It was never supposed to be Steve Rogers. Then again, there was no version of this story that went according to plan.
Fury called the Avengers in on a Monday. By Wednesday, they were home on a SHIELD jet. There was blood on Captain America’s shield. No one said a word about how it had gotten there.
Tony locked himself in his workshop on Thursday, and didn’t tell Pepper why. When he failed to come out for three days, she took a guess.
Tony Stark was a liar. Pepper Potts knew that better than anyone. Steve Rogers didn’t know that, not yet, anyway. He didn’t really know that Tony drank too much and pushed things aside and didn’t tell his friends the truth. He didn’t really know that Tony sometimes forgot to eat and spent hours at a time locked in his workshop if Pepper let him, sometimes working, sometimes hiding. She knew that Tony would smile and lie through his teeth when something was the matter, and never gave himself the room to make the mistakes he always made, again and again, always expecting a better, more perfect result every time.
Steve was still learning these things, one day at a time.
Pepper called Steve on the fourth day of Tony’s self-imposed exile, when she couldn’t get the workshop doors open with the security override codes he had given her. Out of the both of them, Steve was the only one who could beat the door down if need be. At least that was what Steve told himself when he answered the phone, recognizing her voice and name on the caller ID from the few times they spoke in passing. It had been a long week, and Steve’s still-healing ribs hurt enough to prove it, but he couldn’t say no, either.
“I’ve tried, Rhodey’s tried. He’s still locked in there.” Pepper eyed Tony through the workshop doors, worrying the gold pendant at her neck between her finger and thumb. Inside Tony ignored them; still working over hot metal and machine sparks, making adjustments to the suit, modulations and recalibrations. She sighed. “This is the worst he’s been in over a year, and he won’t tell me why. He won’t tell me anything.”
“I’m sure it’s not as bad as he’s making it out to be,” Steve only half-lied. He knew better but it wasn’t his place to get in the middle of Tony and Pepper, and what they were and weren’t talking about.
“I know. And I’m afraid it might be worse.”
“We all have bad days, Pepper. Even Tony.”
At that, Pepper just smiled, small and hurting. “But you haven’t seen Tony’s bad days, Steven.”
Steve didn’t know what to say, so he didn’t try. “I’ll get him out. Don’t worry.”
There was fresh coffee upstairs. She offered him some and he wanted to say no but said yes anyway. It felt a little disingenuous at the time, in a way that Steve couldn’t quite nail down, to sit in Tony’s castle and sip coffee with his girlfriend. Maybe it was because he and Tony weren’t exactly friends, and Pepper still called him when she ran out of options. Maybe it was because Steve had been seeing less and less of Howard in Tony, and more and more of Iron Man. Maybe he just felt responsible.
A HYDRA cell was moving alien weaponry into the United States. SHIELD was tipped off and Fury called in the Avengers. The plan was bogus, a front for a biochemical attack in Washington, D.C. Three bombs were discovered. One went off, down the block from a middle school. Captain America made a call but it was too late, and before Iron Man could stop it he was knocked out of the sky in the blast. Thirty-eight people died and nineteen were critically injured; most of them were just kids, eleven, twelve, maybe thirteen. It could have been far worse than it was. There was no telling that to Tony, though.
“He’s been talking about you a lot lately,” Pepper spoke up, if only to break the silence, “with the team and the remodeling, and everything else going on. That’s the only reason I called you at all, really. I thought maybe you could talk him out of this…whatever this is.”
“Oh.” Sitting on a stool at the island counter, Steve suddenly felt very small in Tony’s very tall tower. He tried to smile to compensate. “Well, I hope he hasn’t spoken too poorly of me.”
Pepper laughed. “Not at all. He admires you, I think, in his own way. Having you here has been good for him. The whole team has been good for him. He needs it.”
“And I need him,” Steve said. “We all do.”
“I know.” She smiled again, less painful than before. “That’s why I called you.”
With Pepper upstairs, Steve typed in the manual override code into the touch pad at the workshop entrance and watched the doors slide open.
“Tony?” Steve leaned in the doorway, arms crossed. He had an apple he had taken from the kitchen. Pepper said Tony hadn’t eaten, and it seemed like a reasonable place to start. “Tony.”
Tony was in a chair at his work station, leaning over his helmet and flanked by robotic arms carrying soldering tools and instruments, machining away the dings and scratches, buffing out the damage. He had five other suits now, and Jarvis could have easily made the repairs, but it wasn’t about that.
“How the hell did you get into my workshop?”
Tony didn’t bother to look at Steve. At least he hadn’t been drinking, by the sound of it. Steve was grateful for that much.
“You gave me the new emergency override when Bruce accidentally blew up your R&D lab three weeks ago.” Well, that was mostly Clint’s fault. The most expensive practical joke in history and why Clint was permanently banned from R&D. “Remember?”
“Right. Fine. Whatever.”
“And you forgot to give it to Pepper.”
“Oh.” After a moment, Tony just shrugged. “Well, I’m going to pay for that later, aren’t I?”
“I’m pretty sure.”
Tony went back to working. Steve sighed.
“Tell me you’ve eaten, at least.”
“Yes, Cap, I have eaten. Now can you please go lurk somewhere else? I can hear you breathing over there and it’s weirding me out.”
Steve walked out across the workshop floor, closed the space between them. Tony didn’t try to leave. Steve figured it was a good sign.
“Do you know what day it is, Tony?”
“Yeah, it’s Sunday.”
“No, it’s Monday morning.”
“Oh, that’s.” Sitting up, Tony set down his tools, pulled off his protective glasses. “Fine, you win. What do you want? I mean, I assume Pepper sent you to spy on me.”
