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Ride It Out, Wait It Out

Chapter Text

It was hard, this new life.

Steve Rogers had woken up to this new world devoid of recognizable memory, devoid of the people who had cared about and loved him, and his initial thought once the blind panic had worn off and once the SHIELD guys had explained what they thought he had to know, was that maybe it would get better. Maybe it wasn't as bad as it seemed - nothing could be as bad as it seemed, right?

Except that it actually was. It was horrible. Steve was just so, so far out of his time, so far out of his comfort zone, and he had no one. There was no one there to care that he spent too much time staring at the walls of his apartment, that the only way he fell asleep was when he'd cried himself into it, too exhausted to even bother thinking anymore.

He'd been worried for awhile that someone would make the connection between his increasing sense of hopelessness and the ever growing number of SHIELD punching bags that he kept accidentally mangling beyond use, but no one did. There wasn't anyone. He was alone.

But then Loki came, and the Chitauri, and the Avengers. For a little while, directly before meeting the full team and then directly after they'd won, Steve had felt it again - that little spark of hope, of relentless optimism that he thought he had lost somewhere in the ice. Maybe now things would be better. He had found other people like himself, unified under that common urge to do good. Things could only get easier.

But as they sat in that shawarma joint, not a word spoken as they all chewed silently and stared into space, Steve knew he was wrong again. Sure, they'd worked well as a team, got the job done, but Steve had been so stupidly naive to have assumed that would mean they all had something in common, that they were like him, because they weren't. Or, more to the point, Steve was nothing like them.

Dr. Banner, aside from practically being a recluse, was a brilliant scientist with intensive understanding of things Steve could never hope to grasp. And though Hulk had seemed not to mind Steve too much, it had been fairly clear that Dr. Banner had thought Steve was just a little bit slow. And, though Steve didn't truly believe himself to be stupid, by that same virtue he couldn't allow himself to be stupid enough to ever think he could function on the same level as Dr. Banner.

Agents Romanov and Barton were trained assassins and super spies, with levels of comprehension and worldliness that Steve couldn't begin to understand. They were bred for this, were the best in their fields, and while Steve had enjoyed working alongside both of them, especially Agent Romanov who had thrilled him in a way reminiscent of Peggy in her strength and sheer capability, he was nothing special. Not like them. How could he hope to connect with them when they were so skilled and he was just a result of an experiment, a relic undeserving from the past?

His hope for friendship with Thor was dashed along fairly similar grounds. That, and the added issue of Thor being a god, and Steve hardly even being certain what type of man he was supposed to be most days. How could he be friends with a god?

And last but not least, there was Tony Stark.

Obviously, they'd gotten off on the wrong foot, saying things under the influence of Loki's scepter that Steve was still embarrassed for having said, hadn't really meant, but in the fight itself, the two of them had gotten along exceedingly well. They'd worked together flawlessly, and Iron Man was the one who had officially put Captain America in charge with his demand for Steve to make the call. And then after, when they'd been prepared to go off on their separate ways, he and Stark had shaken hands, and there had been an understanding there. That, and an invitation to visit Stark Towers whenever Steve was free.

Steve was grateful for that understanding, but he didn't expect anything from the invitation. Tony Stark was an important man, a genius who really did live up to every single title he'd tossed in Steve's direction on the helicarrier, and it just made Steve feel so small. Stark was always in the news, for philanthropic reasons, or because he'd cursed out a senator, or because he'd created a new element or something. What were he and Steve going to do? Go to a ball game? The idea of someone like Stark being friends with someone like Steve was laughable.

And to be honest, Stark made Steve a little uncomfortable. At first the father/son resemblance had been startling, sure, but where the Howard that Steve knew had been focused and brilliant, there had also been a sort of slick charm that was almost silly, that had been used to make Steve relax, make him smile. Nothing in Tony Stark was aimed at making anyone relax. He was too intense, too watchful for that, his eyes tracking every movement and cataloging them away to sift through and analyze later. This Stark was harder, a little meaner, and though they'd apologized and moved on from the incident in the lab, admitting to not having been fully in control of what they thought or said, Steve couldn't help but still suspect with a sinking stomach that Stark had truly meant every word.

It wasn't as if they hadn't been justified.

And so, as he'd looked around the table after shawarma, noting the way that Stark and Dr. Banner sat a little closer than the rest, the way that Agents Romanov and Barton were turned in towards only one another, and Thor was so obviously mentally far away, thinking of an entirely different world, Steve knew this wasn't the answer to his loneliness. The team might come together again, might help him continue the fight if Fury called and asked them to do so, but they were not going to become his friends. Why would any of them want to be friends with someone so boring, bottled, and displaced? They were all too special for that.

He'd just have to content himself with working hard to be the best leader he could be, the leader they needed. Because, really, what else was he worth? What else could he possibly offer to anyone?

What else was there to do anyway?

Chapter Text

It was a Thursday.

Not that Steve particularly cared, because his Thursdays were spent very similarly to his Wednesdays, which were an awful lot like the Tuesdays and the Mondays and the everything else. Traditionally, Steve woke up at around 5:00 am, and made the fifteen minute trip to SHIELD to use their work out room for the next five hours. Then, he would make his way back to his apartment, stopping along the way to grab something to eat. He found that he was always hungry, but nothing tasted quite right. He didn't know if it was because of different methods of food preparation, or if it was all mental, but none of it ever really tasted of anything at all. Maybe the serum was slowly leaking away everything human in him.

Wouldn't that be a shame.

After eating lunch at his little kitchen table, Steve would then go and sit on his couch, paging through the files he'd been given on his former teammates back when he'd been unfrozen. The files were perused so frequently that they'd become thoroughly dog eared, edges worn from his fidgeting fingers as he stared at their faces and tried not to imagine how his life would have been had he lasted out his days with them.

It was hard not to imagine it; it was even harder when he did.

He would remain on his couch until the clock on top of the TV he never used caught his eye, almost always exactly at 3:24 pm. At that, he'd get up and go back to SHIELD for another few hours, studying in one of their research centers. He studied battle tactics, weaponry, famous leaders, anything that could possibly make him a better leader. After that he'd leave, get something else to eat for dinner. Sometimes he would walk around a little, try to get his bearings. But it was always hopeless, and he usually just came back home, sat on the couch, and tried not to think about anything until it was time to go to bed.

And then he would wake up and do it again.

However, on that Thursday, a week or two or three after the Chitauri, Steve's schedule was interrupted around 2:36 pm by an overly loud knocking at his door. At first he didn't do anything, staring at the door in bewilderment, files clutched in his hands as always. Whoever it was had to have the wrong apartment - no one visited Steve. When the pounding continued, however, with no indication that it was going to stop anytime soon, Steve pushed himself up. Something must be wrong. Maybe he was getting recruited to suit up regardless of the fact that his cellular phone, which he kept beside him at all times as instructed, had remained silent. He slid off the latch, twisted the deadbolt, and pulled open the door to find...

"Captain!" Thor boomed, throwing his arms wide as the volume of his voice practically shook the door in its frame. "How does the day find you?"

"I - Thor?" Steve stammered, completely thrown. "I - I don't - you - are you okay?"

Thor's brow furrowed, though he remained standing with his feet planted, arms still open. "I am quite well, Captain. Are you?"

"I'm -" Confused was a good word. Of all the things Steve had expected, none of them had included Thor standing at his door, all towering six-foot-something of him. His long blond hair was tied back into a neat ponytail, and he was wearing "human" clothes that kind of made him look like an overenthusiastic lumberjack. The bright red and black flannel of his shirt was stretched taut over his chest due to his stance, and was half pulled out of his baggy blue jeans.

Steve realized he was openly staring. He wasn't quite sure how to stop.

Thor, surprisingly, seemed bothered by Steve's reaction, which - could gods really get nervous? Because Steve was positive that was the expression currently spreading across Thor's face. "I do apologize, Captain. Have I come at an inopportune time?"

Steve shook himself, blinking rapidly. "No! No, I'm fine, Thor. You're fine. You just... you surprised me. You know, without the cape."

Thor grinned at that, looking down at himself. "Yes, I had help from a friend. Lady Darcy informed me that if I was to remain here for a time, I would need look more the part. Do you judge it effective?"

Steve couldn't help his grin when, ludicrously, Thor proceeded to do a slow turn for him in the middle of the hallway. "Yeah, it looks great. It's a great choice, Thor."

Thor turned back to face Steve, returning Steve's smile. "Well then, I am reassured." And then, once more surprising Steve, Thor actually fidgeted for a moment. His eyes darted around the hallway, fingers tangling in the loose hem of his shirt before he finally blurted out the reason for his visit. "My dear Captain," he began, as if preparing for some kind of grand pronouncement. "I hope I do not intrude or misapprehend the nature of our relationship, but I have the desire to explore this world of yours. While I know there are many who would be willing to teach me of this place, this Earth, I cannot help but feel the experience would be more rewarding if I were to undertake it with you at my side."

Steve stared at Thor with disbelief. "I -" he began, completely uncertain how to respond. Was Thor really here to... did he really want to spend time with him? With Steve? "You want to explore with me?"

Thor, who had been watching Steve with that same expression that couldn't possibly be nervousness, nodded grimly. "Yes. I believe it would be advantageous to both of us."

Steve might have gaped. Just a little. "You... really?"

Apparently that was the right question to ask, because Thor relaxed completely, his grin becoming sunnier. "This is a new world for both of us, is it not?" he asked, stepping forward to throw one large arm around Steve's shoulders. When Steve didn't step away, just looked at him and nodded, Thor's grin softened. "Then we should explore it together as comrades." He searched Steve's face. "I would grow a friendship with you, Captain, if you would be so willing."

Well, Steve couldn't have asked for anything more direct than that. And so he grinned, warmth spreading in his chest. "Please," he said, "call me Steve. Come on in. I was just about to make coffee, if you'd like some."

And apparently that was also the right thing to say. By the time the door swung shut behind them, Thor had already begun talking as if they were sure friends, and Steve found he didn't mind at all.

Chapter Text

It was getting a little easier, this new life.

With Thor at his side, Steve had gradually begun reacquainting himself with the city he'd grown up in. For the most part, he'd found that New York had enough familiarity that he could still reasonably find his way around. Street signs, certain buildings and landmarks that had been around in his day hadn't entirely disappeared in the time he'd been asleep, and that had been more of a reassurance than he had expected. But still, enough had changed overall to cause difficulty. Reconstruction, parks where buildings once stood or vice versa, and strange buildings like internet cafes and used video game stores in place of the more familiar five and dimes or chemists were bizarrely devastating, and sometimes Steve found himself having very bad days.

Thor helped an awful lot, though, and Steve rarely found himself having to deal alone with the disappointment of what he had lost. Thor loved to walk and wander regardless of where they were going, what they were doing, or if it was raining sheets from the skies. He was fascinated by every story Steve could think of to tell, whether of the changes to the city, or how it used to be, or even the smallest, most general reminiscences of Steve's own previous life. And when Thor judged Steve to be getting too sad or too morose, he would begin to tell tales of his own youth on Asgard. His stories always proved so fascinating and just downright bizarre that Steve couldn't help but listen, slowly but surely distracted from his own painful past and brought back into the new present.

Occasionally they found themselves wandering in the vicinity of Stark Towers. Each time they saw it, Steve could still hear his own voice in his head, with "that big ugly" coming out before he could stop it and right to Stark's face on top of it all, and he found himself looking for a new path to walk before he and Thor could get anywhere near it. Thor only brought it up once, and even that was just to ask if Steve had seen Stark.

"No," Steve had replied, pausing to glance in the window of a used book store. "He's got to be so busy, you know?"

Thor had nodded, sticking his hands in the pockets of the same pair of jeans he had worn every time they'd gone out - Steve knew they were the same because Thor had literally rolled down a hill about a week ago and got grass stains all over them, and Steve momentarily wondered if anyone had taught the Asgardian to do laundry or if Thor's girlfriend just figured it wasn't worth the trouble - and hummed. "He seems a difficult man to get to know."

Steve chuckled humorlessly. "Yeah. Sure."

Thor hadn't pushed the issue after that, hadn't asked why Steve was so quiet on the subject of Stark, and for that Steve was grateful. Honestly, he didn't even know where to begin in thanking Thor for everything. Even with the addition of just one friend, Steve's life was so much more bearable. Steve wasn't sure if Thor was just naturally attuned to the unhappiness of others, or had become so in light of all the Loki business (which they also never discussed, this time in deference to Thor's unhappiness with the subject), but whenever Steve got too low, or found himself a little too locked in his head, Thor would either show up unannounced, or call on Steve's cellular phone to announce some kind of weird discovery on the internet. They'd been practicing at that, too - learning how to use the internet. Thor liked anything to do with moving images, called gifs, and Steve frequently opened his email to find messages from Thor that took about a half hour to load thanks to all the graphics. In return, he would send Thor interesting articles he had found online or in the SHIELD databases about battles and GREAT WARRIORS (Thor's emphasis; Steve felt a little silly always having to shout the phrase, but it made Thor happy, so).

