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All That Remains

Chapter Text

Tony wasn't having the best of days. In fact, it hadn't been the best of weeks or months. And if he really thought about it -- it wasn't the best of lifetimes, either. His life, to put it in Peter-like terms, 'sucked'.

Steve Rogers, otherwise known as Captain America, had been dead for two weeks. Tony was working three jobs, one of which he was in no way qualified for (and he rather wished Fury would show up and take the job back). The fighting in the superhero community might have been over but the danger hadn't passed. Those that had advocated registration were pushing -- some more subtly than others -- for further control measures. He had a board meeting in ten minutes, and the migraine that he'd woken up with was still there.

And Steve was dead.

Tony pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to filter some of the data streams. He needed more coffee.

Reaching for his mug, he opened his email and scanned for anything important or interesting. He groaned as one email caught his eye. Senator Rutgers requesting him to review a report and give his opinion in an upcoming meeting. Tony would rather have told the man and his smug 'your country appreciates what you're doing' to go to hell, but he'd worked too hard to lose any measure of freedom for the community just because he couldn't stand the bed he'd made for himself.

And he wouldn't let Steve have died for nothing. It was all he could do now.

The attachment looked to be a standard lab report at first glance, and then he realized what he was looking at.

/Experiment Profile - Subject: F-12/

The profile wasn't complete, but there was enough for Tony to know it was real.

When his cell phone rang a few minutes later, he wasn't surprised to hear the good Senator's voice on the other end.

"What the hell is this?"

"Good, you've had a chance to review the file. I think you'll agree that we need to set up a meeting as soon as possible."

Tony closed his eyes. This could still just be a ploy, but he couldn't take that chance. "This afternoon." It was time he didn't have to spare, but there was always coffee.

"Wonderful," Rutgers sounded as if they'd just made plans to play golf together. "I won't be able to make the meeting, you understand of course, but I'm sure you'll find what my associates have to say fascinating. Good day, Mr. Stark."

He cut the transmission with a thought and missed the feel of being able to slam the phone down in anger. He rubbed his hand over his face.

*Mr. Stark, the board meeting started five minutes ago. Should I tell them you aren't attending,* the voice of his secretary-who-wasn't-Pepper asked. He should probably get around to learning her name, but that was so far down the "to do" list that it didn't bear thinking about. Tony sort of missed the days he could ignore his secretaries by just ignoring their calls, but with Extremis it was easier sometimes just to deal with it.

Tony looked at the report once more. *No, I'll be right there. Just had to finish a phone call.*

It wasn't the fact that it could be a ploy that bothered him, but the chance that it wasn't.

And if it wasn't --

*****

Tony kept his expression neutral as he listened to one of Rutgers' lackeys - Jamison - describe how lucky it was that their people had come across the lab first. He knew that they knew that he knew they were lying.

The pictures sat in front of him with those blue, blue eyes staring out at him.

*Director Stark, your presence is needed on the Helicarrier to discuss the recent terrorist threat in Seattle...* Dugan sounded put out, and Tony couldn't blame him. He was no Nick Fury, and couldn't give his full attention to SHIELD the way Fury had. But he hoped that, at the least, Dugan acknowledged that having Tony as his CO was better than having Maria Hill.

*I know. I'll be there.*

"I'm sure you'll agree that this would be the best for all concerned, Mr. Stark." Tony would have liked nothing better than to wipe that smug look off the man's face. But there were too many cameras, bugs, and other even more inventive forms of electronic surveillance for him to bother shorting them out just to break some flunky's nose. It wouldn't be worth the headache, or the potential ramifications. He could however, make sure the man's Bluetooth headset shocked him every time he used it.

"I want a doctor of my choice to do a full medical rundown on her," Tony told him. "And the rest of the initial report I was sent. I want the complete one -- her whole file."

"Of course. I assume you'll want the paper work for your lawyer to start drawing up custody papers." Jamison said with a smile."Of course, you'll be willing to agree to certain stipulations, purely for her wellbeing. In case you are unable to provide care."

Another in a long list of reasons these people would think he was their pet super. He'd just have to be more creative in how he slipped his leash. It would be harder -- nearly impossible, in fact, but he had to do this. He should have known about the lab years ago. In retrospect, it was the answer to all of the questions he'd carefully avoided asking, all of the things he hadn't wanted to look at too closely.

Steve would have done everything and more to help this girl, to make sure she was some place safe. It wouldn't bring him back, doing this. It wouldn't make Tony less guilty of his death, but maybe...

*Tony, I know you can hear this. Don't forget to eat while you run all over creation.*

"I understand." Tony got to his feet, picking up the pictures and the CD that contained the video footage. "My lawyer will contact you shortly to schedule the medical examination. You can discuss any further paperwork with him. Now, if you'll excuse me gentlemen, I have another meeting to attend." He ignored Jamison's out stretched hand and left the room.

Outside, he glanced at the pictures again. A young girl roughly nine years old stared back at him with deep blue eyes, her blonde hair cut short. She looked so much like --

He shoved the pictures and the disk into his pocket.

Steve would have been proud of him for this at least.

****

"Jarvis," Tony found him in the kitchen, a place where most things were off limits to Tony even with Extremis. Jarvis was protective of his appliances.

*Witnesses claim to have spotted Spiderman in New York City…*

"Something I can do for you, sir?" Jarvis asked, putting down the plate he'd been drying.

Tony rubbed the back of his head. "I thought you should know we're getting a new --addition -- to the penthouse tomorrow."

Jarvis raised an eyebrow.

"A child, nine years old. A girl," Tony winced at how nervous his voice sounded. "She's a meta that’s gone through a rather tough time of it. I've agreed to take her in."

"Ah, very good, sir. Shall I set up a room for her?"

Tony honestly hadn't thought about that. There were a lot of things he hadn't had time to think about. "Uhm, yes." His mind rifled through the various bedrooms, and he went with the first one that came to mind. "Give her -- give her the one just down the hall from mine."

Jarvis looked surprised but didn't comment. "What's the young lady's name? Will we be needing to buy her clothing?"

Tony opened his mouth, and then promptly closed it again. What was he doing? He didn't know the first thing about having a kid around. "F-12, that's what they called her." He pinched the bridge of his nose. On the bright side, even he couldn't screw a kid up too much given that he'd rarely see her. "Like I said, she's had a rough time of it. I…I have no idea what she likes to eat -- and I think we will have to buy her clothing. I don't think she'll have much more than the clothes on her back."

"Sir, are you certain this is something that you want to take on right now? Perhaps Professor Xavier would be willing to take her in until you've had a chance to settle into your new duties, just for a few months. I could make some calls, if you like...?"

Tony looked at Jarvis and gave him a tight smile. "I know I'm not the most suitable person for this, Jarvis. You don't have to be polite about it. But unfortunately, this is something that I have to do."

Jarvis nodded and patted Tony on the shoulder. "I'll make sure the room is ready for her."

Tony nodded. "Any chance of a cup of coffee?" he asked hopefully.

"Just put a fresh pot on."

It wasn't until much later, when he staggered to his room for a shower and a change of clothes after falling asleep at one of the lab tables for far longer than he should have, that he realized his mistake.

He had paused outside Steve's old room. After a moment of hesitation, Tony entered the familiar space, only to find it as vacant as it had been every day since Steve had walked out. At the time, it had been for the afternoon; the separation was never intended to last a lifetime. Now, though, Tony found the room changed. The unconsciously, or, all right, if he was being honest then there was a possibility that just a slight bit of conscious effort had been expended, maintained shrine was gone. All evidence that Steve had ever lived there was gone.

Tony's hands fisted involuntarily, and he was about to ask what the hell Jarvis thought he was doing. That was when he remembered his own error. He'd told Jarvis to get a room - this room - ready for the girl. Steve's room.

He pressed his hand against the wall by the door, trying not to remember how Steve would lean there. Or how easy it had been to just echo the movement and slide his mouth against Steve's, sure of a positive reception. How Steve's hand had settled on his hip, tugging him closer. Tried so hard not to remember what he'd willingly given up, what he'd known had to be given up if the superhero community was to survive with any semblance of itself intact...

Tony pulled himself away from the wall and walked back to his own room, willing himself to leave the memories behind just as easily.

When he reached his room, he headed to the shower and turned it on full blast, waiting until the steam had obscured the mirror before stepping under the spray. If the temperature was a touch too hot and scalded his skin, well, Extremis would have it fixed by morning. And if he ended up on the floor with his head in his hands, or if some of the clear liquid that swirled down the drain didn't come from the shower head, well... No reason anyone else had to know about it.

Chapter Text

"I'm going to have to leave once we get to the penthouse," Tony told the silent child beside him. He spared her a glance, and was glad he'd decided to drive himself. Not just because it never felt right that it wasn't Happy behind the wheel, but because it gave him something to focus on other than the awkward silence.

The girl, F-12, didn't respond, her gaze never wavering as she stared straight ahead out the windshield. As he tried to figure out how to go about pulling the girl into something resembling conversation, an attempt he was rather sure would land him a score of oh-for-three, he used Extremis to access the communicator in his armor in order to address an unrelated issue that was just as pressing.

*Carol, I need you to head out to Seattle and assist with the ongoing investigation. It's probably an empty threat, but a show of support for the local authorities could keep anything else from crawling out of the woodwork.*

*I thought you were heading that investigation.* Thankfully, Carol sounded more amused than annoyed at the change in plans.

*I was, but something's come up that requires a... personal touch. And aren't you the one who keeps telling me that I can't do everything myself?*

He could hear the laughter in her voice. *Doesn't mean you'll stop trying.* She muttered something under her breath, which, knowing Carol, was probably both uncomplimentary and true, and logged off. She'd never been afraid to pull her punches around him, and it was something he appreciated. One item down, forty-seven to go. He sighed, returning his attention more fully to the still-quiet child sitting next to him. He'd never seen a child go this long without fidgeting, although he'd admit that his experience with children was limited.

"Even though I'll be gone, you won't be alone. Jarvis will look after you, he's my butler. Anything you need, you just ask Jarvis. He'll make sure you get it. All right?" He kept his tone light, kept his attention firmly fixed on the conversation at hand as he tried to ignore the electronic signature that buzzed at him from the base of her skull. He could respect the principle of having a failsafe device when dealing with experimental research, but the fact that this failsafe device was mounted on a living, breathing, human child made it a lot harder to swallow.

That had been the one pleasant surprise when the results of the medical exam had come in - she was 100% human. No sign of mutations, major genetic alteration, or naturally manifesting special abilities, just plain old human. Although that doctor had also believed that Steve was just naturally athletic, so it was possible she'd sprout wings when she hit puberty, but he'd deal with that if and when the time came. He had too much on his plate to borrow trouble, even if it was an entertaining pass-time.

Tony saw her turn her head out of the corner of his eye. Her hair curled slightly under her chin, bobbing with the movement of her head. Her acknowledgment was a simple "Yes, sir."

He wanted to grit his teeth at the dullness of the tone, but at least she responded when asked a direct question. It was a start. "Is there anything else we can call you other than F-12? Maybe someone gave you a nick-name?"

"No, sir, Mr. Stark." She sounded confused. "F-12 is my only designation."

He'd have to change that, but his mind was drawing a blank when it came to suitable names. He was already ignoring two different irate callers who didn't seem to understand that his secretary handled the rescheduling of business meetings, and just because they called four times didn't mean he'd pick up. For a moment, he forgot that it wasn't Pepper handling his schedule, and wondered why she hadn't already dealt with the troublesome executives. Then he remembered that he'd told her to take all the time she needed, and made sure that she understood that meant at least a month.

She'd be back eventually, or she would if she could bring herself to look at him after what he'd done for Happy. He wouldn't hold it against her if she resigned and never came back, but that didn't mean he wouldn't miss her.

His building loomed ahead, and Tony suddenly thought about the Avengers' Mansion -- of how many people would have been there waiting for the girl with varying degrees of open arms. He very carefully didn't think about Steve.

* * *

 

Dum-Dum Dugan read over the report that had just arrived from one of the agents in New York. Director Stark had been seen leaving a meeting with Carl Jamison, a known associate of Senator Rutgers, with a blonde child somewhere between eight and ten. The same child had been seen with Jamison several times over the course of the last week, one of the sightings occurring at the office of a physician known to do private consulting work for both Stark Industries and the Avengers.

Idle speculation aside, Dugan was rather curious as to what exactly was going on, and just how much - if anything - Stark would feel the need to share. Given that one of his perpetual fears since Stark had taken over SHIELD was that the man would commit suicide-by-supervillain, Dum-Dum couldn't decide if the new development was a positive one or not.

In the meantime, he'd keep the investigation open, hard-copy only, and highly classified. He was going to want as much ammunition as he could get if he had to confront Stark.

* * *

 

F-12 looked around the penthouse, wondering just what she was supposed to do with Mr. Stark gone. He had departed soon after they'd arrived, leaving her with a man called Jarvis. A "butler", which she assumed to be some manner of subordinate.

Granted, she hadn't been sure what she was supposed to do when Mr. Stark had been there, but at least he was her new CO; that's what she'd been told. Mr. Stark had left no instructions for her, besides that she should "relax" and "make herself at home." Maybe this was a test?

She hadn't seen the others in -- a long time. She'd lost track of the days without her normal routine. There was no emotional impact of the loss - to show emotion was to invite punishment, and she didn't want to be sent to the room - but there was a sense of their absence all the same. She wondered where they'd gone. Another mission, maybe? Or had they all failed some test she wasn't aware of?

F-12 had been on missions before. Small ones, minor compared to the tactics they learned about in the classrooms, but important for the safety of The Greater Good. That's what she'd been told. Usually, she just had to observe a specific target and report on their actions, or hold another agent's hand and call them 'mommy' or 'daddy'. D-7 had been on a lot more missions, but then, D-7 was much taller than she was, too.

Her memory recall was interrupted by Mr. Stark's subordinate. "Would you like some lunch?"

She blinked, calculating the time since her last food intake. "Yes --" she paused. "Permission to speak out of turn?"

"Go right ahead, young lady."

"How am I to address you?" she asked.

He smiled, at least that's what she thought it was called; the expression itself was outside the realm of her experience. She remembered cue cards, instruction on the reading of body language and lips, but this didn't fit those parameters. Taking a calculated risk, she decided that it was indicative of a positive mood. It was similar to the expression her instructors had demonstrated when she'd been the first one to complete a task, but something about the muscle usage was incorrect. She resolved to study the man's expressions carefully, and wondered if he was part of her test.

"You can call me Jarvis. But now, what shall we call you?"

She blinked. "My designation is F-12."

"Wouldn't you like a real name?" Jarvis asked her.

She blinked again in confusion, and then bit the inside of her cheek at the tell. Tells led to punishment if they happened too often. "A real name?" A designation was a name, the meanings similar enough to be interchangeable. Was there something wrong with her designation?

Jarvis repeated the odd quirking of his lips. "We'll think about it over lunch, then, shall we? Now, do you like roast beef sandwiches?"

"Sandwiches are acceptable."

* * *

 

It was later than Tony had planned. Much later, although that seemed to be the only way his life ran, nowadays. Always just a little too late, especially when it mattered. Too late to explain his decisions to Steve, too late to stop the bloodshed of the civil war. This time, at least, it had only been too late to dinner. It was the girl's first night in the penthouse, and Tony felt bad about sticking Jarvis with her for that long without a break. The butler had already raised one child on behalf of the Stark family; he didn't really need to raise another.

Unfortunately, after the meeting with his lawyer, there had been a client who was demanding that a design be revised today or he was canceling Stark Industries' contract. Even though Tony thought there'd been nothing wrong with the original design, which had included three separate patents, he also couldn't risk blowing off a contract over so minor a detail. And then there had been SHIELD business, and Carol reporting in about the situation in Seattle, and everything that needed doing could only be done by him. He rubbed a hand over his face as he stepped out of the elevator and into the penthouse, shooting Jarvis an apologetic look as he dropped into the first seat he came across. "How was she?"

He tried not to think about the dozen things he still had to do before he called it a night. That was what coffee was for.

"Rather well, sir, all things considered. Some of her behavior is a bit -- odd -- but hopefully that will settle as she gets used to living in a new place. Overall, Maria is a very well behaved child," Jarvis told him. "Unlike someone else I could mention at that age."

Tony smiled for a moment, not even bothering to feign outrage. "I wasn't that bad, was I? Wait, Maria?" He stared at Jarvis in shock. "You named her Maria like-" The last person he wanted to associate with the kid was Maria Hill, especially given the former SHIELD director's views on meta-humans in general (and superheroes in particular).

"Yes, Maria. After your mother," Jarvis cut in. "You did tell me that if I came up with something suitable I should feel free to begin using it, Sir. She seemed to like the name, and I believe it suits her."

Tony's shoulders slumped as Jarvis' words sunk in. Maria, after his mother. He tried the name again in his mind - Maria. He could live with that, if he had to. There were certainly more painful options. He tried to think what his mother would think of them naming this child after her, tried to remember if his mother had ever expressed views on grandchildren. Not that F-12 was his child, per se, but it was the closest analogy he could think of. After a moment's thought, he decided that she hadn't, but he thought that she would have approved of taking the girl in. Maria Stark had been known for her kind heart. "Is the girl, is Maria still awake?"

"I believe she's finally fallen asleep. Might I suggest that you arrange your schedule so as to be here in the late evenings? She shouldn't require any care, but she's young enough that someone should be on hand in case something unexpected arises. She's far too young to be left alone, and I, sadly, am not as young as I used to be."

"Right, of course." Tony nodded as if he'd known that it would work out that way all along. "I'm going to stick my head in and check on her."

Jarvis smiled and nodded. Tony was pathetically grateful that the idea of sending her to Xavier's hadn't been raised again. After the kind of day he'd had, Tony might just have agreed to it, and he knew he'd never forgive himself in the morning. One could almost say that he specialized in doing things late at night that he came to regret the next morning.

Tony pinched the bridge of his nose, the headache that been forming all day coming on full blast. It was going to be nearly impossible to arrange his schedule so that he had 8 hours off a night, never mind 8 hours in one place. Too many crises popped up in too many parts of the world; even he couldn't be everywhere at once. But then, he was coming to specialize in "nearly impossible", too, so he supposed that it would work itself out somehow.

The door to Stev-- Maria's room was half-open. Tony peered inside at the small form curled up on the bed. He stepped inside, pulling the door open a bit wider so that the light fell across the bed giving him a better view. Maria shifted in her sleep, but didn't seem to wake up.

Her back was pressed against the wall, and she'd clutched the sheets and blankets tightly around her. Tony frowned, wondering how she could sleep wrapped in all of those blankets. Even with the Tower's air conditioning going full blast, she had to be hot under there.

But he was there for a reason, and it wasn't to worry about whether or not she had a propensity for sleeping in a cocoon. Technically, he didn't need to be in close proximity to do this, but it would help with his concentration, given the headache he was currently fighting. Leaning over, Tony very gently settled his hand on the back of Maria's neck, near the base of her skull.

It didn't take long to reprogram the chip, to convince it that all external signals were nothing more than background noise. He'd analyzed it while he'd been driving her to the penthouse, and the programming was almost elegantly simple. Now, the most immediate threat to her future was effectively neutralized.

Maria stirred as he withdrew, blue eyes blinking open. He caught a glimpse of panic in their depths before she blinked it away, and he wondered how often she'd woken to find strangers at her bedside. "Shhh, go back to sleep Maria."

Her voice was sleepy, even if her eyes were now alert. "Not time for training?"

"No," Tony assured her quietly, trying to sooth her through the adrenaline rush he knew accompanied unexpected waking. He gently brushed an errant strand of hair behind her ear, murmuring quietly as he did so, and was inordinately relieved when she seemed to relax. "Go back to sleep, kiddo." He knew she'd been raised in an institutional setting, but the thought that she was that comfortable finding strangers at her bedside was disturbing on more levels than he cared to think about. Trying to shake the unpleasant thoughts from his head, he gave her a final pat on the head and slipped from the room.

Later, he'd kick himself for not waiting until she'd fallen back to sleep, but at the moment, all he wanted to do was lose himself in something logical, something mechanical. The response time for the left repulsor had been a bit sluggish lately; it was probably due for a good cleaning. That would relax him enough to sleep, or at least to be able to zone out over some paperwork. He wasn't hiding in his lab, he was just...busy.

Chapter Text

Tony woke to a sensation of movement, and it took him a moment to realize that someone was shaking his shoulder. It was a familiar sensation, but it took a moment for him to place it. Then he remembered, Steve had always done that when trying not to startle him. That was why it was so familiar. Except, Steve was dead, gone. Tony didn't want to open his eyes, didn't want to find Jarvis looking down at him with a well-deserved frown for having fallen asleep in the workshop. Again.

Unfortunately, the alarm clock impersonator did not simply go away when Tony ignored them. "Come on, Tony. You're not going to get any more work done tonight."

Tony shifted, opening his eyes carefully to squint at the blonde figure currently bracing one arm against the workbench. "Steve?" There were traces of a dream - no, a nightmare - clinging to his consciousness. Steve had been dead and-

Steve laughed, the sound washing away the last fragments of Tony's anxiety as warm breath ghosted against his neck. "Who else has the nerve to drag you out of the lab at two in the morning?"

"Pepper?" Tony suggested, managing to keep a straight face even as Steve hauled him into a standing position. The arguments over appropriate working hours (and Tony's tendency to ignore anything resembling reason when it came to his projects in the lab) were a tradition that far predated their activities in the bedroom, and Tony knew that if he struggled too hard, Steve would simply haul him into a fireman's carry and be done with it. Talk about undignified.

"Pepper knows her limits, and unlike certain people, she doesn't feel the need to test them all the time. She's just happy when you eat regularly." Steve slung an arm around Tony's shoulders, and guided him away from the work bench toward the cot in the corner.

Tony smiled, taking a moment of silence to enjoy the warmth of simple physical contact. Steve always managed to settle that restlessness in the back of his mind that never allowed him to savor a moment. Even before they'd started sleeping together, Steve had always seemed to know when Tony needed grounding, and he offered it without question. It was part of the reason Tony had been so hesitant to broach the topic of an intimate relationship, because if he lost Steve's anchorage, he was afraid he'd lose himself. It had happened before, when he'd lost himself to alcohol and been unable to decide if it was worth climbing back out; he didn't think he'd survive if it happened again, and there was no need for him to be the one to walk away. Steve would leave him, because everyone left him eventually, and when that happened he could fall without collateral damage. No one deserved to go down with him. And while inevitable, the curse that hovered around his love life was neither here nor there.

Tony shook his head, clearing away the dark thoughts, and returned his attention to Steve's assessment of Pepper's mothering skills. "Sometimes, she and Jarvis gang up on me. That's a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts." He frowned. "On those days, I never win."

"You poor thing," Tony can't tell if Steve is mocking him or not; even he occasionally can't follow Steve's sense of humor, although he's better at it than most of the people they've worked with over the years. Before Tony could puzzle it out, Steve shifted his weight, and Tony found himself pressed up against a clear space on the wall. Steve's breath his hot as he whispers in Tony's ear. "Is there anything I can do to make things better?"

Tony swallowed hard, because Steve wasn't normally the one who did the seducing, but apparently he'd learned the ropes somewhere. "I'll trust your judgment."

Steve didn't bother voicing a response, just leaned in and kissed him. It was hot, and demanding, and everything that Tony needed it to be.

It was also, however, far too short. Tony opened eyes he hadn't remembered closing, unsure if it had been a few minutes or a few hours. Once the kiss had begun, everything had grown fuzzy, in a way that probably had more to do with exhaustion and less to do with the endorphins currently flooding into his system. He'd lost his shirt at some point, and he noted that Steve had lost his, as well. Their bodies were pressed closely enough that Tony had no doubts about how much Steve was enjoying things. The knowledge made Steve's decision to pull away all the more confusing, especially to Tony's exhausted mind.

Steve pressed a careful kiss to his cheek, and Tony remembered that he'd bruised it, somehow. A fight, but he couldn't remember whom he'd been fighting. "Come to bed."

That brought reality crashing down, much as Tony might have liked to believe otherwise. "I should finish this," he gestured vaguely back at his work-table, the left gauntlet spread across its surface like so much useless debris.

"You were sleeping." A strong hand caught Tony's mid-gesture, and used the leverage to guide him toward the door.

"I was resting my eyes," Tony countered, not bothering to try to free himself from Steve's grip. It would be useless, anyway; Steve was the closest thing you could find to a living immovable object when he wanted to be.

Steve grinned again, and shifted his grip so that he could wrap his free arm around Tony's waist. "You were drooling."

"I do not drool."

"It was cute," Steve gave him an impish smile, taking any sting out of the endearment.

Tony gave him a look which eloquently expressed his sentiments on the usage of the word 'cute' when relating to his person.

Steve laughed again, and ghosted a kiss against his neck, not even bothering to stop their gradual but inevitable progress toward the door. Tony forgot to be annoyed, and allowed his eyes to slide shut. He trusted that Steve wouldn't let him run into anything, and he could admit, if only to himself, that there might be something to this whole accepting help thing. It certainly came with nice perks. He opened his mouth to ask if Steve was planning to continue their negotiations in bed, but he never had the chance to ask.

*Tony? Tony are you there?* Carol's voice interrupted whatever Steve had been about to do next.

Tony opened his eyes and blinked as he realized he was face-down on his worktable. He groaned as he sat up, rubbing a hand over his face in an attempt to wake up and ground himself.

*Tony?*

*What do you want, Carol?* He snapped, cradling his head in his hands. He didn't need to glance at a clock to know that it was just after five am on the East Coast, which made it something like two where Carol was. Apparently Ms. Marvel was just as bad as he was when it came to sleeping. It would be comforting, if it weren't quite so depressing. One of them should at least have something resembling a normal schedule.

*My, we're cranky this morning.* Irritation now colored her voice, although if he didn't know better he'd think there was concern in there, as well.

Tony sighed. It wasn't her fault she'd interrupted a perfectly good dream. Wasn't her fault that he hadn't realized it was a dream. *Sorry, sorry. Haven't had my coffee yet. Is this important, or just a check-in?*

*Checking in, for the most part. The Seattle situation seems to be under control, we haven't had any threats in the last 48 hours, and I wanted to know if anything else popped up on the radar out here before I come back East.*

*Nothing on the grid that requires a superhero presence. Leave the clean-up to the locals, you've done your bit,* Tony told her. *Anything else?*

There was an empty silence, not quite awkward, but noticeable nonetheless. *Tony, you know I trust you, and I know you must have your reasons, but I have to ask. Are you sure you know what you're doing with Jamison? I thought we'd agreed you were giving Rutgers and his crew a wide berth now that things have finally calmed down. Something about not being seen with the devil?*

Tony groaned inwardly. He'd been hoping to keep Maria under wraps for at least a bit longer. Was a week really too much to ask? *Who told you?*

*You're not the only one with contacts in Washington, you know. One of them mentioned seeing you coming out of a meeting with that little rat. What do they want with you now? What do they have over you now?* Carol's frustration came through the comm channel loud and clear, and Tony wished he could just tell her and be done with it, but some things should never be discussed over open comm lines, not even those he had designed himself.

*Rutgers' toady is the least of my concerns, Carol.* Tony spared half a moment to be grateful that he could subvocalize his communications through Extremis. He wasn't sure he'd be nearly as convincing if he was actually speaking. Carol had known him too long to let it go, and she'd only gotten worse since the war. *Don't worry about me so much. I'll be fine.*

*Someone has to.* Carol's sigh was audible, and Tony closed the connection without giving her the chance to elaborate. He rubbed at the bridge of his nose before staring blankly at the items spread out across his worktable and trying to remember what he'd been working on before falling asleep. He must be more tired than he'd thought, if he'd answered Carol's transmission while still asleep.

He sighed, and spent a precious moment reflecting on the dream she'd interrupted. It had been a good dream. These days, he didn't get many of those.

* * *

 

Maria was decidedly uncomfortable in her new uniform, with the instinctive dislike of change that comes so naturally to one so steeped in routine. For one thing, the material itself was strange, stiff and heavier than she was accustomed to. For another, she was presented with choice - both when it came to the initial selection of components, which was conducted in a series of locations filled with too many colors, too many people, and women who never ceased speaking as they examined her and handed her piece after piece to wear - and when it came to what she was to wear for the rest of the day. At least the women had been full of orders, as well as nonsensical language. "Try these, zip that, tuck that in, stand up straighter." Orders could be followed, and it was not for her to question or understand their logic. It was simply for her to obey.

Back at the penthouse, however, the orders were again sporadic. Much to her confusion, Jarvis had placed the new uniforms - fifteen primary articles consisting of shirts and pants, and an additional twenty-one secondary articles including oddly-colored socks and briefs mixed in with the proper white - in the small room he called a closet, which opened off of her own. He demonstrated the proper method of storage, how to fold and how to hang them, and then left her with an order to organize her closet as she saw fit. She spent twenty minutes staring at the jumbled pile of bags before deciding that her best option was to store the clothing as it corresponded to the spectrum. They couldn't fault her, so long as there was a system, could they? This, at least, was part of the test she could do efficiently.

When everything else was stored, she was left with two articles of clothing which defied the instructions Jarvis had given her. The women in the stores had called them "dresses", and they appeared to serve no practical purpose. Jarvis had explained that they were for formal events, but she couldn't understand why one would desire less freedom of movement just because an event was "formal".

The biggest confusion, albeit the one most easily remedied, had been the naming of things. Clothes, jeans, dresses - the variety of words was illogical to describe a uniform, and it was a part of the test she was coming to dislike. She could memorize, but she absorbed information best visually; the majority of the new words were the kind which existed solely in reading material, but were never spoken aloud. While she might recognize them, it took time to realize that they were the same as the ones in her written lessons. Jarvis didn't appear to get upset when she took too long to answer, but she knew he must be noting it for her performance review. Errors were always noted, and always led to punishment.

The one good thing about the new uniforms was that they fit more comfortably than the one she had been given after she left the complex. She had worn that uniform every day since arriving at the penthouse, except when she had showered or slept. The first night, Jarvis had provided her a sleeping uniform and taken away her day uniform to be cleaned. It had been several days since she had arrived at the penthouse, and a new color to wear was a relief, even if the parts didn't match.

The other good part of the "shopping trip" was something she was reluctant to dwell on. Jarvis had been pleased with her expediency, and suggested that they stop for a snack before returning to the penthouse. He had bought her ice cream, a cold and sweet and everything she had heard it made out to be. She'd heard about ice cream; it was one of the few rumors that had made its way through the classrooms. One of the other had done well on a mission, and her handler had bought ice cream as a treat. The rumor had been confirmed a week later, when it was announced that the handler had been killed for violating regulations, and the girl was taken away. They all knew what happened when you were taken away.
Maria mouth curved downwards as she tried to remember if she had known that girl's designation. Maria concluded that she hadn't; they all looked alike, after all, and they were never addressed by designation, only by that day's color, and if there were two of a color in a group, then a letter as well. Gamma, Delta, Alpha - Maria had been each of them, at one time or another. D-7 was the only designation Maria had known for certain, and that was because D-7 had been taller than the others.

Maria paused, turning her thoughts inward as she sat on the floor and stared at the array in the closet. In her own mind, she could allow herself to wonder about the others, and if they were in places as strange as she was. Were their new CO's as confusing as Mr. Stark? She was supposed to call him Tony, but he was still Mr. Stark in her mind. That's what his profile had named him, when she had been briefed before her transfer. It wasn't difficult to avoid mistakes in address, since she only saw him at the evening food intake. Dinner, as Jarvis insisted upon calling it, and she needed to remember to use the new terms.

Mistakes led to punishment, and she was alone enough, as it was.

Chapter Text

It had been three days of silent assessment, of looks she wasn't supposed to see and expressions that didn't match any frame of reference she'd received in The Complex. She knew that she was supposed to be flexible, adaptable, but how could she adapt without feedback?

Maria had understood when she was transferred to Mr. Stark that her tasks and assessments would change. She understood that. But Mr. Stark was rarely present, only appearing in the hours before she was dismissed for rest. He'd assigned one task, and one only, in the form of four books he'd handed her on the second night. She'd read them as quickly as she could, assimilating the information and trying to figure out what it was she would be questioned about. The books were an odd assortment, all of them fiction, and two were so far removed from their date of initial publication as to be useless. Mr. Stark had asked her opinions the next day at the evening "meal", but she had only been able to speak about one of them before he had changed the topic of conversation. The books had not been discussed again, leading her to conclude that Mr. Stark conducted his assessments based upon a randomized sample of the material being examined. She asked what she was to do with the books, and was told to return them to the library when she was finished with them. She did so promptly, with the exception of one. It might be out-of-date, but she found Jules Verne fascinating to read, so that book was carefully hidden under her mattress - the one place that the minders never looked, and thus the one place for things that were hers.

Jarvis was more straightforward, and she was relieved that he was her primary supervisor. He assigned tasks with immediate results - things like replacing the items used during a "meal", as she had been told to call the regular food intakes, in their proper compartments after washing them - and his approval of her work was clearly given.

Even with the books and the rather odd tasks Jarvis gave her daily, there were still large portions of her time which were strangely blank. By all appearances, nothing was expected of her, which made no sense. It was a waste of resources to be idle, she as a resource was being wasted if not fulfilling a task, and only those who were unfit were assigned quiet periods. She was not unfit, couldn't be unfit, so it must be part of a larger assessment. All the same, she missed her physical training, could feel the need to move building up in her arms and legs involuntarily, and the books served as poor substitute for the mathematical and mechanical instruction she was used to receiving in The Complex.

"Maria, it's dinner time. Wash your hands and come out to eat. You can help set the table if you like," Jarvis called into her room. "Tony should be joining us tonight."

"Yes, sir." Maria took care to hide the book she'd been paging through, adjusting the bedding so that it gave no clue to what lay beneath before hurrying out to complete the assigned task. She took just a moment in the doorway to ensure that her face contained no tells, then shook her arms once in an attempt to alleviate the feeling of itchiness that was her perpetual companion since she'd stopped her physical training. While neither Jarvis nor Mr. Stark seemed to notice her tells, Maria couldn't take chances that all of this was just a bigger test. It had to be a bigger test.

* * *

 

"Is that a new outfit, Maria?" Tony asked over dinner, trying to engage the girl in conversation. Despite the fact that she seemed surprisingly articulate for her age, Maria was proving to be a predominantly quiet child, and something about it struck Tony as wrong. Children were supposed to make noise and get into trouble, at least if he could believe the tales he heard periodically from Reed and Charles. The closet he'd gotten to an active conversation with Maria was when he'd asked about the books he'd given her. She'd been almost bubbly as she'd explained the concepts discussed in Jule Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. At least, she had until she'd caught herself; once that happened, she'd returned almost immediately to a subdued recitation of facts.

"Yes, sir," Maria answered him, looking down at herself. "We acquired several new unif- outfits today."

"Do you like them?" Tony asked, knowing what her answer would be as soon as he finished the question. Maria didn't have likes and dislikes, at least not those that she voiced. He'd found himself limiting his time in her vicinity when she was awake, simply as a way of controlling his temper. Maria sounded more like a robot than a human child at times, and while he regarded robotic engineering with a definite air of fondness, he hated the fact that he found himself making regular comparisons between Maria and his current side-projects in the lab. He wondered, when he let himself think about it, if anything he could do would ever be enough to make up for not learning about The Complex when it had been formed, or at least when it had been in its early stages. Even six years could have made so much difference in the lives of the children like Maria. Could have given them normal lives.

He'd even go so far as to say that it would have been worth the pain it would have inevitably caused. Steve would have blamed himself for not knowing of it. Tony still hadn't been able to find a list of those who had been victims of genetic theft for the benefit of The Complex, and he wasn't sure he ever would if the other children didn't come crawling out of the woodwork at some point. Steve would have blamed himself, because that's what Steve did, every single time someone died because of Red Skull, every single time the Avengers hadn't been quite fast enough onto the scene. Steve never had acknowledged that so much of that had been Tony's failings, because it was Tony's job to predict, to monitor, to know.

"The material is different than I am accustomed to, but I'm sure that if Jarvis selected it that there must be tactical advantages to it. The…" she paused, as if searching for a word. "The dress is…pretty…it is very red, and shiny. I was told that it suits me?" Maria looked slightly uncertain as she used the expression, anxiety melting palpably into relief as Jarvis nodded to indicate that she was correct.

"I'm sure it looks lovely on you, Maria." Tony smiled, and almost asked why the dress wasn't blue, catching himself at the last minute. Just because blue had looked better on Steve meant nothing about what might suit Maria. He trusted Jarvis, and if Jarvis thought that red had looked best, then red it was. "Did you have fun shopping?"

Maria looked down at her plate, expression more than a little confused. "Jarvis told me that I performed well. He rewarded me with ice cream." She paled after adding the last bit, and Tony had a feeling that if she'd been any other child, she'd have clapped a hand over her mouth.

"Did you like it?" He asked, trying to reassure her that she wasn't in trouble for whatever it was she thought she'd done.

Very carefully, Maria set her fork and knife down on her plate before folding her hands in her lap. "Permission to return to my bunk, si- Tony?" her voice was small, and so hesitant that it was painful to hear.

Tony's first thought was to push and find out why something as simple as ice cream was so upsetting. His second thought was to allow her to leave, but he didn't want this hanging over them. "Finish your dinner first. Then you can go to bed, if you're that tired."

Maria nodded, not looking up from her plate. "Yes, sir."

Tony turned his attention back to his own meal, wondering if it really was something specific, or if it was just a result of general over-stimulation. Jarvis hadn't mentioned any problems managing her in public, but that didn't mean that she'd been comfortable with it. Tony shook his head, annoyed with himself. He should have taken her shopping himself, or just sent Jarvis for clothing, but there was too much to do. There had been even more than usual since he'd started spending his evenings at the penthouse with Maria. Sixteen hours a day was just not enough time to effectively manage SHIELD and Stark Enterprises, but he'd had this argument before. It never got him anywhere, whether he was having it with himself or someone else. Taking a sip of water, he decided to try a potentially more beneficial conversation. "You know, Jarvis used to take me for ice cream when I was your age." He studied her out of the corner of his eye, relieved when she relaxed enough with the new information to begin eating with something more than the forced deliberateness that she had a tendency to demonstrate when she was upset.

* * *

 

Carol had known Tony for years, but that didn't mean she fully understood everything that went on in his head. "Every night, Tony. Every single night this week, you've been holed up in the Tower. What are you working on?" She hadn't intended to get into an impromptu performance appraisal of the man who was for all intents and purposes her boss. But then she'd dropped by to give him her final report in person, and found him hiding out in a corner of his lab and ignoring the rest of the world. Things had evolved from there.

After the initial exchange of excuses and frustrations, they'd migrated to the living room of the penthouse. Tony was anxious, and kept peering down the hallway to the bedrooms just often enough to pique her curiosity. "Nothing in particular."

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes, because with Tony, 'Nothing in particular' was almost always something. "Something has been keeping you here. What is it this time? Does this have to do with those henchmen you were slinking around with last week?"

Tony rubbed a hand over his face, sinking down into the couch. "Carol, I know I've asked a lot of you lately, but I need you to trust me on this. I know what I'm doing."

Carol frowned at him, crossing her arms delicately. "Tony, you've said that before."

"I mean it this time. I have this under control, but I need you to let me deal with it in my own way." Tony told her. "When things have settled down. I'll explain everything, I promise. But right now…"

There was a sound from the hallway, and Carol turned her head to look. A small blonde child stood outside of Steve's old room, expression going from unsure to neutral as she studied Carol in turn. Carol blinked, and shot Tony a curious glance. "Tony, is there anything you'd like to tell me?"

Tony followed her line of sight, and cursed under his breath as he got to his feet. "Maria, is everything all right?"

The girl - Maria - noticeably bit the inside of her cheek, her attention never wavering from Carol as she replied. "I heard voices."

Tony walked down the hallway, crouching down in front of the girl, smoothing her bangs back from her forehead. "It's all right, Maria. It's just Carol. She's a friend of mine."

"Do I have to go with her?" Maria's voice was soft, but Carol could make out the question. That didn't mean that it made sense. She wondered if the girl had anything to do with the men Tony had been meeting with; it would certainly explain a few things.

"No, no, of course not." Tony voice was gentler than Carol could remember hearing it, especially since Steve's death, although that was a can of worms she wasn't opening any time soon. "Go on back to bed. Everything's all right, nothing for you to worry about. You don't have to go with anyone, remember? This is your home, now."

Maria nodded, and after another wary glance at Carol she disappeared into one of the bedrooms. Carol watched Tony as he walked back to the living area, looking tired in a way that had become all too familiar in the days since the Registration Act had passed. He dropped back onto his favorite couch, closing his eyes as his head fell back. "I didn't want this getting out yet."

"Tony --"

"Don't start, Carol. Please. You don't know the details. I had to take her in - no matter the price. You have to understand, where she was…"

Carol reached out and placed a gentle hand on Tony's shoulder. "Tony, I understand. I mean I will understand."

"You want the whole story, I take it?"

She nodded. "It would be nice."

Tony looked up, then, and Carol swore that she could see gratitude in his eyes. "She - Maria - was part of a bio-weapons program. I don't know if you've ever heard of X-23..."

* * *

 

It had taken surprisingly little to get Carol out the door, once she'd had the basics of Maria's life story. She hugged him, told him that she really did understand, and said to call her if he needed help with anything. He'd nodded, appreciating the thought but figuring that it would be a few years until that particular set of issues was likely to arise, and after Carol's departure he'd managed to get six hours of sleep in the workroom before Jarvis woke him with a cup of coffee and an exasperated expression.

Two days later, he found himself praying desperately that Carol had her communicator on as he watched Maria attempt to systematically destroy everything in her bedroom. When he'd realized what was going on, he'd tried to step in - asking what was wrong, why she was doing this. She was nine years old, after all, it wasn't like she was incapable of rational conversation, right? He'd been forced to reassess when she'd screamed at him about how "It's all wrong!!" and thrown a lamp at him. Hence, the fact that the great Tony Stark was currently pacing in his living room, making a concerted effort to ignore the noise coming from Maria's bedroom and waiting anxiously for Carol to pick up the phone.

It had started at dinner, with what had sounded like a totally innocuous question. "When will the classes begin again?"

"What kind of classes?" Tony had jumped on the chance to get her talking, pleased that she'd grown comfortable enough to ask without prompting. In addition, he honestly needed whatever information she could provide - while there had been a few notes in her official file about basic training in a number of disciplines, it had been carefully vague. He knew that she could read and write, a fact reinforced by her comfort-level with the books he'd provided her, but he hadn't stopped to think that she would need regular academic instruction. She certainly couldn't be placed with other children at this point, and he didn't want to bring an outsider into his house this early in her acclimation.

"Mathematics, mechanical systems, basic medical care and wound assessment, drafting-"

Tony had held up a hand, cutting off the rush of information. He'd expected the list, but it had been a long day, and there was only so much that he could process at once. "Let's try this again, which classes did you like?"

She'd blinked at him, face a mask of confusion for only a moment before it filled with fury. "No! That's not how it works! It's wrong!! I don't like this test! I want one I can pass!! I don't want isolation!! I don't want to go back!!" She'd been out of the room before Tony could even open his mouth, never mind trying to figure out what it was that he'd said.

Which led him back to the present, and Carol's stunning inability to answer her phone after two rings. As he paced, he ran through the electronic version of her Air Force service record, checking and double-checking the college courses she'd taken on the side. He knew that whatever it was that was keeping her from answering, it wasn't an Avengers-related crisis, because he was wired into their alert network through Extremis. He was reasonably sure she wasn't out on a date this early, and if she was, he'd apologize later. For the moment, he just wanted to know where the hell was she?

His question was answered a moment later by a sleepy *Hello?*

*You took psychology, right?*

He could hear a rustling on the other end of the line as she presumably sat up, and he winced. There were a limited number of reasons she'd be in bed at this time of day, and most of them involved Simon Williams. *Tony? What's this about?*

*Just answer the question.* He winced as a particularly loud crash emanated from Maria's room, and spared a moment to be thankful that he'd chosen to place the call through Extremis, meaning that she couldn't hear the destruction in the background.

*Yes, I minored in it through CCAF, but you've seen those records.* He could hear her frustration through the connection, and took a deep breath, reminding himself that he needed her help, which meant not pissing her off. *Tony, what's this about?*

*It's Maria. She just...snapped. I don't know why. One minute, she's asking about starting school, the next minute she's screaming and throwing things at me.*

She sighed. *Tell me exactly what you said. What she said.* He parroted back the conversation. *Tony, this girl has been heavily institutionalized her whole life. She doesn't understand that things can be done differently than she's used to. She probably barely understands the concept of choice, and from what you told me the other night, she isn't comfortable expressing preference. You asked her to do that, and to do it in the context of the very institution that indoctrinated her. You're lucky this didn't happen sooner.*

*Yes, fine, I'm an idiot. I should have talked to a counselor as soon as I realized what kind of background she had. Point made. I'll talk to Charles when I get a spare weekend. What do I do right now?*

*She's looking for clear-cut authority, so provide it. You might not like it, but she'll respond to it. Calm her down before she hurts herself. Tomorrow, you sit her down, and you find out exactly how her life worked before you got your hands on her. How many classes, what kinds, ask about anything you can think of. You're going to have to acclimate her to your world, and you're going to have to do it slowly. And you damn well better call Charles. I took basic psych, Tony. This isn't exactly my specialty.*

*I know, Carol. I do. And I appreciate this more than you can possibly imagine. I owe you one.*

*Yes, you do. You can add it to your tab.* She muttered something that he couldn't quite make out.

*Look, Carol, I really do appreciate this.*

*I know, I know. Let me know how it goes, all right?*

*I will.* He disconnected, and turned back toward the hallway that led to the bedrooms. "Well, Jarvis, here goes nothing."

"Yes, Master Tony. Need I remind you that the decision to bring Maria to the penthouse was made at your insistence?"

Tony shot his old friend a look which expressed his sentiments on the fact eloquently.

"Merely refreshing your memory, sir."

"Consider it refreshed. Now, while I deal with this," Tony gestured toward the hallway, "I need you to cancel all of my meetings for the morning."

Jarvis nodded. "Of course, sir. Will you be needing anything else for the evening?"

"An ice pack, and possibly a brain transplant, but I suppose a pot of coffee will have to do."

"Very good, sir."