“I figured as much.” Tony swiveled his chair around to face Steve, tossed everything on the table. He hadn’t slept much either, dark under the eyes, a little haggard, a little worn-through. “What, you’re all afraid I’ll find another bottle to crawl into? Hm? Get out the sledgehammer and redecorate again?”
Pepper had omitted the fact that Tony had bad days like other people fell off the wagon, or lost their life savings in Vegas. Steve had a feeling, though.
“I don’t know about all that.” He leaned against Tony’s work table, thumbing over the edges of the apple. With a shrug he chose to omit a few facts of his own. “She’s just worried about you, Tony. She cares.”
“So, what? You’re here to drag me out kicking and screaming? Rhodey already tried that, by the way.”
“You can stay if you want. I just want to make sure you’re alright.”
“Of course I’m alright. I’m the stoic portrait of alright. Are you happy now?”
Steve sighed again. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“Then whose fault was it, Cap? It wasn’t yours, it wasn’t Fury’s – it has to be somebody’s, right?”
“Don’t say that. Nobody thinks that, Tony, least of all me. You can’t win every time.”
Tony let out a hollow little laugh, scrubbing his hand across his forehead. “Oh, god – just don’t, okay?”
“I really can’t deal with your John-Wayne-and-apple-pie, good soldier routine right now, Steve. I don’t want it and I certainly don’t need it.”
“You don’t think I’ve made bad calls?” Steve asked, his face feeling hot all of a sudden. “You don’t think I’ve lost people?”
Oh, and there it was again. That little twinge in his gut that made the room feel small and tight, like it was just yesterday he watched Bucky slip from his fingers. The black awful feeling of being alone, here and now, when everyone he cared about was already lost to time. Steve just added that to the list of things he wouldn’t tell Tony and took a deep breath. Tony just swallowed.
“They were kids, Steve,” Tony said. “Okay? Kids.”
Steve nodded. The room still felt far too small. “I know.”
“I’ve dealt with a lot of shit, and I’m not just some tourist who’s just out here for the fun of it. I know what I’m doing. And maybe you can shut that part of your brain down when you go out there, and maybe that makes it easier for you when horrible things happens, but I’m not a soldier, Steve. I’m just not.”
“So just tell Pepper I need another minute. Okay?”
Steve started to say something, but thought better of it. Instead he said, “Here,” and tossed Tony the apple. Then he turned to walk away, out the door and back upstairs. “At least eat something. It’ll make her feel better.”
Tony caught the apple. He looked it over, set it down, and finally sighed. “So, who was it?”
Steve stopped at the doorway. “Who was who?”
“The one you lost,” Tony said. “Your big loss.”
There were so many names to choose from. Everybody who moved on, got old, died. Everybody who had lived a full life while Steve Rogers slept in the ice.
“His name was Bucky.” Steve shrugged a little, tried not to let it hurt so much. “Goodbye, Tony.”
Tony nodded. “See you around, Cap.”
The doors closed behind Steve. This time Tony left them unlocked.
Steve was the first one Tony told about his plans for Avengers Tower. He didn’t know that at the time, when Tony showed up on Steve’s doorstep one afternoon in a Led Zeppelin t-shirt and the red Porsche (because apparently there was more than one Porsche), informing Steve that he would be coming over. Steve, who had just made plans to make a grilled cheese sandwich and then take a walk to the art supply store, thought about arguing with Tony for a moment, if only to irritate him. In the end Steve’s curiosity got the better of him, putting on his jacket and following Tony downstairs to the car.
“This had better be good,” Steve said, only half-serious.
“Quit crying, Grandpa. I’ll get you back in time for Wheel of Fortune.”
“You do realize I’m twenty years younger than you, right?”
Tony’s jaw ticked slightly. “Shut up.”
“And, wait – is that a new gray hair?”
“That’s it, get out of my car. I’m never inviting you out again.”
Tony drove too fast, as Steve was quickly learning. He fiddled with the air conditioning and the satellite radio and the automatic windows, answering calls and fussing with his phone. It made Steve a little more than nervous, holding onto the passenger door as Tony weaved in and out of traffic between Brooklyn and Manhattan.
“You could’ve called, you know,” Steve offered. “I would’ve taken the train.”
“The thought of you on a train depresses me,” Tony said flippantly, ignoring the cars honking at them as he cut across two lanes to the exit. “Public transportation smells like asparagus and quiet desperation. Besides, I had the afternoon off, and you need to be aired out a bit.”
Tony brought them to Stark Tower, through the basement parking garage and up the private elevator to Tony’s private offices on the twentieth floor. Steve followed along dutifully, hands in his jacket pockets and taking in the wide halls, tall windows and slick design of Tony’s building, all clean lines of steel and glass. He had been here a few times before, usually just the lobby and up the elevator to the penthouse at Pepper’s request, never roaming around on his own. Tony’s office, like everything else in his tower, had tall ceilings and full-length windows, smooth, metallic and open. The space was filled with framed art, plush furniture and a broad desk against the furthest wall, with three computer interfaces and a high-backed chair. Steve couldn’t help but wander around, letting his eyes roam from the paintings above the corner sofa to the little figures amid the clutter on Tony’s desk. In person it was all very Tony, just like he imagined it would be.
“Alright, you got me here,” Steve said, thumbing over the spines of the books on Tony’s shelf. They were all cracked with use, the covers worn, and the pages folded, coffee-stained, and ragged. Something about that surprised him. “What did you need to show me?”
