Blood and metal and cave-damp, forced down into the barrel, water in his lungs and sparks through his ribs but he's holding the battery to his stomach, lines of pain digging into his fingers, don't drop it in don't drop it in and he just wants to live—
Tony wakes breathing water, and opens his eyes to his bedroom. He collapses flat in bed, drenched in sweat and gasping, puts a hand against his chest to feel the hum of the arc reactor and the pounding of his heart beneath it.
Jarvis responds, as he has so many times before: "Sir, you are in Avengers Tower in New York City in the United States of America. Your symptoms are solely the result of adrenaline. The chest piece is functioning normally. There is no new damage."
"Time?" Tony says, barely audible and swallowing around the memory of water. He looks around. "Pepper?"
"The time is four twenty seven in the morning. Ms. Potts is in Los Angeles."
"Right," he says, because she left last night. He knows this.
Lights come up around him, slow and tinged in blue, so different from the cave lights. Workshop light, always the best kind of light.
"Are you with us, sir?" Jarvis is a machine; he can ask this question.
Tony runs his fingers in a circle, smooth metal under his fingertips, wipes his forehead with his other hand, and gets out of bed.
"Always," Tony says.
Forwards into the spray of glass and snow, blood and sharp and ice around his arms raised to protect his face, the cracking underneath shaking everything and the wave is inescapable, explosions behind him and water in his lungs and freezing—
Steve wakes breathing water, and opens his eyes to his bedroom. He flings himself out of bed, half-tangled in bedding and drenched in sweat, arms out and flailing.
He stumbles and hits the wall and forces himself to stop. "Jarvis," he says. "What year is it?" Jarvis doesn't judge or pity, no matter how often he has to ask.
"Two thousand and twelve," Jarvis says, just a statement of fact in a calm voice, and Steve slides down the wall to rest his arms on his knees. He can still feel the pressure of it, the ice around him. He digs his fingers into his biceps.
"Are you with us, Captain Rogers?"
Steve looks over his arms at the room, the lights coming on around him to highlight everything in soothing gold.
"I don't know," Steve says.
They all live in Stark Tower now – Avengers Tower – whenever they're in the city, at least. Clint and Natasha leave on missions fairly often, though they never last long, and Thor balances his time between New York, New Mexico, and… outer space. Even Tony travels regularly, to business meetings and industry events around the world, or to be with Pepper in California.
Steve and Bruce are always here. Bruce likes routines, and the lab space, and the fortified walls; Steve's got nowhere else to go.
It was Tony's idea, actually, to have them all live here, which Steve found surprising at the time. Tony designed quarters for each of them without consulting them first, then gave everyone the most casual and flippant invitation possible to move in. Steve's not sure if he'll ever understand Tony Stark, but he's grateful to be out of his SHIELD-provided apartment.
Besides, his quarters are pretty unbelievable. His bedroom is huge. The gym is amazing, built to handle Tony in the armor, and the library is extensive, both the collection of normal books and what's accessible through Jarvis. Steve's been working his way through decades of history and fiction. He even tried some science, and was somewhat surprised to find it enjoyable to read, though he had to take notes during some of the more technical parts. He'd like to at least be able to follow along with some of the conversations Tony and Bruce have, even if he can't contribute.
He also spent some of his completely ridiculous amounts of back pay and special pay on a bunch of art supplies (and boy, are art stores ever different in the future). He felt guilty for days about the sheer expense of it, but, well, he has a lot of time on his hands in between missions, and he does have the money now. He recognizes the need for an outlet for himself, because mental health is as important as physical health, right? He's always used art to get his head together.
The Avengers complete a few missions, all of them together or sometimes minus one or two, and it's shocking how easy it is to work together in a crisis. When push comes to shove, they just click and they get it done. It's one of the most perfect combination of skill sets that Steve's ever seen.
And now that they have some downtime, now that they see each other around the dinner table and wandering the halls in street clothes, they've sort of grown on each other as people too. They have their friction, sure, but it reminds Steve of the Howling Commandos, the way that camaraderie between wildly different people is forged through shared experience, though he tries not to dwell on the past.
It's good, living here. If Steve still wakes up convinced this was all a dream and ends up spending half the night shaking with grief, well, it's better than it was before, and that's something, isn't it?
Steve wanders through all of the areas of the Tower he has clearance for, and it's pretty incredible all around. The research labs are interesting sometimes, though most of it is either over Steve's head or involves a lot of looking at computer screens where nothing much seems to be happening, or into microscopes and other equipment, where again, nothing much seems to be happening. And they aren't really places that Steve feels comfortable just hanging out in anyway. Too much sterile white. Bruce tries to make him feel welcome, but he can tell he's only getting in the way for the employees who are just trying to do their jobs.
Tony's workshop is something else altogether. It's this bizarre combination of metalworking shop and high tech showroom, with images made out of light floating in the air and the sharp heat scent of molten metal and electricity.
Steve's used to Jarvis, who is really just a person without a body who watches over the house. Jarvis has assured him that he doesn't watch them all the time; Steve doesn't really believe him, but he doesn't want to insult Jarvis by questioning his motives. Tony trusts Jarvis, and that's enough for Steve. He's got nothing to hide anyway.
He doesn't meet the robots until the first time he goes into Tony's workshop and a robot comes over to him and… says hello. "Hi," Steve says, as it bobs up and down and makes whirring noises.
"That's Dummy," Tony says, running his hand through his hair. "The most ridiculous, useless – are you petting him?"
Steve pats the robot on what seems to be its – his – head and Dummy moves some of his parts in acknowledgement and then turns and rolls over to the coffee machine. Steve just smiles at Tony's incredulous look.
"Right," Tony says. "You're converting them already. Soon they'll be bringing you snacks and following you around like puppies instead of doing their jobs. Nobody can resist Captain America, can they?"
Steve ignores this in favor of gawking at the images floating all around the workshop. At first he thought they were screens, like on the windows and the TV and computers all over the tower, but there's nothing physical to some of them at all.
"Wow," Steve says, turning in a slow circle to look at it all. "This is… incredible. All of these are things you're working on?"
"Yup." Tony sticks his hands in his pockets. "Some of it's proprietary Stark Tech or experimental stuff for… other people. You can keep a secret, can't you?"
"Of course I can." Steve holds up a hand; his fingers pass right through the image. "How do you work with them? Or are they just visual?"
"Jarvis, pull up something other than the most recent – sure, Mark V, why not. And explode – yeah. You see? I use them to see all the layers, fit them all together." Tony starts poking at the little image of his armor that comes up, and it responds to his touch by moving and enlarging and expanding to show all of the systems inside of it.
"There's so much going on inside," Steve says, leaning in to look closer. "I hadn't thought about it."
"Yeah, that's where I earn my genius cred, all the moving parts. Here, go ahead and look at stuff. You pull it like this. You can even enlarge it and wear bits if you feel like trying it on. Jarvis, run this in a sandbox so Cap can play."
"Done, sir," Jarvis says.
Tony nods at Steve. "Try it now."
Steve pinches air between his fingers and moves light. The little Iron Man spins and the shoulder piece comes off to follow his fingers. It's amazing. "I don't want to… hurt it."
Tony grins at him. "It's a hologram, Steve, you can't hurt it. It doesn't have feelings."
"You know what I mean," Steve says, echoing the smile. He's pretty sure that Tony's genuinely amused and not making fun of him, although it's still hard to tell for certain with him.
"Jarvis is babysitting, he won't let you do anything permanent," Tony says with a wave of his hand. "And it's the Mark V anyway, I'm on to bigger and better things, or better at least because bigger is not always better. Here, I have shit to do, the auto-assembly is having a hiccup and Rhodey's been after me for weeks, even though it's his own fault for letting anyone else – anyway, go ahead and poke around, I'll just be over here."
"Are you sure?"
Tony looks at him with his head tilted to one side. "Course I'm sure. I wouldn't have brought you down here if I didn't want – if I minded you having a look around. Go nuts."
"Thank you, Tony," Steve says, trying to put his sincere appreciation in his voice. Tony looks away and shrugs, pulling on a pair of goggles and opening a drawer to grab tools. Steve watches him for a few seconds, and then starts to dismantle the Mark V with his hands. He's completely absorbed in it almost instantly. It reminds him of making art, or rather, deconstructing how someone else's art is made, which is even more interesting in a way.
"Can I get something to compare this to?" Steve asks after a while. Tony doesn't seem to hear him, bent over a piece of the understructure of the armor and muttering to Dummy or himself, but Jarvis answers.
"This is the Mark IV and the Mark VI, if you'd like to see the progression of the designs." The two new armors appear to either side of the first one in front of him, then rotate and come apart to match the Mark V. Steve walks around them to see from all angles and leans in to look at the fine detail.
The Mark V is lighter and apparently becomes a suitcase, which is mindboggling. He's seen the Mark VI in action, so he just pulls apart the outer shell to see the pockets where all the weapons and other systems fit. Comparing the Mark IV to the Mark VI is the most fascinating part, because both are full battle armors and so he can really see what was discarded and added and modified along the way.
He glances up when he pauses to stretch, and catches Tony looking at him strangely, goggles on his head and a tiny blowtorch in his hand.
"You're actually really interested, aren't you?" Tony says.
How long has Tony been watching him? Steve rubs the back of his neck and tries not to feel awkward. "Well, yes. I wouldn't be down here if I wasn't interested."
"You're not an engineer."
"I couldn't put this together myself but I can appreciate good design," Steve says. "These are beautiful, the form and the efficiency… the way everything fits. I can admire how well they're put together."
"Um," Tony says. "Thank you?"
For all that he's constantly hailed as a genius and for all his seeming arrogance, Tony has no idea how to take a sincere compliment sometimes. It sort of hurts when Steve thinks too much about it.
"I mean it," Steve says instead of verbalizing any of that train of thought.
Tony sets the blowtorch down, leaning on his elbows on the table. "Everyone thought you'd be freaked out by technology. Glad to see them proved wrong."
"Everyone forgets that I saw a lot of technological advances in my time, and I worked with front of the line equipment in the war." Steve shrugs. "Plus, I've fought Red Skull and an alien army, among other bizarre things. I'm adaptable. I guess it's more the cultural stuff that gets me."
"Like what?" Tony asks, and he actually seems interested.
"Reality TV," Steve sighs. Thor loves reality TV, but Steve can't stand it. He gets embarrassed on behalf of the people on it, even when they're completely shameless themselves.
Tony laughs, and Steve smiles and continues, encouraged. "The commercialization of Christmas. Also, paparazzi and tabloids."
"I can't imagine a life without tabloids," Tony says. "You had gossip published in your day though."
"It's not that it's gossip, it's how vicious it's gotten. Like the things they write about you."
Tony winces. "You've been reading my press? And you're still here?"
"What? Of course. It's not… it makes me angry," Steve flounders for a moment and tries to explain while Tony stares at him blankly. "That they… they want to tear you down when you're trying to do good. They follow you around and try to catch you failing, at anything, and then gloat about it. It's sick. People are allowed to make mistakes. You're a good man, but all they want to write about is your faults." He stops, flustered.
"I—" Tony cuts himself off with a shake of his head. His one hand comes up to tap on the arc reactor. "I don't get you, Rogers."
"It's Steve," Steve says, and then the alarm sounds and they both jump, look at each other, and head in opposite directions to suit up.
Steve's in the gym at 3 a.m. again, according to Jarvis.
It's not like Tony's tracking the guy's sleep patterns on purpose, but this is the third time this week. He drums his fingers on the desk, and then goes to put on his workout gear. It is his gym, after all, and he's well known to keep strange hours. It won't seem like creepy stalker behavior if he just so happens to drop by.
"What'd that bag ever do to you?" he says when he gets there, leaning against the doorframe.
Steve grabs the punching bag to stop it swinging and turns. "Hey, Tony. You're up too? I thought it was just me." His genuine little smile is kind of endearing.
"Just finishing up something in the shop, thought I might try and physically exhaust myself until my brain shuts off." Tony pushes off the wall and heads toward Steve.
Steve sighs. "Wish I could still do that." He glances at Tony, then continues after a second. "I don't need as much sleep as most people. Serum. And it's… difficult sometimes."
"I get that," Tony says, because what he was working on was better protection for the suit against the vacuum of space, and that leads to bad, bad thoughts. He pauses, and then says ever so casually: "Want to spar?"
"Sure," Steve says, and Tony lets out a breath.
"You remember what we did with reflecting my repulsors off your shield? Want to practice actually aiming it?"
Steve steps away from the punching bag and gives him that little 'I'm secretly delighted by controlled violence, but I'm too polite to say so' smile. "Let me go get suited."
It is just so easy to work with Steve, whether it's sparring or fighting aliens. Always has been, even when they were in the middle of tearing each other to shreds on the helicarrier – as soon as they had a problem to solve they fell in and fixed it. Tony would be suspicious, but you can't be suspicious of Steve.
Tony's never been good at taking orders – well, except in the fun way – but Steve is worlds better than him when it comes to battle tactics and the details of strategy. He can respect that. He's got Pepper to handle the boring parts of the company, and now Steve to handle the boring parts of superheroing.
Okay, that might be a little dismissive. But when the alternative is 'how are you actually everything good I've ever heard about you?' he's going to go with being a little dismissive.
Nobody's ever been able to keep up with Tony, not in anything he cares about. Besides Jarvis, of course, but Jarvis was built for that. And now in battle or when strategizing, Steve's either right beside him, right behind him, or right ahead of him. It's… refreshing. And intriguing.
Also, Steve leaping and spinning all around the gym laughing like a kid and reflecting repulsor blasts all over is a hell of a thing to see. That is, until he flips Tony, in the suit, and that's it, it's on.
Two nights later, Tony's in the gym lifting weights and trying to get his brain to shut up when Steve appears in the doorway.
"Want to spar?" he says.
That's where it starts, really.
It becomes something of a pattern, and other people start to join in. Clint's in there one night shooting arrows over and over and looking the kind of exhausted that Tony knows too well, and the three of them take turns making each other dodge deadly projectiles. And then there's the time that Natasha and Steve have the kind of breathtakingly fast and agile sparring session that makes Tony feel like he may as well be wearing the War Machine suit and charging into battle like a tank. Humans shouldn't be that bendy.
A dejected-looking Thor joins Tony and Steve one night, wandering in wearing a pair of plaid pajamas and clearly just looking for someone else awake to talk to. "All is not well on Asgard," he says, "but I cannot return at this time without aggravating the situation further." He sighs. "And I miss Jane."
Tony and Steve look at each other over Thor's shoulder and change their plans. It's obvious that a moping god of thunder calls for junk food and late-night TV. Funny what he and Steve agree on.
They end up watching infomercials, because that's what you do when you can't sleep and are up so late that it's early. Tony had underestimated the hilarity of watching infomercials with Thor and Steve; watching them with anyone else is never going to be the same again.
"Why would anyone need that?" Steve groans, and covers his face with his hands. "It only does the one thing! And it takes up so much space on your countertop. What's wrong with standard kitchen utensils and a little bit of elbow grease?"
"I need one," Thor announces, and Tony laughs and smacks his bicep, then pats Steve on the shoulder in consolation when Steve looks wounded.
"Aw, don't do the puppy face, Cap, I wouldn't allow that travesty in my kitchen." Tony turns back with his best apologetic expression. "Sorry, Thor."
Thor tries to look disapproving but then just grins. "You insult it, but is this not the pinnacle of Midgardian convenience technology?"
"Since when did convenience trump quality or sense?" Steve says. "Or good taste. Who designs this stuff? And the people showing these products are just disturbing. I've seen mannequins with realer looking smiles."
This is when Bruce walks in, rubbing his eyes. "Oh, hello." He squints at them. "What are you all doing up?"
"Hey buddy!" Tony calls and waves. "This is becoming like a club. Join the club, Bruce. We have the good snacks."
Bruce raises an eyebrow. "Do I even want to join your club? What is it, the pre-dawn junk food club?"
"It's the insomnia club," Steve says, and pops a chocolate covered pretzel into his mouth.
Tony turns and points at Steve. "That's good. I like it."
Tony finds him that night out on the balcony, sipping a milkshake and looking out over the city.
"Hey, Tony," Steve says without turning. "Gorgeous sunset, isn't it?"
"Yup," Tony says. Steve hides a smile; Tony hates small talk about the weather. "I have a present for you."
Steve turns to look at him. Tony practically bouncing with suppressed excitement is a little terrifying. Steve's still skittish from the time when Tony just threw a phone to him and told him to keep it – a phone which later turned out to be an unreleased, customized-for-Steve prototype worth several thousand dollars. "A present?" he says, a bit nervously.
Tony pulls a piece of paper out from behind his back and hands it to Steve. "Check it out!"
It's a poster. Which Tony has apparently, at some point today, designed and had printed.
'Avengers Insomnia Club,' the poster says. 'Most of the night, most nights, except if we're avenging stuff.' There's a row of pictures, one shot of each of the Avengers looking exhausted. They're very unflattering. Steve can't help laughing.
Under the pictures there's smaller text. 'Sparring, late-night TV and B-movies, inappropriate drinking games, amateur therapy, etc. Extended Avengers family can come too. Ask JARVIS where the party's at.'
Steve runs a finger along the poster. Family. He looks up to meet Tony's eyes. Tony's feigning nonchalance, but Steve can tell the difference now. "This is great, Tony," he says. "It's… Thank you."
"I… No problem. You're welcome." Tony rubs his chin and shrugs. "Kinda ridiculous, but fun. Team-building and all that. See me making an effort? I got Jarvis to put it up in the kitchen; everyone goes in the kitchen. Thought you might want to see it in paper first, being an old-fashioned kind of guy."
"You wanted me to see it first because you're a show-off," Steve says, not fooled for a second, and Tony grins.
"You wound me."
"The truth hurts."
They both laugh a little, and it's so good to banter with Tony without it turning into a constant guessing game about Tony's intentions, without having to guess and second-guess his own reactions. Steve looks down at the paper in his hand, at the six of them, looking just like regular people who don't get enough sleep.
He wonders what the others dream about, what thoughts keep them up and drive them out of their beds. He remembers his own relief that first night when Tony showed up, so obviously to check on him, how much it had helped, has helped again and again, just to have someone else there.
"Sir, Ms Potts is on the line," Jarvis says, breaking Steve's thoughts.
"Coming, dear," Tony says. He hesitates for half a second, then reaches out and grips Steve's shoulder before he turns and goes back inside.
Steve looks down at the poster again and smiles to himself.
Sometimes it's just the result of post-mission adrenaline and a complete lack of anything approaching a regular schedule. Villains like the night-time, therefore the Avengers work the night shift – except that bad things happen in the daytime too, so what can you do? They relax when they can, and they mostly don't pretend to be normal.
Tony knows that Pepper would prefer it if they could actually sleep together at night, but even when she's in New York she tries to keep a normal schedule, including a system of naps to get over jet-lag in the most efficient way possible, because she's Pepper and Pepper's systems are not to be fucked with. At least she's used to him being up at all hours. It's not something that's likely to ever change.
It does make it difficult when they don't see each other for most of the time she's in the city, when they get a couple hours and then she's off to California again. Or France, or Germany, or China, or wherever else on company business. Sometimes he goes with her. More and more often now, he doesn't. She's more effective without him, and he's needed here.
He sees the other Avengers all the time, and not only on missions.
Steve beats everyone at poker at two in the morning and just smirks at them. "War is mostly waiting around," he says as the rest of them stare at their cards in dismay and disbelief. Clint salutes Steve and Natasha starts swearing in several different languages.
Tony actually sleeps one night and wakes up to discover that Bruce and Steve and Natasha had an all-night baking extravaganza. They're covered in flour and giggling around the table eating muffins when he wanders into the kitchen in search of coffee, and he eats a proper breakfast for the first time in a long while. Later, there's cake.
Then there's the night Tony and Clint and Thor drink far too much beer and play Wii and are found by Steve in the morning asleep in front of the shattered TV. Tony would have bet good money that Steve would react to that by scolding them for trashing the place, but instead he just starts laughing and then he makes them waffles. Steve's kind of a weird guy.
They all spar. A lot. Even Bruce learns some hand-to-hand combat. The thought is that maybe if he feels confident that he can handle himself, the other guy will only come out for actual life-threatening situations. He's a bit skeptical, but hey, it can't hurt. Clint and Natasha teach them spy tricks – Tony's not going to be killing anyone with his thighs anytime soon, but it's definitely fun. And then there's Steve, who is quite simply the best hand-to-hand fighter Tony's ever had the pleasure of getting his ass handed to him by.
There's a lot of just hanging out, and Tony actually enjoys it, enjoys spending time with this group of dysfunctional weirdoes. He likes the peripherals too, likes talking science with Thor's crazy nerd girlfriend (crazy nerds are his people, let's be honest here), and the first time he met Darcy they got into such a vicious snarky debate that he tried to hire her on principle. It didn't work out; Jane took offense.
So, a surprising amount of the time, it's just light-hearted fun. Passing the time. And then there's the other times.
They don't really talk about it, or they refer to it offhand, like it's a joke. Sometimes you have to laugh about the things that you fear. There's only so much time you can spend freaking out when there's avenging to do, after all. It's possible that Tony has had a little too much practice at doing this alone.
Tony and Bruce are arguing about time travel at the dining room table. They seem to be enjoying it.
Steve sighs and abandons his attempts to follow the conversation – he was doing okay with the theoretical stuff, but now they're scrawling math all over the place and he's not even sure the conversation is in English anymore.
He gets up and makes more coffee, which summons Clint and Thor out of nowhere. Clint grabs two mugs of it (one black and sweet, one almost beige) and vanishes as fast as he appeared, muttering something about Natasha and exploding arrows. Thor leans on the counter beside Steve, and they sip coffee while watching Bruce and Tony. The math has spread onto the table. Steve hopes the marker isn't permanent.
"What do they discuss?" Thor asks.
"I have no idea anymore," Steve says. He winces at the tone of his voice.
Thor thumps him on the back, nearly spilling coffee everywhere. "Do not despair. The details of Jane's research are beyond my understanding, or indeed my interest, but it is of no consequence. She likes me anyway, she says."
"Everyone likes you, Thor." Steve glances over; Thor looks so concerned that Steve's got to smile. "I just feel useless when they talk like this. Give me a few days with the right books and maybe I could have something to contribute, but it seems like no matter what I do, I'm behind."
"You wish to impress him," Thor says, nodding.
"Uh," Steve says, and swallows. "What?"
Thor leans in and whispers, "Your regard is obvious, my friend. Did you think I had not noticed? Do not worry – for all of his experience, our friend is remarkably slow on the uptake when it comes to matters of the heart. I think your secret is still safe."
Steve looks over in panic, but Tony and Bruce are still absorbed in arguing. "Listen, I – I think you've got the wrong idea here."
"I know." Thor nods. "It is not my place. 'It's complicated,' as they say on the internet." He pats Steve on the back, mimes zipping his lips, and leaves.
Steve takes a deep breath.
It's just because Tony's so fascinating, like no one else he's ever met. He likes him, and admires him, and wants to know him better even when he doesn't understand him at all. Especially then. And everyone thinks that Tony's good-looking, even Natasha, though she'd never say it where Tony might hear her.
Steve's been kind of hoping he could just hold a torch for a while and then it would go away. Tony is a teammate, and in a relationship with Pepper, and even if he wasn't he could have anyone he wanted, and also, Steve's a man.
To be honest, Steve had also been kind of hoping that the unacknowledged low-level simmer of something he'd felt towards Bucky was some kind of anomaly – confusion based on their close friendship and his own inexperience with women. It's starting to seem unlikely.
He's coping mostly okay with that part of it. It's not illegal anymore, and Steve's never thought of it as immoral. It's an adjustment, sure, integrating this new knowledge into his self-image, but Steve's had a lot of practice with adjustments lately.
No, it's the particulars that are causing him problems.
He doesn't know if Tony even dates men, or if maybe he'd be like some of the soldiers Steve served with – willing enough to help each other out when stuck in the middle of nowhere with a group of men, but never speaking of it again once they were back in female company.
The thought of that makes him feel achy and hollow even as he breathes through the sharp pang of desire.
It's hopeless anyway. He would never consider causing problems for Tony and Pepper, even if there was a chance. He'll just have to wait for it to pass.
"Steve," Tony says, and Steve jumps. "Steve, tell Bruce this won't work in reality."
"How would I know?" It comes out sharper than Steve intended, and Tony blinks.
"You, uh. We were just talking about this? Weren't we? Tell me I wasn't just talking to myself when you weren't even there."
Steve's started spending a good bit of time down in Tony's workshop, sketching or reading or building things using the holograms, and talking with Tony when Tony surfaces from his work for coffee and food. He thinks that Tony modifies his music choices for him, because it's less screaming noise when he's there for more than a minute or two. Occasionally there's even something he recognizes.
It's possible that's Jarvis' doing and Tony just hasn't noticed.
"I – I have to go," Steve says, and backs out of the kitchen clutching his coffee.
"Well, that was odd," he hears Tony say.
"Hmm," says Bruce.
Steve likes Pepper.
When he first moved in, she was the one that showed him around, introduced him to Jarvis, taught him the keycodes for the gym and library, and directed him to the art store. She was endlessly kind and patient without being patronizing, at a time when if someone was the former they were probably also the latter. Also, she's driven and organized and genuinely cares about people. Genuinely cares about Tony in particular.