Steve hoped he was doing at least a fraction of the good for Thor that Thor did for him, but thanking Thor outright was generally impossible. He found that each time he tried, Thor would promptly and inexplicably challenge him to either an eating contest or a wrestling match regardless of where they were, which for obvious reasons could get pretty harrowing pretty quickly. Steve eventually just gave up on that.

Through Thor, Steve also met Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, and Eric Solveig. The latter two were nice, if a bit removed, but both brilliant enough to make Steve feel a little bit slow (though not as badly as he hand with Dr. Banner or Stark). But truly, he never felt slower than when Darcy opened her mouth and started talking at breakneck speed with more bewildering pop culture references per breath than Steve could truly handle in a month. Luckily she was only too excited to explain every single one to him, but after he'd spent more than a half hour with Thor's friends, Steve generally needed to wander off and spend some time by himself.

That was why, on a Friday afternoon, some week or two after he'd first started hanging out with Thor, Steve found himself back in SHIELD gym at what used to be his usual time. It felt different now, though. He felt looser during his warm ups, and more focused during his routines. His concentration was less of the maniacal, obsessive quality it had been before, and was more comprehensive and deliberate as he ran through other training regimes in his head while he completed his thrashing of the punching bag before him.

He still didn't hear Agent Romanov sneak up behind him, though.

"Hi," she said in the same bored tone she'd used at their first meeting, and he'd practically jumped in surprise, whirling to face her.

"Uh, good afternoon, m'am," he said, well aware his cheeks were rapidly turning pink. He put his hands behind his back to stop himself from saluting or bowing or something else equally embarrassing. "I apologize - I didn't hear you come in."

Her lips quirked a little. "That's usually the point."

Steve nodded, looking down at the floor and fiddling with his handwraps. "Can I help you with anything, m'am?" he asked.

He knew she was staring at him, but he didn't look up from the knees of her black track pants to check for sure. "Not particularly," she said eventually. "We were just wondering where you've been. We hadn't seen you around for awhile."

Steve did look up at that, watching as she brushed invisible dust off the sleeve of her black workout tee. "I - SHIELD was looking for me?" he asked, feeling a pang of guilt. "I'm sorry, m'am. I just assumed I was being monitored - I didn't even think to inform them of changes to my schedule. Is there someone I need to speak with? Some kind of paperwork I need to fill out?"

Agent Romanov stared at him again, longer this time, and Steve fought the urge to squirm. "...Steve," she said, stepping closer. "I was referring to myself and Clint, not the whole of the SHIELD facility."

Oh. "Oh," Steve said, attempting to wipe his suddenly sweaty palms on his sweatpants, forgetting that they were still all wrapped up.

"Mm," she replied, eyeing him with a strange kind of detached calculation. "We were wondering what you've been up to."

Moving away from the bag (and possibly away from her; Steve wasn't afraid of girls, he wasn't, except for the tiny way in which he was and Agent Romanov was so strong and capable and he was just Steve), he started unwrapping his hands. "Not much to tell, m'am. I've been attempting to relearn the city. Thor's been a big help."

There was an interested pause. "Thor. Asgardian Thor. Was a big help."

Steve gave a half smile over his shoulder. "It's nice not to be the most out of place guy at the party, m'am."

Suddenly, Agent Romanov was directly beside him, and Steve had to stop himself from leaping away in surprise. "Okay, enough of this. Captain, here's what we're going to do. First, I'm going to call you Steve, and you're going to call me Natasha. Is this acceptable?"

Steve nodded frantically. "Yes. I mean, of course, yes, but... are you sure?"

Agent - Natasha rolled her eyes, and before Steve could prepare himself or figure out what she was doing, Natasha had jumped up his back, clambering up and over his shoulders, effectively settling herself into a shoulder ride like Steve had seen parents give their children. Steve was pretty sure, though, that children generally did not squeeze this hard with their thighs.

"I'm sure," she said dryly. "And now, you and I are going to spar. Hurry up and do something, Steve, before I start squeezing harder."

And that was how Steve became friends with Natasha.

Chapter Text

Steve's new life had turned out very strangely.

Becoming friends with a god and an assassin super spy had come far more easily than Steve had ever expected. His journeys with Thor had expanded to occasional full afternoon trips on trains and buses further and further out, exploring the rest of New York state with plans to expand even further in time. Natasha, in addition to frequently hunting Steve down in the SHIELD training center (and he did mean hunting - she never just walked up and said 'hello', she instead jumped him from behind, or above, or below, or possibly just out from thin air - he'd believe it), had started showing up for their excursions too, using the excuse that she just liked riding on trains. However, Natasha tended to spend most of the trips listening closely to the stories Steve and Thor would tell, often without paying attention to a single sight passing by. Sometimes she would request other stories and even a re-tell here and there, and Steve and Thor always obliged her, thrilled beyond measure when - very, very extremely rarely - Natasha would tell a story herself.

Because of the increased frequency of the time Natasha spent with himself and Thor, Steve wasn't particularly surprised when, on a Monday a week or two after she had first hung off of Steve's neck and tried to break his spine, Natasha appeared for their two hour train trip to the Catskill Mountains with Clint Barton tagging along behind her.

Steve's first thought at laying eyes on the man was that Agent Barton really looked like he needed a day out. Steve wasn't too certain where the two agents were staying, but he was pretty sure that Agent Barton hadn't left wherever it was in far too long. He was walking almost sluggishly when he and Natasha approached, more slouched than he had been at Loki's departure. There were dark circles under his red eyes, pale face making him look even more exhausted.

Steve recognized the look.

As soon as Agent Barton had stopped beside Natasha, Steve stuck out his hand.

"Agent Barton," he said with a smile, "it's good to see you again."

Agent Barton eyed Steve's hand for a moment before shaking it loosely. "Cap," he said tonelessly. He attempted a grin, more like a vague quirking of his lips, but it looked as tired as his eyes.

"Please," Steve said, smiling as confidently as he could despite the nervousness creeping up in the face of Barton's indifference. Had Natasha forced him to come? Steve was sure the trip out would do Clint good, but so far this wasn't exactly a positive reaction. Steve still felt that persistent need to try, though, and he just hoped he wasn't coming off as puppy dog pathetic (a new nickname from Natasha, bestowed the last time they'd walked past a bakery that Steve had desperately wanted to go into). "Call me Steve. I'm definitely not Cap right now."

Barton blinked a little, almost sleepily. "I kinda prefer Cap," he said.

Steve couldn't help it when his smile slipped a notch, and knew he'd been caught when Natasha's eyes narrowed and Barton's eyes flicked down before back up to meet Steve's.

"That's perfectly fine," he said, attributing the tightness in his throat to the fact that Thor had just clapped him a little too hard on the back to indicate the arrival of the train. "Whatever you're comfortable with. And ow, Thor."

"My apologies, friend Steve!" Thor bellowed at his usual 125 decibels, and Steve used the distraction to turn away from Barton's gaze, which had quickly become searching. "But the train arrives! Let us hurry!"

The car they chose was empty save for them, which was nice for their journey up. Most of the ride was spent in a companionable silence. The Esopus Scenic Train was an open top car, and Steve found himself sitting beside Thor for the first part of the journey, the two of them examining the beautiful colors of fall as Agent Barton and Natasha huddled together behind. Thor seemed happy, actually lowering his vocal range to somewhere below the approximate sound of a jackhammer, and Steve found himself smiling and laughing a lot, his nervousness from before done away in the face of Thor's content. Halfway through the trip, Thor decided to get up and shuffle around, and suddenly Steve found himself beside Natasha instead on the small two-seater bench. He may have stammered a little embarrassingly at first, but Natasha had taken it in stride, pointing out various sights as they passed. Eventually Steve stopped blushing and actually relaxed into the press of her shoulder against his as the two of them murmured appreciation of the beautify around them. It was pleasant, and when Natasha gently rested her chin on his shoulder, Steve felt his own content.

When they'd all found themselves shifting around again after they'd all gotten up to examine a passing sight (Thor had insisted they all do so, because apparently he wasn't entirely familiar with just how many squirrels inhabited their world and had mistakenly thought the sight was a rare one), Steve was a little more discomfited to find himself next to Agent Barton. Steve had put on his best I'm-not-nervous-at-all smile when Barton had hesitantly lowered himself to sit beside him, though Steve had quickly turned back to the landscape. He was surprised, then, when Barton promptly tapped Steve on his shoulder to draw his attention back.

"Uh," Barton began awkwardly, fingers twisting together as he leaned forward to rest his elbows on the back of the bench in front of them. "Look, Cap. I just... I wanted to say thanks."

Oh. That wasn't what Steve had been expecting. "Okay. Um, for what?"

Barton shrugged, not looking at Steve. "I did some really bad things when Loki put himself in my brain. I just... I had no control, I had no idea how to stop what I could see myself doing, but I can't help but feel I should have tried harder, you know?"

Steve did know. Regardless of rationality, he'd had that thought many times concerning his own actions, his own fate. It didn't matter for a soldier that there was nothing to be done. To admit that was unthinkable; it hinted at the chaos they strive so hard to prevent, and so the possibility of nothing being left to do cannot be acknowledged. Steve should have done more to stop the plane. He should have tried harder. He should have been more capable, more aware. So yeah, Steve knew that feeling with familiarity. But Clint still wasn't really looking at him, so he just remained silent.

Clint turned his head, watching the trees go by with a blank expression. "I still don't know how many people I killed. Natasha's blocked all access from me, no idea how, the woman is a ninja, but you..."

Clint swallowed. Steve braced himself, not entirely sure what was coming.

But then Clint turned to actually look at Steve. "You recruited me anyway. Just like that. I hadn't even been Loki free for an hour, but when Natasha vouched for me, and I said I was okay, you trusted the two of us. It's like there wasn't even a doubt in your mind that I would be trustworthy, that none of it had been my fault." Clint shrugged, the movement more like a bunching of his shoulders under his black tee, making him look small. "That's not something I've been hearing a lot of lately. So, thanks. Thanks, Cap." An actual smile, then. "Thanks for believing in me."

Steve swallowed, fighting the blush he knew was creeping up his cheeks at the kind words, and grinned back at him. "Always, Agent."

Clint made a face. "Seriously though, call me Clint. I'm not on duty right now - I'm on a train looking at trees and purple mountain majesties."

Steve laughed. "Only if you call me Steve, too."

Clint shook his head. "Nah. You're still Cap. The part in your hair is too perfect for anything else."

And then, thought Steve, even as he reached up self consciously to touch his hair, sending Clint into a peal of laughter, there were three. And Steve was pretty darn happy.

Chapter Text

Steve wasn't quite so happy when, a week in to his friendship with Clint, the guy was still calling him Cap all the time. Clint didn't seem to see the issue, though.

"C'mon, man!" he grinned, slouching in his seat in the booth of the roadside diner that he, Steve, Natasha and Thor had stopped at after they'd been riding for some time. Clint, upon remembering that Steve owned a motorcycle, had decided that he, Thor, and Natasha should rent some too and they should all go on a day trip. Steve had been kind of surprised that places rented motorcycles, but he'd learned not to be surprised for long. If he lingered on the number of things that still surprised him on any given day in this new world, he'd have to wander around wide eyed and open mouthed all of the time, which was just ridiculous. And so he'd just gone along with the plans as they'd been made, and that was how he found himself eating greasy diner food and hopelessly trying to get his hair back down after their windy Tuesday afternoon ride.

"You c'mon!" Steve said, giving up on his hair and pointing a fork at Clint. "It's weird being called Cap all the time!"

"What's wrong with Cap?" Clint asked, tapping out a rhythm on the tabletop. "It's an affectionate shorthand. A nickname -"

"A nickname? It's my code name!"

Clint '"psh"ed, leaning across the table to steal one of Thor's fries. "Your code name is Captain America. Cap is a shorthand nickname."

"No, it isn't," Steve said, stabbing at Clint's hand with his fork when the archer attempted to steal his fries too. "That would be like me calling you Hawk on your off time."

Clint's chest puffed out. "That's an acceptable nickname."

"No," cut in Natasha from across from Steve, "it really isn't. Steve, do not call him Hawk."

"May I call him Hawk?" Thor boomed while simultaneously trying to cram half of his gigantic burger into his mouth.

"No," she repeated firmly.

Thor thought. "Eye of Hawk?"

Clint snorted. "Man, that's my whole code name, just backwards."

"Man who Flies with Hawks?"

"What's that supposed to be, my tribal name?"

"Hawk Man?"

Natasha snorted.

"Well," Thor frowned, lowering his burger. "This nicknaming business is trickier than I had anticipated."'

Clint flopped sideways so he could rest his head on one arm and point with his other at Steve. "Oh man, you guys should hear all the nicknames Stark has got for American Captain Man over here."

