"What did you want to be?"
Tony asked it out of the blue one day, sitting in the workshop with a hand-riveter between his teeth. He was working on the shield, re-strapping it, and Steve was sitting across from him, watching carefully. He hated letting other people handle the shield, but the leather straps had finally given out, and he hadn't known who else to ask. He'd felt like a heel even calling Tony -- they didn't really talk unless they were in a battle or, in this case, if Steve needed something -- but Tony had put his number in his phone and specifically said, hey, if you need some new toys, give me a call.
So he'd called, and Tony had said sure, come over, and he'd explained the problem and reluctantly given his shield to Tony and then they'd sat there in uncomfortable silence while Tony worked.
"Want to be?" Steve asked, realizing he'd let the silence stretch out.
"Sure," Tony said, taking the riveter out of his mouth and punching a hole in the leather. "You know. Before the blue pants and the giant A on your head. What did you want to be?"
Steve gave him a blank look. "A soldier."
Tony popped the punch out of the leather and sealed the edges of the hole with something brushed delicately on, which hardened and dried even as Steve watched.
"Yeah, but before the war, I mean. Didn't you want to be...something?"
"Before the war I was seventeen," Steve said, gently amused.
"You must have had some kind of career goals."
"Why, what did you want to be?"
Tony glanced up. "I wanted to build guns. Like my dad."
Touched a nerve. Oops.
"And computers, and robots," Tony added, a little more lightly, turning back to the leather. "Don't change the subject. What did you want to be when you left high school?"
Steve shifted uncomfortably. "Well, by the time the war started I already had."
Tony glanced up again. "Seventeen?"
"I sorta dropped out."
That got his attention; Tony set down the strap and stared at him. "Captain America is a high school dropout?"
"I had to support myself!" Steve protested. "It wasn't all that unusual back then. Anyway, school couldn't really teach me anything else. I could learn faster on my own, even working."
"Okay, juvie, so what did you do?"
"I sold shoes," Steve said, as dignified as he could.
"Captain America dropped out of high school and became a shoe salesman," Tony said, grinning. "Wow. That's totally going in your E! True Hollywood Story."
Steve shrugged. "Better than shining them."
"You were a shoe-shine?"
"There's nothing wrong with being a shoe-shine," Steve said, frowning. "It's not like I was the only one. I sold papers too. Ugh, that was awful. Up at four in the morning, freezing cold, yelling the headlines, which were usually pretty grim..." he shook his head.
"Wait, how old were you when you were a shoe-shine?" Tony asked, picking up the riveter and repeating the process on the other side of the strap.
"Well, Ma got sick and..." Steve glanced away, because Tony was watching him under his brows, head still bent over the strap. "We had doctor's bills, and someone had to put food on the table. I dropped out and started selling papers and shining shoes. After...after she died, Bucky's parents took me in, got me going back to school. But I was one more mouth to feed and I had doctor's bills too, I wasn't a healthy kid. I wanted to do my part. When I wasn't sick, I'd get up at four and go sell papers with Bucky, then we'd go to school, after school he'd go home to watch his sisters and I shined shoes."
"Holy shit," Tony said, shaking his head.
"It kept us fed. When I was sixteen one of the guys at the shop left, and I got offered the sales job. It paid really well. I mean, for the time. So I left school and did that, and then the war came." Steve studied his hands. "I wanted to go fight for my country, that was the main reason I kept trying, but...well, the Army would have been three meals a day and steady work, too. It really took a load off Bucky's parents, him enlisting, especially when he started sending money home."
Tony popped one of the straps around the brace on the back of the shield, his hands dancing across metal his father had cast.
"Not all of us got the luxury of choice," Steve said, trying not to sound bitter. He loved what he did, loved being Captain America, but it hadn't been easy growing up, knowing how limited his options were.
Tony cut the other crumbling strap off the shield and picked up a new strip of leather, fitting it to the old one before he started work on it.
"But did you want anything more?" he asked, as he punched holes in the ends and sealed them.
"Not more, really," Steve said. "Different, maybe."
Tony looked up, raising his eyebrows.
"I thought maybe an architect. I was always good with a pencil," Steve continued. "After the war I could have gone to college on the GI Bill, if they'd let me out of the service." He huffed a sigh. It had been long enough -- there had been enough distance, now -- that he could talk about Bucky, about Peggy and Howard, without the yearning, sinking pain of loss. "I thought I'd...settle down with a girl, get an education, find a job. Your...your father said he'd get me a job as a draftsman."
"Yeah, whatever else they say about dad, he was good at giving people a leg up," Tony agreed, riveting the second strap in place. "He had an eye for untapped talent."
"He taught me a little surveying. Enough to map out where we'd been for the reports."
"An architect, huh?"
"Pays better than art," Steve said. "I wanted to have a family."
"But art was what you really liked?"
Steve looked down at his hands. He hadn't held a stick of charcoal or a paintbrush in years.
"You gotta understand," he said. "This whole idea of getting paid for doing what you loved, it wasn't so hot in the thirties. You had to provide. You did a job you could do that brought in enough to get by, and if you had a...first love, that was just a hobby. Art was the only thing I was good at that I liked, but it wasn't ever going to be enough." He smiled, hands forming fists. "Until Rebirth. I love what I do now, Tony. You must too, or you wouldn't do it. You don't have to."
Tony fiddled with one of the straps. "I do."
"No, you really don't. You have money, power -- choices -- "
"Not in this." Tony set the shield down and looked up at him. "I spent the first thirty years of my life building things to kill people. All the justification in the world, all the genuine patriotism a better man than me could pour into what I did, can't change the fact that I was a war profiteer. A lifetime of protecting people still won't be enough to set that right. You could coast the rest of your life on being Captain America -- "
"But you could. So if I have a choice, you do too."
"I could never..." Steve caught his look, relaxed the hands he'd made into fists, and nodded. "Right. Okay."
Tony passed him the shield. "Test it out. I can adjust the straps."
"Any excuse to handle that beauty," Tony added, and Steve tilted his head. "That's a chunk of refined vibranium, forged into a perfectly balanced tool. My old man and I didn't always get along, but I respect craftsmanship. That's some of the best work he ever did. I'd tell you to look after it, but you don't need to be told."
Steve ran a hand over the convex of the shield, possessive. He looked up again sharply. Tony's eyes were on his hand.
"You're not the way I thought you were," he said, and Tony raised an eyebrow at him.
"Yes, I know," he replied. "Though, to be fair, you thought I was a cocky dick and I was acting like one, so." He shrugged.
"But -- so why do you do that? Why aren't you always..." Steve gestured at them, at the workshop. "Like this?"
Tony leaned back. "What do you think I was doing to Bruce, that day in the Helicarrier? When I was harassing him about the Other Guy?"
Steve shrugged. "Cocky dick," he said.
"Wow, are you allowed to say words like that? JARVIS, stash that, make it my new ringtone," Tony said to the ceiling. "I was offering him a job, you asshole. I was trying to do it in a way that wouldn't make it sound like pity. It wasn't pity, but it would have been easy to seem like I felt sorry for the guy. I fuck around with people because it makes them feel better."
"I'm a good judge of character. Listen," Tony continued, "let me give you a little lesson in popular psychology. Why do we do what we do?"
"Someone has to."
"But why us? What makes a man or woman get up in the morning and think, I have to do this shit? Nobody's stepping up, so I will. Who does that? What kind of freak puts on a suit of gold-alloy armor and flies the hell around the world blowing up the bad guys?"
"You're not -- "
"You're missing the point. The only way, the only way this works, the only way you get heroes, is if the people with the power we have learn two very important lessons."
Steve crossed his arms. "Go ahead."
"The first is that we understand tragedy. Not big sweeping natural-disaster tragedy, not the concept of tragedy, but the concrete reality of personal, visceral suffering."
Steve pushed his tongue against a molar -- it had grown back during Rebirth, but he'd had it knocked out of his head in a fight when he was fourteen.
"I don't know how far back in anyone's file you've read but there are no secrets from SHIELD," Tony said. "Clint and Bruce got the shit kicked out of them as kids on a regular basis, by their dads. Natasha never got to be a kid at all. Thor's dad threw him out of their world just to take him down a peg. And I think everyone knows your story -- parents dead, wimpy kid with a bum leg getting picked on."
Steve winced, but he could see the misdirection coming. "And you?"
"Oh, nothing much. Tortured in a cave," Tony said. "But that's not relevant unless you also understand the second lesson."
"That every other person we see is capable of feeling that amount of pain," Tony replied, rising from his work stool. "What happened to us is pointless if we have no empathy. We get that what happened to us can happen to anyone, at any time, for no reason at all." He put his hands on his hips, looking around, not quite meeting Steve's eyes. "It's a cold, cruel, completely random world out there."
"That's terrib -- "
"But there's us," Tony finished, speaking over him. "We get to be the ones who bring order. We get to be the ones who say no, that bullshit's not happening today."
"That helps you?"
"Doesn't it help you? Knowing that it's terrible and getting to do something about it?" Tony asked. "Look, when I fuck around with people, they get to see that everyone's a screwup, even me, and then they feel like part of something. Lesson two is that we have people. Everyone around us hurts the same as we do, if you do to them what was done to us. So we aren't alone. And neither are they."
It hit Steve like a punch in the chest, like his legs being cut from under him. Bucky and Peggy were dead, Howard was dead and his son standing in front of him, everyone he knew --
"But I am," he blurted, horrified at the pain in his voice.
Tony glanced away.
"Yeah, okay, that sucks, that's definitely part of the whole personal tragedy thing," he agreed. "But maybe if you took that stick out of your ass, you wouldn't be."
"For the record," Steve said, carefully controlling his voice, "that technique you mentioned doesn't work on me."
"For the record," Tony replied, not giving an inch, "That wasn't technique. I'm not interested in sparing your feelings and I'm not afraid of you."
Steve glared at him, trying to figure out how one even responded to that.
"Listen," Tony continued, narrowing his eyes, "you're hot to get me into the armor so that it's a fair fight when you take out your anger on me for not being my dad. Wouldn't it be more fun if we just did that because we liked it?"
"Wouldn't it be great if you and I kicked the shit out of each other because we enjoy it? You're capable of taking me in the armor, embrace it. Come on, we'll go right now. Because it's fun and because we're the baddest motherfuckers on the planet. And then maybe you can go back out there and thank Christ you're not a fucking paperboy anymore."
Steve crossed his arms. "Because it's fun."
"Isn't it? Don't you get the tiniest little enjoyment out of being the biggest kid on the playground but only picking on someone your own size?"
Steve thought about the sandbags he'd gone through, the way that even fighting left his mind too far open for memory, and none of it good.
"I wish I did," he said quietly.
"Well, come at me then," Tony said, and brushed past him on the way to the elevator. "I have a reinforced room upstairs. We'll put on some Zeppelin, throw each other around, it'll be great."
"Zeppelin?" Steve asked, following him into the elevator. "Like the balloons?"
"Oh, Cap," Tony said, grinning. "Have I got some fun surprises for you."
Steve met Pepper Potts for the first time while listening to Led Zeppelin's Kashmir with wide-eyed fascination. How anything that sounded so chaotic could also be so catchy was baffling him.
He was sitting on a bench in the gym, icing the shiner that Tony had managed to lay on him during the fight, which had felt to him like a mixture of boxing match, all-out battle, and roller-coaster ride. Tony was examining a dent Steve had managed to put in the armor, muttering about stress points, when a beautiful woman walked in and announced, "Kill the music, JARVIS."
It looked like Tony's entire world suddenly shifted; the armor was forgotten and so was Steve as Tony bounded up to greet her, talking a mile a minute, asking how her day was and whether she'd talked someone around to something, and telling her about how he'd refitted Steve's shield and they were just finishing up and he could be presentable for dinner in ten minutes.
The woman looked from Tony to Steve, clearly amused by the billionaire bounding around her like a particularly enthusiastic dog.
"You must be Ms. Potts," Steve said, standing and offering her his hand.
"Some days, I wonder," she said with a smile, shaking his hand firmly. "Call me Pepper. Do you prefer Steve or Captain Rogers?"
"Steve is fine, ma'am," he answered.
"He called me ma'am," Pepper said to Tony out of the corner of her mouth. "Can I keep him?"
"Back off with your chivalry and giant muscles, Rogers, I saw her first," Tony said. Pepper punched him in the arm.
"We really were just finishing up," Steve said, ignoring what they were saying because he didn't understand what was going on, quite. "I can get out from underfoot."
"No, that's fine. Come to dinner with us, there's always room for one more," Pepper replied.
"I don't want to intrude -- "
"Honestly, it's no problem. Come as a thank-you for prying Tony out of his lab so I didn't have to," she interrupted. "You boys wash your hands and faces, and I'll meet you in the garage."
"You're my favorite," Tony said, and kissed her before she left. "JARVIS, heat up the showers and put on Fool In The Rain."
Steve wasn't sure he would be quite as presentable as dinner deserved; all he had was a plain dress shirt and a pair of khaki slacks, but when arrived in the garage, still slightly damp but with neat hair and shoes he'd hastily shined with the edge of a towel, Pepper gave him a look that said he was doing all right. (He'd received a lot of those looks since Rebirth.)
"Okay!" Tony clapped his hands, emerging behind him. "Maserati or -- fuck it, no, wait, roadster. JARVIS, the roadster."
A set of keys tumbled into a nearby tray and Tony snatched them up, heading down the row of cars. Steve glanced at Pepper, who shrugged and followed.
The car was a beaut, no doubt. A BMW with a body Steve actually recognized, a hood that went on forever and a leather bench seat. Pepper climbed in next to Tony, scooting up against him, and Steve hesitated for only a split second before sliding in on her other side. It might not be the most...decorous of seating arrangements, but he wasn't going to give up a ride in a car like this just because it had no back seat.
Tony, it turned out, had an affinity for machines that went beyond phones and computers and the armor. He drove the car like a maniac, but with a level of focused competence that had them sliding in and out of traffic easily, drawing admiring looks and annoyed horn-honks wherever they passed. Steve leaned back against the leather and let himself enjoy the ride, giving up on worrying because it wasn't like telling Tony Stark to stop doing something ever did any good.
"He's doing this on purpose," Pepper said at one point, leaning over so Steve could hear her above the roar of traffic.
"What's that?" he asked.
"Driving aimlessly. We've passed the restaurant twice."
"Why would he do that?"
She patted his thigh. "He's showing us off."
"I can hear you," Tony called.
"Then stop preening, I'm hungry," Pepper replied. Tony obediently turned a sharp corner without signalling, pulled across two lanes of traffic, and skidded the roadster around, setting it neatly in front of the valet stand at a classy-looking restaurant. He tossed the keys to the valet and hustled them inside.
Dinner was sort of dizzying, in all honesty. Food just appeared without them ordering it, plate after plate, some of it unidentifiable, all of it delicious. Tony and Pepper split a bottle of wine and spent most of dinner bickering cheerfully.
"Did you know," Tony said, waving his fork over the slice of some kind of cake he and Pepper were sharing, "Steve used to be a shoe-shine boy?"
"No," Pepper said, looking at him.
"It was work," Steve said, a little embarrassed at the focused attention of both of them. He sipped his coffee self-consciously.
"And then he got a promotion and sold shoes. Hey, did you ever use those x-ray machines that showed people their feet? Because those caused all kinds of cancer," Tony added.
"After my time, I think," Steve said, smiling a little.
"Good for you. Hey!" Tony added, waving at a passing waiter and handing him his valet ticket. "Call the valet for us, would you?"
"Are you sure you should drive?" Steve asked, standing as they did, wondering if Tony had already paid, and if he should chip in for his portion.
"I'm not," Tony said, giving him a blank look. "You are, Mr. Limoncello."
"But..." Steve followed as Tony led the way out of the restaurant.
"You can drive, right? Save us the cab fare, being a billionaire is expensive," Tony said, gesturing to the car, already waiting for them.
Steve looked from them to the car and back again. The valet held out the keys.
Steve wouldn't admit to taking the long way around back to Stark Tower, but then he wouldn't lie and say he didn't, either. The BMW was a dream to drive, all power and smooth shifting, and Tony made a surprised noise whenever Steve sped up to get through a yellow light before it turned red.
"Who knew the American Icon wasn't a granny driver?" Tony said, as they rolled to a stop in the garage, Steve carefully parking it in the same spot they'd pulled out of earlier. "Nice work, Cap. Good dinner, we should do it again. Next time, you can meet The Doors." And he wandered off into the workshop, singing Gloooooria, g-l-o-r-ia, Glooooria.
Pepper lingered by the car while Steve carefully deposited the keys in the tray they'd come out of and gathered up his shield.
