Four copies of Under the Spandex 2012 had turned up with the mail on the kitchen table, where Tony picked them up. He peeled open the clingy plastic wrap and flipped through one of the calendars. “Huh,” he said, and put it back down again. Then he very calmly and very majestically got on the phone with Pepper.
“There seems to be a set of strange objects in the mail today,” he said the moment she picked up.
Pepper went on alert. “Is it food? Did you put it in your mouth? Tony, I’ve told you that you have to be more careful about these things. Shockingly, there are a lot of people in the world who don’t find you charming. Even more shockingly, they are not above hiding their hate in cute, mysteriously appearing cupcakes.”
“It’s not food,” Tony said, eyeing the offending calendar.
“Is it a bomb?”
“Would I be calling you if it were a bomb?” Tony asked. “Well, maybe I would,” he said, switching tracks rapidly, “just to hear your dulcet tones before I die. But Pep, this is neither food nor explosives. This is about the calendar where my teammates are posing in their underwear.”
“Oh, that.” Pepper yawned and sounded bored. “Did it come out already? I thought the printing date wasn’t until next week, but maybe someone got excited and jumped the gun.”
“Someone got excited and jumped the gun, all right,” Tony said darkly, picking up the calendar and letting it fall open to January, where Thor was wielding Mjölnir in a pair of tighty whities, his blond hair flowing behind him, captured in motion. “This someone was also clearly delusional and out of their mind because they didn’t ask me to contribute.”
“They did ask,” Pepper replied succinctly. “I also took the liberty of turning them down on your behalf. As the CEO of Stark Industries, I have to protect the reputation of the company. The world doesn’t need another trashy picture of you making pouty faces at the camera, Tony. The internet already gets those for free.”
“But everybody’s in here,” Tony said in a voice that he would not classify as a whine, but which might not hold up under scrutiny. “Thor’s in here. Natasha’s in here. Clint’s in here. The X-Men are in here. Steve’s in here,” he said, and felt his fingers jerk against the glossy paper of the offending calendar, because a whole lot of Steve was in there, all right, and Tony was trying very hard not to look at the July photospread more than absolutely necessary, for the strict preservation of his sanity.
“Well,” Pepper said after a moment’s pause, “you always did say you’d rather set trends than follow them.”
“He’s covering himself with his shield,” Tony said. “Just the shield. How do you not understand the momentous terribleness of this occasion?”
“Goodbye, Tony,” she said, and hung up, leaving him to dry in a way that he wanted to explain as her going power-hungry as CEO of one of the most profitable companies in the world, but which he knew wasn’t the real reason because Pepper had always been willing to hang up on him. Anybody who actually knew Tony was perfectly happy to hang up on him, because apparently Tony couldn’t inspire respect from anyone, not even people who made dirty calendars. They better have fought Pepper against her decision. If he found out the calendar people hadn’t, he was going to... he was going to throw a lot of money at them until they cried for mercy.
He picked up the calendar again with the tips of his fingers. Randomly selecting a page let it fall open to March, where Natasha was sitting on a white bearskin rug in lacy black lingerie, with her knees spread and a challenging expression on her face. Hey, this wasn’t so bad, Tony thought. He flipped to April where Ororo posed in knee-high leather boots and tiny scraps of silk.
April, May, June, July -- and hello Steve's pectorals, how fine you look today.
This was awful.
“Oh!” Steve said when Tony caught him eating breakfast alone at the kitchen counter. “Well, it was for charity. They told me the proceeds were going to go feed hungry orphans. So it’s all right, I suppose. Can you please pass the ketchup?”
His blase reaction was stunning. Tony simply stared.
“The ketchup?” Steve prodded.
Tony moved as if through a lagging video game screen and passed the bottle over. “You seriously don’t think there’s anything off about it? Captain America, paragon of the people, turning into renegade sex symbol?”
“It’s not a sex symbol,” Steve said primly. “It’s my shield.”
“It’s the way you’re positioning it!” Tony said, sounding more and more strangled by the moment. Steve applied a liberal dollop of ketchup to his scrambled eggs and then mashed it around some with his fork. His eating habits, Tony thought, were truly despicable.
“In front of me?” Steve asked. “I don’t see what’s the problem. It’s the way I would hold a towel after I got out of the shower at the gym. If you think about it, it’s a pretty big shield. I’m probably more covered than anybody else in that calendar.” And then finally, finally, he blushed. “Um. Some of the ladies are rather... are rather... they’re lovely,” he finished lamely.
“So those are your defensive points?” Tony asked. “Charity, nationalism, and everybody else was doing it too?”
Steve looked confused. “They had a nice buffet at the photo shoot? I got a free haircut?” Then something seemed to occur to him, and his expression softened. He leaned over and put a friendly hand on Tony’s knee, a perfectly platonic gesture that nevertheless sent every nerve firing through Tony’s body. “I see what’s the matter. You’re acting like this because you’re not in the calendar. It’s okay, Tony. It’s okay to be too shy sometimes to take off your clothes for strangers. I understand."
“What--” Tony said. “What are you even saying -- you think I’m too shy? You think that’s what this is about?”
Steve tilted his head. “It’s not?”
“No!” Tony said. He pulled at his hair while Steve watched him, concerned. Then he stuck his hands in his jeans’ pockets and slid off the counter stool. “Never mind. I’m acting stupid. I was just surprised, that’s all. Thor I can expect to do something like this, Clint and Natasha maybe. But they made you look like--”
“I look like what?” Steve asked.
“--a really big slut,” Tony’s mouth finished for him, because what, that was the truth. Steve had looked impossibly, incredibly slutty as the July centerfold, six feet something of naked muscle and perfect skin barely hiding behind the round curves of his shield. Captain America in his Fourth of July birthday suit, angled just so that Tony could see a glimpse of his thigh behind the shield, thigh and the faintest suggestion of ass. Steve had stood with his hips cocked, feet spread, confident and gorgeous. Steve was gorgeous, with the shield and with his face slightly turned away from the camera. Yet not enough to disguise the open lushness of his mouth, the angle of his jaw; he had looked like he was about to lick his own lips. “I mean slut in a completely flattering way!” Tony added, but it was too late. Steve was already making a face and turning back to his breakfast.
