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Arms And The Man

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There was this woman.

It was dark in the room, and Steve didn't know how he got into these situations, he really didn't, but he could hear the reception still going on outside. Tony was throwing the party, it was his mansion, it had been a really nice party until now -- and so he thought about that, because she was kissing him and of course kissing was nice in the abstract, but he didn't even know her name (Laura, maybe?) and she tasted like shrimp or something from the little appetizer things at the party and it --

It was unpleasant, but Steve didn't really know how to extract himself from this, not politely anyway. He didn't know how, couldn't back away from her hand on his thigh or her other hand on his shirt-collar because he was up against a wall. She was crumpling his nice shirt and her lipstick was smearing on his cheek when he turned his head, but she giggled and licked and Steve concentrated on the noise of the party and just sort of took it.

After all, as they always said, worse things happened in war.

Her hand slid up and Steve tried to twist away again --

With blinding intensity the lights flashed on, which startled him (sudden light, sudden noises, unless he was in uniform they startled him) and there was someone in the doorway.

Tony Stark whistled sharply, like summoning a dog, and said, "Okay kids, break it up."

Steve's chest heaved with relief, even as his face heated with embarrassment, and the woman just leaned back and said, "Jealous, playboy?"

"Nuh-uh, teeny-bopper, I'm not playing games here," Tony said, coming into the room. "You've had your seven in heaven, run back to your little friends and tell them you made out with Captain America -- " even as he was talking he was deftly untangling them, hauling the woman away by the shoulder, and Steve couldn't do anything but stare, " -- and then tell them Avenger boys are off-limits from now on. Go on, shoo," he added, and surprisingly, with a little blown kiss at Steve, she shoo'd.

"Look at you," Tony said, as the door shut behind her. He dug a handkerchief out of his suit and began cleaning lipstick off Steve's cheek, studying the color as it rubbed onto the fabric. "Hm, Passion Red. Kids these days have no imagination. Hold still," he added, dabbing the last of it away and straightening the crumple in Steve's collar. "You okay?"

"Huh?" Steve asked.

"Focus, superhero," Tony said, snapping in front of his eyes. "You okay?"

"Yeah, sure, I -- " Steve swallowed. "Who wouldn't want to kiss a pretty gal like that?"

Tony just lifted his eyebrow. "Sit," he ordered, gesturing to the couch. He went to the bar -- even random uninhabited rooms in Stark Mansion had bars, it was very upscale -- and poured out two glasses of neat vodka. He put one in Steve's hand and settled in the chair across from him, leaning back like he owned the world (he basically did), one leg slung carelessly over the other. Steve never felt comfortable in suits, especially tuxedos; Tony wore them like he was born to do it.

And then Steve would remember who Tony's father had been, and realize that Tony was born to do it.

"Take a few minutes," Tony said. "I'd apologize for the interruption but I don't think it was unwelcome."

"How did you know?" Steve asked, looking down at the glass. He didn't like neat vodka; it couldn't get him drunk, and it tasted awful, so there wasn't really any point to it.

"JARVIS," Tony said. "He monitors all public areas. He registered elevated heartbeat and muscle tension. I suppose that could be a sign of someone having a good time, but JARVIS has enough auxiliary data on what someone having a good time looks like, versus someone getting ready to fight-or-flight. He tipped me off. He doesn't like to intervene directly; the disembodied voice creeps people out."

Steve considered this.

"Thank you, JARVIS," he said, looking up, because as many times as Tony told him JARVIS was the house, Steve liked to think of him as a very polite man in the ceiling. It helped normalize it.

"Pleased to help, Captain Rogers," JARVIS replied.

"What I don't get is how you let some kid half your size drag you in here in the first place -- "

"She said she wanted to talk -- "

Tony didn't stop talking when other people did; he just talked over or around them, and Steve had come to realize it wasn't rude. It was just that Tony could talk and think and listen all at once and assumed everyone else could too. After two or three months you did get the hang of it.

" -- and why you didn't just shove her off and tell her to go back to the party, and wanting to talk is so worn out I figured even you'd know that one," Tony finished, while Steve was still protesting.

Steve looked down at his drink again. Tony silent was way more unnerving than Tony talking.

"I didn't want to hurt her," he said. "I'm..." he gestured at his body. He loved this body that Tony's father and Dr. Erskine had given him, and he reveled in the strength that let him finally, finally stand up to all the bullies in the world and not get beaten to a pulp every time. But sometimes he bruised people when he didn't mean to, sometimes he snapped pencils or pens when he forgot to hold them lightly, sometimes in battle he'd snapped bones without intending to do more than throw a punch.

"Right, okay, I get it," Tony said. "Well, I'll just have to be your chaperone. JARVIS and me. But you have to stop falling for the let's go somewhere quiet to talk ruse. Oldest trick in the book and believe me, I wrote the book, so I'd know."

Steve glanced out the window wistfully. "I don't mind it, you know -- I don't disapprove or something. I know people do that all the time -- "

" -- you mean me -- "

" -- and I -- stop talking over me," Steve said abruptly. "You always think you're so smart, you know what people are going to say."

"I usually do," Tony replied.

"And I didn't mean you. You...enjoy it, that's fine," Steve waved a hand. "I just think that's not for me."

"What is for you?" Tony asked.

Steve settled back, running a hand over his face. "I don't know. There was never much time for it."

"There's always time for it."

"Maybe for you."

"In war too. People getting married. Pretty French girls. USO dances. You forget I might not have been there, but I've seen plenty of movies."

Steve barked a laugh. "Movies. Sure. Those are always accurate."

"Tell me I'm wrong, then. Did Hollywood make up USO dances? JARVIS, put on some Glenn Miller, wouldja?"

Obediently, soft swing jazz began to trickle over the hidden speakers in the room.

"I never got to go to one," Steve admitted.

"Not a big dancer, huh?"

"Two left feet. Before," and Before was always a thousand things unsaid, especially around Tony, because Before meant Before your father made me like this and Before you were born and both were equally weird. "Then I had a job to do. I was a raider, Tony, a commando. We didn't get official leave. We didn't get official sanction half the time. We just...ran around, blowing stuff up. That was all right," he added, with a nostalgic smile, because for all the death and dismemberment and gore and horrible things...blowing stuff up hadn't been so bad. His purpose had been clear. Not like now, with everything edged in grey.

Tony was studying him, the glow of the arc reactor just barely visible through his tuxedo shirt. Outside, yes, the reception was still going on, but Steve had forgotten to notice it.

"Have you ever been with a woman?" Tony asked, out of the blue, and Steve flushed.

"I don't see it's any business of yours," he said.

"I know my public image isn't what you'd want yours to be, but I don't judge on inexperience. I don't want people to come down on me for being a slut, it's a little hard to come down on anyone else for being a virgin. Also I want you to note I didn't say go down, and that took a lot of willpower," Tony added.

"Then why ask?" Steve said, ignoring the bull Tony had laced his answer with.

"Curiosity. Ever been with a man?"

"What?"

"Look, I know things were different back then -- "

"Why does everyone always say that?" Steve asked, groaning. "They weren't that different. I grew up in the city, I knew what went on then and I see what goes on now. I see men together all the time. It's not new to me, Tony."

Tony shrugged. "You sounded shocked."

"Well it's assuming a lot about a fella, asking something like that."

"Not really. You didn't want to be kissing that woman just now, it's a fifty-fifty chance. It was wartime. You telling me you never once lent a soldier a hand?"

Steve set his glass aside. "Yes, it was war, and I know it happened," he admitted. "We were in pretty tight quarters. Sometimes you saw it. Sometimes you saw enough to know not to look further. I guess sometimes it was real."

"Real?"

"You know. Like the men nowadays, that's real. But we didn't see dames for months at a time. Some of it was just...helping each other out."

"Sounds pretty real to me." Tony frowned. "So you did?"

"No. Well yes. No," Steve said, and then scowled. "Why should I tell you?"

"You will never find a man more unqualified to throw stones from his giant glass mansion?" Tony suggested. He was about to continue when the door opened again and a couple staggered in; they stopped on the threshold.

"Private party," Tony said, and they disappeared again.

"You always know what to say," Steve said ruefully.

"Comes of having no brain-to-mouth filter. So you did know the pleasures of soldierly bonding?"

"That's none of your business, Tony!"

"No, but I'm going to keep asking anyway until you tell me," Tony said. "Or I guess I could see if it's in your military record -- "

"If it were in my military record, I wouldn't be in the military anymore," Steve said drily.

"So you did!"

"Tony!"

"So you didn't?"

Steve shook his head. "If I tell you, will you drop it?"

Tony grinned. "Try me. No promises."

Steve leaned back, sighing. "Before the war. Bucky and I fooled around. Once. But that was just kids, you know, it didn't mean anything," he added, because it hadn't, not really -- it'd just been them discovering the world, like they did. "Bucky and I did pretty much everything together. Wasn't much different from riding a roller coaster."

