Out of all the places Tony thought he’d end up, a small town in the middle of nowhere was never on the list.
He hesitates to even call it a town- it’s more of a slowly dying rest stop that gets the occasional visitor from people taking the scenic route. Or more often, people who get terribly lost.
There isn’t much to it. There are some tiny houses along with an equally small motel, grocery store, liquor store, chemist and a mechanic. The nearest post office is an hour’s drive away.
Pit Stop is Tony’s contribution to the so called ‘town.’ It’s a series of cramped rooms with a garage out the back that Tony’s converted into a small mechanic business since he packed up and moved over a year ago.
As businesses go, it’s far from booming. As towns go, it’s the least flashiest place Tony’s stayed in for longer than a week.
Still, it works. Tony keeps to himself and so far no-one’s recognized him as Tony Stark, the CEO billionaire who gave both titles over to his PA and disappeared 14 months ago. The official story is PTSD, which is believable enough after being held hostage in Afghanistan for three months. The unofficial story has something to do with the armored, flying men that had fought each other in Manhattan the night before Tony’s disappearance.
The reality sits somewhere in between. Tony still insists it’s not PTSD, that he’s perfectly fine, thank you very much. He just needed a breather. He needed some time without cameras being shoved in his face asking about his time in captivity; time to come to grips with the fact that the guy who for the past 20 years was makeshift father figure tried to have Tony killed and then took it into his own hands when Tony proved stubborner than expected.
He needs some time. He’s not sure when that time is going to be up, but he knows he’ll have to return eventually, take back the mantle of CEO of Stark Industries from Pepper. But the more he stays in hiding, the more he’s considering just… staying like this.
It’s a thought that makes him balk on the best of days. He’s going stir-crazy here, where the days widen into long, lazy stretches and keep plodding on until it’s been over a year and the idea of going back to the epicenter of it all scares him just as much as the thought of staying here for the rest of his life.
Mostly, he tries not to think about it. He keeps himself distracted, tinkers with cars and his house- if it can be called a house- and improves the amour he’d used to fly here. It stays in the corner of his garage, covered in a tarp unless Tony has the garage closed and it’s late and he’s full of pent-up something , the same relentless pull that had grabbed him after he’d come back from Afghanistan.
He does his best to push down these urges when he can. Lately, the amour has stayed under that black tarp, but one day he finds himself standing in front of it, staring at the black space where the face would be if it were uncovered.
When he realizes he has a hand pressed against his chest where the arc reactor’s glow is invisible under his thick shirt, he forces his hand back to his side.
He’s restless again, which had been his permanent state back when he’d first arrived and was setting up shop. It’d crawl under his skin, make it impossible to sit still for days on end. Nowadays, it’s faded into a dull ache.
Tony cocks his head at the covered amour. Even with the tarp, Tony can pull up every detail about the suit in his mind’s eye. There’s not much to improve. Right now, he’s mostly been pulling it apart and piecing it back together.
A voice startles Tony from his thoughts. “Are you open?”
Tony twitches forwards to cover the armour before realizing there’s nothing to cover. Still, he spins around like he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t.
“Actually, I was just about to-”
Close up never makes it out of his mouth. Tony finds himself swallowing over a suddenly dry throat.
Standing in the entrance to his garage, haloed by late afternoon sun, is a man standing next to his motorcycle. From a glance, the motorcycle is a thing of beauty, but it’s the man who has Tony’s words sticking to the roof of his mouth.
It’s not that he’s gorgeous. Or, it’s not just that he’s gorgeous- the man has eyes to die for and a body to suit. He’s broad everywhere apart from his waist, and he’s sporting a worn pair of jeans, a plain shirt and a jacket. He has a duffel bag over one shoulder and he’s covered ankles-down with the yellow dust that makes its way into everything out here.
The yellow dust pricks over the rest of him as well, which makes Tony assume he didn’t just arrive here. Not that he could’ve- if the guy lived around here, Tony would’ve noticed him, and the only other way to get to the town is to travel a long while down the road that leads to it.
Tony doesn’t know what it is. The man reminds him of someone, and whoever it was must’ve been something, because there’s a moment where a flint lights up behind Tony’s ribs, an old spark from when he had been building the suit in the depths of an Afghanistan cave.
Tony chokes the spark down. “Uh. What do you need?”
The man gives him a smile that tries for grateful but mostly ends up at tired. He must’ve walked the motorcyle here, because Tony hadn’t heard him pull up.
“I broke down a few miles back. I was wondering-”
“Bring it here.”
The man blinks, but wheels the motorcycle forwards until Tony meets it in the middle. He drops his duffel bag down beside it.
Tony crouches to examine it, going for the usual causes and then digging deeper. It takes him less than a minute before he stands up. “Yeah, you have a broken piston wing that needs replacing.”
The man fixes him with a blank look that Tony usually gets from customers. It translates loosely to ‘that means nothing to me but the tone you’re saying it in implies it’s bad.’
“How much will it cost to fix?”
Tony shrugs. “Around 300.”
The man’s eyebrows shoot up his forehead before he visibly reigns in his surprise. “ Three- 300 dollars. Okay. I can do that. Uh, how long will this take?”
“Not long. 5 hours tops.”
The man nods, reaching around to rub at the back of his neck wearily. “Okay. Sorry, do- do you do this now, or should I leave it here overnight-?”
“I can do it now.”
“I don’t want to be a bother. If you’re busy-”
Tony flashes him a grin as he goes over to check his tools. “Do you see any other customers here?”
The man pockets his hands. He’s not frowning, but it’s close. “It’s late.”
“I don’t sleep much.” Tony waves towards the motorcycle. “Push it over to me.”
The man wheels it obediently over to Tony’s bench.
“Thanks,” Tony says, bending down to examine it. God, it’s a thing of beauty.
He looks up at the man again, who is standing with his hands back in his pockets, his shoulder stiff.
The man starts, “Is there somewhere around here I can-”
Tony isn’t sure what makes him say it. Maybe it’s the flare of something determined and almost hope-like that had come to life in Tony’s chest when the man had come in. Maybe it’s the fact that days and sometimes weeks can go by without Tony talking to anyone but JARVIS, who he’s installed in every bit of tech he has in the place. Or maybe it’s the guy’s baby-blues.
Tony says, “There’s a house attached to this. If you don’t mind a mess, you could wait there until I’m finished. There’s probably food in the cupboard and the tapwater’s safe.”
The man blinks at him. His lips part. “Oh, uh. I don’t want to impose.”
“You’re not,” Tony says. “See that door? Go through there, there’s a hall. Kitchen’s on your first left. Get some water, you look like you need it. And bring me a beer while you’re at it. It’s one beer, I’ll stay sober enough to fix your ride,” he adds when the man continues to look dubious.
At first he thinks the man is going to decline again. There’s something tired in his expression that Tony doesn’t think is entirely rooted in walking the motorcycle here.
But then the man’s giving him a nod and heading for the door. Before he reaches for the knob, he turns to say, “Thank you. This means a lot,” and then he pauses and it takes Tony a beat too long to realize he’s waiting for a name.
“Nice to meet you,” the man says, and detours to shake Tony’s hand like Tony’s back at Board meetings again instead of a mechanic grubbing around on the concrete. “I’m Steve.”
Tony pointedly doesn’t let his thumb skim over the man’s hand. Hitting on him, Tony has decided, would be a bad plan.
He gets to work on the engine. By the time Steve gets back with his beer, Tony’s fingers leave small grease stains on the glass.
“Thanks,” Tony says distractedly. His glance turns into a longer look when he spots the matching bottle in Steve’s hand.
“I hope it’s okay,” Steve says, tilting it towards him. When Tony doesn’t say anything, Steve says, “I can put it back-”
“No, it’s- you’re fine. Go for it,” Tony tells him, before turning back to the engine. When he looks over and sees Steve walking slowly around the garage examining things in a way that looks less interested and more like he’s finding an excuse to do something, Tony clears his throat.
“There’s a couch over there if you want to sit.” He points to a spot a few feet ahead of him, where a pokey couch is shoved into the wall. There’s a pillow and a crumpled blanket shoved at one end for the nights where Tony misses his workshop and lies there with JARVIS simulating the familiar workshop noises through his phone.
