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Brooklyn's Finest

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“Day #79 of Stark Watch. Where is the 25 year old genius? No one has spotted him in nearly three months, and many are speculating that he might be dead. Others remain hopeful and alert, eagerly awaiting the return of their favorite billionaire to the spotlight.”

Steve adjusted the volume until it was nothing more than a steady hum in the background, bringing his focus instead to the tabletop before him. Guns, knives, small time bombs, stunners, electric shocks, arrows—everything Steve’s team needed to stay ahead in the game he’d found himself calling shots for. He set to work counting ammunition, disassembling, reassembling and cleaning the weapons and taking inventory of new acquisitions they’d acquired while dealing with AIM earlier in the week.

It was a time consuming process, assessing the weapons and noting pertinent information in a battered old school ledger that led to him being the butt of several ‘old man’ jokes by his colleagues, at least those close enough to ever see the ledger in the first place, but Steve was of the opinion that it was safer than using a computer to keep his records, especially when it concerned their under the table matters.  

Steve ran a rough hand down his face, eyelids drooping as he tried to focus his attention on the writing on the page. He couldn’t let himself sleep just yet, didn’t have the luxury of that kind of time on his hands, not with everything he knew that required his full and immediate attention. Business deals that needed finalizing, corrupt politicians to work around and debts to collect on. Steve was always good at collecting what was owed to him.

Steve had never intended for this to be his life. It had all happened mostly by accident, as much as you can call being in the wrong place at the wrong time-- or perhaps that wasn’t quite right, being in the wrong place at the right time was a more astute observation-- an accident.

Years ago Steve had found himself acquainted with a man who went by the name Abraham Erskine, a man he knew little about let alone his less than legal lifestyle. No, that part had come as something of a surprise, though the word ‘surprise’ wasn’t the first word to come to mind when Steve found himself tied to a metal chair with a pudgy speckled man spewing spit and badly accented questions in Steve’s face.

Steve spent three days scrambling for answers about an organization he had no knowledge of and planning an escape he was only 12% sure would work. Three days before the sound of bullets hitting metal and flesh shook him from his meditative daze. Three days and the first sight Steve had seen other than men with bad breath and even worst attitudes was a woman standing tall, a gun at her side, victory curls in her hair, and a very British accent.

She’d untied his wrist with a flick of her knife, grabbed his hand tight, and said very firmly, ‘keep up’, and he had. They’d ran and ducked and hid behind corners until a car pulled up fast around the corner and the lady, who later identified herself as Peggy Carter, shoved him in the backseat and shouted at the driver to ‘bloody drive!’.

Peggy took him back to Erskine then, where Steve only just restrained himself from attacking the other man. Instead he’d listened as Erskine explained his business, explained how he was the sort of leader of a very prominent mob rooted in the underbelly of Brooklyn. He’d talked and talked about what they stood for, why they were there in the first place, where they wanted to be in the future and at the end of it, Steve slumped back against his seat, his injuries long tended to but still throbbing under the bandages, Erskine offered Steve a place amongst his ranks.

Steve had paused, a ‘no’ on the tip of his tongue but unable to make its way past his lips. What would he be losing really if he said yes instead? He was the picture perfect definition of a starving artist, working a job he hated that only paid him minimum wage on a good day, debt piled a mile high from his late mother's hospital and funeral costs, and a best friend overseas with a return date booked sometime in the distant future if he didn’t find himself blown sky high first.

It wasn’t the life Steve had ever meant to have, no, but in that moment, the ‘no’ on his tongue contorted until a stronger than expected ‘yes’ made its way out first. Maybe he’d been too naive, he’d definitely been too young, foolish really, and almost desperate to prove himself to anyone who would pay attention.

The blonde abruptly shut the ledger, all important information recorded and ready to be hidden away for the time being. Steve sat at the table a bit longer though, his pen forgotten, fingers steepled underneath his chin.

He’d long accepted that this was his life now, a firm believer in dealing with the cards you were dealt with, and had no delusions of ever getting out and starting over. There was no going back, no second chances in this line of work, not if you wanted to succeed. So yes, he understood and accepted who he had become but sometimes still, times like now, he found himself burdened by a slight feeling of longing for the days when he didn’t have an organization to run. Longing for a time where he worked his miserable job every day and painted the night away and he wasn’t happy exactly but he’d certainly been less stressed.

Steve was, for better use of words, tired. His diligence, making sure everyone in his family was taken care of, left him wanting. For what, he wasn’t sure, but he couldn’t trust anyone else enough to do his job, not like Erskine had trusted Steve. No, this was Steve’s burden to carry now and he always had been known for being set in his ways, too stubborn to change tracks when the way he did things had always turned out favorable results.

Steve pushed himself from the table, back popping as he straightened up. He rubbed the back of his neck to ease the tension that had built up there, tension that would only get worse until he could finally take a moment to relax at some point in the future. Definitely not tomorrow though, tomorrow he had to take Bucky and Natasha out with him, if for nothing more than a little hard hitting persuasion, something the both of them excelled at.

Some people mistook his general kindness for mercy, for weakness, and thought they could evade him when it came time to pay up what was owed to him. He hated when they did that, hated having his hand forced. Chasing them down was time consuming and tiresome, and while Natasha and Bucky were very good at making people understand the situation they were in using minimal force, there were always the odd ones in the bunch who tried again and again to pull one over on Steve to the point where he couldn’t turn back, couldn’t let them slide anymore lest he began to look weak willed.

Steve rolled his neck until he heard another pop before he picked up the remote and turned of the television. The silence was very much welcome at this point and Steve let his head hang, eyes closed.

He jumped when there was a loud set of raps on the door. Reflex had him grabbing his gun and aiming it at the door, hands steady and eyes narrowed. Nobody should have been able to get far enough to knock on his front door, he had guards for christ sakes. Or he'd had guards, he’d have to check on that.

He waited quietly until the knock came again, this time a little more rapidly.

Natasha slid into the room a moment later, footsteps soft as she idled up to his side. They shared a glance, a nod of silent understanding after he jerked his head towards the door. She made her way to the entrance, gun held at her side as her hand settled around the door handle. They were both ready to take out whoever it was in an instant.

She pulled the door open.

“Hi, honey.” Came a rasping voice followed by a choking cough. “I’m home”.

Steve lowered his weapon and stared at the man in front of him.

“Stark.”

Tony gave him a lopsided smile and a short wave, wincing slightly with the motion. This man looked nothing like anyone was used to seeing him, and that included all the publicized scandals caused by his various indiscretions. The billionaire before him wasn’t the handsome young man the world was used to, no, this Stark’s hair was disheveled beyond resembling a rats nest, his face appeared to be one giant bruise interlaced with a few cuts, most prominent the few next to his right eye, the split in his lip and the much larger gash still sluggishly bleeding at his temple. His clothing was tattered and torn, dirty and covered in blood both old and new, and he had what appeared to be a torn up shirt acting as a sling for his left arm. Steve held back a slight wince, could just imagine the other injuries hiding beneath the ratty garments still covering a majority of his thinner than usual body.

Steve opened his mouth to ask if the other man was okay but what came out instead was a gruff, “How did you find this place?”

“A little bird sent me here.”

Steve’s suspicion hiked up another level, eyes narrowing. “Why?”

Tony pressed his lips together and looked away for a moment as if unsure of what to say. Steve almost thought he might look a little scared but it was only for a few seconds before it was covered up with a neat little smirk. “I haven’t seen you in weeks you know, since that charity dinner where you turned down my offer to dance. I thought I’d stop in and see how you were, catch a look at your pretty face and maybe convince you to cut a rug with me, you know, for funsies.”

The blond shut his eyes and counted to ten in his head  before giving up around 8 and speaking impatiently. “Stark.”

“Fine fine,” Tony let out a stuttered breath. “Ineedyourhelp,” he mumbled quickly.

Steve and Natasha shared a look, the redhead arching her eyebrow in silent amusement.

“Come again?" Natasha asked, a smile softly lighting up her face.

Tony gritted his teeth. “I. Need. Your. Help.” When he was met with silence his shoulders slumped. “Look. I had absolutely no one else to go to. You are my last resort.”

“Why come to us?”

“Didn’t you hear me?” Tony asked slowly as if speaking to someone who was very stupid or slow. “Besides, this is your fault!”

This time Steve joined Natasha in looking amused as they both shared a brief look. “Is that so? Care to tell me how you’re blaming me for whatever trouble it is that you seem to have found yourself in?”

Tony shrugged, but there was another smirk, this one a bit more bitter and curdling at the edges. “Does HYDRA ring any bells? Johann Schmidt? Or maybe you know him as ‘Red Skull’. Yeah.”

Steve and Natasha both scowled, definitely paying more attention now.

Tony looked just slightly smug. “Thought so. Imagine my complete surprise when they interrogated me about ‘The Captain’ and his ‘Howling Commandos.’ Or when they asked me how long exactly I’ve been doing dirty work for Steve Rogers, who, as it turns out is The Captain.” Tony took a deep breath and narrowed his eyes. “I think there are just a few things you guys might have left out those times you had me working on your soldier friend’s arm.”

“What I do is purely on a need to know basis. What we do has nothing to do with your work on Bucky.” Steve knew how ridiculous it all must have sounded now, all things considered, but it had been the truth up until Tony managed to get himself kidnapped HYDRA. “You not knowing, it was as much for your protection as it was for ours”.

“Well let me be the first one to tell you that you did an outstanding job protecting me. Really, guys. Bravo!”

Steve snapped. “Show some respect, kid. Realize where you are and understand your place, before we show you your way out.”

Tony scowled, face contorted in obvious anger, but fear still swimming in his eyes-- not that Steve could blame him, but he wasn’t going to let some young punk disrespect him in his own home. He had the odd urge to grab the genius by the ear and drag him to the sofa, but just managed to restrain himself, gripping the man’s good arm firmly.

“Ow! Watch the goods! Did you miss the part where I’m injured?”

Steve didn’t bother to respond, instead leading the genius to a chair, pressing down on his shoulder with enough force that he had no choice but to sit. “Shut up, Stark. It’s time to talk”.

“Uh, no. It’s time for you to help me”.

“Nah ah ah,” Steve responded, wagging his finger. “I’m not helping you until you answer a few questions for me. I need to be able to trust you, Stark, or else this won’t work.”

Tony sighed, sagging down into his seat, all traces of confidence gone as he looked down and ran his good hand through his already ruined hair. Steve watched him, saw just how shaken up the Stark heir actually was, the tremors in his hands and the bouncing of his leg almost going unnoticed, would have gone unnoticed if Steve didn’t have such a practiced eye. Steve set his face until he knew it was completely blank, he couldn’t afford to take pity on him, not until they were on the same page.

“What do you want to know?” he asked, sounding every bit as tired as he suddenly looked.

“Where have they been keeping you, for starters?”

Tony clenched his jaw and sucked in his cheeks. “In a tiny room with only a bed, a bucket and no running water if you don’t count the constant drip from the ceiling, which, I don’t. More specifically, a warehouse out in the middle of who the fuck knows. I assume it’s only used when HYDRA needs to deal with their trash."

“What did they want?”

“Information on you. What kind of work do I do for you? My involvement in your affairs. Build us this weapon or we will kill you. Tell us where to find the Howling Commandos or we will kill you. Lot’s of death threats being thrown around.”

“What did you tell them?”

Tony’s head shot up, his gaze almost comical at first until he glared. “What the fuck do you think I told them? I don’t know the secret password to your little ongoing party. I didn’t know who ‘The Captain’ was until they let it slip. It took them a week to realize I was telling the truth, a week of fucking torture.” His voice was watery. “By then they decided that if they couldn’t use me for what they got me for, then they could at least try and get me to make them new weapons. Something to use against you the next time you all went toe to toe.”

Steve clenched his fist at his side. “And did you?”

“Did I what?”

“Give them what they wanted.”

