Captain America was just where Director Fury had said he would be; viciously attacking a punch bag in the gym, which was surprisingly low-tech and lacking in efficient purpose for a SHIELD establishment. Pepper paused on the threshold for a moment, to admire the flexing muscles of back and shoulder. He'd been at it long enough to work up a sweat, and his t-shirt clung as if he'd been vacuum-packed into it.
The moment stretched, only the impact of fists on bag, and his sneakers squeaking on the floor breaking the silence. Pepper might have carried on watching for a long time, but a hiccup escaped her throat; he spun round, balanced on the balls of his toes, and Pepper exchanged appreciative look for bright introductory smile. He took a step back, and Pepper dimmed the brightness a few levels. Possibly she should have refused that last drink, but Director Fury had been so politely insistent.
"Good afternoon, Captain," she said in a happily-steady tone. "I'm Mr Stark's - " she almost said personal assistant out of years of habit, almost corrected to girlfriend, decided technical boss would lead to confusion, and settled on " - friend."
Captain America favoured her with a confused glower that really wasn't very intimidating, with the pouty mouth and big, confused eyes. She had a vague urge to pinch his cheek, although that might have been the espresso Martini talking.
"Did he send you?"
"Well, no," she admitted, and he turned to glare at the punch bag again. "Director Fury suggested I might want to try getting you two to re-open diplomatic relations." Director Fury had taken her out to a very nice lunch, been far more charming than Tony's descriptions of him had led her to believe possible, and then benevolently invited her to do exactly what she'd been wanting to do for a fortnight.
She'd have a word with JARVIS about moving his calls up the priority list. He clearly had their best interests at heart, after all. She stepped into the room and walked round the Captain in a wide circle so she could see his expression, which was dubious. Seeing his chest outlined by damp white cotton was just a bonus.
"Well, maybe I don't want to," Captain America poked at the gym floor with his toe, scowling. "He said I was - "
"I think we can all agree that things were said that shouldn't have been," Pepper gave him a stern look, and he drooped. Technically, he'd taken the step to out-and-out aggression, but Tony had been deliberately needling him for an hour. Still, if he couldn't handle Tony, he was never going to survive being on a superhero team. He'd be all over the gutter press the first time he lost his temper with a reporter. "I was thinking that you, being the better man and all, might want to take the first step - "
"No," he interrupted. Pepper glared. He scowled. That was unhelpful. Tony had been sulking steadily since the blowup; he'd apparently not expected Captain America to have quite such an instinct for weak points. The crack about Howard had been wounding.
The odds of getting him to make the first move were slim to none.
"Would it really hurt?" she tried, and he shrugged and looked down at his feet.
"I tried already," he admitted when Pepper didn't speak. "Called three times, got an automated message. I persuaded someone to take me over, got the same message from the intercom, and a robot blew a raspberry at me through the window."
Tony hadn't shared those little details. She gritted her teeth.
"Well. So if I can get you access, you'll apologise?" Shuffle, shuffle, she hadn't expected him to fidget, somehow. She'd had a vague image of him striking heroic poses, and holding them. Like a statue.
"I guess," he fixed her with a very sincere gaze. "I am sorry."
"All right." She waited. He looked at her in puzzlement. "Take those things off your hands, then." He looked down at the tapes in puzzlement, then his eyebrows shot up.
"Now?" He tugged at the hem of his damp shirt doubtfully. "I should clean up."
"Yes, now." She looked pointedly up at the clock. By now, Tony could have Not Cared his way to Hawaii for some performance sulking. It was the time for action, and anyway, she was quite happy to look at him the way he was for the duration of the car ride. "Come on, you can take off the tape in the car."
"I'm not supposed to leave - "
"Agent Hill is waiting in the car."
"Well," he tugged nervously at the tape. "Well, okay."
Tony glared up at Captain America, who blinked guileless eyes and tugged his shirt over his head at the nurse's command. She pressed the stethoscope to his chest with what Tony judged as more than necessary fondling.
Dummy made a noise like phhhbbbt and Tony looked away from the big screen to see a blond figure lurking on the other side of the soundproofed glass door. Tony sighed, and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. He was going to have to talk to the guy eventually, after all; Fury would probably welcome the opportunity to bounce him back off the team.
"JARVIS, lose Cap TV and then let him in." The screen turned to Wall-E, which served the dual purpose of diverting Dummy's attention, and Captain America slipped through the door and advanced towards him, looking around like a kid in a very confusing toy store. The look he cast at the glowing transparent 3-D models was distinctly covetous; when his eyes settled on the vintage Cadillac Tony was seated in, he looked suitably impressed. Tony would probably have been pleased to impress Captain America a few weeks ago. Before he'd discovered that the great hero was actually a complete jerk.
"What do you want, Uncle Sam?" He slumped lower in the seat, tapping his foot on the accelerator as if he could flee the conversation. Although the guy could probably chase him down like the Terminator. "Come to criticise my work ethic? Because I'm working now, this is work, you're actually disrupting my work here, shame on you."
The Captain's head turned to the screen, where EVE was zooming through the wreckage of Earth.
"I'm sorry to interrupt your work," and okay, that was hilarious. Tony could have fun with a guy who had no pop-culture references later than 1945. His smile apparently encouraged the Captain, because he smiled tentatively back and continued. "I came to apologise," he said. "I was hoping we could start again."
"Why? I'm just a drunken thrillseeker in tin can, right?" He folded his arms, smile dying, and the Captain shook his head.
"Tin can was Clint," he corrected, and Tony gritted his teeth. Pedantry, really.
"Oh, I'm sorry, what did you call it?"
"Nothing?" He rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, and tried another smile. "I think your armour's pretty amazing."
"Oh." Tony tapped his feet against the pedals some more. Amazing was all right."Well, maybe I shouldn't have said that about freezing causing brain cells to burst," he offered magnanimously.
"Right." The Captain's eyes widened earnestly. "And I'm sorry for saying you're spoiled and - "
"All right, let's not go through the litany." Tony sighed. "Who made you come and apologise?"
"No one. I felt bad."
"Huh." Tony cast him a thoughtful glance. He was a nice enough kid. And Tony was an adult, and all, technically. And something about teamwork, and so on. And he had to admit the idea of being even casually friendly with Captain America was something of a guilty thrill, if said Captain was willing to be suitably respectful of his amazing accomplishments.
The Captain apparently took his silence for doubt.
"Pepper got me past the robot," he volunteered. "She's nice." Well, he had good taste at least. If it would make Pepper happy, Tony could make up.
"The robot?" Tony glanced at Dummy, who had clearly not required Pepper's intervention.
"Why is it British?"
"That's not a robot, it's an artificial intelligence. It's British because all the best butlers are British." The Captain's brow furrowed briefly, as if in consideration, and Tony felt his mouth twitch up. "I just thought it sounded better."
"It sounds great," he agreed. "I would never have thought it wasn't a real person. Do they have Laws of Robotics?"
"Laws... wouldn't have pegged you for an Asimov fan."
"I read some of his stories." He tipped his head, eyes brightening. "I was an illustrator, did some stuff for the magazines before I enlisted. I had a picture in that issue, the one - Runaway, Runaround, about the robot - "
"Runaround. Huh," Tony shook his head, and then leaned sideways and tugged the latch of the car door. It swung open, and the Captain looked down at it, and then back at Tony. "Well, sit down."
"Are we going somewhere?" He sat down obediently, folding his long legs into the footwell.
"No. Unless you want to?"
"Not really." He looked up at the screen. "What are we watching?"
"Uh - " Tony glanced between him and the screen. "A documentary. About the rubbish heaps of the West Coast, and the efforts to reclaim them."
"Really?" he said, with an innocent trust that almost made Tony feel guilt, and settled in to watch.
Surprisingly, Steve didn't get mad when he figured out Tony was lying. (Fifty-four minutes in.) He laughed, and punched Tony gently in the shoulder. By the time he left, making Tony promise to attend the next Avengers meeting, Tony thought they were - not friends, but friendly. There was definitely friendship potential.
Tony resolved that in due course, when scheduling allowed, Tony would make some kind of friendly overture, take him to the IMAX or bring him freeze-dried ice-cream. Bring him a DVD of Soylent Green with a faked-up cover claiming it was based on a true story. Something, anyway.
After escorting Steve back up to the lobby, he realised he'd barely left the basement workshop in three days, and took the elevator to the penthouse.
"Traitor," he said to Pepper, who was lying on the couch watching Jeopardy and eating an oversized muffin.
"I hope you weren't horrible to him," she muttered around a mouthful of what looked like lemon and poppyseed, because Pepper was weird like that.
"Not especially." Tony investigated her leftovers, and claimed half a ham and cheese sandwich. "We watched a movie."
"Huh," Pepper squinted up at him. "Better than I hoped. Go and have a shower, you look like a crazy person. I'm surprised the Captain didn't run screaming."
"How would he know? I bet we all seem crazy to him." He wandered in the direction of the shower, pondering what kind of present he could take Captain America.
Steve re-settled himself in his chair - how, in the future, did they still not have comfortable chairs in meeting rooms - and surveyed the huge map that hung on the wall. It continued to be uninformative; Clint yawned, and then sat upright as the door clicked open to reveal Tony Stark. Steve smiled at him, and was pleased to get a smile back.
"Hey, it's the man himself," Clint said brightly. "And only half an hour late! Truly a red-letter day."
"Clint," Steve turned and gave him a stern look. They'd only just smoothed things over between him and Tony; they didn't need Clint getting into it with Tony.
"Aye aye, Captain. Stark! Buddy! How come your armour can break Mach 3 but you can't get - "
"Clint," Steve grabbed his arm and turned him back to face the huge map on the wall, and Tony moved up beside him. He reached out and tapped the head of one pin, the one in New York; pins scattered through the US, South America through India, a couple in Europe, Tunisia, West Egypt.
"Small pins are Banner. Larger pins are... other Banner." Monster seemed such a dramatic way of putting it.
"I can't believe you're using a physical map." Tony poked it. "How do you - are these little date stickers attached to the pins, that is adorable. Barton, I know SHIELD has better than this. I could do better with my phone."
"Really?" Steve folded his arms, mouth quirking a little. SHIELD were pretty persistent about dumbing the tech down for him; he was half-convinced these meeting were all an elaborate charade to ease him gently into the twenty-first century ways of doing things. Which would certainly explain Tony's reluctance to show up to them. "Go on, then."
Tony smirked at him, and pulled what was presumably his phone out of his pocket, although Steve couldn't have picked it out of a line-up. If pressed, he'd have guessed it as a picture frame.
"Permission to show off, Captain?"
"Knock yourself out, soldier."
Tony tapped at the transparent part of the phone, and it fired with light. Under Tony's tapping fingers it all moved too fast and confusing for Steve to catch, like listening to a foreign language. Tony backed up and waved them aside, and the phone made a noise like a camera-shutter.
Then he turned, and projected the world on the wall - not a map, but -
"The clouds are moving," Steve said, enchanted, and peered closer. Amazingly detailed - he could make out the Grand Canyon, and there were little snowcapped mountain ranges.
"Yeah, that's live satellite imaging." Tony spoke casually, but he was grinning. "Say if you want anything blown up."
"Enlarged," Tony said hastily, and Steve felt like an idiot. "No satellite weapons systems - there was a proposal to get some up there, but - never mind."
Steve turned back to the image to hide his blush and - there was a giant pin sticking out of Nebraska, and orbiting it was a date. He waved his finger through it, and the numbers scattered and reformed. "Your phone can read?"
"It has text recognition," Tony sounded incredibly smug, and Steve couldn't blame him.
"It's amazing." He glanced at Clint, who looked bored. "It is amazing, right? Or does your phone do this?"
"Are you kidding? I'm a field agent. SHIELD buys all my phones, and they don't do anything that hasn't been signed off in triplicate by Financial."
"What Barton means is, this is truly, truly amazing. He's in awe."
"It's a very shiny and expensive version of the map we already had, Stark. Well done."
"True," Tony's grin didn't waver. "You have incident reports? Hardcopy, you're shitting me." His eyes flicked to Steve, and then he dropped the subject, which confirmed Steve's suspicion they didn't usually hand out big stacks of paper. The map vanished as he turned away. Click-whir, and he flicked rapidly through the pages.
"Is that secure?" Steve asked, and Clint looked faintly guilty.
"We may technically be putting highly classified documents on an unauthorised system, yes."
"Don't be a baby, Barton, me and my phone were invited to this meeting." He turned back, and this time when he recreated the map, swirls of data surrounded each pin like tiny galaxies.
"Hurrah, this solves everything," Clint deadpanned, and Steve elbowed him in the ribs. "Jeez, Cap, just because you're enjoying Cirque de Stark doesn't mean - "
"Show a date progression with size in order of SHIELD assessment of severity, size in order of collateral damage estimate by local authorities, colour from violet to red estimated property damage." Tony arched an eyebrow at Clint, who shut up.
And there it was, the very first incident - a severe one, but short. A few less severe ones, heading south, one that lasted for almost a minute and trailed slowly across Arkansas. Down to Mexico - two incidents, brief and violent - then Brazil, and the incidents settled, becoming less severe, further apart.
"A lot of this is second-hand info, reconstructed later from eyewitnesses and police records," Clint said, and Steve nodded.
"Seems to be a pattern, though - ah." A big, bright glow, yellow-orange. "That?"
"A team sent to capture him." Clint shrugged. "We've got hardly any data on that."
"And so he ran," Tony muttered, gesturing to the next light in Virginia. "Another team?"
"Yeah. And then - " New York lit up in blazing scarlet, and Clint grimaced. "That wasn't all Banner. The army managed to hire a guy who turned himself into something even worse than Banner, went on the rampage, Banner offered to take him down. Big fight."
"Banner offered to help," Steve repeated. That was the interesting thing; Banner had willingly unleashed his beast. To help. "And then back on the run again, huh?" Small incidents, in Brazil, then Peru, then a sudden jump to Tunisia. "Army close in?"
"They suck," Clint shook his head with an air of professional disapproval. "Didn't get near him that time."
"All the incidents are violet, now," Steve said. "He's not causing much in the way of damage."
"Even though they're lasting a while," Tony nodded. "Ah - freeze - what's this one, Clint?"
"They caught up with him that time. Took a beating."
"See, SHIELD rate it severe, but collateral damage is negligible."
"The direct damage, however, was impressive." Natasha strolled in, all smart, professional suit and towering heels, and eyed the map. Steve should probably make noises about lateness, but he hadn't said anything to Tony, and she was carrying four cups of coffee, which he approved of. "We think he's learning control over his transformation."
"That's the conclusion we were coming to, I'm so glad we could duplicate work already done." Tony glared at Natasha, and flicked the map of light shut. Steve tried not to look disappointed; maybe he could corner Tony later and get him to show off some more.
"What we want to know is where he's going." Natasha sat down, crossing one stockinged leg over the other, and began removing the coffees from their cardboard holder. Clint grabbed two, and passed one to Steve; Tony advanced cautiously towards a third, and then darted in and grabbed it. Steve assumed he was pretending to be afraid of Natasha. "The army chase him, and sometimes catch up with him; then he destroys everything and flees. How can we predict where he's going, gentlemen?"
"We can't," Tony said irritably. "He's not going anywhere; he's going away. Call the army off, let him settle, then you can... do what you want, and probably get a lot of things destroyed."
"It's not in our power to call the army off," Natasha pursed her lips. "This is an army operation, and we're just support."
"And Ross is a dick," Tony added helpfully. Natasha said something very explicit in Russian, and Steve choked on his coffee. "Wow, Natasha, what was that?"
"I didn't know you spoke Russian," Natasha sounded slightly apologetic, and having a lady apologising for swearing in front of him was really, really embarrassing.
"Mostly swear words," he admitted. "Bucky and Gabe used to bilk them at poker." It barely hurt at all to say that; he took another swig from him coffee, which tasted nothing at all like the stuff he'd drunk in the war.
"Let's get back to hating Ross," Tony clapped his hands together. "Raise your hand if you think he's a dick. You too, Clint? Awesome. Come on, Steve, you're odd man out."
"That doesn't help," Steve tried the stern look on all of them; Natasha actually laughed out loud, though she did lower her hand. He was sure this had been easier in the War. Tony sighed, and began to fiddle with his phone again. "Solutions to predicting Banner's movements? How does he travel?"
"Half the time, he just jumps," Clint said. "He can cover over a mile in one jump. Sure, it's slow, but it gets him out of situations fast, he doesn't need roads, and we can't track him on radar. When he's good and lost, he Banners it up and he's a nondescript nerd of average height and weight again. Thousands like him wandering around the world looking for inner peace or writing travel guides."
"If we can't predict where he's going, we need to choose a place and send him there," Steve said. Clint snorted.
"Good luck driving Banner anywhere; that green monster cannot be contained."
"Not driving him. What does he want? He wants control? A cure? Could we convince him one exists?"
"Sneaky." Natasha gave him an approving look. "How?"
"Well, uh," Steve glanced down at the stack of papers. "Maybe - can we get a researcher to say they're releasing a paper?"
"Yeah, this is where people who actually know things about science join the conversation," Tony interrupted. "We've found scientific journals in his wake. When we've been able to get an idea of what he looks at when he gets net access, he checks a lot of scientific sites. Not just the pro stuff; pop science, and even amateurs. Not that there's a lot of amateur geneticists, but hey."
"I long for the day this becomes relevant," Clint told Natasha, who shrugged.
"So, Agent Barton, we can seed a story about this shit and know Banner will see it. Something about the army declassifying research - I'm sure you can buy an academic to make broad claims that won't pan out."
"About a cure?"
"Not a cure," Steve tapped his fingers on his coffee cup, considering the very limited information he had on Banner. "Banner might not risk it for a cure; after all, he's under control, he can afford to wait, right? See if it works out, wait for the research. He doesn't lose anything. The guy in New York - the one who changed himself - "
"Blonsky," Clint filled in. "They've got him in custody."
"Do you know they wanted to put him on the Avengers?" Tony said. "See, I'm too unstable, but the guy who turned himself into a freakshow and levelled Harlem - "
"You're kidding," Steve turned to look at Natasha, who affected her blank mask.
"SHIELD did not want Blonsky. He was almost inflicted on us." She quirked an eyebrow. "Mr Stark's inestimable diplomatic skills came through for us, though."
"Nice work," Steve smiled at Tony, who looked a little shifty. "So if there's a rumour that something's happened to him - "
"Announce he's melted or something?" Clint said. "Make it fatal?"
"I don't think that's what Banner's scared of," Steve said slowly, and Tony whistled.
"You've got a nasty streak, haven't you? We'll say Blonsky lost any semblance of intelligence; just a ravening beast. Inevitable progression of the mutation, and it's only a matter of time before Banner goes the same way."
"He'll want that research." Natasha stood up. "Back to Russia, then."
"Why Russia?" Steve said.
"I won't blend as an academic in Asia, Africa or the Middle East," Natasha said dryly. "And Banner's unfamiliar with Russia."
"Send us a postcard," Clint said, and kissed her cheek. She turned on her heel and stalked out, and Tony shrugged.
"Well, glad I could help."
"Come get lunch with us," Steve suggested, but Tony shook his head.
"Promised to a test-launch of a new propulsion system - might be able to do something for the Iron Man flight stabilisers, so I can't bail." He clapped Steve on the shoulder. "Meeting next week, right? We'll do something then."
"Sure," Steve said, and turned to Clint as Tony left.
"Always second choice," Clint shook his head mournfully. "Let's go."
Tony finally settled on the IMAX, because it was completely harmless and he wanted to lull Steve before trying another prank. Also, they were showing Jurassic Park, which Tony judged to be just the right kind of movie for someone who liked Asimov. Laura Dern in shorts was just a bonus.
Sadly, the next time he and Steve were both in the same place at the same time - team bonding time at the end of a briefing - Steve was clearly not in the correct mood for dinosaurs. He was brooding, in a blond, earnest kind of way, and responded monosyllabically to any attempt at conversation. As the Banner situation was in Natasha's capable hands (and presumably in Russia) they didn't really have anything to discuss. Clint and Tony managed a more or less civil conversation about exploding arrows for about three minutes, and that was Tony's limit for resisting temptation.
Time to needle Steve. Are you anatomically correct, GI Joe, did you ride into battles on mammoths, grandpa - . Steve snapped at him; Tony snapped back, watched his eyes flash with rage, and then - and then Steve crushed his jaw shut and threw himself out of his chair and made for the door. Tony darted after him, caught him when he hesitated and looked about him.
"Hey, hey. Where you going, going to walk out? Not thought up any new things to call me?" Tony folded a hand around his broad forearm, like he could possibly stop Steve if he wanted to leave.
Steve twitched as if to throw Tony off, and then gently took his wrist.
"I'm sorry, that was rude," he said very tightly, and tried to separate Tony's fingers from his sleeve.
"That? That wasn't rude. I am a show-off, I'm such a show-off. Ask anyone. It's in my file, even, Fury uses it like a club to beat me with. What's wrong with you, anyway?"
"What's..." Steve looked at him as if he were stupid, which was a look Tony was more familiar with than a genius should be. "I was frozen in ice for seventy years," as if maybe Tony hadn't heard.
"Yeah? So?" That was - well, not old news, but it wasn't like he'd suddenly get mad at that now. Was it? Maybe he had PTSD. Drowning would probably screw you up a bit. Steve shifted from foot to foot, looked up at the ceiling, down at Tony's hand on his forearm. Up into Tony's eyes, a look more intense and searching than Tony had seen from him before.
"So - " his mouth turned down, and Tony stared at it, as if the shape of his lips might convey something important. "So - so my girlfriend doesn't want me any more."
"What?" Tony processed that. "What, your wartime squeeze?"
"Peggy," and his voice trembled a little, and he looked down again, lips twisting. "We, I saw her at the weekend."
Right. Tony hooked an arm firmly through his, and tugged. Steve went with him, the admission seeming to have blown his anger away and left only compliance.
"You need a drink." Tony informed him, and turned them towards the elevator. Underground parking garage, smuggle Steve out in the car. Easy.
"I can't get drunk."
"Life has truly conspired to shit on you, my friend." He tried a comforting squeeze - Steve had really big arms - and kept right on towards their exit route. "Let's go see if we can get a placebo effect going."
"She's ninety-four," Steve mumbled into his third glass of the murky brown cocktail Tony had ordered at random. He'd never been to this bar; there were pictures of baseball players on the walls, and the seats were upholstered in battered leatherette. Tony didn't approve. "She - and she said she still had her dignity, and wasn't going to - that she didn't want to be - she has, you know, a lot of bad days, that's why I had to wait to see her, she got a cold this spring and it went to her chest."
"That's understandable," Tony said slowly, feeling his way. He wasn't used to this kind of thing - when Pepper's mom had died, she'd burst into tears at the office, just spontaneously while handing him his schedule. He'd hugged her and let her sob on his shoulder for five endless minutes, wanting to do something, anything, but not knowing what, because all his ways of dealing with grief would just horrify her.
When the tears stopped, she'd stood up straight and given him a watery smile, and said will that be all Mr Stark, and he'd said take the week. The month, if you need it.
She'd taken four days and they'd been a hideous time of disaster, but Tony didn't care, because that was something he could do. Oh, and he'd sent a very nice wreath; Pepper had told him about it afterwards.