So he likes her.
They don't really have much in common, except for a shared interest in art and a fondness for smoothies in the morning. Sometimes they sit together over breakfast discussing art history, and it's nice.
This morning Pepper's wearing silk pajama pants and a t-shirt which is clearly not hers, slightly stretched out in a circle in the center. Not that it matters. Steve's not a prude, whatever anyone says.
He knows exactly what he's feeling, and it's not judgment.
"We should go to the gallery sometime," Pepper says, cutting up bananas and dropping them in the blender. "Tony used to try and take me, but it's no fun to go with someone who gets bored with it after five minutes."
"I'd love to," Steve says. "A bored Tony in an art gallery sounds like a recipe for disaster."
"You have no idea." Pepper shakes her head with a fond smile and Steve focuses on the raspberries he's washing until he can manage to shove the wave of jealousy and longing back down.
They go to the gallery, and they talk about art, yes, but mostly they talk about Tony. He buys Pepper some kind of giant frothy coffee drink and gets a normal coffee for himself. They sit in the café and watch people go by.
"You're a good friend to him," she says. "Tony's a lot of work; most people can't take him for long. All of you are good for him. I've never seen him so happy."
"You're good together," Steve says, and he does mean it, mostly, but Pepper just sighs.
Natasha is the only one who will watch movies from his day with him and actually really enjoy it.
Tonight Clint's there too, but he says it's because black and white films put him to sleep. Steve and Natasha are both amused and vaguely insulted when Clint's completely out in the first few minutes. Not like they can begrudge the guy his sleep, though he's just going to have to miss out on the leftover Chinese food because Steve and Natasha are going to eat it all themselves.
It's easy to forget that Natasha's a former infamous assassin when she's under a fluffy blanket eating fried rice and laughing at a movie, easy to forget his own past and just spend time with his friend. Steve likes the more talkative members of their group, but it's also nice sometimes to just watch a film without constant commentary.
"It's still strange to think that the movie stars I remember are dead now," Steve says as the film ends.
Natasha sets aside her carton and chopsticks. "I can imagine."
"I saw that movie with Bucky, back before either of us enlisted. He spent most of it charming the group of girls sitting in front of us." Steve shakes his head, smiling even as his throat gets tight.
Natasha turns a little to face him, cross-legged on the couch and smiling slightly. "Did he have any luck?"
"Bucky always had luck with the dames." He takes a deep breath. "It's… I just wish his luck had carried over to the war."
She lays a hand on his shoulder and they sit in silence. Steve notices when her gaze shifts over to the other couch, but he doesn't say anything. There are some things you can't talk about, just silently acknowledge.
"Did he ditch you at the theater?" Natasha says finally, and Steve laughs.
"Yeah, he did."
"Men," she says with an overdramatic eye roll, then breaks character to laugh with him. "You know, people thought you would have a difficult time working with me."
"Because you're a woman? I'm much better with women when they're my teammates," Steve says. "Peggy – Peggy was the equal of any fellow I fought beside. I would never devalue the contributions of anyone that I work with."
She nods and smiles a little. "I know. I must say it's refreshing to be part of a team where no one is disrespectful." The smile widens. "Even Tony behaves, though I think it's because he's afraid of me."
Steve laughs. Clint snores and rolls over, and Steve catches the fond look that flickers over Natasha's face. "Are you going to sleep?" he asks instead of commenting, and she shakes her head. "I guess let's see if anything's on."
She shrugs and settles back in under her blanket, and Steve flips through several channels of talk shows and game shows before he lands on the news.
"—American soldier killed in action."
He stops and Natasha tenses beside him. They watch the coverage of the attack on the convoy, the injuries and the death of one soldier. Only nineteen. Steve sighs.
"—protests at the funeral in his hometown in Kansas."
"Protesting at a funeral?" Steve says, appalled. "That's awfully disrespectful."
"Ah," Natasha says, and he turns to look at her. Her face is blank, but then it softens in sympathy. "I suppose you haven't… well, you'll see."
He does. The protest signs are covered in some of the most vitriolic homophobic hate Steve's ever seen. Not since the Third Reich, anyway, and he's dizzy for a moment with a sense of time compressing and stretching out again, the old propaganda and now this.
"They're kept well back from the funeral itself, but that's all that can really be done, legally," Natasha says quietly, and Steve swallows.
They watch in silence as the funeral coverage finishes and the next story starts.
It's more protesters in front of some government building. The man at the podium is making a deeply impassioned speech about how homosexuals are destroying marriage and how allowing them to marry goes against traditional American values. The camera shifts to show counter-protesters booing the speech and chanting, and then pans back to a wide shot of the man at the podium, enough that you can see the protest signs behind him.
They're less aggressively hateful than the ones at the funeral, but it's still the same themes. Steve's about to comment to Natasha about it when the camera moves to show another group of signs, and then he feels like he just got hit in the chest. Natasha goes still beside him as she sees it too.
They have his shield on them.
"Protecting the American way," the one sign says, in thick black letters over his red and blue circles and star. There's another one just like it, except that it says 'Protecting American families.' Now that he's looking, he can see others like them too, further back in the crowd.
"What?" Steve manages to say. "I'm – that's – no. Why are they using my shield? I don't – I've never said anything like that. I don't support – How does letting people marry have anything to do with protecting families?"
Natasha closes her hand around his wrist; he looks down to see the stuffing in the couch coming out around his fingertips, dug in through the leather.
"Steve," she says, more gently than he's ever heard her speak, and he turns to look at her.
She gives him a quick overview on the same-sex marriage debate in America and internationally. It's… enlightening.
"Sometimes it feels like nothing ever changes," Steve says when she finishes. "We thought the future would be better after the war ended, but there will always be people spreading hate and oppression; seventy years didn't change that. I'm fighting a battle I can never win." He looks back at the TV.
"Some things change," Natasha says. "If people change them." The camera pans back to the counter-protesters. It's clear which side the reporter is on, praising the speaker and barely even covering the other side.
"I admire you," Natasha says after a pause. When Steve turns to look at her, she's looking away, the TV light flickering over her face.
"I'm not anyone special."
Natasha shakes her head. "You know who you are and where you stand." She meets his eyes. "That's less common than you seem to think."
Steve's not sure what to say. They watch as protesters are interviewed.
"Referring to Captain America, right?" the interviewer says to one of the people with the shield signs.
"He's a real American, a real man," the protester says. "We need someone who will stand up for the right kind of people."
"I have to go hit something," Steve says.
"Jarvis—" Jarvis turns the TV off before Natasha can finish.
Natasha shadows him down to the gym, and after he's sent sand spraying across the floor twice over she stands in the middle of the ring and beckons him towards her. When he tries to go easy on her, she spins and kicks him in the face so hard he tastes blood.
"Thank you," he says after, when they're both laying flat on the floor bruised and trying to breathe. She nods.
"Return the favor sometime."
He nods back.
They have a press conference in two days. Steve stares at the ceiling and plans.
Steve really dislikes press conferences.
He's honored and grateful for all the people who support them; he answers his fan-mail and he tries to talk with fans whenever he can. But the press…
He hates that people are surprised when Natasha says something intelligent, that Clint is ignored, that people are afraid of Bruce. Thor shows up in full armor most of the time, but Steve tries to get out of wearing the stars and stripes whenever he can – making speeches and sitting in front of a bunch of people taking pictures of him in that outfit makes him feel like chorus girls are going to appear from behind him at any moment.
He has to admit, he also finds Tony's public persona rather disturbing. It's a bizarre kind of cognitive dissonance to herd Tony out of the workshop in the morning, covered in grease and chugging coffee, and then see him walk out in public and slip right into the mask. Steve always has the urge to shake him until his friend comes out again.
As much as he doesn't like it, he's not sure how they would do this without Tony. Tony takes charge of the situation effortlessly, he redirects the interviews away from dangerous ground without the interviewers even noticing, he steps up when the other team members flounder without looking like he's rescuing them. He's rude and abrasive yet manages to be charming.
This is the sort of thing that Tony was born and raised to do, or so people say. Steve likes the other Tony better.
Tony's at his right – the two of them are always in the center of the group when it's a panel of all of them. Steve's role at this kind of thing is to look like a sincere and wholesome and trustworthy team leader, and Tony's is to play them all like they're chess pieces.
Mostly, Steve just tries to smile and not squint too much at the camera flashes and deliver the responses he's been told to deliver. Mostly.
He'd had a whole plan for today, but some random reporter ends up handing him too perfect an opening to miss.
"Captain America, you stand for old fashioned values, do you have any opinions on the gay marriage debate?"
"Let's have a question from a real news source, and try a relevant topic this time," Tony says, but Steve interrupts him.
"No, no, I actually want to clear something up. Thank you for the excuse." He glances to his left to meet Natasha's eyes. She raises one eyebrow at him, and he leans forward a little and squares his shoulders.
"Recently, I've seen the image of Captain America used to support causes that I fundamentally disagree with, and I want to clarify my position. I do stand for old fashioned values, but by that I mean values like honesty and kindness and respect. I don't think the right to marry the person you love should even be a debate, and it certainly isn't for me. I fought for the rights and freedom of all people in World War II, I fight for it today, and I'll fight for it until the day I die." He pauses, suddenly aware of the crowd of people staring at him. "Um. So."
"Hear, hear," Thor booms, just before the room erupts with camera flashes and questions. It's so bright and loud that Steve's eyes water and he remembers explosions.
Bruce leans really close to his mic and says "You know, bigotry makes me angry," and the room falls abruptly quiet. Tony chokes back a laugh and fist-bumps him behind Steve.
"I think that's all for today, folks," Tony says. "Now that things have been completely derailed from Avengers business, thanks for that, Cap, I thought we were going to be here all day. I'm sure you'll get an official press release, very liberal-shaded-neutral and boring, but I'll be honest with you, we Avengers are all in agreement with Steve here. Good afternoon, New York!"
They make as hasty an exit as possible while pretending not to be rushing.
"You," Tony says, pointing at him once they're out of view, "are a sneak-attack public relations nightmare. I like that."
"It shouldn't be news," Steve says, but he knows it will be. He still feels much better now that he's said it, been open and honest about something instead of demurring and pandering like they so often have to do.
Tony's hand on his shoulder brings him out of his thoughts. "Don't worry, I'm an old pro at being controversial in public. I'll make sure the sharks don't get you."
Tony's smile is wide and bright and yet somehow completely unlike his public smile. It's the real Tony behind the façade, and Steve's breath catches.
"Listen," Tony says to Steve a week later, as they chug water after sparring. "I've got to take off for a bit."
"Okay," Steve says, putting down his water bottle.
"I mean. For like a week."
"Oh." Steve turns to look at him. "Business stuff?"
Tony runs his hand through his sweat-soaked hair. "No, it's… I'm taking Pepper to Venice. It's a… thing."
Steve pauses and looks at Tony a bit closer. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Tony says. His smile is clearly fake, and Steve must look skeptical because Tony sighs and continues. "Sort of. Nothing you can fix, don't worry about it."
Steve opens his mouth to point out that he still cares even if there's nothing he can do, but the door opens behind them and they both turn to look.
Clint walks in and stops. "Dammit. Are you guys done?"
"I am so extremely done," Tony says. "But super-soldier over here's barely broken a sweat, I'm sure he can wipe the floor with you too before dinner."
"I can go for longer if you'd like to spar, Clint," Steve says.
"Right then, see you in a week, kids, if you throw any crazy parties in my absence try not to break anything," Tony says, and leaves before either of them can say anything. Steve frowns after him as Clint starts stretching.
"I'd stay out of it, buddy." Clint grunts as his shoulder pops.
"Do you know what's going on with Tony?"
Clint shrugs. "Trouble in paradise, would be my guess. Nat's not saying shit, of course, but there's been an awful lot of girl talk lately between her and Pepper."
"Well, they are friends," Steve says. He tries to ignore the little bit of hope unfurling in his chest.
"I know when Natasha's stressed out, and I know it's not SHIELD business. Therefore…" He spreads his hands and then bends to stretch his hamstrings.
Steve stares at the gym door until Clint finishes and stands up.
"Let the floor wiping commence," Clint says with a grin, and Steve shakes his head in mock exasperation before feinting to the right.
"It would be easier," Pepper says two weeks later, as Steve walks into the kitchen to find her sitting alone with a martini glass, "if he didn't love me."
Steve just kind of freezes in the doorway. Pepper gives him a sad little half-smile.
"Did – uh – is – um?" Steve stops trying to talk and winces, but Pepper seems to understand.
"Yes," she says, and looks down at the glass. "My flight's in an hour. Happy's coming to get me."
His first reaction is almost gladness, followed immediately by sick guilt. He shouldn't be happy about this. Pepper's right in front of him, looking miserable. He sits in the chair beside her. "Are you okay?"
"I'm not exactly jumping for joy, but I'll be okay, yes. Thank you." She swallows. "But I don't know – when Tony loves you, he loves you with everything that he has. He didn't see it coming even though… I mean, it's been coming. It's been coming for a while. It was maybe ill-advised from the start, but…"
She trails off and takes a sip of her martini, following it with two olives.
"I'm sorry," Steve says.
Pepper sighs. "I just… it just wasn't working. Tony's my best friend. I do love him. I think I'll always love him, just not… we did give it a sincere try. I really, really tried." She pauses and closes her eyes, presses her lips together. "But I can't always come second. And he can't put me first. It's not a slight against Tony, not at all, but you'll always come first. It's just… how he is now."
Steve has a moment of shock and confusion before he realizes she means the Avengers in general, not him in particular.
"Can I… do anything?" Steve asks, and then rushes to clarify. "For you, I mean."
"I could use another martini." Pepper holds out her glass, and then her face crumples and she takes several short breaths. "And maybe a hug," she manages, before Steve pulls her close, her shoulders shaking under his hand as he rubs her back.
"I'm getting mascara all over," Pepper says finally, pulling back a little and wiping her face with her hand.
"It's alright," Steve says. "I did figure out how to work the washing machine."
She gives him a watery smile. "Don't tell him about this. I'm supposed to be the strong one."
"Just because you're upset doesn't mean you're not strong," Steve says. He pulls out his handkerchief and offers it to her. "It's clean, don't worry."
This time the smile is less wobbly. She takes the handkerchief and wipes her eyes. "Of course you carry one of these."
Steve shrugs. "I know, I'm old-fashioned that way. Can't help it."
Pepper pulls out a compact and a tube of mascara. "Redheads are the worst for getting all splotchy. We can never cry in public." She winces at her reflection.
Steve thinks it's probably best not to comment on that. "So, uh. What happens now?"
"I'm going to salvage our friendship and our working relationship if it kills me," Pepper says flatly. Her expression wavers for a moment. "I've only ever wanted Tony to be happy."
"Let me make that martini for you." Steve takes the glass when she holds it out.
"Just bring the jar of olives, please." Pepper takes a deep breath. "I'm not… I don't hold a grudge, is what I'm saying."
"I don't—" Steve says. "I just—" He makes a hasty retreat with the martini glass.
"Ms. Potts, Mr. Hogan is here with the car," Jarvis says before Steve can pour the drink, and Steve leaves the glass on the counter in order to walk Pepper out, carry her bags, and hug her goodbye.
"You'll take care of him, right?" she says, her voice strained. "It's going to be rough for a while."
"I – we will," Steve promises. He steps back as Happy opens Pepper's door and takes her hand to help her in, and then he stands at the curb to watch them drive away.
When he gets back inside, Jarvis assures him that Tony is 'as well as can be expected' and is downstairs talking with Bruce.
Which is good. Tony should have someone to talk to that he trusts.
Steve goes for a run.
He comes back hours later, showers and changes, walks into the main living room, and stops to stare.
Tony, Thor, and Clint are on the couch while Darcy sprawls on the floor. The coffee table is covered in half a dozen open containers of ice cream, bottles of various kinds of syrup, and open bags of chocolate chips and nuts. They're all eating ice cream out of soup bowls, except Thor, who has a mixing bowl. They're watching cartoons.
"Steve!" Thor exclaims. "Join us! My dear friend Darcy has assured me that ice cream and amusing movies is the gold standard cure for a melancholy response to the end of a relationship." Thor pats Tony on the back with enough force to make him choke a little on his ice cream.
"I was not melancholy," Tony says when he gets his breath back. He shrugs at Steve, looking a bit sheepish and a lot exhausted. "I tried to convince them that copious amounts of alcohol and rebound sex was the gold standard, but no dice."
"Have some ice cream," Clint says, gesturing with his spoon. "Thor and I got lots."
Steve stares at the table and imagines Clint and Thor shopping for ice cream together. He supposes he should be happy they restrained themselves this much. That's assuming this isn't just what couldn't fit in the freezer.
"You don't have to—" Tony starts to say, but Steve grabs a bowl and he stops midsentence.
"It sounds fun," Steve says, and Tony gives him some kind of look.
"Thor, budge over," Tony says. Thor does so while laughing uproariously at the TV, and Tony moves over as well, obviously clearing a spot on the couch.
Steve goes for plain vanilla with hot fudge and nuts, and tries to fit himself on the couch without touching Tony. It doesn't work.
"Oh God, I was thinking about ass size and not shoulder width when I decided to be in the middle," Tony says, wiggling, and Steve tries not to react as their thighs press together. "There is far too much bicep here for one couch, move over some more, Thor. Clint, stop hogging, seriously, this is a huge couch, we can do this."
Clint tosses a peanut at Tony without looking away from the screen, but he makes room. "You'd think Mr. 'rebound sex and alcohol' would be all for being the filling in the blond sandwich."
The peanut hits Tony's forehead and bounces onto Steve's leg while Steve tries to process that sentence. Tony laughs. "You're going to make Steve's head explode."
"What?" Steve says. Then he gets it. "Oh! Oh."
Tony turns to smile at him. "Don't worry, you're cute when you blush." Steve feels his face heat even more, and Tony's smile spreads. "See? Cute."
Darcy nods at them, licking chocolate off her spoon. "Very cute."
"Sandwich?" Thor says. "I do not understand."
Clint and Tony burst out laughing, and Darcy pats Thor's leg. "Ask Jane about it, big guy. It'll go well for you, I promise, once her brain recovers from the images."
Bruce and Natasha come in and head straight for the table to grab bowls as well.
"You too?" Tony says.
"There had better be some brownie fudge left or I can't be held responsible for my actions," Natasha says, ignoring Tony.
"Far right behind the peanuts." Darcy points to the carton. "Saved it for you."
Natasha perches on the arm of the couch next to Clint with her bowl of chocolate topped with chocolate, and Bruce steals a cushion to sit cross-legged on the floor next to Darcy.
"Don't any of you have better things to do?" Tony asks, trying for a joking tone and not quite making it.
"Not tonight," Bruce says, and Steve watches Tony close his eyes and swallow hard.
Steve's eating breakfast with Clint and Natasha when Tony rushes into the kitchen in a suit, clutching a briefcase and looking harried.
"Oh thank God, Natasha. I know you're not my fake assistant anymore but I really need your assistance here." He waves a tube and points at the bruising up the side of his face, courtesy of the evil robot incident yesterday.
"Natasha!" Pepper's voice comes out of the air and Steve jumps, then feels silly about it. "Oh, I'm so glad you're there. I'm so sorry, Nat, can you please make him look less like he's been getting into street fights? And if you can rescue his hair—"
"My hair is just fine," Tony says. "Just because I'm not a makeup artist doesn't mean I can't do my own hair—"
"Sit," Natasha orders, and grabs the tube while Tony obeys. "I've got it. Where is he going?"
"He is leaving the second he's presentable for a meeting across New York which he is late for even though millions of dollars are riding on it and he's supposed to be presenting. And if you can just check his tie—"
"I'm not twelve, Pepper—"
"—I would really appreciate it. Thank you so much, Natasha. I'm so sorry, I must be interrupting your breakfast."
"I was just finished," Natasha says. "It's no problem."
"Are audible sounds even coming out of my mouth?" Tony mutters, and then tilts his head so Natasha can dab at the bruise on his cheekbone. "Good morning, Steve, Clint."
"Morning, Tony." Clint doesn't even try to keep a straight face. "Having a good day?"
"Passably so. Making nice with pompous assholes all day, but I'm being tag-teamed by gorgeous redheads this morning, and that makes up for a lot of things."
"Tony," Pepper sighs, and Natasha presses a bit too hard as she blends the concealer. Tony winces.
"Just a joke, Pep, we can joke, right? We're friends who joke." There's only the slightest bit of an edge to his voice, but Steve still feels uncomfortable. He takes a gulp of his orange juice.
Pepper sighs again. "Of course we are. But right now we are coworkers who are working. And good morning, Steve and Clint. Is anyone else there? I'm so sorry again to interrupt."
"Just us," Steve says. "Good morning, Pepper."
"Run it by me again, Ms Potts. Is Fitzgerald going to be there? You know I hate that guy." Tony looks up at Natasha while she tugs at his hair. "My hair cannot be that bad. I just got it cut. It's supposed to fall effortlessly into place."
"I think you're acceptable," Natasha says at the same time as Pepper answers, "Fitzgerald will not be there but Cook will be—"
"—and you have to be nice to him. Do I need to remind you of how much you spent on titanium last week? And I don't even know what you're doing all of this… nanocomposite material?"
"Outfitting my team! There was that thing with the goop that dissolved everything and I had to modify some designs, and body armor that's actually lightweight and designed for mobility is a rapidly developing field—"
"Fair enough," Pepper says, cutting off Tony's monologue with the ease of long practice. "And keeping people safe is good. That's why this contract is so important, especially now, so that you can afford—"
"I know, I know. I am very aware. So very aware. I still think it would make a better impression if I flew there and came in through that skylight—"
"Don't even think about it," Pepper interrupts, and Tony looks over at Clint and Steve and grins at them. Steve can't help but smile back, even though he really shouldn't encourage ideas like that.
Natasha adjusts Tony's tie and straightens his jacket. "I'm done."
"Great, thanks," Tony and Pepper say at the same time. Tony rolls his eyes.
"See you later, everyone," he says, and Pepper wishes them all a good day. Tony heads down the hall at a brisk walk, Pepper's voice following him while they argue about something in business jargon.
"Isn't it five a.m. in California?" Steve says.
Clint makes a noise and Steve looks over at him.
Clint's got a tablet out, scrolling through something while he eats his cereal. "The media frenzy over Tony and Pepper has begun in earnest. Almost eclipsing the 'Captain America: enemy of marriage' media frenzy."
Steve winces. "That bad, huh?"
"Apparently Tony cheated on Pepper with… a dozen minor celebrities slash socialites and fathered two children with some random woman in Ohio."
"What? He… didn't. He wouldn't." Steve leans over to look at the screen himself. There's a picture of Tony in a hot tub with a bunch of women, but it's obviously years old. Pre-arc reactor. Besides, when would Tony even have time? He's done almost nothing but work since Steve's lived here, and when he's not working he's with them.
Clint rolls his eyes. "Bottom feeders looking for a little taste of fame. Don't worry, Cap, Pepper and Tony are used to this."
Natasha sits back in her chair and sips her coffee. "And the stock drop is nothing compared to before," she says. "The new direction and the birthday party fiasco, for example."
Steve hadn't even thought about the stocks. "It's just… it's just annoying, that's all."
Natasha and Clint exchange a look.
"What?" Steve asks, not sure if he really wants to know.
"Well," Natasha says. "Remember that time you and Pepper went to that art gallery?"
"Oh no," Steve groans.
"Oh yes," Clint says.
"That's not what it was at all." He rubs his eyes, suddenly exhausted. "Mostly we talked about Tony."
He catches the end of another look between them when he opens his eyes, but Natasha speaks before he can say anything.
"It'll be okay, Steve," she says. "Tony's dealt with this sort of thing since he was a child, and Pepper has since she started working for Tony. Even more so since he outed himself as Iron Man. It will pass."
"It might be refreshingly nostalgic to have a straight-up scandal after all of the 'Tony's finally gone completely off his rocker' stuff," Clint adds.
Steve doesn't even want to think about that. He feels sort of nauseous. "I'm going to go… read for a while," he says, and heads to the library.
Steve spends most of the day engrossed in the Lord of the Rings, breaks to work out for several hours, and is just wandering into the kitchen in search of a late dinner when Tony finally gets home.
"Oh hi," Steve says. "How was your meeting?"
Tony pulls his tie off and cracks his neck. "Mind-numbingly boring and faintly humiliating, but ultimately successful. I continue to be valuable to the company even when I'm embarrassing. Did anyone make dinner?"
"I don't know," Steve says. "I'm… um, glad it went successfully."
Tony shrugs and opens the fridge. They both stare at the condiments and milk, and then at the pizza box with PROPERTY OF CLINT (DO NOT EAT UNDER PAIN OF ARROWS IN EMBARRASSING PLACES & THAT INCLUDES YOU THOR) written on it in sharpie.
"Damn," Tony sighs. "I could eat almost anything, but what I really want is a cheeseburger. You know, a really huge juicy one with so much on it that the toppings fall out when you bite it. And a side of proper thick cut fries. Or maybe onion rings. Or both."
Steve's mouth waters. "We could go out for burgers?" he says. "I'm hungry too. There's probably still ice cream, but that's not really dinner."
Tony looks at him, a hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth. "Give me ten minutes to get out of this suit, and you're on."
