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“Tony, Steve. Steve, Tony. Play nice,” is all Pepper says when she walks into his office. Tony has just enough time to look up at what can only be the most uncomfortable person in the world—pale, skinny, wearing an ill-fitting suit and an expression that suggests he’s just been thrown into a tank with giant man-eating sharks—before she leaves.

“H-Hello, Mr. Stark,” Steve says, his shoulders squaring resolutely, except he doesn’t really have any shoulders to speak of, so it comes across as one of the saddest things Tony has ever seen. “I’m your new—”

“You know what, hold that thought,” Tony interrupts, because letting him finish the sentence might actually make it real, and he’s up and out the door in pursuit.

He manages to catch Pepper at the elevators—how a woman wearing such high heels can move so fast, he’ll never know—and says, “You have got to be kidding me!”

“About what?” she asks oh-so-innocently, as if the evil tilt of her smile didn’t give her away.

“About that,” he says, pointing towards his office. They both look back in order to see Steve’s head peeking out the room. Steve’s eyes go wide just before he jerks back inside, and then there’s a loud thud, followed by a faint “Ow.”

“See?” Tony exclaims, waving his hands because Steve has just made his argument for him. “See?”

“Oh, you mean Steve,” she says, her smile just getting bigger. The elevator doors open and then close with neither of them moving inside. “Isn’t he great?”

“That’s not the word I’d use to describe him, Pepper—”

“That’s just because you haven’t gotten to know him yet.”

“I don’t want to get to know him! Have you seen him?”

“I told you to be nice,” she says, looking at him sternly, but he’s long since become inured to her intimidation tactics.

“He looks like a strong wind will knock him over! Hell, a light breeze! Like he should have a nurse following him around, offering to spoon-feed him jello!” Tony runs his fingers through his hair. “I know I said you could pick my next PA, but this is ridiculous.”

“Maybe he’s not the . . . hardiest . . . assistant you’ve ever had,” she concedes, “but he’s got an excellent resume.”

Tony snorts. "Why do I feel like you’re telling me he has a ‘great personality?’” he says and purposefully adds the air quotes in order to be obnoxious. “Or better yet, ‘a wonderful sense of humor’"

"You know, I find it fascinating that you’re comparing this to a blind date, especially since out of the last five PA’s you’ve had, two quit in order to have an affair with you, one threatened to sue for sexual harrassment unless you had an affair with her, one just threatened to sue, and the last one had to be fired because he was going through your trash and leaving you love notes all over the place!”

“None of that was my fault!” he protests but backtracks quickly at the look on her face. “Well, alright, the first two were my fault, but how was I to know they’d take a little bit of harmless flirting so seriously? I mean, they basically threw themselves at me. What else was I supposed to do?”

He feels insulted by how blatantly she rolls her eyes.

“Uh huh. Now, you might actually be concerned with the state of Steve’s health, or you might just be complaining that Steve doesn’t provide enough eye candy to qualify as your PA—which would just be ridiculous, because we don’t tolerate sexual harassment here, and you would never hit on employee. Again,’” she says, glaring at him, and that look is completely unjustified. Seriously, he’s starting to get the impression she doesn’t believe him when he says it wasn’t his fault. “Either way, I don’t really care. Like it or not, Steve is your new assistant, and since he reports to me and not you, you can’t fire him. And before you get any bright ideas, don’t even thinkabout driving him to quit. I will know,” she says, and okay, maybe he’s not quite as inured as he thought, “and I will be very upset.”

“But, Pepper—”

“No ‘buts!’”

“Bu—”

“No!” she says, and when she jabs the down button, the doors open immediately. “Be nice,” she warns him one last time, and then she’s gone.

-----

“Sorry about that,” Tony says airily when he gets back into his office. “I just had something to discuss with Pepper.”

“No problem,” Steve says, his voice tight, and Tony doesn’t know if it’s due to the guy knowing exactly what he wanted to talk to Pepper about, or to the big red spot that’s already starting to swell on his forehead. Ouch indeed.

“So you’re my new assistant,” Tony says and tries not to sigh. Pepper’s baseless accusations aside, he doesn’t actually go out of his way to have attractive people work for him. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s not a requirement.

Plus, Steve’s not even bad looking. Mostly. Sure, he’s almost as white as the decorative pillows on Tony’s couch, and yes, he looks like he needs to spend the next three weeks eating nothing but junk food, junk food, and more junk food, but he has good bone structure and really nice eyes.

Which is all entirely beside the point, and he’s obviously been working too hard if he’s letting himself get so distracted.

What Tony wants, what he must have, is an assistant who doesn’t look like he’s going to keel over at any second while working for him. Is that really too much to ask? His last guy, David, for all that he’d turned into a creepy stalker with a trash fetish that would make raccoons envious had been a marathon runner. He’d even talked about training to do the Ironman—and huh. He might have meant that in an entirely different context, now that Tony thinks about it.

Whatever though. Fit. Healthy. Not a step away from death’s door. These are just bare minimum standards really, and oh crap, is it just his imagination or is Steve swaying?

“Why don’t you sit down?” Tony says and puts his hand on Steve’s back, turning him towards the comfortable furniture instead of the chairs in front of his desk that have been ergonomically designed to be as torturous as possible. The action makes him notice the hearing aid in Steve’s left ear, and he has to stifle the sudden urge to repeat his question in a slightly louder voice.

“I’m fine. Really, I don’t need to sit,” Steve protests.

“Well, I want to sit down,” Tony says and does just that, putting up his feet on the coffee table for good measure. He checks, but Steve only has the one hearing aid, and that makes him feel better for some reason. “But feel free to stand there and tower over me, making me extremely uncomfortable and giving me a neck crick in the process. Really.”

