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Not About Superheroes (A Private Little War)

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1.

December 20

It had gone well, Steve thought as he finally headed home with the bike thrumming under him. Jillian seemed like a nice girl. A bit like a dark-skinned version of Beth, actually: young, pretty, interesting, beautiful smile. They'd gotten the awkwardness of introductions out of the way first: yes, she knew who he was, had seen him in the news; yes, she was a little surprised that he was still going through with their date. No, she wasn't overly surprised; she'd been out to her entire family for a long time and had even lived with a woman for four years before that had ended. She'd realized she couldn't live that life any more, and wanted a better path.

They had a lot in common. She worked as a counselor, had a lot to say about poverty and injustice, went to church regularly. Wasn't much into popular culture.

She was also bright and articulate, and had a good sense of humor. She did yoga in her spare time.

They'd even shared a few kisses outside her apartment at the end of the date. It had been nice; she tasted like strawberry lip gloss and pumpkin pie, and her curly hair had felt soft and silky through his fingers. It wasn't particularly exciting and it wasn't thrilling, but it was definitely pleasant. He could work with that.

And being with her - being with a woman - felt right in a way that he couldn't imagine with a man. He could picture holding her hand in public, talking about her to his team-mates. Even the social niceties had gone all right. He'd pulled her chair out for her - women today were dicey about that, some liked it and some didn't, but it was still a reflex action for him - and remembered to not stand up when she left to go to the washroom and when she came back, but she didn't seem put off by anything he said or did. Maybe spending time with Natasha had helped him learn how to talk to women in this century. He wondered if maybe things might have gone better in his own if he'd just been less nervous around them.

He'd had a good time with Jillian.

He could probably work with this. If not with her, then with someone else. It was a matter of reminding himself that relationships were not just about sex; they were about companionship, commitment, partnership. He could make something like this work.

Did he want to, though?

He parked his bike and got into the elevator. Odd that he didn't feel like he was walking back into confinement, even though this was one of the first times he'd been out of the Tower by himself since Staten Island. He resisted the urge to touch the security device Tony had made for him. He'd been feeling better lately, and some days he almost couldn't remember what had made him so desperate that he'd honestly felt he had no choice but to end his own life. But then some days - or rather, some late nights - he was reminded all too well. Not enough to do anything about it, but enough that the light touch of the anklet felt like security, like safety.

Like Tony looking after him when he couldn't look after himself.

All right, this was probably a bad idea, Steve thought as he realized which elevator button he'd just pushed. What he actually needed was to go back to his own apartment, think about the date he'd just been on. Think about what he wanted to do next. Think about the positives, like the church said. Think about how well the sexes complemented each other, completed each other. Think about how, if he ever wanted to have children, those children would need a mother.

Instead, here he was, at Tony's lab.

No, this was stupid, he should go back upstairs. He turned to go.

The lab door slid open, a blast of heavy metal pouring out. Guns'N'Roses, if Clint's Modern Pop lessons were correct. "Hey, Cap," said Tony. "You OK?"

"What?"

"JARVIS said you were on your way down." He gestured in to the lab. "Did you want to come in?"

"I'm fine," Steve said.

Tony blinked. "Oh. OK, uh, that's fine, I mean you don't have to have a reason to come down here, you're welcome any time you want," he said, and headed back inside. "JARVIS, volume down," he said, and Axl's screeches welcoming him to the jungle became softer. "So, what's up?" Tony took in Steve's windblown hair and motorcycle jacket. "Hey, were you out?"

Steve nodded. "Just came back in."

"Good for you, Spangles. Where'd you go?"

Steve hesitated a moment. "I decided to go through with it," he said. "The date."

Tony stilled, and his shoulders drew together slightly. "OK. Right. Well. Good for you." He looked at the wrench in his hand, put it down, and moved to the small bar he kept in his lab.

"You said I should--"

"No, no of course I did," said Tony, grabbing what looked like a random bottle and pouring himself a glass. "And really. Good for you. I mean, you know what I think about it. But if you think that - you know what, I'll shut up now."

Steve smiled. "That's probably for the best."

"It's rare enough that you should really enjoy the experience." He added ice cubes.

"Trust me, I do."

"Hey, did you want any..." he glanced at the bottle, "scotch?" Steve shook his head and Tony tossed back a gulp. "So where'd you go?"

"Italian restaurant. She picked it."

"You didn't take her to a dance bar?"

"Not a girl I met through a church, no. Besides; dance bar, for lunch?"

"Lunch?" Tony blinked. "What time is it?"

"Close to dinner time. We ended up walking through the Park for a couple of hours, then I rode around the city." He glanced around the lab. "Anyway, just wanted to say hi. I should head back to my place."

"Oh hey, hang on a sec," said Tony. "I uh... I wanted to talk to you about tonight. I was going to anyway, but I guess what with you going back to the church and them saying you're not supposed to be alone with me--" He cleared his throat, and Steve got the feeling that Tony was bracing himself. "Look, I still think it's not a bad idea for you to have someone in your guest room at night, but it's my turn tonight and I - I understand if you'd rather have someone else. Or even if you want to stop it altogether. It's up to you," he said, and Steve wondered if he'd rehearsed this a few times. "I was talking to the others and in the last two weeks you've only had three nightmares, and you're doing pretty well otherwise. We're all fine with it, either way - you know it's no skin off my nose, I designed your guest room, so it's no trouble - just wanted to let you know, you have that option."

Steve blinked. "Oh. I... hadn't really thought about it."

Tony's eyebrows went up. "Really? Thought you resented it."

Steve rubbed the spot between his eyes. "Yeah, but I try not to think about it, you know that." He thought for a moment. "I'm OK. With stopping, I mean." Tony nodded and took a sip of his scotch, and Steve narrowed his eyes. "And it's not because of this date. Or the church." Tony's eyebrows went up. "It's not you; I just don't like having babysitters. I appreciate it, but I don't like having to rely on all of you."

