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A Thief Like Tony Stark

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Steve pokes at the cheeseburger that lies limply in front of him. He isn’t really one for turning away a good meal, but he feels that he might be endangering his insides by consuming this certain food product. “I went to another job interview yesterday.”

Bucky’s eyes flicker briefly over to Steve. “How’d it go?”

Steve shrugs. “They wanted to hire me on the spot.”

Bucky’s eyebrows shoot right up. “Seriously? That’s great, Steve!” Seeing that Steve’s impassive expression remains unchanging, his own expression gains a look of growing terror. “Oh, no. Steve, tell me you didn’t.”

“He was only willing to pay me just above the minimum wage!” Steve scowls. “I had no choice but to decline the offer.”

“You dumbass,” Bucky says, but he doesn’t exactly sound surprised.

“I am a returned soldier,” Steve says indignantly, “with a college degree!”

“In herbology,” puts in Bucky. “Remind me why you have a college degree in herbology again?”

Steve scowls. “I have a passion for nature.”

“You dumbass,” Bucky repeats, chewing happily on his own cheeseburger and fries. His phone beeps, and he looks down, swearing when he sees who the message is from. “Shit, shit, shit, I forgot I have a date with Darcy. She’s gonna cut my balls off.”

Steve doesn’t doubt that she will. He laughs a little as Bucky grapples around for his wallet and shoves the remains of his fries into his mouth, salt spraying everywhere. “I’ll see you later, Stevie,” he says. “You’ll be okay?” He manages to sound solemn even as he’s halfway out of the booth.

“I’ll be fine,” Steve replies. He doesn’t think that Bucky hears. His friend is already out the door to the diner and hopping onto his motorbike, revving the engine and flying off down the street. “I’ll be fine,” Steve says again to nobody in particular, and tries to believe it.

He sits at the table for a while, reading the newspaper. Splayed across the front page is an article about the elusive Iron Man, who recently broke into one of America’s most well-protected and -esteemed banks. “If only we could all go down that path,” Steve jokes to the newspaper, and then feels like an idiot when one of the waitresses looks at him sideways like she’s questioning his sanity. His nickname will be Creepy Guy by the Window among the diner staff before you can even say never coming here again.

Sighing, he climbs to his feet, throwing the newspaper down. Steve leaves the diner without a backwards glance and sets out for his apartment, which he’s lived in for a whole six months and yet still can’t get the smell of dog piss out of. He’s not exactly looking forward to returning to the place.

“Fucking fuck fuck fuckedy fuck.”

Steve starts, looking around frantically. There’s not really anybody around since it’s verging on dinner time – the early time of eight o’ clock for vivacious New York – and when he looks around, he sees nobody. He must have just been imagining it. Oh God. He tries not to laugh a little hysterically. Sometimes he feels like he never even left Afghanistan.

“Fuck, fuck, fucking Jesus on a cracker.”

Now Steve’s definitely not imagining it. Even he can’t convince himself that the wind sounds like it’s saying ‘fucking Jesus on a cracker’, not even at his most paranoid. Looking around frantically, he notices a small alleyway to his right which has an arm sticking out of it. Okay then. Um. Well, he can work with this. He goes over to the mouth of the alleyway and peers in, trying not to scream like a teenager in one of those horror movies that Peggy used to love so much when he finds himself nose-to-nose with a mass of metal.

“Oh, fuck,” says the metal. “Fuck.”

Steve stares. He stares unashamedly and completely. He’s not sure that one can stare completely, but that is certainly not going to stop him from trying. “Are you okay there?” is all he can summon.

“Oh, yes, peachy,” replies the metal – and, no, it’s not just metal, is it? The sliver of light that is lent by the setting sun allows Steve to see the full form of a man standing before him, a man who appears to be encased in metal. Metal that he – recognizes. But where from? How can you recognize a metal man, anyway? “Why don’t you just run along now? So I don’t have to kill you and all. That would be unfortunate, because you’re cute.”

To be honest, the man doesn’t look like he could kill Steve. After all, Steve still has his revolver with him, a souvenir from Afghanistan, and, no, he’s not paranoid, no matter what Bucky says, he’s just street conscious. “Okay then,” Steve soothes. “Now why don’t we just get you to a hospital?”

The man looks unimpressed. “No. What’s wrong with you? No, dear God.” The sound of a helicopter, flying low, reaches the alleyway. The man swears fluently. Steve thinks that he might hear some Russian in there, but you can never be sure with these things. “Oh, great, now they’ve sent the ’copter out. Just delightful. Fuck.” He turns to Steve. “Look, I’ll pay you.”

Steve blinks. “Excuse me?”

The man looks impatient. “I’ll pay you, okay? You just can’t tell them I’m here, I’ll set you up for life, it’ll be fantastic – just, uh, fuck, you didn’t recognise me, do you? Well, I guess since my armour’s a fucking mess and nobody’s seen my actual face.” He pauses. “Shame, that, because it’s quite a nice face – and, oh shit, you recognise me now, don’t you, I’m such an idiot, I should just stop talking – should I stop talking? I should, I think I –”

“The Iron Man.”

Oh yes, Steve recognizes him now. And his first instinct, borne from years and years trained for this sort of thing, is to whip out his revolver and wave down the helicopter, or call for help, or anything. But – God, he doesn’t know what comes over him. Steve is just staring down at the other man – because, yes, he has a good two inches on the infamous Iron Man – and all he can think is that this guy doesn’t look like he could hurt a fly. He looks pretty hurt himself, actually, a thick and ugly-looking wound on his arm that’s bleeding profusely, his armour in tatters.

The Iron Man looks defeated. “Look, okay, will you at least let me give myself up? Because I’d rather look like I have some dignity than have you drag me out there, all six feet of muscle, though I don’t doubt that in another situation I wouldn’t complain about –”

It’s at this point that Steve hears himself say, completely matter-of-fact, “Strip off.” And then immediately turns bright red.

Iron Man’s eyes widen. He reminds Steve of a train that’s been thundering down the tracks, full speed and not preparing to stop until it’s flying off a cliff, which has suddenly – and inexplicably – found itself ground to a stop. “Well,” he says, looking a little dazed, “that sure would be a way to go. But I don’t think –”

“No.” Steve makes a hand motion that he hopes vaguely represents come on, and says, “Take off your armour. My apartment’s not far from here. We can sort out your wounds there since you insist on staying away from the hospital. Then I’ll decide what to do with you.”

Iron Man – and wow, does this guy actually have a name, because Steve feels kind of weird just thinking of him as ‘The Iron Man’  - smirks and says, “Kinky,” but he obeys, pressing a button on his tattered armour. It slides off of him easily, puddling at his feet and then folding itself up, like a neatly folded shirt, at his feet.