Steve follows obediently, continuing to look around once he’s seated. He’s nursing his beer; Tony thinks he might’ve just grabbed it to have something to hold.
Tony lowers his gaze back to the engine and starts working again. “What brings you to these parts?”
“Other than my motorcycle breaking down?”
“Yeah, other than that.”
Steve starts peeling off the label of his beer, then stops. “I’m seeing the sights.”
Tony thinks of the neverending stretch of desert that spans all the way around this place. “Not a lot to see out here.”
Steve is silent. When Tony looks over, he’s taking a drag from his beer bottle. Tony eyes the line of his shoulders, the self-aware way he holds himself. Something in him guesses that if Steve were caught out in a fight, he’d be capable of handling himself, and not just because of the muscles.
Tony isn’t used to being interested in the people that pass through here. They’re loners or they’re minivan drivers with a screaming family in the back. They’re midlife-crisisers or students or adventurers, and Tony has fixed what needs fixing and sent them away with the least amount of small talk he can get away with. He hasn’t cared about their stories, what lead them here, where they’re headed after they leave.
What is it about you , Tony thinks. There’s something familiar about him that pinches at the edges around the arc reactor.
Tony turns back to the engine. “Anything in particular you’ve set out to see?”
“I never got to see much of America growing up. Well, nothing important- I’ve traveled all over, but there was never time to see anything. It was the same when I went overseas.”
“Yeah?” Weird. “Where overseas?”
There’s a pause. “Germany, mainly” he says, and his tone is light but there’s something under it that tells Tony not to pry.
Still- “What were you doing that never left time to see the sights?”
“I was… busy.”
Curiosity burns Tony’s tongue, but he keeps the questions behind his teeth. Who do you remind me of?
He nods and continues with the engine, letting the familiar structure peice together in his head. He doesn’t expect Steve to continue the stilted conversation, so he’s surprised when Steve asks, “How’d you end up here?”
Tony keeps his eyes on the engine. “What makes you think I wasn’t here all along?”
“You don’t seem like a small-town kind of fella.”
The way he says it is almost knowing and ice shoots up Tony’s spine. Does Steve know? Does he recognize him?
He turns to check Steve’s expression, but instead of knowing, Steve’s face is drawing up hastily in something like embarrassment.
“Ah, sorry. All I meant was you don’t- you have a… quality about you that doesn’t fit here. I didn’t mean any offence.”
“None taken,” Tony says, still not completely at ease. “I’ve been all over.”
“Moved a lot?”
“Mm. What about you, where do you come from? I’m hearing New York in there.”
A hesitant smile. “Brooklyn, actually.”
“Yeah?” Tony doesn’t mention he’s lived in Manhattan for most of his life. For one, it’d go against what he’d just told him. And secondly, the less connections Steve can make from him to the famous Tony Stark, the better. “Needed a change of scenery?”
“You could say that. What about you, how’d you get here?”
I flew here in a metal robot suit , Tony doesn’t say. Instead, he says “I needed some downtime. The world had gotten-”
He stops. Apparently he doesn’t need to continue, because Steve says, “Yeah,” in a voice that is understanding enough to get Tony worried again about Steve recognizing him.
Steve clears his throat. He rolls the beer bottle in his hands. “World seems to be getting that way, huh.”
More and more each day . Tony can hardly watch the news anymore. “I didn’t realize it until it was too late to do anything about it.”
When Steve doesn’t reply, Tony assumes the conversation has trailed to a stop. He digs further into the engine.
Then Steve speaks up. “Is it?”
“Is what it?”
“Too late,” Steve says.
Tony turns to look at him again. Steve has drunk maybe a mouthful of beer and is staring at the opening where the garage gives way to the rest of the world.
The next words thrum at the base of his throat. They’re something he hasn’t admitted himself for a while. “I always hope not.”
Steve’s eyes drifts over to him. When he meets Tony’s eyes, his gaze stops and stays.
Who the hell are you , Tony thinks as his heart starts beating rapidly behind the arc reactor. Whoever Steve is, he looks just as world-weary as Tony, and Tony finds himself wondering if Steve’s roadtrip is his own version of what Tony’s doing: stagnating, killing time and running from himself so he doesn’t have to face up to the reality of things.
Tony wants to take him apart like a machine and figure out what makes him tick just as much as he wants Steve to get out, leave him in peace and not rock the careful boredom that Tony’s constructed for himself over the last year.
He thinks Steve is gearing up to say something when Tony cuts him off. “Hey, I- I’m going to need to concentrate on this next part. Could you go wait inside? I’ll let you know when I’m finished.”
He pushes down the guilt that rears up when Steve sags. It’s not physical, there’s no shoulders slumping, but a new light drains from Steve’s eyes.
“Oh. Right. Sorry-”
“I’ll just,” Steve says, and gets up. “Sorry,” he repeats, and heads back inside, pausing to go and pick up his duffel and carry it with him into the house.
Tony stares at the closed door. He feels like he either saved or damned himself and he can’t decide which.
Four and a half hours later, the sun has sunk low enough that Tony has to turn the lights on as he scrubs his hands free of grease and heads into the house.
It doesn’t take long to find Steve. He’s sitting on the sole chair Tony has stuffed around a kitchen table he mostly uses to shove dishes on once his counter is full.
“I have a TV,” Tony says. “Please don’t tell me you’ve been sitting here staring into space when you could’ve watched two whole movies back to back.”
Steve looks at Tony, and for a moment Tony catches a flash of something wide and sad before Steve’s pulling up a tired, polite smile to cover it. “I’ll make sure to do that the next time a stranger invites me into their house and lets me run around unchaperoned for five hours.”
“Point.” Tony rubs his palms on his jeans. He’s probably getting leftover grease on them, but whatever.
Steve pushes himself to his feet and follows Tony back out to the garage. He strokes a hand over the handlebars and turns to Tony. “Uh, do you take cash?”
“Great,” Steve says, and slides his wallet out of his pocket. Tony purposely doesn’t react to the thick wad of cash that stays thick even after Steve hands him $300.
“How have you not gotten mugged yet,” Tony asks. He runs his finger over the tops of each note and has finished counting before the sentence is out of his mouth.
Steve smiles, and god, he looks exhausted . It’s an in-your-bones kind of tired that Tony knows too well, the kind of weary that only comes when you’d give anything to just- just sit down for five minutes without that weight on your shoulders.
“I can take care of myself,” Steve tells him.
Tony doesn’t doubt it. From all the tight edges, Tony assumes he’s been trained. Military, maybe. He holds himself like Rhodey does when he’s stressed and trying to convince himself he has control.
Tony says, “Right. You… keep doing that, then.”
Steve nods. “Thank you. For fixing it.”
“It’s what I do.”
Tony watches as Steve starts walking his motorcycle out into the open and has a yanking, bizarre feeling like- like he’s letting something slip away. A chance, perhaps.
“Hey, it’s- it’s late.”
Steve turns back. “What?”
“It’s late,” Tony tries again. He swallows and tries for nonchalance. “There’s a motel about a minute down the road, but it’s small and crappy and charges a lot more than it should. If you don’t want to pay top dollar for a mattress with more springs than actual fabric, you could just spend the night here. No charge.”
Steve’s expression changes in increments. Hastily-covered suspicion to something softer, but still wary. “And why would you do that?”
Tony shrugs and hopes he doesn’t sound too desperate. “I already let you stay while I fixed your ride, what’s another eight hours? As long as you don’t steal my stuff, we’re golden.”
Or go rooting around , Tony adds privately, thinking about the tarp-covered suit three feet away from them.
Steve’s fingers flex around the handlebars. He’s still looking at Tony with an expression that he can’t pin down.
“And-” Tony bites off a sigh. “Maybe I think the world needs more good in it.”
Steve’s face changes again, this time to something raw before he tries to smother it. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Tony’s skin prickles, uncomfortable under the weight of that gaze. “Uh. Consider this my weekly contribution to the world’s goodness, or whatever.”
Steve’s jaw twitches. He looks Tony up and down, not like he’s checking him out, but in more of a way that suggests if he looks closely enough, he’ll be able to spot what Tony’s deal is. “Okay. If you’re not letting me pay you, though, I’ll have to- do housework, or something.”
“You really don’t need-”
“Consider it my weekly contribution.”