Steve dithers for a second, but in the end, he sits down, because he’s apparently polite like that, which is great to know for future manipulation purposes.

“Looks like quite the doozy on your head,” Tony says after a second, because it’s not like he can ignore it. “Do you want Advil or something? Cold compress? Cutesy cartoon character bandaid?”

“No, thank you,” Steve says, flushing, and he looks much better with some color in his cheeks. “It’s my own fault for looking around the corner like that. With the way you rushed out of here, I just wanted to make sure everything was alright.”

Steve doesn’t say it accusingly, but Tony feels a slight twinge of guilt anyway.

Not enough to not try and get him to quit as a last ditch effort, however, Pepper’s warnings aside. No one’s ever accused him of being a graceful loser after all.

“Yeah, well, I tend to rush around a lot. Nothing to worry about! Most times. If you stay around long enough, you’ll notice it’s a whole lot of waiting around followed by a lot of now, now, now.”

“Why wouldn’t I stay around?”

“Well, it can be a little disconcerting at first is all,” Tony says, dismissively. “Or so I hear, but it’s not too bad. I mean, sure, as my PA, you’ll be expected to be on-call at all hours of the day, 24/7, including holidays. And you’ll have to be ready to ditch whatever you’re doing at a moment’s notice in order to fulfill my slightest whim. But no matter what you’ve heard, I personally don’t think I’m really that demanding. Oh! And I normally do the Iron Man stuff away from the office, so your life shouldn’t be in jeopardy more than say, once or twice a year. Max. How fast is your sprint, by the way? And did Pepper have you sign the liability waivers?”

Now Tony typically tries to avoid making assumptions, knows what happens when a person assumes anything, but from the expression on Steve’s face when he’d first come in, and the stammering, and the whole girding of the loins thing he’d been doing when Tony left, he’d kind of assumed Steve would wilt under the first sign of real pressure. He has to reevaluate, however, because there’s a glint in Steve’s eye—an exasperating, mulish glint—that has Tony reluctantly saying goodbye to whatever hopes he had of finding someone else for his new PA.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Stark—”

“Tony,” he says. because he gets enough of the “Mr. Stark this” and “Mr. Stark that” elsewhere, and he shouldn’t have to deal with it day in and day out. Might as well start the obedience training now.

“Tony then. Don’t worry. Ms. Potts told me everything I needed to know for this job, including the fact that I get all holidays off and I’m off the clock every weekend starting at five, that I don’t actually have to drive across town and get you a pastrami sandwich just because you have a craving—”

“You know, while Pepper might be your boss, technically, I’m her boss, so don’t you think you should be listening to me instead of her?”

“She told me you’d say that.” Steve smiles, and he looks younger because of it. Less tired. Like he’s got the weight of only half the world on his shoulders rather than of all of it. “She also told me to ignore it. And she informed me that if anything dangerous should happen, I’m supposed to take cover immediately so I don’t distract you or get in the way, and it may not be at a sprint because of my asthma, but it’ll be as close as I can get.”

Good grief, asthma on top of the hearing aid and the ghost-white pallor? Is there anything this kid doesn’t have?

But all Tony says is, “Great,” sighing again and slumping down into his seat. “Glad that’s all settled then.”

-----

Steve, it turns out, is the worst PA Tony’s ever had.

Like, he’s smart and all, getting acquainted with JARVIS right away and working with him to figure out Tony’s likes and dislikes, as well as the people Tony actually wants to talk to versus the ones he diligently hides from. He also actually treats JARVIS like a person instead of a slightly more robust iPhone, which immediately gets him points.

He’s fast too, picking up Tony’s dry cleaning and the odd mechanical part when Tony needs them, even if Tony doesn’t, ahem, remember he needs something until, oh, say, an hour before he’s supposed to be somewhere or meet a (largely self-imposed although Steve doesn’t need to know that) deadline. It’s actually pretty impressive, because he would never have taken Steve for being that quick, especially during rush-hour. He’d actually felt guilty about it the first few times until Steve kept showing back up, not a hint of smugness apparent anywhere but oozing defiant satisfaction anyway. It’s kind of become a thing to see if he can give Steve an assignment he can’t do.

“What do you mean I didn’t tell you I needed a tuxedo tonight? I distinctly remember saying I was going to go to the NYCB’s Spring Gala and needed to be ready by nine.”

“You said you wouldn’t be caught dead at the ballet, party or no, and that if anyone were to ask, I was supposed to say you’d come down with a deadly case of dengue fever.”

“Irrelevant. Work with me here, Steve. I need my tux, which means you need to go get me my tux, which means you need to hurry, because it’s already eight. Oh, and before I forget, I need you to pick up a part for me. Just call Bernie and ask for a flux capacitor—”

“A flux capacitor?” Steve asks, one hand on the door handle. “Isn’t that the thing from the movie Back to the Future?”

“Is it really?” He slaps on a puzzled face. “Huh, I guess weird things happen when I eat too many Cheetos in the middle of the night and fall asleep in front of the television. I must be thinking of something else then. I’ll text you if I remember.”

He hasn’t succeeded yet, but it’s just a matter of time really.

Steve is also exceptionally kind and seems to make friends wherever he goes. It’s not normally something Tony looks for in an assistant, but it turns out that a few words from Steve can do as much as a couple of twenties slipped unobtrusively into a palm and sometimes even works better than Tony’s own brash cheerfulness, which is just crazy.

And as for the looks department—which, once again, not a necessity but definitely a perk—Tony is flabbergasted to note one day when he accidentally splashes some coffee on one of Steve’s horrible suits that Steve actually has an amazing ass. Like, amazing, round and bubbly and full, and Tony’s had a lot more food-related incidents recently than he’s ever had in his entire life. He tells himself it’s all part of his dastardly plan to get Steve to buy a new wardrobe that’s less blah and more oomph, but he’s not totally convinced it’s true.