"None of us minds. You know that." Tony shrugged. "Most of us have been there. We've had other people take care of us; we don't mind paying it forward."

Steve gazed at him. "You've never... I know you went through some rough times after Afghanistan. You keep saying you're over it."

"I am, mostly."

Steve hesitated. "How bad was it?"

The corner of Tony's mouth twitched, but his eyes were bleak. "I was tortured and then held in a cave for three months, Steve. It was pretty bad. Pepper was the only reason I didn't end up where you did. She made sure I got off as lightly as possible. There were some rough spots, and there's still scars, but I was never suicidal."

"Never?"

"Never have been, not because of Afghanistan or anything else. Though I've been pretty low. Like, a lot of my wild party days? They were fun, but they were also acting out pretty badly. You know, 'Daddy never loved me, the only way I can get friends is to flash around money or flash around my barely-pubescent dick' - and let me tell you there was some heavy therapy over that a few years after the fact, because I was slutting around MIT at age fourteen which I thought was pretty hot at the time but now makes me feel icky in all sorts of ways and I've seriously thought of tracking down some of the fucking pedophiles I slept with--"

Steve felt his eyes widen. "Are you serious?"

Tony gave a short laugh and leaned against the small bar. "Yeah, no, some serious issues there. Better left to the tabloids than polite conversation."

Steve winced. Seriously as Tony treated Steve's troubles, he tossed off his own past so casually, so flippantly, like it was some sort of joke. "How can you laugh about it?"

"Oh it's about as funny as pancreatic cancer," said Tony. "But how else should I talk about it? I mean, on the one hand, I was a very willing participant, I almost always initiated everything, and I had a great time." His mouth twitched and he drew an idle finger around the rim of his glass. "I was also a minor, and usually drunk or stoned out of my head. So, you know; you be the judge."

"I know what I'd say if it was my child," said Steve.

"So do I," said Tony grimly.

Steve hesitated. "Didn't Howard do anything?"

Tony gave a short laugh and pushed off the bar. "Howard did not give a shit about the girls. The only time he got involved was when he found out I'd slept with... what the hell was his name - Ken? I think? Lucky for Ken, Ken was another wunderkind, and only sixteen at the time. So no luck for poor Howard, who had threatened to have him charged with statutory rape - this was when he was still trying to tell himself at least I wasn't a fairy on top of everything else. He never found out about Alan, or those two butch hockey players from Harvard, or the red-headed TA, or... anyway, let's leave it at: I'm not exactly a stranger to self-destructive, maladaptive reactions to psychological stress." He paused. "And we're not even touching on the self-medicating with alcohol thing, which, I know the Serum taking that venue of stress-relief out for you can be a real pain in the ass, but on the other hand take it from someone who doesn't like to think about Phil Coulson's life too closely, it's also a blessing." He swirled his ice cubes and Steve raised an eyebrow. Tony looked down at his drink with a grimace. "Yeah, the irony isn't lost on me right now. I like having a drink in my hand. Helps with stressful situations."

This was stressful?

"I'm sorry," Steve said.

"For what? It was a long time ago." He tossed back a swallow.

"I'm sorry your father was such a prick," said Steve. Tony choked on his drink.

"You know, I don't think I'm ever gonna get over your potty-mouth," he said, coughing.

"I swear when it's appropriate. Howard was a good friend. Always seemed like a decent man. Seems he reached his level of incompetence as a father."

"Well, he thought the world of you. Thought a lot more highly of you than me." He drained his glass and set it on the counter.

"Then for a genius, he was a real idiot," said Steve, and Tony's eyebrows drew together. He put a hand on Tony's arm. "He didn't know how lucky he was. He should've been a better father. And he should've stepped in and done something when you were at MIT."

"I don't think there's much he could've done by that point."

"Maybe if he'd been a better father before, you wouldn't have been acting the way you were."

"Maybe. Some kids are just trouble, though."

"He still should've cared."

Tony shrugged. "It was a long time ago. And they weren't really pedophiles - most of them were only a few years older than me. Seriously, Steve, don't look like that. It was a really long time ago." Steve shook his head and Tony covered Steve's hand with his own. "God, I've made Captain America look like a puppy needs rescuing. Did not mean to do that. The puppy's all grown up and doing fine now."

Steve stared at him, unable to process or figure out how to respond. Tony always seemed to revel in his playboy reputation, as much as Howard had. It was hard to imagine him feeling disturbed by any part of his sexual history, let alone imagine him as a troubled, vulnerable young boy, taken advantage of by his fellow students - and unable to even see it until years later.

"Look, I should finish this thing up before movie time," said Tony, gesturing to his work table. "Do you want to maybe wait for me? Get yourself a little more squared away with that part of my sordid past, which does not bother me at all any more but seems to have thrown you for a bit of a loop?"

"Sure." Steve settled down on the nearest bench and watched Tony go back to work, remembering how he'd wanted to sketch him in his natural environment a few weeks ago.

He had such economy of movement, such amazing concentration as he fiddled with mechanical objects Steve could not have even named, let alone used. His brow furrowed and he murmured instructions and idle threats to his bots, who scrambled about handing him things, looking like they were having the time of their lives. He was so... incredible...

And that didn't even take into account Tony's generosity, his desire to make the world a better place, the way he cared about the people around him, however flippantly he might insist that he didn't. The way he willingly lay down on the wire, over and over, protesting the whole time that he was doing no such thing.

And Howard Stark had thought more highly of Captain America, a soldier he'd known for a few short years, than he had of his own brilliant son. At least in part because of Tony's sexual preferences, which were actually far more in line with Howard's than Steve's were.

What an idiot.

Steve wondered what Howard would've said, had he lived long enough to find out the friend he'd spent years searching for was even more bent than his own despised son. Would it have changed his mind? Or would he simply have rejected Steve, like he'd rejected Tony?

Would Howard's opinion have mattered to Steve? Or would he have been able to dismiss it, like he'd dismissed that weird church that had tweeted that "America, the Fag Nation, now has an appropriate icon to represent it," and implied that Hurricane Sandy had somehow been his fault?

