Stark Tower rises up above Steve like a sore thumb – or like, Steve can admit to himself in the privacy of his own brain, a much ruder digit. And isn’t that just Tony Stark all over? To throw up a giant middle finger to the gods and the city skyline and make the most ecologically friendly building in the city while you’re at it? In the two months since Steve last saw the tower, it’s been cleaned up and rebuilt to its former glory and, by the looks of things, had another couple floors added to the top.
He pulls over to the sidewalk in front of the tower and a car behind him honks its horn as it swerves past him. Stark Tower, the most high tech building Steve’s ever seen – and two months in the future is a lot of time to see a lot of buildings – doesn’t seem to have any parking.
But there’s a doorman jogging down the steps to meet him, talking into an earpiece that probably cost more than the bike Steve’s sitting on.
“Sorry, sir,” Steve says. “I’ll move along, I was just-”
“Captain Rogers?” says the doorman.
“You’re on the list, Captain,” the doorman says. “A valet will take your motorcycle to Mr Stark’s private garage if you’d like to head right up?”
Steve swings off his bike and follows the doorman up the steps. At ground level, the tower is a little less ostentatious: the steps are a deep, dark grey and the doors are a deeper, darker black, door handles in the shape of the Stark logo the only indication of the tower’s namesake. The doorman pulls the door open for him with a small bow.
“Thanks,” Steve says, “Mr...?”
“Coulson, sir,” the doorman says.
Steve pauses one step in the door, turns back to look at the doorman closely.
“I think you met my cousin,” Mr Coulson adds helpfully. “Phil.”
“I did, briefly.”
“It’s funny, we just thought he was a civil servant, but then all of a sudden he died and all sorts came to his funeral. The things you learn after they’ve gone, right? Someone from Stark Industries offered jobs to the whole family.” Mr Coulson chuckles a little, ruefully, and shakes his head. “My daughter’s working in the Miami factory now, straight out of college.”
“He was a good man,” Steve says, at a loss.
“That means something, coming from a guy like you.”
Steve holds out a hand and, with a grin, the doorman takes it, the open door slipping in his grip and beginning to swing shut until he catches it with the heel of his shoe.
“You’ll want Mr Stark’s personal elevator,” he says as he pulls the door back open again. “Black one in the corner. It’ll take you straight down to the basement garage for your bike once you’re done here.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Call me Mark, Captain.”
“Call me Steve,” he retorts.
The doorman’s chuckle follows him through into the lobby – black stone floors, walls of polished, sand-coloured marble, a receptionist typing away from behind a black desk bigger than a car, and a row of elevators in the wall opposite. The wall behind Steve, which had been mirrored glass outside, is clear from the inside. It must be at least a couple of inches thick; no noise is getting through at all. As the door closes fully behind Steve, with a polished click, the sounds of a busy New York day are cut off completely, leaving the lobby in silence. It feels like a room that was built for silence, and Steve walks uncomfortably over to the desk, every footstep seeming louder than a gunshot.
“Do you have an appointment, sir?” the receptionist asks.
“I’m afraid not, ma’am,” Steve says. She begins to frown and Steve adds, quickly, “But Mr Coulson outside mentioned my name’s on a list. Captain Rogers?”
“Oh, Captain!” She brightens visibly, tapping buttons. “Mr Stark’s elevator is on the far left. It goes right up to the penthouse.”
“Thank you, ma’am. Have a nice day.”
She had turned back to her computer, but at that she looks up again, beaming. “I’d say the same to you, Captain, but,” and she leans across the desk towards him, dropping her voice to a whisper, “I’m afraid Mr Stark is in one of his moods.”
There’s a clicking noise from somewhere overhead, a speaker turning on. Echoing slightly in the marble hall, Tony’s indignant voice says, “No, I’m not. Lies. I pay you to lie to idiotic businessmen, not Captain America.”
The receptionist rolls her eyes and mouths, “Good luck,” as she turns back to her work.
The door to Tony’s personal elevator glides open noiselessly, the movement so natural it seems almost organic. There’s no elevator operator – but then even at the height of his fame in the forties, Steve never exactly visited the kinds of places where people pressed the buttons for you. He steps cautiously inside, the door sliding shut behind him with barely a whisper of air. Inside the walls are black and shiny, and the ceiling is white and shiny, everything gleaming from a light source Steve can’t find. Nor can he – he realises as he turns in a slow circle, closely examining the walls – find any buttons.
“Um,” he says.
“If I might be of assistance?” says a voice from somewhere overhead.
“Can I... go up?”
“Certainly, sir. If you would be so kind as to touch the wall? Any part will do, sir,” the voice adds as Steve hesitates.
In great trepidation, because who knows what kind of security a guy like Tony Stark has in place, Steve presses his palm against the wall in front of him. Blue light ripples out in cobwebbing lines from under his hand, quickly forming the shape of a number pad.
“DNA recognised,” says the voice, pleasantly. “Password override zero-zero-four. Welcome back, Captain Rogers.”
“Thanks, Mr... um?” Steve feels the elevator start to rise, as silent and smooth as the rest of the tower has been so far, and he lowers his hand from the wall; the blue light buttons linger for a few beats more, and then blink out. “Jeeves, was it? I remember you from Mr Stark’s SHIELD file.”
“So close, sir, and yet so far. I am JARVIS, Mr Stark’s personal Artificial Intelligence program.”
“You’re a computer?”
“Essentially correct, Captain. Penthouse, level one.”
There’s a ping and the door slides open. Beyond the elevator lies more grey stone floor and sandy-coloured walls, everything lit up with bright sunlight through a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. It doesn’t look much like a home; or at least, not the kind of home Steve used to know.
“Thanks, Mr Jarvis,” Steve says, stepping out. He hears the voice, the computer, murmur, “Not at all, sir,” as the elevator door shuts behind him.
“Don’t call him mister,” Tony says. “You’ll give him ideas.”
Scanning the room, Steve spots Tony standing by the window, glass of whiskey in hand and his back to Steve. Steve keeps on turning, taking in the penthouse and, in the habit borne of a lifetime, all possible escape routes. The place is much the same as it was last time he saw it, although then it was half-destroyed by Loki and the Chitauri. There are new staircases, new doorways, probably at least half a dozen ways out that Steve could take if they were under attack, and that was without a robotic armour or the tower’s blueprints.
“Captain,” Tony says by way of greeting.
Tony pulls a face, looking over his shoulder at him.
“Okay, let’s cut the formalities. Can we do that? I think I’m having an allergic reaction. Call me Mr Stark again and I’ll break out in hives. Nobody wants that. Why are you smiling? No,” he adds, just as quickly, waving his free hand. “Don’t answer. Keep the Captain America mystique.”
“I don’t have... mystique.”
“Sure you do. Look at that pretty little face. It’s an enigma rolled in a boy band.” Downing the remainder of his whiskey, Tony turns to face him fully. “Drink?”
“You don’t drink?”
Steve rolls his eyes. “No, I drink, but I don’t get drunk. Can’t get drunk. Believe me, I tried.”
Tony pauses, gaping up at him, his empty glass still suspended in the air a few inches from his face, like a mechanical game that’s used up its pennies.
“D’you need a cent?”
That seems to do the trick; Tony blinks and shakes his head, lowering his hand. “Do I – what? No, I don’t need a cent. I’m a billionaire. You did know that, didn’t you? Stark Industries, remember? I mean, I know we were too busy fighting aliens for the small talk, but I kinda figured the tower with my name on it gave the game away? No? The robotic suit? The impeccably styled goatee?”
“Tony.” Steve holds a hand up. “Stop talking. I know you’re a – a very rich man. I was joking. You looked like a coin-operated game that’d run out of coins.”
“You made a joke? Captain America: can’t get drunk, can make jokes? And you told me you had no mystique.” Tony waggles a finger at him, then abruptly turns the gesture into a wave of his hand, motioning for Steve to follow him.
“My boots,” Steve says. At Tony’s perplexed look, he motions down at his biking gear, dusty and greasy, and adds, “Your floor.”
Tony stares at him again.
“Dirt,” Steve says helpfully.
“Oh, right, that – yes. No, it doesn’t matter. Floors get cleaned, right? I’m sure I pay people to do that. I was thinking of getting a new one anyway.” He pauses, eyeing Steve, then flaps his hands. “Christ, don’t give me that look. Take your boots off if it’ll make you feel better. One of the bots can clean them. They can fight for it. It’ll make their day-”
He keeps on talking, walking away as Steve carefully unties his boots – shoes are expensive; even with his new SHIELD fund, he can’t kick the little voice that tells him shoes are expensive - and, after a moment of peering around, shrugs and leaves them against the wall. Tony’s chatter is like a trail of breadcrumbs to follow, Steve padding along after it in his socks.
“- well, I’m having another drink. You, I don’t know, you can bathe your teeth in it. Enjoy the flavour. Atomise it, whatever. Did people do that in the forties? Did anyone ever take Captain America wine-tasting?”
Steve draws to a halt by the bar. He watches Tony pour generous helpings into two glasses. Here’s where Tony offered Loki a drink; there’s the window Loki threw him through; that’s the patch of floor Hulk beat Loki into. It’s like a particularly grotesque sight-seeing tour.
“No,” he says again. “Nobody ever did that.”
“You didn’t miss out on much. Did you know you’re meant to spit the wine out after you’ve tasted it?” Tony dumps ice into both glasses and holds one out to Steve. He rattles it vigorously until Steve, with a sigh, takes it. “There you go, most expensive mouthwash you’ll ever use. Pepper took me wine-tasting once. Business trip. Surrounded by morons in suits. Hell on Earth.”
Tony shudders dramatically, the ice clinking against the sides of his glass. As if the sound of ice reminds him to drink, he lifts the glass and swallows half of it in one go. Steve takes a cautious sip of his own. It’s not bad.
“Your father tried to get me drunk,” he says, to fill the silence left by Tony’s drinking. “Everyone in the Howling Commandos tried; I think it was practically an official military sport by the time I – but Howard always used the best stuff.”
Tony lowers his glass. He fixes Steve with an unreadable look and says, eventually, “Yeah, he always bought the good stuff. Good old dad. Why are you here?”
It’s abrupt, rude even by Tony’s standards, with that strange look still on his face. Taking another sip of his drink, Steve feels his way along the edge of whatever conversational precipice he’s stumbled upon, resolves to reread Tony’s file – buried at the bottom of his bag with all the other notes on the Avengers he’s still unwilling to throw away – and takes a careful step back from the abyss.
“I’m up to the sixties,” he says, and Tony blinks, losing some of his guarded expression in the face of Steve’s non sequitur. “I’ve been catching up on everything I, uh... slept through. Politics, culture, technology. I spent a month in England. Visiting relatives and – graves. It’s slow going.”
“This is my first time back in the city since everything that happened, so I thought I’d say hi.” Steve shrugs. Keeping half an eye on Tony, he finishes the rest of his drink in one long, slow gulp. “Hi, Tony.”
“You’ll fit right in.”
Tony grins toothily and drains his glass, the precipice if not forgotten then at least untouched. Left alone, for now. There are some things best avoided on what is essentially the second, maybe third time they’ve met. Steve allows himself a sigh of relief, drifting over to the nearest wall of windows. From up here, the city’s almost the same.
Tony shoots him a startled look. “What? I fit right in. Look at me. I’m practically the twenty-first century personified. Okay, with more robots than most, but-”
“If you’d let me finish a sentence just once,” Steve snaps.
Tony opens his mouth, pauses, then closes it again, pulling some kind of silent, elaborate, petulant face that Steve takes to mean ‘Do go on, Captain Rogers.’
“You don’t have you name on the tower,” he says slowly. “You mentioned it earlier... It stuck with me, though I wasn’t sure why. But there’s only the A.”
Steve, gazing out the window at that giant metal A, feels Tony move closer, stand just behind him.
“Well, would you look at that,” Tony says.
When Steve turns around, Tony is already moving away again, back towards the bar to pour himself another drink.
“Don’t you like the letter A? I love the letter A.”
“Didn’t they have Sesame Street in the forties? No, I guess not, and anyway, what am I talking about? You weren’t watching kid’s TV in the forties, you were busy growing muscles and punching Hitler. The twenties, then. Good God, grandpa, when were you born?”
“Nineteen eighteen. And I never actually punched Hitler.”
“Pity,” Tony says. He raises his refilled glass in a toast. “A is for alcohol.”
“And anchovies. Have you tried anchovies yet?”
Steve sighs, coming away from the window at last. Tony holds out the bottle and Steve, with another, softer sigh, holds out his glass. “Yes, Tony, I’ve tried anchovies. But-”
They stare at each other.
Tony looks away first. He refills Steve’s glass with a concentration so absolute it can only be sarcastic.
“Did they have aardvarks in the forties? Here, I mean, not in general. We should take you to a zoo. D’you want to go to the zoo? Hey, do you want an aardvark? I mean it, I could pull some strings. I have contacts. There was a guy, there was an angry rhino.”
“What?” No,” Steve says, holding up his hand as Tony takes a deep breath. “I don’t want to know.”
Tony shrugs. He puts the lid back on the whiskey, but leaves the bottle out on the bar.
“Your receptionist said you were in a funny mood.”
“Funny ha-ha, I hope.”
“I... don’t know what means,” Steve says. “Look, just – have you heard anything from SHIELD at all?”
“Nope. Not a peep. I guess now the world’s saved, they’re too busy making paper hats. Playing patacake. Searching for Fury’s missing eye.” Tony pauses. “You?”
“Nothing concrete. There are a few agents following me most days, but I pretend I don’t notice them now. They got a bit upset,” he adds with a rueful smile, “when I offered to buy them coffee.”
“You offered to buy SHIELD agents coffee?”
“It was raining.”
Tony cackles - there’s no other word for it – with laughter, shaking his head and holding onto the edge of the bar to steady himself and looking so surprised by his own reaction that Steve feels his own lips twitch in response.
“It was raining,” Tony echoes, still weakly sniggering. He sounds a little awed. “Of course it was. This is really you, isn’t it? The Great American Boy Scout. See, this is why SHIELD hasn’t been in touch – Fury probably picks up the phone to call you but he starts daydreaming about you buying him coffee and then he has to take a cold shower to wash off all that hot, sticky patriotism.”
“I was never actually a boy scout,” Steve says, sticking with the only part of Tony’s speech he can even formulate a response to.
“Good thing, too. You’d have shown them all up.”
Tony smiles up at him, swift and jokey, all teeth. It drops off his face as he spreads his fingers across the edge of the bar and stares, intently, down at his knuckles. The degree to which Steve feels out of his depth is almost comforting; nobody, from what Fury told him, can hold a straight conversation with Tony Stark. In this moment, at least, Steve is no different from anyone else in the twenty-first century.
“Look, I’m just a guy,” he says.
“Good to know.”
“I mean, I know you think I’m a – a boy scout, and maybe my values seem a little old-fashioned now, but...” Steve shrugs, spreading his hands helplessly. He can see Tony’s eyes following the movement, Tony’s own hands twitching. “During the war, people were twice as brave as me every day, without the benefit of any lab experiment. I’m nothing special. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Tony smirks. He drums an arrhythmic tune against the bar top, then rocks back on his heels and shoves his hands deep into his pockets. “Wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve heard that one before.”
Steve drops his hands. He breathes in slowly. Impromptu speech made, the silence hangs between them.
“I’m sure Fury will get in touch when he needs us,” Steve says.
“World always needs saving, right?”
They look at each other again, in silence. Tony’s eyes are wide and his expression unreadable, as if he’s waiting for something he wants Steve to say. Steve is suddenly, abruptly uncertain. He puts his glass down on the countertop and clears his throat.
“I should probably – go now,” he says. “I don’t want to take up anymore of your time. I know you’re a busy man.”
Whatever Tony was waiting for, that wasn’t it. But he shrugs and smiles almost pleasantly, for him, and says, “Sure. You know me, businesses to run, marvels to create, breakthroughs to... break through. Stop by whenever, mi casa es su casa. Mi - what’s the Spanish for the tower? Mi tower, mi... uh, JARVIS?”
“Never mind,” Steve says quickly, holding up a hand. He lowers it and extends it and waits patiently with hand outstretched until Tony, with a put-upon sigh, shakes it. “Tell me next time.”
Tony slips his hands back into his pockets and stands there, staring up at Steve. There’s a look in his eyes, one that seems to draw inward until he’s not really looking at Steve at all; his eyes are open but his face is closed, the conversation over. Steve takes it as a sign.
Back by the elevator, a small, round robot the size of a dinner plate is trying to drag one of Steve’s boots away. Steve has big feet and he likes his boots sturdy, so the furiously beeping robot has only managed to move the boot a few inches, leaving a streak of mud across the floor. He has to kneel down and wrestle his boot from the robot’s appendages – flat hooks that were probably originally intended to scrape mud, but which the robot is now using more like pincers. It pinches his toe to prove the point, once he finally tugs the boot back, the brush set in its front whirring angrily.
“Shoo,” Steve says, nudging it away.
The robot beeps at him. Its brush is black and bristly and looks, Steve thinks, like a goatee. He smirks. He kneels down to tug his boots on and carefully ties the laces, and wipes at the mud on the floor with his shirt cuff. When he straightens up again, the robot is gone. Tony is still standing at the bar, scribbling on what looks like a piece of glass, his tongue stuck out in concentration.
“Get lost,” Tony says without looking up.
Steve startles, frowns, opens his mouth to angrily retort – and hears the beeping before he sees the shoe-cleaning robot zip into view, circling Tony’s feet and plucking at his socks.
“No, look,” Tony says. “Socks, I’m wearing socks. No shoes here, you waste of circuitry, so go away before I put you on the scrapheap – okay, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that, you’re great. Greatly annoying. Don’t know why I thought I needed cleaner shoes, anyway.”
He scoops the robot up off the floor and grabs a screwdriver from somewhere among the bar paraphernalia. As Steve turns away, stepping into the elevator, he can hear Tony still speaking: “Look, I’ll take these devil claws off and we’ll find you something else to do. It’ll be fine.”
The doors slide shut on the image of Tony chatting to his robot, cradled upside down on the bar top, as he carefully unscrews one of its wiggling limbs. And then Steve’s just staring at a shiny, black wall.
“You liar,” he says. “You don’t fit in either.”
Steve almost jumps, but suppresses it. He crosses his arm. “Take me to the basement, please, Mr Jarvis.”
“Of course, sir,” the computer says.
The elevator glides down silently through this world that Tony built for himself.
It’s dark and cold and quiet, beneath the pounding rhythm of the rain; the kind of quiet that comes from even the most hardened criminals taking a look outside and deciding to stay in for the night. Steve sprays water in an arching wave as he pulls over in front of Stark Tower. Through the haze of rain, he can see Mr Coulson dashing down the steps with a giant, red umbrella. They share a grim nod, and Steve passes him the keys to his bike wordlessly and trudges through the door into, at last, a little moment of warmth and of peace.
It’s the same receptionist as last time, five weeks ago. She clucks her tongue in sympathy at the sight of him.
“I’ve seen oceans drier than you, Captain. Mr Stark isn’t in right now, I’m afraid, but-”
Steve feels his shoulders sag. He’s dripping water on the floor. “Darn it. Never mind, I can go... somewhere. Home's only fifty minutes away, and the streets are quiet, so it shouldn't-”
“Oh, no, no. There’s no need for that. Mr Stark isn’t here, but Ms Potts is in. You’re authorised to come and go as you please, regardless.”
As she speaks, she pulls a box of tissues from a desk drawer and holds them out to Steve. “Take the box, Captain. They’re company property. You need them more than I do, right now.”
“Much appreciated, ma’am. I’m sorry, I don’t know your name...”
“Thank you, Miss – er, Mrs?”
“Ms,” she says firmly, with a smile.
Steve’s face still feels half-frozen, but he summons up a smile of his own as he plucks the box of tissues from her hands. He drips his way into Tony’s private elevator once more, prods the wall – and then, when nothing happens, wipes his hands dry with a couple of tissues and tries again.
“Password override zero-zero-four,” the computer man murmurs, as polite as ever.
“Well, look what the catfish dragged in,” exclaims an unfamiliar voice as soon as the elevator door opens. There’s a log fire burning, and Steve has to close his eyes for a second as he steps into the penthouse, has to just stop and breathe it in. When he opens his eyes again, there’s a pretty woman with reddish hair walking towards him, hand outstretched. She’s wearing a dress clearly designed for business, but on her feet are fluffy red slippers.
“You must be Captain Rogers,” she says. “You’re – wow, you’re really wet. You’re just in time for Dancing With The Stars.”
“I don’t know what that is, ma’am, but it sounds one whole lot better than what’s outdoors.” Peering around as he shakes her hand, Steve spots Agent Romanoff stretched out on the couch in front of the fire, with her arm in a sling. He grins, turns his attention back to- “You’re Miss – Ms Potts? Tony’s girl?”
“That I am. But call me Pepper. I can – I really don’t think any of Tony’s clothes are going to fit you-”
Agent Romanoff snorts with what sounds like laughter. Steve glances at her, but her face is resolutely blank, one shoulder slightly lifted, one eyebrow slightly quirked.
“-But I can get you a towel.”
“Thank you, ma’am. Best make it a lot of them.”
He watches her go until she’s disappeared up a sweeping staircase, and then he kneels down and sets about removing his boots. It’s a tough job, with cold fingers and wet knots and leather sticking to denim. Once he’s pulled one off, he looks up to meet Agent Romanoff’s watchful gaze.
“What happened to you?” she says.
“What happened to you?” he retorts, motioning at her injured arm. She smirks. He ducks down to fiddle with his other lace.
“It was raining,” he says. “I got wet.”
Agent Romanoff makes the noise that sounds like laughter again. Unpicking the final knot, Steve grins down at his boot.
“Did you stop to buy coffee for spies on your way here?”
“Tony told you about that?”
“Stark told Pepper, Pepper told me. Fury mentioned it, too. Congratulations, I think the entirety of SHIELD has a crush on you right now.”
Steve eases his boot off at last and leaves the pair standing against the wall again, with a grimace. His wet jeans rub against his legs as he stands.
“And your arm?”
Agent Romanoff tilts her head to the side, gazing up at him in consideration. There’s something amused deep down in her eyes that makes him feel like she’s staring at the punchline of a joke. He hopes it’s a good one.
“I got stabbed a little,” she says, eventually, once he’s starting to shift uncomfortably from foot to damp foot. “They sent me home to rest and recuperate.”
“You’re okay? And Barton?”
“Yes. And yes.”
Steve smiles. He walks over to the edge of the stone flooring, where the ground sinks down into a thickly carpeted circle. Water is dripping down his arms and down his ankles, forming a puddle on the floor.
“Good to see you again, agent.”
“You too, zero-zero-four.”
“Oh,” says Ms Potts from overhead, emerging at the top of the stairs with her arms full of towels. “You’re zero-zero-four? Natasha’s six. I wonder who five is?”
“Banner,” says Agent Romanoff.
“Thor?” Ms Potts suggests. She reaches the bottom of the stairs and drops her armful of towels onto the floor, staring up at Steve with her hands on her hips. “You can’t stay in those wet clothes. I know Captain America isn’t meant to get sick, but I’d rather not test the theory. We’ll need to... do something.”
“Banner,” Agent Romanoff says again. “Or the pizza delivery guy, knowing Stark. I have safety pins.”
Ms Potts raises an eyebrow at her, and Agent Romanoff shrugs, adding, “They’re effective.”
“Right. Let’s not... pursue that avenue. Here.” Ms Potts digs into the pile of towels and digs out a particularly fluffy red one, taller than her as she holds it up to Steve. She stares at it and then down at her slippers and adds, with a resigned expression, “Red’s his favourite colour, would you believe it?”
“I’m guessing gold’s his second favourite?”
“He’d have done the whole tower in Iron Man colours if I hadn’t stopped him,” she admits, pushing the towel into his hands. “Now, the best shower’s on level three of the penthouse, if you want to clean up. Then we can rig you up some kind of toga with Natasha’s... effective safety pins.”
“Then mojitos,” Agent Romanoff says. “It’ll be fun.”
After a hot shower on the third level, the water pressure so perfect it almost makes him want to cry, Steve almost feels like a human again. He dries himself vigorously with the towel, and performs a few simple stretches, and splashes cold water on his face when he’s done. The whole bathroom is white marble and practically the entire wall over the sink is one, big mirror; it must be hell to clean.
He wipes a hand through the condensation, leaving a thick, curving stripe of mirror behind, his eyes and half his face staring out at him through it. With his thumb, Steve adds more lines – which become legs, a tail, pricked up ears – until he’s drawn a cat in the mirror, sprawled as if it’s basking in front of the fire. There’s a secretive look in its eyes, already melting away.
Feeling suddenly foolish, Steve scrubs the cat away. He ties the towel around his waist, so big it’s practically a ball gown even on him – what does Tony do with towels this big? – and gathers up his pile of damp, cold clothes. And hesitates.
“Um... Mr Jarvis?”
“Good evening, Captain Rogers,” says the computer man immediately, voice emitting from somewhere right in front of Steve. There must be a speaker behind the mirror. “I trust your shower was a pleasant one?”
“Were you there the whole time?”
The computer pauses, then says, “I am everywhere Mr Stark programs me to be, at all times. However, let me assure you that, as an electrical appliance, I lack all emotive capacity. It may help you to think of me as a particularly helpful lamp.”
That startles a laugh out of Steve. “Illuminating?”
Steve smiles at the mirror, in lieu of a face to look at; or to direct his next question to, as he hefts his bundle of clothes and waves it uncertainly for the cameras. “Where should I dump these wet clothes?”