Nonetheless, with all the upsides, there are also downsides, and it’s the downsides that convince Tony that he has to get rid of Steve.

For one, Steve can’t make coffee worth shit. He still remembers the horror that was the morning after Steve was hired.

“What is this?” he asks after he’s finished gagging and throwing up in his mouth a little.

“Er . . . your morning coffee?” Steve asks, and Tony agrees that it’s a legitimate question, because he’s never had anything so disgusting in his life.

“So you’re not trying to poison me?”

What?” Steve says, and Tony thinks it’d be impossible to fake that look of shocked incredulity. “No! Why would—"

“Did you buy this?” he asks, wondering if Steve somehow missed the shining, glorious marvel that is his personal espresso machine and stopped by some hole-in-wall place on the way to work instead.

“No, I made it.” When Tony just keeps staring at him, he says, “Ms. Potts showed me how. Did I—did I do something wrong?”

“Show me,” he commands, and Steve does, going through every step perfectly under Tony’s watchful eye. It still comes out tasting like crap.

“And you like this?” Tony asks after he’s tried it for the second time and has to wash out his mouth in order to recover.

“Oh, I didn’t try it. I don’t . . . I don’t drink coffee,” Steve explains, shrinking a little as Tony stares and stares.

“So what? You’re a tea man?” he asks, and it might come out a trifle accusingly.

“Well, herbal tea can be very nice.”

Tony makes a face.

“I don’t drink caffeine.” Steve hesitates for a second and then mutters, “I have heart palpitations.”

Tony can’t exactly argue with that, so he lets the matter drop, but he never allows Steve next to his baby again. He swears that the machine knows Steve doesn’t like it, and the feeling’s mutual, every cup seeming to sour the closer Steve stands to it.

Also, heart palpitations. It kind of freaks him out, and the farther away Steve is from the caffeine, the better.

Still, Tony needs his morning coffee. And his mid-morning coffee, his afternoon coffee, his mid-afternoon coffee, and so on and so forth. Withholding it from him—or at the very least, making him make it himself—is reason enough to fire Steve, but to make matters worse, Steve is extremely uncooperative when it comes to Tony’s sex life.

Not that his sex life and Steve should be mentioned in the same sentence, let alone linked together; and not that Tony is now thinking about it, because he so isn’t. But it’s a sad state of affairs when he can’t get his own PA to show his one-night stand to the door. Seriously, what is up with that? It’s in the job description! Or if it’s not, it should be, because it’s important that Tony have backup in making parting such sweet sorrow, not two people glaring balefully at him and making him wonder if his balls can ascend any higher into his body.

“It’s disrespectful,” Steve says the first time it happens.

“What are you talking about? I respect women! I love women! And besides, she was the one who suggested it!”

“I didn’t say it was only disrespectful to her,” Steve tells him, eyes bright with some emotion that Tony doesn’t recognize, and Steve leaves before he can think of anything to say.

It only happens once more a few weeks later, just to prove that he can and that he doesn’t need Steve’s approval, but he doesn’t enjoy it half as much as he should. He also ends up bringing Steve a basket full of muffins later that morning. Not as an apology, of course! They’d just been lying around. He hadn’t gotten them specifically for Steve or anything.

Which leads to the third reason that Steve is the worst PA that Tony’s ever had, which is that he enjoys being with Steve, actually respects him as a person and a, well, as a friend, and look how well that had turned out that last time that had happened? Sure, he and Pepper are still close—there’s no one he cares about more—but it’d felt like his heart had been torn out when they’d broken up, and he’s not eager to go through that again.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if Steve weren’t so funny, so damn nice and . . . noble, he thinks. Noble is a good word to describe a man who holds doors open for everyone, and gives up his place in line to someone in a hurry, and has a portion of his paycheck sent to his mother. (Not that Tony had verified it was his mother or anything, because what did it matter to him that Steve was sending money to a woman with the same last name?)

Maybe if he didn’t put up with Tony’s shit without letting it bother him, or give as good as he got with his brand of sly, understated humor, maybe then Tony wouldn’t worry so much. But Steve does, and so he does, and it’s frightening how dear Steve’s face is becoming to him, how much he’s starting to respect his opinion and look forward to his smiles. It doesn’t even matter that Steve isn’t his normal type. Not that Tony really has a specific type, although most people would disagree, would see the models and movie stars he goes out with and assume he’s only interested in their looks. The thing is, though, that Tony’s ideals of beauty were shaped to a large degree by his peers growing up—not the kids who went to the local schools, but the men and women who were decades older than he was, who frequently wore glasses and smelled a little funny and were more fascinated with the form of one’s ideas than the outward shell they wore. So more than anything, what Tony is attracted to is excellence—in mind, in body—and there’s just something about Steve that calls to him almost irresistibly.

Which is why he’s got to go. There’s just no way around it.

-----

Of course, then it all gets blown to hell, almost literally.

Tony had been serious when he’d said that he kept his Iron Man responsibilities and his Tony Stark responsibilities separate for the most part. He’d learned his lesson when the Mandarin had been around, and he doesn’t like to put civilians in danger.

Sometimes, however, he doesn’t get to call the shots, so when a new villain comes knocking while Tony’s on a business trip in Washington, D.C.—and what is up with that shade of green? A complaint needs to be filed with the guy’s tailor—he does what he has to.

“Get out of here, Steve!” he yells as he pushes the button that will call the suit to him from New York. That’s the last time he leaves the portable suit at home, even if it is supposed to be a quick there and back again trip. The fact that Steve tries to carry all of Tony’s luggage himself shouldn’t affect his packing choices.

