Stark Tower was not as ugly on the inside. Steve could even forgive it for blocking the natural light that used to turn Grand Central into an artist's dream; he still couldn't believe the sun no longer slanted through the station like it used to. Well, it would be a few years yet before Grand Central was back in working order anyway. In its absence, the lobby of Tony Stark's New York headquarters was doing a good job stealing Steve's breath.
A series of glass cylinders served as elevators, filtering light through the first thirty stories into a lush garden ringed with blue pools of flitting goldfish. It was something out of a fairytale, and yeah, Steve was getting pretty used to staring since he'd woken up from the ice, but this was something else.
Steve turned to find Pepper Potts, the willowy redhead he'd seen at Stark's side in television spots and magazine spreads, standing beside a spray of Bird of Paradise in a white sheath dress, tablet in the crook of her arm.
"Miss Potts." He shook her hand, feeling very out of place in his khakis and flannel shirt. All around them, men and women in sharp suits milled like ants, always working away at their tiny phones or clipboard-computers. "Please, call me Steve. I'm, uh, off duty."
Her smile seemed sincere. "Of course. It's Pepper to you, then."
Steve opened his mouth to ask about Tony, because that was why he'd come. He didn't like the way things ended with Loki and the invasion. Well, they won—that was fine. But he'd called Stark a coward. Said he wasn't the type to lay himself on the line. And God, Steve had been wrong. He'd been so, so wrong, and it was eating him up. There hadn't been a good time to say so, what with the team always being there, and Steve figured a late apology would be better than none at all.
But before he could ask Pepper where Tony was, the man himself swooped through the front door in brand new sneakers and crisp pinstripes and sunglasses, flanked by what looked like every reporter that wasn't still covering the reconstruction of the city.
"Mr. Stark! Mr. Stark!" their voices echoed in the chamber of the lobby.
"Pepper. Elevator? If you would," Tony drawled. "And furnish these folks with the quotes they need. They followed me all the way from the UN. It's adorable."
Pepper shot Steve an apologetic smile and cut through the crowd smoothly, drawing them away from Tony while at the same time keying open what looked to be a private elevator with her tablet. Tony sailed by Steve without even a glance, and might have kept going if Steve hadn't called out.
Tony spun and removed his sunglasses, still walking backwards. "Oh, hey, Cap. Yes, actually. Full schedule. Met Pepper? Of course you have, she meets everyone. Did she show you the fish? I like the big one. I call him Goldy." He walked right into the waiting elevator and slid his sunglasses into his breast pocket. The doors closed on his wide grin. "Ciao."
Steve mouthed the word chow before he got it, shaking his head. It had been stupid to show up like this without any warning; of course Stark wouldn't have time to see him. The man was running half the world, it seemed like. When he wasn't too busy being a fat-headed, grandstanding—
Deep breath. Steve was here to say sorry, after all, not get in another fight.
"Man, you sure scared him."
Steve turned to find Bruce Banner slouched next to the koi pond, a greasy paper bag in one hand, a soda cup in the other. As he watched, Dr. Banner took a long sip from his cup. Something light-colored, like ginger ale maybe. Right, no caffeine.
"Scared him?" Steve frowned. "Maybe if he's scared of being double-booked, which I doubt."
"No, I mean," Bruce said around his straw, "he knows why you're here. And he'd rather not listen to you say how sorry you are, you know? He's not really good at the whole feelings thing, don't know if you noticed."
"But—I didn't—and, wait, how did you know—?"
Bruce shrugged, pointing with his straw. "This is the first time you've come to Stark Tower, and the only reason you'd do that is to speak to Tony. You're in civvies, so it's not official SHIELD business. And you've been sending mopey, self-flagellating glances his way ever since you finished your shawarma." He lipped the straw back into his mouth. "Doesn't take a genius."
"Yeah." Steve sized up Banner. "It doesn't, and yet here you are." He cleared his throat, thinking of ways to divert all that brainy attention. "What are you doing here, anyway? Thought you'd be halfway back to Calcutta by now."
"Kolkata," Bruce corrected. "And I would be, except Tony asked me to stick around the R&D department and take a look at that stick Loki left behind. It emits low-level gamma radiation just like the tesseract, and I have a theory that its mind-controlling properties are a result of temporary cellular mutation of the—" Steve tried to follow, but Bruce must have noticed how his eyes glazed over, because he gave a small, self-conscious smile and said, "Never mind. It's hard to explain. Would you rather see?"
Banner gestured with his cup toward a far bank of crystal elevators, and Steve eyed them warily. "Am I allowed?" he asked. He didn't want any further embarrassment.
"You saved Midtown. I think you're allowed."
"I had help," Steve reminded him, offering his own small smile.
The lab was as massive and impressive as Steve could have imagined. Times two. The frosted glass walls and transparent computer monitors reminded him of the elevators in the lobby. Except instead of plants and fish, there was machinery and strange electrical storms contained in what looked like milk bottles. Bruce showed him Loki's scepter—or what was left of it. It had been disassembled into its alien parts, each inside a gel-like matrix that, according to Banner, would monitor them around the clock. Steve didn't understand, but he knew enough to be awed.
"So how weird is it?" Bruce asked between bites of his meatball sub. He sat perched on a high stool at a corner of the wide lab table, sauce dribbling over his fingers to patter on the wrapper he'd spread out on the tabletop.
Steve looked up from the doohickey he'd been examining with the aim to guess its purpose. "How weird is what?"
"Being a time traveler." That slow, small smile spread over Bruce's lips again. "Kind of. I just. Wondered."
"Oh." Steve rotated the gadget in his hands. He thought maybe it had something to do with drilling. "Loki's attack didn't give me a whole lot of time to adjust. After I woke up, Fury put together a brief designed to acclimate me. But after the first couple pages..." Steve shook his head. "It was like reading a book about some made-up world. It wasn't sinking in. Still hasn't. There's just too much for me to catch up on." He fiddled with the doohickey, turning it this way and that. "Is this a screwdriver?"
"Yeah. But with lasers," Bruce said. He took another bite, finishing off the sandwich.
Steve withdrew his hands hastily. "Lasers?"
"Don't worry. Safety's on," a chipper voice called from the hallway. "I think."
"Stark!" Steve pushed away from the table, turning to see Tony lounging in the doorway. He had changed into jeans and a thin tee shirt; the eerie blue of the arc reactor was glowing through the material on his chest. He carried a dark messenger bag over his shoulder. "Listen, I didn't mean to barge in but—"
"The more the merrier, that's what I always say. Did you go to Gino's without me, Bruce? Geez, and here I am giving you a gift," Tony said, slipping past Steve and dumping his bag on the table in front of Bruce. "Come on, open it."
"It's not even my birthday," Banner mumbled, cleaning his hands carefully with a tissue-thin napkin before peeking under the bag's flap. "Um. I told you, I don't actually do yoga." He removed a pair of black pants from the bag. They looked silky and smooth to Steve, the kind of tight material he'd seen clinging to the legs of joggers in Central Park.
"They're not yoga pants, professor. Check it out." Tony grabbed one leg and yanked hard, running to the opposite side of the wide room. The fabric stretched and didn't tear, moving like water through the air.
"Wow." Steve blinked.
"Six hundred percent more elastic than spandex, seven thousand times stronger. Next time the Hulk pays us a visit, you won't find yourself bare-assed when he leaves." Tony's eyebrows did a little dance. "Not that I minded."
Bruce's face colored and he stared down at the puddle of fabric in his lap. Steve watched him closely, his mouth dry; he knew Tony Stark was famous for saying outrageous things, but there was a time—Steve's time—when saying that kind of stuff to another guy would get you punched in the jaw. And the last thing they needed was Bruce Banner getting...punchy.
