Afghanistan was Tony Stark’s Fight Club; if someone knew about it, they weren’t supposed to talk about it. If there were any doubts about that, Tony would none-too-gently push them to refer to Rule 1, which was to not talk about Afghanistan.
The captivity that had lasted almost a month marked the hardest period of time in Tony’s life. It brutally threw aside all his childhood disappointments and the death of his parents. It bypassed any prior postulations he had about being kidnapped and tossed any training he had received since he was old enough to understand the concept that there were people who might want to hurt him out the window.
There were times Tony could almost imagine Afghanistan hadn’t happened. He would have surely been successful if not for the hole in his chest, the miniaturized arc reactor stuck inside it to keep him alive and cause him near-constant pain.
Tony’d had a plan to escape, to save himself and Yinsen – a man who had given him another shot at life with an electromagnet hooked into a car battery, digging out all the shrapnel he could from Tony’s chest cavity. Tony had planned out a weapon – not the one the terrorists were asking for – to free them, yet those plans were little more than shapes on paper when they were rescued – when Tony was rescued; Yinsen died in the firefight, bleeding out in Tony’s arms, asking him not to throw away his life, to make it mean something.
Just because Tony Stark’s name decorated the side of the world’s most advanced weapons it didn’t mean he had done anything worthwhile with his life, it seemed.
When Rhodey and the military found and rescued him, Tony didn’t cope well. He wanted time to think, wanted space to sort it all out. He tried shutting down Stark Industries’ weapons manufacturing division, to give himself more time to consider the options, but of course the board – or rather, Obadiah Stane, who had helped run the company since the beginning –wasn’t having any of that.
It had been a constant tug-of-war ever since. The board wanted to push Tony to the side, whether it was for the good of the company or because he was suffering from PTSD. Tony in return doubted everyone’s motives, refusing to understand why they couldn’t embrace a new direction for the company.
This had been going on for months. Tony had mostly returned to his own life, spending more and more time at his home in Malibu. He had improved the arc reactor in his chest and had learned to cope with the pain it brought with it. He struggled with nightmares and reminders for a time, drinking more than he should, pushing away the people who tried to help, mainly Rhodey and Pepper. A part of his life had come to an end in that cave in Afghanistan and no one saw it the way he did. They simply assumed it would get easier, eventually.
It was almost two years after Afghanistan when Tony watched a feed in his workshop of a portal opening above the White House and aliens called the Chitauri trying to invade Earth.
That was the day when a group of five heroes called ‘The Avengers’ narrowly defeated the Chitauri and the world was unlikely to be the same afterwards.
Steve Rogers heard his voice echo on the walls. This place was a maze; an old factory area with thick walls, tunnels beneath the complexes, multiple buildings interlocked and either the area itself or the monster they were chasing was giving off interference and they had lost all communications with S.H.I.E.L.D. almost as soon as they entered. He could only hope his team’s communicators were still working, although the Hulk had never been particularly good with one and Thor had managed to break most models given to him. Director Fury had promised they would get Thor’s to work but for the Hulk there was little hope.
A roar made the floor tremble, meaning the Hulk was somewhere beneath him; a labyrinth of old access tunnels lay beneath the basement level, then layers upon layers of maintenance shafts and hidden laboratories that didn’t appear on any map. Because of the interference any further investigation of the area had been pointless and they were just running around blind.
The monster they were chasing was able to divide itself into multiple smaller parts which was why the five Avengers had lost each other. Steve was desperate to remedy that; they needed to find a way to stop the creature from multiplying – and thus escaping – and contain it. Bruce Banner may have had a few ideas but as soon as one of the mini-creatures bit him in the arm, the Hulk had come out and any plans in the making had quickly disappeared in the wave of rage that followed.
Holding his shield more firmly, Steve stopped at another juncture, trying to decide where to go. Left, right, or ahead? There were also stairs on the right, which meant he could go up or down or stay where he was.
The comm signal rattled faintly in his ear, almost like static. It had been quiet for a long time now and he wondered if he was closing in on something. Perhaps Thor.
“Go left,” a voice suddenly spoke in his ear, the static distorting it slightly, making him jump.
Steve didn’t recognize the voice and looked towards the left suspiciously.
“Go left, then take the second door on the right, cross the room and take the stairs up to the top floor. You will find Hawkeye there.”
“Who is this?” Steve asked, raising his hand to his ear as if that would make him hear better and unveil the identity of the foreign voice. He still looked, with suspicion, towards the hallway leading to the left.
“You’re wasting time, Captain,” the voice suggested. A male who had an accent that was both soft and polite. British, Steve’s brain supplied from memory. Strangely clean as if the emotions behind the words had been taken down a notch, perhaps coming through a filter of some kind to distort the origin.
He decided left was just as good as any and went that way, selecting the second door on the right then found himself in a large space. He looked up, finding catwalks, then took the stairs and climbed them swiftly yet as silently as he could.
It wasn’t silent enough to stop alarming his fellow Avenger, who aimed an arrow at him before recognizing Captain America’s uniform. “Hey, Cap,” Clint Barton greeted. “Seen anyone else?”
“I heard the Hulk,” Steve admitted. “Is your radio working?”
“I just… Never mind, let’s find the others.”
Clint nodded and they walked to another door, searching several more hallways.
“Captain,” the voice startled him a moment later. This time there wasn’t even static. “Go down the stairs you find before you. Three floors down. You’ll find Black Widow – and one sixth of that monster.”
“Let’s take the stairs,” Steve said when they arrived before them. “Three floors down.”
“Why three?” Clint asked, frowning. “You know something I don’t?”
“Call it a hunch.”
They followed the instructions and discovered Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow standing over one of the monsters. It seemed she had subdued this one, although not without a price, carrying a few nasty-looking scratches where claws and teeth had torn her body-hugging catsuit. She didn’t ask how they found her, although Clint was beginning to harbor suspicions about Cap’s direction-giving.
“Thor is in another building. He just punched through the ceiling and is flying around the premises,” the voice told Steve next. Neither Clint nor Natasha seemed to be hearing it, busy securing the monster beside him. “Two of the six creatures have merged into one and has followed him outdoors. The Hulk is hunting down the last three creatures and demolishing various basement levels. He will cause them to cave in soon; I recommend intervention before the area becomes unstable.”
“You recommend?” Steve replied, making the S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives look at him in confusion. For now he didn’t care. “How do you know this and how are you talking to me?”
“I am better equipped than S.H.I.E.L.D.,” the voice noted dryly, as if taking offense that his capabilities were being questioned.
“Who’re you talking to?” Clint asked.
“I have no idea but he’s given me pretty good advice up till now,” Steve admitted.
“My radio’s been dead for as long as we’ve been in here,” Natasha contemplated. “How are you talking to someone – especially on a secure, encrypted channel? No one should be able to connect to our comm signals other than us and S.H.I.E.L.D.”