"You must have had some really great roller coasters back in the day."

Steve laughed a little. "Not that good."

Tony uncrossed his legs, settling forward. "Look, I could give you all kinds of advice, but that's just weird, because you're like a hundred years old, so all I'm going to say is not to let anyone you don't like sweet-talk you into darkened rooms, and if you like 'em, find somewhere more secure than my second-floor lounge, okay? And if you do get in trouble, JARVIS is watching out. He'll give me the whistle."

He stood, patted Steve on the head like a grandfather, and was almost to the door when Steve called out, "Tony?"

"Mm?" Tony turned.

"Have you ever?"

A grin crossed the other man's face. "I've done just about everything you can think of, and lots you probably can't. You're going to need to be more specific."

"With a man," Steve clarified.

"Oh -- well sure." Tony's smile widened. "You know me. I love a good roller coaster."

When he was gone, Steve heaved a sigh and tipped his head back, looking at the ceiling. "JARVIS?"

"Yes, Captain Rogers."

"If I left the party, do you think anyone would notice?"

There was a slight pause. "The reception appears to be ending. It's probable you will not be missed." A door opened quietly in the other end of the room. "You can bypass the reception if you use the west stairs."

"Thank you, JARVIS," Steve said, standing, but then he looked up again. "Do people say thank you to you?"

"Mr. Stark does, when he remembers to. It isn't necessary. I don't require gratitude to satisfy my algorithms."

"But I bet it's nice, huh?"

Another pause. "It informs me that my service is satisfactory and further action is not necessary."

"Okay. Well, thanks."

"You're welcome, Captain Rogers."

***

It happened again. This time it was a fundraiser party for polar research (Steve felt this was somehow apt) and a different woman, but she said the same thing, Let's find somewhere to talk, and Steve very politely said We can talk here! with a bright smile, and she said Somewhere quieter, and she was pulling him away --

But this time, even though they weren't at Tony's place and JARVIS wasn't around, Tony was suddenly there.

"Steve! Awesome, I need you to meet some people. Sorry, beautiful," he said to the woman, who blushed and smiled but most importantly let go of Steve's hand. Tony had an arm around his shoulders, sort of (Tony was short) and he pulled him away with a grin that said he knew exactly what he was doing but wasn't going to mention it.

"I do have someone for you to meet," Tony said, as they walked. "Pep! Over here! Steve Rogers, Pepper Potts. Virginia, everyone calls her Pepper. Pepper runs Stark Industries. Steve saves the world sometimes, you two should have lots to talk about. Pepper, monopolize him, please? You're fantastic," he said, and kissed Pepper on the cheek and left them alone before either of them could speak.

"I've heard a lot about you, Ms. Potts," Steve said shyly, because Pepper was a knockout and Tony talked about her all the time.

"Same here," she said, putting a glass of wine in his hand. "But I bet you get that a lot. Come on, sit down, and call me Pepper. I expect Tony wants to be your honor guard, but his attention span's kind of short."

"I noticed," Steve said, and Pepper laughed, and she didn't try to grab him or anything.

Actually Pepper was really interesting and easy to talk to once he got going, and she reminded him of Peggy -- confident, opinionated, capable of killing a man at ten paces. They talked about Tony and about the internet for a while and some about movies, because Steve loved movies, even the modern ones, and CGI was officially the best thing ever invented.

"Listen," she said, at the end of the night, when people were leaving. "I know Tony only shoved me at you so I'd make sure nobody bugged you, but I had fun. You want to get coffee sometime?"

Sure. Who didn't like coffee?

***

Oh. Coffee.

It went like this: he met Pepper at this cafe she said was really good, and they talked some more about the internet because Steve was fascinated by it, and then about what Pepper did at her job, and about Tony. Two people asked for his autograph and one asked for Pepper's. Steve might not have been fully up on all the new technology in this day and age, but he could recognize people taking pictures with their camera phones. (Camera phones! Like Dick Tracy radio watches only better!) That really didn't bother him much.

They got along really well. Pepper had a nice roadster, so she drove him home, and then at his door she said she had a good time and kissed him.

But then she stopped kissing him and still didn't grab him or anything, so Steve gave her a hesitant smile and said, "Thank you," and she gave him a really strange smile and patted his arm, got in her car and drove away.

And Steve went inside and called Tony.

"Pepper kissed me," he said.

"Ooh. Been there. She's fun. She'll break your heart, though," Tony said.

"Tony!"

"What? Pepper's great. You like her, right?"

"Sure."

"You didn't like kissing her?"

Steve rubbed his eyes. "Please don't tell her."

"She probably already knows. Pepper knows everything."

"You've kissed Pepper?" Steve asked, as Tony's earlier remark caught up with him.

"Yeah. We work better as people who don't kiss. Sounds like you might, too."

"But you liked it, right?" Steve said carefully. He heard a sigh on the other end of the phone -- and also a sound like maybe Tony was welding something.

"Listen, I can't explain attraction to you, but you gotta stop being afraid to tell people when you're not into them," Tony replied. "It's not impolite. It's just how dating works."

"I'm not trying to date!"

"Maybe you should. It's a whole new world out there, and you're impressively available. I don't know if you've noticed, Steve, but you're smoking hot."

"Sure," Steve said gloomily.

"Aw, does Captain America want to be loved for his mind?"

"Tony!"

"Relax, kiddo. You like who you like. You just haven't found someone who spins your shield yet."

"But I like Pepper. She's a peach."

"Uh huh. Don't call her, she'll call you."

Steve ran a hand over his face. "Tony..."

"Yes?"

"Can I talk to JARVIS?"

There was a weird silence on the other end of the line. "JARVIS? Why?"

"I like JARVIS."

"Uh, okay, weirdo. JARVIS, call for y -- " Tony's voice cut off.

"Yes, Captain Rogers?" JARVIS said. There was something soothing about his even tones.

"Can Tony hear us?"

"No, Captain."

"Were you listening earlier?"

"I was not recording."

JARVIS was smart, Steve thought. "But you heard, right?"

"I monitor all communications into or out of Mr. Stark's residence, yes."

"What do you think?"

"About your difficulty with Ms. Potts?"

"Yeah."

"There are possible options," JARVIS said.

"Like what?"

"You could be seeking a more cerebral connection."

"Cerebral."

"Indeed, Captain. Perhaps you incline to a meeting of the minds, and physical attraction follows that. You wish to be more familiar with your partners before you're willing to be intimate with them."

"Oh," Steve said, relieved. "Maybe."

"The other possibility, of course, is that you're homosexual."

"Not you too!"

"I'm not emotionally invested in your sexuality, Captain. Technically speaking, I have no emotions to invest. Without a statistical sampling of male encounters to measure with -- other than your dalliance with Sergeant Barnes -- "

"Should have known you'd hear that," Steve sighed.

" -- which did appear to be successful, judging from your description -- it is impossible to gauge your attraction based on gender, but it is a possibility. I am programmed to present all likely scenarios," JARVIS finished impersonally.

Steve slouched down further. "What if I am?" he asked, in a voice that sounded...small, in a way it never had even when he'd been small himself.

"I'll need more parameters," JARVIS said calmly.

"Gay. What...what would happen?"

"Politically or personally?"

"Uh. There'd be politics -- ? Wait, no, of course there would be," Steve groaned. "I'm Captain America."

"Indeed, Captain."

"Personally."

"Ideally, you would find a compatible partner and form a lasting, stable relationship. If you prefer, you might find yourself more comfortable with brief encounters. As with heterosexuality, there are a wide range of -- "

"Okay, but..."

"Yes? Captain?"

"Other than that."

JARVIS sounded...almost confused. "There are no set guidelines for drastic personal changes based on sexual orientation. Your social and political beliefs place you within the sector of American culture where it is generally thought that acceptance of oneself is the preferred outcome of confirming one's sexual orientation. Current theory suggests that sexual preference is biologically influenced, thus your behavior patterns in a holistic sense would remain unchanged. Ideally, you would be...happy."

"I'm happy now."

"Are you, Captain? I'm glad to hear it. Figuratively speaking, of course."

"Okay. Well, thank you, JARVIS," Steve said, like always.

"You're welcome, Captain."

Steve hung up and pressed the edge of the phone to his forehead, closing his eyes.

***

Pepper didn't call him. He hadn't really thought she would.

***

Maybe he just wasn't meant to be with anyone. He liked women, but mostly back -- back Before -- he'd been nervous and awkward around them because enough of them had laughed at his fumbling tries at flirtation to make him gun-shy. (Ironically: not shy of actual guns.) He'd been told by...well, by everyone, mostly, except Bucky, that women were mysterious creatures that weren't interested in men like him. He hadn't thought about having any kind of relationship with them beyond distant worship. Then there'd been the war. Now that he could do more, now that the war was over...well, most of the women he met were more interested in his biceps than his personality, which he was finding was not exactly better, and --

And you didn't have to do what you did back then, find a pretty girl who didn't mind the look of you and settle down and have kids. You could be alone and have lots of women like Tony, or live with a woman you weren't married to, or live with a man. Or marry a man.

