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Tiny like a white lie

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This was not a love story. Love stories had nice beginnings. This was a story told in reverse.

I.

Tony Stark decided he wanted to build a jet engine on a Tuesday. He raided the aeronautics department at the Malibu headquarters of Stark Industries for the parts and horded them in a testing lab in Avengers Tower to teach himself. Tuesday became Lab Day, as Tony declared so that he had an afternoon every week to build his engine. The lab caught fire two weeks in a row before he figured how.

“You should probably leave this to professionals,” Steve Rogers said offhandedly, putting out the first fire with the emergency extinguisher. “People try to blow up the tower enough as it is.”

“Uh-huh,” Tony said, flitting through his designs, trying to figure out where he went wrong. “Sure thing.”

“You should probably ask someone to help you,” Steve said after the second fire, sweeping up the broken glass and shards of metal leftover from the initial blast. “Or at least get more fire extinguishers.”

“Absolutely,” Tony muttered, looking through the burnt hunk of his prototype. “I’ll get right on it.”

On the third Tuesday, Tony found Bruce Banner holed up in his lab on the thirty-second floor, and asked if he had a moment. That was how Bruce was invited to Lab Day. If Steve happened to be there, too, Tony made no mention of it.

--

“Alright, so, assuming this doesn’t blow up in my face, we should be good to go for a preliminary run.”

Tony had spent the last hour hanging from the safety harness rigged from the rafters above the laboratory floor, elbow-deep in the guts of the prototype engine. Bruce watched him from the ground, holding onto the slack of the cable, just to keep his hands occupied. There wasn’t much else to do at the moment but to watch and wait.

“Well, you sound confident,” Bruce remarked dryly.

“Yeah, well, it’s literally blown up in my face twice. But third time’s a charm.” Tony pushed his safety glasses atop his head, twisting around to look at Bruce. “You want to hook up the diagnostics?”

Disappearing on the other side of the lab to the control room, Bruce opened up the diagnostic interface. “Reactor coming online, all systems looking stable.” He nudged his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “This might actually work this time.”

“What did I tell you?” Tony swiveled around in the harness, gesturing to his creation. “See? Jet engine.”

“I think you’re just showing off now.”

“I think you’re just jealous of my stuff.”

Bruce smirked, scrolling through tiers of holographic data. “I just don’t feel the need strap myself into climbing gear and flail around the lab.”

“I don’t flail. I’ve never flailed.” At that, Tony made a face. “When have I ever flailed?”

“Are you ready yet?”

“Yup.” Sliding down the safety line, Tony unbuckled his harness and stepped out of it. “Let ‘er rip.”

With the both of them inside the relative safety of the control room, Bruce cued the engine sequence. All the doors locked automatically and Tony’s robots, manufactured replicas of U and DUM.E, were standing by on the laboratory floor with newly fitted fire extinguishers, just in case. The engine thundered and rattled to life as the turbofans spun, gaining momentum and meaningful data. Pressure readings, rotation speeds, energy consumption filled the screens in the control room, and nothing even caught fire this time.

“What did I tell you?” Tony asked. “Jet engine. NASA’s going to love us when this thing is done.”

“No, NASA’s going to love you,” Bruce chuckled. “You built it; I just made sure you didn’t blow yourself up again.”

“Could you stop being such a downer for five minutes, because we’re kind of awesome right now?”

A sudden beeping at the control room entrance caught their attention. Bruce shut off the test as Jarvis chimed in flatly, “Captain Rogers is attempting to gain access to Propulsion Lab 7, sir, despite testing safety protocols.”

“Does he look mad?” Tony asked, genuinely curious.

Bruce looked confused. “Why would he be mad?”

“Mitigating circumstances.” Tony shrugged. “Never mind.”

“I wouldn’t rightly know, sir,” Jarvis answered. “Shall I send him away?”

“No, no, no – he can come in, but nobody else. We’re busy.”

The bay doors to the control room slid open and Steve appeared between them, looking sheepish with two cups of coffee in hand.

“Sorry. I didn’t realize you were testing. The computer was yelling at me to leave.”

“Next time yell back,” Tony said. “Don’t let Jarvis give you sass.”

“It makes me feel like I’m talking to a wall.” Steve handed one cup to Bruce and the other to Tony. “It’s weird.”

Tony knew better than to be offended. “It’s not that weird.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, “it’s kind of weird. What’re you guys up to?”

“Building clean and renewable jet engine technology,” Bruce answered, sipping at his cup. “Apparently, it’s because we’re awesome.”

“We are awesome,” Tony emphasized. “And you didn’t have to do that.”

Steve shrugged. “I was out picking up a few things and I remembered how much you liked that one coffee shop over off Wall Street.” Never mind that he had been out buying groceries for Tony’s apartment rather than his own. Bruce didn’t need to know the particulars. “That and I figured I hadn’t seen you in a while, thought I’d make sure you hadn’t blown the lab up again.”

“That’s really sweet, Cap. Your faith is so touching.”

“I try.”

Steve smiled at Tony. Tony smiled at Steve. Between them, Bruce fussed with his glasses and looked back to the screen intently. Steve looked like he wanted to say something, and glanced to Bruce instead.

“Well, I won’t keep you, then,” he told Tony. “I’ll see you later, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, of course,” Tony said quickly. “Later.”

After the doors slid shut behind Steve, and Tony had successfully avoided watching him walk away, Bruce shook his head with a smirk.

“Well, then.”

“What?”

“That was interesting.”

What? Steve brought you coffee. Be grateful.”