“Why don’t you ask him that if you get the chance; right now we need to get the Hulk out of the basement before he turns this entire area into one giant sinkhole.” Steve wasn’t happy about it but the advice had been good so far and he might dare to trust it a bit longer. It wasn’t as if he had any better information to go on; they’d been running blind until this mystery person had contacted him.
It took them an hour to corral the Hulk out into the open and round up all the monsters, which merged back into the giant one for the last, desperate battle. Thor, who was quite upset by then, almost fried the thing with lightning so strong it dug a massive crater into the yard.
S.H.I.E.L.D. choppers and vehicles arrived soon after to help with the clean-up and containment and the comm stayed silent in Steve’s ear.
It happened several more times in the next few months and not only in situations where S.H.I.E.L.D. couldn’t reach them but whenever the Avengers, knowingly or unknowingly, needed guidance, whether it was for directions or information. Part of Steve came to expect it and he felt grateful whenever their victory was ensured by the assistance of the pleasant voice in his ear; people were saved and that was the most important thing.
When the person behind the unidentified voice hacked S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time in order to get his hands on some information Fury had been withholding from the Avengers, the cat was now out of the bag. The Director was furious that Steve hadn’t reported it after the first time – nor had any of the other Avengers mentioned it, strangely enough.
“He has broken into our secret files and compromised our secure channels of communication,” Fury growled out. “Can you understand the danger?”
“I understand that whoever this guy is, he’s gotten us out of a lot of tight spots,” Steve argued. “He might not be doing it in the usual way, but he’s helped us save lives. Just last week Natasha would have died if it hadn’t been for the information he gave us about the antidote to counteract the poison she was infected with.”
Natasha didn’t vocally add to Steve’s theory but the twitch of her lips meant she agreed.
“So he’s been helping,” Fury admitted through a clenched jaw, “but he’s hacking us and if someone manages to hack him, then we’re all in trouble. I cannot stress that enough, I realize. We have to find him, and we’ll bring him in. You’re dismissed.”
The Avengers rose and headed out towards their rooms on the lower deck.
“That was entertaining,” Clint mused.
“Cap,” Bruce called out and Steve slowed down, falling slightly behind the others with the scientist. “You don’t want him caught?” Bruce went on in a low voice.
“I can only imagine what S.H.I.E.L.D. will do to him when he’s found,” Steve explained his concern. “We might not know him, or his motivations, but he’s only helped us so far. How he’s doing it doesn’t matter to me, only what he chooses to do with that knowledge and power.”
“Sometimes people with power go over to the dark side,” Natasha mused ahead of them, listening to their conversation.
“The Voice has been very helpful,” Thor reminded them needlessly. They called him ‘the Voice’ because they didn’t have his name. “He should come out of hiding and greet us in person, like the worthy ally he is.”
“Fury would throw him into a prison cell if he did,” Clint reminded their Asgardian friend. “Breaking into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s systems is the same as hacking into any government database – probably worse. He would disappear and no one would ever hear of him again. Or they would hire him, although I think Fury’s too pissed to throw that card on the table.”
“He did say a few unsavory things about the Director the last time we spoke,” Thor grinned.
“It seems Fury does bring out another side of the Voice,” Bruce said thoughtfully. “There’s a lot more to him than friendly advice. He’s highly intelligent and capable – not to mention his unconventional ways of managing problems.”
“What do you mean?” Steve asked.
“We’ve talked a few times. He’s the reason I haven’t left yet,” Bruce shrugged. “He convinced me to stay, in his own way. If we ever find him, I might have to thank him for that – or not, depending on how things end.”
That explained a lot; Steve had expected Bruce to leave after the Chitauri had been defeated, yet the man had hung around, looking nervously over his shoulder every five seconds yet there had seemed to be something pulling him towards the Avengers every time he started to get anxious. Steve had hoped Bruce would stay because he could do a lot of good here, both as Bruce Banner and the Hulk, but now that the Voice’s interference had been brought to his attention, be wondered what the two of them had talked about.
Bruce seemed to guess what he was thinking about and smiled. “It wasn’t anything special. He just… challenged me to give the other guy a shot at this and it has been going well so far. I don’t want to prove him wrong, although I fear I eventually will. Plus he promised to warn me if S.H.I.E.L.D. or the Army were trying to lure me into a trap,” he added with a shrug which betrayed a little of the tension that admission caused in him.
Steve wasn’t sure what to say to that. Maybe this guy didn’t like the authorities much. Could be he was a rebel of some kind, yet he had been helping them and Steve would thank him for that, no matter what.
“Where is it we’re going, sir?” Steve asked. They had flown to the West Coast and were now driving up a winding road. The sea was on the left, vast and blue, yet dropping beneath them as the road began to rise higher.
“Stark’s Malibu estate,” Director Fury announced, engrossed in some file in his hands.
“And why am I here?” Steve inquired; of course he had an interest in finally meeting Tony Stark, the only son of Howard Stark whom Steve had known before he disappeared in the ice for seventy years. He had looked Tony up before, having been sent files of the people he had known prior to the first mission with the Avengers, yet he hadn’t taken the step to actually meet the guy. He wasn’t sure how much Howard had told his son about Captain America and he didn’t want to intrude.
“You never know how these things will go with Mr. Stark. You might score a few points,” Fury raised his eyes to look at him. “His father knew you. He adored you as a kid. Now, as an adult, Tony doesn’t adore anyone but himself, but I might just get lucky and drag his attention toward my problems long enough to get something useful out of him.”
“He’s a weapons designer,” Steve recalled. His memory was excellent, actually, but he wished to hear Fury’s side of the story.
“Among other things. Weapons haven’t been his favorite topic since he got kidnapped while doing a demonstration in Afghanistan. Try to avoid talking about that; it’s a sore spot. His company still makes weapons but there has been criticism that Tony has no real interest in it anymore and the innovation has gone back a few steps. He’s been focusing on other things since he got back a couple years ago and I have a few applications I want him to take a look at – and perhaps he’ll help us track down the hacker as well.”
Steve sighed. He had hoped Fury would give up on the witch-hunt he had started to track down the Voice. Steve had only agreed to be of help so that he would know if they were getting close; he still wanted to show his gratitude to the person who had helped them out, no matter his means of getting there. As long as the Voice wasn’t hurting anyone…
“We’re here,” Fury noted and put his file away. They had pulled up beside a house that looked like a work of art with round edges and innovative design. Steve was still looking at it when Fury strode to the door and rang the bell. Steve followed the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., wondering if he should have come dressed as Captain America and not his civilian clothes, yet Fury hadn’t insisted on it which meant it either didn’t matter or it was better this way.
The door opened and a somewhat burly man faced them in the doorway; Steve could tell he had muscle under his clothes, perhaps some training, but with his shorter stature and stance, he didn’t look like most agents Steve had been around recently. The man looked them over then gestured for them to come in. “Ms. Potts will be with you in a moment.”
“We’re here to see Mr. Stark,” Fury noted.