"Okay," Steve says. "We should invite the others."
Tony's expression changes slightly. "Um, sure. Jarvis, who else is here?"
"Thor, Dr Foster, and Dr Banner. Ms Romanoff and Mr Barton are out. I would not recommend disturbing Thor and Dr Foster."
Tony laughs. "Wouldn't dream of it. Note to self: don't go anywhere near Thor's room tonight. Patch me through to Bruce."
Steve makes his own mental note not to go near Thor's room. It's been weeks since Thor and Jane have managed to be in the same place. According to Darcy, the last time that happened, they broke some furniture.
"Hello?" Bruce's voice says. There's the sound of some kind of machine in the background.
"So, Steve and I are going for burgers, and he wanted me to invite you," Tony says. Steve blinks a little at the phrasing – Bruce is more Tony's friend than his, though of course they do get along.
There's a pause. "Ah. Um. Actually, I'm busy?" Bruce says. "I'll uh. Find something. There's always ice cream."
"Okay buddy," Tony says. "Don't explode anything."
"Random explosions are your territory. I have everything under complete control. Have fun, you two."
"Oh, we will." Tony almost sounds… Steve takes a deep breath and shifts position. Tony talks like that all the time; he has to make sure not to read into it.
"Just you and me then," Tony says, and starts undoing his cufflinks. Steve catches himself watching his hands and looks back up at his face. "Less conspicuous that way. Plus, if we do get seen in public together, maybe it will stop the rumor that we're not speaking to each other because you slept with Pepper."
Steve flounders wordlessly for a moment and Tony's smile grows. "I swear, I'm never going to get tired of getting you to make that face. It's probably taking unfair advantage, but, well." He spreads his hands and shrugs. "Did I ever claim to play fair?"
Steve shakes his head and hides a smile. "Yes, fine. I'm an easy mark. But I'm also about to keel over from hunger here. Go put on some—" he waves his hand, "—normal clothes."
"Sir, yes, sir," Tony says, and turns, pulling his suit jacket off as he heads down the hallway.
Steve watches him go and takes a deep breath.
The last couple weeks have only made his… fixation worse, because he's spent so much time with Tony, and Tony has completely failed to live up to his reputation, spending almost all of his time in the tower.
Steve tidies up the kitchen while he waits and tries not to think too much. Tony's like this with everyone. He flirts constantly and it doesn't mean anything. This is just two fellows going out for burgers. Tony wouldn't be subtle if it was anything else. It's ridiculous to get nervous about this. He eats with Tony all the time – they live in the same house, for Pete's sake.
"Captain America to the garage," Tony's voice says over the intercom. "Your chariot awaits."
Steve runs his hand through his hair, takes a deep breath, and goes downstairs.
Tony watches Steve over the innards of the Mark VIII. Steve's got a pencil behind his ear and an eraser poking out of the corner of his mouth and he's bobbing his head along to the Ramones while he inks something.
He couldn't be more adorable.
"Can I get a reference on this please?" Steve mumbles around the eraser, manipulating the hologram that comes up with a casual grace and frowning at his drawing, one hand in StarkTech and the other smearing ink across his face as he rubs his temple.
Okay, maybe Tony was wrong about the 'couldn’t get more adorable' bit.
There's something kind of fascinating about seeing Steve down here, wearing jeans and a t-shirt with nary a star or spangle in sight, just setting up camp with his art stuff in Tony's space. Technically the whole tower is Tony's, but his workshop is more his space than his bedroom.
Anyone else, and he'd be unsubtly encouraging them to maybe fuck off. With Steve, it doesn't feel weird at all. And there it is, right there, the worrying bit about this whole thing.
He wants to bend Steve over the table, yeah, but that's nothing new. Look at the guy. Peak of human perfection and all that, and Tony is, unfortunately, only human. What's new is the creeping realization that Steve has somehow become a part of his life, fitting himself into a space that Tony didn't even realize was empty, as smooth and easy and perfect as closing a circuit.
He's not really sure when this happened.
It still hurts to think of Pepper, to remember her telling him that she's not at the center for him anymore, that they don't fit like they used to, that Tony's changed somehow and it's taken him away from her. He denied it then, but Pepper's always known him better than he knows himself. They're doing pretty good now, back to normal (isn't that a telling word there, normal), with only a bit of routine turbulence. Growing pains.
He would have promised her anything, given her everything. But he was there in Venice with her, wishing that he was back in Avengers Tower. The most important promise he ever made to Pepper was a promise never to lie to her again.
The truth is this: the Avengers have transformed from Fury's irritating little club into the main driving force and support system in Tony's life. Tony doesn't play well with others, sure, except that apparently sometimes he does, when they play well with him.
And then there's Steve, the core of all that's right and good in this team. Steve is still that dorky little kid who spent all his time making art and refusing to run away, still the guy who joined the army because he wanted to make the world a better place, who does the right thing because it's right, because he believes in the good in humanity, because it wouldn't even occur to him to do the wrong thing. He's the heart and center of them. He makes Tony want to be better.
It's a fucking terrifying feeling. The closest point of comparison might be the first time he flew the Mark II, half-afraid of catastrophic failure but yet finally feeling free.
Tony accidentally stabs himself with some wire and swears loudly. Steve glances over with concern that quickly turns to amusement when Tony sticks his finger in his mouth and immediately regrets it.
"Like you haven't done that with paint on your hands," Tony says, making a face, and Steve grins before hunching back down behind his sketchbook.
Tony has to look away.
All things end, at least for him. Pepper could take it, could walk away when Tony couldn't, could separate them as a couple from them as friends and keep the parts that worked. If he lost Steve, he's not sure what the damage would be. Too much of what they are and could be is all bound up in the team, and Tony can almost admit now that he might need the Avengers. At least if he wants to avoid the kind of downward spiral which can only end in cackling manically and trying to take over the world.
Not exactly something Captain America would understand. Tony stares at the mess of wires like he's never seen them before.
"Excuse me, Captain Rogers," Jarvis interrupts the music to say. "You asked for a reminder about your appointment today."
Steve sighs and rubs his temple, smearing the ink further. "Drat. So I did. Thank you, Jarvis."
"Hmm?" Tony says, pretending to just now look up from his work.
"I have this photo shoot," Steve says. He frowns. "I forgot about it. Guess I was just enjoying a day out of the stars and stripes." He starts packing up his art things, efficiently but without enthusiasm. "I hate photo shoots. Too many people touching me, and I always get the Star-Spangled Man stuck in my head."
"Great, now it's in my head," Tony says. "You have ink on your face, might want to fix that before you go out in public."
That gets him a smile. "Not surprising," Steve says. "I can usually keep pencils under control, but work with anything else and it's all over me."
Tony restrains himself from commenting, with concentrated effort. "Tell them you have a meeting after. Keeps them from running over time. Act all nice and apologetic about it, you know, do the puppy face. I can call you and tell you to get over here if you want the extra bit of realism."
Steve looks uncertain but hopeful. "But if they need more time…"
"They don't," Tony says flatly. "Especially if you show up on time and warn them right away. It'll just make you seem professional."
"All right," Steve says. He looks happier and he smiles at Tony. "Thank you. Well, I'll talk to you later then."
Tony watches him leave. Then he abandons the wires as a lost cause and heads down to Bruce's lab.
"I have a little problem," Tony says as soon as he walks in the door.
"Pretty sure no part of him can be considered little," Bruce mutters from under the fume hood, and Tony's actually floored for about a second. Then he's just sort of proud.
"Did you just make a dick joke? About Captain America?"
"I like to keep you on your toes." Bruce emerges and pushes his goggles up onto his head. He studies Tony for a moment, and then he sighs. "Well, I suppose I could do with a break."
This is one of Tony's favorite things about Bruce. He doesn't try and make Tony talk about his feelings, but he also doesn't look at him like he's suddenly going to have a breakdown if he mentions anything personal.
"Your first problem is thinking about him as Captain America," Bruce says, setting his goggles down on the table. "Which you do whenever you think you like Steve too much."
This is also one of Tony's least favorite things about Bruce. He goes for it. Straight for the jugular. "Um," Tony says, intelligently.
Bruce shakes his head at him and sighs again. "Come on, let's go sit on the balcony. You look like you haven't seen sun in days."
"Hey, I make workaholic look sexy," Tony says, running his hands through his hair and wincing when his fingers snag in tangles and something sticky.
They fight some kind of giant mutant squid, and it's actually pretty funny until Steve gets hit with a tentacle and thrown into the Atlantic from fifty feet in the air. The water hits him and seventy years fall away, he's going into the ice, and he forgets everything in the sheer panic of it, flailing and trying not to inhale and unable to tell which way is up.
Something grabs him and he kicks out at it, then tries to use it to propel himself towards the surface.
"Whoa, holy shit!" someone says and there's some kind of explosion – the bombs, no no – and metal around his waist and arms and no, he has to get free, has to—
They break the surface like a rocket, moving so fast that it's all Steve can do to hang on and try to get a full breath in.
He hits concrete on top of metal, grinding and squealing as they slide, and he flips himself off and onto his feet, lashing out and connecting hard with his fist, following with the shield—
Red and gold and oh God, Tony. Steve flings his shield to the side and grabs on to the shoulders of the armor instead.
"Are you okay?" he gasps.
Tony's faceplate snaps back, revealing his worried and incredulous face. "Am I okay?"
Steve's body rebels all at once and he turns to throw up what feels like the entire ocean, going to his knees with the force of it.
"Oh, Steve – here—" Tony rubs Steve's back, rather awkwardly.
It's been a long time since Steve's vomited, because he can't get drunk and he can't get sick. It reminds him of the early days at SHIELD when he would work out until even his body had to give, when he'd wake up crying, seeing Bucky fall, hearing Peggy's voice.
"No, we're – fine," Tony says abruptly, and Steve doesn't get it for a moment, but it must be the comm., and at some point his cowl came off, apparently, because he's not wearing it now. "We're just going to… hang out here for a minute if you can handle – yeah, yeah, make some sushi. Got it. See you back at home."
Steve dry heaves a couple times and then sits down hard against a wall and tries to get his breathing under control, wiping his mouth. Tony sits next to him with a lot of mechanized whirring noises. "They've got the squid then," Steve says. His voice sounds wrecked.
"Yep, it's just the final subduing. Thor's having a great time whacking it with Mjölnir." The words are normal Tony, but Steve can hear the tension and concern beneath them.
"Okay," Steve says, leaning back and closing his eyes. "Good. I'm sorry. I just… need a minute."
"No, no, don't apologize. However long you need."
They sit in silence, except for the mechanical noises when Tony shifts position and Steve's own ragged breathing.
"Oh fuck, the plane crash," Tony says, and Steve sucks in a breath. "No, shit, deep breaths, I didn't mean to – I just understood all of a sudden. I have no brain-mouth filter, I'm sorry."
Tony pats his back and murmurs apologies while Steve tries not to throw up again.
"It was just this wall of water," Steve says finally. "The glass blew in and the water just – I couldn't believe the force of it. I didn't even get knocked out. I didn't – it was the water turning to ice in my lungs that—" He has to stop again, remind himself to breathe, that he can breathe.
"I'm fine, mostly, with swimming and everything, it's not an issue." Steve rubs his hands over his face. "I'm sorry."
"No, I get it. Really, Steve, stop apologizing. It just… it sneaks up on you. I get it." Tony puts a hand on Steve's arm.
They're quiet for a long moment.
"They… in the cave. To get me to cooperate. A barrel of water. And it was just after the – after the surgery." Tony takes a shaky breath. Steve puts his hand over Tony's and doesn't say anything. There's layers of leather and metal between them, but they both stare at their hands.
"I might be even more of an Insomnia Club regular for a while," Steve says finally, and Tony takes a deep breath, huffs it out in almost a laugh.
"That's what it's for. We all – that's what it's for."
Steve leans back against the wall and takes stock of his body. He's still a bit shaky and nauseous, but his heart rate is nearly back to normal and he can breathe again.
"I'm sorry for the landing," Tony says. "I had to use both hands to hold on to you and that fucks up my flight stabilization, couldn't even use the chest thrusters because I didn't want to blast you, I should maybe modify… anyway."
"I'm sorry for punching you."
"The suit's built to handle heavy artillery, I think I can handle getting punched in the face."
They smile at each other. Steve can hear the city all around them, but it feels like they're in their own little pocket. The noise of the battle has ended, so it's just traffic and voices and both of them breathing.
"Thank you for helping," Steve says, and squeezes Tony's hand. He probably can't feel it through the gauntlet, but he watches Steve do it.
"I – you're welcome."
Steve pushes himself off the wall and gets up, stretching and popping his shoulders. "I think I'm fine to go now."
Tony gets up too, then bends to pick up Steve's shield and hand it to him. Steve hooks it onto his back.
"Here, come here and I'll take us down to the ground," Tony says. "Um, just… hang on to me somehow."
They ended up in a sort of half-hug, almost like they're attempting to dance and not doing very well at it. They laugh all the way down to street level.
That night, Tony shows up in the gym five minutes after Steve gets there, holding a giant mug of coffee. Steve feels a little bad that Tony's staying up for him, but he's too grateful for the company to say anything.
"I think it's just us tonight," Tony says. "Anything in particular you want to do, or uh, I have a suggestion."
Steve shrugs. "I'm open to suggestions."
"So if me carrying people in the suit is going to be a thing, because it seems like it could be useful – there's the potential for all kinds of aerial acrobatics besides just transporting people… anyway, there's some modifications I need to make and tests I'd like to do. Right now it involves a lot of balancing, and I can do it of course, but it takes up more of my and Jarvis' attention than I really want to spare when fighting."
"Makes sense," Steve says. "We can test that if you want."
Tony just continues. "Also, you're the only non-flier hardy enough to fall off from any kind of height and be okay, or get hit by one of my panels and not be injured, so full disclosure, I'm also testing what I can do without damaging my passenger because I don't want to find that out in the middle of a fight when I crush someone more fragile than you."
"It's okay, Tony, I want to help." Steve smiles at him and Tony ducks his head. "I'm pretty difficult to damage."
"Well, uh, get suited up then, and meet me on the roof."
Steve does, a strange sort of anticipation building in his chest. It's just training. They spar all the time. But. There's an edge to Tony's usual rambling that he doesn't think he's imagining, although he might be misreading what it means. Tony could just feel awkward around him – they don't usually talk about their pasts.
The hope is getting to be a serious concern, and for the thousandth time Steve wishes he had some kind of experience doing this. Whatever Peggy was to him, this is completely different, the people and the situation and the rules and just everything. Even second hand experience would be nice, but Bucky's string of temporary relationships aren't comparable either.
Steve fiddles with the buckles on his glove as he watches the armor fold around Tony.
"Right," Tony says once everything's on except for the faceplate. "I don't really have a plan here. Usually I just grab people. I guess we can just kind of make it up as we go? Only a little bit off the roof, just in case."
"I have some ideas," Steve says. "I was looking at the Mark VIII plans the other day, so unless anything's changed I should be able to figure something out."
Tony blinks at him. "Well. That's great then. You know, you're probably the only person in the world that can say that and not make me get suspicious."
Steve looks at him, uncertain.
"That means I trust you," Tony says, and it's his usual dismissive tone, but there's something serious underneath it.
"I trust you too," Steve says before he can overthink it. They stare at each other for a moment while Steve tries not to do something rash, like panic or confess all.
"Great." Tony flashes a smile. "Well. I hope you're secure in your masculinity because some of these positions are going to be far from manly."
"I'm plenty secure," Steve says, tugging his cowl up.
Tony smirks at him, and the faceplate snaps down. He reaches out and tugs Steve to his side, his arm around Steve's waist. Steve's arm automatically comes up, armor plates moving under his hand.
"Let's see what we can do together," Tony says, metallic through the helmet as the boot repulsors start up, and oh damn Steve thinks at the rush that goes through him.
Steve's got bruises up his ribs from an unsuccessful mid-air maneuver, and around his wrists from Tony catching him. The bruises won't last long, already fading, though at the time Tony had cursed and apologized for grabbing too hard.
He presses his fingertips into the bruises as he strips off his clothes and steps into the shower. He smells of sweat and metal and a little bit like Tony's cologne (though that last part may be all in his head).
It was a very successful training session. Yes.
The armor really is amazing seen up close. So many pieces working smoothly together, shifting under him—
Steve takes a deep breath, focuses on shampooing the sweat out of his hair.
He's got it under control until he looks down and sees a row of bruises up his inner thigh. Steve presses his hands against his eyes, holds his head under the spray.
Tony is his teammate and his best friend.
God, he just wants.
Steve leans forward against the shower wall and gives in, breath catching as he wraps his hand around himself.
Tony in the suit can carry Steve easily, can stabilize mid-air while Steve takes off in a flip from his shoulders. Tony out of the suit is smaller than Steve, leanly muscled from how much he trains and from carrying the armor, from the lifting he does in his work. Steve's never seen him in less than a tank top and sweatpants, but he can imagine.
Steve takes a shaky breath and leans his face against his arm, tightens his grip. In for a penny…
He would… press Tony against a wall to kiss him, the arc reactor digging into his sternum and Tony laughing, because sex with Tony would be fun and easy – when it's not deep and intense, and he imagines what Tony would look like with all of his concentration on Steve, the look he gets down in the workshop when he drops all of the masks—
Dangerous ground. Steve swallows and turns his thoughts back to the purely physical – Tony kissing him, the scratch of his beard and the softness of his lips, tasting of coffee, moving to press their bodies together, and – he'd – he'd be hard against Steve—
The surge of arousal leaves him panting, hand moving faster, and this is really crossing a line, guilt warring with longing as the images in his head move into detail – the way that Tony would feel in his hand—
Tony's hands are a bit smaller than his, dotted with scars from working with hot metal. They're skilled and strong, and they'd be so good on his skin, precise and confident like Tony working with his machines and holograms and gesturing when he's making a point – Tony would talk, because he never shuts up – graphic detail whispered in his ear perhaps, or endearments – yes—
Steve twists his hand and gasps against his own arm, wet skin against his open mouth.
And Tony would – he'd – Steve would press up against him and lift him and Tony would wrap his legs around Steve, bare skin on skin – Steve holding him up with his hands on his hips and Tony would pull him close and whisper low and dirty against his ear, 'fuck me, Steve—'
Steve comes so hard he can't breathe, muffles his groan in the bend of his elbow, stands there trembling for a long few minutes while the water washes away the evidence.
He feels a bit gutted, shaking from the endorphins and still wanting more.
Of course, today is the day that Bruce decides to cook an elaborate breakfast for everyone, and Steve has to emerge from his room because he's starving. For the first time, he hopes that maybe Tony will be down in the workshop or finally sleeping and miss the meal, but he's out of luck. Everyone's there, because Bruce does things with food that can't be missed.
Tony grins at him and waves his hands around while he tells everyone about their night; Steve tries not to stare. Everyone notices his blush, he's sure, but when Clint opens his mouth to say something he yelps instead, and Steve gives Natasha a look of pure gratitude.
They barely finish breakfast when they get the call, and they complain a bit but they go as fast as they can. They do.
It had to happen eventually, that they were just too late, and all that's left is the clean up.
Clean up. As if they can just wash away the scorch marks and tidy up the corpses and that'll be the end of it.
There'll be cell phone footage already, news reels and questions. People wondering how this happened, wondering why they failed, wondering if the Avengers can really keep them safe or if they're just another type of weapon. If maybe they're no better than the ones they say that they oppose.
They get back to the tower and go their separate ways, shower off the blood and sweat and dirt, change into street clothes, and drift into the kitchen without discussion.
Bruce makes hot chocolate. Clint digs a bag of tiny marshmallows out of a cupboard.
They all sit and stare at their mugs, at their hands.
"Being on the other side was easier," Natasha says into the silence. "I still miss it sometimes."
Bruce sets his mug down. "I still wonder if the world would be better off without me. If the other guy on his best behavior isn't enough, what can I do?"
"Good people are dead because of me," Clint says. "At my hand and because I can never be enough, always scrambling to make up for it all, no matter what I do."
"I could not save my brother, nor all the people he killed, because I was too arrogant and blind," Thor says. "And sometimes I wonder, have I really changed at all?"
"I still think of giving up," Tony says. "It was a hell of a lot easier to look the other way, and I'll never be as good a hero as I was a mass-murderer."
"The war may have been won, but human nature didn't change, and it never will," Steve says. "I don't know how much more I have to give, or if I really can make a difference at all."
They sit in silence, looking at the table. Scrubbed clean and out of costume, they still smell of explosions.
"A toast," Thor says. They all glance down at their hot chocolates, and shrug.
"To our dead," Tony says, and they hold their mugs up.
"To second chances," Steve says, and they clink them together.
For the movieverse-only people - this is what they're doing. They do this a lot.
"—just a group of vigilantes!"
"What guarantee do we have—"
"—only qualifications are being arrogant and rich."
"What we need are weapons, accountable to the people—"
"— supposed to sit back and wait for them to save us?"
"I grew up idolizing him, but now I don't even see the Captain that I—"
"— for our own protection, but all I see is more blood!"
"He's not even human! Can any of us trust—"
"—and I'm grateful, but we all have to ask questions here."
"None of this insanity happened until they—"
"—and then there's the monster, which can't even be contained."
"This is a song that we've heard before, and look how that—"
"—trusting former spies?"
"Where were they when—"
"—funded by the Maria Stark Foundation. Is that what we're calling philanthropy?"
"I'm only asking for accountability. We just don't know what they're capable of and—"
"—people are afraid."
Oil paints had been out of the question for most of his life, but Steve loves working with them now. Layer after layer thick on the canvas, building a picture out of brushstrokes and rich smooth color.
He draws Tony sometimes. He draws all of the Avengers, but Tony most of all. In his notebooks, not on canvas, because painting him seems oddly intimate, moving from a sketch to a portrait. He's thought about it though, painting Tony lit by forge-light from below and hologram light from above, the arc reactor shining in his chest. Surrounded by darkness, creating his own light.
Steve paints in steady smooth brushstrokes, Brooklyn appearing bright and sharp out of faded shapes, and he tries not to think. They got back almost an hour ago, and he still hasn't managed to get into his art.
"Hey," Clint says from the doorway.
Steve closes his eyes for a second, then turns and tries a smile. "Hi, Clint."
"How are you doing?"
Steve looks down as he wipes the paint off his hands on his jeans. "I'm fine."
"Uh-huh. Very convincing," Clint says. "Why do the two of you have such smelly coping methods? I think I might pass out from the fumes running interference. Or you could go talk to him and save me the trouble."
"Tony knows where I am if he wants to talk."
Clint crosses his arms and leans against the doorframe. "Yeah, that's what he said too. I'm guessing that if anyone's going to be the bigger person here, it's going to be you."
Steve sighs and starts cleaning his brushes. He looks up to see Clint watching him, his face serious.
"I'll talk to him," Steve says, and leaves before Clint can say anything.
The workshop door doesn't reject his keycode, which is promising. It's eerily silent instead of the wall of noise he was expecting – well, as silent as it can ever get, with the constant hum of machines and the whirring of robots. It smells like solder and melting plastic.
Tony's got the armor hanging from the ceiling, wires and tubes trailing down out of it and his head up inside the chestplate. "Need something, Cap?" he says, his voice muffled.
Steve stops, leaving a buffer zone of metal and tubing between them. "I wanted to talk about earlier."
"Oh really." Tony emerges to look at him through the wires. "I thought you made your feelings pretty clear. Not sure what else we'd need to talk about."
Tony's wearing his public face, and that hurts more than Steve had anticipated. "Don't do that."
"Don't do what, Captain?" Tony says, all edged politeness.
"Do I look like Captain America right now?" Steve gestures at his paint-covered jeans. "Can't you and I just talk, Tony?"
For a moment he thinks that Tony's going to refuse, but then he takes a deep breath and seems to deflate. "Yeah. Okay. Talk, Steve."
"I shouldn't have taken it out on you and I'm sorry," Steve says in a rush. "The way that things went, it's my fault, I didn't anticipate—"
"Since when are my actions your fault?" Tony grabs a cloth and wipes the grease off his hands. "I think I make my own choices here."
"That's not… I'm supposed to be the team leader," Steve says. "It's my job to keep you all safe. I don't want to lose you because I didn't plan well enough."
"Again, my choice, not yours." Tony tosses the cloth behind him. "I'm playing on a team now, sure, but I'm not going to ask for orders before I make all my decisions, and if that's what you want then we have a real problem here—"
"No, no, that's – that's not it at all." Steve runs a hand through his hair and tries to gather himself. "You're right, I was mad at you for charging off and not listening. But that's not why I yelled at you. On the comm.… all we heard was your voice cutting off, and then I saw that building come down, and I couldn't – I was too far away and I didn't know what… I just… Do you – I don't know if you know what that felt like. Like… like with the portal but now I… I just don't know what I would do if – Tony, I—"
Dummy nudges his elbow with a glass of… green goop. "Um, thank you," Steve says, completely derailed, and Tony starts laughing.
"Here, I'll take it," he says. "If he thinks I've been working too long, he tries to get some vegetables in me." Tony flashes a smile at the skeptical look Steve gives the glass. "Guess he's decided to mother you too. Lot of that going around."
"I'm not used to this," Tony interrupts. "Having backup, much less… it just seemed like the most efficient course of action at the time. I didn't really think about it."