"Thanks for coming out with us tonight," she said, touching his wrist. He looked up from his shield, surprised. "I don't think I've seen Tony in that good a mood for ages. Whatever you did, feel free to come over and do it again anytime."
"Isn't he always in a good mood?" Steve asked, a little drily.
"He's really, really not," she replied. "He puts on a good show most of the time, but tonight was all him. It was nice."
She leaned up -- in those heels she was almost as tall as him -- and kissed him on the cheek. Steve felt his face turn crimson.
"It was nice," he agreed. "Thanks. I should..."
"Oh, yes," she said, then caught his shoulder and rubbed at his cheek with a finger. "Lipstick, sorry."
They did an awkward little dance for a moment, getting in each other's way, and then Pepper laughed and stepped aside. "Drive safe."
"And I mean it -- come over anytime, it's good for Tony to get out of the lab," she said. Steve nodded, starting up his bike before he could say anything awkward.
He smiled all the way home.
Please enjoy the comical antics of Dummy, Aspiring Killer Robot.
After that first visit to Tony's lab, Steve considered manufacturing an excuse to go back; he'd enjoyed himself, and surely he could find something Tony needed to fix. He couldn't fault the fit of his shield's new straps, though, and his motorcycle was working fine. He thought about sabotaging his phone somehow, but that just seemed silly, and anyway he had a hard time thinking about damaging something so delicate and valuable.
Pepper solved the problem for him. She called him a week after their nice dinner and very nice drive and said, "Tony needs someone to punch things. I just got a manicure."
"To punch things?" Steve asked, perplexed and a little worried.
"He's stress testing some new synthetic material he's hoping to use on the SHIELD uniforms. Big contract at stake."
"You'd think he'd have a machine for that," Steve said, but he was already pulling his boots on. "Punching, I mean."
"He probably does," Pepper said. "Please don't make me admit that this was an excuse to call you and provide him with human companionship from someone who doesn't run his company or have a Ph.D in incomprehensible science."
"Oh," Steve replied, straightening. "Um, okay."
"Great. Chop chop, come over and get punching. We'll have lunch afterward. Do you like potato salad?"
"Sure, I guess," Steve said, utterly bewildered now.
"Picnic on the roof it is. I'll see you for lunch. Thanks!" she said, and hung up.
Clearly Pepper hadn't informed Tony that she was calling Steve in, however. When he walked into the lab, the music was turned up to ear-bleeding levels, and Tony didn't notice him until Steve yelled, "WHAT IS THIS RACKET?"
Then Tony startled, jerked his head up, and burst out laughing.
"NIRVANA!" he yelled back, over some individual who was clearly in pain yelling what sounded like half a bottle over and over. "JARVIS, mute the music -- " the noise died, " -- for the man who still has no taste. Hey, Capsicle, what can I do for you?"
"Pepper said you needed someone to punch things," Steve said. "I have some experience in this field."
Tony grinned at him. "Pepper thinks I'm undersocialized."
"I'm just here to punch things," Steve replied.
It was fun, actually; Tony stretched out a bunch of pieces of fabric on frames, and Steve obediently punched when ordered while JARVIS took readings. Most of the fabric ripped after a couple of hits, but a few specimens took more of a beating. One of them felt like punching a mattress or a sandbag -- it was thin, and should have stretched, but instead it just absorbed the weight he put behind it, jarring his shoulder.
"What's this all for?" he asked, as Tony took down the last, most durable sample, humming thoughtfully to himself. "Pepper said there was a SHIELD contract?"
"Will be, if I can fabricate enough cheaply," Tony said, rummaging in a bin full of plastic-wrapped packages. "New combat uniforms, fewer injuries. Primarily it's for the armor, though."
"Your armor?" Steve asked, glancing at the row of glass cases set into the wall like museum displays. Each held a suit of Iron Man armor, mostly new -- though the one on the end labeled MK.2 looked like it had been through a few fights.
"Yeah, the armor comes through fine," Tony said, and Steve looked back in time to see him pulling off the shirts he wore -- a plain, long-sleeved green shirt under a faded blue t-shirt with some complicated logo on it. Underneath --
Steve sucked in a breath.
" -- but Iron Man has a squishy center and I'm tired of bruised ribs," Tony finished, shaking out a new shirt from one of the plastic packages.
Tony's body from waist to neck was mottled with green-yellow bruises, giant blotches of color over his skin, spreading up from the waistband of his pants, wrapping around his right side, covering his left shoulder. When he turned, Steve could see a rough network of old scars in his chest, surrounding a brightly glowing device implanted between his pectorals. He'd read about the arc reactor, even seen hints of it under Tony's clothes, and it didn't worry him nearly as much as the massive bruises.
Tony cast him a knowing look, then struggled into the shirt. "I rattle around in the suit a little, it happens. Remember two weeks ago when that guy with the stuff pushed me through a building? Mementos of that."
"You should have said something," Steve said, horrified. "I threw you around a ring last week like that?"
"What's to say? Oops, mangled again?" Tony asked, settling the shirt's hem at his hips, pulling the cuffs down over his wrists. "It happens. Working to fix it. Okay, punch me," he said, and Steve blinked.
"I'm not punching you."
"Come on, just here," Tony pointed to his shoulder. "The shirt's made out of the synthetic, it'll protect me."
"I'm not punching you. I'm contemplating benching you until you're healed."
"Have fun trying," Tony replied. "The point of the testing is to prevent this kind of injury in the future. I'm not a masochist, and for perhaps the first time in my life I'm not passively self-destructive, so would you just punch me already and we can get on with Operation No More Bruises?"
Steve crossed his arms.
"Look, you just saw how well this stuff absorbs impact. Pull it if you must, Captain Biceps, but one punch isn't going to kill me."
"One punch," Steve said, holding up a finger.
"That's all I'm asking."
"And then we take a break. Pepper said she'd see us for lunch."
"Look, if you don't punch me I'll just find someone who will," Tony said. "There's no shortage of people who'd like to, believe me."
"Okay, brace up," Steve said, and Tony settled into an easy, balanced stance, feet spread, arms lightly curled at his sides. Steve pulled back and let fly with about half his strength, aiming for the shoulder that hadn't been covered by bruises. It felt like punching molasses, and his arm jarred the rest of him as the fabric absorbed most of the impact. Tony staggered backwards with the force of it, but didn't even wince.
Steve was stepping back, shaking out his hand, when there was a loud clatter from nearby and an indignant-sounding whine. Before he could turn, something hard and metallic clocked him in the temple with vicious force. He stumbled sideways, clutching his head, and then whirled, fists ready --
"Dummy, no!" Tony yelled, surging forward, and caught the edge of a large...robotic...arm thing, holding it back from smashing a wrench into Steve's face. Steve backed away while Tony struggled with the thing, cursing.
"Dummy, I asked -- fuck's sake -- JARVIS, freeze him," Tony called, and the arm stopped moving so abruptly that it rocked violently on its wheeled chassis. Steve stared.
Tony let go of the metal arm, plucked the wrench out of its claw, and threw it aside, turning to Steve. "Sorry, he's called Dummy for a reason," he said, floating a hand over Steve's temple. "C'mere, you're bleeding. If Captain America dies from injuries inflicted by a semi-intelligent robot I built, I think my hero card gets revoked."
"It's fine," Steve said, touching his fingers lightly to his temple. They came away bloody, and he could feel more trickling down his cheek, but nothing felt broken. The wound would heal. "I have a hard head."
"You said it, not me," Tony answered, tugging him over to a chair. He opened a drawer and pulled out a first-aid kit, rummaging through it for a sterile pad and some disinfectant. "Christ knows where that wrench has been," he said, dabbing at the wound, the disinfectant stinging mildly. "Sorry, I didn't think."
"About...your murderous robot?" Steve asked. "Are you allowed to build murderous robots?"
"He's not murderous, he's just very protective," Tony said. "He thought you were attacking me. I should have introduced you to him first. I think he was charging last time you came around."
Steve glanced over at the frozen robot arm. "Next time, make him punch you," he joked weakly.
"He wouldn't. If you think you're stubborn, you should see him in action," Tony said, but there was a fondness in his face when he followed Steve's gaze. "Here, hold this there," he ordered, picking up Steve's hand and pressing it to the gauze held at his temple. Steve obediently held it, watching as Tony walked back over to Dummy. He started talking to the robot, too soft for Steve to hear, mostly, but he made out wasn't trying to hurt me and good boy, just doing your job and not in trouble if you don't hit Captain Rogers again. By the end of the little paternal monologue, Tony had his forehead pressed to the robot's claw, one hand patting the metal housing over the arm.
"Okay, JARVIS, cut him loose," Tony said, leaning back. Dummy flexed, swiveling this way and that, claws whirling. He turned to Steve, whistled dejectedly, and rolled across the floor. Steve watched, ready to dodge, as the lowered arm bumped into his knee.
Steve hesitantly lifted a hand and patted the metal housing. The machine beeped.
The future could be pretty nifty sometimes.
"Okay, you've had your moment, scram," Tony said, nudging the robot to one side with his leg. "Go, go on, you knocked over that toolbox, you clean it up, you know the rules. How's your head?" he asked Steve, easing the gauze away. "Huh. They weren't kidding about that enhanced healing. Must be nice. So, lunch?"
When Pepper saw Steve step out onto the terrace at the top of Stark Towers with a giant gash on the side of his head and blood on the collar of his shirt, she sighed.
"What did you do to him?" she asked Tony.
"Entirely not my fault. Okay, like eighty percent not my fault," Tony said, holding up his hands.
"His murderous robot attacked me," Steve put in.
"He was defending his master as is just and proper," Tony replied.
"You're building killer robots now?" a new voice asked, and Steve turned to see Bruce, carrying a bowl in one hand and a plate in the other, emerging onto the terrace.
"I could if I wanted, but no," Tony said, as Bruce set the food on a nearby table. "Dummy got overzealous."
"He doesn't like me either. Good to see you again," Bruce said, turning to Steve. "Pepper said you were dropping by. I hope you like BLTs."
Steve gave him a blank look.
"Bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches," Bruce supplied. "After your time?"
"I think so," Steve said, settling in at the table. Tony uncovered the bowl and looked at it curiously.
"Is potato salad supposed to be yellow?" he asked.
"It's curried, eat or shut up," Bruce replied.
"He's a lot less nice once you get to know him," Tony remarked to Pepper. Steve helped himself to one of the sandwiches, then tried not to smile, talk, and chew at the same time.
"It's great," he said, setting the sandwich down and reaching for the potato salad. Tony got up and rummaged in a big white box nearby, producing a handful of beer bottles as he launched into an explanation for Steve's already-fading wrench wound.
Steve ate, sipped his beer, listened to the others talk, and enjoyed the afternoon. The sun was bright, but it was cool this high up, and you couldn't beat the view. The beer didn't do much, but it tasted good with the sandwiches.
"Thanks for coming," Pepper said to him, as Tony and Bruce got involved in some argument about physics.
"I'm glad I did. Have you seen his bruises?" Steve asked in an undertone, leaning in.
"They're pretty usual," she replied, and a look crossed her face for a fleeting moment, resignation and affection rolled into one.
"It doesn't worry you?"
"Sure, but it's not like I can tell him to stop being Iron Man," she said, glancing at Tony. "Come on, come see the view," she added a little louder, and collected up her beer, leading him away from the table. Steve followed, leaning on the railing of the terrace when she did, looking out over Manhattan.
"You get why he does it, right?" she asked, standing next to him.
"Yeah, he's said a little bit about it." Steve sipped his beer. "Doesn't mean..." he shook his head. "Look, I'm the last guy to say anyone should step out of a fight, but he egged me into fighting him last week with that stuff going on? Is he crazy?"
She shrugged. "Yeah, but that's not what this is about."
"How can you look at what it does to him and not...?" he gestured haplessly. She smiled.
"Tony and I spent years dancing around each other, back when he was my boss," she said, turning back to the skyline. "But that was all he was, y'know, my boss. Then he went missing, and -- I cared about him, I cried a lot, I worried, but not because I loved him, just because he was a good boss and a good friend. When he came back...he was different. He was someone I could fall for. Someone I felt like...I could make a life with, maybe. He's better than he was. What made him that way also made Iron Man. I could never tell him to stop, because then he wouldn't be the person I love anymore."
Steve nodded, thoughtful.
"So you take the good with the bad, like in any relationship," she finished.
"What if the bad..." he broke off, unsure how to ask. Pepper gave him an understanding look.
"If Tony doesn't come back someday, yes, I will be devastated. But I'll know that he went down doing what he loves, doing good. And I know that he's more careful now than he used to be, because of me. He wants to come back."
Steve closed his eyes against the momentary pang, because he hoped Peggy had known that about him, had felt the same. She'd lived a long life but if she'd just lived a few years longer he could have spoken with her, asked her if it had all been worth it.
Instead, he tried to summon up a smile, and glanced sidelong at her. "Don't suppose you have a sister you could set me up with or anything."
Pepper laughed. "No. No sisters, sorry."
"I'd take a cousin."
"All married, I'm afraid."
"Shame," Steve said, and then more seriously, "If he doesn't marry you, he's a damn fool. 'Scuse my language."
"He's tried. I like a little less formality. Maybe in a year or two," Pepper replied, patting his arm. "Listen, I have to be in Malibu this week to oversee the west coast operations, and after that I'm in Sweden for a green conference for a couple of days. Will you come check in on them? Bruce still isn't over Tony giving him all this, and he's kind of a pushover when it comes to important things. I'd like to make sure neither of them are locking themselves in their labs for days on end."
"Sure. I just need to remember to keep out of Dummy's reach."
"Pep, stop feeling him up," Tony called, and Steve realized Pepper's hand was still on his arm. He drew back carefully. "Somebody come take my side, Bruce is being irrational."
"It's not irrational," Bruce said. "The purpose of research is product."
"The purpose of research is fun."
"You're a billionaire, Tony, the purpose of everything is fun, for you," Bruce replied.
"Well, yeah," Tony replied, affecting a confused look, and Steve and Pepper rejoined them to argue about Bruce's dedication to applied research versus Tony's dedication to finding new and interesting ways to make explosions.
It occurred to Steve, lying in bed that night, staring at the ceiling and trying to sleep, that he probably wasn't the only one who was still finding his balance in the world.
It was hard to make friends. He'd never really had any except Bucky, until the Commandos, and even then the men tended to keep each other at a distance. They'd die for each other, kill for each other -- it was war, after all -- but they also knew that every time they went into battle they were rolling the dice, and that didn't exactly make them want to hold too tightly, for fear of the loss. In this new world there were so few people he could talk to about where he'd come from, so few who would get why he didn't understand things, or understood them differently.
But Bruce had been kind when he'd explained about the sandwiches, and Tony might make fun but he knew now that it was just Tony's way of making him feel welcome, the underlying assumption that he could take a joke implying that Steve was one of them. Pepper seemed to like making him feel useful, and that was a rare feeling outside of his work for SHIELD.
Bruce had spent a long time alone, that much was evident, and he was still relearning how to be close to people. Tony was sociable, a charmer when he wanted to be, but it was arm's-length charm. Steve got the sense few people could duck past the independent, quick-witted narcissist to see what Tony was really like: needy for attention, desperate to please, even lonely, or at least Steve guessed he had been until Pepper. Tony's blatant adulation of her seemed to hide a terror that he'd lose her.
Somehow Steve had been looped into this little inner-circle of misfits, through Pepper's machinations or a rare moment of vulnerability from Tony. He had somewhere to go, someone to be responsible to. He was part of something beyond a fighting unit.
And it felt so much less lonely, knowing it.
That night, for the first time since coming out of the ice, he didn't dream about home or the war or Peggy. He dreamed about standing on the terrace of the Tower, looking out over the city, hearing a voice that sounded like Howard's telling him that all this was his, because he fought for it.
The next time Steve showed up in Tony's lab, he had an excuse ready; something about blueprints being all on computer now and wanting to see how they worked. As it turned out, it wasn't even necessary. When he walked in, Tony was sitting at his worktable, manipulating forms in light with his hands, and the lab was eerily silent.
"Safe to come in?" Steve asked, putting his head through the door. "No killer robots this time?"
"If you're here to flirt with my girlfriend, she's in California," Tony called back with a grin. "Come in, you have to make do with me."
Steve stepped inside, but Tony hadn't actually answered his question about killer robots, and as soon as he shut the door Dummy was wheeling up to him, arm waving menacingly.
"Dummy! Down!" Tony ordered. "He sometimes misprograms things," he added, as Dummy continued to loom. "Dummy, remember how you had to apologize? Remember what I said about Captain Friend Not Foe?"
Dummy didn't take another swing, but he did follow Steve as he walked over to the table.
"No music today?" Steve asked, and Tony looked up and around, blinking.
