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Tony Stark is a flirt. An outrageous flirt, even. Everyone tells Steve that but, contrary to popular opinion, he can work it out for himself. People say Tony's like his father – a terrible womaniser and cheat, selfish and self-centred – but most of the time Tony puts him more in mind of Bucky than Howard; that effortless charm and beauty that Steve was never party to. Even looking the way he does now, it's hard won and he doesn't find it easy to lead. Being brave and, frankly, reckless, sure. And people respect him for that, but the actual mechanics of being a leader, finding the line between compassion and dispassion, requires so much effort, keeps him up nights analysing his every action.

Tony... well. The only things that seem to keep Tony up of a night are alcohol and women. People tell Steve that too, that Tony's a borderline alcoholic, walking disaster area. Tony says it himself: 'an insult to the good Stark name, and disappointment to all who know me'.

He says this while hanging off Steve at a bar after bringing in the wonderfully named 'Unicorn'. Tony lectured the guy for a solid two minutes about picking a better alias next time.

“But, there won't be a next time,” Steve had pointed out.

Tony had smiled and thrown his arm around Steve's shoulders. “That, my friend, is true. Guess it just sucks to be you then,” he said to Unicorn.

Now he's pretty sauced, and Steve's thinks he should probably take him home (not that he's sure of which home to take him to, and driving Tony's car alone has proven ill advised in the past, not to mention illegal), but Tony is just... really close to him and staring at him with a determined sort of drunken intensity.

“You smell good,” he says. “Why do you always smell good? Like... the man your man could smell like.”

“Um...” Steve says. “I don't know what... um...”

Tony smiles fondly and sways even closer; Steve kind of wants to hand him off to someone else, like Thor or Clint, but then again, he doesn't.

He doesn't get a choice, in the end, when Pepper pushes her way through the crowd.

“Yay, Pepper,” Tony says, almost sliding out of Steve's grip as he swings around to look at her.

“Yay, Tony,” she says in resigned yet affectionate tone. “Happy drunk?”

“Yeah,” he says. “Happy drunk.” Pepper reaches out and touches his face, tracing her fingertips over the cut on his lip. He turns his face into her touch, and it's... too intimate; Steve can feel his cheeks heat up.

“Natasha called me,” she tells Steve, her gaze snapping to him. “She said you seemed a little flustered.”

Tony grins. “Hey, why don't you invite Natasha over somet-”

Pepper cuts him off with a hand over his mouth. “Grown ups are talking.”

Tony mumbles something underneath her hand, then falls silent.

“I hope Tony wasn't too much trouble, Captain.”

Steve has the distinct feeling that she's studying him. “No, ma'am, he wasn't. He saved the day, actually.”

“Did you save the day, Tony?” she asks him, and he nods solemnly, his mouth still covered by her hand. “Well, that was nice of you.”

She pulls Tony's free arm around her shoulders, and pulls him up. Steve can feel the weight of Tony shift onto Pepper, and he should probably let go now, but he holds on a moment longer. “Do you need help getting him out to the car, ma'am?”

“No, it's fine. I've been carrying Tony for a long time. Happy's outside, we'll manage.”

“In more ways than one!” Tony quips. “Carrying me, I mean...” he trails off, frowning.

“That doesn't make sense,” Pepper says gently. Steve lets go before the situation gets weirder, and she's already steering Tony into the crush of people.

“You look pretty,” he hears Tony say.

“So do you,” she replies, and then they're swallowed up by the crowd.

-

The first time Steve really met Tony, away from press conferences and meetings where everyone loudly threw their two cents in, was in the gym. The Avengers had come together once, and there were explosions and fires and destroyed buildings, and it had blown up all over the media, questions about public safety and budget deficits and tax increases. Tony had arrived mid fight, and left after telling the first news crews that they should just be grateful that they weren't 'dead, how about that?'. Steve had tried to catch up to him, but he'd been overwhelmed the camera flashes and microphones, and Tony was gone in a flash of red and gold.

None of them heard from Tony for a week, a week in which Fury and Coulson conducted an all out media blitz, coaching Steve on what to say to reporters and how to say it. They billed him as the antidote to Tony's flippant destruction of public property, an upstanding, understanding war hero. It was awful.

It wasn't meant to go like this. The Avengers Initiative wasn't ready yet, Fury said, but villains would wait for no man, it seemed. Now, thrust squarely into the spotlight, Steve just wanted to stay on lockdown on the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier like he had been before.

“So, I guess what they say about you is true,” Tony said, as Steve was mid-punch. The punching bag shot away from him, then came back at speed. He jumped out of its way and retreated to the boxing ring.

“What do they-- what do they say, Mr Stark?”

Tony strode forward and stilled the punching bag. “That you're built.” His eyes swept over Steve for a moment. “Also, that you're strangely earnest. Moms around the world are having conniption fits over how adorable you are.”

Tony moved closer to Steve in one smooth move, leaving the punching bag to swing ominously. Fury said he didn't mind Steve destroying them, but the man's patience was clearly wearing thin.

Tony seemed unconcerned by Steve's lack of a response. He stood facing Steve, lifting his chin and pushing himself up onto his toes. “Damn, you're tall,” he said finally.

“I... am,” Steve replied.

Tony laid a hand on his chest. It felt cool through Steve's t-shirt. “We gotta work on your personality, Steve. Earnestness went out of style in the eighties.”

“Okay.” Steve looked down at Tony's hand. Tony just smiled, patted his chest twice, then stepped back.

“I'll leave you to your hardcore boxing.”

“You can stay,” Steve said quickly. “I mean, if you want. I think Colonel Fury's been keeping people away but... I wouldn't mind the company.”

Tony cocked his head to the side. “Aw, Steve, don't make me feel bad. I've got to go do this shareholder brown-nosing bullshit, and then Pepper wants to... I don't know, look at paint swatches or something.”

“No, no, I understand. Thank you for visiting.” He released the velcro strap of one of his gloves and slipped it off, then extended his hand.

Tony looked like he wanted to laugh, but he didn't. He just took Steve's hand and shook firmly. “I am going to knock this fucking politeness out of you, you know.”

“I look forward to it, Mr Stark,” he replied, immediately regretting the words in combination with Tony's hand which he hadn't let go of. His cheeks began to burn.

Tony didn't react at all to it, only said, “Mr Stark was my father. It's Tony, okay? 'Cause I'm not going to call you 'Captain'.”

Steve let go, and flexed his hand. Tony let this pass without comment. “Your father was Howard.”

He couldn't place Tony's expression, but then he hadn't been able to since the first time he saw Tony on the television, under all that shine and bravado.

Tony simply said, “Yeah.”

-

Tony slopes into the Avengers situation room the next day in sunglasses and a hoodie pulled up over his hair. He makes a beeline for the coffee pot, and for a couple of minutes, Steve's the only person who notices his arrival, as unusually inauspicious and without fanfare as it is.

He's deciding whether he should go over and ask Tony how he is or if, most likely, Tony will bite his head off for speaking to him, when Thor notices where he's looking.

“Tony, you yet live!” he booms. Steve flinches, rolling his chair away from Thor. Tony jumps, then hunches over the coffee maker. Thor waits a couple of seconds, then frowns. “Are you still living?”

“Oh my God.” Tony turns around with the largest mug from the tray clutched to his chest. “Inside voice, Thor, please.”

“I am inside!”

Steve catches a look pass between Natasha and Clint – it's same as the one they give each other around him sometimes, the this guy is nuts look. Tony scrubs his free hand over his face.

“I'll pay you money if you'll turn the volume down, come on.”

“I have no need of Midgardian money!”

Tony's mouth works silently for a moment. Eventually he manages to splutter out, “Are you being serious right now?”

Thor holds his gaze, then tips his head back and laughs. Thor's laugh has an infectious quality; Clint slides down in his seat and clears his throat, Natasha pays particular attention to twirling a lock of hair around her finger. Only Bruce keeps his face curiously blank, but loud noises are among the extremely long list of things he doesn't like. Tony narrows his eyes, his mouth twisting.

“You're a weird guy, Thor.”

“Sit down, Mr Stark,” Colonel Fury says, breezing past him with Agent Coulson. Tony jumps again, and pushes his sunglasses up just enough to pinch the bridge of his nose. He mutters something to himself and walks over to the table, snagging an empty seat next to Steve. It's only now that Steve notices that Tony's wearing slippers.

Fury begins his lecture, indicating to the picture projected onto the wall behind his head – they tell Steve it's called 'Powerpoint'. Fury says things like 'unacceptable civilian casualties' and 'MSNBC'. Steve zones out when Coulson and Clint start politely arguing about the importance of 'Fox News' and 'tweets'.

He leans into Tony. “How're you feeling?” he asks quietly.

Tony makes a noise of disgust, and turns his head to Steve. “Dirty and ashamed of myself.”

With his sunglasses on, Steve can't tell if Tony's serious or not; he opens his mouth, thinking of something to say, but the weight of Tony's palm on the back of his hand stops him.

“Same as always,” Tony says, and smiles. He looks back at Fury and says, “I'm not going on The View,” seamlessly jumping back into the conversation that Steve's completely lost the thread of. Then Tony's back to Steve, quick enough to give Steve whiplash. “I have drunk so many cups of coffee today, man. Advil, Tylenol; this superhero stuff is hard. I used to be able to just sleep all day if I had a hangover. Pepper would come and harangue me occasionally and then rearrange my meetings. Those were the days.”

“Sounds, um,” Steve searches for something to say, but Tony's hand is just really... really distracting, and he doesn't want to shift an inch in case it breaks the spell.

“I mean, I had to sleep on the couch last night,” Tony barrels on, oblivious to Steve's stammering. “Pepper was like, 'the smell of that cheap beer is making me want to be sick', and I told her that it wasn't cheap, but no dice.”

“Oh... yeah,” Steve says. He wishes that he didn't get so weird when Tony talked about Pepper; there's that knot in his stomach like with Howard and Peggy's 'fondue' It makes him feel inexperienced and ridiculous.

“If you two have finished gossiping,” Fury says, cutting through Steve's flustered worrying. “I'd like to get back to talking about how we're going convince the public that we aren't little better than a terrorist group.”

“Terrorism, gotcha,” Tony says. He lets go of Steve's hand and crosses his arms. Steve tells himself he doesn't miss it.

-

They book him on Good Morning, America. The entire week before the interview, it's all anyone talks about; it's all over the papers, the news, the internet. Conspiracy theories abound about secret government experiments, pundits deride this 'obvious attempt to win back the trust of the American people', and bookies do great business taking bets as to his real identity, which Fury has refused to disclose.

They take him to the studio in an armoured car, surrounded by other armoured cars. Coulson tells him apologetically that it is indeed necessary. They sneak him through a side entrance and into a green room, the halls having been emptied of staff. It's nothing like the USO tours – there he did a literal song and dance for a couple of hundred people, here millions of people, all around the world, will be watching him.

He has to keep the mask on, and it feels hot and oppressive under the strip lighting in the corridors. Likewise, his suit is tight and singles him out as a red, white, and blue anachronism. Coulson walks ahead of him, opens the green room door for him.