“That’s not a very nice thing to say,” he said.
“Some of my best friends are sluts,” Tony said.
“That doesn’t make me feel better,” Steve said, and sighed.
“You called Captain America a slut?” Clint said while pinning the villain of the day underneath his knees, trying to get him into a pair of handcuffs.
“Don’t say anything,” Tony warned behind Iron Man’s mask. “I’d call you worse things, but I’ve seen you in your daisy dukes and I know exactly what’s under there. Or what’s not.”
“Yeah, whatever,” said Clint. “At least I had the balls to say yes.”
“I would have said yes!” Tony said, but Clint gave him a vaguely pitying look before punching the bad guy in the head to get him to stay still. Iron Man’s panoramic camera allowed Tony to see what the other Avengers were doing at the same time: Steve and Natasha were working together to subdue the still-struggling villain leader, who kept on shooting darts out of his mouth, while Thor and the Hulk were taking care of the other fallen minions. The Avengers worked, well, not seamlessly because it was pretty damn hard to coordinate a Norse god and a scientist who matched the foliage and a petite deadly assassin into anything approximating the same wavelength -- but these days Tony was more inclined towards a magnanimous feeling of hey, other people, cool than his original ship sinking, abort abort abort, kidnap hottest teammate and fly to private island. It was a maturity thing, probably.
S.H.I.E.L.D agents and police officers were ready on standby to take the defeated villains into custody. Tony powered the armour through the chaos that had suddenly halted Amsterdam Avenue and West 76th Street. He was just about to hand over a villain in a truly hideous green jumpsuit when he heard Natasha say sharply, “Get your hands off him!”
There were a number of scenarios that played in Tony’s head, the best of which involved Natasha, Pepper, himself, and mud wrestling. However, none of the above applied when he turned around and saw one of the minions claw at the stars on Steve’s chest. Steve immediately grabbed her hand and swung her firmly away from him, but not before Tony saw what was possibly the most astonishing thing since, well, seeing Captain America like a wet dream on glossy paper. The minion scratched, and the fabric of Steve’s uniform tore.
That shouldn’t have been possible. The outside material, maybe, but Steve wore a duralumin scale armour underneath, so no way should the minion’s nails be able to expose skin. And yet there it was, for everybody to see in that brief instant of Steve’s surprise; a tear, a rip, a glimpse of pale chest.
Natasha slammed the minion down to the ground. Steve looked up and met Tony’s gaze; his eyes were unnervingly wide. But it was gone almost as quickly as it had appeared. Steve’s battle professionalism kicked in, and he went to take care of the last struggling fighters.
Must have been an adamantium claw, like Wolverine’s, Tony thought, and made a note to have Jarvis check for future reference.
Tony didn’t know exactly when he began to harbour this ridiculous crush on Captain America, but if pressed to the wall at gunpoint, he would probably admit it was around the time Captain America, hero of the American people, the man who'd punched Hitler, became Steve. Steve Rogers, his teammate, man of muscle, and a surprisingly huge dork. It was the dork factor that turned Tony’s initial prickliness towards a Super Soldier who everyone fawned over into amusement and, later, affection.
In the end, he would explain, it was pretty fucking hard to be aggravated by a guy who whipped out his shield the first time he used a computer, and who was utterly baffled by the internet. A net between what? Steve had complained. I don’t understand. What’s it supposed to catch? Why does Clint want me to choose wallpaper? Are we moving in together?
There were, Tony thought, endless avenues for friendship with a man who had yet to be introduced to online porn, or lolcats.
If ever Agent Coulson narrowed his eyes at him, or Pepper shook her head and called him a number of rude things, Tony didn’t think it worth worrying about. Captain America was incorruptible, right? And Steve Rogers nearly as much so, because try as Tony might to show him the wet, wild, slick, electric ride of the twenty-first century, Steve remained grounded in a way that eventually earned Tony’s begrudging respect. Steve changed for no one except Steve, and while that was an occasionally frustrating quality to have in a team leader, it made it easier to be friends with him. Steve was simple to predict in many ways, reliable if you wanted to call it by another name.
Tony was willing to call Steve any name he wanted. In bed.
Oh yeah, that was a nice fantasy to entertain. Tony tried not to entertain it too often because hello, too old for inappropriate boners, and there was probably some kind of Avengers code against giving into your wanton desires and trapping your teammates in a closet so you could hump them like dogs. Pepper had said join the Avengers, make some friends, and Tony had said sure, and was surprised to find that he mostly meant it.
Plus Steve was Steve, and Tony figured that as he’d lost everything when frozen in the ice, he deserved the best of what the world could give him in repayment.
Nobody was ever going to be delusional enough to ask that question and supply Tony Stark as the answer. The best of one night stands, sure. The best of cocksucking, maybe. But Steve was not exactly the type for one night stands, and inasmuch as he was a man and would probably enjoy having his cock sucked (and fuck could Tony imagine that now, Steve with his hands in Tony’s hair, fucking his mouth), there were boundaries, see. Even Tony with his repulsor beams couldn’t batter his way through every wall. Just ask Pepper.
So there was that, and this was Steve on the couch, watching baseball with him. Not that Tony had much interest in baseball beyond the obligatory heckling and the obligatory threats to buy the Dodgers and return them home, but Steve did. It was the Mets versus the Blue Jays, and at one point Steve turned around on the couch and said, “You aren’t still thinking about the calendar, are you? It was just a silly thing.”
“No,” Tony lied, “I’ve totally forgotten about it.” Aside from that time I jerked off to it, felt bad, and then jerked off in the shower again.
“Good,” Steve said firmly, and then his thigh brushed Tony’s companionably on the couch.
The game ended when it was late, with Steve woefully complaining about the Dodgers for the hundredth time that week while Tony nodded, growing sleepier and sleepier, but too comfortable to get off the couch and shuffle back to his lab. He considered his bravery, decided it was an acceptable risk, and kicked his feet into Steve’s lap. Steve didn’t even falter, just adjusted for the pressure of Tony on his thighs, and kept on talking. “Uh huh,” Tony said, closing his eyes, “yeah, I hear that, okay, four score and twenty years ago, right.” When he opened his eyes again, Steve had stopped talking baseball and was watching the next segment on ESPN, some sort of recap of a surfing competition. The look on Steve’s face was soft and quiet; Tony could feel, suddenly, every weighted ounce of his arc reactor inside his chest.