Tony laughed at that. “Once I had the right tools, getting out was easy peasy. Yeah, I built a weapon, one for myself. I was able to hold them off long enough by telling them I needed more parts and more time. Of course, my plans changed just slightly when Schmidt stormed in and told me in no uncertain terms that I had until morning to produce something meaningful on threat of death. I stayed up the rest of the night working on that stupid weapon and then used it to blow a large chunk out of their facility. Then I ran and here I am.”

Natasha drew her brows together. “What kind of weapon was it?”

Tony slumped down further and mumbled to himself. “Geez, I leave behind one interrogation for another.” Then louder, “It was a small energy blaster. Don’t worry about the specifics, they require far too much technological jargon for either of you to possibly understand fully.” Tony rubbed at his temple, pulling it away only to scowl at the blood coating his fingers, blood he promptly wiped onto his makeshift sling. “Would it be at all possible to get a Tylenol, or a glass of Scotch, preferably both? I’m pretty sure my arm is broken and I maybe might have or had a concussion at some point. Either way, my head is pounding.”

Steve crossed his arms over his chest. “Sure. And while you’re at it, you can talk to our resident scientist and tell him all your ‘technological jargon’.” Steve turned to Natasha and nodded. “Bring him here”.

Natasha walked away without another word, leaving the two of them alone. Steve noted Tony fidgeting the longer Steve watched him in silence.

“Could you stop staring at me like I’ve got some sort of trick up my sleeve? In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t exactly have the capacity to pull any sudden movements nor do I have any decent places to hide anything. Of course, if you’d like to do a full body check yourself, I wouldn’t be opposed, Captain.”

Steve rolled his eyes, used to the flirtation after the few times the two had interacted on several prior occasions. It was Tony’s M.O. and after the first few times, Steve learned not to let it catch him off guard. “Quiet, Stark.” He muttered to himself, “Where’s a gag when you need one?”

Tony smirked, obviously overhearing. “Kinky. Though, it might make things a little harder when you need me to answer your questions.”

“It’d almost be worth it if it offered me just a little peace and quiet out of you for the rest of the night.”

“Well this wouldn’t be happening if I’d had at least some sort of a heads up.”

"I--” He was abruptly cut off when Natasha walked back into the room, followed by an exasperated voice.

“I don’t know how many times I have to say that I’m not that kind of doctor.”

Tony’s head whipped around. “Brucie bear?”

Bruce, who was just as surprised to see him, smiled pleasantly. He began inspecting Tony’s injuries despite his earlier protests. “Glad to see you’re not quite as dead as it appeared, Tony. I was starting to miss you trying to convince me to come work with you.”

“I guess this explains why that never panned out,” Tony mumbled, then louder, “So, you work for the mafia, huh?”

Bruce’s lips became a thin line as he took his time inspecting the larger cut on Tony’s temple.

“So, you two know each other,” Steve surmised.

“I thought we did," Tony replied quietly.

Bruce sighed, opening up his first aid kit to pull out a few things he needed to get to work fixing Tony’s cuts. “This might sting a little.”

“Which part?” Tony asked, a challenge in his eyes.

“Both, I imagine," Bruce answered. “But, I need to clean these so they don’t get infected.”

Tony nodded and relaxed as Bruce got to work.

Steve let Bruce do his thing for a good minute before speaking. “Okay, Stark. Talk.”

Bruce looked like he wanted to object to Steve’s demands, but before he could, Tony started speaking, explaining in great detail with almost manic excitement everything about the weapon that helped him with his escape. No, he didn’t make anything for them. No, he didn’t give them the real blueprints. Yes, he swears. Steve wanted to tune out about halfway through when their conversation delved off course into a conversation of their own about ways to potentially make the weapon more efficient in the future.

Steve let the conversation go on for a good ten minutes before the language being spoken sounded less like English and more like a series of numbers and formulas. “Okay. Can we start speaking English again?”

Tony cut an amused, almost belittling look towards Steve. “Aye, aye, Captain.”

Natasha snorted, and murmured so softly Steve was sure only he’d be able to pick it up. “I can’t hear you”.

Steve scowled at her before turning back to Tony. “What is it exactly that you want from us?”

Tony didn’t hesitate. “To stay dead.”

Steve could admit that he hadn’t been expecting that answer. “I’m almost tempted to go with the easy response here, but, I’m inclined to ask you to elaborate instead.”

“No one is going to be able to find me. I made sure of that.” He inhaled deeply. “So, to make a long story short, I found out that Obadiah Stane, current stand in CEO of Stark Industries, tipped them off toward my involvement with you bunch which led to them taking me and interrogating me, and torturing me—you know, all that fun stuff. Before you ask though-- yeah Cap, I see you with your mouth open—I have no idea what he’s getting out of this or how he’s involved with them in the first place, but, I was able to put two and two together. So this man, my—“ he spit the words out, “mentor, wanted me out of the picture so bad that he figured HYDRA would probably do his dirty work for him. At least that’s the only conclusion I’ve been able to come up with up to this point. There are still a lot of details I have to work out, hence, the reason I need everyone to think I’m dead.” He paused for breath, eyes wild. “You understand? The moment he finds out I’m still alive, the game changes. Right now he has nothing to hide with me safely out of the picture.”

Steve furrowed his brows. “And what makes you so sure about all of this?”

Tony gave him a dark look in return. “I know Obie. He’s a remarkable liar,” he said, tone bitter, hiding something deeper than just these recent events. Steve didn’t press. “He’s power hungry, greedy and—Ow!”

Bruce cringed. “This one is pretty long, sorry. It’s definitely infected.”

Steve spoke before Tony could respond. “So, you want us to help you…how exactly? It seems like you know what you need to do.”

The genius' voice was dripping with venom. “Take him down.”

Steve was shocked into silence for just a moment before grabbing a chair and pulling it close until he could sit across from Tony. Steve knew this game, knew how to negotiate. “And say we decide to help you out, what’s in it for us?”

Tony shrugged, “I guess that’s up to you. What do you want?”

“Weapons.”

Tony laughed. “You and everyone else, buddy. I’m not really in the business of making them anymore though, remember?”

Steve gave Tony a puzzled look. “Should I?”

“Fair enough. I suppose that due to my untimely kidnapping and quote unquote death that he never actually got around to holding that press conference.” Steve caught a glimpse of something in Tony’s eyes before it flickered away. “I’m trying to get SI out of the weapons business.” He paused and shook his head. “That’s an explanation for another day.”

“I’m not looking for a bomb. I’m looking for a reliable supply," Steve assured him. “Weapons. Plus armor for protection. I want to keep my team safe. I want to have the upper hand on HYDRA. They’ve been a problem for far too long and I want to take them out of the equation. As much as you don’t need the ego boost, your products are the best out there. Ten thousand times more reliable than the Hammer tech we somehow ended up with. Help me, help you.”

Tony looked exhausted. Exhausted and more conflicted than Steve had ever seen the youngest Stark. “By saying yes to this, that means that you’ll keep me under the radar, use your skills to help me spy on Obie, gather information that can put him away for a long time. I want to force him into a position where all his lies pile up until he’s practically dug his own grave. I don’t want him to be left with any choice when the cops finally go looking for him.”

Steve paused, suddenly feeling like they weren’t on the same page after all. “…if what you’re saying about Stane is true, Tony, then he’s not the kind of man you can just send to prison. He’s got connections out there higher than the authority, higher than the law. He’s the kind of man you have to put down, a sure way to sever any and all connections he’s got.”

Tony’s spine stiffened and he gently pushed Bruce’s hands away, eyes wide. “You want me to kill Obie?” Any color he may have had in his face drained away.

“Is that going to be a problem, Stark?”

Tony looked away, his eyes landing on Bruce, almost pleading. “I can’t kill him.”

“Then one of us will. Problem solved.” Steve sounded more blase about it than he preferred.

Tony squeezed his eyes shut. “I don’t...I can’t. It’s Obie. He’s…”

“The man who had you kidnapped and tortured. The man who is apparently trying to steal your company right out from under your nose.”

“I know! Fuck! God, just let me...think about this. This is about taking a life.”

Steve shook his head, unwilling to push the matter for now. Not when Tony was still obviously reeling after his escape. “Think about it, let me know what you decide. We’ll do everything else you ask for as long as you get us what we want in return.”

Steve stood up, looked at Bruce. “Get him cleaned up,” and then he looked back at Tony. “You’re negotiating with killers, Tony. We like to keep our business efficient, and that includes popping a guy who will become trouble in the future. You need to figure out what your hang up is here and how far you’re willing to go to get what you want.” Steve turned then and walked away, stopping just at the threshold of the entranceway to the hall, turning his head until his eyes locked with Tony’s. “Some of us have no choice but to get our hands dirty. You’ll do well to remember that if we’re going to work together, Stark.”

The genius puffed up a bit, gathering any bravado he had left when he stared right back at Steve. “Sir, yes, sir.”

*****

The past three months with HYDRA had taken their toll both physically and mentally on Tony. He knew as much. He felt exhaustion in his blood and his bones, from his fingertips to his toenails, yet, sleep eluded him. All he could do was stare up at the ceiling of his borrowed room in a home he wasn’t familiar with, surrounded by people who possibly wanted to kill him as much as they wanted weapons from him. He’d escaped captivity, sure, escaped the torture that came along with it but had just managed to find himself on the doorstep of another threat, another goon who wasn’t above doing the same thing to him if he didn’t comply with demands---even if this goon did provide him with a pretty comfortable bed and running water.

Tony tossed his good arm over his face while the other was held close to his chest in what wasn’t the most comfortable position possible. Tony shuffled and huffed, engaged in a game of kick the covers until they rested somewhere between the edge of the bed and the floor. It wasn’t long until he found himself pulling them back up and suddenly it wasn’t as comfortable a bed as he thought. The cushioning was too soft, suffocating really, the blankets too warm and then not warm enough, and his pillow seemed to sink into itself until Tony’s neck felt ready to snap at its odd angle.

The sound of relative silence was almost too much when he’d become accustomed to the sounds of footsteps patrolling, a random scream here and there, and the drip drip drip of the leak in his ceiling. That drip had driven him crazy at the time but now he sort of missed it in what was definitely some twisted version of Stockholm syndrome.

Not missed enough to go back, no. The thought alone shot a chill down his spine and set off a voice in his head that told him if he fell asleep he’d wake back up in that stupid warehouse surrounded by henchmen with more brawn than brain.

A spike of anxiety had him shooting up until he was sat ramrod straight in bed. He needed a distraction, that was it. He was good at finding those. Well, he was good at finding them when he was in his own home. He wasn’t sure what this place had to offer, nor was he sure if the good Captain would allow him to take a personal tour of the place. Considering that he had agreed to help them as far as weapons and armor went, though, he felt that maybe he could get away with wandering around just the littlest bit.

Tony planted his feet on the floor and stood up from the bed. Bruce had been nice enough to loan him a pair of pajama pants, bright purple, and a t-shirt, that Bruce assured him wasn’t his, that said Hammer Industries on it. Tony had scowled down at the shirt before letting Bruce know that he wasn’t above accidentally setting it on fire or possibly pouring bleach on it. Or both at the same time. Bruce hadn’t seemed too worried about the threat.

The first place Tony found himself when he ventured outside his room was an admittedly dark and creepy hallway that did not at all remind him of the time he stayed up for 36 hours straight after watching 'The Grudge' and then getting locked outside of his dorm room that suddenly seemed 20 degrees colder and darker. Not at all.

He made his way quietly but quickly down the hall until he found a room with a light on. The kitchen. Thank god.

The brunet padded toward the refrigerator for something cold to drink, his head peeking inside just as someone cleared their throat behind him. He jumped, hitting his head on the inside. “Fuck, shit, ow!” Tony whirled around, an admonishment ready on the tip of his tongue only to see Bruce sitting at the kitchen table, grinning like a fool.

“Sneaking up on people is rude, you know?”

Bruce laughed softly. “I was here first, Tony.” He kicked out a chair for Tony to sit in. “Can’t sleep?”

