years with the Avengers.
In the end they'd settled on just eating somewhere. It was just a first date after all. The first of many if Steve had anything to say about it.
A knock on the door pulled him from his nervous contemplations. Why had he decided to stay at the Tower today of all days? He had known that something would come up if he stayed here.
Carol was standing in front of his door, not looking alarmed or like it was time to assemble. “Hey, Cap,” she said and looked him over. “We've decided to have an Avenger's night out. Want to join us?”
“Uh,” he said. “Actually I have plans.”
She looked at him even more critically then, before she smiled, an interested glint in her eyes. “Who is the lucky person?”
“It's... a long story. We're just trying this out.”
“Look at you, freshly showered and all dressed up. I hope they'll appreciate it.” She cocked her head to the side and studied him. “The shirt is nice. But if Jan were here she wouldn't let you go out in these pants.”
He looked down at the jeans. “Why? What's wrong with them.”
“Well, Jan, you know? Take the female advice and wear the dark pants you wore at that Gala last week. Don't wear a fancy jacket. Just the pants and the shirt will do. You'll look ravishing.”
He blinked at her. “Okay.”
She smiled. “Have a nice evening then. And I want details in the morning.”
He smiled back, even more nervous than before. He'd feel so much better when he could tell Carol who he was dating. More than dating.
It took only another look into the mirror to make him decide to take Carol's advice.
A few minutes later he was ready to go, waiting in front of the elevator. When it arrived, Natasha was standing inside, wearing her Black Widow outfit and holding a bouquet of flowers. Her expression remained blank until she met his eyes. Getting out, she held the flowers out to him. “Seems like you need them more than I do,” she told him. Startled, he held on to them, blinked after her, but then got on the elevator before the doors had a chance of closing. “Thanks,” he said.
“Tell Tony he's a very lucky man,” she said without looking back, leaving Steve wondering how the hell she'd figured that out and then wondering how Tony and he had ever thought they could keep this a secret in the first place with the friends they had.
The doors were already closed when he muttered. “That's probably the one thing I won't need to convince him of.”
For a moment he had the urge to pick up his cell phone and call Natasha to ask her how she had known. But he remembered her standing right there by him and Tony on that day when that picture had been taken. And apparently the true meaning of the moment hadn't been lost on her at least. He suddenly felt self-conscious, asked himself if others already knew too and were just politely waiting for them to get their act together – or call it off.
He looked down at the bright mix of white, yellow and soft lavender colored flowers, and wondered where Natasha had got them from in the first place. Then he realized that he wouldn't be able to take the bike, if he wanted to get them to Tony in one piece. Flowers had not been part of this casual “going out into public together” idea, but now that he was looking at them he felt bad about simply giving them away to someone else.
Throwing them away was out of the question.
Sighing, he checked his watch. The elevator finally arrived downstairs – and Steve nodded to himself. He was early, probably much too early anyway, and a good long walk would maybe even help him shake off a bit of this nervousness. Taking a taxi would probably be the better option, but no, he was going to walk, and when he met Tony there would be no nervousness whatsoever involved, because weeks into a relationship was not the time to be all awkward about dating.
And he'd give him the flowers, with a nice greeting from Natasha, making his own point about why they would have to tell people about them soon.
Sounded like a plan.
Nothing would go wrong if he had a plan.
He was good at plans.
* * *
And wasn't it just strange to realize that you were in a relationship – had been in a relationship for weeks - and not only hadn't dated at all before it happened or even during your first days together, but that you were still damn nervous to even think about it? Tony Stark was nervous about dating.
Pepper would have laughed at him if she knew.
“I'm screwed,” he murmured to himself, “so very screwed.”
Did this even count as a date if they weren't actually trying to show the world they were a couple yet?
Wouldn't it really be exactly like all the other times they'd just gone out together, as friends, hanging out, having fun? Or... Had they actually been dating a long time ago and had both just been to dense to notice?
For once he was grateful for being stuck in New York traffic, so he could for a moment just hide his face in his hand. “I'm really screwed,” he whispered again. “I'm dating Captain America and I'm screwed.”