"JARVIS, where are my tunes?" he demanded.
"You muted them three hours ago, sir," JARVIS replied. Dummy poked Steve in the back and Steve batted him away. "You said you wanted to 'hear the math'."
"Wow. Okay." Tony inhaled. "What day is it?"
"Friday," Steve and JARVIS said in unison.
"I should shower, also probably sleep," Tony remarked. "Are you hungry? I could eat. Okay, you stay there and make nice with the robot -- Dummy, no hitting -- and I'll be back, half an hour tops."
Steve nodded, but Tony was already wandering off towards another room in the lab, hopefully a shower. Dummy poked him again.
"Hey, knock it off," Steve said, turning to face him. Dummy clicked angrily. "Yeah, tough guy, I'm talking to you."
He was talking to a robot. Maybe there was something in the air at Stark Tower that made people nuts.
Might as well go for broke, he supposed. When Dummy tried to poke him again, he grasped the claws gently, holding them still.
"I'm sorry I hit Tony," he said, quietly, because this was absurd. "He asked me to. I said I didn't want to."
"How much do you understand?" Steve asked, letting go of the claws. "Do you understand 'sorry'?"
Dummy nudged him in the shoulder, but gently this time.
"Yes, that's where I hit him."
"If I promise never to do it again, can we be pals?" Steve asked, holding out his hand. Dummy prodded it with his claws, experimentally. "I bet you're not nearly as dumb as Tony pretends you are," he added, tapping absently on the arm's housing with his other hand. Dummy echoed the taps back to him in clicks, to Steve's delight.
"Do you understand Morse code?" he asked, tapping his name on the metal. Dummy knocked his claws on Steve's leg in repetition. Steve wasn't sure if that was a yes, but he had fun for a while tapping messages on the metal, waiting for Dummy to reproduce them.
Eventually the robot seemed to get bored with the game, or maybe he had some kind of routine he was supposed to follow; either way, he wheeled away from Steve and wandered off, picking up a rag and beginning to wash the glass over the Iron Man armors. Steve studied the hologram still floating over the work desk, poking at it to watch little bits light up when he touched them.
"I see you two didn't kill each other," Tony said, emerging from the shower, drying off his hair. He was wearing a shirt with a hole cut in it for the arc reactor, which cast soft yellow light over the workbench as he sat down again. "Did we discuss food just now? We did, right? Did you see Bruce on your way in?"
"Yes food, no Bruce," Steve replied. He batted at one of the objects in the hologram, sending it spinning into Tony's face, where it dissolved into little sparks of light. Tony just blinked blearily. "Maybe you should sleep first."
"I'm good. You need something?" Tony asked, ignoring it when Steve took him by the arm and started leading him towards the elevator.
"It can wait," Steve said firmly.
"How's the shield?"
"Fine," Steve replied, pushing the UP button. The doors dinged open almost immediately, but when Steve tried to drag Tony in, Bruce tried to step out, and they almost ran into each other.
"Oh! Steve! Hi," Bruce said, adjusting his glasses.
"Bruce," Steve said, still holding firmly to Tony's arm. Tony was being unusually docile and Steve had legitimate worries he might wander off.
"I was coming up to see if he'd eaten. Guess you beat me to the punch," Bruce said with a smile.
"You know, I do occasionally function as an independent person and I haven't died yet," Tony announced.
"You had Pepper," Bruce said. "Who left very strict orders about your care."
"You see what I put up with?" Tony said to Steve.
"Yes, it must be terrible living with multiple people who care so deeply about you," Steve said, poker-faced. He pushed Tony gently into the elevator and hit the button for the penthouse.
They rode up in silence, Bruce fidgeting nervously, Tony half-awake, Steve attempting to radiate sternness. When the elevator doors opened again, Steve marched him through the living room.
"Help, being kidnapped," Tony called to Bruce.
"It's okay, I know where he's taking you," Bruce said, flopping on the couch.
"In," Steve ordered, walking him to the bedroom. Tony had the biggest bed Steve had ever seen.
"I am capable of putting myself to bed," Tony grumbled.
"Sure," Steve said easily, and held out his hand. "Phone."
"Give me your phone."
Tony blinked at him. "I don't think you understand. You're new here, I'll explain. That's like asking me to give you my dick."
"My phone goes where I go."
"Phone," Steve repeated. Tony rolled his eyes and produced his phone, pressing it into Steve's hand. "And I'll take this," he added, scooping up the StarkPad sitting on the dresser. "Go to sleep, Tony."
"Fine," Tony groaned, pulling off his shirt. Steve was pleased to see that at least some of the bruising had faded.
"Bet you two bits if you sleep for at least five hours you'll thank me when you wake up," Steve replied, trying to lighten Tony's sulk.
"Okay, can you explain to me exactly how much two bits is?" Tony asked.
Steve reached into his pocket and produced a quarter.
"Holy shit, I haven't seen cash money in months," Tony said.
"Sleep," Steve ordered. He set the quarter on the dresser in place of the StarkPad and walked out of the room, closing the door behind him.
When he arrived back in the living room, Bruce was sitting on the couch in front of the enormous television. He had a little box in his hands and was manipulating it carefully, the controls seeming to correspond to the images on the television.
Steve leaned on the couch, watching the falling blocks for a while, the way Bruce fitted them together. Sometimes they disappeared. In the background, Tchaikovsky was playing; Steve recognized it from an old gramophone recording one of their neighbors had owned.
"What about you?" Steve asked. "Do I need to make sure you're watered and placed in direct sunlight?"
Bruce laughed, not looking away from the television. "I just got up, not to worry. I'm not a maniac like Tony. Can't afford to be, anyway."
"Probably add ten years onto your life," Steve observed.
"Live fast, die young was never a particular goal," Bruce agreed.
"Why does he do it?"
"Who knows. Distracting himself, maybe. He gets worse when Pepper's gone. But at least it's productive, I suppose." Bruce shrugged. "Did you need something from Tony? Maybe I can lend a hand. I'm not an engineer, but I know where he keeps stuff on the servers."
"Nah, I just came over to play with his toys," Steve said. "Pepper asked me to look in. What are you doing?" he added, as four lines of blocks disappeared at once and the television squealed. "Is this some kind of new math?"
"What?" Bruce asked, hitting a button. The screen went dim and PAUSE appeared in bright white letters as Bruce turned to look up at him. "Oh! No, this is Tetris. It's a video game."
"A video game?"
"Sure." Bruce hit the button again and the screen brightened. He spoke as he worked, as the blocks fell and fitted together. "It's a puzzle. You use the controller to move blocks around. The goal is to make blocks line up across the screen -- "
"And then they disappear."
"Right. The more blocks you make disappear, the more points you get."
"How many points to win?"
Bruce laughed. "That's the best part. You never win. The blocks just fall faster the more points you get, until you can't control them anymore. It's...I don't know, soothing."
"Never being able to win?"
"Means you can never really lose," Bruce said. He made the screen dim again and offered Steve the box in his hands. "Want to try?"
When Tony emerged a few hours later, yawning, Steve was frantically mashing buttons on the controller box. Bruce had his phone out and was filming him.
"S'happening?" Tony asked, slumping down next to Steve.
"I may have created a monster," Bruce replied. Tony squinted at the screen.
"I didn't know Tetris even had a level twenty-eight," he said.
"I don't think it did before now," Bruce answered. "Super soldier reflexes, huh? I tried going up against him on two-player and he wiped the floor with me."
Just then Steve's blocks finally built up over the top of the screen, and GAME OVER appeared. Steve sat back, stretching. Bruce flicked his phone off and set it aside, wandering over to the kitchen bar.
"I believe you owe me two bits," Steve said to Tony. Tony flipped the quarter at him. "This is my quarter, miser. Another two bits."
"Next time I break a hundred I'll pay you," Tony said. "Hey, we should show him Call Of Duty, it'd blow his mind," he called over Steve's head to Bruce.
"As long as it doesn't have Tchaikovsky as a soundtrack," Steve said, standing. "That song's going to be in my head all day."
"JARVIS, put on The Who," Bruce said, pouring himself some juice. "Pinball Wizard, off the Live At Leeds album."
Steve was getting the hang of this kind of music, he felt. It was raw and strange, and often sounded angry even if it wasn't, at least to him. But there was something compelling about it as well, in the same way some of the jazz he'd heard at clubs with Bucky had been. Seems the twentieth century eventually traded sweet horn solos for electric guitars. Different, but...not bad different.
He noted with amusement that Bruce was absently half-dancing to the music, and Tony was nodding his head along in time.
"We used to play pinball," Steve said, catching a few words of the song. "Down at Woolworth's, they had one. Seven balls for a penny. During the war they shut down all the pinball factories and turned 'em into assembly lines for airplanes and tanks."
"There's a metaphor in there somewhere," Tony said, still slumped in the couch.
"Do they still play pinball? I mean, with things like that..." Steve waved a hand at the television.
"Not much," Bruce admitted. "They have pinball video games."
Tony got up and came over to where Steve was sitting at the bar, resting his chin on his shoulder. Steve felt the slight ridge of the arc reactor against his shoulder blade, and the pressure of Tony's sleep-warm body all the way down to his hip.
"Pinball," Tony said, putting his StarkPad in Steve's hands. Steve looked down at what seemed to be a formless jumble of flashing lights and round things.
"Really?" Steve asked, turning to look at him.
"Try it out," Tony said. Steve touched the screen hesitantly, pressing his finger down and dragging the plunger back to fire the ball into the game. He watched, entranced, as it bounced from bumper to bumper, flying crazily all over the screen, then finally plunged into the hole at the bottom.
"Use the flippers," Tony said.
"Seriously?" Bruce asked, leaning over to look at the game. Tony poked the bottom of the screen and a little flap moved suddenly.
"Our pinball games sure didn't look like this," Steve muttered.
"Your poor blond penny-arcade head," Tony said, ruffling his hair. "They make Captain America pinball machines. Insert balls-of-steel joke here."
"Don't listen to Tony. Use the flippers to bat the ball up," Bruce supplied.
Steve drew the plunger back again, fired up another ball, and successfully smacked it with one of the flippers. It ricocheted around the board and a creepy digital voice yelled FREE PLAY over the speakers at him. Steve grinned, delighted.
"We are sad," Bruce said. "It's a Friday night and we're bent over a StarkPad watching Steve rediscover arcade games."
"Yeah, I don't know if you've noticed, but my hookers and tequila days are kind of behind me," Tony said. "And I'm guessing for you two boy scouts this is big excitement."
Over the living room speakers, the music shifted. Tommy can you hear me? Can you feel me near you?
"Well, we could do game night," Bruce said. Tony's head jerked up sharply.
"Game night?" Steve asked, concentrating fiercely on the pinball game.
"Sure. Couple of pizzas, loud music, video games all night. Don't tell me you never had gamer parties," Bruce added to Tony. "Pretzels and Galaga?"
"Not till college," Tony replied. "Jello shots and Metroid. I'm down if you are."
"Beer and Super Mario?" Bruce negotiated.
"Super Mario?" Steve asked, looking up.
Bruce grinned. "You'll get a kick out of it."
After a battle one time, a reporter asked Steve, "What's your favorite thing about the twenty-first century?"
The question had to come sooner or later, and SHIELD had coached him on how to reply -- something about how the essential American spirit had remained unchanged, and how Steve liked that people still had hope and worked hard to make a better future. And he did like that, he agreed with it.
But he was caught flat-footed, and he was tired and bruised, and instead of spouting the party line, his brain ground to a halt.
"Tetris," he said.
A few days later Steve received a package from Nintendo, through SHIELD, with a little hand-held video game device and a Tetris game to go with it, an invitation to visit the Nintendo headquarters, and a t-shirt with his shield on it made out of Tetris bricks.
Steve did like Tetris. But what he meant, when he said it, wasn't really about the game. It was about sitting on Tony's couch playing video games with Tony and Bruce, elbowing each other and arguing like children, Tony continually calling him Penny Arcade and at one point narrating the hilarity of his attempts to comprehend Super Mario to Pepper over the phone.
And, finally, feeling like there was a Steve-shaped place in the world he fit into.
True fact: until 1947, pinball games didn't have flippers.
It was a simpler time, I suppose.
Pepper came home on a Thursday, and Tony dragged Steve along with him to pick her up. Steve didn't mind, exactly -- Tony drove them in a Jaguar, all sleek lines and purring power, and Steve was looking forward to seeing Pepper and showing her, tadaa, Tony hadn't starved in her absence thanks to Steve. And Bruce, but Steve was comfortable taking at least some of the credit.
"Aw, you brought me a present," she said, when she saw Steve lurking (as best a super soldier could lurk) behind Tony. She kissed Tony's cheek. "You shouldn't have."
"Pepper," Steve said, accepting a hug with some surprise. Both Pepper and Tony were tactile people, and he didn't think he could chalk all of it up to the informality of the twenty-first century. "How was your flight?"
"I slept most of the way," she said, passing her suitcase to Tony, who passed it to Steve. Steve, amused, hefted it under an arm and followed them out to the car. "Trying to beat the jet-lag. It's always worse coming back. Tony, did you get the video feed of the panel?"
"Soto's a dick," Tony said. "I cannot believe he said that bullshit to you about women drivers."
Pepper sighed, settling into the front seat as Steve slid into the back with the suitcase.
"We knew when we suggested clean-energy cars we were going to get that kind of blowback," she said.
"Doesn't mean I have to like it. You want me to go kick his ass? He has a factory that's very vulnerable to things like repulsor fire and tank missiles."
"Gee, my boyfriend picking a fight with the guy who made sexist remarks about me. That's just what this situation needed."
"What did he say?" Steve asked, concerned.
"Nothing I couldn't handle. He's a douche who thinks internal combustion was the way God meant cars to be," Pepper said, then turned back to Tony. "You haven't even heard about the hotel bar incident, though."
"There was a hotel bar incident? And I wasn't invited?" Tony asked.
"I was sad you weren't there, actually, you'd have enjoyed it," Pepper said, and then caught Steve's eye in the rear-view mirror. "Sweetie, you may want to cover your ears."
"I'm not a child," Steve said, admittedly a little petulantly. "I want to hear."
"Well, don't say I didn't warn you, Old Fashioned," she said with a smile. "So I went down to the bar to have drinks with the guys from Euroclara, the green lobbyists?"
"Oh, was Gerschdadt there?" Tony asked.
"Yes, and he sends you his regards. Anyway, we were sitting there talking and we realize that Soto is right behind me, trying to make time with a prostitute working the bar."
Tony laughed gleefully.
"Wait, that's not the funny part. So we started listening in and we realized he was negotiating her down," Pepper said. "Trying to, anyway. She wasn't giving an inch, and good for her, so he starts going on about how he's a prestigious industry magnate, and buying her drinks that she is pointedly not drinking. And he's getting louder and louder, trying to get her to give him a quickie on the cheap, which is when we realize that the whole bar has stopped talking and we're all listening to this wheezebag trying to cheat a hooker. Finally Bergman -- he's the chair of the conference committee," Pepper added for Steve's benefit, "stood up and walked over to them and said," she put on a posh English accent, "Madam, I will pay you your going rate not to have sex with this man."
Tony howled. Steve felt he probably shouldn't be cracking a smile, but Pepper's accent made the whole thing even funnier.
"And then she said, Mister Englishman, I will do this for free!"
Steve couldn't help it. He dissolved into laughter along with Tony.
"Someday I'm going to write a tell-all book about the tech industry, and nobody will believe me," Pepper said, relaxing back in the seat. "So did you boys have any adventures while I was gone? Other than your epic journey into Marioland?"
"It was quiet," Tony said. "No villains, no international incidents. Boring, actually."
"Boring is okay," Pepper replied. She stretched out a hand and rested it affectionately on the back of Tony's neck, fingers toying with the short curls there. Steve felt suddenly like a third wheel, but Pepper found him again in the mirror and smiled warmly. "Steve, you're blushing."
"It's from laughing!" he protested.
"So you liked it? Not too salty for a lady to tell?" she teased.
"Ma'am, the finest lady I ever knew used to make dirty jokes out of tank guns," Steve said, his memory of Peggy and Howard curling fondly in his chest. "And more than a few about this one's father," he added, nodding at Tony.
"Well, I'm in good company then," Pepper replied, right as Tony groaned in dismay.
When they got back to Stark Tower, Steve carried Pepper's suitcase out to the elevator and then into the penthouse, and started to feel awkward again when he set it down and realized that she probably wanted some time alone with Tony. But Tony was pouring out three drinks at the bar, and Pepper collapsed into the sofa, kicking off her shoes and sighing with pleasure. Tony pushed one of the glasses into Steve's hand as he passed, then sat down next to Pepper and pulled her sideways, settling her legs across his lap.