“You want to go surfing, huh?” he said.
“It looks fun,” Steve said. “This is my home, don’t get me wrong, but I want to see the Pacific one day. The way it is now. I’ve only ever seen it as a theatre of war.”
Tony didn’t know what that was like. How could he? But what he could do was say, “Yeah, I’ve got a place in Malibu. I’ll take you there one day. We can go surfing. I bet you’d be great at it. Wait, what am I even saying? Of course you’ll be great at it, Mr. Pinnacle of Human Perfection."
“What’s that for? Got a deep, dark secret you want to tell me?” Tony grinned.
“I’m not good at everything,” Steve said.
“No, but your list of talents includes posing like a porn star,” Tony said, and when Steve glared at him, he said, “Kidding, kidding! Or so not kidding, because Jesus Christ, I didn’t even know you had that in you, you’re like a Catholic school girl discovering Myspace, you’re--”
Steve threw a pillow at him. “I said I’m not good at everything.”
“I’ve seen you try to make coffee in the morning,” Tony replied. “Believe me, I know.”
They were fighting a set of rogue quadruplet psychics, and fragments of the sidewalk were flying past Tony's head like Tetris pieces, except instead of getting a warm feeling of satisfaction when they connected, there were yelps of pain and crushed bones. They'd evacuated all the civilians from the intersection, except for the ones stupid enough to stay and gawp. Iron Man fired his jets and grabbed a large chunk of concrete before it could fly into a second floor apartment window and stun the middle-aged man practically falling out of it with a DSLR camera.
The quadruplets were all very fast and very aggressive, like their mom had laced their Cheerios with crack. One lifted Thor into the air where he dangled for a few moments, bellowing in anger. He twisted, swung around Mjölnir as Clint let loose a perfectly aimed arrow to the back of the psychic's head. The psychic dodged, dropped Thor back onto earth.
"All right, this is the plan!" he heard Steve say grimly over the comm set. "Position delta eagle. Hulk, you take my left. Iron Man, you take my right. We'll converge at the--"
Tony did never find out where they were supposed to converge, because Steve's voice went all high and funny, the sort of thing Tony was fully prepared to mock for him later, mercilessly. Except right now it sounded like he might be in trouble, so Tony made his way to him, firing his shoulder-mounted anti-personnel guns to clear the path. He arrived in time to see half of Steve's uniform hanging off him, exposing that chest which proved July was the hottest month of the year after all, no doubt about it. Steve's shoulders, chest, and biceps were bared, sweat moistening his skin underneath the sunlight. One of the psychics was standing four feet away. Steve threw his shield at her. She made it bounce back, where it rolled down the street; then the air rippled like a sultry summer day, and the material over Steve's right arm ripped off.
Tony fired three shots at her, clipping her in the shoulder. She reeled back, and then Iron Man was gunning straight for her, tackling her to the ground and pinning her there with his weight. She struggled, and Tony saw more sidewalk lift around him, cement and garbage cans and litter, but the armour was too heavy, and he knocked her out with a punch to the jaw, frizzing nerve endings.
"Steve!" he yelled, turning back around. "You okay?" Because that could have been anything. They could have been trying to get to Steve's skin to inject him with poison, with pheromones, with a biological tracking bug -- Tony's imagination computed at least fourteen possibilities, but Steve was shaking his head, trying to tug his uniform back over his chest. Futile, all of the duralumin scale above the belt was in tatters, melted like candy.
A lesser man might have taken the opportunity to stand back and admire a disheveled, half-naked Captain America standing in the middle of a New York street mid-afternoon, but amazingly, Tony took the high road. "What do you mean when you shake your head? You're not okay?" he demanded.
"I mean I'm fine, don't worry about me!" Steve said, trying to tug the bits of his uniform over his shoulder, and then folding his arms over his naked chest. "And you shouldn't use my name when we're in the field. I told you that already."
"Sure thing, Captain," Tony said, and might have said more, except that one of the psychics had apparently decided to make a break for it. He streaked past both of them, and Steve stirred into action, battery and destruction of clothing irrelevant in the face of justice. As Tony watched, Steve went off running after the renegade, legs pumping, a sure straight line, more and more of his costume peeling off in the action.
"Everyone, don't panic, it's not an streaker!" Tony shouted after him. "It's Captain America! I repeat, Captain America, not available for bachelorette parties! Unless I can be his manager, in which case the name is Stark, phone number 212--"
Clint shot at him.
Two events were a coincidence, three was a pattern, ten was time to sit up, take notice, and admit that yeah, maybe villains really were trying to rip Captain America's clothes off.
"I mean, I approve of the fundamental philosophy here," Tony told Pepper. "I don't hear the crowds or the reporters complaining either. Man looks good with his shirt off; do try to contain your shock, Pep. But there's something nefarious about it, something deeply, deeply wrong. Like denuding Mary Poppins. Plus, you know, it's bad for my nerves. I can't be in the middle of a fight and whoa, hey, there's naked Steve over there! Partly naked. Sort of naked. Criminally indecent naked."
"I'm going to write this down and make a monument out of it," she said. "The day Tony Stark thought someone was too naked for their own good."
"If it was for good, Steve would drop trou in the middle of Times Square," Tony muttered. "As we have clearly discovered. If it was to support, I don't know, endangered panda bears, Steve would probably film softcore porn."
"Really?" Pepper asked dryly.
"He's a lot less shy than we might have been fooled into believing!" Tony insisted.
So that was his life now: work, fight, eat and sleep (if he remembered to), hang out with Steve, hang out with Steve in the middle of fights after some too-happy villain had ripped the top portion of Steve's costume off... you know, the usual. "Hey," Tony said once when they were standing around watching Thor swing a bad guy round and round by the ankles, "you ever get cold?"
"I was frozen in ice for years," Steve said. "So yes, sometimes."
Tony sniffed. "Well, it's good that you don't seem to mind. All that skin, that is. All the potential for hypothermia. It's good. You're keeping the stiff upper lip on behalf of the American people. Jolly good, old bean. They should give you a medal. Another one."