"Efficiency is worth nothing if it costs your life," Steve says, and stops himself before he can say anything else. Tony is fine. He doesn't even look bruised.
It had felt like he had his pre-serum body, watching the building start to come down from blocks away and running towards it, unable to run fast enough, unable to breathe. He'd skidded around the corner and had to lean against a wall when he saw Thor already there, helping Tony to his feet out of the pile of rubble and the clouds of dust.
Steve thinks of Bucky, reaching. He can't think of that now.
"I saved a lot of civilians today." Tony takes a sip of the green stuff and leans back on the desk. "Some of whom might not have made it out if I had delayed. Would you have made a different call?"
Steve takes a deep breath, the yes on the tip of his tongue. But he's not about to lie to Tony. "I would have called for backup, as I was going in on my own."
They hold eye contact for a long moment, and then Tony glances down at his drink. "Okay, Steve," he says, something in the line of his shoulders easing. "If you insist on being sensible about heroic gestures, I suppose I can call for backup next time I'm going in on my own. Jarvis, make a note."
"I have a protocol already in place and have merely been waiting for sir's permission," Jarvis says, and Tony rolls his eyes, then stretches his neck and winces.
Steve wants to touch him so desperately that he has to stick his hands in his pockets. "Thank you."
Tony shrugs and says, casual as if the past couple hours had never happened: "While you're down here, want to put that super-strength to good use and do some heavy lifting for me?"
Steve holds a machine up while Tony bends to do something to the underside of it, and he tries not to look at the nape of Tony's neck, unmarked skin where a couple hours ago a steel beam left a deep gouge in the metal of the suit, broke one of the shoulder pieces. He's seen the specs, knows the force required to do that kind of damage, knows what that would do to the human spine.
He would never restrict Tony's freedom of choice. Even to keep him safe. They're in danger every day, and he can't ask for something that he wouldn't give himself. But he wonders what Tony would do if Steve put his hand there, covering the ghost of it with his own flesh and bone.
Pull away, probably. Misinterpret it as an attempt to control and protect him, as Steve offering comfort instead of Steve needing it.
"I guess this is as fixed as it's going to get for now," Tony says, standing up. "I need to carve out some time to do maintenance if I want to be able to put together a functioning suit in the sadly likely event that I total this one. Where I'll get that time, I do not know."
Steve makes a noise of agreement, carefully setting the machine down.
They look at each other, standing awkwardly.
Tony breaks the silence. "You should eat before Dummy starts trying to feed you everything in the fridge. Let's go persuade someone to cook. You like smoothies, don't you? I should start keeping fruit down here. You can teach Dummy to make you some fruity drink, though I warn you, sometimes he has, um, unique ideas, so keep it simple."
"I like smoothies. You should eat too – Clint said something about quesadillas," Steve says. Tony puts his hand on Steve's shoulder briefly as they turn to leave; Steve can't help but lean into it a bit.
Everyone's in the kitchen, standing around and talking in low voices. They all turn to look as Tony and Steve walk in, concerned expressions turning to clear relief.
"Seriously?" Tony says. "Crisis averted, stand down team."
"The sulking was pathetic," Natasha says, but one corner of her lips quirks up. "Sit down so we can finally have lunch."
Tony makes his way through the crowd, pretending not to notice the looks and the attempts to get his attention, scanning the masses of people for a particular tall blond in military dress.
He finds Steve trying valiantly not to stare down into some rather impressive cleavage, overflowing out of brilliantly colored silk and lace, and his smile becomes more genuine.
"If you're not looking, you're not appreciating the dress properly," he says, coming up beside them.
"Tony, darling," the owner of the cleavage says, turning to embrace him and kiss him on both cheeks.
"Carolina, baby." He returns the embrace. "You look gorgeous. Breaking hearts and taking names?"
She laughs and kisses him again. "Always the former, the latter in special cases only, Mr. Stark. Where have you been keeping this one? Away from you, I expect, seeing as how he still blushes so charmingly."
Tony grins at Steve over her shoulder; Steve's ears are turning pink, right on cue. "The blushing is surprisingly resilient. Has Pepper seen you? She might die of shoe envy."
"Is she here? I have to find her then." Carolina pauses. "So. Is it true?"
Tony holds on to his smile. "Back to business as usual."
"Oh, sweetheart," Carolina sighs, and Tony sees Steve shift his weight uncomfortably.
"For the better," Tony says. "Or working towards it, anyway. Besides, now I'm a free man again." He leans in mock-suggestively, and Carolina smacks his arm.
"Been there, done that." She takes the gin and tonic the waiter brings her. "But I'd snap you up for the dirtiest weekend of your life if I thought that was what you really wanted."
Tony groans. "No psychoanalysis, please, I haven't had enough scotch." He doesn't look at Steve, sees him go too still out of the corner of his eye. "But in all seriousness…"
"Don't even ask. Of course I'm in," she says. "Whatever you need, within reason of course. I'll work it out with Pepper and the Maria Stark Foundation."
"Thank you," he says, just bare honesty, and she looks sympathetic.
"We'll turn the tide, Tony. It's a fickle business."
"Don't I know it."
"I'm going to go find Pepper," Carolina says, squeezing Tony's arm. "Don't leave this one unattended or he might get mauled." She points at Steve, and Tony notices the smear of red lipstick on Steve's ear. "It was lovely to meet you, Steve."
"You too." Steve kisses her hand. She laughs and gives Tony a knowing look before hugging him again and leaving.
"Here," Tony says, stepping forward to wipe the lipstick off with a napkin. "Whoever did this must have been a model or wearing really high shoes."
Steve turns his head and holds still for him. "Both, I think. She was also really drunk."
Tony might linger just a few seconds longer than necessary. He can smell Steve's aftershave, and he's immune to the men-in-uniform thing because of work, but damn, Steve does wear it well.
Steve also looks a little wobbly around the edges, because he hates these kinds of events and he'd probably been mobbed by people until Carolina scared them off. "Need some air?" Tony says.
"Yes," Steve answers immediately, and Tony has a weird flashback to Pepper, that night when things shifted. The beginning of the end, in a way, and he doesn't regret any of it but he just wishes…
A lot of things. He wishes a lot of things. He obtains a scotch for himself and wine for Steve and they head out into the gardens. There are people out here too, but fewer of them, and Tony steers Steve to a corner that's out of the way enough that people should leave them alone, but not so out of the way that it looks like he's trying to take advantage of Steve in the bushes. The last thing they need are those rumors, especially considering Tony's inconvenient crush.
"Um," Steve says after a moment. "Carolina. She's a hell of a da—lady. How do you know her?"
"She is at that, and you should definitely call her a dame, she'd like that. She's a corporate lawyer," Tony says, and smirks as he watches Steve adjust his assumptions. "Officially. But she's a corporate lawyer like I'm an engineer – really, Carolina's out to change the world. She has fingers in many pies, venture philanthropy being the most currently relevant flavor."
"I can see why you get along," Steve says. "You, ah, don't really…"
"Get along with many people?" Tony smiles when Steve can't think of a diplomatic way to finish. "You can say it, it's true. Hopefully she's going to unsnarl the mess that is Avengers vs. the world and Avengers vs. obtaining funding without selling ourselves to the government, so I'd play nice even if I didn't like her."
"That's… good," Steve says. "I guess we need all the help we can get on that front, don't we?"
"Don't we indeed." Tony sips at his drink and watches a group of people walk by.
"So, you two were…" Steve trails off. It's too dark to tell if he's blushing.
"Briefly and explosively," Tony says with a grin.
Steve's eyes glaze over a bit. "Hmm."
"Hey, we can find her again if you want," Tony says, ignoring the stabbing jealousy. Carolina's a good person, and an idealist like Steve. It's not a completely awful thought, as awful thoughts go.
Steve blinks. "What? Oh! No, no. I mean, not that she's not… Um. Never mind."
"Alright, then." Tony gives Steve a considering look but decides to just ignore that. "So, you were going to talk to those guys, have a regular old-school military gossip session. How'd that go?"
"Apparently one of them met me before," Steve says. "I signed his baseball cap when he was five. He says I'm just as nice as he remembered and he thinks we're doing the right thing."
"Hope he tells all his friends," Tony says. "Try your wine."
"Sounded like he was." Steve sips his wine and his face brightens. "This is good!"
"I have good taste," Tony says. "What about the rest of them?"
"Positive but no real commitment." Steve shrugs. "I don't know. I'm terrible at this stuff. I was terrible at it before, and nowadays… Never thought I'd miss holding babies and punching Hitler. How about you do the talking and I'll just stand behind you holding up ladies on motorcycles?"
"You know, I bet people would go for that," Tony says with a grin. "They might stick money in your belt rather than write checks, but…"
Steve makes Tony's favorite face. "Fury might fund us just to make us stop."
"If he signs all the appropriate 'SHIELD doesn't own the Avengers' waivers, I don't care about his motives," Tony says. "But really, non-profit status, UN and SHIELD backing, and private grants plus my money through the Foundation seems like our best bet. I see boring legal meetings in my future, but less boring than they could be now that Carolina's involved."
Steve stares down at his glass, serious again. "I don't know how you do this."
"I've been schmoozing since I could walk," Tony says, shrugging. "At best it's a game. At worst it's…" he trails off, because he's not going to say 'a desperate attempt to stave off loneliness and self-loathing' out loud, no matter how much he might like and trust Steve. "But it's good to know not everyone thinks we're evil. You just continue to be nice and non-threatening to old men. We should maybe do another couple rounds of the room before we make our escape – we can walk around together if you want."
Steve looks at him uncertainly. "I don't want to get in your way. You were with that blonde… lady."
Tony doesn't even know what he's talking about for a minute, but then remembers the random socialite he'd been half-heartedly flirting with earlier. Interesting to know that Steve was watching him.
"She's not the blond I want on my arm, capsicle," Tony says, offering his elbow with a dramatic flourish, as if it was a joke.
He's expecting an eye-roll, but Steve ducks his head and rubs his hand along the back of his neck, and is he actually—?
Both of their phones start playing the emergency signal, because that's just what this week has been like. "Fuck," Tony sighs.
He watches Steve Rogers change his stance and become Captain America, and thinks to himself that he might have some further testing to do on previously held assumptions.
Steve tosses and turns for three hours before he gets up. He really should sleep, because he has an interview first thing in the morning. There's not even any reason he's awake – no nightmares and he's definitely tired enough – but it's just not happening.
"Jarvis, is anyone up?"
"Ms Romanoff is in the library," Jarvis says, and Steve pulls on sweatpants and a hoodie and goes to find Natasha. She's curled up with a book, deep purple circles under her eyes, but she sets it down and gives him a wan smile as he approaches.
Steve sits in the chair across from her. "Want to talk about it?"
She shakes her head. "No. But thank you for the offer. You?"
"Nothing to talk about," Steve says. "Just can't relax."
"Something – or should I say, someone on your mind?" She arches an eyebrow.
He's known for ages that she knows, but his pulse still jumps a bit.
"We don't have to talk about it," Natasha says quickly, but Steve shakes his head.
"No, it's okay. You're right. He – Tony has been on my mind a lot." He's never admitted it out loud before. It's kind of a relief. Steve takes a deep breath. "I guess I could use some advice."
"I don't know if I'm really the person to give it," Natasha says. "I'm not precisely an expert in normal human relationships."
"You're my friend." He watches something change in her expression, and adds: "One of my best friends. And none of us are normal."
"I suppose we aren't," Natasha says, curving into the chair a bit more and propping her chin on her hand. "What kind of advice? I'll do my best."
"Everything. Anything." Steve leans his head back against the chair. "I have no idea what I'm doing."
"Because he's a man?" she says, gently.
"No… Well, I guess a bit. That just… adds an extra layer to it though." He can feel his ears heat up.
"Ah," she says, and he's glad he doesn't have to say it. "Well, the interest is mutual, if you were wondering about that."
"You think so?" He sits up to look at her.
"Yes," she says, looking slightly amused. "Definitely."
He takes a second to process that, and resists asking her if she's sure. She wouldn't say it if she wasn't.
"Even if you're right… I don't know if… I mean. I'm serious about this."
She nods. "Tony can be serious. You know that. He could be serious about you. Or he might not be able to get his head out of his own ass, but you'll never know if you don't try." She pauses as if she's about to say something more, but then doesn't continue.
"It's not really a good time," Steve says after the silence hangs for a moment. "I mean, with the press and the funding and all that. There's so much going on, I don't want to throw another wrench in it all."
"True, but do you think that's going to change? You're Captain America and Iron Man. You're going to go from one crisis to another for the rest of your lives. There won't ever be a good time."
He can't deny that. "The team—"
"Supports you," she says without pause.
Steve opens his mouth and closes it again, swallows hard at the idea of that easy acceptance. "Even if everything else… it's kind of unfair to do that to Pepper. It hasn't been that long really."
Natasha shakes her head. "They're over. It's fine. Pepper likes you, unlike most people Tony's shown any kind of interest in. She's moved on too."
"Oh," Steve says. "Well."
He's sure that he has other arguments, but everything else sounds so flimsy. Natasha just looks at him, her expression sympathetic, but he can tell she'll keep challenging everything he comes up with. Steve's heartrate picks up as he thinks of actually doing this, telling Tony, bringing it up in conversation somehow. Somehow. He doesn't know how.
They hear the elevator ding down the hall. Both of them turn as Clint wanders in and stops in the doorway, holding a bag of peanuts and looking from Natasha to Steve and back again.
"General insomnia club or girl talk?"
"Clint," Natasha says, and gives him a look.
"Oh, serious talk." Clint pops a handful of nuts in his mouth. "Cap, Tony's an idiot. You might just have to grab him."
"Thanks, Clint," Natasha says. "Very valuable advice."
"So I guess everyone knows, then?" Steve runs a hand through his hair and tries not to cringe. "Am I really that obvious?"
"Yep," Clint says. "If the longing looks were any thicker in the air, we might not be able to walk around. I know you work the Spandex and it's distracting, but if I catch Tony staring at your ass one more time while he's supposed to be planning how to get me ideally situated mid-battle, I'm going to hit him."
Steve makes a strangled noise and Natasha's lips twitch. "You see? Even Clint can see it's mutual."
"Hey," Clint protests.
"Honestly, Steve," Natasha continues. "Talk to him. It's good odds."
"And you better do it soon," Clint says, "because otherwise Thor might not be able to restrain himself any longer and he'll announce it at the dinner table."
Steve puts his head in his hands. Natasha pats his knee; Clint offers him some peanuts.
Another day, another event. This one goes bad from the start, because they were all up all night talking down a kid with too much super-powered anger and not enough will to live, and they saved the day, mostly, but it was straight from one kind of suit to another and out in front of the flashing lights, and Tony is just so fucking tired.
Bruce bowed out of this one, and they're all kinda relieved about that. Steve looks like if he relaxes the military posture he might collapse. Tony has no idea where Clint even is, and Natasha's on Thor-watch, because if they have another incident of Asgardian bellowing about honor there will be people going on about trusting aliens again, and that just won't help the situation.
Carolina's started working her magic at the Foundation, and the financial situation is stabilizing at least, but there's no quick fix for negative public opinion.
So Tony's in a pretty shitty mood to begin with. It doesn't help that this particular charity event is at the mansion of a Stark family friend, and apparently it's talk about Howard Stark day. Everyone's got an opinion on how Howard would do this and that and how Tony's trashing the family name – not that anyone's had the balls to flat out say that yet, but Tony can practically see them thinking it.
He's dying to get out of here, and normally he would just go. Before, he would have left as soon as it started going south, drunk and trailing supermodels, mortally offending half the party on his way out.
It's a bitch to have people relying on him; they don't need 'Tony Stark throws hissy fit at charity event for kids' in the headlines any more than they need 'Alien challenges politician to duel.'
He needs another drink.
"I don't know about your new direction, Tony," the current offender is saying, leaning in as if they're pals. "I know you've had some bad experiences, but what we need is not you and your band of vigilantes tackling our enemies one a time, but Stark Industries back doing what it does best – making weapons."
"So, you don't like clean energy then?" Tony dodges the arm-around-the-shoulders attempt. "Way of the future, saving the planet and all that. I guess that's not really your shtick."
"I knew your father, and he wouldn't have stood for all this tree-hugging. Your father made a weapon that ended the war. You built a robot suit. Howard would have—"
Tony almost laughs, and then he's just had enough. "Yes, nuclear bombs are the solution. That's sure to work and not at all likely to end with the world as a smoking crater. If you'll excuse me, I have important things to do. Give my regards to your daughter, you know, the one who was in Manhattan when aliens tried to take over the Earth and failed because of, oh that's right, me and my band of vigilantes. Your daughter, who would have been an acceptable loss when it was decided that dropping a bomb on American civilians was the only option available. Maybe you could ask her about nuclear war."
Tony flashes the peace sign and leaves, ignoring the sputtering behind him. Yep – hissy fit at kids' charity event, check. He'll have to call Pepper and see about damage control. Later.
He's been to this house before, and unless habits have changed – nope, unlocked and empty study, fully stocked liquor cabinet. He'll bring a bottle as a present next time he visits, not that anyone will notice he's even been in here.
His hands are not shaking.
The door opens a crack. Steve pokes his head in, sees Tony and his bottle, and invites himself in. Of course he does.
"Family tradition," Tony says, raising the glass as if making a toast, knocking it back and pouring another.
"You know, my father was an alcoholic." Steve comes over and leans against the desk next to Tony. "It would probably be bad press if I went back out there and hit that fellow, right?"
"Probably," Tony says, and he doesn't look up. He doesn't think he can get his expression under control, not enough to fool Steve. "Not really sure why people think mentioning knowing dad is going to get me to shape up. Hasn't worked for anyone for decades."
"I knew him too."
"Like I could ever forget," Tony says over the glass, and Steve goes still beside him.
"We weren't friends."
Tony turns to glance at Steve. Steve shifts on the desk and continues. "I mean, we worked together, and we were friendly enough. But I never really felt like I knew him, or like he wanted to really know me. The work was always more important to him than the people."
"And here I thought that he just didn't like me," Tony says, attempting joking and ending up at just bitter.
Steve takes a slow breath. "The more I – I don't know anymore if I ever knew him at all. If he could become the kind of person who…"
"Who what? Who would make billions developing the most effective weapons in the world? Who would become so respected in his field that everyone still talks about him like a hero even when he's been dead for twenty years? Who—" Tony cuts himself off, shuts his mouth, clenches his jaw.
"Who would mistreat a child," Steve says, and Tony can't help but flinch. He takes a careful breath and sets his glass down.
"That's a loaded statement, and not exactly the publicly held view of him," he says, looking straight ahead. "And I know it's not in my SHIELD file or his. What would make you come to that conclusion?"
"Educated guess," Steve says. "I asked Pepper once why you never talked about him – uh, that sounds bad. I was just trying to avoid – it was when I first moved to the Tower, and we were, you know, not exactly friends. I wanted to avoid stepping on toes as much as possible."
Tony can imagine this conversation. It would be a funny image if he was in an amused kind of mood. "And what did Pepper say?"
"She told me to think about it, and that I shouldn't talk about him with you. I – between my own father and friends I've had whose families have been… I can tell that he wasn't a very good father to you."
Steve seems so innocent that sometimes people forget the times he grew up in. Tony's story is the typical poor little rich boy kind of tale; Steve's is just plain poverty and the struggle to survive. Tony can't even look at him, the bite of the scotch in his throat too familiar.
"I don't know that I would say mistreat, exactly," he says. It's as close as he's going to come to admitting anything, at least right now.
Steve doesn't call him on it, thankfully. "I'm just sick of people saying those things about you. I said things I regret back before I knew you, and I was wrong then. I don't know why other people don't see it too, or why they keep comparing you to him."
"I'm not like you," is all Tony can say to that. "You actually do live up to expectations."
Steve crosses his arms over his chest. "I'm not perfect."
"Do you know how much blood I have on my hands, Ca – Steve?" Tony says, turning to look at him. "At least my father was fighting Nazis, not blissfully oblivious to what his own company was doing."
"I've killed people," Steve says. Tony shakes his head.
"I've seen villages wiped off the map, orphaned children missing limbs… because of me, because of what I've made. I signed off on the weapons that killed American soldiers in front of me. Me, personally. Yes, that design will be very effective, I said, and what do you know, I'm always right when it comes to the effectiveness of weapons. How can I ever—"
His hand is up by the arc reactor again. Clearly he needs to get out of here, if he can't even keep that habit under control.
Tony keeps talking over him, everything spilling out now that he's gotten started. "Someone's filled you in on how the war ended, right? You know how instrumental my father was in ending it? The Stark legacy – military technology. And then there's me in my robot suit, thinking I can change that—"
Steve moves, off the desk and right in Tony's face so fast that Tony can't even react.
"I am military technology," Steve says, low and intense. "But that's not all I am, and that's damn well not all you are either. I've seen the footage from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And I've seen you fly into death to keep that from happening here."
Steve's fingers dig in painfully tight on Tony's shoulders. Tony stares at him, watches a muscle twitch in Steve's jaw, meets his eyes.
"Don't you dare call yourself less than Howard, Tony," Steve says. "Not to me. I don't know what happened to him after I knew him, or what happened between him and you. But I know you now, I know you, and you're one of the best people I have ever known."
They stare at each other for a long moment, Steve flushing slowly and Tony swallowing hard.
"I'm going to do something crazy," Tony says, just as fair warning, and then he kisses Steve.
There's half a second where it's just a soft touch of lips, a heartbeat until Steve makes a quiet noise and kisses back, hands relaxing enough so that he's holding Tony's shoulders instead of gripping, leaning in with his whole body to press Tony against the desk.
Steve kisses like he does anything, with so much open earnestness and conviction that it almost hurts. Tony doesn't know if he even can match that, be worthy of that, but he's going to try, and he gets one hand on Steve's hip and tilts Steve's head with the other, deepens the kiss when Steve opens for him, and he doesn't care about the headlines or the people he needs to talk to or his endless list of responsibilities, they are going home right now—
They both jump and turn towards the door, but Steve doesn't move away like Tony would have assumed. Natasha's in the doorway, perfectly poised as always, holding her SHIELD comm. against her ear. "We have a situation," she says.
They pull out their own comms. "Avengers!" Nick Fury's voice says. "We have giant frogs in Central Park. I repeat: giant frogs. Yes, Barton, I am serious. Get your asses over here, hoppity hop."
Steve starts laughing, and Tony can't help but join in. Natasha looks as unruffled as usual, but when Steve presses a quick kiss to the corner of Tony's mouth before pulling back, Tony sees her smile.
The frogs aren't exactly difficult to deal with, especially because they seem more interested in getting into the water than in causing destruction. Most of the damage to the park is because the frogs panicked. Steve feels terrible about killing them (plus it makes a huge mess, as they discovered when Thor hit one with Mjölnir) so Steve, Tony, Thor, and Clint try to contain them in the reservoir while Natasha and Bruce go with some SHIELD agents to try and figure out who or what caused the frog situation.
Clint can't stop laughing, and it keeps setting the rest of them off. Giant frogs are slippery.
By the time the frogs abruptly return to normal size and presumably swim off, Steve and the others are all drenched and filthy. Steve hauls himself out of the water and goes to wipe his face, then thinks better of it when he looks at his hand and arm. He's pretty sure that's duck crap on his glove.
"You all alright?" he says into the comm. "Did you find… whoever?"
"Yeah – stay there, we're coming over," Bruce answers.
"Sure," Steve says, and looks around at his teammates to make sure they heard that.
Thor has some kind of vegetation stuck in his hair and mud all up his left side. He shakes his head at the state of Mjölnir and sticks it in the water to rinse it off. "Truly a battle to be remembered."
"Truly," Clint says. "Tales will be told of our valor in defeating the great hopping beasts."
Thor laughs and smacks Clint on the shoulder, spraying mud and water. "Do not mock. I didn't say that it was a grand battle, merely a memorable one."
"How is this my life?" Tony lands and flips up the faceplate. "Who gets growth rays or magic or whatever the fuck and decides, oh I'll just make giant frogs? Because that makes so much sense."
"You complaining?" Steve says. "No casualties, except that one frog, and I'm sure the newspapers will have some pretty funny pictures. Laughing at us is probably an improvement." He pulls off his gloves and the armored layer of his suit, dropping the pile of wet and dirty leather and body armor on the ground beside the shield.
"Uh," Tony says, staring at him.
Clint starts laughing again, muttering something and shaking his head.
Steve's still running on adrenaline, and now he's remembering Tony's body against his own. He raises his eyebrows at Tony. "Mud and frog slime does it for you?"
Tony blinks and then he grins. "You soaking wet and stripping does it for me. And there's something to be said about getting a national icon all… dirty."
"Uh," Steve manages.
"Seriously?" Clint says, looking between them. "When did you two man up? More importantly, did I just find out before Natasha?"
"Man up?" Thor asks, and then obviously gets it."My friends!" he exclaims, grinning. "Congratulations!"
Steve looks from Clint to Thor and then over at Tony again in a bit of panic. He and Tony haven't even really talked yet. Attraction is one thing, but…
Tony just shakes his head and walks towards Steve, ignoring the others. "Let me take you out to dinner," he says, voice serious and pitched as if it was just the two of them.
"Okay," Steve says, relieved. "I'd like that."