But this - how did you deal with this? Steve was white-faced and dry-eyed and couldn't even get drunk. Tony squinted around. He could pick out at least three SHIELD agents, all pointedly not looking in their direction; seemed like Fury was inclined to let Tony play this hand on his own, which confirmed he was a sadistic bastard. Sure, Tony could off-load Steve onto one of them, but. He'd wanted to be friends, and Tony wasn't as ignorant of the obligations of friendship as some people might think.
"I suppose," Steve said, and took another drink. Tony picked up the pitcher, and topped off his glass. "I asked her to marry me."
Tony clenched his jaw shut on what the fuck.
"And she said no?" He kept the incredulity out of his voice. He supposed, if Pepper suddenly sprouted wrinkles and arthritis, it wouldn't make much difference to the way he felt about her.
"Said she'd. She said a lot of things, but I guess what it came down to was that it wouldn't make her happy."
"Well, I guess at ninety-four you know your own mind."
"Just, it was - three months ago. She was - and I was just a memory to her, she didn't look at me like - I wasn't a part of her life anymore, I was like the War. Long gone. I felt like a ghost. I am a ghost." He covered his face with his hands, and Tony reached out to press a hand to his shoulder. "I'm sorry," he looked up, face scrunched up. "I'm sorry I was so - so unkind."
"Oh Jesus, don't apologise to me, I was a dick and I get worse from Coulson twice a week." Tony gave up, and just wrapped an arm around his broad shoulders and pulled him closer. SHIELD would probably abduct anyone who ventured to point a camera in their direction, after all. Steve put his head down on Tony's shoulder, and snuffled.
"Everyone's dead except Peggy, and she doesn't want me anymore. I'm too late. I wish - " he pushed the heels of his hand into his eyes, elbowing Tony in the ribs. "This is a bad joke, I should be - "
Tony's mind helpfully filled in the missing words.
"No you shouldn't," he tipped his own glass up. "There's not anything should about it, you can't go around saying this person should be and this person shouldn't be, it doesn't work like that. Even when we wish it could, you know."
"I know," Steve drooped. "But - "
"You're just a kid to her," Tony told him, and Steve looked up, frowning a little. "You're not even thirty yet. You're the same guy, but she's lived seventy years. Are you the same guy you were a few years ago? Not counting frozen time."
A tiny indentation appeared at the corner of his mouth, like a smile was lurking in there.
"Well, no," he said.
"Apart from the whole super soldier - okay, fighting in the War too, you've had a busy couple of year." He put his chin in his hand. "This made more sense when I started it. I mean, she's gone through a lot. All kinds of things that you haven't, can't understand."
"Yeah," he breathed a warm sigh against Tony's neck. "I wanted to be there with her. I wanted - she was going to teach me to dance." He sounded more resigned, now, the raw edge gone from his words.
"But you know how experiences can set you apart from people," Tony urged. He could still remember Rhodey back from his first deployment into a war zone; he'd been different, and they hadn't slipped easily back into their friendship for all it had only been six months. It had taken a while for them to click together again, get the machinery moving smoothly. Steve had to know that too; he was nodding. "So she's a stranger to you, now. And she's smart enough to know that."
Steve was quiet for a little while, and then he sat up and reached for his glass again. His eyes were a little sticky, but he gave Tony a smile, weak but sincere.
"You're right, of course."
"Of course I am," and then, right when things were looking like they could hang out and work on getting to know each other, Fury stepped into the bar and Steve froze, guilt painting his face. Fury walked up to the table, and raised an eyebrow at the pitcher.
"Are you almost done here, Captain?" he said in an entirely pleasant voice, and Steve nodded, and stood up. "No, no rush. Mr Stark will be happy to drive you back, won't you?"
"Sure," Tony drained his glass and stood up. Less attention than hustling him into a huge black car, he supposed. Fury took his place, and placidly poured himself a drink; Clint popped up from, apparently, a hidden trapdoor, and snagged Steve's glass. He gave Tony a bland smile, and Tony just rolled his eyes.
"I hope I didn't get you in trouble," Steve said as they drove back into the underground garage. Tony gave him a surprised look.
"No, I'm pretty sure I got myself into trouble by kidnapping you."
"You didn't kidnap me." Steve smiled. "It was good to get out... I feel so cooped up in here." He sighed. "At least I can write to Peggy now, I guess. She said that was okay."
"Write? What, doesn't she have email?" Surely even pensioners had smartphones these days.
"I don't have email," Steve said in patient tones. "I don't have a telephone, either."
"Well, that's unreasonable." Tony pulled in one of the spots near the elevator, and turned to look at Steve. "When are you free?"
"You want to get lunch tomorrow? I probably can't smuggle you out again, but I can bring you takeout." Steve blinked at him for a moment, and then his mouth crooked up.
"Awesome." Tony flapped a hand. "Now shoo. I'm sure someone's waiting to check you over for dings and scratches."
Pepper rushed back from her lunch meeting to hear Tony's account of the Avengers meeting he'd deigned to attend; of course, he didn't come back to the penthouse, and she had to trek down to his workshop, where he was sitting on his battered couch, staring up at the big screen.
"What are you doing?" Pepper sat down beside him, and leaned her head against his shoulder. He hummed, and dropped a kiss on the top of her head, and then offered her his glass. She took a sniff, and then waved it away. "No, really. You're watching... newsreels again? Didn't you make up with Captain America?" He was laughed and talking soundlessly with some men in uniform, one wearing a ridiculous bowler hat.
"Yeah, yeah, but he's weird."
"Weird things. Weird thoughts." Tony shrugged. "Maybe he's freaking out? I'm just," he gestured with his glass at the projected image.
"Why?" She frowned up at the images, flickering slightly. These weren't newsreels, she realised; Captain America was unmasked, leaning on a table spread with maps and smiling as he listened to the chatter around him. "How's this going to help?"
"I just want an idea of what makes him tick," Tony shook his head. "I don't know." He rested his chin on her head, and sighed. "Getting handles on everyone else - even Natasha - but this one's deceptive, you know? I thought I was getting him, and then boom, rug gone. Surprising."
"You like surprises."
"I like steadiness. Order. Routine. That's why we get on so well." He slumped down further, cheek rubbing against her hair, and pushed a kiss onto her cheek. "Speaking of getting on well."
"I'm trying to cut down on sex with the ex," she said, but she smiled.
"See, 'cut down on' is not 'eliminate', so I think - " the rest of that was lost against the sensitive skin of her hairline, and she shivered as he combed her hair back with his fingers. She tipped her head sideways, to allow him better access, and snaked a hand down between them to undo his belt buckle, because it had been a very long and stressful week, and as Tony had caused most of the stress, it was really only fair he helped her get rid of it.
And he did do a fine job of it; she'd always thought, before, he'd be a selfish lover, and he was, but - it was a wonderful selfishness, the way he wrapped himself in her and luxuriated, like she was a fur blanket or a fine wine, always so fascinated by her body, her noises.
"I love you," he murmured, and she hummed a soft response. "Pepper? You're so beautiful."
"Mmm," she managed, and pulled him in for another kiss, to quiet him.
Dummy brought them a blanket, and JARVIS must have turned off the air-conditioning at some point, because the room wasn't as cold as it usually was. Tony rested his head on her breasts, and she blinked up at Captain Rogers, in full colour, sitting on the edge of a bed with patient acceptance all over his face. It took her a few moments to realise what was weird about it, because she was pleasantly distracted by his shirtlessness.
"This is modern footage." Tony muttered something indecipherable into her cleavage. "Tony, where did you get this?"
"SHIELD," she managed to pick out from the next mumble, which probably meant hacking, or possibly meant bribing Agent Barton, or there was a small chance he'd just stolen a flash drive from Director Fury's desk. Fury was handling the Captain's case personally, from all evidence.
The Captain smiled nicely up at the nurse who came and took about twenty vials of blood from him, and then dutifully blew into bags, had his heartbeat listened to, and had his eyes peered into.
"See," Tony lifted his head. "Look at that. Hours and hours of being poked and prodded, and he just smiles at them. What is that?"
"Politeness?" she suggested, and he snorted. It had taken her a while to figure out that Tony viewed social niceties as an elaborate fiction. Natasha, he claimed, had proved his point. You could hide anything under a bland smile. She'd never been able to bring herself to point out that Obie had hidden much worse under fatherly gruffness and apparent straight-talking. They'd never really talked about that; maybe they should have.
She smoothed his hair back, and he sighed, and kissed her wrist.
"Can I take you out to lunch tomorrow?"
"No," she said firmly, ignoring his pout. Tony was like a kudzu, almost impossible to root out; but in the interests of not being smothered, she had to try. Possibly with a machete. She should really stop having sex with him. "I should get back to the office."
He grumbled, and apparently managed to double his bodyweight in cat-like fashion, but she squirmed out from under him and stepped quickly into her shoes; the workshop floor was always freezing. Tony watch her with lazy appreciation until she zipped up her dress, and then he turned his head back towards the screen, showing Captain Rogers on a treadmill.
"He doesn't seem to be hiding anything." He bundled himself more tightly in his blanket, until he resembled a cocoon. "I can figure him out."
"Of course you can." She leaned over the back of the couch, and kissed his cheek; he gave her a fuzzy smile. "Be nice to him. I like him."
"Of course," he said. "I'm being nice. I have been very nice."
"Of course you have."
"I bought him a present." He smiled, a private gleeful thing.
"Is it horrifying?"
"No." He yawned. "I'm not going to tell you what it is, because I know you have secret assignations with Fury."
"Pfft," she kissed him again, and clicked her way to the door, escorted by Dummy.
Tony allowed a two day space between their lunch - and his gift - and stopping by to say hi. Pleasantly nonchalant, no element of creepy fanboy. Grabbing someone's hand and saying I see you're sad, let's be friends just wasn't dignified, after all.
He hit the button for the elevator, and glanced down at his phone. He looked up when the doors open, and found himself nose to nose with Agent Coulson. Tony didn't shriek and throw his coffee in the air, because he'd gotten used to Natasha's funny little ways. Instead, he merely twitched a little before stepping around him into the elevator.
"Did you give Captain Rogers a tablet?" Coulson rotated on his heel like a creepy marionette, mournful eyes fixed on Tony.
"Yes, yes I did." Tony put his chin up, and hit the button for Steve's floor. He had nothing to be ashamed of. "I taught him how to use it, and I got him logged on to the wireless, and introduced him to the Gutenberg library and Wikipedia, and I also installed NetNanny, because by the time he figures out how to - "
"That took him about an hour, Stark. Please. Remember he has superpowers."
"Computer superpowers?" Tony sipped his coffee and tried to look interested. Steve had been happily fascinated by his new toy; he'd been carefully picking out colours for his custom desktop theme when Tony had left. He hadn't exhibited any superpowers that Tony had noticed, unless being extraordinarily picky about blue was one.
"Enhanced cognitive functions, mostly related to acquiring new skills and multitasking. We're still testing." Coulson gave him a cool smile. "What I want to know is, why did you give him a computer?"
"Well, I don't really like to analyse myself, but I think my train of thought was something like, Steve doesn't have a computer? Everyone needs a computer! So I got him a tablet. He can jump straight into touchscreens, right? Keyboards are over, they're gone."
"Uh huh. And then you brought it to him personally, and spent two hours teaching him how to use it?"
"We also ate Chinese food. He did pick it up pretty quick. How did you find out, by the way?" Coulson closed his eyes with an expression of long-suffering.
"He friended Director Fury on Facebook." His eyes slitted open again at Tony's crow of laughter.
"Well, that." Tony tried to choke the hilarity out of his voice - Coulson looked like a man on the edge. "That's nice, really, that Steve wants to be friends."
Coulson gave Tony a very intense and poisonous look.
"Literally the only reason Natasha and Clint are not competing to be the first to drop your head at Fury's feet is Farmville."
That was - Tony stared at him, trying to get a clue, but Coulson continued to look like a small-town math teacher grading a D student.
"Fury likes Farmville?" was all he could think of, and then, "Wait, Natasha's back from Russia already?"
"He doesn't play Farmville, no, but it does seem to be thoroughly distracting Captain Rogers." Coulson's eyebrows twitched up just a fraction. "There are now twenty-five SHIELD agents playing Farmville on the clock." He looked like that was hurting him in his very soul, and the hurt grew more evident as he went on, through gritted teeth. "Fury says good initiative. Don't do anything like that again."
"Fury's pleased with me?" This was a new and heady concept. Tony hadn't even been sure it was possible, unless you were a steel-spined bundle of redheaded competence.
"I wouldn't go that far." Coulson gave him a humourless smile. "Please try and remember that Captain Rogers does not have enhanced emotional processing to match his mental capabilities."
"He's vulnerable to culture shock. We're trying to feed him data slow enough he can adjust."
"Well no, that's stupid, he'll just get frustrated." Coulson responded to this perfectly reasoned assessment by flexing a muscle in his jaw.
"Frustrated has been deemed the safer option."
"Than what, than his tiny brain bursting out of his skull?"
Coulson smacked the emergency stop button without changing expression, and Tony raised his eyebrows.
"Do you know the suicide rates for returning soldiers?"
"Uh - "
"Sometimes, they can't adjust to the civilian world again. And that's without a seventy year time jump and losing everything you know and love."
"He's not - "
"Fury's of the opinion you mean well. I'm of the opinion we cannot afford to let you fuck this up." Coulson leaned in close. "This is not a broken leg, this is not property damage, this is not smashing up your fancy house or blowing off your investors."
"Fuck off," Tony snapped, and Coulson's eyes narrowed. "You think I don't get that? In case you hadn't noticed, my best friend's had multiple combat deployments."
"Captain Rogers is not Colonel Rhodes. As he's not one of the two people you don't regard as dispensable - "
"Oh hey, right, because you're all here with the tender concern for his well-being, you're not all scared out your minds by the fact if he scratches his pinky or gets a complex, SHIELD will be defunded so hard Natasha will be killing people with paperclips? You keep babying him, he's going to go quietly out of his mind. When a guy comes back from a war zone, you don't shut him up in the basement with nothing to do but brood and break stuff." He shut his mouth tight, because Coulson was looking at him with analytical interest. The corners of his mouth turned up, very slightly, and he turned back to the elevator panel and did something that got the elevator moving again.
"That's why you're still allowed to socialise with the Captain," Coulson said. "Until you get bored of him, you should be a distraction." The doors dinged open with perfect dramatic timing.
"Fine. Wow." Tony stalked out into the corridor, and down towards Steve's room.
The Internet was amazing. Steve wanted it forever - the fact he could carry it about in his hands was almost beyond his ability to comprehend. He just - thought of something he wanted to know, and there was a page for it. He'd asked about the index, and Tony had laughed; there were pages just to find the other pages, so he didn't need to do any work, just write in his question - the letters all appeared at the bottom of the screen - and it would offer him all kinds of things.
It offered him even more kinds of things when he'd turned off SafeSearch; it hadn't taken him long to decide he preferred to be safe.
"Hey there! I hear someone's discovered the wilder reaches of the Internet." Tony was in the doorway, smiling at him; he looked kind of jumpy, glancing back down the corridor.
"Tony," Steve set the tablet aside, and rose to his feet. "This is wonderful. Thank you."
"Not a problem. Just, uh, you be careful out there."
"Nick came and talked to me about the Internet," Steve picked up the tablet again, turned it over and traced his fingers over the engraving. "They've blocked some stuff for now, and he asked me not to get round it. Says it's for my own good."
"Yeah." Tony sat down on the bed, and Steve sat next to him. "Not that you can't handle it, but hey, one step at a time, right? So, uh."
"Do you have a Facebook?" Steve tilted the screen towards him. "I found some fanpages, but - "
"No, I don't have that kind of time. I have a Twitter, but - better not, while you're still supposed to be secret. I mostly use it to argue with geeks. You've got my email, anyway."
"It's in your contacts."
"Okay, then." Steve was clearly going to have to check more thoroughly into what Tony had pre-loaded the tablet with.
"Tell me what you've been doing apart from cyberstalking Fury." Steve made a mental note to Google 'cyberstalking'. The Internet was so much easier than asking everyone to explain anything all the time. With this in his lap, he bet he could get through all the meetings just fine.
"They have the most amazing games," Steve dragged up the menu. "I have a farm. And a mine. And there's one with birds knocking down castles. And I went on YouTube and watched some clips from musicals - I really want to see the Oz one, it looks fun." He tapped at the screen, bringing up a list of favourites videos, and Tony leaned in to see.
"Yeah," he breathed out a sigh. "Yeah, I never learned to dance." Without really thinking, he tapped on his favourite, and they watched in silence as a slim dark woman foxtrotted across the floor in the arms of her partner. She was wearing a red dress with a full, glittery skirt, and her stockings were seamed at the back.
When the clip finished, he couldn't think of anything to say. Tony stayed leaning on his shoulder, a warm presence; it was nice to not feel totally alone. He had Tony here now, and later he could go up and grab Clint for basketball; maybe even scare up a few more people, get some teams. And Maria Hill had promised him a game of chess, and one of the SHIELD agents on Facebook had sent him an invitation to her birthday party - he didn't know if he'd be allowed to go, but it was nice to be invited.
It wasn't so bad, really, but his finger was sneaking towards the replay button when Tony spoke.
"Is this your only room?" He peered about with an air of dissatisfaction. "You don't even have a window."
"What would I do with two rooms?"
"You don't even have a TV."
"I use the one in the break room. No one minds."
"But you've been here weeks. This is a closet. I can't believe -" Tony shook his head, and then grabbed Steve's arm. "Come on, get up, put shoes on, we'll go buy you an apartment, you can't live in this crummy little room. SHIELD couldn't spring for your own apartment?"
"No, they did offer." Tony opened his mouth, clearly about to argue, and Steve hunched down a little. "But I'm not really used to living alone. I used to live in a boarding house, and then the Army. I like being here; there's always someone to talk to."
Tony's face went mostly blank, a little considering. Steve waited, somewhere between doubt and worry, to hear the next turn in the conversation, and was saved by a chime from his tablet; he had an email.
"Oh, it's Nick," he said, and clicked on the Facebook link. Tony cackled.
"Oh my God, is he holding a puppy?"
Steve thought it was quite a nice profile picture; Nick was holding a spaniel puppy, and a little girl he suspected was a grandchild. He voiced this opinion, and Tony snorted.
"Not a chance. Fury's too paranoid to have his family on Facebook. That's probably a hired model. It's probably Natasha in disguise."
"Uh-huh." Steve clicked on the message.
"Does he want you to harvest his crops? Oh, a meeting?"
Bring Stark, it said at the end. Steve sort of liked how unsubtle they were about their surveillance of him. At least they were being honest with him. Some of the time, anyway.
Natasha was back; she'd cut off her lovely long hair to chin level, a style so familiar Steve's breath stopped in his throat.
"Everything okay, Steve?" She caught his expression, but didn't seem to have placed the reason, so he forced a smile, and took a seat beside her, Tony at his other hand.
"Just surprised to see you."
"I'm attending a conference on genetics in Pennsylvania." She gave them a satisfied smile. "And then a big black car appeared to whisk me away; gossip is already spreading that I'm at a top-secret briefing on the Blonsky research."
"Which is technically true," Clint put in, slipping into the room and planting a kiss on Natasha's cheek. "I like the sexy schoolmarm look, it's very you." Steve privately agreed; in the well-cut skirt and coat, she could pass for a woman from his own time.
Fury entered, and Natasha and Clint both stiffened like hunting dogs going to point, eager eyes following him as he crossed the room and settled opposite them. Tony kicked back in his chair and put his shoes up on the table.
"How come Steve gets to call you Nick?" he demanded, and Fury eyed him.
"Do you want to call me Nick?"
"And there you have your answer. On with the briefing. Natasha, how are things progressing?"
"Excellently. I'm impersonating Dr Anna Gvozdareva, a Ukrainian geneticist whose previous work is in an unconnected field; she's only had her PhD three years, so there's virtually no chance Banner will be familiar with her or her work, and there's very little information about her available online. I'm listed on the faculty of the Novosibirsk branch of the Russian Academy of Science, and I have an office there. Dr Gvozdareva is currently enjoying an Alaskan cruise under the name of Rose Anderson, and has expressed a willingness to tour Machu Picchu if we need more time."
"I love the spirit of international co-operation," Tony said. "You get your rumours seeded?"
"I drank a great deal of vodka in the bar last night, and over-shared a little about my incredible good fortune. I didn't give away details - but I hinted enough. There's an article coming out in Scientific American next week that's been mis-attributed to Professor Awad, who is a prominent Iranian geneticist who speaks very little English; Dr Banner is not known to speak any Persian, which is Professor Awad's first language. We're monitoring Professor Awad's email and telephone, and if Banner gets in touch, his communication will be redirected to an agent who will feign poor understanding, and direct him to Dr Gvozdareva for further information."
"What's in the article?" Clint asked.
"A theoretical piece about the ongoing mutation process, based on observations on an unnamed subject published in the Scientific Journal of Latin America. We've inserted these observations to the web edition of the journal; they're in Spanish, which Banner does speak, but not with great fluency. The description is specific enough he'll recognise it as Blonsky; and Dr Gvozdareva is thanked in the author's note."
"That should do it," Tony agreed. "What about his girlfriend?"
"Dr Ross was at the conference; she'll no doubt pick up on the rumours. I didn't approach her directly for fear of raising suspicions." She shrugged. "We monitor her communications, of course."
"But he knows that, so that's a really long shot." Clint said. "So. He'll have to go to Dr Gvozdareva."
"And what will you tell him?" Steve asked.
"Anything to keep him busy long enough for the army to spring their trap." She made a face. "I'll bet you now they mess it up, though, so I want this op off my record."
"Can do, Natasha," Fury spoke at last. "You're doing good work, but Ross won't share at all what they're planning this time. We're supposed to get him to the location, and then step back. If he screws it up, I'll see it doesn't splash on to you."
"Still leaves Natasha at ground zero of a Banner transformation," Clint said disapprovingly. She rolled her eyes, very slightly.
"Like I can't handle it."
"Best you don't," Steve said. "Keep your cover up; Banner hasn't harmed a civilian in over a year." Natasha made a face, obviously displeased at the thought of playing possum, but then she shrugged.
"Never break a cover unless you have to."
"You want Clint?" Fury pointed his pen at Clint, who looked hopeful. "Ross has been asking to add him to the loan."
"Don't need him." Clint pouted, and slouched in his chair. "Anyway, you'll end up lending him the whole team at this rate, and then - "
"He's not getting Cap," Fury said flatly. "And he doesn't want Stark."
"It's lucky I'm a narcissist or I'd be getting a complex," Tony put in, and Steve patted his shoulder.
"We want you, Tony."
"We're just playing hard to get," Clint added, and Natasha snorted with laughter, and stood up.
"I should get going; there's a meet and greet at three, and I want to play down everything I said last night. That'll get suspicions going." She grinned, wickedly. "Be good, everyone."
"Pepper, Pepper - Clint, what the hell are you doing in my penthouse?" Pepper looked up to see Tony standing in the doorway, eyeing Clint, who sat cross-legged in front of the TV, with affected suspicion.
"I told Pepper you'd said I could come over and use your big TV." Clint nodded to Pepper, who returned her eyes to her laptop and curled her feet up under her.
"See, that's funny, I don't remember telling you that that." Pepper had rather suspected that, but Clint was an excellent source of gossip, and could be counted upon to tell her what Tony had been up to.