He turns around when he doesn’t hear anything, and wow, for such a skinny guy, Steve can really hoof it. (There might be a tiny, miniscule part of Tony that’s miffed he didn’t say “good luck” or “be safe” or anything, but it’s so small that he pretends it doesn’t exist.) Hopefully, Steve’ll keep running like that until he’s completely out of the danger zone.

There’s not much Tony can do until the suit arrives, so he stays close, cataloguing the guy’s powers—some sort of energy ray that unfortunately sets things on fire—and planning his attack.

He can just make out a promising speck on the horizon, when a third player enters the scene, and what the hell? This guy’s trying to steal Tony’s villain! Well, he supposes it’s not his villain per se. He did see him first, but it’s not his town after all. Actually, guy number two could be guy number one’s partner, now that he comes to think about it, in which case Tony will have two opponents to take care of. He doesn’t know if that makes him feel better or worse.

This one’s dressed in red, white, and blue, though, and he answers the question of friend or foe pretty quickly when he throws a shield at Jungle Fever and manages to knock him down. By the time the suit’s within city limits, the fight’s just about over, and Tony’s kind of feeling like a third wheel, sitting around and watching. Still, he’s only a little disappointed that he didn’t get to save the day, because Stars ‘n Stripes is muscular and acrobatic and did he mention the skintight leather? The skintight leather is definitely worth mentioning a time or two.

Now, Tony knows better than to stand out in the open in the middle of a battle. He does. Really. His only excuse—besides the leather—is that he’d honestly thought the fighting was over, and not because he believes in his own immortality as some people might claim. Still, it means he doesn’t dodge in time when the energy blast goes off almost right next to him, and damn it, Steve’s going to be so mad at him for not taking his own advice.

The first thing he notices when the neon lime clears—seriously, what had the guy been thinking?—is white wings, and he has a second of panic that he’s gone into the great beyond before they turn away and he realizes they’re part of a costume.

“—ony! Tony! Are you—?”

“Do I—do I know you?” he coughs out, and that’s rude, he knows it is. What’s the point of having a secret identity if you blab it all over the place? Also a tad bit sleazy, because it comes off as one of the lamest pick up lines ever. But while he wouldn’t mind peeling off some of that leather and seeing if the muscles it’s concealing are as incredible as they seem to be, Tony’s actually serious. He can’t put his finger on it, but there’s something familiar about this guy.

“Are you alright?” Mr. American-as-Apple Pie (or Sugar Pants for short) asks instead of answering Tony’s question, and even his voice makes Tony feel like he should recognize it, although he can’t think why. It’s filled with worry, although it sounds less frantic than it had a second before, and it makes Tony wonder even more, because surely a person isn’t that invested in a total stranger. Although, it is Tony after all.

“I’m good,” he says, waving him off when he tries to keep him from sitting up, but aside from some bruises and a substantial blow to his ego, he’s fine. Apparently the energy ray hadn’t been as close as he’d thought. “Where’s—?”

He cuts himself off, because he can see the answer a few feet away. Fifty Shades of Chartreuse is out cold, and his energy gun is lying in about a thousand pieces all over the place.

“Did you have to break the gun?” he complains, but Sugar Pants is gone, and he turns his head in time to catch him running from the scene.

And he’d thought Steve had a magnificent ass. Whooee.

He tries to talk about it with Steve afterwards—the experience, not random superhero’s asses—but Steve’s more interested in examining the bump on Tony’s head than in discussing what happened.

“Where did he even come from?”

“Where do any of you guys ever come from? Will you stop moving?” Steve says, gripping Tony’s head and holding him in place.

“Ow! Ow! Will you stop that?”

“I’m sorry. Does it hurt a lot?”

“It does now!” Tony scowls, but Steve just rolls his eyes.

“Don’t be a baby,” he says, but his fingers are gentle as they trace his head.

“Did you see him? I didn’t recognize him.”

“No, I was too busy being sensible and taking cover,” Steve says waspishly. “What did he look like?”

Tony waves his hand. He’s oddly reluctant to go into too much detail with Steve. “You know, big, muscular.” Hot. “He was all patriotic with the red, white, and blue.”

“They’re good colors,” is all Steve says.

“Well, they’re no red and gold, but they’ll do. Definitely better than whatever shade of green the other guy was wearing.” Tony’d like to put a name to the villain de jour, but he hasn’t regained consciousness yet, and he apparently doesn’t believe in carrying his wallet and I.D. on him. Go figure.

Steve looks at him blankly.

“Oh, come on, you couldn’t have missed that shade of green! My eyes still hurt just thinking about it. A person would have to be colorblind—”

He stops at Steve’s expression.

“Of course you’re colorblind. Of course you are.” Tony sighs, and it’s not like he blames Steve for not being subject to the torture of a bad color scheme, but still. “Count yourself lucky. My retinas are never going to recover.”

-----

He’s all set to fire Steve—he is, he’s not kidding, he’s going to do it—but then he just . . . doesn’t.

At first he tells himself it’s because he’s too fixated on Sugar Pants to focus on anything else, but a couple of weeks go by without him so much as lifting a finger to find out who the guy is, and there goes that. He does get a couple of nice dreams out of it, however, and seriously, mmm, mmm, mmmm.

He kind of freaks out, though, when he has this one dream with Sugar Pants and Steve, and he has no idea what his subconscious is thinking. It makes him all squirmy at work the next day, and he has trouble looking Steve in the eye. Which is just another reason to give Steve the axe, because when has that ever happened to him—never, is when—but he continues to do nothing.