Tony spent a long moment watching Jarvis start the new pot of coffee before he squared his shoulders and started down the hallway toward the eye of Hurricane Maria. 'Clean up this mess. Go to bed. We'll discuss this in the morning.' They were things all parents said, at one point or another, right? So why did he feel like he was preparing to take on the Mandarin in his Mark I armor?

Chapter Text

"I know you have an issue with me carrying his shield," Bucky - no, his name was James. He wasn't Captain America's sidekick, anymore - James said, carefully avoiding Tony's gaze.

"I wouldn't have given it to you if I had a problem with it. Steve would have wanted you to have it," Tony's voice was firm, even if his resolve wasn't. The truth was that it killed Tony to see someone else in Steve's uniform, holding Steve's shield. Steve had told him once how the uniform had been based off of his own sketches, and even a blind man could have seen that Steve loved that shield. Just like that classic bike, although Tony could never fault Steve for an interest in vintage transportation. The bike, the shield, they were Steve's, and Tony would never stop thinking of them as being so. Even if Bucky carried the shield for the next twenty years. "He'd be proud that you're carrying on the Captain America name."

James snorted softly. "I'm never going to be him. Everyone knows that I'm not him. Who the hell can replace Captain America?" Tony could hear the bitterness in his voice, but as often happened in his conversations with James, he couldn't tell if it was grief at losing Steve, or if it was frustration at never crawling out from under Steve's shadow. Tony knew that James had loved Steve - everyone had, really - but it had been an odd relationship toward the end.

Tony made a conscious effort to shift his thoughts from that particular path, crossing his arms as he used Extremis to finalize last minute details for his business trip to China as well as checking up on Maria. "There have been other Captain Americas before, and you're unlikely to be the last. You know that as well as anyone."

He watched Maria in his mind's eye, through the security cameras in the gym as she worked on the balance beam. Her movements had the surety of someone who'd trained on the apparatus for years, and he found himself absurdly grateful that the people who had "raised" her had waited until the children turned ten to start serious combat training. Gymnastics he could deal with, and once he was assured that the two weeks of relative calm that had followed her metaphorical explosion were the new norm, and not merely a holding pattern of some kind, he could see about finding her a civilian instructor. He knew that he'd have to tread a very careful line with an outside instructor, but there were some areas in which he simply didn't have the experience to teach her. Steve would have been a wonderful teacher, or, hell, if he hadn't fallen off the grid so spectacularly, Spider-man would have been able to do a better job than he could. Never mind that Peter would probably be a better father than he would.

Maybe Carol would know someone trustworthy. He'd have to ask, but that was weeks away, if not months. It was also neither here, nor there, and James was speaking again.

"They were never really him, and I'm not either," James sounded tired, and he had a right too. They were all tired, and James had extra shit mixed into the pile. He'd been a trained assassin at age, what, sixteen? He'd probably understand Maria better than Tony did, but that wasn't a route Tony planned to take. The less the new Captain America knew about Maria, the better. "I know he told you to take care of me, but he also seemed to think I'm still twelve. Steve, he had this need to protect, and I was the convenient focus for that during the war. I was sixteen when I meet him, and I could damn well take care of myself then. I can take care of myself now."

"I'm sure you can," Tony spoke softly, trying to avoid getting into an argument that wasn't his to have. "I wouldn't have given you that shield if I didn't believe that."

James was still frowning at him, but whatever he seemed to want to say, he didn't. "I should go."

Tony nodded, and silently watched the Winter Solider leave his office. As the door to the commander's office on the Helicarrier slid closed, Tony once again set about trying to figure out if Dugan was relieved or annoyed that Tony was going to be in China until the end of the week.

* * *

 

To the best of her recollection, Maria had never been on a plane before. She'd learned about them, studied them, seen them - but had never set foot in one. She stared at her large travel bag, called a "suitcase" because it was traditionally used to transport only clothing, checking again that it contained everything she'd been asked to pack. The shoulder-bag, Jarvis had called it a backpack, was packed, too, filled with books and some drawing supplies.

Since her episode - an odd term, but the one Mr. Stark had used when he'd interrogated her the next morning - she'd had more strict scheduling. After learning that drafting had been one of the skills she'd been training in, Mr. Stark had assigned her thirty minutes of drawing, every day. He had told her that it didn't matter what she drew, but that he wanted to see her work at the end of each day. He always seemed pleased with her work, and she had been rewarded with new pads of paper and varied drawing supplies. Her current project was a draft of the ship from the book From the Earth to the Moon.

Maria frowned at her suitcase. Mr. Stark had told her that the flight would be very long, since they were flying to China. She knew where China was, and she knew where she currently was, but she hadnt traveled enough to draw her own conclusions about the time in transit. Mr. Stark had said they were scheduled to be in the air for thirteen hours and thirty minutes. Maria had no idea what she'd be expected to do during that time. She'd wanted to ask, but this project was under Mr. Stark's direct supervision, and she needed to save her questions and breaches of protocol for important things. In this case, even if she asked and was answered, the answer might not make any sense. Mr. Stark's answers often made little sense, even if he tried to explain the in detail if she slipped and made her confusion known.

China - Maria wasn't sure what she thought about actually going there. It wasn't her place to think about the trip, or to question it, but she found herself doing so just the same. No one could see what happened inside her head, right? Everything she'd ever been taught had demonstrated China to be an enemy nation. One of the languages that they'd received training in at The Complex had been Mandarin Chinese, and it had been Maria's worst subject by far. Her French and Spanish were flawless, neither carrying an American accent. Her German near perfect, although she knew that her vocabulary was smaller than what she'd learned in the other languages, and while her Russian needed some work, she'd still been one of the best in her group.

Her Mandarin, on the other hand?

Mandarin had landed her in isolation more than once, no matter how hard she practiced. Her reading comprehension was good, but while she could hear the tonal differences, something just didn't connect right when she tried to repeat them back. She shivered unconsciously at the memory of those days in isolation, sitting down on the bed and pulling her knees to her chest as she considered the possibility that Mr. Stark was bringing her along to translate for him, or worse, to conduct recon. So far, he'd been pleased with her performance; what happened when she failed him?

It brought up the doubts that had lingered in the back of her mind ever since her arrival, half-formed and incomplete, but still present. Was she the first one to be assigned to Mr. Stark? Had others been assigned and failed? He never spoke of such things, but that meant nothing. In The Complex, no one had spoken about the girls who Failed and were deemed a waste of resources. But everyone knew what it meant when someone was taken down the corridor and turned left instead of right. Mr. Stark was difficult to read, because he never seemed to get angry with her, never more than a momentary outburst. Not even when her behavior had been such that she was sure she'd be taken away - she'd wanted to be taken away, just for the familiarity of the routine and the known expectations.

Maria wanted things simple again, like they had been in The Complex. Even with the changes, Mr. Stark presented too many confusing things, his home contained too many people that didn't behave as they should. She didn't want to think about why he didn't punish her for her transgressions. Or why something inside her felt... odd when he praised her or smiled at her. She didn't want to understand Jarvis' tendency for the strange embraces he referred to as "hugs".

Staring back down at her suitcase, Maria bit the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood.

* * *

 

For the most part, the flight proved uneventful, and for that Tony was grateful. He'd taken a fair amount of pleasure in showing Maria around the plane - explaining the various mechanisms, the innovations he'd designed, etc - and the flight attendants had fussed over her as well, especially after learning that it was the young girl's first flight. Maria had taken the whole thing in stride, and the biggest problem had been the need to limit her once she'd realized that she could get cookie after cookie simply by asking for them (and that asking was allowed).

After takeoff, Tony had settled in to work on a new design - not anything for SHIELD or the Avengers, just something that had been buzzing around his brain on and off for the past few weeks. He didn't often have the chance to just play around with equations and lines anymore, especially not with pen & paper - so many of his designs were done on computer, often in his 3D design studio.

At one point, he'd looked over at Maria and seen with amusement that she also had her a pad of paper out, and was drawing her own set of specs. She'd been working on that ship for several days now, ever since he'd pointed out that if she disliked the illustrations in From the Earth to the Moon that she should draw her own version.

And that's exactly what she'd set out to do. He watched her now, with her tongue sticking out just slightly as she concentrated, her fingertips dark from the pencil, a little line on her forehead where her brow furled - and it looked so familiar it hurt. He wondered if all artists had that expression when they worked.

Tony looked away, forcibly ending that train of thought, and threw himself back into his own art, the comforting and absorbing process of design. If that didn't distract him, then he was sure he could find something on one of the many data streams that would.

It was hours later when he resurfaced after finishing yet another cup of coffee. Running a hand over his face, he left his seat to use the bathroom, mentally running down the checklist of things he had to do before they landed. He'd review a few reports, get Carol's report on the State-of-the-Superhero, check in on Bob, and then maybe catch a few hours of sleep before they landed in Beijing. It was as he walked back to his seat that he noticed Maria's fidgeting. She'd put her drawing pad away and was restlessly squirming in her seat, looking out the window, then at the ceiling - never more than a few seconds of attention in any given place.

He opened his mouth to ask her what was wrong, and then it clicked. Manfully resisting the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose, because he knew it wouldn't actually help the flaring headache and he'd learned that Maria had a tendency to read that kind of body language negatively, he mentally cursed himself for not realizing the problem sooner. "Maria, you may use the bathroom."

The girl was up and out of her seat in an instant, not even giving one of her customary 'yes, sir's as she dashed to the bathroom.

Tony looked up at the roof of the plane, and once again wondered if he was doing more harm than good. Even Reed might have been a better choice, well, all right, if he were honest with himself, Sue was the reason those kids had turned out mostly-normal, but at least she knew what she was doing, and then Maria wouldn't be alone so much. He made a mental note to introduce Maria to the Richards family once she was stable enough to handle regular outside interactions. She needed contact with other children, or she would.

When Maria came back out of the bathroom, he put a hand on her shoulder before she could return to her seat. She stopped obediently, and turned to face him, her face carefully neutral. "Maria, I'm not angry with you. But from now on, you have permission to excuse yourself to use the bathroom whenever you need to. Do you understand?" He hated how much like an order it sounded, but orders were what she responded to.

Maria nodded slowly, as if she was waiting for the other shoe to drop. "Yes, Tony."

Tony sighed and tucked a loose piece of hair behind her ear. "You should try to get some sleep. It'll be another five hours before we land, and it'll be early afternoon. Did Amy show you how to work the seat?"

Maria nodded again. "She did. It does seem quite practical to have the chair and bed in the same unit."

He chuckled softly. "It is indeed. Go on, then, genius." Tony patted her head affectionately, and watched her as she adjusted the seat and curled up under the blanket she'd been given earlier, falling asleep almost immediately.

Convinced that she was down for the count, or at least well on her way, he settled back in his own seat, allowing himself to sink into the appropriate data streams as he read through the SHIELD reports that had made it to his inbox before they'd left town. Amy, who was both the jet's chief mechanic on the ground and his head flight attendant in the air, came back around a few moments later, refilling his coffee and making sure Maria had all the pillows and blankets she needed.

When he looked up again, he realized that the lights in the rest of the cabin had been dimmed almost to darkness, his work light shining all the brighter for the contrast. He looked over, and saw that Maria was asleep, her arm hanging over the edge of the bed slightly. He was surprised to realize that she seemed more at ease sleeping here than he had ever seen her in the penthouse. He wondered if it was the light or the noise that put her at ease. Perhaps both.

Rising from his chair, Tony crossed the cabin and gently shifted her arm back onto the cushion. He ran a hand over her back, and paused his hand slightly as he felt the gentle rise and fall of her breathing. She stirred slightly, making a soft noise. "Shhh," he murmured, watching her settle and drift back into a deeper sleep. He eased the blanket back up around her shoulders, and allowed himself another moment just to study her in a peaceful state. She was rarely so relaxed, and the calm suited her well.

So small, so innocent, and so disturbingly young; he wondered how anyone could have seen her as anything but a child that needed protection. Not a tool or a bargaining chip, but a little girl that desperately needed someone to think about what was good for her - not some ill-defined greater good.

He very carefully didn't think about what the most likely fate for her "sisters" had been. She'd asked once or twice about them, and he'd promised to look into it, although no information had surfaced so far. Standing there, watching her sleep, he wondered if she even understood the loss.

* * *

 

Franklin Richards had met some odd people in his life. By most of the world's standards, his whole family was odd. On a more personal scale, his own life hadn't exactly been something out of a family sitcom. So, when given that kind of a context, Maria Stark was not the strangest kid he'd ever met. He was hesitant to decide whether she was in the top ten or not, though. That kind of strange needed time and exposure to quantify. She'd certainly seemed nice enough when they'd been introduced, and while Tony had looked kind of stressed, he always looked kind of stressed, so Franklin hadn't really thought anything of it. He'd just been happy to run into someone else from back home, especially since his dad had forgotten to mention that Tony was going to be in town. Franklin was still trying to convince Tony to let him take a spin in the armor, and while Tony kept maintaining that it wasn't happening until his dad said it was okay, Franklin lived in hope. A lot of hope.

His dad and Tony were off with business associates of some kind, involving the engineering behind the new buildings going up for the Olympics. There were other children around, mostly the children of Stark Industries employees. Tony hadn't wanted to let Maria out of his sight when it had been time to head for the meeting, but Franklin's dad had told Tony that Franklin would keep an eye on her. And then he'd turned to Franklin and told him to take care of her. Tony had looked skeptical, but Franklin's dad had started talking about something involving a lot of numbers and an experimental element, and Tony had allowed himself to be dragged away without a fuss.

An hour and change later, Franklin was definitely considering moving Maria up the rankings in the strange department, even if he totally understood why she was about twenty-five degrees to the right of the rest of the world. He hadn't meant to pry, but then he never really meant to. He was a kid, well, sort-of. Accidents just sort of happened, right?

"I'm not sure that I understand these swings. What is their purpose?" Maria was asking. "Is this more of 'playing'?"

He could hear the quotations in her question, and was reminded that really, he'd had a comparatively normal childhood, all things considered. She'd asked about everything, once they'd entered the playground, and looked positively mystified when he'd laughed and said that the other children were just playing.

"It's supposed to be fun," Franklin told her, pumping his legs to gain altitude. "Don't you like it?"

Maria frowned her brow wrinkling. "It is…" She leaned back as she reached the top of an arc. Her lips curled upwards. "It is enjoyable. I'm just not sure what the purpose is. What does this teach us? Surely there are more effective manners in which to learn balance and geometry skills."

"It teaches us how to have fun?"

Maria frowned, and on any other child her tone would have been called a whine. "That doesn't make any sense."

Franklin shrugged and jumped off his swing midair. "Maybe it's not supposed to. Ever think of that?"

"I'm not supposed to think, just obey," she sounded angry. Following his example, she jumped off of her swing at the top of its arc, executing a neat double-twist followed by a somersault before landing easily on her feet.

"Whoa." Franklin hadn't meant to stare, but he found that he couldn't stop. Sure, he'd seen Spider-man do all sorts of fancy flips before, but Spider-man wasn't nine years old. Spider-man also wore a costume. "Look, I didn't mean to make you mad," Franklin told her as she walked past him toward the monkey bars. Some of the other children were staring at them, but Maria ignored them. After a moment, he followed her example, although he was relieved when she decided to bypass the bars and instead settled in one of the open areas filled with sand.

Maria sat down in the sand and looked up at the clear dome above their heads. "Tony designed that. It's transparent, lightweight, and it filters out the smog, but it can stand up to a close range explosion."

He plopped down next to her, fidgeting with a handful of sand before asking something he knew he probably shouldn't. "I know you weren't living with Tony a few months ago. And I know you were in a lab at one point. So where are you from? Another planet or something?"

"The Complex," Maria's voice was soft. "I lived there with the others." She was still looking up at the sky, but her eyes were unfocused, her fingers digging into the sand.

Franklin reached over and squeezed her hand gently. "Tony's a good guy, you know." He knew that better than most people, he suspected, even if Tony wouldn't let him take the armor out for a spin. "He and my dad are friends, have been for as long as I can remember. He'll take care of you."

Maria looked over at him and he had to catch himself before he slipped into her head again. He wasn't supposed to do that anymore. "I'm confused. Nothing here makes sense. There are too many new things to learn, and it gets so quiet…"

"Hey," Franklin squeezed her hand a little tighter. "If it gets too quiet, you ask Tony to call me, and I'll answer anything you need me to. I'll take care of you, too, okay?"

She looked at him quietly for a long time before nodding. "Okay."

* * *

 

Tony approached Maria's bedside with soft steps, wanting to check on her before he caught some sleep himself. He had a few more early meetings before they headed back to New York, and he needed to be functional, but it was hard to get his mind to settle. Running into Reed had been a pleasant surprise, but he'd spent the entire time that they'd been in joint meetings watching Maria and Franklin through the security cameras to make sure that a crisis didn't happen. Surprisingly, the two had gotten along well, and Maria had come through the experience none the worse for wear. In fact, Maria had acclimated to Beijing on the whole better than he'd hoped. He'd been worried that she wouldn't sleep well in a strange place, that she might not be willing to eat unfamiliar food, but she'd proved more flexible than he'd feared. Granted, she never slept terribly well - even at home - but the fact that she slept at all was reassuring.

"Will Franklin be there tomorrow?" Maria asked, startling him. Her voice was sleepy, but still articulate enough to indicate that he hadn't woken her, and least not just then. He'd thought she was asleep, curled so deeply into her cocoon of blankets. He wondered how long she'd been awake, but knew he'd never have an answer.

Tony shook his head. "No, he and his father flew back home a few hours ago. Did you have fun with him today?" He'd meant to ask her that before, but by the time he and Reed had gone to fetch their children it was time for dinner, and there had been that new project of Reed's to discuss. Tony was ashamed to admit that the more comfortable Maria had seemed with Franklin, the less attention he'd focused on her and the more he'd allowed himself to become absorbed in the conversation with Reed.

"I think I did," Maria told him. "Would it be permissible to see him again?" There was that hesitant note, back in her voice. It came and went, but it was always strongest when she asked for something. She didn't realize that he'd give her anything in the world, if she asked.

"I'm sure we can work something out," Tony assured her, stroking her hair. "Now, you need to go back to sleep. We have to be up early. You can tell me all about Franklin tomorrow on the plane."

Maria nodded, yawning softly. "Yes, sir."

"Good girl," he told her, leaning down to kiss her forehead. "Goodnight, Maria."

Chapter Text

Tony Stark believed in the patently impossible. He'd made quite a lot of money creating the impossible, up to and including Nick Fury's prized helicarrier. Escaping from his kidnappers in a tin suit built out of scraps had been "impossible". All the same, it was the word that came to mind when he looked over and realized that Maria had fallen asleep on the couch next to him. After all, Maria had trouble falling sleeping under the best of circumstances, their plane trip to China being the notable exception.

She'd started off in her own bed, but about twenty minutes after Jarvis had retired for the evening Tony had thrown Raiders of the Lost Ark into the DVD player and Maria had wandered into the living room shortly after, curious about the noise. It was the first time he'd put the movie on since Steve's death, and some part of Tony was relieved at the distraction Maria presented. He'd patted the couch next to him, and she'd climbed up and settled without further consideration. She'd cocked her head to the side at first, silently asking for an explanation of what they were doing, and he'd paused the movie and explained what was going on, and what it was they were watching. He'd almost sent her back to bed - Indiana Jones wasn't exactly Hellraiser, but it also wasn't Sesame Street - but he just didn't have the energy to deal get too concerned over the violence on screen. Yes, she was still a young child, and yes, there was the possibility it could trigger flashbacks of some kind, but she was also now living in New York. Supervillains weren't exactly few and far between, and they caused more death and destruction in a month than Indiana Jones had seen in his lifetime. While the continuing lack of information on Maria's background was worrisome, he wasn't willing to let Charles go rummaging around in her skull, good intentions or not; there were some things that were better off buried, for everyone's sake. If something was going to set her off, better to just do it and get it over with.

When he'd originally turned on the movie, Tony had planned to just let it run in the background as he did paperwork. He'd seen the movie enough times that he could quote it verbatim; it had been one of the favored options for movie night, back when they'd simply been "The Avengers" - back when the Mansion had still been standing, and half of the meaningful relationships in his life had yet to crumble.

With Maria there, asking questions with the excitement and naiveté of first exposure, the paperwork had fallen by the wayside in a hurry. He'd gotten up to use the bathroom at one point, and returned to find that she'd shifted, curled into a ball with her head on the arm of the couch so that she could still watch the movie. She'd grown quiet after that, and he'd taken advantage of the lull in questions to check his email - paperwork he could put off, after all; email was another matter entirely.

Somewhere around the more-than-agitated voicemail from Maya - yet another litany of insufficiencies in the SHIELD-funded lab he'd set her up in, which really boiled down to the fact that she didn't like the fact that he'd personally installed controls so that she didn't take her work out of the lab - he'd looked over and realized that Maria was sound asleep.

After a moment's consideration, Tony paused the movie with a mental command and gathered the sleeping child into his arms. It was a testament to how long the last few days had been that she barely stirred. Even with the sleep she'd gotten on the plane, she had several short nights to make up for. When he set her down, her eyes opened, and her voice was that odd sleepy-yet-completely-intelligible. The anxiety in her voice was more than a little unnerving, given that her gaze was still just the wrong side of focused. "Mister- Tony? I didn't mean-"

"Go back to sleep, Maria," he reassured her. He gently brushed a few strands of hair back from her face and pulled up the blankets. Something in her expression, half awake though she was, indicated that he'd stumbled into one of those hidden areas of her past, and he mentally cursed the fact that more often than not, handling Maria was like playing minesweeper with a blindfold on. "This wasn't an exercise, Maria. You're not in trouble."

"But it wasn't over," she protested sleepily. "Don't want to..."

"We'll watch it again, I promise. Just ask one night, and I'll put it on," he reassured her.

Maria nodded, relaxing the rest of the way. Tony kissed her forehead, and waited until her breathing had deepened into true sleep before returning to the living room. When he got there, he debated just retreating to his lab for the night, but there had been a reason that he'd originally set up shop in the living room. If he relocated to his lab, he'd spend the rest of the night working on one of his side-projects, and obnoxious or not, the follow-up paperwork for the Beijing trip needed his personal attention. Sometimes, having to be the responsible one sucked. Grabbing his laptop, he resumed the movie just as Indiana Jones was being lowered into the pit of snakes, and felt an overwhelming degree of sympathy for the archaeologist. He knew exactly how that felt.

* * *

 

"Tony."

Tony was pulled back to consciousness by the sensation of movement, and it took him a moment to realize that someone was shaking his shoulder. It felt familiar - too familiar, really - but it took a moment for him to place it.

"Tony, wake up - You never sleep this deeply." The voice was-

It couldn't be, because the owner of that voice was dead, and Tony had already done this twice in the last month. He didn't need this shit right now. He was not going to open his eyes and let himself be fooled again. If he had to dream, he could damn well dream that he was sleeping. A large hand ghosted over Tony's back, and his body reacted instinctively, his eyes opening of their own accord.

As he had feared, Steve was crouched beside him, although his eyes were full of concern instead of the desire Tony had come to expect from these nights. "Tony, I know you that hate me right now, but I wasn't sure where else to go-"

"This isn't real." Tony pushed himself up, flattening himself against the far end of the couch. Repetition of fantasy he could almost deal with, he'd learned to find the flaws around the edges of those dreams, even if he chose to ignore them. This, this was too close to reality. "I'm just dreaming. You're not real. I know that." He took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. "Just a dream."

Steve flinched, and allowed his hand to drop to his side before getting to his feet. Tony opened his eyes at the sound, and wished he hadn't as he saw Steve's expression, one all too familiar for its evident frustration. "I'm real. I know everyone thinks I'm dead, but I'm not."

Tony stood as well, and began pacing away from not-Steve as he tried to think. "Could be Jet lag, maybe a hallucination. I knew that omelet tasted strange," Tony said thoughtfully, eyes unfocusing a moment before sharpening again as he addressed the figment standing in front of him. "I saw your body. I helped to bury you. You're dead- " Tony shook his head sharply, trying to knock loose whatever part of his mind had decided that madness was preferable to the status quo. "I can't do this- I can't lose control right now."

"Tony- " Steve reached out to catch Tony as he passed, but Tony veered sharply and held up a hand in warning.

"Don't-" He raised his other hand, rubbing at his temple as Extremis obeyed his command and increased the bandwidth flowing into his conscious mind. Everything that the networks fed him pointed to the same thing - that he was awake, that he was in control of his actions, and that Extremis was doing exactly what it was supposed to. But if he was awake, then the only logical explanation was that he was hallucinating, and that couldn't be happening. There had been a time, just after the funeral, where he'd been seeing Steve out of the corner of his eye, but that had passed. This would pass; it had to. Maria needed him, and he was no good to her if he wasn't in control. An explanation for this latest descent into madness occurred to him, and his heart stopped as he called up the security feed from Maria's room. She was in bed, asleep, and as far as he could tell, unharmed. He breathed a silent sigh of relief; he hadn't gone crazy and killed her. Unfortunately, while good news, it did nothing to explain why Steve was still standing in his living room.

Tony frowned as he took another look at the figment standing before him, dressed in ratty jeans and a sweatshirt speckled with dark stains. This man was a ghost of the Captain America Tony saw when he closed his eyes at night. This man, Tony was still unwilling to call him Steve at this point, his shoulders were slumped, and his body language spoke of exhaustion and defeat. He was nothing like the proud warrior who had surrendered to end the bloodshed of the Civil War. Tony might not believe that this was Steve, but the man obviously needed help, and despite what the rogue superhero community said, Tony wasn't heartless. "If you are Steve, then explain to me how you aren't dead." Tony took a deep breath, controlling the irrational surge of anger that came with even voicing the thought. Anger was good, because then it wouldn't hurt when this wasn't Steve. Because it wasn't, couldn't be. "Explain to me how I saw your body-"

"It wasn't me," Steve cut him off before he could finish the thought. "I mean, it was me that was shot, but..." He shrugged helplessly. "I don't know what happened. The last thing I remember was the pain, and then everything went black. I woke up floating in the river, and barely managed to pull myself out. I didn't remember anything, not even my own name, for weeks." He seemed to deflate, now that he'd said his bit, and slumped into the armchair that had been his favorite ever since he'd moved into the penthouse when the New Avengers had been formed.

"You were in the river. You should be glowing if you spent any time in that water." Tony couldn't help himself, the words just slipped out.

Steve responded to the humor with a hint of a smile. "That's what the people at the homeless shelter said."

Tony's hand migrated from his temple to settle at the bridge of his nose. "The homeless shelter. Captain America was living in a homeless shelter." The sound that followed the sentiment had all the characteristics of a laugh, except for the mirth; in its place lay just the faintest trace of hysteria.

Not-Steve, or, well, maybe- Steve, crossed his arms and frowned in response, any traces of humor gone from his expression. "I'm not Captain America anymore. Just because I was out of sight doesn't mean I didn't catch the news on occasion. I've seen the papers - who'd you put in the uniform? Who'd you give my- the shield to? One of your new SHIELD lackeys?"

"I gave it to Bucky." Tony cut Steve off before he could say anything else. It was one thing for Steve to get possessive about his shield, it was another to insult Tony's sense of propriety. Did Steve really think that little of him? Never mind that there was still a possibility that this was all happening in his mind. If that was the case, what did it say about his own subconscious that it would generate a Steve who would exist solely to yell at him about following Steve's own written requests?? "They gave me your letter. I was following your last wishes, Steve, the best way I could. Bucky, he never wanted this, but he's doing the best he can. We all are."

"Oh." Steve seemed to sink into himself at that, withdrawing again in a way that was highly uncharacteristic. Tony studied him, trying to discern the imperfection and differences which would mark him as wrong. They simply weren't there - he'd rarely seen Steve this upset, but what he remembered matched well with what he was seeing. He was forced out of his survey by Steve's voice, almost too soft to understand. "I didn't come here to fight with you, Tony."

"Tony?" They both startled badly at the hesitant voice from the doorway, Tony spinning so hard he almost gave himself whiplash.

Maria stood just inside the living room staring at Steve with wide eyes. Tony forgot all about his current debate over whether or not Steve was real; Maria was, and she shouldn't be there - shouldn't see this. "Maria…"

"I couldn't sleep, and there was shouting," Maria's voice dropped to a whisper, almost visibly shrinking in that way she had that meant she expected punishment. Tony hated that voice. Behind him, he heard Steve's sharp intake of breath, and could just imagine what was going through the other man's head.

"We were just talking, Maria. Everything's fine, I promise." Tony crouched down so as to look her in the eye, trying to impress upon her exactly how fine everything was, even if it was the furthest thing from normal he could imagine at the moment. Some lies were necessary things. "Go back to bed, and try to sleep. We'll be done here in a few minutes, and I'll come to tuck you back in."

Maria hesitated, anxiety visible in the shadows behind her eyes even as her expression smoothed into its customary neutrality. "He's dead." She pointed at Steve, finger steady even though Tony could feel the shaking in her muscles. "They made us watch. He's dead." Her voice was caught somewhere between frightened and clinical, and while it worried Tony, part of him was relieved that she could see Steve too. That meant that the figment currently slouching in his armchair wasn't actually a figment, although Tony had no idea if that was good or bad.

Tony stood, resting a hand on Maria's shoulder and pushing gently in the direction of her bedroom. "I know he's supposed to be," he told her, wishing that she responded better to hugs. Hell, he wished Jarvis or Carol was here, but he needed to decide what to do with maybe-Steve before he brought anyone else into the middle of things. At least Maria's knowledge of Steve's death gave him a better idea of how long she'd been in Jamison's care. "I'll try to explain things in the morning."

Maria nodded. "Yes, sir." Despite her acknowledgment, she didn't budge, eyes remaining fixed on Steve.

Tony managed to keep from frowning - the last thing he needed was for Maria to think she was in trouble - as he turned his attention back to Steve. "You, stay put. I'll be right back." With that, he shifted his grip to Maria's hand and squeezed gently before tugging in the direction of her room. "Come on, I'll tuck you back in now, save time later."

She nodded again, but this time she allowed him to guide her down the hallway, fingers clenched tightly around Tony's.

After Maria had climbed back into her bed, Tony sat down beside her and rested a hand on her shoulder. "Maria, you haven’t done anything wrong - and I'm not angry with you - but I want you to stay here until either Jarvis or I come to get you in the morning. It's for your own safety, just until I can determine who that is in the living room."

Maria nodded, her eyes still wide enough that he knew she wouldn't be getting to sleep any time soon. On the best of days, he had trouble accurately interpreting the shadows behind her blue, blue irises; tonight, he was far enough off his game that he wasn't even going to attempt to figure out how Maria's mind was processing things. That being said, he would do what he could to keep her safe - he had promised himself that, promised her that, and it wasn't something he could back down from. Even at the cost of scaring her.

He started to get up, keeping an eye on 'Steve' through the security cameras as he did, when something occurred to him. "Maria, you said that they made you watch?"

"Yes, sir." Maria shifted so that she was lying on her back and staring up at him. "There was a…" she paused as if searching for the right word. "A film, like Indiana Jones, but on a direct uplink. They told us that... That we should watch carefully and remember what happened to us if we became a waste of resources. That no matter how much we excelled, if we failed one too many times..."

Tony schooled his features, keeping his hand a gentle weight on her shoulder as he stroked her neck gently with his thumb. "They made you watch as Captain America was gunned down in the street?"

Maria looked up at him, expression slipping more into an 'are you really this dumb?' than her earlier wide-eyed shock. "We all knew what happened when you were deemed a failure and waste of resources."

* * *

 

Steve had honestly thought that it could be simple.

That assumption had been reinforced when he'd arrived at the penthouse and found that his access codes still worked. If Tony wasn't willing to talk - to listen - he'd have changed the codes. Tony would help him, and Tony would respect his wishes if he needed a few days to explain things.

Nothing had gone the way he had planned it, or, well, expected it to go. He'd known that it might be awkward, but Tony hadn't even wanted to believe that Steve was standing there. There had been no embraces, no fond glances, just a not-quite-well-enough-hidden fear in Tony's eyes, and it had hurt. Even during the worst of their disagreements, Tony had never been scared of him. They had always known that there were lines that could never be crossed. Except now they had been, and Tony was afraid of him.

As he considered his options, sitting in his favorite armchair in the living room of the penthouse, Steve admitted - to himself - that showing up without warning might not have been the best course of action. But meeting face-to-face was his only option, and Tony had been the only person he could think of who might give him the time he needed to sort things out. But maybe, maybe he should have called first. Left Tony a message, somewhere. Somehow. Talked to Jarvis. Anything so as not to have left that haunted fear in Tony's expression.

No matter how he looked at it, there hadn't really been another option. Face to face was the only was to make sure messages were clear. Even then, they were often garbled, and he was as guilty of that as Tony was. They'd tried, just the once, to talk about Registration. But neither of them had been thinking clearly, both too angry and too betrayed; he'd been convinced that it hadn't been Tony he was really talking to, that somehow Extremis had made an omelet of Tony's mind and forgotten to turn the heat down...

Given Tony's reaction tonight, it was possible that his gut instinct had been right and there was something wrong. Steve knew that he wasn't in the best shape himself, but even Tony's physical appearance was run-down. Extremis was supposed to keep his body in top condition, but Tony had been sporting all of the classic signs of serious exhaustion. Whenever the Avengers had gone on hiatus, or Tony himself had gone on hiatus, Tony had always stopped sleeping. It was one of the ways his body reacted to stress, but Steve had thought that Extremis was supposed to fix that. From what he'd seen, Tony wasn't taking even minimal care of himself, and then there was the child...

No matter how he looked at it, Steve couldn't figure out why Tony would have a child in the penthouse - especially one that he couldn't recognize on sight. Steve had made a point of knowing the powered kids who were at risk when Registration had first come up, and he was sure that he'd never seen "Maria's" face. Not only that, but the look Tony had given him when Maria had spoken - it was as if he expected Steve to hurt the girl, which made no sense at all. Steve certainly hadn't meant to wake her - or scare her - but he hadn't known that there was a reason to keep his voice down.

Sometimes, Steve wished they'd never taken him out of the ice.

When Tony returned, Steve decided that the direct approach might be the best. "I didn't mean to scare her."

Tony nodded in acknowledgment, but his voice was still sharp. "I'd appreciate it if you would keep your voice down. She doesn't sleep well as it is."

Steve wondered at that, but he wasn't in a position to ask questions at the moment. Tony didn't look scared, anymore, but he still looked...something. "I didn't think you were the type to take in strays."

Tony folded his arms and leaned against the wall. "She is not a stray, and we aren't talking about her. We're talking about you, and why you are not dead." Steve saw Tony's jaw clench, and would have sworn that he could hear Tony's teeth grind.

"And I want to know why a child was made to watch my death," Steve shot back. It was a cheap shot, especially given Tony's obvious attachment to the child, but Steve was at a loss to explain his own survival. Aside from the very meager truth, which he'd already shared, he really had no way of convincing Tony that he was Steve Rogers, former Captain America. Well, other than pinning him against a wall and kissing him, but with the frame of mind Tony seemed to be in, that would be akin to asking for a punch in the face. Steve was too out of practice to feel quite that cavalier.

"The media provides coverage of current events twenty-four hours a day, Steve." Tony voice was dry. "A lot of kids could have seen your death. I'm sure a lot of them did. Which, by the way, I would like to know the details of, seeing as I obviously got the wrong report."

"I don't know!" Steve hissed just barely keeping his voice down. "Don't you think I wish I knew? I pulled myself out of the Hudson two days later, and I couldn't remember. Anything. It was a week before I remembered my own name."

Tony squeezed his eyes shut, opening them and squinting at Steve before shaking his head and rubbing absently at his temple. "I, look, I can't do this right now."

Steve got to his feet, because he knew an exit cue when he heard one. "I'll just see myself out, then." He didn't want to, in fact the thought of leaving was damn near painful, but he'd leave if that's what Tony wanted. Tony didn't need to know that he hadn't slept well in months without someone there to chase away the nightmares.

"Don't be an idiot, you look like you're about to fall over. You can sleep in one of the extra rooms, take a real shower, and we'll talk in the morning." Tony told him.

Steve nodded, and wondered if maybe he'd read the rest of Tony's expressions wrong, too. A few months could mean a lot of change, in their line of work - had meant a lot of change. It was possible that Tony had changed more than Steve had thought. Regardless, Steve was incredibly grateful for the reprieve. Maybe in his own bed, even though part of him had hoped that he'd be spending tonight in Tony's, he'd sleep well. He walked down the hallway slowly, savoring the familiarity of it - he'd lost so many things, so many times; he'd learned to enjoy the familiar, even if the memories were bittersweet. He'd barely reached the door to his room, hand just curling around the doorknob, when Tony's hand clamped down on his shoulder.

"Not that one." Tony didn't move his hand until Steve released the door knob. In answer to Steve's silent question, he elaborated. "It's Maria's room, now."

Steve blinked, taken aback by the dangerous undertone to Tony's warning. "I don't know what you think I've become, but I wouldn't hurt a child."

Tony turned away, already heading down the hallway to his own room. "Just pick another."

Steve watched him go, and thought about following. He wanted to follow, desperately wanted more of the familiar, but after a long moment he turned in the opposite direction and picked one of the empty bedrooms at random.

Chapter Text

Despite the almost-familiar surroundings of the penthouse guest room, Steve hadn't slept well. He'd thought just being back in the penthouse would help, but still the nightmares came. Each time he woke, his heart pounding as if he'd just sprinted White Plains to down town, his thoughts refused to settle. It wasn't the content of the nightmares that stayed with him, it was everything else. All of the uncertainties he found himself in the midst of - those he'd thought Tony would make right.

When the clock reached five, he'd given up and headed down the hall to the guest bathroom, wishing not for the first time that he was in the room he'd once called his own. There was something to be said for an en suite.

Whatever inconvenience there may have been, he was nothing but grateful when he had stepped under the spray of the shower. The water had been hot - not luke-warm, edging toward cold because the water heater was twenty-five years old and in need of replacing - and the water pressure itself had been marvelously strong. Best of all, there had been no one waiting impatiently for their turn - no reason not to lean against the tile wall and just allow the heat to soak into his bones.

Looking at himself in the mirror, it was no wonder that Tony hadn't believed him at first sight. Hell, if he didn't have the memories so clearly embedded in his mind, Steve might well not have believed that he was who he thought he was. The man who stared out at him from the mirror looked nothing the the Captain America that Steve remembered, not from when he was twenty or even when he was thirty. If even he could barely find the likeness, how could he have expected Tony to? And if he really wasn't Captain America anymore, if Bucky had taken on the mantle and Steve should just leave well enough alone, then that left a blank space that stretched over a large swath of the canvas that was his life.

Steve grimaced at the thought of changing back into his old clothing, but it wasn't as if he had another option - even at his lightest, he outweighed Tony by enough that sharing his former-lover's clothes was an unrealistic thought, and after everything that had happened, Steve didn't think he should count on Tony having kept any of the clothes he used to keep in the penthouse.

Basics dealt with, Steve decided to move on to breakfast, and a possible revisiting of the conversation the night before. He didn't particularly want to have it again - if he was honest, that was part of why he was slinking down the hallway before six in the morning - but there were too many unanswered questions. On both sides. There was also the possibility that a few hours of sleep would help them both to take a step back; Steve could admit that he'd certainly needed it, and Tony had looked ready to fall over, even if he had protested having more things left to do. Steve was pulled out of his contemplation by the sound of voices. Familiar voices, even - one voice was unmistakably Tony's, and the other belonged to Ms. Marvel - Carol. Steve paused in the hallway, ashamed to be hiding like a child, but unwilling to deal with yet another face from his past at this point. Especially when he didn't know what he was going to be doing for his future. While the location may have induced a small degree of guilt, it also afforded a rather good listening post.

"...Beijing go, Tony?" Carol was asking. "Did Maria have any problems?"

"Things went better than expected. Reed was there with Franklin. The kids seem to have become fast friends, although I have no idea what precipitated it. Not that I'm complaining. I was worried that- " Tony's voice dropped in volume, low enough that even Steve couldn't make out more than Maria's name and something about Reed's wife.

The discussion continued at the lower tone, and after several minutes had elapsed, Steve realized that maybe this was something he shouldn't intrude upon. Carol and Tony had always been close... He shook his head hard, attempting to quash the unwelcome thought. There were things he simply wasn't going to think about, this early in the morning. Not before he'd talked to Tony.

"Is she awake yet? I have a present for her," Carol's voice was louder, as if she'd moved closer to the doorway. Steve privately wondered why Carol would think that any child, especially one as young as the girl he'd seen last night, would be up at this time. Yes, he'd heard the horror stories from Sue about Franklin's "morning phase", but even he'd never been up before six. At least, Steve was relatively certain it had been six; he'd heard more about the situation from Reed, and, well... Reed had a way of losing track of time, so it was possible that Franklin had merely inherited yet another peculiar characteristic from his father.

"No," Tony's voice grew louder as well, and Steve could picture him casually blocking Carol's path. "She stayed up watching Raiders of the Lost Ark with me last night. She's probably still asleep."

"Tony, she's nine! Isn't that a bit young for a movie like that? Shouldn't she be watching things like...Sesame Street?" Carol's voice carried a heavy measure of reproach, though Steve wasn't sure why. Cassie Lang had watched the movie back when they'd still been in the mansion; she couldn't have been much older than nine when she'd first seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, and her father had never voiced concerns about it.

"Yes, Carol, she's nine, not four. I know there are concerns, but sometimes it's better to get these things out in the open, so they can be dealt with. Despite all of your concern, she seemed to enjoy the movie." Tony sighed, and Steve could imagine him rubbing at the bridge of his nose. "Now, I hate to kick you out, but I have at least three meetings today that I have to be present for in body as well as mind. And you, unless I'm mistaken, have a group of Initiative trainees to inspire."

"Yeah, yeah, I'm going, I'm going. I'll give them my famous 'only you can prevent forest fires' speech. They seem to like that one." Carol laughed, the sound warm and low, and Steve wondered how long it had been since any of those who'd followed him into the Civil War had laughed so freely. "Don't make that face at me, you know the kids respond better to a bit of humor. I'll leave you to your meetings. You'll give Maria her present when she wakes up, right?"

"If I'm not here to do it, Jarvis will."

"Not the point, Tony. And have you called Charles yet?"

"Goodbye, Carol."

The voices moved away, but Steve remained still for a long moment before walking into the living room. Part of him, a big part, hoped that Tony would return quickly - that they could talk without an audience. Steve wasn't sure he was up to dealing with Jarvis, had no idea if Tony had already informed him of Steve's return from the dead. Steve wasn't really up to dealing with anyone, which was why he'd come to Tony in the first place. No matter how things were resolved, it was going to be awkward. Deciding that he hadn't had enough sleep to actively go looking for trouble, Steve took the sensible action and settled into his favorite chair to wait.

* * *

 

When he returned from politely shoving Carol out the door, Tony wasn't surprised to see Steve sitting in the living room. One of the perks, and occasional downsides, to Extremis was access to any camera he wanted. So he'd known that Steve would be sitting there, shoulders slumped in a way that still set off alarm bells in the back of Tony's mind that just screamed wrong. Just as he'd known that Steve had been standing in the hallway. Though he wasn't completely sure just how long Steve had been standing there, or how much he'd heard; Tony really hoped it had only been a few moments.

Contrary to what he'd told Carol, Maria wasn't actually asleep. She'd been awake for almost an hour, though she'd been content to read in her room quietly, and for once Tony was glad for her instinctive need to follow orders. The excuse had been more to avoid an accidental encounter with Steve than anything else.

He still wasn't certain that the man sitting in his living room really was Steve - he would only be completely certain after running some basic, and not so basic, lab tests. But lab tests meant bringing Hank into things, and he wasn't willing to do that yet. So far, his gut was telling him that this was Steve, and Tony knew what it was like to need time to make decisions. Just because he never seemed to get it didn't meant that he didn't understand the desire, and he didn't think he would forgive himself if this was Steve and he took away that freedom.

Of course, if this was Steve, then who the hell had they buried in the ice?

The question was neither here nor there, although he made a mental note to review the security footage from the hospital and morgue for any irregularities. When he had a moment, which likely wouldn't be for a few days. Taking a deep breath, and making an effort to keep his voice neutral, Tony addressed this more immediate issue. "You're awake."

Steve looked up from his contemplation of the coffee table. "Thank you for getting rid of Carol. I'm..." He sighed. "I'm not ready to deal with anyone else knowing. Not yet."

Tony frowned, and crossed his arms over his chest as he leaned against one of the couches. "Better to let your friends think that you're dead?" He had honestly intended to try to ignore the bitterness that burned in the back of his throat, but intentions only got you so far. Steve had a way of making him forget himself. "Let's be clear, I didn't let her find out because I'm not sure if you are Captain America."

"I'm not Captain America. I'm Steve Rogers. Someone else is Captain America." Steve's voice was low, but there was a familiar edge to it, and he'd started to stick his chin out in that stubborn glare he'd been so fond of.

Tony rolled his eyes. "Steve Rogers is Captain America. They're the same person; you are the same person." Yes, there had been times when Steve had chosen to abandon the cowl, but at the same time - he'd still been him. Steve embodied the qualities of Captain America, far more than the uniform ever could.

Steve flinched, a deep-seated pain blossoming in the depths of his eyes. He stood, and turned to stare out the windows, the lines of his body screaming a betrayal that Tony just didn't understand. "I can't believe you're dragging Carol into your mess. Haven't you done enough to her?"

Tony blinked, and while he knew what Steve was doing, that didn't make the blow any higher. "Carol is not being 'dragged' into anything. I haven't done anything to her - unless you're referring to her participation in registration, which was her own choice."

"Under the threat of imprisonment!" Steve hissed.

"No one threatened her with anything-" Tony's voice started to rise, and he cut himself off. He pushed away from the couch and crossed the distance between them, grabbing Steve firmly by the arm. "We are not fighting out here. I will not have Maria walking in on this again."

"Fine." Steve snapped, letting Tony drag him down the hall and into his bedroom.

Tony shut the door behind them, glaring at Steve. "You never could just listen, could you? Why couldn't you have listened for five goddamn minutes, Steve!" That hadn't been what he'd intended to say, but once he started, it was like watching someone else. He was an adult, the director of SHIELD, he could deal with this. Had dealt with this. Except now his control had apparently snapped, because he knew Steve wouldn't listen right now, and he was saying this anyway. "Carol knew what was going on. Carol listened to me. Someone had to be pro-registration to keep things from getting worse. They could have been so much worse."

