The air in his off-planet bedroom was cool to the point of being chilly, and he tugged the blankets over his chin, falling into an uneasy sleep after a long day of diplomatic negotiations. Through his puffy eyes, he could see the sky-shields glisten outside his window. It was so dark otherwise. No lampposts, no lights in upstairs conference halls. Just the city curfew, and Steve's exhaustion siren-singing him away from his own jumbled thoughts.
He woke at one point, jerked abruptly by the sound of banging from his door. He swung into motion, sliding out of bed, but his movements felt more automatic than awake. He looked through the peephole and found it blurry, but he could see enough of his late night visitor to tell that it was Tony.
"Tony," Steve said tiredly when he opened the door, "what's the—"
His voice escaped him. Tony looked every bit as exhausted as Steve, hair spiking everywhere, suit rumpled, sweat at his throat — but he was also covered in blood, soaked in it like someone had butchered a pig and he'd been standing right there, helping yank out the entrails. Steve grabbed him by the arm, let go, clenched his fingers, and then grabbed him again, pulling him inside the room and shutting the door. "What happened?" he asked. He knew how sharp he sounded, but that was how Steve dealt with unexpected situations. Take command, assess your options, make a decision.
"Steve," Tony said. There was blood on his cheek and on his lips, and where had it come from? Steve began scanning Tony's body, looking for wounds, but he couldn't find any with just a cursory examination. Tony's clothes were stained but intact. There weren't any rips and he couldn't see any wounds either. Tony was standing there without effort, gazing at him in a disturbingly steady way, the only sign of trouble being his eyes, which were fever-bright. "Hey Steve," Tony said again, and Steve wanted to tell him to stop mucking about and debrief already, but Tony smelled sour and metallic, and he was rubbing his hands over his eyes. The blood was still wet.
"Steve," Tony said for the third time. Steve looked at him, quiet and frustrated, waiting. Tony crooked forward, his body turning into a question mark, spilling its lines into the space between them. Tony opened his mouth and licked his tongue over his teeth, grinning madly.
"Marry me," he said.
There was a t-shirt, somewhere, that said My Planet's Diplomats Took Me To Becknazy and All I Got Was This Lousy Proposal.
It had happened, more or less, like this: there was a planet in a neighbouring galaxy, it was called Becknazy, and since they weren't sending maddened Chitauri to destroy nearly half of Manhattan, the U.N. had decided to be friends, if only to have allies the next time Loki got a little stir-crazy. Becknazy had made first contact, sending a few of their higher-ups to Earth, and now Earth was returning the favour.
Becknazy had happened, more or less, like this: there had once been a prosperous empire covering nearly the entire planet — which might have seemed more impressive until you realized that 80% of Becknazy was water, and it had only one large, viable landmass. But the Becknazian Empire had been rich once, ruling in an era of sun-blessed gold and moonlit silver. Then an asteroid had hit the southern part of the continent, creating an environmental backlash called the Destruction that nearly destroyed the entire planet's ecosystem.
When the U.N. delegation had first arrived on the planet, they'd seen the once-lush fields where crops had grown, had been driven through river valleys now dried and brown with dirt, the skeletons of fish poking through topsoil. The air smelled still and stale, and there was very little wind. The nights were cold but the days were impossibly hot, the humidity rising and rising as the delegation met in talks with the Becknazian ambassadors in Silence, which was the capital city of the Becknazy Empire.
Those talks were going to get mighty awkward after this.
"Va Unda is dead," Ambassador Taliu said, his voice filtered through the electronic translators that they all wore hooked into their ears.
Steve tried not to wince at his anger. The Becknazians were extremely human-looking, actually a bit Mediterranean in their features, having evolved from a climate that was a near match for some southern parts of Europe. But that made it only worse: he could actually read the ambassador's body language. Just like he could read Tony's, who was slumped in his chair in the briefing room, half asleep with exhaustion, half drooling onto the table.
Steve kept trying to poke him. "Pay attention," he hissed, and then frowned because they hadn't let Tony take a shower yet and the blood was crusting into little flakes. He glanced at Fury, who was present, and saw that Fury was frowning too.
Ambassador Taliu continued. "You were the person last seen with him, and when we found his body, we also found you covered in his blood. We have no choice but to arrest you, Va Stark. Bail will be set, and we will proceed to trial."
"A fair trial," one of the U.N. ambassadors, from Paraguay, said.
Ambassador Taliu's eyelids flickered. "We are not barbarians. We are not Asgardians, eager to do trial by combat. Of course Va Stark will receive a fair trial. If he cannot afford a lawyer, a lawyer will be appointed to him. You will also have full access to compendiums of Becknazian law, and our court officials will be available to answer any questions about our system that you may have."
"Do you have the death penalty?" Steve asked. All of the U.N. ambassadors looked at him in annoyance, reminding him that he should have read the briefing package in full. Steve looked at Tony instead.
"Way to leap to the most dramatic ending possible," Tony said.
"I don't mean—" I just wanted to know, Steve thought, hating how useless he felt. Captain America could save friends and solve injustices with a swing of his shield, but Captain America didn't belong here, in the landscape of judicial proceedings and carefully constructed legalese. Steve had checked in his weapons at the door to Becknazy. It was a lawyer who was going to have to save Tony now.
When the meeting was over, he watched the Becknazian cops lead Tony away. They were going to put him in a cell until bail was set. If bail would be set. Steve curled his hands into fists underneath the table, watching how Tony's weariness made him trip over his own feet until a Becknazian lieutenant jerked him back up. They hated Tony. Steve could tell, and even if he couldn't, he could hear the grief in the Becknazians' voices when they talked about Unda. Unda had been a tech mogul on this planet, a scientific genius, a charming, roguish philanthropist. He had been beloved.
Fury straightened from where he had been standing at the back wall. "Don't mope," he ordered, and Steve grit his teeth together. "You think Stark can't hire every lawyer in America to fight his battles for him? The Becknazians don't stand a chance."
"It's their system," Steve said.
"It's not that different from our own," Fury said. "I actually read the memos."
"Do I have a pointy hat on right now?"
Steve stared. "Uh, what?"
"Do I have a pointy hat on, soldier? Do I have a wand? Am I prancing about in starry robes? No? But I don't need to be a wizard to know that look on your face right now. You're going to do something stupid. Something that'll make me want to throw you off the tallest mountain I can find, All-American good looks be damned." Fury fixed him with a dark, amused stare. "Resist the urge."
It wasn't the first time Tony had ever been arrested. It wasn't even the fourth. Tony collected new entries on his criminal record the way some people collected antique doilies: viciously and self-righteously.
The evidence was pretty damning. Tony had gone on a late night stroll in the gardens with Unda of the House of Air, his Becknazian counterpart, so they could hammer out the details of a joint Becknazy-Earth scientific cooperation pact. It'd been an unscheduled meeting; only a week on this planet and Tony had been teaching Unda how to golf and mix wildly alcoholic drinks, typically at the same time.
No one else was around during the late-night walk, and they had stopped in an area of the garden with poor visibility from the guardhouse cameras. Purposefully? Accidentally? Steve had no idea. Either way, they had stopped there, because that was where Unda's bloody, mangled body had been found.
Unda, dead. Tony, covered in blood. Even Steve knew how to count to two, but he knew Tony in a way that none of them, Becknazian or U.N ambassadors, did. Tony wasn't always a good man, and there were plenty of hard situations in which you might have to kill, but Tony would never kill anyone in such a horrible way, much less someone he liked. If Tony were to be a killer, he would never do it so... psychotically.
Tony was his best friend. Steve probably would have noticed if Tony had psychotic tendencies by now.
When he reached his room, he slid the electronic key through the sensor, feeling so at odds with himself that he didn't even notice he did it correctly for the first time. It only took one try, not the usual seventeen. Inside, the room was just as he had left it, but there were drops of blood on the tile. Tony.
He couldn't fall back asleep. He kept thinking. Tony.
None of the U.N. ambassadors had seemed particularly bothered by the arrest. Some of them even looked like they believed the accusations. The others? Well, it was Tony Stark, this was just what he did apparently. Go on missions to new planets, get arrested for murder. Yawn. Tony only made it worse by acting exactly like the careless spoiled man-boy everyone said he was, barely reacting the entire time with the Becknazian ambassadors.
No. Steve wasn't being fair. Tony had been exhausted. You couldn't judge his reaction, or lack of appropriate reaction, when he was that tired.
There was a knock at his door. Steve flinched at the deja vu, but he opened the door and Bruce came inside. Bruce was the fourth American in the U.N. delegation, though Steve hadn't seen much of him since they'd landed and Bruce had discovered the Imperial University's libraries.
"Can't sleep. Thought we might be confused and miserable together," Bruce said.
"Thanks," Steve said. He went to the window and looked out at the darkness, at the long shadows of Silence's skyscrapers, and at the force field dome that covered the sky, crackling purple and black, vibrating with a hum that could be heard from anywhere within its perimeter — it had taken Steve three days to get used to that sound.
Bruce joined him at the window, rolling his sleeves up. He had come to Becknazy for the same reasons as Tony: to see the science, which was beyond anything on Earth. But where Tony also represented Stark Industries and was trying to set up contracts, Bruce just wanted to learn. Bruce always just wanted to learn.
"The scientists here keep trying to explain the Destruction, but it's just so far beyond anything we can imagine," Bruce said idly. "An asteroid that obliterates nearly the entire ecosystem, sending up so much pollution that it obscures the sun, even a hundred years later. How can they stand it?"
Lots of ways, Steve thought. The Becknazians had learned to adapt. They grew their crops through genetic engineering, they lit up their cities through floodlights during the day and imposed a curfew at night, they injected themselves with daily needles that provided much-needed nutrients like vitamin D. They were very proud of what they had accomplished post-Destruction, and half of the tours Steve had been led on talked about the triumph of science over natural disaster.
"It's not that strange," Steve said. "No stranger than you turning green and hulking out every time you get mad."
Bruce raised his eyebrows.
"Sorry," Steve said. "Joke."
"Yeah," said Bruce.
Then Bruce stirred. "Nothing fazes you, does it? You jumped seventy years in the future and adapted without a problem."
"Lots of things faze me," Steve said. "I just can't let them show. I can't let them win."
Tony didn't stand up when Steve entered the holding cell. Tony reclined on the cot like a pasha and waved his hand languidly.
"Please tell me you brought booze," he said. "I feel like there's only one thing missing from this luxurious prison experience, and that's getting fondled by burly men while being smashed out of my mind." He grinned at the guard who let Steve in, but like most Becknazians, the guard was tall and slender, with the physique of a swimmer rather than a wrestler.
"Tony," Steve said, and it was alarming how easily it rolled off his tongue with exactly the right intonation and exasperation.
The guard stayed in the cell with them, but retreated to a discreet distance. He wore two guns on his hips and carried a rifle on his back. Steve wished he wasn't there at all, but at the same time, he'd spent time at SHIELD HQ and was sort of resigned to his inevitable loss of privacy.
"Are you all right?" he asked Tony, looking him up and down. "Your bail hearing's tomorrow. You won't have to stay here for much longer."
"I'm okay," Tony said. "Dutifully eating my vat-grown meals and everything." He paused. "It's surprising how much chicken flavour they manage to stuff into those protein packets. We should steal that for our astronaut program."
At the word 'steal', the Becknazian guard stirred.
Steve lowered his voice. "So what happened? With Unda?" Tony might sound devil-may-care, but now he wasn't so exhausted, Steve could see an actual awareness of the situation growing — it was present in the shadowy smudges underneath his eyes and the tension in his shoulders. Tony was good at lying with his voice, but he was never so good at lying with his body language. "I don't believe you killed him, but—"
"You might be the only one."
"Bruce doesn't think so either," Steve frowned. "And I'm pretty sure Fury thinks you're obnoxious, but not a killer."
Tony laughed, but there was a terrifying bitterness behind it. Steve stepped forward and put a hand on Tony's shoulder. "We'll deal with this," he said kindly. "Just tell me what happened."
"I don't know what happened," Tony admitted. "Unda and I were walking in the gardens talking about the future of clean energy, and then we turned into that little grove — the one with the statues of women with snakes bursting out of their heads? Creepy. I remember telling Unda just how creepy they were, and then my mind went... blank."
"Blank?" Steve pressed.
"I think I fell asleep, maybe," Tony said, rubbing at his stubble. "I think I might have been drugged. That's my theory anyway, except they've already run drug tests on me, and I come up clean. Nothing in my bloodstream. But I was talking to Unda one moment, and then I was staring down at his body, and his blood was all over me." He grimaced. "I freaked out. They keep asking me why I ran from the scene of the crime, and my best answer was: I was stupid. I lost my shit. I went to find you."
"It's okay, it's okay," Steve murmured out loud, but Tony shook his head.
"It's not okay, Cap. They might not have the death penalty here, but there's still life imprisonment, and unless they manage to find another suspect, looks like me and Bubba Becknazy are going to be reaaaal good friends." Tony leaned his head against the wall. "God, I could use a drink. Why didn't you bring me a drink?"
"Forget the drink," Steve said, and Tony snorted. Steve continued. "We're going to get you out on bail, and then we're going to hire you an army of lawyers."
"They're not going to let me out on bail," Tony said.
"Did you see how Unda died? That was sick. That was butchery. That was 'danger to the public.'" Tony shrugged. "I'll bet you my armour that they won't just let me hop back to Earth until the trial. Not unless—"
"Unless what?" Steve demanded.
Tony smiled darkly. "How do you feel about winter weddings?"
"What we have to realize," said Kristensen, the U.N. ambassador from Denmark, "is that Becknazian culture holds marriage at a very high premium. They are very much a family values society, with an emphasis on monogamous dyadic commitment and fealty."
"I only understand about half those words," Steve said, sitting at the table with the Earth delegation. Bruce beside him winced, like he hated proving any of those brawns-over-brains accusations against the Avengers right, but Steve didn't care. Steve had a foot soldier's desire to just get to the meat of it, no fancy words involved. Less confusion and fewer botched commands that way.
"It means they're wacko for weddings," Fury interrupted. "Means they won't release Stark on bail if he's just by himself, but if he's committed, if he's tied in holy matrimony, things'd be different."
"Becknazian culture, or at least the culture as exported by the heartlands, believes that marriage is a moral institution as well as social and legal," Kristensen said. "As part of their wedding vows, loving couples promise to morally guide each other — literally be each other's better halves. That's why, in trials, bail will usually be granted if the defendant's spouse agrees to take responsibility for them when the defendant is released. It is considered a sacred trust, both between the couple and with the higher powers of Becknazian religion. Unless, of course, said spouse comes under suspicion himself."
"Himself?" Steve asked slowly.
"Same-sex marriage is legal in Becknazy, yes," Kristensen confirmed. "But, well, I suppose it's a moot point! Mr. Stark is not, as far as I'm aware, married. To a man or a woman. Although the Becknazy legal code does allow for a fiance to stand in for a spouse, as long as the wedding takes place before the trial and the fiance can prove sufficient devotion and commitment." She cleared her throat. "They're really big on commitment, in case you can't tell."
"It's the blow-up doll in their Macy's Parade," Fury said. He drummed his fingers against the table. "As much as I wouldn't mind just leaving Stark on this planet to face his doom, it'd look bad on the rest of us. I don't want the President of the United States calling me up, demanding to know why we screwed over his favourite infrastructure billionaire."
"They do play golf together," Steve said, which was something he was never going to wrap his mind around.
"I try not to think about it," Fury said. "And someone get me Pepper Potts on the line. I realize that they're exes," he added when Steve opened his mouth, "but as far as I know, they're still on good terms, and she might be willing to take one for the team."
"You mean marry him?" Bruce said.
"An undesirable prospect, I know," Fury said. "Her country will thank her."
"I don't think Pepper is a good idea," Steve said. They all turned to look at him. "Pepper's great!" he added, because the only people who didn't think so were people who enjoyed kicking puppies and punching pandas. "But this is going to be a major interstellar incident, and people loved Unda — even if we go back to Earth, Tony might not be safe. What's to stop a Becknazian bent on revenge from following us down the Keyway?" He could hear the buildup in his voice, could almost feel the ghost-steam pressure of what Fury had warned him against earlier, but this was like going to bat for a friend — he wasn't going to stop once he saw the plate. "Pepper's busy running S.I. She can't keep an eye on him most of the time. And she doesn't have combat training. I think it should be an Avenger."
"An Avenger," Bruce mused. "Strong, heroic, can punch through walls."
"What," said Kristensen, "you want Stark to marry Thor?"
"Is he offering?" Fury said as if he was actually considering it.
"It'd be an excellent move," Kristensen said. "A wedding between Tony Stark and Thor, son of Odin. It would show that he has no prejudice against aliens." She smiled a smile of pure craft. "They could even talk about adopting — the Becknazians would melt."
"Tony is not marrying Thor," Steve interrupted. "That's not what I meant. I meant me. Tony can marry me." They all stared at him in disbelief, and Steve felt weirdly, absurdly sullen. "He did ask, you know."
"You are aware of what marriage would entail," Kristensen said slowly.
"You do know what marriage is, right?" Fury asked suspiciously, and Steve glared back, wishing they would all crawl into a hole that he could then fill in with earth. If Earth weren't some billion miles away. He looked over at Bruce, hoping to see at least one of them actually caring about how Tony was going to get through all this. Bruce looked thoughtful. Then he smiled.
"Dibs on best man," he said.
"I hear we're getting hitched," Tony said when Steve went to visit him again.
"Yeah," Steve said, looking at his watch. "In about five minutes."
He looked down at Tony, and it was like the drawbridge had come down in his throat — suddenly, he didn't know what to say. It felt like when Tony had first come to him, covered in blood, only two nights ago. How could it have been only two nights ago? And here was Steve's life, spinning off axis, tilting and rotating the wrong way. He'd come to Becknazy to represent Earth, and he was going to leave a married man.
Five minutes, and no one had given Tony a razor, so his stubble was darker than Steve had ever seen it before. He wondered if Tony had looked like this coming back from Afghanistan, so tired and resigned — which was nothing like Tony at all. Do you really think they're going to nail you for the murder? Steve wanted to ask, but he didn't want to hear the answer.
Positive thinking, he told himself. He'd spent the first two years waking up from the ice being a depressed, moping mess, until finally he annoyed even himself. He was making an effort to change. Positive thinking — just like his self-help books said.
"My hair's all fucked up," Tony said, running his hands through it.
"It's fine," Steve assured him.
"Of course you'd say that. You're my hubby," Tony retorted, and okay, that was awkward. Steve wondered if Tony felt it too — unless he really didn't think it was a big deal, getting married and promising till-death-do-us-part. Steve started to remember those gossip mag stories he'd sometimes read because Clint threw them around on the coffee table — the ones that talked about Tony Stark's secret pornstar marriage, or his harem of Thai wives.
"You're not married already, are you?" Steve asked suspiciously.
Tony looked horrified.
Probably no harem then. Good sign? Good sign. But that meant it was probably going to be just Steve, and that made Steve uneasy, like only now was he realizing the full weight of what he had agreed to. Married. To Tony.
We're doing this to save him, he reminded himself. It's just like when I pretended to be someone I'm not to get into the army. We're playing being different people for a good cause. Once the trial was over and Tony was acquitted, they would get divorced. It was the twenty-first century. People did this all the time. And even if they didn't, Steve had just participated in a diplomatic mission to an alien planet. The rules of the world were changing constantly.
Tony was looking at him, studying the side of Steve's face with an unreadable expression. "Take one for the team, right?" he said when Steve turned towards him.
"That's what Fury said."
"I bet he said a lot worse," Tony said. "So how's this going to work? Who's going to be our flower girl?"
"It's just a civil service," Steve said quickly. "We're bringing a judge from New York. She's crossing the Keyway right now. Five minutes ETA," he reminded him, and then he shuffled his feet and looked away. "We don't need to make a production of it." Steve hated productions; everyone knew this. He glanced around to make sure the Becknazian guards were out of earshot. "It's not like it's real," he added.
"It's not like it's real," Tony agreed. Steve didn't know what to do after that, so he simply followed habit by sticking his hand out. They shook on it. Steve felt the dryness of Tony's fingers, the roughness of his mechanic's callouses, before they pulled away.
"Understood," Steve said. "It's a gentleman's agreement."
"Except I've seen you in a buffet line, and neither of us are gentlemen," Tony said.
"Oh for God's sake," said Steve.
Tony lifted his shoulders up to his ears. Then he dropped them like a sack of flour. "When are they having Unda's funeral?"
"I don't know," Steve admitted. "And I don't think they'll let you attend, anyway."
"No kidding," Tony said. His voice turned quiet, more serious. "He was a friend. Maybe only for a short while, and maybe I didn't know him all that well — but I liked him a lot. I'm sorry that he's dead. He didn't deserve it."
"We'll find the truth," Steve said, and it felt so good to say that, to have something to bite down on between his teeth. "We're not just going to stand by and let this trial happen. We'll do our own investigations. We'll find Unda's killer, and get you free."
First things first, though: Steve got married with an itch on the back of his neck, the tie cutting into his circulation, and with Tony staring into space, barely listening to the judge until the final moment when they put their signatures on a legal document. Then Tony grinned like he was enjoying the world`s best private joke before sliding his hand to Steve's ass and squeezing, just once. Steve very calmly returned the favour by stepping on Tony's foot.
"Ow," said Tony. "But always wanted to do that, just once."
"You've always wanted to sexually harrass me," Steve replied.
"Ain't love grand," Tony said, and maybe it was better that they could still joke around like this, even with the tension in the air and two rows of high-ranking Becknazian officials watching them. Steve glanced at them, then stepped into Tony's space and took his hand. They had to make this believable, or none of it would be worth it.
Tony looked surprised, but he didn't let go. This is my husband, Steve thought, looking at him, and the words slid down his tongue. My fake husband, he reminded himself. My very, very fake husband.
"Can we go home now?" he said out loud. Kristensen shot him a dirty look, because apparently it wasn't polite to declare your desire to leave your host's homeland immediately, which Steve knew, but right now he was beyond politeness. Tony was still pretty exhausted, having spent the last twenty-four hours in a cell. He was swaying on his feet, and Steve wanted to get a proper, homecooked meal in him, followed by a bath, because, well, Tony smelled funny.
"I've got you," he said, leading Tony away from the ceremony.
"My hero." Tony fluttered his lashes, and Steve rolled his eyes.
"This is what I think," Steve said when they were marginally alone. "Seems to me like there are two ways to approach the murder: either someone wanted Unda dead and you just happened to be in the way, or someone didn't care about Unda but wanted you to take the fall." When he let go of Tony briefly, Tony started wandering down the wrong hallway, so Steve steered him back in the right direction. "Do you have any enemies?" he finally asked.
"Okay," Steve said sheepishly. "Dumb question."
"You're really sweet, Steve," Tony said. "You're like a giant piece of earnest cake." Steve prepared himself in case this was the sly prelude to another grope — weariness seemed to give Tony a drunken edge, like he was riding on his own fumes. But there was no forthcoming grope, only a crooked smile that was probably Tony Stark's emotionally stunted way of being friendly.
"You've got to take this seriously," Steve said. "I mean it, Tony. This is one of those things that even having the President on your speed dial won't fix."
"My speed dial has the President, all the Avengers, and two nukes," Tony said archly.
Steve was faintly scandalized. "I thought you'd gotten rid of the nukes."
"Later," Tony said, and he closed his eyes. Steve looked at him for another long moment before putting his arm around his shoulders and dragging him upright, helping him the last few steps to his room where he could take a nap. Murder and marriage could take a lot out of a man.
When Steve was finished, and had made sure that at least two U.N. bodyguards were stationed checkpoint in front of Tony's room, he went to find the others. He located Bruce sitting in a cafeteria, spooning a bowl of genetically modified oatmeal into his mouth while reading a physics book by Xacasta of the House of Dragonflies. Or at least he was looking at the diagrams; Steve was pretty sure that, as smart as Bruce was, even he hadn't managed to master the Becknazian script in just a week.
"How's it going?" Bruce asked, making room. He offered some of his oatmeal, and Steve took it. He was amazingly hungry.
"Tony passed out in his bed. I've put guards at his door," Steve said in between chewing. Emily Post would be appalled at his manners, but he wasn't eating with Emily Post, who probably would have needed a new edition for alien planets anyway. "Fury said he wanted to talk to me after the, uh, wedding, but I can't find him. Think he's in a meeting."
"Probably," Bruce said. He set his book down and pushed his glasses up his nose. "You feeling okay?"
Steve thought about it. Then he thought about it some more.
"It's not an SAT essay question," Bruce said dryly.
"Well, it's not a true or false question either," Steve shot back. "I'm trying to turn a new leaf. Trying not to let things bother me." It wasn't an exaggeration — he really hadn't liked the guy he used to be, doing his utmost to never learn anything good about the modern world because it wasn't the world he missed so much. It had taken three years, Tony, and Loki nearly destroying the eastern seaboard for the second time for Steve to think that maybe, maybe things would be okay if he put in the effort first.
Strength got born in the mind, and then the body. He'd been a fighter even before the Serum, hadn't he?
"Did they tell you about your new live-in guest?"
Steve paused with the spoon to his mouth. "I have a live-in guest?"
"You and Tony do," Bruce said.
"Oh, right," Steve replied. Married equaled living together, at least the way the Becknazians saw it.
"You really don't read the debriefings, do you?" Bruce said. "Not even the new one Kristensen just sent us."
"Sorry," Steve said. "I'd been busy, you know, trying to keep Earth-Becknazy relationships from collapsing into an intergalactic war that none of us will survive."
"All you've done is take care of Tony."
"Exactly," Steve said. "So what's this about a live-in guest?"
"That's another condition of them releasing Tony to you. It's not just the marriage. The marriage is a huge part of it, but the Becknazians aren't complete idiots — even if they hold the marriage bond to be absolutely sacred and virtuous, they aren't going to just let you waltz off the planet with Tony."
