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The Once and Future King

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What Tony remembers most is the thundering panic in his chest when they lost track of Cap for nearly twenty minutes and he wasn't answering his comm. All Tony could think of was Cap's stupid, reckless habit of pulling off his helmet because it made him too hot, and then plunging himself into the most dangerous situation he could find.

“The thing you’ve got to remember,” Engine Captain Donal Fitzgerald tells the reporter from Channel 9, “is that sure, Cap heals up a lot faster than an ordinary person, but when the damage happens he feels that pain same as any other guy. Jesus, it was like watching Lazarus clawing his way out of a tomb, that was. We wouldn’t have even known it was Cap rising up out of the rubble, except for the fire across the street reflecting off of his shield. He took some awful hits from those robot things. He looked exhausted. He looked like a guy who'd been slammed into a building over and over and kept getting back up as long as we needed a decoy so's we could get people out, that's what.” Fitzgerald swallows hard and runs a hand through his greying hair, the sweat from a long, hard afternoon making it stand up in the front. He fixes the reporter with a determined expression. “It was my guys brought Cap in from the field tonight. He's a Brooklyn boy, right? He's one of us, and we look after our own.”

 

8:13 the next morning, while Natasha and Tony are sharing a box of Wheaties, a mutual loathing of fire-breathing robots and the suspicion that someone has been stealing from Asgard’s playbook, James “Wolverine” Logan shows up on the Avengers’ doorstep.

“Uh,” Tony says, noticing that Logan seems nervous, as though he’s showing up to escort his date to the prom. Tony for the life of him cannot recall a single time previous when he’s seen Logan look rattled, and this is disconcerting.

“I need to see Steve,” Logan says.

“Steve?” Tony repeats intelligently. “You call Captain America Steve?” just as Steve, still favoring his left side and sporting remnants of a black eye from the night before walks into the common room off the kitchen and stands stock still, staring at Logan as though he's stumbled onto a haint.

"Christ, it is you," Logan breathes.

Steve's smile is a slow bloom from disbelief to sheer delight. “Yeah," he confirms softly, and then, "So, I hear D-Day was pretty exciting.”

 

"A retreat?" Tony squawks at Coulson. "Mr. Eviscerate-first-ask-questions-later has been on a spiritual retreat? Where? In Nepal, Tibet perhaps, for the past five months while we've been fighting for life, liberty and the continued existence of planet Earth, and watching Steve mourn the deaths of everyone he ever knew?"

"Canadian Yukon," Coulson corrects absently, as he carefully jimmies loose a scorched Pop-Tart that's got stuck in the toaster. He tsks, "Someone needs to remind Thor not to double-stack these. I understand you all crave a high-calorie snack immediately post-mission, but--"

"What was he doing up there? Gazing into his furry little navel, meditating on how to become a kinder, gentler killing machine?"

"--jamming up the toaster gives us burnt Pop Tarts," Coulson finishes, "and that's simply inefficient. Also a waste of Pop Tarts, which is a shame."

Tony's eyes narrow. "When did you start living here?"

Coulson fiddles with the toaster a little, making sure it's now fully operational. "Clint's been hiding me in the ventilation system since I got out of medical."

"What? How--JARVIS?"

"Sir?"

"I don't live here," Coulson smirks.

"And yet, it's nearly 2 a.m., and here you are, fixing our toaster."

Coulson inserts two fresh strawberry Pop Tarts, no icing, then turns to face Tony. He waits patiently for a couple of beats for Tony to catch up.

Tony points accusingly, "That is not one of your pristine Captain America t-shirts! That is the Captain America t-shirt Clint wore to Coney Island and got mustard down the front of last Saturday!"

