The first time Steve had seen Tony Stark since SHIELD had fallen, he was on TV.
“—was a consultant for the organization, yes, but never a part of it. My work with SHIELD was strictly in the interests of protecting human life, and was limited to my work with the Avengers team and design consulting for—well, you know all about those already, thanks to Ms. Romanoff, don’t you?”
The sound of laughter from the assembled journalists was loud enough to be picked up by the podium microphones, and Stark flashed them a grin. “I’d like to remind any amateur hackers or bored engineers that those designs are the intellectual property of Stark Industries and any attempt to recreate them will be viewed as patent infringement. With that said, this is a perfect example of ‘do not try this at home,’ because seriously, that is a terrible idea. Gutsy, but terrible.”
Steve’s attention wandered away from the television in the lounge of the nursing home, looking down with a grimace at the papers in his lap. The photocopies of the front desk’s guest book showed a familiar scrawl indicating a George Dugan checked in to visit Mrs. Peggy Carter-Jones three days earlier. None of Dum-Dum’s descendants were named George, but Bucky’s father had been. It was a stretch to assume Peggy would remember the visit—her lucid days were becoming fewer and farther between—but if he’d learned one thing in the Army, it was to never underestimate Peggy Carter.
A sharp burst of laughter from the TV interrupted his thoughts, and he looked up to see Stark with his head thrown back, teeth bared in what seemed to be a more than slightly mocking laugh.
“You’re kidding, right?” Stark demanded, cameras panning to show him gesturing at a figure in the crowd. “Either you have a fundamental misunderstanding of how world security actually works, or you didn't do any of your research before coming up with that idiotic question—which, really, shame on you, it’s all on the Internet now, where have you been—because that’s just sad. ‘How will the world protect itself without SHIELD?’ Seriously?” He snorted, tugging at one of his shirt cuffs as he settled his hands on the podium.
“First off,” he began, raising one hand as if to tick off ideas with his fingers, “The world is not, and was never intended to be, dependent on SHIELD for its security. At its core, SHIELD was formed as an American organization—hello, strategic homeland whatever the heck their name actually was—and was mainly focused on dealing with unusual threats that were inside the country and that affected the country.”
“Two,” he added, raising another finger, “The world is not without its own peacekeeping organizations or intelligence agencies. SHIELD wasn't the be-all and end-all of everything, guys, it’s just the one you've heard the most about because they voluntarily stepped into the limelight after—after everything happened in New York.” Stark cleared his throat with an odd look on his face, and Steve looked away from the television back down at his lap as a nearby clock began to chime the hour.
“Three,” the strident voice resumed, “The dissolution of SHIELD doesn't mean all the heroes magically vanished. There’s a reason there’s a great big A on the side of my tower, folks—the Avengers haven’t left. The Avengers aren't leaving. I can’t say exactly what the Avengers will look like in the future, or who might be out fighting robot hordes in the streets on any given day, but there will. Be. Avengers.”
“That’s great for New York, but what about the rest of the country?” shouted one reporter, quickly joined by another interjecting, “And the world?” Stark laughed again, shaking his head as if the assembled group was missing out on some tremendous joke.
“The Avengers aren't even the only heroes in New York, guys, you really think that there are no heroes in the entire world? Alpha Flight does a fantastic job in Canada, they’re like Mounties in spandex tights—” The crowd laughed along with Stark, prompting him to raise his voice as he continued. “And I know for a fact Britain’s got their own team of heroes who've been doing their work under the radar for a number of years. That’s just the beginning—in every place on earth there’s people, I can almost guarantee you that there are those who are willing to step up and do what it takes, do more than what it takes, to keep everyone safe.”
“What about Iron Man?” yelled a short man near the front of the crowd.
“What about him?” Stark repeated, a grin creeping across his face. Reaching into the podium, he dropped something to the floor of the stage with a loud thud, bent down, and yanked it upwards. Slapping what looked like a metal rectangle with a glowing blue circle to his chest, he flung his arms outward and the metal plates of the Iron Man armor wrapped around him in a matter of seconds.
“I am Iron Man,” said the mechanized voice of the suit, “And nothing’s gonna change that.” Fully suited, he took off straight up into the sky, flying in a careless loop over their heads and rocketing away.
With the press conference obviously concluded, Steve turned his focus back to his task at hand—tracking Bucky’s movements. (He refused to refer to Bucky as the Winter Soldier. Sam had easily agreed to his request to do the same, but oddly, it had been Natasha who had slipped up the most, and she had refused to explain why.) So far, he hadn't wandered very far from the city, with his farthest trip that they’d picked up on being here to apparently visit Peggy. This time, they were only a few days behind on his trail, and Steve’s hope had been growing wildly the closer they got.
A soft chime came from inside his jacket, and Steve fished out his phone from the inner breast pocket. Swiping a finger across its surface, he quickly read through a message from Sam.
I’m not going to say no to that, Cap. You say the word and I’m there. Should probably remind you I’m grounded, though, since my suit is down a wing after your friend decided to pull it off with a grappling hook. Tell him thanks for that when you see him, will you?
Steve grinned, his eyes flicking upwards at the television as a thought crept its way into his mind. His fingers darted over the screen as he dashed off a reply.
I might know a guy who can help with that problem.
Good to hear from you. You kinda went radio silent after the whole “crashing three helicarriers into the Potomac” thing. (Nice job on that, by the way—don’t know if you knew the Insight carriers were running on my repulsor tech, but I’m glad you took them down. For a lot of reasons, but that’s one of them.)
Yeah, feel free to stop by the Tower any time. It’s open to all the team, you know, not just me. And have your friend bring his suit—what do you mean, can I get him flying again? Of course I can get him flying again; this is me we’re talking about. You do realize the EXO-7 Falcon suits were an SI design, right? Not one of mine, but still SI. Anyway, I've already sketched out some ideas for improvements to the structural design.
P.S. Ask him if he wants to join our super-secret-superheroes-only club. We can always use another eye in the sky.