The genius turned for a moment, pilfering the last root beer from the fridge with a small smile of vindictive victory before sitting in the chair across from his friend. Was Bruce ever his friend?

They sat in companionable silence for a moment.

“You know, Tony…” Bruce started and stopped. Tony frowned until Bruce tried again. “I have enjoyed working with you.”

Tony popped the tab on his root beer and took a sip while staring at his fellow scientist. “I guess just not as much as the whole mob life yeah?”

“It’s not...I’m the resident science guy slash medical doctor despite reminding them that I don’t actually have a degree in medicine slash therapist that I had to remind them I don’t have the temperament for slash man who makes all the calming tea when the rest of them are a bit wired. They don’t use me in the field, which is why I do it. I keep their secrets and they keep mine. And before you ask me what they are,” he said, holding up a hand when he saw Tony open his mouth to ask, “I can’t share that with you. The less people know about me, the better.”

Tony made a face before taking another sip of his root beer. “There’s a lot of things people don’t seem to want to tell me,” he muttered, scratching at the can with his thumbnail.

Tony watched as Bruce pushed up his glasses with his index finger, eyes downcast at the tabletop. “People just want to protect you.”

He chuckled in disbelief. “From who? HYDRA? Whatever it is that goes bump in the night?” Tony took another sip of his drink, eyes on anything but Bruce’s face. “I’ve told you things, Bruce. I’ve opened up to you. I trusted you. You even knew about my involvement with Bucky’s arm and the risks associated with the work and you told me nothing.” He shook his head, finally allowed himself to meet Bruce’s eyes, eyes brewing with a million unspoken apologies. He made his voice as strong as he could. “I don’t need to be protected. I’m not a child anymore.”

Tony could see that Bruce wanted to argue with that because Tony was only 25 years old. Yes, he was the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company, a certified genius, a holder of several impressive degrees, a brilliant and innovative creator and had the emotional baggage of someone more suited to be in their 40s at least, but the way he looked at the world sometimes, full of hope and naivety and grandeur, further emphasized how very young he actually was. They were all things Bruce had said to him before in some way or another.

“Everyone needs to be protected. The world we live in, it’s not safe. The less you know, to some degree, the easier it is to pretend that the balance is maintained somewhere.”

“And I have a lot of targets painted on my back. It would have been helpful to know where some of those targets might have been coming from. I might have been able to plan differently.”

“Then what, Tony? You have ties to two different mobs right now. Had you known beforehand, what would you have done differently? Your lie would have certainly been less feasible than the truth, which was that you had no idea what was going on at all. You got hurt, and I am sorry for that, I’d give anything for that not to have happened in the first place, but I still believe that you not knowing anything was for the best.”

Tony slapped his hand down on the table. “See? Everyone acts like they know what’s better for me more than I do. I’m a genius, a futurist. I can work things out faster than most people. I can imagine a variety of scenarios and outcomes based on the information I have prior knowledge to.” Tony shut his eyes. “My dad thought it would be better for me to go away to a boarding school at seven. He thought it would be better for me to learn how to behave like a man and not a little girl. He thought it would teach me to focus on only my work and nothing else. Obie thought he knew what was better for me, thought he could mold me into his little Obie-clone. He thought I needed a break after I told him I was done making weapons. I shared my new and improved ideas and he said that I was too young to know what I was dealing with and it’d be better for me to let him handle everything. Now I want to take him down and Steve thinks it’d be better for me if I was open to killing him?”

Bruce sat there quietly, brows furrowed a bit. “What do you think is best for you?”

“I don’t know,” Tony admitted. “I’m still trying to work that out, but the point is that I’m the one who should get to decide what’s better for me…even if…even if I end up deciding that it’s better for me if we don’t kill Obie.”

“Even after what he’s put you through? That’d be enough of a reason for most people to kill another human being.”

“Who do you think stepped up to the plate and helped me out when my parents died? Who do you think mentored me and helped me settle into my new role as CEO? Who do you think was the only family I had left? I looked up to him. I trusted him. He gave me years of his life, which I can only hopefully assume was an act of kindness on his part, but I know it’s enough for me to have problems with killing the man.” He looked at Bruce. “I’m already responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, just because of the weapons I’ve made. Bruce, my weapons have been getting sold under the table to terrorist organizations, dictators, Russia...and people are dying. Innocent people are dying because my weapons are so goddamn fucking effective. I thought I was protecting the good guys, but who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Who am I to decide that?”

Bruce sipped at his tea quietly for a moment. “I guess…I guess this is something you’ll have to figure out yourself, Tony, and I trust that you will. Like you said, you’re a genius.”

Tony smiled, let the room fall to silence for awhile. He’d needed to vent, at least a little bit and Bruce had always been good as a steady ear even as much as he protested that he didn’t have the temperament to go along with being a makeshift therapist.

When the silence got to go on a bit too long, Tony’s doubts and fears trying to make a valiant return, he cleared his throat and pointed at the papers littering the table that he’d only just noticed. “Uh, what’s all this?”

Bruce tweaked his glasses and frowned down at the pages. “This, this is a failed exploration into gamma radiation and more specifically the effects of reversing contamination of living subjects whose health effects have accumulated at an accelerated rate. I still haven’t figured out how these specific subjects experienced accelerated cell production causing the radiation poisoning to spread as fast as it has, but I thought I was getting closer until I hit right around-“ he pointed at the table where a little bit of writing had spilled off the page, “here.”

Tony pursed his lips in thought. “What about that right there? Shouldn’t that be Y subscript theta over A? Not B?”

Bruce began scribbling furiously at the pages. “What about here?” He gestured at another stack of papers. “If I change that then it would alter—“

“Yeah, but not if you just accounted for the added—“

“No no, there can’t be anything added or it messes with the half life of the alpha—“

“Open your mind! Think four, five, ten dimensions. Don’t get stuck in that three dimension space that you call your head.”

And with that they were off, shooting ideas off each other, back and forth until they ended up on the subject of the practicality of an actual portal ray and the applications as well as the safety hazards that might come along with such an invention.

Tony was just shouting his opinions on tears in all of space and time when someone cleared their throat. Both men turned to look at the intruder.

Bruce was the first to speak, hand halfheartedly trying to cover up the large amount of formulas and tech design that had ended up all over the table, some of it in what Tony only realized halfway through was permanent marker. “Hey, Steve”, Bruce said. “Something up?”

Steve was resting against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest. “Just a little in the way of plans and all that.”

Tony stood up then, a yawn he’d been suppressing finally forcing its way out. “Well that’s my cue. Night.” And he walked out without another word.

Steve watched him go. He hadn’t meant for Tony to leave and he was sort of hoping to fill the brunet in on their plans, but the kid looked tired and Steve knew he was probably having trouble sleeping. After a moment he sat at the table and took the tea Bruce offered him.

“So I spoke with Natasha and Bucky. We’re in agreement that we need to bring in Thor, Clint and Sam as well.”

“Seems like things might get nasty pretty fast then?”

Steve nodded and stared down at his hands. He rubbed the pad of his thumb between his eyebrows. “Barton and Romanoff are going undercover, scoping out any leads in relation to Stark Industries and Stane’s whereabouts. We’ll need to know as much as we can when it comes time to take him out. Bucky, Sam and Thor are going to be keeping a closer eye on HYDRA and pay a visit to the warehouse Tony was kept in, see if they can scavenge anything of import. In the mean time, we need to get a hold of some supplies for Stark to work with, have him make a list of what he needs and give him a space in your lab. I’ll check in in about a week. That should be more than enough time for Stark to at least have some sort of blueprints ready to show off. I’m going to need you to stay on him to make sure he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing. I don’t need any chunk of my home blown up in an effort to escape.”

Bruce nodded. “I will, but Steve?”

Steve became a bit wary at the tone of Bruce’s voice. “Yeah?”

“You don’t need to be so hard on him. Tony’s a good kid.”

Steve tilted his head a bit. “It’s not a good idea to trust someone so quickly, especially considering where he just came from.”

“He’s...you need to trust me. I know he rubs you the wrong way. He’s like that. He’s abrasive and sometimes careless when it comes to...okay so he’s completely tactless. Just...he’s not a killer. He’s young and he’s still very naive and trusting. Stane is someone who meant a lot to him. Probably still does.”

Steve tapped his fingers against the table. “He’s a genius. He needs to think like one.”

“It doesn’t work like that.”

“I know, Bruce, but that doesn’t change to fact that I need to be able to trust him to do what needs to be done in the end.”

“Then give him a reason to trust you first. So far all he knows is that you want weapons and armor from him. He just escaped from HYDRA. You know what they’re like.”

He pointed a finger at Bruce. “I’ll consider it, but the kid also needs to learn respect.”

*****

Three days later Steve found himself sitting at the kitchen table, his lunch in one hand and a newspaper in the other. He was used to the others giving him a hard time because he still enjoyed the feel of paper between his hands over that of the admittedly impressive tablets all the others sported. Also, you couldn’t trace what someone found in the newspaper like you could so easily from a person’s internet search history. Yes, he knew he was a paranoid fucker, but he didn’t particularly feel like risking too much of his organization by becoming reliant on electronic devices that were more likely to be tapped into by outside parties. And maybe, just maybe, might have a thing for the New York times crosswords puzzles found at the back. It wasn’t a big deal.

When he finished eating, he folded up his paper and stood to walk his plate to the sink where he could rinse it off, mind suddenly not on the elections that were just around the corner but instead on Bucky and his arm that had been giving his trouble as of late. He could tell every time they talked lately that it was causing him pain in the way that Bucky would twitch the fingers on his flesh hand towards the metal one as if he wanted to grip it to stave off whatever was hurting him. A state of the art prosthetic apparently came with a price, but Bucky still insisted that it was worth it just to have the full range, plus some, mobility that a normal prosthetic limb just couldn’t provide.

It was one thing he had to give the youngest Stark. He’d given Bucky back a piece of himself and with it a sense of purpose again. For that, Steve had always been grateful.

He’d seen Stark around from time to time, at different socialite events, places to get drunk and make business happen, but he’d never done much more than ignore a slight pass made by the younger man or walk right by him and his group of latchers-on as they cooed and awed over the brunet. It wasn’t until Tony had taken an interest in Bucky’s arm after a random meeting in a coffee shop of all places Bucky could have been, that Steve really had any incentive to say more than a cursory ‘hello’ or ‘if you’ll excuse me’.

Bucky had come back home that day, eyes slightly confused and just a little bit off balance, telling him about the things Stark promised and the results he guaranteed would ‘blow his fucking mind’. He told him how he thought the kid was trying to get his number at first until he’d started poking and prodding at the lost limb, asking Bucky about mobility and pain levels. It had been a whirlwind meeting, Bucky said, over almost as soon as it began and ending with a card pressed into Bucky’s palm and an appointment to meet Tony in his workshop that upcoming Saturday.

Steve was with him every step of the way, determined that if someone was going to work on Bucky while he was in one of his most vulnerable states, then he was going to be there to make sure nobody tried to pull anything over on his oldest friend. And, yeah, he’d gone in expecting it from the infamous Tony Stark, but about 4 appointments in, Steve finally figured he didn’t have much to worry about at all. At least not when it came to Stark screwing over Bucky. No, his attention was placed elsewhere, about 80% focused on Bucky’s new arm and the other 20% focused on flirting endlessly with Steve.

It was to rile him up, he could tell by the way Stark would smile excitedly if Steve so much as huffed in annoyance. Bucky had assured him that he could handle the rest of his appointments alone if Steve needed a break from it all, but Steve always turned down the offer. Bucky was his best friend, even if he didn’t need to be there, he wanted to. And, okay, he could admit that as much as Tony annoyed the hell out of him at times, he was also a very attractive man and sometimes Steve really enjoyed the cocky little smile that would show up anytime Steve responded to a particularly out there flirtation. It didn’t mean anything really, because Steve didn’t even have the time to seriously contemplate something so time consuming as a relationship, let alone with a quick witted, loose tongued, smart ass kid.

