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To Liars and Saving the World

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“Thor.” Tony lay flat on his back, staring at the ceiling. “Not that the view isn't lovely, but will you get your attack hammer off me? I'm seconds from hyperventilating.”

“Stay calm, Stark!” Steve barked as he tried again to lift the hammer. It was a useless endeavor, but he dug his heels in, muscles straining; this team had enough of betrayal and attacking each other without goddamned magic weapons going rogue.

“My deepest apologies!” Thor scrambled over, uncharacteristically flustered as he gawked at the sight: the hammer atop Tony's chest, a paperweight for billionaires. When he finally came to his senses, he picked Mjolnir up like it was nothing but an oversized child's toy.

“Okay. I—okay.” Adrenaline had left Tony without any trademark witty remarks. He clung to Steve's arm as he struggled to his feet. “What the hell just happened?”

“I have no inkling of what caused Mjolnir's aggression toward you.” Ongoing aggression, it seemed, and Thor gripped the handle of the hammer with both hands as it jerked at its restraints like a dog on a leash.

“It's a weapon,” Steve insisted. “Weapons don't have feelings.”

“Cap's right.” Tony had retreated, keeping Steve's body between himself and Thor's hammer. “I don't think it has a choice in the matter. But it is still your hammer. Now, I really don't mean to be a nag, but do we still have some unfinished business?”

“I assure you,” Thor's voice was rough as he struggled to keep Mjolnir in check, “whatever has possessed it, it has nothing to do with our friendship. You will submit!”

Weapons also didn't take orders, and Mjolnir retaliated with a lurch that nearly knocked him off-balance.

“Your belt!” Steve edged away. It'd take a few seconds to retrieve his shield by the door, which would be a few seconds too many for Tony. “It's still the source of your powers, isn't it?”

Thor acknowledged with a grunt, swiftly unbuckling his belt with one hand as he clung to the hammer. Steve threw an arm up in front of Tony, and the silverware on the table clattered as Tony rammed up against it in his haste.

The belt dropped to the floor. Its strings cut, Mjolnir went limp in Thor's hand. Steve didn't relax, ready to jump on it at a moment's warning. Long, still moments passed, and a low whistle from behind him broke the silence.

“Well, that wasn't what I expected when you two came over for dinner. We'll cross that off the bucket list, then.” Tony's words were betrayed by the tremble in his voice. Steve felt him scoot closer. “Hammered by a god, and not in the fun way like in Belgrade.”

“I said, Tony, that it had nothing to do with us—”

“Enough!” Steve's outburst made them jump. “Thor,” he continued, “if you put on your belt, will Mjolnir try to attack Tony again?”

Thor grimaced as he brought the offender up in front of you, peering closely at it. “Most likely.”

“Are you kidding me?”

Thor's expression didn't falter as he shook his head.

Steve took the moment to retrieve his shield, and debated the merits of throwing it at the damn thing. “That's bull. We swallowed the Asgardian god crap, and now you can't even control your own weapon?”

“Now, be fair, Cap.”

Steve flinched. Tony was too close, his words against the shell of Steve's ear, his breath making Steve's skin prickle. The stench of wine clung to Tony, too warm and heady. “He'd always told the truth earlier, and if so, we don't want to anger our friend the thunder god now, do we?”

Thor appeared closer to guilt than to anger. Someone should be angry about this if Tony refused.

“Do you have some sort of explanation for this?” Steve asked, daring Thor to tell him a flimsy excuse.

Thor sighed, lowering his arm and letting Mjolnir swing by his side. “Considering Mjolnir has never acted out before, I believe this change can be attributed to my recent meeting with the All-Father.”

Steve couldn't fathom why Thor referred to his own father in such an absurd manner. Even gods weren't exempt from this time's backwards beliefs, children calling their parents by given names, treated more like friends more than family.

“So, your dad's got it out for me.” Tony let out a snort as he poured himself another glass of wine. His previous one had smashed against the floor when he'd been laid flat by Mjolnir, most of its contents now staining Tony's dress shirt. “Last time that happened, I was sixteen and the man believed I was corrupting his daughter's purity.” The smile came slow. “Then again, the man wasn't wrong.”

“That's ridiculous, Tony. My purity was long gone hundreds of years before your birth.” Thor grinned, and Steve scowled. In light of the magic murderous hammer, those sorts of jokes in this situation were completely out of place.

Steve suddenly remembered what sort of jokes Tony had been making before Mjolnir had gone berserk. Something ridiculous about marriage. His eyes had been suspiciously bright as he told Steve that Captain America would make the best husband, as there couldn't be any betrayals or backstabbing from America's finest himself, and abruptly declared them married. Steve had tried to not turn his forced smile into a grimace. It was still better than Tony drinking himself alone and stupid, or Steve's day-long television marathons burning a hole through his brain, or whatever the hell they'd all buried themselves in since the team nearly imploded.

He just couldn't make heads or tails of the man sometimes, all seriousness in brain tumors and parallel universes, then jokes about blue skin and sparkly vampires. He hated how he was certain that was exactly the reaction Tony wanted.

“Cut it out, you two,” Steve ordered. “Go on, Thor.”

Thor sobered. “I was finally granted an audience with my father, the first since my exile. He told me that Loki's continued meddling would be catastrophic to Midgard, which he sent me to save from destruction. So, to aid in my quest, he placed some powerful enchantments on my weapon. One of which was to detect a lie.”

Steve shared an incredulous look with Tony. Tony took a swig of his drink, holding up his hand, an I'll handle this.

“Thor,” he began slowly, “I know you respect your father very much, and I don't mean to insult his intelligence, but. He knows what humans are, right? That a not insignificant portion of our population believes they were commanded by their God to never lie, or else face damnation in eternal hellfire? And that they were specifically told not to do this because it's evil, but also because it's part of a little something we call human nature?”

“Plus, detecting a lie has nothing to do with attacking someone without cause,” Steve added.

“My father's enchantments did work.” Thor argued, never one to back down. “You wouldn't have noticed, but Mjolnir flared up when you informed us you hadn't watched Tony's sex tape.”

The flush came swift, and there was a soft, surprised oho from Tony's direction. Well, how the hell was Steve supposed to avoid it? It had been playing everywhere, and no one could shut up about it. He was confident even Fury had watched it. There were only so many times Steve could hear the talk show hosts describe the contents in graphic detail before he got fed up with second-hand information.

“Mjolnir didn't attack me,” Steve said instead.

“Exact magic doesn't exist. Perhaps the Scarlet Witch could fill you in further on the details, but to make an enchantment anti-Loki, it has to target my brother's traits, not his person. That would never work, not with someone as wily as him, able to change his identity at will.” Thor cleared his throat. “Powerful, arrogant, clever with words. A younger brother,” Thor added after a pause.

“Please stop before I have to dump you like I did Britney,” Tony said, and spent the next few seconds buried in his drink. He eyed Steve carefully, and Steve shifted, uncomfortable with the force of Tony and Thor's entire attention.

“But what did Tony lie about?” Steve finally asked. Then Thor wouldn't meet his eyes, and Tony muttered about how he needed another drink, and where was the new Jarvis when you needed him—

Jarvis. Which led to Natasha, which led to Tony and their once-engagement.

Steve's mind screeched to a halt. No. That was impossible, there was no way—

“It was a joke!” A stupid, off-color joke, but it wasn't a sin against God, any definition of it. “That's not a lie!”

“Well. As I'm not looking forward to death by blunt force, it doesn't have to be.” Rather than protest, or be stunned into disbelief, or any rational reaction, Tony turned to Steve with a smile on his face, and Steve's stomach dropped.

Tony toasted him with an empty wine glass. “Darling, marry me?”

When Steve'd wished, helplessly, fervently, to return to his past, to go home, he'd thought of Gail, foremost, to her strength and wit and the dimples with her smile. Then, it was Bucky, to laughs shared, even under a scratchy blanket and with rations that tasted like the scraped bottoms of animal feed.

It was an unspoken secret Steve'd take to his grave, how much he missed them, even if he saw them near every week.

But, standing here, he thought of Normandy. When he'd stormed Omaha, gunfire deafening his ears, he shield had been a beacon, for the Krauts to lob their shells against, and a symbol, a Liberty Leading Her People. He'd seen the worst of humanity that day, of so many days, but the way past that was to surge forward.

And this is where he'd ended up for his efforts, skipping right past the end of the war, past anything good he might have deserved for his efforts—here, at the city clerk's office, having just signed away his autonomy, his freedom.

The perpetrator sunk low, fists in his pockets, his posture something that would have made Steve's drill commander see red.

Otherwise, they weren't so out of place for the occasion. Tony was in the habit of wearing tailored suits, anyway, sharp and striking, the top usually unbuttoned artfully to expose the top of his chest. The expanse of skin wasn't visible today, though, Tony having deigned to add a bright red tie for the occasion. Steve wore his army dress uniform. He never would have worn it if it'd been Gail standing beside him, the woman he'd loved long before super-soldiers had been a twinkle in American eyes. But here, it was a reminder, to himself, to his call to duty to fulfill, no matter how bitter a taste it left. The Ultimates couldn't afford to lose any more of its members, and he refused to have it come down to a choice between Thor and Iron Man.

The officiant cleared her throat as she finished signing the piece of paper. “You are now legally wedded in the state of New York in the eyes of the law.” She slid the—marriage license—across the desk, fingers trembling a bit.

Well, she wasn't at fault for the emergency closure this morning due to a water pipe breakage on the third floor. A statistically unlikely breakage, what with the plumbing having been replaced in the past year. Not to mention the improbability of the damage leaving their current room untouched.

Pity for her, she was the one person on-shift they needed for legality's sake for their Ultimates emergency, world security resting in the scrawl of her signature.

Steve picked the paper up when Tony made no move to.

A marriage, registered to Antonio Stark and Steven Rogers, with Wanda and Pietro's signatures at the bottom as witnesses. Clint had been been out of the question, with talk of marriage, and Steve hadn't been able to meet Jan's eyes. Thor was out of town, off to request entrance to Asgard to meet with his father and undo this whole mess. He wasn't a US citizen, anyway, Tony had pointed out.

Last night, Steve had walked into Stark Tower a bachelor. One morning and several pulled strings and liberal bending of state marriage laws later, he'd come out the other side a married man. The last time things had changed so drastically so quickly, he'd bowled over several dozen SHIELD agents in his attempt to escape. Steve didn't think fate would allow him so much anymore.

He turned to present the certificate to Tony, only to find him missing. Pietro shrugged at him, taking Wanda's hand in his.

“Congratulations,” Wanda said, punctuated with a yawn, and Steve had half a mind to snap about children and manners, but considering Tony's disappearance, it wasn't just limited to young people these days.

“Where do you think you're going?” Steve caught Tony's shoulder and spun him around.

He watched the sweep of Tony's eyelashes from the paper and back up to Steve. “To my company? I don't see any looming threats to national security, so send my apologies about that team meeting we're supposed to have.” Tony ran a hand through his hair. “Goodness, I let Strauss handle a negotiations meeting with the DOE. Probably lost millions there, the man thinks knock-knock jokes are a valid source of humor.”

“Just—” Steve pushed the paper at Tony, who sighed and plucked it from his fingers. Tony scanned it, then shrugged at his future written there.


“...Excuse me?”

“The divorce thing bothers you, Cap, we tell them you were under duress. I looked it all up, and we have grounds for an annulment, because consent wasn't freely given.”

Steve stared at him. “You're the one who's in danger.”

Tony cocked an eyebrow. “And? You're the one whose consent wasn't freely given.”

How dare he? After he was the one who got them into this mess? “I'm doing this for your sake, Stark.”

“Yeah.” Tony gave a short shrug. “No need to lay the guilt on any thicker, Cap, it hasn't worked since my eighth birthday.” He sighed, eyes darting back to the paper. “It's not a death sentence, you know. People get divorced all the time. Half of all marriages, and I wouldn't call us that lucky. But annulled would be a win-win for the both of us. You don't live out your self-imposed hermit life of shame, and we don't have to handle the niceties of how to split up the assets.” Tony shoved the paper back, and Steve quickly smoothed out the wrinkles.

“You're a businessman,” he said sharply. “Don't you care about what you sign?”

“That's just it, Cap. It's just a signature. No money, no reputation, no success riding on this. A signature that I already explained to you can be taken back faster than our shotgun wedding. We'll keep it hush-hush for a few days, Thor will fall off Rainbow Road to let us know that his crazy hammer doesn't want to kill me anymore. My lawyers will treat annulling our marriage as a field trip from corporate law, and then we go home to the newly reinstated bachelor pad.” Tony smiled, small and strained, like he was dealing with an irate customer. “No one will ever have to know. It'll be a story to tell your future grandkids about the weekend you were married to Iron Man. But back to the present, I have work and a Bollinger with my name on it waiting for me. Ciao.”

Tony turned away, pulling out his phone. He didn't so much as glance back at a speechless Steve the whole while as he explained that coffee break was over, and to meet him outside.

Pietro and Wanda came up next to Steve, Wanda attempting to discreetly look over at him as Tony pushed past the doors.

“I'm shocked, really,” drawled Pietro. “I thought you would be the insufferable one here.” Wanda hummed in idle agreement as Steve stared after the receding back of his husband.

The pair fell through the door followed by a gust of cold air, warmed by her shrill giggles and his easy laugh.

The woman nearly ran right into Steve before her companion paused, pulling her back gracefully so that he caught her in his arms. They were quite the picture, his hand around her waist and her hand plastered over his chest.

“Well, good evening there, Cap,” Tony said.

The woman on Tony's arm let out a little gasp, her eyes running over him, lingering too much for Steve's liking, before turning back to Tony. “Tony, you have Captain America waiting for you in your lobby?” She looked at turns awed and a bit horrified as she disentangled herself from his grasp.

“Oh, don't mind him, Ruth.” Tony smiled sunnily down at her. “If he was here for Ultimates business, he wouldn't have bothered waiting. He'd track us down himself. Stop our car right in the middle of the street, and then we would have been interrupted in the middle of our discussion.”

“Tony,” Steve said, trying not to replay the particular emphasis Tony had made on their discussion. Tony and Ruth exchanged a look. “Can we talk? In private.”

Tony nodded and stepped away from his woman friend. “Right, then. Ruth, I'm so sorry about this. Just let me tell Happy, and I'll have you on your way home. Or, I won't need to go anywhere else tonight, let him take you wherever you like. There's a delightful gelato parlor I know of, just ask him to take you there, you did rave about how much you love pistachio.”

Ruth's eyes darted to Steve. “I think I'll just head home for the night, thank you.”

“But really, I do want your input on fine-tuning the laser sighting on the armor. It could save someone's life, namely mine.”

“Maybe another time, Tony,” Ruth replied. Her easy affection from earlier had vanished, and Steve felt a rush of satisfaction at seeing her wrap her coat more tightly around herself as Tony led her out, shying away from his touch, denying his offers to try again at a later date.

“It's been a while since I've been shut down so thoroughly,” Tony said after the elevator doors closed, turning and sighing. He met Steve's eyes and offered a smile and a shrug. “Sorry for making you wait. Now, what brings you to my humble abode?”

Steve tried not to snap back. Where else could he go? He'd gained entrance to the penthouse to wait the man out under the guise of Ultimates business. But, considering the papers they'd signed that morning, he couldn't very well just go back to his empty apartment.

“That didn't take you long,” Steve said tersely, the effort to keep his temper in check growing increasingly difficult.

“I'm sorry, what was that?” Tony said, removing his coat, revealing the suit and bright red tie he'd gotten married in. “You give the Secretary of Defense a run for his money when you're being so vague, darling.” Steve couldn't tell if his anger burned hot or cold. Tony smiled lightly at him. “Oh, did I say that? I meant he can't hold a candle to you.”

How could he be like that? Steve bristled. Twenty-four hours ago, he'd still been nursing wounds from his break-up with Jan. Now, he got to shout at his husband, for being home too late and too drunk and flirting with other women all the while. The nagging wife, already, because Lord knew if Tony had it in him to act out any role expected of him. He grit his teeth.

When he'd woken up, there'd been no escape from how different the world had become. How devices operated and hell, even existed, how people dressed, how women wore their makeup, how soldiers far more decorated than he was addressed him. It'd been loud and jarring, like the screech of a radio frequency that had men scrambling to adjust in the darkness.