They were so similar, Howard and Tony. So brilliant and mouthy, full of life and brashness and wit. And it was a good thing Steve had never had any kind of attraction to Howard, because that would've made how he felt for Tony now incredibly awkward. It was a little odd, too, because Howard had been very much Steve's type. Once past adolescence, it had never been the handsome, beefy, muscle-bound athletes that turned Steve's head, that made him wake up hard and panting at night. It was men like the dark-haired Stark Lab tech, or the handsome chopper pilot who often flew the Commandos out for missions, or the lieutenant who was Colonel Phillips' aide. Men with sharp minds and skillful hands, men with a kind of aggressive competency about them, who had bright eyes and confident smiles and made Steve ache to pull them closer...

"Are you OK?" Tony's voice startled him, and he answered without thinking.

"Yeah. Thinking your dad was a jerk. And not sure if I can go out with Jillian again."

Oh. He hadn't really meant to say that last part out loud.

Silence. "Um. OK. Why not?" Tony was staring at Steve, ignoring the wrench Dum-E was holding out to him.

Steve shrugged. "Not sure it felt... right."

Dum-E poked Tony, who gently elbowed him away without breaking eye contact.

"You'll notice I'm not saying anything," said Tony finally. "I'm shutting up and respecting the hell out of your choices so hard I'm practically imploding here."

Steve got up and approached Tony's table, stepping around Dum-E. This was the kind of man he'd always been drawn to, in a way he'd never been drawn to any woman - not Jillian, not Beth, not even Peggy. And he'd never been attracted to any of those other men - not the lab tech, not the pilot, not any of them - as strongly as he was to Tony.

It wasn't just physical attraction, either. It was caring, it was friendship, it was a desire to go back in time and protect Tony from the students who'd only seen him as a good time and not a troubled child - a desire to go back in time and shake Howard senseless for not giving a shit about his amazing son, who had deserved so much more...

"Seriously not saying anything," Tony repeated faintly. He cleared his throat. "Didn't feel right?"

Steve swallowed hard and shook his head, his heart beating a little faster.

"What does feel right?" Tony asked quietly, looking up at Steve. "Or is that a stupid question?"

Steve chuckled, and leaned closer, a shiver passing through him as Tony's eyes darkened with desire. OK, so they weren't a couple, and Steve was looking for long-term commitment, and Tony wasn't. What the hell.

He reached for Tony as Tony stood up, and their lips met. Dum-E made a whirring sound and nudged Steve, and Tony reached out blindly and shoved the bot away, breaking their kiss only long enough to firmly say, "Dum-E. Go to your corner, and if you spray us with fire retardant I will turn you into an iPad."

Steve laughed, taking Tony's lips with his again, slow fire sweeping under his skin. He pushed all thoughts away, and concentrated on Tony's mouth, the hard line of his arms, the strength in his hands. Tony's scent subtly mingled with motor oil, Tony's taste subtly mingled with scotch.

This felt so damn right. Jillian was companionship and making do. Tony was joy and sex, friendship and desire. What he wanted and needed, so much it made him dizzy, and the hell with the rest of the world thinking otherwise.

"We're gonna have to go upstairs soon," Tony gasped, breaking off a kiss. "You know that, right? Thor's all excited about starting Chariots of Fire tonight, even though I told him it has nothing to do with chariots - or fire--"

"Nobody's gonna come get us till at least seven," Steve whispered into Tony's mouth.

"JARVIS, let me know if anybody's coming to this floor."

"Certainly, sir."

Maybe this was sinful and counterproductive, and maybe Steve wasn't thinking right, and maybe he was thinking more clearly than he had since he'd woken up. He pulled Tony closer, and let go of his doubts.

For this moment in time, at least.

2.

December 27

And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within, said the earnest athlete on the screen to his spellbound audience.

Natasha smiled at the wondering expressions on the crowd, and popped a salsa-laden chip into her mouth. Not that different from the crowds that gathered around some of the Avengers after a few of their battles...

"Did you know that the actor who played Eric Liddle was gay?" said Clint, and Bruce nodded.

"Really?" asked Tony.

"Yeah. And there's a scene later on, where he's with his American rival - less than ten years after Chariots of Fire, all three actors on the screen had died of AIDS. Well - OK, Brad Davis didn't die of AIDS, strictly speaking; he OD'd. But it was because he was dying of AIDS."

"I thought it was treatable," said Steve.

"Wasn't back then," said Tony. "It's part of why I toned down the drugs-and-party scene. AIDS didn't give a crap how rich or famous you were. Was Brad Davis gay too?"

"Well his widow said he got infected from sharing needles, but apparently he was bi as well, so who knows," said Clint.

"Clint, since when did you become the repository of lore for all things gay?" asked Natasha.

"Since our own token LGBT team-mates can't be bothered to know any of this on their own," Clint shot back. Steve snorted into his beer. "Somebody's gotta."

"Uh... thanks?" said Steve.

"No problem," said Clint generously. "My pleasure. Any time you need to know anything, just ask me."

"God, Hawkeye as Professor of Queer Studies," said Tony. "Steve, please, stick to Google."

"I'm keeping off the internet right now, thanks," said Steve, and Natasha winced.

Although almost all of the reaction to Steve coming out had been positive, there had been a few virulently negative clips, posts, and other bits of media that had been hard to avoid seeing. While "All these beautiful women in the world and this guy wants to mess with other guys?" from a random athlete had been relatively harmless, there had been a sportscaster who'd claimed that the man who represented America should not be "living in unrepentant sin and walking in open rebellion to God." And a preacher who had immediately proclaimed that Steve had "tainted the shield that meant so much to our country", and could no longer call himself a Christian. And a bunch of rather unhinged e-mails to SHIELD about Steve - Steve! - contributing to the moral decay of the nation.

Tony shot Steve a sympathetic look. "Good. Some of what's out there is like looking at maggots: all it can do is make you sick. They're just pissed that a gay guy is a better man than any of them'll ever be."