“Mr Stark’s favoured approach is to leave them on the floor to be picked up by someone else. However, if you are feeling adventurous, Captain, there is a little-used laundry chute at the end of this corridor.”
“Thank you, Mr Jarvis.”
“JARVIS will do, Captain.”
Steve pads out into the corridor. Up here the place feels almost like a normal home, albeit one with an impossibly thick carpet; but there are pictures on the walls. Not the strange modern art he’s caught glimpses of downstairs, but photographs of what can only be Tony when he was young, standing next to some kind of robotic arm, and of a woman with his dark eyes, and of Ms Potts and Tony standing somewhere tropical, him with shades and her with an open smile.
Steve examines them all closely, for a little while, and then he hefts his bundle of clothes higher and pulls his towel tighter. He walks past a row of firmly shut doors to the laundry chute JARVIS had indicated, but the door at the end of the row is slightly ajar. No lights are on inside the room, but the far wall is all windows, and as Steve passes he catches a glimpse of a bare bed, bare walls, a closet door half-open with a few shirts poking out. Hesitating, he reaches out a hand and gives the door a gentle push. It swings open easily. The bed looks as if it’s been reinforced with steel.
“The laundry chute is to your left, sir,” says JARVIS as polite as ever.
“Right,” Steve says. “Sorry, I’ll just-”
He pulls the door shut.
At some point in the night, probably while she’s fastening towels with safety pins with one hand and balancing some kind of fruity cocktail in her sling, Steve finds himself thinking of Agent Romanoff just as Natasha. He’s drinking mojitos and he’s only wearing his underpants under what’s essentially a very fluffy dress and he’s squeezed on a couch between two women who definitely aren’t his girls. If it’s not the most comfortable Steve’s ever been, it still beats the hell out of plenty of things. The Red Skull. Losing everyone he’s ever known. Asthma. Every single second of The Star-Spangled Man With A Plan.
If nothing else, it’s warm and the fire is crackling. He realises, halfway through the third episode of this celebrity dancing show (he doesn’t know anyone on it, but Ms Potts assured him nobody does, not even the other contestants), there’s a little robot stoking the fire and periodically sucking up ash with sad beeping noise.
“I thought there would be more robots in the future,” he says.
Natasha, with her feet up on the coffee table, groans. Ms Potts found her a spare pair of slippers, but she’s still got knives strapped to both ankles. She says, “Don’t tell Stark that. He’ll take it as an invitation.”
“He’s still on his robotics kick,” Ms Potts says mournfully to Natasha, as if picking up the thread of some conversation they had before Steve arrived. She’s on her fifth mojito. “It’s not that I mind the new robots. Some of them are quite useful. And goodness knows without JARVIS, Tony would probably have died in a horrible, self-inflicted accident by now.”
“Cut his throat shaving a new shape into his bead,” Natasha suggests. “Forgot he wasn’t in the Iron Man suit and walked off the balcony.”
“Yes, exactly. JARVIS is wonderful-”
“Thank you, Ms Potts.”
“-but he thinks it’s funny to give them personalities. Not even good personalities. Look at that little one.”
She waves her glass at the robot by the fire. They sit and watch as it slowly drags a fresh log from the pile and, with a small chainsaw that unfolds from its body like a penknife, sets about cutting it up into manageable pieces.
“Look at it. It always looks so sad. It looks sad and it’s got a chainsaw. I worry about it.”
Natasha murmurs something in Russian. It’s probably a swearword.
Ms Potts sniffs, then drains her glass.
Outside, over the sound of the rain still going strong, there’s a metallic thump, followed by a whirring noise.
“Oh,” Ms Potts murmurs. “Tony’s home.”
Steve peers over the edge of the couch. Mechanical things are moving in the darkness through the window, in fluid flashes of arc reactor blue or gold and red when the suit catches the light. It’s like abstract art. He resolves to watch it in daylight one day.
The lights sink back into the ground and Tony emerges from the shadows, jogging to the door. It opens for him.
“JARVIS, memo to self,” he’s saying as he comes inside. “Umbrella. Roof. Something. That got wet fast.”
“Eloquent as ever, sir. Memo saved.”
Tony shakes himself like a dog, still grumbling under his breath as he wipes a hand across his face and scrubs at his wet hair.
“Honey, I’m home. Honeys,” he amends, looking up to take in the sight of Steve, Natasha and Ms Potts staring over the top of the couch at him. He doesn’t look surprised to see Natasha, but he raises an eyebrow at Steve. “What’s this? You’re having a toga party with Sleeping Beauty and you didn’t invite me?”
“Girl’s night in,” Ms Potts says. “Steve was our mystery guest.”
“He’s something alright. Have you got all my towels there? Are they – What? What is this, a cape? Fashion tips from Thor?” Tony leans on the back of the couch, peering at him and tugging at the corner of one of the towels covering his shoulders. “These are attached. Good god, Pepper, what have you done?”
“Sorry,” Steve says. He reaches up to fumble with the safety pins, but Ms Potts taps him on the knuckles and undoes it herself.
“There you go,” she says. “Now mix us fresh drinks and maybe we’ll tell about all the fun we’ve had while you were gone.”
Grabbing the towel from her, Tony leans across and kisses Ms Potts on the lips. He gets – Steve looks away resolutely, tugging his remaining towels closer together over his bare shoulder – a bit handsy. When he draws back again, she’s rolling her eyes but smiling.
“Off the shoulder number, Cap. I like it. Ooh, warm towel. Even better. Black Widow,” he adds by way of greeting as he drapes the towel around his neck. “You’re looking as prone to eating your mates as ever.”
Tony pats Ms Potts on the head, and then pats Steve on the head, ruffling his hair, and then – Steve cranes his neck to watch – reaches out a hand half-heartedly towards Natasha. She smiles widely up at him.
“Well, that’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen,” Tony says, dropping his hand and backing away behind the bar.
Natasha’s sarcastic smile shifts into something smaller and warmer and, Steve thinks, genuinely amused as she glances sideways to meet Steve’s eyes. But Tony’s still talking, over the sound of clinking glasses and bottles.
“What lies has he been telling you, ladies? Has he been letting you try to get him drunk? Sorry to disappoint, but it won’t work.”
“Not everyone drinks solely to get drunk, Tony,” Ms Potts says. “Some people even enjoy the taste.”
He emerges from the bar with four glasses – three contain something vividly yellow with a little umbrella and a curly straw stuck in each glass; the remaining one, Steve notes with a raised eyebrow, is just whiskey. Tony raises an eyebrow at Steve’s raised eyebrow, thrusting a glass into his hands. The whiskey, Tony keeps for himself.
“I call it a repulsor blast.”
“It looks disgusting,” Ms Potts say, staring at the drink he holds out to her as if it might bite, but with a sigh she takes it from his hands and puts it down on the coffee table. “How’d it go tonight?”
“Well, there was a scary moment when I couldn’t find the cocktail umbrellas, but-”
“The usual.” Tony groans, extravagantly. Picking Ms Potts’ drink up again, he shoves a load of magazines and papers off the table and onto the floor with his toes, balanced on one foot with a drink held steady in each hand. It’s an impressive display of dexterity, if nothing else.
“There was paperwork in that pile,” Ms Potts says.
Sitting down on the freshly cleared space on the table, Tony peers over at the mess of papers now spread across the floor. “It’s still in a pile. Technically.”
Ms Potts makes a face that Steve can clearly read, for all he only met her a few hours ago; it spells out, in her raised eyebrows and pursed lips, that whoever picks this mess up it certainly won’t be her. Tony chooses to ignore it.
“Some wannabe supervillain declares they’ve replicated my repulsor tech, public demo, mad with power, yada yada, save us from your bastardised technology, Iron Man! Day saved. Pepper, remind me to send a cheque for the broken fire hydrant.”
Steve, drink halfway to his mouth, gapes. “Someone’s replicated your technology? Isn’t that dangerous?”
“No. As in, no, it’s not dangerous because no, nobody’s replicated my repulsors. This guy was all talk and no walk. All smoke and no fire – actually, the problem was too much fire. His crappy repulsors kept exploding. Idiot was crying for help more than his hostages in the end. Fireballs everywhere.”
“In this weather?”
Tony points a finger at him. “That’s what I said. Repeatedly. You’d think you wouldn’t be able to set a mailbox on fire in this weather, but this guy proved everyone wrong. He’d deserve a Nobel prize if he wasn’t such an idiot.”
“But you’re okay?” Ms Potts says.
“Peachy. Dandy. Singed.”
She touches his knee. Tony looks up from the bottom of his whiskey glass and covers her hand with his own. “I’m fine. You know me, 100% impossible to set on fire. Wish I could say the same for that mailbox.”
“Okay,” she breathes.
She leans forwards, one hand on his knee and the other braced on the edge of the coffee table, and she kisses him lightly. Steve watches Tony’s free hand rise up to cup her face. She pulls away and climbs to her feet.
“It’s been a long day, and I’ve had – a lot to drink,” she says, voice catching. “And now I am... going to bed. Steve, it was nice meeting you at last.”
Steve stands. “You too, ma’am.”
She smiles at him wanly.
“He talks about you a lot,” she says as she walks away.
“Traitor,” Tony calls after her. “I don’t say anything nice.”
“I believe you,” Steve says. He sits back down once Ms Potts has disappeared from view. Tony remains sitting on the coffee table, cross-legged and shadowed, staring across at him. It’s gotten dark, Steve realises; the fire has died down.
“In my day,” he says, looking down into his still full glass, “we didn’t put miniature umbrellas in our drinks.”
“Yet another reason why the past sucked.”
Rolling his eyes, Steve lifts his drinks and takes a sip through the straw at last. He swallows carefully, smacks his lip. “This is disgusting.”
“But strong,” says Natasha.
Tony jumps, first genuinely and then exaggeratedly, turning to her with his mouth open in mock-surprise as he raps his knuckles again his chest, against – with a muffled knocking sound – his arc reactor. “You! I forgot you were here.”
Natasha smirks at him and sucks the dregs of her drink noisily up through her straw, cheeks hollowed. Once it’s all gone, she plucks a piece of ice from the bottom of her glass and pops it into her mouth, chews it with a slow, deliberate crunch.
“You’re terrifying,” Tony says. Looking around, he grabs Ms Potts’ discarded, still mostly full drink and holds it out to her; she shrugs and takes it. “I mean it, you scare me. More than aliens. More than the stock market.”
“I know,” she says. “But you make good drinks.”
“And that’s why you let me live.”
Natasha inclines her head in agreement. She unfolds herself from her seat on the couch, her movements so smooth that even with one hand incapacitated and the other hand full, the ice in her glass barely rattles as she stands. She nods to Steve, quirks an eyebrow at Tony as she passes them by.
Steve is climbing to his feet automatically to bid her goodnight, but when she turns to look back at him, what he says is, “Natasha, wait – what do you know of Fury’s plans?”
She pauses and frowns. Out of the corner of his eye, Steve can see Tony, tense, watching her as closely as he is.
“Not a lot,” she admits after a moment’s silence. “But I know he has plans. I know he’ll call us when he needs us. I know we all deserve a break after saving the world.”
“Wow, ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ from an entire covert ops organisation?” Tony says. “I can’t tell if that’s a high point or a low point in my life, no, really, I genuinely can’t.”
“You’re not SHIELD agents-”
“For which I’m eternally grateful-”
“-and you don’t want to be,” Natasha continues coolly, cutting Tony off. He snaps his mouth shut. “Neither of you do. But if Fury sent us - the Avengers after every little threat, that’s what you’d become. So we wait.”
“Until the next alien invasion?” Steve asks.
“Yes,” she says. “If that’s what it takes.”
Tony scoffs. “So that’s it? Fury’s grand scheme? I don’t know about you and nineteen-forty winks here, but I don’t plan on sitting by the phone twiddling my thumbs until Fury’s ready to invite me to the planetary crisis prom.”
“Then don’t. Nothing changes. We just have to keep doing what we always do, okay?
“Okay,” Steve says, with a nod and a sigh. He lowers himself back down onto the couch.
“Okay,” Tony echoes, holding up a hand. “Sure. So I’ll keep being a genius, Cap’ll keep modelling my laundry closet, and you’ll keep sneaking into my home to give me nightmares.” He counts them off on his fingers. “Is that the plan?”
“Yes,” Natasha says.
She nods at Steve again, then turns and continues on her way – up the stairs, not down into the elevator, Steve notes, watching her red hair swinging a little longer than it had been the last time he saw her. Even in slippers, her footsteps are as steady and precise as a dancer’s.
He wonders, briefly, what it feels like to have a body that is strong because you trained it to be strong, that is graceful because you learned grace. He wonders, briefer, if Natasha learned to dance. He’s startled from his thoughts by sudden movement, as Tony spins around to face him again and grabs the repulsor blast from Steve’s lax hands.
“Gimme that,” Tony is saying. “I need a drink.”
Steve lets him take it.
“You needn’t be so rude to her,” he says. “It’s unnecessary.”
“She likes it. I like it.” Tony slurps Steve’s drink, pulls a face, staring at Steve with wide, innocent eyes. “It’s a win-win situation. Good god, this is vile. What was I thinking? I can’t remember what I put in it.”
“And that makes it okay?”
“You’re right, I’m sorry, I’ll make JARVIS scan the cocktails next time.”
“I’m talking about Natasha.”
Tony shrugs. “I’m not seeing the problem.”
“You-” Steve begins, before he stops himself. He pinches the bridge of his nose, takes a deep breath, and then takes his drink back from Tony. He pulls the straw out and swallows a deep mouthful. It’s still disgusting, but it tastes better than last time; it could grow on him, Steve supposes.
When he looks up again, Tony is watching him, still sitting on the coffee table, holding himself as quiet and still now as if he could be Natasha. There is an orange glow over his shoulder, and Steve shifts his gaze to watch the robot poking uselessly at the embers of the fire. A futile endeavour.
“I thought there would be more robots in the future,” he says.
“Sorry to disappoint.”
“No, I – you’re the most futuristic person I’ve ever seen, but back home I thought the twenty-first century would have robots like people. Flying cars, monorails, space colonies. Everyone living in glass domes and wearing space suits.”
“World peace and no more hunger, right?”
“I don’t think I could have imagined that.” Steve smiles wryly. “But I couldn’t have imagined the internet or reality TV either.”
“Yeah, what did you do for fun in the good, old days?”
Tony says it flippantly, like most things he says and does, but somehow the fact that he is still there and still listening, when he could have walked away or – heck, it’s his apartment they’re sitting in – kicked Steve out long ago, feels like an achievement. This is progress.
This is Steve, moving forwards, even further into the future.
He stares down at his hands. “Some people went dancing. Not like - nothing like how people dance today. That’s, um. Very different. People are different now. I think – that’s the biggest change. Cars still have wheels, sure, and nobody lives on the moon, but people...”
He pauses. There’s a moment of silence that isn’t really so silent – he can hear the wind and the rain; he can hear Tony’s robot moving ash around; he can hear Tony. Breathing, then clearing his throat.
“People haven’t changed as much as you think.”
“Well, we still have boy scouts, right?”
Steve sighs, climbing to his fest. He pulls the straw and umbrella out and downs the remainder of his drink in three gulps that he barely tastes, and then holds the glass out until Tony, startled, takes it.
“Spare rooms,” Tony says, still staring up at him, still holding the empty glass.
“I have – I don’t know where the laundry goes, or who even washes it, but I’m pretty sure I’m not a slave driver so they’re probably not washing right now, so you’re not gonna get your clothes back ‘till tomorrow.”
“Ms Potts already-”
“You can’t go out in towels. You’ll get arrested, public indecency, even in the depraved future. Or you’ll get wet. Whichever is your least favourite, that’s what’ll happen.”
“Ms Potts already offered me a room for the night,” Steve says. “I accepted her offer.”
Tony snaps his mouth shut. “Right. Great. I knew that.”
He puts the glass down and jumps to his feet, clapping his hands together. “Where are you staying, anyway? When you’re not crashing parties in my penthouse, I mean?”
“If you don’t want me to come...” Steve begins, but Tony waves a hand and makes indignant noises before he can finish. “I’ve got an apartment. Near my old neighbourhood. It’s strange, but I’m not there a whole lot.”
“You can afford someplace better. I’ve seen your bank account.”
“Of course you have.”
Tony looks unrepentant, already walking away. With a sigh, Steve follows him – up the stairs and up to the third floor, into the same corridor Steve walked down before, where Tony pauses.
“JARVIS, where’s Romanoff? She might get confused and break your neck with her thighs if we put you in her room, and what a scandal that would be.”
“Agent Romanoff is located in room four, sir, opposite Dr Banner’s room. Her legs do not currently appear to be homicidal, but I will be sure to inform you if this status changes.”
“Dr Banner? Bruce has a room?”
“Sure,” Tony says vaguely as he wanders up and down the corridor. “He stops by sometimes, when he gets bored of the tropics. It’s hard to book hotel rooms when you might sometimes turn big and green and smash things. Here,” he adds, pointing at a door. “You can probably see your neighbourhood from this one. I’d say you could spot your apartment from up here, but it’s got to be revoltingly small, right?”
“It’s cosy. Not everyone needs a whole tower to feel comfortable.”
Tony tosses him a grin over his shoulder, all teeth, as he pushes the door open and disappears inside. “Me and my phallic symbol are extremely happy together. JARVIS, lights, 60%. There’s, uh – there’s probably a light switch somewhere, if you wanna do things the old fashioned way.”
“The light switch is next to your right elbow, sir,” JARVIS says.
“Would you look at that?” Tony flicks the lights off and on a few times. “Must’ve been Pepper’s idea. She thinks it’s more homely not having to constantly rely on the whims of a sarcastic robot butler.”
“Imagine that, sir.”
Steve steps around Tony, into the room. It must be, he’s almost sure of it, bigger than his whole apartment, with the curving wall on the far side of the room another stretch of the floor-to-ceiling windows he’s grown accustomed to seeing in Tony’s home.
He reaches over Tony’s shoulder and turns the light off. He crosses the room, barely taking in the thick carpet, vast bed, armchair, tables, desk, bookshelves, and he stands in the front of the window. Through the glass it’s night time in New York City, which means so many streetlights, traffic lights, windows, fluorescent signs it’s almost brighter than daylight. It’s beautiful, of course, and it’s very alive.
“That’s some view,” he breathes.
“Can’t get that from your tiny, little apartment, right?”
“It looks over a back alley. There’s pigeons.” Steve shrugs. “I like pigeons.”
“Bet you didn’t think there’d still be pigeons in the twenty-first century.”
Steve glances over his shoulder. Tony is standing in the open doorway, backlit against the bright light of the corridor, a shadow slouched against the frame with his hands in his pockets. Steve shrugs again, allows himself a smile.
“I don’t think I could imagine New York without pigeons,” he says.
He can’t see Tony’s face, but he thinks he sees him nod. The shadow of Tony straightens, pushes away from the doorframe and for a second when he turns his head, Steve sees his profile in perfect silhouette.
“Not so different, then,” Tony says. “You, go sleep. Or whatever, I’m not the sleep police. JARVIS will tell you anything you need to know. I’ve got some work to do so I’ll be down in my lab all night. Have you been in my lab yet?”
Tony snaps his fingers, pausing in the doorway. “Come by sometime. No flying cars or monorails, nobody wants flying cars and monorails, I mean, nobody except you, sorry, Cap, but – In fact, come by in a couple weeks. I’ve been working on something, it’s a surprise. Okay? Okay.”
“Okay,” Steve says warily.
Tony grins wide enough that there’s a flash of bright, white teeth and then he waves a hand and disappears through the door. It stays swinging open on its hinges for a long while after, until Steve crosses the room and pushes it shut. He stands a moment, staring down at himself, before grabbing a fistful of towel and tugging until the safety pin comes free with a ping, the metal bent all out of shape.
He feels bad about it as soon as he’s done it. Steve carefully undoes the rest of the safety pins, leaving them in a pile on the nightstand, and he folds the towels on the armchair.
He sits down on the side of the bed, rests his chin on his hands, and stares out the window at his city. Bright lights, pigeons. Some things never change.
In the morning, he finds his clean clothes stacked neatly outside the door, with a piece of grid paper folded on top. It reads, in messy handwriting, ‘one boy scout uniform, freshly laundered.’
Steve slips the note into his pocket as he leaves.
Updates are probably going to slow down a bit now, I'm afraid. I wrote most of the first two chapters in one go before I started my new job, so now I have a job and I don't have a handy 5000 word backlog! But I'm still completely obsessed with this silly fic so there shouldn't be too much of a delay.
The first thing Steve sees when he gets home is a tower of mail on the table.
It’s a normal sight for him, since the Chitauri invasion and the extremely public return of Captain America. At the time, he would have been perfectly content to just give out his address to any gal or fella who wanted to take the time to write him, but Fury had loudly say no to that. His apartment is a secret, leased with a false name, and all Steve’s mail goes through SHIELD to be checked and checked again before he ever sets eyes on it.
He supposes some poor new recruit, signed up to SHIELD for a life of espionage and intrigue, got stuck with the job of redelivering the safe mail to him. He doesn’t know for sure, as he’s never seen them. He’s rarely there. It’s not his home.
At first, he just hadn’t been able to stop moving – as if seventy years on ice had left a surplus of energy unspent; as if the second he let himself stand still, he would sink back down into the sea again. He had broken more punch bags than he cares to count, then saved the world, then got on his bike and drove and drove. If this is the world he fought and essentially died for, and if he’s going to be here forever, then he wants to know every last inch of it – and maybe then, he thinks sometimes on the darker nights – he’ll know if his sacrifice was worth it.
Almost as soon as he began joining the geographical dots, the letters started pouring in. The vast majority of it, he’s sure, is culled by SHIELD, and most of what’s left is fanmail from strangers and children and friendly young women. But sometimes it gets more personal. It seems like there’s a person in every major city who knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone, who had fought alongside him. Sometimes he even gets letters from people he’d known; most of them had been younger than him, seventy years ago. He tries to see them all while he still can, wherever they are, because if there’s one thing Steve’s learned, it’s that you never know who might be dead and gone when you wake up in the morning.
So he’s been out of the state for a week, when he opens his apartment door – shoving it with his shoulder when it jams; if he ever moves out of this place, he sure as heck isn’t getting the deposit back – and he finds his mail on the table. In among all the letters he sets aside for later, there’s a note on paper thicker than his credit card, embossed with a Stark Industries letterhead. It reads, in an unfamiliar hand, ‘Whatever you said to him to make him build something other than comedy robots, thank you - P.’
Steve tucks the letter under the paperweight on his night stand, mingled in with Tony’s laundry note and memos from SHIELD and a picture of his mom he found on the internet. He looks at the calendar on his wall.
It’s been a couple of weeks.
The elevator reaches level one and Steve steps out into the Penthouse. He removes his boots automatically, leaving them in their usual spot against the wall, but when he looks up he realises he’s alone. The living room is quiet and empty, a cool breeze blowing in through the door to the balcony.
He drifts into the centre of the room, picking up a few loose sheets of paper from the floor and moving an empty coffee mug off the bare table and onto a coaster. He glances down at the papers in his hand, which have on them Tony’s scruffy signature and a smear of what looks like ketchup. They look confidential - most things in Tony’s home look as if they aren’t meant to be seen by the general public - so Steve leaves them on the edge of a desk, with a pen on top to keep them blowing away.
Hands on his hips, he looks around himself.
“Where is he, JARVIS?” he says.
He follows JARVIS’ directions and then, once he’s reached the top of the corridor, just follows the noises: the sound of small explosions; the sound of booming laughter that Steve’s pretty sure he recognises. He’s not surprised, when he pushes open the kitchen door, to find Thor bent over something Tony is showing him, laughing raucously over a noise like the rattle of gunfire.
The kitchen is vast, of course. Tiled floor; marble countertops; a whole, separate square of work surface in the middle of the floor, covered in drafting paper and screwdrivers and what looks like the remains of breakfast, which still leaves enough room around it for a small game of baseball. There are, Steve notices and then carefully chooses to ignore, three ovens.
Tony straightens up and turns around as Steve enters the room, moving aside enough for Steve to catch a glimpse of what looks like a microwave in front of them, although Thor remains bent over and keeps on loudly laughing.
“What is this, Come Visit Tony Stark day?” Tony says.
Steve frowns, moving closer to the microwave and trying to peer into the little window around Thor’s bulk. He has a microwave, but he’s never heard one make noises like this before. “You told me to come by in a couple weeks, so here I am.”
“I did? Hey, I did.” Tony jostles Thor out of the way to take a look at the flashing, green digits on the front of the microwave. “Huh, precisely fourteen days ago. You wrote it on your calendar, didn’t you? You went home and counted forwards two weeks and wrote ‘come visit Tony Stark’ on your calendar.”
“Pretty much,” Steve admits, because it’s true.
“My god, you have a paper calendar, don’t you? What are the pictures of? Apple pies? Eagles? Patriotism?” Tony points an accusatory finger at him. “It’s patriotism, isn’t it.”
“It’s Modigliani, actually.”
Tony pauses, his finger remaining hanging in the air before him. “Sculpture or painting?”
“A mix of both.”
Making a thoughtful noise, Tony slowly lowers his hand. He frowns up at Steve. Steve clasps his hands behind his back and stares stonily down at him. Next to them, the machine gun racket from the microwave finishes at last and Thor, still laughing, straightens up and turns around.
“Captain!” he exclaims. He grabs Steve by the hand and by the shoulder and gives him a full body shake. “Well met! You too are a patron of this noble tradition?”
“Good to see you too, buddy,” Steve says, massaging the feeling back into his fingers. “What tradition? Micro-waving?”
“His beloved Jane-” Tony begins in a sing-song voice, as if he’s telling a fairy story.
