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One Last Second Chance

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"You have a minute?" Cap asked.

Tony had to duck behind his monitor to hide his frown. "Of course."

It wasn't like he'd forgotten Captain Fucking America was on his schedule that day, but he had maybe been trying his best not to think about it most of the morning. When Dr. Rhodes had first introduced them in the labs, Tony had taken a moment to examine his burgeoning crush, admire both its object and how fast it had gone from dead stop to sixty metres per second, and then metaphorically drop it on the floor and crush it under the heel of his shoe. He knew what came of batting out of his league, and Cap was out of everyone's league, except possibly Doctor Rhodes, self-made billionaire industrialist and all-around handsome devil. A week's worth of denial had helped a bit, or so Tony had thought, but now he was looking at Cap four feet away, leaning against Tony's office doorway in all six and a half feet of skin-tight leather and mail, blue eyes shining with good humour. Tony faltered again, and again reminded himself that his life was a quest for the ordinary, not the extraordinary, and that he would do well to remember what happened when he overreached. "Come in!"

"Good to see you again, Dr. Stark," Cap said, taking a seat on the edge of Tony's desk, giving Tony a very nice view of muscled thighs through straining blue leather. He absolutely did not look up two inches to see what might be seen. Instead, he kept his eyes fixed on Cap's, and said something polite about of course it was nice to see Captain Fucking America again too, though he left out the profanity. "How have you been?" Cap continued, and even managed to sound like he genuinely cared what Rhodes Labs International's second newest technologist had done since their five-minute meeting a week ago.

Tony shrugged. "Nothing's on fire and no one died, so not bad, I guess."

Cap smiled. He had dimples, even under the mask. "I'd say that was an awfully low standard, but you probably heard about our week on the news."

This was small talk. They were making small talk, with a super soldier sitting close enough that if Tony wanted to feel him up, he totally could, without stretching even. Tony had decided the moment that Dr. Rhodes had given him this assignment that it was some kind of punishment, possibly for his smart mouth, and this unchaperoned meeting only confirmed it. Tony actually laughed aloud at the thought, remembering oh so many years ago when people had called him a play boy, or a cad, depending. That Tony Stark would have gone after Captain Fucking America with bells on. "No one died," he said, because of course he had seen the news. It'd been one hell of a fire.

"Our comms are compromised, Dr. Stark," Cap said, suddenly serious. "I'm sure of it. I don't know if it's S.H.I.E.L.D., or one of our enemies, or even the NSA, but I know there's a leak and I know it's not one of the team."

"Right," Tony said, frankly pretty happy to be talking business again. "I've been looking at your hardware, and it's solid. what I've seen of the code looks okay, though I've pinned down a couple possibilities, but to be honest it'd help if I could have access to your actual logs. It'd save me time, and I know that this is a priority for you and Dr. Rhodes."

"Right," Cap echoed. He bit his lip, showing off wonderfully straight white teeth. "I don't know if that will be possible, maybe supervised...." he trailed off, still thinking.

It was hard not to sigh. Cap didn't trust him with the Avenger's database, and there was no reason he should. It was just that Tony had never had an easy time waiting, and it was worse waiting now with such a small chance of getting to help, when he actually really did want to help, instead of staying clear. Besides which, he was pretty sure this was some kind of test from Dr. Rhodes, and not just of Tony's self restraint. "Of course," he said blandly, hoping his disappointment didn't show. "I understand."

"Would tomorrow work for you?" Cap asked, words overlapping Tony's, overriding them. "I send someone to pick you up, and Wasp or someone could sit with you. It wouldn't be the full system, but..."

But it was better than the scraps of information the Avengers had allowed outside their headquarters, even to a trusted ally like Dr. Rhodes. "As long as Dr. Rhodes approves a trip to New York," Tony said. "I'd be happy to go." He wondered how bad it would be suppressing this stupid crush when there were seven gorgeous superheroes all around him, not just the one, but that was a matter for another day.

The next day, the Avengers were called off-planet, which both mooted the Earth-based leak, and made them unavailable for visits. Tony was relieved, at least until he realised that he'd cleared his desk, and was looking at a day of make work, or of puttering with a side project at best. A lack of activity was almost as bad as something extraordinary, as far as his sobriety was concerned, and he thought about calling Bethany, but set the idea aside. He decided to start on that server balance issue for Mrs. Abroghast, which would not only keep him busy, but would possibly earn him cookies. By the time he had that sorted out, it would be time to go home, and he could casually call Beth and ask if she was free for an evening.