“You're going to be on in just over ten minutes,” he says. He squeezes Steve's shoulder. “I'll wait with you. It'll be oka--” he trails off as he steps into the room, eyes settling on a pair of sandaled feet on one of the couches. “Mr Stark. Should I ask how you got past our security?”

Tony looks at the man with him from his perch on the armrest, a lieutenant colonel, judging by his uniform. The man rolls his eyes. “Probably not,” Tony says.

“Seeing as you're here...” Coulson pats Steve on the back, surreptitiously pushing him into the room. “Look after the captain.”

He steps back out into the corridor and shuts the door behind Steve. Steve's catches the click of a lock being turned. He pushes down on the wild desire to rattle the handle until it comes off in his hand.

“This is Rhodey,” Tony says between mouthfuls of chips. He points a thumb at the lieutenant colonel. “He's a total fanboy, has all your comics.”

“I do not,” Rhodey says, shifting uncomfortably on the couch. “I'm only here because you made me get you past security without getting arrested, God, Tony. Don't-- Tony, don't throw things at me. Are you a child? Jesus.”

“Yeah,” Tony says, flicking more chips at him. Rhodey bats them away, then lunges over and wrests the bowl out of his hands. “Hey!”

Steve moves over to the couch opposite them and sits down. “What are you doing here?” he says. It comes strained and quiet, but Tony's eyes flicker to him as he pins one of Rhodey's arm to the back of the couch.

He punches the air in victory as he recaptures the bowl, then settles back on the armrest. “I like green room food. You know, they renamed the show Good Morning, Captain America for you. That's pretty cool. I mean, no one's ever renamed a show for me.”

“What about that Dateline episode they did about you?” Rhodey asks, and pre-emptively ducks.

“That is not the same thing, I was set up. Stark Industries' stocks went down so much after that aired, I should have sued them.”

“If you'd sued them then your fling with that anchor would have come out.”

“I had no affair with anyone, Rhodey, what do you think I am?”

“Like hell, Pepper has the whole thing on tape.”

They continue in this fashion for several minutes, bickering about things Steve doesn't understand. The easiness of their chatter presses in around him, marking a line around them that he can't cross, a line around everyone and everything that he can't cross. As Tony and Rhodey move onto to college indiscretions, Steve pulls his mask off and lets it drop to the ground. He hear their conversation die as he covers his face with his hands. “I can't do this,” he murmurs.

“Steve?” Tony ventures, then pauses a moment. “Oh, you're really-- okay.” Steve hears the slap of Tony's sandals on the linoleum, then the couch cushion dips down. He feels Tony's hand in his hair. “You're really sweating.”

Steve turns his head, acutely aware that Rhodey is watching this entire scene. “I can't do this,” he says, slowly and quietly.

“You-- you have to.” Tony screws his face up in disgust. “It's bullshit, but it's contractual, or something.”

“What am I-- what am I meant to say? I don't remember what Agent Coulson told me.”

Tony pulls the sleeve of his shirt over the heel of his hand and reaches up to wipe the sweat off Steve's face. “You led armies into battle, you did those ridiculous fucking USO tours. You'll be fine.”

“That was different. Tony, Tony--” He grabs his wrist, pulling Tony's hand away from his face. “Tony.” He knows he's holding on too tight, but Tony lets him.

Steve.” Tony looks up as 'two minutes' is announced over the loudspeaker. “First, put this back on.” He picks up the mask from by Steve's feet, and sets about pulling it over Steve's head. “Don't fight me,” he scolds. He fiddles with it until it's straight, then grabs Steve's hand. He pulls him up and to the door.

“Coulson, unlock the damn door,” he shouts. A moment later, it opens, and he hauls Steve through it.

“Mr Stark?” Coulson says. “For God's sake. It's the other way,” he calls.

The crew look startled as Tony pulls Steve to the edge of the stage. A woman with a bulky headset on raises an eyebrow and says 'fifty seconds' into her mike.

Steve tugs gently at their still tangled together hands. “What are you--? Are you--? Isn't there a dress code?” Tony's wearing sandals, drawstring pants, and a shirt with an oil stained wife beater underneath, the arc reactor glowing softly. Steve's pretty sure that you can't go on television like that.

“Tony Stark has no dress code.”

Rhodey catches up with them, and nods politely at the increasingly flustered crew members. “Don't start talking about yourself in the third person again.”

“Tony Stark will talk about Tony Stark however Tony Stark wants to,” Tony replies, then after a moment adds, “Tony Stark.”

The headset lady counts down from five on her fingers. Five, four, three, two, one, and... “Go,” she says.

Tony steps forward, then stops when Steve doesn't follow suit. He frowns down at Steve's feet. “Move your feet.”

“I really think that I'm just going to make things worse. Maybe we can rearrange this for when I'm... feeling better.”

Tony steps back. The host finishes his introduction, “... in his first ever television appearance, Captain America. Captain?”

“Move,” Tony says quietly.

Steve shakes his head. “No.”

The host repeats his name again.

“Trust me,” Tony says so quietly that even Steve barely hears it. He pulls on Steve's hand, and this time Steve reluctantly moves with him.

“Captain America,” the host says, relieved. “And... Tony Stark.”

“Two for one deal, you know.” He pushes Steve down into the seat, squeezes his hand one final time, and lets go. “Is there a chair shortage here, what's up?”

The headset lady drags a chair out for him, sparing him a smile before withdrawing backstage again. He winks at her, then brings the chair close enough to Steve that their elbows touch when he sits down.

“This is going to come as a surprise to our viewers as you weren't... booked to come on today,” the host says. He flicks through his notes, and sets them aside with a sigh. “I'm sure everyone remembers your admission in 2009 that you were the Iron Man. Now you work alongside the captain with the Avengers Initiative, is that correct?”

“Sure,” Tony says. “I mean, I was the first member, but yeah, something like that.”

“Aren't you worried about someone coming after you when you're out of the suit? There's been a media blackout on Captain America's real identity, as well as the rest of the Avengers.”

Tony sets his elbows on the table in front of them. “Well, George, the thing is that I'm an attention whore. Can I say 'whore' on TV? The colonel doesn't let me go on TV any more. Anyway, Cap is in it for the kittens saved from trees and shit, but I am all about the glory.”

George touches his earpiece. His eyes flicker over the both of them. “That would be... Colonel Nicholas Fury, yes?”

“That's confidential.” He glances at Steve. “Is that right? I didn't read any of those capslock memos.”

“I don't...” Steve mumbles.

“But getting back to me,” Tony says over him, “People were trying to kill me before Iron Man, so yeah, I'm not really worried about that.”

“But you are, Captain?” George asks. “There's been a lot of speculation online about your identity, if you're even the same Captain America from the forties; some people have researched the period and the super soldier project extensively, but S.H.I.E.L.D. refuses to confirm or deny anything.”

Steve makes an attempt to string something together, but Tony stops him with a hand on his shoulder. “Let's get this clear, okay? Cap is balls out crazy. I know he's looks like butter-wouldn't-melt...” The corners of his mouth turn down in a frown as he glances at him. “Well, trust me, he does, but he has zero concept of personal safety.”

Coulson makes a noise so loud that all three of them turn to look at him. He peers at them through spread fingers and shakes his head.

“Tony, I'm not crazy,” Steve manages to say.

“Yeah, but you are. I mean, you marched a thousand soldiers out of a HYDRA facility. And you didn't even have any proper training.”

“It wasn't a thousand men,” he counters.

Tony waves him off. “Well, close enough. Anyway, you're clearly totally nuts. All the Avengers are – have you met Hawkeye? more like Crazyeye – but you are clearly our king.”

“Are you drunk?” Steve asks without thinking.

“Are you? Look at what you're wearing.”

George takes this opportunity to jump back in. “Yes, the iconic Captain America suit. Some people have been very upset about the redesign of it."

“No redesign would ever make this okay. He's like... a flag. I find it difficult to ever take him seriously.” He rounds on Steve. “Come on, doesn't it make you feel silly?”

“Tony,” he says. It's obvious that host wants to get the show back on track, and Coulson is looking pained, a cellphone to each ear. Rhodey is just openly laughing.

“Are you telling me that you actually feel good about this get-up?”

Tony,” he repeats. He can feel a smile tugging at his mouth, but he really, really doesn't want to give Tony the satisfaction.

Tony waves his hands around. “The star is like a big silver target on your chest. It can be seen from space. The mask looks like some kinky sex thing. Don't you feel at least a little ashamed of yourself?”

“Well, Tony,” he says, gathering up the courage to continue, “I didn't actually choose it, unlike, say, some other people.”

Tony pushes his chair back, eyeing him in mock horror. “Are you dissing the Iron Man?”

“I don't know what that means.”

“Is it true that--” George tries to interrupt, but Tony throws a hand in his face.

“Not now, George. Are you and me gonna have a problem, Cap?”

“No.” He rubs his chin, and catches the glint in Tony's eye. “There'd be no competition.”

“Oh, oh--” Tony jumps up dramatically, the chair clattering away. He raises his fists. “Bring it, Captain.”

“I'm being told that we're--” George touches his earpiece again and winces. “Yes, I'm afraid we've run out of time.”

“Oh, good.” Tony drops his fists, and offers Steve a hand. Steve takes it and lets Tony pull him into a one-armed hug. “See, told you you'd be fine,” Tony whispers.

-

Coulson lets him leave with Tony and Rhodey – more exactly he shoos them away as Fury yells 'clusterfuck!' down the phone at him. Tony's car is, predictably, a limo, the back seat roomier than most places Steve's lived in. Steve pulls his mask off as soon as the door closes, and gets to work peeling his top off.

“Are you getting naked in my limo?” Tony asks. He presses a button and a panel slides back to reveal a well stocked liquor cabinet.

“I have an undershirt on. I just have to get out of this thing.”

Tony stretches his arm across the back of his seat. “I wasn't complaining.”

Steve feels a familiar flush rise to his cheeks; he ducks his head as he pulls off his top to hide it. Glasses clink, and bottles hiss, and when Steve succeeds in getting himself free, Tony is holding out a bottle of beer. “Captain.”

“Oh, that's-- I can't get drunk, don't waste it on me.”

Tony pushes it into his hands anyway. “Consider yourself saving me from cirrhosis of the liver.”

“True story,” Rhodey says.

“Did you, in all seriousness, just say 'true story', Colonel Rhodes?” Tony asks. He bumps Rhodey's shoulder hard enough that both of their beers spill onto his expensive leather seats. “You need to stop watching teen shows in your downtime.”

“You don't seem to like each other very much,” Steve comments. He takes a sip of the beer; it tastes pretty good, certainly better than the stuff he and Bucky used to drink. An involuntary shudder passes through him – he tries not to let his thoughts turn to Bucky too often, certainly not when he's with company. He takes another sip and focuses on what Rhodey is saying.

“...no one can know Tony as long as I have and still like him.”