"Clint," Natasha ground out, though she was largely drowned out by Thor waving around the burger in indignation, heedless of the lettuce spilling out all over the table.

"That is also an unacceptable nickname for Steve," Thor said, "as you have done precisely what I was told not to do!"

"Wait," Steve said, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. "Mr. Stark has... nicknames for me?"

"Please refrain from feeding Stark's massive narcissistic complex by addressing him with anything as formal as 'Mr. Stark'," Natasha replied, folding her arms over her chest and shooting Clint a withering look.

Clint was either oblivious or immune, because he began to practically bounce in his seat. "Oh yeah, Stark is always making up nicknames for you. I swear that's how he spends at least an hour a day."

Steve bit his lower lip, looking down at his half eaten fourth sandwich. Stark made up nicknames for Steve? He actually thought about Steve ? That was... Steve didn't really know what to think about that, but if the way the others were looking at him was any indication, he was probably blushing. He couldn't help it - what on earth was someone like Tony Stark doing making up nicknames about Steve?

Actually, they were probably all bad. That would make more sense.

"What kind of nicknames?" Steve asked, swallowing down the weird feeling that had started tightening his throat.

"Most of them reference your ass," Natasha said dryly.

"My what?" Steve practically squeaked, and if he hadn't been blushing before he certainly was now. "I - I don't, I mean... - why?!"

Natasha arched an eyebrow. "It's a nice ass, Cap."

Steve's coughing fit took up the next half minute, made worse by Clint's insistence on pounding Steve's back and trying to grab away Steve's hands, which were currently covering his face and hiding his blush as best they could.

"C'mon, man," Clint grunted, attempting to pull at Steve's wrists next, giving up to yank at Steve's elbows where they rested on the table. "It just means Stark likes you. I get 'Hawkass' all the time, because I also have an awesome ass."

"Oh my gosh," Steve groaned, barely noticing when Clint's pulling switched to prodding, at least not until one finger landed in a tender space between Steve's ribs. "Hey!" he yelped, jerking away, hands flying down. "Watch it!"

The silence that descended on the table was nothing short of ominous. Steve looked up to find all three of them looking at him, lips twitching.

"Interesting reaction, Captain," Thor said, finally putting down the far flung burger.

"I don't know what you - hey!" Steve gasped as Clint's fingers found his side again, and jerked away with what absolutely, positively was not a giggle. Not at all.

"Steve," Natasha said, the twitch in her lips growing to a smirk, "really? The serum didn't take care of that?"

Steve hunched himself into the corner of the booth, face flaming red yet again. "I - Well, no, I mean, it... I never really - Look, it was pretty bad before the serum, see, and -"

Clint snickered. "You were bad, Cap?"

Natasha reached over to smack Clint in the head.

Steve swallowed nervously, looking anywhere but at the three of them. "I meant, you know, sensitive -"

"You mean Captain American was ticklish as hell," Clint supplied gleefully before Natasha whacked him in the head again.

" I... - yeah, okay, yeah, before the serum, but the serum only really made health issues and pain thresholds go down. T - tickling isn't really either one of those, so it... it was kind of..."

Steve wasn't entirely sure he'd ever seen Natasha look this delighted. "No, the serum wouldn't have taken care of that, how stupid of me. Being ticklish is considered to have started as a defense mechanism so we could know if poisonous scorpions were crawling on us, or other dangerous things."

Thor's brows drew together. "Please do not mention those foul beasts," he requested darkly. "Though small in comparison to some of the creatures I have seen and fought, these scorpion creatures are particularly disgusting."

Clint promptly turned his glee to Thor. "No shit. You're afraid of scorpions, Thor?"

"Yes," Thor replied. "I saw many of them during my time in the desert. I also did not enjoy the insects with large bodies and many legs."

"Centipedes?" Natasha supplied, and Thor shuddered.

"The name alone is enough to cause grief."

"So wait," Clint cut in, stealing Steve's fork so he could take his turn in pointing at everyone, his own fork long gone along with his own empty plate. "So here at this table alone, we have a ticklish super soldier -"

"Not so loud!" Steve protested despite the practically empty diner.

" - a god who is afraid of bugs -"

"Not all bugs, just those named!" Thor declared. He thought for another moment. "Though I am sorry to say, Lady Widow, that I am also not very fond of the creatures that are your namesake."

"Please stop calling me Lady Widow," Natasha said. "I've asked you approximately 26,753 times."

Thor kept frowning. "I must respect you as a woman warrior. Your plight in this life is more difficult than that of male warriors, and I need to display my support for you in an open and reverential manner."

Natasha looked at Steve and sighed. "How can I even argue with that?"

Clint grinned. "As I was saying, a god who is afraid of bugs. And then we have a secret agent super spy assassin who -"

"- could end you in your sleep without you even being aware I'd been watching you from the shadows of your room the entire time you got ready for bed."

There was a brief, stunned silence, before Clint cleared his throat. "Okay, fair warning, guys - she can actually do that."

"It's all about practice," Natasha said, examining her nails. "I'll get even better once you two easy targets move in."

Now it was Steve's turn to pause with his food halfway to his mouth. "Move in?" he asked. "Where? And how will we be easy targets?" While Steve had no doubt that Natasha probably could break into his apartment's tiny bedroom without him noticing, that obviously wasn't what she meant, and he was confused. When Clint and Natasha exchanged an overly significant look, Steve exchanged one with Thor.

"Do not look at me," Thor said, munching on the remains of his burger. "I do not speak their eyebrow language."

"Well," Clint said, finally sitting up all the way, "Tasha and I have been splitting our time pretty evenly between SHIELD HQ and Stark Towers. Stark found us at HQ one day, invited us for pizza, and then left us in his tower with Bruce while he went off to run some kind of experiment."

Steve exchanged another look with Thor. The two of them had wondered a couple of times where the reclusive scientist was most likely to have gone following the invasion. Guess that answered that question. "Dr. Banner is residing at Stark Towers?" Thor asked.

Natasha snorted again, which was one of the most endearing things Steve had ever seen. "As far as we can determine, Stark pretty much just kidnapped the guy after Lo - after the invasion, and Bruce just... didn't bother to try and escape."

"It's a pretty sweet deal," Clint said, turning to look at Steve with a bizarre intensity. "Stark literally fitted out whole floors for Avengers stuff. He wants us to come stay."

"Oh," Steve said, looking at Natasha. "Well, that's good. You two won't have to stay at SHIELD anymore."

"Stop moving your eyebrows in that manner," Thor groused when Natasha and Clint exchanged another baffling round of eyeball discussion.

"No, Steve, Stark was talking about all of us. Like, all of us. Meaning all," Clint said.

Steve blinked at him, and looked down bashfully at his lap. "Oh, I'm sure he didn't mean me. I don't think Mr. Stark -"

Natasha growled.

" - er, I don't think that Stark really likes me that much, you know? And, I mean, he's so busy, I'm sure he didn't even think of me at all when he made that offer to you, and -"

"Steve," Natasha said, and he looked at her. "You act like such a goddamn wilting flower sometimes. Shut up."

He shut up.

"Anywaaaay," Clint drawled, "you two should come check out the place for yourselves."

"Maybe bring a bag," Natasha added.

"Full of all your belongings," Clint agreed.

Steve caught Thor's eye. "Why do I feel like this was a trap all along?"

"There is certainly trickery afoot," Thor replied gravely. "But I fear the Lady Widow breaking into my bedchamber, and so in order to avoid my own imminent demise, I suggest we pay a visit to Tony Stark."

And Steve really couldn't argue with that.

Chapter Text

Stark Tower was, not surprisingly, just as big on the inside as Steve remembered from the admittedly brief time he'd spent in it a couple of months before. It had been patched up since then, obviously. Now everything was back to being shiny smooth, and Steve was a little afraid to know how much money each glossy square inch must have cost. That didn't stop him from running a constant approximation through his head as Clint and Natasha led Steve and Thor through the lobby and to the private elevators in the back, going up the incredible number of floors to where Tony Stark resided and, apparently, the rest of them were meant to live as well.

The doors opened into a familiar lounge, one that had also been cleanly repaired. It was impossible to tell that there had once been an Iron Man shaped hole in the window, and a Loki sized dent in the floor. But the expensive leather furnishings and the fancy surfaces kept driving that tally up in Steve's head, and he shifted uncomfortably just outside the elevator even as the other three moved further into the room. It was all so sleek and seamless, and Steve felt horribly out of place. Footfalls were dulled by the plush carpet just beyond the gleaming marble floor, the sounds of the city outside was muted by the beautiful glass windows...

...and even the sound of the elevator doors was so smooth that Steve barely had time to register the slight rasp of their opening before there was a hand clapping down on his shoulder.

"Security breach!" Tony Stark barked directly into Steve's ear, his hand dropping when Steve jolted and spun around. "Woah, American Dream, cool off. If anyone should be jumpy in this situation it should be me. I mean, here I am, just come back from a long day of work - well, okay, it's only early afternoon, but you have no idea how damn painful half these meetings are - to find that marauders just broke into my private, secured floors."

Steve gaped at the man before him. If this wasn't the Tony Stark of legend, then Steve was even more behind than he thought. Stark was wearing a suit, shiny gray with a gold and red striped tie and a matching pair of converse sneakers. His sunglasses were perched on the bridge of his nose despite the fact that he was inside, the lenses reflecting Steve's own face back at him. The smirk on Stark's lips was the same one Steve had seen on internet sites everywhere, self deprecating and smug and so camera ready that it was almost painful to look at.

This was Tony Stark in an armor Steve hadn't prepared for.

"Can it really be called a 'break in' when you were handing around the codes like Halloween candy last week?" Natasha asked, smoothly lowering herself to sit on one of the glass top coffee tables in front of the leather couch.

"Oh," Stark replied, edge to his voice, "are you implying this is my fault now?"

Steve looked quickly to Clint to gauge his reaction - was this going to be an argument? Steve thought they'd been invited! - but the archer looked completely unfazed, flopping down on one end of the couch, propping up his elbow on the arm. Apparently this was not an uncommon kind of exchange.

"Most things seem to somehow be connected to you," Natasha said mildly, and Steve blushed a little. That sounded too close to his own words to Stark on the helicarrier.

Stark grinned, white teeth flashing against the black of his goatee. "Damn straight, Ms. Romanov." He clapped his hands together, giving Steve a very obvious once over despite the mirrored lenses. "Well well, gods and legends all in a pile in one of my many fancy and expensive living rooms," he said flippantly. Steve flushed, but Stark carried on as if he hadn't noticed - maybe he hadn't. "How did I ever get so lucky? Where did you even find them? Shout down the thunder outside? Search the most patriotic county fairs for the best apple pie eating contests?"

Steve looked away, trying to catch Natasha's eye. That... kind of hurt. Was that really what Stark thought of him? Maybe Natasha had been wrong about Steve being invited to the tower too.

Steve didn't have a chance to try his own eyebrow conversation with her though, as Thor chose that moment to stride across the room and sweep Stark up into a bone breaking hug. "Man of Iron," he boomed, heedless of the wince that cracked across Stark's face. "It is good to see you again! I would have pursued a visit with you sooner, but you are a busy man, important to this realm. I knew not if you would have the schedule until assured otherwise by Clint and Lady Widow."

"Lady Widow?" Stark mouthed over Thor's shoulder.

Natasha rolled her eyes. "Thor, you're going to squash the Man of Iron if you don't put him down in the next five seconds."

Thor paused, leaning slightly away to take in Stark's purpling face, and promptly dropped him back on the floor. "Apologies, Man of Iron. I often forget myself."

"No worries, big guy," Stark wheezed out. "And call me Tony, okay?" He finally removed the sunglasses, grinning up at Thor and patting him on the shoulder. "So how you been keeping, Thunder Man? Enjoying this fabulous and completely corrupt realm of ours?"

Thor smiled broadly, following Stark over to the bar. He sat down on one of the stools while Stark started mixing a drink despite the fairly early hour of the afternoon.

Steve stayed where he was. It didn't really seem to matter that he did. Half of him, the side governed by a new found sense of self preservation (he certainly hadn't had much of that pre-serum) kind of wanted to just...slowly back into the elevator and get out of there. He felt intensely uncomfortable here in Tony Stark's world, more so than he had anticipated. If the outside world gave him difficulty in finding where exactly he fit in, Stark's tower was an absolute impossibility. It was so modern and so hi tech, and that greeting from Stark didn't speak of any kind of desire for friendship. What was Steve even doing here?

Unfortunately, just as Steve made his first step backwards toward the elevator doors, three things happened. One, Natasha's head swiveled towards him, pinning him with a narrow eyed stare. Two, Thor began recounting his and Steve's adventures, which would make it about a billion times more conspicuous if he were to leave right then, and three, the doors opened again behind him to reveal the final Avenger.

"Dr. Banner," Steve said politely, retracting the step he'd taken and trying to look as convincingly as possible like he hadn't been about to flee.