Tony feels himself smile. “Okay, done. Uh-” He pauses in offering Steve the couch. The armour is about a foot way from it, and everything else Tony would rather Steve didn’t find- hidden in laptops and his cellphone- is protected by JARVIS. “You can take my bed, I’ll take the couch.”
“I sleep here a lot anyway, it’s fine-”
What follows is the politest argument Tony has ever stumbled through. It ends with Tony more or less yelling at him, and Steve keeps looking at Tony in half-suspicion, half-gratefulness before he heads into Tony’s house with Tony’s directions to the bedroom.
The first thing Tony does after waking up the next morning is ask JARVIS if Steve has done anything sketchy yet.
“He has done nothing but sleep since he went into your bedroom, Sir.”
Tony scrubs a hand down his face. “Right. Good,” he says, yawning.
He grimaces as he pushes himself up off the couch. His joints aren’t what they used to be. “Keep monitoring him, J.”
“Of course, Sir.”
Tony is mostly sure Steve won’t notice the hidden cameras. “Hey, J? How are we doing on food?”
“We are down to cereals and condiments, Sir.”
Shit. Tony sighs. “Don’t make yourself known if Steve wakes up, but keep watching. Alert me if he does anything weird.”
“I will be ever vigilant, Sir.”
“Counting on it,” Tony says. He glances down himself. He looks okay wearing yesterday’s clothes, even if he doesn’t smell okay, and the grocery store has had him there smelling and looking worse than this.
He checks his phone every thirty seconds as he runs through his usual grocery list. JARVIS doesn’t send him anything, which means Steve isn’t doing anything dodgy, but Steve could be doing un-dodgy things that Tony wants to know about. Like taking Tony’s favourite book off the shelf and reading it. He looks like the kind of guy with good taste.
Tony gives himself a mental shake as he loads food onto the conveyer belt, since this place hasn’t progressed to self-checkouts yet. Don’t hit on the handsome stranger you let stay with you for no reason. Shit, why did I let him stay? This isn’t helping the not-get-noticed thing.
Tony texts JARVIS a note to monitor Steve’s use of technology, in case Steve starts snapchatting people with captions ‘totes found tony stark :p’ or something of the like.
JARVIS responds with something so dryly offended at the idea he wasn’t already doing it that Tony almost doesn’t notice the new truck due to his snickering. What gets him looking up as he makes his way through the parking lot is the guy’s swearing as he sits at the steering wheel.
Two tourists in two days. Huh. Usually they one or two a week if they’re lucky- Tony has no idea how the motel makes enough to stay afloat. Tony sure as hell wouldn’t if he didn’t have money he squirrelled away before he ran.
Tony considers. The guy is obviously having issues with his engine, if the noises coming out of the car are anything to go by. The man behind the steering wheel keeps going through rotations of swearing quietly, then swearing loudly when the car refuses to turn on, then taking a series of deep breaths through his nose where he seems to calm. Then the cycle starts again.
Tony transfers his bags of food to one hand and uses his free hand to tap on the window.
The guy jumps like a spooked cat. Tony offers what he hopes is a friendly smile. “Uh, hi. You having car trouble?”
Tony hooks his thumb over his shoulder. “My mechanic setup is less than a minute down that way.”
The man hesitates. Tony absently wonders if he’s been sleeping in the van, going by the crumpled look of his hair and clothes and the general mustiness of both the van and the guy in it.
The window rolls down and the mustiness intensifies. The man’s eyes flick briefly up and down Tony, who tries to continue smiling in the least threatening way he knows how. Something about this guy makes Tony think of animals cowering in corners.
“I don’t think my van’s going anywhere,” the guy says apologetically. He wets his lips. “And I, uh. I don’t have any money. Thanks, though.”
“Free of charge.”
The man blinks. “What?”
“It’d be free of charge, whatever’s wrong with your van. I can afford it.”
The man stares. He looks, Tony notices, like he’s been through the ringer. There’s no bruises or scrapes, but something’s happened to the guy.
“That’s… nice of you,” the man says, and his gaze skitters across the parking lot like he’s considering an exit. “You don’t even know what it is yet. It could be expensive.”
Tony shrugs. Desperation claws at his insides, the kind that ate him up after Afghanistan, the maw of needing to do something , no matter what it was. “Like I said, I can afford it.”
The man looks him up and down again and Tony wonders if everyone is as suspicious of free help as the two men he’s offered it to. Not that he blames them- he’d be exactly the same way. But then again, Tony has a reason to be suspicious. It gets him wondering- do these men have a reason?
“I’m Anthony,” Tony offers.
The man wets his lips again. His brow furrows. “Bruce,” he says slowly, almost reluctantly.
Tony holds out his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Bruce shakes it with a smile that’s more unsure than anything. He lets go of Tony’s hand, says, “Uh, is there a tow truck we can-?”
“Nah, we’ll have to push it.” Tony steps back and cocks his head at the van. “Wait there, yeah? I have someone staying with me right now, with you steering and the two of us pushing we should be set.”
“Nope,” Tony says honestly. “But with the muscles on this guy, I think we stand a chance.”
Tony dumps the grocery bags in the entrance to the garage before heading into the house, which is the entrance he takes most of the time: garage, then into the hall that leads to the house.
“J, is Steve up yet-”
Tony cuts himself off when Steve emerges into the hall from the kitchen.
“Hi,” Tony says, hoping like hell Steve hadn’t heard that. Judging by Steve’s sleep-ridden expression, he hadn’t. “Are you awake enough to help push a guy’s van into the garage from the grocery parking lot?”
Steve blinks. Hair falls into his face and Steve pushes it back. “Uh, sure.”
“Great.” Tony snaps his fingers. “Come with me.”
Steve falls into step beside him as they walk back to the garage and out into the street. Tony tries not to ogle Steve’s overall mussed look. He’s in the same clothes he had on last night. “Did you sleep in your clothes?”
Steve shakes his head. “I have sleep clothes in my duffel.”
“Right. Okay. Good,” Tony says, determinedly not picturing what those would be like. Steve in ducky pyjamas would be goddamn adorable, but he takes Steve for a sleep-in-his-boxers kind of guy. Obviously not, if he has sleep clothes.
Tony points them over to the van, where Bruce waves stiffly towards them.
“Bruce, Steve. Steve, Bruce,” Tony says, pointing between them before heading around to the back of the van. He nods Steve to take the right while Tony takes the left. Steve nods back, but there’s something awkward in his stance.
Tony takes it as being asked to push a van somewhere first thing in the morning. “You ready, Bruce? We’ll get you onto the road and I’ll tell you where to go from there, it’s not far, you can kind of see it from here already. See that garage with the sign that says Pit Stop over it?”
“I see it.”
“Great. Steer that way. 3-2-1 and push .”
Tony leans all his weight into it, expecting a lot of grunting and swearing. Instead, he finds himself walking a lot more easily than he’d expect when he was pushing a truck. He looks over to see if Steve is pushing more than his fair share, but Steve looks like he doesn’t have to put much effort in, either. The hell?
Tony is in the middle of considering the van when it suddenly gets a whole lot slower and harder. This time when he looks over, Steve is straining just as much as Tony is finding he himself has to.
By the time they get the van into the garage, Tony is damp under the armpits. The second he deems it far enough into the garage, he sags against the van and waves at Steve to stop. “Fuck. Done. We done? I think we’re done. Bruce, we’re done.”
There’s a click and Bruce climbs out of the driver’s seat onto the garage concrete. “Thanks,” he tells Tony. Then to Steve he adds, “Thank you.”
“Not a problem,” Steve says. Tony eyes him jealously. Steve seems a lot less puffed than Tony is. Shit, he’s getting old.
“Yeah, totally fine,” Tony says, determinedly not wheezing. He comes around the front of the van, laying his hands on the hood. “Okay, let’s pop this baby open.”
Tony has the hood propped open before he realizes that both Bruce and Steve are standing awkwardly around the van. Behind them, Tony spots Steve’s motorcycle and remembers oh yeah .
“There’s food in the kitchen if you want it,” he offers them. Then to Steve, “Uh, if you have somewhere to be-”
Steve’s growling stomach interrupts him. Steve winces as he puts a hand over it. “Sorry-”
“No, hey, I did just offer food. Which I actually have now, sorry about having fuck-all last night. You can show Bruce the kitchen, you remember where it is? Of course you do, this house is too small to get lost in. Go eat.”