“No, he brought you coffee.”

“You have your own. What are you, five?”

“And wanted to check on you, and see you later.”

Perching himself on the nearest countertop, Tony rolled his eyes. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Steve’s just being his normal, weirdly maternal self. He’s, you know, feathering the nest or something.”

“Sure.”

“You know, I don’t think I like your tone—”

“You know what? Forget I said anything.”

“And since you still technically work for me, and live on my property out of the kindness of my heart—”

“Fine, Tony.” Bruce shook his head with a laugh. “It’s just, last I knew, you weren’t exactly Captain America’s biggest fan.”

“Things – changed, I guess.” Tony shrugged dismissively. It was easier to say than the other thing, about how Steve had spent the last month essentially living in his penthouse. Sleeping in his bed, sweating in his sheets, waking up in the middle of the night from nightmares about fire and ice, like a strange new fixture in Tony’s life. It wasn’t anyone’s business, in any case. Steve had made that apparent. “He’s still naïve, and self-righteous, and kind of cloying sometimes, but he’s not awful.”

Bruce looked unconvinced. Tony just sighed.

“Not so awful.”

“Yeah, but to go on coffee runs across Manhattan for you?” Bruce asked skeptically. “That’s just clingy.”

“Or, you know, you’re just a jaded recluse who hates friendship.”

Bruce shrugged. “Which would explain why I’m languishing in your lab every Tuesday night.”

“Yes,” Tony said. “It would.”

II.

Tony had been home from Pasadena for three hours, going over his designs with a bottle of scotch. It was long after dark but still before midnight, plans laid out on the kitchen counter in a scatter of tablet files, stretched out for examination. The day’s tests at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had gone well, and all the industry chiefs and government representatives looked suitably impressed with the preliminary findings. The idea of getting both commercial and military planes off the ground without burning up billions of dollars in fuel each year was enticing enough to get their check-writing hands itchy, which was enough to make the trip a success.

Back in Manhattan, Tony paced around his blueprints. The gears in his brain were turning, picking out pieces of the engine to highlight and expand, shrink down or flick away. He leaned against the counter and tapped at his mouth idly, letting his mind wander over equations, simulation data, probabilities and variables.

At half-past eleven Jarvis broke his concentration with a chime at the penthouse doors, announcing Steve’s presence outside. Tony barely noticed Steve in the apartment, the footfalls of socked feet or the rustling of clothing, until he felt Steve’s weight at his back. Arms closed around Tony’s waist with a sigh as Steve settled against him, warm and familiar and clean-smelling from a recent shower.

“You didn’t say you were flying back tonight.”

“I wasn’t, but I changed my mind. Wanted to get home and start my latest project,” Tony answered, still staring at his model. “I figured you were already asleep.”

Steve shook his head. “Couldn’t sleep.”

“Nightmares?”

It had been two months since they started sleeping together, either in Tony’s bed or Steve’s, and nightmares were just part of life. At least once a week Steve woke up in a cold sweat, grasping at the sheets for purchase against rushing water, too dizzy to stand long enough to assure himself he was still in Manhattan and not plunged into darkness under the tundra. It was disorienting at first, waking up in the middle of the night to find Steve sitting on the floor, hands closed over his eyes, trying to breathe through the sensation of drowning. Tony knew that look. He used to dream about fires and explosions and being trapped in caves, blood on his hands and dripping down his arms and falling hot into the dirt. That was why Tony knew well enough to let Steve breathe through it and wait for him to come around, and to listen to Steve if he needed it and to not ask questions if he didn’t.

“No worse than usual.” Steve shrugged. “I got up to ask Jarvis when you had scheduled your return flight and he said you were already home.”

“Well, I was going to surprise you with an ice cream cake and a handjob, but I got distracted. Sorry.”

“You can skip the cake,” Steve laughed softly.

“And the handjob?”

“That can stay on the table for now.”

“Cool.”

“How did the tests go?”

“NASA loved it. Now we just need to work out the bugs on the new prototype and see if I can get the military and the airline industry onboard with it.” Turning around to face Steve, Tony crossed his arms thoughtfully. “Hey, what do you think about a jet?”

“What kind of jet?”

“For the team. I could base the engine system off my prototype, really trick it out. What do you think?”

“I don’t think we need a jet, Tony.”

“Look, I love having Fury cart us around on taxpayer dollars as much as the next guy, but a jet would be far more practical.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because you just want to fly the jet.”

“Yes, I do, but that’s beside the point. Did I mention the handjob?”

“No.”

“That’s still on the table, by the way. You said so yourself.”

With a chuckle, Steve shook his head and walked around the counter sit down on a nearby kitchen stool, looking over Tony’s neatly arranged designs. Tony reached for his glass on the edge of the counter to finish it in a quick swallow.

“Bruce would let me build a jet.”

“Then you and Bruce should start your own team, and you can build everyone their own jet.”

“Maybe I will.”

Without thinking, Tony poured himself another glass of scotch from his quickly disappearing bottle. He took another drink without feeling much of anything. Steve looked at him for a moment, and then looked away.

“You shouldn’t drink so much.”

Steve said it gently like a suggestion, but the look on his face told Tony otherwise. Tony wasn’t sure what to do with that, setting his glass down. He wasn’t that great at picking his battles with Steve, anyway.

“What, this? It’s nothing. It’s less than nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m just saying. It worries me when you drink sometimes. That’s all.”

“Why? And it’s not like I’m just sitting in here getting plowed.” He wasn’t drunk and he wasn’t going to get that way, either. The implication just pissed him off. “Give me some credit.”