“There have been studies,” Tony chimes in absently. He pulls his cellphone out of his pocket and looks at it. “And here's one of them now.” He skates his thumb over the screen and holds the phone flat in his palm. Steve's just about come to grips with the idea of cellphones, but he still doesn't get how Tony automatically knows when there's a calling coming through.

“Hey, Pepper, did you see me on TV?”

“I did.” Pepper's voice is crystal clear; Steve can hear the slight smile in her words. “You looked very unkempt. I wish you wouldn't take me being away as an opportunity not to change your clothes.”

“Hey now, no dirty talk, Pep, you're on speaker phone.”

“Hi, Pepper,” Rhodey says. He looks expectantly at Steve, but no words are forthcoming. Steve picks at the label on his bottle.

“Steve's here too,” Tony says, “but he's too shy to say anything.”

“Well, you two caused quite a stir. Fox News, MSNBC, and Huffington Post all have articles up already.”

Tony lets his head roll back. Steve notices that he has smudges of oil all along his collarbone. “Pull the band aid off, how bad is it?”

“Most of them are about how obviously out of control you are, your hair, your clothes, all the swearing. Some are worried about discord within the Avengers, others think you're not responsible enough to wear the suit, and others still think you're a bad influence on Steve.” Tony knocks his foot into Steve's and winks. “But, the buzz on Twitter is good. There are tweets ad nauseum about how cute you both were. It didn't escape anyone's attention that you were holding hands when you came on. So, you win some, you lose some.”

“Sounds like we did pretty well out of it, to me. And you thought it'd be a disaster, Steve.”

“It was a disaster. I didn't say anything, and you called me crazy,” he replies, roused out of silence by the ridiculousness of Tony's statement. Pepper laughs softly. “I don't think that's what Agent Coulson had in mind.”

“That's not how I remember it,” Tony says. “What I remember is a humble, honourable war hero being honourable and humble, and a ridiculous person continuing to be ridiculous.”

Tony's words are flippant, but his smile isn't. Something uncurls in Steve's gut, setting his skin on edge. He tries to smile back like a normal person.

“Nice spin,” Pepper says, “I'll get to work on that. I should be able to get home tonight, but it'll be late. I expect you to wait up for me.”

Tony quickly takes her off speaker phone. “I will,” he says softly. “Yeah... yeah... I'll be careful with him... I love you... Okay, bye.” He prods at the screen and drops the phone to his lap. He turns sharply to Rhodey.

“Don't you look at me like that.”

“You looooove her,” Rhodey says.

Steve gulps down as much of his beer as he can handle, the sting of it hitting the back of his throat and momentarily taking him out of the conversation.

-

Tony's stunt does little to discourage the media's interest in Steve; in fact, in the days after it, public scrutiny only gets worse, and requests for interviews pile up. Steve stands his ground and refuses to do another television interview, which Fury acquiesces to easily. Tony insists they'll only do the 'fun' ones, which somehow translates, for him, into being photographed for an entertainment magazine.

“What magazine is this again?” Steve asks quietly after they've been hustled out onto the red backdropped stage. It's not quite so bad as Good Morning, America, but the spotlights are hot on his skin; glint off the Iron Man suit.

“TV Guide,” Tony replies. He fusses with his face plate until it's fully retracted. He gives the photographer the thumbs up when the man asks if they're ready.

“But, isn't that for television stars?”

“You are a TV star now. There's a documentary and everything – Matt Damon is playing you. Try to look mean.” Tony bares his teeth as an example, and Steve stares back at him impassively. “Yeah, like that.”

Tony tells him to ignore the cameras if they're going to make make him nervous, to just focus on him. This method does little to endear Steve to the photographer, who tells him he needs loosen up, gently at first then increasingly irritably each ensuing time.

Tony tries to mumble reassuring words between camera flashes, but Steve only feels himself freeze up more and more. Finally Tony wraps an arm around his neck and pulls himself up to Steve's height.

“What are you--?” Steve says, but Tony is already prying his fingers underneath Steve's mask. He manages to uncover an ear before Steve smacks him hard enough in the chest that they both stumble when Tony doesn't let go of his neck.

This is, of course, the picture the magazine decides to go with for the front cover.

-

Clint claims it's favouritism. “No one's asking to take my picture,” he grouses in the lounge of the Avengers Tower the day the magazine is published. The short article with it mostly features sound bites from Tony; the writer notes that Steve doesn't say much.

“You're like carnie Robin Hood, why would anyone want to take a picture of you?”

Steve leans out of the way as the magazine sails across the room at Tony. Tony lets it hit him in the face, then smiles down at cover as it drops into his lap. “That's not a very well-reasoned argument.”

“I just couldn't stand to look at your douche-goatee any more,” Clint replies. Thor barks with laughter even though if Steve doesn't understand what that means, Thor almost certainly won't.

“Hey, you leave my douche-goatee out of this, Barton.”

“Boys.” Natasha steps delicately over the mess on the floor – Tony hooked up his 'Xbox' to the huge television screen, and Thor has become quite taken with Mortal Kombat – and sits down on the coffee table between the two couches. “No one here has got as more magazine offers than me.”

Clint leans forward. “Which magazines?”

“Wouldn't you like to know?”

“I really would,” he says.

“Are they allowed to do that?” Steve asks Tony as Clint and Natasha flirt quite openly.

“What, screw? I don't know, it's not the army.”

“I didn't, um-- that's not what I meant,” Steve says. He cuts his rambling off at Tony's amused expression. He keeps being caught out by that, the most outrageous things Tony can think to say or do; he really is working very hard at 'knocking the politeness' out of Steve.

“I'm pretty sure they are having sex, though,” Tony continues in a low tone. “Or did. Or, will.”

“You would know!” Thor says. He's on the other end of the couch, far enough away that he shouldn't have been able to hear them. The man still freaks Steve out.

Clint and Natasha continue talking with only the slightest glance at Thor; they've all started to get used to his loud, random outbursts. Steve turns back to Tony to tell him to stop speaking so inappropriately about a lady. He doesn't get as far as the first word; all the amusement has drained out of Tony's face.

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Tony asks icily. This time Clint and Natasha grow quiet.

“You know many ladies,” Thor says broadly. “They so say on the television.”

“And?” Tony prompts.

Thor breaks eye contact, just for a second, though it's something he almost never does. “And you have... carnal knowledge of them.” He doesn't sound so sure, though.

Tony smacks the magazine down onto Steve's lap, and leans forward like he's going to try to climb over him. Clint mouths 'do something' at Steve.

“I would never cheat on Pepper,” he says, slowly and carefully.

“I was not suggesting--!”

“But if I had 'carnal knowledge' of these ladies, then I would be.”

Steve shifts, awkwardly pinned in by Tony. “I don't think-- Tony? I don't think he meant anything by it.”

The look he shoots Steve is-- unnerving. Geez, this is why Tony is the one in the suit. “Then, with respect, Steve, Thor should keep his thoughts to himself.”

“I was just...” Thor begins.

“I know what you were just,” Tony interrupts. Clints grab the collar of his own t-shirt then points at Tony. Steve gets the idea.

“Tony,” he says. He twists his fingers around the back of Tony's shirt and pulls him back. “Stop it. He didn't mean to offend you.”

Tony's face is blank for a moment, then seems to snap back into place. “Yeah, of course he didn't.” He snatches the magazine back off Steve. “No hard feelings, hey, Thor?”

“No...?” Thor says.

-

Weeks later, Tony organises a party. Everyone has to come, he proclaims, or at least everyone with high enough clearance, because 'this isn't gonna be a costume party'. High enough clearance meaning mostly S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Coulson tries to beg off it, but Tony insists over all of his excuses.

Steve has no idea what to wear. Natasha says she's sure that Tony will take him however he comes, but that doesn't help him, and neither does the lascivious look she gives him. He considers his military uniform – it was preserved after the plane went down – but that seems weirdly formal, and he doesn't imagine that Tony's parties are ever formal. The Captain America suit is out, obviously, and the only other things he has are white t-shirts and slacks.

So, that's what he wears.

“Wow, you went all out, huh?” Tony says when he sees Steve. He's the first to arrive by at least half an hour, let in by a flying robot like the ones out of the pulps he used to read.

“Natasha said... it would be okay.” He screws his face up at Tony. “Leave me alone.”

“Baby's growing up.” He hands Steve a glass of something and wanders away. As soon as he's gone, Pepper rounds the corner from the kitchen. Her shoes clack on the hard wood floors; Steve's never seen heels so high.

“Do you want that?” she asks, pointing to the glass.

He looks at it. “No.”

She takes it from him and gives it to the same flying robot that let him in. “Tony's fascinated by your inability to get drunk, I'm sorry.” She looks him up and down. “You look nice.”

He clasps his hands behind his back; her eyes linger on him long enough for him to want to study his shoes in great detail. He doesn't, though – he's learnt this much, at least. “Oh, it's all I had. I'm sorry, I should have made more of an effort.”

“My God, have I spent so much time with Tony that everything I say sounds sarcastic?” She takes him by the arm and steers him toward the kitchen.

“Oh, I didn't mean-- I'm sorry. I... thank you. You, you also look nice.”

Nice is an understatement: her hair is pulled up and away from her face in a barrette, leaving a few strands to frame her face; her green dress hugs her body in such a way that he can't not follow the curve of her waist and imagine how easy she would be to draw.

“So, I hear that you can't talk to women,” she says. She waves him over to one of the stools lining the kitchen island, and goes to the fridge.

He can't help but laugh softly. “Can't you tell?”

“Well, you talk to women a lot better than most guys I know.” She closes the fridge door, two Coke bottles clasped between her fingers, clinking together. He takes the one she offers.

“I thought Coke came in plastic bottles now?”

“Tony got them especially.” She pulls herself up onto the stool next to him. “But... we need bottle openers for these.” She moves to get down again.

“Wait, I can do that.” He puts the bottle to his mouth, lines the bottom of the cap up with his teeth, and bites down. A moment later there's a pop and a hiss, and he spits the cap out into his hand. Pepper regards him for a moment, then silently hands him her bottle.

He repeats the action and gives it back to her. “I cracked a tooth doing that as a kid. My mom was so mad. I guess it grew back after the... the thing.”

“Well, it's a very neat trick.”

“Thank you, ma'am.”

She wipes the mouth of her bottle on the inside of her wrist. “Steve, how old do you think I am? Please don't call me that'.”

“Sorry... Pepper?”

“And stop apologising all the time!”

“I--” He blows out an exasperated sigh. “You're not giving me a lot to work with. Those are the two main things that I say to women.”

She knocks her bottle into his. “You're doing fine.”

-

Rhodey proclaims it to be the most grown up party Tony's ever had.

“It's past ten, and nobody has vomited into a plant pot yet.”

Tony has a lot of really nice plant pots. “Was that a possibility?” Steve asks.

“Oh, the things I could tell you, Captain.”

Everyone's begun to sequester themselves into groups; Steve and Rhodey (he's not exactly sure how, Rhodey just kept being next to him every time he turned around); Fury, Coulson and Sitwell; Natasha and Clint (though they've been suspiciously absent for the last half hour - 'it's not a party if someone doesn't christen one of the bathrooms,' Tony says); Thor, Jane, Erik, and Darcy; Bruce and the corner. Tony flits between all of them, but mostly circles around Pepper, not speaking to her. He's being especially weird tonight.