Coulson smiles.

~~~

The Daily Bugle splashes its front page with the headline, "The Hulk, The Captain and The Little Lady." At first glance the scene looks like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie. Hulk and Cap are covered in dust, there's rubble everywhere, and something is on fire, casting a lurid glow through a cloud of dust in the background. What changes the game is that Cap is carrying a small girl on his shoulders, and she has apparently bonded with the Hulk. Sophia Anna is all of six years old, and she's got long, dark braids tied at the bottom with yellow ribbons. She's wearing little blue jeans with a little white t-shirt and a bright pink sweater, and tiny, sparkly red sneakers. She is clenching one small hand in Cap's hair, and the other is outstretched toward Hulk, whose expression Tony can only describe as besotted as he reaches one enormous green finger out to her tiny brown one. Cap's laughing at the two of them, bright and easy, as though the insane scientists at A.I.M. haven't sent killer robots into downtown Queens and the neighborhood isn't crumbling around them.

The moment didn't last long before a SHIELD agent darted in to take Sophia Anna out of the combat zone, but it was a nice interlude, and Tony has filed away for future reference the memory of Hulk and Cap waving bye-bye at Sophia Anna as she and the agent exited toward the safety of the NYPD perimeter and Sophia's mother's anxious embrace. Except for the killer robots, it was a good day.

Honestly, Tony wonders, what's A.I.M. got against Queens, anyway? What did Queens ever do to them?

 

"Tony," Steve begins, walking into Tony's workshop as though Tony never bothered to install a security system, "Should I have a Twitter account?"

Tony looks up from a mess of hot solder and wires and pushes his safety goggles up onto the top of his head. "Why would you want a Twitter account?"

Steve holds out his Stark phone. "Phil says the Bugle's photograph of Hulk, Sophia Anna and me has gone viral, and is trending on Twitter. I don't understand what any of that means." Steve pouts at his phone, and Tony mentally shakes himself to stop staring at Steve's mouth. How does a grown man have lips that red? Princess Snow White had nothing on Captain Steven Rogers.

"You do not want a Twitter account," Tony assures him.

Steve idly reaches up to pet Dummy, who has trundled over to peer over Steve's shoulder. "No?"

"Here." Tony scrabbles for his own phone amidst the detritus on his workbench and sends Steve a quick text.

Steve's phone quacks.

Tony snickers, "Tell me you didn't choose your own text alert."

"Shush. I like it. What does this say? U R L8. Is this supposed to mean, 'You are late'?"

"Twitter only allows 140 characters per post, including spaces and punctuation. It's about quantity, not quality, and people have learned to abbreviate. That, my literate friend, is how today's kids are learning to spell."

Steve yawps attractively. "They are not!"

"Horrifying, but true."

Steve blinks wide blue eyes at him. "Do you have a Twitter account, Tony?"

Tony snorts, "Can you imagine me stopping at 140 characters?"

Steve laughs.

 

Darcy returns to the Tower covered in what looks like some sort of offal. Tony frowns, "Is that..." He sniffs, screwing his face up at the smell. "Is that bug intestines?"

"Who knew the Brooklyn Botanic Garden would be such a dangerous place to spend the afternoon?" Darcy makes a face as she pulls a glob of something greenish-yellow out of her hair. "So. Gross. I swear, I will kill anyone who gets between me and a shower. Oh my God, wait, is that beer? Tell me that's beer in your hand!"

"It's MacAllan, actually, but there's the usual in the 'fridge. Darcy, what happened?"

"A giant praying mantis tried to eat me," Darcy says, rummaging through the refrigerator. "A second one tried to eat Logan. Big mistake." She pops the cap on an Arrogant Bastard and takes a long drink straight from the bottle, her eyes closing in bliss. "Logan sliced and diced that one, and Cap beat the living guts - literally - out of the first one. I've got bits from both of 'em stuck all over me. So. Gross. Have I mentioned before that it's really gross?"

"Before you escape to the long, hot shower," Tony suggests, trying to sound more like a sympathetic friend and less like a curious scientist, "let me take a sample of that goo, will you? Bruce is going to want to have a look."

Darcy peels off her ruined sweater. "Take all you want. Seriously, my clothes are done for. Here, take 'em, go for it." She tosses her sweater and then her t-shirt at Tony, who catches them carefully and doesn't pretend not to appreciate the view of an attractive, voluptuous woman standing in his living room wearing a purple cotton bra and chugging a strong ale like a champ. "I want to know who to blame for this! You should have seen the look Happy gave me on the way home, like I was totally to blame for the green gunk on the Beemer's upholstery."

Tony clucks, "He'll get over it. God knows he's seen worse. Where's Steve?"

"He's at Xavier's school, spending the night with Logan. Or maybe with Ororo. Or maybe both, I don't know exactly what's going on there, but hey, none of my business. If Cap's gears are getting regular maintenance good for him, it's more than some of us--"

"Aagh!" Tony would press his hands over his ears, but he's got a decent single malt in one, and a fistful of bug guts in the other. "Please, I don't want to know!"

Darcy snorts at him. "You big liar, of course you do. Are you done here? About a thousand gallons of hot water is calling my name."

"Fine, fine, no, wait--"

"Uuugh," Darcy groans. "Whaaaat?"

"SHIELD didn't grab Steve and Logan for debrief?"

"It really annoys you that Logan didn't bring Cap home, doesn't it."

Tony scowls and takes a very casual sip of the MacAllan. "Steve is a grown man, and allowed to make his own mistakes. I merely find it odd that Fury didn't haul the two of them off to the SHIELD cave for questioning. Giant insects trying to devour people rarely pass unnoticed by local law enforcement."

"Debrief is tomorrow," Darcy says, aiming once more toward the elevator bank. "All three of us, plus Coulson have to show up. Sitwell tried to get us in today, but Xavier threatened to make him believe he was a little teapot short and stout if he didn't let us go home, and Ororo was looking lightningy. Sitwell opted for the better part of valor. I'm going now, Tony."

Tony waves her off. "Have a nice time in the shower. Think of me while you're naked and soapy."

Darcy snickers as she disappears into the elevator, "Okay."

Tony wrinkles his nose at the splatters of giant bug guts on Darcy's sweater. "JARVIS..."

"Sir?"

"Odds of success for imposing a curfew on Captain America?"

"... Is Sir's question rhetorical?"

Tony sighs and heads toward Bruce's lab. "Never mind."