"Tony --"

"But you wouldn't listen. All you could see was that you thought I'd sold out. " Tony couldn't stop the words, wasn't even sure he wanted to, anymore. He'd never voiced this, never aired the anger and the betrayal outside of his own mind, and there was something intoxicating about it. About giving way to the anger, even if Steve had done exactly as Tony had expected. Because Steve hadn't surprised Tony when it mattered most, hadn't gone above and beyond the expectations. "I sold my goddamn soul to keep you and others safe, and -- "

Tony stopped abruptly when his back collided with the wall. He raised a hand in defense, but just as suddenly as he'd moved, he stopped, because he wasn't the only one pressed up against the wall. Steve was there, Steve was real, and he was kissing him. No figment, no imitation, could taste so good, push things just close enough to painful without bringing pain. No impostor could be so desperate.

After a moment in which he let himself act solely on instinct, Tony shifted gears and took control. If this was real, and it certainly felt like it was, then he was going to get everything that he could from it. He fisted a hand in Steve's baggy sweatshirt as he broke the kiss, scraping his teeth lightly along Steve's jawline as he made his way to that point of skin just behind Steve's ear that always drew forth the best sounds. He grinned against Steve's skin as his actions had the desired effect, Steve groaned deep in his throat and his hands clutched at Tony's hips, pressing their bodies together.

"Tony, I-" Steve pulled back for a moment, and his eyes were dark with need. Tony couldn't resist kissing him again, because whatever Steve had to say , it could wait.

He shoved up Steve's sweatshirt up, tracing patterns along his stomach as he mapped the once-familiar contours. Steve made a soft sound of approval, and Tony slowed his exploration, remembering dimly that he had no idea if or when he would do this again. As his fingers worked their way up Steve's chest, Tony brushed over a scar that hadn't been there before, an unexpected deviation in the smooth lines of muscle. Steve inhaled sharply as Tony's fingers traced the rough knot of tissue, and Tony realized what it was - why it hadn't healed cleanly like Steve's injuries normally did. Tony kept his hands steady, filing it away as one more piece of proof that this was Steve.

Steve made a guttural noise as Tony reached his collarbone, and shoved him back against the wall before pulling the sweatshirt off completely. He closed the distance between them, pressing up against Tony more firmly than before. "I missed you." The words were breathed against Tony's skin, and he couldn't suppressed the shiver that resulted.

Tony leaned his head back to give Steve better access, and wasn't disappointed when Steve's mouth skimmed over the curve of his throat, his teeth just this side of painful. "Steve." The word was less an order, and more of an unconscious invocation. Either way, it was the only thing Tony could make his mind spit out through the haze of arousal. He slid his fingers into the belt loops of Steve's jeans, the material soft and almost frayed.

As Steve pushed down his sweatpants, it occurred to Tony that if they didn't move to the bed soon - very soon - they weren't going to make it there at all. Never mind that this was probably a terrible idea for any number of reasons, not the least of which was his sanity. "Fuck." It just impossible to think with Steve's hand curled around his cock.

If the data streams had been distant and unimportant before, they became more so now. Tony's focus was completely on Steve, on getting Steve's jeans off so he could touch him. It turned out to be a surprisingly simple accomplishment. One push and they slid over Steve's hips and to the floor.

Steve pressed him back against the wall, and Tony spared a moment to think that there was something fitting about it happening like this - frantic and hurried against a wall. Their entire romantic relationship had been one of missteps and bad timing, so they'd learned to grab what they could.

Even those thoughts fell by the wayside as Steve kissed him again, rocking their hips together. It was rough and perfect, and then it wasn't. Tony tried to catch his breath, to complain, but then Steve was pushing him onto the bed. "Not like that." Steve sounded half gone already, and Tony was relieved that he wasn't the only one going out of his mind. In response, Tony kissed him again, and pulled Steve's weight onto him.

He wanted Steve to fuck him, but once he'd spread his legs and Steve moved against him, he simply couldn't string the words together to ask for it.

When he came - it happened too soon, because it wasn't supposed to end, even though all good things did in Tony's experience - Tony bit his bottom lip, to keep himself from saying something that either of them might regret. Like "I love you, Steve", never mind that it was true. Steve hadn't been comfortable hearing Tony say that before they'd been on opposing sides in a war; it was unlikely he'd be any more receptive now that the war was done.

For all his Super-human endurance, Steve had lasted barely a handful of thrusts longer than Tony, coming with a painfully choked gasp. When he had finished, he collapsed onto Tony, and pressed his face into Tony's neck.

Tony didn't complain at the weight, he found the almost-but-not-quite-painful sensation reassuring. While he never seemed to remember just how heavy Steve was in his dreams, he was more than willing to put up with temporarily restricted blood flow if it meant knowing Steve was there.

He ran his hand down Steve's back, contemplating whether it was worth asking Steve to move or if it would break whatever temporary truce they seemed to have stumbled into. All of the data streams that he'd been ignoring tugged at his attention. One of them was flagged, and he reluctantly pulled it up - he'd had a long chat with his new secretary about when to flag things, so if she'd marked it urgent, it probably was. He really should get around to learning her name; she seemed mostly competent - and if Pepper had hired her, she had to be good for something - but naming her would make Pepper's absence real, and he wasn't sure he could deal with that right now. He scrolled through the reminder, which highlighted his meeting with the board discussing the Energy Technologies division in-

"Oh fuck." Tony cursed, pushing at Steve as he tried to sit up. "I have a board meeting in five minutes!"

Steve moved off immediately, and had the decency to look guilty. "I'm sorry?"

Tony waved him off, running into the bathroom as he used Extremis to call his very lovely secretary, who would be getting a all the flowers she could ever want if she could tell the board he was stuck in traffic, dead, anything that would buy him an extra few minutes.

He speed showered and dressed, glad tht the board meeting was only a few floors down - even if that meant they probably wouldn't buy the stuck in traffic excuse. Although he could have gone out driving that morning...

"Tony, should I... stay here?" Steve asked. He was still sitting on the bed when Tony reappeared from the bathroom, looking more than a little uncertain.

Tony blinked, and stared at Steve trying to remember why Steve wouldn't be comfortable in their bed, and- he rubbed a hand over his face. Okay, maybe he'd been late for meetings a bit too much because of Steve, if he was already running on auto-pilot. "Stay in the penthouse. Jarvis knows about you. Just... just stay in the penthouse. I'll be back later today."

He didn't wait for Steve's reply before he was out the door.

* * *

 

Steve had retreated to the gym as soon as he was able to bring himself to leave Tony's bedroom. He hadn't exactly been avoiding Jarvis, but... He wasn't quite ready to deal with anyone that wasn’t Tony yet, either.

And he hadn't exactly dealt with Tony.

Walking into the penthouse's workout facilities had been like coming home again. It felt like forever since he'd had a good workout, and his muscles itched from the inactivity and disuse of the last month. His body had been designed for field work, and he'd never done well when the he'd been forced to remain still for too long.

He'd been in the gym for half an hour, and had just worked up a good sweat when he doors slid open and the girl - Maria - walked in. She stopped just inside the threshold, staring at Steve like he was a intruder in her private space. After a moment, she closed her eyes, and when she reopened them her expression had returned to its customary blankness.

Steve tried to think of a way to break the ice that wouldn't sound too awkward. Hi? I won't hurt you? Come here often?

She regarded him a moment longer before she seemed to consciously put him out of her mind, turning her back to him as she approached the balance beam. Steve watched as she chalked up her hands, patting down the beam as well before she mounted the apparatus.

As he watched, he couldn't help thinking that her movements were unusually confident for her age, especially considering that she was balancing on a mere four inches worth of beam, and Steve wondered again how she came to be living with Tony. She pulled up into a handstand, and then walked over to a standing position again, strolling along the beam with a look of deep concentration on her face. As a result, he was doubly startled when she spoke.

"Are you Steve Rogers?"

"I am," Steve told her, wondering at the question. If she knew he'd been Captain America, surely she knew his 'real name.'

She nodded thoughtfully, and without further warning performed two back layouts. After she'd steadied herself, she spoke again. "Are you Captain America?"

Steve opened his mouth, then closed it. He had been Captain America, but he wasn't now. Surely she knew that - she lived with the Director of SHIELD, for goodness' sake. She must have seen Bucky dressed in the uniform and- it belatedly occurred to Steve that Tony wasn't likely to have Bucky over for social calls. And, come to think of it, Maria's presence hadn't exactly been advertised, either. Maria stood, balanced on one leg as she waited for his answer. "I was."

She frowned, and did an effortless flip, landing solidly on the beam. Steve's eyes went wide, because there was precocious and talented, and then there was highly trained. Someone had been training her for a long time, and he was reasonably sure that someone hadn't been Tony. The thought brought Bucky to mind, his eyes both too young and far too old for his teenaged body; Steve had ignored the warning signs then, the questions that he didn't want to ask, but he could ask now. He resolved to talk to Tony about her, find out what was really going on.

She ended her routine with a double twist, sticking the landing with practiced ease before turning to face Steve. She cocked her head to the side, studying him like he was some new and oddly-frustrating puzzle. He'd seen Tony look at his armor like that before. "So, why aren't you dead?"

That was a question Steve didn't want to touch, especially with a child. It would be one thing if he could explain it to his own satisfaction, but he couldn't. Searching desperately for a way to change the topic, he went with the first thing that came to mind. "Why don't you have a spotter?"

Her face paled alarmingly. "Tony hasn't given me one. I didn't know I was required to have one, I-" the words came out in a hurried jumble, anxiety clear in both her expression and her voice.

Steve crossed the space between them, and started to place a reassuring hand on her shoulder, but she flinched badly. She was scared, he realized. He'd seen the reaction in abused children before, although it had been a while. He backed away, giving her enough space to hopefully feel safe, and tried to explain things so that she understood. "It probably didn't occur to Tony that you needed one. Gymnastics has never been his forte. You're not in trouble, Maria. I was just curious."

Maria visibly relaxed, then seemed to catch herself and tensed to that odd neutral stance. She seemed to debate something for a moment, then spoke. "Captain America?" she asked hesitantly. "Why aren't you dead? None of the others ever came back."

He blinked, because he had absolutely no idea what she was talking about, and because he didn't know how to answer a question when he had so little information. He resolved to have a long talk with Tony the next time he saw him, because he'd been around powered children before - and he couldn't imagine that Tony had taken Maria if she wasn't powered - and they both knew that the kids were often lucky to make it to adulthood sane, never mind healthy. You had to handle them carefully. What you said, how you acted, anything could set them off or bring up things better left buried. After a moment of consideration, Steve crouched down beside her. "I'm not Captain America anymore, but if you'd like, you can call me Steve. And if I knew why I wasn't dead, I would tell you."

She nodded, apparently satisfied for the moment. "Are you friends with Tony like Carol and Jan?"

"Something like that," Steve told her, hoping she wouldn't decide that meant that she should tell Carol and Jan about him, but hopefully Tony would deal with that later. There were a lot of things which would be dealt with later. "Would you like me to be your spotter, Maria?"

Maria frowned, and took a long moment to consider her answer before she nodded. "Are you a trainer?"

Steve wasn't sure he wanted to touch that one, because he didn't know what her definition of a trainer was. "I've never been a formal trainer, but I do know a thing or two. Do you have a floor exercise routine?"

* * *

 

Tony was sure this was hell.

His second meeting of the day was a video conference, one that he - and the company - couldn't afford to cut out on. But trying to concentrate on what his Chinese Affairs Liaison was saying about the new materials they'd been contracted to provide for the Bird's Nest while watching Maria and Steve talking was pure hell. He couldn't hear them - he'd already made a mental note to upgrade all of the surveillance systems in the penthouse with sound - but that just made it worse.

He'd been ten minutes into the conference when he realized that Steve and Maria were alone in the penthouse. Technically Jarvis was there as well, which meant that Maria should be safe, and Steve would never hurt a child - and if he'd been wrong about it being Steve, well, Tony could be back in the penthouse in seconds, if necessary. Even if he had blast his way through the floors of his own building to get to her.

Tony had just barely repressed a sigh of relief when he'd found the two, although the relief had been short lived. They were in the gym. Alone. Talking.

He'd didn't want to think what Steve might be asking Maria, or even what Maria might be asking Steve. There were just too many proverbial cans of worms lying in wait, and nothing Tony could do about it. So, while he chatted amiably with the Chinese division about possibly constructing a new skyscraper in downtown Beijing, he watched Steve and Maria with the kind of morbid fascination usually reserved for accidents on the Taconic that involved at least six cars.

Had he been given a choice, Tony would have rather had lunch with Dr. Doom.

Chapter Text

Before he even stepped into the elevator, Tony knew that Jarvis wasn't pleased with him. It would be one thing if Jarvis kept the sentiment to himself, but no - Jarvis had to sigh pointedly and then, as soon as Maria was out of earshot, express his disappointment in a not-quite-lecture which Tony could trace back to that time he'd almost blown up the second garage at the age of eight. Granted, Tony had missed less dinners since Maria's arrival, but that only made the bad nights that much harder to face. He even agreed with Jarvis that Maria needed as much stability as she could get. That didn't mean the rest of his life was inclined to accommodate, nor did it mean that he liked being held liable when something beyond his control interfered with his dinner plans. Even if, hypothetically, nothing was supposed to be outside of his control at this point.

As he walked into the kitchen, Jarvis gave Tony the expected 'I'm so disappointed in you' look - the one Tony remembered clearly from his childhood. As the elder man retired for the night, however, Tony couldn't help wishing that he hadn't grown too old for the second part of the ritual - a hug. But if wishes were DoomBots, Victor wouldn't be holed up in Latveria counting goats...and that was an analogy that Tony was going to stop before it deteriorated any further.

It had been a long day.

Maria was still awake when he reached her room. She was sitting crossed legged in the center of her bed, colored pencils spread out around her as she worked on one of her sketches.

"How's that ship coming along?" Tony asked, leaning against the doorway.

Maria looked up, her expression as close to delighted as it ever was. "It is progressing well, Tony. Are spaceships any particular color? I've never seen one."

Tony had, but that was a topic for another day. "You can make your ship any color you want," he assured her. He walked further into the room and sat on the edge of her bed. "Did you have a good day?"

She nodded, picking up a yellow-gold pencil that reminded Tony of his armor. "Steve showed me a new roll. He said I learned it 'very well'."

"I'm sure you did, genius," he told her affectionately.

"Is-" her voice took on a hesitant note. "Is Steve staying?"

Tony tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear, reminded as he did so that he'd forgotten to give her Carol's latest present - a set of sparkly hair ties. Since meeting Maria, Carol had made it a point to bring small gifts whenever she visited. They were always trivial things - hair ties, barrettes, nail polish (and hadn't that been a fun evening) - shiny or glittery versions of everyday items, for the most part. Girly things, for lack of a better term, which he would never have even considered buying, but they were proving remarkably good at introducing Maria to the concept of personal possessions and ornamentation. He'd have to remember to pass on this newest gift in the morning, or at least make sure to give it to Jarvis for that purpose. That settled, he turned his attention back to her question, and wondered how to answer it when he didn't know himself. He decided to go with vagueness; it worked well enough in the boardroom, after all. Deflect, temporize, and redirect. "For a while. Does that bother you?" he asked carefully. The question wasn't simply a redirect, although it served that purpose as well; if Steve was going to be a problem, he had to know.

Maria looked up, giving him her full attention as she considered the question. "Should it bother me?"

Tony repressed a sigh, knowing that expecting a definitive answer on such a subject was asking too much. She was making leaps and bounds when it came to understanding interpersonal relations and expressing herself, but she was still unwilling to present opinions when she felt that her response might carry any weight. He knew, and Carol had repeatedly stressed the fact, that it would take years before she was comfortable with her own opinion - before she stopped seeing every question as a test. That didn't mean that he had to like it, or that he couldn't wish she'd just spontaneously wake up one morning, having overcome her programming. Behavioral conditioning didn't work that way. "Well, it might, if your personalities clashed. Sometimes people get along, or don't get along, for inexplicable reasons. It just happens, and I would understand if that's the way it is. But on a basic level - a tactical level - no, Steve shouldn't bother you. He would never hurt you."

Maria nodded, her gaze having returned to her drawing.

Worried that she'd taken his explanation the wrong way, Tony decided to shift the conversation. He liked to end their evenings on a high note, or at least a simple one. Maria was up and down enough in the night without him adding to it. "So, I was thinking... When you're done with your drawing, would you like to make a model of it in the lab with me?"

Maria looked up, her expression bright in a way that put her earlier enthusiasm to shame.

* * *

 

Steve was waiting for him when Tony stepped out of Maria's room, arms crossed as he leaned against the wall. He looked less...haunted than he had been when he'd reappeared in Tony's life. Even with the improvement, Steve still looked tired and worn. "Can we talk?"

Tony nodded, even though he was certain that he didn't actually want to. He was tired, and he still had a half-dozen things that needed either his personal attention or at least the pretense of such. Instead of voicing any of this, he turned and led the way to his bedroom. It might be tempting fate, but the bedroom was soundproof, which would be useful no matter what ended up happening...

Steve's hand settled on his shoulder, warm and almost comforting. "Maybe we should just go to bed. We can talk in the morning. You look...exhausted."

"Too much to do," Tony shook his head, trying to in vain to clear it as he closed the door. "Just say what you're going to say." He sat down on the edge of the bed. "I'm sure there's something you want to yell at me about."

"Tony…"

Tony shook his head again, more violently this time. "Just, stop. Please." He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "I saw you in the gym. What were you talking about with Maria?"

 

"Why doesn't she have a spotter? She's what - seven, eight? She shouldn't be on that kind of equipment unsupervised." It wasn't exactly what he'd planned to bring up, but it was still true.

Tony rubbed his forehead, closing his eyes as he did so. "I watch her through Extremis, and she's nine. Now, what were you really talking about?"

Steve's shoulders slumped as he leaned against the chest of drawers. "She wanted to know why I wasn't dead."

Tony groaned, and allowed himself to fall back onto the bed. "Of course she did." He should have known that she wouldn't let it go that easily. Since he hadn't told her, she'd decided to ask the source. Logical, and something he should have expected, but no less frustrating for the red flag it sent up in hindsight.

"Tony, I have to know. Where did she come from? I've known you for years... The only children that you've spent any time around were Franklin Richards and Cassie Lang. You're not exactly…"

"Kid-friendly?" Tony allowed his lips to quirk into a self-depreciating smirk. "It's complicated."

"Is she yours? Maybe Carol's?" Steve asked.

Tony's eyes snapped open at that, and he raised his head high enough to clearly express his opinion of that particular leap in Steve's logic. "What? No! Steve-"

"Tony, it wouldn't be the first time that someone's child showed up from another universe. She's living in your house, Carol's showing more than a passing interest in her - which, might I point out, she's never done before - and she's obviously traumatized. What am I supposed to think?"

Tony thought that Carol's interest, or previous lack thereof, had more to do with what had happened to Carol's own child, but that wasn't something he felt comfortable bringing up. "She's not mine. She's not Carol's, either."

"Well, then, I don't mean to be crude, but why is she here?"

Tony's gaze sharpened, and he sat up the rest of the way. "She's here because it's better than where she was. End of story."

"And where was that?" Steve demanded. "Whose loyalty are you buying by having her here?"

"Mine!" Tony took a deep breath, unclenching his fists and fighting the desire to get up and walk out of the room. He wanted a drink - water, lemonade, anything - but walking out wouldn't solve anything, and Steve would follow him. He wasn't willing to escalate this fight - didn't want to be having this fight. Not now, possibly not ever. He settled for looking away, staring intently at the view out the window.

"Yours?"

Tony could hear the confusion and surprise in Steve's tone, and he wondered how Steve could still be this naive. If he really thought that they operated in a vacuum, that the Avengers and SHIELD and all the rest made their decisions without compromises and uncomfortable arrangements. He refused to think about the other possible reason for Steve's suspicion, because if Steve thought that he would resort to kidnapping, then nothing that Tony could say was ever going to fix what was wrong with them. "As long as I'm a good boy, I get to keep her. Happy?"

"I-" Tony felt the bed dip beside him and just barely controlled the instinctive flinch when Steve placed a tentative hand on his shoulder. It wasn't that Steve scared him, or even that the movement startled him. But it had been too long since someone had touched him like that, and one morning couldn't undo the last two months. Tony forced his muscles to stay relaxed, because Steve didn't need anything else to beat himself up over, even if some of it was his fault. There was already more than enough guilt to go around. "God, Tony. I didn't even..."

Tony turned his head slightly, just far enough to make out Steve's profile without meeting his eye. "She was in a lab. She wasn't Maria, wasn't even a child, really. Just a specimen identified as F-12."

Steve's hand dropped from Tony's shoulder, ghosting over his bicep before pulling him into a pseudo-hug. Tony wasn't sure if it was the hour, or the subject, or simply the company, but he didn't have the strength not to lean into the familiar warmth.

"I had to, Steve." The reiteration was spoken aloud, but it was as much for Tony's benefit as his companion. Had it come from anyone else, Steve would have called the tone desperate. As it was, Tony just sounded resigned. Like a record that had been played one too many times, with or without an audience.

"You should sleep," Steve told him softly, not even bothering to pretend that he wasn't changing the subject.

Tony shook his head, pulling away and straightening with a wince. "Too much to do. You- you look more exhausted than I feel. Sleep here if you want, I'll be in later." It wasn't a lie, not exactly. He'd have to be back in the morning, if for nothing else than a change of clothes. Spending the night in the workshop would give Extremis a chance to heal the bruises he'd picked up that afternoon, and that was another in a long list of discussions he simply wasn't up to having.

There had been a time when Steve would have frowned and pulled Tony down back onto the bed, telling him in no uncertain terms that he was going to sleep. But as things stood now, Steve just nodded and let him go. "I'll be here."

Tony didn't test his luck further. He fled the room.

* * *

 

Steve was still awake when Tony came back later that night. He kept his eyes closed when he heard the door, hiding his surprise and listening to Tony move in the darkness. Steve could count the number of times that Tony had voluntarily left his workshop after a late night on one hand, and their earlier conversation had left Steve with little doubt that Tony would be sleeping on the cot he kept for "inspirational" nights.

However, Steve had spent far too much of the day looking for the dark side in whatever was going on, so when Tony slid into bed beside him, Steve kept his breathing slow and even. If Tony had decided to come to bed, to what had once been their bed in a way that Steve wasn't sure he could quite claim anymore, Steve wasn't going to question it. He felt Tony shift beside him, and a moment later Tony's fingers carded gently through his hair.

"This can't be real," Tony whispered. "I don't get second chances like this."

There was something broken in his voice, going beyond the exhaustion and sorrow that had been present earlier. Steve wished, not for the first time, that they'd found some way to solve things differently before they'd gotten so far out of control. But Tony had been right, when they'd argued earlier. Steve hadn't been willing to listen - he hadn't wanted to listen. He'd clung to the betrayal because it had been safer than considering that things might be so far beyond his own control. That there truly was no better way of dealing with Registration than signing a pact with the devil. He'd expected Tony to see things his way, or at the very least to be proud of him for not siding blindly with the government.

Tony's hand drifted, settling over Steve's heart. After a moment of consideration, Steve reached up to cover it with his own. "Tony?"

"Sorry, didn't mean to wake you." Tony's voice was rough. He started to pull away, but Steve didn't let go of his hand.

"Don't be," Steve assured him, running his thumb over the back of Tony's hand in a comforting motion. 'I still love you,' he didn't say it aloud, but willed Tony to hear it regardless.

The simple action seemed to calm Tony, and he settled, his chin tucking in near Steve's shoulder and his hand remaining over Steve's heart. Steve felt more than heard Tony breathe in as if to speak, but the words never came.

Steve would admit, if only to himself, that he was glad of the silence. He didn't know what Tony had been about to say, but they were both tired, and their track record for stupid and thoughtless comments when exhausted was far too substantial to ignore. It might be selfish, but Steve didn't want what remained of the night to be ruined. Instead, he listened to Tony's breathing as it slowly evened out behind him, letting the gentle sound lull him into the deepest sleep he could remember.

* * *

 

After everything that had happened, the last thing Tony wanted to deal with - ever, really - was James Barnes. Of course, while he was wishing for things, he'd also like world peace, for the Watchtower to find another perch, and a year of paid vacation. Preferably in Maui.

"I have to admit, I'm surprised to see you here. I thought you and Sharon were avoiding unnecessary - and, therefore, any - contact with me," Tony said dryly, watching James pace the office. Tony tried to avoid staring at the shield. It brought up all kinds of thoughts he shouldn't be having in James' proximity. Not if he wanted to make sure that Steve's reprieve lasted as long as it was needed.

"I want to know if the rumors are true." James came to a halt and crossed his arms. Tony couldn't help shifting uncomfortably in his chair as the temporary - Tony had to believe that Steve would eventually reclaim the uniform - Captain America frowned at him.

Of course, when at the negotiating table, the first stage was gathering information. "Exactly which rumors are we talking about here?" It couldn't be about Steve, because Tony had more working versions of armor than there were people who currently knew both that Steve was alive and exactly who he was - and he'd have a half-dozen to spare. If there had been rumors circulating before Steve had shown up in his living room, well, Tony would have had some kind of warning instead of assuming the worst.

"The kid," James snapped. "The one living in your penthouse."

Tony frowned, and slowly stood. "Where did you hear that?"

James shrugged. "Well, Sharon did hear something through one of her old contacts, and..." he reached back and tugged something free of the inside of the shield. It wasn't until it hit the desk that Tony realized it was a tabloid. "This came out this morning."

Tony glanced at the paper, and found himself face to face with a blurry picture of Maria underneath a headline that read: Tony Stark's Mystery Love Child. Who's the Mother? Tony bit back a sigh; they hadn't even picked a good picture of her. He glanced up at James, making a conscious effort to resist the urge to flip through the pages of the rag. "Why does it matter to you?"

"I like to keep apprised of the world around me. I need to know if the kid is going to compromise you."

This time, Tony didn't bother to restrain his exasperated sigh. "You mean you want to know if I'm going to sell you out. Force you to register."

James raised his chin slightly, the move disconcertingly bringing to mind Maria when she was being stubborn. "Are you?"

"Our deal still stands. She changes nothing," Tony told him. It was lie, but not in the way James needed to be worried with. Maria had changed everything, but Tony kept his promises.

"Stark, the girl…"

Tony leaned a hip against the desk, pointedly meeting James' gaze. "The girl is none of your concern."

"Sharon thinks you kidnapped her," James said quietly.

Tony snorted. "I'm sure she's not the only one. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do. And, as I'm sure your girlfriend could tell you, you aren't exactly supposed to be here."

* * *

 

Tony was exhausted by the time he returned to the penthouse. First, there had been the phone call from Jan. She'd seen the paper, and was insistent that she be allowed to coordinate an official photo shoot of him and Maria - a conversation which had featured the words 'stop dressing the poor child in red' and where Jan had declared that she was taking Maria shopping before her fashion sense was permanently corrupted. Then, there had been the background worry over Steve - what he was doing, whether anyone had realized he was currently haunting the penthouse, what Maria might accidentally say, what he thought about Maria. The fact that the Wrecking Crew had decided they wanted take-out for lunch and had destroyed half a street worth of bistros had just been the icing on the proverbial cake. Tony crawled into the express elevator, and spent a moment fantasizing about his bed.

Unfortunately, he had far too much work left for it to be anything but a fantasy. There were things that he needed to discuss with Steve, and he had promised to spend more time with Maria. While he wouldn't have believed it six months ago, spending time with Maria was actually one of the things he was looking forward to.

Maria and Steve were already in the dining room, and Maria brightened as he walked in. He smiled, making an effort to at least pretend that he wasn't ready to drop where he stood. "Hello, Maria. Steve." He nodded in the latter's direction, concentrating on removing his jacket and tie.

"You looked exhausted." Steve observed, and Tony resisted the urge to kick him in the shin. Of course he was tired; he was working three jobs and trying to save the world - sleep deprivation came with the territory. That didn't mean that Steve had to bring it up in front of Maria.

"I'm fine," Tony settled for waving off the concern, and hoped that Maria didn't decide to take the incentive and ask why he was tired. She didn't know what he did during the day, outside of his work with Stark Enterprises, and he planned to keep it that way for a while longer. "Did you have a good day, Maria?"

She nodded, and followed his lead as he began to serve himself from the dishes on the table. "I finished my draft of the spaceship." His smile became more genuine in response to her genuine enthusiasm, and it was surprisingly easy to ignore the concern that Steve was not-so-subtly radiating.

"As soon as we finish dinner, we'll sit down and you can explain all of the details to me. Then, if there's time, we can talk about the details we'll have to consider before making a model," Tony told her. He was looking forward to that. Some of the best memories he had of his father were from shared time in the workroom - back when being smart had been something worthy of praise, instead of merely a barely tolerated compensation for a lack of proper attributes.

Maria nodded, her mouth full of spaghetti, and Tony set down his fork at the sight. "Eating faster isn't going to hurry things up, genius. Slow down, before you choke," Tony told her with a fond smile. "Jarvis would never forgive me, and you know how he is when he gets into a snit." She blinked, expression showing just a hint of confusion, but she slowed obediently and reloaded her fork with a more appropriate portion.

He glanced over at Steve, and was surprised to find that he looked uncomfortable. It was the same expression he'd worn back when he'd first moved into the mansion; like he wasn't quite sure if he belonged in the scene taking place or not, and couldn't decide what to do about it. Taking a sip of water, Tony shot his old friend a rueful smile. Steve responded in kind, eye's lightening for a moment as he allowed himself to be drawn into the conversation. "At least she's chewing," he pointed out. "Sometimes, I think you inhaled your food so that you could get back to the lab."

Tony stuck out his tongue, earning a muffled noise from Maria that he could only hope had resembled a laugh. "Peter inhales his food. I've just learned to eat quickly when I need to."

At the mention of Peter, Steve looked down at his plate. His expression darkened, though he shot a careful look at Maria before speaking. "How is Peter doing these days?"

"I wouldn't know. He hasn't exactly been in contact," Tony tried to keep his voice even, aware that Maria had stopped eating and was watching them intently.

Steve sighed, setting his fork down and pushing his plate away. "Tony, don't give me that. I know you have ways of getting information when you want it. You can't expect me to believe that you've stopped keeping track of him completely. If nothing else, you're not that sloppy of a strategist."

Tony's hand clenched, the fork digging into his palm. It was a low blow, the crack about strategy and his day job. Peter was more to him than just a pawn on a chessboard, even if the best thing he could do at this point was to get Peter off of said board and pray that the boy had the good sense to lay low until everything blew over. "Peter is fine, and so is Mary-Jane." He caught Steve's gaze and held it, daring him to contradict the statement. To remind Tony that this was all his fault in the first place.

"Who's Peter?" Maria's voice cut through the mounting tension, reminding Tony of where they were. That they weren't alone.

"Peter is a friend of mine," Tony told her. "I'll tell you about him tomorrow. Right now, though, you need to go to your room and work on your drawings."

"But-" At any other time, he'd have praised her for arguing. But at that moment, there was something indefinable brewing in Steve's eyes, and Tony wanted - needed - her out of the way. Because if this got messy, he needed to be able to do damage control, and the more she saw, the harder that would be.

"Now, Maria."

"Yes, sir." Maria stood, and vanished down the hallway without another word. Once the hallway cameras had confirmed that her bedroom door was shut, Tony turned his attention back to Steve.

"I'm listening…"

Chapter Text

"I'm listening..."

Steve had the decency to look, well, almost ashamed. "Tony, I…"

"You want me to start? Then we start with what is not open for debate. Because that does not, ever, happen in front of her again." Tony made a conscious effort to unclench his jaw. He was only partially successful. "Now, I don't care if you hate me, or you think I'm on some kind of evil maniacal power trip, but you will not take what little progress I've managed to make with her and throw it out the window just so that you can point out how everything is my fault. She doesn't deserve that." There was no need to point out that he did deserve it; they both knew he did, and Tony believed in picking his battles.

"Peter never would have registered if you hadn't encouraged him," Steve pointed out, determined to cling to the original topic even if it would just make things worse. It was like picking at a scab, and he'd never been one to let things go - part of him wasn't sure he was capable of it, although that was something he didn't like to dwell on. That would make his actions beyond his own control, and he couldn't - wouldn't - accept that.

"Do you think I don't know that?" Tony stood, running a hand through his hair and pacing to the closest wall and back before collecting himself enough to continue. "What do you want to hear, that it's my fault? Well, it is. Everything that has gone wrong since the mansion burned down is my fault. I've got access to every major computer network on the planet, and enough strategic background that of course I knew how everything would play out. In detail. And I didn't stop any of it, so that makes it my fault. What happened to Peter's family, registration, the cape-killers - all of it."

An expression flickered over Steve's face, almost too quickly for Tony to process. There was pain, and anger, and something else that Tony couldn't bring himself to identify. Then Steve closed his eyes, and it was gone. "Then how could you not know that it wasn't me you buried?"

"Because you were dead." Tony kept his voice steady through force of will, but it was a challenge. "I saw your body, the wounds - even you couldn't survive that." He swallowed hard. "Shouldn't have been able to survive that." He didn't want to talk about this, didn't even want to think about it. Because then he had to consider if it was really Steve he was talking to, and he couldn't go through that again.

"Well, I did." There was anger in Steve's voice, strong enough to convince Tony that they might have another fight coming - a real fight, not the tiffs they'd been dancing in and out of since Steve had shown up. The thought made Tony sick, and he was about to end it, cut it off, do something to keep the painful words from running wild, but Steve beat him to it. The former icon's shoulders slumped, his weight resting against the table as if he were unable to carry it himself. "I... I needed you. I didn't know who I was, where I had come from, and even after I did, I... Why didn't you know?"

Tony winced at the plaintive note in Steve's voice, and looked away. His gaze settled on Maria's empty chair. "I didn't even know about Maria until someone decided to use her as leverage against me, never mind the complex where she was being held. I should have known." Tony closed his eyes again, reflexively checking on Maria through Extremis. She was sitting on her bed with her knees pulled up to her chest and her face hidden. "I should have known." He wasn't even sure if he was talking about Maria or Steve. Wasn't sure it mattered.

"I don't hate you."

Tony opened his eyes, and found Steve a lot closer than he had been. "How can you say that?"

Steve raised a hand, and gently forced Tony to meet his gaze. A small voice in the back of Tony's mind asked when he'd fallen asleep, because that was the only way they had ended up at this hesitant, nervous stage again, instead of ripping each other's throats out. That kind of change never happened this quickly, this cheaply.

"Things would have been easier if I could have hated you," Steve admitted. "Even when I tried, and there were days that I did try, I could never hate you."

"I didn't mean for Peter to get hurt. I wanted to protect him, I thought it would be better for him to be on the inside - the winning side. Safer for him." Tony whispered.

"I know. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have brought him up." Steve sighed, and Tony had a flash of fictional 1950's domesticity with Steve's next words. "I didn't mean to ruin dinner."

Tony leaned into Steve's gentle caress, he couldn't help himself. But it only lasted a moment, and he forced his mind to more important things, like the look on Maria's face. Some things sweet-talking didn't cancel out, no matter how much he might want it to. "She was happy, excited…She's getting better, Steve, but it's still so rare. She deserves every bit of good that she can get."

"I know, and I am sorry. I don't know what I was thinking." He dropped his hand, letting it return to its former position resting on the table. "I'm not sure I was thinking."

"Tell her that." Tony straightened, and after a moment he settled for leaning his hip against the table, not bothering to suppress a sigh as he rubbed a hand over his face. "She probably thinks she's in trouble. I should go talk to her."

Steve stood, and placed a restraining hand on Tony's shoulder. "Look, can I... Can I talk to her first, apologize to her?"

Tony realized that his skepticism must not have been as well hidden as he'd thought, because Steve's own expression gained another degree of contrition.

"I do know better, Tony. I just, I don't even..." Steve paused, taking a deep breath to gather his thoughts. "Ever since I woke up in the river, even after I started getting my memories back, it's like there's this piece of me that doesn't fit. It rubs, and it grates, and it never quite settles. It's been doing unfortunate things to my temper. I should never have lost control of it, not around a child. It won't happen again."

Tony eyed Steve carefully, looking him over and studying his body language. That wasn't quite the kind of revelation that made him want to put Steve in the same room with Maria unsupervised, but despite the admission, Tony still trusted him not to hurt the girl. There was also the chance that this would be good for Maria. If she heard that this wasn't her fault from someone new, not himself or Jarvis, there was the chance she'd believe it. Or at least consider the possibility. Having reached a decision, he spoke quietly, letting the edge to his voice make his point for him. "All right, you can talk to her first. Just... be careful with her."

Steve nodded, and left without further comment.

* * *

 

Steve opened the door to Maria's room and hesitated just inside the threshold. Maria was huddled on the bed, her back to the corner. Though she didn't acknowledge him, Steve could tell that she knew he was there. After a moment of consideration, he knocked lightly against the door frame. "Maria? May I come in?"

She looked up when he spoke, muscles visibly tense but face impossibly blank. The behavior was familiar, in a depressing way, and brought back memories he hadn't remembered having, of orphanages cobbled together for children displaced by the war. Always too many bodies, and never enough to go around, the similarity was in the eyes and the tension of her limbs, though she seemed to shake said tension off as she noted his scrutiny. She swallowed visibly, and then seemed to unfold, straightening until she was sitting on the edge of the bed and staring at him as though at attention. It was almost painful to watch how hard she was trying to act like nothing was wrong. "Yes, sir."

Steve wanted to wince at the form of address, even though it wasn't the first time she'd used it. Now that he had started to understand where she'd been before entering Tony's care, the formality made him twitch. Keeping his movements slow and predictable, Steve carefully crossed the room to stand next to her bed. "Can I sit down?"

She blinked, and he caught a glimpse of confusion before her blank expression solidified again and she nodded, silently scooting toward the head of the bed to make room.

He took the offered seat, and decided to address the matter head-on. "I wanted you to know that you're not in trouble."

"Tony was angry," Maria didn't meet his eyes, staring instead at the wall across from them.

After a moment of consideration, Steve settled a gentle hand on her shoulder. "He's not angry with you. He was angry at me." He wished he could take back the events of the evening, restarting from Tony's arrival and keeping his temper in check. Watching Tony interact with Maria, remembering how Tony had once been with Peter before throwing him to the wolves, it had hurt. He'd wanted to remind Tony of how much Peter's loss had hurt, and for a moment he'd allowed himself to forget that Tony wasn't the only one there. It wasn't a mistake he would repeat. Maria wasn't Peter; she didn't have the ability to brush off the occasional spat of infighting that had been part and parcel with life in the Avengers, and she certainly didn't deserve to be the cause of such a confrontation.

He realized that Maria had stopped staring at the wall, and was now studying him curiously. "Why was he angry?"

"It's complicated - difficult to explain. I said some things, things that hurt him. And he was angry that you had to see us fighting." Steve frowned, and tried to decide if he was helping matters or merely confusing her further. "I'm sorry that I ruined dinner for you."

It was Maria's turn to frown. "Do you intend to injure Tony?"

"No, I would never-" Steve cut himself off, memories returning unbidden. "I don't want to hurt Tony."

"If you try, I will stop you." Maria voice was surprisingly firm, and the conviction in her eyes was far more grown-up than it should have been. The way her chin jutted out was familiar, and it took Steve a moment to realize that she looked disconcertingly like Bucky had, back when he'd been a child-soldier who still remembered being a child.

Steve shifted, and very carefully placed his free hand on her other shoulder and meeting her eyes. "I can't promise that I won't hurt him, Maria. But I promise that I won't do it by design."

She considered his words for a long moment before she nodded her approval. "That is acceptable."

"Good," Steve told her. He released her shoulders, bracing his hands on the bed as he moved to stand, but paused when she placed a tentative hand on his arm.

"Who is Peter?"

Steve laughed softly, pleased to find at least one consistency of childhood still belonged to her. Children always remembered the things you wished they'd forget. "Peter is Peter Parker. Sometimes, people call him Spider-man."

"You mean Franklin's Spider-man?" Maria asked, her eyes wider than he'd seen them.

"Franklin's-" Steve shook his head and laughed more freely. It shouldn't be a surprise that Maria had run into Reed's son; if there was anyone Tony was likely to be seeing socially, Reed was near the top of the list, and the only one who had a child anywhere near the right age, unless one counted Charles. Steve couldn't see Tony bothering with inter-dimensional travel just to organize a play-date, at least not with everything else that had been going on. "Peter's wife might disagree with him being 'Franklin's' but yes, that Spider-man."

"And he's a friend of yours? And Tony's?"

Steve hesitated at that. He could still count Peter as a friend, but could Tony? Did Tony? "Well..."

"Yes, Peter is one of our friends," Tony interrupted, lounging casually in the doorway. Steve fought down the urge to wince, feeling as though he'd been caught with his hand in some unknown cookie jar.

To his surprise, Tony didn't look upset, so much as, well, it was hard to tell just what was going on behind Tony's eyes at the moment. Aware that Maria was glancing back and forth between them as though they were the stars in some cosmic tennis tournament, Steve sighed and patted her shoulder gently before standing. "Remember what I told you, okay?" He leaned over, carefully brushing Maria's hair away from her face. "He wasn't mad at you."

Maria nodded, and he straightened before walking to the doorway. "I'm going to watch some TV, find me when you're done. " He nodded to Tony, and then shot a final glance back at the girl fidgeting on her bed. "Goodnight, Maria."

"Goodnight, Steve."

* * *

 

"I'm sorry about dinner, Maria," Tony said, sitting down beside her on the bed.

She nodded as if she'd expected him to say that, and it was possible that she had. It had been harder than he'd care to admit, but Tony had refrained from eavesdropping on her conversation with Steve. "Steve said that, too."

Tony shifted, and reached up to undo the end of her braid, setting the hair tie on her nightstand. "What else did he say?"

Maria pressed her lips together for a moment, as if contemplating how much to tell him. He focused his attention on untangling her braid, giving her the time she seemed to need to gather her thoughts. The braid was a new thing, something she'd started wearing now that her hair was long enough to get into her eyes, and he had to admit that Jarvis was demonstrating talents Tony had never realized the butler possessed. "That you weren't mad at me."

"I'm not," Tony assured her, finger-combing the hair back from her face now that it was free. "Anything that happens between me and Steve has nothing to do with you. I want to make sure that you understand that. Do you?"

She nodded, and looked up at him for a brief moment before settling her gaze on a poster of the launch of the shuttle Discovery that had taken up residence on the far wall. When she spoke, her voice had slipped back into what he privately called her 'hesitant-mode'. "Tony, can we...are we...will you look over my draft tonight?"

Tony relaxed at the request, and dropped his hand to her shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze. "Of course I will. I said we would, didn't I?" He patted her shoulder affectionately before getting to his feet. "Let's take a look at it right now. Sound good, genius?"

* * *

 

"I'm going to go watch some TV?" Tony parroted at Steve as he entered the living room, tone justifiably incredulous since Steve was sitting in the living room with the television dark, flipping through an issue of Popular Mechanics.

Steve shrugged, not bothering to look up. "There was nothing worth watching, and I've missed too much of Grey's Anatomy to tune back in now."

"I'll buy you the DVD set when the season ends." Steve didn't respond, and Tony let the silence settle as he studied the former icon. Steve was making a valiant effort to act interested in an article that hadn't even been able to hold Tony's attention when the magazine had arrived a week earlier. After a long moment of thought, Tony decided to address the issue head-on. There was nothing else for it, and it would only get harder as time wore on. "She comes first."

Steve looked up at that, expression somewhere between confused and angry. Under other circumstances, Tony would have called it cute. "I wouldn't expect otherwise. " Steve paused, looking away as he very carefully placed the magazine on one of the coffee tables. When he spoke, it was directed toward the box of Kleenex, and it wasn't a question. "She wasn't just a lab experiment, was she? She was part of a weapons project."

Even though Steve still hadn't looked up, Tony felt the need to look away himself, hands curling unconsciously into fists as he forced himself to confirm Steve's suspicions. "Yes."

Steve looked up, and Tony could feel his gaze as it settled on him. "She reminds me of Bucky at times."

Tony bit down on the hysterical laughter that was threatening to emerge, preying on his already frayed control. He swallowed hard, and then decided that avoidance was a perfectly valid approach in this particular circumstance. "I have some things to do in the lab. If Maria needs me, she'll know where to find me."

Tony was halfway out of the room before Steve spoke again. "How is Bucky?"

Tony paused, but didn't bother to look back. "He's coping. What did you expect? He was asked to take up a mantle he doesn't feel worthy of, one that I'd bet good money he wants nothing to do with at this point, and he thinks the man he viewed as a brother is dead." Tony felt bad about the sharpness of his voice, but Steve had asked, and Tony had been dealing with Bucky's bitterness ever since Steve had "died". He was allowed to be frustrated. "Look, I didn't want to give him the shield, but you asked. I couldn't say no to your last request." Tony didn't bother to wait for Steve's inevitable apology, he just walked away.

* * *

 

Tony woke with his face pressed against the worktable and someone shaking his shoulder. He groaned, blinking his eyes and trying to make sense of the bright blue blur in front of him. There was a moment of disorientation as his mind scrabbled about for anything resembling reality.

He'd had too many dreams like this while Steve was dead to trust blindly.

"Sleeping like that can't be good for your neck," Steve said, his voice carrying just the right hint of affectionate frustration. "Come to bed. Whatever you're working on will still be there in a few hours."

Tony sat up, wincing as his neck twinged and reminded him that yes, he was awake, and yes, he was not eighteen, no matter what Extremis might be able to do with his body. He groaned when he felt all-too-familiar fingers begin to rub away the tension coiled at the back of his neck. After a moment, he gave into temptation and leaned back into the touch. "I wasn't sleeping."

"Well, I know you weren't resting your eyes," Steve chuckled, the sound warm and rich as he leaned over to press a kiss to the base of Tony's throat.

"I could have been," Tony protested.

Steve's hands moved from his neck, down over his chest. His touch, though light, grazed over bruises that hadn't yet healed. Tony closed his eyes, taking a moment to suppress the pain and hoping that Steve hadn't noticed. He hadn't wanted to mention the afternoon's encounter with the villain du jour.

"You were drooling."

Tony smiled at that, and allowed Steve to pull him to his feet without protest. "So you always say, but you've yet to convince me of it."

"It's always true," Steve murmured, shifting so that they were facing each other before leaning in to trail his lips along the edge of Tony's jaw.

