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Toy Soldiers

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Steve maybe didn't think this all the way through.

When he told Sam and Bucky to shut their pug faces, that he could totally score the number of the hot guy in the corner, he hadn't realized several things:

a) The hot guy in the corner was Tony Stark
b) They'd actually make him put up or shut up
c) The hot guy in the corner was so painfully hot up close.

He could see Sam and Bucky and Peggy all sitting at the end of the bar, watching him, so it wasn't like he could just tell them the hot guy in the corner got up and left before he got there.

And it wasn't that he thought he had no shot at all, but traditionally this kind of thing hadn't gone well for him. The fact the man was famous and therefore used to this kind of thing wasn't exactly helping his odds.

Tony Stark wasn't a tall man, but he was still taller than Steve, especially perched on a bar stool. When Steve sidled up to the bar next to him, leaning over as if to get the bartender's attention, he barely came up to Stark's chin.

He had a plan, though, and after all, the worst that would happen was getting shot down, which he had some experience with. He waited until he might convincingly have become impatient with the lack of service, and then sighed and leaned his elbows on the bar, turning his head a little.

"Hi there," he said to Stark, who had a half-full glass of what looked like scotch and a thoughtful look on his face. Stark glanced at him and nodded, a hint of a smile on his face. "Hey, can I ask you a favor?"

The smile turned sour, and Stark's eyes narrowed.

"Nothin' much," Steve said hastily. "I bet my pals at the other end of the bar I could could sweet-talk you into giving me your phone number."

Stark snorted. "Nice line, but that's not happening."

"Oh, I know. Sorry, I didn't realize you were rockstar famous from across the room," Steve said, and the narrowed eyes opened a little wider. "I mean, even if you were interested in a guy like me, I'm sure there are security concerns. No offense. You're way out of my league. I don't need your actual number."

"Then I'm failing to see what favor you want," Stark said, but he sounded more friendly now.

"Oh, nothing much, just a number -- not yours, just any number that comes to mind," Steve said.

"That's not gonna help much when you get back to your friends."

"Getting a fake number beats no number at all," Steve said. "They might not check. Anyway, there's a tragic nobility to being faked out by Tony Stark."

"Yeah, that's fair," Stark said, amused. "Fine, you have something to write with?"

"Sure," Steve replied, taking a napkin from behind the bar and offering it to him, along with a graphite stick in a pencil holder from his pocket. Stark looked at it, perplexed.

"You're a draftsman?" he asked.

"Art student," Steve said.

"How the hell old are you?"

"Twenty-six," Steve said, laughing. "I'm a grad student."

"I should card you," Stark said, but he was openly smiling now, scribbling a series of numbers on the napkin with the pencil. "What's your name?"

"Steve," Steve said. "Steve Rogers. Thanks, you probably just won me a free beer."

"Don't drink it all in one place, you look like you'd fall over in a strong breeze."

"I'm stronger than I look."

Stark swept him, head to toe, in a way that made Steve's face heat. "I bet you are. A regular Captain America underneath, huh?" he added, nodding at the Army shirt he was wearing, one of Bucky's old castoffs.

Steve felt himself smiling back. "Something like that. Nice to meet you, Mr. Stark," he said, and was about to turn away when a hand caught the back of his head, tugging him up, and Tony Stark kissed him.

"Authenticity," Stark said against his lips, then licked the tip of his nose and let him go. Steve let out a surprised huff.

"Thanks," he said, and strutted back to the other end of the bar, where Peggy and Sam were having fits. Bucky was rolling his eyes.

"Read it and weep and buy me a beer, fellas," Steve said, as Peggy punched him in the arm.

"I'm not putting out until I know it's real," Sam said, grabbing the napkin.

"Sam, come on -- "

"No, I think he's right, you're a little con-man," Bucky said, laughing and slinging his good arm around Steve's neck, pulling Steve's phone out of his pocket and tossing it to Sam. "For all we know, you paid him. Not that you'd have to, he's rolling in it."

"Did you know it was Tony Stark?" Steve asked.

"Should've checked twice before you bragged, Rogers," Peggy drawled, as Sam dialed the number. Steve rolled his eyes and prepared to act chagrined when the number failed, but then he saw Stark at the other end of the bar, taking his phone out of his pocket. He looked up, locked eyes with Steve, held the phone up to his ear, and said hello.

Sam's jaw dropped, his eyes widened, and he almost let go of the phone. After a second, he collected himself, stammered out a few words, listened as Stark said another few words, and then hung up.

"Son of a bitch," he said, turning to Steve. "What'd you tell him?"

"That I'm stronger than I look," Steve said, just as stunned. "What'd he say?"

"He said to tell you thanks, now he's got your number too," Sam said, just as the bartender approached.

"From the guy in the corner, his compliments," the man told them, setting a huge beer in front of Steve. He put out three shot glasses as well. "Said to say those are for your friends," he added, and Steve caught Stark winking as he poured out little shots for Peggy and Sam and Bucky. As Sam returned his phone, a text message popped up.

Hey artist, wanna be my kept man? Let me buy you dinner sometime. Leave the friends at home.

Steve swallowed, blinked, and texted back I don't like being kept but I don't mind being fed.

Sure thing, Captain America, Stark replied, and when Steve looked up, he put his hand up to his head, thumb and pinky extended, and mouthed, call me.

***

"So," Natasha said, not twenty-four hours after Incident At The Bar.

"Don't even start," Steve told her, as he checked his parachute straps.

"I'm not starting anything," Natasha replied, putting her comm in.

"Good," Steve said, glaring darkly at Peggy across the loading bay of the plane, because he knew who had told Natasha about his little cellphone adventure.

"I'm just saying," Natasha began, and Steve groaned. "I'm just saying, I try to set you up with every eligible single person at SHIELD who would be interested in you and isn't a creep, and you pick up Tony Stark at a bar?"

"I didn't pick him up at a bar, we just talked," Steve said. "And most of the people you think are interested in me aren't actually interested in me."

"That's not true, the girl with the lip piercing thinks you're delightful," Peggy said, checking her guns.

"She did think you were cute," Natasha agreed.

"She thinks I'm twelve," Steve complained. "Everyone thinks I'm twelve. Everyone thinks I'm a twelve-year-old analyst. It's because they never let me do any training for the new recruits."

"Well, darling, it's humiliating, being broken over the knee of a twelve-year-old analyst," Peggy said sweetly.

"You don't get to talk anymore," Steve decided.

"Hey kids, we're near the drop," Clint said from the pilot's seat. "Radio check, please."

"Black Widow check," Natasha said.

"Sparrowhawk check," Peggy said.