"They're sending someone to monitor you," Bruce said matter-of-factly. "Not a guard, not a cop, nothing along those lines. The spousal privilege guarantees you won't have to deal with that. But yours is a special case, and while they're legally obliged to grant Tony bail because you'll vouch for him, they don't know how much to trust you either. So a Becknazian representative will move in with you."
Oatmeal had never tasted so sour before, and Steve had eaten plenty of questionable, bug-infested oatmeal during the war. He swallowed it down and reached for water. "Not a guard, not a cop, then who?"
"From what I've heard?" Bruce said. "Some paper-pushing clerk who drew the short end of the straw."
"Yeah," Bruce said.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Steve said.
"Hit them over the head and hold them hostage until they acquit Tony in exchange?"
They were both quiet after that.
"That'd probably be an interstellar incident too," Steve admitted.
"We don't want to be responsible for starting a war with alien races," Bruce agreed. "Again."
The passage between Becknazy and Earth was called the Keyway, and in terms of physics, it was almost identical to the Bifrost, operating under the same scientific principles. Which meant practically nothing to Steve, because he wasn't exactly the prince of science over here, not the way Tony and Bruce were. What mattered to him was that the Keyway, like the Bifrost, did its job. It opened with a flare of winter-cold light, light so sharp that it was like a sickle through a field of wheat, and it took them home.
Home. Part of being the New Steve was trying to think of twenty-first century Earth as home, and on good days, he even succeeded. He could look at the skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan, the morphing advertisements of Times Square, and feel like this was where he lived. A piece of his heart would always belong in the 40s, with Peggy and Bucky and all the soldiers he had fought with — but people had two homes all the time, immigrants crossing oceans with everything they had with them. Steve was an immigrant too, of a sort, split between two places that he loved — the American dream.
Today, he was ridiculously happy to hear the wild honking on the street, or to pass the frozen yogurt shops with their wall of flavours, or to see women with Prada purses sauntering down the sidewalk in their Louboutin heels — and wasn't that funny too, that Steve Rogers would know what Louboutin heels were. Except Steve had met enough of Tony's girlfriends in the past, plus he knew Pepper, so.
They were gliding through the streets of New York City in Tony's limo, and Tony was slumped in his seat with his shades hiding his eyes. But he was grinning, just as pleased as Steve to be back. "Skimpily dressed women," he said, pressing his nose against the window. "How I have missed you."
True, Steve realized. Becknazian women had been a lot more conservatively dressed, more like the women of the 40s — but he'd stopped even noticing the differences.
"I am going to go home and have so much filthy sex," Tony said, but then he paused. "Oh wait. I forgot."
Hi, your husband here, Steve thought, resisting the urge to give a little wave. "I don't care," he said. Tony was pretty licentious. He seemed to crave no strings attached sex in a way that Steve didn't — Steve much preferred getting to know a girl first, taking her on dates, sharing popcorn at a baseball game. "You should be discreet though," he said. "The Becknazians believe we're happily married, and if Aru's going to be living with us, you don't want her to think—"
"—we're anything but madly in love and doing it like bunnies?" Tony finished.
Steve could feel himself turning red, damn it.
"I could always just sneak my dates through the back door and pretend they're maids," Tony mused.
"That's degrading," Steve said.
"Nah, I'm equal opportunity. I don't only have sex with rich women, you know." Tony stretched back on the leather seats and spread his legs.
"I mean degrading for them," Steve said. He looked out the window at the bright, buttery sun, which he would never take for granted again. "Do you want to grab a pizza? I could use some pizza."
"Pizza," Tony repeated, and the noises he made were obscene. "I love the way you think, Cap. Never stop."
There were folk at the pizzeria who stopped and stared at them, even in this hole-in-the-wall joint that Steve had discovered one day entirely by accident. The owners all spoke tilted English with a heavy Italian accent, but the younger crowd took out their cell phones when they saw Steve and Tony cram into a table at the back, banging elbows and stepping on each other's feet.
Normally Steve was always very aware of when people were watching him, which was time to become Captain America rather than Steve Rogers, but today he let it pass. When the meat lover's pizza came to their table, they ate like dinosaurs facing extinction, desperate for it, while all around them people took casual photos that would end up on blogs and Twitter. Steve might be getting used to twenty-first century Earth, but its interconnectedness still sort of freaked him out.
It didn't take long. On their way out of the pizzeria, Tony looked up from where he was glued to his phone and said, "Heh."
"What?" Steve asked, wiping at the side of his mouth. He felt like there was a tomato sauce stain there, even though Tony had assured him a million times there wasn't.
Tony showed him his Twitter feed, where the tweet at the very top had a picture of the two of them stuffing their mouths. TONY STARK AND CAPTAIN AMERICA ON THEIR HONEYMOON!! it said.
"News got out fast," Tony remarked. "Christine Everhart's already messaged me about an interview."
"It was supposed to," Steve said stiltedly. "So the Becknazians would believe us." He looked at the photo again, enlarged. He winced. His mouth was stretched open in it, and it looked like he had double chins. It was really unflattering.
Tony saved it as his wallpaper.
Moving into Stark Tower didn't take too much effort. Steve had always packed light, and there wasn't much in his apartment that he couldn't bear to part with — he could always come back for it later. Standing among the furniture he'd carefully picked from IKEA, he couldn't help but feel it was kind of a lonely place. It was just where he slept and showered. Everything else he did out of the house, moving between Stark Tower, which had become the Avengers' de facto headquarters, and the rotating series of coffeeshops and libraries where he would sit down to read or try to play one of those online browser games Clint was always sending him to. Steve had gotten to level 34 in Glitch, and none of it had been done inside this apartment.
Should have had a housewarming party here, or something, Steve thought ruefully, shouldering his duffel bag over his shoulder. Happy was waiting outside, playing Angry Birds on his cell phone, and Steve had gotten pretty good at that too. They swapped tips while Happy drove them from Brooklyn to Stark Tower, which jutted out from the ground like some sort of red-eyed Valkyrie.
"I don't have to change my name, right?" Steve said from the back of the car, suddenly alarmed. "I don't have to be Steve Stark."
"Sir, I don't think anyone can make you do anything you don't want to," Happy replied amiably. "But sure, lots of ladies these days keep their maiden names."
"Not that I'm a lady."
"Which is no insult to ladies," Steve said. "I like ladies." He stared out the window and squinted, wondering if people were going to start thinking of him as as a gay icon now, or whatever Clint had said in his last email message, sent at three in the morning EST and badly punctuated. Steve wasn't a gay icon. He wasn't even completely gay. There had been a few men in the past, but mostly he had fancied the ladies. And by a few men, he only really meant one. Bobby Hartwell, who had been a grade older than him, and who had kissed him in the janitor's closet at school before winking and sauntering back to his girlfriend. Steve remembered how red-faced he had been, stumbling out of the closet, trying to get his hair back in order. Bucky had teased him for a day without really knowing what happened.
Tony was sprawled on his twenty-thousand dollar couch, watching TV when Steve walked into the penthouse. "You know where everything is," he said, popping cashews into his mouth. He had propped his feet up on a stack of engineering plans on the coffee table. "Just dump your stuff in my bedroom. I had housekeeping clean it out, so it's probably 75% less disgusting than it was yesterday."
Steve stopped in his tracks. "We're sharing a room?"
Tony turned around and grinned. "I promise not to steal the covers."
"We're sharing a bed?" Steve asked suspiciously.
“You mean you’ll propose to me but you won’t lie on a mattress a foot away from me?” Tony said, which prompted Steve to set the record straight, being mainly that Tony had proposed to him. Granted, it hadn’t been the most romantic of proposals. But the last book Steve had read (The Feelings Book: The Care & Keeping of Your Emotions) had told him not to worry about things he couldn't control. There was another book he had read earlier, which had suggested going into his Diamond Flower Space whenever he was stressed. Trying to find his Diamond Flower Space had mostly led to finding indigestion and late night shopping channels instead.
“It’s fine,” Steve said, finding some kind of Space inside him where he could pull the words out, one by one. “I’ll sleep wherever. Thank you for cleaning your bedroom for me.”
"You're freaking out, aren't you?" Tony remarked. He got up and grabbed Steve's bags from him. Steve tried to pull them back, but not too hard, because he didn't want to use his strength against Tony, who had developed that hard gleam in his eye that meant he was up for a challenge, like just who could outdrink Thor or arm-wrestle the Thing into submission.
"I am not freaking out," Steve said.
"You're a fucking terrible liar," Tony said.
"That's a real sweet thing you've just called me, your darling blushing bride," Steve said.
"Well, your gown was a little lacking. But we were pledged at the altar and everything," Tony mused.
"There wasn't an altar," Steve pointed out, for the sake of accuracy. "There was just Fury snickering in the background and twenty armored Becknazian guards making sure we didn't pull any funny business."
Tony responded by picking up Steve's bags and moving them to his bedroom. One foot in the door and he stuck his head back out, saying, "God, the next time I get whirlwind-married, it's going to be on a beach, and there will be bikinis and rum involved."
"Yeah, the next-time you get whirlwind-married, you can have the underwear model of your choice," Steve said, stepping around Tony as they went into his room. "Until now, you're stuck with me." He looked around at the bedroom, which was surprisingly classy considering it belonged to a man who went around fighting crime in a metal suit. The bed rose from the center like plateau of Egyptian cotton, and looking at it made Steve stiffen, trying to imagine him and Tony on that bed, together.
He'd survived a world war and the death of everyone he loved. This was just a bed. It was stupid to be nervous, not that Steve actually was.
"We could get you your own bed in the corner," Tony said, watching him. The room was certainly large enough to fit two beds. "But we don't know how much the Becknazy watchdog is actually going to, uh, watch."
"Where's Aru living?" Steve asked.
"Down the hall," Tony said. "She's in her room right now. She doesn't come out much. Nothing to do, I guess, when you're not around. No marriage shenanigans to report about."
"I should go say hello," Steve said, but Tony grabbed his elbow.
"She's the enemy, Cap. She's here to make sure we don't do anything funny, or gasp, not appropriate to the sacred institution of marriage. Just leave her alone."
"I'm not saying we have to like her," Steve replied, looking down at where Tony was touching him. Tony quickly pulled away. Steve straightened his shoulders. "But we can't just pretend she doesn't exist. She'll be living down the hall from us, for God's sake."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Fine, we'll invite her to dinner. Happy?"
Steve cracked up. He couldn't help it, but this conversation was absurd. Tony started laughing too, and for a moment it was like everything was okay, everything was the way they used to be. Tony wrapped an arm around Steve's shoulder and said, "Jesus, look at us. We'll be arguing about what to do with the fine china next. Promise me if we ever get to that, you'll shoot me in the head, Godfather-style. No mercy."
"I married you," Steve said for what felt like the umpteenth time, still trying to wrap his tongue around it, like it was some kind of tongue twister. "I'm not going to shoot you in the head. Unless you deserve it."
"I'll leave wet towels all over the bathroom floor," Tony said promptly. "I'll pretend to like your cooking but secretly feed leftovers to the dog. I'll forget our anniversary. I'll buy you dresses that are two sizes too large. I'll sic Dummy on you when I'm mad."
"I think I can handle Dummy," Steve said, folding his arms over his chest. He didn't want to brag, but he wasn't going to let Tony get the wrong idea about his already over-inflated sense of technological accomplishment.
"I'll sic Gawker on you," Tony grinned, and Steve went white.
Living in someone else's space was strange, and Steve was having a hard time getting used to it. Sure, he had visited Stark Tower often enough to be casually familiar with the lay of the land, but that was mostly the floor underneath Tony's penthouse, which was dedicated solely to the Avengers, their meeting rooms, and their gyms. Tony's actual penthouse, right above it, he'd been in for the occasional movie night or helping Tony home after a drinking binge, but now he was living here. Worse than that, he was supposed to act like he'd always been living here.
He'd finished a workout and was hovering in Tony's kitchen, wondering where the glasses were, wondering if Tony had some special claim on the milk and would get mad at him for drinking the last bit in the carton.
You're being ridiculous, Steve told himself. He made an executive decision and drank the last of the milk. If Tony wanted to complain, Steve would go out and buy some more.
As he was standing with the empty milk carton, looking around at the high-powered cooking gadgets that would have been used a lot more if Tony understood the concept of 'nourishment', Aru shuffled in on purple slippers. She took one look at him and froze, just as awkward in Tony's space as he was.
"Hi," Steve said.
"Hello," Aru spoke, in a stiff, formal voice. "I don't believe we have been introduced. I am Aru of the House of Dusk. I have been sent as an envoy, to accompany you and Mr. Stark until the date of his trial." She glanced down at her slippers and frowned. Probably hadn't expect to run into anybody.
An envoy, huh. That was an awfully diplomatic way of putting it. But Steve didn't say that out loud. He gestured at the counter. "I just finished the milk, sorry. But can I get you anything else, ma'am? I think Tony has some..." He looked into the fridge. "If you really love vodka, you're just in luck." He started rummaging through the shelves. Surely Tony had some other beverages. Steve had seen him drink health food smoothies before, mostly on account of Pepper. But maybe Tony bought those directly. Speaking of which, why did Tony have milk, anyway? Tony didn't drink milk. The only Avenger who did that was Steve.
"I am fine," Aru said. "Don't worry about me. Mr. Stark has been... most generous." Her eyes flicked back to her slippers and then to the bayview window, and Steve had a realization.
"You don't eat and drink the stuff we do," he said. "You're used to vat-grown... I mean, DNA-bred food. Bet this must all seem kind of weird."
"I'm not sure my body can digest it," Aru admitted. "And it doesn't seem to have the proper nutrients mixed into it that would fulfill my daily quotient."
"Gotcha," said Steve. He looked for a place to toss the empty milk carton, feeling rude for even holding it in front of her face. "So where do you get your food?"
"I have it imported through the Keyway," Aru said.
Steve looked at her for a long beat. "You're really young, aren't you?" he said, noting the baby softness of her cheeks.
"I have reached the age of majority among my people," she replied in the universally affronted way of youth everywhere. Steve turned around and pretended to be fascinated by Tony's espresso machine so he could hide a smile — when had he started feeling so old? Oh right, probably when he jumped seventy years into the future and started spending quality time with Tony Stark, who stashed cake in mini-fridges all over his house, just so he could eat it for breakfast. There was tiramisu in the piano room and dacquoise by the pool and whoopie pies in the library, and one time Steve had stumbled across mille-feuille in the bathtub. Tony could literally swim in cake, or, in Steve's opinion, empty calories and poor nutrition.
"I watch television," Aru said, bringing his thoughts back to their conversation. "It's fascinating the way Earthlings conceptualize their relationship to nature. And then I also go to the park," she added, and her voice grew high and excited. "You have grass and sun and even pet dogs. It's more than—" She stiffened. "Excuse me. I have acted outside of my station."
She must have chosen this assignment, Steve realized, even though it was thankless and weird and a massive invasion of privacy. She must have chosen it anyway, just to see a sun for the first time. Suddenly, Steve wanted badly to like her, this tall, gangly Becknazian with the pleated skirt and the lavender blush on her cheeks.
"This planet," Aru said hesitantly, "is very beautiful and strange."
"Yes," Steve said. "I know exactly what you mean."
At ten o'clock, Steve brushed his teeth and got ready for bed. Tony was nowhere to be seen, called out by an R&D meeting earlier in the afternoon. "And then drinks with investors," he'd said, while Steve had nodded and tried to focus on reading his library book.
After washing up, Steve changed into his pajamas and climbed into bed. He didn't know which side Tony preferred, so he just took the right side and figured Tony would shove him over if it was the wrong choice. "Oh," he said once he was in the bed, because the sheets were ridiculously soft and... nice. He wriggled around on them, marveling, until JARVIS beeped for his attention. Steve quickly stopped.
"Hi JARVIS," he said.
"Hello, Captain Rogers. May I dim the lights for you?"
"Sure," Steve said. "I'd like just enough to read." JARVIS adjusted the lights accordingly. Steve thanked him, and then opened his book to where he had last left it, on page thirty. The title was Healing Your Emotional Self: A Powerful Program to Help You Raise Your Self-Esteem, Quiet Your Inner Critic, and Overcome Your Shame.
Tony was always making fun of Steve for reading self-help books, but Steve liked them. They were so positive. And what else was he going to read? Tony had tried to give him A Shore Thing, but he suspected that was a joke. Natasha had given him a copy of The Hunger Games last week, but Steve found it just too sad. He didn't want to read stories about teenagers killing each other. He'd already lived through World War II, thank you very much.
Bruce, on the other hand, had given him Stitch 'N Bitch. While Steve objected to the title (he did not "bitch"), he did try to take up knitting. It was something to occupy his hands while he waited in between Avengers missions — it was really helpful in improving the dexterity of his fingers.
It was midnight, and Steve had fallen asleep with his book on his chest, when he heard a noise that was Tony stumbling into the bedroom. JARVIS had turned the lights off, and there was a crash, followed by a quiet, exhaled "fuck."
"Tony?" Steve called sleepily.
"Yeah, it's me," Tony said, and the polite way to describe how he sounded was probably 'this individual is not recommended to operate heavy machinery, including doorknobs.' He ambled over to the bed and collapsed on top of it, shutting his eyes before glancing up at Steve's face. "You're in my bed," he accused. "This is like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. You ate my food and you're in my bed."
"You invited me," Steve said defensively.
"You're so drunk," Steve said, frowning. Tony snorted and tried to sit up, making lackluster efforts to take off his shoes. Steve sighed and climbed out of bed, crossing over to the other side and knelt at his feet, removing Tony's shoes for him. Tony stared at him all the while, and then flopped back, his hand over his face. "Do you need anything?" Steve asked him. "Water? Advil?"
"I need... I need..." Tony seemed baffled. "Why are you wearing clothes?"
"You don't wear a t-shirt to bed. I've seen you! You don't! So why are you wearing that now?" Tony sounded insulted. Steve tugged at his t-shirt in confusion. What did Tony have against his t-shirt? It was Jurassic Park, and Bruce had given it to him for his birthday after Steve admitted to liking dinosaur movies the best. They couldn't find him any The Land Before Time shirts in his size, though that would have been swell too.
"I don't wear a t-shirt when I'm sleeping alone," Steve said. "I'm not sleeping alone right now." He finished his sentence and winced.
"I get it," Tony said sagely. "DMZ."
"Your chest," Tony nodded. "Your chest is like North Korea."
"Go to sleep, you freak," Steve said. He walked back over to his side of the bed, and then stopped because Tony continued to lie, unmoving, in a pool of skin, rumpled clothes, and alcohol breath. "I have to do everything for you, don't I?" Steve muttered, returning to rearrange Tony underneath the covers like he was a big Raggedy Andy doll. Tony made snuffling noises, pressing his face against Steve's shoulder.
"You're supposed to be happy when you get married, right?" Tony asked, and Steve froze.
"I don't know," he admitted.
"Don't know how to be married?" Tony said, voice muffled. "Or don't know how to be happy?"
"I'll be happy if you don't choke on your own vomit and die," Steve informed him, and Tony looked like he wanted to make some kind of witty objection to that, except he promptly passed out. Steve looked at him for a second, shook his head, and returned to his side of the bed. One night down, he thought, folding his arms over his chest. Who knew how many there were left to go.
In the morning, they found Aru in the kitchen, eating her breakfast out of a foil tube. She got up and made flustered gestures to leave, but Steve said, "No, stay, you're our guest," and Tony paused like he'd forgotten that it wasn't just his home anymore, and probably that in the mess on Becknazy he hadn't bothered to sign a prenup.
The lack of prenup was the least of Tony's worries — right now he was massively hungover, and Steve felt exactly zero pity for him.
Aru watched them warily. When they didn't proceed to bite her, she went back to eating her tube food. Then she got out her needle and injected herself with her daily nutrients. Steve watched her in morbid fascination. He'd gotten used to getting the daily injections on Becknazy, but it hadn't meant he'd liked it.
"Do you need sunscreen?" he asked, thinking of it suddenly. If Aru had never seen the sun until now, that could be a problem.
"Yes. Please," Aru said gratefully. "I wasn't sure how I would go about finding sunscreen without leaving the apartment. I — I might have gone through your bathroom cabinets. I am so, so sorry."
"No, uh, that's fine," Steve said.
"I couldn't help but notice your condoms—"
"Oookay," Steve said quickly. Maybe this was one of those infamous Earth-Becknazy cultural differences, because for all her blustering, Aru sure hadn't looked uncomfortable saying the word condom.
"We go through them pretty quickly around here," Tony said with a straight face.
"Pretty much every day," Tony continued.
Aru frowned. "A box every day?"
"Super Soldier strength," Tony said, and Steve was considering kicking a hole into the wall for the express purpose of climbing into it. Tony grinned through his hangover, because evil did not stop for pain. "You know, the first time, he was so sweet. So much performance anxiety, I had to hold his hand and kiss the tears from his manly face."
"That is not true," Steve said.
"What isn't true, sweetheart?" Tony asked innocently, and Steve accidentally on purpose swiveled around too fast while reaching for the faucet, hipchecking Tony off his stool. Tony fell to the floor with a squawk.
"I'm sorry, honey," Steve said, stepping over him. "Are you all right?"
"Abuse," Tony said, his eyebrows lifted towards the ceiling. "All I get around here is abuse." Which made Steve pause in horror, because what if Aru didn't grasp the concept of sarcasm and actually thought that Steve — that Steve was hitting Tony around or something? Steve had to take action. He leaned down and yanked Tony up to his feet in one move, and when that seemed a little too workmanlike, he kissed Tony on the cheek.
"Oh yeah, that's it," Tony said. "The flames of lust are burning."
Steve couldn't pretend anymore. "Shut up," he said, while Tony leaned against the counter, keeping the weight off his bruised hip.
"Light of my life," he said, dropping his voice, all sandpaper and tender smoke. Steve froze. If this was a contest, he had the sinking feeling he was losing.
Aru wasn't even paying attention to them anymore, having wandered away sometime after the hipcheck. Steve managed to work the coffee maker and pour him and Tony both some coffee. "Mmm, not rotting away in a jail cell," Tony said. "I'm strangely appreciative of it." He got up and stretched, arching his arms above his head in what looked like a yoga move — though Steve wasn't sure, because the only things he knew about yoga were from watching Bruce and Natasha, who were Saturday morning yoga buddies. Tony winced halfway through the stretch and hunched back down. Still hungover.
"Got a meeting this morning," he said. "But hey, not anymore. Abracadabra! Magic."
"If you're going to skip, you should at least tell Pepper." Steve had lost track of how many phone calls he'd gotten from Pepper in the past, asking if he knew where Tony was, because Tony was supposed to be at Insert Very Important Future of Western Civilization Conference instead.
"Pepper already knows. I drunk-dialled her last night." Tony groaned and dropped his forehead to his counter. "You look chipper. What are you up to today?"
"My books are due at the library," Steve said, ticking it off his fingers. "Then I promised Thor I would train with him. I might also get some knitting done — don't laugh, it's not a joke. Knitting is good training." What he didn't tell Tony was that he refused to be beaten by Stitch 'N Bitch. He was not going to be cowed by that stupid book.
Their cell phones rang simultaneously.
"Or we could answer Fury's call and go save the world," Tony said, reaching for his. "Goddamnit."
It was the most amazing thing, having super-villains marauding through the city. With all that had happened recently, this felt normal. This, Steve knew how to do. The Avengers had arrived, they had minimized the damage to human life and property, and now they were chasing after the scattered villains.
Running felt good. His leg muscles pumping, he felt fresh and awake in a way he hadn't since going to Becknazy. It was like a fog had lifted from his head, briefly. The villain he was chasing, who called himself Dr. Destruction, was jumping over fences and bike racks, tumbling past the obstacles in dazzling acrobatics, but Steve just followed him, shield in hand, never pausing for a beat.
They had left the rest of the Avengers behind. They reached Chinatown, and Dr. Destruction barrelled through stands of fruits and vegetables, through cucumbers and bok choy and boxes of dried lentils, leaping through the open window of a tai chi parlour. Steve followed him through, diving through the window and hitting the ground rolling, startling all the elderly Chinese tai chi practitioners. He couldn't see Dr. Destruction anywhere. "Which way?" he asked, and they all pointed down a hall to the left.
"Thanks!" Steve said. He started for the hall, which was lit by a single swinging lightbulb. There was an office at the end, and Steve burst through, only to see Dr. Destruction kneeling on the desk, wriggling through the window. Steve grabbed him by the leg. Dr. Destruction kicked at him, nearly breaking Steve's wrist — Steve quickly realized he had super strength too.
Dr. Destruction kicked free and shimmied out the other side of the window, into an alley. Steve hurried through the window after him, jamming his big shoulders through the small frame, and then they were off again, through the streets of Chinatown in mid-afternoon. There was ashy snow dangling like diamonds in the air, and whole ducks hanging behind windows with menus promising BBQ roasts, photos slathered in red sauce. Someone above an herbalist's shop had their window slightly ajar, and as he ran past, Steve could hear a TV tuned loudly to the sound of a wailing opera.
Dr. Destruction shimmied up a fire escape just as the soap opera crescendoed in music and tears. He hit the roof, and Steve chased him boldly, hauling himself up the fire escape until he was leaping from rooftop to rooftop, through the thinly falling snow, his fingers steady on his shield. He threw the shield at Dr. Destruction when he got a good angle, catching him in the back.
Dr. Destruction whirled around to see what had hit him, and this was the end of the chase and the beginning of the fight. At last. Steve caught up. Dr. Destruction put up his fists, swinging, and he might have been strong but he lacked finesse. He probably didn't even knit, Steve thought meanly, taking him out with a sweep of his shield, followed by a kick in the chest for good measure, knocking his breath out like spilling candy from a pinata. Dr. Destruction tried to get up, but Steve put his foot on his ribcage and pushed him back down into the December slush.
"Better not to struggle, son," he said. "You'll only hurt yourself."
"Fuck you, faggot," said Dr. Destruction. Steve saw no reason not to knock him out after that.