Tony let himself lean into the touch, trying to remember why this was a bad idea even as his mind pointed out that Steve had very predictable ulterior motives. He wanted Tony to sleep somewhere that wasn't the lab, because he didn't think Tony slept well surrounded by machinery at a desk. Tony spared half a moment to wonder if he could convince Steve to compromise on the cot in the corner, but there was really no point. Steve might have gotten better over the years, but compromise was still a conditional portion of his vocabulary as opposed to a fond acquaintance. "I don't drool, and this isn't going to work."

"What's not going to work?" Steve's hand settled at Tony's waist, sliding under the hem of his undershirt and placing just enough pressure at just the right spot to make Tony seriously reconsider his intent to argue.

"Trying to….ah...distract me," Tony struggled to force the words out as Steve continued to stroke the skin of his waist just so.

Tony could feel Steve's grin where it pressed against the skin where his shoulder met his neck. "But the real question is, are you distracted?" Steve asked, voice suspiciously innocent for someone who was currently making a concerted effort to give Tony a hickey that Extremis wouldn't be able to undo before the morning.

Tony thought about what he should do, should say. He was the adult here - he had to be, because he couldn't count on Steve to know what the right thing was right now, and sometimes Steve had to be saved from himself. They couldn't fool themselves into thinking it was this easy, because someone would get hurt. Someone - Maria - had already been hurt, and he couldn't let that happen again. If he let this go, just fell over that oh-so-tempting cliff, he knew where they'd end up in the long run. He couldn't risk that. But the sad truth was, he'd never been very good at denying himself the things he really wanted. "Maybe…"

"Then I guess I need to try harder, don't I?" Steve's voice was soft and husky, barely audible as he pressed a kiss to the skin just below Tony's ear. When Tony shivered and let out a breathless moan, Steve knew that the battle was won, and he pulled far enough away to shift his attention to Tony's mouth. It might not be fighting fair, but if Tony wasn't willing to take care of himself, Steve would take matters into his own hands. He cared too much not to.

Giving up the fight as lost, at least for one night, and promising his sense of self-control that they'd be having a long and detailed discussion in the morning, Tony allowed himself to sink into Steve's kiss. Every time he tried to think about what they were doing, he knew it was a bad idea, but just in that moment, he could convince himself that he didn't care. Reaching up, he fisted a hand in Steve's hair and deepened the kiss. If he was in, he might as well be all in. Just for a few moments.

By the time Steve pushed Tony up against the nearest wall, he'd managed to get Tony out of his oil-stained undershirt. The cool concrete was a welcome counterpoint to the heat of Steve's skin, and Tony let his eyes fall shut as he ceded the last of his control to Steve. It had been far too long since Tony had been able to surrender without worry of the consequences, even if the rest of the world was still buzzing away on the far side of Extremis and the consequences would still be there in the morning.

"Oh my God! Tony, what have you done?!" Carol's voice cut through Tony's moment of blissful escape, its tone sharp and surprisingly piercing. It took Tony a moment - exactly as long as it took Steve to pull away and turn towards the source of the interruption - to realize that he'd actually heard Carol's voice.

His eyes snapped open, only to find Carol standing in the doorway of the lab. Fuck. "Fuck." He didn't bother to restrain the sentiment, because really, it wasn't like he was going to make things worse at this point, and it seemed fitting. "Carol-"

Steve looked as if he wanted to crawl down the darkest hole he could find and never come back out, and Tony didn't think it had anything to do with Carol walking in on a potentially embarrassing situation. Though, if Tony was honest, that probably wasn't helping things. Tony would bet good money, and possibly one of his less-successful nano-tech subsidiaries, that Ms. Marvel had never, ever, wanted to see Captain America and Iron Man just this side of in flagrante delicto.

"Don't 'Carol' me, Tony! First you and Reed do that thing with Thor, and now this?" Carol sounded upset, which made sense, but there was something in her tone that didn't fit the situation. She kept shooting Steve the kind of looks that she normally reserved for Nick Fury when she was sure if he was really himself, or if she was just talking to an LMD. "I thought you were handling things better, Tony. I thought-"

"Carol, could you wait for just a minute before you jump to conclusions?" Tony sighed, and reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose, wondering where Steve had tossed his undershirt. Even though he knew that the scars were long gone, he still wasn't comfortable with his chest exposed; old habits died hard. "I know this looks bad, but-"

Carol glared at him, stalking over and poking his woefully over-exposed chest with her finger once she'd reached him. "But nothing, Tony. How could you do this to Steve's memory?" She stared at him for a long moment, before letting her finger fall and turning away. "I know you miss him, but this?" She waved a hand towards Steve, voice slipping into sadness from its initial anger.

Tony looked over at Steve, praying that he would spontaneously demonstrate a heretofore unknown gift for telepathy and understand that Tony needed him to say something. Unfortunately, Steve proved true to form and was giving every impression of being fascinated by the stained concrete at his feet. Tony shot him a glare for good measure before returning his attention to Carol. "This isn't what you think it is, Carol."

Carol put a hand to her forehead, closing her eyes for a moment as though steeling herself. When she opened them, she met his gaze steadily, her voice hesitant. "Tony, I...Maybe I should have asked this earlier, I don't know. It's been hard for all of us. Maybe I should have been around more, especially after I found out about Maria, but-"

Tony didn't flinch, but he knew where she was going with this. He couldn't even blame her, because she had every right to expect the worst from him. That didn't make the question any easier to hear, even if it was easy enough to answer.

"Tony, have you been drinking?" Carol's voice was soft, as was the hand on his arm.

"No, Carol. I have not been drinking. I can't, that's not somewhere I can go again. Ever. If I started again, I'd never stop, and I can't do that. Won't do that." He leaned against the wall, and wondered if he'd ever really woken up. This would certainly fit the bill for a nightmare, even if it was comparatively low-key. Maybe he was still asleep - maybe he'd been dreaming ever since Carol had woken him the last time he'd dreamt of Steve in the workshop, was it really only a few weeks ago? At least there was some kind of a pattern to it. "This, this is really Steve, Carol. He's not an LMD, not a an android, not a clone. He's real."

Carol's expression darkened, horror and pity both dancing in the shadows of her eyes. "Tony, I...Steve is dead."

"No, I'm not," Steve finally spoke, and Tony could have kissed him. Would have, if Carol hadn't been standing right there and looking more than a little disturbed. Steve was leaning against one of the lab tables, arms crossed. "I woke up in the Hudson about a month ago. At the time, I had no memory of, well, anything. It took a while for things to start coming back, and, well..." In an uncharacteristic display of nervousness, Steve ran a hand through his hair, smoothing down the mussed strands where Tony's fingers had been just moments before.

Carol looked back and forth between the two of them, expression slowly turning to one of cautious disbelief. "Steve?"

He nodded, shifting his weight awkwardly from foot to foot as if unsure what to do now that the secret was out. "It's really me, Carol."

Tony closed his eyes, blocking out the soap opera that was attempting to coalesce in the middle of his workspace. It didn't actually help, but then he'd known it wouldn't when he made the attempt. "Much as I'm thrilled that you don't think I'm crazy - and believe me, I am thrilled - I'm also absolutely freezing. So we are going to move this conversation upstairs, where I can get a shirt, and you two can prove that Steve is walking and talking under his own power."

Chapter Text

It seemed like hours before Tony could get Carol to leave, though Steve knew it had only been an hour. He still wasn’t sure Carol believed that he was who he said he was, or that Tony hadn’t gone off his rocker – but she seemed to believe that Tony believed he was Steve Rogers.

She hadn’t been very happy with him and Steve couldn’t blame her for that. He knew it was selfish letting his friends think he was still dead – but he just couldn’t handle it yet. He needed to figure out who the hell Steve Rogers was if he wasn’t Captain America, if he wasn’t a superhero. Just because he’d used different codenames at times didn’t mean he’d ever stopped being Captain America. The last time he’d just been Steven Rogers he’d been a scrawny art student, and Steve wasn’t sure if he knew that half-grown boy anymore.

“Sorry, my fault for giving her the access code to the lab.” Tony said with a slight shrug.

Steve returned it, and carefully reached out and wrapped a hand around the back of Tony’s neck pulling him closer. “She would have found out sooner or later.”

It was probably a testament to how tired Tony was that he put up no resistance leaning into Steve. “It still could have gone better.”

“You say that about everything,” Steve teased affectionately. “Now, bed before you fall over.”

Tony opened his mouth, and Steve could already hear the argument, but instead Tony closed his mouth and nodded. He let Steve lead him into the elevator.

Steve kept his arm around Tony, half-afraid that if he let go the distance would build right back up between them. He’d had more than enough of that.

Still, something nagged at his mind as they rode up in the elevator then stepped out into the quiet empty penthouse. Well not so empty, given the young girl not far away and hopefully fast asleep. It was probably a very good thing that the conversation with Carol hadn’t taken place up in the penthouse – given Maria’s tendency to wake up easily, and Tony’s protectiveness of her.

Steve was quiet as they walked across the darkened living room towards Tony's bedroom. Tony was quiet too, but Steve would lay money down on his mind being entrenched in code and emails and all the feeds that Tony never seemed to completely shut off.

It was only after the door of the bedroom was shut and Tony sat heavily on the bed that Steve spoke. "How do you know I'm who I say I am?" He sat down next to Tony, titling his head so he could watch the other man’s face.

Tony looked like he didn't understand the question for a moment.

"I-I don't mean that I don't appreciate your belief in me, but how can you just take my word for it that I'm Steve Rogers? I could be Skrull or a shape shifter -- or anything."

"Because I know you," Tony said tiredly.

Steve felt a rush of warmth at Tony's words. He knew that wasn't the only reason because he knew Tony too well. He let the back of his hand touch Tony's leg. "And I know you. But -- you buried another body. Someone you thought was me." Steve closed his eyes for a moment before speaking his greatest fear. "What if I'm not who I think I am? I don't want to hurt you, or Maria."

"I checked the homeless shelter,” Tony stopped for a moment."The video feeds from the morgue."

"The video feeds from the morgue," Steve repeated as if it would make more sense.

Tony's shoulders slouched and he hung his head forward. "I should have had guards on your bod— on you all the time. My fault."

"Tony --"

"It was one of the techs. I checked his background -- his sister was killed last year during the attack on New York." Tony rubbed a hand over his face. "I should have had guards down there, I should have had everyone's background checked even if they already had clearance. It shouldn't have happened."

Steve very carefully wrapped an arm around Tony and pressed closer. "It wasn't your fault."

"It was!" Tony snapped, getting to his feet. "I should have known something was wrong when your-- when the body shriveled up like it did. We thought it had to do with the super-serum. I should have known it was something else. I'm supposed to know these things! Someone should not have been able to switch your body out for an inscrolled one. Some little creep with a grudge should not have been able to toss you into the Hudson!" He was pacing, looking more and more agitated.

And it hit Steve what Tony was doing. "Stop it," he ordered, getting to his feet and grabbing Tony's arms.

Tony halted his movements, staring at Steve, then at his hands. His eyes had the strange cloudy look Steve had learned to associate with Extremis. "I should have known." Tony said softly, dipping his head.

Steve pulled Tony to his chest. "Shut off the video feeds. Stop re-watching them, it's not going to change anything."

"What good am I if I can't see these things?" Tony asked hoarsely.

"What good am I if I'm not Captain America?" Steve countered.

Tony arms slid around him, his fingers clenching Steve's shirt. "You're more than just Captain America to me."

Steve desperately wanted to believe that. "And you're more than the code running through your head, Tony."

"Not anymore," Tony told him, his entire body trembling with what Steve knew was exhaustion.

"Bed," Steve said gently, not only because Tony was tired, but because he didn't know what to say to make Tony believe otherwise.

For once Tony didn't argue. When they were both in bed, Steve wrapped an arm around Tony's waist and pulled him to his chest. Neither of them spoke, but Tony's thumb brushed against the back of Steve's hand in a regular pattern until Tony was asleep.

***

Several days after the scene at the dinner table, Maria found herself out shopping.

She'd rather have gone to visit Franklin again. His family, while exhibiting behaviors far outside anything Maria had known, was interesting and his Uncle Ben gave her and Franklin cookies. The smaller child that Franklin called Val troubled her slightly because she was younger than Maria was. No one in the complex had been younger than Maria, and while she'd been aware that some of the children on the playground in Beijing were younger than her, she'd never been faced with a much younger child before.

Franklin had called her his sister as if Maria should be familiar with the word. After she'd waited for him to clarify, he'd rolled his eyes and asked 'weren't the others you talked about your sisters?"

That troubled her even more than Val did.

But still, Franklin was enjoyable to talk to. He knew important tactical things like who Spiderman was and that Jan had been a 'superhero'.

Tony had told her when she'd inquired if the shopping trip was really required that she was going, but promised Franklin could come visit soon.

Maria still didn't like shopping but she liked Tony's friend, Jan. At least she thought like was the right word. She was sometimes a bit confusing, and a lot different from Carol or any of the older women she'd seen at the Complex. She moved differently too -- graceful and purposed -- in a way that reminded Maria slightly of one of the early gymnastics instructors she’d had. Her smile reminded Maria of that woman as well.

Shopping with Jan was nothing like shopping with Jarvis. Jan picked out the clothing instead of the shop-workers, and the few times they'd brought something over Jan had rolled her eyes and told them she was not putting a child in that. She'd even laughed when she'd finally gotten Maria to tell her why she scowled so at the dresses, though Maria had a moment of panic when she realized she was caught with a tell.

Apparently her babbled answer of 'they're impractical' was the right one, and Jan told her she agreed but that sometimes they were necessary, and wearing impractical things every now and then could be fun. Maria wasn't sure about the fun part, but she did enjoy spinning around in the dresses like Jan taught her and watching the skirt float up and spin with her.

Maria was unaware of it but later Jan would tell Tony that she actually giggled.

"I need to talk to Tony about enrolling you in some ballet classes, I think," Jan had commented with a smile watching Maria.

Maria made a mental note to research ballet on the computer she'd been provided with when she was returned to Stark Tower.

They'd acquired more clothing than Maria had during her first shopping trip, along with things called necklaces and bracelets. Maria was intrigued by how some bracelets would slide and twirl around her wrist and others fit snuggle against her skin. She couldn't see the purpose to them, but she liked the loose ones best. She could easily slip them off to use as weapons if the need arose.

After they'd left the last store, Jan had declared they both deserved a treat.

Maria decided that if all shopping ended with ice cream, she would go shopping as often as she could.

"Tony tells me you're quite the artist." Jan told her over a large bowl of the dessert.

Maria nodded, her mouth full of ice cream. Chocolate was even better than vanilla she had decided. "We're going to build a model from one of my drafts," she told Jan. "I'm not as skilled as Steve though. I still need to improve my technique to reach his level. My drafts look 'too flat'." Maria hadn't understood that until Steve had shown her.

"Tony has showed you some of Steve's drawings?" Jan asked after several moments of silence. She sounded like this surprised her. Maria wasn't sure why it would.

Maria nodded again, licking her spoon. "He was explaining the real difference between drafting designs and art. Tony does design drafts and Steve draws art." Maria told her, pleased with how well she remembered Tony's words. "Steve said he'll teach me if I want."

At that Jan started coughing. "Steve said?" she repeated.

Maria’s heart rate accelerated. Had she said something wrong? "Am I not -- I didn't --"

Jan reached out and patted her hand. "No, no, you didn't say anything wrong. You're not in trouble, Maria. I just wasn't aware Steve was -- living -- at the penthouse again."

Maria nodded. "He's been there a week. He said you're friends with him too, like you're friends with Tony."

Jan smiled at her. "Yes, we're friends. Let's finish our ice cream before it melts shall we?"

***

Tony wasn't sure what was up when Jan asked to speak to him alone when she brought Maria back from shopping. But like most things, he was sure it wouldn’t be good news.

It couldn't be about Maria though, the girl had seemed happy when she had gotten back. She told Tony excitedly that she had new training clothes -- which it sadly figured that new gymnastic uniforms would excite her more than anything else. Plus Jan had been full of 'sign her up for ballet, Tony', ‘do not let her take fashion advice from Carol, Tony', and ‘I remember the pink shirt, Tony'.

"Did something happen with Maria?" Tony asked, leaning against the desk in the penthouse office.

"No, she was fine. She was a sweet girl, if a little quiet for her age." Jan told him shaking her head. "Just something she mentioned and --" Jan broke off biting her bottom lip. "Tony, you know I adore you and you’re one of my dearest friends, and I trust you -- "

Tony crossed his arms over his chest. He didn’t like where this was going. What could Maria have said? Something about the complex? That wouldn't make sense since Jan knew Maria came from a lab. "But?" he prompted.

"I know you and Steve were lovers before, well before everything went to hell," Jan said softly, looking at Tony carefully.

Tony opened his mouth to ask how but Jan had known both him and Steve for years, and if anyone could have figured it out other than Jarvis, it made sense it would be her. "Jan, what is this about? You didn't mention anything before Steve - died. Why bring it up now?"

He knew why. Really it was the only thing that made sense. Maria had said something about Steve, and really it was his own fault for not talking to her about that. So, he knew why she was bringing it up, he just didn't know if he could take another round of 'have you been drinking?'

He still didn't think Carol was completely convinced Steve was real and he didn't need a second person thinking he'd gone off the deep end. Again.

"Because Steve isn't dead, is he?" Jan’s voice was quiet, but he could hear the anger in it.

Even though he leaned heavily against his desk, part of Tony was relieved that her first words weren't 'drinking' or 'clone'. "I take it Maria told you." He kept his voice even and calm.

"Don't be angry with her, she didn't know she was saying anything wrong." Jan told him.

Tony shook his head at the notion. "I'm not angry with her, and I didn't tell her she shouldn't talk to anyone about Steve." Though he wished he didn't have to try and teach her so early about lying to people you’re supposed to trust. He couldn't help but be bitter at Steve for that. "Steve is alive. I didn't know until about a week ago when he showed up at the penthouse." It was closer to two weeks but who was counting?

"Are you," Jan paused for a moment, reaching out to touch his arm. "Are you sure it's him?"

Tony nodded. "As sure as I can be without Hank or Henry McCoy running tests on him."

"Then why hide him? Tony if you've know for a week --"

"Because he didn't want anyone to know yet. I was respecting his wishes," Tony told her. She'd been one of the original Avengers. Maybe he should have told her and Hank when Steve had showed up. It should have been his first thought, but he'd always had trouble denying Steve anything.

"And you’re sure he's not a Skrull or an LMD or--” Jan persisted.

"I'm pretty damn sure he's not an LMD," Tony couldn't help but smirk.

Jan flushed. "Still, Tony --"

"I've checked him out as well as I could. Like I said, Hank would be able to test for certain but --" Tony didn't want to say out loud that part of him had been selfish, wanting to keep Steve to himself for as long as he could, even if things weren't the best between them most of the time. "I wouldn't have let him stay if I thought he was danger to Maria."

"Who else knows?" Jan asked finally, seeming to accept Tony's answers. He was grateful someone still did.

"Jarvis, of course, and Carol but that's only because she walked in on us in the lab. I think she still thinks I've lost my mind and made an LMD of Steve.” Tony shrugged. "Would you like to see Steve? He's in the gym, but I think he'd like to see you."

Jan nodded quickly. "I would if only so I can yell at him for making me cry," Jan told him, surprising Tony by pulling him into a hug. "But we're telling Hank, and you’re letting Hank test him, okay?"

"Agreed." Tony nodded, calling Steve on the intercom in the gym. He'd hoped for a quiet evening with Maria and Steve but it looked like that wasn't going to happen. Still it could have been worse.

***

Tony was happily surprised to find his early prediction wrong as Indian Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark played on the large flat screen. Steve had always been fond of the movie and seemed to be enjoying answering Maria's questions and pointing out what model certain vehicles were to her.

There were a dozen things that needed his attention but Tony couldn't bring himself to leave the warmth of the couch.

Jan hadn't stayed long after seeing Steve. She'd hugged him, then smacked his arm lightly, then hugged him again after Steve explained what had happened between his 'death' and showing up at Tony's penthouse. At least as much as Steve could explain. She'd agreed to hold off telling Hank but insisted that they needed to tell him soon.

All and all it had gone better than with Carol.

Steve put his arm up on the back of the couch, playing with Tony's hair, and Tony smiled over at him. Steve smiled back and a warmth Tony hadn't felt in a while filled him. Maria was in-between them leaning slightly against Tony. Her questions had stopped a little while ago, as she'd become more engrossed in the film.

It seemed impossible that he should have this. He and Steve still hadn’t worked everything out and Maria was still too fragile to risk on the chance they could work things out between them. This quiet little moment should have been impossible.

But Tony Stark did excel at the impossible.

Chapter Text

The photo shoot had gone better than Tony had hoped. Between Jan's coaching and Maria's life being spent under observation Maria had seemed completely comfortable under the glare of the camera. Maria had smiled at all the right times and if she sometimes seemed shy or unsure and clung a bit closely to Tony, well who would blame a young child for acting as such around so many strange adults.

He could only hope the next part of this went nearly as well. Maria was a short distance away drawing, though he'd rather her be back at the Tower. Jan had pointed out and Carol had agreed, that letting them interview Maria, with him in the room of course, would go a long way.

"She's beautiful, Tony."

Tony turned away from watching Maria, and looked at Christine Everheart. She was as beautiful as always, and Tony would venture that the last several years had been very good to her. "That isn't why I adopted her."

Christine smiled. "I know, but it doesn't make it less true." She laughed and shook her head. "Why did you insist on me for this interview?"

"This going in the interview?" Tony asked back.

She shook her head. "I'm curious. I've never been kind to you in my articles."

Tony lips twisted into a mockery of a smile. "I know. Why do you think I asked for you? You don't pull your punches when it comes to me and everyone knows it."

Christine set her tape recorder on the table between them. "Shall we get started then?"

***

The Time magazine photo spread and article brought people out of the woodwork that Tony had thought would never speak to him again, and a few Tony rather wished still weren’t.

He'd even received messages from several of the X-Men, the least surprising being Hank McCoy who'd offered any sort of medical advice Tony might need raising a potential meta. Tony privately wondered if Reed or Hank Pym hadn't mentioned something weeks ago to the good doctor.

Maria Hill had fumed at him for leaving him out of the loop. Dugan simply seemed amused which Tony suspected had more to do with the fact that for the first day people had kept randomly dropping into Tony's office on the Helicarrier to offer him parenting advice.

He was slightly surprised he hadn't heard from Bucky (and he really had to stop calling him that even in his head) or Sharon. Perhaps the new Captain America had taken him on his word that Maria changed nothing about their agreement, but Tony doubted it. James didn't trust him or like him.

And if anyone noticed the new picture, sitting next to one of Tony's parents on his desk, of Maria with her tongue sticking out as she was drawing, they didn't say a word.

***

"But ants aren't blue," Maria protested as Tony came into the living room.

The sight that greeted him made Tony smile despite how his day had gone… despite the bruises hidden under his suit, despite the fact that his day even at five in the afternoon was just getting started. The scene in the living room just made him want to find someone -- anyone else to handle the crisis.

Steve and Maria were sitting on the floor with pages of a coloring book spread across the coffee table. Tony thought that maybe Hank had sent it since all the pages were of insects. Amongst the pages, there were colored pencils and crayons, and Tony was sure that each had some special and odd name that both Steve and Maria knew by heart and could tell anyone the difference between.

"They could be blue," Steve countered. "Or it could have been painted blue."

"Who would paint an ant blue?" Maria asked wrinkling her nose. She was working on a multi-colored butterfly.

"Hank Pym, possibly," Steve laughed.

Tony chuckled. "I'm telling him you said that."

Steve turned his head and grinned at Tony. "You wouldn't."

"I'm sure he'd love to give you a detailed description of why you shouldn't paint an ant blue or why you even would." Tony walked over to Maria, dropping a kiss on her head as he leaned over to look at her butterfly. "Is that a monarch butterfly?"

Maria nodded. "Steve says we'll be able to see lots of them in September."

"We should take her to one of the parks to see them," Steve told Tony. "We could make a picnic of it like we did last year." He reached out brushing his fingers against Tony's hand.

Tony twined their fingers together remembering that day. It seemed like years ago. "We should do that." Tony agreed, hoping if just for Maria's sake that when September came that there would still be a 'we'.

"You're home early." Steve smiled and squeezed his fingers. Maria was watching them but more curiously then with any kind of tension. Tony hated that he was probably about to ruin that.

"Not for long. Steve, I have to go out of town tonight." He didn't want to mention the reason directly in front of Maria and hoped Steve would understand. "Jarvis will be here until just after dinner but --"

Steve's eyes were concerned but he didn't question, for which Tony was grateful. "We'll be fine, won't we Maria?"

Maria didn't answer. She was looking at Tony intently. If Tony hadn't known her and her expressions so well, he wouldn't have seen the anxiety there. "I'll be back tomorrow morning, Maria." Tony assured her, hoping that he wasn't lying. But the only thing that would prevent him from keeping that unspoken promise was dying and he had no plans of doing that -- not anymore. He let go of Steve's hand and kneeled closer to Maria. He brushed some of her hair back affectionately. "You'll have dinner with Steve, same as always, and go to bed same as always. Steve will be here if you need anything."

"I should go with you," Maria blurted out, then paled. "I mean won't you need me with you, Tony?"

Tony repressed a sigh and shook his head. "No, Maria. I need you to stay here with Steve. Can you do that for me?"

Maria nodded, her face carefully blank. "Yes, Tony."

"That's my genius. I'll be back tomorrow morning." He repeated to her. "We'll work on the ship model all tomorrow afternoon, just me and you." He hugged her briefly.

After a long moment, her arms tentatively went around him. Tony kissed her head again. He suddenly couldn't understand how Reed and Sue did it. How they could hug their children goodbye and pray to god that they weren't lying when they said they'd be home soon.

***

Overall, Steve had thought things had been going rather well that night. Maria had been subdued after Tony had left, but he'd managed to get her re-interested in coloring. Even if that had taken calling Hank, who'd been more than happy to explain that yes there were 'blue ants' but they were actually called Diamma bicolor and were in fact patristic wasps that lived in Australia.

Maria had kept Hank on the video-phone for almost an hour before Jan had cut in to 'steal her husband back'. Steve thought it wise to not comment that Hank wasn't actually her husband anymore, but he was glad to see that they were working things out.

He'd thought maybe they'd get through the whole night without anything happening, then maybe Tony wouldn't have to look so worried leaving Maria alone with him. Like Steve would hurt her or couldn't handle her.

Then dinner came, and Maria had stared at Tony's empty chair, picking at her food.

"Maria, eat," Steve had coaxed.

She didn't respond still staring at the chair, something like horror slowly dawning in her eyes.

"Maria," Steve reached across and touched her hand. "He'll be back in the morning."
Apparently, that had been the wrong thing to say.

Maria shook her head almost violently, pushing back from the table hard enough to tip over the chair. "No he won't! I - I -- what did I do wrong? What did I fail? I'm supposed to be with him! Did I fail? I'll do better, I promise! Please, I don't want a new CO. I want Tony. I want Tony!" From the sound of her voice, if she'd been any other child she would have been sobbing. Instead, the lack of tears made her sound more hysterical, almost out of control. "Tell me why he doesn't want me anymore!"

Her hands had curled into fists and Steve could almost feel the momentum gathering around her. He was on his feet almost by instinct. "That is enough, solider!" It was the voice he'd used with Bucky more times then he wanted to remember. Steve was aware of Jarvis watching with a frown, and he knew the other man disapproved of this tactic just as sure as he knew Tony would.

Maria jerked to attention, hands uncurling, and for a moment, Steve thought that was the end of it. He could deal with her in a calm manner. He could try to make her understand that Tony was coming back and she hadn't failed anything. Mostly Steve hoped he could keep his temper, because right now he wanted to hurt the people that could make a child think like this.

Then she'd jerked as if she was pulling herself out of something, and ran from the room.

"Shit," Steve hissed under his breath.

"That would be an understatement, Master Steven," Jarvis sighed from the doorway.

"Has she done this before?" Steve asked starting for the door. She'd probably wind up in her room, it would be a safety zone for her.

"Just once. It was quite an impressive tantrum. Anthony keeps claiming he means to talk to Professor Xavier about it but…" Jarvis gave a small shrug of his shoulders.

"But he'll probably never get around to it," Steve sighed. "Anything I should know?"

Jarvis managed a wan smile. "Be prepared to duck."

***

Against Jarvis' predictions, there was no need to duck when he reached Maria's room.

The lights were off and the room was quiet. He was fairly certain she was in there though. They would have heard the elevator and he doubted she would have ran to the gym.

The bed was empty and a quick check under the bed turned up nothing either. Frowning he wondered if maybe he should check Tony's room or study, when he noticed the closet door slightly open. And suddenly he was very sure of where she was.

During the war, Steve had helped evacuate an orphanage. Most of the children had been terrified and malnourished, though the Nun's caring for them had obviously tried their best. They'd flinched at every loud sound and they'd been terrified of Steve. They’d been terrified of all the soldiers. Before they'd left a Nun had come to Steve, telling him that one of the children was missing. Steve had found him eventually, huddled in small cubby hole under a set of stairs. The space was barely big enough for him. He hadn't spoken English, so Steve had coaxed him out in broken Polish.

Later the same, now very grateful, Nun had told Steve that little boy had been found hiding in a similar place after the German's had slaughtered his family.

"Maria, it's me." Steve said softly. "You aren't in trouble." And very slowly he pulled open the door.

Maria huddled in the corner of the closet, her knees up to her chest. Her face was hidden. She flinched when the closet opened but didn't look up. Her shoulders just shuddered with what Steve assumed were stifled sobs.

"Maria," Steve said softly, sitting down just outside the closet.

She pulled herself tighter into a ball.

"Maria, no one is angry at you," Steve kept his voice calm and soothing. "You aren't in trouble."

She shook her head, peering out at him with red eyes. "Tony left me here."

"That doesn't mean you're in trouble, or that he was angry with you," Steve assured her. "Why do you think you did something wrong?"

She raised her head a bit more and that was at least a start. "He didn't take me with him."
"And that means you failed somehow?" Steve asked gently.

Maria nodded, blinking back tears. "He doesn't need me."

Steve racked his brain for a way to explain this, to make her understand. "Maria..."
"I don't want to be replaced with one of the others," she whispered. Her shoulders shook and a sound like a sob escaped her lips. Maria hid her face again against her legs.

"No one is going to be replaced. You are not replaceable to Tony. He doesn't want any little blonde girl for a daughter; he wants you and only you." Steve told her. He reached out, ready to draw back if she reacted badly, and brushed her hair. "He loves you dearly. And when Tony Stark loves something or someone he doesn't just stop." Steve almost started to laugh as he realized what he'd said.

And what it meant.

Tony Stark didn't just stop loving people. If Tony, by his own words, had loved Steve before the mess with registration, then he'd still loved Steve even when they were at each other's throats during the worst of the fighting. Which meant Tony had loved him when he thought Steve was dead.

Tony Stark still loved Steve Rogers.

If it hadn't been for Maria he would have laughed at his own stupidity.

Maria hadn't spoken but Steve hadn't expected her too. He stroked her hair listening to her muffled sobs, knowing it spoke to how upset she was that she was crying aloud. Finally, the noises softened and Steve felt confident enough to speak to her again. "Do you want to come watch a movie with me?"

Maria lifted her head to look at him. "Are you angry with me?" She didn't move from her spot against the wall.

Steve shook his head. "No."

"Are - are you going to tell Tony that I…"

He brushed a stray tear from her face. "I'll make you a deal, you come out of there and watch a movie with me, and I won't tell Tony about this."

"Promise?"

"Promise." He held his hand out to her, holding his breath.

After a few moments, Maria crawled out, taking his hand.

***

When Tony entered the penthouse in the early am hours, his body aching and tired as Extremis was slowly but surely putting him back together, he found Steve and Maria asleep on the couch.

He didn't need Jarvis to tell him later, or the video feed from Maria's room to show him, to know that something had happened.

***

"I'm taking Maria with me tomorrow to Oklahoma," Tony said quietly, watching Steve undress. He told himself it wasn't that he didn't trust Steve, that he understood why Steve wouldn’t tell him and why Maria wouldn't want him to know, but it still hurt and he was still angry. "Hank will run the tests on you while we're gone."

He was angry at Steve… at himself. He wanted to scream at Steve that he had no right. No right at all to hide things about Maria from him. But Tony didn't even have the right to say that...

Nevertheless, Steve couldn't be allowed to become so important to Maria. Or to Tony… not again. Not if this was all just going to fall apart, and Tony was painfully aware that Steve hadn't made a decision yet -- not about his future and not about whether that future had Tony and Maria in it.

He wanted to push Steve against the wall - - hit him, fuck him, kiss him. Tony closed his eyes for a moment. Wanted Steve to hit him, fuck him, kiss him until he stopped breathing, until everything just stopped.

He didn't want to love Steve as much as he did. Not if Steve didn't love him back. And Steve didn't love him back. Never had and probably never would. He'd loved Tony as a brother, as a friend, he'd slept with him, but he wouldn't love Tony like he had Sharon Carter or any of the other women Steve had loved. They could give him a home and a family that he wouldn't have to hide.

"Oklahoma? What's in Oklahoma?" Steve asked, pausing in the midst of unbuttoning his jeans. He didn't take the bait of Tony scheduling the testing without asking Steve first.
Tony crowded into Steve's personal space, running his fingertips down Steve's stomach.

"Something I need to do." Bypassing the open fly, he cupped Steve through the soft denim, feeling Steve harden and rise.

Steve gasped softly. "Are you trying to distract me?" Steve asked, pulling Tony against him so that they were pressed bare chest to bare chest. Steve's thumb stroked along Tony's spine, turning Tony on more than such a simple touch should.

"Is it working?" Tony asked. He bit Steve's bottom lip then soothed it with his tongue.

The rough sound Steve made in the back of his throat was answer enough. Tony brushed his tongue along Steve's lips again but wouldn't let him have a kiss. He pushed Steve's jeans down his hips and was pleased to find nothing but skin under his fingers.

Steve hooked his own thumbs under the hem of Tony's boxer-briefs, then growled in frustration as Tony started to touch him everywhere. Everywhere but where Tony knew Steve wanted it. It was calculated, but Tony wanted Steve out of his mind. Wanted Steve gasping and out of control. He wanted them both to forget anything outside of this bedroom.

Tony's short nails raked across his stomach. Calloused fingers just barely brushed against Steve's nipples before sliding up across is collarbone.

Tony's mouth hovered inches from Steve, but he denied him a kiss. "Tony, please," Steve whispered, surging forward to try to capture Tony's mouth. Tony avoided him and Steve bit his shoulder instead, maybe a little too hard, maybe with a little too much of the anger and confusion that haunted them both and was bleeding through.

Tony wasn't completely successful at biting back a sound of pain. There was a livid bruise from the fight with the Doom bots that was still not fully healed by Extremis.

Steve pushed him back roughly, hands tight on Tony's shoulders. "Tony."

He was the one that pushed forward now to press his mouth to Steve's. Steve's strength held him in place.

"Tony." Steve repeated and this time Tony looked at him. It was then that Steve pulled him forward and kissed him, gently and tenderly. His hands were touching Tony everywhere, just as his own hands had teased Steve. But Steve's hands didn't tease, they soothed as much as they aroused. They weren't rough or demanding, and it felt like Steve was drawing on Tony's stomach with his finger tips.

Tony heard a sound caught between a sob and a moan, and realized it had come from his own throat. Steve kissed him again, walking them towards the bed. "Shhh," Steve murmured, pushing Tony onto the mattress.

Steve's hand curled around Tony's cock, giving him something to stroke again. Tony bit his bottom lip to contain the sounds he was making as he thrust shamelessly into Steve's unmoving hand. With his thumb, Steve tugged Tony's bottom lip from his teeth and rubbed across it.

"Fuck me," Tony begged, lifting his hips.

Steve shook his hand and kissed Tony's stomach, dipping his tongue into Tony's bellybutton.

Tony tried to bite the inside of his wrist as another sob welled up, but Steve caught his hand and pressed it against the bed.

"Please! Fuck me, Steve, please." Tony whimpered, still moving against Steve's hand.

"Not tonight," Steve told him, lying down next to Tony. His cock pressed against Tony's hip, hard and leaking.

This time Tony did sob. Steve began to move his hand, slowly and steadily, forcing Tony match his pace. "Why?"

Steve slipped his arm around the back of Tony's head and pulled him for a longer deeper kiss. Sucking on Tony's tongue like it was his cock. Steve's thumb rubbed over the leaking tip of Tony's member and Tony bucked upwards. He came in long spurts over Steve's hand.

And to Tony's surprise, Steve pressed against his hips once, twice, then cried out Tony's name as orgasm hit him.

They lay like that together, sweaty and sticky. Steve's fingers tracing designs across Tony's skin with sticky fingers.

"How long will you be gone?" Steve asked almost sadly.

Tony closed his eyes, wanting to turn his head to kiss Steve but he didn't. "Shouldn't be more than a day." If everything went well, if it didn't… Tony would deal with it when he got there.

"I'll miss you." Steve pushed himself up. "I'll miss both of you."

Tony watched as Steve walked to the bathroom and listened to the sound of running water. He covered his eyes with his arm.

He must have fallen asleep because he was suddenly tucked against Steve's chest, the room dark and quiet. "Steve?"

"Mhmm?" Steve sounded half-asleep and nuzzled the back of his neck.

"I love you."

Steve kissed his shoulder and draped an arm over Tony's hip. "I know."

Chapter Text

The flight to Oklahoma from New York was a short one; not as short as if Tony had been in his armor, but he didn't think going into this suited up was the best way to handle things. It was also partly why he was bringing Maria along with him. Her presence would neutralize any violence, or so he hoped.

And if he was being honest with himself, it was because he didn't want to leave her alone with Steve again. It was petty, and he knew that. After all, Steve had probably acted in what he thought best for the situation and it seemed to have turned out fine. So, Tony would just have to bite his tongue and not ask Steve what the hell had gone through his mind when he'd thought calling Maria solider was a good idea.

He still wasn't happy that he'd learned about it from Jarvis and the surveillance cameras, and not from Steve. To hell with promises, Maria was nine years old and Tony was the one responsible for her. Not Steve. Steve had been dead.

He glanced over at Maria who was paying no attention to him but intently reading one of the Harry Potter books Franklin had loaned her. Tony would have to get the full set for her if she enjoyed it.

Tony wondered briefly how this would have gone down if he hadn't had Maria. Rutgers had been pretty insistent upon him taking care of this personally. Rubbing the bridge of his nose, even though he knew it didn't help his headache, he remembered just how well that conversation had gone.

"Mr. Stark, so good of you to take my call," Rutgers' voice had oozed over the line, and Tony wondered again how no one had ever punched the gentleman from Arkansas in the face.

Tony had sighed, wishing he'd had a meeting - something - that could let him end this call now. But he was headed back to New York and the only thing he had planned was sleeping… possibly with Steve if he could drag the man back to bed. "Senator, what can I do for you?"

"I was wondering if you'd decided how best to handle the developing situation in Oklahoma. This issue needs to be addressed as soon as possible, you understand. The SHRA must be upheld after all."

Tony had been very grateful that Rutgers couldn't hear his actual voice. He hoped the Oklahoma situation would go unnoticed outside of Shield for a while longer. "I'll send someone to look into it."

"No, Mr. Stark, we would like you to look into it personally, and see about registering or arresting the individual or individuals."

"Rutgers, I'm a very busy man. I can't go around registering everyone in person. There are plenty of very competent and loyal people I can send in." Tony told him shortly.

Rutgers laughed. "Tony, I happened to see that very lovely Times article and photo shoot of --what's her name again? Maria? Very pretty young girl. I've heard it's boosted your popularity level both in and out of the superhero community. Now it would be a shame if somehow you were considered, how can I say it, unfit to raise her. How would that look if she had to be placed with a new family or disappeared altogether?"

If Tony had been holding a phone instead of using Extremis he probably would have thrown the phone. Hard. "Leave her alone, Rutgers."

"Now, Tony, I'm just concerned for her welfare and yours. After all you do have a rather -- unstable -- history."

Tony could see Stark Tower now and he fought the urge to push himself faster just to check on Maria. She was safe. She was fine. "Fine, but I do this my way. You and your people will have to accept whatever resolution I work out. Understand me, Rutgers?"

"Glad we could have this little talk. I look forward to seeing you next time you're in Washington."

Tony closed his eyes for a moment and leaned his head back against the seat.

"Tony?"

Tony opened his eyes and looked over at Maria. "Yes, Maria?"

He could see her debate whether or not to continue. "Are you --" she stopped, seeming to search for a word. "-okay?" She looked slightly frustrated, as if she couldn't figure out how to ask what it was she really wanted to know.

He almost smiled; two weeks ago she never would have asked such a question. "I'm fine, Maria. Just tired."

Maria seemed to accept this. She cocked her head to the side, regarding Tony for a long moment. Tony often wished he knew what she was looking for when she looked at him like that. "Why are we going to Oklahoma?"

Tony didn't let himself break her gaze, though he wanted to. "To see an old friend."

***

Steve hated medical tests. He'd gotten used to them during training for the super solider program, but he'd never liked them.

Doctors made him nervous, a holdover from childhood memories of illness and his parents' fights about where the money would come from to take him to the doctor. It was probably remarkable that he could still remember his mother arguing that she would get a job to help cover the bills.

Steve trusted Hank, and he'd been through tests like this before, but he just wanted this over. He wanted to know for sure that he was Steve Rogers, not a skrull or an LMD; he wanted to be sure he wasn't going to hurt Tony -- again -- or Maria.

They were in one of the labs at Stark Industries. Tony had arranged it so that the floor was cleared. Only he, Jan, Hank, and Carol could access the lab. Steve wasn't sure why Carol was on that short list, but she seemed to be Tony's second in command these days. Tony insisted that Carol was the leader of the 'Mighty Avengers', but Steve knew Tony too well. The man was a control freak even if he didn't mean to be.

"So where's the kiddo?" Hank asked.

Hank's question pulled Steve from his thoughts. "With Tony," Steve told him, not really wanting to talk about it. It hurt a bit that Tony suddenly didn't trust him with Maria anymore. Okay, that was unfair. Even if Tony knew about Maria's tantrum, Tony taking Maria with him had more to do with the fact that Tony wanted to spend time with his daughter than not wanting her to spend time with Steve. At least Steve hoped. He and Tony hadn't exactly talked about it.

"Isn't he out of town?" Hank asked absently, his attention on the computers as they ran the tests.

"He is, in Oklahoma of all places." Steve said after a moment's hesitation. Tony hadn't talk about the trip as if it were secret. "Maria didn't react very well to Tony going out of town without her last time."

"So now he's going to try to take her everywhere, brilliant." Carol sighed from the doorway.

Steve turned his head to look at her. "Hello, Carol."

Carol gave him a small smile, regarding him carefully. She probably still didn't believe Steve was the real thing. "Where did Tony drag her off to? A board meeting in California?"

"He didn't exactly drag her. Maria was thrilled to go with him," Steve told him, not sure why he was defending Tony to Carol. "She adores Tony."

Her face softened. "I know. I was teasing, Steve. I'm actually glad he's not here at the moment, I was hoping to talk to you alone." She leaned against the wall behind her. "You should know what Tony was like after…before Maria."

"And you want to talk now?" Steve asked, raising an eyebrow.

Carol shrugged. "Seemed as good a time as any. Tony's not around to obsessively not watch the cameras, and you’re a captive audience." She grinned at him. "Where are Tony and Maria today anyways?"

"Oklahoma," Hank put in. "Hopefully no one is singing there."

Carol's jaw dropped. "Tony took her with him to Oklahoma? Is he insane? Why not just take her into a war zone. That stupid cocky son of a bitch!"

Steve eyes widened slightly at her reaction. "Carol, what is in Oklahoma?" Steve demanded. He couldn't imagine Tony putting Maria in any sort of harm.

"A God who probably hates Tony," Carol replied.

***

Tony could see Asgard floating ahead of them and slowed the rental car. Maria was sketching in the backseat, and hadn't that been fun convincing Maria that no, Tony did not need her in the passenger seat and that her safety was more important, therefore she would be sitting in the back.

Maria glanced up and he could see her eyes widen as she saw the city. "Ever see a floating city before, Maria?"

Maria shook her head. "Tony? How is it staying up?"

Tony laughed. "Given who's involved, I'd say magic. Don't try to figure it out; you'll give yourself a headache, genius. God knows I always did when it came to these things."

"Magic? Like in my book?"

Tony shook his head as he pulled off to the side of the road. He wanted to do the rest of the approach by foot, leaving Maria in the car just in case. "Not quite. I doubt he has a magic wand. A hammer maybe."

"A hammer?"

"You'll see. That is if he's up to a visit. I suspect if you ask him he'll tell you about it." Tony rolled down the windows and turned off the car. "Maria, I want you to stay in the car."

"No!" Maria protested. "I mean, Tony, I should go with you. You'll need me."

Tony got out of the car and leaned Maria’s open window. "No," he told her firmly. "You will stay here, Maria. That is not a request. I will come back to the car and get you after I've made sure we're welcome." He wasn't sure what was going to be said, but Maria didn't need to hear it.

"Tony." Maria scrambled out of her seatbelt and grabbed his hand. "Please let me come with you." Tony had never seen her eyes so wide.

He reached through the window and stroked her hair affectionately. "I'll be back soon, genius, I promise. But I need you to stay here for right now. Can you do that for me for me, Maria?"

Maria nodded slowly. "I can do that," she told him.

Tony pressed a kiss to his fingers then touched his fingers to her forehead. "I'll be back soon," he repeated.

He was aware of Maria watching him as he started across the field towards the floating city of Asgard. He didn't make it far before the son of Odin landed in front of him.

"Hello, Thor." Tony greeted him. "We need to talk."

Thor was silent with his hand on his hammer, his eyes watching Tony.

Tony held his hands out as if to show he was unarmed, but Thor knew him well enough to know his armor could be easily called. "Before I start the formalities, I just wanted to say that I'm glad to see you alive. Your presence has been sorely missed."

Thor's face was impassive.

"Not even a hello?" Tony hadn't expected one, but it would have been nice. "We used to be friends…for a long time."

Thor still didn't speak.

"Fine. I'll just get to the formalities then. Things have…changed since you've been gone. Things are…" Tony sighed. Maybe this would have been easier in his armor. "You either work with the government or you’re against it, there isn't room for middle ground anymore. I wish there was but this is the way it is now. I'm sure we can work something out to make everyone happy. I just need you to say you aren't going to side against the government. So, what do you say?"