"And Nomad check," Steve finished.

"Okay, we're good," Clint confirmed.

"So are you going out with him, or what?" Natasha asked.

"Your fascination with my love life is bordering on the insane," Steve said.

"I'm not fascinated with your love life. It's your sex life that fascinates and bewilders me," Natasha said.

"That's not true, you've told me you just want me to be happy."

"Yes, happy and well-laid."

"Sex isn't everything," Steve said.

"Well, now I'm bewildered," Clint put in. "We're over the drop. If you're gonna go, go now."

"If you'll excuse me, I have a mission," Steve told them, opening the launch door.

"We have a mission," Peggy said. "Steve, don't you dare leap without -- "

Steve leaned out the door and leapt, happy to be in the air for a few minutes, the plummet and the cold distracting him from the embarrassment of Natasha's continued attempts to set him up. It was well intentioned, he knew, but being rejected by everyone in SHIELD because they couldn't see past his size -- because half of SHIELD still wondered why a short, skinny, hollow-cheeked waif hung out with the field agents -- was just so humiliating.

Still trying to prove yourself, Bucky's voice chided in his head. When'll it be enough, Steve? When you get yourself killed on a mission, somewhere you shouldn't be, and SHIELD won't even admit you ever existed?

He popped his chute and drifted down in the night sky, landing in a forest clearing. By the time Natasha and Peggy caught up to him, he'd packed up his chute and was checking his boots. They had a six-mile jog through rough terrain before they'd reach the farmhouse where a couple of ambassadors' kids were supposedly being held hostage, according to intel. He didn't want Natasha and Peggy, who had longer legs than him, to leave him behind.

"Are you going to see him?" Natasha asked, tightening her pack.

"We're having dinner this week," Steve said. "I'm supposed to call him to set it up."

Natasha gave him a dry look, then looked to Peggy.

"I'll make sure he calls," Peggy said.

"You are both traitors and I don't know why I like you," Steve told them, and took off jogging.

***

"Oof," Tony grunted, when he tried to lift Steve up off the ground, late on Friday night. "What do you have in your pockets?"

Steve, comfortably snugged up against Tony, thighs around his hips and arms around his shoulders, undulated and grinned. "Told you I was stronger than I look."

"Holy shit," Tony said, stumbling them up against one of the big glass walls of the penthouse. He slid his hands down to grasp Steve's thighs. "I have an entirely new motivation for taking off your clothes."

"Not stopping you," Steve said, nuzzling his neck. He tightened his thighs, holding himself up using the glass so that Tony could use both hands to open his shirt.

This was by far the best first date of his life. He hadn't had many, but still.

Tony started to laugh, a low rumble in his chest that built along the column of his throat, and Steve jerked back, almost on the verge of being offended. He looked up to find Tony gazing at the tattoo on his pec, glee crinkling his eyes.

"I thought Captain America was just a cute nickname," he managed, pointing to the Cap shield on Steve's chest, and Steve stuck out his tongue.

"You makin' fun of my patriotism?" he asked, rolling his hips. Tony kissed him, warm and open, groaning into it. Tony had called him Captain America twice during a very expensive dinner, and Steve had allowed it because it gave him a pleasant warmth inside, and because Tony was…

Well, Tony was just fun. Steve had rarely been out with anyone who was so much fun. Tony was smart and well-read and had an easy way about him that soothed Steve's nerves over the date almost instantly. Between the food and the wine and the long moonlit walk back to the entire building Tony Stark owned, he'd had an honest good time. And when they'd reached the Tower, Tony had seemed oddly like he expected Steve to thank him and walk away. Which was, truly, Steve's general reaction to first dates.

Instead he'd kissed him and asked if Tony could scare up some coffee in that big building of his, and Tony had looked delighted, and now here they were.

They'd skipped the coffee.

"I love a patriot," Tony said, hitching Steve a little higher before pushing the shirt off his shoulders. Steve wriggled, sliding the shirt down his back. "I'm very patriotic myself. Are you sure you're not a professional gymnast?" he added, fingers tucked in the back of Steve's pants.

"Little guys gotta be able to protect themselves," Steve said, arching away from the glass. Tony took the hint and stepped back, stumbling them both into the bedroom. He laid Steve down on the bed but Steve kept his thighs locked around his hips, arching, bringing his erection up against Tony's through their clothes.

"Jesus, you're beautiful," Tony mumbled, hips jerking, propping himself on his arms over Steve's shoulders. Steve pulled his shirt off over his head and ran his hands down Tony's thick barrel-chest, the soft indents of his abs. "What do you want, sweetheart?" Tony asked, as Steve undid his belt buckle.

"Don't usually move this fast," Steve admitted, tossing his belt aside. "What do you like? Can I ride you?"

Tony's hips jerked against him again, and Steve let go of him so he could take his pants off. When Tony lay down on the bed, Steve rolled over and crawled up his body, shedding his own pants (a size too big anyway, he really would have to buy some clothes that weren't his SHIELD-issued catsuit or Bucky's hand-me-alongs) and straddling Tony's hips. Tony's hands came to rest on his waist, big warm hands, sliding up and down from ribcage to thigh.

"You really are solid muscle," Tony murmured, fingers tightening for emphasis.

"Is that okay?" Steve asked uncertainly. He knew he was a stringy, wiry kind of muscular, body designed for speed and leverage rather than brute force. Maybe Tony liked smooth bodies, maybe he'd been hoping Steve would have slim arms, soft thighs --

"Very okay, baby," Tony said, pushing himself up to kiss him. "Bet you could throw me across the room."

You have no idea, Steve thought, but he just looked down at Tony, eyelids lowering a little, and asked, "Lube?"

As sweet-talk went, it was lacking, but it did get a pretty great reaction regardless.

He thought maybe he should have gotten on his knees, face buried in the blankets so he could feel Tony over and around him -- Tony seemed huge, especially the big hands opening him up, and the erection hot and thick against his thigh -- but then he knelt up and sank down slowly and decided this was better, this was perfect. Tony bucked underneath him, groaning, and Steve held onto his shoulders and undulated again, enjoying the last soft burn of stretch as he took Tony inside him. It was satisfying, on a very primal level, to make the man beneath him sweat, to make Tony thrust up so hard he had to focus on not getting thrown off. Thrilling to be in control, especially to watch Tony come under him, eyes fluttering shut, and to come with Tony's hand around his cock, all over Tony's belly.

Steve came down off the high of orgasm slowly, tumbling awkwardly into the bed and tucking himself up under Tony's arm, pressing his nose to one thick pectoral.

"You are a fucking spitfire," Tony said, and Steve noticed the fingernail-scratches, red against Tony's tan skin, that he'd left all along his chest. "What are they teaching you in art school?"