As always, Beth both knew that it probably wasn't casual, and that Tony would be infinitely happier if she pretended she'd come over on the spur of the moment. And, as always, she brought Cheezies. If running weren't how Tony got though the hours between waking up and going to work, he'd probably have put on forty pounds just from Bethany Cabe and her Canadian snack food. He didn't even know where she got the damn things. When she called him as part of their sobriety pact, he retaliated by bringing Peeps.

"Hola!" she said, and Tony had a flash of Cap leaning in his door thirty-six hours earlier. It wasn't fair to his plans for reform to be constantly surrounded by beautiful people who were out of his league, not interested dating him, or both.

"Hey, gorgeous," he said warmly. "How's your day been?"

Beth flicked her hand, swatting away the concerns of all top-end security consultants, then plunked down on the beat-up pleather couch across from Tony and started in on a long story full of non-confidential but amusing details. She was running a bodyguard detail on a mid-level politician, and it mostly sounded tedious to Tony, if he listened past her patter. The funny thing was that he couldn't remember the name of a single one of the bodyguards he'd had back when he'd needed that kind of thing. They'd seemed to come and go a lot, which listening to Beth's stories he now realised didn't reflect that well on who he'd been at the time.

He'd made coffee, decaf, which they both drank black, and he held his mug close to his chest as he leaned back in his frayed purple armchair, He liked to listen to the sound of Beth's voice more than what she was saying, just having her their settled his nerves. He found that she'd stopped talking and shifted his focus back to her–she was watching him, not assessing, but maybe concerned.

"Where are you?" she asked.

"Work," he lied. "I was supposed to consult on a project today, but my client didn't show." All those hours of bracing for Captain America, all those hours of wondering what was going on. He was strung taut.

Her eyes narrowed for the briefest moment, and he knew that she knew that he was side tracking, but she let him, like she usually did. "This the really dishy one you can't tell me about?"

"Confidential," Tony said, but he liked talking about Cap like he was just another hot guy–it felt normal. "I don't know," he said. "I should find a nice accountant or something, settle down. Stop day dreaming."

Beth flopped back on the couch to stare at the stucco ceiling, her legs hooked over one of the arms, heels drumming the side. "And in five years," she said, "When you remember you're Tony Goddam Stark, and that you used to live large and dream larger, and that maybe you want something other than the most boring spouse you could pin down and a nice, safe job that's way below your potential, you'll do what?"

"I don't know. Call you, probably," Tony said.

"I look forward to it." She groped along the board-stacked-on-boxes that served as his coffee table until she found the Cheezies and took a handful. "Your foresight is what I love about you."

"Just call me a futurist," Tony muttered, remembering the ridiculous things he'd thought were true when he was too young to know better. He sighed. "I can't see tomorrow, let alone a year down the road. Five seems like the Kuiper Belt."

"You should ask your red hot secret out," Beth said, which at least made Tony laugh.

"What do you know about the Avengers?" he asked, pretending to change the subject.

She played along, anything to keep him engaged and talking, he knew. "Not much more than anyone. They've been struggling since they split with S.H.I.E.L.D., I've heard that much, and there's an unconfirmed rumour that if they mess up many more missions, they're done. Could just be speculation. It's hard to find your feet as a new organisation, especially when your founder is the first, last and only word in global security. If you ever hear who they had dirt on to get that UN charter, do tell me, classified or not."

Tony shrugged. It wasn't like he could ask Captain Fucking America why he'd broken with the people who'd fished him out of the ice and given him a ready-built team. "They deal with Dr. Rhodes a bit," he said, knowing that was hardly a secret. "I don't think they have their own technical division yet."

"Then they could use a man like you," Beth said lightly.

"Ha. No." That would be one of those extraordinary things Tony had learned to avoid, like hope.

The Avengers hadn't shown back up from wherever by the weekend, and Dr. Rhodes had seen Tony spinning his wheels and temporarily moved him to a different project, which suited Tony just fine, even if he couldn't get a certain leather-clad metahuman out of his mind. Especially come Friday night, where he could feel his skin itch, but not badly enough to worry, or not enough to call Beth at least. He could survive boredom and dashed expectations just fine on his own. Putting the tv on as background noise, he settled in to build a robot.