"Steve, I need a backrest," Pepper said imperiously, and Steve obediently sat down, letting her lean back against his shoulder. Tony downed his drink in two swallows and set it aside, closing his eyes. Pepper sipped hers more slowly, wiggling her toes against the other end of the couch.
Steve wondered if he ought to say something; the silence was stretching out, weird and empty, but Tony looked like he didn't care, and Pepper was limp against his arm. Eventually he settled into it, enjoying the quiet. He didn't think Tony knew how to be this peacefu --
Tony inhaled roughly, an unmistakable snoring noise.
"I swear I made him sleep at least twice," Steve offered quietly.
"He always gets this way when I'm coming home. He's like an excited kid for hours beforehand and then he crashes," Pepper replied, stretching out an arm to set her drink on the coffee table. "He'll even out. I'm just enjoying not being on a plane or in a hotel room."
"I can go, if you want."
"No, stay. You're warm," she said, sinking a little deeper into the couch.
"It's the serum. I always run a little hot now. When I was a little guy..." Steve shook his head. "Felt like I could never get warm in winter."
"I'll bet the ice didn't help."
"I don't really remember it. Probably a blessing."
"Probably," she agreed. "Listen, I want to say something and I don't want you to take it the wrong way."
"Okay..." he said slowly.
"I'd like to do something to thank you for keeping an eye on Tony."
"You don't have to. I had fun."
"Well, maybe, but it's also an excuse to do something I want to do anyway," she said. "I was wondering if you wanted to go shopping."
Steve felt his lips quirk. "If I make a remark about women not changing that much in seventy years, is it going to haunt me later?"
"Yes." Pepper laughed softly. "But I mean it. I know you like your terrible plaid shirts, Steve, but we can find something that makes you look a little less..."
"Your words," Pepper said.
"Tony's words actually."
"Sorry on his behalf."
"Don't be. I know it's not..." Steve sighed. "I'm not especially partial to them. It's just what SHIELD gave me. And everything's so different and complicated now. I wouldn't know where to begin. I just stick with what's familiar."
"Well, I can help. If you want."
Steve almost defaulted to denial; he didn't want to be a bother. But he stopped for an extra second to consider the offer, and he did like Pepper, and she knew a lot more than he did about this kind of thing.
"Sure," he said. "I'd like that."
Steve and Pepper's first attempt at shopping was pre-empted by Evil, but it wasn't entirely bad. Steve got the call ten minutes before he was supposed to leave to meet her that there were heavy atmospheric disturbances over Red Hook. The Avengers were being summoned to assemble.
The atmospheric disturbances turned out to be another gateway from Asgard, which was great, because it meant Thor was back; not so good, he'd brought a handful of Bilchsteim with him. Not that Steve knew what they were, other than scaly, stinking goat-like things with antlers. Even then, nothing to worry about...except for the part where they were two stories tall.
By the time they'd finished helping Thor vanquish them, everyone smelled like a trash heap and nobody wanted to do anything but take a shower and collapse.
"Good news is, the new synthetic worked," Tony said, as they trooped into a Helicarrier locker room that had been hastily cleared out for their use. He pulled off the shirt of his undersuit and spread his arms. "Look, bruise-free."
"Try and stay that way," Steve said, easing Bruce out of the fireman's carry he had him in and laying him out on a bench. "Thor, it's difficult to deny you make one heck of a dramatic entrance."
"I apologize, my brothers!" Thor boomed, already in the showers. "But you slew them valiantly. In Asgard you would be rewarded with magnificent crowns carved from their antlers."
"This is my life now," Clint said, stripping down and tossing his uniform near the doorway. Steve shrugged out of his shirt and folded it carefully, setting it on a bench. "Fighting giant alien goat-dragons."
"Bilchsteim," Thor corrected. "It is because the bow is a noble weapon!"
"Well, yeah," Clint said.
"Warriors of great skill are tasked with great challenges."
"That sounds like the more competent you are, the more work they give you," Tony said, handing Steve his phone as he passed. "Pep's on the line for you."
"What?" Steve asked, in the middle of taking off his boots. He held the phone to his ear. "Pepper?"
"Hi! Just checking in," Pepper said. "Everyone okay?"
"Yeah. Sorry to stand you up."
"No problem. I hear there were alien goat-dragons."
Steve laughed. "Rain check? Trust me, you don't want any of us showing up at the Tower until we've bathed."
"Five wet, naked men. Be still my heart."
"Salty," Steve told her. "I have to go before Thor uses all the hot water."
"I do my best," he said, and set the phone on top of the armor's attache case, stripping down to join the others in washing off the stink.
Their second attempt went better, though it was still interrupted by Tony.
Pepper took him into Manhattan, to the nicest places, and he spent half an hour being anxious about the prices and about whether he was classy enough to even be in places like that until Pepper reminded him that he had back pay and a good salary with SHIELD.
"I'll buy them if you want," she said, as Steve frowned over the cost of shoes and belts.
"No, I couldn't let you do that."
"Trust me, it'd be a treat. But, if you want to pay it yourself, that's your option," she said, and he could have collapsed with the kindness of it. He liked Tony and Bruce, but they tended to treat him like someone who couldn't make his own decisions.
Granted, he occasionally did the same to Tony. Still, that was different; Tony actually did sometimes need to be told when to sleep.
They bought a lot: cap-toed shoes and new boots, sneakers, socks, crisp white dress shirts and blue ones and black ones, trousers that were set aside to be fitted once a man had taken his measurements. They went to a store that custom-made blue jeans and let Steve pick out everything from the rivets to the stitching pattern, and a store that sold nothing but t-shirts. They stopped at a street-vendor selling bootlegged Avengers shirts as well: Captain America shields, upraised green Hulk fists, shirts declaring the owner hearted heroes, red shirts with fake arc reactors printed on them. When Steve glanced wistfully into a store filled with shaving kits and fedora hats, Pepper laughed and called him a hipster, but they went in anyway and bought a pair of suspenders.
Every time Steve found himself with his arms full, sure that now they would have to stop for the day, Pepper texted and her car pulled up and they loaded the bags and boxes into the trunk.
It seemed like everyone knew Pepper. All the store attendants called her Ms. Potts or Virginia. A few of them looked disappointed when she said she wasn't there for herself, but they usually brightened up when she introduced them to Steve, which was at once confusing and embarrassing.
When they finally got back into the car, Pepper said, "Happy, take us to lunch?" and began digging in the bags, passing Steve a blue dress shirt to put on.
"It's like that scene in The Great Gatsby," he joked, pulling off his t-shirt. "Where he's showing Daisy all the shirts. Do people still read The Great Gatsby?"
Pepper was staring at his chest. Maybe she had wanted him to wait? But she'd handed him the new shirt...
"Sure, it's a classic," she said finally, shaking herself. Steve settled the shirt over his shoulders and began buttoning it, twisting to tuck it into his pants. "It's required reading in most high schools. We can get you a copy, if you want."
"I'm still trying to catch up to what I missed," Steve admitted. "There's just so much."
Pepper cocked her head. "Happy, change of plans -- let's swing by a bookstore first. Big decision," she continued, turning to Steve. "Do you want paper books, or an e-reader?"
They were in the middle of lunch, Pepper skimming over the e-reader like a pro, loading it up with books for him, occasionally asking him what he liked and smiling in approval over some things ("Adventure stories, I guess?") when Tony appeared.
"See, this is what I mean," he said, dropping down into a third chair that a waiter brought over -- these things just happened around Tony -- without so much as a hello. "You come to my home, drink my beer, play my video games, and then I find you having secret lunch assignations with my girlfriend."
"I didn't -- !" Steve started, but Pepper was laughing and kissing Tony hello, and he belatedly realized it was a joke. "Well, you're crashing the party," he declared, and Tony grinned.
"I like this," Tony said, waving at Steve's shirt but clearly talking to Pepper. "Good choice. Why wasn't I invited? I had to find out from Happy that you were dressing Superhero Ken here."
"I'm not dressing him," Pepper said. "He's perfectly capable of dressing himself. I'm just showing him where to look. Which is exactly why you weren't invited, because you'd have put him in some kind of floral monstrosity or a zoot suit, knowing you."
"People still wear zoot suits?" Steve asked.
"Not if they want to be taken seriously," Tony replied. "I'm wounded, Pep, deeply wounded."
"I don't think I could buy any more anyway," Steve said. "Not sure my closet'll hold everything as it is."
Tony and Pepper exchanged a look.
"What?" Steve asked.
"Well, that leads us to an only semi-awkward moment," Tony said. "We've had to renovate the Tower anyway after Loki took out a couple of floors -- "
"We'd like you to move into the Tower," Pepper said, and Steve blinked.
"I couldn't do that. I could never afford -- "
"Rent-free," Tony said. "Hear me out."
"But -- "
"Thor's already accepted and moved in, not that he had anything other than the hammer to move," Tony said, cutting him off. "Clint's been there a while and Natasha just moved in too. Bruce is in guest rooms until we finish building his lab. It just makes sense to have everyone in one place, especially in case of inadvertent Hulking. SHIELD's signed off."
Steve gaped at him. Pepper put her fingers on his jaw and gently closed his mouth.
"You sneaks," Steve said. "You waited to ask me until last so I'd have to say yes."
"Told you he'd see through you," Pepper said to Tony.
"Look," Tony said, putting his phone flat on the table and tapping it. A hologram burst up and Tony tilted it so that it faced Steve. People at nearby tables were staring. "It's all laid out, most of the work's been done. Private gymnasium, infinity pool, surround sound in every room."
Steve glanced back and forth between them.
"Please," Pepper said softly. "We'd like it."
He gave a sigh of resignation, even though he felt warm all the way through. "Can I have one of those video game things?" he asked.
Steve didn't really get a chance to look through his new e-reader thing and see what books Pepper had put on there until after he was already moved into his new quarters in the Tower. Tony had neglected to mention, among the list of modern conveniences, that the furniture had all been special-ordered and that most of it was either forties-era or a pretty good reproduction. Steve spent the afternoon just looking around, running his hands over the soft fabric of the couch that could have (with a few more patches) come from the apartment he'd grown up in, the polished wood of the radio in the corner, the pale yellow tiles of the kitchen counter.
When he finally got over the idea that this whole floor was his, from the apartment to the gymnasium to the giant television, he found himself wandering out onto the terrace, the reader in one hand, a glass of lemonade from the already-stocked fridge in the other. There were a pair of metal chairs sitting on the deck, facing the sunset, and he sank into one of them feeling satisfied with the world.
He opened the e-reader's cover and text appeared, pre-selected. When he saw what it was, he laughed.
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher -- shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
"They're such beautiful shirts,' she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. "It makes me sad because I've never seen such -- such beautiful shirts before."
After the house, we were to see the grounds and the swimming-pool, and the hydroplane and the mid-summer flowers -- but outside Gatsby’s window it began to rain again, so we stood in a row looking at the corrugated surface of the Sound.
"If it wasn't for the mist we could see your home across the bay," said Gatsby. "You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock."
WELL. THIS TOOK A TURN FOR THE DRAMATIC AND STRANGE.
I promise there is a purpose to it, though, and also I promise happy endings. The zombies are frankly incidental!
Thor had a jar full of Coulson, so he said.
The thing was, Steve thought, they'd buried the man. He'd seen the coffin go into the ground, and made discreet and unsuccessful inquiries into where they should send the flag. It ended up in Nick Fury's office, though the second time Steve visited after the funeral it was no longer there.
They'd all tried not to think about it.
But Thor had called them into the meeting room at Stark Tower and, with great dignity, presented them with a large glass jar, the size of the ones candy-makers used to keep sweets in when Steve was a kid. It was topped with a hinged brass lid, padlocked shut, and inside was a glowing yellow ball of light.
"I really hate magic," Tony said, holding the jar at arm's length. He shook it, and Thor made a face. "Sorry, don't shake the soul vessel?"
"Put the jar down," Pepper said sternly. "Thor, can you be a little more specific?"
"It was a magic spear that slew the son of Coul," Thor said. "You cannot expect a natural death from such a wound. In Asgard there is a place of fallen warriors, and they may not leave -- not a bad place," he added hastily, "but set aside from the realms of the living. A man killed by magic cannot expect rest in such a place, nor can he return unaided. Thus, upon the threshold..." he gestured at the jar.
"And you didn't tell us this sooner because...?" Natasha prompted.
Thor shifted uncomfortably. "It was to be a surprise."
Steve glanced at Clint, who was rubbing his eyes in frustration.
"I'm not an expert on Asgard," Steve said slowly, "but I can't imagine digging up a body and trying to stuff a soul back into it is going to go well for anyone involved."
"That may be true," Bruce said, bending to get on eye-level with the jar, "but we might also be dealing with a localized causality here."
"A what?" Steve asked.
"Hmm, physics bends for no man," Tony replied. "But it's possible."
"We're talking about reality twisting around to accommodate predestination," Bruce continued. "I mean, dealing with magic, you have to take that into account. Might end up with some displaced air or a really clean room but -- "
"A literal man of dust?" Tony grinned at him. "Release the soul, the body will form around it."
"Technically it ties into the conservation of energy. If the spirit is willing, the flesh will follow."
"Yeah, okay, I can grant you that, but what -- " Tony broke off suddenly. "Did you just apply Terry Pratchett to this situation?"
"Who?" Clint asked.
"If the shoe fits," Bruce shrugged. "He's a philosopher."
"Never heard of him," Steve said.
"He's a novelist," Pepper put in. "Are we taking...magical theory...from a series of fantasy novels?"
"Like we have any better sources?" Bruce asked.
"Okay, so what?" Tony said. "We pop the top and see what happens?"
"Worst case scenario, we lay a soul to rest," Bruce said.
"Well, come on then, it's go time -- no, it's not that easy, it's never that easy," Tony grumbled, bending around Bruce to stare at the padlock on the lid of the jar. "Christ. A quest for a key, really?"
"I have been unable to locate the proper key," Thor admitted. "If the epics are true, it will be in the realm of his origin, so that the spirit and the key may never be combined. It must be here. Somewhere."
"That narrows it down," Bruce said.
"It will be an epic mission, for a band of brave warriors," Thor suggested.
Tony hummed a few bars of music, which Steve recognized (with embarrassment) as the theme to Legend of Zelda.
"Where would we even start looking?" Natasha asked.
"Perhaps a beginning may be found where the trail on Midgard runs cold," Thor said.
Steve looked at Tony.
"Arlington," Pepper said softly.
Steve had a grave at Arlington National Cemetery. Marker, empty coffin, little faded flag and all.
He was surprised, at first, that he simply had one more white stone in a row of white stones, because Howard had arranged the burial himself, and Howard was nothing if not ostentatious. But Howard also, like Tony, had a keen grasp of people. He must have known Steve wouldn't want a statue, wouldn't want to stand out from the rows of his fallen brothers and sisters.
He'd spoken with Fury about it, and Fury agreed he could be buried there when he did eventually die. It was sort of comforting, in a morbid way. They passed his grave on the way down the path to the newer ones.
The Avengers trooped along in silence: Thor with the jar in a leather pack on his back, Mjolnir hooked in a loop; Steve with his shield in a canvas pack on his; Clint with his bow and quiver and Natasha no doubt with knives and guns tucked about her person. Tony had left his suit in the car, but he wore the bracelets. Bruce was just Bruce. He didn't need accessories.
The grave was in the newest section of the cemetery, at the edge of a wide empty field waiting for new bodies. The headstone read PHILLIP J. COULSON, SGT., ARMY. FEB 12 1974 - APRIL 25 2012. Someone had put flowers and a little toy Captain America shield on it.
Clint crouched and, to Steve's surprise, crossed himself.
"WELL?" Tony yelled after a minute. Most of them startled. Tony was looking up at the sky, arms spread. "COME ON, GIVE US A FUCKING SIGN HERE."
"Tony," Natasha said, remonstrating.
"No, the hell with that," Tony said. "If I don't even believe in this magic bullshit and I still have to play the game, I'm going to play it my way."
Thor had his head lifted too, but more like he was scenting the air, getting a measure of things. Steve looked around at the rows on rows of white headstones.
Then Steve's phone rang. Everyone glared at him. He took it out, intending to silence it, but NICK FURY was flashing on the screen.
"Fury, bad timing," he said, answering.
"Get 'em together," Fury said. "We're getting those same localized atmospheric disturbances. You're going to need a ride, it's in Virginia."
Steve paused. "At Arlington, by any chance?"
"How the hell did you know that?"
"We're already here, sir."
"Are you causing this?"
"We might be," Steve said. He could see Tony fiddling with his bracelets. "Iron Man will be on comms shortly."