“My beloved Jane,” Thor says, “who is as wise and knowledgeable as she is beautiful, has travelled far across the lands of America to attend a meeting of great minds. She explained to me that when your travels bring you to this New City of York, it is a great and noble Midgardian custom to seek shelter with the richest warrior you know-”
“That filthy rich bastard with his name stamped on all the landmarks, was how she put it,” Tony stage whispers to Steve.
“-rather than, ah, ‘forking out on a hotel room the same size and cost of a Lamborghini’, I believe were her words. Of course, I did not wish to offend Tony, so I made haste to his mighty tower to uphold the customs of his people.”
“Right,” Steve says. “Yeah, I guess I am a - a patron of that noble tradition.”
“Of course, even the fortune of our host pales in comparison to the wealth of fair Asgard, where the streets are paved with gold and mead runs like water. But what he lacks in riches, he makes up for in Midgardian sorcery. Behold!” Beaming magnanimously, Thor presses a button on the microwave and, as the door springs open, pulls out a bag of fresh popcorn. “See how the grains have ‘popped’ and yet the magic box contains no flame!”
“I keep telling you, it’s not magic-”
“Geez, you can make popcorn in those things?”
Steve grabs a handful, throwing a few into his mouth at once, and savouring the salty, oily taste. His mom had always hated popcorn, had always complained that it was tasteless and barely filled you up, but most years it was the only snack they could afford, and she tried to treat him to nice things – she had always tried.
He eats the rest of the popcorn in his hand slower, and licks his fingers when he’s done.
“I feel like a babysitter here,” Tony says, shaking his head in disbelief. “You’re giant, muscular children. Here, go nuts, I’ve got another packet. Eat popcorn while you watch popcorn. Who needs the movies, right?”
He tosses what looks like a thick, brown envelope into the microwave, smacks the door shut and jabs a few buttons on the side. As the machine begins to hum and the popcorn packet begins to spin, Steve drags a stool up next to Thor and sits down to watch. He has a microwave in his apartment; he’d read the manual thoroughly and pressed all the buttons, and marvelled at how soon after his time it was invented, and then never really touched the darn thing again.
Tony grabs a handful of popcorn while Thor is distracted by the show, shoving it into his mouth and speaking around it. “I’m telling you, it’s not magic. Really, it’s not. It’s just science. Say it with me, okay? Suh-eye-ence.”
Thor shakes his head, looking amused rather than offended by Tony’s patronising tone. Then, through the window of the microwave, the popcorn starts to rattle and generally live up to its name and Thor leaps forwards with a shout, yanks the door off and sticks his hand inside. The edge of the microwave door hits the countertop with a thud, dangling from Thor’s grip, the hinges ripped clean away from the oven.
Steve glances at Tony. Tony’s mouth is hanging open.
“The bag of grain is warmed,” Thor declares, wiggling his fingers in the now-broken microwave obliviously, “and yet the air inside the magic box is not! My father will be most impressed when I tell him of this sorcery.”
“Great,” Tony says. “Good. I probably needed a new microwave anyway.”
Thor looks down and looks surprised – Steve biting the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing at the property damage – to see the whole door in his hands. He props it up against the front of the microwave.
“My apologies, Tony. Oft I forget how fragile these Midgardian trinkets are, despite the great power they contain.”
Tony waves a hand, shrugs. Smiling again, Thor pats him on the back, hard enough to knock him forwards and Tony stumbles. Steve sees in his mind’s eye the sharp, hard edge of the work surface rising up to meet him and he reaches out a hand without thinking, grabbing Tony by the collar of his shirt. Tony jerks to a halt, coughs and glares and rubs his neck and bats Steve’s hand away.
“But come,” Thor is saying, watching them mildly as if their scuffle were totally normal. Heck, for all Steve knows, it is in Asgard. “You need not be humble about your talents where you are among friends! Jane has told me much of your Midgardian legend. Have you not magic in your heart?”
He taps his finger against the arc reactor under Tony’s shirt, gently enough this time that Tony doesn’t stumble. Tony takes a step back anyway, frowning up at Thor. He puts a hand over his chest.
“Hey,” Steve says.
At the sound of Steve’s voice, Tony seems to shake himself and he grins, hooking a finger into the collar of his t-shirt and tugging it outwards to peer down at his chest. The blue glow washes over his face.
“Magic in my heart?” he says. “I like it. You should write my next press release. I mean it. If you ever get bored of the heir to an alien throne gig, we’ll put you in a suit and make you head of PR. Stocks would go through the roof.”
Thor laughs. “A generous offer. My father would have me learn more of Midgard, now the Tesseract is returned to us and the bifrost restored to its former glory. He wishes for me to be a diplomat between our worlds.”
“I’ll call my tailor.”
“Asgard is well, then?” Steve asks, and when Thor beams and nods, he adds, slowly, “And how’s... your brother?”
The smile drops from Thor’s face. He sits down on a stool and rests his chin on his hand, cape pooling on the ground around his feet. He looks, for a moment, as grave and as ancient as a statue. After a pause, and a heavy sigh, he says, “Nay, he is not well, he is troubled. There is a darkness to his thoughts and a shadow in his eyes. He has become blind to how his family loves him and that cage, I fear, is stronger even than the prison we must keep him in.”
“Troubled? Oh yeah, sure, he started an alien invasion. That’s troubled, alright.”
“I mean you no offence, Tony. He has wronged you and your planet gravely, and that can never be undone. But Loki... he is young, and Asgard is changing. I too once sought out battle in the stars and thought it glorious, and I was older than he.”
Thor sighs again, sonorously. Helping himself to another handful of popcorn, he turns his head and stares out the window. From this high up, the view is mainly sky, and clouds, and the beginnings of a hazy golden sunset. Somewhere out there, past the sunset and the stars, must be Thor’s home.
“Oh geeze,” Tony says. “Quit looking so sad, the pair of you. You’re making me feel bad about Loki. Christ, we need some vodka and some – doughnuts, I know I have doughnuts somewhere.”
As Tony begins moving around the room, lifting sheets of drafting paper and opening cupboard doors, there’s a faint whirring hum from overhead, as if JARVIS were clearing his throat.
“Sirs, there is a half a box of doughnuts in the living room work station, where Mr Stark left it, and Dr Foster requests use of the private elevator.”
Thor straightens up from his forlorn slump so sharply he almost knocks his stool over.
“Yeah, yeah, permission granted. What, you barely budge for vodka and doughnuts, but you leap out of your chair for Jane? Your priorities are...” Tony pauses, taps his chin. “Sickeningly well-balanced, I guess. Well done, you.”
“Come, let us feast and be merry with your vodka and baked delights. Now is the time to relive our great victories, not dwell in darkness, for Jane has returned to us!”
“Was she gone long?” Steve asks.
“Aye,” says Thor.
“Nay,” says Tony. “What, don’t give me that look, she’s been gone four hours. Pepper’s been gone four days and I’m not making faces like that. Okay, okay, fine, let’s feast and be merry with vodka and Jane. Now go wait for her by the elevator, would you? Go, leave, your enthusiasm is hurting my eyes.”
Thor, from a whole alien realm where people wear amour and talk like Shakespeare, seems to have a better handle on Tony’s sense of humour than Steve’s managed yet. He laughs and pats Tony on the shoulder as he leaps to his feet, and he grabs the bag of popcorn, exclaiming, “For Jane!”
Steve watches him stride away, cape flapping behind him. Maybe it’s Asgardian culture, or maybe Thor really is just that adaptable.
“Do you think he wears that cape everywhere,” Tony says, “or just to the really important microwaving functions?”
He drops down into Thor’s vacated stool and snaps his fingers under Steve’s nose until Steve bats his hand away, turns and says, “Do you mind?”
“Your eyes had gone out of focus. I thought maybe you were slipping into a coma.”
“Well, I wasn’t.”
Tony leans back in his seat, legs crossed so casually, propping his elbows up on the work surface behind him and for a moment he just looks at Steve. Then,
“My mistake,” he says with a shrug.
“No, sorry, I’m just- Although it would help if you weren’t so abrasive sometimes.” Steve sighs. He stands, pinches the bridge of his nose and tries again. “Sorry. Not my place to tell anyone what to do out of uniform, least of all my friends. Shouldn’t we go say hi?”
Tony, who is still looking at Steve much too thoughtfully, tilts his head. “What, to Jane and Thor? Good god, no, not yet. Those two are, uh, you know, young love. Those crazy kids, gonna make it. I dunno what happens if you come between them when they’re saying hello after a whole four hours apart, but it probably ends in a threesome.”
“Well, you see, Cap, when three horny people love each other very, very much...” Tony cackles as Steve, feeling himself flush, holds up his hands. He pats Steve on the shoulder. “Never mind, forget I spoke, erase it from your mind, we’ll have to ease you into it. Which is, of course, what she said. Forget that too. Just – sit down, sit, there’s something I wanna show you.”
Steve sits. As Tony bustles about around him, he spreads his hands over the countertop and can’t help but wonder what anyone does with a kitchen so big.
“Are you a good cook?”
“I chop, I stir, I apply fire. I haven’t died of hunger yet.” Tony glances up from the breadbox and seems to read something in Steve’s expression that makes him snort. “Oh, I see. Hey, size matters. Even you know that, right? Look.”
He lifts a metal box out of the breadbox and slides it across the work surface towards Steve. It hits up against his fingers, so he lifts his hands and tugs it in front of him. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of lock or catch, just a smooth, black panel on the top of the box. Tony leans against the cabinets and watches him study it, hip cocked, ankles crossed.
“Something you said a couple months ago gave me the idea,” he says. “Woulda been done weeks ago, but bureaucracy, you know how it is – what am I saying? No, you don’t. Let’s just say, thank god I already had Stark Phone to paper over the legal cracks. How do geniuses who aren’t billionaires ever get anything done? Seriously.”
“Hard work and good luck?” Steve says, running his hands over the box.
“You give up?”
“I guess I do.”
Tony leans around Steve’s shoulders and presses his thumb to the panel. When he lifts his hand away, Steve catches sight of a bright blue thumbprint which quickly fades away and morphs into a number pad. Tony types in a code, the lock releases with a click and a hiss and he lifts the lid. Inside the box is six rectangular pieces of what looks to Steve like shiny black plastic, packed in two rows of black foam. Tony pulls out the first two and hands one to Steve; it’s heavier than it looks, which doesn’t say a lot, and about twice as thick as his credit card.
“Touch the top left corner,” Tony says. He’s grinning.
Steve taps the corner as instructed – he’s expecting something to happen, or possibly to explode, so he’s not surprised when the rectangle lights up at the press of his hand: beneath his thumb, a picture of his shield rendered in those familiar bright, blue lines of light; in the main body of the rectangle, three rows of tiny pictograms set out like the dial of a modern phone. Steve examines them carefully, then looks up at Tony.
“These are us,” he says.
Tony grins wider. “Tap me. Twice – first to select, second to call.”
The first touch to the miniature Iron Man helmet turns it red; the second, bright white, and then the – the cell phone? Steve supposes – in Tony’s hand starts to beep, the picture of his shield flashing red on it.
Tony taps the shield and says, “Ta-da,” his voice coming from the phone in Steve’s hand almost faster than it comes from Tony’s mouth.
“Communicators,” Tony says, cutting the call with a press of the shield. He bounces on his heels and stares at the - communicator in Steve’s hand. “Neat, huh? Beats the hell out of SHIELD’S tech – I don’t even know what those were made from, Lego? I’m pretty sure it was Lego. These are still just prototypes. Need to Hulk-proof them, coordinate with Thor, don’t think my network reaches all the way to Asgard just yet. They’re only touchscreen now, so you’d have to pull off your fabulous red gloves to press the buttons and that’s exhausting, I’m tired just thinking about it. Who cares about touchscreen anymore, anyway? Even grandmas use touchscreens, I’m just saying. Touch is over, I’m thinking earpieces, voice command. Give me a week and a copy of Neuroscience for Dummies and I could probably whip up an implant-”
Steve lets Tony’s voice wash over him, barely understanding every other word but Tony sounds – beneath the bluster and the wisecracks that Steve is only starting to learn how to see through – as enthusiastic as a kid showing his mom a fingerpainting. He lifts his communicator up close to his face and examines each pictogram: a hammer; a little bow and arrow; a scowling face that can only mean the Hulk.
“Tony,” Steve says. “You keep these in the breadbox?”
“I got hungry.”
“You – right. Well, they’re great. Great prototypes. I’m sure they’ll be amazing when they’re done.”
“Sweet talker. Just for that, I’m giving you the first hands-free device. And a doughnut.”
Steve doesn’t know what that is, but he smiles. He swipes his finger across a row – a geometric shape he knows from Black Widow’s belt buckle; a stylised ‘A’ he doesn’t recognise – and watches the pictograms turn red. A second touch turns them silver and at once every communicator in the box, and the one in Tony’s hand, starts to beep and vibrate furiously, the box shaking with the force of it.
“So that’s what that button does.”
“Okay, well done, that’s enough of that. I’m awesome, they’re awesome, gimme.” Tony plucks Steve’s communicator out of his hands and ends the call. The room falls silent again. Tony, with a relieved sigh, packs their communicators away.
Then he pauses, and tugs Steve’s back out again.
“You might as well keep hold of yours, right? Prototype StarkTech is better than no StarkTech at all.”
“If you’re sure...”
“Of course I’m sure. Come on, come on, take it, my arm’s going numb here.”
Tony thrusts it at Steve and lets go. Steve catches it automatically. He turns it over and over in his hands, grinning as he presses his thumb to the corner and watches the blank screen come to life again.
“What about SHIELD?
“What about SHIELD what?”
“You’ve got everyone on here except them. We have to communicate with SHIELD, don’t we?” Tony pulls a face and Steve shrugs, adds, “It would be kinda dumb having to carry their communicators and yours into battle, right?”
“Maybe we don’t have to communicate with SHIELD.”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean...” Tony huffs out a breath, fiddling with the corners of the metal box. “I will never say this again, so listen carefully, but – to give Fury some credit – to give him one tiny iota of credit, he made a good call. This thing. This whole – us – world-saving team thing. But I’m not going to sign my life over to them. They don’t get exclusive rights to point my suit at whatever Fury says needs pointing at.”
“I’m sure Fury wouldn’t abuse his power like that”
Tony looks up at him. “Are you? How sure? And are you sure that’s sure enough? Bastards abuse power, and I’m saying that from a takes one to know one viewpoint.”
“If you’re saying Fury’s anything like you,” Steve says, “then I guess I’m sure enough.”
Tony taps his fingers against the edge of the box. He tugs his communicator out, turns it over in his hands, and then slots it back into place again. Steve watches his eyes dart around the room, never quite landing on him.
“Come on,” Tony says at last, snapping the lid shut. “It’s time to break Thor and Jane up before they actually fuck on my rug.”
He walks away quickly, but Steve follows. He can keep up.
Contrary to Tony’s dire predictions, Thor and the pretty woman who can only by his girlfriend – even in this century, buddies don’t sit that close together, surely? – aren’t doing anything untoward. They’re sitting on the couch; she’s reading a science magazine, with her legs slung over his and his cape tugged around her shoulders; he’s got hold of a little robot and is watching its wheels spin in the air. He quickly puts it down when he sees Tony enter the room.
“I saw that, mister,” Tony says, bypassing the couch and making a beeline straight for the collection of desks and computers in the corner. He grabs a cardboard box from one of the desks before moving on to the bar.
Steve clears his throat and says, “Hi, you must be, uh, Ms-”
“Doctor,” she says, looking up. She smiles and climbs to her feet, jumping over Thor’s long legs. “Dr Foster. But call me Jane, anyway. You’re Steve, right? Should that be Captain Rogers? Sorry, I spend half my life living in a van, chasing storms, and the other half with a Viking, so I’m not great at formalities.”
“Steve’s fine, ma’am – Jane.” He shakes her hand. “So, uh, you’re a doctor? That’s-”
“Don’t say unladylike,” Tony calls from the bar.
“I wasn’t going to say that,” Steve tells her, flushing. “Impressive. It’s impressive. What of? I mean, what are you a doctor of?”
“Thank you. And - astrophysics. I’m actually in town for a conference, to present my findings on the bifrost. The bits of it that SHIELD haven’t classed as state secrets, anyway.”
“I’ve got three PhDs, you know,” Tony says, emerging from the bar at last. He’s got a bottle of vodka in one hand and the box of doughnuts in the other. “I don’t like to brag-”
“Yes, you do,” she says.
“-but there it is, me, my three PhDs. I had a phase. Everyone has a collecting stuff phase. Thor, buddy, a gift for you as promised. You ever collect stuff?”
“Only the swords of my slain enemies, to bring them the shame of an improper burial,” Thor says. He catches the bottle of vodka Tony tosses him with barely the blink of an eye. “But now Asgard is a realm of peace and it is I who feels the shame.”
“Have a doughnut,” Tony says, holding the box out to him.
Thor leaps to his feet joyously, the past shame forgotten as he takes a particularly sticky doughnut. Jane, ducking under his arm, grabs one for herself.
“Aye, let us be merry!” Thor proclaims around his pastry. “And then tomorrow we shall rise early from our beds and seek the glories of knowledge with my dear Jane and her comrades!”
Thor, declaration made, beams at the pair of them. Steve glances at Tony, who is staring at Thor with a look of abject horror; then at Jane, smiling with her hand on Thor’s arm, just smiling. Thor’s own smile dims.
“But surely he who has dedicated his life to the Midgardian sorceries would wish to-?”
“Sorry, I, uh, what was it? I save my glories of knowledge for after breakfast.” Tony crams half a doughnut into his mouth and adds, thickly, “And I don’t have breakfast before eleven am.”
Thor turns his hopeful gaze to Steve, who shrugs and spreads his hands and says, “I’d love to Thor, Jane, but... I’m still adjusting to colour TV. The kind of stuff Jane does is like science fiction to me. And anyway, wouldn’t you rather spend the day as just the two of you?”
Tony snaps his fingers and points at Steve. “Yeah, yeah, a romantic getaway. Nothing says I love you quite like a glorious quest for science, right, Cap?”
“Well, I - I don’t know if I’d put it quite like that, but... yes?”
The words are barely out of his mouth before Tony shoves the rest of the doughnut into his mouth and jerks his head towards the balcony door. Steve hesitates, rubs the back of his neck and glances at Jane.
She rolls her eyes, flapping her hand. “Go, go, oh my god. You don’t need my permission, I promise.”
“Aye, take your leave freely. We are all guests in Tony’s dwelling. Except Tony, of course,” Thor adds. “And our host has spoken wisely! Jane and I shall make our quest together in the morning, as we shall surely make many quests together when she is Queen of my realm.”
He leans down, making to kiss her on the cheek, but Jane turns her head and catches him on the mouth. The kiss they share is chaste and lingering. Steve hears a door open behind him. He’s pretty sure neither of them would notice even another alien invasion right now, but he treads softly anyway, following Tony out onto the balcony.
Tony whistles between his teeth as soon as he’s outside. He dumps the box of doughnuts on the low wall and props his elbows on either side of it, hands loosely clasped over the thousand foot drop, and he shakes his head.
“Jane Foster’s going to be Queen of Asgard. Unless those two break up, which – you’ve seen them now, you know that’s not going to happen this millennia. Dr Jane Foster, Queen of Asgard. It’s got a ring to it.”
“It’s something, alright.”
“I think my ego just crawled into a corner and died. Nothing I say to a girl will ever measure up to, ‘hey baby, wanna be queen of an alien realm where the streets are paved with gold and everyone’s really attractive?’”
“I don’t know,” Steve says. He leans against the wall next to Tony. “Apparently you’ve got magic in your heart.”
“There is that. And you’re the star-spangled man with a Hitler-punching plan.”
“I didn’t punch Hitler. How many times...?”
Tony grins toothily up at him, grabbing another doughnut. “I want to believe.”
Steve sighs. He glances at the window into the living room, then back at Tony again. Tony, frosting in his goatee, raises his eyebrows at him.
“Hey,” Steve says. “Where’s Ms Potts – I mean, Pepper gone?”
“Malibu. Company stuff.” Tony waves a hand, knocking sprinkles off his doughnut. “She’s – it’s physically impossible to overstate how much better a CEO she is than I ever was. It turns out there’s actually a buttload of work involved in running a company as awesome as mine! Who knew, right? So she’s – in Malibu, doing that.”
“You miss her?”
“Look at me, I’m practically comfort eating. Did people do that in the forties?”
“Generally, I didn’t have enough food for that. Maybe richer folk were comfort eating behind closed doors. You’ve, uh, you’ve got some in your...” Steve waves a hand at his chin.
“Shit. You saw nothing. Tell no one of this.”
Quickly eating the rest of his doughnut and licking his fingers, Tony tugs the cuff of his shirt down over his hand and wipes at his beard with it.
Steve bites his cheek, not laughing. Ignoring Tony’s curses, he turns and leans back against the wall, crossing his arms. He cranes his neck to look up at the top of the tower, unable to suppress the memory of how it had looked with a portal to another world torn into the sky above it.
He looks down again.
Through the window, in the living room, Jane is sitting on the couch with her magazine held up to her nose. She barely seems aware of Thor, sitting on the floor next to her with his chin on her thigh, but as Steve watches she turns a page and drops her hand to Thor’s head, running her fingers through his hair. Thor gazes up at her with a look of such pure, naked adoration in his eyes it’s visible even from where Steve is standing. He’s not sure it’s possible for someone to look more in love than that.
Tony taps him on the arm. Steve jumps and swallows heavily, wrenching his gaze away from the sight of Thor and his girl. He meets Tony’s eyes and has to swallow again.
“What?” Tony says. “You look like you just saw a ghost kick a puppy. Am I wearing a white sheet and abusing animals here?”
“No, it’s not-”
“I – had a girl – woman - Peggy,” Steve says, and he’s halfway through the sentence when he realises he’s about to cry. It’s absurd. He clenches his jaw tightly, twists his head away from Tony to glare out over the city and stamp on this sudden surge of grief. It’s absurd, it truly is, when in the last month or so he’s been able to talk about her and think about her again and sometimes even smile at the memories; and now, in front of Tony Stark of all people, his hands are shaking.
“Shit. You, uh.” Tony stammers, breaks off, starts again. “You want the last doughnut?”
“Geez,” Steve grits out through clenched teeth.
“No, right, sorry, ignore me.”
“It’s been seventy years since I saw her, twenty since she passed. Whichever way, it’s long enough to...”
He trails off. There’s a pause, Steve still shaking, and then he feels Tony’s hand on his forearm, the touch gone as quick as it came.
“It’s – it’s okay?” Tony says, as if he doesn’t quite believe his own words. “I mean, I’m sorry. That she’s gone. And that I talked about doughnuts. Who cares about doughnuts? Doughnuts solve nothing.”
“Pass it here,” Steve says. He ignores the sound of his own voice, wrecked and stuffy with unshed tears, and looks back up at Tony.
Tony looks down at the doughnut.
“Really?” he says.
With a sigh, Tony thrusts the box at him. “Take it. Enjoy it. Happy to help.”
“Thank you,” Steve says automatically, reaching into the box and peeling the lone doughnut away from its sticky cardboard. He sniffs, rubs a hand across his face and takes a huge bite. The frosting is pink and sweet.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watches Tony run a finger through the frosting stuck to the box and lick it. He forces himself to swallow.
Tony clears his throat. He looks at Steve warily, as if he’s scared he might start crying again.
“I’ve got a communicator app installed in my suit,” he says, “but I have to check how high altitudes affect the sound quality. Need someone to stand on the ground and listen to me talk.”
“No so different from your everyday life, then.”
Tony grins. “I guess not.”
Down on the street corner, Steve stops to chafe his hands together. The chill doesn’t really bother him, but he’s still aware of it and he’s used to feeling the cold, especially with arms bare and a thin t-shirt. Rubbing his hands together, he turns around and looks up at the tower at the other end of the street. As the sun is going down and stars are slowly, faintly coming out, the tower’s becoming a curve of light, that big A at the top like the star on a Christmas tree. Steve’s still not a fan of the tower in daylight, but he can’t deny it’s beautiful at night.
He taps the Iron Man helmet on his communicator as discreetly as possible, hiding the small device easily in his hand, and he murmurs, “Ready.” The crowd flows on around him regardless. He’s just another obstruction to get by. Either people don’t recognise him out of costume or they just don’t care; it’s hard to tell in New York.
“Houston, we have lift off,” says Tony, in his ear. His voice has a metallic quality that must be from the suit, but it’s still as clear and as close as if he were talking to Steve through a tin can on a bit of string.
Shielding his eyes, Steve backs up and cranes his neck to watch the light at the very top of tower flare up and launch itself out into the sky. A comet, ascending.
“Hey, I can see my house from here.”
“It’s still missing a couple letters, I see.”
“And you still haven’t told me if you want that aardvark.”
Steve snorts, earning himself a suspicious glance from a woman passing by. Despite the hands-free device sitting alien in his ear – which Tony had insisted is used by ‘corporate douchebags the world over’ and won’t make him stand out in the crowd – he lifts the communicator up to his ear as well. He stuffs his free hand into his pocket and begins to stroll, keeping an eye on the stars.
“How’s it sounding?”
“Great. Okay, increasing altitude. Let’s see what this baby can do.”
Steve has to duck under some awning, and dodge a group of slow-moving tourists, and there are skyscrapers constantly blocking his view in every direction. When he looks up again, he can’t see Tony. He walks on.
“Testing, testing,” Tony says. “I can see your house from up here. You left the stove on. Everything’s on fire. Still clear?”
“Still clear,” Steve says, ignoring the rest of it.
“Hey, where you up to now? In the seven decade catch-up, I mean. You must be in the eighties by now, right?”