Steve washed his dish and set it in the rack to dry before making his way to Bruce’s lab, which had already been taken over by Tony under Bruce’s supervision. Though, maybe supervision wasn’t the right word because Tony and Bruce were practically founding members of what was quickly becoming a scientific frat house. Even Clint had taken to calling the duo Science Bros much to Tony’s amusement. Bruce didn’t seem to mind the nickname much either, on the contrary, he actually seemed to enjoy the kid’s company, smiling easier than Steve had seen him smile in a long time.

When he walked into the space he was surprised to find Tony working on Bucky’s arm. The two sat chatting about circuits and rerouting servos to produce a greater efficiency when the arm was moved in a series of quick motions. Tony prodded at a few different areas of the arm and then voice recording any reactions that came as a result of the stimuli. Steve watched the two as they moved through a set of tests until Tony gave a quick ‘ahah!’ after Bucky winced due to a jab somewhere around the wrist plates.

Without a word to either of them, he took a seat opposite Tony and watched closely as Tony carried on with his work.

“Okay, thumb slowly again, only this time see if you can hold it for five seconds,” the genius murmured, the magnifying goggles on his head making him look somewhat comical. Bucky complied and watched as certain parts on the inside seemed to work together fluidly. So far there was no pain.

Bucky moved on to each finger, one at a time the way Tony instructed.

“Now your wrist.”

Bucky bent it, curled it, rolled it. The rolling seemed to be the part that caused him pain and he yelped slightly.

“Sorry. I think I figured out where the problem is though.”

“Thank goodness for small miracles,” Bucky said through clenched teeth.

“None of that, Mr Grouchy Pants. It’s something I can fix in a matter of hours. Hopefully you guys have no, ah hm, business, to take care of before dinner.”

Bucky snorted. “No business today. Lucky me, I enjoy sitting here for hours with nothing to do.”

“Good. Then we can get started,” Tony said with a small grin. He looked up and startled. “Oh, Rogers.” He furrowed his brow, looking around for anyone else who might have sneaked up on him.  “When did you get here?”

“Not too long ago.” He looked at Bucky. “You think he’ll survive?”

Tony shrugged. “As long as he stops acting like a baby, yeah.”

“Hey,” Bucky chimed in, pointing a finger at the genius with his good hand. “I can still throttle you with this hand, punk.”

That caused Tony to chuckle. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He picked up his tablet, and stared at the schematics for Bucky’s arm as he worked out where to dive in. “You want me to knock you out? Then you don’t have to worry about getting bored. And really, I remember how much you whined when we were first doing this, I could do without it this time around.”

“No thanks. Knowing you I’ll wake up with sound effects every time I move the arm.”

Tony smiled wide, eyes sparkling with mischief. He gave Steve a gleeful look that made Steve smile back. “That’s actually an entertaining idea.”

“Don’t you fuckin’ dare, Stark.”

Tony just rolled his eyes, still smiling albeit a little bit smaller though just as brilliant. “What? And risk my life? I don’t think I’m ready to rid the world of this charm and these good looks. Well, I mean when they find out I’m still alive.”

“Idiot,” Bucky said with a sigh, but Steve thought it sounded almost fond. Despite the pain, his friend seemed a bit more lighthearted now that his pain was being addressed and possibly fixed. Steve figured he might count that as a point in his Reasons To Trust Tony Stark book. Just maybe.

“You know, I can still program this arm to slap you in the face at random intervals.”

Steve hid a grin behind his hand.

Bucky looked at Steve and glared, a ‘don’t you dare laugh’ unspoken between them.

Tony gestured with a hand. “Just open the laptop and watch something. You’ve got options. Quit being a Grinch.”

Steve shrugged and did the honors of grabbing a nearby laptop and opening up Bucky’s Netflix queue to distract him as Tony worked. The sounds of Jurassic Park filled the room, punctuated only by the sounds of Tony’s tinkering. Steve found himself watching Tony out of the corner of his eye almost as much as he found himself watching the actual movie playing. He wasn’t saying as much as Steve remembered he used to, but Steve figured that had more to do with the fact that Tony was wary of him now that he knew who Steve was exactly.

Steve scowled at himself when he realized that he was just the slightest bit put out that Tony wasn’t flirting with him this time around. Definitely something he’d have to work out later, when he was preferably alone, and in the mean time he’d have to focus instead on the T-Rex chasing those kids and not on trying to guess what it was that was going on in the genius’ head.

When the first movie ended, Steve began another though Tony ended up finishing his work about half way through. He lifted his goggles from his eyes and blinked a few times, gaze on the far wall before shaking his head and focusing on the two men sat before him. “Good as new. Well, new is a relative term. It shouldn’t have any more problems for awhile, but since it’s still basically a prototype, though a Stark prototype is basically a finished product years ahead of the game, I can’t say it won’t have problems in the future. We should do random tune ups from now on, to make sure everything stays in tip top shape.”

Steve just nodded at Tony, appreciative of his help. Bucky was sitting up, flexing his arm, moving it around with a smile and even used it to lightly punch Steve in the arm. Judging by the look on Steve’s face, lightly was probably optimistic. Bucky just gave a small shrug. He looked happy though, and Steve would give anything to see his friend like that forever.

It was interesting for him to note how happy Tony looked as well. It was the same look Tony always had when he was doing his mad scientist thing on Bucky’s arm, but he never noticed just how relaxed the genius exactly was when doing something that went completely over the rest of their heads. Even Bruce had expressed his astonishment at the things Tony could accomplish, especially considering how young he was. Bruce seemed to emphasize that a lot lately.

“Not bad for a kid.”

Tony scowled at that. “Not a kid.”

“Whatever you say, Stark.” Bucky was quiet for a moment and then continued, more genuinely, “Thanks. Again.”

“No problem.” He started putting his tools away and ran his good hand through his hair, which is when Steve noticed Tony had done all that with one hand, the other still held in a sling against his chest. Steve was just that much more impressed.

Steve gave the brunet a once over despite himself. Tony looked tired. Tired and like he could probably do with a few sandwiches to eat as well. It didn’t take a genius to notice that Tony’s idea of self-care wasn’t exactly good for him.

“Do you want Bruce to get you something for the pain?”

Tony’s gaze shifted up to Steve, his face puzzled. “What?” He looked back down at his arm. “No. No I’m...I’m good.”

“It might help you sleep.”

Tony eyed Steve warily, very obviously changing the subject. “I’ve got something to give to you, but I’ll have to explain how it works first.”

Steve rolled with the subject change. No point in pushing. He definitely knew Tony was stubborn, almost as stubborn as Steve himself was.

“Okay. What is it?”

Tony held up a thumb drive. “Lots of encrypted data. Usernames. Passwords. Account information. Stealth.”

Steve just blinked. “Right. That’s Natasha’s area. We should probably all sit down and go over everything sometime soon.”

The genius quirked an eyebrow and pocketed the thumb drive. “Okay. Call them to assemble or whatever it is you do and I’ll get things set up.”

“You need a hand with that?”

“No thanks, Captain,” Tony responded. “I think I got this. Unless you’re talking about lending a hand in a very different and specific kind of way,” he added with a leer.

This was familiar, Steve knew how to work with this side of Tony. Steve gave a small huff and turned to leave. “Let’s be ready in five minutes.”

Tony sloppily saluted. “Aye, aye, Captain.”

Steve felt his shoulders slump a little. “That’s not going away anytime soon, is it?” he muttered in defeat before walking out.

The genius was grinning. He grabbed whatever he would need and made his way upstairs. It didn’t take long for everyone to crowd around and there were a lot more people that had shown up than Tony recognized.

“All right,” Steve started, “introduction time. Everyone knows Tony Stark. Stark, this is my team. Well some of my team. They are first response if you need them.”

Tony nodded.

“Romanoff, Barnes, Barton and Banner you’ve already at least met once or twice.” Steve jerked his head towards a bigger blond. “This is Thor,” and then pointed at a dark skinned, smiling man who had a falcon of all creatures resting on his shoulders, “and this is Sam Wilson.” They’ll be working with Bucky to gather intel on the warehouse you were kept in. Any and all information you have on where you were kept should be noted and passed on to these three. Romanoff and Barton will handle gathering information on Stane and his connection with HYDRA and Schmidt.”

“Is this a mob or a spy agency?” Tony asked, genuinely confused.

Steve gave him a smirk. “I know where to look for the right people.”

“Right right. Guess it works for what I’m asking from you. Anyway,” he pulled out the thumb drive again and tossed it to Natasha. “Cap says this is your area of expertise so you hold onto it. If you want intel on Stane you’re going to have to get into my building, which, if you aren’t me or a card holder, is actually more difficult than breaking into the White House. Take it from someone who’s actually broken into the White House on several occasions. Drunk. It was a dare. Moving on. The first step to getting in needs to happen from the outside. I can only search for so much out here before the computer picks up my patterns records the data. If Stane see’s that, he’ll know I’m still out here alive and kicking and we can’t have that.”

He pointed at Natasha and Clint. “I can provide you both with disguises and set you up with jobs working in the building. It won’t be too hard to pull it off seeing as Stark Industries goes through interns and employees and consultants like water goes through gills.  When you’re in, that flash drive will provide you with passwords, account numbers, etcetera etcetera. Play your parts well and nobody will be the wiser. There will also be comm units and subtle under armor for protection. Lightweight, not bulky, bulletproof.  Also, JARVIS will be with you once you enter the building. You’ll need to plug that drive into one of the main computers and enter the first password on the list when prompted to connect with him. From then on, he’ll be there to help you out.”

“Who?” Steve asked quickly.

“My AI?”

Everyone gave him a blank stare.

“You know, Artificial Intelligence?” Tony waved his hand, “Bruce knows who I’m talking about. He’s the genius inside the coding.”

Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. “We’ll talk about it later. Thanks, Stark. Everyone dismissed.” he added with a sigh and waited as everyone but Tony shuffled out the door.

Tony watched Steve, a slightly nervous tick taking over his hands. Steve thought it might be a good time to approach him. He could extend an olive branch.

“What you’ve done for Bucky, it’s really been great. He’s a completely different person and you didn’t have to do that and I wanted to say thank you,” he said rather quickly.

The genius gave a shrug. “Might as well put my talents to use.”

“Most wouldn’t have done it for free.”

Tony grinned. “Consider him a guinea pig then. If that makes you feel any better.”

Steve scratched his head. “Are you sure you don’t--”

“I need you to do something for me.”

Steve stopped. “Okay?”

“Pepper and Rhodey. Uh...Virginia Potts and Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes. The two people I trust most in this world. I need to let them know I’m okay.”

The blond tilted his head and gave the genius a scrutinizing look. “I hope you’re not asking what I think you’re asking.”

“I need to contact them. They’ll help me. I know they will.”

“Not happening. I’m drawing the line there. They can’t get involved in this.”

Tony huffed impatiently. “Why the hell not?”

Steve spread his arms and looked around. Looked at Tony. “In case you haven’t noticed, you’ve landed into some very dangerous waters.”

“Through no fault of my own.”

Steve pointed a finger and stopped him. “It doesn’t matter. That puts them in danger and puts us at risk of being found out. You’re dead and you’re going to stay dead until this plan of yours is finished. I can’t compromise what we already have going by bringing in more civilians.”

“This isn’t a war, Captain!”

“Are you sure about that, Stark? You’ve seen first hand what’s going on. You’ve lived it.”

“But I didn’t ask for it!” Tony argued.

“Yeah! Neither did I!” Steve shot back. “You play the hand you’re dealt and strategize. No, this isn’t a war that everyone is aware of. It’s in the background, it’s everywhere, but it’s quiet and there is more at stake than you might have ever realized. We work together and then we move on to the next thing.”

“You,” Tony said angrily, “work together. With your people. I have to trust that you guys won’t somehow turn against me or make even more demands from me than you already have.”