“Handy,” says Steve, impressed in spite of himself.

*

“Nice place you’ve got here.”

Steve grimaces, leading The Iron Man to the small couch in the living room. He fixes the man with his best ‘You Stay Here or There’ll Be Trouble’ look before venturing into the kitchen to find an icepack and then into the bathroom for the first aid kit. The Iron Man, at home on Steve’s couch, seems quite content tostay right where he is. After a few moments of looking around Steve’s front room, he calls, “I don’t mean to offend your hospitality, but it smells like dog piss in here.”

Steve almost smiles. “I know, right?” He grabs two towels while he’s there, a wet one and a dry one, and then returns to the living room with his hands full. His companion’s false bravado appears to have slipped a little in the face of a comfortable, stable place to sit – or, in this case, lie like he’s about to die right there on the couch. Steve hopes that he doesn’t. That would be hard to explain to the landlord. “So,” Steve says, placing his burden down onto the carpet and setting to work on the ugly arm wound, “what happened?”

The Iron Man looks at Steve, just looks at him, like he’s torn between laughter and perhaps hysterics. “I don’t even know your name.”

“It’s Steve,” says Steve, because, hey, if he’s gotten this far he might as well make the final jump. “Steve Rogers.”

“Well,” says the man. “Thanks, Steve. Steve Rogers.”

Steve smiles, just a bit. “This is the part where you tell me your name.”

“You already know my name.”

Steve fixes him with a no-bullshit look that he blatantly stole from Bucky. “No,” he says, wiping the wound with antiseptic and cleaning out the glass with gentle hands. “No, I don’t.”

“I keep a very low profile,” The Iron Man tells Steve.

Steve snorts, his gentle touch not wavering. Once he’s finished cleaning out the wound, he tears open the packaging of the gauze, carefully positioning on the wound. Then he begins to bandage, his hands moving methodically, calmly; he’s done this a thousand times before, in a different place, and it’s almost soothing; almost. “Right,” he says in reply to the man’s comment. “Right.

“I don’t even know –”

Steve fixes him with a hard look.

“Maybe,” says Iron Man, wincing in pain when the Steve touches a particularly sensitive part of the cut in his wrapping, “maybe I’ll tell you. Later.”

It seems like that’s the most Steve is going to get from the man, so he sighs and straightens with a groan. It’s nearly nine now, but the helicopter lights are still there, still circling, relentless. “At least tell me what you did.”

Iron Man shrugs. “What I always do,” he says, which isn’t really an answer and they both know it. “I stole.”

“Right,” Steve says, tired and more than a little panicky. God, he’s harbouring a fugitive because he’s too damn nice to give the guy up to the authorities, and said fugitive won’t even tell him what he’s done. “Did you kill anyone?” he asks finally, like that’s the deal breaker, because, yeah, it kind of is.

Iron Man looks affronted. “No, of course not. I knocked out a few people, but –” He shrugs. “–that’s okay, because they were those strong-and-silent idiot security guard types.”

“I see,” Steve says, because he doesn’t.

Iron Man smiles like he understands, like he sees right through Steve. Steve hates that, hates that he’s so vulnerable, that he’s let this – this thief into his apartment and left himself open to attack, because he’s just – oh God, he’s so fucking stupid. If Bucky was here, he would probably slap Steve. Or laugh his ass off. Probably both.

“Then I won’t.” Steve doesn’t make eye contact.

“Won’t what?” Iron Man looks genuinely curious.

“Give you in to the cops. I couldn’t – well, I won’t; that’s all that matters, okay?”

The man still looks curious, but nods anyway. Steve had expected him to look relieved, but instead The Iron Man just looks – troubled. Steve uses the word ‘troubled’ tentatively because he’s not all that sure that criminals can look troubled. Still, there’s a first time for everything. “You sure?” asks Iron Man. “Because you could get into a lot of shit for that.”

“Yeah, well,” Steve says, sounding a little more ripped open, splayed wide, than he intends to, “it’s not like I have anything to lose, really.” When Iron Man’s eyebrows shoot up and he gains a questioning look that’s perhaps even a little sympathetic, Steve hears himself barrel on, “I just returned last year from combat. I lost one of my closest friends, Peggy – she was shot through the chest last March. Died almost instantly. My parents died when I was very small. I’ve been going from foster home to foster home since I was about five. All I have is my best friend, Bucky.”

That’s right, Steve. Invite a dangerous criminal to your house and then tell him your life story. That certainly seems like a fantastic idea.

Also, since when does his internal monologue sound so much like Peggy? He sighs.

The Iron Man doesn’t apologise to Steve like Steve expects him to, doesn’t say ‘I’m sorry for your loss’, which Steve is so relieved about that he kind of wants to kiss the guy. Except, you know, that would be weird. Just a little. The man just says, “Tony Stark.”

Steve stares at him. “What?”

“You wanted to know my name,” he says, and grins. “Tony Stark, at your service.”

*

 

The elusive Iron Man has once again fooled authorities, stealing the invaluable painting of Jane Foster from the Foster family home. Miss Foster and her family are said to be horrified over the burglary and are as we speak in the process of pressing charges.”

“Against who?” Steve wants to know.

Tony grins. “Whoever they feel like at the time, obviously.”

Steve rolls his eyes, turning off the TV and pointing at the sofa bed that Bucky forced Steve to have in his room months back ‘in case Darcy decides to kick me to the curb again’. “Lie down, Stark,” he orders. Tony, still grinning, limps over to the sofa bed and disappears amongst the pillows Steve has piled there, looking ridiculous with the Dora the Explorer duvet that Steve keeps especially for Bucky’s niece Laura pulled over him. “And seriously,” Steve adds, “a Foster family portrait?

Tony smirks, leaning back in the cushions. If he didn’t have a bloody bandage over his arm and scratches all over his face, Steve would probably succumb to the illusion that Tony Stark actually has some authority, some power. “I was paid generously,” he explains with a shrug, “by Jane Foster herself.” He humms tonelessly. “Nice girl.”

“Why would Jane Foster want you to steal a portrait of herself?” Steve demands incredulously. “Better yet, why wouldn’t she just do it herself? It’s her house, isn’t it?”

“It is often the things that are ours that create the most problems,” says Tony wisely. He winks at Steve. “Also, the portrait is under very heavy security. God only knows why – she’s a beautiful girl, but it’s entirely the wrong angle.” Tony flaps a half-hearted hand at Steve as if to say ‘what can you do?’ “She wanted me to get rid of it once and for all. Said it was like waking up each morning to see her worst nightmare.”

“Ah,” Steve said. His previous ideas of the secretive Iron Man who was intelligent and brilliant and heartless were quickly going down the drain.