~~~~

It's a triple cliché - four, counting the Doombots, because Doom, really? Woman in labor, in a cab, trapped under the rubble of a collapsing hospital parking garage. So close, and yet so far. Hawkeye is first on the scene, burrowing through the debris like a prairie dog to reach Rosa Dos Santos's frantic calls for help. The cabbie is unconscious, beaned into dreamless bliss (though destined for one hell of a headache in his near future) by a chunk of concrete crashing through the driver side window, and Rosa's labor pains are arriving hard on the heels of one another. Hawkeye assures her she's going to be fine while calmly, quietly panicking and in a calm, non-panicking voice over the comm requesting assistance in freeing Mrs. Dos Santos, her imminent offspring, and the unconscious cabbie from their predicament.

Enter Captain America and his muscles, but little Emilio Dos Santos has had enough of waiting to see the world, and Hawkeye ends up playing midwife in the cab's back seat anyway, coached between breaths by Mrs. Dos Santos, who of the three of them actually understands what the hell she's doing. Cap makes like Atlas and insures the crumbling ceiling of the parking garage doesn't interrupt Emilio's birthday.

"...seven pounds, 5 ounces," the reporter from Channel 4 informs her television audience, and the camera swings right to find Mrs. Rosa Dos Santos, exhausted and dusty but beaming with relief, cradled in Cap's arms while they wait for their turn with the busy EMTs and a lift to an undamaged hospital. Little Emilio huddles safely in his mother’s arms, wrapped in a towel from a SHIELD first aid kit. Cap's hair sticks up bright and messy as he and Hawkeye, both their faces covered in dirt and lined with streaks of sweat, grin down at Emilio, who pouts up at Hawkeye.

"That birth thing is hard," Hawkeye commiserates, not taking his eyes off of Emilio. "It's no wonder babies come out cranky."

 

"And again," Tony grumbles as he replays the news feed later in his workshop, "Steven abandoned his damn helmet." Tony turns to Dummy. "Million dollar headgear, and he keeps tossing it because it makes his head hot. It's there to make his head not get squished like a melon. Am I being unreasonable?"

Dummy whirs sympathetically. Dummy likes Steve. People tend to assume that robots neither like nor dislike anyone, but Tony knows better.

It's nearly 2 o'clock. Steve, Darcy and Logan ought to be back from rattling around the Met by now. This has absolutely nothing to do with Tony's sudden need for a sandwich.

Familiar voices precede Tony in the kitchen.

"... of the Fisherman’s Wife is a classic," Darcy states, pouring a can of Pepsi into a glass of ice.

"It's disturbing," Steve counters, biting a carrot in half and crunching loudly.

"You've had zero problems with the Sex Is Not The Enemy site, and there are all sorts of different people into different things on that."

"But that's people sharing sex with people," Steve argues amiably, "Nobody gets molested by a gang of amorous cephalopods." He hesitates, looking worried. "Or, not that I've noticed so far?"

Darcy snorts, "Yeah, you'd need 4chan for that."