Five minutes later, he walks into the kitchen to find Bruce and Steve sitting at the table eating sandwiches.
“We used the last of the cheese,” Steve says as Tony enters. “Hope that’s okay.”
“What? Fine,” Tony says, heading to the sink and turning on the hot water. Grease can’t be good for the drain, but whatever. “Bruce, right?”
“That’s me,” Bruce says quietly. He’s looking more relaxed than Tony’s seen him, despite his shoulders still hunching like he wants to vanish into them.
Tony leans back against the sink as he dries his hands. “Okay, so good news and bad news: good news is it’s a pretty simple fix, an hour tops. Bad news is I don’t have the replacement part you need, so I’m going to have to cobble something together or order a replacement. Which one do you want?”
“Which is faster?”
“You need to be somewhere fast?”
Bruce pauses. “Uh, no,” he says, dropping his gaze to his sandwich. “I just- I like to be on the move. Watching the scenery.”
He adds the last part like an afterthought in a way that makes Tony think it’s not quite true. It makes him glance over at Steve- is he feeding fugitives sandwiches in his kitchen?
At least Steve doesn’t seem to be running from something. While Bruce radiates tenseness in a way that hints at wanting to be away from here, Steve seems more… lost. Searching.
Tony clears his throat as he drags his focus back. “Uh, ordering would probably take longer.”
“You putting something together- would it work?”
“Just as good as getting a replacement part, yeah. I know what I’m doing,” Tony says, flashing a grin. “Just thought you might want something more official. Not everyone’s willing to take a random mechanic by their word when they say they can fix you up a replacement just as good as something out of a factory.”
“How long are we talking?”
Tony blows out a breath as he considers. “If I get started now, I’ll have it finished by tonight.”
Bruce chews the last piece of his sandwich. He swallows it and says, “Okay. Uh. Do you want me to- do some housework, or-”
“Nah, everything’s in its place. It’s a mess, but I knew where everything is. Also I think Steve already called dibs on housework.”
“I did the dishes,” Steve says.
Tony looks over and sees that the sink is clear for the first time in weeks. “Huh. You didn’t need to do that.”
“It’s the least I can do.”
Bruce looks over at him. “Did he fix your car for free, too?”
“Um. No,” Steve says, eyebrows raising at Bruce and then at Tony. “He let me stay the night.”
“That’s... nice of him,” Bruce says a beat too late.
Tony shrugs. He’s spent his life under the spotlight, but he’s uncomfortable under the gaze of two men. He’s been out of the game too long. “I’m apparently trying this thing where I’m a good person? I mean,” he starts when they trade a look. “There should be less crap in the world. So I’m- contributing. To the world being less crap.”
When they continue to stare at him, Tony claps his hands. “Okay! I’m gonna- go get to work. Don’t steal any of my stuff and you should be fine. Bruce, feel free to wander the house or the town or whatever.”
He grabs an apple, then turns around and hightails it back to the garage. This, at least, will be more than his usual mechanic gig- he’s an engineer at heart, inventing things from nothing and creating insane maths to make it work. Making a replacement part for Bruce’s engine is less than a brain exercise, but it’s better than nothing.
After about twenty minutes, Steve knocks on the door and comes in.
“Hey,” Tony says, twisting his head to see him. “You heading off?”
“Not yet,” Steve says. He pockets his hands as he comes to stand close to Tony, who is sitting beside his workbench with spare parts littered around him.
Steve continues, “Me and Bruce got to chatting.”
“Yeah, he had some interesting stuff to say. Turns out he’s a scientist.”
Tony perks up and then tries to hide it. “What field?”
“I think he mentioned gamma radiation.”
Why does that ring a bell? “Huh.”
Steve nods. He’s holding himself oddly. “I was- I was wondering if you’d be alright with me staying until you send Bruce off. It wouldn’t be another night, I just-”
“That’s fine,” Tony says hurriedly, mostly to get that look off of Steve’s face. “Seriously, it’s not a bother.”
“Right,” Steve says. He sounds doubtful. “Are you sure I can’t do any chores? I’d hate to just mooch around, Bruce and I were hoping we could make ourselves useful.”
“Uhhhhh.” Tony wished he could call on JARVIS to let him know what actually needed doing. Everything, probably, but the last thing he wants is for two near-strangers to stumble over something they shouldn’t. Not that Tony leaves that stuff lying around, but-
“You could…” Tony tries to think of something at least halfway pleasant. The bathroom is obviously out of the question, despite needing a wash. “Fold my laundry? It’s-”
“The big pile of clothes in the lounge?”
“That’s the one.”
“We’ll get right on it,” Steve says with a weirdly relieved smile.
Tony waits until he leaves before speaking quietly. “JARVIS, find me a Bruce who works in gamma radiation.”
He pulls out his phone and instantly there are hundreds of hits. At first Tony thinks JARVIS has run it wrong, but after reading partway through an article he’s thinking otherwise. He reads multiple sources to make sure, as well as hacking into some security footage from last year.
Jesus. On screen, a giant green creature rips a phone pole out of the ground.
Hulk , Tony remembers. He’d been on the news about six months ago, twice in one week, both times causing massive property damage- before vanishing.
Tony pictures Bruce getting frustrated at folding a shirt wrong and turning Tony’s lounge into kindling. He’s struck with a memory of Bruce cursing behind the wheel, then stopping to do deep yoga-breathing. He’d looked determined. Tony hadn’t realized just how much.
“Well,” Tony mutters. “Shit.”
“Shall I run a search for Steve as well, Sir?”
Tony thinks about it. He’s been getting less running-from-the-law vibes from Steve, but there’s something off about him all the same. Including the fact that he reminds Tony of someone and Tony would like to know who it is so it’ll stop niggling the hell out of him.
There’s not much information to go on , Tony tells himself. Probably can’t find him anyway .
With that in mind, he says, “Go for it.”
The first thing that pops up jogs a laugh out of him. “Okay, that’s- a very obvious result about a Steve who lives in Brooklyn.”
On screen, there’s the old articles about Captain America. Tony is in the middle of a laugh when it trails off- that’s definitely who Steve reminds him of, and it’s a hell of a coincidence if he’s from Brooklyn, too. Maybe he’s a secret grandchild?
Or maybe he’s a big fat fucking liar , Tony thinks. There’s more venom in it than there probably should be: after all, Tony’s lying to them. Not technically, since his real name truly is Anthony, but still.
He clicks on the link and his thoughts about Steve lying falter and stop in their tracks.
“Huh,” Tony says faintly. He zooms in, then back out. “Huh,” he says again.
Steve doesn’t just look like Captain America. He could stand next to him and pass for an identical twin brother.
Tony stares at the photo some more. It’s old, black and white from some military database that probably doesn’t exist anymore. But the Steve in the photo and the Steve out in Tony’s lounge could definitely be the same man.
They could, if Steve Rogers hadn’t died before Tony was even born.
Possibilities stream through Tony’s head. Did he die at all? Maybe he’s immortal. He could be a clone. And there’s always the secret grandson theory, which is Tony’s favourite right now, because Captain America having a secret child who then had some more children is preferable to the mindfuck that Tony is being confronted with.
Tony puts his phone away and starts working on Bruce’s replacement again. It’s automatic work, he could’ve done it when he was six, so it leaves him with a lot of space in his head to think things over.
Okay. I have the man formerly known as Hulk and… a possible dead superhero in my lounge. Or clone. Or secret grandson of a dead superhero. How do these things keep happening to me?
He suddenly wishes he could text Rhodey or Pepper about it. He could, even- they try to talk at least once a month on burner phones that Tony makes untraceable and unable to listen in on. It’s even coming up to their usual call time.
Still- if this could turn out badly, Tony doesn’t want to drag them into it. He keeps his phone in his pocket and lasts another half an hour before he gives in and heads to the lounge.
He clears his throat. The two men look up.
Tony tries not to broadcast that he might’ve found out the things that they’re definitely trying to keep under wraps. “I’m getting a glass of water. Anyone want one?”
They both answer “No, thanks,” with the utmost politeness, if not slight awkwardness. It makes it a bit harder for Tony to come to grips with their possible alter-egos.