“I’m just getting to that, actually.” At his desk, Tony scanned through tiers of file folders, plucking and pulling through blueprints and designs. “I haven’t shown these to anybody but Pepper, but under the circumstances, I kind of couldn’t keep it to myself anymore.”
“Well, you do love surprises,” Steve found himself saying, shooting Tony a sideways look from the pages of Tony’s The Time Machine first edition.
“Yeah, and I love presents even more. Okay, here we go.”
With a flick of his wrist Tony brought up a folder titled Avengers Tower Plans v 2.31, expanding it into an enormous hologram of Stark Tower. The top five floors were sectioned off and fanning out into separate holograms, blueprints for apartments with names attached at the corners. Captain America, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye. Each section rotated slowly in the space around Tony’s desk, allowing Steve to inspect every room, floor and surface in full detail. Walking amid the blueprints Steve found the one with his name on it, reaching out to touch the hologram, pulling it open wider to look inside of it.
“What is this?”
“This is. Well, this is my gift to you: The new home of the Avengers,” Tony said, looking like a kid at Christmas in the glow of his creation. “These five floors are living quarters, with full access to the labs, the new training room, plus a few other amenities to keep everybody entertained. The last of renovations are still being made, but it’ll be move-in ready by the end of the month.”
“You’re building us a headquarters?”
“Fury wants us all together, right? I figure the best way to do that is to give the team a base of operations. Everybody can come and go as they need to, whenever they need to. It’s kind of like a secret club house, but way cooler. Also, I personally designed it to suit your individual needs, so, you know. Bonus points for that.”
“But I like my apartment.”
“Please,” Tony scoffed. “Your apartment is a cereal box with a hole cut out for a window. I’m giving you free room and board here and you’re pining for your sixth-floor walkup. And besides – gasp – you’ll have full garage access for your bike. No more sad Captain America riding around on the subway making me look bad.”
Steve laughed at that and then shook his head, a little awestruck. “I can’t believe this. I don’t know what to say, Tony.”
“Then don’t say anything. Just tell your land lady you’ve traded up and pack your spangly jumpsuit.”
“How does Pepper feel about you moving a bunch of people in costumes into her tower?”
“She’s cool with it.” Tony clapped his hands together and all the holograms merged. “Also, that’s my name on the building, so I don’t think she gets a vote.”
“She told me her name’s on the lease.”
“Ugh, is that how it is now? Then you’re not definitely allowed to hang out with my girlfriend anymore.”
After a moment, Steve nodded. “Thank you,” he said, “really.”
“Yeah, well, it’s nothing,” Tony brushed him off, fussing with his hologram. “Just doing my part. I mean, it’s your team, Cap, I just get to play in it.”
“Let’s be honest here: You’re the big hero of the show. SHIELD puts up with me because I make them. I just want to be a team player.”
“I don’t care what Fury wants,” Steve said. “You’re important to the team, and you’re important to me. And if this is supposed to be my team, then fine, but I want you by my side. You’ve earned that much.”
The look Tony gave Steve made his mouth feel dry. Steve shoved his hands back into his jacket pockets to keep from doing something stupid. Just what, he didn’t yet know, but the possibility was always there.
“So, thank you.”
Tony nodded, licked his lips and looked away, trying to keep his hands busy with interfaces and file folders. “You’re welcome.”
Back in the car, on the way home to Brooklyn from Manhattan, Steve left it at that.
It took a fresh coat of paint in the kitchen and three boxes (one for clothes, one for records and one for books and art supplies) before Steve was ready to move into Avengers Tower. His new apartment was bigger than the last, this one wide and spacious with full windows overlooking the city below, furnished only with shelves for books, a sofa, and a bed. It was smooth, cold, and futuristic like everything else about the tower, with the automated lights and air conditioning and the holographic computer interface at the doorway. Putting his pictures on the walls and his clothes in the closet, it felt just a bit more livable, tangible and concrete. For it, Steve sighed.
On the built-in desk in the bedroom, there was a piece of paper. Twice-folded and tented with his name on the front and unfolding it the message written inside said Welcome home, Captain Rogers. Maybe if he was lucky, it would be.
When the invitation arrived – and it did, in the mail in an envelope with an official letterhead and everything – Steve was confused. It was in his box at the post office, from Stark International of Malibu, California, inviting him to their annual St. Jude’s fundraiser and children’s charity auction the following Thursday. P.S., it read in Tony’s chicken-scratch, buy a decent suit.
Tony was talking on the phone to a business contact in China and flipping through holograms four-tiers deep when Steve found him in his office, going over blueprints and schematics for something very large and industrial-looking. His secretary tried to stop Steve three times but he wasn’t having any of it, politely ducking past her as Tony flitted around and dictated notes to Jarvis like no one else was there.
“I’m sorry, what?” Tony plucked the hands-free out of his ear without even looking at Steve, picking through pieces of exploded engine turbines, flicking redundant parts out of his way. “I think you were complaining about the very important event I invited you to. I expect you to RSVP. Also, please tell me you’ve bought a suit. You look like a mannequin in an Old Navy commercial right now and it’s kind of freaking me out.”
Steve blinked. “Okay. Ignoring the last thing to come out of your mouth, why did you invite me again?”
“Why wouldn’t you want to go? It’s an excuse to put on an expensive suit, eat my food, drink my booze, and be ignored by beautiful women for a worthy cause. See? It’s a win/win for everybody.”
“And it has nothing to do with the fact that my picture’s been all over the papers since word got out that I’m back from the dead?” Steve crossed his arms. “And that it would look good for your publicity?”
“My god,” Tony feigned surprise. “Are you saying that I have ulterior motives, Steven?”