Maybe Steve had been right and this hadn't just been bound to happen, but had actually happened a long time ago and it was past time they finally started dealing with it.
“Screwed,” he said out loud.
He'd actually been jittery enough to call Reed on the flight over. Reed, of course, had immediately suspected that something was up, that the world needed to be saved, that Tony was in trouble or that some threat or another might be on its way to earth. So Tony had made small talk about his latest pet project, talked to Reed about the possibilities of perfecting the space armor and listened to Reed's own plans of making a family trip of the Fantastic Four kind. “What does Sue say to that?” Tony had asked, his thoughts straying back to his conversation with Steve only days ago.
“Oh, she thinks we should make sure nothing will go wrong, but it will be good for the children to spend some time with both their parents.”
“Ah,” he'd said. “So you're a happy little fantastic family, huh?”
“Yes,” Reed had said simply, not even contemplating Tony's interest in the matter.
Sue and Reed had always been different, but when it came down to it, even when they had their occasional problems, even when they argued fiercely sometimes, they loved each other and that seemed enough for them to work things out time and again. And somehow it did always work out for them. Hell, through all of it they had even managed to built a family, had two terribly smart and beautiful children.
If they could figure it out and keep it working, why shouldn't Steve and he be able to built something stable, too?
And was he now making comparisons like that for real? It was scary to even think about it. He just couldn't decide if the possibility of it happening scared him more than the possibility of it not happening. “Screwed,” he concluded, “really, epically screwed. This is going to blow up in my face any minute now.” Pepper would totally have his head checked the minute this got out.
God, he hoped Steve had the decency no to be there already when he reached the restaurant, so that he'd have a few minutes to compose himself and slip into his public persona. That wouldn't be so hard. It was always just so easy to slip back into it. And once upon a time, a lifetime ago, it had even fooled Steve.
Tony had no illusions about it working on him today.
The cars in front of him started moving. Not far now, nearly there, he thought, his heart beating a little faster. It was dark already, and absentmindedly he watched the first hesitant rain drops fall against his wind shield. It had been a lovely day, and now it was starting to drizzle. He was glad that he was too much the man of science to think about bad omens. At this rate he was doing a well enough job to make himself go crazy, without the help of any superstitions.
The car in front of him came to a screeching halt and he stood on the brakes. “What the...” A loud crash could be heard from his left side and, as he looked over, a Hulk buster sized metal suit landed on the sidewalk. People were running, screaming. He had a split second to take in the situation, realize that something that could have been a Sentinel once was blocking the traffic before him.
He pressed a button on his wrist watch, but knew it would be too late, as the metal suit lunged for his car. The impact shook him, knocked the breath from his lungs and the car was flung from the street. He lost his bearings, the world turned and the car landed, top down, on the sidewalk, leaving him hanging in his seat-belt, fighting hard to keep conscious.
* * *
It wasn't like him to not think ahead. But maybe he'd been thinking about this a little too much, so that the important little details like the weather had escaped his notice.
On the other hand he could already imagine the way Tony's eyes would light up at seeing him, all wet and miserable, and then unabashedly laughing at him for getting caught in the rain on a day like this – and maybe that would be exactly what the both of them needed to feel normal about this. Then he'd shove the flowers at him, tease him, while Tony'd call him an old fashioned idiot. It sounded like the perfect evening to him.
He smiled to himself. Had he always been this smitten and just not allowed himself to know?
A little boy looked at him curiously as he walked past, pointing to his mother.
For some reason not many people recognized him when he wasn't in uniform, only “true” fans and especially kids had a knack for spotting him when he was just walking through the streets like a civilian. He stopped at a pedestrian light, still smiling to himself, even as the rain got heavier, developing into a steady pour. It really didn't matter though. He held up the flowers, shielding them against his chest, although they were probably not in need of protection from a little water.