Natasha met Clint's eyes in amusement and turned back to the screen, realizing she'd lost track of the plot at some point. It wasn't the movie's fault, though watching people train for what was in fact just a sports event wasn't her first choice of entertainment. And it wasn't because the movie had been interrupted by several days, as Thor took Jane to Asgard for a few weeks, Bruce reconnected with an old college friend, and Clint and Natasha got called for a mission in Reno. It was just that everything felt a little unreal right now, a little hard to grasp.

After all these months of intrigue and wondering, of suspicious changes going on at SHIELD, of feeling currents under the surface... it was over. Because waiting for them upon their return to the Tower had been holiday cards from SHIELD; the same generic thing as every year... signed by Director Maria Hill.

That was that, then. Fury was out, nobody could find the man, Hill was in command... it was over. Natasha and Clint had headed for SHIELD right away, debriefing as quickly as possible and then spending the rest of the day trying to figure out what the hell had happened. All anyone could tell them was that there had been a sudden flurry of meetings starting two days before Christmas, that raised voices had been heard between Fury and Hill, and that suddenly Fury was gone.

The man was SHIELD, to Natasha. Had been for so long it was impossible to think of the place without him. Especially with Maria Hill, Bureaucrat Extraordinaire, in charge.

And there were so many loose ends. Natasha didn't even know if Fury had done anything about the possible computer surveillance, and wasn't sure she wanted to bring it up with Hill - no, that wasn't true. She did, and she would; just because Fury wasn't there didn't mean she should let the organization that had given her a home go down to possible cyber-sabotage. But knowing Hill, she would most probably focus on the fact that they'd found that surveillance because Steve was accessing the Omega Level servers when he wasn't supposed to, and...

Happy Holidays, Director Hill, my ass. Must've been a hell of a Christmas present for Hill. One she didn't deserve, and most probably could not handle.

Damn it all. Damn Hill, damn Fury for disappearing without a trace, damn SHIELD for suddenly turning upside down, damn herself and Clint for being legendary spies and assassins who couldn't even figure out what was happening on their own turf, much less agree on where the hell to go from here...

Somehow it had still managed to be a decent Christmas for Natasha, much to her shock considering everything. Reno had been chips and beer in a cheap motel on the Eve and Day, but Tony had put on a surprisingly homey dinner on the 26th, and none of them seemed particularly hung up on dates anyway. And none of them had done elaborate gifts or decorating, but it was still nice to have friends to celebrate with, a day late or not. Friends who weren't off celebrating with their real family; except for Thor, not one of them had living parents. Tony, who'd lost his parents at age twenty, was the one who'd had them longest, and from what Natasha remembered of his file that hadn't necessarily been a good thing.

It probably wasn't a coincidence that all of these orphans had ended up together.

"Hey what year was this set, anyway?" asked Clint. "Steve, weren't you alive when this was going on?"

"1924. I would've been six."

"So, no memories of it?"

Steve laughed. "No. I remember the Games in '36, in Berlin, and Hitler refusing to shake Jesse Owens' hand on the newsreels. That was amazing." He smiled nostalgically.

"Ever go to any Olympics?" asked Tony.

"When I was an orphan and then a starving art student? Or when they were cancelled during the War? Uh, no."

Tony frowned. "I'll take you to the next ones," he said. "We'll all go," he added. "It'll be a team thing."

Clint met Natasha's gaze and rolled his eyes.

"That's very generous of you, Tony," said Bruce, covering a smile. "You do know the next Winter Games are in Russia and the Summer ones in Rio, right?"

Tony dismissed that with a wave of his hand, and they turned their attention back to the screen.

"Wait - why was Harold Abraham's funeral at a church?" asked Steve suddenly.

"What?"

"The whole movie begins with Abraham's funeral. It was at a church. Not a synagogue."

"Was it?" asked Clint.

"Yeah, it was," said Bruce. "He converted."

Steve's eyebrows shot up. "You're kidding. After all that fuss about him being Jewish, he converted?"

Yes, and after all that fuss about you and Tony not being a couple, here you are, eye-fucking each other every chance you get, Natasha wanted to say, but really, it wasn't comparable or appropriate. The two were sitting apart, but fooling exactly no one. It was kind of cute, in a pathetic way.

And it wasn't really that big a surprise, either. Once Natasha had decided conclusively to not respect her team-mates' privacy or allow Thor, of all people, to out-spy her, the signs of attraction and confusion between Steve and Tony had come in loud and clear. Starting with Tony's tirade on the day of the press conference.

"So, what do you think?" Clint had asked the day after Tony had come back from Broxton. "Friends with benefits?"

"They've probably convinced themselves it's something like that," said Natasha.

"Self-deception is cute, isn't it? And speaking of, you think Steve still has his V-card?"

"Clint, we're not going there," Natasha had groaned.

"Hey, I agreed I was wrong to tell you not to spy at home."

"This isn't spying, it's prying."

Clint shrugged. "Same difference. Work out your fine ethical lines on your own time. Do you think you get separate V-cards for men and women?"

"I... what?"

"Or hey, what about separate ones for pitching and catching?" Clint had gone on, ignoring her pained look. "And if you've pitched with a girl, could you still consider yourself a virgin with men if you're not planning on catching?"

"Does anybody mind pausing to restock?" asked Bruce, startling her back to the present. She glanced at the screen, where the athletes had just arrived at the Olympic games.

"No, might as well," said Clint. They headed into the kitchen en masse, bringing in empty bowls and glasses and refilling them.

"Oh - we're out of chips," said Bruce.

"I think there's some in the pantry," said Steve, heading off.

"We're low on dips too," said Tony, and followed him. Bruce caught Natasha's glance, biting back a smile.

Natasha drained her drink, waited a few beats before heading down the hall to the pantry, and smirked as she caught a faint vibration from the wine cellar door.