He carried the unconscious Dr. Destruction on his back, bringing him to the epicentre of the fight, where the other Avengers were catching up with the last of Dr. Destruction's crew. Steve arrived just in time to see Iron Man land on the ground, two unconscious villains dangling from his arms. "Oh look, a matched set," Tony said cheerfully, and he sounded like his hangover was starting to fade — a good fight could do that to you, get the adrenaline pumping. Steve arranged Dr. Destruction beside his colleagues, and then Thor was coming up to them.
"Captain!" he said. "I have not yet had the opportunity to congratulate you!"
"It was nothing exceptional," Steve said, smiling. "He gave me a chase, but that's about it, really."
"Yes, congratulations on catching the miscreant as well," Thor said. "But I was referring to your recent nuptials. While I am somewhat disappointed I could not do the honour of saving our dear friend Tony myself, I am glad that you were man enough to replace me." He held out his fist, and Steve gave him a reluctant fistbump — Thor had recently taken to the joys of fistbumping, which was, as he described it, a most martial method of greeting.
"I don't think Dr. Foster would have been very pleased if you married Tony," Steve said.
"Well, I'm upset," Tony said from behind his Iron Man faceplate. "I could have been Queen of Asgard one day if you weren't such a shameless hussy, Steve."
"The mighty heavens would not be able to stand against our union," Thor agreed, though to Steve, he sounded rather relieved. Clint and Natasha finished wrangling their bad guys and joined them. Steve tried to ignore the way Clint kept on smirking at him, as if Steve was doing some terribly obscene thing just by standing there with Tony. They weren't even touching, not that holding onto Iron Man's hand was any real titillation. Natasha looked thoughtful, but then she developed a private half-smile that was Steve's cue to take off and run to Tahiti, or as far away as he could get.
"It all happened so quickly, you didn't have any time to prepare, did you?" she said.
"What do you mean?" Steve asked warily.
"You didn't have a bachelor party," Clint interpreted. "You didn't actually get to enjoy your last night of freedom."
"Let's go watch male strippers," Natasha said. "My treat."
Steve couldn't look. It was just — Steve couldn't look.
Steve was officially surrounded by too much booty.
"You know, these are some really nice glasses," Steve said, keeping his eyes glued to the tumblers. "I wonder where they bought these."
"Yes, my good fellow, you may come and sit on my lap!" Thor said from beside him, and Steve wanted to die. If that couldn't be arranged, temporarily knocked unconscious wasn't a bad choice either. One of the strippers, grinning, sidled off the stage and perched on Thor's lap, gyrating against him in a gold g-string. Thor looked delighted. Thor's sexuality was so fluid, it could give the Atlantic Ocean a run for its money.
The club was called Exxxotica, which was three too many Xs for Steve's brain. The men here all looked like they had walked off the boardwalks of California, tanned and muscular with bright teeth that flashed feline with their smiles. They were confident and sensual and not afraid to drape themselves over Thor, Clint, and Natasha — leaving Steve alone, because Steve was giving off 'dear lord, I am so embarrassed' vibes that could have lit up the entire joint.
He was only too glad that Tony hadn't come along, mostly because you couldn't have a proper bachelor party with both, uh, bachelors present. If Tony were here, he would have probably been at the centre of it, schmoozing and flirting and sitting back to royally receive the attentions of all the interested strippers. Tony was charismatic that way. Filthy rich and incredibly good-looking didn't hurt either.
Were people supposed to be this naked out of the confines of their own homes? Steve supposed that if their houses burned down with all their clothing, there was a good excuse to wander around in public naked. But otherwise, he was drawing a blank. Male or female — it didn't matter. These weren't even the can-can dancers of Steve's past, who had at least attempted to leave their allures to the imagination. The small, flimsy scraps of fabric worn by the strippers seemed to magically max out the body temperatures of all the guests around them. With his super soldier senses, Steve could practically smell their arousal. Probably not what Erskine had meant for his powers, that.
Natasha had a dark-haired young man balanced on her lap, and she was stroking his tattooed back idly while she chatted with Clint. Then she turned around and met Steve's eyes. She said something quietly to the stripper on her lap, and he nodded before wandering away.
Natasha straightened and walked over, snagging the stool beside Steve. "You aren't having fun."
"This isn't really my kind of thing," Steve said.
"Well, slap me with an astonished fish," she said. "But the point of strippers is to do something wild and unexpected." She reached for his drink and knocked it back. "You get hitched to Stark, you might as well drive him crazy." It was a little hard to hear her over the music, but Steve managed to get the gist of what she was saying.
"How's that?" Steve asked, looking mournfully at his empty glass.
"He's at home right now, picturing you surrounded by nubile young men all trying to get into your pants — you're going to tell me he's not grinding his teeth over it?" Natasha said.
"I don't think Tony really cares," Steve said, because Natasha was getting the wrong impression about their shotgun wedding. "He's probably got a friend over. A lady friend." Someone beautiful and funny, who never complained about Tony leaving crumbs all over the bed.
"Want to bet?" she said. "Ten bucks says he's crying into his Cheerios."
"Tony hates Cheerios," he replied. "He thinks they're boring."
Natasha stared at him.
"What's your credit card security number?" she asked.
Steve stared back.
"What's my email address?"
"What's the name of Bruce's niece?" Natasha pressed. When Steve started to frown, she said, "And yet you remember that Tony Stark doesn't like Cheerios." She tugged at a strand of her hair, examining mysterious split ends before speaking again. "I question your taste in men."
"It's not like that," Steve said, while Natasha made a sound that meant either she had made a startling discovery about her hair, or she thought he was the biggest faker alive. It dawned on him that the other Avengers really did think that he and Tony were... doing whatever it is they weren't actually doing. "Oh yeah, that's exactly it," Steve said sarcastically. "Tony and me, we've been hiding our passion for each other all this time. Tony being accused of murder was just the most thrilling thing to ever happen. We couldn't contain ourselves."
"I need another drink," Natasha said, "to wipe those images out of my head." But she absently touched his shoulder on her way back to the bar — no hard feelings. Steve smiled back at her and then shook his head as three male strippers detached themselves from the crowd to follow her.
Steve let out his breath when she was gone. He scanned his surroundings. Everyone else seemed real busy, which made it a good time to slip out. So what if it was supposed to be his own bachelor party? He was a sham bachelor in a sham marriage. They'd all understand when they sobered up. He checked his pockets for his keys, shifting at how uncomfortable these tight jeans were — Natasha and Clint had made him put them on. He pulled on his leather jacket too, and then found a scrap of paper hanging out.
It had been folded over twice. He unfolded it curiously, wondering if it was a phone number, and if someone was trying to court him using these modern methods. The writing inside the note was spiky and messy, almost too jumbled to read. It was, however, definitely not a phone number. Steve had to guess at most of the words, giving him a set of coordinates, followed by:
I know about Unda. 14 December.
Steve instinctively whipped around, but it was no use. The note had probably been left hours ago; whoever had left it was long gone. He carefully folded it back into a square, thinking. One of the strippers, a lovely fellow with cornstalk yellow hair, winked at Steve when he left, but honestly, Steve barely noticed.
"You don't need to come," Steve insisted, but Tony gave him a look like he had just suggested they both try out for the New York City Ballet, and he shouldered past Steve out the door, smoothie in hand. Steve followed him, repeating his arguments for the fifth time. "It'll only attract attention if we're both together. The note was meant for me, not you. Seeing it might scare whoever it is off."
"The note was meant for you," Tony drawled, "but you're not the one who has to worry about how his perky young ass is going to be the new headliner at the Becknazy Imperial Penitentiary." He shook his drink in front of Steve's face. "Smoothie?"
"What? No," Steve said.
"You sound cross," Tony said. "Surely it can't be over my pert ass, which inspires joy and peace everywhere."
"Please, I'm not impressed," said Steve. He had never thought of himself as the sort of guy who had lurid conversations about men's bottoms in broad daylight, but then again, he had never thought of himself as the sort of person who would end up in Central Park in the middle of the night, with all his clothes missing, and helicopters sweeping the sky overhead (his birthday last year, courtesy of Tony, and also the fine men and women of the NYPD). Tony Stark, who didn't redefine his boundaries so much as blow them up like a stack of TNT.
Tony Stark: sauntering ahead of Steve to the car where Happy was waiting. Tony Stark: sliding in the backseat and giving Happy the address, while sucking out the last dregs of his drink, making obnoxious noises with the straw designed simply to annoy Steve.
Steve said, "I don't think you slept much last night. You came to bed at, what was it, four?"
"Work," Tony said.
"You don't have a job. Pepper runs S.I."
"And she's great at it. But her name isn't on the tower, is it?" Tony said. "I offered, but she said it was, I don't know... too ostentatious. My mind does not comprehend."
"You were going to have STARK tattooed on your back," Steve said. "I really don't think you're qualified to know what's in good taste or not." He looked up at the gaudy jutting shaft that was Stark Tower as they glided past its border onto the street. There were no buildings like that on Becknazy, where everything was muted and tasteful, utilitarian — and suddenly Steve was fiercely glad for it, for all of Tony's excess.
"You're smiling at me," Tony said. "Tell me whatever incredibly charming thing I just did, so I can do it again."
"Finish your drink," Steve ordered, but he was still smiling.
He stopped when they got to the coordinates in the message, raising a hand to push Tony back deeper into the car. "Hey!" Tony said, but Steve ignored him, because there was no way Tony was getting out at the same time — who knew who might be watching. They knew nothing about the situation, and it could be compromised, for all they knew. Steve could take that risk. Tony couldn't. Not for the first time, Steve wondered if they should have called the other Avengers for backup. It'd seemed like excess, and there was no way Thor could go anywhere discreetly, but now he touched the cell phone in his pocket, just in case. Tony had configured it. One button, and they'd all get the command.
Either Thor or Natasha would get there first. It was always a tossup between them. Bruce tended to straggle in last, on the days when he showed up at all — the Hulk wasn't always required, or to be honest, even wanted. They always wanted Bruce, sure, but they didn't need the Hulk to handle small disturbances. It was like pulling out warheads to take down a dime store shoplifter.
Steve didn't know whether the person who'd slipped him the note was a dime store shoplifter or an international terrorist. All he knew was that they had rendezvoused with him at a male strip club, which wasn't exactly a sterling reference, in the further interests of being honest.
Steve stepped out of the car. Tony was grumbling deep inside, but Steve had learned that Tony, who normally didn't even wait for Fury to turn his back before making rude gestures, actually listened to him. Tony, he suspected, had some lingering childhood hero worship for Captain America. Steve was totally not above exploiting that — who knew how long it'd last? There were only so many times Tony could run into Steve grasping a hairbrush, singing along to ABBA, before it'd all go to pieces.
The coordinates led to an abandoned deli up for lease. To its left was a barbershop and to its right was a tanning salon. Steve had made sure to direct Happy to the back alley entrance to avoid running into civilians. Two empty garbage cans waited as sentry, and the handle of the iron door was startlingly cold underneath his fingers. He could feel it even through his gloves, the icy bitterness of a long winter settling in.
He tested the handle. It was open.
"Tony," he said, loudly enough that even surveillance could pick it up. "You have a gun, right?"
"O beloved of my heart," Tony said, "I am overcome by your chivalrous concern, including your amnesia, like the part where you forget I once saved the world from a seriously Elizabethan drama-lama Loki. Go. Then get your ass back so we can have lunch. It might not be as rosy and as perky as mine, but I want it."
Steve felt the heat underneath his collar, which he pulled up around his ears. "Understood," he said, and went inside the deli. The remnant shapes of the former business — the empty fridges, the sticky floors, the countertops covered in dust, the spiderweb-cracked ceiling — reared out from the shadows like spine bones.
"Hello?" he called out. The shield had been too obvious to take with him on what was supposed to be a subtle mission, but he had two Sig-Sauer pistols with him — and he had himself, Super Soldier Serum and everything, his very blood a weapon against the masses.
He tried again. "I got your note. Anyone here?"
No answer. Steve pulled the note out from his pocket and checked it again, but he didn't need to — he had the darn thing memorized. This was definitely the right time and place.
He did a sweep of the old deli, including the back rooms, but if there was anyone here, he couldn't see the signs. No disturbance in the dust prints except for his own, Steve stepping into untouched territory, yellowed community posters pinned to walls advertising events two years out of date. He swallowed his own disappointment. These things happened all the time. Trails went cold, leads turned out to be false — and yet he thought of Tony out there, sitting in the car alone, and he very nearly swore.
"No luck?" Tony said when Steve returned to the car. His voice was so neutral that it was painful.
Steve shook his head. "Couldn't find anybody. Must've been a prank. Or they spooked."
"So there is someone in the world who'll stand Captain America up," Tony marveled. "Aside from Nazis, of course. Nazis, they're like fake people. They don't count."
"It's okay," Steve tried to coax. "We'll find another lead. You've got your computers and I've got my inner-city contacts. We'll find this person."
"This is fun. A giant game of Where's Waldo," Tony said. He turned his face away. "Hey, how do you feel about Ethiopian for lunch?"
In the early hours, right at dawn, Steve went jogging. The direction he picked was wherever he could find the light, and then he went straight for it, his feet on concrete, his breath making phantoms in the air. It helped, a bit, with the frustration. If only he could keep running, he thought, with just the perfect rhythm, maybe he could find out what he was running towards.
One lead. One potential clue about how they could get Tony acquitted, and instead Steve had just stood there, talking to sasquatches for all the good it did. Sometimes it felt like Captain America didn't make as much of a difference as he was supposed to, like loading one of Tony's gizmos with all the high-tech hardware and software out there, and then putting it in the garage beside the lawn mower.
He ran five miles out, and then five miles back, sweat gumming his hair to the nape of his neck. When he returned to Stark Tower, he realized he'd forgotten to take his key with him, so he had to go through the main entrance, up through the business floors, passing the janitors and the technicians and all the people who got up really early so that the bigshot execs didn't need to. Only by a small amount though — on the elevator riding up, he could see into the glass offices where the junior lawyers and managers were arriving, coffee in hand, folders in the other, ready to make money.
JARVIS let him into the penthouse, where Steve found Tony half-asleep on the couch, head buried into the crook of his arm. The TV was turned on to Cartoon Network, but Tony wasn't in any state of actual consciousness to watch it.
Steve shook Tony's shoulder gently. "Hey. Wake up. Your schedule says you got to fly to Detroit for a conference."
"Sorry, that's incentive how?" Tony mumbled. "G'way."
"You're sweaty," Tony said, blinking up at him. This lasted all of two seconds before he snapped his eyes shut again. "I like it," he mumbled. "Very alpha male. I think you should carry me back to bed, princess style."
"You're on the midnight train to delusional, is what you are," Steve said. "You've been spending so much time in the lab this past week." Ever since they went to the empty deli, he thought privately. "Have you shaved since then? Have you even showered?"
"I knew you only married me for my hygiene," Tony said, crawling as deep into the cushions as he could.
"You need to sleep more," Steve told him. "I don't know what you're doing in that lab in those late hours, but you need to sleep. And eat. And shave. It's your health." Steve breathed the last like it was a holy word, and maybe it was — it took the Super Soldier Serum and turning halfway invincible to make him realize just how fragile bodies really were. Tony's especially. Take him out of the Iron Man armour and he was just — skin and veins and the bruises underneath his eyes.
Tony lifted his head. He had a sixth sense about when Steve was feeling all verklempt. Steve braced himself for yet another argument, mostly about Why Pop Tarts Were Not An Acceptable Vitamin Group, but when Tony lowered his head again, it was onto Steve's shoulder. Or not so much 'lowered' as 'slumped forward in a state of dazed awareness, and Steve's shoulder happened to be the first thing in his way.' Head, meet nearest available object.
It was a warm head, though. Steve touched Tony's hair briefly, expecting to find some secret of rich men and fancy products, but it felt like normal hair, like everybody else's. Soft and a bit shiny from the lack of showers. Tony breathed against his shoulder: in, out, in, out.
Steve closed his eyes and felt something in his belly shift and wake, something with incisors, a growing set of teeth.
The media was bound to catch up with them sooner or later — Steve only wished that it was later, as in, by the time they elected a socialist president into the White House later. Christine Everhart, however, was even more forceful than presidential candidates, with a lot more charm too — she smiled, and Steve could see Tony perk up with interest.
Steve decided to look elsewhere. It wasn't that he cared, he thought, trying to explain his own discomfort. It was just that they had a role to play, and Tony wasn't convincing Aru and the Becknazians of their happily married state by staring at Christine Everhart's pantyhose.
She was here for Rolling Stone, and Tony had given her the exclusive first interview for the Tony Stark-Captain America matchup. That was the way they always put it too. Tony Stark and Captain America, because they knew Stark before they knew Iron Man, but they'd never known Steve Rogers.
They weren't going to, either. Not today. Today wasn't a day for Steve to spill all his darkest secrets. (There was no one Steve spilled all his secrets to, because he didn't take up SHIELD's standard offer to give their recruits regular therapy — but, oh, all right, there was Tony. Steve could confess things to Tony, because Tony never judged. Tony was like father confessor and psychiatrist rolled into one slightly boozy package).
Today was a day for Steve to smile and hold Tony's hand, sitting close to him on the couch. Tony smirked at him, looking amused. Steve narrowed his eyes at him when Christine bent to check her equipment and recording status. "Turn it on," he muttered, but not to her.
"Turn what on?" Tony muttered.
"You know. All that flirting you were doing the other day."
"You want me to flirt with you for Christine?" Tony asked.
"No," Steve said. "I want you to be in love with me."
Tony stared at him.
"Act it," Steve whispered patiently. "Like when you're in love with someone and it just shows through everything you do. You must've felt like that once before."
Tony blinked. That was the same moment Christine sat back up, indicating to them that she was ready to begin. Tony's blink was a long, languorous movement, lasting for entire lifetimes. Then he looked at Steve, and it was like the lights of the Las Vegas strip flickering on after a blackout, like crossing the Keyway and having that first glimpse of morning. Tony looked at him, and Steve remembered three things in particular: 1) the way Tony had grinned at him when waking up on his shoulder, 2) the architectural muscle of Tony's throat when he laughed at Steve's flat-lined jokes, and 3) that Tony was good at this, that he was a thousand times better at faking than Steve would ever be.
So this was what it was like, to be under the weight of Tony Stark's scrutiny. Steve had only ever known him as a roguish friend, a rapscallion buddy — but this was Tony Stark when he looked at you like you were more than someone he called up at three a.m when he had a craving for ramen and Halo. This was Tony Stark when he looked at you like he wanted you.
"Well," Christine Everhart began, glancing at the two of them. If irony were a natural resource, her voice would have been a million dollar mine. "I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that this came out of left field. Last time I saw you, Stark, you were still sleeping with anything with twenty-three chromosomes."
Steve squeezed down on Tony's hand, warning him not to react. Tony looked at him again with that intensity, and Steve was torn between wanting to say, Act like you're madly in love with me and Okay, you can stop looking at me with those bedroom eyes.
"I've always had a thing for Steve," Tony said, turning back to Christine. "Always. I just never said anything about it because have you seen this guy? He's perfect, right?"
"Absolutely not," Steve said.
"He is," Tony said. "I can sing his praises all day. Steve's brave and kind and a bit short-tempered, and he doesn't have a lot of patience with people he thinks are doing the wrong thing — and I think he's perfect. Even before the Serum. I think of what he must have been like when he was a kid, so scrawny and earnest, and yeah." Tony smiled a private smile, the corner of his mouth a secret only he knew. "If you have a chance to have that, if Steve's stupid enough to agree to bind himself to you, till death do you part, why wouldn't you? I'm supposed to be a genius, aren't I?"
Steve's voice had dried out. A storm had passed through — and now there was no water left.
"What about you?" Christine Everhart asked, fixing Steve with her reporter's stare. "That was a pretty eloquent speech from Stark. Why did you agree to bind yourself to him, till death do you part?"
Steve tried to think of the right answer, the one that was the furthest from the truth. Because aliens had made them do it. Because Tony was on trial for his life. Because not even the other Avengers, except maybe Bruce, seemed to be aware of the severity of the situation. They thought it was funny because Tony acted like it was funny — the world was a funny place, but that didn't mean much of anything.
"I married him because he's really great," Steve said. His smile felt off-kilter. "Tony's got a lot of good qualities. I really like him."
Tony's eyes went from vaguely amused to unreadable. Steve opened his mouth to say something else, anything else, but Christine was already scribbling into her notepad. The pen and the sword, Steve thought, and without thinking further, he absently rubbed at the dry spot between Tony's forefinger and middle finger, where he gripped his pens and his forks and his screwdrivers.
As always, it was Tony there to save the day, to put on that billion dollar smile, to flick the switch and turn it on. When he wanted to be, Tony was brilliant and privileged and handsome and funny — the most confident man in the world. "Ever been in love, Christine?" he asked.
"Not going to answer that," she replied without looking up from her notes.
"Find yourself the deepest well. Throw yourself down it," Tony said. "That's what it's like. Except no Lassie is going to come save you." He gazed down at where he was still holding Steve's hand, stopping to admire Steve's knucklebones. He rubbed one finger over Steve's thumb bone. Steve repressed a shiver that felt like it stretched through his entire body, a tiger-shiver. "Then get back up," he said. "Do it again. Every day. Congratulations — you're married."
Tony was brilliant and privileged and handsome and funny, and yet again Steve was trying to make him understand this concept called Your Body Needs Sleep To Survive, and Your Cells Need Fuel, Just Like A Car. Maybe if he kept using language and metaphors that Tony understood — but no, Tony was holed up in his lab one more night, and Steve was tired of waking up at unholy hours to have Tony slump into bed beside him, looking bruised and exhausted, drunk with whatever he was working on.
"What are you working on?" Steve demanded when he finally made a trip down to the lab. "I left you a bowl of soup by the door. Why didn't you eat it?"
"You left me a bowl of soup," Tony said with a pen between his teeth, so it came out more as "you mffph mmphf o soup." He removed the pen. "That's exactly it. You left a bowl of soup. On the ground. I'm not your dog, Cap."
"No, my dog would be able to eat properly," Steve muttered. He looked around the lab, at the mess of it, papers and gadgets and hardware towered on top of each other like pagodas. "What's that?" he asked, looking up at the floating screen, on which there was an incredibly complicated diagram that Steve probably needed two PhDs to understand.
"Ah," Tony said. He started smiling — he was always happy when people gave him a chance to brag. "That's me trying to figure out the primary Becknazian energy source."
"What?" Steve said. "The thing you were meeting with Unda over?"
"Yeah." Tony went up to the screen and his fingers started flying, hitting commands that brought up new data. This was a habit of his too — he always forgot that not everybody understood engineering like he did. "After the Destruction, Becknazy really doesn't have much in the way of natural resources, so they can't depend on fossil fuels like we do. When I first got there, I thought they used some kind of nuclear energy that was just better than ours — they were always talking about their clean energy, yadda yadda, their proudest scientific accomplishment in a hundred years. You know, propaganda shit."
"But they did have clean energy," Steve said. "I've talked about it with Aru. She said it's as environmentally friendly as you can get, which matters to them, because they don't have much of an environment left."
"You talk to Aru?" Tony said.
"I'm teaching her how to knit. Or she's teaching me. I can't tell. But she's nice," Steve said. "I'm not going to stop just because she gets on your nerves."
"She doesn't get on my nerves," Tony said. "I'm sure she's a nice girl, popularity queen, whatever. But she's their spy."
"The energy source," Steve prodded.
"Way to change the subject," Tony said, but given the choice of talking about Aru and talking about his brilliance, it wasn't much of a battle. "So you're right, the Becknazians do have this amazing energy source, even better than the arc reactor — and it uses antimatter." Tony paused for dramatic effect. Steve examined his nails.
"Oh, for fuck's sake," Tony said. "Big boom, very scary, very impressive. Those words you can understand?"
"You used to charm your mother like that?" Steve smiled. Then he looked at the diagrams again. "So you're trying to figure out how they use antimatter to power their cities?"
"ACR, Unda called it. He started telling me about it before he died. I'm trying to figure out the rest on my own. Antimatter chain reaction," Tony said. "Name sounds like polymerase chain reaction, except more likely to blow up the earth. If we do it wrong. Which we won't." He took a step back and framed the diagrams with his fingers. "Think of it. An energy revolution. No, better than that. A revolution in physics, in everything we knew about science. Like finding the Higgs boson, but better."
"That's amazing," Steve said, and Tony looked up at him through his eyelashes.
"I'm going to win myself a Nobel Prize," he said. "CERN scientists are going to do body shots off me at the afterparty."
"Oh come on!"
"You don't think I can do it?" Tony challenged.
"I think you can do it," Steve said. "But only if you don't collapse before you even get to the finish line." He walked over to the corner of the lab and picked up the lonely bowl. It was cold, but he went to the dirty old microwave in the corner to warm it up — though why Tony kept a microwave when he barely ate was beyond him. Tony accepted the warmed up bowl gingerly, eyeing it like a feral cat who had never seen Campbell's before.
"I expect you in bed by ten," Steve told him. "You have really nice sheets. They miss you."
"You mean you miss using me as a giant pillow," Tony accused.
"...no," said Steve.
"Your mouth says no but your softly cushioned head says yes," Tony said with a flash of his teeth and a laugh that came deep in his throat, full-bodied. Steve had always appreciated that, the way Tony never felt self-conscious about expressing himself. Tony had the limbs of an octopus, the personal grooming habits of a buffalo, and the laugh of a hyena on heroine.
"Come to bed," Steve said, and the words felt too soft, too intimate, but he said them anyway. "As a favour. Please."
When he left the lab, he could feel Tony staring at him.
The first meeting of the Stark Tower Knitting Club had happened without anyone knowing — and jeez, did Tony have to get his name into everything? It was completely unintentional, that, except that they were in Stark Tower and they had become some sort of knitting club, so Steve wasn't going to change the nickname now. Anyway, it was him and Aru mostly, and it had begun when they were standing around in the kitchen one morning, waiting for Tony to give him the antidote, and Steve had been reading Stitch 'n Bitch while trying to fry an omelette for Tony.