Dr. Banner looked a bit bewildered, either at the sight of so many people in the tower's lounge or because he hadn't really been expecting Steve to be standing right outside the elevator. Regardless of his reason, Banner offered his usual tired smile. "Hey, Steve," he said, glancing around at them all. "Wow. I didn't think he would actually do it."

"Ouch, Bruce," Stark said, clutching his chest. "Your lack of faith is wounding. You should look into that. I bet you wouldn't be so angry all the time if you just trusted and believed everything I say."

"Pretty sure that's not how it would go," Bruce said wryly.

"Hello, Dr. Banner!" Thor called, waving from his bar stool. "I was just telling of myself and Steve's adventures through your New York."

"Oh, really?" Banner said, looking at Steve with polite interest. In response, Steve nodded a little jerkily. He couldn't really tell if Banner was sincere in his attention, or if he was just playing along.

"Indeed!" Thor resumed, turning back towards Stark. "Steve and I have been on many journeys around this great city."

With a jolt, Steve realized that Stark was staring right at him.

"Really," the dark haired man said, not really phrasing it as a question, and Steve felt his cheeks heat up a little in confusion.

He could feel Natasha's eyes on him. He ignored her.

"So, what," Stark continued, taking his drink and moving over to one of the armchairs beside the couch, "Captain Patriotism needed to return to the heartland and wanted an equally anachronistic ally?"

Steve looked down, wishing that he'd just gotten into the elevator after Banner had stepped out and left.

Thor cleared his throat, rising from his chair. "I do not believe New York City is necessarily part of your country's "heartland", but if you say it is then I trust you. However, this land is strange and new to both myself and Captain Rogers." Steve looked up at that; there was a strange note to Thor's voice, and the way he was looking at Stark was almost... was that rebuke? "We both found this world to be strange and lonely. The transition was not easy for either of us. It is still a struggle." He turned to look at Steve, shooting a grin his way despite the way his arms remained folded intimidatingly over his chest. "Tis true that I had to fairly drag the Captain from his apartment building, but we have enjoyed ourselves, have we not, Steve?"

Steve swallowed when that made everyone's gaze turn to him. "Um, yes, yes it really was enjoyable. Thor helped, you know, with feeling a bit out of it, and not really being able to figure things out and, um.... yeah."

Stark was looking at him intently, obviously ticking away something in his brain, and Steve fidgeted miserably. He startled a little when a hand landed on his elbow.

"Hey," Banner said with that same polite smile, "at least it's just unfamiliar and not a vaguely uncomfortable reminder of that time you destroyed one of the most popular areas of the city single-handedly."

Steve blinked. That was... a dismal comparison. "That's, uh, I suppose? I mean, that wasn't really -"

"Steve," Natasha interrupted imperiously, and Steve turned quickly to look at her, eager for the distraction. "I'm cold. Come sit with me."

Steve couldn't help it - he arched an eyebrow of his own at her. "You...you're cold? Really?"

Natasha's eyes narrowed, but Steve had spent enough time with her to see the barely there twitch at the left corner of her mouth. "Are you mocking a lady, Captain?" she asked, batting her eyes at him. "You'd better rethink impugning my honor."

"I wouldn't dream of it, Lady Widow," Steve replied. Beside him, Banner huffed a laugh.

"Good. Then get over here and share some of your ridiculous body heat."

The slow rise of Stark's eyebrow made Steve's cheeks flame worse than before, and the rising of the other one when Natasha pulled Steve into her side when he tried to take a seat on the table a slight distance away made it worse. But Natasha was steady against Steve, and she made him feel absurdly safe, safe enough to finally look up and meet Stark's assessing look.

"Wow," Stark said after his scrutiny ended. "Looks like you're just making friends left, right, and sideways, huh Capsicle?" He grinned, and it was more teeth than anything. "Must be nice to be so popular."

"What Tony's trying to say is that gee, it's really great to see you, Steve. Looks like you've been keeping well," Banner said, lowering himself tiredly onto the other side of the couch and leaving Thor in the middle.

Stark glanced sharply over at Bruce.

"Capsicle is a pretty frequent nickname," Clint informed Steve before turning his head to look over at Tony. "You can call him some of the other ones. I already told Cap how much you appreciate his ass."

"Friend Clint is an ass of a different sort," Thor cut in before Stark could say anything, and Steve abruptly realized that, yes, Thor was attempting to protect him. Just as Natasha was looking to distract him with her arm around his, sides pressed together, fingers occasionally catching on the cuff of his flannel shirt, Thor actually was telling Tony (and Clint) off, in a subtle way, for making fun of Steve.

Too bad it didn't entirely work.

"So you guys have been talking about me, huh?" Stark asked, dark eyes still fixed on Steve. "From the way Captain Muscles is blushing over there still, I'm assuming it was all bad and all true, huh?"

Steve felt miserable. Why was he even here in this man's home? This was so obviously not where he belonged; only five minutes in, and he'd insulted his host and practically melted onto the floor in embarrassment. "Mr. Stark, no, that's not -"

Stark actually looked surprised. "Mr. Stark? Really?"

Steve burned even redder, even as Natasha's fingernails dug into his arm. "It was meant to show respect."

Natasha pressed harder. "You're feeding his ego, Steve. Quit feeding his ego, or I swear I'll strangle you tonight rather than giving you the few days to settle I'd originally planned on."

Steve didn't say anything, focusing his gaze resignedly on the elevators. He knew Natasha was barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. There was no way Stark would ever let Steve stay at the tower now, not after -

"Don't let her threats bother you, Captain," Stark said suddenly, leaning over to pat Steve on the knee. "I'll show you how to program the locks on your quarters to warn you if any deadly Russian spies attempt to break in and smother you in your sleep."

Steve stared at Stark, frowning a little. As Steve's frown deepened, the most extraordinary thing happened - Stark's dark eyes, previously so intense and almost derisive, softened. The squint he'd been holding them in smoothed away, and he looked younger, more open.

"Oh," Steve said, stuttering a little. "I mean - really?"

The side of Stark's mouth quirked up. "Yeah, really. I meant that invitation when I gave it to you way back in the way back, Captain, even if apparently you didn't really understand what I was saying. You're welcome here with the rest of us, you and Mr. Nordic Wonder over there."

Thor made some sort of booming protestation at that particular nickname, but Steve just kept looking at Stark. "You don't have to call me Captain, you know," he said quietly.

Stark's gaze grew a little more focused again. "And you really don't need to call me Mr. Stark, Steve."

And at the sound of his actual name coming from Stark, Steve felt his cheeks heating up all over again, though this time Tony didn't look away - he grinned instead.

"Everyone can call me Bruce," Bruce offered mildly from his chair, breaking the weird tension that had taken over the room. Tony soon was up and running, talking at a million miles a minute about giving everyone the guided tour, and would everyone please come with him and keep their arms inside of the something or another. Steve stood up, ready to follow, but was pulled to an abrupt halt when Natasha's hand, still in the crook of his arm, dug in firm.

"I'm so breaking into your room your first night here," she told him, voice as flat as ever. "I think we need to discuss this blushing issue and its correlation to a certain asshole who goes by the name of Tony Stark."

Steve groaned, and blushed all over again. "Natasha, I'm just being stupid. You know how I get. There's nothing to talk about."

Clint, who hadn't bothered getting up from the couch yet, snorted. "Steve, it's downright precious that you think she isn't just going to make you talk."

He groaned again. Sometimes, having friends sucked.

Chapter Text

Steve wound up moving into Stark Tower on Wednesday, the day after the initial uncomfortable meeting. Sta- Tony wasn't around when Steve showed up with his two bags of belongings, and he instead found himself being greeted by Bruce.

"Travel light, huh?" Bruce asked as he met Steve at the Tower's private garage entrance, hands in the pockets of his khakis.

"Yeah," Steve replied, kicking down the stand on his motorcycle and hoisting his bags higher over his shoulders as he swung his leg off the bike. "Not really much left for me when I woke up."

Bruce gave his polite smile again. "Generally, I know what you mean."

Steve nodded, hands fisting in his bag straps. There was something about being confronted with Bruce in any capacity that made Steve feel a bit ashamed. He knew that Bruce only became the Hulk because of the same serum that had been destroyed. It wasn't fair that Bruce, someone who legitimately understood what the serum did and what it could do from a scientific aspect (and left Steve in the comprehension dust) should suffer so horribly while Steve was just... there. "Sorry. You've lost so much, and all because of the serum." He smiled wanly. "Sometimes I wish it had never worked. Maybe it would have been better if it had just failed."

Bruce chuckled, shaking his head. "Steve, no offense, but that's one of the stupidest things I've ever heard."

Steve flushed, looking down. Well, he'd already determined that compared to Bruce he wasn't exactly any kind of brain power worth mentioning, and -

"And I can guarantee that whatever is going through your head at this very moment is also incredibly stupid," Bruce continued, his voice suddenly sharp.

Steve glanced back over at Bruce only to find the man studying his shoes, arms now crossed protectively over his chest. "I - sorry?"

There was a moment of echoing silence throughout the low ceiling garage, and then Bruce let out another chuckle.

"Steve, you didn't get asked out on a lot of dates before the war, did you?"

Steve blinked in the face of the abrupt subject change, and thought he maybe was supposed to be offended by the question, but it seemed so obvious that he couldn't really be bothered. "Uh, no, not really. I assume you've seen photographs of what I used to look like. Can you imagine any girl wanting to bring me home to her parents?" Steve smiled, shaking his head.

But Bruce didn't smile. "Yeah, Steve," he said, perfectly serious. "I can."

Steve wasn't exactly sure what to say to that. "I don't... I mean, Dr. Banner, I -"

"It's Bruce, Steve," Bruce reminded him gently. "And I ask because you're such a nice guy, but you never ever give yourself enough credit." He took a step forward, hands going back in his pockets. "Steve, it's true that the Other Guy only happened because of my attempts to mess with the serum, but that was because the serum didn't have the goodness in me to hold onto like it did in you. In me it had a lot of anger and a lot of rage that I never figured out how to channel. You, on the other hand, were always this nice. You're a good person, and a great guy." The smile slipped off his face. "But you need to stop thinking you're a lesser man because of it."

This wasn't really a conversation Steve had expected to have with, well, anyone, and certainly not in a skyscraper garage with a genius who turned green whenever he needed to let off steam. "Um, Dr.. Bruce, I don't -"

"Tony and I kept tabs on you, you know."

Steve's spine straightened minutely. "What? Kept tabs on me? When?"

Bruce pulled his glasses off, cleaning them on the hem of his purple button down. "Following the invasion. We know that you didn't leave your apartment those first couple of weeks. Tony was kinda bugged that you hadn't stopped by the tower -"

"I didn't know -"

"I know, Steve," Bruce interrupted him, just as gently. "I know you didn't really get what he was offering. Tony's not the most transparent person, and then he tends to overreact, which was what you saw yesterday. But he wanted to know what you were doing, what was going on, and we realized you weren't ever leaving your apartment." Bruce looked at Steve, eyes sad. "I know what we did was tantamount to spying, but we were worried. We didn't know what you were doing in there, or what you might try to do. You have a very expressive face when you're not in leader mode, Steve, and your expression is almost always sad."

Steve couldn't have said anything if he'd wanted to. It was taking a moment to sink in. So all those weeks ago, when he thought he was so alone, there were two people watching for him, worried about him?

And he hadn't even known.

Bruce took a step closer. "When you started going out again, Tony got a little hurt that it was always to SHIELD and never to see us, and so he stopped watching. But I didn't. I know it probably seems creepy, and weird, but..." Bruce shrugged, his own cheeks taking on a tinge of color. "You've been an inspiration to me, Steve. You always were. I wanted to recreate Erskine's formula to be great like you, but that's just not who I am."

"You're a hero, Bruce," Steve said, cutting off the other man for once. "You and the Hulk...er, the Other Guy, may not exactly have a close working relationship, but I've worked with him and I've worked with you. You both fight the good fight."

Bruce smiled sadly. "It's not always been that way."

"But you're trying," Steve insisted, taking his own step forward. "And so many people can't say that. So many people who go bad do so because they just don't feel like trying to be good. It's easier to be bad, to get that instant gratification and to ignore the needs of others. You don't do that, Bruce."

Silence reigned again through the enclosed space, Steve's words lingering along the curves of the support beams before disappearing down the tunnel. Bruce just looked at him for a long time, polite expression a little more shuttered than usual, until finally he coughed.

"Steve, I asked if you didn't get a lot of dates because the girls and the boys at school just don't go for the nice guys. I know it must have been hard for you, but it's pretty impressive you're still this nice. So, my current advice for you, considering you're about to move into a building that houses Tony Stark, is to stop being so nice." Bruce winced. "Not that I think you should go around punching the elderly or stealing baby strollers, but your initial response to things is always to fold, to bend and let others walk all over you. Don't let people do that. Don't let Tony do that."