Rather, he was designing a robot, not building one. Rhodes Labs International had a small robotics division–mostly doing things like developing the little millipede cutters that unclogged drains–but Tony thought it had the potential to really be something, and more importantly, he thought Dr. Rhodes felt the same. He was working on enough of a blueprint to get robotics head to develop into a competitor for the next qualifier for the RoboCup Rescue Robot League. Tony kept up, out of habit more than anything, and thought he could put enough of a twist on current designs to at least get RLI's foot in the door, but he didn't want to bring anything to Dr. Rhodes until he'd chased down the most obvious bugs.

The drafting settled Tony's mind, the intricacies of the machines and computers driving out all thoughts of Avengers and busted meetings. Behind him, the tv displayed a pair of improbably attractive economic theorists arguing about interest rates–a slow day in the twenty-four hour news cycle. Tony pretty well ignored them. He just liked to have voices around him.

The design challenge that had JPL and Carnegie Mellon tearing their hair could be summed up as "Jack of all trades, master of none." The robot had to be able to do such a variety of tasks, and to be able to tell which task was would work best in any given situation. It was difficult to specialise it in enough areas for it to work, while still keeping it small enough to be viable. It was a matter of hitting the right balance of trade-offs, along with enough new design elements that the competition wouldn't see you coming. Tony couldn't believe he'd written off the Cup as boring, back when he'd had the resources to throw something serious in the works. Of course he'd been busy designing smart missiles and tactical nuke delivery systems at the time.

The tempo of the background music picked up, and Tony glanced at the TV. Breaking News, it read, but it was just the Avengers appearing in a glowing portal in the sky, same as they'd vanished four days ago. Tony tried to find the remote, which he'd knocked under his crate table. He'd had enough Avengers to last a lifetime, and now he wouldn't have to deal with them until Monday. He switched the TV over to an '80s metal music stream.

Beth called about an hour later, having had what sounded like the worst day in history and wanting Tony to talk her to death in lieu of drinking, so Tony raided his stash of Peeps and headed over. They stayed up until two am guzzling coffee and burning their fingers setting the pastel bastards on fire with paper matches. Tony kept protesting that, as an engineer, he could surely come up with a better system, and Bethany insisted that this was the traditional method used among her people, and he dare not disrespect her traditions.

Tony rolled into his apartment bleary-eyed and over-caffeinated, happy he didn't have to work for two days. He'd fuss with robot designs. Sleep, jog, maybe eat out. Mostly sleep at this point, though. He didn't bother turning the lights on, just moved by memory and ambient streetlight.

He got through to his bedroom (the only other room in his apartment, aside from the bathroom and the "marvellous open plan kitchen/living room" that the landlord had tried to convince him was a trend, not an economy), then circled back because he didn't remember if he'd thrown the second security bolt. It wasn't that he had a lot worth stealing, but this was Philly.

Which was when he saw the person sitting on the floor with his back to the kitchen counter.

"Holy shit!" Tony turned so sharply that his runners squeaked on the lino. He tried to think if there was anything conceivable on hand to defend himself with, but came up blank. He was reaching for his phone to dial 911, when the figure lifted its finger to its lips.

"Dr. Stark, wait," the stranger said, and it was all he needed to say. Tony knew that voice, the light baritone with an old-fashioned clip to it, not quite newsreel, but not modern New Yorker either.

"Cap?" he exclaimed, then, stupidly, "Captain America?"

Cap gestured him down to floor level, and, not quite knowing what he was doing, Tony crawled across the floor to crouch in front of him. "Thanks," Cap said, when Tony settled near his booted foot. "I'm sorry for just barging in. I wouldn't have dreamed of it, except, after the attack..."

"Wait, what attack?" Tony asked, before the realisation crept in and he added, "Are you hurt?"

"No, no. I'm fine." Cap's tight head shake suggested that was a lie. Tony knew pain and could hear it in Cap's voice, even if he was repressing the hell out of it. "Something hit our headquarters about five minutes after we came back through the portal from the Kree Homeworld. Captain Marvel and I had stayed to talk to the press. If Scarlet Witch and Spectrum hadn't linked their powers, the explosion would have taken out the rest of the team." He rubbed his face, pushing his mask up to show a few more millimetres of cheek. "Then our comms went dead, and S.H.I.E.L.D. showed up and tried to arrest us all, well put us in protective custody, they said, but they were pretty aggressive about it. The whole team scattered."