Chief Technology Officer
Chief Visionary Officer
Head of Research and Development
Thanks; I’ll pass the news along to Sam. I’m sure he’ll be ecstatic (he won’t admit it, but he hates being grounded). I’m not as sure about inviting him to be a part of our team. Let’s face it—there really isn't much of a team to join. Thor’s off the radar, I haven’t seen Hawkeye or Dr. Banner in over a year, and (when she’s not gone to ground) Widow and I are in the middle of an extended mission of my own. I don’t know what you’re up to, but I’m sure you’re busy too.
I hate to impose after asking for your help with Sam’s suit, but is there any unused storage space in your building at the moment? Most of my possessions are in boxes after my apartment got shot up and the SHIELD barracks were emptied. I’d rather not keep hauling them around from hotel to hotel, and you’re one of the few people I’d actually trust to keep them safe. Even if it’s just a storage closet in the basement, I’d be grateful.
Really, Rogers? You've got to be kidding me. A storage closet? No no no, that won’t work at all. And neither will hotel rooms, because seriously, the thought of America’s Greatest Hero having to live out of a suitcase is just depressing and I won’t stand for it.
Don’t know if SHIELD ever passed you the intel—probably not, knowing them—or, well, not knowing them, apparently—man, this is complicated—but anyway, when I remodeled the Tower after it got smashed up by the big green guy (heh, both big green guys, really), I did it with the idea of it serving as a possible home base for the team. And when I say home, I mean that literally—furnished apartments, kitchens, bathrooms, a brand new state-of-the-art gym designed with superhuman strength (or a guy in a big metal suit) in mind; you get the idea. It’s nice.
Bruce has been in his apartment for maybe fifteen months and he won’t say as much, but I know he likes it—oh yeah, forgot to mention, Banner’s been with me for a while and Barton actually showed up just yesterday. I had dropped Bruce off at the Port Authority right after we all split up and then lo and behold, six months later he was standing in my lobby. Figured it was for the best to keep him off of SHIELD’s radar, so sorry for keeping you out of the loop. Your scary assassin friend probably knew, though. She knows everything. It’s kinda freaky. Especially since Barton says she was the one who pulled him out of Madripoor before he could get killed for being an undercover SHIELD agent and told him to go someplace safe. So yeah, those two are here, so hey, two down already.
What was I talking about? Oh, yeah, the Tower. No, you may not put your stuff in a “storage closet in the basement” (seriously?) when there’s a perfectly nice apartment with your name on it. There’s one for Widow, too, if she ever wants to be a part of the normal world again. Barton’s moved into his, and there’s one for Thor and his lady love, if he ever comes back to America. Apparently they've taken up residence in London for a while. (Though I may keep Dr. Foster for myself; she’s brilliant.) You can even take an elevator downstairs and say hi to Hill—I’m sure she’d appreciate a friendly face.
Speaking of Hill, she’s working on a new offshoot project of mine (yes, I hired her, no, I’m not crazy, she’s actually really good at this sort of thing). You mentioned there isn't much of a team right now, and as it stands, you’re right. But what if there could be?
Nothing’s set in stone as of yet, and I’m still not sure what form any new team might take, but there’s going to be a team. There needs to be, I think. And why not wrangle up the old gang and start something new, this time without the secret organization with nefarious motives running the show? We all worked pretty well together in New York two years ago; no reason we can’t do it again. I've been on the lookout for new faces to add to the roster (six people can’t protect a city and possibly the country and actually sleep at night, I did the math) and your friend Wilson seems a good fit.
It’s still just a thought right now. Let me know what you think. I’d honestly prefer you take the lea—
What? No, I know, shareholders meeting, yeah yeah, be right there, just send it, JARVIS—
[Dictated from my StarkPhone]
Chief Technology Officer
Chief Visionary Officer
Head of Research and Development
I’m in. You’re right, there needs to be something in place now that things like robot hordes and alien armies actually happen on a semi-regular basis. I’m very grateful for the offer of an apartment, but are you sure? I wouldn't want to displace anyone who could be living there.
If you’re free any time next week, Sam and I can stop by to talk about his suit. When would be best for you? Thank you again for being willing to help.
I think you missed the part where I mentioned “an apartment with your name on it.” It was specifically designed for you; I’m not leasing out any of the team’s apartments. You can bring your stuff by whenever; just tell the lobby receptionist to show you where the residential elevator is and JARVIS will do the rest.
Through some miracle of fate and scheduling, I have most of Thursday afternoon relatively open, so you and Wilson can stop by any time after 2. Ask for Mrs. Arbogast and tell her who you are and that you have an appointment with me, and she’ll point you in my direction.
Chief Technology Officer
Chief Visionary Officer
Head of Research and Development
Looking down at his feet, Steve shuffled them together as he leaned against the arm of the couch in Stark’s penthouse living room. If someone would have asked him right then, he would have declared with absolute certainty that he had never felt so awkward in his life.
Now more than ever, he wished it wouldn't be childish to put his fingers in his ears and start humming to himself.
“…You said you were done with the suits! We talked about it, and we both agreed—the suits were a distraction, they weren't a constructive part of your life anymore. What, exactly, happened to that promise?”
“Pepper, Pep, I don’t—”
“And now I have to find out, on live TV, that you've built another one? And not only that, but you built another one without telling me? Not only is that reneging on a mutual promise, but not telling me shows a fundamental lack of respect for me and my choices, and I can’t accept that.”
“I’m sorry, it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, you know how I get at press conferences, I really meant to talk about it with you before I did anything, I…”
“But you didn't, Tony. You went ahead and took that choice right out of both of our hands. And now you gave that choice to the whole country, and they’re all going to pick Iron Man. Because they don’t know what that suit does to you.”
“Pep, the suit doesn't… the suit isn't the problem. The suit was never the problem.”
“Oh? And what is? Please enlighten me.”
“I am, Pep. I think you know that. I think you've known that all along.”
“…I guess we do still agree on something, at least.”