Tony looks infinitely amused. Before Steve can even realise he’s spoken aloud Tony says, “Oh, please, I’d hate for your dreams to be crushed. I am brilliant, and I like to think of myself as fairly intelligent, also, and heartless – well, that depends on who you speak to.” There’s a wicked grin on Tony’s face that makes Steve feel way, way out of his depth.

And yet he still feels his lips turning up at the corner. “Heart breaker,” he says.

“Only the best.” Tony’s grin widens.

Steve stretches, not missing how Tony’s eyes linger on the stretch of skin that peaks out when he does. He flops back onto his small single bed, quickly shucking off his trousers and slipping beneath the covers. “You know,” he says, his voice thick with the creeping roughness of sleep, “this morning I would have never dreamed that I’d be stuck in my dog piss apartment with America’s most wanted criminal.”

He hears Tony’s laugh all the way across the room, rich and smooth, like honey. It’s the sort of laugh that Steve could get lost in. “That makes me sound so much more intimidating than I actually am,” he says, wry. “I’m really a fluffy teddy bear at heart.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Steve says back, amused. If Tony replies, Steve doesn’t hear – he’s already asleep.

*

When Steve wakes, it’s to the sun creeping through his window and the smell of bacon. He blearily stumbles into his kitchen, stopping just short of a track pant clad Tony Stark flipping pancakes like he was born to do it.

Steve has to sit down.

“I feel like I’ve just had possibly the most incriminating one night stand ever,” says Steve dazedly, “and woken up to find them making me a full breakfast.”

Tony grins, flipping the pancake onto a large plate and putting the bacon neatly next to it. “Only for you, baby,” he says, his voice musical and amused, and Steve tries to ignore the way his stomach does a triple somersault at the endearment. God, no. Steve has standards, okay? Ones that most definitely do not include wanted thieves.

Tony makes himself a plate, too, and sits down across from Steve. They eat in silence for a few moments before finally, Tony says, “I have an idea.”

Steve stops chewing. “Uh oh.”

“No, seriously, right, hear me out,” coaxes Tony, which just makes Steve infinitely more suspicious. Tony places his bacon inside his pancake and eats it like a roll, which, um, ew. “You mentioned last night that you’re looking for a job. That you can’t find the right one and you’ve been looking for months.” Steve nods warily, not seeing where this was going. “And you keep saying that you’ve got nothing to lose.”

Steve catches on then, gaping at Tony like the guy’s crazy, which Steve is really beginning to suspect. “Tony, I am not becoming a criminal because I need some cash.

“It would just be the occasional job,” Tony rushes to explain around a mouthful of bacon and pancake. “And I need a wingman. You’ll have a disguise and everything. Also an awesome nickname. Who doesn’t want an awesome nickname?” When Steve doesn’t say anything, he barrels on, reckless and looking increasingly agitated by the minute, “You’re perfect for the job, Steve, and look – we wouldn’t get caught. I’m too good for that, and I’ll look out for you. I’ll even pay you, provide accommodation. It will just be like a normal job, except – yeah. Well. I don’t do all-out bad jobs, and I hand-pick them. There are always reasons for the things I do, like stealing an object to return it to its rightful owner. Half the time it’s the governments themselves hiring me.”

“You’re crazy.”

“So you’ll do it?”

“I’ll think about it.”

*

Tony leaves that morning, quick and easy, blending into the street like he’s just another person of New York. There’s no chance that anybody will realise who he is, since he spends most of his time flying around in that suit, which has got to be hard to maneuver on his own but whatever.

The point is, Steve is not going to consider the offer, okay? Definitely not. Definitely n– God, Steve can’t believe he’s actually considering the offer. Stupid Tony Stark. Stupid Iron Man. Stupid good-looking men who are far too logical to be criminals.

Which is probably why, a week later when Tony turns up at Steve’s door, loaded up with pizza and offering the key to an apartment that’s just down the street and doesn’t smell like dog piss Steve nearly kisses him from gratitude right there on the porch.

“You’ll do it, then?” Tony looks far too excited for a guy who’s supposed to be a dangerous criminal. He walks alongside Steve on the way to the apartment where Steve can have a good look at the place. Steve feels strangely like he’s taking advantage of Tony, which is just ridiculous, because, hello, known thief and everything.

“You mean, become a fugitive?” Steve sighs. “Looks like it. You’re a bad influence on me.”

Tony looks like he takes it as a compliment. “This is it,” he says, suddenly grinding to a stop outside a posh place. They’re out of Steve’s neighbourhood, way out of it; Steve hadn’t realised just how far they had travelled in Tony’s flashy convertible. So much for ‘just down the road’. “I have an apartment here, just down the hall from your new one, where I live most of the time. Though I have four other houses that I use infrequently.”

“Why even are you – uh.” Steve pauses when they walk past a well-dressed family on their way up the stairs. Spacey stairs that don’t squeak or make you feel like you’re about to fall through them at any given time. This is already progress from Steve’s tiny place. “Why even are you – what you are?”

Tony, it seems, is one of those type of people who answers questions with questions, the type that has always annoyed the hell out of Steve. “Why does a man who grows up in a warzone become a soldier?” He shrugs. “My father was a thief. It runs in the family.”

Tony doesn’t seem eager to elaborate further than that, and Steve can tell that it’s a touchy subject, so instead he says, “If you got only Meatlovers pizza then I am giving up this whole thing right now and leaving.”

Tony’s face lights up with a wide and brilliant grin. “Oh, God, no,” he says, halting outside one of the doors along a clean and incredibly fancy hallway that the elevator stops at, unlocking the door and throwing it open wide. “I like to change it up.”

Steve, looking around the huge and elaborate apartment, can’t help but agree.

                                                                        *                                    

Their first job is a small one, according to Tony, and comes only a few days after Steve’s ‘employment’. It’s also very Robin Hood-esque, which Steve does not neglect to mention to Tony, who rolls his eyes, looking amused. Tony gets a call from a young pair of siblings who want their great grandmother’s family heirloom – a greatly valuable bracelet made from solid white gold – returned from a rich family whom their alcoholic father sold it to for liquor money. They’re willing to pay handsomely for it, too.

“Easy,” Tony says, and Steve tries not to have a panic attack.

They plan it out down to the very last detail. It turns out that Tony is good with computers – fantastic, actually – and Steve can’t help but think of how much more Tony could be if he hadn’t been pressured into the family business by his father. He doesn’t say this out loud to Tony, though, because the long I’m Not Talking to You silences are so not worth it. So Tony hacks into the cameras of the house, times them to turn off at exactly 3AM in the morning when the heist is due to go down. Then he hacks into the security system, linking it to his phone and giving himself full access and permissions so that that he can disable it with just a click of a button.