"Anatomy," Steve said, and buried his laughter in Tony's skin as Tony scruffed the back of his head. "You liked it, huh?"

"You need to ask?" Tony said, eyes closing.

"Well, I don't do this much. Sometimes it's hard to tell," Steve said hesitantly.

"Then I appreciate the honor," Tony said. "Though admittedly even if your standards are high, I'm quite the catch."

"And so modest, too," Steve replied. "It's not usually my standards that are the issue."

"Yeah, I remember," Tony said.

"Remember what?"

"In the bar? You said you weren't even in my league. Made me like you, actually, that you didn't seem to think you deserved anything from me," Tony replied. "Everyone thinks they're entitled to something from me."

"I wanted your phone number."

"You didn't even expect that. You were so polite about it, like I was a real person to you. And you didn't know it was me when you made that bet. I'm gonna have to thank your friends, by the way. Do they like cars?"

"Don't buy any of my friends a car."

"Too much?"

"No, they're terrible drivers that don't deserve nice cars."

Tony laughed, one hand still cradling Steve's head.

"People seriously turn you down?" he asked, thumb rubbing Steve's temple.

"Well, I'm short, and I know I don't dress that nicely, and it's not like art students make a ton of money," Steve said.

"Huh," Tony answered. He sounded sleepy. "So you can't get laid and I can't get anything but."

"Anything but?" Steve asked, propping his chin on Tony's shoulder. It was a dick move; he had a bony chin, and he was propping it on a nerve cluster, but he didn't want Tony to sleep just yet. Tony twitched awake.

"Did I use my outside voice for that?" he asked, looking down at Steve. "It's the poor little rich boy predicament. Woe is me, everyone wants to fuck me."

Steve pushed himself up on an elbow. "Nobody wants to be with you," he concluded. Tony nodded. "That's awful, Tony."

"Nobody's looking for your pity, Rogers," Tony said lightly, but there was an edge to it. Steve frowned, cupping Tony's face with one hand, fingers tracing the edge of his beard.

"I have a hard time pitying a witty billionaire with a cute goatee," he said. Tony's eyes flicked up to him. "I don't need your money and I'm not impressed with your fame, but I like the way you talk," he continued, lowering himself down on Tony's chest, mouth against one clavicle. "I like your body. I like your hands. I think you're funny, and I suspect you could be kind."

One of Tony's hands raised to rest on his shoulder, as if Tony wasn't sure what to do with this.

"I don't fall into bed with people I don't intend to see again," Steve continued. "Ask anyone. They made me try to get your number because they knew it's not really my thing, and that I'd be bad at it. I'd like to see you again after today."

"You might not think that the first time the press takes your picture doing the walk of shame," Tony replied.

"I don't believe in the walk of shame, and I don't care who takes my picture," Steve said, though that could become an issue. He didn't do much actual undercover work anymore; he was just so terrible at it. But if his face was all over, his handler at SHIELD might be pissy. Might make Tony's life harder, too, eventually. Still, he'd deal with that when and if he had to. He was, after all, very good at stealth. "Can I stay the night? Will you make me breakfast?"

Tony's laugh was a deep reverberation in his chest. "I can't cook."

"Will you take me out to breakfast, then? Can I see you next week?"

"I'm in Malibu, at the west coast plant. I leave Wednesday."

"Tuesday night?"

"Persistent mouse, aren't you?" Tony asked, but his body was easier than it had been, the tension melting out of his muscle. "You want me to take you to dinner Tuesday night?"

"Yes. There's a place in Brooklyn you'll like. Really good Cuban," Steve said.

"You want me to haul my ass out to Brooklyn for you?"

"I live in Brooklyn. I want you to haul your butt out to Brooklyn and let me buy you the best roast pork you'll ever eat," Steve said, nipping his throat, "and then I want to take you back to my place and make you late for your flight in the morning."

"You drive a hard bargain, Captain America," Tony said.

"I'm notoriously stubborn," Steve replied.

"Sure, okay. Stay the night. We'll see about Tuesday," Tony replied, and Steve settled down against him again, slinging a leg over his knees and an arm around his waist, as far as they would reach. "I was wrong. You're not a mouse, you're an octopus."

"You're buying me breakfast, don't forget," Steve said, and smiled when he felt the rumble of Tony's laughter under his cheek again.

***

The next morning, Steve was emerging from the shower and considering texting…well, everyone he knew, though he wouldn't, because he was a gentleman…when he heard a hissed breath from the heap of blankets where Tony was still collapsed.

"Did I do that?" Tony asked, and Steve twisted around to follow his gaze. He could, just barely, see bruises on his hips, and Tony had done those, but there were two big purple splotches higher up where the hostage-takers had put up a fight.

"I bruise like a ripe pear," he said, grinning at Tony. "The big ones are a couple days old. Fell off my bike."

"And into a wolverine pit?" Tony asked, pushing himself upright.

"It's nothing," Steve said. "You should see me when I get punched in the face."

Tony gaped at him. "Does that happen much?"

"Once in a while. I tend to pick fights. Bucky says I'm three hundred pounds of attitude in a hundred pounds of me," Steve said.

"Bucky, that's your buddy from the bar?"

"Sam's the one who called you, but yeah, Bucky was there. He spent most of our childhood pulling me out of trouble." Steve stepped into his trousers, hopping a little for balance. "Taught me to fight, too. I can hold my own."

"I believe it," Tony said, and Steve caught him leering. "Let's wrestle sometime."

"Don't be crude," Steve told him, but he did cross to where Tony was lying, bending to kiss him and smooth down his wild bedhead. "Come on, up and at ‘em; I was promised breakfast."

"I don't think I promised anything," Tony grumbled, but Steve tugged him up and towed him out of bed as far as the bathroom. "I'd shower faster if you were in here with me!" he called through the bathroom door.

"That's a grave untruth!" Steve called back, but he smiled to himself, satisfied and maybe a little smug, as he pulled on his shirt and checked his phone. He had a text from Bucky.

Text by 9am or I'm coming over to see if he murdered you in your sleep, it read. If you murdered him in his sleep, I'll help you hide the body.

Steve texted back a photo of himself smiling, with Tony's amazing view of Manhattan in the background.

Nice work if you can get it, was the grumpy response.

***

Tony took Steve to one of the best breakfast places he'd ever been to, and by the time he'd crammed himself full of chicken and waffles, kissed Tony goodbye for ten or twenty minutes, and made his way back to Brooklyn on the empty Saturday-morning subway, Bucky was halfway through the crossword and Sam had hidden the sports page.