Steve sighed, but his face didn’t change. Tony expected something drastic, with yelling and posturing and slamming doors. Instead Steve leveled him a long, hard look.

“Did I ever tell you my dad was a drunk?”

Everything about that hit Tony squarely in the gut. “No,” he said. “You didn’t.”

Slowly the realization trickled over Tony that Steve hadn’t told him much of anything about his life before he was found in the ice. Steve never really brought it up, and Tony never really thought to ask. He knew about the war from his dad, archive footage and SHIELD files, like vital statistics and secondhand stories, just anecdotes and trivia. With Steve sitting in front of him now, what little he did know just felt hollow and stupid.

“My dad used to hit the bottle pretty hard when I was a kid. My mom didn’t do much about it. There wasn’t a whole lot to do, I guess. Those days nobody really cared what you did when you drank, not the cops or the neighbors. Your kids were yours to do with what you wanted, and your wife was just lucky when you didn’t do worse.” Steve shrugged. “I always swore to myself I would never be like that. Either of them.”

Tony’s face felt hot as though slapped. “I’m not your father, Steve. I wouldn’t.” He stopped himself, took a deep breath. “I’m not like that.”

Steve nodded. He looked like a scolded dog. Tony didn’t know what to do with that, either. “I know.”

“And you’re not your mother. You would’ve stopped me long before it got that far.”

“I shouldn’t have to stop you, Tony. It doesn’t need to come to that.”

Tony’s jaw ticked, Steve on one side of the counter, Tony on the other. After a moment, he took his glass to the sink and poured it out before taking the stool next to Steve.

“Alright. You win. Tell me something else from when you were a kid.”

Steve looked unsure. “Like what?”

“Like, I don’t know – whatever kids used to do before television and Pop Rocks were invented. You probably just chased each other around with sticks all day, right?”

At that, Steve smiled, if only a little. “Not entirely.”

“So, what? Just tell me.”

“Are you sure you want to know all that?” Steve asked. “There’s not much to tell.”

“Yeah,” Tony answered, and meant it. “I’m sure.”

III.

Something bright and hot landed in a field in Iowa early on a Thursday morning. A shape emerged from the crater it had left behind with a man’s wispy body and cracked sullen voice. It called itself Michael Korvac, and it burned white.

Fury called the Avengers in on Thursday afternoon. Thor was in New Mexico, Bruce in New York, Natasha and Clint on opposite corners of the globe. Tony was on a plane with Rhodey en route to California when he got the call to land on the nearest military airstrip. Maria, Steve, and a dozen SHIELD agents were waiting for him when he got off, walking across the concrete, hands in his jacket pockets. 

“Good of you to join us,” Maria said.

“Kind of hard to ignore you when you’re threatening my pilot with ground-to-air missiles,” Tony remarked. “You could’ve just asked nicely.”

“Fury wanted to be sure you understood the urgency of the situation.”

“Oh, I heard you loud and clear.” Tony stopped in front of Steve, looking him over. “Captain.”

“Mr. Stark,” Steve nodded, neutral.

“See? And none of this would have happened if we had our own jet.”

Tony waggled his eyebrows at him. Maria looked unimpressed. Steve decided to ignore that entirely.

“Is James coming, too?”

“Yes, I am,” Rhodey said, stepping out onto the runway. “Because if Tony thinks he’s going to go get his ass blown off in a corn field today, he’s out of luck.”

--

Michael Korvac burned four acres of farmland and ten miles of road as he walked across the Iowan countryside, murmuring into the wind. Everything that came too close blackened and blistered at the touch, leaving only ash behind. There was no stopping him now.

Everyone was going to burn.

--

There were no goodbyes, no “Be careful” or “Come back in one piece.” They were professionals, after all. This was the job to be done, and whatever happened off the field stayed there.

That was the plan, anyway.

--

By the time Tony saw the blast coming, it was already too late. It happened too fast, too hard and too bright, Steve pushing him back with an arm across Tony’s chest, taking the hit instead. And it was so stupid, so fucking stupid, even with the serum and the shield, because Tony should have been the one to take it. It was like a bullet with his name on it, and Steve had stepped in the way.

It should have been him, and now Steve was on the table in the infirmary, a handful of SHIELD doctors cutting through his uniform to hold his stomach shut.

“Tony?”

Rhodey was there. He wasn’t supposed to be. Nobody was, in the too-small corridor outside the medical bay where Tony had been for the last half-hour, watching Steve through the wide observation window. Still in his suit, helmet tugged off, Steve’s blood on his chest plate, his gauntlets, everywhere.

“Tony.”

“I heard you, okay?” Tony didn’t bother looking at him. “I know.”

The rest of the team was outside. Bruce’s eyes were burning a hole through the bay doors that Tony didn’t have to see to feel. Tony had picked Steve up and disappeared in a thunder of rockets, telling Rhodey to stay behind as he flew back to the Helicarrier with Steve in his arms, screaming at anyone who would listen for help. He never stopped to explain what happened. He never came back. Everyone was in the dark, and now Rhodey was there, and Bruce was staring at him, and Steve was still on that table.

All Tony could think of was that he didn’t even say anything. They both put on suits and code names and walked out knowing the dangers, and Tony never thought to say anything.

“How did they do?”

“It was bad, but Fury had an ace up his sleeve,” Rhodey explained. “Me, Hulk and Thor had Korvac distracted long enough for one of his agents to set off an earthquake in Korvac’s brain.”