“You’re making a face.”
Steve startled. “What?”
“I said, you’re making a face,” Sam repeated. “And it’s a weird one. You okay?”
“Yeah, I'm fine, I just…” Steve trailed off. “You ever overhear conversations you really, really wish you hadn't?”
The other man nodded, chuckling a little bit. “Yeah, that happens to everyone once in a while. What about it?”
Steve gestured towards his ears. “The serum… I have enhanced hearing. Not ridiculously enhanced, but more than a human ear should technically be able to hear. So that happens to me, except it’s not just once in a while, it’s all the time.”
“…And I’m guessing it’s happening right now?”
Steve sighed and nodded. “You got it.”
Raising an eyebrow, Sam inquired, “Anything you want to pass on?” Steve was already shaking his head with an emphatic "no" before he even finished the sentence. “All right, then. Let me know if you want to distract yourself or something.”
“Thanks, Sam,” Steve said with a light sigh, and lapsed back into silence.
“Do you—are you sure? I can issue a retraction, I can—”
“No, Tony. At this point, you can’t. You and I both know enough about PR to know that there are some things you can’t take back.”
“I’m willing to—”
“No. I've said this before, and I’ll say it again: I cannot sit at home waiting for you to die. I can’t. It’s horrifying, and it’s agonizing, and it’s unfair for you to expect me to do that.”
“I would never, I have never done that, when did I—”
“You didn't, I'm sorry. I don't want you thinking you actually asked that of me. But being a superhero’s girlfriend? That’s what that means. It means sitting at home, waiting for the hero to either come home safe, hurt, or dead. And if being Iron Man is the direction you want your life to go, then I need to take a step back from it.”
“I… I think it’s something I need to do. I have the chance to use what I make to save lives instead of take them, and to not do so would be… incredibly selfish of me.”
“I know. That’s one of the reasons I love you, you know? And I do—love you, I mean, for a lot of reasons, but I can’t keep waking up at night worried for my own life or worried you’ll never come home again. Eventually, it's going to break me. That's not fair to me, and it’s not fair to you either.”
“You know I love you, right? I mean—I do, Pepper, so much, I never wanted you to…”
“You didn't. And I know. I should have known I couldn't be your friend and your CEO and your partner all at once, but I’m glad I got the chance to try. I just… I can’t be all three. It’s too much. I need to take a step back.”
“I wish I could say I didn't understand, but I’d be lying. Are you—I mean, SI is your baby now, I don’t want you to feel like it’s not. Because it is. I’m just the mad inventor in the basement.”
“You’re not 'just' anything, Tony. But thank you. I want to stay on at SI, if you’ll have me—”
“Yes, of course, of course I—”
“And I would like to be your friend. Is… is that okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, more than okay. I don’t know my social security number without you, remember?”
“You really should learn that, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ll get around to it one of these days.”
“By which you mean never."
“You really do know me too well.”
Steve straightened abruptly as he heard movement from the other room, earning himself a strange glance from Sam. “They’re done,” he muttered out of the corner of his mouth, just before Ms. Potts walked into the room, her stride faltering when she caught sight of the two men.
“Sorry to intrude, Ms. Potts,” Sam began, getting up and approaching her with a hand outstretched. They shook hands, and he continued, “I’m Sam Wilson. I worked with the Air Force in the unit that tested Stark Industries’ EXO-7 Falcon suits. Mr. Stark agreed to meet with us to talk about some modifications to the suit design, so I’m sorry if we’re interrupting.”
“No, not at all, we were just… finishing,” Ms. Potts said, blinking rapidly. “I’m cutting into your meeting time, so I’ll get out of your hair. I’m sure Tony will be with you in just a moment.” With a nod towards both of them, she turned on her impressively tall heel and headed to an elevator tucked in a corner. It responded to the call button almost immediately, and Steve watched as she stepped inside and the door slid shut behind her.
“Oh, hey, didn't know you guys had come up yet,” a familiar voice called from the hallway, and Steve turned around to see Tony Stark pause in the doorway, with his shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows and carrying his suit jacket slung over one arm. If his eyes were a little red and his face a little pale, well, Steve wasn't going to be the one rude enough to point it out. “Welcome to Avengers Tower, mi casa es su casa and all that.” Tossing the jacket over the back of a chair, he motioned them down the hallway, saying, “I've got the schematics pulled up in the conference room, we can start there. Wilson, right?” he asked, extending a hand to Sam and shaking it vigorously. “Good to meet you. I saw you in action—nice form—but you look a little wobbly on those left spirals, am I right?"
Sam let out a laugh and nodded, following Stark as he whipped around and headed down the hallway. “I guess I shouldn't be surprised you noticed that. Yeah, the tight turns get hard sometimes, but the wings can only go so far.”
“We can fix that!” exclaimed Stark, turning so he was walking backwards down the hallway and facing the other two men. Craning his neck over Sam’s shoulder, he made a come here motion at Steve, who was still standing at his spot near the couch. “C’mon, Rogers, time’s a-wastin’! Besides, you’ll like this. SHIELD never had this setup—I keep all the best toys for myself.”
Slightly bemused, Steve pulled himself up and followed them, only to stop short as he walked past the open door Stark was holding.
“You do have the best toys,” he murmured, content to just stand and stare. The room itself was a fairly standard conference room, with a central table surrounded by chairs. But it was what filled the room that made it exceptional: a bright blue representation of the Falcon suit hung in the air, shimmering as if it were made out of light itself. He extended a tentative finger to poke at the edge of one of the wings slowly rotating in front of his face, only to startle when it flashed a brighter blue.
“Nice, right?” Stark asked, closing the door behind him and moving to the head of the table, where Steve could see a clear panel embedded in the wood. “Fully interactive 3D holographic interface. Uses hard light to make whatever you’re working on visible and able to be manipulated. Great for those of us who like to work with their hands, like I do. Anyway!” He clapped his hands together, looking decidedly more cheerful. “Talk to me, Wilson. Left pinions—do they ever stick?”