"Thanks, Tony. Really. This is—um—thanks." Bruce reeled the pant leg back to its original shape, a smile hovering on his lips. Steve suppressed a relieved sigh; it was fine, they were fine.
"This is pretty impressive," Steve added. He reached out and ran his hand over the fabric. It felt like cotton candy, soft as a cloud. "I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it. Good job, Stark."
Tony's answering grin was wide and white. His teeth were perfect, Steve noticed. "Just being amazing in my spare time," he said airily. His radiant happiness with their approval was at odds with his devil-may-care attitude, Steve also noticed.
But Steve wasn't here to put Stark under a microscope. He glanced at Bruce, still stretching the fabric in his hands like pizza dough. Steve had wanted to make this apology in private, but Bruce already had his number. And if he lost a little face in front of the Hulk, maybe that wasn't the worst thing in the world.
"Look, Tony, I wanted to tell you—" Steve began.
"What do you think of 'Starkdex?'" Tony interrupted, turning away to peer at a transparent monitor. He tapped his fingertip along some fluctuating chart, still chatting away. "Like Spandex but more me. Or does that sound stupid? Starkdex. Stark-desk. Stark-decks. It's impossible to say three times fast. Pepper will get a focus group together. We'll nail it down."
"Tony—" Steve tried again.
"And don't think I'm stopping with the Big Guy over here." Tony hooked a thumb over his shoulder at Bruce. "Your new suit gets points for style, Cap, no doubt about that. But integrate some of this into the lining and it'll make the SHIELD tech look like papier-mâché."
"Sorry. Papier-mâché, it's this French thing. You make, like, ashtrays out of it. I think. Did they have it back in your day? We should get some kind of big board to keep track of the references you need to learn."
"Hey, just let him say he's sorry," Bruce cut in. "We could be here all day otherwise."
Tony turned sharply, glaring at both of them before hoisting himself onto the lip of the table and swinging his sneakered feet above the floor. "Fine. Let's get it over with, quick."
Steve took a deep breath and tried to forget how arrogant Tony Stark could be. "What I said on the Helicarrier...I was out of line. I jumped to conclusions based on my own short-sighted—"
"Quicker," Tony grimaced. "Quicker, please."
Steve pursed his lips and counted down from three. "All right. I'm sorry," he said. "And thanks for flying that bomb into space."
"Nuclear weapon, but the sentiment is still appreciated." Tony leapt back to the floor, hands shoved in his jean pockets. "Nukes: gotta put those on the big board too."
Well, it was no firm handshake and heartfelt acceptance, but it was the best he could have hoped for where Tony Stark was concerned. He shot Banner a smirk and nodded. "Heh. Well, guess I should get out of your hair. Thanks for letting me see the lab, Bruce."
As he took a step toward the hallway door, Tony frowned and said, "Where are you going?"
"And where's that? Some SHIELD installation on Staten Island or something?"
"Brooklyn Heights, actually. They—um—they thought being in a familiar neighborhood would help me adjust." Steve shrugged. "But to be honest, the place has changed so much, I may as well be living on Mars."
Tony scoffed. "I shudder to think what kind of wallpaper Fury picked out for you."
He was right, actually. The wallpaper was awful. But the rooms were in decent shape, and considering what apartments cost these days, Steve didn't think he had a right to complain.
Bruce ducked his head and toyed with a monitor by his elbow. "You know, there's lots of space here on the 60th floor." He glanced at Tony and gave a chagrined roll of his shoulders. "Sorry. Your house, not mine. I didn't—sorry."
But Tony's eyes had already lit up. "No, you're right. It's brilliant. Cap, want to bunk with us in the Avengers clubhouse?"
"Clubhouse?" Steve raised an eyebrow.
Tony waved a hand through the air, gesturing with excitement. "I was telling Banner just the other day, it would make sense for us to stick together. I have this idea that we could transform part of Stark Tower into a kind of, I don't know, headquarters for the whole team." He grinned. "Thursday nights could be Movie Nights."
Tactically, it made sense to keep the team centrally located. If another emergency cropped up, they might need to mobilize on short notice. And it wouldn't hurt to have allies to watch each other's backs.
On the other hand, Steve was having a hard time wrapping his mind around it. Living in a skyscraper? Tony Stark's skyscraper, living off his hospitality? Plus, Thor was off-world. Widow and Hawkeye were still active agents; SHIELD probably wouldn't want them living and working off-site. But the three of them—the Hulk, Captain America, and Iron Man—would be a start.
And strangely enough, Stark looked eager at the prospect of collecting strays in his house. Steve had never seen the man's eyes dance like that.
Later, as Steve finished loading the last of his meager possessions into the Stark Corp. moving van, he wondered if he should have protested a little more before accepting the invitation.
The big board was hung in the lab, which, Steve discovered, was a shared space. Bruce seemed to work there every waking moment, and Tony dropped in when his schedule permitted. He called it "tinkering" but Steve watched him build robots and complicated computing systems wholesale in a matter of hours. It wasn't tinkering, it was raw talent.
Steve liked to sit quietly in the lab and watch archival footage on his new tablet computer. He was trying his best to catch up on the last 70 years. When he hit a barricade—a word he didn't understand, a reference he couldn't follow—he tugged the headphones out of his ears and piped up, asking Bruce or Tony what such and such meant, or who what's-his-face was. And slowly, he worked his way through the big board, even as Bruce and Tony added to it.
The board's entries, after two weeks, were as follows:
the Zapruder film
James Bond (Connery only)
Cher (disco in general)
the stock market crash (2008)
They'd already covered Sept. 11, MLK, Hiroshima, skinny jeans, the wars in Russia, Korea, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, crack cocaine, and sushi, among other things.
Steve was curled up in a corner, sitting on the floor with his legs crossed, tablet screen balanced on his knees because the stools in the lab were too narrow to seat him comfortably. He was immersed in a clip from Goldfinger, headphones on full volume to combat Tony's music. The loud pounding screaming stuff—metal, Tony called it—was his preferred background noise for working. Steve was trying to appreciate it, but some days it wasn't easy. He missed the brassy beats of big bands. Bruce seemed to enjoy it, though; Steve could see his foot tapping away under the lab table.
A small red flag appeared at the top of Steve's screen. Pepper had been kind enough to set up his tablet to notify him whenever something important hit the airwaves; Steve wanted to be up-to-date on current events too, not just historical ones. Steve paused his video and clicked on the alert, watching the newscast unfold. President Obama was giving an interview, it looked like.
(Steve had already endured plenty of ribbing from Bruce and Tony when he'd enthused how great it was to see a "colored man" in the Oval Office. Pepper had stifled a horrified gasp and explained that nobody used that word anymore, and that he should say African-American or just "black." Steve didn't see how that was any different, but some changes were so subtle and absolute that he had stopped questioning them.)
The video played on, and after a few minutes, Steve realized what was being discussed. He slowly hit the pause button and tugged his headphones out of his ears. "Jarvis, could you lower the music, please?" he asked.
The screeching metal song quieted, and Tony looked up sharply from the 3D model he was currently poking with his gloved hands. "Problem?" he asked. Bruce glanced between the two of them over the rim of his eyeglasses.
"Uh, the President." Steve scratched the back of his head, trying to formulate his question. "He just said..." He felt his brow furrow as he looked up. "'Gay' means something different now, doesn't it?"
"Wait, what?" Bruce sat up straighter, reaching for a monitor, but Tony beat him to it, flicking every screen to the newscast.