“God, Tony,” Steve says, inexplicably impressed, “you’re brilliant. You really are.”

Tony tries to look blasé, but there’s a light flush to his cheeks, and Steve realises that it’s unlikely that anybody has really told Tony Stark what an amazing man he actually is. Steve makes it his new goal in life to make sure that he does know, because Stark is amazing, regardless of what he does for a living.

“Well,” says Tony, and that’s that.

Tony crafts a suit for Steve, spends ages in his workshop designed and creating it. Steve almost laughs when he finally gets to try it on, and he undoubtedly would have if not for Tony’s hopeful expression, like a puppy desperate for praise. The suit clings to every single part of him, and is a bright blue colour, not covert or invisible in the slightest. But it’s easy to move in, and has lots of secret compartments to put interesting gadgets in, like pockets with lock picks in and a gun holster and even knife sheaths.

“Best to be prepared,” Tony says, shrugging, and Steve snorts.

Still, Steve loves the suit, and the shield Tony designs for him even more. It has the American flag on it, which is just various levels on ironic, but Tony wanted to honour Steve’s military service and he did it in a great way. Still, he’s not entirely sure that his serving commander would be proud of this particular endeavor, but Steve tries not to think about that.

Bucky also comes to Steve’s new apartment, which is full of boxes and frankly a mess, over those first few days. “Must be a real fantastic job you’ve got yourself,” he says, but doesn’t press Steve for details, which Steve is incredibly grateful for. He’s not sure how to explain to his best friend that his new job kind of, well, is against the law. In at least five difference ways.

The night of Steve’s first robbery is hot and sticky. Steve is sweating copiously in his tight Lycra suit, and he envies Tony his suit’s built-in air conditioning. Tony flies them both to a nearby rooftop where they set up camp and wait for 3 o’ clock to come, blinking sleep from their eyes. “One day you’re going to have to tell me all about that suit,” says Steve around a yawn. “Also about the man with the English accent in your roof.”

Tony’s grin is evident in his voice. “Of course! I’ll go on for hours about the suit if you let me. And I’m sure JARVIS would be delighted to meet you.”

JARVIS? Steve thinks, but doesn’t say aloud. He instead turns his concentration to the job and heavily guarded house in front of him, his mind automatically calculating the mechanics of the rounds that the two burly guards are making. “The guards intercept at the back of the plot every ten minutes,” he says quietly. “That gives us about two minutes at the most to get in without them noticing. Of course, you could just knock them out, but that would entail them possibly waking up before we’re done and setting off the alarms.”

“Smart,” Tony says, and he actually sounds like he means it. “So we get in and out in, what? Two minutes?”

“Looks like it.” Steve’s smile is grim and humourless.

There is another long stretch of silence as both of them just sit and watch the house, carefully analyzing the situation. When 3PM comes, it’s quietly and calmly – Tony signals to Steve that it’s time, and they both go their separate ways, Tony flying ahead and Steve jumping down onto the high walls surrounding the house. Because the armour is large and clunky, hard to maneuver throughout small spaces, Steve is the one who listens to Tony list of the combination through the comms unit to easily open the safe. Tony accepts the bracelet when Steve slips out of the house and hands it to him, where he places it in some special compartment in the Iron Man suit and joking, “You buy me such nice things, baby.”

Steve rolls his eyes, following Tony out of the house. The whole thing lasts a total of one minute and fifty-two seconds.

The next morning, the headline on the paper reads:

IRON MAN’S NEW SIDEKICK – CAPTAIN AMERICA?

Tony doesn’t stop laughing for the next three hours.

*

The head of Steve’s old foster home, May, calls him up on his birthday, two weeks after the heist. She tells him how proud of him she is, how she thinks of him as her own, how he’s made his country proud. She says that she’s sorry for Peggy’s death, that she wishes that she could be there for him. But it’s a long way from Chicago to New York, and Steve understands her reluctance, understands that sometimes distance brings people together and closeness tears them apart.

“I can’t believe my little patriot is twenty-four,” she says into the phone. “I’m so proud of you, Steve. With all these things on the news lately – with the young so corrupt, this alleged mass criminal Iron Man and ‘Captain America’ – that’d be the perfect nickname for you, isn’t that hilarious? Anyway, I’m so proud you’re above that. And getting into this high-end job I hear, you clever, clever boy.”

Bucky, Steve thinks, trying not to think about the words, how they really hit home, knocking the breath out of him. Bucky had been in the foster home with him – that was how they’d met – and he was the only one who would tell May about his new ‘job’, not knowing that it would drive Steve mad, not particularly caring.

“I – yeah. Thanks, Aunt May,” Steve says, and tries not to sound like he’s on the verge of an emotional breakdown right there. “Thank you. I appreciate it."

 

*

The thing about Tony Stark is that he never does what Steve is expecting him to.

Just when Steve thinks that he knows the master criminal, Tony goes and does something reckless, stupid, smart – dangerous. Almost a month after their first heist together, Steve comes over to discuss the successes and failures of their most recent conquest – obtaining an important Roman artifact from the New York museum – to find Tony inebriated, sprawled across the floor, a remote controller in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other.

“Cap!” he croons delightedly when he sees Steve. Steve grimaces at the nickname, tries not to show how much he actually likes it. It’s private and to the point, a nickname that he only ever hears on Tony’s lips, and it gives him the feeling of something he’s never quite experienced before – family. “Cap, check this out,” Tony says, a wide smile on his lips that doesn’t reach his eyes. “I’m on the news.”

Steve reluctantly lets his eyes drift to the huge flat screen TV where Iron Man has been caught on a blurry phone camera flying over New York, a police helicopter hot on his tail. “The Iron Man’s new ally Captain America is nowhere to be seen in his incredibly – ahem – noticeable blue ensemble. He appears to be able to vanish equally as efficiently as his partner.”

“They make us sound like a partners-in-crime gay couple,” mutters Steve, sitting down heavily next to Tony on the floor. Tony isn’t looking at Steve; he has his gaze concentrated on the TV, staring at it like it holds all the answers to the universe. He looks like shit. “Tony, you alright?”

“It wasn’t my idea, you know,” Tony says suddenly, completely evading Steve’s question. “I didn’t want to steal. I didn’t want to be become a thief. It was my father – ‘You can take over family business when I’m done, m’boy’ – and I was so, so…fucking goddamnit. I was so desperate to please him.”

“Uh,” Steve says.

Tony’s gaining momentum now though, the vodka bottle clutched so tightly in his hand that Steve wonders that he won’t smash it to pieces beneath his fingers. “My mother would still be alive if it wasn’t for his fucking family business,” he gasps, the words escaping his lips raw and desperate. “I would still have a fucking family if it wasn’t for his family fuck-ups.”

