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How to Lose a Super Soldier in One Easy Step

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The first thing Nick Fury says after Tony's signed his own weight in non-disclosure agreements is, "Welcome on board, Stark. You're just in time for hide and seek."

Which turns out to be Fury's way of saying, "This week at SHIELD we're scouring the globe for an All-American hero; tag, you're it!"

So Tony builds some stuff because hey, lucky for everybody, he's really good at that. He takes the imaging equipment he's been toying with and gives it a couple of red-white-and-blue-worthy upgrades, modifies it to withstand extreme cold and then, in a stroke of two thirty-three in the morning inspiration, realizes that they're not looking for any old image, they're looking for a 6-foot tall, star-spangled man.

"JARVIS?" he says, rolling his shoulders and thumbing the off switch on the blowtorch.

"Yes, sir?"

"Any chance at all you remember where we dumped all that Captain America memorabilia?"

"I believe you are currently housing it in a disused corner of the garage, sir," JARVIS says, somehow managing to convey his weary acceptance of Tony's allergy to organization without actually varying his tone.

"Fantastic," Tony says, and goes digging.

What he comes up with, after he's sifted through comic books and recruiting posters and one or two pages of notes in his dad's handwriting that he quickly sets aside—he's been down that rabbit hole recently enough, thanks—is a propaganda reel, a little dusty but still in working condition. He even locates the projector without JARVIS' help, which, come on, impressive.

"Okay, so," he says, and then stops because yep, that's Captain America, and as much as Tony is more-or-less an adult nowadays (granted, the pendulum swings from 'more' to 'less' kind of unpredictably) watching the guy strike a flickering, heroic pose serves up a potent dose of nostalgia. Tony remembers watching this stuff—hell, he remembers reading the comics, too. He'd been aware of comics as kid stuff and, looking back, that was pretty obviously how his dad was aware of them too, good old normal kid stuff that he could share with his kid. And hmm, what was that about a rabbit hole?

"Okay, so," he says again, "let's freeze that image and render it in 3D."

"Certainly," JARVIS says and does just that. Captain America flies out of the screen and hovers, a black-and-white war hero rotating slowly in the middle of Tony's workshop. Tony has the sudden urge to reach out and touch the star on his chest, those doofy wings sprouting from his head, and resists because yeah, more-or-less an adult.

"Good, great, you're a pleasure to work with as always," Tony says, unscrewing the panel on the back of what he's calling the Cap Finder 2.0 (there wasn't really a 1.0, of course, but 2.0 always sounds better to government buyers and he seriously doubts SHIELD is going to be an exception). He fiddles with the tangle of wires there, and then points the entire thing at the good Captain, who's still revolving in midair, patriotic hands on his patriotic hips. The Cap Finder beeps and then Captain America's beaming up at him from its screen.

"Right," Tony says, glancing down and then away. "That's who you're looking for. Don't fuck up."

 

+ + + + +

 

Two weeks later, Tony's watching as a rectangular hunk of ice is lifted into the air. He can just make out the blurs of red, white, and blue inside it, sketching out the outlines of a human figure.

"We'll defrost him and start running tests," says Agent Phil Coulson, Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.

"Really? Because as a taxpayer I'm a little annoyed that you're gonna waste my hard-earned dough on that," Tony says. Coulson hitches one ridiculously unimpressed eyebrow.

"Oh?" He asks.

"Yeah, because that guy," Tony says, waving the Cap Finder (with built-in life signs detector, obviously, what is he, a moron or something?) at the Star-Spangled Ice Cube, "is dead."

"We'll see about that," Coulson says.

 

+ + + + +

 

"He's dead," Coulson says.

"What, dead dead?" Fury demands from the other end of the video call.

"What, are you going to start quoting The Princess Bride now?" Tony asks.

"Stark, I've met enough superheroes to know that 'dead' doesn't mean dead, half the time," Fury says. "Dead could mean in some kind of super-powered healing sleep, dead could mean casting an illusion so they can ax a gloating archenemy or two at the funeral, dead could mean their mind's trapped in an alternate universe and their body's stuck here. Dead doesn't mean shit in this line of work. Speaking of work, Coulson, have somebody add Stark's knowledge of The Princess Bride to his file."

"In this case, sir, dead means dead," Coulson says. "He has no vital signs, and we can't detect any brain activity."

"I thought he was supposed to be in stasis," Fury says. "Wasn't all of that super soldiering supposed to be good for his longevity?"

"Apparently some of Howard Stark's conclusions were faulty in that regard, sir," Coulson says. Tony bristles a little at that because it's one thing to impugn the old man's character, but the quality of his work was pretty damn excellent, thanks. Except before he can say anything Fury says, "Well, let's see him," and Coulson gestures to someone just outside the door, and then Captain America's being wheeled in on some kind of gurney.

"As you can see, he has been unusually well-preserved," Coulson is saying. Tony is staring, he's aware of that, but fuck off because that's—yeah, that's Captain America, all six feet of him, in glorious technicolor, looking ready to spring up and deliver a solid right hook to Hitler except for the whole lack of a pulse thing. Yeah, that's Captain America, except the dog tags that have jarred free of his costume to dangle against one very solid, very real shoulder don't say Captain America, they say STEVE ROGERS, and that's making something in Tony's chest twist up a little, which it probably shouldn't be able to do.

"Maybe there's still some chance of reverse engineering the serum," Fury is saying, and Tony reaches out without thinking, really, to brush his thumb over the chain where it's lying across Rogers' throat. He gulps in a breath at the immediate piercing cold, and then he yanks his hand back like he's been burnt, because beneath his touch there's a sudden flood of warmth. He curls his hand into a fist, knuckles going white, and watches Captain America suck in a lungful of air. He can almost imagine the pulse hammering away in his neck, can still feel its rhythm in his thumb, echoed in his own blood.

"Coulson," Fury says as Captain America sits bolt upright, eyes darting around the room like he's cataloging escape routes, "what the fuck is going on?"

 

+ + + + +

 

Tony's actually a little proud that he'd managed to keep, well, anything from Natasha. He's read her report on him and it's excruciatingly thorough, especially considering how little time they spent actually interacting. But nowhere does it say "also, just FYI, he can resurrect the dead with a touch."

The downside now is that all around him SHIELD's best and brightest are exploding with questions and curses and emergency protocols, when really he just needs everybody to sit down and shut up. He fumbles for his watch, stumbling away from the gurney at the same time, even though that's inefficient, downright counterproductive, because what he needs to do is get closer. Close enough to touch.

"Who are you?" Rogers demands, gripping the shield that had been displayed against his chest like a weapon which, right, for him it is.

"My name is Agent Phil Coulson, I work for the—"

"He works for SHIELD," Tony interrupts because they really don't have time for this, shit, shit, they don't have time for this. His watch is marching steadily onward which is, of course, useless since he has no idea how long it's been since Steve's eyelids stuttered open. Very blue eyes, he thinks, and shakes his head in some kind of pointless attempt to clear it.

"Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division," Coulson says, not missing a beat. "I'm the head of a search party sent to find you, Captain Rogers—"

"Jesus Coulson, don't—" Tony starts, but he has no idea what comes next and for once his lack of brain-to-mouth filter isn't offering to babble its way from Point A to Point Upside Down J, Next Stop Bullshitted String Theory on his behalf. He forces himself to step forward once, and then again, close enough that he can watch Rogers' chest rise and fall. He's staring again, probably.

"What's going on here?" Rogers says, swinging off the gurney and into a crouch, which is when the door blows off of its hinges.

"Nobody move! Everybody on the ground!" A voice shouts through the haze of smoke and dust and plaster.

"Yeah, wow, this is a room in which that is likely to happen," Tony says, because it's that or throw up, probably. The suit, the suit, he's always supposed to have the fucking suit. He lets his eyes drag themselves to it, just for a moment, the shiny silver briefcase that's sitting on a counter across the room, and then looks away again. Looking at it is a reminder of the fact that it is elsewhere, which precludes it being on him, which drags him back around to the whole puking problem.

"On the ground!" The voice says again. The voice, it emerges, is attached to a face, and that face (broad, tanned, leathery) is attached to a body that is 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds at the optimistic estimate (the body isn't technically attached to a semi-automatic weapon, but for the purposes of this exercise it might as well be). Whoever this guy is, he clearly isn't a big believer in the cult of the individual, because he's brought plenty of scowling, armed friends.

"We are authorized representatives of the U.S. government. Drop your weapons and put your hands up," Coulson says, training his weapon on a guy who already has his weapon trained on Coulson. Great. Excellent, terrific. Really, really great.

"Get on the ground!"

"Drop your weapons and put your hands up," Coulson says. The 'no,' Tony reflects hysterically, is pretty well implied. His watch feels like it's going to tick straight through his wrist, relentless.

"I just need—" Tony says, his gaze flickering sideways to where Rogers is standing, feet shoulder width apart, angled between the crazy guys with guns and the (potentially) less crazy guys with guns.

"Don't. Move," Mr. Way Too Large and Unfortunately In Charge says. Tony fights the urge to tell him he's hitting his role a little too squarely on the nose.

"Sure and that's great and all, textbook thuggery, but I just need to take care of something over here," Tony says, moving toward Rogers, except before he gets where he's (probably) going a whole lot of guns swivel towards him. The big guy swivels his with intent, and something in Tony's lizard brain overcomes its own screaming panic long enough to offer up: you are about to die. It doesn't offer any helpful advice about how to avoid his imminent demise, but apparently it doesn't need to, because someone else has a few ideas about that. Namely Rogers, who flings his shield out, sending three guns flying in one sweep. Coulson says something about acting to subdue and SHIELD snaps into action, disarming people left and right like it's their job (which, right now, it probably is). Rogers steps forward, catching his SHIELD as it comes spinning back to him.

"Who are you with?" he demands. The goon makes a startled noise, sort of a 'glrk' if Tony had to spell it—although spelling was never one of his (many) strengths—and crumples to the tiled floor without being touched. Rogers jerks backwards, shock registering on his face, and Tony thinks, welcome back to the land of the living, Cap, looks like you're sticking around.

 

+ + + + +

 

When Tony was five years old he'd found a dead ladybug on his floor and, curious in the way all five-year-old geniuses ought to be, had reached out and poked at it with his index finger. It had started wriggling, its crumpled up legs unbending until they were waving straight up into the air. Tony had watched, blinking and astonished, as it tried to right itself, and then reached out again to roll it back onto its feet.

It had stilled instantly, and Tony knew, he knew because he was smart, everybody said so, he knew its eyes were too small to see. But he imagined the light going out of them again anyway, and he didn't cry, because it was just a stupid ladybug, so who cared? He spent the next week touching it, gingerly, whenever he spotted it, but that wasn't caring. That was an experiment, just like the ones his dad did. And when, a week later, he carefully reached out and pressed his fingertips to the wing of a dead bird he'd found just outside his window, that was an experiment too. An experiment that earned him feeble chirping and rustling wings. He backed away, his hands stuffed into his pockets, and grinned as the bird stalked across the grass, pecking at the damp ground. There were answering chirps from the tree above their heads, and when Tony tipped his head back he saw an inquisitive pair of eyes poking out past the edges of a nest.