“He… isn’t available right now, but Ms. Potts will let you know if that changes.”
“Right,” Fury said sharply and strode inside. Steve followed him and soon found himself in a living room, the space wide around him and the view over the sea incredible. If he didn’t know better, he’d have thought that this entire house was built into the side of the cliff, defying gravity.
As they waited, Fury’s phone rang and he answered, pacing back and forth as he argued with whomever was at the other end.
Steve guessed he could look around a bit, to see more of this eccentric building. There was art on the walls and he followed the pieces along the hallway, admiring them, able to tell none of them were copies and that many were fairly valuable from known artists. He kept looking for more until he could no longer hear Fury’s voice, which snapped him out of it and he guessed he should head back before he got into trouble for snooping around in Stark’s home.
He was just about to turn back when he heard a voice to his right, coming from somewhere down the hall. Steve couldn’t make out the words perfectly but he recognized the tone instantly.
He moved towards it, checking out each room, not finding anyone.
“Ms. Potts is talking to him right now,” the Voice’s muffled tone spoke up behind one door.
Steve didn’t hesitate and entered the room on his left, fully expecting to find the owner of the voice which he had heard in his ear for months now – but there was no-one there; just some gym equipment, a treadmill in front of a large screen and other stuff for someone who wasn’t obsessed but wanted to keep fit. “Hello?” he called out, looking around. He was certain his ears hadn’t deceived him and it had been the voice he had heard many times – which he expected and looked forward to hearing during every mission these days.
A door was ajar on the other side of the room and he pondered what lay beyond it. A man suddenly stepped through it with a bottle of some sports drink in his hand. He froze, brown eyes finding Steve instantly as if he didn’t belong there – which he didn’t. “Are you lost?” he asked Steve without preamble.
“Is there someone else here?” Steve asked him in return.
“No one but me,” the man replied. That was when Steve’s distracted brain actually decided to focus on something other than the Voice and supplied him with the fact that he was currently talking to Tony Stark himself.
“I heard someone. Someone who wasn’t you,” Steve insisted. He didn’t need to hear but a word from Tony to know it wasn’t him he was looking for.
The man shrugged and opened his drink, taking a sip. “Living room’s that way,” he pointed. “Or I can have Happy show you the way,” he added.
Steve guessed Happy was the man who had let them into the house in the first place. He felt like asking about the Voice again, to make sure, but if Tony had already told him he was alone then he was unlikely to change his mind suddenly. Steve turned to return to the living room, trying to think of a way to pinpoint the location of the voice, then heard it again:
“Sir, Obadiah Stane is calling,” the familiar voice announced from the side.
“I don’t care. I’m still mad at him, remember?” Tony responded.
Steve was back in the gym so fast Tony almost dropped the bottle in his hand, bringing his free palm up to his chest.
“What?” Tony snapped, breathing hard a few times.
“I heard him. You just talked to him,” Steve pressed closer, further into the room, searching the space, then the door which led to the kitchen.
“Well, that’s Jarvis,” Tony shrugged.
“Who’s Jarvis?” Steve frowned.
“He’s my AI,” the other man explained, a hint of annoyance in his voice. When Steve showed no sign of comprehension he went on, even more annoyed: “An artificial intelligence. If you really want to insult him, you might call him a really advanced computer program.”
“An AI,” Steve tested the word.
“Good day, Mr. Rogers,” the voice greeted him, familiar as ever, yet instead of being in the comm in his ear it came from the room at large.
Steve looked up, trying to pinpoint something to look at. “We –”
“What are you doing?” a woman’s voice interrupted him sharply. A lady with red hair stood in the doorway from which Steve had entered, looking far more annoyed than Tony who was still sucking down his drink.
“I –” Steve started.
“He got lost,” Tony supplied.
“This way, please,” she said primly and Steve knew he had to follow her out, no matter how many questions he had for the Voice – this… Jarvis. “And Tony?” the woman stopped, almost making Steve run into her. “I thought you said you weren’t feeling well. Go to bed. Not the one in the workshop, either. I need you operational tomorrow and Obadiah needs to talk –”
“I’m fine, and tell Obie not to bother because like I told Jarvis, I don’t want to see him, or hear him,” Tony replied.
“There was a board meeting this morning, he needs to talk to you,” the woman insisted.
“He’s the one who’s been trying to push me out! Did you know he was doing that?”
“Of course not!”
“Then stop trying to play the devil’s advocate and block his calls,” Tony snapped and threw his bottle to the side, turning around. “I’ll be in the shop.”
She sighed then resumed walking back to the living room. Fury was waiting for them, raising an eyebrow at Steve. “If you bring people over, you can’t let them just wander around,” the woman snapped at the Director.
“Of course, Ms. Potts,” Fury replied civilly. “Is Mr. Stark available?”
“No,” Ms. Potts responded. “I can leave him a message.”
Fury tossed the file on the table which he had been reading earlier. “Tell him to be in touch, or I’ll come by again.”
“Of course, Director Fury,” she said pleasantly but Steve knew where they weren’t welcome. Clearly Ms. Potts was acting as a shield between them and Tony, which meant she probably worked with him or for him. Sure, she had sounded like she was used to bossing Tony around, but he hadn’t really told her to stop which meant it was their usual way of communicating.
Not that it was important; all Steve cared about was Jarvis and finding out how Tony’s AI had been helping them with their missions.
As he and Fury got back into the car, the Director looked at him for a long time.
“Sir?” Steve finally asked.
“Did you find anything?” Fury questioned, clearly suggesting Steve had gone snooping.
“I met Mr. Stark. He seemed…” He frowned, thinking back to it. “He seemed agitated, almost. Not very forthcoming.”
Fury snorted, looking out the window. “That’s Tony Stark for you. One of the biggest brains on the planet and he’s an insufferable asshole. It’s fortunate we’ve gotten a few favors from him, though.”
Steve couldn’t say anything to that so he looked out the other window and considered his options.
In the next few weeks Steve had to restrain himself from doing anything out of the ordinary.
After meeting Tony Stark – and Jarvis – he wanted to see whether anything was going to change. The search for the hacker was still going on and Steve committed himself to that while there were no missions; he looked broodingly at screens, tossed around ideas with people much smarter than himself while constantly thinking of the incorporeal voice and its origin.
S.H.I.E.L.D. actually had a little information about Jarvis – or J.A.R.V.I.S., the AI’s official designation; they had labeled it as a program that ran Tony’s household in Malibu, with little else known about the AI. Steve wondered if that was all, or if S.H.I.E.L.D. had any idea what J.A.R.V.I.S. was capable of.
The manhunt for the hacker wasn’t really moving forward. There hadn’t been any further break-ins to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files or systems which made Steve hopeful that perhaps Fury would drop the matter. At the same time he noticed the silence in the comm, even with the chatter of everyone else’s voices; something was missing. Someone Steve had begun to expect and look forward to talking to, almost.