Steve doesn’t think about what he’s doing, doesn’t let himself. He just grabs Tony and pulls him close, burying his face in the other man’s hair. Tony melts into him, weak and tired, more emotionally vulnerable than Steve has ever seen him. “I’m not a bad guy, Steve,” he coughs out through choked sobs. “I’m just – I just. I can’t do…I don’t know what to do. I’m good at what I – I mean, I don’t –”

“I know,” Steve soothes. “I know, Tony. It’s okay.”

“You were –” Tony laughs a little brokenly. “You were good tonight, Stevie. A real – a real soldier.”

Steve doesn’t know what to say to that, doesn’t know how to accept the twisted form of praise – but that’s okay, because Tony’s already asleep.

*

Tony insists on having these training sessions where he teaches Steve the sort of moves they definitely don’t teach in the army, probably the sort of moves that they teach, like, top secret agents or something. Today Tony is furious, not at Steve but at something, something that Steve can’t quite pinpoint, his muscles all ridged and his brow furrowed. Steve wants to tell him to leave it, that they can go one Thursday without their twice-a-weekly training session, move it to another day,  but the look on Tony’s face makes him stop.

Tony looks like he needs this session. Like he needs to forget.

Steve should know. He’s seen that look on enough soldiers’ faces.

 “You’re favouring your right side too much,” Tony says at one point, sharp and watchful, and Steve tries to change his stance for the next exercises but he’s too distracted and it’s just not working and he’s getting frustrated and so is Tony and –

“For fuck’s sake, Steve,” Tony snaps, walking over to Steve and positioning himself behind Steve, fixing Steve’s stance with ease. Steve tries to breathe, tries not to think about how close Tony is, how neatly they fit together. “There,” says Tony, and Steve might just be imagining it but he could swear that the other man sounds a little choked. “Perfect.”

Steve throws Tony a brief smile over his shoulder. “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

Yep, he definitely must have been imagining it.

Right?

*

A few days past before Tony comes into Steve’s apartment, his business look plastered across his face and his phone in his hand. “We’ve got a job,” he says, and that’s all it takes to get Steve up on his feet and following Tony out the door.

Tony briefs Steve in Tony’s living room, papers splayed across the desk. JARVIS, who Tony introduced Steve to a long time ago and whom Steve is rather fond of (which would be weird if Tony didn’t have exactly the same attitude towards his AI), organizes all that needs to be, and then they’re off.

It’s a pretty big job, so it needs to be executed perfectly – and soon. That’s one thing that Tony says that their employer was emphatic about. It’s an urgent matter. There’s a club down town where some rich entrepreneur, their employer – ‘first name Odin,’ says Tony, ‘last name who-the-fuck-knows-and-who-the-fuck-cares.’ – tells them that there will be a Russian conman there named Elias Frostgiant. Elias has pictures of this guy Odin’s son with the head of an enemy company’s daughter and is planning on using them as blackmail to get one over on this guy’s company.

“Industrial politics.” Tony spits out the words like they’re poison. “But Odin’s paying handsomely for it, so I’m willing to get involved with these sort of stakes.”

Which is how they find themselves at a club named The Mighty Warrior (Steve doesn’t ask, doesn’t even want to know). Tony can’t come in, would look far too conspicuous in his huge armour, so Steve switches from his bright blue ensemble to a duller black one, slipping on a matching black balaclava. “So you remember the plan, yeah?” Tony asks for about the 50th time since they have arrived. He sounds uncharacteristically nervous. “I’ll stay here out of view, guarding the back door. You lure him out here and we’ll get him. I have reliable information that the subject will have the documents on him.”

“Tony,” Steve says, long-suffering, “I think I’ve got it.”

“Okay. Okay, good.”

They wait until seven before Steve enters the club. He loses the balaclava for the moment, slips it on when he finally finds the back room where Elias is said to be. The door is locked, but the good thing about working with Tony Stark is that you learn lots of interesting things. It takes Steve about half a minute to break the lock. Checking his gun is in its holster, he pushes into the room.

And stops dead as a knife slots neatly beneath his chin.

“Well,” Steve says flatly, “this isn’t a very nice welcome, Elias.”

The laugh that greets his comment is amused and thick and feminine. Shit, shit, shit. This was not in the plan. They were clearly expecting Steve and Tony, or at least Iron Man and Captain America – Elias, nor any of his companions, are anywhere to be seen. “Wrong person, I’m afraid,” says the woman. Her voice is mostly unaccented, though Steve picks on a faint trace of Russian somewhere there. “Elias is gone.”

“He can’t run,” Steve says, barely moving his lips as he trains his eyes on the knife at his throat. “My partner will find him. There is nowhere in the US that he can hide.”

“Nowhere in America, maybe,” drawls the woman, still thickly amused. “Though by the time your loverboy realises that his man isn’t coming, Frostgiant will be on the way to Tokyo.”

Steve smiles a little at that, simultaneously grabs the hilt of the knife, wrenching it away from his neck, and kicking back and out. He takes his captor by surprise, and has just enough time to press the button on his comms. “Frostgiant isn’t here. Left approximately five minutes ago. Likely on a beeline for the airport. Set out for Tokyo.”

“Copy, Cap,” comes Iron Man’s – not Tony’s, never Tony’s, Steve hasn’t ever been able to think of them as the same person because they’re not, not by a long shot – calm, robotic voice, and then there’s only crawling, crackling static.

Spinning, Steve ducks just in time to dodge his captor’s attack. The woman – dressed in black Lycra, fiery red hair contrasting against the black; beautifully terrifying, Steve thinks – hits the ground easily, rolling and straightening in a single move. She looks strangely…

Steve blinks. The woman looks strangely familiar.

“Lucky move,” she says, calm as ever. “It won’t happen again.” Steve isn’t sure whether she’s assuring him or herself.

She kicks out at him then, knocking him off balance. Steve catches himself just before falling and grabs at the woman’s arm, aiming for the pressure point at the back of the neck. She brushes him off and dodges the blow, slipping easily from beneath his grip.

“You could at least,” Steve says as they fall back, beginning to circle each other now, “tell me your name.”

The woman smiles; long, slow and dangerous, sharp as a knife. “Most people know me as the Black Widow.”

“Like the spider?”

“Don’t sound so reproachful,” Black Widow says, raising her eyebrows at him. “At least I don’t go around in bright blue spandex like a walking-talking American flag.”

Steve’s eyes narrow, but he lets the gripe pass. “I mean your real name.”

The Black Widow looks amused. “Of course you do, sweetheart,” she says, and then appears to consider. “Though I suppose it’s only fair, isn’t it, Steve Rogers?”