"Well, you're getting kind of old. Memory's the first to go. Hey, while you're up, you wanna get me a beer?" He didn't look away from the TV, but Pepper could see him grinning.
"Did you bring any beer?"
"It's cool if you don't have any, I'll have whatever you're having."
"Martini for me," Pepper said, and Tony sighed in a put-upon fashion and turned towards the kitchen.
He came back with the drinks, and dropped a kiss on Pepper's hair when he gave her hers.
"Isn't it weird to live with your ex?" Clint said, and Tony kicked him gently in the shoulder on his way back to the couch.
"We don't live here. We're staying here, just like we always do when we have business in New York."
"You going back to Malibu, then?" Clint didn't look away from the screen, but Pepper had to check Tony's expression, which was blank. Tony wasn't CEO anymore, but as chief engineer and majority shareholder, she did need to be in near-constant contact with him. Not to mention that if he planned to live in New York permanently, they should probably re-structure - most of his pet projects were based in the Malibu facilities.
"Maybe. It's not a long flight. Four thousand kilometres."
"I'm available for apartment-sitting."
"I have a super-advanced AI keeping an eye on things, thanks. He doesn't drink my beer, either." He tapped his fingers on the stem of his glass, a nervous habit she'd noted before; he was turning over a new idea, somewhere. "Does living with an AI count as living alone?"
"Yes," Clint said firmly. "You're anti-social to the point of pathology."
"Not for me, idiot. Steve's still living in SHIELD HQ." He was frowning, now, and Pepper felt a little rush of tenderness. It was just like Tony, for his first impulse to be moving the man into his own home. It would probably resolve into an attempt to buy him his own apartment; and maybe not a bad thing if he succeeded.
"So are Natasha and I."
"But you're losers, and - " Tony's phone chirped, and Clint's rang. Tony glanced at the screen, and then grabbed the remote and turned over from Clint's movie.
"Yeah," Clint said, and turned to look at the screen, which featured explosions, snow, the US and Russian armies, and a vast green monster on a rampage. "Yeah, I - okay, yeah. Sure." He folded the phone shut, and Tony muted the TV. "Stark, you got the armour handy? Need a lift to Siberia."
"Let me guess," Tony glanced at the screen. "Novosibirsk."
"You coming, or not? Banner took Natasha."
"Say what?" Tony sat up, and Pepper suppressed a gasp.
"Army screwed it up, she played helpless civilian, he grabbed her and took off. Natasha doesn't know shit about genetics, and he'll figure that out fast." Clint swallowed. "If he figures that out when he's transformed, she won't have a chance. They're in fucking Siberia, Tony, she's not even got her cold-weather gear on - "
"Okay, okay, don't get undignified on me," Tony was on his feet, and Pepper considered the possibilities of arguing with them. She didn't like her chances.
Clint and Tony left without a backwards glance, and she opened her phone, and called Fury.
"Hill," said Maria Hill's brisk voice, and she bit her lip.
"It's Ms Potts," she said. "I was hoping to speak to Steve Rogers."
A pause, very short; then I'll tell him you called and the line went dead. Agent Hill wasn't known for wasting words, which was definitely a quality to be appreciated; or so Pepper told herself.
Her phone rang in less than a minute, unknown number, and she opened it.
"Hello, Miss Potts," said a vaguely familiar voice. "Agent Hill said - "
"Tony and Clint are going to Russia."
"You did the right thing calling me," he said without a second's hesitation. "Can I speak to them?" Pepper tapped in the code that would bring the workshop's line in, and then the code that overrode Tony's busy signal. A tiny picture showed up on her screen, two figures waving their arms at each other.
"You'll be a fucking icicle, that's why," Tony was saying, already in the armour. "Look, why don't I go - "
"Tony?" Steve said dubiously, and both figures spun like guilty marionettes, looking up and around. "Are you guys going to come get me to go to Russia? Should I come over there?"
Pepper clapped her hand over her mouth to suppress a shriek. That was not the plan.
"Who's going to Russia?" Clint said, recovering fast. "Tony and me, we're just - "
"You can't go without me," Steve interrupted plaintively. "We're a team. How did you find out where Banner took her?"
"We don't know," Tony shrugged with a whir of machinery. "We're just going to fly out to Novosibirsk and have a look round, you know."
There was a pause, long enough for everyone to acknowledge the stupidity of that plan.
"Why don't I come over," Steve said. "And we can come up with a better plan before we head out?"
Tony looked at Clint, who shook his head and dropped into a chair as if his strings had been cut.
"Yeah, Steve," Tony stepped back toward the plate that would help him take his armour off. "Why don't you do that."
Steve arrived within fifteen minutes; he was carrying a large bag. "Cold weather kit," he explained at Tony's raised eyebrow. "I brought Clint's gear."
Pepper was going to be assassinated by SHIELD, she decided glumly. Who would have thought Captain America was a rule-breaker? She was just going to believe this was all a ploy to keep them occupied, and he had no intention of charging off to Siberia to fight monsters.
She occupied herself reading through Twitter tags; the shambles of #greenmonster, #russiamonster, and #unjollygreengiant made her wish Bruce Banner's identity was public. It would be easier to do searches on him. The consensus seemed to be that he'd flipped out in a cafe, levelled an entire block, and kidnapped a woman, presumably Natasha.
Clint was sitting on the couch, watching the news coverage; there was blurry footage of Banner leaping away with a female figure tucked under his arm. Steve sat down next to him, and put an arm around his shoulders.
"I should have gone with her," Clint was gripping the remote tight enough to dent the brushed metal casing. "They asked for me."
"And she said she didn't need you," Steve said soothingly. "Let's focus on getting her back."
"Yeah," Tony flopped down on the other side of him, and patted his knee. "Chin up; I just texted Rhodey, and he says if I loan him a suit, he'll come with us. They keep the War Machine locked up, or something."
"Yeah?" Clint turned his head. "That's really great of you, man."
"Hey, no problem."
"I mean, having someone in armour who isn't a total flake - " Clint gave him a sly look, and Tony huffed in annoyance. Pepper still hadn't quite worked out whether Clint liked Tony or not; she supposed being a secret agent made you accustomed to keeping people guessing,
"Oh, I guess we're feeling better, huh. Stop hugging him, Steve, he doesn't deserve your love."
"Okay, Tony, can you do the map thing for Siberia?"
"You bet. JARVIS? Do the lights, show Captain Rogers the world. Shining, shimmering and splendid at your discretion."
Twenty minutes later, when Clint was explaining that of course Natasha had a compass and GPS on her, Director Fury walked in.
"Will you stop fucking with JARVIS," Tony said to him. "Wait, what are you doing here? Shouldn't you be looking for Natasha?"
"You've found her?" Clint sat down on the couch, eyes fixed on Fury's face. "Is she okay?"
"She briefly hooked up with a Russian unit - long enough to get proper gear and a weapon, and send a message. Said she was going after Banner, and I should, I quote, stop Clint from doing anything fucking stupid like chasing after me."
"I'm not going to chase after her now," Clint grabbed the remote, and kicked his feet up on the coffee table. "She says she's fine, she's fine. As long as Ross' goons aren't involved."
"Well," Tony shrugged, and waved a hand through the white light of Siberia, which obediently dispersed. "That was fun. What, you couldn't call?"
"I figured I had to come and pick up Captain Rogers," Fury bent a stern gaze upon Steve, who put his chin up and gazed off into the distance, looking heroic. "I will not discuss the effect on my blood pressure to get Agent Romanova back, and then find Captain America has apparently dispersed into the ether. I am assuming Stark taught you how to hack the security systems?"
"What?" Tony looked up indignantly. "I did not."
"No, I - looked it up on the Internet," Steve rubbed at the back of his neck, eyes sliding sideways to check on Fury's expression. "I had to adapt it a bit - "
"I remember fondly the days you burst through walls and ran away," Fury said, and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Clint, would you like a ride back with us?"
"Sure," Clint said. "I was going to make Stark drive me back, so."
It was 2AM. When the door shut behind them, Pepper closed her laptop. Tony sprawled out on the couch again, staring at the news.
"Enjoying teamwork?" She tried for a teasing tone, but it came out serious. Tony shrugged, and kicked the arm of the couch.
"I don't need Barton nursing a grudge against me. If flying him to Siberia saves me getting an arrow in the ass, it's good enough." He lifted his head to glare. "You shouldn't have called Steve."
"I was hoping he'd stop you," she admitted, and Tony laughed.
"Yeah, surprised me too. He's good people."
Pepper sighed, and quietly abandoned the idea that Steve might be a good influence on Tony.
It was three days until Tony could get an appointment with Fury; and when he got to Fury's office, he discovered Clint parked on the couch, polishing arrowheads.
"What's he here for? Did you actually get Clint up here to menace me with archaic weaponry? Next time I'm bringing the armour."
"I like your confidence there will be a next time," Fury settled on the edge of his desk, giving Tony the creepy yet benevolent smile. "Right now, I'd say your chances of ever getting another meeting with me are dropping fast.
"Well, maybe I wanted a private talk, which means not Clint, because he squeals to Pepper, don't think I don't know."
Fury folded his arms, and fixed Tony with a very serious expression.
"Clint has your best interests at heart, Stark. He only tells Ms Potts things he thinks she ought to know." Clint snickered, and Tony gave them both the bird. Fury grinned. "Natasha's due in; her debriefing overrules - well, I'm not sure exactly what you want, but I'm sure Natasha's is more important. But you can stay and listen, if you want."
"Oh, fine," Tony flopped down beside Clint, who kicked him in a friendly way. More or less, he'd just been invited to sit in on a top-secret debriefing, which meant he was currently being approved of; and that meant if he didn't piss Fury off, he had a good chance of getting his private meeting afterwards. "Is Steve here? He should be here."
"He's in medical," Clint said, and Tony's heart skipped. Surely - "They can't stop running tests on him, they're coming up with new ones just for him. They made him hang by his hands for four hours on Tuesday." Oh, right. Still trying to reverse-engineer Captain America.
The door clicked open, and Natasha strutted in. She put her hands on her hips, and looked down her nose at them.
"Guess who knows Banner's next stop," she declared, and Clint dropped his arrows to applaud.
"Excellent work, Natasha," was all Fury said, and Natasha's grin widened.
"He's currently en route to New York. And he's going to find Dr Ross."
"And how do you know that?" Fury's eye narrowed. "How did you arrange that, should I say?"
"I didn't break cover; he thought he was rescuing me, I suppose. Jumped us out and then changed back, and I freaked out. Babbled all kinds of nonsense, and left him with the idea Dr Ross was involved in a project to find a cure for the secondary mutation, and that she had most of the information. Then I just kept having hysterics until the army showed up, and he ran again."
"You're sure he's going there, though?" Fury frowned, and Tony butted in.
"How did that take you three days?"
"It didn't. After I spoke to Fury, I - acquired some equipment from the unit I was with, and set out after Banner. I followed him for two days, and when he took cover in a shack, I broke in, stole his iPhone, hacked his voice notes, and returned it."
"You spent two days tracking Banner through Siberia?" Tony goggled at her. That settled it; Natasha was an indestructible robot sent back in time for some dire reason, and was only working for SHIELD to fund her motor oil habit. "And how did you steal his phone? How was his phone even still working?"
"I had a spare battery with me, fortunately. He was sleeping with it under his pillow, so I didn't have to search him for it. I got straight out and came here, so if we're lucky, we can intercept him on the way, before the army get a chance to mess it up again!" She actually broke into a dance, swaying on her epic heels, and to Tony's mounting freaked-out-ness, Fury straightened up, took her hand, and they did some kind of weird sliding step across the room. They did a showy twirl before Fury dipped her neatly over the couch and then deposited her in Clint's lap.
"I love it when a plan comes together," Natasha declared and Clint tugged on one of her curls. Tony could barely find it in him to be creeped out by the thought of Natasha watching the A-Team; he was watching Fury's feet as they one-twoed back across the office with disturbing precision.
"Something wrong, Mr Stark?" Nick said, eyebrow going up, and an idea sparked in Tony's brain.
"Is that a foxtrot?"
"It may, indeed, be a foxtrot. SHIELD undercover agents are expected to be able to dance. I believed your dancing skills were limited to the society function waltz."
"Actually Rhodey and I were ballroom dance champions at MIT, it's not in my file, my competition name was Tonietta. Rhodey insisted. Don't Ask, Don't Tell and all." Fury gave him a benevolent smile; sometimes your bullshit amuses me, Stark. "So, uh, listen, I heard you were having trouble finding a base for the Avengers Initiative."
Fury's smile lost warmth, turned speculative.
"I'd be interested in a permanent base for the team; it's not ideal to have them right here, tripping over the regular teams. Now, I think I did ask for your input as a consultant - "
"Well, I know I said..." he hesitated, and Fury's smile widened, and he quoted:
"Fuck you, Fury, I'm not - "
"But let's not dwell on the past. I may have come up with an alternate plan."
Fury looked interested, if suspicious; he rarely bothered to ask Tony for favours, as Tony took that as an excuse to be as annoying as possible; Fury very rarely had anything he wanted. Until now.
"You'll need to do something for me," Tony said, and gave his most convincing smile.
"Head up Rogers, do not play the bashful maiden, you are leading. If anyone is going to blush and simper, it will be me." Steve snickered, and Fury gave him a stern look.
"Do not laugh, do not smirk, do not stare off into space, and do not step on my foot. Again. I am a beautiful princess, and you will treat me like one. Guide me tenderly, do not haul me about like a sack of potatoes." He took a firm step backwards, and Steve obediently followed him. Fury had been surprisingly receptive to the idea of teaching Steve to dance, and had found space on his calender the very next day.
"You know I could have taught him to dance," Natasha said in an undertone, and Tony shrugged. The gym was almost empty, as was usual on a Friday night in SHIELD HQ; there was a lone agent on an exercise bicycle who seemed to be trying hard not to see Director Fury foxtrotting about.
"I figured he'd be less nervous with Fury. Fury is his favourite person, have you noticed that? He's a trusting little lamb with him."
"Director Fury is military. Duh." Natasha rolled her eyes, but there was a tiny smile curving her lips. "Cap knows the rules for playing with military assholes."
"There's rules to Fury?"
"Well, no," Natasha dipped her eyelashes demurely. "But he's been sticking to the military asshole rules around Cap."
"So you think he's more comfortable with the military?" Tony pursed his lips, and Natasha sighed in the way that made it very clear he was a moron.
"Virtually everyone he loved or was fond of was in the military or associated with them in some capacity," she said. "What do you think? But we can't just ring up Army HQ and ask them to send over a soldier to be friends with him. Aside from the fact it's ridiculous, they'd try and use it as leverage."
"They still trying to borrow Clint?"
"They want Cap; say he's one of theirs. They tried to claim he was still active duty, would you believe?" She shrugged. "Considering the mess they're making of the Banner situation - "
"What, what's happened now?"
"I was assisting in the spirit of co-operation. And now they have that information, they don't feel they need to co-operate any more, and they've shut us out completely." Her lips went tight.
"So what are they doing?"
"They're not telling us."
"Wow, if only we had ways other than official channels. Maybe a superhot superspy or something." He waggled his eyebrows, and she gave a little twitch of her lips that managed to convey both total disdain and acknowledgment of the fact that yes, she was superhot.
He'd thought Natasha was completely unreadable at first; but it turned out she could turn that on and off at will. Tony kind of wished he could do that. Looking like a mannequin would be useful at board meetings.
"If I had any information, I would not gossip about it to you." She turned her eyes back to Steve and Fury; they were skimming about the floor like dragonflies over water, though Fury was still barking insults and commands.
"He's picking that up fast."
"He is," Natasha's eyes narrowed slightly, and that little crook of her mouth was definitely appreciation as they executed a complex turn, Steve half dipping Fury in a move that displayed the muscles of his back and broad shoulders to great advantage.
Tony made a mental note to suggest to Steve that Natasha killed her sexual partners. It wouldn't do to have Natasha poisoning Steve's mind. He still mostly thought Tony was a nice fellow, after all.
Tony had coaxed Pepper into accompanying him; she'd offered to just let him borrow the car, but he'd taken it - or pretended to take it - as a suggestion he wasn't sincere in wanting her around, and the resulting hail of extravagant assurances drove her to compliance. He escorted her through the halls of black-clad ninjas, and settled her in a futuristic chair at a gleaming steel table with a large A engraved on it. Agent Barton was sitting opposite, watching Natasha, who was prowling around the perimeter, occasionally tapping on the walls.
"Hi, Tony," and Steve Rogers walked in and sat down beside him. "Good morning, Miss Potts." He gave her a polite smile, and then focused on Tony. "What's up? Fury said you wanted to call a meeting?"
"I love meetings," Tony patted Steve's hand. "How much do I love meetings? Pepper, how much do I love meetings?"
"I'm assuming it's a secret affair, Tony, as I rarely see you together."
"Hurtful," Tony made puppy eyes at Steve, who grinned. "You see what I have to put up with?"
"Gentlemen," Fury said from the door. "And Agent Romanova. Oh, and Ms Potts, what a pleasant surprise. May I have your attention, all?"
Natasha threw herself down next to Clint, leaning against his shoulder.
"I'm going to murder the Army, is that okay?" she asked Fury, who tapped his chin thoughtfully.
"Fine." She glanced round, and raised her eyebrows. "Should Potts be here?" She waggled her fingers in a not-unfriendly greeting, and Pepper smiled back.
"I'm sure we can trust Ms Potts' discretion in this matter." Fury smiled at her, and she tried to look like a person of discretion. "It's not a highly classified matter. Stark's offered to accommodate the whole team in his home."
"Stark's home is in Miami," Clint said. "Which I don't mind, but - "
"I have more than one home, idiot." Tony didn't look away from Steve, who was smiling at him.
"Your penthouse is fly, but it doesn't have room - "
"I have more than one home in New York." Tony pried his gaze off Steve's face long enough to glare at Clint. "I have a place big enough for all of us, my parents' house, nice garden, down Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park, very nice.
Clint stared at him.
"It sickens me you are so fucking rich you let a mansion on Fifth Avenue sit empty for decades," he announced, and jostled Natasha. "Natasha, how do we Communist revolution."
"It's not empty," Tony said, and waited three beats. "There's a butler taking care of it, of course - "
"Fuck you, man, I'm seizing control of the means of production, that is a disgrace." He pointed an accusing finger.
"You're a sniper. You don't produce anything." Tony put on a face of deep thought. "In fact, it's more of a service industry, isn't it? Like a hairdresser."
"What! What did you say. Oh my God," Clint fumbled for his gun. "No, don't stop me Natasha."
"I'm not stopping you," Natasha adjusted her position so Clint could get both hands on the gun. "I don't mind living at SHIELD HQ." Clint hesitated, gun barrel pointed safely ceilingwards. Pepper cast a glance at Fury, who was watching with amusement, apparently confident that either Clint wouldn't murder Tony, or that it could be covered up. It wasn't very comforting. She made a do something face at him, and he raised his eyebrow.
"I think," Fury said to Clint, "That if you shoot Stark, you will not be allowed to live in his decadent Capitalist wallow."
"Even if it's non-fatal," Tony added. He'd pulled out his phone, and was scrolling idly through his contacts. "People who shoot me don't get to live in my house, it's a rule."
"Oh, fine." Clint shoved his gun away.
"Collaborator," Natasha looked to be finding the whole situation hilarious. "You're no comrade of mine."
"Thank you, Tony," Steve said. "You're sure it won't be a bother?"
"Not at all. We brought the car, Pepper and me will take you over after this."
"What about the rest of us?" Clint said, and Tony waved vaguely at him, not looking away from Steve.
"I'll move you this evening if you promise not to claim my car for the revolution."
They agreed that they'd wait in the car for Steve while he packed, but as it turned out, he beat them there, having presumably abused his superpowers to go by his room and still outrun the elevator. He had a plain dark duffel bag, and a stylish blue case that contained his tablet, which he settled carefully on his lap as if were made of glass. He made surprised eyes when Tony dug for the minibar.
"You have a bar in the car?"
"Yes, but Pepper appears to have replaced all my whiskey with Midori and Frangelico. What do you make with espresso liqueur, Peps?"
"Mocha Russians. Put it back, Steve doesn't want a drink."
"Steve totally wants a drink."
"Maybe a soda?" Steve said, clearly trying for compromise, and that apparently satisfied Tony's urge to hospitality, though he did add a pink cocktail umbrella to Steve's tumbler.
"There, look, that's my house. Our house! The team's house. Avenger-house." Tony tugged insistently on Steve's sleeve until he peered out the window.
"It's... big," was his slightly stunned verdict as they pulled up the gravelled drive. "It's all yours?"
"Yup. Inherited it from my parents." They pulled up outside the broad white steps, and Tony took Steve's drink away, and put it back in the mini-bar. "Let's go."
Tony had selected the room next to his for Steve; it was one of the nicest, overlooking the garden, with a small balcony and its own bathroom.
"You like the room?" Tony shuffled after him like an eager puppy. "You don't like it, say the word, you can have another, have them all if you like, Clint can sleep in the coalshed and I don't think Natasha sleeps, so."
"No, it's really nice." Steve put his bag on a chair.
"You can redecorate. New furniture. Something a little more Forties?" Steve's mouth turned down a little, and Tony shook his head. "No Forties. But it's on the dull side in here, we could get you some art, maybe, how about some brighter colours? Pepper, maybe you could pick out some paintings for him?" Pepper gave him an unimpressed look; she still wasn't over him donating their art collection.
"Tony, it's great. Really." Steve peered out of the window, then opened the bathroom door. "Wow, that tub is huge."
"You want to unpack, or a tour? Tour, right, you need to know where everything is."
Tour guide fell to Pepper, of course, with Tony bobbing in their wake. Steve's eyes grew wider and wider as they peered into the drawing room, the library, the master bedroom and the huge kitchen.
"And this is the ballroom," she finished, and that was apparently the final straw.
"A ballroom?" he turned to Tony, who threw up his hands. Pepper had to admit that even by Stark standards, the gold-and-white ballroom with its three crystal chandeliers and endless mirrors was excessive. Huge glass doors led out onto the balcony, which had stairs down into the garden.
"Ma liked to dance, what can I say? And Dad liked to make her happy. Ballroom, parties, society, glittering throngs. Once I threw up in a duchess's lap."
"You - "
"I was five and I'd been at the buffet for three hours, it wasn't my fault, I was tiny and blameless and they made me wear a bowtie." Tony shrugged. "We can convert it to something useful. A training room."
"Tony, you don't - " Steve looked around. "This is your home, you don't have to - "
"It's just a house. Oh, maybe it would be a shame!" Tony's eyes lit. "We could have parties again. With dancing, you like dancing, Pepper, didn't you take salsa classes?"
"Well," Pepper hesitated. "I took a few, but strangely I always seemed to be working late - "
"Great, great. JARVIS?"
"Sir?" the familiar voice responded, and Pepper managed not to jump; she hadn't known JARVIS had been installed here.
"Play some salsa. Something easy for Pepper."
"Tony," she said, a little irritably - Tony couldn't dance, he could just about steer a pretty girl round the dancefloor. He grinned at her, and as the music started, he gave Steve a gentle push towards her.
"Show Steve some of your fancy footwork, okay?"