He wants to touch Tony. There are reporters hiding in the bushes. They look at each other for a long moment, a smile just barely playing in the corners of Tony's mouth.
"Change of plans – come to the Precinct house and look for us in the parking lot," Natasha says on the comm. "Fury's landing a quinjet on the Great Lawn."
"Right," Clint says, and they head over.
Three SHIELD agents plus Natasha and Bruce are sitting on a pickup truck surrounding a teenage boy. He's scowling like his options are scowl or cry.
"Was it growth rays or supernatural whatevers?" Tony asks.
"Growth rays," Bruce says.
"They are not growth rays," the kid protests. "My system is far more complex than growth rays."
Tony and Bruce share a look and then start laughing. The boy looks offended until Tony points at him and says: "Hey kid, if you want to work with crazy tech, you should apply to Stark Industries once you're over eighteen, presuming you play nice while SHIELD talks to you and you stay on the straight and narrow 'til then."
"Really?" the kid gasps.
"Yup," Tony says. "I like to fuck with R&D. Just tell them I told you to."
They all look up at the sound of the quinjet.
"That's our cue." Tony's faceplate comes down and he takes off, looping through the air. Steve shakes his head at Tony's showing off, and tries to keep from laughing as the kid hops out of the truck and trips over his own feet from staring up after Tony. The rest of them follow on foot, and the SHIELD agents hustle the kid over and onto the quinjet.
"Am I allowed to leave my truck there?" Steve hears him ask. "I'll get in trouble if it gets towed."
"Frog boy, you're lucky you're not getting arrested," Fury says as he steps out of the jet. "Sit down and shut up before I decide to find something to charge you with."
Tony lands between Steve and Bruce. "Another day saved," he says, then pauses and turns to say to Bruce. "By the way, Plans A through E were left gasping in the dust by the runaway success of Plan F."
Bruce's gaze flickers over to Steve. "Didn't I say that A through C were overly complicated and D was likely to backfire? I'm surprised it was F and not E though."
"You had six plans?" Steve says. And you talked about them with Bruce, he doesn't say. Really, it's kind of reassuring to know that Tony's been thinking about this.
"Please," Tony says. "Do you think I'm an amateur?" He pauses and makes a face. "That was all shades of not what I meant." He looks relieved when Steve laughs.
"Jesus Christ," Clint mutters from behind them. "Ow! Nat, come on."
Fury and Maria Hill walk over to the Avengers and Steve stands up a little straighter.
"Good work, team," Fury says, and turns to Steve, ignoring Tony's affronted look. "You've been a difficult man to arrange a meeting with, Captain. I have a free hour, and I happen to know that you do too." He holds out a hand to indicate the quinjet. "We're taking frog boy to headquarters anyway."
"Can I shower and change first?" Steve says with a sigh.
"You can do that at SHIELD," Fury says, and an anonymous junior agent hands him a towel.
Steve gets home just over an hour later, after bluntly explaining that yes, he is no longer under SHIELD's command, no, he doesn't want to be a SHIELD agent, and yes, the Avengers are indeed officially establishing themselves as a separate entity. He's pretty sure Fury approves and is just testing him. Hill clearly disapproves, but he doubts she would approve of anything other than the Avengers under strict SHIELD control.
The common areas are completely deserted when he walks in. Steve figures everyone's sleeping – he can feel the fuzz of exhaustion in his own head, though thanks to the serum it'll be a while before sleep becomes a necessity for him.
"Mr. Stark advises that you take a nap," Jarvis says. "Dinner reservations are for 22:00."
"Really?" Steve says, a little surprised and pleased that Tony apparently meant dinner tonight. "So… you know then? About me and Tony, I mean."
"I daresay I know everything about Mr. Stark." Jarvis sounds faintly offended and Steve smiles.
"Of course. Do you, um, what do you think about it?"
"I have not been programmed to approve or disapprove of sir's personal life," Jarvis says, but he sounds like he would be smiling, if he could smile.
"Liar," Steve says.
Now Jarvis definitely sounds amused. "Indeed. Based on my data-gathering, compatibility modeling, and calculations, I can conclude that I approve." His voice loses the warmth. "However, I must mention that Mr. Stark's well-being is my primary directive, and any event, object, or entity which interferes with that directive shall be considered a threat and dealt with."
Steve has one of those the-future-is-weird moments, because he's just been given the 'if you hurt him I'll hurt you' speech by a computer. He's suddenly hyper-aware of just how many systems surround him every day that are run by Jarvis. The doors, for one.
"I would never hurt Tony," he says.
"Excellent," Jarvis says, polite again. "I will wake you at 21:00."
Tony is actually ready and waiting for him. Steve's so nervous he can't think of anything to say, but Tony just starts a conversation about Fury and SHIELD and what's going on with getting the Avengers established, as if nothing's different.
And it's… easy. It's still just the two of them talking, like they do all the time. It's nothing at all like being set up for a double-date with a woman he's never met.
On the way to the restaurant, Steve watches Tony and thinks of Peggy and their date that never was. It still hurts, but it's a healing ache, not an open wound.
They go for Thai food because Steve loves it and Tony knows a tiny hole in the wall place willing to stay open late for them. "We weren't here," Tony says to the waiter, who just smiles and nods and pours tea for them.
"I tip well," Tony says when he catches Steve's amused look. "I've been coming here for years, whenever I'm in New York. Best Thai in the city. I figure you'd like this better than glitz and glamour."
Steve ducks his head and smiles. "You've got that right. The past little while has involved far too much of that for me. Not what I want on my time off too."
"I'm sure the media would be shocked to hear it, but I'm sick of dressing up and having my picture taken," Tony says. "I'm even getting sick of talking about myself."
"The horror," Steve says.
The food is delicious, the conversation normal. Steve waits for the topic of them to come up, but every time they get near it, anticipation building in Steve's chest… they veer off again. He keeps catching Tony looking at him too intently, just for a second at a time.
It takes him probably longer than it should to realize that this is Tony being careful. That Tony is uncertain. Tony, uncertain. Of Steve.
"So, Jarvis threatened me," Steve says, and Tony chokes on his food.
"Your well-being is his primary directive and threats will be dealt with," Steve says. "It was a little terrifying. But I'm glad he's looking out for you, and he says he approves, and I don't plan on hurting you, so I figure it'll be okay. Clint is for sure never going to get me to watch that movie with the zombies and the little girl AI though; I may never sleep again."
Tony actually just stares at him for a full second, and then they both laugh.
"Jarvis is a meddling bastard," Tony says. "But if he was in charge of containing a zombie outbreak, that shit would be contained. Also, the Resident Evil game is – never mind. I hope you appreciate that I'm resisting expounding on several different points of debate here, as well as starting a lecture on the history of and problems with the way artificial intelligence in general is portrayed in mainstream media."
"Oh no," Steve says, laughing. "Forget I said anything."
"Smart move. I'm the best in the country if not the world at this, and I've been told bragging endlessly about myself is not appropriate date behavior." Tony rolls his eyes. "I can't imagine why."
"I think what you do is fascinating," Steve says, swallowing back his somewhat embarrassing reaction to the word date. "Not that I want you to deliver a lecture right now or anything."
They look at each other. Tony tilts his head, and then he leans forward, tapping his fingers on the table like he does at meetings or press conferences when he has something to say.
"So, now that we're talking about the elephant in the room," Tony says, and Steve steels himself, "and I hope you're not going to react badly, but I have to ask: have you always been into guys? Because you surprised me with that one."
"I wouldn't react badly, it's a fair question," Steve says, grabbing his tea and taking a quick sip. "I guess so, I mean, I noticed when a fellow was attractive, but I mostly convinced myself it was just noticing a fact. It's not like it was unheard of, but people didn't talk about it much in my day, and I definitely find women attractive too, so I tried not to think about it."
He takes a deep breath and another sip, not sure if he should try and explain about Bucky, if he even can. He'll have to talk about him with Tony at some point. But not right now. "That plan didn't last long once I woke up in the future. Uh, what about you?"
Tony leans back in his chair. "I hope you won't be shocked to hear that I have tried everything under the sun."
Steve smiles at him. "I did Google you, ages ago."
"And Jarvis didn't tell me, the traitor. I think the media's still convinced I left my bisexual phase back in the early nineties, along with some highly questionable fashion choices and some truly alarming haircuts." He grins.
"But… you didn't?" Steve has to ask.
"I think when something lasts decades, it can no longer be called a phase," Tony says, looking amused. "But to answer the real question: yes, I am into you, guy-parts and all."
Steve swallows and shifts in his seat. He's never going to get used to how blunt Tony can be. "Well. That's good. Me too. Um. Guy-parts and all."
"Okay, now that's hotter than I'd even imagined," Tony says, leaning forward again. "You're thinking about it right now, aren't you? You're blushing because you're thinking of me naked."
"Tony, we're in public!" Steve whispers, trying to will himself not to blush even more.
Tony smiles wider. "That was not a no."
Steve bites his lip, looks around and listens for the waiter coming back, hears nothing. He reaches across the table and runs his fingertips up Tony's hand to stroke the delicate skin at his wrist. "I have a very vivid imagination."
He manages to keep eye contact, watches Tony's reaction.
"And here I thought I was going to traumatize you," Tony says, voice low. "I was going to try really hard not to scare you off. I was going tobehave, Steve." He turns his hand, interlaces their fingers.
"I've never really been one for behaving," Steve says, and Tony swallows. "But I – I mean, I'm not just – it's not just about that. For me. Is that… okay?"
"Cap, if I was looking for casual sex there are so very many people who would be easier than you," Tony says, his smile softer now. "And I mean that in the most flattering way possible. Can I kiss you?"
Steve quickly scans the rest of the restaurant. Still empty, but he doesn't know where their waiter is.
"They won't say anything," Tony says. Steve watches Tony press his lips together, his tongue darting out between them, and Steve's leaning in before he thinks any more about it.
The kiss is deep and heated and still so careful – Tony's as good at this as Steve had imagined, but it's the sincerity that gets to him, the total focus, one hundred percent of Tony Stark's attention right here and now.
Tony's hand cups the side of his face, fingers stroking the short hair at the back of his head, thumb along his jawline. Steve tightens his fingers on Tony's and tries to breathe as Tony moves to kiss along his jaw to his ear and down the side of his neck.
"Are we done here?" Tony says, breath along Steve's throat, and Steve shivers. "I think we're done here."
"Yeah," he says, catching Tony's mouth again before Tony pulls away with a muttered curse and digs his wallet out of his jacket.
The elevator takes them straight up to the penthouse. Tony makes an attempt to keep his hands to himself, but Steve apparently has other ideas and kisses Tony against the wall the whole way up, barely breaking long enough to stumble out of the elevator and through the living room to Tony's bedroom.
His plans had involved more wooing – you know, multiple dates and working his way up from hand-holding, because Steve's a guy from the forties. But Steve's a guy from the forties who plays fight club with Natasha for fun, who laughs when Tony flies him above the skyscrapers at the maximum speed Steve's body can handle and then drops him onto monsters.
So, ditch the plans then, restart from scratch. Tony's nothing if not adaptable. Fuck, Plans A through D would have been disastrous. He's going to have to think of a way to thank Bruce. Later.
Tony grabs himself two handfuls of peak-of-human-perfection ass and rocks his hips into Steve's, grins as Steve sucks in air fast and sharp.
"Tony, I—" Steve gasps and presses back, abandons the sentence to kiss him again, fingers tight in his hair tilting his head back. Carefully restrained super-strength: just as hot as Tony had imagined.
Tony moves his hands to Steve's hips and then goes for Steve's belt – but tensing up is not a good reaction, even though Steve doesn't pull away or stop kissing him. He tells his dick to behave and pulls back. "You okay there?"
Steve looks to the side and then up and finally meets Tony's eyes. "Yeah," he says. Just before Tony interjects that it doesn't look like yeah, Steve bites his lip and continues. "You – you know that I'm not… um, very—"
As if Tony wouldn't have figured that one out. He's probably been with more people at one time than Steve's been with in his life. "Yeah, I sort of figured, don't worry about it—"
"—and by not very I mean, um, I've never—"
Tony stops mid-word, and he must look surprised because Steve starts babbling. "I know that's not usual anymore, but before the serum I wasn't – nobody would have looked at me that way, and then after it was wartime and I was busy and there were a few dames who, uh, offered but… I thought that Peggy and I, after the war, except that, you know—"
"It's fine," Tony says, and swallows. "It's… fine. Just tell me how you're doing. We can – did you want to take it down a notch?"
"No, no I don't, it's not that," Steve says, which is a relief, not that Tony couldn't have managed to revert to the taking-it-slow idea if Steve wanted him to. "I just… wanted to warn you, I don't really know what I'm doing. I've done research but—"
"You're trying to kill me," Tony groans. "Research?"
"Yes, on the internet," Steve starts to say, but that's really all the talking that Tony can stand right now. The idea of Steve researching because he wants to be good at this – he kisses Steve again.
Steve kisses back, his fingers tight on Tony's hips before he pulls back enough to tug his own shirt off, and that's definitely a green light, proceed until further notice. Tony's got his hands on Steve's chest before the shirt hits the floor.
He's touched Steve before all this, of course. Incidental touches, friendly touches, touches disguised as one of those. Not this permission to explore, goosebumps following the movement of Tony's hands over Steve's arms and chest and stomach, muscles twitching and Steve breathing hard.
"Tell me what you want," Tony says, looking up at Steve's flushed face. "Anything you want. I'll do – I'll make this so good for you, Steve, I promise I will."
"Tony, oh, I just—" Steve pulls Tony's shirt off, rather ungracefully. And there, there's that pang of self-consciousness, right on cue, every time someone sees his bare chest for the first time. Even though Steve knows about the arc reactor, it's still got to be strange to see it embedded there, surrounded by scars.
Steve looks down, neither staring nor ignoring it, and he runs his hands down Tony's ribs, across his stomach, to the buttons of his jeans. He trails his fingers over the line of Tony's cock and Tony's hips twitch, taken by surprise.
"Tony," Steve says, almost reverently.
"Fuck," Tony says.
Bare skin on skin now when he kisses Steve, and this time when he runs his hand down Steve's stomach to tap his fingers on his belt in question, Steve presses his face against his shoulder and says, "Yes."
Tony backs Steve up against the bed and drops to his knees. Between the two of them they get Steve's pants down around his ankles; there are boots in the way, but Tony is so not dealing with boots right now because Steve's cock is right there in front of his face.
"Oh!" Steve's hands twitch at his sides, his breath catching. "You're not – are you—?"
"Oh yeah, I definitely am." Tony runs his hands up Steve's inner thighs, looking up to see Steve staring at him with his lip between his teeth. "Sit down for me?"
Steve does, his thighs shaking under Tony's hands, bracing himself with his hands on the bed behind him. Tony leans in to press kisses along the join of Steve's hip and then lick up the length of him.
There's a sharp gasp, and then Steve starts breathing in that too-controlled way that Tony recognizes from his years in boarding school as 'is used to masturbating while trying not to be overheard.' Which is quite the image, actually, but he'll think about that later.
"Don't be afraid to make noise for me, gorgeous," Tony says, pulling back just enough so that Steve will feel his breath against oversensitive skin, then runs his tongue around the head while looking up at Steve. "Lets me know I'm doing good."
Steve makes this half-laugh, half-whimper noise. "I – uh, as if that's even a question. Modesty, from you?"
Tony laughs against Steve's thigh. "Fine, then, how's this: Captain, you haven't seen anything yet. Hang on to something."
"I – ohhhh damn it to hell," Steve says as Tony swallows him down, which is simultaneously amusing, adorable, and fucking hot.
Someday, he's going to make Steve swear properly in bed. They'll just have to do this again and again until he succeeds at it. And then do it some more.
Tony could give a blowjob on autopilot, while redesigning the armor and planning a presentation for the Board, while so drunk he won't remember it in the morning (let's not talk about that), but this is Steve, Steve running a shaking hand along the side of his face and trying to be polite and not fuck Tony's mouth or pull his hair and Tony just wants everything, wants it all, and what the fuck is he supposed to do about that?
He takes a breath and rubs his thumbs over Steve's hipbones, explores with his tongue as Steve starts making little muffled desperate sounds. Tony can't decide if he wants to see how fast he can bring Steve off, or draw this out until he begs.
Maybe too overwhelming. He starts moving faster – plenty of time for begging another time. Presumably. Hopefully. Shit.
"Tony—" Steve gasps, and Tony looks up to watch Steve's face as he comes in Tony's mouth.
Steve's barely finished before he pulls Tony up and kisses him. "I want to touch you," he says. "May I?"
Tony groans, straddles Steve's thighs, bites down a little on Steve's shoulder. "You can do anything you want to me, just – oh fuck—" he says as Steve runs his fingers over his cock through his pants, pulls at the buttons of his fly. He'd been ignoring his own arousal, but the sudden lack of jeans pressing into it makes him gasp.
Steve mutters, "Of course you don't wear underwear," takes one deep breath, and wraps his hand around Tony's cock. Tony's witty retort vanishes from his head.
He has a brief thought about getting up for long enough to get his pants off, but there's Steve's hand tight around him, smooth and confident strokes after just a few seconds of adjustment, Steve's face still sweaty and sex-flushed with his brow furrowed in concentration like giving Tony a handjob is a tactical problem he's bent on solving.
Half-clothed is actually pretty appropriate for a first time, Tony thinks slightly deliriously, and he starts moving his hips, fucking into Steve's fist, Steve matching his rhythm and pushing it faster, sparks dancing along Tony's nerves as he bends to kiss Steve again, breaks the kiss to breathe Steve's name.
"I've thought about this," Steve says in a rush, and Tony moans.
"Yeah? And what… were you doing when you thought about it?"
Steve makes this little whimpering noise; he looks up to meet Tony's eyes, his hair disheveled and his eyes mostly black, and that's it, Tony comes swearing and gasping while Steve watches him open-mouthed.
When his brain gets back online, Steve's grinning at him, lopsided and happy and pleased with himself. Messy is a good look on him, Tony thinks, and then Steve raises his hand and licks his fingers.
"Oh fuck," Tony says. "You've been hiding a kinky center under an all-American good boy veneer. We are going to have so much fun."
He's not sure how Steve manages to look shy while doing that, but he does, laughing and leaning his face against Tony's chest, half on the arc reactor and half on his skin, pressing a kiss against the edge of the scarring and settling in with a contented sigh.
Tony takes a deep slow breath, because Steve's listening to his heart, both the flesh and shrapnel one and the one he built himself.
"Satisfactory first time?" he says, trying for light to cover up the weight of emotion rising in his throat.
"Modesty doesn't become you," Steve mumbles against his chest.
They nap for a few hours. Steve wakes up to the lights on low and Tony sitting in bed beside him designing something on a hologram. It has a lot of menus, but that's all he can tell before Tony waves his hand and it zips over to the window and disappears.
"Morning," Tony says, smiling easily.
"Is it even morning?" Steve rolls onto his side to face Tony, yawning.
"Ish. Four-something." Tony shrugs. "I didn't wake you, did I?"
"I was in the army," Steve says. "I can sleep through anything unless it sounds like gunfire or someone sneaking up on me."
"No guns or sneaking, got it," Tony says. "No comment on me working while in bed with you?"
"Honestly, I'd be more surprised if you didn't design stuff in bed," Steve says, sitting up and stretching, arching his back and then leaning forward with a groan as his neck pops.
"I'm never going to get used to this," Tony says under his breath. He runs his hand down Steve's spine before Steve can ask what he means, follows it with his mouth.
They end up with their legs entwined and Tony's hand around both of them, Steve gasping into Tony's shoulder while Tony murmurs endearments and compliments and half-promises, too softly for non-super-soldier ears to pick up.
At dawn, Steve goes for a run while Tony heads to the workshop. There's still so much they have to talk about, and their lives are still insane at best, but Steve runs through the streets of New York and for a couple of hours is utterly, blissfully happy.
He returns to the Tower and finds Tony, Natasha, and a woman drinking coffee at the table, surrounded by papers. It takes him a second to recognize Carolina in a business pantsuit with her hair up. Natasha's in black workout gear and Tony's wearing a hoodie and grease-stained jeans, so the combination is a bit strange.
"Steve! Check it out," Tony says, waving a piece of paper at him.
"Good morning, Steve," Carolina says. "Nice to see you again."
Steve takes the paper. "Hi, Carolina. Good morning." He looks at Tony. "What is it?"
Natasha glances up and nods to him in acknowledgement before leaning back in to read the piece of paper Carolina's holding.
Tony rolls his eyes. "You have to read it. It's the brand-spanking-new Avengers Charter. Look at how legit we are. In legalese and everything. Did you know Natasha actually has a legal background? I thought she just made that up."
"It stands up to a background check," Natasha says, then turns to Carolina. "This protects Clint and myself, as Avengers and SHIELD agents?"
"Yes," Carolina says. "I had a very interesting meeting with Director Fury."
Natasha's lips twitch. "I bet you did."
Steve sits down, reads the page he has in his hand. It does look very official. He recognizes a bunch of it from their previous discussions, cut together and expanded and polished.
They've been talking about this for so long that it shouldn't be different to see it in paper, but it is. This is UN and SHIELD approved: no more guesswork and trying to stay within guidelines without even knowing what the guidelines are, no more lacking a real leg to stand on when they have to defend against accusations of being vigilantes or menaces or out of control.
Well, less of all that. He's not so naïve as to think that being officially approved will solve everything. But it's something, and he'll take whatever he can get to protect his team.
"Are we all here? We all have to sign it," Tony says. "Let's wake everyone up. I've never been this enthused about paperwork in my life."
Steve smiles at him fondly, then sifts through the pile until he finds page two.
"Clint's at SHIELD," Natasha says. "He'll be back at noon."
"Right, okay." Tony hands Steve page three. "Jarvis, tell everyone, Avengers assemble at noon."
"Will do, sir," Jarvis says.
"I have to head out." Carolina hands her stack of papers to Natasha. "If anyone has any questions, comments, or additions, send me an email? We'll hold a press conference on Friday, and I'm sure there'll be more meetings before that, but I'll let you know the specifics of that when I know them. And do please try to make my life easier and stay out of the tabloids for a while. Unless it's for something as amazing as this."
She pulls a newspaper out of her briefcase and shows them the front page: a picture of Thor riding a giant frog as if it's a bucking bronco, cape fluttering behind him.
They all laugh. "Now that is going on the wall," Tony says.
"Good, that's great," Pepper says through the window interface when Tony finishes telling her about the Charter situation. She nods and makes a note on something out of Tony's view. "I'll just talk to Carolina if I need any more information. And don't forget about the Board of Directors meeting on Thursday."
"I didn't forget," Tony says, although he did, sort of. It's in his schedule for Jarvis to pester him about, which is like not forgetting. "Um."
"Do we have anything else to cover?" Pepper asks, her gaze off to the side, probably on her calendar. "That prototype is still on schedule for the presentation on Monday?"
"Yep. Might even have it a bit more polished than planned, barring weekend super-villains. Um. So. Pepper," Tony says, and then doesn't know how to continue.
"Oh no." Pepper looks at his part of her screen and visibly braces herself. "You're making the face again. That is not a good face. Tony, tell me this doesn't involve potential death or financial ruin, again."
"No, no, come on, Pepper, that was one time—"
"—one time! One time. Is this like insisting you're still 39?"
"I'm over that," Tony says. "Pepper, can you – let's not do the thing again where we don't talk." Pepper's face softens and Tony keeps going. "I'm not dying, and I haven't – it's good news. Hopefully. I mean, it's good for me. I hope that… Well. I wanted to tell you face-to-face but I can't leave New York until Friday, so face-to-face-ish will have to do. I owe you that."
"Thank you, I think," Pepper says, smiling a bit before she gets her serious face back on. "Alright, Tony. I'm listening."
This is when Steve walks into the room topless, sees Pepper on the screen, and freezes like a deer in headlights.
"Oh my God," Pepper says, covering a laugh with her hand. "Really? Already? I should know better than to bet against Natasha."
He's face down in the mud, trying not to make a sound. Someone is moaning off to the side, but if Steve moves he'll just draw fire towards himself and the men. He can't help. He can't do anything.
Steve knows that Bucky's dead. Knows it. One of these bodies is his. Was him.
There's a puddle by his face, blood-tinged water half-covered in ice. He watches it freeze, frost in spiral patterns, burning cold against his cheek.
It's Tony's voice, crackling with static. Steve looks around. There's a cell phone on the ground in front of him. A cell phone? A radio. Steve inches forwards. He'll take it, whatever it is.
There's gunfire off to his left, the sound of Tesseract-powered weapons mixed in with the rattle of machine guns and the occasional earth-shaking impact of shells.
"Iron Man," Steve whispers into the radio. "What's your position?"
"I'm going – to take care of this," Tony says.
Repulsors above him, the familiar sound of Tony coming in to land, but the light is all wrong. Steve looks up as Tony hits the ground, the Tesseract in its glass case in his hands. Steve's already pushing himself up as Tony opens the case.
"Tony!" Steve yells and tries to run, bullets ricocheting off the shield held at his side, but something explodes behind him, propelling him forwards. Steve hits the ground and rolls, gets up, keeps going.
The light shines up and highlights Tony's face, glitters off his eyes. It's like the familiar light of the arc reactor, but it's all wrong. Panic seizes Steve's lungs; Tony's face is utterly blank, and everything is wrong wrong wrong. Why is Tony even here?