"Well, dip me in glitter," Tony murmured, watching the headline crawl along the bottom. "Jarvis, have a case of champagne sent to the Stark Industries GSM Employee Support Counsel. And make a donation to the reelection campaign. Another fifty grand should do it."
"Understood, sir," the AI replied.
"You're for this?" Steve asked, his eyebrows rising into his hairline.
"Yeah, why not?" Tony shrugged.
"Things have changed, Cap," Bruce said carefully.
Steve tried to keep the bewildered look off his face, but the way Tony was glowering at him probably meant he wasn't succeeding. "Sorry, it's just—we never talked about this sort of thing in my time," Steve said, eyes fixed on the screen in his hands. The President's mouth kept moving silently. "I suppose if someone chooses to live their life a certain way, well, that's their choice. They're free to do what they like."
Tony pushed away from the table, standing with his hands braced on the edge. "It's not a choice to be queer, Steve."
Queer meant something else now too? He had so much catching up to do. For example, his mouth catching up with his brain.
"But it is a choice, of course it is. You can choose to ignore it and just...." Steve trailed off, sensing their twin gazes on him. He looked up to find Tony looking borderline furious and Bruce raising his brows in surprise. And Steve realized how close he'd just come to slipping up in front of two mega-geniuses who, lucky for him, couldn't piece together people as easily as their science projects.
Because when Steve spoke about ignoring those impulses— the feeling he used to get when Bucky winked at him, the way he noticed his friend's long legs and corded arms when they played ball together—he spoke from experience. And he'd convinced himself that maybe every guy had stray urges that had to be tamped down. And he'd figured losing Bucky meant losing those feelings for good. But maybe he was wrong. About everything.
Steve's mouth was dry and itchy as he struggled to speak. "I'm sorry. I must sound so backwards to you. I just don't know any better." The lie didn't suit him, but it wasn't completely untrue either.
The fight dampened in Tony's eyes somewhat, and Bruce leaned forward between them. "It's okay, Steve. There's been a lot of research done on human sexuality since the '40s. Let me show you some of the studies, okay? Kinsey's a good place to start."
"Oh my god, can we just let him discover internet pornography like everyone else?" Tony groaned, turning his attention back to his model. He gave the virtual wireframes a spin and made a face, already fixated on his work again. "Jarvis, where's my music? Thank you." The heavy metal blared through the room.
"Come on, I could use a break anyway," Bruce called over the pounding drums. He gave Steve a hand to help him to his feet, and they left Tony in the lab.
The rooftop was still under construction, and the Loki-shaped hole in the floor was roped off (Steve wished he could have been there to see that), but it was still a great view of the city. Bruce and Steve sat on the edge of the huge swooping landing pad, legs dangling in the air a few hundred feet above the lower level. Steve loved it up here.
Bruce scrolled through some Wikipedia entries on his tablet, walking Steve through the basics of the whole Kinsey experiment. Steve nodded along, hoping his cheeks weren't heating up and giving him away.
"So the theory is that most everyone is somewhere in the middle of the scale?" he asked.
"Yeah. It's not black and white. Some people think it is, but it's not." Bruce laid the tablet aside and wrung his hands in his lap, looking down the long slope of the tower. "You know, Tony's a— He's in the middle. The exact middle, actually. He's bisexual. That's why he reacted a little, um, strongly back in the lab."
"Oh! Oh my gosh." Steve's mouth hung open. "I didn't know he—really? Tony?" He seemed like such a ladies' man, all swagger and pomp. It didn't jive with the image Steve had of how a sissy behaved. But then again, Steve didn't fit that mold either. Nothing made any sense in 2012.
"You couldn't have known. You weren't around in the late '80s, early '90s. Back then, Tony was infamous for wild parties, lots of—" Bruce cleared his throat. "—encounters. Well-documented by the tabloids. He never tried to hide it. Flaunted it until people got tired of talking about it. It's only lately, after the suit and everything, that he's kind of—" He waggled his head back and forth. "—calmed down, according to the press."
This was Tony Stark calm? Steve blinked. "I should apologize. He must think I'm some kind of yahoo." But Bruce grabbed the sleeve of his blue tee before he could stand.
"It's fine. He's not mad," Bruce said. "Plus, remember how Tony does with apologies?"
Steve studied Bruce's pinched face carefully, wondering how the man had gotten so good at interpreting Tony Stark after such a short time when Stark was still a mystery to Steve. Something tickled at the back of his skull, some feeling about the way Bruce watched Tony move across the lab, the secret smile that followed when Tony sang along to his music.
"Bruce," Steve said slowly, "are you somewhere in the middle with Tony?"
Something flashed in Banner's eyes, a little too close to green. Which reminded Steve: maybe it wasn't such a hot idea to prod the guy like this. But he couldn't take it back now. He could only watch Bruce's face shift from open to closed, eyes downcast and fists clacking together in his lap.
"I'm sorry, it's none of my business," Steve backpedaled.
"No, it's all right. It doesn't matter." Bruce smiled that tiny, lopsided smile. "Ever since the Other Guy showed up, I haven't really—" He twisted his lips into a frown and looked out over the city. "It's not safe. Being with someone like that. I have no idea what would happen if, in the heat of the moment, I lost control and—" He shook his head. "So. Yeah. Tony. He's great. He let me into his house and trusted me not to wreck it. He's the only one who doesn't seem to be afraid of me. But it's not going to happen. It can't happen."
"Oh." Steve hadn't thought about that. A terrifying image flashed through his mind: being pinned under something as massive and powerful and uncontrollable as the Hulk and not being able to do anything about it. And Bruce, alone because he thought the risk wasn't worth it—that he wasn't worth it. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault." Bruce slipped off his glasses and tucked them into his shirt pocket. Nice duds, Steve noted, the kind of crisp, tailored clothes that Tony Stark might pick out. And probably did. "I'm at...not at peace with it, that's not the right word. But it's useful. Another brick in the wall, you know? Got to keep my baseline steady."
His baseline. Right. Bruce Banner's big secret: his constant, seething anger. Steve marveled at him all over again, this seemingly unassuming guy with the nervous hands and soft voice who had built his rage into a dam that kept something huge and terrifying at bay. It wasn't cowardice, he understood that now. It was what a real hero did. It was sacrifice.
If Bruce were a little younger, maybe, and his smile was a little more cocky, he'd look an awful lot like another hero Steve had known.
Whoa. That thought wasn't—where had that come from? Steve swallowed, tearing his gaze away from Bruce's face and looking out over the roofs of the buildings below. "...Nice night," he said uselessly.
Bruce shifted next to him, their arms brushing. "Yeah. Sure is."
The sun went down and they watched it go.
"We are not watching Field of Dreams again!" Tony protested, sprawling on the modular sofa and taking up much more than his allotted third of the cushions. His feet curled into Steve's lap, ever-moving. "There are too many movies Cap still hasn't seen; we can't waste time on some stupid baseball flick."
"I like baseball," Steve grumbled.
"It's my turn to pick the movie," Bruce said from his spot at the far end of the couch, where he was curled into a corner. "So I choose Field of Dreams."
"No. Field of Dreams deferred," Tony declared. "We're watching Total Recall."
"Total Recall? What happened to democracy?" Bruce made a grab for the TV remote. Tony was faster.
"Movie Night is not a democracy. It's a lovable dictatorship." Tony pressed the button that raised the giant Jackson Pollack painting (Steve had been reading up on postmodern art; he didn't like it as much as Tony did, but he appreciated the scale) and keyed the screen to life.
"Steve will hurl," Bruce insisted. "He went all green around the gills when we watched Friday the 13th last week, remember?"