With Stark and Sam pulling apart the floating schematic and Steve chiming in with what he remembered about the suit’s performance in the battle with the helicarriers, the three men got to work.
“That should do it,” Stark remarked, leaning back from the large blue holographic screens projected over the table and stretching his arms over his head. “Better wing structure, more secure attachment to the pilot, increased maneuverability, a more stable and efficient power source, different alloys for the armored plating, streamlined mechanics… I think that’s it for the technical stuff, though I’ll be fiddling with it up until the new unit’s fabricated. Got any other requests?”
“Nah, this looks great, I really appreciate it,” Sam said, flicking through the designs on the screen of a separate tablet. “Though…” He trailed off, running a finger along the edge of one of the wing segments.
Stark made an out with it gesture from his seat at the table, grabbing a glass of clear liquid—Steve wasn't sure if it was water—and taking a sip. “Come on, whatever you’re thinking, I bet I can do it. What d’you want?” Sam let out a quiet breath, and one corner of his mouth twitched upwards, as if he were grinning despite himself.
“Can we throw some red in the design? It doesn't really matter where, or how much, it just…” He paused, and Steve watched as he swallowed and set the tablet down before clearing his throat. “It should have red in it.”
Pointing with the hand holding his glass, Stark exclaimed, “Now we’re talking! Red, see, now that is a thing I can do. You have good taste.”
“Not my taste, really,” Sam explained, rubbing his thumb over his opposite palm in the way Steve had realized meant he felt awkward. “It’s—it’s kind of an inside joke? My unit, we all had code names, and I had a friend who would not stop bugging our tech people to ‘put red on the suit, why can’t you put red on the suit, it’s not like guys with wings are camouflaged anyway, please put red on the suit,’ and finally we all started calling him Redwing because at least that way red was in the name of his suit.”
“Riley?” Steve asked quietly, and Sam nodded.
In response to Stark’s quirked eyebrow indicating the unspoken question, Sam said simply, “He didn't make it.” He nodded in response to Stark’s murmured “Sorry” and continued, “So Riley was Redwing, Jim is Vulture, Taylor is Pinion, you get the idea.” He shrugged. “Red on it. That’s the only thing I can think of.”
“Request received aaaaand… granted,” Stark said, fingers flying over the screen embedded in the table in front of him. “So what did they call you?”
“They gave me the wings first, so I got to be Falcon. Obvious, but it worked.”
Stark tapped his fingers against his wrist, thinking, then nodded decisively. “I like it. You should keep it.”
Glancing at Steve in confusion, Sam replied, “Uh, okay? What for?”
With a flick of his wrist, Stark shut off the graphics, leaving the room oddly empty, and stood. “You've heard of the Avengers, right?” he grinned, walking towards them and setting his glass down on a side table. “We’re kind of recruiting. What d’you say?”
Drawing himself up in surprise, Sam blinked a couple of times before speaking. “Does ‘yes’ work?”
Steve laughed, raising a hand to clasp Sam’s shoulder warmly. “It absolutely works. Welcome to the team.”
In hindsight, Steve should have been surprised at how easily the team had come together. It was almost as if each member had simply fallen into place, like pieces of a puzzle that had tumbled out of the box every-which-way and happened to fit together absolutely perfectly.
Sam was the first new addition, taking Stark up on his offer of a new set of wings, then a new set of firearms, and finally a new place to live. (“Home base, Rogers,” Stark had reminded him when he asked. “A response team isn't much use if they’re not operating from a central location.”) Soon enough, the sight of a man with mechanical wings playing aerial tag with Iron Man in the skies above the Tower became commonplace to the people of New York, and it stopped making the news every time it happened.
(Sam was only slightly disappointed.)
Steve, Sam, Stark, and Dr. Banner had cohabited fairly peacefully in the Tower for a time, each occupying their own spaces with occasional encounters in the hallways or the gym. Barton tended to pop in and out, as he occasionally joined Natasha on whatever she’d been doing with her spare time. Steve had asked one time she had dropped by for a visit, but she’d merely smiled pleasantly and replied, “You don’t want to know,” and it was her smile that was the most disturbing part of her response.
It was Thor’s return from London with Dr. Foster that had pushed them over the edge from people who saw each other in the halls to teammates, as Thor’s insistence on family-style meals meant they all gravitated towards the kitchen at dinner time, instead of staying apart. After a while, Sam had suggested a cooking rotation, which some of them took up eagerly. It was then Steve had learned that Dr. Banner (“no, really, call me Bruce”) was an excellent cook, having picked up on cooking styles from all over the world through his travels.
It was also how he learned that neither Sam nor Barton should be allowed near the stove, as Sam ended up making one of the toughest steaks any of them had ever tried to eat and Barton’s food was possibly more tasteless than military rations. After their first attempts, Sam switched to breakfast (he was much, much better with breakfast) and Barton stuck with takeout, leading to Steve discovering Indian and Chinese and Nigerian and Greek foods and so much more, and loving it all. (Though he still wasn't sure how he felt about caviar. There was something about eating fish eggs, of all things, that he couldn't wrap his head around.)
He wouldn't have guessed it, but Stark had turned out to be a fairly decent cook.
(When asked, Stark had merely shrugged and said, “Had to learn in college,” but refused to say any more.)
Through it all, he and Stark had a sort of wary truce, with him only attempting to apologize for his conduct on the helicarrier once before Stark shot him down.
“Yeah, it wasn't nice or anything, but we both meant what we said, and I think you know it,” Stark told him, standing in front of the elevator bank. “We can make excuses all we want—Loki’s mind whammy acting up, whatever—but it happened. I don’t think that anymore, and you just told me you don’t think that anymore, so I’d say we’re good. We good?”
“I’d like to be?” said Steve, his voice hitching upwards as if it were a question. Stark patted him on the shoulder.
“Then we are.” The elevator dinged, and Stark strode into it with a cheerful, “See ya!” as the doors slid shut.