But, this time around, having his world turned on its axis could have been written off as a delusion. It was surreal as a dream, some wild hallucination, when everyone in the know avoided the topic and Tony acted like it'd never happened.

Tony wasn't a forgetful man. He recalled equations and obscure references from thin air, knew everyone's names and family relations and interests as effortless as breathing. He'd remembered Steve's off-hand comment months ago about never having tried veal and his fondness for plums and practically dedicated yesterday's dinner to him. He was ingenious enough to run a multi-billion dollar corporation, the Ultimates, and what had felt like half of SHIELD at one point.

“Does what we did this morning mean nothing to you?” Steve only realized how it sounded after it'd left his lips.

The careful, tightrope tension melted away, replaced by something too sensitive to awareness, and Steve's skin prickled. Tony looked at him, calculating, like Steve was a puzzle to be solved. Pointless. There was nothing more that he'd find under Steve's surface. All the people from the future were like that, constantly searching, questioning in their attempt in peeling back layers upon layers, so intent in their belief that everyone was a mystery novel, instead of just asking straight out.

Tony sighed, adjusting his tie. "We really hit on something there, with the AIs. Everything that comes out traceable right back to the logical, programmed beginning. But that's no fun at all, is it.” He approached Steve, slow, intent, and it sparked something along the line of Steve's back. “I thought you'd appreciate it more if we pretended nothing happened. That's how you deal with your problems, isn't it?”

There it was, people telling Steve how he felt, how he should feel, like he didn't even know himself. “I have no idea what you're saying.”

“You don't hate me, Steve, so I don't take it personally. But you know, as the guy who reacts to the brave new world by drowning himself in lousy daytime TV and trashy talk shows, I thought you'd rather take the path of avoidance. I can't say I'm sorry I was wrong.” Tony stopped. “I'll keep the science discussions to daylight hours.”

Tony was too close now, the sweet smell of wine accosting Steve's senses. Steve dared not to visibly breathe it in. Pity for Tony, as Steve could hold his breath for over half an hour underwater. Then Tony stepped in, slipping his hand around Steve's neck, and Steve couldn't breathe at all.

“We can make it mean something,” Tony mused, eyes lidded, as Steve wondered the best way to restrain him without hurting him.

“Stark,” Steve finally tried, when his mouth didn't feel as dry as dirt, “what are you—”

They both jumped away from each other when Steve's pocket started vibrating. He slapped at it, but his Ultimates alert was still going. Tony frowned, reaching inside his suit jacket and pulling his own out along with his phone.

“Steve, mansion, team meeting, now.” Jan's voice was clipped, but Steve was more focused on how he saw Tony's jaw unclench at whatever he saw on his screen. “Do you know where Tony is?”

“At the Tower. I'm with him.”

“Good. Tell him there's no weaseling out of it this time, and the moment he looks up the news, he'll know why.”

The license, a copy of which was obtained exclusively by NBC, shows a marriage registered on today's date, 10:11 AM to Antonio Stark and Steven Rogers, better known to the public as Iron Man and Captain America of the Ultima

The pencil in Steve's fingers snapped. Wanda took it on herself to mute the television.

“It could have been someone at City Hall. You think they'd consider breaking confidentiality worth it for the payout they got for this?” Clint asked.

Jan shook her head. “This isn't just about the money. You should remember how much legal protection SHIELD families got. The feds went over the state heads, and anyone who works as an agent can apply for a confidential marriage license. When we went private, we tried to preserve what we could of our previous contracts. Public doesn't get to know who works for us, and who they're married to. Confidentiality, only for Californians and Ultimates.”

“Meaning,” Tony sighed, “my lawyers slapped so many gag orders on this that anyone who would have dared break from the city's end would be facing years of jail time and blacklisted from any civil job in the future. Hard to see the benefits, if you're not suicidal. Also, Fury said his agents say it was an anonymous source, from someone trying very hard to stay as such.”

“What's Fury got to do with us, nowadays?” Steve asked. “I thought we broke from SHIELD.”

“There's nothing that says private companies can't consult with the government.” Tony leaned his cheek on his hand. “And SHIELD, which is to say, the government defense agency, has far more resources than even my money can buy. How do you think Stark Industries operates? Flying solo never helped business.”

“So,” Wanda said, “these people weren't interested in what they could get out of this, just how this news would hurt us. They must be our enemies.”

“Well, that narrows the list down to just half the world, doesn't it?” Clint said.

Pietro scoffed. “Don't short-change yourself, humans, it's more than half.”

“And we're not all forgetting that we just dealt with this shit, right?” Clint offered. “And it came from one of us. Okay, cough it up, which one of you is the raging homophobe?”

No one spoke up, but there was a moment of assessment.

“We're not having this,” Steve said. “Like you said, we just dealt with this, and we're not going to start it again with baselessly accusing each other.”

“That wasn't what you said last time when you beat up Hank,” Jan mumbled under her breath, and Steve set his jaw, not wanting to remind her for the hundredth time that he heard her perfectly well, whether she wanted him to or not. Jan looked back at Tony. “So, you think this was an inside job, then?”

The door slammed open. “Inside job, that's SHIELD's problem.” Betty's heels clicked a rhythm across the floor, and she looked close to snapping something of her own without accidental application of super strength. “We can save about he-said she-said blame-throwing game for later. My job right now as your PR manager seems to be damage control.”

“PR manager?” Steve asked to the chorus of what the fucks and what's she doing here? that arose from Clint and Pietro.

“Private consulting in action.” Tony spread his arms. “My company's not well-versed in superhero PR since the Ultimates don't have a stock price attached, so why not get the one woman who knows her stuff?”

“The Ultimates already were in the toilet after the news of Bruce Banner causing the deaths of hundreds.” Betty grimaced. “Then we had to reenact Shakespeare in here. Betrayal and backstabbing between the people meant to save the day where a regular military operation can't suffice? Americans want to keep the soap antics to television, not to get it mixed up with their real life political figures.”

“We just saved DC from being taken over by terrorists,” Steve interrupted hotly. “And we're soldiers, not politicians.”

“Speak for yourself, Captain America,” Pietro muttered, to which Wanda giggled and even Clint cracked a short grin. Tony was the only one to laugh out loud, and Steve scowled at him.

“I'm not here to discuss semantics, Captain,” Betty said coolly. “The fact comes down to how we cannot have another scandal like this so soon after the last one.”

“You're comparing a shotgun wedding to something that killed innocent people?”

Betty leveled a glare at him. “Neither am I here to level moral relativity with self-righteous superheroes. I could spin the marriage well enough. Love that blossomed in the wake of a team tragedy, two lonely, heartbroken men finding comfort in the most—” she glanced between the two of them—“unexpected of places. Then, all we'd have to deal with are family values groups spouting off their out-of-date nonsense.” She sighed, looking over at the television screen, once again showing the copy of the marriage license. “But even I don't have the superpowers needed to have the media swallow divorce between the two most high-profile names on the Ultimates mere days after the marriage that shocked the nation.”

“Well,” Tony said, meeting Steve's eyes for a moment, “we're not getting divorced. Steve and I will go through a nice, easy, non-scandalous annulment. The team will play dumb, and after it goes through then it'll be like it never happened, and anyone who says otherwise will have to face my lawyers. And believe me, even media conglomerates won't pay well enough for people to take on that job.” He snapped his fingers. “Poof, it turns into a case of imaginary marriage charges, and they can't even take us to court over it.”

Steve stared at him, incredulous. “We're not doing that. Did you forget the reason I married you is so Thor's hammer doesn't kill you?”

Tony waved him off, and Steve nearly stood up from his chair. “Thor's gone dimension-hopping, it'll be safe to continue our little lie on Earth until he comes back with Mjolnir all tuned up and not wanting to maul me in my sleep. I'll be fine.”

“Don't be stupid, Stark,” Steve nearly growled. “We're not testing if his father really did fix things before I let him back in a room with you, or worse, on a battlefield. The press will love if Thor's next in line trying to kill Iron Man.”

Tony frowned at him, that same contemplative look in his eyes as the lobby, and it was much, much harder to deal with a Stark who took things seriously. Thankfully, Tony acquiesced with a smile, wide and appreciative and making Steve quickly glance away. “Now, who would willingly divorce such a romantic?” He backed down with a shrug and smile at Betty, his obligatory I tried.

Steve fiddled with the remains of his ruined pencil as it dawned on him. A way not to be cowed, driven into a corner by a public who didn't know and wouldn't care what was good for them.

“We're not getting divorced,” he echoed.

Jan tilted her head at him, and it wasn't within his rights to think of it as endearing anymore. “Come again, Steve?”

“Ms. Ross tells us the issue for the team image is our impending divorce. Then we don't need it.”

Jan coughed, thumping her chest. Wanda leaned forward, intrigued. Pietro looked like he was trying very hard to appear disaffected, and Betty and Clint shared a long look with each other. Tony was still smiling, although it'd gone a bit stale at the edges.

“You're not pressured by the fickleness of the market, Steve,” he said slowly, leaning to his side. “You can do whatever you want, news outlets be damned. Still America, still your rights.”

Steve nearly scoffed. “I know what it's like to be used as propaganda. Hell, isn't that why you recruited me for this team in the first place? And if we can send a message to all of those sons of bitches who spend their money and time dictating to other, honest, hard-working Americans how they can or cannot spend their personal lives, then I'm not saying no.”

All eyes in the room turned to Tony, who was stunned to be put on the spot for once. He shifted, and the grin was infectious when it came.

“Oh, the man's doing it out of spite. I believe I've just fallen in love.” Tony let out a low whistle, and Steve bit back an impulsive smile. “What the hell, if the hero of World War II thinks it's a good idea, then who am I to say otherwise?” Tony put his hands behind his head.

“Count me in.”

Steve glanced at his watch. 9:50. That gave them ten minutes. He let the buzzing of the reporters in the audience drone into background noise, making no attempt to parse the topic of conversation.

Tony wasn't ready yet. They'd parted last night after the meeting, Tony waving goodnight to him, on his phone with most-likely Pepper in his other ear, as he went back to the Tower.

Steve... hadn't followed. He didn't know where he would have ended up, following him back into the Tower, only to be left to fend for himself in the penthouse as Tony stayed on the business floors of his building. So, he took up residence in his room in the mansion.

He'd only caught glimpses of Tony since, when he'd come in to the mansion where they'd decided to hold their first public announcement, and wasn't sure at what point Tony could have slept.

There was more to worry about to come. Steve wondered how the media would swallow their tale. Well enough, presumably—they were more interested in finding out anything new and juicy enough for the gossip-hungry public. They'd probably ask if Steve and Tony had their own sex tape, or other similarly sordid questions. Maybe they'd ask for a kiss, and Steve felt a bit light-headed at the suggestion. Tony, of course, would make it a show, more reason to be remembered by them.

“I missed you in wardrobe.” Steve jumped as Tony sauntered up next to him, polishing off the last of his wine. His gaze ran over Steve in his suit with marked interest, like he could read Steve's mind, sending little seizing sensations across Steve's skin with each sweep of his eyes. “Although you cleaned up well on your own, considering.”

Steve looked on the wine with wary disapproval.

“It's ten in the morning,” Steve told him. If Tony thought he was allowed to look at Steve like that, just because they were—then Steve was allowed to say things like that now, chide his—husband—without seeming like a nag.

“Got cause for celebration.” Tony raised the glass, but didn't take a drink. “You should give it a try. Helps drown out all the rabble. Noise's best when it's loud enough to forget yourself, but not when it's loud enough to make you pay attention, instead.”

Steve felt, like always with Tony, that there was a step he'd missed somewhere in the conversation. He never knew whether he wanted the even footing or not. “I don't need it. I can block it out myself.”

“Oh? How?”

“I concentrate.”

Tony laughed, delighted with Steve's honest answer. He was odd like that.

Betty came up to them next. The clipboard and writing utensils were gone, every detail of her calculated to be sensible yet imposing. “I'll be up there before you, but remember, you're not answering any questions. You have your story to tell but it's full of more holes than that Giant Man mannequin that guy put up in Central Park.” She glared at Tony's wine glass, plucking it out of his hand, and Steve was glad for someone to agree, until she hissed, “Where's the ring, Stark?” She glanced at the stage and some announcement being made. “That's my cue. You better have them on before you get out there.”

Tony's eyes darted over to Steve. “Oh, where is my mind this morning? I'm just addled with newlywed syndrome.” From the inside of his suit jacket, he pulled out two simple, gold bands and Steve's stomach flipped. He followed the spot of light that shone as Tony flipped one between his thumb and forefinger.

“You didn't already have these prepared, did you?”

“Oh, not these ones,” Tony said lightly. “I don't even think hers would have fit on your pinky.”

Steve winced, shame flaring up in his chest. It was the wrong thing to say; the Black Widow was the furthest thing from his mind. Tony didn't even offer his perfunctory smile.

“Sorry.” Steve felt a fool. “Sorry, I didn't mean it like that.”

“I don't think anything of hers could measure up to you, Steve.” Then Tony lifted Steve's left hand, and Steve barely had the presence of mind to register the ring being slid on his finger. Not next to the warmth of Tony's hand over his, a tenderness that was louder than words. Tony squeezed and gave his hand a pat before letting it drop.

The ring was halfway on Tony's own finger before Steve grabbed his hand. Steve steadfastly refused to look up as he slid the ring to the base. He didn't linger though, snatching his hand back. He sorely hoped the shadows of the backstage hid his flush, although Tony seemed more intent on examining his hand than anything else

The clamor broke their moment, snaps of cameras taking photos of an empty stage, desperate to take the defining shot of the evening.

“Showtime, Steve.” Whatever Tony's expression had wiped clean, replaced by a charming matinee smile, the type you could frame and put on your wall.

A bubble burst the moment they stepped out into the spotlight, questions thrown from all corners of the room.

“How long has this been going on?”

“Where's the honeymoon?”

“Were you having an affair with each other while involved with Ms. Romanov and Ms. Pym?”

Tony waved at the crowd, and Steve just concentrated on keeping a safe distance as they made their way to the microphone. Betty had said the press would forgive body language errors considering it was Captain America, but not to test his luck by acting like he couldn't stand being in his husband's presence. It wasn't true, at least, not for the reasons she meant.

“Please, please, everyone, give us a moment and let us get to the surface-level questions. We're newlyweds, so you'll understand if we don't want to be held up for too long, right?” Tony beamed at Steve as the chorus of calls grew even louder. Steve could barely smile back when his face felt so hot.

“Thank you all for coming out to Avengers Mansion this morning. And because I know you all want in on the gory details, it's a rather recent development. We've been caught up in team affairs, and the Avengers have gone private and our base of operations are here at the mansion. Meaning, we got to spend more time together. At first, we both thought it was just us trying to recover from past break-ups, but there's only so long we could pretend we were each other's rebounds.” Tony smiled up at Steve, flirty, sharing in a secret. “Isn't that right, Steve?”

Steve nodded tersely, ready for Tony to take over again. He'd never been one for speeches, or dazzling people through his words.

“And,” Tony's face twisted, “with time being short, we thought that it'd be better to seize the opportunity now. Or, well, Steve here thought so, and who was I to refuse Captain America?”

They hadn't agreed on the part of the story that Steve had proposed, and he froze up, slotting it into place. Tony leaned into Steve, arm across his back, and Steve instinctively put his own hand on Tony's waist. The click of cameras and bright flashes made him focus on Tony instead of the audience. “Photo op,” Tony said under his breath. “Smile for the cameras, now.” He leaned his head in, and Steve matched the gesture. “Also, throw them a bone here, you let me do all the talking and the Internet will blow up with how Captain America's become a trophy wife. Ten seconds, you can do it.”

There was a pointed silence when he let go and Steve stepped up to the microphone. He cleared his throat. “What we want the American people to know, is that whatever Tony and I do, we're in this together, as—partners—and as Ultimates. No matter what happens, that'll never change. Thank you for your time.”

“And cut. Thank you, direct all your questions to our representatives for the next, hm, few weeks or so? We'll be busy in the meantime. Right, Steve?”

“Show us!” someone from the front shouted, and Steve's stomach flipped.

Tony tilted his head toward Steve. “You married me knowing exactly what people expect.” He paused. “But, of course, if you're uncomfortable—”

“Just get it over with, Stark,” Steve nearly growled.

“If you say so.” Tony's hand slid around his collar, tugging on his necktie, and he smiled against his mouth in their first kiss.