The wine cellar. No reason for either of them to go there; the team didn't do wine with movies. Natasha wondered if Tony had bothered to think of an excuse to use in case anyone followed them to the pantry and didn't find them there. Probably not; they weren't exactly being secretive, just discreet. Or rather, what passed for discreet for them. She silently pushed open the door a crack.

And there they were. Hadn't even bothered to tell JARVIS to warn them if anyone was coming, apparently. Natasha paused for a moment, admiring the two men fully absorbed in each other in the small room. They both qualified as eye-candy on their own; together, they were very hot. Steve had his head thrown back against the wall, eyes closed, as Tony nibbled on his throat and whispered some comment that made Steve laugh breathlessly, and now Steve was putting a hand to the back of Tony's neck and pulling him in for a kiss, and now it was actually not so much hot as it was... surprisingly sweet.

...and staying here probably went over one of those fine ethical lines she kept meaning to figure out one of these days.

"Enjoying the view, Nat?" Clint murmured into her ear, and Natasha smiled.

"Probably for longer than I should have," she murmured back, then cleared her throat loudly and pushed the door fully open, smirking as Tony and Steve jumped apart. "Did you find the chips you were looking for?"

Steve's face flushed alarmingly, which was no surprise at all. Tony's cheeks going a little rosy definitely was.

"Ah, yeah, Pringles Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, a very good year," said Tony, striving for a casual air. "And you? Got lost on the way to the can?"

"So what happened to 'not a couple'?" Clint asked innocently. Steve gave a soft groan and covered his eyes. "Dude. Relax. We don't give a shit," said Clint, and Steve looked at him, embarrassment warring with relief. "Seriously. Just thought we'd let you know you didn't have to sneak around - and we'd really prefer if it you don't try, since you're both crap at it."

Steve blushed again. "Uh. OK. Thanks." He cleared his throat. "We - we really weren't, before, you know," he blurted after a moment. "When I said that--"

"Oh don't worry, we believe you," said Natasha. "Based on the last few days, if you had been, we would have figured it out, no matter how many times Clint said we shouldn't bring work home." She gave the bottles a cursory glance. "You have some decent Rieslings. Maybe bring one back with you to apologize for nauseating the team with your... subtlety."

"Does everybody know?" Steve looked appalled. "Other than Thor?"

Clint snorted. "Dude, Thor knew before any of us. No, don't even try to figure that one out."

"Just bring out the nice wine, stop trying to be subtle, and come back to finish the movie," said Natasha.

She smiled at them and headed back, and they settled in to watch as the fierce rivalry between idealistic, earnest blond Liddle and driven, almost amoral dark-haired Abraham evolved into mutual respect. And the movie ended with them somehow not falling into bed together.

Which was kind of a pity.

3.

December 30

Hill and Sorensen had both looked like they wanted to object when Steve had shown up with Bruce at the Command vehicle when the team was called out. Steve had ignored them and reached for a communicator.

"I'm not sure - you aren't part of operations," said Sorensen. "I realize the former Director indulged your wish to stay involved, but--"

"Captain, we're on frequency 616," Hill had said brusquely. "Have a seat." Sorensen pressed his lips together and turned back to his screens, turning his back on Bruce and Steve.

On the screens, two building-sized, blue, vaguely bear-shaped behemoths raged, flinging cars and snow-covered trees at the team. Tony was zipping along between them and blasting away, Thor dodging projectiles and calling down lightning strikes, Natasha staying out of the way and sniping whenever possible, Hawkeye perched on top of a building and sending explosive arrows at them.

"Iron Man, this isn't having much effect," said Sorensen.

"Thanks, Agent Obvious. Get off the comms."

"That would go against protocol. And I am warning you now: if you try to block me again, SHIELD will withdraw from the area," said Sorensen.

Steve started. "What the--"

"We will not," said Hill calmly. "We will, however, ignore your team and send our own people in to deal with this threat."

"Regular SHIELD agents? Facing those things?" Clint exclaimed.

"Your choice, Iron Man," said Hill.

"We're gonna have to have words later, Maria," said Tony.

"Iron Man! Behind you!" Clint's voice came over the comm, and there was an explosion.

"Thanks, Hawkeye. Widow, any luck finding an Achilles heel down there?"

"Not so far."

"Hawkeye?"

"Barely making a dent here, even with explosive tips," said Clint. "I think I'm just annoying them."

"Well, keep annoying them," said Tony. "The more you annoy them, the less they smash stuff."

"The big guy is really vicious," said Clint. "The little brother's more like he's playing."

"Sister," Tony grunted, blasting the big one.

"Sister?"

"Breasts."

"Thought those were pecs."

"Trust the Man of Iron to know the difference," said Thor.

"Breasts," Tony repeated. "Though I much prefer them perkier, less blue, and smaller than me."

"They are a bit hulky, aren't they?" said Natasha.

"Speaking of the Hulk, you think we could set these kids up?" said Tony.

Bruce grimaced. "You think the Other Guy might be useful?"

"The Man of Iron and I are wearing them down, but there is a great deal of destruction in the meantime," said Thor. "Perhaps your monster could engage one of them."

"Is the area cleared of civilians?" Steve asked.

Hill nodded. Bruce sighed, his expression resigned, and put down his comm.

"Iron Man, watch out for this weird... stuff they're spitting out every so often," said Clint. "Looks like acid or something."

Steve squinted at one of the screens. One of the walls behind seemed kind of... partially melted. "Can we get stronger resolution on that screen?" he asked one of the techs, who began fiddling with her instruments.

"OK, I'm gonna engage Big Blue," said Tony. "Bruce, you come in and deal with Little Blue. Thor's gonna keep calling down thunder strikes on them both at random, seems to piss them off. Hawkeye and Widow, keep harassing them whenever you get a shot."

"No problem, Iron Man," said Clint. "Are you-- SHIT!"

There were sudden exclamations on the comms from Natasha and Thor, but nothing from Tony. Steve sprang to his feet as they all crowded Sorensen's screens, one of which held an image of Big Blue crouching over something. No Tony in sight.