“So, I actually am kind of a big fan,” Rhodey says.

Steve looks away from Tony twitchily pouring drinks. “What? Oh, yeah.”

“It didn't really seem appropriate at the studio, and Tony ruins everything anyway, but I do, kind of, have some of your comics.” Rhodey clears his throat and pushes his shoulders back a little

“So, do you want me to sign an action figure or something?” He pauses. Rhodey pauses too. “Uh, I'm sorry, I don't know where that came from.”

“Straight from the mouth of Tony Stark, sounds like. But yeah, would you?”

Steve smiles. “Sure, why not?”

He goes back to watching Tony. He tries to do it surreptitiously, but Rhodey must have noticed – the lack of conversation and lack of attention are surefire ways to get caught staring at your best (only?) friend. Rhodey seems like a decent sort, though; if the situation was reversed and Tony was sitting here with Steve – well, he'd probably still be staring at Tony but if he wasn't – Tony would definitely have already pointed out how strange he was being. Really, Steve should probably just go talk to him, it's not like that would be weird, they do work together. Even though Tony doesn't seem especially interested in talking to anyone tonight.

Steve could talk to Pepper. He could do that; she's a woman that he can talk to now.

“Do you mind if I go and...?” He indicates to Pepper.

“Yeah, man, go,” Rhodey says, not unkindly.

Pepper's sitting primly at one end of an extremely fancy looking couch. Steve kind of doesn't want to sit on it for fear of breaking it. She catches his approach before he can change his mind, though, and the decision is made for him. She takes hold of his arm when he's close enough and pulls him down next to her.

“This is very unsettling,” she says. There's a wine glass by her feet.

He tends to agree: her leg is pressed against his and she's leaning into his side. “What is?” he asks.

She lifts a hand. “All of this. Tony is sober, and I am not. There have been no fights, no strippers, no policemen at the door. It's like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.”

“'Bodysnatchers'?” he repeats.

“Oh, we'll watch it sometime. Anyway--” Her attention turns to Tony, who's mere feet away from them, tapping a spoon ineffectually on a glass. “What is he doing now?”

Tony sighs, and steps over to Thor. He says something that distinctly sounds like, “break something” to Steve. The delighted look on Thor's face seems to confirm this. He turns around and sweeps a vase off the mantelpiece in one smooth move. It smashes to the floor in a cloud of white and blue. That gets the room's attention.

Tony sounds like he's choking. “I meant like a- a glass, Thor.” He grabs Thor's arm before he can do any more damage. “Just... it's good, thank you.”

Pepper slides a hand onto Steve's leg, her thumb brushing against the outer seam of his slacks. “Oh, no,” she says quietly.

Tony walks over to them, checking back on Thor a couple of times to see that he's really stopped. Then he's standing over them, and they're both looking up at him.

“Stand up,” he says. Steve almost asks why, but Tony's not talking to him.

“Why?” Pepper asks.

“Because it won't be right otherwise,” he says, a whiny edge to his voice.

She shoots a look at Steve, who has no idea how to arrange his face, and stands up.

Tony stoops, and then, oh, he's kneeling, that would definitely be kneeling. “Jesus,” he says. “I think I need bionic knees. Hey, these are nice shoes, I like these.”

“Tony,” Pepper says in a warning tone. One of her hands hangs so close to Steve that her fingers occasionally brush against his knee.

“Yeah, yeah.” Tony steadies himself with a hand on the armrest. He reaches into his back pocket with the other one and produces a small box. Somebody breaks the silence with an 'oh!', and then Tony's holding a huge, shiny ring.

“So, uh.” He glances at the ring, then back at her. “It's kind of already like we're married, and... this ring was really expensive. Like, I could have fed and housed a family of four for several years with what this cost.”

She doesn't say anything. Tony shifts, and her hand is still brushing against Steve.

“Look, I invited all these people hear so that you couldn't say no...” He smiles brilliantly. “What do you say? Make me the new Mr Potts?”

She reaches out and ruffles his hair. “I suppose we can't let the guests down...”

“Does that mean I can stand up?”

“Yes, Tony. Yes.”

Somebody cheers, which quickly turns to clapping, and Tony is hugging Pepper fiercely and smiling over her shoulder at Steve. When she steps back, he's somehow managed to slip the ring on to her finger. She inspects it carefully.

“It's heavy. What do you think, Steve?”

The diamond casts a prism of pink and blue where the light hits it. “It's... shiny,” he says.

For no reason that he can think of, she leans down and kisses him on the cheek.

-

He ends up spending the night. The number of guests dwindle until, at a little after midnight, there are only a couple of people remaining. Steve's not sure why he didn't leave when Colonel Fury did, or with Clint and Natasha, other than that it didn't seem like they'd welcome his company, but he thinks Tony's occasional looks had something to do with it.

“You should stay the night.”

“Oh no, I- I shouldn't, I don't want to intrude.”

“You should. Who's going to take you home? Coulson?” He sweeps an arm in the agent's direction. “He's drunk.”

Coulson squints at Tony. “Libel.”

“Slander,” Tony corrects. “See, he isn't stupid when he's sober.”

“Who's going to take him home?” Steve asks.

“Happy'll do it. In fact, Coulson, why don't you go out and meet him. I can't have you in my home any longer.”

Coulson huffs, but makes his way out of the room nevertheless.

“Then Happy can take me too.” Steve reprimands himself for not having taken his driving test yet. “Or I could just take the subway. I do know New York a little, you know.”

Tony sighs expansively. “I suppose he could do that, but Happy does have a home to get back to. At least, I assume so.”

“Oh, just say yes,” Pepper calls from the next room.

Steve feels like he's waging a silent battle of wills with Tony. Tony has a literal iron nerve, though. “Fine, if it means that much to you.”

“You're cute when you're combative.”

Pepper pads into the room. Her shoes are gone, as is her barrette, and some of her make up. She holds a blanket and pillow, her left hand resting on top, ring glittering. “He's always cute.”

Steve digs his hands into his pockets. “So, where am I supposed to sleep?”

“Well, we only have one... big bed at the moment,” Tony says, and stops. He smiles and Steve glares back at him. “So, it's couch in the den, or the floor, soldier.”

“Couch,” Steve says shortly.

“Good choice.”

-

Steve sleeps from one AM to nine, only because he was trained to catch sleep whenever he could. Otherwise, he would have tossed and turned all night, listening to the noises Tony and Pepper were making upstairs. And they were making noises, a lot of noises, and Steve strongly considered walking back to the tower before he forced his brain to shut off.

He wakes the moment the door to the den opens. “Did I wake you?” Pepper asks softly. She stands in the doorway, wrapped in a fluffy white bathrobe, holding a plate.

“It's an army thing,” he says. “What's that?”

“Breakfast,” she says, and steps into the room. “Tony mentioned that you had a fast metabolism, so I assumed you probably have to eat more than most. I used to make this for him when he was hungover.”

“Used to?” It smells really good – eggs, bacon, buttered toast – his stomach growls loud enough that Pepper politely hides a smile and hands him the plate.

“Well, as CEO of Stark Industries, I don't make breakfast any more.” She pauses. “Except on special occasions.”

She sits down next to him as he digs in. “Where's Tony?” he asks.

“In his workshop. He's been down there since five. He doesn't really sleep that much unless he's drunk.” She steals a piece of bacon off his plate and chews on it thoughtfully. “You sure do eat fast.”

“Sorry,” he says, out of habit, then reconsiders. “Actually, no, I'm not.”

Pepper nods approvingly. She doesn't say anything else as he eats, but she doesn't leave and every now and then the glint of her ring catches his eye. It's almost comically over the top – like Tony, he supposes – and Pepper keeps rubbing the band of it with her thumb.

“How does it feel?” He instantly regrets the question; how does wearing a ring feel? Probably like wearing a ring, geez.

“Itchy,” she says. “Tony says I must be allergic to good taste.” She pulls a face. “As if he'd know.”

“It's... nice,” he says. He puts the plate on the coffee table in front of him and rubs at the back of his neck.

“Don't lie, Captain. It's completely awful. They're never going to leave me alone about this at work.” She twists it around her finger a couple more times, then folds her hands together in her lap. “Was the couch uncomfortable?”

“Huh? Oh--” He drops his hand. “No, it was fine. I've slept on worse.” It was a far cry from the cots in the army, or the creaky bed of his childhood with springs that dug in between his shoulder blades.

“Turn around,” she says. He throws her a questioning look, but she just clicks her tongue and pulls him round until his back is facing her. Her fingers trail up his back, causing him to shiver; he hopes she doesn't notice, but Tony has already confirmed that she sees all. “Part of my training when I was hired was massage therapy.”

His eyelids flutter closed as she works her thumbs in circles along the base of his neck – distantly he wonders what Tony would say if he walked in right now; he wonders what Tony's rough fingers would feel like in the place of Pepper's.

“Massage... therapy?” he mumbles slowly.

“If you think Tony's lecherous now,” she says, close to his ear; he holds his breath a second. “You should have met him when he was twenty seven.”

“I can't imagine Tony being my age,” he says. The heel of one of her hands presses against the ridge of his spine. He tilts his head further forward.

“I can't imagine him being as old as he is,” she replies. “We're both constantly surprised that he's forty one.” Her phone chimes shrilly. Her hands' work stops, but she leaves one resting against his neck. “Sorry, let me just-- oh.” Her fingernails scratch along his neck, not unpleasantly.

He opens his eyes, half twisting to look at her. “What's wrong?”

She's shaking her head, leaning over to pick up the remote. “This.”

She switches on the television, flicks over a couple of channels, and comes to a stop at one. The presenter is speaking very quickly, brightly coloured images flashing across the screen – it takes him a minute to adjust to the stimulation and listen to the words.

...after Ivan Vanko attacked and almost killed Stark and Colonel James Rhodes, rumours ran rife about a possible romance between Stark and newly appointed Stark Industries CEO Virginia Potts, formerly his personal assistant. More recently, Stark appears to have sparked an antagonistic friendship with mysterious superhero Captain America, a fellow member of the 'Avengers Initiative'...

The presenter's face gives way to a clip of the two of them being photographed for TV Guide. They definitely didn't tell Steve that they'd filmed it as well. On the screen, he smacks Tony – damn, he hit Tony pretty hard, too – and they stumble, Tony's face lit up with laughter. Steve remembers him whispering 'violence never solved anything' after Steve had righted him.

Today, however...” the presenter says over footage of them bickering, which amounted to Tony poking him in the side until Steve literally held him at arm's length. “...we can exclusively reveal that last night Stark proposed to Ms. Potts at a party attended by all of the Avengers.”

“Wonderful. I guess privacy's overrated these days,” Pepper says. She mutes the TV as the show begins to delve into Tony's past relationships.

“I wonder who told them.”