"He's fine, see?" Tony said, pointing at the bird, still very much alive, now cleaning its feathers. The bird in the tree hopped to the edge of its nest, spread its wings, and toppled forward, falling like a stone. It hit the ground and didn't move. Tony made a sort of cut off, hiccuping noise and darted forward to touch it gently on the head. He breathed a sigh of relief when it startled back to life, except that a minute later the other bird froze and fell, and this time he couldn't bring it back again, no matter how much he poked and prodded and begged.

It took another three days of experiments, and the aid of his father's borrowed watch, for Tony to understand. By the end of the third day he felt pulled taut, rolled out thin between discovery and fear, between the need to understand and the need to run away until he couldn't understand anymore, until the only life his fingers sparked with was his own.

 

+ + + + +

 

"First touch, alive," Tony recites dully, the same words he'd memorized when he was five and taking (highly scientific) notes in a legal pad he'd taken from his father's briefcase. "Second touch, dead. If the second touch doesn't happen within a minute, something else has to die."

"Something—" Rogers manages, looking horrified.

"Or someone," Tony amends, not meeting his eyes. SHIELD's implemented strict protocol for their debriefing, which translates to, "for fuck's sake don't let those two get within touching distance." Tony's pretty sure Coulson—who, to give him credit, grasped the whole thing with almost alarming speed—had pulled it off with a little more composure, something like, "Mr. Rogers and Mr. Stark must maintain at least a seven-foot radius of distance between them at all times," but Tony wasn't really paying a whole lot of attention at the time.

"When you get back, Stark, we're having a conversation," Fury says from the video monitor.

"What's there to talk about? People are dead, I touch 'em, they wake up," Tony says. "And hey, you're welcome for the return of the American icon by the way, what do I have to do, gift wrap him or something?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Tony sees Rogers bristle.

"Is this a joke to you?" He demands. "Someone's—"

"Dead, yeah," Tony says. His tongue feels too thick for his mouth, like it's coated in metal. "But hey, it's not you! So, you know. Could be worse."

"God," Rogers says, sounding stunned. Tony isn't actually looking at him, so he can't tell if that's because of what Tony's just said, or because he's too wholesome to take the Lord's name in vain.

 

+ + + + +

 

Howard and Maria Stark died in a car crash when Tony was seventeen years old. That's public knowledge. It's also public knowledge that Tony refused to identify their bodies or attend the funeral, which gave the Stark Industries PR Department a fun-filled introduction to their new boss right out of the gate. He'd refused to leave his room, at first, and when even that felt too close to the front door he'd locked himself in his bathroom, instead. That's not public knowledge, although 'Tony Stark Spends 48 Hours in A Bathtub Eating Ritz Crackers And Getting Absolutely Hammered' would've looked great splashed across the front page of the Post.

Obie had sent various corporate minions to extract him and then, when that hadn't worked, he'd shown up himself to invoke the memory of Tony's parents and how much his father had loved the company and what Tony owed to his family. Tony had finished another bottle by the time he was finished talking. The shock of that little spiel not working had apparently baffled Obie for an entire afternoon, not that Tony was paying too much attention to how long it had been since he'd told someone to fuck off. In the end, though, it had occurred to someone to send Happy. Tony was considering actually opening the door, but as proof that a higher power didn't want him to bother leaving the tub, it turned out that Happy knew how to pick locks.

Happy didn't say a word about newspapers or television cameras or public opinion. What he said was, "You sure? We could still make it."

"I'm sure," Tony said. He was lying, but that was okay. He was drunk in a bathtub anyway.

"Okay," Happy said. He'd been Tony's driver since his first day at M.I.T., hired at his father's insistence. He'd given Tony easy shit about the way he fiddled constantly with the radio dial, and Tony had decided he probably liked him. Score one for the fifteen-year-old genius.

Tony couldn't go to the funeral. He would've been so close, at the funeral. It wasn't a choice he knew how to make.

 

+ + + + +

 

No one expects Tony to have anything to do with Captain America after the great defrosting (which Tony can't help but think about the way he thinks about defrosting old lunch meat in the freezer, if that lunch meat happened to blond, confused, and alarmingly dimpled). Tony only notices the dimples the once, at the same time everybody else notices them. It's an accident produced by the first time someone showed Rogers how to use the TV and he'd caught sight of a baseball game – Rogers doesn't smile much otherwise. He lives on the SHIELD compound where Coulson and the others are running what they call CARP, the Captain America Reintroduction Program, designed to teach Rogers everything he needs to know to function in the twenty-first century. It's based on federally subsidized immigration programs, and from what Tony hears, it's just as effective.

"He's upset, isn't he?" Tony says, dogging Coulson down the hall. Coulson flicks him a barely interested glance, but Tony knows how to look past that bullshit. Tony's got X-Ray vision that tells him exactly when he's annoying people and how to do it some more. "Don't see why he's upset. Not everybody gets, you know, resurrected from the dead."

"The end result isn't the problem, Stark," Coulson says dryly. "But you might want to look at your methods."

"It could have been worse!" Tony objects. "We could have been the X-Men."

Tony is not the bad guy. Tony couldn't have predicted they'd be attacked before the minute was up, stopping him from touching Captain America for the second time. Tony can't see the future, so there's no way they're going to pin any of this on him – and yet he thinks about Captain America... no, Steve Rogers sulking in a cargo hold, and he sighs. Spreads his fingers and wriggles them underneath his leather gloves. "I'll talk to him," he says.

"Funny, how you make that sound exactly like the last thing I'd ever want," Coulson says. "You can't talk to him. One brush of the fingers and you'll kill him."

"I won't brush up against him then," Tony says, offended. "What are you imagining? I'm so overwhelmed with patriotism that I just start humping him?"

"I don't know what you're capable of," Coulson says. He puts on his shades, conversation over. "That's the problem."

"You do realize I fund CARP," Tony calls after him. "Where would you get all your Captain-approved Disney DVDs if not for me!"

 

+ + + + +

 

In the end, his meeting with Captain America is facilitated by the only person he knows with any actual power over SHIELD, the only person he knows with the intelligence and grace and cunning to pull it off: that is, Pepper. It doesn't even involve smuggling him into the facility in a crate, and for that Tony is going to give her a raise.

"I've talked things out with Natasha," she says, handing him the I.D tags and passes. "She talked with Fury. You've got fifteen minutes with him, and you have to wear a full-body suit, including a mask."

"So my tingling lips won't gently caress his?" Tony says.

"So you won't trip and fall and kill a national hero," Pepper informs him. She holds out the suit, the gloves, and the mask, which goes around the bottom half of his face. She's kind to him, Pepper is, because the mask actually looks stylish, and the suit's been freshly pressed and laundered, which is more than he can say for his old touch-proof suits, stuffed inside suitcases for emergencies.

"Yeah, sure," Tony says tiredly. He starts stripping.

When he enters the SHIELD compound, he wanders through chrome-plated hallways guarded by fierce-looking soldiers in black fatigues and machine guns. They look at Tony coolly as he passes by, but they don't stop him, not even when he reaches the lower floor to find Rogers in the gym doing pushups. Sweat rolls from his hair to his shirt, sticking against the outlines of his muscles. It's not like Rogers is being particularly salacious; he's wearing what anybody might wear while working out. But still, when Tony looks at him, he can't help but think: skin.

He curls his fingers inside his gloves. "So I hear you're being a dick," he says out loud, and Rogers grunts.

"I don't know what you mean."

"I mean," Tony says, "you're being a colossal throbbing penis, and not in a life-of-the-party way."

Rogers continues his pushups. "Did they send you to talk to me?"

"No," Tony says. "But they told me you're always asking questions, and I'm the only one who can answer those questions." He moves to a treadmill and sits on it. "So here I am. Ask away."

Rogers stands up. It's an intimidation tactic, him looming over Tony, but damn if it doesn't work. "Is this permanent?" he demands.

"It's permanent until I touch you again," Tony says. "Didn't Coulson tell you that?"

Rogers shoves his hand through his hair. "I need it to hear it from you." He pauses. "So – so if you touch me again, even a little touch, I'll go back to being dead?"

Tony peers at him. "Is that what you want?" If Captain America asked, he'd probably do it, even if it got him court-martialed and hunted by SHIELD assassins for the rest of his life. But Tony's a big boy, and he's learned some responsibility for his powers. What he does isn't between him and SHIELD. It's between him and Cap.

Rogers sounds frustrated, like if someone hung the flag upside down. "Of course I don't want to be dead. Who wants to be dead? But it's just – it doesn't feel natural. Someone had to die for this."

"Yeah, someone who was going to kill you anyway," Tony says.

"It's still a life," Rogers says between gritted teeth. "And it doesn't feel like it's mine. It feels like it's yours."

Tony barks out a startled laugh. Rogers glares.

"I might be filthy rich, but even I don't go around owning lives," Tony says. He watches a bead of sweat work its way down Rogers' square, gee-oh-golly jaw. "Trust me, if you were my puppet, I'd know. And I sure as hell wouldn't have to jump through ten thousand hoops just to talk to you."

Rogers meets his eyes. "I want to learn more. About what you did to me. I want to know more about your powers."

"Then tell Fury," Tony says. "He can arrange all the play-dates you want."

"You're not taking this seriously," Rogers accuses.

Tony stands up from the treadmill. Knees first and then the rest of his body, an upward motion. "It's as serious as life or death," he says, and then he laughs.

 

+ + + + +

 

The general memo when it comes to Tony Stark and Steve Rogers is never let the two of them anywhere near each other, signed on the dotted line and underlined twice. But Rogers is a surprisingly persuasive guy, or at the very least, Tony suspects, capable of throwing an epic sulk, and when SHIELD realizes that Rogers wants to talk to Tony, to know more about him... well, you can only say no for so long to a grown man who can probably tear down the compound walls with his bare hands.

"I shouldn't have to tell you," Fury says during the debriefing, "but apparently, Stark, I have to tell you everything, so here it is, in nice, big letters: don't touch him."

Tony feels like he's taking Fury's daughter to prom. He imagines Rogers decked out in pink lace, and it's both horrifying and amazing at the same time, like back when he thought Pepper was part of a BDSM club.

"I have snipers who aren't afraid to shoot," Fury continues. "He's worth more to me than you are."

"Hey," Tony says, because the millions of dollars he's pouring into Fury's projects isn't exactly newspaper rot.

"Oh, very dashing," he says later when Rogers meets him by the cars. Rogers is wearing a suit with gloves like Tony's, but no mask, because the world is apparently a sad and empty place if no one gets to see Rogers' perfectly chiseled face. Tony winces, and then he waves his hand. "Get in the backseat, sugar. I'll drive."

"Fine," Rogers says. "Where are we driving to?"

"Nowhere," Tony says. "They don't trust me with you yet. I'm just supposed to drive around the neighborhood and point things out to you." He looks up at the sky. "While Coulson follows us around in a helicopter with a rifle. Can I just say – best day of my entire life?"

"Just drive, Stark," Rogers says. "You're not very good at this, are you?" he adds once Tony gets them into traffic.

"Would you believe that they don't have a Super Driving Serum?" Tony retorts. It's a weak response, but Rogers falls silent, which makes Tony feel like he's run over a bushel of kittens.