"Iron Man is down, repeat, Iron Man is down," Clint was saying urgently, and Bruce headed out the door at a run. "Got swatted in the head and spat on, I think whatever that thing was just burned its way right through the arm of his suit - Widow, back off, they'll spit at you too--"

"Iron Man!" Natasha yelled. "Iron Man, respond please - he's not answering, can't tell if he's just down or unconscious or--"

Steve headed out the door, dodging past Bruce as Bruce grew before his eyes.

"Captain Rogers!" Sorensen yelled. Steve ignored him as he raced past the emptied buildings towards the conflict, to the sound of Big Blue roaring and crashing, and oh Christ, why the hell wasn't Tony answering, was he--

Steve rounded the corner.

Oh thank God.

But damn it, this still wasn't good. Tony was kneeling, one arm smoking, looking up at Big Blue and blasting it, but his blasts were erratic and Steve could tell he was going to go down soon, and the huge thing was going to spit at him again - or just try to crush him under one massive foot - the moment he let up on the blasts that were keeping it away--

The ground shook and Steve turned around. "Hulk!" he shouted, pointing when the Hulk looked over. "Smash!!"

Hulk lumbered past him, rushing towards Big Blue and crashing against it with a shuddering impact. Steve ducked under them, racing towards Tony, grabbed him around the chest, and pulled him behind a building. He put Tony down and focused on his arm, hoping the Hulk could keep Big Blue busy.

"Shit, shit, shit, that hurts," said Tony, flipping open his visor. "Holy shit. Oh fuck, fuck, fucking fuck--"

"I know. I know. Breathe," said Steve, taking in bright red, heavily blistered skin, the nauseating smell of burnt flesh and... some sort of citrusy scent? "Looks like a second degree burn--"

"It's fine," Tony grunted. "The suit took the brunt of it, I think. Holy shit that hurts."

"There's some on the helmet," said Steve, quickly removing it and pushing it away from them. "Must be what knocked out your communicator."

Tony gulped, eyes screwing shut. "Fuck." He tensed, sweat beading on his forehead. "Funny, I've been shot before, but this feels a lot worse..."

"Burns usually do." Steve examined the arm. "Without knowing what this is, you have two choices: if we leave the armor on, more of it might seep through, but if we pull it off we'll be exposing your skin to more oxygen, which could make the burning worse. Which do you want?"

Tony gaped at him. "You've got one hell of a bedside manner."

"Not a doctor. Make up your mind."

"Yank it off."

Steve grabbed the smoking edge of the armor and pulled, wincing as some of the goo smeared his hand. Tony was right, it hurt like a sonofabitch - and all he had was a line of it across his palm. Tony's entire upper arm was red and bubbling. Steve tensed, waiting for the exposure to make it all worse.

"OK, no, looks good," he said after a moment. "Now we just wait for the medics to get here." He looked at Tony, his surge of adrenaline subsiding now that Tony seemed out of immediate danger. Tony's eyes were closed again and he was panting shallowly. "Tony?"

"I gotta tell ya, this superhero thing is not as much fun as it says in the brochures. What the hell was in that?"

"I'm sure Bruce will be analysing it as soon as he wakes up," said Steve, pushing Tony's sweat-stained hair off his forehead. "Bad?"

"Jesus, I swear if you had the shield I'd be asking you to use it to chop my arm off right now." He groaned. "Fucking monster-spit. Jesus." He opened pain-hazed eyes and stared at Steve. "How the hell do you do this?"

"Have you noticed I'm not doing it?" Steve asked, and moved so that Tony was cradled in his arms, ignoring the searing pain in his own hand.

"Shit, this hurts."

"You'll be OK. Just think of something else until the medics get here." He paused, listening to the street and his almost-forgotten communicator for a moment and taking a few moments to confirm their position and a description of Tony's burns to SHIELD. "I can only hear one of those things," he told Tony once he was done, "probably Little Blue; Thor and the Hulk are about to bring him down..." and Tony really wasn't in any condition to listen to tactical information, but Steve kept talking anyway. The point was to distract Tony from the burning in his arm, keep his mind off the possibility that he could be suffering serious damage to muscles and nerves, keep him--

"Y'all all right back there?" asked a medic Steve vaguely remembered from a few months ago. Steve sat back and gently let go of Tony and she bustled past him and immediately sprayed something foamy on Tony's shoulder.

"JESUS!!" Tony yelled, his entire body spasming. Steve grabbed at his flailing hand.

"Believe it or not we've come across this nasty thing before, Iron Man," said the medic, her soft Southern drawl a contrast to her brisk, rather ruthless movements. "I know the foam hurts like hell, but it's counteracting the chemicals and saving your muscles from bein' damaged permanently. Here, Captain, can you sit on him or something?" she said to Steve, taking out another bottle from her kit and shaking it. "I don't know a lotta folks who can sit still for this till the painkillers kick in and I'd rather not get this stuff on parts of him that aren't affected." Steve nodded and leaned over Tony, forcibly holding him down as Tony jerked up and cursed them both and the woman spread more foam on his arm. Steve grabbed some padding from the woman's kit and passed it to Tony, who bit down on it, barely muffling his scream as the foam interacted with the venom.

"Oh good, thank you Captain Rogers, that's done it a lot faster than I thought - here," she said, and jabbed Tony's neck with something. Tony yelped. "Don't worry," she said, smiling. "That's the good stuff, you'll feel it kick in in a moment. Sorry, I hadda counteract the venom first. You OK?"

Tony glared at her, but Steve could see the relief unknotting his muscles. He sat up and off of Tony, feeling somewhat shaky himself.

"Jesus, you SHIELD women, do they teach you neck-jabbing as a sport?" Tony muttered, eyes starting to go cloudy.

"Yup, with annual competitions," said the medic. "Points for accuracy, stealth, and painfulness of the jab." She glanced behind her and raised her voice. "Over here!" A SHIELD team swarmed over them and she started giving instructions as they loaded him onto a stretcher. "He's gonna be out in a couple minutes," she said. "Gonna need that arm looked at; pretty sure nothing's broken but I didn't wanna poke around too much while the foam was still doing its thing. All right, let's go, yeah the armor's heavy, we'll be in the 'jet soon enough, we can take it off him then..."