Steve had a solo mission three weeks after visiting Tony Stark’s home. It was something he could handle without assembling the entire team, just a bit of recon and taking down a criminal exchange of money and weapons in the docks. S.H.I.E.L.D. units were standing by and would intervene if need be. Otherwise they would just maintain perimeter and keep people from wandering into the potentially dangerous situation.
He had just gotten a good spot to follow the proceedings when his comm device let out a ping, as if he were receiving a message.
“You are being watched,” the familiar voice reached his ears.
Steve instinctively looked around but couldn’t see anything. He was on top of a building which meant it was unlikely anyone would spot him. “By you?” he guessed.
“Myself and a person in that tower in front of you.”
Steve re-directed his gaze, looking up a mast that held powerful lights on top of it. The lights were turned off, leaving the area below in darkness. He couldn’t see anyone. “How do you know?” he asked.
“Thermal cameras. Don’t look so shocked.”
Steve frowned. “Okay, so what do you think I should do?” He was already calculating the odds of hitting the man in hiding with his shield, but without seeing where he was Steve should just wait until the other guy made his move, then counter attack.
“Why would S.H.I.E.L.D. send you out there alone anyway?” the voice questioned.
“They have a chemical weapon they might set off when attacked. My body should be able to handle it.” Steve spoke quietly, still watching the events on the ground and keeping an eye on the light mast.
“That’s a lot of faith on ‘should’.”
“Do you care?”
“I’m just trying to be friendly, Captain.”
Steve smiled. “Your concern is noted.”
“Try not to set off the weapon; it might not disintegrate as fast as S.H.I.E.L.D. calculated and could carry out to the nearest buildings.”
Steve frowned. He was told that without a proper launcher the weapon was going to be weak and not pose a threat to anyone who wasn’t in its immediate vicinity. “You think S.H.I.E.L.D. miscalculated something?”
“Would you be surprised?”
“You should have faith.”
There was silence and Steve decided things had gone far enough; he climbed down, advancing, ready to make his move. A shot was fired from above when he stepped out into the open and he threw up his shield to block the attack. On the ground the men were already pulling out their guns, which was bound to make things nasty; healing or no, Steve didn’t like being shot, and there was only so much his Captain America suit could take.
He threw himself to the side behind some crates, rolling to the far edge, calculated the distance then threw his shield. It hit the light mast first then bounced back, taking out two of the men on the ground. Steve ran out after it, as quickly as he could, jumping into the midst of the criminals, taking them out one after another, then picked up his shield and knocked out the last three before grabbing a gun and shooting over his head just before another shot was fired at him.
The guy in the light mast missed.
Panting, he looked around then picked up the suitcases, making sure the one with the chemical weapon was untouched. Next he reached up to his ear to call S.H.I.E.L.D. in. None of them appeared to know he had talked to J.A.R.V.I.S. or that he’d had outside contact.
Steve wasn’t going to tell them.
After yet another briefing with Fury, Steve signaled to the other Avengers he had something to say. They left the bridge and headed out, planning on taking the Quinjet. In the hangar he turned to the others, wondering if this was how he wanted to do it but knowing he should be honest with them.
“If anyone doesn’t want to take part in this, I understand,” Steve started.
“Take part in what?” Clint raised an eyebrow, keeping his voice low.
Aware of the fact that they might be being watched, Steve looked around, then leaned in closer to the others. “I know where the Voice is,” he started. “I’m… I need to figure out the rest of it, to understand, and you’re welcome to join me.”
“You’re going to meet him,” Bruce concluded.
“I assume Fury doesn’t know,” Natasha cut in, a thoughtful look on her face.
“If that is a problem for anyone, they can stay behind,” Steve decided.
“I said nothing about that,” Natasha quirked an eyebrow.
Sometimes Steve wondered to whom she was actually loyal, and whether she would report back to Fury regardless of what she acted like.
“I want to meet the Voice,” Thor decided.
“You know where I stand on the matter,” Bruce agreed.
“None of you can pilot the Quinjet so I guess you’ll be happy to know I’m jumping into this boat with you,” Clint finished and they all climbed into the aircraft in mutual agreement. Steve wasn’t usually one to break the rules but in this case he wanted to pursue his knowledge before letting Fury in on it, knowing that the Director would be happy to put the hacker in chains and they would never agree on that.
“Where are we going?” Clint asked as they took off.
“Malibu, California,” Steve revealed once they were clear of the Helicarrier.
“Let me guess; Stark’s home?” Natasha mused. Steve looked at her in alarm but she shrugged. “Fury voiced suspicions of your behavior there. Stark has also provided some of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s tech and he has the knowledge of how to breach their systems. It’s always been a risk.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure it’s Stark,” Steve revealed then refused to say anything else during the flight.
When they arrived in Malibu it was late. The house was lit from the inside and out, though, and Clint put the Quinjet down with practiced ease on a helipad by the building then climbed out with the rest of them. Steve looked all of them over, seeing how they must appear to anyone who noticed them; Clint and Natasha were in uniform, Thor wore his usual Asgardian clothes, and Steve and Bruce were in their civvies. Steve had the shield, though, because he felt odd leaving it behind. One never knew what was going to happen.
They walked to the door and hovered there for a moment.
“Should we knock?” Clint asked after a bit with an air of impatience.
“What if no one’s home?” Bruce mused.
Thor lifted his hammer suggestively.
“Let’s not…” Steve interrupted then raised a hand and rang the bell. It suddenly dawned on him that Happy Hogan might answer the door again or that Pepper Potts would be around, which wouldn’t end well and they would probably be calling Fury within five minutes, which would leave Steve with a lot to explain.
Natasha raised her head and everyone else followed her line of sight; there was a very small, hidden camera with a perfect angle of the doorway mounted to the wall which meant anyone inside already knew they were there – or at least the AI knew.
“J.A.R.V.I.S., please let us in,” Steve spoke up. “I need to talk to you.”
“J.A.R.V.I.S.?” Natasha frowned.
“He’s the Voice,” Steve announced. “I heard him speak with Mr. Stark; that’s the voice we’ve been listening to for months, telling us what to do.”
“An Artificial Intelligence has been tracking our missions and giving us helpful hints?” Bruce turned it over in his head. “Well, I’m sure J.A.R.V.I.S. has the means but I’m not sure if –”
The lock on the door clicked softly and Steve pushed it open, leading them in. There were lights on around the house, mounted on the walls, creating a myriad of shadows in a rather tasteful and artistic way. Everything was quiet. “Is there anyone home?” Steve asked. If J.A.R.V.I.S. was alone then they would be in luck.
“Are you going to rob me if I say no?” a voice called out and Tony Stark walked into view, dressed in dark jeans and a tank top, a blue circle of light shining through the material of the tank top as if attached to his chest. He looked at them all while the door closed itself behind them. “What do you want?” he asked then, a hint of annoyance in his voice.