"What is a bitch?" Aru had asked him, reading the cover. "I have heard this word before on the television. I don't think there is a Becknazian equivalent."
Steve had nearly dropped the spatula and the book. "It's a way to refer to a female dog," he'd said.
"Yet there were no dogs present when the word was used," Aru said. She squinted at him suspiciously. "That book doesn't appear to be about dogs either."
"Um," Steve said. He was not going to be responsible for corrupting Becknazian youth, so he said, "Have you ever tried knitting?"
"Knitting," Aru had said thoughtfully. "We don't encourage quaint handicrafts in my culture. There are too many more important things. Um. I am not saying that you are frivolous, of course, I simply mean that—"
"—no, no, I didn't think you were trying to—"'
"—I hope I have not offended you in—"
"—Tony's kind of rude, but I don't want you to feel like—"
"—I do like scarves," Aru had finished weakly.
"Oh," Steve had said. "Good. I like scarves too."
"Scarves are nice," Steve offered.
"Yes, very much so," Aru had said, and then the only recourse had been to stand there in mortification or to sit down and make a scarf. Thankfully they chose the latter, and now they were both struggling with spools of yarn and knitting needles, with books and diagrams spread out on the coffee table between their knees. Steve had his cell phone within arm's reach, just in case the Avengers needed him, but it seemed as if the villains of New York had gotten a memo: Captain America trying to knit a scarf, do not disturb.
After another botched effort, Aru huffed out her cheeks. "I have passed the Academy tests with top honours. I have gone through the ritual shayut without a drop of water or a morsel of food. I have sat in a room with the Emperor and proved to him that my English was the best in the empire. Why is this so difficult? Are we secretly stupid people and everyone has been too kind to point it out to us?"
"I don't know about you," Steve said, "but my friends aren't that nice."
"You have nothing to worry about anyway," Aru said impatiently. "Va Stark thinks the world of you, including your intellect."
"Tony doesn't think I'm stupid," Steve said, or at least he hoped not, because he wasn't. "But there's no way he thinks I'm smart either. The only person Tony thinks is smart is Bruce, and maybe the fellow who invented the zipper."
"Oh!" Aru said. "I apologize. I was not aware your people were quite nearly so emotionally impaired. None of my training mentioned this."
She held up her half-untangled scarf. "We have gotten to the stitching part," she decided, "but when will we arrive at the bitching part?"
Steve checked his watch. "Thor said he'd come over in about fifteen minutes. Hold your horses till then."
"Short row heel, you shall not vanquish me today!" Thor said cheerfully when he walked in, right on time. He went over to Aru and shook her hand. She immediately blushed and Steve didn't need to be a genius to see that crush developing from miles away. "Captain," Thor said, turning to him. "I found this on your doorstep. It seems to be addressed to you."
He held out an unmarked envelope. Steve opened it and pulled out a piece of looseleaf, and he knew what it was the moment he caught glimpse of the familiar handwriting.
"Is it bad news?" Thor asked him. He had gone over to the unoccupied sofa and reached into a wicker basket to pick up his own project, a bulky red sweater with the words 'Jane' crookedly emblazoned over the chest.
"I don't know yet," Steve admitted, tucking the envelope inside a book. "I'll have to go and find out."
It was a warehouse on the outskirts of JFK, packed in with an assortment of shipping companies and private planes, crates and boxes stacked on carts at the door. Inside, there was even more boxes, each of them marked FRAGILE, with a red arrow indicating THIS SIDE UP. And a stool in the centre of the late-hour darkness, when everything was supposed to be locked: a stool with a walkie-talkie on it — crude, blocky, crackling with static.
"What a piece of junk," Tony said, sticking his hands in his pockets. He wandered over to the walkie-talkie. "Disembodied voice, check check."
The walkie-talkie crackled. "I hear you, Mr. Stark." Steve concentrated but couldn't place the voice, couldn't tell if it was male or female. It sounded almost computerized, actually, with the syllables too even and precise, though better than any computer system he had ever heard before, if it could make him guess.
"If this is an ambush," Tony called out, "you should probably know that Steve's got his unhappy face on, and you don't want to make Steve mad, or steal the remote control, when he's like that. Not to mention the ten or so guns we have between us. And one shield. Shouldn't underestimate the shield. My father made it."
"You hardly need to provide me with the provenance of all your weaponry," the voice over the walkie-talkies said. "I'm fully aware of your situation. And you don't need to be frightened. I'm here to help you."
"Are we frightened?" Tony asked conversationally. "Cap, would you say we're frightened?"
Steve bent down to the walkie-talkie. Never mind the tough talk. He just wanted to get what they came here for. "You said you know about Unda. What do you know? And why didn't you show up last time?"
"I am sorry about that," the voice replied swiftly. "Last time, there was a holdup. I wasn't able to come for fear of being discovered. They watch me, you know. I'm not free to move around. I can only do what I can. You have to be patient with me."
"It depends on what you know," Steve said.
"Fair enough. I know why Unda was killed," the voice said, and Steve could hear the catch in Tony's breath.
"Why?" Tony demanded.
"I can't say."
"The hell you can't," Tony said. "You brought us all the way out here and you can't say? Don't play games with us. In just one call, we can have a Hulk."
"Don't threaten me," the voice snapped back, but then it swerved and softened. "I can't say because they might be listening, recording me. My watchers and your enemies."
"They're not the same people?" Steve asked.
"No," said the voice. "But I have to be cautious. I have to give you the clues so you can find the answers yourself. Otherwise I could be in serious trouble for revealing classified information. This is what you have to know: your mission to Becknazy was not the first time Earth and Becknazy had contact."
Two things, Steve realized. This person had given them two clues about his or her identity: they had access to high-level government information, because there was no other way to bridge the travel between Becknazy and Earth without the cooperation and funding of at least one government agency — and that that meant this person was a high-ranking operative, either of Becknazy or Earth.
Steve suspected Becknazy — the person spoke with the same somewhat formal cadence and swelling beat that Aru did, though he rather doubted it was Aru as she had never struck him as particularly high-ranking. She was too young to have climbed the bureaucratic ladder, having been sent to them only for her enthusiasm for living in uncomfortable situations and for her excellent English. This person could be speaking through an electronic translator — that would explain the English.
When Steve looked at Tony, he saw that he was thinking the same thing. They could do this, the two of them — hit the same note, move at the same time. It was why they had been friends in the first place, why Steve had been able to look beyond his initial dislike and all the chutzpah and glamour that was Tony Stark to see just Tony. Tony, full stop, no last name needed at all, a comma rather than a period, endless possibility.
"Go on, tell us about this other contact," Tony said. "We're your captive audience."
"It was ten years ago," the voice on the other end said. "June 2002, the middle of the month by Earth timekeeping. Becknazy had been exploring interstellar exploration, hoping to make contacts with natural resources they could buy. The planet may use ACR for energy but there are many other resources that cannot be so easily produced, even with DNA breeding. There was a Becknazian group who, by accident almost, made it to Earth. They had not been aiming for Earth, but it was where they happened to land." The voice paused. "They never returned."
Steve craned his neck up and looked at the ceiling, thinking. There were spots like lichen, green and brown. If Steve still had allergies, like when he was young, they probably would have made his eyes water.
"They landed in Concord, Massachusetts, or thereabouts," the voice said. "That is all I can say. I have to go. I'm being summoned." The static grew rougher, choppy waves of it coming out of the walkie-talkie, and before Steve — or more likely, given their mechanical talents, Tony — could do anything, the static had dropped into silence.
Thirty seconds later, Tony was on his phone, summoning his private jet.
Christmas was coming. Funny how Steve hadn't even thought about it, when normally this time of the year could get him into a frenzy of gingerbread and freshly cut trees and spending a ridiculous amount of time in department stores trying to pick out the perfect gifts for all his friends. He'd never been much of a Christmas person before the time jump, but he'd come to appreciate the value of grand gestures, of which Christmas was the biggest of them all. Grand gestures let him say, Here I am, adapting to my new life, getting into the spirit. See? It was him doing something with the times rather than sitting around letting the times do him, like a wrecking ball constantly to the head.
The Christmas decorations were out in full force in Concord, Massachusetts, paper Santas decorating craft shop windows and coffee shops advertising eggnog and candy cane lattes on their menus. A church by an elementary school had on its billboard ACCEPT JESUS INTO YOUR HEART, while a taxi driver's radio had Rihanna singing I just don't feel like Christmas without you.
Taxi drivers, in Steve's opinion, knew everything, even in a small town like Concord. In New York City, taxi drivers were as part of the landscape as the giant fonts in Times Square ads — in Concord, they were muted, rare beasts that wandered occasionally into the traffic when summoned, but Steve called one up anyway, while Tony walked behind him on the sidewalk, speaking loudly into his phone. To Pepper, probably.
The driver Steve found introduced himself as Jerry Iqbal, and his good nature meant he didn't recoil completely at the barrage of questions Steve threw at him the moment he pulled up to the curb. He didn't make the sign of the devil or anything. He just got out of the car, lit his cigarette, confirmed that he'd been taxi-driving for ten years, that he'd been around in 2002. So they'd found someone on the first try — Steve wanted to believe that luck was on their side.
Steve explained to him that about ten years ago, there might have been a group of very strange, very obviously foreign people who had wandered into town. The public knew about aliens now, but they hadn't back then — Steve asked him to think back and remember if, in retrospect, there was anyone that summer who might have struck him as alien. It was a fairly vague prompt to go on, but if the Becknazians had never returned, then something must have gone down — and surely someone in the town would have noticed.
"Nope, sorry, nothing big happened that summer," Jerry said, blowing out cigarette smoke from his chapped lips. "But I remember who you mean. 2002, yeah. Warm weather. Weird group. Weird clothes. Weird jewelry. Didn't speak much English. Some other language. Never heard it before, not even on TV. Acted like they never seen money. I had to yell for them to pay me."
"Yes, that might be them!" Steve said, while behind him Tony had stopped phoning Pepper and was now talking to Rhodey, managing to insult his fashion sense, his taste in women, and his cooking all the while asking him for military favours.
"That's all I remember about them," Jerry shrugged. "I gave them a ride, and they left. To Rose Garden Inn, I think. That's where I dropped them off. They wanted a place to stay for the night, cheap."
"The Rose Garden Inn," Steve repeated.
"Old Mrs. Mulroney runs it. Say hi to her for me," Jerry said, stamping out his cigarette. He shook Steve's hand. "Whatever you're looking for, good luck."
Steve reached into his wallet to tip him, realized he didn't have enough cash on him, and waved Tony over. "What makes you think I carry cash?" Tony asked, and he wasn't joking about that either. He really didn't have any cash on him, just a ludicrous amount of credit cards. The next five minutes were spent rummaging through both their wallets for spare dollars they could give Jerry, who watched them all in growing amusement, finally accepting their pitiful offerings.
"Somehow," Steve said, "I'd always thought you carried cash. I'd thought you could spread it all over your bed and roll around naked in it."
"That's really kinky, Cap," Tony said. He sounded delighted, but at the same time he sounded tired in the way that Tony was always tired these days. There were the media interviews, the late nights working on ACR, and the trial, whose first date was coming up rapidly, biting on their heels. Tony didn't say much about any of them, but his body was betraying his stress.
Steve touched him on the shoulder. He meant it to be brief, but Tony leaned into him and the brief touch slid into a clumsy caress. Steve quickly pulled away.
"We should go to the inn," he said, and it seemed like Tony was making fun of him with his eyes, but he didn't want to stay and find out.
Mrs. Mulroney, as it turned out, kept detailed records of her guests, and Steve and Tony borrowed her logs, sitting in the delicate wicker chairs in the front room to go through them. It was Tony who found it first — July 17 2002, six guests total in the inn that night, and four of them had signed the guestbook, which was Mrs. Mulroney's pride and joy. When Steve looked at the guestbook entry for those dates, he knew immediately that they hadn't come here for nothing. Three of the names, scrawled like a kindergartener who had never seen the Latin alphabet before, were Thibu, Hanner, and Ucasta.
The fourth name was Lawrence Burroughs.
"I know that name," Tony said.
Lawrence Burroughs was a one-time investor in Stark Industries, Tony said. He used to work with Howard. Lawrence Burroughs had also been dead since 2009, but death never stopped Tony when he was onto something, and this was how, two days later, Tony presented Steve with a designer suit and a pair of silver cufflinks.
Presented was maybe too fancy a word. It was more like he threw them at Steve's head while Steve was in bed, trying to read Achieve Anything In Just One Year: Be Inspired Daily to Live Your Dreams and Accomplish Your Goals.
"If you were a bad guy, I would've taken that as a challenge of war," Steve said.
"Then it's a good thing I am your devastatingly handsome husband who's taking you out on the town tonight," Tony said.
"To a party?" Steve asked.
"I know it's such a foreign concept to you, so let me explain: party. A social situation where you talk to people and make friends who aren't Norse gods from other realms or scientists who become raging green killing machines if you insult their facial hair." Tony pressed a few buttons on the dresser and a hologram screen rose up, presenting him with the full selection of his wardrobe. Way too fancy, Steve decided, and rolled back around to read.
Tony was poking him with his knees in the next few minutes. "Get up," he said.
"No," Steve said stubbornly.
"I'm serious, Cap. You're staying in the penthouse all the time, and it's creeping me out. Aru thinks you're madly in love with her or something."
"That's not true," Steve said, horrified at the possibility. There was no way he wanted to let Aru think he was leading her on. But then again, she probably believed he and Tony were a pair of loving husbands. Steve didn't know which was worse: that Tony was accusing him of trying to court a mere slip of a girl, or that he was accusing him of acting like some wanton husband-cheating knave.
Tony started hooting when Steve told him. "You are such a headcase," he said. "You're lucky I don't tell the media that. Despoil their precious Captain America pure virgin holy princess dreams." He continued snickering as he fiddled with his tie. "But seriously. Get dressed. We're going to the Van Dynes' Christmas ball even if I have to haul you there naked and tied in chains. Sucks to be us, it's not that kind of party."
Steve looked sadly at the suit, which, even though he hadn't gone for any fittings, probably fitted him perfectly.
"High society," he said, in the same tone of voice he used for surprises in Bruce's cat litter.
"You got that right," Tony said, "but it's high society where Lawrence Burrough's widow is going to be there with her new boytoy." He looked into the hologram mirror and smoothed his jaw. "My facial hair is so much better than Bruce's."
"Dear lord," Steve said.
"Do it for me, baby doll," Tony said. "I'll feed you canapes by hand and whisper sweet nothings in your ear while paparazzi circle us like fat manatees."
Steve looked down at his book. Achieve anything, huh. He swung his legs out of bed and reached for the suit before he could change his mind. Lawrence Burroughs' widow, he reminded himself. Tony feeding — wait, no, why was he thinking about that? He had to stop.
"You're gorgeous," Tony said wonderingly when Steve came out of the bathroom, fully dressed, and Steve ducked his head.
"What does she look like?" he asked. "Mrs. Burroughs?"
There wasn't much to say about the party when they pulled up in the limo. Steve didn't much like parties. There were too many people, too many awkward conversations, too many opportunities to make a fool of himself on the dance floor. Maybe he was still thinking of them with the old Steve mindset, the Steve from before the Super Soldier Serum who was all gangly limbs — but Steve still thought of himself in that body, most of the time. He didn't like parties, because generally parties didn't like him.
Tony was by his side, looking completely in his element, sunglasses perched on his nose. He was already drinking whiskey on ice. Steve looked at him, and then at the glossy glamour of the Van Dyne Manor, lit up like a sun in the centre of orbiting planets, encircled by a procession of guest cars and press, cameras set up on the front lawn, going off every ten seconds to record whichever new celebrity had just tottered up the cobblestone walkway. The air looked like it was singing with stardust.
"You know," Tony said, looking out the tinted windows with him. "My first trial date's next week."
"I remember," Steve said simply.
"So you'll forgive me for this, won't you?" Tony asked. Before Steve could respond, he was pushing open the door and stepping out of the limo, dragging Steve with him. Steve felt himself pulled into Tony's centre of gravity, and then Tony's mouth was on him, kissing him. Right in the circle of cars and paparazzi, the cameras turned towards them now, flashing and flashing like so many big bangs. Tony's whiskey-sharp tongue nudging against his, Tony's hands on the lapels of his suit, Tony's smile against his mouth, and then the kiss sliding deeper, lewder, Tony's body pressed against him, too warm.
When Tony pulled away, he was smiling. Steve was struck dumb.
"Yeah," Tony said, and touched his mouth. His thumb stroked calligraphy over Steve's wet lips before sliding away.
"Mr. Stark!" someone from the press was shouting. "Captain! Give us a quote!"'
"Sorry!" Tony called back. He straightened his collar and ducked into the limo to knock back the last of his whiskey, smooth and easy, like he'd never — like he'd never grabbed Steve and tried to kiss the breath out of him. Steve didn't know what to say.
Tony grinned at all the watchers. "Party time," he said, lifting a hand, and it was like announcing the start of the Olympics, the way everyone reacted to that. He was their god-king, their emperor. There was never a party until Tony Stark said there was.
Buying a Christmas present for Tony was always one of the more difficult tasks Steve could think of. Honestly, he would rather fight through a horde of terrorists. But this year he had the Stark Tower Knitting Club, and Tony, whether he liked it or not, had a new scarf. It was crooked and ugly, but Steve rather liked the yarn he'd picked, feeling that the dark purple looked good against Tony's skin. He had the time, after all — Tony had charmed Lawrence Burroughs' widow into handing over her husband's address book, but even Tony's charm wasn't enough to make it materialize out of a scattered estate. She had misplaced it, and she'd give it to him when she found it. No more, no less.
So he had plenty of time to think about Tony's skin. Not that he did, much. Not that he had lain awake in bed the entire night after the Van Dyne Christmas party, staring at the ceiling, trying to summon all his powers of self-delusion to ignore Tony sprawled out beside him, half-naked and snoring.
It didn't help that on Christmas morning, they met up with Bruce, Natasha, and Clint — Thor would have come too, except he had Jane, and Jane wanted him to meet her family. With the Avengers sitting around the living room, Bruce and Natasha playing GTA IV, Tony reached under the tree and said, "Tada!", presenting Steve with a pair of silk pajamas.
"I noticed how you like the sheets," Tony said, and Clint started snickering at that, his fist full of chocolate-covered almonds.
"I just never had sheets like that back home," Steve said. It wasn't some sort of kinky lewd thing, all right, except for the part where Clint and Tony clearly seemed to think it was. Like Steve was worse than a wanton husband-cheating knave, that he was a hedonist.
(Was there a word to describe a man who kept on thinking about that one time his husband kissed him in front of a storm of cameras? Thinking about it over and over again, picking over it like meat on bones? Steve wasn't sure).
The day after Christmas, the snow was hard on the ground, glinting underneath the sunlight like a layer of chrome. The roads had been salted, and they could hear the snowblowers moving slowly in their wake. Steve got Tony out of bed at five a.m, and they didn't say anything between them. Aru drank three cups of chai and then sent a message through her transistor — the Keyway was to be opened today. Tomorrow was Tony's trial. They were going to Becknazy.
The city of Silence was a jeweled insect in the grim dark, metal wings stretching out in patterns of structures and frames, the sky-shield an inverted cup like a beetle's shell, closing in the dark, keeping it from escaping. It was a beautiful city — Steve thought it was so beautiful. It was strange and difficult and exquisitely logical, a grid city, a city built by minds with the precision of surgeons, a city to get lost in. A sunless city where minarets contained libraries with circular stairs, and academies deep underground built hadron colliders larger in steel-boned coliseums. On the moonless paths, there were women in stiff pleated skirts and necklaces with the teeth of long dead predators, and priests in lacquer masks moved among businessmen with pierced lips.
"I would be really impressed by this place," Tony said, echoing his thoughts, "if they weren't so eager to see me in jail. Though, to be fair: bloody murder, my convenient loss of memory... I'd probably convict myself, based on that."
"You have the best lawyers in the entire world representing you," Steve reminded him as they walked up the steps to the Candali Hotel, surrounded by no less than six armoured U.N. guards. "These people could probably negotiate world peace if they weren't so busy with you instead."
"Is that censure I hear?" Tony asked archly.
"No," Steve said. "I'm glad they're with you. I'm very glad." Tony looked up at him then, and his smile was different from the night of the party's. Quieter, older, maybe more real. Finding Tony sometimes was like excavating a very difficult site, and Steve was never quite sure whether he had gold or dust in his hands.
Becknazians were watching them. Steve put his arm around Tony and let it stay there, removing it only when they were inside their own rooms and Tony had pulled out his notes for ACR, sinking himself deep into his work. For once, Steve didn't object to his workaholic habits. If it kept Tony's mind off what was happening tomorrow, then Steve was happy to let him.
While Tony worked, Steve went around the hotel room, examining it from a defensive point of view, checking exits and safe points. When he was satisfied, he turned on the TV. There was some kind of teenage drama on where everybody was very emotional and lovesick. Just like Earth then, he thought.
He ordered room service and chose a chicken flavour plate for himself and a ghami plate for Tony. He wasn't sure what ghami was — very likely some animal they didn't have on Earth. Tony liked to be adventurous with his food, so he would appreciate it. But when it arrived on steaming hot plates, Tony just ate the DNA-replicated ghami with his eyes glued to his notes, and when Steve asked him how it was, he just grunted.
"Okay," Steve finally said, brightly. "Time to shower and sleep."
"Later," Tony said.
Steve walked over and pulled the notebook from Tony's hands. Tony tried to grab for it, but Steve was a lot faster. Tony narrowed his eyes, and for a moment Steve thought this was going to turn into their first real fight. He could see the edginess in Tony's face when he'd taken off his sunglasses.
Steve felt his heart break. He wrapped his fingers around Tony's wrist and gently pulled Tony up. "Sleep," he said, nudging Tony towards the bed. Tony opened his mouth to argue, but Steve didn't give him the chance. "Sleep," he said again, pushing Tony onto the mattress, where his knees hit the bed. "It's the only thing I'm going to ask you for. I married you to save you. I don't want anything in return except for this."
"Protecting your investment, huh," Tony said, but his hands flew up to his face to catch a yawn. He closed his bloodshot eyes, and Steve could see the instant when sleep hit him, like two cars colliding.
Courtroom D was a circular chamber, with mosaic trails imitating ivy clinging to the walls and the jury seated behind silken ropes, flanked by guards and priests. They all wore silver at their wrists, silver being the Becknazian element of purity, a clean young silver that was as precious as diamonds — they called it imperial silver, and no one was allowed to wear more than four pieces at a time, five being the province of the emperor and six being the right of the gods.
Steve barely noticed any of this. Not until later. When the trial began, and Tony's lawyers swooped in together in a murder of crows, all he could do was be glad that the court allowed spouses to sit together. He could sit beside Tony and watch him carefully, even if there was nothing he could do about the tightness in Tony's mouth when he pressed his lips together, listening to the testimony of the first guard who had found Unda's dead body.
"It was ugly," the palace guard said. "I'd never seen anything like it before. His body cut nearly in half. Bisected. There was blood everywhere."
"And do you think Va Stark would have had the strength or means for that sort of attack? If he was not wearing his Iron Man armour," Majumdar asked. She was Tony's lead lawyer, and earlier that day she had shown Steve pictures of her three children at Disneyland. Right now, though, she was as cold as glaciers, her heels raising her from four foot eleven to terrifying.
"I..." The guard hesitated. Steve felt a rush of hope in his belly. "I didn't see any weapon on Va Stark when we arrested him — but that means nothing. Va Stark left the scene of the crime. He went to Va Rogers' room first, and he could have hid any weapon along the way."
"For the record, no weapon was found in Va Rogers' room," Majumdar said, holding up the police file.
"It could have been hidden somewhere else," the guard said. "There are a lot of different ways. There is a whole section of time between the murder and the arrest — too long, if you ask me. It raises questions."
He was right about that. There were way too many questions, and frustratingly, Tony couldn't answer any of them. Steve curled his fingers into fists underneath the table when Tony took the stand, and Majumdar coaxed him through his testimony, which Tony delivered in the same tone of voice that he used to read stock market updates.
"Unda called me for a late night meeting. He said he wanted to talk about something we'd been discussing earlier, about a Earth-Becknazy clean energy air initiative. I thought hey, it sounds like he might be willing to share some of the secrets of antimatter chain reaction, so I said yes. I wouldn't get out of bed for anything else." Tony paused. "Well, unless you were Naomi Campbell."
Majumdar cleared her throat. Tony shrugged. "We walked around the gardens at the back of the palace. Unda seemed happy. I mean, we were both talking about our people's cutting edge science, so why wouldn't he be? I was telling him about arc reactors and he was hinting at the processes of ACR, and we were just geeking out, being lab buddies."
Tony glanced up at the ceiling. There was nothing to see there, so he looked back down, his eyes staring out into the crowd. Steve tried to catch them for reassurance, but Tony looked straight through him. "Then we reached the little grove with the snake-woman statue. Unda sat down on the bench. I went to join him, but then it was like... my mind fogged over. You know how many times I've been possessed by A.I. and restless spirits since becoming an Avenger?"
"No," said Majumdar.
"Three times," Tony said succinctly. "It sucks. But this didn't feel like any of them. It just felt like falling asleep. There might have been a smell. Kind of like... candy? I don't remember clearly. When I woke up, Unda was dead, and his blood was all over me. I was still disoriented from whatever put me to sleep. I didn't think straight — yeah, I know, even Tony Stark messes up sometimes, what a shocker."
Steve had no idea how long the testimonies lasted. He felt like he should, since he was constantly checking his watch — but it felt like its own type of amnesia, like every time he glanced at the time, he wasn't really looking. He was just going through the motions, and when the testimonies for the day finally finished, he got up and led Tony out of the courtroom.