"I didn't do it for myself," Rogers says. "The serum. It wasn't because I – because I was ashamed."

Tony flexes his fingers over the steering wheel. "I'm not judging."

Rogers snorts. "You're always judging. You're worse than Howard."

"Let's not talk about my father," Tony says, hearing his voice come from far away. He can feel Rogers' eyes on the back of his head, and then he hears Rogers shift around and make a sound of agreement.

"I want to ask, do a lot of people have your powers?" Rogers says. "I hear about mutants and superheroes, and something called the Hulk, but I haven't heard much about your superpowers."

Superpowers. That's the funny thing. As much as Tony's always wanted to be a superhero, as far he's gone with Iron Man, he's never thought of his resurrection powers as anything but a small, quiet voice in the darkness. It's not the same. It's not the same at all. "You're the superhero, Cap, not me," he says, and he feels defeated, compressed into tight spaces where it's hard to breathe.

Rogers is a decent guy, as it turns out. "They've told me about Iron Man. He sounds like a superhero to me. Besides," and Tony can see him shrug in the rear view mirror, "I'm not a hero. I'm a soldier."

This time Tony's laughter is real.

"What?" Rogers asks.

"Do you know how much Captain America merchandise there is out there? They made a movie about you, you know. It was a terrible. Some guy from a boy band played you. But you – you're definitely – " Tony grins. "You're definitely something."

 

+ + + + +

 

It really is like he's dating Captain America. First base is when he's allowed to take Cap off the grounds, but nowhere where they have to interact with the public. Second base is when he's allowed to take Cap into public, but only properly disguised and in spaces where they can be easily monitored from an aerial view, which means they sit a lot in parks and talk. Third base is when he's allowed to take Cap, gasp, inside actual public buildings.

Tony can't even imagine what a home run will be like. Probably when he gently and tenderly takes Captain America's virginity in the middle of Yankee Stadium.

But it's surprisingly nice, becoming Steve's go-to guy. On some basic level it's like Steve's the ladybug that introduced Tony to everything, which is a terrible metaphor but true anyway, because Tony's brought a lot of animals and people back to life since, but he's never really gotten to talk to any of them. What was it like, he asks, and unlike the ladybug Steve responds by saying, Like standing in the middle of a lightning storm and being struck.

There's no way to scientifically quantify that, and for the first time, Tony thinks, I don't want to.

Once SHIELD trusts Tony in enclosed spaces with Steve, they start going to a lot of movies. Movies are a good way to introduce Steve to modern society, even if it's a slightly exaggerated version of modern society with a lot of explosions and improbable cleavage. Tony rents out the entire theater, and then he sits three seats down from Steve, an acceptable distance so that they can eat their popcorn in SHIELD-approved peace. They call out comments to each other as the movie goes on, and Steve Rogers is a surprisingly funny person, especially when Tony tosses popcorn kernels into his hair.

"Stop that," Steve says without feeling, brushing the kernels away.

"You are my senior by a hell of a lot," Tony points out. "It's your job to put up with my immaturity."

"You're supposed to be running a company," Steve says.

Tony thinks of an appropriate response. "Yeah, well, your costume is ugly," he says.

Steve looks mortally offended. "It is not."

"It's bright blue," Tony replies. "You know what's meant to be bright blue in this universe? Absolutely nothing." He narrows his eyes at Steve. "Are they talking about getting you back into it? Being Captain America again?"

"I want to be Captain America," Steve says, and it's a disorienting moment when he seems both old and stupidly young at the same time. Tony can see through a window of time to a vulnerable Steve Rogers full of hope and determination. Tony has the sudden dispossessing urge to touch him, and it's the most dangerous, careless thing he could imagine. He reels back, trying to hide his own fear. Weaknesses are for normal people, he reminds himself. Steve isn't a ladybug after all.

"What have they been saying?" he wants to know.

"They don't tell you?" Steve says.

"Fury hates me with the passion of a thousand subway rodents."

"Nah," Steve says. "Fury thinks you're smart but irresponsible. He doesn't hate you." He looks at Tony through the darkness of the movie theater, neither of them paying attention to the film anymore, only the dust motes that float between them. "Have you heard of the Avengers Initiative?" Steve asks.

 

+ + + + +

 

Tony's good at being Iron Man.

Oh wait, who's he kidding?

Tony is fucking fantastic at being Iron Man. It doesn't come to him as easily as it looks, because when it is ever easy to propel a metal suit into the air and keep it afloat in perfectly stabilized rhythms (yeah, Rhodey, how about that). But it's something Tony can do that no one else can, never mind the bringing-people-back-to-life thing, which is not exactly dinner party material. Saving the world, though? That drives S.I. stocks up, gets Tony to model for action figures, and makes everybody happy. Who hates Iron Man? (Besides villains, reporters, owners of damaged property).

It's even better when he gets to fight alongside Steve. They're becoming friends, or whatever you want to call two men who get together and talk about death a lot, and it's a novel experience, working with friends, fighting with friends. To know that Steve's got his back, and so do the others, even the Hulk, who tears up and down the buildings like a wrathful piece of foliage.

Steve moves in straight lines, which should make him easy to target, but it doesn't. Steve wears bright blue, red, and white, which should make him a sitting duck, but Steve is surprisingly clever and fierce in a fight, and he moves so fast that even Iron Man has trouble keeping up with him. Steve can fight, and fight, and fight, and never get tired, even when Tony's sweating inside a metal suit – and when he’s wearing it he can touch Steve without ever worrying about it, slapping him on the back in congratulations after a good melee.

He shouldn't get into the habit, he knows. Just because it's safe to pal around with Steve when he's in the Iron Man armor doesn't mean he should, because he'll forget himself one day when he's out of the armor. He'll go and punch Steve on the shoulder, and then it won't be smiles-all-around, drinks-later-yeah. It'll be Steve flat out on the ground, pale and waxy, and Tony sucks in a sharp breath just thinking about it. Tony has a great imagination; his only curse.

So sometimes he'll jostle around with Steve after a fight, huddling in with the other Avengers while Clint does his fast-talk and Natasha checks her voicemail. And then sometimes he won't join them, not even when Thor calls his name, and Tony knows that he blows hot and cold, but Steve's got to understand.

Nothing out there can kill him the way Tony can.

 

+ + + + +

 

Tony lets the rest of the Avengers move into his mansion, even if it means he's got to move out. "Why?" Clint asks, which prompts Tony into confessing the entire situation, not that Clint couldn't have guessed there was already something weird between Tony and Steve, something that necessitated a lot of gloves and three-feet-apart. The fact is, if Tony lives with the rest of them, that increases the possibility of him accidentally brushing against Steve. There are too many opportunities: passing by each other sleepily at night, reaching for jam in the morning. Tony can't always be vigilant, especially in his own house, so he has to move out.

It puts a divide between him and the rest of the Avengers. Which is fine, he thinks, because he was never going to be part of their club anyway. No one wants Tony Stark unless you want wanton destruction and lewd behavior, and Steve Rogers doesn't want that when he's out with his new friends. And Tony doesn't join them because if he does, that means Steve's got to put on the suit and the gloves and be careful, and hey, there goes the fun out of Fun Night.

"Do you not like us?" Thor asks one day, frowning with his entire face.

"I like you fine, big guy," Tony says. "I like you so much I don't want you to be accessory to manslaughter."

"Slaughter?" Thor repeats. "But I was only proposing we partake of more mead tonight in that delightful establishment Clint has introduced to us."

"It's like–" Tony tries to think of the best way to put it. "It's like having sex with a girl without protection. It's all fun and games, and then suddenly, oops! Mistake! Except in this case, it's me and Steve and oops, the baby of doom."

"I'm afraid I do not understand," Thor admits. "You plan to procreate with Captain Rogers in an unpleasant fashion?"

"Never mind," Tony says. "Go enjoy your beer."

In the morning he enters the mansion to find the rest of the Avengers in varying states of drunkenness, Clint sprawled on top of Natasha who has her head buried in Bruce's shoulder. Thor is out like a broken clock, snoring loudly from underneath the kitchen table. Steve's the only one who's sober, and he's sitting calmly on the couch, reading the newspaper with a cup of black coffee. He smiles when he sees Tony. "Hey," he says.

Tony holds up his gloved hand in hello. "Team meeting canceled for this morning?"

Steve casts a rueful glance around the room. "Probably." He prods Clint with his foot.

"No more giant strawberries..." Clint moans. "Pillsbury Dough Boy better."

Steve laughs. It's some in-joke that Tony doesn't understand, but he watches the flush on Steve's cheekbones anyway, the leonine muscles in his throat. I don't care, Tony tells himself, but his eyes don't seem to have gotten that message yet. They move to Steve like orbital impulses, like magnets.

 

+ + + + +

 

It doesn't mean they don't hang out. Maybe Tony's getting too melodramatic about this, too Shakespearean with his thoughts. Because he still spends time with Steve, away from the rest of the team. On Mondays and Thursdays he sneaks away from Pepper's mandated schedule to take the Iron Man armor out for a spin at night, soaring over the city, testing his new calibrations and thinking of ways to improve speed and thrust power. It just so happens that his trips take over the Avengers Mansion, where he usually finds Steve lying on the rooftop, hands behind his head.

"Hey soldier," Tony says, landing.

Steve scrambles up from his elbows like he's been caught doing something naughty. Tony laughs, and Steve looks equal parts annoyed and embarrassed. Then he laughs too. "Hi Tony," he says. "What are you doing here?"

"It's my house," Tony points out.

"Yeah, but I don't actually see you in it," Steve replies. Tony starts dissembling the armor using the controls he's built inside. He makes sure to stay a safe distance away from Steve. Luckily enough, mansion means the roof is large enough for the two of them, their issues, and their egos. "I was looking at the stars," Steve says suddenly, and Tony jerks his head up in surprise.

Tony isn't a romantic, but he's dated enough romantics to sort of know where this is going. "The stars are great," he says. "Big fiery balls of gas. They go boom. Who doesn't love that?" His mother once taught him constellations, but he doesn't remember any of it; some days he has trouble remembering the color of her eyes or the way her perfume smelled. In comparison a few stars seem like nothing.

"Clint tells me we put a man on the moon," Steve says.

"Ah," Tony says. He sprawls out on his section of the roof. "We've done more than that. We've shot tons of men into space, and women. We've shot probes too. You know about Voyager 1?" Steve shakes his head, and Tony spreads his fingers out in a frame, like he's looking at the stars through the clasp of his fingers. "It's been floating out there for thirty-four years, exploring and sending data back. It's the farthest man-made object from Earth. It's going to be the first probe to leave the Solar System, you know. In 40,000 years, it'll pass by Camelopardalis, which is that constellation right there." He points at a faint speckle in the northern sky.

"40,000 years." Steve whistles. "I don't know if any of us will still be around then."

"Don't underestimate yourself," Tony says. "You seem to be good at weathering the times."

"Well," Steve says dryly, "not all of us have friends who can bring the dead back to life. And in 40,000 years, you won't be around either."

"Excuse me?" Tony asks in mock anger. "I'm a brilliant, dazzling engineer. I plan to build a machine that will let me live forever."

Steve shakes his head. "No such thing."