She shakes her head. “Who knows?” A phone rings somewhere in the house, then another one, and another. “That would be the office phone, kitchen phone... and bedroom phone.” Her cell begins to ring in her hand. “And this would be my mother. Excuse me, Steve.”

She steps into the hallway before answering the call; her first words are, 'Mom, please don't cry'.

-

Sometimes, everything just goes to hell.

Steve has to take the decision to fall back; flames lick up the side of the building, one of Stark Industries' New York divisions, and he can't get within ten feet of it without feeling his skin begin to blister. This isn't a regular fire, this is something else, some experimental weapon getting into the bitter hands of an ex-employee. Over the radio, he can hear the others talking softly, Clint's uncertain: 'we got... most of them out', Natasha informing them that Bruce caught the arsonist: 'I think he killed him', Thor telling the office workers to move back.

“Tony?” Steve touches his earpiece. “Tony, where are you?”

After a long minute, Natasha says, “I think he's still in there, Steve.”

“Last I saw him, he was on the fourth floor,” Clint adds.

“Tony, answer me right now!” Steve yells. There is no reply.

“Aerial support is imminent,” Fury informs them as Steve circles the building, looking for a way in. There's a fire escape on one side, its ladder pulled up, but with a little struggle he manages to grab hold of the edge of the platform and pull himself up. He keeps repeating Tony's name as he takes the steps up two at a time, holding his shield in front of him to deflect most of the heat.

The fire has blown out all the windows, so it's easy enough to get in, if not especially pleasant to stand in the blackened room. The fire hasn't quite spread here yet, but the walls are hot to the touch, and it's not going to be long before the entire building's going to cave in. He checks the room, taking in the turned over desks and abandoned briefcases – this wasn't even a testing facility, just a public relations division – and finds it empty. The hall outside is similarly empty, the waves of heat making his eyes water and his vision blur. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees something move.

“Tony?” he shouts, breathing in a lungful of smoke. The ensuing cough rattles painfully in his chest.

Whatever it is moves again; Steve can't even make out the colours. He raises his shield over his head and goes towards it, running his fingers along the wall to find his way. Eventually, he hits something metallic. He risks lowering his shield a touch, sees the general outline of the Iron Man suit standing in front of a door; the bottom of the door is lit orange with fire. He grips Tony's arm and pulls.

“Come on, we have to get out of here!”

Tony tries to pull free; when Steve doesn't let go, he jerks away, hard. In the suit, Tony's far stronger than Steve, and Steve feels his shoulder dislocate with the force. Fury's screaming in his ear to get out of there. Tony's repeating 'no, no, no' over and over.

“Are you gonna break my arm, Tony? Because I'm not letting go,” he says, taking shallow breaths, a cough threatening to double him over in pain.

He only just catches Tony say, “No,” more distinctly than before, and then he's pulling Tony back to the window. Fury's helicopter is hovering outside it, Thor standing with one foot in the helicopter and one between the bars of the railing around the fire escape. Steve shoves Tony at him, and Thor easily lifts him over the railing and into the aircraft, then reaches out again and inelegantly drags Steve in after him.

It's not an especially big helicopter, but it fits all of them save Bruce. Steve doesn't quite manage to make it to a seat before he collapses in a coughing fit. Natasha unbuckles her belt and crawls over to him. “What's wrong with your arm?” she asks.

When he's able to get his breathing back under control, a skill which he thanks his long years of asthma for, he grits his teeth and looks at his limp arm. “Dislocated,” he says.

She takes his wrist in her hand and presses a thumb to it. “You haven't got a pulse. I need to--”

He sets his jaw. “Do it,” he says.

He yells every swear word he knows when she puts her full weight on his arm and pops it back into place. Under different circumstances, he's sure everyone in the helicopter would have been laughing.

-

Tony ignores everyone when they get back to the helicarrier. He strides ahead to the locker room as Fury calls out that they will be talking later. Steve jogs after him to catch up, but when he tries the locker room door, it's locked.

“Tony?”

“Just... give me a minute,” Tony says from the other side of the door.

“Fucking hell, I need to have a shower, Stark! Let us in!” Clint shouts through the door.

Steve turns around and leans against it, blocking Clint. “There are other showers,” he snaps. Clint looks surprised.

“I mean, there are, aren't there?” he tries again, a little more calmly.

Clint backs off. “Yeah, sure, Cap.”

'A minute' turns into ten minutes, then fifteen, and after the first five, he gives up trying to get Tony to talk to him, just sits down with his back against the door and inspects his injuries. Other than the aching in his arm and the shortness of breath, it's not too bad, though blisters are starting to come up on his hands. It was a trial peeling his gloves off.

“Captain?” Coulson stands over him, holding a cellphone to his chest. Steve moves to stand up, but Coulson waves him off. “Don't get up. Pepper wants to speak to you.”

When he reaches up to take the phone, Coulson grimaces. “You need to go to the infirmary,” he says, looking at Steve's hands.

“It doesn't hurt.”

“It will,” Coulson says.

“Steve? Steve?” Pepper's tinny voice is saying on the line. Coulson walks away and Steve lifts the phone to his ear.

“Hey,” he says. His voice sounds gravelly; he clears his throat and tries again. “Hi, Pepper.”

She sounds tense and brittle, but at least partway relieved. “Where's Tony? I saw the news. I can't get in contact with him.”

“He's... he's alive,” Steve replies.

“Oh, Jesus. You sound terrible, are you okay?”

“I'm... also alive,” he says, and laughs a little, though it soon turns to a cough. Pepper is not amused.

“Why isn't he answering his damn phone?”

“He's in the locker room, and he won't let anyone in.” He glances up at the unmoving door handle and sighs. “It's been almost twenty minutes. What do I do?”

“Just... wait, if you can,” she says. There's some crackling on the line, and then he hears something like a loud gust of wind. “I'm getting on a plane right now, I'll be in New York in a few hours. Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

He rests his head against the door and presses his palms flat to the ground on either side of him. His hands are starting to itch something awful, the sensation tingles along his fingers, and he wants to scratch so bad, but he knows he can't.

Another twenty minutes pass. Fury comes by, somehow managing to look both sympathetic and angry at the same time, Thor offers to break the door down with his hammer, and Bruce is hustled past by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. He doesn't look so good.

When the door finally opens, Steve falls backwards through it, and is met with the curious upside down soot smudged face of Tony.

“Have you been there the whole time?”

“Yeah,” he says, and takes the metal hand Tony offers. It hurts like hell.

Tony turns Steve's hand over in his own. “Fuck. You need to get this looked at.”

“I was going to, yes,” he replies. Tony doesn't meet his eyes. “Why are you still in your suit?”

“Oh, that.” Tony drops his hand and steps back. His helmet is gone, but the rest of the battered suit remains. He holds his arms out at his sides. “I can't get out of it. The release mechanism in the shoulders has fused together. I've been trying to break it open with this.” He holds up a flat head screwdriver. He looks so angry and unhappy and embarrassed that Steve snatches it out of his hand.

“Where?” he asks.

“What?”

He taps Tony's shoulder with the screwdriver. “Where do you need it broken open?”

“Anywhere around there is good,” he says slowly. “But, I don't think you should probably do that with your hands. And your arm. Can you even move it?”

“Yes, I can move it,” Steve says snippily, and steels himself to lift his other arm. His vision swims for a second, but he manages to close his fingers around the handle of the screwdriver.

“Well, this is clearly not causing you any pain at all.”

He pushes the screwdriver into a groove and presses down as hard as he can, twisting it to the side. “Shut up, it's your fault.”

Tony's already pale face pales some more at that, but Steve doesn't have the energy to apologise. The shoulder plate breaks off and skitters across the floor. “Other side?” he asks.

“That's probably good.” Tony reaches around and digs his fingers into shoulder panel. When that doesn't work, he hits it with his fist; it sparks and hisses, then releases, panels folding down and revealing Tony's body. “Thank God.”

Steve's hand spasms and he drops the screwdriver.

Tony pats Steve's shoulder gently. Steve wishes he wouldn't. “Doctor time, I think.”

-

The nurses bandage up his hands, clean and suture the small cuts on his face, and put his arm in a sling. They say he'll probably be healed within a couple of days with his 'enhancements', but really, they have no idea. The doctor seems to find it all rather exciting. They also have to cut him out of his suit, which keeps Tony entertained at least for a little while.

Fury drops by and talks at them very seriously: “If it hadn't been you two fucking lunatics,” he says, “we'd have two more fatalities on our hands right now.” They find out that there were eight fatalities in total, and numerous injuries, and that S.H.I.E.L.D. managed to put the fire out a little while after the helicopter left. They're looking into whether the arsonist was working with anyone else within Tony's company. Steve's never seen Tony look more defeated, he doesn't even argue when the doctor tells him he needs to be monitored for a couple of hours.

When Pepper arrives, she heads straight for Tony. She looks dishevelled, faint mascara tracks on her cheeks, hair wind blown and hanging limply down her back, shirt half untucked from her skirt. She wraps her arms around him, and his come up around her back, fingers bunching up the back of her shirt. They talk quietly for a moment; it feels intensely private, but Steve doesn't avert his eyes. Then she steps back, and Tony's face shifts to worry.

“You could have got Steve killed,” she says. “Look at him!”

He does as he's told. Steve waves awkwardly with his bad arm. Tony's mouth twitches, Steve smiles back, and then Tony dissolves into laughter.

“Well, I'm glad some people think second degree burns are funny.” She wraps her arm around Tony; he leans in to her side, body shaking with laughter until his eyes begin to water.

She smiles tightly. “Apparently I need to keep a closer eye on the both of you.” She strokes her fingers through Tony's hair, watching Steve. “You're going to come stay with us until you're healed, no arguments. Fury wants rid of both of you for a while.”

-

They have a second bed now, at Tony's mansion, complete with a TV, private bathroom, and the softest quilt that Steve's elbows have ever felt. He checks himself out in the bathroom mirror: the nurse cleaned most of the dirt of his face, leaving just the occasional grey streak. Still, he looks pretty crummy, the lower half of his face looks sunburnt, and there's no chance of a shower for the next day, at the very least.

Tony and Pepper disappeared somewhere in the depths of the house when they arrived back; Tony didn't really say anything else after his laughing fit, except 'yeah' and 'no' and 'okay'. Even Happy tried to get a word out of him, asking him about this year's Circuit de Monaco, the 'highlight of my year', but Tony didn't respond.

Pepper, for her part, made it pretty clear, if not in words then in behaviour, that Steve should go be somewhere else for a little while. So, he tries to stay in the bedroom for as long as he can, manages to toe off his boots and lie down on the bed for a while, but it's almost six in the afternoon, and he hasn't eaten since breakfast. He resists as long as he can, but after another twenty minutes he's done, and he just hopes that he can find something that can be eaten without the aid of movable fingers.

All is silent on the ground floor at first, and he easily finds his way to kitchen to speculate over how to open the cupboards.

Tony.” Pepper's sharp voice cuts through the house. “Are you listening to me?

Steve knows he shouldn't strain to hear what Tony says, but he does anyway.

