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As a child, Tony Stark spent a lot of time thinking about how cool it would be to meet Captain America. When it finally (improbably) happens, it doesn’t go at all like he’d imagined.

He’d pictured fewer insults, for one thing.

~*~

Young Tony had had all the swag—the Captain America comic books, the Captain America sheets. The toy shield and the plastic action figures and the itchy Halloween costume, and a massive crush that he didn't actually recognize as such until he was a lot older.

Present day Tony is with Pepper—very happily and faithfully with Pepper—and Steve Rogers is a self-righteous jerk. There’s no crush, no hero worship at all now, just aggravation and a sincere hope that Steve never finds out how much Tony idolized Captain America as a kid, dreamt of meeting him. Because Steve Rogers is nothing like Captain America.

~*~

Despite the rocky start (due mostly, but not completely, to the lack of warm fuzzies between Steve and Tony), the team clicks. Not immediately, and not perfectly, but it’s a lot better than Tony expected. They all survive the first mission, the second, the ninth. So they’re doing this, then.

Pepper, who was apparently totally serious when she resigned as his CEO, decides to "take some time off." It lasts about six minutes before she’s being pursued by eleven different organizations who would love to put her in charge. She also gets offered director positions on five different boards, a spot as the spokesperson for a new anti-anxiety medication (which Tony takes extremely personally), and a Playboy spread. In the end she accepts a job as the head of a non-profit that saves orphaned manatees.

"I can’t believe you picked this over Playboy," Tony says, looking at the manatee brochures while they drink a celebratory toast or five. "Did you at least get me a baby manatee?" She quirks her mouth at him and shakes her head. They're already most of the way through the champagne, and her hair is falling loose over her shoulders. "You never let me have anything," he complains, but she’s already unbuttoning her blouse, so that’s a lie.

They kind of move to New York, though some weeks that’s purely academic, given their schedules and the fact that there aren’t many manatees in the Hudson. Pepper won’t stay in the ridiculous bachelor pad at Stark Tower—and Tony does not blame her for this at all—until he replaces every mattress, couch cushion, and towel in the entire place, plus the rugs and the countertops and all the water in the pool, so he blows the dust off the Stark Mansion and they move in, temporarily at first. Then they offer Bruce one of the bedrooms, because he appears to have no friends and nothing but a tattered backpack and a beat up laptop, and Tony gets tired of watching him slouch around SHIELD headquarters like a hobo.

Tony can’t help it, he’s got the "I can improve this!" gene, so it’s only a few weeks before he decides they can totally live in the house permanently if he just changes or upgrades nearly every single thing about it. Within three months it’s gone from being the tomb of his miserable childhood to the most kickass superhero hangout mansion on the planet—screw Xavier and his Westchester bullshit—and one by one the other bedrooms fill up as everyone realizes Tony’s house is awesome.

Clint moves in first, though he just sort of comes over for the weekend and never leaves, but then Pepper says it’s okay, so Tony mentions it to Natasha and Thor. They must have already had their bags packed, because they show up the very next day.

The only one missing is Steve.

"What about Steve?" Pepper asks around her toothbrush one morning. Tony's just out of the shower, and he's naked and vulnerable and trapped in the bathroom with her. Sometimes he hates how smart she is.

"I don't know, what about Steve?" he asks, focusing intently on choosing a towel. Playing dumb never works, but he never stops using it as his default defensive maneuver anyway.

She gives him the side-eye. "Tony, you have to invite him."

He almost says, I don’t have to do anything, but then he remembers who he's talking to and doesn't bother.

"He’s perfectly welcome to move in if he wants," Tony states magnanimously, by which he means if Steve asks to move in Tony will say it’s fine, but Tony’s not going to go out of his way to bring it up. But Pepper hears what he means and not what he says, so she points her toothbrush at him and says, "You need to invite him."

He wraps a towel around his hips and reaches for his own toothbrush, meeting her eyes in the mirror as he squirts the toothpaste. "C’mon, do you really want him here? He’s like the boner killer of fun. And can you imagine what it’ll be like having him and Banner in the same house? I can't live with both the gloom and doom twins, Pepper. I can't."

Pepper waits until he works up a big mouthful of toothpaste foam before she responds (she’s so fucking smart). "You can’t invite everyone but him, Tony, he’s—"

"Yes, I can," Tony insists messily into the mirror. He looks like he has rabies. "It’s my house, he’s not invited—"

"—all alone over there, and he doesn’t know many people—" Pepper is saying, like his protests mean nothing.

"—and that’s it. Case closed." He rinses his mouth and puts away his toothbrush with pointed finality.

When he turns toward her, Pepper takes his face in her hands and kisses him on the mouth, minty, lingering just long enough to make him want another. She pulls back and looks him in the eye. "Tony," she says softly, "you guys are all he has."

"I’m not doing it, Pepper. No," he says, and he means it.

~*~

"But I have an apartment," Steve protests, while sitting in his sad little room at SHIELD, with the uplifting all-gray color palette and a bed that looks like a discard from Sing Sing.

Pepper was right (again), Tony realizes. He can’t leave Steve in this bland, awful place while they’re all over on Fifth Avenue living in what is basically the world’s best frat house. He feels kind of bad for even thinking about excluding him.

"First of all," Tony says, because he can’t let this point go unacknowledged, "if you have an apartment, why aren’t you there right now? Look at this, this room is destroying my will to live. Just hurry up and say yes, because I don’t have any Prozac on me." He takes out his phone. "I need to call Pepper and have her talk me down from the ledge."

"It’s not that bad," Steve says stiffly. "I’ve slept in worse."

"But you don’t have to now," Tony points out. "That’s the entire point of this conversation."

"I really don’t need—" Steve starts, but Tony cuts him off.

"Seriously," he says, and he is serious, which hardly ever happens. "Everyone else is there. You should be there."

Steve sighs, more heavily than a guy who's just been asked to move into the greatest house in New York should. He looks like he’s going to say no again.

"Keep your apartment," Tony tells him. "Go there as much as you want. We’re not asking you to join a cult."

When he still hesitates, Tony wiggles his phone at him and brings out the big guns: "Don’t make me call Natasha."

"Okay," Steve says. "I’ll move in."

~*~

"You owe me, like, thirty blowjobs," Tony says to Pepper as soon as he can get her on the phone. “That was the most depressing thing I’ve ever seen. He didn’t even have a window. And I still had to persuade him, which was almost beyond my ability to do at that point, because I was about ten minutes away from ending it all. Seriously, Pep, it was like that swamp that kills the horse in The NeverEnding Story.”

By which he means, "You were right and I’m glad I did it," but it’s Pepper, so she hears it anyway.

~*~

It should be a disaster, so many big personalities in a house full of weapons and superpowers, and it would be a lie to say things don’t get tense sometimes, but overall it turns out to be oddly enjoyable.

Clint is a sarcastic smartass, but that’s a personality quirk near and dear to Tony’s heart, so it’s no big deal. Plus he loves to bake cookies—real cookies, not the kind that come in a tube at the grocery store—and that makes up for a lot. His preternatural powers of accuracy must somehow extend to baking, because he never seems to use any kind of measuring utensil, yet each batch turns out perfectly, and each cookie is precisely the same size. The house smells really good all the time.

Natasha is just as stoic and scary when she's walking around the kitchen in yoga pants as she is when she's jabbing Tony in the neck with a needle. She spends about ten hours a day attempting to become even deadlier than she already is, and enjoys ambushing Steve and Thor at random opportunities, sending them grunting face-first into the carpet. Tony thinks it’s kind of cool, like living in a video game. Happy doesn’t find it funny at all.

When Natasha meets Sif and the Warriors Three, it’s the closest thing Tony’s seen to love at first sight in his entire life. They have long conversations about weapons, demonstrate numerous painful fighting moves on each other, and compare battle scars and kill counts with an unsettling level of cheerfulness. He half expects Natasha to quit the Avengers and move to Asgard so the five of them can live happily ever after in polyamory. Strong, sweaty, sexy-yet-terrifying polyamory.

After a while Tony figures out Clint and Natasha used to be a couple, which in Tony's eyes makes Clint the bravest guy in the house, maybe the country.

Thor is, without exception, the happiest and most upbeat guy Tony has ever met in his entire life, but then he has about a hundred and six reasons to be, starting with the fact that he has amazing abs and never seems to do a single sit-up. He's kind of arrogant, but not without basis, and it's not like Tony can throw any stones in that direction.

He’s basically the house cruise director, and no one can resist him when he gets it into his head to have fun, which is pretty much constantly; he never seems to run out of things he wants to do, occasions he wants to celebrate, and drinking records he wants to break. Thor is also an all-around nice guy. He’s often uncomfortably truthful, but he sometimes—Tony is pretty sure of this—expresses confusion over things he already understands so that Steve won’t have to be the one yet again asking for an explanation.

Bruce works even more than Tony does, and does a lot of meditating and other boring crap when he's not. He tends to be quiet, and everyone is in full, unspoken agreement that they will do whatever it takes to help him maintain his Zen. The first time he accidentally Hulks out in the house is a bit of a pants-shitter, but only a couple things get broken. The good news is they inadvertently discover that an hour or two in front of the TV will keep him quiet until he reverts. The bad news is that Hulk's TV preferences run toward cartoons and cooking shows, with the unfortunate side effect that Steve, who doesn't mind sitting with him just to keep an eye out, develops a liking for Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Clint takes about six hundred pictures of Steve and Hulk in front of the TV. "I can’t believe you’re watching this," he says, angling his phone just right, careful to make sure Dora is clearly visible on the television in each shot.

Steve just shrugs. "It's not that bad. All the people on the shows you guys watch are so awful to each other. Plus, you can learn Spanish."

"Me gusta!" Hulk says.

After that, Tony tries to introduce Steve to The Simpsons, but it’s a spectacular failure, because most of the jokes and cultural references go right over his head.

Tony's dire predictions regarding Steve don't really come true. The angry, confrontational Steve of those first days is long gone, and he does seem to be a little less mopey since Tony (Pepper) got him out of that room at SHIELD.

He still has a tendency to spend too much time Eeyoring around the house when they aren’t working, but when he puts on the uniform and they walk out the door, he is on. He’s on point, on target, on message, 100% of the time. He's completely confident of his place in the world as Captain America, and almost absurdly heroic, like he's been brought to life straight out of one of Tony's comic books. But put him in his civvies and give him some free time and he tends to look a little lost.

"Coulson doesn't actually live here, right?" Tony asks Clint one night. He's honestly getting a little worried, because the guy's here an awful lot, and that's where Tony draws the line. Superheroes: yes. Sadistic automatons: no. "Have we checked the crawl spaces, made sure he's not living under the stairs, sneaking into the kitchen at night and stealing our food?"

"More likely the basement," Clint says. "I'm pretty sure he hangs upside down when he sleeps." Which is not funny at all, because for all Tony knows, that might actually be true. He lives in a house with an immortal party planner and a twenty-six-year-old guy who was born in 1917. Anything is possible.

Still, it’s clear that getting them all under the same roof was a good call. They feel like something more than a team now, and it makes the load a little more bearable, being together, even when they get their asses handed to them. They fight hard, get banged up, fight hard some more. Sometimes they’re so tired and battered all they can do is collapse on the big, squishy (steel-reinforced, after the second time Tony has to replace them) sofas in the TV room and hope Jarvis notices and orders fifteen pizzas for them.

Those are actually some of Tony's favorite times.

~*~

Tony’s birthday party that year is the first attended entirely by people he considers his friends (and not a single stripper). All the Avengers are there, plus Jane and Selvig, and Tony sees Betty standing next to a slightly less morose looking Bruce.

Happy spends a futile hour or so hitting on Darcy, while Rhodey and his deathwish are on the couch trying to talk to Natasha. Coulson arrives exactly on time, drinks precisely two drinks, and leaves without ever having cracked a smile, though Tony swears his tie looks looser by at least half an inch. Fury shows up with his wife or his girlfriend or his latest beautiful-woman-he's-training-to-be-a-cold-hearted-assassin; Tony's not sure which and he's definitely not going to ask.

It’s really good to see Rhodey, who he doesn’t talk to nearly often enough. The Stark Industries liaison job Rhodey held is no more, and he doesn't need it anyway, because he still has Tony's suit. Tony isn't sure exactly what he does with it, but he knows the government has him off doing something from time to time. He tries at every opportunity to get Rhodey to at least give him a hint, and it never works.

They manage to sneak down to the shop when no one’s looking, and for a few minutes it's like it used to be, Tony showing him what he's working on at the moment, bouncing ideas off him. The big news is the self-repair nanotechnology for the suits that Tony’s been tinkering with, and Rhodey is suitably impressed and enthusiastic. Too soon, Jarvis informs them they're wanted back at the party, so they dutifully clump back up the stairs just in time for everyone to sing "Happy Birthday."

Thor ordered the cake, so it’s enough to feed two hundred people and has a working volcano on the top, which may have just been the result of crossed wires regarding birthday candles, Tony’s not sure. Pepper takes over the cutting after the first few pieces Thor hands out are the size of bricks.

Sif and the Warriors Three arrive, and immediately and systematically begin to put all of Tony’s partying days to complete and total shame. They drink like fish, toss each other around the room, and burst into rousing song at the slightest prompting. They're way more entertaining than strippers. Even Steve is watching them and smiling.

The four of them, plus Thor and Clint and Selvig and Darcy, are hoisting their drinks in the air and proclaiming their love for a good draught of ale and a good fight when Tony has a brilliant idea, and says, "Jarvis, I think it’s time these guys heard 'Tubthumping,'" and twenty seconds later the Asgardians lose their fucking minds.

Thor comes up behind him and lifts him off his feet. "Tony Stark!" he booms. He sets him back down, spins him around, and clutches him to his extremely broad chest for a second before he suddenly lets go and Tony almost falls down.

"Who is the warrior immortalized in this song?" Thor demands to know. "The one who gets knocked down repeatedly, yet cannot be kept down? We must hear of his resilience again!"

So Tony puts the song on repeat, slings an arm around Pepper, and sits back to watch the show as the Asgardians—and a few people who are definitely not Asgardians—stomp their feet and shout along, fists and beer mugs pumping in the air. Darcy almost gives Hogun a black eye with her elbow. Tony thinks he sees Volstagg weeping into his beard.

~*~

Some more time passes, and Tony still loves being an Avenger, and he still loves being Pepper Potts' boyfriend, and he still loves being Tony Stark, so his life is pretty awesome. He almost dies a few times, but he hardly notices, he's so busy being happy.

Pepper notices, though. One night, they have a talk about risks, about costs. About how much bigger this whole thing is now, about how much she hates to see the scrapes and bruises and the comas (for the record: there was only one coma, singular, and it was super short), and about how Iron Man is taking on a life of his own since Tony became an Avenger.

They’ve been through this before, back in the beginning. Back then she threatened to quit, but they worked it out, so Tony isn’t too worried. They just need to hash it out.

Tony's actually pretty proud of the resulting conversation. He doesn't get defensive, he doesn't try to shut her down, he doesn't turn on some loud music or try to hustle her into bed to avoid the issue. He's supportive and reassuring and suggests ways to compromise, ways they can both be happy with him being Iron Man. They have a calm, productive, rational talk about it—the first such talk of his entire life, actually--and he walks away feeling pretty good, because he doesn't figure out until after she leaves him that it was a warning.

~*~

They break up and it's horrible.

It seems to both drag on forever and happen out of nowhere. Tony notices something is off and thinks (hopes) maybe she's just stressed or tired or--God, this is painful to remember later--pregnant. She gives him no satisfactory answers to his inquiries, so he tries to be around more, tries to pay attention more. He buys her a nine hundred dollar pair of shoes, he takes her to the ballet (something she loves and he hates). Nothing helps. Finally, he cancels everything for an entire weekend and flies down to Florida to see her, desperate to fix whatever is wrong.

But it's already too late, and like a slow-motion collision he's powerless to stop, it ends.

They walk into a hotel in Miami a couple, and they leave as two separate people. Tony’s always hated Miami.

The aftermath is unbelievably painful. Tony had had no idea he could feel this bad, like he's a raw wound on two legs, and for every inch he heals there's something else to tear him open again, slice right down to bone. A pair of earrings in the pocket of his tuxedo jacket, where he stashed them for safety so she could put her head on his shoulder and fall asleep in the limo on the way home. A voicemail he never deleted, the first time she ever ended a message with "I love you." A velvet box nestled in a drawer full of spare arc reactors, holding a ring he'll never give to anyone.

He doesn't mention the break-up to his teammates right away, because it isn't any of their business and also he can't seem to bring himself to say it out loud. For a while no one, Avenger or otherwise, seems to notice. Happy must know, but he doesn’t say a word. Tony assumes Rhodey knows, too, because he and Pepper are friends, so he avoids his calls.

Weeks go by, then a few more weeks, then almost three whole months, and Tony starts to think he might get away with it forever ("Who, Pepper? Oh, you just missed her. Again."), and then some paparazzi jerkwad snaps a picture of Pepper outside a coffee place in L.A. with, no shit, Ryan Reynolds—who, it turns out, is really concerned about orphaned manatees—kissing her on the cheek, holding her hand, and that’s how the entire fucking world learns Tony couldn't make it work with Pepper, the person who knew him better than anyone and still loved him anyway.

Once the word gets out, there’s no point in pretending he’s fine anymore, because he isn’t. He's a trainwreck, and it feels good to finally stop hiding it. He's a jerk to everyone who crosses his path, and it's not fair to them, but he can't stop. It's like all the parts of him that wanted to be heroic and kind a year ago have now turned small and ugly and mean. His behavior wears on the whole team, and pretty soon even Thor, usually so unflappably cheerful, is giving him a wide berth. The stress slowly starts to show in a dozen different ways until Tony expects to be called into Fury's office any day, and told to get his act together before he tantrums the Avengers right out of existence.

He drunk calls Rhodey once or twice a week, and Rhodey, God bless him, answers his phone every time.

Everyone who actually lives with him avoids him when they aren’t working, because he's a dickhead and they're all sick of him, which is fine, because Tony's pretty sick of the way no one will call him on his shit. It turns out careening headfirst off the rails of your life isn’t as fun when no one cares that you’re doing it.

He almost calls Pepper fifty times, a hundred times, on the off-chance she might still be interested in telling him to stop being an asshole. He has Jarvis lock down her phone number so he can’t call her, and takes refuge in his workshop. This goes on for quite a while.

It’s Steve who first ventures into the shop, buried three stories beneath the house, and Jarvis, the traitorous bastard, lets him in. Steve looks around for a minute—he’s never been down here—and takes in Tony’s appearance with a small wrinkle of disapproval between his eyebrows. Tony knows what he looks like: unshaven, unshowered, clothes wrinkled and covered with grease and scorch marks, and he doesn’t care, he does not care. He’s about to tell Steve that he knows Fury sent him to talk some sense into him and he appreciates the thought but he could do without the lecture and—

"My phone stopped working," Steve says, holding up his Stark smartphone.

Completely thrown by this turn of events, Tony can’t even call up the words to tell him to go ask someone else for help. "Well, hand it over," he says finally. "You’re about to get the costliest tech support of your life."

Turns out it’s just hung, so he plugs it in and has Jarvis reboot and scan it, and the culprit is determined to be a game called Cupcake Avalanche, the point of which appears to be steering a fat pink pig to devour dozens of screaming cupcakes as they roll down a hill, waving their tiny arms and spraying sprinkles everywhere.

Steve looks embarrassed. "Clint put that on there," he says.

"Hey, what you do with your phone is your business," Tony shrugs, and writes a couple quick lines of code so the error won’t happen again, and also upgrades the operating system while he’s in there, and puts a lightsaber app on it, because Steve has seen and loved all the Star Wars movies (loved all six of them, which Tony forgives him for, because he was frozen for seventy years, his brain isn’t right). Steve seems pleased with the results, and delighted with the lightsaber sound effects. He thanks Tony and disappears back upstairs, swinging his phone in big, Jedi-worthy arcs.

Tony turns away and pretends to not watch Steve leave while actually watching him on the security feed the whole time. He remembers Pepper convincing him to include Steve (Tony never did get his thirty blowjobs, or at least thirty additional blowjobs, anyway) and he remembers how angry Steve was in those first days of the Avengers, and then later how sad. He seems to be coming out of it little by little, doesn’t look quite so gloomy when he thinks no one is watching him (Jarvis is always watching everyone).

Tony, deep in his own misery, thinks he wasn't very understanding back then, because now he’s getting a small taste of what Steve is going through, and he can barely stand it. It’s not like Tony’s life and everyone in it was completely taken from him, he still has almost everything he wants, except Pepper. He still has Happy and Rhodey, two constants in his life for what feels like forever. There is literally no one in Steve’s life who has known him for longer than eighteen months.

He thinks about how Steve must feel, what it’s been like for him to carry around so much grief, and he feels like a piece of shit for ever being aggravated with him.

~*~

Steve's back the next week with his iPod—Steve has an iPod?--and a couple days after that with a USB drive full of photos someone gave him that he can’t seem to get into, each time asking for little favors, nothing complicated. They’re actually all things Jarvis could do, but Tony doesn’t tell Steve that.

Tony does decide he should remember to shower every day, if he’s going to have Steve hovering around him all the time, doing a terrible job of pretending Tony doesn’t smell like burnt filament and booze sweat.

The next time Steve visits Tony (who remembered to shower that day), he’s hefting a big blue hunk of plastic across his shoulders, and Tony must be hallucinating because--

"Is that a Slam Man?" Tony asks, walking a slow circle around it. "Didn't they stop making these in the 1990s?" Steve gives him a look that says he's asking the wrong person. "Right, you were. Busy. Being frozen. So why did you bring this horrifying piece of cheap crap into my shop?"

Steve, who is clearly excited about his cheap crap, isn't fazed at all by Tony's criticism. "It's a boxing dummy, with lights!" he says. Tony can’t remember the last time Steve looked this excited about something. "And you can program it for your workout. It's almost a robot, right? And you build great robots." Steve gestures toward Dummy, who chirps at him and spins his end effectors, the flirt. Tony thinks Steve actually blushes. "So...can you build something like this? But better?"

Tony's already got the back open and is looking at the sub-par wiring, the absolute disgrace of a soldering job. "Captain Rogers, if I can't do better than this, I'll have no choice but to kill myself. Jarvis, I'm gonna need you to order a few things for me. What were they thinking, this is one step above vacuum tubes, I can barely look at this, it's so painful."

And that’s the start of something, right there. Because Steve talks about Tony’s father all the fucking time—okay, three times—and he acts like Howard Stark was the goddamn patron saint of Captain Americas everywhere. He’s full of wide-eyed wonder at how smart Howard was and how he built all kinds of amazing things and helped Steve out when he needed to save Bucky and blah blah blah someone pass the bourbon before Tony’s head explodes. And isn't it just great that Steve thinks Howard Stark was an all-around wonderful guy? Because Tony sure never knew that guy.

But now—now it’s Tony’s turn. He takes all the energy he’s been using to miss Pepper and alienate everyone he knows, and he channels it into making Howard Stark look like a goddamn amateur.

He builds Steve a fucking amazing boxing robot that jabs and weaves, and even learns Steve’s fighting style and uses it against him. In a nod to Slam Man, he puts some blinky lights on it, and a program that tracks how many punches Steve lands and either praises him or trash talks him accordingly.

Steve names it Sugar Ray, and when Tony hears that he says, "Sugar Ray Leonard! Great fighter!" and Steve says, "Um, Sugar Ray Robinson, actually," and Tony says, "Yes, right, of course."