He hung up and zipped his phone into the pocket of his jacket, unstrapping the canvas bag with his shield in it. "Look sharp. Fury says they're tracking another disturbance right over top of us."
"Now that's my kind of sign," Tony said. "BTW, duck."
Steve ducked just as a rocket-powered attache case came zipping over their heads. Tony caught it one-handed and tossed it down, kicking the latches, suiting up. Clint had unslung his bow, and Thor had Mjolnir at the ready. Natasha was standing protectively in front of Bruce, both of them watching the sky warily.
"Uh, guys," Tony said, voice mildly distorted through the suit. "They just located the altitude of the disturbance. The readings are the same, but it's not on top of us."
"Where is it?" Steve asked.
"It's about ten feet down," Tony said, and the earth erupted under their feet.
Steve jumped backwards, away from the flying dirt and stones, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Tony dive for Bruce, getting him out of harm's way. Natasha and Clint were already taking cover behind a row of stones. Thor was well back but out in the open, hammer swinging.
Then they crawled up.
"The dead want the dead," Thor bellowed. Steve heard genuine fear in his voice.
They were coming up out of the earth, skeletons held together by bare strips of sinew, horrible grinning mouths chattering as they climbed onto level ground. The first wave wore helmets and armor like Thor's, carrying swords and unstrung bows, axes and spears, but behind them, sometimes crawling over them, Steve could see others -- half-fleshed men in US Army uniforms, some with rusted guns, some trailing pieces of coffin-lining behind them.
Thor dove into the fray, hammer swinging wildly, while the others were still staring in shock. Steve felt rage rise up in his throat like bile and he followed a half-second behind, heedless of the fact that bony fingers clawed at his arms or that he wasn't wearing his uniform, just a leather jacket over a t-shirt and a pair of ordinary pants. He could hear Tony's repulsors behind him, could see flashes of light as thunder or repulsor-fire knocked bodies back into the hole that they'd ripped in the earth. Gunfire off to his left -- Natasha was defending Bruce and Clint, holding a high ground so Clint could fire explosives into the knots of dead soldiers rising up to fight.
If Coulson came up from the ground with them, Steve wasn't sure what he'd do.
Still, his team was fighting as a team, ricocheting off each other and back into battle, Tony bouncing beams off Steve's shield -- sometimes even when he threw it, which was a trick they'd have to practice later. He saw Thor shoot straight up in the air, Mjolnir in one hand, the collar of Clint's shirt in the other, Clint still firing, knocking skulls (oh god, skulls) off shoulders and setting off canisters of some kind of adhesive goop to try and close the hole. Steve cleared a path through the bodies clawing at him, ducking swords and battle-axes and the butts of rifles, and Clint dropped lightly down, back to back with him.
"I'm outta arrows," he yelled over the roars of battle and the gunfire. "I wasn't expecting a riot!"
"Start throwing rocks!" Steve yelled back.
He saw the hooked end of a spear catch Tony's foot as he tried to lift above the mass of squirming corpses, and bony hands began pulling the armor down, heedless of the hissing repulsors in the boots.
"TONY!" Steve yelled, charging forward, and he could see Natasha surging alongside him, still firing, dropping guns as she ran out of ammo. A crack of thunder split the sky, and then two more, and Steve had to hold up his shield over them both to prevent a suddenly-inanimate skeleton from dropping its heavy spear right into them.
Tony was struggling against the arms, yelling curses through the faceplate, trying to use -- oh god -- trying to use Coulson's headstone as leverage to keep from being pulled further down.
"GET BACK!" Tony yelled, kicking furiously at the corpses. "THOR, LET'S DO SOMETHING STUPID!"
Steve kept trying to move forward, to grab Tony's hand, but Natasha tugged at his coat and when that didn't work tripped him, tumbling him over a pile of earth. He scrambled among the bones and rags that littered the ground, horrified, but she twined a leg around his shoulders and flipped them both over, hauling him out by his jacket.
Thor brought his hammer around in a wide arc, and the metallic tang of electricity filled the air. Tony turned over, baring his chest to the sky, right as thunder struck his armor and exploded outwards. A wave of bodies went down and Tony broke free. The headstone cracked under the intensity of the shockwave, falling to pieces in Tony's hands.
"Son of a bitch," Tony yelled. "Somebody is going to get their ass kicked for -- "
He broke off sharply, studying the piece of headstone in his hand. Steve angled himself up enough to throw his shield, defending Tony, who was standing in the middle of the battle staring at his fingers like an idiot.
"CLINT!" Tony called. "CATCH!"
He threw a small, dark object through the air, and Clint vaulted up, using an enemy skull as leverage, and caught it.
"The hell are they doing?" Natasha asked. She'd picked up an axe somewhere and now she scrambled to her feet, cutting a large swath through anything that got in her way.
"GET THOR!" Clint yelled. Steve threw his shield, glancing it off Mjolnir and drawing Thor's attention.
"To Clint!" Steve called, and Thor nodded, dropping to the earth, right on the shoulders of a giant corpse.
Clint yanked the sack off Thor's shoulders, reaching in and fumbling for the jar with both hands. There was a click that could be heard over the battle, deafening even with the roar of blood in Steve's ears -- the slide of a lock being opened -- and light exploded outwards.
He fought his way to Clint and Thor, sparks dancing in front of his eyes, and found Clint crouched over a huddle of dark clothing, laughing hysterically.
"He came back in a suit!" Clint blurted, as Steve and Thor backed up against him, swinging for all they were worth. "Jesus Christ -- "
"Take him and run!" Steve yelled. "Get as far away as you can, we'll keep you clear."
Clint scrambled up, the body slung over his shoulder, and took off at a sprint, dodging debris.
"They just keep coming," Natasha said, backing up against them. In the distance, Steve could see Hulk grinning evilly as he ripped heads from bodies, crushing helmets and swords in his giant hands.
AVENGERS, PULL BACK, a voice boomed, and Steve looked up. Two black helicopters were circling. The cavalry, thank God. WE ARE CARRYING HEAVY ARTILLERY AND EXPLOSIVES, PULL BACK.
Thor grabbed Natasha and bolted; a split-second later Steve felt a sharp jolt as Tony hoisted him under his arms and lifted off. Steve rolled in his grip, arms clenching tight around his neck.
"I got you, it's fine, I got you," Tony babbled through the faceplate, and then there was a whistling noise and an impact wave and they both went ass-over-head, tumbling to the ground, Tony pushing him down and covering him until the concussions from the bombs had passed over them.
When the smoke cleared, Hulk was standing in the middle of a blackened crater filled with bones, looking perplexed.
Tony rolled over and staggered to his feet. Steve pushed himself up on his arms, crawled away from the gravestones, and emptied his breakfast on the rolling green lawn of Arlington National Cemetery.
By the time the inevitable reporters and gawkers arrived, SHIELD had cordoned off the area and was doing cleanup. Given it was a cemetery and the equipment was around, they were using a backhoe. Steve would have thrown up again, if he had anything left.
They'd landed the helicopters and evacuated Clint and Natasha and Coulson's unconscious body; Clint was bleeding in a dozen places and Natasha had at least a couple of cracked ribs. Tony was still in the air, doing recon, making sure nothing had escaped the blast. Thor was among the cleanup crews, inspecting the damage, bending occasionally to study something that caught his interest. Bruce was getting oxygen from a pair of EMTs who looked very, very nervous. When he saw Steve coming across the grass, he gestured him over, then pulled Steve down to sit next to him, tugging him sideways until Steve's head rested on his shoulder.
"Christ in Heaven, we should have left well enough alone," Steve mumbled, accepting a bottle of water from the EMT, swishing his mouth out before taking a second drink.
"If it's any consolation, I'm sure Fury will agree," Bruce said, pulling the mask off. "I'm gonna sleep now..."
Tony landed with a thump nearby, pulling up his faceplate and watching with dark eyes as the SHIELD agents began to sift through the...parts.
"You should have fallen back," he said to Steve. "You didn't have your uniform."
"Couldn't do that," Steve replied.
"Yeah, I know," Tony mumbled, the armor slowly retracting off his body, collapsing back into an attache at his feet. "How's your leg?"
Steve looked down. Raw, ripped strips of fabric fluttered around his thigh, except where blood from a deep wound stuck it to his leg. It throbbed hotly, but he could tell it was already closing up, healing over.
"Fine," he said. "How's -- "
"TONY!" someone yelled, and Steve saw Pepper running down the path from the main gate, pushing past SHIELD officers and stumbling across the grass. Tony caught her in a hug. Steve watched enviously.
"It's cool, it's fine, army of the undead, we're good," Tony murmured, their foreheads pressed together. "You didn't need to come out."
"They said there was a bomb, and I know -- " she jerked back suddenly and looked around. Her eyes fell on Steve and she let go of Tony. A second later Steve was pulled against her, face pressed to her stomach, her hands tangled in his already-messy hair.
"You weren't in your uniform," she said while Steve inhaled, laundry detergent and perfume, comforting smells. She leaned back and Steve guiltily glanced at Tony, but Tony was watching them with a small smile, no hint of anger that Steve was taking liberties with his girl. Frankly, at the moment he'd take what he could get in the way of comfort.
"Uniform's not everything," he said, smiling. Pepper smiled back weakly and knelt to examine his cut, fingers hovering over it. "I'm fine, Pepper."
"Of course you are," she said, and kissed his forehead. "Come on, we'll get something to put on that."
She took his wrist, pulling him up, and grabbed Tony's hand with her other, leading them back towards the helicopters waiting to take them away from this terrible place.
The debriefing went less than well.
Steve sat quietly, letting the chaos mount around him. He had no energy to be Captain right now, and he doubted he could have done anything anyway. Tony and Fury were yelling at each other about unauthorized missions; Clint was pacing, clearly eager to be done so he could see Coulson, and Natasha was glowering at anyone who came within five feet of her. Bruce was asleep again, head pillowed on his arms.
Thor was boisterously, cheerfully recounting his actions in what sounded like iambic pentameter. He was, admittedly, getting on Steve's last, fraying nerve.
They'd had to fight their own today, soldiers of Asgard and Midgard, and worse -- Steve had been forced to defile the bodies of the dead. Reports were coming in that none of the graves seemed to be disturbed, but those soldiers had come from somewhere, and the crunch of his shield against a United States military-issued helmet wasn't going to be leaving Steve any time soon.
Finally, Pepper walked in, shut the door behind her quietly, and cleared her throat. Tony stopped yelling; Fury looked expectant.
"Phil's fine," she said. "He's a little confused, but definitely not a zombie. Director Fury, I'm going to take Natasha and the boys home now."
"The Avengers -- " Fury began.
"Had a hell of a day, yes, I agree," Pepper said, interrupting him. "Bruce is passed out from being bombed at, Steve looks like he's going to cry, and Tony's not going to do anything but get on your nerves."
"I'm not going to cry," Steve muttered rebelliously.
"They need to eat and rest. Clint can stay here," she added, and Clint went still. "He can provide as much information as anyone. The rest of you, there's a Stark helicopter waiting to take us back to the Tower."
Steve found himself crammed into a helicopter -- after today he was going to be done with helicopters for a while, he decided -- between Pepper on one side and Bruce on the other, his shield tucked under his seat. Natasha was up front with an overawed pilot, and when Steve looked out the window he could see Thor and Iron Man pacing the copter, flying escort.
When they landed on the roof of the Tower, Steve shook Bruce awake; he was half-hoping he'd need to be carried down to his apartment, but Bruce just shook his head and stumbled off. He looked awake, anyway. Pepper grasped Steve's hand before he could follow, and he looked down at it, frowning.
He was tired and discouraged. As happy as he was to have Coulson back, what they'd had to do to get him was...unsettling. Upsetting. He just wanted to wash the graveyard mud off his face and sleep, and he wasn't sure he could deal with Tony and Pepper right now. The way they were always touching him. The way it made him want things he couldn't have. Things he shouldn't even want.
He wormed his hand out of Pepper's grip at the doorway to the penthouse, long enough to shuck his boots and his jacket, both of which were caked in dirt. She took his hand again and pulled him inside, and he was too tired to protest, just followed her down the hallway to a palatial bathroom. She took his shield from his other hand, set it where he could see it, and said, "Sit."
He sat on the edge of the bathtub, watching as she took a pristine white terry washcloth from a cabinet and wetted it down. Tony appeared in the doorway and then took the cloth from her with a kiss, crouching in front of Steve. Blunt fingers tipped his chin up and Tony began scrubbing at the dirt on Steve's face. Steve just stared at him in confusion.
"Didn't you learn to wash behind your ears?" Tony asked, doubling the cloth over and scrubbing at Steve's neck. It had been years since anyone else had done that, not since he was a child and his mother was washing him for church.
"Ma used to say I could grow potatoes back there," Steve managed, tilting his head. Tony's sure hands cupped his cheek, bracing him.
"And here I thought you were born sparkling clean and singing the national anthem," Tony replied, while Pepper sat next to him. "Close your eyes."
Steve obeyed, and the cool swipe of the cloth passed over his nose and eyelids, taking sweat and dirt with it.
"You don't have to," he started, even as he hoped Tony would continue.
"I'm not the one who went into battle half-dressed," Tony replied. "And I'm not the one who's freaked out by zombies."
"I'm not," Steve mumbled. "People shouldn't desecrate graves, that's all."
"Wasn't our choice," Tony answered, scrubbing Steve's forehead.
"The thing is," Steve said, the words falling out of him, sounding more broken than he'd like, "if you fight and die for something you ought to be able to expect a decent burial. You ought to be allowed to rest when the fighting's over. Got nothing else, you should get that at least."
"We know," Pepper said quietly, stroking his hair.
"If you haven't got anything else you should get to rest," Steve insisted, and Pepper pressed a kiss to his temple.
"We know, sweetie. Come on," she said, and Tony stepped back as Pepper pulled him up. The air stung his clean face a little.
He let himself be led, didn't even object when Tony unbuckled his belt and stripped him out of the shredded pants, and the last thing he remembered before falling asleep was thinking that this bed was a lot bigger than the one he was used to.
When Steve woke, it was to the sound of Pepper talking quietly. He opened his eyes and saw her sitting at a table nearby, bluetooth in her ear, occasionally glancing at a laptop in front of her. She was wearing a blue robe that threatened to engulf her, and her hair was out of its usual loose bun, falling around her shoulders.
"Well, I think an army of the undead takes precedence over a meeting with a minor stockholder who's upset because we're turning less of a profit than companies who are dumping all their lead and mercury in India," she was saying, even-toned, though she was obviously angry. "No, Tony Stark isn't going to apologize for being Iron Man and I'm not going to apologize for myself or on his behalf for putting national security above something that's not going to impact this company in any significant fashion."
She listened to whoever was on the other end of the phone, head cocked.
"Stark Industries has close ties to the DoD regardless of our lack of missile production, and if you're not comfortable being a part of this company, you're welcome to walk away. We have very clear policies about this and one of those includes unconditional support for Iron Man, the Iron Man armor, the Iron Man trademark, and the Avengers brand. If you want to be the guy who quit because he doesn't like that our frontman runs with Captain America, I'm sure we can give you a 'Hates Freedom' severance package. Well, good, I'm glad you see it that way. Yes. No, I'll speak to you Thursday," she finished, and tapped the bluetooth to end the call. She glanced over, saw him watching, and smiled.
"Seriously, I'll take a second cousin," Steve said.
"I have a maiden aunt, but she's seventy," Pepper suggested.
"That's okay, I'm ninety-something," Steve replied. Pepper laughed and Steve was about to continue when he felt a pressure on his ribs. He looked down to find Tony, face mashed against Steve's shirt, head tucked crookedly but securely in his armpit.
"Well, this is awkward," Steve remarked.
"Sorry, you didn't look like either of you were going to make it past the bed, and Tony sleeps like a squid, all arms and no decorum," Pepper said, closing the laptop. "Feeling better?"
"Little bit. Any word from SHIELD?"
"Yep. Coulson's staying the night for observation, but I think they'll let us bring him down tomorrow morning," she replied, crossing to the bed. He watched warily as she burrowed under the covers he was lying on top of until their faces were close enough that he could see flecks of pale green in her blue eyes.
"Tony told me once you said you were alone," she said softly. "That you didn't have anyone. I hope you don't think that's true anymore."
He shook his head a little against the pillow. "It's -- there's a difference between having no-one and losing everyone. I don't..." he swallowed. "I'll never get the others back again. I'll never have my home back. But no, I don't feel alone anymore. Haven't for a long time."
"Good," she said, one hand resting on his neck. "We do care about you."
"I know," he mumbled. Her fingers had found a tight tense knot behind his ear, and the gentle kneading pressure was putting him back to sleep.
"You were right," she said, as he dozed off again. "When the fighting's over, you should get to rest."