Steve followed them as they carried Tony into the Quinjet and headed back to SHIELD, relieved that nobody seemed to have a problem with him being there while they cared for Tony. Not that he would've left anyway.

Tony was OK. It had looked pretty scary there for a few minutes, but they'd all been hurt in missions before, and this wasn't even so bad. Granted, it was unusual for Tony to get banged up, but it had happened before, would happen again, and Steve was going to have to get used to it.

In fact, he was used to it. He'd sat next to a team-mate's bedside three times after bad injuries: twice for Clint, who had an unfortunate habit of jumping off buildings, and once for Natasha. And he'd even seen Tony hurt far worse - technically, seen him dead - in their first battle together, after he'd fallen through a hole in the sky.

Bad as that had felt, this felt far worse.

He sat next to Tony's bed, watching him sleep, the next hour passing by in a blur. Doctors coming to check on Tony ("He's fine, no permanent damage, just needs to sleep it off"). Machines whirring reassuringly. Natasha and Thor stopping by to let him know the blue things had been contained ("A glorious battle indeed!"), no serious casualties, and yes, Tony's suit was being taken to the Tower. Clint dropping in to check on him ("Jesus Steve, your hand - hey can you people put some foamy stuff on Captain Rogers too? God damn Medical...")

"Please tell me nobody kissed me," was the first thing Tony croaked when he woke up, and Steve huffed a startled laugh. Tony's eyes focussed on him. He gave Steve a dopey smile. "Ooh, scratch that: please tell me somebody kissed me."

Steve darted a quick glance around the room - empty, not that Tony would've cared if it hadn't been. And really, a comment like wasn't out of character for Tony, unless possibly he woke up with Fury by his side. Or Sorensen.

"How'd it go?" Tony slurred.

"Fine. The fight was over about ten minutes after you went down--"

"To monster-goober, I know," said Tony. "The Hulk helped? He didn't get spit-dissolved?"

"He got hit, but it just seemed to make him itch. Bruce is sleeping it off right now. A couple of buildings are going to have to be condemned, but you were the worst human casualty. The blue things are in containment."

"What the hell were they?"

"That, we're still not sure about. How are you feeling?"

"Pretty good, and noticing you look exceptionally gorgeous right now." He blinked. "Possibly less social filtering than normal."

"Didn't know that was possible. I meant how's your right arm."

Tony glanced down. "Wow. I don't feel a thing." He poked at the mass of bandages with his uninjured arm. "Nothing. Like it doesn't belong to me." He clenched his right fist. "Doesn't seem to be affecting me much below the elbow. Weird. There's little lines of numbness, but I can feel from here..." he trailed off, poking at his arm, exploring what he could and couldn't feel. "Hey, can I go home?" he asked, just as one of the SHIELD doctors walked in.

"To be honest, there's no reason you shouldn't," said the doctor. "You're fine; no broken bones, no concussion, venom neutralised--"

"How do you know that?"

"Our medic was able to recognize the substance because it's been used by several people in the last year. It eats through metals and then goes to work on the nervous system, damaging nerves and muscles," said the doctor, checking Tony as he talked. "It's pretty nasty. We think the creatures you fought today were engineered by somebody who bought the venom from whoever created it - though whether they were designed to create it in their mouths or just had sacs surgically installed in their mouths, we don't know... all right, you're fine, you're welcome to leave whenever."

Tony immediately stood up, and Steve caught him as he swayed.

"How about you put on clothes first, OK?" he said, chuckling as he brought Tony his clothing and helped Tony put on his shirt.

By the time they were on the Quinjet, Tony was somewhat more coherent. "Damn. That was intense," he said as they finally lifted off. He cleared his throat. "Sorry, I'm not the stoic kind."

"What?"

"This happens to you all the time, and you just grit your teeth and--"

"For one thing, I've had a lot of practice," said Steve, glancing at the SHIELD pilot, who seemed to be ignoring them. "For another, you weren't with me when they had to remove those hooked darts out of my spinal cord after Albuquerque. I asked them to use reinforced straps; didn't want a repeat of the time I kicked poor Falsworth in the teeth--"

"You what?"

"He and Morita had to hold me down once while the medics were digging shrapnel out of my femur. I... didn't take it real well. Bit right through the piece of leather they gave me."

"Oh my God."

"Yeah. Bucky felt awful; he was there at the beginning, but had to leave to puke. He always felt responsible for Falsworth getting his tooth chipped. We all got used to it eventually - I got better at holding still and the men got better at handling me when I couldn't - but we never let Bucky take a turn again." He paused. Tony was looking a little green. "We should probably talk about something else."

Tony nodded queasily. "What's on tonight movie-wise? We finished Gandhi, right?"

"Finished it last night. I think tonight's Terms of Endearment."

"Ouch."

"Why?"

"Remember Clint said Kramer v. Kramer redefined the term 'tear-jerker'? It's got nothing on Terms of Endearment."

"Wow."

"Though personally I always thought Kramer v. Kramer didn't so much redefine tear-jerker as put anyone off the idea of marriage."

"It does that too," Steve agreed.

"I don't think I'm up for a movie tonight," said Tony as they landed. He looked and sounded perfectly coherent now, but tired. Steve helped him out of the 'jet and accompanied him up to his place.

"You don't have to--" Tony began as they reached his floor.

"Somebody should be with you in case you need anything," said Steve. They entered Tony's apartment, and headed for his washroom.

And Steve didn't mean to, he honestly didn't, he meant to just help Tony check that his dressing was on properly, reassure himself that Tony was all right and that he had the painkillers Medical had given him at easy reach... but then somehow as he was helping Tony to his bedroom, suddenly they were very close and then reaching for each other and things were getting hotter, faster than he was used to, and then they weren't just kissing any more as their hands started to wander and he pulled Tony close, feeling his erection through his pants, and then somehow he was undoing one of Tony's shirt buttons--

Tony grasped his hand. "Oh please tell me you're not just doing that for medical reasons."