"Who made you the scientist, Cap?"

"I don't want there to be such a thing, not unless everybody can use it. It just doesn't seem fair," Steve says, "that some people can live and some people have to die." He rolls over to meet Tony's eyes, and it’s such a naïve statement but it moves Tony anyway. Or maybe that’s the moonlight making precise angles over his cheekbones, the rueful twist of his mouth. It's just distance, Tony thinks. Even unfathomable distance – but that's the difference between Tony and space, because there are some distances that you can collapse and collapse, but you can never quite cross.

 

+ + + + +

 

So, some days Tony's life is test runs in the suit and signing off on the marketing budget and determinedly not seeing the curve of Steve's smile against his closed eyelids, and some days it's getting a call at 1:04 on a Saturday afternoon which amounts to: hey, some guy's wandering around Manhattan turning people into stone. Assemble, suckers!

"Okay, seriously?" Tony demands as he zips down 36th following the trail of eerie not-really-sculptures. "Is this—I mean this is just nuts, what are we, living in an episode of Doctor Who or something?"

"…What?" Steve asks over the comm, and Tony is all set to start bemoaning his own lapse as pop culture guru and 21st century superhero shepherd, except that Steve says, "Never mind, explain later. Hawkeye, do you have eyes on this guy?"

"I lost him going through the market. Fucking canopies," Clint growls, clearly taking his own lack of X-Ray vision as a slight from the universe. Steve, who had surprised everyone at the start with his indifference to cursing ('I was in the army,' he'd said, amused, when Tony had asked if they were offending his delicate sensibilities), says, "Keep us apprised."

"It doesn't seem to be permanent," Bruce says as Tony banks around the corner and has to climb sharply to avoid the street market that had personally insulted Clint, Clint's mother, and Clint's dog. "We've got a few people waking up here, and so far I'm not observing any lasting symptoms."

"So what you're telling me here is that nobody has to build a creepy new sculpture garden in downtown New York," Tony says, swallowing around the relief in his throat as he glances down at the granite figures blurring by below. "Good to know."

"That's what I'm telling you," Bruce agrees mildly. It's kind of a novelty to hear Bruce mild on a mission, but they'd all agreed that a medical doctor was probably needed more than a Not-So-Jolly Green Giant in this particular case so he's working his Dr. Banner schtick back at SHIELD while the rest of them—

"Shit, Cap, hold up," Clint says and Tony absolutely does not startle and propel himself into the corner of a building. It isn't even all that close.

"Urk," Steve says, and Tony is seriously not panicking here but if somebody could maybe tell him what's going on right the fuck now that would be good.

"We've got statue Steve," Clint says grimly, which is when Tony realizes he probably said that stuff out loud.

"Oh," Tony says. "Well okay. I mean, it's not permanent, right, so—"

"Take your next left. Fifth floor of the parking garage on the corner," Clint snaps. "Someone's trying to pull some next level art collector bullshit."

"Let's see this thing move, JARVIS," Tony says.

"87% power to thrusters, sir," JARVIS replies, and Tony takes the last corner like somebody's Nascar nightmare, arriving just in time to barrel into the parking garage and play ten-pin bowling with a lot of determined looking guys toting guns.

 

+ + + + +

 

As great as 'not permanent' sounds, as great as 'not permanent' is, the sight of Steve standing in the SHIELD observation room, frozen and gray, spreads through Tony like tendrils of stone. He idly entertains the notion that he's going to turn to granite in sympathy. Like Steve's pregnant but Tony's ankles are swelling, except either more or less weird, Tony isn't sure.

"Safe distance, Stark," Coulson says. "Better safe than sorry."

"I know that, what am I, an amateur? I was bringing garden-variety mammals back to life while you were in diapers," Tony says, which based on their relative ages may not actually be true, but whatever.

He doesn't want to touch Steve now, anyway, he thinks, flexing his fingers against the metal of his suit. A Steve missing the color in his cheeks, the easy, wry twist of his mouth, isn't Steve at all. Instead he picks up the shield, smoothes his fingers carefully over the red, white, and blue, imagines he can still catch a smear of residual warmth just at the curve.

"Okay, so I'm just gonna—" he says to no one in particular and wanders off to talk to Bruce about semi-organic compounds and transformed tissue and biochemistry because hey, science time. Awesome.

 

+ + + + +

 

Briefly being turned into stone doesn’t seem to have affected Steve much, and Tony has definitely been paying attention. He breathes in relief when Steve shows signs of all his old habits, no mental damage, including his ongoing interest in space exploration. Tony takes him to the main branch of the New York Public Library. It's a perfect combination of old and new because the branch was around in the 40s when Steve was a kid in the city, so it’s familiar, but Steve never went to the library much, so he looks around the Rose Main Reading Room with a brand of skeptical awe.

"There are probably more books here than there are stars," he says. Tony has no idea why that impresses him when the internet doesn’t, but who really understands what’s inside Steve’s brain? Tony sure doesn’t.

He helps Steve get a library card, and then a young librarian in a pinstripe blouse shows them how to use the online catalogue and navigate the building. At first she stares, because both Tony and Steve are all wrapped up in gloves and long-sleeved shirts, despite the balmy weather. They look like Amish bank robbers, frankly. Then she stares at Tony, because hello? Tony Stark. Cue the paparazzi. But then she starts gazing at Steve, which is pretty much the trajectory that everything should take, because no one would ever pick Tony over Steve. Steve's a sight, he is, big shoulders hunched over a pile of books in the reading room, bright blue eyes scanning the shelves as he pulls down volumes on space and history and art design.

"I could buy you all of these books," Tony says. "They'd be in better condition too."

"No," Steve says. "That's not the point."

"There's a point?"

"Shut up, Tony," Steve says tenderly, and Tony's heart makes two quick leaps in his chest. This is either an arc reactor failure, a heart attack brought on by too many greasy fries, or worse.

He leaves Steve in the reading room, because it's no fun to stay with him. Tony would have to sit a few tables away, and then he would have to be quiet and read and stay still. Instead he goes to handle some S.I. business, answering Pepper's calls on his way down the library steps. When he returns in the evening, the books around Steve have multiplied like lemmings, and Steve is chatting with the young librarian who helped them earlier, asking her about physics and metallurgy, which, hello, he could have learned from Tony, so what is up with that?

Tony brings it up as Steve hugs a teetering pile of books down to the car. "Oh please," Steve says. "I could ask you, sure, but you're not around all the time. You're a busy guy. I don't want to bother you."

I could be around more, if you wanted, Tony thinks, but he doesn't know how to say that without sounding weird and desperate, and also like a stalker. Steve has his fair share of stalkers already, mostly nubile young women who like to take off their clothes. Tony enjoys wanton exhibition as much as anybody, but with Steve, it's just not an option. Skin is bad. Skin is death. Tony's just going to have to save his perfect pectorals for someone else.

 

+ + + + +

 

Tony realizes just after he races out the door one morning (but just before he's put together the words to demand a Starbucks run) that he's left his personal copy of the latest Stark Search (modified from the Cap Finder; a few changes have made it the latest and greatest for locating survivors in the aftermath of natural disasters and Tony is one part genuinely pleased and two parts pissed he didn't think of it sooner) in the lab at the mansion.

"When possible, make a U-turn," he tells Happy in his best GPS voice. "We've gotta swing by the old homestead."

When Tony arrives it's to find the team in a sort of fugue state. They've all got a debriefing at SHIELD later this morning (Tony's bet is on 'scolding for those purple goo beings they exploded all over Chelsea,' but there's always a chance it's going to be 'commendation for not letting those velociraptor robots kill any civilians'; in other news, their lives are still weird) which means almost everyone's awake, but as Tony himself can easily attest, there's a not-so-fine line between 'awake' and 'functioning.'

"Morning," Steve calls when Tony enters the kitchen, distracted from his original purpose by the knowledge that an espresso machine awaits.

"Morning," Tony says, moving automatically to put the island between them. He knows he has to, just like he knows Steve's greeting wasn't all friendly I-am-morning-person-hear-me-roar cheer. Steve wanted Tony to know where he was, and now Tony does, so the whole hands-where-I-can-see-'em (and away from the American icon) thing can commence. "Sleep well?"

"Mm," Steve hums into his own mug. "Pretty well—Thor kept us up late watching reruns of something called 'I Love the 90s?' Which was…informative."

"Oh man, I bet," Tony says, grinning. "Sorry I missed it."

He ignores the part where he is, in fact, actually sorry to have missed it, because it's not like he hasn't been invited to sit at the cool kids table. It's just that if he did, he might accidentally kill the quarterback while trying to swap his pudding for Steve's chocolate cake. Or something. His metaphors are a little confused before he's had his first caffeine fix of the day. Anyway, he is the cool kids. So there.

"I'm sorry, too," Steve says, and before he can start apologizing for anything (besides being so eminently touchable which, let’s face it, is what's at issue here), Tony jumps in to say, "I bet I could finance an 'I Love the 40s.' Hell, you could be the star interviewee. Oh man, that'd be great—and let's not kid ourselves, the great American public would eat it up, you're like baseball and apple pie and linoleum diner counters all rolled into one. They can't get enough."

"Uh. Thank you?" Steve tries.

"What would you talk about?" Tony muses. "You could complain about the Dodgers moving to LA, you'd dig the chance to do that on camera, you are downright crotchety about that—what else?"

"I don't know," Steve says, peering at Tony like he's torn between 'wary' and 'intrigued.' Tony gets that a lot. Except with Steve, the 'wary' tends to be Steve teasing him. It had taken Tony a while to figure that out, to figure out that in spite of the fact that Tony is probably the single person on earth with the best chance of killing the guy, Steve isn't actually nervous around him anymore. "How much better everything was in my day, probably. How I walked uphill to school both ways in the snow and liked it."

Tony grins, but he's also suddenly, achingly curious.

"Come on, spill. You can just gimme the cliff notes, I won't even complain, but you totally owe me. I mean, did I or did I not spend half an hour yesterday explaining 'Keeping Up The Kardashians?' With visual aids?" Tony demands.

"I'm not sure that was doing me a favor," Steve says, looking rueful. Tony grins, unashamed.

"You're never going to understand Clint's references without embracing the wide, wonderful world of reality television," he says.

"That might be okay," Steve decides, but Tony knows the truth—he's caught Steve going all damp-eyed and pearl clutch-y over the Amazing Race more than once. Three times, to be precise. Not that he's keeping track or anything.

"Seriously though, tell me all about your archaic childhood, old man, I yearn to know," Tony says.

"You yearn to make me feel ancient, you mean," Steve says, laughing now, and for some reason seeing Steve's face open up like that reminds Tony that it's possible he's actually being a complete dick right now. (It shouldn't even be possible for Steve to be like that, because even during the emotional equivalent of idling at a traffic light Steve has possibly the most open face in the entire world, like when they engineered his ridiculous abs they threw a little archetypal Boy Scout at his cheekbones just to see what would stick).