And, oh, Steve hadn't considered the goatee. The bristles were a rough counterpoint to Tony's soft lips, and Steve gasped a bit at the shock, Tony swallowing the breath. The audience reaction was high-pitched and deafening. Tony tilted his head, and the thrill shot straight to places in Steve's body he wasn't prepared for.

But he should have let Tony kiss him last night, in the lobby of Stark Tower. He would have known to be prepared for their first kiss, and when Tony let him go and looked up at him from beneath his lashes, he felt like jelly in the knees.

Tony took the lead again, putting an arm on Steve's back to guide him off-stage, the shouts of reporters still echoing at the back of Steve's hearing.

When they stopped, the practiced ease flowed out of Tony's shoulders. He slumped, releasing Steve and stretching languidly with a loud yawn, Steve watching the line of his body as it curved.

“Sorry about that.” Tony's hands were on Steve's shirt again, and Steve stayed perfectly still, lest he give away his anticipation. Steve stared at his hands, on the gold band of his wedding ring. Tony fixed his tie in place, then stepped back, and Steve ignored the wash of disappointment.

“You alright there, Cap?”

Steve grunted in acknowledgment, not quite ready to speak yet.

“That wasn't so bad. Probably we'll need to put in one more good interview, and then we're in the clear.” Tony patted him on the arm. “We can put that off, although it'd probably work better to relieve the media vultures if it's, say, within the next month or two? No one will bat an eye when we only last for a few months—they've already got their story that'll last for time immemorial. All those other super couples have already been together before they got put on the job. We're breaking new ground, here.” He sounded proud, and of course that was what Tony got out of this. Having something first, before anyone else, team of superheroes, flying suit of armor controlled by nanites, Captain America's hand in marriage.

And the kiss was just—Jan had wanted to try it out, semi-public sex, the possibility of getting caught, but Steve had put his foot down. He was probably just getting a taste of the exhibitionism, the being put on display that she'd described in breathless tones.

Tony cleared his throat abruptly. His gaze darted, skittish as a squirrel, like something here in front of Steve had made him more nervous than speaking in front of a crowd of over a hundred.

“Full disclosure,” Tony muttered. “I figured you've been avoiding the topic out of politeness. The cancer is in remission.”

“Ah,” Steve said, as his mind caught up with Tony's non-sequitur.

“So there's a good chance you will actually have to wait it out for these next few months. At least, if the progress continues.”

What? Steve stared at him. Why did Tony sound so apologetic for his cancer improving?


“So, you're not going to change the last name? Pity. I was hoping I'd finally been rid of the family tie.”

Steve jumped, raising a hand in front of Tony as they turned to the interruption. The man standing there—Steve looked back at Tony for the double take.

SHIELD had told him about the cloning attempts, and how none of them succeeded. There was something in Erskine's science, some mix of chemical makeup and DNA markers they couldn't decipher. He wondered, now, if it was only a super soldier serum thing.

Because the man in front of them looked like someone had the bright idea to replicate Tony Stark. Their coloring was different, blonde hair instead of black, and Steve wondered if it wasn't dyed, because their faces were near-identical. In physicality, at least—the man didn't have laugh lines at the corner of his eyes, didn't have a smile that could exude warmth rather than discernment. Like Tony if someone had tried to have his hedonistic vices stamped out and replaced with pragmatism and cruelty.

“Oh, Greg.” Tony's voice might have been more shocking than the look-alike, turned cool and scathing, kindness shut behind the twist of his mouth.


“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Captain,” the man said, extending a hand. Steve didn't care to take it, but he thought it'd relieve the tension that had risen. “Gregory Stark.”

“Ah,” Steve said. He'd heard the name before in passing, but not through Tony, and he'd assumed the shared last name was a coincidence. He looked at Tony for a clue.

“Greg's my older brother,” Tony supplied.

“You have a brother?” Steve never heard Tony mention family. Then again, Thor had mentioned that shared trait between Loki and Tony, a fact forgotten in the span of murderous weapons and impulsive weddings.

“Tony's exaggerating. I'm his twin.”

That... that explained things. Appearance-wise, at least.

“I see. I was an older brother as well,” Steve said, and saw the split-second flash of Tony's grin. Greg's face soured.

“I came to offer my congratulations to you and my brother. I don't think the old man could be happier, if he were still around. Tony getting married off to someone respectable while unable to produce offspring is a win-win for all.”

Steve was floored at the impertinence, but Tony just leaned his shoulder into Steve's.

“Oh? How did things turn out with, mm, what was her name? Meg? Martha? Turn out? Ah, I forgot, she's shacking up with that Scientology fellow now, isn't she? Well, I suppose anything's an upgrade, isn't it?”

“We should catch up, sometime,” Greg said, sounding like he would rather burn at the stake. “I had no idea the Widow's heel-face-turn could have inspired such patriotism. I sincerely hope your next relationship doesn't get you tried for treason. Warn me in advance, won't you? Next month's end of the fiscal year, and I'd like some time to prepare.”

“Greg, is it?” Steve interrupted. “I've lived with people disrespecting the Ultimates to my face plenty before, but I haven't had to listen to anyone doing the same to my husband yet. I don't want a relative to be the first to try my patience.”

For a moment, he thought that Greg might have actually taken him up on the threat. But he offered a smile instead, like he was indulging a whim of Steve's. “Right. Steve, is it? You might not have heard of me, but I've heard plenty of things about you. As a favor to my brother-in-law, not all of that is information you're privy to.” He turned on his heel, sparing a glance over his shoulder. “I'll see you, then.”

Tony sighed when Greg had left. He was still leaning against Steve, warm and steady against his side. Steve waited before rolling his shoulders to get him off.

“What did he mean, about things being hidden?”

“No clue,” Tony said, and Steve believed him. He frowned, and it was close to a pout. “I think he gets off on making people go nuts with his cryptic messages. I'll bet he was a sphinx in a past life. He's palled up to Fury, if that tells you anything. ”

It did, and Steve took a moment to be glad that genetics weren't everything.

“Thanks for the thought,” Tony told him, slowly, and Steve watched as he twisted his ring on his finger, “even if I could have handled him.”

“He had no right to say that about Natasha to you.”

“Eh,” Tony shrugged, “I started it.”

“And how could he mock us for how things were rushed?” That wasn't far from the main point of contention in their marriage. “Especially,” Steve said, remembering their topic of conversation, “when you're—sick—”

“Oh.” Tony's eyes widened a fraction. “He doesn't know.”

What? “You haven't told him about the tumor?”

“If he knew, misguided fraternal sentiment would compel him to feel pity. If you must, save it for the funeral where I can't see it.”

Steve frowned at Tony. “Tony—”

Tony shook his head. “Not doing this right now, not unless you want our first domestic. Goodness, when you look like that, it'll make it hard to get you to play along.”

“...With the cancer?” Steve was stunned. “What do you want me to do, change the cause of death to something Ultimates-related?”

“A natural death covered up as a field death.” Tony winked, because of course he wasn't cowed by Steve's temper. “It'll give those folks one last laugh from beyond the grave, hmm?”

“You, making a brave sacrifice in the line of duty.”

Tony laughed, something warming about it even with the morbid topic of conversation. “Yes, do it with exactly that face when you deliver the bad news. Thanks, Steve.” He leaned into him again, testing his waters and Steve's tolerance for impetuousness, and Steve thought on how tired Tony must have been.

Steve had trouble getting physically tired nowadays, but he was more than familiar with mental exhaustion, a heightened capacity to learn worth precious little to the pace of the future.

“It's such a cliché,” Tony yawned, “the buried treasure unearthed from the bottom of the sea. But clichés had to come from somewhere, no? Makes me glad I married you.”

Right, Steve thought, as he looked down at the top of Tony's head, some of it mussed by his clinging. That's how it was supposed to go, wasn't it?

“But, have you ever seen Captain America that quiet? He looked like he was off in his own little world.”

“He couldn't take his eyes off his husband for a moment, bless his heart. I know that there's been doubt, but that was a love-struck man if I've ever seen one.”

“Didn't you say that about him and Janet Pym a few months back, Cathy?”

“I don't recall him ever popping the question to her, did he? I wonder how he did it? Seems the traditional sort, which makes him and Stark an even odder couple.”

“Wait up, let's not forget that Janet was still technically married. On the rocks, but divorce takes quite a while to go through, even if you're a world-famous superhero.”

“Do you really think they're going to last?”

“I'm sorry, but we're no stranger to Tony Stark. It'd be a great story if all he needed was some patriotic good-will in his life, but last time we talked about him two weeks ago was thanks to the release of his sex tape. I wish the Captain the best of luck, but even that hunk of all-American super-soldier is sure going to need it.”

Steve turned off the TV. He clenched his hand in a fist, feeling the dig of his ring against his palm.

“Hey, I was watching that.”

Steve spun around. “Tony.”

Tony smiled at him, completely unfettered by the gossip on TV. Steve supposed he'd had to get used to it decades ago. Tony had removed his suit jacket, but he'd obviously just come back from work. His own ring was plainly visible on his finger as he rested his hands on the back of the couch.

“I'm sorry again I couldn't be here to show you around myself.” It was a silly remark, not like Steve hadn't been in the Tower before, and how Tony had completed his lovingly-rendered tour of the penthouse the first time he'd come, barely out of the ice. Steve told him so.

“But, are you enjoying it?” Tony insisted, like Steve hadn't given a good enough answer, so Steve considered it.

Once, the penthouse had been just as unfathomable as the rest of the future was. Back when he'd first set foot in here, it was just more reminders of how he didn't belong, someone's home so alien to him. But now that Steve had grown accustomed in his own way to the new surroundings, and having lived with Jan, who wasn't bad off herself, he could see just how extraordinary Tony and anything of his were.

But even that didn't make up for some things. How William, the new butler, who could go by Jarvis if it meant he kept the job, wondered if he didn't think Tony had been in certain rooms for years, what with their disuse, and how much of the furniture and decorations collected were of the finest pedigree and nothing else to show for it.

“Such assurance you give,” Tony patted him on the shoulder, and Steve realized he hadn't answered. “Oh, and now I'm talking like Thor. I must miss him.” He admitted it so easily, for someone who Steve recognized as having just as much trouble saying what he meant as he did. But Steve couldn't doubt the sincerity behind the words. He had never quite grasped what it was that drew those two together, when they were so different. He wondered if Tony would ever say something so candid about him.

“But he's off saving my life,” Tony continued. “Diplomacy, surrounded by food, riches, beautiful men and women, and most importantly, the finest of drink.” Tony leaned closer. “Jarvis move your things to your room, yet? I let him off for the next few weeks, or months, whatever you feel more comfortable with, so he doesn't pick up on our... unique relationship. If he didn't already get there, with the separate rooms and all. Pepper hired a designer who'd previously worked as a curator.” Tony laughed. “I wouldn't budge on the bed or bath, though, damn anachronisms. I made it clear they had to be just as—” he blinked, slow and deliberate, Steve following the curve of his eyelashes—“accommodating as my own.”

The bed had been obscenely large, wide enough to stretch his full length and not clear the ends. It'd been soft, and luxurious, and William had made an off-hand remark about the structural integrity reinforced against super-strength.

Steve thought of how he'd bounced on the bed to test out the assertion when he'd been left alone. “Er—thank you.”

Tony paused, face falling for an instant. “Oh, well, he was a hack, anyway. What type of designer worth their salt can be available the day we call him?”

“It's not that.” Steve stood up. “There's nothing wrong with the layout. Just—” he stood up, and began to make his way toward the stairs.

He faltered by the time he reached the stairs, and wondered if he should go back and beckon Tony to follow instead of making him believe he'd just left him there. Up until he heard Tony follow, hesitant at first, and Steve stole a glance for his bemused, wary expression.

They were up the stairs, down the hallway, past Steve's designated room, along the curved corridor, until Steve stopped before his destination.

Steve stood aside, gauging Tony's reaction. He trained his expression into blankness, the one that Bucky had told him looked like he was contemplating either defenestrating someone or jumping out the window himself.

Tony gaped a little at the boxes in front of the door. Tony's door. Tony's door, that led to Tony's bedroom.

One moment, Tony proposed to take Steve to bed, kissing him like he meant to, and the next, they were bunk mates, like they were friends splitting the rent. He didn't get to act like it was Steve being outrageous, just for—sharing what they were meant to share. Even though Tony wasn't interested, sending mixed signals only because he had instinctively fallen back on his usual habits. Either way, Steve wouldn't have this end up a mockery.

“Steve?” Tony croaked, and his hand went up to his neck, stroking the bob of his Adam's apple.

“We're married,” said Steve. “It's ridiculous for us to keep separate rooms.”

A long pause followed. If Steve looked at Tony now, he was sure Tony would be wearing the same expression he'd worn in the penthouse's foyer when he'd stumbled in with his lady friend. Contemplative, a genius given something to be solved, attention given with an intensity that made Steve felt laid bare.

There was the sound of shuffling, a box being lifted with a grunt.

“Christ, what'd you pack, gold bars?” Tony asked, heaving the box for a better grip. He pushed the door open with his shoulder, setting the box on the floor and ripping the tape off the top. “Well? I don't know why you left the boxes outside. Far more efficient to bring them in beforehand. And I would say something about making your billionaire, workaholic husband do manual labor, but you'll just bat those pretty lashes at me and say you just wanted quality time, won't you?” Tony imitated the cloying gesture that he'd accused Steve of. Steve ducked his head to hide the laughter, because of course Tony would take it as encouragement.

“Well? Let's get to work, soldier boy.”


They busied themselves with unpacking Steve's things. Tony had picked up his box of books, and he kept a running commentary, mostly to himself, as he slotted them into the bookshelf.

“Captain America, genre fiction aficionado,” Tony mused, “who would have thought?” Steve cleared his throat as he folded his underwear into a drawer, a reluctant smile playing at his lips.

Steve didn't have much in the way of personal possessions. Tony had said before he'd gotten rid of most of his past life, possessions given away and donated freely, and Steve mentioned how much he must have had if the penthouse was as well-furnished it was.

“Actually,” Tony told him, “Natasha said that the place looked too empty, after my brain-tumor spring-cleaning. So a lot of it was purchased in the past few months. Why, do you want to downsize?”

Steve didn't have much interest in telling Tony to do with his stuff, and it was good enough that his things were starting to fill in the empty spaces of Tony's life.

When he'd done this with Jan, it'd taken hours, rearranging for the sake of space and Jan's fen schway or however she called it. He hadn't minded much, not when their frustration at reorganizing the closets for a third time to better accommodate Jan's finicky tastes led to getting caught up in their own distractions.

He couldn't have that here, and it still stung, to think of Jan and see Tony in front of him. But it was enough to just be in the moment, watching Tony shove aside what little of his own things remained to make room for Steve's, fielding comments on his opinion on military sci-fi, or why someone needed this many shirts with stars on them. It was simple in a way he thought would have been impossible for Tony Stark.

Steve returned from setting up his toiletries in the restroom to find Tony, head leaned back against the side of the bed. He stilled, feeling a stab of guilt for how loudly he'd asked about the faucet settings. Steve himself had barely a moment to relax since the whole matter started, and Tony was the one running a company.

He'd end up with a terrible crick in his neck, and his suit was probably already ruined, but his lips were slightly ajar, his body at ease, and Steve had to take a moment to watch, the soft and still moment from the man who was like water, always slipping through his fingers. Well, at least he didn't snore.

He was loathe to break the moment, but he couldn't just leave him like that.


Tony's eyebrows furrowed, and he turned his head. “No. I refuse,” he muttered, and Steve spared a moment for the rush of warmth that took him.

He sighed, taking matters into his own hands, carefully shifting Tony, slipping off his tie and undoing his cufflinks to soft mumbles of protest. He didn't think he'd get away without unbuttoning his shirt before Tony bit him, the unexpected sourpuss. Steve indulged himself in a grin, because that was Tony, making Steve close himself off when he acted so affectionate and familiar, and making him smile when he was bad-tempered for once. He tucked him under the covers.

Tony's eyes opened and focused on Steve, who nearly jumped out of his skin. “You should stay,” Tony muttered. “I didn't get myself all sweaty and disgusting just for you to leave. You said in good times and in bad.”

“We didn't make wedding vows.” Tony squinted and glared, and Steve sighed. “I'm not planning to leave. Go to sleep, you barely slept at all these past few days, haven't you?”