"It's sushi gone wrong," Logan declares. He frowns into a large mug of coffee.

"See that's the trouble," Steve points out, wrinkling his nose adorably. "I mean, I like to think I'm as open-minded a guy as anybody, generally, but having sex with something you'd eat for dinner? I'm sorry, but no. Hi, Tony!"

Tony, distracted by Steve being both adorable and surprisingly modern in his admiration for a website devoted to sex for world peace, rummages blindly for the wheat bread. A box of multi-grain crackers tumbles onto his head before bouncing onto the floor. "Ow. I missed something interesting, didn't I. What did I miss?"

"Steve disapproves of sex with octopi," Darcy tells him.

Tony can't resist. "Oh, those conservative 1940's sensibilities."

"Would you have sex with an octopus?" Steve challenges. There's mischief in his eyes. It's a recent look for Steve, vastly superior to the heart-wrenching grief he carried with him for the first months immediately after he was recovered from the Arctic ice. Tony hates to admit it, but he knows this has got a lot to do with the appearance of Logan.

"I'm not really into tentacle porn," Tony says, "but hey, whatever floats your boat." He digs further back into the refrigerator. "Didn't we have some roast beef from Schuster's Deli in here?"

Steve squeaks, then coughs to cover it. "Tentacle porn? That's a thing? What kind of a thing is that?"

Roast turkey will have to do. At least there's plenty of that really good honey mustard. Tony straightens. "Pretty much what it sounds like. Think aliens. Old gods. H. P. Lovecraft."

"Lovecraft wrote horror... oh. Ah." Steve blushes fetchingly, and Darcy pats his hand.

Tony decides he fully endorses this conversation, even if he did miss the beginning of it.

Logan grins, "Cthulhu gets his rocks off with the girl or boy next door."

"Or maybe the girl and the boy next door," Darcy adds. "Everybody has a good time, everybody wins."

"Unless he eats 'em afterward."

"Well yeah," Darcy agrees. "But just for the record, I am a much bigger fan of multiple tentacle-gasms followed by cuddling. Not so much in favor of tentacle-gasms followed by screaming in terror and rending of entrails."

During the moment of silent contemplation that follows this declaration Tony busies himself with removing the soggy-bread-making seeds from a tomato slice.

Steve breaks the silence. "Is someone going to explain 4chan to me?"

Darcy chokes on her Pepsi.

Logan mutters, "Aw, crap," and looks hunted.