"But hey, we don't have to talk about it if you don't want to," he blurts, thinking about all the stuff he'd want to avoid revisiting if he'd been around for World War II. Hell, there's plenty of stuff Tony would rather not chat about and that's not even counting his life PBAS (Post-Badass Suit). "I mean you know me, I can shut up any time—well, actually, that's not strictly speaking true, or it is true but I don't always demonstrate it. But I totally can, or I can just yank this conversation off in a totally different direction, I'm really good at that—"

"It's not all different, now," Steve interrupts, laughter still lingering at the corners of his mouth. "It's definitely not all bad. It's—I don't know. People always think it must be so much noisier, so much busier, and sometimes it is but sometimes it's just—a different kind of noise."

"Different kind of busy, too?" Tony asks, watching Steve's face because it kind of turns out that he can't not.

"I don't know about that," Steve says. "People still want power, and power still warps people, if they let it. But like I said, it's not all bad. Power's not all bad, and there are still good people, too."

He's looking at Tony when he says it, all blue, earnest eyes, and it seems an awful lot like Captain America might be about to declare him a good person (like Steve might be about to declare him a good person), which is a little much to deal with before he's had his first cup of coffee.

"Move to your left?" he asks. Steve shifts automatically toward the door, and Tony shuffles into the space he vacated, reaching for the espresso machine. The counter's still warm where Steve was leaning against it, which is a weird thing to notice and which definitely does not result in Tony pressing his palms to the granite while he waits for his coffee to brew.

"Baseball games, those are different," Steve says.

"Oh yeah? How?" Tony asks, staring at the chipped, 'I ♥ New York' mug Pepper had gotten him as a cruel, cruel birthday joke like it's the one about to speak.

"I don't have to sneak into them anymore, for one thing," Steve says, and okay, this Tony has to hear.

"I'm listening," he says, turning so that he can sip his coffee with his back against the counter, Steve facing him from the other side of the sink. "Tell me all about your criminal past, Rogers, and maybe I won't rat you out to the feds."

Which is how Tony ends up blowing off an R&D meeting to listen to Steve talk about how he hates peanuts but he ate them at ball games anyhow, because that was just what you did, about how the bleacher seats were their own kingdom ruled by old men in patched trousers who smoked the air cloudy and worshipped the sacrifice bunt. Steve talks with his hands to explain the double play and Tony retreats just a little further into himself, just in case. Not enough for Steve to notice, he hopes. He really, really doesn't want Steve to notice.

 

+ + + + +

 

The first time Tony ever thinks about kissing Steve Rogers, Steve's hair is matted in blood and there's a gash on his forehead that's turning purple underneath the dim warehouse light. It was a trap that lured them here, just the two of them, no other Avengers in sight. It's a trap that's keeping them here, fighting off the dozens of armed men with guns. The bullets ricochet off Iron Man while Steve ducks and tumbles, dodging behind crates of old machinery. The sound of it goes rat-a-tat, like fireworks, and then a bullet punches through Steve's knee.

Steve goes down. His head smashes the edge of a crate with shoddy nails, and the sound Steve makes freezes Tony's bones.

Captain America isn't invincible. Tony of all people should know that when Tony could kill Captain America with an accidental pinky swear. But Tony has always thought, been fiercely optimistic enough to think, that if they're careful, if they stay their distance, if they wear gloves and long sleeves and never touch, then Steve's as close to invincible as anybody.

The truth peels apart only when he sees Steve on his knees, dazed with blood caught in his eyes.

Tony doesn't quite know what happens next. He loses precision but he gains anger, and he feels like the Hulk for a moment, fury and temper and rage. He shoots the last few attackers, dropping them to the floor like sacks of flour.

"Steve," he says, whipping around.

Steve's standing up shakily. "I'm fine," he says, touching his forehead. "The Serum will heal me. It's okay." He shakes his head, trying to gather his thoughts. Tony wonders if he has a concussion. Steve licks his dry lips in response, and Tony has the most inappropriate reaction ever, but he can stop it as much as he can stop the rain in the spring. Steve's mouth, smeared in blood from where he's bitten it, a sharp violent blossom against his pale skin – and Tony stares. He wonders what he would taste like, just now. Like something alive, he imagines.

He wants to go over and bandage Steve up, but the armor's fingers are too clumsy for detail work, and he can't take the armor off. So he doesn't help, and Steve doesn't ask him to.

 

+ + + + +

 

There are two more attacks during the next month, each calculated to separate Steve from the rest of the Avengers and ambush him. "They want you bad, huh?" Tony says during the next team meeting, looking down at the map Fury has spread over the table. "What'd you do, arrest them for littering?"

"I have never seen them before in my entire life," Steve says, frowning.

"Technically incorrect," Fury says, pressing a palm down on the table. He demands their attention with his very presence. Neat party trick, that. "You've come across them before, Captain. When you came back to life. You might even say that aside from Mr. Stark here, they're responsible for that happy circumstance."

Steve's eyes narrow. "You mean they're the –"

"Yes," Fury says. "The People's Liberation and Emancipation Army. PLEA, as they're known. They're homegrown terrorists from Massachusetts, and they have their eye on you."

"Why?" Steve asks.

"Christ, your modesty," Tony interrupts. "Why does anybody want you? Aside from the obvious charms." He remembers the man who'd stopped him from putting Steve back to death, the man who'd dropped dead himself. "They want to reverse engineer the Serum," he says, because he's done his research, he's not stupid, actually he's fucking brilliant and he can hack, which everybody seems to forget. "They want to reverse engineer the Serum and make an entire army of obedient Steve Rogers. Only eviller and not as fond of kittens."

Steve seems to think about that for a while. "Okay," he finally says.

"You're awfully calm about this," Natasha says.

"They wouldn't be the first to have that goal," Steve says, jaw hardening. "They wouldn't be the first to fail."

"Ooh, thems fighting words," Tony says.

"If they want a fight, I'll give it to them," Steve replies, which is good because one comes crashing from the ceiling just then, ending the meeting prematurely. "Avengers Assemble!" Steve shouts.

"What the hell are you talking about, we're already all here!" Tony complains.

 

+ + + + +

 

"I've noticed something," Steve says. "Every time PLEA tries to attack me, they're trying to lure me somewhere. I don't know where, but it seems like they've got an actual destination in mind."

Tony grins. "Give me data. Give me loads of data. I love data."

They start keeping track of the locations of the ambushes, and Tony writes a program via JARVIS that maps all the trajectories and coordinates into a single algorithm that eventually isolates a pocket of farmland in southern Massachusetts. "Why would they want you here?" Tony wonders. "Is this like, a Children of the Corn thing? Because you're so corn-fed?"

"I grew up in the city," Steve reminds him.

"With the way your fans talk about you, I'm not sure you didn't grow up on the moon," Tony says. "Or at the very least, a bright fluffy castle with unicorns and pink princesses. The public thinks you're magic."

"Obviously," Steve says, "I'm not." He looks like he wants to lean over Tony's shoulder to look at the map some more, but that's not an option. Tony very generously scoots aside so Steve can come forward. They're wearing their suits and gloves, but when Tony feels the softness of Steve's breath against his neck, he moves aside even further for safety.

Coulson dispatches a team to investigate the field in Massachusetts. Tony springs out at him when he returns. "Jesus Christ, Stark!" Coulson says, but then he slides back behind his unruffled expression.

"Well?" Tony says.

"It's a crop field, all right," Coulson says. "With a shack right in the middle. We couldn't get in."

Tony scoffs. "What do you mean, you couldn't get in? Need to work out at the gym some more?"

"I mean," Coulson says flatly, "none of our weapons could break down the door. It was sealed too tight to be natural. We ran tests and found Asgardian particle waves in the vicinity. We've already contacted Jane Foster."

Watching Thor and Jane Foster suck face isn't exactly too high on Tony's list of priorities, but it's a necessary evil, like leading a spitting camel to water. Also it's great because it makes Steve all embarrassed. "We should give them some privacy," Steve says, clearing his throat, while Tony raises his eyebrows.

"They're making out in the middle of a SHIELD lab," he says. "What do you want me to do, hold up a blanket around them?"

Steve mutters something under his breath. It sounds like a mumbled combination of physical affection and true love and Tony's pretty sure he hears inconceivable in the mix too, but that might just be because he lent Steve his Princess Bride DVD the other day. "Don't be a prude," Tony says brightly.

"I'm not a prude," Steve announces. "I would kiss someone right in public. If the situation called for it."

"CPR doesn't count," Tony squints.

"I wasn't talking about CPR," Steve says glumly.

"Well then, you should get on it," Tony says. He waves a gloved hand. "You know the press already has a price on any photo of you in a compromising situation. Half the country is convinced you're secretly screwing another Avenger senseless. The other half thinks you're saving yourself for America. You should put them out of their misery."

Steve looks miserable. This only increases Tony's desire to make fun of him.

"Did you hear? In Utah, Mormon girls are wearing Captain America promise rings—"

"I need to go check on something," Steve says quickly. "Right over there. Bye." He hurries away.

Jane finally breaks away from Thor long enough to wander over. Her cheeks are flushed and her lips are moist. She looks radiantly happy. "I've been to Massachusetts, I've run my own tests," she says. "I think I know what that shack is and why PLEA wants to use it. Thor helped me put the pieces together." She squeezes his hand, and Thor beams like he's been handed a suckling pig all for himself. "It's a Null Room," Jane continues.

"Never heard of it," Tony says.

"It doesn't show up in too many records," she says. "But uh yeah, a long time ago, some of Thor's ancestors crossed the Bifrost to Midgard. They settled in North America and actually set up a functioning society for a few decades, right around the same time as the Pilgrims. Historians have found remains of their homesteads all around New England; my anthro friend Samhita says their technology is actually responsible for the Roanoke – but never mind that,” she says quickly. “Unlike the Pilgrims, the Asgardian settlers eventually got homesick and went back. While they were here, though, they built a Null Room. Which is basically a detention centre of sorts, like the kind they use in Asgard. A Null Room cancels out any superpowers. It was built to hold sorcerers like Loki."

"Does it work?" Tony asks, an engineer's favorite question.

"It works too well," Thor says. "My people do not use Null Rooms as often they used to, for we discovered that criminals held in detention long enough not only lose their powers while inside – given enough time in the Null Room, they will lose them permanently. The powers do not return."

Jane pokes Tony in the shoulder. "Are you okay? Your eyes are getting sort of glassy."

Tony shakes himself into alertness. "I was just thinking," he says. He looks at Steve, who is fiddling with some controls on the other side of the room, faking competence when everybody knows Steve has no idea what to do in a twenty-first century lab. Then he looks up at Thor and Jane. "Tell me more," Tony says.

 

+ + + + +

 

The thing is—well, okay, 'the' thing is a lot of things, but the operative thing is that Tony's good, Tony's very good, but he's not necessarily 'hack Asgard' levels of good. Yet. So if he's going to get inside that shack—and he really, really is—he's going to need somebody else to open it for him.

Option number one is pretty obviously Thor, and it turns out option number one totally has his back. Tony is pleasantly surprised. He corners their resident lightning rod in an empty SHIELD office and explains things as best he can without confessing to the sheer variety of things he's dying to do to a naked Steve Rogers (when Thor talks about sex it tends to involve phrases like 'glorious twining struggle' and Tony has to be at least a little drunk to properly appreciate that).

"I am a god," he says, which seems like a 'thank you, Captain Obvious' moment, except that Thor tends to think it's so obvious it doesn't actually need stating. "But even I could not rest easily knowing I had the power of life and death over a friend."