In the war, Steve had loved all of his men, the way soldiers do, the way an officer (a good officer) does. He was never disapproving of any of them for finding...comfort with each other -- and some of them did -- because it didn't impact their fighting ability and thus wasn't any of his business.

He was never envious, either, because he had Bucky, who was the best pal a guy could ask for. Bucky never once showed even a hint of anger or jealousy that Steve was their Captain, or that he was taller than Bucky now, or any of that. Bucky at his side was all he'd needed; he followed orders and gave advice, was a good second-in-command, and he teased Steve like he always had. He had known unequivocably that they could trust each other. Whatever else happened, Bucky would back him. Losing that had ripped him up like shrapnel, and it still hurt to think of.

Would he...if Bucky were still around...would he?

Maybe Bucky wouldn't care for it. Maybe he would.

Maybe Steve was needlessly complicating his own life. Most people he knew now, people in his situation with SHIELD, didn't have anyone. At least, he thought ruefully, not on a permanent basis.

Maybe he was meant to be alone.

***

Or...maybe not.

When they first met, it took Steve weeks to get past Tony's general aura of arrogance and cruelty to figure out that Tony just really didn't know how to function around people he wasn't trying to seduce (business or bed, it made little difference to Tony). It took them months to reach what Steve would call a friendship; first they had to have an armistice, but once Tony got on board with the team and started living up to Steve's admittedly high expectations for the soldiers in his care, things eased.

He still wasn't comfortable coming into Tony's home uninvited, but exceptions could be made.

When JARVIS sent an emergency flash to everyone on the team, Steve knew he was closest, and while something was clearly wrong with JARVIS's programming, emergency beacons weren't to be ignored. He had a serviceable motorcycle, nothing like the one he'd left behind but good enough, and he got to Tony's place thanking SHIELD for the (e) on the bike's license plate that permitted him all the speed the bike could provide.

When the front door wouldn't open, when JARVIS wouldn't respond, Steve darted around the side and smashed a window with his shield.

Tony was in his workshop, a place Steve had really only ever seen through the glass walls in the corridor that led past it. He was holding his own against two...things, Steve wasn't even sure what they were, dark darting shadows that could dodge the repulsor beams Tony was throwing out but couldn't get close enough because of them. Tony was bare of armor, in jeans and a t-shirt, just a wire construct with a repulsor wrapped around his left hand and what looked like a piece of rebar in his right. When Steve's shield crashed through the glass door of his workshop, Tony's head whipped around and he grinned.

This, Steve Rogers could do.

He dove into the fray headlong, shield swinging, trusting Tony to give him covering fire as he darted between the shadows. One dodged, but the other one actually went for him, and though it didn't seem to take his punches, it sure did scream when he hit it with the shield. He adjusted his tactics mid-fight, began slashing with the shield-edge, and it was strange to him: this weapon that Howard Stark had made, going into battle in the hands of the man Howard Stark had made, both of them backed by the bright, sharp light Howard's son was firing.

One of the shadows dipped and wove through the garage -- the other was already lying headless, or whatever-less, on Tony's workshop floor -- and Steve left Tony to clean up while he went after it. There was a hell of a scuffle, and okay maybe he had sliced a Bugatti in half, but he'd used half of it to hit the shadow with, and it screamed and died or melted or whatever.

He stood there watching it for a minute, just to be sure, and then turned breathlessly and jogged back to the main workroom.

"Pretty sure I got it, but you're going to need to -- " he stopped in the middle of post-battle-cheery-banter, because Tony wasn't responding. He was hunched over one of the worktables, breathing like he had a punctured lung.

"Jiminy," Steve said, which was about the closest he got to swearing when a Nazi wasn't actively trying to kill him, and ran forward. Tony was pushing at the repulsor wires wrapped around his left arm, ineffectual and weak. Steve wrapped a hand around the repulsor, heedless of the fact that it was a good way to lose a hand, and pulled sharply. Plugs popped; sparks flew; Steve tossed the equipment away and Tony fell over, scrabbling at the concrete.

"Tony?" Steve asked, crouching, patting his back to look for exit wounds. "Are you -- JARVIS? JARVIS, what's wrong with him?"

JARVIS didn't respond. Steve hauled Tony over onto his back and Tony gasped, "Core, I need a core," which made no sense until he began pulling at the collar of his shirt.

The arc reactor.

Steve ripped the shirt open one-handed, and it was a measure of how far gone Tony must be that he didn't even have a smirk for that. Instead he clawed at the glowing device in his chest. Something clicked and popped.

Steve watched in growing horror as Tony pulled a blue-white circle out of his chest.

He knew, in theory, that Tony had a...a prosthesis. Seeing it, seeing it smoking as it came away, was altogether different. A smell like dirty motor oil filled the air as Tony pressed it into Steve's palm.

"What do I do with this?" Steve asked. "Tony, tell me what to do."

"There's a box," Tony hissed, flailing one hand towards a drawer in his workbench. Steve dug around in it until he found a metal box and flicked the latch open. Chips, identical to the one sticking out of Tony's arc reactor, lay in neat rows inside.

Tony arched suddenly, back bowing off the floor, and yelled, "Not getting any younger!"

Steve grabbed at the thing in the middle of the arc reactor, the smoking chip of metal, and yelped when it burned the tips of his fingers. It came away in his hand, looking like a piece of wax, all melted at one end. Quickly discarding it and shoving his fingers into his mouth, he used his other hand to shove the new core in. Then, very carefully, he slotted the reactor back into place and prayed.

The tension rolled out of Tony's body like a wave; he settled to the ground, eyes sliding back in his head.

"Oh, that's better," he murmured.

Steve, shaking, sat back on his behind with a thump, and then reached out and pulled Tony against him, arms around his chest, Tony's head lolling against his collarbone, the way he would shelter any injured soldier. His mind was screaming at him -- this was shell-shock, battle fatigue, he'd seen it before but never knuckled under to it and he had to get Tony to safety -- but his mouth just kept repeating, "It's all right, it's fine, you're fine, it's fine, it's okay."

After a minute or two Tony started to move, and Steve fell silent, carefully releasing him. He sat up, then dizzily pushed himself to his feet. Steve was on his feet a second later, steadying him.

"JARVIS," Tony called, and then again, louder, "JARVIS!"

"He's not answering," Steve replied, new worry overtaking him. "Is...is he -- "

"He dumps his memory every thirty minutes into six different remote backups, he's not dead," Tony mumbled, activating one of his big clear screens with a touch, shedding the ripped remains of his shirt. "You can't kill JARVIS."

"Oh," Steve said, a little awed.

"Can you get some coffee?" Tony asked, already absorbed in scrolling lines of what looked to Steve like gibberish.

By the time JARVIS was back up and running, Steve had successfully brewed coffee from a machine so ancient he actually knew how to work it, and he placed it at Tony's elbow just as JARVIS said, "It's good to be back, sir. Hello, Captain Rogers."

"Hi!" Steve called, relieved, looking up.

It didn't take Tony and JARVIS long to ascertain what had happened, though Steve was content to hover and listen without fully understanding phrases like "code breach" and "binary intrusion". The long and short of it was, he thought, that whatever they were they'd bonked JARVIS over the head somehow and then gone after Tony, and all JARVIS had managed before losing consciousness was a broad-band call for help. Tony, who had been working on mods to his repulsor units, had picked one up and plugged it in, but unregulated energy flow had burned out the core chip in his arc reactor faster than expected.

"Uh, Tony," Steve said, after JARVIS had promised to repair his code and add new shielding and Tony had sat back in his chair. "I broke a few windows getting in."

Tony gave him a weary smile. "This isn't stickball, I'm not going to make you pay for them."

"And um. Also your Bugatti," Steve said apologetically.

He really expected Tony to throw a fit about that; it was a swell car.

"I was getting tired of it anyway," was all Tony said, waving a hand. "You okay? You look a little peaky."

"Huh?" Steve ran a hand over his face, as if he could rub color back into it. "Oh sure."

"Sure," Tony agreed, and he tilted his head up, and Steve realized he was standing kinda close, still uncertain of Tony's health --

And that was when the rest of the Avengers stampeded down the stairs, and Steve jerked back like he'd been shoved.

***

After the debrief over the whatever-they-were, Steve was just going to go home and put some ice on his bruises, but Tony said, "I need a drink, come on," and led him through to the lounge, the one they'd been in the time Tony had interrupted him at that party.

"I realize I didn't thank you for saving my ass earlier," Tony said, pouring himself a glass of bourbon. He glanced at Steve and then reached into a little icebox and took out a carton of milk, pouring him some. Steve made a pleased face, but Tony just kept blithering, the way he did sometimes. "Sorry you burst in all heroic and then had to make coffee."