“I’m sorry about the late hour. We’re the Av–”
“I know who you are,” Tony interrupted Steve’s introductions. “The whole world knows after what you did in D.C.” He looked them over once again, briefly stopping at Thor, who surely wasn’t something you saw every day and then at Bruce – and strangely enough, he smiled a bit at the guy, something changing in his eyes.
Steve cleared his throat. “We’re here to talk to J.A.R.V.I.S.”
Tony looked at him, any and all traces of the smile vanishing. “It’s late, he’s in bed.” Which meant he clearly didn’t want them to talk to the AI.
“Sir, the test downstairs has completed but Dummy is attempting to help you along by resuming it,” the ethereal voice spoke around them.
“Tell him to stop!” Tony snapped. “He’s going to blow us all up and that fire extinguisher of his won’t save anyone.”
“Perhaps you should return to the workshop.”
“Right,” Tony grunted and turned, heading for the stairs.
Since he hadn’t told them to stay or go, Steve opted to follow Tony, the rest of the Avengers trailing him down the steps.
Downstairs held the most high-tech area Steve had ever seen, and he had been spending a lot of time in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most advanced labs after the Avengers were first assembled. There were cars parked along one wall, both old and new models. Holographic images floated around and in one corner slowly rotated an image of something like a crude metal armor. It was transparent, as if they could see each part it would be made of, its faceplate carrying a grim, soulless look.
“Dummy, I told you not to touch the controls!” Tony was snapping at something that looked like a robotic arm on a stand with wheels. It whirred and let out a series of sounds, snapping its mechanical jaws as if protesting. Tony made it move to the side and did something to a device on the table.
“There’s something we need to clear up,” Steve went on when Tony looked less distracted. “J.A.R.V.I.S. has been hacking our comm signals for months, not to mention S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files. There’s a manhunt going on to find the perpetrator and when I realized –”
“Do you think I wouldn’t know if my personal AI was running rampant, playing with superheroes?” Tony snapped, sitting down in a chair. His hand briefly pressed on the glowing circle in his chest, as if he were in pain, then moved it away quick enough for most people to not notice at all.
The Avengers weren’t most people.
“He has been aiding us,” Thor offered. “A most insightful, resourceful ally,” the blond Norse god nodded in approval.
Tony simply raised an eyebrow. “So let me get this straight; you think J.A.R.V.I.S. has been hacking S.H.I.E.L.D. to chat with you and aid you with your problems?”
“He’s been helping us on the field, providing information no one else could,” Clint agreed, although Steve knew the archer still didn’t like that; both Clint and Natasha wanted to be in control of the situation and the Voice hadn’t been the most trustworthy source in their opinion, since they couldn’t verify who it was.
Tony snorted then glanced upwards. “J, have you been babysitting the Avengers in the last couple of months without my permission?”
“No, sir, I have not,” the voice replied.
“Maybe he’s doing it in a way you’re not aware of,” Steve suggested.
“Look here, Cap: I designed him. I would know if he was going rogue,” Tony pointed out.
Steve blinked and noticed a thoughtful look on Bruce’s face. Once again Tony glanced at Bruce and gave him one of those small, almost secret smiles. As if he knew something about the other man the rest of them didn’t.
At that instant Steve recalled how Bruce had told them the Voice had persuaded him to stay, promising protection and information. Whatever they had talked about, it had convinced the paranoid scientist to stay and embrace the Hulk in a way he hadn’t been comfortable with before.
“It’s not J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Bruce started.
“It’s you,” Steve backed him up, looking at Tony Stark sitting there in the middle of his workshop, meeting all of them but Steve for the first time yet somehow treating them as if they had met many times before.
“I should have recognized it the moment I heard J.A.R.V.I.S. talk to you,” Bruce snapped his fingers. “Your speech patterns are different. They are so unlike each other… But you let him talk to us before, didn’t you?”
Tony let out a sigh, looking to the side – to the rotating holographic image of some kind of armor. “Took you long enough to figure it out.”
“Mister Stark insisted on using my voice, to conceal his identity, and he would occasionally let me converse with you – unless you were being too slow on the uptake and he got impatient,” J.A.R.V.I.S. explained. “Which was quite often.”
“I was giving you awesome advice and you would just stand there, refusing to take it,” Tony complained. His eyes turned to Bruce again. “On the other hand, some of you were more receptive than I had imagined. I’m glad you took my advice, Dr. Banner.”
“I wouldn’t say I took it, but for the time being it was… good enough,” Bruce shrugged.
“Why would you do it?” Natasha asked. “Play in the shadows. It’s very unlike you, Mr. Stark.”
Tony raised an eyebrow then shrugged. “It’s complicated.”
“Instead of keeping him on his toes for months, you could have just come out and met with Director Fury and he may have let you consult the Avengers,” Natasha pressed.
“Not everything needs to be run by Fury,” Tony snapped.
Steve listened to them while he decided to allow his curiosity to take the better of him and approached the raised stand with the image of the armor. The closer he came, the more details his eyes found; it was hollow, so it wasn’t meant to be a robot. There were weapons, crudely wired yet with a genius to it that he didn’t possess. It was something a man as brilliant as Tony Stark would think of. And then there was the fist-sized round hole in its chest, clearly missing something. His eyes flew back to the man who was still disagreeing with Natasha about why Fury shouldn’t know about his involvement, his gaze once again finding the glowing circle in the man’s chest. Whatever its purpose…
Tony fell silent abruptly, as if alerted that he was being watched. The dark gaze moved to Steve, then briefly past him at the image. It was hard to read his expression – until a strange, nervous chuckle escaped him and he stood up, walking over to Steve and the holograph. The blue of the suit’s image reflected in his eyes as he looked at it. “An unfinished project,” he mused, touching it, lines appearing on his skin.
“If you ever finish it,” Steve started, “I’m sure we can find you a spot in the Avengers. Seeing as you’ve already earned one.”
“I have?” Tony asked, raising an eyebrow. He was shorter than Steve – just like his father had been. They looked a lot alike, even the pained expression in their eyes. For Howard it had been the horror of war. For Tony… Steve wasn’t sure but he was certain it had something to do with that circle of light in his chest – and Afghanistan, which Fury had warned him not to talk about.
Steve nodded, not caring if the other Avengers wanted to protest. “We can hardly keep you from interfering, after all,” he added.
Tony smiled at that – a genuine smile, Steve could tell. “It’s not every day a man gets asked to join a group of superheroes by his childhood hero,” he quipped then turned away, not giving Steve a chance to say anything to that. Sure, he knew the kids had been taught after WWII that Captain America had been one of the greatest heroes in the history of the USA. He was still wrapping his head around that.
“We should go,” Clint said then. “Before anyone starts tracking our whereabouts.”
Tony seated himself again, looking at one of the screens, getting absorbed in his work. Steve felt like he should say something more to him, to talk about him possibly joining the Avengers or helping them, but Tony had been doing just that until now so was there a reason for that to change? Well, there was always the manhunt Steve was supposed to be leading in order to find the hacker and now that he had, he itched to explain it all to Fury. He knew, though, that things might not be that simple; Tony had broken a lot of rules while helping them.