A loud crash could be heard from somewhere a few blocks ahead and he let the arm holding the flowers sink to his side, narrowing his eyes. That hadn't sounded like your average car accident. He couldn't see any smoke going up between the buildings, so maybe it wasn't anything he had to take care of. A hand went to his shoulder, self-consciously reaching for a shield that wasn't there. Making a fist as he realized that there was nothing to reach for.
He took a deep breath and tried to ignore the bad feeling settling inside his stomach.
People started murmuring around him, pointing upwards to something behind him. He whirled around. A man's eyes met his with a frown, probably also recognizing him now. His gaze finally found what the people around him were staring at with open mouths and he lost his grip on the flowers. A red and gold suit of armor was shooting up into the night sky over the city.
His heart clenched. He looked over his shoulder at where the crash had come from, hearing another dull crashing sound.
There was no way of knowing what was going on, but Tony had called his suit. He was in trouble.
He was already running when he heard the familiar sound of the Avenger's alarm that told his team mates they needed to assemble.
* * *
“Stark,” Zeke's voice said from the other side of the bits and pieces that were left of his shiny red car. He sighed. Steve would be really disappointed. And if he survived this, he would get to tell him: “I told you so.”
He dragged himself up from the wet street to look at his armored enemy. His suit was on the way, but he knew that it might not get here in time. When he got out of this he really needed to look into a way to make a suit that fitted into a briefcase again. God, he missed Extremis sometimes.
People were still inside the danger zone and he wouldn't be able to do anything about it without his armor. Time to get Zeke's attention.
“Another Iron Monger, really? Not very biotechnology, is it?” he asked, touching his forehead to find that he was bleeding from another cut, flicking some wet strands of hair out of his eyes. “What happened to all the Sentinels? Did we get all of them last time?”
“You're one to talk, Iron Man. How many suits did you build over the years?”
“Hmm... One or two here and there. All from scratch by the way, not using other people's stuff or specs.”
The bulky armor kept still and Tony couldn't be sure what that meant, remembered Steve telling him how strange it was to see Iron Man go all still and stay that way for a prolonged amount of time. Since he'd told him he'd made a point of moving a lot, even when it wasn't necessary, gesticulating and moving his head, during conversations.
He looked down at his hand as if he was inspecting the blood on his fingertips, cold and wet from the rain already, but instead looked at his watch where a small red light was blinking faster and faster telling him that his suit was getting closer. “See I'm meeting someone, so lets just cut to the chase. What is it you want?” And this was a real gamble, because he could only assume that Zeke wasn't here to flatten him right where he stood, because he'd had a chance to kill him already – and he was still alive.
The modulated laughter was disconcerting to say the least.
But at least people were backing away. In a second he'd be free to move without endangering anyone but himself.
The robot that had been blocking the street was suddenly moving, flinging a car out of the way. People were screaming again and Tony jerked around. “Stop!”
“In a moment,” Zeke said. “Ever the hero, thinking of all the lives to be saved, huh? Even when you're the one building the weapons that take their lives. You're a hypocrite.”
Tony didn't even flinch, had heard the accusation a thousand times from enemies and friends and people who barely knew him. There was a reason why he'd made plans to look for a new future outside of this solar system. He knew that he'd hit a roadblock with what his technology could do, was looking for new ways to evolve, to push ahead to a better future.
“I'm not the one attacking where innocent bystanders could get hurt,” he said. The suit had to be seconds away now. He barely had enough time to jump out of the way when a red streak of energy suddenly impacted with the place he'd just been standing on. Sasha had emerged on the scene.
But so had his suit. He dove into the next alley, trusting the pieces to slide into place. “Coward,” Sasha Hammer shrieked and was after him, but not before his repulsors allowed him to shoot out of the alley and away from her. He surveyed the area from above, making sure that people had found ways to get away and to safety. The car beneath him the only thing that had really been utterly destroyed so far. It was replaceable, but he'd had a soft spot for that one.
“So, can we talk now?” Iron Man asked, “or are we skipping that in favor of punching each other in the face plates?”