Steve frowned. "Tony? What's he got to -"

"I have eyes, Steve," Bruce said, the amused twinkle back in his eye with the twitch of his lips. "Tony may seem like all bluster, but he's just as intimidated by you as you are by him."

Steve chuckled. "That sounds like the spider discussion Natasha tried to have with Thor."

Bruce's smile widened. "Did it work?"

Steve shook his head. "No. But that was probably because she decided throwing live spiders at Thor was the best way to get the problem over with." He grinned. "Natasha is one tough dame."

Bruce laughed, finally stepping over to the elevator and waving Steve to follow along. "Watch out for her, too. Natasha is... interesting."

"Should I refuse to let her walk all over me too?"

Banner smirked as the floors pinged by. "No, you probably should do absolutely everything Natasha tells you to do. I'm not exactly sure what would happen if you didn't. Hey, so here we are. Let me show you to your room, and we can see if you have any questions, okay?"

*~*

For most of the tour it was just Steve and Bruce. Thor was staying with Jane until Thursday, when she had to go back to New Mexico to continue her studies (and wouldn't let him come with), and both Clint and Natasha were about to leave for some kind of meeting with Fury to determine whether or not the SHIELD doctors were prepared to let Clint re-enter the field.

"You were taken off active duty?" Steve asked when he and Bruce passed the assassins as they were leaving. "But that's ridiculous. You're fine now. You were fine all through the Manhattan invasion."

Clint grinned at Steve, clapping him on the shoulder. "Yeah, except for the part where I helped start the whole thing."

"That wasn't you," Steve insisted, crossing his arms over his chest. "You didn't know."

Clint's grin faltered for a moment, eyes going a bit distant, and there was that look of sorrow and loss that Steve knew so well. This time - for the first time, actually - Steve reached out and put his own hand on Clint's shoulder, drawing the guy tentatively into a one armed hug.

"It wasn't your fault," he said. "And regardless of what the SHIELD shrinks decide, you've always got a place with The Avengers. I'll call you in anyway."

Both Natasha and Bruce stepped off to the side, beginning a quiet discussion that seemed to be about window cleaner and giving Clint the privacy he needed to sag into Steve's side.

"Thanks, Cap," Clint said, and the 'nickname' had never sounded fonder. "I'm just... a little worried, you know? I mean, if I had been better or stronger or more... I dunno, more somethin', all those people wouldn't be dead. Coulson -"

He broke off, and Steve tightened his grip around Clint's shoulders. "None of it was your fault, Clint. Unless you managed to grow a foot taller, get long black hair, and develop a weirdly Brit accent for someone supposed to be from another planet, then none of this was your fault."

Clint snorted, then started laughing. "Wait, grow a foot? How short do you think I am! We can't all be six foot something of golden hair and 300 lbs of muscle!"

"You do realize you're kind of blonde too, right?" Steve asked. "And 300 lbs? I think you're calling me fat."

"I'm calling you hewn from stone, you meathead," Clint replied, jabbing his fingers into Steve's abs, and Steve writhed away. "If you fell on me, you'd probably pulverize my legs."

"Clint," Natasha said, finishing up her conversation with Bruce, "you're an idiot. Let's go. Steve, I'll see you later."

"That's not foreboding at all," came a new voice, and Steve turned just as Tony entered the room, clad this time in track pants and a black tank top. "Unless you two have something going on, which is kind of hot, and JARVIS, remind me to videotape the inside of Cap's room."

Steve flushed. Natasha stared at Tony, and then at him.

"Yep. I'll definitely be seeing you tonight."

Tony kept looking at Steve even as the assassins filed out, leaving Steve alone with the two scientists.

"Your tower is very nice," Steve said after a moment of silence, fidgeting slightly.

Tony smirked. "Our tower, Steve. You live here too. And good, glad you like it. Try not to break anything though, okay?"

Steve's eyes went wide. "Break anything? I won't, I mean, I'll try not to, but I - I don't even know what half this stuff is or how to use it and if you could just give me a list of things not to touch -"

"Steve," Bruce cut in with his endless patience, "Tony's just being a dick."

"Actually," Tony interjected, looking a little disturbed, "I was just teasing. It's not my fault Cap over here apparently has endless stores of guilt for things he hasn't even done yet. Christ, do you ever just talk normally without apologizing?"

Steve flushed, looking down. "Sorry."

Tony threw his hands up in the air. "Okay, you know what? I'm banning that word. Take note. JARVIS, if you hear Captain Guiltbag over there apologize to anyone about anything, I want you to automatically turn on whatever sprinkler systems are overhead. Got it?"

"Apologies, Sir," came the automated voice that Steve still jumped at every time. "I was busy running tests on the sustainability of the suit repairs you were working on in your lab. But if you would like me to switch my focus to the harassment of the inhabitants of your tower -"

"What the," Tony said, glaring up at the ceiling. "Why do you sound an awful lot like Bruce? Bruce, what have you done?"

"JARVIS and I do yoga together in the mornings," Bruce replied. "It's very centering. And then we talk about how to keep you from being a dick."

"You swear more than I would have expected," Steve told Bruce.

Bruce grinned. "I have anger management issues, and you're surprised that I can swear? Truthfully, I'm surprised that you don't curse more than you do, being the military man that you are."

Steve winced. "Just wait until sprinkler systems start turning on above my head."

Tony scoffed, stepping over to Steve. "Oh, c'mon, I wouldn't actually let that happen. Well, maybe once. Or maybe twice, if your response to the first time is funny enough. But that's not the point."

"What is the point?" Bruce asked, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"The point is, Hulkster," Tony said, grinning widely, "that I want full access to Cap's spangly outfit."

Steve frowned. "Wait, you what?"

Tony turned back to Steve, poking a finger into his chest. "I want your suit, Steve. It's pitiful. It's shameful. A small furry dog could rip holes in it with its well maintained claws. You've got no support in there, no real armor except for that shield. Your helmet is practically made out of plastic, and if we're going to do this Avengers thing, I want to do some upgrades."

Oh. Well, that made sense. Honestly, Steve was kind of touched that Tony would want to do that. "Okay, that sounds great."

"And it's no use arguing the point, because I'm letting you live here for free and -"

"Tony," Bruce cut in. "Steve said yes."

There was a moment of silence, where Tony did that staring thing again, only this time it was as if he had never seen Steve before in his life. "What?"

Steve shrugged. "Yeah, sure. That would be really nice of you."

Tony still stared, brown eyes fixed and unblinking. "Really. It's going to be that easy."

Steve looked helplessly at Bruce, who shrugged. "Most people don't really want Tony touching their things. He tends to set them on fire."

"Urban legend," Tony replied.

Steve turned back to Tony, sticking his hands in the pockets of his khakis. "No, I don't mind. I mean, the suit's a little old fashioned, I know, and it could use some extra protection. I got rammed real good by a couple of those alien things, and if there had been some kind of armor in there, like my old suit, I probably wouldn't have been so slowed down."

Tony finally blinked. "I don't actually remember you slowing down at any point at all, but that's.. okay. I'll want to take measurements of my own, you know. And you'll have to put up with me making you try on a bunch of stuff that might not work right away."

Steve nodded earnestly. "That's fine. That's totally fine. I really appreciate it, Tony."

Tony nodded slowly, reaching up to scratch at his goatee. "Good. Good. Okay, well, then I'll come find you tomorrow and we can get started."

"Okay," Steve said, smiling a little shyly, but it was lost on Tony, who had already started walking out of the room. Didn't really matter, though - the fact that Tony wanted to help Steve out, and maybe actually spend a little bit of time with him, was enough to keep him cheerful for the rest of the day, even when all it consisted of was him lifting heavy things for Bruce. It was fine. It was all fine.

And then Natasha jumped out of his ceiling and onto his shoulders, bearing him down to his mattress the second he walked into his bedroom to get ready to sleep.

"So," she said, perched on top of him. "Let's chat."

And Steve groaned.

Chapter Text

"Natasha," Steve said, or tried to say with his face smushed into his new bed's pillow, "can we do this tomorrow? I'm really, really tired."

"It is tomorrow," she replied coolly, moving only enough to settle more firmly on his shoulders, knees and feet holding down his arms. "It's approximately 12:01, and I must say that I'm very proud of you for staying up past 10:00 pm."

Steve grunted, trying to shift over a little so at least his legs weren't hanging halfway off the bed, but with no upper body leverage, he just succeeded in pressing his face further into the pillow. "I was with Bruce. He was showing me Bugs Bunny cartoons. I'm not really sure why."

Natasha seemed to think it over, if the pause before her reply was any indication. "Did you used to watch Bugs Bunny?"

Steve shrugged as best he was able. "Not really. I liked more realistic animation. Like Snow White."

There was another long pause, followed by a sigh. "Okay, whatever. So, Steve, what's going on with you?"

He wriggled a little more, just enough to get his face out of the pillowcase. "Nothing. I told you, I'm just tired."

With another sigh (and really, this was more deliberate emotional hinting from Natasha in the past two minutes than Steve thought he may have ever had in the entirety of their friendship), Natasha tipped herself off Steve's shoulders, flopping down with an uncharacteristic lack of grace onto the bed. She tucked an arm behind her head, crossing her legs at the ankle. "Aren't we all."

Steve, finally free to move unhindered, pushed himself up and looked at Natasha. He hesitated, still half on and half off the bed, partially kneeling on the floor.

Natasha cracked one eye open, looking over at him. "Steve, get on the damn bed."

He flushed a little. "I - really?"

She rolled her eyes. "Well, I guess that depends. Are you planning on groping me the second I close my eyes?"

"What?" Steve yelped, scrambling backwards. "No! I would never do that!"

"How disappointing," she deadpanned. "And are you particularly afraid that I'll grab you in certain sensitive areas the second you close your eyes?"

"I -" Steve sat back on his haunches. "Well, no, okay, that depends. For the purpose of causing pain, or just for the sake of trying to make me uncomfortable?"

Natasha stared at him. "Get on the damn bed, Steve."

"Okay," he said, grinning back at her even though he was fairly certain his cheeks were still pink. He pushed himself up and rolled over onto the bed, jostling her as he bounced onto the mattress. He reached over to unlace his shoes and toe them off, laughing when Natasha kicked him lightly in the head to make him turn and help her pull off her own boots. After depositing them on the floor next to his he stretched out beside her, mimicking her pose.

"Better," she said, turning on her side to look at him. "Were you always this hesitant? I read your file, you know, many times. I wouldn't really have expected someone who got in so many fights when he only weighed about 90 lbs to be so shy."

Steve shrugged, scratching idly at his nose. "I've always been... I guess you could say shy. But I couldn't stand being pushed around. Just because someone's skinnier than someone else or shorter or just... different, that doesn't give other people the right to push anyone around. I know that belief made me do a lot of stupid things back then, and it's not like I've gotten any better really, maybe I'm even stupider about it since I practically jumped down Tony's throat the first time I met him because he reminded me of those guys that used to corner me after school, but I was so wrong, and it was so embarrassing, and I can't blame it on being iced over or a Capsicle or whatever the name is because I should know better and..." He trailed off. "Sorry. I forgot what your question was."

Natasha drummed her fingertips on the mattress between them. "How did Tony remind you of the guys that used to beat you up?"

Steve shrugged uncomfortably, looking up at the ceiling. "I guess... when we first talked after we got Loki, I didn't... he was asking me these questions, and saying things that I didn't get, and I thought he was making fun of me, you know?" He chuckled, twisting his fingers into the hem of his white t-shirt. "I guess he sort of makes fun of everyone, though, that's just his way of talking. But I didn't know that, and I was already kind of, you know..." He sighed. "I just felt weird. He made me feel kind of... lost."

She nodded, tucking a few slightly curled red strands of hair behind her ear. "He has that effect."

Steve watched the play of her fingers over her hair. "Does he? I sort of figured it had to be just me. He seemed to get along much more easily with you, didn't try and push you or anything."

"Oh, he had plenty of time to do that before," Natasha replied. "I met him a few years ago, posing as a member of his company in order to determine his suitability for the Avengers Initiative." She smirked. "It wasn't a good first impression, or second impression..." She tilted her head. "Or third or fourth or fifth. It took a long time to get down to the actuality of Tony Stark."

They lay quietly together for a little while, Natasha still on her side, occasionally glancing down at Steve, and Steve on his back, hands folded over his stomach, staring up at the ceiling. It was much nicer than his ceiling back in his little apartment. There were no cracks in it for once, and really, Tony - or whoever had set up the room - had done a nice job in picking a space for Steve. The room itself was a good size, with a little table by the big window that looked out on the city below, and a dresser and and a big closet full of all kinds of storage units that Steve couldn't imagine ever really filling. The bed was big and comfy, not too soft, and with a very nice chocolate brown comforter. The room itself was actually in many different warm shades of browns and dark reds, lit by lamps rather than overhead lights, giving it all a cozy glow. It felt... like a home.