"Tony," Steve interrupted, and Tony saw for the first time that Steve's ears were red. And whatever happened to using code names in public? "I don't mind the cold," he said hurriedly. "But I think people are staring at me. They're taking pictures."
"Yes," Tony said. "We should demand royalties."
Steve folded his arms across his chest, which might have looked more intimidating if not for the blush. "I wish I had a sweater right now," he said.
And Tony said, "There's a menswear store right across the street. Let's go buy you one."
"No, that's a waste," Steve said. "I can... I can wait until we get back to the mansion. It'll only be a few more minutes." He eyed Thor, who was still making merry with the bad guy.
"It's not like he needs our help," Tony pointed out. "And a few more minutes means a few hundred more photos." Steve twitched. Oh, he was so weak, Tony thought. "Yeah, come on," Tony said. "Let's break some hearts and get you some clothes."
When they came back (and it took longer than it should have, but you try to fit a metal suit into a tiny boutique), Steve had on a blue cashmere sweater, and Thor was still playing merry-go-round with the bad guy. "Why did you choose to divest the good captain of his clothing?" Thor boomed. "Answer me! What is your fell plan?"
"We are the Pygmalion League!" the poor, beleaguered villain shrieked. "Dedicated to exposing beauty from the colds hands of tyranny!"
"Aren't you guys art thieves?" Tony asked.
"The word came down from our leader!" was the reply. "She saw the calendar! She took an interest! Beauty free from tyranny!"
Tony turned to look at Steve, who was really blushing like he was in a competition for it. "Beauty from tyranny, huh?" Tony said, smirking. "But why just Captain America? Why aren't you trying to get my clothes off?"
"You're ensconced in metal," Natasha spoke up. "You don't exactly make it easy access."
"I could," Tony said suggestively. "There may be magnetism involved, if you get my meaning."
"Guys," Steve said, pained.
"No, I take offense to this," Tony said. "This Pygmalion League or whatever, they like art? They to see pretty people naked, right? That's fantastic. But what are the rest of us, chopped liver?"
"Speak for yourself," said Natasha. "I've seen your belly."
"Hey!" said Tony. "We don't all have time to work out five hours a day! I have important things to do, top secret advanced defense system type things, Nick-Fury-is-secretly-my-bitch type things!" He lowered his voice a bit on the last part, just in case Fury was listening. "My abs are none of your business anyway." While Natasha rolled her eyes and then looked pointedly at her nails in an expression of utter disinterest.
"Guys," Steve said. "Avengers! Focus! First of all, I think the man has passed out now, so you can stop swinging him, Thor. You're going to give him head trauma."
"But this is how we do it in my homeland," Thor said, confused.
Tony always figured that time bent for him, not the other way around, a quality which unceasingly made Pepper furious when he showed up to board meetings late and decided to interpret 'EMERGENCY, SIGN THESE WITHIN 24 HOURS' to 'sign these at your own convenience, and hey, why don't you have some drinks beforehand, your body will thank you for it afterwards.' Tony told himself that she'd known what she'd been agreeing to at the very beginning of her employment, with her first look at her careless sleazy alcoholic boss, though some days it was easier to convince himself of this than others.
He lost the most time when he was in his lab. Or rather, lost wasn't the right word, because there was no loss in working with his hands, doing the only thing he was really good at. His mother used to play the piano; he couldn't, despite her best efforts to indoctrinate him with lessons that had him kicking and screaming, and one time accidentally destroying the piano with a rocket. But he could read a schematic diagram the way she could read a Chopin étude, with the same intensity and devotion.
So he had no idea what time it was when Steve appeared at his lab, tapping on the glass partition repeatedly like a Girl Scout selling cookies until Tony said, "Stop that, you have access", and Steve came in.
"Are you busy?" Steve asked.
"In an existential sense, or right now?" Tony asked. "Because I'm sure that if I'm not busy in either way, Fury will so helpfully take care of that for me." He pushed up his goggles, lifted the hot poker in warning, and grinned. "Don't come too close. It's hot."
"Hmm," said Steve, a tickly little sound at the back of his throat. He shifted his weight from one foot to another. "I was wondering if you could do a favour for me. About the... Pygmalion League." There was that blush again, a faint sheen of colour that made him look like he'd been lazing at the beach all day and forgot to rub sunscreen over his cheekbones. Tony stared, and then remembered that he was holding instruments so hot they could burn right through his skin. He shoved them into cold water, listening to the violent hiss.
"They're out of control," he said. "We need to find their leader and put an end to this stripping business, because while I'm sure Las Vegas would love to have you as a headliner, it's not good for the team morale. Or something. I'm thinking clothes. You'd look spectacular in a muumuu."
"I just don't understand how they're ripping my costume," Steve said, shaking his head, politely ignoring Tony's babble. "I have the armour underneath, but they're getting better and better at cutting through that."
Neat, science. Tony could do science. "The best answer to that is they've developed some way to cut through duralumin, which is difficult but not technically impossible, not if they've got the right minds working at it." He turned back to his work bench, thinking. "So what you need is stronger duralumin. Or, if we want maximum efficiency and protection, a different alloy entirely. Mix up the base metal component, mix up the game. I'm thinking yinegian alloy."
"Yes, that's what I meant," Steve said, sounding relieved. "I was wondering if you could build me a new armour. I know you have a lot on your plate, so don't put this at the top of your list or anything. But um, if you have time. If you're bored."
"Steve, chill. It's at the very top of my list. It's Avengers business," Tony replied, and weird, that seemed like the wrong thing to say because instead of looking happy, Steve's face went rigid. But then Steve nodded, smoothed his mouth out in a smile.
"Avengers business, right," he said.
"Unless there's another team I'm part of, but don't know about," Tony said. "I wouldn't put it past any of you. I might be an unknowing, unwilling member of the Kitten Appreciation Club."
"There's no Kitten Appreciation Club," Steve said, and then considered the matter. "Unless you count the Organization of Evil Felines for World Domination."