"I wasn't green!" Steve protested, grabbing a handful of warm popcorn from the crystal bowl on the glass coffee table. "I was just a little surprised. There was...a lot of blood. And not at all realistic."
"Okay, okay, I got the perfect thing. Jarvis, queue up Home of the Brave, 1943."
"Right away, sir," the disembodied British voice said.
Now Steve really was green. 1943. Oh God, that was the one with the—
Come on, men! the black-and-white Steve Rogers shouted on the screen amid a huge firefight while carrying two fallen soldiers, one in each arm. No matter what happens, keep your eye on the stars and stripes!
"Are you literally wearing the flag?" Bruce gaped. "Why. Why are you doing that."
"It's explained via flashback," Steve mumbled, his voice muffled by the pillow he was currently pressing into his face.
Tony rolled cat-like off the sofa and loped over to the bar, where he poured himself a large dose of scotch. "Anyone else thirsty?" he chuckled.
Bruce shook his head, hiding his wide grin with his palm; of course he never indulged. Steve didn't think he'd be an angry drunk, but it was like Bruce not to risk it. And of course there was no point in Steve drinking, so he waved away the offer.
"This was my least favorite of the Captain America propaganda films," Tony said as he stoppered the decanter. "And it was my dad's number one pick of all time."
"You watched these with Howard?" Steve asked instead. On screen, his slightly younger self gunned down an entire platoon with only one clip. Steve cringed. "I'm sorry. I was really bad, wasn't I? I could never get the hang of acting." Too much like lying.
"You're telling me." Tony flopped back onto the couch, inhabiting more space than seemed possible for such a slight man, his arms stretched out along the back of the cushions. He took a sip of his drink. "Dad loved these movies, though. He'd put one on and say, 'See, son? That's how a real man acts.' Captain America was everything Howard Stark wanted me to be." Tony swung his gaze over to Steve, a smile playing on his lips. "God, I hated you."
Steve didn't know what to say to that. His heart, usually so steady, clenched painfully.
"Tony," Bruce said in a low warning voice.
"But it turns out," Tony said as if he hadn't heard Bruce at all, "you're not a total dick after all. So that's good."
"Uh. Thanks." Steve licked his lips. "I think."
Tony sipped his scotch, and Bruce cleared his throat. "Pass the popcorn?"
Steve passed through the automatic glass doors and slowed from a jog to an easy walk as he crossed the lobby. His damp tee and loose running shorts were at odds with the prim and pressed businesspeople who populated the first floor, but Steve couldn't find it in him to be that self-conscious about it. It wasn't often he could break a sweat during a run, but the weather had been so pleasant, he'd gone up to the northernmost point of Central Park and back. A good seven miles, probably, at a challenging pace. It was just what he needed; the Tower had an excellent gym, but Steve was feeling cooped up lately. It was nice to be outside, to watch New Yorkers going about their business.
He took the private elevator up to the 60th floor, using the hem of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his forehead as he rode.
The doors whooshed open. "Um," a small voice said.
Steve dropped his shirt back over his stomach to see Bruce standing in the hallway outside the elevator, rumpled and chagrined.
"Sorry," he said. "I was just—have you seen Tony?"
"Not since last night," Steve said, stepping out of the elevator and letting the doors close behind him. "Why?"
"It's nothing, he was just lending me a hand with some stuff. In the lab. And—"
"Anything I can do to help?" Steve asked.
"Well. Ah." Bruce clacked his hands together. "There is some heavy lifting."
Steve grinned. He'd planned on showering and picking up the charcoals and sketch pad he'd bought in the Village yesterday, but that could wait. He liked the idea of finally being of use in the lab. "Right up my alley."
Bruce led him to a far corner of the floor, past their usual work room and through a series of keycarded doors. Jarvis greeted them when they finally arrived in a windowless room half-lined with huge metal plates.
"Adamantium," Bruce said, running a hand over a stack of metal in one corner. "As far as I can tell, it's unbreakable. And expensive."
"You're making a room for the Hulk," Steve said slowly.
Bruce shrugged, pacing around the small space with his hands shoved deep in his linen trouser pockets. "Fury's reinforced glass drop-box was a good start, but if Thor could break it, so could the Other Guy. So Tony and I have been working on this. Here, look." He grabbed a Stark Tablet from a makeshift table and called up the project's wireframes. They danced into being in front of their eyes, a rotating mass of gears and wires. To Steve, this still felt like magic.
"It's not just a room," Bruce explained, flicking the model into changing its shape from a ball to a winged disc. "It's also a flight pod. If the Hulk needs to be contained in the field, Jarvis can launch it from the roof deck. It's designed to close around the Hulk and seal itself. It tracks my gamma signature, so it can find me anywhere."
Steve looked around the room, hands on his hips. Magic. "What do you call this thing?"
Bruce smiled. "The Bell Jar."
They spent the afternoon in the Jar, Steve lifting heavy adamantium panels and Bruce welding them into place. Between the loud fizzle of the blowtorch, they talked about small things: what Indian food was like, how Harlem had changed, the guy who stood outside Gino's every day and didn't look homeless but it was hard to say.
The final panel was supposed to go on the Jar's ceiling. Steve suggested flipping the entire Bell Jar upside down to affix it, but Bruce didn't want to test the propulsion system until Tony finished with the wiring. "He's the engineer, not me," Bruce said. And as strong as Steve was, the piece of adamantium was too unwieldy for him to lift alone.
"Jarvis, is Tony back yet?" Steve asked the air.
Jarvis responded in his trademark crisp tones. "Mr. Stark is in his office. Shall I get him on the screen for you?"
"Sure," Steve said, and immediately the tablet Bruce had propped on the table switched over to Tony's office feed. Except Tony was clearly in the middle of something: a shouting match with Pepper.
"—try to be there, I do! But in case you haven't noticed, I got a lot on my plate!"
"Yes, Tony, I have noticed! How can you be so selfish when—?"
"Selfish! I am always trying to be whatever you need, I am always there for you, but you..."
"You're always there, huh? Like the time I was about to go on a suicide run in outer space and you couldn't be bothered to take one phone call?"
"You—! I told you, I didn't hear it. You are such a paranoid—"
"Cut the feed, Jarvis," Bruce stammered, and the screen went dark.
Steve stood there for a long moment in silence, his jaw working. He looked at Bruce, who was cringing with discomfort. "We shouldn't have watched that," Bruce said quietly. "That sounded, you know. Private."
"It was an accident," Steve said quickly. "Right, Jarvis?"
"Oh, yes, my mistake, sir. Apologies," the AI said, though Steve didn't think he sounded very sorry at all.
Bruce squinted up at Jarvis' voice and sighed. "Too smart for your own good."
"Should we go—?" Before Steve could finish, the telltale rumble of the Mark VII's thrusters on the launch pad rumbled through the room. One floor up, Iron Man took to the skies.
"Let him fly it off," Bruce said.
Steve nodded, uncertain. He knew whatever Tony and Pepper had was complicated, and maybe he didn't understand how guys and gals got together these days, but if it was him, he'd want a friendly ear. Bruce must have seen these misgivings on his face, because he said, "Trust me, he needs time to think."
"I don't think this is such a great idea," Tony said, bouncing experimentally on the balls of his feet. He glanced around the sparring mat with a dubious eye. "I'm not really a bare-knuckles kind of guy."
"You need to be ready for anything. What if the suit malfunctions some day? Or if you're attacked and it's not around?" Steve didn't add another reason for dragging Tony into the gym today: he needed something to take his mind off the fact that Pepper had left for the west coast.