Yes,” Tony says.

You know, my mother has been absolutely inconsolable over the fact that I'm choosing to marry a 'womanising sociopath', and I told her that's not who you are, but this...

Hey now, I don't womanise any more,” he replies. Steve can hear the smug edge to his voice, and he cringes at what's going to come next.

Don't. All jokes aside, Steve could have died today, and you could have, too. He went back in there for you and what you do? Almost break his arm? Jesus, Tony.

Steve can make out the cadence of Tony's voice, but he can't hear the words. He edges nearer the door even as he berates himself for being a terrible friend and a terrible person.

...people still in there. And I tried to... help them, but I couldn't reach them, and then I couldn't move. I just... The thought of, I don't know, everything and the fire... and my tech being used against me again... I don't know.

Oh, Tony,” she says, and the way she says it coupled with Tony's faltering explanation makes Steve's heart hurt a little. “You can't keep going like this. Something's got to give.

Steve doesn't catch anything else, and soon there are sharp footsteps on the wooden floors getting louder and louder, and he tries to look as if he's busy before Pepper rounds the kitchen door.

“Oh,” she says.

He looks her in the eye, not guilty at all, no siree. “Hi.”

She hums under her breath, and he knows for absolute certain that he's busted. “Are you hungry?” she asks. Her face is pinched and shuttered off.

“Um, yes.”

“Well, I don't want to cook, and you don't want to try anything that Tony manages to char or boil. We'll get pizza.”

“Not Domino's!” Tony shouts. She rolls her eyes and gets a stack of menus out of a drawer.

Tony appears at the doorway. “Seriously, not Domino's.”

“There is nothing wrong with Domino's.”

“Nothing wrong--! We're in New York. It's just terrible. Terrible. Do you have no taste? No way.” After a moment of thought he adds, “Heathen.”

She slaps the menus into his chest. “Then you order something while I get changed, oh wise one. You know what I like.”

He stares after her. “Yeah, I do,” he mutters.

Steve stands awkwardly as Tony flicks through the menus, all of his attention seemingly focused on the task. “Is everything okay? I can go, if you like. I don't have to stay here.”

Tony's good humour fades as quickly as it appeared. “Do you want to go?”

“That's not what I said.”

Tony sucks on his teeth. “Well, good. Now, which place would you pick?” He fans the menus out against his chest.

Steve skates his eyes over the unfamiliar names. Tony is all nervous energy, tapping his fingers against the leaflets with a manic sort of rhythm. He looks ready for a fight.

“This one,” Steve says, jabbing his bandaged hand at one of the menus. “I remember this place, it's in Brooklyn. Me and Bucky used hang around the back door. Sometimes they'd give us scraps. It seemed like the best food on the planet, at the time.”

“'Scraps'?” Tony sneers. “What were you, orphans?”

“Bucky wasn't, his family was just really poor. Depression, you know.” It's a painful memory, made worse by the atmosphere in the room – he doesn't want to drag this up like this, not with Tony in this mood.

Tony shifts from foot to foot. “I-- oh, I didn't know that.”

“Well, you didn't ask, Tony.”

“Yeah...” Tony stares hard at him for a minute, then grins almost viciously. “So, Brooklyn pizza it is.”

-

When he comes downstairs the next morning, the house is eerily quiet. It's ten in the morning and he'd expect Tony to be up by now, playing video games noisily or maybe operating heavy machinery in his workshop, but the lounge is empty except for last night's pizza boxes. Tony had rambled inanely while they were eating, and Pepper hardly said a word; Steve excused himself to bed as soon as he could.

“Jarvis?” Tony had finally got round to 'porting' Jarvis into the house, whatever that means, after much insistence from the AI. Steve doesn't even pretend to understand any of it. “Where is... anyone?”

“Ms. Potts is in the gym.”

He didn't even know there was a gym here. “And Tony?”

“His location is presently unknown, sir.” If a computer's voice could drip with disdain, then that's what Jarvis sounds like.

Jarvis gives him directions to the gym, and he finds Pepper on a treadmill, her face flushed with exertion, headphones on attached to a band on her arm. She's wearing shorts and a tank top, and he feels that he's somehow taking advantage of her by looking. He waits a couple of minutes, then knocks his fist against the wall when she doesn't notice him “Should I come back?”

“Oh!” She pulls an earbud out. “I was listening to angry music, sorry. Did you sleep in your clothes?”

“It was easier than trying to get them off. And I didn't have anything to change into.”

She presses some buttons on the treadmill, slowing her speed until she's able to get a foot on either side of the machine and step off. “How's your arm?”

“Stiff. It's not very comfortable sleeping with a sling on.”

She walks up to him and fiddles with the sling's catch until it releases. “Stretch your arm slowly,” she orders. “How does it feel?”

It's not too bad, the ache of yesterday is gone, leaving a tight feeling as if he'd slept on it for too long. “It's fine.”

“Anyone but you would need weeks of physio,” she says. She wraps her hands around his shoulder and kneads the muscles there. It's a satisfying kind of pain.

“Thor wouldn't.”

“Well, Thor's a god.” She leans her chin against his back. “You're not quite there yet.”

“I sure hope not. It seems like it's very loud, being a Norse god.”

He can feel her laugh against him. She continues to work on his shoulder, loosening up the muscles. Pleasure thrums through him; he savours it for a long moment before Tony comes unbidden to his mind. He tenses up again at the thought.

“Pepper, where's Tony?”

She lets go of him and grabs a towel, wiping her face with it. “I don't know. We had a fight when we went to bed last night, and he decided he'd prefer to roam the streets of New York. But the good news is that there's been nothing on the news about him yet, so he's probably fine.” There's a bitter edge to her voice.

“Mr Stark behaved in an extremely juvenile manner after you retired for the evening, Captain Rogers,” Jarvis adds. He sounds almost upset.

“You should have woken me,” he says to Pepper. “I mean, so that I could have gone after him.”

“There wouldn't have been any point. He's got to ride this out on his own.” She throws the towel around her shoulders. “I think it's about time you got a change of clothes, don't you?”

-

The first thing he notices when he steps into the bedroom is the mirror.

“Why is there mirror above your bed?” he asks.

Pepper looks around from opening the closet doors. “Oh, that. It was Tony's idea.”

“But why?”

She gives him a long look. Eventually it clicks; he feels himself begin to blush. “Oh.”

“So, I don't think any Tony's shirts are going to fit you,” she says briskly, turning her back to him as he contemplates the mirror, and the bed. It's an... interesting idea. She picks through a jumble of clothes on the floor of the vast closet – so this is where his laundry goes, she says – and pulls something out. She holds it up for moment then calls him over.

“Yeah, this is not going to fit,” she says, spreading out over his chest. The sleeves barely reach his arms. She presses it to his chest a moment longer, which does nothing to help his blush fade, then balls the t-shirt up and throws it back into the closet. “I have an idea.”

She walks over to another set of doors and pulls them open. This closet is equally as large, but neat as a pin, shoes lined up along the back wall, every item of clothing pressed and hung up.

“You have a closet each?”

“I know, it's disgusting, isn't it?” She reaches up on her toes to a shelf above her head. Her tank top rides up, revealing several inches of pale skin. He studies his feet.

“This might do it,” she says. She shakes out a plain black t-shirt. It's definitely larger than anything Tony would wear, and when she drapes it on him, it covers his front entirely. “It won't be quite so figure hugging as your S.H.I.E.L.D. t-shirts, but it'll do.” She smiles mischievously.

“Whose is it?”

“Happy's. We used to date.” She eyes his hands. “So, how are we going to do this?”

“I can probably just...” He indicates vaguely at the shirt, now hanging on her arm. She steps forward and presses a thumb against the back of his hand. He hisses through his teeth.

“I don't think you can just,” she says. She raises an eyebrow. “It's nothing I haven't seen before.”

“What? Oh...” he trails off as she takes hold of the bottom of his t-shirt and works it up. She's a little bit shorter than him without her heels, so he stoops slightly as she pulls it over his head. She's careful when she slides the sleeves over his hands, barely touching his skin at all.

Her eyes flicker over him. She sighs and bunches up Happy's t-shirt, stretching the neck and slipping it over his head. It's obviously been folded up for a while; she smooths out the creases as much as she can, palms running over his abs a couple of times. He sucks in a breath.

“See, that wasn't too bad, was it?” She goes back to Tony's closet without waiting for Steve to answer. He makes a strange sound that is nowhere near affirmation, which turns into something even less dignified when she reappears with a pair of jeans in one hand.

Pepper.”

“I think they'll fit,” she tells him.

He squeezes his eyes shut, then opens them again. She has a small smile on her face, reminiscent of all the times Tony has teased him about his looks, his body, or just his general existence. His stomach does a series of complicated flips. “Okay,” he says. It comes out rougher than he means it to.

She's standing in front of him in two long strides, half an inch of space between them. “Have you got underwear on, Captain?”

“Yeah,” he breathes. “Yes.”

She makes quick work of his belt, slacks pooling to his feet. He steps out of them, and she kneels down, slipping the legs of the jeans over his feet. When she pulls them up, she reaches around and tugs the back of Happy's t-shirt out of the waistband of the jeans, then follows the line around to the front and pulls the zipper up, buttons the top button, as professional as anything. Her hands linger on his hips. “All done,” she says, but doesn't move.

“Thanks.” He presses his bandaged hands against hers. “Are you okay?”

“I'll be fine,” she says. She lets go of his hips and wraps her arms around his neck. “I'm glad you're here, Steve.”

He's glad too, which just makes this new sense of guilt burrow deeper in his gut.

-

S.H.I.E.L.D. have his suit fixed within a couple of days. Fury tells him that modifying the suit one time costs more than Coulson's yearly wage, the underlying message being that it should not happen again. Steve carefully avoids making any promises.

He stays at the mansion for another day and a night, and on the third day Pepper tells him that she has to go back to LA for business. Tony still hasn't been heard from, but they don't talk about it.

Five days after that, Tony still hasn't turned up. Life in the Avengers Tower uneasily goes on.

“So, I talked to Pepper yesterday,” Natasha says. They're sparring in the boxing ring while the others use the punching bags and barbells. She's wearing body armour and a helmet, they all have to when they spar with him, or with Thor. None of them offer to work with Thor too often though: he's rather obnoxious about his 'victories'.

“Oh yeah?” He watches where she places her feet, how she holds her fists, and calculated where the punch will land. He leans back as she swings at him, avoiding even a glancing blow.

“Yes. We chat a lot. Stitch and bitch sort of thing.” She takes another swing at him; this time he catches her fist in his hand and curls his arm around her, pinning her to his chest for a second before letting go.

“Okay? I don't know that means.”

“She said you've been very supportive since Tony skipped town. Calling her every night since she went to LA, that sort of thing.” She punches and kicks at the same time, succeeding in sweeping his feet out from under him. He hits the ground, rolls to the side of the ring, gets hold of her ankle and pulls her down with him. “Whuff--! You learnt how to use the telephone and everything,” Natasha continues, unfazed.