“I’m letting the fact you apparently have an AI as one of the only lines of defense for my men going into what I’m deeming hostile territory go and I’m trusting that you won’t fuck that up for us. No more people are going to be involved. None. We’re supposed to stay under the radar. You’re not accustomed to this, but I need you to understand. This is for your protection. This is for the protection of everyone on my team. You know what the people out there are capable of and I’m not putting my team, you, or even the people you care about at risk because you can’t handle not having your friends in your corner. Is that what you want? For them to get hurt, because they will if you involve them in this.”

“No,” the brunet said through clenched teeth. “No, that is not what I want.”

“Then we understand each other?”

“It’s your call, Captain.” Tony made sure he said that with every ounce of spite he could.

“Yes. It is my call. And you’ll do well to remember that.”

Tony looked like he was about to protest even further, but he dropped his shoulders and turned. “You’ll have your weapons and armor soon. I have work to do. See you around, Rogers.”

Steve watched him walk away and exhaled, bowing his head and rubbing the back of his neck. If this plan of theirs didn’t end up being the death of him, there was no doubt in his mind that Tony Stark would be.

*****

The days with Tony in their care flew by in what was mostly, surprisingly, silence. Steve had very little doubt that the reasoning for Tony’s sudden case of lock lip was their small disagreement the week prior. That was fine. Great even. It gave Steve time to catch up on his regular business, business he’d let fall slightly to the side since Tony’s appearance at his door.

Not anymore though. For as long as Tony decided to keep his distance and didn’t ‘accidentally’ blow up something, Steve would give him space to get over what really equated to a temper tantrum because he hadn’t gotten his way. And he wouldn’t get his way, no matter how many quiet glares he received or how many rooms suddenly emptied upon his entrance, or how many conversations stopped dead the second Tony laid eyes on him. Steve’s will was stronger than Tony’s petulance, he was sure of it even if the longer it went on the more annoyed Steve got.

It didn’t matter. So what if Tony ignored him? So what if it kind of really bothered him just a bit? It was...disrespectful is all. That was it. It was a much more reasonable explanation than Bucky’s theory that Steve was just upset because Tony didn’t want to ‘play’ with him. No, that was ridiculous, they weren’t children on the playground, a fact he’d made sure to let Bucky know, just before he slammed the other man to the spar mat, pinning him until he cried uncle.

Bucky had laid on the ground afterwards, chest heaving as he caught his breath, his eyes narrowed at Steve who’d barely broken a sweat, and kindly informed Steve that he needed to get over himself and stop letting Starks bratty attitude affect him as much as it was. He’d sat up then, punched Steve lightly in the calf and continued to explain all the ways in which Steve’s aggression skyrocketed to unhealthy levels any time he was annoyed and the others couldn’t handle the aggression fueled training sessions much longer.

And, yeah, okay. Steve understood where he was coming from there. His attitude had maybe been a little rough around the edges this week, but, that had less to do with Stark than it had to do with his men screwing up a simple shipment. The third one this year, which was really three too many.

Steve would have to pay them a visit pretty soon, a fact that he jotted down into his agenda, all thoughts of Tony pushed to the back of his head as he focused instead on whether or not he’d given his man Lorenzo one too many chances to prove himself working down on the docks. Either way it went, after Steve’s visit, Lorenzo wouldn’t be making anymore mistakes in the future, that was for sure.

Steve groaned, pinched the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes. When he opened them his gaze caught on the Newspaper in the center of the table, untouched and brimming with information Steve could probably use. Also, maybe he had time for a quick game of Sudoku in the back.

Steve grabbed the paper and allowed himself to relax back into his seat, if only for a moment. His eyes scanned the pages, and maybe the newspaper wasn’t the best idea to relax with when every other story had something or another to do with Obadiah Stane, Stark Industries, or more speculations as to the ‘unknown’ whereabouts of Anthony Edward Stark.

Steve sighed and kept reading; it was just his luck that’d he’d set aside work for more work, though it was satisfying to know that he and his people were still ahead of the media which, okay, wasn't too hard when one of the largest New York newspapers, the Daily Bugle, was run by J. Jonah Jameson, notorious for publishing articles that tended to focus more on pop culture figures than really hard hitting journalism.

Case in point, this weeks sensational article was all about the possibility of Tony Stark’s alleged trip to Afghanistan where he and his company were testing their weapons on small towns when Stark wasn’t busy entertaining his latest conquest between the sheets, who was rumored to be the wife of a man killed during one of Stark's latest rounds of testing.

Steve wrinkled his nose in disgust and turned the page with a little more force than was particularly necessary. It was just, he wondered what it was like, to be as young as Tony and living smack dab in the middle of the media’s lime light.

Steve’s head rose slowly, a faint noise making its way toward him. It sounded like...whirring of some sort. Possibly a remote control car like the ones he’d seen kids play with up and down the streets, or the ones he’d seen Clint and Thor racing up and down the hallways despite his warnings. Steve narrowed his eyes toward where the noise was coming from, he’d fallen over enough of those cars to last a lifetime and wasn’t in the mood for a repeat performance. Lord only knows the two of them wouldn’t clean up after themselves.

As the noise got closer, Steve became less and less sure it was a remote car, mostly because he could usually hear Clint and Thor giggling to themselves between curses by now, yet the hall remained silent, but also because he had the distinct feeling he was being watched.

The noise stopped briefly, though Steve stayed alert, waiting-- and there it was again. He stood up from his chair and turned toward the entrance way.

When he looked down, he saw what had to be the most ridiculous thing he’d ever laid eyes on. There, before him, was a creature made of metal with two large yellow unblinking eyes peering up at him. The thing chirped at him, actually chirped and waved its tiny arms around and around, rolling forward until it nudged Steve’s leg, forcing him to take a step back.

“Why--why is there a tiny robot rolling around in here?” Steve asked to who, he wasn’t sure. There was no one around to answer him except for the robot which didn’t seem inclined to answer him in any way.

Steve took a cautious step back, not trusting the creature even though it had yet to make any move to attack.

“Hello, Steve,” came the robotic voice, low and menacing yet still carrying that robotic edge. “Would you like to play a game?” Steve stared down at it, eyes wide until the creature’s metal eyebrows began to waggle and its voice went back to its high pitched chirp as it zoomed its way around his legs.

Steve’s mouth popped open, brows drawn in as he watched it. “What….what’s going on here?” he asked again to the empty room.

The bots voice came through again, the quality of its voice like an extension of its chirps. “I like big butts and I cannot lie.”

Steve shook his head in disbelief as the bot ran into the leg of the table, paused, and then zoomed around the room and in between Steve’s legs making a long drawn out ‘weeeeeeeeeeee’ as it went.

Was he dreaming? This had never happened to him before, he had nothing to base this sort of interaction on and was unsure if smashing the thing was an overreaction or not.

Steve’s eye caught on the little rectangular green screen in the center of the bots chest when it briefly paused near a wall. “Sergeant Nuts-N-Bolts,” he read aloud, sounding the words out before mouthing them quietly to himself.

“Yeah, that’s his name, don’t wear it out.”

Steve looked up to meet Tony’s eye and suddenly everything made a lot more sense. “This is...your doing,” he stated.

Tony tucked his good hand in the pocket of his borrowed hoodie and shrugged. “Yeah, well. He was bored. Heard there might be a hot blond in the kitchen and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Don’t worry, he’s as impressed as I am. Was that shirt painted on or do you shop in the junior miss section of the GAP?”

Steve ignored the flirtation and focused on the more important aspect which was that there was a tiny robot running amok in his home. “Why?”

Tony grinned wickedly. “Why was he impressed or why was he bored? I mean, really, I’m sure he's impressed for the same reason anyone with eyes would be but he’s bored because he gets lonely. Bruce and I can’t give all of our time to him so I told him to go play.”

Steve shook his head. “No, why is it here?”

“First of all, Captain, he is not an it, he is a he. Secondly, he’s standing right here and it’s rude to talk about someone like they aren’t even in the room when you and I both can clearly see him there, running into the wall--” Tony paused and frowned, though just for a moment. “That’s not supposed to happen, I’ll fix it. Thirdly, his name is Sergeant Major Nuts-N-Bolts.” Tony held up his hand in a stop motion when Steve opened his mouth to object and pointed at the bot where the name had in fact changed on his little screen. Tony grinned smugly and almost proud. “He’s already moved up in the ranks. You can’t say he hasn’t earned it, that sonuvabitch.”

A small noise escaped Steve's throat, completely lost for words.

Tony laughed when the bot raced into Steve’s leg again, hard enough that he stumbled back into the table. “Pretty neat, huh?” He addressed the bot, cooing as if talking to a child or a small animal. “Wave to the Captain now,” and laughed delightedly when he did just that. “Okay, a bit more complicated. Remember what I taught you though. Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes. Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes. Eyes and ears and mouth and nose. Head, shoulders knees and toes. Knees and toes. Alright!”

Steve, for his part, could only watch the spectacle with what was mostly feigned annoyance to cover what was a sense of growing amusement and maybe a little awe. “That’s uh--something.” He raised one brow, a question on the tip of his tongue. “Where did he come from?”

Tony rolled his eyes with a scoff. “My mind.” He held out his hands. “These babies helped. I made him.”

“And when did you make him exactly?”

Tony grinned wide. “About three nights ago? To be fair, he’s been in my head for awhile, but then I figured I’d take a break from your list of demands and ahh ahh, Steve. Before you say anything, I’ve been working on your stuff during most of my waking and a few of my resting hours so don’t get on my case about distractions via toys. He’s a learning bot, not as advanced as DUM-E or U, but still very intelligent…..I’m surprised you didn’t notice I was gone though, usually you’re around hovering in some corner.”

Steve mouthed DUM-E and U to himself, trying to figure out which part he wanted to focus on first before settling with the last part of Tony’s rambling. “You haven’t exactly stayed in any room I’ve entered this last week. I was pretty sure you were avoiding me.” Did Steve sound put out? He didn’t mean to sound put out. Hopefully Tony wouldn’t notice.

The heavens must have been on Steve’s side in that moment because Tony didn’t do much more than shrug his shoulders, his good hand reaching down to pat Nuts-N-Bolts’ head or--maybe those just counted as eyes. Either way the bot whirred excitedly. “Yeah, I was. It’s in the past though, let’s just move on.”

“Fine by me.” Steve shifted, his arms crossing over his chest, and watched Tony tease the bot for a minute or five. “So…” he waited until Tony looked up at him expectantly, “is he a spy?”

“You caught me,” the genius snarked, hand flying up rather ridiculously into the air. “He’s here to watch you get undressed and then report back to me. In hindsight I should have installed a better camera but that can always be fixed.”

Steve huffed a breath that sounded a little too much like a laugh for his tastes. “You know, it’s gotten to the point where it wouldn’t surprise me if that's what he was actually made for.”

Tony smirked. “You say that like you still don’t believe me.” He pet the bot again, fingers gentle along the metal. “He’s very curious, he’s practically a teenager in bot years. Don’t worry though. I told him that under absolutely no circumstances is he allowed to cat call you at any point or make a pass at your virtue.” He spoke to the bot then. “Isn’t that right, Sergeant? Uh huh, that’s daddy’s job.”

Steve pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered to himself. “This isn’t my life.”

“Karma,” Tony practically sung.

“Is that so? I’m going to have to declare unfair punishment for a crime I haven’t committed.”

Tony mock scowled at Steve. “Sergeant Major Nuts-N-Bolts is not a punishment. Why would you say that? You’re going to break his circuit board. He loves you already, Captain.”

“Aye Aye, Captain.” The bot chirped and Steve’s nose wrinkled. “I...love..you?” Nuts-N-Bolts said, words drawn out as if he were trying to understand the phrase before repeating them a lot surer than before, tiny hand clamped onto Steve’s pant leg. “I love you!”

Steve shook his head and couldn’t restrain himself from smiling amusedly down at the bot who had taken to zooming around the room again, this time chirping ‘love, love, love you’ over and over in that high pitched voice.