“We'll get you, Stark,” Sasha said, and her voice was full of fierce determination, something Tony could usually appreciate in a young, attractive woman. But not tonight. Not when Steve had maybe just arrived at their little restaurant to find him absent. He gritted his teeth.
“I get the drift, Sasha,” he said.
“We're not here to kill you, Stark,” Zeke told him and Tony looked down, taking in the readings the projections in his HUD were showing him. Three more energy signatures were on the way that read like that not-really-a-Sentinel-robot-thing down the street.
“That's a comfort,” he said. “What are you here for then?”
“To get you, before your friends come in.”
He was about to make a snippy remark that maybe then New York was a stupid place for an ambush in the first place, but held his tongue. Better not give the mad man any more ideas for a possible next time. Sasha attacked, he swished out of the way, but one of the new arrivals picked up a four-doored Sedan as if it was nothing and flung it at him. When he tried to swerve to the side, Sasha got hold of his leg with her red energy strings and he only barely avoided being crushed into the street.
The car had been empty. Thank God.
Iron Monger fired an energy blast at him, that hit him in the side, before he managed to untangle himself from Sasha's firm grip. “Do us a favor and just stay down, Stark.”
“I have it on good authority that I'm too stubborn to just give in,” he said, when one of the robots appeared above him, punching at him to crush him down again. The armor was calculating damage, showing him a continuous stream of data. So far all systems were holding up. The robot crushed down on him again and the metal screeched against metal.
“Knock him out,” Stane's voice said from somewhere to his right.
Tony pulled back his leg, putting the thrusters into full force. Sasha stumbled forward and nearly let go. He put more energy into the thrusters and managed to crash into the robot above him hard enough to get it between himself and the Hammer girl.
A blast hit him from the left, but his shields were holding even as warnings were popping up in front of his eyes. With another push he was finally free from Sasha, but a second robot, the one that had been blocking the street had come up to them, and his HUD was showing him that the other energy signatures had come in close, too. He needed to get away and fast.
“Don't let him get free,” Zeke called, probably to Sasha, because these robots really didn't seem like the overly sophisticated sort of AI, but you never knew what people cooked up in their private little workshops. He should know. Arms crushed down around him, holding him steady, while Sasha aimed her next punch at his helmet. His head swung to the left, but even as he was trying to get away from her next punch his thrusters were forcing him upwards and his arms were pushing at the robot to loosen its grip.
Zeke aimed another shot at him and Tony knew it was the blast that had shut down his systems last time. He pushed to get out of the way, but the other enormous metal hand clamped down on his helmet, pushing down hard enough that he could feel the jolt go down along his spine. “This seems like overkill, boys and girls,” he said with a grunt. What the hell was this even about, apart from the usual revenge and competition madness?
The moment the blast was released, something heavy and red hit the robot right above his head and it stumbled backwards, pulling Tony with it. Sasha jerked around to look where it had come from, Zeke missed and Tony managed to at least wrench himself half free then, realizing that the red and heavy object had been a car door of his own ruined car. And sure enough when he looked over, there was Steve, not in uniform, but in the clothes he'd picked for their evening together. He was wet from head to toe by now and his face was grim, a dangerous glint in his blue eyes.
“Step away from Iron Man,” he told Sasha in a stern voice that very often worked on Tony. Apparently it also worked on Sasha Hammer, because she took a step back, still staring at him.
In the moment of surprise, Tony finally completely wrenched himself free.
“You're late, Cap,” Iron Man said.
“Sorry, I wasn't aware we'd agreed to go on a double date.”
He wanted to laugh, because Steve still wore the stern, slightly angry expression, but that wasn’t for him, but for the interlopers who'd ruined their evening.
But their lighthearted banter brought Stane back to himself and the robots were also still moving.
“You're unarmed, Captain,” he said and turned away from Steve, focusing his attention back on Iron Man, “and this isn't about you. It's about him.”
“I don't see how it isn't. If it's about him,” - he pointed at Tony - “it's about me.”