"That's the thing about the Mark VII: it's always around." Tony tapped the bracelet he wore on one wrist, flashing its twin on the other. "And it doesn't malfunction. I designed it not to."
"Do you own a boat?" Steve asked.
"Uh, yeah, of course. Like, a dozen. Well, actually, we call them ships, I think."
"And yet you still learned how to swim, right?"
From his spot where he leaned against the wall, Bruce lifted a hand to hide his smirk. Tony must have seen it from the corner of his eye, because he tipped his chin in Bruce's direction and said, "Well, how come the Big Guy doesn't have to undergo this hand-to-hand torture, huh?"
"Because the Big Guy doesn't need to be taught how to defend himself. It's baked in," Steve said. "Now focus. Try to copy my stance." He fell into an easy defensive posture, his fists raised.
Tony rolled his eyes and did as he was told. Badly. His hips and knees were all out of whack. But it was a start.
"Good. Remember, your instinct may be to go for the face, but you can cause more damage by aiming for the chest and belly. And it's a bigger target, so—"
"Come on, I'm a kinesthetic learner!" Tony whined, shifting from one foot to another. "Let's just start punching or whatever." He threw a wild jab at Steve's chin. Steve dodged, frowning.
"This isn't about punching. This is about how to think in a fight," he said.
"Oh my god, I can think in a fight! All I do is think."
Steve struck out with lightly closed fists, landing two hits to Tony's flanks with ease.
"Ow!" Tony doubled over.
"Think and act," Steve clarified. Tony growled and lashed out again, better this time, more focused. Steve blocked one with his forearm, danced out of reach of the other.
"I'll show you acting," Tony panted.
A strange sound echoed through the sparring room, a kind of low wheeze. Steve spared a glance over to where Bruce stood against the wall and saw—wow—he was laughing. Shy, quiet Bruce, actually laughing. It was a rusty and unused laugh, but it was real. And it sounded good.
Tony heard it too; he turned to watch Bruce just as Steve's fist moved for its next strike. Steve tried to pull back, but it was too late.
One loud crunch and a yelp later, and Bruce had stopped laughing. He and Steve stood over Tony, who was laid out on his back, eye already swelling.
"Who the fuck was driving that bus?" Tony groaned, lifting a hand to touch his tender eye.
"Tony! I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to land that." Steve held up three fingers. "How many?"
"Ugh, too many," Tony grumbled, squeezing his eyes shut.
"I'll get some ice," Bruce said. "That's going to be one hell of a shiner." He gave Tony's shoulder a pat.
That night, sprawled out on the sofa with a bag of frozen peas over his eye and Jurassic Park playing on the TV, Tony turned to Steve and said, "Thanks. For trying to cheer me up."
It wasn't worth trying to deny it. Steve ducked his head, turning his attention away from Bruce, who was snoring between them. The guy had dropped off to sleep right in the middle of the chase scene with the spitting lizards; must've been beat. "Didn't do a very good job, I guess."
"Nah, it was pretty fun, all things considered. Lots of guys wish they could say they got decked by Captain America and lived to tell the tale." Tony quirked a brow at the sleeping Bruce. "And Dr. Jekyll here seemed to get a kick out of it, so there's that."
Steve watched Bruce sleep, curled into the space between them. It was so strange, how comfortable this was after only a few weeks—or wait, had it been more? Steve counted the number of movie nights in his head; how the heck had two and a half months slipped by without him noticing?
"Hey, spill," Tony said, his voice a quiet underscore to the swelling music in the movie. "I can see those red, white, and blue gears turning in your brain."
"It's nothing. I just...." Steve looked at Tony, grinning through his black eye, then down at Bruce again. "I know there's going to be another crisis; it comes with the territory, and we'll suit up and do the job we're meant to do. But if time stopped now—" He bit his lip. It sounded so stupid out loud.
"You wouldn't mind?" Tony finished for him. He stroked his neatly trimmed beard and shrugged. "Minus the swollen eyeball, yeah. I'm with you on that." His arm reached across the back of the couch, slipping under Bruce's head. His fingers brushed the nape of Steve's neck, an accidental touch, maybe, or a simple gesture of camaraderie.
"I'm always looking to the future, but now is good. For now," Tony said.
Steve relaxed, coming to internal parade rest. Now was good. Now was enough. To want anything different was foolishness.
Something changed around 2:30 in the morning in the lab. Steve had been engrossed in a documentary about The Beatles and time had slipped away from him. When he looked up, he found Tony and Bruce still at their tables, barely hanging onto consciousness. Bruce's eyes were drooping as he scrolled through some data sets on his tablet, and Tony was practically falling into his wireframes, his head nodding lower and lower with every minute.
With a jolt, Steve realized they normally waited for him to finish up before they called it a night. Now it looked like without their own personal Cap clock, these idiots would work until dawn.
"Fellas, aren't you getting tired?" he asked quietly. For once, Tony's music wasn't playing, adding to the drowsy mood.
Tony's head slipped from the hand he was using to prop it up on the table, and he blinked again and again. "Tired? What? No, why? Are you tired, Old Man?"
"I'm not old," Steve retorted. "You're old."
Tony adopted a wounded look.
"Need to finish this," Bruce muttered, zombie-like. His fingers moved slowly over the data as he yawned into the crook of his elbow. "Just a few more sets and I'll be done."
"Bruce—" Steve tried, but Tony cut him off.
"You know, I used to think it was the makeup in those cheesy old movies of yours; you never looked a day over twenty, even after all those years," he said, his eyes narrowing in scientific thought. "Maybe it wasn't the ice. Maybe it wasn't some kind of statis triggered by trauma. Maybe the Super Soldier serum means you literally cannot age, Steve."
Steve had figured as much when he failed to find a single wrinkle at the corner of his eyes, or a strand of gray in his hair. But the way Tony put it—it was too freakish to contemplate. He'd signed up to help people, not live forever.
And he'd be lying if he said he wasn't bothered by the way Tony was looking at him: almost the way he'd looked at Bruce that first time on the Helicarrier when he'd poked him to gauge his reaction. An interested, impressed, but clinical stare.
"Maybe," Steve mumbled, switching off his tablet and shuffling it into its carrying case with the rest of his papers and supplies. "I don't know."
"Hey, we have an agreement, remember?" Bruce said. He glared at Tony through his transparent screen. "No more experiments on ourselves or each other."
"Yeah, you and I agreed, but Cap didn't." Tony quirked his lips. "We're talking medical breakthroughs here. Aren't you guys even curious?"
"I stopped being curious about the properties of the serum when I almost died trying to replicate it," Bruce snapped. "Don't you get it? We start taking samples from Steve and it's not going to stop at curing cancer."
"I wouldn't step over the line; you know that," Tony said, bristling now, his fingers flexing in their VR gloves.
"Maybe not you, but someone else would," Bruce said. "And they don't know what I know: it doesn't work without him. It's not the formula, it's not the chemical composition, it's him." Bruce pointed a shaking finger at Steve, eyes still on Tony. "You could put the same serum in a hundred other people and you wouldn't get a single Captain America. You'd get a hundred monsters." He swallowed. When he spoke again, his voice was tired again, and very small. "You'd get me."
"Look—" Tony sighed.
"Would it really cure cancer?" Steve blurted out. "I—if I—what would you need? Hair, blood?"
"No, Steve, Bruce is right. If Stark Industries started researching the Super Soldier serum, we'd have a boatload of unsavory business rivals at our door. Not to mention crazy bad guys looking to build their own personal army." Tony shrugged, his jaw ticking. "I should leave this stone unturned, I guess."