Tony took the permission at face-value, closing his eyes, breaths turning deep and slow in a matter of seconds.

When he was sure Tony wouldn't stir awake, Steve padded away from the bed. He'd seen some extra blankets in the back of the closet—he wasn't sure Tony even knew they existed. He unfolded one and flung it out a few times, to get rid of the spiders and extra dust.

There was a couch next to the window, overlooking the city below them. They were dimmed, now, the nighttime outside only visible through the moon. It was big enough to accommodate even his form, and Steve draped the blanket over himself, facing the window. When that grew too much, he opted for lying on his back, chilly despite the temperature control, the ceiling seeming strangely far away.

His fitful, shallow sleep took a long time in coming.

He didn't wake up to an assault of sunlight, or Jan poking his back irritably to stop crushing her, or the honks of irate drivers from a half-open window. Steve woke up disoriented, blinking away uncertainty of whether he was in France or America, the 40s or the 21st century. His blanket was tucked securely around him, although he recalled kicking it off at some point last night. He was perched dangerously close to the edge of the couch, his body's innate inertia preventing him from rolling off during the night.

Setting himself upright, he frowned at the view outside, groggy. The windows were tinted, but judging from the activity outside, it was several hours past his regular waking time. That was what he got for not setting his alarm in a new place with a different sleeping arrangement.

The room was empty. When Steve put a hand on the mussed sheets of the overly large bed, they were cool to the touch.

He found Tony in the kitchen, back to him, face in his coffee mug. The rich, heavy scent assailed him, and Steve thought about how when it wasn't the smell of wine on Tony, it was the coffee. Steve reckoned Tony hadn't even heard him, and he was about to tiptoe forward and wrap his arms around his waist, bury his nose in his neck before he stopped himself. That sort of behavior was for Jan, or Gail, or people who weren't still here the morning after out of necessity.

Steve settled for clearing his throat. Tony turned around. He'd apparently switched out the dress shirt and pants he'd worn to bed yesterday for his usual robe, tied loosely around his waist, and Steve resisted looking away. He'd gone through a war, he'd seen far more than what Tony put on offer. Not that any of it was even for him. It was just how Tony was, and Steve could have been a coat rack. His neck prickled with awareness as Tony observed him coolly.

“Good morning,” Steve said, when it was clear Tony wouldn't offer the first word.

“Morning.” Tony raised an eyebrow. “I hope the couch didn't kill your back. You were in the fetal position last I saw. I thought you'd be better at hiding your fear. Whatever you might think of me,” he added curtly, “I do like a willing participant.”

“What are you going on about?”

Tony smiled at him, and that was another thing about the future, how people thought just staring at him after their veiled messages would give him any idea of what they meant, then shrugged. “No worries, Cap. I'm not firing on all cylinders yet, so let's just procrastinate on our breakfast before throwing me to the corporate wolves.”

There was nothing he could say to that. Steve pulled several bagels out of the fridge and into the toaster. His stomach roiled; it had to be a result of his hunger, and not of Tony's frostiness.

Tony's breakfast apparently consisted of just coffee, and Steve couldn't help but watch as he downed an alarming amount of medication with it. He didn't think that taking those on an empty stomach could be good for him, but that was sliding further down the slippery slope if he decided he wanted to hound him on his bad habits this morning. When he set the plate of bagels carefully between them, Tony made no move for it, and Steve figured he'd led the horse to water already.

The ease of last night had vanished, making Steve painfully aware of the space between them. He doubted the mood shift came down to Tony not being a morning person. Tony made conscious decisions to turn off his charm around others, and today the dubious honor went to Steve.

The mug clinked against the table when Tony slammed it down, and Steve realized with a start that he was still wearing his wedding ring. Of course he was. His entire company thought they were dealing with a newlywed CEO, and maybe they thought he'd be buttered up enough to let things slip through.

Then they didn't know Tony, and Steve smiled for the first time that morning.

“I'm out,” Tony told him, looking at him with an odd, closed expression. “I'll be downstairs. Catch you later, Captain.”

Steve offered his cursory farewells. When Tony was gone, Steve spun his own ring around on his finger, watching the reflection of the light play off the surface.

“Around on the porch!” There was a pause. “But if I don't know you, I'll get you for trespassing!”

Steve stopped himself from ringing the doorbell a fifth time. He took the invitation to go along the side of the house, and when he peered around the last corner, his head was bowed a little.

“Steve!” Bucky sat up in his rocking chair, waving him over. “I should have known it was you when you didn't give up and leave after the third time. Thought you were someone trying to peddle me things.”

“You say that, but you always bought things from Helen Abbott when she was selling those pastries her mother made.”

Bucky scoffed. “I was paying to see that smile. And sometimes she threw in a wink for free. Anyway, I have enough pride that I won't be taken in by that in my boring old married life.” He eyed Steve pointedly, and Steve kept his expression carefully neutral.

“It's been a while since you showed your face around here.” He resumed rocking in his chair. “The boys have been asking for you. You really impressed them in their last round of basketball.”

Steve hunched his shoulders as he came up beside Bucky. “Sorry. Things keep coming up, you know how it is.”

Bucky smiled, wider than Steve has remembered in ages, and clapped Steve on the arm, using him to struggle to his feet. “So I heard. I can't believe you didn't invite me or Gail! Or even called. Gail kicked up a huge fuss when we saw the news on the TV, and I was right there along with her.”

Steve's chest seized, and he turned away, gripping the edge of the railing. Bucky came up beside him, silent, somehow realizing the error of his words.

Steve thought of how Tony hadn't spared him a glance as he'd left that morning. It was stupid, how it bothered him more now than it had at the time. “There was no wedding ceremony. It's not—It's a farce.”

Bucky didn't seem relieved, or ready to jump to reassure Steve that he'd already known, of course Steve wouldn't do something so ludicrous out of his own free will. “I see.” Bucky had gotten harder to read, and Steve didn't know whether it was him or Bucky, but if anything, he sounded disappointed.

“So you don't have to... get a gift or anything. I'm sure Stark already has everything he's ever wanted.” The light glinted off his wedding band, and Steve averted his eyes. Tony even had Captain America now, and he'll quickly tire of that, hadn't he?

“I'm not interested in what some rich millionaire—”

“Billionaire,” Steve interrupted.

“Billionaire wants,” Bucky amended. “You're the one I care about here, Steve, and I mean you, not Captain America. And, it's, well.” He took a long moment, and sighed a bit, and his Bucky never used to do that. “It'd be good if you were happy. I know this isn't the world you wanted, or expected, and I can't even imagine how difficult it's been for you. But you're here now, and there's nothing wrong with trying to make your own place in it.”

Steve wanted to retort back, lighten the mood, You can't dispense wisdom to someone who saw you lick that pole in front of Williams's in the middle of winter. I'm a whole year older than you. But his throat closed up, and he couldn't bring himself to speak past it.

“I tried,” he muttered, “with Jan, I did try, Bucky. I'm not a quitter.”

“No, you haven't quit since 1920, but maybe you haven't always been the same person who refused to back down from every recruiting office that rejected him.” Bucky patted Steve's shoulder. “The last time you'd come without calling beforehand, you'd just left Janet. Now I have to learn from the seven o'clock news my best friend's gotten hitched, and you're here again. You know, I haven't heard you talk about the man at all?”

“It's not that.” Steve felt the railing start to give away, and eased his grip. What was there to say? He married Tony to save a teammate, and there was precious little else he needed from the man, other than to have his back in a battle.

“Why don't you stay for a chat?” Bucky offered. “Some of the old boys are coming over for dinner and cards after. We can gripe about young people these days.”

“Was I interrupting something? You should have told me. I'll go.”

Bucky didn't deign that with a response.

“Nothing I say would have changed her mind. She'd already set in her ways.” Steve shrugged helplessly. “And... Tony's used to getting his way. There's nothing I can do about him, anyway.”

Bucky scratched his head. “I wonder if it's a good or bad thing the Ultimates are all stubborn sons of bitches. Then again, so was Gail. If there's anything I've wisened up about in the past sixty years, it's that. We couldn't back down when it's against crazies who would take the world down with them, but it's a different thing when it's our wife. That's all I have to say: compromise is the name of the game, Steve. And I don't know if you can get there when you talk more with me than with your husband.”

“It's not like he wants—” Steve bit his lip. Tony had offered, but that was because Steve was a warm body, easy on the eyes. There was nothing about him that could possibly—Bucky didn't add anything else. The silence of judgment was enough.

“Okay,” Steve finally muttered, low enough that he hoped his hard-of-hearing friend wouldn't pick up on it. No such luck, as Bucky beamed approvingly. Steve shrugged. “I'll do something about it.”

“Instead of talking? A patented Steve Rogers solution if I ever heard one.” Bucky laughed, and Steve smiled along with him, but it was true. Doing was all he had.

Steve entered the bedroom, taking care to shut the door. Gail had come outside after their chat, like she'd been waiting for the prime opportunity, and he still couldn't say no to her when she'd added her voice to Bucky's in asking him to catch up that evening.

So, he'd stayed up late with Bucky and Gail. The marriage had opened some floodgate, and they'd taken out their photo album, sharing wedding photos and tales of their early married life. It hadn't hurt, like Steve thought it would, and he'd had his own stories to share, little things from his time in the Ultimates with Tony, memories of his own marriage not having the time to form yet.

Just be patient, dear, Gail had told him. In time, you'll have so many stories you won't be able to keep them all straight. Love makes even the most mundane parts of life full of joy. She'd smiled at Bucky, then, and he and Steve shared a look, before he agreed with some hesitation.

Thinking of it made a lump well up in Steve's throat. He'd been resolved to never lie to Gail, yet he couldn't bring himself to correct her. Love couldn't make up for anything when it wasn't there to begin with.

Tony was in bed, his back to Steve, and completely still. Steve undressed down to his boxers. When he looked at Tony's unmoving form again, he rummaged in the drawers for a worn, loose-fitting shirt. He wondered if he could use the toilet a second time, or gargle some mouthwash before giving up. Slipping into bed, he was careful not to disturb his partner, crowding his head against the furthest edge of his pillow.

The line of Tony's shoulders relaxed, and Steve took that as permission to tug the covers more firmly around himself, smiling sideways into his pillow.

“Aren't these things supposed to have abstracts?” Tony flipped a few more pages into the report, before giving up and sliding it across the table to Steve. “I've figured that when someone hands me something like this, they're trying to bore me into signing without reading the fine print.”

“I wouldn't sign off on this,” Steve grumbled. “They should have spent more time investigating than trying to fancy their words up.” He didn't bother to read it as closely, Tony already having spoiled the conclusion: that there were no substantial leads on who leaked their marriage to the press.

“Sadly, sweetheart, not everyone is you and can be trusted to be accountable without check-ups and progress reports.”

Steve looked up at Tony with an assessing glare, until the corner of Tony's mouth quirked upward and Steve knew he wasn't to be taken seriously.

“Put it in the checked pile, then,” Jan said, making out a tap-tap-tap sound with her pen against her head as she frowned at paperwork. “We can get this meeting over with faster.”

“I already finished,” Pietro said. “Mine, and Wanda's pile. Can we leave?”

“No. Just because you can move fast doesn't mean your mind can keep up,” Jan told him. “Read it again.”

“Okay.” A few seconds passed. “I reread it, now can—”

“A SHIELD leak should be treated with more urgency,” Steve interrupted. “It's been over a month, already. We're no further on this, and still no word from Thor. Now, we know SHIELD isn't the most transparent or principled agency—”

“In the same way Hulk had just a touch of bad temper, or Natasha a little loose with her loyalties?” Tony added.

“But anything pertaining to the Ultimates would only be for the highest clearances. The type of people in the system we personally know. It's either that, or we have an Iron Man-level hacker in the ranks.”

“'Hacker', really? We really must wean you off all that badly written daytime television,” Tony told him, and Steve accepted it after realizing he hadn't contradicted his words.

“Really,” Clint muttered, “don't you think you're being full of yourselves?”

Steve looked up at him, daring him to continue, but Clint wasn't cowed. With that tone of voice, he'd been looking to pick a fight.

“What did spilling the beans on you two really hurt? If the Internet told me anything, your relationship has been the best distraction from people's lives since the plot twist last season of Canine Cops.”

“Hawkeye isn't exactly wrong,” Wanda said. “You've made an amusement for the American people. And the probability that your marriage has been a hardship for the two of you is rather low.” She looked between the two of them meaningfully, and Steve felt the flush start to creep up his neck. He and Tony weren't even—

“I don't see why my privacy has to be invaded for the entertainment of others.” Steve felt his voice rising.

“I mean, it sucks, yeah, but I'm reading here about how some bomber blew up a marketplace in Yemen, and maybe I think it's kind of nice there are those of us who can still say we're married.”

Steve bit his lip. Dead wife and kids, he told himself sternly, just someone who was trying to rile him up to ease his own pain.

“Oh,” Clint chuckled darkly, “or that we're not getting beaten up by our spouses.”

Jan stopped tapping her pen, and Steve stood up.

“You will apologize,” he said, struggling to keep his voice at a reasonable volume. Clint glared back at him.

“No,” Jan snapped, standing up herself, and she felt ten feet tall then. “You don't get to do this for me, Steve. You don't have that right, especially not anymore. And Clint, you asshole, don't bring me into your arguments.”

Clint scrunched up, expression shuttered, and very small all of a sudden. He mumbled an apology under his breath, and Steve really could have punched him.

There was a gentle pressure on his arm, and Steve tensed until he realized it was Tony's hand. His face was a bit twisted, but he offered up a smile anyway, and Steve unwound a bit under the touch.

“Honestly, I'm also at the point where I think someone high-up at SHIELD released this for shits-and-giggles,” Tony said brightly, like the past few minutes hadn't happened. “A good number of them consider me their archenemy, with a disproportionate amount of those in the high security inner circle.”

Steve found it hard to believe that anyone who personally knew him could hate Tony. He grew on you like that, like fungi. But, he hummed in acknowledgment anyway. Which was encouragement enough for Tony to launch into the story of the first time he met Agent Martin, in Special Ops, a bombshell blonde, and how that and a convoluted series of circumstances led to his first stay in a Triskelion holding cell.

The rest of the room was silent, Tony's attempt at story-telling falling flat on them, the only sounds of reaction being papers shuffled around. Steve smiled at the opportune moments. It could have made him a bit guilty, that he and Tony got on well enough in their marriage, even if it was a sham in the end.

But when Tony tried like that, just for a chance at Steve's smile, that's all he ever really needed.

Steve woke up with a chestful of Tony. It was the third morning in the row now, and Steve judged that it was too troublesome to move him off. He had a habit of clinging, which Steve wouldn't have expected from the man formerly known as the world's biggest heartbreaker.

Not that Tony wasn't one anymore, Steve thought as he looked down at him. Tony's face was scrunched into Steve's shirt, and maybe it was a good thing Steve had learned to sleep with a shirt on since they'd moved in together. He didn't think he'd appreciate Tony's beard distracting him from sleep.

No, it just distracted him during sleep. The dreams of Tony had always been there, even before, but so had dreams of Jan, and Gail, and Wanda, and Thor, and in one humiliating instance, even Fury. Steve figured that whatever odd erotic dreams he had were better than the nightmares. But his subconscious fantasies lingered in the daytime now, too, Steve replaying their kiss on stage, in front of hundreds of reporters and millions around the world, and replaying their kisses in his dreams, moments just for him. Kisses that became much more, which had become the norm rather than the exception.

They would remain private, because Steve had no idea what was taking so long with Thor, but he and Tony were fast approaching the two-month mark. The voice in his head told him that there were several relationships starring Tony Stark that had been more short-lived.

When it came to it and the papers were drawn up, Steve refused to be the one to have clung to false hope. He'd entered this knowing exactly what would happen, and he'd had enough of being caught off-guard by the world and his fate.

The least he could do for now was be cordial. Tony had been as careful as Steve back then, but by now he'd warmed back to his old habits, always too close and too touchy. Except now it made Steve flare up in ways he couldn't think too hard about, how this was his husband with him, and a king-sized bed between them.

Not between them, in this case. Tony was warm and heavy, but Steve had learned how to slip out without waking him up.

As light a sleeper as Tony was, Steve was quieter as he padded into the bathroom. It used to scare Jan, how he could end up places unnoticed when he wanted to. Apparently, Hank was loud and boorish.