Tony knew he'd said the wrong thing as the air began to crackle. Clouds seemed to come out of nowhere blocking out the sun.

"Yes, things have changed. You have given hunt to those we once fought beside. Killed or imprisoned those who opposed you."

Lighting struck near Tony.

"Surely this would be offense enough, but you went further. You took my genetic code without my permission and knowledge, and used it to create an abomination."

Tony flinched, not only at Thor's words - he couldn't deny them since they were true - but at the lightning that struck even closer.

"And you told the world it was me. You defiled my body, betrayed my trust and violated everything that I am! Is THIS how you define friendship? Is it?"

Tony took a step back and Thor moved closer, brandishing the hammer, lighting crackling around them both. A third blast knocked Tony from his feet.

"IS IT?"

"Thor, I'm sorry for what was done, but you don't know the whole story here. I didn't come here to force you to register…"

"Tony!" Maria’s voice sounded horrifyingly close.

Tony’s head whipped around away from the enraged god, towards Maria who was suddenly right there.

Maria came to a stop standing over Tony with fists clenched. Her teeth were bared at Thor as if she could stand between his wrath and Tony. She didn’t know that Thor wouldn't have brought that hammer down. "You aren't going to harm Tony." He could hear her young voice straining as she yelled, could hear the fear in it.

The lighting died as if it had never been.

"Won't let you hurt him," Maria repeated sounding like she was sobbing, her shoulders jerking.

Tony scrambled up and gathered her into his arms. She clung to him, tears running down her face. "Shh, it's okay, it's okay. He wasn't going to hurt me." He held her tighter and stroked her hair. "My brave little genius." Even with Extremis pouring in data, and a call from Carol that he probably should answer, all Tony could think of was how she could have died.

"Tony."

Tony looked up from Maria at Thor. The god was watching him closely, his hammer sheathed at his back again.

"I believe you said we needed to talk," Thor said. "I think we should do so inside, at which time you can introduce me to your very courageous little protector."

He mentally muted Carol's call - which could wait since it most likely involved her yelling at him -and considered Thor's offer. Maria was still shaking slightly, though she'd calmed down quite a bit.

Tony wiped away some of Maria's tears. "What do you think?" he asked her softly.

Maria looked back at Thor, her eyes accusing. "He might attack you again."

Thor looked almost guilty which surprised Tony. "I will not. I give you my word, little one; I will not harm you or Tony while you are both in Asgard."

"What happened was a…misunderstanding, Maria. Thor wouldn't have struck me, and he had every right to be angry at me," Tony told her. Thor seemed calmer now, and Tony could see he'd gone about things the wrong way. He should have been apologizing for what he and Reed had done before all else.

Tony was almost certain that Maria was about to refuse, when Maria nodded after studying Thor for a long moment. Whatever she saw must have satisfied her. "You were an Avenger. There's a picture in the penthouse." Tony wasn't sure if she was stating why she was accepting Thor's word or simply stating a fact. He wondered briefly if Jarvis, Jan, or Steve had told her any stories about those days, or if she simply recognized the god from Steve's sketch on the living room wall.

Tony watched as Maria peered up at the city. He could almost see her curiosity eating her up. "Thor, sir? Can I ask you a question?" she finally asked Thor.

"You may," Thor said looking slightly amused. Which Tony thought was a vast improvement on looking like he would like very much to beat the shit out of Tony.

"How does the city stay floating like that?"

Chapter Text

Maria had been hesitant to leave Tony's side once they were in the floating city called Asgard. Tony had assured her that he'd be fine and that there were matters he needed to speak privately about with Thor. A tall blonde woman named Kelda had offered to show her around the city, and both Tony and Thor had seemed –grateful-- Maria guessed was the right word.

Kelda was -- well her skin seemed to shimmer in the sun, and Maria had to keep herself from staring.

She didn't like leaving Tony's side; he might need her protection again. Tony might say Thor hadn't planned to strike but she'd seen the hammer raised. It had made her -- she couldn't explain it and didn't know the words. She'd seen the lightening and heard a booming voice. She'd seen Tony fall, and her chest had felt tight and her legs hadn't seemed to move fast enough. She'd felt --

Fear.

She'd been afraid for Tony.

Her actions had been foolish and she'd disobeyed a direct order. And maybe even worse than that, she had cried. She’d cried out in the open where anyone could see. Crying got you isolation or worse. It was a sign of weakness and one of the worst tells she could give. Tony never seemed to care about tells, and he'd never given her isolation or any sort of serious punishment, but disobeying an order and crying would have to receive some comment.

Or at least she'd thought that when beyond all expectations the god seemed to back down -- they'd been told in the Complex that some would balk at striking children and to use that to their advantage – Tony, instead of yelling at her, had done the hugging thing.

Maria peered over the edge of one of the walls and tried to estimate the distance to the ground. She swung up onto the ledge and got to her feet, walking along the edge. Kelda didn't object though Maria was aware of her gaze.

After going a little ways she sat, dangling her legs over the edge. Heights had never bothered her, and she was sure enough of her balance not to fear even such a distance as this one.

The situation didn't make sense, no matter how she looked at it. Tony claimed the man -- or god she suspected was more appropriate to call him -- had been a friend and she'd seen the picture hanging in the penthouse.

It was one of Steve's drawings, and she could remember Steve naming each person in the picture for her. He'd spoken of Thor in the past tense and mentioned his passing, but Thor seemed very much alive to her.

"And that doesn't make sense at all. When you die, you stay dead," Maria whispered to a raven that had come to rest near her. It cocked its head to the side as if considering her words.

"Sometimes things do not work in the ways we think they will."

Maria blinked then realized the raven hadn't spoken to her. She titled her head and realized Kelda was sitting on her other side. "I don't understand." She wanted to though.

Not just to make sense of Thor but of Steve as well.

Kelda smiled. "I thought once that I had come to the end of all things. Yet here we sit."

Maria frowned, that made even less sense. What was the end of all things supposed to mean? "But when you die, you're supposed to stay dead. Before I left the Complex no one ever came back from the dead. You weren't supposed to." Maria couldn't have been the only one of the oth -- of her sisters to sometimes wish for it. No more tests, no more lessons. Death was supposed to be quiet, to be rest. Wasn't it?

"Do you know of those that have died but come back?" Kelda asked.

She nodded after a moment. "Steve and Thor."

"So then some do escape death." Kelda gestured to the city as if to include it and all its inhabitants in her words. "Rules can be re-written and broken child, do not cling to them for all your answers."

Maria looked away from Kelda's gaze and back to the raven that was looking at her quizzically. "Then how do you know what to follow?"

"By looking within." Kelda's touch was light on her shoulder.

Looking within, what? It made even less sense, or maybe more sense -- Maria really couldn't tell at the moment -- then everything else had. She wished she could talk to Franklin. He'd find the logic in all of this. She even suspected the raven would be more understandable if it could talk, but ravens weren't capable of speech.

"Come. There is much more to see and several that knew your father that would like to meet you."

The raven flew away and Maria climbed off the wall. "Tony isn't my father, Lady Kelda," she explained.

"I know."

***

Tony sat looking at Thor's back wondering if his former friend even heard him. "It would put Asgard and anyone who lives here outside the Jurisdiction of the registration act, and give you diplomatic immunity." Tony finished explaining, hoping Thor would agree. "It would allow my superiors to not lose face, and that would be necessary to sell this. Would this work for you?"

The silence was heavy and long. Tony resisted pulling up access to one of the high-res imaging satellites to locate Maria in Asgard. Thor had given his word on her safety and Tony believed it. It didn't mean he liked having her so far from him when she still must be so confused and shaken. She'd put on a strong front and seemed to accept Thor's promises of safety for them both, but she'd clung to his hand, reluctant to leave his side.

And Tony had never seen her cry before.

"It will suffice."

Tony nodded, half surprised it could be as easy as that. He almost laughed at himself. Easy. All it had taken was facing the wrath of a god and scaring Maria half to death. "I would have preferred to leave you be," he said after a moment’s consideration, "but my hand was forced."

Thor's head turned slightly towards him.

"I don't expect you or anyone one else to understand why I've done all this, but if we had all fought against registration things would be so much worse. I'd rather have former friends hate me and still be alive then…" Tony wasn't sure why he was telling Thor any of this… maybe because Thor deserved an explanation. "What was done to you - it is unforgivable, but we had to use someone. You were dead and if not you, they would have made us use someone. Reed wanted to protect his family and I - I'd already sold out all my principles so what was the rest of my soul?"

Tony looked at his hands for a moment. "And part of me hoped if we could bring back your body…" he trailed off.

"That my essence would return as well." Thor finished.

Tony didn't look up but nodded. It sounded foolish when put into words, but things had been so dark in those days that any bit of hope was something to cling to. And that was before he'd known just how bad things could get, when he'd been forced to take the loss of the one person he wasn't prepared to loose, Steve. "I've done so many things for which I can never be forgiven."

Just because Steve was alive didn't make the agony of those long days before and after his 'death' any easier to cope with. It didn't make his failure to be able to protect Steve any more forgivable.

"I am not sure if you can be forgiven for your violation of my person and a friendship I once highly valued," Thor said. "But I think it is a discussion that we should have another time."

Tony got to his feet because that was a dismissal if he'd ever heard one. "I'll collect Maria and go."

Thor turned around completely and shook his head. "Stay and take supper with us." Thor smiled slightly. "Kelda is still showing Maria about the city, and it would not do to interfere with their enjoyment. Mortals have fascinated Kelda of late. I suspect she is enjoying talking with the girl."

"Maria isn't exactly a normal mortal child." Tony managed to chuckle. Maria would never be anything close to normal, but as long as she was happy, Tony didn't care. Still, it wouldn't do for a goddess to think Maria was the norm when it came to children's behavior.

"Be that as it may," Thor told him. There was a trace of true amusement on Thor's face. "In addition, there is something I do wish to speak to you about."

Tony kept his face expressionless. "About?"

"How you came into possession of that child."

***

"Tony is an idiot sometimes," Carol declared.

Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. She'd been grumbling about Tony since she'd gotten a hold of him and chewed him out. Steve had to admit he was impressed by her ability to give someone a dressing down over the phone. Hell Nick Fury would have been proud.

Still it was starting to grate on his already frayed nerves. Granted, he could breathe a lot easier knowing that Tony and Maria were safe. Plus it was reassuring that Hank's tests had proved he was who he he said he was. He could have kissed Hank if he hadn't thought it might give the man a complex. Hank really didn't need anyone adding to his issues. So instead he'd thanked him, and returned to the penthouse to wait for Tony to return.

Only Carol had followed, intent on talking to him, and was currently pacing and muttering about Tony.

The problem was that Steve wasn't sure he wanted to hear how Tony had been before Maria, which Steve was learning was code among Tony's friends for 'after Steve had died'. Steve didn't want to know if Tony had cried at his funeral or what he'd said. He didn't want to know if Tony had started drinking again.

He wanted to deal with processing that yes he was Steven Rogers, son of Sarah and Joseph Rogers. That he could trust himself. It didn't make it easier in trying to separate the person of Steve from that of Captain America, but it did allow him to trust his memories. He still had a lot to think about; a lot to decide, and maybe he needed to work through it while Tony and Maria were gone.

It was so much easier to distract himself with arguing with Tony, with touching Tony, then dwelling on whether he wanted the shield again. And if he wanted the shield, was it because Captain America wanted his shield returned or because Steve Rogers wanted to continue being Captain America, and whether the two things were actually one in the same.

Maria, and everything he knew Tony wasn't saying, was an easy escape too. So much easier to try and figure out how her mind worked than to figure out his own. And why think about how he survived his wounds and being thrown into the Hudson when he could wonder about why Tony never elaborated on the weapon program Maria came from.

Steve had met X-23 so it was easy to wonder whose genetics made up Maria. He rubbed his hand over his face and then it hit him.

Tony had taken Maria with him to meet Thor. Carol had been worried, visibly so. It couldn't have been over Maria's safety because Thor would never harm a child and he wouldn't just attack Tony. Carol seemed to think Maria had brought some positive change in Tony --

He could be wrong though, and he owed it to Tony to ask him directly. And if Tony didn't return with Maria, Steve wanted to think about that less then he wanted to think about how his 'death' affected Tony.

"Carol do we have to do this tonight?" Steve asked.

Carol hesitated. "Steve," she sighed and sat down on the couch. "Yes, yes we do have to do this tonight. I might not get another chance to talk to you like this."

Steve repressed a sigh. "Fine."

"Don't sound so petulant," Carol told him. "I wouldn't be telling you if I didn’t think it was important. You need to know how...I thought we were going to lose him, Steve. Every time he went up against a doom bot or whatever villain of the week we seemed to face he'd…" she stopped for a moment, collecting her thoughts. "He didn't hold back. He'd throw himself at whatever it was with everything he had without seeming to have one single thought of his own welfare."

"Carol, he's always been like that," Steve protested. At least Tony had almost seemed like that to him. How many times had they'd fought over Tony putting Steve's life over his own?

She shook her head. "Not like this. He wanted to die. I really think he did. If I hadn't known him so long I might not have seen it but…drinking would have been easier to deal with. And I feel horrible for even thinking that let alone saying it out loud. He wasn't sleeping and I'm pretty sure he wasn't eating as much as he should have been." She stared at a picture of the original Avengers on the wall. "I tried to help him, but he's never been able to talk to me like he did with Pepper or you."

Steve remembered how tired and worn Tony had looked when he'd first arrived at the penthouse and shuddered. "He was trying to do everything."

Carol nodded. "And with Extremis he could. He had to take care of everything himself, and let those bastards in Washington drag him down further. There were days I wasn't sure if it'd be death by super-villain, or if he'd just disconnect his mind from his body altogether."

"And no one did anything?" Steve demanded, horrified that no one tried to talk to Tony. That no one had forced him to eat, to sleep, to take a break.

"You know what Tony can be like and…" Carol looked over at Steve. "Tony doesn't have many friends left these days, Steve. A lot of people hate him because of you."

"Because of me? Why?" Steve couldn't accept that. Why would people hate Tony for Steve's sake, when Steve himself had never hated Tony?

Carol’s eyes darted away. "There are people that blame him for your death in general, and some that think he directly set it up."

Steve got to his feet pacing. "Tony would never do that. How could people think that? Surely, those like Spider-Man and the other Secret Avengers don't believe that garbage?"

"I don't know. It's not like Jessica Drew sends me email updates," Carol snapped. "Sorry, you didn't deserve that. Steve, you just have to understand that even people that have registered hate Tony. He didn't have a lot of people left to notice he was… as bad as he was. Plus Tony is good at hiding things… you know that."

Steve did know that. How long had Tony been killing himself with the bottle before Steve noticed? "I wouldn't have wanted people to hate him for my sake."

"I know." Carol sighed. "If it helps, things have gotten better. Taking in Maria has softened many people to him. She's been good for him."

"He didn't take her in as a PR stunt," Steve growled.

Carol rolled her eyes. "I wasn't saying he did. She gave him something to survive for Steve, and he needed that." She got to her feet and stopped his pacing with a hand on his arm. "Has he told you why he took her in?" she asked, once he finally looked at her.

"To protect her," Steve said wondering why Carol was asking. Carol knew after all didn't she? "Tony said she was part of a weapons project."

She sighed and patted his arm. "Yeah, that's pretty much what he told me." She looked like she wanted to say more before she shook her head. "I should go. Simon will be waiting for me."

"How is Simon?" Steve asked, trying to remember if he and Carol had been together before the fighting had started.

Carol smiled. "He's good." She blushed a little but kept smiling. "By the way, congratulations on being you."

Steve laughed. "Thanks, I think."

After Carol left, Steve retreated to the gym. He was glad Tony wasn't going to be home for a while; he needed to think before he saw the other man.

***

Jan had pried most of what happened in the lab from Hank as they settled into bed.

Hank would be the first to admit that perhaps they'd moved too fast by moving back into together so soon. Still, he'd missed his wife. He'd missed Jan's presence in his life despite the fact he knew he didn't deserve her. Hank knew he was still a mess and even on medication would never be completely -- okay. He should let Jan have a chance to find someone that would never under any circumstance hit her or go psychotic.

He wouldn't though. He loved her too much to turn down another chance with her.

"Never mind that I want to know why Carol got to know Thor was back before we did -- its not like we've known him longer or were friends for years -- but what did Carol think Thor would do?" Jan snorted. "I can't see him actually trying to hurt Tony and he'd never hurt a child."

"Thor does have some very strong reasons to be angry with Tony, Jan," Hank pointed out, reaching out to stroke Jan's shoulder. He needed to touch her sometimes, as if to assure himself she was there. He couldn’t explain it and he was sure it grated her but he just needed that tactical connection.

Jan leaned into the touch. "Tony loves that little girl, he'd never put her into jeopardy."

Hank nodded in agreement. "Not consciously, but with Steve back he might not be thinking clearly. At least Carol could think that." He hurried to add.

"But this is Thor we're talking about, not Doctor Doom. Thor has always been one of the good guys," Jan sighed.

"People change, Jan," Hank said softly.

"Maybe. But it worked out fine. Tony is fine and so is Maria." Jan wrapped an arm around him and rested her head on his shoulder. "How did the lab work go?"

Hank smiled slightly as she changed the subject. "The man currently calling himself Steve Rogers, is in fact Steve Rogers. Tony didn't need me to tell him that though, he'd already made up his mind."

"A lot of us had. Tony believed it so firmly, I had to believe it." Jan agreed. "You know how Tony has always been over Steve."

Hank hesitated debating whether to ask before deciding to go ahead with it. "Jan, has Tony told you who Maria's genetic donor was?"

Jan shook her head. "No, I just assumed, well I mean it seems obvious doesn't it? How many people would Tony take in the female clone of like he did?"

"Technically Maria isn't a female clone." Hank couldn't stop himself from correcting. "A clone is an exact copy of the person's DNA. If the original is male and the 'copy' female, that the copy while created from the exact same DNA, cannot be properly called a clone. Maria is --"

Jan laughed. "I think I get it."

Hank flushed slightly. "Sorry."

"Don't be, you're cute when you get carried away talking about science," Jan told him. She tapped his nose then kissed him as she climbed into his lap.

Hank knew he was being distracted but he really couldn't bring himself to care. Conversations about Tony Stark could wait.

***

Maria had never seen so many stars before in her life. Standing in one of the quiet courtyards of Asgard, she sat crossed legged on the ground gazing upwards. She was sure you couldn't see the stars like this from the Penthouse in New York, and at the Complex you never saw the sky.

She suddenly wished one of her sisters could be with her. She must have been close to one or two of them, right? It seemed to be how things worked.

Franklin had Val. Kelda seemed to have many brothers and sisters. Even the raven seemed to have brother or sister raven. So, the other girls that wore her face must be her sisters. She missed them after all. She wished they could see this sky with her.

Maybe some of them were some place where they couldsee the sky. She hoped so.

The feast she and Tony had attended at been different, but good. There were so many people -- gods, she supposed -- and she didn't see another child among them.

Maria had been fussed over by several golden haired women along with Kelda at dinner. In fact, she'd been the interest of quite a few people all day, which really didn't make much sense, but Maria was starting to accept that some places made no sense at all, and that Tony was right - she would get a headache if she thought about it too hard.

She did wish she knew whom they kept talking about when they spoke of her father. It certainly wasn't Tony and she'd given up trying to explain that she didn't have a father and that she and her sisters had been created probably from a random DNA sample. After she had tried that explanation it had lead to laughter.

All the attention at dinner had become too much and she'd slipped away. Tony had been deep in a conversation with Thor, so she didn't think he would notice or mind.

"I thought you might have escaped out here."

Maria turned her head and saw Thor standing close behind her. She scrambled to her feet. "I'm sorry, was I not allowed to leave?"

Thor smiled and Maria oddly felt at ease. "You're fine, child. Even gods have an end to their tolerance of being fussed over."

"Everyone is very nice," Maria said softly. "I just don't understand why they are all interested in me."

Thor regarded her carefully, and Maria tried not to fidget under his gaze. "You really do not know, do you?" Finally, Thor moved, kneeling down in front of her, taking the hammer from his back.

Maria held her ground, not looking away from Thor's gaze. "I protect Tony. I'm nothing important. He is."

"Would you do something for me, Maria?" Thor asked sitting the hammer in front of her. "Pick that up for me."

She hesitated for a moment, before reaching out and wrapping both her hands around the handle of the hammer. Maria wasn't sure she'd be able to lift it, but she tried anyways. To her surprise, it lifted easily.

"I think it's time for us to go."

Maria looked up and saw Tony walking across the courtyard. Thor took the hammer from her and slid it back into place.

Tony took Maria's hand and nodded to Thor. "Find out what you wanted to know?"

"I'm satisfied that you were speaking the truth," Thor responded. "We will talk again on other things."

Tony titled his head slightly. "I hope you can count me as a friend again one day."

"We will see."

Maria was confused but kept a hold of Tony's hand. She didn't understand what had just happened, or why the hammer seemed so important.

"Can we go home now?" she asked Tony.

***

Maria had fallen asleep on the plane ride back to New York and Tony had let her sleep. He had too many phone calls to return and too many emails. One voice mail from J. Jonah Jameson wanting to do an article of Maria he had ignored for the time being.

Maria woke up somewhat for the car ride to the penthouse but Tony had wound up carrying from the car to the penthouse despite her sleepy protests and mumbling something about ravens. By the time, they'd reached the penthouse she'd fallen back asleep.

Steve had been waiting for him in the living room and had nodded when Tony put a finger to his lips. Tony carried her into her bedroom, laying her down on her bed.

"Need some help?" Steve whispered, joining Tony.

Maria shifted slightly but stayed asleep.

"Could you get her nightshirt?" Tony whispered back as he took her shoes off.

Together they managed to change Maria into her nightgown without waking her up completely. She'd opened her eyes once, but drifted quickly back when her sleep filled eyes took in that Steve and Tony were there.

Tony tucked her in and kissed her forehead. He watched as Steve affectionately brushed her hair back from her face. Tony wanted to stand watching over her for a while longer, but Steve took his hand and tugged him from the room.

"Tony, we need to talk," Steve said quietly.

He closed his eyes and resisted the urge to rub his forehead. It never helped.

Steve hesitated, then wrapped his hand around the back of Tony's neck and stroked his thumb over Tony's skin. "I do have something that I want to tell you first. All of Hank's tests have been conclusive so far. I'm Steve Rogers. I'm who I think I am."

Tony managed a real smile for Steve. He didn't need to know that Hank had called Tony a few hours ago, and it only confirmed what Tony already believed. "I didn't need tests to tell me that, Steve." He rested his forehead against the other man’s. "But you’re right, we need to talk."

***

By unspoken agreement, they avoided the bedroom as a place to talk. Going into the bedroom would wind up with one of them pressed against a wall, not that Tony would object to that but sex wasn't going to solve anything.

Tony would have rather retreated to his personal lab but if they couldn't sit down and talk in the living room calmly and like the adults they pretended to be -- then there was nothing either of them could do to make this work.

"Do you want to go first?" Tony asked as they sat across from each other.

Steve looked at his hands. "I had a talk with Carol tonight."

Tony’s back stiffened and he had to keep himself from pulling up all the feeds from the penthouse from that evening. He would let Steve tell him at his own pace. "About?" It would be so easy to connect himself to Carol's line and ask her himself but she'd probably just yell at him again. He couldn't keep Steve all to himself. The man had every right to talk to anyone he wished without Tony needing to know the details.

"You," Steve said then smiled slightly. "I think she wanted to warn me about what I was getting myself into. She said you were in a bad way after I -- after you thought I died."

"I was fine. Carol worries too much," Tony protested. He had been fine, at least outwardly. He'd worked so hard at making sure no one knew he was falling apart. "I survived didn't I?" Tony asked.

Steve frowned and folded his arms over his chest. "Tony…"

Tony had to look away from Steve's gaze. "You were dead. I loved you and you were dead. It was my fault, and you were dead. How was I supposed to be?"

"Not trying to die," Steve said softly, reaching across to touch Tony's knee.

"I wasn't." Tony denied, covering Steve's hand with his own. He hadn't been trying to die; he'd just known what the value of his life was in comparison to so many others. And who would have missed Tony Stark? "I'm not suicidal. Despite what Carol might think after today." Tony smiled as if it were a joke.

Steve didn't smile back. "Why did you take Maria with you today?"

Tony felt a surge of guilt. "Because I'm an idiot." He pulled his hand from Steve's and rubbed his hand over his face. "I should have left her here safe with you. She could have been killed because I was a selfish coward."

"I thought you told Carol nothing happened? What happened? She looked unharmed --" Steve sounded like he wanted to be yelling.

Tony could read it in Steve's body language, the fear that something could have happened to Maria and forced himself to acknowledge that Steve might care about Maria just as much as he did.

"She is unharmed, but it could have been a near thing," Tony admitted. He closed his eyes. "I know Thor wouldn't have struck her, or me, but she didn't know that."

"Why would Maria even think Thor would strike either of you?" Steve asked.

Tony almost smiled at the disbelief in Steve's voice. Of course, no one would ever think Thor would do such a thing, or anything 'bad' in fact. Tony was sure even Steve would think the worst if the positions were reversed.

"Thor wasn't pleased to see me. He was pissed actually and I can't really blame him." There was an email from one of Rutgers' lackeys wanting to know further details about the new status of Asgard sitting in his inbox. He was getting the impression that they weren't happy about how Tony had handled it, but Tony really didn't care. "Maria must have thought Thor was going to attack me instead of just remind me that ticking off a god is a bad idea. She got between us. Nothing happened, she was fine but upset, but I never should have had her there with me."

Steve was quiet for what felt like hours. "Did Thor calm down after Maria intervened?"

"I think her bravery at thinking she could take on a god to 'protect' me appealed to the warrior side of him. The rest of the meeting went fine. We managed to come to an agreement that doesn't involve anyone in Asgard to register." Tony sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I wish I could do that for everyone."

"I think you need to talk to her about this idea that she has to protect you. It might give her a sense of purpose but it isn't healthy." Steve had shifted closer to Tony. Close enough to rest his hand on Tony's back and rub circles.

Tony closed his eyes again, using the cameras to check on Maria. She was curled into her cocoon of blankets, seemingly fast asleep. "Is this the part of the conversation where you tell me about Maria's meltdown?"

Steve's hand stopped. "That's why you took her with you, isn't it? You don't trust me with her."

"I was angry, Steve. She's my responsibility and you hid this from me." Tony refused to look at Steve. "I shouldn't have had to find out from Jarvis and cameras. And while we're on the subject? Never, ever refer to her as solider again." The last part came out harsher than Tony had meant it.

The hand didn't leave his back but Tony felt it tense. "It worked, Tony. You might not like it but sometimes you might have to use her background like that. She was having a meltdown. Letting her scream and work herself up more wasn't going to help her." Steve said firmly. "Maybe if you had been there you could have handled it differently. But she was hysterical even after I got her to stop yelling. She thought you'd grown tired of her and were going to replace her, that there'd been other girls before her -- and so help me Tony don't ever let me near whoever did this to her because I will not be responsible for my actions."

"You'd have to get in line. They're mine first." Tony told him without a trace of humor. "Why didn't you tell me this? It should have been the first thing you told me when I got back. You should have called me. You can't hide things from me because you don't think I can handle them!"

"I promised her," Steve said softly. "She didn't want you to be angry or disappointed in her. It was the only way I could get her to come out."

Tony’s anger left in a rush leaving him feeling deflated and petty. "Oh."

Steve's finger hesitated then started making circles on his back again, working their way under his shirt. "I should have told you. I'm sorry."

Tony shook his head. "Don't be. You were keeping your promise."

"I think if this is going to work we're going to need to talk to each other more," Steve said, his fingers following Tony's spine.

How could they make anything work when Steve hadn't made a decision? Tony was used to things not working for him, was used to never getting what he wanted -- what he needed. He'd known even before the war that things with Steve would end one way or another because the good things never lasted for him. But Maria was starting to see Steve as something permanent, something that belonged in their lives. She didn't deserve to be hurt because of Tony's fucked up relationship track record.

And what if she wanted Steve more than him?

Tony forced himself to nod. "I want this to work."

Steve cupped a hand around the back of Tony's neck and drew him in for a tender kiss. Tony happily gave into it, exhaustion seeping into his limbs. "Tony what would you have done if I wasn't -- me?"

Gone crazy, Tony thought. "It couldn't have been anyone but you."

Maybe something had shown in Tony's eyes because Steve kissed him fiercely and possessively. "It could have been a double switch or a trick in the morgue. I still could have been someone else," Steve said when they broke the kiss.

Tony shook his hand and brought Steve's fingers to his lips. "I doubt even a Skrull could duplicate the way you draw or how calluses form on your fingers."

Steve flushed and his eyes were warm. "You knew it was me by my hands?"

"And everything else that makes you Steve Rogers." Tony got to his feet and pulled Steve along with him. "Someone with your face could have shown up in the uniform and fooled people into thinking he was Captain America, but he could never fool anyone that knew Steve Rogers."

With a soft growl, Steve captured Tony's mouth and walked them backwards to the bedroom.

Later, lying in tangled sheets with his head resting against Steve's damp chest, Tony reviewed his email and voice mail for anything that had to be dealt with that night. Steve was petting his hair in a way that was making it very hard to think, but part of the benefits and problems with Extremis was that he could check almost anything at anytime.

"Stop thinking," Steve ordered him, good humouredly.

Tony arched his head back into Steve's petting like a cat. "Just checking some things." He came across Jameson's voice mail again and sighed loudly. "I can't believe Jameson would think I'd give him access to Maria -- wait that just might work."

"What?" Steve asked, stroking Tony's ear lobe.

"I think I have a way to help Peter."

Chapter Text

Even if Maria hadn't asked him to come over in her email, Franklin was worried enough to go anyway. It wasn't like his parents would notice that he wasn't 'there', anyway.

Franklin knew Maria's room well, even though he'd never really been in it before. Not physically in the room, or even the penthouse, at least. Maria always visited him, never the other way around, and sometimes Franklin wondered if his parents were more afraid of him being at Tony's than Tony was of Franklin finding out about Captain America still being alive.

The real one.

Not the fake one with the gun -- and maybe that was unfair but Franklin didn't care. He'd done so much, tried so hard so that his family could be happy, so that his heroes could be happy. He hadn't known better then, but now he did. So it just made him angry that someone else just put on the uniform like it didn't matter who'd been there before. It made him scared that that could happen to anyone, Peter, his Uncle, his parents.

Maria was in the middle of her bed, knees drawn up to her chin. She wasn't crying, but Franklin had a feeling that was because she wasn't letting herself cry. Franklin knew all about that.

"You okay?" Franklin asked. It was a stupid question but he couldn't think of anything else.

She nodded, and then shook her head. "I don't know why I didn't understand they were a part of me."

Franklin sat down next to her on the bed, or at least projected himself sitting. Anyone who said Maria didn't talk much didn't know her at all, he'd decided a few weeks before. She talked tons if you listened. She didn't make sense half the time, but then, neither did his father.

"They wore the same faces. Same eyes. Same hair." She listed, biting off each word. "I didn't have the term for it. 'Sisters'. I should have known. I -- maybe I did know but I can't remember their names. Just D-7, and that isn't even a name."

"What happened to you today to make you think about this?" Franklin asked after several long moments, watching Maria try to pull herself together. She was shaking and he wanted to comfort her, hug her, but his touch would go right through her.

He almost didn't think she would say anything when she sat silently, staring at the Space Shuttle poster on her wall.

"I met Thor today." She fell silent again but pulled her attention away from the wall to Franklin.

Franklin sometimes wanted to just fix things. For Maria, for everyone. He could give her a nice happy life where she wouldn't be absolutely torn apart instead of a loss she barely understood. But she wouldn't be Maria then, she'd be someone else, and he'd seen what changing things like that could do. He'd seen what Wanda had done.

He'd blocked himself from those powers for a reason. No one should have the power to change things like that. It wasn't right.

Maria’s eyes held his and she started to talk. She poured out everything that had happened, about Thor, about Tony, about them fighting, and about the hammer. She told him how everyone at Asgard seemed to have brothers and sisters, and about her confusing conversation with someone named Kelda. The words tumbled out of her in a way that was almost painful to watch, and all Franklin could do was curl his arm around her and wish he could really touch her. By the time she'd told him, in halting words, about how Tony had gone away for a night, and what happened between her and Steve, she was crying in earnest.

Her shoulders hitched with little pent-up sobs, and all Franklin could think of was that he never seen her cry before.

"I'm sorry," Maria whispered finally, looking ashamed as she wiped her face. "I should have more control than this. I even cried in front of Tony. He should have reprimanded me for displaying such emotion."

Franklin was just overwhelmingly glad she said crying, because he'd half thought she say leaking or something, and he wasn't sure he could have handled her not even understanding crying. "Stop talking like that," he told her. "You're allowed to have emotions. Tony isn't going to be mad because you cried. You thought Thor was going to kill him."

"I don't want to lose Tony," Maria whispered. She unfolded her legs and pressed her hands into her lap. She might have leaned into his embrace slightly, but there wasn't really anything to lean into. "Or Steve."

"I don't want to lose my mom or dad either. I would have cried too."

Maria shook her head. "You're brave, Franklin. And you have powers. You wouldn't have cried."

"I have cried. I -- lost them once. They didn't really die but -- I thought they had. I cried." These were things that maybe they both should have talked to a grown up about. Franklin hadn't really talked to anyone about being in Hell, though he knew he probably should have, but what was he supposed to say 'Mom, I know you and Uncle Ben helped me through some of it, but can I talk to Professor Xavier because I have dreams about demons eating me?'

He probably should tell his mom about how convinced Maria was that she was there to protect Tony… that she thought her whole worth was as a tool. He should tell her just like he told her about Maria wanting a video game system, but that Maria wouldn't ask Tony herself(,) so could she please say something to Tony. But this wasn't a video game system, it was something Maria had trusted Franklin with and he didn't think people forcing her to talk would help her.

He wasn't sure anything really would. She'd never be normal, but neither would he. And as much as he wanted normal sometimes (sometimes more for his mom who wanted him and Val to have normal lives so badly) it was nice to have a friend who wasn’t normal, and never would be. Even the Power Pack kids had been more normal than him; they had normal parents. There was Luna, but he rarely saw her and she was just too young.

"Tony cried at Steve’s memorial, and Tony's pretty brave."

Maria blinked. "Tony cried?"

Franklin nodded. "It was on TV." Most things were, and no one in those long horrible days had really paid attention to see if Franklin was watching things he wasn't supposed to.

"You say that about everything," Maria pointed out.

Maybe he did, but many things were on TV. "Not about the Savage Lands. And I asked. Dr. McCoy, he says they count and he's been to the Savage Land."

Maria rolled her eyes. "So have Tony and Steve. The Savage Land is not in the middle of the planet so it doesn't count."

"Verne's source could have gotten there through underground tunnels and thought it was in the center of the earth." Franklin countered, wondering if she'd bring up the fact that it was a work of fiction and therefore it didn't matter what Verne's source said.

***

Reed watched as his son seemed to come back into his body, shut off his laptop, and climb into bed before he moved away from Franklin's bedroom door. He rubbed his forehead wondering if he should have said something as he walked to his and Sue's bedroom. But what would he have said?

Sue was asleep, curled up on his side of the bed, and Reed resisted the urge to sigh. He often wondered if she did that just to punish him for getting distracted in the lab and coming to bed several hours late. Tonight he felt more annoyed at himself for forgetting he'd told her he come to bed early than annoyed at her for taking his half of the bed.

Sometimes he envied Tony for being able to work for hours in his lab and perhaps just sleep there if he wanted to without anyone getting upset with him, then he'd remember that Tony Stark didn't have anyone to get upset at him.

Reed slipped into bed beside his wife, trying to imagine his life without Sue and their children. He loved her, he loved their family, even if he was bad at showing it, and he knew his life would be empty and cold without them in it. It was why he was always secretly afraid Sue would go out one day and just not come back. Even Namor could offer her more than he could.

It wasn't that he didn't try to give Sue what she needed, but often he just didn't understand what it was she wanted from him or what he done this time to upset her.

"Stop thinking so loudly," Sue murmured, turning over and wrapping her arms around him.

"Sorry," Reed said automatically. "You're in my spot."

Sue kissed his shoulder. "It hasn't been your spot since I was pregnant with Val," she reminded him. "Is Franklin asleep?"

He blinked. That was right wasn't it? He'd forgotten they'd rearranged the bedroom around that time. "He is now."

"He had to get your sleeping habits, didn't he?" Sue asked on the backside of a yawn.

Reed skimmed his fingers along her back. Sometimes he wanted to just wrap himself around her until he covered her completely, just to make sure she knew how much he needed her. "I think the trade off is more than fair since he has your heart," he told her but she was already asleep.

***

The sun was barely up but Steve was wide-awake. Tony had been awake only a few minutes and that was mostly Steve's fault.

Steve traced patterns on Tony's stomach as they lay on their sides, wondering if he could convince Tony to play hooky and stay in bed for most of the day. There were several flaws with that plan since Tony could start doing business calls with his brain, and Maria would come looking for them eventually. Steve wasn't sure what was more horrifying a thought -- Maria walking in on them having sex, or Shield sending someone in because Director Stark was late for work.

"I can't believe you’re Director of Shield." Steve murmured.

"Neither can Maria Hill. Want the job?" Tony asked, leaning his head back against Steve's shoulder.

"I'd rather be under Fury's direct command again," Steve snorted.

He could almost feel Tony rolling his eyes. "I'd rather have Fury take the job back."

"So would a lot of people, I bet. It's kind of strange not having Fury at least trying to snap orders at me."

"I think we need to get you a mental evaluation." Tony laughed as Steve's fingers hit a ticklish spot on his side.

 

Steve blinked, that had come out of nowhere. "What? Why?"

Tony rolled over and pushed Steve flat on his back. "Because you just expressed nostalgia for Nick 'Motherfucking' Fury yelling at you. If that doesn't make you unhinged, I don't know what does." Tony was grinning as he straddled Steve's hips.

It was obvious that more than just Tony was 'up' at this early hour. Tony's hard cock lay curled against his stomach. Steve's twitched in response to the sight, and he gripped Tony's hips as he swelled with arousal. "Unhinged would be taking Fury's job."

Tony shifted forward, rubbing his cock against Steve's. "Unhinged would be Dugan. If we didn't have a new helicarrier he'd probably glare every time I tried to move anything in the Director's office because it would piss Fury off if he came back and things weren’t like he left them. Are we sure they weren't dating?"

Steve laughed. "That's the second most horrifying visual I think I've ever had." He leaned up and tugged Tony down for a long wet kiss.

Tony's tongue slid wetly against his as Steve fell back against the bed. "What's the first?" Tony asked. He slowly licked his palm before rubbing it over the head of Steve's cock.

Groaning, Steve bucked up into the touch. He slid his hand from Tony's hip to the small of his back, then down lower, and brushed his fingers against Tony's hole. Tony was still slightly slick and relaxed from the night before, and pushed back against Steve's touch.

"What's the first?" Tony asked again, panting now. His cock was leaving wet smears against his stomach.

Steve wanted to draw Tony like this, but somehow he’d never found the time. He wasn't even sure he could fully capture on paper how Tony looked; how he chewed on his bottom lip and how blown his pupils were.

Carefully, listening for any sounds of pain, Steve pressed a fingertip inside. Tony's body opened for him, letting his finger slide inside. "My parents having sex."

Tony made a sound that was torn between a laugh and a moan. Steve decided he really liked that sound. He ran his fingers over Tony's ribs while stroking Tony from the inside with his finger.

Steve was rewarded with a repeat of the sound, then Tony whimpering; "F-fuck."

He watched Tony press back against his finger, and then slid a second one. Tony's head fell back to expose his throat, and Steve was tempted to roll Tony onto his back so he could lick and bite his neck. Steve had to grip Tony's hips to keep him steady as he spread his fingers, stretching Tony for him.

God, he loved stretching Tony to take him. Loved watching as Tony‘s focus narrowed to him alone. Loved how damn eager for it Tony always seemed to be, like he couldn't get enough of Steve's fingers, or Steve's cock.

He just loved Tony.

"Steve, please," Tony begged, twisting his hips. One of his hands settled over Steve's hand on his hip, the other was gripping his own thigh. "I'm ready, just -- uhn -- fuck me."

"Maybe I want to watch you come just like this," Steve told him huskily. His own cock was throbbing and leaking, and god he wanted nothing more than to shift and press up into Tony's welcoming body.

Tony trembled against him. "Tease," he gasped.

Steve pressed in a third finger and twisted them up, searching for that place that would make Tony cry out. He found it and stroked. Tony convulsed, making a sharp keening noise as he came, splattering himself and Steve with spurts.

"Jesus," Steve swore, slipping his fingers free. He tugged Tony down over him and licked his way into Tony's mouth.

Tony pressed down against him and sucked on the tip of Steve’s tongue. Steve had been closer than he'd known because just that pushed him over the edge, and he came between them.

They lay together panting into each other's mouths, as Steve stroked up and down Tony's spine.

"Can't believe you mentioned your parents while having sex with me," Tony laughed contentedly after they'd both caught their breaths.

Steve flushed. "You were the one mentioning Nick Fury and Dugan. Something you want to tell me, Tony?"

 

Tony shook his head, laughing harder. "Oh yeah, we need to get your head checked. I know some great shrinks. We'll cure you of this disillusion in no time."

"You should probably take Maria to one," Steve said, then almost smacked himself for letting the words escape his lips.

Tony‘s laughter died, and he shifted his full weight off Steve. "What -- " Tony paused, and rubbed a hand over his face. "Why?"

Steve reached out and pulled Tony closer, keeping him from leaving the bed. He raised an eyebrow at Tony. "You really have to ask with everything that's happened the last few days?"

"I guess not," Tony admitted, shoulders slumping. "But why bring it up now?"

"I know my timing is horrible," Steve said, resting his forehead against Tony's shoulder.

"Your timing sucks," Tony grumbled.

Steve pressed a kiss to Tony's shoulder. "Carol mentioned you said you'd talk to Professor Xavier."

Tony stiffened. "I don't want anyone rooting around in her head. She's fine. I've been handling the issues as they've come up --"

"Tony, she had a panic attack because you were gone for a night! I had to coax her out of a closet. She put herself between you and an angry armed god." Steve gripped Tony's shoulders. "That isn’t fine, not by any stretch of the imagination."

"I know, I know," Tony said, closing his eyes.

"I'm not saying let someone go digging in her mind. But you need to at least talk to someone about this. Someone that understands child psychology. " Steve rested his forehead against Tony’s. “We’re both just operating blindly here and it has worked so far, but can we really risk her?"

Tony shook his head. "No, no. I just want her to be happy, to be safe." His eyes were still closed.

"And you've made her both, Tony. You’re a good father to her. It isn't your fault the way they conditioned her to behave." Steve hoped Tony would believe him. "You took her in when you didn't have to, and don't tell me you did. Xavier would have taken her, or Reed and Sue. There were other people that could have taken her."

Tony gave him a bitter smile. "You don't understand Steve. I didn't have any choice at all. Once I -- once I saw her, I had to. I couldn't let them keep her."

Steve didn't understand, but Tony sounded so sure that he couldn't help wonder if once again there was something Tony wasn't telling him.

***

Tony hated hospitals.

It wasn't a new hatred, but it was a well honed one.

Granted, this was a very nice hospital, and very nice hospital room, but then considering how much money he was paying for all this, it ought to be.

"I never meant to do anything but protect your nephew," Tony said softly to the woman in the bed.

May Parker probably couldn't hear him, given that she was in a coma (Tony never believed that bullshit about people in comas being able to hear what you said to them, but he knew Jarvis came here almost every day to sit and talk to her), but Tony figured he owed her an explanation all the same.

"I am sorry. I promised him I'd protect him and his family, and I failed. I know I can never ask forgiveness from you or Peter, but I'm going to try to set things as right as I can."

He'd spent most of the last few days on the phone with people in DC, and Jameson. Tony had called in several different favors to line up the pardon, and that had been the easy part. Giving Peter back his secret identity -- now that had been tricky, and it still might not work.

Dealing with Jameson's end of it had been the easiest part of all when everything was said and done. Tony had been rather sorry he couldn't see the different shades of red Jameson's face must have turned when Tony gave him the conditions of an exclusive candid photo shoot with Maria. The biggest condition being that Tony would allow only one photographer access to her.

Peter Parker.

Tony was fairly certain Jameson had dropped the phone at that. He'd half expected the answer to be no way in hell, but Maria -- as much as Tony hated using her like this -- was a hot commodity these days. Jan had gotten several offers from different magazines, and The Today Show was clamoring to have Maria and him on.

Hell, he'd gotten several calls from Stephen Colbert's people, and an email from Stephen himself. And Colbert hated him, though mostly on account of being on the opposite side from Captain America during the so called Civil War. He had a replica of the shield on his wall for crying aloud.

So, Tony's offer wasn't one Jameson could easily turn down. Jameson had brought up the fact that he couldn't hire Parker back, but Tony had assured him that if Peter took the job there would be no legal difficulties. Besides, he'd told Jameson, Peter Parker wasn't really Spider-man -- it had all been a PR ploy gone bad, they'd liked the irony of having the person that took the best photos of Spider-man turn out to be Spider-man but it worked out badly for everyone involved.

Jameson had grumbled something about knowing that Parker couldn't have been that menace Spider-Man, since the kid could trip over his own damn feet. Tony had refrained from commenting.

Now the only thing left was to get Peter to agree.

Which meant tracking down Peter Parker, and Tony was pretty sure Strange wouldn’t take it well if Tony just asked him where Peter was. If Peter knew Tony was looking for him, he'd have no chance of finding him.

Jarvis, in the end, had suggested the hospital, and Tony was surprised to learn that Jarvis saw Peter and Mary-Jane quite frequently. Or maybe not so surprised. Jarvis and May had been seeing each other before everything went wrong.

Tony wondered again, why Jarvis stuck with him through all these years. He'd be lost without the older man, and if he was honest, he loved Jarvis like a father, but he wasn't sure Jarvis had the same emotional attachment. It was the only thing that explained any of it though.

Why else would Jarvis be willing to raise yet another child for the Stark family?

Tony knew Peter and MJ were in the hospital before they reached May’s room. He got to his feet and braced himself. He wasn't expecting either of them to be happy to see Tony Stark standing there.