Steve freezes, muscles going rigid, breath leaving his lungs in a gush. “How do you know –” Dumbass. You should have pretended that you had no clue what she was on about. Idiot, idiot, idiot!

The Black Widow smirks. “Don’t worry, princess, your secret little identity isn’t in danger.” She looks like she’s enjoying this far too much. “I would know that authoritative voice anywhere. I was in Afghanistan on a mission. We met for a brief time.” She winks. “Your naked torso was involved. Well, not just your naked torso, but you catch my drift.”

That’s when Steve realises just why, exactly, The Black Widow looks familiar. She looks different now, sure – she had blonde hair back then, probably a wig, and she was wearing the local style of clothes, dark dusky colours, but the resemblance is obvious now that Steve has placed her. “Natasha Romanov,” he says, staring.

Her smirk widens. “Oh, Stevie, you remember me.” Sometime in their conversation, Romanov has moved closer to him, and now she’s practically bumping her nose against his chest. “We had a good time, didn’t we?”

And then she kisses him.

It’s a sweet kiss, long and lingering, but Steve automatically picks up on how calculating it is, how planned. Before he can wrench away, Natasha has gripped his face between her hands and is staring into his eyes like she can see right into his soul, whispering, “You feel very tired, do you not, Mr. Rogers? You should sleep for a while. Your man of iron will be back soon, my love. You are safe. You are tired. You are…”

Steve drops like a tonne of bricks. He could swear, though, as he buries his face into the less than comfortable carpet that stinks like cigarette smoke, curled up into a ball like a two year old, he hears Romanov curse and mutter, “The things I do for idiots with baby faces.” Then, soft as a feather, he feels lips press gently against his cheek. “Goodnight, Rogers. Sweet dreams.”

A breath, and then she’s gone.

Steve wakes up four hours later in a taxi with Stark. The Iron Man armour is perfectly packed into its case. A sheaf of photos sticks out from a compartment in the side of the briefcase, the ones they came for in the first place. Steve tries not to collapse with relief at the sight, pushing himself into an upright position and rubbing his temples to fight off the oncoming headache.

Tony catches his eye, smiles a little guiltily. “Who would’ve known that Romanov was a hypnotist?” he asks, and whistles cheerfully the whole way home.

*

That night, they fall asleep in Steve’s apartment, surrounded by empty Chinese food containers and half-drained beer bottles, one of Steve’s old videotaped movies playing quietly on the TV. Tony uses Steve’s shoulder as a pillow, and they’re so entangled in each other that Steve can hardly distinguish his limbs from Tony’s, and it’s – okay. It’s more than okay, in fact.

And that scares Steve to death.

*

Outside of his ‘secret’ life, Steve finds – much to his own surprise – that he slowly gains an actual social life. He still goes to job interviews every now and then but doesn’t tell Tony about them, feels awful whenever Tony looks so excited to see him but goes back for more, anyway. He meets a girl, a beautiful young woman named Arianne Baker, through Bucky, and they slowly go from a casual convenience to a thing. The day after their first proper date, Steve rushes into Tony’s apartment, grinning widely, and then proceeds to tell Tony every single detail of the date.

Maybe he knew even then. Maybe he was just trying to hurt Tony, to get some sort of – emotion, some sort of reaction. Maybe.

Steve somehow manages to keep up both lives – Captain America by night, Steve Rogers by day. The downside is that Bucky begins to get suspicious, questing, asking more and more questions about Steve’s job. Steve lies through his teeth and says that it’s a big project that he’s not allowed to talk about. He’ll find out soon, Steve assures his friend, and Bucky seems deterred. For now.

Steve secretly hopes like hell that Bucky doesn’t find out, ever.

The only other thing is that almost every night Steve wakes up covered in sweat, screaming for Peggy, images of blood-stained shirts and unseeing eyes dancing behind his own eyes. The more jobs they do, the worse the nightmares get, and it gets to the point where Steve is forced to go to the doctor and get sleeping pills. Some things are just easier forgotten, pushed to the back of his mind, and Afghanistan is one of those things.

*

It’s a warm Sunday, and Steve is fast asleep when Tony comes storming in, throwing off Steve’s covers and standing there before Steve like he’s preparing himself for the execution block.

“It’s time you met my father,” Tony says.

Steve crawls out of bed, pulls on a pair of pants, and follows Tony without question. It’s too early for questions, he thinks. Even if you are on your way to visit a man who you thought was dead.

Steve manages to maintain his silence right up until Tony pulls off at the sliproad to the private hospital situated near them. Steve, quickly gaining consciousness and completely and thoroughly confused, blurts out, “I thought your dad was dead.”

“Yeah, well.” Tony doesn’t look at Steve as he pulls into a parking space. “He might as well be.”

Steve follows Tony out of the car and into the hospital. Tony’s form next to him is rigid, shoulder muscles drawn tight, hands fisted at his sides. There is a long drawn-out silence on the elevator ride up; they get off on the fourteenth floor. Steve dutifully follows Tony down the corridor until they stop at Room 857. Tony takes a deep breath, swallows heavily, and then enters the room, motioning for Steve to follow.

There’s a man sitting on the bed in the room, a notebook in front of him. He doesn’t look sick, hardly even looks aged; he was clearly handsome once, but his youthful features have faded into something more gentle and fatherly. There are deep lines around his eyes, and a long and raised scar begins from the very top of his cheekbone and disappears beneath his shirt. “Hello, son,” he says to Tony. “I was just working on the coding for the work on your AI.”

Tony smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “That’s great, Dad.”

Suddenly, like a sharp changing of weather, the warmth and familiarity drain from the man’s face. “Excuse me, but who are you?” he asks, seemingly directing the question at Tony. He turns a little, notebook falling from his knees.

“Dad, we were just talking, remember? It’s –”

 “Nurse!” the man is yelling. “Nurse! There’s been a break-in. I bet it’s the Germans again, they’re always trying to get to me, the bastards – Call the police, damnit, I –”

Tony turns sharply and leaves the room. Steve follows him, passing a nurse on the way, who shoots him an apologetic glance.

“He suffers from a type of memory loss resulting from extreme emotional distress,” Tony says without Steve having to prompt him, sitting down heavily on one of the uncomfortable and sterile hospital chairs. “As soon as he remembers, his mind automatically reverts to a time when he was more content. Wartime is his particular favourite.” He takes a deep breath. “My mother was killed right in front of him by one of his enemies – she died because of him, because of what he did, and he’s never been able to comprehend that fact.” Tony glances at the hospital room and then sharply away, like merely looking hurts too much. He gets to his feet. “Come on, I want to go home.”

“Tony, I –”

Tony is already halfway down the corridor. “Steve,” he says, firm and pointed and a little bit desperate, “please just – just don’t.”