Thinking of that man was the easiest way of deflating his libido, and Steve forced his thoughts to return to Tony. Tony seemed to find his stealthiness amusing, although Steve didn't know if that counted for much, when it was his default reaction to everything. Steve hesitated, wondering if he should go with the pretense of turning the shower on, or at least the tap. He glanced back at the door, before deciding he'd make do with the bath. It had temperature settings, and pressure coolers, but all Steve needed was the seat.

He entered the tub fully-clothed, then decided that taking his shirt off wasn't so odd. He could be shirtless if he wanted to. But it was harder to justify taking his boxers off, and Steve widened his legs on instinct, the outline of the tent in his boxers jutting up higher.

Steve leaned back, slow to begin until his hand finally found the elastic of his boxers, and he shoved his hand in. He opened his mouth in a soundless moan, but he'd learned to keep quiet about this long ago. Not even a matter of the close quarters of war, but having to share a tiny apartment with his parents and his brother. Jan had tried to get him to loosen up, but it wasn't like sex made him a different person. He was perfectly happy with having his partner be the vocal one.

Besides, Steve didn't want to think about Jan at the moment. He closed his eyes, rubbing his thumb over the tip of his cock, lifting his hips so he could push his boxers down his thighs. One hand firmly around his cock, he let his other hand fall to the inside of his thigh, feeling his muscles tense beneath his touch.

Tony had big hands, Steve thought, as he dragged his fingers over his muscles, trying to savor the sensation as he jerked himself using his other hand. Tony had a big everything—smile, personality, someone who'd take over a room by walking into it. He had a big cock, too. It wasn't like Steve hadn't seen it already, even if the view had been obscured by Natasha for the most part in that tape. He mostly had Natasha's reactions to judge, and he bit his lip, feeling a wave of shame at thinking of it. The tape been released without Tony's permission, even though Tony tried to shrug it off now.

But he only had that one reference for Tony, that and the open rumors of his prowess in bed, and he'd feel guilty, whatever he fantasized about Tony. He ran a finger around his balls, biting his bottom lip, feeling his thighs trembling already from the effort of staying upright. He let himself lean back, the cool porcelain against his skin almost a shock as he silently worked himself to thoughts of Tony's eyes on him, single-minded, smile wiped clean from sheer concentration.

What would Tony use to get him off? His mouth, Steve thought, and Tony would be into that, he knew, and into holding Steve off, making him wait for it. Tony would like anything, Steve thought in a far-off voice, as the hand on his cock sped up, even things that made his stomach feel hollow. But Tony would make it good, Steve thought, even make him cry out for it like the men in those videos. He still couldn't quite understand what was pleasurable about anything being up there, but he could understand wanting anything that Tony Stark could give you.

He felt his balls tighten, and he gave into desire, letting his shameful fantasies take over his thoughts, like he always did when he was getting close. He thought of Tony bracketing him, trapping him in, leaving Steve helpless as he took what he wanted from him. Driven to the sole purpose of chasing his release, not needing to make Steve—comfortable or—anything else, other than someone to be used. That Tony would be so—so—

Steve went shock-still as he came, feeling the drops splatter his stomach, wave after wave making him stretch his body out longer, like he could make the pleasure last a bit longer.

But he had to come back down from the high at some point, and he stared blankly at the ceiling. Tony would never do that, Steve thought. He was far too kind, to the point of foolishness most times. The feel of the bathtub was a relief now, and he turned his neck, taking solace in its nice, easy coolness. He tried to relax as best as he could, before he could clean up his mess, pick up his shirt tossed onto the floor. Before he had to get up and face the day, sit at the same breakfast table at Tony and smile at him like he didn't get off to the idea of getting fucked by him.

He took his time.

He rubbed circles in Tony's back. Tony sat back, leaning his forehead against the toilet bowl. It should have been freezing, but judging by the way Tony rolled his head and pressed his cheek against it, the coolness must have been a benefit. Steve shivered in his stead.

Tony waved a hand at him, and Steve lifted Tony's arm around his shoulder, lifting them both up.

“Ugh.” Tony lolled his head against Steve's shoulder, and Steve squeezed his waist. He was expecting some witty, deflecting remark, like Tony had been full of before he'd excused himself to promptly upend his stomach's contents into the toilet bowl. Instead, Tony just sagged against him.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “My mouth is foul.”

Steve went to the sink, filling up a glass. Tony gargled and eyed the sink, before hobbling away and spitting into the toilet.

“Are you okay?” Steve offered, feeling terribly inadequate.

“I feel like someone just stuffed an ether rag in my face and left me out to dry in Death Valley. In the middle of July.” Tony offered a shaky grin. “Would you believe that's an improvement? Now, I'll just have to get dressed—”

“Are you sure you should go into work today?”

“Give me some credit, Steve. I've been living off hangovers for half my life.” He shrugged. “Only the Ultimates knew about the tumor. And it's been a while since I've had my morning liaisons with our lovely throne.” He looked at Steve, and his eyes crinkled at the corners. “My upheavals must be having performance anxiety, lately.”

“Ah.” Instead of looking away, Steve opted to take the glass from Tony to refill.

“If there's a chance to take some time off, it'll be tomorrow morning. I'd have an excuse of getting sloshed at the gala tonight.”

Their first official public outing after the marriage. The media had allowed them their distance, or more like the Ultimates had forced them to. That didn't stop the paparazzi from hounding them on their dinners out, or those cultural enrichment trips Tony insisted on. Before, Steve would have assumed Tony would welcome them with open arms and flirt terribly with them, but to his delight had discovered Tony had no issue telling people to fuck off before Steve forced them to.

Steve's tux was prepared. He would have preferred the uniform, in all honesty, but Tony had shot the idea down cleanly. Steve was attending as his husband, not his patriotic boy toy, and he'd smirked when Steve had given him a disapproving stare. But he was mollified with promises of there being no dancing of the sort like the clubs Thor frequented, and Tony assured him he already knew all the steps elsewhere. Besides, he'd added, it'd mostly be full of already boringly married-off old folk more interested in the possible deals made rather than any dates.

Steve followed Tony into the walk-in closet. “I thought you said you knew how to deal with hangovers?”

Tony grinned as he slipped his robe off, Steve averting his eyes while Tony picked out his clothes. “I do. But there's also so many hours in the day, and running a company doesn't complement spending hours in the workshop doing R&D. So while the rest of the board who can't hold their liquor mope in bed, I get some quality time in with the lab.”

It was something Steve learned about Tony, that the man enjoyed his alone time more than one would think. Not that Tony disliked people, quite the contrary, but that he really loved his work. Not running the company so much, although Tony clearly valued having control over his life, but the workshop and all the entailed. Tony had always belonged in the future, with his fast cars and easy flippancy and dazzling persona, but none of it so much as when he was making the world's next breakthrough come to life. One of the richest men on the planet, and he worked with his hands and was honest with what they created. Hard for Steve to distrust something physical. With Tony, it was just... everything else he couldn't be sure about.

Jan had mentioned Tony's alcoholism to him before, and Fury himself had given a short briefing on it, but it came down to Tony using his hours in the lab to channel his energy into his own misery rather than the world's betterment. There had been no such spirals since Steve had moved in, but he kept an eye out, regardless.

They didn't talk much at breakfast that morning, Tony deciding to start the work day early and looking impatiently at his phone. When he did stand up to leave, he seemed reluctant to part with his coffee mug, although there was nothing left in it.

Steve had bought him the mug from a vendor by the harbor two weeks ago. It was a counterfeit, or a misprint, where the Iron Man armor was colored in black and red. Edgy, Tony had mused, like a death knight. Despite his griping that after the aliens and the cancer, God had instead decreed he'd succumb to lead poisoning, he'd drunk from it every morning since.

“Don't set the place on fire, will you?” Tony told him, still lingering. “I don't want to be herded out onto the street in the stampede.”

“It'd be smarter to come back up here and get the armor, or to the roof to the helicopter landing pad.”

“Oh?” Tony set the mug down. “Can you pilot a helicopter?”

“Those nutjob documentaries got some parts right.” There had been absolutely nothing to do with succubi back in the war, but somehow they'd all overlooked the werewolves.

He answered Tony's laugh with his own smile.

Steve refused his third flute of champagne. He drank the first one out of politeness, but the atmosphere was quickly approaching one where sloshed inebriation was the norm. Good for business deals, Tony had told him.

Bad for everything else, Steve considered, gaze fixed on the other end of the room.

Watching Tony laugh, his eyes dipping lower than what made for eye contact, made him feel a weight dropped in the pit of his stomach. There was a blonde who'd claimed his arm, and seemed to want to claim the rest of him too, the way she tried to press up against him.The people hanging onto him had become progressively younger and more beautiful as the night went on, and Tony's smiles became more languid and full of promise.

Some of those people had tried their luck with Steve, earlier, but had wandered off when they'd deemed it polite enough. They'd expected him to tell stories, Steve gathered, ooze charisma like his husband, rather than nod and agree with them on their opinions on the troops overseas, or the status of the Ultimates. He had stories, sure, but wartime stories didn't hold as much meaning to people who'd only seen it in movies, soldiers filtered through the handsome, snappy one-liners lens of Hollywood.

Steve spotted someone else in the crowd standing by themselves near a wall. Judging that no scenes could be made in the public eye, he gathered his willpower to close the distance, taking two beverages from a waiter on the way.

“Jan,” Steve said. He offered out one of his two glasses of punch to her. “I didn't know you'd be coming.”

This wasn't an Ultimates-related gathering, after all, but one for a charity foundation found in Tony's mother's name.

“Hi, Steve. Is this... punch?” Jan asked, a little dubious.

“I believe the server said it had over twenty botanicals in it. It sounded pretty fancy to me.”

Once, Jan would have found that amusing, but she just nodded and accepted the glass.

“I didn't see you during Tony's speech,” Steve told her.

“Yeah, there was a meeting that ran late,” Jan said, absently puffing her hair up.

“Oh. It was a good speech.” Naturally. Jan hummed absentmindedly, and Steve cleared his throat. “And did you come here with anyone?”

“Nope, just lonesome ol' me. If Tony didn't think that was good enough, he shouldn't have sent the invitation and taken my three thousand dollars.”

Inquiries about her health or her day fell short on his lips. He felt ready to shove his hands into his pockets, if he wasn't sure his tux could have paid for a few of tonight's dinners as well. “Would you care for a dance?”

“No, thank you,” Jan said, and Steve shouldn't have felt relieved. A few months ago, after they'd broken up, Jan might have been the one to ask him, and he would have been the one to refuse.

Jan giggled a little under her breath, drawing Steve's attention back. “Don't you think it's strange?”

“What is?”

“You're the one who belonged in the past. You fought against Nazis and I wouldn't discount having some form of PTSD. Hero of the 20th century, and you would stand off to the corner, all hunched up, when left to your own means. I remember thinking it was so charming, and wanting to open your eyes to how wonderful the future is.” Jan took a sip of her drink. “Yet, all things considered, you're doing much better than I am. You don't mind if I'm bitter, do you?”

Steve studied his own drink. “You shouldn't be,” he said, the words heavy on his tongue. “It's convenient, and I don't hate it. But Tony and I aren't meant to be.” Steve had learned that everything important came down to time, already, but he still hadn't learned to accept it.

Jan looked at him sharply, face softening with what she saw, and Steve hastened to speak.

“I don't think any of what happened is because of me,” he said. “It's just—it only could have ever worked with Tony.”

Tony made things easy, that was his MO. He even made the painfully awkward conversation with Jan easier without being here. It was so simple to be caught up in his rhythm, swept away by the current. Steve had known it almost instinctively, but it'd taken so long for him to accept it, that being married to Tony Stark wasn't half as difficult as anything else in the future.

“Yeah. I don't know what it is about him, that everyone calls him an asshole, don't look at me like that, and falls all over themselves for him anyway. I don't think I've ever heard of anyone breaking up with Tony themselves. He's always been the one to dump them.” Jan sighed. “Not hard to see why.”

Because Tony got bored. Because Tony was brilliant, that the person he got along with best with was an Asgardian god who seemed to barely understand humans, most days. All Steve, peak-human, had to offer was his patriotism, which Tony had no interest in, and his body, which Tony did. He wasn't naive, and knew Tony liked pretty people, regardless if they were a dame or not.

“Although,” Jan said, tone suddenly reassuring, “I think it says something that the only people your husband married or attempted to marry were other Ultimates.”

At what point people calling Tony his husband made him proud instead of squirm? “Maybe,” he said, and covered his wedding ring with a hand. “Would you marry again, if you could?”

Jan didn't seem offended at the question. She had a thoughtful half-smile on her face, like it was ingrained in her to appear pleasant at all times. “I don't know. I'd say no, now, and then some guy will come out of nowhere to sweep me off my feet, and for that short time I wouldn't want anything else.” There was a sharp little pain in Steve's gut that wasn't washed away with more of his drink as Jan continued. “Almost worth the rest of it, where I can't stand the thought of my disgustingly romantic self. I call it the marriage cycle. In a lot of ways, it was easier to deal with the Hank cycle than the wedding one. No cold feet in that one.”

The familiar simmer of rage had flared up at the mention of Hank, and Steve ushered over a waiter to take his flute. But Hank wasn't here, and he was under the impression that Jan had broken things off again after Ultron. And... Jan had to make her own decisions on what to do with the son-of-a-bitch.

“Did we just have a conversation about feelings without being catty and passive-aggressive?” Jan asked. She'd crossed her arms now. “I know you're still great friends with your previous ex, and Gail is a lovely person, but I'm going to need some time away to process this.”

“Not in a bad way?” Steve asked, and it sounded pathetic to his own ears.

“You're alright, Steve,” she told him, and winked as she glided away, catching up to a group of similarly fashionable ladies across the room. What stood for fashionable, anyway, with their low-cut dresses with necklines to their waists.

Steve glanced over at Tony. He was entertaining a group of young adults with similarly styled hair, in the loosest sense of the word, bright, unnatural highlights and heavy makeup. They looked like one of those bands whose screams were effective shortcuts to headaches. When one of them moved in too close to Tony, and Tony laughed, bringing his hand up and the gold of his ring glinting in the light. Enough was enough, and Steve began to make his way over before he was the one intercepted.

“Ah, Captain. I've been looking for you. Try some of this, it's delightful.”

Steve came to an abrupt stop, accepting the wine out of his inertia. “Greg,” he said, nearly asking him why he was here before swallowing his words. He was Maria Stark's son as well, there was no reason he shouldn't be here.

“I'd like to speak to you. In private, if you will.”

Steve heard the refusal formed in his mouth, but instead he nodded mutely. It would be rude to reject his brother-in-law's offer. Perhaps he'd warmed up to the idea that they were now related by marriage, and wanted to get to know him better. That was besides the fact that Greg wanted to talk to him about something that couldn't be exchanged in the ballroom. Maybe it was the paranoid bastard in him rearing its head.

The garden of the hotel was a landscaped delight, gentle on the eyes in its curves and apparent simplicity, offering privacy in areas separated by streams and small bridges. They walked down a winding path, and while Steve didn't spot the sequestered couples enjoying some private time, his enhanced senses certainly picked them up.

He followed Greg to a gazebo, before sitting down in the chair across from him. Greg took out his phone, pressing a few keys. Steve raised an eyebrow, quickly scanning for the security cameras that Greg surely just looped. Any small hopes for a friendly chat were dashed. Steve sat up straight, ready for whatever briefing he was going to undergo.

“Before we get started,” Greg said, putting his phone back into his suit jacket, and held out his own wine glass. Steve felt more self-conscious clinking glasses here than he had with the entirety of President Roosevelt's cabinet. “I wanted to inform you that I'm aware of the circumstances of your marriage.”

Steve swallowed, the burn of the wine turned unbearable. He set his glass down. “Why are you telling me this now, and not when Tony and I first married? If you have anything to say about us, or how I treat him—”

Greg grimaced. “What type of person do you think I am? If you're entertaining thoughts of me secretly being a caring, overprotective brother, you'll be sorely mistaken. The type of people Tony consorts with won't be intimidated by conventional means. No, I wanted to establish that there's a level of trust between us.”

“When you found out about us by poking around classified records?”

Greg frowned, but Steve didn't falter. Fury didn't just disclose matters like that in casual conversation, close friends or not.

“I'm surprised you haven't done more research on me, Steve. Who says that I needed to access anything I didn't already have clearance to?”