In the hotel room, Tony was jittery and restless. He took off his tie, he kicked off his shoes, and then he turned on the TV, cranking up the volume. A Becknazian science documentary drowned out the sound of their breathing, until Steve walked over and turned it back down. He took the remote control out of Tony's hands, and for the first time in the four years they had known each other, Tony didn't act like stealing the remote meant Steve had done the equivalent of despoiling his eldest daughter.
God, Tony looked tired. And stressed, and pissed, and a huge number of things that Steve hated to see on him. I can fix this, Steve wanted to say, except that was a lie — and Steve wanted to be the biggest liar in the world right now, he wanted to tell all sorts of false stories if only Tony would lose that hardened glint in his eye, like he was thinking of taking matters into his own hands. And Steve was tempted to let him, because they were Avengers, weren't they? But Tony wore destruction like a second skin. It breathed through his pores, and it squeezed down on his heart.
Tony turned those eyes on him, a challenge.
Steve breathed out.
Then Tony walked the five steps between them, never taking his eyes off Steve. He breached the space and lifted his hand, touching Steve's jaw. Tony smiled not a particularly nice smile, daring Steve to stop him. Except — Steve wasn't a coward. When Tony curled his fist around the back of Steve's neck, gripping him by the hair, Steve let him. Tony leaned in, hot breath smelling like all the coffee he had drank during the trial.
"We don't have to do this," he said, but he was laughing — laughing at Steve, because he knew, could probably tell by Steve's face, that there was no way Steve was going to tell him to stop.
Steve was embarrassed by the openness of his own desire. When had it crept up on him? When had it ambushed him, the way he wanted Tony, all that skin and stubble and that fierce, teasing, moody spirit? He didn't even know. Having Tony see it on him was — it was handing him a power that Steve couldn't ever take back, because even when they were fifty and divorced, after this whole thing was over, Tony could look up from the beach where he'd be vacationing with his nubile sixth wife, and he'd be able to say, Remember that time I kissed you, and you just opened up for it, no questions asked?
Steve wasn't sure he could bear that, to ever see the amusement in that memory.
Stop thinking, he ordered his brain. This used to be his problem, in the early days of waking up in the ice: he over-thought everything and worked himself up into states of depression. He should take a page from a Howling Commando's book. Be carefree and reckless. Live in the moment.
Stop thinking and just always remember this, the scrape of Tony's stubble against his chin, the slick wetness of his tongue as it twisted against Steve's, kissing him in a dirty, messy way, all manner of saliva, Tony smiling his kamikaze smile.
Tony was pushing him back on the bed, laying Steve right out, undoing the buttons of his dress pants. Steve moaned, biting down on his fist, overwhelmed at the sight of Tony's fingers against his boxers — but it was nothing compared to when Tony peeled him out of his underwear and pressed that devastating mouth on the tip of Steve's leaking cock.
It was happening so fast. Steve wanted never to stop. Tony examining Steve's cock with avid scientific curiosity, followed by Tony lowering his mouth entirely, taking Steve in, hollowing his cheeks. Steve tried not to move his hips to make it easier on Tony, but Tony growled a frustrated sound suggesting Steve was being the stupidest man in two galaxies. He ran a hand under Steve's balls, fingering him meaningfully, and that was when Steve forgot how to be polite. Goodbye manners.
He pushed his hips upwards, thrusting inside of Tony's warm mouth, and when he felt Tony's moan, he did it again. And again. Steve's head was a pressure cooker — he was hot and sweat-slick and feverish. It felt like a fantasy. In a hotel room on a planet far from home, they could do anything, be anyone.
Tony seemed determined to drag all sorts of noises out of him, and in return Steve tried to push them down, not to make a fool of himself in bed. He panted hard, clenching his thighs together around Tony's head when the pleasure built to too high a pitch — and he was coming, too soon. A smear of semen on Tony's cheek when he pulled away, obscene and lewd, and Steve kept his eyes open the entire time just to see it.
Tony crawled up him, and Steve reached over, pulling him in for a tentative kiss. He could taste himself on Tony's hot tongue, and a visceral excitement fluttered deep in his belly. He lowered his hand to Tony's hip, and then he was grasping Tony's cock between his fingers, stroking it lengthwise.
"Let me," he said, and Tony gave an eager nod: once, twice, three times before Steve kissed him again, and no one was talking much after that.
If the world knew what Tony Stark's real superpower was, it would have probably locked him up long ago.
If all the good mothers and fathers of Earth knew that Tony had the ability to turn anybody who slept with him into a raging nymphomaniac with loose morals and poor character, they probably would have banned Tony like a drug. Would have run presidential platforms on the basis of making sure Tony Stark was never able to roam the streets, infecting the poor, chaste children of America, turning them into panting floozies.
Well. It felt like that anyway. Because it wasn't just on Becknazy. When they got back to Earth, they had two weeks until the next trial date. Steve let Tony blow him in the garage against a blood-red Jaguar, and then again upstairs on their bed, Steve writhing around on the silk sheets. It was as if once Steve had said yes to the first time, he was saying yes to all the other times, because Tony showed no hesitance in jumping him whenever he felt like it — and damn it, Steve felt no desire to tell him to stop.
He'd lost his mind. That must be the reason. Being married to Tony was dangerous enough. He didn't need Tony sprawled out in bed with him, leisurely exploring Steve's body while telling him exactly what he planned to do to him, and in how many varied positions.
Steve's cheeks burned at the memory. Damn it.
It was probably because he was so undersexed. He'd gone out with a few girls since arriving in the twenty-first century, and there'd been a few... probably indecorous things that had happened on those dates, mostly because modern girls were so brash and Steve wasn't a stone. But it'd only been a few times, and not for over a year. Steve had gotten used to his own hand, so of course when Tony came to him, he'd react like that. Tony felt like it, Tony wanted it, and who in this world had ever been able to tell Tony no when he turned all that charm and focus on you?
"I want some of what you're having," Aru said when they met up for knitting.
"What?" Steve squinted.
"Whatever nutrients you must have added to your diet," she said, her needles clackling. She was improving at a much faster pace than Steve was. "Your skin, it's glowing."
"Moisturizer," Steve said, straight-faced.
"Oh," Aru said. "You will have to give me the name so I can buy some. The stores in New York are a lot of fun. Better than the stores in Silence by far. I just wish I had a friend to come shopping with me." She glanced at him. "Would you like to, Va Rogers?"
"I'd be happy to," Steve said, picking up his own half-knit sweater. Anything to distract Aru from the dirty going-ons under her own nose. Why he felt like he had to hide it from her was a mystery, since weren't, uh, conjugal relations, something she was supposed to be aware of? Part of being a loving couple and all that. But Steve never pretended that his feelings made much sense. He had read that in Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behaviour, his latest library book.
"I could ask Va Thor to join us!" Aru said. "He and Jane promised to take me to museums. I went by myself when I first arrived, of course, to soak in Earth cultures as much as I could. But it would be better with Thor and Jane to explain references to me."
Steve tried to imagine Thor educating Aru on human cultures, and his head hurt. "Well, you'll have Jane," he said instead. "I didn't know you were getting so close to them." He felt bad about that. Aru lived under their room and yet when she wasn't around, both he and Tony tended to just... forget about her.
"It's all right," she said, answering his unspoken question. "I know you and Va Stark must have a lot on your minds. Va Thor and Va Jane are very kind to me when they don't have to be. I know what your friends must think of my being here. I am a Becknazian. I am here to help throw Tony in jail." She smiled ruefully. "Sorry."
"I know it's not your fault," Steve said. "You're just the messenger."
"Well, yes," Aru said. "But I understand your friends' reluctance to talk to me when they come by. It might seem like some of them do not care about what is currently happening to Tony, or dismiss it as a small problem, but they do care. Or they would not be so cold to me. In an upside down way, it makes me feel happy when they act like that. I like Va Stark. He deserves friends."
Steve thought of how he'd felt like none of the other Avengers were taking Tony's situation seriously. "You know everything, huh?"
"I'm a Becknazian," Aru said. "Not that it means I know everything! Uh. That was not my intention. But we Becknazians are very much a cause-and-effect people. We like to think about why things happen, including our own actions and feelings. We are a civilization of underemployed psychologists," she added with a crooked smile.
Steve grinned. "That what you want to be? A psychologist?"
"I have no formal training in psychology," she said, completing another row with her needles. "I am an antimatter engineer."
"What? For real?"
"Why do you look so surprised?" she asked, excessively sly for a girl knitting a bright green octopus scarf.
"You're so young," Steve said. "You look like you're barely out of high school."
"I am," Aru said. "Or equivalent to that in human years. But I graduated from the Natawen Academy in the city of Virtue — and you have no idea what the Natawen Academy is, of course." She looked delighted. "It's refreshing, it really is. That name has so much baggage in Becknazy, I get sick of it. Everybody always acts differently when they find out I went to Natawen."
"What is it?" Steve asked.
"It is a boarding school for gifted children," Aru said without self-importance, stating it as plainly as the weather forecast. "Children are selected for enrollment from a very young age, after mandatory testing, and then we have the best education the empire can offer. Which means we eat a lot of tasteless cafeteria food and read a lot of dense books, and we all think we are better than each other so we start fires in the gym and have love affairs that last until fifth period. But it's true, a Natawen graduate has all the doors open to her. While at school, I studied antimatter manipulation. I wanted to be just like my mother. She worked for Va Unda's company, did I ever tell you?"
"No," Steve said, growing thoughtful. "You never did."
"Now I have," Aru said. "She was his right hand, his chief engineer." Her face went careful, immobile. She seemed to choose her next words with caution. "People used to say that I looked like him. Unda. That she was his mistress and I was their child born out of adultery. I don't care if it is true. Gossips can never ruin my mother for me. She was amazing. So smart. She used to read to me from her engineering manuals every night before I went to sleep. Oh, that sounds incredibly boring, doesn't it? But I loved it."
Steve thought of his own mother, about the smell of cigarettes in her hair and the lopsided curve of her smile. Once she had saved up money to buy a new dress, her first new dress in five years, but instead she used the money to buy Steve new pencils for art class. She must have been — he must have broken her heart when he went under the ice.
"My mother is dead," Aru said suddenly, a confession. "My father, when he got remarried, donated all of her manuals to the university. I was so — I was so angry."
"My mother is too," Steve replied, and it was a camaraderie, sort of.
Finally, Lawrence Burroughs' widow found his address book. It'd been in a crate of seemingly useless papers, she explained. She had her chauffeur drive over and deliver a battered black thing with fraying edges and grease stains from being caught in the torrid love affair that had been Burroughs and a bucket of chicken wings. Tony flipped past all the stains and separated Burroughs' contacts into five groups, one for each Avenger to investigate. Except for Tony and Steve, who would go together — there was no way in a cold July that Steve was going to let Tony track people who had tried to frame him by himself.
They were tackling the third name on their list, a Mark Trento who lived in Chelsea. "Knock knock knock," Tony said when they were standing on the doorstep to Trento's brownstone. "Your friendly neighbourhood salesmen. Would you like to buy an accusation from us? Slightly used but in tip top condition. Comes with a free trial of my repulsor beams in your eyes."
"Why are you here?" Tony asked.
"Be nice," Steve said. "She's here because I asked. She might know about why someone would want Unda dead. Her mother used to work for Unda." He and Aru exchanged glances.
"Who says it's anything about Unda at all?" Tony said. "I'm starting to wonder. Maybe it's all about framing me."
"Not everything in the world is about you," Steve said fondly. "Besides, you heard our contact over the walkie talkies. They said they knew information about Unda, so this will probably be about him and some point. Both him and you."
"Look at him, the voice of reason," Tony said to Aru.
"I am looking," she replied, "but when would you like me to stop?"
"You know, I have no idea," Tony said. "When it comes to looking at Steve, I think we could make a professional sport out of it. What do you say?" He smirked at Steve's expression, and then leaned forward to snag his fingers into Steve's jean loopholes. "Come on. Let's get this over with. Mark Trento, meet your makers."
As they walked up the steps to Trento's brownstone flat, Steve's phone rang. "It's me," Natasha said when he picked up. "I'm at the fourth contact on my list right now. Susan Metzinger. She's not being cooperative, but she definitely knows something. I'll press it further."
"Okay," Steve said. "Be careful."
"Same to you," Natasha said, hanging up.
"What was that?" Tony asked.
"Natasha might have found someone," Steve said.
"She should bring them over for dinner," Tony remarked.
"And subject them to you?" Steve said, but Tony smiled. Steve's breath skipped. He almost never saw Tony smile like that, small and affectionate — it was the smile he used for photos of his parents, or for scraggly stray cats that sometimes wandered through the alleys behind Stark Tower until they mysteriously ended up in JARVIS' care. There were two Tonys, really: the man who could shamelessly suck Steve's cock until Steve begged for it, and the man who could smile like that.
"Trento," Aru said slowly, breaking the moment. "Now that I am thinking of it, the name does sound familiar. I could be wrong, of course. There were always so many names buzzing around my mother and her work with Unda. But I remember Trento, I think."
Tony looked at her. "That's funny. I thought the first Earth-Becknazy contact was supposed to be hush hush."
"Oh! Um, it was," Aru said. "But my mother — she probably knew about it. She might have mentioned it to me."
"Really," Tony said. At the top of the stairs, he leaned in close to Steve again and murmured in his ear, his breath a warm puff that made Steve shiver. "You really trust her, Cap?"
"I do," Steve said. Tony wouldn't understand that. Tony was Mr. Logic, Mr. Science, Mr. Industry. He wouldn't quite understand that sometimes none of that mattered. Sometimes you just had a gut feeling, an instinct. Steve had learned to trust his instincts as a soldier, and Steve knew that he was a good judge of character — both Peggy and Bucky always used to say so. Bucky used to use Steve to vet his dates, not that he always listened to Steve's suggestions.
Aru was looking fidgety and uncomfortable. She hadn't followed them up the stairs but was standing on the sidewalk, trying to ignore the stares passers-by were throwing them. For once, it wasn't Tony or Steve drawing the attention. It was Aru with her slightly alien features and her long Amish skirt, like she had stepped off a wagon from Montana.
Steve found the building listing and pressed the buzzer beside Trento's flat number.
"Wait," Aru said suddenly.
—there was a buzzing sound that quickly turned into a high-pitched hissing sound, a tea kettle sound, except it couldn't be that. Steve knew exactly what it really was, realized it with a jerk of his muscles. Tony, he thought, but Tony had realized it too. They both moved in tandem, Steve grabbing Tony by the waist and throwing them down the stairs together
—landing with a sharp crunch, a painful bruise, just as the bomb went off at the door, sparking bright light and smoke
—"Tony," Steve said again, covering Tony with his torso, protecting his vital organs. His hearing was shot to pieces, the world turned hazy and muted. He looked up quickly to make sure Aru was all right. When he saw that she was, he looked back down. He was holding Tony with one of his arms, and he could see the dust flecking his hair, all the stone and mortar falling around them, and then Tony's groan reverberating through his entire body
—"Asshole," Tony said, "I think you broke my cell phone."
In the elevator up to Tony's penthouse, Tony said, "Hard to believe there was once a time when people didn't try to kill me on a regular basis. My doctor advised me against being an Avenger, I should tell you. She was all increased blood pressure, strain to the heart, elevated chances of horrible murder."
"When have you ever listened to your doctor?" Steve snorted, trying to contain the desire within him to touch the knobs of Tony's spine, making sure he was okay. It'd been a hard day, and the bomb rigged in Mark Trento's buzzer had not been a good way to end it. They'd called the other Avengers, and all together they had stormed the flat, but if Trento had been there, he was long gone. The bomb had been remote controlled.
The numbers above the elevator door flashed in sequence: fifth floor, sixth floor.
There was a battle energy lingering in Steve's body. He could see it in Tony too. The elevator was small, Tony's personal transport from the garage to his penthouse, and they were standing way too close. There was at least a foot of what could be considered comfortable space, but Tony had never been interested in making Steve comfortable — he wasn't going to start now. Steve swallowed, feeling sweat trickle down the nape of his neck. He examined the bruises on his knuckles from the fall down Trento's stairs, and then looked up to see the bruise on Tony's cheek from where Steve had thrown him down.
Tony's mouth quirked. "Hey."
"Hey," Steve said. He paused. "So you're going to think I'm a tramp."
"What?" Tony said, astonished. Then his face settled into glee. "Really? Why? Because I'm okay with that."
"Are you?" Steve said. He erased the last remaining distance between them, his hand coming to rest on the curve of Tony's ass.
"I shouldn't be. Molesting innocent national symbols in public spaces?" Tony was grinning. "I think I could be arrested for that. Somewhere. Again."
"This is your private elevator," Steve pointed out, but it wasn't entirely. It was also the elevator the other Avengers used when they came up to visit, and Pepper, and anyone who wanted to reach Tony's domestic space without having to go through the main corporate bulk of Stark Tower. He suddenly couldn't remember if Bruce was coming over for dinner or not — maybe Bruce was downstairs, pressing the up button, waiting patiently.
They were on the eleventh floor now, but Tony reached over casually and pressed the emergency button. The elevator jerked to a halt, making Steve lose his balance slightly with the unexpected motion. Tony caught him. "JARVIS," he said. "Make sure no one interrupts us."
"Yes, sir," JARVIS responded, and Steve didn't bother to wait a second longer before unbuttoning Tony's shirt, placing a kiss on Tony's left pectoral, then his right, and following it up with a long, slow lick up Tony's stomach. Tony shuddered and touched Steve's hair lightly. Steve leaned into it.
Then Tony was wrapping his fingers through Steve's hair, tugging him insistently. Tony wanted him to be rough — Steve wasn't sure about that, but the sounds Tony made sometimes when Steve let himself go, they were the most bone-melting things he had ever heard. He let Tony tug at his hair while Steve kissed him with tongue, and Tony made a gasping sound and rubbed against him, hips pushing.
They kissed like that for a long time, the elevator quiet and still around them, hanging in the shaft like a bird. Steve's skin went hot and flushed when Tony started stripping, stopping every few moments to kiss him again, kiss him like it would be death to stop — and it very well might have been. Steve had never kissed anyone like this before. Not in a stalled elevator, true, but also never quite so wantonly, kissing with spit and teeth and luxurious, dirty mess, teasing each other with what their mouths could do.
This is just the prelude, Tony's tongue was saying.
I think I can take you on, Steve's replied.
Tony wriggled out of his pants and unbuttoned his thousand dollar shirt, letting it hang loosely from his shoulders. "Come on," he said. "Come on. Been thinking about this. I want you to fuck me."
Steve's brain went a little funny at that. His hands, with a will of their own, went around Tony's hips and squeezed.
Tony groaned. "Yeah, like that. Get with the program. We should have been doing this ages ago."
Steve kissed Tony's neck, the line of his jaw. He reached a hand down to Tony's boxers, peeling them down and wrapping his fingers around Tony's cock. He rubbed it twice, and Tony moaned with obscene happiness, wrapping an arm around Steve and pushing them both back against the elevator wall. "Back pocket," Tony panted, which confused Steve for a moment because pockets, what pockets?
Oh right. The pants on the floor. Steve was reluctant to let go of Tony for any reason, but he managed it somehow, reaching down to fumble through Tony's discarded pants, pulling out a condom and a small bottle of—
"You carry it with you?" he asked in disbelief.
Tony grinned. "Occupational hazard of being married to Steve Rogers."
"You're a Grade A pervert," Steve accused, but he kissed Tony anyway. Tony responded by taking off Steve's pants, helping Steve kick them off to the side. Then Tony was climbing up Steve's body, hooking one leg around Steve's waist, arching an eyebrow at him, like can you take this? Which of course Steve could. He'd carried sandbags and military equipment that weighed twice as much as Tony.
Steve wasn't 100% sure how to do this, but he'd always been a quick learner. He had, all right, he had read books. The NYPL librarians probably looked at his account and goggled, and for once Steve thought, Good. Because there was no way he was ever going to regret this, holding Tony up against a wall, listening to the stuttered sound of his breathing as he waited for Steve to fuck him.
Steve put on the condom with fingers that — well, he refused to admit that they were trembling, so there. It took him two tries to slick his fingers properly with lube, but Tony was exceptionally gracious, positioning himself so that Steve's fingers went right in. It was warm, Steve thought, dizzy. So warm inside. And Tony bit down on his lip, brow furrowing with an expression of deep concentration as he sank down to take more of Steve's fingers in him.
He worked Tony open like doing reconnaissance in an unknown mission, forcing himself to be patient. Tony was the opposite of patience. Tony was — eager and demanding and making noises in Steve's ear that sounded like "just do it", but Steve wasn't going to hurt Tony, ever. He took his time about it, pouring more lube over his fingers, slicking Tony until he was wet and open, shuddering over and over again.
"All right," Steve whispered in his ear, pressing their flushed cheeks together. "I'm going in."
"Fuck," Tony said as Steve breached him. His eyes squeezed shut.
Steve pulled out slightly, and then pushed back in, trying to establish a tempo. It was hard, when Tony kept distracting him — the brush of his fingers, the sweet line of his mouth, when he opened his eyes and looked straight at Steve in wonder. Steve could barely focus on what he was supposed to be doing, happy to just stay inside Tony and breathe. Until Tony squeezed down on him meaningfully and then, oh yes. Fucking.
Fucking slow and languorous against the elevator wall, Tony murmuring in his ear, driving him on. Fucking deep and hard, supporting Tony's weight on his thighs. Fucking until sweat was dripping into his eyes and Tony was moaning nonstop. Fucking until JARVIS said, "Mr. Banner is waiting for the elevator on the first floor," and Tony said, "He can take the stairs. Good exercise."
Speaking of: Steve's thighs started trembling, strange when he was so much stronger than this, but there was a burn, and it was a good burn, a workout burn. It felt amazing, Tony slick and furnace hot around him, Tony grasping his shoulders, digging his nails inside. He was making bloody marks against Steve's skin, and then he turned his head and found his mouth, kissing him while Steve thrust harder, deeper — and Tony groaned louder than ever, coming the same way he did everything else: extravagantly, for the entire world to see.
Steve fucked him through the aftershocks, breathing hard against Tony's neck. And then he was pushing into Tony's ass without grace, without rhythm, just desperate for it — hitting orgasm like smashing into a brick wall, with his lips bitten raw and Tony watching him like he owned him, those eyes, Tony's eyes, all that Steve could see.
Steve paused in stepping back into his pants. "Holy cow," he said. "Bruce," and Tony started laughing.
The second day of the trial crept up on them in a matter of weeks, and Steve wondered if there was such a thing as interstellar jet lag, because if there was, he was definitely feeling it, traveling between Earth and Becknazy on such a staggered schedule. During a trial recess, he left Tony with his lawyers to use the washroom.
He was washing his hands, thinking about how they were trying to track down Mark Trento, when he noticed the mark on his neck. Steve immediately slapped his hand over it in alarm. They'd been running late to Becknazy, so he hadn't spent as much time in front of a mirror as he should have. Why hadn't Tony mentioned it? No wait, stupid question. Of course Tony would get his kicks from seeing it.
But why hadn't Fury or Bruce or anyone from the U.N. delegation mentioned it? Sometimes Steve had the feeling the entire world was playing a very elaborate practical joke on him.
There were footsteps behind him, and he tensed in alertness, but it turned out just to be a young Becknazian male with skinny leggings, a violet scarf, and a lip ring. He was holding out a pale silver tube.
"Hello?" Steve said, checking his electronic translator.
"Concealer," the boy said. "The gods' gift to hot and passionate romance. Want me to show you how to use it?"
"Uh, no, it's okay," Steve said. He took the tube and squirted a few drops onto his fingers, examining it curiously. Scarf boy made rubbing notions, so Steve followed him and rubbed the serum over the mark on his neck. He peered into the mirror again. "That's pretty good," he said in surprise.
"Well, yeah," the boy said. He held out his hand. "I'm Ea. This is what humans do, right? To say hello."
"Yeah." Steve shook his hand. "I'm Steve Rogers."
"And the sky is blue, and the grass is green, except oh wait, on Becknazy it isn't anymore," Ea said cheerfully. He wandered to the mirror to check his eyes — Steve realized either he had some physical colourings none of the other Becknazians shared, or he was wearing eyeliner. "Nah, I know who you are, Steve Rogers. I've been following the trial. Actually, I was trying to find you or Va Stark alone, but Va Stark is never alone."
"It's not safe for him to be alone," Steve said warily, wondering what was this fellow's deal. He was very young, as young as Aru possibly, with the sort of outrageous confidence of a college student who had just drank five lattes.
Ea started examining his perfectly coiffed hair. "I'm not supposed to be here," he said. "But I snuck into the courthouse because I'm a school friend of Aru's, and I'm worried about her. I think she's going to do something very stupid or very risky soon, if she hasn't already." He pursed his pouty lips together and made a face in the washroom mirror. "You have got to realize that she didn't take the job just because she's all happy-happy about Earth, right?"
"I get the sense that she has other reasons," Steve said, "but it's not my place to pry."
"It's not mine either," Ea said flippantly, "and she is going to be so mad if she finds out I told you this, so don't tell. It will be our little secret. Aru's mother, Xacasta of the House of Dragonflies, she was part of the original team that was sent to Earth and who never returned. Aru offered to surveille you so she could search for her mother. She's demented about finding her."
"It's got to be hard," Steve said noncommittally. "Losing a parent like that."
"Well, no kidding," Ea said. "And also the kids at school were merciless about it. There was a lot of gossip when Xacasta disappeared. Made all the tabloids. Aru was always getting mocked for having a mother who was Unda's mistress and/or some kind of floozy who ran away and abandoned her daughter."
Steve leaned against the wall and folded his arms. "But you know the truth, somehow. I thought this original Becknazy-Earth contact was supposed to be classified information."
"It is classified information," Ea said. "But we're Natawens, Aru and I. You think there are firewalls that can stop us?" He grinned. "I'm just saying, be careful. She doesn't have any other contacts or allies on Earth, so she'll probably try to lead you into finding her mother. Make sure she doesn't get hurt, yes? As a favour to me."