“You sure? There’s, uh. Lemonade. And beer. Calming tea,” he adds, keeping his tone casual and his gaze on them both instead of just Bruce.
When they both reply that they’re fine, Tony heads to the kitchen and drains a glass of water in two long swallows.
Okay. Okay, then.
Tony manages to find medial things for them to do until evening rolls around and Bruce offers to make dinner.
Somehow, Bruce finds enough in Tony’s cupboards to cobble together a stir-fry and rice, both of which taste better than anything Tony’s eaten in a year.
Bruce takes both their praises with quiet gratitude, but something in Tony loosens when he notices that he seems incrementally more relaxed as he eats.
“Should be less than an hour before you can drive off after this,” Tony tells him.
“I really can’t thank you enough,” Bruce starts.
Tony waves him off. “Hey, it’s nothing. Like I said, I can afford it.”
Bruce gives him a look at that. It’s short and it diverts quickly to his food, but there’s something knowing in it that- well, doesn’t set Tony on edge, but it makes him wary. He figures he shouldn’t be too worried about getting outed by Bruce if Bruce is also in hiding.
“What meat is this,” Steve asks. He’s eating neatly, but fast enough that Tony’s surprised he isn’t spilling some rice down his front.
“Yeah?” Steve spears some onto his fork and tilts it around. “I wouldn’t have guessed. You’re a good cook.”
“Thanks,” Bruce says again. Like the previous times, it’s polite but slightly off, like he isn’t sure he gets to have this.
Tony watches the two of them. He should be thinking about the possible dangers- and definite mysteries- that they pose, but as he watches them eat rice that’s been stained yellow by spiced sauce, all Tony can think of is how he’d never got to have anything like this. He doubts the others have anything like this, either- both of them carry weights on their shoulders, different but no less heavy.
It sticks in Tony’s throat: the simple domesticity of eating a cooked meal with people in a quiet kitchen. They’re nearly strangers, sure, but it’s so far away from anything Tony’s been allowed that Tony has to take a second to stare.
When Steve catches him, Tony shakes himself out of it. Focus. Right. “Hey, Steve, what did you say your last name was?”
That instantly makes Steve’s shoulders go rigid, even though he forcibly relaxes them less than a second later. “I didn’t. It’s Judd.”
“Suits you,” Tony says mildly.
Steve glances up at him, then goes back to his food.
When dinner’s cleared up and Tony’s finished on the engine, he heads back in to tell Bruce. Steve follows them out to the garage.
“It was good talking with you,” Bruce tells Steve. They shake hands, and Tony thinks he can see genuine understanding in their connected gaze.
Then Bruce turns to Tony. “I- this was the nicest thing anyone’s done for me in… a while.”
Tony forces himself not to avert his gaze, but he can’t help the uneasy smile that comes with being thanked like this. “Well, you looked like you could use a break,” he says, and coughs into his fist. “Uh, I was actually thinking we should trade numbers. In case you get into trouble again.”
Bruce hesitates. His gaze goes unreadable for a second, but then he’s getting his phone out of his pocket for Tony to tap his number into.
“Thanks,” Bruce says, and Tony watches his fingers flicker over the keypad.
Tony’s phone vibrates in his hand. It’s a text from an unknown number, and he’s going to add it to his contacts when he notices the contents of the text.
It reads: let me know if you’re ever in trouble, too. not sure what kind of help the big guy would be to iron man but i’d give it a shot.
Tony’s gaze snaps back up to meet Bruce’s. He looks mild as anything, and gives Tony a small wave before climbing into his truck.
“See you around,” he says. It’s to both of them, but he lingers on Tony.
Tony clears his throat. “See you, big guy.”
Bruce gives him another look before smiling and reversing out of the garage.
Tony watches him go. He exits out of the text and hears more than sees Steve coming up to stand beside him.
Tony folds his arms, training his gaze on the motorcycle leaning against the side wall of the garage. “You heading out, too?”
It wriggles into Tony’s chest and sets up shop. Should . Not anything about wanting to. How messed up is this guy’s life right now if he’d prefer sticking around with a strange mechanic?
I really hope you’re not a clone , Tony thinks as he opens his mouth. “Well, hey, before you go, I could- I could show you the sights. That’s what this whole trip’s about, right?”
Dead superhero from the forties , his mind whispers.
Tony shoves it back.
Cap’s secret grandson, it tries.
Shut up , he tells his brain. Next to him, Steve’s eyebrows are raised as he looks at Tony.
“Thought you said there was nothing to see around here,” he says, but it doesn’t sound like a no.
Tony grins. He reaches to clap his shoulder, but stops himself at the last minute. His hand drops to his side. “There’s one thing. You’ve probably already seen it, but there’s a great vantage point five minutes that way. Less, if we go on that.”
He nods towards the newly repaired motorcycle.
Steve smiles. It looks rusty with disuse. “You asking me to take you on a ride?”
It’s not flirtatious, per se, but there’s definitely something underneath it. As Tony tries to puzzle Steve out, the smile is hastily replaced by a look of near-embarrassment.
“Uh, I mean-”
Tony puts him out of his misery. “Is that a yes?”
Steve looks at Tony like he doesn’t know what to make of him.
The feeling’s mutual , Tony doesn’t say.
“Sure,” Steve says. Tony follows him to the motorcycle and waits for Steve to swing one leg over it and scooch up the seat. “Hop on.”
Tony very pointedly shuts down the image that comes immediately with those words. Not hitting on him. Very bad idea hitting on anyone while you’re in hiding, let alone the dead superhero-slash-clone-slash-secret-grandson.
Tony’s mind, because he’s brilliant and graduated MIT before puberty had finished having its way with him, has a comeback waiting. Right. That’s why you’re taking him stargazing. Great plan.
For the second time in five minutes, Tony tells his hundred-mile-an-hour brain to kindly shut the hell up.
After Tony is seated with his arms wrapped around Steve’s middle in the most heterosexual way he knows how, they start driving out of the garage. It’s only when they get out onto the street that Tony says, “Shit, one second,” and Steve stops.
He idles on the road as Tony doubles back to close the garage door. Sure, someone could get in if they really wanted, but then they’d have to face Tony’s booby traps and Tony himself after JARVIS alerts him. Not to mention that Tony has made this possibly the most impenetrable garage in America.
He pauses as he walks back to the motorcycle. Two tourists in two days had been pushing it, but three?
There’s a black van on the other side of the street. It’s nondescript enough that Tony eyes it for a second longer than necessary. It looks a lot like those vans that people disappear into in movies where the government is shady.
But Steve is still watching him and JARVIS will let him know if anything happens, so Tony keeps walking.
“Can’t have hoodlums making off with my wrenches,” Tony says as he climbs back on the bike.
“Fair enough,” Steve nods. “Okay, so where’re we headed?”
Tony points. Steve follows. It takes a lot less than five minutes for Steve to get them up on a dusty hill that is bare apart from one lone, nearly dead tree.
Tony gets off the motorcycle and sits down a few feet away, waiting for Steve to follow suit.
“Looks like… more desert,” Steve says as he looks out over the view the hill offers.
“We’re not looking there,” Tony says. He tilts his head upwards. “We’re looking up there.”
Tony grins. “Yeah. Oh .”
Up above them are more stars than Tony had ever seen before he’d moved here. The night sky is cloudless and glittering and stretches on beyond anything Tony can see, and the moon is bright enough that they can see things more or less clearly.
He glances over and sees that Steve has gone from sitting to lying down. “It’s more comfortable,” he explains when he catches Tony’s look.
Tony hesitates, but then shuffles down so his back is pressing into the dirt. It’s going to be in his hair when he gets back up.
“Haven’t seen stars like this in a while,” Steve tells him.
Tony twists his head to look at him. “Thought you spent most of your time in Brooklyn. There were stars like this in Germany?”
“Yeah.” Steve’s throat clicks and Tony wonders if it’s Nazi Germany he’s remembering. “After a while I could navigate by ‘em.”
“Nice,” Tony says. He knows he should be digging for information. He’s sure he shouldn’t be enchanted by Steve’s goddamn eyelashes in the moonlight.
Steve looks over at him, seeming startled when he notices Tony already looking. He recovers quickly. “What about you- see a lot of views like this all that time you were moving around?”
“Uh.” Tony tries to remember what he’s told Steve. “Not really. I sticked to cities, mostly.”