“An earthquake? That’s – oddly specific.”

“Yeah, well, it worked. He’s incapacitated until SHIELD figures out what to do with him.”

Tony swallowed, nodded, and said nothing. After a moment, Rhodey sighed.

“Hey.” Rhodey put a heavy hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Hey, they’ve got this, alright? You’ve got to go be with your team, Tony.”

“Not right now.” Tony shook his head. “I can’t leave.”

“You can’t do this, man.”

“Rhodey, don’t start with me, okay?” The hallway was already too small, the air too hot. “Not right now.”

“Tony, you disappeared in the middle of a fight. You can’t do that. They need you.”

“You don’t think I know that? I had to get him out of there. What, was that a bad call? Was I supposed to leave him? Maybe that’s the right thing to do, but fuck that. Fuck orders and procedure, and fuck Fury if he doesn’t like it. No one gets left behind.”

“I’m not saying you made a bad call, but you can’t walk off from them. This isn’t just about what you’re feeling. You don’t get that luxury anymore.”

“I know that, and I know I fucked up, Rhodey. I do.” On the other side of the window doctors were trying to stop the bleeding. “But I just can’t, and I can’t tell you why, but you just have to trust me on this one.”

Taking a deep breath, Rhodey shook his head. “You know, I saw Pepper a few weeks ago. She finally told me what happened. I didn’t say anything because I hadn’t heard from you yet, but—”

Tony gave him a warning look. “Rhodey, don’t.”

“When she first left you I assumed the worst. But this, Tony? Steve Rogers?”

“This is my business.”

“This is a mess.”

“You don’t want to have this fight with me, Rhodey, because you will lose.”

“What’re you even doing? Because, this? This is tangled up in a whole lot of other shit that nobody else needs. You’re supposed to be running a team together. You’re supposed to have your head in the game.”

“He’s not a new car, or some shiny distraction, and – no, fuck you, alright? I don’t have to explain myself, and it’s not your mess to fix.”

“This is exactly why you can’t do this, Tony. You’re hung up and you’re not thinking straight.”

“Right, the same way you just walked off and didn’t spend those three months looking for me when everybody told you it was a bad idea.”

Rhodey took a deep breath. “That’s not the same.”

“No.” Tony turned to leave, grabbing his helmet from the floor where he had left it. “It’s not.”

“Tony, wait.”

“We don’t have anything else to talk about.”

“Look, I’m sorry.”

“About what?”

“About this.”

“Yeah, well.” Tony stopped, turned to face him. “That doesn’t really change much, does it?”

With that he pushed past the med bay doors to the corridor outside. The team turned when he walked in, getting up to their feet or straightening up to meet him expectantly. Tony swallowed, his mouth cottoned and useless. Everyone looked like they wanted to ask, but they already knew the answer. Shaking his head, he kept walking, toward the conference room.

“I need to find Fury.”

For the questions and the debriefings and the yelling, because if Fury had even a one word to say about how the mission played out, Tony was going to feed it to him. At his back, Bruce watched him walk away, and finally sighed.

“Tony? Tony.”

“What?” He didn’t bother turning around this time.

Bruce sort-of shrugged, put his hands together like he didn’t know what to do with them otherwise. “Cap would’ve done the same for you. And if they don’t like it, they can take it up with him, too.”

After a moment, Tony nodded and walked away.

--

Steve woke on Friday morning in the infirmary with his stomach stapled shut. The first thing he asked about was the team. The second thing he asked about was how he got there. Tony finished his fifth cup of cold coffee from the chow hall, dropped into the chair pulled next to Steve’s bed and tried not to look like he hadn’t slept since Wednesday night. Steve didn’t need to know everything.

“The good news is we won. Apparently we also owe a gift basket to one agent Daisy Johnson. We’re not the only super-people Fury has lying around, or so I’m told.”

“That’s good.” Steve tried to sit up but grunted instead, feeling at the bandages across his stomach. “When can I get out of here?”

“Doctors said two or three days, give or take how quickly you heal.” Tony yawned, scrubbed a hand across his forehead. “I hope you brought a good book.”

Moving over gingerly, Steve propped himself on an elbow, reached for the glass of water on the bedside table. “How long was I out?”

“Since yesterday.” Tony watched Steve try to strain for the glass. Eventually he rolled his eyes and put it in Steve’s hand. “Or you could just ask, and not lay there and struggle like an idiot.”

“But where’s the fun in that?” Steve took a sip. “Tell James I said thank you for coming along on this one. We definitely needed the help.”

Tony leaned back into the chair. “Yeah, about that. I’ve got a few things to work out with Rhodey before I thank him for anything.”

“Why?”

“He found out, about this. About us. And he was a huge asshole about the entire situation.”

“Oh.” Steve’s shoulders sagged a little. “I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re not, because you didn’t do anything.”

“He’s your friend, Tony.”

“Have you ever had one of those friends that you really like, but whose face you occasionally have to rearrange?”

“Yeah?”

“It’s one of those things. Kind of mutually, really.”

“Well, as long as you’re okay with it.” After setting the glass back on the table, Steve moved back to the middle of the bed to lie down. “You didn’t have to stay, you know.”

“So, do you want me to find you a cross to nail yourself to, or?”

Steve laughed softly. “I’m just saying.”

“Then you can just carry it around everywhere you go and you’ll feel better.”

“I’m alright, thanks.”

“I stayed because I wanted to, so stop whining.”

“I don’t whine.”

“I’ve seen you whine. It’s really unattractive.”