If he had an excuse of some kind, he’d feel a lot better about the lack of action, but while he’s busy, he’s not that busy, and sure, he’s traveling a lot (with the suit. He adds a roller attachment, because he’s worried about wrenching his back and not in order to spare Steve’s pride), but Steve travels with him most of the time, so he can’t exactly hide behind the distance as a legitimate reason for not going through with it.

It could be that he’s suffering a little PTSD after almost being killed—again—and maybe latching onto Steve as a fellow sufferer—sort of—of recent events, and thus, inflating his emotional significance. When he tries avoiding him, however, in order to let the attachment fade—and even he doesn’t buy that this is going to work, but desperate times call for desperate measures and all that—it doesn’t pan out.

“What do you mean you’re not planning to take Steve with you to London?” Pepper demands, and he’s seen that “you’re so crazy” look on her face before, but it seems more pronounced than usual. “What’s the point of having someone take care of all the administrative work that you hate if he’s not there to actually take care of it for you?”

“But Pepper—”

“No ‘buts!’” she says, and it’s like this new mantra with her or something.

It doesn’t help that Steve seems to known he’s trying to avoid him and starts giving him this wounded look that’s more effective than all of Pepper’s lectures combined, and Tony finally throws in the towel, ordering the largest cookie cake he can find on short notice. He has them write “Happy Birthday, Pete” and tells Steve someone mistakenly ordered two of them when he presents it to him along with a lunch of fish and chips—and no, he’s not trying to fatten Steve up or anything, why do you ask?—and the demand that they go on a fish and chips tour of London with the caveat that whatever place they go to has to be better than what he can get in New York.

The way Steve brightens up totally makes his day, and wow. He’s so screwed.

-----

Pepper doesn’t believe him, but he does understand the meaning of “privacy” and “legal boundaries.” He just doesn’t care most of the time.

He feels a little bad about hacking into Steve’s medical file, but it’s like every time he turns around, Steve’s revealing a new problem, and Tony has to know what he’s working with.

His jaw drops as he reads. Steve has almost every condition known to man—or at least, it seems that way to Tony. On top of the partial deafness, color blindness, heart palpitations, and asthma, he also had scoliosis as a kid and had to undergo surgery, is prone to anemia, has a horrible case of astigmatism, has high blood pressure, is diabetic, the list goes on and on. He’s on more medication than Tony can count, and it’s just—

Who’s going to take care of Steve if Tony fires him? Obviously Steve’s done an alright job so far, but it has to be tiring to do it alone, always on guard. And what if the next place he works isn’t sympathetic to his ailments? Tony isn’t familiar with a lot of it, but heart problems, why he could talk for hours about heart problems. What if Steve’s next job doesn’t have good health care? What if he has an attack of some kind and can’t work anymore and goes into horrible debt trying to pay his medical bills and has to sell an organ or something on the black market (not that anyone would necessarily want one of his organs, but hey, it could happen) and gets kicked out of his apartment and ends up dying, poor and homeless? What would Tony do then?

He can’t let that happen. Not to Steve. Not to his Steve.

-----

“Here, I got you this,” Tony says and sets the bottle of orange juice in front of Steve.

“Thank you,” Steve replies, and there’s no reason for him to look so surprised. Tony can do nice things. He does nice things all the time.

“Yeah, well, happy Administrative Assistant Day,” he says, even though he has no idea when that actually is. “I also got this,” he says, pulling out a bottle of Echinacea from the bag he’s carrying and handing it to Steve. “And this,” some DHA, “and this,” some English Walnut, “and this and this and this and this,” and he hands over some more supplements good for heart conditions and diabetes, as well as a year-long membership to a highly-rated yoga studio near the office and an envelope full of massage vouchers.

Steve’s face does a lot of interesting things as Tony lays his gifts on his desk, eyebrows popping up at the number of massages Tony’s bought, and he can tell he wants to refuse them, can just imagine Steve’s insistence that it’s all too much and he doesn’t need any of it.

So Tony breaks out his soulful eyes, and what he means to say is “I’m really glad you’re with us,” but what he actually says is “I’m really glad you’re with me,” and Freudian slip, what Freudian slip?

It’s like he can see Steve’s resistance crumbling right in front of him, and Steve shakes his head, smiling wryly at him—aware of the manipulation but still not immune—and says softly, “Thank you, Tony.”

It makes him wonder if heart palpitations are contagious, because it feels like his heart stops at the affection in Steve’s eyes and then starts up again in a totally different rhythm.

-----

He doesn’t make a move—well, any more of a move anyway—for a few weeks, just watches Steve and lets the idea that he has feelings for him sink in.

Steve notices something’s going on if the way he squints at him are any indication, but he doesn’t ask what it is, and Tony can’t tell him yet. He doesn’t even know if Steve’s interested.

Not that he’s ever let that stop him before, but it’s a genuine concern.

Still, he has reason to be hopeful. He catches Steve looking at him sometimes, nothing too obvious, but smiling at him vaguely, like he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. Like he can’t help it. Furthermore, Steve never complains about the hours Tony keeps, always stays and keeps him company, even if the two of them aren’t talking or interacting much at all. Tony’s actually started having JARVIS set an alarm so he remembers to send Steve home, even though he’d be more than happy to keep him around.

In addition, for all that he’d said he’d be off the clock at five on the weekends, Steve has never let one of his calls go to voicemail, not even the middle of the night ones—although those have been few and far between and mostly accidental with Tony not realizing the time. While it could be a sign that he’s just paranoid about his job, considering Steve doesn’t hesitate to tell Tony “no” when he makes an outrageous demand, he doesn’t think it’s the case. He hopes it’s because Steve likes hearing from him just as much as Tony enjoys reaching out.

He finally ratchets up the courage to let Pepper know that he might lose another PA, because—surprise!—Tony’s a little head over heels. It goes as well as can be expected.