“According to CNN you’re apparently the majority copyright holder of my name in all related merchandising. I think you forgot to mention that part when I moved in.”
Steve would never get over the t-shirts and lunch boxes, no matter what era he was in.
“That was just business,” Tony assured him, looking just a bit guilty. Steve didn’t know it was possible for Tony to look guilty, that maybe he lacked the chemical or hormone that made normal people feel bad for themselves. “It wasn’t personal. Also, I was going to tell you when Hasbro landed the toy deal.”
“Isn’t there somebody better suited for this? Like, I don’t know, Bruce?”
“Really, Steve? Can you even imagine him at a party?”
“Point taken.” Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. “Can you just ask Pepper to go with you?”
“Can’t. She’s busy in Malibu running my company. I mentioned the food and the booze, right?”
“I really don’t like parties.”
“Yeah, somehow I don’t think that’s a big shock to anybody, Cap.”
“I don’t even own a suit anymore.”
“I’ve seen you clean out Bleecker Street’s vinyl selection on a Friday afternoon for kicks. I think you can handle buying a suit.”
“But Thursday is my poker-night,” Steve said lamely. It wasn’t a lie. The poker game was Clint’s idea at first, an easy way to get everybody in the common room on a weekday night over a 24-pack of beer and three boxes of pizza. Once Thor moved in, and Bruce could be coaxed out of his lab, it became a regular event. Then Natasha started showing up and winning all their money, but still. “I have plans.”
“So? Reschedule. I’m pretty sure Thor and Clint can manage losing their shirts without you.”
At that, Steve finally sighed. “Fine.”
“Good, then it’s all settled,” Tony said, throwing himself down into his chair like he had just won something. “I’ll send someone to pick you up at six. So buy a suit.”
“I can get there on my own, Tony, thank you.”
“Are you kidding? The press will murder me for letting a 90-year-old roll up on a motorcycle. It’s just awkward for everybody.”
Steve sighed again.
“Black suit, black shirt, blue tie. It’s very American. I figured that would work for you on a personal level.”
Steve didn’t ask bother to ask Natasha how she knew what size Steve wore when she shoved him into the changing room with an armful of clothes to try on. He was just grateful for the help.
Within a week Steve was leaning over the balcony of a mirrored high-rise in Manhattan, staring at the neon-peppered skyline. His soda was warm and his suit felt too tight, the fit snugger than he was used to. Downstairs the gala had been a bright and colorful ordeal, with lots of people and flashing bulbs and talking and noise. Steve felt out of place there, in a suit he was still half-convinced was trying to strangle him, surrounded by people he didn’t know. Tony’s kind of people, in their expensive suits and gowns, with their expensive watches and their cars being valeted, that whispered and stared from across the room. Steve could never fit in with a crowd like that.
Captain America was a novelty since the Loki incident, when the pictures and video made it all over the news, just like the old days. Legend returned, lost soldier of World War II, America’s greatest hero. That was why Steve kept the Brooklyn address for as long as he could, took the train around and laid low. People didn’t quite recognize Steve Rogers as Captain America anymore, not until he moved to Avengers Tower with the rest of the team and found himself engrained in Tony’s very public life. There was no coming back from that. Standing in a ballroom of unfamiliar people and photographers snapping photos, Steve got a Coke at the bar, put on a smile and tried to be nice. When that didn’t work, he looked for Tony.
When Steve finally found Tony he was across the room with Pepper, talking to two actors-turned-humanitarians, a French diplomat, and something called a Kardashian. Pepper was at his side in a long red gown, her hair up, smiling in that diamond-precise way that she did when she was making somebody feel welcomed, especially when they weren’t. She was there and not in Malibu, not running Stark International like Tony had said. It put a hole in Steve’s gut, in a way he couldn’t really account for as he watched Tony, all charm and smiles, wheeling and dealing the way he always did.
Pepper saw Steve there, smiled, and waved. He waved back, smiled, and had to get out of there.
“Captain? Captain Rogers?”
Leaning on the balcony, Steve turned at the sound of his name. He found a man in an Air Force dress uniform, medals pinned to his chest, holding a drink.
“I’m sorry,” Steve said, “do I know you?”
“Actually, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be star-struck.” The man extended a hand. “Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes. I’m a friend of Tony’s.”
“Right, right, of course.” Steve was relieved to know the name and shook James’ hand firmly. “It’s nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” James smirked.
“Well, I mean.” Steve shrugged, a little sheepish. “I heard about you from Pepper. She talks about you a lot.”
“I kind of figured.”
“Sorry. It’s these parties; they’re not really my thing.”
“I know the feeling.” James stood next to Steve with a sigh, leaning against the rail to take in the skyline. “I didn’t know you were coming. I would’ve been a little smoother with the introduction if I did. You’re still kind of a big deal.”
“Yeah, I hear the a lot.” Steve tried to smile and came up a little short. “I didn’t know I was coming, either. Not until Tony informed me as much.”
James sort-of laughed at that, taking a drink from his glass. “Yeah, well, Tony’s like that. But I guess you’ve already figured that out.”
“Yeah. More or less.”
They settled into a comfortable silence. Comfortable enough that Steve felt compelled to break it.
“I honestly don’t know what I’m even doing here,” he admitted, plucking at the knot in his tie. “This is all Tony’s idea.”
“War heroes help the cause. Make everybody look good in front of the cameras,” James said, matter-of-fact. “Or maybe he just likes you.”
Steve’s face felt hot again. He cleared his throat and swirled the last of his soda around in the bottom of his glass.