Steve develops what Tony thinks is a bit of an unhealthy attachment to his new robot BFF, and is heartbroken when Sugar Ray finally meets his match in the form of Mjolnir. Thor is uncharacteristically meek when he brings the pieces to Tony with a plea to “please resurrect our mighty sparring companion, for the Captain’s sorrow weighs heavy on my heart.”

And thus Sugar Ray 2.0 is born, and he’s even faster and more of a smart-ass than the first version. Three minutes into the first test run, Sugar Ray catches Steve with an uppercut and launches him across the gym, where he lands on and destroys the elliptical trainer no one uses. Steve bounces to his feet, grinning, and says, "He’s perfect!"

~*~

Tony’s on his way to California (where he used to live with Pepper, he can't help but recall every fifteen minutes or so) for a short, boring business trip when he sees the news story about the auction, described as a "treasure trove" of sports memorabilia, and there's one item that catches his interest. He makes a phone call, and it's delivered to the house in Malibu two days later, which gives Tony something to think about other than how much he hates the house in Malibu now.

He calls Steve as soon as he lands in New York. As the phone rings, Tony amuses himself by picturing Steve pausing Cupcake Avalanche in order to take the call.

"Hello?" Steve says, sounding a little puzzled. That's weird.

"Hey, it's me, I just got back from California. What are you doing?"

After what feels like an overly long pause, Steve says, "Tony?"

"Yes, it's Tony," Tony says, slightly annoyed. "Don't you know about caller ID?"

"Ah, your name didn't come up. Sorry."

It takes Tony only a few seconds to put it all together. "Did Clint help you set up your contacts?"

There's yet another long pause that says it all. "Yes," Steve finally says, with all the reluctance of someone who knows he's dropping the dime on a buddy. "But I'll change it."

"What'd he put in there for me? What comes up when I call you?" And has he really never called Steve before? In all this time?

"It's not important," Steve says hastily.

Tony knows Clint well enough by now to make a couple educated guesses. "Is it a picture of Donald Trump? Richie Rich?"

"I don't know who it is," Steve admits. "I just know it's not you."

Tony decides to let it slide. It's not like he won't have a chance to find out later. "Fine," he says. "Anyway, I'm hungry. You want to get something to eat?" This is a sure bet, because Steve's pretty much always hungry.

"Um, sure," Steve says, but there's no missing that he's a little bewildered by the invite. It probably is a little weird. Tony doesn't think he and Steve have ever just hung out before, the two of them, other than when they happen to be in the same room at the house.

"Great. Where are you?" Tony asks, mind already ticking through dinner options. If Steve’s over at SHIELD there’s a great steak place, but if he’s at home there’s that tapas restaurant…

Steve says, "I'm at home."

Tapas it is. "Okay, I should be there in a few minutes." He's just about to get into the helicopter. "Tell Clint I want to talk to him."

"No, I meant—I'm in Brooklyn," Steve says.

For a second Tony is aggravated and, okay, yes, maybe a little hurt that Steve doesn't consider the house he lives in with Tony to be "home." Not everyone lives there full-time. Thor is sometimes at Jane's and sometimes off the planet entirely. Bruce and Betty seem to be sticking this time, so he's not around as much, either. Tony chooses not to contemplate what Natasha does when she's away. And yet...this bugs him.

Plus, there's little chance there's a helipad on the roof of Steve's building. Tony'll have to drive over.

"Okay, so, what's your address?" he asks, trying not to sigh. He'll deal with Clint later.

The building is on a nice block, a sturdy old brownstone that looks like it was last updated sometime in the 1960s and so probably seems freakishly modern to Steve. He has to climb the stairs all the way to the fourth floor.

Steve answers the door almost before Tony can finish knocking, looking like he just took a shower. He's dressed in scrupulously pressed khaki pants and a button-down shirt, and his hair is wet and combed perfectly. Tony is inexplicably glad to see him.

"Hi," Steve says, and then stands there for a second like he’s not sure what to do.

Tony doesn’t even try to play it cool. He bounces on his toes and then pulls his hand out from behind him back, presenting the little Plexiglas box with a flourish. "I got you something."

"For me?" Steve reaches for it with a bit of—reluctance? That can't be right. He frowns at it for a second, and then his eyebrows reach for his hairline. "Is this--"

"Yep," Tony says gleefully. "A genuine 1940 Brooklyn Dodgers ball, signed by a bunch of the Dodgers, even the crappy ones." It's yellowed and scuffed, probably was an actual game ball.

Steve's surprised, for sure. But not....happy surprised. "I saw this on the news," he says. "You bought this? Tony, this cost a lot of money." He stares at it in dismay.

Tony feels his short-lived and very expensively-purchased good mood start to deflate. "What's wrong?"

"I can’t accept this," Steve says, and tries to hand it back to him.

Tony doesn't take it. "Are you giving me back my gift?" He's absolutely astounded. This has never happened to him before. He pushes it away, back toward Steve.

"Yes, I am. Thank you, but I don’t want it." Steve tries to make him take it again. He looks almost angry. Tony pushes his hand away again, a little more firmly this time.

"Okay, what's the problem here? I bought you something I thought you'd like." Tony had actually thought it was a completely brilliant idea. Steve has talked about the Brooklyn Dodgers often enough for even Tony to pick up on it. And the ball is a big deal—he had to outbid two other rich guys to get it.

"It's too expensive," Steve says flatly. "I can’t accept it."

"And I have a lot of money, so it doesn't matter. I bought it for you because I wanted you to have it. Just take it." Tony can't believe they're arguing about this.

Steve shoves the box up against Tony's chest, where it clacks against the arc reactor through his shirt, and then lets go of it. Tony has no choice but to catch it before it hits the floor.

"You can't buy friendship, Tony," Steve says.

The words are like a slap, and Tony can't help the way he jerks back a little. "That’s an interesting interpretation of a base—"

"It's not just a baseball," Steve cuts in. "You think you can buy people with expensive presents, that you can be a jerk and then make up for it later by spending money, and I guess in a lot of cases that might be true. But not this time."

Tony is rarely genuinely insulted, because most of the accusations people hurl at him are completely true, but he is offended down to the very depths of being right now. Maybe he has been a jerk, but Steve was a jerk, too, in the beginning. More than once.

"Here's some news for you, Rogers. If I were trying to buy your friendship, I'd say the seven million dollars in boxing robot technology I've built in the last few months means you're mine—signed, sealed and delivered. This," he says, holding up the box, "is nothing. So don't get your red, white and blue panties in a twist about a goddamn baseball."

Steve's jaw drops. Literally drops open. Then it snaps into an angry scowl and he shuts the door in Tony's face.

Tony stands there for a second, utterly stunned by how quickly things went bad, and just how bad they went.

He walks the length of the hallway, which ends at someone else’s apartment door, and then walks back. This is not what he wanted. He’s had a couple of pretty intolerably depressing days in California, all by himself in a house that’s haunted by the ghost of his relationship with Pepper. This was supposed to make him feel better. He’s pretty pissed it hasn’t.

Fuming, he paces the hall a few more times, the corner of the box digging into the palm of his clenched fist. But he's never been the type to stay mad, and he doesn't think he can stand working with angry Steve again (he hated that guy), and after a couple more back-and-forths his mind automatically goes into problem solving mode.

He takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders, and knocks on the door. There is no answer. "Steve?" He knocks on the door again. "Steve, can you open the door so we can talk?"

Steve doesn't even come to the door, just shouts, "GO AWAY," from somewhere in the apartment.

Tony pulls out his phone and punches up Steve's cell number. Inside the apartment, he hears Steve’s phone go off. The ringtone assigned to Tony’s number is "Big Spender," which is the last thing either of them needs to hear right now. That fucking Barton. Tony’s going to--

"AND DON’T CALL ME," Steve yells.

The phone continues to ring, and Tony continues to talk to Steve through the door.

"Steve, come on. We got off on the wrong foot, but—" in his ear, Steve’s voicemail greeting starts droning away, politely informing him that Steve Rogers is not available (a blatant lie) but sure is disappointed he’s missed Tony’s call (another blatant lie: he is avoiding Tony’s call) "--if you can let me in, let’s just start over okay? Let’s just—"

He hears the beep and switches to talking into the phone. "Okay, come and open the door and let me at least explain or justify my stupidity or dust all your vinyl records in apology or whatever. Because I’m really hungry and would like to get dinner and we have a reservation. Call me back or, or open the door, or…call me back."

Tony hangs up and stares at the door. Nothing happens. He calls again, and this time it goes right to voicemail, and he never hears a single note of “Big Spender.” Steve has shut off his phone. The phone Tony gave him, with Tony's last name emblazoned on the logo. He won't talk to Tony on Tony's own phone.

Fine. He’ll just leave another message. He waits out the irritating greeting again (Lies! All lies!) and this time goes with, "I’m really sorry. Please let me in?"

He hangs up and stands there staring at the carpet for a second. Should he try again? Yes, he decides, because he’s stubborn and it’s not like he has anything better to do. Just as the voicemail picks up, he hears a noise behind him and turns around, phone still pressed to his ear. The door across the hall is open a crack, a little old lady peering cautiously at him through the opening. Her short hair is brilliantly white, and she's wearing a quilted housecoat of the style Tony hasn't seen since sometime in the 1970s.

"Hi, how are you? Tony Stark," he says, as Steve lies like a rug in his ear. He holds out his hand.

She reaches out into the hallway and shakes it. Her hand is like a little bird claw. "Miriam Greenwalt," the old lady says.

"Nice to meet you, sorry for the, uh, disturbance. I'm just trying to call your neighbor, Steve. You know him?" Miriam noticeably brightens at the mention of Steve’s name and opens her door a little wider. Prompted by the beep, Tony says, into the phone, "Steve, Miriam and I are out here and we want to talk to you." Then he hangs up.

Miriam’s nodding at him. "I know Steve. He’s a very nice boy. He's gone a lot of the time, he travels for business," she says, a massive understatement.

"Uh, yeah, we both do, actually," Tony tells her as he calls Steve’s phone again. "So tell me, Miriam: is he always this unreasonable?"

Miriam looks, Tony thinks, slightly indignant on Steve's behalf. "No, not at all. He’s very sweet and polite. He carries my trash out for me, and sometimes we watch movies together. He loves old movies."

And that is when Tony realizes this woman is Steve’s contemporary and that kind of blows his mind. They probably hang out and reminisce about pushing a hoop down the street with a stick, and how much they love wool mittens and penny candy. Jesus Christ, what is Tony doing here?

Steve’s voicemail beeps again, but this time Tony ends the call instead of leaving a message. "Okay, this isn’t working," he says, because sometimes stating the obvious helps.

"Maybe he isn’t home," Miriam suggests.

"Oh, he’s home," Tony mutters. "He’s home. He just won't answer." He rubs his hand over his face. "God, I need a drink."

"Oh, well," she says, smiling at him. Her eyes are bright blue and just a little, Tony thinks, mischievous. "You’re in the right place, dear."

~*~

"I don't get what the big deal is," Tony slurs, splashing more of Miriam’s homemade hooch into a Ronald McDonald glass, "I like to spend my money on other people. Does that make me a bad person?"

"Of course not," Miriam says, and pats his arm.

"See! I knew it!" Tony barks, and slams his hand down on the table. "He's so full of shit."

He takes a swig from his glass and waits for the burn to pass before he picks up the ballpoint pen next to his arm—A pen! How quaint! Old people are so hilarious!—and goes back to sketching out a couple small improvements for Miriam’s still. Not many, though, because it really is a work of art, he has to give her that.

"Though it depends on what you expect in return, I suppose," Miriam says, and takes a not-so-delicate sip from her own glass. She’s been pacing him drink for drink, but still looks like she could pass a field sobriety test with flying colors. Tony, on the other hand, is fucking hammered. He has to lean his head on his free hand just to keep it halfway upright.

"Well, sometimes I just want sex," he admits. He’s been here a couple hours and already knows first-hand very little is going to shock Miriam. "But sometimes I want to help someone, or make them happy." And then, because that makes him sound a little nicer than he actually is, he adds, "Or piss someone else off."

Miriam holds out her glass for a refill, which Tony happily and somewhat unsteadily provides. "I think it's very sweet of you to buy things for your friends," she tells him. "But if he doesn’t want you to spend money on him, you can't make him accept your presents. You'll have to figure out what he wants instead."

He points the bottle at her. "That," he says, "is a very excellent idea." Then his elbow slips and he almost bashes his face on the table.

"The poor thing works so much," Mabel says. "I think he would appreciate just staying home for once. My husband was always rushing from a meeting to the airport and then to another meeting. I’m sure Steve gets tired of that, don’t you think?"

"Mmm," Tony says noncommittally. It's become increasingly clear over the last few hours that Miriam has absolutely no idea who Steve is, or Tony either. He finds it sort of refreshing. He can't remember the last time he had a conversation with someone who didn't have any expectations or pre-conceived notions of him.

"I imagine he would like to just stay home and have dinner sometimes," she suggests. "I’m sure he gets tired of eating in restaurants all the time. My husband always said the best meals were the ones we ate at home together."

"I bet they were, Miriam," Tony says, and he’s not being sarcastic at all.

She holds out her glass again. "Now step to it, you’re falling behind," and he says, "Yes, ma’am," and reaches for the bottle again.

~*~

"I think I need to go," Tony says, after a few minutes during which he may or may not have dozed off face-down on Miriam's table. "I can't drink any more," he admits, which is possibly something he's never said before in his life—he's never met the bottom of a bottle he didn't like. But he’s already starting to get a headache, that’s how powerful this shit is, it comes with the hangover pre-loaded. He really has to leave now.

Getting his arms into his suit coat proves to be beyond him, and his cuffs are flopping around and getting in the way, so he abandons that idea and shoves it under his arm instead. He manages to fish his tie, still knotted in a loop, out from under the kitchen table, and drop it down over his head. Good enough.

He drains his glass on the way to the door, and he only walks so slow out of courtesy, because Miriam uses a walker. It's not at all because the floor suddenly seems very uneven. He promises to visit her again, and makes her promise to set some of her deadly booze aside for him.

At the door he hands her his empty glass and takes her by the shoulders. He practically has to bend down to do it.

"Miriam," he says, with absolute sincerity, "you’re a treasure. You should be in jail for that stuff you’re brewing in your closet, but luckily I happen to be a big supporter of entrepreneurship, and you, my dear, are a true entrepreneur." He gives her a loud, smacking kiss on the cheek and stumbles out into the hall.

Steve’s door is still right there, still irritatingly closed.

He manages to shuffle over and prop himself against the wall with one arm while he knocks with the other. Nothing. He tries to get his phone out, but can’t quite remember where it is, and all the movement makes him a little unsteady, so he rolls across the door and slides down onto his butt. God, his head hurts.

He reaches up and tries the doorknob—why didn’t he think of that before?—but it’s locked. He resorts to pathetically flapping his knuckles against the door, because it seems like too much trouble to knock.

"Steve? Steve, I’m sorry, okay? I’m just—I’m an idiot who doesn’t know any better and I screwed up and your neighbor tried to kill me with bathtub gin and—"

The door opens behind him, and he falls backwards into Steve’s apartment. The back of his already aching head hits the floor with a painful thud. "Ugh. Ow."

"What the heck?" Steve says, which is, hands down, the closest thing to a swear word Tony has ever heard him say.

Tony rolls his eyes upward until he starts to feel the strain in his eyeball ligaments or whatever keeps your eyeballs from just falling out of your head, until he can see Steve, who is standing over him, looking upside down and surprised to see him.

Tony can't help it. His mouth insists on grinning up at Steve, even though Steve is really bad at accepting presents. Even completely awesome, enormously thoughtful presents.

"What are you doing here?" Steve asks. Then the fumes must hit him, because his nostrils flare and the disapproval wrinkle Tony knows so well makes another appearance. "Are you drunk?"

"It’s all their fault!" Tony protests, pointing across the hall. Or up at the ceiling or—his orientation is a little off at the moment. "Granny Moonshine and Ronald McDonald. Why are you covering your face? Are you crying? Don't cry—okay, stop laughing, this is not funny, I’m seriously about to die of alcohol poisoning--"

"Shhh. Get in here before you wake up the whole building," Steve says, and grabs him under the armpits and hauls him to his feet, where Tony sways a little and somehow his face finds its way right into the crook of Steve’s neck, which is a warm, welcoming place, but Steve doesn’t let him stay there. He hustles him into his apartment—which is dark, he must have been asleep—and practically flings him onto the couch, where Tony slouches into the cushions and rubs the back of his poor head. His headache seems to have expanded exponentially since he left Miriam’s.

"I always knew clowns were evil. I'm gonna kick that hamburger-shilling jerk's ass," Tony says darkly. Somehow that doesn’t seem revenge enough. "And buy all his restaurants."

Steve walks away for a second to close the door and retrieve Tony’s coat, lying sad and abandoned in the hallway, and when he comes back he turns on the lamp right next to Tony's face.

"Oh, God. Please, don't," Tony whimpers, and flips his tie up over his eyes. He feels like his skull is shrinking and his brain is expanding, and that is a very, very bad combination.

Steve sighs and then there is some more light switch clicking and walking around and finally Steve comes back. Tony can feel him looming over him, even through the tie.

"Don’t stand over me and stare," Tony says, trying not to slur too much. "It gives me a rash. I’m serious. I’ll start itching any second now."

"Were you over there drinking with Miriam this whole time?" Steve asks.

"You wouldn't let me apologize," Tony says petulantly, as if that explains exactly why he had no choice but to get sloshed with Steve's little old lady neighbor. He moves his tie enough to expose one eye, opens it experimentally. The light isn't so bright now, just a gentle glow coming from a small lamp on the other side of the room, so he gingerly opens the other eye, too.

Steve's standing in front of him, looking sleepily annoyed. He's wearing old-fashioned pajama bottoms and a T-shirt with a picture of Thor on it. The shirt doesn't really fit him, it's kind of tight and a little short. Too small for him, like almost all his T-shirts, like Steve Rogers has never gotten the hang of buying clothes for Captain America’s body.

"How’s your head?" Steve asks, as he reaches around to check for himself. Tony makes an attempt to push Steve's hands away, but Steve is super-powered and Tony is drunk, so it's a bit like a kitten batting at a Rottweiler. "Stop, let me see," Steve huffs. "You're being a child."

Steve sure is being bossy, Tony thinks. This is how he gets when there’s a problem for him to fix. It feels like Tony’s always someone’s problem.

He sighs heavily, just on principle, but closes his eyes and obediently tips his chin down, lets Steve gingerly feel the back of his head.

"It’s nothing," Tony says, then, "Ow, stop," when Steve finds a tender spot. "Unless you've found some bone fragments sticking out of my brain, I think I'll survive."

"This could just be a lucid interval," Steve says worriedly, which is a phrase right out of the emergency medicine class they all had to sit through, which had seemed to only ratchet up Steve’s already exaggerated view of how frail regular human beings are. Tony’s about to remind him that he's not made of spun sugar, but then he remembers Bucky and Peggy and Erskine and everyone else Steve knew who is dead and gone forever, and it suddenly seems a pretty well-founded belief.

"Does your head really hurt that bad?" Steve asks, looking into his eyes. Checking his pupils, probably.

"Yes, because I just drank the little old Jewish lady version of Everclear and then brained myself on your floor," Tony explains, with what he feels is admirable patience. His entire head feels like it's throbbing in time with his heartbeat. "A little sleep and some Advil, it’ll be like it never happened."

"I don’t have any Advil." Right. Super healing. Duh. "I’ll see if Miriam has some," he says, and he’s out the front door before Tony can protest.

He comes back a few minutes later with an old fashioned ice pack, one of those weird rubbery blue bags with a giant lid on the top, and a glass bottle of aspirin that's probably older than Tony. It has three dusty pills rattling in it.

"She offered you some of her prescription arthritis pills, but it didn’t seem like a good idea," Steve says. That actually sounds like a great idea to Tony, but he settles for the ancient aspirin.

Steve gets him a glass of water, and Tony downs the aspirin while Steve's in the kitchen filling up the ice pack, which he makes Tony put on his head, quelling his protests with a stern look. Tony leans back and closes his eyes and waits for something—the aspirin, the ice, a miracle—to start making him feel better. He's been waiting for that for a long time.

He hears Steve move around the apartment for a few minutes, doing God knows what, shining his medals or whatever, and then Tony feels the sofa dip, and a few seconds later he hears the sound of paper rustling.

When he turns his head and cracks an eye, Steve has a pad of paper on the arm of the couch. He's writing—no, he's drawing--something. Tony remembers that from the comic books, but he'd thought it was just another fictionalized detail, he had no idea it was real, even though he's lived with Steve for months now. Tony decides he's a horrible person for not noticing that. He’s not sure why that bothers him all of a sudden, when he's known it about himself for years.

Steve glances at him, then goes back to his drawing. "You’re going to feel terrible tomorrow."

"I already feel terrible," Tony says. "Your 95-year-old girlfriend just drank me under the table. It’s humiliating."

Steve laughs, though it looks like he's trying not to. "She gives that stuff to everyone in the building. They all know better than to drink it."

"We need to introduce her to Thor," Tony says. And he means it. It will be unbelievable.

His arm is getting tired from holding up the ice pack. Actually, his whole body is getting tired from holding up his giant, pounding head. He lets himself slump over sideways on the couch. It’s too small to stretch out completely, so his feet are hanging over the arm and the side of his face is mashed up against Steve's thigh. Steve’s pants smell good, like laundry detergent and patriotism or something. Steve doesn’t move his leg, or push Tony away, so Tony takes that as an invitation to stay.

He wiggles until he's a little more comfortable, neck not pinched at a weird angle, and closes his eyes, but he can't get the ice pack right, no matter how awkwardly he bends his arm. After Tony fumbles it around for a minute, Steve takes it from him and gently presses it to the back of Tony's head, and holds it there.

It’s a little thing. A little, stupid thing, but it makes Tony's throat feel tight, and he suddenly misses Pepper so damn much he's not sure he'll ever be able to stop. He waits it out, feels it subside a bit, focuses on the scritch scratch of pencil on paper until it’s gone.

This technically isn't a thing two straight guys would do, Tony thinks, but he's too drunk and miserable to care. Plus, he's only about 92% straight anyway. Steve, on the other hand, is probably 150% straight, minimum, so together they add up to almost two and a half straight guys. When you look at it like that, this is practically the least gay thing Tony's ever done.

Tony feels himself relax for the first time in days, weeks, maybe since Pepper left. He starts to drift, eyes wanting to slip closed, and this is always the most dangerous time, because he feels exhausted and vulnerable, and if he opens his mouth, anything might come pouring out. Which is exactly what happens.

"Why don’t you like me?"

The scritching stops for a second, then starts up again. "I’m trying to like you, Tony. You’re just making it very hard."

Tony is barely conscious, but he feels the need to defend himself just the same. "That’s not true. I’m a very likeable guy. A lot of people like me," he mumbles. Then honesty compels him to admit, "Actually, a lot of people put up with me because I’m Tony Stark."

"You’re probably right," Steve says, which Tony thinks is kind of rude. He could at least pretend to disagree.

"Sorry about the baseball," Tony says. What the hell, might as well just let it all out.

"I’m sure you can sell it to someone else. Or donate it," Steve says. "I bet a charity—"

"I gave it to Miriam."

Tony kind of wishes he could see Steve’s face right now, because he bets he just shocked the hell out of him. "Are you serious?" he asks after a few seconds.

"Yep. She loved it," Tony says, and doesn’t try very hard to keep the accusing tone out of his voice. Miriam had been a big Brooklyn Dodgers fan back in the day, even dated a few of them before she met her husband.