"I—yeah," Tony says, because he never really knows what to do with a Thor who can be described as anything near 'subdued.' "Thanks, buddy."

"Certainly!" Thor says, and claps him on the back hard enough that Tony's pretty sure he hears a sonic wave crash.

 

+ + + + +

 

It's not hard to convince SHIELD that rounding up a Cap-targeting terrorist group is a good plan, which is why three days later the Avengers are storming a barn in Massachusetts.

"We have got to stop meeting like this," Tony simpers at the man currently holding a gun to his head. The most offensive part of the whole thing is that this guy seems to think he's going to be able to do any damage. Tony picks him up by his shirt collar and throws him more-or-less gently into the nearest wall. "Honestly, this is a little insulting. Don't these guys know who we are? We should really have a dedicated PR person, actually, I think the hair Coulson's got left is turning gray."

"Focus, Stark," Natasha says from behind him.

"I'm all about the focus," Tony agrees, aiming one of his lasers at the floor of the hayloft. He cuts it neatly away from the wall and a heap of PLEA members fall, cursing and scrabbling, into the waiting heap of hay.

"Lay down your weapons, puny miscreants!" Thor tells them cheerfully enough, swinging Mjolnir with intent. A sort of mini hay tornado is developing, which is promising.

There's a grunt and a series of thuds, and when Tony turns Natasha is standing in the middle of a circle of the burly, unconscious, and disarmed.

"This thing were you insist you don't have superpowers is getting old," he tells her.

"This thing were you imply I need superpowers to down people with my pinky finger is getting old," she says and then, into her earpiece. "A couple of them rabbited, back door. Who's on it?"

"Me," Tony says. These guys may just be, well, guys, (no powers, no genetically enhanced anything, no rambling super villain monologues), but they're still the guys that shot Steve, and Tony's stomach still twists in on itself just thinking the words 'Steve' and 'shot' in the same sentence, not that that's something anyone needs to know, ever.

One minute and twenty-six seconds later (JARVIS keeps a battle clock running at all times, okay, Tony really does love his data) Tony has remembered the worst part of Iron Man fighting guys who are just guys: you can't actually throw them through walls and/or trees. Or, you could, but if you did you could probably expect broken necks and crippling guilt and lawsuits, and Tony hates all of those things individually—he's definitely not up to dealing with them in any kind of combination. And this seems to be something the still-conscious members of PLEA have noticed, because they have him surrounded in the field behind the barn, grabbing and tearing at (well, trying to tear at) the armor and actually hanging off of his various limbs like he's, what, some kind of cuddly human jungle gym? Which, hey, is not something he objects to in general, but in this specific situation that's going to have to be a pretty firm no.

"Alright guys, playtime's over," he says as one of them scrabbles at his helmet, trying to lift the visor— one of them who's missing a tooth, Tony notes in the part of his brain not calculating risk, reward, and repulsor strength; apparently homegrown terrorists don't have the time to make those biannual dentist appointments.

"Yeah it is," another of them snarls, sounding like he's really proud of his villainously witty repartee. Tony sighs.

"Really?" he says and then, for the comm channel, "Hey, so, anybody want to do some non-lethal assembling out here behind the barn? I could use somebody to, I don't know, pry these guys off of me with a crowbar, maybe. A non-lethal crowbar, obviously, I already mentioned that, Coulson, so you don't have to remind us about injuring the non-powered. In fact, make that a fluffy crowbar—"

He's squeezing the helmet-scrabbling hand in one iron fist as he speaks, and sure, not necessarily fluffy, but definitely non-lethal! Yay, superhero-ing.

"On our way," Steve says in his ear, sounding like he might be fighting back a smile, and then someone shoves, hard, at the small of Tony's back and someone else slams into his side in a way that, honestly, is going to hurt them more than him because come on, encased in metal over here, but then he shifts to remove Mr. All I Want For Christmas Is (One Of) My Two Front Teeth from his torso and—

And he's stumbling across the threshold of what looks more or less like somebody's halfheartedly renovated outhouse.

"Let's see how long you hold up in here, Stark," one of them sneers, and then the door's slamming shut in Tony's face.

"Er. Oh no?" Tony tries.

Obviously the immediate concern is that the Null Room's going to mess with the arc reactor, somehow, but Tony has JARVIS run every diagnostic he can think of, and then every diagnostic JARVIS can think of, and everything's holding steady. Which actually wouldn't be a bad line of advertising—Stark tech: Not even alien gods can fuck with it.

"Tony?" Steve demands on the comm which, hey, is also still working. That would be great advertising for SHIELD tech if SHIELD tech wasn't more or less all Stark tech, these days. Tony can hear the sound of bodies hitting the ground, accompanied by the occasional grunt. It seems safe to say shit just got Avenged.

"Little late, guys," Tony says, ignoring the way he's a maybe kind of lightheaded. He has a terrible suspicion he can't actually blame the (glorified, Asgardian) shed for that, anyway. He has a terrible suspicion that that might be emotions.

"Are you alright, friend—ah," Thor says, and it's kind of hilarious how Tony can hear the exact moment when Thor realizes Tony is right where he wants to be. His tone goes from a heartfelt I-will-crush-all-of-our-enemies-and-then-probably-crush-you-on-accident-during-celebratory-hugging to a heartfelt ah!-just-the-hugging-then. Thor is, all things considered, a little bit great.

"You're in the shed?" Natasha clarifies, because Natasha is a terrifying international super spy and she places a pretty high premium on confirmed intelligence.

"I'm in the shed," Tony says.

"The Null Room," Thor corrects, his boom maybe a tiny bit petulant.

"The magic shed," Clint amends.

"The magic shed," Tony says.

"We're going to get you out of there," Steve says. Tony can picture him, all star-spangled determination. Worryingly, he kind of finds it adorable. That's probably going to be an issue, one way or another.

"No thanks, think I'm doing pretty good," he says. "I'll grant you it tends toward the shabby side of shabby chic, it could maybe use a mini-bar, but I've definitely seen worse."

There's a long silence during which Tony would really like to picture the look on Steve's face and really can't. He has zero frame of reference for this. Might as well admit it.

"You want to…stay," Steve says, sounding like he's testing every word before he lets it out into the air.

"Yep," Tony says, as blasé as he can manage which, as a general rule, is pretty blasé.

"Tony, have you thought about this?" Steve asks. There's an upward lilt in his voice that Tony decides he's going to ascribe to hope instead of question intonation, because fuck it, what's self-delusion good for if not this?

"Yes," he says, all set to fake the conviction except it turns out he doesn't really need to. "Sure, very sure, so very sure. I honestly can't think of anything I'm more sure of at the moment. Why, do you not want me to do this? Because I feel like that would be a little insulting, let's be honest, and I know you're not alone out there so you could at least try to preserve my dignity—"

"Alright," Steve says very quietly. Tony shuts up, unexpectedly grateful.

"Alright," he says. "So I'm just gonna…stay. Here. For a while."

"So am I," Steve says, which is such a Steve thing to say that Tony has to breathe around the words where they've lodged, warm and insistent, in his chest.

"Cool," he says weakly, and listens to the sound of Steve settling down on the other side of the door. He's probably doing the whole Super Soldier Crouch (a crouch which definitely deserves the capitals just for the things it does to his ass, which is not something Tony is allowed to think about, except that maybe it is, which is in itself a bad thing to think about because Tony has to hang out in a shed for the foreseeable future and anyway, being allowed to touch isn't the same as being allowed to touch, and hey, maybe the next thing he invents with his gigantic genius brain should be a way to turn his gigantic genius brain off, that might be good), and Tony feels stupidly safe, even though honestly being locked in a magic Asgardian Null Shed even without Captain America outside is probably pretty damn safe, for Tony anyway.

"Hey, Thor?" Tony asks after a moment's silence. He hears Steve shift, like he's ready to pull some kind of human battering ram act if Tony decides he's not on board with losing his Frankenstein gig after all. "How long do I have to stay in here, exactly?"

"Hmm," Thor says. He can't actually boom that, but even thoughtful he sounds like somebody's cranked up the bass.

"…So, essentially, we don't know?" Bruce asks.

"Hey Bruce!" Tony says. Bruce had once again been left behind just a little, this time because it was mutually understood that unleashing the Hulk on anyone who didn't have death ray eyes and/or fire breath was just asking for the aforementioned broken necks, crippling guilt, and lawsuits. It makes sense, but Tony still hates leaving Bruce out of pretty much anything because it's kind of clear Bruce is used to being left out of pretty much everything. "Old buddy, old pal. Just checking: your IQ is still insanely high, yes?"

"Yes," Bruce says, sounding amused.

"Cool," Tony says. "Let's figure out how long it takes the magic shed to work its magic, huh?"

Somebody gets Dr. Foster on the phone, and then Dr. Selvig for good measure, and Bruce takes a lot of external readings and compares them to Tony's internal readings, all while Thor chatters away, telling stories about Null Rooms and great heroes and quests across the realms. It's actually not a bad way to spend an afternoon, not that Tony plans on volunteering that observation any time soon. Just because he's part of a team (and he is, he has the security clearance to prove it) doesn't mean he wants to hold hands around the campfire and sing songs about friendship and rainbows. Tony is just assuming that at least one of them knows songs about friendship and rainbows. His money's on Steve, but Bruce might be a sneakily close second.

In the end, they all agree that Tony should probably hang around in here for another couple of hours and then play it by ear.

"A couple of hours 'give or take?'" Clint asks. "Wow guys, thanks for the science."

"The strength of science is its willingness to admit uncertainty," Bruce says serenely.

"…Absolutely," Tony says. "Yes. That."

 

+ + + + +

 

After that, Tony spends a lot of time standing. Or pacing. Or leaning, sometimes, if he happens to pace into a wall. Or, occasionally, for approximately oh-point-seven seconds (approximate because he's not wearing the suit any more, come on he's not a masochist, he doesn't actually feel the need to clank constantly), sitting. But yeah, mostly it's the pacing. The pacing and possibly a little of the 'listening to Steve breathe on the other side of the door.' It's a good sound. He wants to keep it, catch it in his hands and guard it. Again: probably going to be an issue.

When it happens, for such a life-changing event, Tony isn’t thinking about fate and powers and the philosophical implications of the next forty years of his life. Tony is thinking about toast. French toast, to be more specific, with cinnamon and sugar sprinkled all over the surface, the edges crisp, the insides soft with egg. Tony is thinking about how he’d skipped breakfast that morning and would really like to eat some soft-sugary-delicious French toast, when suddenly everything goes silent.

He can’t hear the other Avengers anymore. He can’t hear Steve. He can’t hear the slap of his feet against the walnut floorboards. The silence that rushes through the Null Room is a monsoon in autumn, washing away everything in its wake so that all Tony can hear is the quiet in his own head, the empty spaces where he loses track of his own heartbeat – would lose track of it entirely save for the vibrations, which he counts like carnival tokens. One, two, three, four, five, six –

Tony can feel the precise moment when his heart stops. There’s no shock or pain, nothing like Afghanistan, no heat breeding sweat that sticks the blood to his hair. In the Null Room everything is cold and clean, as straightforward as the code that blurs behind Tony’s eyelids like shadow plays. It’s written in a language he doesn’t recognize, in ribbons of glyphs and runes that look like stanzas of poetry but sound like nothing at all, still silence, silence squeezing his heart into stone.