“One of my best friends,” Steve hears himself say, the words clear and perfectly enunciated, like something he has had to say repeatedly and can recite off by heart – when really he’s never said the words out loud before at all. “Peggy Carter. She was shot and died on site. She was why I came home.” He smiles a little wryly. “I’m not a fighter, Tony. I’m not programmed that way, not like some people are. Neither should you be a thief just because your father was one. The lifestyle suits some people. It’s never suited you and I think you know it.”

Steve walks past Tony into the elevator, waits. Tony, after a moment, follows him. Steve would be concerned that he’d offended his friend, but as the elevator begins to drop, almost instinctively Tony reaches out and grips Steve’s hand, squeezing it tightly.

That one gesture somehow manages to convey what neither of them can bring themselves to say: I’m sorry.

*

See, there’s this job that they get from some high up guy. It’s simple: Get this precious necklace, and Steve and Tony’ll be set for their lives with the payment. But when Steve – or Captain America – slips into the meeting room where this guy is supposed to be with the necklace on his person, he finds himself pressed against the wall faster than you can say sabotage, staring into the face of one Arianne Baker.

“Arianne,” he gasps, feeling stupid, feeling torn open, vulnerable, and, fuck, yeah, a little desperate, like he should be surprised – but he’s not, God, he’s not; all Steve can think is Tony’s going to fucking kill me.

Not Iron Man.

Tony.

And that just makes it hurt so much more.

 “Louisa Blackwood, actually,” says Arianne – or Louisa – God, Steve doesn’t even know. “See, this is exactly your problem, Stevie.”

Iron Man is waiting outside for Steve (‘this’ll be an easy job,’ he had assured Steve), waiting, waiting, waiting, and Steve won’t come and oh God what is Steve going to do

“You act like this real nice guy, all sugary and innocent, sweet as fucking sugar, right,” Louisa is saying, and Steve feels himself go cold at the words, like a bucket of ice cold water has been poured over him. “But you’re not. Inside, you’re just as ugly as the rest of us.”

Tony – not Iron Man, oh God, no, this isn’t Iron Man; this is Tony, ripped open and worried – takes this moment to dive through the door, armour clanking noisily, brick going everywhere. Louisa’s group of thugs advance, ready to attack, but Tony is just staring at Steve, glowing eyes somehow conveying the you’ve fucked up that seems to radiate from Tony’s whole form.

“It was her,” Tony says, sounding dazed, like he’s just woken up from a long sleep.

And then he lifts his arm, the armour shifting easily beneath his fingers, and burns Louisa where she stands.

*

“Steve,” Bucky says, blinking as he takes in his friend. “What the fuck happened?”

“Tony Stark,” Steve says, like that’s some sort of viable answer, like it means something, and Bucky lets Steve in, gives Steve clean clothes to change into, and Steve sits on Bucky’s apartment floor and tries his best to feel nothing at all.

*

 

Steve takes the coward’s way out, waits until he sees Tony leave their set of apartments until he goes in to collect his stuff. He feels like the betrayed wife who’s come back to collect her stuff because her husband cheated on her. His circumstance, though, might be slightly more severe. Also, Tony and Steve aren’t – like that. Minor details.

“He killed my girlfriend,” Steve had told Bucky bitterly.

“But you did say that she was kind of a crazy broad, Stevie.” Bucky had shrugged. “Look, what did you expect? You go in to this whole criminal life – which I’m still pissed you didn’t tell me about, by the way – and you think everything’s gonna be all peachy? You think Stark’s never had to kill anybody before?”

Steve felt obliged to defend Tony in spite of himself. “Tony’s not – like that, you know?” He shrugged a little helplessly. “We’re not the bad guys.”

He wasn’t sure whether he was saying the words to convince Bucky or himself.

Steve is pulling stuff out of drawers and throwing them into his bag when the door clicks open. He starts, feeling like a child who’s been caught doing something they shouldn’t be. Which is ridiculous, because why shouldn’t he be here? It’s his apartment. He’s the one who pays the rent for it – no matter how Tony tried to convince him otherwise. He has every right to be here.

So why does he feel so guilty?

“Steve,” Tony says, and he sounds lost.

Steve doesn’t look at him, bundling up his toiletries and shoving them into the bag. “You killed my girlfriend.”

“She betrayed us.” Tony’s voice is sharp.

“You killed her.”

Tony advances on Steve then, eyes bright and angry, a strange expression on his face that Steve can’t quite decipher. “What did you expect, Steve?” he demands, all up in Steve’s space. “You knew what you were coming into when I hired you! You knew. It’s not the first time that I’ve had to hurt somebody. If I hadn’t killed her, she would have killed you.

“That’s not the point!” Steve hears himself shout, and he realises how strange this is, why everything is so different. Iron Man and Captain America are no longer distinguished from Tony and Steve, so much that Steve can hardly tell one persona from the other. When Arianne – Louisa – betrayed Steve, she brought both his lives together, and they collided like a pair of comets, exploding and wreaking chaos wherever the debris touched. “You’re not supposed to be that person, Tony! You’re supposed to be – to be –”

Tony laughs then, a harsh, raw sound. “Supposed to be what, Steve? Good?” He turns away, running a hand over his face, all the anger suddenly draining from him. “I’m not a good person, Cap. You should know that.”

There’s so much Steve wants to say, so many words that bubble to his lips unbidden. But though he’s prepared to spit them out, he instead hears himself say, “I can’t do this anymore.” He takes a deep breath through his teeth, the air filtering through in a hiss. “I’m not made for this life, Tony. I should have known that from the start.”

Tony is shaking his head before Steve has even finished speaking, eyes too bright. His hands are fists at his sides, like he’s scared that if he relaxes them he’ll try to stop Steve from leaving. Or maybe that’s just Steve’s imagination running away with him. Probably. “Steve, don’t do this.”

Steve zips up his bag, and the sound, which should be so insignificant, seems to ring out through the silence like a war cry. “Look, it’s not just Louisa,” he says, not looking at Tony as he throws the bag strap over his shoulder. “That hardly factored towards it at all. I – I need to leave. I thought I could keep my feelings in check long enough to stick around. But I can’t,” Steve adds with finality, and then he’s pushing past Tony, closing the door behind him.

He’s out the door and down the stairs before Tony can even reply.

*

“The so-called ‘elusive Iron Man’ has lived up to his nickname over the last six months. After the famous case of the Silver Necklace, where The Iron Man and his newfound sidekick Captain America successfully broke into a top-security to steal and yet left the necklace behind, the infamous thief and his companion appear to have disappeared off the face of the Earth.

Authorities are baffled – what was the cause in the sudden change of heart of New York City’s favourite criminals? And is the elusive Iron Man finally gone for good? Tune in after the break for a full coverage of the mysterious duo.”