“I’ve reached 1980.”
“Yeah? How’s that treating you?”
Steve pauses. Someone swears at him and he steps neatly into the entrance of a back alley, out of the way. He leans against the wall.
He’s already been in the twenty-first century long enough that he’s picked up on the cultural echoes of the eighties without studying it, without even really meaning to. The little he’s seen already feels like enough: everything seems to become so artificial, so materialistic and money-hungry. So driven in a way that exhausts Steve just thinking about it. He’s met many driven people in his two lifetimes, but mostly – even now – it’s been the drive for survival.
He frowns up at the faint, polluted stars. 1980 hangs above his head like a dividing line, over thirty years of missed time on either side of it. One day soon, he’ll stop learning about what came after his time and start learning about what came before this time. There’s a difference there Steve can’t quite explain.
He went to see a Colonel Pete Jeffries last week, who had been barely eighteen when Steve knew him. Now Pete’s in his eighties and deaf in one ear, with shrapnel in his knee; and Steve’s older than him, technically. He’d told Steve that he’d barely touched a computer in his life. Didn’t understand how his TV worked. Had a grandson, a good kid, who set it all up for him and showed him twice a week how to change the channels. It never stuck. It’s perfectly possible, he’d told Steve, to get by in 2012 without really understanding it and to still be happy. You don’t need to know everything.
Pete has a grandson. Pete has five grandkids, in fact, and two daughters and a son. Pete has a life, a full eighty years of it plus change, and when he dies – which they both know will be soon – he’ll probably die happy.
Steve needs to know everything, or else what has he got?
In his ear, Tony clears his throat. Steve blinks, realises he’s been staring up at the sky in silence and he doesn’t know for how long. His neck doesn’t hurt, because he’s a super soldier, but it feels as if it wishes it hurt.
“I’m not so sure about the eighties,” Steve says.
“Nah, wasn’t my favourite decade either. Skip it. Hey, I think I see you. Wave.”
Steve waves, and spots Iron Man halfway through the motion, a hovering trail of light. He waves again. Iron Man loop-the-loops in response.
“But seriously,” Tony adds, a little breathless. “Skip it. Actually, catch up on all the tech advances, because that’s important. Computing, cell phones, the world wide web, et cetera. You might actually understand some of what I say then and that’d benefit all mankind. Watch Back to the Future, you’ll like it. Avoid everything with shoulder pads, okay?”
“Avoid me in the eighties too. I mean it. Puberty. Couldn’t grow facial hair. It wasn’t pretty.”
“That’s why you hate the eighties? Because you couldn’t grow your dumb beard?”
He watches. Up in the sky, Tony falls silent and Iron Man flies in another giant loop before Tony responds. Steve suddenly, abruptly, can’t remember what year it was that Howard died.
“Love me, love my goatee. How’m I sounding?”
“Great. Let’s call it a night.”
He should know what year Howard died.
“I’m sorry,” Steve blurts out. “About your beard. That was rude of me.”
Tony laughs with a metallic echo. “It’s fine. I’ve heard worse. Pepper’s said worse. Hey, race you back to the bar.”
“You’re in a flying metal suit.”
“And you’re Captain America. Come on, make George Washington proud.”
Steve huffs out a breath, part sigh and part laughter. Overhead, he sees the light flare outwards brightly for a second and then it streaks across the sky, Tony whooping in his ear. He’s fast, but – Steve thinks, as he walks back out of the alley - he’ll have to get out the suit before he can get to the bar and the disassembly line only goes at walking pace. JARVIS can probably work the elevator faster than that if you ask him nicely.
Steve breaks into a jog and then, shoving the communicator into his pocket, breaks into a run.
SORRY, THIS TOOK LONGER THAN EXPECTED. On the plus side, it took longer than expected because it's twice as long as I'd expected. So much so I had to split it into two to maintain some semblance of chapter length consistency, although it's one long chapter in spirit.
As ever, many thanks to everyone on tumblr who helped answer all my occasionally rather stupid questions about New York/American Things/Stuff (especially elizardbits, my Hulkspiration.)
Steve’s pocket starts to beep and vibrate a couple weeks later, in the middle of the grocery store.
SHIELD had been keeping his shelves stocked and presumably, although Steve doesn’t like to think about it too much now it’s dawned on him, also getting rid of anything that went bad while he was out of town for weeks at a time. It was one of the more surreal moments of Steve’s life – and that includes the Red Skull, and Dr Banner, and the helicarrier – when he got home from a jog, a few days after visiting Tony, to find an agent unpacking groceries onto his neglected shelves in his neglected kitchen.
He made the agent take it all to the nearest homeless shelter. If Steve’s really going to be here, in Brookyln, in the twenty-first century, then he’s going to buy his own darn groceries.
Although he did make the agent a cup of coffee first. He figures being self-reliant doesn’t mean being rude, wherever you might be.
Steve fishes his communicator out of his pocket and makes a vague attempt to dig out the ear piece without dropping anything. It still feels so strange, having something in your ear like that. He gives up and answers it like a telephone, standing in the middle of the cereal aisle.
“What do you know about breakfast cereals?” he says.
There’s a pause.
“They come in boxes,” Tony says. “Good with milk, better dry. Traditionally eaten with spoons. I mean, what, what do you want from me here? A research proposal?”
“I’m just trying to... I thought I’d try something new, but there’s such a lot. Do you have a favourite?”
“Pepper eats muesli so now I... eat muesli. Uh, it’s not bad, if you like chewing. You seem like a guy who appreciates a good, healthy chew, right? Am I right? But before Pep, I always told the personal shopper to get whatever looked the most like actual candy.”
Tucking the communicator tighter between his ear and his shoulder, Steve picks up a box of oatmeal. He drops it into his basket and then, looking around him – Tony has satellites and highly advanced robots, Tony could probably watch his every move if he wanted to – grabs a box of what looks like tiny cookies and marshmallows and frowns down at it. It doesn’t look much like breakfast food.
“Yeah,” Tony says, wistfully. “Disgustingly awesome. Anyway, get your ass over here.”
“Perambulate your buttocks to my place of residence. Bring the shield. It’ll be fun, I promise.”
“Okay,” Steve says, dropping the cookies and marshmallows into his basket too. He carefully juggles communicator and shopping basket to tick cereal off his shopping list, as he moves on to the next aisle. He pauses. “Wow, there sure are a lot of different kinds of milk.”
“What? No, come on, I happen to know for a fact that cows were invented before you were born. They were at least turn of the century, right? Cars, cows, cinema, the three Cs.”
“You know, you’re not nearly as funny as you think you are,” Steve says. He picks up a bottle of 2% and examines it closely, while Tony splutters with laughter in his ear. “I couldn’t drink milk before, so I never paid much close attention. It made me sick.”
“Why am I not surprised? You really were the life and soul of the pre-war party, huh?”
“I got in a lot of fights.”
Tony hums thoughtfully into his ear. “That doesn’t surprise me either,” and then there’s the sound of something exploding in the background and Tony breathes, “Oh, now that’s interesting,” and hangs up.
Steve takes the communicator away from his ear and looks at it for a little while.
Then he buys milk.
It’s a sunny day and Steve hums to himself as he jogs up the steps of Stark Tower, nodding to Mark and waving to Ms Clark and smiling at all the business folk in the lobby who shoot confused looks at him and his oddly-shaped gym bag – all he could find to fit his shield in at short notice – as he passes them by.
He hums Memphis Minnie during the ride up in the elevator and something catchy he heard on the wireless as the doors slide open and he steps out into the familiar sight of the living room. The place seems empty at first glance, but when Steve walks further inside he spots Ms Potts sitting in the corner, at a desk covered in paperwork. She looks tired, and as she lifts her head to look at him without enthusiasm, Steve feels the spring fall out of his step.
“He’s down in his lab with the others,” she says before Steve can ask, and then, huffing out a breath and shaking her head, brushing her hair out of her eyes, she says, “Sorry. Hello, Steve. It’s good to see you again. Bureaucracy makes me rude.”
“It happens to the best of us, Ms Potts, ma’am.”
“No, it doesn’t, but thank you for pretending. And call me Pepper,” she adds. “I mean it. Ms Potts sounds like someone’s maiden aunt, and god knows I’m neither of those things.”
Steve coughs. He clasps his hands behind his back. “I’ll try. Pepper. “
Ms Potts – Pepper looks up at him thoughtfully, her head on one side, and then she smiles. A proper smile. It makes her look a lot less tired.
“At ease, soldier. You’re too cute. Go play with your friends. Actually, you might want to go change into something else first, if you value your shirt. Playdates with Tony usually end in explosions.”
“Uh.” Steve glances down at himself. He’s only wearing a simple button down, but he likes it. “Tony only said to bring my shield.”
She purses her lips, frowning. “He didn’t tell you-? Of course he didn’t. After that night with the towels, Tony took your – well, JARVIS took your measurements and ordered some spare clothes for you. They’re in your room.”
“That’s...” Steve pauses, searching for the appropriate words. “News to me,” he finishes lamely.
“I’m sorry. He only stalks the people he likes, I swear. It’s affectionate really. He kept turning up in my department for weeks before I accepted his job offer. Oh god, that sounds awful, doesn’t it? It wasn’t as awful as it sounds.”
“Well, I don’t think he’s looking to hire me.”
“No,” Pepper says. “Even worse.”
She laughs, and then – at Steve’s quizzical look – laughs harder. She shakes her head, waves a hand. “Forget I spoke. I’m sorry, I – I’m not fit for human company today anyway. And I’ve got all this paperwork to sign, so you should just get out while you can.”
“It was nice talking to you, all the same.”
“Oh, Steve?” Pepper calls him after when he’s halfway to the elevator. Steve turns quickly, to see her half rising from her desk, her hands braced on the edge of it. “Could you remind Tony the board wants the new designs by Friday? I won’t hold my breath, but I guess the more people tell him the higher the likelihood he might remember. This deadline’s important.”
“Board, designs, Friday. Important. Got it.” Steve nods and at Pepper’s quick thumbs up, he heads back towards the elevator. “Have a nice day, Ms – Pepper.”
He hears her laugh and say, “You, too.”
When Steve looks back through the elevator doors, Pepper is still standing behind her desk, her arms crossed loosely over her stomach, watching him. Steve hesitates.
“The labs are on floors twenty to thirty,” she says. “But he’s probably down in the basement workshop. When in doubt, ask JARVIS.”
He presses level three on the number pad when it appears. As the doors slide shut, he looks up. Pepper’s smiling faintly with her head to one side, as if she’s thinking of a private joke, but her smile widens when he catches her eye. She lifts a hand in goodbye then lets it drop back down to her elbow.
She looks smaller than she ought to, standing alone in that cavernous room with her arms around herself.
Sure enough, up in that same, familiar guest room with the terrific view, there are a few spare sets of clothes in Steve’s size. He carefully unbuttons his shirt and leaves it draped over the back of the desk chair, and he pulls a soft, grey sweatshirt on over his undershirt. Then he just sits down on the edge of the bed and stares out the windows. Tony sure knew what he was doing when he put him in a room with a view like this.
After a little while, Steve gets up and heads back to the elevator, where he hits the button for the basement.
It’s familiar down here as well, from the times he’s gone down to collect his motorbike. Steve steps out of the elevator into the vast, grey parking lot and the rows of expensive cars, but he’s never seen the workshop. There is the row of other elevators, and at the end of the parking lot there’s the tunnel that leads back up to street level, the rumble of overhead traffic echoing down through it; the only other door is huge and metal, big enough to drive a truck through, set into the wall halfway between the elevators and the exit tunnel.
Steve jogs over to it and presses his thumb to the panel at the side. The door slides open into a room just a bit smaller than Steve’s apartment, with regular sized doors on either side and another, even bigger metal door in the wall opposite.
He steps into the room. The door shuts behind him, and for one brief moment Steve’s at a loss, until he hears faint noises coming through the giant door before him. If the metal’s as thick as he thinks it is, then the noises must be very loud indeed, and that sounds like Tony Stark.
There’s no panel to touch this time, so he just walks forwards and hopes for the best.
“Sir, I must warn you-” JARVIS begins to say, even as the door slides open.
Steve barely has a chance to step inside before someone shouts and he’s aware of a whistling sound heading straight for him. He flings himself to the side, ducking and rolling into a crouch, and above him the whistling is cut off by an abrupt crunch.
Steve looks up to see a giant green fist, bigger than his head, with the broken remains of an arrow poking out from between its fingers.
“In retrospect, I should probably aim away from doors,” Clint Barton calls from the other end of the workshop, lowering his bow.
“Yes,” Steve says. “Good idea.”
He slides out from under the Hulk’s fist and straightens up cautiously. The Hulk stares down at him, breathing out through his nose hard enough to ruffle Steve’s hair. Without blinking, he crushes the arrow in his fist and lets the shards spill out onto Steve’s head.
“Little captain,” he growls.
“That was some catch, big guy. Thanks.”
The Hulk grunts, but he tilts his head in what could be a nod and says, “Small man wanna talk to you.”
Steve glances sideways at Clint and Tony. By no stretch of the imagination could you call either of them tall.
The Hulk growls, “Mine,” and the force of it blows arrow dust back out of Steve’s hair again in a great, angry gust.
“Well, okay.” Steve combs his hair with his fingers, brushing the remaining shards out of his hair, and he looks up at the Hulk, adding – when the Hulk remains giant and green and not Dr Banner – “Now?”
“Hulk busy. Later.”
He turns and knuckles away towards Clint and Tony. Steve lets out a breath and then draws in another, slowly, and he takes a look around. The basement seems to be a cross between an engineering workshop and a workout room; there are archery targets secured to the wall at the far end, sparring mats on the floor. Tony seems incongruous on the edge of it, sitting at a whole array of desks, with his welding goggles on, pushed up to his forehead so his hair sticks up over the top. He waves Steve over.
“The reflexes on this guy,” Tony says, reaching over his desk to pat the Hulk on an arm twice as thick as Tony’s body. “He could be a whack-a-mole world champion.”
“He’d crush it beneath his fists,” Clint says.
“Theoretically world champion.”
Snorting, Clint turns away from Tony and nods at Steve as he approaches. “Captain.”
“Agent.” Steve nods back. “Good to see you again. How are you? And Natasha? She’d injured her arm last time I saw her.”
“Nat’s fine. We’re both fine. Physically, anyway,” Clint adds, darkly.
Tony groans without looking up from his work, focussed on the notes he’s writing straight onto the surface of his desk. “Tone down the dramatics, Barton. You’re on vacation.”
“Forced vacation,” Clint insists. “Nat got stabbed because she got made. Turns out it’s hard to be a spy once you’re a world famous, alien-ass-kicking hero. Sooner or later, someone puts two and two together and gets stabby. So we’re both benched while SHIELD figures out what to do with us.”
“I suggested plastic surgery,” Tony stage whispers to Steve.
Steve ignores him, patting Clint on the shoulder. “I’m sorry, that’s a tough situation.”
“You’re telling me. I have all this free time, now. What do civilians do all day?”
They both turn towards Tony, until Tony lowers his pen and looks up at them, spreading his hands.
“Don’t look at me. I’m sitting in an underground bunker with a bored superspy, the Big Sleep and the not so jolly, green giant, working on some of the most advanced – and coolest – tech in the world. I’m unique. Have you tried making new friends? Getting a new hobby? Developing an addiction to internet porn and-or World of Warcraft?”
“I sketch,” Steve suggests.
Clint makes a noise of profound disgust. He stalks away, drawing an arrow from his quiver as he goes and firing it straight into the target without a hitch in his step. And then, and again, a whole row of bull’s-eyes forming. The Hulk lumbers after him and swats at the arrows in the air, until Clint turns and starts firing them for him to catch – and to crush.
“Remember, kids,” Tony calls. “It’s all fun and games until Captain America loses an eye.”
“Is this why you called me here today?” Steve asks, swinging his gym bag off his shoulder and leaning it against the side of the desk. “To play catch with the Hulk? Not that it doesn’t make for an interesting change, but...”
“No, that wasn’t it. Although that sounds like a whole heap of fun. It’d be the ultimate ultimate Frisbee, right? Never mind,” Tony adds, as Steve shakes his head in confusion, and he spins in his desk chair, pushing a case towards Steve with his feet. “Look, upgrades.”
He kicks the lid open, revealing a half dozen more communicators packed inside. Steve raises an eyebrow and pulls one out, examines it from all angles.
“It doesn’t seem any different.”
“That’s the magic of it – no, screw magic, that’s the science of it. Microfine coating of a titanium-steel alloy,” Tony says, grinning. “Keeping the touchscreen responsive was hell. Took my entire Black Sabbath playlist to fix it.”
“So it’s – what? Really strong?”
“Yes, Victoria, it’s ‘really strong.’ Not perfect – who wants to carry things around in battle? You, I guess. And Black Widow has all those scary little knives. Where does she keep those? In her hair? I need to work something into your suits. Give me your gloves one day, I’ll see what I can do with that–”
Steve, letting Tony’s voice wash over him, looks back down at the communicator. He tosses it from one hand to the other, weighs it in the palm of his hand, and then reels his arm back and throws it as hard as he can at the opposite wall.
He’s not one to brag, but his weapon of choice is a big metal disc. Throwing as hard as he can is pretty darn hard. Even Tony falls silent to watch it sail through the air and hit the wall. It bounces off and clatters onto the floor, the sound echoing through the workshop.
Clint jogs over and nudges it with the end of his bow.
“It’s scratched,” he says. “But so’s the paint. I call it a draw.”
“Terrific.” Tony claps his hands together. “Cap, toss your shield at it. Hulk, if you would...?”
The Hulk grunts and knuckles across the floor, flicking Clint out of the way – Clint yelps and almost falls over – and he picks the communicator up between finger and thumb. It looks tiny in his hand.
“We attached it to one of the targets first,” Tony says, “but that got old fast. I’ve had more convincing battle simulations in my bed, and I mean while sleeping, not – Anyway, what’s the point in having a teammate who turns into the mean green smashing machine if you can’t shoot arrows at him sometimes, right?”
“Hey,” Clint says, “Hulk should balance it on his head, see if Cap can knock it off with his shield-”
The Hulk growls at him.
Clint backs up, lifting his hands. “Or don’t, it’s cool. I respect your choices. The choice to not put things on your head is – is totally valid.”
The Hulk, Steve swears, actually rolls his eyes at that and he lifts the communicator up higher pointedly, glaring at Steve.
“O-kay,” Steve says slowly.
He kneels down and tugs his shield out of the distorted gym bag, wincing when he hears something rip, and then he rubs the face of the shield gently with the cuff of his sweatshirt. As he straightens up, Clint begins to hum the national anthem.
Ignoring him, ignoring Tony’s sniggers and the low, constant rumble of the Hulk’s growl, Steve focuses on the communicator in the Hulk’s hands.
“I don’t normally throw it in confined spaces-” he starts to say, but they all groan, Tony flapping his hands, Clint shouting, “Come on!”
Steve breathes in slowly, and draws his arm back, and throws.
There’s a moment of perfect silence, as he lets his breath out again and his shield cuts through the air. It’s swiftly followed by an almighty racket: the shield hits the communicator and both go flying; the Hulk roaring; communicator rattling across the floor; shield ricocheting off the wall, off the ceiling, off the floor, until it slides to a halt at Steve’s feet.
Tony lets out a long, low whistle through his teeth. “Well, that was fun.”
Clint jogs over to the communicator and picks it up, turning it over and over in his hands and then lifting it up to the light and studying it some more.
“It’s cracked,” he shouts back to them. “I think that puts you in the lead, Cap.”
“I don’t think it’s really a competition.”
“Of course it’s a competition,” Tony says. “It’s always a competition. Come on, Barton, get your butt back here. Lemme see.”
He holds out his hand, opening and closing his fingers impatiently while Clint jogs back with the communicator. Clint throws it at him, but Tony catches it. He runs his fingers over the crack.
“Again!” roars the Hulk.
Tony looks up at Steve, smirking. “Well, come on, Captain. Have you got what it takes to break the damn thing?”
What it takes, it turns out, is two more throws of the shield, at which point the communicator as good as explodes out of the Hulk’s hand, parts flying everywhere amid the smell of burning. The Hulk roars – really, really roars, leaving Steve’s ears ringing, and he stamps on every last little piece of the communicator he can find until the floor shakes.
“Yeah, you really showed it who’s boss,” Tony says. “You big baby.”
The Hulk sits down heavily on the floor and puts his fingers in his mouth, glaring at them all. After a moment’s pause, he punches the ground with his free hand. The concrete cracks under his fist.
“I’ll give you something to cry about,” Clint says, reaching into his quiver.
“Don’t blame me when you run out of arrows,” Tony says.
“I’m SHIELD’s kept boy right now. They’d build me a statue of myself out of arrows if they thought it’d keep me occupied.”
As if to prove his point, Clint fires his arrow at the Hulk. It’s just a basic arrowhead and it bounces off the Hulk as uselessly as if it were made of cotton candy, but the Hulk stares down at it in surprise. He takes his fingers out of his mouth.
“Pointy little man,” he growls, lumbering to his feet.
Steve picks his shield up again, checking carefully for scratches or scorch marks in the paintwork. He rubs it down with the cuff of his sweatshirt again as he crosses the room, back to Tony at his desk.
“Is it safe,” Steve murmurs, “having him Hulk out in here? Not that I think he’ll hurt us,” he adds as Tony lifts his head and shoots him a scandalised look. “He saved your life, I know he won’t hurt us anymore. But he could damage the tower, couldn’t he?”
Tony, lips curling up at the corners, lowers his head again. “You know I’ve essentially got a teeny, tiny nuclear reactor in my chest, right? Just saying. Pretty dangerous. Anyway, I damage this tower on such a regular basis I put the builders on speed dial.”
“Uh huh. Is that before or after the pizza boy?”
“Hah!” Tony declares, pointing his pen at Steve. It has a glowing tip. “After. Towers come and go, but pizza is forever.”
“All I’m saying is, I’ve never seen your arc reactor punch a, a – giant snake from space in the head and win.”
“Give me time. Time and a giant space snake.”
Chuckling despite himself, Steve drags a stool closer and takes a seat, half watching Clint and the Hulk taunt each other and half watching Tony scribble onto his desk – onto, Steve realises, looking twice, a black panel set into the surface of the desk, like a giant computer monitor. He leans in closer for a better look, and Tony rolls his chair sideways to give it to him.
“Oh,” Steve says. “I almost forgot. Pepper asked me to remind you, uh, the board wants the designs on-”
“On Friday, yeah, yeah. They only nag me because they’re embarrassed, you know. The board. When we stopped making weapons they were all weeping in the showers, defecting to Hammer, preparing for ritual suicide. Obviously we’re more successful than ever now. I think I’ve given them all complexes.”
“I can imagine,” Steve says. “Though Pepper did say this deadline was important.”
“They’re all important to her. That’s why she’s the CEO and I’m.” Tony hesitates, lowering his pen to mull it over. His mouth slips into a slow grin. “I’m the man behind the curtain.”
“I understood that one.”
“I did it all for you.”
There’s a pause, punctuated by Tony’s scribbling. Resting his chin on his hand, Steve watches Clint fire another arrow at the Hulk. It explodes when he catches it, and the Hulk roars indignantly, beating his chest while Clint laughs.
“Pepper....” he says. “She must work hard.”
“Yeah, she does. Pepper’s a powerhouse - a whirlwind of organisation with an iron fist. She runs the company so hard it’d probably make even my old man weep with joy, and god knows he was hard to please.”
Turning around, Steve looks at Tony properly. “He... wasn’t. Not how I knew him, anyway. Hard-working, sure. Dedicated. But he always had time for...” He pauses, searching for the words. He hasn’t thought about Howard in a while. Time for rescue missions. Whiskey. Costume redesigns. “For fun. He always had time to help a fella out, I guess.”
“Yeah,” Tony says. “Maybe.”
“What do you mean?”
Tony shrugs, not looking up from his computer.
“Well, you sure as hell lived up to his expectations, didn’t you? Pleased him enough he never shut up about it till the day he died. Hell, maybe his last words were ‘Captain America could drive better than you.’ Wouldn’t surprise me. Though, to be fair, that guy crashed the car five seconds later, so Captain America could drive better than him.”
“Cap. I’m just saying, maybe he was always a hardass and you just never saw it, because you’re – you. Being perfect is part of your whole shtick, isn’t it?” Tony shrugs again. He’s still making a show of staring at his work, but his back is very straight, and he’s holding himself very still.
Steve sighs and then, on the same breath, shaking his head, he starts to laugh. “Sometimes I honestly can’t tell whether you’re paying me a compliment or insulting me.”
At the sound of Steve’s laughter, Tony swivels around to stare at him incredulously, until he too begins to smirk. It looks a little pained, but it’s there, all the same.
“It’s all part of the Stark mystique,” he says, shaking his head. “Gotta keep you on your toes.”
Steve breathes out slowly, quietly. It’s good to know that they can do this, just about; talk about Howard and come out the other side still breathing. He watches the tension bleed out of the line of Tony’s back as he returns to his work.
Steve watches the quick movements of Tony’s hands.
“What’re you working on?” he asks, after a moment of silence.
“I - will show you,” Tony says. “In – just – a...”
He makes a couple more notes. Then, with a dragging motion, he lifts his glowing pen up away from the computer panel and-
“Holy moly!” Steve exclaims, as the bright blue lines lift up off the panel and expand into the air.
The diagram blows apart like a floating jigsaw of circuitry. He reaches out a hand.
“Ah, ah, hold it!” Tony exclaims, though he’s smirking. “Touch responsive.”