When Steve looked up from the havoc being caused by the bot he found the genius staring at him, a smile on his lips but eyes that were surprisingly unreadable at the moment. They kept up staring, something curling in the pit of Steve’s stomach the longer it went on, until Tony broke his gaze away and Steve felt himself almost instantly sag in relief.

“In all seriousness, you ever notice how dark and drab it is in here sometimes? You guys need to lighten up and who better to help than an adorable robot who has an even more adorable creator? It’s really a win all around if you ask me.”

Steve sighed, could almost feel the tension floating back into the room. He crouched down until he could gesture for Sergeant Major Nuts-N-Bolts to come near, hoping to maybe draw in some of the manic cheer the bot exuded. He kept his eyes firmly on the bot while speaking to Tony. “It’s not easy to lighten up in this line of business. Hell, it’s hard enough learning to trust people, hard enough to earn their trust, that by the end of the day ‘lightening up’ just becomes something you write a note to self about and never follow through with.” Steve winced to himself, his words depressing to even himself. He reached his hand out and ran his index finger softly along the bots metal exterior. He looked up at Tony from under his lashes, ready to change the subject as fast as possible. “Did you build this guy with one hand?”

Tony was staring again, that unreadable look shifting in and out of focus. “Uh, what?” He shook his head. “No. uh--” Tony tugged at his sling a little. “It’s getting better and I thought I’d test it out by working. I mean, I can’t exactly make all these things you ask for with the assistance of only one hand. I mean, I get the work done, so plus, even if afterwards my arm hurts and Bruce yells at me to take it easy--Not a very good watchdog you got, Captain. He’s spent more time trying to get me to rest than work.”

Steve frowned. This was the first he was hearing about Tony being in pain, though, really, maybe Steve should have assumed. It hadn’t even been two weeks since the genius had shown up bleeding on his doorstep and yet here he was, being forced by Steve to work through it. Steve felt like a jackass. “I’m--I’m going to need you to show me inside him.” Steve grimaced at himself, that hadn’t been what he was trying to say. He tried to backtrack. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just that--”

“You don’t trust me.” Tony supplied, voice carefully blank.

Steve shrugged half heartedly. “I just want to make sure he’s going to be safe to have around.”

“Bruce can vouch for him, even though he’s no fun and repeatedly told me I was wasting my time building something just for the amusement of others. Sometimes he reminds me just how old he really is. I can show you though, Nuts-N-Bolts has--well, he’s a learning bot so he hears commands and improves over time, but--” Tony wrinkled his nose. “This would be easier to just show you. Right now. I’ll show you right now.”

Steve looked down at his work spread out over the table and then back to the bot currently attempting to climb up Tony’s leg. “Sure. Let’s go.”

The blonde followed Tony out of the room and down the halls until they reached what Natasha called the science dungeon, a project they’d originally intended for Bruce but had done just as nicely for Tony. When they arrived, Tony got right down to brass tacks, explaining everything using words that Steve could follow or stopping to explain when he couldn’t. He circled Steve, instructing him to open up various compartments and watching patiently as Steve took a look around inside of the bot. Overall, it was a very enlightening and informative lesson, one where Steve actually found himself enjoying the other man's presence.

When they were finished, Tony turned Nuts-N-Bolts back on with a flourish of his hands over his keyboard and they both watched as the bot whirred back to life, chirping insistently at them both. Steve tapped his foot against the floor before grinning. “We should use him to wake up Barton. He always did hate that horse head scene from the Godfather--we should do a little re enactment.”

Tony stared at him. “I don’t want him broken,” he said flatly.

Steve rolled his eyes. “It’s not like you can’t just fix him right back up.”

“And waste more time on a project not designated by the list? Color me shocked, Captain.”

“Hey, you’re the one who wanted to lighten the place up a bit, what’s lighter than a little good humored pranking?”

Tony didn’t speak for a full minute, eyes focused on Steve in a way that made him feel just a little exposed. He was trying to refrain from folding his arms over his chest when Tony snapped his fingers a few times and pointed at Steve, expression excited as if he’d just solved a tough equation. “You’re a secret troll!”

Steve huffed, mock affronted. “That’s captain troll to you.”

The genius laughed, amusement etched on every plane of his face, before swooping down and grabbing the bot. Tony spoke to Nuts-N-Bolts as he exited the room. “That’s enough. We have to leave. I don’t want troll to be a part of your everyday vernacular and the Captain there is a bad influence already.”

Steve smiled and watched as they both left the room, the bots high voice floating back with. “I loveeee the Cap-TAIN!”  

Steve was surprised later that night when the bot found him again, chirping excitedly as it zoomed around his legs, and periodically into his legs. He was even more surprised that he didn’t mind the company the bot provided even if it did follow him everywhere. LIterally everywhere.

For four days Nuts-N-Bolts was wherever Steve looked, chasing after him to the bathroom, to stand guard as Steve showered, to watch him eat, to watch Steve work in his office or chirp at him while he worked out in the gym. The bot had even taken to sleeping at the foot of Steve’s bed after the first night where he wouldn’t stop tapping at Steve’s door until Steve gave up and let him inside where he’d remained silent until Steve woke up the next morning.

He got used to the bot, had even taken to making sure the door was held open until Nuts-N-Bolts could enter the room completely even though Bucky and Clint tried and failed to hold back their snickering everytime he did.

Tony raised his brow at Steve sometime around the fifth day, leaning against the open door way, Nuts-N-Bolts making laps around Steve’s office. “You know, when I made him, he wasn’t designed to become attached to one person.”

Steve grunted, attention focused mostly on going over the organization's books. “What can I say, I’m lovable,” he said, mind elsewhere as he took notes.

The bot hit Steve’s desk for what was probably the tenth time today, jostling all of Steve’s things. He frowned down at where the bot was hiding under his desk. “A leash would probably do the trick,” he muttered to himself.

Steve startled when Tony spoke again, had forgotten the other man was there. “Command Sergeant Major Nuts-N-Bolts is not a dog, Captain. He’s a living, breathing--well, okay, he’s not exactly living and breathing but he’s slightly sentient and using a leash would be just rude.”

Steve laughed at Tony’s affronted tone, and leaned back into his plush desk chair, a smirk that did little to impress Tony settling over his lips. “I’ve known a few living and breathing people who didn’t mind a little leash play.”

Tony spluttered, a flush high on his cheeks before he coughed, face settling back into practiced calm. Not that it did anything to stop Steve from almost doubling over with laughter. “Shut up, you can’t just say stuff like that unexpectedly. That’s playing dirty-- oh ha ha. Don’t even say it.”

Tony huffed when Steve did nothing but continue to laugh, turned and started walking away. “Don’t put a leash on him!”

Steve grinned stupidly at where Tony had been before reaching a  hand down and tapping the bot on his head. “I’m gonna get you one in hot rod red, how about it?”

Nuts-N-Bolts chirped and waggled his brow happily.

“That’s what I thought.”

*****

Tony paced back and forth, much to the growing annoyance of both Steve and Bruce. It was one of a small handful of nervous ticks that Tony apparently had, come out to play as they waited for their first update from Romanoff and Barton’s work undercover in Stark Industries.

As the minutes ticked past their scheduled appointment with still no word from either Nat or Clint, Tony’s pacing picked up speed. He began muttering under his breath as he walked, something about titanium alloy being the key component to full body armor. Tony paused his steps and stared down at the floor before shaking his head, continuing to mutter, this time disputing his earlier claim due to how bulky said full body armor would be unless you wanted to look like some sort of superhero.

Steve was well past impatient by the time Tony started muttering about introducing Nuts-N-Bolts to DUM-E and U and whether or not they’d experience new baby jealousy. Steve shut his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “Stark. Stop. Everything is going to be okay. I trust my team to do what needs to be done.”

The genius stopped mumbling but continued to pace, albeit a little slower. “I know that,’ he answered, just a smidge indignant.

“Then what the hell is wrong with you?”

Tony shook his head and waved off Steve’s inquiry.

Bruce pulled off his glasses, cleaning them with the hem of his shirt. “Tony, Nat and Clint have been in place for days with no high alert. They’d rather finish a mission right than on time. They’ll get here soon.”

Nuts-N-Bolts chirped questioningly at Tony, tugging at his pants just slightly. Tony looked down at him. “As much as I’d love a coffee, you can’t exactly reach the counter top.”

Steve and Bruce shared a look, confusion evident on both their faces.

“I think coffee is the last thing you—“ Steve began, interrupted when his comm alerted him. “Bucky, Thor, and Sam are on their way back from the warehouse. ETA less than five minutes.” He eyed Tony warily.

“Would you please sit down already, Stark?”

Tony huffed and took a rather pointed seat near Bruce. “Aye aye, Captain.”

Steve sighed, long suffering, grateful for the silence even if that too seemed a little pointed when coming from Tony. Steve ignored him in favor of watching the door, waiting for his team to show up.

He didn’t have to wait long, all three men shuffling into the room about 4 minutes later. Thor was the first to speak, pulling a chair out and collapsing into it. ”Greetings, Captain. Dr. Banner. Tony. Our trip turned out to be plentiful in the way of news.”

Bucky nodded, took the seat to Steve’s right and clapped him on the shoulder in greeting. “A lot of the data had already been wiped once we got there though we still were able to find a bit of information on human drug trials, a video or two recording the sessions…they weren’t pretty.” Bucky frowned, his metal hands clenching at his side.

Sam spoke from Steve’s left. “The rooms were a mess. The explosion looks to have taken out a few of the other prisoners cells. We found charred remains that they hadn’t bothered to clean up.”  

As Sam spoke, Steve noticed Tony steadily losing color until his face was ashen. “That’s not—“

Sam interrupted him, catching on quickly to Tony’s sudden mood. “I think most of them were near death anyway. Not that that’ll make you feel much better, but they were in pretty bad shape beforehand. The videos…” Sam trailed off, holding up a small thumb drive, “they’re all here. We think they were used as motivation to get outside parties to comply to HYDRA’s wishes.” Sam stared down at the drive, shooting a quick glance between Thor and Bucky who both had their eyes firmly down towards the table. “You’re on here, Tony.”

The room was silent, so silent that Steve could pick up everyone’s bated breathing as they waited for Tony to react. Tony’s hands balled into fists, his face unreadable. “Of course,” he muttered. He cleared his throat a little, stretched out his neck. “Three months in a torture facility. I was never sure but…” Tony fidgeted in his chair before standing up so fast that his chair screeched across the floor. “Anything else?”

“A few HYDRA goons, no sign of Schmidt. We didn’t engage, stayed in the shadows when we could. As far as we can tell, no one noticed our presence. They had a skeleton crew out there, making repairs rather than abandoning their location. The ratio of unaware civilians to HYDRA henchmen was unclear though. It could be that they are all aware of who they are working for or that none of them are.” Bucky looked thoughtful. “Next time we visit we’ll need to tear it down so that former operations can’t be picked back up.”

Bucky looked over at Steve, a smirk on his lips. “When you were selling me on this whole mob lifestyle you didn’t mention going up against a buncha evil scientists in green suits.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “I never tried to sell you on this lifestyle, Buck. You followed me cluckin’ around like a mother hen.”

Bucky shrugged, unconcerned with the comparison.

“‘Sides”, Steve continued, “HYDRA has never run like much of a mob organization. They have the superiority complex of gods walking the earth among swine. Their ties and beliefs are so rooted in ancient mythos that they’re practically a cult organization. ‘Cut off one head and two more shall take its place.’”

Tony began pacing again. “So what I’m hearing is that HYDRA are the big bad villains and you all are the heroes for hire?” He stopped near Bucky, shooting him a weary look. “I’m guessing you want more explosives like the ones I used to escape.”

Bucky simply nodded.

Thor spoke quietly from his seat. “We must be swift with our actions, survivors would only greaten the chance for regrouping. While I am loathe to take the lives of others, even in this business, there is much at stake if we allow these men to walk away with their wits about them.”

Everyone in the room was silent, all eyes on Tony. The genius spoke, fidgeting in his spot. “What? Don’t look at me, pretend I’m not here. Why are we looking at me?”