"And you came here," Tony said. He probably should feel honoured that he'd been blessed from on high by Captain Fucking America, but mostly he felt tired and annoyed. Apparently this was what happened when you turned the news off too soon. "Because..."

Cap looked up at him, considering. He was slumped back against the cupboard under the sink with his legs splayed to take up half the kitchen, but somehow managed to look small. Tony wondered if he was doing it on purpose, or if it was just because he was injured. "Dr. Stark, I need your help," he said simply.

"My help?" Tony had to admit that was a new one on him, even when he'd had the resources to actually be useful.

"You're the one looking into our comms leak, and I still think that's our best lead," Cap explained, and, on seeing Tony's raised eyebrow, added, "And whoever's looking for us will probably check Jim's place."

That made a fraction more sense. "So I'm not important enough to search."

Cap actually laughed, or tried to, it sounded a bit strangled. "They just don't know how dangerous you can be."

To myself and others, Tony thought. "I still need access to your logs and comms system. I haven't gotten anywhere since I saw you."

"I thought you might say that." Cap opened a belt pouch and tossed a flash drive to Tony, then flipped the comm unit out of his cowl and dropped that into Tony's open hand as well. "I've had that powered down, but you might be able to do something with it."

Tony stared down at the two devices. one seemingly ordinary, the other the size of his thumbnail, with no obvious access ports. "It's a good thing I spend all my money on computers," he muttered.

Only after he'd crawled over to the crate table and crawled back with his frankly fantastic custom-built laptop, and had booted up a couple data crunching systems, did it occur to Tony that not helping a possible fugitive was an option. The computer screen cast more light on Cap than the diffused streetlights could, and Tony could see a distinct pallor and a tightness around the corners of his eyes. Just as he was about to ask if he was sure he was okay, Cap grunted and slumped sideways.

"Oh shit." Tony had no idea what to do. He thought one might help with bleeding–pressing on it, maybe? They did that in war movies–and he was pretty sure that lying down was a good idea. He shoved the laptop aside and tried to get an arm around Cap's shoulders to ease him down before he pitched all the way over. That mostly manifested as getting his elbow awkwardly trapped between Cap's side and the handle of the cupboard door, but Cap came to enough to help then, and they managed to mostly lie him flat on his back along the floor. Although, he had to keep his knees folded, because Tony's kitchen did not have the capacity to hold a fully-extended super soldier. "Shit," Tony said again. He used the flashlight on his phone to scan Cap's body, but didn't see any blood seeping through his costume, which meant exactly nothing, as the costume likely absorbed it, and quite possibly had in-built compression, like a fighter jock's flight suit, for this very reason. "Cap, can you hear me? I need you to help me out here. I've fucked up a lot of things, but I am not letting an Avenger bleed to death on my floor."

He didn't think Cap would reply; his eyes were tightly closed, and the colour of the skin Tony could see was frankly green, and lined with stress, but as Tony was about to start googling first aid, Cap whispered, "Got a pretty good hit to the head back there."

Tony considered swearing again, but figured he had that covered already. "Um..." he said. All he knew about head injuries he'd learned from that Will Smith movie last year, but he was pretty sure the main treatment was: get patient to the hospital, asap. "Should I call someone?"

Cap tried to shake his head, but winced and stopped. "You'd better..." He had to stop and breathe, and Tony had his phone out, ready to call whoever Cap wanted, when he continued. "'d better take my cowl off."

"Right." Tony had to force himself not to think about how few people knew what Captain America's face looked like, because if he stopped to think about what that meant, and how much Cap trusted Tony of all fucking people, he'd start to panic. He found the fastenings on the cowl and pushed it away until his fingers found bloody hair and a sizeable lump on the back of Cap's skull. Whatever had hit him probably would have cracked his head right open if he hadn't been wearing armour. Tony pulled off his own hoodie and folded it under Cap's head. "But I should call someone," he insisted.

"No," Cap said through clenched teeth. "Not as bad as it looks. Work on comms. Be fine." He groped around until he found Tony's hand and patted it, then squeezed tightly as his breath hissed out between his teeth.