"Well. That’s. Very nice of you," Steve says, like he still can’t really believe Tony gave a $300,000 baseball to a woman he barely knows.

"It’s a new thing I’m trying," Tony says. He’s just going to sleep right here, he decides, if that’s all right with Steve. So comfy.

"Tony," Steve says. When Tony doesn’t answer—too busy trying to pass out, sorry—he moves his leg just enough to jostle Tony’s head. "Tony."

Tony makes a noise that might indicate he’s listening.

Steve says, "I didn't know Sugar Ray cost that much money, I would never have asked you to spend—"

"No, no, I didn’t actually spend that much," Tony hurries to explain. "It’s just that my time is very expensive."

"Well, I’m still sorry. I didn’t realize—I just thought it would be a good thing for the team to--"

"I didn't build him for the team," Tony says. "I built him for you."

Steve doesn't say anything. At some point he stopped working on his drawing. It's so quiet Tony can hear a clock ticking somewhere in the apartment.

Tony, with great effort, manages to shift around so he can look up at him. Steve helpfully lifts the ice pack away. "I mean, they can use him," he clarifies, because maybe Steve doesn’t understand. "Anyone can use him, whatever. But I made him because you wanted him."

The look on Steve’s face is sort of the one Tony imagined he’d see when he gave him the baseball. "Well, thank you, then," he says, and smiles down at him. It's sort of a tentative, restrained smile, but still a smile.

Well. He might have gone about it the really hard way, but Tony feels like his mission has finally been accomplished. "No problem."

Steve’s still looking down at him, head tilted thoughtfully. Then he clears his throat and says, "I better call you a cab."

"Don’t need a cab," Tony says scornfully. "Happy’s outside."

"Are you serious? Happy’s been outside my building this whole time?" And now Steve is irritated with him again. God. "You just left him sitting in the car for five hours while you got drunk with Miriam?"

Tony flicks a hand. "Eh, he’s used to it. Most of his job is waiting for me. Sometimes he drives me places, but mostly he just waits for me."

Then Steve does something totally shocking: he shoves his hand into Tony’s pants and starts groping him, and that snaps Tony out of his stupor pretty quickly.

"Yeah, good idea," Tony mumbles. "Though your timing sucks, I’m drunk off my ass and hey, hey, that’s a little rough, and you’re not even close to paydirt—oh, I was looking for that," he says, as Steve pulls Tony’s phone out of his pocket.

Steve puts it in Tony’s hand and says, in his best Captain America voice, "Call him."

~*~

Many of Tony's most satisfying accomplishments in life have been motivated by a simple desire to prove someone else wrong. And before he even gets home, gets helped up the stairs and dumped into bed by Happy, he's decided he is going to prove Steve Rogers wrong with a vengeance.

When he wakes up sometime around noon, he doesn't actually feel as bad as he expected, though when he sits up he's still got a sore spot approximately the size of his entire head.

His phone is on the nightstand, along with his watch, which is Happy's standard operating procedure when the night ends the way the previous one did, but this time there's also a piece of paper, folded in precise fourths. When Tony opens it up, he sees it's a drawing of him, sitting on Steve's couch with an ice pack on his head, pitiful tears running down his face. Underneath is written, in meticulous old-fashioned penmanship, Granny Moonshine: 1, Iron Man: 0.

Once he's upright and moving around, he takes the drawing downstairs with him and props it up next to his second-favorite monitor, and gets to work. He has to buy friends, does he? Well, we'll just see about that.

He can’t spend money on Steve, that’s completely obvious now. Can’t fly him to Paris just to have dinner, or get him a new car, or buy out the entire theater so they can see Mary Poppins or whatever old guys like. That leaves him with a sad lack of options. He decides to make a list of all the things in his interpersonal relations repertoire that are still available to him if can’t resort to spending money or having sex.

Twenty minutes later, he's still trying to think of something.

Maybe a dollar limit, then. Fifty bucks. No, wait, this is New York, you can't scratch your own ass for fifty bucks. Make it an even hundred, then. What can he do with a hundred bucks? Steve actually seems most friendly toward him when he’s pathetically drunk, so he's tempted to just give the money to Miriam in exchange for some more homemade booze and hope for the best.

He decides to call that "Plan B."

~*~

He sends Steve a text message: Sorry about that. Can I get a do over?

Steve agrees to hang out with him again, and they pick a day and a time, and then have to pick another day and time when the first one gets canceled by villainy, and then finally Tony is on his way back to Steve’s apartment, determined to correct all the mistakes he made the last time.

He’s taken some of Miriam’s advice, though he’s not crazy enough to actually try to cook anything. He leaves Happy at home and drives his own car, and doesn’t dress up, just leaves the house in the clothes he’d been wearing in the shop all day. On the way, he stops at a great pizza place in Brooklyn run by a cranky Sicilian who refuses to deliver because he doesn't bring his pizza to you, you come to him. (Tony totally cheats by checking with Jarvis to see what Steve likes on his pizza.) He also buys a six pack of root beer (also recommended by Jarvis), and if Steve doesn't know that Tony pre-medicated with a martini at home beforehand, that's okay.

It’s a long four flights up with the pizza and the soda, and the last time he’d been on these stairs he’d been dangling upside down as Steve fireman-carried him out to a waiting Happy. He’s still not sure how he managed to not barf all over Steve’s ass.

Steve's dressed casually, too, in khaki pants (again--is he Charlie Brown?) and a pristine white T-shirt. But no button-down this time, which in Steve's world is practically naked. He looks cordially unenthused to see Tony, but half-smiles and lets him in, so that's a start. He helpfully takes the root beer, leaving Tony to trail behind with the pizza.

"I brought a movie," Tony says, nodding his chin at the DVD resting on top of the pizza box as Steve sets the soda on the kitchen counter.

Steve looks at the movie and winces. "I don’t have a DVD player."

Tony almost does the cartoon headshake thing to make sure his ears are working right. "You don’t have a…really?"

"Or a TV," he adds apologetically.

That’s when Tony takes a look around the place (he was too drunk last time to absorb anything) and realizes it’s like a goddamn time capsule. Most of Steve's stuff appears to be genuine antiques, like the Art Deco wooden radio, and the roll top desk over by the window, but even the new stuff, like the couch, is mostly retro reproductions. There's no television, no microwave, no stereo, no computer.

"Okay," Tony says, trying to regroup. "So, I guess we listen to the radio?" He’s only half-joking.

"It doesn’t work," Steve admits. "I just like it."

Tony is appalled. "You have an electronic device that doesn’t work, and you know me, and you’ve never mentioned this before?" Tony’s fixed or hacked or downright reinvented everything Steve’s ever brought to him in the shop. This cannot stand.

"I guess I didn’t think of it," Steve shrugs.

Tony sets the pizza down and walks over to the radio. "Do you want me to fix it?"

"No, it’s fine, don’t worry about it," Steve says hurriedly, but Tony’s already got it in his arms—holy shit, it’s heavy—and he lugs it over to the kitchen table, which also looks like it’s an actual antique, and goes about figuring out how to open it.

But it turns out he can’t fix it without some parts, some old-timey stuff you can’t just run out and buy at Radio Shack, so that’s a bust.

This is why he just buys people things, Tony thinks, exasperated. It’s a million times easier.

"Okay, we can at least eat, right?" Tony asks, once he gets the thing put back together. He's still going to fix the radio, just not now.

They eat at the kitchen table, with plates, which feels formal and weird, and exactly like something Steve would do. The pizza is excellent, and still mostly warm, but Tony quickly realizes that without the buffer of a television or four demented roommates, he and Steve don’t have much to say to each other.

They talk about work, of course, and their mutual friends, which is, okay, yes, still about work, that’s true. And then when that runs out, they sit at the table, staring at the ragged pizza crusts on their plates. Just the two of them and that damn ticking clock. Who actually owns a clock that ticks anymore?

Steve does, that's who, because this place isn't just somewhere he goes to get away from Thor's karaoke machine and Hulk's over-enthusiastic hugs. This is a whole world he's built for himself right here in an apartment building in Brooklyn. Tony, who normally believes he has a right to be wherever he chooses to, feels like he shouldn't have come here, like he's intruding.

Steve gets up and clears away the plates and the pizza box, then sits back down and takes a drink from his root beer. The silence drags on.

Tony usually has no problem making conversation, because if all else fails he simply falls back on his favorite topic: himself. But he's just so out of his depth here in this apartment that time forgot, with a guy who hated him the first time he met him. He chokes, and can't think of a single thing to say.

He notices Steve has a lot of framed pictures scattered around the place, old black and white photos he recognizes as the ones on that USB Steve brought him. Someone at SHIELD must have given him the files. Tony doesn't want to look too closely, in case his father is in some of them, so that eliminates those as a conversation topic.

"Thank you for the pizza," Steve says, after a while.

Tony manages to answer, "Sure. No problem," before all his words dry up again and they’re left staring at the walls, the floor, anything but each other.

Tony taps his fingers on the table. Steve clears his throat.

Tony's about to pull out his phone and download Cupcake Avalanche when Steve asks, "Should we go see what Miriam's doing?"

"Yes! Absolutely!" Tony says, flooded with relief.

And that's how he ends up spending his Saturday night sitting on a tiny couch between Steve and Miriam, watching a Family Feud marathon.

~*~

After that, Tony decides to leave Steve alone, because he can't think about that night, or the drunken one that preceded it, without feeling like a massive jerk for trying to insert himself where he isn't wanted and doesn't belong.

But a few days later Steve appears in the shop with two tickets to a Mets game he got somewhere, and asks if Tony wants to go. Tony imagines that Steve's probably already asked everyone else he knows, including Coulson, before finally resorting to Tony, but he agrees to go anyway.

They go to the game, and Tony sits in the stands for the first time in his life. Steve's visibly overwhelmed by Citi Field from the second they set foot inside, a mute presence at Tony's shoulder, eyes huge, head swiveling, like a kid at an amusement park who's too distracted to realize he's getting left behind. Tony has to grab a fistful of his shirt as they make their way to their seats, because otherwise they'd get separated in two seconds.

The day is nice, warm and breezy, blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. It's late in the season and the Mets, as usual, have no hope whatsoever of making it to the playoffs, so it's not overly crowded—the perfect day to go to a game, Steve points out happily. For Tony, it’s a little too much of a reminder of that thing with the Dodgers ball, but there’s no help for it, so he decides to just muscle through.

Tony hates baseball—too slow, too not violent enough—but he has his phone with him in case of a boredom emergency. He actually doesn’t spend as much time on it as he thought he would, because he’s too busy buying things (which is another thing he does when he's bored).

Citi Field is known for having interesting food options, but it’s always safe to assume, in anything, that Steve is a traditionalist, and Tony likes the classics himself. He gets them hot dogs and beer, then peanuts, then nachos with the nuclear waste cheese product (which Steve does not care for—and he calls himself an American?), and then to make up for the nachos he buys a bag of cotton candy, because Steve has a raging sweet tooth, and that goes over a lot better. The best part is, Steve is so busy watching the game and stuffing his face that it doesn’t even occur to him to complain about Tony spending money.

There's one uncomfortable moment when some cameraman zooms in on them, and their faces end up on the giant screens all around the stadium. Tony smirks and blows a kiss; that's right, he's goddamn Tony Stark. Steve freezes like the proverbial deer in the headlights for a second and then suddenly he's Captain America, greeting the world with a wholesome smile and friendly wave. (There's a picture of them on Page Six the next day, but Tony's reasonably sure Steve never even sees it.)

After that they get approached by a few people asking for autographs and pictures, but it's not too bad, and the Mets are playing so terribly they aren't really missing much. Everyone's really polite, though, and some of them wait until after the game ends to talk to them, so it ends up taking almost an hour to get out of the park.

It's a pretty good day, all told, and when they get back home Steve says, "Thanks for going with me," with such sincerity that Tony can only smile and nod, but what he means to say is, "Thanks for asking me."

A few days later, Steve invites Tony to have lunch with him and Miriam, which Tony is obviously not going to pass up. They go to a diner in Brooklyn where the two of them appear to be regulars, judging by the way they’re greeted by employees and fellow patrons alike. Tony’s the only one who has to actually tell the waitress what he wants. He feels awkward at first, like he’s intruding again, but they did invite him, and Steve seems okay with him being here, and after a while he forgets to feel bad about it.

The food is good, with just the right amount of grease and salt, and they end up lingering over cups of coffee for a while once they're done. Tony and Steve tell her all about the Mets game, though Steve's version actually features baseball talk, and they make tentative plans to take Miriam with them next season. Miriam asks Steve where he's traveled to lately; she appears to think he's a pilot of some sort.

Steve picks up the tab, and Tony doesn’t even try to argue, because he’s stubborn but not stupid. They go back to the brownstone and get Miriam settled back in her apartment, where she gives Tony a couple bottles of hooch. He accepts them happily and immediately places a standing order for more. Steve just shakes his head.

Tony and Steve part ways out in the hall. Steve doesn’t ask Tony to come inside, and Tony doesn’t suggest it.

~*~

Tony gets invited to a lot of events, a constant stream of invitations and complimentary tickets and special sneak previews of everything under the sun. He seldom goes, and if he does it's always on impulse and he never has his ticket or invite with him, but gets in anyway. But now he starts actually paying attention to the stack of mail that usually grows and grows on his dresser until someone—he's not sure who—takes it away, sorting through it for things that might appeal to Steve.

Over the next few weeks, they go to movie screenings and gallery openings and museum fundraisers, all of which are infinitely more enjoyable for Steve's presence. Tony even manages to man up and go to the ballet, where Steve is very politely yet very clearly bored to tears (thank God), so there’s another thing they have in common.

Once a week or so they spend a couple hours with Miriam, doing what should be really boring things that Tony actually really enjoys. They take her out to lunch, move the furniture so she can vacuum, and watch lots of game shows while getting pleasantly buzzed (well, Tony does—how Steve does it while sober, Tony has no clue). Tony always leaves with a couple bottles of the good stuff, which he is stockpiling for what is going to be a really epic party at some point. But Miriam’s a social butterfly and is usually conducting several hot geriatric romances at once, so sometimes Steve and Tony--two of the hottest, most eligible bachelors in the country, according to People magazine—can’t manage to get a date with her.

Steve has his own things he wants to do around New York, and sometimes he wants company, so he comes to Tony, who is no longer the last resort (he thinks). Tony makes time for him when he asks, though Steve probably has no idea what a huge deal that is.

Some of Steve’s choices are hopelessly touristy, but Tony just rolls with it when Steve decides he wants to see what some famous landmark is like now. The thing about those places, Tony notices, is that they're much more interesting when filtered through Steve's point of view. He always ends up telling Tony what’s different, what’s the same, who he was with the last time he was here (Bucky, Bucky, almost always Bucky) and then the story usually ends with Steve standing up to some jerk and getting his ass kicked. It should feel like story time with grandpa, listening to all these monologues about places and people from long ago, but Tony doesn't mind it much. He's painfully conscious of the fact that there is no one else left alive who shares these memories with Steve.

Tony quickly figures out that there are things Steve wants to see for the first time (or the first time again) alone, and other places where he needs a buffer, and Tony's the buffer. Which is perfect, because if there’s anyone who is a master of buffers, of manufacturing diversions to blunt the sting of emotions, it’s Tony Stark. After that comes the realization that that it’s a lot easier be the one feeling all the shitty stuff than to watch someone else do it. Sometimes he can barely stand to look at Steve’s melancholy face, at the wistful slant to his mouth, and is left groping for his sunglasses, a cup of coffee, anything to hide his own face, anything.

Slowly, they become friends. They have their own inside jokes, and know how to order coffee for each other, and Tony finds himself being uncharacteristically circumspect about their friendship, barely mentioning to anyone else the time he spends with Steve. He's guarding this thing between them fiercely, like an ember in his cupped hands, protective of something that’s an all new experience for him, and all the more precious for it. Because when he looks back—at Obie, Rhodey, Happy, even Pepper in the beginning—it’s not lost on him that Steve is the first person in Tony’s life to spend this much time with him without being paid, often by Tony himself, to do it.

~*~

Tony intends to go right back to work after lunch with Steve and Miriam, he honestly does, but it’s a beautiful early autumn day and he’s in Brooklyn anyway, and Steve really wants to see the "new" aquarium—the one at Coney Island that's only been around for fifty-five years. Tony lets himself be talked into going along, on the condition that he will not have to watch any kind of IMAX or 3D movie.

"Why would they have movies at the aquarium?" Steve asks, confused.

"They have that shit everywhere," Tony explains as they get in the car. "IMAX makes me want to barf, and I refuse to wear plastic glasses."

Steve seems skeptical, but there is indeed a theater right outside the aquarium entrance, billed as a "4D experience." Tony points at it smugly.

"Wow," Steve says, once they pay the fee and walk into the park. "The old one was just one big building. Look at all this!"

Tony is busy checking the map, making sure there aren't any stupid manatees here. He says, "So when you said I couldn't make any sushi jokes, did you mean for the rest of the day, or just while we're here?"

Steve, who is only slowly coming around to sushi, makes a face like a kid who's just been offered a big, steaming plate of Brussels sprouts. "As long as you can hold out," he says, which is a terrible answer. Tony will be fashioning chopsticks out of straws from the concession stand in five minutes. "Or at least until we leave," he amends quickly, realizing his error.

Satisfied this is a manatee-free zone, Tony hands the map to Steve and lets him lead the way. Steve wants to see everything, from the jellyfish to the walruses to the seahorses, and spends a lot of time at the exhibits, reading all the informational signs and watching stuff swim around. Tony trails along behind, mostly pecking away at his phone, but he does get drawn into watching the giant octopus ooze around its habitat, and they linger a while in the shark building, standing side by side, watching the sharks slowly patrol their tank with cold-eyed precision. Tony isn't as enamored with the penguins, which are really smelly.

Once Steve’s seen all the fishies, a stop at the gift shop is mandatory. Steve gets a magnet for his refrigerator, and a book about electric eels. Tony tries to get him to buy a ridiculous foam hat with a toothy shark face on it, but Steve’s resolute, so Tony gives up and flirts with the pretty woman behind the counter until Steve’s done shopping.

They have some time to kill before the sea lion show, so they sit on a bench and eat ice cream cones for a while. Tony gets sick of his halfway through and holds it out to Steve without looking up from his phone. Steve takes it, because he hates it when Tony wastes food.

Tony says, "Jarvis, show me the equations for the nanotech—no, not those, the older ones…yeah. What if we did—" he types in a few changes, rapid-fire with both thumbs "—this? Okay, perfect, excellent. Can you simulate that, let me know what happens?"

Thirty seconds later the results come back, and they’re even less usable than they were before Tony’s changes. “Aw, what the hell?” he says, annoyed.

"Hey, there are kids around here!" Steve says reproachfully. Only Steve, whose version of expletives is things like "darn it" and "oh, dear," would consider the word "hell" to be completely unutterable within fifty feet of a child.

“Sorry,” Tony says automatically, and goes back to his math. He makes two more changes before he has to stop and protect Steve from a seagull that thinks it’s hit the jackpot: a human with two ice cream cones and no free hands to defend himself.

"Jarvis, run it again, keep adjusting the density until you hit maximum acceptable variance," he says, and sits back and waits, watches Steve alternate between ice cream cones. He looks really relaxed today, lounging on the bench in sunglasses and shirtsleeves, seemingly content in the 21st century for a few minutes.

A family drifts up to the otter habitat, two little girls with their mother and father. The mom bends down between the kids and points at the otters, reads the sign to them, and then steps back to take a picture of them standing on their tippy-toes, clutching the railing. She turns and smiles at her husband; he’s talking on his phone, but smiles back at her. This is not the first time Tony and Steve have crossed paths with this family today. The father has been on the phone every time.

This kind of familial outing is a foreign scene to Tony, even if the paternal detachment is not. Most of his childhood aquarium visits—and everything else--had been in the company of his nannies, occasionally his mother. It was rare to venture out with both his parents, even rarer still to go somewhere alone with his father. Tony wonders if things would have been different for him as a kid if cellphones had existed back then, if his father would have been around more.

Would it have been better or worse? His father there but distracted, or his father not there at all?

He doesn’t have time to mull it over, because a roiling mass of school kids ricochets through his field of vision, shrieking and pointing, barely contained by the aquarium escort and two teachers. The teacher bringing up the rear is blonde and pretty, with long, lightly muscled legs. She notices him noticing her, and smiles. Tony gives her a little finger wave.

"I thought Bucky had a lot of girlfriends, but he’s got nothing on you," Steve says, with a faint tone of amusement. Tony thinks it’s really cute that Steve calls them his "girlfriends."

"What can I say, Steve?" he says, spreading his arms along the back of the bench, watching the blonde teacher walk away—a view just as nice from the back as it was from the front. "The ladies love Tony Stark."

Steve flicks an eyebrow and licks a drip of vanilla off his knuckle.

"Are you questioning my attractiveness?" Tony asks. "Really?"

"Thor and I both beat you on that list in the magazine," Steve points out, in an uncharacteristic display of both arrogance and provocation. He’s talking about Cosmopolitan magazine’s "Sexiest Superheroes" feature.

"First of all, Thor’s a demigod, he shouldn’t even be on that list with the rest of us mortals," Tony says, suddenly finding himself in a fit of pique. "That’s a completely unfair basis for comparison, right there, and on any other sexiness scale I’d be in the top three, guaranteed. Because I'm really hot," he says, "And funny, and rich, and brilliant, and I've got a dick like a--"

"Okay, that's enough," Steve says.

Tony grins at him. "Don’t you want to know what it’s like?" he asks cheekily, but he sees immediately he’s pushed too far. Steve’s face is bright red, his expression shuttered, so Tony lets it go. Steve can get really uptight and uncomfortable about sex, and Tony didn’t come all this way, spend all this time with stinky penguins, just to make him miserable.

"Sorry, didn’t mean to sexually harass you," Tony says. "Please don’t tell Natasha."

Steve gives him an unreadable look as he finishes his last cone, then gets up and throws his napkin in the trash, stooping to also take care of someone else’s paper cup that didn’t quite make it into the garbage can. Tony’s phone buzzes in his hand; it’s Jarvis, with a whole new data set for him. Annoying, uncooperative data. "God…darn it," Tony says, because he doesn’t want to get scolded again.

Steve doesn’t quite laugh, but he does look a little less uncomfortable.

By then it’s time for the sea lion show, so they abandon the bench and wander over that way. The family they keep running into is leaving, the dad carrying one of the little girls. She’s swaying sleepy-eyed against his shoulder, a stuffed sea otter clutched in her fist. Tony decides it’s probably better to be there than not, better to pay some attention than none. Maybe some people just can’t do any better than that.

Still, when they take their seats in the Aquatheater, ready to watch some sea lions do tricks, he slips his phone in his pocket and leaves it there.

~*~

Once in a while, Steve comes down to the shop just to hang out, pulls up a stool and sits there while Tony works. He fiddles with his phone (Tony very politely does not make Cupcake Avalanche comments), or works on a sketch, or reads a book (a real, actual paper book—Tony can’t get over it). Once, he stretches out on the couch against the wall and sleeps for two hours. But sometimes, he just talks.

Tony doesn't talk back much, just keeps working, half-listening in the way he usually does when humans want his attention while he's working. He's not being a complete ass—it all sinks in, he can recall the conversation later with frightening clarity, but it still makes people crazy. Pepper's the only other person he's ever known who could tolerate it long-term.

Steve talks a lot about the people he used to know, the ones who are no longer with him, and Tony eventually figures out that Steve’s commiserating with him, telling him in his own oblique way that he understands about loss, and the pain that comes from loving another person so much you can barely stand it, and then having to go on without them.