"You freak," Tony said, and there it was: Steve's real smile, no shadow of that 'thank you sir, may I help you, ma'am', and all was right with the world. Perhaps not with his physician, because Steve's smile had the unfortunate effect of making him feel like the arc reactor was failing and a piece of shrapnel was rubbing up against his heart, that sweet sharp pain, but screw it. He'd risked cardiac arrest for less, and even after Steve left, Tony was still thinking about that damn smile, which made him think about Steve naked, which made him think about the fucking calendar with the fucking shield, where Steve had looked askance of the camera with his mouth open and his eyes heavy, like he was thinking about something he badly wanted but was never going to get. That was a club Tony could claim full membership in.
Sadly, it was AVENGERS ASSEMBLE, not AVENGERS, GAZE UPON MY ASS. Though it might as well be.
"Is that a ray that melts clothes off?" Clint said. "And can I borrow it?"
"You are officially banned from my house and the radius of my person. Expect a restraining order in six weeks," Tony informed him, eyes darting around. At the floor of the warehouse, at the walls, at the crates of illegal drugs, at the ceiling, at Clint, at fully naked Steve, at Clint again, at the walls, at fully naked Steve attempting to cover his groin with his shield, at the ceiling, at Steve.
"Avengers, why aren't you doing anything?" Steve demanded.
"My apologies!" Thor said. "I believe we are all too busy observing the musculature of your war-like body. But I shall offer my assistance now!" He stepped forward and then paused, unsure. "How would you me to assist you?" he asked.
"Hulk catch Pygmalion! Hulk smash ray to bits!" the Hulk cried.
"Good!" Thor said brightly, as the Hulk ran out of the warehouse.
"Here, here, apparently I'm the only person smart enough to have brought spare clothes," Tony said, stirring himself back into some semblance of rationality. He opened a collapsible portion of the Iron Man suit where there was a t-shirt and pair of jeans in Steve's size. Steve took them gratefully. "Should we... should we turn around while you change?" Tony asked, his supposed intelligence leaking out of his ears at the sight of Steve's thigh peeking around the curve of his shield.
"I don't think I have much modesty left," Steve said glumly. "If this keeps up, I might have to marry all of you."
Thor looked alarmed.
Eventually, even though it might kill him to even mention the words 'excessively persistent nudity' and 'Captain America' in the same breath, Fury would have to address the issue. Which he did, in a private meeting with Steve that had Steve walking stiffly out of the living room, seemingly calm, but Tony knew him well enough by know to recognize that he was furious, and Tony was going to have to buy new punching bags for the gym.
"What's up?" Tony asked when Steve entered the kitchen. "Want a sandwich? Copious amounts of alcohol? Designer pharmaceuticals whose origins I do not know and that's my official policy?"
"He said I should take a break from the team," Steve said, exhaling sharply. "Because of the Pygmalions. He said I'm embarrassing the rest of you."
"What," Tony said.
"And I realize he only wants to help me," Steve continued, which was essentially true because Steve was the only Avenger Nick Fury actually seemed to like, "and I know he's probably right, and this whole thing is so incredibly embarrassing. But I can't be off the team. Not for this."
"If you want to stay on the team, then you're on the team," Tony said. "Hell, you are the team. Leave it up to the rest of us and we'll probably punch each other out by accident. Well, accident for everyone except Natasha," he amended. He finished smearing the rest of the peanut butter on the bread. "Sandwich," he said, tossing it over. Steve caught it without blinking.
"Tony, why am I holding a sandwich?" Steve wondered.
"To further the patriotic cause of the nation," Tony said. "What, don't give me that look. You eat the sandwich. That's what normal people do. After a day of getting your clothes zapped off by horny enemies and getting your ass chewed out by your boss... yeah, okay, bad mental images there, delete and erase. But on days like that, you eat sandwiches." He slithered on top of the kitchen stool and took a bite. Of the sandwich, sadly, and not Steve's ass.
Instead of eating his sandwich, Steve cocked his head unhappily and said, "That was good thinking, bringing along a spare set of clothes. I don't know why I didn't consider that."
"Because you thought the yinegian alloy would hold up," Tony said between mouthfuls of sticky peanut butter. "Because you thought I was a genius superstar, which I am, thank you very much, but I was working off their last specs. Now we've got to make you a new armour."
"It's such a hassle for you," Steve said, staring down at his hands. "I hate this. I really, really hate this," he said, a soft confession that made the hairs on Tony's arm stand up. "Why are they focusing their attention on me, of everyone on the team?"
"You really have to ask that?" Tony said. He snorted. "Come on, big boy. You have a mirror. I've seen you look at it."
The corners of Steve's mouth turned down. "Thor and Clint and Natasha and Bruce are all very attractive people," he said. "So are you," he said, and then looked quickly away at the fascinating stain on the ceiling from Bruce and Clint's last argument-slash-food-fight. Tony had never known Steve was such a connoisseur of interior design.
"'Course we are," Tony said. "But you've got this image, this aura. It makes people want to mess you up."
"I don't want to be messed up," Steve said, frustrated.
Tony swallowed. "Yeah, yeah, I get that. None of us do, but whoops, it's like teeth during a blowjob. It happens," he said. He slid off the stool and wiped the crumbs on his sweats. "Come on, let's go to the lab and put our brains together. We'll have some drinks, find a solution, or we'll blow shit up trying. Either way, win/win, right?" He saw Steve still wasn't eating the sandwich, so he grabbed it and ate it himself. Tony might not have been the best cook ever, since he built robots for that, but no use in wasting sandwiches.
Tony had always played with the idea of being the one to dress Steve Rogers, to take him out of his military-issue clothes and general fashion oblivion and put him in some Tom Ford, but he'd never envisioned it happening like this.
"Pants!" Steve ordered, and Tony handed over the pants.
"Shirt!" Steve ordered, and Tony handed over the shirt.
(If Steve ever said "Underwear!", Tony might have to go off and sit in a corner and wait out his boner like every good pervert should. Then again, he might have to consider doing that already, because whenever the Pygmalions got to Steve's clothes, Steve went commando after, and that was just unfair on the part of the universe).