"In the movies, this is where I tell you to keep talking," Tony said. He still hadn't turned back to his computer, couldn't yet think of pulling himself away from their clasped hands. He could only see the outlines of Cap's face–broad cheekbones, a high brow, just as silver-screen handsome as he had imagined–but his bare face and ruffled blond hair made him look ten times as vulnerable. "Does that actually help, or is it a Hollywood excuse for romantic deathbed confessions?"

Cap coughed, or laughed, Tony couldn't tell which, and said, "Supposed to help with shock, maybe hypothermia. They keep changing first aid."

"Probably keep me from panicking," Tony admitted. The idea of straining to hear if Captain Fucking America was still breathing made his hair stand on end.

There was that sound again. Tony was pretty sure it was a laugh, though its weakness made his heart ache. "I'll talk, you work," Cap said, and Tony nodded, then said sure, because Cap still had his eyes closed.

He switched on the computer and started running the comm logs alongside the metadata in one window and scanning the code the comms system operated on in another. He wasn't really listening, but he liked Cap's voice, and hearing him talk about the Kree Homeworld, and the fight Spectrum and Captain Marvel had gotten into over their alias, and, eventually the Invaders and World War II, made much better background noise than CNN. By the time he was starting to get a glimmer of what the problem was, Cap was on to something some kind of food he couldn't get anymore, not like they used to be on the East Side when he was a kid.

"What?" Tony said, pretty sure he'd lost the thread of Cap's story.

"Charlotte russe," Cap said. "They're a little paper cup full of cake, with cream on top, real cream, and half a cherry. I thought you said were from Manhattan, Dr. Stark."

"Uptown, different kind of trouble," Tony replied, not remembering when he'd mentioned that, but maybe Dr. Rhodes had. "And anyone who’s slept on my floor can call me Tony."

"Oh," Cap said. "I'm Steve. You've seen my face now, anyway."

"Sure, fine," Tony said, he still had one eye on the computer, and the patterns were starting to fall into place. "So, Steve, did by any chance Nick Fury have a hand in setting up this system?"

There was a rustle behind him as Steve tried to push himself up, then groaned and slumped back. "No," he told Tony, "I'm not that much of a sucker."

"Well this code has S.H.I.E.L.D. written all over it." Tony had dedicated a few alcohol-soaked months to trying to hack their database, though for the life of him he didn't remember why. He did remember a couple of ticks he'd seen in a bunch of places there, and he was seeing them again now. "You should have gotten Dr. Rhodes on it, because whoever you did hire was clearly double dipping."

"Dammit, Nick," Cap, no Steve muttered, then sighed weakly. "I should have known he let the Avengers go too easy. Now he wants to put us right back in our place."

"Which is under his boot, presumably," Tony guessed.

"You got it."

Tony kept looking, but all he found just underlined his original theory. Too bad he hadn't had access like this two weeks ago, but then it seemed like the Avengers were right not to trust many people, and they had no reason to think he'd be one. He was still slightly stunned that Steve had come to him of all people, and he was still deliberately not thinking about how he now knew Captain Fucking America's name and face. Dr. Rhodes must have really talked Tony up.

"Can you prove it?" Steve asked.

"That S.H.I.E.L.D.'s the one that's been screwing you over?" Tony considered. "Not with what I have here. It's an informed guess, at this point."

"Damn, all right." Steve fell silent, and Tony had to glance back at him, but his eyes were open and his chest was rising and falling if not deeply then more or less evenly.

"You okay, Cap?" Tony asked, trying to sound casual.

Steve grunted. "I can't seem to think straight. I need to warn the others, but without tipping our hand. Ideally, if they could come here..." he stopped again, and Tony tried to imagine how seven meta humans would even fit in his apartment. "We have drops, in case something happened, all you'd need to do, is..."

"Cap?" Tony asked when a few moments passed and Steve hadn't said anything. "Steve? You still with me?"

"Sorry," Steve murmured. "I should rest. My system can fix this, but not if I keep going. Tell a bird that I need the Falcon here." Then he passed out.

Tony pressed to fingers to Steve's neck, and eventually managed to find his pulse. "A bird," he muttered. "Fine, sure, why not?"