“So are you just in town for the fundraiser?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Yeah, then I fly back out to D.C. in the morning.”
“You know, I thought about enlisting again, when I woke up. Just to give myself something to do. Give myself a purpose.”
“Yeah?” James nodded. “What’d you decide?”
“Didn’t really seem worth it. I’d just be exchanging one war for another, and I’m not even sure what you guys are fighting for anymore.” Steve side-eyed James and finished his drink in a quick swallow. “No offense.”
James let out another sort-of laugh into the mouth of his glass. “Fair enough, Captain. These days I’m not always so sure myself.”
“You could always sign up with us, if you wanted to,” Steve offered with a shrug. “I’ve seen what you can do in that suit. You’d give the rest of us a run for our money, that’s for sure.”
“Well, I appreciate that, but I’m not interested in wearing the armor full-time.”
“Shame. You could do a lot of good out there.”
“I just want to make sure Tony stays out of trouble.” James leveled Steve a sober look. “And that he’s spending time with people who share my interests.”
Steve straightened up. “And I am one of the people who share your interests?”
“Don’t get me wrong. Tony is my oldest friend, and I love that man to death. But I also know how he can be.”
“Tony is strong, Colonel,” Steve defended, without even thinking. “He’s smart. He can take care of himself.”
“And sometimes he isn’t,” James said, “and sometimes he can’t. And I can’t always be there when that happens.”
At that, Steve nodded, looking back to the stretch of concrete and water ahead of them. He wanted to say “Tony is my friend” and “I trust him” and “I need him,” but he didn’t. Instead he took a deep breath, smiled a little, and said, “I’ll do my best.”
“I knew you would.”
Steve couldn’t say for sure what he was agreeing to as James clapped a heavy hand on his shoulder and squeezed. As the party wound down James disappeared inside and Steve didn’t see Tony or Pepper, and that was okay. He left when no one was looking, finding a side-door to the stairwell and making his way down the sixteen floors to the lobby, out to the street to hail a cab home. Before Steve could even get to the lobby he heard his name and knew that Tony had found him.
“So this is your great escape, huh?”
Tony stood in the doorway to the tenth floor, tie loosened, jacket unbuttoned. Steve smiled reflexively.
“Damn, you caught me. I was going to try to sneak out the backdoor like a hermit.”
“Yeah, well, you suck at subtly. And, my god, did your grandmother pick out that suit? Steve, I’m offended.”
Steve looked down. “What’s wrong with my suit?”
“If you have to ask.”
“Natasha helped me pick it out.”
“No wonder. Russians still think fashion plateaued in 1993.” Tony stuck his hands in his pockets, paced toward Steve. “I didn’t see you inside. I just figured you didn’t show.”
“Of course I showed up. You asked me to.” Steve didn’t mean to sound as hurt as he did by that. “I’m just not so great with stuff like this.”
The silence was strange. Tony looked like he wanted to speak but didn’t, and that was a rarity. Instead Steve filled the space with a sigh.
“You didn’t have to lie, Tony. I would’ve come anyway.”
“Lie about what?”
There it was, that guilty look again. “I didn’t lie. There was a miscommunication in the scheduling, we cleared it up and she came. What, you think I just didn’t want you two running into each other?”
“I don’t know, Tony.” Steve shrugged. “Never mind. Enjoy the rest of the party. I’ll see you later.”
“No, you wanted to say something else.” Tony closed the space between them, cutting off Steve’s exit on the stairs. “So just say it.”
“No, I don’t.”
“What is it?”
“Tony,” Steve said, firmly like a warning shot. “Don’t. I don’t want to fight with you, not about this.”
“Who’s fighting?” Tony got close, crowding Steve in the way he knew Steve hated. “I’m just asking you a question.”
“What do you want me to say? That I don’t know where I stand you with sometimes? That everybody seems to think I’m somehow responsible for you? That I’m supposed to fix you, or watch out for you?” Steve’s face was hot again, and he was tired of feeling this way, like he had something to feel sorry for. “Because I don’t get it, Tony, and I’m sick of it. If we’re friends, fine, but if we’re not, just tell me now, because—”
The words got stuck. Thick and pasty in Steve’s mouth, from where they had finally crawled out of his gut after months of sitting there. Twisting, turning, making knots of themselves, until finally Tony swallowed, hands out of his pockets and fisted at his side.
“Because I don’t think you’re broken.” Steve took a deep breath. “And you’re not mine to fix.”
Tony said nothing. He looked too hurt to say anything, so Steve looked away and shook his head. Walking away Tony went to the doorway to leave, back to the party, to Pepper, and then stopped.
“I didn’t lie.”
Steve didn’t look at him. “I know.”
Steve went home alone that night, to his apartment in Tony’s tower where he didn’t sleep. Instead he stared at the ceiling and watched the way the city made the shadows move, and tried not to feel like he had made a mistake.
Fury called the Avengers in on a Friday. There was an explosion at The Vault, caused by a device assembled from contraband smuggled in by an agent on the take. Fifty-seven prisoners escaped, from genetically modified criminals to super-powered terrorist operatives, running rim-shot over the guards and holding them hostage. There was no leader or centralized command, just men who wanted money or blood, or both. The Avengers were sent to clean up the mess, and make sure no one made it back to civilization.
Forty-six were captured, four were killed; seven remained on the loose, back in the game. Every SHIELD agent in the country was looking for them, and it wouldn’t take long before they were found. The day had been saved, more or less. On the field, with arrows flying and blood on the ground, Captain America looked out over the scramble of fists and hammers and Hulk smashing through concrete and steel. Iron Man in the sky and him on the ground, making the calls and holding the line, and he wondered why it couldn’t always be this easy.