"What?" Steve dug his heels in, but Tony just clicked his tongue and grabbed Pepper's hand and folded it firmly into his. Steve had big, warm hands, and he blushed all the way to the tips of his ears when Tony took his other hand and set it on Pepper's hip. "Uh, I don't think, I'm sorry - "
"Oh, never mind," Pepper said resignedly. "Quicker to play along. Uh, you step like this - "
The problem was, of course, she could barely salsa herself, and she didn't really know the men's steps. Steve dutifully copied her footwork in reverse, and they backed and twisted across the dancefloor as gracefully as elephants.
"Can you pick her up and throw her?" Tony asked, and Steve gave him a horrified look. Pepper attempted a daggerlike stare, but he didn't look at her, probably on purpose. "You can, right, I've seen posters, you used to - "
"I just stood there, Tony."
"With a showgirl held aloft. Go on, spin her round your head or something."
"There's not going to be any throwing." Pepper ventured a comforting pat on Steve's broad shoulder. He ducked his head and peeked at her through his eyelashes. Then he smiled, and she almost missed a step. Good Lord, the man was handsome. She smiled back, and glanced over his shoulder at Tony, who was staring at them, head cocked slightly as if they were an interesting puzzle.
The music came to an end, and they both stepped firmly back from each other. Tony applauded vigorously.
"I should go unpack." Steve glanced at his watch. "Thank you for the dance, Miss Potts."
"What? Why?" Tony pouted at him. "Come on, dance again." Pepper edged towards him for a surreptitious kick, but he scooted away.
"Well, I," he rubbed the back of his neck. "I want to check my emails. I wasn't expecting to be out, you see - "
"Emails nothing. Farmville, right?"
"My crops will rot, Tony. It's wasteful."
"You know what, fine, go harvest your pixellated strawberries - no, don't tell me what they are, it doesn't matter. Do it fast, then come back." Steve put up his hands in defeat, backing towards the door, followed by Tony.
"I'll be quick," he promised, and turned and ran. Tony trailed him as far as the hall, stared up the stairs after him, absently flipping his phone from hand to hand; the expression on his face was one she'd seen very few time before, and it had usually been directed at her.
"Tony?" Pepper caught his hand, and squeezed it.
"Steve's new to all this, you know. Play nicely with him."
"Why does everyone think I'm going to break Captain America, jeez." He looked genuinely affronted. "I like the guy, I'm not - "
"Yes, but," Pepper gathered her tact, and then discarded it. "He's probably not used to being liked quite like that."
"What?" Tony blinked at her guilelessly.
"Well, you know," she hesitated, and then gave it up. "You can be quite intense."
"That is not a bad quality, Pepper, it's charming, it makes me very compelling and interesting." He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it, lightly, gave her the soft eyes. "You like Steve, right? Good guy."
"He seems really nice," she said slowly. "I don't want to see him get hurt."
"Me neither!" Tony beamed at her. His other hand was creeping round her waist, tapping an idle rhythm on her spine; then suddenly, he let go and stepped away. "You wanna get lunch? I could eat. Let's get Steve, go get lunch."
"He's probably not done yet."
"We should take him out for a nice evening, now he's free of the SHIELD base. How about the theatre? Tomorrow?"
"I have a thing," she temporised, and he pouted. "Maybe ask Steve first; he'll want to settle in a bit."
"Right." Tony gnawed at his thumbnail. "Well, hey, why don't you and me go to see the ballet next week?"
"You hate the ballet."
"But you love it." He squeezed her hand. "Pepper. Pepper, Pepper - "
"All right, all right," she said, and he grinned at her.
"Rhodey, Rhodey, glad you could come." Steve looked up as Tony ushered a tall black man into the room; a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force.
"Urgent, you said." The presumed Rhodey cast a suspicious eye around the room, nodded politely to Steve. "I don't see an emergency. Are we going out?"
"I have a meeting. You - "
"You drag me here to - "
"To spend time with Steve," Tony turned him to face Steve. "Steve, this is Rhodey."
"Tony," Rhodey said from between gritted teeth, and Tony spoke over him.
"Rhodey, this is Captain America."
Rhodey's mouth snapped shut. Steve's eyes widened.
"Is he supposed to know that?" He was quite sure he was supposed to still be a secret.
"Sure, why not." Tony patted Rhodey's shoulder. "Rhodey, take him out, find a bar, he likes baseball and is a little bit scared of girls. Show him your iPhone, maybe."
Steve stood up, and offered his hand.
"Captain Steven Rogers," he said, and Rhodey visibly grabbed for the safety of social niceties and shook Steve's hand.
"Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes."
"Call him Rhodey," Tony ordered. "He's going to call you Steve. You're going to be friends. How about pool, Steve, you play pool? Rhodey, take him to somewhere with pool. You need money?"
"I have money, Tony, what the hell." Rhodey gave Steve a harried look. Steve shrugged.
"You can borrow the car," Tony said, and a glint came into Rhodey's eye and he cast a thoughtful look at Steve. "Help yourself."
Half an hour later they were installed at a pleasant, spacious bar, setting up a pool table.
"I'm sorry about Tony," Steve ventured, and the crease eased out from between Rhodey's brows.
"That's usually my line. No, don't worry about it - so you're, uh, the Captain America? I'd heard - I'd heard, I'm sort of the Air Force Avengers liaison, but - I mean, it's an honour, really, to meet- "
"You've served longer than I have." Steve could feel his face burning; SHIELD agents mostly treated him with detached professionalism. No one had looked at him with awe, and Steve definitely preferred it that way. "You, uh, want to break?"
"Yeah. Still." Rhodey smiled down at the table. "You're a piece of history, you know."
"I know." He didn't mean for his voice to sound so leaden, but Rhodey shot him a glance before bending to take his shot.
"Ah. Not so good?" The balls scattered, sinking two reds. "I'm red, then."
"Still - adjusting, I guess." Steve shook his head, and looked across at Rhodey, who was inspecting the table. "You'd know, I guess?"
"I got an idea. Long tour of duty, Captain." He missed his shot, and stepped back from the table.
"Long time coming home," and his throat closed for a second. He took his shot, and then another, and another, and Rhodey gave an impressed little hum. He misjudged the next one, which was almost a relief; if he never missed a shot, he could hardly play, and he remembered afternoons in pool halls with Bucky - "I didn't really have anyone to come back for," he said abruptly, stepping back from the table, and Rhodey nodded, strolling round the table. "I mean - they were all out there with me, you know? There wasn't anyone waiting."
Rhodey sank his shot, and sauntered round the table.
"You expected them to come back with you, though," he said, and Steve nodded.
"Yeah, I - at least - " he swallowed. "My, uh, my best friend died in action a month before I got frozen. I hadn't... It sounds stupid, but I'd never imagined my life without him; he was - I'd known him since we were kids. And I'm not sure how to imagine my life now. What it's going to be." He looked hopefully at Rhodey, who was nodding. "You know?"
"A little bit," Rhodey met his eyes, and gave him a small smile. "I lost Tony in action, once, but - he came back. But the time he was gone - it's rough. I've known Tony since we were toddling, my dad was a test pilot for his dad, and when I thought he was gone - it was this huge, ridiculous hole in the world."
"Just like that," Steve said. "Yeah." He laid down his pool cue. "Do you want to go for a drive, maybe?" Rhodey's eyes lit up; he'd taken his time making his selection from Tony's garage, and they'd come away with a sleek Aston Martin.
"You bet," he said. "Anywhere particular in mind?"
Steve gauged his expression, and chanced his luck.
"Can we go to Arlington?"
"Where are you going?" Tony paused at the voice, stuck his head into the darkened library. He could just make out Natasha and Clint coiled together on the couch like a pair of snakes; Clint's head lolled off the cushions, an e-reader held just in front of his nose. Natasha was making a very elaborate cat's cradle with some kind of fine silvery cord.
"Off to pick Steve up from SHIELD." Tony strolled in, and checked his tie in the mirror over the fireplace.
"You have such a crush," Natasha sing-songed, and Clint snickered. Tony flapped a hand.
"Sh, Mata Hari, you'll make Rhodey jealous. He likes to think he's my only boyfriend."
"He should be jealous," Clint said. "When did you ever show up on time for Rhodey?"
"Have you even met Rhodey?" Tony frowned at him in the mirror, or at least at the pale blur that was probably his head. "Jesus, Clint, where the hell do you get this stuff from?"
"I'm an intelligence specialist, duh."
"Gossip," Natasha translated. "He gossips and gossips like a little girl, and then he writes it all down in his pink sparkly folder and hands it in to Maria, who gets it all put on a database."
Well, that was... a disturbing kind of system. Tony couldn't quite recall seeing Clint with a pink sparkly folder, but they should really invest in a better note-taking system for him.
"Rhodey was here when he dropped off Steve from their little road trip, anyway." Clint sounded amused; Fury had bitched them all out for losing Steve, and only calmed down when Tony had texted Rhodey and gotten him to make Steve call SHIELD. Still, Steve had come home looking happy, which was the important thing. "And gossip is quite clear that there are one and a half people you show up on time for," Clint finished.
"Who's the half person?" Tony said absently, still considering the wistful smile Steve had worn when he'd wandered in. He'd talked a little bit about Bucky, who'd apparently been the greatest person ever to draw breath, and Tony had listened, and it had been... nice.
"Apparently you're sometimes on time for Pepper. But she has direct access to your schedule and AI, so that hardly counts. Cap, on the other hand, you are always on time for, and it's very weird and everyone has noticed and comments upon it."
Tony turned and glared. Natasha and Clint stared back, like a pair of cats. Lying cats who were taunting him to get a rise, and he should be the bigger man and depart with his dignity.
"It's no big deal." Tony threw himself into one of the big leather wing chairs that flanked the fireplace. "Here, watch me be late." He folded his arms. Clint snickered.
"You have plans for tonight?" Natasha said mildly.
"We're going to see Return to the Forbidden Planet." He tapped his foot. "Steve saw a poster, really wanted to see it."
A pause. Clint stared at him. Natasha hummed, slightly off-key. She had one foot in her cat's cradle now, the whole thing resembling a 3-D model of a wormhole.
"I have the tickets," Tony said after a pause. "So he'll miss the opening when I'm late."
"Well, he'll know for the future." Natasha flicked a loop of thread over Clint's head; he didn't seem to notice, which would not be Tony's response to having Natasha drop a garrote on him.
"That you're unreliable."
"Okay, that. That is hurtful. I'm not unreliable. I am very reliable." Tony stood up. "I am so hurt that I am going to prove my very much reliability by going to this event on time, with the tickets, just to prove to you I am a reliable person."
Clint snickered. Natasha smirked. Tony turned on his heel, and marched out the door.
Return to the Forbidden Planet was amazing and hilarious, and the songs were wonderful. Tony complained when he hummed them in the car; then he promised Steve could buy them on the Internet, and play them as much as he liked. Then he turned on something called EBM, which sounded like computer music to Steve.
"That's as good a description as any," Tony said, and Steve laughed.
"I liked the robot," he said. "You should get roller skates."
"You should shut your piehole, Captain Rogers," Tony elbowed him in the side. "How dare you besmirch the Iron Man with your retro kitsch. You want me to flail my arms and shout danger Will Robinson! too?"
"I think I'd enjoy watching that," Steve said thoughtfully, and Tony tried to elbow him again. "What's that from?"
"Lost in Space. We'll have a marathon sometimes. And all the other dreadful sci-fi. We'll get some kind of list together and work through the decades."
It was after midnight when they got home; Steve let them in with his key, and when he'd locked up behind them he turned to Tony, who was watching him, smiling.
"Yeah," Steve patted his shoulder, because a handshake seemed silly, and he didn't think they were on hugging terms. "Thanks, I had a great time."
"We should do it again! Tuesday, I have tickets to the ballet. Say yes."
"Yes, of course."
Tony retreated, grinning, and Steve wandered after the sounds of synthesised violence. Sure enough, Clint was crouched on the library rug, gaze fixed on the big TV, hands moving on some kind of plastic handset. Natasha was sprawled on the couch, apparently asleep, mouth curved in a soft smile; Steve would have expected the noise to disturb her, but maybe she was accustomed to it.
"What's that?" Steve advanced, peering at the screen, then at the handset in Clint's hands. Yeah, that was a game, and Clint was controlling the little figure.
"Assassin's Creed," Clint said absently, and spared Steve a second's glance. "Boyfriend take you somewhere nice?"
"I was with Tony," Steve settled down beside him, and picked up the other handset.
"What I said, right?"
"Does boyfriend... mean something different?" Clint paused the game, and gave Steve a serious look.
"Gay for you," he explained. "He thinks about your dick all the time. Also handholding, and probably adopting fashionable foreign babies."
"Stark has already picked out his wedding colours and named your first dog, is what I'm saying."
"Tony's a queer?" He felt his face heat. "I mean, a homosexual. Does he think I - " he blinked rapidly, trying to fit the new information into the situation. It did fit quite neatly. "Not that I mind - I mean - but I don't want to lead him on - "
"Don't worry about it. He's a complete manwhore, if you knock him back he'll soon find a substitute dick." Steve took a second to translate from Clint, and then he blushed deeper.
"I'm sure it's nothing like that," he said firmly. "Tony's been really nice and supportive of the whole team - "
"Only as a side effect of wooing you." Clint grinned.
"There is no wooing going on." Steve held up the plastic handset. "Forget that. Show me how to play this."
Steve managed to avoid Tony for almost twenty-four hours, but they lived in the same house, and it was way too difficult to be standoffish, or draw back. Tony was just nice, and it wouldn't be right to push him away just because Steve felt weird. It wasn't like Tony was behaving badly. Sure, now he knew, he could kind of see it - the way Tony's eyes skimmed covetously over him, the way his hand would hover at Steve's elbow, the small of his back - but he never said or did anything, nothing that made it awkward, nothing that made Steve uncomfortable.
He planned, vaguely, for anything that might happen. If Tony took his hand, he'd gently disentangle and move away, he'd shut down flirting, he'd step back from a kiss. But Tony never kissed him, and his flirting was more of an aura, and Tony's darting touches never seemed more than friendly.
Just his eyes, the way they drank Steve up. And Steve could hardly do anything about that.
Pepper stood in the centre of the lobby, where she was clearly visible from all entrances, and fixed her glare on the main door. Tony was already fifteen minutes late, missing their pre-theatre drink, and if he didn't show up soon, they'd miss the start of the show. Because despite knowing better, she'd caved to his assurances and let him book the tickets.
"Miss Potts?" She turned round, putting on a polite social smile which broadened to sincerity at the sight of Steve Rogers hovering at a polite distance. Wearing a very flattering suit. The worry on his face dissolved when she smiled at him. "I hope I'm not bothering you - "
"Of course not, Captain," she said. "Here to see the ballet? Tony didn't tell me you'd be coming." A little crease appeared between his eyebrows.
"He didn't tell me you'd be coming, either." He jumped a little, and then pawed his phone out of his jacket and glanced at the screen. The crease deepened. "Uh, Tony says I should pick up the tickets at the box office? He'll be late." He looked at her expectantly, and she shrugged.
"Let's go, then."
There were only two tickets waiting. Pepper rolled her eyes.
"Well, he's late he loses out. Honestly, even for Tony, making a date with two people at once..." she tapped her lower lip. "Well, it's not unknown, I suppose, but - "
"It's not a date," Steve looked a little alarmed. "I mean, it's just - "
"Let's go," Pepper took his arm, and smiled up at him. Clearly, Tony had yet to explain the situation to him. She could only hope explanations would come before a pounce. Steve seemed like a sweet guy, but there might well be some archaic attitudes hidden in there, and Tony could find himself... awkwardly situated. She gave Steve a worried look, feeling the muscles shifting under her hand, and then he gave her another shy smile and it was hard to stay concerned.
Still, making a date with both of them at once was tacky. Sure, she and Tony were over, but it didn't bode well if he were already this careless with Steve; she was quite sure that Steve deserved a little care taken of him.
Tony didn't show at all, and Pepper would have been annoyed, but Steve was good company. Watching his expressions of shock at the price of tiny cartons of ice cream was worth the trip alone. He was completely ignorant of ballet, but gave every sign of enjoying it immensely.
"Well, that was nice," she said afterwards, and Steve nodded. "Tony probably missed it on purpose, though, he doesn't really like ballet. Probably never intended to come."
"Really?" Steve looked disappointed, and she felt a little pang of guilt. Usually people didn't get this far into a friendship with Tony without finding out he could be... flaky was nicest way of putting it. "Oh well. Do you, uh - " he looked around, vaguely. "Should I find you a cab, or walk you to your car, or - " his phone beeped again, and Pepper sighed.
"Has Tony miraculously become free?"
"Tony says we should go to Le Bernadin and he'll meet us there." He frowned at the screen. "And apparently I should ask you about art."
Tony had made reservations, it seemed, and they were settled into a little corner table - for two, Pepper noted with vague suspicion - behind a latticed screen. Steve looked about him with evident interest.
"This is nice," was his verdict, and Pepper raised an eyebrow. That was quite blasé for one of the most expensive restaurants in the city.
"Has Tony been taking you out a lot?"
"Yes," Steve smiled at the waiter, who set amuse-bouches in front of them. "We have lunch sometimes. He says the SHIELD cafeteria food is toxic in large quantities."
Pepper's phone beeped. Are you getting on? Be nice to Steve. Tell him about modern art.
Where are you? she sent back, and almost instantly the message came back held up at SHIELD no biggie be there soon. After a second, another message flashed up you pick the wine Steve just guesses lol. She dutifully snagged the wine menu on its way to Steve, and he gave her a grateful look.
"He's terrible," she sighed. "Still, maybe it is something important."
"I'm sure it is," Steve said, and she laughed softly. "You don't think so?"
"He's... not always reliable. You need to manage him a little."
"Oh. You, um," Steve turned a fetching pink, and fiddled with his silverware. "You used to, um, date Tony?"
"Yes I did. It was a fascinating experience." Steve squirmed in his chair like a puppy, so obviously full of questions, and so politely refusing to voice them, that she had to laugh.
"He was just Tony you know? Only even more so." Steve looked blank; he'd never seen Tony truly cut loose, it seemed. "Okay, okay. Once he bought me a pony."
"A pony?" Steve's brow furrowed. "Why a pony?"
"Because I told him that when I was a little girl, I desperately, desperately wanted a pony. So on my birthday, I get up, and he's made me breakfast, and there's about a million yellow roses, which are my favourites, and he's practically bouncing in his chair the whole time I'm eating. When I'm done, he takes me to the front door, and I was expecting a car, I guess, Tony loves cars. And I step out the door, and Happy's there, and... he's got a pony. A white pony in a fancy red leather saddle, with little gold bells on it. It jingles when it walks. It's got ribbons in its mane and tail. And Happy's just giving me this look - " she started to laugh, because Steve was giving her a very similar look, wide confused eyes. "This absolutely despairing look, like Tony's gone insane, and Tony makes me get on the pony, and he leads it about, and oh my God, I'm so happy no reporters were staking the place out that morning."
"Well, uh," Steve shook his head. "Did you have fun?"
"I suppose I did, yes. But - you can't live the kind of life where you might get a pony any day. Well, I can't. I like things to be orderly. That's why I was a great PA, and it's why I'm a good CEO. I can cope with surprises and disasters, but my job is to either make them not happen, or fix them when they do happen. With Tony, you're always braced for the next surprise, and that's fine when it's your job, but." She shrugged.
"That's too bad," he said. "I can see how fond you two are of each other. But I guess a pony is kind of..."
"Well, he also got me half a million dollars' worth of jewellery and a private jet," she said ruefully, and he choked on his wine.
"A - "
"I kept the jewellery, but we finally settled that he'd make the jet a company jet, to replace the one which... he'd modified." She pursed her lips and looked disapproving, and Steve clearly failed to understand that modified entailed stripper poles, bars, and a hot tub.
Dinner was perfect; Steve ate enough for three people, and made adorable faces of ecstasy at every new flavour or texture. They talked about the pre-Raphaelites, who they both enjoyed as a guilty pleasure, and Pepper tried to sketch out a history of art movements since the Forties.
When the bill came, Steve reached for it, but Pepper firmly put her hand on it. Steve gave her a wounded look.
"Tony asked us, Tony's paying." She signed it firmly. "I'll charge it to him."
"I could pay my share," he offered, and she shook her head, handing it back to the waiter. Steve gave the waiter a pathetic look, clearly feeling judged for letting a lady pick up the bill, and Pepper bit down firmly on a giggle.
"Tony doesn't let you pay half, does he?"
"Well, no," Steve fidgeted with his empty coffee cup. "Is that weird? I mean, I don't want to - if he - " So Steve did have an idea, and he wasn't sure he liked it. But he still went, after all. Pepper considered it.
Before she could come to a decision, Steve's phone beeped, and he sighed and checked it. Then he went bright red.
"What's he done?" Pepper said resignedly, and checked her own phone. Nothing.
"Nothing," Steve muttered, and crammed the phone away. He seemed suddenly unable to meet her eyes. Pepper's Tonysense was jangling. Surely he wouldn't proposition Steve by text? "So, uh."
"Give me that," she ordered, holding out her hand, and Steve's eyes darted around, trapped. She snapped her fingers, and finally he pulled the phone out and dropped it in her hand. She scrolled to the Messages section, tapped, and then let out a muffled shriek.
"It wasn't anything to do with me," Steve said hastily. "I didn't - I don't - I mean, not that you're not - but - "
The phone chimed again.
Try kissing her neck right at the hairline, she likes that. Then do the cute blushy thing. I can clear out Clint if you want to ask her in for coffee.
"I swear I had nothing to do with this!" Steve said when she raised her eyes to stare at him. "I don't know why -"
"Neither do I." She laid the phone down on the table. Steve stared at if as if it might bite. "I'll give you a ride home, Steve. Please tell Tony I am not happy with him."
It was inexplicably hurtful, to think of him - well, palming her off. Apparently, she'd read this one all wrong.
"Can you - " Steve was beet-red. "Uh, can you drop me at the base? I don't think I feel up to dealing with Tony tonight."
"Not a problem."
When Steve hadn't returned after his date with Pepper, Tony congratulated himself on a job well done, and then got steaming drunk for no real reason. Or maybe because he'd finally burned his boats with Pepper, and she and Steve would be spending their spare time with each other now.
After about half a bottle of bourbon, he ordered JARVIS to put Cap TV back on, and curled up in the blanket he'd shared with Pepper.
It wasn't like they were going anywhere, after all. They were his friends, and they wouldn't forget all about him now they had each other. They owed their happiness to him, really.
Somewhere in the middle of planning all the amazing things he'd do for their beautiful, smart, charming kids, he passed out.
The morning email from Pepper was confusing, to say the least. She seemed to feel he'd done something wrong. In his fuzzy, tired state, all he could assume was that Steve was terrible in bed.
He probably shouldn't have sent that question, though. The resulting capslock was quite clear on the fact Pepper had no relevant data.
Weirdly, that cheered him up enough to get him showered and fed, and after several pints of water and too many Advil, he concluded Steve must have messed it up somehow. As a good friend, therefore, he should step in and sort out what had to be a trivial misunderstanding. A call to SHIELD established that Steve was in residence, so he could just stop by for a friendly chat, maybe take him out for breakfast.
Steve refused to let him in. When he banged on the door, Steve called back I'm putting my headphones in! I'm going to play Bejewelled! Go away! And then, silence. Tony had considered hacking his tablet to continue the debate, but he had an inkling that would not please Steve at all.