Tony carefully places the top slice of bread on his sandwich, and smiles.

~~~~

Cap takes a bullet. Armor-piercing round to the chest, three inches to the right of his sternum. He’s on the ground, leaning left, favoring his right side. The stain of his own blood spreads over his chest, reddening the white star. Black Widow’s got his shield slung over her left arm and her favorite Browning in her right fist. She stands in front of Cap; fierce, dusty and bloody, and not giving an inch. The dockyard is infested with A.I.M's goons, and by the time Cap was shot Black Widow had already knifed three of them.

Iron Man listens to Cap over the comm, commanding the field though his breath rattles and his voice is strained with pain. "I'm fine, I'm fine," which the entire team recognizes as a huge lie. "Nobody do anything stupid. Widow, at your 10!"

The kid, Parker, from the Bugle, the one who managed the photo of the Hulk and the little girl, he manages a single clear photograph of Black Widow defending Cap before Iron Man swoops down, the suit's repulsors kicking up a sandstorm.

Nobody gets Thor on camera, bashing the A.I.M. sniper off an eight-story crane and waiting to catch him until his face is six inches shy of the ground, the rifle crashing to pieces on the asphalt four yards to the left. Given the rage in Thor's handsome face, Tony figures it's a toss-up as to whether the thunder god or the consequences of gravity is more frightening.

Cap's blood smears Iron Man's armor. Tony shakes inside the titanium. The reporter from Channel 5 wisely doesn't even try to get an interview with either Iron Man or the Black Widow. As SHIELD EMTs carefully load Cap into the ambulance she instructs the camera man to zoom in, but stay out of the way. Coulson puts his hand in front of the camera lens. Nobody argues.

"Don't blame the giant bunnies," Steve croaks when he wakes up in the hospital, drugged to the gills on an I.V. feed. "They're vegetarians and they weren't breathing fire, or anything. Now wombats," he insists to Natasha when she swears with relief and kisses his forehead, "I hear wombats can get mean."

"A.I.M. snipers not so amusing either," Coulson notes.

Steve agrees woozily, "No, not very." He holds up his hand to peer at the tape stuck on the back of it where the I.V. is attached. The super-soldier serum made Steve's skin tougher to accommodate his extra muscle and bone density. All well and good, except that as a result he always requires a big damn needle when medical needs to stick him.

Tony winces sympathetically and takes hold of Steve's fingers to distract him from fussing with the I.V. Steve smiles at him loopily.

"I believe we had a concurrence of villains today," Coulson explains matter-of-factly. "Or more accurately, a Cornell graduate student's master's thesis gone horribly awry, and A.I.M. taking advantage, knowing we'd show."

Natasha asks, "What's happened with the graduate student?"

Coulson's lip twitches upward. "She'll be proceeding with her thesis under direction from Dr. Banner. It's a good fit. He misses teaching, and bunnies - rabbits - are generally pretty quiet, or so I've been led to believe."

"I really wish you'd wear your helmet," Tony complains at Steve. "That could just as easily have been a head shot." He's reasonably sure he succeeds in sounding irritated instead of terrified.

"My helmet makes my head hot," Steve says.

Coulson sighs.

 

3-ish a.m. on... a Wednesday? Friday? Fury calls Tony to inform him that Captain America has tagged SHIELD.

Tony rubs at his face and squints at the annoying light from the screen of his phone. "JARVIS... lights, 50%." The room brightens gradually, stopping at a just bearable level.

Nick Fury is still yelling at Tony over the cell connection. Tony mumbles, "Phffff, Fury, Colonel, Nick old pal, buddy, I've been up for... I dunno, many, many hours straight, making things, important things, like, figuring out how to amp up Cap's armor, that was one of them, so could there be less yelling and more explaining clearly, as though to... could you use small words, as though you're talking to a senator."

When Fury quits shouting Tony risks putting the phone back against his ear. "Come again with the who did what now?"

As he's getting dressed Tony calls Pepper in Malibu. It's midnight out west, give or take. She's probably still awake. He puts the phone on speaker. "Pep," he complains, "when did I turn into a den mother? When was it exactly that I turned into the one whose door the local cops knock on and ask, 'Sir, does this young hooligan live at this address?' when a de-iced super-soldier commits a misdemeanor?"

Pepper laughs. It is the laugh, Tony thinks to himself, of a woman whose decision to amicably separate from her super-hero billionaire blah blah blah boyfriend has just been totally vindicated by the universe. "Oh, Tony," Pepper stutters. She is weeping with glee. Tony can hear it in her voice as she chants, "Tony, Tony, Tony..."

What Tony finds when he arrives at SHIELD headquarters at 3:34 a.m. is Darcy Lewis and a small contingent of SHIELD agents aiding and abetting Steve in putting the finishing touches on a two-story act of complex graffiti. There's a surprising amount of detail in the work considering the short time Steve can have been working, but his motions are fast, sure, as though he's got it all down in his head, and his hands know exactly what to do.

Two steps ahead of the pack, of course is pretty much Steve's S.O.P.

Colonel Nick Fury watches from the dimly-lit edge of the parking lot like a disgruntled vampire.

"Ah," Tony says.

Fury turns to him. "Ah," he repeats, glaring daggers with his one good eye. "Ah? That sounds to me like this is not entirely a surprise to you, Mr. Stark. Please explain to me why this is not entirely a surprise to you."