After that, Steve tried to make it a point to keep an eye out for Stark and engage him in conversation periodically, leading to a day where Stark had gotten a glimpse of his “to be looked up later” list and insisted he wasn't allowed to leave the penthouse until he had watched at least five episodes of Star Trek.
Star Trek wasn't so bad.
(Neither was Stark, come to think of it.)
Things came to a head a few months after Thor returned, with an alien ship popping into the sky above the city and releasing torrents of blue-skinned humanoid aliens. (“Oh, come on!” exclaimed Stark as he pulled on his helmet, and for once, Steve had to agree.) The Avengers sprang into action, with Iron Man and Thor going for the mothership and the rest of the team fighting on the ground. “They are called the Kree,” Thor had grunted over the comms between hammer blows. “They say they have come for a gem, though I do not know of what gem they speak.”
“Lots of gems on Earth, guys,” quipped Iron Man, “Gonna have to be more specific!”
“Chatter,” Steve reminded them, but he was grinning despite himself.
Hours in, Steve looked up to see not one but two winged figures swooping through the skies above them. Putting one hand to press the comm further into his ear out of habit, he called out, “Falcon! Sitrep! Who’s your friend?”
“Colonel Carol Danvers, sir, honor to be fighting with you. Hope you don’t mind an extra pair of wings, but I saw the explosions and figured it was time to take the new suit for a test flight. Falcon passed on a comm so I could follow your battle plans.”
“You’re more than welcome, Colonel Danvers,” Steve said, backhanding an approaching Kree with his shield. “You’re part of Sam’s old unit? Got a call sign?”
“Warbird, sir,” she responded, “But Carol works just fine.”
“All right, Warbird, keep corralling them away from the city center with Falcon. Thor, Iron Man, how’s it going with the big one?”
“They are—a numerous foe,” Thor commented, and Steve could hear Mjolnir impacting metal in the background. There was no response from Stark.
“Iron Man? Iron Man, can you respond?”
“Yeah, sorry, just a second, Cap,” came the reply after a long silence. “I’m—no, you don’t—I’m actually on the ship right now. Surprise?”
Steve blinked. “Is that good? Do you need backup?” An alien approached him, snarling in its unfamiliar tongue, and Steve deflected its energy blast before sending it flying with a roundhouse kick.
“I could—fuckers!—I could use another flier. I’m trying to scramble their ship’s computers, but it’s not like anything I've seen before, and they keep—augh!—interrupting.”
Sliding under a poorly aimed punch, Steve panted into his comm, “Warbird! I’m sending you to Iron Man. Head for the mothership and look for the explosions. Thor, we've got another flier coming up, don’t hit her.”
“On my way, sir.”
“I will not, Captain,” Thor responded, amusement clearly audible.
“Hawkeye! Falcon’s down a partner, I need you to focus upwards for now. Falcon, can you—”
“We've got the skies,” a new female voice cut into the channel. “You’re fine where you are, Clint.”
“Tasha? What the hell—”
Running into an alley to follow the sounds of the Hulk on a neighboring street, Steve raised a hand to flick sweat and grime (and blood) off his forehead. “Widow, explain. One, where the hell have you been? Two, who’s we?”
A sharp noise hissed through the air behind Steve’s head, and he whipped around to see a Kree fighter tumble from the air in a sprawl of limbs, a perfect bullet hole straight through its head.
“I found something you've been looking for,” was her only response, followed by a quiet “Hi, Steve,” in a cracked baritone.
The breath left Steve’s lungs in a sharp whoosh, and he couldn't get it back. “Wh—Bucky?” he croaked, staggering as he ran.
“Someone needs to sit down and explain this all to me later, but I've got a friendly here and he wants to help me send them back home,” interjected Iron Man. “Something about a machine that’s powering their jump drive, magni-something, I don’t know—hell, I don’t know how he’s speaking English—but I can shut it down. Warbird, was it? I need another pair of hands, get in here.”
“Coming in,” she responded, and they could hear the sounds of her clattering to a landing on the ship. “Thanks for the convenient hole in the side of the ship, by the way. Makes it easier.”
“No problem. Here, come meet—what’s your name? Marvel?”
The comm microphone picked up a deep voice, but nothing distinct.
“Mar-Vell, sorry, bad with names.”
“Nice to meet you, I guess,” Carol responded, slightly dubious. “Nice helmet. What d’you need me to do?”
“Switching to a personal channel, hold on—”
Their conversation cut off, and in the streets below them, Steve fought, mindlessly parrying blows and returning them as his brain tried desperately to catch up.
He only half-noticed when some of the Kree around him started getting shot down by arrows, but he did appreciate the assist.
“We’re shutting it down!” Iron Man broke into the team channel again. “Hold on, guys—firing in three, two, one—”
A massive shock wave blew from the mothership, rattling through the city and setting Steve’s teeth on edge. “Iron Man! Warbird! And, uh, Mar-Vell? What’s your status?”
“Shit! Warbird, don’t—”
An agonized yell came through the comm in a crackle of static, and abruptly cut off.
“Carol? Carol!” Sam shouted. “Damn it, Tony, what happened?”
“Fuck, she wasn't supposed to touch it, I don’t—she’s fucking glowing, I don’t know what’s going on, Mar-Vell got thrown against the side of the ship and I don’t think he’s conscious, I’m taking Warbird and we’re getting the hell out of here before the ship jumps back. Hold on—shit, this looks bad—”
A bright streak blasted its way out of the smoking hull of the Kree ship, only just reaching the rooftops of New York before the ship shimmered in mid-air and vanished. With a start, Steve realized the Kree surrounding him had vanished as well.
“Did it work? Are they gone?” Iron Man demanded, still in the air.
“All clear, Iron Man,” Natasha responded. “Whatever you did? Nice work.”
“Yeah, well, Carol here is glowing like a light bulb, so maybe not so nice work. I need to get her to a med team ASAP; I’m taking her to the Tower. Rendezvous in the med wing? I’m gonna need Bruce.”