He jumps back up. “We did have telephones in the forties.”

Thor's voice seeps into his consciousness. “--and then I gripped the golden rope and swung--!”

“This is the exact plot to Tarzan, Thor,” Clint says. Steve glances around to see Clint looking perturbed as Thor bench presses well over five hundred pounds. Natasha takes the opportunity to swing at him again, and he drops to the ground before she manages to follow through. She bounces off the ropes and springs back.

“Regardless, she had lots of nice things to say about you.”

“Well, she's a nice lady.” He hopes that she'll put the flush of his cheeks down to the sparring.

“She is. She is a very nice lady.” She has that predatory look in her eye, the one she normally saves for Clint. “Some might say too nice to be with Tony Stark.”

She goes for his stomach this time – it's easy enough to block, but he isn't prepared for her to use his blocking to spin around and elbow him in the back, knocking him flat. His head hits the mat, and she's on him again, arm locking around his neck, legs forcing his apart.

“What kind of fighting technique is this?” he splutters. She's exerting almost no pressure on his windpipe, but her arm is all hard muscle. It'll be hell to get her to release him.

“Cage fighting,” she says. “Fancy martial arts are nice, but not all bad guys play by the honour code. And some of them might even be bad girls. Sometimes it's best to just get in there head first, use whatever you've got.”

He digs the toe of his boot into the mat and drags them both round. If this was a real fight, he'd flip over and slam the assailant into the ground, but he's fairly sure that puncture one of her lungs, if not outright kill her.

“Damn, look at them go,” he hears Clint say. “Cap's bleeding. No one's managed to do that to him before.”

He scissors his legs until her sharp knees slip, then rolls on his side, and brings his knees up to his chest. She's panting in his ear, which he belated realises is laughter.

“I believe,” Thor says loudly, “that Tony injured him not two weeks ago!”

“But that's different,” Clint argues. “He wasn't trying to hurt Cap.”

“You are only saying that because she is your lover! Though she is a fine example of a Midgardian female!”

“Less of the 'fine example' talk, buddy,” Clint snaps.

“We prefer the term 'women', Thor,” Natasha calls. Steve drags them around on the mat until his foot gains purchase on one of the four steel poles that the ropes are attached to; he kicks off from it as hard as he can, spinning them in circle. He feels Natasha begin to lose her grip.

“I am sorry, Natasha!” Thor calls back.

Steve elbows her in the stomach as gently as he can, ducking under her crooked arm and rolling back to meet her before she can get up. He pins her to the ground with a hand to her chest: he can just feel the soft press of her breasts underneath the armour. He's sure his face goes an even darker shade of red.

“I'm putting fifty dollars on Natasha to win in the next three minutes,” Clint says.

“She is incapacitated!” Thor says.

“Wanna take the bet?”

“I have no money!”

“Excuses, excuses.”

“What do you think, Steve?” she asks him. Her chest rises and falls rapidly beneath his hand.

He thinks she's probably going to kill him one day.

She brings her knee up between his legs. He hears Clint's 'oh!' of sympathy, and bites back a yelp, dropping back down to the mat. She pushes him down and grips his arms, he raises his hands and hits them away; she forces his legs together with ridiculously strong thighs, he flips them over and slams her down; she releases his legs and kicks him in the stomach, uses her feet as leverage to pull free from his grip; he grabs her foot, she kicks him in the face. They're at an impasse of counter moves.

“Minute, fifteen seconds,” Clint intones as they continue to wrestle.

“Five grand on the big guy!” Steve stills only for split second at Tony's voice. “You beat that girl's ass.”

He gets up onto his hands and knees. It's a bad idea: she immediately comes at him and just pushes. Dang, but she is not going to stop. He rolls a couple of times, hits a corner pole and tries to roll back, but she's kicking wildly at his legs. He doesn't get it at first, it doesn't really hurt and all it makes him do is either kick back or avoid her feet altogether, which isn't that hard to do if he slides closer to the right angled corner of the ring. Then it dawns on him: his legs are tangled in the ropes. He grabs hold of the ropes on the other side and pulls himself up, sliding his legs free but all she needs is that second of inattention to loom over him and swing her arm back...

She punches him in the face, knocking him flat again.

“Five, four, three, two, one! You are out, Cap,” Clint calls. “Five grand, Stark, come on, give it to me.”

“Do you take cheques?”

Natasha helps Steve untangle his legs from the ropes and gently pulls him into the middle of ring.

“Thank you,” he says, and closes his eyes. He hears them celebrating, Thor's 'the Lady Sif would be honoured to count you among her sisters!', and Clint's 'damn, I only had seventy dollars in my account this morning'. He lets it wash over him for a couple of minutes.

“So, you look like shit.”

He opens his eyes to Tony sitting next to him on the mat. He takes in Tony's scruff, bloodshot eyes, and oil stained wife beater. “So do you.”

-

According to Tony, Fury brings the 'wrath of Odin' down on him when Coulson 'escorts' him to Fury's office, five thousand dollars poorer.

Thor says that his father isn't even half as terrifying as Fury.

The rest of the team remain uneasy with Tony. Clint gloats at every available opportunity, but from a distance, and the rest of them mostly avoid him. Steve does catch Thor saying, 'he is not very honourable' in a grave tone. Bruce, when he occasionally explores the walls outside his lab, mutters that Tony is a liability; he doesn't like liabilities.

There had been some discussion while Tony was 'absent', that maybe he wasn't ready to be part of a team. Pepper had said much the same on the phone to Steve when he was safely alone in his quarters. He said that none of them were, but he had his doubts too.

Tony blows it off like it's nothing. He trains alongside them, hangs around in the locker room when they do, genially insults them all like normal. In fact, he rarely leaves the tower at all, choosing to use their 'woefully inadequate' labs to work on upgrades for the suit. Bruce doesn't enjoy the company.

Steve, for his part, tries to stay out of it all as much as he can; they let him, he's never been the most social of team members. More worryingly, Tony lets him too, stays out of his way and doesn't tease him or try to rile him up or just... touch him. Steve finds that he misses that part. A lot.

“Tony is sulking,” Natasha says, a couple of weeks after he returns. She's sharpening her knives at the kitchen table, the schick schick schick sound disturbing his morning cereal. Clint had to excuse himself mid toast consumption, claiming he needed to log hours at the range.

“I know.”

“His latest creation fired laser beams at every reflective surface in the lab,” she continues conversationally. “Bruce had to take a Xanax. So did Phil.”

Steve heard about that; or rather, he heard the fire alarms when they began to go off. “I know,” he repeats.

“Pepper's still in LA.”

“I... know?” he tries again. His cereal is beginning to get soggy.

She looks up at him and smiles, hands still working on the knives. “It would be really inconvenient if one of us killed him.”

Steve sets his bowl down. Her smile doesn't falter. “I'm gonna go,” he says.

Natasha keeps up the steady schick schick schick until he's out the door.

-

“Have you talked to Pepper?” is the first thing out of Steve's mouth when he carefully steps into Bruce and Tony's shared lab, mindful of things that fly or roll or set fires. He doesn't want to stammer through another conversation with Tony and act like an adolescent, and he finds that the best way to do that is to just barrel through all his usual niceties. Thor has taught him this much.

“Good morning to you too, Steven,” Tony says, pushing his goggles up with the back of one hand. A line of sweat has collected along his hairline.

Steve comes round to the workbench, and pulls himself up to sit on a clear spot. “Hi, Tony.”

“Hi, Steve.” Tony pulls his goggles back down and goes back to his soldering.

“So have you?”

“Have I what?”

Steve narrows his eyes. “Have you talked to Pepper?”

“Oh.” Tony takes an agonisingly long time to solder the last wire of whatever it is he's making. Each time it seems like he's done, he leans back in and fiddles with it just a little more. At length, he says, “Not recently. I hear you have, though.”

“Y--es,” Steve says, regretting the way he draws the word out.

“Huh,” is all Tony says to that. He picks up the little object he's been creating and carries it to a work station across the room. The noise of a circular saw drowns out anything Steve might try to say to ascertain exactly what that 'huh' meant. While Tony works, Steve lets his eyes wander over Tony's hurricane of mess. Aside from tools and wires and scraps of metal, there are sheets upon sheets of paper, each with the most intricate designs that Steve has ever seen. Sketches of car chassis are drawn to exact scale, drawings of the Iron Man suit detailing every line and curve exactly.

“Wow,” he murmurs, flicking through more of them.

Tony returns to the bench. “Stealing my designs there, Steve?”

“These are incredible.” He looks up from the papers. “Is this a female Iron Man suit? Iron Woman?”

Tony's smile just about reaches his eyes. “It's just a little something I'm playing with.” He tugs the papers from Steve's grip gently and sets them aside.

“I used to draw. I mean, not like that. Mostly people, and flowers. A lot of fruit.”

“You don't any more?” Tony pulls his goggles off completely and casually drops them to the ground. He wipes out his forehead, leaving streaks of dirt behind.

“Sometimes. The one good thing about being scrawny is having slim hands.” He spreads his hands out in front of him. “I can't hold pencils like I used to.”

There's a brief pause in which Steve remembers the feeling of a chunk of charcoal in his hands, sketching the outline of a mouth and a cigarette, then he curls his fingers into his palms and lowers them to his lap. When he looks back at Tony, Tony's face has softened, traces of his weeks long agitation slipping away.

“I have an idea,” he says.

He takes hold of Steve's wrist and urges him off the bench. “What?” Steve asks, but finds he doesn't really care; Tony's fingers are rough but light on his wrist, and he's missed this, casual touches that aren't punches in the face or slaps on the back.

Tony's positions him in front of the bench, and grabs a sheet of paper at random, flipping it over to the blank side. Then he takes a pencil out of a tin can, and pushes it into Steve's hand.

“Mechanical pencil,” he says, “Probably not what you arty types normally use.” He slides his grip from Steve's wrist to cover his right hand entirely, curling his fingers around Steve's. “Draw something,” he says.

“Uh.” Tony's hand is warm and solid against his, as is the other one that comes down on the middle of his back. He steadies his breathing. “What do you-- what should I draw?”

“Something patriotic. A flag, or... Stephen Colbert, I don't know.”

“I don't know who that is.”

“Just draw anything!” Tony says, and sighs against his ear. Steve works very hard not to shudder.

He moves his hand to the middle of the paper and sketches a curved line. Tony's fingers lightly guide his, moving the angle that he holds the pencil, stopping him from pressing too hard into the paper. The curved line continues, and Tony leans his cheek against Steve's shoulder, letting his hand be moved around the paper as Steve gains confidence.

“Are you drawing your shield?”

“Yes.” At Tony's huff of laughter, he adds, “It's my favourite thing in the world, Tony.”

Tony slides his arm around Steve's back, and comments occasionally on the shading. When Bruce returns to lab, he doesn't say anything, probably glad that they're keeping the noise level down to Tony's low murmurs and Steve's unintelligible hums.

-

Tony's still in the lab when Coulson calls that evening to update them on the arson case. He says that it looks like the employee was working alone, some guy with a grudge that slipped through the cracks. 'It happens,' he says. All too often, it would seem.