Except Steve’s losses were much more permanent, and followed each other in—for him—quick succession. First Bucky, whose friendship has taken on epic proportions in Tony’s mind at this point. And then Peggy, whose doomed romance with Captain America is stuff of legend. Tony can't imagine going through that twice.

He tries to think about what it would be like to outlive everyone you care about, and his brain rebels, skitters away from that thought. It would be hell, he thinks. And he wouldn’t handle it nearly as well as Steve has.

~*~

The one thing they almost never talk about is Howard Stark. Every once in a while, Steve will mention him in passing, but he's not stupid--it didn’t take him long to figure out Tony would rather he didn’t. Tony sometimes feels bad about it, because it’s his personal policy to let Steve reminisce as much as he wants, whenever he wants, but he just can’t do it. He may have turned a corner when it comes to his relationship with his father, but he's not quite reached the point of sanguine acceptance yet.

Of course, it’s not lost on him that Steve is a living, breathing connection between himself and his dad. It can be a little startling to look over at him and remember this is the Steve Rogers from Tony’s childhood, the lost hero who was almost a tangible presence in the Stark house. Tony had always been thrilled by the fact that his father had known Captain America, had called him his friend, had actual photographs of them together. His father had made Captain America’s shield--that had blown Tony’s mind as a kid.

Looking back, it’s easy to understand why Captain America was such a dominant figure in Tony’s young life when Steve Rogers was so much the focus of Howard’s. Tony’s father had devoted his formidable talents to Steve when he was alive, had searched for him off and on after he disappeared, had never really accepted his loss. Had looked back at Steve Rogers all those years, while Tony was standing right there in front of him.

~*~

In October, they accidentally do about ten million dollars in damages to Yankee Stadium trying to stop a bunch of mutated earthworms, and they’re on the city’s shit list. Or at least the parts of the city that like the Yankees, which most assuredly does not include Captain America, though he acts suitably penitent later for the TV cameras. "I shouldn’t have enjoyed that as much as I did," Steve says, as they stand on top of the dugout surveying the wreckage. He's never going to get over the 1941 World Series.

In a bid to generate some positive PR, they decide (read: Fury orders them) to have a public Halloween party. At Avengers Mansion.

"Wait a minute, it's technically my house, you can't just--" Tony says, and then shuts his mouth when Fury slides a photo across his desk, showing what happens when someone (Tony) fires a laser weapon at what used to be huge gold-leaf letters that spelled "YANKEE STADIUM."

Thor is beside himself with joy at the prospect of planning a huge public spectacle, and is off and running once the traditions have been explained to him. He seems to really take the scary, gory elements of the holiday to heart. Maybe a little too much to heart.

"And then we will slaughter the goat and anoint the children with its blood!" Thor says at one point, and Tony says, "Now that I’d like to see," and then Coulson—who everyone keeps insisting does not live in this house, even though he is here all the time—says, "If I even hear someone say the word 'goat' at this party, I will personally make sure the Avengers are called upon to handle every single sewer-related problem in the world for the next six months."

Despite the lack of bloody anointing, the party is a huge hit, the line to get in so long that they have to set up an overflow waiting area across the street in Central Park. Happy has to run out three times for more candy, and they call in extra SHIELD personnel to act as bouncers at the gate, methodically letting one person in for every one that leaves. Coulson stands on the balcony and surveys all, the world's most dangerous hall monitor.

Tony ends up on a conference call that drags on and on, so he's clueless to all of this at first. When he finally gets into the suit and up onto the roof, he can’t believe what he sees. He takes to the air and circles the house, then buzzes the people waiting to get in, waving at all the upturned faces before he lands in the spot Coulson has cleared on the lawn, his big entrance.

It’s absolute screaming madness. The place is swarming with people in costumes, both kids and adults, and everyone appears to have had way too much sugar. He nearly trips over a little girl dressed as what can only be described as a "princess Hulk" as she zips past him wearing a purple tutu, a fake emerald tiara, and a pair of giant foam Hulk hands. "Raaaawr!" she screams, at the top of her tiny, angry lungs.

The decorations are unbelievable, realistic, and numerous. Skeletons, severed heads, and rotting corpses are littered everywhere. Anything that couldn’t get away fast enough is covered with fake cobwebs. There’s a haunted inflatable bouncy castle on one end of the lawn, with discarded shoes scattered all around the entrance. Tony thinks he sees Clint in there doing somersaults with what looks like about fifty kids.

Thor's by the caramel apple table, letting people try to pick up his hammer, looking fittingly majestic in the fog billowing out of the machine in the bushes. Bruce has a Van de Graaff generator set up near the fake graveyard and is coaxing people to touch it and make their hair stand on end. Natasha is supposed to be helping kids carve pumpkins, but appears to be teaching them how to do an ankle pick takedown instead. Jarvis is helpfully piping spooky music and sound effects over it all. There are no goats anywhere.

Despite the chaos, everyone appears to be having a great time…except for Steve, who is standing by himself at a candy station, looking grim and uncomfortable as he gets his first glimpse of 21st century Halloween costumes.

"A lot of these women are practically naked," he hisses under his breath when Tony finally makes his way over. Tony’s had his picture taken about fifty times in five minutes, and someone got caramel on his chest plate; he’s ready for a break. "I don't understand why," Steve is saying. "I've seen that movie, I know Snow White’s dress covered a lot more than that!"

"But that's what's so great about the future, Rogers. If there’s a costume, there’s a sexy version of it," Tony explains, because he happens to be an expert on this. "See? There’s a sexy NASCAR driver, and a sexy nurse, and over there is a sexy zombie…which is kind of an oxymoron, but she’s working it."

A little boy in a Captain America costume comes up and shyly holds out his bright orange bag for some candy. Steve, who is really good with kids, compliments him on his costume as he gives him a handful of mini candy bars, asks him a few questions, and just like that the ice is broken. The little guy tells Steve that he wants to be "an Abenger" when he grows up, and Steve nods, doesn't laugh, doesn't sound the least bit patronizing when he tells him that's a good choice, and he looks forward to working with him someday.

He hunkers down so the dad can take a picture, and they both pose with their shields upraised, Steve smiling for the camera, the kid wearing his most fearsome ass-kicking face. After the flash goes off, the boy flings his arms around Steve's neck in a fierce hug and says, "I love you, Captain America." His tiny plastic shield clacks against Steve's helmet, but Steve doesn't appear to notice, just says, "I love you, too, big guy," and because of the way they're turned, Tony's the only one who can see Steve's face as he closes his eyes and hugs him back. Tony's heart feels like someone's pinching it, and he has to swallow hard and find something else to look at for a minute.

There are a lot of Avenger costumes around, and they run the gamut from "frighteningly accurate" to "what was that guy smoking?" Tony sees at least eight versions, male and female, of Iron Man alone: child, adult, baby (adorable!), sexy, zombie, steampunk, Muppet (what the hell?), and one smartass in red and yellow sweats carrying an actual iron.

"Oh, no," Steve says, drawing Tony’s attention back to him. "I don’t know where to look, Tony."

Three young women—Tony can never tell if anyone is thirteen or twenty-three anymore—are approaching, dressed as sexy firefighters, which amounts to short-shorts, strategically placed suspenders, and rubber boots. Steve’s eyes are practically rolling around loose in his head as he tries to avoid letting his gaze linger on any scandalous areas. Tony's helmet allows him to stare as much as he wants without anyone knowing, something he takes full advantage of right now.

The girls stop a couple feet away, smiling at Tony and Steve. One of them bats her eyelashes at them and says, "Will you take a picture with us?"

Steve looks like he’s two seconds away from swallowing his tongue.

Luckily, Tony’s been working really hard on this friendship thing for weeks now, and he is completely prepared to step up and be a good friend to Steve right now. He grabs him by the shoulder, gives him a reassuring little squeeze. "I got this one," he says.

~*~

Tony wakes up one morning a few days later and, for the first time in a while, desperately wants to talk to Pepper. There’s no reason he can think of, nothing specific that’s spurred this, except that he really misses hearing her voice. He shrugs it off, like he’s done a thousand times since she left, but he can’t seem to let the thought go, so he tells Jarvis to lock down her phone number for three days—three days ought to be enough time to forget about it—and not to let him call her no matter how much he begs.

An hour later, he skulks into the gym and asks Clint if he can borrow his phone.

"Sure," says Clint, who is doing a handstand on a weight bench. He lifts one hand to his pocket and slips his phone out, all the while remaining balanced on the other, and never wavers an inch. He gives Tony a questioning look as he hands it over, because when has Tony ever had a phone shortage? Tony ignores the look and takes the phone. It’s from the Avengers branded line of Stark smartphones, decorated with a picture of Hawkeye himself.

"I’m just going to—uh—" Tony says, and then decides he doesn't have to explain himself. He trots up the stairs, half expecting either Clint or Jarvis to say something, but no one utters a word.

He locks himself in his bathroom and does one last mental check to make sure he really wants to do this, and decides he does. Blowing out a sharp breath, he taps the screen with his thumb…and realizes he doesn’t know Pepper’s phone number. He’s never actually dialed it, because it’s been programmed into every device he’s owned for years—he couldn’t conjure it up now under torture.

Asking Jarvis is obviously out of the question, so he scrolls through Clint’s contacts on the off-chance, and there it is. He selects it before he can talk himself out of it. His hands are starting to shake.

Pepper answers on the first ring. "What happened?" she says, tight and controlled, but with a definite undercurrent of fear. Tony is in no way at all prepared for what her voice does to him; it’s like running full-speed into a wall, like feeling every emotion he’s ever had in relation to her all at once, love and anger and happiness and wrenching anguish. He sinks down to the floor and leans back against the shower door.

"Clint?" Pepper is saying. "Is everything okay?"

"Pepper, it’s me," he manages to croak out. "Tony."

"Tony?" Now she’s really scared. "What’s wrong?"

"Nothing, I just—I wanted—"

"Why are you calling me on Clint’s phone?" she asks, with just a touch, Tony thinks, of anger.

"Um. Mine’s broken or something. Jarvis is checking it out. Anyway, do you have a minute?" They’re a long way from the time when he would have just assumed she had a minute for him, and that gives him a pang.

She doesn’t actually answer his question. She takes a shaky breath and says, "Tony, you can’t do this. I thought Clint was calling to tell me something happened to you. You can’t just—God." She sounds like she's about to cry.

He hadn’t thought about it like that, had never considered it for a moment, and he feels terrible--except for the tiny, petty part of him that's relieved to know she still cares if he’s alive or dead. But this is one of the reasons she left him, isn’t it? And even now, she’s still dreading the call that tells her he's injured or dead or missing.

"I'm sorry," he says, and he means it. He's sorry for everything.

"I just—I need a minute," she says, and he swears he hears her sniffle.

"Okay," he says, then keeps his mouth shut.

It isn’t even a minute before she says, briskly, like nothing happened, like he didn’t almost have her in tears a few seconds ago, "So tell me what’s wrong."

"Nothing is wrong," he says, irritated, though that's not true at all, is it? What's wrong is that they're not together anymore. "I just wanted to talk to you. I miss you. I'm not calling to try to convince you to come back, though let's be clear, I would agree to that in a split second. I just want to talk to you."

"All right," she says, a little skeptically, and then calls his bluff by saying nothing else.

After several seconds that seem to drag on forever, Tony comes up with, "So, how are the manatees?"

"Still endangered," she says. "We're having a big fundraiser in a couple months, you should come."

"I'll have Jarvis send you some money," he says. He's not sure he's up to seeing her in person yet. "How much do I have to donate to get my own manatee?"

"The manatees aren’t for sale."

"That’s ridiculous," he says. "Everything is for sale."

"How is everyone doing?" she asks, rather than rise to the bait of an old argument.

He gives her brief updates on everyone in the house, then on Happy and Rhodey, though he's sure she's kept in touch with them. He tells her about the Mets game and the Halloween party, and Miriam, and she laughs in all the right places, but there's an overtone of sadness to the whole conversation, because months of his life have gone by that she knows nothing about, and he hates it so much.

"How’s Ryan?" he finally asks, with what he feels is the perfect amount of derision, because he's a glutton for punishment.

She's not surprised that he knows, just says, "He’s good." He can hear the happiness in her voice and it makes him want to punch something.

"He’s a Ken doll," Tony says scornfully.

She's completely unfazed by his scorn, but then she's had years of practice. "Yes, he is, but he's also a very nice guy."

"If you say so," Tony says, unconvinced. "But I’m better in bed, right?"

She laughs, a real laugh that makes him want to laugh, too, or maybe slit his wrists. "I’m not answering that. Listen, I have to go, I'm late for a meeting. Bye, Tony. It was nice talking to you."

"Yeah, you too," he says, and hesitates for a second before he adds, "I love you." It should feel pathetic, he thinks, but it doesn’t. It just feels like something he wants her to know.

Pepper doesn't hesitate at all. "I love you, too. Always."

~*~

The weird thing is, Tony and Pepper become friends.

It's not easy, for either of them, and it takes a lot of time, and a lot of phone calls that can turn awkward or angry or maudlin at the drop of a hat. And sometimes it still hurts so much he wants to scream, but it gradually gets easier. She's still the same person, whip smart and frighteningly competent, he loved with all his heart when they were together, though some of the other things he loves about her are now off-limits to him (Ryan fucking Reynolds, what the hell?), but after a while he gets used to that, too.

They've never been just friends before, in all the years they've known each other, so it’s new and weird, and it takes a while to adjust to the new boundaries, but when business and romance are stripped away, they still genuinely like each other. And if her new boyfriend isn't comfortable with it, well, fuck him. (He's completely comfortable with it, Tony learns. Because he actually is a very nice guy. The asshole.)

They don’t talk specifically about the break-up, but oddly, talking to her about everything else gradually gives him a whole new perspective on it. It's like he's finally ready to hear all the things she tried to tell him in Miami, when she kept saying it wasn't just the danger, it wasn't just the unpredictable schedule. He’d been too busy trying to change her mind to really listen.

She was never really okay with him being Iron Man, that much is clear. She tried to learn to live with it because she loved him, but he can remember a hundred different moments that revealed how not okay she was, and it seems so obvious now that something had to give. He remembers that first time she saw him in the armor, and how she looked, how she sounded, when she asked, "Are those bullet holes?"

Tony thrives on being an Avenger—even in those awful days right after she left and he hated everyone and everything, he still loved putting on the suit, facing someone down—but he sees now, through the clarity of a little time and distance, that it was killing Pepper inch by inch.

He recalls with no small amount of chagrin the way he'd thought he was embarking on a whole new life—new relationship, new job, new philosophy—and that he was finally getting it right. But Pepper was part of his old life as Tony Stark, not his new one as Iron Man, and she saw that before he did. And because she is fearless and capable, and always does what needs to be done--particularly when Tony doesn’t--she left.

When he thinks about that, about the kind of strength and bravery it must have taken to walk away, Tony—who has been called a hero more times than he can count--feels utterly, utterly humbled.

~*~

Tony doesn’t realize it’s Thanksgiving Day until he looks up at the TV in the shop and sees the parade.

He vaguely remembers Thor passing on an invitation to dinner at Jane’s house, the big guy practically vibrating with excitement at the thought of a day dedicated to eating as much as you possibly can. Tony had declined the invite, citing (fabricated) prior plans, and decided to leave it to Jane and Darcy to fill Thor in on the nastier bits of American history.

Tony can't even remember the last time he actually sat down for Thanksgiving dinner, anyway. It had to have been while he was at boarding school. Once he was out of school and his parents were gone, it was a relief to skip the tedium of dressing up and sitting at the formal dining room table, acting like he wasn't bored out of his mind. Last year, he and Pepper went to Aruba. That’s certainly not in the cards this year. Or ever again.

He’s the only person in the house, confirmed by Jarvis, so he goes upstairs to get something to eat, but somehow ends up leaving the kitchen with two bottles of beer and no food. Tony’s not normally a beer drinker, but it’s a holiday, so what the hell. He wanders into the TV room in just his shirt and his boxer shorts, enjoying the unusual peace and quiet, marveling at how big the house feels right now. Eventually he takes an entire couch for himself, noodling around on a tablet as Jarvis flips through the satellite TV at the perfect channel surfing speed, which is a precise three seconds per channel. Tony has proven this mathematically.

Several additional beers later, he dozes off for a while, and the next thing he knows he hears the front door open. A few seconds later, Steve walks into the room, wearing his running clothes. He looks surprised to see Tony, though Tony isn’t sure why. This is his house.

"You didn't go to Jane’s?" Steve asks, tugging his sweatshirt over his head. His T-shirt almost comes with it, and there’s a short struggle. His eyes flick over Tony, taking in the fact that he’s not really dressed, all the empty beer bottles on the coffee table, but he doesn’t say anything.

"Nah." Tony shrugs and picks up his tablet and starts poking at it again. There's a smudge on the touchscreen where his face was mashed against it a few moments ago. "Where have you been?"

Steve tilts his head and squints at Tony, as if he’s trying to figure out how Tony just got so dumb. "Running."

"Yes, obviously," Tony says, dragging a set of equations over to the trash. Meh. "Where'd you go?"

"Coney Island."

That gets Tony's attention. He looks up, expecting to see Steve grinning at the joke he just made. He's not. He's nonchalantly taking off his running shoes. "You ran. To Coney Island. And back? That's like..."

"Thirty-six point five miles, sir," Jarvis provides helpfully.

"Thirty-six point—you ran a marathon and then some? For no reason?" And he's not even winded, though on closer inspection he looks really sweaty.

"Well, I wasn't planning to, but I didn't feel tired, at least not until the end, so I just kept going." He shrugs like it's no big deal. Because it wasn't, for him. But still.

"Well, congratulations, I guess," Tony says. He doesn't even know what to do in the face of this kind of insanity.

"What are you doing?" Steve asks, fussing with his T-shirt again, which is now insisting on sticking to his skin.

"Not much. Want to watch a movie?" he asks, because maybe Steve is lonely, or sad that he doesn’t have anyone to spend Thanksgiving with anymore.

"Sure." He picks up his shoes and starts to leave the room. "I’m gonna go shower first. And I need to eat."

"I'll order something," Tony calls after him. "Thirty-six miles," he mutters to himself as he scrolls through an assortment of delivery menus. "What is wrong with you, it's Thanksgiving for God's sake, the national day of gluttony and sloth."

Choosing what to order in is serious business. Steve tends to eat an improbable amount of food, his metabolism burning through calories like tissue paper, and the more energy he expends the more he eats. Tony settles on Thai and orders a lot of different things, so much that he thinks he may have overdone it (though it's not like leftovers go uneaten in this house), but Christ: thirty-six miles. He'll probably eat a buffalo.

Food on the way, Tony turns to browsing through the movie options, trying to find something appropriate, which is harder than one might think when you're talking about a guy who missed nearly seven decades of pop culture. Tony keeps saying he’s going to write an algorithm to do this for him.

Steve likes happy movies, most science fiction, and anything with clean humor. He doesn’t like stories about time travel, immortality, or Nazis. He turns beet red at nudity, and hates torture porn and anything where kids or animals get hurt. He's got a soft spot for the Toy Story movies (he thinks Buzz Lightyear is hilarious), and will watch Up if Tony fast forwards past the first fifteen minutes. He enjoys musicals for some reason Tony can't fathom. He loves movies where the good guy wins and gets the girl at the end.

After Tony's considered and rejected about eighty-seven options, Steve comes back, pink and damp, in a pair of workout pants that don’t seem to want to stay all the way up on his hips, and yet another too-small T-shirt, this one with a picture of Hulk on it. Tony glares at it and makes a mental note to get some Iron Man merch delivered to Steve ASAP, because that shit ain’t right.

Tony’s decided on the Alien movies, which are kind of gory and violent, but it’s make-believe monster violence, which Steve seems to find more a lot more tolerable than Pulp Fiction-style violence. They watch the first one while they eat. Steve enjoys it, and Tony enjoys watching Steve’s face during the chestburster scene.

Tony did not order too much food. Steve finishes all of his, and then cleans up the rest of Tony's, too, and drinks about six bottles of that horrid red Gatorade he loves.

They decide to go ahead and watch the second one, which Steve likes even more, especially the cargo-loader stuff. By the end, he looks half in love with Ripley, which Tony considers completely justifiable.

Steve pauses the movie halfway through and goes into the kitchen for cookies and milk, because he’s Beaver Cleaver, Tony swears to God. The cookies are some kind of triple chocolate thing Clint made, and they taste terrible with beer, but Tony doesn’t let that stop him from stealing one (four) anyway.

Tony, who can rarely do just one thing at a time, and almost never if that one thing involves sitting still, continues to poke away at a couple things during the movie. He signs off on the design for a new Stark Industries building, exchanges a few text messages with Pepper and Rhodey, adds a couple songs to Thor’s party playlist, and takes another stab at the self-repair nanotechnology that’s refusing to cooperate. When that goes south, he takes a few minutes to finally write the movie selection algorithm for Steve.

All in all, it’s a pretty productive day of doing nothing.

Tony expects Steve to call it a night once the credits roll on the second movie. He’s been slouching deeper and deeper into the couch as the night’s gone on, and now he looks like he’s about to fall asleep any second, pliant and heavy-lidded, still holding half a cookie.

"You look beat," Tony says.

Steve makes a non-committal noise and doesn’t move. "Are we gonna watch the next one?"

Tony says, "There's only two," and Steve frowns and says, "I thought there were more," and Tony says, "Nope!" because he learned his lesson with Star Wars.

Steve bites into his cookie and looks at Tony with a palpable air of suspicion. He doesn’t seem to be buying it.

"Hey, how about Goonies?" Tony suggests, in a blatant ploy to distract him. Steve adores The Goonies.

"Okay," Steve says, and opens another Gatorade. His blood has to be 75% sugar at this point.

Steve falls asleep halfway through. Tony lets the movie play on and messes around with some preliminary theories on neurokinetic nanoparticles that might end up as something useful someday. It's just the germ of an idea, not much to really work with, but he enjoys envisioning the possibilities.

By then it’s late, and it’s hard to believe only the two of them have made such a giant mess of the TV room; the table is littered with takeout cartons and empty bottles, broken cookies and discarded napkins. They have a cleaning staff, but it's never a good idea to leave bottles and cans in the TV room, because they tend to end up getting thrown at people's heads, so Tony tries to gather those up at least.

Ten seconds later there's red Gatorade spilled down the front of his shirt, on the rug, and all over the coffee table, where it pools in the congealed grease in the takeout cartons. Swearing under his breath, he tugs his wet shirt—sticky and pink and already really cold—over his head and uses a dry spot to ineffectually wipe himself down.

Just then Jarvis says, "You have an incoming video call, sir," and Tony looks at his watch. It's after midnight—this can't be good.

"Give me a preview," Tony says, and Jarvis obligingly puts a freeze-frame of the caller up on the TV.

"Oh, God, not him again," Tony groans. It's Namor, Crown Pompous Ass of Atlantis. "What the hell does he want?"

"He would not tell me, sir. He says he does not converse with servants."

"The next time he insults you, Jarvis, feel free to sell all his stocks at a loss."

"Thank you, sir. Do you wish to take the call?"

Tony doesn’t. He does not like Namor. Namor is a haughty, arrogant, self-centered blowhard who considers nearly everyone else in the world beneath him, and he absolutely gives no fucks at all what anyone thinks of him, which is probably the only thing Tony can really appreciate about him.

Right now he's sprawled languidly on his enormous golden seashell throne, wearing his ridiculous green fish-scale panties, looking like he has not a care in the world. His legs are spread way, way too far open, as if he wants everyone who lays eyes on him to behold the royal package.