Steve nods and turns his face so he’s watching the stars again. His gaze shifts along the sky and Tony tries to do the same, but his gaze keeps dragging back to Steve’s face.
“You don’t seem like the kind of guy who enjoys solo road trips,” he says finally.
Steve huffs something like a laugh. “I’m trying something new.”
“How’s it working out?”
Steve is quiet for several seconds. “I’ll get back to you on that.”
Tony nods. He’s about to attempt to stargaze instead of Steve-gaze when Steve continues haltingly, “I’m used to- I mean, I’ve gotten used to having a team behind me. I think I’m better with a team.”
Tony wishes he could relate. It’s a revelation he puts away and resolves not to look at. “Team? Circus team, swimming team, gymnastics team? You strike me as the flexible type.”
Oops , Tony thinks as Steve twists to look at him again. He tries for his most innocent expression as Steve replies.
“I was a soldier. I lead a team for over a year.”
Even as sympathy builds in Tony’s gut, he can’t help putting the pieces together- Captain America had led the Howling Commandos during the war, right?
“How’d that… go,” Tony says, regretting the words as they come. Everyone knows how the Howling Commandos ended up- they all got to grow old, apart from two of them. Their leader, and James Barnes, both of whom died. Or ‘died’ with quote marks, apparently.
Tony watches how Steve’s jaw tenses. He backtracks. “Uh, I’m assuming not great. You don’t have to tell me.”
Steve blinks hard. Tony pretends he doesn’t notice how shiny his eyes have suddenly become.
Tony takes a breath. “Is that what brought on the road trip? Whatever happened over there?”
“More or less,” Steve answers after a moment. His voice is rough, and Tony is struck by how young the guy is. Captain America or not, this guy can’t be older than 25.
If he’s still this upset over Barnes, he’s probably not immortal, Tony’s brain whispers. It happened seventy years ago. Maybe he lead another team since then, and that ended badly as well? Maybe-
It almost feels like a betrayal, figuring Steve out like this. On one hand there’s the secret identity, but then there’s the part of Tony that sees a kindred spirit. The part of him that wants something from Steve- solidarity or comfort or understanding, and wants to give it in return.
I want to know you , Tony realizes. It’s a realization that makes him look away, up at the stars, so he doesn’t have to watch Steve’s face.
Steve takes a long breath that shakes slightly in the middle. “So, ah. You never told me how you ended up here.”
Tony struggles to find something vague enough. He considers lying, but he doesn’t think Steve is lying to him, and god, just for once, Tony wants-
“It’s complicated,” Tony starts. “Uh, someone- someone screwed me over in a big way and it had… repercussions. Bad ones. I thought I should clear out while the fallout went down, so I took a break.”
Steve nods. “So you’re going back?”
“Eventually,” Tony says, but he hesitates too long before saying it. “Maybe. Probably. The fallout’s over, mostly, so I. I should go back. Can’t run forever,” he adds.
“No,” Steve says. At first Tony thinks he’s disagreeing, but when he looks over he finds the opposite. Steve nods with a small dip of his chin. Can’t run forever .
Tony watches Steve’s eyes track. His chest is heavy. Or, heavier than usual, and he doesn’t think it’s the metal sitting permanently in his ribcage. “What are you going to do when you’re finished seeing the sights?”
Steve doesn’t pause. “Go back to fighting, I suppose. I’m a soldier.”
“That doesn’t have to be all you are,” Tony says, thinking back to the 20 years he spent convinced he was going to attend parties and invent things and that would be the sum total of his life before he bit it early from drugs or drinking.
Steve drags in a breath. It sounds too loud in the still night. The moon makes it so Tony can clearly see every shift in Steve’s movements.
“I don’t know how to be anything else,” Steve admits.
Tony closes his eyes. “Yeah. I- yeah.”
When he opens them, Steve has gone back to looking at him. His eyes are half-lidded.
Tony swallows. Dead superhero , he reminds himself. Dead superhero dad never shut up about that you probably have unresolved issues over.
“I hope you go back,” Steve tells him. “To wherever it is you came from. This doesn’t- it doesn’t suit you.”
“How do you know that other life suits me?”
Steve shrugs. His shoulders shift against the yellow dirt. “Was it bigger than it is here?”
“Then it suits you better.”
Tony feels himself smile. He bites the inside of his cheek. “Thank you?”
“You’re welcome,” Steve says. It’s soft. He’s looking at Tony just as softly, though there’s an underlayer of something like caution.
Distantly, Tony wonders if Steve knows about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell being torn down. Because Tony has never been good at people unless he’s manipulating them or dazzling them or pissing them off, but he knows what someone looks like when they’re thinking about kissing him.
“I don’t think you’d like me, back where I came from,” Tony hears himself say.
Steve doesn’t speak for a few seconds. Then he says, “We could find out.”
“What, you mean look you up after I go back?”
Steve nods. “Cellphones are brilliant inventions,” he says dryly, in a tone that gets Tony thinking it’s an inside joke with someone who isn’t Tony.
“They are that,” Tony says, mostly for something to say while he tries to calm his whirring brain. “Thought you were going back to the fight.”
“I will,” Steve says. “Never said which fight. Things are… up in the air right now. No-one’s sure what they’re going to do with me.”
I could help with that . It sticks to the roof of Tony’s mouth. He has contacts in the military; he has sway in close to every country in the world. Whatever Steve needed, Tony could help.
More words flood his throat and get stuck behind his teeth. I’m Tony Stark, runaway CEO billionaire and possible superhero if I ever put on the suit again. Are you Captain America? If so, how the fuck?
He doesn’t say any of them. Instead, he stares at Steve, who stares right back.
When Steve leans up on his elbow, Tony watches him. He watches Steve shuffle closer and pause.
Tony waits. Steve hasn’t dropped his gaze since they stopped talking.
“Anthony,” Steve says. He sounds like he’s tasting how it feels in his mouth.
From where Tony’s lying, Steve’s framed by stars. “I- prefer Tony.”
Steve nods. “Tony.”
Bad idea , Tony tells himself. Baaaad idea, you don’t know for sure who he is and he doesn’t know you, if he’s who you think he is then he was friends with Dad -
None of it stops him from kissing back when Steve leans down. It doesn’t stop him from letting the kiss get heated, or gasping out that they should head back to the house.
It doesn’t stop him from grinding his hard-on into Steve’s back the whole short ride to the house, or laughing into Steve’s mouth as they stumble their way to the bedroom, or pushing Steve down onto the bed and following him down.
The first thing Tony does after waking up- well, after he spends a minute staring at Steve’s sleeping face and wondering if he just made the biggest mistake he’s made in a while- is check the window.
The black van is still there. The windows are tinted, so Tony can’t see in.
You underestimate me , Tony thinks as he goes over to his bedside table and flicks his phone on. It takes him less than five minutes to get into the phone- phone s, it turns out- of the people in the van and find out they’re working for some organization called SHIELD.
Agent Romanoff and Agent Barton. Both very good and very deadly. Tony has no idea why they’re being so unsubtle- is it part of a plan, or are they just having a lazy day, spy-wise?
As Tony is scrolling through his ill-gotten gains, there’s a rustle of movement on the bed. Tony looks over and sees Steve lift his head, squinting at him through the morning light.
Tony can’t help the grin when he takes in Steve’s bedhead. “Hey.”
“Hi,” Steve says. He smiles sleepily. Tony can recognize that it’s probably bad that’s all it takes for Tony to push aside everything that’s happening and climb onto the bed to kiss him.
The kiss is getting heated when Steve’s stomach starts to growl. It’s loud enough that Tony stares at Steve’s stomach.
“Sorry,” Steve says. “I, uh, have to eat a lot.”
Metabolism , Tony thinks automatically, chalking that up with possible Cap-things. It’s a thought he wills away. Can’t he just have this for five seconds? Sure, it’s most likely going to blow up in his face, but-
“We still have some of Bruce’s stir fry leftover. Could shove that in the microwave,” Tony suggests.
“Sounds good,” Steve says. He has a careful air about him as if he, like Tony, is waiting for something bad to happen and take it away from him. He slings an arm behind his head and gives Tony another smile as Tony heads for the kitchen.