"Hail the conquering hero," Bucky drawled, as Steve let himself into Sam's apartment. (Technically Sam and Bucky's, Steve supposed, but he wasn't sure if Sam had realized Bucky had moved in, and Bucky himself was in denial about having moved in.) "You smell like expensive soap."

"Lay off, I think it's nice," Steve said. He caught the mug Sam tossed him and helped himself to some coffee.

"How's lover-boy?" Sam asked.

"He threatened to buy you a car out of gratitude," Steve said.

"You wouldn't let him?"

"You keep forgetting cars can't fly, it's a real problem," Steve informed him, sitting next to Bucky at the breakfast bar.

"He's got stars in his eyes," Bucky said to Sam.

"I noticed," Sam replied. "You gonna dish, Rogers, or did you just come here to drink my coffee and look smug?"

Steve wondered what he could tell them -- what was appropriate to tell them, but also what he wanted to share. He didn't have many lovers; he often felt like he wanted to keep them locked away to himself, for as long as they'd have him. Which generally wasn't long.

Peggy still held the record. At least they'd broken up because two bullheaded risk-takers in the relationship wasn't working, and not because she got tired of him.

He didn't want to be crass about Tony, or share intimacies that weren't his to tell. A man like Tony Stark lived enough of his life in the spotlight. But he did feel like if he didn't talk about it at least a little he'd burst. Besides, Bucky had kept more and stranger secrets for him, and Sam was discreet by nature and training.

"He's mooning," Sam said to Bucky, coming around the bar to lean on Bucky's shoulder and fix Steve with a sardonic gaze.

"I am here in the room, you know," Steve replied, stung.

"He's not asking for measurements, Stevie," Bucky said, without looking up from his crossword. "You had a good time?"

"Yes, actually, I did."

"You like him?" Sam asked. Steve bit down on the What are you, my ma? retort, because it wasn't exactly fair.

"I do. I think he likes me," he added.

"Stark's got a reputation," Bucky grunted.

"We didn't exchange promise rings, Buck," Steve chided.

"Promise rings," Bucky repeated, rolling his eyes. He glanced sidelong at Steve. "You gonna see him again?"

"Tuesday night, I'm taking him to that Cuban place."

"Ooh, the Cuban place," Sam said, and Steve shot him a suspicious look, but he seemed sincere.

"You gotta be careful around that one," Bucky continued. "He breaks your heart, I'm gonna break his fingers, and I could do serious jail time for assaulting a guy with his kind of pull."

"I can do my own finger-breaking, thanks," Steve said, idly scratching his tattoo through his shirt, remembering Tony's smile when he saw it. "So can I spend the morning here basking, or do you two want me to scram?"

"Mi casa," Sam said, spreading his hands. "Peggy's coming over later. Text Natasha, we can do movies."

Steve sometimes, a little wistfully, missed the days when he and Bucky lived together, back when Steve actually was an art student, before Bucky enlisted (and Steve was recruited). Sometimes he wanted to come over to Sam's and just never leave. At Sam's, with Bucky and more so lately with Sam, he didn't have to be the big guy, he didn't have to constantly be on the attack. He could curl up on the sofa for a movie marathon, make himself into a small, warm ball tucked against Bucky's side, let Natasha pet his hair when she thought he was asleep, and relax.

He wouldn't give up SHIELD for anything, but it was nice to be able to put it on the shelf for a night sometimes.

***

Sunday afternoon, Peggy got a call about a homegrown terror cell with a dirty bomb, and by Sunday night Steve was on a plane to Montana. Coulson had briefed them rather than passing the brief to Peggy, which meant Nick Fury was probably watching them on surveillance, and that always made Steve a little twitchy. He hadn't really paid as close attention as he should until Peggy and Coulson agreed that this was a one-man, stealth-infiltration job, and he found himself loading up with Clint and Natasha.

He wasn't even going to get to parachute in, not this time. For some reason this mission merited a minijet, which could put down just outside the compound with nobody the wiser. At least as long as the terrorists didn't have radar, and he was pretty sure they didn't.

His plan to silently and stealthily infiltrate the terrorist compound, disarm and steal the bomb, and make it out before anyone saw him lasted about as long as it took for the pressure plate under the bomb to trigger an alarm.

"Rookie mistake," Clint said in the comm in his ear, as the floodlights outside the compound buildings came on and the alarm blared all around him. "Mind's not on your work, Nomad."

"Well, hell," Steve sighed. He tucked the bomb in the slim bag strapped to his back, grabbed a garotte and a gun from the bag's inside compartment, and drew himself up against the wall. When the door burst open, he went to work.

It wasn't that Steve especially enjoyed incapacitating people. Not like Natasha, who took a sort of fierce glee in it, or Clint, who made it a game. Steve just liked a job well and efficiently done, and if that job was happening to a bunch of neo-Nazi white supremacists with face tattoos of the SS logo, well, he wasn't going to lose any sleep over it.

He took the first guy down using the garotte as a tripwire, tripped the second guy over the first, flipped over them to put two in the shoulders of the guy behind them, and drew a knife just in time to bury it in the haunch of the fourth guy as he stampeded over his buddies. After that they got wise and just started shooting through the door, so Steve tugged the garotte free, threw it over a low ceiling beam, pulled himself up the wall, and swung through the top of the door, landing on the guy trying to shoot him.

After that it got a little violent.

"Any time you feel like calling for a ride," Clint said, sounding bored. Steve swung himself into a handstand, locked his legs around the thigh of one of the terrorists still on his feet, and threw his whole body into a twist. The man's hip cracked, and he went down hard.

"Almost ready, Hawkeye," Steve replied.

"Your boyfriend texted, by the way."

"My what," Steve said flatly. He'd left his phone, per operational procedure, in his locker on the jet.

"Your phone beeped, Widow's nosy," Clint continued.

"He wants a selfie," Natasha said. "What should I tell him?"

"Ugh, why did you even -- just put the phone away, I'll send him one later," Steve said.

"What did you tell him you do for a living?" Clint asked.

"Art student," Steve replied. Clint laughed down the line. "Nomad for pickup in two, please, I'll be on the roof."

"You got it, Wild Thang," Clint said, and Steve sprang over the groaning bodies, heading for the industrial-looking spiral staircase at the center of the building. He made it up without incident, though it sounded like there were more guys on the way, and hit the roof just in time to catch the pickup rope Clint threw down to him. Clint also fired two shots past him, and Steve swung wildly as he went hand over hand up the rope.

"Thanks for the assist," he said, when he was inside the jet. He was breathing heavily, heart racing, lying on the floor where he'd tumbled, and he was bleeding in a couple of places. Could be worse, really.