“I am going to kill you,” she says, and he regrets his decision not to wear the suit to their meeting.

He’s still smarting from all the verbal abuse and one well-aimed decorative paperweight after it’s over, and he decides to take a walk to clear his head. A few minutes later, three black vans pull up alongside him, and six masked men pour out of them.

Tony has just enough time to say, “You have got to be kidding me,” and hit the emergency sequence on his phone before he’s fighting for his freedom.

They’ve got guns, but he’d honestly rather be shot than willingly go into one of their vans, so he ignores them. He gets one or two good hits in, but they’re not exactly shabby themselves, and it’s six against one (not including all the bystanders, but they’re not helping, and Tony doesn’t want them to. These guys are professionals, and anyone who tries to help is just going to get hurt). It’s no contest.

Except then it’s six against two, and holy fuck, it’s Sugar Pants.

It’s a lot of Sugar Pants actually. Tony’s would-be hero isn’t wearing the eye-catching outfit from before. He’s barely wearing anything at all except for the mask, the remains of some boxers that barely cover his dignity, and what looks like a pale blue button-down shirt that’s wrapped around his hips, the arms tied together at the side. And wow, Tony would never have thought he’d say this, but that skintight outfit did not do him justice.

What? He might be falling for Steve, but he’d dare anyone not to take a look or three at all that splendor when given a free show.

He hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d said the kidnappers were professionals, but there’s being a professional, and there’s being a superhero, and he’s not the only one who realizes they’re in trouble. They’re not even paying attention to him anymore, and he stands back and watches the fireworks. Someone else might get embarrassed at having to be rescued—again—but Tony is unashamed. If handsome men want to throw themselves in front of him, who is he to stop them?

He collects his breath, wincing from a couple of aches and pains, as they start trying to escape. Sugar Pants is fast, however, very, very strong, and apparently extremely angry, punching one of the vans on the hood and leaving the vehicle dented and crumpled to the ground. Tony is impressed. He might be more impressed, however, by the view he gets of Sugar Pants from the back. Man, oh, man. He lets out a silent whistle. He almost feels like he’s cheating on Steve’s ass by enjoying himself so much, but seriously, Tony would worship at the altar that is—

He stops and leans forward, straining for a better look.

Then he stares.

Sugar Pants has a long scar down the center of his back. It’s thin and barely noticeable, and if Tony hadn’t been looking so avidly, he probably wouldn’t have seen it at all. But he has, and it seems very coincidental that his PA had surgery for scoliosis when he was a kid and Sugar Pants, who just happened to be conveniently close by when Tony was in trouble on two separate occasions and who was obviously in the middle of a quick costume change, has a scar down his back from what looks like spinal surgery. What are the odds?

He accepts the truth without too much fanfare. Maybe if he didn’t live the life he did, he’d have a harder time believing that Steve, dear, sweet, shrimpy Steve with his multiple conditions turns into a six foot plus walking muscle, but it’s not the weirdest thing he’s ever seen. Hell, one of his best friends is Bruce Banner. Steve doesn’t even turn green.

Acceptance, however, doesn’t mean forgiveness. How had he not known? Have the signs been there all this time, but he’s just been blind?

He recalls how familiar he’d thought Sugar Pants was, and if there’s one thing he hates more than anything else, it’s feeling stupid.

Except how could he have known? Steve doesn’t exactly look like the typical superhero day to day. Hell, he kind of looks like the ninety pound weakling that always got picked on in high school and could never get a date (never mind that Tony desperately wanted to date him—that he still does if he’s honest). Steve Rogers and Sugar Pants do not add up to the same person.

Which makes him wonder if that was why Pepper had hired him—had she gotten Tony his own personal bodyguard under the guise of a new assistant?

No, not Pepper. Not that he wouldn’t put it past her to insist he get a bodyguard, but she wouldn’t go behind his back to do it. She wouldn’t lie to him like that.

Steve would, however. Steve’s been lying to him. All this time. And it doesn’t matter that Steve’s been lying to everyone, because Tony should be different.

“Are you alright, Mr. Stark?” Sugar Pa—no, Steve—no, okay, still Sugar Pants asks, coming up to Tony afterwards.

Tony wants to be mad at him, wants to yell and demand answers—but it’s hard to stay upset when he hears the genuine worry in Steve’s voice, when he sees him lift his hand like he’s reaching for Tony, before pulling it back. It doesn’t help—or maybe it helps a lot—that Steve’s basically naked, especially when the only reason Steve’s thrown aside his modesty was in order to get to Tony in time.

He sighs, long and drawn out. It’s not exactly the time or place for explanations, not with what feels like half the city watching them and the sound of sirens in the distance. They can continue this later. For right now, it’s enough that he knows that he still wants Steve in his life, that his heart clenches at the idea of not having him nearby. None of that has changed.

“It was ‘Tony’ back in D.C.”

“Yes, well . . .” Steve says, ducking his head.

“You were wearing a lot more clothes back in D.C. too, but I can’t say I don’t like the new look,” he says, and it’s not much of a leer, but Steve’s whole face turns bright red.

Steve kind of mumbles something about being in a hurry while trying to keep the ends of his shirt from fluttering in the wind, and it’s such a Steve thing to do, to try and retain what modesty he can while pretty much flashing the world, that Tony feels a rush of fondness sweep through him. It’s going to be okay. They’re going to be fine.

“Go on, get out of here. I’ll stay here and handle the cops,” he says, and yeah, it’s still a little weird, even if he’s mostly past the angry stage, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take one last, long look, however. He’s only human after all. “You don’t want them to mistakenly arrest you for indecent exposure. I’ll meet you back at the office.”