Tony has the fridge open when Steve’s voice drift in from the bedroom. Fuck, this house is laughably small. “Mind if I turn on the TV?”
“Go for it,” Tony calls back as he unwraps the cling-film he had pressed over the bowl of leftovers last night. He makes a mental note to buy cling film as he bins the last of it. He never had to check what he was running out of before he moved here.
The microwave drowns out the muffled noises from the TV. From the hazy sounds of it, Steve is channel-surfing. The microwave dings and the TV gets a little clearer: Steve has picked a channel. What sounds like a news reporter is talking about an explosion.
Tony is paying more attention to pouring the leftovers into separate bowls right up until he hears New York .
He stills. Cranes his head towards the bedroom. If he strains, he can make out the reporter saying possible terrorist attack . Saying nothing has been confirmed .
As Tony attempts to push down the creeping feeling of foreboding, he catches two words that make his muscles lock: Pepper Potts was at the branch of Stark Industries when it exploded early this morning -
In his hands, the bowls are uncomfortably heated against his palms. He puts them back on the bench and pretends his hands aren’t shaking.
He wets his lips. “JARVIS,” he whispers. “Is Pepper okay?”
JARVIS answers immediately, tone hushed. “I have access to her whereabouts. Miss Potts is safe with-”
Tony sags against the counter at safe .
JARVIS continues, listing her specific whereabouts, which Tony makes a note to look up the moment he can. Then JARVIS continues, “Sir, for the sake of keeping your identity safe, I suggest you immediately-”
“Fuck,” Tony spits as he charges back to the bedroom. He skids to a stop in the doorway and the building foreboding peaks and explodes.
On the bed, Steve’s stare snaps from the TV to Tony, then back again. His eyes are wide.
Tony turns to see the screen and is confronted with a sight he hasn’t seen since he let his goatee turn into a full beard- Tony Stark in all his glory, beaming at the camera. Tony can vaguely remember that photoshoot, remembers being bored and leaving early despite everyone telling him not to. It was pre-Iron Man, and Tony had been bored for twenty years except when he got drunk enough for things to be fun.
As Tony watches the screen, the photo changes along with the reporter’s story. “-may have something to do with the billionaire's disappearance last year after his kidnapping,” she continues, and the picture that snaps onto the screen is a rare one of Tony looking grave and strained as he exits an aeroplane just after setting foot on American soil for the first time in months.
The reporter starts talking about Iron Man and the rumours that have been whirling around Tony’s disappearance.
It takes Steve making a noise in the back of his throat for Tony to lurch forwards and turn the TV off.
In the new silence, the sound of rustling sheets is deafening as Steve shifts on the bed.
Tony stares at the blank TV. In it, he can see Steve’s reflection, but only up to his neck, so he can’t read his expression.
Tony squeezes his eyes shut. Then he opens them and turns around, pulling up a smile. It’s flimsy, but he’s far from at his best right now.
He has to swallow before he has enough moisture in his mouth to speak. “I’m guessing it’s futile to hope you weren’t paying attention to that, huh.”
Steve’s eyes tick downwards to the arc reactor. Tony rubs his knuckles against it and chuckles humorlessly.
“Uh, yeah. More than a fancy pacemaker. Sorry for- lying. About all of it.”
It takes a second, but Steve shakes his head. “It’s fine. I understand.”
I bet you do , Tony thinks. God, he can just see the secondhand guilt warring it out in Steve’s gut as he continues not to tell Tony he’s- whatever the hell he is.
“You should go,” Tony tells him. His hundred-mile-an-hour brain is already sifting through problems he needs to solve- who blew up a branch of SI? Who would have access? Was it an attempt on Pepper’s life? Were there any civilian casualties and if so, was that their goal-
He’s already crafting an algorithm to make JARVIS run by the time Steve replies.
“Are you going back?”
Tony falters. Both answers are on the tip of his tongue, but what comes out is, “Guess so. Which means you need to leave, if they came after Pepper they might try to come after me.”
“I can help.”
He’s actually going to do it , Tony thinks distantly. “What if I don’t need it?”
“I’m better with a team. I think you could be, too. Not a team, even, just- people.” Steve slides out of bed and Tony does his best not to ogle Steve as he pulls his clothes on.
Tony thinks back to Pepper, how he’d be dead right now if she hadn’t pushed the button that overloaded Obie with electricity. And Rhodey, who pulled Tony up after Tony had pushed that failing reactor into place as he recovered from being paralysed.
He thinks of Bruce, of that text sitting in his phone right now. Let me know if you’re ever in trouble.
Tony sizes Steve up. Then he sets the bait. “I’m Iron Man, kid. How could you possibly help me?”
Steve pauses, squares his jaw.
Oh shit, Tony thinks, incredulous . He’s gonna-
“I have a set of… unique skills,” Steve says, which is less than what Tony’s hoping for. Aw.
Steve continues, “Trust me. You want the help I’m offering.”
Tony doesn’t have time for this. “What, the super-strength or the fast healing?”
Shock transforms Steve’s face. “You- you know ?”
“I figured it out,” Tony says. He got his AI to run a search, but Tony designed JARVIS so that counts. “One thing I can’t find out is what the fuck you are. If you’re Cap, does that mean you never died in the 40s? Or did you get- resurrected, or something? Or are you a clone? Or did Cap knock up some girl in the 40s and you’re that kid’s kid and some of the serum turned out to be hereditary-”
“That one definitely never happened,” Steve says, possibly too loud. He frowns and lowers his voice. “I’m not- I’m him. I’m the original… Captain America.”
Tony nods. He folds his arms. “Sure. How . Did you go into cryo?”
Tony waves a hand. “Did you get frozen and preserved.”
It doesn’t get the reaction he expects: Steve barks out a laugh, looking almost pained. When Tony keeps staring, he rubs a hand down his face, still laughing. “Kind of, actually. When- when my plane went down, I didn’t die. Instead I was frozen. I was unconscious.”
Tony’s folded arms loosen. “For how long?”
“Seventy years,” Steve admits. He’s looking at Tony’s shoulder instead of his face. It sounds wooden.
Tony wants to be pissed. He should be pissed- but he’d kept his own identity secret from Steve’s, and Steve is so obviously fucked up over this that Tony can’t help the sympathy that worms its way into his nervous system. Seventy years. Jesus.
“Wait,” Tony says. “When did they wake you up?”
“About a month ago.”
Steve’s mouth quirks. “Yeah. That was my reaction.”
Tony looks him over and sighs. His hands drop to his sides. “Okay. Any other huge secrets you want to tell me before we get started?”
“I think that was it for huge secrets.”
“Good,” Tony says. He pauses. “Oh, wait. JARVIS, say hi.”
“Hello, Captain Rogers.”
Steve looks upwards, eyebrows raising. “Who’s-”
“AI. Artificial Intelligence,” Tony supplies when Steve continues to look blank. “He monitors the house. Security, mostly.”
“Uh-huh,” Steve says. His gaze goes to the bed, then back to Tony. He opens his mouth.
Tony cuts him off before he can ask. “Ah, JARVIS puts the room on blackout when that happens. A sex tape of Captain America and Iron Man isn’t going to start making rounds on the internet, don’t worry.”
“That’s… comforting,” Steve says. He coughs into his fist. “So where do we start?”
Tony has about a hundred different answers for that. What he goes with is, “Remember Bruce?”
Steve takes the Hulk videos better than Tony would expect. All he does after watching one is look over at Tony and say, “Is everyone that comes through here a secret superhero?”
“Apparently I attract them,” Tony says. He grins when the smallest of smiles makes its way onto Steve’s face. “ Yeah , I do.”
He’s still working off the grin when he gets up and goes to the window. He’s peeking outside when Steve says, “Is the van still outside?”
Tony looks back to see Steve looking impassively over at him. Tony guesses that he isn’t the only one keeping a lookout- Steve was a soldier, after all. “Yep. Couple of agents from some organization called SHIELD.”
At the name, Steve’s face creases up into lines of frustration. “SHIELD.”
“Uh, yeah.” Tony lets the curtain fall back into place. “You know these guys?”
“They’re the ones who… defrosted me.”
Tony gets his phone from the bedside table and brings up the agents’ files from before. “Recognize these ones?”
“Not the man,” Steve says. “The woman, yes. That’s Mi- uh, Agent Romanoff. Who promised she wouldn’t follow me.”