“Think about it,” Steve called back to him as they headed out the door.
Tony didn’t acknowledge he heard him but Steve knew that if he didn’t, J.A.R.V.I.S. did.
It had been a week since the Avengers visited him. Tony had known it was coming, knew he had slipped a few times, especially when Fury dragged Steve Rogers over and the man heard J.A.R.V.I.S. talking to him. Sure, they could have pretended his AI had a mind of his own – which he did – and had done all this on his own, but Tony was too self-centered to let that fly for more than a few minutes.
That Captain America had actually hinted he should join the Avengers threatened to make him drop the mask he had been determined to wear in front of these people. J.A.R.V.I.S. had seen that small twitch and relentlessly pushed Tony to explain it – even when Tony was certain the AI had already calculated it in his super-computer equivalent of a brain.
He spent a lot of time sitting in his workshop, staring at the rotating image of a suit he had planned on building in Afghanistan. He had noticed Steve noticing it, knowing what he was thinking – or at least tried to anticipate it. The Avengers didn’t really need another member. All they required was the help Tony had been providing them thus far. One could be offered without the other.
A pain burned inside him again, a telltale sign of destroyed nerves, cut ribs and mutilated skin – a reminder of a time when he had been solely focused on surviving. Now that it was no longer necessary to do that, the pain lingered, harder to contain. He popped a pill in his mouth then washed it down with a drink of water. Closing his eyes and waiting it out never worked so he looked at the rotating suit instead – Mark I. He never built it, other than in his head, and sometimes he dreamt what it would have been like to escape on his own. Would Yinsen still be alive? Would Tony himself be alive? Would he have ever gotten home from the middle of the Afghan desert?
Maybe it would have been better that way, to never come home…
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up.
Tony didn’t reply or indicate he heard him.
He had watched the Avengers struggle through their first battle, reliving the moment in his head where Yinsen told him to not waste his life – the life the man had given him by saving Tony’s life. Tony had wondered how he could do it, ever since getting home; to fulfill the promise and redeem his past ignorance.
Helping the Avengers had been an easy choice. It gave him the means to do good, to ensure they won, that they lived to fight another battle. He kept them together when he noticed the signs that Bruce Banner might be planning on leaving; he knew how important the Hulk was to the team, not to mention Bruce’s intellect. That interaction became personal, too, because they had a lot in common and even when hiding behind another’s voice, Tony and Bruce almost became friends.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. vied for his attention once more.
“Yeah?” Tony finally deigned to answer.
“The Avengers have been called to Manhattan, New York. There appears to be a group of strange organisms that are both mechanical and biological with advanced self-repair abilities.” A screen was opened before his eyes, so close it hurt, showing him data and live feed from Manhattan. “The Avengers need your help.”
Thor and the Hulk were doing a fine job trying to tear the strange biomecha-organisms apart but they kept piecing themselves back together afterwards. Captain America was calling orders while navigating civilians out of the way and Hawkeye was searching for a weak spot that didn’t present itself.
“Curious,” Tony frowned at the screen, looking at the readout they were receiving.
“Sir, may I suggest –”
“I know what you’re going to say,” Tony interrupted him.
“Captain Rogers said you had a place among them.”
Tony’s eyes didn’t leave the feed. He couldn’t do anything from a distance; this required a very different set of weapons, possibly. A set of weapons he may or may not have…
“Can’t hurt any more than it already does,” he finally muttered and turned his chair around. “J, prep Mark III.”
“With pleasure, sir,” the AI replied and the floor opened, pushing upwards a gleaming suit of red and gold. It was much sleeker than the original version, perfected with hours upon hours of work. Mark II had already been a step forward and Tony had taken it for a few spins around Malibu – yet every time he had asked himself what he was doing. He had lacked the incentive for the next step, working on the designs instead, perfecting them even though they might never be used.
“Let’s suit up and see what this baby can do,” he said and stepped over to the raised surface while mechanical arms reached down to take apart the armor. It closed in around him after he was in place, snug and powerful at the same time. The slight pressure against his chest hurt but the pain pills were still working, keeping the burn to a minimum.
J.A.R.V.I.S. came to life on a Heads Up Display in front of his eyes, doing a final routine check before waiting for Tony’s next move. “Engage thrusters,” Tony commanded and the suit came to life, propelling him up. He would have shot through the ceiling – something he had almost experienced when testing Mark II’s flight capabilities for the first time – but he leaned forward and shot out through the driving ramp. J.A.R.V.I.S. opened the ground level doors, letting him out, and he shot higher into the sky, through the clouds, a grin fighting its way to the surface once again; he had missed flying, the sensation and freedom it gave him, and for a moment the pain in his chest vanished, taking him a step above it as he put full power to thrusters and fully intended to break a few speed records on his way to the other side of the continent.
Steve had waited for the Voice to appear ever since the battle began. It still felt strange to think of it as Tony while it was J.A.R.V.I.S.’s voice he had been using all this time, so referring to it with its old name was easier for the time being.
The familiar tone didn’t reach his ears, or anyone else’s. Maybe – Steve didn’t like this idea at all – he had abandoned them now that they had found out his identity. Or maybe Tony was just busy. Maybe there was nothing he could do to help them as they fought the strange things which seemed too organic to be mere machines.
Bruce’s first guess had been either a horrible lab experiment gone rogue or something from outer space – or a mix of the two. The things they had faced since first assembling suggested that anything was possible.
Steve sent his shield flying, almost cutting off the head of one of the creatures, but it merged back into place, hugging onto the tendrils that hadn’t been severed. Hawkeye had tried blowing them up but they kept pulling themselves back together no matter how far the Hulk tossed the parts, and it seemed they just got flatter and flatter beneath Thor’s pounding, never really breaking.
“Cap, on your six!” Black Widow called, giving Steve just enough time to turn and see one of the things behind him. Tentacle-like appendices twined around him, cutting off air immediately, making it hard to fight back when his body couldn’t get enough oxygen.
He heard a roar of engines behind him, hoping it was back-up from S.H.I.E.L.D. and fearing it was one of the news choppers coming too close. Instead he felt something hot tingle against his back and the mechanic organism jerked, letting him go. Steve rolled to the ground, attempting to get back on his feet, and raised his head to see what had happened.
On the other side of the silvery creature he saw a figure of red and gold, one knee on the ground, head slightly bowed. The figure soon straightened up, mechanical body emitting small sounds as it moved, yet what made Steve’s shoulders relax and the corners of his mouth turn up was the glowing circle in the thing’s chest.
“Shield up,” Tony ordered, voice distorted. He raised his hands and Steve did as he was told, then felt a pressure like an invisible field, ending in a sort of a shriek from the thing he had been battling and when he lowered his shield again, he saw the silver creature twitching on the ground as if a dying cockroach. “That should slow it down,” Tony mused, walking over, a bit stiff but clearly this wasn’t his first time in the suit of armor. Steve wondered why he hadn’t just told them when they visited his lab.