Tony tosses his wet shirt on the coffee table and sits down with a disgusted sigh. "Start the feed—no, wait, zoom in first, pan up, at least waist level. Jesus Christ, I know he's half mermaid or something, but would it kill him to wear pants?"

"Starting the feed, sir," Jarvis says, once the view is adjusted.

"Hello, Stark," Namor says. His voice is even deeper than Thor's, and he has two moods: bored and enraged. Right now he seems bored. "I require the assistance of the Avengers."

"Sucks to be you, I guess, because it’s a holiday and we're the only two here." He gestures toward Steve, fast asleep under a Hello Kitty blanket someone left in the TV room as a joke (Tony hopes it was a joke).

"Your traditions are inconsequential to me," Namor says with an indifferent wave of his hand. "The two of you will suffice."

"Gee, thanks." Tony reaches over and pokes Steve's leg. "Hey, Cap, wake up. You wanna go visit SpongeBob?"

Steve lifts his head, blinking sleepily, a little confused. "Go visit who?" He peers at the TV. "Is that Namor?"

Namor doesn't deign to answer. He looks two seconds away from examining his fingernails.

"His royal smugness requests our presence," Tony explains.

Steve sits up and pushes the blanket away, and then stretches, cracking his neck and yawning. "Okay," he says, because he's so damn agreeable with everyone, even dickheads like Namor.

Tony looks back at the TV, determined to get at least a few more details before he agrees to go rushing off to Atlantis in the middle of the night, but Namor is looking at Steve. He raises an eyebrow, then returns his gaze to Tony and says, "Interesting."

"What's interesting?" Steve asks, and then yawns again.

Tony looks over at Steve, and this time he sees what Namor is seeing. Steve's uncharacteristically messy hair, sticking up all over his head; his too-tight T-shirt, twisted around his torso, riding up to show his flat belly; his too-big pants, pulled down on one side to expose a hip bone; his mouth, soft from sleep and stained red from too much Gatorade. He looks like someone’s ravaged the hell out of him, and Tony—who is sitting next to him in only his underwear, he remembers all of a sudden—just told Namor they are alone in the house.

He doesn't really care what Namor thinks, and in fact the idea that someone might assume he is sleeping with Steve Rogers is completely inconsequential at the moment because Tony's sex drive, which has been held hostage by his broken heart for months, suddenly turns over and roars to life like a perfectly tuned engine just waiting for someone to turn the key, and all Tony can think is that he wishes he were sleeping with Steve Rogers.

~*~

He can't sleep with Steve Rogers, of course. For one thing: 150% straight. Minimum. There are also many other words to describe how off-limits Steve is: Roommate. Teammate. Old-fashioned, sexually repressed national icon.

He tells himself he needs to get over it, but that doesn’t really work.

He tries to ignore it, and that doesn't work either, because he suddenly can't stop noticing how stunningly attractive Steve is, and even though he seems to consider anything less than neck to ankle clothing hopelessly improper, there are a million little things every day that make Tony's brain fog over with lust. The strip of naked skin where his shirt rides up, just wide enough to lightly run two fingers across; the graceful bow of the tendon in his neck when he turns his head, the perfect size for Tony to close his teeth on; the curve of his bicep where one of his tiny T-shirts strains over the bulge of muscle that’s constantly tempting Tony to cup his hand around it.

These are the things, so innocent and yet so pervasive, that Tony can't get away from. He feels like he's living back in the Victorian era and Steve won't stop flashing his damn ankles at him.

He can look but can’t touch. He reminds himself of that about fifty times a day.

Nearing his breaking point, Tony takes his newly rebooted sex drive out for a test run and...doesn't actually get laid. His standards, post-Pepper, are now depressingly high when it comes to women, and it appears that since Thanksgiving he’s a little more than 8% into dudes.

No big deal, he figures. It’s not like there’s any shortage of guys looking for meaningless sex. Except it turns out maybe Tony isn’t one of those guys anymore, because he ends up hanging out with Steve instead a whole lot of the time, no matter how firmly he tells himself that tonight he’s going to go out and find someone hot enough to obliterate the memory of Steve’s bare belly, or at least suck it out of Tony’s brain through his dick.

But something in Tony has changed, perhaps irrevocably. He sees pretty faces and pretty bodies all over the place, but what's inside them holds no appeal. The people in his life now have changed him, maybe because there's something in them that he responds to, without realizing it. Something in Rhodey and Pepper and Steve and Natasha and everyone he knows who has so much good inside them, so much talent and drive; that's what he looks for over and over, and never finds.

His whole life he's always felt set apart from everyone around him, because he was smarter, richer, mouthier. More motivated, more privileged, more arrogant. But that's not the case anymore. There's no one like him, that's true, but there are others who are with him in this thing he's doing who can stand shoulder to shoulder with him, and he never feels like he has to compensate for their shortcomings, or carry their weight. He's unique, but he's not alone.

He supposes that means he's grown as a person, which is something a lot of people probably think him incapable of, but it's a small comfort. He's just started getting past the thing with Pepper, just stopped feeling like he was missing a limb, and now he's back to yearning after someone he can't have.

What he needs is time and distance—that worked with Pepper—but it's impossible to get those things when he and Steve are living and working together. He has no choice--he carves out a place all for himself where he can, slowly takes back all the minutes of his life he's been devoting to Steve. He closes his hands on the ember, starves it of oxygen, watches it die.

~*~

The Avengers hold a holiday toy drive, and everyone has to show up at FAO Schwarz for a big ceremony, shake hands and sign autographs and get their pictures taken with anyone patient enough to stand out in the cold for seven hours.

Thor is in heaven, shaking hands so hard he probably rattles some teeth loose, hefting people up on his shoulders for photos, kissing every baby that gets within striking distance. Clint collects about sixty phone numbers and cheerfully signs every toy bow solemnly presented to him by a child.

A lot of people are too terrified of Bruce to approach him, though Tony recognizes the princess Hulk from the Halloween party, and there's always at least one dumbass who wants to try to piss him off; it's like the New Yorker version of running with the bulls. Bruce must have taken a Xanax or something, though, because he looks a little glazed. Just in case, he's stationed between Natasha and Steve, who do their best to run interference. Natasha's line appears to be mostly single guys and parents with little girls wearing plastic Widow's Bite bracelets, Steve's is a pretty even mix of kids and adults, and Tony's is mostly women.

Tony and Steve are next to each other, because Tony didn't think to arrange it so they weren't. This might be the longest length of time they've spent in each other's presence in days. It's not hostile, but it's already not like it used to be, which is how he wants it, Tony reminds himself. He wants it how it was when Steve first moved into the house, when they were civil but not overly friendly.

It's been a bitch, standing his ground like this, staying away from Steve when he keeps turning up with that hopeful look on his face, waiting for Tony to make some time for him. Tony hopes that pretty soon he'll finally stop coming around completely, stop asking him to do things, so Tony won't have to see the bewilderment on Steve's face when he turns him down yet again.

He tries not to think about it too much, tries to keep his eyes off of Steve as they accept toy after toy, kiss cheek after cheek, sign picture after picture. Tony can’t wait for the afternoon to be over, to get away from the hands of strangers, from Steve’s friendly smile that’s not for him anymore.

At the end of it they’ve collected a mind-blowing number of toys, and Tony has plenty of phone numbers of his own, all women. Which is fine, he likes women a lot, he's at least 78% straight.

~*~

He only has one moment of weakness, and it's not his fault, because he is drunk. Because he is really, really drunk. (Again.)

Thor throws a New Year’s Eve party that would be completely unforgettable if everyone didn't drink so much they can't remember it. That’s because the guest of honor is Miriam, who arrives in a cab escorted by Steve, and is hailed by Thor and his buddies as a deity. Fandral even gets down on one knee and kisses her hand.

It's been a project and a half just to get her here. Tony, conscious of her busy social life, had invited her two months in advance, but she didn’t agree to come until the last minute, when her latest romantic conquest had ended up in the hospital recovering from a quadruple bypass. Even then, Tony’d had to negotiate with her, and ended up promising the best guest room for the night, and that he’d send her flowers once a month for the entire upcoming year.

There are thousands of people who would shank their mother for a chance to come to a party thrown by the Avengers. Miriam? She’ll show up if she doesn’t have anything better to do. Tony’s adoration is total and complete.

He tells himself he’s only going to have one glass of hooch, and then he’s going to switch to something a little less deadly. A few hours later, he’s not really sure how many glasses he’s had, because the one in his hand never seems to be empty, no matter how much he drinks. But technically it’s the same glass he started with, so he’s not breaking the rules.

He should eat, he thinks, that’ll help. But when he looks over at the buffet, Sif has cornered a terrified looking Happy by the cheese platter and is poking him in the chest with her finger, a fierce look on her face. Tony’s not going anywhere near the cheese platter.

He decides to sit down instead, and that’s how he accidentally finds Rhodey, who is sprawled face-down on the couch, moaning into the cushions.

"So," Tony says gleefully, taking a seat on the arm of the couch. "On a scale of 'one' to 'I'm from Asgard,' just how drunk are you?"

Rhodey cracks an eye. "If I give you your suit back, will you promise to kill me? I don't care how, as long as it's painless."

"You can’t give up now," Tony tells him. "You have to come through the other side or you don’t get your badge."

"The scary thing," Rhodey says, "is that you probably do have badges. I can’t believe you live like this. You guys are all nuts."

"I take no responsibility for this," Tony says. "I live with the god of drunkenness, blame him. And it's not my fault you're dumb enough to play beer pong with a guy named Hawkeye."

"Ugh, beer," Rhodey groans.

Bruce wanders up with a big glass of something that Tony hopes has a mellowing effect. He gestures toward Miriam, who is over in the corner doing shots with Hogun and a guy in a cowboy hat who is probably Thor’s guest. He loves cowboys, has ever since someone took him to a rodeo.

"She doesn't know who we are," Bruce says wonderingly, because he’s just figuring this out. "How is that possible?"

"She only watches the Game Show Network," Tony explains, then gets distracted because Clint is doing a handstand on the back of a chair while Natasha does a handstand on his upturned feet. Tony has a vision of what it must have been like when they were fucking and his eyes almost roll back in his head. He’s so, so sorry he’ll never see that in person.

Some stuff happens after that, maybe. It's hard to pay attention. After a while Rhodey isn’t on the couch anymore, but Clint is there, slouched over the back. He has lipstick on the corner of his mouth. Tony pats him on the arm, trying to get his attention.

"Lemme tell you something, wait, lemme tell you something," he says to Clint, who is standing there patiently, waiting for Tony to tell him. "This will blow your mind."

"Okay, what?" It comes out as a challenge, but Tony's not worried.

"She," he points to Miriam, "was born the same year as Steve."

That does indeed blow Clint's mind. It's one thing to know Steve is technically approaching the century mark, but it's quite another to actually have the comparison right there in front of you, see what he would look like now if the government hadn’t gotten a hold of him (and if he’d managed to live that long, which is, honestly, incredibly doubtful).

Tony grins knowingly, because this is the kind of mind fuck he deals with all the time, during those many hours on Miriam's cramped couch, sitting between them (why is he always in the middle, he wonders belatedly), feeling like he’s in the Twilight Zone.

Thor wanders up and fills Tony’s glass again. Now Tony knows who to blame.

By midnight, everyone else is plastered, too. Natasha is showing Miriam how to throw a knife. Jane and Darcy are facing off against Thor and Clint in some kind of argument Tony has no doubt the ladies will win. Then something else happens that Tony misses and Bruce Hulks out and spends the rest of the night in the TV room watching Paula Deen.

Steve passes most of the evening watching Miriam like a hawk and busting out the wrinkle of disapproval all over the place. Tony had pledged to avoid him as much as possible, but somehow they end up alone over in the corner by the fireplace.

"Hey, where’s your shirt?" he asks. He knows Steve was wearing one of his starched-to-death checkered shirts earlier. Now he’s just in his white undershirt.

Steve looks down, as if he hadn’t noticed his shirt was missing. "Oh, Sif took it. She said she needed to make a tourniquet."

Tony thinks he should be concerned about that, but Steve doesn’t seem to be, and, hey, that’s a great idea, he’ll just let Steve do all the worrying tonight. He seems to enjoy it more anyway.

Case in point: right now he’s looking around for Miriam and fretting.

"Leave her alone," Tony says, "she's having a good time."

"She shouldn't be drinking so much," Steve says. He looks really worried.

"That woman," Tony says, pointing at Steve with his glass, "That woman has the alcohol tolerance of a brontosaurus. She's fine. And she's making friends."

"He drinks a whiskey drink, he drinks a vodka drink!" Thor and Volstagg bellow, as they stomp past, carrying Miriam on their shoulders.

"See?" Tony says, triumphant.

Steve doesn’t look at all comforted by this. He turns back towards Tony, probably ready to bitch about something. He’s standing close—really close, too close—and Tony is feeling friendly and affectionate. He can't be blamed for what happens next.

Tony leans in and slides his hand up under Steve’s shirt, presses his palm to Steve’s belly. "My life would be so much easier if you got some shirts that fit," he says.

Steve puts his hand over Tony’s, through the shirt, and holds it there. Tony can feel him breathing. He's really warm.

"And my life would be easier if you didn’t drink so much," he says, and somehow manages to make it sound like he's asking a favor rather than criticizing.

"Then I won't," Tony decides, and tosses his empty glass over Steve's shoulder. It sails in an arc into the foyer, where it hits the floor and shatters. A cheer goes up from Thor and his friends, and Tony hears another glass break, then another. His hand is still under Steve's shirt. Steve is still holding it there.

Steve doesn’t even turn to look at what’s happening behind him. He closes his eyes for a second and shakes his head. "What are you doing?" he asks Tony. He looks like he's trying to decide if he's sad or exasperated.

"I mean it," Tony says, with complete sincerity. "If you don't want me to get drunk, I won't." He hadn't overdone it even once when he was with Pepper. It hadn't been a conscious decision, and he still drank plenty, because Tony loves booze, you can take that to the bank, but he didn't get drunk. He just...hadn't needed to. He wouldn't need to with Steve, either. He knows it.

Steve puts his other hand on the wall next to Tony’s ear and dips his head so they’re eye to eye, no way to avoid looking at him. Normally when he’s drunk Tony feels safe, hidden behind a wall of alcohol, and like nothing can touch him. This is not the first time being drunk in Steve’s presence has had the complete opposite effect. He feels exposed and helpless. He knows he isn't going to like what comes out of Steve's mouth next, and a second later he's proven right.

"Tony, why are you so unhappy?"

Tony doesn’t even know how to answer that, so he doesn’t try. He smiles, the easy, careless smile of a very drunk person. "Do I look like an unhappy man to you?"

Steve brings his hand up like he’s going to touch Tony’s face, but in the end he doesn’t. He pushes himself off the wall and walks away, probably going to clean up all that broken glass. He doesn’t look at Tony again. And just like that he’s back to being what he was five minutes ago, before Tony knew what it felt like to slip a hand under his shirt and touch his warm skin. He’s just another person Tony Stark’s successfully managed to drive away.

~*~

The next morning is a beast for everyone except Steve, who is up at his usual (horrifyingly early) time, looking like he’s ready to take on the world, which is a good thing, because if that needs doing, he’s gonna have to go it alone.

The other person feeling no pain is, of course, Miriam, who is sitting at the table with Steve, drinking a cup of coffee and eating a piece of toast, when Tony finally drags his rotting carcass down to the kitchen.

Tony feels Steve’s eyes on him as he zombie-shuffles toward a chair, and decides to pretend nothing weird happened the night before. He certainly didn’t grope Captain America at the office New Year’s party. No, sir, not this guy. He takes a seat and stares blearily at the table.

"Good morning," Steve says.

"Happy New Year," Miriam says.

"I wish I were dead," Tony says.

Darcy walks in wearing (only) what Tony recognizes as Clint’s shirt from the night before. She mumbles sweetly at everyone, then grabs two cups of coffee and walks back out.

Steve pushes back his chair and gets up, snagging Miriam's cup as he goes. "Don't look so surprised," he says to Tony. "This isn't the first time." He's plainly getting a little thrill out of knowing something Tony didn't.

"Really? How long?" Jarvis has really fallen down on keeping him current on gossip.

Steve fills Miriam's cup, then goes to the cupboard and grabs a huge mug Tony desperately hopes is for him. "I don’t know exactly, but he went to visit her family with her over Christmas, so I guess it's not just a temporary thing." He fills the big mug and brings it to Tony, who almost weeps with gratitude.

Then Tony forgets all about Darcy and Clint because Natasha walks in wearing only a bed sheet, and walks out with three cups of coffee.

"Aha!" Tony says, pointing at Steve. "You didn’t know that, did you?" Tony didn't either—has no idea specifically who the other two people are, though he could make some pretty educated guesses—but he still counts it as a win.

"I think I need to make more coffee," Steve says, staring after her.

After he gets over his initial shock, Tony’s actually relieved there are a lot of other things going on in the house that make him copping a feel last night seem downright boring. Odds are no one even noticed him getting handsy with Steve in the corner. Except Steve, but he’ll never tell anyone, Tony’s pretty sure of that.

He hangs out in the kitchen for a while out of politeness because Miriam, who is a chatterbox in the morning, is there. She enjoyed the hell out of the party, and remembers a whole lot more about it than Tony. According to her, a great time was had by all, and she thinks Steve and Tony have very nice friends. Her purse is bulging with poker winnings, though Tony can only barely remember there was a game at some point.

Steve is polite and friendly enough, but he doesn't seem to look Tony in the eye when he talks to him. Tony honestly can't remember if that started before last night, but either way it fits into his overall plan of putting some distance between himself and Steve, so he's not going to dwell on it.

Tony drinks his mug of coffee, then another, and then eats a piece of toast because Miriam insists, and by then he's already thinking about taking a shower and getting his hands on the data from the nanotech simulations Jarvis ran overnight while everyone was getting drunk and horny.

"Ready to go home?" Steve asks Miriam. He looks in Tony’s vague direction. "Jarvis can call us a cab. I’ll go back to Brooklyn with her."

Tony isn’t invited, apparently, which is fine. He’s got two resolutions for the coming year: to invent five things before his birthday, and to not beg Steve to fuck him. Being at home in the shop today is conducive to both.

"Sounds good," Tony says, and bends to give Miriam a kiss on the cheek. Then he tops off his mug and heads back upstairs to wake Thor, because his hammer is hanging off the handle of Miriam’s walker.

~*~

It doesn’t take long for one of Tony’s resolutions to go right to hell. Less than two weeks, in fact.

Some kind of oozy, disgusting alien race crash lands at a shopping mall in Jersey, and all hell breaks loose. It takes the Avengers, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four to get things under control, and they end up destroying part of the mall in the process.

They’re almost done searching the rubble for survivors (or, God forbid, more oozy aliens), when Tony finds himself in what used to be a Hot Topic store, looking for signs of life with Steve and Cyclops.

Steve and Tony are mostly fine with each other when they’re working, even now. They never did bicker less while they were briefly friends, because Steve may be polite and thoughtful, but he’s not a push-over, and their styles are too different for it to not be an issue. It’s the one thing that hasn’t really changed much since the beginning, and it’s the one place where Tony’s still totally comfortable interacting with him, so he doesn’t think anything of it.

"Hey!" someone yells from out in the mall. They all turn to look, and it’s a cop, covered in dust and alien slime. "There’s some smashed up cars blocking the road and the ambulance can’t get through. Can someone give us a hand?"

Cyke immediately steps forward, but the cop holds up a hand. "Whoa, not you, buddy. There’s gas spilled all over the place. We don’t need a fire on top of everything else."

"That’s not—" Cyclops starts to say, but then Thor yells, from somewhere, "I am on my way, my friend!" and the cop takes off without a backwards glance.

Cyclops turns back, muttering to himself, and shoulders his way past a rack of Twilight T-shirts, which immediately collapses in a tangled heap of black cotton and sparkly vampire faces. He snarls at it and kicks it out of the way, then freezes when he sees Steve and Tony staring at him.

"Hey, now," Tony says. "I'm upset Team Edward won, too, but we gotta keep it together, man."

"Are, uh, you okay?" Steve asks him. He’s got his shield raised halfway, like he’s expecting Cyke to go nuts and start trying to kill them any second now.

"My eye beams aren’t made of fire," Cyclops says, weirdly intense. "They aren’t hot. They are concussive force. How many times to do I have to explain this?" He gives the rack of shirts another kick and stomps back out into the mall.

"Okay," Tony says. "That was a little weird."

"What’s Team Edward?" Steve asks.

"I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear you don’t know," Tony tells him.

They check the whole store, picking their way through piles of debris consisting mostly of Angry Birds toys and Dr. Martens boots. There’s no one here—the mall was evacuated pretty quickly—but they search every inch anyway.

Tony comes out of the back room—a nightmare of leopard print and skinny jeans—to find Steve leaning against the cash register, arms crossed over his chest, looking stoic and determined.

"What’s going on?" Tony asks warily. He looks around, but sees nothing amiss.

Steve reaches up and tugs his helmet off and sets it down on the counter, then pushes the hood back. "I want to talk to you."

Uh oh, Tony thinks. Taking the hood off is a sure sign of a serious conversation. "Right now?"

"Yes. I need to ask—" he says, then stops, looking frustrated, and gestures toward Tony with his shield. "Can you open the faceplate, please?"

Tony would rather not—he has a feeling whatever conversation they're about to have will be a whole lot easier if he can stay hidden inside the suit—but he does it anyway.

"There you go," he says, once it pops open and his eyes adjust. "What's up?"

Steve looks him in the eye for the first time in what feels like weeks and says, "Why did you stop being my friend?"

Tony is not prepared for that question at all. He thinks, Oh shit, and the faceplate snaps down so fast it startles him, and he stupidly grabs at it with his hands, which of course does nothing. "Wait, no, that's not—dammit!" he says. On the HUD, he can see Steve watching him, mouth twisted in annoyance. "Jarvis, can you—"

"My apologies, sir," Jarvis says. "Your vital signs indicated a threat in the vicinity, which initiated the emergency lockdown sequence."

"I'm fine, I'm fine," he says, though he really isn't, he's terrified, but the faceplate flips back up anyway. He takes the helmet off completely, just to be on the safe side.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to do that, I swear," he says, though he belatedly realizes he should have left it down, pleading a malfunction, and flown away.

Steve's watching him in silence. He's not amused. "Answer my question."

It suddenly dawns on Tony that they're doing this now, here, in uniform, because this is Captain America, forthright and afraid of nothing, who is demanding answers from him. He's so fucked.

He takes a deep breath. He can do this. "I didn't stop being your friend. We're still friends," he says lightly. Maybe playing dumb will work with Steve.

Steve immediately shakes his head. So much for that strategy. "No, we aren't. Don't lie."

"Hey, it’s not a lie," he says, trying to sound as nonchalant as he can about it. "Friendships just have ups and downs, that’s all. Sometimes you hang out with someone a lot, and sometimes you don’t. It’s no big—are you buying any of this?" he asks, when he sees the way Steve’s glowering at him.

"No." His jaw is clenched so tight his lips barely move.

"I’ve been really busy? I’m allergic to your cologne? Coulson told me I’m not allowed to be your friend? Any of this working?"

Steve shakes his head again.

"Well, then I guess I’m out of excuses," Tony admits. He’d shrug his shoulders, but it doesn’t translate well in the suit.

"Then why don’t you try being honest?" Steve asks, with just a thread of sarcasm, which is highly unusual. Tony is in so much trouble.