“I don't know why you're telling me this. The Ultimates don't take orders from SHIELD, anymore.”

“Right. I heard the reasoning. Afraid to be used in ways they don't like, so better to remain autonomous. World's driven by such fear that we've come to rely on vigilantes.”

Steve turned on him. “We already hashed out this conversation with Fury, you really think you can do better? If aliens want to invade, the Ultimates will be there whether SHIELD says so or not.”

Greg's eyes flashed. “And when SHIELD, and the government backing them, tells you not to? It won't take long before autonomy turns to vigilantism, unsanctioned by any higher authority. There's also a baseline level of secrecy you can't maintain with a private group. No news agencies will have any hesitation publishing anything that could smear you.”

Discounting they've already gotten their fair share in. “...Are you threatening me?”

Greg shook his head with a snort. “Upending Tony's life has been a lifelong pleasure, but I'm not risking angering the one super-soldier we have.”

And that was what it came down to. Nothing as difficult as getting an in for the Ultimates working for SHIELD again, not after their affiliation with the government got them into deep political hot water. He wanted something smaller, from Steve himself, and the play at downsizing was to get him to lower his guard.

“If Tony didn't want to tell you about us,” Steve said, “I'm not going to tell you otherwise. It has nothing to do with me.”

“I could care less about Tony's opinion,” Greg said, a bit too loudly, and his next words came in a whisper. “On the contrary, it has everything to do with you. You know all about the attempts at recreating the super-soldier serum. Some more successful than others. Fury intentionally left you out of the details because there would be conflicts of interests, and not just for you. I don't have to remind you that not all of those soldiers ended up good. In fact, a large majority didn't. But I'm not so sentimental to spare you from knowing your legacy.”

“Do you want me to help take down knock-off Hulks?” Steve asked, with some surprise. Surely the man knew he just had to bring up “recreated super-soldier serum” to pique Steve's interest. “Bring it up with the Ultimates, there's no reason that—”

Greg cut him off with an irritated grunt as he chewed on his lip. It was a gesture entirely uncharacteristic of a Stark. Classified information, and if it was related to super-soldiers Steve knew he couldn't ignore it. He silently cursed himself for having been played like a fiddle, here.

If Greg had wanted to talk to him in private about this, this meant he expected Steve to act alone, too. Steve's ring felt like a weight on his finger.

“Fury can be surprisingly reactive,” Greg said. “Too much dealing with international affairs, where we have to wait until we're granted permission by people who have no idea what they're doing or the urgency of the matter.”

Funny. That was part of the reason the Ultimates went private.

“So you want me to lead a task force to bring them down first.” Without sanction. What happened to breaking the law, Steve wondered.

“The man I want you to go after is possibly the most dangerous assassin in the world. We're not going to find him. We're going to make him come to us.”

Steve sat back, pressing his mouth against his clasped hands. “He can't be that dangerous if there's something that could lure him out.”

Someone was coming their way, and Steve flinched when the sprinklers in the area turned on, all at once. There were yelps and screams from various corners of the garden. The mist was cool against his face, and Greg swore softly, standing up abruptly.

“Steve!” Tony appeared from behind a row of bushes and stumbled over, smiling as he wiped his face with his sleeve, careless for the thousand of dollars he was getting damp. “What's this? Gardener forget to turn off the automatic system for night of the millionaires?”

“I was talking to your brother,” Steve told him, not missing how Greg had taken out his phone, tapping something out before the sprinklers turned off, just as suddenly as they'd turned on.

“Greg?” Tony asked, acting surprised, but Steve wasn't fooled. Tony lived as a civilian, an extraordinary civilian, but there were too many things you couldn't learn from that life. Steve had picked up his footsteps before the automatic sensors Greg had tapped into had.

“Good evening, Tony,” Greg said, and Steve wondered what to make of this being their first meeting tonight, hours after the festivities had started.

Tony nodded at him, before turning to Steve. “I don't know whether to be flattered or not that you spend your alone time with my twin,” he told him.

“Sometimes, Antonio, people can have conversations without feeling the need to throw in a joke every other line.”

Tony smiled, slow and wide. Steve didn't think he'd ever heard anyone call Tony his given name except the lady at the courthouse. “Don't know if they're my kind of people, then,” Tony said. “And here, of all places? More a place for a romantic tryst than a debriefing. I've hammered out business deals in worse places, I guess, but I was relying on that wonderful absence of inhibitions. But, I don't think the livelihood of our nation was at stake then.”

Greg's lips thinned. “If our security is so important to you, you're here, interrupting, because?”

“I miss my husband,” Tony said, like it was the simplest thing in the world, and Steve could have believed him.

Tony's eyes locked on his, and Steve tensed. He straightened his back, keeping his expression perfectly still, parting his lips so he wouldn't be caught off guard when Tony leaned in. He prepared himself for the scratch of Tony's beard and the rush of warmth in his lips.

Instead, Tony's hand found Steve's shoulder and squeezed, and Steve swayed a little with the touch. Tony looked back over his shoulder at Greg, and Steve tried not to linger on a fantasy of a kiss that didn't happen. Even glancing between them, Steve couldn't grasp the unspoken conversation in front of him. Tony's grip tightened, and not in a reassuring way, and Steve brought his hand up to wrap around Tony's wrist.

Tony jerked a bit. “Actually, you might want to head back in first.”

“Excuse me?”

“I think Greg wants some quality time together. You see, he gets this ugly little twitch, right in the corner of his eye, like that time when we were sixteen and he—”

“Actually, I should be going now,” Greg said, already standing up.

“No, no,” Tony said, and it was unsettling, because his expression had been long trained to revert the faintest of smiles when he was in company. There was none of that now.

“Well, I just hope whatever he had to discuss with you was worth your time,” Tony said to Steve, who didn't know how to answer that. With the proper precautions, assassins could be dealt with. Rogue super-soldiers were a different story.

“I'll see you in a little bit then,” Steve said as he got up, nodding to Greg to tell him that they weren't finished.

Tony was a mess.

It wasn't like when Tony had nearly drunk himself to death after Natasha. But he'd come back in the ballroom bringing a storm with him. Greg was nowhere to be found.

Steve had seen firsthand how easily they could trade barbs, but this was past uncomfortable, even past the worry he'd felt when Tony had been heaving into the toilet this morning. It was very, very difficult to crack Tony's persona. Steve had only started trying in the past few weeks, and it hadn't even been fifteen minutes since he'd left him alone to talk with Greg.

Tony was flirting outrageously, loudly, turning more curious heads than admiring ones now. His jokes were more sordid and nihilistic by the second, and Steve recognized the symptoms of someone who desperately wanted to be alone, but was too drunk to realize it.

He took hold of Tony's shoulder, gripping it enough to get Tony's attention.

“Let's go,” he said, with no room for argument.

Tony followed him without a word, still with drink in hand and grin plastered on his face, and Steve steadfastly refused to meet people's knowing, amused gazes as they left the room.

The VIP room that Tony's clearance got them into was a small, comfortable, and most importantly, private sitting room.

Steve sat down on the couch, watching for Tony, who was examining the intricacies of the polished furniture, until he reached the full-length mirror. He swished the wine around in the glass, and Steve considered how wine was the drink that snuck up on you. Tony tilted his head in the mirror.

“I look like something the Hulk chewed up and spat out, don't I, darling?” He turned around and chuckled.

“Tony, what did Greg say to you?”

Tony's expression shuttered, even when he was still smiling. “You know what Natasha said to me when she betrayed me?” Tony asked, not waiting for Steve's answer. “She said that no matter what, I still smelled disgusting. And oh, she loved the smell of alcohol. Would drink me under the table. She meant the smell of the cancer. To her, I was always a dead man walking.”

Natasha was full of shit. The wine, and the cologne, and Tony drowned everything that wasn't him out. His scent was overwhelming, like the rest of him.

“We make quite the pair, don't we? The drunk cancer patient asshole and the geriatric. Better us doing this than anyone else, right?”

“You're a brave man, Tony,” Steve said, without a trace of irony. “You're not an Ultimate because you're some sacrificial lamb.”

He'd seen this during the war, of course. Men who at times, hadn't seemed much more alive than their fallen comrades. From what few of them had told him, they hadn't much felt like it, either. Not even after victories they shouldn't have won, their photos of loved ones never brought along or viciously guarded. He'd never gotten the chance to find out if they had gone back to normal when they'd gone home. From what Bucky had told him, most of them had. The SHIELD psychologist had told him about depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, like putting a name to it made you feel less empty.

If he'd been born in this time. If he'd... maybe if he'd never become Captain America. Then he'd be able to relate, or understand, how the man before him with everything could feel like this.

“That's what everyone thinks,” Tony said suddenly. “If I was rich, or attractive, or smart, or hell, a goddamn superhero. And here's where you end up, toasting himself in the mirror. You too, old boy, c'mon.”

Tony turned, lifting his glass to Steve. Steve shook his head, finally standing up, taking the wine from Tony's hand and setting it on the table besides them. He hesitated, before putting his hand on Tony's shoulder. Tony kept licking his lip, like it stung without wine to wash over it, leaving it red and wet, and Steve couldn't take his eyes off it.

“What did Betty say?” Tony slurred his question mark. “Finding comfort in the most unexpected of places, indeed.”

Steve flinched, and nearly dropped his hand. Was it that obvious?

“Come on,” Tony muttered, and Steve realized Tony was staring back at his mouth.

“You're—” Steve did drop his hand this time, palm sweating, “not in the right place for this.”

“I've been in the right place since the first night you slept in my bed. You're just now noticing.” Tony sighed. “You said it yourself that it's ridiculous.” His hands wrapped around his neck, and Steve felt the coolness of the wedding band against the nape of his neck. “Sold your body and soul to a country that doesn't give a shit. What else do you have left? Why not take what's yours?”

The shock went through Steve's spine, and his grip tightened. Tony was his, only his. Steve thought of Ruth, and Natasha, and that blonde who'd looked up at Tony from beneath her eyelashes, and he drew Tony in for a hard kiss.

It wasn't good at all, and maybe Tony was trying to convince himself that they were doing this, same as Steve, with how forceful their kisses were, enough to bruise. But they didn't stop, and Steve whimpered anyway. They weren't at home, they were in some place, practically anonymous, in a position they'd never been in, never will be again.

Someone moaned, and Steve was pushed back against the couch. His knees buckled, but Tony squeezed the back of Steve's thighs, keeping him upright. The kiss gentled for a fleeting, precious second before Tony pulled away. Steve didn't know if he wanted to give the satisfaction of licking his lips, tender and tingling, his skin prickling from the feel of Tony's beard.

Their eyes were locked, less in challenge and more in anticipation, while Tony dragged his hands around and across Steve's hips, before his fingers made quick work of Steve's fly, slipping his underwear down and freeing his half-hard cock.

Tony dropped to his knees in one smooth motion, and it could have looked ridiculous, how his gaze was fixed on Steve's all the while, a grin spreading across his face. But Steve just shivered, and thought of sex and booze.

He jerked when Tony's tongue touched him. It was hard to register Tony's tongue as anything but pressure at first, and it felt new and unfamiliar for all the times Steve had this done to him before. It'd been months since he'd last been with someone, and he'd been relying on long showers and quiet mornings for these needs. Tony's mouth and tongue were gentle like their kisses hadn't been, streaks of wetness sending jolts of sensation through him, and his body had quickly caught up to the fact that what Tony was doing was good and something to be encouraged. His legs felt numb, thoughts in a haze as Tony's thumbs traced the seams of his underwear, and Steve swallowed and gasped in turn, tangling his fingers into Tony's hair and tugging gently.

It'd taken him a while to get used to this with Jan, that having someone's mouth there was fine, and it still didn't feel fine, not when it was Tony's mouth there. Steve felt a rush of shame and desire all at once, that his husband was on his knees for him, that he wanted to be there, and of course he did, because it was Tony and Tony loved everything, respectable or depraved. Steve just had to ask, and Tony would do anything to him. Steve shuddered and moaned.

Tony reached back, finally fitting his mouth around Steve, and without any warning, moved his head forward and swallowing Steve's cock whole. Steve's hips jerked as he muffled a moan, but that didn't deter Tony, who groaned heartily as he slid his mouth back, and suddenly Steve was aware of everything, his body hyper-focusing on the single point of Tony sucking on him.

The sound he made was humiliating, but it didn't stop him from thrusting again and whimpering. Tony moaned, sending vibrations through Steve's cock and his entire body, and he tightened his grip in Tony's hair. Tony answered by running a hand up Steve's thighs and kneading his ass, pulling Steve toward him, letting go of Steve's cock as he fondled his balls gently. Steve could have chided him, but Tony was tumbling his balls in his hand, and then he grinned and rubbed his beard against Steve's cock. Steve nearly came right then and there, and in desperation, went up on his toes. Tony made a sound of protest, giving him a gentle slap on his ass, and Steve wanted to snap at him. He had to ease off, or else Steve would come embarrassingly quickly.

Steve had a sudden vision of someone walking in, of his moans making enough noise to warrant someone's attention enough for them to want to check in on them. The head of his cock slipped down Tony's throat again, and Steve had to reevaluate if he really was into the voyeurism idea as he chased the wet heat of Tony's mouth again and again.

There was a flurry of movement below him, and Steve realized Tony was jerking himself off, hand shoved past his undone fly and into his underwear. Steve bit his lip, watching Tony moan wantonly around his cock, his hand speeding up on himself. Steve's body trembled as he came with a choked-off gasp. Tony's throat swallowed around him, pushing him through the aftershocks, wet because of his mouth and Steve's release. Steve's gasps slowed into deep breaths as his world righted itself.

Tony pulled back with a distinct pop. He frowned as something dribbled out of his mouth, and Steve snapped. He tugged Tony up, Tony's eyes widening, before spinning them and shoving him onto the couch with a bounce.

Tony shuffled beneath him, reaching behind him to shove a pillow behind his neck as Steve straddled his thighs, leaning in for a kiss. He could taste himself in Tony's mouth, a different bitter than the burn of the wine, and Tony curled his fingers into Steve's hair.

“You are far too angry for someone who just had an orgasm,” Tony laughed when Steve pulled back, and Steve responded by wrapping a hand around his cock. Soft, Steve thought, and squeezed, and Tony tossed his head back, mouth open in a silent moan.

The silence didn't last long as he wiggled in Steve's grip, trying to push himself into his hand, the noises he made making Steve's mind whirl. Steve hooked a hand around Tony's tie, tugging on it to keep him where he wanted.

“Steve,” Tony mumbled, his face flushed bright, “fuck, I'll come all over my suit like this.” The words shot straight through Steve, making his toes curl, and he wanted to see that, Tony's exorbitantly expensive clothing ruined through this moment's desire. Steve knew that Tony wouldn't stop him if he kept going, that he'd walk out of here, marked for everyone to see and know.

He tipped Tony's head up, meeting his mouth, pumping his fist in a punishing rhythm. Tony's sultry tones earlier had all but vanished, turned desperate, and there would be a time later for drawing that out, learning all the noises he could get from Tony that were just his, here the animalistic noises of pure sex.

Tony whined when Steve let go of him, but went easily enough when positioned to lie on his side. The couch wasn't nearly big enough for both of them to lie down, so Steve half-straddled Tony's leg as he squeezed behind him, wrapping a hand around Tony. He stole a nuzzle into the back of Tony's neck. When his hand started moving again, Tony turned his face, trying to press lips against Steve's cheek and ending up panting against his skin while Steve rubbed his face against Tony's beard. He paused for a second, and Tony wriggled under his grip, before Steve switched out his right hand for his left, and when he tugged, he could feel his ring drag up Tony's skin.

Tony seized up before coming with a heartfelt groan. His whimpers grew higher in the time it took Steve to wring the aftershocks out of him.

They laid together, panting deeply, and Steve saw droplets of come splattered on the coffee table. The rest, of course, must have ended up on the carpet, and he shifted his weight. It hadn't ended up on Tony's suit, which was the important part.

Not that anyone who saw them wouldn't know. Tony's suit was rumpled, half his shirt untucked, and his hair was standing on end from where Steve had ran his hands through it. More than just the clothes, there was something about Tony that was unmistakable, how Steve could tell even when they'd first met each other, the smell of sex and sweat that his senses couldn't pass over. Steve didn't imagine he looked any better himself.