"I did wreck your car," Steve tried to say, but Tony rolled on over him.

"But I do pay attention and make mental notes so the delay was mainly because -- "

" -- of JARVIS," Steve said in unison with him. "It's okay. JARVIS is part of the team too."

"Thank you, Captain Rogers," JARVIS said. "Mr. Stark, all systems are fully functional again."

"See? No harm," Tony said, and came to sit on the coffee table, facing Steve. He offered him the milk, then a bag of ice Steve hadn't even noticed him concocting. He took it and rested it on his left shoulder (he'd picked up the half-a-Bugatti left-handed). "But I do appreciate the sentiment. The killing-things-trying-to-kill-me sentiment."

"You're welcome," Steve said.

Tony sipped, studying him.

"I didn't know it was...like that," Steve added awkwardly.

"What was?"

"You..." he gestured at Tony's chest.

Tony, to his utter shock, looked away -- looked embarrassed. He hadn't thought Tony knew what shame was.

"I don't do it in front of people," he said. "It's private. Only Pep and Rhodey...well. It's private."

"I didn't mean to intrude -- "

"You didn't, I was dying, you were great," Tony replied. "It's not a problem. Hey, I have a good idea, let's never speak of that again, what do you say?"

Steve nodded, ready to do that, he'd done that kind of thing before, but even as he was agreeing, Tony kept talking about it.

"I mean, that can't have been pleasant, most people don't like seeing..." he gestured at his arc reactor, the faint blue glow through the shirt he'd pulled on. "It's weird, I know."

"It was strange," Steve allowed. "I've seen stranger, though. And it keeps you alive and powers the suit. And your suit is amazing," he added truthfully. "I didn't really get that until I saw you fight in it the first time."

"Yeah, it's pretty awesome," Tony agreed.

"That's what I like about you, Tony, your modesty," Steve said.

The next words fell out of his mouth without him intending them -- Tony was grinning, laughing, things were okay, but the feeling from earlier, the sense of unreality that came of fighting alongside the son of a man he'd called a friend...

"Your father was like that," he said.

The smile fell off Tony's face.

Steve tried to cover for it, tried to fix it. "I mean, sometimes -- what I mean is, he was really arrogant and loud about how great he was and didn't care what anybody thought of him but he backed it all up. He never said anything about himself that wasn't actually true, and it's really rare, being able to just not care like that -- I could never do it -- and you're like him like that. In a good way," he added weakly.

Tony downed the last of his drink.

"Five years ago I'd have punched you in the face," he said, finally. "Not even for saying anything special, just for bringing him up. I mean I brought him up all the time but I kinda had to, it was a PR thing, and I don't know if you know this but back then? I drank a lot more. And now I'm okay with it, and I drink less, so I guess this means I've matured." He considered Steve. "Yep, I'd have punched you in the face and probably broken my hand."

Steve considered it. "Five years ago -- for me -- if you'd punched me in the face I'd have gone over backwards like a boxing dummy." He held up his hand, palm flat, indicating short. "Little guy, me. Never backed down from a fight, and never won one." He hesitated, then pushed on. "Look, I know you didn't like him and I don't know what happened to him to make him someone his own kid didn't like, but he wasn't like that when I knew him and you're not like that now. You're not him, nobody knows that better than I do, but the parts of him I see in you are the good parts I remember."

Tony shook his head. "Man, we are all about stuff we should never speak of, right now."

"This is making me feel very old," Steve agreed. "I should go."

"Stay here tonight, if you want. JARVIS, we got a spare room for Captain Awkward Reminiscences?"

JARVIS sounded amused. "Yes, Mr. Stark."

"Great, I'm going to go inspect the damage." Tony slapped Steve on the knee. "Get some rest."

"If you'll take a left turn out of the doorway, Captain, there is a room three doors down on the right," JARVIS said, and Steve carefully did not look back at Tony as he walked out. It was late, and he was tired.

He found the room with no trouble; it was a nice room, with a pretty red quilt on the bed and a bathroom attached and everything. There was even a new toothbrush in the bathroom, and a little tube of toothpaste. Which was another great invention! He'd always hated brushing with tooth powder.

"Is there anything else you need, Captain?" JARVIS asked as Steve undressed for bed, folding his clothing and stacking it all neatly in his upturned shield. Steve lay down on the bed and stared at the ceiling thoughtfully.

"Is Tony okay?" he asked. "I know you can see him and measure his pulse and stuff."

"He is fine, Captain."

"Will you call me if he isn't, please?"

This time there was no denying the amusement in JARVIS's voice, even if it wasn't real. "I always do."

"His dad helped make me what I am, you know."

"Indeed. I have access to the records."

"And he made you. I think maybe you're an improvement," Steve said around a yawn.

"May I ask your reasoning, Captain? In any physical respect I could hardly compete."

"Well, you could always control the armor." Steve turned over onto his side, curling up to sleep. "And you can't die, Tony said so. But you don't have any emotions, is mostly what I meant."

"I suppose that depends on whether your philosophy allows that emotions are an impediment. I don't believe, if asked, Mr. Stark would concur with your theory."

"Well, he's not right all the time," Steve yawned again. "Doesn't matter, anyway. Goodnight, JARVIS."

"Goodnight, Captain."

***

It wasn't that Steve was used to waking up in strange places, exactly. Not in the way Tony was, anyhow. It was just that in the war it happened a lot, where you didn't know precisely where you were, because you were out in the wilderness chasing down HYDRA agents. He was used to waking up in a forest with only a vague sense of where he was.

He wasn't at all used to waking up in a strange bed.

He flailed a little, when he realized he wasn't in the bed he'd become used to, and then all of a sudden the lights came on, which startled him, and he let out a sort of, well, a battle cry, because sudden light usually meant ambush --

"Captain Rogers!"

Steve fell out of bed.

"Do you require assistance, Captain?"

That was JARVIS. JARVIS was Tony's invisible butler in the ceiling, he was in Tony's place, it was the twenty-first century, everything was okay. (For a very limited value of okay, but still.)

"No! No, I'm fine," Steve said, picking himself up. "The uh. The lights spooked me."

"My apologies, Captain," JARVIS said. "Did you sleep well?"

"Yes, I did. Good morning, JARVIS," Steve said, testing his left arm. Good as new. God bless the serum.

"There's food when you're ready. Would you care for a newspaper or a digital newsfeed?"

Steve squinted at the ceiling. "No, that's all right. Is Tony up?"

"Yes, sir."

"What time is it?"

"Two in the afternoon," said a new voice, and Steve whirled. "Easy, Tex, it's just me," Tony added, holding up his hands, standing in the doorway. Steve wasn't a particularly modest man, given everything, but he still wished he hadn't stripped down to his boxers to sleep. "We were beginning to worry you were in a coma. Nobody but me sleeps at quite that olympic level, I'm impressed."

Steve rubbed the back of his head. "I do that sometimes, when I'm not disturbed. It's the serum. I don't really have to sleep much, but if I get the chance..." he spread his hands. "It catches up."

"Yeah, I've read the research reports. It's the only reason I didn't wake you up sooner. Food?" Tony offered.

"Uh, I'm gonna..." Steve jerked his thumb at the shower.

"Sure. Come out when you've put your face on," Tony said, and Steve smiled.

He ate sitting on a stool in Tony's workshop, comfortably listening to Tony and JARVIS argue about whether or not a "Bugattibot" built out of the remains of the car would be street legal. Tony's main contention was that if the Transformers could do it, he could do it, and JARVIS's rebuttal was, of course, that the Transformers were fictional. Steve made a note to look the Transformers up on Wikipedia later.

Tony didn't seem angry at him over the previous night, and while he didn't know what Tony did think of it, Steve felt relieved in a way he hadn't anticipated. Like it was all out there now. Yes, I knew your dad, Tony, and I liked him. And I know you, I know that you're not him, and I like you too anyway.

Finally Tony got bored of throwing pieces of metal around and getting the robots to help him hoist the ruined engine up on a block so he could work on it. He came over and dropped onto a stool across the workbench from Steve, rubbing grease and grime off his hands with some kind of special chemical he'd formulated for the purpose, muttering curses under his breath. Steve gave him a smile.

"You swear an awful lot," he said.

"It's a mechanic thing," Tony said, drinking cold coffee out of Steve's cup. He looked at Steve, a level, assessing look, and then put the cup down. "The first memory I have of my dad is watching him in his workshop cursing a blue streak. My mom got pretty pissed when she caught me working on my first engine and swearing, pretending to be dad."

"How old were you?"

"Four. I had a real engine, though. Dad didn't believe in coddling kids with toys when the real thing was lying around. I had the fastest car in town by the time I started kindergarten." Tony offered a hand, fingers up, palm facing him, and pointed to a faded brown streak along the heel. "Got that scar when I was six, building a rocket. Almost got tetanus to match, but the rocket made it into orbit."