He smacked the call button for the elevator, and gawked when the doors slid silently back to reveal Fury.
"How long have you just been lurking there? Seriously? Do all of you have nothing better to do than ambush me in elevators?" He got in, because if he didn't get in, Fury would come out after him. The doors slid shut.
"Now, what did you do this time?" Fury said, in a surprisingly non-judgemental tone, and Tony threw up his hands. At this point, he'd take non-judgemental anywhere he could get it.
"Nothing. At least, I tried to do something nice, considerate, and helpful, and now - "
"Oh dear," Fury gave him a pitying smile. "How did you help, exactly?"
"I was just trying to bring people together. Pepper's great, right? You know Pepper."
"I do know the lovely Ms Potts." His eye glittered with some unnameable emotion, and Tony eyed him with suspicion. "What has she got to do with this?"
"And Steve's great, right?"
"He's Captain America. Even I will have to admit to giving a girlish squeal when I learned I was going to meet him."
"Exactly!" Tony tried, and failed, not to picture Fury giving a girlish squeal."
"So, surely, two great people. Put them together, and greatness!" Tony cast a look at him. "They deserve each other, and for once that's a compliment."
"You tried to set up Ms Potts and Cap?" Fury looked genuinely shocked, which cheered Tony up a little.
"Just throw them together, you know. Get them talking. They both like art, and... rules. And me." He paused. "Sometimes Steve likes rules."
"Your logic is bulletproof." Fury shook his head. "Can I ask, does this have anything to do with Colonel Rhodes' lurking presence?"
"Yeah, I set him up a playdate with Steve, it went great, they went to a cemetery and made friendship bracelets." Fury might not be able to call up the military and demand they send someone over to be friends with Steve, but this kind of thing was exactly why they had Tony. To consult. To provide expert advice. And loan out the very best military friend available. "See, that worked. Steve and Pepper would have worked, except he squealed on me. And now they're both mad at me."
"Playdate." Fury sighed.
"Yeah. Steve needs proper friends. Rhodey is a great friend."
"And Pepper is a great girlfriend?"
"Exactly, see. Now you're getting it. And I'm sure Steve would be a great boyfriend."
"Do you think?" If Fury's eyebrow got any higher, it would vanish over the crown of his head.
"He's like Mary Poppins. Practically perfect. I mean, what's not to like?" He glanced up at the floor counter. They'd gone a grand total of two floors. "Oh my god, is there no escape from this conversation?"
"Well, yes, but if you knew what it was, it would spoil it."
"You are all unreasonable people," Tony told him, and he grinned. "Why don't you tell Steve Pepper would be great for him? Make yourself useful for once."
"Oh, I think you children should resolve your own quarrels. A valuable team-building experience."
"How can I do that if they won't even talk to me?"
"It's a puzzle," Fury agreed, and the elevator stopped, and the doors opened. Not Tony's floor, but who cared? He'd take the stairs. Freedom presumably meant Fury had gotten whatever he wanted from the conversation, which might just have been annoying Tony. "I'm sure you'll think of something, Stark. You are a genius, after all."
"Sure," Tony said. "That's right."
Tony wasn't sure what he'd expected from Peggy Carter. In the event, she turned out to be like dozens of elderly women he'd seen at military functions and funerals and weddings, soft rounded face and stiff white hair and shrewd eyes. There was no trace of beauty left in her crumpled face, but she sat straight and gave no sign of being impressed with Tony Stark.
"Hi," he said, and she nodded. It was a nice enough room, as nursing homes went; a reasonable size, airy, probably her own furniture."Uh, I think we've met, but I don't remember."
"I was at the funeral," she said, "But that was twenty years ago. Before that, not since you went off to MIT."
"Right." He roamed about the room, peering at the pictures on the wall. "Is this you? You're a stunner."
"So your father thought," she said dryly. "I didn't succumb to his flattery, either."
"Well, I guess you had Steve, right?"
"No. I never had Steve."
"Right." He rubbed his hands together. "You seem mad at me."
"Steve's not very happy with you."
"That's what I came to talk to you about." He gave up on being asked to sit, and came and perched on the footstool in front of her chair. "I don't know why."
"He doesn't like being made fun of." She fixed him with a stern glare, and he sat up, indignant.
"Making - what - I wasn't making fun! I tried to set him up with my ex-girlfriend, who is a fantastic woman, she's amazing, I thought he liked, you know," he gestured vaguely at the walls, "Smart, competent, hot, just his type, right?" Her eyebrow launched towards her hairline, and Tony had to work to get the whine out of his voice. He may not have entirely succeeded. "He didn't mind when I set him up with my best friend. And he likes Pepper. And she likes him. If he just put a little charm on - "
"All right, stop." She tapped a finger on the little netbook that sat on her side table. "He told me you'd tried to get him to make a move on a woman who wasn't interested."
"She's only not interested because he bungled it." Pepper definitely liked him, and Steve was really, really good-looking; he'd seen her look at him all dazed by the hotness. "She thinks he's adorable. He just needs to - "
"I want Steve to be happy," she said. "He's not very comfortable with women."
"He does fine," Tony protested. Sure, there was blushing and shuffling, but he did fine. Even Agent Hill smiled for him, and she didn't smile for adorable kittens. Tony had personally tested this.
"Obviously not." Peggy narrowed her eyes. "You made him feel like an idiot, in front of a woman."
"I didn't mean to," Tony ducked his head. "I just thought - " he swallowed. "I thought he would like to have someone, and Pepper is the best someone I know. And she does like him. I mean, who wouldn't?"
"Why did you come to me, Mr Stark?"
"Well, you know Steve best." He flicked a glance up at her through his lashes. "And, well. He's not talking to me. I was hoping, maybe, next time you email him - "
"You want me to intercede for you?" Peggy looked incredulous. Tony sat up as straight as he could, and tried to look respectable.
"If you could just tell him that I wasn't playing a joke on him." He gave it his best responsible-adult tone. "I mean, you don't have to tell him I'm great and he should forgive me - although I wouldn't object if you did - but he'd want to know the truth, right?"
"Hm." Seems like his responsible-adult wasn't all it could be. He tried for pitiful instead.
"Please? I was just trying to help, and all I did was send them on a nice date and suggest Steve kiss her. It wasn't like I locked them in a closet or booked them a hotel room." He'd toyed with the idea of sending them on a romantic weekend away, but Fury would probably get separation anxiety, and nothing killed the mood like ninjas parachuting in on your candlelit dinner.
"I'm only doing this because he likes you," she said finally, and Tony punched the air, suppressing his whoop of joy out of respect to the elderly. "And I'm only going to tell him you meant well. You can apologise for being an idiot yourself."
"I wasn't an idiot," Tony objected. "They'd be perfect together. I mean - " Tact warred with curiosity, and lost, as ever. "I mean, sorry if this is rude, but he said you wouldn't marry him, and I figure that means you want him to... go on with his life, and things. So I thought, you know - "
"Steve was a very important part of my life. He changed who I was. It broke my heart when he died. He said - when he came to see me, he was so happy. He told me he was - glad he wasn't too late."
Her eyes glittered, and Tony held his breath.
"I told him he was too late. But what I thought was, he was too early. It would have been easier for us both if it had been ten years from now." Her lips tightened. "He thought it was a fairytale; locked in ice, and coming back for his lover. But I'm not a princess now."
"He thinks you are," Tony felt obliged to say, and she nodded. Her mouth softened, into a tender smile, and Tony could see, suddenly, a shadow of the girl in the pictures.
"Of course he does. That's Steve. But - I loved him, and I lost him, and I can't - I'm going to die. And it won't be long. And I can't bear to see him hurting, and know I did it - and then he'll lose me. Like I lost him. And I can't bear to do that to him." She shook her head. "I'm not strong enough."
"Oh," was all he could say, and then he rallied. "But that's going to happen anyway, right, and he'll be upset - "
"It won't be the same," Peggy raised her hand when he tried to speak again. "If you keep trying to talk me into it, I won't email Steve," she threatened, and he mimed zipping his lips. She smiled slightly. "Although I suppose I'm convinced you meant it for the best, now. I'd - " her lashes, still dark, cast down over her cheeks. "I'd rather he remember me as I was." She knocked her knuckles against the little netbook again. "This works. It's like letters, and that's - it doesn't hurt. It's like looking at old photographs."
Tony tugged the netbook towards him, and frowned at it.
"This is ancient," he said disapprovingly.
"It still works."
"But for how long? I'll send you a better one. Tablet, or laptop?"
"I can't hold a tablet."
"Laptop, then." He drummed his fingers on the case. "You want some headphones? Then you can Skype with Steve. You don't have to use video chat or anything."
"Uh," he tapped on the case again. "So. Were Howard and Steve really friends?"
"Yes. I wouldn't say they were close, exactly - Howard always kept himself a little apart - but they liked and respected each other."
"Did you like him?" Her mouth quirked.
"He was a character. Yes, I liked him. Given my position, though, I had to be careful about who I was friends with."
"Of course, yeah, must have been hard." He jerked to his feet. "Well, thanks. You will email Steve?"
"I'll do it tonight," she promised, smiling a little. "Give him a day or two to come round."
Steve felt a little silly coming back to the house, but no one pounced out of a closet to mock him. He wandered down the hall, and turned as his name was called.
"Cap, come play Playstation," Clint ordered from the library, and Steve obediently went to him.
"Okay," Steve sat down beside him. "I'm not very good at - what is this?"
"Katamari Damacy. Doesn't matter, don't care, the important thing is if you're playing no-one'll make me stop, because of your fragile mental health," Clint said happily. "Also, I'm pretty sure you could rip out someone's lungs to play with and Tony wouldn't call an ambulance until you got bored with them and wandered off."
"He tried to set me up with Pepper," Steve said, and Clint gave him a look over his sunglasses. Why he was wearing sunglasses inside, at 6PM, while playing a video game, was beyond Steve. "That isn't very - what you said."
"Pepper's his ex," Clint pointed out. "That's against the code, man."
"It wasn't my idea," Steve protested. "We were in the restaurant and he starting texting me advice to - never mind."
"That's weird. Maybe he's after a threesome." Clint grinned when Steve sputtered. "You going to go for it? Pepper's pretty hot."
"Sticking with Stark, huh? High risk strategy, but he's the big payoff."
"I - " Steve caught his breath, and then he chuckled. "Quit that. You had me going."
"You're so easy, though."
The front door slammed, and Steve tensed at the sound of Tony's expensive shoes on the tiled hall floor. Tony wandered into view, and then broke into a huge smile at the sight of him.
"Steve - God Clint, are you trying to melt his brain? Steve, want to come to a party, it's boring but you'll save my life because if I misbehave Pepper will kill me."
"Well, uh," Steve smiled back, the last traces of wariness dissolving. Under that bright smile, it was impossible to believe Tony had been setting him up for a fall. "When - "
"Uh, the car's here now... I'm not ready, though, and I have to do some stuff."
"Forget the other stuff, go get ready," Steve ordered, tossing the controller aside. Tony threw up his hands and sidled off. Then his head reappeared.
"Black tie," he said, and vanished.
"Wow, I wish I had a boyfriend who took me to swanky parties," Clint told the screen, and Steve kicked him gently.
"Well, get your glad rags on and you can go instead."
"No thanks, I don't need Stark hating me all evening for not being you. He's the most aggressive sulker I've ever met. Including Natasha, and she swears in Latin and throws - "
"All right." Steve retreated.
Tony was tying his bow-tie when Steve tapped on the door and then stuck his head in.
"Come in, I'm almost done. Well, looking good." Steve looked spectacular in his tuxedo, fully reinforcing Tony's insistence on taking him to his own tailor. Steve had somehow gotten it into his head he didn't need a tuxedo, which was obviously ridiculous. Steve went pink at the compliment; he looked away, and picked up the programme lying on the bed in a scatter of paperwork.
"The Ho Yinsen Award for excellence in teaching," he read, and raised an eyebrow. Tony shrugged, and began to put his hair in order.
"I thought about endowing a scholarship, but I decided this was best. A good teacher can make all the difference, you know. There's a mentorship program, too."
"He was your teacher?"
"Uh... yeah. Yeah, I suppose that's the best way of putting it. He - when I was being a fool, he gave me the slap I needed, told me I could do better. He - was killed. It was kind of my fault, I. Never mind," he added hastily, because Steve was looking at him with earnest eyes.
"Were you close?"
"No. Yes. I only knew him for a couple of weeks, but yes." He fiddled with his cufflinks.
Steve stepped up, and put an arm around his shoulders. Tony wanted to say don't be ridiculous, but hey, they should be encouraging Steve to be friendly, right? He leaned into it, and took a deep breath, Steve's smell of old-fashioned shaving soap.
"Look, uh," Tony worried at his cuffs. "I'm sorry about - "
"Don't mention it," Steve said hastily.
"I did mean well."
"I know you did. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have thought - you've been so nice, I should have known you were being nice." Steve blushed, fetchingly. Seriously, how did Pepper not want to tap that.
"No, I - okay, let's stop apologising, let's just go, we're moving on." He stepped away from Steve, which was far too much effort - the man was an entirely comforting presence.
Happy had come to fetch them after dropping off Pepper; Tony was still in the doghouse with her, it seemed. Maybe Steve would be his emissary there? He tried delicately broaching the subject, but Steve's eyes went big and pitifully terrified. Maybe not. He turned to the subject of the awards dinner, speculating on the food, the drink, the dresses the women would wear,
"Did you hear about Dr Erskine?" Steve said abruptly, cutting off Tony's patter.
"Erskine - " Tony was thrown for a second, and then he remembered; the pioneer of the Super Soldier program. "Yeah, we still haven't quite unpicked what the heck he was doing with his machinery. You knew him?"
"He picked me. He got me on to the program, and he insisted on me - nobody wanted to pick me - anyway, he told me to always be a good man, and then he died. And I felt I should have saved him, but - "
"No, hey, I heard about that, he was assassinated by a fifth columnist, right? There was nothing you could have done." Tony was still sort of stuck on nobody wanted to pick me. It was hard to believe anyone had turned Steve down for anything.
"It took me a while to believe that," Steve continued, and Tony leaned forward, giving Steve his full attention. "I kept thinking, I should have done better, been faster. Somehow. But I did do my best, and I know the best way to honour his memory is live how he would have wanted me to. I, uh, I thought of that, when you were talking about Yinsen." He looked down at the program he still held. Tony blinked down at it; Yinsen's name was prominent, and beneath it the names of colleagues who were going to talk about his work, his achievements. Erskine had died while there was a war on, of course, engaged in top-secret work; it had been declassified in dribs and drabs, some still under lock.
"You're so right," Tony said, and Steve gave him a tentative smile. "I'll start work on it tomorrow. No, I'll announce it tonight - it's perfect, really, I'm glad you told me now."
"Uh," Steve tilted his head. "I think I missed a few steps."
"An Erskine scholarship. We can target underprivileged kids - oh, maybe immigrants would be better, after all, Erskine was a Jewish refugee, lots of families fleeing all kinds of regimes end up here - "
"A - Tony, that wasn't - "
"You'd prefer to target Brooklyn kids, maybe?" Tony gnawed on his thumbnail. "That could - "
"No - I mean, really, any kids who don't have the opportunities - but I didn't - "
"What would Erskine have liked?"
"I guess," Steve stopped, and frowned. "I think refugees," he said finally. "I mean, I'm from Brooklyn and all, but that wasn't why he picked me. He picked me because I was small, and used to fighting people bigger than me, so - "
"So a science scholarship targeted at gifted kids from refugee families," Tony said happily. Steve looked caught somewhere between happiness and confusion, like the face Pepper had made at the pony. Sure, she claimed not to want it, but she'd spent the morning sitting on it while Tony led her around the yard, and her expression when she'd fed it sugarlumps had been precious. Well worth the effort. He'd donated it to a petting zoo afterwards.
"Tony," Steve grabbed his wrists. Huge hands, Tony noted, and blinked at him. "Thank you. That would be wonderful, and I'd be so happy to have him remembered that way. But what I was trying to say is maybe you shouldn't blame yourself for Yinsen's death."
"Oh," Tony turned his hands and gripped Steve's wrists, squeezed them. "Well, thanks. I really appreciate that."
"Did you even think about what I just said?" Steve said in a resigned tone, but he was smiling.
"Of course I did," Tony squeezed tighter. "I mean it. Thank you." He loosened his grip, but Steve just slipped his hold down to Tony's hands, and held them tight, and there, that was the sugarlumps expression. You bought me a pony. That look, on the right face - that was worth anything. Everything.
"Thank you, Tony," and Tony swallowed back the painful lump in his throat to smile.
Pepper had managed an entire three days of not speaking to Tony, but he'd filled her office with yellow roses and tonight was the Ho Yinsen dinner she'd promised to attend. And she had to admit, she wanted to wear the jewellery he'd given her, and she couldn't wear it and still ignore him. So she didn't call to have the seating rearranged, and gave him a tiny smile when he sat down opposite her.
"Hi Pep, hi Rhodey, Pepper you look beautiful." His eyes dropped to her neck, to the fine tracery of diamonds and sapphires that matched her drop earrings, and his satisfied smile indicated he'd identified forgiveness. "I, uh," and then he frowned. "I brought Steve."
"Oh?" Pepper gave him a forbidding look, and he gave her puppy eyes.
"I'll be nice to him," she said pointedly, and he cheered up again, apparently willing to accept that.
"Loser," Rhodey said to him - Pepper had filled him in while they'd been waiting - and Tony made a face, and then grinned, tipping his chair back.
"You know Rhodey, you and Steve get on so well, and now Don't Ask Don't Tell is out - "
"Oh my God, Tony - "
"I'm just saying, we've all known for a while, and we didn't like to say - "
"Shut the hell up - "
"And I think you and Steve could be beautiful together, it would be truly - "
"He's coming," Pepper said sharply, and they were quiet as mice by the time Steve reached the table. He was managing to carry four Martinis in his large hands, although given what Tony had told her of his physical abilities, he probably could have carried all four balanced on his head.
He shot her a cautious look from under his sandy lashes when he set hers down in front of her - three olives, she noted, and had to smile. She directed it up at him, and he gave her a shy smile before ducking his head.
Tony was on his best behaviour all evening, which did not preclude maintaining a flow of insulting and hilarious comments under his breath, right up until it was his turn to speak. He became a model of decorum, then, and stuck rigidly to his script right to the end. Then made an announcement which had not been cleared with Pepper.
"Who the hell is Dr Erskine?" she hissed to Rhodey, who shook his head. Her eyes settled on Steve, who was beaming at Tony as if he'd hung the moon. Tony was beaming back, ignoring the polite applause and staring over the crowd at him as if -
As if he'd done it just for Steve.
"Steve," she said in resigned tones, and Steve turned the blazing smile on her, which would probably have made her knees weak if she hadn't been a professional, no-nonsense kind of girl. "Do you know who Dr Erskine was?"
"Yes, he was the man who did this," he gestured to himself. "He was shot by a Nazi just after the procedure - I'm all that's left of his life's work." The smile died away."I'd like for him to be remembered," he said quietly. "He was the kindest man I ever knew. People remember me - but without him, I'd never have had a chance."
Pepper limited herself to a glare when Tony got back to the table; she wasn't sure he even noticed, soaking up Steve's happiness.
They left early, because Pepper generally kept early nights now she didn't have to dance attendance on Tony, and Tony, instead of staying to drink and schmooze, just trailed Steve to the coat check and snaffled Pepper's wrap to drape tenderly round her shoulders. He kissed her earlobe, murmured they suit you and stepped smoothly back before she could decide whether to elbow him in the gut.
Steve had half-expected Pepper to be angry with him, despite Tony's assurances; but she was nice as pie to him, and by the time they left, he had no qualms about driving home with her and Tony.
Rhodey was staying only a few minutes away, so they dropped him off first, and then Pepper began to lecture on Modigliani, raising her voice whenever Tony tried to speak.
About five minutes into Pepper's lecture, Tony dozed off, and slumped against Steve's shoulder. He started to snore, and then slid down until his head was in Steve's lap, and Pepper stopped talking and giggled. Steve ruffled his hair, a little guilty, because if Tony did feel - that way - about him, Steve shouldn't be so casual with him. But he was asleep, and Steve liked the way his hair felt, smooth and silky and curling slightly under his hands.
He remembered Pepper was right there, and pulled his hand back.
"He's really fond of you," Pepper said gently.
"He's a good friend," Steve looked out the window, and Pepper snorted.
"He loves you."
"Um," his ears were going red again, he knew it. "I wish you two would stop trying to set me up with each other."
"Do you know how many times I've caught him watching tapes of you?"
"Don't," Steve blurted, and he would have moved away, but Tony was still curled against him, and it wasn't fair, when Tony had never done anything but be his friend. "I don't think you should tell me this."
"Probably not," she crossed her long legs, blue-green satin slipping like a waterfall. "But - he's not an easy person to love, and he's not an easy person to be loved by."
"Did I say it was worth it?" She was looking down at Tony, now, with an intense and evident fondness that made his chest hurt. "Just... bear it in mind. He won't - if you can't love him back, he'll still be a good friend to you. Just be kind to him."
"Of course I will." He dropped his hand to Tony's hair again. "I can't - but I don't want to hurt him."
"Of course you don't." The car pulled to a stop, and Pepper scooted forward on her seat. She leaned forward, and pressed a kiss to his cheek. "Just be careful. I don't want either of you to get hurt."
She slipped out of the car, and Happy closed the door behind her.
Steve pondered that all the way back to the house, and when they pulled up, he sat there for several minutes, not wanting to disturb Tony.
Then he remembered Happy Hogan probably wanted to go home, and tapped the end of Tony's nose with a gentle finger.
Tony blinked awake, and squinted up at Steve.
"Sorry, what? I went to sleep."
"You need more sleep," Steve said. "Go to bed."
"Nah, got some work to do." Tony yawned, showing no signs of moving, and Steve hesitated before hooking his arms under Tony and scooping him up. "Oh what, what is this, is this a kidnapping? Very manly, Captain. Maybe I should scream." He just rubbed at his eyes as Steve carted him into the house, up the stairs and set him down on his bed.
"Sleep," Steve took a firm step back, to avoid confusion. Tony with scrunched up eyes and soft mouth was attractive, even a guy, a straight guy, could see that. "What if we get a callout? You need to be functional."
"We never get a callout," Tony said, but his eyes fell shut again and Steve turned off the light.
Of course, Tony had jinxed them.
Steve went from sleep to waking to dragging on his clothes in about two seconds. That was the emergency alarm; it had only gone off twice before, and both times had been drills.
He ran down the stairs to find Clint still awake - at 3am, really - and Natasha tying her sneakers.
"Already down in the basement," Natasha reported. "Said if the helicopter came before he was done, he'd catch us up."
It wasn't exactly Steve's favourite solution, but Tony refused to keep his armour at SHIELD, and Fury refused to keep the rest of the team's kit outside SHIELD.
They were only half-way to SHIELD when a familiar shape buzzed past, and the radio crackled to life.
"We should have our own helicopter, right? Save time, Fury wouldn't have to send a ride out."
"Awesome," Clint said. "Hey, go ahead and get us some coffee made."
"I'm not the maid, Clint."
"You're more like a robot butler, right?"
Tony flipped him the finger before showing them his heels.