"You have no right to be here," Peter hissed, standing in the doorway. It was strange to see so much anger and pain radiating off the younger man. "I should have known you'd be so underhanded as to track me using my Aunt."

“Peter," MJ said softly behind him.

"You have a lot of nerve, Stark, showing up here." Peter was practically shaking, and Tony was fully prepared to take a punch.

It wasn't a punch put it was close to it. Peter had him backed up against the wall, a hand around his neck.

"Peter, he's paying the hospital bills. If he wanted to bring you in using Aunt May he would have done so by now," MJ broke in grabbing her husband's arm.

Tony could have kissed her, because it was getting rather difficult to breathe, and he really didn't want to have to hurt Peter.

"What?" Peter blinked, "Are you sure? I thought you were paying the bills."

She shook her head. "Peter, they're monitoring our bank accounts. How could I be paying the hospital bills? Even if Jarvis hadn't told me, it’s the only thing that would have made sense."

Peter dropped his hand from Tony's throat. "Oh." He looked at Tony. "Uhm, sorry. Don't get me wrong, I still hate your guts but --"

Tony rubbed his throat. He always forgot how fast and strong Peter was. "I have a deal for you."

"No way. Nuh-uh, I'm not selling anybody out and I'm not joining any task force. I don't want anything to do with you, Stark. Been there, done that, hated the t-shirt." Peter told him.

"I'm not asking you to do any of that. Look, Jameson is going to offer you your job back -- and if I were you, I'd hold out for a pay raise -- that is if you go over to his office. I'm not sure he has a working number for you at the moment." Tony leaned against the wall behind him. "I've arranged a pardon for you, plus an official statement that you are not Spider-man. It was a PR stunt gone bad, and you and your family will receive an apology."

Peter crossed his arms over his chest, looking a bit like a petulant child to Tony. "What's the catch? I'm going to have to re-register?"

"Well, Spider-man would be asked to register but since you are not Spider-man, there would be no need for you to," Tony pointed out.

"What do you want from Peter?" MJ asked, putting her hands on her hips. "Because I know you want something. You can't be doing all of this out of guilt."

Tony shrugged. "I might have told Jameson that the only photographer I'd let take pictures of Maria was Peter Parker."

Peter's jaw dropped. "What? Why? I mean -- why the hell would you trust me around your kid?"
Tony almost laughed. "Peter, believe it or not, I still trust you more than a lot of people. I fucked up your life trying to keep you safe and I'm sorry for it. This is me trying to make things right." He let himself smile wanly. "Plus, with everything Franklin Richards keeps telling her, Maria wants to meet you."

"Nice to know I have a growing fan-club," Peter grinned slightly.

Behind him MJ rolled her eyes.

"I'm not asking you to decide right now, but if you choose to take the offer -- just contact Jameson in the next few days. Jan will set up the details about the photo shoot." Tony told him. "I'll leave you two alone. I'm -- I am sorry, Peter, Mary-Jane. I never meant for any of this to happen."

"Yeah, well, it did," Peter mumbled.

Tony made his way past both of them and out into the hall. He was surprised when Mary-Jane caught up to him, and stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Thank you."

"For what?" Tony asked.

"For trying to make things right. It's been very easy for them to hate you since -- " She didn't say since Steve's death, but he heard it all the same, " -- since everything."

"You don't hate me?" Tony asked in surprise.

She shrugged. "Sometimes I do, but I think Peter and the others give you too much blame. You've been just as fucked by all of this as we have." With that she turned and walked back down the hall to May's room.

Tony closed his eyes and decided he was going home for lunch.

He was half-way back to the penthouse when Maria Hill called him about a crisis he was needed for, and then there was a call from his head of security at one of SI's California plants about finding traces of possible sabotage.

Tony called the armor and hoped he'd make it home for dinner.

Chapter Text

It was as if the last several weeks had been the calm before the storm. Or the inhale before the world started screaming again.

It wasn't just that California was on fire. Again.

Even the explosives discovered at the Silicone Valley plant hadn't been the worst of it.

Tony had barely gotten the situation under control with China. The Chinese government did not look kindly on a Shield agent killing two of their 'diplomats'. Thankfully, the Shield agent in question was no longer a Shield agent, and the diplomats had been double agents. Still, Tony was going to have a long talk with Sharon Carter if he could track her down.

Tony had all of a minute to think about heading home when the alert went over the Avengers’ emergency line.

Preliminary reports had Magneto tearing up parts of LA. Tony had been to the part of L.A. in question and privately thought it wasn't that much of a loss.

Carol and Wonder Man were on the scene first. Tony remembered she'd been in California checking up on the Initiative kids, helping with the fire. Simon seemed to go wherever Carol was these days.

He'd been two minutes out when Carol sent out that it wasn't Magneto but someone using tech to mimic his powers. And had a flare for capes.

He knew the Avengers -- which he had to remind himself he was not technically even a member of anymore and Ms. Marvel was the team leader --would be able handle it, but old habits die hard. Plus part of him missed just being able to go into a battle without worrying about ramifications or political outcomes. No shades of grey here, just a kid that thought he was the new 'Master of Magnetism'.

"Magneto would be proud of me continuing his great work!" The kid proclaimed during the battle.

Tony was pretty sure Magneto would not have approved of a 'flatscan' taking his name and most of his costume. There had been a robbery at a fashion museum with an exhibit displaying superhero and villains' fashions. The only thing stolen? The only thing stolen had been one of Magneto's old costumes.

Halfway through the fight, Tony realized he was hesitating at taking chances he normally would have leaped upon. He twisted to avoid some falling rubble, when something smashed into his chest.

Maria--

Tony fell hard, the crumbled remains of a BMW resting on top of him.

*You okay, Tony?* Carol didn't even glance his way as she asked.

*Nothing broken. There's a reason I wear armor.* Tony told her, pushing the car off him. He suppressed a wince. Okay maybe he'd spoken too quickly but sometimes it was hard to tell between bruised and broken ribs.

His chest plate was dented slightly. It would had to have been a 80s BMW of course. Damn German Engineers and their steel cars. "Do you know how hard it is to get dents out of this thing?" he asked wannabe-Magneto.

"You'll have much more than a dent when I'm through with you, Iron Man!" The kid cackled.

Tony rolled his eyes behind his faceplate. "Everyone always says that."

"If you're going to pretend to be Magneto, you could have at least studied his speeches. He was more of the monologing type, then the cackling jab sort of villain," Simon pointed out.

Another car was picked up and hurled towards Wonder Man. Tony winced, not only in sympathy but because he was probably going to wind up paying for most of the property damage.

Ms. Marvel took him out a few moments later, grabbing his cape while he was distracted with Tony and Simon and forcefully throwing him to the ground. The kid was knocked out cold.

The civies and police seemed to rush in a few minutes later as if on cue. Tony sighed and started towards one of the police offers. He hated this part.

"We'll handle the clean up, Tony." Carol told him, touching shoulder. "And I'll deal with the police, I'm the leader of the Avengers remember?"

"It's fine. I've had more practice at this. I've already called in Shield for a pick up of the 'master of magnetism' over there." Tony told her. "I'm sure you and Wonder Man have more interesting plans for your evening."

Carol scowled at him. "Me and Simon don't have kids," she pointed out. "And you took a pretty big hit."

"It was just a car." Tony protested. Then he smiled slightly, knowing she couldn't see it. His ribs hurt like hell but if he went at top speed he'd be home before Maria went to sleep. "If you have any trouble, let me know."

Carol promised she would.

Tony moved away from part of the crowd so he could get airborne, when someone called out to him.

"Hey, Iron Man! Iron Man! Can I have your autograph?"

A dark haired young man with oversized glasses waved at him from the edge of the crowd. "Sorry, I make it a matter of policy not to sign autographs while working."

"Sure, sure. I understand. We're lucky to have a hero like you around," the man said smiling a little too widely.

Tony felt vaguely uneasy. "Thank you for the sentiment. If you'll excuse me…" He started to turn away. He wanted to get home to Maria and Steve, not deal with a fanboy. He was rather surprised he had any fans these days. Even with the sympathy Maria seemed to have provoked in the hero community, Tony knew damn well people still blamed him for the death of Captain America.

"Of course. Busy night, huh?"

Tony kept himself from sighing. "You could say that. You should head on home, sir."

"You bet." The words sounded cheerful enough.

Tony turned his back completely. He'd told Maria they'd work on the ship model that night, but it looked like that wasn’t going to happen.

"I'm going to destroy everything you own."

Tony jerked his head around. The words at been so softly spoken that if he hadn't had the amplified hearing of the suit he wouldn't have heard it. "What did you just--"

"I said, I'm going to just head on home," he said, still smiling. He even waved at Tony before disappearing into the crowd.

He hadn't heard what he thought he had. He couldn't have.

Tony told himself that he was just tired, even has he ran the image of the man against every database he could access. He matched nothing in the Shield, FBI, and CIA databases and Tony started to run it against DMV records when he made himself stop.

Carol gave him a questioning look, but he shook his head and took off. He suddenly had an urgent need to see Steve and Maria.

***

Steve couldn't believe he'd gotten Maria to bed without a meltdown. She'd been subdued at dinner, and he knew she was disappointed. Hell he was disappointed, though he really didn't have a right to be. Tony was probably doing very important things, and it wasn't like Steve could just call him and check.

He was supposed to be dead and Tony was going through a lot of trouble keeping his secret for him. He should be grateful not annoyed because Tony wasn't home for dinner. Maria was the one with the real right to be upset. She was a child and she didn't - couldn't- understand things like 'the fate of the world'.

Steve rubbed the back of his neck. I'm the last person that should be yelling at Tony for missing dinner, he thought remembering how many times he'd missed dinner and other thing he'd planned with Sharon.

That didn't keep him from crossing his arms and frowning when Tony came in around eleven. "Tony," Steve started, and then paused, trying to work out how to say something without coming off like a bitter housewife. "Something came up I take it?"

Tony nodded. He looked tired with dark circles under his eyes. His cheek was bruised, and suddenly all Steve could think about was Carol telling him how Tony had wanted to die. He headed for the kitchen and Steve followed close on his heels.

"You name it, it came up." Tony told him without much humor. "Remind me to write your ex-girlfriend a thank you note for almost starting an international incident." He set up the coffee marker with practiced motions, and Steve was half sure Tony probably had his eyes shut.

Steve bristled at the implied jab at Sharon. "I'm sure whatever Sharon did it was because she thought it necessary. Not everyone can have your wider view of sacrificing ones values for political proposes."

God, Steve wanted to pull the words back as soon as they left his mouth. He dropped his head and rubbed the back of his neck ashamed at himself. He lifted his eyes to Tony but didn't apologize.

Tony's shoulders went tense and he leaned heavily against the counter. "I wasn't saying she didn't do the right and necessary thing." Tony ground out. "But I would have appreciated it if she'd given me a heads up. She hates me, you know that? Thinks I kidnapped Maria." He gave a sound almost like a laugh. It sounded almost like someone that had swallowed ground glass had tried to laugh -- and Steve knew what that sounded like.

Steve took a hesitant step forward. He reached out to touch Tony's back but stopped with his hand hovering just above the fabric of his Shield uniform. "I hate you in this uniform."

"Join the club." Tony’s voice was hoarser than it had a right to be, Steve thought.

Another time, another place and Tony would have said those words with a laugh and a smile. Steve slid his hand over the ridges of Tony's spine. "Sharon can be a little impulsive at times. And she doesn't hate you. I don't think as many people hate you as you think, Tony."

Tony slumped against the counter. "It just takes one." He shifted then winced, bringing a hand to his ribs. "I wanted to be home for dinner. I promised Maria we'd work on that model tonight."

Steve had heard that tone of voice from Tony before, the one that pleaded with Steve to please believe me. "You'll make it up to her." He moved his hand to Tony's ribs, just below where Tony had touched. Tony winced again but didn't pull away.

"I don't think they’re broken. Extremis will take care of it," Tony said quickly. Steve could hear the underlying don't worry about me in his words.

"What happened?" Steve asked, mostly to distract himself from visions of Tony trying to get himself killed. He didn't understand why Tony constantly seemed hell bent on killing himself -- if it wasn't by drink it was some supervillain that Tony wouldn't back down from even when his armor was damaged and his face plate was bashed away --

Steve almost retched as the image of Tony lying under him, his face swollen and a mass of bruises while Steve held the shield ready to bring it down and -- oh god -- Tony had wanted him to kill him. He had to close his eyes and move closer to Tony, so he could feel the reassuring heat of his body. He wanted to shake Tony, to scream at him, because it never occurred to Steve even when for that split second he had wanted to bring his shield down and end it -- it never crossed his mind that Tony wanted to die rather than keep fighting Steve.

"Some kid got a hold of tech that mimicked some of Magneto's powers. He threw a Beamer at me," Tony sounded amused for a moment. "Carol took him down by his cape while he was too busy trying to make witty quips. I'll probably have to pay for it -- the car that is. Might be easier to give the owner one of mine. It's not like a drive them anymore, or have any time to work on them."

Tony loved working on his cars. Steve knew that. He’d seen him in his garage tinkering for hours, taking apart an engine so he could rebuild it strong, better, and faster. How long had that been going on? Why hadn't Steve seen it before they'd been at each other's throat of how little Tony had to lose, of how little joy he had left in his life? No wonder he was upset about missing his and Maria's time together -- it was probably one of the few things Tony got to do just for the joy of it. "You should have gone to a doctor." Steve told him, turning Tony around to look at him.

"I'll heal." Tony told him, his hands coming to a rest on Steve's hips. "I -- " He stopped and closed his eyes.

"What?" Steve prompted, gently feeling along his ribs. They didn't feel broken but they were probably bruised.

Tony shook his head and rested his forehead against Steve's chest. "I love you."

Steve framed Tony's face with his hand and lifted his chin. "I -- " he started then kissed Tony. He ran his tongue over Tony's bottom lip seeking entrance, and Tony's mouth eagerly opened under his. He wasn't sure why he couldn't say the words. It should be easy. It seemed easy enough for Tony, and this thing between them-- it wasn't something that could get them arrested or discharged. It should have been as easy as kissing Tony.

He let one hand glide down Tony's body, using his thumb to tease Tony's nipple through the fabric of his shirt before going lower. He wrapped his hand around Tony's hip and pulled him closer. Tony made a sound into Steve's mouth then started to suck on the tip of Steve's tongue.

Tony's stance widened to allow Steve closer, his own hand fisting in the cotton of Steve's t-shirt. Steve loved how they never had a problem communicating on this level. Even when their brains were making a mess of things, their bodies knew the perfect frequencies. It was why they worked so well together both on and off the battlefield. Steve canted his hips towards Tony's, and the friction made them both shiver.

"F-fuck," Tony whimpered when they pulled away for air.

Steve growled. "Yes," he agreed, then surged forward for another kiss. He pressed Tony back further but pulled back slightly at Tony's wince.

"Don't worry -- don't stop," Tony told him, tipping his head back to give Steve his throat. "Just my ribs."

"Not going to let you hurt yourself," Steve told him. He lifted Tony at the waist and sat him on the kitchen counter. It was just the right height for Steve to stand between his splayed legs. "We probably -ah - should move to the bedroom."

Tony scooted forward and wrapped his legs around Steve's waist pulling him snuggly against Tony's groin. "I'm good like this." He grabbed handfuls of Steve's shirt and tugged.

Steve couldn't help but grin at Tony's eagerness and he reached for the zipper of the damnable Shield uniform.

"Tony? Steve?" Maria's voice came from the kitchen doorway.

That was why you didn't have sex in the kitchen with a child around, Steve remembered suddenly. That's why he suggested the bedroom. He flushed pink and was very thankful to whatever god was listening that they were still mostly dressed.

Tony dropped his head to Steve's shoulder and muffled what had to be a laugh. When he lifted it, he sounded almost normal. "Yes, Maria?"

"What are you doing?"

Steve was almost too mortified to move away from Tony or to turn and look at Maria. Tony laughed softly then pushed at his shoulder slightly and jumped down from the counter top.

"We were kissing," Tony told her sounding much calmer than Steve felt.

"Oh," she sounded puzzled about something.

Steve turned around just in time to see her regard Tony with a questioning look. "Is that the same kind of kissing Franklin says is gross that his parents do when they lock their bedroom door?"

And that was probably more about Reed and Sue Richards’ sex life than Steve ever wanted to know.

Tony turned a little red. "Uhm, sort of. Why don’t we just -uhm - get you back to bed," he said hurriedly. "I'm sorry I got home late, I know I told you we'd work on the ship." He took Maria's hand and started leading her back to her bedroom.

When Tony rejoined Steve later in their bedroom they both burst out laughing, collapsing onto the bed. "I think our parents just got revenge on us," Tony said as he caught his breath. "At least she didn't catch us in bed. I don't think she would have bought the 'wrestling' excuse."

Steve turned bright red. "Oh." Okay, he'd never really put that together before, but it wasn't like he sat around thinking about his parents having sex.

Tony just barely contained another wave of laughter and kissed Steve's chin. "And that would be one of the reasons I love you," Tony told him. "You make me laugh."

Steve hit him in the face with a pillow.

***

Anyone that had known Tony Stark for years would have found the scene unfolding in his office surprising. Not because Tony was eating lunch in his office, or that it was a lunch date with a pretty blonde with big blue eyes.

But because Tony was currently finishing what appeared to have been a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and drinking from a juice box. Plus, Pepper never thought it possible to get Tony to stop for lunch, something always seemed to come up. It looked like what everyone was saying was true; Maria had been good for Tony.

"I think without a doubt that is the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich I've had," Tony was saying. "You pack this lunch all by yourself?"

"Jarvis helped me in some of the preparation," Maria said between bites of her own sandwich. "There are cookies for dessert. We made them this morning."

Tony laughed as he reached out and tucked a strand of hair behind Maria's ear. "You're very lucky. I'm not allowed to touch anything in the kitchen, let alone the oven."

Pepper smiled. Tony looked so -- happy. "That's because you've blown up three microwaves and set a toaster oven on fire. I'm honestly surprised you can work a coffee marker, Tony."

His head came up quickly, and she watched his eyes widen in shock before a wide smile crossed his face. "Pepper!" He got to his feet and crossed the room pulling her into a hug. "I didn't know you were coming today."

She hugged him back, wondering what she'd been thinking. She'd missed this. She'd missed Tony. He was the closest thing she had a family and they could have been supporting each other through loss instead of trying to handle it alone.

"I thought I'd make it a surprise," she told him when he stepped back. He looked as handsome as ever, if a bit more careworn then the last time she'd seen him. "I didn't mean to disturb your lunch date."

Pepper looked over at the little girl, who was looking her over with a carefully blank face. The papers had said she was from a lab and speculated that Tony had taken her in out of pity or guilt. As Pepper looked at her she knew for certain what she'd already suspected… there were really only two men Tony would take in a child for. And Maria wasn’t black.

Tony shook his head. "It's fine. We were just about done."

Maria titled her head to one side and Pepper couldn't remember being looked at so intensely by a child before. It was like she was trying to gauge if Pepper was safe or not. She looked at Tony. "Is she a friend of yours?"

Tony nodded, placing a hand on Maria's shoulder. "She's one of my oldest friends," he told her. "Maria, this is Pepper Potts. Pepper, this is my daughter Maria."

"It's very nice to meet you, Maria," Pepper said, giving the girl a smile.

Maria gave her a tiny smile back. "It is nice to meet you as well." She looked up at Tony. "You have lots of friends, Tony."

Pepper would have laughed -- because it was true -- but she knew Tony well enough to know that he wouldn't believe it.

"Not really but I'm glad you think so, genius," Tony told Maria. He looked back at Pepper and smiled. "Did you come just to say hello or was there something you needed, Pepper?"

"I wanted to talk about taking my job back --" she raised an eyebrow. "I assume I still have a job -- you know how I hate job hunting."

Tony’s eyes darted towards Maria, then back to Pepper. She wasn't sure what the gesture meant. "I told you could take as much time as you needed. You don't have -- with everything that happen I'll make sure you never lack for money. It's the least I can do for you and H--" Tony cut himself off and looked at the wall behind her head. "I can't imagine you'd really want to work for me again."

"You'd imagine wrong." Pepper crossed her arms. Maybe it was her fault for asking Tony to make the decision she couldn't. He'd always been quick to blame himself for things whether it was his fault or not. Sometimes -- sometimes she missed the man he'd been before the armor.

"Plus you've been giving Anna and Helena fits. I can't imagine anyone else being able to get you into a meeting on time. I'm honestly surprised this place hasn't fallen apart while I've been gone." She ticked off things on her fingers. “Though it's good to see you have someone else making sure you eat regular meals." She smiled slightly looking at Maria.

"Anna and Helena?" Tony asked, giving her a blank look.

Pepper laughed and covered her eyes with her hand. "You never bothered to learn their names did you… Tony ---" she laughed again and shook her head. "I really want to come back to work, Tony."

Tony sighed. "Alright but…" he turned to Maria. "Maria, I need you to go upstairs to the penthouse ahead of me and Pepper. Okay?"

Maria nodded, and he mussed her hair affectionately. "Good girl. We'll be up in a moment."

Pepper watched her leave by the private elevator and shook her head. "I can't get over how much she looks like him." She smiled slightly at Tony's look. "Tony I've know you for years. There isn't a long list of people whose daughter she could be."

"The fewer people know, the safer she is." Tony said sharply. "So please, whatever you think you know -- keep it to yourself. Nothing can be gained by her or anyone else knowing."

"Does Jarvis know?" Pepper asked folding her arms.

Tony rubbed a hand over his face and nodded. "He guessed before he even met her. He named her too. I really have no idea why he's putting up with all this. Raising another kid for the Stark family isn't in his job description."He dropped his hand and straightened before Pepper could tell him the obvious -- because Jarvis loved him. "If you really want to still work for me there something very important you need to know about."

He gestured for her to follow him into the elevator. Pepper guessed that he wanted to make sure no one could hear what he was going to tell her.

Pepper nodded, prepared for Tony to say almost anything.

Anything but what he said.

"Steve Rogers is still alive."

***

"Why does Pepper know so much about Tony?" Maria asked, after she landed her back flip.

Steve smiled slightly. Pepper had been back to work for three days and Maria was still adjusting to how much of a constant presence Pepper was in Tony's life. Hell, he'd forgotten and there were times he did feel a little jealous.

"Curve your back a bit more as you go over," he told her, patting her shoulder. "Your landing is solid, though. And because Pepper and Tony have been friends long before I even knew him."

"Oh," Maria said in a way that made it clear she didn't understand at all. "Will you show me how to perform some of those defensive moves you and Tony do?"

"Maria, you don't need to know any of that," Steve assured her. "And you are still a little small to perform some of them." She'd been on him to teach her since she'd seen him and Tony in the gym. The problem was, Steve was afraid of hurting her more than he was her ability to pull off any of the most basic defensive moves. He'd never worked with someone so young before.

There had been children in the Avengers' Mansion at times, that was true. Though none of those children had ever expressed interest in sparring and neither Cassie nor Franklin's parents would have approved.

Steve was pretty sure Tony wouldn't approve.

Maria frowned slightly. "But --"

Steve shook his head. "I'll talk to Tony about it, but we both know he's going to say no."

"He needs someone to protect him," Maria protested.

Steve sighed and knelt down in front of her. "Maria, sweetheart, Tony needs you to be safe and happy. He can take care of himself -- despite what Jarvis and Pepper say."

That got a smile out of her. "Pepper and Jarvis only say he doesn't remember to eat or sleep."

"Okay, that part is true," Steve laughed, and tugged gently at her braid. "Go work on the balance beam -- " he stopped mid-sentence.

He thought he'd heard -- he listened closely and heard it again. Not Jarvis or Pepper -- neither of them would be so stealthy. And Carol, Jan, and Hank wouldn't feel the need to be. A glance at Maria's face told him she was listening too -- and if she could hear what he was hearing -- Steve shook his head. That was a thought for another time. Rising to his feet, he signaled to Maria to stay put.

Steve made his way to the door and very softly ordered the lights off. Moving quickly, he grabbed the intruder and pulled them through the door, slamming their back into the wall. "Lights." He called, and found himself face to face with someone in his uniform. No -- not his but one very similar and god he'd know that shield anywhere so -- "Bucky?!"

His captive sneered and twisted violently, trying to get free, but Steve had him pinned too well.

"I knew Stark was sick but this is beyond just sick."

"You know I'm really getting tired of people thinking I'm a skrull or LMD," Steve sighed. "Bucky, it's me. I know it's hard to believe but it is me. Now stop fighting!"

"Steve Rogers is dead!" Bucky growled. He tried another move to get free but Steve had taught him that move. "I can't believe I trusted Stark while he had -- you -- stashed away some place."

"Steve?" he heard Maria say behind him in a soft frightened voice.

Steve didn't take his eyes off Bucky's. "It's alright Maria. No one is going to hurt anyone today. Bucky is just a little confused."

He tracked Bucky's gaze leaving his and looking past his ear towards were Maria was standing. "Jesus he lets you around the kid?" Bucky sounded disgusted. "I should have pulled her from here when Sharon found out about her."

"Bucky --" Steve growled in warning.

"Don't worry kid, we'll have you out of here and with people that can really take care of you soon," Bucky told her, and it possibly sounded reassuring in his head but his voice was cold and sharp.

"No! I - I don't want to go anyplace else. Tony said I didn't have to. Steve said I didn't have to. I don't want -- " He could hear her feet on the mat coming towards them.

"You are scaring her," Steve hissed and turned his head towards Maria. "He's not talking you anywhere. I promise. You get to stay here with me and Tony. "

When his back hit the wall he knew it had been a mistake to take his eyes off Bucky -- another thing he'd taught the younger man… He caught Maria moving towards but gestured for her to stay put.

"I don't know what you are, but there is no way I'm leaving her here. Not if Stark's fucked up enough to make you or let something wear Steve's face," Bucky growled, and bared his teeth at Steve. "I knew he was obsessed with Steve -- tell me does Stark call his name when he fuc--"

"James Buchanan Barnes, that is enough!" Steve roared, in a neat quick move he had Bucky pinned to the ground. "I am Steve Rogers. Someone switched the bodies out in the morgue and dumped me in the Hudson. It took me weeks to get my memories back but I am Steve."

Bucky shook his head. "You can't be. Why would -- why would you be hiding here in Stark's home. He's responsible for your death."

Steve tightened his hands on Bucky's arms. He frowned then sighed, there was one way to make Bucky believe him. "When we found the first camp -- even Fury got sick."

Bucky closed his eyes for a brief moment. "I still don’t believe you," he snarled. "But I won't take the kid. That's what you want isn't it?"

"You can believe whatever you want," Steve felt as sad as he sounded. How could Bucky not recognize him? Very carefully he let Bucky up and got to his feet.

"You should have told us when you came back -- do you have any idea what Sharon's been going through?" Bucky demanded. "Let's say I do believe you -- you've got a lot of fucking nerve."

Steve half ignored him and gathered up Maria who was shaking like a leaf in anger and fear, her fists clenched against her sides. He was sure she wanted to try and take down what she must see as a threat to Tony. "Shh, it's okay. Bucky isn't going to take you and he isn't going to hurt Tony. I promise." He stroked her hair and she clutched at him as if his strength could keep her there.

Bucky was watching them with a mixture of emotions playing across his face, like he couldn't decide if he wanted to attack Steve again or just scream.

"Yes, I should have told both of you. I'm sorry for hurting you both, but I had to figure some things out for myself before I could see people. I'm sorry," Steve said honestly, wishing he could make Bucky understand.

"You don't seem to of had a problem seeing Stark," Bucky snapped.

"Tony was different," Steve told him as he straightened away from Maria. She clung to his hand but had stop shaking. "But I should have told you and Sharon if no one else."

Bucky crossed his arms, his eyes darting back and forth from Maria to Steve. "She's going to be pissed at you and Stark about this, Steve," he said with sneer.

Steve almost said 'let her'. "Don't tell her," was what came out instead. "Bring her here, let me talk to her. I don't want my -- state of living -- to be public knowledge yet, Bucky."

"Maybe." Bucky turned towards the door. "I'll be in touch with, Stark. And tell him to change your goddamn override codes."

"I don't like him," Maria said after the door slid closed behind him.

"Right now, I'm not all too fond of him myself." Steve squeezed her hand gently. "You were very brave, Maria, and you followed commands excellently. I'm proud of you."

If anything would calm her down it would be praise over her behavior. He didn't want her to think this had been a test but if she knew she'd done a good job -- at least she wouldn't be panicking.

Less than a minute later Tony burst through the door. "I got here as soon as I could --" he was almost panting, his hair stuck to his forehead with sweat. He wasn't wearing the armor but that was most likely because he knew the threat was already gone. "I'm so sorry. I should have gotten here sooner." The words weren't spoken to him but to Maria.

"She's fine Tony, we both are." Steve assured him. "Bucky wouldn't have hurt her."

Tony was beside her and hugging her. Maria hugged him back, gripping the back of his shirt. "He could have taken her."

Steve dropped down to his own knees and wrapped his arms around them both. "Over my dead body."

Chapter Text

The fact that everything hadn't blown up in his face by the next morning did nothing to reassure Tony. If James told a single person that Steve Rogers --or something that looked like him-- was living in Tony's penthouse it wouldn't end well. No one would believe Steve was here willingly even if they believed Steve was really Steve. Carol had been more than willing to consider the worst and she was one of the few people that still really trusted him. So how the hell would those who hated his guts react?

But if Steve hadn't been there to confront Bucky --

Tony looked at the data pad in front of him blankly, paying more attention to the camera trained on Maria. She looked unaffected by her scare yesterday, but even Steve had seemed reluctant to let her out of his sight.

There were places Tony had to be but there was no way he was leaving Stark Tower today.

"Tony," Pepper sounded exasperated.

A glance up showed that she looked exasperated as well, a hand resting on her hip.

"You have a meeting in California -- in two hours. A rather important one I might add. And not answering your calls doesn't make them go away. They call me when they can't get a hold of you. Maria Hill is about to give birth to kittens if you don't talk to her soon," she told him.

"Cancel the meeting," Tony replied. "You'll need to memorize your new access codes to the penthouse. I've changed them all." He accessed the Shield alert system, checking for anything that would have Maria Hill screaming at him, but there was nothing pressing that couldn't be handled by her and Dugan.

Pepper pinched the bridge of her nose for a moment. "Most of the reps from China are already there Tony. You can't just cancel this, you know that. She'll be okay -- you know that."

"The meeting is canceled," he snapped, getting to his feet. "I am not leaving the Tower until every security flaw is fixed, until every possible back-way-in is eliminated, and until every access code and override code is changed and then changed again. And when that's done I'm checking it again. Because Maria could have been long gone by the time I got back here -- he could have taken her all because I didn't change one set of override codes!" He pushed his fingers through his hair. He was pacing back and forth.

"The point is that he didn't," Pepper tried to point out and Tony knew she was trying to calm him down.

But all he could think of was how the current Captain America -- how James Barnes—had been gone by the time he reached Maria. "The point, Pepper, is that if Steve hadn't been there he would have. And how the hell was I going to get her back? He's Captain America -- if I accused him of taking her it would have tarnished Steve's memory -- it would have turned Maria into the very thing I'm trying to keep her from becoming -- a pawn and a tool in a game she shouldn't have to be a part of!"

Pepper placed a hand on his back. "You didn't sleep at all, did you?"

Tony sagged under her touch and shook his head. "I couldn't."

She sighed softly. "You couldn't have known he'd try to take her. No one could have."

"I should have. I should have known someone would try to, at the very least. I shouldn’t have given the anti-reg side advantage over me. I should have remembered he's still Winter Soldier under all that red white and blue," Tony said softly. "I should have known Agent 13 would figure things out from just a picture. That she’d know who Maria was, and want her away from me."

James' fury and complete belief that he was damaging Maria somehow sickened Tony. Maybe that was how everyone saw his adoption of Maria, something sinister. "Maybe Maria would have been better off with someone else. He and Sharon have more right to her than I ever will."

"That's bullshit Tony, and you know it," Pepper snapped at him, moving so she could glare at him.

"It's not like we went public with our relationship." Tony didn't want to argue about this with Pepper, but Steve would probably not want to hear one word said against his little brother. He was afraid Steve just might agree that Maria would have been better off with anyone but Tony. "For most people, I'm the guy that betrayed and put Steve Rogers in jail."

"And most people wouldn't connect Maria to being anything but the little girl you saved from a very horrible place. Which you did. It doesn't matter what her parentage is." Pepper poked him in the chest.

Tony rubbed his forehead trying to stave off the headache that always came with having too many feeds open. There was an email from Jan flashing at him, reminding him that he had to deal with the Bugle photo shoot sooner rather than later. He couldn't let Peter down again, even if it did make him feel like a nervous wreck just thinking about Maria alone with someone that could try to take her. Even though he knew Peter Parker would be the last person to take a kid from someone just because he hated them.

"You have every right to be upset about what happened, but don't sulk down here in your office, driving yourself crazy over what could have happened." Pepper sighed, straightening the papers on his desk. "I'll cancel the meeting, make whatever excuses we need to -- but you need to go upstairs and talk to Steve. Spend the rest of the day with them. If nothing else it'll reassure Maria."

Tony managed a small smile for her. "Thank you, Pepper. Tell me again how I survived without you?"

"I'm not entirely sure you did. How many meetings did you attend just using your brain?"

***

Steve was more than surprised than anything to see Tony come into the kitchen as he made sandwiches for lunch. Jarvis had insisted on doing it at first, but with a little help from Maria by way of her asking the older man to color with her -- Steve got the job.

He'd wanted a bit of time to think without Maria's steady flow of questions that he both hesitated to answer and hesitated to forbid her from asking. He agreed with Tony, her growing curiosity and assurance that she could ask why without fear was a good thing. But it was difficult to take her bouncing from questions about 'Captain America' -- and though Steve knew she meant Bucky it was still jarring -- to why Pepper got to spend all day with Tony and she didn't.

"Dare I ask how you managed to get lunch making duties from Jarvis?" Tony asked.

Steve smiled slightly. "Dare I ask why it’s the middle of the day and you’re seemingly home for lunch?"

Tony managed a chuckle, but Steve could tell that he was stressed. Stressed and tired. Steve had felt Tony jerk awake every time he'd fallen asleep the night before. He wasn't sure if Tony had been trying to stay awake or if the nightmares were back.

They'd both checked on Maria more times than was probably healthy.

"Pepper chased me off. Apparently I'm not allowed to brood and sulk in my own office anymore," Tony told him, walking over and sticking his finger in the peanut butter jar.

Steve rolled his eyes. "I'll make you a sandwich if you're hungry. And Pepper really told you to stop 'brooding and sulking'?"

"Maybe I just want peanut butter," Tony reasoned, stealing another scoop. "And no, not in those exact words."

"Use a spoon at least," Steve sighed. He had a far guess about what Tony had been doing and it probably wasn't paper work or anything to do with Shield, the Avengers, or Stark Industries. "How many times have you changed the access codes today?"

Tony rubbed his forehead. "A few -- " Steve gave him a sharp look and he sighed. " -- dozen times."

Steve put down the knife he was using and leaned against the counter, looking away from Tony. "If you want to blame someone blame me. He got the codes from Sharon."

"And you should have been completely justified trusting it with her," Tony snapped.

"No, I shouldn't have betrayed the trust you had in me by giving me that code." Steve snapped back then took a deep breath. If they got loud, it would bring in Maria and Jarvis. He really didn't want to deal with Jarvis' sharp looks for upsetting what was for all intents and purposes his son and granddaughter.

Tony leaned closer letting their arms brush. "It doesn't matter. The point is it won't happen again."

Steve felt his stomach drop and he curled his fingers against the counter edge. Tony couldn't mean --

"Your little brother will find himself out in the cold if he tries again. In more ways than one," Tony growled. Steve didn't like that tone or the contention and underlying threat in Tony's voice, as much as he was relieved that Tony hadn't meant he wouldn't trust Steve anymore.

"He won't try again, Tony," Steve assured him.

Tony snorted. "He won't get that close to succeeding again."

Steve closed his eyes to reign in his temper. "Even if Bucky would try again -- which he won't -- I'd stop him."

"Or you'd listen to him," Tony said softly.

Opening his eyes, Steve saw Tony leaning back against the counter, his hand covering his eyes. "Tony."

"He'll always be Bucky to you, no matter what else he's done, and he'll always come first," Tony mused sadly. "You'd listen to him, to what he said about me and you'd decide that Bucky couldn't be lying."

"Tony, no."

"And you'd take Maria and leave," Tony finished sounding defeated.

Steve moved and gripped both of Tony's arms, shaking him. "Tony, I would not take your daughter from you no matter what Bucky said. I'm not that blind to think Bucky is innocent still -- if he ever was."

Tony looked at him dully. "She's not my daughter."

"Yes, she is. Everyone that sees the way you are with her knows that. It doesn't matter who her parents are or where she came from -- you’re her father." Steve rested his forehead against Tony's. "I wouldn't take her from you."

Tony closed his eyes and didn't answer. His face was closed and unreadable.

Steve slid his hands up Tony's arms to his shoulders. "And I wouldn't pick or believe Bucky over you."

That made Tony open his eyes, disbelief shinning clear. "Don't lie to me."

"I want to spend my life with you. I love Bucky like a brother but --" Steve swallowed hard. "But I'm in love with you."

Tony's eyes went wide and he shook his head. "You -- how can --"

Steve cupped the back of Tony's neck. "Didn't you know that?"

"You never told me," Tony said sadly. "I know you cared and that we were friends -- you really love me?" He looked as if he was a five year old at Christmas finding that Santa had left him a puppy under the tree.

Steve smiled and kissed him gently. "I thought it was obvious."

Tony kissed him back in lieu of answering, and then broke away with a soft laugh. "As much as I'd like to keep kissing you and make you repeat those words so I can record them -- we'd better finish making lunch."

"What do you mean, we?"

***

 

"I really thought better of you Agent Carter."

The last person Sharon Carter really wanted to deal with after her fight with James, was Natasha Romanoff, otherwise known as the Black Widow. She was damn well sure there was something James wasn’t telling her about his attempt to rescue what she was certain was Steve's little girl. The appearance of Natasha just cemented it -- she refused to think about the fact that this was also James' former lover and that her visit could have anything to do with the two of them.

"Do I even want to know what this is about?" Sharon asked tiredly. There was a possibility Stark had sent her, but she assumed if he was going to make a move against her and James, he'd go after James first. He hadn't had a problem with hunting down Steve like a dog.

Natasha leaned against the wall, her arms crossed. "I know you blame Tony for Steve's death Sharon, but kidnapping his kid is a little much."

"She isn't his child," Sharon snarled, pushing the memory of a gun in her hands and the look on Steve's face out of her head.

"Because that means anything," Natasha snorted.

Sharon tightened her hands into fists. "I don't know why Stark sent you here--"

"Tony didn't send me," Natasha sighed, waving her hand dismissively.

"What?" Sharon blinked in surprise. "Then why are you here?"

Natasha made an annoyed sound and rolled her eyes. "I can't imagine. Maybe because I want to keep James from doing something monumentality stupid?”

Sharon narrowed her gaze.

"Oh don't look at me like that. You know as well as I do how the media would play it. Captain America kidnapping Tony Stark's adopted daughter? You think Tony's loyalty to Steve's memory would keep him from doing just about anything to get Maria back?" Natasha pointed out casually. "No matter how justified you and James might think you are… no one else would see it that way."

Sharon lifted her chin. The media could go to hell for all she cared. "Well thank you for your concern," she said acidly. "I think James is more than aware of the risks."

"No he isn't. He's reckless and self destructive. He can be cold hearted and ruthless without even knowing it. He's never cared about the risks," Natasha pointed out, smiling slightly. "It was one of the things I loved about him. When he had his mind set… damn the consequences."

Sharon had to admit that Natasha was right and she hadn't tried to point out the risks to James either. "How did you know about any of this? I wouldn't think Stark would want it getting out."

"Pepper Potts called me," Natasha smiled as if inviting Sharon to share in a joke. Then she frowned at Sharon. "And believe it or not, I did love Tony once, and part of me still loves him. I don't like seeing him hurt, and taking that little girl from him would hurt him. Probably her as well. Did you ever think about that Sharon? Or were you too busy wanting a piece of Steve to think about how Maria would feel about being dragged away by a complete stranger?"

"It wasn't like that," Sharon hissed, crossing her arms.

"Then what? Tell me what sinister thing you thought Tony was going to do?" Natasha demanded.

"He has no right to have her after what he did!" Sharon’s voice rose.

Natasha threw her hands up. "He obeyed the law! He's not the one that shot Captain America down in front of a court house. You helped bring him in. Neither you nor Tony have any more right to that child than the other. Why do you deserve her more?"

Something inside of Sharon broke --because Stark hadn't pulled the trigger that killed Steve, she had -- and she crumbled back down on to the couch. "Because --- " she pulled in a shuttering breath. "then I could make up for it. I could do this one last thing for Steve and I won't always have his blood on my hands and --” She wasn't going to cry in front of Natasha. She was a former Shield agent; she wasn’t going to break down just because she'd killed --

Her eyes betrayed her emotions. Her face felt wet.

"Natasha, I think you should go," James’ voice was low and soft -- and oh god how long had he been listening to them?

"I didn't mean to upset her," Natasha’s voice was soft.

"I know. Just go, we'll talk later."

Sharon curled an arm around her stomach and bent in on herself in shame and misery.

"Sharon," James said, and she felt the couch shift as he sat next to her. "It wasn't you that pulled the trigger. You know that. The whole damn thing was Stark's fault."

Sharon closed her eyes. He always told her it wasn't her fault, but it was. She should have known she was under mind control; she should have been able to stop herself.

James wrapped his real arm around her shoulder and pulled her to him. "The kid was terrified Sharon," he finally said after a long moment of silence. "Of me. Even if I thought Stark would leave the codes the same -- which we both know he won't -- I'm not trying for her again."

Sharon didn't speak, but she rested her head against James' shoulder. This thing between them was brittle at best but she took as much comfort from him as she could get.

"And you were right… there was something I didn't tell you," James said, tightening his arm around her slightly. "But I need you to trust me. I need to talk to Stark when things calm down and then I'll tell you. Okay?"

"I don't have much choice do I?" she sighed.

"Not really," James told her before he leaned down and kissed her.

***

"A photo shoot with Peter?" Steve asked quietly, stroking the back of Tony's neck.

Tony nodded, paying more attention to Maria lying on her stomach on the floor. She was drawing while they watched the Rocketeer. It was way past her bedtime but even Steve was letting it slide despite the fact that Maria was still up at midnight. "Jan suggested I ask Sue and Reed if Franklin can be around during it."

"Hmm, that's a good idea. She'll be happier with Franklin around, and Peter's been friends with the Fantastic Four longer than we've known him," Steve commented, most of his attention on the movie.

It had been a favorite for movie nights for years, especially after they'd discovered that Steve had known Cliff Secord. Tony had always wondered, given some of Steve's grumblings, if they'd been more than friends at certain points during the war… but he never pushed. It was just amusing to watch Steve make comments about the accuracy of the movie and complain that Secord had made most of this stuff up.

"That's what I was thinking," Tony told him, shifting closer so that he was near enough to rest his head on Steve's shoulder. Steve seemed more comfortable with public displays of affection that he had before -- well before… but that could mostly be because there weren't many people for that affection to be displayed too here.

Steve shifted his arm around Tony's shoulders. "I told you Peter didn’t hate you."

Tony resisted rolling his eyes. "I got him his job and his secret identity back; I don't think it has anything to do with him liking me. And there are some things we shouldn't be talking about in front of little girls with big ears."

Maria didn't seem to be paying attention to them but it was hard to tell with her.

"Where is the shoot going to happen? Here?" Steve asked, rubbing his thumb against Tony's exposed collar bone.

"She'd be more comfortable here but that could be….difficult." Tony reasoned, leaning into Steve's touch. Then he looked over at the television. "You know I think we've seen this too many times since you haven't made one crack about Cliff Secord."

Steve rolled his eyes. "I do not always make cracks about Secord. Just sometimes."

Maria looked back at them. "You knew the Rocketeer?" she asked curiously. "I didn't know he was real. I thought this was a -- " She paused, obviously looking for words. " --a made up movie."

Tony laughed. He knew she'd never let it rest until she got any and all information out of Steve. "Well a lot of the movie is made up, but Cliff Secord was a real person. Right, Steve?"

"We can talk about it after the movie," Steve said pointedly. "Then I can tell you all about Secord -- within reason."

Maria frowned. "But -- "

"Look he's beating up mobsters," Steve exclaimed, obviously trying to distract her.

Tony grinned, as it seemed to be successful. "That's not always going to work you ---" he broke off with a gasp as a feed from Extremis exploded with information.

"Tony?" Steve sounded concerned and he could feel Steve's hands gripping his shoulders.

His mind was flooded with images and information, and though he knew Steve was there he couldn't focus his attention outwards to see him. There was too much -- he tried to access the cameras for the actual plant site but it was like trying to grab at raw wires --

"What's wrong with Tony?" Maria’s voice was high and sounded worried.

"Tony? What's wrong? What happened?" Steve shook him.

Maria touched his arm. "What's wrong with your eyes?" She asked quietly.

Tony closed his eyes and shook his head, shutting down the damaged feeds and connections. "Maria, I need you to go to your room." His voice shook.

Her hands curled around his arm.

"It's okay, I'll look after him.” Steve started. “We'll both come in and get you and finish the movie, okay?" He assured her.

Tony kept his eyes closed, trying to sort out what had happened -- the plant if not completely destroyed was -- god this was beyond bad.

He had to find out just what the damage was, but none of the news reports seemed to know for sure, and he had no camera feeds or undamaged connections in the plant now. How many people had still been there and --

*….not clear on what happened but we're getting reports of…*

"Tony?" Steve whispered, cupping Tony's face.

"The meeting," Tony told him, blinking to clear away images and video feeds. "I was supposed to be there today but I had Pepper cancel it --"

*…factory owned by Stark Industries….*

"Tony, you're not making sense. What happened?"

Tony forced himself to focus on Steve's face… the feel of his hands. He let Steve ground him to reality. Because he was sure the moment Steve let go of him, he'd have the armor on.

"One of my California factories, there was supposed to be a huge meeting there today and a party this evening. I had Pepper cancel it." He concentrated on keeping his voice steady as more data entered his mind.