*

Steve pulls up outside his apartment block, reveling in actually having a car parking space at his new place. His presentation on the protection of the hammerhead shark had gone well; he’s desperate to ring up Bucky and tell him about it – right after Steve has had a hot shower and made dinner, anyway.

Cutting the engine, Steve sat in the car for a few minutes, staring up at the bulletin board that hung high over the buildings. There’s a blown-up sketch of The Iron Man and Captain America on there, ‘WANTED’ in big letters beneath the picture. If Tony was here, he’d complain at the angle from which they’ve drawn him. Steve smiles a little, trying to ignore the aching in his chest. Six months isn’t a long time in retrospect, but it seems like it when you haven’t seen your ex- partner in crime once. It especially doesn’t help that The Iron Man appeared to have disappeared, too, perplexing everyone everywhere – except Steve. Steve has an inkling as to why the infamous Iron Man hasn’t staged any heists lately, and it certainly isn’t because he’s torn up over his lost love for Steve.

No, Steve didn’t even have to go looking for the answer – it came to him in the form of one Howard Stark. The man had turned up at Steve’s door with his carer, saying that he had visited his old apartment where one of Steve’s old neighbours had given him Steve’s new address.

“I’ve already been to see Tony. Laid some myths to rest.” Howard had smiled at Steve. “I’ve come to apologise.”

“For what?” Steve had been confused.

“For not going to see my son earlier,” Howard had said. “For being a coward.”

They had talked for hours, though if somebody asked Steve exactly what they’d talked about he wouldn’t have been able to tell them even at gunpoint. It was all a blur to him. Finally, Howard had stretched, smiling briefly at Steve. “Goodbye, Mr. Rogers,” he’d said.

“But sir,” Steve had halted him, perplexed. “I thought. Uh. You had…uh, your memory –”

The man had smiled. “I did. Not for a while, though. I learnt that sometimes we have to remember, no matter the cost.” He had paused. “By the way, Steve, I really think you should give my son a chance. He’s learnt a lot over these last few months. And he’s a mess without you.”

Steve had sat there for a long time after the man had left, just staring at the bleak wallpaper of the opposite wall. That night, he dreamt that Peggy came to him in his new apartment, sitting down carefully on the edge of his bed. “Steve,” she had said, her soft voice lilting. She had leant forward and pressed a gentle kiss to Steve’s forehead. “It’s okay. It’s not your fault. It’s never been your fault. And it’s time to let go now.”

Steve hasn’t dreamt of her since.

Tonight when he gets home, ready to wash the day’s jobs off of him, he finds the living room lights on. It comes as a surprise to him that he doesn’t feel any anxiety, not even any resentment – all he feels is calmness as he unlocks the door and slips into the house. The figure stands in front of his living room cabinet, looking over the pictures he has placed on there.

“You never put out pictures at the apartment,” Tony says, not turning around.

Steve swallows, pulls off his jacket and shucks off his shoes before stepping into the living room. “It wasn’t home.”

He sees Tony flinch, just a little, like the words are a physical blow. But Tony seems almost apprehensive as he turns slowly to face Steve. He’s wearing a pair of old jeans and a jacket, almost like a proposition for a truce: I can be ordinary, too. Still, Tony has never been ordinary, and they both know it.

“I shouldn’t have come,” Tony says suddenly, rubbing a hand over his face like he feels tired to the bone. “I’m sorry.”

Steve almost agrees with Tony, but instead he hears himself say hastily, “No. I’m glad you did.” The atmosphere is almost awkward as Steve walks into the kitchen, bringing out a couple of bears. “Drink?”

“Please,” Tony says, his voice rough and raw. “I shouldn’t have killed her,” he adds, like he just has to spit the words out, like as soon as he says them a massive burden has been lifted off of his shoulders, “and I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Steve is surprised to hear himself say. He passes the beer to Tony. “I get it, you know. She would have killed me.”

“I panicked,” Tony blurts out, the beer sitting unopened in his hand. “I thought she was going to kill you right then and there and I panicked. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing you.” He sounds tired as he turns to face away from Steve. “I couldn’t fucking bear it and I was selfish and I’m sorry.”

“Tony,” Steve says, grabbing Tony’s shoulder. “It’s okay,” he adds softly.

Tony stares at Steve for a long moment, and for a minute Steve has the crazy impression that the man is going to punch him. And then Tony takes a step forward, gentle and cautious, and kisses him.

The kiss begins soft, unsure, but quickly escalates into something rougher, more powerful, increasingly desperate. Steve’s hands find their way to Tony’s hair, and he runs his fingers through it, letting himself get lost in the kiss. Tony tastes like alcohol and strawberries and, over that, there’s the salty taste of tears, of loss.

“I know,” Steve says, because he does.

*

There’s this agency that wants to hire them, some secret organisation named S.H.I.E.L.D. Steve has stayed the night at Tony’s that Friday and is thankful to finally get a day where he can sleep in instead of having to get up at ridiculous times for work when the doorbell goes at eight o’ clock in the morning. Tony swears fluently, suggesting what they can do with the doorbell. Steve groans and takes the high road, gets out of bed and virtually stumbles over to the door.

The man at the door flips open his badge. Steve immediately thinks cops and freezes. The man smiles reassuringly. “Phil Coulson,” he says in explanation. “I’d like to talk to you about my organisation, S.H.I.E.L.D.”

Steve steps out of the way, yells, “Tony, get up or I’m burning your ACDC collection!” Tony comes running in like the devil himself is on his tail.

“Coulson,” Tony says, looking like it’s far too early for this. Steve can’t help but agree. “We’ve talked about this,” Tony adds, eyes narrowing.

“There’s a high price for the true identities of The Iron Man and Captain America,” Phil Coulson says, eyebrows raised. “I just want you to reconsider coming into our employment.”

“We’re not for sale,” Steve says flatly. Tony ushers Coulson out the door.

“You heard the man, Coulson,” he says, grinning.

Coulson doesn’t look irritated, only exasperated. “Just think about it. Only in dire situations would S.H.I.E.L.D call on you. We’d pay you handsomely and your identities would be safe.”

“We really don’t need the money,” says Steve.

“And our identities are safe as long as some people keep their mouths shut,” Tony adds.  “See you, Phil.”

Coulson, rolling his eyes, lets himself be ushered out the door. When he’s finally gone, Tony leans back against the door, relief plastered across his face. Steve puts his hands on either side of Tony’s head, smirking and pressing a gentle kiss to his lips.

“You’re not for sale, hey?” Tony wants to know.

“Oh, no,” Steve says, and grins. “Somebody’s already stolen my heart.

Tony groans.