"Sounds like you were an interesting kid."

"Still am, just got bigger." Tony took another sip. "When he died -- when they died -- I was still mostly a kid but...at the funeral, there were all these bigwigs and dignitaries, guys Dad had worked with. Ugh, we put him on display -- by the way, when I die, please don't do a viewing -- and after they came through there was this parade of soldiers or whatever. Not a real parade, just hour after hour of guys he knew from the war and from all his defense work. Guys who were like a million years old, some of 'em obviously had a pretty rough life, but they all knew him or they...I don't know, they used Stark arms tech, they wanted to say goodbye I guess."

Steve let Tony ramble, silent, knowing it was pointless anyway to interrupt, to tell Tony how much the soldiers had liked the weird, mouthy little engineer who was always nipping in and out of combat zones. Bucky used to call Howard their mascot. Howard had always looked pleased by that, which Steve hadn't understood for a long time.

"And this one guy came up to me," Tony continued, "looking like he knew my dumb ass was the best he could do in terms of a captive audience, and he said, I was with Cap and Stark when they took the third HYDRA base."

Steve nodded. "Howard came along on the ground for that one. Nobody else knew how to steer the new tank he was testing. He flew air support for a few of the others."

"It was literally the first time I became aware that he even knew you."

"He never talked about me?"

"Be fair, you never talk about him."

Steve shook his head. "I didn't think I should. I was...made aware of your feelings about your father."

"I doubt that. For one thing, they're way more complicated than would fit in a briefing. For another, those fucks have no clue what I feel about my dad."

"I couldn't know that," Steve pointed out.

"Well, anyway, no, he never talked about you, but I guess the war fucked him up, especially towards the end, after you...you know. You must have been pretty close, if he couldn't talk about it, because as I'm sure you're aware, Starks tend to say anything that crosses our minds at any given moment," Tony said. "So. Now you know what happened to him."

Steve studied his empty breakfast plate, thoughtfully, as Tony continued.

"When I turned twenty-one his work was declassified to me and I spent two weeks being briefed on what I'd need to know to take full control of the Stark group. They tried to skip the stuff he did during the war, but I just got the records and read it on my own and I was pissed at first, because clearly in the old photos and the film reels you were friends, and I was jealous. But the thing about maturity or whatever is that you learn different ways of seeing things. So I can't untangle you from my dad and you can't untangle me from him either, but I don't think he...matters anymore, so much. Am I wrong here?" Tony asked, squinting at him.

"No, you're not wrong," Steve said.

"Yeah, I'm usually right," Tony agreed. "So look, we can be good, without having to actually reference him. Just you and me. Right?"

"Right," Steve said, another wave of relief rolling over him. With it, there was something else -- like a thread of warmth, working its way through his chest, a sort of pleasure that Tony was trying so hard to keep things right between them when there was nothing wrong between them to start with, not really. Well, yes, at the beginning there was, but that was only as deep as Tony's ego and Steve's inability to understand the problem.

He wanted to touch Tony -- to take his hand and tell him it was fine, or give him a hug, or just curl into him, take comfort from the press of another body against his.

Oh, god.

"Um, so anyway, I should get going," he said, and he was actually pretty pleased with how calm he sounded, like he wasn't panicking and suddenly scared inside. "Thanks for breakfast and everything."

"No problem," Tony answered.

***

Steve spent the rest of the afternoon sitting at his window, watching the street below absently, thinking.

He knew that he wasn't just a symbol in the rallying-cry sense. He'd known, when he stopped being a plaything and started being a real soldier, that he was meant to represent something. He'd tried, always -- unconsciously before the transformation, consciously after -- to be the best part of America: strength, courage, compassion. Respect. Democracy. Even when he'd been in command, he'd never ignored his soldiers, never forgotten that they had a voice too.

People talked a lot about the melting pot of America, even back then. He'd grown up in a city full of immigrants, and while it was difficult to represent diversity when you were six feet plus of blond white guy, he'd done what he could. He hadn't tolerated his soldiers treating anyone different because of where they came from or what they looked like or believed, and he'd made sure his men understood no disrespect of women would be allowed. He had genuinely abhored Hitler's racial philosophy. He hated a bully.

So...if Captain America was gay...

That would be all right, he thought. Because yeah, he'd seen men together and women together too, out in the open, some of them even married. But he'd also seen the screaming bigots who spent, in Steve's opinion, much too much time thinking about other people having sex. It wasn't decent, thinking about other people having sex, and anyway it wasn't any of their business. If it didn't matter in war, and he knew it didn't, then how could it possibly matter on a peaceful New York street? And maybe there were some people who could use Captain America on their side. Backing down from a fight wasn't something Steve did.

Being gay, as it turned out, wasn't the scary part.

When it got dark, he went to the computer (given to him by Tony, StarkTech issue) and opened his two favorite webpages in the entire world: Google and Wikipedia. He'd been warned numerous times that you couldn't trust everything you read on the internet, but he'd been through the war. He knew propaganda and lies when he saw them.

He worked his way through an internet crash course: gay civil rights, gay identity, marriage equality. Stonewall. Pride. Gay-bashing. The pink triangles.

Mother of God, the pink triangles. That had never made it into any of the briefings he'd had.

And then, gay sex -- his eyebrows raised, a few times, but certainly it was educational. And...well, if he'd had doubts, that particular research put paid to them. He knew enough to listen to his body when it was trying to tell him something loud enough.

He closed those browser tabs, a little guiltily, and searched up Tony instead. He'd had briefings and reports, and he knew the guy, and while it felt a little wrong to Google him, it wasn't like going through his trash or anything. Tony was a public figure even before Iron Man. Half the really awful stuff said about him in the press was said by Tony in interviews.

But the deeper he dug, the more obvious it became that Tony had lived his whole life in public. He'd given his first interview when he was six, showing off the scar he'd shown to Steve earlier. Everything was there, from Tony's gangling teenage indiscretions to his "nervous breakdown" after he was kidnapped to his confession about Iron Man to -- everything. Everything. Tony clearly had no shame (very little, anyway) because people in his position were given two options: live their life in fear of what the reporters would write, or live the life they wanted and be stripped bare over and over.

Everything was there in some newspaper or website if you knew where to look, except for one thing. The open arc reactor, the smoking, burnt-out core, the desperate arch of Tony's spine. Everything was there, and none of it really mattered.

It occurred to Steve that if he tried to be all the best and most enduring things about his country, Tony was the modern America: celebrity, technology, promiscuity, excess, wealth. Neurosis. Speed. Loud, awful music.

But also ingenuity and passion, and technology wasn't a bad thing. Besides, you couldn't pick and choose which America to live in or which parts to have. Steve had no illusions that there weren't a lot of broken things about his country, but you had to take the package deal and hope to fix the broken parts.

You didn't get to have Captain America without Tony Stark. Or maybe vice versa. Which was something to think about, wasn't it?

Tony, he decided, was the more important part of the "incidentally, I'm gay" equation, at the moment. He could deal with the politics later. Not much later, but later. He gave his country a battlefield war, and he'd give his country a cultural war, but not right now.

Steve always wanted to be a soldier, and actually being one wasn't anything like what he thought it would be. But he was a good soldier. Erskine saw he'd be a good soldier, a smart soldier, a never-back-down, no-man-left-behind tactician.

So Steve settled in and began to formulate a battle plan.

By the time he was done it was four in the morning, but he had a several-stage covert advance covering the next few months of his life: Operation Stark (there were notes on Operation Gay, too). They were already friends, and Steve was confident that if he treated this with the proper tactical care, he could convince Tony that they would be much better off as much more.

***

The thing was, battle plans were great for battle, but didn't always work on an individual level, and that didn't occur to Steve until he arrived at Tony's place the following evening and walked into his garage.

Tony was doing the thing he did when he was working his hardest: he was sitting very still, surrounded by holograms and computer screens, talking in a nonstop, monotonous murmur with occasional interjections from JARVIS. It was eerie when Tony got that way, like his mind was going so fast his mouth couldn't keep up, but it was fascinating, too.

"Hello!" Steve called, over the low rumble of his voice. Tony held a hand up, shot him the peace sign, and kept talking. "Good evening, JARVIS!"

"Calculations indicate -- good evening, Captain -- five point two five percent increase required," JARVIS said.

"Bugattibot?" Steve asked, pulling around a stool and peering at the holograms.

"Digital flight simulations for a repulsor-driven jet pack," JARVIS answered. "Sir, the weight increase may not impact the flight capability of the pack but I feel it prudent to point out it will weigh more than Captain Rogers does."

"It's for you," Tony said, then went back to mumbling.

"I can bench more than my own weight," Steve told JARVIS, looking up at the ceiling. "You want to give me a jet pack?" he asked Tony, looking down again. "I have you for that."