On Sunday morning, after the cursory debriefings and medical examinations, the costumes and the code names tucked away, Steve found himself on the deck of the Helicarrier. He leaned against the rail, watching the water off the piers in Chelsea like he used to as a kid, whenever he and Bucky would watch the ships go out, before the tourist attractions and ferry-rides. It wasn’t until he heard footsteps coming from behind that he realized he was no longer alone, and Tony appeared beside him. He looked the way Steve felt, tired and a bit beat-up, hiding behind dark sunglasses and a Black Sabbath t-shirt.
They hadn’t spoken since the fundraiser, when Steve probably made an ass of himself in the stairwell, just passing in elevators or corridors between SHIELD briefings. Sometimes Steve saw Pepper, too, coming and going from the tower on weekends if she was free. She always smiled at him. He smiled back and always felt guilty. If Tony had been avoiding him, he didn’t make it obvious. Now as he ever did, Steve smiled just a little, because he couldn’t think of anything else to do.
“Well, that was fun,” Steve offered amicably.
“I’ve had worse weekends.” Tony shrugged. “My ass still hurts, though.”
Getting snatched out of the air and ground into the dirt by Abomination had that effect on most people.
“Could’ve been worse.”
“Yeah, well. You haven’t seen my ass.”
Looking at the sky instead of Tony, Steve eventually sighed. “Are we alright?”
Tony leaned against the rail. His eyes were unreadable behind dark lenses. Steve had a feeling Tony liked it that way. “Why wouldn’t we be?”
“That’s why I’m asking. I put my foot in my mouth the last time we spoke, I got that much. Is that going to change things between us?”
“What, for the team?”
Steve swallowed. “Yeah, for the team.”
“The team’s fine. We’re fine,” Tony said sharply. He slid his sunglasses off, folded them closed and hung them from his shirt collar. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Tony.” Steve looked away, back over the water. “I just don’t want to let this get – complicated.”
“Well, you’ve done a real bang-up job so far, Cap, thanks.”
“I was wrong before, alright? I had no right to say that to you. It wasn’t my place.”
“And just what is that, exactly?”
“We’re friends; at least I’d like to keep it that way.”
“Are we? Last I heard you were on the fence about that.”
“I’m just trying to make this easier, on the both of us.”
“No, you want to make this easier on yourself, because you don’t want to deal with the mess afterwards.”
“I don’t know what else you want me to say.” Steve shook his head, threw his hands in the air. “What do you even want from me?”
“What do I want?” Tony let out a bitter little laugh at that. “What I want is to look at Pepper and not have to think of you. I want to go to bed every night and not feel like it’s just a matter of time before I end up hurting her.” Tony moved in, closed the space between them until he had Steve against the rail. Close enough for Steve to feel the heat of him, arms on either side, crowding him in. “Because I want you so bad I can taste it, and it makes me feel like a piece of shit for it every single day.”
That brought Steve up hard like a slap. Tony didn’t back away.
“Is that what you want to hear?”
“I never wanted this.” Steve’s face felt hot, mouth cottoned, too slow. “Not for you, or us. I wish I could change that.”
Tony’s face softened in degrees, looking at Steve’s eyes, then his mouth and back up. Steve licked his lips, bothered by how empty his hands felt like this, with Tony so close.
“Yeah, well. It’s not yours to fix, is it?”
When Tony walked away, Steve let him, retreating off the flight deck back to the hatch to disappear inside, hands fisted at his sides. Steve watched him go, slamming the door behind him, and after a moment, followed. Down the descending steps and the wide corridor beyond the hatch, he caught up to Tony before he could get away, grabbing Tony by the shoulder to turn him around. Tony pushed back at Steve as Steve pressed him into the bulkhead, chest to chest, bodies hitting the wall in a solid thud.
“I’m not asking you to leave her,” Steve said. “I just want to know if we can still make this work between us.”
Tony gripped the arm that pressed him back, still ready for a fight if it came to that. “So, what, you just want to pretend, then? Act like none of this ever happened?”
“If that’s what it takes, Tony, then yes.”
“And what if I can’t do that?”
“Then I’ll back off. I’ll move to my old place again.” Steve swallowed. His other hand closed at the place where Tony’s shoulder joined his neck, thumbing over the line of Tony’s throat and taking a deep breath. Collecting himself, committing to the words coming out of his mouth, for better or worse. “I’ll figure something out.”
After a moment, Tony shook his head. “Therein lies the problem, Cap. I’m not that great at not getting what I want.”
Steve swallowed and this time Tony didn’t get the chance to run away. This time Steve’s hand found its way into Tony’s hair and instead of the fight they were both prepared for, he kissed Tony. Firmly at first, all spit and teeth and worry, before softening as Tony’s hands fisted in Steve’s shirt, dragging him closer, opening to dip his tongue into Steve’s mouth. They kissed until, red-faced, mouth swollen, Steve pulled away to press his forehead to Tony’s and let out the sigh he had been holding.
Still gripping Steve’s shirt, Tony closed his eyes and swallowed. “Okay.”
Steve nodded. “Yeah.”
“So that was probably really unprofessional.”
“Probably.” Taking a deep breath, Steve let Tony go, moved away. “Now what?”
“I don’t know. You still planning on moving out?”
“No.” The answer came a little too quickly.
“So what do you want to do?”
Tony looked like he already knew. Steve wasn’t so sure, so he just said, “Let’s just go home. We’ll talk it over later. Alright?”
After a moment, Tony nodded.