Steve splutters something ridiculous about how he can’t just walk in Stark Enterprises without revealing his alter ego, and Tony says chidingly, low enough that no one else can hear, “Steve,” and only hesitates for a moment before leaning in to give him a short kiss, ignoring the gasps and the clicks of camera phones around them.

It shuts Steve up pretty quickly.

-----

It’s hours later before Tony actually makes it back. There’s all this paperwork to fill out, and there’s some kind of magical device in one of the vans that teleports things to who knows where that they want him to look at—which at least explains why the kidnappers would try for him in broad daylight right before NYC rush hour traffic. They would’ve been lucky to get five blocks otherwise before the police caught them.

He’s had a lot of time to think things over, and it’s not like he hasn’t been in the situation of having to say, “Why, yes, Iron Man is pretty amazing, and by the way, he’s me.” He’d had his reasons at the time, and sure, he’d forgotten about them as soon as he’d stepped in front of the cameras, but he’s sure Steve has his reasons as well. He’s not going to point fingers.

Steve’s waiting for him in his office, fully dressed, a jacket over a crumpled blue button-down, and Tony drops all the crap he’s carrying and smiles widely at him.

Steve doesn’t smile back.

“What’s wrong?” he asks sharply, wondering if maybe Steve had gotten hurt during the fight and Tony had somehow missed it.

“I’m leaving,” Steve says, his mouth tight and pinched. “I’ve given my resignation to Ms. Potts and—”

“Hey, hey, whoa!” Tony says, and what the hell’s going on? “Is this about the kiss? Because, okay, I agree it wasn’t the most appropriate—”

“Tony—”

“And I should probably have asked first, although you didn’t seem to object while it was happening—”

Tony,” Steve says, and he looks miserable.

“What’s wrong?” Tony asks again, gentler this time, and all he wants to do is cross the distance between them, but he can’t, because Steve doesn’t seem to want him there.

“I don’t know how you figured it out, although I have a bad habit of . . . not being as careful as I should be around you,” Steve says, his hands curling into fists. “And I can’t force you to keep the information to yourself, but I hope—”

“I’m not going to tell anyone. I wouldn’t do that to you.” The thought hadn’t even crossed his mind.

“Thank you,” Steve says, but he doesn’t relax.

“Is that—?” Is that it, Tony wants to ask, but he’s not sure it’ll come out the way he means it. There seems to be more, but Steve is being close-mouthed, and Tony doesn’t have the faintest clue what’s going on.

“I didn’t come into my powers until I hit puberty,” Steve says, and it seems like a non sequitur at first, but Tony waits it out. “Before then, I was sick frequently and spent most of my time in bed. I only had one friend, because everyone else was scared of catching whatever it was I had, and I’m not looking for sympathy, Tony, but I want you to understand.”

“Alright,” he says softly.

“There had been a few mutants on my mother’s side of the family, but they weren’t very powerful, so my parents didn’t know what to do with me when I manifested. It seemed like a miracle, and it was to a certain extent. I was healthy all the sudden. I was tall and strong, and not only could I run around like everyone else, but I could do a lot more. It was incredible. And suddenly, all these kids wanted to get to know me.”

His mouth twists, and Tony gets it.

“You don’t think that I—”

“I really care for you, Tony, and I wish—”

“Look,” Tony says, and screw it, he bridges the space between them, gripping Steve’s upper arms. “Look, I don’t care about the . . . the transformation thing.”

Steve’s too polite to call bullshit, but his expression says it for him, disbelief overlaid with a hint of anger.

“Not to say I don’t appreciate it! Because I do! I’m a man after all, and I’m not afraid to admit that I sometimes think with my dick. Okay, frequently. I frequently think with my dick, and you are very appealing. The thought that I’ll hopefully be able to find all the hot spots on your body, not once but twice, makes me very happy. However!” And here he shakes Steve gently. “It’s not what matters.”

“Tony—”

“It’s like—” He tries desperately to think of a good analogy. “It’s like finding out your partner can put both feet behind their head!”

Annnnnd maybe that wasn’t the one to choose after all, because Steve has shifted a little more into the angry territory.

Tony hastens to explain. “I mean that it’s a surprise! And it’s nothing that you’re looking for or need, but you’re not exactly upset by it either. You’re kind of pleased as a matter of fact, and you definitely want to try it out, but you don’t want it all the time. You don’t even want it most of the time.” He squeezes Steve’s arms. “It’s just window dressing, because you already have what you really want.”

“That’s my point, though, Tony,” Steve says, and he jerks away. “You didn’t want it—you didn’t want me until you—”

Didn’t want you? Steve, the only reason I was out this afternoon was because Pepper had just handed me my ass on a plate because I told her I was attracted to you! Before I knew about your secret identity. I didn’t figure that out until I saw the scar on your back and wondered about the likelihood of my PA and a guy who’d somehow managed to save me in the nick of time on two separate occasions in two different cities both having had spinal surgery when they were kids! At the risk of sounding cheesy, I haven’t been able to get you out of my head for weeks now! You’re stubborn and strong, and you keep fighting when anyone else would give up, and how am I supposed to ignore that?”

Steve stares at him like he doesn’t know what to say.

“And as for wanting you, didn’t you become a little suspicious when I instituted Casual Friday right after you started working for me? These jackets you keep wearing were ruining my view.”

Steve shakes his head slowly in obvious awe of Tony’s deviousness.

“What I’m trying to say is that the packaging might change depending on the situation, but so what?” he says and reaches out, tugging an unresisting but not exactly enthusiastic Steve into his arms again. “It’s nice either way—it’s still you either way—and that’s what’s important.”

“I have a lot of bad days, Tony,” Steve says, and Tony wonders if he realizes it isn’t an argument so much as a warning.