He hovered in mid-air, knowing that he should be trying to get away from here as fast as possible. But all he could see was Steve, looking fierce and protective, because someone was after him.
It was stupid, of course, because the robots were completely unaffected by Cap's heroic declaration and while Sasha was focusing on Steve now, Zeke had turned back to him. “We're not here to get rid of your team mate. We need him. I need him.”
And, hey, didn't that just sound like the completely wrong kind of sinister?
“Same is true for me, pal, so we're kind of at an impasse,” Steve said, not moving an inch until Sasha lunged at him, then he nimbly jumped out of the way, hitting her midsection hard, not doing much harm, but Tony knew from experience that this still hurt.
Tony dived in when it looked like one of the robots was about to join the fight, and he barley avoided being hit by a small-scale missile Zeke sent his way, that instead sent the first robot to the ground. He shielded Steve with his own armored body. Sasha getting a good grip on his arm again.
“It's sweet of you to come running to my rescue, Cap,” Tony told him, “but you should have brought a shield.”
“I had flowers, but I fear I had to ditch them on the way here.”
“Sweet,” Tony said, falling into the banter as he always did in a fight.
“So what is this about, now?”
“Haven't figured it out, yet.”
“Tony?” Carol's voice suddenly sounded through his comm. “We're on the way. How bad is it?”
“Does someone have Cap's shield?” he asked.
“Is he there?” Carol asked surprised.
“Steve is here. He just forgot to bring his props.”
He was flung against a streetlight, and grunted, crashing down hard and feeling every inch of his body. Steve nimbly jumped over the wreckage of the cars in front of them, trying to distract the other robot. Tony felt a sting of worry, even knowing that Steve could handle situations like this without his shield. So he used his own momentum, to pull Sasha off her feet and into the line of Zeke's fire, then swooping forward and flying straight at Zeke, who he was sure was also controlling the metal tin-cans that were now turning to Cap. The Iron Monger armor was heavier and better shielded, but not as fast and flexible as Tony was in his own armor.
“Why are you using this thing again?” he asked, suddenly wondering why Zeke wasn't using the bio-engineered modifications that made Sasha and him so lethal. Why had he trapped himself in this old thing?
“What do you need me for?” he asked, pushing the enemy to stumble against a car, as the Monger clamped down on him, trying to crush his lighter armor with sheer strength. Tony aimed his next repulsor blast right at the face plate, and wound himself out of the grip.
“Extremis,” Zeke cried and clamped down. Tony swooped out of his range, hurt a crashing noise from behind him, fought the urge to make sure, Steve was alright and swooped up, blasting down on Zeke again. Sasha came out of nowhere, kicking him in mid-flight and making him topple unto the hood of a standing car. She was on him before he could get up.
“Are you kidding me?”
“I could go after the doctor, of course, but it will give me much more satisfaction to reverse engineer it from your blood.”
“Ugh,” he said. Of course, Extremis was still there, even if for the most part it had been shut down. So a person with the right kind of knowledge may even be able to do it. The though of something so lethal released into the hands of someone like Stane was scary. He tried to get his arms free, instead threw himself forward to knock Sasha aside with a steel against steel head butt.
“Now,” Zeke screamed somewhere to his left and Sasha clamped a round device to his chest plate. He screamed. And the world fell away, even before the HUD went dark.
* * *
“Yes, hey, are you okay? I was beginning to worry.”
His eyes managed to focus on Steve, who looked – wet. There were dirty smudges on his cheek and he was leaning on his shield a little, hovering over him, looking nervous. The rain got into his eyes and he reached up to wipe it away, realizing just then, that rain shouldn't be getting in his eyes, because a helmet was supposed to keep it from getting there. With a jolt he sat up, took in their surroundings and the parts of armor lying around him.
“Sorry. I shut it down when you didn't respond.”
“Is he okay?” Carol dropped down beside them.
“He's awake at least,” Steve said, while Tony mumbled: “I'm fine.”
They exchanged a look and Steve huffed.
“Can somebody please fill me in on all the things I missed? How long was I out for?”