*…with a force that seems to have completely obliterated part of the complex…*

Tony needed to be there. He needed to be trying to save his people.

Steve nodded. "Okay?"

"Someone just blew it up.” Tony pulled away from the warmth of Steve’s hands and got to his feet. “I need to get down there. I’ll call Pepper on the way – finish the movie with Maria I don’t want her –“

“Tony?” Maria’s voice came from the doorway of the living room. Her eyes were wide but it was hard to read any emotion into them from where he stood. “What happened? Are we under attack?”

Tony closed his eyes for a moment debating what to do. “Come here Maria.”

She crossed the room to him and he knelt down putting his hands on her shoulders. “We’re not under attack, but someone or something did a lot of damage to one of my factory complexes. Remember the one we visited in China?”

Maria nodded.

“It’s one sort of like that. I need to go there right now and find out what’s going on. You can stay up and finish the movie with Steve.” Tony tried to keep his voice even.

“I should go with you,” Maria told him.

*….rescue crews…*

It was the start of a familiar argument, and one he did not want to have right then. “I need you to stay here and protect Steve. Can you do that?”

She frowned slightly, but nodded. “Yes, Tony.”

“Good girl,” he kissed her forehead.

As he stood, Steve brushed his fingers against Tony’s.

“Be careful,” Steve mouthed before kissing Tony.

Tony nodded and headed for the elevator.

He was half way to California when the report came in that a truck had tried to ram its way through the security gate at a Stark Industries’ Chicago factory.

Everything was going to hell at once.

Chapter Text

While there are only six causalities reported so far, the damage to the Stark Industries Silicone Valley complex is severe. As you can see from the pictures, much of the complex was completely razed. We have some sources from inside SI that have told us that there had been a major meeting and party planned for yesterday, but that it was canceled at the last minute.

One can only speculate that the intended targets were those attending that meeting and party, including CEO Tony Stark. While no one group has come forward claiming responsibility for the destruction of the complex, or for the possibly connected situation of a truck filled with explosives ramming a security gate at a Stark Industries New Jersey plant, there has been speculation that these attacks are by an underground anti-registration group.

The CEO of Stark Industries has been a firm supporter for the SHRA, as well as registering himself. He was instrumental in registering many, and led the pro-registration forces…

Click

Tony Stark, CEO of Stark Industries and current Director of Shield, has been seen onsite with Shield agents, but has not yet talked to the press. Both Virginia Potts, Stark's personal assistant and often Si's media rep., and Maria Hill from Shield, have given brief statements to the press…

Click

Sponge Bob Square Pants--

Click

This is all obviously the work of mutants! We need to put them in camps before --

Click

The few shots we've gotten of Mr. Stark have been in armor so it's hard to say just what's going through his mind after such a blatant terrorist attack on his company…

Click

Human rights activists are urging the major world powers to boycott the upcoming summer Olympics…

Click

Stark Industries’ stock has fallen twenty points since the start of trading, and is expected to fall further…

Steve clicked the TV off and threw the remote on the couch. Rubbing his hand over his face, he stared at the blank screen. He hadn't heard from Tony since early that morning and even though Steve knew Tony had too much on his plate right now to check in with his over worried boyfriend -- he still worried.

Maria was in her room working on schoolwork, or drawing if she'd finished. She'd been quieter than normal so far that day. Quieter then she'd been the first time Tony had been gone for a night -- but she hadn't known anything could possibly be wrong, other than Tony being gone, that time. She knew something was wrong this time, and he wondered if lying to her would have been a better tactic. Probably not. She probably would have known something was wrong and been upset about being kept in the dark.

She reminded him of Bucky sometimes in that way -- refusing to believe that there could be things that didn't concern her. Looking back, it should have clued him in that something was going on with Bucky, but he hadn't wanted to look to closely at so many of the whys when it came to Bucky.

Steve rubbed his hand over his face again and yawned. He hadn't slept much the night before. Neither had Maria. He knew that, because they'd both fallen asleep on the couch before he'd carried her to bed early that morning.

He thought about calling Pepper again but she didn't need him bothering her more. And Maria would probably come out of her room to admonish Pepper again that 'she'd better look after Tony carefully' in Maria's stead -- though it had been amusing.

Steve knew he needed to get up and do something. He was pretty sure he’d never wallowed in worry over Tony before in situations like this but – but, before he'd been able to be at Tony’s side. Or at least be available for backup if Tony needed it, if he wasn't in the middle of dealing with another world crisis on his own. There was something maddening about having to sit on the sidelines and flip through 24 hour news programs for information about the person he most cared about.

Is this what it felt like for some of the women he'd dated that had known he was Captain America? Worried and unable to do a thing about it? He'd never even considered it with Sharon or Rachel, but they had both been in the business. They weren't the sort to sit around worrying about him. If need be, they just showed up and saved his sorry backside.

Down the hall, the soft ping of the private elevator drew his attention. Moments later a very tired looking Tony came into view. Seeing Steve, he tried to smile but it fell flat. "Honey I'm home?"

Steve stood up from the couch and quickly crossed the living room, wrapping Tony in a hug. "I was worried."

Tony shook his head against Steve's shoulder. "Nothing to be worried about. It was all recon and clean up. Rebuilding is going to be hell but I've wanted to redesign that complex for a while."

"The news said the body count was six, over or under?" He ran his hand up and down Tony’s back, trying to soothe him. He knew Tony was trying to joke about it all to hide how shaken he was.

"Under, but I'd bet money that what was left of the four we pulled from the detention site set off the explosion. We've been trying to keep the media's information as sketchy as possible," Tony sighed heavily, leaning against Steve. He could almost feel Tony drift off for a moment.

Steve managed a soft chuckle. "It's working. One channel is running a background on the company itself, complete with old photos of your father."

Tony pulled back slightly and made a face. "CNN or MSNBC?"

"There's a difference?" Steve asked, slowly walking them backwards towards the hall. Tony needed sleep and he was going to get it if he had to hold Tony down.

"MSNBC has Keith Olbermann. Good guy. Sat next to him at a Mets game once. CNN just annoys me," Tony told him. "It wasn't FOX News was it? Please tell me it wasn’t FOX."

"It wasn't FOX. I think you have that channel blocked," Steve assured him with a soft laugh. "I'm sure you'll be able to look it up with your brain later."

Tony blinked and seemed to realize that Steve was leading him towards the bedroom. "No, Steve, I've got too much to do. I need to call the border, then set up a press conference, not to mention analyzing samples taken from the site -- plus I need to go to the New Jersey plant." He blinked again as if trying to clear his blurry vision. "I have families to call --" His voice broke slightly.

"Tony, you have people working for you. You don't have to do all of that yourself," Steve insisted. "And you won't be doing anything other than falling over if you don't get some sleep. I will pick you up and carry you if I have to."

"Oh no, anything but that," Tony gasped, then shook his head. "I'll sleep later. I need to --" He swayed on his feet slightly.

Steve cupped Tony's chin and forced the other man to look at him. "Tony."

Tony blinked again, his eyes losing the hazy look they got when he was using Extremis. "Huh?"

"I won't let you sleep too long. I promise," Steve assured him, resting his forehead against Tony's.

After several moments, Tony nodded. "Pepper did say she'd slip sleeping pills into my coffee if I didn't get some rest."

"She's a good woman," Steve agreed.

"It’s a conspiracy I swear, you're all against me," Tony muttered as Steve led him into the bedroom.

Steve nuzzled his throat in apology and striped Tony down to his boxers before doing the same. Tony didn't resist as Steve maneuvered him into bed and settled in next to him. "I love you," he whispered into the skin at the back of Tony's neck.

Tony made a sound of contentment, tension leaking out of his body. "Love you too."

There was a soft knock on the door. "Tony?"

Tony shifted away from Steve slightly and sat up. "You can come in, Maria."

Steve sat up part way himself, watching as Maria pushed open the door.

"You came home," Maria stated softly.

Steve felt a moment of guilt for not letting Tony go see her before he all but dragged him into bed. But Tony had been ready to drop and -- and Steve was still getting used to taking into account the small child in their lives.

Her expression was carefully blank to Steve's eyes, but from glancing at Tony's face he could tell the other man could read something in it.

"Want to take a nap with us, genius?" Tony offered, holding out his arms.

Maria didn't move for the span of several breaths before she almost ran across the room to Tony. "Did Pepper take care of you?" She asked, hugging Tony.

"She always does," Tony assured her lifting her up onto the bed. "Were you good for Steve?"

Steve nodded. "She was very good." He shifted so Maria could settle down between them.

He watched Tony press a kiss to Maria's forehead. "I think we all could use a nap," Tony murmured, stroking Maria's hair.

Steve agreed with the sentiment and was more than a little tired himself. Still, when both Maria and Tony had fallen asleep -- Maria curled between them looking tiny and fragile and Tony's arm curled protectively around her -- he was awake.

With Tony home, safe, and resting he could let himself think about the worst that could have happened. All the scenarios he hadn't let himself think of could now run through his head and he only had to reach out and stroke Tony's skin to know that none of it had happened. There had been no ambush, no assassin lying in wait, and no secondary attack after Tony had been lured there -- and he didn't have to worry now that his cowardice had left Tony without backup.

He settled his arm over both of them and with a skill honed over many long years as a soldier and an Avenger, Steve closed his eyes and willed himself into sleep.

Chapter Text

Tony wasn’t fooled by the calm that followed over the next few days. Everything was too calm in fact, and it unnerved him. There had been no super-villain attacks, no further attacks on SI properties, and no break-ins by Steve’s kid brother.

He furthered arrangements for Peter to do a photo shoot with Maria – it hadn’t taken much for Sue to agree to it taking place at the Baxter Building. Peter had longer standing friendships with the Fantastic Four then he’d ever had with Tony. Plus Franklin would most likely reassure Maria.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, he reached for a cup of coffee only to find it cold. He made a face and looked up as Pepper came into his office with some paper work. “You know you used to be better at keeping me in fresh coffee,” he teased.

Pepper rolled her eyes. “You also used to drink some of it before you forgot it was there.”

Tony smiled faintly. “Okay, so I might be slightly more distracted with a computer in my brain than I used to be…”

“I think your caffeine addiction just isn’t as strong,” Pepper laughed.

“Horrible slander,” Tony assured her. “I can’t survive without it.”

Pepper gave him a fond look and sighed. “Do you need anything other than fresh coffee? Which, by the way, you have proved in the past very capable of fetching for yourself.”

“I have an errand for you actually, Pepper,” Tony told her with a slight smile. “I’d go myself, but you’re more of a neutral party.”

She raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms. “What do you need me to do, Tony?”

Tony pulled a flash drive out of his pocket and handed it to her. “You know the coffee shop just down the road? I need you to go and order yourself a cup of coffee. You remember Dr. Strange, right? Just give him the flash drive.”

“Dr. Strange...yes I remember him but, Tony…” She had that familiar exasperated edge to her voice that Tony never thought he’d be so happy to hear again.

“I’m not asking you to do anything dangerous,” Tony promised her. “You can even use the company card for the coffee.”

Pepper laughed. “Tony, stop. I know you wouldn’t send me to do something dangerous. You keep those missions for yourself.”

“I save a few for Rhodey,” Tony protested.

She rolled her eyes again. “Honestly.” She shook her head. “What time do you need me to be there?”

“The contact will be there about 2, so if you leave now you’ll be good,” Tony told her. “Thanks, Pepper. You’re one of the few people I can trust with this.”

Pepper bit her bottom lip and reached out to touch Tony’s arm. “You’re going to get in a lot of trouble for this aren’t you?”

Tony shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. I’ll be fine Pepper; I can weather a lot of things.” He kept his smile easy. One could almost think it was like old times.

“Can Maria?” Pepper asked softly.

Tony’s smile dropped. He’d imagined various worst case scenarios but he tried not to think about that. “I have plans in place. She’ll be taken care of no matter what happens to me.”

“Does Steve know about that?” Pepper pushed, and Tony really wished she wouldn’t.

He patted the hand still on his arm. “I’m not doing anything truly crazy, Pepper. I promise.”

Pepper gave him a look that said she didn’t quite believe him.

It would help if Tony could believe himself, but considering everything else going on this was the least crazy thing he was doing. After Pepper left the room, Tony rubbed a hand over his face. He had at least a half hour before his meeting with ‘Captain America’. He wanted to do a great many things to the man that had attempted to kidnap Maria, but talking civil with James Barnes was not one of them.

Only for Steve was he doing this. Steve wanted to set up a meeting between him, ‘Bucky’ and Sharon. Steve wanted to talk things out as if him being alive was suddenly going to change their minds about Tony being a bad, bad man. He wanted to tell Steve he was insane for thinking Barnes even believed he was Steve Rogers, or that Sharon would believe it either, or that for thinking any of it would work out for the best.

Things never worked out for the best when Tony was involved. Steve should have known that by now.

And goddamnit he didn’t need this right now. Not on top of some lunatic blowing up his factories – it wasn’t going to be over with just two strikes. Tony had been around too long to believe that. But Steve asked, and Tony had always had trouble saying no to Steve.

He’d set up their meeting, but Maria would not be anywhere near the Tower when it happened. There was a charity art show in Chelsea next week that he was supposed to attend – he’d set the meeting for them and then take Maria with him. At least he’d know she’d be safe then.

***

“Stark,” James spat the name, making it sound like a nasty disease. One he hoped Stark would drop dead of.

Tony Stark’s face was a neutral mask, like an emotionless robot. Maybe the man was more machine than human these days. James at least expected the man to try to hit him. After all, he had broken into his home and tried to kidn—no rescue— Maria (but she’d been terrified and crying, and he’d already told Sharon he wouldn’t – couldn’t do that again. Not with Steve there. Not to a child with Steve’s eyes.)

“Steve wants to meet with you and Sharon. He said he mentioned something about it to you when you – spoke.”

“You mean when I was trying to save that little girl from you?” James ribbed. “I didn’t know I should have been prepared to save Steve as well.”

“I wasn’t aware saving people these days involved reducing a nine-year-old to hysterics,” Tony hissed.

James almost grinned; he’d wanted a reaction-, hadn’t he? But somehow it didn’t make him feel any better. He opened his mouth but Stark continued on.

“What would you have done if Jarvis had been there, instead of Steve? Would you have gone through him? What would you have done if she had fought back?” Stark snapped. “Did you and Sharon plan what you were going to do once you’d ripped her from the first home she’d ever known that didn’t treat her like a toy soldier?”

James flinched despite himself. He hadn’t really thought too much about where she’d been before Stark. He hadn’t wanted to. It brought up too many thoughts about how he’d known -- “We had more right to her-”

Stark advanced on him, and James took a step backwards, even though he could easily take him. “Maria’s a child. A living breathing child. She’s not a thing to be fought over. She isn’t the shield. She isn’t a prize that was supposed to go to whoever loved Steve best.” His voice broke. “I was selfish, yes. I wanted a little piece of Steve to myself – but then there she was, just a kid that no one had ever once thought ‘what’s best for her’ in her entire life – she’s not a prize, James.”

James shook his head. It hadn’t been like that. He’d just wanted – Sharon had just wanted – they’d meant well. They’d meant to do what was best for the kid.

“You can hate me all you want. You can want me dead for all I care. But you don’t get to use that hate to hurt an innocent child,” Stark finished, suddenly looking exhausted. “And if you ever try to take her again, it won’t matter how much Steve loves you, Barnes.”

James bristled. “Is that a threat, Director Stark?”

“It’s a promise, Captain America,” Stark sneered. “I’m only here now because to Steve you’re still his kid brother Bucky, and I don’t think too much of anything will ever change that.”

“Why do you care what Steve thinks?” James snorted, folding his arms across his chest. He resisted the urge to pace. “You’re the reason he ‘died’ to begin with.”

Stark made a sound almost like laughter. “Maybe I am.” He shook his head. “But I never stopped caring what he thought. If you want to meet with him you can do it next Thursday at the Tower. Maria and I won’t be there.”

“And how do I know this isn’t some sort of trick?” James asked, even though he knew it wasn’t. Stark had risked a bit too much setting him up as Captain America. And if he was honest, Stark loved Steve too much. He might hate it but he’d be an idiot to deny what any fool could figure out.

James had frankly been surprised Stark hadn’t killed himself before James tired assassinating Iron Man. It would have made everyone’s lives easier if Stark had eaten a gun.

“Because I really have nothing to gain by tricking you,” Stark answered calmly, as he turned to leave. At the last moment he paused, and turned back. “By the way? If you see Fury, tell him to come take his goddamn job back.”

James almost smiled as Stark walked away.

***

Sometimes it was easy to forget that the small hand that clutched his as he did the shopping was not Anthony’s. At times it didn’t seem so long ago that the small figure behind him would have been a raven-haired little boy with his mother’s eyes and bright smile. But it wasn’t Anthony – who rarely was called Anthony now, even by him – it was Maria, who unlike Tony or her namesake, rarely gave wide bright smiles unless they were for Tony or for Steven.

She couldn’t be further in personality from Maria Stark, but Jarvis knew Maria would have adored her adopted granddaughter. He himself loved Maria liked a grandchild, just like he loved Tony as a son. He perhaps had more right to that claim than Howard Stark ever had, but it was best not to speak ill of the dead.

“Jarvis?” Maria tugged the older man’s hand, her voice soft.

“Yes, Maria?” Jarvis glanced down at the little girl.

Maria looked uneasy for a split second, her eyes darting to the side before her features fell into a blank look. “Someone is following us,” she told him solemnly.

“Are they now?” Jarvis said, keeping his voice normal. Maria might be clever, but for her to spot someone following them, the person couldn’t be that good at it.

“He’s been tracking us for the last hour, but I couldn’t confirm it until just now,” Maria said, sounding more like a grown superhero than a child, her eyes darting again.

There was indeed a man seemingly paying very close attention to them, but it could just be someone who recognized her from the papers. There was still a chance that Maria was correct and it would, in the long run, be easier to go on the assumption that she was right.

Jarvis squeezed Maria’s hand reassuringly. “Well, this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been followed. Nor, I doubt, will it be the last. Anthony -- your father, often has a great many people interested in him,” he told her, as they continued walking. “The best thing often to do is act as if you don’t notice them.”

He smiled at her questioning look. “Trust me, my dear. I haven’t always been ‘just’ a butler.”

“What were you before?” she asked curiously.

“I was a member of the Canadian Royal Air Force during the War,” he told her in a confidential tone.

“You were a pilot?” Maria’s eyes widened slightly, and he could tell he was being successful at partly distracting her. “Which war?” she asked.

He chuckled, keeping a watch on their ‘follower’ out of the corner of his eye. It appeared Maria had been accurate in her assessment. They were being followed.

“World War II, and yes I was a pilot. I served mostly in Britain, stayed there for a time after the war as well.”

“Did you know Steve then?” She asked.

“No, I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Captain America then. He wasn’t in England much during the War,” Jarvis told her. He’d answered the question for Tony a time or two in his childhood. The main thing in his mind was to keep Maria distracted until they arrived safely back at the Tower.

***

Steve took in the taut lines of Tony’s back as he stared out across the darkened city and swore under his breath. He should have pulled Tony aside earlier. Tony had rushed home that afternoon after Jarvis had contacted him and he’d barely let Maria out of his sight since.

But Maria was in her bed – if not asleep, at least on the way to being so – she was safe. Jarvis was safe. Steve wasn’t going to lie to himself, or to Tony, and try to tell Tony that the man could have been a reporter or a curious civilian.

He’d hoped Tony would have – relaxed? Steve almost laughed at himself. Tony looked almost in pain, paper clenched in his right fist.

“Tony?”

Tony’s forehead pressed against the glass of the windows. “Just go to bed, Steve.”

Steve sighed and made his way over to his – lover? Boyfriend? They might have confessed love for each other but he still had no clue what that made them at times. “Maria’s fine. We’ll find out who followed them today and why.” He rested a hand against the center of Tony’s back.

“You mean I’ll find out who followed them and deal with it,” Tony snapped. “You can’t do much while in the Tower can you? And the only person you actively want to know you’re alive is Sharon Carter.”

Steve flinched slightly and opened his mouth to argue, before it dawned on him that Tony was trying to start a fight. And the words did hold a certain amount of truth. “I’m sorry.”

Steve could see in the reflection of the glass that Tony’s eyes were closed. He wrapped an arm around Tony’s middle, splaying his hand across Tony’s abdomen. Steve could feel the muscles under his hand tremble, but Tony didn’t try to move away from Steve.

“It isn’t your fault there might be someone after her. You aren’t the one that has failed to keep her safe,” Tony continued. “And I stood there yesterday and told Barnes I wanted what was best for her. What’s best for her would be far away from me-”

“Goddamnit Tony!” Steve jerked Tony around to face him, pinning him against the glass. “Are you through?”

Tony blinked, eyes smoky-blue and wide. He nodded slowly.

“Good, because I want you to listen to me,” Steve told him, using his grip on Tony’s arms to shake him slightly. It should have worried him how they almost always seemed to resort to almost physical violence.

The muscles under his hands trembled, but Tony didn’t move or speak.

“What would have happened to Maria?” Steve’s voice was quiet; it was something he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. There were too many things in the details of how Maria came to be in Tony’s protection that he didn’t know. If I’m a good boy I get to keep her, Tony’s voice echoed in his head from weeks ago when he’d first come back to the Tower.

Tony’s eyes went distant.

Steve tightened his hands just slightly. “If you hadn’t taken her in, what would have happened to Maria?” he clarified.

“I – someone else would have taken her,” Tony whispered.

Steve shook his head. “The truth, Tony.” He didn’t want to hear the answer anymore than Tony wanted to say it.

Tony’s eyes slid closed and his head hit the glass. “They—she’d be dead. Like the other girls.”

“You have done everything you can to protect that little girl. I’m not going to stand here and listen to you blame yourself for something that hasn’t even happened yet. That I know you’d die to keep from happening. I love you too damn much to listen to you tear yourself down like that.” Steve finished, feeling almost exhausted by his outburst.

For several long, long seconds Tony just looked at him before holding out the papers he’d been clutching. “I received these by courier this afternoon just before Jarvis called.”

Steve smoothed out the papers and found himself looking at photos of Maria and Jarvis. On the last page the words I will take everything you love were scrawled.

“God,” Steve whispered.

“I’ve tried tracing it, but it’s gotten nowhere. Whoever this is – they’re good. I’d almost be impressed if…” Tony trailed off and shook his head. He sounded defeated.

Steve looked from the pictures to Tony, and for a moment wanted to convince Tony to take Maria and run away with him. Change their names, disappear somewhere. Let the world forget about them.

But he couldn’t. Tony would never agree, and Steve would never be able to sleep at night.

“I’m not even sure I want to let her out of my sight long enough for the photo shoot tomorrow. Never mind that she’ll be with Parker and the Fantastic Four.” Tony pressed his hand over his eyes.

Steve dropped the photos and cupped the back of Tony’s head, pulling him close. “From now on, if she isn’t with one of us, she’s with another hero. If not the one of the Fantastic Four, then Jan and Hank, or Carol. Hell, I’d like to see someone try to touch her in Asgard.” He rested his forehead against Tony’s. “We’ll keep her safe.”

***

Maria had learned a great many things since Tony Stark had become her CO – though she was starting to understand that CO was not the correct title of the status Tony held in her life. She had yet to find the correct one that would encompass everything the name Tony had come to mean for her.

She’d learned about ‘fun’, how to wear different clothing, how to eat ice cream… She’d learned three new rolls in the gym with Steve, how to ‘hug’, and that not all mistakes were punished.

She’d also learned that she did not like how her eyes felt hot and itchy – like she wanted to cry – when Tony was too busy to work on their model again. That she did not like the sensation in the bottom of her stomach when Tony and Steve would raise their voices once she’d gone to bed. The voices carried louder than normal with her bedroom door half open.

She knew she wasn’t supposed to be straining in the darkness to hear their words, but she did it anyways. It would be easy to climb from her bed and pad silently down the hallway. She’d hovered at the doorway of the living room more than once, listening to Tony talk to Steve or Carol – or sometimes Jarvis. Sometimes Tony would somehow know she was there, other times he never noticed or just never commented.

Maria curled tighter in her cocoon of blankets, everything in her wanting to run out to Tony as she heard a thud from the living room and Steve’s voice sharp and angry sounding.

But Steve said he wouldn’t hurt Tony. He’d said. And Tony had said.

Was it about her? Had she done something wrong today, noticing she and Jarvis were being followed? Had she displeased Tony somehow – was that why he hadn’t worked on the model with her in days?

Jarvis had assured her he was just busy – that some awful things had happened and Tony was trying to find out who was responsible so it wouldn’t happen again.

She curled her blunt nails into the palms of her hands. She wasn’t sure if she knew what to believe sometimes.

Lying awake, she listened to the voices quiet in the living room, and the sound of Steve and Tony moving quietly past her door. There was the slight pause of Tony looking in on her – she knew it was Tony, Steve moved differently and sounded different – she waited for them to move past but –

“Maria?” Tony’s voice was soft.

She bit the inside of her cheek. Tony couldn’t know she was still awake, she hadn’t done anything to give herself away.

“Let her be, Tony,” Steve murmured just as softly.

Maria kept the rise and fall of her breath steady. She didn’t want to be in trouble for still being awake – even though she’d never been in trouble for that before. But she wasn’t always sure what to expect from Tony in recent days.

“I’ll just be a few moments,” Tony was saying.

Steve didn’t say anything else, but she didn’t hear him move right away. There was a noise she couldn’t place, then Steve was moving down the hallway.

After another breath, Tony padded over to her bed, sitting down beside her. “I know you’re awake, genius,” he didn’t sound upset, just – sad. A gentle hand stroked her back.

Still Maria didn’t drop her pretense of sleep, even though she wanted to. She wanted – she wanted to act like she’d seen Val act when the little girl had fallen. She wanted to cling to Tony like Val had to Sue. She wanted to cry. She wanted to be told it was going to be okay, even though she knew it wasn’t. Not yet.

“I’m going to keep you safe,” Tony told her, still stroking her back. “I promise you that no matter what happens you’ll be safe.”

Maria turned her head slightly, then blinked up at him. “I’ll keep you safe too, Tony,” she told him.

Tony smiled but it looked – it looked sad. His hand continued stroking her back as he pressed a kiss to her head. “That’s my brave girl.”

She wanted to say something else, to tell him not to look so sad, but it was getting harder to keep her eyes open. Then – then she was asleep.

Chapter Text

The receptionist in the front lobby of the Baxter Building had probably seen many strange sights since she started working there, Tony figured. So it was no wonder that Tony Stark having a quiet argument with a nine-year-old didn’t draw her attention.

“Why can you not stay for the photo shoot?” Maria asked, looking up at Tony. She was clutching the backpack that held her gymnastics clothes and her sketch book.

Tony resisted rubbing his hand over his face as he knelt down in front of her. He kept hoping Sue would appear so he wouldn’t have to have this conversation. “There are some really important things I need to do today,” he told her. It wasn’t a total lie, after all. “Franklin will be with you, and Sue will be close by the whole time. I thought you wanted to meet Peter?”

Maria pressed her lips into a thin line, her knuckles almost white. “I thought you were going to be here, too,” she protested. “What if you need me to protect you today? Shouldn’t I go with you? The person who followed me and Jarvis is most likely after you.”

“Maria, listen to me,” Tony sighed. He tucked a bit of her hair behind her ear. He wondered if it was normal for her hair to have grown so fast in just a few months, and without thinking, cross-checked with Extremis how many times Steve needed haircuts.

She shook her head. “No, Tony –“

“Hush, and listen to me.” Tony put a finger to her lips. “I know you want to go with me, but just like I go to work and you stay in the penthouse with Jarvis most days – today I need you to stay here with the Fantastic Four, okay? You and Franklin can play like you normally do when you visit him. Peter’s just going to take some pictures of you doing everyday stuff. Nothing big or formal like the last one.”

She didn’t look convinced. “You’re in danger. I shouldn’t leave your side. That’s my purpose.”

There were so many things messed up with that line of logic that Tony didn’t know where to start. “Your purpose for today is to be a nine-year-old girl who’s going to spend the day playing with her best friend.” He tapped her nose. “Got it?”

“Yes, Tony,” Maria agreed, though it was clear she wasn’t happy about it.

“That’s my girl,” he told her softly. He kissed her forehead and got to his feet. “Shall we go say hello to everyone? I’m sure they know we’re here by now. Except Reed, of course. He’s probably already caught up doing something in his lab.”

Maria slid her hand into his, and he squeezed it gently. “Franklin says he’s almost always working in the lab.”

Tony smiled. “That sounds like Reed, alright,” he chuckled as they moved into the elevator.

“Tony?”

He glanced down at her. “Yes, genius?”

“Can we work on the model tonight?” she asked hopefully.

Tony nodded. “Of course we can. Shall we see if we can’t get it to fly tonight?”

The happiness in her eyes was answer enough.

***

Peter had been surprised Tony wasn’t there. Was his absence a sign of Tony’s distrust of him or Tony’s assumption of Peter’s distrust of Tony? Peter wasn’t sure. The other Secret Avengers hadn’t been too wild about him doing this either. Luke Cage had muttered ‘sell out,’ before Jessica had elbowed him. But Peter wanted his life back. He wanted Mary-Jane to have her life back. He wanted to not have to hide and sneak around just to visit his Aunt.

Maria was shyer than Peter had expected. In fact, he wasn’t sure what he expected given what he’d read about her in the papers and a warning from Sue that the little girl was still wary about strangers. He had no idea what Tony might have said about him. She’d hung behind Franklin, watching Peter carefully at first, despite Franklin’s reassurances to her.

Peter had thought it was best not to start taking photos right away. With Franklin’s help he’d coaxed her closer, showed her how the camera worked, displayed all the different lenses. When she finally asked “Are you really Spider-Man?” Peter knew he was getting somewhere.

Now Maria was sitting on the edge of a balance beam in the Baxter Building gym, giggling at Peter who was hanging off the ceiling. Franklin was on the other side of the room with Val – who Peter swore had grown a foot since he’d last seen her. He’d have to ask Johnny about that.

“So where’s your dad today, kiddo?” Peter asked, causally.

Maria blinked at him as if he’d started speaking in tongues. “I don’t have a father. Or a mother. None of us did. We had genetic donors. Their identities were unimportant.”

Peter opened his mouth and closed it several times. He had no idea what to make of that. Okay he had some idea, but he didn’t like any of those thoughts. When he’d read that Tony said she was from a government facility, he hadn’t thought it was one of those. He almost didn’t want to know what Tony had done to get the government to give her to him or why.

“Uhm, let me try that again. Where’s Tony today?” Peter asked quickly, because freaking out a small child because you asked the wrong question was a bad thing when dealing with kids. Especially the kids of superheroes. Never mind that he was a superhero, too.

Maria blinked again. “He was unable to accompany me today.”

Peter rubbed the back of his head. “I was just wondering,” he told her.

She had that watchful cautious look on her face again. “Tony said you and he are friends.”

“He did? I mean we are – I guess – we just had a disagreement over some – uhm – stuff.” Peter dropped down from the ceiling to crouch beside her on the beam. “Your – Tony is a pretty okay guy, though. Even when he is being an as– even when I don’t agree with him.”

Maria had turned to look at him, titling her head to the side. She got to her feet then balanced up on the tips of her toes on one foot. “Why don’t you come over to the penthouse? Tony’s other friends do.”

“Like I said, me and Tony had a disagreement about something. And I don’t want to come over uninvited,” Peter explained to her. He wasn’t sure what Tony had told her but she seemed to think he and Tony were still friends – and well, he guessed what he told her was partly correct since they were – sort of.

“Oh,” she said as if she hadn’t thought of that. She looked up at the ceiling. “I wish I could hang off the ceiling. It seems very useful. You could sneak up on all sorts of people.”

Peter grinned. “It has its uses. Sometimes it annoys MJ, though. She says it’s hard talking to someone who’s upside down.”

Maria giggled. “I don’t think so.” She was quiet for a few moments and Peter could see her debating something in her head. “Peter?”

“Yeah, kiddo?”

Her face had grown serious and she dropped down into a crouch mirroring his. “Why would someone be trying to hurt, Tony?”

Peter rocked back slightly on his heels. “What do you mean?” he asked carefully. He could think of quite a few reasons, but this was Tony’s kid. Not to mention Franklin’s friend and the poor child didn’t have enough of those. Maria probably didn’t have enough of those, either.

There weren’t exactly a lot of super-powered kids or kids of superheroes running around -- not counting the Runaways – and it wasn’t as if they could go outside and play or go over to a friend’s house after school.

Maria bit the inside of her cheek. “Someone’s after Tony. I know they are. Someone’s been attacking places he owns and someone followed me and Jarvis the other day. Tony’s really worried, though he doesn’t want me to know he is.” She broke his gaze, dropping it to her feet. “I don’t want to lose Tony. I don’t want to go back to someplace like The Complex. Tony said I’d never have to go back there but if something happens to Tony…”

“Hey, hey,” Peter said softly, lifting her chin. “Tony’s tough. Whatever it is, I bet he can handle it. ‘Sides he’s got people like Ms. Marvel he can get to help him. If Tony doesn’t want you to worry, you shouldn’t. And if Tony promised you that you wouldn’t go back, you won’t. People like the Fantastic Four and I wouldn’t let anyone put you back there. Promise.”

 

***

Steve watched Tony adjust his tux tie in the mirror before leaning in and placing a kiss to the side of Tony’s throat. “Have I ever told you how good you look in a tux?”

Tony grinned, easy and wide with none of the stress of the past few weeks in his features for once. “Yes, but feel free to tell me again.”

Steve ran his hands over the clean line of the tux down to Tony’s hips and rested his chin against Tony’s shoulder. “Seeing you in a tux makes me want to strip it off of you and pin you to the wall.”

“Mhm, later,” Tony murmured, leaning his head back against Steve’s shoulder.

Steve closed his eyes for a moment. He didn’t want Tony to go out tonight. He hated that he was pretty much chasing Tony and Maria from their home just so he could speak with Bucky and Sharon. “You and Maria should stay here tonight, Tony. With everything –“

“I don’t want Maria around Bucky.” Tony didn’t pull away, but his voice was short and clipped. “And if I’m here, they’ll both think I’m pulling your strings somehow.”

“Tony,” Steve sighed. “Bucky isn’t going to hurt Maria or try to take her again.”

Tony shrugged. “So he claims.” He was quiet for a moment. “We’ll only be gone for a few hours. It’s a Gallery Opening. There’ll be lots of other people there, and my armor is never far away. I’ll be fine. Maria will be fine. Plus, Pepper’s making me take security with me.“

Steve wished Tony didn’t sound so much like he was trying to convince himself as much as Steve. “Good woman.”

“Yes, she is. I have no idea why she puts up with me,” Tony said, dryly. He gave Steve a small smile through the mirror.

Steve forced himself to smile back. “Because she’s your friend?”

“Hmm. Remind me to give her a raise.”

“You keep giving her raises, and she’ll make more than you,” Steve admonished him.

Tony turned in Steve’s arms, sliding his own around Steve. “Good help is hard to find."

“Tony?” Maria’s voice came from the door way of the bedroom.

Tony turned his head smiling, but didn’t leave Steve’s arms. “Yes, genius?”

Steve looked over towards Maria. She was in a rather pretty blue dress – Steve wondered if it was one of Jan’s designs – her hair was out of its normal braid and was spilling around her shoulders. She needed a haircut soon, Steve decided.

“Are we going soon?” Maria asked. She’d been growing more excited -- in her own particular way -- about the trip since they’d both explained to her what a “Gallery Opening” was, and that she’d get to see new art before anyone else. It also seemed that Peter was going to be taking photographs for the Bugle that night as well, and Maria had been going on for a few days about how ‘cool’ Peter was.

“Soon. Did you finish your dinner?” Tony asked.

Maria nodded. “I did. Peter’s going to be there tonight, isn’t he? Will he have time to talk to us?”

“Good girl,” Tony told her. “And, yes, I’m sure Peter will come say hello.”

Steve pressed a kiss to Tony’s lips. “Go on. I’m sure your limo is already here.”

“Why isn’t Steve coming with us?” Maria asked. She grabbed Tony’s hand, looking up at both of them.

Tony cleared his throat, moving from the circle of Steve’s arms to place his free hand on Maria’s shoulder. “Maria, we’ve talked about this.”

Maria pressed her lips together before she turned an accusing look on Steve. “Don’t you want to go with us?” she asked, her tone almost as accusatory as her gaze.

Before Steve could answer, Tony spoke. “Maria, he’s just not coming with us tonight. It’s fine. Come on, we should go.”

“Steve could help me better protect you,” Maria pointed out. “Why aren’t we supposed to let people know he’s here? Why does Steve never leave the penthouse?”

Steve had the feeling if she wasn’t clutching Tony’s hand that her arms would be crossed over her chest. He was again reminded of a younger Bucky. With a soft sigh he knelt down so he could look her in the eyes. “Maria, remember how confused you were because I was supposed to be dead?”

She nodded, then titled her head to one side as if evaluating him.

“A lot of people still think that’s true and it’s safer for everyone if people keep thinking that for a while. That’s why I stay in the penthouse, and why I can’t go with you and Tony tonight. I do want to come with you both.” Steve told her, leaving out the part about Bucky and Sharon coming over. Maria wouldn’t understand why he was meeting with someone that, in her eyes, was a threat to Tony.

Though Steve wondered how many people weren’t a threat to Tony in her eyes. Jarvis was probably on the top of that list, followed by Franklin then maybe Jan or Carol.

Maria looked from him to Tony, seeking confirmation to Steve’s words. Tony didn’t say anything, and Steve didn’t look up to see his expression, but whatever Maria saw seemed to appease her somewhat.

“I guess that is acceptable. I don’t understand how it can be safer,” she told him, frowning slightly. “I will give you a full report of the art when we come home, if you’d like?”

“I look forward to it,” Steve assured her, getting to his feet. “Now you and Tony better go. You don’t want to be late.”

Tony leaned in, brushing his lips against Steve’s ear. “Thank you,” he whispered.

Steve walked with them to the elevator and wished he was attending the Gallery Opening with them. As much as he knew he needed to meet with and talk to Sharon and Bucky – it wasn’t as appealing as an evening with his family.

***

When Bucky and Sharon entered the penthouse, Steve expected a lot of things. He expected Bucky to tear into Tony within moment, Sharon to yell at him for letting her think he was dead for weeks, or even awkward silence. What he didn’t expect was Sharon to throw her arms around him and hug him fiercely, calling him an idiot or for Bucky to look almost jealous when she did so.

He found himself explaining for what felt like the umpteenth time in so many weeks how he’d pulled himself from the Hudson with no memory of who he was and how only slowly his memory had come back. Sharon was obviously unhappy that when he had remembered who he was he’d gone to Tony, but she – thankfully – held her tongue.

He showed them the DNA test Hank had run, and answered what seemed like question after question from Sharon. Bucky was strangely quiet, letting Sharon ask her questions and Steve say his peace. Bucky kept watching Sharon as if he expected something or feared something. Steve wasn’t sure he even wanted to know what that was about.

“Steve, can I speak to you alone?” Sharon asked, finally.

Steve restrained himself from pointing out that they might as well have been speaking alone for all Bucky was saying. “Of course, Sharon,” he told her, getting to his feet. He was wary about leaving Bucky unsupervised in Tony’s home, but he had to trust him. Also Tony was paranoid enough that there probably wasn’t much Bucky could get into.

She gave him a small wavering smile, and then glanced at Bucky. Bucky was looking intently at his hands. “Lead the way,” Sharon said, getting to her feet as well.

He led her to Tony’s office. “Bucky seems oddly quiet tonight,” Steve commented, leaning against the wall.

Sharon shrugged. “James is just worried about how I’m going to react. I’m afraid I didn’t react – well- to finding out you were still alive.“

Steve ran a hand over his face. “God, Sharon, I’m sorry. I should have contacted you and Bucky earlier.”

“Yeah, you should have, but you didn’t. We all – regret things we’ve done or haven’t done recently.” Her voice was slightly strained and she wouldn’t look directly at him. She was looking around the office, glancing at the pictures on the wall and stopping by Tony’s desk.

Steve closed his eyes for a moment. “Sharon, what happened at the courthouse wasn’t your fault.”

Her head jerked towards him. “How can you say that? You don’t even know all the details—“

“It wasn’t your fault because it wasn’t you. I knew that when you pulled the trigger,” Steve said roughly. It was something he had tried very hard not to think about since he’d started to remember everything. –

--Sharon’s eyes empty, her finger pulling the trigger – pain –

Sharon wrapped her arms around herself. “I – I didn’t even know I was doing it, Steve. I would never – “

“I know,” Steve repeated. He wanted to go to her, to hold her and tell her it was alright but his feet felt glued in place and her body language told him she couldn’t take his offered comfort.

He watched as Sharon visibly pulled herself back together, her gaze falling on Tony’s desk and a picture of Maria sitting there. She picked up the picture. “That isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about though. James knows what happened on the courthouse steps. It’s – what happened later he doesn’t know about.” She touched her fingers to the picture.

“Sharon, whatever it is you can tell me,” Steve assured her.

She set the picture down carefully. “Do you remember that night during the fight?” Her voice was soft.

Steve felt his face flush. “I remember.” He’d needed it at the time, that human connection. It hadn’t been like he’d been cheating on Tony. Not with the way things had been between them at the time.

“I – I became pregnant, Steve,” Sharon told him in a rush.

He opened his mouth, and then closed it again. They hadn’t used protection had they? They hadn’t really thought about consequences or much of anything but the moment. “I –,“ he trailed off, his eyes going to her stomach. It was still flat but she wouldn’t be showing after only what, two months? A baby, he and Sharon were going to have a baby.

Steve could barely wrap his mind around it. This would change so much, mess up so much, and Steve wasn’t sure what he felt.

Sharon closed her eyes and tipped her head back. “I had miscarriage Steve,” she told him as he opened his mouth again. Her voice was tight, almost choked, and he knew her well enough to know that she was fighting off tears. “A few weeks after I found out about our baby. I – you were dead and it was all I had of you. And I lost it.”

All the breath went out of him in a rush. He started forward towards her. “Sharon,” he said softly, not sure what he was going to say but he had to say something

“Cap,” Bucky’s voice came suddenly from the doorway. He sounded worried and maybe a little upset, but urgent. “You need to come see this. Now.”

Steve barely processed that Bucky had called him ‘Cap’ and what that meant as he followed Bucky out into the living room. “Bucky, what’s so important that I need to….”

He trailed off staring wide-eyed at the images on the television.

Tony on the ground bleeding.

Steve couldn’t breathe.

“These are the only images we have as to what happened inside the gallery. Reports on just what occurred are still sketchy and not even witnesses at the scene seem to know exactly what happened,” a female news announcer was saying. Video of the outside of the gallery surrounded by police cars, and people crowded behind police tape played behind her. “What we do know for sure is that Tony Stark and his daughter Maria were both shot by an unknown assassin. Their conditions are not currently known but both have been transported to an unnamed hospital. The police are hesitant to release any information at this time due to security concerns.”

Someone made a choked, pained noise and it took Steve a moment to realize that he had made that sound. He only realized he had made a dash for the elevator when he wasn’t moving forward anymore. “Let me go. I have to get down there. I have to get to them.” He struggled against the restraining hands and arms on him. “Tony needs me.”

Bucky shoved him back by his shoulders. “Cap, stop fighting us,” he hissed. “Stark is tougher than he looks. You know that. You can’t just go running down there.”

“You’ll make things worse Steve,” Sharon was saying. “We don’t even know if the news has it right. If you show up right now it’ll turn into a field day. Call Pepper or someone who will know what’s really going on.”

Steve shook his head. He was needed there. He hadn’t been there when Tony and Maria had actually needed him, but he needed to be there now. He had to know what happened to them and even though he knew Extremis could heal just about anything – Tony still could be dead. Maria could be dead.

“They could be dead,” Steve whispered.

Neither Bucky nor Sharon refuted that fact.

“Steve Rogers appearing back from the dead, right after his opponent in the registration fiasco was shot… it will not look good,” Bucky said, in a low voice.

“I would never hurt them,” Steve protested.

Sharon frowned at him and pushed him back toward the living room couch. “There’s footage of you about to take Stark’s head off with your shield.”

He wanted to protest that he hadn’t really wanted to and that he never would have really brought his shield down. But he couldn’t.

“We’ve just received word that an anti-registration group is claiming responsibility for the shooting. A video from the group was posted a few minutes ago to youtube. The video claims that the shooting was in retribution for the death of Steve Rogers, the previous Captain America…,” the newscaster reported.

Steve’s stomach dropped. “Oh, god.”

Chapter Text

Tony knew he was dreaming.

He was standing at the podium giving a speech that wouldn't mean anything in a few moments. He could hear himself talking about the young artists from lower income areas that the Maria Stark Foundation had supported and funded for the Gallery opening. Maria was standing next to him, her hand in his.

He knew how this was going to go but he was powerless to change anything. He wanted to wake up, to scream, anything to not relive this moment again.

The sound of the rifle echoed in Tony's ears as Maria was jerked out of his grip by the force of the bullet. He was aware of his own voice yelling Maria's name, before he cried out in pain as a bullet pierced his shoulder.

It was the memory of pain, a distant echo. It was nothing compared to the gutted feeling he experienced as he looked over at Maria. She was lying on the ground like a broken doll. The front of her dress was turning black with blood.

God, let him wake up before he got to her. He didn't want to feel her life drain out of her body again. He couldn't -- didn't want to -- but his body moved without his say-so.

Extremis was accessed without thought. Escape routes for the assassins were cut off, and images of them were already being processed and compared.

"Tony," Maria's voice was weak, scared. Her eyes were so very wide.

"It's okay, it's okay." He lied, just as he did every time. His hands were shaking and his voice was raw.

He was going to tear apart the people that did this.

Maria coughed, her body shaking. "F-failed you."

Tony shook his head. "No, no you didn't, Maria. I failed you. I'm sorry. I'm so damn sorry."

Her blood was leaking past his hands, resisting his attempts to stem the flow.

She mouthed his name, no voice left, before the light seemed to drain out of her eyes.

He clutched her to him, screaming in grief and rage.

Tony jolted awake as the armor alerted him he'd reached his destination.

The building in L.A. was run down, condemned… but inside laid his prey. He'd spent the last two weeks hunting this bastard.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd really eaten or truly slept. Every time he closed his eyes he was haunted by Maria's death and the dream -- the nightmare turned hellish. Instead of the gallery they were in the penthouse, and when he’d looked up, it had been Steve holding the gun that had killed their daughter.