“I’ll find the Hulk, you take her in,” Steve ordered, already running in the direction of the Tower. “And Stark? It was nice work. Thanks.”
“Just doing my job, Cap,” the response came after a pause.
When Carol woke up, she immediately floated up from her bed to the ceiling and started laughing, only slightly hysterically. Apparently, she told them later, the core of the machine she had accidentally touched had let out some sort of energy that hit both her and Mar-Vell, duplicating his own abilities in her and vice versa.
“Kind of a bad trade-off for him,” she explained, hovering a few inches above her mattress. “I got flight and more-than-human strength and energy blasts and who knows what else, and he just gets really good reflexes and a photographic memory for fighter jet types.”
Sam voiced the question they all wanted to ask. “So, how do you know you can do all these things, exactly? I haven’t seen you go around lifting, oh, I don't know, motorcycles or anything like that.”
“It was one time,” Steve muttered under his breath.
“Um,” Carol began, but stopped. “I think the Kree are telepathic. Or maybe he was? Or maybe we were just really connected because of that energy stuff, I don’t know. He talked to me. Inside my head. He said he was sorry, at least, so that’s something.”
Everyone just stared.
“I don’t know!” she cried, waving her hands in frustration. “He said the Magnitron duplicates things, which is how it can send them from one end of space to the other, and with it concentrated like that, it tried to duplicate genetic makeup. So now I have bits of Kree DNA, and he has bits of human DNA. Or. Had, maybe? I don’t know if he was okay. I kind of passed out.”
“Speaking of which, you should probably still be resting,” commented Bruce, sliding his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose. His hands were shaking slightly in the aftermath of bringing out the Hulk, and he brought them back down to his sides quickly enough.
Carol blinked at him. “I’m not tired. Honest!” She bounced up into the air above the bed, coming to a halt about a foot above the covers. “See?” She suddenly wobbled, and brought herself back down to the mattress quickly.
“Sure you’re not, captain obvious,” Sam laughed, uncrossing his arms from his chest. Carol frowned, and pointed at him thoughtfully.
“Nope. Not that. Not captain obvious, that’s not it, but… Mar-Vell. Marvel. Captain Marvel.” She brought her fist to her palm with a sharp smack, grinning. “That’s it. No more Warbird for me, birdy boy. It’s Captain Marvel now.”
“But you’re a colonel,” Steve pointed out.
“Yeah, but Colonel Marvel doesn't have the same ring to it. Besides, you can never have too many captains!” she drawled with a wink in his direction, and yeah, okay, Steve couldn't help but like her.
The next few months were strange for Steve, as he slowly re-learned how to interact with Bucky—James, he was going by James now, and wasn't that a strangely bittersweet thing to learn one day, as he watched his friend shudder on the floor in the grip of his memories, and the only person able to bring him out of it was Natasha.
She had caught sight of him and promptly curled herself around his shaking shoulders, crooning, “Shh, звезда моя, you are safe, ты в безопасности. Listen to my voice, James. You are home, мы хотим тебе помочь. Мы здесь. Я здесь. It is all right, you are all right. James, Яшенька, come home to us.”
Shh, my star, you are safe, you are safe. Listen to my voice, James. You are home, we want to help you. We are here. I am here. It is all right, you are all right. James, Yashenka, come home to us.
Steve could only watch as his breathing eased, and his mismatched arms came up slowly to encircle the petite woman. Suddenly feeling like he was intruding, Steve backed out of the room, only to run into Stark just behind him.
“Bad day?” Stark asked offhand, in the way that Steve had learned meant he was being flippant to draw attention away from something serious.
“I think so,” he said with a nod. “Nat’s got him, though. He’ll be okay in a little while. I just…” He trailed off, not sure how to complete the thought.
Stark continued softly, “Wish you could do something, right?” Steve looked sharply at the other man, then closed his eyes slowly and nodded.
“Not much to do about that, sad to say,” Stark said with a small smile, and patted him on the shoulder. “Want to watch mindless television instead?”
“Yeah, that… that’d be nice, actually,” Steve managed to get out, and followed him down the hall.
He had taken to spending more time with Stark, feeling increasingly useless around Buc—James, but for a man who was supposedly partially in charge of an international company, Stark seemed to have a lot of free time on his hands to spend with Steve.
After seeing his “to be looked up later” list, Stark had insisted on exposing Steve to what he deemed “quality entertainment” (Steve wasn't always so sure about that). In return, Steve had offered to teach him hand-to-hand combat, more than just the boxing he had learned from his head of security, and found him to be a surprisingly adept pupil. More often than not, Steve could be found sitting in front of the television with Stark, or tucked away in a quiet corner of the Tower’s workshop as Stark invented, a drawing pencil capturing the scenes playing out in front of him.
Somewhere between the giant robot tromping through Central Park, the lost Shi’ar ambassador, and the inter-dimensional parasites, Stark became Tony and Rogers became Steve, and Steve wasn't quite sure what it meant, but he definitely didn't mind.
Tony was good company, surprisingly funny, and easy to talk to once Steve got past the initial defense systems of snarky comments and biting sarcasm. He had a prickly outside, and that had made it hard for Steve to want to get to know him at first meeting. (Steve had indeed compared Tony to a cactus more than once before, but so far only in the privacy of his own mind. Tony would hate being called a cactus. Maybe Steve should mention it, just to see him puff up and get even pricklier in his own defense. That might be fun.)
But underneath that outer prickly defensiveness, Tony was one of the kindest people Steve had ever met, constantly keeping one eye on the rest of the team to know what they needed in the field or at home. He had returned to his apartment on more than one occasion to find an unmarked box of upgraded gear, some new innovation, or even an old favorite food he thought lost forever sitting outside his door, like they all had, and at this point everyone knew without saying that these presents were always from Tony.