“We’re not even sure what these things are,” Steve mentioned, deciding to ask questions later.
“Bio-mechanic organisms. A concentrated EMP blast should shut down most of them, as demonstrated, and after that their self-repair capabilities should be minimized.” He looked up, the glowing blue eyes of his helmet scanning the area.
“They’re all yours,” Steve encouraged him and he wondered if Tony smiled. The armor took off from the ground, soaring into the air, and by the time the rest of the creatures were twitching on the ground – or not twitching after the Hulk stepped on a few in annoyance – they all gathered up in a sort of a circle in the middle of a demolished street.
“Nice suit,” Clint commented.
“Thanks,” Tony replied.
“Why not bring it out in the open earlier?” Natasha asked, gently twisting a wrist that may have gotten sprained in the action.
“It… didn’t feel like the right thing to do. What would I have done with it?”
“I can think of a few things you could do with it now,” Steve cut off any further comments.
The Hulk grunted approvingly.
“You better go before S.H.I.E.L.D. arrives for clean up,” Clint went on. “Unless you’re planning on coming over and explaining all this to Fury.”
“I think I’ll take a rain check on that,” Tony sounded like he cringed then sort of saluted them and blasted up into the air before anyone could get another word in.
“What are we going to call him?” Thor mused.
“Maybe he’ll let us know next time,” Steve said with a faint smile on his lips.
The press dubbed him ‘Iron Man’. Steve thought it was catchy, in a sense, and not knowing how to ask for Tony’s own opinion, he decided on the most obvious way to do it; going to see him in person.
He rode his bike to Malibu when he had time off. Well, his time off would last as long as it took a new threat to rise, but until then S.H.I.E.L.D. and Avengers business could wait. It was getting dark when he arrived at Stark’s estate and rode up the winding path to the house. He slid off the seat, stretched a bit then took his bag and walked to the door, wondering suddenly what he was going to say. He had decided to think of that on the road, but now he was here and he hadn’t landed on any solid idea.
Steve hesitated at the door, not having rung the bell yet. Maybe he should come back when he knew that he wanted to say to Tony, or at least explain his presence here.
The door opened before he could decide either way.
“Please come in, Captain Rogers,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said softly.
“Uh, thanks,” Steve replied and stepped in.
“Mister Stark is downstairs in his workshop. You’re free to join him. I have also prepared a guest room for you. If you want to shower first, or eat, I can show you the way.”
“I think I’ll talk to Tony first,” Steve managed. Okay, so it was late and he had a bag with him, which might have led him to ask if he could spend the night, but having a room already prepared for him seemed a bit too much. He didn’t want to make Tony feel like he had to do this.
He walked downstairs, the door to the workshop unlocking for him. Music was blasting hard and gritty while Tony leaned over a workbench, sparks flying.
The music died down when Steve entered and Tony looked up. “I told you to let him in, not kill my tunes.”
“It seemed polite not to ruin his hearing on purpose,” J.A.R.V.I.S. defended his actions.
Steve smiled at the two of them while Tony slid off the welding mask to uncover his face and peer up at him. “Hey, Cap. What’s the occasion?”
“I wanted to see how you were doing and, uh… congratulate you on your official superhero status?” Steve offered.
Tony grinned and turned off the welding machine. “The name’s not really accurate but I can live with it. How’s Fury taking it?”
“As well as can be expected. It’s ticking him off that we refuse to tell him if we know who Iron Man is – for some reason he seems to think we do know – and he’s also getting highly suspicious of my involvement in the attempt to catch the hacker. He seems to think I might not be as in tune with the idea of finding and catching the culprit as I said I was.”
Tony chuckled then groaned faintly and stepped back from the bench, sitting down in a chair instead, looking a bit pained. “I’m sure he’s in shock that the national icon might actually be lying to his face.” He reached for a metal box on the table, shook two pills out of it and then tossed them in his mouth, chased down by a gulp of water. He looked at Steve after he was done, as if gauging his reaction.
“It hurts, doesn’t it?” Steve guessed.
Tony shrugged, although the motion was almost small enough to miss. Maybe that would have hurt, too. “A souvenir.”
“Is it because of the suit, or was the suit designed for it?” Steve knew maybe he shouldn’t ask, but Tony might be in a charitable mood, who knew.
“I guess the latter,” Tony smiled distantly before his expression froze slightly. “A couple years back I got kidnapped in Afghanistan. A bomb exploded in front of me and embedded shrapnel in my chest. In an attempt to save me, a… doctor carved a hole in my chest and put an electromagnet in it because he couldn’t get all the shrapnel out. This is an improved version of his crude device,” Tony said, lightly tapping the circle of light, “and the suit was supposed to get us both out of there. I got rescued about a month later, though, and never completed the suit.”
Steve could imagine the horror of that experience, yet it seemed to have taught Tony a few valuable lessons – some of which had been put to good use recently. “Well, I’m glad he saved your life.”
Tony looked at him with a peculiar expression on his face. “Me, too, I guess,” he said then, slowly, still watching Steve. “What are you doing here, really?”
Steve looked down at his feet, noting a few stains on the floor but nothing as bad as he might have expected. Tony kept his work space clean, clearly. “I’m not sure.”
“So you just rode almost three thousand miles on a whim?”
Steve raised his eyes, dropped his bag because he felt stupid carrying it around like that, then walked closer. “I guess I wanted to thank you. I know I have, before, over the comm…” Speaking to a mere voice in his ear had never felt as real as standing here, in front of Tony, able to touch him if he just reached out. The voice may have been someone else’s but now that he’d had the chance to talk to Tony, he knew where his appreciation belonged.
“You’re welcome,” Tony replied with a quirky smile on his lips. “Are you going to drive back home now, satisfied?”
“J.A.R.V.I.S. offered me a bed and supper, I believe,” Steve noted.
“He’s such a flirt.”
“You’re the one who created him; you should know.”
Tony regarded him for the longest of times, as if trying to figure something out or testing a theory. Finally he narrowed his eyes, as if shifting his brain into a higher gear still. “Shouldn’t this be strange, somehow?”
“What?” Steve had to ask.
“Us. You and me. We’ve met twice – or three times, if you count me being in the suit. I always imagined it would be odd, meeting you after all the stories my dad told me about you.”
“And weighing in the suppressed resentment,” J.A.R.V.I.S. piped up – clearly not with permission because the look Tony gave the room in general was scalding.
“Yeah, well, all that,” Tony finally admitted once he was done with his internal monologue at his AI’s boldness.
“We’ve talked to each other for months,” Steve started. “I guess that counts for something. It’s almost like I know you.”
“You thought it was J.A.R.V.I.S. who was talking to you,” Tony reminded him, a flicker of amusement in his eyes.
“Yeah, but it never made sense until we figured out that you just used him – to communicate with us,” he hastily added before Tony could get offended. Could he get offended by using something he had created? J.A.R.V.I.S. felt so much like an actual person that Steve had a hard time determining the difference.