After a moment, Steve sighed. “So what did he say?”

Tony shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It mattered to you.”

Tony eyed Steve for a moment, chewing on the words. “It was implied that this is a really stupid idea,” he said against his better judgment, “and that you’re probably like a big fat midlife crisis.”

“Did he say that?”

“It was implied.”

“That’s…really unfortunate.” Steve shrugged, disappointed. “And part of the reason I didn’t want to tell anybody about this.”

“Okay, you know, I get it – the 1940s tough-guy routine, believe me, I do – but coming from a guy whose every mistake has been front page news, that whole theory doesn’t work well in practice. You can’t walk around on eggshells trying to make everybody okay with you.”

“It’s not – that. I’m not worried about what people think of it.”

“Then what?”

“I just don’t want things to get complicated because of this. It makes us a liability to each other, and I don’t want anyone to exploit that.”

“We’re all a liability to each other. We all have friends, families – it puts a target on all our backs. The point is to be smarter than the guy who tries to play that card.”

“I know.” Steve swallowed, and looked a little sad. “But you should get some sleep now, alright?”

“Yeah, alright.” There was no point in arguing, so Tony got to his feet instead. Leaning over, and whether anybody would see or not, he kissed Steve twice. Once softly and sweetly, brushing his thumb along the hinge of Steve’s jaw, and then again firmly, like signing his name and crossing his t’s. “And you’ve been a bull’s eye since the jump, whether you tell anybody or not.”

Steve pressed his lips together to wet them, closing a hand around Tony’s wrist. “I didn’t go anywhere this time.”

“Because I didn’t let you. Get used to it.”

For that, Steve smiled. “Fine.”

IV.

Aliens only threatened the planet every so often. Asgard brought its pissing matches to Earth on few occasions, and Thor came back on the heels of Loki or Enchantress to clean up their messes. HYDRA laid low sometimes, and then it was quiet. When it was quiet, Steve went away. He had his work, Tony had his, and they met somewhere in the middle.

Fury had his uses for Steve like he did Natasha and Clint, stealing him off with a phone call in the middle of the night or a visit from Maria and an armed detail. He was still a soldier; he needed to feel useful and the Avengers could only offer so much, when everyone else had other things to keep them busy. With SHIELD Steve had routines to fall back on and schedules to keep, disappearing for days at a time on missions. It gave him people to rely on, making a sparring partner out of Natasha and a poker-buddy out of Clint on Thursday nights, went Thor was in town and Bruce wasn’t busy. It was good for Steve.

Steve eventually stopped apologizing for it after a while, and Tony got used to him being gone. He got used to the phone calls on secure lines whenever Steve could afford to sneak off between briefings and debriefings, recon missions and rendezvous points. Steve always called, even for just a few minutes, to let Tony know he was alive and he would be home soon. Tony got used to that, too, to Steve’s obligation to him. He was used to being the one who disappeared, who made quick calls home to Pepper when something was blowing up on the news. Now Fury didn’t need Iron Man quite as much as he needed Captain America. That took the most getting used to.

So Tony stayed home in New York to spend time in the lab with Bruce, or fly to Beijing or Singapore or Stockholm for work between board meetings and public appearances. If he missed Steve he didn’t say a word of it to anyone. It wasn’t their business, anyway.

--

Steve left town on a Tuesday for Sao Paulo. On the following Monday Tony was sitting in a conference room aboard the Helicarrier with Fury and Maria for their monthly status reports. That was the downside to being a government-backed team, the paperwork and regulations and red tape. Steve usually went with Tony to talk to the grownups. They usually liked Steve’s version of events much better than they liked Tony’s. He had a knack for putting a positive spin on even the worst news.

Sitting on the other side of the table, Nick Fury looked less enthused about Tony’s existence than usual.

“Ten million dollars in property damage?”

Tony shrugged. “A drop in the bucket.”

“Hulk used a city bus to knock an AIM helicopter out of the sky,” Maria remarked. “That doesn’t really sound so great when you’re explaining it to the locals.”

“It seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the time.”

“The only reasonable thing to do,” Fury said, “is to get your people to stop using public property as their own personal playground, Stark.”

“Look, there’s a certain acceptable amount of damage to be expected when aliens show up to kick our faces in. If you’re hard-up on cash, I can help foot the disaster relief bill. Past that, Fury, you’re more than welcome to see if your people can do a better job of saving the world than mine.”

“It’s not the damage, it’s the bad press. People were content to deal with the aftermath of Loki’s attack, but the magic’s worn off. The public needs more accountability from you, and they’re tired of paying for everything you break when your demi-god has an off-day.”

“Otherwise,” Maria said, “Congress is going to start asking more questions.”

“What questions?”

“The kind that put people in shock collars.”

Tony shook his head. “If it’s a matter of getting better press, fine. I can handle that. When Steve gets back from Wherever-The-Hell, we will sit down and work something out—”

“Whoa, no, you won’t,” Fury cut in. “There’s no going behind closed doors with this. I’ve given you all a lot of freedom up to this point, maybe more than I should have, but if you want government backing, you play ball.”

“When I already single-handedly support this team and provide a base of operations out of my own pocket? Yeah, I don’t think I need to play ball with anyone.”

“There’s two of my people on that team, Stark, not to mention that Cap is still flagged as a government acquisition.”

“Oh, bullshit, Fury. Steve is not government property.”

“He isn’t, but everything that made him Captain America is, and how he is implemented is still up to my discretion.”

“Yeah, and my dad helped make him in a basement in 1943. Do you see me slapping a company logo on his ass and shipping him off to trade shows?”