Being honest is the least appealing option of all, Tony thinks, but, fine. Here goes: "I had to stop hanging out with you so much," he says, "because I didn't want to be just your friend anymore. And I didn't think you realized that, or that you wanted it, and so I just. Had to stop."

Steve's arms drop to his sides and his eyes widen almost comically. "Are you joking?"

"Not at all," Tony says. As painful as this conversation is, it almost feels good to get it out in the open. "Look, I already had one person I was pining after who wouldn’t sleep with me, and I didn't really have the time to fit in another one, so I had to cut you loose. It's nothing personal, it was just a time management issue."

"You want to sleep with me?" Steve asks. He takes a step toward Tony, who has to fight the urge to take a step of his own, though in the opposite direction.

"Yes," Tony says. He waves a hand helplessly. What can you do?

Steve looks over his shoulder at the busted remains of the Hot Topic door, then turns back toward Tony. "You really wanted...?"

"Yes," Tony repeats, this time a little grumpily. God, this is torture. It's like he keeps ripping off the band-aid only to find another band-aid. "Yes. I wanted to fuck you, okay? I still want to fuck you. I want to take off all your clothes, I want to put my mouth on you, I want to suck--"

"Me, too," Steve says, so fast the words run together.

"—you until you beg for—what did you just say?"

"I said I want that, too," Steve says again, a little louder this time, and with what looks like considerable effort. His face is turning red. "I want to--" he can't seem to bring himself to say fuck "--to do those things, or at least try them. With you."

Tony stands there blinking at him as he digests this information. He never saw this coming in a million years. Steve is watching him with an expression that appears to be equal parts lust and terror.

"Uh, do you even like guys? That way?" Tony asks after he’s had a chance to gather his wits. Because this still seems impossible.

"Some guys," Steve admits. He looks like he's trying not to squirm. It’s probably something he's never discussed out loud with anyone before, and Tony sympathizes, but he also remembers that Steve started this.

"Some guys," Tony repeats. Guys, plural. "Like me and who else?" They live with Clint and Thor--this could just be some crazy Stockholm syndrome thing where he's attracted to all the hot weirdos he can't get away from.

Steve hesitates, then says, "And Bucky."

"Bucky?" Holy shit. Holy shit. Tony thinks about all those conversations they had about Steve's life before this, all the stories about him and Bucky, the story about how he rescued Bucky, and realizes he's an idiot, a giant idiot, to not have noticed that this whole time Steve wasn't just mourning one lost love, but two.

He takes a step toward Steve, and then realizes what he just did and stops. Steve takes a step toward him, and then they're rushing at each other. There's a joke about magnets in there somewhere.

He grabs Steve by the back of the neck and pulls him in to kiss him, and it's nothing like he expected. It's not some sweet and chaste 1940s movie kiss, it's hot and desperate, and Steve's tongue is in his mouth and they're clanking against each other because Steve's still holding his shield and Tony is still in the suit and oh God, he wants to touch him, he wants to feel him, but he's in the damn suit. All he can get is Steve's mouth on his, and it’s not enough, Steve's hand curls into his hair, holding tight, angling his head just right. Tony's still got his gauntlets on, he can't even get any skin--

"Jesus Christ," he says when they break apart, panting. Steve's mouth moves down his jaw, tries to nudge under his neck, but he can't tip his head back that far in the suit. He wants to scream in frustration.

"Your timing sucks," Tony says a little unsteadily, as Steve’s teeth graze his ear.

"I know," Steve says, and laughs, a low, throaty sound Tony's never heard him make before, and it nearly liquefies his spine.

"Jesus Christ, touch me," he says against Steve's temple. "I want to feel--"

"I am, I am,” Steve pants.

"No, not like—touch me, with skin, something--" He's stuck in this giant metal container, he can't feel anything, it's awful.

There's a loud clang as the shield hits the floor. Steve yanks his gloves off with his teeth and grabs Tony's face in his hands, kisses him again, and Tony makes an embarrassingly high-pitched sound. They're both sweaty, it should be gross, but Steve's hands are on his face and neck, his fingers curling behind his ears, and Tony could almost come just from this. He wraps his hands around Steve's biceps and hangs on, moaning into Steve's mouth, nipping at his lower lip, until they hear Hulk yelling, "Avengers leave now!" and break apart, wild-eyed and dizzy.

~*~

It's the longest debrief ever. Tony sits at a table with his entire team and Coulson and Fury, trying not to stare hungrily across the table at Steve. His skin feels too tight, his face too hot, and he can't believe everyone is acting so normal when he's about to pass out or explode or tackle Steve to the floor; he’s not sure which feels more imminent.

Even worse, Fury asks for "just a sec" with Tony after the meeting, and Tony has a moment of panic that Fury already knows, but it turns out he just wants to ask Tony to please stop telling people Coulson is the Avengers' janitor. Which is totally unfair, because Clint was the one who started that. But Tony wants to get home as fast as he can, so he acts contrite, and agrees that was a terrible thing to do, so quickly and so readily that Fury ends up even more suspicious.

When he finally busts loose, Steve is waiting for him in the hallway, looking fidgety. "What'd he want?" he asks, before Tony can say anything, clearly having the same thought Tony had earlier.

"He doesn't know," Tony says, and then can't help but smile at Steve's immediate look of relief. "But you do realize having sex with me is probably a terrible idea, right?" It's his standard disclaimer.

Steve lets out a short bark of laughter. "Yeah, I know," he says. Then he adds, "Plus, Fury said he'd personally kill me if I ever spent more than thirty minutes alone with you, because you're a bad influence."

"Eh, well, you broke that rule a long time ago," Tony shrugs. He’s good at not dwelling on broken rules.

Steve grins at him, loose and easy, the one Tony is pretty sure no one ever sees but him. "I know. And I don't care."

"Great. Perfect," Tony says. "Let's get out of here."

"Let's go to my place," Steve says, and Tony stops himself just in time, manages to not blurt, "Are you nuts?" He’s been wondering how the hell he'd make it to his own house without going insane with lust, now he has to go all the way to Brooklyn?

But Steve's looking at him like he can't wait to touch him, eyes lingering on Tony's mouth, his hands, his shoulders. He looks like it's taking all his willpower to keep his hands to himself, and that look would make Tony agree to anything. Even stupid things like going to Brooklyn to get laid.

"All right," he says, doing an admirable job, he thinks, of not revealing that he is about to die. "I'm going to run home quick, and then I'll meet you there."

Steve says, "I’ll see you soon," then reaches out and squeezes Tony’s arm, right above his elbow, just for a second, before he turns and walks away, while Tony stands there trying to convince his knees not to buckle.

~*~

Tony breaks about seventeen different traffic laws on his way to Steve’s and takes the stairs two at a time, even with a bag on his shoulder stuffed to bursting with clothes and lube and condoms and two toothbrushes, plus anything else he thought he might need, because he plans to spend the next week in Steve’s bed, if Steve and the universe will let him.

At first glance, Steve looks perfectly normal when he answers the door, but he’s a little rattled, if you look closely. He’s not wearing a belt, the part in his hair is not maniacally straight, and he’s barefoot—Tony’s never seen him barefoot before.

He barely waits for Tony to get inside before he grabs a double fistful of Tony’s shirt and kisses him. Tony lets the bag slide off his arm and practically climbs Steve like a tree, giddy with relief that they’re finally alone, that there’s no armor between them. Steve’s already hard, jabbing Tony in the stomach, hands making a crazy mess of Tony's hair.

"Bed," Tony manages to get out, and Steve takes him by the hand and leads him into the bedroom, which makes Tony feel a little like a virginal prom date, but a second later he’s too busy trying to get his shoes off and kiss Steve at the same time to care.

Steve goes down on his back willingly enough, eagerly kisses Tony when he clambers on top of him, but the earlier aggressiveness seems to slowly evaporate. They grind against each other, Tony trying to be mindful and not jab Steve with the arc reactor, but there are too many distractions, and he probably does it anyway. He manages to get Steve’s shirt off, but Steve doesn’t make a move on Tony’s clothes, doesn’t even grab his ass, which is one of the benefits of being on top, getting your ass grabbed.

They make out for a while more, and Steve finally sticks his hands under the hem of Tony’s shirt, but Tony can’t help noticing that the longer they do this, the more tentative Steve gets. He props himself up on his hands and looks down at him. His hair’s in complete disarray now, which is more of a turn-on than it should probably be, and he’s running his fingers lightly along the waistband of Tony’s pants, reaching to kiss Tony’s neck.

"Hey, it’s okay to change your mind," Tony says, and even manages to make it sound like it won’t kill him if that happens.

Steve’s head thumps back down on the bed. The look on his face says he doesn’t follow. "About what?" he asks, brow furrowing.

About me, Tony thinks, but what he says is, "About this."

Steve’s hands stop moving. "What?"

"You just seem a little…I don’t know." Passive. Reluctant. Tony can’t think of a word that doesn’t sound at least a little insulting.

Now Steve gets it. His eyes skitter away, fixing on a point somewhere past Tony's right shoulder as his teeth catch his lower lip, worry at it. This is telling, because Steve isn’t one for nervous tics. "I, uh, haven't done this a lot," he says, still not looking at Tony. "I mean, there were always people around, and there was a war, and...there just weren't many opportunities."

And then Bucky died, Steve doesn't say, but he doesn't have to—Tony knows this story by heart.

It's easy to understand how Steve Rogers, upstanding US citizen and face of American soldiers everywhere, would have found it nearly impossible to evade the constant scrutiny he must have been under, even for a fifteen minutes. Tony thinks about what it was like back at SHIELD just an hour ago, what it would be like to live with that all the time, and he can't even imagine how he would be able to tolerate it.

Steve finally meets Tony's eyes again, smiles a little reluctantly. "So now you know."

"That’s okay, neither have I," Tony says immediately. Steve gives Tony a dubious look, and then actually rolls his eyes. Steve Rogers rolls his eyes. Tony didn't even realize Steve knew how to do that.

"No, I'm serious, I haven't, not with guys. I mean, I've slept with so many women I don't even remember them all--" Steve's eyes widen, and not in good way, that was maybe not the best thing to say "—but not so many guys. It’s mainly a once in a while kind of thing, and not much at all recently. Oh, except I made out with Wolverine at a party in SoHo once, but everybody's ridden that pony, so that hardly counts."

"Wolverine?" Steve says faintly.

"Yes. But like I said--"

"Everybody?" Steve says, a little less faintly.

Tony shrugs a shoulder. "Pretty much. You think I'm free with my affections, you should see—okay, you know what, just take my word for it, no need to see for yourself. So, basically, just some messing around here and there, and also I've watched Anal Warriors IV, like, twenty times."

Steve has that look on his face that he gets when he understands every thirtieth word or so. Tony decides a summary might save time: "The point is, it doesn't matter."

"All right," Steve says, looking a little unsure, and like he’d rather just forget the last two minutes.

"Have I completely talked you out of sleeping with me?” Tony asks, but he already knows the answer to that, because he can feel Steve, still hard, pressing against his own erection.

The Wrinkle of Disapproval (it's totally capitalized now) is on the verge of showing up. "Not yet, but you should probably shut up now."

Tony can't resist a beautiful set-up like that. "Then you better give me something to do with my mouth," he says, making a cheesy line even cheesier by throwing in an eyebrow wiggle.

Steve smirks at him (A smirk! First an eyeroll and then a smirk, what the hell is this world coming to?) and pulls him in for a kiss, of all things. Tony thinks Steve really wasn't exaggerating his lack of experience if he doesn’t realize Tony just offered him a blowjob. But at least Tony knows what's going on now, and that's good. He decides he’s going to take it slow, be patient and understanding, give Steve time to feel comfortable before moving things along.

Steve appears to decide on the complete opposite strategy, and starts in on Tony’s fly.

Tony's always thought patience is over-rated anyway. He hops off the bed and strips, then goes to work on Steve’s pants, because Steve appears to be too (gratifyingly) busy staring at Tony to get himself naked.

"Nice," Tony says appreciatively when he finally gets him undressed and can stand back and look at him, naked and faintly blue from the glow of the arc reactor. It’s a sight which is oddly compelling, and Tony suspects he's developing a new kink on the spot.

Steve's a wet dream, smooth skin and rounded muscle sculpting the nearly hairless dips and curves of his legs, his arms, his chest, the gentle ridges his stomach. He doesn't look real. Even his dick is pretty, how the hell does that even happen? It’s flushed red, ram-rod straight, already leaking all over his stomach, starting to pool into his belly button.

One of Steve's hands is wrapped around the back of Tony's knee, and he tugs on him, urging him back down onto the bed, and Tony doesn't need to be asked twice. He straddles Steve’s thighs and takes him in his hand, thick and heavy, and even at the first touch Steve is gasping and lifting his hips. It’s been seven decades since he got laid, Tony remembers. Luckily, Tony performs well under pressure.

He dips his fingers into Steve’s belly button, uses it to slick him up, spreading it all the way down to the base with loose, easy strokes. Steve’s head is already tossing from side to side on the pillow, perfect chest heaving. He’s probably going to go off any minute. Tony opens his mouth and licks softly at the head of Steve's cock, and Steve's back bends like a bow and he says, "Oh, geez."

Tony wasn’t just trying to make Steve feel better about his lack of experience—he hasn't really done this all that much, at least this particular thing. He's gotten head from plenty of guys, because who turns down no-strings oral sex, but he's not as accustomed to being on the giving end. Turns out the giving end is awesome.

He takes as much as he can, sliding his mouth down the solid length of him until his throat rebels and he has to ease up. Then he picks up a nice rhythm of mouth and hand, working him at a steady pace that should produce results in no time. Tony’s not going to tease him when he’s been waiting so long.

It's only a minute or two before Steve’s thighs are trembling, head thrown back, one hand fisted in the sheets, the other gently cupping the back of Tony's head. He's saying, "Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow," over and over again, and then he goes silent, the hand in Tony's hair tightens, and he says, "I'm--" and then he comes in Tony's mouth. Tony swallows around him, the soft sound he makes as he pulses against Tony's tongue sending shivers down his spine.

Steve lies panting at the ceiling for a minute, still gripping Tony's head, then his arm flops down onto the bed and he says, "Holy cow." When Tony crawls back up and hovers over him, he takes Tony's face in his hands and kisses him. "That was amazing. Thank you."

"Uh, you're welcome," Tony says, feeling awkward. He's never been thanked during sex before, and it's just absurd that Steve would say that, like Tony's doing him a favor. Even the suggestion that’s the case would be nuts, because Steve is absolutely the hottest guy he's ever slept with, and Tony once dated a male model for 36 hours.

"I want to do that to you," Steve says as he flips Tony onto his back like he weighs nothing, and slides down the bed, clearly on a mission.

"Hey, have you done it before?" he can't help asking, and Steve shakes his head, already pushing Tony's thighs apart and settling between them. Tony says, "You don't have to--"

"I want to," Steve says again, and Tony opens his mouth and then shuts it again, because this is the third or fourth time he's tried to talk Steve out of sex with him, why does he keep doing that?

What follows is the most excruciatingly thorough blowjob of Tony's entire life. Steve takes his time, touches him, nuzzles him, licks him, all the way down to his balls and back, and Tony's already half out of his mind by the time Steve gets around to the sucking part, when his mouth slides down over the head of Tony's cock, hot and wet, unbearably slick.

Tony is a dirty talker, he just can't help it, and even though he thinks Steve will be scandalized, he can't help the words that come out of his mouth. The closer he gets to coming, the more graphic it gets, he’s always been this way, and pretty soon he’s describing in raunchy detail just how much he loves to watch Steve suck his cock. He sees Steve blushing, his face is definitely pink, but he doesn't stop, and when Steve looks up Tony's body and meets his eyes, cheeks hollowing as his mouth slowly moves up and down, Tony thinks he likes it.

Steve pushes him toward orgasm one unbearable inch at a time, leisurely and exploring, and Tony spends several heart-pounding minutes right on the brink of coming, so close it’s agonizing. "Oh, God. Steve, please," he grits out. He’s not sure he’s ever been this close to begging before, and Steve isn’t even doing this on purpose. Tony has to remind himself over and over not to grab Steve's head too hard, not to fuck up into his mouth.

Right at the end he can't stop himself, he's clutching Steve's head with both hands, though he's not so much controlling him as he is hanging on for dear life. He teeters on the edge for another endless minute, every muscle in his body pulled tight, and it feels it's never going to happen, so when it does he barely manages to warn Steve in time.

Steve pulls back and finishes him with his hand, watches him shake through it, watches him spatter his own stomach, his chest, even the underside of his chin where his head is thrown back, and after the last pulsing tremor Tony has to grab Steve’s wrist, make him back off, because he’s unbearably sensitive.

Steve comes up onto all fours, looking smug and triumphant, and drags his mouth all the way up Tony’s torso, licking a stripe through the mess on his belly as he goes. It's so deliciously filthy that Tony can't believe this is the same guy who was proclaiming his lack of experience earlier. Tony pulls him down and kisses him, and they slide against each other, wet and warm.

"That was the dirtiest thing I've ever seen," Tony says appreciatively as he slowly licks Steve's chin clean. "You're unbelievable, it's killing me."

Steve’s already hard again, poking stiff and insistent against Tony’s stomach. Tony arches his back a little and Steve thrusts against him, closes his eyes at the wet glide of skin on skin. "Oh, oh that feels good," he says, sounding a little surprised.

Tony grabs his ass with both hands and urges him on. "Go for it."

~*~

The sex is great. Steve’s got a refractory period porn stars would kill for, and has so fervently dedicated himself to learning to suck cock that Tony thinks he should be awarded a doctorate. He’s still fairly quiet when they fuck, which he confesses is a by-product of having to be silent and secretive in the past, and after that Tony considers it a challenge to get him to make as much noise as possible. Turns out one thing Steve has a lot of experience with is handjobs, and Tony's on the receiving end of a few that make that first blowjob look like a quickie. He learns he's not ashamed to beg, after all.

Steve still never utters a four-letter word, but he will try anything—anything—and even if he's blushing forty shades of red, he still wants it, and he's so beautiful to look at Tony thinks he’ll never get enough. He still thanks Tony, every time, but Tony's figured out it isn't some weird gratitude thing, it’s just that Steve is really, really polite, even in bed. After that, Tony stops feeling so uncomfortable about it. After a while, he starts to think it's kind of cute.

Outside of the bedroom, things are not so great, at least in Tony’s head. He has no clue what he’s doing, because hooking up with Steve is surely a recipe for disaster. It's not like it was with Pepper--there’s no certainty that it's right (though look where that got him), so he keeps trying to figure out all the ways it’s wrong. He thinks about ending it constantly.

Not when they're working together, definitely not when they're fucking, but sometimes at night, when he watches Steve sleep, sprawled out in the glow of the arc reactor, he looks so young, so breakable. Because he is young, in a lot of ways. He's barely more than a kid who's never been in a relationship like this before, who's already lost everyone he ever cared about but still trusts Tony—which is probably the worst choice he could possibly make—and who is too naïve to know that this is going to end badly.

Pepper saw what was coming, and she got out before she ended up hating him. Steve's not that savvy, he'll never break it off. Which is why Tony has to.

~*~

He doesn't do it, though.

They have sex a lot, mostly in Tony's bed, and Steve always just assumes he can sleep there all night—which he can, he totally can—and Tony spends a lot of time curled against his broad back, sometimes sleeping, other times letting his mind meander until it lands on something that has him reaching for his phone to make a note, or even slipping into his clothes and going downstairs for a while.

Other times Steve would rather be at his place, so Tony spends the night in Brooklyn with him when he can. Tony starts leaving his toothbrush there even when he's not, and brings Steve those little jugs of chocolate milk he likes, and finally fixes the radio.

Steve won’t let him set up an actual network, but he’s allowed to at least use his tablet in the apartment. He keeps one on the table next to what is now his side of the bed, and even though he doesn’t do a whole lot of work at Steve's, sometimes he sits and messes around while Steve answers his fan mail.

Steve methodically responds to each letter with an autographed photo—one of the glossy promo shots Fury made them all sit for—and a short note, plus some stickers or temporary tattoos or whatever SHIELD has supplied him with that week. The only other person Tony knows who spends this much time responding to their letters is, surprisingly, Natasha.

Tony hired someone to send everyone who writes to him a picture. Dummy signs the promo shots, in batches of a thousand at a time. He’s programmed to mimic Tony’s signature perfectly, and doesn’t get a headache from the smell of the Sharpies.

Steve has a small second bedroom in his apartment that has a weight bench in it and not much else. The walls are decorated with the many drawings Steve’s received from kids, crude crayon reproductions of Captain America, sometimes some of the other Avengers along with him.

He has hundreds of them, rectangles of creased paper that portray Captain America rescuing dogs from lopsided burning buildings, and other heroic things Steve’s never actually done, but definitely would, given the chance. Others depict the artists themselves standing next to Steve, sometimes holding hands. The pictures are a kaleidoscope of crooked stripes and haphazard stars, signed in laboriously printed letters (many of them accidentally written backwards). Steve’s hair is usually bright yellow.

Tony can barely stand to look at them, to look at Steve’s straight back as he sits at the desk, thanking each child for taking the time to write to him. At the way he carefully tapes each drawing to the wall, as if it were a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

Steve is probably the best man Tony has ever known. He's patient and kind and strong and brave. He’s never mean or petty or stingy. He’s generous, and trusting, and selfless, and never hesitates to help or defend someone who needs it. He makes everyone around him—including Tony—want to be a better person.

He's exactly like Captain America, and Tony's having a hard time letting him go.

~*~

"I did something stupid again," Tony says, when Pepper answers her phone. "I slept with Steve."

"With…Steve?" Pepper says slowly, confused. "Steve who?"

"Steve Martin. I’m a huge fan of the banjo," he says. "Steve Rogers, Pepper. Big blond guy? Dresses like Uncle Sam?"

There's an honest-to-God stunned silence. It's been while since he's been able to accomplish that. He feels almost proud. "I had no idea you were—I mean—he’s a man," she stammers.

"Yes, I know that, Pepper. I might have noticed that when I was blowing him." On the other end of the line, Pepper makes a choking sound. "Really, this should not be that much of a surprise. I’m only, like, 53% straight."

"Since when? Tony—I never—"

"You remember Ramon? The masseuse?"

There’s an audible gasp. Twice in one phone call, go him. "You told me you had a bad back!"

"I did! And he helped me with my back. And my front." He grins at his own sharp wit.

Pepper is not happy. "Tony, I was in the next room most of the time, answering your phone, reading your email. Working, while you were--"

"You could have joined us," he says cheerfully. He can practically hear her frothing at the mouth.

"And you could have done that outside of business hours," she says, words clipped and frosty.

"But it was business," Tony insists.

There’s a pause while she figures it out. "You were paying him?"

Tony’s not sure why all of this is so hard to grasp. "What part of him being my masseuse do you not get?"

"Oh, my God," she says. Tony can practically hear her pinching the bridge of her nose. "Tony, paying for sex is illegal."

"Hey, I don’t need to pay for sex," he says, a little offended. "I paid him for the massage. I tipped him for the happy ending. C’mon, Pepper, he had fun, too. And I almost single-handedly funded his graduate degree."

"I can’t believe you," she says. "That is so gross."

"Are you gay bashing me?” Tony asks, with mock incredulousness, just to wind her up. “Because--"

"No, I'm not gay bashing you," Pepper interrupts, "I'm saying it was really inappropriate--"

"—I have to say, I'm feeling really vulnerable here, I'm talking about my feelings and--"

"—that my boss was having sex in his office while I was right on the other side of the door," she finishes.