“You have expressed trouble when the loss of life has been brought up in the past,” Steve responded. He folded his hands on the table. “I need to make sure you know what’s going to happen and agree to help without making trouble.”

“HYDRA is your thing. Not mine,” Tony said with an air of nonchalance that was only partly convincing. “All I care about is holding Obie accountable for whatever he’s done.”

Steve and Tony eyed each other, both unwilling to back down, until a throat cleared, breaking them from whatever that little display had been.

“We come bearing news,” Clint said cheerily, walking in the door behind a less enthused Natasha. Steve watched as Nat tossed her fake Stark Industries badge on the table and folded herself down into a chair quietly. Clint followed her example and took a seat next to her. “A lot of it’s not good,” he added. “Well, none of it is, but there is quite a bit.”

Natasha pulled out a thumb drive from her pocket and handed it to Tony. “I’m not sure how much of that you’ll want to see, Stark.” When Tony just stared between her and the drive, she continued. “JARVIS says hi by the way and that he’s rather pleased to learn that you are, in fact, okay.” Nat turned away when Tony visibly swallowed. “He wanted us to inform you that the bots are doing fine and he’s been keeping things updated and ready for your return.”

“I—“ Tony swallowed hard again, shook his head as if to clear it. He folded the drive in his fist and  focused his eyes on some point over Natasha’s head. “What’s on the drive?”

Natasha exchanged a long look with Clint, who shrugged his shoulders and gestured for her to go on. She reached down and pulled the brief case she’d been carrying up onto the table. “We were able to print off some of the more relevant pieces, things we thought you’d want to know about first.” She stood up from her chair and made her way to where Tony stood, passing the pages over with a solemn expression. “You aren’t going to like what you see,” she stated, squeezing his shoulder for a fraction of a second before pulling back.

Steve stood before he realized he was moving, making his way toward Tony where he placed a hand on the man’s shoulder and steered him until he was sat in an empty chair. Tony looked at Steve in surprise when he didn’t immediately remove his hand but Steve ignored him in favor of addressing the others. “Clear the room. Whatever it is, Tony doesn’t need us looking over his shoulder as he catches up. We’ll reconvene in a few hours.”

Steve watched as the others left, Bucky placing his arm around Natasha’s shoulders, a kiss to her temple and a suggestion of relaxing for a bit as they made their way out of the room.

When the room was empty, Steve made to pull his hand away. “I’ll be around.”

Tony grabbed his hand before he got too far, then let go as if it burned. “Just—you can stay.”

The blond didn’t question it, just took the seat at Tony’s side, watched and waited. He noticed the slight shake to Tony’s hand as he reached for the first file folder. The brunet stared at the folder briefly as if willing it to disappear from his grasp or not be filled to the brim with answers to questions he’d probably agonized over these past weeks.

“Stark,” Steve said, voice softer than intended.

Tony opened the folder and began reading. From what Steve could see they contained older looking documents, communications records, transactions and purchase orders. Tony swallowed roughly a few times, squeezed his eyes shut momentarily before forcing them back open to continue reading.

Steve didn’t speak, didn’t dare breathe too loud, instead waiting with baited breath until Tony was ready to clue him in.

When Tony did speak, Steve was almost startled, his voice breaking the silence like a whip. “Stane,” he began, voice hoarse, “Steve, he’s—he didn’t tip HYDRA off and have them do his dirty work for him. They—he is.” He spit the words out as if they left a nasty taste in his mouth. “He’s one of them.” Tony went tense and then limp almost immediately after, his voice quiet. “I never knew. Never suspected. I didn’t even know that HYDRA existed and I called myself a futurist. This whole time he’s—he knew. He saw me with Bucky—“ Tony turned flipped through the pages, face pale. “He knew who you are. Has been trying to keep me under his thumb, under their thumb the whole time. When I said I was getting out of the weapons business, he had them take me to their warehouse to break me until I was forced to make keep making weapons. Thought they could get me to tell them where you were as a bonus.”

Tony pushed the papers away until they were scattered. “He’s been trying to make me a part of a war I didn’t even know existed. God—these emails alone— and I did nothing.“

“This is not on you, Stark. This isn’t—“

Tony cut him off with a self-depreciating laugh. “This man was more than my mentor, Steve. He was like a father to me. He was there for me when my parents died in that crash. He was there for me even before that—My dad was…not the best father. He was never happy with the things I took interest in, with my accomplishments. He never hugged me or told me he was proud of me or that he fucking loved me.” Tony’s breath stuttered, eyes filled but not spilling over. “Obie did though. He told me he was proud, looked impressed every time I showed him something new. He told me I was going to be a great leader for the company, prepared me for the day when I’d take over more than my dad ever did. He was my role model, the person I looked up to most and this is what I’m left with. His interest in me only extended as far as what I could do for him. Not me, but what my brain could produce and how many billions of dollars each new idea brought in. That’s all I was to him. It’s all I’m good for.”

Steve opened his mouth to argue, before shutting it with a snap. Anything he said on the contrary would sound empty when the only reason they were helping Tony was because of what he promised them he could create. Steve felt guilt eating away at him but couldn’t afford to lose focus because of it. This was a job and Tony was the best one to help them get it done.

“Men like Obie—their hearts are black as their hands are red. They think the value of their person is determined by the amount of money in their banks and are incapable of forming connections with anyone or anything. He wasn’t just incapable of loving you, Stark. He’s incapable of loving anything that wasn’t power.”

Tony shook his head and grimaced. “Keep your friends rich, your enemies rich, and wait to find out which is which.”

“That is probably the most jaded thing I’ve ever heard you say,” Steve declared.

Tony just side eyed him. “People will do anything for a person with the money, or the person that brings in the money for them. I should have known Obie wasn’t any different.” Tony scoffed and pulled one of the folders back to him. “My dad always said having too much heart was a sure way to destruction.”

“Living that way won’t bring you any happiness either.”

“Happiness is an illusion. Use it like a cloak to cover up the rotten bits.” Tony opened the folder and Steve was surprised to see a newspaper clipping, one declaring the death of Tony’s parents. Tony’s hands gripped the page hard enough to wrinkle it at the edges, his face bone white.

Tony placed the wrinkled page neatly back in the folder before shutting it again, his breathing off, heavy and paced as if he were trying to control it. His jaw was clenched, eyes squeezed shut.

“What is it?”

Tony opened and closed his mouth a few times before speaking, “Obie ordered a hit on my parents. It wasn’t an accident. It was HYDRA.” Tony’s chair fell back with a bang as he stood up. “Fuck!” he yelled, kicking the table as hard as he could, causing some of the pages to float down to the floor. “They were friends! He killed my parents and they were friends! He made it look like a goddamn accident all because he thought I needed a fucking push, old blood out new blood in. At least I would be easier to control than dad.”

Steve stood up slowly, took a cautious step toward the other man. “Tony, look at me.”

Tony did, eyes burning with rage beyond that of which Steve had thought the younger man capable of. “Do it.”

Steve blinked. “Do what?”

Tony took one heavy breath, held it and then let it out. “Kill Obie.”

*****

Steve resisted the urge to let his head fall heavily into his hands and instead settled on rolling his eyes, sure that he’d never met another human being that left him feeling exasperated more often than not. “Some other time, Stark,” he said shortly, shifting in his seat for the fifth time in under a minute.

Tony just shoved the black shirt further under his nose. “Come ooooon. Just try it on. I promise I’ll leave you alone once I do a few tests.”

Steve looked from his work up to Tony’s wide brown eyes and knew himself defeated. He pushed himself up from his desk and held out his hand for the garment.

Tony all but thrust the shirt into his outstretched hand, expression gleeful and triumphant. Steve took his time inspecting the fabric for himself before peeling off the shirt he was wearing and replacing it with the one Tony had apparently fabricated. Steve ran his hand down the material on his chest, rolling his shoulders back and forward. “This fits nicely. Comfortable, doesn’t seem to hinder any movements.” Steve fingered the fabric at his waist. “It feels good.”

He glanced up just in time to catch Tony swallow hard, eyes rolled toward the ceiling.

“Mmhh.” A few minutes passed, in which time Steve tried to decide if he should snap Tony out of whatever place he’d fallen into or let it run its course, before Tony jerked his eyes back to Steve and began circling him, grabbing at the fabric in between recording voice notes.

Tony laid his palm flat on Steve’s stomach, pulling it away almost as quickly as he’d placed it there. He muttered under his breath, “How do you not have a girlfriend?”

Steve raised a single brow. “What makes you think that I don’t”

The genius merely fell back on his heel and gave Steve a look so full of disbelief that Steve felt just a little bit offended.

Steve shrugged, let his shoulder fall. “I just don’t.”

Tony snorted. “Well that’s a loaded answer if I ever heard one. Come on, Captain. Tell me about her.”

Steve opened his mouth, snapped it shut, and then opened it again, sure that he didn’t want to tell Tony  and yet he heard his voice, quiet but strong, falling away from him. “She was amazing. Feisty and strong, funny, she didn’t take shit from anyone. So independent, never needed anyone else to take care of her, even me.” Steve paused, the familiar lump in his throat restricting his words just the slightest bit. “We missed our window, I guess. Or maybe there was never a window in the first place. Too many things were happening then, all at once.” Steve let his eyes fall to the compass that still sat on his bookshelf, the one that held her picture. “She eventually left, and nobody blamed her, me least of all. This wasn’t the life she had wanted for herself. It’s not the life anyone sane really wants. Peggy found a way out, lord knows you only get very few chances, and she took it. She moved back to England last I heard.”

When he was done speaking he noticed that Tony had gotten a vest on him, busy snapping it in place as Steve’s words trickled into silence. Tony’s eyes flickered up to meet Steve’s as he tugged the vest into its proper place. “You miss her.”

Steve nodded. “Everyday.”

Tony did another circuit around Steve. “Would you go back now? Say everything was taken care of here for good, that everything was in working order and it was possible to live some normal apple pie lifestyle, would you go to her?”

Steve let the silence take over as he thought, unsure of the answer even though he’d thought of it plenty of times before. Steve shifted when Tony’s hand ran down his back, from shoulder to the dip in his back, and took a deep breath. “Probably not,” he admitted. “I don’t think that life is one we were meant to have together. I’ll always love her, but I can’t spend my life wondering ‘what if’. Brooklyn is my world. There are things here that I’m not willing to give up and there are things there that she’s not willing to give up either. This is where life brought us both. It’s where we’re meant to be for whatever reason.”

“And you’re okay with that?” Tony asked, a challenge in his voice as he made his way to stand in front of Steve again.

“My friends—my family. They make me okay with it.” And it was the truth. Without them Steve would have been frozen in time and alone a long time ago.

Tony reached out, hands playing along the neckline of his vest, breath just barely brushing against Steve’s neck. “This is all becoming very afterschool special. I didn’t know you had it in ya, Cap.”

Tony’s hand moved to rest on Steve’s pulse point and the blond felt his breath stutter just a little bit as his heart picked up speed. Steve scrambled to retrieve the reply he’d had on the tip of his tongue, but found nothing but a chasm of empty space where his vocabulary usually was. He was still scrambling for an answer when Tony glanced up at him from under his lashes, eyes questioning.

Steve swallowed as subtly as he could and gently nudged Tony a step back. “I think we’re good.”

Tony just shrugged at him and smiled. “It looks good. I mean, I’m still trying to work out how much of that is my genius and how much is your body, but—A+ all around. For now at least. The others still have to try theirs on but I’m liking my odds so far I—“

Steve cut Tony off before he could work himself up to a truly impressive ramble. “Thank you, Stark.”

Tony let his gaze fall to the wall just over Steve’s shoulder, one hand moving to scratch at his chin. “It’s nothing. This is what I do.”

“But not what you want to do.”