"We've gotten tips from an anonymous source," Steve said. "Are you saying that might have been Aru?"
"If you did, I'm about 75% certain," Ea replied.
Hmm. Steve wasn't completely surprised by that, knowing what he did now. Before, he used to think Aru was just a low-level government grunt, but the knowledge of Natawen and gifted children and her mother being Unda's right hand engineer changed the facts. "I'll protect Aru," he said, not telling Ea that he planned on doing it anyway, "but you said favour. What do I get in exchange?"
Ea reached into his pockets. "Candy?" he offered. He laughed at Steve's narrowed stare. "Just kidding."
He pulled out a silver bracelet. "Here," he said, dropping it into Steve's palm. Steve looked down at it. It was a plain silver bracelet with a ruby eye. "These are status symbols among our people. Flash it, intimidate with it, sell it, I don't care. You can use it for lots of things." He patted Steve on the arm. "Keep up the good work, big man." Then, in a few fleeting footsteps and the humming of a lullaby, Ea was gone.
"What took you so long, love peach?" Tony said irritably when Steve met him in the courtroom.
"There was a boy in the bathroom," Steve said, sliding beside him. "And I'm going to ignore the love peach part, for your sake."
"You're cheating on me already with younger men?" Tony said. "Shock. Horror. Outrage." He cracked his knuckles and stared straight ahead as the courtroom began filling up. "Day two. Hallelujah. Here we go."
On Sunday, back on Earth, Tony's cook had her day off. Mark Trento was still nowhere to be found, but instead Steve had Tony, trudging out of his lab and declaring, "What's for dinner? Whatever, I'll skip it." He disappeared back into the hallway, or would have if Steve hadn't grabbed his arm first, flexing his fingers gently against Tony's bicep.
"I'll cook," he said.
"Beans in cans and rations don't cut it," Tony said, which was entirely offensive because Steve had seen Tony eat a package of M&Ms just last week for lunch, refusing to move from the latest ACR configurations he had JARVIS running.
"I'll make you a frittata," Steve promised, because eggs — eggs were easy. Steve was a whiz with eggs.
Tony plopped himself down at the kitchen island and balanced his chin on his hands, watching Steve curiously. Steve glanced at the wild territory of Tony's stubble, and remembered how there was a red patch on his back from where said stubble had rubbed against him last night while they had sex. Everything Tony did reminded him of that — of sex, of skin, of Tony's smile when he was particularly delighted by something Steve did.
Steve was beginning to think he'd do quite a lot to coax that smile from Tony.
"Don't make too much," Tony said suddenly, lifting up his chin. "Got a meeting tonight."
"This late?" Steve wondered, cracking the eggs into a ceramic blue bowl.
"Not my choice," Tony said. "S.I. wants me to wine and dine this client. Well, mostly wine them. Lots of wine, inhibited judgement, boom! Dollars poured into our clean energy fund. Works like a charm."
"I bet," Steve said.
"Look who's Mr. Sarcastic today."
"Nope," Steve said, rummaging through the drawers for a spatula. "You're a very charming fella, Tony. You charmed me, didn't you?"
"Cap, you're charmed by clouds in the sky that look like animal crackers," Tony said. "If we met when we were kids, we would have been such good recess pals."
Steve tossed an eggshell at Tony's head, and then started humming the Star-Spangled Banner while he chopped vegetables to go into the frittata. Bruce had taught him this recipe, a quick and easy dinner he'd used a lot while traveling with limited supplies. In between all of the Avengers, there was everything Steve might ever want to learn.
The frittata turned out a bit lopsided, but it was still good. Steve had made one that was larger than his face — he cut it into two pieces with one of Tony's stainless steel knives and separated it into two plates. Tony looked at it warily, and Steve said, "I didn't hide Ultron inside, don't worry" while handing Tony a fork.
Steve finished first, so he watched Tony poke at the rest of his frittata, swallowing the last few bites before checking his watch. "Shit, I'm late," he said, and Steve raised his eyebrows because wow, this really must have been an important client. Tony normally treated lateness like it was his birthright. Steve moved to the couch and picked up his knitting, sneaking glances up at Tony while Tony ran around looking for his shoes.
"Over by the sink!" Steve called helpfully.
"Ah," said Tony. The buzzer rang. "Crap, he's here already! I told him to wait downstairs." He smoothed a hand through his hair and threw the door open. Steve craned his neck to get a good look at Tony's client — a special client, if they were comfortable enough to come up to the penthouse instead of waiting like all the others. The man behind the door was tall and silver-blond, with cheekbones that could cut industrial concrete.
Tony beamed at him. "Alex," he said, and now Steve had a name to put with that Arrow Collar Man face.
"Hi," he waved from the couch.
"Hi," Alex said, but his attention was all for Tony, who was fiddling with his cuff links. "Are you ready to go? I made reservations at Modern. I know you love that place."
"Oh Lex," Tony said with a perfectly straight face, and then he cracked up in laughter while Alex Gaze-Upon-My-Flawless-Skin grinned, putting a hand on Tony's wrist. The touch was light and airy, but Steve narrowed his eyes at it anyway, his fingers tightening around his knitting needles. There was a copy of Overcoming Anger and Irritability: A Self-Help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques beside him. He looked at its cover meaningfully.
Even though they had reservations, it didn't look like Tony and Alex were eager to leave any time soon. Because the world hated Steve, the two of them hung around the doorway chatting about Tony's latest efforts to crack the ACR puzzle. Alex threw around high-tech, ten-dollar words, and Tony nodded yes and yes and yes.
"Tony, your brilliance puts us all to shame," Alex said appreciatively, while Steve clutched at his scarf and thought, Stop flirting, you two, for the love of God.
No dice. Tony flirted as easily as he breathed. As proof, wasn't he always making suggestive comments around Steve? He and Alex took forever in leaving, leaning into each other's personal space as they talked about molecules and hadron colliders and antimatter valences. Steve was ready to pull a fire alarm if it would get them out of the penthouse and to whatever romantic schmoozy date they were no doubt planning — when finally, finally Alex said, "We're going to be late," and Tony said, "All right. Lead the way."
I hate everything, thought Steve.
When Tony and Alex were gone, Aru wandered into the den with a paperback Stephen King tucked under arm. "He was really good-looking," she said.
"How would you know?" Steve said. "Unless you were spying."
"I was totally spying," she said.
"I met your boyfriend the other day, during the trial," Steve said meanly.
"That would be quite impossible, as I don't have a boyfriend," Aru replied. She sat down across from him and crossed her legs primly. "My energies are better spent focusing on my work. I don't want to end up like you, after all."
"Ma'am, that's a low blow," said Steve. He looked at Aru, at the fluffy pink bathrobe she had taken to wearing around the penthouse, at the loose sash she could never tie up properly. Tell me what you know, he thought, but people like Aru could startle as easily as deer — Steve knew from experience and wartime interrogations. You had to ease them into it, or they'd never confess.
"It's because Tony's my best friend," Steve assured her. "I worry about him. You'd do the same if you were in my position." It had nothing to do with kisses or touches or elevators, he reminded himself. He understood where the lines were drawn.
"Hmm," said Aru. She cracked open her book and wriggled her toes. "You know, this book, Carrie, it reminds me of my own schooldays. Except the girls who bullied me would never waste precious pig's blood. Do these characters not know that a Destruction can come any day and wipe out nearly their entire planet's natural resources?" She shook her head. "Like I said. Baffling."
Mark Trento had done his best to a) kill the Avengers by rigging his flat, and b) fall completely off the grid, but in the end he was no match for Tony's hacking skills or Natasha's intelligence gathering. She showed up at the penthouse in the morning, accepting the coffee Steve had handed her, stirring in two sugars and a creme — Natasha liked her coffee sugary beyond belief.
"Where's Stark?" she asked, looking around. She gave Aru a brief nod, and Aru went back to her book.
"Still asleep," Steve said. "He was out all night with, uh, a client. It's a Saturday, so I thought he might as well sleep in."
"You pamper him," Natasha said.
"You should see his normal sleep patterns," Steve said. "It's crazy town."
"He's a grown man. He should be able to take care of himself," she replied. "'Should' being the operative word here. You know, I've never really understood why people fall all over themselves for him. I have nothing against Stark," she added, "so don't glare at me like that. It's just — why him? Maybe it's a goatee fetish."
"The one woman immune to my charms," Tony said, wandering into the kitchen. "Hi Tasha."
"Someone's got to be," Natasha said, lifting one shoulder. "But I'm here with information to help save your ass, aren't I?"
"Go ahead, dazzle us," Tony said, pulling out a chair beside Aru. Steve resisted the urge to straighten his horrific bedhead — there was also a crease on Tony's cheek from where the blankets had dug in.
"Mark Trento is a false identity," Natasha said immediately. "His real name is David Metzinger, but that's hardly important. Trento, Metzinger, whatever he wants to call himself — the pertinent detail about him is that they're all civilian pseudonyms for a supervillain called Sabotage."
"Sabotage," Steve said. "That sounds familiar. Didn't we run into him and his gang during that fire last year? October, I think it was."
"Exactly," Natasha said, leaning against the counter with her coffee. "Sabotage might have struck us as yet another two-bit bad guy with a few goonies, but last year was a fluke. He is actually the leader of a quite sophisticated supervillain league known as the Initiative, of which the mass majority are scientists and engineers, including Sabotage himself."
"A league of evil scientists and engineers, a dead tech magnate," Tony said. "Ten guesses where this is going."
"I've infiltrated one of their meetings," Natasha said. "Using the data you sent me. And although they didn't confirm it outright, there's a very good chance the Initiative was behind Unda's murder, for the simple reason that they were also behind the kidnapping of the Becknazian envoy ten years ago." She glanced at Aru, whose shoulders had gone stiff. "Unda's chief engineer was part of the envoy. From what I gather, they kidnapped her to get the secrets of antimatter chain reaction, which they wanted to control. It's probably why they killed Unda. They thought he was going to pass on the knowledge to you, Stark, and that's the last thing they want."
"It's amazing, what you've managed to find out," Steve said. "Thank you."
"I wish I had more," Natasha said ruefully. "They meet in their HQ once every month, but the HQ location is always different and central command releases the coordinates as an encryption beforehand. I broke the encryption for the first meeting, but the encryption for the next meeting is completely bizarre. Maybe they suspect they've been infiltrated. I've had Bruce take a look, but he's making slow progress too."
"Give it to me," Tony said. "I'll have JARVIS take a crack."
"No," Aru spoke up. She lifted her head from her chin. "Let me try."
"Are you sure?" Natasha asked.
"Languages and numbers," Aru said. There was a vein of bitterness in her voice, lace-thin. "The only things I am good at. I will crack the encryption for you. I want the Initiative destroyed as much as you do."
"Okay then," Tony said finally. "You tell us where the next meeting is, and we'll get ready. Let's storm some shit."
February came around, the air dry and sharp. Tony and Steve split their time now between New York and Becknazy, returning every few weeks for another installation of Tony's trial, which seemed to move at the slowest pace possible. Everybody wanted to take the stand and talk about how much Unda had been loved, and everybody wanted to cast their suspicions on Tony — Steve was starting to get a headache within five feet of Courtroom D, with all the snapping cameras and accusatory voices, and the silent eyes of both the jury members and Judge Tenka, who no one could read, not even Majumdar, who studied footage of previous trial days, examining him for tells.
"He's a closed book," Majumdar said. "Even the Becknazians we've hired who are supposed to be experts at Becknazian body language — nada. Who knows which way he's going to exhort the jury to swing?"
"We could always blackmail him," Tony said. "I'm sure underneath that wise grey wig lies the secret darkness of a man who desperately wants to sleep with chihuahuas."
"Gross," said Aru when she overheard. "Wait, what's a chihuahua?"
So it was easy to forget about February. It was easy to feel like they lived in a world bubbled off from reality, where Steve could count the seconds in between the opening of the Keyway, could categorize the different warmths of a Becknazian scanner checking him for weapons — and yet could not, for the life of him, tell you what day it was back on Earth.
February 14th, apparently, and he woke up to find the bed empty of any sign of Tony. Steve put on his slippers and poured a bowl of cereal, saying hello to Aru before making his way to Tony's lab. Tony was blasting hip hop at much too a high a volume for six a.m., and Steve watched him for a while, munching on his Raisin Bran.
When Tony finally noticed him, he said, "Aren't you supposed to be jogging?"
"I don't feel like it today," Steve replied.
"Really," Tony said, astonished. "Even Captain America slacks off?"
"Want to make something of it?"
Tony sidled up to Steve and wrapped a hand around his forearm. "But what about your big, strong muscles?" he said, fluttering his eyelashes. "Are you going to let yourself go to seed, all for the love of me?"
"I'll do it for Cartoon Network in the mornings," Steve declared.
"So sad," Tony opined. "The fall of a national hero." He leaned in and kissed Steve, licking the milk and cereal out of his mouth. It was kind of gross, probably, but Steve's proper judgement in this area had been impaired from the first touch of Tony's lips against his. "Don't make plans for tonight," Tony murmured, kissing his jaw. "I'm going to take you out in style."
"You don't have to," Steve said. "We don't have to put on a show for the media 24/7."
Tony gave him a weird look before returning to kiss Steve's throat. "Fuck the media," he said. "You. Me. Paint the town red."
"Not a party?" Steve asked suspiciously as Tony licked his Adam's apple..
"Don't worry," Tony said. "I wouldn't do that to you." What Tony would do, apparently, was stick his hands down Steve's pyjamas, making Steve yelp in surprise, almost dropping the cereal bowl. Then Tony cupped Steve's balls through his underwear, making Steve drop the bowl for real, milk and soggy cereal rolling sadly across the lab floor.
"Hey," Steve said, but it wasn't much of a protest when Tony was backing him against the wall. Horny Tony in the mornings — Steve didn't mind nearly as much as he pretended.
Valentine's Day had fallen on a Wednesday, so Tony had S.I. business he couldn't avoid. Instead Steve spent the afternoon with Aru and Bruce, playing Risk and introducing Aru to their favourite classic movies on Tony's big screen plasma TV. Steve brought along his old Hepburn movies, Bruce carried over his Hitchcock, and Steve made popcorn over the stove, just like how his mother used to on special occasions — this would have been such luxury back then.
For dinner, Steve put on a suit and waited outside Stark Tower for Tony and Happy to pull up. "Where are we going?" he asked, smiling as he slid into the car.
"Korean," Tony said, "and then we'll see." He was grinning, though, excited in the ten-year-old on Christmas morning way that only Tony could pull off. Steve took a gamble and laced his fingers through Tony's — he waited for Tony to pull away, expecting it almost because Tony seemed to like kissing and fucking and lewd things, things that had a clear trajectory to what they did in bed. But Tony didn't say anything, and he didn't object.
Steve was sort of ridiculously happy. If this was only going to be a snapshot in time, if after the trial they went back to being friends and nothing more, no Valentine's Day dinners, at least they would have tonight.
He was going to enjoy it while it lasted.
Tony hadn't been lying: he really was pulling out all the stops. They had dinner at a hole-in-the-wall Korean place that Steve had wanted to try. It wasn't Tony's sort of ritzy joint at all, tucked in between a car repair shop and a Christian bookstore, but the food was fantastic, hot and full of flavour, the condiments arranged in little plastic bowls. They spent the entire meal chatting over jajangmyeon like they used to, arguing about politics and jazz and whether or not Steve would ever learn how to properly knit, of which the answer was yes, no matter what Tony said. Tony may have been a genius, but sometimes he was just plain stupid.
"I really do have a surprise for you," Tony said after dinner. "Close your eyes and don't open them until I say so."
"Are you going to walk me into a ditch?" Steve said, but he followed the rules, sitting back in the car, listening to the sounds of night-time New York sliding around him. When the car came to a stop, Tony helped him out. He still wouldn't let him open his eyes though, not until he had led him away by hand, opening some kind of door and walking Steve through. Steve could hear the buzz of a light bulb overhead, and then he could feel a cold kiss of air that meant they were back outside.
"Can I open my eyes now?" he wondered, and he could hear the anticipation in Tony's voice when he said yes.
Steve opened his eyes. They were standing in the middle of Yankee Stadium, right over the pitcher's mound. The bleachers were empty, and snow was falling gently all around them, dancing into the quiet.
Steve breathed out.
"I've rented the entire stadium," Tony said, wandering over to the dugout. He sifted underneath a bench and pulled out a baseball, a bat, and a glove. "I can pitch. You can bat. Dummy can catch."
"Dummy?" Steve said, not trusting himself to speak.
Tony stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled. Dummy came whizzing out of the dugout, lights flashing. "Well, you weren't planning on making me run around catching your home runs, were you?" Tony laughed, and Steve swallowed the lump in his throat. He wasn't a kid anymore. He should know how to react when someone gave him an incredibly fancy gift.
"Head's up!" Tony said, and he threw the baseball bat towards Steve. Steve caught it in one hand, muscles flexing in the floodlights.
He found his voice again. "Let's see how fast your fastball really is, Stark," he smirked, switching places with Tony so that Tony was standing on the pitcher's mound. Tony, in his long peacoat and green scarf; Tony, whose gloves curled around the baseball like he was just dying to show Steve his hitherto unknown baseball prowess when Steve knew he was more a basketball fellow; Tony, who was so filthy rich he had rented out the entirety of Yankee Stadium for him.
Steve didn't even know what to do with him, sometimes.
Well. He could think of one thing.
Steve's skin felt like ice by the end, prickly and alive, when they went home with winter on their breaths and bruises on their knees. Steve let Tony fuck him for the first time, spreading him out over his cotton sheets, trailing kisses and bites over the back of Steve's thighs. It hurt, it didn't hurt enough — it was an entire world in Steve's head, snow and roughness and the sound of Tony's moans when he first pushed inside. Tony's voice telling Steve just how gorgeous he was, how brave, how sweet, how perfect — none of which was true, but Tony made him want to believe it.
Tony fucked Steve from behind for a while, and Steve shivered, holding himself up with shaking arms. He could feel the heat of Tony's arc reactor against his back, alongside the slip and dash of his dogtags, jangling with each thrust. Then Tony turned Steve around and wrapped Steve's knees around his waist. He fucked him like that for even longer before sliding one of Steve's legs up over his shoulder.
Steve felt so open, so exposed, and Tony must have seen that, because he had this wondrous expression on his face. "Man out of time," he confessed, gasping. "Trying to make the best of things. But I want to make you — fuck, yes — more than that." He arched his back. "I want to be the one to make you happy."
Steve squeezed his eyes shut against the sudden, flaring heat. Then Tony pushed into him again, and it was too much. Steve was coming all over his stomach and Tony's fingers, groaning like he'd never stop.
Aru gave him the decrypted address on the back of a crumpled takeout napkin. "It's a warehouse," she said. Of course it was a warehouse. Where did villains meet other than warehouses, docks, and expensive lounges?
"Did you send this to Tony already?" Steve asked.
"Are you sure?" she asked. "This seems like something he should know about. Considering he is the one on trial."
"I know that," Steve said crossly. He was hardly so sex-addled he'd forget that basic fact. "But Tony isn't in the best shape right now." He thought of the way Tony's thighs had slapped against his a few nights ago, the push of Tony's cock. He forced to himself to think about something else. "He's not battle-ready," Steve said. "He isn't sleeping well, he isn't eating well, and I don't want a bad guy to take advantage of that."
Aru was still looking at him skeptically, but she had never been a team leader like Steve. It was his responsibility to make sure the other Avengers didn't get into situations they couldn't get out of — if it was Clint or Bruce who were ragged around the edges, he'd do just the same.
It had nothing to do with being married. Steve would never let his personal feelings affect his tactical judgement.
If Tony was going to be mad at him for going alone, that was a risk he was just going to have to take. Anyway, he was half used to Tony telling him for the millionth time that just because he was Captain America, he was not actually the leader of the free world. Fine. Ring-a-ding that tune. It'd be deja vu, just like when they first met, before they'd become friends.
The night of the meeting, he made sure Pepper came up with some sort of useless S.I. errand that only Tony could run. Tony complained about it until his face was blue, but Steve patted him on the back, letting his hand slide slightly lower before letting go. "Yow," Tony said, grinning, and Steve followed it up with a gentle nudge towards the door. "Okay, okay, I'm out. You and Aru can have the knitting den to yourselves, or whatever freakish things the two of you get up to."
"You think the scarf I gave you for Christmas was freakish?" Steve asked, feigning hurt.
"Cap, it looked like something made by Cousin It," Tony said, and Steve made a gesture like you'll be mad when I don't knit you a sweater, you whiner.
Steve waved a cheerful goodbye and waited for Tony to exit Stark Tower. He used the commands Tony had given him for JARVIS to monitor the cameras, watching Tony's car speed out of the garage. He tried to wipe out his own logs afterwards, but he couldn't tell if it'd worked. JARVIS was Tony's through and through — probably nothing was ever erased that Tony couldn't retrieve with two clicks and a swivel of the mouse.
Well. Steve would deal with that when it came. First, he went into their bedroom and put on a pair of black jeans, a black t-shirt, and a shiny black domino mask he'd stuffed in his underwear drawer. Then he opened a box of black hair dye, staring at the instructions on the box.
"Need any help?" Aru asked, tapping at the door.
"Sounds great," he said, handing the box over. She squinted at it like it was Fermat's last theorem, but between the two of them they managed to turn Steve into a brunette. "It looks good on you, but practically everything does," Aru said. She faltered. "Um, I didn't mean to say that last part out loud. You are a very beautiful human! But I am not interested in you at all. Which is no fault of your own! It's mine. I have terrible taste in men."
Steve smiled at her. "If Tony comes back early, tell him I went out on a run."
"You don't normally run this late," Aru said doubtfully.
"Why does everyone think I'm such a stickler for routine?" Steve said. "I'm not that boring, am I?" But Aru refused to join in on the joke. She folded her arms over her chest, biting down on her bottom lip. Her nervousness was even more obvious than ever.
"Be careful, Captain. I did not tell you before, but you should know — these people kidnapped my mother."
"I heard," Steve replied gently, the smile fading from his mouth. "Don't worry. I've been in worse scrapes than this one."
"Then what is this for?" she asked, pointing at the hair dye, the mess staining the sink. "You still plan on infiltrating the meeting, fooling them into thinking you are one of them? A soft way of achieving your goals. When I have heard so much about the power of Captain America and the Avengers, this is the most you can—" Her voice veered off sharply, and she took a shuddering breath. "Forgive me. I should not have spoken like that, least of all to you."
Steve tugged on his jacket. "Believe me, if I could just go into the meeting guns blazing, I would. But if I can do a clean recon mission first — get in, get out, learn as much as I can — then that's what I'm going to do. I don't want to bring all the Avengers in and raise the roof, just to have Sabotage escape, when we know nothing about him or where he's going to go." He did up his zipper as he talked. "It's just me today. If I'm alone, I can slip into their meeting in disguise, find a few things out about our enemy."
He turned around and looked at her askance. "Aru, I've got to ask. Why didn't you tell us about your mother earlier? Why didn't you just give us info about the Initiative directly instead of leaving me cryptic messages?"
"Pardon? I have no idea what you mean."
Steve stared her down.
Aru looked away. "She is alive," she said after a tortured length of time, examining her ragged nails. "They have been keeping her prisoner all these years, learning as much as they can about ACR from her. Sometimes she manages to hack their systems and send a message to me."
"Sorry," Steve said, "but I still don't get it. Why all the secrecy? If you know all this, you could testify on Tony's behalf."
"Because then they might kill her!" Aru's voice went high. "If they find out she has leaked information to me, and that I have given it to you — who knows what they might do to her! You can't let them know I told you. You can't. Please."
"All right," Steve promised. "I need to go now. If I find your mother, I swear I'll do all I can to free her. You have my word."
Aru was silent.
"It's a Captain America promise," he added.
"Just go," she said, and man, kids these days. Couldn't be impressed by anything.
He rode the elevator down to the garage where he fetched his motorcycle. He swung his leg over the seat and revved up the engine. Roaring out of the garage and onto the streets, he could see how the moon was a smear of stained milk in the icy sky — there were lights all around him, twinkling from the windows of streetside bistros and bars and the dogged late night food trucks, puffing smoke like entrails, the smell of sausage and mustard strong in Steve's nostrils.
It took him two hours to reach the warehouse where the Initiative would be meeting, and he had to trust Pepper to occupy Tony with useless tasks for hopefully the entire night. Otherwise there was no way Tony wasn't going to go home, find Steve missing, and ride JARVIS to all hell to find him. It wasn't like the olden days when Steve could just drop off the map. There were satellites now, geopositioning, Google Maps, and apparently something called Skynet, which Tony and Bruce once had a long, serious discussion about while Steve fluttered around in the background, trying to make himself useful.
A herd of vehicles were jammed in the parking lot. Steve parked his bike at the very back and hid a spare key nearby, as a precaution. There wasn't a huge chance that someone would recognize the license plate, because he'd changed those, but better to plan ahead than be caught with his pants down later. He double-checked his domino mask, turned on the voice scrambler that he'd, uh, borrowed from SHIELD, and then he grimly pushed through the double doors of the warehouse.
He had a picture in his mind of what a meeting of supervillains would look like, and yeah, this pretty much was it: the grey warehouse floor, the swirling hurricane of costumes and masks, the voices all talking over each other, chatting about missed birthdays and Caribbean vacations and stock market prices while a man in a black lab coat double checked his microphone. There was even cheese and crackers on a table. Steve looked at them yearningly, but no. Villain cheese and villain crackers.
He focused his gaze on Sabotage, aka Mark Trento, aka whatever he wanted to call himself. The man in the black lab coat. If you squinted and were very, very drunk, there was a physical resemblance with Tony. Same age, dark hair, the goatee — but when Steve tried to think about Sabotage in any way approaching sexual, he got a stomachache.
He was one of the last to arrive. Only a few more stragglers came in, only a few more hellos were exchanged — Steve got worried that the members of the Initiative would notice him being new, but even with all the hearty wanna-see-photos-of-my-kids and the just-kidding-haha-I'd-have-to-kill-you-first, there were some other loners. He saw a man in green slime in the back, and a woman with her long hair braided around her chest. No one paid them any attention. No one looked twice at Steve either.