Steve scoots closer, craning up and ducking down till he’s eye-level with every part of the hologram he passes. Even up close, he has no idea what it’s a diagram of, but it’s one heck of a show. He can admire the shapes and the lines and the way it’s floating in midair, if nothing else. Tony twists his hand obligingly so the hologram spins in the air, components passing inches from Steve’s eyes.
“Wow, you’re great for my ego. Or terrible, Pepper’d vote terrible. I need to have a time traveller in every workshop. From the past, anyway. I’m probably only slightly impressive in the future. You got any friends from the nineteenth century? Cavemen, any cavemen? I could probably convince cavemen I’m a god...”
“No,” Steve breathes. “What is this?”
“Hands free for the terrible twins,” Tony declares. At Steve’s quizzical look, he makes a complex gesture and the exploded parts pull back together into the shape of something a bit like Steve’s ear piece, but a lot more complicated. “For Bruce and his roomie. Putting things in people’s ears, easy. Getting things to stay in while people turn into angry green giants – well, also easy. For me. I’m a genius. But slightly less easy.”
“How’d you solve it?”
“I... haven’t, yet. What? Even easy things take effort, sometimes. I’m an engineer, not a wizard. I don’t conjure, I build, and I’d be building a whole lot quicker if somebody didn’t keep crushing the prototypes. Yeah, I’m talking to you, mister,” he adds, raising his voice, when the Hulk roars in their direction. “You’re a menace! You should be locked up!”
The Hulk roars again, the strength of it making Steve flinch despite himself, but Tony just laughs and shakes his head, turning his attention back to the hologram.
“Making something expand when pressure decreases is simple. I’m talking clicky pen simple, here. Even you aren’t impressed by clicky pens, right?”
“The novelty wore off pretty quick,” Steve admits.
“Right.” Tony nods and, lifting up his hands, tug the blueprints apart again, flinging layers of technology away. Steve automatically dodges as bits of it fly past his face at a wave of Tony’s hands, and when he lifts his head again Tony is smirking at him and all that’s left of the Hulk’s ear piece is a simple framework of springs hanging in the air.
“It’s easy,” Tony says, “except for how the Hulk is a big ol’ grumpy gus with sensitive ears. I should probably just quit being clever and bribe him.”
He snaps his fingers, and the discarded parts snap back into position. Like magic.
Steve reaches out his hand again. “Can I?”
“Sure. Look, for a beginner, this is probably the easiest...” Tony beckons and Steve begins to step forward before he realises the hologram has moved too, sailing in the direction of Tony’s gesture and disappearing as smoothly as if it just stepped off camera. A new set of blueprints slide into place.
“Works with either hand in either direction, we’re not talking rocket science here. You’re a smart guy, in your own special way. Then, just spread your hands if you wanna expand the schematics, pull for a closer look. Safe mode, JARVIS. For the love of god and science, the safest mode.”
“Of course, sir.”
Stepping forwards, Steve cautiously lifts his hands and draws them apart and he can’t suppress his burst of laughter as the lights respond to his motions, the diagram expanding and then – as he quickly claps his hands together again – just as quickly retracting.
“Now you,” Tony says, pointing at him, “are easy to please.”
“I’m not so sure of that.” Steve pulls the hologram apart again, slower this time, just admiring the way that the lines move and the light follows his fingers. Maybe it’s more beautiful not knowing what it is. “I just know a good thing when I see it.”
“Can I get one of these?”
“Ha, see, there we go. You were just buttering me up to get your hands on my awesome tech. This – this isn’t actually available for the public–”
“Oh. Well, I–”
“Ah, ah, let me finish, come on. Geez. Aren’t you meant to be the polite one? You want one, you can have one. Have two. I’ll build you two.”
“What would I do with two?”
“Feel smug? That’s what I usually do.”
Steve smiles, spinning the hologram in a slow circle. Through the other side of it, Tony grins at him, blue light shifting and dancing all across his face. He lifts a hand and pulls a couple sections away from Steve and towards himself, separating parts with practiced flicks of his fingers and making them spin.
“You don’t even know what it is you’re playing with, do you?”
Tony snorts, and then they both jump as a giant hand swats through the air before them. The light scatters and shuts off and the Hulk frowns down at his fists, uncurling his fingers and peering under his arms and feet.
“Smash?” he says uncertainly.
“You sure did, buddy.” Tony pats him on the arm, turning back to the computer in his desk – Steve recognises the diagram that was just floating in the air, now turning slowly on the screen. Just like magic, he thinks again.
Clint props his elbows on the edge of the desk, peering down at them.
“If you two are done finger painting,” he says. “Hulk’s bored. I’m taking him out for ice cream.”
“You crazy kids have fun. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“Stark, what wouldn’t you do?”
Tony draws in a breath, straightening up and lifting his finger as if he’s about to answer Clint. He hangs like that for a moment, then begins to tap his chin in deep concentration, mouthing the question.
Clint rolls his eyes and waves Hulk out the door.
“Now, wait just a second,” Steve begins, as the door slides shut behind them.
He turns to Tony, who has already turned back to his work.
“That exit leads right out onto the street, doesn’t it?”
“It sure does.”
Steve pauses. He crosses and uncrosses his arms.
“Agent Barton’s a highly trained professional,” he says, more for his own benefit than anything else, but Tony lowers his pen and frowns at the door as well.
“You’re right,” he says. “Why should he have all the fun?”
“That’s not what I was getting at.”
Tony shoots him a sceptical look. “Don’t you want ice cream? I want ice cream.”
“I want to make sure those two don’t do any damage,” Steve says, resting his hands on his hips. Tony grins up at him, and grins, and grins, until Steve lowers his hands and adds, “I guess I could go for some ice cream as well.”
“It’s the American dream. JARVIS, hold all current projects, keep the homefires burning, try not to pine for us while we’re gone.”
“I shall endeavour, sir, though I might not succeed.”
Tony snaps his fingers and the computer screen goes dark. He turns on Steve with that effervescent smile.
“Want a lift, Captain?” he asks.
“This is incredible!” Steve shouts over the roar of the wind.
It’s not at all comfortable, being lugged through the sky like a sack of potatoes while he clings onto the all-too-smooth armour for dear life. He can’t even keep his eyes open long enough to admire the view, but it’s worth it for the sensations alone. For the wind in his hair.
“I mean,” he shouts, “I feel ridiculous, but-”
“You feel ridiculous? I’m the one hugging you closer than a body pillow.”
Despite the velocity, Tony’s voice comes through close and clear, thanks to the ear piece he forced on Steve, insisting “hitching rides with robot armour is stupid enough; hitching a ride with the robot armour without being able to hear what I’m saying is a whole new level of moronic.” Much as Steve hates the feel of it in his ear, he can’t deny that Tony had a point.
Opening his eyes a fraction, the reflection of sun off the skyscrapers is dazzling. He squeezes his eyes shut again and laughs, and the wind snatches the sound of that away too.
“Hey,” Tony says. “Money.”
“There’s a traffic jam the size of Texas down there and – oh, would you look at that? I spy with my little eye something beginning with ‘H’.”
Steve squints, but all he can is movement and light. “The Hulk?”
“We have a winner.”
“What’s that got to do with money?”
“Let’s find out.”
The suit descends.
Loose pieces of paper money drift past their faces. Steve, blinking dust and cold tears out of his eyes, squints down at the tableau Tony’s lowered them into: the street has ground to a standstill, the cars stuck at the back honking their horns angrily, although the drivers at the front all seem to have gotten out and joined in the show. The crowd must be at least a couple hundred strong, and in the middle of it Clint has half a dozen men on their knees, their hands on their heads while he points an arrow at them almost lazily.
“You brought your bow?” Tony calls. “Who goes out for ice cream with a bow and arrow?”
Clint twists, craning to look up at them.
“Glad you could make it, Cap,” he shouts. “Stark, you’ve missed the party.”
“Barton, I am the party.”
Hovering ten feet over the crowd, Steve’s feet are level with the Hulk’s face – the Hulk, who is sitting quite calmly by his standards on the roof of a thoroughly crushed car, twenty and fifty dollar bills spilling out of the busted trunk and getting caught in the breeze. He’s holding a weeping, trembling man by the ankle, swinging him back and forth.
“I don’t know what you’re crying about, pal,” Clint throws over his shoulder, without taking his eyes off his own captives. “He got you out of the vehicle before he sat on it, didn’t he? That makes you one of the lucky ones.”
The guy cries harder.
Steve sighs. Ignoring all the cameras that turn to flash in his direction the second he moves, he jumps down onto the Hulk’s shoulder and from there springs to the ground. Someone cheers, but Steve straightens up and rests his hands on his hips, and he frowns. At the on-lookers, and the Hulk and Clint, and at the men cowering at Clint’s feet.
“Would someone please explain to me what the heck is going on?”
“We’re very sorry,” says one of the men kneeling before Clint and Clint’s bow and arrow, “and we won’t do it again.”
“I never wanted to in the first place,” another insists, and then yelps as Clint kicks him in the knee.
“None of that, please,” Steve says.
Clint has the decency to at least pretend to look contrite. “The big guy and me just thwarted a bank robbery, Cap,” he says. “No peace for the wickedly cool.”
“Is anyone hurt?”
“These idiots-” Glancing at Steve, he nudges one of them with his toe. “- fired off a few rounds to scare folks in the bank, but nobody got hurt. My favourite part was when Hulk ate the getaway driver’s gun.”
“He spat the bullets out,” the first speaker says, weakly.
“And then he tried to eat the car,” Clint adds, with a beatific smile.
The Hulk snarls, shaking his captive by the ankle, and says, “Yuck.”
“All the menace of a pissed off gorilla, all the vocab of a two-year-old.” From behind Steve, there’s a familiar whine and a thud as the Iron Man suit makes it landing, and then Tony lifts his faceplate and in his own voice adds, “Let him down now, Hulk. He’s learned his lesson. You’ve taken him to a whole new level of learning his lesson, by the look of him.”
“Gently,” Steve adds, seeing the Hulk begin to draw back his arm as he lets out a long, low growl.
The Hulk shoots him a disgusted look, but whatever he was about to do, he – doesn’t do it. Instead, still growling, he turns the getaway driver the right way up again and lowers him carefully to the ground. The man’s legs fold underneath him and he sits down in the road, staring up at the Hulk, and the Hulk – leaning forwards on his knuckles and bending down, down – lowers his face to stare right back into the man’s eyes, their noses squashed together.
“Boo,” says the Hulk.
The man makes a small, soft noise and flops back onto the tarmac in a dead faint. To the side, Steve can see Clint’s shoulders shaking with almost silent laughter, the point of his arrow remaining utterly steady regardless.
“Okay,” Steve says, turning away. He claps his hands together. “Where are the cops? Didn’t anyone call the cops?”
“JARVIS has me tuned into the police radio,” Tony says. “Seems they can’t make it through. Something about a traffic jam and a huge crowd of people come to watch superheroes take down a bunch of incompetent bank robbers? I know, I know, I’m as surprised as you are.”
Steve pauses, thinking. Learning the new layout of the city was strange and confusing, and even when thinking of then and now as two separate cities it’s hard not to sometimes muddle the two, but he’s always had a good sense of direction.
“The station’s not far,” he says. “It’s a nice day. We can walk. First things first, ma’am, sir? Are you folks from the bank?”
The group he points to just stare at each other, and then at him, in shock, until Steve motions to his chest and adds, “You’ve got the logo on your... Look, we need to get this tidied up, and I figure you’ve got more authority than me to handle this.”
He tugs the black duffle out from under the crumpled trunk of the car, shoving bills that spill out back inside, and holds it out to them.
“Well?” he says.
A woman steps forward and takes the bag from him with a nod.
“Yes sir,” she says.
Steve nods at her, and at the other who start to grab the flyaway notes and shove them back into the bag. He looks round at everyone else.
“Could everyone who took any of the money floating around here hand it back to these folks here, please?”
There are boos from the crowd, and Tony looks askance at him, murmuring, “Good luck with that, Cap.”
Steve frowns. He climbs up next to the Hulk on the roof of the crushed car – it’s not much above ground level, it’s so flattened, but it’s the best he’s got – and he cups his hands into a makeshift megaphone, and he says, “Come on, folks. I know it’s not easy – heck, I know getting by in a Depression’s not easy, but this isn’t like finding a nickel in the gutter. Money in a bank is money that belongs to someone else. Sure, maybe it’s the bad guys or the folks with plenty to spare, but maybe it’s your friends, or neighbours, or your mom. That $20 you grabbed today could make the difference between whether someone goes hungry or not, later down the line.”
Lowering his hands, Steve tries to meet as many eyes as possible, and while some people stare stonily back at him, others look away. He can hear people start to murmur, see them nudge each other. Right at the front, a kid pushes another, scrawnier kid forwards and that kid holds out a crumpled $50 bill.
“Thank you,” Steve says, climbing down from the car to take it from him. “That’s a brave thing you just did.”
He passes the bill to the bank employees, and as more people start to shuffle forwards, avoiding each other’s eyes, he takes a step back to watch. He hears Tony’s heavy, metallic footsteps behind him and turns.
“I’m not sure banking works quite like that,” Tony says, with an odd little smile on his face.
Steve shrugs. “There are always repercussions and, no offence, it’s not usually billionaires bearing the brunt of them.”
“No, it’s true, none taken. I was born with a giant silver spoon made of other, normal-sized spoons in my mouth, I admit it.”
Tony pauses, and they both turn to watch the line of people handing back their grabbed-up dollars. Not everyone will give it back, Steve knows, and maybe not even most will, but maybe it’ll be enough to make a difference.
Tony nudges him in the side
“Hey,” he says. “Nice speech. I think I saw a biker gang crying at the back there. Big, hairy, tattooed, blowing their noses. It was moving, I was moved. Do you have a touching speech prepared for every occasion or did the super-duper serum come with a bonus SAT Writing paper?”
“I spent the first twenty-five years of my life with not much to do but read,” Steve says. “So, neither.”
“Forget Thor, you write my next press release. You speak, people cry and give you money. It’ll be great.”
“Do you offer everyone jobs?”
“Nah.” Tony shakes his head. “Only my favourites.”
They drift back into silence, watching the bag fill back up with its lost money. It’s a sunny day still, despite the approach of fall, and Steve can feel the Iron Man suit giving off heat next to him like a warm body.
“I think we’ve got as much of it back as we’re ever going to,” Tony says at last.
They share a look.
“I think you could be right,” Steve says.
He steps forward and raises his hand, drawing the rest of the team’s attention.
“Iron Man, go at the front, keep our path clear-” He sees Tony nod as the faceplate slides back down, and Iron Man shoots up into the air. “Hawkeye, get them on their feet, get them in line. Single file. We’re going on the sidewalk, so I want you between them and the road at all times. If any of you fellas try to make a break for it,” he adds, pointing a finger at the bank robbers as Clint hustles them to their feet, “the Hulk will catch you.”
They all nod shakily, although none of them look particularly fit for a daring escape. Satisfied, Steve turns to the Hulk.
“You heard me,” he says. “Come up the rear. Catch anyone who makes a break for it, but don’t hurt them. Can you carry the car? I don’t know what use it’ll be as evidence since you sat on it, but we’re better safe than sorry.”
The Hulk snorts, heaving the car up onto his shoulder as easily as if it were a punching bag. It shakes and creaks. Without the Hulk sitting on it, Steve can just about make out bite marks in the bumper.
“Why did you try to eat it?”
The Hulk grins. His teeth are like paving slabs. “Hungry.”
Patting Steve on the head with his free hand – Steve’s knees buckle – he stamps away to the end of the crocodile Clint has arranged. Up ahead, Steve can see Iron Man drifting over everyone’s heads, shouting, “Make way, make way, crime-fighting in progress! Superheroes coming through!”
Steve tucks the bag of money under his arm and heaves the getaway driver – starting to groan – over his shoulder and he glances at the bank employees, still huddled together nervously but with the beginnings of grins on their faces now.
“Sorry about all this,” he says. “I don’t know how long this whole thing’s going to take to get straightened out, but you’re welcome to come along if you don’t mind walking.”
They look at each other.
“I love walking,” one of them says.
Hands full, Steve jerks his chin towards Iron Man, flying low and visible and better than any street sign.
“Then follow us,” he says.
As he wends his way through the path Tony’s cleared, to the front of their impromptu crocodile, Steve nods at Clint and at the Hulk – idly spinning one of the car wheels with the tip of his finger while he waits, which is a definite step up from aimless punching – and shields his eyes to gaze up at Iron Man.
“Did you invite the whole street along?” Tony says, lifting the faceplate to peer incredulously down at him. “Are we gonna have a parade?”
Steve looks over his shoulder. The crowd doesn’t seem to be dispersing so much as joining the back of the line. “I said the folks from the bank should come along, but I guess everyone else... wanted to come too.”
Tony flips the faceplate down and swoops off back down the line, circling overhead.
“Well, at least everyone’s staying clear of the Hulk,” he says into Steve’s ear piece. “That’s what I love about New York, the self-preservation instinct. Except for us, I guess.”
“We helped save the world. I think that counts.”
Iron Man flies back into view, drawing to a halt to hover over Steve’s head, but he keeps the faceplate down this time as he says, via the communicator link, “Lot of people, taking a lot of photos. It’s trending on twitter. We’re gonna be internet famous. Even more internet famous, I mean. Bigger than kittens level of famous.”
“I know. I mean, I don’t know quite what you just said, but I got the gist of it.”
“You’re not in costume. Honestly, I gotta say, that hat of yours wasn’t hiding anything. What was that hat? It had wings painted on. If you were trying to mask your identity with that, then it wasn’t working, but I guess the rest of the suit was so spangly people weren’t looking at your face.”
“I know,” Steve says. “I know.”
“I guess so.”
As he starts to walk, he glances back over his shoulder. Clint catches his eye and nods, and past Clint – the man with the highly conspicuous bow and arrow – there’s the giant green man carrying a car, and past that the crowd of people who want to find out how the day’s excitement ends. They’re still holding up traffic, because now drivers keep slowing down to stare and stare at the procession passing by. People, pointing at him.
Steve keeps his eyes up front and focuses on the march, and on the gleam of Iron Man’s flight stabilisers floating just overhead, just out of reach.
“That was fun, right?” Tony says, later, leaning against the railings.
Half the folks who followed them to the police department followed them to the park, although they’re still keeping a wide berth. Steve figures the Hulk with an ice cream sandwich is still the Hulk, and nobody but them wants to stand too close to the Hulk, so it’s almost peaceful. He can focus on the trees and the grass and the glimpses of the Hudson, and the Hulk can focus on his fifth ice cream sandwich, and Clint’s balancing on the handrail, looking extremely focussed too. Steve isn’t sure at what.
Tony has his faceplate up and he slides his newly acquired shades down his nose to peer at Steve. He traded them from a fan by the ice cream stand, in exchange for a picture of the fan kicking Iron Man between the legs.
“That was fun. I particularly enjoyed the part where the chief of police asked for your autograph. Right? Yes?”
“That kind of thing’s happened before.”
“Authority figures love you. You’re the anti-me. You could probably get Obama to eat a cookie out of your hand. I mean it. Clinton, too.”
“I... don’t want to feed the President a cookie.”
“Really? You sure? ‘Cause we’re gonna get invited to dinner at the White House sooner or later and I know a place that does a great chilli and chocolate.”
Steve frowns across at Tony – Tony, who is leaning back with his elbows on the handrail, his ankles crossed, his shades on the end of his nose, holding his ice cream cone up high to lick melted ice cream from the juncture between finger and thumb. He’s so casual you could almost forget he’s wearing a red and gold robot suit.
Steve can’t really forget it.
“Don’t lick it,” he groans.
Hand still up and tongue still out, Tony lifts his eyes to stare at Steve. He licks the last of the ice cream up pointedly and says, “It’s my highly advanced armour and I’ll lick it if I want to.”
“You wouldn’t lick an airplane, would you?”
“I would,” Tony says. “I will. I own a jet, you know. I could get it over here specially.”
“Please don’t do that.”
Tony grins at Steve, wide enough and bright enough that Steve wouldn’t be surprised to find a picture of him licking a jet in his mail tomorrow. Steve sighs, propping his elbows up on the railing, and he smiles out at the Hudson. It’s only when mint choc chip drips onto his fingers that he remembers to lick his own cone.
“I remember them building this,” he says. “The construction workers were like superheroes to me and Bucky. One of them gave me a dollar once.”
“I got in a fist fight with a spy up here,” Clint says, around a mouthful of his own ice cream sandwich. He smiles fondly, ice cream in the cracks between his teeth, and points into the nearby bushes. “Right there. About ten years ago, when the place was a dump. Bit his ear.”
Tony snorts. “Why didn’t you, oh, I don’t know, shoot him with your bow and arrow?”
“He snuck up on me from behind. I’m Hawkeye, not Hawkears.”
“Wow, congratulations, I think you just discovered a codename that makes even less sense than the one you’ve got.”
“I’ve read your file, Stark. I know your suit’s not even made of iron.”
“I never said it was,” Tony says, pointing his finger at Clint. “Never said that, actually. Not my fault my legions of adoring fans didn’t check their facts before they named me. Anyway,” he adds, taking a large, messy bite of the cone that leaves chocolate ice cream smeared on his nose, “watch your step, Barton. The Maria Stark Foundation helped fund this project, so I could legitimately tell you to get off my lawn.”
“You’re not the king of the High Line, Stark.”
“You’re in denial. It’s okay, I understand.”
Clint grins at him and, balling up the sandwich wrapper, he tosses it with precision at the upturned faceplate. It lands smack dab in the centre and gets stuck in one of Iron Man’s eyes.
On the other side of Clint, the Hulk roars and smacks the railing with the palm of his hand, quite gently for the Hulk, as if just to remind them all that he’s still there and still – presumably – hungry. The railing crumples. Clint has to grab hold of the Hulk’s hair to keep from bowling over the edge.
“What?” Tony says. “What, you never heard of clearing your throat? Sending a passive aggressive email? No?”
“Ice cream!” the Hulk roars.
Down on the street below, tourists are starting to look up at the disturbance, pointing and raising their cameras. Steve smiles at them, waving awkwardly.
“Come on, big guy.” Clint pats the Hulk on the head and leaps back down off the railing. “Let’s go get you another ice cream sandwich or two.”
Lifting his shades up to get a better look at the dent in the railing, Tony says, “Tell them to add the damage to my tab.”
Clint waves a hand and mutter something that might be, “Tab my ass,” as he goes, jogging to keep up with the Hulk. Tony turns to Steve.
“This was fun, though, right?” he says.
Steve mentally rewinds, licking ice cream from his thumb. When he looks up again, Tony is staring intently at Steve’s hands. Steve runs his fingers through his hair and Tony’s gaze follows them.
“Sure,” he says. “It was good. I figure not many folks outside the police force get to say they helped stop a bank robbery.”
“Yeah, yeah, well done us, fighting the good fight, but-” Tony snaps his fingers as best he can while they’re encased in metal. He taps Steve on the wrist; the gauntlet is surprisingly warm. “We did it all without Fury telling us to jump and specifying how high. No being sent out like his extremely handsome flying monkeys. No near death experiences, or nuclear missiles, or Nick. Just us, doing our extremely handsome thing.”
“I guess,” Steve says, slowly. “It all worked out pretty well, but...”
“No, no buts. Eat your ice cream, my god, you’re going to miss another seventy years if you keep going at this rate.”
“Sorry.” He takes a big bite, hisses at the coldness, and then shakes his head. “No, there is a but. We can’t run off and – and do whatever it is you’re beating around the bush about, just because we happened to run into a robbery.”
“Okay, well, how about you tell me why not and I’ll counter it with a brilliant argument.”
“We were just in the right place at the right time-”
“Oh, come on,” Tony says, gesturing between them. “Are you hearing this? This, the words coming out of your mouth? Remember when you told me you were in the wrong place at the wrong time – and now this? What are you waiting for, the okayish place at the so-so time?”
“I’m waiting for my orders.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not a soldier.”
“I remember that too,” Steve says. “Look, can it, would you? For now. We can’t just the two of us decide to break away from SHIELD, anyway. We’d need to talk it through with the team.”
They stare at each other. Tony lifts his chin up, head back, as if he’s an alley cat ready for a scrap, and Steve – well, Steve always got into a lot of fights. He can feel his hackles rise. He looks away.
“You’re getting ice cream on your suit,” he says.
Tony looks down at himself, huffing out a breath. “That does it, I’m going home via the car wash.”
He wipes uselessly at himself, metal fingers scraping against his metal chest, until Steve passes him a paper napkin. He watches Tony dab at himself, having to hold the napkin so delicately to keep it from tearing in the Iron Man’s too-strong grip. He watches Tony scrunch the napkin up once he’s done with it; sure enough, his fingers go straight through it. Tony tuts and tosses the balled-up napkin at the trash can and misses.
Still looking at the napkin, Tony says, “You know, the one time in my life I really was in the right place at the right time was because it was the time and place my oldest friend had arranged for terrorists to kill me.”
Steve chokes and starts to cough, dropping his ice cream. He presses his fingers over his mouth and stares until Tony glances up at him.
“Okay, that didn’t come out right. That – was a joke. Funny ha-ha, remember? No? No, I guess not. In-joke. Pepper and Rhodey would be rolling in the aisles right now. It was funny in my head.”
“I’ll bet,” Steve wheezes.
Smiling wryly, Tony drums his fingers on the handrail. He flexes his fingers, curling and uncurling each joint individually. The suit whirrs with every small movement, barely audible unless you know what to listen for.
“Look at that,” Tony murmurs. “Precision engineering. Sometimes I stun even myself.”
“I’ll bet,” Steve says again. He looks down at the mess of half-eaten ice cream at his feet, kicks the cone to the side, then looks up at Tony again. “You’re pretty hard to please, yourself, you know.”