Someone gets in his way – a HYDRA agent? A Chitauri soldier? Steve doesn't care. He hits it and keeps going.
Tony looks at Steve as he picks up the cube, and the world rips open behind him in stars and colors.
Steve runs and runs – he'll run into the starfields if he has to, but his feet catch on weapons and bodies and sink into the dirt, his lungs full of the stink of burning flesh from the explosions so he can't yell, can't even breathe.
"I'll make everything better," Tony says, dull and robotic even though the faceplate is up. "You'll see. It'll all be worth it in the end."
Someone grabs at Steve's arm, his knee, the shield. Someone calls his name behind him, but Steve ignores it all, struggling against the mud and grabbing hands.
The armor goes first. Tony holds up a hand as shrapnel flies out into the void. And then skin follows, and Tony starts to scream.
Steve wakes all at once. "Lights," he gasps, and Jarvis turns on the lights.
"You get gold light, huh?" Tony says. He's sitting a careful distance away, hands up. "Hey, look at me."
Steve does. Real Tony is so clearly different from dream Tony, his face lined with concern and his hair sticking up on one side.
"I need to brush my teeth," Steve says, trying to untangle himself from the sheets. "I can still – it's – all I can smell is burning flesh and it's like there's still mud—"
"Here," Tony says, passing him a little plastic package, then taking it back and opening it and taking out a semitransparent sheet of something when Steve looks at the plastic package in incomprehension. "Put this in your mouth."
Steve does, hesitantly, and the taste of mint explodes on his tongue. He sighs with relief.
"Extra strong for when it's really vivid," Tony says.
"Give me another one." Steve takes it when Tony gives it to him, then flops back on the bed. The mint taste and smell is so strong that it's almost painful, burning-freezing down his throat and up his nose when he swallows, replacing the phantom gritty feeling.
"Should—" Tony starts, then pauses. "Um. Is this a cuddling moment, or an 'if I touch you you'll break my arm' moment?"
Steve lets out a breath in almost a laugh, leaning in towards Tony. "It can be a cuddling moment."
Tony rubs his back as the adrenaline dies down and Steve tries not to feel embarrassed. If they're going to sleep together Tony's guaranteed to see him having a nightmare at some point. Might as well get it over with at the start.
"Talk to me?" Steve says after a minute. "Something really Tony-ish."
"Um. Okay… uh, when I was a kid I built rocket-powered roller skates. First time I tried them out, I flew down the hallway, yelling, and then I ran into a wall and almost knocked myself out. Jarvis – the person Jarvis, practically raised me, inspired the AI J.A.R.V.I.S. – couldn't even scold me properly because he was too amused."
Steve smiles. "Did you start telling him about the modifications you were going to make before you even got up off the floor?"
"It's like you know me," Tony says. Steve tightens his arm around him. "You see, what I'd done wrong was fail to compensate for…"
Steve lets the tech-babble wash over him as the dream recedes and the world starts to feel normal and real again. The windows slowly lighten from blackout to clear, letting in the early morning light.
"I should shower," Steve says when Tony stops talking.
"Want company?" Tony says. "Not – that wasn't a come-on. Just… company. If you don't want to be alone. Or if you do want to be alone, I can go away. Or, if you want it to be a come-on, I could – stop me now, this kind of thing isn't my strong suit."
Steve pulls back and smiles at him. "No, you're… it's good. Sure, if you're getting up, come if you want." He pauses. "Dammit."
Tony laughs. "I'm a bad influence, I know."
Tony's shower is like being in the rain, and there's plenty of room for two people without one person having to stand out of the spray. Steve sighs as the water relaxes his shoulders; he washes his face and hair and then looks over at Tony.
Tony's gorgeous like this – head tilted up into the spray, water in his eyelashes and running down over his collarbones, the lines of muscle and… It's still a novelty to see Tony naked, especially when Steve's not yet desperate to touch and be touched.
Tony opens his eyes and catches Steve staring.
"Ah, sorry," Steve says almost on reflex.
"What, don't apologize, stare at me all you want." Tony steps closer and kisses him, gently and then deeper when Steve leans into it. "This is a come-on," Tony says, and Steve laughs.
"Glad you clarified, I wasn't sure, what with the naked and the kissing and the – oh—" Steve breathes in deep as Tony leans against him.
They run soapy hands over each other, building it up slow and unhurried. Steve kisses down Tony's chest, across the scattered shrapnel scars, splays his fingers over the arc reactor so the light reflects blue in the water on his skin. Tony doesn't say anything, just breathes carefully under his hand, and when Steve looks up Tony has his eyes closed and a strange expression on his face.
Steve moves his hand away immediately. "Um, sorry, do you not want me to…?"
Tony's eyes open. "No, it's just… I mean… most people are kind of freaked out by it or they just pretend it's not there which probably means they're also freaked out by it, even Pepper, though I suppose her first encounter involved her sticking her hand in there and that's got to be off-putting, I mean, I still find it kind of off-putting and you'd think I'd be used to it —"
He stops as Steve puts his hand back over the reactor. "I don't find it off-putting," Steve says. "There's nothing about you that could put me off."
Tony lets out a breath. "I still can't believe you're real sometimes."
"You'll get used to it," Steve says. "Wait, putting her hand in?"
"You don't know this story?"
Steve shakes his head. He's always thought of it as… a disc, a flat thing. But for Pepper's hand to fit in, it has to go deeper, through Tony's sternum and into his ribcage.
"I'll tell you later. And all the details, if you want. Should be someone on the team who knows all about it in case… in case, and if anyone knows it should be you." Tony kisses him again, casual as if he hadn't just offered Steve such a major display of trust. "Later. Sex now."
Steve's in love with Tony.
It's too soon to say it, but he knows it, feels it all through himself, here making out with Tony in this ridiculously opulent shower. Knows it without thinking about it, like he knows his own principles, his sense of right and wrong. He kisses Tony harder, presses closer, swallows the words down.
Tony shivers, both of them breathing hard, tipping over from languid exploration and enjoyment into hot need, Steve moving his hips so that they slide against each other.
Tony trails his fingers down Steve's stomach, then pulls back enough to meet Steve's eyes. "Listen, tell me if this is moving too fast for you, but I really want you to fuck me."
Steve takes a sharp breath and stammers, "No – I mean yes – no to too fast, yes to, uh, that," and Tony grins at him.
Steve's pretty sure he doesn't manage to rinse all the soap off himself, but he doesn’t care, not when Tony's pulling him out of the shower, quickly toweling both of them off, and pushing him back through the bedroom and onto the bed.
Tony fishes a plastic bottle out of the bedside table and hands it to Steve, then rolls them so Steve's on top of him.
"So, your research…" Tony breaks off as he watches Steve slick his fingers. "Was apparently thorough. Christ, I'm going to have dirty thoughts whenever you're planning battle strategies from now on. Your planning face is a turn-on, it's official."
It's so very Tony, bantering while leaning back and completely unselfconsciously spreading his legs. Steve's hands are shaking, but Tony doesn't comment, just takes the bottle back and pulls Steve's hand towards himself.
"At least then you'll pay attention to me and not fiddle with your phone," Steve replies after too long a pause, distracted and gratified to see Tony's hips twitch towards his touch.
Tony pulls him down to kiss him. "I always pay attention to you," he says, then tightens his grip on the back of Steve's neck as Steve tries to keep his hand steady, breathing fast as he presses a finger inside.
"Fuck! Ah," Tony tilts his head back and moans when Steve gets the right angle and pressure. "Thorough indeed."
Steve kisses Tony's neck and up to his mouth again. It's all slick heat for a while, Tony's mouth against his and Tony's body around his fingers, Tony making muffled noises whenever Steve moves. Steve's almost dizzy with need, trying to just stay in the moment while making sure he does this right.
He breaks the kiss to pull back and look – Tony's hard and dripping against his own stomach, and Steve leans down before he overthinks it, running his tongue up to taste. Tony jumps and swears, loudly and creatively.
Steve smiles, then pushes in deep with two fingers as he takes Tony into his mouth.
"Holy shit, wait, too good—" Steve looks up at him, licking his lips, and Tony groans. "Okay, that's one of the hottest things I've ever seen, but let me up or we won't get to the rest of the plan. Lay down, I'm going to ride you."
Steve makes a desperate noise and moves; Tony straddles him and then pauses to look at him. "Do you want to use a condom? I'm good with not if you are. I'm clean, you're immune to everything anyway, it's just your preference."
"Not is fine," Steve manages to say as Tony grabs for more lubricant, then just moans as Tony runs a slick hand over him. "Dammit, Tony, that's—"
"I know, fuck, I know. Okay now, just… just steady—" Tony takes a deep breath and lowers himself down while Steve tries not to move, his hands on Tony's hips. He realizes he's holding on really tightly and forces himself to relax, running his hands up Tony's sides and then down to his lower back.
"Fucking hell," Tony says as he settles down all the way.
"Are you okay?" Steve says, his voice coming out breathy and overwhelmed.
"Very okay." Tony grins down at him; Steve grabs Tony by the back of the head and pulls him down to kiss him. Tony kisses back, then sits up and starts moving, Steve thrusting up to meet his rhythm, find the angle that makes Tony gasp and swear.
It's fast and hard, neither of them able to hold back, and Tony makes a low urgent sound when Steve wraps his hand around him. "Oh shit, this is going to be over real fast if you—"
"I can't – I don't—" Steve gasps, the thought of making Tony come like this pushing him suddenly right to the edge, so close he's not sure if he's going to be able to hold off. "I want to see you before—"
Tony's back arches and he comes almost immediately, hot across Steve's hand and stomach, clenching tight around him, and all Steve can do is hang on to Tony and shake, making frantic noises as he follows.
"Goddamn," Steve says as Tony basically collapses on him.
"Shower part two?" Tony mumbles.
Tony's Board of Directors meeting goes shockingly well – but then, Tony is a genius, and currently a highly motivated one. The press conference for all the Avengers business is a resounding success – Steve makes an inspiring speech while Tony tries not to look like he's imagining blowing Steve on the podium (there's something about Steve being really competent and also really earnest that just gets to him). Things between him and Steve continue to be so good it's almost a bit sickening.
Of course, this is when everything goes to hell.
The mission is supposed to be a routine wanna-be supervillian, the kind that's been popping up all over since the whole Loki alien invasion business. Fame-seekers and criminals with flair, mostly.
Usually they can talk these guys down – or rather, Steve and Natasha can talk them down while everyone else looks menacing. When you've got Steve doing his 'Come along quietly, son, and nobody has to get hurt' thing on one side and the Hulk roaring on the other, well, it's not much of a choice.
But this guy seems to be invulnerable, has a whole bunch of people cornered on the fifth floor of an office building, and claims he's going to start killing hostages if the police don't let him leave. It's just Tony and Thor first on the scene, because they crashed in through the window while the others ran up the stairs (or through the back wall in Hulk's case).
"Lay down your weapons," Thor booms, Tony raising his hands with repulsors ready.
The guy just laughs, and before they can move, he grabs a teenage girl from the crowd, shoots her in the back, and throws her at them while he jumps out the window.
Thor bellows something and jumps out after him, wind whipping into the building as the sky gets dark.
Tony holds the girl as she dies, choking on her own blood in his arms, gone before he can do anything at all.
Everything gets confusing for a while. The rest of the hostages panic and run. The Hulk roars, charges through the crowd of screaming people, and leaps out after Thor. Tony can hear Natasha yelling something over the noise.
There's blood everywhere. Tony watches it pool on the floor and wonders distantly if he might be going into shock.
Blue and red and white appear in front of him, Steve dropping to his knees and yanking his gloves off to feel for a pulse; Tony could have told him what he'd find. He watched her heart stop – the HUD tells him these things. He lifts the faceplate up.
"She's just a kid," Tony says as he watches Steve's face. "I couldn't…"
Paramedics appear from somewhere and take the girl. Tony doesn't look. Steve doesn't either, pulling Tony towards him and leaning their foreheads together. "Tony, I'm—"
"You should be helping calm the crowd," Tony says. His own voice sounds strange, and he clears his throat, swallows and closes his eyes, pulls back from Steve. He has to get it together. It's not like he's never seen death before.
"Clint and Natasha are with the police, they've got it." The concern in Steve's voice feels almost abrasive.
"I let him get away." Tony looks down at his hands, drying blood on hot-rod red. "He just hit her and threw her at me and I couldn't…"
"Hulk and Thor will find him."
"She held my hand as she died." He can still see the wide-eyed shock in her eyes. He should have put the faceplate up so at least she'd be looking at a person, not a machine, but it didn't occur to him until after he watched her flatline.
"Tony, come here," Steve says. He pulls at Tony's shoulder. Tony ignores him.
"I wasn't fast enough. I should have taken a shot, grabbed her first maybe, I don't know." He takes a deep breath, almost gags on the smell of blood.
"You did all that you could." Steve cups Tony's face with his hand and tries to make Tony look at him, but Tony pulls away.
"Not enough." Tony gets up, stands up straight, and takes off. He doesn't look back.
Pepper calls him as he's out flying aimlessly over the water, after he's washed the blood off by the rather efficient method of diving into the ocean. He ignores her twice and then she overrides Jarvis and forces the connection.
"I'm fine," he says.
"You're obviously not."
"I don't want to talk about it."
Pepper sighs. "I know. You never do. So I'm not just calling to tell you that I love you and it's not your fault, I'm calling to tell you that someone took your picture. You and Steve. You look… nobody is going to be awful enough to confront you about it immediately, given the situation, but…"
"Fucking fantastic," Tony says, thinking back to what they must have looked like, Steve's hands on his face. "So today I let kids die and now I'm corrupting Captain America too."
"Tony no, don't say—"
"Figure out who has photos and get legal on it. Get that suppressed."
"Don't you think you should talk to St—"
"Disconnect call. Jarvis, master override, no calls." He gives the code. Jarvis' disapproving silence is almost a physical weight.
Tony goes supersonic, out over the middle of the Atlantic with nothing but blue as far as he can see.
It's useless. There's nowhere in the world he can go. Eventually, he turns around and goes home.
Steve runs up to him as he's taking the armor off, calling his name; Tony avoids his hands and his gaze.
"I assume Pepper told you," he says instead of looking at Steve.
"About the pictures."
"Oh! Uh, yes, I talked to her when she couldn't reach you. Tony, where have you been?" Steve tries to touch him again, but Tony dodges.
"You didn't have to wait up for me. Don't worry, I've got legal on it. This is small change compared to some of my fuckups."
Steve goes still. Tony walks past him into the tower. Clint and Thor are drinking beer in the living room; they both look up and freeze when they see Tony, Steve trailing behind him.
"You didn't think to ask me what I thought?" Steve says, far too quiet and calm. "You're just going to sweep the pictures under the rug?"
"Of course." Tony heads towards the liquor cabinet, still not looking at Steve.
"You…" Steve steps in front of him and takes a deep breath. "You can't just decide this stuff, Tony."
"Right," Clint says, getting up. "I'm going to run away now." He grabs Thor's arm and pulls him along out of the room. Tony and Steve both ignore them.
"Are they saying it already, that it was my fault, that I effectively killed that girl?" Tony meets Steve's eyes.
"You didn't—" Steve starts to say, but he looks away and Tony knows that he's right. "That wasn't your fault, we all know it. That fellow was just crazy – they're taking him to some special SHIELD prison. Thor was there too, and he wasn't fast enough either. None of us – nobody could have stopped that."
"Exactly, I'm just an easy target, I know. That's my point. You're—" Tony waves a hand to indicate Steve.
"I'm what?" Steve seems totally baffled, and Tony rolls his eyes.
"Captain America," he says.
"So?" Steve's voice drops low and dangerous.
Tony just keeps going, right over the tripwire, because why the hell not. "I don't want to ruin your reputation. Besides, you seemed pretty keen on keeping it a secret before."
"I wanted us to have an actual discussion, have some sort of plan. If you had asked me—" Steve cuts himself off. "You're trying to put me on the defensive. What's this really about, Tony?"
Tony steps forward, gets right in Steve's space. "I'm used to being hated and judged, but you. You don't like it when tabloids write articles talking about what a sweetheart you are – you think you can handle it when you can't walk out the door without people yelling at you, being disgusted by you, trying to get some kind of reaction from you? When people are saying you're sick and damned for being with a man, nevermind that that man is Tony fucking Stark, merchant of death?"
Steve goes pale and then red. "Yes."
Tony opens his mouth to argue, but Steve holds up a hand and keeps going. "Yes, I can handle it. What do you think my life was like growing up as the skinny poor kid? I've been called a lot of things, often while someone was hitting me. None of that ever stopped me speaking my mind. You want to protect me, Tony? I was in the war! I've seen some of the worst that people can do to each other. You think I can't handle people calling me names? You think I'd live a lie out of fear? I don't know what your problem is, but you don't know me as well as you seem to think you do."
Steve stares at him for a moment, his jaw clenched, and then turns and walks out. Tony fights back the sudden urge to vomit and goes in search of something mechanical to build, or destroy, or maybe just something to drink.
"Jarvis, you fucking traitor," Tony says as the workshop door opens.
"Ms Romanoff was not on the list of banned persons," Jarvis says.
Tony looks up as Natasha sits in the chair across from him. She takes the bottle from the coffee table, pours a full shot, and knocks it back without changing expression.
"Ah," Tony says. "Okay then. Help yourself."
She pours another and pushes it across the table to him. "If you insist on doing this, I'm going to keep you company."
He doesn't say anything. It's not like he can throw her out. Natasha could break him before he could even get the suit on, and he locked himself out of the armors anyway before he started drinking. He's not repeating that particular disaster, no matter what.
"For most people, love is a weakness," Natasha says after a good ten minutes of silence.
Tony almost inhales alcohol, blindsided and off-center, as she must have planned.
"For me it is." She stares into her glass. "I have made sacrifices accordingly."
Tony thinks about Clint, that ever-present something between them.
"For the two of you, love is a strength." Tony was expecting to be told to leave Steve alone or else, and makes a sound of wordless drunken confusion. Natasha ignores him. "Captain America and Iron Man are better for the team as a unit."
"This – this is about team effectiveness?" Tony manages to say. "Really?"
Natasha just looks at him. "You and I understand logic and maximizing efficiency more than any of the others. We are not ones to romanticize a situation that is not operating at greatest functionality."
"You're more sentimental than me." She looks around the workshop: at Dummy, at Steve's art supplies, at the photos of the team and Tony's parents. "Believe me when I say, I would not lie to you and risk the success of the team."
He believes her. It's a relief. She nods at whatever she sees on his face.
"You can trust that I know what I'm talking about, when I say that you balance each other. You prevent him from getting too set in his ways; you keep him from making decisions based solely on his emotions and forgetting his tactics. He prevents you from rebelling for the sake of it and making decisions based solely on the ends and not considering the means. The team would suffer led by only one of you. You challenge each other, and better strategy comes of it. "
"I—" Tony says, shaking his head. "What does this have to do with—"
"No team runs effectively by full consensus. Your love is a strength, because it keeps you accountable to each other. I would not like to see what would happen if you opposed each other without it."
Tony grabs for the bottle. Natasha calmly pours him a shot and pushes it across the table to him, watching as he gulps it down.
"Is this what they teach you in spy school?"
"That's the team," she says. "Now, let's talk about Tony Stark and Steve Rogers."
"I'd rather not."
She ignores him again. "Tell me that you're not a better man when you're with him than when you're not."
Tony rubs his hands over his face. "I can't. I'm – I'm better in every way when I'm with him."
"I care a lot about Steve," Natasha says. "And I want the best for him."
Tony lets out a shaky breath. "So do you see then why I can't… I want the best for him too. He doesn't know – he expects everyone to be like him and then he's shocked when they're not. It would be a disaster."
Natasha just looks at him, waiting.
"I destroy everything," Tony says finally, looking away.
"I'm happy here," she says, and it's such a non sequitur that he turns to stare at her. She tilts her head. "Here in this tower, in this home that you built for us. So is Clint. Bruce feels safe here. Thor could live anywhere, on Earth or in the realm of the Gods, but he calls this home as well. And then there's Steve."
Tony swallows hard.
"You didn't see his room at SHIELD, did you? The gym that they built for him. They surrounded him with the past, kept him locked up like something breakable or dangerous, unfit for society. You made him feel like this time was somewhere he could belong. You gave him a home when he thought he would never be home again. Yes, you did. You."
Tony closes his mouth on his protest and takes another drink, swallowing around the lump in his throat.
"I know what it's like," she says, "to know only destruction." Her smile is a twisted little thing. "People like him don't have to make the choices that people like us have to make. You know what you could be, the things you're capable of doing. He believes that you won't choose that."
Tony struggles with the truth of that for a moment. "Why are you telling me this?"
Natasha raises an eyebrow. "Team effectiveness." She gets up, just as graceful as always. "Steve's outside your door."
Tony puts his head in his hands. He wants to tell her to leave him out there. Steve will go away eventually. Eventually. Steve's pretty stubborn, and there's something about him sitting outside the workshop that makes Tony ache. "Let him in on your way out?"
"Natasha." She pauses and Tony raises his head to look at her. "About your weakness. You should talk to him."
"Take your own advice. Goodnight, Tony," she says, and leaves.
Tony looks up as Steve walks in. He's half in uniform, wearing the blue shirt but missing the body armor, the blue pants replaced with sweatpants, probably because there was blood all over his knees. He's got his 'I will not be swayed from this course of action' face on, but he also looks kind of lost and terrified.
Tony holds out the bottle. "Get rid of this."
Steve takes it carefully, turns, and smashes it in the sink. "Wow," Tony says; then he just feels guilty and sick as he watches Steve take two deep breaths and then start cleaning up the glass.
"Don't make decisions for me," Steve says in the direction of the sink.
"Okay," Tony says. Steve turns to look at him, studies him for a moment, and comes to sit beside him.
Tony presses his forehead into Steve's chest, closing his eyes against the way the room is spinning. "I'm an idiot."
"Yes," Steve says, and runs his hands through Tony's hair.
"You know that's not going to change, right?"
Steve huffs a breath of laughter against Tony's temple. "I don't want to change you. I just want to know what you're thinking."
"Right now I'm thinking that I should maybe have some water, and also that Natasha might be a robot. She's too good at this. I don't think she's human."
He can feel Steve trying not to laugh. "I'm pretty sure she's not a robot. I'll get you water."
"We'll talk in the morning," Tony says.
"Thank you. Will… will you come to bed?" Steve sounds so nervous. It makes Tony's chest hurt.
"Yeah," he says, and it feels like he's agreeing to a lot more than sleeping arrangements. "Yes, I will."
Tony wakes first, less hung-over than he deserves, and spends a good ten minutes watching Steve sleep. Steve's expression is soft and his hair is a mess and his hand is under Tony's pillow – or rather, the pillow on the side of the bed which is not Steve's, because Tony stayed the night in Steve's room, completely at ease here between these plain cotton sheets.
Tony takes a deep breath. Then he brushes Steve's hair to the side, runs his thumb down the faint stubble on his cheek.
Steve opens his eyes and smiles before he even focuses properly.
"I need coffee," Tony says. "And I have to make some calls. You should go work out – I know you didn't yesterday and you get pissy when you don't two days in a row. Drives everyone crazy."
"Mmm." Steve pulls Tony towards himself and Tony goes.
"You really want to do this, don't you?" It falls out of his mouth before he's decided to say it.
Steve doesn't pretend to misunderstand. "I really do."
Steve leans back to look at him. "Okay? I've got to say I was expecting more of a discussion."
"Oh, there'll be a discussion," Tony says. "But that's just to work out the specifics."
Steve kisses him, morning breath and all. "Okay," he says. "Okay."
Jane's in the kitchen, plowing through a bowl of Froot Loops and hanging on to a giant mug of coffee.
"Hi," Tony says. "I didn't know you were here." He pours himself the last of the pot and starts another.
"I flew in late last night," Jane says between mouthfuls. "For Thor. He was pretty upset."
Now there's a wave of guilt, because he was so caught up in his own crisis he barely even thought about Thor. Tony sits at the table with his mug. "How's he doing now?"
Jane looks down into her coffee. "Better. I think. He'll feel better when he wakes up." She sighs.
"I hope so."
They sit for a moment.
"How are you?" she asks, carefully.
"Better this morning," Tony says. He gives her a half-smile. "But let's not dwell. So. Talk science to me, baby. Did you ever fix that malfunction? I could have told you it was going to happen with the way you were over-clocking that thing."
Jane makes a face and launches into an animated discussion about her latest work. Tony hands her a marker so she can draw on the table and pretends to doubt her math so that she'll flail her arms around.
"Pardon me, sir," Jarvis interrupts. "Dr Foster, notification as you requested: Thor is now awake and heading to the gymnasium. He seems in improved spirits."
"Thanks, Jarvis," Jane says. Her shoulders relax.
"Steve's in the gym." Tony sips his coffee and raises his eyebrows. "Once we're fully caffeinated, we should wander that way and ogle."
"I knew there was a reason I liked you." Jane sticks the marker in her hair and grabs her mug to take a gulp.
Darcy wanders into the room, yawning, and collapses in the seat next to Jane with her head on Jane's shoulder.
"You got here last night too?" Tony gets up to get himself more coffee, taking Jane's mug when she slides it across the table towards him. "Am I running a hotel now?"