Tony flicks the screen back to its default. “Well, my guess is that she isn’t following through on that one. On a scale of friend or foe, just how trustworthy are these guys?”
Steve pauses. “I don’t have much experience with them, but they seem to be on the right side. Doesn’t mean they’re going about it the right way, though.”
“Right. So more friend.”
“More friend than foe, yeah.”
Tony sighs. “Okay. Right. Steve, grab your crap, we’re New York bound.”
Steve looks vaguely offended at his things being called ‘crap,’ but he goes.
“This is the least subtle thing ever,” Tony tells the agent who rolls down the window when Tony knocks on it, the armor now a briefcase in his hand.
“It wasn’t intended to be subtle,” says Romanoff, who is sitting in the driver’s seat with her feet on the dash, flicking through a magazine.
The guy- Barton?- pipes up from the passenger’s seat. “Cap shacking up with Tony Stark? We couldn’t not see how that blew up in your faces.”
Tony’s smile turns predatory. “You knew where I was?”
“Not until a few days ago,” Barton admits. “ We followed up on the weird mechanic Steve was staying with. Until then, you were weirdly good at riding under the radar. Kudos, man.”
Then he rips open a bag of chips and starts shoving them in his face with a lack of grace Tony wouldn’t think a secret agent would have.
“Quit getting crumbs in the upholstery,” Romanoff tells him.
“‘S not our car,” Barton replies, dodging Romanoff’s elbow when she aims it at him.
Romanoff turns back to Tony. “Are you two getting in or what?”
“What makes you think we’d do that?”
“‘Cause we heard about the explosion at SI,” Clint says, muffled through a mouthful of chips. “Figured Cap would spur you into doing something.”
“Anth- Tony didn’t need me spurring him into anything,” Steve says. It’s undercut with a righteousness Tony never thought would be applied in defence of himself.
“‘Kay,” Clint says. “Colour me wrong. Where are we headed?”
Tony and Steve trade a look before climbing into the backseat.
“I’m coming back for my motorcycle,” Steve says.
“I’ll have someone pick it up,” Tony says. To the agents, he says, “New York. I’m not doing anything until I know Pepper’s safe and I can’t get through to her phone.”
“We might pick someone up along the way,” Steve adds.
Natasha looks at him in the rear-view mirror as she starts the engine. “Might?”
“We’re working on it,” Steve tells her. “He’s wary of government organizations. Hey, where’s Coulson? I’d expect him to tag along on something like this.”
“New Mexico,” Natasha answers, pulling out onto the road. “Possible alien who says he’s Thor.”
“As in the Norse god, Thor? Of thunder?”
“That’s the one.”
Steve nods and sits back. “Right, then.”
Bruce meets them at a gas station at noon two days later.
“We’re driving to New York,” he says when he hears about the up-and-coming plan.
“Apparently,” Natasha says. “Someone’s been trying to bring down helicarriers lately, and we’ve gotten intel that any plane Stark gets on will be targeted. We can’t take the risk. And Stark doesn’t want to go charging in with the armour, it might give the wrong impression.”
Helicarrier , Bruce mouths at Tony, who shrugs.
“You really want to be on a plane anyway?”
Bruce winces in agreement. “That- probably wouldn’t end well if the other guy made an appearance. How long do we have to New York?”
“About a week, if we don’t stop too much.”
Bruce starts massaging his forehead. “Great.”
“Think of it as a team building exercise,” Clint tells him.
Bruce raises his head out of his hands. “What?”
“Ignore them,” Tony says. “They’re trying to talk us into something. It’s not going to work out.”
Tony pretends not to notice Steve when he shoots Tony a look.
They don’t talk about it until Tony’s itching under his skin from being cooped up in a car so long. They’re in the middle of nowhere and Iron Man’s going to make a reappearance anyway, so he doesn’t get too many protests when he says he’s going to take a test drive over the long stretch of desert.
He doesn’t get many protests when he invites Steve along, either. He does, however, get some amused looks traded among his companions.
Steve doesn’t seem to notice. Or if he does, he doesn’t much care. “I could use some fresh air.”
“Yeah, not like you get much of it out here,” Clint says, throwing his arms out to indicate the miles of desert all around the car. “No fresh air here-”
“I meant fresh air a little higher than ground level,” Steve says, stepping up to Tony as he puts the armour suitcase on the ground. “What does it-”
He stops as Tony grins and presses the button with his foot. Metal instantly swarms out of it, covering Tony’s still body as metal clicks into place. When the helmet locks around him and the faceplate slides in front of his eyes and gives him access to every function of the suit, Tony has to take a second to grin stupidly.
God . How did he ever go a year without this? Adrenaline is already building in his veins.
He holds a metal hand out to Steve, who is staring almost dazedly at it. It makes Tony grin harder- holy shit, is Steve turned on by the armour?
“It’s- it’s something,” Steve says as he takes Tony’s hand. Even if he isn’t turned on, he’s all kinds of impressed. Either options make Tony glow a little.
“Sure is,” Tony says, and fires up the repulsors as he locks an arm around Steve’s back. “I’ll have him back by 11,” he tells the others, and he thinks Clint is going to say something, but Tony is already blasting off.
Steve’s yell is cut with excitement, and it bleeds into Tony’s whoop. Tony can’t feel them, but Steve’s arms are pressed around his back, clutching as they soar through the sky.
Tony doesn’t take them too fast or too far up, lest Steve starts gasping for air or god forbid falls off. The desert spans out below them for minutes on end.
When Tony lowers them both to the ground, Steve is grinning just as hard as Tony expects he is.
“That was- grand ,” Steve gasps.
“Careful, your 40s is showing.”
Steve chucks him in the shoulder. Colour is high in his cheeks and his hair is windswept, his eyes bright as he looks at Tony. “Could you take the-? Uh, the helmet off?”
Tony removes the faceplate, holding it in one armoured hand. “What, do you feel deprived of my face-”
That’s as far as he gets before Steve kisses him, hands on either side of the helmet. Tony spares a second to think that the edges of the helmet could be pressing into Steve’s face before kissing back.
“This is not how I expected the week to go,” Tony says once Steve’s pulled back. “It’s a good surprise,” he adds at Steve’s questioning look.
Steve says, “So are you.”
“A welcome surprise?”
They grin at each other. Tony can see Steve’s hands on his metal shoulders. He suddenly wants to feel it rather than know it’s happening, and he disengages the armor to step out of it.
Steve looks at the shell of metal Tony stepped out of, but follows Tony as he lies down on the desert ground.
“I never knew there was this much desert in America until last year,” Tony says.
“There’s a lot,” Steve nods. His arm presses into Tony’s, and Tony can feel it easily through his t-shirt, which cuts off at his shoulder.
Tony breathes deeply. As deeply as he can, anyway- having metal embedded in his chest had left him with maybe two thirds of the lungs he should have.
“I’ve never done this… team thing,” he admits. “I’m expecting it to crash and burn.”
Steve shifts next to him. “I think you’ll surprise yourself.”
“Yeah, well, you think too much of me.”
It feels too honest, so Tony keeps his gaze trained on the cloudless sky as Steve twists to look at him.
“I don’t think so,” Steve tells him. “You opened my eyes to something I thought I’d lost.”
Tony’s eyes are burning because of the sun. That’s his excuse and he’s sticking to it. Still, he has to blink hard before saying, “Back at you.” It’s not enough and it doesn’t come close to describing how grateful Tony is, but it’s all he can manage.
Tony closes his eyes against the relentless brightness. Sunspots dance in the sudden blackness behind his eyelids. “We’ll see how this team shtick works out. Hey, what was that thing Natasha and Clint were talking about last night when we were trying to sleep?”
“What the name of our team’s going to be.”
Tony cranes his head to meet his eyes. “We have a name?”
“We’ll have to have one.”
Tony nods. “What are we working with right now?”
“Right now, they’re thinking about ‘Avengers.’”
“Avengers,” Tony says, testing it out. It sounds... “We’ll see how that goes.”
It doesn’t take long for Bruce to text them, telling them they need to get on moving again. Tony flies them back and they rearrange themselves in the seats they’ve been swapping between as they all take turns driving.
Tony rests his head against the back of the seat as the car rumbles forwards.
Ahead of them, the road stretches on.