They were silent as Tony attempted to put himself at sorts while Steve cleaned up their mess as best he could. Tony could pay for it. He could probably buy the hotel while he was at it, on the chance there were some hidden cameras in here, ready to make bank on another Tony Stark sex tape. Steve scanned the best potential angles for them, before there was a tap on his shoulder.

Steve turned as Tony adjusted his tie, straightening his suit carefully with a furrow between his brows. Then he stepped forward and kissed him, hard, and it dawned on Steve that he wasn't done at all. Just when Steve tried to deepen the kiss, Tony stepped away.

“I gave all my speeches, already.” It was odd, hearing Tony's voice for the first time in the past several minutes, throaty and raspy. Because of Steve. Tony cleared his throat. “My only job left, as the host, is to put on a good fit when someone breaks a priceless vase, and to tell our guests when the party's over. Now, no one really needs to hear anyone tell them that the time for drinking is over, do they?”

“No,” Steve said, wrapping his arms around Tony's waist, “they don't.”

The back of the car was a close thing, although they'd managed to keep it limited to heavy petting. Steve had given his first handjob, and it was strange now, to think of his fingers wrapped around Tony's cock, like they were in some far-off, alien world where Tony let him do those things, where he wanted to do those things.

And it wasn't just that. He thought of the heat of Tony's mouth, stretched around his cock, wet and warm. Even as they kissed, Steve thought about how it'd feel to get his mouth on Tony, how there was more to his taste than what he had even now.

It was a simmer beneath his skin, kindling drenched in oil that only needed a spark to light up, and they only needed to fall into bed for it to rage.

After Steve's fourth time, and he was working very hard to try to get Tony his second, Tony threw his head back as Steve mouthed at his throat, fingers curling around his neck. “Tomorrow's a work day,” he mumbled in weak protest, which might have been more convincing if he didn't wrap his legs around Steve.

“You said you'd take the morning off.”

“I said I could if I wanted to, but I think all this sex will burn off any hangover I'd go through.”

Steve leaned back, meeting Tony's eyes. “You're taking the morning off.”

He won that ridiculous smile, the one that started with Tony's eyes like he couldn't believe it was going on. “Sir, yes, sir,” Tony breathed, and Steve leaned in to kiss Tony's smile away.

Steve shoved his hands in his pockets, his cap pulled low over his eyes. Something bumped into his leg and he stopped to see a small child looking up fearfully at him. Steve tried to offer a reassuring smile, but she dashed back to her mother, who was gently scolding her and apologizing to Steve, meaning he'd overshot and grimaced at the little girl instead.

Maybe he should have brought his laptop along, sat in a cafe and been taken for a college student.

It might be better to just head back for the day, he considered, the boardwalk jam-packed with families, couples, and tourists. Tony once suggested a dog to him to make him seem more approachable, snickering, and going quiet when Steve hadn't joked back.

Not that being responsible for an animal was the right thing for him now. He figured he'd lost those rights when he'd decided that Captain America was a full-time job.

Although that job didn't mean much anymore after their break with SHIELD. Knowing his luck, wishing for something more eventful to happen would get half of the city flooded in the oncoming apocalypse.

At the very beginning, SHIELD let him be for the most part, after shoving at him a stack of files and books half his height and weight. He'd given up on after the second day and ducked his security for the outside world. He'd always preferred to learn by doing, and maybe it had been too much to learn back then.

It had been Jan who had decided to take him out for real. Jan told him, how it'd been pity for the national icon locked away in a maximum-security bird cage, and then it'd been pity for the man who had lost a family, a love, and a life.

Tony had taken Jan's lead shortly thereafter. But Steve suspected that there, it'd been loneliness. Tony had reached out to Steve and Thor, inviting them to his home, sharing all his private details like he was in the right company, and by then, he was.

Then SHIELD had finally realized that they'd had a willing super-soldier to send on missions outside of Ultimates business. Shortly thereafter, the Ultimates had cut ties with SHIELD.

Steve slowed down next to a street peddler. Their wares were the sort that looked like a grandmother's attic had thrown up over the mat. Jan had encouraged him when he'd first shown an interest in the knick-knacks, pointing him to little, useless things that were a few bucks apiece, even though she'd disparaged his tastes. It'd been her way to train him for inflation, instead of Steve having to mentally calculate it in his mind, that a few bucks was all this cheap keychain was worth now. That was him now, measuring the price of things against keychains and ice cream cones. Even so, ten thousand dollars for a gown was still exorbitant, inflation or not.

A row of items caught his eye. It was a row of dogs, all modeled after the Ultimates. Shih Tzu Wasp, St. Bernard Thor, Border Collie Captain America. There was a beagle wearing the Iron Man armor, complete with roller skates. It was the right type of gaudy to get a laugh out of Tony, and Steve was soon pulling out his wallet, the vendor pleased that his newest customer wasn't interested in haggling.

His pocket buzzed, and Steve pulled his phone out. Tony was likely bored, although Steve had quickly drawn the line of keeping their more intimate moments to the bedroom only.

W 22nd and 9th. The red building to your right, top floor. - GS

The top floor of the building had a single door that was unsurprisingly locked. No buzzer, not even a peephole for whoever it was on the other side to find him. No visible security cameras, either. For anyone else, Steve would have assumed he had the wrong place. But since it was Greg, he didn't waste a blink when the door opened, seemingly on its own.

The interior was cool and dim, and the main room revealed a fine dining establishment past the rickety cover. Greg had already set up shop at the end, next to a tinted floor-to-ceiling window. The room was empty of other patrons. The presumed waiter watched him go over to Greg's table, his stance reminiscent of the armed forces.

“How did you get my personal phone number?” Steve said. “Did you look into SHIELD files for that one, too?”

“If you minded that much, you wouldn't have come,” Greg informed him coolly.

“It doesn't matter if I mind,” Steve scowled. Not when lives were at stake. “Now, what's this about super-soldiers?”

Steve's phone buzzed, and considering Greg took the moment to glance at his, Steve didn't think it was impolite to look at his own.

It was from Tony, but there was no message. It was a photo, then, and a little sinking feeling gripped Steve's chest as he thought about what Tony would think if he knew where he was. He pointedly slipped the phone back into his pocket, resolving not to take it out until he was ready to leave.

Greg slid a folder across the table, and Steve raised an eyebrow as he glanced around to their waiter, near the doorway now.

“There's a reason I asked you specifically to this place, if it bothers you that much,” and Greg waved off the man out of the room. Steve wondered how many conversations had gone on in this place on the other end of the spectrum, dealings with the shady underbelly of the city, men he would be proud to put through the window here.

He flipped the folder open. He stared at it for a moment, trying to find the seam of the mask where it fit over the body.

“Who is this?”

“The Red Skull,” Greg said, and paused, like he was waiting for Steve's reaction. Steve had never heard of the aptly-named man, besides what he'd been told.

“And... this is a successful super-soldier?” He didn't look like it, with that face. It was some incredible tattoo work, and surgery, from the looks of his bug-eyes and nose.

“That face is the real thing, by the way. He had a human one once, before he cut it off himself.”

Steve breathed out through his nose. “And? What's his story before that? Did he grow up a sociopath?” Steve doubted it. Those eyes weren't ones without feeling, and Steve thought of how many ways you could break a person. Or, break in one way, anyway. There was something to be said for someone who would self-mutilate to make a statement, and it didn't make Steve feel any better.

Greg frowned. “He was normal in that sense, as far as anyone could gather. Oh, not like that. He was a tactical genius, voracious appetite for learning, and possessed incredible strength, agility, everything that makes one valuable. Verifiable super-soldier, as I said. But he decided that he'd had enough of being the government's guinea pig and went rogue.”

“So, SHIELD didn't tell me about this because it was a government case,” Steve said. Well, too bad for them, not knowing hadn't made his trust in them any higher.

“He's been linked to dozens of high-profile assassinations,” Greg said, flipping the page over. Names, countries, companies, positions. Whatever the rhyme behind them was, Steve couldn't figure out. “For the better part of the decade, however,” Greg continued, “he's gone quiet. Off the radar.”

“Maybe he's dead,” Steve said. “Killed by the organization he worked for.”

“That's the thing, Captain. He's a lone agent, for the most part. A gun-for-hire of sorts, except if you ask him in a way he doesn't like, he might end up killing you instead. What kind of organization would take him on, unless they were desperate? Besides, you didn't let me finish. In more recent times, assassinations have been showing up again. Impossible conditions, a man working alone, or with a small, hand-picked team. We confirmed recently, with a case in Egypt, that it was him.”

“What would have prompted him to start up again?”

“Well, we have theories. Such as these cases starting back almost a year ago, when your reappearance made headlines.” Greg smiled, like he found it amusing.

Of course. “Why would I matter so much?”

“There is... recorded evidence of his enmity toward you,” Greg said. “The super-soldier initiative came about because you were its successful test subject. Not counting the dozens of men who died before you.”

“So, when you talked about baiting him out,” Steve said slowly.

“He would resent you,” Greg said. “You're the one who ruined his life, after all.”

It didn't sit right. “He would go out of his way to try to assassinate me?” Steve asked. “If he really is as skilled as he is, then the Ultimates are public figures.” Anyone could get shot, if the assassin really wanted it, and if they had no sense of self-preservation. The limits of the human body might not even matter as much to the man, if he was a super-soldier.

“Forgive the cliché, but he'd want to fight you, one on one. Don't look so surprised, I didn't say he was rational. He cut off his own face because it was one of a super-soldier, didn't I?” Greg snapped irritably.

“So, you want me to intentionally expose myself to draw him out?”

“Not so frankly, Captain,” Greg smiled, small, and it was a cruel imitation of Tony's sly smirk, all the secrets lying underneath.

“Why like this, though?” Steve said. “You said at the gala you didn't want to risk your only super-soldier.”

“Surely you've started to recognize when people are trying to ingratiate themselves toward you.” Greg pressed his fingertips together. “Do you know how many powerful men have died in the past few months, Rogers? Fury is interested in getting this done properly, tracking him down, not accounting for the fact that he's been trying since the man first escaped. Decades, and the only times we've been close to catching this guy was when the corpses were already cool. Maybe the shared trauma of super-soldier programs has made Fury soft.”

Fury was about as soft as cut diamond, but Greg didn't let Steve interrupt.

“I'm tired of chasing after a shadow,” he said, “when we have our flashlight right here.”

Steve wanted to argue, but he remained silent, contemplating on how he was more similar to Greg than he wanted to admit. He'd broken his share of orders in the war itself, until his CO had accepted what type of person he was and given him mostly free reign, other than completing the objective.

“Then, about the team,” Steve said. “I'll need—Tony, of course—”

“Tony, of course not,” Greg said shortly.

Steve stared at him, expecting him to take the words back after some thought. When Greg just glared back, Steve's hand rested over the bulge of his phone in his pocket. “Why shouldn't he?” Steve asked quietly. “He's Iron Man. Founding member of the Ultimates. He's one of the best heavy-hitters you could get.”

“You were listening, I presume? About putting yourself up as bait for the assassin to nip at? I know you don't care that much about your own hide, and I find it an acceptable risk. But would Tony do the same? He'd be against this.”

“Tony would—” No, Tony wouldn't accept this. He'd say it was stupid, even, throw up a tantrum about it.

“Do you really want to endanger your husband in this, too? As much of a try-hard as he is, with that armor, I don't think he could go toe-to-toe with a super-soldier.”

Steve stared at the folder. “This is a reckless plan,” he said slowly. It didn't sound up Greg's alley at all. Maybe Tony was brash, and once he'd committed nothing would change his mind, but he wouldn't go in half-assed like this.

“I heard you were the king of those, back in the war. Has your old age made you more conservative, then?”

Steve thought of the brain tumor, and even without knowing, Greg was acting in the interests of Tony's safety. He thought of Tony's message, yet unread in his phone. He flipped the page, scanning the list of names of murders thought to be linked to the Red Skull. He'd met some of these men back in the war. Then he flipped the pages again, but he had no eye for anything other than the gold band on his finger.

It was the truth that someone hated him enough to follow him across the entire Earth to kill him. It wasn't real that someone loved him enough to put that ring on his finger themselves. He'd accepted that, when he'd woken up in a world with nothing but a legacy. There was nothing to do except deal with the consequences of it.

And, no matter how foolish the orders from above came at times, Steve had always managed to make them work.

He closed the folder.


Steve's phone buzzed on the table, and he looked at it, hesitant. He should learn how to change the sound for different people. Tony's ringtone for him was some classic song, which meant it was from the 70s rather than the 1900s, and he had burst out laughing at Steve's reaction when his phone had started singing that Captain America was calling.

Steve picked the phone up to swipe at the screen, his chest unclenching at the sender. He sighed, relaxing.

Steve had taken a slightly shaky, but perfectly nice one of Tony in his workshop, protective mask pulled up and a smudge of grease on his cheek, back in the first week of their marriage. Tony had seen it two weeks ago and grimaced before glancing at him, without a witty remark for once. Then he'd promptly pulled his sunglasses down and taken a selfie of himself looking up through his lashes at the camera to set as a replacement.

Steve had liked the earlier picture more, he thought, even though the look in the photo certainly was meant to distract him.

What do you think about this? Tony had written, and Steve watched as his email received a new message. Steve scrolled through it, before pulling up Tony's page and pressing call.

“What's this?” Steve asked when Tony picked up.

“That interview. You know, the one I said we should probably give to reassure the public.”

“This request for an interview was sent the week we got married.”

“Yeah, and I ignored it, because I know you would have said no, then. And now, they'd be so desperate they'd kick out any guest they had on, say, Friday? Does that work for you? Do you really want these rumors of me knocking you up to continue spreading?”

“That's not even possible. And it'd be the other way around, anyway.”

Tony snorted. “I'm trying to be patient, you know, but I would ditch all this paperwork and run up all those stairs this very instant if you suddenly told me you were open to bottoming.”

Which confirmed he was alone in his office. Steve flushed. “I'm not talking about this over the phone.” Or in person, no matter how Tony tried to convince him. “Tony—do we really need to—”

“I mean, no, but at this point it's less about damage control and more about getting people to trust us again. You know people are talking about how long Thor's been gone now. Give it a few weeks, they'll be convinced he's gone to recruit an army to invade the Earth.”

Steve frowned. Tony really did want to do this, Steve realized, and wondered when that'd happened. Probably he wanted to show off or something, and Steve wondered when he'd started to care so much about what Tony wanted.

“I'm not going to give an interview alone. I know that Jan liked doing her talk shows, all on her own. I would, too. But there's a difference between dating her, and marrying me.”

“Really,” Steve said, “I didn't notice.”

“I could send you a photo right now showing you exactly how different we are. Or would you prefer video?” Tony teased.

“I thought you were busy,” Steve said. Which, of course he was, but he always found the time to talk about what he'd do with Steve. It wasn't even sexual most of the time anymore, mentions of restaurants and monuments and activities that he thought Steve would get a kick out of. It stung a bit, that they couldn't spend as much time together as Steve would have liked.

“Yeah,” Tony sighed. “It's great being married, people don't glare at me as much when I'm flirting on the phone. Some of them even look like they feel sorry for me, when they should be feeling sorry for themselves, not being married to Captain America.”

“Maybe they feel sorry for me, being married to Tony Stark.”

“Ouch,” and Steve could see the smile on Tony's face. “Anyway, really, what do you think? If you don't want to, I can say no.”

“Okay,” Steve said. “Not a complete okay, you're not going to agree to everything because I said yes this once. I want to see all the questions beforehand, and if any of them try to bother Gail or Bucky about this whole thing... they have nothing to do with this and if paparazzi try to end up at their door again—”

“If they did that, they could be assured that they would never see a Stark Industries employee or affiliate on their show again,” Tony said, soothing. “Also, Captain America would get pissed at them, and Captain America's opinion still means a lot. Huh. Have you ever considered running for president?”

“Don't joke like that,” Steve said, hoping to entice Tony into another round of banter.

“I have to go now.” Tony might have sounded mournful, too. “I'll see you tonight.”

“Okay,” Steve said. “Have a good day.”

He was about to set the phone down when it buzzed between his fingers.

He had his hopes, that Tony forgot to mention something, but wishful thinking didn't count for much.

He scrolled through the update from Greg, who wanted him upstate by two that afternoon.

He thought of how late Tony usually got back, and he turned off the TV.

To his shock, he found Fury at the site, an arms manufacturing facility that reeked of steel and gunpowder.