Tony studied him again. “You’re not like how I thought you would be.”
“Is that a good thing?” Steve asked, surprised at how curious he actually was about Tony’s reply.
“Perhaps.” Tony grinned suddenly. “Although it does put sort of a damper on some of my dirtiest childhood fantasies.”
Steve knew he should have blushed and coughed, to signal he didn’t want to hear about that. He did neither – which seemed to be something Tony hadn’t anticipated as a reaction. The brown eyes narrowed again as the brunette regarded him. They stayed like that, Tony’s gaze piercing and Steve just looking back at him, committing to memory each line of his face and body in a way the artistic side of his brain would be pleased with.
Finally he decided enough was enough and stepped forward, closer to Tony, not slowly but not too fast to feel like he was crowding. “As I said earlier, I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for the Avengers.”
“And I said you’re welcome,” Tony cocked his head, narrowed eyes not relenting. “You’re pushing it; as much as I love being praised and thanked for things I’ve done, I, too, have a limit.”
“It means a lot to me that you would do that, to go to so much trouble to help people you don’t even know,” Steve went on.
“It was for a good cause, right? And I…” Tony looked to the side. He had probably made promises to a dying man – Steve knew that look. Knew how it could hound you.
“I’m also thankful that you finally put on the suit,” Steve added, now very close to Tony, their knees almost touching.
“I’ve put it on before,” Tony tried to dodge the topic.
“Not for something like this.”
“So now I’m a goddamn hero. Great! I finally know what to do with the rest of my adult life,” Tony grinned although in his eyes… it was hard to tell but maybe Tony didn’t believe it. Maybe he didn’t think he could do it, or that he was unworthy for some reason.
“I’ll talk to Fury again. I want you to be part of the Avengers – if you want. The others agree.”
“You voted?” Tony looked up at him.
“We didn’t need to.”
It looked like Tony had never really been chosen for anything. He gave Steve one of those looks he had been feeling all his childhood, when he wouldn’t be picked for a team unless he had to be. Sure, Tony’d had success in his life, walking over everyone else, one step ahead, but that didn’t mean he had been picked by the right people – the people that actually mattered in the crucial moments of his life. A diploma here and an honor there wasn’t something one needed to feel they were blending in, that they were part of something.
“Thanks,” Tony finally said, shifting his chair back and then standing up, looking at Steve’s face after he had dragged his eyes up his body. The grin appeared again. “As I’m not sure what you mean by this, is that dirty childhood fantasy totally out of the question?”
Steve had a feeling he might regret his answer, but at the same time he knew a large part of him would never look back at this moment with remorse: “I think something can be arranged.”
Steve’s stomach rumbled. He recalled it had been a while since he last ate; some road-side diner outside L.A. where he was just another touristy American out of place, not just out of time.
A chuckle reached his ears and Tony shifted beside him. His skin was warm – Steve usually ran hot but their recent activities had helped Tony to catch up.
“There are snacks available in the kitchen, Captain Rogers,” J.A.R.V.I.S. informed helpfully.
Steve felt for a brief moment that he should feel awkward knowing that the AI had been watching and listening to them the whole time, but Tony didn’t seem to care so it probably didn’t matter. “Thanks, J.A.R.V.I.S. And you can call me Steve.”
“Of course, Captain Rogers.”
“He won’t stop calling you that,” Tony murmured against his side where his head currently lay.
“You programmed him.”
“Oh, trust me, he’s evolved beyond everything I ever programmed him to do, and that’s the way it was supposed to be.” He turned to his side, looking at Steve. His hair was a bit rumpled and he looked so much more relaxed. “My friend Rhodey tried to make J call him something other than ‘Mr. Rhodes’. J.A.R.V.I.S. understands the concept, of course, because he didn’t call him ‘Mr. Rhodey’ for the rest of the time – just for a couple months to make his point.”
Steve decided not to chance it. He sat up, stretching his back, feeling rather relaxed himself. Tony was still looking at him and Steve took the chance to lean down and kiss him. It was long and slow now that the passion had dissipated.
“That wasn’t so bad for a ninety-something-year-old virgin,” Tony commented when Steve moved to the edge of the wide bed and got up.
“Who said anything about a virgin?” Steve shot back.
“Oh, so America’s finest was having relations while in the war?”
“I’m a gentleman; I don’t kiss and tell.”
“If you don’t tell me, I can still call you a virgin,” Tony teased, rolling over, reaching out to touch Steve’s naked skin with his fingertips.
“Not anymore you can’t,” Steve replied, shooting out and catching that hand, pulling Tony closer. “You should eat, too.”
“Then bring me back something.”
“It’s your house. You should be making me supper.”
Tony let out a dismissive sound, regarding him, then finally sighed and rolled off the bed, padding to the kitchen without bothering to put on any clothes. Steve wasn’t quite so adventurous and tugged on his underwear before following him. The lights were already on and Tony had a fresh drink at his elbow. He was pulling things out of cupboards and the fridge, clearly intent on sandwiches. Steve stepped up behind him, flush against Tony’s back and nuzzled his neck, hands tracing his sides, hips and thighs with a minimum of touch.
“So,” Tony asked, taking a sip of his drink then going back to food preparations, “was this a ‘thank you and welcome to the team’ kind of thing or is it going to get really awkward later?” he mused.
“I’m an old-fashioned man,” Steve said although it wasn’t necessarily true. After all, he had jumped into the sack with Tony without even having a proper conversation with him first. Not that he regretted it, not for a moment. One clearly didn’t become a notorious playboy in this day and age simply by boasting of their prowess in bed. “I don’t think I would handle meaningless fraternization very well.”
“We’re not even officially working together yet,” Tony noted.
“So it’s not fraternization. Unless you accept that you’re part of the Avengers whether or not Fury says yes, which means it is very much fraternization and we might have to make it a bit more meaningful to withstand the horrible scrutiny other people are going to subject us with.”
“You’ve really given this some thought, haven’t you?” Tony asked, turning around. He had a dab of butter on his finger so Steve pulled it to his lips and licked it off. There was an underlying taste of sex beneath it and he decided that Tony was the kind of person to not remember personal hygiene when he emerged from his workshop. He also guessed no one ever asked him to cook for them, either, and that’s why Tony’s kitchen was fairly uncluttered.
“While you lay passed out on the bed,” Steve teased him.
“I was enjoying myself,” Tony defended his brief, blissed-out coma. “You rocked my world, Cap, what can I say?”
Steve smiled and kissed him again. He knew this could get weird afterwards, when he actually realized what he had done with a person he didn’t even know. But like he’d said, Tony and he had been talking for months and if this man had tried to help Steve of his own free will, without being told or asked, he didn’t see it as a bad thing.
He was merely saying ‘thank you’ in a rather creative way, and ensuring that his team stayed safe in the future as well – with an added bonus of a new teammate and friend.