There was coffee when they got there, although that was probably because Tony needed his own caffeine infusion rather than any consideration towards Clint.
"Banner's had an episode," Fury said as soon as Natasha shut the door to the briefing room, and Clint let out a whistle. "Get changed, I'll brief you as we go."
"There's not going to be any hushing this up," Tony said. His voice had little variation to it in the suit, and his body language was muffled; but still, Steve thought he was worried. "It's on TV, Twitter, Youtube."
"Right now, our priority is stopping him, not cleaning up," Fury said, and Steve half-turned away from the case containing his uniform.
"Sir? It's - it's ongoing?"
"Bruce Banner's taking Manhattan," Tony confirmed.
"So please, gentlemen - and Natasha - don't waste time primping." Fury talked about Banner, running over his observed powers, while Steve tried to breathe. He felt like he had asthma again; he felt like the first time he'd been pushed onto a stage.
He sealed the new costume, checked the belt, made sure gloves and boots were secure. Settled the helmet in place, and that only made him more nervous; sure, Captain America had be a symbol back in the day, but now, he was more than that. Steve had no idea how he was going to live up to - to himself.
They travelled in a car with big sliding doors and tinted windows; Tony was crammed in with them, to his clearly expressed annoyance. Agent Hill drove, and Fury maintained a furious argument with someone - possibly several someones - on his mobile phone.
They pulled up behind a cordon, and the sound of gunfire and explosions made Steve's heartbeat settle. That, he knew how to deal with. He reached for the door handle, and Fury blocked him.
"Sit down, soldier. We don't have clearance." He folded his phone shut.
"Are you kidding me?" Tony put up his faceplate. "What, you've called us out to sit in the van?"
"This is an army operation," Fury said tightly.
"And the army are going to completely screw the pooch, again," Tony snapped.
"And that's why we're here, sitting in a van," Fury sat back. "Ready to provide support."
Tony growled, and slammed his faceplate down again. The ground trembled beneath them.
"Banner just smashed a tank into the ground," he reported after a moment. "You know when you smack a war-gaming table, and all those little plastic soldiers fall down?"
"Sir," Steve said, and Fury shook his head.
"We can't go off half-cocked, soldier. We'll just cause confusion, get people killed."
Tony tapped his metal boot on the floor.
"People are getting killed now. I'll go; everyone knows I'm - "
"You sit right there." Fury's tone sharpened. "You're on this team as long as I have some control over you; without that, you're a liability."
"Well, I'm sorry, maybe you guys are happy to sit there while Banner curb-stomps your political adversaries - "
"This is not about rivalries, Stark, this is about going through the proper channels. SHIELD is still proving its utility - "
"Utility to sit in vans! I'm going, I'm getting out - "
Steve put his hand on Tony's arm, and he stilled.
"Can you try again, sir? There has to be something we can do, even if only a support role." He met Fury's eyes steadily; he could see frustration there, and then calculation.
Fury opened his phone, and tapped it.
"Sir," he said. "Yes, sir. Yes, sir, I understand." There was a pause, and then Fury arched an eyebrow at Steve. "Captain America asked me to call you again, ask if there was anything he and his team could do. He doesn't like seeing soldiers getting their asses kicked while he sits around. No, sir, I'm not making fun, he asked me to call."
"They're getting slaughtered," Tony said dispassionately. "If they've got anything that can take Banner down, they can't deploy it in Manhattan."
"Let me speak to him," Steve said suddenly, and held out his hand. Fury, to his surprise, grinned an evil grin.
"I'll just pass you over to the Captain now." He shoved the phone into Steve's gloved hand, helped him fold the still-new leather around it.
"Hello?" Steve said foolishly, over the dammit Fury -
Steve took a breath, and spoke with the calm assurance he'd learned in the field.
"Sir, all our information says the army's lost control of the situation. We'd like to go in and contain Banner for long enough for them to regroup."
"You think you can contain that thing?"
"I do, sir." He shut his eyes. "With all due respect, the army's methods aren't working here, and never have. It's time to try something different."
"Pass me back to Director Fury."
"Sir." Steve handed the phone back.
"Yes sir," Fury gave him a thumbs-up. "Of course. Thank you, Mr President, I will." And he shut the phone. "We're on."
"That was the President?" Steve wasn't quite horrified. It wasn't like he'd never spoken to a President, of course, but he wasn't sure he'd been as polite as he should be.
"I bet he's a fanboy too." Tony shoved Steve's shoulder. "Come on, come on!"
They spilled out into the darkened street; the glass had shattered in all the streetlights. Tony took to the sky like a freed bird. Steve squinted after him, but soon lost him in the lights of Manhattan. At least the power wasn't out, then.
The three of them jogged down the road towards the noise of destruction. There was no gunfire now.
"He's heading west along 50th Street," Iron Man's voice crackled in his ear. "Turn down 49th, cut him off at the Avenue of the Americas, it'll make great headlines."
"Oh, shut up," Steve muttered, feeling that tightness in his chest again. If they screwed this up, after he'd spoken like that to the President - "Which one's the Avenue of the Americas?"
"What's he doing?"
"Seems to be looking for people; keeps peering into cars, then throwing them aside. No one here, though; monitoring heat signatures. Army seem to be retreating in good order."
They hit Sixth Avenue at the same time as Banner; the noise he made covered the sounds of their steps. He advanced to the centre of the road, and straightened from his habitual hunch; Steve took a slow breath, assessing his size. Around ten foot, and most of the length in his powerful torso.
Banner was staring up at the ranked skyscrapers, sparkling against the darkened sky. For a moment, Steve thought his rampage was done, that he'd settle and change back into the skinny scientist, but instead he bellowed, a deep animal roar with an air of challenge, and turned to fold his hands in the roof of a car, crumpling sheet metal like cloth.
"Let's try and contain him here," Steve said. "Try not to trash the Rockefeller Centre. Tony, stay airborne."
Steve wasn't nervous, not anymore, the adrenaline was singing and the world was slowing around him. Banner threw the car at the nearest skyscraper, and Steve registered the sound of repulsor fire - Iron Man fielding it, no doubt. He was on Banner before he'd risen from his crouch, hurdled him, tapped one foot on a broad green shoulder as he flew, and Banner uncoiled far faster than anything that size had a right to.
But Steve had seen the tapes, already had his knees tucked to his chest to clear the hand that lashed out to grab him. Looking down, he saw black blood bloom on the bulging forearm, the trace of an arrow from Clint's bow, and Banner forgot Steve and turned savagely on to Clint, all teeth and fists and rage.
He'd only taken three striding steps before electricity crackled a halo round his head, and Natasha bounced off a car roof and landed on a streetlight, swarming up it so fast that by the time Banner had hold of the base, she was already leaping clear, catching hold of one of the flags that hung there - Japanese, Steve thought. Banner lifted the streetlight with a screech of tearing metal, and swung it, but too late - Natasha let go of the flag and flew into a tree, and Steve let his shield fly, sent it blurring past Banner's ear, off a wall, off the pavement, and then back past Banner, sending him spinning in apparent confusion.
Banner took a few steps, peering about him, and then caught sight of Clint. He lifted the street light high, and hurled it like a javelin; but blue light snacked it out of the sky, and Banner peered up at the circling glow of Iron Man.
"Tony, climb," Steve said sharply, seeing Banner's knees bend, and Tony jetted skywards as Banner leapt. Steve's heart caught in his throat for a second, but Banner landed empty-handed, and howled in anger.
"This is good." Steve let the shield loose again, running to catch it, seeing Natasha scaling the wall of a building, Clint moving low, arrow notched. "Keep this up, guys, we just need to keep him busy, he can't stay like this forever."
"We can't keep it up forever either," Tony said, and Steve saw a sweep of blue light above them. "At least, maybe the super soldier can, and Natasha's a cyborg, but Clint there - "
"Oh, don't worry about me. I'm a soldier. I'm worried about you, Tony, you're not as young as you used to be." Clint sent the next arrow into a windscreen, shattering it; Banner seemed to hold the car accountable, and punched it a few times.
"All right guys, focus. That's enough trash talk for at least ten minutes."
"Oh come on," Clint scuttled into the cover of a hydrant. "Can't I have Natasha's go?"
"I'll have Steve's, then."
"I'm saving mine." Natasha strolled out on the pole of the overhanging stoplight as casually as if it were a highway. She stuck two fingers in her mouth and whistled; Banner stared about wildly, unable to make her out in the dimness. "Stark's right, though, we can't keep this up forever." As Banner passed under her, she jumped down onto his shoulder and ran down his spine, bouncing off and fleeing down the street. Banner gave chase, until he took a repulsor beam in the eyes and tripped to the floor with a horrible thud.
"Let's keep it up as long as we can," Steve said.
"As the bishop said to the actress," and Tony dived-bombed in front of Banner, swooping up and away as Banner leapt again.
As it turned out, they could keep it up for twenty-eight minutes. That was when a car hood buckled unexpectedly under Clint's feet, and in the second it took him to regain his balance, Banner's fist impacted him.
Clint flew, and smacked a wall, and Banner lunged after him; but Natasha bounded in and kicked him three times in the face before spinning off sideways, flipping off a lamp and landing on a car roof. Her face was set with terrifying rigidity.
Steve could see blood spreading dark on the pavement.
"Tony, can you get him?"
"If he's got internal injuries, that could be a really bad idea," Tony dived on Banner, dropping what looked like a car door on his head.
"Other option's moving the Hulk," a new voice came over the comms. Fury.
"Let's take him out," Tony said. "We've been dancing almost half an hour; the army had their chance, we have to get Clint out of here."
"You got a plan, Stark?" And Steve heard smugness overcome the worry in Tony's voice.
"As a matter of fact, I do."
Tony's latest toy was spy drones; fist sized, flight-capable, packed with cameras. Their major disadvantages were that they handled like barges and he really didn't want anyone getting hold of them, which made them less than useful in most situations.
What they were good for was scouting round a fight. 51st Street had a nice, handy underground garage, and that was where Tony was now, while his little drone hovered ten feet above ground monitoring Banner. And Tony's team.
Natasha danced forward down the car to the hood ornament, and Banner lunged; she flipped back to the roof, bouncing, and Banner's hand passed so close it brushed her boot.
Banner was too fast for a thing that size, Tony thought, and brushed it away to focus on his work. He wired another of his explosive darts into the pillar, using the gauntlets to dig out mortar before shoving it in as deep as he could.
Outside, Steve's shield finally came whizzing out of the darkness, bounced off Banner's head and shoulder and the floor, and then Steve charged him, like some kind of idiot. Tony almost choked on fear, closed the feed for a second and then opened it, and watched a punch be soaked up by shield and Captain, watched Steve unleash punches and kicks, watched Natasha bound onto his broad green shoulder and loop a garrote around his neck. His fingers kept moving, kept digging and wiring, as fast as he dared.
Natasha at his throat and Steve beating at his chest and shoulders and belly with fist and shield lasted a full thirty seconds, and Tony could see the EMTs creeping over the wreckage like ants, making their way to Clint. Then Banner snapped the garrote with his bulging neck muscles, and Natasha tumbled backwards; Banner spun on her, and though Steve beat with frantic energy at his back and kidneys, he picked her up and threw her. Thank goodness, Natasha was more of an acrobat than Clint, she twisted improbably in midair and bounced off the wall, but she landed awkwardly with a hiss of pain. Electricity flew from her outstretched hand, and when Banner covered his eyes, Steve kicked him right in the nuts.
Tony stared down at his empty hands for almost five seconds before he realised he'd finished, and spun on his heel and ran up the long tunnel to street level.
Banner was one-on-one with Steve now, battering him down; Steve was retreating steadily, up Sixth Avenue and the plan was to drive him into the parking garage but that plan, Tony thought, didn't have a snowball's chance in hell with just the two of them.
Tony paused halfway between the garage entrance and the intersection, and waited. Clint was on a stretcher, now, they were carrying him away, and Natasha was wobbling on her feet; an EMT was trying to lead her away, but she wasn't having it, one hand waving him off, the other clamped to her head.
Steve bounded backwards into Tony's line of sight, moving fast; weaving like a boxer, footwork that Happy would have wept tears of joy for. He looked elegant, he looked deadly, two words Tony would never have thought to apply to Steve Rogers. Graceful, yes, there was an unconscious balance and poise to him even when he was fidgeting and blushing, but they way he moved now, with focus and intensity - Tony could have watched forever, and he stood and stared until Banner lurched fully into view, and Tony remembered the plan.
"Hey! Hey Banner!" Tony yelled, at a greatly amplified volume, and turned on all his lights, directing them at Banner. "Hey, asshole!" Target, fire, and a last missile went off under Banner's ass, sending fire and impact into tender places. He turned with a howl, and Tony gave him the finger, on the off-chance there was enough brain in there to recognise it.
Banner charged him, and Tony stood there, ignoring Steve's increasingly frantic demands to know what the hell was going on. Then he turned and ran, feeling the ground tremble under their combined footsteps, launched himself for extra speed and flew down the street, letting his repulsors blast Banner til he howled.
He pulled a sharp left down the tunnel, and for a moment he thought Banner wouldn't follow; he touched down, and then the bulky shape appeared in the entrance.
"Come on, Banner," he taunted, and splashed a repulsor beam on the wall next to him. Then he ran again, down into the rigged basement garage.
Banner gave chase, dodging round the pillars, shoving the few cars around like they were cardboard cutouts. Tony got between Banner and the exit, and realised he was going to have to leave it to the very last second to make his escape
Banner - Tony cast a glance up the tunnel - could Banner jump that? Surely the angle was too shallow. Shit, maybe it wasn't, not with the muscle Banner could bring to bear. And the repulsors wouldn't keep him down, he'd planned for a concerted assault to put Banner down for long enough to drop the building on him. His repulsors didn't do much against the Hulk, not enough force - unless -
"JARVIS, going to need to overload the reactor; channel the power through the front beam. On my mark."
He could feel the thrum in his chest, his very bones quivering, the reactor trying to shake itself apart as the reaction sped. He blew the charges, and the pillars began to grind and tilt, and Banner's bestial eyes narrowed as he looked about. Something was processing in that tiny skull; some self-preservation instinct fired, and Banner's knees bent, and he turned his eyes towards the exit.
A lance of blue-white crashed him back against the wall, sending a spider-web of cracks through the concrete; Tony's feet were braced, but even so he felt the armour shudder under the strain. Dust was pouring now, chunks of concrete falling away, he was going to find a way to pack more explosives onto this thing in future.
Banner, very slowly, began to push away from the wall. One step, two steps against the power of the beam, and extraneous systems began to shut down as all the power poured out, the joints locking solid, the feed shutting down. The heart should be the last to go - but -
"Override heart power-draw protocols; all power to the beam."
"Sir," was all JARVIS said, disapproving but obedient, and he wondered if he could feel the little pieces of shrapnel start to twitch and wriggle, drawn towards his heart as if he'd switched on a magnet there, instead of switching one off.
Banner was almost in arm's reach, too dumb to just step out of the beam, taking the shortest route towards his enemy. Broad green fingers brushed the armour, and with the power down, Tony couldn't even step away, just kept staring into Banner's poison green eyes.
And with a final grinding shriek, the first pillar went down and the building began to fall in.
Tony blinked, blurrily, back to consciousness. It was all blue-lit, and his chest was cold, and unfamiliar hands were touching him and he couldn't move - he made a garbled noise, and struggled, and then JARVIS' voice sounded.
"Mr Stark, please do not move. Dr Banner is still repairing your arc reactor."
"You let - Banner touch - " he slurred.
"Your AI pretty much made me," Banner muttered. "Said it was just a case of swapping in your spare palladium, but there were all these fused connections."
"Spares," he managed, and Banner sighed.
"It's just about done, yes. I'm putting the cover back on."
Of course, Banner wouldn't know palladium from a hole in the ground. If anyone was going to poke around in his chest, might as well be a geneticist.
After a few moments, the armour closed smoothly round him, and systems flickered to light before his eyes. He propped himself up on his elbows, and looked at Banner, who looked pale and sick and guilty. Well, good. It was lucky JARVIS had an emergency backup power supply.
He forced himself to a sitting position, and looked around.
"How are you still intact?" he asked Banner, who shrugged.
"I was green when it hit. I didn't... de-green... until afterwards. And then I was smaller, so we have a little space."
"Okay. Time to dig us out. JARVIS? Do a scan, here, let's talk options."
They finally erupted into a scene of great disorder, and the snapping of safeties being taken off. Looked like the army had finally regrouped. Banner's head popped up, and then ducked down, and there were megaphones and yelling. JARVIS helpfully flicked up a graph of Dr Banner's heartrate, and Tony seriously considered just flying off; they deserved each other. Steve would probably insist on cleaning up their messes again, though.
"Hey, Banner? You want to go for a ride?"
"I don't want to stay here." Sensible man. Tony hooked an arm around his torso.
"Deep, calming breaths," he advised, and they were off, spinning through the sky amid a flurry of poorly-aimed and ill-advised bullets. He spotted a SHIELD helicopter, and made for it. Agent Hill was in the pilot's seat; and sure enough, Fury was visible at the open side.
"Doctor Banner!" he yelled over the sound of the rotors. "Can I offer you a lift anywhere?"
"Do I have a choice?" Banner was already shifting in Tony's grip, turning towards the helicopter, and Tony edged closer. Fortunately, Agent Hill was an excellent pilot - Tony wasn't sure he'd ever seen a SHIELD agent do anything less than excellently, ever.
"Depends if you have more influence over Stark than I do," Fury said pleasantly, and tossed out a line. Banner caught it, and nodded, and Tony darted in and dumped him in before backing off. The helicopter rocked a little, but rose away with no trouble. "Go down and join the team," Fury yelled down to him and then tapped the centre of his chest. "We were unable to detect your power supply. I was sure you were too bloody-minded to die, but people with a higher opinion of you were worried."
"Stay still, Clint," Natasha hissed, and Clint pouted at her, ludicrously.
"But I wanna get up, I wanna go see," he complained. He'd managed to whine the medical staff into letting him sit in the van with the team, after Natasha had assured them she had a plethora of first aid qualifications and would watch him intently and unceasingly. She herself had been judged to not have a concussion, just a stinking headache and a sprained ankle.
Any other time, Steve would have smiled at Clint's morphine-addled behaviour; his injuries, thankfully, weren't serious. Deep bruising, cracked ribs, and a long but shallow incision in his thigh; but miraculously no concussion and nothing broken.
Today, though, he was trying not to think about the moment when the building had come down before his eyes, and he'd realised Tony wasn't coming out. He'd been calm at first, expecting that Iron Man would dig his way out, but he hadn't. And then - no power signature. No arc reactor. And if the arc reactor had been destroyed - well, it was embedded in his chest. It was hard to picture the wound that would destroy it, and yet leave him alive.
And so, Tony -
"Hey, it's Tony," Clint said brightly, and Steve spun round turned to see him swooping in, dusty and battered. He landed with none of his usual grace, and when he opened the faceplate, his cocky grin sat ill on a face that looked almost ghastly.
"Idiot," Steve said too sharply, stepping out of the van, and Tony's eyes flashed with hurt. Steve grabbed his arm, and then shook him, gently. "Don't - Tony, you could have been killed - "
"Yeah, thanks for saving our asses, Tony - " Tony's voice was jagged, and Steve growled and shook him again.
"I think what Steve is trying to say is 'Thank you very much, Tony, and if you ever do that again, we'll kill you.' Right?" Natasha patted him on the shoulder. "And I would like to be associated in that statement." Tony cast a startled glance down at her hand, as if expecting it to turn into a Vulcan nerve pinch, and then back at Steve, who nodded. Natasha stood on her toes and kissed his cheek - he flinched comically - and then she darted back into the van, probably to stop Clint trying to get out. Steve stared at Tony, who stared back.
"Yes. What Natasha said. You scared me. Us." He took a deep breath. "Please don't do it again, all right?"
"But it was the only - "
"Well maybe," Steve forced himself to moderate his tone. "Just, can we take a little time to think of other options first, you're a genius and all, maybe there are ways that don't involve you almost dying."
"We really don't need the bad publicity of you dying on the job," Natasha's voice floated out of the van. The corner of Tony's mouth twitched up a little.
"Yes, that too." Steve patted his arm gently. "Please don't die, Tony."
"Yeah, okay." Tony shrugged, and ducked his head. "You're all sentimental today. What about you Clint, got any touching words to share?"
"Uh, if you die, can I have your locker?" Tony grinned.
"You keep me grounded, baby."
Tony stripped off the armour and dumped it right there on the van floor, and then crawled over Clint into the back seat. Steve followed, and was promptly pressed into service as a pillow.
"Sleep," Tony said, and shut his eyes. After less than a minute, before Natasha had even strapped herself into the driver's seat, his body went slack. He would have slid right out of his seat if Steve hadn't caught him. Steve arranged him more comfortably, and dropped an arm over him to hold him in place.
He could feel Tony's heartbeat from the back; from the front, there was a strange thrumming sensation he assumed to be the arc reactor. Tony smelled of cologne and sweat. Asleep, he scowled a little and the hollows under his eyes were very visible.
Steve brushed a thumb over the point of one cheekbone. Too sharp; someone needed to take better care of him. He felt an odd twist of bitter fondness at the thought of someone taking care of Tony, making him slow down once in a while, dragging him out to see sun. He'd look at them the way he looked at Pepper sometimes, confused fondness like he wasn't sure how this person had dug their way into his life, and Steve would -
Steve would -
He shut his eyes, and let himself fill in the fantasy, himself slipping an arm around Tony and just holding him still for a while, coaxing him to bed with promises, soaking up all those sweet looks and compliments. It would be - it would be great, really. Perfect.
He opened his eyes, and found Tony looking back at him, giving him a sleepy smile. Steve smiled back, and leaned in for a very gentle, careful kiss. Tony's lips parted under his, and he murmured something that Steve kissed into silence.
Tony's hand on his shoulder patted him away, and Steve eased back reluctantly, a warm flutter in his belly.
"I think," Tony said very quietly, "There's been a misunderstanding."
Pepper had just happened to stop by SHIELD at 5am, because it was never too early to work on their tech contracts. She set up her laptop in the break room, because it had lots big screens and a coffee machine. Then she started refreshing CNN, because all the SHIELD agents were occupied - some kind of crisis that she had very little interest in, except for the fact it was interfering with her work. Of course.
The scene was largely dark and impenetrable, but Tony was very evident, to her relief, flying above the scene. He only occasionally needed to dodge a thrown car or a leaping monster. She made a mental note to say something nice later; a note she mentally tore up when he dropped a building on himself.
Still, it was only a small building. She knew better than to worry about him, and turned her attention to writing savage emails to their investors, which she trashed as soon as they were done. A great stress reliever; Natasha had taught her the technique back when she was faking being a personal assistant.
Sure enough, it was only twenty minutes before he erupted out of the wreckage and fled with an unidentified man tucked under his harm. There was no sign of the big green rage monster, so she could only conclude Tony had either captured or rescued Dr Banner.
Half an hour's furious typing later, she heard arguing from outside, and then Clint and Natasha burst through the door in a barely controlled stagger. Clint was firmly deposited in a chair, told to stay and then Natasha limped out of the door.
"You're hurt," Pepper said foolishly, and Clint nodded, and beamed at her.
"Injured! Nothing hurts right now." He slumped a little in his seat. "Well hello, big boy."