“You’ve worked for me for months now, Steve. So do I.”

“Not because you’re sick, though.”

“You don’t have to rub the fact that your bad days are justified and mine aren’t in my face, Steve. That’s just rude.”

“Don’t make a joke about this, Tony!” He wonders if Steve’s even aware that’s he’s holding on to his shirt, fingers so tight there’s no way Tony could get away. “The—the other guy is for fighting super villains, but this is me! This is my life, and I’m not going to change into him permanently. I don’t want to—”

“So don’t,” he says, and he doesn’t know why they’re still fighting when they’re saying the same thing. “Window dressing,” he repeats, because Steve obviously needs it drilled into his stubborn head. “That’s all it is.”

He tilts Steve’s chin up so he can look into his eyes. “Tell me you believe me,” he says, orders really, but he’s not actually as confident as he’s pretending to be that Steve won’t walk away, and he needs to hear Steve say the words.

Steve swallows, and Tony’s eyes dart down, sees the frantic beat of his pulse and feels some of the worry ease.

“Tony . . .”

“Tell me.”

There’s a long pause that has Tony wondering who’d win between the two of them in a fight in case he has to sit on Steve until he actually hears the words Tony’s saying, but then Steve says, “I believe you,” voice raspy but sincere. “I do,” he says and wraps his arms around Tony, pulling him close.

-----

Going from employer and employee to lovers takes some adjustment. A lot of that is because Steve decides to quit in order to keep their professional and personal lives separate and no longer obediently does whatever Tony tells him to, which Tony finds just shocking. The person that Pepper hires to replace him is this dour, frighteningly efficient older gentleman who quite frankly intimidates Tony a little. He apparently retired from the Marine Corps years ago but still looks like he could bench press Tony with his pinky. He also hasn’t smiled once in the few weeks he’s been with him. Seriously, not even once.

To give him his due, however, his coffee is divine.

Steve, instead of finding another full-time job, decides to devote his attention to a web comic he’s been working on for a while now that follows the adventures of a character called Winter Soldier. It’s actually really popular. Tony hadn’t even known he could draw.

And speaking of instances where he’s completely clueless, all the cakes and cookies and stuff he keeps giving Steve? Apparently, that much sugar isn’t great for someone with diabetes. Which, once he thinks about it, is horribly obvious, and Steve laughs when Tony tells him Pepper had lectured him for a solid ten minutes after she’d overheard him order a nine inch, double layer, chocolate mousse cake for delivery to Steve’s apartment.

“I think it’s sweet. Besides, I just take a piece and store it for when my blood sugar is getting a little low or when I ‘switch outfits,’” Steve says, emphasizing the words and looking around the restaurant where they’re eating in a not-at-all suspicious manner, and how he hadn’t been found out before this, Tony has no clue. “Before I quit, I used to share the rest of it around the office—”

“I thought people were glaring at me a lot since you left.”

“—but now I just pass it along to my friends, which they all appreciate. Clint, in particular, keeps trying to get me to promise we’ll never break up.”

Tony’s half-tempted to ask for a promise too, not because he’s worried, but because things are going so amazingly well between them, and that’s not even mentioning their sex life.

Not that he needs to brag about their sex life.

Who’s he kidding? He totally needs to brag about their sex life.

It’d actually started off a little shaky. Steve had wanted to keep the lights off the first few times they’d done anything, which had been a big mood-breaker for Tony. He gets off on his partners getting off, and Steve had been quiet and hesitant, and Tony hadn’t been able to tell if he was just nervous or if Tony had been doing something wrong.

He’d finally come up with the brilliant idea of a blindfold—and yes, they both knew that just because Steve couldn’t see Tony didn’t mean Tony couldn’t see Steve, but it had still worked. Steve had relaxed, and Tony had been able to witness the way Steve had nearly bitten his lip bloody to keep the noises inside, the way his hands had kept a death grip on his pillow as Tony had taken him farther and farther down his throat. He still doesn’t know if Steve had been more wrecked from the blow job or from watching Tony coming across his chest afterward, seeing the proof that he’d been too turned on to wait for Steve to reciprocate. Needless to say, things had gotten a lot easier from there.

And the first time they’d had sex with Steve as Sugar Pants? Well, Tony’s never exactly tentative when he has sex with Steve, but he is careful, because heart palpitations are not a turn on. He doesn’t have to worry about them when Steve’s like this, however, and keeping Steve on the edge until he’s nearly mindless, promising anything if Tony will just let him finish, please, please, Tony, has become one of his new favorite things.

There are some days that Tony hears Steve’s watch alarm go off (the new watch that Tony bought him which has a sensor embedded inside that secretly monitors Steve’s heart rate), and Steve has to take a handful of pills at a time. Other days Steve just turns it off. There are juice boxes in the refrigerator now, glucose tablets in the medicine cabinet, and a defibrillator and glucagon kit in every room in the penthouse. Steve thinks he’s going overboard, but he also starts insisting he come along with Tony every time he goes out as Iron Man, so Tony doesn’t think he’s one to talk. Not to mention the fact that Steve is trying to get Tony to eat healthier and stop skipping meals so frequently, so if one of them is mother-henning the other, it’s certainly not him.

Still, he can’t honestly complain. Life is good.

“You ready for bed yet?” Tony asks, leaning over Steve’s back as he works on his tablet.

“Almost, I just want to finish coloring this one—”

“Steve, pay attention to me,” Tony whines, nuzzling his neck.

“Five more minutes, I swear.”

“To meeeee,” Tony repeats, lowering his hands, and he doesn’t mean to grab Steve’s crotch, but hey, since he’s already down there . . .

It makes Steve jump and drop his tablet, and with one thing and another, he doesn’t pick it back up again until morning.