"Thor's my bro and Jane needs someone else to pack her bag or none of her clothes will match," Darcy says, yawning again. "It's pathetic. Hey, can I take a picture of you? People don't believe me that you ever look less than perfect, and that is some truly epic bedhead you've got going on."
Tony laughs and resists the urge to touch his hair. "Request denied. I don't want to spoil my mystique."
Darcy snorts. "Yeah, I tell people all about you guys and what dorks you are, but they don't believe me."
"Hey, I am definitely a nerd, not a dork," Tony protests, sitting back down with his mug and watching Jane spoon a heaping tablespoon of sugar into hers. "Or maybe a geek. Steve is the dork."
"Whatever you say, man," Darcy says.
Tony opens his mouth and then stops mid-breath and tilts his head, considering. "So, you talk to people about us, do you?"
Jane sighs. "Darcy likes to argue with people on the internet about you guys. And tell me about it. At length. In the middle of the night."
"Internet troll and proud of it. But pro- you guys, always. I can't hate. Oh, and I make Avengers t-shirts too. I made Jane a Thor's hammer one, where the hammer is a metaphor for something else, but she won't wear it." Darcy elbows Jane and attempts to steal her coffee.
Tony stares off into the distance, tuning out Jane's response and tapping his fingers on the table. After a moment, he says, "I need to know more about public opinion of the Avengers, Steve and me in particular. Not what the press thinks, or the government, or the loud minority, but the general public. And also our fans… trends in fan discussions. And the people who don't like us – the rational ones, not the crazy ones. I need data to make some predictions."
The argument about tasteful t-shirts is abandoned and they stare at him for a moment. Then Darcy's mouth falls open. "Are you going to—?"
"You're going to come out," Jane says.
"Yeah." Tony pauses, but the wave of panic doesn't come. Instead, he's suddenly kind of excited. He and Steve are going to shake this country up – fuck that, they're going to shake this world up. It might be a disaster, but if it is, at least it's going to be one for the history books. Of all the ways that Tony could make history…
Tony looks at Jane, a bit startled. "You think so?"
Jane rolls her eyes. "You're talking to the woman who's dating the Norse God of Thunder. Technically I'm in an interspecies relationship."
"The internet is going to explode," Darcy says gleefully. "You're going to crash – everything really. You're going to crash everything."
"Yep." Tony leans back in his seat. "That's the idea. So, Jane, darling, mind if I borrow Darcy as a… public opinion consultant? I promise I'll give her back in mint condition."
Darcy sits up so fast she almost falls off her chair.
"Are you joking?" Jane says, leaning in and grinning. "You can borrow her as long as I can get in on this. I want ringside seats at least."
"I don't think we'll need any physics expertise, but we can always use another non-conformist nutcase." Tony returns the smile.
"Coming from you, that's a compliment."
Thor and Steve poke their heads into the kitchen then, both of them sweat-soaked. There's a lot of damp fabric clinging to muscles.
"No breakfast?" Thor says. Steve looks disappointed. Tony's definitely got it bad, because he almost volunteers to make breakfast. Or at least wake up Bruce and make him make breakfast.
"I'll make it if you have bacon," Darcy says, then looks offended when everyone stares at her. "What? I can cook. Cook and public opinion consultant for the Avengers, sweet gig. You're paying me, right?"
"Consultant?" Steve looks at Tony. "For—"
"Yes and yes," Tony interrupts before Thor figures out what they're talking about and starts congratulating them again. "Go shower. Breakfast then talking."
While Darcy and Jane start preparing food (enough for everyone, because the smell will draw them in), and Thor and Steve go shower, Tony takes the opportunity to go call Pepper.
"So I might have been a bit hasty," he says as soon as she picks up.
Pepper lets out a breath in clear relief. "It's a good thing I just stalled everyone then, isn't it."
"You're perfect. Delay, delay, delay. We can't overshadow the memorial and criminal trial with this." Tony rubs his forehead. "Also that gives us time to plan. Yes, I'm advocating having a plan."
"I wasn't going to comment," Pepper says. "I just so happen to have a meeting in New York on Tuesday."
"I could just so happen to call an Avengers and friends meeting on Tuesday. Darcy makes Avengers t-shirts, did you know that? I'm buying you a t-shirt. Oh – Carolina. We should—"
"I'll call her." Pepper ignores the t-shirt comment and Tony resolves to get her the most obnoxious Iron Man shirt imaginable. "This is right up her alley. I'll get back to you once I've talked with her."
"Great. So…" Tony looks out the window over the city and tries to put his thoughts into words. "If we go public…"
Pepper cuts him off. "I'm not thrilled about what this is going to do to the stocks, but if you ask me if I'm sure that I support you on this, I will hang up on you."
Tony smiles and leans his forehead against the glass. "Will that be all, Ms Potts?"
Steve gives himself the morning to be happy, but reality intrudes pretty quickly.
The Avengers hold a press conference that afternoon to speak about the tragedy. The press are surprisingly well-behaved, but there's no way the experience can be anything but awful. Tony sits too straight and still, delivering his statements without his usual animated gestures and banter. Thor nearly cries when it's his turn to speak, and it turns out even reporters are not immune to that.
Steve feels a bit bad about how he's assuming the worst about the press. But only a bit. He's on high alert – he has to force himself to stay outwardly calm.
The only talk of blame is aimed at the murderer, at least at the press conference. Steve's really glad about that, not in the least because he's not actually sure whether he could keep his composure if someone accused Tony of that to his face. Or any of them, but especially Tony.
Nobody mentions the pictures. Pepper and Carolina had something to do with that – making sure everyone waits until a respectful time after the funeral before publishing them. Steve doesn't think he's imagining the stares and whispering though.
The public memorial is heartrending. The Avengers all go, but they don't speak and they sit at the back in civilian clothes to try and keep from causing a media spectacle. This isn't about them. The funeral itself is just for family, which is for the best really.
They go for Ethiopian food after the memorial, because trying a new type of world cuisine after stressful events has become sort of a thing. Steve presses his knee against Tony's under the table.
Honestly, it's the sort of weekend that you just try and endure.
They spend Monday doing separate activities – Steve reads and paints alone all day and feels a hundred times better for it – but they all end up together for dinner and then kind of drift into the TV room after to watch mindless movies.
Steve's sharing a bowl of popcorn with Natasha and Jane, Tony leaning against him and designing on his tablet. They're all watching a really terrible but somehow hilarious movie about giant bugs. The audience commentary is the best part, especially Clint's and Darcy's.
"Sir, I am receiving an incoming signal," Jarvis says suddenly.
"You're what? Incoming from where?" Tony props himself up from his position leaning on Steve's chest.
"War Machine, reaching Avengers Tower in one minute."
Tony bounces to his feet. "Rhodey? Really?" He starts for the door, then comes back and grabs Steve's arm to pull him along.
Steve lets himself be pulled, a bit nervously. He's met a lot of people that Tony knows, but James Rhodes is one of Tony's very few real friends.
The War Machine is hovering above the landing area, the armor-removing robots reaching up for it. The suit looks like a bulked up Iron Man with a giant gun on the shoulder, which is sort of weird for a moment. Steve's maybe biased, but he prefers the original. The Iron Man is flashy, but it's also sleek and efficient and only obviously threatening when Tony wants it to be.
The faceplate flips up. "Your robots are trying to molest me, Tony!" Rhodes calls down.
"Let them!" Tony calls back. "They know how to get the War Machine off, not that they ever get to practice. You don't write, you don't call… come on, are you serious with that face, just land and walk towards me, they'll follow you. Don't look so panicked about it."
Rhodes steps out of the last of the armor and he and Tony hug tightly for a moment. Tony pulls back and holds out a hand in Steve's direction, smiling.
"Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes, Captain Steven Rogers aka Captain America. Steve, Rhodey." Tony gestures between them, grinning.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Captain," Rhodes holds out his hand.
"Steve, please," Steve says as he takes it. "The pleasure is mine."
"Call me Rhodey, then."
"I'm breaking out in hives here." Tony rolls his eyes. "Just salute each other and get it over with, this is pathetic."
"Tony," they sigh in unison, then look at each other and laugh.
"I can see I'm going to like you," Rhodey says, and pulls Steve into a one-armed, back-slapping hug. "Man, I had your comics when I was a kid, I might be having a moment. And then I hear through the grapevine that you're dating my best friend – through the grapevine, Tony, not even from said best friend himself—"
"Honeybear! You were doing stuff! And have you been following the news? I've been busy—"
"—and then Pepper tells me that Tony's being responsible for once in his life and I better get my ass over to New York by Tuesday—"
Tony makes a mock-wounded noise. "I'm practically a paragon of responsibility nowadays; you're hurting my feelings here—"
"—and then I was ordered to come here anyway because my superiors figured that since I didn't strangle Tony during my time as military liaison to Stark Industries, guess who gets the job of military liaison to the Avengers, at least temporarily."
"You're not just here for me? Now I'm really crushed—"
Rhodey points his finger at Steve. His face is serious but his eyes are amused."You are about to cause major upheaval, soldier."
"Um," Steve says, trying not to laugh. "Yeah, I'd say that's an accurate assessment. Sir."
Tony groans. "Don't call Rhodey sir. It sounds all weird and wrong. Rhodey, serious discussion day is tomorrow. Get inside so you can meet everyone."
It's slow and quiet this time, late that night once they're alone, pulling off clothes and entangling limbs, holding each other on Tony's bed with the lights on low. Tony watches Steve with dark eyes, his hands gentle on Steve's skin.
Everything is still so new, Tony's mouth and hands all over him, finding sensitive spots he didn't know he had. Tony keeps quiet, just breathing fast; Steve's gasps and choked-off noises seem loud against the silence of the penthouse and the faint sound of wind and traffic outside.
Tony pushes Steve's thighs apart a little, wiggles in closer between them. Steve closes his eyes when Tony takes him into his mouth, all the way, letting himself just get lost in the feeling.
Opening his eyes again and looking down at Tony is almost too much; the sight of Tony with his eyes closed and his brow slightly furrowed with concentration, his mouth open around… But Steve's been wanting something, thinking about it over the past couple days in particular – though in truth he's been curious for ages.
Tony lets go and looks up at him; Steve makes himself keep eye contact even though his ears are burning. "I want…" He pauses. Tony just waits. "I've been thinking I want to try, um. What we did before, but you… doing that to me."
Tony's reaction to that is clear, but then he looks up at Steve very seriously. "You know that we don't have to, or have to yet… it's not like going through a list, checking all the boxes. No rush."
It's a bit odd to have a conversation while Tony's face is still right there, Tony's hands on his inner thighs.
"I know – I just… want." Steve bites his lip at the thought of it, takes a sharp breath when Tony presses his thighs apart further, still watching Steve intently, then runs one thumb down lower. "I – I really. Dammit." The words are hard to say, so he goes for action instead, rolling over to grab the lube out of the drawer and hand it to Tony.
Tony looks at it for a second, then takes it. "Okay. Uh, fuck. Okay, we're going to go really slow and careful." He looks back up at Steve. "I mean it. If we have to work up to it over a few times that's completely fine. It can be… if you've never – we'll just take care, okay? I want—" Tony cuts himself off.
Steve gets the impression that maybe someone didn't take care with Tony, and tries to keep his reaction to that from showing on his face. "Okay," he says. "You know that I trust you."
Tony takes a deep breath and rests his face against Steve's thigh. "Do you have any idea—" He props himself up on one arm and leans up to kiss Steve. Steve pulls up his knees to bracket Tony's body and the kiss gets more frantic until Tony moves away with a gasp, slides back down between Steve's legs.
Steve braces himself when Tony reaches for him with slick fingers, then catches himself doing it and tries to relax. Tony presses kisses along his hip and trails his fingers everywhere, over taut skin and down but not quite there, then circling but not quite pressing in, over and over until Steve's on the verge of just grabbing his hand, or maybe begging.
"My God, Tony, just—"
"Blasphemy," Tony murmurs, and Steve's back arches as he finally, finally presses in.
The first finger is easy enough, though it's kind of a weird sensation and he feels exposed in a way that's both embarrassing and arousing, watching Tony watching what he's doing with his hand. He runs his hand through Tony's hair and down to cup his face, needing the contact. Tony turns and kisses his palm.
He feels the stretch of the second, but Tony takes him in his mouth again and presses up inside him at the same time, which feels so good that Steve has to focus on not coming immediately.
Tony works him with two for a while, long past when Steve's desperate for it, moving in uncontrollable thrusts to press down on Tony's hand and up into his mouth, torn between the two feelings. Suddenly, Tony gets it perfect and Steve gasps, almost going over the edge, but Tony moves to kiss his stomach, stilling his fingers until Steve gets himself under a semblance of control.
"Holy fuck," Tony says roughly, leaning his forehead against Steve's stomach. "How are – do you think – I'm about to rub off against the sheets here. Are you—?"
"God, yes." Steve fumbles for the lube, pours some onto his own hand, then grabs for Tony, slicking him while Tony moans his name. He tightens his legs around Tony's body to pull him closer.
"It's easier if you're on top," Tony tries to say. Steve shakes his head.
"I'm fine – it's – I want it like this."
Tony takes a couple deep breaths, obviously trying to compose himself, then holds eye contact while he slowly pushes forwards, Steve's fingers digging into the sheets before he lets go and hangs on to Tony's shoulders instead.
It's different than the fingers, more intense and it feels like he can't get a full breath all through the smooth steady push, can't breathe properly even when Tony stops with no farther to go.
"Oh fuck, oh God, oh fuck," Tony presses frantic kisses along Steve's collarbone and chest. "Talk to me, Steve, tell me I'm not hurting you."
"Huuuuohhh dammit," Steve manages. Tony huffs a breath of laughter against his skin, follows it with another kiss, keeping still while Steve tries to adjust and relax. "Ah, no, doesn't hurt, it's just—"
"I know," Tony says, voice tight. "Breathe. We'll just… hang out for a minute."
It's good but overwhelming and very strange. Then Tony shifts position, tentatively moving, and it's suddenly amazing.
Steve makes this loud strangled noise. Tony grins at him. "Yeah, that's it." He rotates his hips in a slow circle, Steve's fingers grabbing tight on his arms.
They start so slow that it's almost unbearable, moving faster once it's nothing but good and easy, Steve trying to move with Tony but mostly just hanging on.
"God, Steve, I—" Tony gasps, leaning back. He angles his hips up, takes Steve in his hand, works him fast and tight from the start and in time with the movement of his hips, and Steve chokes out "Fuck!" and comes, so hard his whole body convulses with it and he's probably leaving finger-bruises on Tony's thighs.
Tony leans in and kisses him as he shudders through the aftershocks. "Can I – can I still—" he says between kisses. His hips twitch against Steve.
"Keep going," Steve manages. He lets go of his death grip on Tony 's thighs and strokes up Tony's chest to frame the arc reactor as Tony moves again, short fast thrusts just on the right side of too much.
"Steve—" Tony looks down at him, raw emotion clear on his face, then bends to kiss him again, mouth and hips going uncoordinated and frantic before he stills.
They hold each other for a long moment after, and once they've cleaned up, Steve falls asleep curled against Tony's back.
"Meeting in the War Room, aka the kitchen," Tony says through the intercom the following day. "Refreshments provided by, I don't know, someplace delicious that Pepper picked out."
No matter what Tony calls it, Steve's glad they're having this talk in the kitchen. It makes it seem a bit less surreal – they often plan and discuss past battles and just hang out in there.
Everyone wanders in and grabs plates of appetizers and drinks and arranges themselves around the table or perched up on the counters. It's a bit crowded, but this is a pretty big kitchen.
"So," Steve says when everyone's settled. "Since we all know why we're here and this is weird enough already, I hope nobody minds if I skip directly to the point."
"Sounds good," Natasha says, her voice reassuring. Steve gives her a quick smile.
"First off, I want to say that I for one would rather just be honest and make a public statement – no mixed-signals, keeping-everyone-confused nonsense. So all planning should be based on that."
Tony leans back in his chair. "Yeah, go big or go home. That's my motto."
"We're all aware," Carolina says, sounding amused. "I agree though. In this situation, an unambiguous statement seems like your best bet."
"I think you'll have strong public support as well as public backlash," Darcy says. "So that's good. Shockingly, Steve's rather popular with gay guys."
"Shockingly!" Tony laughs.
"Do I even want to ask why?" Steve says, and then shakes his head. "I probably don't."
"Have you seen yourself?" Darcy says at the same time as Clint says, "One word: Spandex." They high-five.
"Press conference, then?" Pepper says, getting things back on topic, to Steve's relief. "Also solves the issue of people fighting over who gets to break the story."
There's a murmur of agreement. Carolina opens a schedule and she and Pepper lean over it.
"Should we all be in uniform or civilian clothes?" Clint asks, spearing a piece of cheese and popping it in his mouth.
"Wait, we all?" Tony says. "This is a group event?"
Natasha looks at him. "Team effectiveness," she says, which doesn't make sense to Steve but makes Tony blink and close his mouth. "We want to present a united front. Besides, if you think we're letting you face this alone…"
"I vote civvies then," Tony says quickly. "Less gimmicky."
"Yeah, you don't want this to seem like a publicity stunt for the Avengers," Darcy says.
"People have no imagination. If this was a publicity stunt, it would be much more dramatic. Like me and Steve discovered having an orgy with a bunch of backup dancers, half of them in stars and stripes and the other half decked out with glowy lights and red hot pants." Tony looks around. "What?"
"Anyway," Steve says, trying not to blush. "I'd also like to be in civilian dress. I'm doing this as Steve Rogers, not Captain Rogers or Captain America."
"Well, you're actually doing it as all three, because you are all three," Tony says.
Rhodey clears his throat. "I happen to know that there was a huge debate about whether it would be good or bad if you were in military dress."
Steve stares at him. "Really?"
"The higher-ups can't decide if it's worse if it looks like you have military backing, or if it's worse if it looks like you don't."
"Huh," Steve says. "Well. I guess let me know if there's a decision. I wouldn't mind military backing, but if not I'll just wear a suit."
"My tailor might pass out," Tony mutters to Pepper. She gives him a look but her lips twitch.
"I will wear my armor," Thor says. "I represent Asgard as well as the Avengers and myself."
"You can wear whatever you want, Thor." Tony pats Thor's bicep.
"Definitely civvies for me – the Other Guy is coming nowhere near this," Bruce says. "He gets protective."
Tony tilts his head and looks at Bruce. "How about you?"
Bruce smiles a bit. "I get protective too. But I'm sure I can keep it under control. If it gets dodgy, I'll go for the exit and think calming thoughts. If all hell breaks loose, well." He spreads his hands. "Him getting protective isn't all bad."
Steve doesn't know how to react to that, not sure if he's even reading it right, but Tony just nods.
"Worst-case scenario plans are my jurisdiction and will be discussed with those involved," Natasha says. "The rest of you will be briefed as necessary." She looks around the table; most people look away.
Steve makes a mental note to have a serious conversation with Natasha in private.
"You are terrifying," Tony says, and the corner of her mouth quirks up. "I'm glad Steve's one of your favorite people."
"Believe it or not, you've grown on me too." Natasha's smile spreads. "You know, like a fungus."
"Well," Pepper says brightly. "Moving on. As for Stark Industries, I'm going to need to announce it to the Board before the general public announcement – don't argue, Tony, you're not the one who will have to tell them and then calm everyone down."
"Not arguing," Tony says, hands up in surrender. "I'd just like to say that my recent big announcements have all turned out rather well for the Board, even though everyone shat when I made them. So, you could always remind them of that."
"Don't worry, I will. I'll let you know when I need you for a meeting."
Tony sighs but doesn't argue. He turns to Darcy and she sits up straight. "So, Darcy, lay it on me. What's the general view of us nowadays? Not just the gay guys. Also, what news from the enemy camp?"
"Well," she says. "People think the Avengers have cleaned you up and speculate that Steve in particular is a positive influence on you. Almost everyone loves Steve."
Steve shifts in his seat uncomfortably. Darcy pats his shoulder.
"Sorry, man, you're just lovable. So, yes. There are still people being awful about both of you, but it seems like that's only minority groups with agendas, and you're never going to please them. Honestly, you're doing pretty good. There's lots of talk about super-powered criminals and why superheroes are needed. Almost everyone is over Steve's speech about gay marriage and finds an actually honest public figure to be at least refreshing, if not downright revelatory. Anyone making negative comments online gets slammed by your fans and even people who are kind of ambivalent about superheroes. General consensus – you're good guys."
Tony leans forward and opens his mouth; Darcy narrows her eyes at him. "Yeah, all of you. There's a lot of people who respect you, Tony. So, I predict that while this is going to be a big deal and you can't avoid that, there's enough strong positive public opinion to absorb the backlash. Be honest and real and keep on being people that we all can respect, and people should rally behind you. If you want to see my data, I made a spreadsheet and uploaded it to Jarvis."
There's a moment of silence while they all look at the spreadsheet in something like awe. Darcy takes a little bow.
Jane grins. "I supervised."
Darcy pokes her. "You ooh'd and ahh'd at my brilliance."
"Damn," Tony says. "I forget what I said I'd pay you, but it's more now."
"Well. Great. Thank you, Darcy," Steve says, not bothering to hide his smile. "Alright. Let's talk strategy."
The meeting seems to go on for forever, until every detail is hashed out and everyone is fidgety and tired but finally satisfied.
"So, that was exhausting," Tony says to Steve as they all drift out of the kitchen. "What do you say to full contact in-armor sparring?"
"God, yes." Steve sighs, fingers already twitching for his shield.
"You need to tell him, Tony," Pepper's voice says, and Steve stops in the hallway.
"I know, I know. But it's just – it's like kicking a puppy."
Steve takes a deep breath and walks into the room. Tony turns and gives a little wave in greeting. To Steve's relief, he just looks tired, not guilty or upset.
"Hi Steve," Pepper says from the computer screen. "Tony has to talk to you about something. And then he has to make several extremely important phone calls that he might try and get out of, but he really, really can't get out of."
"Um, okay," Steve says. Tony heaves a sigh.
"I'm relying on you to make sure he does these things—"
"What is this conspiracy—?"
"—because I simply don't have time for it right now and it's very important. Tony, I'll talk to you tomorrow morning."
Pepper leans in close to the camera. "Tony, it will be okay. We're going to be fine. We'll make this fine."
Tony sighs. "Yeah, okay. Talk to you tomorrow. Bye, Pep."
"So," Steve says when Pepper's window goes dark. Tony runs both hands through his hair, then turns fully to look at Steve.
"So. We lost one of our contracts because the project director is a fucking bigot, though he's not saying that's why he dropped us, of course, and now the stocks are looking a bit… squiffy. The Board told Pepper to get control of me – see, kicked puppy face, I knew you'd do this."
Steve tries to get his face under control.
"Now you just look constipated. Well, Pepper told them where to stick it – politely, of course—" Tony grins for a second "—but I still have to call a couple people and make nice, convince them I haven't gone nuts, that sort of thing."
"I'm sorry," Steve says. It's the wrong thing to say, apparently.
"Are you actually surprised by this?" Tony crosses his arms over his chest.
"No. I mean, I know we figured there'd be backlash." Steve sits down in the chair across from Tony. "I just hate – I mean, it's your company."
Tony sighs, sounding almost bored. "We already had this fight, Capsicle. I wasn't just trying to push you away – the backlash against you is going to dwarf the backlash against me. This is nothing, baby."
Steve breathes around a hot jab of anger. "Don't patronize me—"
"No! What? I'm not, I just…" Tony pauses and struggles. "Well. I'm not trying to. Let me restart. This is actually okay. I just have to call people. It's not a crisis. I've crashed our stocks before, and I'll do it again. It's – look, before, capital B Before, the Board would come after me for being a drunken trainwreck. But there's three stock crashes I'm never going to apologize for – when I stopped making weapons, when I told the world I was Iron Man, and this with you. If they don't like that I'm trying to make something of myself and live my life honestly, then they can just get the fuck off my Board."
"Tony," Steve whispers, but Tony keeps talking over him.
"They can say whatever they want. Sure, I care about Stark Industries, but it's just a company. I can always make more money, making money is what I do. What I'm not going to do is just roll over because they think that they can put me on a leash and manipulate me into—"
"I love you," Steve blurts out.
Tony stops mid-word. His eyes get comically wide. Steve tries a smile.
"I—" Tony says, then stops.
"You," Steve agrees, and they both start laughing even though it isn't really very funny.
Tony reaches out and grabs Steve, their chairs rolling together until their knees connect, kisses him deep and hard and then says it back, the words rushed and barely audible against Steve's mouth.
They kiss until they both have to stop for air. Steve leans against Tony's shoulder, Tony's heartbeat fast and loud against his ear, his own pulse hammering in his head.
"Right, okay, only a certain number of mushy declarations possible and I'm over quota and I need to get back in business mode and write speeches," Tony says in a rush.
Steve lets him go, rolling his chair back so they can both breathe. "It's okay, I'm… over quota too. Definitely."
"Thank fuck," Tony says, but he's still grinning.
"Glad we agree." Steve ducks his head and runs his hand through his hair. "So, um… what's your plan?"
"Genius technology and charm," Tony says. "Worked for me so far. Wanna help me write an earnest-sounding speech?"
Steve sits up straight and says, "I am the man for the job," in his best Captain America voice, then breaks character to laugh at Tony's expression.