Steve unfolded himself from his corner of the floor and nodded at Bruce. "What if I gave the samples to you? Just you. No one else."
"Me?" Bruce blinked, his mouth opening and closing as he looked between Steve and Tony. "But I'm not—I can't—"
"Dr. Banner," Tony said with a spreading grin, "there is no one more qualified to work on this. I'll have legal draft something. Anything you come up with under this roof, it'll be yours, not StarkTech. Give the cure away for all I care. Put it in cereal boxes, whatever."
Bruce took off his glasses and wiped a hand across his face in such a slow, methodical way that Steve almost thought he was about to cry. But the good doctor just nodded shakily and said, "I—I can try. If you really think—I can try."
Steve smiled, laid a supporting hand on Bruce's thin shoulder, kneading carefully. "Good. That's plenty. Want to pack it in for the night?"
"No, I should finish up....if we want to start working on those samples tomorrow," Bruce murmured, gesturing to his data screens.
"Bedtime," Tony declared, switching off the monitors with a wave of his hand that Steve couldn't even hope to replicate. "We've all had a very big day and we need our beauty sleep," he said in a voice meant to be patronizing, but it also made Steve smile with warmth.
They didn't have to physically drag Bruce out of the lab, but it was a near thing. They did escort him to his door, just in case he tried to return to Candyland without them. Bruce stood in the doorway of his quarters, giving them a goodnight nod. Steve could see a well-appointed sitting room over his shoulder, soft lighting, lots of muted colors.
"Thanks, guys. Both of you, I—thanks." Bruce left them with a small smile, closing the door behind him.
Tony shot Steve a grin. "Walk with me, Old Man." They took the elevator up to Tony's penthouse, Tony chattering away the whole ride. "This is great. Bruce will be busy with this for months. Hell, years. He's happier than a pig in shit, I'm telling you."
"He didn't look like a happy pig," Steve said. "He looked nervous."
"Yeah, because you're trusting him with basically everything. He'll fret about messing it up again—for like, five minutes. And then he'll grow a pair and get down to business, and he'll do it painstakingly slow and perfect because, holy shit, Captain Fucking America just handed him the key to everything. My resources, Bruce's brain, your blood." The grin was taking on a manic edge which, on anyone else, might have been scary. "We're doing it. We're really doing it."
"The right thing," Tony said. Whether he meant curing cancer or giving Bruce Banner a chance at redemption, Steve wasn't sure.
The elevator doors opened at the penthouse level. Steve had been here before to borrow a book or meet for lunch or, more recently, to force Tony out of bed and into sweatpants so they could spar, but Steve had never seen it at night. The glow of the nighttime city could be seen through the wrap-around glass walls. Everything from the space-age white leather sofa to the central fire pit—which flickered to life as they entered—made Steve's own Stark Tower apartment look like a modest walk-up.
"Nice view," he commented, trying his best not to seem intimidated. He was still getting used to the idea of living off Tony Stark's hospitality.
"Take a load off. Have a drink," Tony said, waving to the couch. Steve set his tablet case on the shimmering coffee table gingerly, wiping his palms on his jeans. He felt so big and awkward; everything in this place was so clean.
"Nothing for me, thanks," he said as Tony clinked ice into a glass over at the sidebar. "Or maybe Coke, if you've got it."
"Check the real fridge. I think someone stocks it with that kind of thing, I don't know," Tony called over his shoulder.
Steve padded over to the open-air kitchen as directed. He really just wanted to go to bed, but Tony seemed to have gotten his second (maybe third) wind and needed to bounce his ideas off someone. He was still talking a mile a minute, his voice echoing through the penthouse, rattling off all the projects he planned to do tomorrow, starting with a breakfast burrito from the little place around the corner, and maybe Steve and Bruce could come too, if Bruce could wake his ass up any earlier than ten, and wasn't it typical that—
The Coke was hidden behind a couple bottles of champagne. Steve cracked open the can and drank half of it down in one long swallow before he realized that Tony's chattering had stopped. He turned around to find Tony standing next to the coffee table, Steve's case open, and Steve's papers in Tony's hands, the blue light of his arc reactor suffusing through the pages.
"Hey, don't!" Steve squawked, rushing to reclaim his sketches. He tore them out of Tony's hands, leaving him dazed and blinking at the empty air. "Those are mine. And they're not—they're not done."
"They were sticking out of the corner," Tony said. As if that excused snooping. "Are they—did you draw us like one of your French girls?"
Steve felt his face heating up. "My what?"
"Never mind. We'll put it on the big board tomorrow. But seriously." Tony reached out his hand. "Lemme see."
A long moment of hesitation, then a heavy sigh because Tony was not going to let this go, and Steve gave them back. Tony leafed through the charcoal sketches carefully, keeping his fingers on the edges of the paper. One was a drawing of Bruce sitting on the rooftop ledge, looking over the city and its tiny buildings below. He wore his glasses, and the top three buttons of his shirt were undone. Steve had tried to show the movement of the wind through his ruffled hair.
Another was Tony bent over a wireframe, the circle of light on his chest pulsing through his shirt, goggles on, VR gloves flexing around the glow. Like a wizard conjuring something out of thin air.
And the last one was Bruce and Tony both. They were sacked out on the sofa in the movie room, Tony's head tipped back in an unattractive snore, Bruce slumped against his shoulder like a stringless puppet. They'd never actually fallen asleep at the same time, the two of them. It was always either one or the other, but Steve had cobbled together the images from those lazy nights and tried to put it all in this one drawing. His two teammates, finally given a respite.
Tony examined them all in turn, for once silent, his face unreadable. Finally, he asked, "I've never seen you drawing before. You do these from memory?"
"Yeah." Steve nodded. "It's kind of—I've always been okay at remembering how things look."
"Okay?" Tony choked on a laugh. "Steve, these are awesome. Look, you even got that little crinkle Bruce gets on his forehead when he squints. Can't believe you have that much recall."
"They still need work," Steve said. He didn't want to brag; that's why he never showed anyone his drawings.
"They need to be hanging in my office," Tony countered.
"No, they're not—" Now his face was really on fire. He felt the bright red heat of it climbing up to his ears. "They're...private."
"Oh." Tony's eyes went wide. "You mean like you-need-to-go-to-your-bunk kind of private?"
"Wha—? No! That's—no! I meant—"
"Geez, I'm just joshing with you." Tony slapped him on the shoulder. "Honest to god, though, you should be in the MoMA. I mean your work, not that Warhol of you in the four different squares with the— How about the lobby, can I hang them in the lobby?"
"Fine. What about the rooftop rumpus room?"
Steve considered it. The rooftop was fairly secure. Only the three of them had access while the repairs were being made. "Okay. But I still need to color them."
"It's a deal," Tony said, teeth flashing white. Steve smiled back and only then realized how close they were standing, how good Tony smelled, how warm the fire made the room. How easy it would be to lean down and—
"Uh, it's so late." Steve stumbled backward over the step of the sunken sitting room. "I should—goodnight." He grabbed the drawings from Tony's hands, collected his tablet from the coffee table, and practically ran for the elevator.
"Goodnight?" Tony called as it dinged shut, his confused face the last thing Steve saw before the security doors sealed shut. Steve let out a breath and slumped against the glass wall, his things clutched to his chest. What the heck was wrong with him?
He needed air. He needed to think.
Steve sat on the edge of the rooftop, squinting at the rising sun. He didn't turn when he heard the whine of the Iron Man suit touching down on its landing pad, or the clink-chunk of the armor being removed from Tony piece by piece as he walked down to where Steve was.