Sabotage tapped the microphone and listened to it screech. Everybody scowled at him. "Okay, we're beginning now," he said, hands in his pockets. "Thanks for making it to the meeting. Not that you have any choice if you want a share in the Initiative's stock when our company goes live."
"Yeah?" said a woman in a lightning jumpsuit. "And when will that be? When's your little pet going to tell us how to perfect ACR?"
"It's been ten years," another man murmured in agreement. "We've been very patient."
"Yes," said Sabotage, narrowing his eyes, "and in those ten years I've also organized frauds and robberies that have made you all millionaires. Science is a painstaking process. How many people do you think lost limbs in the Manhattan Project? And they were a hell of a lot smarter than any of you are."
As they were talking, Steve started looking around the warehouse for exits, analyzing his environment for clues about what to do next. Should he try to kidnap Sabotage? Where? How? Was there a way to get Sabotage alone where no one could see? Half of mission planning was intel, and half was being able to handle anything — a rigid soldier was a dead soldier.
Then he felt it: the tickle at the back of his neck, the sudden wooziness. There was a sharp smell in the air, like licorice, and it was growing stronger by the second. The members of the Initiative all reached into their bags, or in boxes underneath their chairs, and pulled out gas masks. Steve quickly checked the box under his own chair, but it was empty. His fingernails hit metal. Bad sign, got to get the hell out of here, he thought, rising to his feet. He moved for the exit as smoothly as possible, but even before he reached it, the colours of the warehouse were already bleeding out into his vision. Whatever was happening was happening fast. The Initiative members were all watching him now, behind their gas masks, eyes large and buggy and plastic.
He started to run for his escape route.
Someone laughed. Someone else, damn them, applauded.
He was running — but it was too late. He'd already breathed in the gas. The damage was done. His knees folded out in the parking lot, right between two yellow canary lines. He felt himself hit the ground, and wipe out with a muffled curse.
There was some kind of live rumba band going on in his head. Steve opened his eyes to a horrible shot of pain, promptly shut them, and then forced them open again. The back side of his head felt soft and sore, like old fruit.
He looked around. He was in a cell, cramped with a tiny bed, a steel door, and a grille that opened underneath the bed. Steve wrapped his fingers around the bars of the grille and pulled with all his strength, which was, admittedly, a lot of strength. Thank you, Super Soldier Serum. But the grille didn't budge. It must have been reinforced with some kind of super metal — if the Initiative could recreate antimatter chain reaction, he wouldn't put it past them to forge an inhumanly strong alloy for their prisoners.
He rubbed the back of his head, finding the bruise there. He must've hit his head on the bedframe when they tossed him in, unconscious. Too bad the force of it hadn't woken him up.
Steve glanced at his watch. Three a.m.
Pepper had promised to distract Tony until six, which was when she had to fly to Munich. He had three hours. Either he could overshoot that time and track Sabotage down, or he could go back before Tony found out where he was — he preferred the first option, but realistically the odds were low that Sabotage was still hanging around. The odds were even lower that he hadn't just cranked up his personal security to eleven.
All right, Steve thought, keeping a steady head. Back home and then regroup. He tried the grille again, moving the bed aside and bracing both his feet on the ground for balance. He pulled, hard. The grate didn't budge. Steve gritted his teeth.
He tried the door. Same deal. Yanking at it with both arms, his muscles bulging, but nothing happened, only red skin for his effort.
Tony had taught him how to make a simple bomb out of household ingredients, but there weren't any of those ingredients here. Only the bedsheet, and Steve could imagine using a bedsheet for a whole lot of things, like a garrote, but it wasn't going to make a good explosive to blow down the door or grille (he could almost hear Tony make a joke in his head about how they burned up the sheets together — oh, Steve wished).
He got on the bed and reached up into the dark corners, feeling for anything that could come in handy. A structural weakness, a hidden camera. When he found nothing in the walls or on the floor, he went on his belly and poked his fingers through the grate.
"Hello," whispered a quiet voice with a Becknazy accent.
"Xacasta," Steve said. "Is that you?"
"Yes," the voice said.
"Are you inside there?"
"No," Aru's mother whispered back. "But the camera and the intercom are inside the grille. I'm in another room on the other side of the warehouse. I have guards, but they think I'm working on my computer right now."
"Kind of pointless to put the camera underneath the bed, isn't it?" Steve said.
"It has x-ray vision."
"Listen," Xacasta said. "I don't have much time. They'll notice I'm not working on ACR calibrations. They'll come over. So you have to listen to me. In two minutes, I'm going to complete my hack of the warehouse security system. The door to your cell will be unlocked. Go out, then left, then right, then left again. You'll run into Initiative members, but hopefully not at all of them at once. Take them out."
"My pleasure," Steve said evenly.
But Xacasta wasn't finished. Her voice was a hush over the intercom. "When you get out, find the big oak tree a few yards to the left of the main warehouse entrance. I buried something underneath it. Aru will know what to do with it. Va Stark will too."
Steve pressed his face against the grille. "Are you okay? I could take you with me."
"Not today," Xacasta said, resigned. "I have many more guards than you do. Find the USB I buried. Then come back."
"Thank you," Steve said.
"In two minutes," she warned, and Steve reared back onto his feet. He waited, body coiled at the ready, gathering his focus together, getting into the right headspace. He didn't have his shield on him, and the Initiative had taken his gun when they'd thrown him inside the cell. But he flexed his fingers and curled them into fists. He would make do. He watched the door steadily until he heard Xacasta's quick "Go!"
There was a guard stationed right outside the door. Steve brought his knee up and broke his jaw.
There were two more guards down the left corner. Steve rammed one into the wall with the full force of his body, and then whirled around and knocked the second out with his fist to her throat.
Another guard came running, electricity arcing between his mesh gloves. Steve grabbed a bar hanging down the ceiling and swung into a full kick, both of his feet hitting the guard’s chest, sending him flying backwards. He landed with one hand beneath his leg, and the electricity jolted him.
“Don’t play with dangerous toys,” Steve told him smugly.
Even more guards down the next corner, and it boggled the mind. How did the Initiative have this many members? Steve hadn’t seen these people at all during the meeting. But probably they were hired contractors, hard muscle to keep Xacasta and any other precious prisoners at bay. Steve hated them for selling their soul like that. Thankfully, as contractors, they weren’t anything for Captain America to be worried about. He’d sparred with Thor before. He could handle a few hired minions.
An alarm sounded. It was almost four o’clock; two more hours for Steve to get back home. What did they say about men like him? Oh yeah, that they were whipped. He didn't care. He moved even faster, cutting through the next line of thugs. Then an actual member of the Initiative appeared, costumed in deep red. He threw fireballs at Steve, and Steve ducked behind a crate before rushing out and tackling Fireball Man to the ground, knocking him out.
It was like that the rest of the way, and Steve forced himself to work methodically, taking out the single villains, and then the groups of two or three. Once he reached the main warehouse floor he could see the rest of them assembled, and cripes, this was exactly what he and Xacasta had hoped to avoid. A full-out battle royale brawl.
Well, got to roll with the times. Steve planned to hammer some good old-fashioned American justice into their evil heads.
Five o’clock by the time he was done, and the alarm was still wailing in his ears. He hadn’t seen a single glimpse of Sabotage yet, which told him there were even more members of the Initiative in waiting, probably on their way to subdue him. He had no idea what their numbers would be, or what sort of weapons they'd carry, so he decided to beat a tactical retreat. He'd come back with reinforcements later.
He started ducking enemies instead of engaging them, sliding smoothly underneath their fists and their bullets, sprinting for the door.
Then he was out into the chilled morning dark, running for his bike. They'd taken the keys from him when they threw him in the cell, but he found the spare keys he'd hidden nearby. He looked up to see more villains spilling out of the warehouse, and jammed the keys into the ignition. He climbed onto his bike, and then he was squealing out of the parking lot, watching members of the Initiative jump out of his way – the ones who weren’t still trying to shoot him. Steve pressed his body as close to the bike as he could, swerving quickly to avoid their bullets, driving behind other parked cars that would take the brunt of the force.
He left the warehouse behind. He left his enemies behind. He saw the oak tree as it flashed by him, but there was no time to dig out Xacasta’s USB key. He’d have to come back for it.
5:15, said his watch with the cracked face. Steve revved the engine and nearly broke every speed limit in the state.
If he could make it home before Tony, then Tony would never have to know. Tony would never have to get mad at him — there wasn't any good reason for him to be mad, because Steve had only done what was best for the team, but it wasn't like Tony was going to understand that. Tony still wasn't much of a team player. Tony was just going to see how Steve had left him behind, and he was going to say the worst things.
Steve got into Manhattan, got into Stark Tower, and rode the private elevator all the way up to the top floor, though taking the stairs probably would've been faster.
He burst into the penthouse just in time to see Tony confronting Aru in the kitchen. "Where the hell is Steve?" Tony was saying.
"I don't know," Aru replied.
"You expect me to believe that? I know the two of you have some kind of alliance going on. Keeping things from poor, victimized, stupid Tony. Is that it? The big game plan?"
"N-no," Aru stammered.
"Leave her alone," Steve said, walking towards them. Tony turned around, and there was a flicker of relief on his face, quickly replaced by anger.
"Oh hello Steve, nice of you to drop by," he drawled. "Did you go on a late night ice cream run? Bring anything back for me?" He crossed his arms over his chest. "I mean, what the fuck. Even if you felt some sudden urge to go take out villains, you couldn't have sent me a text? Couldn't have said 'hey Tony, so there are these scumbags who're trying to ruin your life, feel like having an opinion on that?'"
"It was in your best interests," Steve said firmly. "It was a one man mission."
"You could have debriefed me!" Tony snapped. "I'm a big boy. I can handle it. When I said you fucked my brains out last night? I didn't actually mean it."
"What are you talking about?"
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about how you don't take care of yourself!" Steve said, Tony's frustration waking up his own. He heard his voice stretch and warp. "Even if I could have taken you as backup, I wouldn't, because you're a liability right now. You've got no discipline, you always need other people to tell you when to stop, and then you get mad when we do!"
"Is that what you were really doing, watching out for me?" Tony sneered. "Or was it just Captain America, Lone Hero, who doesn't need anybody or anything to cramp his style?"
"What?" Steve demanded.
"We're fucking married and it's like I'm not even — " Tony's voice grew thick with frustration. "It's like I'm — I'm a coat rack or something. Some piece of furniture you remember only when I'm useful. Or when I dance on my strings for you. Because that's what I got to do to get your attention, right? Dancing coat rack, that's me."
"You've completely lost me," Steve said. "Coat rack? What? Tony, I was only doing what I think is best. I wasn't trying to — to mortally offend you, or anything." He rubbed his knuckles over his chest, smearing blood. At the same time he caught a glimpse of himself in the foyer mirror – the brunette hair was a strange sight.
"You weren't trying to mortally offend me, you just never learned how to share in kindergarten, right?"
"What is there to share?" Steve said, saying the first thing that popped into his head. Aru by now had left the room, hurrying out of the line of fire, but he still lowered his voice to hiss: "The marriage isn't real."
"You dumb fuck," Tony said quietly.
Steve's temper flared. “Don’t talk to me like that,” he ordered, and his voice came out harsher than he'd heard it in a long, long time. Why was Tony so stubborn? Couldn't he understand? Steve had done this for him, not against him. Why was Tony so self-centered?
"Don't talk to you?" Tony said. "Right now? Not a problem at all." And then he turned on his heel and walked out of the room.
Steve wasn't a coward. One day, whatever his biographers wanted to write — whatever lies they wanted to spin, about his whirlwind marriage, about his disappearance from World War II —, there were some things they were never going to say. Then again, you could hardly call a man who had built jet rockets into his feet a coward either.
In the bedroom later that night, Steve was silent as he changed out of his jeans and into a pair of checkered boxers. He studied himself in the vanity mirror, running his hand through his brown hair. "Looks weird," he said to his reflection.
Tony was lying in bed, reading over his ACR notes. He'd said nothing when Steve came in, and a quiet Tony was a dangerous Tony.
"Then again," Steve mused, "I used to wear a dress during the war. To sneak into base camps. Me and Bucky both."
"You'd make a really unconvincing woman," Tony said.
"You think so?" Steve pretended to flex his muscles. Turn this into a joke, he thought. Make Tony laugh. They'd get over this argument if they could tease each other again. "I wouldn't be a blonde bombshell? Maybe you're right. I used to make fun of Bucky about how he was so much prettier than I was."
"Sorry, are you fishing for compliments?" Tony said flatly, and Steve dropped his arms.
"Look—" he began.
"—I talked to Majumdar this afternoon," Tony interrupted. "I had her draw up the divorce papers. The moment I get acquitted, we can go and sign them."
There was a bad taste in Steve's mouth and the back of his tongue. "The very moment, huh?"
"There's no point in continuing our tortuous fake marriage any longer than we have to," Tony said expressionlessly. "I'm sure you've got lots of other things to do, people to see."
Steve wanted to cross the floor and grab him by the shoulders. Tortuous? Was that really how Tony thought of him? The marriage had been a sham, and today had been just one argument after another, but they'd still had some good times together. Unless that was all in Steve's head — he thought of the way Tony had groaned when Steve had slid into him, but maybe Tony groaned like that for everyone, even his pal Alex.
Steve's knuckles were white again. He'd known this moment was coming, but he hadn't thought it would — that it would hurt so much. To see Tony sitting in bed, acting like Steve was some stranger he couldn't wait to get out of his hair.
He had kissed that mouth, Steve thought. He'd touched his fingers to it and heard Tony laugh with delight. But maybe that had all been fake. Tony was good at charming people, and he probably wanted Steve to feel — to feel wanted.
He probably saw how lonely Steve was and felt sorry for him. Tony did always have a soft spot for people when they were sad — when he bothered to notice, which wasn't always. But he could be outrageously sympathetic, a tenderness hidden behind the flash of his celebrity smile.
Suddenly Steve knew. With the worst timing ever. Why he had been acting like this, the answer to all the mysteries. Standing there with a stranger's reflection in the mirror, watching Tony's silhouette open and close his notes, jotting down observations with a pencil that'd been worn down to a stub. Steve watched him and felt like he was falling into the water all over again, water into ice, the sky an endless stretch of grey above him, the distant sound of a plane. Now he knew, and he understood why every book he'd read talked so much about love, mulled over it obsessively, like it was some monster come to gobble up the precious remains of your mental health.
And Steve had been the first one to say it. The marriage isn't real. He'd said those words, without thinking, and Tony had heard them.
He needed a lesson on how to deal with this. He needed a contingency plan, something to make it less.
Why did he have nothing? He'd known this was coming.
He hadn't known at all.
He returned to the warehouse under the cover of night and dug up a hole beneath the oak tree. There was, like Xacasta had promised, a USB key buried in the dirt. He thought of how she must have gotten it here — did her captors let her go outside occasionally? His chest twisted up, but he brought the key back to Aru and Tony, who loaded it onto his computers.
"They're building designs and passcodes," he said. He still wasn't looking at Steve properly; every time their eyes met, he jerked his away.
Aru was smiling with pride. "You really talked to her?" she asked Steve for the millionth time.
"I really, really talked to her," he replied. "Your mother's a real pistol."
"Isn't she?" Aru beamed. "I can't believe the Initiative thought they could let her near a computer and not have it be a bad, bad idea for them. My mother is a magician with technology, like you are, Va Stark." She was nearly vibrating with excitement — and who could blame her? This was potentially the last stand, the final rescue. She stood a good chance of seeing her mother for the first time in ten years. Steve couldn't help but grin at her. She grinned back.
"We're getting the other Avengers," Tony said, rolling his chair back from the monitors. "And I know, I know — who'd have ever thought that I'd be Mr. Team Effort. The world is ending."
"We'll get the other Avengers," Steve promised him. Tony didn't look too happy though.
"So what's the plan?" Clint said when he arrived. "We go in, kick some ass, find Tony his get-out-of-jail-free card?"
"We find and contain Sabotage," Steve replied, as the Avengers and Aru gathered around him. "He's the ringleader, he's the one who will know the most about Unda's murder. We find him and we make him confess."
"How exactly do we do that?" Bruce wanted to know.
"He doesn't seem like the type to confess," Natasha agreed. "We can try, of course, but I think we're better off making it a priority to search his office and his computers. We can find damning evidence that way — and then plea bargain him into a proper confession."
"That works too," Steve said. "Smashing heads doesn't need to be the only solution."
"You'll need me there," Aru said. They turned to look at her.
"Not a good idea, kiddo," Tony said.
"When you contain Sabotage. You need a legal arrest — the court won't accept it if you just bully him into submission. None of you can make a legal arrest. You're superheroes, not police officers." Aru tapped her fingers on the table. "I'm an official representative of the Becknazy courts. I can make the arrest. I need to be there."
"You're young, and you have no combat training," Steve said.
"And how young were the soldiers who fought beside you in the world war?" Aru shot back. Steve said nothing.
"I'll keep an eye on her," Bruce said. "Stick with me."
"Thank you," Aru said.
"And I as well!" said Thor. "We shall make sure no harm befalls you."
"All right then," Steve said, not that he had a choice. He took one last look at the building layout, memorized it completely, and picked up his shield. "Avengers Assemble!"
They'd chosen to attack as soon as possible, before the Initiative could pack up and move to another safehouse for their next month's headquarters. The timing couldn't have been more perfect, or more on the edge. Just as they were arriving, the Avengers saw the trucks and moving vans, Initiative minions lugging science equipment out of the warehouse and into the sunlight. They froze when they saw the Avengers approaching, and Steve gave the signal for an all-out attack.
"Find Sabotage!" he called. "Find Xacasta! Don't let any of the evidence get away!"
Tony was the first in the fray. Iron Man zoomed forward and barreled into a team carrying filing cabinets, toppling them over like bowling pins.
Thor jumped in, swinging Mjolnir.
Clint shimmied onto the top of a van and started loosing arrows.
Natasha did a double back flip and kicked two thugs in the jaw, and then whirled around to send her knife flying at a third who had been creeping up on her.
At that moment Steve loved his team more than anything. He took a running start, sending his shield out ahead of him, where it whizzed into the face of one minion, knocking him and the box he'd been carrying over. Steve grabbed his shield from where it fell, and moved onto the next enemy, fighting in clean lines.
He looked over his shoulder at where Bruce was ducked behind a parked truck, laptop balanced on his knees. Aru was beside him with her own computer. "Any sign of Sabotage?" Steve shouted.
"Nothing yet!" Bruce said. "But Aru's locking down the building and overriding their codes! He won't be able to get out!"
"What?" Tony said as he flew above them and landed to Bruce's left, taking out a bad guy. "You're going to let a little girl do more than you?"
"FOR THE LAST TIME, I'M AN ADULT AMONG MY PEOPLE!" Aru shouted, turning red, and Tony laughed and laughed. It was almost the beginnings of a friendship, though not a friendship Steve was ever going to wrap his mind around.
The moving guys were the easy targets. Once the Avengers took them out, it was into the warehouse where Sabotage and his crew would be waiting. Aru undid the locks to let them in, and then locked the building back up behind them. It was dark inside, and everything was a mess the way all places were on moving day: boxes and computers and wires underfoot like spaghetti.
"Spread out," Steve said, and they did. Tony and Thor went right, Clint and Natasha went left. Steve, Bruce, and Aru went forward, into the main warehouse floor. This time, he thought, they had brought along gas masks. They weren't going to be tricked anymore.
At the end of the main floor, there was a passageway leading to the back. They heard voices: some male, one female. A Becknazy accent. It sounded like they were arguing. Then there was the sound of a slap, and someone hitting the ground. Steve grabbed for Aru, but it was too late. She had started running the moment she'd heard her mother.
"Aru!" Steve said.
"Oh shit," said Bruce, and Steve ran after her, catching up with her easily, but by then the guards flanking Xacasta already knew they'd been spotted. They had their guns out, and Steve yanked Aru by the collar of her shirt and threw her behind a wall. Then he ducked behind his shield, holding it steady against the ricochet of bullets.
He counted the number of shots fired. When they had to reload, he reappeared behind his shield and took them out, one by one, with a methodical precision that his old military superiors would have been proud of. Son, you done good, he could imagine them saying, and then the guards were down, and among their groaning bodies was a thin, starved Becknazian woman with a bruise rapidly flowering over her right eye.
Aru threw herself at her mother. Steve winced — Xacasta looked barely strong enough to hold up a dinner plate. But mother and daughter ran towards each other, and then Xacasta was hugging Aru so hard that Aru's feet left the ground. They were speaking rapid-fire Becknazy, but Steve had worn his electronic translator just in case. "Oh my darling," Xacasta was saying, over and over again. "Oh my sweet, brilliant daughter."
It was a good moment. Steve was proud.
But it couldn't last long. Steve's transistor crackled, and Tony's voice came online. "Found Sabotage," he said. "The ACR reactor's unstable. It's going haywire. Place is going to blow. Need to deactivate the system. Fuck." There was the sound of static.
Steve reacted without thinking. Tony sounded like he was in trouble — that was his only priority. When he found the giant room Tony and Sabotage were in, Steve was the first to arrive — and he saw Tony fighting Sabotage, who wore the same electric gloves Steve had seen on another Initiative member earlier. But where the other member had been slow and clumsy, Sabotage was brutally fast, and when the gloves came into contact with the Iron Man armour, there was the sound of electrocution, of Sabotage finding a weak joint to slide a current in.
Steve jumped in between them, deflecting Sabotage's attention. It was then, in the midst of exchanging rapid-fire blows, that he saw the unstable reactor glowing blue on the side, vibrating with shocks of heat like solar flares.
"On it!" Tony said. He ran for the reactor, disassembling the Iron Man suit to get to his fingers, and then he was crouching over the computer beside the reactor, the control panel, fingers flying like birds. Did he know what to do, Steve wondered. Did he know how to stop the meltdown?
But that was a stupid question. This was Tony Stark, and Tony Stark had been studying antimatter chain reactions. Steve trusted him to figure it out — he just needed time.
Steve could give him that time. Taking Sabotage on, avoiding the electric shocks, delivering jabs and punches whenever he could. Sabotage was fierce, a warrior just as much as a scientist, and Steve remembered what one of the files Natasha had dug up said: that he had trained in martial arts with the Tiger Stripes in the northern Himalayas. He was a tough opponent, and Steve grunted, holding Sabotage off, absorbing electric jolts into his shield.
"Tony!" he called.
"Working on it!" Tony shouted back, and yeah, even when they were fighting, they were still a good team. They could do this, Steve thought, punching Sabotage in the jaw only to see him get back up.
Then Sabotage turned and ran. Steve followed him, dodging the lightning bolts that Sabotage kept throwing at him over his shoulder every few seconds. He was not going to let Sabotage escape, no way in hell. This man was going to answer for his crimes. The balls of Steve's feet hit the concrete floor over and over again, with Sabotage always just one step ahead — and then they were in another room, one that had probably contained a lot of computers, judging by the empty terminals lining the wall. Sabotage looked up quickly, at the skylight, but Steve was ready for him. He lunged forward, grabbing Sabotage by the ankle when Sabotage tried to scramble up.
"You're not getting away from me, mister," Steve said.
But the ground had started to shake, vibrating beneath Steve's feet. "Tony!" he shouted again, and he heard Tony's answer through the comm link.
"Shutting the reactor down!" Tony said. "But it's going to be a bumpy ride!"
A flair for dramatic understatement, his Tony. The entire building had begun to rock around them, the floor cracking, the ceiling splitting. Huge pieces of the ceiling came crumbling down, one breaking Steve's hold on Sabotage's ankle — but Steve quickly grabbed him again and pulled him to the floor. Sabotage snarled, readying another round of electricity, but the warehouse's foundation gave a huge groan, like the hunger pangs of a beast in waiting.
"Reactor offline!" Tony was saying, but then the ceiling came down and the room collapsed in a pillar of dust.
Someone was saying his name.
There was dust in his nose and plaster in his mouth, and his leg felt broken in two places. He came to slowly.
Someone was saying his name.
"I passed out again, didn't I?" Steve mumbled through the thickness in his mouth. "Seems like 'm always doing that. Hate this place."
"Steve." He blinked up into the fierce light, and oh wow, there was sky above him. He was pretty sure there hadn't been sky before — guess the ceiling had gone bye bye. "Steve," someone said again, and he saw Tony fumbling for him, digging at the debris that was trapping him. "Oh god, Steve, hang on, I'll get you out of here."
He was digging with his bare hands, Tony. Steve wanted to tell him it'd be faster if he put on his armour, but the words didn't seem to come. His head hurt.
"Jesus," Tony said, and there was something funny with his voice, like it had gone all warped. Was he talking through a voice scrambler? No one's voice should sound so thick. No one's voice should sound so scared. "Steve — just, be okay. I need you to be okay."
He was lying in the middle of a ruined warehouse with his leg crushed underneath a piece of wall. "I'm okay," Steve croaked.
"Jesus," Tony repeated, and Steve wasn't much a fan of blasphemy, but it was all right when Tony's bloody fingers touched his face, feeling for his nose, his mouth, his eyes. "I thought you were dead."
Somehow that struck Steve as completely absurd, more absurd than anything that had happened to them yet. "'s harder to kill me than that," he said, closing his eyes against the pain, but Tony was shaking him.
"Don't close your eyes," he was saying. "You lazy fuck, don't close your eyes."
"'m not lazy, 'm great in bed," Steve mumbled. Why did Tony look so upset? It was getting harder and harder to think clearly — he would have much preferred to sleep. It was pretty warm where he was, tucked underneath the sun with Tony's hands cupping his face. He could stay like this for a long time, he thought, yawning. There was one more thing, though. He suddenly remembered. One more thing he wanted Tony to know. It seemed very important.
"I'm glad whenever I'm with you," he said. Was that it? Maybe. It sounded about right.