He was kind, he was funny, and he listened so well that Steve found it hard to believe he had ever been accused of not being a team player. After living in the Tower for a while, Steve had gathered his courage enough to ask Natasha about some of the things she had included in her SHIELD assessment about Tony, to which she only responded, "Which assessment?" and left him standing confused in the middle of the hall. Despite Natasha being... well, Natasha, Steve knew deep down that Tony would fight for this team as hard as he'd fought for anything in his life, and the rest of them would be fighting alongside him.
There was something quietly content between the two of them in the time they spent together, and Steve wouldn't have traded it for anything. (If Bucky hadn't been living in the Tower, he had mused one day, he’d probably call Tony his best friend. But Bucky was his best friend. Right?) He found himself looking for Tony when he wasn't around, spending time with him either in the lab or in the communal area of the Tower, and pulling him out of his workshop to eat meals with the team, which had been enriched recently by the presence of James Rhodes, pilot of the newly rebuilt War Machine armor.
(“If you call it Iron Patriot one more time,” Tony had threatened his friend the first day he was there, “I swear you will never get another piece of tech from me as long as I live.” Rhodey had laughed and held up a hand, promising to be good, as Tony tugged him down to the workshop to see the brand new suit. Carol had followed them, teasing Rhodey about his former paint job, as she and Rhodey had worked together in the Air Force and apparently, that gave her the right to say anything she pleased about “that atrocious eyesore.” Rhodey complained, but Steve was pretty sure he agreed.)
After the first time Tony had let him in his workshop with a bag of take-out left over from Clint’s turn to “cook,” slightly bemused by Steve’s presence but vaguely pleased, he had taken to bringing dinner down with him whenever Tony was on an engineering binge and worked straight through mealtimes. It was nice, eating dinner in the workshop with Tony, laughing at shared jokes and stealing bites of food from each other’s plates, with Tony’s robots looking on over their shoulders. (Steve would never tell, but he had gotten very fond of them. They were sweet, in a slightly pet-like nonverbal way, and seemed to crave affection from their creator. And they were adorable when they got it.) It felt comfortable, like he could spend days there with only Tony for company and not mind it at all. He found himself lingering over the end of each workshop dinner, trying to draw them out as long as possible to preserve their time together.
One week, Tony hadn't been up for dinner in three days (immersed in a project for a new repulsor design), and Steve had been specifically requested by Bruce to “bring him up for dinner by any means necessary, preferably clean, but I’ll take what I can get.” He had trotted halfway down the stairs from the common living space when a passing thought quite literally stopped him in his tracks. He had been thinking (only pretending to be annoyed, really) that if Tony refused to come up he would pick him up, throw him over his shoulder, and drag him upstairs, when the sudden mental image of the manhandling involved in that act caused him to come to an abrupt halt. A prickling spread across his face, and he realized he had turned scarlet.
It wasn't that he was afraid he’d ruin what had become one of his closest friendships in this new century. He was sure they could be professional about it if Steve accidentally let something slip. He thought they could, anyway. Maybe. He hoped. (He really didn't want to ruin their friendship.)
It wasn't that he was afraid Tony would freak out and reject him on the grounds that he was male, either. (He had done his research one night, sitting in his room behind a locked door, Googling “Tony Stark sexuality” with the SafeSearch firmly on, and had been pleasantly surprised to find an interview where Tony openly discussed his attraction to both men and women, so it wasn't that. It really wasn't.)
It wasn't that he didn't know what Tony would think if he randomly professed to liking the other man one day out of the blue. He might be surprised, or confused, or incredulous. (After all, who would have thought that Captain America would
fall in love with no, that wasn't right, that wasn't what he meant, that couldn't be what he meant, not so soon, he meant they were an unlikely pair, that’s what he meant. Besides, why would a billionaire genius superhero like Tony Stark even consider going for someone like Steve Rogers when he could have literally anyone in the entire world? So no, it wasn't that either.)
It wasn't that he apparently had a type, and that type had turned out to be feisty brunettes who weren't afraid to get their hands dirty and had a clever wit and a fierce desire to do good, because there wasn't anything wrong with that. Not really. People liked what they liked, and he was no exception. So it wasn't that, not by a long shot.
It wasn't that fraternization was inappropriate between team members, as James and Natasha blew that idea out of the water. He didn't want to think about James’ mental state if Nat wasn't around to pull him out of his memories from his days as the Winter Soldier. With her there, some of that burden of memory was shared between them, as she could remind him of missions they had gone on and what had really happened, as well as what hadn't. He in turn reminded her of things she had lost to the Red Room, of snatches of words and images that captured their shared time together. They were each other's support, and always knew they had each other's backs. Their relationship only strengthened the team and each other, so that couldn't be it.
It wasn't that it just didn't make sense for Tony to want him. There were more than enough reasons for him to like Tony—he could name hundreds if you let him, starting with the excitement in his voice when he starts talking about the suit and going on from there. He just couldn't make sense of it the other way around. But it wasn't that. Not really.
It wasn't that he was afraid of what might happen if Tony did want him. It would be foolish to be afraid of happiness, wouldn't it? But the fact remained: it was so unlikely for Tony to be be interested in him that there was really no point in Steve even thinking about it at all. It wasn't that. It couldn't be that.
It wasn't any of that.
Not at all.
There was just no reason to say anything.
So he didn't.
“And then,” Natasha choked out between bursts of laughter, “You looked horrified, so—so I explained—”
“Public displays of affection make people uncomfortable, apparently,” Steve deadpanned, and Tony nearly spat out his coffee.
“They do,” James agreed, rummaging in the back of the fridge for the milk carton, before wandering out of the room.
“I had—I had to grab you, because you were just standing there like a dumbstruck moron, and practically haul you down to get you to kiss me, seriously, Steve—” she chortled, wiping away the tears that had accumulated beneath her eyes from laughing.
“You surprised me, all right, I was not expecting you to suggest kissing as a means to get away, I was thinking punching and running like hell—” he protested, undercut by her whoops of laughter.