Steve shrugged. “Maybe three minutes. Thankfully the cavalry arrived nearly as soon as you went down.” He gestured at his shield, as if that explained anything.
“We have Stane and Hammer contained. He doesn't look good. Worse than you. I think he needs a doctor more than you do,” Carol told him, leaning over Caps shoulder to get a better look at him. “Don't the two of you maybe want to get out of the rain now? That looks like an expensive suit you're ruining.”
“You should have seen the car,” he said exasperated. “You know what's really sad? I was beginning to like the kid, back in China. We worked together well.” His head was still swimming a little. “Mandarin messed with him. Messed with his body enhancements. Messed with everyone working for him. He put bombs into everyone... I don't...”
Carol gasped in shock, clamping her hand over her mouth.
“You never told me that,” Steve said with a frown.
He hadn't told anyone much about it, had given the important details to Maria Hill when he'd suddenly reemerged from China as hero. But that was it. Rhodey had heard part of the story, Pepper had gotten another version and the Avengers had only heard the very, very short version.
“Are we leaving this to S.H.I.E.L.D.?”
“I'd like to at least be involved,” Tony said and tried to fully sit up. “Who knows what tricks he still has up his weaponized sleeves.”
“Okay,” Cap said, but in a soft placating voice, as if he just wanted Tony to be happy and calm, so he wouldn't do anything stupid. It was probably fortunate that he felt too tired to argue about that at the moment. “But not now. They were trying to drag you off the minute you went down. I was afraid they'd get away. So when Thor arrived, I asked him to... use drastic measures.”
Tony tried to catch up with all that and asked: “Overloaded his systems?”
“Yeah, couldn't think of anything else and our expert wasn't responding for some reason. I think he was unconscious inside a suit of armor at the time...”
“How inconsiderate of him.” He let Cap help him up. Carol was standing to the side watching, as if she was making up her mind about something. He met her eyes briefly, the strange nervousness from before the fight suddenly surging through him again.
“You're both a mess, but you still look good together. That's kind of unfair,” Carol finally pronounced. “Really unfair.”
Steve's head snapped up to look at her with narrowed eyes, but she didn't flinch or look away, only looked back with an all too knowing expression. And Tony found that now that reality was settling in and giving him the kick in the gut that he'd been expecting he really did not have any sort of patience for this. So he huffed and stared at Steve, who he had to admit had chosen something nice to wear for the evening, even though it had ended up torn in places and soaked with rain, and cleared his throat, waiting until the man turned back to him.
“Can I say it now? Or is this meant for a private moment?”
Steve gave a long suffering sigh. “Say it.”
“I told you so. This was a stupid idea and thus it is all your fault.”
“Thank you,” Steve said, “but as they were after you I don't think it was all my fault. You were the emergency that called the Avengers here.”
“That wasn't the deal. Whatever happens? On you.”
Carol suddenly chuckled. “You've always bickered like an old married couple, but how long have you been dating?”
They looked at each other then, the wind and rain still uncomfortable and making the whole situation even more surreal. Tony raised an eyebrow at Steve, feeling a bit light headed.
“That is really complicated,” Steve told their friend.
“We're not sure,” Tony added. “Either this would have been our first real date, or we've actually been doing this before and didn't notice.”
Carol laughed. And Steve patted him on the shoulder. Maybe that meant he was proud of Tony; or maybe he just wanted to make sure he wouldn't fall over. “And I was beginning to worry that you were really angry at each other again.”
“We should get you out of the rain,” Steve told Tony, trying to take him by the arm and pull him along. “And you should be checked out by a physician.”
“Armor first,” he said and pointed at the scrambled pieces and tried to free himself. Steve let him. He bent down to pick up the device that had taken him out. “And then this.”
“I'll leave you two to it then and supervise the clean-up,” Carol announced and lifted herself into the air easily. “I still want details,” she told Cap with a wink, before taking off.
Tony reactivated the armor and watched as it slowly built itself back up again.