And when Natasha's carefully sharp fingernails gently started carding through the strands along his hairline, Steve just... melted.

"I think I'm attracted to Tony."

Natasha chuckled, not stopping the movement of her fingers. "I guessed that, Steve."

He whined, not caring anymore just how pathetic he probably sounded, turning into Natasha and hiding his face on her shoulder. She shifted a little, cradling his head with one arm as her other reached around to more fully move through his hair. "At first I thought maybe it was because of Howard, maybe I was just interested because he reminded me of his dad, but it's... it's not it. Tony's so different, and just.. intense. And when he looks at me, I -" He broke off. "I sound like a teenage girl right now, don't I?"

Natasha didn't stop the movement of her fingers. "I never really got to be a teenage girl, so I'm not the right person to make that comparison," she replied after a moment, and Steve looked up at her. "I wouldn't mind pretending with you for a little while, though. Though I'm not braiding your damn hair."

Steve couldn't help it; he started laughing. When his laughter tapered almost into a giggle, the sound actually got Natasha to let out an honest laugh of her own, and then they couldn't stop. They curled up in their pile, clutching at each other and gasping for breath as they slowly wound down.

Naturally, about two seconds after they'd gotten themselves back under control, they nearly fell off the bed in shock when Thor banged his way into the room, door smashing against the opposite wall. He struck a pose just inside the doorway, fists on his hips, flannel shirt just as messy and partially untucked as always, though it seemed as if the whole front was off by two buttons.

"I have arrived!" he declared.

"Uh, yeah," Steve replied, clutching at his heart. "I got that."

"The wall got that too," Natasha said. "What happened to staying with Jane until tomorrow?"

"It IS the morrow!" Thor informed her, crossing the room and collapsing onto Steve's bed as well. Unfortunately, he didn't wait for Steve or Natasha to move their legs first. "It is nearly a half an hour beyond the new day. We must celebrate!"

"Ow, Thor," Steve grunted, trying to move his legs from beneath him , but failing. "Are we celebrating the half hour of new day, that you're here, or the real time test we're about to do at how much faster my broken legs knit than Natasha's?"

Thor laughed heartily. "Steve, I am glad you have fully recovered your sense of humor."

"Well I haven't," Natasha growled. "Get off!"

"Is this a cuddle pile?" Clint shrieked from the doorway, making all of them wince, but nowhere near as much when he launched himself across the room and proceeded to land almost entirely on Steve and Thor.

"Oh God," Steve gasped, trying to curl up and failing. "What the -"

"Good aim, Clint," Natasha replied, and dammit, Steve could hear the smirk in her voice.

"Hey, if there is uncomfortable amounts of affection going on anywhere, I want part of it," Clint replied, slinging one leg up over Thor's shoulder and resting his head on Steve's stomach. "Cap, your muscles are like pillows. This is beautiful."

"Oh my gosh," Steve groaned. "I just wanted to go to bed."

"Let me have my moment," Clint demanded, wriggling in. "I've been cleared for active duty!"

"This is good news, Clint!" Thor boomed, patting Clint on the leg so forcefully that the smaller man's entire body shook. "I am most pleased!"

Steve shot Thor a look. "Did you know Clint was on probation?"

Thor frowned. "To be most honest, I am not completely certain about any of this. But if Friend Clint is happy, then so am I!"

"Thanks, Thor," Clint replied with a grin, knocking Thor in the head with his knee. "See? Thor knows how to celebrate. So what are we talking about?"

Natasha smirked. Well, Friend Steve here was just about to tell us -"

"About to tell us how he managed to set up an orgy on his first night here?" Tony Stark cut in from the doorway. He had his arms crossed over his chest, bare and really, the guy had some great arms on him. Steve tried not to blush. Well. Tried not to blush more. "I'll admit I'm impressed, Cap. And I'm also incredibly hurt you didn't invite me."

"I didn't invite any of them," Steve protested, trying very hard to worm his way out of the painful pile, but while he was extremely strong, he couldn't match three fully grown adults collapsed on top of him.

"Well," Tony replied, "that's not exactly conducive to an orgy."

"I didn't want an orgy!"

"Join us, Stark!" Clint cried, pushing himself up and off of Thor and Steve, stretching himself across the foot of the bed. "We're bonding!"

"Are you drunk?" Tony asked skeptically, though he did take another step into the room. "Because the scene before me bears all the hallmarks of a group of drunk people."

"I can't get drunk," Steve replied, finally kicking his legs free from Thor.

"And I cannot either, not off of your weak Midgardian ale," Thor added.

"I'm Russian," Natasha said.

"I'm..." Clint trailed off. "Well, you'll just have to take my word for it. Not drunk."

Tony rolled his eyes, coming over to stand beside the bed. "Didn't really need conclusive evidence to the contrary, but I'm touched you all want to prove yourselves to me."

Steve propped himself up on his elbows, watching Tony out of the corner of his eye. The other man was surveying the others with amusement quirking at the edges of his lips, though his eyes held that intensity again. He was analyzing them, cataloging them, processing them.

He was removed, dark eyes distant.

"I'm up for another movie," Steve said after a moment, and Tony looked at him in surprise. Steve smiled sheepishly. "As long as it isn't Bugs Bunny."

Tony's lips twitched as he stuck his hands in the pockets of his track pants, still looking down at Steve. "Bruce loves his Bugs Bunny. Sleeping in front of the screen right now. I left a post-it on his face letting him know there was an orgy in your room, so either he'll be here shortly or never come to this side of the tower again."

"That is not a kind thing to do to Dr. Banner," Thor intoned, brows drawing together.

Tony glanced briefly over at Thor. "Neither was Clint's idea to put plastic scorpions in your bed, but he's gone and done it anyway."

"Betrayal!" Clint yelped, flinging himself backwards off of the bed when Thor spun around to make a grab for him.

"I'LL SHOW YOU BETRAYAL," Thor roared, literally making the windows rattle in their frames. He lunged at Clint, who rolled and hauled ass back out through the door, whooping all the way down the hall, the sound punctuated by the dull thuds of Thor hitting the walls as he swerved right out after Clint.

"Excellent bonding exercise," Natasha snorted, which Steve still thought was adorable.

"Yeah, well," Tony replied, and then suddenly he had flopped onto the bed directly next to Steve. Steve flushed and tried to scoot over towards Natasha, to give Tony more room of course it was to give him more room it wasn't because Steve was having any kind of mental fritzing because Tony was in Steve's bed with him, but Natasha hid her smirk behind her hand and refused to budge, so Steve found himself legitimately squished between the two of them.

"Jarvis," Tony called, oblivious to Steve's mental trauma as he waved a hand at the large landscape painting of New York across from Steve's bed, "transfer the projection to film upload." He turned to grin at Steve, elbowing him. "Ever seen The Exorcist, Steve?"

"Oh my God," Natasha groaned.

"Um," Steve swallowed, trying to tilt a little away from Tony but only managing to bump his head into Natasha's. "No?"

"I kind of think I should be the one in the middle for this," Natasha said, reaching around Steve's shoulders and keeping him pulled to her, even as Tony transferred out the landscape for what Steve recognized as the openings of whatever film this was.

"Nah," Tony said, settling in close to Steve, actually putting his head on Steve's shoulder. "He's fine where he is. And wow, Cap, Clint wasn't kidding about you being all soft and pillowy..."

Steve only stopped blushing when Linda Blair's head started spinning around.

Chapter Text

In retrospect, Steve thought eventually, Tony's move to put on a horror film had been kind of inspired. It had meant that instead of worrying that he was crushing Natasha, or obsessing over the firm line of Tony's body against his, Steve spent the entire film burrowing into the two of them, hiding his face from demons and devils and spinning heads and that horrible, horrible voice. Clint had returned about halfway through, with wet hair and smelling very, very strongly of shaving cream, a problem that was explained when Thor rejoined them shortly thereafter with his own shirt streaked with foam.

"Have fun?" Tony asked, at that point unabashedly leaning his entire upper body on Steve, which worked just fine because that meant Steve could lean forward and bury his face against Tony's shoulder while gripping Natasha's arm around him so tightly she probably would sport bruises for weeks.

"You are out of the white foamy material that is put on the face to aid in removing hair," Thor commented, and then stared at the screen as Linda Blair stabbed herself with a cross. "This young woman seems to have some sort of affliction."

"Oh, shit," Clint groaned, launching himself onto the bed and crawling onto Natasha's other side. "I hate this movie! Why the hell are you watching it?"

"I don't know!" Steve cried, voice muffled by Tony's shoulder. "I'll never sleep again!"

"Neither will I after watching a shirtless Clint streak through the lounge covered in shaving cream and followed by a roaring Thor," Bruce added from the door, stumbling in. "I tried Hulking out, but even the Other Guy didn't want to be a part of that."

"Join us, Bruce," Tony said, practically climbing onto Steve's lap to make more room. "We're educating Steve."

"I don't want to learn this!" Steve snapped. "I was happier before when I didn't know about this movie!"

"Steve, it's not real," Natasha said, trying to pat him on the back but prevented from doing so by Steve's continuing grip on her arm.

"It's based on true events and you know it," Clint replied. "Do not lie to Captain America."

"This actually happened?" Steve asked in horror, looking back up at the screen again.

"It's always debatable when movies come with that disclaimer," Bruce said, settling on the edge of the bed. "Especially when it's a horror movie."

Tony attempted to splay his legs over Bruce's, but Bruce knocked him away. Tony narrowed his eyes. "Stop ruining the fun, Bruce. It's educational. It's a learning experience."

"It's a deliberate attempt to traumatize a national icon," Bruce countered.

Thor, meanwhile, had soldiered up the bed, (like, actually walked up it) and then literally was sitting in Steve's lap, kicking Steve's legs apart so he could settle between them. It would have been incredibly, incredibly awkward if not for the fact that Thor then burrowed in, shoved a pillow against his chest and pulled Tony's arm along with Clint's, which had been previously been draped over Natasha, to press against his pillow covered chest. "This film is unsettling," he groused, frowning. "What happens next?"

"We are not narrating the movie for you, Thor," Natasha replied. "You have to watch it just like everyone else."

"But I wish to know what happens next to minimize the worry," Thor responded petulantly.

"If we watched Bugs Bunny," Bruce said, "we wouldn't have this problem."

~*~

Two days later, Steve was still paranoid. It didn't help that they'd watched at three other Exorcist films over the rest of the weekend, but at least Clint was just as freaked out as Steve. Otherwise, the weekend probably would have been unbearable, with Clint jumping out of air vents and vaulting over couches and everything else that Steve knew darn well the circus raised archer could do. But Clint had been just as bothered by the films, and therefore had not spent any time at all plotting how to scare the daylights out of Steve.

Really, though, Steve didn't need Clint around to scare himself any further. He and Thor, who had also been unsettled by the movies, had accidentally (deliberately) located a website on Sunday night that had nothing but photos of potential ghost sightings. They wound up looking through the pictures until about 3 am when Natasha came in and actually disconnected the computer from the wall.

"Go to bed," she told them, waving the plug at them threateningly.

"I did not realize how freely the spirits walk in your world!" Thor cried, still staring at the computer screen in horror even though it had long gone dark. "How do you handle constant communion with the dead?"

"Most of those photos are faked," Natasha replied, tossing the plug aside and leaning down to pull at the Bewildered Blond Biceps Bros's, well, biceps (they had a group of cheerful fans to thank for that name), trying to get them out of the chairs they'd huddled together in front of the computer.

"But these photos aren't faked!" Steve protested, "they can't be! The exposure is all equal, and the lighting and everything else is perfectly even! It would be way too difficult to overexpose photographs to this level of accuracy if the photo wasn't genuine to begin with."

Natasha gave Steve a long look. "You know what, go find Stark. Ask him."

Steve's brow furrowed, and he flushed slightly. "Ask him what?"

With an eyeroll so forceful it had to be painful, Natasha succeeded in at least pulling Steve up from the chair and kicking him out towards the hall. Literally. With her foot. "Go find Stark, and once you're done blushing at him and being adorably repressed -"

"I'm not adorable," Steve grumped.

"Adorably repressed," Natasha repeated, "then ask him how it's possible to fake a photograph now that we have cameras that don't require a hand crank or whatever was common back in nineteen-aught-five."

Thor frowned, still sitting solid as a rock in his chair. "Is not Tony Stark in his laboratory? He does not appreciate being disturbed. Friend Clint has told me many stories to this effect, Lady Widow."

Natasha closed her eyes briefly before looking back at Thor. "I have the strong suspicion, Alien Thor, that Stark will let Steve in."

And that was how Steve found himself fidgeting outside of Tony's lab at 3:30 am on a Monday morning, watching Tony working on something at one of the lab's many work stations. He didn't know how long he was in there before apparently Jarvis informed Tony of Steve's presence, because while one minute Tony was entirely focused, hunched over his project, the next he had whipped his head up and was staring at Steve as if he'd never seen him before. Steve promptly flushed red, but was distracted when the glass door in front of him slid open, and he stepped cautiously inside.