"And, save," Tony finished, waving a palm around the holograms, and they disappeared. He looked up at Steve through his fingers, blinked, and said, "When did you get here?"

"We were just talking," Steve said.

"We were? Did I say anything interesting?"

"A jet pack?" Steve prompted.

"Well, because you know, flying is cool," Tony slouched down another few inches in his chair. "How much weight can you carry?"

"How much do you need?"

"Hot." Tony propped his feet up on the crossbar of Steve's stool.

"I don't really need a jet pack, Tony."

"Good, you might not actually get one. Did you come down to rubberneck, or...?"

Steve took a deep breath. "I think I know what you need," he said.

"For the jet pack?"

"No -- well, I don't want to carry more than my weight into battle, even if it means I can fly..." he trailed off. "I mean, personally."

Tony blinked at him.

"Because, see, you do this thing where you disappear down here, and usually when you come up for air you've done something really great. You make amazing stuff and I would never want anything to interfere with that," Steve said. This was just like speaking at dinners back when he'd been selling bonds for the government. "And you're a superhero, you're Iron Man, and that's important too, I'm the last person who'd say otherwise. But I know that it must be hard to have relationships when you do that, because most people want some kind of stability in their life. And you kind of want whoever it is you're with to be there when you want that too, but you don't always want it."

Tony's blink rate was increasing.

"So I think you need someone who doesn't really need stability and who has their own life, and is very confident about that life, but someone who's nearby so if you do want to have...a relationship moment, you can, but they won't mind because they'd understand how important your work is, and not just that, but they'd have their own important work. It just seems to me like that would be ideal for both you and this...other person, don't you?"

To his credit, Tony considered it. Or, rather, Steve thought he was considering it, until he dropped his feet to the floor, looked up, and said, "Wow. Relationship advice from Captain America."

"Well, I didn't mean it like -- "

"No, that's a totally new one on me, it's like the American People just voted on who I should sleep with," Tony said. He didn't look hurt, though. Mostly amused. "Actually, People Magazine -- "

"I wasn't saying it as Captain America," Steve said desperately.

" -- did a poll kind of like that once, but I'm classier than listening to People Magazine. It may not -- "

"-- Tony, I do think you have some class -- "

" -- seem like class is something I have, but it'd have to be Esquire, minimum, before I'd consider it. Hey, you did a me there, you totally guessed what I was going to say and -- "

" -- well, you get used to it -- "

" -- talked over me, my god, you're really picking this stuff up. What brought on the sudden insight? Did you finally get laid?"

"No," Steve said, fidgeting on the seat.

"Good, I've been cockblocking you for a reason, I don't want you to be traumatized, that'd be awful. But if you want me to I can stop, like, if it's time to take the training wheels off -- "

"Jiminy, what is wrong with you?" Steve blurted.

The battle plan had fallen apart about five minutes ago, right when Tony said "Wow", and now Steve was just trying to survive this conversation.

"So many things, you have no idea," Tony replied, giving him a level look. "So you're saying in essence I'm an unbalanced workaholic, and to have a relationship that lasts longer than the hangover I'd need another unbalanced workaholic? Because I know me, I'm me, I'm not saying you're wrong, but people like me are kind of thin on the ground."

"For Pete's sake," Steve said, and leaned over, grasping the front of Tony's shirt. He pulled him out of the chair and to his feet over a protesting yelp, leaned back a little on the stool, and kissed him.

Steve had never been good at covert operations anyway. Frontal assaults were much more his style.

Tony made a noise like mhh against his mouth, but then he said "Yes" and kissed him back, and they kept kissing. Tony's mustache scratched against his lip and he tasted like those awful smoothies he drank, but Steve was far too far gone in the sensation of the first kiss he'd ever actually initiated with anyone to pay it much mind. Tony's hands were on his neck and his body was angling in the space between his thighs, jostling closer.

"Oh my God!" Tony said suddenly, and he tried to step back, but Steve still had his shirt clenched tightly in his hand and he didn't get very far. "Oh my God when you said I needed another unbalanced workaholic you meant you!"

Steve let go of his shirt, slowly, and resisted the urge to smooth out the wrinkles he'd caused. Tony was staring at him again.

"So I..." he started, because he'd had this little speech written too, though it was meant to be used in a few weeks, but apparently plans had been sped up, and it was a shame to waste it, "I, yesterday, when we were talking about stuff we don't talk about? I had this sort of...moment of revelation. Two, actually, but at the same time. Because I thought, just all at once, I like Tony, I really like Tony. And in order for that to be the case, I had to like men. I'd been wondering for a while, because I don't seem to like women the way some men do, but I wasn't sure until then, and then I was. So boom, you know? In a second. I'm gay, and I'm into Tony Stark."

It took Tony a second to respond and Steve was genuinely worried he'd broken his best friend when Tony said, "I totally get a toaster."

"What?" Steve asked, confused.

"Never mind," Tony said, waving it off. "Listen, is this Stockholm syndrome? Because seriously, you don't have to sleep with me, I'm not your only option, I can stop cockblocking you, for real. Hell, I could introduce you to people."

Steve frowned at him. "But I like you. And I'm good for you, I think, and also I have this whole metaphor thing I came up with where symbolically -- "

"No more talking, that was a yes, I heard it," Tony said, and ducked back up against him, kissing him again. Steve wasn't sure where to put his hands, now that he wasn't holding Tony's shirt, but he'd seen Bucky do this with girls a thousand times -- hips, right? He could put his hands on Tony's hips, and if he did that he could pull him up so close they were touching, the edge of the arc reactor bumping his sternum, his belt buckle --

Ohhh, not Tony's belt buckle, that was --

"Please can I take you somewhere with a bed and try not to traumatize you, please please please," Tony said into his mouth, grinding his hips against him.

"That's a little fast," Steve said, laughing, and he could hardly believe he was being this smooth with anyone, let alone Tony. "Don't you like kissing?"

He felt Tony freeze for a fraction of a second, and then relax and stop squirming against him. He kissed him, then his jaw, then he sucked on Steve's throat and Steve tipped his head back, anything to keep Tony doing that. He slid a hand up under Tony's shirt, felt the muscles there flicker briefly at the touch --

"Oh!" Tony said, stepping back. "Grappling hooks!"

Steve wrinkled his brow. "Come again?"

"This will take two seconds, promise," Tony said, and leaned into him -- but then around him, keying something left-handed into the worktable behind Steve.

"Oh, uh, actually that's good, because we should, there's things you should know," Steve said, pressing his nose into the side of Tony's neck.

"I'm totally listening, go on."

"I'm not looking for -- sex, well, I mean I am, but I don't want a bed partner or a teacher," Steve said into his skin. "Not just."

"Uh huh. How wide are your shoulders?"

"I dunno."

"I'll measure you later. Wait, what, no, you don't want to wait until marriage for sex or something, do you?" Tony asked, without stopping typing.

"No! But I do want more than a roll in the hay."

"Good, because hay's hard to source around here. So, what, you want to go steady?"

Steve considered this, sliding his arm around Tony's waist off-center to keep them from toppling over. "Well. Yes."

Tony finished typing and leaned back, but didn't pull away from his arm. "Relationships and me don't tend to mesh well."

"Yeah, I'm aware. I might have Googled you."

"It's all true," Tony announced with pride, and Steve saw it there -- the thick skin it took to live on his own terms, and damn the gossip magazines. "Except the coke thing. That was powdered sugar, I swear to God. There was a doughnut, I'm a messy eater."

"I pretty much ignored the drug stuff and the orgies."

"There was one orgy. But I was like twenty-five, I'm way past that now, promise. Unless you're into that, but you should probably -- "

"Tony."

Tony sighed. "Look, I can't make you any promises."

"I only want one. I'm just asking you to try."

Tony was looking at him and for one of the few times in their friendship, Steve felt his entire focus. No part of Tony was anywhere else. It was awe-inspiring, and sort of humbling. Tony would probably laugh if he knew.

"This is getting really serious really fast," Tony said finally.

"Okay, how about this then. Take -- take me to bed," Steve said, and had to drop his eyes, but Tony just tugged him in against his shoulder, so he didn't have to make any excuses. "And promise me tomorrow morning you won't run away. That's an easy promise, Tony."

"Well, it involves staying in one place, you know I'm not good at that," Tony said, but one of his hands was shifting through the short hair at the back of Steve's head. "Yeah, okay, fine, promise."

"Here's the other thing," Steve said, and felt Tony's hand tighten. "I'm planning to be out. Not immediately, but very soon. I feel like that's necessary. If -- if this isn't something you want public -- "

Tony laughed. "You Googled me, you know I have no reason to keep anything this tame quiet. Man, even if this doesn't work, just let me be there when you tell Fury."

Steve smiled against his shirt. "Done."