Pepper gazed at him in bewilderment, and he jerked his head towards the door. Steve edged slowly into view, looking -
"Oh my God, is everything okay?" Pepper jumped to her feet. "Is - " her breath caught. Jarvis could control the Iron Man suit after all, could easily bring it home if Tony were injured or - "Is Tony hurt?"
"Tony's fine," Steve said, and she collapsed into her chair. "Sorry, I - everything's fine." His attempt at a smile was so pathetic even Clint seemed to detect something wrong.
"What happened, Cap? President yell at you? Did you mistake a reporter for a Nazi? Did Stark pinch your butt on national - oh, was that it?"
Steve had visibly flinched at Tony's name, and he drew back in the doorway as if he was going to make a break for it.
"Just tell us, Steve, I can't take this," Pepper said, which was probably unfair but spared them hours of Clint's nagging.
"I kissed Tony," Steve rushed out, and Clint whooped.
"Finally! But why the long face? No sparks? He a bad kisser?"
"He turned me down," Steve said in a tiny voice. "Said I was a great guy, but I was a guy, and he wasn't into that."
There was a blank silence. Clint turned to Pepper, and spread his hands. She shook her head. Tony was bisexual, wasn't he? It was pretty solid rumour, he'd never denied it...
Admittedly, in all the years she'd been his PA she'd never shown a guy out, but she'd always assumed he just didn't bring guys home.
"Why - why would he do that?" Clint sounded as baffled as she felt. "He's so completely Froot Loops over you. Okay, wait, let me call Natasha, she can do girl stuff."
"Girl stuff?" Steve's mouth turned even further down, as Clint fumbled with his earpiece.
"You're being a girl. Emotions and stuff. I'm a manly kind of gun guy. Natasha? Stark's gone mad and dumped Steve, come fix it. Don't worry," he said to Pepper, "Natasha can fix anything."
"I suppose it's not entirely unexpected," Natasha said thoughtfully, after they'd topped up Clint's drug supply and plastered over everyone's minor injuries. Steve had a bandaid on his cheek to show willing, though all his scrapes and bruises were healed. Natasha had stolen some ice cream from the icebox, but ruled that no one was allowed vodka out of sympathy for Steve's metabolism.
Pepper would have complained, but Natasha slipped her a flask filled with brandy; she suspected the sympathy rule was to stop Clint topping off his morphine with booze.
"I find it unexpected," Clint shifted, awkwardly. Cap was about two hundred and fifty pounds of muscle, which made him an uncomfortable thing to have draped across your lap; out of respect to his injuries, Clint had his knees. Natasha had Steve's head in her lap, and as Pepper hadn't been in a fight that night, she was in the middle, patting his hip in a soothing fashion and trying not to stare too obviously at the way tight blue leather outlined everything. "I thought everyone knew Stark likes cock."
"Except Stark," Natasha smoothed Steve's hair back from his face. It was probably a bad sign he had submitted to this with only token protests; Clint and Natasha had both been insistent that the team that snuggled together, stayed together. "He was raised in an atmosphere of near-toxic masculinity, MIT, hanging out with the military."
"Yeah, but Stark's always struck me as one of those guys who'll try anything."
"File reports him as pretty vanilla in his preferences, actually."
"I don't want to know that," Steve said sadly. Pepper kept quiet; it was nice to know SHIELD files weren't completely accurate. What Tony would do with a casual partner was different from what he'd do with a long-term partner, apparently - and she'd not breathe a word.
"Sh," Natasha shoved another spoonful of ice cream into Steve's mouth when he opened it. "His file says he's bisexual."
"You wrote most of that file," Clint pointed out, and she made a threatening gesture with the spoon.
"And I am never wrong about these things. He's in denial. Daddy issues from here to Mars. Some mommy issues too, but she's a more shadowy figure. Howard Stark was practically a performance artist."
"I liked Howard,"Steve mumbled around his ice cream.
"You like everyone. You like Tony. You're like some kind of liking savant," Clint contributed. "You probably think Natasha's a sweet girl."
Steve was conspicuously silent. Natasha grinned, and patted his head approvingly.
"He rarely has long-term relationships. His relationship with Potts was like a dog trying to play the tuba."
"What?" Steve rolled his eyes upwards.
"Now come on," Pepper interjected, but Natasha carried on.
"A lot of effort, and it would make a hilarious Youtube video, but no real understanding of the necessary concepts." Natasha shook her head. "He tried so hard it was almost painful to watch. One day I found him programming compliments into JARVIS to prompt him with at intervals."
"That sounds awesome," Clint said. "You think JARVIS could - "
"No, Clint," Pepper remembered he was injured, and didn't dig her elbow into his ribs. "Can we change - "
"Didn't he get her a private jet for her birthday?" Clint spoke over her.
"And a pony."
"She liked the pony," Steve said.
"She said she felt like the woman with the Monkey's Paw."
"Is she a supervillain?" Clint asked.
"Shut up. She was afraid of making a careless wish and Tony making it come true. Like she'd say she dreamed of being an astronaut and next day, she's on a NASA training program."
"Nah, Stark'd build his own rocket and launch them both to the Moon."
"That was a comment made in confidence." Pepper glared at Natasha, who shrugged unrepentantly.
"Everyone here has top-secret clearance."
"My romantic life does not have clearance for anything!"
"I don't see how this helps," Steve muttered. "He's still straight."
"No he's not," the three of them said in unison. Natasha tapped the spoon on his forehead; Steve endured it patiently.
"Tony's clearly besotted with you. We have to convince him of this, though; he seems to have formed some kind of weird attachment to his heterosexuality."
"If he doesn't want me, he doesn't want me. We can't force him to."
"He does want you," Clint said.
"Sure we could," Natasha said.
"He really wants you." Pepper added. "Even JARVIS thinks so. He's re-ordered his Things To Distract Tony list so suggesting calling you is at the top."
"Fury threatens him with confining you to quarters." Clint offered.
"And it works," Natasha tapped him with the spoon again. "He loves you so much he tried to give you his girlfriend, his best friend, his house - it's lucky you don't fit into his clothes, really."
"He took Steve to his tailor," Pepper put in, and Natasha nodded.
"See? Weird and creepy. Exactly how Stark shows affection."
"Not fair," Pepper said. "He's just... very individual."
"Eccentric," Clint patted Steve's ankle. "But the point is, you two are really, really gay for each other."
"I don't think he is." Steve shrugged. "He should know, right?"
"Don't you worry, Steve," Natasha curved over gracefully, and dropped a kiss on his temple. "We'll take care of this."
"There's no need," Steve said, but he was duly ignored.
"Are you kidding me?" Pepper said indignantly from the door, and Tony jumped. He'd managed to avoid everyone for two days by hiding out in the penthouse, but JARVIS had informed him that Fury had requested Iron Man's attendance.
Apparently, he'd also tattled to Pepper, because there was no good reason for her to be lurking around his armour.
"I'd love to chat, Pepper, but I have a thing. No, don't stand there, that's - are you trying to stop me putting the armour on? Dummy, move Pepper. Move Pepper. Traitor. You know what, Pepper, stopping me from going to base is probably treason, Fury called me in, Banner's probably eating the President or something, and here I am, helpless because a rogue CEO is blocking the - " he squinted. "The left thigh plate. I need that, Pepper. I can't go out with my left thigh exposed to danger."
Pepper stared, unimpressed, until he ran down.
"I don't want to date Steve." He folded his arms, and tried to stare her down. "I'm straight. He's a guy."
"You are all over him, Tony. 'Mixed signals' doesn't even cover it, you've been sending completely clear signals that you're besotted."
"He would never have even thought of it on his own," Tony snapped. "You put it into his head. You and Clint. And now he's hurt." That had been one of the top ten awkward and horrible conversations of his life; he couldn't place it more accurately, because that would have meant reviewing the others, but. Horrible. Steve had looked awful.
Pepper looked guilty. Good. This wasn't Tony's fault, he'd just... wanted to be friends, okay.
"Get off the armour, Pepper," he said, and she frowned at him.
"Are you going to keep ignoring Steve?"
"I'm just giving it a chance to cool off. You don't think I like it, do you?" He'd gotten used to having Steve around. He missed Steve.
"At least move back to the house. He thinks he's driven you out of your home. He feels terrible."
"And that is not my fault." Tony scrubbed a hand through his hair. "I'll... I'll think about it, okay?"
"I'm sorry," she said and kissed his cheek as she passed.
"Pepper?" She paused in the doorway, and glanced back over her shoulder. "Why were you so sure I was gay?" If it was something he'd done while they were dating -
"Bisexual. I don't know. I always thought you were. It never really occurred to me to wonder."
He breathed out a little sigh of relief. As long as she didn't think he didn't love her.
"Okay, Pep. I have to go, okay? I'll see you soon."
Tony dutifully walked his suit down the steps to the containment level, and pushed through the swing doors into sub-level three.
He hesitated at the door, and Steve half-turned his head, and gave him a wan smile. He was in full Captain America regalia, all cleaned and repaired; no sign of the damage Banner had inflicted on him. Tony regretted having put the faceplate up. He plastered a grin on his face, and clumped down the hall towards him.
"Hey, chuckles, what's the sitch?"
"Banner," Steve nodded through the pane of glass. Banner lay in a hospital bed, hooked up to five kinds of monitors, the readings from which showed on a panel on the wall. He was held in place by massive padded shackles that wouldn't do shit if he he had an episode. Tony could also see the little raised nubs in the floor that would generate a hell of a forcefield if necessary; one of his own designs. He'd flatly refused to guarantee it Banner-proof.
"Okay, what about him?" Tony couldn't stop sneaking glances at him. He looked tired.
"His... Professor Ross, his friend, is visiting."
"Whoa. I thought policy was to isolate him?"
"It was. They've finally transferred the whole Banner situation to SHIELD jurisdiction. Fury says Banner gets visits." He didn't look at Tony at all, which felt completely wrong, keeping his eyes on the limp form in the bed. Of course, they were on duty, and Steve was very dutiful.
"Huh." Tony gnawed his lip. "So we..."
"We're here to make sure she doesn't get hurt. If it goes wrong, you grab her, fly her out."
"I contain the situation and await orders from Fury."
"Steve - "
"That's the plan. You get the injured civilian out of here."
Tony hesitated, feeling his palms sweat. Steve had gone hand-to-hand with the Hulk two days ago, of course, he'd be fine.
"How'd she get injured? Banner hurt her?"
"No, he - " he lifted his head, and after a moment Tony picked up the tapping of high heels, and then the pad of soft-soled boots. Fury had an aversion to his troops stamping their feet.
Professor Elizabeth Ross was spectacular. Even with her arm in a sling and a bruise mottling the whole right hand side of her face, she made Tony want to sit up and beg. She was flanked by two blank-faced SHIELD agents.
"Professor Ross," Steve said very politely, turning to face her. "How are you?"
"Shot." She came to a halt just in front of them, eyes cold. "I hope you plan to handle things better."
"Shot?" Tony echoed. "Who shot you?"
"The Army apparently needs better sharpshooters," Steve said curtly. "They intended to pick off Banner at a vulnerable moment. Instead, they wounded him severely, and inflicted a fortunately minor injury on Professor Ross."
"You're shitting me." Well, that explained why they'd wanted to borrow Clint.
"Tony," Steve rolled his eyes towards the Professor, whose face softened slightly at Steve's obvious discomfiture. Well, that explained why Fury had Steve leading this operation. One of those girls who's a sucker for a nice boy - and that explained a lot about Banner, for that matter. "Uh, Professor. In the event of an incident - "
"I'm not in any danger from Bruce." Her lips thinned, and Steve nodded.
"I'm sure Bruce wouldn't deliberately hurt you, ma'am. But we have security countermeasures in place - non-lethal ones - and we'd prefer to have you out of the way. In the event of an incident, Mr Stark will remove you from the room, and fly you clear. Please don't - scream, or anything. We don't want to escalate the situation."
"I think I'll cope." She advanced to the window, and bit her lip at the sight of Banner. "Is he - "
"Bruising and some cracked ribs. When he changed back, some debris fell into the gap he left. Not serious. He's under very mild sedation." Steve put a gentle hand on her uninjured arm, and guided her towards the door.
The heart monitor picked up slightly when Banner saw her. Tony tensed. She leaned over the bed and kissed his forehead.
"Betty, I'm sorry. Are they keeping you in here too?" His hand jerked against the restraints. "Was it - I thought you were dead."
"No, and no." She sat on the side of the bed, and took his hand in hers. "They've moved me into a new apartment, as my old one was destroyed, and they're keeping tabs on me. The wound's only minor, I'm starting classes again tomorrow."
Her hand moved slowly through his hair, and the heart monitor's beeping slowed even more. He turned his head, and frowned at Steve.
"I remember - " there was a pause. "I'm sorry. I wasn't in control."
"Did I kill anyone?"
"No reported casualties." Steve's voice was very calm and assured. Even Tony felt soothed by it. "A few broken bones, some serious lacerations, but on the whole, it could have been far worse. The Army at least did an efficient job of evacuating the area."
"I'm sorry," Banner said again, and his voice cracked. The heart rate rose again, and Banner took two deep, slow breaths and it steadied again. "I thought I was safe. I didn't - I didn't expect - "
"Shh," Professor Ross turned to Steve. "Captain, could we have some privacy?"
Steve was still for a moment.
"I can turn off the audio surveillance and Mr Stark and I can wait outside," he said finally. "We have to maintain visual surveillance, I'm afraid."
Steve closed the glass door firmly, and did something to the controls. Tony raised his eyebrows.
"Is that wise?"
"Fury put me in charge."
"Okay, you're allowed to do it. Is it wise?"
"You think Banner wants to hurt anyone?" He looked at Tony again, which was a surprising relief. He'd missed Steve's earnest blue gaze.
"You think he wanted to yesterday?"
"Professor Ross, on at least one occasion, has walked up to Banner in a fully transformed state, mid-rampage, and he protected her." Steve shrugged. "I really don't think she's going to excite him."
"She excites me," Tony said, and Steve flinched. "I mean - "
"She's very beautiful," Steve's face settled back into calm concern, and Tony suppressed the urge to shuffle his feet; the Iron Man stomping its feet would probably rile Banner up, and it wasn't like Tony had to feel guilty about finding a woman hot. "But I think Dr Banner finds her presence soothing. More than worrying about her, anyway."
"Sure, sure, and it sends a message to Banner, we're nice, thoughtful people who aren't here to shoot big guns at you." He shot a glance at Steve. "Fury tell you to involve me?"
"No, he gave me a free hand." Steve glanced back at Banner. "It was my idea, seeing as how Banner almost killed you and you still got him out of there."
"Trying to guilt him, huh? Sneaky."
"It doesn't seem like many people have tried to use their brains on this problem," Steve said with a touch of acerbity. "They just keep pouring on the firepower."
"I didn't have a lot of choice," Tony snapped, stung, and Steve's eyes snapped back to him.
"I didn't mean - "
"Sure you didn't."
"Of course I didn't, Tony. You had a plan. A plan that wasn't 'keep shooting him'. What you did worked, which is entirely different and didn't endanger a bunch of civilians." A beat. "Just yourself."
"Oh, hush." Tony glanced back into the room. Professor Ross' lips were pressed to Banner's brow; they were very still. "How's he coping?"
"Not so good." Steve looked at his feet. "I told him the stuff about the secondary mutation was just a line, so he was glad to hear that. But he lost control again. He thought he had it under control."
"Yeah, well, nothing brings out the animal in a guy like someone trying to murder your girlfriend." Tony spoke with feeling, and Steve cocked an eyebrow. "Tell you another time. Uh look, I'm sorry - "
"It's fine," Steve put up a hand as if to ward him off. "Let's forget about it."
Tony looked at him for a few moments, the unhappy set of his mouth, the unreasonably long lashes veiling his eyes. It was unfair; Steve deserved to be loved, and Tony -
"I just want you to be happy." His voice cracked, unexpectedly, and Steve's eyes widened.
"Tony, don't - please don't feel bad about this, it's not your fault - "
"Sorry," he muttered, and Steve put a hand on his shoulder, patted the armour.
"It's fine. It's really fine. I'll get over it; we're friends, and I appreciate that."
"Great." Steve meant it, Tony was sure; they'd have a great friendship; and Tony wasn't sure why the thought left him hollow inside.
come to the ballroom
Steve eyed the text message doubtfully. Whatever Clint was up to in the ballroom, he doubted it was something he wanted to be involved in.
Which probably meant he should check it out. It wouldn't be fair on Tony if they trashed his house while he was away.
Because Tony still hadn't come home, and that sat like a rock in Steve's belly every time he thought about it. Tony had been nothing but kindness to him, and in return Steve had made him feel uncomfortable in his own home.
He'd give it another three days, and then move back into SHIELD.
The phone buzzed again.
Fine. He trudged down to the ballroom, and found Clint sitting on the floor in his workout gear, fiddling with a pile of CDs.
"JARVIS plays music," Steve pointed out, and Clint shrugged.
"JARVIS is creepy." He looked up at the ceiling. "I know you watch me sleep."
"With the greatest attention, Master Clint." JARVIS spoke in a tone that was indeed creepy; whether Tony had deliberately programmed JARVIS to creep Clint out, or JARVIS was capable of discerning how Clint liked to banter, Steve wasn't sure.
Natasha swept in wearing a red dress Steve could only describe as daring, because, uh, well, it was... daring. Extremely flattering, definitely. Natasha had lovely collarbones, and elegant ankles, and that was all Steve felt fit to consider.
It was a long moment before he could tear his eyes away and see Pepper behind her, carrying a CD player.
"What's going on?" He glanced toward the garden doors; he could always make a break for it.
"Tango!" Natasha declared. "Tony asked us to teach you."
"He did?" Steve's breath caught with hope, and Pepper gave him an apologetic look.
"About a week ago," Clint said, and Steve suppressed a sigh. "So we figured now was a good time."
Clint and Natasha were superb dancers, which didn't really surprise Steve. The dance itself was not anything he could see himself ever doing in public; abandoned was a good word to describe it.
He wouldn't have minded dancing it with Peggy. In private. She'd looked stunning in red, and her ankles were just as nice as Natasha's, although her shoes had been more sensible.
Clint lifted Natasha right off the floor, and spun her round with great aplomb. It looked oddly like Natasha's favourite spinning chokehold, and Steve grinned at them as they struck a final, dramatic pose, and he and Pepper applauded.
"Your turn," and Natasha beckoned him forward.
Steve kept trying to put his hand somewhere safe and not skin, and Natasha kept snapping at him.
"Steve, put your hand - " she took it, and clamped at firmly onto the slim thigh was was pressed to his waist. "Now leave it there, okay?"
"Wandering hands, Steve? Never would have thought it of you." Tony stood in the doorway to the ballroom, eyebrows raised. "Is Pepper in here?"
"Over here." She didn't look away from Steve and Natasha. "Come sit."
"We have a reservation."
"It's cute you're pretending to care about timekeeping. Come sit." Tony grudgingly settled beside her, and promptly started playing with his phone, apparently uninterested in Natasha's... Natasha's everything.
"Useless," Natasha said after a few minutes more, and stepped back. Steve tried to look apologetic, but suspected he mostly looked relieved. "Clint, you're up."
"He's not going to learn just by watching," Clint objected, and Natasha pushed him towards Steve.
"You dance with him. I hope he's not going to get all embarrassed about putting his hands on your thighs."
"My thighs are just fine, thank you. Any man would blush to put his hands on them. Come here, baby, take me for a ride."
That was slightly more workable; Tony put down his phone in favour of laughing at them, which Steve hoped might break the ice between them. He liked the tango, sort of; the moves were fun, and it was definitely spirited, but it was a little too intimate, even with Clint.
"Reservation," Pepper said suddenly. "We should get going. We'll help you put the CDs away."
"Why do we have CDs?" Tony grabbed a handful. "Did Steve bring them in? Is he working his way up through the tech tree?"
"One day your house will murder you, and I will laugh," Clint threw another CD at him. "Show Steve where the boom box goes."
"Give it here, I'll take them all." Tony wouldn't met Steve's eyes, and Pepper clicked her tongue disapprovingly. "Oh, fine. This way, I guess."
CDs apparently went in a walk-in media closet in the library; Natasha followed them in, picking up stray CDs that had slipped from Tony's grip.
"I should just junk all this." Tony stepped in and peered up at the shelves. "Did Clint just throw a grenade in, and catch whatever came out? Seriously, he must have shuffled this stuff."
Steve reached over him to put the CD player on the shelf, and the door clicked shut behind him. Then the lock clicked. Then, there was a scraping sound.
"Break the door down!" Tony spun round, and shoved him. "Don't just stand there - you know what, too late, that's a bookshelf in front of the door and I'm not throwing first editions all over the place. I'm going to build a machete out of CDs and carve my way free through the walls."
"I don't understand." Steve turned, and knocked on the door. Silence, but for Tony ferreting feverishly through the shelves. He began to fumble around the doorframe. "Why did Natasha lock us in?"
"They were all in on this," Tony crashed something against something else. "They want us to talk, or something. Or they think if I'm locked in closet with you I'll turn gay, or something."
Steve found the lightswitch, and clicked it on. He turned to look at Tony, who'd stilled.
"I'm sorry," Steve touched his shoulder, and he flinched. "I didn't put them up to this, and I told them I respected your feelings. It's - you said you didn't - I would never try and push for something you don't want."
He looked at the slumped lines of Tony's body, tired and angry, and felt a wash of affection, a little painful twist there at the thought Tony didn't feel the same, but Tony was his friend, and that was enough.
"Tony?" He tugged on his shoulder, and Tony turned to look at him. "You have been avoiding me, though." And that was unfair, so unfair, because when the tables were turned Steve had carried right on because Tony was important to him.
"Yes. Well." He looked at the floor. "I figured it would be weird."
"I don't want it to be weird," Steve said plaintively. "I want to go back to the way we were before I kissed you. Can't we just pretend it never happened?"
"Uh, yeah." Tony gave him a slow smile. "Maybe we can. Friends, then." He lurched forward a step, and wrapped one arm around Steve's waist and the other round his neck.
Steve put an arm around him, and hugged, and Tony sighed a soft breath that brushed Steve's ear and made his skin shiver. He shoved it firmly away, and focused on the thought that Tony was his friend.
After they were released, Tony yelled at everyone, and then told them he'd move back in if they all stopped being freaks. He made what he considered the very generous offer he'd buy them a pair of Real Dolls to bang together instead, and Natasha made a disgusted face and Clint threw a stray CD at him. Pepper just tutted, and told him they were going to be late.
As Tony pointed out, that was not his fault at all, but he felt too happy - and unsettled - to really complain.
He and Steve were going to be all right, and yeah, for the next three days they managed to co-habit peacefully, apart from the way his chest ached when Steve looked at him like that. But that would stop, in time, Steve would stop looking and Tony would stop aching.
On the evening of the third day, he wandered in on Steve beating the hell out of a punchbag, soaked with sweat from his shoulderblades to his thighs. Tony watched him, hypnotised, for almost ten minutes before turning and walking out; so he was already feeling weird when he ran into Clint in the hall, wearing a suit.
"Jesus, what corpse did you steal that from?" That was a vile calumny; he looked pretty sharp, although his sunglasses gave him the overall air of a used car salesman.
"Second Tuesday every month, Natasha and I have our date."