"Well hello there, Soldier," Tony said, pushing himself off his stool to approach Steve. "What brings you down here at such a strange hour of the night?"

"It's actually morning," Steve pointed out helpfully, trying not to stare at Tony's arms, which were covered in grease stains that just served to highlight the dips and swells of muscle. Tony was... what was Clint's phrase? Ripped. Tony was kind of ripped.

Tony grinned. "If it's dark outside still, I call it night. What can I help you with, Spangles? I know I said I'd have the suit ready for you soon, but I got a little distracted. There's some kind of weird activity going on in the tower's communal server, and I don't know where the hell it's coming from. I also may have accidentally burned off one of the arms of your new outfit, which would be good on the eyes since you sleeveless would probably stop every bad guy dead in their tracks, not that you wearing these tight white SHIELD tees isn't pretty much every sex dream in the world -"

"What?" Steve squawked, cutting Tony off mid ramble. Steve had no idea what color his face was turning, but to his surprise, Tony actually started at the sound of Steve's voice, as if he hadn't really been entirely aware he'd been talking out loud. Tony blinked again, as if processing everything he had just been saying, and then -

- and Steve was almost entirely positive this wasn't a trick of the light -

Tony Stark actually blushed.

It was nowhere near the level of epic blushing that Steve often achieved, but there was a definite pink tinge that dusted over his cheekbones for half a moment before fading away, and Steve gaped.

"Uh, sorry, Cap. I think I'm probably running a little too close to a necessary bedtime, you know?" Tony mumbled, rubbing at the back of his neck.

Steve, for his part, was too busy trying to permanently embed the memory of what Tony had just said to him into his brain for the rest of eternity. Tony liked Steve's tee shirts? To be honest, Steve only really wore them because they were given to him for free, though he'd always kind of suspected they were probably a little too tight. He tugged on the hem of the shirt self consciously, but that only made Tony's eyes fly up to focus on his pecs, and Steve quickly aborted the movement.

"Oh my God, you're here to torture me, aren't you?" Tony asked, eyes growing dark as he looked up at Steve. "You don't even know, do you?"

Steve didn't know, but he was getting the picture that this might be something relevant to his interests. He swallowed, blinking rapidly and blushing more at even the thought of what he was about to do, before straightening his spine slowly, shoulders pulling back into his attention position. Along with making him stand even taller than Tony, then, it also pulled his shirt taut across his chest and his stomach, and the transformation as it swept over Tony's face, narrowing his gaze into one that really made Steve blush, was intense.

"Oh, you do know. Well isn't this a surprise," Tony growled.

He took one step towards Steve, eyes dark with intent and directly responsible for the tingling excitement racing up Steve's spine, when suddenly Jarvis let out a series of beeping noises, loud enough to send them both about a foot in the air.

"What the hell-?" Tony gasped, spinning around in a circle.

"Sir," Jarvis said, voice as calm as always, "I thought it prudent to inform you that Agent Romanov and Thor are descending the staircase in search of you and Captain Rogers. Thor seems very much agitated."

Tony spun back around to look at Steve, head tilted a little down, obviously looking for answers.

"I was supposed to come down here and ask you how people can fake photographs so well," Steve said, hunching his shoulders in a little, his usual at ease stance, hands slipping into his pockets. "We were looking at ghost pictures, and Natasha kept saying they were all fake. Thor and I don't believe her."

Tony stared at Steve, not saying a single word, until suddenly Natasha and Thor were both in the room. Thor was leading the way, looking slightly crazed, with a pissed off Natasha following.

"Tony Stark!" Thor bellowed. "What is the meaning of your internet source informing me incorrectly about the true nature of things?" He turned to face Steve, face thunderous. "The photographs are indeed faked, Steve. Lady Widow has shown me a modern photo working program and was able to illustrate just how said photographs have been created."

Tony shot another sidelong glance at Steve before turning back to Thor. "I don't really know why you're so up in knots, then," he said, moving to step around behind Steve to get at one of the many computer bays in the room. "Now you don't have to worry about ghosts."

Thor opened his mouth to reply and Steve tried to focus on what Thor was saying, he really did. But as Tony passed behind him, Steve felt the touch of fingers sliding firmly up his spine, guiding him back out of his slouch and into his full height before running back down to brush gently against the small of his back. He shivered, and closed his eyes for a moment.

" - and for that, there shall be WAR!"

He opened them again. "What? War where?"

Natasha was sitting on one of the stools now, her head buried in her arms on the worktop. "Thor wants to declare war on the internet for supplying him with false information."

"How exactly do you propose to wage war against the non entity of the internet?" Tony asked, fingertips still playing along Steve's spine, hidden from the view of the two others in the room but very much apparent to Steve, who was having a very hard time not squirming.

"I shall unleash a virus!" Thor declared, crossing his arms over his chest. "This virus shall cripple the internet's servers, and will continue to do so until this force agrees to my demands."

There was a moment of silence again. Tony's hand dropped from Steve's back, and Natasha slowly rose from the table.

"Thor," Natasha said carefully, "what do you know, exactly, about viruses?"

Thor frowned. "Well, according to the wall of fire that is on my computer, the disc that Friend Clint gave me full of video clips cannot be accessed because of the viruses that have affected the integrity of the disc."

Tony and Natasha exchanged another look. "What kind of clips, Thor?"

Thor shrugged. "I am not certain, as I was unable to access them for this reason and instead helped my burning computer wall by burning the disc myself in a small trash can fire. But Friend Clint seemed to think these clips would help me in the absence of Jane. He apparently has many of these clips on his own computer."

Tony stared into space for a long minute, and then let loose such an impressive list of curses that Steve actually took a step back before recalling Tony's earlier words.

"Tony," he said, "that weird activity you talked about on the tower's server..."

"I am going to kill Clint," Tony snarled, throwing himself at the main computer terminal, typing furiously and muttering under his breath to Jarvis all while maintaining his other conversation. "I cannot believe that dumbass got a porn virus onto my goddamn servers, and I completely missed it! I'm going to break every single one of his fingers and then break all the bones in his hands and I swear to God I will launch him from the roof and -"

And that was how Steve learned about computer viruses. Though really, he couldn't help but feel like he'd been cheated out of learning about something else.

Chapter Text

Steve had spent most of his Monday hanging around, hoping to get another few minutes alone with Tony to see if whatever had happened between them was anything more than Tony being, well, Tony.

Or just overtired.

And underfed.

And possibly on a sanity break.

Steve's attempts to delve into the situation were blocked, however, by the unfortunate fact that the only time he managed to see Tony was a little after noon, when he came barreling up the stairs looking furious. He paused only briefly when he laid eyes on Steve, but otherwise continued on his stalk down the hall. When shouting soon followed from the corner of the tower that Steve knew Clint was currently occupying, it shed enough light on the situation for both Steve and Bruce to decide they probably should go and take a walk.

"You know, sometimes I don't see Tony for days," Bruce was saying as they stepped out into the October sunshine. The temperatures had started dropping nicely, and both Bruce and Steve had their hands sunk deeply in the pockets of their jackets. "He gets down in that lab and will not come out until he actively loses consciousness or is just that starved that he's forced to forage for food like a mangy dog." Bruce considered. "He usually looks like a mangy dog too, once he's been down there for a couple days."

"But why?" Steve asked, shortening his steps to match Bruce's, allowing them to walk side by side. He thought he saw Bruce quirk a quick grin, but couldn't be sure. "I mean, what's he working on that's so consuming?"

Bruce shrugged. "Not sure. I don't think he ever actually needs a reason - it's just something he does. Sometimes I join him down there, mainly to make sure he hasn't died. But the equipment isn't exactly what I need in order to continue my own work, so I don't do it too often." He did grin, then. "I really can't blame Tony. I may get a little wrapped up in things myself from time to time."

"Gee, I never would have suspected that about you, Dr. Banner," Steve said, nudging the other man gently with his elbow. "So you really are a mad scientist after all, huh?"

Bruce gave a twitch of his lips. "In both senses of the term 'mad', even," he replied. "I break a lot of expensive equipment."

Steve blinked. "Do you really?"

Bruce wrinkled his nose, stepping off the path towards one of the wooden benches that lined the park walkways. "Nah, not really. I'm pretty careful. I have to be, you know?" He bent over to brush some leaves off of the bench before sitting down, leaning back. "I learned to double check everything I do, even if its something as simple as picking up a test tube." He shrugged. "I need to make sure I'm not holding it too loose or too tight, and make sure my responses to stimuli are calm... I know I over-think sometimes, because it's been years since I let my strength get out of my control when not actively being the Other Guy, but... you know."

Steve lowered himself down beside Bruce, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. He looked down at his hands. "That sounds so difficult," he said, guilt tamping down on his previously upbeat mood.

"Hey," Bruce said, nudging the toes of their shoes together. "That better not be your guilty expression trying to escape and take over the rest of your face. That would just be silly, since you've got nothing to feel guilty for."

Steve shook his head. "I do, though," he said, leaning back so he could twist and look at Bruce directly. It was funny to think that someone who looked like Bruce could be so... dangerous. He just looked so soft, sitting there next to Steve in his baggy khakis and his yellow button down and slightly overlarge coat. He'd left his glasses back at the tower, but they wouldn't have helped much anyway, given how the wind kept blowing his fluffy brown hair right into his eyes. He looked kind, and slightly goofy.

It was a fairly accurate portrait of Bruce, and Steve just felt guiltier.

He took a breath, held it for a moment, and then let it out. "I need to apologize for how I treated you when we first met."

Bruce squinted at Steve, trying to brush his hair out of his eyes. "When we first met," he repeated, and frowned. "What did you do that merits an apology?"

Steve looked back down again. "I treated you like you were some kind of menace."

A silence stretched between them before Bruce reached out and touched Steve's arm. "Steve," he said gently, "I am a menace."

"No," Steve replied fiercely, reaching up to grip his hand over Bruce's, "you're not. You're so in control all of the time, so aware of yourself, and I had no right to doubt that, especially when I didn't even know you. It was inexcusable the way I behaved when I demanded Tony stop poking you -"

"Actually, no, I really appreciated that," Bruce said.

"- and I acted like you were some kind of time bomb or something, just waiting to go off."

Bruce sighed, carefully extracting his hand from under Steve's, where the grip had turned a little too crushing. "Steve, listen. You don't need to do this -"

"I do," Steve insisted. "I need to apologize for judging you like that when I had no evidence, no reason to do so."

Bruce closed his eyes, "I literally destroyed half of New York once because I lost control. Nothing in your response to Tony's attempts to get me to Hulk out in the helicarrier lab was anything other than responsible caution."

"Still," Steve said, twisting his fingers together. "I'm sorry that I didn't treat you fairly when we first met."

Now it was Bruce who put his hand over Steve's, where it still curled around his elbow. "Steve," he said, shaking him slightly. "You and I, as Clint likes to shout at Natasha during odd moments, seem to be remembering Budapest very differently."

Despite himself, Steve chuckled. "Do we? Funny, I have trouble remembering any of Budapest. When did we go there?"

Bruce smiled. " Let's call it the Helicarrier Meeting, then. Want to know what I remember?"

Without waiting for a response, Bruce let go of Steve in order to shift closer, elbowing the taller man in the arm. "Listen carefully because I'm a terrible storyteller. Okay, so here's what I remember from the first time we met. I remember you smiling at me before my eyes had even adjusted to the light, followed by you actually wanting to shake my hand." He shrugged, bumping into Steve again. "Not too many people want to touch a monster."

Steve shifted on the bench, turning a look of dismay on Bruce. "You're not -"

"Shut up, Steve," Bruce said mildly. "You made it even better after that, you know. Remember when I asked if being the man who could find the cube was the only word out on me? Do you remember what you said?"

Steve shrugged.

"You said "It's the only word I care about." And you meant that. You meant that you only cared if I could help out the team, not that you thought I'd Hulk at any possible moment. You were kind, Steve. You tried to make me feel comfortable." He smiled sadly. "Please don't apologize to me for being kind."

Steve turned to look at Bruce, who looked back. When neither of them had said anything a minute later, Bruce scrunched up his face and glared. Steve laughed, shifted around again a little, and then nodded. "Yeah, okay."

Bruce smiled at him and they both settled back, hands in their jacket pockets as they watched the people around them. Tons of joggers were out enjoying the cooler weather along with dog walkers and ambling couples. The breeze had picked up briskly, blowing around the leaves on the ground with stronger determination. One of the dogs nearby proceeded to go crazy with chasing the airborne leaves, snapping his jaws into the empty air, and Steve started laughing.

"So. You have a thing for Tony, huh?"

Steve hadn't previously known that it was possible to choke on a laugh, but choke he did, his ensuing coughing fit taking up the next half minute while Bruce pounded on his back. It didn't particularly help, but Steve didn't bother stopping him.