It was after noon by the time the team departed the Helicarrier, back to Manhattan and Avengers Tower. Steve never made it back to his room, ending up in the elevator to Tony’s penthouse instead. They kissed three more times before making it to the bedroom, once in the elevator, once in the living room, and then again in the doorway, Tony’s hands already inside Steve’s shirt, Steve’s tugging at Tony’s belt, quickly undressing each other through kisses and laughter and bites.
After fingers and tongues and lube, and the condom Steve insisted on unrolling onto Tony himself, they had sex for the first time in Tony’s bed. Gingerly at first, because of the bruises and the sore bones, and the pained sound Tony made when Steve gripped his sides too tightly, and because Steve had never done this before, let alone with another man. Tony cursed under his breath and said he was fine and kissed Steve to prove it, swallowing every soft hungry sound Steve made underneath him, wrapped around the slink of Tony’s quick hips and hanging on tight through every thrust. Slow and measured when it needed to be and deep and hard when it didn’t, and every time after. The times that Steve licked his lips and closed a firm hand around Tony’s dick to stroke it from soft to hard again, taking it in his mouth to hesitantly suck or just to study the way Tony looked and sounded and breathed.
Eyes sloped half-shut under slanted lashes, long fingers carding through Steve’s hair, thumbing over Steve’s cheekbone and at his temple, the way the arc reactor rose and fell with Tony’s chest. Steve closed his eyes and let Tony’s dick slip from between his lips to take the hand to his mouth instead, kissing the rough pads of fingers and thumb, listening for the breathy, satisfying little sound Tony made in the back of his throat. It was still daylight out when Steve fell asleep with his head pressed to Tony’s shoulder, without speaking a word of Pepper or the future or what any of this would mean when they woke. He dreamt of nothing at all and slept better than he had in seventy years.
Maybe Tony had been right about the tower being home, after all.
Steve only woke once between falling asleep without remembering and waking up on his stomach sometime just after dark, facing the window to look out at the city below. It was disorientating at first, like his dreams of falling or drowning often were, still lying in the biggest bed he had ever seen on sheets far softer than his own. He meant to sit up, to get his feet on the floor, clear his head, but the touch at his back and the breath on his shoulder meant Tony was still there. Beside him, propped up on an elbow to inspect the notches of Steve’s spine like he was keeping count, running his fingertips from the base of Steve’s skull down to the small of his back and up again. Studious, calculating, trying to figure out how everything fit together, muscle and bone and tissue, like one of Tony’s robots in the workshop downstairs.
Closing his eyes, Steve let out a held breath. He chose not to move, forcing the sharp edges of panic away and letting himself be lulled by Tony’s inquisitive touch.
“You can stop faking it now,” Tony eventually said. “You’re crap at playing possum.”
“How long did you know?”
“The last ten minutes. Your breathing gets all weird when you’re being watched.”
“That’s a little creepy.”
“Isn’t it?” Tony took to counting Steve’s ribs instead.
“What time is it?”
“After eight. Hey, did I ever tell you about my dad?”
Steve wasn’t sure where this was headed. He never asked, and Tony never seemed interested in telling. “No, not really. Why?”
“My dad talked about you the whole time I was growing up. About the war, about how strong you were, how brave. He had these framed photos of you two together, down in his workshop, you know? And my old man never kept photos of anyone, not even my mom, and definitely not of me. But there you were, this bright, smiling ghost that my dad spent the rest of his life chasing.” Tony trailed off for a moment, staring into the space above the bed when Steve couldn’t feel Tony’s eyes on him anymore. “You were the yardstick the rest of us were measured against. Nobody ever compared. Most of us never had a chance.”
Swallowing, Steve opened his eyes. “Tony.”
“I expected to hate you because of that. I kind of made it my mission to hate you, at first, because it made sense. But then I knew you, I mean, actually knew you, and.” Tony shook his head. “And it’s a little screwed up to say this now, all things considered, but that’s why I couldn’t let this happen. It wasn’t supposed to you. It was supposed to be her, because it was always her.”
“If you don’t want it,” Steve said quietly, and felt a little sick with himself, “we don’t have to do this again.”
“You don’t get it.” Tony sounded a little hurt by that. “Even after everything else, every crooked fucking thing I’ve ever done, you’re the one thing that scares me to death. Because you’re the best person I’ve ever met, and whenever I’m with you – when I’m inside you – I feel like I can finally be better, and not just try.”
Steve sat up, closed a hand over Tony’s neck and leaned in to kiss him, nuzzling at his mouth and nipping at his lips. The bristles of Tony’s beard were soft but still itchy, distracting to kiss. It would take some getting used to, like everything else about this. He pushed at Tony’s shoulder, nudging him back against the mattress to take a perch in his lap, admiring the way Tony looked stretched out underneath him, lean and well-defined despite Tony’s smaller stature.
“You don’t have to prove anything to me.”
“It’s not your call to make.”
“I know you. I know what you’re capable of, and I wouldn’t even be here if I had any doubts about what kind of man you are.”
Looking up at Steve, Tony let out a sigh. “You’re obnoxious.”
“And you still want me to stay?”
“That’s the general idea, yeah.”
Skimming a curious hand around the arc reactor, glowing brightly in the dark, brighter than Steve imagined it would, he nodded. “Good.”
“And, hey, I’m not going to be here in the morning. I have this board of directors meeting that I kind of have to be there for, so don’t freak out or anything if I’m not there when you wake up.”
“Why would I freak out?”
“You just tried to leave me two minutes ago.”
“You just told me I was the home-wrecker that ruined your childhood, Tony.”