“You said – about Howard–”
“I heard you. I am so easy to please. Look at me, I’m in a park, I’m eating ice cream, I’m pleased.”
“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing.”
Tony looks at him. “Huh,” he says.
He eats the pointy end of his cone in three quick bites, ice cream dripping onto his gauntlets, and then he grabs the hem of Steve’s sweatshirt and wipes his fingers clean on it.
“Look,” he says. “Listen. Engage all your senses, in fact-”
Behind them, there’s a strange sucking noise – like someone trying to drink the very last dregs of their milkshake through a straw – and a few people shout in surprise as the air seems to shift, and Steve turns around just in time to see Bruce Banner flop down onto the grass by the ice cream stand.
There’s a moment of stunned silence, and then Tony starts to laugh and the tension breaks. Steve can see people tugging their cell phones out and turning them in their direction.
“Good to see you again, Dr Banner,” he says.
“I dropped my ice cream,” says Bruce.
“But how does that make you feel?” Tony says, still snickering.
“Angry,” Bruce says. He wipes his hands vaguely on his bare legs. “And sticky. Mainly sticky, I guess.”
He glances up at Clint, who is standing next to him with his mouth hanging open and an ice cream sandwich in each hand. Clint wordlessly passes one down to him.
“Thanks,” Bruce says, taking it. He pauses, frowns and reaches into his mouth to a pull a bit of twisted metal out from between his teeth. “I can’t believe you let him eat a gun.”
“I didn’t let him,” Clint says. “I just didn’t fight the giant, angry mutant’s decision to put a gun in his mouth and chew.”
Running his tongue along his teeth, Bruce pulls a face, but seems satisfied. He makes to stand, reaching out with his gunmetal for a nearby trashcan, before he thinks better of it. He sits. He clears his throat.
“Oh, geez,” Steve says. “Sorry, here.”
He tugs his sweatshirt off over his head and holds it out to Bruce. He’s got his undershirt on beneath it, but it rides up and someone wolf-whistles. A kid shouts, “Where’s your shield, Cap?”
“I, uh. I left it behind, sorry.”
Someone else shouts, “Now take the rest off!”
At that, Tony steps forwards, clapping his hands together – the sound is very loud with his armour on.
“O-kay,” he says. “Touching as this whole scene has been – a man, reunited with ice cream sandwich–” Bruce, sweatshirt half on, waves his ice cream sandwich in the air in acknowledgement. “–But now’s time for the audience participation. Who’s got clothes? Come on, pants, shoes, step right up. You all know who I am, come by my tower later and we’ll get them right back to you. You can sell the story to TMZ after.”
“I’ve got some flip flops,” says a guy, holding up a shopping bag.
“I’ve got some sweatpants,” says a woman. She pulls a face and shrugs, as people turn to look at her incredulously. “I mean, I don’t know if they’ll fit great, but we’re not getting him ready for the catwalk, here, right? Just getting him less... naked.”
“Pragmatic, I like it.”
Tony grabs the offered flip flops and tugs the sweatpants out of her open gym bag and he tosses the bundle to Bruce. Bruce raises his eyebrows but, passing his ice cream sandwich back to Clint, he carefully tugs the pants on. There’s a vague cheer from the onlookers when they fit.
“Great. Good job. Everyone pat yourselves on the back from me. Flip flops, sweatpants.” Tony points at each of the donors. “Stark Tower. Big, beautiful, right over there. My personal tip? Sell them on Ebay. I mean it, we’ll sign them, I’ll whip up some kind of certificate of authentication, bam, you’ve got yourself a fresh slice of American history.”
Steve drifts away while Tony does his thing. He leans back against the railing again and watches Clint and Bruce chatting as Bruce puts on the flip flops, too far away and surrounded by the hustle and bustle for Steve to make out their words; Tony signing autographs and posing for pictures and spreading his fingers to show curious kids the most intricate joints. Although everyone had kept their distance from the Hulk, now he’s gone the show seems to be over and the crowd is starting to disperse at last. A few people linger on the peripheries of his vision, pointing and staring at him, and Steve lifts his hand and smiles, though they come no closer.
Tony, pen cap between his teeth as he signs a young lady’s t-shirt, looks up and around until he spots Steve. He caps the pen and says something to his fan, who says something back that makes him smile broadly, and then Tony moves away. He leans next to Steve, lowering his shades.
“So, Captain America bares all,” he says.
“Oh, nothing. I’m just thinking of headlines. You know, for when those pictures of you stripping hit the gossip sites.”
“I only took my sweatshirt off!”
“And flashed the world your six pack.” Tony pats him on the stomach. “God bless America. Wave goodbye to your anonymity.”
Steve sighs. “I already had. I’ve seen what those – ‘gossip sites’ are like, these days. They’ve probably found out where I live already. It’s under a false name, but I haven’t exactly been hiding.”
Tony drums his fingers on the side of the railing. “You could move back to SHIELD. I’ve seen their accommodation. It’s, you know, it’s bearable. If you like Spartan. Do you like Spartan?”
“I’m not a huge fan,” Steve says, glancing sideways at Tony. Tony isn’t looking at him.
“Well, I suppose the tower’s got plenty of room, if you don’t wanna stay in your shoebox and you don’t have anywhere else – what? What? What’s so funny?”
Laughing, Steve shakes his head. “You aren’t as subtle as you think you are. Sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to...” He schools his features. “What were you saying?”
Tony pauses. He tugs his shades off completely and glowers up at Steve. “I don’t want to say it now. You’ve ruined the moment.”
“No, go on.”
“Move into the tower, you asshole,” Tony says. “You could at least pretend to look surprised. Christ, I take it back, you’re not invited anymore.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve says, although he isn’t, really. He ducks his head, still laughing, and he sees Tony crack a smile out of the corner of his eye. When Steve straightens up again, Tony’s looked away.
“Well?” Tony says.
“Sure. It’d be swell, thank you.”
“Gee willikers,” Tony murmurs. He straightens up as Bruce and Clint approach, and claps Bruce on the shoulder.
“I think this is one of the stranger days I’ve had,” Bruce says.
“And that’s saying something, coming from you.”
Clint pulls himself up onto the handrail again and sits there, looking pleased with himself. “If every day of my vacation’s like this, it might just be bearable.”
“Stop trying to make us into role models for your twisted ideas of civilian life, Barton,” Tony says. “It won’t work. Cap’s – well, Cap’s not a civilian, anyway. I’m too cool for you. Bruce is too everything for you. We’re the worst role models.”
“Steve’s a good role model,” Bruce says.
“Well, obviously. Next you’ll be telling me water’s wet and I’m attractive.”
“One of these days,” Steve says mildly, “I’m going to lose my rag with you all.”
“Please do. In fact, let me know in advance. Send me a memo, write it in my calendar, I want to have a camera ready when it happens – Hang on, phone call. Pepper.” Tony frowns, tugging off his shades and closing the faceplate. It’s a strange sight, Iron Man’s eyes blazing blankly out at them while Steve can hear, faintly, the sound of Tony’s voice coming from inside the suit.
He tries to ignore it, turning to Bruce. “So, you and the Hulk...?”
“We’re reaching an understanding,” Bruce says. He smiles lopsidedly, if a shade sarcastically. “I’m letting him stretch his legs, he’s getting less angry. It’s as close to win-win as I’m ever going to get.”
Steve looks him up and down, then clasps him on the shoulder. “Close to win-win sounds like a real step up from the old situation. Also, the Hulk said you had to speak with me?”
“Yes, um.” Glancing around, Bruce draws Steve to one side, lowers his voice and leans in closer. “I was in Chile last week. I’ve actually been following a lead on a group trying to recreate... well, me, which is never a – very good idea. I didn’t find them, anyway, but what I did find were a lot of rumours about something like a HYDRA base in the Atacama desert.”
Steve breathes out heavily through his nose. An almighty sinking feeling.
“Okay,” he says. “That’s – what else did you find?”
“Not a whole lot. When I’m me, I’m just a scientist, and when I’m not me, I’m... ebullient, so reconnaissance isn’t either of our strong points.” Bruce huffs out a breath, scratching the back of his neck. He’s had to roll up the sleeves of Steve’s sweatshirt to fit. “What I’ve got, is back in the tower. I didn’t think it’d be wise to try sending it to you.”
“Right, mail can be intercepted.”
“And email, too.”
Steve laughs shortly. He’d forgotten about that.
“Guys, I’ve got to head back to the tower,” Tony says. Or Iron Man says it, really, the faceplate down, the voice robotic. “Have another ice cream on me. Hell, go to Le Bernadin, they know me there, they’ll even let Mr Flip Flops in if you tell them I sent you. Cap, try the red snapper, it’s great.”
“What, no personal recommendation for me?” says Clint.
“Don’t get dessert or else you won’t be able to fit into your prom dress.”
The flight stabilisers hum and flare into life and Iron Man shoots up into the sky. Steve has to shield his eyes to watch him fly away, in the bright sunlight.
Clint rubs his hands together with glee. “I wanna see how much we have to spend for Stark to actually notice – or not,” he adds, lowering his hands and straightening up as he takes in Steve and Bruce’s serious expressions. His face shifts into the man who shot an arrow at a demigod, rather than the man who wants to spend large amounts of a billionaire’s money on what – Steve suspects – would be very small portions of food.
“We need to go back to the tower, too,” Steve says. “There’s something Bruce needs to show me.”
Bruce spreads his map over the coffee table, weighing the edges down with empty glasses and, when nothing else is readily to hand, his borrowed flip-flops, casting a sheepish look and a murmured, “I figure everything we do with these now will only add to their value, right?” at Steve.
He runs Steve through the locations he visited and the gossip he heard – a convoy of unmarked vans in the middle of the night; soldiers in the desert with strange uniforms; mysterious lights over the desert at night – and, “If Red Skull knew about the Tesseract then it’s possible he knew about other things too, right?” Bruce says.
“Like the bifrost?”
“And that’s just for starters.”
They share a dark look.
As Bruce begins to mark locations on the map, still speaking, a door slams somewhere in the heart of the penthouse and raised voices drift down to them from overhead.
“Chacabuco is most likely, I think,” Bruce is saying.
Steve clears his throat, refocusing. “And none of this is substantiated, right? Nothing you saw with your own eyes?”
Bruce hesitates, tapping his finger against the town while he thinks. “I saw strange lights. The rest, just hearsay, but there’s enough of it something is going on there. Or...”
“Or it’s a trap.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Bruce says. “Either way, I’m thinking that’s worth checking out.”
They lapse into a silence, and Pepper’s voice floats through it.
“I thought you were in the basement. I thought you were working, and then I get a call from the publicist trying to find out your favourite flavour ice cream because two dozen different publications were all asking.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” and there’s Tony’s voice. “I should have brought you back an ice cream sandwich.”
“Well,” Steve says. “Trap or not, there’s only one way to find out.”
“No, Tony! No, what you should have done is not put me in a position where I – I have to act like your PA again! I’m your girlfriend and your CEO, I can’t-”
Tony says something too soft for Steve to make out, but Pepper responds to it with a noise of pure frustration. He can picture her hands thrown up into the air at the sound of it.
“I’m not saying that! Have you ever thought about what this is like for me? Has that ever crossed your mind? You almost died, Tony! In space! And now I’m so busy, and you’re so busy, and lately when we actually, occasionally manage to be in the same building at the same time, you’re so distracted–”
“Distracted? Pepper, I’m not distracted, I’m more focussed than I’ve ever been–”
“Yes, Tony,” she says softly, “but you’re not focussed on me.”
Steve stares down at his hands, spread very carefully over the map of Atacama. Chacabuco, he tells himself. Across the table from him, Bruce murmurs, “Times like these, I almost wish the other guy would come out and climb out the window.”
They pause, listening, but things in the corridor seem to have quietened down. Steve clears his throat.
“So, uh, Chacabuco,” he says.
“Oficina Chacabuco,” Bruce agrees. “It seems the most likely fit. It was used as a detention camp, so there are military facilities. Lots of abandoned mines in the area, too.”
“It’s a bit close to the highway though, isn’t it?”
As Bruce responds, Steve can hear Tony’s voice pick up again, softly. He tries to tune it out, but he’s always had sensitive hearing and the serum only made it even better, and, “You’re right,” Tony’s saying. “I’m sorry, you’re right. As per usual. I haven’t been – Let’s get out of town next week. Come on, turn that frown upside down. Just you and me, okay? We’ll both turn our cells off.”
“Where do you wanna go?”
“Steve?” says Bruce.
“Iceland,” says Pepper. “We haven’t been to Iceland in a – in a while.”
“Sorry.” Steve looks up and meets Bruce’s quizzical gaze. He looks back down at the map again, focussing on the red circle Bruce has drawn in the fork of that junction. “I didn’t catch that. The highways?”
“The desert’s practically inhospitable. I think... if I were gonna set up a secret terrorist base in the driest place on the planet, I’d sacrifice some of that secrecy for easier access, right? It’s still surrounded by miles of empty desert. How many people are gonna drive through that in a week? I’m thinking not a lot.”
Steve stares down at the desert. It stretches uninterrupted for miles and miles. “And if anyone did get too curious, attract HYDRA’s attention, that’s a whole load of room to hide the bodies in.”
He smoothes the map down again, ignoring the quiet sounds of Tony and Pepper’s voices fading away, and he says, “Show me again where you heard the rumours.”
Once the talking – and planning – is done, Steve goes down to fetch his shield from the workshop and say goodbye to Clint, still shooting angrily at his targets, and then he heads back up to the guest room – his room now, maybe – to grab some clothes. When he gets back to the living room, Bruce has disappeared and Tony is tinkering about behind the bar, humming to himself – a tune Steve recognises but can’t yet name.
“Everything alright?” Steve asks as he approaches.
“Who, me?” Tony looks around the room exaggeratedly, and then points at himself. Steve nods. “Never better, Cap. Fine and dandy. Peachy and keen.”
Steve hesitates, uncertain how much to admit of the conversation they heard and the fact that he listened to it. He crosses over to the couch and leans his shield against the cushions, dumps his bag on the floor next to it, and he looks down at the map still spread across the coffee table.
“Drink?” Tony says. “Or, mouthwash, in your case?”
Steve looks around to see Tony waving a bottle at him. He doesn’t look troubled, and for all Tony skates around his emotions as if they belong to someone else, Steve’s rapidly learning how bad he is at hiding them. He does look fine.
Steve opens his mouth and says, “I have to go to Chile. Bruce thinks there could be a HYDRA base there. I have to see.”
“Okay.” Tony shrugs, putting the bottle away again. “Good thing I didn’t start the party without you. Are we going now? Should I suit up?”
“Don’t. No offence, but whether you’re Tony Stark or Iron Man you’re extremely – noticeable. This needs to... not be noticeable. Bruce is taking me to the edge of the desert and then I’m going alone.”
Tony taps his fingers against his chin. He wends his way out from behind the bar and leans over the coffee table to study Bruce’s map upside down and he says, softly, “Huh. Wait here.”
Steve expects him to leave the room at that, but instead Tony goes over to the work stations in the corner, pulling a small black box out from under one of the desks. He flips the lid.
“Prototype. One of a kind so far, but it’s about time we put it to the test. Here, catch.”
Steve catches. He turns the thing over in his hands to look at it – it’s shaped like a small tortoise, flat on the bottom with three rotating wheels, and rounded on the top with a shell of shifting, overlapping metal plates. The whole thing is dark grey, matte and not much bigger than the palm of Steve’s hand.
“What-” he begins, but before he can get another word out Tony’s plucked it from his hands again and dropped it onto the floor upside down.
“Look,” he says, sitting on the arm of the couch and crossing his arms. “Come on, you little bastard.”
He nudges the robot with his toes and the thing whirrs into life, its wheels spinning uselessly in the air. Although it looks completely unfamiliar, there’s something about the noise it makes that Steve recognises.
“Tony,” he says. “Wasn’t this robot cleaning your shoes a couple months ago?”
He watches as the metal plates start to shift beneath it, opening like the petals of a flower and slowly, quietly, levering the little robot up onto its side.
“Two months is like two years for technology. Get with the program, Cap.” Tony nudges the robot with his toes again, although there’s a hint of pride in his voice. “Useless hunk of junk. The great thing about being me is that when my shoes are dirty, I can just buy more shoes. You know how hard it is to program a bot to tell the difference between shoes and, I don’t know, hands, bottle, Mjolnir?”
“Very, very hard.”
The robot flips itself over onto its wheels again, the plates fluttering shut as it spins in a circle, reorienting itself.
“Atta boy,” Tony says. “The code’s practically the same. Navigation, basic decision making, programming it to seek out whole humans instead of distinguishing between body parts was practically a downgrade. 360 degree cameras, smoke bombs in the rim – teaching it to recognise threats was a fun weekend, let me tell you, you really missed out on that one.”
“You – want me to take it with me?”
Tony raises an eyebrow at him. “Obviously. No more stupid questions, pay attention – this bit’s important. New feature.”
He tugs his communicator out of his pocket, activates it with his thumb and then, as the pictograms light up across the screen, swipes his palm across it. The pictures disappear, leaving the screen blank except for the Iron Man helmet in the corner.
“Activate video bastard-cam-zero-zero-one. Did you get that?”
The communicator fills up with a view of their feet from ground level as the robot rolls almost silently across the floor. Tony drags his finger back and forth across the screen and the view moves with his motions, spinning the full 360 degrees as promised, and when he taps a spot on the screen the robot turns and heads in that direction.
“Got it,” Steve says. “You named it... that?”
“It was annoying me at the time,” Tony says vaguely, but then he pauses. He lowers the communicator and lifts his head. “Is that bad? Are you shocked and horrified? I can rename it if you like, something Captain America friendly. Chuck? Earl? Larry?”
“Tony, I was in the army.”
“You don’t say? I’d never have guessed.”
“I mean, folks didn’t curse around civilians, and I was filmed a lot so I always had to be careful, got into the habit of just not if I could avoid it, but...” Steve shrugs. “Some of the fellas I knew woulda probably shocked and offended you.”
“Well, now I just want to hear you curse.”
“Go on, say something naughty. Just this once, I promise. For me. For America.”
Tony stares at Steve, eyes narrowed, as if he’s trying to will a curse word past Steve’s lips with the power of his mind. Steve only clenches his jaw tighter, meeting his gaze unflinchingly until Tony huffs out an amused breath and looks away.
“Fine,” he says. “Fine, remain pure, you stubborn bastard.”
“I hope I’m not interrupting something,” says Bruce.
Tony’s head whips around and he leaps to his feet, shoving his communicator back into his pocket. Steve turns too, to see Bruce standing at the top of the stairs with a bag slung over his shoulder, looking down on them with a vaguely amused expression.
Tony spreads his arms.
“Bruce. Bruce. Brucie-goosie. Get over here.”
He beckons with both hands impatiently, while Bruce makes his way down the staircase. He grabs Bruce’s bag from him as soon as he’s within reach, and balances it on the back of the couch, propped against his hip, so he can tug the zipper open. “You all packed already? What have you got in here?”
“Shirts,” Bruce says with a shrug. “Mainly shirts.”
“You wear too many shirts” Tony says, pulling a shirt sleeve out of the bag and holding it up to Bruce’s arm to compare. He gasps theatrically. “These are the same colour. Did you buy them in a pack?”
Shoving the bag back at Bruce, with the zipper still half-open and the sleeve still dangling out, Tony straightens Bruce’s shirt collar.
“I like my pack of shirts.”
“You’re an eternal disappointment, Brucie,” Tony says, patting Bruce on the side of the face. “Be good, eat your vegetables, if the other boys say mean things step on them.”
“I always do those things anyway.”
Well, do them even more this time.”
Bruce refolds his shirt and zips his bag back up, shouldering it. He squeezes Tony’s arm. “I’ll see you in a couple weeks, Tony.”
Tony nods. Bruce squeezes his arm again and then turns to look at Steve, his eyebrows raised.
“Steve, you ready?” he asks.
Before he can answer, Tony snaps his fingers and exclaims, “Nope! Hold it! He’s not ready,” and dives under a side table, emerging a second later with the little reconnaissance robot clasped tightly between his hands. He sticks it back into the box still open on the floor, closing the latch tightly, and then he picks the box up and thrusts it out at Steve.
“Take it, then,” he says. “And wear your damn earpiece, for god’s sake. I know when you don’t. I know everything. Look, it’s easy when you get used to it, just pretend you’re talking to an imaginary friend.”
“I’m finding your advice particularly sage today,” Bruce murmurs from the sidelines, but Tony’s eyes barely skate towards him before they’re snapping back to Steve.
“I’ll try,” Steve says.
He takes the box from Tony’s hands and leans over the couch to slide it into his bag, slides the bag over his shoulder. Then he picks his shield up from its place on the cushions and holds it out to Tony.
“Could you keep ahold of this for me?” he says. “I figure if I carry it through the desert with me, it’ll attract some unwelcome attention and – well, this tower is probably the safest place I know. So if you could just – keep it somewhere safe till I’m back for it?”
“Sure.” Tony takes the shield and holds it awkwardly, running his fingers along the rim. “I can do that.”
“Please don’t experiment on it,” Steve adds.
Tony says it automatically, absent-mindedly, with no real bite. Ignoring the colourful face of the shield, he flips it over and gazes down at the back, where the joins are visible. Steve watches him run his finger along the fastening of one of the straps and give it a tug, testing the give.
Behind Steve, Bruce clears his throat, and Tony blinks out of his reverie.
“Pepper!” he calls. “Pep, two of our birds are flying the nest already! I think I’m menopausal!”
Pepper shouts something back that might be, “I’m working.”
Tony grins at them. Balancing the shield on his hip, he throws them a mock salute. “Gentlemen.”
Already heading for the elevator, Bruce waves vaguely over his shoulder, but Steve lingers. He fiddles with the bag strap over his shoulder. It feels as if all he has done since he came out of the ice is move from point to point. The urge to stand still is sudden and overwhelming.
“You can’t helicopter parent a shield, Cap,” Tony says. “That’s creepy and wrong.”
Steve clears his throat.
“Look after it,” he says.
“Go get in that elevator or I’ll let Clint use it for target practice.”
Steve goes, and he gets in the elevator. Bruce is holding its door open, leaning against it while he waits, looking as quietly patient and amused as ever. He steps back to let Steve pass and shoots him a look that Steve can’t read.
“What?” Steve says.
Bruce just shakes his head and smiles, pressing the down button.
Steve glances back over his shoulder as the door closes. Tony is still standing where they left him, holding the shield up to the windows to examine it all the more closely, running his palm along the shield’s edge in the bright sunlight. Steve looks away again.
OKAY, HERE WE GO. I have never been so nervous to post something in my life.
Once again, this grew on me and I've had to split it in two for something resembling chapter length consistency.
And once again again, a million thanks to everyone on tumblr etc, who've heroically put up with my hysteria and keyboardsmashing over the past couple of months and talked me down from my writing ledges. Liz, Theo, Andy and Adri especially, I think. ILUGUISETYVM.
This time, there’s no doorman, no secretary, no business folk passing by or catchy wireless tune in Steve’s head, although the door still springs open for him when he touches it, too tired to do little more than mumble his thanks to JARVIS. Of course, this city never truly sleeps, and the lights of Stark Tower never truly go out but it’s darker and quieter than Steve has ever seen it before. The sun will rise, soon.
Steve’s bag strap is cutting into his shoulder. Steve’s head is beginning to ache. He leans his forehead against the smooth, cold wall of the elevator and closes his eyes. Home, he thinks, take me home.
Steve’s expecting to find the penthouse deserted at this hour, but he steps out of the elevator into dim, warm lights. The TV is on with the volume so low Natasha must be lip reading, while sitting on the couch and quietly cleaning her nails with the point of a knife. Next to her, Clint snores softly, his head tipped back and his mouth hanging open, his fingers knitted together over his stomach.
Natasha turns to look at Steve as he enters the room, and she smiles, satisfied.
“You took your time,” she says.
Steve grins at her, as best he can. His face aches. Everything aches. The last time he felt this satisfyingly exhausted was after they had stopped Loki’s army and he had almost fallen asleep in the sandwich Tony made them all try.
“Isn’t that bad for your knife?” he asks.
She looks down at the knife in her hand, then down at her nails.
“Yes,” she says. “But it’s Clint knife.”
At the sound of his name, Clint’s eyes snap open and he sits up sharply.
“Heard my name,” he says.
“Yes. We were talking about you.”
Relaxing back into the couch, Clint rubs his eyes. He yawns and stretches and swings his feet up onto the coffee table, nudging coffee cups and random screwdrivers out of the way with his toes.
“Hey Cap,” he says around another yawn, closing his eyes again. “We were wondering when you’d show up.”
“You look like you’re adjusting to civilian life better now.”
“This isn’t a civilian nap, it’s a spy nap. Spies need naps.”
He drifts off again. Natasha looks at him with such incredible, open fondness Steve has to look away. It feels too intimate to watch.
“So,” she says at last, turning back to her nails and the quiet flickering light of the television screen. “What did you find?”
“I found... something,” he says. “But I’ll tell you in the morning – uh, later in the morning, I guess. I really need to...”
He waves a hand vaguely, but Natasha nods in understanding, polishing her nails on her shirt.
“Go,” she says. “Sleep. It’s okay, Cap. We’ll still be here when the sun’s up.”
Steve doesn’t need telling twice.
Yawning and stretching, eyes screwed shut, Steve fumbles to the side for the light switch as he walks into his room and then he opens his eyes and he stops, with his hand frozen on the wall.