"Sorry," Bruce said when the coughing subsided. "I haven't really gotten back into the practice of how to have civilized conversations." He thought for a minute. "Though really, I probably couldn't have segued into that with any particular skill if I'd tried."

Steve coughed out a laugh, and then groaned, dragging a hand over his face. "Am I just that obvious, or is the gossip in our tower worse than a bridge club?"

Bruce chuckled. "Do you have extensive experience with bridge clubs?"

Steve shook his head, slouching forward. "I just... kind of was hoping that I wasn't so pathetic as all that." He sighed. "I guess I must be, though. Everybody's figured it out."

Bruce stretched his legs out in front of him, inspecting his scuffed brown shoes. "Tony didn't. You had to help him. Something about you letting him grope your chest in the middle of the lab before Thor came down and had a histrionic fit?"

Steve shot bolt upright. "What? I did not let him... I mean, why would I... no!"

"Sooo," Bruce dragged out, ignoring the fact that Steve was practically falling off the bench, "there was no flirting? Tony misread the situation?"

"Well, I mean," Steve said, feeling the blush creeping up before it even arrived. "Okay, well, maybe I... I might have encouraged him when he was being a little sleep deprived and loopy, and maybe he touched my back but not my chest and it wasn't inappropriate or anything, it was -"

"Nope, Natasha said Tony was pretty much stroking you."

"Oh God," Steve cried, curling in on himself. "Why is everyone so involved?"

Bruce patted Steve on the back. "I'm involved because while you have Natasha, Clint, and Thor to talk to, Tony has me. And I was the one he came to after your visit to the lab the other day. He wanted to know if I'd watch the lab footage with him, just to make sure he hadn't gone insane."

Steve stared at him. "No he didn't. That didn't happen. You're making that up. Did he? Really?"

"Yes," Bruce said, nodding slowly. "Yes he did. And I have to say, having seen the footage, I agree with Natasha - there was definite stroking involved." He hesitated a moment, and then pushed himself to his feet, coming to stand in front of Steve. "And Steve, maybe I'm reading this completely wrong, but it kind of looked like you instigated it."

Steve flushed, fidgeted for a moment, before drawing his shoulders back and taking a deep breath. "What if I did?"

"Well," Bruce said, "then we should probably get back. We can start planning your move on the way."

Steve frowned in confusion, but pushed himself up off the bench. "My move? What move?"

"Tony is a lot more insecure than you'd think," Bruce responded as they fell into step again. "He honestly couldn't believe that all those blushes had been anything other than repressed dislike. I had to assure him pretty fervently that you weren't blushing because you were wishing he'd leave the room, but because you were a little overwhelmed that he was in it."

"But... Natasha's always telling me not to feed his ego."

Bruce laughed. "Natasha doesn't always catch subtleties, Steve. She's trained to read people, but Tony's got such an overwhelming personality that unless he chooses to reveal himself, it's hard to know what's really going on inside his head." He stopped, poking Steve in the chest. "So, if this is going to go anywhere at all, you're gonna have to be the guy to make the first move."

Steve bit his lip, and then nodded slowly. "I think I've got an idea we can work with."

"Thank God," Bruce said, sagging slightly. "You two were driving me nuts."

~*~

Unfortunately, Steve's plan was forced to begin a little later than he'd originally intended, but really it was probably for the best. Tony had been in and out for most of the week, forced into several meetings by Pepper, and also because of personal updates he was required to give Fury on the alien technology Tony had hoarded away in his lab to run his tests on. It was only on accident that Steve managed to run into Tony at all on Wednesday night, and that was because he'd just happened to be wandering into the kitchen at the same time as Tony.

"Hi," Steve said, feeling stupidly breathless.

"Hey, Cap," Tony said, literally halting in his tracks. "You're up late."

Steve shrugged, hovering in the doorway. "I was on my way to bed, actually. Are you just getting home?" He swallowed, trying to stop the blush that he knew was going to appear any minute. "It's been pretty quiet around here without you."

There. First message planted. Hopefully it wasn't too subtle. Bruce had warned Steve about being too subtle.

Tony arched an eyebrow, scratching at his goatee. "Can't imagine it being too quiet around here. I mean, Thor's all moved in. I heard he accidentally electrocuted Clint yesterday."

"Only a little," Steve replied. Clint had been doing some kind of acrobatic tricks up on the roof, and Thor had gotten nervous about it, trying to grab at Clint to get him down. Unfortunately, when Thor got nervous, he lost track of his powers and accidentally sent a zap up the pole that Clint had been climbing. Luckily circus training had kicked in and Clint had swung down to the ground rather than landing on his head, but Steve and Natasha had spent the rest of the day firmly barricading the roof access. "I may have accidentally broken one of your doors, though."

Tony folded his arms over his chest. "How does one 'accidentally break a door', Steve?"

Steve fidgeted. "Er, well, okay, more like deliberately warped its hinges and jammed it back in so Clint couldn't get back out there."

Tony huffed out a laugh, moving towards the refrigerator. "If that's your idea of things being quiet, I think you may be a little crazy."

"Yeah, well..." Steve watch as Tony pulled out bread and the sliced turkey from the fridge, along with some cheese and mayonnaise. "It's good to have you back."

He hoped Tony would catch on soon. He was starting to feel really stupid.

Tony, for his part, had stilled at the counter, his back to Steve. After a moment, he glanced over his shoulder, not quite looking at Steve, but focused on his general vicinity. "You're a funny guy, Cap."

Well, what was that supposed to mean? Steve could see what Bruce meant, now - he had absolutely no idea what Tony was thinking. Steve had always been overly aware of Tony's tendency towards distanced calculation (it was, after all, one of the reasons Steve had assumed Tony would never be interested in someone like him, because there was nothing worth figuring out about), but now when he was actively looking for an answer, that careful, quiet, blank scrutiny was incredibly frustrating. "I'm... no, not really," Steve finally said. "I don't mean to be."

At that, Tony took a deep breath, shoulders rising visibly beneath the black button down he wore. "Good to know," he said, and turned back to his sandwich. Steve had the uneasy feeling he'd been dismissed, but then Tony glanced back over at him and - to Steve's surprise - actually started talking. "I've been in goddamn meetings all day," he said, peeling open the deli bags. "Last one was with Fury. Wanted to know what I was doing with all the alien tech I may or may not have snagged and stored away for future inspection after the fight. I mean, who the hell does he think he is? Who the hell does he think I am? I'm a busy guy. I got things to do. People to annoy. I don't have time to do all the dinky little errands that SHIELD doesn't have the resources for."

Steve may have twitched with delight at the fact that, apparently, they were going to have a conversation, but he'd never admit it. "What's Fury want with that stuff, anyway?" He fidgeted in the doorway a little more before crossing the room to sit at the table. "What do you think he plans on doing with it?"

Tony snorted, still fiddling around up at the counter. "He's just looking to see if it's anything we can use against any other attempted invasions."

Steve thought back to the incident on the helicarrier, the atomic weapons stash he'd found in the stores. "Are you sure that's what he wants it for?"

Tony looked over at Steve then, licking a dollop of mayonnaise off of his thumb. "S'what he's saying, anyway," he replied. "No use to him, though. The tech in the weapons was contingent on the mothership being around to power it."

"The ship you blew up?"

"Roger, Rogers," Tony replied, and then suddenly he was sliding a sandwich in front of Steve, sitting down across from him with his own plate. "So, no ship, no weapons. Tough cookies."

Steve stared down at the sandwich. "You didn't have to -"

"Spare me," Tony said sharply, and Steve's eyebrows shot up. At the look on Steve's face, Tony's dark eyes flitted around for a minute before landing back on his own sandwich. "I've read your file about a billion times, Steve. I know what your metabolism is like. You can pretty much eat all of the time, so shut up and eat the damn thing. Unless you've got some moral aversion to eating turkey or something, in which case leave it there and I'll eat it later."

"No! No, it's fine, Tony," Steve said, leaning forward to pick the sandwich up. "Thanks for thinking of me."

Tony paused, eyes flicking up to meet Steve's. "Not really a hardship," he muttered before taking a bite.

Steve took a bite of his own sandwich, chewing slowly. "So," he said once he'd swallowed, "the weapons are useless, then."

Tony snorted. "Didn't say that," he replied, not bothering to wait until he'd finished his mouthful. "I just said that the weapons were no use to Fury."

Steve lowered his sandwich back to his place. "So you can work them?"

He watched Tony consider the question over another bite of sandwich. "Depends," he said after a minute.

"On what?"

Tony smirked. "On whether or not I'm the genius I tell everybody that I am. Cause let me tell you, only a freaking genius could figure out the workings of those damn things."

Steve nodded easily, picking his own sandwich back up. "Well, then I expect a full report when you're finished."

Tony froze, sandwich halfway to his mouth. "Sorry, what?"

Steve shrugged, finishing off his own sandwich - he had been hungry after all. "Well, when you're done getting them working. Shouldn't take you too long, so when it's done, let me know. I want to come see if they're viable for Avengers use." He grinned. "Guess what Fury doesn't know won't hurt him."

He pushed back his chair and stood, looking up in time to see Tony mouthing the words "shouldn't take you too long" Steve suppressed a grin. "Thanks a lot for the sandwich, Tony. It was really good."

"Uh, sure," Tony said, blinking quickly. "No problem. Known for my sandwich making skills. Famous for them. No one spreads condiments like I do."

Steve laughed, picking up his plate and walking around the table. "Sure, Tony. Whatever you say. I'll see you later, okay?"

"Yeah, that's..." Tony trailed off when (after taking a deep breath or three and almost faking out twice), Steve reached out and ran his own hand over Tony's shoulders as he passed.

"Night, Tony," Steve said, heading for the doorway. For the most part, this had been a success. He and Bruce had agreed that the best way to "woo" Tony, as Steve insisted on calling it just to see Bruce roll his eyes, was to make Tony understand that Steve really was interested. That included everything Tony did. A lot of people were interested in Tony, but for what he owned - Stark Industries, the Iron Man suit, his money. Steve needed Tony to see that he was interested in more than that and less than that all in one - he wanted Tony. But while he'd hoped that the message would be received loud and clear, he had to admit he was a little disappointed. He didn't know if Tony had really gotten the message or not or if he was still being too subtle. The problem was that Steve was just too shy to try for anything more obvious. He sighed; he'd just have to come up with something -

"Steve," Tony called just before Steve had made it more than a few steps down the hallway. He jumped, startled out of his thoughts, and turned, coming back to lean around the doorway. "Yeah?" he asked, trying not to sound stupid or desperate or stupidly desperate.

Tony had stood up to face the doorway, standing in that crooked way he had with his shoulders thrust a little back, one hand tapping on the tabletop. "Just to be clear... we're... uh..." he trailed off, shook his head. "I mean, I'm... this is something, right? We're doing something." He winced. "I sound like an idiot."

Steve couldn't help but grin at Tony's verbal fumbling. "Yeah, but that's okay," he said. "We are. Doing something, I mean. Um."

"Okay," Tony said, nodding carefully. "Okay, yeah. Just wanted to make sure this wasn't just some kind of weird 1930's touchy-feeley-but-entirely-platonic friendship building."

Steve grinned, flushing as he always did, but from the way Tony's eyes fixed on him, he decided that was okay too. "No," he replied. "Just... taking things slow."

Tony flashed his own grin, then, and Steve shivered at the sudden predatory sharpness to it. "I can do slow," he said, "but I have a feeling you'll be begging to go faster in no time."

Steve ducked his head, flushing all the way to his hairline. "Guess we'll just have to see," he said, looking up at Tony from under his lashes.

Tony laughed, scrubbing a hand over his face. "Oh yeah," Tony practically purred, laying it on thick as he picked up his own plate and deposited it in the sink. "We will. Night, Steve. Sleep tight."

"Yeah," Steve breathed, and then he was alone, the sound of Tony's footfalls fading in the opposite direction. But inside, Steve felt warm, secure and giddy and a tiny bit nervous. He let himself grin like an idiot, turning and heading towards his room. Hopefully everyone else was asleep - he kind of wanted to hold onto this by himself for a little while. Just thinking about the whole encounter made him feel like a grinning idiot, but then, he'd never really done anything like this before. Not when he was in school, not when he was out of school, not even with...well. So yeah, he didn't think it was too strange that this felt so good, or that his first instinct was to hold it tight, think about it for awhile. But in the morning he'd talk it over with them, his friends, and see if any of them had any advice - other than Bruce's, which had worked already - on how exactly one went and, well, wooed someone like Tony Stark.

Somehow, Steve suspected that of all the challenges he'd had to deal with in his new life, this one would probably be the most fun. He couldn't wait, really.

Which was just as well, because the second he walked into his room, Natasha was down from the ceiling, thighs around his head, bearing him down to the ground.

"Spill," she said, kneeing him in the ear. "Now."

And Steve laughed into the carpet.