“It was so bad. So bad. Steve, I don’t know whether you should be ashamed or proud, because no one has kissed the Black Widow like that and lived.” He could almost see Tony’s ears perk up in his seat next to Steve, and he thunked his head down on the table with a muffled curse.
“See, this, this is pertinent information,” Tony joked, taking a swig from his mug. “On a scale of marble statue to slobbery dog, exactly how bad was it?”
“Dead. Fish.” Natasha intoned with a completely straight face, and Tony absolutely lost it.
“Your rating scale is unfair,” Steve grumbled, which only served to set them both off further. “It wasn't that bad. You just surprised me, is all.”
“I seem to remember someone protesting that I wasn't his first kiss since 1945,” Natasha said slyly. “Are you sure?”
“Yes!” Steve griped, with Tony desperately trying to muffle his snickering in his coffee without much success.
Leaning back and propping her feet on an empty chair, Natasha uttered decisively, “I still think you need practice,” and gave a sharp nod for emphasis.
“I don’t need practice, Natasha, please,” he moaned, the pitch of his voice approaching a whine, but Tony poked him in the thigh with his bare foot.
“Of course you do, Cap, everybody does,” declared Tony. “Why, even I have to practice occasionally, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of!”
“How magnanimous of you, Mr. Stark,” Steve commented, rolling his eyes.
“I am, aren't I?” he mused, pretending to be preening his beard. “In fact, I’ll do you one better—I’ll help you! My advice is invaluable.” Out of the corner of his eye, Steve could see Natasha’s eyebrows shoot towards her hairline.
“I’m not sure I need your help in this,” he said slowly.
“Nonsense! Everyone needs my help; they just don’t know it,” Tony disagreed. “So! Go on. Lay one on me, Cap.”
Time slowed to a crawl in front of Steve’s eyes.
“Kiss me!” Tony exclaimed cheerfully, but there was a strange look in his eyes. “Go on! You know you want to...” His words were punctuated by a lewd eyebrow wiggle. “Don’t worry, I promise my rating scale is more comprehensive than Natasha’s.”
Steve stared at the other man, hardly believing his ears. Did he… really? It almost seemed cruel to be offered everything he had wanted from Tony for months
(to have to hold to keep to kiss to touch to know to want to love), but only as a way to help out a friend. Practice his kissing. Seriously?
Then again, it would be stupid to turn down something dropped so perfectly into his lap.
“Screw it,” he muttered, and reached out to wrap one large hand around the back of Tony’s neck and yank him into a bruising kiss.
But when their lips finally touched, it was the easiest thing into the world to sink into him, letting his eyes flutter shut as he parted Tony’s lips and chased his tongue with his own. Swallowing Tony’s small gasp, he reached up with his other hand to cradle the other man’s jaw, tilting it slightly for easier access.
It shouldn't feel this natural, Steve thought absently as their lips parted and came together again and again. It shouldn't feel so normal to kiss Tony, to learn the shape of the inside of his mouth, when it was something he had never done before. But he was, and it did, and damn it, he was going to take advantage of the opportunity if it was the first and last time he’d ever have it.
Tony’s hand had come up to fist in Steve’s shirt as they kissed, and Steve could feel the tension from him clenching and releasing the fabric as he dipped farther into Tony’s mouth and backed away again. The other man’s lips tasted like the coffee he had just been drinking, but underneath it all there were hints of something metallic and bright, and Steve thought he could spend the rest of his life chasing that taste.
Tony broke away from him with a gasp, and Steve opened his eyes to pull back reluctantly. Tony’s face was flushed and his chest heaving, his expression partly slack and completely dazed.
“You know,” he said slowly, focusing his eyes on Steve with what seemed like a great deal of effort, “You’re good.” One hand came up to pat Steve’s cheek affectionately, and Steve sat there and watched as Tony turned and absent-mindedly wandered out the door.
Well. That had just happened.
The sound of a clearing throat made him turn to look at Natasha, whose arms were crossed as she glared at him.
“What?” he tried to ask, but had to cough a few times before he could try again. “What is it?”
One eyebrow quirked upwards, and oh, she was irritated. Her hand rose until it was pointing stiffly towards the door where Tony had exited. “Find him,” she said slowly, as if talking to a child. “Kiss him again.” Pausing, she added, “And stop looking at me like that.”
Steve blinked at her. “Are you sure?”
“Steve!” she exclaimed, throwing her arms in the air. “You two are laughably gone over each other! You've been pining after him for months, and he’s loved you from the literal moment you stepped in his Tower.”
That changed things.
“Find him, kiss him again, and stop looking at me like that,” commanded Natasha, grabbing her plate and walking out the opposite door. Just before she left, she stopped and turned to Steve again. “You’re better together than you are apart. Now for god’s sake, go get him before he locks himself in his workshop!” With that, she spun on her heel and left the kitchen.
Steve sprang up from the table and sprinted out into the hallway, hoping against hope he could reach Tony before he got to the elevators. “Tony!” he shouted, past caring who else was around to overhear. “Tony, wait!”
He heard an incredulous “Steve?” as he skidded around the corner to find Tony next to the conference rooms, still looking delightfully mussed from their short kiss.
Reaching down, he grabbed Tony’s hands and stammered, “I—if you want—I’d really like to—I’d like to kiss you again. If you want. I mean, I've wanted to for ages, but I didn't know you wanted to, and apparently Natasha thinks we’re idiots, so—”
He was cut off in the best possible way, as Tony tugged on their entwined hands to pull him down into their second kiss, and it was still the sweetest thing he had ever tasted.
As Steve slid his arms around Tony’s waist, he suddenly realized why it felt so normal, so right to hold Tony in his arms and kiss him. It wasn't something new, or even something he’d never felt before. He’d been feeling it all along, and just hadn't had a name to put to it before now.
It felt like coming home.
They had ended up curled together on the living room couch, watching some show about teenagers fighting monsters, when Carol had walked in on them and promptly threw her hands up in the air.
“Damn it!” she exclaimed, startling them both. “Now I owe Rhodey fifty bucks.”