"—I need your help. Also, when have you ever known me to behave appropriately?"

He's got her there. She must know it, because she doesn't even try to come up with one instance. He decides not to tell her that he actually had a lot of sex, with a lot of different people, while she was in the other room.

"Anyway," Tony says, because they’re way off track now. "Aren’t you going to tell me it's a really bad idea?"

She thinks about it for so long that Tony actually takes the phone away from his ear and looks at the screen, checks to make sure the call wasn't dropped. "Is it?" she asks him finally.

"Yes. That's probably why I did it." Pepper knows better than anyone that Tony has a long tradition of bad decisions to maintain.

He hears a voice in the background, a male voice, Mr. Ryan fucking Reynolds himself, no doubt. Pepper says, "Hang on a sec," then he hears the distinctive muffled rustling that indicates she’s covering the phone with her hand.

She comes back a couple seconds later. "Sorry about that."

"Hey," Tony says, having a delightful thought. "Did I interrupt something? Were you guys having sex?"

"No," she says.

"Huh. That’s too bad," Tony says. It’s his goal in life to cockblock that son of a bitch, somehow, just once.

"I hate to break this to you," she says, voice warm with amusement, "but I wouldn’t have answered my phone."

"All these years together, and no loyalty," Tony says. "None."

"You know," Pepper says, thoughtfully, ignoring his dramatics. "Steve might not be such a bad choice for you."

"Are you nuts?" Tony has to ask. "He’s an awful choice! When we aren’t having sex, all I can think about is what a bad choice he is. You’re supposed to be reinforcing that."

"Then maybe you need to stop thinking about it," Pepper says, which is the stupidest, worst advice he’s ever heard, and his life has been full of people trying to give him advice. And he’s finding it hard to believe Pepper, who has spent years trying to rein in his baser impulses, trying to get him to think before he acts, is telling him to throw caution to the wind.

It’s hopeless, and a little confusing, so he lets her off the phone.

A day or two later, though, he’s already wondering if she’s right. Maybe he needs to stop analyzing it. Maybe he needs to stop trying to get it to make sense, and just go with what he feels.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? He still remembers with painful clarity how sure he'd felt about her, how he’d known in his heart this was it, he was going to be with Pepper forever. He doesn’t trust his heart anymore.

~*~

Tony has no idea what to do for Valentine’s Day, which is why he nearly bursts into tears of joy when Steve informs them they’re taking Miriam out to dinner. It’s perfect, it’s excellent, it’s such a beautiful solution that Tony is embarrassed he didn’t come up with it. Tony and Steve can spend the evening with each other, even go out for a nice (expensive) meal, but it won’t be because they’re doing it together. And Steve won’t bitch about Tony spending too much money. Tony can even buy flowers, which he secretly likes to do.

"The thing I can’t believe," Tony says to Miriam, once they’re seated at the table, "is that you’re free on Valentine’s Day. What happened to the guy with the Jaguar?"

"Oh, I can’t go out for Valentine’s Day with him," Miriam says, squinting at the menu. "He has to spend it with his wife."

The look on Steve’s face is priceless. Tony thinks he might have to use his CPR training for the first time ever. (Thor loves giving CPR, because he’s convinced he’s bringing people back to life. He hardly ever gives anyone else a chance to do it.)

Then she pats Steve on the hand and says, "Relax, dear. It’s his daughter’s birthday, that’s all. He’s widowed, just like me."

Despite the fact that Steve started the evening by having a heart attack over the moral looseness of nonagenarians, they have a great time, and drink a lot of really expensive wine. Tony thinks Steve looks extremely handsome in his dark blue suit, worn this time with a tie that actually belongs to Tony, because Steve has terrible taste in ties.

Unfortunately, word gets out that they are there, and by the time they leave the restaurant, four or five photographers are staked out around the entrance.

Steve, who is normally incredibly gracious whenever anyone wants to talk to him, shake his hand, take his picture, hates the paparazzi. He ducks his head, which Tony rarely sees him do in public, and stares stonily at the sidewalk as they walk to the car. With Miriam along, it’s slow going. Happy’s there with the door open, waiting.

"Why is everyone taking pictures?" she asks, looking around as the flashes go off in quick succession.

Tell her, Tony mouths over her head as Happy helps her into the car. Steve shakes his head and points his chin at Tony. No, you tell her.

"Are you famous?" she asks, once they're all in the car and on their way back to Brooklyn. "Because you two don't seem famous. You're very nice."

"Um, thanks," Steve says.

Tony decides enough is enough. "Yes, we're famous," he says. "I'm Iron Man." He points to Steve. "And he's Captain America."

She looks at Tony, then looks at Steve, then back at Tony. "Sure you are," she says, daintily adjusting her skirt over her crossed knees. "And I'm Wonder Woman."

~*~

Later that night, Steve’s on his hands and knees, rocking back onto two of Tony’s fingers, breath hissing between his teeth as Tony tightens his other hand, gives Steve something slick and tight to push his cock through.

"You’re close, aren’t you?" Tony murmurs.

"Yes," Steve chokes out, hips never stopping, pushing back onto Tony’s fingers, forward into Tony’s fist, the muscles in his back, his thighs, his ass, shifting and bunching as he works himself a little faster, and a little faster still.

He’s silent when he comes, nothing but a sharp intake of breath, and a shudder that moves through his whole body as he clenches around Tony’s fingers. Tony never gets tired of watching it.

Steve collapses on his face with a groan, then makes a pleased hum as Tony climbs on top of him and grinds a little, nipping at his shoulders. Steve’s come twice already, Tony not at all, and he’s ready, more than ready. His cock slides easily through the crack of Steve’s ass, and Tony moves against him idly, not really thinking about it, as he waits patiently for Steve to recover so he can fuck his face. It's Valentine's Day; Tony knows how to be romantic.

Steve whispers, "Yes, do it," and Tony's confused for a second—do what?—and then he gets it and his hips stutter as his mind freezes up for a second because he's never angled for this, never mentioned it, never even thought about it—okay, that's not true, he thinks about it constantly—and now Steve's…Steve is asking him to do it.

"Are you sure?" Tony’s still not entirely certain that they’re thinking about the same thing. Steve isn’t exactly a prude—Tony’s proof enough of that—but whoever gave him the birds and the bees talk seems to have left a lot of stuff out. Not that Tony isn't having a great time filling in the blanks.

Steve lifts his ass and rubs against him. "Yes," he says. His voice is husky and rough, Tony's never heard him sound like this. "I've been waiting for you to--"

"You've been waiting?" Tony blurts, and then almost breaks his neck lunging for the drawer that holds the condoms. The lube’s somewhere on the bed, and it takes a few frantic seconds to locate it. Steve’s head is pillowed on his arms, head turned to watch as Tony slips the condom on and applies what’s probably a ridiculous amount of lube.

The second Tony makes a move toward him, Steve goes back up on all fours. He’s hard again already. That serum is a goddamn wonder drug.

Tony tries to take his time, stroking Steve's hip, easing his way in, but Steve takes him so easily, pushes himself back onto Tony's cock like he can't wait, and Tony's in before he knows it, blinking down at where he's thrusting in and out Steve's ass with something like amazement. Is this really happening?

It is. And it turns out that getting his ass fucked is the thing that finally makes Steve break his sexy vow of silence. He doesn't turn into a screamer, it's not that dramatic, but he says, "Yes, like that," and, "Faster, please," and, "Oh, harder, yes, there," all in that same voice that makes Tony feel like his brains are being scrambled.

Steve comes the first time without either of them laying a hand on him, back arched and panting. Tony keeps fucking him, and the second time he jerks himself off as Tony bends over him, chest pressed to Steve’s back, one hand bracing himself on the headboard, the other around Steve’s ribs, and Steve hold them up, he holds them both up, and when he comes, he says Tony’s name, and that’s enough to undo Tony completely, and he comes with a strangled groan.

Once he catches his breath, Tony lifts up enough for Steve to turn over onto his back, then settles himself on Steve’s thighs as he gets rid of the condom. He's expecting Steve to thank him now, this is usually about the time, but he doesn't.

Steve runs his palms slowly up Tony’s stomach and then over his chest, until his fingers are splayed on either side of the arc reactor, thumbs touching beneath it, gently framing it with his hands. He doesn't say anything at all.

Tony curls his fingers around Steve’s wrists, and holds on.

~*~

Clint's probably not the only one to notice what's going on, but he's the only one to say something to Tony.

The Avengers bust up a party in an old converted warehouse, something that would normally be several miles beneath their pay grade, but this particular warehouse is the stomping grounds of the Lady Killers, two women who look like club kids but between them have more kills than Bruce has ripped shirts.

The Lady Killers don't go down without a fight, but most of the other people in the place seem to be clueless trustafarians and celebutantes, who don't put up any fight at all. Just to be thorough, they gather them all up, and that's how Clint and Tony wind up standing around on the third floor, where they have seven people cuffed together in a circle around a wooden support pillar—four men, two women, and a guy in a foam hot dog costume.

"I'm just here to sing happy birthday!" the hot dog guy protests. His costume is twisted weird, the opening in the front off-center so it covers half his face, and his bun is smeared with taco dip, because he got pushed into the food table. "I don't even know these guys!"

"The cops'll sort it out," Clint says, then takes a threatening step toward him when it looks like he might say something else. The hot dog goes silent.

They're just standing around until the cops come and collect these people—the Lady Killers themselves have already been whisked away by SHIELD—so Tony takes off his helmet and flips through the stack of vinyl records next to the old-school stereo. It's full of all kinds of older stuff these people probably listen to ironically, like Kenny Rogers and Bing Crosby. Tony shakes his head. Hipsters, man.

But then near the back of the crate he finds an actual Glenn Miller V-Disc of "In the Mood." He turns toward the pillar and holds the record up. "Hey, can I have this?"

A guy on the far side of the pillar cranes his neck around so he can see what Tony's talking about. He has a pornstache and Coke bottle glasses. "Uh, sure," he says. Clint, who's leaning against the wall looking bored, snorts.

"Thanks," Tony says. Steve will love it.

"You're unbelievable," Clint tells Tony. Then to the pornstache guy he says, "He could buy that thing a zillion times over. Make him pay you for it."

"No, that's okay," pornstache guy says nervously. "Just take it."

"See? He wants me to have it," Tony tells Clint. Then he finds a clean glass and helps himself to a margarita from the pitcher on the table.

Clint gives him a what the fuck? look. "Are you for real?" he asks, as Tony wanders over to the beat-up couch and takes a load off.

"They're just going to go to waste anyway. And I'm a quart low." He takes a taste. "Pretty good," he says. "Want one?"

"No, thanks," Clint says, and goes back to...fondling his bow is what he's doing, really. Tony tries not to watch when he does that.

"I made them," one of the women pipes up. She has tattoos covering both her arms, and a Bettie Page haircut. "You gotta use Patron and a lot of lime."

The hot dog guy instantly turns to her and says, "Hey, tell them!" The squiggly yellow strip of mustard that runs up the front of his costume got ripped somehow, and it's flopping around. "Tell them I don't know you guys!"

"Shut it, Oscar Mayer," Clint says.

Just then Steve sticks his head in and does a double-take when he sees the hot dog. He gives Clint a questioning look, but Clint just shrugs. Then Steve sees Tony reclined on the couch, helmet on his propped knee, drink in his hand. He shakes his head resignedly and says, "Only you."

Tony grins at him and raises his glass in a toast. He'll give him the record later, when they're alone. Steve tries not to smile back, and only barely succeeds.

"I hope you've thought about what you're doing, man," Clint says, after Steve is gone.

"It's not stealing, he gave it to me," Tony replies, because one of these days playing dumb is going to work.

"You know what I'm talking about." Clint pulls an arrow out of his quiver and runs it through his hand, fingering the shaft, stroking the fletchings.

Tony takes another sip of his margarita--it really is excellent—and wonders why everything about archery is so suggestive. "That's rich, coming from you," he says to Clint, unconcerned.

Clint doesn't bat an eye. He was probably expecting Tony to go there. "C'mon, man, you know it's not the same. You know what I'm talking about. We're all in this together, putting our lives on the line every day. The last time you had a bad break-up, we all suffered for months."

Tony’s never going to live that down. "Don't worry, I'd rather not go through that again either," he says, then notices it's gotten very quiet. He looks over at the pillar, where everyone is suddenly very interested in their shoes, except for Oscar Mayer, who is staring at Tony and Clint with his one visible eye.

"What are you looking at?" Tony growls. Oscar Mayer looks away, but not before giving Tony a dirty look, which is a pretty bold move for a guy wearing a giant foam wiener.

"I just want to know that you--" Clint looks over at the pillar people, then back at Tony "—that some people have considered the consequences."

"Well, Hawkeye," Tony says, with mock gravitas. "Some people didn't mean for it to happen, and tried to stop it, but someone else made the first move."

That does take Clint a little by surprise, but doesn't derail him completely. “Look, I’m not trying to tell anyone what to do. I just want some reassurance that some people have thought about what might happen if things go bad.”

Tony, who has spent what feels like a truly miserable amount of time doing almost nothing but thinking exactly that over the last few months, barely suppresses the urge to snarl at him. “I think some people have that covered,” he says shortly. And would it be too much to ask that for just once in his life everybody doesn’t think Tony's current love interest is making a gigantic mistake by getting involved with him?

Clint gives him a significant look. "It's just that sometimes people who don't know any better aren't really prepared for how things turn out, you know? They think they understand what they've gotten involved in, but they're naive, and they end up hurt."

"And sometimes," Tony says pointedly, "people jump right in with both feet, and they end up getting their hearts broken."

The hot dog guy chooses that moment to start up again. "Come on, guys," he whines, pulling against the cuffs. "I gotta get outta here. I have a bat mitzvah all the way across town in an hour. I bought a little kosher symbol for it and everything." When they ignore him, he loses it and starts kicking his feet against the floor and thrashing around, yelling at Tony and Clint to let him go, which just pisses off the two people cuffed to him.

"Okay, I've had it," Clint says, and before anyone can blink he's loosed three arrows in quick succession. They pierce the unsettlingly phallic tip of the foam hot dog, all three clustered together in a spot the size of a quarter above the guy's head, and embed themselves in the wood, thuck thuck thuck, pinning the costume and the dipshit in it securely to the pillar.

"Wow," Bettie Page says.

"Don't worry, man," Clint says to Tony, picking up the conversation without missing a beat. "I'm not gonna break her heart."

"I know that, because I wasn't talking about her," Tony says, and downs the last of his margarita.

Clint laughs and holds his hands up in surrender. The cops finally wander in, ready to haul the pillar people away, and as he goes to retrieve his arrows, Clint says, "And I wasn't talking about him."

Oscar Mayer starts to cry.

~*~

Later, as they sit in the debriefing room at SHIELD, Tony's mind keeps going back to that conversation with Clint, and he once again feels that old familiar motivation to prove someone else wrong rear its head—which is what got him into this whole thing in the first place, so it’s kind of fitting.

He’s been convinced this whole time that he can’t make it work with Steve, but now that someone else has pointed out that might be true, he's convinced he can. Clint was right about it being risky—and Tony’s already given himself that lecture a million times—but so far it’s been worth the risk.

Tony tries to think of what he would change, what he would do if he knew for certain it was permanent, as opposed to something he’s riding out until the bitter end. How he might act differently, treat Steve differently, include him in his life more, let Steve include him in his life more. He can’t come up with a single thing. They’re already doing all that.

Maybe he’s been so busy thinking it isn't working, he hasn’t noticed that it actually is.

~*~

Dateline NBC does a series of hour long specials on the Avengers, with bios and interviews, and lots of awkward questions that must be answered while sitting in an uncomfortable chair under hot lights. Thor and Tony breeze through theirs, Clint flirts like it's his job, Natasha turns out to be a pretty compelling interviewee, and Bruce looks massively uncomfortable the entire time. Steve's episode is saved for last, and he nails it, sitting tall and straight in his Army uniform as he fields the questions like a pro, attractive and smart and humble and funny.

They show a now-declassified clip of Steve getting the serum infusion, and while Tony is not entirely unfamiliar with the event and the people who were there, it's another thing entirely to see it in motion, to see the original Steve, small and awkward but so determined it almost hurts to look at him. Peggy is there. For some reason Tony never knew she was there when it happened.

There's a shot of Howard Stark and Dr. Erskine conferring with each other, and then the clip jumps to the moment when the big, well-muscled Steve that Tony knows makes his first appearance. It ends before people start dying.

There are more photos, some Tony recognizes from the walls of Steve’s apartment, taken after he actually became the Captain America who fought Hydra rather than the Captain America who sang in the USO. Photos of Howard and Peggy and Steve, of Steve and Bucky, of Steve and all the Howling Commandos. Poignant music indicates how sad it is that Erskine died before he ever got to see Steve come into his own. The shield gets its own clip.

A few minutes are spent on the partnership of Abraham Erskine and Howard Stark, including an extremely abbreviated and partially incorrect (the government isn’t that dumb) explanation for how the infusion process worked. There are some other photos Tony’s never seen of his father working on the Vita-Ray machine, the final piece of the puzzle that allowed the serum to work as it was intended.

They try to portray Howard Stark as some kind of father figure to Steve, perhaps not realizing that he and Steve were about the same age at the time, definitely not realizing they are turning the guy Tony is fucking into his brother. Tony almost turns it off, because: yuck. Total libido killer.

"And now you work with his son," Ann Curry says, meaning Tony, and Steve's face completely changes. Tony feels like he can’t breathe for a second, momentarily undone by the knowledge that it's him making Steve look like that, him.

Steve spends a minute or two stroking Tony’s ego (which most people would argue doesn’t need stroking again, ever, for the rest of his life), gushing about how brilliant Tony is and how much he’s done for the team, and Steve in particular, and what a great guy he is, how much Steve enjoys working with him. As Tony takes in the bashful smile, the "aw shucks" downcast eyes, he's pretty certain that everyone watching has just figured out that Captain America is fucking Iron Man.

And if they haven't, all it would take is one look at Steve's naked back, right between his shoulder blades, where he often has a fading red mark that's—thanks to his accelerated healing—not quite dark enough to be called a bruise. Anyone who sees it for two seconds would recognize that it's the exact size and shape of an arc reactor.

~*~

"I want a hot dog," Tony announces. He's been thinking about them ever since the Lady Killers thing. "Let’s go to Pink’s."

Steve looks up from his stack of fan mail and frowns. "Where’s Pink’s?"

"Los Angeles," Tony says. He loves genuine New York dirty water dogs as much as anyone, but he’s in the mood for something different, and he hasn’t been to Pink’s in ages.

"We’re not going to L.A. for lunch," Steve says, and turns back to his letters.

"Actually, I was thinking more an overnight thing," Tony says, mind already rolling on ahead. "Pack a bag, have some hot dogs, spend the night in Malibu?" Steve’s never been to the house in Malibu. The house in Malibu could use a little Steve.

Tony expects some resistance. What he doesn’t expect is an actual fight.

"Could you just stop?" Steve says, giving him an annoyed look. "Why does it always have to be crazy things like this?"

"Well, that’s kind of my trademark, in case you haven’t noticed. That’s the whole reason you and I know each other. Oh!" he says, as another idea hits him. "We could run down to San Diego, go to SeaWorld. You’ve never been there, right? I bet you would love it. They have killer wh--"

"Tony! Stop!" Steve says, and sets his pen down really, really firmly, which freaks Tony the fuck out. It’s the Steve Rogers equivalent of throwing something.

"Are you mad at me?" Tony asks, flabbergasted.

Steve takes a deep, steadying breath before turning around in his chair to look at Tony. Holy shit, he is mad. Really mad. He's got an entire forehead of disapproval. "Why can’t you just act like a normal person?"

Tony's whole body goes cold. That’s a blow—he doesn’t even try to hide it. Because that’s what he thought he was doing this whole time, every time he was with Steve.

"I'm sorry, that came out wrong," Steve says immediately.

Ten things instantly spring to Tony's mind. Hurtful, awful things he could say that would shut Steve down and make him feel as shitty as Tony does right now, but just as quickly he pictures what Steve's face would look like, and then the awful aftermath, when Tony would regret saying them at all, could never take them back.

"Well, if you want normal, you're out of luck," Tony says, once the urge to lash out passes and logic takes over. "Because that's just not possible. No, don’t look at me like that,” he says, off Steve’s reproachful look. "It’s not ego talking, I’m serious. I have absolutely no idea how to be a normal person, because I've never been one. I'm Tony Stark. And you aren’t a normal person anymore either, as much as you hate to admit it. So we can just be us, two not-normal guys, and get along, or we can just be us and not get along, and those are pretty much the only two options."

Steve sighs and picks up his pen, fiddles with it. "I just hate that you feel like you have to use money to get me to spend time with you," he says.

"I don't," Tony says honestly. "Not anymore. I haven't for a long time."

"But—" Steve starts, but Tony doesn't let him finish.

"That's not what this is about. I just want to live my life, and do things I like, and I want you to do them with me. It's not about the money. I just want to be happy. I just want you to be happy, to have things you enjoy." He stops there, hesitant to reveal the rest of that thought, then decides there's no point in hiding it. "Because even I can’t buy the last seventy years back for you," he says, his throat feeling mysteriously thick, "or give you back all the people you’ve lost. But I’d spend every last penny to my name if it would help even a little."

Steve looks away. Maybe he's blinking a little rapidly, Tony's not sure. "This helps, more than a little," he says, after a minute. He spreads his hands, as if encompassing Tony, the apartment, the two of them here together doing nothing on a Wednesday afternoon, everything.

"So we’ll do this," Tony says. "We’ll do this as much as you want. And then, sometimes, we’ll do what I want, and what I want might involve spending some of my very own money that is mine to do whatever I want with, and including you in that. Okay?"

Steve smiles, a little hesitantly, and nods. "Okay," he says. Then, "I'm really sorry, Tony, I didn't mean--"

Tony waves him off. "Forget it. You probably owe me a few of those anyway. You're normally way nicer than I am."

Steve gives a bashful little laugh, and Tony feels his shoulders drop down an inch or two. "So can we go to Malibu? Please?"

"Yes, of course," Steve says, like he didn’t just spend the last five minutes arguing vehemently against it. Tony decides to just be happy he got his way and not point that out.

"Well, c’mon, hurry up and pack," Tony tells him. "If we get there before 5pm I get a senior citizen discount on your meal."

~*~

Two days after they get back from Malibu, Tony opens the drawer of arc reactors, but before he can grab one, the black velvet box catches his eye, and he hesitates.

It's maybe the hundredth time he's seen it there since Pepper left, but it's the first time he can bring himself to pick it up, open it and look at the ring. It’s gorgeous, expensive, and as big as he thought he could get away with before crossing over into gaudy.

Despite all the time he spent deciding exactly what to get her, he feels like he’s seeing it for the first time: a sparkling yellow diamond surrounded by smaller rubies, set in a gold band. Iron Man colors. How did he not realize what he was buying?

He doesn't put it back in the drawer. He's tired of knowing it's there, and tired of avoiding it—and it’s been a while since he finally accepted that he doesn't need it anymore. He sets the open box down next to his keyboard, pulls up a stool, and gets to work.

~*~

They're all in the briefing room at SHIELD, listening to Reed Richards drone on about a joint mission with the Fantastic Four. He has to be the only guy on the planet who can make actual evil lizards sound this boring. Tony once read a magazine article that described Richards as having all of Tony’s intelligence with none of his charisma, and right now Tony couldn’t agree more (though he’d probably argue a little about all the intelligence).

Tony's about to tell him to just get to the point and tell them what to kill when Richards' PowerPoint presentation from hell is interrupted by another call for assistance, this one from the X-Men.