"Okay," Steve said after he'd put on the fresh change of clothing. He and Tony were ducking behind a ruined slab of metal, or mostly Steve was ducking as he shrugged on his jeans; it was kind of hard for Iron Man to be inconspicuous in any way. "Okay," Steve said again. "I think that's fine. Everything in order. Let's get back to the fight."
"Roger that," Tony said, snickering.
"That was only funny the first ten times," Steve said, picking up his shield. He paused. "And thank you. This means, uh, a lot to me. When you're around, I don't have to worry about being naked," he said, and Tony stopped snickering.
"Right," Tony said. "I'm your no-naked zone. I protect your virtue."
"I wouldn't put it exactly that way," Steve said.
Tony reached out and patted Steve on the shoulder. "It's okay, I understand. Everybody out there wants to get into your pants, but I'm the only person who makes sure you keep those pants on. It's a noble calling, what can I say."
But Tony was already heading out, aiming for the sky.
Afterwards, when they were helping the S.H.I.E.L.D agents clean up the mess that the fight had made, and rounding up the last of the escaped tigers, Tony found Thor leaning against a Humvee, staring very intently at his cell phone. "Do you need me to show you how to use it?" Tony asked.
Thor looked up. "No, I am proud to say I am becoming more and more well-versed in Midgardian arts of communication, such as the face of the book and the noise of the crowd," he said. "It is only this textual message from my brother which alarms me."
"You and Loki text?" Tony asked, astounded.
"He started it," Thor said defensively.
"No, no, that's cool, I'm totally down for that," Tony said, waving Iron Man's hand. "Brotherly bonding, hooray hooray. Potential armistice and saving of the universe. I can support that." He craned his neck for a better look at the screen, inputting commands for Jarvis to magnify the image. "What do you and Loki text about?"
"I was informing him of Steve's unfortunate condition," Thor said. "With the hope that his connections to the less savory elements of Midgard might produce some knowledge that could aid our captain. However," he said, brow furrowing in concern, "my brother seems to be possessed with a violent urge to do harm to Steve's person."
the photos are everywhere. i did see him naked.
"I'm not following," Tony admitted, so Thor scrolled to the next text, sent a few minutes later.
i'd hit that.
"You see?" Thor said. "We must inform Steve immediately of my brother's vile intention to strike him!"
"Uh," said Tony.
"All right," he said the next day in his lab. "This is Beta Test 4A8. Jarvis, stand by with the emergency controls at the ready."
"Understood, sir," Jarvis replied.
"Are you ready?" he asked Steve, who was standing by the wall wearing the latest upgrade of the yinegian alloy armour, shoulders thrown back, feet spread apart, every bit a military commander if not for the wariness in his eyes. Tony picked up the naked ray-gun dropped by the latest Pygmalion they had fought and aimed it at him.
"I want this, remember," Steve said, and Tony failed to hide his shiver. He pulled the trigger -- and there was a light, as there always was, hot and whip-sharp, racing towards Steve. It engulfed Steve, and Tony waited. One second, two seconds.
Steve's shoulder material peeled off.
"Fuck," said Tony.
"Actually, this is a lot less that came off than in the last test," Steve said. "You know, this might even be okay. It's just my shoulders."
"It's not okay," Tony snapped. "Okay is when it works perfectly, and if parts of the armour are still coming off, then that's not perfect, not by any standard of function or design." He returned to his computers and stared up at the data Jarvis was pulling for him, tapping his foot on the ground erratically as his brain processed the numbers and their resultant computations. "It's the weight of the yinegian," he said. "The weight isn't calibrated properly. If we make it lighter, we can--"
"You're being too hard on yourself," Steve said, coming up behind him.
"No kidding," Tony said. "You're still partly naked!"
"And that's a terrible thing, I realize," Steve said in a tone that Tony couldn't read. Tony glanced at him and found Steve watching him intently -- or watching the screen with the data, he couldn't tell, not without having Jarvis pull out some of SI's new optical tracking technology.
"You're the one who wants this," he said.
Steve sighed. "I do. Sorry. I'm not trying to be rude. It's just... weird, you know? On one hand, I want the Pygmalions to stop trying to rip off my clothes. On the other hand, I worry that people think I'm being too old-fashioned." He gestured at Tony. "There are naked pictures of you all over the internet! And no one seems to care."
"And you look at them?" Tony asked, perplexed.
"Well, they're just there! Reporters are always bringing it up. I can't avoid it!" Steve said hotly. He cleared his throat. "Anyway, I'm from the 40s but I was in the army. I'm not a complete prude. I'm not afraid of a little skin," he added. "Within reason."
"Mr. July isn't afraid of a little skin," Tony said in mock wonder.
"For the right cause? No," Steve replied, and Tony sucked in a breath because no ambiguity about it now; Steve really was looking at him. His shoulders were huge and strong and right there for the touching, and what Tony wanted most in the world right now was to see Steve naked with only his shield, and then to pull him down and fuck him against the shield, to pull every obscene noise he could out of that perfect throat. Steve's eyes were terrifyingly blue, especially when Tony realized just how close he was standing now, close enough that Tony could feel the height of his solid body; could almost lean back and align himself against those amazing thighs.
And then Steve said, hoarsely, "Thor's coming down the stairs."
"I can see that," Tony said, and moved aside.
"Hello Captain, I see you are mostly clothed today! Felicitations!" Thor said, while Steve smiled weakly back.
Thor continued. "I have called together this meeting of the Avengers because I have been considering our captain's recent dilemma with the foul miscreants known as the Pygmalion League," Thor said, unabashedly making eye contact with every single member of the team sitting around the sleek black table. "His plight has troubled me, and after discussion with my brother, I believe I know what I can do to help."
"First of all," Tony said, "I have to be the one to say: involving Loki with this? Not cool. How do we know he's not going to just step in and steal Steve all for himself?"
"Tony!" Steve said, scandalized.
"He is into you," Tony said. "When you have an alien god who's hot to trot for your ass, that is time to worry. That is time to start building fallout centres."
"Fallout centres would not protect you from him," Thor said. "And you are mistaken about his interest. My brother is... infelicitous with his attentions. He may have a shine in his eye for Steve as of late, but I assure you it will be like dust tomorrow."
"Well, that's just stupid," Tony said, sinking deeper into his chair, grouchy. Clint shot him a look. Steve seemed thoughtful.