"Don't send a selfie right now," Natasha said drily from the pilot's chair, as she got them out of the range of small arms fire. His phone landed on the floor next to him.

"You could send him a dick pic," Clint suggested helpfully. Steve made a halfhearted rude gesture. He supposed right now it might be his best option.

"What do people with normal relationships do in our situation?" he asked Clint.

"I dunno. Who do we know who has a normal relationship?" Clint asked Natasha, who shrugged. Steve sighed.

"You gonna get off the floor of the jet?" Clint asked.

"No. I'm gonna lie here with a dirty bomb poking me in the back until we get back to New York," Steve groaned, rolling over onto his face. He felt Clint pull the bag off his back, and about a minute later there was a small metallic snick.

"Dirty bomb no' mo'," Clint said triumphantly. Steve ignored him, pushing himself up to his elbows and studying the text on his phone.

Can't stop thinking about you, was charming. Send me a selfie I can show off to my PA a little less so.

Can't send a selfie, all my lightbulbs are burnt out, he texted back.

Tease, Tony said.

I'll look extra pretty on Tuesday to make up for it, Steve said, feeling daring. There was a long silence before Tony texted back.

I'm holding you to that.

"Are you seriously sexting a billionaire right now?" Natasha asked.

"There is literally no pleasing you," Steve replied.

"I do have very high standards," Natasha agreed solemnly.

***

Art of Tiny Steve by Chibiesque on Tumblr, originally posted here.

***

None of Steve's injuries were particularly awful, though he did have one graze on his arm that only escaped stitches because he insisted they use superglue instead. A huge purple bruise was blossoming around it by the time medical was done with him, but otherwise he felt pretty good. Satisfied, really. Nothing like beating on someone who unambiguously deserved it to really keep you limber.

One of the other injuries was on his face, though, so despite Tony's pestering via text, he staunchly refused to send a selfie. By Tuesday, the scrape on his cheek was mostly healed -- it could be passed off as road rash, though God knew Tony was going to think Steve didn't actually know how to ride a bike -- and Steve was more or less vibrating with nerves.

"I could put some foundation on it," Peggy said, as Sam and Natasha examined and discarded various items of clothing from Steve's closet. "It's a wonder anyone sees the rest of your face, what with those eyelashes," she added, chucking him affectionately under the chin.

"No mascara," Steve said.

"You don't need any."

"That hasn't traditionally stopped you from trying!"

"When did she try mascara on you? Are there pictures?" Natasha asked. "Steve, is your entire wardrobe stolen from Bucky?"

"Usually," Bucky called from the other side of the studio, where he was sitting on Steve's couch, watching the TV on mute and having no part of the fashion consultation.

"I own things," Steve protested feebly.

"You own a lot of khaki," Sam observed.

"Khaki's good urban camo, it blends right in."

"Foundation? Yes or no?" Peggy asked.

"I feel like having a scrape on my face is less strange than having inexplicable foundation on my face," Steve told her.

"You are exactly the kind of boy who would rub it off without thinking," she agreed.

"All of you will be gone by the time I get home tonight, right?" Steve asked, genuinely worried that Natasha and Sam were considering staying in his bedroom to reorganize his closet.

"I could live here for weeks and you'd never know," Natasha said.

"That's true, I think she did it to Sam once," Bucky called.

"You mean like you are, right this minute?" Steve asked, and then shut his mouth with a snap. Natasha and Peggy both glared at him. Sam just threw a plaid shirt (not Bucky's) out of the closet.

"You think I don't know his ass moved in?" Sam asked calmly. Steve craned his neck to see if Bucky was freaking out. He looked pale, but okay. "I gave him a key, I dropped all the hints. I can't do everything for him. You gotta find someone to sublet your place on your own," he added to Bucky.

"Did that last week," Bucky replied.

"Well, good, then you can start paying your half of the rent. I'm not your sugar daddy."

Steve made a quick brow-wiping gesture of relief at Peggy, whose face clearly said he had narrowly escaped a dire fate.

"Are these skinny jeans?" Natasha asked, holding up a pair of faded black jeans.

"No, those are from eighth grade," Steve said.

"Why do you still have them?"

"They still fit?"

She muttered something that sounded like disaster and set the jeans aside. "Sam?"

"I think I've assembled something," Sam said. "How do you feel about the prep look?"

Steve studied the clothes he'd set out -- a pair of khakis, a white dress shirt that might also have come from the eighth grade era of his wardrobe, a new(ish) blue sweater, and a pair of loafers.

"Okay, those aren't mine," Steve said, pointing at the shoes.

"Well, they're not mine," Bucky said, leaning over the back of the couch.

"Where did they come from?" Steve asked, mystified.

"Who cares?" Peggy asked.

"I care, there are strange shoes in my apartment! And I'm not wearing them," Steve added.

"It's this or one of a series of increasingly worrying combat boots," Natasha said.

"The brown combat boots are fine," Steve said, pulling his t-shirt off and shrugging into the dress shirt, then shedding his pants so he could put on the khakis. He tugged the sweater over his head, smoothed it down, and presented himself for inspection.

"Buck, tell me how I look," he called, and Bucky tipped his head back over the couch, his grin going kind and affectionate, a rare look even after months of being home.

"You look good, kid," he said, his voice warm, as Peggy smoothed Steve's hair down, fussing over the part. "You look better than a guy like Stark deserves."

"Well, Stark's who'll have me, apparently," Steve said, ducking out from under Peggy's ministrations.

"Then I guess he can't be a complete dumbass," Bucky said. "Decent taste in fellas, anyway."

Steve checked the clock and almost swore. "Do you think he minds his dates being late? I gotta go -- "

"The Cuban place is five minutes away, and I'm pretty sure he's never been on time in his life," Peggy said.

"Okay, so everyone can leave now," Steve said pointedly. "Thank you for your assistance, go, I don't want a chaperone escort."

Peggy and Natasha began preparing to go, and Sam tugged Bucky out of the couch, wrapping an arm around his waist.

"Call if he gets handsy," Bucky said, stopping to check in with Steve as he left. Steve gave him a reassuring smile.

"I promise I won't let anyone but you murder him," he replied, and Bucky nodded and let Sam hustle him out of the apartment. When everyone was gone, Steve sat down at his drafting table, let himself be anxious for a few minutes, and then resolutely went to put on his combat boots.

***

It was, Steve had to admit, a little hard to read Tony Stark. Granted, he hadn't had much practice yet, but he was a spy with a pretty high clearance level, and he liked to think he wasn't bad at cold reads.