Fury looked like he was going to crawl over the table and choke Tony out. Tony was about half-sure it had been coming for months. Between them, Maria sighed.

“Okay, so, assuming you two can put your dicks away long enough to finish this up, brass tacks? Less explosions, more nice shiny super hero team. Can you do that, Stark?”

Tony gave Fury a long look before turning to Maria. “Yeah, I can do that.”

“And no more lone cowboy bullshit,” Fury said sternly. “You and Cap get together on this, and then you get back to me. Got it?”

“Got it.”

With that Fury left the conference room, likely to go bark at unsuspecting bridge staff until he felt better. Maria stood up and smoothed the creases from her uniform top with a sigh.

“That went well.”

“Fury can kiss my ass if he thinks we’re just handing this off to suits because a few buses get knocked over.”

“He’s not wrong, you know. You’re not like Spiderman or the X-Men. People know who you are and they want accountability.”

“I’ve been at this gig a while now, thanks. I don’t mind working with the government so long as they don’t try to screw me in the process.”

“What did you expect? Flowers and dinner?” Maria smirked. “Hey, your boy’s back from Sao Paulo, by the way. Jet touched down a half-hour ago.”

“He’s not.” Thinking better of it, Tony sighed. “Never mind.”

--

Steve was on the flight deck when Tony met up with him, changed into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, his shield on his back and his uniform in a bag.

“How was Brazil?” Tony asked.

“I don’t know.” Steve shrugged. “I spent most of the trip in a weapons bunker.”

“Bummer.”

“Why?”

“Last time I was in Sao Paulo I was completely blitzed on orange vodka and a 21-year-old Danish supermodel. Don’t remember a damn thing.”

Steve shook his head with a laugh. “Wow. You are a portrait of sophistication.”

“I do try.”

Standing there, Tony felt like kissing Steve. Even when surrounded by two dozen SHIELD crewmen all roaming around the deck and it was a strange feeling. Steve was just out of debriefing; he hadn’t even showered yet, still smelling like sweat and dirt. Something very regrettable was about to happen, so Tony stuck his hands in his jacket pockets to keep them busy and asked Steve if he wanted a ride home. Steve, as always, just smiled in that big stupid way that got Tony into trouble.

He could already tell it was going to be a long trip back to Manhattan.

--

“So, I think Fury wants your head on a stick.”

Steve toweled his hair off as he came around the corner to the bedroom, fresh from the shower, pajama bottoms low at his waist. He hadn’t bothered to put his things away in his own place, leaving them in the living room by Tony’s sofa.  The clothes were left from the last time he’d slept there. Tony hadn’t bothered to put them away, either.

“Not surprising.” Sprawled out on the bed and scrolling through his tablet, Tony didn’t bother to look up. “I imagine he filled you in abut our meeting.”

“It came up.”

“What did he call me?”

“A lot of very colorful things.”

Tony shrugged. “And?”

“And he’s not wrong.”

If Tony had rolled his eyes any harder, he might have pulled something. “Why do people keep saying that?”

Steve folded the towel neatly and stepped back into the bathroom to hang it up. “People need to have faith in us. It’s how we make a difference.”

“I can deal with the press, alright? We can work on our PR, get a strategy in motion to keep people calm. They want accountability? Fine. They want transparency? We’ll be so transparent it’ll make the Kardashians look like nuns.”

Crawling into bed, Steve snorted. “It’s about diplomacy, too, Tony. You may not like Fury – and God knows I’m not his biggest fan, either – but you have to work with him. At least for now.”

Setting his tablet on the bedside table, Tony let out a sigh. “This is why he likes you better.”

“That and I didn’t pee in a circle around his office.”

“That is a vicious and unsubstantiated rumor.” Laying down next to Steve, Tony waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “And if we had our own jet, we wouldn’t even have to talk to Fury at all.”

“No jet, Tony.”

“You just don’t want me to be happy.”

“You can learn to be happy without the jet.”

“Technically I can still build it, right? I don’t even have to fly it. I mean, obviously I could, but—”

“When we need a jet, you can build one. Until then, we’re fine.”

“What if I just built it for my birthday or something? That would let you off the hook on buying me presents for, what, a year?”

“Wow, a whole year?”

“My birthdays are very expensive.”

Steve shook his head with a smirk. “We’ll see.”

“We will.” Having been distracted by the challenge, Tony looked Steve over disapprovingly. “And why are you still wearing clothes?”

“I didn’t realize it was going to be an issue.”

“Oh, no. You have been gone a week, Rogers.” Immediately Tony skinned out of his shirt, climbing on top of Steve to kiss him. “Pants off, right now.”

Steve laughed but didn’t bother to fight it, letting Tony have his way. He ran his hands down Tony’s shoulders and back, reaching his ass to squeeze, pushing their hips together and grinding up into Tony through the cotton of his sleep pants. Tony nipped and licked at Steve’s mouth, his chin and his throat, biting at his neck and shoulder to turn the skin from white to red. The marks never stuck around long but it didn’t discourage him, teething at the softer junctures of flesh and muscle until Steve made that breathy noise he only ever made when Tony did that. It always put a fire in Tony’s gut, a sharp angle in his hips as he rocked into Steve, getting between Steve’s legs to work his dick against him.