It feels like – it feels like something terrible and divine, angels and beasts carved hollow from within, but more than that, it feels like death. Tony is kind of super familiar with death, and when it snakes through him, stopping his heart for good, he wheezes out the last of his breath in astonished laughter. Yeah, this is what he knows. This is what he’s good at. He is five years old again, and he’s watching a ladybug alight from the tips of his fingers.

He opens his eyes.

Tony may have all the powers of death in one snap of his wrist, but death has never been the only sheriff in town.

He opens his eyes.

(Ladies and gentlemen, your master of ceremonies has arrived).

The first wave of warmth when he opens the Null Room door is almost too much to handle, like being sun-blasted in the middle of a sauna. Tony immediately breaks out into a sweat, squinting at the sudden rush of light and noise, and Steve, who’s staring at him in uneasy silence, the only thing in the bright, bright new world that has yet to speak.

Tony wants to say something like, "You have a lot of skin," but he feels like that's at least a little creepy, so what comes out of his mouth is, "Will someone find me something dead? Now?," which, in retrospect, is probably not all that much better. Thank God for the terrifying competence of Coulson, who orders a couple of underlings to start combing the grass for dearly departed organisms.

“I found a worm!” a junior SHIELD agent declares, and Tony scoffs openly in her face because a worm, really? They couldn’t do anything better than that? But Coulson narrows his eyes, and Tony’s head is starting to feel all the nasty effects of the Null Room, like snapping your neck forward when the car’s come to a sudden sharp stop. He accepts the worm, a grey dead flubbery thing in his hand. He touches a finger to its head, gingerly.

“Eureka,” he whispers.

“What happened?” the junior SHIELD agent, producer of worms, asks eagerly.

“Nothing,” Tony says. “Absolutely nothing.” His voice is doing something funny; Tony’s never heard his own voice like that before. “I am a juicer without the juice. I am a party without the music. I am a pizza delivery boy without the pizza. I’m amazing.”

"Are you not—are you upset?" Steve asks,

"Am I up—are you out of your mind? You think I wanted—I've got the suit, for Christ's sake, I don't want the actual power of life and death in my hands. Literally in my hands, I don't—I got out of the weapons business, okay, that was sort of the point, and do you have any idea how badly I want to touch you right now?"

It's like Tony's hit hard reboot, Steve's face going totally blank for a split-second. Except no, Tony thinks, bad comparison, because Steve isn't a computer, Tony knows computers, inside and out, and no computer has ever looked at anyone the way Steve's looking at him right now, like—well. The old cliché is a drowning man and dry land, right? But maybe it's Tony's brain that's done the hard reboot, because he just looks at Steve and sees want.

Tony’s throat goes dry.

Then Thor comes up to them, leaves crunching under his boots. “Know this: I do not say these following words lightly but let me offer them to you now in fullest joy and congratulations.” He claps Tony on the back and goes, “Puny mortal!” while Tony lights up, up, up.

 

+ + + + +

 

“No, Tony,” Pepper says. “Happy and I are not taking you to a funeral home where you can caress corpses and cackle in laughter.”

“You take the fun out of everything,” Tony complains, slouching in the backseat of the car. He switches the phone from one ear to another, unable to erase the jitteriness inside him that demands he do something. Stalk hospital mortuaries, adopt a dog, learn how to bellydance – something. For the first time in his life, Tony wants to stop being careful, because if he’s ever been reckless about anything else, it was to compensate for this, the anchor in his own skin, sinking him from a man into a weapon.

Tony spreads out his fingers and looks at them, strange and new. His history is still there: the little cut on his thumb, the calluses, the slightly dry skin underneath his left pinkie that even Pepper’s best moisturizing attempts won’t fix. But none of it seems the same anymore, like a blanket pardon issued after a war. The history might still be there, but screw history. Tony Stark’s on his way up and out.

It’s night by the time he gets through SHIELD’s medical tests and reaches the penthouse where he’s been living. Happy deposits him into the garage, and JARVIS lights the ceiling fixtures one by one so that Tony doesn’t trip over his own feet climbing the winding staircases.

His bed is a smear of Egyptian cotton and lush pillows, and Tony tumbles into it with his shoes still on, hugging his pillow, pressing creases into his cheek.

He’s half asleep when JARVIS speaks. “Sir, Captain Rogers is here to see you.”

Tony jerks up, gets tangled in the blankets, falls off the bed and onto his ass. He manages to get up anyway, because he is a genius and he can manage standing even with the mention of Steve’s name – one of his more difficult accomplishments, true. “Uh, yeah,” Tony says, swiping at his own eyes. “Let him in. I’ll just wait right here.”

“Sir, would you rather I direct him to the living room?”

“No,” Tony says, because he remembers the want in Steve’s eyes, and he swallows a ball in his throat. “Call me overly optimistic, but no. Send him up here.”

When Steve appears, he’s wearing a leather jacket with fraying jeans, and he has his hands in his pockets. He looks nervous but also focused – which lasts for all of three seconds, when he realizes he’s in Tony’s bedroom and Tony is sitting on his outrageously luxurious and expensive bed, legs crossed. Then Steve just goes red. “This is probably a bad time,” he says, and his voice makes it sound like he’s about to turn around and leave, but his body does the opposite. He stays, and Tony can’t stop looking at him. It’s a sickness, probably, the way he can’t tear his eyes away from Steve’s shoulders, from the slip of skin underneath Steve’s wristwatch.

“What can I do for you, Cap?” Tony asks.

“I wanted to see – if you’re okay,” Steve says. “If you need anything. I’m not busy, so.”

Tony opens his mouth, and then closes it. When he speaks, his voice comes out more petulant than he means it to. “You left,” he said. “You went with the other Avengers. Back to the mansion.”

“I thought that was what I was supposed to do,” Steve says.

“It wasn’t,” Tony says, and that’s the truth right there, clean and bare as any hint of skin; as true as the curl of Steve’s tongue when he licks his lips. “Steve – I’m not delusional, right? I’m a self-obsessed egomaniac with a god complex, but tell me I’m not delusional.”

Tony has seen the sky stretch blue into a desert that seemed it would last forever, knowing that it promised his freedom, but still he’s never seen anything as wondrous as Steve’s face as it moves between fear and uncertainty and then acceptance. Maybe Steve’s been careful too. Maybe Steve’s been keeping one hand on the door his entire life, just like Tony, and this is the first time he’s ever been allowed to let go – to walk through that door and let it swing shut on his heels.

“I shouldn’t be nervous. Why am I nervous?” Steve asks hoarsely, and Tony laughs with open happiness, grabbing Steve by the sleeve of his jacket and tugging him to the bed.

“Don’t be nervous. Just pretend that’s an order,” he says, and then he touches Steve for the very first time, skin to skin, his fingers touching the splay of Steve’s cheekbones, stroking the soft skin under his eyes before sloping over his nose and then touching his mouth, rubbing his fingers over Steve’s lips until he can feel the sluice of Steve’s shaky breath. “There’s nothing to be scared of,” Tony says, and he’s not sure who he’s talking to anymore, except that this is something he wants to believe more than anything – his desire to believe it is only second to his desire to kiss Steve.

He tugs Steve towards him by his lapels, and then remembers that he doesn’t have to rely on that anymore. He tugs Steve towards him with his fingers on the back of Steve’s neck, thumb smoothing over the bristles of Steve’s hair, and in the time it takes to reimagine an entire life’s story, he’s kissing Steve. He’s kissing Steve softly, with total and utter amazement, kissing him slow and luxurious and obscene, his tongue swiping over Steve’s teeth until he tastes sugar and coffee and the spearmint gum Steve must have been chewing on his way over here.

Steve makes a sound like he’s been punched in the gut. Tony grins against his mouth, triumphant, determined to keep this as slow and sweet as possible, until Steve goes out of his mind. But then Steve makes that sound again, grabbing Tony and tumbling them down onto the bed – and forget slow, forget sweet, forget anything except holy crap, Steve can kiss. Steve is kissing, kissing him with the fierceness of a vanguard soldier, kissing him messy and hot, melting Tony’s spine out of his skin.

Steve is eating Tony’s mouth, really, desperate for it, a thousand years of waiting. Steve can’t stop kissing Tony, which is just fine because it means they’re on the same schedule – everything flies out of Tony’s head, all his gentlemanly plans to introduce Captain Steve Rogers to the glories of modern courtship. Steve seems more than well-acquainted with modern courtship. Steve seems to have skipped a few lessons, in fact, and gone straight into the down and dirty part, pushing his hipbones against Tony as he braces his arm by Tony’s head, kissing him until their mouths are wet and they’re finally breaking apart, panting. Steve’s eyes are eclipses when they stare at each other, and that lasts only a few seconds before they’re kissing again, Tony groaning deep in his throat, on fire.

Steve pins him down on the mattress. He reaches out and twines their fingers together, and Tony’s calluses can feel all of Steve’s calluses, a rough counterpoint to the lushness of Steve’s mouth. Steve’s tongue pushes against Tony’s tongue, and Tony wants to come right there – in retaliation he flips them back around so that he’s straddling Steve. Steve makes a surprised noise, and Tony uses the advantage to press his own attack, his tongue exploring Steve’s mouth while Steve writhes and moans.

Tony could kiss him forever, and that’s pretty much what he does, making out on the bed like animals, Tony’s fingers clenching against Steve’s, feeling all that skin. Steve is a hot brand underneath him, pushing upwards, and then Tony slides his lips from Steve’s mouth to Steve’s throat, and then to Steve’s chest – Steve thrashes a bit. Tony glances up at him from beneath his eyelashes, sultry, but then he sees the redness of Steve’s mouth, how hard he’s biting down – and Tony has to kiss him all over again, helpless with hunger.

“Stop distracting me,” Tony says. “I’m trying to –” Steve’s mouth follows his, “I’m trying to give you a blowjob.” He feels Steve’s shiver. “It shouldn’t be this hard to give you a blowjob.”

“This is my fault?” Steve breathes.

“Yeah,” Tony says, kissing him, “yeah, everything’s your fault.”

“That doesn’t seem – ah! – very fair,” Steve says, shuddering as Tony finally works up the clarity of mind to shimmy his way down Steve’s body. He works him out of his clothes, and Steve helps, clumsily. They’re superheroes of the first order, but it takes a ridiculous amount of time for them to get Steve’s clothes off, maybe because Tony keeps on stopping to trail kisses up Steve’s hip, pressing open-mouthed journeys up Steve’s inner thigh, feeling the soft skin and the warm muscle.

“Spread your legs,” Tony instructs. Steve groans even louder than that, which makes Tony’s eyes flutter closed, just to savor that sound. Then he opens his eyes again, feverish and alive. He presses kisses over Steve’s hips, his thighs, and he drags his mouth in a long, wet, slick move over to Steve’s cock. Steve hisses between his teeth when Tony slides his tongue up and down his cock, getting it as wet as he can. He puts his hand on Steve’s hips, pushing him down onto the mattress so that all Steve can do is lie back and take it, Tony mouthing at his cock and then his balls, taking his balls into his mouth and rolling them around gently, slicking them with his tongue until Steve sounds like he’s hyperventilating.