"Hey, you didn't answer your phone. Missed out on one excellent breakfast burrito. And a heist in the diamond district, but no big. I handled it." Tony flopped down next to Steve, frowning at him. "Weren't you wearing those clothes yesterday?"
"I couldn't sleep," Steve admitted. He kept his gaze on the tiny Captain America action figure he held in his hands. Tony had given it to him the other week; apparently Stark Industries had bought the rights to produce them decades ago and now the proceeds were going to the NYC rebuilding effort. There was an Iron Man one too, somewhere.
"Too much caffeine? Knew I shouldn't have given you soda, you gremlin."
"Tony, could you stop joking around for just one minute?" Steve turned to him, and his face must have shown his turmoil. Tony sobered, sitting up a little straighter.
"What happened?" he asked.
"Nothing." Steve groaned. "Lots of things. This world—I'm not cut out for 2012, Tony. The pace is so quick, and everyone is so different, and I'm...I'm...."
"Uh, an enduring symbol of freedom beloved by all?" Tony plucked the little plastic Cap from his hands, waggling it in the air. "And that wasn't a joke, okay?"
"But I don't fit," Steve said.
"What? Of course you do. You're seamless." Tony looked honestly confused, his eyebrows arching impossibly.
"No, I— There's you. And Bruce. But I can't—" There weren't words for this, and if there were, Steve didn't know them. He only knew the solid weight of Tony's hand on the back of his neck and the look in his dark eyes, deep with concern, and the low "Hey, no, hey" that Tony murmured as he brought him in close. And maybe it was only supposed to be a kind of one-armed hug that men these days seemed to favor, but Tony's mouth was there and so was Steve's, and Steve turned his head just an inch and kissed him because it was the only way to explain what he meant.
The steel-wool scrape of Tony's facial hair was strange, unexpectedly welcome; it felt right for Tony's kiss to be a little rough around the edges. And his lips were so soft, but completely unmoving. Steve pulled away slowly, his face burning with the shame of making such a total tactical error. He'd thought maybe Tony—he'd wanted to believe—
Tony was staring at him, mouth hanging open.
"Sorry, I—" Steve started.
"Shut up." Tony set the action figure aside, not looking where it landed. "Just stop. If you say sorry one more time, I swear I'm going to blow a gasket." And he took Steve's face in his hands, those quick and ingenious hands, and kissed him back.
Tony kissed like no one Steve had ever kissed before. He kissed like he was hungry, desperate, out of control and—oh god—was that his tongue? Steve's eyes flickered open (he didn't even know when he'd closed them) and saw Tony's eyes watching him, wide open and examining him as they kissed.
Steve could hold his breath for about seven minutes (he'd tested it before), but Tony wasn't so lucky, and they had to part for air eventually.
"Wow," Steve said in a shaky voice.
"Wow," Tony echoed, already leaning back in.
It would have been easy to kiss Tony all morning, would have been bliss. But the tiniest sound—the crunch of some stray glass—made Steve glance over his shoulder. There, amid the still-cracked marble and stone, Bruce stood staring at them with a look of total heartbreak spread across his face.
"Bruce," Steve said, strangled.
Tony jolted beside him, obviously seeing him now too. "Shit," he whispered. He rushed to his feet even as Bruce turned to leave. "Hey, Big Guy, don't—"
"I have to go." Bruce's voice was small and raw, almost lost to the wind that whipped around the rooftop.
Steve was right behind him before he could even think about what he was doing. "Bruce, wait." He reached out a hand and touched his shoulder.
"Leave me alone." Bruce whirled, his teeth clenched, his eyes glowing a furious green. Steve recoiled. But Tony didn't; Tony was right there, grabbing Bruce's face like he'd held Steve's just moments before.
"No no no, you got this, we got this, he doesn't have to come out."
Bruce tore himself out of Tony's grasp, snarling. "I said, leave me alone!" he roared. His neck took on a dark green tinge, a disease that spread down into the V of his button-down shirt.
"Tony." Steve grabbed him by the elbow to keep him there. He didn't like the idea of Tony facing down the Hulk sans armor.
The pause gave Bruce enough time to turn away again and slam open the emergency exit door before disappearing down the stairwell.
"He's going to the Bell Jar," Tony said. "Come on." Steve's grip on his arm held firm, not letting Tony go. Tony glared at him. "What are you doing? Let's go!"
"Maybe it would be better to let him cool off on his own," Steve said. An animal wail rumbled through the stairwell then, the sound of the Hulk coming to the fore. Steve's heart stuttered. Bruce sounded so pained.
Tony stood toe-to-toe with him, and even though he was shorter, he got into Steve's face all the same. "I'm not leaving him alone," he said. His jaw set itself at a stubborn angle. "And I know you don't want to either."
No, Steve didn't. But what could they do in the face of the uncontrolled rage of the Hulk? Bruce could only direct the Hulk's power when he chose to transform, it seemed, and this time, it was definitely not a choice. It was a reaction to anger and pain—and it was Steve's fault.
"I—" Steve choked.
"Look, you love him too, right?" Tony demanded. "You must. I thought for sure you and he—but then there's me, and this is, this is some kind of miracle, okay? All of us? We fit." Tony threaded his fingers together, making a wall with his hands.
Steve couldn't believe what he was hearing. So Tony also—? But how could three of them—? He gaped, bewildered. Tony sighed and tugged at the hair on the back of Steve's head.
"You, me, and Banner make three. Head, heart, lungs. You get me?"
Head, heart, and lungs. All working together. All pieces of the same whole. A team. This was crazy, this was so not normal, not even 2012 normal, and Steve was—
Steve was nodding. Dropping his head to let Tony kiss him. Dazed with the idea that this could work, that they could do this. But first, they needed to get Bruce back. He needed to know, and they needed to make him see what Tony had already seen, what Steve was just starting to see.
"Let's go," Steve said.
As Steve and Tony made their way out of the stairwell, they were greeted by shattered monitors, broken tables, and debris strewn across the labs. Steve glanced at Tony, and saw in his eyes that he was thinking the same thing: that they hoped to God Bruce had made it to the Jar before the Other Guy completely took over. They raced to the other side of the building, following a growing path of destruction.
"Should you get the suit?" Steve shouted.
"Don't need it. The Hulk knows me," Tony returned, and he sounded so confident, Steve could deck him.
"Yes, he does. And right now you're probably not his favorite person in the world." Steve vaulted over an overturned desk. He considered grabbing his shield from his room, but the thought of leaving Bruce alone for one more minute than was necessary made him feel sick.
The Bell Jar was practically complete: it rested in its corner of the 60th floor, all its security measures in place. There were still a few bells and whistles missing that Tony had been chattering about for the past few days, but otherwise it was finished. A massive metal box capable of holding the Hulk.
Another roar reverberated through the adamantium shell, shaking the floor and Steve's bones both. Steve felt his heart lighten; Bruce had made it.
"Jarvis, open the door," Tony called, placing a hand on one of the silver panels.
"Sir, I could not advise it," the AI responded.
"Just do it!"
"Authorization code needed."
"One Hundred Park Ave," Tony recited in clipped tones. Steve frowned, confused, then remembered: the building the Hulk had leapt onto to catch Iron Man. He looked over at Tony, and Tony knew he knew. His eyebrows rose, a challenge.
Steve nodded. Trust. This was about the trust Bruce had placed in them. The door slid open, and they ducked inside just before it slid closed again.
"Hey buddy," Tony said.
The Hulk's breathing was a locomotive growl. He was so huge, Steve had forgotten how huge. A ton of corded muscle and power. His shoulders hunched forward, his black hair brushing the low ceiling, his face a mask of anger. He roared, looming over Tony, who stood with his hands at his sides, unmoving.