Steve shook his head and nuzzled Tony's neck, unbuttoning further. Tony's hands went to Steve's own shirt, and Steve walked them back to the bed. He ran a hand down Tony's back, pulling them flush together and groaning at the friction and pressure.

"You want - oh," Tony moaned. "What do you - how far--"

Steve pulled Tony's shirt from his pants. "I don't want to - I mean, I don't want to go all the way, but... I mean, I--"

"You don't want penetrative sex, but frottage or possibly mutual masturbation or intercrural might be OK." Pause. His eyes crinkled at the corners. "Do I need to get JARVIS to translate?"

"If I run into any terms I don't know, I'll ask him," Steve said breathlessly, and kissed him again. God, that felt good. He ran his hands through Tony's hair and marvelled at its softness, moaned as Tony gently bit at his lip, and started pulling Tony to the bed.

"Holy shit," gasped Tony, "what brought this on? Not that I'm complaining, at all--"

"I thought - for a moment there, during the fight, I thought - you didn't answer, and--" Steve stopped. "Put a few things in perspective." He took Tony's lips again, caressed his face, moaned as Tony cupped the back of his neck and pulled him closer. Steve started to push Tony back down onto the bed, pausing as he remembered Tony's injuries.

"I am absolutely in my right mind, I'm not zoned out at all," said Tony, mistaking his hesitancy. "Just numb from shoulder to elbow. Trust me." He sank down, pulling Steve down with him until they were facing each other on the bed. "Yeah. God, yeah," he gasped, tossing his head back as Steve worked his way down his throat. "Yeah, God, you're, oh my God, Steve--"

"Tony," Steve moaned, hands wandering over Tony's back. He pulled them together.

"Jesus," Tony gasped, and thrust against Steve reflexively. Steve deepened their kiss till they were both breathless, and he went to move on top of Tony, then paused. He was a lot bigger than Tony, and Tony's shoulder--

"Oh, hey, you're not gonna freak out on me are you--" Tony began. Steve hitched a hip under Tony and Tony gave a slight squeak, suddenly finding himself lying on top of Steve.

"Not changing my mind," Steve laughed, parting his thighs to let Tony lie between them. "Just considering logistics." He pushed up, smiling as Tony groaned and thrust against him, then dropped his head down to bury his face in Steve's hair. "Here," Steve whispered, slipping a hand under Tony's shirt, delighting in the shiver that flew over Tony's body, Tony's fingers setting him on fire as they finished unbuttoning each other.

"OK, no, elbow feeling wobbly," said Tony, and flipped them back over. He grinned up at Steve. "You're gonna have to do all the work here, big boy."

"No problem," said Steve, and carefully drew both of their shirts off, tossing them to the side. They pressed together, bare skin against bare skin, no feeling like it in the world, and he traced Tony's muscles in wonder, smiling at Tony's whimper of delight. "I always wondered about that," he said as his fingers ghosted over the arc reactor. "It's warm."

Tony huffed a small laugh. "Yeah. Be kinda off-putting if it was a cold weight in the middle of my chest," he said. He closed his eyes and pushed up against Steve, and they panted together. Steve moved over Tony, rocking against him, hands running over his chest, his neck, groaning as Tony's hands ran over his back and they both lost themselves in each other.

"Tony, hang on, I'm not - I'm gonna--" Steve warned him suddenly and stilled. "I'm, uh, gonna come in my pants if we don't stop pretty soon--"

"I don't care," said Tony, his pupils blown. "Do you care?"

"Guess not," Steve said, and stopped talking in favour of kissing and moving together, and it was all heat and sensations and Steve had never, ever felt this, joy coursing under his fingertips, heat sparking wherever Tony touched him, his entire body tightening in anticipation as the tension grew and Tony's movements started stuttering and losing rhythm and Tony bit back a curse. And then suddenly everything was rushing through him as his body lit on fire and he welcomed the flames and heard Tony cry out and everything was a white-hot rush of pleasure and

He was gasping over Tony, tremors moving through him.

Jesus. That... had that really happened?

He heaved in a breath, felt his hips moving almost involuntarily, pushing against Tony slowly, an echo of what he'd just felt sparking through him in a wave. Tony was warm and pliant under him, panting softly, his lips still ghosting over Steve's cheek, his ear, and Steve drew a shaking hand up to Tony's hair.

"Christ," he whispered. "That was..." he gathered Tony in, brought their mouths together in a kiss, broke for air again.

"Steve?" Tony whispered back, and Steve felt a small pang at the slight uncertainty in his voice.

He drew a deep breath, wondering at the joy still zipping through him. "That was... amazing," he said quietly, wishing he had words for what he was feeling. He kissed Tony again; felt him slowly relax.

"You're OK with this?" Tony asked quietly, and Steve nodded, moving off of him and but still holding him close.

"More than OK." More OK than he'd felt in a long, long time. "Um... sticky, though," he said after a minute, glancing down.

Tony laughed. "Yeah, damn, I haven't done that since... wow," he trailed off, looking a little embarrassed. He lay back in the bed, spent and sleepy.

"Hang on," said Steve, reluctantly pushed himself up out of bed and went to the washroom to clean himself off and get a wet cloth. He returned to the bedroom and handed the cloth to Tony, who'd removed his pants and was down to underwear. "I'd like to stay in your guest room tonight. Just in case you need anything during the night."

"Steve, it's OK, you don't have to--" Tony began, cleaning himself off.

"Just returning a favor." Steve gently brushed Tony's hair off his forehead. "Close your eyes," he murmured, noting that Tony's eyelids were drooping and he seemed halfway to unconsciousness already. "I'll stay here till you're asleep."

And Tony smiled at him drowsily, before turning on his side and almost immediately dropping off, a peaceful, contented look on his face.