There was something jealous in Tony that only Steve brought out like this. A complex chemical reaction or an electrical short circuit, like faulty wiring or a bad connection, that made Tony want to turn Steve inside out. It started off cautiously enough between them, the first few times they had sex, because Steve was still jumpy and unsure, and Tony didn’t want to make mistakes. He wasn’t used to feeling responsible for somebody else like that, careful not to go too fast, pull too hard, fuck too impersonally. Before he always liked women with experience and control, who knew what they wanted and took it from him. Steve didn’t know what he wanted yet and didn’t know how to ask, and that changed everything.

One night, maybe the third or fourth time they slept together, when Tony was fucking Steve the way he thought he needed it – carefully and slowly like he was fit to shatter – Steve pushed him away. A little harder than he meant to, which was almost enough to piss Tony off, but Steve had this stupid frustrated look on his face and Tony forgot to be mad as Steve grabbed him by the hair and kissed him.

“I’m not gonna break,” Steve said, voice dipping low, consonants roughened at the edges by that Brooklyn accent that only occasionally ever reared its head. “You of all people ought to know.”

Then Tony rolled Steve over onto hands and knees and fucked him until he couldn’t hold himself up anymore. Eyes shut, mouth open, pink all over and wet between his thighs from the spit and lube and come, Tony wanted to be the only one who got to ruin Steve Rogers like that. It was a strange privilege to inherit, when Steve belonged to so many other people for so many different reasons; something that stayed coiled inside of him, just his to own. And maybe Rhodey had been right before, if only just: Maybe this was tangled up in a lot of other things, but the way Steve looked at him made it worth it.

Stripped down on all fours, held in place by the hand in his hair, Steve let out a moan and pushed back on the two well-oiled fingers Tony had inside him, opening himself up. This had become one of Tony’s favorite things, working Steve’s hole wider, feeling every muscle clench, sucking his fingers in. Tony leaned over Steve’s shoulder to kiss him, slow and full, murmuring filthy things between his lips. Getting him to relax enough to slide his fingers out and in again, twisting and curling, past the joint down to the knuckle. It wasn’t just foreplay or prep, watching Steve’s spine lengthen, his hips flex, the muscles in his legs tightening. Dick twitching neglected between Steve’s opened thighs, just beginning to drool as Steve rocked himself against Tony’s hand. He could be content to watch Steve fuck himself on his fingers but Steve bit down on Tony’s mouth, twisting around to try to face him, and told him otherwise.

“Come here.”

“What do you want?” Tony asked, pulling his fingers out to run them up and down the crease between Steve’s ass to his balls, just to make him squirm. “What do you want me to do?”

Steve’s whole body tightened up on another little moan, and Tony enjoyed the feel of it. “You know what I want.” It was halfway to a threat, and Tony enjoyed that, too. “You ass.”

Tony couldn’t help but chuckle at that, a soft, rough little laugh. Steve went to elbows and knees in the sheets, rearing back into Tony, demanding, never meek. Tony pressed himself into the curve of Steve’s back, holding himself up with on an outstretched hand and using the other to slick himself up on a palm-full of lube from the nightstand, and guide himself inside Steve. Wet and tight and hot, pushing past the initial clench until their bodies connected in a grunt and a moan, filling Steve up, balls flush to his ass. He closed an arm around Steve’s shoulders, his hand coiling around base of Steve’s neck fondly as he angled his head to catch Steve’s mouth, open, panting, swollen from kissing.

“What do you want?” Tony repeated, biting at Steve’s chin. “Tell me what you want me to do.”

He slid out slowly, right to the head of his dick and then back in again, just to watch the way Steve’s body reacted. Pushing forward, pushing back, trying to make the most of the friction and heat and the weight inside of him. Tony did it again, words slurring, fingers tightening at Steve’s neck.

“Just tell me what you want, baby, it’s right there, just say it. Tell me how good I feel and how much you need this.”

Twice more like that and Steve almost sobbed, shameless and hungry.

“Harder,” Steve panted out. “God, just – harder.”

Another tease and gentle bite and Tony was done being nice, bucking into Steve until he could feel Steve’s thighs shake. It was a swift rhythm, skin on skin and mouth to mouth. Tony fucked Steve quick and full, his hips working to fill Steve up with every thrust. Beneath him Steve pushed back, moaning, reaching back to grab Tony’s hair in a tug. He met each thrust clumsily, riding out the measure of Tony’s hips to his own pleasure in the soft slap of flesh. It went all over Tony, each time the same; to wring every stifled moan, every fine tremor out of Steve, sweat making it slick wherever their bodies met. The way Steve took what Tony gave him, with no pretense or fear, it hollowed out his stomach the way normal people must have felt when faced with a fall from great heights. But listening to Steve breathe against his mouth as Tony kissed him, it was a fear he could live with.

Steve didn’t come but Tony did, emptying into Steve, burying the sound of his orgasm into Steve’s shoulder until the last shudder rolled over him. They uncoupled, shifting stiff arms and unsteady knees, Steve moving to lie on his back and dragging Tony with him to kiss, sloppy in the aftermath. Without needing to be told Tony closed his fist around Steve’s dick and jerked him quickly, licking his way into Steve’s mouth until Steve spurted between them in a few short, twisting strokes. Still panting, flushed and warm, Steve pressed their foreheads together and let out a long, pleased-sounding sigh.

“I don’t want anyone else to do this to you,” he murmured between Steve’s lips, the words bubbling out of him before he could think properly. “No one, alright? I don’t care who it is.”

Steve shook his head. “What’re you talking about?”

“I’m talking about this. I don’t want you with anybody else, just me.”