"A date?" Tony still hadn't quite worked out the dynamics there. They had separate bedrooms, but at some point when Tony wasn't looked, someone had cut a hole in the wall between them, so they could migrate as they pleased.
"A friend-date." Clint grinned, as if he knew what Tony was thinking. "We barhop, then go to a strip club, then maybe go dancing, finish up with late-night diner food."
"A strip club? Natasha goes to strip clubs?" Tony clapped his hands. "I'm coming with. Let me get some money."
"Sure, if you want."
When he got back with a bundle of cash, Natasha was already there, wearing something short and glittery. Tony approved.
"I hear you're our friend now," she said, and Tony shrugged.
"I'm letting you live in my house despite the fact you make my life a misery, so you're either friends or family, and I refuse to have Clint as a relative."
"This is a touching moment." Clint feigned wiping away a tear.
"Well, I'm really only coming because of teambuilding," Tony folded his arms. "Fury said I needed to bond with you losers or some such shit, right Clint?"
"I vaguely recall seeing that in the minutes, once," Clint admitted. "Start behaving like a team member or haul ass. Action: Stark."
"Stop this unseemly outpouring of emotion." Natasha grabbed Clint's hand, and then Tony's, and dragged them towards the door. "The cab's here, come on. Before Steve comes out and asks where we're going, and we're at ground zero of some kind of critical blush event."
They went to four bars before the strip club, which explained why Tony didn't realise something was odd about it until he sat down and squinted at the stage.
"Clint, where are we?"
"This is the Beefsteak Revue."
"That sounds... macho. And it also looks macho. Clint. Why are we at a gay strip club?
"It's not gay," Clint rolled his eyes. "It's guys. See, and Natasha is a woman, and she likes to look at naked men. So this is a straight strip club. For our purposes."
"You go out and watch male strippers every month?"
"Every other month. We trade off." Tony raised his eyebrows. Clint raised his back. "On girls and guys. Sometimes we see titties, sometimes cock. It's fair."
"I thought you were straight?"
"Yeah, so I... don't get lapdances from the guys? I just hang out and drink beer. Sometimes I hit on hen parties."
"You spend the evening looking at naked guys - "
"It's like an hour, tops. Then we move on."
"Enough debate," Natasha reappeared from the direction of the Ladies, a fresh layer of glitter in place. "Stark, cope or the bouncers will call you a cab. Clint, bring me a naked man and a cocktail."
Tony could only conclude that this was Natasha's way of cutting loose; it was certainly impressive to watch. Even if he wasn't into guys, Natasha was a performance on her own. He and Clint sat companionably at the back of the club, watching her cut a swathe and drinking violently coloured cocktails.
"This is how Natasha and I met, sort of."
"What?" Tony had to have misunderstood that.
"I was undercover. Honeytrapping her." He waved his glass at the stage. "I can poledance really well."
"Sweet Jesus. And she fell for it?"
"No, she made me right away. She was trying to get intel on SHIELD. But then we made friends, I guess." Clint shrugged.
"So you came clean with her?"
"Please, I'm a professional. It's a funny story, we were on our honeymoon - "
"You were married? You got married while you thought she thought - " Tony tried to work through that in his head.
"Technically we still are. No point in getting divorced, really, it makes next of kin stuff easier. Anyway, it's pretty cool; I'm married to the Black Widow." He smirked. Tony shook his head.
"I don't understand your relationship at all."
"Well, right back at you." Clint tapped his glass against Tony's. "Still not fucked Steve?"
"Clint, I'm not into guys."
"It's cool, man, I went to a boarding school too, those places fuck with your sexuality. I give an amazing blow job for a straight guy, put it that way."
"Male strippers, blowjobs, and you're straight?"
"I'm at ease with my sexuality. You have to be, in SHIELD. Too much potential for blackmail. That's probably why you're just a consultant."
"Fury wouldn't let me on the team because he thinks I'm closeted?"
"Probably. Coulson said it was because you're a loose cannon, but I think that's bullshit." Clint clapped him on the shoulder. "No one I'd rather have at my back, Stark. Except Natasha, of course. And Steve. Agent Hill's pretty badass, but she can't fly. I dunno, say... joint third with Hill."
"So I'm your least favourite on the team?" Tony was grinning anyway, and Clint laughed at him.
"You're Steve's favourite."
"Yeah, great." Tony slumped back against the cushions, frowning. Natasha was dancing on a table with man in a gold lamé thong. "Can't you work on de-gaying him, instead of gaying me up?"
"Natasha doesn't like to change her reports."
"Seriously? If she'd reported I was five foot four you'd be sawing me off at the ankles?"
"Five foot four sounds right," Clint said, and cackled when Tony elbowed him. Clint wasn't towering over anyone. "Look, have you even thought about it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you know." Clint waved his arms in the air. "You fuck lots of women, that's great, you date Pepper, she's cool as hell... Incidentally, normally I wouldn't ask, because of the code, but you did try to set her up - "
"You can't date Pepper. Code fully enforced."
"Figured," Clint said philosophically. "The point is, you've had unlimited access to high-quality pussy your entire adult life, right?"
"See, people say I'm crude, but I think these people - "
"So you've never needed to think about dick, and its many possibilities."
"I thought you were straight."
"But I did explore the possibilities! I was situationally," Clint mouthed the word a few more times before deciding it was good. "Situationally homosexual. The point I'm making is, maybe you should try it and see if you like it."
"Great," Tony said sarcastically. "I should sleep with Steve, and if I don't like it, no harm, no foul right?" Pepper would murder him. And Steve would look at him - just the thought of Steve's face made him feel sick. He was too drunk for this conversation.
"No, God no, don't do that," Clint said hastily, and turned to check Natasha's location. "I didn't suggest that, and I will cut you if you tell anyone I did. Are you trying to get us killed, Jesus."
"What are you suggesting, I drag a guy off the street and suck his cock?"
"Stark, we're in a fucking strip club. Pay a guy fifty dollars to hump your leg, and if you get a boner, maybe it's worth... I don't know, we'll work out step two if we need it."
"This is why the guy who's been frozen in ice for seventy years is our tactical planner, and not you."
"Whatever, man, that's just Fury playing favourites. Nat! Natasha! Tony's going to have a lapdance, pick out someone bendy." Clint dug into Tony's pocket, and he yelped.
"Jesus, Barton, watch the goods, I'm not going to get it up if you tear it off. My wallet's in my jacket, anyway."
"Fine, give it here. The things I do for Steve, seriously." He shoved a handful of bills at Natasha.
"That one?" she pointed out a slim guy with dark hair, who was doing a gravity-defying backbend. Tony appreciated and admired his flexibility, and he had regular features and gleaming, sleek muscles. Sure, whatever he opened his mouth to say.
"He's not blond," he heard, and realised he'd said it. Way too drunk for this.
"Yeah, blond would be better," Clint agreed. "Someone big."
"See?" Tony said, craning his head round the oiled body of the stripper. "Not sexy."
"Uh, thanks," said the stripper.
"Sorry, nothing personal, I'm just proving I'm straight."
"By getting a lapdance from a guy."
"And not enjoying it." Tony squinted up at his face. The unimpressed expression reminded him of Steve in a way the blond hair and muscles didn't. "Great job, though, very bendy." He folded an extra bill into the guy's hand. "Thanks for trying."
"Now this one," Natasha pushed another guy at him, and Tony shook his head.
"But I don't want another one," he protested, which had zero effect. This one was darker blond, but he had big hands and pale skin and Tony shut up for his dance, which didn't do much for him.
"Last one," he warned when Natasha produced another blond, short and broad. "Seriously, not getting any gayer here."
About as interesting as the ballet, really; although when the guy arched right back, his hips pressing into Tony's, he wondered if Steve was that flexible. Probably.
"Let's go," he said when that guy had gone, and Natasha shrugged.
"Well, thanks for trying," she said, and scrunched up her pretty nose. "I guess you can't win them all. I'll have to get your file changed."
When they got out into the street, Clint threw up neatly in a waste bin, and Natasha threw a pack of gum at him.
"You're vile. Chew that while I find us a cab."
Tony leaned against the wall, and wondered whether SHIELD would ever send Steve undercover as a stripper.
Tony was sitting on the couch trying to focus on a screen of text when the workshop door opened, revealing Steve, and two cups of coffee. Tony opened his mouth to sat I love you, and then remembered it was a bad idea, and just sat there with his mouth open until Steve set a cup down in front of him. Tony carefully fumbled his hands around it, and managed to get some coffee in his mouth. He waved a hand through the screen, and it dissipated; he'd work later.
"You look so hungover." Steve managed to keep the grin off his face, but his dimples were betraying the rigid line of his mouth. Tony grunted.
"People with iron livers can fuck off, okay?"
"I'll get you some water."
"Advil in the drawer," he muttered into the mug, and Steve returned with it and nagged him until he sipped his way down the whole glass of water. He did feel better, afterwards, although maybe that was just the Advil.
"You should have known better than to go drinking with Natasha and Clint." Steve fetched more water, but perched on the table and set it down beside him instead of trying to force it down Tony. "They're pretty hardened."
"I used to be hardened. I can't believe how out of practise I am. I used to be able to drink til dawn and go on to a full day of meetings." He gave Steve a fuzzy grin. "Still, Clint threw up. I didn't. And Natasha made out with a stripper."
"A - " Steve's mouth made a brief O. "A - lady?"
"Uh, no. They have both kinds, nowadays." Steve's brows drew together in puzzlement.
"You and Clint - " and oh, awkward, Steve's lower lip was venturing poutwards and Tony did not have to feel guilty. He hadn't even wanted the stupid dances.
"I had three lapdances from very buff and attractive men, and it was not remotely erotic or exciting." Tony slammed his mug down on the table and glared. "Because I am straight."
"You don't really have to prove anything to me, Tony." Steve's lashes dropped, and he caught his lower lip between his teeth for a second. His fingers drummed on the work surface. Tony leaned back into the couch, watching him warily.
Then Steve looked up, jaw setting. "But, uh, if you were trying to prove something, what would that prove?"
"What?" Tony stared at him. "Well, you know. That I am - "
"That you're not attracted to me?" Usually he liked Steve's bluntness, but was this really the time?
"Do you want a lapdance from Natasha?"
"God no," Tony said involuntarily. He thought he could feel his balls trying to crawl up into his body cavity at the mere thought.
"But you're attracted to Pepper."
"Well, Pepper." Tony shrugged, and Steve's mouth turned up at the corners.
"But they're both slim, attractive redheads."
"Well... there are certain superficial similarities, yes."
"So why does not wanting a lapdance from a different buff blond guy prove you don't find me attractive?"
"Because," Tony said. "Because there were three of them, which is a reasonable sample size to extrapolate from." Steve snorted, and Tony must still be hungover, or he wouldn't have added, "And it's not like you give lapdances for fifty bucks at the Beefsteak Revue."
"Beefsteak - " Steve cut himself off, and stood, and pushed the table aside. "Not for fifty bucks. But for scientific inquiry?" He put one knee beside Tony's thigh on the couch. "I've had good luck with scientific trials, you know." And he straddled Tony's lap and settled in.
Tony looked up at him. He was wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, and his hair was combed neatly into place.
"I," and he had no idea how to end that sentence.
"It'll prove it, right? And then you won't need to go around strip clubs checking."
"Yeah," Tony swallowed. Clint had practically suggested this, and Steve was offering. That was okay, right? "Yeah, actually, you've got a point." He slumped back against the couch. "Go on, then."
"Tony, I've never actually give a lapdance." Steve dimpled at him again. "You're going to need to talk me through it."
"Never saw strippers in the War?"
"Yes, actually, but I don't have any ostrich feather fans." He went a little pink, and Tony laid his palms on Steve's thighs, feeling the strain of denim as he shifted.
"Wow, I gotta hear that story. Later. Uh."
"I suppose I should take my clothes off?" Steve peeled off his t-shirt. "JARVIS, can we have some music, please? And - turn off the cameras, please."
"Of course, Captain Rogers."
"Just, uh," Tony hooked his fingers in Steve's belt loops, tugged. He wriggled obediently closer, thighs spreading wider. "Move your hips to the music. Circle them. Yeah." His abs flexed fascinatingly when he did that. Of course, Steve had super-soldier abs perfected by science.
"There's more to it that this, isn't there?"
"Well - yeah, you - " Tony licked his lips. "Rub up against me."
"Just - " Steve leaned closer, and then put his hands on the back of the couch either side of Tony's head. He stopped with his chest just brushing Tony's, a warm solid presence. His breath smelled faintly of oranges. Tony took a deep breath, and tried for a normal, teasing tone.
"None of this hesitant stuff, Rogers, this is supposed to be dirty."
Steve - rippled was the only word for it, a slow shimmy that dragged his torso along Tony's, thickly padded chest and narrow waist and - and he was hard, Tony could feel it grind against his belly. Another slow grind, another, and Steve was basically rutting against him, breath coming quicker.
"Little variety," Tony croaked. "Uh, they - can you do a back bend?"
"Sure," Steve eased backwards, hips still keeping the rhythm. He leaned slowly back, til his thighs and torso were an almost horizontal line. "Like this? Or further?"
"How are you even doing that without falling off?" Tony inquired, fascination overcoming the churning feel in his belly.
"I'm holding on to the cushion with my toes," Steve said, in a duh tone. "Is that not how it's done?"
"I think you're supposed to arch more," he tapped on Steve's belly. "Bring your centre of balance further in. I've never actually given a lapdance, you know, I'm just reporting what I've seen."
"Okay," and Steve shifted, Tony could feel muscles tensing under the hand he'd left on Steve's skin. Steve curved backwards until his head bumped against Tony's knee, and Tony shook his head.
"You have amazing muscle control."
"Do I just come back up now?"
"Sure, sure." Steve uncoiled, and his hair was mussed, falling across his brow. Tony smiled up at him, helpless. "You... Okay, just - lift up - " he patted one thigh, and Steve obediently shifted his balance onto one knee so Tony could spread his legs. "There, why don't you try the rubbing again. Put your feet on the floor between mine - " Hands back on the couch, and Steve lowered himself until he was breathing into Tony's navel. He rubbed his cheek against Tony's belly, and Tony slid a hand into his hair, stroked it smooth again.
Long, slow glide of his body against Tony's, the weight of him grinding between Tony's thighs as he moved, his breath trailing over Tony's chest and throat and cheek, and Tony rested his head back on the couch cushion and stared up at him.
Steve was blushing all down his chest, lovely, and he met Tony's gaze for a second before shutting his eyes. Then he pushed off the couch, stood upright, and Tony was about to complain we're not through when his hands went to his belt. He peeled down his jeans and whatever underwear he was wearing, and he was - well, he was built. And hard. He started to settle back down, but Tony put a hand on his hip.
"Other way," he directed, and Steve turned at his urging and sat between his spread thighs. "Lean back into me, like I'm a a comfy chair, that's right." Maybe if he couldn't see Steve's face, it would be less - he liked Steve, and that was screwing everything up.
Steve relaxed against him, only tension in his thighs keeping him balanced. He shifted just slightly in time with the music, and Tony urged him to deepen the movement, roll his hips.
Jesus, Steve's ass was grinding right on his dick. He let his hands slide over Steve's belly, felt the flex of his abs, and then slowly moved lower, felt the tension running from body to thigh, the quivering taut muscles. Steve was really hard, cock arching out from his body, a pearl of moisture at the reddened tip.
"Touch yourself," Tony murmured in his ear, and Steve's breath caught in his throat "That's right, just - you want to. Go on."
Steve groaned out loud when his hand closed around his dick, arched and threw his head back on Tony's shoulder, letting Tony press kisses under the line of his jaw. His other hand snaked up and tangled in Tony's hair, and Tony wrapped his arms round Steve's waist and rocked his hips.
Right now, he hated his sweatpants, wished he'd worn something thin - he could feel Steve's heat seeping through the fabric, but it wasn't enough. His dick ground in the cleft of Steve's ass - Steve would let him, he bet, he could fuck Steve right here -
He kind of glazed over when he came, the world turning into a pleasant blur, the scent of Steve's skin and the choked noises he made. After a few minutes fuzziness resolved into the warm damp skin of Steve's shoulder, Steve relaxed and limp and slightly too heavy on top of him.
"Jesus," he muttered, and Steve slipped out of his grip and stood up. "What - " as he watched, Steve stepped into his jeans. He was blushing deeper that he had been during the dance, like Forties Boy had been on a coffee break and had come back to find terrible things had happened in his absence. "Where are you going?"
"Well, I think you should probably, you know, think about that. Right?" And he picked up his t-shirt and sneakers and almost ran to the door.
Tony was left alone with the music, and his hangover.
Tony couldn't decide whether he should be avoiding Steve or not; it turned out to be moot, because the latest development was Steve avoiding him. He spent all day at SHIELD, and on the couple of occasions Tony stopped by the base, he wasn't in evidence. Off doing Banner-related things, was the story, but Tony figured he was probably embarrassed by the - incident. In retrospect, the whole thing seemed so bizarre he could easily have concluded he'd hallucinated it. JARVIS, however, with his computerised pedantry, had switch off the cameras, not audio recording, and Tony listened to the recording several times; his own voice growing darker, throatier, Steve's breath rasping in his throat, the moans he made - Tony could pinpoint the moment he grabbed his cock, the sound he made unmistakable.
At least everyone seemed to have resigned themselves to him being straight. All that needed to happen was Steve to settle down, and things would be back to normal.
On the third Steve-less day, not that he was counting the days, Pepper called to remind him about a gallery opening he'd promised to go to. Which wasn't exactly helpful, because he'd been planning to take Steve along - that was the whole reason he'd said he'd go - and he felt like that would be awkward now, with the whole avoiding thing.
He went, because it would make Pepper happy, and he found very pleasant company there. Beautiful eyes, beautiful throat, circled by a sparkling necklace that drew the eye to a spectacular cleavage. And her laugh was throaty and infectious, and her hair was slipping very slightly loose from its pile, a stray curl hanging down over her ear. Tug on that, and the whole structure would come down, he was sure, and it was a beautiful amber-brown mass. She'd laugh again, and it would be very little effort then to persuade her to accompany him to his car, and then for a mutually enjoyable night. Maybe more; she was good company and would make nice photo opportunities for a few weeks. Until they got bored of each other.
She was exactly his type, smart and driven and lovely and unimpressed by his bullshit.
But whenever he thought about taking her home, he thought of Steve, and he wasn't even sure what that half-sick, half-excited feeling was.
By midnight, he was moderately drunk and banging on Rhodey's door. When Rhodey didn't answer, he dug out a credit card and slipped the lock.
Rhodey glanced over at him, and then sighed, and switched off the TV.
"Rhodey, take your shirt off," he ordered, coming round the couch to stand in front of him, and Rhodey raised his eyebrows. "Quick, quick, important."
After a long second's staring, Rhodey curled forward enough he could tug his t-shirt over his head. Tony surveyed him intensely.
"I don't find that at all sexy, Rhodey."
"It's the best you're getting, Tony. I'm not giving you a lap dance." Tony bounced backwards a step, and Rhodey's eyebrows went up even further. "Why have you broken in here to undermine my self-esteem, Tony?"
"Kind of answered your own question there." Tony put his hands on his hips. "Okay, Rhodey, I love you. You're my best guy, true facts."
"I'm touched." Rhodey pulled his shirt back on, giving him a suspicious look. "So you love me, but you don't think I'm sexy. Maybe we should be, I don't know, friends."
"But what if I did find you sexy?" Tony paced around the couch.
"In retrospect, much of our friendship would be a little bit creepy."
"I'd almost have to have been perving on you that time with the foam Jacuzzi." Tony grinned and Rhodey winced at the memory.
"Moving on. I thought you'd settled that you weren't into men? Pepper told me you'd definitely made up your mind and we shouldn't nag you about it. I told her I'd been not nagging you about fucking men for years, so. This is about Steve, right?"
"Maybe we could reclassify Steve as a woman."
"That fact you're even having to say that - "
"I know," and Tony plopped down into Rhodey's lap, narrowly avoiding beer all over his suit. "Give me a hug, big boy."
"If the word sexy passes your lips at any point," he warned, and Tony snickered. He leaned into Rhodey's hug, and sighed.
"I'm too old for a crisis of sexuality," he mumbled. "I'm the least repressed person you could meet, right?"
"Sure, Tony." Rhodey ruffled his hair. "Why don't I get you a blanket, and you can sleep it off?"
Two days later, he ran into Steve in the kitchen at 5am; Steve was just getting up, and Tony was still awake.
"You never come see me any more," he accused. Steve gave him a small smile.
"I didn't know if you'd want to see me."
"I always want to see you," Tony admitted, and sidled round the counter. Steve turned to watch him, and then extended an arm towards him.
"You look exhausted," he said, and hooked his hand round Tony's waist. Tony let himself be tugged closer. Any structures of denial he'd managed to reconstruct crumbled to dust at the feeling of Steve's shoulder under his cheek, and he sighed and leaned in. Steve was so warm. He ran his hands over Steve's back, feeling the muscles shift as Steve moved to get both arms round him.
His heart was beating faster, just from Steve's loose embrace. Pathetic.
"You should go to bed." Steve's hand rubbed a small circle on his back.
Tony turned his head, and studied the curve of his cheek, the downcast eyes with long pale lashes. His mouth was turned up at the corner.
"Your bed?" he murmured, and watched colour blossom in his cheeks.
"If you want."
"I really do." The painful ache in his gut loosened with the admission. "Steve, I - can't stop thinking about you."
"Me too." Steve kissed the corner of his mouth, and Tony dabbed his tongue out, and there was an awkward moment when they weren't quite kissing, and then an awkward moment when they were. They broke apart and Tony expected more awkwardness but Steve was smiling and Tony had to smile back too.
"I just want to say," Tony tugged on Steve's shirt to emphasise his words. "I'm straight. I'm just making an exception for Captain America. Because I am so very patriotic."
"I'd rather you had a Steve Rogers exception." Steve hugged him tighter.
"Well," Tony pressed his smile against the smooth column of Steve's neck. "Well, maybe that would be safer."
Steve's head turned towards his, eyes slitting open very slightly. There was a pause, and Tony realised Steve wasn't going to kiss him this time. Fine, Tony could take care of that. He rubbed his fingertips through the fine short hair at the base of Steve's skull and watched his eyes droop shut. He was so responsive; Tony could feel something hot uncurl in his belly, thinking how Steve would move under his hands, how Tony would drag moans out of him -
He tugged, and Steve's head dropped obediently to his, soft lips ready parted for a slick, dirty kiss. His breath caught when Tony's tongue slid into his mouth, and his arms tightened around Tony's waist.
"I'm going," Tony mumbled, their lips moving wet together. "I'm going to do really fucking filthy things to you, Steve. Jesus."
Steve shuddered, a full-body thing, and then said, "I've never done this before, you know."
"Well." Tony dropped his head to Steve's shoulder. "In due course, in the fullness of time. Filthy things. In the meantime, there was talk of going to bed. Let's go - cuddle or something."
"Yeah?" Steve turned them towards the door, towards the stairs, towards the bedroom, where Tony was already planning to wrap himself around Steve like a vine and never let go. "I can do cuddle."
"In that case, I'm going to be the best cuddle you ever had," Tony assured him as they started up the stairs. "You'll never forget this cuddle, Rogers, it will haunt your dreams."
"I can live with that," Steve agreed, and kissed him again.