"Let the man speak," Natasha said. "Thor says he might have a solution to the Pygmalions, I'm all for hearing it."
"Thank you," Thor said warmly. "My solution is simple. The Pygmalions have proven themselves fickle and easily distracted by naked flesh. Therefore..." He climbed out of his chair and started taking off his clothes; his shirt first, and then his faded jeans, and since Thor had never gotten into the habit of either socks or underwear, there was no momentary delay for undergarment disrobing. Soon enough Thor was standing stark naked in the middle of the meeting room, smiling at them all benevolently.
Steve massaged his forehead. "We can't all become nudists. Fury would throw us all out on our ears."
"I'm not proposing that we all partake in the nakedness of flesh," Thor said. "On the contrary! I believe that if the Pygmalions wish to see a member of our team naked, we shall have to convince them it is to be me. I am perfectly content with volunteering. I do not seem to share the same attitudes towards nudity as the rest of you do. It is no hardship for me. I rather enjoy the feel of sun and air on my skin when I fight my enemies."
"You might not mind, but Fury will," Clint told him. "You're going to have to deal with him sooner or late, you know."
"Excellent!" Thor said. "I have been longing for a deeper friendship with Colonel Fury." He looked at Steve, and then Tony, who was trying very hard to look back at Thor's face and not at any of his other considerable assets. Mr. January seemed to be leading the pack in many, many ways.
"I don't know if this is a good idea," Steve said. "Thor, the Pygmalions didn't seem to be interested in you before. From the calendar. I don't mean that to be rude! But I just want to point it out."
"I am told my charm increases in person," Thor said peaceably.
"Mmm," Tony said. "Ahhhh. Sure, why the hell not?"
"I was confident you would be my ally in this matter!" Thor said. "I have observed your discomfort with Steve's nakedness nearly equaling his own." While Tony made a face and tried to act nonchalant (and made a point to ignore Natasha), Thor made an executive decision. "We are agreed then?"
"I'm not sure I'm comfortable with you helping me like this," Steve said. "I don't want anybody to sacrifice anything for my sake--"
"Martyr," Clint muttered.
But Thor was shaking his head. "We are a team! We are a brotherhood! Er," he said, looking at Natasha. "A sisterhood. A brothersisterhood. I am afraid my tongue does not know the correct word. But what we are, we are. We protect each other. Tony, convince him."
"Me?" Tony exclaimed.
"Tony doesn't need to do anything," Steve said, resigned. "We'll give it one try. One try, and if it doesn't work, then it doesn't work. Do you understand?"
So this was Tony's life now. Where he once used to rule Stark Industries at his whim, that had become Pepper's job, and where he once used to drink and whore and attend lavish parties that ended with amnesia and sores in strange places, he now fought supervillains with his team, while Thor streaked around naked as a wild animal, laughing as he swung mighty Mjölnir, his hair a feral, beautiful mess that would make Tony's stylist sob into her Missoni scarf. "Yes, I am here!" he taunted the Pygmalions. "I am Thor, son of Odin! Do what you will with me, if you dare!" The Pygmalions turned their ray guns and their sharp knives on Thor, cautious and interested --
And Steve stayed remarkably, utterly clothed.
"I have never been so glad to be jilted for a better-looking man," Steve confessed to Tony in a moment of lull during the fight.
Tony stared at Steve blankly. "Thor is not better-looking than you are."
"Are you kidding me?" Steve said. "Look at the way they're going for him! It's amazing."
"We are not having this argument," Tony said. "Seriously."
The argument they did have came later, when Steve cornered Tony in his lab at an indeteminate hour and said, "We never did get to use the new yinegian alloy armour you designed, but I want to thank you. For helping me during all of this. I think," Steve tilted his head, "I think I would have probably gone out of my mind if it weren't for you."
Those were nice words, awfully sweet in that way Steve could be, and Tony just felt like being an asshole. Not exactly breaking news, but today was worse than most days. He could feel his inner asshole square himself, and then square himself once again. He didn't know what caused it, or maybe he did, and he just didn't want to examine it too closely. Examining was good for engineering and making sure mechanics ran smoothly. Tony, however, ran a hell of a lot more smoothly if he didn't have to stop for anything, anyone. "Great," he said. "Glad I could be of use. Not just a man in a tin can, after all, right?"
Steve flinched. "I didn't mean it," he said. Tony stared, and Steve shifted. "Okay, maybe I did, but that was when we first met. I didn't know you then, not really."
"There's still a lot you don't know," Tony said under his breath. He said, more loudly, "I'm kind of busy here. How about we do this later? You're thankful, blah blah, I'm thankful that you're thankful, let's all hold hands and skip through meadows, etcetera."
"Tony, what the hell is wrong with you?" Steve asked. "And I do know a lot about you. I know about your relationship with Howard. I know how you like to take your coffee, and how you love breakfast foods but you hate eating them at breakfast. I know that you think you might have an allergy to copper and that makes you angry. I know that you can play the piano even though you say you can't. I know that you loved Pepper, and you still love her but not the same way, and that you're lonely sometimes, but you won't admit to anything, not even if someone holds a gun to your head, which you're reckless enough to let happen."
"So?" Tony said.
"So stop trying to act like a stranger, because you're not!" Steve said. "You've seen me naked how many times now?"
"Pretty much anybody with a modem has seen you naked by now," Tony pointed out.
"But you helped me, even before Thor did. You brought spare clothes for me. I didn't even have to ask." Steve was turning a faint shade of red, but his voice was rough, husky along the edges of Tony's nerves.
"Your criteria for a deep, meaningful connection is someone bringing you clothes?" Tony shot back. "My laundry service brings me clothes. And that's basically what I do for you. I'm your fucking laundromat."
"What are you talking about?" Steve asked.
"Never mind," Tony said. "Like I said, you don't get it. I'm not going to waste my time trying to explain." He made to return to his work bench, but Steve grabbed him by the wrist and stopped him.
"I think you do need to explain," Steve said. "Because I've got no idea what's going through your head right now. I never do."