He saved his analysis to his drive and to the flash drive, before putting on his jogging gear and heading downstairs. It was almost dawn anyway, first time he'd seen the wrong side of it in a while. Jogging was the last thing on Earth he wanted to be doing right now, but it looked normal, and if someone saw Tony Stark talking to some ducks or pigeons, well, they'd probably just think he'd been drinking again. He went around his usual root at a bare trot, earnestly telling two pigeons, a flock of ducks, and a scruffy juvenile crow that "Captain America needs the Falcon, and first aid," and feeling more and more like an idiot every time.

When he got back thirty minutes later, he checked Steve's pulse, showered, and fell asleep on the couch with his laptop clutched to his chest.

When he woke up, his apartment was full of Avengers. It turned out that they did all fit, if only just.

Tony had to explain his story twice, with Captain Marvel, Black Widow, and the Falcon hitting him with questions both times. He kept trying to get a look over their shoulders to what the other three were doing bunched around Steve on the floor, but couldn't see through the press of superheroes.

"You've been a great help, Dr. Stark," Captain Marvel was saying. "I know you put a lot on the line protecting Cap, and we appreciate it."

He'd already given her the flash drive and outlined what was on it, and the team was clearly gearing up to do some damage with that information. Tony didn't know them well enough to gauge if that was metaphorical or not. From the the set of the Falcon's jaw, he looked like he was hoping that punching someone was in the offing.

"Rhodes Labs International is happy to help," Tony said blithely. He realised that for someone who'd dedicated the past year to avoiding stress, he felt oddly let down that they weren't going to include him in whatever they were planning. "You did hire us to track down the leak."

Captain Marvel and Black Widow traded another inscrutable look, then Cap Two went back to check in on the first aid situation. When she came back, she said, "Witch thinks he'll be fine, but it would be better if we didn't move him."

"He can stay," Tony said before he had a chance to think. "It's my day off. I can watch him."

"I hope Jim Rhodes has an amazing benefit package," Falcon said, before the other two pulled him away for a quick conference, that ended in everyone leaving, and Tony getting to keep Captain America, conscious or unconscious, until the team's return.

Tony figured he'd gotten about forty minutes of sleep in there before the Avengers had shown up, but he'd promised to watch Steve, not nap adjacent to him, so he made a pot of coffee and fried a couple eggs, then sat with his laptop near enough to hear Steve breathing. It felt weird just sitting there watching him, but his colour had improved, and his respiration sounded more normal. The Wasp had left him a little monitoring device that read off Steve's vitals and bracketed his normal range in various colours. His vitals showed as a sort of yellow-green by the time Tony finished his second cup of coffee.

The plans for the RoboCup entry were shaping up nicely, even though his hands had started to vibrate from too little sleep and too much caffeine. He figured a weekend's more work on it, and Dr. Rhodes would be sure to take it on. At least, he would if Tony got the power supply issues sorted out.

"What's that?"

Tony started and nearly fell the couch cushion he'd balanced on to save his butt from the floor. The vitals still showed yellow-green, but Steve himself was blinking awake. "How's your head?"

Steve grunted, then pushed himself up so that he was again leaning against the cupboard doors again. "Hurts," he grumbled, then pulled his gloves off so he could poke at it with bare fingertips.

"I'll bet." Tony didn't think he should be sitting up at all, but didn't see an easy way to make him lie down. "Your team was here, but they took my data and went out again. I'm supposed to keep an eye on you."

"Any idea where?"

"Nope, above my pay grade."

This time Steve's laugh sounded real, not half choked. "Whatever Jim's paying you, he should double it."

"I'll tell him you said that."

"Do that." Steve leaned forward to get a better look at Tony's screen. "So what's that?"

Despite the fact that he'd been about to pitch it with an eye to international competition, Tony found himself oddly reticent to talk about his work. "It's just something I'm toying with, trying to see if it has legs." He keyed to the page of concept sketches.

"I don't know about legs," Steve said, "but it definitely has wheels. What does it do?"

So Tony told him about the Rescue League, and reducing the risks to first responders following earthquakes, and maybe even nuclear meltdowns. "It's all very early days, and I don't know if Dr. Rhodes even wants to put the resources into it," he eventually said, because Steve was looking at him like he was some kind of engineering genius, and that wide-eyed faith made Tony's chest hurt.

"I wish I could, in good conscience, try to poach you for the Avengers," Steve said. "We need someone like you on staff."

"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's engineers?" Tony asked.