The second time Steve woke, it was because Tony's elbow was jabbing him in the chin.
Tony and Pepper had both migrated in their sleep. Pepper had her face tucked up against Steve's neck, one arm somehow underneath his shoulders, body half on top of him. Tony was lying crosswise on the bed and draped over Steve's chest, planted head-first in Pepper's cleavage, a hand tangled in the tail of Steve's shirt. The other was folded up under him, poking Steve every time he inhaled.
He tried not to tense up, because waking them would be awkward, but this was...verging on the inappropriate. He tried to ease Pepper off him, gently as possible, and then worked on sliding out from under Tony, carefully climbing over Pepper to escape.
He pulled himself to the edge of the bed and sat there, regaining his composure for a moment before he stood, smoothing out his irretrievably wrinkled shirt, looking for his shredded pants. It was a shame, he thought, as he gathered them up. They were new, a pair he'd bought while shopping with Pepper, and part of the purpose of having the uniform was so that he didn't go through clothes like -- well, like Bruce.
On the bed, Tony murmured in his sleep and shifted again, curling up around Pepper. Steve allowed himself a few seconds to look at them in peace before his conscience got the better of him. Pepper was Tony's girl and Tony was Pepper's boy, and he couldn't have either of them. They made each other happy and he wouldn't wish unhappiness on them, not for the sake of an undefined feeling he wouldn't have the guts to put a name to even if he knew what it would be.
Besides, it probably wasn't even them; it was just the idea of them, having someone you knew cared for you, someone you could trust. Otherwise why would he want them both? He just wanted what they had, that was all.
He pulled on his ripped-up pants, collected his shield from the corner, left quietly so that they wouldn't wake, and went back down to his own apartment.
"JARVIS, head check," he said, when he was in a steaming hot shower.
"Sir and Ms. Potts are asleep in quarters," JARVIS reported, but there was a sly undertone that suggested Steve knew this perfectly well. "Agent Romanoff is in quarters. Dr. Banner is in the auxiliary lab."
"Is he working?" Steve asked with alarm, and then realized he had no idea how much time had passed since the fight. "What time is it?"
"Six-thirty in the evening. Currently he appears to be eating," JARVIS replied. "Agent Barton is not on premises."
"Check the Helicarrier."
"Agent Barton is in medical on the Helicarrier," JARVIS corrected smoothly. "He does not appear to be injured."
"Good," Steve replied, shutting off the water. "Add Agent Phillip Coulson to the head check, no end date."
"Agent Coulson is in medical on the Helicarrier."
"Can you give me status?"
"His available records list him as lucid, under observation. Agent Barton is in proximity."
"Thank you, JARVIS."
"My pleasure, Captain."
Steve felt vaguely hungry, which was a good sign; when you want to eat, it means things are getting back to normal. He tied a towel around his waist and was about to turn and go rummage in his kitchen when instead, on instinct, he picked up his straight razor and threw it hard over his shoulder at the doorway.
Natasha caught it by the blade, snapping it shut.
"You couldn't knock?" Steve asked, unwanted adrenaline flooding his veins.
"I came in through the ceiling," she replied.
"JARVIS said you were in quarters," he said.
"I was," she replied. "Now I'm here. I'm curious, were you going to hold the enemy down and threaten to shave his eyebrows?"
"Closest weapon to hand," he sighed, accepting the folded razor back from her. "Did you need something?"
"I wanted to talk to you," she replied, facing the wall while he pulled on skivvies and pants.
"Sure," he said, shrugging into his Tetris t-shirt. It was already starting to fade from constant wear. "Hungry?"
"No, thank you," she answered, following him into the kitchen. He dug out a package of crackers, then rummaged in the fridge for cheese.
"Okay. Fire away."
She settled at the breakfast table, on the edge of one of the chairs. "I know it might not look like it, but I do like Stark. I've seen him pretty low. Not something I want to see again."
Steve glanced at her. "How long have you known him?"
"Longer than you've been around. For a while I was undercover as Pepper's assistant. Fury had me keeping an eye on Stark." She paused. "He was dying."
"What?" Steve asked around a mouthful of cracker.
"His reactor is powered by heavy metals. It was poisoning him. It's better now," she added with a flip of her hand, like it was hardly relevant. "You see a man struggling with his life like that, it puts him in perspective."
"I imagine so," Steve said, swallowing. "I didn't know."
"It wasn't common knowledge. And I was working for Pepper, so I've seen how hard her job is. Besides, she rolls with all this," Natasha gestured at the tower, at Steve, upwards at either Tony or the Helicarrier, hard to tell. "I give her respect."
"She's an amazing woman," Steve agreed, wondering where all this was headed.
"I agree. That's why you need to stop seducing her."
Steve almost cut himself, chopping the cheese. "Sedu -- what?"
"I don't want to see Stark hurt, and I don't want to see her throw something good away because you're pretty, and I don't want to see the team fall apart because you couldn't keep it in your pants," Natasha said.
Steve put the knife down. "I think you've got the wrong idea about me, Agent Romanoff."
"No, I don't think I do, Captain Rogers," she replied. "I've seen how she treats you. I've seen the way you look at her. If something hasn't happened yet then it will soon, and I'm telling you to back off."
"All right," he said, turning to face her, one hand holding the counter tightly. "Let's be very clear about this. First, contrary to what SHIELD may think or train you to do, other peoples' romances aren't any of your business, and I don't take orders from you when it comes to my life. Second, nothing has happened and nothing will happen because, third, I would never pursue a woman who wasn't free to accept. Especially not one who was seeing my best friend."
Natasha seemed unperturbed by the scolding. "But you do look at her," she said in an infuriatingly calm voice.
"That's not your concern or hers," Steve said, turning away again. After a moment, he added, "It'll pass."
"You're in love with her."
"No. Just the idea of them," he said, and realized his mistake as soon as the words left his mouth. He didn't dare look up from the counter.
"Ah," Natasha said, sounding surprised. "Them. It's that way?"
"It'll pass," Steve repeated. "And I'd appreciate it if you didn't put this in a report or tell anyone else."
"I wasn't going to," she replied. "We handle our affairs internally. That's why I'm here."
"Affairs," he repeated to himself, a dry smile twisting his lips. He shook his head. "They're my friends. They helped me find my place. That's all."
"I apologize for my misperception," she said, though it was clear she'd only meant the part about Pepper, not the part about Steve's feelings for both of them.
"Don't worry about it," he said, hoping she would leave.
He only heard her stand because the chair rattled against the floor. "There are many kinds of love."
"Yeah, well, not for them," he replied.
"I think you'd be surprised," she said. "If she fell in love with someone else, he'd be hurt. If she fell in love with you, it'd destroy him. Anyone but you."
Steve stayed there, silent, until she left. When she was gone, he carefully put the cheese away in the fridge, washed the knife and set it in the block, and swept the remains of the crackers into the trash.
"JARVIS," he said, "It's been a long damn day."
"Indeed, Captain," JARVIS replied. "How may I be of assistance?"
Steve sighed and started for the gym. "Better order another pallet of sand bags."
Someday I'll come up with a more appropriate summary for this thing. In the meantime, kissing!
Whatever else you could say about SHIELD -- and between six Avengers plus various significant others, assistants, and interns, you could say a lot about SHIELD -- they backed off when they weren't wanted. Even if Fury was dissatisfied or if the press was raising Cain about property damage again, they rarely heard from anyone official for at least a few days after a fight.
Steve, having exhausted himself in the gym, slept long enough to get back on a regular schedule, waking the morning after the fight to JARVIS informing him that it was sixty-eight degrees outside, the stock market had opened down, and Agent Coulson and Agent Barton were ten minutes out from the landing pad.
"Any messages from SHIELD?" he asked, hastily pulling on his boots, which had been cleaned and left outside his door. By a robot. Seriously.
"No, Captain," JARVIS replied. "You do have a request from Ms. Potts to attend dinner tonight at La Vaca Rojo."
"How fancy is La Vaca Rojo?"
"The food is advertised as pastoral rustic, but the staff are not known for their egalitarianism. May I recommend the blue linen shirt and a light sport coat?"
"Thanks. Will Tony be there?"
Steve hated the plaintive way his voice sounded, but one of the first lessons he'd learned (it had taken a while to internalize) was that JARVIS didn't judge. Well, he didn't judge anyone but Tony, and that was Tony's problem.
"According to ambient conversation, all Avengers will be in attendance. I understand it is a celebration of Agent Coulson's fortuitous return."
All right, then. That was normal, ordinary even. He wasn't being obvious about anything, Natasha was just extremely perceptive, and he was going to have dinner with friends.
He reached the Stark Tower helipad just as the copter came in sight. The rest of the Avengers were there, minus Clint, who was probably in the pilot's seat of the copter.
"When I first knew the Son of Coul," Thor said, shading his eyes to watch the copter land, "I thought him a steward. A fine steward, but nothing more. Truly I was never more mistaken."
"He and I are going to have a talk about going head to head with Loki," Tony replied.
"Can it," Steve suggested, a little more abruptly than he meant. "Man's back from the dead, Tony, give him a break."
"Yeah, fine," Tony grumbled, unexpectedly. Steve avoided Natasha's gaze.
Coulson was just so calm about it all.
He'd been dead for months, and a lot had changed, but he just asked for the mission reports since his demise (he actually said since my demise) and settled into an empty apartment for the day, ignoring Tony's ongoing babble about plans to customize one for him. He said he was glad to be back. And anytime anyone seemed about to ask him what he remembered, he fixed them with a kind, inquiring gaze that made it impossible to talk.
He loosened up a little over dinner, but not a whole lot; Steve came to the conclusion that deceptively-harmless-looking was just Coulson's baseline of existence.
It was a nice dinner, maybe the best one they'd had since -- ever, really. Everyone was happy and settled into their roles in the group, and the private room Tony had booked for them was awfully nice. And the steaks were amazing.
"I don't remember it," Coulson finally admitted, when Tony managed to get the question out after they were all well-fed and some a little drunk. The room was dim, candles on the table flickering, and Steve felt like they were sharing a sort of mystery -- like the men used to do during the war, around a fire at night or huddled in a foxhole. "Nothing after dying."
"You remember dying?" Pepper asked, sounding worried.
"Oh yes. Cold, then struggling for breath. I remember feeling my heart stop and thinking that wasn't good," he said calmly. "Then nothing until yesterday. I feel pretty well-rested," he added, a thoughtful expression crossing his face. "And there's an entire season of Hoarders to catch up on."
He was sitting with Clint on one side and Pepper on the other. Steve wondered if Clint had left him alone for more than five minutes since he'd come back. Steve was across from them, between Tony and Bruce (a dangerous location) and while he was aware he was sitting stiffly, awkward around Tony even though there was no reason to be, he couldn't seem to stop himself. Natasha seemed amused and annoyed by turns.
Steve really wished alcohol still worked on him.
"Are you all right?" Bruce asked, leaning in a little. Steve glanced at him, wondering if he meant to ask Tony. "Fork, Steve."
Steve looked down. He'd gripped his fork so tight it was bending sideways.
"Still getting over yesterday," Steve lied, glad the dim light hid the blush on his face, and set the fork down.
"Makes me glad I usually don't remember much," Bruce agreed. "Tony sent me some video but I haven't looked at it yet, and the news didn't get there in time to film it, apparently."
"You want my advice, don't watch," Steve replied.
"It really got to you, huh? Pepper said you were upset."
"Well, that was obvious, I guess," Steve said quickly.
"Hey, we all have our sore spots. I'm not a huge fan of explosives, your thing is zombie soldiers, Thor's presumably...irked by...something..."
"He really likes his hammer," Steve said. Bruce laughed. Under the table, Tony's hand brushed his leg and squeezed gently. Steve tried to ignore it.
"I would like to make a toast," Thor announced, standing, and Steve scrambled to his feet with the others, grateful for the interruption. Thor held up his flagon -- there was really no other word for it.
"To the Son of Coul," Thor announced, "who could not be kept from us by an army of the dead."
"Hear hear," Pepper agreed.
"And to the Avengers, who fought bravely to return him," Thor continued, giving Pepper a nod. "May we never part until we meet again in Valhalla, and that none too soon."
They lifted their glasses and drank. At least, Steve thought, if they had to do what they'd done, they weren't alone.
They caused the same stir on the way out of the restaurant as they had on the way in, because you could dress the Avengers up but it was hard to hide Steve and Thor -- two blond giants -- or Natasha and Pepper, who were just plain knockouts, or Tony Stark, who was, well, Tony Stark. Most of them had arrived in one of Tony's limos, driven by Happy, but Tony and Pepper had taken the roadster that they both knew was Steve's favorite, and at the curb Tony passed the keys to Steve.
"Pretty convenient having a perpetually designated driver," Tony said, climbing into the passenger's side, scooting so that Pepper could take the window seat. Steve hopped the door and started her up, pleased as always by how obediently the engine turned over and purred for him. Pepper stretched her arm along the back of the bench seat, fingers brushing his shoulder.
"Take the long way, Jeeves," Tony ordered lightly, one hand on Pepper's thigh. Well, Steve would take what he could get; another half hour with Pepper's fingers making warm lines on his arm wouldn't hurt anyone, any more than the press of Tony's thigh against his would. Tony put the radio on, and the Stones blasted out of the speakers; Steve turned it down out of deference to everyone in a fifteen foot radius of their car, but didn't turn it off. He liked the Stones, and he especially liked Start Me Up, which was a man's righteous ode to a muscle car.
"You know," he said over the music, as they stopped at a red light, "I think I'm finally getting my head around this century."
"Just now?" Tony asked, looking injured.
"Try putting down in the forties and see how well you'd do," Steve replied with a smile.
"I think that's a reality show," Pepper put in, flicking him with her fingers. "I'd watch it."
Steve was opening his mouth to reply, but he was distracted by the people in the next car over, who were taking their picture with their cellphones. Tony was looking at them over his sunglasses, grinning.
"Hey Captain America!" a young woman called, flicking pretty brown hair back off her face. "Smile for us, sexy!"
"Manners, miss," Steve scolded, but he smiled anyway. She giggled and turned to say something to her friend. The driver, a boy about the same age as the women, leaned forward and yelled We love you, Ms. Potts!
"Buy Stark!" she yelled back. The boy waved a StarkPhone at her. "Atta boy!"
The light changed, and Steve had a moment of pure impulse; he floored the gas and the roadster leapt ahead of the big SUV, leaving it far behind. Tony whooped.
"Hey Captain America, sexy, smile for us," Pepper said. Steve could see her holding up her phone out of the corner of his eye. He didn't turn, but he did smile; Tony threw himself against Steve's shoulder, beaming at her, and Pepper laughed as she took the picture. "If I had a Facebook that wasn't a PR move, this would be all over it," she said.
"Like," Steve replied, and Tony -- still leaning on his arm -- tipped his head back to stare at him upside-down.
"You really are mastering the terrible shallow portions of the century, anyway," he said.
They got back to the Tower well after the others and Steve guided the roadster carefully into its spot, patting her steering wheel affectionately before climbing out. Tony was singing the last song that had been on the radio, Wasn't me she was foolin' cause she knew what she was doin', and I knowed love was here to stay...
"Here," Pepper said, catching up to Steve and handing him her phone. He looked down at the photo she'd taken -- Tony sprawled against him, tongue out, eyes crinkled up behind his sunglasses, hair even crazier than Howard's used to be. In the photo Steve had his eyes firmly on the road, but he was slouched a little in the seat and on his face --
God, that stupid smile, no wonder Natasha had noticed something. Fond and wistful, warm, just a little resigned. How could either of them not see it?
He stopped walking, just looking at the photo, face hot, Pepper's closeness making him hyper-aware of her. He could hear Tony in the outer vestibule of the garage, still singing. Then my next door neighbor with a daughter had a favor, so I gave her just a little kiss -- like this!
He could practically hear the guitar riff in his head. He was still looking down at the phone, trying not to hold it so hard it cracked. Pepper rested a hand on his shoulder, turning to stand in front of him, and he'd never been any good at a poker face, not around things that really mattered. He looked up at her guiltily.
She slid her hand up his shoulder to his face, tilting her face up. He wanted to pull away, he did, but before he could make himself move, she'd kissed him. Not the affectionate peck on the temple or forehead he was used to, but a soft kiss on the lips, warm, like a dare to do more.
Christ, Natasha had been right --
He jerked back, the phone tumbling out of his fingers to the floor.
"I -- that's not -- no," he fumbled, crouching to pick up the phone. He offered it to her, stepping back so that it was at arm's length, not looking at her.
"Steve, sweetie -- "
"Tony," he blurted. "There's Tony -- "
"Yes," Tony's voice said, and Steve's head jerked up. Tony was leaning in the doorway, arms crossed, sunglasses discarded. "Here I am."