The room is dark, but there’s a pale grey light inching over the horizon, creeping through the gaps between the skyscrapers. It’ll be a while yet before it becomes a real sunrise. Till then, the room is lit with a blueish glow, lighting up the bed, lighting up his shield on the bed. Lighting up the figure on the bed.
Steve lowers his hand.
No matter how dark the room, Tony will always be recognisable, even with his head turned away from the door. His shirt is open, half-off and tangled around one arm, and the arc reactor shines out through the gap. It’s a cold kind of light, for something that keeps the heart beating. Tony could be a corpse in a light this blue. He could be cold as ice.
Treading softly, Steve moves into the room. He eases his bag off his shoulder and onto the floor, and he switches on a bedside lamp. In the dim wash of yellow light, Tony comes back to life again.
Steve picks his shield up off the foot of the bed. It warms something inside of him, to hold it again, to tilt it into the light to check for scratches and find it pristine. Steve rubs the face of the shield gently with his sleeve, then he flips it over to check the strength of the straps. He lowers it down onto the floor next to his bag.
When he looks up again, Tony is still there.
Steve stares down at the back of his head. Tony is barefoot, although Steve finds his socks tossed on the floor at the foot of the bed. One of Tony’s arms dangles over the edge, the other draped across his stomach, wrapped around one of his flat computers. Steve eases it out from under his arm. Moving around to the other side of the bed, he places it on the nightstand next to Tony and leaves his socks folded on top. He looks at Tony again.
Tony’s mouth is slightly open, his face turned towards the window, as though he fell asleep watching the sunset or the stars. With every breath he lets out slowly, the hand on his stomach curls and uncurls in the loose folds of his open shirt. And the arc reactor glows.
Steve crouches down next to the bed. It brings his eyes level with Tony’s face and up this close he can see a smudge of motor oil under Tony’s ear and another on the inside of his wrist. He can see a streak of ink along Tony’s jaw, as if he were tapping his chin with a pen and his hand slipped. Steve can picture it and can imagine Tony’s cursing; he smirks to himself.
Lifting Tony’s dangling arm, he eases it back up onto the mattress, untangling the shirt. Tony’s breath catches at the movement and his eyes slit open.
“It’s fine,” Steve breathes. “Go back to sleep. Everything’s fine.”
He can’t tell whether or not Tony’s awake enough to hear him, or even really see him, but his eyes slide shut again all the same and he mumbles something too soft for even Steve to hear, words dying out on a sigh. His breathing evens out again.
Steve looks at him. From this close, he can see every scar on Tony’s chest. He can feel Tony’s pulse against the hand still resting on his wrist.
The light through the window is getting brighter.
“Everything’s fine,” he says again, the words catching in his throat.
He swallows. Tony’s pulse reverberates through his fingertips, so strong and steady it feels as if Tony’s heartbeat could seep straight into Steve’s skin and stay there. It feels as if it’s already there inside of him.
Lodged inside his own ribcage, beating in tandem with his own shaky heart, and Steve wants--
“Oh,” he breathes.
He swallows again, thickly, pushing the heartbeat back down from where it’s sticking in the back of his throat. He lets go of Tony’s wrist and stands, turning to the window and staring out over the ghost of the city while he peels off his jacket and overshirt, leaving them both draped over the footboard. Moving back around to the other side of the bed, he sits down on the edge of it, then swings his feet up onto the mattress.
He should probably find another room for the night – the tower is huge, it would be easy – but instead he curls his toes into the bedspread. He leans back against the headboard, and laces his fingers over his stomach, and closes his eyes.
Steve wakes suddenly and for a moment he doesn’t know why. The sun is bright against his eyelids; he keeps them closed, keeps breathing slowly and holding still while his ears do the work, the sound of familiar voices filtering through.
“The time is 8:17 am, sir,” JARVIS is saying.
“News?” Tony mumbles.
“Agents Romanoff and Barton are currently located in the kitchen, sampling the range of coffee. Mr Odinson remains in New Mexico with Dr Foster.”
Steve cracks an eye open, turning his head against the headboard. Tony rolled fully onto his side at some point in the night, his back to Steve now, his legs curled towards his chest and an arm draped over his face.
“Dr Banner continues to make his way north through Peru, coordinates...” JARVIS pauses for only a second. “Coordinates -6.768528,-79.782393. He appears to have become aware of your tracker, sir, and sends his salutations.”
JARVIS seems to hesitate, while Steve clenches his jaw and holds his breath, and then, “Captain Rogers is present, sir.”
Tony mumbles something, smothering a yawn with his forearm and flopping over onto his back.
“You’re tracking us?” Steve snaps.
It takes Tony a moment to react. He drags his arm slowly down his face and peers blearily out at Steve from under it. He blinks.
“Hi,” he says.
Steve frowns down at him, while Tony blinks again. He shakes his head and rubs at his eyes with clumsy fists – and then his head snaps up and he jerks upright, whipping around to stare at Steve.
“Jesus – you – why’re you here?”
“Me?” Steve exclaims. “Why are you here?”
Tony looks around himself and lets out a groan, which becomes a yawn. “Pep’s away. Couldn’t sleep without her icy feet kicking me every five minutes, so I went for a stroll.”
“Fine. You’re tracking us,” Steve says again.
“I, uh.” Tony scrubs a hand down his face. “What about Chile? Did you find... stuff?”
Crossing his arms, Steve keeps on frowning.
“Okay, okay. Tracking. Yeah, that’s – that’s a thing.”
“For goodness sake, Tony.”
“Well, how else’m I meant to know where you all are?” Tony spreads his arms and shrugs lopsidedly, looking truly baffled, as if secretly tracking your buddies really were the most logical step when you’re Tony Stark. “Two super spies, and Bruce is busy making hide-and-go-seek an Olympic sport or something, and then there’s you and Thor just bumbling around like America’s Next Top Tourists.”
Steve stares at him and lets out a slow breath. “You could ask us where we are.”
“Imprecise,” Tony says. He rubs his hands through his hair and shakes himself, blinking away the last clinging dregs of sleep as he flops back down onto the bed. He props himself up on his elbows and points at Steve. “And who here is without sin? Mister I watch you while you’re sleeping?”
“That’s not even close to the same thing.”
“I coulda been naked. That’s pretty creepy, Cap.”
“You were lying on top of the covers,” Steve points out. “I think I would’ve notice right away if you... had no clothes on.”
Sitting up straighter, rubbing a crick out of his neck, Steve watches Tony grab his socks from the nightstand and give them an experimental sniff before he pulls them on.
“Who else knows about it?”
“Well, Bruce now, obviously. Natasha might and if she does Barton might – or might not, girl likes her secrets. Thor... is a man of impeccable character and musculature, but he still can’t tell the difference between Midgardian tech and cinderblocks yet. Give it time, I believe in him. And then there’s you.”
“Are they in the communicators?”
“Obviously.” Tony tugs the loose ends of his shirt together and begins to button it back up, frowning down at his chest as the arc reactor disappears from view. “You’re not cars. Can’t slap a device to the underside of your engine. I mean, I could try, but it sounds messy-”
“Would you get rid of them if I asked you to?”
Tony’s fingers slip and the button pops back out of its hole. He tuts, catching hold of the button and twisting it back and forth between his finger and thumb in silence for a little while.
“I guess. If you asked. You’re the leader, right?” He does the errant button up at last and only then looks up at Steve. “Are you asking?”
Steve has to think about it. He closes his eyes and when he opens them again, Tony is still looking across at him, fingers curled motionless in his shirt, still only half buttoned. It leaves framed a glimpse of his stomach, rising and falling with every slow breath Steve watches him take.
“No,” Steve says at last. “No, don’t get rid of it. It’s not... impractical. But I want full disclosure. Make it available for all of us to use, not just you, and show me everything it does. It could be useful – if we do move away from SHIELD, we’d lose that support network.”
Tony smirks across at him. Then, lowering his gaze, he quickly finishes buttoning his shirt and he smoothes a palm down the shirtfront. Steve can see the corners of his mouth still curling up.
“See? You’re coming round to the idea.”
“I’m thinking about it,” Steve says, because there’s no sense in denying it. He can’t deny how good it had felt to be back on a mission again, either. “But it’s still something the whole team needs to discuss. I’m not going over anyone’s heads with this.”
Tony salutes him, “Aye aye, Cap,” and then he leaps to his feet, rubbing his hands together. “Enough chitchat. Chile. HYDRA. What have you got for us? Show me the souvenirs.”
He stares expectantly until Steve swings his feet over the side of the bed, standing up and picking his discarded bag up from the floor in one smooth motion. He carries it over to the desk as he speaks over his shoulder, hearing Tony bound after him.
“There was no base by the time I got there,” he says. “But there obviously had been something going on – it was all ripped out, and just a couple weeks ago, judging by the dust build-up.”
“That’s weird, right? HYDRA weren’t known for being the shy and retiring, flee at a hint of trouble types, right?”
“Right.” With a nod, Steve lowers his bag onto the desk. He takes a step back, glancing across at Tony, who’s bouncing on his heels beside him like a kid at Christmas. “They’re definitely up to something. I found this at the bottom of a mineshaft.”
He motions and Tony leaps forward eagerly, tugging the zipper down, his mouth running a mile a minute while he digs into the bag.
“Sloppy. You think they left it on purpose? If I were a terrorist organisation – and I’ve been accused, in the past. That was an accusation. Come on, guys, I said, I’m working with the military, if anything I’m, what, militia, right? – I’d be more thorough, anyway.”
“I’m not sure it was left on purpose. The shaft had no elevator or ladder, so I had to climb down.”
“Deep, was it?”
“Yes,” Steve says, with a shrug.
Tony – drawing a bundle wrapped in sweatshirts out of the bag – pauses. He glances sideways at Steve, raising his eyebrows, and sweeps his gaze up and down Steve’s body.
“Huh,” he says.
They look at each other for a moment, Tony’s face unreadable. Tony looks away first, his attention returning to the bundle in his hands. He flips back a corner of the sweatshirts; there’s a flash of gunmetal grey before he inhales sharply, quickly covering it up again and dropping it back onto the desktop. He stares down at the bundle as if it might explode and he’s looking forward to the view when it happens.
“Interesting,” he says.
Stepping forwards again, Tony grabs the end of a sleeve and tugs, letting the gun roll out of its layers of sweatshirt and onto the desktop with a thud. It rock gently where it lands.
Something about the sight of it makes the hair on the back of Steve’s neck prickle uncomfortably. It is, at first glance, so thoroughly ordinary – practically a toy gun or a cartoon prop, its appearance is so basic, like an overgrown handgun in a child’s drawing – but it unsettles Steve. And not just because of the HYDRA logo scratched into the side. The whole thing sits wrongly, somehow, lines curved strangely, edges blurred, as if they’re looking at it through water that’s very clear but very deep. It makes his eyes itch.
“That...” Tony trails off, staring, then snaps back into motion to nudge Steve in the ribs. “Pay attention now, Cap, I’m teaching you a vital twenty-first century phrase here – that shit ain’t right.”
He steps closer, bending down over it until his nose is barely an inch away from the surface, but he doesn’t just grab hold of it and start examining it like he would, Steve’s sure, with anything else. That, more than the slightly unsettled expression on his face, speaks volumes.
“Are you seeing this too?”
“I still don’t know enough about modern weaponry yet to tell what looks right,” Steve says. “But this definitely... didn’t look right.”
“You’re telling me.” Tony waves his hand back and forth over the gun, still not touching, muttering under his breath. “Where’s the light source?”
“It’s... Where’s that coming from? It’s – glowing, or something. How’d you find it? I’m gonna go out on a limb and assume you don’t just climb down mine shafts for kicks.”
“It’s giving off some kind of energy, I think. Your recon robot picked up on it.”
“Yeah?” Tony glances up at him with a crooked grin and a hint of pride. “Maybe it’s not one for the scrapheap, then. How’d it do?”
“It did good. It was handy. Not so good with stairs, though. Strong enough to fall down them, but it can’t throw itself up them.”
“Stairs,” Tony breathes. “It needs to fly. Our own personal flying monkeys.”
His gaze turns distant for a moment, as though he’s already drawing up schematics and working out equations behind his eyes; but then he blinks and his attention snaps back to Steve, and then back to the gun.
Grabbing hold of Steve’s forearm for support, Tony hops onto one foot and then the other, tugging his socks off again. He pulls them over his hands with a smirk at Steve, saying, “Pays to be cautious. Don’t tell anyone I said that, I’ve got a reputation to maintain. I figure it’s safe with fabrics unless the superduper serum’s rubbed off on your sweatshirt somehow.”
“Not to my knowledge.”
Tony picks the gun up with his makeshift mittens and lifts it up close to his face. He squints at it from all angles, turning it over and over, running his fingers along every component and weighing it in his hands.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve held water pistols heavier than this,” he says and he flips it around to peer down into the barrel of the gun.
“Careful,” Steve begins, but Tony ignores him. He’s frowning in concentration and, as Steve watches, he sniffs the gun barrel and then passes the whole gun back and forth under his nose, inhaling deeply.
“What are you?” he mutters.
He gives it one last sniff and he pulls a face, shakes his head, nose crinkling in irritation at whatever’s eluding him. Ducking his head down, he licks the side of the gun.
“Jesus, Tony!” Steve exclaims.
Tony blinks, glancing sideways at Steve as if he’d forgotten he were there. Then he smirks.
“Made you curse.”
“Please don’t lick it,” Steve says weakly. “You don’t know where it’s been.”
“Once was definitely enough.”
Tony runs his tongue along his gums, sucking thoughtfully on his teeth with his head tilted to the side, as though tasting a fine wine. He smacks his lips.
“Tangy,” he declares, before his expression turns serious. He looks down at the gun and then up at Steve, his gaze dark. “This is new. I don’t know what it is... I mean, I don’t know what it’s made of, and I – you know I discovered my own element once, right? Well, rediscovered. Resynthesised. It was kinda a big deal, anyway. I should know what this is and I – don’t.”
Steve watches the muscles in Tony’s jaw shift as it clenches and unclenches. Tony swallows, frowning, and his gaze drifts away from Steve again, back down to the gun in his hands.
“It looks like a gun built by an idiot,” he says. “An idiot who’d never seen a gun before and was going off descriptions given by a different, more idiotic idiot. What the hell? Does it even work?”
His expression is distant, as though he’s talking to himself, but when Steve doesn’t respond he turns and prods him in the chest and says, “Well?”
“I didn’t try. It seemed like a bad idea.”
“That’s your problem, Cap,” Tony says, swinging the gun up and pointing it at the window. “Impulse control. Not enough bad ideas.”
As he takes aim, Steve is already starting forwards with a shout, ready to pull the gun out of Tony’s hands, when Tony himself pauses. Steve grabs hold of his elbow before he can stop himself, and Tony cocks his head to the side, smirking up at him. He lowers the gun again.
“Yeah, yeah, stupid and reckless,” he says. “I guess I like my walls intact. See? I’m growing as a person. I blame you.”
Steve lets out his breath. Tony’s arm is warm – and deceptively muscular, but Steve’s hand can still wrap practically all the way around it, and this close Tony has to tilt his head back to look up at him, eyes hooded, gaze unreadable. When Steve lets go and takes a step back, Tony steps forward, filling the space Steve puts between them. There is an intensity to his gaze that Steve can’t decipher.
“I’ve had plenty of bad ideas,” he says, once the silence had stretched uncomfortably long. “But I always tried to point them at the bad guys instead of at my own home.”
Tony huffs out a breath of laughter. He pats Steve on the chest – sock still on his hand, masking the feel of his fingers but not the warmth of them – and then he takes a step back, turning away from Steve.
“Come on,” he says. “It might not be Nazis, but I know just the wall to fire this at.”
In the elevator, Steve lets out a shaky breath. And then another, his heart still hammering. Next to him, Tony hums to himself, fussing with the sweatshirts wrapped around the gun as if he were swaddling a baby. Steve glances sideways at him, but Tony is staring up at the ceiling, eyes wide and distant.
“So.” Steve clears his throat. “Pepper’s on vacation?”
Tony’s gaze swings across to him and he blinks, frowns, coming back to himself. “Oh, yeah, uh. Minibreak. She’s decided I’m old enough to be left home alone so long as I promise not to answer the door to strangers.”
“Where’s she gone?”
“Iceland,” Tony says, turning his attention back to the ceiling. “You ever been? It’s actually not that icy. Someone should report them. False advertising of an entire island, very illegal. But, uh – good air there. It’s good the lungs, right? So Pep’s literally gone for some breathing space.”
“No, I’ve never been,” Steve says. His mouth has gone dry; he has to swallow heavily, trying not to think of the argument that he overhead, trying not to ask Tony why he didn’t go away with her. He controls the impulse. “Is she – gone long?”
Tony doesn’t reply.
At last, the elevator reaches the basement level and Tony steps out, Steve following him to those same heavy metal doors he passed through a week ago.
“We should go to Iceland sometime,” Tony says suddenly, as he presses his thumb against the identification pad. The door slides open and he strides into the antechamber, spinning around on his heel and walking backwards so he can keep talking to – looking at – Steve without missing a beat.
“The team, I mean, all of us. Springbreak. It’d be great. It’d be swell. You know, vanquishing Icelandic evil, bathing in Icelandic springs.”
He doesn’t look back to check the next set of doors will open in time for him – and they do, of course, open in time for him. Tony walks backwards into darkness, his eyes on Steve all the while.
The basement workshop is absolutely pitch black and silent, but as they step inside the first set of lights click on and hum over their heads, triggering the next set and then the next in a domino effect all the way down to the far side. With the Hulk inside, the workshop had seemed merely big; without, the place is cavernous.
“Remind me to give you a proper tour of the subbasements sometime,” Tony is saying, turning around to face forwards again, his voice and footsteps echoing as he leads Steve deeper inside. “This baby goes deep. And the arc reactor, she’s beautiful, you’ll probably cry a little bit.”
Reaching his array of desks, Tony dumps the gun on top of one and tugs a drawer open. He pulls out goggles, ear defenders, thick leather gloves. He’s practically humming with excitement, the sight of it making Steve’s own hands tingle, Steve’s own heart rate pick up.
“Up, wake up,” Tony says. He snaps his fingers at one of the desks. “Vacation’s over, guys, back to work. JARVIS, rouse the chorus. And scan this thing too, while you’re at it. I want a full reading.”
“Of course, sir,” JARVIS says. “As ever, I live to serve.”
“Damn right you do.”
Tony unravels Steve’s sweatshirts, laying the gun bare on the desktop, and a bright beam of light shoots down from the ceiling to the desk. Steve watches it zip back and forth over the gun, weaving a 3D framework of light over the top of it, until movement catches his attention – things on wheels are rolling out from under one of the larger desks, their necks unfolding like strange metal birds.
“Butterfingers,” Tony says. “I want you down the far end. Whatever comes outta this gun, you follow it. Not literally, don’t follow it, use the camera, okay? Try not to fall over,” he adds, as one of the robots trundles past them to the other end of the workshop. “You, stay where are you, film from here-”
Tony whips around from his conversation with his robots, staring up at Steve. He cracks a grin. “No, not you. You stand wherever you want, my permission. This pile of nuts and bolts is called You. Kinda. It was an accident.”
“You accidentally named your robots?”
“I underestimated my robots. They named themselves, based on, I dunno, horoscopes, colour charts, patterns in my vocabulary. Dumbasses. They’re lucky they’re not all responding to liquors.” But Tony says it with something like affection, patting the nearest robot on the back of its long, shifting neck. “Dummy, you’re on fire safety again. I’m trusting you with this. Don’t ruin it.”
The robot beeps at Tony, bobbing its head up and down while Tony, muttering, “Hold still, would you?”, slots a small fire extinguisher into place on its neck. He steps back with his hands on his hips and watches the robot roll away.
“Sir, the scan is complete,” JARVIS says.
“Save, upload. Hit me.”
“Results inconclusive. Immediate readings suggest it is not giving off anything harmful. Materials, unknown. Energy source, unknown. Origin, unknown. Shall I alert Mr Fury?”
Tony snorts. “Over my handsome dead body.”
“You can’t avoid him forever,” Steve says. “He’ll need to know about something like this.”
“He’s already got plenty of HYDRA tech. Remember? You trust him with this one too?”
“I’m not saying let’s just pass this thing over to SHIELD without – without thinking. But I’m not so sure doing this here is a good idea. We don’t know what this thing is or what it does-”
“Don’t you wanna find out?”
Steve hesitates, which is apparently enough of an answer for Tony; he smirks and thrusts a pair of goggles into Steve’s chest, letting go so Steve has no choice but to catch them or let them drop. He catches them.
“I wanna find out,” Tony adds, taking a step back and watching, head tilted to one side, while Steve slowly tugs the strap over his head and pulls the goggles into position over his eyes. “Come on, it’s Captain America and Iron Man, what’s the worst that could happen?”
“We could blow this place sky high.”
“This place is Hulk proof – you know, the Hulk? That one guy who’s stronger than our buddy the alien Viking god? I have literally set off bombs in here. Next question.”
“This could be dangerous,” Steve mutters.
“So stop me, Mr Super Soldier,” Tony says and he waits, with a bright, angry light in his eyes as he stares up at Steve, and Steve –
Steve isn’t perfect. Steve’s full of bad ideas. He shakes his head.
Tony passes him a pair of ear defenders, with that same bright look in his eyes, and he says, “Of course it’s dangerous. That’s what we’re here for, right?”
Whatever else he’s planning on saying, Steve slots the ear defenders over his ears and the world goes silent. Tony follows suit and then carefully picks up the gun, keeping his fingers clear of trigger, and he moves away from the desks to stand in the middle of the workshop floor. Steve moves with him, until Tony lifts his free hand and pushes against Steve’s chest, the meaning clear: keep back.
Steve takes a deliberate step back, raising his eyebrows, and Tony nods. He shoots Steve a questioning look and Steve nods back.
Tony raises the gun. He pulls the trigger.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The shot rings out with a boom like they’re standing in the middle of a thunder cloud, even with the ear defenders in place. There’s a flash of white light that envelops Steve’s vision, forcing his eyes to squeeze shut. The light echoes behind his eyelids and he feels the air ripple with a rush of movement, feels the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. Squinting through his eyelashes, he makes out a great ball of energy streaming from the gun barrel, trailing fiery blues and reds in a comet’s tail and expanding, expanding as it rushes across the room.
Steve feels – doesn’t hear; even without these ear defenders he wouldn’t be able to hear it over the great rushing movement – Tony tense up and suck in a sharp breath, stepping back until his shoulders hit Steve’s chest and he has to stop, gun still held out high in front of him, shining in the light still shooting out of it.
The ball of energy smacks into the far wall with such force it reverberates through the floor all the way back to where they’re standing, and white light licks up the walls from floor to ceiling. The ripple in the air picks up until suddenly wind is rushing past them, away from the light – or out of the light, Steve can’t tell, the wind so strong he has to grit his teeth and grab hold of Tony’s arm – until the light has covered the entirety of the far wall and begins to creep out over the edges, growing bright and brighter, and Steve has to close his eyes again.
Just as suddenly as the wind began, it starts to blow in the opposite direction, back towards the wall of light and energy which is shrinking in on itself. Tony shouts something Steve can’t hear, yanking the gun down so the stream of light breaks off at last, the tail end of it whipping away from the gun barrel as it’s pulled towards the wall. Tony shakes Steve’s hand off his arm and starts to run towards the light, already half the size it was, spiralling inwards like a whirlpool.
“What are you-? Tony!” Steve shouts, running after him. The wind drags him forwards. Papers are blowing in the air, screwdrivers rolling across the floor, the light is twenty feet away and ten feet across – six – three – one foot – an inch –
With a crack that rings through the workshop, the very last speck of light disappears. The wind cuts out immediately, papers dropping down onto the floor. Tony skids to a halt. He tugs off his goggles and ear defenders and tosses them onto the floor.
“God – damn – it,” he shouts, smacking his hand against the wall.
Right over Tony’s head, there’s a dent in the wall where the energy first struck it, three feet across and crumpled at the edges as if it were only cheap drywall. Steve eases off his own safety gear, letting it drop to the ground as he steps forward for a closer look. He presses his own palm to the wall.
“It’s stronger than the Hulk,” he says.
“What?” Tony snaps.
“Look at this. You said this place was Hulk proofed. That – whatever the heck that was, it’s stronger.” Steve reaches over Tony and gives the crumpled edge of the dent a tug but even he can’t budge it. “Even Loki couldn’t have done this.”
Tony looks up at Steve over his shoulder, his gaze passing over Steve’s face and following the line of Steve’s arm around and back up to that hole in the wall. He runs his fingers along one of the tiny cracks spidering out from it and he shakes his head.
“That’s not important.”
“Are you crazy? Of course it’s important. I’m having a hard time coming up with something more important than a weapon stronger than our strongest fella.”
“It’s not a weapon.”
“It’s a – it’s a vehicle. It’s transport. It’s disguised. Didn’t you see the stars, Cap? That was the beginnings of a portal.”
It takes Steve a moment to process.
“No,” he says. “No. It’s not – You saw stars in there?”
At Tony’s wordless nod, Steve groans and rests his forehead on his forearm, up against the wall. He’s aware, peripherally, of Tony pacing back and forth behind him. Steve closes his eyes and breathes out slowly.
“Are you sure? Are you certain? Because if you’re right... if HYDRA have the technology to open portals we’re in for a whole heap of trouble.”
“I’m sure,” Tony says. “Certain. Completely, one hundred per cent. It felt like – like the other one.”
“The other-” Steve lifts his head from his arm, looking across at Tony, down at the gun – the portal opener - still hanging in Tony’s hands, then up at the hole in the wall. “What the heck were you doing just now?”