Steve came to stand beside him, holding up his shield with one arm so that they could both stand under it. It was exactly the sweet and slightly awkward thing Steve would do, so Tony didn't point out that they were both already wet and chilled to the bone. “I think you were right, Tony,” Steve said, when the armor was standing before them, damaged, but able to get itself home at least. “Instead of telling the whole wide world, we should just behave normally and let things come together on their own.”
“Is that what I said?”
“You said we should do something we always do together and let the world draw their own conclusions.”
“Hmm. Not sure that's what I said.”
“If we're looking at it that way, we actually had a very successful date.”
He rolled his eyes. “You're just afraid that I won't agree to give it a try ever again.”
“Maybe,” Steve admitted with a smile. “But I'm not without hope.”
* * *
“Go to sleepy, you've had a rough day.”
“Had worse,” he said and buried his face somewhere between the crook of Steve's neck and the pillow.
It was the only invitation Steve needed to pull him a little closer.
* * *
“Where is Tony?” Carol asked finally.
“In the workshop,” he said and took a sip of coffee, deliberately not looking up from the paper.
“At this time in the morning? What's he up to? Did he even eat?”
Steve looked up at her with a raised eyebrow. “Do you want me to check on him?”
“Don't you want to check on him?”
He looked around, could see Spider-Man at the sink, abnormally silent and watching them interestedly. “I saw him just a few minutes ago. As long as I don't hear anything exploding, I'll trust he's fine.”
She just folded her arms in front of her chest and looked at him. He ignored it and looked down at the article again. “Captain America in love? Who is the lucky girl?” the headline read, above a picture of him holding a bouquet of flowers and mysteriously smiling to himself in the rain.
* * *
“Hey,” he said softly.
“Hey,” Tony echoed. He moved the goggles out of the way to meet Steve's eyes, his own soft and blue.
“Is that the armor?” Steve said, not elaborating, because Tony already knew what he was asking.
“Yes,” he said and nodded. “I think it might need a few more upgrades before it could do what I wanted it to do.”
Steve stepped around it, extended a hand to touch one metal arm. “Your usual designs have much more elegance,” he said, knowing that it sounded like he didn't like the armor on principle.
“It needs much more room for life support.”
“Needs?” he asked. “You still want to do this?” Had he seen the picture in the paper? Was he running again?
Tony jumped down the rack to stand in front of him. “Steve, I love you and I'm not going anywhere at the moment. But I'm also me. So, yeah, I really one day still want to do this. At the very least I need to see where this design can go.”
That he could understand. “You said you love me. You said it on the phone, too.”
“You say it all the time,” he said with a frown.
“Good, I think it's something you need to hear until you can't ever forget that it's true.”
Tony shook his head. “Won't,” he said. “I was afraid we'd fight about this,” he gestured at the armor.
“I can't blame you for being a genius, Tony,” he said. “I don't like the thought of you leaving me behind for month again. I like you here, by my side. But I can't force you to give it up.”
The workshop was bathed in light, and warmer than usual. Tony wiped some sweat from his brow. “Thank you,” he said. “I promise I won't just go off into space one day. We'll talk about this and maybe one day I'll do a short trip to try it out. But I think I've found a future here that I can work on for now.”
Steve raised his hand and brushed away some sweaty hair from Tony's brow, smiling.
“So, I hear, you're in love, huh? Who would have thought. The Internet is going crazy.”
Steve chuckled. He'd been afraid that Tony would shy back from the world's reaction to an innocent moment. But it didn't seem like that would be the case. He brushed his finger down from Tony's forehead to the side of his face and Tony leaned into the touch.
“You would have brought me flowers?” he asked.
“Would you have liked that?”
Tony stepped forward, brushing a hand along his cheek and then holding him in place as he kissed him. “Let's find out another day. Maybe after I've told Pepper and Rhodey.”
He nodded, “Let's do that.”
They kissed again, in the workshop, the door open so that everyone who'd come looking for them could walk in on this.
But there was no longer any need for secrets.
Reality was slowly catching up with them, but they were dealing fine.