Steve, looking perfectly comfortable in grey chinos and a paint-stained blue t-shirt even in the pre-dawn cold, works from an extension ladder, finishing off the upper right corner of the painting. An armed SHIELD agent dressed head to foot in black Kevlar holds the ladder steady for him at the bottom. Darcy hands a can of Krylon to another agent, who fits it into a bucket attached to the end of a long pole and hands it up to Steve. Steve drops the can he'd been using into a bucket dangling off the top step of the ladder and takes up the one offered to him by the SHIELD agent.

Tony says, "Look how much fun they're having, Nick. Why spoil it?"

"Captain America has recruited my highly trained security crew into his rogue graffiti gang," Fury growls next to his left ear. "And I believe you were about to shed some light on the situation, Mr. Stark."

"We spent today wandering around Brooklyn." Tony shrugs. "There's not much left of it that Steve remembers, but we found street art everywhere. It was pretty cool. Even a gear head like me was impressed. You might imagine how much more Steve appreciated it."

"Tony look at it all! Half planned, half impulse, all from the heart." Steve turned on the sidewalk, the sweep of his arms taking in all he surveyed. "All over the flats and curves and corners of Brooklyn; roll-down gates, doors, walls, fences, the sidewalk. The people of Brooklyn are pouring out their love for their city in full color kaleidoscope all over its streets, and it is a beautiful thing, Tony."

"I like the baby collage," Darcy said. "And the space beaver."

Tony raised an eyebrow. "Space--"

"Or it could have been a space woodchuck," Darcy corrected hurriedly.

Steve tilted sideways, staring at a battered security door. "That's Brooklyn. Brooklyn, drawn on a school of fish, swimming in an orange sky. See? There's the Brooklyn Museum."

"And Lucy in the sky with diamonds," Tony teased. "This is going to lead to trouble, isn't it?"

And Steve smiled. His blue eyes shone bright and confident, his blond hair blew messy in the breeze, and his shoulders spanned broad beneath the autumn sun.

Let Parker get a photo of that, Tony thought.

"So now Captain America is tagging my house."

"Steven Rogers is claiming his century," Tony corrects. "He's finally waking up, Nick. Fair warning that he is back, and the world is going to have to deal with him."

Fury raises an eyebrow. "You bullshitting me, Stark?"

Tony grins, feeling the certainty thrumming in his veins like the adrenaline of battle. "No. No, for once I am not bullshitting you."

Steve stops spray-painting, leans back a little, and then nods sharply and backs down the ladder. He flips the extender catch and pulls the ladder down. The metallic clang as it shortens into itself rings loud in the quiet of 4 a.m. Darcy joins Steve as he backs away, regarding his work with a critical expression that slowly changes to one of soft satisfaction.

Darcy nudges him. "A-okay, big guy?"

"Sure," Steve decides. "It'll do." He turns, spots Fury and then Tony.

Darcy yips, "Cheese it, the cops!" and darts behind Steve.

Steve nods at Tony, then at Fury. "Evening, Sir. Hey, Tony."

"Captain. I see you've been keeping my men busy."

"I appreciate their assistance," Steve says evenly. He doesn't come to attention, doesn't stand at parade rest. He looks Fury in the eye, and waits.

Fury gives the mural a final once-over, then nods brusquely. "Nice work," he pronounces, which Tony knows is a great big fat lie, but really, what's Fury going to do, paint over a mural done by Captain America? Fury's smart enough to pick his battles.

"Thank you Sir," Steve nods back, and they watch Fury stride off, his black leather coat wafting heavily behind him like a great, gleaming black wing. He gets into his shiny black SHIELD SUV, and drives away into the night. Tony reminds himself that Fury is the king of bullshit. He'll probably use Steve's mural as a recruitment poster.

"He didn't kill us! Yay us!" Darcy grabs Tony's hand and pulls him sideways so that he's got a better view of the wall. "Jane and I were stuck in Norway when this happened. Is this the way you remember it?"

Tony nods. "Details are a little fuzzy, you know, what with nuclear explosion and imminent death and all, but yeah. I remember."

The image Steve has painted in bright, Krylon colors two stories high on the side of SHIELD headquarters is of the final moments of the newly assembled Avengers' showdown with Loki and the Chitauri army. It is the day, the moment, when Tony nearly died. From the left the Hulk lunges forward, his brawny arms outstretched toward Iron Man, who plummets earthward, his armor gleaming brightly, but his body rag-doll limp, helpless against the merciless drag of gravity. In the upper right corner is the closing portal, blue sky ripped open to show black, star-studded space and the fury of a nuclear explosion rushing toward the tear in the sky and Manhattan below.

"One of the worst moments of my life," Steve confides to Tony. "First I was afraid I'd called it too soon, and left you trapped on the wrong side of the portal, and then we were all terrified you'd be smashed to bits by the fall to Earth."

Tony prods gently. "Okay, there's half the story," because there's got to be a particular reason why Steve would immortalize a moment that scared the hell out of him in full color larger than life on SHIELD's hallowed brickwork.

"When I was with the Commandos," Steve says, "we were... They were a swell bunch of guys, none better, but the fact is, there wasn't one of them, including me, who could have saved Bucky back then, or saved you last spring, but now things are different. I lost pretty much everything to the ice, but I've gained some since, and I'm grateful."

"I'd figured it for a one-way trip," Tony admits.

"Yeah," Steve breathes, "but I'm awfully glad it wasn't." He brushes against Tony with his shoulder, warm in the chill hour.