Steve pushes away from the wall, turning around. “What were you thinking, Tony? This thing was a portal, you knew this thing was a portal and, and you went running at it? Alone?”
“I – wanted to see-” Tony begins, eyes wide, but Steve cuts him off.
“What, you were just planning on jumping inside into goodness knows where?”
Tony goes still at last, and his expression shutters down, his chin lifts up. “Like you wouldn’t have jumped right into that mineshaft solo if HYDRA and the Nazis had been playing Twister at the bottom.”
“I would have called back up if there’d been something serious,” Steve says. “I would’ve called Bruce back - or Thor, he can fly. So can you. I would’ve called you.”
“Stop being so goddamn flippant!” Steve shouts.
His breath catches in his throat and his hand curls into a fist, slamming sideways into the wall. Tony flinches back a step. Steve feels something crunch beneath his skin, but the wall doesn’t give, the paint doesn’t even scratch, there’s only so much Captain America can do.
Chest heaving, Steve grabs hold of his injured hand and hisses. The pain is sharp and bright, but it won’t stay. He’ll wake up in the morning and it’ll be gone again.
“Is this what the twenty-first century is? Always doubting what people say, never being sincere? What the hell happened to you people?”
“You want sincere?” Tony spits, a full six feet away now, though Steve never saw him move. “Okay, sure. Dad’s favourite – hell, Dad’s only bedtime story was that one special time he flew out over enemy territory and watched you jump outta his plane. Sure, maybe Captain America’s the bravest fucking hero this country will ever know, but believe me when I sincerely say Captain Rogers is just as reckless and goddamn stupid as the rest of us.”
“You can’t compare-”
Steve’s fists clench and pain jolts through his hand again, making him wince. Tony’s gaze jerks down to his knuckles for a second before it snaps back up to his face again, Tony’s eyes wide and bright. He stands his ground like he’s made of iron. His feet are bare, Steve realises with a jolt that leaves him almost as breathless as the pain in his hand.
“You’re right,” he says, and Tony snorts. “I’ve done reckless things. I’ve fought alone when I should’ve waited for back up, and I can’t say I regret any of it, and I don’t want to argue about it with you.”
“You started it.”
Steve takes a deep breath. He cradles his hand. He stares down at Tony’s bare, incongruous toes, poking out under the ends of his jeans. “Tony, everyone and everything I’ve ever known or loved or, heck, even just plain hated is gone. Dead and gone. Do you – do you get that? Do you understand how damn lonely that is? I’m done fighting alone. I’m sick of fighting alone. Right now, I could really go for some back up.”
He lets his breath out and leans back against the wall. He doesn’t look up, waiting for Tony to speak, and then when Tony doesn’t speak he adds, softer, “Why do you want this team so bad if you’re going to... to throw yourself at portals? That’s not how a team works.”
“You weren’t complaining last time,” Tony says, but although the words are harsh there’s a note of uncertainty. Steve lifts his head. Tony is still standing six feet away, body tense as if he is the one with his back to a wall, deciding whether to run or fight.
“No,” Steve agrees. “But I don’t know if I could stand to watch you do it again. Please... please don’t make me.”
He has to pause, to clear his throat, before he can continue.
“Why do you want this team so much, Tony?”
Tony flinches slightly, dropping his gaze and taking another step back, but he goes still again when Steve holds up his uninjured hand.
“Please. Argument over, okay? Truce? But if HYDRA have something big planned that needs stopping, I need to know whether I’m doing it with SHIELD or with you.”
Still looking away, Tony says, “Me, of course.”
“But why?” Steve says. “You said yourself you weren’t a teamplayer. Nobody would have been offended if you took a step back from this after New York.”
There’s a pause. Tony shifts back and forth on his feet, looking around at the mess left in the portal’s wake. His gaze finally settles on the robot with the camera, which had somehow managed to stay upright in the chaos, and Tony stands and stares at it.
“I... I’m bored,” Tony begins, before cutting himself off with a wave of his hand, shaking his head. “Wait, no, that didn’t come out right. I’m not saying I wanna make you all dance for me just because I’m bored. I’m not that much of an asshole.”
He lets outs a frustrated breath, scrubbing his hands through his hair. “Let me – let me try this again. Take two.”
He falls silent. He presses the heels of his palms to forehead and twists his fingers tightly in his hair. Steve waits, and waits.
“Forget it,” Steve says at last. “You don’t have to explain yourself to me. It’s fine. You need to talk to Fury about all this anyway, maybe you should take it up with him instead.”
He straightens up, pushing himself away from the wall. The exit is all the way on the other side of the workshop, but Steve focuses on the distant grey rectangle of the doors. He pauses when he walks past Tony, but Tony has his back to him, eyes shut, face still half-hidden by his hands, and Steve begins to turn away.
“I don’t want to take it up with Fury,” Tony blurts out. “Christ, are you kidding? Can you imagine me and him having a heart to heart? Someone would lose an eye and, you know, there’s already one too few between us.”
Steve stops. He looks back at Tony again, who has dropped his arms. His hands hang by his sides, fingers curling and uncurling. He shrugs slightly when he meets Steve’s gaze and he says, “Steve. Come on, I – I’m trying to... I’m trying-”
Shaking his head, Tony turns on his heel and walks away from Steve, but Steve can barely process the wash of disappointment before Tony reaches the wall and turns around again. He leans back against it and slides down to sit on the ground, with his legs sprawled out in front of him and the portal gun placed gently on the floor next to him.
He pats the space on the other side and says, again, quietly, “Steve.”
“Careful,” Steve says. “If you keep on calling me by my name, you won’t be able to manipulate me with it for much longer.”
He sits down next to Tony, crossing his ankles and folding his arms, and Tony rocks his head back against the wall to look across at him, mouth quirking up at the edges. He doesn’t move his hand.
“Save the Steve for special occasions,” Tony says. “Got it.”
Steve can feel the very tips of Tony’s fingers brushing against his thigh, but Tony doesn’t move his hand. And Steve doesn’t move his leg. He’s waiting for something to happen. He’s waiting for something, anyway.
“I died up there,” Tony says suddenly, eyes never leaving Steve’s face. “I was actually dead. Crazy, I know. In space. In a whole alien universe. My heart stopped and I was – alone. I was going to die alone, that was it, nothing to be done.”
“Must’ve been scary,” Steve says.
Tony huffs out a breath of laughter, knocking his knuckles against the seam of Steve’s jeans. “Don’t get me wrong, it was fucking terrifying, but I’ve had more near death experiences than you’ve had – apple pie. Freedom fries.”
“I’ve never had freedom fries,” Steve murmurs automatically, but Tony barely seems to hear him, although his gaze drifts down to watch Steve’s mouth as it moves.
“Dying alone in space was the least scary option, because I wanted it to happen. Not like a death wish, been there, done that, bought the race car. I mean, I...”
“Knew you were gonna die doing the most important thing you’d ever get to do?”
“Yeah, that. I’d accepted it. Three minutes is a helluva long time to come to terms with your own impending doom when you’re giving a nuclear missile a piggyback. Never accepted it before. Always told myself I’d never go down without a fight. That’s what this is, right?”
Tony pulls his hand away at last. He raps his knuckles against the arc reactor through his shirt, and then spreads his hand over it. He looks down at the back of his hand, the faint blue light between his fingers.
“Tony Stark refuses to die,” he says, with a smirk. “I’m like a cockroach. I – One time, couple years ago, I thought I really had accepted my fate. Gave Pep the company, took care of Rhodey, ready to fistbump my maker, the full shebang. But even then I guess I believed something would happen, and it did. That was great, I’m not knocking that. Happiest I’ve ever been to have Black Widow stab me in the neck.”
Tony lowers his hand again, crossing his arms tightly over his chest. He stares down at his feet.
“Three minutes is a long damn time to spend with a nuclear missile. I was ready for it. Hell, I was kinda glad, I think. Shit scared and – and a whole load of other things, but glad, cause I knew it was gonna work. My one good deed. Nobody could call Tony Stark flying a bomb into space and dying alone selfish, right?”
“They’d be a liar if they did.”
“There were stars,” Tony murmurs. “There were whole other worlds out there. I could see - And then I closed my eyes. Died. Woke up. Bam. What do I – This is the second chance, right? Everything else was just... just practice runs, 1.5 chances. Nothing seems – What do I do? How do you move on from your own freaking self-sacrificial death?”
He lapses into silence. Steve lets it linger for a little while and then he knocks his feet sideways against Tony’s until Tony snaps out of his reverie. He lifts his head, looks up at Steve, something wide open in his expression.
“It takes time,” Steve says. “It’s taking me seventy years and counting.”
Tony smiles at that, softly, as though it’s a private joke. Which, Steve realises with a flush of warmth, it is.
“Yeah, I guess you’re kinda the world expert on... things to do Denver when you’re not as dead as you thought.”
“This is New York,” Steve says, before he can stop himself, and adds, ruefully, “Reference, right?”
“Got it in one.” Tony knocks his bare feet into Steve’s. He leaves them there, resting against Steve’s ankles. “I keep building these dumb little robots and, yeah, the clean energy breakthroughs we’re making are terrific and there’s a deal coming up with Wakanda that’s going to be great, but I’m bored. It’s boring. None of it feels like what I’m meant to be doing with my afterlife.”
“Since when have you ever done what you’re meant to do?”
“Yeah, well, maybe now’s the time to start.”
Tony picks the portal gun back up off the floor and lays it down across his lap, running his hands back and forth over the barrel of the gun. He prises at a panel in the side, almost absentmindedly, fingers blunt in his leather gloves.
“I’m not saying I believe in any higher power Thor couldn’t take in a fistfight,” he says. “Or fate, or destiny, or that I’m some kind of chosen one – even I’m not that egotistical. But a guy evades certain death enough times, he starts wondering if there’s a reason.”
“Seems like a pretty good reason to me.”
“I can understand that,” Steve says slowly. “Needing a reason to still be here. For it to be worth it.”
“And is it? Worth it?”
He watches Tony’s hands toying nervously with the portal gun. The sight of the HYDRA logo, etched clumsily into the side as if it were an afterthought, still makes something lurch sickly in his stomach, as much rage as it is grief; and the wall against his back is cold and hard; and he’s god only knows how deep underground. But he glances sideways at Tony, who is watching Steve out of the corner of his eye, and Steve lets out the breath he’s been holding for upwards of seventy years.
“Maybe,” he says. “I sure hope so.”
Tony nods. His face is still mostly turned away from Steve, towards the exit, only the dark brown corner of his eye visible through darker lashes. He glances down into his lap, and then sideways into Steve’s lap, and then he reaches out a hand towards him.
Steve tenses up automatically, until pain shoots up his arm and he remembers.
“You did a number on yourself here, buddy,” Tony says, lifting up Steve’s hand. His grip is delicate despite the leather gloves. “Hold on.”
Shoving the portal gun back onto the floor, Tony tugs his gloves off with his teeth, chucks them to the side and takes careful hold of Steve’s hand again. Tony’s fingers are warm and calloused and precise, and he slips them under Steve’s palm.
“It’s fine, really,” Steve says, but Tony shoots him a look and, rolling his eyes, Steve grips Tony’s hand as best he can, with a hiss and a wince.
“Not too bad. You’ll be back to punching Hitler again in no time.”
Steve chuckles, letting Tony slip his fingers back out of Steve’s grip and take hold of his hand again, gently wiggling each finger and prodding one of the bruises. It already hurts less than it did, the swelling going down, the bruising rising up.
“It’ll be gone by tomorrow morning.”
“You’re gonna have to hurry up if you want Black Widow to kiss it better, then.”
“What? No, I don’t – want –”
“Or Barton?” Tony smirks. “Probably less high risk, knowing him. And knowing her.”
“Shut up, Tony,” Steve says, pushing Tony’s hands away. He frowns down at his swollen knuckles. “We’ve got more important things to think of right now, anyway.”
There’s a pause, before Tony says, “You’re right.”
Drawing his hands back to himself, he pulls his gloves on again and straightens up, climbs quickly to his feet, portal gun held tight in his grip.
“JARVIS, retrieve video footage from cameras You and Butterfingers, upload to private server. Keep it locked for now, but ready to make available for whitelist uh, zero-zero-four through eight once I’ve reviewed it.”
“Certainly, sir. And shall I alert Mr Fury to recent developments?”
Tony shrugs and looks down at Steve. “Decision time, Captain.”
Steve breathes out slowly. It only takes a moment to reach his decision, then he uncrosses and legs and stands up in one smooth motion. Tony takes a step back and watches him, his eyes wide and his face so readable, waiting for what Steve will say.
“No,” Steve says. “Don’t contact Fury yet, JARVIS. We need to talk to the team first.”
Back up in the penthouse, Tony leads Steve straight to the kitchen. It’s just as huge as Steve remembers it being, brightly lit in the mid-morning sunshine. Its two occupants are a new sight, though.
“Top of the morning to ya,” Clint declares as they enter, lifting up his coffee mug in greeting. He’s sitting on the edge of the island work surface, his feet up on a stool.
Sitting on the stool next to him, Natasha lowers her cereal spoon from her mouth and looks them up and down. Her expression inscrutable, her gaze lingers on the gun in Tony’s hand and then moves on to Steve’s.
“What happened to your hand?” she says.
“I hit something.”
She studies his face. “Not Stark.”
It’s not quite a question.
“No,” Steve answers, anyway. “Not – not Tony.”
Natasha nods and returns to her breakfast, apparently satisfied. Tony, meanwhile, strides across the floor and, sweeping detritus out of the way with an arm, drops the portal gun onto the work surface before them.
Clint whistles lowly through his teeth, lifting his feet up off the stool and swivelling around to sit cross-legged, already reaching out for the gun.
“Stark,” he says, “you brought us a present?”
Tony smacks his hand away. “Get off the conference table, Barton.”
“We’re in the kitchen.”
“I don’t believe snacking and avenging have to be mutually exclusive,” Tony says. “It’s a brave new world. Now scram. Get.”
“Better be good,” Clint grouses, but he hops down off the worktop and lands on a stool. For all his complaining, he sits with his back straight and his eyes alert, focussed on the gun before him.
“And anyway,” Tony says. He presses something on the underside of the worktop and a panel in the surface rotates over, without a sound, revealing a console. “It’s Steve’s present, and he’s brought enough for the whole class.”
Natasha puts her cereal bowl down and folds her arms on the worktop, looking at Steve. “Chile?”
“Did you two ever see anything like this in SHIELD’s stores?” he asks. Drawing a stool out from next to Tony, he sits and looks back at her and then across at Clint. “Be careful, we don’t know for sure if it’s safe to touch.”
Natasha quirks an eyebrow, her eyes flickering to Tony, but she reaches behind her – without looking; she must have memorised the room’s layout and its contents the second she stepped inside – and snags a dishcloth. Wrapping it around her hand, she pulls the gun towards her and lifts it up for a closer look.
“No,” she says after a moment’s study.
She turns to Clint.
“Not like anything I’ve ever seen,” Clint says, shaking his head. “It doesn’t look like typical HYDRA tech either. This is pretty weird. Don’t they like showing off? You’d think they’d want something that people can stand to look at for longer than five seconds.”
“They do,” Steve says, at the same time as Tony looks up from his console and says,
“This is them showing off. Kinda. JARVIS, record this conversation. Not for my jerk-off material,” he adds to the room at large. “I’m calling the others. We might need a record of it for later.”
Clint shrugs, unconcerned, and Natasha nods. She lowers the gun back down to the worktop and raises her eyebrows, leaning forwards on her forearms.
“Is this a weapon or is it something else?” she asks.
Tony grins at her, pulling his communicator out of his pocket. “Something else. Just – give me – a second.”
He slots the communicator into a space in the console, presses the symbols for Thor and Bruce and flicks his fingers out at the free seats around the island. Beams of light shoot up out of the edges towards the ceiling, spreading into rectangles that hang in the air. They’re fuzzy with static at first. But as Steve watches, the one on the left suddenly snaps into colour, as bright and sharp as any twenty-first century TV screen, and Bruce blinks out at them.
“Hello,” he says.
“Come home, baby,” Tony says. “The children miss you.”
Clint lifts a hand and waves.
“O – kay,” Bruce says slowly. He runs a hand through his hair and sits up straighter. He’s outdoors somewhere, under a bright blue sky that fills the kitchen with the sounds of birds and insects. “Are we up again?”
“Could be,” Steve says. “HYDRA has cleared out of Chacabuco, but I found-”
He’s cut off by movement and an unfamiliar voice
“Oh my god, stop – too goddamn early for this – shut up,” the voice is saying, and the other light screen flickers into life, filled with the view of a table and some half-shut blinds. It tilts, shifts, revealing a young woman squinting down at them suspiciously.
“What?” she snaps.
“Who the hell are you?” Tony says.
“Who am I? Who are you? I was sleeping, and I was having an awesome dream, and now...” She pauses, blinking, and she shakes her head and screws her eyes up tight. When she opens them again, she says in a very faint voice, “Oh my god, you’re Tony Stark. Okay, deep breaths, Darcy, deep breaths.”
The view tilts wildly again, settling on the idle spin of a ceiling fan, and over the speakers they hear the girl’s voice, fading away into the distance as she shouts, “Thor! All your superhot friends are on your cell and they saw my freaking bedhead!”
There’s a moment of silence on both ends of the conversation, broken by Clint saying, “I like her.”
“Can I just ask-?” Bruce begins, but Tony hushes him loudly, holding up a finger. Bruce sighs and sits back.
The view on Thor’s screen shifts again, blurring with movement until at last the picture goes still and Thor’s face appears. He beams out at them.
“My friends!” he exclaims. “Well met!”
“And the same to you,” Steve says, leaning forwards as he speaks to the screens. He’s peripherally aware ofTony sitting down next to him, leaning back. “Bruce, Thor – and you two as well,” he adds, with a glance at Clint and Natasha. “You’ll want to hear this, too. Have either of you ever seen something like this before? You especially, Thor - do you think this could be from your realm?”
Natasha wordlessly holds the gun up again. Thor leans forward, the smile fading from his face as he studies it.
“Nay, Captain,” he says. “Would that I could be of more help, but your weapon is unfamiliar to me. In Asgard, we craft weaponry of great beauty, and with great care. This – this is crude. And ugly. It has no place in my realm.”
“Darn.” Steve sighs. “Bruce?”
Bruce shrugs, shaking his head. “Never seen it before. It doesn’t look like much. Why the focus on Thor, of us all?”
“Because up till now, Thor’s folks were the only people we knew with the technology to travel between worlds.”
Around the table, Natasha hisses something in Russian and Clint sits up even straighter. Thor’s expression turns grim.
“That’s... bad,” Bruce says.
“Alright, boys and girls,” Tony says, leaning forwards again to prop his elbow up on the worktop. “No need to clutch your pearls too tightly. This is – not great, yeah, but we’ve got a silver lining. Judging by this thing’s general ugliness, HYDRA have got someone else doing their dirty work – and whoever that is? They haven’t got it right either.”
“How do you know this?” Natasha asks.
Tony shrugs. “Tried it, fired it, basement remains one hundred per cent portal free. Sure, they’ve got the tech, but they haven’t got it working yet.”
“If we can study it properly,” Bruce says, rubbing his chin, “we might be able to work out where it’s come from.”
“My scans couldn’t turn anything up,” says Tony. “Not even what it’s made of. Which is why you, the gamma guy, and me, the – well, me - need to put our science hats on and figure this out. So get your butt back here already.”
Bruce nods. He looks off to the side and the picture on the screen goes shaky as he lowers his arm. There’s the rustling of a map before his face reappears. “It’s about an hour to the nearest airport. I’ll need to catch a flight to a bigger city if I want to get a flight to New York, but I’ll probably make it back by tonight.”
“JARVIS, remind me to invent a teleporter, already. It’s time. I think the world’s ready,” Tony says with a groan. He drops his forehead into his hands and shakes his head. “Bruce, just try to make it across the border and back into the US. I’ll send a jet to meet you. It’ll still take time but it might, if we’re lucky, be a less annoying time.”
“I think it’s time you invented yourself some patience,” Bruce murmurs, but he nods again. With a click, his screen goes dark and the beam of light disappears back into the work surface.
“Can you get back here too, Thor?” Steve says. “You know the most about alien tech.”
Thor nods, his expression losing some of its gravity again as he sits up straight. “Aye. I must say farewell to Jane first-”
“Well, that’ll take five hours,” Tony murmurs to Steve.
“Shh,” Steve breathes, shaking his head minutely and staring straight ahead at Thor. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Natasha turn to look at them.
“-for she is too busy to take such a voyage with me on this day, but I will make haste.”
“Thor,” Natasha says, looking away from Steve again. “How long does it take you to fly here?”
“Perhaps sixty of your Midgardian minutes.”
“And it’s safe to carry us Midgardians with you?”
“Aye, Jane often joins me on clear nights.”
Natasha nods once. She crosses her arms. “Get back in touch with Banner, get his location. You can fly to him and bring him back with you.”
“Ah, Fair Widow, your wisdom puts us all to shame.”
Natasha inclines her head in agreement, her lips twitching. Next to her, though, Clint is frowning. Steve glances down at Clint's hands on the worktop and sees them clenching into fists.
“Do you think your brother could be behind this, Thor?” says Clint, voice low. “Couldn’t keep his portal open first try, so he has another go with another device?”
“I would not think it so,” Thor says. “But there is a lot of Loki I thought not possible. Perhaps when this new device is in my hands, I will feel his presence about it. Though I hope it will not be so.”
He sighs heavily, and the sound of it reverberates around them long after his screen too has gone dark and disappeared. Steve looks around at Tony, who is frowning with his chin in his hands, and then around at the others. He watches Natasha touch the back of Clint’s hand, murmuring until Clint nods at her.
“Thor can fly,” Tony says, breaking the silence. “How the fuck did I forget Thor can fly?”
Clint snorts with laughter. “Yeah, Stark, thought you were a genius.”
“I’m the genius whose tower you’re living in,” Tony says. “And I’ve got a supercomputer that’s trained to kill, so watch yourself.”
He stands, kicking his stool away and wandering over to the cupboards, while Natasha picks up her cereal again and Clint stares uncertainly up at the ceiling.
“Whilst it’s true that I have very rigorous security protocols, Agent Barton, I assure you none of them are necessarily intended to kill.”
“Comforting,” Clint mutters.
Sniggering, Tony emerges from the cupboards with a big bag of potato chips. He tugs it open and pours a bunch straight into his mouth before tossing the bag at Clint. Clint catches it without turning around.
“Well, we’ve got a couple hours to kill before Thor and Bruce get here,” Tony says as he chews. “Who’s up for a game of twister? Poker? Strip poker? No, I’ve got it, strip twister.”
“Tony,” Steve says, “we should—”
Natasha licks a drop of milk from the end of her spoon and says, levelly, “You want the team to be independent from SHIELD.”
“How did you—” Steve begins, but when Natasha lifts her head, it’s Tony she looks at.
“You’re unsubtle. You gave Clint food, so you want him on your side. You argued with Steve this morning, though the two of you have become good friends—” and at this, her gaze swings around to Steve, although she keeps talking to Tony. “You’ve been frustrated by Fury’s silence for months. You seem cheerful today.”
“I’m always cheerful,” Tony says.
Shaking his head, Clint makes a scornful sound around his potato chips. Natasha keeps looking at Steve, unblinking, her head to one side.
“No,” she says simply, turning back to her cereal at last. “You aren’t.”
Steve looks down at the worktop.
“So are you in?” he asks after a moment’s silence.
Natasha glances across at Clint, who lifts a shoulder and raises an eyebrow, and whatever she reads in that is enough to make her nod and say, “Yes.”
“Anything to avoid a deskjob,” Clint says.
“We’ll remain agents of SHIELD,” she adds, “and we will work for them when they need us.”
Nodding, Steve says, “That’s fair,” and then he looks around at Tony.
The second he catches his eye, Tony’s face breaks into a grin. An honest to goodness grin that reaches all the way up to his crinkling eyes, without any sarcasm or evasion or insincerity. It’s just about the warmest, brightest thing that Steve has ever seen.
“Guess we’re in for some fun times,” Tony says, patting him on the arm.
He drops his hand when Steve doesn’t respond, though he’s still smiling faintly as he looks away, rummaging around the clutter for a screwdriver. Natasha pushes the portal gun back towards him and Tony grabs at it eagerly. He runs his thumb along the barrel until he finds that panel again, jabbing the end of the screwdriver into the edge with a satisfied smirk.
“Yeah,” Steve manages. He swallows once, heavily, and then again. He doesn’t need this. He doesn’t need the feel of Tony’s heartbeat under his skin. He doesn’t need –
He watches Clint murmur something to Natasha, fishing another handful of chips out of the bag. She nods and looks up at Steve, her gaze so sharp and focussed and knowing.
But it’s Tony Steve looks back to again, hunched down over this gun with his tongue sticking out in concentration. It’s Tony Steve can’t look away from, even as Tony glances at him out of the corner of his eye and Steve can’t decipher his expression.
It’s Tony. Just out of reach.
“Oh,” Steve breathes.
COMING SOON: A SEQUEL.
And there'll be kissing too, I promise.
Anyway, I just want to say, this is the longest thing I've ever written that wasn't a Nanowrimo. Somehow, when I started writing it in my head the night after watching the Avengers for the first time because I was too excited to sleep, it was just a glorified five times fic (times Steve stopped by the tower before he moved in) that I was expecting to be about 5,000 words long. LET US THROW BACK OUR HEADS AND LAUGH AT MY PAST FOOLISHNESS.
I had no idea it was going to be this long, or eat my life and heart and soul to such an extent, or get such a wonderful reception. I couldn't have asked for a better audience for my first proper go writing in this fandom, so thank you all very much.