Okay, Steve thought, maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.
"Hulk, listen—" He stepped forward, trying to put himself between Tony and the giant green creature, but the Hulk lashed out with a boulder-sized fist, knocking Steve through the air to smash against the far wall.
"Steve!" Tony was calling his name, but it was hard to concentrate. Steve sat up slowly, holding his sore ribs. He had to hand it to the Hulk; the guy packed a serious wallop.
"I'm okay," Steve grated out.
"Great. Now, a little help?"
Steve opened his eyes to see Tony dangling in the Hulk's fists, crushed in his massive hands. He watched, horrified, as the Hulk's thumb, big as a tree stump, came to rest on the blue glow in the center of Tony's chest. Tony gritted his teeth and struggled to get free. The Hulk howled, pressing harder and harder until Steve heard the arc reactor's casing crack.
"Quicker," Tony wheezed.
"Bruce, no!" Steve gained his footing and launched himself at the Hulk's arms, trying with all his strength to pry him away from Tony.
"Heart," the Hulk growled, shaking Tony like a ragdoll. "Heart."
"It hurts, I know it hurts," Steve shouted, hoping he understood, "and I'm sorry, I didn't mean to leave you—Bruce—out. But you're not a third wheel, do you understand? You're a part of this. We're a team."
The Hulk's rage seemed to ebb then, his fingers slackening around Tony's body. Tony gasped for breath, his hand flying to cover the reactor in his chest. The Hulk's green nostrils flared.
"Yeah. If Bruce will have us." Steve's hands gentled on the Hulk's arm. He glanced at Tony, who was still panting for air. "You okay?"
Tony nodded, his eyes comically wide. "He didn't break it, it's still working." He lay limp in the Hulk's palm and coughed. "Jesus, let's never do that again."
Steve turned back to stare up into the Hulk's liquid black eyes. "Can you put Bruce on the line? There are two fellas here who want to tell him they love him."
The Hulk stared down at Steve for a long moment before placing Tony on the ground. Steve hooked an arm around his waist before he fell, what with his legs looking so wobbly.
"You said you were okay," he chided.
"Let's see how okay you are after playing And I Will Call Him George with the Hulk," Tony muttered. Steve looked at him blankly. "Ugh, right. Add it to the board."
The Hulk sat heavily on his haunches, breathing loud and low, and was it Steve's imagination or was he looking smaller already? He ducked his green head and rumbled, "Some trick?"
"It's not a trick," Tony said. "If it is, you can come back and smash me to a pulp, deal?"
The Hulk snorted. "Deal."
Steve had seen the Hulk fade back into Bruce once before, after the invasion was over and Loki was secured. It looked very much the same now, minus the rubble and blood. The huge green creature sat down in the far corner. He curled into a ball, his labored breathing evening out to a low echo in the enclosed space. His skin lightened from forest to pale lime, and he shrunk smaller and smaller until only Bruce's human shape remained.
Another shared glance and Steve helped Tony limp over to Bruce, who was curled on his side, shivering. He hadn't been wearing Tony's special clothing, and the tattered remains of his trousers criss-crossed his hips and thighs. His eyes were still squeezed shut, but Steve could hear his shaky inhales.
"Welcome back, Big Guy." Tony went down on his knees beside Bruce, touching his arm as if to help him up, but then thought better of it and stretched out next to him, pulling Bruce against his chest. Steve hesitated only a moment before joining them, draping himself over Bruce's clammy back, the fabric of his tee sticking to his bare skin.
"Let's just stay here for a minute," Tony said. Though his voice was light, even carefree, Steve could see the tremor in his hand as he stroked Bruce's hair. "Let's all just stay here."
"I—I am so s-sorry," Bruce sobbed against Tony's neck. "I could have k-killed—"
"Stop." Steve pressed tighter against him, burying his nose against his shoulder. "I promised Tony: no more apologies."
Bruce shook his head, and Steve watched his hair tickle Tony's chin. "You don't understand. I can't do this. You can't ask me to be responsible for—what if I lose it? What if someone gets hurt?"
Steve closed his eyes. He wanted to tell Bruce you won't hurt us or you can control it, you just did but he knew it wasn't that simple. The Hulk was a wild animal; you couldn't train him, you couldn't know what he'd do. But he was also a part of Bruce. And that meant they loved him too.
"It's worth it," Steve whispered. He opened his eyes and saw Tony staring at him over Bruce's head. Tony widened his eyes and tipped his head as if to say, yes, go on, this is good.
"It's worth it for us," Steve continued, stronger now. "There are risks. We know that. But the alternative is not an option. We are stronger together. We are better. Without you, Tony and I—we'd probably kill each other."
Tony chuckled into Bruce's hair. His lips quirked in agreement.
"What do you say, Bruce? Enter into a weird, kinky three-way with me and Cap to keep us from starting World War III?"
Bruce relaxed in Steve's arms, his spine lax against Steve's chest as if all the fight had gone out of him. "Okay," he said simply. Then, "Someone's going to need to get me some pants."
Steve could watch Tony kiss Bruce for hours. It was so different from the times Steve kissed Tony or Bruce. When Steve kissed Bruce they were careful with each other, their mouths marked by gentleness, maybe a little fear. When he kissed Tony, it was a battle, an all-out fight for dominance. But Tony and Bruce—it was like Tony's playfulness and Bruce's penchant for being thorough combined to make a perfect dance.
Bruce pulled away from Tony's lips and glanced up, finally seeing Steve in the doorway. "Hey, you're back." Tony waved and blew him a kiss.
Steve grinned, leaning his shield up against the wall and walking along the rooftop ledge, unbuckling his gloves as he went. "Yep. Crisis averted, jet's in the hangar. Told you I'd be home for movie night."
"Good. It's your turn to pick," Tony said. They scooted to make room so he could sit down between them. He palmed his cowl back and gave Tony a kiss hello, turned his head to accept Bruce's peck. It was getting easier, this strange closeness. Things were moving slowly, which was fine with Steve: Bruce didn't want to rush for obvious reasons, but Tony did have a gigantic bed in his penthouse that was the perfect size for three. Steve knew because they'd slept there last night, a first. Just slept, because Bruce was still nervous about controlling himself "with all that, uh, stimulation" as he'd put it. He'd talked to Steve about it at length, his fear of any aggression in bed turning into something dangerous. So they slept. Baby steps.
Steve didn't mind. Waking up with an armful of Stark on one side and Banner on the other had been nice. Weird, maybe, but as Tony had said, a guy in a tin can, a living legend, and the most powerful force on earth were a little weird anyway.
"You know—" he began, and he'd been planning to say I love you both, which was something they had trouble saying but liked to hear, so Steve kept saying it whenever the urge hit him. Like right now, with the dusk shadows painting their faces into perfect shapes that he'd sketch later.
"Hold on, it's my favorite part," Bruce said softly. Tony glanced at his wristwatch and held up a finger.
Ten blocks south and a few to the west, the spire of the Empire State Building lit up: a bright, burning crimson.
"Avengers colors," Tony said with a grin. "Part of a belated thank-you package. The mayor wants to give us the key to the city tomorrow. Fury's sending Nat as our representative. I'm the one who flew into space. They can't let me have one measly key?"
Steve reached over and held Bruce's hand in his, then slung an arm over Tony's shoulder. "Don't need it," he said. They looked out over the city together, Tony leaning close and Bruce snugged up beside him. Beneath their feet, the huge remaining A flickered to life, another red glow in the night air.
"Yeah," Tony agreed. "Don't need it at all."