Tony shook his head and reached out to finger the shirts material at Steve’s shoulder. “This, I don’t mind. Protecting people is the part of my job I’d always liked. I just realized the weapons I made weren’t doing so much protecting as they were needlessly killing.” Tony pulled his hand away slowly and started making his way around Steve’s office, hand trailing over anything within his reach.

Steve watched him as he stopped in front of one of Steve’s bookcases that lined the walls. Tony pulled out Steve’s worn copy of the The Hobbit with a raised brow as he flipped carefully through the pages. “You know,” Tony said, apropos to nothing, “I used to think Pepper was the one for me.” Tony set the book carefully back in its place and trailed his way over to Steve’s desk until he could prop himself up on the edge. “I wanted—I thought I wanted the kind of life that everyone dreams about. She’s always seemed so self assured and put together and balanced. I wanted that, I wanted whatever it was that made her that way to rub off on me somehow. Lord knows how I got her to go out with me once let alone date me for as long as she did. I don’t blame her for not staying. I mean, she never really left, she’s still one of my best friends, but I don’t blame her for ending our relationship. I’m the genius but I’m also selfish. I would have held on until I ruined us. She was smart enough to pull away while we could still hold on to what made us and us to begin with.”

Steve didn’t know what to say, didn’t really understand why Tony was telling him any of this to begin with but unwilling to say the wrong thing and ruin whatever was going on here.

“I guess—the connection I’m trying to make here is that while you were selfless enough to let your girl go, give her the space she asked for, I wasn’t—I’m not. When she left I clutched at anything she could give me even at the expense of her. That’s why people like you, Cap, despite what you do, you deserve any piece of happiness this life has out there for you, even if it means leaving things behind to get it.”

Steve took cautious, slow, steps until he could lean against his desk at Tony’s side. “And people like you…what do they deserve? Nothing?”

Tony lifted his shoulders and let them drop in a poor imitation of a shrug.

Steve folded his arms over his chest, “See, I just don’t buy that. This whole people like you and people like me bullshit. If you ask me, I’d say I haven’t exactly given you much kindness since you’ve been here, haven’t given you much to base this opinion that I somehow deserve anymore than you or the next fella. We all make mistakes and we all have moments where we’re selfish, that’s not something you invented, no matter how much genius you got floating around in that big brain of yours, Tony.”

Tony’s eyes were wide as he stared at Steve, a smile edging its way through his moments of insecurity.

“You know—“ the brunet said, voice careful, like he was afraid to ruin whatever moment they were having, “you can call me Tony more often. I mean, it sounds good coming from your mouth.”

Steve watched as color flooded along the back of Tony’s neck and up to his cheeks. Tony coughed into his hand, eyes turned away from Steve. “Or, not. Stark is fine too. I—“

Steve cut him off with a grin. “Tony.”

The genius smiled, seemingly despite himself, and nudged Steve with his elbow. “Look, I just think that given the chance, you should go after whatever it is that makes you happy instead of worrying about everyone else around you. You’re a good guy, Ca—Steve. Even when taking into account all the times you’ve been an ass.”

Steve tried to futilely wipe the amused smile off his face. “That’s not how I operate. Buck swears it’s some sort of insane hero complex, which is ironic considering the life I lead, but that’s not it exactly. What I wanted and what I want are worlds apart now, there’s no use dwelling on the past when I wouldn’t change a thing that lead me here. Even the part where I somehow adopted a tiny annoying robot created by a tiny annoying genius stowaway.”

“Hey!” Tony exclaimed, mock affronted. “ I am not tiny. I’m—I’m compact. And certain parts of me are anything but tiny I’ll have you know.”

Steve snorted. “Trust me, I know. I’ve seen the size of your head.”

Tony shoved at Steve’s shoulder gently, a smile in his eyes. “You know what? I take it back. You’re a jerk and I hope you have a miserable life.”

Steve squeezed at Tony’s thigh, near his knee. “Whatever you say, kid.”

Steve watched as the grin on Tony’s face dimmed, catching something flash in his eyes before it was hidden away like so many other things Tony tended to hide. “Right.”

Steve opened his mouth, ready to ask what was wrong, when he was interrupted by a perpetually amused voice. “A little birdy told me there were some Kevlar vests being tested out down here. That true?”

Both men turned their attention to Clint who took a step back. “Or I can come back later? What did I just walk in on?”

“Nothing,” Tony said, a little too quickly. He plastered a smile on his face. “It’s true. They’re here, the good Captain’s got one on as you can see. You’re welcome to try yours on as well.”

“Sweet!” Clint grabbed the shirt and vest Tony held out to him. “Hey, guys,” he shouted out the door, “it’s true. Stark has presents for us!”

It took only moments before the others appeared, shuffling their way quickly into Steve’s office.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you guys were waiting impatiently nearby for these presents.” Tony sorted through the box of fabric. “I guess we can consider this an early Christmas present. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”

“Nu-uh, this doesn’t get you out of getting us actual Christmas presents when the time comes,” Clint said, voice muffled by the shirt he was wrestling over his head.

Tony rolled his eyes and continued handing out the garments, first to Natasha and Bucky who both accepted theirs with an almost analytical silence, before tossing Sam and Thor’s items to them, both of whom smiled sincerely at the gifts.

“This is marvelous craftsmanship, Tony,” Thor chimed in, a beaming smile as he ran his hands over the fabric of the vest. “Truly remarkable.”

Clint finally snapped his vest into place and struck a heroic pose. “Again, as remarkable as this feels, which, yeah nice, I feel like we aren’t emphasizing how this doesn’t get him out of Christmas presents. Come one people, personalized arrows!”

Tony’s grin faltered. “Who said I’ll still be around when this is all said and done?” Tony muttered. “I’m not exactly a part of this whole—mob family you’ve got going on. I don’t play a part here.”

Bucky pulled his shirt over his head with a slight frown. “You help with my arm.”

Tony made his way around the room, pulling pieces into to place and noting where things could use an adjustment. “That’s not something I have to do from here, exactly.”

Steve felt something heavy drop in his stomach at Tony’s words. “We’re not forcing you to go and we’re not forcing you to stay. Once this is all said in done, that’ll be your choice, but you should know that you haven’t hindered our ability to do our jobs in any way. You’ve been useful, Tony.”

Steve realized his error the second Tony’s face soured. “Of course I’m useful. I’m giving you guys the best material money can buy. You’ve had access to JARVIS, the most advanced piece of technology to date—so yeah. I guess you could say I’m useful, but not necessary.”

The silence in the room was stifling.

“That’s not what I meant,” Steve said, voice both too quiet and too loud.

Tony tugged at a piece of Sam’s vest just a little too hard before turning on his heel and walking back toward the box he’d carried all the garments in. “This is a business deal, Captain. Let’s not pretend it’s anything more than that.”

Steve narrowed his eyes at Tony even as he spoke to the rest of his team. “Give us a moment, would you?”

The other’s shuffled out of the room as if their asses were on fire, leaving just an irate Steve with an upset moody genius to handle. “What the hell crawled up your ass, Tony. Everything is fine and then—“

Tony snorted in derision. “Right. Everything is fine. What do you care anyway? As long as you all get what you want, then we’re all happy. End of story.”

“Bullshit,” Steve snapped. “Be a man and say what you mean, not whatever will get this conversation over with the fastest.”

Tony made no move to speak and Steve moved until he stood in front of the door. “How about this. Neither of us are leaving this room until you speak up, and trust me when I say I have nowhere else to be.”

Tony kicked the box hard across the floor. “What the hell do you want me to say, Rogers? Hey, this has been a not so bad experience even though once again I’m getting close to people who only want me for what I can give them. I’m not looking to make the same stupid mistakes over and over again!”

Steve let his mouth drop open in exasperation. “This? This is what you’re upset about? You think we want you for only the thing you can make with your two hands?” Steve wanted to shake Tony by the shoulders until he could knock whatever it was that made the other man think so poorly of himself and everyone around him out of his head. “Maybe you were here for what you could do for us in the beginning but so was everyone else. Natasha, Clint, Sam, Thor—the only reason they were brought in was for the talents they possessed. You think that’s why they’re still walking around here today? You think they’d stay if that were the case? We care about you, Tony.”

Tony scoffed, eyes directed firmly at the ground.

Steve almost shouted, took a step toward the other man before halting his steps before he could reach him and do something irrational. “It’s true. Whether you believe it or not. We infiltrated your company and the warehouse you were held captive in despite the danger—“

Tony balled his hands into fists at his sides, eyes coming up only to narrow at Steve. “Because I asked you to! Because I paid you to.”

Steve took a breath, tried to calm himself. “Do you think Natasha was pretending to be angry, to feel upset when she had to share the information they found with you? Do you think she’d still let it bother her if she didn’t care even a little bit about what happens to you? Do you expect me to believe that that the friendship you’ve developed with Bucky isn’t real? That he only trusts you so completely with his well being that he took a nap the last time you were working on his arm because you made him a new gun? What about all the nights I’ve caught you, Sam, Clint and Thor piled together playing Mario cart on the couch? Was that all a product of the thing’s you’ve made for them?” Steve took another halting step forward. “If I or anyone else didn’t want you here, you wouldn’t be here, in my office and in my home, no matter what it is or was that you offered me.”

Steve tried to pretend he didn’t see the glistening in the Tony’s eyes, that it didn’t make him want to do something like grip the other man's shoulder, or worse, hug him.

Tony took a deep breath and deflated. “What do you want me to say? I—I don’t know who to believe, Steve. I can’t afford to be the naïve guy again. So much of my life has been twisted and built on lies. Trust isn’t just something I can give away so easily anymore.”  

“I understand that, Tony. And I know it’s not something I can help you figure out, this is something you’ll have to decide on your own, but you will figure it out. For what it’s worth, I trust you, and I trust that you’ll do what’s right for you when the time comes.”

“You haven’t known me very long.” Tony tipped his head to the side, mouth held in a thin line. “When I was with HYDRA, I wanted to sell you and anyone else they asked for out so many times, tell them anything they wanted to hear just so they would leave me alone.”

Steve made the last few steps so that he was close enough to place a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “But you didn’t. You were stronger than them, better than them. You escaped and you made your way here all on your own, Stark. That’s something only a small few can accomplish.” Steve squeezed once and let his hand fall. “You have more friends in your corner than you think-- Pepper, Rhodey, us – all we want is to keep you safe. That’s what we’re in this for now, not what you can make us, but for you.”

Tony didn’t say anything for minutes that stretched on for what felt like forever and Steve started to worry that he’d said the wrong thing again. When Tony spoke it was almost a relief. “You’re annoying sometimes, Cap.”

Steve let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. “I learned if from you.”

Tony glared up at Steve, but with no actual malice behind I, and stuck out his tongue until Steve laughed.

“So, what now?” Tony asked, looking unsure of himself. The way the brunet went from emotion to emotion was truly a feat, one that was leaving Steve with whiplash.

“We do what we have been doing. We help you seek justice and restore order to your kingdom, so to speak. And who knows, if we pull this off as well as we hope, then it might make an excellent superhero story.”

Tony smiled, small but sincere. “Superheroes huh? As long as I get to be the one with all the cool armor--- and flying! Flying is a must…maybe rollerblades. An entire suit of battle ready armor ready to swoop in and save the day with science and technology that would make the smartest men to ever live cry tears of envy.”

Steve shook his head, amused. “And what would be call you, oh knight in shining armor? Sir Lancelot? Iron Lad?”

Tony snapped his fingers in Steve’s face. “Iron Man, more like. It has a certain ring to it.”

Steve could see it, strangely enough, Tony flying through the air in a suit of armor. “I like it.”

Tony nodded. “Me too.”

They were both silent again, though this one was shorter than and not as tense as the last.

Tony, gaze somewhere over Steve’s left shoulder, sighed. “How am I supposed to know what the right choice is?”

Steve shrugged helplessly. “I can’t answer that for you. You have to make that decision on your own. Just—do what’s best for you.”

The two stood across from each other, Tony’s eyes unreadable no matter how hard Steve tried.

“Okay,” Tony said, and that was enough to hold Steve over for the time being.