He hadn't spoken to anyone since Reed at the funeral. Pepper had given up trying two days ago. She’d finally stopped when he'd told her that there was nothing but this mission.

Steve still tried.

He'd call Tony using every override Tony had ever given him; begging Tony to talk to him, begging him to come back to the penthouse, to let someone help him with this, to please not kill himself to avenge Maria. He always finished by telling Tony how much he loved him. Sometimes he sounded like he was crying.

Tony listened to each message with his eyes closed, but he never spoke to Steve…

His left arm had been crushed earlier in the week. He'd never received proper medical care for his right shoulder. Extremis was barely keeping him together and he wasn't sure he'd last long out of the armor now.

Most of the Secret Avengers had registered, but the media was still blaming anti-reg groups for Maria's death. Tony didn't care.

Steve knew the truth. That was enough.

Tony entered the building and he didn't care if he ever came back out.

***

"Tony. Tony!" There was a hand on his chest.

Tony jolted awake, flailing and striking out. "Maria!" His right shoulder burned with pain.
His memories still felt fuzzy; all he could really remember was a sense of loss.

Strong hands were holding him down. A solid body pressed his back onto a soft mattress. Tony struggled blindly, panic still clawing at him.

"Tony, calm down." Steve’s voice was right by his ear. "You were having a nightmare. Maria's fine."

Steve. He was in bed with Steve. Maria was fine.

The fight left him in a rush, leaving him shaking and drained -- like his heart needed a recharge.

"I -- I -- she was dead. I dreamt she was dead." Tony's voice was hoarse even to his own ears. His throat felt raw, like he'd been screaming or throwing up.

He remembered now -- Peter yelling at them to get down and bodily pushing Maria out of the way. Tony had been hit in the shoulder, but Maria had only been grazed across the cheek.

Steve nodded. "She's asleep in her bed, Tony. Let me check your shoulder. You could be bleeding again," Steve told him softly, taking his weight off of Tony's body. "You should have let them keep you in the hospital overnight."

Tony sat up as Steve flicked on a light. The green LED numbers from the clock on the nightstand read 2:30. He'd been asleep for two hours. Four hours since they'd returned to the penthouse. Six hours since the shooting.

"I wouldn't have slept any better there, and Maria would have been in a panic."

Maria had alternated between clinging to Tony and clinging to Peter. Peter, with MJ by his side (who had arrived at the hospital after Peter called her) had managed to keep Maria calm and let the doctor look at the cut on her face. Tony hadn't wanted her out of his sight, and was torn between using the hospital cameras to watch her while his shoulder was treated, and tracking down any and all information about the two assassins.

He closed his eyes as Steve unwrapped his shoulder, checking the bandages. Steve's hands were unsteady and the kiss he pressed to the back of Tony's neck was heartbreakingly tender. It had been Pepper that had remembered to get word to Steve on his and Maria's conditions.

"And I didn't want you worrying," Tony murmured. "I'm sorry you had to hear about it on the news. I didn't think --"

"You had other things on your mind, Tony." Steve assured him. Tony wished he could see Steve's face. "I - I'm just glad both of you are safe."

Steve's arms slid around Tony and he gratefully leaned back against Steve's chest. "I wasn't thinking. I shouldn't have brought Peter and MJ back with me, but they were so worried about Maria --"

"They were worried about you too, Tony," Steve protested softly.

Tony opened his eyes, wondering when he'd closed them. "Maybe."

For a moment they were both quiet and all Tony could hear was the sound of Steve breathing and the sound of his heart. The cameras told him everyone was safe and asleep. Maria was tucked up in bed. Jarvis was in his apartment.

Even Sharon and Bucky were asleep on the couch in the living room -- and Tony could almost laugh that he was grateful to have them there acting as guardians. And it was probably a sign of how tired he was that he'd repeated that out loud without a moment's thought.

"If it wasn't for them -- I would have gone to the gallery.” Steve responded. “I probably would have gone to every hospital in New York until I found you and Maria. All I could think about was that you could be dead." Steve’s voice sounded strained. His arms tightened around Tony. "You both could be dead because of me."

Tony pushed himself out of the tight circle of Steve's arms. He turned to look at Steve, frowning slightly. "Steve, that video was bullshit. Some hoaxer with bad taste or someone trying to start something. I should start descrambling it now… see if I can't match the voice or face to someone in the system, not to mention tracing it back to its originator. We can't assume --"

Steve clenched his jaw. "It doesn't matter if the video and claims are bogus, Tony. People believed it. I believed it."

Tracing the line of Steve's jaw with his left hand, Tony shook his head. "Let them believe whatever the hell they want to. We both know the truth." He shifted to get closer to Steve, to trail kisses along the path his fingers had taken. Tony's shoulder protested and drew a wince from him.

"Your shoulder?" Steve asked, stilling Tony with gentle hands.

Tony contemplated denying it, but then nodded. "Yeah. I think the hydromorphone from the hospital is starting to wear off."

Steve frowned. "You haven't taken anything since you've been home? Tony, it's been several hours. You've got to be hurting."

"I hate pain meds," Tony muttered. "I can't think straight on them. I need Extremis at full capacity."

"You need to not be a walking bundle of pain," Steve snapped sharply, reaching over Tony to the pill bottle on the nightstand. He read the label before he shook out two of the pills. Steve pressed them into Tony's hand, then reached for the glass of water on his own nightstand.

Tony glared at him. "I can handle the pain. I don't need this stuff. I need to be alert in two hours."

Steve glared right back. "Do you want to be wincing every time you hug Maria?" He asked, using his 'do-not-argue-with-me-I'm-the-goddamn-Captain-America' voice. Not that Steve had ever called himself, or been referred to as, 'the goddamn Captain America.' That could be a sign that either pain, stress, or lack of sleep was indeed getting to him.

"Low blow," Tony accused, but dutifully put the pills in his mouth and swallowed them down with water.

"It worked," Steve pointed out. He leaned in and kissed Tony gently on the mouth. He cradled the back of Tony's head in a strong, broad hand. "You can pretend you can handle everything yourself in the morning -- just please -- let me take care of you right now."

Tony leaned in for another kiss, suddenly desperate for it. "What if this is the dream?" he asked suddenly, wrapping his hands around Steve's forearms.

"It's not," Steve promised into Tony's mouth. "This is real." He pushed Tony down onto the mattress and Tony's shoulder protested in a brief flash of pain.

Tony couldn't remember really feeling pain in the nightmare -- so this had to be real. "If you really want to take care of me, you'll fuck me," Tony said softly, looking up at Steve hovering above him.

He knew the answer before Steve spoke. While Steve dipped down to kiss him, teeth grazing Tony's bottom lip, the answer was clear in Steve's eyes. "No, Tony. You're hurt, tired."

"Please?" Tony begged, almost because he knew he wouldn't get what he wanted. There was something grounding about that, and so very Steve. Denying him what he said he needed for what he really needed.

Even if sleep was the last thing Tony wanted, he wasn't in a hurry to go back to his nightmares.

Steve’s lips barely brushed over Tony's, more a caress then a kiss. "No." He settled down beside Tony on the bed, wrapping his arms around Tony… after he’d pulled the blankets securely around them, of course. "I love you."

"I love you," Tony returned, focusing on the far wall in the dark. He ran through the cameras again, checked all the security doors, checked the tracing of the two assassins -- he'd found the identity of one by the unique gun he used and the other because he often worked with the first. He'd already found their bank accounts and identified large recent deposits -- he'd made sure the other Avengers, not to mention law enforcement had the details -- Tony was more worried about who'd hired them.

Steve kissed the back of his neck. "Stop thinking." He was tracing patterns on Tony's stomach.

Tony chuckled. "Don't know how." But for a moment, he stopped running over every detail, stopped listening to the Avengers communication network, let two of the news feeds drop, and concentrated on Steve's fingers.

The last thing he could clearly remember was Steve's voice, soft and low. "I won't let this happen again in my name."

Then he was asleep.

***

It was five am, and Steve was awake. He couldn't say what it was that woke him, but he'd jolted awake, pulse racing. Tony had stirred but hadn't woken. Maria had nestled further into Tony's arms, and if he'd woken her, she gave no other sign.

He didn't quite remember when she'd wound up in their bed over her own, but at least they were both asleep.

Steve ghosted his hand over the back of Tony's head. Maria stirred again, hazy but focused eyes blinking open at him. Steve stroked her cheek gently with the back of his hand.

"Shh, go back to sleep. Everything's fine," he whispered.

She stared at him silently and he was at a loss to read her expression. "That man is still out there," she whispered back, glancing up at Tony's face.

Steve frowned slightly. 'That man?'

"We'll find out who did this, Maria," he promised softly, not wanting to wake Tony. If Tony woke, he'd start working and he wouldn't rest until Steve made him, his head hurt too much to concentrate on even Extremis, or his armor was out of commission.

Maria shook her head, and she lifted one hand toward the door. "Him."

"She means Bucky," Tony muttered, eyes still closed. Tony shifted slightly, and rubbed Maria's back with his right hand. It was an awkward motion due to his shoulder. "Let Steve worry about him, genius. He isn't a threat to us. Close your eyes and sleep, it's not time to be up yet." His tone was sleepily firm.

It seemed to reassure Maria, who closed her eyes after staring at Steve for a few more seconds.

God, he'd love to know what went on inside that child's head sometimes.

Steve tucked some of Maria's hair back behind her ear and kissed the shell of Tony's ear. "I'm going to go check on them," he murmured. "And Maria needs a hair cut."

"Hmm," Tony responded.

Steve slid from the bed and pulled on a pair of sweatpants. Barefoot, he padded out into the living room. Sharon was fast asleep on the couch, a blanket pulled around her.

He found Bucky in the kitchen, frowning into the fridge. "Doesn't Stark keep any beer around here?" he muttered at Steve when he entered the room.

"No, he doesn't. Recovering alcoholics generally don't as a rule," Steve told him pointedly.

Bucky straightened and closed the fridge. He leaned back against it, eyes watchful. In some ways, he was still that sixteen-year-old Steve had met all those years ago -- but in all the worst ways. "Stark going to sleep the day away?"

"He was shot, Bucky. And given that he's going to try to do the entire investigation himself -- he's going to need the rest," Steve sighed. "Thank you for staying by the way. Tony appreciated it."

"Didn't do it for him. Did it for you and the kid," Bucky shrugged. "I know he's your friend Steve, though I have no idea why, given what he did to you. But I can understand why someone would want him dead. It's a pretty damn long list and my name's on it. Taking a shot at the kid narrows it down. And the fact that there were two hit men."

Something about the cold, almost emotionless way Bucky spoke made Steve a little sick.

"This was done in my name." He wasn't sure what he would have done if Maria and Tony had died while someone claimed it was done to avenge him.

Bucky looked up from the floor at him. "I know. Another thing we can blame Stark for."

"This isn't Tony's fault --" Steve growled, wanting to shake Bucky. Tony was going to blame himself enough without others adding to it.

"Cap, even if that video turns out to be as fake as Stark thinks it is -- it's his fault your name got dragged into it." Bucky pushed away from the fridge. "You were a martyr to the cause. Remember everyone still thinks you are dead and a lot of people blame Stark as much as if he pulled the trigger. Now, I'm going to help track down the bastard that hired someone to put a bullet in your kid, but --"

Steve shook his head. Was that why Bucky and Sharon had wanted Maria? They thought she was his? "She's not my kid. She's Tony's."

Bucky looked at him sharply, opened his mouth then closed it with an audible snap. "Yeah, fine, whatever." He jerked his head toward the living room. "We should go. See what we can find from our end."

Steve reached out and caught Bucky's shoulder as he passed. "Thank you, Bucky."

Bucky smiled slightly. "Stop calling me Bucky, will you? I'm not a kid anymore. It's bad enough you've got Stark doing it."

"I hadn't noticed," Steve grinned, rolling his eyes.

Bucky made a face at him.

***

“No, Mr. Stark is not available for comment. --- I believe you received our statement on the incident. ---Yes, that is all we have to say at this time. --- No, you cannot have a statement from Maria. --- I’ll be sure to pass that along, good day.” Pepper resisted slamming down the phone. If she had to field one more call from a reporter she was – she was just going to let the damn phone ring.

"Damn vultures," she muttered, reaching for her coffee and making a face when she took a sip of the cold liquid.

Tony had been holed up in his personal office in the penthouse since morning, though she was fairly certain Steve would drag him out and make him rest soon if he hadn’t already. Tony would bury himself in tracking these people down, if they let him.

Thankfully, he did seem to be letting Sharon and James help him. Not to mention that, as the director of SHIELD, there were various other people looking into the incident. SHIELD had apprehended one the assassins earlier that morning – Tony hadn’t given her more information than that and she hadn’t been upstairs in hours--but Tony’s main focus was the mastermind behind it all. He’d told her he was certain it was the same person who’d planned the attacks on his plants and sent the threatening note about Maria.

Unfortunately, this left Pepper fending off calls from the media, politicians, -- and if Rutgers called her ‘honey’ again when he called, she was going to do something drastic -- and other various groups that hoped this event would sway Tony to their side.

It was a bit terrifying how easily people seemed to believe that anyone who’d known Captain America – Steve Rogers – could think attacking Tony and Maria would avenge him. Even more terrifying was that Steve himself believed it. She hoped Tony had managed to convince him otherwise.

Pepper rested her face in her hands, fighting off exhaustion. Last night had been hell, but nothing compared to what it could have been.

“Pepper, are you alright?”

She looked up and had to blink twice because the sight was rather unexpected. Not unpleasant, just unexpected. In fact, she hadn’t been so happy to see someone in a while. “Just tired, Stephen. It was a long night.”

Stephen looked concerned, though Pepper wasn’t sure if it was about her, or everything that had happened. With Doctor Stephen Strange you could never known. “How are Tony and the girl? I’m sure he will not see me, but I wanted to offer my assurances that none of my people had a hand in the events of last night.”

Pepper got to her feet and walked around the desk. “Tony knows that,” she assured him. She leaned back against her desk. “Tony is--well you know how Tony is. And it could have been worse.”

She closed her eyes for a brief moment. She didn’t want to think about how much worse it could have been. The bullet could have hit Tony’s head or chest and she didn’t think even Extremis could fix that. And Maria--if Peter hadn't been there…

Stephen touched her cheek, and she opened her eyes. “I believe you need a break, Pepper,” He told her. “Let me buy you coffee.”

Pepper smiled slightly. “You always buy me coffee, Stephen. You’ve yet to let me buy my own.”

"Then let me buy you lunch. I assume you haven’t eaten yet today." He was looking at her desk and the picked-at muffin.

It was tempting. She did want a break from the phone, from the worry. Pepper chewed on her bottom lip. “Alright,” she told him. “The phone can survive without me for a while.”

Stephen offered her his arm and she took it. “So tell me, Pepper, how many reporters have you threatened today?”

She laughed. “It might be easier to list the ones I haven’t.”

***

The man sitting across the table from Tony was grinning widely at him despite the cuffs on his ankles and wrists, and the armed SHIELD guards feet away. Carol stood behind Tony, her arms folded. Maria Hill was behind the two-way mirror.

Tony wanted to wipe that grin off the bastard's face. He wanted his armor; he wanted to make this man pay for putting so much fear into his daughter's eyes.

"John DeCabe - hit-man, thug, drug runner and jay-walker," Tony said, by way of greeting.

"The jay-walking was a frame job," John laughed. "Whadda want, Stark? I'm not going to tell you anything and you can't touch me. My lawyer will have me out of here in no time."

Tony crossed his arms, ignoring the twinge in his shoulder. "I don't think you quite understand the situation, DeCabe. You didn't just shoot at me, Tony Stark, industrialist; you shot at the Director of SHIELD. Maybe you've noticed where you are." Tony moved forward, eyes narrowing. "So I suggest you tell me everything you know about who hired you and just what your instructions were."

DeCabe titled his head and snorted. "Or what? You'll sic your pet super over there on me? Or you'll rough me up?" He laughed.

"I suggest you tell Director Stark what he wants to know, Mr. DeCabe," Carol spoke up, her eyes narrow.

"Look, I have a reputation to maintain. My clients expect anonymity and I give it to them. Prison, after all, is only a temporary state." DeCabe's smile was cocky. Tony’s fists itched to pound it off of his face.

Tony walked around the table and behind DeCabe. "I think you should tell me now, DeCabe. We know you were the one aiming at me. And you’re too good of a shot to have missed so badly if I was meant to be dead. If you cooperate, things might go better for you."

"I'll take my chances. Some people might want to give me a medal for almost taking you out. Why should I help you?"

"I'll tell you why." Leaning down, Tony spoke into the man's ear. "Because if you don't, when I walk back in here, I'll have my armor on. And I just might mistake your face for my current practice target," Tony whispered, low and dangerous.

DeCabe stopped moving. "You can't threaten me like this. I've got rights."

Tony bared his teeth. DeCabe was staring at his reflection in the two-way mirror. "You'll find that I can. Ever seen the damage my repulsors can do?" Tony growled. "I have no qualms about letting the telepath standing behind that glass rummage through your head until they drag out every little bit of information, and then beating it out of you again just for the hell of it."

"Get him away from me! I want my lawyer!" DeCabe yelled at Carol. "You hear him threatening me?"

Carol raised an eyebrow. "I haven't heard Director Stark say a word, Mr. DeCabe. Are you ready to cooperate with us? If so, we'll be more than willing to call in agents to take your statement."

"I'm not telling you anything. I want my lawyer. You both know you can't touch me." DeCabe gloated. "How's that little girl of yours, Stark? I hear you got her because you like them young and vulnerable. Too bad Ricker's shot missed. Should have splattered her pretty little brains all over your tux."

Tony's fist hit the side of the man's face, almost knocking him out of his chair. "Shall we see what that would feel like with my armor on?" Tony asked, softly. "It's not you I want, DeCabe."

DeCabe spit out a mouthful of blood. "Jesus Christ, I'll talk, I'll talk! Just get him away from me."

Tony stepped away from him as two SHIELD Agents entered the room. "Get him some medical treatment after you take his statement," Tony told them. "I had to subdue him." And of course there would be an odd glitch in the security feed for those several seconds.

One of the agents grinned slightly. "Yes, sir, Director Stark," she acknowledged as Tony and Carol left the room.

"Jesus, Tony," Carol breathed. "Was that necessary? We could have called Emma in."

"It was faster this way," Tony snapped, and then rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I lost my temper back there. I'm sorry." His hands were shaking. He could clearly remember that horrible dream and Maria's blood on his hands as she bled out in front of him.

Carol touched his shoulder. "I think you should go home. Let us handle it from here with this one. We'll alert you with further information."

"For once, I agree with Ms. Marvel," Maria Hill said, coming around the corner. "You're still recovering from an injury, and we can handle this."

"I want to be kept fully abreast of any and all updates no matter how small, you understand?" Tony told Hill.

She nodded. "Of course, sir." Then she smiled just slightly. "By the way, nice work. We'll make a SHIELD Director out of you yet."

***

 

Maria lay on her stomach under her bed, her head pillowed on her folded arms. Her door was half-way open and she’d spent most of the day, since Tony had left, listening to the sounds drift in from the outer rooms.

Both Jarvis and Steve had tried to coax her into come out, but she didn’t want to talk to them. She wanted to talk to Tony, and Tony wasn’t there. There was something in her chest that clawed up every time she went to speak, like a warning that if she made a noise something bad was going to happen.

Something worse…

No one seemed to care that she had failed to protect Tony. Not Jarvis, or Peter, or Steve. Not even Tony.

Jarvis had brought her fresh baked chocolate chip cookies at one point, and she didn’t understand why really. She’d failed, hadn’t she? Not just a little failure, but a big one. Tony had been hurt, and she’d been right there.

But Jarvis had looked so--sad--that she’d given him a smile and patted his hand. She wanted to say something, to crawl out from under the bed and hug him, but she felt safe were she was.

When he’d left the room, she’d heard him talking to Steve in the hallway.

“Is she still under the bed?” Steve had asked, and she wondered why he didn’t just come see for himself.

“She is, and she still isn’t speaking,” Jarvis had told Steve. He’d sounded odd to Maria, but that could have just been how the sound was traveling.

Maria had shifted forward slightly, her head almost out from under the bed, straining to hear.

“--was talking just fine to us earlier. She’ll be okay, Jarvis. They both will.”

“I hope you are correct,” Jarvis had said, almost too softly for Maria to hear. “One would think it would get easier--as many times as Anthony has almost been killed…”

The voices had moved away from the door, and Maria had laid her head back down on her arms.

Time passed slowly before a new set of feet came into view.

Tony’s.

“Hey, genius.” Tony crouched down next to the bed, and then moved to his stomach. Maria could see the bandage still wrapped around his shoulder.

She reached out and brushed her fingers against it. Tony reached out and stroked over the band-aid on her cheek. I’m sorry, she wanted to say, please don’t send me away.

“Hanging out under the bed today?” he asked, softly.

Maria nodded and scooted closer to Tony. “It’s safe.”

“It’s safe under your bed?” He sounded curious, but not upset or angry.

She nodded again.

“Do you feel like coming out now, or do you want to stay there a bit longer?” Tony cupped his hand around one of hers, rubbing the back of her hand with his thumb.

Maria bit her bottom lip. “Don’t send me away.”

Tony's thumb stilled. His eyes were unreadable and she feared she'd said the wrong thing. Panic bubbled up, and it was like she couldn't get enough air.

"I will strive to raise my performance level. I will not fail you again, Tony," she told him, doing her best not to sound like she was pleading, but her voice started to break and fracture. "I-I you promised I wouldn't have to leave."

Something like anger crossed Tony's face for a split second before it was gone. "I'm not going to send you away. What happened wasn't your fault, Maria. I'm just glad you're safe." He touched her cheek again. "It isn't your job to protect me."

Maria didn't know about that, but Tony seemed so sure. But if protecting Tony wasn't her purpose, then what was?

"I love you, genius. That isn't going to change, no matter what happens," Tony told her, squeezing her hand gently. "Okay?"

She didn't understand, but she nodded anyway. Slowly, she started to climb out from under the bed. Tony shifted into a sitting position and wrapped her in a hug as soon as she was out. She hugged him back, burying her face in his left shoulder.

They sat like that together for a long time, and if her face was wet -- Tony didn't say anything about it.

Chapter Text

Steve couldn't sleep.

It wasn't that he wasn't tired. He was exhausted from stress, worry, and fear. His brain was crowded with thoughts and plans -- and he didn't feel he could ever share them with Tony. Tony had enough on his plate.

Tony, who had been going non-stop for the last two days… Tony, who had been dealing with the brunt of the investigation, both into the video and the shooting… Tony, who had done everything he could, bent over backwards for Steve and to keep his secret, even when it endangered his own life and Maria's…

Beside him, Tony slept peacefully for the moment, but the stress and strain of the last few days was obvious in the lines of his face and the tension in his body. Steve ran his hand over Tony's back, wishing he could ease that pain.

Steve feared the decision he was slowly realizing he had to make. The thing he knew he had to do, the one thing that might strain the fragile, still-healing bond between him and Tony to the breaking point, would only cause Tony more pain. But his conversation with Bucky and Sharon, the look on Peter and MJ's faces, and the video that kept showing up on the news had convinced him that he had to make this choice.

He'd been in a limbo of sorts since he'd shown up at Tony's penthouse, and he couldn't stay there forever.

Steve sat up and rubbed his hand over his face. He'd go to the gym, try to work himself to a point where he could sleep. He wanted to be rested when he talked to Tony in the morning. And when he talked to Sharon and Bucky again.

God, he needed to talk to Sharon. They'd never finished… he'd become so distracted by Tony and Maria. He hadn't thought about her confession, about what she'd told him, since that day.

A baby.

His and Sharon's baby, and it was gone before he'd known. He'd been in a homeless shelter, barely aware of his own name, while Sharon was going through hell because of him.

Steve covered his eyes with a hand and took a deep breath.

"Hey," Tony murmured. Warm, calloused hands slid over his sides as Tony's arms wrapped around him.

Steve covered one of Tony's hands with his own. "Didn't mean to wake you."

Tony placed a kissed at the top of his spine. "You didn't," he assured him. "Are you alright?"

"I -- it's nothing you need to worry about," Steve said.

"Let me be the judge of that," Tony told him. He rested his chin on Steve's shoulder. "Are you still thinking about that video? It wasn't real. It was meant to stir up emotions and distract us from the real reasons behind the shooting."

Tony had told him this before, and Steve believed him. It was the fact that using his name had been possible. That people believed it.

"You aren't at fault here, Steve." Tony insisted firmly. "If it's anyone's fault, it’s mine. I ignored things I should have paid attention to."

Steve closed his eyes. "They still used my name. It doesn't matter whether it was the real reason -- it was a believable reason for people. Someone could decide to really 'avenge' me. Someone could really kill you."

Tony was quiet, his breath warm against Steve's neck.

"Because they -- the nation, and most of our friends --" Steve started to say.

"Your friends," Tony corrected.

Steve turned his head, trying to look at Tony. He could only glimpse Tony's dark hair. "Our friends," Steve said, firmly, "think I'm dead."

"That doesn't seem likely to change anytime soon," Tony snorted softly. "I'm not planning a press conference, and I doubt anyone else that knows is going to, either. Peter and MJ agreed not to tell anyone until you're ready." He rubbed his hands up and down Steve's forearms.

Steve looked towards the door, almost hoping to see Maria. He didn't want to have this conversation at three in the morning. Maria wasn't there. She was probably still tucked safe in her bed -- or under her bed, where they often found her lately. Tony would know.

"Steve?" Tony asked, softly.

He captured one of Tony's hands and kissed the fingertips. "You know I love you."

Behind him Tony went still. "I love you, too." Tony murmured against his skin. Steve could hear the fear leaking into Tony's voice.

"Can you set up a press conference for me?" Steve asked, softly.

Tony detangled himself from Steve and moved to a position where he could see Steve's face. "You don't have to do this, Steve." Tony gripped Steve's hands tightly in his. "You wanted time…"

"You've given me time, Tony. More time than I deserved," Steve told him, entwining his fingers with Tony's. "I have to tell people -- I need to tell people. Everyone deserves to know the truth. I can't keep asking you and Maria to lie for me."

"People aren't going to understand why you came to me first, Steve. They're going to think --" Tony started to protest.

Steve leaned forward and kissed Tony fiercely, cupping the back of his neck. "Let them think whatever the hell they want," he said, after pulling back only far enough to catch his breath.

Tony shook his head minutely, but Steve could already see him making plans, calculating options and scenarios. "It's not that simple."

"It is if we make it that simple," Steve told him, smiling slightly.

He felt, more than heard, Tony sigh. "Give me a day to set everything up. It -- it will go better if James calls the press conference." Tony paused. "And if I'm not there."

"Tony --" Steve was sure he sounded as exasperated as he felt.

"If there's anyone you don't want to find out your secret on national television, you should let them know soon. And -- you need to decide about the uniform," Tony finished, and then added. "I still have one of your spares. You'd have to talk to your kid brother about the shield."

Steve blinked in surprise. "How did you know I've decided to -- " be Captain America again, he didn't say. " -- to wear the uniform?"

Tony smiled, but it was sad and didn't reach his eyes. "Because you're you, Steve. The uniform -- the name -- is as much a part of you as the armor is a part of me."

"Thank you," Steve told him, titling his head to kiss along Tony's jaw line.

"For what?" Tony placed a hand over Steve's chest, his thumb stroking the bare skin, straying close to a nipple.

Steve nipped Tony's chin before kissing him lightly. "Knowing me so well."

The slow smile that spread across Tony's face sent heat coursing through Steve's body. He knew that smile. He loved that smile. Tony's thumb brushed against Steve's right nipple almost accidentally.

"It took many long years of study," Tony assured him, practically climbing into Steve's lap. "Would you like a demonstration of the practical applications of that knowledge?"

Steve settled his hands on Tony's hips, his arousal spiking. He could feel Tony hardening and growing through the fabric of Steve's blue flannel sleep pants and Tony's red boxers. "Always," Steve assured him with a growl. "Are you up for such a demonstration?"

Tony grinned wide and a little wild as he squirmed on Steve's lap. Then, he shoved Steve backwards. Steve let his back hit the bed, leaving Tony straddled over his hips. "Always."

Steve laughed and pulled Tony down for a kiss that was more teeth and tongue than lips.

***

There were a million things Tony could have been doing, but Pepper was insisting on dealing with the media, Hill was handling things at SHIELD (they'd apprehended the second hit man while Tony slept), and Carol was handling the supers side of things. His three furies.

Things were bad when he was grateful for Maria Hill.

Jan had called and offered to come by and keep an eye on Maria if he needed her to. She also reminded Tony that Maria had been promised a chance to meet Hank's ants, and that she and Hank would be happy to watch Maria whenever, and for however long, Tony needed. Tony wasn't sure if Hank knew about this, but it was good to know two of his oldest friends were still so willing to help him. Whether or not he deserved it.

The thought of Hank introducing Maria to his ants, who probably all had names, and Maria trying to remember them all, was more than a little amusing.

Tony smiled to himself and looked over at Maria. They were both sitting on the floor of the living room. Maria was drawing. There was an intense look on her face, and the tip of her tongue was sticking out. When he'd first come in and found her, he hadn't been able to make out what it was she was sketching; now it was pretty clear she was drawing Spider-Man. He was almost jealous.

He'd really just been passing through the room, but she'd looked up and smiled at him. He'd
sat down on the floor next to her. One of the best things, as well as one of the worst, was he could do most of his work just about anywhere now. The living room floor was as good a place as any, and watching Maria between emails and hitting one dead end after another tracking down the mastermind of the attack was calming.

Tony could pretend that the cut on her cheek was from some normal childhood accident, like falling off a bike. Tony didn't even know if she could ride a bike or where she would ride one in a penthouse. He could pretend that the lingering stiffness in his shoulder was really from an enthusiastic bout of sex with Steve, and that Steve wasn't in a closed-door meeting with Stephen Strange and James Barnes. He'd also like to pretend that he hadn't seen the way Pepper had smiled at Stephen.

The most important thing he could pretend, as he watched Maria draw in the ceiling Peter was hanging upside down from, was how much things weren’t going to change after tomorrow. Maybe he could even pretend he hadn't learned the name of the man who'd made it his mission to destroy Tony's life.

Ezekiel Stane.

Sadly, he wasn't that good at deluding himself these days.

*Tony,* Pepper's voice broke him from his thoughts. It took him a second to remember that he'd patched the intercom into Extremis.

*Yeah, Pepper?* he answered, watching as Maria started adding details to Peter's uniform. He frowned slightly. When had she seen Peter's black uniform?

*Reed and Franklin Richards are here. Did you know they were coming?*

*I would have told you if I had, Pepper. You trained me well, remember?* Tony shot back, almost smiling. *Send them on up. Maria will be happy to see Franklin.*

Tony reached over and tucked some stray strands of hair behind Maria's ear. "Franklin's here to visit, Maria."

She looked up from her drawing, eyes lighting up. "Did Val come too?"

"No, just Reed and Franklin," Tony told her. He tapped her nose. "Did you know they were coming, genius?"

Maria's eyes darted away. "How could I?" she asked.

Tony fought back a sigh and got to his feet. "I'm not upset. Just tell me next time Franklin gives you the heads up." She started to open her mouth, and he shook his head. "I know you two talk in some unusual ways, and that's fine. But keep me in the loop on surprise visits, okay?"

She nodded, scrambling to her feet as the elevator dinged.

Reed looked awkward to Tony as he and Franklin exited the elevator, but Reed never looked at ease in social situations. Dropping in like this, and Tony would bet a good deal of money that this was Sue's idea mostly, probably unnerved Reed a little. The man was a genius and one of Tony's best friends, but he was more comfortable in a lab and most people knew it.

"Reed, it's good to see you. How's Susan?" Tony asked, walking over to greet them.

"She's fine," Reed told him. "I hope you don't mind us coming over like this. Franklin was worried about Maria, and Sue thought it'd be good for the kids to have a visit…"

Franklin, who had hurried over to Maria and hugged her and to Tony's surprised was hugged back, looked over at his dad. "Mom told Dad to get out of the lab and come see how you were in person, and to take me with him," Franklin added helpfully.

"Franklin!" Reed protested.

Tony couldn't help but chuckle. "Actually, I'm glad you’re here, Reed. I wanted to talk to you about a few things." He looked over at Maria who was whispering with Franklin. "Maria, why don't you show Franklin your new drawing? Reed and I are going to be in my office if you need us. If you two get hungry, ask Jarvis to make you a snack."

Maria nodded. "Yes, Tony."

"How are you?" Reed asked, once they were out of earshot of the kids.

Tony shrugged. "I'm fine, Reed…"

Reed shook his head. "That's not what I meant, Tony. How are you…handling what happened?" Reed asked. He looked uncomfortable but concerned. "Having your child threatened or injured -- I know it's not easy to deal with."

"I'm handling…" just fine, Tony started to say. But this was Reed. He knew what it was like to wake up in a cold sweat from nightmares where you held a little broken body to your chest. "I don't want to let her out of my sight. I know she's safe here. I know Steve would keep her safe, but…tell me it gets easier. Tell me I'm not going to worry every moment she's not with me."

Reed touched his shoulder. "I wish I could, Tony. But it doesn't. You just -- try to deal with it. You try not to stifle them, even if you want to just keep them wrapped up safe and sound from the world."

***

Peter crouched on the ceiling and tried not to look like he was staring at the door. It wasn't so much the door he was trying not to appear interested in the door itself, but what was through the door. What was through the door was Dr. Strange, who'd been in there for several hours.

Not that Peter found Dr. Strange interesting enough to stare at a door for – well, he did find Dr. Strange interesting, but that was a different situation altogether. Magic was always pretty interesting, and Dr. Strange was one of the best magic using 'heroes'. Though whether you could really classify Dr. Strange as a hero when he liked working behind the scenes best --

"Peter?"

"Ahh!" Peter yelped. He almost jumped, which would have been bad because he could have wound up upside down on the floor.

MJ was laughing and shaking her head at him. She settled her hands on her hips. "My husband. So brave."

"You startled me," Peter complained. "And you snuck up on me. It's not my fault my spider-sense doesn't know you’re dangerous."

"Just how am I dangerous?" MJ asked, still laughing.

Peter grinned. "You could make me sleep on the floor. I could catch a cold or something."

She rolled her eyes and stole a kiss. "You'd wind up sleeping on the ceiling, more like it."

"Nah, it could tempt me to start web-slinging in my sleep. That would be bad," Peter told her in a confidential tone.

MJ nodded in agreement. "People might think I was beating you, from all the bruises on your face from swinging into the wall. Plus, Dr. Strange might get annoyed if you crack the plaster."

Peter jerked his head towards the door. "How long do you think he's going to make us wait?"

"It's not an easy decision for him," MJ said softly, and they both knew she wasn’t talking about Dr. Strange.

"Yeah, I guess," Peter rubbed his left arm. "He should have just told us straight out, instead of hiding. At the least I wouldn't be tackling nine-year-olds so they don't get their heads shot off."

MJ frowned, crossing her arms. "That isn't fair, you know that."

"It might not be fair, but it's true. Has he even told Clint or Sam?" Peter muttered. "And I hate that we know and no one else even knows this is coming."

"Knows what is coming?" Luke asked, from behind them.

Both Peter and MJ stared guilty and looked Luke's way. Jessica was standing next to him, holding baby Danny. Jessica Drew was in the doorway, leaning against the door frame.

"Uhm, nothing?" Peter offered, sheepishly.

Jessica Drew rolled her eyes, but didn't say anything. Peter wondered if she already knew -- she often knew things before they did, and that freaked Peter out at times. But she'd always proved herself to be on their side.

"What do you two know that we don't?" Luke demanded. "Do you know why Strange said he wanted to meet with all of us?"

MJ glanced at Peter, then to the door. "It's nothing bad," she assured him.

"We just sort of promised not tell anyone until he was ready to let people know," Peter babbled, waving his hands in front of him.

Jessica Jones preempted her husband's next outburst by handing him Danny. The baby cooed at her father, patting his face.

"We aren't going to make either of you break a promise," Jessica said, looking pointedly at her husband. "It doesn't have anything to do with Tony, does it?"

Peter shook his head. "No, it's -- well, it's complicated. But it's a good thing. A really good thing."

As if on cue, the door Peter had been staring at swung open. Dr. Strange walked out and smiled slightly. "I see most of us are here," he said, raising his eyebrow.

Dr. Strange stepped to the side and out of the room stepped…

"Oh my god," Jessica Jones gasped, covering her hand with her mouth.

Steve’s smile was sheepish and a little guilty. "Uhm, hi everyone," he said, rubbing the back of his neck.

***

Steve wasn't sure this was a conversation he wanted to walk in on. He stood in the doorway of Tony's office, listening to Maria and Tony talking. He could only see the back of Tony's chair, but he could tell that Maria was curled up on his lap.

"Why wouldn't Steve be living with us?" Maria was asking. "He said he’d help me protect you. He can't do that if he leaves. Did I do something wrong? Is it because I couldn't protect you?"

Steve took a step forward then stopped himself, not sure if making his presence known would help things.

"No, no, no," Tony said softly, trying to reassure the child in his arms. "Steve wouldn't be leaving because of you, Maria. I promise. You haven't done anything wrong. What happened wasn't your fault."

"I don't understand. Why would he leave?" Maria persisted.

Steve could almost hear Tony grasping for words, even as he didn't understand why Tony would be bringing up the possibility of Steve leaving. Why would he leave?

He loved Tony, and Tony knew that.

"He -- things are going to change after tomorrow." Tony's voice trembled for a moment. "Remember how we talked about people thinking Steve was still dead?"

Steve couldn't see it, but he could imagine Maria looking thoughtful and nodding.

It still didn't make sense to Steve. Why would people knowing change how Steve felt?

The large desk chair shifted slightly before Tony spoke. "Tomorrow, Steve is going to tell the whole world he's still alive. He was gone all day today because he's letting his friends know in person, because it wouldn't be right for them to hear it on the news." Tony paused as if gathering his thoughts. "It's going to change things for him, for us. There are going to be commitments and loyalties more important than us."

"He said he’d work on my drawings with me," Maria’s voice was very soft, very small. "He said we'd go to an art museum together. He said he'd help protect you and that he wouldn't hurt you. He can't do that if he goes."

"I'm sure he'll still come to see you, Maria." Tony’s voice broke. "He -- I'm sure he didn't mean to lie to you."

Steve couldn't let this go on any longer. "But I didn't lie, Tony. I'm not planning on going anywhere," he said, moving further into the office.

The chair turned around, and Tony looked haunted. "How long have you been standing there?"

Maria was quiet, looking from Tony to Steve and back to Tony. Steve crossed the space separating them. He leaned in and kissed Tony gently, and then dropped a kiss to Maria's forehead.

"Long enough," he told Tony."I'm not leaving you. Either of you."

Tony curled his arm around Maria like he half believed Steve would snatch her up. "People aren't going to understand you living here."

"I don't care," Steve growled. "I'm not living my life by what other people expect from me or will understand."

Maria was looking up at him, quiet but watchful. Steve wondered if they should send her from the room for this conversation, but she had to learn sometime that people could argue without it being a bad thing.

Tony narrowed his eyes. "You'd better be sure," he told Steve. "This doesn't just affect you and me."

Steve knelt down and touched the side of Maria's face. "I know," he whispered. "I'm not going to leave, Maria."

Maria titled her head to one side. "Tony wants you here."

"I know," Steve assured her, looking up at Tony.

She nodded slightly, and Steve tried to read her expression but failed. "Tony, can I go to my room? I'm tired."

Tony nodded. "If you want to, genius," he told her. "I'll be in to tuck you in soon if you want to read for a while until then."

She nodded again and climbed off his lap. She gave Steve a wary look that was different from the almost-affectionate looks he'd gotten used to getting from her. Steve guessed he was back on her ‘people-to-watch’ list when it came to protecting Tony. He wasn't sure if he should blame himself or Tony for that.

"How could you think I'd just leave?" Steve hissed, keeping his voice low once she'd left the room.

Tony turned the chair again so he could gaze out the window. "It was a possibility Maria needed to be prepared for."

"And now she hates me again," Steve muttered, feeling a bit bitter.

"She doesn't hate you. Maria's just wary of things she doesn't understand. And she doesn't understand half of what's going on right now. She’s also had a very long few days and she's tired. Plus, Franklin and Reed were over early," Tony sighed.

Steve leaned back against the desk, letting his chin rest on his chest. "Oh."

"They're going to try to get you to live somewhere else," Tony murmured, getting to his feet. He pressed the palms of his hands against the glass. "They'll say I'm controlling you, or any number of things. They won't trust me."

"Bucky's already tried that," Steve sighed. "But no one today tried. Not even Sam or Clint. Sam frowned a lot, but I think that was because he was a bit miffed I trusted you over him."

Tony shrugged. "Give them time."

Steve pushed away from the desk and stood just behind Tony. He wanted to wrap his arms around Tony, tuck his chin against Tony's shoulder and just hold him. But he didn't. "Most of them are your friends, too, Tony. No one hates you as much as you think."

"You won't be able to restart the Avengers and live here," Tony pointed out softly.

"I --” Steve hadn't thought about that. "I wouldn't restart the Avengers until the SHRA is recalled or modified."

Tony thumped his forehead against the glass. "And you think you can accomplish that and be closely associated with Tony Stark, Registration's poster boy?"

"You could help me bring it down," Steve pointed out. He ground his teeth. Why did it sound like Tony was trying to convince him to leave?

Tony gave a sharp laugh and smacked his fist into the window. "They'll try to take Maria."

"Let them then," Steve snapped. "It would only serve to make them look bad. You wouldn't let them take her. Very few people would stand by while the government tried to take your daughter, Tony. I don't think the public would stand for it either."

"Steve, please…"

Steve grabbed Tony's arms and spun him around, pressing his back into the glass. "Jesus, Tony. It's like you want me to leave!"

Tony closed his eyes and let his head rest on the glass. "I'm trying to be noble."

"Well, stop it," Steve told him before he kissed Tony fiercely and with extreme intent. He didn't stop until Tony's jaw was slack and he was being kissed back with equal passion. He didn't let them part for air until Steve's lungs burned.

"I love you, Tony." Steve whispered, catching his breath quickly. "We tried it apart. We tried being at each other's throats. It didn't lead to anything good for anyone. Let's try doing things together this time."

Tony's eyes were almost black as he looked at Steve. "Together," he repeated as if Steve had told him the secret of the universe.

Steve sought and found Tony's hands and twined their fingers together. "A united front." He kissed Tony again, softly, tenderly.

"No one will expect it," Tony said, with a trace of humor, and, god, Steve had missed that. Tony initiated the kiss this time, nibbling on Steve's bottom lip.

They stood kissing against the window for what felt like hours but could only have been a few minutes. When Steve drew away, heat pooled in his stomach at the sight of Tony's lips which were red from Steve's kisses. Lips marked as Steve's for anyone that could read the signs.

"Be at the conference with me tomorrow."

Tony started to shake his head then stopped. "Are you sure? It would go better --"

Steve rested his forehead against Tony's and nodded. "I'm sure. I need you there just as much as I need Bucky and Sharon. Do this for me, Tony?"

It was unfair and Steve knew it. Tony had been shot at in a public appearance only a few days before. Maria had been threatened. Tony had every reason not to want to be in front of a camera or a crowd. Steve didn't have any right to ask him.

"Okay," Tony agreed, softly. "Okay."

Steve kissed him again. "Thank you."

They started to lean in for another kiss when a sound from the doorway drew their attention. Maria stood there, holding a book in her hands. It was black with silver writing on it, and it looked new. Steve could make out the title: Coraline.

A present from the Richards maybe?

"Yes, Maria?" Tony asked, sounding like he hadn't just been caught kissing by a nine-year-old.

"Could you read the next part with me? It makes me shivery." Maria was chewing on her bottom lip.

Tony glanced at Steve. "How about we all read it together in the living room?" he suggested. "With some milk and cookies?"

Maria lit up slightly at that, and Steve was thankful that in many ways Maria could act like a normal child. Not that he had much of a baseline for the reactions of normal children.

"Will you do the voices?" Maria asked Tony hopefully, as he took her hands.

Steve glanced at him questioningly. "Voices?"

Tony flushed slightly. "When I read out loud, I do the character's dialogue in different voices. She likes it."

Steve laced his fingers with Tony's other hand. How could Tony ever think he could leave this? "I look forward to hearing it."

This was his home. This was his family.

***

Steve could hear Tony speaking from the podium and he felt sicker to his stomach with nerves than he had his first day of training to be a super solider. He was wearing his uniform, though he had the cowl pushed back. He wanted it to be clear it was him, not just someone wearing the uniform.

"Are you ready for this?" Bucky asked, looking more calm that Steve felt. Steve had to admit Bucky wore his version in the uniform well. It suited the younger man.

He grinned and shook his head. "No, not really."

Bucky was running his fingers along the rim of the shield, and it was hard for Steve not to look at it. It was odd to be in uniform and not have the weight of the shield on his back. He missed it.

"You don't have to do this. Let Stark make something up," Bucky suggested. "You could retire some place and have a happy, normal life. Get married, raise some kids."

Steve shook his head again. "Bucky -- James," he corrected himself, resting a hand on Bucky's shoulder. "This is a part of my life. And I can't abandon Tony."

Bucky sighed, but nodded. "I thought you might say that." He lifted the shield and held it out to Steve. "I believe this is yours, Captain."

"No, James. It's yours. I passed it on to you," Steve protested. "You have as much right to the shield and the name as I do."

Bucky shook his head. "They were never mine. I was just keeping both safe for you." He pressed the shield at Steve again. "Take it. It's yours."

Steve carefully took the shield from Bucky, welcoming the weight. It was like regaining a limb, and Steve just stood there a moment looking at it. "Thank you."

Bucky smiled slightly. "See if you still thank me after the press eats you alive."

"They're ready for us," Sharon called from the doorway. She was back in a SHEILD uniform.

"We fought the Nazis, we can handle a press conference," Steve told him, shifting the shield onto his back.

"If you say so, Cap." Bucky shot back, falling into step beside Steve.

Steve smiled, and with Bucky on one side and Sharon on the other, he pushed open the doors into the bright sunlight. The flash bulbs started going off all around him, but Steve focused on Tony's face as he walked to the podium.

They'd handle this press conference together.

A united front.

End