~~~~

There is something about Thor that makes small children want to climb him. This makes evacuating a kindergarten much easier when the local police ask for help with about a hundred mechanical rats turned loose at a fast food restaurant across from the school. Each of the rats is three feet high, made of tough black polycarbonate, and equipped with nasty mechanical teeth. Clint makes jokes about the Killer Rats of Caer Bannog as he picks them off from his perch on the roof of the school, but they're packing a bite that's no joke for unarmored personnel, or young children.

Tony figures out a computer virus that fries their little robo-rodent brains.

Channel 4 leads off with a report about the rats and the outraged health inspector who created them. The reporter catches him ranting, "Forty seven health code violations! Forty seven, but will they listen? Do they even care about the fines? I went to M.I.T., dammit!" as he's led handcuffed into a SHIELD van.

Then Channel 4's camera veers left while the reporter is still talking about the rats and zooms in on Thor, Steve, and Tony, sitting together on a low wall along one side of the kindergarten playground. A small boy wearing Steve's helmet runs back and forth in front of them, making enthusiastic whooshing noises, and a tiny girl with her hair in red ringlets stands giggling, balanced perfectly on the wide palm of Thor's outstretched hand. A SHIELD agent hovers in the background watching nervously, probably worried that Thor will suddenly start juggling five-year-olds.

Tony has got Iron Man's helmet off, one armored forearm resting across it in his lap, and he's laughing his ass off at what the sound guy and the reporter guy don't pick up, which is Steve confiding to Tony the other thing he dislikes about his helmet, besides that it makes his head hot. "I hate that giant 'A' on the front," he says grumpily. "It makes me feel like Hester Prynne."

 

"Hey! What, JARVIS, what the hell happened to Judas Priest?"

"My apologies Sir, but Mr. Logan desires your attention. He has explained that the matter is an urgent one, and given details I must agree."

Tony looks over to find Jim Logan pounding on the clear wall of the workshop, making the bullet-proof glass ripple. The door slides open before Tony can give JARVIS the go-ahead. "--the roof," Logan barks, "Stark, I need you up on the roof! In the armor, now, Jesus!"

Tony doesn't argue with a wild-eyed, half-panicked Wolverine. He grabs a shop rag for his greasy hands and guides Logan toward the work shop's elevator up to the tower's flight deck. "Explain."

"We had the Talk," Logan says. "Me and Rogers."

"You had a talk, and now I need the suit? What the hell did you say to him?"

Logan growls, "Not A talk, THE talk, me and Darcy, you and him--"

"What do you mean, you and Darcy? Wait, me and Steve? There is no me and Steve."

Logan gives him the sort of look that can only mean, "You are a dumbass."

"Not that I haven't considered it," Tony admits, silently wondering whether the adamantium claws will make an appearance.

"Consider it some more," Logan suggests as the doors to the flight deck open. The wind at the top of the tower slaps them both in the face. There's Steve-- "Don't waste time staring, Stark! Make with the flying armor!"

Tony yelps, "JARVIS, armor me up!" but JARVIS is ahead of him, the robotic arms already waving parts of the suit at Tony, waiting for him to step in.

Steve is barefoot in his chinos and a white t-shirt. A white long-sleeved shirt, unbuttoned, with the sleeves rolled up whips around him. He's a few short yards from the edge of the deck, bouncing on his toes. There's a dare in his eyes, sky-blue and gleaming. Steve's grin is sharp, brilliant, terrifying.

"Aw, crap," Logan groans, "Steve--"

Iron Man's faceplate snaps into place over Tony's face, JARVIS comes online, concerned in Tony's ear.

"Sir--"

"Yeah, I got him. Steve--"

Steve whoops, takes three long strides, and launches himself into 90 stories of air over Manhattan.

"Shit." Tony takes off at a fast burn, hurling himself off the edge after Steve. He makes a grab, misses. Steve twists, quick as a kite, barrel-rolling mid-plummet to laugh up at Tony, his hair flying around his face, the white shirt fluttering around him like dove wings.