Steve doesn't think that Tony's going to be particularly pleased by this news, but he goes to tell him anyway. It's some kind of resolution, at least.

The door to the lab is open when he gets there, and Steve stops in front of it, unsure of whether he really wants to go in. When he shuts his eyes, he can still feel Tony's arm around him; he doesn't really know what to do with that.

“When are you coming back to New York?” Tony's saying quietly. Steve inches his way around the door frame and sees Tony with a phone to his ear, sitting with his back to the door. “Or I could come out to LA.”

After a long pause, he says, “Oh,” and then, “I'm sorry I'm such a dick. If it makes you feel any better, no one wants to talk to me any more.” After another long pause, he laughs softly. “I wasn't trying to be manipulative, it just comes naturally... No, he's still talking to me, you know what he's like, doesn't believe in lost causes... I'm not trying to make you feel bad. Do you feel bad? Not that I'm saying you should, or anything.” He shifts in his chair, and Steve drops back a couple of steps, cursing the lit hallway. Tony only rolls his shoulders, though and leans back in the chair.

“I will, I promise,” he's saying now. “Yeah, like a real adult. I'll get on my knees and beg forgiveness if I have to... Okay, okay, have fun with the investors. I love you... Bye.”

Steve moves away from the door as Tony hangs up. When Tony mutters, 'shit!', he decides that the news can wait till tomorrow.

-

In the morning, Thor has the television set to a news channel, the topic of the segment being, Who is Captain America: Friend or Foe? Clint occasionally boos at the TV. Bruce says he wishes they'd put it on something less incendiary.

“We must understand the enemy,” Thor declares, punctuating this with a vicious bite of his Pop-Tart.

Steve half listens to it as he waits for his toast to be done. Classified identity, they say, beyond the law, secret government experiments, millions of dollars worth of destruction already. He can't say that they're exactly wrong, but he wishes that they'd stop speculating as to his identity. So far they've become very interested in Sergeant James Barnes. Steve thinks that Bucky wouldn't have minded people thinking he was Captain America, though.

“What the fuck is this?” Tony asks loudly as he walks in.

“An exposé on the ever mysterious Steve Rogers, with no evidence as to who he is, what he's done, or even if he's a real person,” Natasha says.

“Steve's too nice to be a real person,” Tony says. He starts poking around in the fridge beside Steve. “I'm certain he's an android.”

“Thank you,” Steve replies. Tony jostles his arm and close the fridge door with a sigh.

“So, it's come to my attention that I haven't apologised to you, yet.”

“Don't worry about it.” The toast pops up out of the toaster. Tony reaches across and grabs the slices, dropping them on Steve's plate.

“But I am,” he says quietly.

Steve's eyes flicker over his head at the rest of the team; they're watching with interest. “It's fine,” he mutters.

“Jesus, will you just let me say I'm sorry? This is a one time thing, you know, don't get used to it.”

The corner of Steve's mouth turns up. “Shoot.”

“So yeah.” Tony shifts uncomfortably, seemingly realising that they're being listened to. “I'm sorry for fucking up your shoulder and your hands, and for that crack I made about you being an orphan. That was really douchey of me. And I'm sorry for taking off.” He turns around. “And that goes for you guys, too, I guess.”

“Also, when was the last time anyone bought food for this place?” He shakes his head and pushes past Steve to root through the cupboards.

Thor stands purposefully, striding across the room towards Tony. Steve crowds in a little closer to him, pressing their shoulders together as he reaches for the butter.

“Tony,” Thor says at his usual volume. Tony jumps, banging his head on the cupboard door. He looks around the corner apprehensively. Thor holds out a silver wrapped packet. “Would you like the last Pop-Tart?”

Even Bruce smiles a little. “You'd better take him up on that,” Clint calls. “Thor never shares his food.”

-

There's a minor incident a couple of days later involving a botched assassination attempt at the Bolivian Consulate and an assassin who barely even stops to breathe while talking incessantly and leaping from roof top to roof top. Clint shoots him several times from his vantage point across the street, but doesn't even slow him down. Steve gives chase, matching the guy leap for leap until they approach the end of the block, 8th Avenue stretching out in front of them. The assassin makes the jump and misses the landing by a considerable distance, talking all the while as he falls. Steve tries to skid to a stop at the edge of the roof, but his forward momentum is too great. The last thing he hears before his feet lose purchase is Natasha's 'someone want to do something about this?'.

Then he's suspended over the traffic packed street, chest crushed by iron arms.

“How are you with heights?” Tony asks.

“Not as good as I used to be,” he says, bringing his hands up to grip Tony's arms. Below them, the assassin impacts with the sidewalk hard, and black SUVs swarm immediately. He's fairly certain that he spots Agent Coulson carrying what looks like a miniature rocket launcher before Tony flies them away.

Of course, this is immediately on the news, some kid's cellphone footage that's surprisingly clear, enough to make out Tony reflexively tightening his hold on Steve as they watch the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents work. There is much media analysis of the clip.

After a long debriefing, made longer by Tony's constant comments about Coulson's 'rocket', they regroup back at the tower, watching the twenty four hour news in the lounge. Thor disappears for a while, only to return, triumphantly holding up a six pack of beer.

“I have been to the store,” he says proudly.

“Oh Jesus,” Clint mutters. “Poor Phil.”

“Did you get any actual food?” Tony asks.

“No, only beer.”

Tony takes the can offered. “Cool.”

On the screen, the rather dazed looking youth who recorded the scene says that he had feared that Captain America was about to die, only he doesn't quite put it like that.

“He thought you were gonna, like, go splat, man,” Tony repeats, leaning his head against Steve's shoulder, grinning up at him goofily.

“I appreciate his concern,” he replies. Tony laughs and lifts his head again, but stays sort of slumped against Steve's side. Natasha pointedly doesn't look at them, settling her feet in Clint's lap. Bruce excuses himself a couple of sips into his beer, and Thor remains, as ever, oblivious.

After the third cycle of the same news, the rest of them begin to leave for other parts of the tower. Clint and Natasha first (Tony winks at her as she leads Clint from the room; she blows him a kiss), then Thor, having decided that he will 'Skype Jane!'.

“Yikes,” Steve says. Tony hums something in response. “Tony, are you asleep?”

“Nope.” He snuggles in closer, arms crossed over his chest.

“Your eyes are closed,” Steve points out.

“Not conclusive proof...” he mumbles. His breathing starts to even out until it's quite obvious that he is, in fact, asleep. Which leaves Steve few options: he can either just get up and most likely wake Tony – and he remembers Pepper telling him that Tony doesn't sleep; he doesn't think Tony's being sleeping more a couple of hours a night since he got back – or he could try to get Tony back to his quarters, but that would probably involve carrying him and he just... doesn't think that would be a good idea, right at this very moment.

He refocuses on the news, reading the scrolling text along the bottom of the screen, messages of support – or not – for the Avengers: 'Single biggest threat to the free world', 'lose the mask, Cap!', 'owe my life to them'. They go on endlessly, sometimes looping back, while the newscaster drones on and on...

“Hey.”

He starts at the voice, eyes snapping open. Pepper is crouching down in front of them, the glow of the television screen lighting up her long hair. He blinks rapidly.

“Pepper? What time is it?” He must have fallen asleep sometime after the eighth showing of the cellphone footage.

“It's past three.”

“In the morning?”

He can make out a smile on her face in the half light of the room. “In the morning, yes. I just got here.”

“You flew through the night to get here?” His arm is numb, he realises, from where Tony is leaning against it, still breathing softly.

“Well, I saw you two idiots on the news,” she says. Tony begins to stir on 'idiots'. He turns his face into Steve's arm for a moment, then opens one eye.

“Pep?”

“Hey.” She moves from her crouching position to sit next to Tony on the couch. He sits up, suddenly alert.

“You're back,” he says. It hovers somewhere between a question and a statement.

“I am.”

“Can I come home? No one ever buys food here,” he says in his best plaintive voice.

“It's your house.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

They stare at each other for a long couple of minutes. Steve feels acutely like a third wheel, but Tony's still leaning on him a little, and he fears any movement will break their spell. Pepper sighs and shakes her head.

“You're an absolute nightmare, Tony Stark,” she says, and shifts closer to hug him.

Steve extracts himself from them and shuffles down the couch. “I should go to bed,” he says.

“Wait.” Tony reaches out and grabs his hand, lacing his fingers through Steve's. “I think we should talk.” He has one arm around Pepper's waist as he tugs Steve back in. “You spent some time with my lady love while I was hiding out in Mexico.”

“Um,” he says. Pepper smiles encouragingly. “Yes.”

“I've been told that you got quite close.”

“I wouldn't say... that, exactly.”

“Steve.” Pepper's tone is no-nonsense. “I was blatantly coming on to you the day after Tony left, and you didn't seem to mind it.”

He's pretty sure he stops breathing for a little while, but his shock is covered by Tony's exclamation of, “What? We promised!”

“As if you haven't being flirting with him since the moment you laid eyes on him. Mostly in front of cameras.”

“That is different, Potts.” His hand tightens around Steve's when Steve tries to pull away. “People expect, nay, require it of me.”

Pepper rolls her eyes. “Whatever you say, Stark,” she says.

“What-- what is going on?” Steve stammers. Tony and Pepper break off their staring contest and both focus on him.

“Ah,” Tony says. “Haven't you ever been really attracted to two people at once?”

“Uh,” Steve begins, but completely loses his train of thought, and possibly his ability to think, as Tony closes the distance between them. His hand slides up against Steve's cheek, and then he's pulling him in, pressing his mouth to Steve's.

Steve has been kissed all of three times, once by Bucky the day they graduated high school 'just to see', once by Private Lorraine, though he had no say in the matter, and once by Peggy, with Colonel Phillips in the front seat. Neither were anything like this. Tony leads, because Tony always leads him around, pressing his tongue against Steve's teeth until he yields to it, tilts his head just so for a better angle. Distantly, Steve's aware of himself making whiny little noises at the back of his throat that he'll be incredibly embarrassed about later.

Tony breaks away. “So,” he says, trying for nonchalant and missing. “Me and Pepper had this deal that neither of us would try to get in your pants without the other, but then that got all fucked up and 'Most Likely to Seduce Captain America' here jumped way ahead of the game.”

“I did actually get into his pants at one point,” she says.

Tony glares at her, then turns back to Steve. “Are you cool with that?”

“Huh?” He tries to rouse himself, but it's not really happening. “Yeah...”

Pepper smiles and leans across Tony. She puts one hand on the back of his neck and pulls him in. Tony makes a speculative noise as they kiss. She's softer than Tony, but no less leading; she lets her hands do some of the work, rubbing circles on his neck with one, running her fingers through his hair with the other. He definitely, definitely whines then, squeezing Tony's hand until he can feel Tony's fingernails against his palm.

Tony takes a shaky breath. “Damn, this is hot,” he says, then after a beat, “The sex we're going to have is going to be so much kinkier than Clint and Natasha's.”

He sounds delighted.