"Tony, I'm sorry, I didn't," Steve said, horrified. He thrust the phone at Pepper again. "It isn't like that."
"I'm pretty sure it is," Tony replied, coming forward. Steve decided if Tony took a swing he wouldn't duck. It was less than he deserved.
But Tony didn't touch him, just slid an arm around Pepper's waist and pulled her close against his side.
"I told you to let me handle this," he said in her ear, nuzzling her temple.
"He looked sad," she replied, eyes not leaving Steve.
"I'm not..." Steve backed away, almost tripping over the bumper of the roadster. "You should. Talk. I'm going to -- "
"Cap, wait," Tony called, but Steve bolted for the stairwell, and he knew neither of them could pace him for long on the stairs. He took them two at a time, ten flights up, and then carefully investigated the elevators, making sure Tony wasn't in any of them, before taking one the rest of the way.
The phone was still in his hand.
He sat down on his couch, put the phone carefully on the coffee table, and rested his head in his palms. Natasha was right; he was going to mess everything up. And Pepper might think he was attractive, nice even, but she and Tony had something real. He had no right to step in the middle of that.
He picked up the phone and swiped a finger over the button to light up the screen. There was a lock on it, but before he could turn the screen off, it unlocked itself. Steve stared down at the photo again. He'd thought he wasn't obvious, he'd thought he was hiding it so well. Had he looked like that every time...?
A text message appeared.
You want to give my girlfriend back her phone?
Steve swallowed and hit Reply.
I'm so, so sorry, Tony.
The next message came so quickly it had to have been a second message, rather than a reply.
Open the door, dumbass.
Steve got up, phone clenched in his hand, and opened his front door. Tony stood there, his own phone in one hand.
"I had JARVIS unlock it," he said, pointing at Pepper's. Steve held out the phone and Tony took it. "Can I come in?"
Steve stood aside. It occurred to him as Tony walked in that they didn't come to his apartment much. Tony's eyes fell on the flag hanging on one wall -- a tattered, olive drab scrap of fabric reading CAMP LEJEUNE.
"Memento?" he asked, turning to Steve.
"Trophy," Steve replied. "Tony -- "
"No, shut up for a minute, sit down," Tony said, and Steve sat almost without thinking. Tony settled in a chair across from him, dark eyes on his.
"You know what Pep means to me," he said slowly. Steve nodded, head bowed. "What we have took a long time, a lot longer than it should have. I was a shithead of a boss to her for like...ten, twelve years before I got my act together. Trying to make it up to her now. She never asked, but I kinda have to."
Steve twisted his fingers together. "She said you changed when you came back."
"Yeah. Lost a lot of illusions in Afghanistan. Three months with terrorists will do that," Tony replied, sounding almost amused. "Most of it was for the good, eventually. But my point is, it took us a long time to get where we are, and that means it's not budging anytime soon."
"Tony, I'm sorr -- "
"Don't -- for once in your life don't apologize," Tony said. "This isn't what you think it is. I'm not angry with you."
"The one time you're not..." Steve shook his head. "I swear, Tony, I wouldn't come between you."
"Well, that's a discussion for about five minutes from now," Tony said cryptically. "But the upshot is, you haven't. And you need to come upstairs, because this is something we need to talk about together, not just you and me."
"I don't want to -- "
"You're not intruding. All three of us, okay?" Tony stood up, pausing when Steve stayed where he was. "Look, you can come up, or I can grab you by your collar and drag you up. I don't want to wrinkle your shirt, that's good linen, respect it, and anyway I'd look like an asshole because there is no way I'm strong enough out of the suit to throw you around."
Steve stood, and Tony made an approving noise that even through the shame and guilt went straight to his heart.
They rode up together in silence, which was almost unheard-of for Tony. When the elevator opened in the penthouse, Pepper was there, looking almost as guilty as Steve.
"Look," Tony said, gesturing at him. "Found you something."
Steve didn't even have a second to think this time; Pepper grabbed him by the hair and pulled him down, kissing him, and Tony did nothing, and something inside Steve snapped.
Just hit me, you son of a bitch, he thought, and bent into the kiss, deepening it until Pepper made a low Ah! of surprise. There was a hand on his arm, and finally, at least it was all going to come out --
Tony pulled him around, away from Pepper, and kissed him too.
Please note the rating change! Pornography ahead!
When Tony kissed him, Steve went still; not the stiff surprise from the first kiss with Pepper but the sort of wary, danger-fueled stillness he felt in battle sometimes, waiting for the right moment to attack. Pepper had a palm on his chest, Tony had his hands on Steve's arms, and Steve didn't know what to do with this, didn't know how to react. Tony's ridiculously complicated goatee rasped against his lower lip, and Steve realized his mouth had drifted open, which Tony was spiritedly trying to take full advantage of.
Steve tried to untangle himself and Tony let him go, let his hands fall and opened his eyes.
"Now will you shut up and let us talk for a minute?" Tony asked. Steve looked back and forth between them, confused and -- almost angry, because this wasn't fair.
"I don't understand what just happened," he said forlornly.
"It's called 'french kissing'," Tony said, and Pepper smacked him on the stomach with the back of her hand.
"We care about you," she said, coming forward, and Steve stepped back. Pepper stopped and sighed. "And I shouldn't have done what I did. I wasn't trying to upset you."
"I'm not upset," Steve said vehemently. "I'm just -- why did you do that?" he asked Tony. Tony rested his forehead on Pepper's shoulder.
"Say it, coward," she said, turning her head.
"Because we care about you," Tony repeated. "And you weren't taking the hint."
"There was no -- there was no hint!" Steve said.
"Sweetie, we took you to bed," Pepper said. "We took off your pants and took you to bed, and when we woke up you were gone."
"We talked about it," Tony said, lifting his head. "Before. With each other, I mean. We were making plans."
"Well, I talked," Pepper put in. "Tony's a weasel so he made me bring it up first."
"I was trying to be a good boyfriend," Tony insisted.
"I'm just..." Steve started towards the door, but Pepper put a hand out -- not touching him, a few inches from his chest.
"Wait," she said. "Hear us out. Because you want this, don't you? I know I'm not imagining it, and Tony's good at reading people. We both think you want this, and we want to offer it to you."
"No," Steve insisted. "I just -- I want what you have. Together. I want that. Not you. Just that."
"I'm pretty sure Captain America's not supposed to tell lies," Tony said.
"Not helping," Pepper informed him. "Steve. Everyone here wants the same thing. This isn't a fling or a trick or some scheme we cooked up because you're pretty. You are very pretty. But we want you, not Captain Amazing-Ass."
"Now's the time for that nickname? Really?" Tony asked.
"You invented it," Pepper replied.
"That's not how it works," Steve said miserably. "Two people, that's how love works."
"There are a lot of different kinds of love," Pepper said.
"That's what Natasha said," Steve answered, before he thought about it.
"Natasha?" Tony asked, eyes going sharp.
"She said -- she saw the way I looked at you," Steve said to Pepper. Pepper frowned. "She thought we were...or we would be...and she said if we did, if it was me, more than anyone else, if it was me, Tony would..."
Tony reached out and pulled Steve into his arms, and Steve didn't have the energy to fight this anymore, especially when he didn't even want to. He could feel Pepper resting her face against his neck, Tony's hand on the back of his head, steadying him, and he exhaled and gave up. It was wrong, wrong to want it and wrong to accept it, but it was better than the sore, painful emptiness. And he wasn't such a good man he could walk away from this.
Tony ducked his head and kissed him again, and Steve fumbled for Pepper's hand on his waist, getting a reassuring squeeze when his fingers found hers.
Tony's kiss was shockingly gentle, though maybe it shouldn't have been surprising. Tony was all fire and speed and intensity, always had been as long as Steve had known him, but he could be quiet and focused, gentle-handed when he needed to be, with Bruce or his machines or even with Steve, washing the dirt off his neck, making sly jokes.
"First," Tony said, stopping the kiss but not pulling back, resting their foreheads together, "Natasha is a very smart woman and a very good spy but she is not a relationship counselor."
Steve laughed a little. He couldn't help it; he was so warm and neither of them were angry and he felt lightheaded, like he couldn't quite get enough air.
"Second, yes, if you and Pep ran off together it would break what's left of my delicate fucking heart," Tony said. "But I'm good with this, and Pepper's good with it, and I'm pretty sure that, any forties-induced sexuality crises aside, you're good too. Am I wrong?"
Steve kept his eyes closed. "I'm not having a crisis. Back...well, you're not the first," he murmured.
"If you say my dad -- "
"No, creep," Steve replied. He exhaled slowly. "Bucky."
"Oh," Pepper said softly.
"But then Peggy...and I couldn't ever have had Bucky anyway, he wasn't...and she, we would have, we had a date -- "
Pepper shushed him gently.
"You can have us," she said, and Steve felt a strange noise rise and die in his throat, regret and longing and fear all mingled together. "Two easy questions, okay?"
"Okay," he said, while Tony nosed against his neck, nipping his ear.
"Do you trust us?" Pepper asked.
"Yes, of course."
"And do you want this?"
"No lying," Tony said into his skin. "No judgments, no consequences, no lying."
"Yes," Steve moaned, clutching Tony's waist tightly. "Yes, I do -- "
"Hey there, super-strength," Tony muttered, and Steve let go of him, worried suddenly. Tony caught his hands and brought them back, fixing them gently on his hips. "Good, just, gently."
Steve felt him move back, pulling them both along -- Steve with his hands on Tony's hips, Pepper with her arms around Steve's chest. Tony tumbled onto the sofa sideways and brought him down too, and Steve felt Pepper stretch out along his back, her breasts pressing against his shoulder blades.
Tony spread his legs, obscene and careless, rolling his body up into Steve's, and Steve blushed for both of them, kissing Tony to hide it. Still, he felt good -- he felt drunk, careless and loose-limbed in a way he hadn't since before the Serum, since the day Bucky enlisted and Steve went out alone and spent his entire week's salary on expensive whiskey and picked three separate fights. The last time he'd felt like this, he'd been taking a hook to the jaw.
He bit down on Tony's lip, just to see what he'd do, and Tony arched and said, "Feisty motherfu -- " then broke off when Steve licked along the bite, soothing it. Pepper laughed, dropping kisses against his neck and in the short hair at the back of his head. Steve twisted around to kiss her, careful not to dislodge her or put too much weight on Tony.
Tony's hips were bucking slow and rhythmic, and Steve was overwhelmed by all this touch, the smell of Pepper's perfume, the faint metal tang that followed Tony everywhere, the taste of the wine she'd had at dinner mingling with the leftover taste of Tony's scotch in his mouth. He could feel himself getting hard, and when Tony slid a hand between them and began to stroke him through his pants he turned away from Pepper, burying his face between Tony's shoulder and the cushion of the couch, trying to muffle the soft, broken-off groans he couldn't keep from making. Pepper leaned over him and he heard her and Tony kissing. He turned his head a little, unable to resist.
He'd seen them kiss before -- easy quick good-bye or hello kisses, affectionate for-no-reason kisses, and what he'd always thought were showing-off kisses, at least on Tony's part. Tony was free with his affection around Pepper, and he liked to put people off balance. This was some strange mixture of the three, intimate and showy, private and sexual, something they were doing for him as much as for each other.
He had a moment of doubt; what was he doing here, how could he possibly take this risk, how could he give them this much, but then Pepper turned her head and her fingers untucked his shirt. They inched up over his belt and under the fabric, thumbs pressing into the muscle on either side of his spine, the ones that regardless of his sped-up healing were always sore after a fight from the torque he put behind the shield. He went limp, Tony's reactor pressing into his chest through their clothes, Tony's legs cradling his.
"I think we found the sweet spot," he heard Tony say. Pepper hummed against Steve's shoulder -- was she biting his shirt?
"Hey, listen to me, Captain," Tony said, and the way he said Captain, low and sure, sent a shiver down Steve's spine he was sure Pepper could feel. "We go as slow as you want. Anything you don't like, just say so. I save up all my pushy bullshit for battle."
"Not all of it," Pepper said, muffled by Steve's shirt. Steve just breathed, trying to control the reactions they were drawing out of him, conflicting urges to command and obey.
"Be that as it may, smart-face," Tony said to Pepper, "Seriously, I've done it all and Pepper's caught me doing half of it. We can wait for you to catch up. Whatever you want, Cap."
Steve lay silent, struggling to think. He wanted to bury himself in them both at once, tangle his body up with theirs until the rest of the world didn't exist. He wanted to know what they did together, and what they -- why they wanted him, how they could do this. He wanted to ask questions he had no right to ask, crawl into their bed and find out who they were alone together, find out how he fitted into their edges and curves.
"Can we just...stay here a minute," he managed, settling in against Tony's body. "Just a minute?"
"Sure," Pepper said, and then, disapproving, "Tony."
"What? I did nothing," Tony said, sounding wounded.
"Hands above the waist," she ordered, and Tony lifted both hands over his head, which settled Steve just that much deeper. Tony's hips were still moving, gentle little rocks against him. Steve sort of fell into the rhythm, shifting slowly, following Tony's easy lead.
"Uh," Tony said, after a while, "I'm going to make a suggestion, two actually, one of which is, bed, and the other is taking our pants off. Or at least taking mine off. I can do it, though you should feel free to help if you want. My pants, are you okay with that?"
"Is he always like this?" Steve asked.
"No, most of the time he's much worse," Pepper replied, sliding off him in a way that made Steve moan and bow his head. It took him a few seconds to collect himself enough that he could follow, leaving Tony to scramble up after. Pepper steered Steve towards the bedroom, but he glanced behind him long enough to see Tony walking and undressing at the same time, and he had an idea where Tony had come up with the stroll-along-while-it-strips-you armor removal system.
Pepper stopped him next to the bed and tucked her hands up under his shirt again, this time spreading her fingers over his abdomen. She gave him a questioning look and he nodded, helping her lift it over his head, then stumbling forward a little as Tony tackled him from behind.
"That was supposed to push you both onto the bed," Tony said ruefully into his arm.
"Super-soldier," Steve replied.
"This is gonna be awesome," Tony announced. He threw himself onto the bed, naked except for his underwear, and splayed out his arms, grinning at them. Pepper kissed Steve again before turning around, pulling her hair off her neck.
"Unzip me?" she asked, and Steve pulled the zipper tab down, watching in awe as she shrugged out of the dress. Her bra was black and almost-not-there, and she pulled it off carelessly as she sat on the edge of the bed, working at the thigh-high stockings she wore. Steve thought of the war, of rationing and how soldiers used to give their girls black-market nylons. He never understood why, but he was beginning to see the appeal. Before she could get to the second one, he knelt and tucked his fingers into it, pulling it down.
"Half the pleasure is in the unwrapping," Tony said, leaning over Pepper's shoulder. Steve concentrated on rolling the stocking down and off, then the great daring of sliding his hands back up the outside of her legs to pull her underwear off as well. When he looked up, her head was tilted back on Tony's shoulder. Her eyes were closed and Tony had a hand wrapped around one of her breasts, thumb teasing the nipple, but he was looking at Steve hungrily. Steve felt his mouth go dry.
He wasn't exactly an innocent, but his experience of sex definitely didn't extend to having it with two people at once, one of them a man. He concentrated on Pepper for the moment, rising up on his knees to kiss her, fingers skating hesitantly over her bare skin. He could feel Tony's hand grasp his wrist and guide it, down over her belly.
"Don't you look nice together," Tony murmured, as Pepper spread her legs wider and Steve let Tony guide his hand into her, only vaguely aware of what he was looking for. He was pretty sure he found it when Pepper sucked in a breath sharply. Tony let go of his wrist and cupped a hand around his cheek.
Steve leaned forward when Tony tugged, pressing his face to Pepper's stomach, kissing the soft skin. With a reluctant sigh he pulled away and stood up, and Pepper elbowed Tony ("Hey!") until both of them could scoot back onto the bed, Steve following with what he hoped looked like more confidence than he felt. Two sets of hands helped him out of his clothing, while Steve just tried to curl up around any bit of warm flesh he could find.
He found himself on his back with an armful of Pepper, who was kissing Tony and laughing at the same time. Steve propped himself on an elbow to watch, and he almost regretted it when it drew their attention back to him -- he'd wanted to see that.
"This is your party," Tony said, his voice low and more serious than the words implied. "What would you like, Cap?"
Steve glanced back and forth between them. "I don't know much," he admitted.
"I know," Tony said. "Wasn't what I asked."
"Whatever you..." Steve gestured with a hand, but Pepper caught it and kissed his fingers.
"He wants something," she said to Tony, then turned back to Steve. "Come on, sweetie, tell us."