“Point taken.” Tony shrugged. “But, look, I’ll be back in the afternoon, and then we can do something. We can go out or stay here, whatever you want.”
Steve sat back. “You need to talk to Pepper about this, as soon as possible.”
“You know, bringing her up when you’re sitting on me like this kind of sends mixed signals here, Steve.”
“I’m not just going to be some – floozy, or whatever. I don’t want to see her get hurt any more than she’s already going to be. It’s not fair.”
“I don’t think they even have floozies anymore.”
“Tony, I’m serious.”
“I know. So am I.” Sitting up, Tony closed his arms around Steve’s waist, keeping him close. “And it’s already sorted out.”
“Yeah?” Steve let himself feel hopeful.
Tony Stark was a lot of things, as Steve was learning every day. He was an alcoholic and a liar and a bad person, but in Tony’s bed, in Tony’s shining tower, Steve believed he could be so much better.
Tony was gone when Steve woke up, just as he said he would be. Steve hadn’t remembered falling asleep the second time either, Tony’s mouth on his neck and his hand still around Steve’s dick, slick from the second orgasm he worked out of him. The penthouse was eerily quiet as Steve got out of bed, padding across the floor on bare feet to find his clothes to shower, shave and make coffee. He was alone there for the first and the feeling was strange, save Jarvis quietly running the house in the background as Steve sat down at the kitchen table and tried not to touch anything, for fear of booby traps or security measures. It wasn’t even eight o’clock yet when the elevator chimed across the penthouse and Jarvis announced the visitor’s presence.
“Captain Rogers,” the AI addressed soothingly, “Pepper Potts has arrived. Shall I let her in?”
“What? Um. I don’t.”
Before Steve could properly answer the penthouse doors opened and Pepper was standing in the living room, dressed in a black dress and heels, ready for the same board meeting Tony had mentioned the night before. Steve met her at the kitchen doorway, feeling like he had been caught stealing and trying not to make any sudden movements. Pepper saw him anyway. She tucked her bag under her arm, shifted her coat from one hand to the other, and didn’t look surprised. Eventually she smiled, sort of. Steve wasn’t sure what to do about that.
“Pepper,” Steve started to say, or try. “I know what this looks like.”
“It’s okay. I just needed to pick up a few things before I left again for Hong Kong tonight. I didn’t know if you’d be here. Frankly, I’m not too surprised.”
She went to the bedroom, sailing past Steve without a second glance to pick some of her clothes out of Tony’s closet, getting a pair of shoes from under the bed where she had left them. For a moment, Steve was almost sure this was some kind of trap, that Tony had something to do with this, laying the task of breaking up with Pepper at Steve’s feet. He took a deep breath and followed her to the bedroom, trying to think of something to say. Something useful or meaningful or whatever it was that people said at times like this.
The most relationship experience he ever had was his kind-of girlfriend Debbie Sloane in eleventh grade. She saw him for six weeks until her boyfriend Tommy Green stopped cheating on her with Carol Lane. Teenage fumbling in 1935 didn’t have a lot of bearing right now, but he had to use what he knew.
“I just wanted you to know that it wasn’t my intention to do this,” he said from the doorway, keeping a respectful distance. “Things just got – complicated. That doesn’t excuse it, but I just don’t want you to think I didn’t respect what you and Tony have.”
Pepper turned, giving Steve a look like he was speaking a different language. “I’m not sure I know what we’re talking about here, Steven.”
“I’m trying to apologize for.” Being a floozy came to mind. “Well, for stealing Tony. Which I am sorry about.”
“When did you steal him?”
Last night came to mind. So did repeatedly. “Didn’t Tony talk to you?”
“Yes, yesterday, when I called to make sure he didn’t try to sneak out of this meeting.” After a moment, Pepper canted her head. “Tony didn’t tell you, did he?”
“Tell me what?”
“Okay, now it makes sense.” She folded the two blouses and the dress she had left behind, made a neat pile on the foot of the bed. “I – well, I actually left Tony. About a week ago.”
“It was kind of a mutual decision, really. Our relationship was good, and I wanted to stay with him, but I knew it was a matter of time before it wasn’t, and I didn’t.”
Steve swallowed. “I don’t understand.”
Pepper smiled, just a little bit sad, and crossed the space between them. “Look, I love him, and he loves me. That isn’t going to change, maybe not ever. I just decided it was better to end it on a good note while I still had the chance. Because I knew, after you came along, that things were going to change. It’s self-preservation, Steven, and that’s something I’ve had to get really good at the last few years.”
“I didn’t,” Steve insisted. “I never let it get that out of hand.”
“I know you didn’t. But I also know how Tony looks at you, how much he needs you.”
“He wanted it to be you, Pepper.”
“So did I. And for a while it was, and I don’t regret that for a minute.” She shrugged, even though her smile didn’t waver. “I’m just glad, out of anyone it could have been, that it was you.”
“Because you won’t let him down, and you won’t go easy on him, either.”
Giving his wrist a squeeze, Pepper went to retrieve what she came back for, making her way back to the elevator. She stopped halfway and looked back to Steve, still at the doorway. She didn’t look so sad this time.
“Take care of yourself, Steven. Okay?”
After a moment, he nodded. “Yeah. Okay.”
The doors slid shut behind her and Steve waited alone for Tony to come home. To go out or stay in, whatever he wanted, like Tony had said. It was never supposed to be Steve, and he knew that now, comforted by the knowledge that it had to be, for one reason or another. And for the first time in a long, long time, since the war and losing Bucky and losing Peggy and waking up, Steve felt like he knew what he was doing.
Then Tony came home, and Steve was sure.