Tony seemed to be having a genuinely good time at the Cuban place, which was a little hole-in-the-wall that Steve had never thought was particularly shabby until he was dining there with a billionaire. But Tony smiled, and seemed to eat him up with his eyes, and he certainly ate like he enjoyed the food. He had smears of engine grease on his arms, and he was even less dressed up than Steve.

But Steve suspected Tony almost always seemed genuine even when he wasn't, and he couldn't imagine this wasn't just a little bit outside Tony's comfort zone.

"You look nervous," Tony said, picking a long strip of pork out of his sandwich and popping it into his mouth. "You know I would literally be happy if we left right now and had crazy sex in the alley, right?"

"You can't just say that in here!" Steve said, scandalized. "This is a family restaurant!"

"Too late now," Tony replied, grinning at him. "By the way, you're busted."

"Busted?" Steve asked anxiously.

"Your aversion to selfies isn't because you're a modest and retiring individual. You just didn't want me to see your latest wolverine encounter," Tony said, pointing at his cheek.

"You should know sooner rather than later that I'm a little accident prone," Steve replied.

He could literally see Tony gearing up for a "trip and fall on my dick" remark, and he reached across the table, resting two fingers on Tony's lips. "Don't say it."

"See?" Tony said, nipping the pad of one finger lightly before leaning back. "Already finishing each others' thoughts."

"Are you going to finish your sandwich?" Steve asked, eyeing the remains of it hungrily. He hadn't been able to eat much for lunch, nerves about the date making him queasy in a way parachuting into hostile foreign territory never had. (You knew what to expect with hostile foreign territory.) Now he was starving, and Tony was looking indulgent.

"Go for it," he said, leaning forward again to nudge his plate across. Steve took a huge bite of it, flattered and a little confused when Tony rested his chin on one hand, watching him.

"What?" he asked, newly self-conscious.

"I don't go on many second dates," Tony said, which surprised him.

"Why not? You can't be wanting on offers."

"I bore easily, which I acknowledge is a pretty terrible thing to say, and most people seem a lot more determined to charm me than you are."

"I'm...not un-determined," Steve ventured.

"No, but you're not going to let it get in the way of doing what you want to do. It's rare to find someone who isn't eager to change themselves for me."

"Probably why you get bored easily," Steve said, pleased now that he understood. "You're a very charismatic man. I don't think everyone could possibly have been after your money. At least some of them probably wanted you for your body."

Tony laughed. "And you?"

"Now you're fishing for compliments, and I don't bite that easily," Steve said.

"Would you bite if I asked nicely?" Tony asked, voice dropping.

"Guess you'll have to ask nicely and find out," Steve said, as he wiped his fingers and stood up. "Still interested in seeing how the other half lives?"

"I'll have you know I had a very strict budget in college," Tony told him, letting his arm fall around Steve's shoulders as they ducked out of the restaurant. He pulled him in close, a little possessive as they walked along, and Steve leaned against his side, enjoying it.

He lived at the top of a three-floor walkup, which wasn't too bad as housing went, though he realized his mistake as soon as he opened the door. Clothing was still strewn everywhere across the other end of the studio, and the mystery loafers were sitting under his drafting table.

He heard Tony say "Wow" and was about to make an excuse about some kind of...robbery, maybe, but Tony just made a beeline for the opposite wall, where his old art school work was haphazardly hung.

"You actually have etchings. I was gonna make a joke, but there they are," Tony said, studying the framed art intently. Some of it was sketches -- the best of his life study portfolio, including a perhaps more erotic than he'd realized nude of Peggy -- but most were lino prints from his art deco phase.

"They're old," he said, uncertain how to handle this, busying himself with bundling the clothing off his bed and back into his closet in a giant heap. "College stuff. Undergrad."

"Do you still do prints?" Tony asked.

"No, mostly it's sketching now," Steve said, thinking of the shoebox of comics that were most of the art he'd done recently. Funny little stories drawn on backs of reports during mission downtime, doodles to entertain Bucky, heroic sketches of Captain America.

"These are great. Is this a schematic?" Tony asked, gesturing at one that was a mass of angular gears and abstract dials.

"Should have known you'd gravitate to the machines," Steve said, coming over to join him. "Steampunk was just getting big, I thought I'd give it a try. Teachers hated it."

He'd done that one right before Bucky enlisted, a month or two before he himself was recruited from a parking lot where he was (for once) winning a fight against a guy who said he was too short to join the Army, but he should consider the Girl Scouts.

"I like it. Sort of like if Dali fucked Da Vinci," Tony said.

"Thanks, I think?"

"It was a compliment," Tony assured him. "I hear art school is brutal."

"Isn't so bad. Gives you a tough skin," Steve said, leaning up just a little to kiss Tony's bare nape, then nip it with his teeth. "We can talk art if you want, but I had a few ideas after I left on Saturday."

"And I didn't even have to ask nicely," Tony murmured, turning around. He tipped Steve's chin up with his fingers and kissed him, eyes open, watching for his reaction (probably for the blush -- he seemed to like the blush). "I'm in your hands. Tell me these ideas."

***

Tony was gone when Steve woke up in the morning, but considering he woke at eleven, pleasantly sore and with bite marks peppered across his shoulders, he figured Tony had the right to leave before he was awake. He did have a plane to catch, Steve remembered.

He was half-dressed, yawning and scratching himself on the way to the shower, when there was a knock at the door. Nearly everyone he knew either came in without knocking or would never come to his apartment. He hesitated, then decided anyone trying to kill him wouldn't knock, and peered through the door's peep-hole. On the other side was a nervous looking man in a chef's smock, with a bag in one hand. Perplexed, Steve opened the door.

"Steve Rogers?" the man asked.

"Yes..." Steve said.

"Mr. Stark sent me. He said to say he's extremely sorry he forgot to leave a note, and he wants to make sure you eat a nutritious breakfast," the man recited. Steve squinted.

"Okay, well, gimme a second, I can come up with a tip...." he said, wondering where his wallet was.

"Oh, that's taken care of," the man said. "I'm, uh, I'm not a delivery driver. I'm here to cook it for you," he said, holding up the bag.

"Cook it?" Steve asked.

"I'm Mr. Stark's Manhattan chef. He wanted to make sure you understood he didn't mean to forget to leave a note."

"Do you do this often?" Steve asked, beginning to be both amused and appalled.

"No, this is a first for me," the man admitted. "I have an assortment of breakfast meats, or I can make pancakes, muffins, fruit salad..."

"Okay, well, you trooped all the way out here," Steve said, standing back. "Come in. Actually if you could make some coffee, there's beans in the freezer, that'd be great."

"What else would you like?" the man asked, looking relieved.