"Okay, is everyone aware this isn't a superhero temp agency?" Tony asks, and judging by the look on his face, Clint would totally give him a high five if he were sitting close enough.

"There may be children in danger," Cyclops says gravely, so Steve immediately says, "We'll help. Who do you want?"

After some discussion, it's decided that Thor, Clint and Steve will go with the Fantastic Four. That leaves Natasha, Bruce and Tony with the mutants.

Tony hopes it won't take too long, because Pepper is in New York, getting an award. It’s the Something Something Environmental Something award, which is a big deal for people who rescue aquatic mammals. Tony thinks it’s way past time she got some ugly trophies; in retrospect, he should have been handing all his awards over to her when she was working for him. He said he would be there tonight (and has been reliably informed that Ryan fucking Reynolds is out of the country shooting a movie), and as much as the thought of seeing her in person makes his insides feel like they're revolting, he really does want to go.

Tony’s the last one out of the ready room, and Steve hangs back, fixing an imaginary problem with his boot until they’re alone. At some point they started doing this, spending a few seconds alone before they go out into the field, especially if they're not going to be together. They both know what it’s like to never get a chance to say goodbye.

"Don’t get eaten by a lizard," Tony says, and what he means is, Please be careful. Please come back.

"You be careful, too," Steve says, not fooled at all. He leans in for a quick kiss, heedless of the security cameras. He cups Tony’s face with his bare hand, the only place they can touch right now. It’s probably not an accident he hasn’t put his gloves on yet. "And don’t get into an argument with Wolverine again," he adds.

Tony gives him one last kiss. "Yes, dear," he says, and goes off to save some damn kids.

~*~

Here’s the problem with the goddamn X-Men: their arch-enemy is a guy who can control metal with his brain.

"I hate all of you," Tony says, once Wolverine manages to slice Tony’s dented helmet open like a sardine can. "I’m never working with you again, even if someone is about to drop an entire railroad car of kittens and babies off the Eiffel Tower."

"Hulk like kittens," Hulk says.

"We did not realize Magneto would be here," Storm says apologetically as she and Natasha help Tony to his feet. The suit’s a twisted wreck. He can barely move.

"Even if someone is holding every Victoria’s Secret model in the world hostage," Tony continues. His left arm is stuck at a ninety degree angle. He feels like C-3PO.

"Shut up, ya whiner," Wolverine snarls. Tony can’t believe he ever let that guy put his hand down his pants.

It's been hours since they left SHIELD. Hours which have seen them plot a frenetic course across the Eastern seaboard, following lead after lead, only to wind up right back in New York.

If there were any kids in danger, they never managed to find them, but they did end up accidentally rousting an illegal underground casino that caters to evil mutants, where they busted a water pipe trying to get in and flooded half the block. The street is filled with wet, shivering, angry locals waiting for the Red Cross to show up. Most of the casino patrons got away.

All of this, and they only caught a handful of bad guys. There was no nefarious plan afoot, not even a half-way nefarious plan. It’s just that Magneto has a bit of a gambling problem.

This entire day has been one clusterfuck after another, and Tony just wants to go home. He’s also absolutely certain that any asskissy PR event that results from this should take place at Xavier’s house, not his.

They prop him against the side of the building while they finish up, and he leans there sullenly, assessing the damage, listing to the left a little. If he could fly, he’d be on his way home already, dammit. It’s getting late.

After a while, Wolverine walks over and leans next to him, lights a cigar, and watches everyone else handle the aftermath. Tony’s noticed he’s pretty big on the clawing things to pieces part, not so big on cleaning up the loose ends.

And then Tony notices Wolverine's maybe watching one person a little more than the others, and that person is Rogue. As Tony’s trying to figure out if he’s imagining things, Rogue turns and looks their way, and smiles a flirty little smile that certainly isn’t aimed at Tony. Tony’s pretty sure she doesn’t even know he exists. He looks over at Wolverine, who is grinning back at her around his cigar. Holy shit! Those two?

"Little young for you, isn’t she?" Tony can’t resist asking. Everyone’s too young for Wolverine; the guy’s two hundred years old or something.

Wolverine gives him a sidelong glance as he exhales a plume of cigar smoke. "You should talk. I can’t figure out who’s robbing the cradle there, you or Rogers."

"That’s just a rumor," Tony says dismissively. He’s not going to talk about Steve with anyone who isn't an Avenger, unless he and Steve decide together that other people should know.

"Sure it is," Wolverine snorts. "That’s why I can smell him all over you."

And there’s an aspect of enhanced senses Tony’s never contemplated before. He can’t help the face he makes. "That’s…kind of gross, actually," he says.

Wolverine throws his cigar on the ground and crushes it with his boot. "You’re tellin’ me."

"Hey, Cyclops!" someone yells in a Long Island accent. "How’s about you come over here and use your eye beams to start us a fire? We’re freezin’ our butts off!"

Cyclops stops dead in his tracks and visibly bristles as he turns in the direction of the voice.

"Oh, here we go," Wolverine groans.

~*~

The suit’s so badly damaged Tony can’t actually walk, so he has to be carried back to the X-jet by Hulk, who slings him under his arm like a two by four, which is, of course, when the photographers show up.

Because his electrical system’s fried, he's incommunicado, and it isn't until he gets back to SHIELD and checks his phone that he learns Happy is in the hospital getting his appendix taken out.

He manages to get in touch with Thor, who is standing guard at Happy's bedside ("I’ve been in such a place, and am familiar with their barbarism. I will not allow them to tie him down—I give you my word!"), and is reassured he’s fine, but Jesus Christ, what is with this day?

He goes back to the house, which is nearly empty because the evil lizards took about fifteen minutes to subdue, so everyone who ended up on that mission's been done for hours while Tony was getting squeezed like a tube of toothpaste. Steve left for his apartment a long time ago, according to Jarvis.

So Steve's over in Brooklyn, and Happy's in the hospital. Also, Tony's face is bleeding and he’s late for Pepper’s award thing. Great.

While he showers, he has Jarvis load up a tablet with music and books and games for Happy, and then puts on his tuxedo, even though it’s probably pointless, wincing at every bruise and scratch.

Happy is awake, but groggy, when Tony gets there, and when he sees how Tony's dressed he says, "Crap, I'm gonna miss Pepper's award."

Tony gives him the tablet, which he probably won’t feel like using until tomorrow, and hangs out for a few minutes and hears the story of the emergency appendectomy while Thor glares at every member of the hospital staff who comes within ten feet of Happy’s door. And now Tony's really, really late, so he’s gotta run. Happy understands. Thor promises to remain vigilant.

He calls Steve on his way to the Waldorf. "This day can kiss my ass," he says. "And why are you in Brooklyn?"

Steve says, "Miriam’s new couch comes tomorrow," and Tony remembers him mentioning that he was going to help her rearrange her living room to accommodate her new, larger couch, which Tony thinks was purchased partly to accommodate her two new, larger friends during Family Feud marathons. "It took a while. She has all those little statues of birds and stuff."

"But you’re done now?" he asks hopefully.

"Yes. I can come back, if you want," Steve offers, so Tony must sound really pitiful.

Tony thinks about it for a second. "No, don’t bother," he decides. "I’m already in transit. You hungry? You want pizza later?"

As always, that’s a stupid question.

The award ceremony is long over by the time he gets there, Pepper standing out on the sidewalk chatting with Rhodey, who probably managed to make it on time. He sees Tony coming and discreetly slips away with a little wave as Pepper turns toward him.

This is the first time he’s seen her in person since they broke up, over a year ago already, and it’d be a lie to say it doesn’t do something to him. But it’s not gut-wrenching anymore, it’s more that he misses her in general, and is glad to see her.

"Sorry I’m late. I had a…thing," he says, waving a hand next to his mangled face.

"I thought so," she says, and smiles at him, a little sadly. And Tony sees in that moment what she must have seen when she thought about a future with him, that this would have been their life, always, if they had stayed together: her feeling disappointed, Tony feeling guilty, both of them taking it out on each other. As badly as he wanted to be with her, he can now truthfully say that he wouldn’t want this life for either of them. She did the right thing.

"Happy had his appendix out. He sends his regrets," he remembers to tell her. They talk about Happy for a minute, Tony reassuring her that he’s fine, and he makes her laugh by telling her about Thor.

"Anyway, I got you something," he says, because that’s really why he’s here. He hands her the flat black velvet box. Inside is a necklace, a delicate platinum chain on which hangs a single diamond, surrounded by rubies.

"Tony, it’s beautiful," she says, touching the diamond with the tip of her finger. She’s a little teary.

"Yeah, well, I thought you should have it," he says, as offhandedly as he can manage, which isn’t very.

She looks up, meets his eyes, and she knows. She knows exactly what it is—what it used to be. She’s so smart.

The moment stretches on, the connection between them that will never go away almost a tangible thing. It’s simultaneously wonderful and awful, and Tony is the first to cave.

"I hate to gift and run," he says, clearing his throat. "But I’ve still gotta go all the way to Brooklyn and my chauffeur thinks emergency surgery is more important than my social life, so. Want me to put it on you?"

She laughs, though her mouth still trembles a little, and hands it to him, and they manage to swap it for the necklace she’s wearing without dropping anything or crying on each other.

When he turns her back around to face him, she takes both of his hands in hers and squeezes them. He squeezes back, and holds on.

"Thank you for the necklace," she says. "And thank you for coming. It’s really good to see you." Her voice catches a little. "I’ve missed you."

"Me, too," he manages to say, though it comes out sounding a little rusty. "Thank you for…" there’s no word to describe it, no fifty words "…everything."

Finally, he lets go. As she turns to walk away, the diamond at her throat catches the light, reflects it back at him. This isn’t the way he planned to see it on her, but this is okay, too. They’re going to be okay.

~*~

Steve’s at the sink washing dishes when Tony lets himself in, a neat row of squeaky clean glasses and mugs drying on a towel on the counter. Tony comes up behind him and puts his hands on Steve’s hips, presses his forehead to the back of Steve's neck. Breathes him in for a moment.

"Hi," he says finally, sticking his chin over Steve’s shoulder. "Gimme a smooch."

Steve turns his head and gives him a quick kiss, hands still working in the water. Then he pulls back and looks at Tony’s face, obviously taking in every scratch and bruise.

"What happened to you?"

"Magneto," Tony scowls. "Wrecked my suit."

"I’m glad he didn’t wreck you," Steve says, and gives him a kiss on the forehead like a grandma.

"Leaving that job for you," Tony says, because he feels red-faced and doofy now, and the only answer is to make Steve look the same. (It totally works.) He steals another kiss before heading to the bedroom to change his clothes. He’s got his own drawer now, and a couple inches of space in the closet.

He hurts everywhere, and he’s still a little off-balance from the thing with Pepper, feeling worn down by a day where so many things went wrong. But Happy’s okay, and he and Pepper are good, and Steve’s sitting on the couch wearing an Iron Man T-shirt, so there’s hope for it yet.

Tony makes a beeline for him and collapses on the couch with a groan as Steve shifts his leg and obligingly provides a place for Tony to rest his head. His hand slides through Tony's hair, stroking softly, and Tony says, as he realizes, "I forgot to stop and get the pizza." Steve huffs out a quiet laugh and says, softly, "That's okay."

"We can order something," Tony offers, though he doesn’t really feel like moving.

Steve must not either, because he keeps petting Tony's hair and says, "Maybe later."

Tony’s pretty sure he forgot the pizza because that wasn’t why he wanted to come here anyway. He just wanted to be with Steve in his weird little frozen-in-time apartment, lie here with his head in Steve’s lap, listen to the clock tick.

Tony tends to spend most of his time and energy looking forward, not back, but now he closes his eyes and pictures the trajectory of his life, of Steve’s life. So many improbable events, so much sadness and hardship, so many times they’ve escaped death, so many people loved and lost. He builds the diagram in his head, one red line and one blue, zigzagging over a world of distance and a century of time to intersect here. He sees all the points at which the universe could have sent them on different paths, calculates the odds, and knows just how lucky they are. It’s amazing, nearly impossible, that they are here together now.

It’s amazing that Steve’s here at all. Tony's hated his father for years, has spent so much time feeling angry and bitter, but the reality is that if not for him and Erskine, Steve wouldn't be here right now. No matter what else, Tony will always be grateful to his father for this: that Steve Rogers lived long enough for Tony to love him.

THE END Listen to the podfic read by crinklysolution!

NOTES:

  • I didn't mean to write another story with an OSCC (Original Senior Citizen Character) in it. It just sort of happened. /o\

  • This story was written with these songs on pretty much constant repeat: Fidelity [YouTube link] by Regina Spektor (Oh, Tony <3), I and Love and You [YouTube link] by The Avett Brothers (Steeeeeeve!), The Denial Twist [YouTube link] by The White Stripes (for when I wrote the Tony/Pepper break-up, which was seriously one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and I sobbed into my stupid keyboard while I did it) and, of course, Tubthumping [YouTube link] by Chumbawamba (ASGARDIANS!).

  • Thor’s party playlist actually exists on my iPod. I think I will share it at some point?

  • The line about enjoying the destruction of Yankee Stadium came from musesfool, who would also enjoy it. The thing about Family Feud came from girlinthetrilby, who did actually sit through a Family Feud marathon with her grandmother. There are other things, but I will stop now before you figure out that I’m not really a writer at all, I just steal things from the lives of people I know, cobble them together, and call them stories.

  • Cupcake Avalanche, as far as I know, does not exist. BUT IT SHOULD. (ETA: It may eventually! \o/ Cupcake Avalanche coming soon!)

  • The Lady Killers, on the other hand, are actual Marvel villains, though they’re from the Wolverine book, where they appear in the story arc where we see Wolverine in a ball gag.

  • I'm finally gonna get my "Write a piece of fan fiction for a movie that hasn't even been released yet" badge! It's like I’m a real fangirl now!
  • chaosathena has made Granny Moonshine T-shirts, buttons, and hoodies! (Follow link to see what's available.)



All fanart for this story can now be found in Chapter 3. <3 <3


OH HEART

[Image Description: Chris Evans as Captain America, posing on set with a small boy carrying a plastic Captain America shield.]

OH HEART

[Image Description: Old black and white photo of a boy reading a Captain America comic book while dressed in a Captain America costume.]

(Chris Evans and Captain America Reader images found on Tumblr)

~*~

The Scene after the Credits

They’ve been back from their latest completely kick-ass successful mission for an hour or two, so they’re having TV time with Hulk while Tony slumps against Steve’s shoulder, not really asleep, but not really awake either.

Until he spots Steve’s phone on the coffee table. Tony casually takes his own phone out of his pocket and dials Steve’s number, trying not to draw attention to himself, but both Steve and Hulk are too absorbed in some cooking show to really notice.

Steve looks down at him as the first notes of "Big Spender" begin to play. "Why are you calling me?" he asks, looking adorably befuddled. "I’m right here." He reaches for his phone, but Tony’s faster.

"I want to see what comes up when I call you," Tony says as he snatches the phone off the table. He’d intended to do this ages ago, keeps forgetting to ask Jarvis to check for him.

"I’ve been meaning to change that," Steve says quickly.

"Yeah, you said that last time," Tony says. Over a year ago, now.

"Whose picture is it?" Steve asks. He makes an attempt to take back the phone, but Tony holds it out of his reach.

The first thing Tony notices is the display name across the top of the call alert, which reads simply, "FIVE." Betrayed by Pepper! Tony can barely believe it.

"Tony, who is it?" Steve is asking again.

Oh, right, the picture. It even takes Tony himself a second to figure out who it is. "It's goddamn Daddy Warbucks," he says indignantly, already plotting his revenge on Clint. It’s the 80s movie version, which is probably why Steve didn’t recognize him. "From the movie they made, not the cartoon you probably remember."

"I used to read that all the time!" Steve says happily, then gives Tony an appraising look. "You are kind of like him. Why does it say 'Five' instead of your name?"

"Okay, that’s not even funny, this guy is old and bald," Tony bitches. He decides to avoid addressing the Five thing. Forever. "Jarvis, I need some photo options for Steve’s phone. Oh, there’s a good one," he says as he scrolls. "The Rolling Stone cover. I look devastatingly handsome and powerful."

"You know I didn’t mean it that way," Steve says. "And I’ve got a picture on there I want to use, I just need someone to show me how.”

Tony, who knows exactly which picture Steve’s talking about, immediately says, "Oh, no. No! You are not using that picture. In fact, I’m going to delete it right now." He starts flicking through Steve’s personal photos. There are a lot of them; it looks like Steve’s never deleted anything, even the ones he mistakenly took of himself before he figured out which side of the phone the camera is on.

"You are not deleting it, give me that," Steve says, and lunges for his phone, and they end up tussling on the couch, which isn’t much of a tussle at first, due to Tony being sadly devoid of super-strength. But Tony isn’t above fighting dirty, so he gets his hand under Steve’s shirt and starts tickling him.

Steve shrieks like a victim in a horror movie, and at that point Hulk’s had enough. He reaches over and grabs Steve by the head, one massive green paw covering his entire face, and Tony thinks for a second he’s about to see Steve’s skull get squashed like a grape. But Hulk just shakes him gently (for Hulk) and says, “Shh. Hulk watching Pioneer Woman.”

"Hey, easy there, big guy," Tony says nervously. "We need him."

Hulk gives Steve one more shake, which nearly sends him off the couch, and then lets go. Steve collapses half on top of Tony, gulping for air, hair mashed to his forehead, face red where it got squished.

"You okay?" Tony asks, trying not to laugh, but not trying too hard.

"Uh, yeah. I think so," Steve says, blinking, then takes advantage of Tony’s completely distracting concern for him and plucks the phone from his hand, shoves it in his own pocket.

Two days later, when he’s alone in his workshop, Tony has Jarvis sort through Steve’s pictures and bring up the one he wants, the one he knows Steve was talking about.

It’s a couple weeks old, from the morning Steve learned how to take intentional self-portraits with his phone, rather than accidental ones. The two of them are sitting up in bed at Steve’s place, bare shoulders against the plain wooden headboard. They're off-center and a little crooked in the picture, as if they're in the process of slowly sliding out of the frame. Tony’s clutching a cup of coffee like a life preserver and has a bruise on his cheekbone; Steve’s got the last remnants of what was a really nasty gash on this forehead. They both have spectacular cases of bedhead.

Tony recalls he’d been thinking, at that moment, that it was a big mistake to explain the art of cellphone self-portraiture to Steve, or that he should have at least waited until he was more than half-awake. In the picture, Tony is grimacing crankily, but unable to completely hide his smile, like a cat that doesn’t want to like to be petted, but can’t help itself. Steve’s in profile, forehead pressed to Tony’s temple, eyes closed, and he’s smiling, too. Despite the bumps and scrapes, they both look happy.

"That’s the one, Jarvis," Tony says. "Attach it to my number for him."

After a second he adds, "And send it to my phone."

Really the End!

In conclusion: ABENGERS! \o/

Chapter Text

Clint Barton's Triple Chocolate Cookies

Ingredients:

4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
Enough baking powder to cover that scar on the palm of your hand where an arrow went through it
1 teaspoon salt
8 large eggs
4 teaspoons instant coffee or espresso powder (don’t let Tony find out you brought instant coffee into his house)
2.5 sticks unsalted butter, softened but still cool
3 cups packed light brown sugar
7 ounces granulated sugar
Vanilla extract dumped from the bottle until it feels like enough
32 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped with whatever knife you have in your boot that day
1,248 semisweet chocolate chips (eyeball it)
1.5 cups chopped pecans (optional, leave out if Hulk will eat—he's allergic)
1 crossbow
4 to 8 flashbangs

Instructions:

Have Jarvis set up perimeter alert around kitchen. Check to make sure no one’s taken the cookie sheets to use for target practice. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Melt the chopped chocolate until smooth. Tony will inevitably be drawn to the kitchen at this point and attempt to stick his fingers in it; deploy flashbangs as necessary.

In a small bowl, beat the eggs and vanilla lightly with a fork, sprinkle the coffee powder over to dissolve, and set aside.

Beat the butter by hand until smooth and creamy, then beat in the sugars until combined. Switch arms halfway through so you work them both. Gradually beat in the egg mixture until incorporated. Add the chocolate in a steady stream and beat until combined. (If Bruce is Hulked, make two batches of this mixture and set one out on the kitchen table as a decoy. It will disappear and you will find the empty bowl under the couch later. That’s okay.)

Add the dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Fold in the chocolate chips. Cover with plastic wrap and set on counter. Find best vantage point in kitchen (suggestion: top of refrigerator) and assume sniper position with crossbow while dough stands at room temperature for 30 minutes. Dough should now be scoopable and fudge-like.

Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Scoop the dough with a 1¾-inch cookie scoop, spacing the mounds about one arrowhead apart.

Bake until the edges of the cookies have just begun to set but the centers are still very soft, about 10 minutes. DO NOT TAKE YOUR EYES OFF THE REMAINING DOUGH.

Cool the cookies on the sheets about 10 minutes, then move to wire racks and let cool to room temperature. This will be most vulnerable time period for your cookies. It’s probably best to just let Steve and Thor burn their tongues so they will leave you alone to finish the rest in peace.

Continue to bake cookies until all the dough is gone. (Tip: surrendering the last few scoops of uncooked dough to Natasha saves everyone a lot of hassle and blood loss.)

Yield:

In the end, about 14 cookies. If you’re lucky.

(Adapted from this recipe.)


Commissioned by the lovely daemonicangel
Drawn by the wonderful ashwara

<3 <3 <3

Chapter Text


Commissioned by the lovely daemonicangel. Drawn by the wonderful ashwara

[Image Description: Hawkeye in an apron, baking something delicious.]


Princess Hulk drawn by Avantgardian! (Follow link to see full-size!)

[Image Description: Princess Hulk from the Halloween party!]


[Image Description: Fat little pig and giant cupcake from Cupcake Avalanche game.]

Cupcake Avalanche is in the process of being turned into reality by howarethosenuts. \o/


Tribute to Fuzziness drawn by Tsailanza! (Follow link to see full-size!)

[Image Description: Tony and Steve's first kiss.]


Thank you by deprecari! (Follow link to see full-size!)

[Image Description: Tony and Steve post-coital tenderness.]







Natasha Hunts by Anna Luna! (Follow link to see full-size!)

Anna Luna says "My head-canon for it is that the Avengers become entangled in a complicated game of tag around the tower where no-one knows who is "it". Then someone (Tony) changes the rules and it becomes 'kiss!tag.'"

[Image Description: Natasha tackles Steve.]


Happy by deprecari! (Follow link to see full-size!)

[Image Description: The picture in Steve's phone from the scene after the credits.]


Pepper and her necklace by yumichanlikeschainsaws! (Follow link to see full-size!)

[Image Description: Pepper with the necklace.]


chaosathena has made Granny Moonshine T-shirts, buttons, and hoodies! (Follow link to see what's available.)

[Image Description: Miriam's Granny Moonshine button.]


New Year's party scene by Elmroko! (Follow link to see full-size!)

[Image Description: Tony with his hand up Steve's shirt.]

Semaphore fanart by oniegiri! (Follow link to see full-size!)

[Image Description: Image of Robert Downey Jr with quotes from Semaphore.]

Jessica designed a T-shirt with the quote about Steve's pants! (Follow link to store!)

[Image Description: Steve's pants smell like patriotism.]

Amezri made ebooks of Semaphore, complete with a pretty cover! Download the mobi or epub.

[Image Description: Cover for Semaphore.]

stormageddonpond made a video to "Tubthumping" by Chumbawamba!