“Tony,” he moans, “Tony.” Steve is slick and sweaty all around him, smelling of sex, and Tony’s patience snaps. He pushes Steve’s hips down one more time and then takes him into his mouth fully, sucking him with all the heat he feels gathering in his blood – all the noise in his head, the songs in his brain, the codes he’s never going to write because none of them are as beautiful as this, as Steve leaking steadily into his mouth, of Steve making huge overwhelmed noises, his head thrashing against the pillow.

Tony can’t stop touching. He can’t stop sucking Steve’s cock, until everything is wet and messy, until Tony’s lips are smeared with Steve’s precome, and there are trails of saliva from Tony’s tongue to Steve’s balls. It’s the filthiest thing Tony can think of, and Tony can’t stop, touching Steve with his mouth and then his fingers, which slide under Steve’s balls and roll around, making Steve cry out sharply as he comes in shaky, electric jerks, the smell of his come everywhere, spilling over Tony’s tongue.

He doesn’t even give time for Tony to react; Tony blinks in heavy-lidded awe, and then Steve is rolling them over again, pushing Tony against the pillows while he works Tony’s pants down. He’s kissing Tony, kissing him hot and hard, their mouths fumbling together while Steve grasps Tony’s cock and starts stroking, his thumb moving over Tony’s slit until Tony is trembling like a size seven earthquake.

He can’t think clearly, can hardly even breathe. He closes his eyes as he arches upwards into Steve’s deft hands, pushing himself there greedily, into the place where he most wants to be – and he’s coming as hard as he’s come in his entire life, orgasm like a blackout, like the Null Room. He can’t see or hear anything until he opens his eyes, gasping, and then, there, Steve.

 

+ + + + +

 

Anyone who's known Tony for any length of time knows that the number one place he absolutely shouldn't be, topping even 'a bar just before closing time,' is 'at loose ends.' But when he wakes up at some ungodly hour the next morning, Steve's arm a solid weight across his chest, well. That's sort of exactly where he is. His brain flails around for a while, throwing out various bits of white noise (the output numbers from the latest arc reactor, pieces of an article he read yesterday about oil prices in California, a half-finished bit of code for tweaking JARVIS’ voice modulation) in an attempt to keep him distracted, but in the end the fact that he’s lying in bed with Steve Rogers is pretty much unavoidable.

He waits for that to sink in and then waits for the ensuing jitters, the oops-you-suck-at-relationships epiphany that’s so particularly potent at four o’clock in the morning. He turns it over and over, examining it from every angle, prodding at it like a loose tooth—are you going to freak out about this?, he asks himself, and the answer comes back a firm and resounding, um.

He blinks up at the ceiling a couple of times and tries to shove his brain back on track, because he doesn’t really appreciate it going all Magic 8 Ball ask again later on him, here, but he keeps getting distracted by the warmth that’s not-quite pressed against his side, the almost-touch he can feel running from shoulder to ankle, the way he can feel Steve’s pulse now instead of reading about it on the suit’s display. He falls asleep between one beat and the next and that, it turns out, is (more or less) that.

 

+ + + + +

 

Tony decides the next morning that this isn’t going to be awkward. That’s an executive decision he makes, because—well, because fuck it, that’s why. He wakes up at ten o’clock and JARVIS is speaking before he can really register the empty space next to him, saying that “Captain Rogers is in the kitchen, Mr. Stark,” so Tony gets up and gets dressed and gets downstairs. He is going to have a cup of coffee and maybe even eat something for breakfast, because he is a functioning adult and not at all because he doesn’t want Steve lecturing him about the most important meal of the day. And none of this is going to be awkward, because he’s Tony Stark and he says so.

It’s possible this shouldn’t work, but it kind of does.

“Morning,” he says when he walks in to find Steve seated at the island. The back of Steve’s neck goes pink, which makes for some pleasant flashbacks, and then Steve says, “Morning,” too, like maybe he’s onboard this whole ‘so we slept together, that’s cool, everything’s cool’ train. Tony is the conductor of this train, and yes, okay, this metaphor is escaping him. In addition to which, this (totally awesome) train needs a better name.

“So, we should definitely do that again,” Tony says. Or maybe blurts. He’s looking pretty intently at the coffee machine, so he doesn’t actually get to see Steve’s reaction, not that he’s worried about it or anything, but he does get to hear Steve say, “We should,” like it’s the most obvious, natural thing in the world. He breathes out a sigh of relief that is, he will swear up and down, 110% caffeine-related, and takes his second sip of coffee.

“Good,” he says, turning around to find Steve smiling at him, quiet and a little bit knowing. “Cool. Glad we got that settled.”

Then, because it turns out Tony has even less self-control than he thought he might have (and honestly, he didn’t think he had much) he wanders over all pseudo-casual and sneaks a hand under Steve’s shirt to rest against his hip. He sort of wants to touch Steve everywhere, the most mundane spots, his elbow and the dip of his shoulder and the inside of his wrist; he wants to catalog Steve’s skin, its texture and its warmth. He probably wouldn’t be above Venn diagrams, he thinks dazedly as Steve leans up from his stool to kiss Tony, wonderfully assured. He’s rarely above Venn diagrams.

“I wouldn’t mind a few more dates, either, now that we’re allowed to let our hands actually touch without fear of death,” Steve says into the (scant) air between them, which at any other time would make Tony stand up and applaud because yes, snark about the weird Frankentouch is good, he approves, but Steve’s doing that thing where he makes even what Tony’s pretty sure is sarcasm sound really, really genuine and, well.

“Dates?” he says, and then before he can say anything else his brain is stuttering back through the last few months, offering up the library and the movies and the rooftop, and Tony carefully removes the sarcastic “ahaha I’m dating Captain America and I can’t even threaten his virtue” filter from every single one of those memories and says, “Right, yes. More dates. Dating. I can do that.”

Which he totally can, by the way. He is a genius, an MIT graduate, and a superhero, and he is definitely not nervous about going on a date. On dates, multiple. With Captain America.

Definitely not.

(He maybe gives himself away by spilling water down his shirt in the middle of what was totally a romantic candlelit dinner, but in the end that just expedites the removal of the shirt, which isn’t such a bad thing. Besides, he makes up for it with a planetarium show during which, he solemnly swears, he will not try to make out with Steve even a little. He tries to make out with Steve a lot, obviously, but it’s a lot less than he wants to, which Steve seems to genuinely appreciate. He also seems to genuinely appreciate the actual making out. Steve, Tony reflects as he bites more-or-less gently at his pulse point, is kind of awesome.)

 

+ + + + +

 

If Tony’s life hadn’t been busy before, it is at this point that it would become so. As it is, his life was already kind of insanely busy what with the company to run and the supering to hero and the geniusing to, well, genius, so now it just gets busier. He has to move back into the mansion, for one thing. That wasn’t actually originally on the agenda, considering that he hadn’t been there for ages now and the team was established there without him and he wouldn’t want to encroach or whatever, it wasn’t a big deal.

Then one day Clint, of all people, had ambushed him at SHIELD HQ, prodded him into an empty office, and said, “Hey, drop the martyr complex and move your shit back into your own house,” before exiting the room just as abruptly as he’d entered it. If Tony was going to dwell on it, he’d think maybe Clint knew a little something about what it was like to feel fringy, unsure, but he isn’t going to dwell on it because come on, he’s got stuff to do.

He hires a moving company and then Steve finds out he’s hired a moving company and makes a lot of pretty horrified faces around words like needless extravagance. And Tony, because he is the soul of compromise over here, says sure, they’ll nix the movers, they’ll spend a sweaty Saturday doing it themselves, that’s fine, that’s great, who is he to stand in the way of a man with a plan (Steve does a funny little smirk that’s more embarrassed than actually smirky, somehow, and says every time Tony makes fun of him about that it just proves he’s seen it too many times, and Tony says there’s no such thing as too many times, he’s going to host a team movie night so they can all behold its majesty, he’s going to make the popcorn himself).

Anyway, the moving takes some time, as does the battery of followup tests that SHIELD seems to want to run every hour on the hour; those actually get progressively more interesting as bigger and bigger names are brought in to try and figure out how Tony went from creepily all-powerful giver of life to not that, and fail tremendously. Tony’s happy to run rings around the pompous idiots and talk shop with the pompous not-idiots, and weirdly content with not knowing how exactly his life-bringer gig actually worked. Maybe it’s just that the mechanics of weaponry don’t really interest him nowadays, not the way they used to, or maybe it’s that he doesn’t really care what it was or why it went away as long as it doesn’t come back. Thor assures him that it won’t and Tony, in an almost staggering concession to the meaning of ‘team,’ trusts him.

So it’s a pretty crowded agenda that Tony blows off entirely one chilly Thursday afternoon in favor of a trip to Manhattan Memorial Cemetery.

He gives Happy the address without actually telling him where they’re going, but Happy’s not an idiot, he knows anyway, and Tony knows that he knows, and even though no one says anything about it, that somehow makes it harder to ignore. So Tony sits in the car alongside the unspoken knowledge that they’re driving to a graveyard, and thinks about how beneath six feet of earth isn’t technically within reach, but.

He doesn’t actually know what to do when he gets there so he just stands, hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched a little against the almost-evening breeze. The headstones are nice—a little ostentatious but then, they’d had to be. Tony doesn’t really mind ostentatious anyway. It has its place, and why shouldn’t that place be here.

He feels like he should maybe say something, but he has no fucking clue what, and it’s not like he has any illusions about being on good terms with his dead parents or something. He’s not. Which is why it kind of surprises him that he doesn’t hate being here. He’s not enjoying it either, it’s just—it’s good to stand here and know, know that he’s just as powerless as anyone else who visits a cemetery, who stands aboveground in this place and mourns a loss. He’s only human; there’s nothing he can do.

In the end he doesn’t say anything, just presses his fingertips to his mother’s headstone, feels the cool marble against his own years of calluses as he pulls out his phone. It only rings twice before Steve’s voice says, “Hello?”

“So, it’s probably more than a little creepy to call you from a graveyard,” Tony says, “especially considering the nature of our relationship up until recently—and by the way I don’t want to give you the impression that I want to talk about that because normally I absolutely do not but I’m in a weird mood, can you tell? Anyway, that’s where I’m calling you from, and bear with me here because that may turn out to be completely unnecessary information. Uh, I actually called to say I wouldn’t mind some company for dinner. Of the you variety, specifically.”

Steve doesn’t ask any questions beyond “Where sounds good?,” and he doesn’t say anything about his own insanely packed schedule, and he especially doesn’t say anything like, “Why are you calling me from a cemetery again?” He just agrees to meet Tony at a Vietnamese place on the outskirts of Brooklyn in forty-five minutes, says he’s looking forward to it and sounds like he means it, and hangs up before Tony can start making nervous jokes about how it’s not a necrophilia situation or anything, honest.

So it’s a good day, probably, Tony thinks as he slides back into the car, absentmindedly rubbing his thumb and forefinger together. Steve can help him decide for sure, over dinner, but. Probably a good day.