"God, no, I'm not going to make you cook in my kitchen," Steve said. "Just, put the coffee on and take a load off, I need a shower."

"But Mr. Stark said -- "

"Mr. Stark knows I'm capable of feeding myself," Steve said gently. "Tell him you made me apple turnovers for all I care. Don't do the crossword!" he added, as he grabbed his phone and disappeared into the bathroom.

Then he sat down on the edge of the tub and called Tony.

"Did my breakfast arrive?" Tony asked, instead of saying Hello. "I swear to God, I meant to leave a note."

"I knew you had a plane to catch," Steve pointed out. "You are drastically overreacting."

"Yeah, that's pretty much my default state," Tony replied. "What's he making you?"

"Coffee, and then he's going home, because I don't like strangers in my kitchen."

"Oh," Tony said, sounding faintly upset.

"It was a very sweet gesture," Steve said. "I'm not angry, Tony, just not used to chefs showing up to make me breakfast."

"I can't cook."

"I think we discussed that. I promise I don't expect you to."

"You should eat more."

Steve laughed. "Tony. Enjoy Malibu. Send me some pictures of you doing whatever it is you do in California. I'll see you when you're back in Manhattan. I'll come over to your place and he can cook for both of us."

"Tell him if you're allergic to stuff."

"I'm allergic to a lot, I'll print him out a list," Steve said ruefully. "Hey, Tony."

"Yeah?"

"Don't with the grand sweeping gestures, okay? I'm a simple guy and most people don't even get as far as you have. I'm not gonna walk the first time you screw up."

Tony huffed out a breath. "Promise?" he asked sardonically, but there was a hint of entreaty underneath it.

"I promise. Now catch your plane or whatever."

"I'm already over Utah."

"Private jet?"

"I swear I won't send it to fly you out to Malibu when I get lonely."

"Good man. I'll talk to you later, okay?"

By the time he got out of the shower, there were sausage links cooking in his frying pan, and the chef was putting a cookie sheet in the oven.

"Apple turnovers?" Steve asked, resigned.

"Mr. Stark insisted."

"All right. Well, stick around until they're done, then you can eat too," Steve said, heading for the couch. "You mind if I put the news on?"

***

Steve made up for his earlier refusal to send selfies by sending Tony at least one a day while he was in Malibu, which had the additional benefit of calming Tony the hell down. It became evident to Steve fairly quickly that if Tony dumped him, he could just go on with his life, having learned self-sufficiency young. But if he dumped Tony, who didn't have a lot of experience with rejection in actual relationships, there might be permanent ego damage involved. It was a good situation for him, he supposed, but he resolved to keep an eye on that particular dysfunction.

Tony was in Malibu for the better part of two weeks. He attended at least two charity galas, and there were photographs here and there of him with various women on his arm, but Steve knew it was all puff; if People Magazine didn't have a story they'd invent one. He didn't think he was in a position to demand monogamy after only two dates, and anyway, even Tony didn't have the vigor required to cheat on him with five separate women over the course of two dinner galas.

Besides, when Tony came back to New York, Steve hitched a ride out to the airport in the limo with Happy. On the ride back into the city, Tony put the privacy panel up and made a concerted effort to prove to Steve how earnest he was.

After the best and certainly the most mobile blow job of his life, lying on one of the limo's bench seats, Tony half-dressed on top of his chest, Steve said, "So I guess you missed me?"

Tony, who hadn't actually gotten off yet, squirmed against him and nuzzled his neck. "Next time I'll put you in my pocket and take you with me."

"Funny," Steve said, even as he enjoyed the dense weight of Tony on his body. "So, no roving escapades in California?"

"Were you worried?" Tony asked.

"Lots of pretty ladies. I wouldn't exactly blame you."

"They were pretty," Tony said thoughtfully, wriggling his pants down to his thighs. Steve slid a hand down between them, and Tony groaned. "Didn't really cross my mind."

"Good," Steve said, pleased, and Tony whined between his teeth, bucking.

"Felt very bohemian, you know," Tony gasped, and Steve braced him from tumbling off the narrow seat with a well-timed thigh. "Thinking about my artist lover in New York."

"Think how I feel," Steve said. "Did you imagine you were my patron?"

Tony laughed around a groan. "I am now."

"Mm." Steve tightened his fingers a little. "Does that mean I get to draw you naked?"

"Do you want to?"

"What makes you think I haven't already?" Steve asked, licking the curve of Tony's ear, and Tony stiffened, breath a bare hiss as he came. He was quiet for a few minutes, breathing deep and fast as he lay still half-atop Steve.

"Come have dinner with me," he managed eventually, rolling off Steve and reaching for napkins in the minibar.

"Well, I wasn't planning on dropping you off and going out for a night at the clubs," Steve said, cleaning himself up. He hitched his pants up over his hips, re-buttoning the shirt Natasha had made him buy while Tony was out of town. "Besides, now your chef has a list of my allergies."

"What are you allergic to, anyway?" Tony asked. He didn't bother putting his own shirt back on, but he did start work on mixing what looked like a martini.

"Lots," Steve sighed. "Peanuts, pine nuts, whitefish, shellfish, soy...cats..."

"So, no lobster pesto."

"I don't much care for fancy food," Steve shrugged. "Give me a steak or a slice of pizza and I'm a happy man."

"Steak! Now we're talking," Tony said, as Steve settled his shirt over his shoulders. The car slowed, and Happy's voice clicked over the intercom.

"Coming up on home, Boss," he said. "Want me to take a loop around the park?"

"Not necessary," Tony said, as Steve fought a furious blush. "Very considerate of you to offer, Happy."

Steve failed to make eye contact with Happy as they left the car and took the elevator up to the penthouse, but he figured Happy probably wouldn't mind; they'd met when Steve was loading the chef back into the car for the trip home, and Happy seemed like a nice guy. Steve supposed a guy who spent as much time with Tony as Happy did had to be pretty tolerant.

When Steve and Tony arrived at the penthouse, there was a tall, strawberry-blond woman waiting for them, and Tony lit up at the sight of her.

"Pepper!" he said, sounding pleased. "Steve, this is Pepper, she runs my life and curates my art collection. Pepper, this is Steve."

"The artist," Pepper said, and Steve found himself shaking hands, feeling...well, kind of short, in comparison. "Such a pleasure, Steve. Tony talks about you in a way that makes me nervous for you."

"Good to know," Steve managed. She was like some kind of brusque Amazon, and clearly someone important in Tony's life.

"You should see Tony's art collection while you're here -- what's out on display, anyway," she continued. "Tony, I need three signatures and one decision from you."