Chapter-specific warning: brief mention of of past suicidal ideation.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Steve finds Tony lying on the rooftop instead of in bed where he should be, but he just comes over and lies down beside him without comment. It's a cloudy night, so they can't see the stars, not that the middle of New York is prime stargazing location anyway. The view isn't the point.
Tony refuses to get freaked out by the sky, and he'll lie on the roof in the middle of the night for hours if that's what it takes.
Steve breathes beside him, not waiting or hovering, just there.
Tony speaks after a long moment. "I remember thinking, well, at least the last thing I see is the stars in another world. Pretty fantastic last sight."
Steve takes his hand, leaves the kind of silence that Tony can fill if he wants, or not.
"You ready for tomorrow?" Tony says, pushing aside the memory.
Steve squeezes his hand. "As ready as I can be. I've never really been ready for anything important in my life, even when I thought I was. The serum, war, death, the future… getting kissed mid-motivating-speech…"
"One of my finer moments." Tony lets out a breath of almost laughter. "Ever just sit and think about how weird our lives are?"
"I could spend all my time doing that." He can hear Steve's smile in his voice. "But what would we do with normal lives?"
Tony turns a bit to look at him out of the corner of his eye, Steve's profile outlined in city lights. "Didn't you ever want – you know, wife and kids and house in the suburbs?"
Steve glances at him and shrugs. "Sure I did, once. Although I was thinking house in a neighborhood with a bit more personality."
Tony can still imagine it, Steve meeting some nice girl and settling down. It hurts like fresh metal in his chest, but he can picture it so clearly, Steve being happy with that: the American Dream, complete with white picket fence and golden retriever and someone kind and caring and supportive, someone who does things like remember birthdays and doesn't do things like fly missiles into space.
"Once?" he says. Steve tightens his fingers around Tony's again.
"I didn't know it consciously then, but I turned away from that future the day I took the serum. Before, even. I'm Captain America, and I'm always going to be Captain America first." He holds his arm out, flexes his muscles. "It's a part of me – I can't go back. More importantly, I wouldn't if I could."
"Yeah," Tony says. He swallows and taps the arc reactor. "I get it."
"We pay a price for what we are," Steve says. "I wouldn't push that on someone who didn't choose it. And – and I don't want that either. To be with someone who doesn't understand me. All of me."
Steve turns to look at Tony, and for the first time in his life, Tony thinks forever.
"Ugly tower in Manhattan," Tony says after too long a pause, "not quite a house in Brooklyn. Group of unbalanced superheroes, not exactly fresh-faced little blond kids. And I don't have the chest for a wedding gown."
Steve rolls over and kisses him. "I like you best in work jeans, friends are the family you choose, and the tower's kind of… grown on me."
"You still think it's ugly," Tony says, trying and failing to keep from grinning like an idiot.
"I still think it's ugly." Steve grins back. "It's a good thing we are just so damn pretty."
"Did you just sort-of quote Firefly to me?" Tony says incredulously. "Take off your pants."
Steve laughs, and blushes, but he also takes off his pants.
It's standing room only out there, just white noise of babbling voices and rustling movements.
The six of them cluster behind the door, which is rather a tight fit, mostly because of Thor's battle armor and full cape. He's even wearing the helmet with the wings on it. Steve feels small next to him.
"If you're going to hurl, don't do it on me," Tony whispers in Steve's ear. "You don't even want to know how much this suit cost, not to mention the shoes."
Steve covers his mouth with his hand to muffle his laugh. He's in modern military dress himself, though it was such a close call that he now has a ridiculously expensive suit of his own hanging in his closet, pressed and ready to go.
"I'm not going to hurl," he says. "Though this does feel disturbingly like I might have to make a speech about war bonds."
"I could make the intercom play Star-Spangled Man if that would make you feel better." Tony nudges him with his elbow.
"Don't even joke."
"How about a mash-up—"
"Don't finish that sentence." Steve makes a face.
"Showtime," Natasha says, looking at her watch. Clint pats both Tony and Steve on the shoulder and gives them a thumbs up.
Natasha and Clint step out first, both of them in suits hiding a small arsenal of weapons. Natasha just sighed at Steve when he'd tried to ask her if she was really going armed.
He supposes he can't talk. His shield and Tony's suitcase armor are already in place under the table. This isn't going into battle, but the adrenaline rush and the focused nervousness feels the same.
The noise increases for a second and then dies back as Natasha and Clint presumably take their seats, one on each end of the row. Thor and Bruce go out a moment later, Thor striding out like he owns the place and Bruce lurking behind him.
A hush falls.
"Last chance to back out," Tony says. There's a thread of seriousness in there with the flippancy.
"If you're going to hurl, don't do it on me," Steve says, deadpan. "I just polished my boots."
Tony chokes back a laugh, smoothes his suit jacket, squares his shoulders. They push the doors open together.
There are so many cameras that it's like walking into a wall of white light. Steve can barely see anything. He's just trying not to trip over his own feet when Tony grabs a mike and calls out, "How's this for a picture?"
Steve has time for a split second of confusion before Tony spins him towards himself by his elbow and kisses him hard. He has a split second of shock before he decides to hell with it and dips Tony while kissing back.
The crowd gasps, and some people cheer, and that's how they come out to the world.
The internet explodes.
People swarm Stark Tower with protest signs and support signs and cameras, always cameras. Tony gets to go to a Board meeting in the armor because trying to get a car out would be a major undertaking. Everyone else just stays inside for a couple days; none of them have anywhere essential to go.
A helicopter goes by once, someone leaning out with a camera. Tony's halfway through a rant about airspace while scrambling for his phone when Thor goes outside and bellows at the pilot. It gets kind of dark out. There aren't any helicopters after that.
"Don't watch the news, after," Pepper had told Steve before the press conference. "We'll wait for the first shockwave to end before we assess the situation."
"But what if—" he'd said.
She shook her head at him. "Leave it to the people with expertise in this. You're good at a lot of things, Steve, but there's nothing you can do in the first wave that other people can't do better. We'll keep you updated and let you know when we have reliable information and it's time for strategy."
She was right, of course, but it's still strange to try and go about his daily life while everyone's talking about him and he's doing practically nothing in response. He hopes that things calm down a bit soon, even if it means he has to do more interviews and press conferences. He's not good at sitting around.
Tony isn't either, though he's more accepting about being told to stay out of it. He buries himself in his workshop, emerging with surprisingly minimal complaint when Pepper or Carolina need him for something. He alternates between focusing so much on work that he forgets to eat, much less spend time with Steve, and being affectionate almost to the point of smothering.
Steve works out a lot, reads a lot, and holds Tony just as tightly.
Four days after The Announcement, Steve wanders into the living room in the middle of the night to find Darcy, Clint, and Natasha sitting on the floor completely surrounded by paper.
"Is that all mail for us?" Steve looks at the piles, slightly appalled.
Natasha raises an eyebrow. "This is the paper mail for you and Tony that made it through SHIELD's scans. The Avengers currently employ several people full time to go through email. Two more were hired in anticipation of recent events."
Steve sits on the couch.
"That's the no pile, aka the 'Steve and Tony are not reading' pile." Darcy points at one pile, then another. "That's the yes pile, the ones you should read. And that's the 'so no it's hilarious' pile. I don't think you'll appreciate the hilariously no pile, but Tony will."
"Shouldn't we read it all?" Steve says weakly.
Clint rolls his eyes. "Here, this one combines 'burn in hell,' 'betraying America,' and 'give me one night and I'll scare him straight.' You wanna read it?"
Steve swallows, feeling ill, then looks up as Tony walks in with one of his green goop drinks.
"Ooh, hatemail!" Tony says.
Darcy points at the 'hilariously no' pile. "For maximum entertainment value."
Tony grabs some of the letters and flops onto the couch beside Steve, his feet in Steve's lap, sipping goop as he reads. Tony's nonchalance makes Steve feel oddly better.
"Wow, purple pen on pink stationary," Clint says, opening one of the letters and skimming it. "Long plea to Tony that he can't be gay because of their nights of blissful union. Um, this one might be questionable. She seems… intense."
Tony looks up. "What's her name?"
"Ah, shit," Tony says. Natasha grabs the letter and puts it in a small pile by her knee.
"Stalker?" Clint asks. Steve wraps his hand around Tony's ankle.
"I haven't always had such impeccable taste." Tony shrugs, not looking at Steve. "Usually they just mail me their panties or something. But Kathy's actually scary."
"It will be dealt with," Natasha says flatly.
"Terrifying," Tony mutters. Natasha looks at him blank-faced until he squirms, then she laughs.
Steve hides a smile. He doesn't really understand how Tony and Natasha's friendship works, but he's in full support. He's choosing to focus on that and not on the fact that some woman is stalking Tony – there's probably no one better to make sure that gets handled than Natasha.
"If this is going to be a proper insomnia club hangout, it should have more snacks," Tony says. "Darcy?"
Darcy looks up. "Why am I snack girl?"
"You're Avengers support," Clint says. "Snack girl is an important role."
Darcy grumbles, but she heads into the kitchen. "Coffee, anyone?" she calls back. Steve wiggles out from under Tony's legs to help her carry things, and also because he wants a milkshake and he's not going to ask her to make it.
They all read letters and munch on snacks and sip drinks. Clint, Natasha, and Darcy keep sorting. Tony laughs to himself occasionally, but doesn't show Steve what he's reading, which is probably for the best. Steve doesn't think he'd find it as funny.
Steve reads letters from the 'yes' pile. They range from general support and gratitude to the Avengers as a group, to children's drawings of Captain America and Iron Man, to heartfelt confessions from teenagers who gained the courage to come out because Steve and Tony did.
He's always been sure they were doing the right thing, but reading that he's given people courage and helped them accept who they are… well, that makes a lot of things easier to deal with.
"What do we do with the no pile?" Darcy says.
Clint clears his throat. "I vote flaming arrows."
Steve makes a noise of protest. Tony looks at him in some alarm. "Steve, don't tell me that you want to read them, because let me tell you from some experience, that way lies madness."
"No, it's not that. I don't want to read them," Steve hastens to explain. "It's just… we'd have to do it outside, and it's always windy up here. We can't shower New York in burning pieces of hatemail."
They all look at him for a moment.
"I promise I'll remember your birthday," Tony says out of nowhere. Steve blinks.
"Uh, good? It's the Fourth of July, Tony. If you couldn't remember something that ridiculously cliché, I might worry that you were losing your mind."
Tony laughs. "Okay, okay. I suppose that's true. I have no idea when our anniversary is though, just to warn you."
"Me neither," Steve says. "It would probably be the day with the frogs, right? We could look it up, or just ask Jarvis." He suddenly gets it. "Oh! No, don't worry, I'm sure we'll end up fighting slime monsters or something that day anyway and we'll both forget. I've always figured it's better to appreciate the people you love all the time than make a big deal over any particular day. "
"I may swoon," Darcy says. Tony glares at her; she flaps her hand at him dismissively. "Don't worry, I'm not moving in on your man. I wouldn't go for Cap anyway, no offence. It'd be like disrespecting the flag. I like them a bit less clean-cut."
Steve's not sure if he should be insulted or not, but then Tony says, "Oh, Steve is surprisingly—" and he's too busy putting a hand over Tony's mouth to pay attention to anything else.
Tony has a solid day of meetings, which is annoying because he's in the middle of designing a shiny new communication system for the Avengers – it doubles as ID, an access pass, and a tracking method. He might add more stuff too. Steve had to drag him out of the workshop and hover over him while he got changed to make sure he didn't miss the first meeting or try and go out without pants on – which only happened one time, honestly; Pepper just made a big deal and told everyone and now they all think it's a real concern.
He does not want to mediate between Stark Industries and the Maria Stark Foundation, but he gets to watch Carolina neatly and politely eviscerate people, and that always brightens his day. She has Steve's knack for making people feel really, really guilty for even thinking bad things, and then she hits them with logic until they play nice. Pepper backs Carolina up using Reasonable Face to devastating effect.
The Board is soon agreeing that wholeheartedly backing America's new most powerful couple is a really good idea. The Foundation doesn't even try to argue, probably accepting that they're going to get dragged into this whether they like it or not.
Rhodey's dealing with the military and Natasha and Clint are dealing with SHIELD, so that's mostly out of Tony's hands. He and Steve are going to have to do some interviews and joint photoshoots – he hasn't told Steve yet because he's pretty sure that the idea of talking about their relationship and taking professional couple photos is going to make him freak out. Tony wants to spring that conversation on him when he's nice and relaxed.
Tony smiles to himself thinking of relaxed Steve, then has to stop his thoughts from taking a detour. He's got at least two hours of meetings to go. He takes notes for the Identicard designs under the table to distract himself until Pepper glares him into rejoining the boring financial discussion.
It could all be going a lot worse.
The sheer fervor dies down a little bit, but some people still shout obscenities at them in the streets and other people mob them for autographs anytime they go outside. It's weird and irritating and sometimes upsetting, but mostly it's exhausting.
Not being able to go for his usual run is getting to Steve a bit. A treadmill has appeared in the gym – it's not the same as running with the wind in his face, but he supposes that if having to run on a treadmill is the worst consequence of this, then he's getting off lightly.
It'll be temporary anyway. Soon there will be new gossip, or everyone will just get bored. That's people for you.
Steve's just glad that Tony relaxed a bit after the first time someone insulted Steve to his face and Steve didn't instantly change his mind about being with Tony and break up with him, or whatever else was going through Tony's head.
Tony frustrates him sometimes. But if Steve's anything, it's stubborn – he'll just have to stay to prove to Tony that he's staying.
He increases the speed on the treadmill – it's nowhere near his top speed, but he didn't want to somehow mess up the controls and send himself flying across the room. Nobody would ever let him live that down.
They dealt with an inept wanna-be villain this morning – it didn't take long, but they drew quite the crowd. Steve hopes that everyone's a bit calmer by the time the Avengers get a major call to assemble, so they don't have to worry about bystanders getting killed trying to take pictures of them in the middle of a fight.
Steve thinks about that for a while, then sighs and speeds up the treadmill again. They'll just have to plan for extra crowd control. The Hulk is a good deterrent, but he's one of their heaviest hitters and he's not precisely composed when someone threatens a teammate. His ability to control himself with civilians is not something Steve would like to test in the middle of a battle if someone is dumb enough to say something inflammatory.
Steve's just walking into the kitchen for a glass of juice after his workout and contemplating calling a meeting when Thor gets up from the kitchen table and hugs him.
Steve's rather taken aback, but he returns the hug. "Uh, hi."
Thor lets him go, smacking him on the back. "We are watching video messages of gratitude. They are most moving."
"There's a YouTube channel devoted to it," Bruce says from the table. He's got something paused on the screen on the wall. "You know, people recording messages for you two. Well, all of us, but mostly you two lately. I'm just going to replay this one for you guys. Where's Tony? He should watch it with you."
They summon a confused Tony from the workshop, and then Bruce and Thor leave in a hurry.
Steve and Tony look at each other. Tony presses play.
The speaker is an old man, probably nearly as old as Steve's actual age.
"I met Captain America during the war," the man says, looking just off camera, Steve assumes at the person holding it. "He came by to visit the hospital I was in, made some kind of speech to wounded soldiers. Honestly, I wasn’t exactly enthused to meet him. I'd seen one of his films and thought it was terrible."
Tony and Steve both laugh, and then the man says, "But more importantly, I'd just gotten wounded in action and I had spent the day planning to put a bullet in my head as soon as I could manage it."
They go still.
"The doctors were worried I was going to lose my arm, I was getting sent home even though I didn't have a home to go to, and I had a lover who was so afraid of what he was that he wouldn't talk to me in public, even in the hospital."
He pauses. "Captain America came to my bedside, making his rounds, and I was a jackass to him, I'll admit it. I cussed him out, and he just asked me if I was doing okay."
Tony makes a little noise. The man shakes his head and chuckles.
"He came back later, snuck back in wearing a regular uniform. I don't remember everything he said to me, but he got most of the story out of me. He just listened, you know? Then he told me that I didn't have very good taste in men and I could do better." He smiles. "He listened to a bitter eighteen-year-old for hours, didn't judge or dismiss me, and by the end of it I felt like life was maybe worth living after all, that I could maybe make something of myself even if I was no use as a soldier. That I was worth something as a person."
He looks right at the camera. "Steve Rogers, I don't know if you ever knew it, but you got a boy through the darkest time in his life, and you're still an inspiration to me today. I've been with the man I love for fifty-eight wonderful years, and I thank God that we've both lived to see you give this country an honest kick in the pants like you gave me. I wish you every happiness, both of you. Thank you."
The picture shakes as the man holding the camera comes out from behind it and kisses the speaker, two men in their eighties off-center on the screen before the video ends.
Tony and Steve sit in the kitchen and stare at the YouTube page.
"I remember him," Steve says, swallowing hard. "I thought that he thought I was nuts, but I couldn't not say something. And actually, I told him that his taste in men was shit, and he was shocked that I swore."
He starts laughing, and only realizes that he's got tears running down his face when Tony pulls him close and just holds him, not saying anything at all.
In some ways, Steve's average day is like any regular person's. He wakes up beside his lover, he works out, he has breakfast with his family, he goes to work.
Of course, in some ways, Steve's average day is not average at all.
He wakes to the sound of a billionaire muttering math to the sentient computer built into the house. He gets thoroughly trounced by the god of thunder and an infamous assassin. Breakfast involves enough food to feed a small army and an argument about proper procedures in the event of a zombie apocalypse, which Steve breaks up before someone gets stabbed with a fork. Going to work means sitting through an interrogation on the topic of his personal life, interrupted by his phone buzzing repeatedly because someone likes to send him filthy messages to try and make him blush on TV (he doesn't check them during the interview – that would be impolite – but they're always the same kind of messages and just the thought of reading them makes his ears burn). He gets literally picked up outside the building because they have to go save the world from oversized sea creatures, again.
He used to think that after the war all the craziness would be over and he'd live an unremarkable life. He used to think he'd be content with that.
The Hulk throws Steve towards something with a lot of tentacles. He somersaults and lets the shield fly midair, bounces off Iron Man's shoulders and flips to catch it when it ricochets back. The tentacley thing cringes and flails, then heads straight into the net the Coast Guard has set up.
"Nice moves, Cap!" Clint calls over the comm. "Thor, one more sea-slug to your left."
Tony catches Steve. "Damn, that was hot."
"Thanks," Steve says, grinning at him.
"Don't flirt on the public channel," Natasha says, dryly amused. "Hawkeye, get that purple thing before it escapes."
"Consider it gotten. Purple thing? Very technical, Widow."
"Thor, did you get all the sea-slugs?" Steve says.
"Yes," Thor answers. "However, I require a cleaning crew. I can also report that the spiny creatures have been vanquished." He laughs like he has a secret joke; Steve's looking forward to hearing the details of the vanquishing.
"So we're done here?" Tony adjusts his grip on Steve's waist, fingers curling over his hip. "The world is once again safe from tentacles? Because let me tell you, I've seen—"
"Man, I have been trying not to comment on that since we got the call," Clint says. "I hate tentacles. Okay, purple thing contained. We are done."
"Good work, team," Steve says, then cuts the connection and laughs as Tony's jet-boots fire up and they go horizontal.
They land in some building under construction, bare concrete walls and no people, thankfully no people. Tony's faceplate snaps up and he shoves Steve up against the wall and kisses him hard. Steve gives as good as he gets, biting Tony's lip and yanking him forward so they're pressed up against each other full length. Tony is taller than him in the armor, and broader too, metal hard and warm and heavy and holding him against the wall.
"Oh, this feels a bit sacrilegious, Cap," Tony breaks the kiss to say, one hand on the star on Steve's chest, and the other on his hip, metal fingers tight and then stroking. "You're not going to be weird about being in uniform are you? Because do you even know how hot you are when you fight – taking off from my shoulders, fuck—"
"Um," Steve stammers. "It's, uh… fine."
Tony pulls back and gapes at him for a second, then takes a deep breath."You have a costume thing, of course you have a costume thing. I must have done something right in my life, okay, I have to just change some settings because if I take the groin piece off and it doesn't go back on and I need to fly home with my crotch hanging out you might actually die of embarrassment—"
Steve makes a token protest, since this is definitely indecent. "We are just off the street, Tony, you could get us home in a couple minutes—"
Tony's armored thigh presses up between Steve's legs and Steve makes a sound like he's been hit in the stomach. Tony leans in and murmurs, "I could get you off in a couple minutes."
"Oh my God," Steve manages to say. "Uh, okay." He fits his gloved fingers in the join of Iron Man's neck and helmet, and pulls Tony down to kiss him.
"What do you want, Captain?" Tony says between kisses, rocking their bodies together. "Do you think about it, when I'm being an ass and not following orders in the field, just pushing me down and making me take it? Me on my knees and you fucking my mouth? I know you want me to just shut up sometimes, and baby, that's the best way to do it."
Steve can't breathe, torn between arousal and adrenaline and a bit of guilt because, yes, he does just want to make Tony shut up sometimes, not, you know, permanently, just for a minute so he can hear himself think—
"I like it like that. You get the command voice going on and I get all distracted. One day we'll do that, and I'll be so good for you, so good. But for now… you know, sometimes I just want… I'm stronger than you in the armor, aren't I?" Tony grabs Steve's roaming hands and holds them still. "Sometimes I just want to pin you down and take you apart."
Steve stares at him, hears his own voice say, "Oh God."
Tony licks his lips and smiles and moves faster, every movement sparking white heat through Steve. "Mmm yes, I knew you'd like that idea. Bit of a control freak, aren't you, Captain America? Carrying the weight of the world, want somebody else take control for a while. You trust me, don't you?"
"Yes," Steve gasps. He tries to kiss Tony, ends up pressing his open mouth along Tony's cheekbone, the edge of the armor, the taste of metal sharp in his mouth. It somehow makes this even better, but he's not analyzing that right now, not when Tony's moving against him just perfectly, heat coalescing as Steve moans and pushes back.
"Yes, fuck," Tony mutters against his shoulder, bites down hard enough that Steve can feel it through the body armor. "Come for me, love—"
Tony pins Steve's wrists to the wall and kisses him, muffling the noises Steve makes as he comes in his pants.
"Fuck, that was so fucking hot," Tony says in a rush, Steve leaning into him and trying to recover. "Touch me, I need – Jarvis get this groin piece off right this second or I'm just going to rip it off, I don't even care—"
Steve spins them, metal hitting concrete and showering them with dust. Tony stares at him, his eyes wide and dark. "Yes?" Steve says, still breathless.
"Uh yes, shit yes—" Tony stammers and Steve drops to his knees. "Oh fucking hell you're going to—"
The groin piece comes off, and Steve suppresses the urge to thank Jarvis – that would be just too weird even for him. They both fumble with Tony's pants until Steve smacks Tony's hand away, and then he's got Tony in his mouth. Tony makes a desperate noise, thrusting in deeper and then apologizing.
Steve pulls off long enough to say, "You like this? Captain America on his knees?"
There's a strangled shouted string of obscenities, Steve pinning Tony's hips against the wall and swallowing, and then a cloud of dust and a clatter as Tony's knees give out.
"Well," Steve says after a moment. He feels like his brain is no longer connected to his body.
"I've never done that before," Tony says. He sounds as stunned as Steve feels.
Steve looks at him. "Really?"
Tony shakes his head. "Wouldn't with just anyone, and Pepper never liked Iron Man, not really. She accepted me being Iron Man, but…"
"I like Iron Man," Steve says. Tony starts laughing.
"Yeah, I could tell." Tony leans forwards and kisses him, gentle and slow.
"I'm glad," Steve says, running his thumb along the seam of the armor at Tony's jaw. "I'm glad it's just me."
"It's definitely just you." Tony kisses him again, then pulls back and does up his pants. "Okay, let's try to salvage my tattered dignity here." He gets to his knees, picking up the armor piece. "Oh, good, goes right back on. Not even messy. Unlike you."
Steve looks down at himself in dismay. "Dammit, I can't be seen like this. You'll have to fly me home."
"We'll go in through the window. Team, there will be no post-mission speech from Captain America today," Tony says, grinning at Steve.
Steve has a moment of sheer panic. "How long was that on? Tony!"
Clint laughs over the comm. "Radio silence, Cap, not that it wasn't blindingly obvious what you were doing while the rest of us were so helpfully helping with cleanup. Only one way to shut Stark up."
Steve covers his face with his hands and groans as Tony laughs.
"I'm back and I have no idea where I am," Bruce says. "Did I miss anything?"
"Bruce!" Tony says. "Did your Identicard stay in your stretchy pants?"
"Oh! Uh, yeah. Sorry, I forgot. Okay, transmitting location."
"I will retrieve Bruce," Thor announces. "I just follow the path of light on my card, correct?"
"Yeah," Tony says. "Follow the yellow brick road."
Thor starts humming the song, and there's a burst of laughter from all of them over the comm.
"Clint and I will take the quinjet," Natasha says. "Assuming it's not too slimy."
"Looks slime-free from here. We'll pick up pizza on the way unless anyone objects to pizza – and if you do, don't say anything," Clint adds. There are various noises of agreement. "Good. Over and out."
Tony pulls Steve to his feet; Steve wraps his arm around Tony's waist and smiles at him.
"Let's go home," Steve says, and they take off into the sky.