"I owe Jim too many favours already, and he's too good a friend." Tony hadn't heard the whole story there, but he gathered that Cap and Dr. Rhodes had fallen in while Rhodes was still in the Marines, and they'd been helping each other ever since.

Tony took a breath, time to kill this. He hadn't had to for a long time; his name was usually warning enough, but he supposed Captain America didn't follow celebrity gossip, and thus had an unrealistic view and expectation in regards to one Tony Stark. "I wouldn't go anyway," he said. "Dr. Rhodes gave me a job when most people literally laughed in my face. I owe him to stay. Rhodes Labs the only major engineering company that would hire a weapons designer who won't design weapons, a former CEO who completely tanked his company and put two thousand people out of work, and an alcoholic who needs a sober buddy to keep from falling back into a bottle and maybe never crawling out again." That should about cover it, Tony decided. See if he likes me now.

But Steve's expression hadn't changed, it was still that open, honest wonderment, and it made Tony want to kiss him, and want to scream. "I know who you are, Tony," he said. "I actually met your parents during the War, briefly, and your name and looks made me think there was a connection, so I looked you up after I met you." He frowned. "Gossip mags haven't changed much since the '40s."

"Further proof against social progress," Tony said, stalling, trying to wrap his head around how Steve both knew his history, presumably in some level of graphic detail, and said he would have been willing to hire him. He had, in fact, trusted Tony with the closely-kept secret of his identity. "I'm sorry, you've really thrown me here," he said, finally. They were going with honesty anyway.

Steve leaned his head against the edge of the counter and sighed. "I have few enough friends that I can’t throw one away based on five-year-old yellow journalism, especially not one who's working so hard on a new start, and Jim's a pretty good judge of character."

Tony could have pointed out that the most recent reports were only two years old, and were at least somewhat true, but he wasn't that stupid, and neither was Steve. "I appreciate that, Cap," he said, then found his throat had tightened, and he had to swallow hard just to breathe.

"Can you bring up a newsfeed?" Steve asked, taking pity on him.

Tony did, and ended up shuffling around so they were both leaning against the counter, their shoulders touching, and the laptop balanced between them. The Avengers hadn't made the news, yet, but Steve was happy to catch up on everything he'd missed while he was off-world, and Tony was happy to sit there in physical contact with Captain Fucking America. Eventually he got up and got them both cushions, and Steve a cup of coffee and scrambled them some more eggs, and if the Falcon hadn't come by to pick Steve up when he did, Tony was pretty sure they'd have built a blanket fort right there on the kitchen floor.

Tony didn't see Cap the rest of the weekend, or the following Monday. Apparently Dr. Rhodes had at least talked to him, because Tony got a pat on the back and a warm handshake that left him grinning the rest of the morning. Checking the news at lunch also brought a certain amount of smug satisfaction, as S.H.I.E.L.D. was suddenly making very nice to the Avengers, and Tony assumed that whatever plan Captain Marvel and the others had cooked up had come off rather neatly.

On Tuesday, however, Steve was waiting for him in the parking lot, dressed in jeans, a plain blue t-shirt and a leather jacket. He'd slicked back his hair in an old-fashioned style, and Tony wanted more than anything to run his hands through it and mess it up.

"Hey," he said, and Steve grinned and reached out to shake his hand. He did that thing where he patted Tony's upper arm at the same time, and Tony found himself smiling back, despite his nerves. "How'd it go?"

"As well as I could hope, thanks to you," Steve replied, "but I actually was wondering if you were free for dinner."

"Come again?"

"I owe you at least a meal," Steve answered, taking Tony's surprise in stride. Tony supposed he was probably used to it. "Where's good in Philly? Jim lives on sushi, and it's never been my favourite."

Tony took a breath. He had a sudden moment of clarity: he could take the thank you dinner, and probably have a friend in Cap when he wanted one, or he could do something really stupid. Something old Tony might have done. He could say, "So is this a date, Steve?" In the end, he did.

Steve actually blushed. It was adorable, and oddly hot. "Do you want it to be?"

"I... uh... yeah. I do." Maybe it wasn't the old Tony, who would have said something smooth with at least three meanings, but it was something, maybe even something new.

"Well, alright then." Steve grinned again, and after that there was no way Tony would have said no

They ended up going to a burger place not far from RLI, Tony riding on the back of Steve's motorcycle, his arms wrapped around his waist.