Tony's breath didn't sound right. It had gone all strange, just like his voice. Steve wanted to be concerned — should Tony see a doctor? But it was too hard to stay awake, and so he slid back into sleep.
Two weeks later, Steve was hobbling into Courtroom D in Becknazy on a pair of crutches, with his hair back to blond. Tony and his army of lawyers were already there. Tony slid over to make room for Steve, and Steve tried to catch his eye, but Tony looked away. So they were playing that game again, Steve thought, sighing.
He only had a vague memory of what had happened after the reactor had brought the warehouse down. He'd been pretty out of it, the doctors had said. A concussion from where the building hit his head. He had no idea what he had said to Tony when Tony dug him up, except whatever it was, it must have been quite a doozy, for Tony to go back to ignoring him.
He was going to have to tell Tony how he felt. Tony could do with that information whatever he wanted — but Tony couldn't accuse him of leaving him in ignorance anymore. Steve just had to find a right moment to talk.
Which wasn't now, in the middle of the courtroom, that was for sure.
Focus on the good news first: Sabotage. After Aru and her mother, the second decent thing to come out of the battle. They'd taken Sabotage into custody, and now he was on the witness stand, proof that someone else had wanted Unda dead — even if he was being completely uncooperative about it.
Natasha was right. Sabotage wouldn't break. He wouldn't give them a confession, and the ugly thing about the building coming down was that it had destroyed most of the servers as well, where Sabotage had kept his notes. They'd scrambled through, salvaging some of the evidence, but not all. Not even most of it.
It was a tense situation in the courtroom. Majumdar had said, earlier in the morning, that nabbing Sabotage as well as a few of his minions was definitely a big boost to their case. Having Xacasta's testimony was also a major leg up. But Xacasta's testimony had been lambasted earlier by the imperial prosecutor, who had cited her mental state as abused and unreliable — and that she hadn't actually heard or seen Sabotage plan to murder Unda. Xacasta had pieced it together on her own, which wasn't proof of anything except that she had a good imagination.
The same imagination Tony's lawyers had, the imperial prosecutor had said dryly.
Round and round and round we go, Steve thought, frustrated. It seemed like the judge was on their side, if they could trust the thoughtful expression he'd worn after listening to Xacasta take the stand, but this wasn't the judge's decision. This was trial by jury, and the jury was already disinclined to like Tony on account of him being an alien, and they were soured on age-old rumours about Xacasta being Unda's mistress.
"This is so messed up," Ambassador Kristensen said cheerfully from the seat behind Tony and Steve. The court had adjourned for recess. "Even if the evidence is circumstantial, there's enough reasonable doubt that Tony didn't do it — they shouldn't be able to convict him with this much doubt."
"Our legal system does not emphasize reasonable doubt," Aru spoke. She was sitting beside Kristensen, in a long black skirt and a blouse with brass buttons. "Although many aspects are similar with your democratic trials, we have a few major differences. For instance, we have a much heavier emphasis on character witness."
"Yeah, I know," Tony said, turning around. He braced his arms against the back of the seat, and Steve struggled not to touch him, however briefly. Tony was looking exhausted again. "But we had Steve take the stand, and it didn't seem to move the jury much. Which is ridiculous, because who's a more trustworthy character witness than Steve?"
"True," Kristensen said. "If we were in the U.S., you'd have been a free man weeks ago."
"My people do not know Steve," Aru said apologetically. "His legend means little to us. Our equivalents would be a high priest or the—" She trailed off and looked at the roof. "Excuse me," she said suddenly. "I will be right back."
"Where's she going?" Tony asked, watching Aru hurry out of the courtroom.
"No idea," Steve said. He looked at Tony again. "But I want you to know. No matter what the jury decides, I won't let them throw you into prison. We'll run away and be fugitives if we have to."
"I don't think you'd make a very good fugitive, Cap," Tony said. "For one, you have little wings sprouting out of your head on most days."
"I mean it," Steve said. Tony's eyes flashed, but he didn't reply. Instead, he turned back around again, facing the front where Majumdar was arguing with her junior lawyers about the next cross-examination.
"The two of you remind me of what it was like with my ex-husband," Kristensen remarked.
"The two of you are divorced?" Steve asked warily.
"He ran off with a hooker from Cleveland," Kristensen said. "What a douchebag. That's strictly off the record, by the way. I don't think U.N. ambassadors are allowed to go around calling people douchebags. Even if they are. I mean, she was eighteen. God."
Steve made a face.
When the trial resumed, Aru still hadn't returned. Steve looked around for her, but she was nowhere in sight. He caught a glimpse of Xacasta in the back row, but Xacasta shook her head. Back in front, the imperial prosecutor was re-examining one of the guards who had found Unda's body.
Steve really disliked this man. He was so self-righteous, flapping his mouth as he said, "From what we know, Va Stark has a history of... unreliable behaviour. Even his own people don't trust him, so why should we?" He made a flippant gesture with his right hand, on which Steve could see the trademark silver bracelet that all the Becknazians wore on. It reminded Steve of the bracelet in his own pocket, the one with the ruby eye. He touched it absently.
"He has no one to vouch for him," the guard said. "No one who has come to tell us that he is a good man, aside from his husband, whose testimony I question for bias. If Va Stark is so important, so loved in his world, as his lawyers keep on telling us, why does he have no emperor to come and support him?"
"Ah, but you shouldn't be so hasty," said a voice at the courtroom door. Steve turned around at the same time as everybody else, and he didn't get why all the Becknazians gasped and bowed their heads, not at first. There was a young man at the door, dressed in formal white robes, surrounded by three burly-looking guards, and also — Aru, lingering behind them, practically wringing her hands.
Steve finally recognized the newcomer. It was Ea, the boy from the washroom. He looked different now that he wasn't wearing skinny pants, a scarf, and a lip piercing, so it took a while to see who he was.
Ea stepped forward with his entourage, and even the judge lowered his eyes reverentially. It was then that Steve saw the bracelets around Ea's bare arms, and remembered what they had once told him: five for the emperor, six for the gods.
A herald spoke out. "All rise for His Holiness, Ealanus of the House of Night, Fourteenth of His Line, Emperor of Becknazy, High Archon of the Church of Theos, and Lord of the Hundred Islands."
"Ninety-nine islands, technically," Ealanus remarked as everyone scraped to their feet. "I think one fell into the sea the other day. We'll have to do something about that."
He moved lazily up the courtroom. "Hey Harta, how's it going?" he asked one of the sherriffs. "Banitan, we haven't seen you around for a while. Still got that pretty girlfriend?" he said to the imperial prosecutor. He grinned up the judge. "Tenka. You've lost weight."
"It's very kind of you to notice," the judge said drolly.
The emperor faced the jury. "Hello, jury," he said. "I'm glad to see the law being upheld by such an attractive group of people."
Steve heard Aru growl under her breath. "Ealanus..."
"Sorry, Aru," he said cheerfully. "Did you want me to move faster?"
To Steve's surprise, Aru didn't bother to lower her voice. "Yes, I want you to move faster!" she said. "I want you to stop dallying around, speak more formally as befitting your station, and get up to do your job!" She punctuated each word with a jab into Ealanus' shoulder.
"Ow," he said. "Guards, are you going to just let that happen?"
"Get up there!" Aru said.
"Going, going!" Ealanus replied. He addressed Judge Tenka. "If the court will allow it, I present myself as a character witness for Tony Stark." It was the first time Steve had ever heard a Becknazian formally say Tony's name without the honorific 'va', but if anyone could get away with it, it was this boy.
"I don't see how we have much of a choice," the judge said, while the jury murmured amongst themselves, a sudden current of curiosity. The guard who'd been testifying earlier left, looking stunned and shellshocked. Ealanus took his place on the stand, fussed with his hair for a brief moment, and then crossed his legs.
"I do not know Tony Stark personally," he said. "I don't know what his favourite food is, what sports teams he roots for, whether or not he can touch his elbow with his tongue. We are not friends, Tony Stark and I, though I think I would like to be." Ealanus gaze out at the crowd, smiling a private little smile. "What I know is this: a dear school friend of mine has lived under the mercy of Tony Stark, in the shadow of his hospitality, isolated from the rest of her people, and she tells me he is a good man, a man who would never kill Unda in cold blood. She speaks highly of him, and I have never, ever doubted her good judgement. If she trusts Tony Stark, then I do too."
"Legally questionable," Kristensen whispered behind Steve. "A friend-of-a-friend character witness?"
But Ealanus was the Emperor of Becknazy, High Archon of the Church of Theos, and Lord of the Hundred Islands, and this wasn't a democracy. Steve could see the sudden doubt that appeared in the once-hardened expressions of the jury. He began to let himself hope.
Ealanus stayed behind in the courtroom for the end of the trial. When the jury finally shuffled out to begin their deliberations, he put his feet on the seat in front of him and folded his arms behind his head. "I hope that helped," he said. "I don't think it would have been enough if you hadn't had the circumstantial evidence of Sabotage and Xacasta, but with everything added together? Who knows."
"You idiot," Aru said. "Your coming here? It helped."
"It was more fun than looking over tax reforms, that's for sure," Ealanus agreed. He started taking off his robes right in front of them. Everyone stared. When he shrugged the robes over his head, they saw he was wearing jeans and a Rolling Stones t-shirt underneath. "Nice, isn't it?" he said. "The ambassadors brought it as a welcoming gift."
"I thought it was crazy," Kristensen said, "but Stark met you before any of us, and he said you'd like it."
"I was right, wasn't I?" Tony said.
Steve thought back, trying to remember why he'd never been part of any delegation to meet the emperor. Conflict of schedules, probably, and he might have been called away on Avengers business one of the times.
A black-clad guard leaned over and whispered into the emperor's ear. "Right," Ealanus said. "There's a jet waiting to take me to the city of Virtue to help with trade negotiations. I'm out of here, everyone. Good luck!" He tossed his robe at Aru and sauntered off.
"Huh," said Tony. "We should invite him over for parties. I like that guy."
And when, six hours later, the jury shuffled back into the courtroom to declare Tony innocent, Steve decided that he did too.
There was a party that night, in their hotel room. Everyone showed up: the lawyers and legal aides, the ambassadors, Aru and her mother, their scattered Becknazian supporters. Even Fury popped his head in at one point, tossed back a few shots, and disappeared into the darkness with his coat flapping behind him.
Tony, at the centre of it, raised his glass. "Guys! Guys! Eyes on me!" he said. "I mean, obviously that should be the natural state of things, but just saying." Someone jeered. One of the junior lawyers laughed. "But seriously," Tony said. "You guys stopped me from bashing my head into the wall. You kept me sane. Now drink until you pass out!"
No one needed any coaxing on that front. Except for Steve, who was morosely leaning against a back wall, nursing a Shirley Temple and watching the party go on, everyone crammed into their hotel room, which was spacious, sure, but not nearly enough for all the people who'd come to wish Tony congratulations. There were people on the bed and sitting on the dresser, and perched on the kitchen counter — music and lights and empty beer cans lining the tables like ants.
Aru came up to him, tipsy. "Captain!" she said brightly. "Why are you not — why are you not with Va Stark?"
He looked at Tony, who was sprawling all over a beautiful female ambassador with platinum hair. "Aru," he began, "I sort of have a confession to make. Tony and I weren't engaged when we first came to Becknazy. We weren't together."
"You mean..." her brows furrowed in deep, drunken concentration. "You lied to the court?"
"It doesn't matter now," Steve said. "Court can't do anything about it now that Tony's free to go."
"Yes," Aru said slowly. She seemed to think about it for a great deal. "Oh well!" she finally said, brightening again. "That is all in the past, isn't it? You and Va Stark might not have been together when this first began, but now you are, and I wish you all the happiness!" She lifted her glass and clumsily clanked it against his, except Steve didn't move, so her drink sloshed onto her feet. "Oh," she said sadly.
"No, you don't understand," Steve said. "We're still not together. I'm waiting for him to give me the divorce papers." His eyes trailed back to Tony, who was laughing now, head thrown back.
"Huh?" said Aru.
"What?" said Steve, turning back to her.
"I am confused," Aru admitted. "There are approximately three too many emotions in this conversation for me to comprehend."
Steve smiled and plucked her empty glass out of her hand. "So, what do you plan to do? Now that you don't have to trail me and Tony around anymore. Are you going back to engineering?"
Aru swayed on her feet. "My mother is taking over Unda's company. She... she offered me a position. But engineering was the old me. The old me was never very happy. I want to do something different. Do you know what I mean? I want to be brave."
"You are brave, kiddo," Steve said, rapping her head with his knuckles. She shooed him away. "Thank you for getting the emperor to testify. That meant a lot."
"Oh, Ealanus," she said in tones of absolute disdain. "He was such a pest at Natawen. Always following me around, throwing pens at my head. No one ever thought he would succeed the throne, but then his two older siblings died in a train accident. So, he got the crown. I hate his guts."
"Okay," Steve said peaceably.
"But I mean it. I want to do something new. Does NYU take exchange students from outer space?"
"If they don't, we'll make sure they do," Steve promised her. "Tony's got loads of connections, and he owes you."
"He owes you too," she pointed out.
Steve's hands tightened on his Shirley Temple. No, that wasn't true. Tony didn't owe him anything, because Steve had gotten as much out of their marriage as Tony had. But you haven't even told him how you feel, a voice in his head whispered. But he was trying. It wasn't his fault every time he tried to approach Tony, someone else wanted to get Tony's attention — there just wasn't any space for them to be alone together.
This was so hard, he thought. It was making him question himself.
Steve had nothing but confidence in the things he could do, the fights he could win. People were an entirely different story. People were difficult.
People were always leaving Steve behind, whether they meant to or not. Whether by time or by choice or by the way Tony had turned his back to Steve when they first walked into the party — no one ever stayed around.
His thoughts swirled in his head, settled into a cool pit at the bottom of his stomach. He saw Tony break away from a gaggle of admirers and head for the washroom. Steve broke away from the wall and followed him.
"I want to talk to you," he said.
"Are you going to follow me into the bathroom?" Tony asked. "Some privacy, hello."
"It won't take long," Steve said.
"I need to pee," Tony said. "We'll talk later." And he shut the door in Steve's face.
Steve debated the merits of banging with his fists and shouting at the top of his lungs, if only to embarrass Tony in front of everyone. That'd get his attention, no doubt. But it'd embarrass him too. Ugh, he needed to regroup.
By the time the party was winding down and Majumdar was approaching him, he was determinedly not brooding on the balcony. "Here," she said, handing him the envelope, sounding none too sober. "Stark wanted me to give you these."
Steve opened the envelope. Yep, there they were. The divorce papers. Strangely, Tony hadn't added his signature to any of the pages, but it was just like Tony to always want to get the last word. "Did he say anything?" Steve asked, looking around for Tony. But his soon-to-be ex-husband had disappeared from the party with a group of engineers long ago.
"Not a thing," Majumdar said, and Steve smiled slightly, a crooked smile that felt like a hook pulling up one side of his mouth.
"Okay," he said, putting the papers back into the envelope. "I'll have them back to you by tomorrow."
The hotel room was completely trashed, so Steve had to get another one on the other side of the building. It was smaller, and the lights burned brilliantly as he turned them on, sliding over the tiled kitchen floor in bare feet. He tossed his shoes and his coat on the ground before sitting at the island counter with the papers and a pen. He read over all of the documents carefully, and then he dotted his Is and crossed his Ts.
When he was finished, and had slid the envelope under Majumdar's door, he crawled into his bed and pulled the covers up to his chin. He could hear the humming of the sky-shields all around him, and he thought it'd be hard to fall asleep — but it'd been a long day. He was out in ten minutes.
He woke up to the sound of someone banging on his door. Whoever it was, they were pretty insistent. The sound seemed to go on forever as Steve slid out of bed and crossed the floor, peering through the eyehole. These hotels always made it so blurry, but it looked like Tony. He hesitated, but then he threw the door open.
"Hi," said Steve.
Tony looked like shit. He was better than the last time he'd come harassing Steve's room in the middle of the night — there was no blood on him, thankfully, no signs of gruesome murder, but his hair was a rat's nest and his eyes were bloodshot. He smelled like booze. Steve took a step back, and Tony barged his way inside.
"What time is it?" Steve yawned. He glanced at his clock and was surprised to see that it wasn't night at all. Seven a.m — huh. The lack of sunlight on Becknazy messed with his internal rhythms sometimes. He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept past dawn. "Tony, are you okay?" he added. "Not that I'm not happy to see you, but..."
His voice trailed off when he saw what Tony was carrying. "Oh, that," he finally said, scratching the back of his neck. "I returned those to Majumdar. It's pretty early in the day for you to have them. I thought you were going out for brunch with the engineers."
"Shut up," Tony said, and there was that furious note in his voice again, just like the night Steve had gone to the Initiative without him. Steve wondered why Tony was so angry this time — this time Steve hadn't kept anything from him. He'd come clean. Full disclosure, share and share alike. He glanced down at the papers Tony was clutching, remembering what he had scribbled in the margins of the very last form.
"I guess you saw that, huh," he said.
"Yeah, I saw it," Tony said sarcastically. "I must be pretty stupid after all, because I have no idea what you're trying to do. I mean, why?" He shook the divorce papers at Steve, too fast for Steve to read anything, but Steve didn't need any reminder of what he'd jotted down.
Love you. Sorry.
"Are you trying to fuck with my head?" Tony demanded. "I really didn't think you would stoop that low."
Now Steve was more confused than ever. "Why would I mess with your head?" He started feeling defensive. If Tony was so disturbed by what Steve had written —
"Because it's not true!" Tony shouted. Steve recoiled, but the spring had already been sprung, and Tony advanced on him. "I know you married me just so I'd get bail, I know you put on an act for Aru and the Becknazian government, I know you weren't happy." He ran his hands over his eyes. "Christ, Steve, why do you keep on doing this? The trial's over. You don't have to pretend anymore."
There were words welling inside of Steve's chest, but they kept on colliding into each other, getting tangled and jumbled. "I wasn't pretending," he finally managed to say, which seemed like such a small thing when he had already told Tony that he loved him.
"Stop it," Tony said. "Just stop it."
Steve pulled himself together and said it again. "I wasn't pretending," he repeated, grabbing Tony by the arm so that Tony would stop rubbing at his eyes. "I'm not a good actor. I'm not good at lying."
Tony didn't pull away from Steve's grasp. Steve wanted to believe that was a good sign. "It was like you were humouring me," Tony said, shaking his head. "Like I was some pet you were taking care of because no one else wanted to. It didn't seem like you were really interested, and it was so unfair, because I've wanted you so damn long."
Steve laughed at that, a dizzying rush of relief. Tony looked offended, but Steve didn't let go. "You didn't think I was interested in bed?" he said. "You thought I was faking that? Come on." He started pulling Tony towards him, slowly, carefully, watching for signs of escape. "I know I let you make the first move most of the time, but I'm not good at this. At being with people. And I thought you were."
"You thought I was some kind of expert in healthy, loving relationships?" Tony said incredulously.
"Well, it worked on me, didn't it?"
"I couldn't tell," Tony said honestly, and Steve started to smile. He thought of the distance between them these past few weeks, the way Tony hadn't touched him even once — and now everything seemed changed, all the answers, every stupid thing he'd believed. Steve's smile flooded flooded out of him like a Becknazian skylight, and he reached down to stroke his thumbs over Tony's cheekbones in what was a ridiculously tender gesture. Yesterday it would have felt like a risk. Not today. Tony shuddered and opened his eyes, staring straight at Steve, the scales falling away to reveal a barely burning hope.
Steve's heart was beating a victory song, a homecoming. "Hi," he said. "I'm Steve. I think you should marry me. Or at the very least, let me take you out for milkshakes."
Tony made a sound in his throat that was half terrified sob, half helpless giggle. It was the strangest, most amazing sound Steve had ever heard. "Seriously?"
"Are you suggesting I'm frivolous about milkshakes? Because I never am."
"I think you're—" Tony cut off as Steve kissed his jaw. He tried to speak again. "One problem."
"What? What is it?" Steve kissed him again.
"About the — ah! — date." Tony tried to wriggle free, not that he was trying very hard. "Your old husband never signed the divorce papers. Could be dangerous. Haven't you heard? He once stood trial for murder."
"Really?" Steve beamed. "But I heard he was acquitted."
Tony leaned into him. "Yeah, turns out he was, lucky guy," he said, and Steve only had so much patience before he wrapped Tony's wrists in his hands, reeled him in, and kissed him.
EPILOGUE: Five years later
A delivery boy had accosted him halfway up 47th street, nearly knocking him over with his bike. "Got something for you!" he said, and Steve juggled the two bags of groceries he'd been carrying from Chinatown, taking the envelope that the boy on the bike was shoving at him.
The boy had hair like nothing Steve had ever seen before, and a suspicion started to grow — but Steve didn't get enough time before the boy jammed his feet onto his pedals, rang his bell once, and said, "See ya!", wheeling off in a bright, furious streak.
The envelope was warm in Steve's hands. He opened it right there, read the invitation nestled in its pocket, and then folded it carefully back inside. He tucked it into one of his grocery bags, right next to the leafy bok choy still spritzy with moisture and the candied ginger that Tony was always craving. Halfway between 47th and Stark Tower Steve gave into the shameful urge to rip open the candy bag and eat one himself — he was becoming more like Tony every day, it was horrible, he used to have such good self-control. Where had it gone?
He didn't have any scissors on him, and the bag was surprisingly tough. It flew open with a hard tug, and ginger fell onto the wet March cement.
It was the least of his distractions. On the way home, he stopped a purse-thief, helped a lady pick out cans from a recycling bin, nearly got himself tangled up in a Caribbean parade, and stopped to look at fish in the window of a pet store, watching them swimming around lazily in golden swirls. "Right," Steve said to himself when he finally noticed the time, pulling himself together to hurry back, because it was getting dark now, he'd skipped lunch to help Natasha with one of her missions, and Tony was probably reduced to eating dry ramen out of the bag for dinner, horror of horrors.
The envelope the bike-boy had given him was still warm when Steve made it back, making enough noise in the doorway to let Tony know he was home. There wasn't an answer, so Steve followed the trail of ramen sprinkles to the lab, where Tony was recalibrating the newest ACR reactor model, now ten times more stabilized for the Earth atmosphere.
Tony looked up from his computers. "What's that?" he asked, rolling his chair backwards. He miscalculated and rolled too far — Steve stuck out his foot and stopped him on his path into the nearby bookshelves.
"It came from Becknazy," he said, holding up the envelope.
"Am I in trouble again?" Tony asked suspiciously. "Because, you know, I'm sick and tired of trials. This time, let's just escape to some desert island, change our names, and frolic naked in the sand." He grinned up at Steve. "FYI, I'm all up for some naked frolicking."
"You'll get sunburned," Steve said sensibly. He opened the envelope and removed the creamy woven paper. "It's a wedding invitation. Let's see... 'Va Stark and Va Rogers, you are cordially invited to celebrate the holy union of marriage between Aru of the House of Dusk and Ealanus of the House of Night, Fourteenth of His Line, Emperor of Becknazy, High Archon of Theos..." He didn't even finish the rest before he started snickering.
"Are you really surprised?" Tony said. "He was sending her roses all the time when she was at school here." He grabbed the invitation from Steve to read it himself. Their fingers brushed along the way.
"She threw them in the garbage," Steve recalled. Aru had lived in Stark Tower for a year before moving out with her new college buddies, so he knew more about the state of her trash than he'd ever wanted to.
"Not all of them," Tony said. "I'm pretty sure she hid some in her closet. You never noticed? Her clothes always smelled like flowers." He waved the invitation in the air. "I guess we're going, then."
"We're going," Steve said firmly. "If Aru is going to be Empress of Becknazy, she needs her embarrassing human uncles present."
Tony rolled his eyes. He was still sitting on his swivel chair, but he reached up and grabbed Steve by the collar, forcing him to bend down. "You're so..."
"Yes?" Steve said. "Maternal? Old-fashioned? Enthusiastic?"
"...sweaty," Tony finished. "You had a good time with Natasha? Saving the world again?"
"Yeah," Steve said, and smiled as Tony kissed him with the full force of his morning stubble.
"You know I have a thing for that," Tony said. This time he stood up for real, hooking one finger inside Steve's shirt, pulling him along the way to the door. "Guess what, I also have this sudden desire to go back to bed and fuck your brains out. How about it, lust lettuce? It's the least you could do, since I had to marry you instead of Thor." He turned around and smirked. "Remember? I could have been Queen of Asgard. My tiara would have been the sparkliest in the realm."
"And you would have had to deal with Loki as your in-law," Steve said, manfully shouldering the burden of being Tony's lust lettuce. Again.
Tony shuddered. "Oh yeah."
When they reached their bedroom, Steve tossed Tony onto the bed, and Tony laughed as he almost kicked Steve in the chin. The mattress dipped as Steve dodged the kick, and climbed back on, eagerly divesting Tony of his ratty Iron Maiden t-shirt. "I'm glad you didn't marry Thor," Steve said very seriously, and Tony responded by sticking his hands down Steve's pants.
There were lots of things Steve didn't know. He didn't know how to build a reactor, he didn't know how to invest in mutual funds, he didn't know how to windsurf, he didn't know how to knit a scarf without it getting tangled every single time — and before he also had never known that it was possible to live like this, breathing in the air with someone you loved, their fingers laced with yours, their triumphant smile against your mouth. You learned something new every day.
They were rolling around in their bedroom, which was messy and imperfect and all of it wonderfully familiar after all this time. Sometimes he still couldn't believe it, how they had learned to make their space together, and then how they'd filled that space— there were Tony's printed schematics lying beside Steve's stash of yarn, Steve's shield tucked beside Tony's ever-growing collection of shoes. Crumpled sketches from Steve's art classes were strewn beside invoices for Tony's prescriptions. There was a book on the nightstand: The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living. As Steve sat up and let Tony help peel off his shirt, his arm shot out — and he knocked it shut.