Tony could feel frustration pushing through his skin, spreading through his molecules, embedding itself into his nucleotides. He could live with this, he thought. He had lived with this. There was no reason to change anything with Steve now and gamble away what they had, which was good, which made Tony happy, and Tony was selfish enough to want anything that could make him happy -- there weren't too many items on that list left anymore. But Steve's fingers were holding his wrist so tightly, like he had forgotten Tony wasn't really a man of metal, and Tony thought that he really must have changed; must be a different person than he was all those years ago, because the Tony Stark then could have lied to Steve Rogers easily, lie and lie and smile.
"I don't want to be your laundromat," he said. "I don't want to be your maiden aunt."
"My what?" Steve asked.
"I'm as dirty as the rest of them!" Tony said. He swallowed hard. "Don't you get that by now? I don't want to be the guy who hands you your clothes and defends your virtue, like some knight in shining armour. I'm just as dirty as the Pygmalions, only I lie about it! I look at you, and I lie, and I can't help it, okay, it's a survival mechanism."
"Oh," said Steve, quietly, and Tony wanted nothing more than to free himself from Steve's fingers and go stand on top of a very tall cliff or something, but Steve wouldn't let go. Steve kept blinking and saying "oh" in increasingly breathy tones, until Tony wanted to tell him to shut up or just kiss him already.
"I thought -- well, I was embarrassed," Steve was saying. "You seemed to look down on the calendar. You called me a... you know what you called me, and I thought you didn't like it. You were weirded out by it, maybe."
"Yes," Tony said dryly. "Weirded out by my massive erections."
"Oh," Steve said again, pink. "That might be going a little too fast. I haven't even kissed you yet." He licked his lips. "Can I kiss you?"
"Yes," Tony said. "Fuck yes." And Steve was spinning him around so that they were face to face, and Steve's eyelashes were soft and surprisingly dark, dipping down gently when he looked at Tony's mouth, and then he kissed Tony, a sweet kiss that melted away the tightness in Tony's throat. Then Tony pushed into the kiss, turned it harder and deeper, and Steve made a sound like someone had just shoved his hand into an electrical socket, startled and a bit pained, gorgeously unprepared for a brief moment before he kissed back, giving as good as he got.
Tony buried his hands in Steve's hair, scrambling to get him closer, and Steve moaned in his mouth. "Tony," he said breathlessly, and fuck, that was an excellent look on him, tousled and wrecked on his merry way to being debauched.
"What, what?" Tony said. "Is this going too fast for you? Because you're going to have to tell me, soldier. You're going to have to give a command or something, or I'll--" He licked Steve's bottom lip, and Steve shuddered. Tony waited as Steve seemed to think, or attempt to think with Tony's tongue and teeth on his neck. Then Steve reached a decision and moved into action, pulling Tony by the wrist to the wall, and then pushing him against said wall.
"Good choice," Tony said, laughing, and Steve grinned at him, bright and stunning, a right-hook-pow sort of smile that made Tony's knees weak. But he didn't need to worry, because Steve's hands were on his hips, holding him up, and Steve was kissing him again, kissing him and kissing him and maybe he wasn't the best kisser in Tony's long and sordid history, but he was heartbreakingly enthusiastic, and Tony found that he'd never wanted anything as much as Steve with him, like this.
Steve's hands went around Tony's ass, and Tony yelped as Steve lifted him up bodily from the floor with his super strength, pinning Tony against the wall the moment he was able to. Tony's yelp turned into a moan, and he wrapped his legs around Steve's waist, arching against Steve only to feel Steve pushing back, hard and insistent.
"Tony," Steve was saying, "Tony, Tony, Tony," and it was going to be an inconvenience in the future, whimpering at the sound of his own name. "Tony, I think about you all the time," and Jesus Christ on a stick, that sort of blew Tony's brains out.
Tony didn't remember the last time he had sex against a wall, without even taking his clothes off, just desperate fumbling. He was pretty sure no one had ever held him up like this before, and that knowledge sparked through him, that this could be a first -- and he wanted to give that first to Steve. Steve who was holding him up so well, and who kissed him like there was an undead army in the next room, and they only had this one chance. Steve, when he made up his mind, wasn't shy at all. Steve knew what he wanted, and what he wanted, amazingly enough, was Tony.
Tony found the right angle where he was pushing his cock against Steve's, through the layers of their clothing. But the heat seeped through, and Tony could feel Steve against every shaky breath, every languid and not-so-languid thrust. "Fuck," Tony said, and Steve bit his ear and replied, "I'm trying", and Tony laughed again, weightless and heavy at the same time.
The pressure, the heat, the rhythm, Steve -- there had to be a breaking point eventually, and when Tony came, he made a sound he was sure could be heard from upstairs. Not that Steve was in any position to chastise him. Steve watched Tony come with a dark-eyed awe, and then he ground his cock against Tony once, twice, three times, before squeezing his eyes shut and shuddering, a silent orgasm, but with his mouth open and lush. Tony kissed him, licked his way inside, and Steve held him tightly.
"Do you know what's the most American thing I've ever done?" Tony panted.
"No?" Steve said.
"You. As of ten seconds ago."
Steve frowned, and Tony ran a finger over his mouth before licking it. "Plus, it figures," he said, looking down ruefully at their ruined pants. "We have sex, and I'm still your no-naked zone."
"We can change that," Steve said. "Like, right now."
"Yeah?" Tony asked.
"Yeah," Steve said, smiling and sweaty and pleased. This quickly became confusion as Tony went to his computer station and punched in a few keys. "What are you doing?" Steve asked, and then groaned when he saw the previously neutral desktop wallpaper morph into the July photoshoot. "You can't," he protested. "That's lewd. You have people from your company come to your lab sometimes. They'll all see it."
"Then I have one more thing to brag about at board meetings," Tony coaxed. "Come on. Didn't you say it was for a good cause? I told Pepper you'd do all sorts of lewd things for a good cause, like saving pandas."
"Oh, I see, if it's for the pandas," Steve said, rolling his eyes.
"Indeed," Tony said, kissing him again until Steve's eyes went half-mast. "I know it may be difficult and arduous, but I think you should do your civic duty and fuck my brains out." Steve shivered.
"I do like civic duty," Steve agreed, and pulled him slowly up the stairs, one by one, on their way to Tony's bedroom.