***

Steve had never been in Tony's bedroom, and unlike the guest room he'd slept in (and he now suspected JARVIS had picked a small one on purpose, to make him feel at home) it was enormous. It was bigger than the little cold-water flat he'd grown up in, bigger than the apartment he lived in now. And yet sort of...barren. No photographs, few personal touches. No big blueprints on the walls like in his garage.

"You sleep here?" he asked, couldn't help asking, even though Tony was sucking on the tender skin at the gap of his shirt-collar, even though his fingers were skating up Tony's ribs.

"Sleep is overrated, and isn't ADD my gig? Focus," Tony said, fingers working deftly at the buttons on his shirt.

"Hey, what's the rush?" Steve asked, catching his wrists and pulling them up, putting Tony in the perfect position to be kissed. "Are you looking to beat some kind of land speed record?"

"Have you seen yourself?" Tony asked. "Listen, your brain is weird and inspiring and don't get me wrong, I will still respect you in the morning, but I'm a little worried any second you're going to come to your senses so I'd really like to at least see you naked before that happens because holy shit," he finished, as Steve gave up on reasoning with him and tumbled them both onto the bed.

"Stay put," Steve ordered, pinning his wrists over his head.

"Bondage. Hot. I probably have some silk rope around here somewhere," Tony offered, but Steve kissed him to shut him up, and then followed Tony's example and worked his way down his throat, enjoying the scorched-metal smell that came from welding and the hint of cologne underneath it.

"I like you, Tony," he said, and Tony arched and squirmed. His thigh pressed up against Steve's, sliding, oh -- oh that felt nice. "This is a decision, not an impulse. I'm not going to change my mind. Are you going to hold still?"

There was the sound of a swallow from Tony. "Yes," he murmured.

"Okay then," Steve said, and let him go, and he didn't stop -- pressing up -- didn't stop rubbing his thigh against the bulge of Steve's khakis, he did keep his hands over his head.

"I only get one first time," Steve continued, reluctantly sliding down and away from that very nice pressure, but eager to slip his fingers under Tony's shirt and ruck it up over his smooth stomach, the glow of his arc reactor. "I want it to be good."

"You're killing me here," Tony moaned. Steve pulled the shirt over his head, then bent down again and kissed his chest, pressed a cheek over the reactor. "No -- don't -- "

"It's okay," Steve said, feeling the hum of energy under him. "It can't hurt me, can it?"

He could tell Tony meant to say "No" but it came out "Nnnhhh," when Steve's shifting weight brought him down against...well, the thing that definitely was not Tony's belt buckle.

Steve tugged at Tony's pants, Tony helpfully lifting his hips, and -- and --

He'd seen other men naked plenty of times. He'd been in the army, after all. And there had been a few videos the previous day, in the name of research. But this was private and real and something he was permitted, to really look at Tony, who had pushed himself up on his elbows and was looking back over the glow of the reactor.

Carefully, as lightly as he could, he ran a hand up over Tony's dick, fingers registering heat, soft skin, hardness underneath. Like his own -- like that one time with Bucky, but he didn't want to think about that, two teenagers with their hands in each others' pants, fumbling around like they knew what they were doing. Maybe that had been some kind of first time, but not like this. Not anything like this.

Tony made a soft, urgent noise, and Steve realized he'd been moving his hand absently, stroking back and forth. He tightened his fingers a little and Tony bucked into it.

"Yes, like that," Tony said, his voice oddly harsh. He pushed again, and Steve laid his other hand flat on Tony's hip to hold him down, so that Tony wouldn't move when he bent his head and licked, tasting salt and something bitter.

"Agh, God -- " Tony groaned when Steve did like he'd seen in the videos, like he'd seen two of his men once in a less-than-private encampment: brought his mouth down over the head of Tony's dick (mindful of teeth!) and sucked. "God, you're so -- stop, no, stop that, stop that."

Steve sat up, worried. "Did I do it wrong? There were diagrams on the -- "

" -- internet, oh my God, no, you didn't do it wrong, just -- come up here," Tony ordered, and Steve slid up his body. "Jesus Christ, you can do better than giving me head, I'm not that much of a narcissist. Off, pants off."

He found himself hesitating.

Because it was one thing for someone else to be naked in bed with him, but to be naked in bed with someone else naked, that was...

But Tony was fumbling with his fly, shoving the waistband of his khakis down his hips, and Steve settled up on one elbow to slide them off, ducking his head, blushing. Tony looked down and then back up, eyebrows raised.

"I want you to know that I consider you a very gifted man," Tony said. "And that's coming from someone who used to make missiles for a living."

"Aw," Steve muttered, burying his face in Tony's neck again.

"Seriously, I'm proud to be an American right now."

There was something oddly comforting about it, though, Tony's crassness and his inability to politely ignore things, his evident and unfeigned enjoyment of the moment. Like once it was all out there it was okay, and you knew where you stood with Tony.

Tony kissed his ear, flicked his tongue quick and dirty across it, and pushed gently on his hips. Steve kept his face hidden but hitched his body up a little and felt Tony's hands move -- one sliding between them, the other grasping Steve's. There was a brush of knuckles, a hot solid pressure, too many signals from too many places at once, and Steve heard himself grunt, couldn't help it. Tony's hand guided his, slim and callused fingers closing around his, and Steve's hips jerked when he figured out the heat and pressure was Tony's dick against his, held there by his own fingers.

"That's -- " he sighed. "That's really nice."

Tony laughed in his ear. "Yeah, I know. Move your hand a little. Feels good?"

"Yes -- " he broke off in a groan.

"Here, let go, let me," Tony urged, and batted his hand away just when he'd found the right combination of movement and pressure, but that was okay, that was Tony's hand touching him, Tony's skin under his mouth. Tony's voice in his ear saying astoundingly dirty things, but he kind of liked that, too. It didn't seem like some kind of performance, it was just...Tony's usual inability to shut up, focused on the hot damp rub of their bodies together, the way they fit. Steve gave up on thinking, just let the words and touches roll over and around him, let warmth spread out into his fingertips.

Tony broke off talking with a sharp, high, urgent noise that made Steve raise his head, finally. The shift in weight was delicious, filling him with sudden urgency, sudden desperation for faster, more, for Tony to make that noise again.

"Ah! Ah -- fuck!" Tony breathed, losing his rhythm, all but falling apart with his head tipped back, one hand clutching into Steve's shoulder with bruising strength. "Fuck, I'm -- fuck!"

Tony's body bowed upwards, and there was a hot rush where their hands were twined, a throb of wetness against his stomach, and Steve bucked hard and came like -- like a white-out, better than he had maybe ever, like the shockwave of a bomb. He trembled through it, trying to keep his bearings, and let out a gasping breath as he slowed. Tony, under him, had let go of them and was quiet now, eyes closed, chest heaving and throwing weird light against Steve's shoulder, his neck.

"You are so ridiculously, idiotically hot," Tony mumbled. "It's not even fair how attractive you are."

Steve, propped on his elbows over him, bent and kissed him. "You did all the work."

"I like work." Tony's eyes opened when Steve leaned back. They were hazed over, sluggish, and Steve felt somewhat proud that he'd managed that. It took a lot of effort (or an unusual amount of alcohol) to get Tony Stark stupid.

He kissed him again, then shifted his hips and, feeling pretty messy, rolled over onto his back.

"This is kind of...untidy," he remarked. Tony laughed.

"Please don't tell me you're unfamiliar with the results," he said.

"Usually...well." Steve waved a hand. "In the shower."

"Furtive and wet. I like." Tony pushed himself up, turning a little, and reached over the edge of the bed. It must have been his shirt he picked up; it had a soft worn circle in it where the arc reactor had rubbed. Steve reached for it but Tony just ignored him, imperious like that, like cleaning his -- Steve couldn't even think the word though it was all over him, but he could get better, Tony was dirty enough for both of them -- anyway, it was like cleaning him up was one of Tony's projects and nobody else was allowed to touch.

When Tony finished, he tossed it back over the side and rolled out of bed, and Steve propped himself up on an elbow, watching.

The lights were dim, and Steve wondered if JARVIS had done that, wondered a little guiltily if JARVIS had watched. Most of his mind, though, was on Tony, unabashedly naked, walking across the floor to a little icebox -- Tony had an icebox in his bedroom! -- and taking out a bottle of water. Steve noticed the shadows falling over his shoulderblades, making little dips in his spine, outlining curves and angles across his body.

He'd seen the specs; the Iron Man armor was light and obedient, but it was still armor, and the evidence of the strength it took to control it was in the round of Tony's biceps and thighs, the smooth solid muscle across his shoulders. He wondered what Tony had been like before Iron Man, whether the muscle had been there waiting for purpose, waiting for Tony to wake up to the world.

Tony turned, unscrewing the cap of the water bottle, sipping as he walked back. He offered it to Steve, who took and drank as well, though he wasn't really sure why.