Steve flushed, but he was naked in bed with them, and it didn't get a whole lot more honest than that, he supposed.
"Can I see you?" he asked, in a very small voice. "Together, I mean...can I?"
Tony blinked at him.
"All that," he said, gesturing at Steve's body, "and all this...and you want to watch us? You do understand we're offering you -- "
"Yes, I know," Steve said, studying the bedspread. "Maybe in a bit? I want to -- you're so happy together, I want to see...why," he finished, knowing it sounded stupid.
But Pepper just stroked his hair, and Tony peered at him thoughtfully until finally he said, "Wait, no, I have a good idea, the best idea."
He pulled Steve upright, then shoved him back until he was propped against the headboard and pillows. Tony leaned in for a kiss, hand sliding down Steve's chest, then ducked his head and grinned.
"Stay right there, big guy," he said, and turned to drop into Steve's lap, between his legs, with a satisfied sigh.
"I see how it is," Pepper said from the edge of the bed, where she was digging in a nightstand drawer. She came up with a condom and smiled. "Always has to be the center of attention."
"Hey, he wanted to watch," Tony replied, resting his head back on Steve's shoulder. Steve was still eyeing the condom, curious.
"Aren't you..." he looked at Pepper, brows drawn together. "You don't do this a lot, do you?"
"Not with anyone else," she said, patting him.
"Well, I don't want little baby Starks just yet, and -- "
"I did a lot of stupid shit when I was younger," Tony supplied. "Better safe than sorry, at least until I've got a year of clean tests."
Steve tightened his arms around Tony's waist, struck suddenly by the memory that Tony was human, Tony and Pepper both, and there were some things they couldn't heal from the way he could.
"It's just a precaution," Pepper reassured him, and Tony arched and groaned self-indulgently when she rolled it on.
She settled over Tony's lap, and Steve watched in awe as they moved together, kissing, touching, Tony's hips jerking just enough that on every downstroke his ass slid over Steve's cock. He probably meant to do it, Steve thought, but it was a fleeting one -- he was too busy cataloguing everything they did. They talked, little snatches of conversation, encouragement, Tony mumbling Fuck I love you, should have been better and Pepper answering It's okay, this is good, love you too.
Tony had one arm over his head, tangled in Steve's hair, and Pepper leaned up to kiss him occasionally, but Steve was content with the warmth of their bodies and the permission -- the right -- to touch them: Tony's sweat-slicked chest with its glowing technological marvel humming evenly under his fingers, Pepper's shoulders and soft arms and round breasts against his palms.
Pepper broke off talking with a gasp, bowing her head and moving faster, and Steve could see Tony's other hand between her legs again, fingers twisting where their bodies joined.
"Come on," Tony urged, "Come on, Pep, baby, let go -- "
Steve stared, completely entranced, as Pepper's body shook, hips stilling, her head bowed and her mouth open in a drawn-out moan before she rocked into Tony, going limp on top of him. Tony laughed softly.
Pepper toppled off to one side, stretching out on the bed, her expression utterly blissful. She beamed up at them, eyes soft.
"Entertain yourselves," she said, waving an uncoordinated hand. Steve realized, almost startled, that he was desperately hard, and that Tony hadn't come.
He reached hesitantly for Tony -- it wasn't like he didn't know how to do this -- but Tony wriggled out of his way and turned around, straddling his thighs. His cock brushed Steve's and Steve jerked forward, gasping.
"All right?" Tony asked, pressing their faces together, kissing him open and wet and enthusiastic.
"Yes," Steve said in a strangled voice. "Yes, very."
It was -- well, obviously it felt good, but it felt like they were fitting together the way the shield fit on his arm, the way a solid hit on an enemy felt. Unassailably right, natural and easy. Steve got a little lost in the push-and-roll of it, Tony's hand around them both, Tony's mouth on his lips, his jaw, his neck. He turned his head so Tony could lick at his ear, teeth grazing along the ridge, and saw Pepper watching them languidly, slow desire in her eyes.
"There you are," she said, and Steve's orgasm ripped through him, a surprise so sudden that he nearly bruised Tony's arm as he held on, gasping and bucking. Tony swore and dug his nails into Steve's neck and came, Steve could feel it, could hear it in his voice, but he was still caught in the hot twist of his own.
When he came down a little from the blissful, quiet place he'd gone, Pepper was kneeling over him with a damp cloth, gently cleaning him off. Tony was draped over one shoulder, making smug, content noises.
"Hey look," he said, and licked Steve's sweaty neck. "We wore out Captain America."
"Happily," Steve mumbled, which he was aware didn't quite make sense. "That was..."
"Amazing? Awesome? Best sex you've ever had?" Tony suggested. Steve turned and nuzzled his hair.
"Well, only, but yes, best," he replied, and both Tony and Pepper went still.
"This was your first time?" Pepper asked, voice rising.
"Hell yes," Tony said, laughing, and pulled Steve down until they were lying face to face, Pepper kneeling behind Tony.
"Are you okay, sweetie?" Pepper asked.
"Yeah," Steve answered. "Shouldn't I be?"
"You absolutely should be," Tony assured him. "Pepper, get down here, you're missing the fun afterglow."
She rolled her eyes but climbed over them both, curling up behind Steve, arm secure over his waist. Tony scooted closer and sighed in contentment.
"Now we sleep," he slurred, apparently already halfway there. Steve was about to turn and ask Pepper if she was tired, but she pushed her thumbs up against his spine again, working them along the muscles in his lower back, and he collapsed against Tony bonelessly.
"I know your off-switch," she said in his ear, sounding amused. Steve hummed in agreement, safe and warm between them as he drifted off.
Steve woke the following morning to find Tony and Pepper already up; from the bed he could see Tony standing shirtless at the window, working on equations projected onto the glass, Manhattan spread out below him the best damn backdrop anyone could ask for. Pepper was sitting in a nearby chair, wearing a towel and a smile, rubbing some kind of lotion on her legs. Steve lay completely still and basked in it, that he was naked in their bed and they were there doing the most domestic imaginable things, at least for them. He was allowed to stay there and admire the curve of Pepper's calf under her fingers, the flex of muscle across Tony's shoulders as he worked.
They wanted him. If he was very lucky and very good, they might keep him.
"Hey, you're up," Pepper said, catching his eye. Steve pushed himself up on his elbows. "My god, your chest is a monument to science."
"Thank you?" Steve said.
"Go back to sleep if you want," Tony said, but he turned and leered a little. "It's early still."
"You're up," Steve pointed out.
"A billion dollar company doesn't run itself," Pepper said with a smile. "Be our kept man for the morning, sleep in."
"Mm, no, breakfast sounds good," Steve yawned. "Did you eat yet?"
"Coffee is proof God didn't intend us to eat breakfast," Tony called.
Steve eased out of the bed, a little self-conscious at the way Pepper was openly ogling him, but he braved through it and found his pants, at least, if not his underwear. Tony caught him by the arm and kissed him as he passed, tasting like coffee.
In the kitchen, Steve found fruit in a bowl and muffins in the fridge; he put the muffins in the oven to warm up, then set about slicing a grapefruit. Still a luxury after all this time, fruit so fresh and ripe and huge compared to what they'd had when he was growing up.
"JARVIS, head check," he said as he worked.
"Agent Barton and Agent Coulson are eating breakfast in quarters," JARVIS recited. "Agent Romanoff is in the gymnasium. Thor is watching morning news in quarters. Dr. Banner is asleep in quarters." There was a slight pause. "I believe you are aware of Sir and Ms. Potts' locations, Captain."
"Don't be catty, JARVIS," Tony said, walking into the kitchen. Steve intercepted the mug in his hand and refilled it with coffee, then set out glasses for juice from the fridge.
"Merely extrapolating from circumstances, sir," JARVIS replied. Steve took the muffins out of the oven and set them on the counter, and Tony fell on them like he hadn't seen food for a week.
"PEPPER," he yelled.
"YES?" she yelled back from the bedroom.
"STEVE COOKED BREAKFAST!"
"I sliced up some fruit," Steve pointed out, amused.
"That's cooking as far as I'm concerned," Tony replied, shoving half a muffin into his mouth. He rolled his eyes appreciatively. Pepper appeared in the doorway, wearing Steve's shirt and a pair of pajama bottoms. She hugged him from behind (Steve was beginning to think she had a thing for his back) and accepted the glass of orange juice he offered her.
He left them once they'd eaten; Pepper had a full day of meetings ahead of her and, as she reminded Tony, he had deadlines on some project components he was designing for a new SI venture. Pepper kissed Steve quickly, clearly already thinking ahead to the rest of the day, and Tony pinned him to the counter and made up for Pepper's absentmindedness until Steve was breathless and flushed.
"Come up for dinner this evening," Tony said, finally pulling back a little.
"Yeah, dinner," Steve replied, dazed. Tony grinned and let him go. He gathered up his shirt from where Pepper had left it on a chair, found his boots by the door (robots!) and went down to his own apartment to change, before seeking out Natasha in the gym.
He was torn; the smug, self-satisfied part of him wanted to brag to her that the Pepper issue was officially solved, but his inner Captain America voice pointed out that it wasn't nice to kiss and tell.
Anyway, by the time he got to the gym Natasha was gone, off playing tag with Clint in the ventilation system, so the debate was pointless. Steve did his ten miles on the treadmill, watching the morning news, grinning when the tech segment speculated about the new StarkPhone release in the coming months.
He was just hanging up a sandbag -- a little boxing, a swim, and he'd call it a morning -- when Coulson walked in, wearing a t-shirt and track pants. It was the first time Steve had seen him out of a suit, and he may have blinked in surprise.
"I can come back later," Coulson said, noticing him.
"Nah, there's room," Steve replied with a grin, gesturing at the enormous gym -- a basketball half-court at one end, an entire gymnastics obstacle course, weights and workout machines, the boxing ring and the workout floor next to it clearly meant for Steve. "Good to have you back," he added awkwardly, taping up his hands.
"I'm pleased with it myself. Surprised, though." Coulson sat down at one of the weight machines and leaned back, settling in. "Seems things have changed."
"Yeah, that'll happen," Steve replied. "At least you were only gone for a few months, right?"
"Right," Coulson agreed. He tilted his head. "It's bewildering enough. I can't imagine what it must be like for you."
"Not so bad anymore," Steve replied. "We adapt. Hey, I didn't know you were in the army."
"Ranger corps," Coulson answered.
"We ran a mission with the 29th Rangers in the war," Steve said. "Good men."
"We try," Coulson agreed. He was silent for a minute, while Steve warmed up on the bag. "I'm sorry for the way I treated you."
Steve stopped the bag from swinging, turning to stare at him. "What?"
"More an ideal than a person. I'm sorry for that." Coulson adjusted the weights, not looking at him.
"It didn't matter to me. Besides, you weren't the first."
"Still. I saw the way people looked at me when they brought me in to Medical; like I wasn't real." Coulson leaned up again. "Death gives a little perspective on these things."
"True enough," Steve said. "I can still sign those cards, if you want."
"No. I think I'll take up a less hazardous hobby."
"I find Tetris very soothing," Steve said, and grinned into the bag as Coulson chuckled. They fell into a more comfortable silence, the thud of fists on canvas and the clatter of weights the only noise in the gym.
Sometimes, especially early on, the shadow-boxing had been a way to wear himself out, to try and exorcise the screaming demons in his head. More and more often, now, it didn't bring up the memories that it had before. The chaos of the war, Bucky's death, waking up here in this loud, confusing time -- they were settling, deep down in his bones where they wouldn't be as tender, as easy to draw out.
By the time he was done, Coulson was gone. Steve felt amusement as he skimmed the wraps off his hands and headed for the shower. So that was how it was going to be -- their handler slipping in and out of their lives, quiet and unobtrusive and deadly. He suspected they wouldn't make the mistake they'd made last time of not noticing him until he was gone.
Besides, they had a few things in common.
He made his way from the locker room to Bruce's lab, stomach hopeful; Bruce, who unlike Tony viewed food as something more significant than fuel or foreplay, tended to cook in his lab if he was working on something important. Usually it was pretty good.
He was in luck. Fried chicken day.
"Hey," Bruce called, looking up from where a large open-mouthed flask was sitting over a burner, oil and chicken bubbling merrily inside it. "You're in time for lunch. Wing, leg, or breast?"
"Yes, please," Steve said, and Bruce grinned.
"One I Hate And Envy Your Metabolism Special coming up," he said, carefully removing the chicken in the flask with a pair of tongs and setting it on a plate lined with some kind of lab paper. He passed the plate to Steve, who sat down and waited for the food to cool (one minute ten seconds exactly, Bruce had done experiments). Bruce placed another few pieces of chicken in the flask.
"So," Bruce said, studying the chicken as it cooked, "You look happy."
"Been a good day so far," Steve replied, breaking off just a little bit of batter from the wing, nibbling on it and burning his tongue.
"Hm." Bruce glanced at him. "Tony or Pepper?"
Steve choked and coughed, setting the plate down before he dropped it.
"What?" he asked.
"I know what freshly-laid looks like," Bruce said. "Even Captain America glows just that little bit extra."
"Why do you think it's one of them?" Steve managed.
Come on, you think Natasha's the only one with eyes? There have been discussions."
"Discussions?" Steve asked, alarmed.
"Sure. She thinks you're chasing Pepper, but I see the way Tony looks at you when he thinks you're not watching. Watch his camera feeds from battle sometime; it's like he has an autofocus on Steve Rogers. Clint has no definite opinion, but he thinks it'll end in bloodshed. So?" Bruce raised his eyebrows. "Tony or Pepper?"
Steve looked down at his chicken. "Um, yes?"
Bruce started to laugh, quiet at first, building until it boomed. Steve grinned, relieved, and took a bite of the wing.
"You are something else," Bruce said, shaking his head. "All three of you. Best for all concerned, I suppose. Any other way and I'd have to be a trial witness when one of you murdered the other two."
"I'm going to try very hard not to let that happen," Steve informed him somberly.
"You do that. Meanwhile, I'll be shaking my fist at the universe that you get two dates when I can't even get one. Hey JARVIS, Robert Palmer," Bruce called. "Bet you know the track."
"Yes, Dr. Banner," JARVIS said obediently, and music came on the speakers, poppy and not at all the kind Tony usually listened to. Bruce sang along, and it took Steve a minute of watching him, pleased at how far he'd come from the wary, sharp-edged man Steve had first met, to really listen to the lyrics.
Some guys have all the luck, some guys have all the fun...
Steve Rogers wanted to be a soldier when he grew up, to fight for his country and defend those who couldn't defend themselves. He got his wish. His secret desire, to be an artist or an architect, he satisfied on quiet Sunday mornings, lying in bed with Tony, helping to design the next Stark Tower -- well, Potts Tower, if Tony had anything to say about it. Tony would add lots of chrome and glass and weird crenellations, and Steve would wipe them away, dismissing the ultramodern designs and angling for something with lots of clean lines and subtle flourishes, an art deco masterpiece.
Tony Stark just wanted to be like his dad when he grew up, but he got over it. Every day the Iron Man armor stood as a testament to Stark ingenuity but a denial of the legacy of blood he'd been left with. It could have destroyed him, driven him to be nothing more than an intuitive guide for a brilliant machine, suppressing his humanity because humanity was painful and messy. But there was Pepper to stop that, and then there was Steve to take Iron Man and turn him into something more, a part of a living, breathing team.
Pepper Potts wanted to be a rock star when she grew up. Life kind of intervened, but it turned out okay. For a while she was Tony Stark's personal and executive assistant, which was a little like being PA to a rock star, and then she was suddenly CEO of Stark Industries, which was very much like being a rock star, and kind of a break after being Tony's PA. Besides, she was adored by two of the most famous, most desired men in the western hemisphere; she didn't need a fan club.
And if she sang in the shower sometimes, rocking out to the music Tony and Steve were blasting in the next room --
Rags to riches or so they say
Gotta keep pushin' for the fortune and fame
-- nobody but her boys needed to know.
And that's the end! Thanks for reading along, everyone. Someone mentioned a soundtrack, so I thought if nothing else I'd compile a list of the songs mentioned in the fic. This is a whole lot of music I would not listen to on my own, I'll tell you that. Except maybe Kashmir. Gotta love those opening riffs.
Kashmir, Led Zeppelin
Fool In The Rain, Led Zeppelin
Gloria, The Doors
Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana
The Tetris Theme (2pm does a great version called Tetris Music that's available on YouTube)
Pinball Wizard, The Who
Sharp Dressed Man, ZZ Top (for the "Shopping with Pepper" scene)
The Legend of Zelda Theme
Start Me Up, The Rolling Stones
Walk This Way, Aerosmith
Some Guys Have All The Luck, Robert Palmer
Paradise City, Guns'n'Roses