“Hey.” Closing his hands at Tony’s jaw, Steve leaned in to kiss him. Firmly at first, then softly, to get his attention and make sure he kept it. “If you want me, I’m yours. Okay?”

It was easier to tell Steve that than the other thing he needed to say. For the moment, it was close enough.

V.

On a Monday, Tony flew to California with a series of plans and blueprints in tow. By Saturday afternoon, Tony showed up in Steve’s living room with an insufferably smug look on his face. There may have even been a bounce in his step, but Tony would admit to nothing. Steve was in the middle of his library copy of Gravity’s Rainbow until Tony appeared, kicking Steve’s feet from their resting place on the coffee table and lying out his tablet.

“Okay, so, whatever happens,” Tony said, pulling up a scale model of his Quinjet design to fill the majority of Steve’s living room, “you don’t get to be mad.”

“Why would I be mad?” Steve asked.

“Because this is the jet I’m building.”

Steve set down his book. “Seriously?”

“Don’t give me that face. This is a prototype I’m having the aeronautics division develop in California. See? No dangerous prototypes in the tower, just like you said.”

“I thought we talked about this.”

“You said some things. I listened. It was a constructive dialogue, but I decided to do it anyway.”

“I can see that.”

“You just said you wouldn’t be mad,” Tony said. “Now look at this and tell me it’s not awesome.”

Steve stood up, hands on his hips, looking it over. After a moment, he shrugged. “It is kind of impressive.”

Kind of?” Tony feigned insult. “You’re killing me, Rogers.”

“Any stealth capabilities?”

“Comes standard on all models.”

“And weapons?”

“The on-board defense system is currently in development, but the outlook is very promising.”

“And it will accommodate the entire team?”

“No, it’s a two-seater with an ice chest in the back. Of course it accommodates the entire team.”

Finally, approvingly, Steve nodded. “Okay. Build it.”

“Thanks, dear.” Tony shrank his model down and tucked his tablet under his arm. “I’m so glad I have your support on this.”

Steve looked incurably pleased with himself. “You wouldn’t know what to do without me.”

Tony decided he didn’t like the look of it, making his way to the door. “Probably build jets with impunity and have a really good time?”

Sitting down to return to his book, Steve smirked. “Love you, too.”

Tony opened the front door to leave. He paused, sighed, and then closed it. “Seriously?”

“What?”

“You’re just going to drop that and act like nothing happened?”

Steve looked legitimately confused. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“We are so Empire Strikes Back right now and you’re totally leaving me hanging here.”

What?”

Empire Strikes Back. It’s where the Empire – you haven’t seen Star Wars yet, have you?”

“No.” Steve shut his book again and set it aside. “Bruce showed me Star Trek once.”

“Of course he did. That traitor.”

“I’m really not following, Tony.”

It was shaping up to be one of those now-or-never moments, where stupid things climbed the back of Tony’s throat in an effort to betray him. Maybe they were; maybe they were supposed to and maybe he meant for it. It would never be the right time, and Steve would never be the right choice. People would have to feel about it however they needed to, and Tony was just tired of having the question and no answer.

“Are you happy?”

Steve stood up. He had that same stupid, frustrated look on his face he had whenever he wanted to say something Tony really didn’t want to hear. “What are you asking me?”

“It’s not brain surgery, Steve. I mean, are you happy – here, with me? Doing whatever it is that we’re doing?”

Steve hesitated. “I’ve never really thought about it.”

Tony sighed again. “You’re really killing me here, Rogers.”

“You want me to be honest? Nobody’s ever asked me that before. Those last few years, whether or not I was happy didn’t matter much to anybody, and it wasn’t something I had the luxury of worrying about.”

“You always say crap like that.” Tony shook his head, rubbed the bridge of his nose. This was going to be a fight; he could already tell. “It should matter. It always matters. If you didn’t want to be here I wouldn’t make you stay.”

“I know that, and I want to be here.” Steve closed the space between them, fencing Tony in against the door. This close it was hard to ignore how tall he was, how imposing he could be, using it to his advantage. “I’ve told you that.”

“Then what are we doing? Because I feel like we’re on to something here, but we keep getting hung up on bullshit somewhere along the way. You don’t want to tell anybody about this? Fine, don’t, but at least tell me what it is we’re not talking about.”

“I told you.” Shaking his head, Steve looked at Tony like he was an idiot. He closed a hand on Tony’s shoulder at the juncture of neck and clavicle, to keep him there in case of escape. “I’m yours, Tony, and you’ve got a target on your back that says you’re mine. That’s it.”

“You meant that?” Tony shouldn’t have had to ask. Maybe he just wanted to hear Steve say it. It was allowed.

“I wouldn’t have stayed if I hadn’t.”

Tony swallowed. “Okay, deal, but no more secrets. I’m tired of sneaking around like we have something to hide. If someone has a problem with it, they can find the door. Fury, SHIELD, all of them.”

“Okay.” Steve nodded. “We’ll figure it out.”

“And I don’t care what anybody else thinks. I’ve earned you so I’m keeping you, and that’s the end of it.”

“Okay.”

“Good.”

After a moment, that insufferable little smile came back. “You know you’re an idiot, right?”

“Yeah, well.” Tony shrugged. “My mom always said to keep your expectations low and you’ll never be disappointed.”

“You haven’t disappointed me yet.”

“Don’t worry. We have our whole lives ahead of us. I’ll figure something out.”

Steve didn’t bother arguing this time. Instead he nudged Tony back into the door, tipping his head up to kiss him, slow and full. Whatever happened after that, with the team or anything else, Tony still had his answer.