"That's pretty good," Tony replied, taking the stylus she offered him and tapping away on a pad. "Signed, signed, signed, and....no."

"No?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.

"No. It's unethical," Tony said, and Steve wondered if he should be witnessing this.

"I'll let Obadiah know," she said with a smile that told both men she clearly thought Tony had made the right call. "He'll be mad."

"Heaven forbid. I think I can take Obie at his maddest."

"Well, just brace for it. Very nice to meet you, Steve. Have Tony show you the Demuth."

"You have a Demuth?" Steve asked, when she was gone.

"Steaks first," Tony said with a grin. "The Demuth's in the bedroom."

***

In the next few months, his relationship with Tony came to occupy a strange liminal space in Steve's life. It was not quite a part of it but not quite separate, and he was wise enough to know he wasn't quite a part of Tony's life, either. Tony, to be fair, was trying to protect him -- from the media circus, from the demands of his company, from the reality that what he did was design killing machines for a living. Steve didn't especially mind the latter -- he practically was a killing machine himself, so he understood -- but it seemed to gnaw at Tony. Steve wondered if the party-boy image, the charity galas, the occasionally worrying drinking, were all because Tony didn't really seem to like his job much.

There were wide stretches of his life that Tony didn't intrude into, either. He'd met Steve's friends, but only briefly; his schedule didn't leave a lot of leisure time, and Steve did kind of like to give Tony all his attention when he was free. It seemed like it would be sort of unhealthy, but it worked for them. And aside from the occasional three am booty call where Tony would show up on his doorstep smelling like scotch, he was pretty respectful of Steve's time.

Certainly he never complained when Steve was randomly unavailable, even if he didn't know it was because Steve was, say, in China playing bodyguard to a delegation of SHIELD agents attending an international law enforcement conference.

Steve was honestly sort of impressed they'd lasted as long as they had, between Tony's neuroses and his own insecurities, and the schedules neither of them had much control over.

"I'm going to Afghanistan next week," Tony said one evening, lying in Steve's cramped bed under the big skylight in his studio. He had one arm draped across Steve's waist, thumb rubbing the notch of his hip, lips brushing his shoulder gently. Steve lifted one hand, ruffling Tony's hair.

"That's dangerous, isn't it?" he asked, fully aware to the decimal point of the statistics regarding violence and military action in Afghanistan.

"Rhodey'll be there, I'll be fine. Just gonna demo the new missile," Tony said.

"The Jericho?"

"Yep. It'll be a quick in and out, though. One launch, some negotiating, a goodwill tour of the local base, back home in a day or two."

"Is Obadiah going?"

"No, he's minding the farm. Nice vote of confidence, actually. He says I'm more dependable since you."

"I thought you hadn't mentioned me to him?" Steve asked, curious.

"Not by name, but he knows I've got someone keeping me on the straight and narrow," Tony said, and Steve laughed.

"You can if you want."

"I wouldn't give him the satisfaction, nosy old asshole. But people have noticed, you know."

"What, that I make you a better man?" Steve teased.

"Yes," Tony said quietly. Steve rolled onto his side, hand sliding down to cover his heart.

"Well, I'm glad," Steve said. "I thought you were a pretty good man to start with."

"You're about the only one."

"Lots of people think you're a good person, Tony," Steve said, kissing him. An idea occurred to him and he drew back, considering. "You should take me with you."

"To Afghanistan?" Tony asked. "Why?"

"I've never been."

"You have classes, and it's going to be super boring. And hot."

"I'll skip. I'm a grad student, nobody notices."

Tony thumbed Steve's lip, shaking his head. "I want you safe here in New York. Waiting for me. Something to come home to."

Steve ignored his instinctive grumble of outrage at the idea of being kept safe. Tony didn't know he could look after himself, not in this sense, and Tony didn't know he wanted to go in order to keep Tony safe.

Maybe he could wrangle some kind of covert ops in the area, while Tony was there. Coulson could be indulgent when the mood struck him.

***

"Absolutely not," Coulson said, when Steve pitched the idea to him the next day.

"Why?" Steve asked. "I've been in much more dangerous situations."

"Because you want to go to keep an eye on your boyfriend, and I won't suborn that kind of behavior," Coulson replied, leaning back in his chair. "He'll have half the army and James Rhodes with him, he'll be fine."

"Is Rhodes any good?" Steve asked. Coulson blinked at him. "Whatever, I know he's a nice guy, I want to know if he can get the job done."

"If you knew Rhodes, you wouldn't ask," Coulson said. "If he can't protect Stark, Stark can't be protected."

"There's been a lot of unrest in the area. The Ten Rings -- "

"Are not your concern, Nomad, and you know that," Coulson said. "I know you want to save the entire world all by your lonesome, but you've never been seconded to the middle east, and your understanding of the situation in the area is incomplete. Setting aside the fact that it would take a very long briefing to get you up to speed, you're doing this for your boyfriend, and we both know this is a bad move."

Steve frowned, discontented. "He's a high-risk target."

"And Nick Fury has been briefed on your relationship and is actually weirdly happy about it," Coulson said. "He likes having one of ours so close to that particular global player. But this is not healthy for you. If you want to be his bodyguard -- "

"Is that an option?" Steve asked.

Coulson gave him a look. "You need to get him to sign an NDA, you need to tell him what you really do for a living, and if the relationship survives that little bomb, you need to secure his agreement to a SHIELD security escort."

Steve scowled.

"Listen, I am telling you this as someone who's been where you are," Coulson said. "If you see a future for yourself and Stark, don't follow him to Afghanistan, don't be that dysfunction. Kiss him goodbye, tell him you'll see him soon. When he gets back, make him a really nice dinner, look especially cute, and get him to sign the NDA so you can tell him. Any later and he won't thank you for all the lying."

"SHIELD mandates we keep cover -- "

"I doubt he'll grasp that subtlety," Coulson pointed out.

"So you won't send me to Afghanistan," Steve said, thoroughly cranky now.

"No. If you want, I'll send you to Brazil as a distraction. We have some issues that could be taken care of down there, but I promised Hawkeye he could go, so you'll have to thumbwrestle him for it."

"No," Steve said sullenly.

"Good call, Steve. Go home, get some rest. Work out what you're going to say to him. You could do worse, you know," Coulson added, as Steve rose. "A thousand socialites would kill to be in your combat boots."

"I could take 'em," Steve said, rallying a glint of humor. Coulson wasn't wrong, he was just so annoyingly right.

"I'd pay to see it," Coulson said as he left.

Out in the hall, Steve slumped against the wall and texted Peggy.

Pity party at my place.

The return text came from Sam. Peggy says to tell you my place is bigger and we have better booze.