"What happens now?" he asked, handing it back to Tony -- who was still standing, looking down, head tilted like he was working out an equation.

"Well, that depends, young padawan, on the person," Tony told him, smiling.

"Padawhat?"

"I'll explain later." Tony settled on the bed, putting the water aside. "Usually what happens now is that I sleep. Are you tired?"

Steve shook his head, flushing.

"Well, I'm -- " Tony broke off, eyes skating along Steve's body. "Uh. Wow."

Steve felt his face get hotter. And other parts, too, to his endless dismay. Tony considered him.

"Serum?" he asked, leaning forward, sliding a hand over Steve's hip.

"Serum," Steve said, face muffled in a pillow in mortification.

"That's not in the research notes." Tony's fingers played along his dick, already half-hard again.

"I never found the right way to tell anyone. Sorry, it -- "

"No, don't apologize, why are you apologizing, this is very good for my ego. I bet you take long showers. Stay right there. Wait, take your face out of the pillow, then stay right there," Tony continued, and Steve rolled onto his back, covering his face with his hands instead.

He felt weight shifting on the bed and then soft touches up his thighs, Tony's fingers flattening and steadying. Warm breath against the skin of his hip, the scratch of Tony's beard.

It took him by surprise, though it shouldn't have, the first kiss of tongue against his dick. It felt like time slowed, like every little shift either of them made was magnified, and he might recover fast but he was still sensitive, twitching, struggling half to escape the rough swipes and half to get more. He heard a whine build deep in his throat, which was right when Tony decided to stop screwing around and swallow him whole, it felt like.

"Your mouth," Steve said, hardly conscious he was talking at all. "Holy God your mouth, yes, oh, please -- please, Tony -- "

He wasn't even sure what he was begging for, wasn't aware he'd lowered his hands and tangled them in Tony's hair until he felt Tony tug against his fingers. It was warm and tight and Tony groaned and he could feel the vibration of it, feel his tongue shifting and pressing --

"Tony, Tony, you have to stop or -- please -- fuck, Tony -- "

Tony just kept sucking and shifting and Steve didn't have the fortitude to push him away, didn't want to, but he didn't honestly think...

His orgasm rolled through him, felt like it was being pulled out of him, and Tony just...swallowed.

When Steve felt like he could breathe again, he opened his eyes and found Tony leaning over him, grinning, mouth red and damp.

"I made you swear," he said.

"You made me do a whole lot more than that," Steve managed.

"Yeah but I had a particular bet going with myself about what it would take to make you actually swear. I think I won five hundred grand off myself. I might buy a new car."

Steve slow-blinked at him. "You realize the reason we get along so well is that I don't pay attention to the specifics of most of what you say."

"The reason we get along so well is that if you did you'd actually understand me. Which, trust me, is very rare," Tony said, shoving at him until he moved enough for Tony to pull the duvet out from under him. "Now, sleep?"

Steve yawned. Tony grinned.

"Yeah, okay," Steve agreed. He wondered, for a second, if he ought to move over, but Tony took the decision out of his hands, flopped into the bed and sprawled all over him, face tucked against his shoulder, body curled around his.

This was what he'd wanted, even more than sex -- though he'd wanted sex an awful lot -- but this was what he'd thought about, when he'd entertained the idea at all. A body touching his, someone trusting enough to sleep curled up against him, just because he wanted to (he'd slept back-to-back with Bucky so many times, sharing blankets and much-needed warmth but mindful of propriety). Tony's quiet breathing and occasional twitch against his skin.

He didn't sleep for a while, but that was all right; he just lay there enjoying it, until the world slipped away into darkness.

***

There was this one gossip website Steve had come across while looking up Tony's exploits. It was called Dirt, which should have clued him in, but he'd read it anyway. They had a column called Did I Deserve It? where people confessed terrible things that had happened to them and readers voted on whether they deserved it.

Sometimes Steve honestly despaired of America. And he was Captain America.

This woman had written about meeting Tony at a party and sleeping with him, and when she woke up he was gone and she'd been "kicked out" by Tony's "bimbo assistant" and wanted -- well, clearly what she wanted was for people to say how awful it was, but that was under the guise of wanting to know if that was appropriate morning-after behavior.

There'd been the usual slew of horrible comments about what a slut she was, which Steve had ignored, and a few about what a jerk Tony was, which he'd also ignored. He knew Tony could be a jerk, nobody knew better than him, but it annoyed him when other people said it, because they didn't know Tony and therefore didn't have the right.

But there'd been a surprising number of people who'd said that she deserved it because hello, it was Tony Stark. What else did she expect? And furthermore, she'd slept with Tony Stark, which was further than some people would get.

He woke up in Tony's bed and Tony wasn't there.

When he sat up and rubbed at his face, the magazine and a thousand other ones and his own stupidity all flickering through his mind, JARVIS said, "Good morning, Captain Rogers."

He flinched but didn't fall out of bed, which was an improvement, and said, "Good morning, JARVIS. What time is it?"

"Eight oh two," JARVIS answered. "Did you sleep well?"

"Yeah, pretty well," Steve said, mentally brushing away the disappointment, the knowledge that he'd taken a chance aware this might happen. He'd only asked for Tony to try. And better immediately than a week or a month or a year down the line. He looked up at the ceiling. "Did. Uh. Last night -- "

"My cameras are automated to shut off in such situations," JARVIS said tactfully.

"Thanks." He yawned. "Must be weird for you."

"I've grown accustomed to Mr. Stark's need for privacy. Or rather -- "

"His partners' need for it?" Steve asked, ruefully.

"Mr. Stark is not a shy man," JARVIS admitted.

"No, I guess not." Steve let his hands fall into his lap, drawing his knees up a little. "This is not going exactly according to plan, I gotta tell you."

"With respect, Captain, that may not be entirely undesirable."

"Oh?" Steve asked.

"Mr. Stark is a...habitual man. Alterations to set routines tend to produce interesting results."

JARVIS was clearly waiting for a reply, but Steve was too busy feeling embarrassed to answer him. Finally, JARVIS spoke again.

"I've never seen anyone do that to Mr. Stark before."

"Really?" Steve asked, blinking. "Because he said he'd done pretty much everything I could think of..."

"My apologies, that was imprecise. I was referring to earlier. I've never seen anyone slow him down before." There was a small, staticky noise, like a throat clearing. "When people are...intimate with Mr. Stark, generally, nobody says anything about moving too fast."

"Well, thanks for the consolation, I suppose," Steve said. "It's nice to be different, anyway."

"Who's different?" And that was -- that was Tony's voice, Tony elbowing the door open.

Tony was standing in the doorway with a paper bag in one hand, a pair of mugs in the other, welding goggles on his forehead, a grappling hook hung casually on his shoulder, and the hook's thin filament rope looped over an elbow. He looked like a mad mountaineer turned delivery driver.

"You were doing your dead-to-the-world thing again so I made breakfast," Tony said, setting the coffee mugs down on the bedside table and the bag in Steve's lap. "Well. Ordered breakfast. And my phone was in the garage and I was thinking about the grappling hooks again -- by the way you're not getting a jet pack -- "

" -- I didn't really want a jet pack," Steve reminded him.

"But check this out," Tony said, unlooping the rope from his arm and producing a thin metal rod with a switch at one end. He flicked the switch and the rope retracted, pulling the hook snug and startling Steve into almost spilling the coffee he was picking up. Tony aimed the rod at a corner of the room and flicked the switch again, and put a grappling-hook-shaped hole in the drywall.

Steve looked at it contemplatively for a while, then turned wordlessly and rummaged in the bag, coming up with a breakfast burrito. There was a lot Steve would forgive about the future in light of the invention of the breakfast burrito.

Tony dropped onto the bed and took one of the coffees, but instead of drinking it he just shoved his face under Steve's ear and nibbled.

"C'mon, Tony," he said, elbowing him off, a pleased swell like fireworks in his chest.

"I know you said I wasn't allowed to leave but I figured, you know, grappling hooks," Tony said airily, slurping down half his coffee at once. He swallowed and looked up at Steve. "You know how I know I'm crazy?"

"Grappling hook?" Steve managed, around a mouthful of food.

"I'm freaking out about how much this isn't freaking me out."

"As long as you're enjoying it," Steve said.

"You're not worried?"

"I already knew you were crazy."

Tony opened his mouth, shut it, turned to look at him, and finally nodded. "Huh, well, okay, that's -- okay, that could work then. Hey, you know, last night, and I don't say this lightly, I'm an encyclopedia of sex, last night we only got through like, the preface. Not even the table of contents. There are illustrations in your future."

Steve grinned. "No need to rush."

Tony drank the other half of his coffee and then took Steve's. "Yeah, uh, I guess not," he said finally, and leaned into him, and stole a bite of his breakfast burrito.

Steve casually looked up at the ceiling. The smug silence from JARVIS was deafening.