Steve and Tony are in free-dive. Tony plunges hard, doesn't worry about bruising Steve when he makes the second try for him. He shoulders into Steve's chest like a defensive lineman and grabs him hard in both arms. His armored toes snip off the top leaves of a maple tree and the repulsors singe it a little as Tony and Steve blast past it and sling upward.

People stare from the windows of the lower offices in Avengers Tower as Tony buzzes the side of the building, carrying Steve straight up. Tony lands inelegantly on the flight deck and lets loose of Steve, who rolls three times before he bounces to his feet, laughing.

"Christ almighty," Tony yells, "What were you thinking? God dammit, if I wasn't in the suit I'd--"

Logan turns Steve by one shoulder, and punches him in the face.

"I'd do that," Tony says. The bots are taking too long to pull the suit off of him. He has to walk through them, and he wants to run.

"Fuck me sideways," Logan growls. "What the fuck, Rogers?"

Steve rubs at the trickle of blood on his chin, grinning unrepentantly around a split lip. "That was a hoot! Except for the punch in the head, but I guess I deserved that."

This, Tony realizes as he watches Steve and Logan circle one another, this is the stubborn, wise-ass skinny kid from Brooklyn who never backed down from a fight even when he was getting his ass kicked. This is the soldier who went AWOL in a costume from a USO chorus line and stormed a Hydra base by himself. This beautiful, grinning, semi-suicidal maniac, right here. This... The penny drops. Fucking tactician. Fine.

Tony stalks up to Steve, grabs him by the back of his neck and kisses him, right there in front of God, JARVIS, a half dozen curious pigeons, and James Logan.

Steve kisses him back hard, fingers clenching in the sweaty back of Tony's shirt. He laughs against Tony's mouth, "Now that wasn't so hard, was it?"

"I hate you," Tony lies. "You would've given me a fucking heart attack if it wasn't mechanical!"

"Your heart is not mechanical," Steve scolds. He nuzzles at Tony's ear and presses one hand over the arc reactor. "Not your heart."

Tony half collapses against him. "God, you are unreal."

Logan flails, "This is your response to me telling you I'm dating Darcy and I think Tony's sweet on you? You're a goddamn lunatic, Rogers!"

Steve laughs, "Did you forget, old man?"

"You're dating Darcy?" Tony turns, but doesn't let go of Steve. "What happened to you and Steve and Ororo?"

Steve and Logan chorus, "And Ororo?"

"Your happy super-hero mutant threesome over at Xavier's."

Logan fishes in his shirt pocket and pulls out a battered half cigar. He bites down on the end, shifting it thoughtfully from one side of his mouth to the other. "You know what, I'm gonna let Rogers explain this whole whatever it is you think you know. Meantime, I got a date with a spunky brunette, and flowers to buy."

"Flowers? You?"

Logan grimaces around the cigar stub, and turns toward the elevator. "Sure, why not? I got a romantic soul."

"Have her home by midnight," Tony calls after him.

"Not likely," Logan promises. He grins fiercely at Tony as the elevator doors close.

"Our little girl is growing up," Steve observes wryly.

Tony raises an eyebrow at him. "Look who's talking. Seriously, I don't even know what to do with you right now."

Steve crowds into Tony's space. His hands slide downward into Tony's back pockets. "No? I thought you were supposed to be a genius."

"I--pfft," Tony snorts, "Of course I am. Very geniusy, more geniusy than anyone, or probably anyone, the odds are good--look, I just, you flung yourself off of a skyscraper to get my attention, how do I deal with a guy who does that kind of thing?"

"You deal with me every day. I've grown to count on it. I count on you, Tony."

"Hey, here's a thought, instead of lunging from rooftops to get my attention, maybe you could start wearing your helmet to protect your pretty skull when villains are trying to kill us. That would make me happy."

Steve huffs a small laugh into Tony's neck. "How about if you kiss me again. That's a happy thing."

"You are so trying to change the subject, but fine, sure." Tony hooks his thumbs through Steve's belt loops, and licks gently against his swollen lower lip. "I could do that, the kissing. I--Look, I'll design you a new helmet--"

"Less babbling, more kissing," Steve suggests.

Tony grins, leaves the safety issue for another day. "You are one pushy bastard."

Steve's hands, broad and warm, press against Tony's ass, pulling him forward. Tony grunts a soft note of approval as Steve smiles against his mouth. "I think I like this century," Steve murmurs. "I like it just fine."

--#--