“Glad to have you with us here, Captain,” he said, and naturally, the surprise only went one way.

Steve wondered what was so special about this scene that it warranted the attention of Fury himself. He stepped around the SHIELD investigators to see, and only his years of training kept him from flinching as he stared calmly, trying to evaluate what was before his eyes.

“Jesus,” Steve said.

“Can't display that in an open casket, can you,” Fury muttered.

For all it was hard to see, it was even more difficult to look away. Whatever the man had been before was gone now. The skin on his face had been carved off, revealing the muscles underneath, the viscerality of it numbing. The blood had dried by this point, the angry red faded to a salmon pink.

“And you know the cause of death?” Fury chuckled and shook his head. “The goddamned gunshot in the side of the head.”

Steve didn't bother to ask which of those had come first. How long had the murderer tortured the man, slicing bits of his skin away? How slow and precise did he have to be, to avoid inducing shock and an early death? Steve just hoped that at some point, the man had gone unconscious from the pain.

The men Steve had killed in the war wasn't something he was exactly proud of, but he could respect that rule of war, that he had fought people fighting for another side. That their deaths now would prevent more suffering in the future.

There was nothing to be gained here. This wasn't even murder. It was sheer sadism, calculated for some sick curiosity of how to best cause suffering.

And Steve knew exactly who had caused it.

He found Greg outside the factory, kneeling down and examining the beaten dirt, like his repertoire included forensics.

“Why is he here?” Steve hissed. “You said that the last time your men had picked him out, he was all the way in Africa!”

Greg took his time in standing up, and Steve was trying to keep himself from shouting. “You've been part of the Ultimates long enough to know the world isn't big enough to run away from anything,” Greg told him.

“I need to tell Tony about this,” Steve said.

“You can't,” Greg said. “There's not enough time, and Tony's always been soft.”

“What reason would he have to be sentimental about an assassin?” Steve loomed over Greg. “Red Skull is a stone's throw away from New York, where your brother and my husband is, and you think he shouldn't know?”

“You think Tony won't be a target now?” Greg said. “You know what they didn't tell you? About this victim?

“The man was some crazy military nut. Second Amendment, NRA, the works. He got plastic surgery because he wanted to look like his hero, Captain America. Trying to imitate peak human via Botox. This was a message, Rogers, and you've seen it now. Forget telling anyone.” He took out his phone, tapping something out on the screen. “We've sat around for too long. We're going after him, now, before he takes down all of New York trying to reach you.”

“You lied to me for my whole life, making you think you were my real mother!”

“I was your real mother, baby. I was the one who raised you. I watched you grow up, I held your hand, I heard all the stories of your crushes in school.”

“That's right, you let me live a lie!


Steve squinted at Tony, standing right in front of Selena. Steve tried to peer around him, but Tony just moved in closer, and there was only so long Steve could pretend to be interested in the bottom of his tie. He tilted his head back, and Tony took that as an invitation to string his hands around Steve's neck.

“You're blocking the view,” Steve told him. “Isabelle just revealed that who Selena's mother is. I'm betting it's Maria.” He tried again to look around Tony, and Tony took the remote from the couch and paused the TV. Steve tried to grab for the remote, and Tony raised his hand out of reach.

“I'll tell you all the preview spoilers for next week.”

“You wouldn't,” Steve told him.

“Steve, one day, you'll figure out how all the stuff the fan forums and blogs post aren't actually spoilers, and then I won't be able to use them against you as blackmail.”

“I don't like them anyway,” Steve said. “I don't need to know who's showing or not showing up next week. I like the surprise.”

“Surprises, is it?” Tony asked, raising his eyebrow in his practiced, exaggerated way. Steve glanced toward the doorway, because Tony always made his constant situational awareness falter.

“I gave Jarvis the night off,” Tony said, smile turning predatory. “You know what that means, right?”

Steve considered the couch. If things progressed, it'd be their first time outside of their bedroom, other than the first night. He found he liked his chances.

Tony straddled, grinning against Steve's mouth as they kissed, slow and languid. Steve promptly deepened the kiss, no matter how Tony would try to convince him to take it slow. He would always joke about how Steve's balls haven't yet recovered from their time in the ice.

All Steve could think of was a hand-written note tucked inside his underwear drawer, the sixth draft before he'd given it up as a lost cause. One more night, he thought, and it's for him, and he tilted his head, lifting a hand to find the bristles of Tony's goatee and rubbing the pads of his fingers over it.

Then Tony's phone buzzed again, and he broke the kiss. Steve settled for his hand kneading Tony's ass as Tony glared at his phone, before his expression blanked.

“What is it?” Steve asked him, as the silence grew on.

Inexplicably, Tony broke out in a wide grin, then let out a whoop. He bounced onto his feet, as Steve adjusted himself and his pants as he got up. Tony had vanished already, bounding up the stairs, and Steve frowned, taking the shield as he went.

Out on the rooftop, Tony let out another shout.

“Thor!” Tony called out, running over like he was ten, a bright grin set in place. “My favorite demi-god. What the hell took you so long?” He slapped him on the back, laughing.

“Sorry, Tony,” Thor told him. “The Bifrost had to be closed while I was there, due to an attack by the Rock Trolls on Asgard. We feared they might expand their siege to Midgard.”

Tony snorted. “And just think, we haven't had an Ultimates emergency in the months since you've gone. Figures you were the one slaying demons while we sat on our asses. Though not on the public's dime anymore, so no angry public, no stock drops, and no raging board members out for my head.” He laughed again, then pulled Thor in for a hug. “It's good to see you, Thor.”

They finally parted after a few more shared laughs, Thor patting Tony's shoulder.

“Good evening, Steven. You seem excited to see me.”

Thor looked at him, amused, like he was humoring him, and Steve pointedly hefted the shield on his arm. Well, Thor was wielding Mjolnir, so it wasn't out of place. Steve stepped up between them more roughly than necessary.

“Well?” he asked. “Did you get what you went for?”

Thor smiled as he lifted Mjolnir up. “Tony, tell us something outrageous.”

“Hmm.” Tony rocked back on his heels. “Elon Musk is a far more creative and brilliant innovator than me. Steve Rogers is the worst, least sexy person I've ever had in my bed.”

Not a budge from Mjolnir, and Thor patted it, like he was congratulating it for its restraint, while Steve twitched.

Tony laughed, delighted. “Finally got some control over that hammer of yours.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Now that you know what you're doing is when all the fun starts.”

Steve's mouth felt sour when Thor chuckled.

“I have missed your brand of humor while I was gone, friend.”

“Even the driest humor can use some innuendo to spice it up. Isn't that right, Steve?”

“I still don't know,” Steve said, looking at the hammer. “Maybe it knows when Tony's joking. It was too sensitive before, but it's not entirely gone, is it? What if—”

“I told you earlier, Captain, that if Mjolnir detects a lie, it alerts me somehow. Like a spark up the sensation of my arm, right here. And believe it, I certainly felt it then.”

“So the Ultimates has their very own polygraph, now?” The smile hadn't left Tony's face since he'd gotten the phone message.

“If you're worried about Tony, I'd be happy to test it on you,” Thor told Steve.

“I'm not interested in being someone's guinea pig again, for science or for magic.”

“Don't be so peckish! You're acting like a fettered bilgesnipe. I must have been mistaken that you would herald my return. After all, your farce can be ended, now.”

Steve stared at him. “Our farce?”

“This false marriage of yours. I felt the greatest guilt in Asgard, knowing that you two were joined in an unwanted union, and I attempted to make haste in my return.”

“It can't end,” Steve said abruptly, and Thor held up his hands.

“I apologize, but I was not at fault for how your hands were forced. I should have been more aware of my weapon, perhaps, but you did choose to marry Stark of your own volition.”

“Actually, Thor,” Tony said carefully, “you know how we thought this would all be over in a jiffy? That was no fun, so we got caught up in things, and were outed to the public. And you know how the PR machine goes.” He grinned, wide. “Cap and Iron Man are the world's number one item, now.”

Thor looked between them, then at Mjolnir, as if asking it to confirm it as a lie.

“Maybe we should go inside?” Tony suggested. “I'll go break out the good stuff, just for you.”

“I don't think it could compare to Asgardian mead, but your best is fine enough for me.”

Thor grimaced, and Steve doubted it was because of the taste of his drink.

“So, you're together now for the Ultimates' public image?” He tilted his glass, watching the liquid slosh around, before scoffing, leaning back on the couch. “You're already the world's heroes! You've saved millions of people. Having grown up in the public eye, I dare say that no matter what trifling mischief royalty gets into, there's no such thing as true scandal. Just gossip for the masses, who would stand behind you in any crisis, regardless.”

“Huh.” Tony examined his own drink. “So you're saying, fuck the press, let's get divorced?” he said a bit slowly, avoiding Steve's gaze.

“Your personal affairs have no affect on the common people. They may disapprove of you, but as long as you can protect and govern them, then those opinions mean less than ice in Niflheim.”

“I don't know if it's so much they'd... disapprove,” Tony said. “But, you know, great role models. For the kids. You know how many invites we've gotten to gay rights stuff?” That was the first Steve had heard of this.

“I can understand,” Thor said. “But the person you share your life with! While my parents haven't hidden their preferred matches for me, I will outlive them, and I will choose someone who makes my entire existence burn with meaning.”

Steve looked over at Tony, and tried to summon up a meaningful fire in his soul. No such luck, and Tony's look of skepticism at Thor echoed his own.

“Surely it's been a hardship for the two of you,” Thor said. “Your human need to win the favor of those who have no personal relevance to you is odd, to go to such an extent.”

And there was Thor being more than a hopeless romantic, because it was odd. It was convenience, for Tony, and it wouldn't be anymore, not after Steve's departure tomorrow night. Tony was one of the most powerful men on the planet, and being treated as someone to be protected was something he would resent. But Steve thought it was worth it, anyway, even if it meant earning Tony's ire.

“I know I tell you this about everything, but it's really not so dramatic. Just—you know, it's not like I'm under house arrest or anything,” Tony insisted, eyes flashing over to Steve, and gave a short laugh. ”And, I mean, who's going to be on the side of the guy who divorced Captain America?”

Steve curled a fist.

“Thor's right.”

Thor sent him a sharp look, and Tony took his team to look at him. “Excuse me?”

“It's already been over a few months,” Steve said. Tony and him were long-lived compared to those couples the talk show hosts would talk about and speculate on. “But I didn't marry you intending it to last that long. Even in the war, there were war brides. Lonely, in a place he didn't know, with a woman where sometimes the most he knew about her was her name. I know one, who didn't even speak English, other than hello and thank you. They'd get the priest who read the last rites to marry them.”

“And?” Tony raised an eyebrow, no hint of its usual accompanying smirk on his lips. “I know you're the nostalgic sort, but your point is?”

“They were caught up in things, and made hasty decisions, and wanted someone they could come back to.”

“So, you're saying that's us,” Tony said.

“What we did wasn't stupid,” Steve said, “but the public would buy that story, if we told them. You know how they go on about us.”

Tony frowned at him. “I thought you hated watching that gossip.”

The coffee table jolted a bit when Thor slammed his drink back on. “I should check in with some of my followers,” Thor said abruptly, and for all his lack of common sense sometimes, he sure knew to get out before anything came to a boil.

When Thor left, Tony fiddled with his cufflinks. Steve desperately wished to rewind the last half-hour, to have Tony on his lap and kissing him all over again.

“So,” Tony shook his head, and laughed. “We're finally having this conversation. Boy, what I wouldn't have to turn back the clock to last night.”

“I would have lived with just a half-hour ago.”

“Not in the position to say that, darling,” Tony said, and Steve's neck prickled at the pet name. Once, it'd been because he hated Tony being that intimate with him, but he knew better now, and Tony only called people darling when he wanted to distance himself. Tony finished off the last of his drink. “You're the one who wants this to end, after all?”

“I—” Steve felt like his words were frozen inside. He'd meant those words to push Tony away, to make it hurt less for him, and his chest was already compressing until he couldn't think straight.

“Well, this is a first,” Tony said, and he ran his hand through his hair. “Don't think I've ever been the one dumped.” He laughed again, and Steve remembered that night at the hotel. Now, he looked back at it, fond, almost forgetting what had driven them to that first time together was drink and desperation. Steve watched as Tony poured himself another glass, downing it in one long gulp. When he emerged, he was smiling, and it made Steve feel sick.

“I really thought I would have the right to do this first, if it ever came to it. If I ever manned up and confronted you.”

“What?” Steve asked.

“Oh?” Tony cocked his head. “You think I don't know? That that you've been meeting up with Greg, in secret?”

Steve was stunned into silence. “Are you accusing me of cheating on you?” he finally asked. Steve thought of the same conversation with Jan, and how things had all turned out afterwards. Something crumbled in his chest, and he remembered the feeling of when he realized where Jan had disappeared to, how much time she'd spent with him.

“Of course you wouldn't,” Tony's mocking tone gave him no assurances. “You're so enamored with the idea of marriage that you'd fuck me just cause you think you had to. You would rather salute the hammer and sickle than fuck anyone else.”

“You—if that's what you thought of us, then why did you even bother?” If Tony thought Steve was just doing this out of obligation, then was everything he gave back, his smiles and his generosity and his kindness, were those all forced, too?

“Well, if Captain America wants to fuck me, I'm not going to say no. Even if you were a limp dick in the bedroom, it's one for the bucket list. But you weren't, and that was a pleasant surprise.”

Steve bristled. “So, it was about the sex.” He'd told himself that before, and he'd already convinced himself of it. What had gone wrong?

“You weren't complaining when it was my mouth on your cock last night,” Tony said scathingly.

But it was easier to lose himself in Tony, mind and body, then think about it. It was a dangerous trap, and Steve had fallen right for it. He'd indulged his desires, and so Tony had tired of him. He'd said as much, that he loved Natasha because she always surprised him. Steve thought he'd been empty of surprises and innovation, and had been since he woke up in this century.

“It's not wrong of me to think marriage means something more.”

“Oh, you demonstrated that already. Case in point. Maybe you should try again with Greg?”

Steve leveled a glare, and Tony barked out a laugh. “Great, perfect, keep that up. Oh, it's like we've been married for years already.”

“Why are you being like this? Steve hissed. “I'm your husband.” Not someone to be chased off when inconvenient, or boring, or whatever it was that was the breaking point for Tony.

“That doesn't mean anything, Rogers. Even back in your halcyon days, it wasn't always like that, no matter how blind you were. It's convenient, or a way to survive, or how to not get ostracized by society, or a way to leech off someone else's money. I was fine with that, because not everyone gets a chance for something more.”

There was a roaring in Steve's ears, and all he could think of how Tony had smiled into their kiss. “I had a chance, sixty years ago.” I thought I had another chance, but I was wrong.

“Right.” Tony slammed his glass down, but it didn't shatter, and stood up. He swayed on his feet a little, and began to take halting, slow steps away. “Well, when you're all out of chances, then there's no point in trying anymore, is there? Should have learned after the first time.”

“I know that—” Steve began, and Tony stopped. Steve looked at his fingers, and realized they were trembling. He thought of the lies, of a packed bag in the back of a dusty linen closet. Once, he'd entertained the thought that Tony might have understood, might have forgiven him. “I'm not the best husband.”

“Of course you're not,” Tony said, and Steve watched as his shoulders shook with the laugh.. “I thought I could live with it, and I was ready to play the fool however long you could stand it. But it looks like you can't, anymore.” He walked away. “Neither of us can.”

Someone honked at their car, thrice in rapid succession. Steve had a desire to shout back, but Happy was too professional to do that.

Steve shuffled through the note cards again, and Tony was closed off, taking up his fair share of the limo for once in his life.

Share an anecdote from when you were dating.

What's attractive about Tony, other than the obvious: looks, brains, wealth?

When did you fall in love with Tony?

He put the cards back in his jacket.

“It's not about memorizing answers to a test.” Tony's face was turned to his window. “The most important part, is that you'll have to pretend you're in love with me.”

Steve felt a lump in his throat, and his knuckles were white when he moved them to the shield. Because of course he'd been requested to bring it along to show off during the interview.

He wondered if Tony would forgive him. Maybe he'd just burn the letter once he read it. Maybe it was enough to hope he'd even read it before he did so.

Christ, but it was hard to live with a Tony who didn't like you. Tony liked everyone. It'd been a day, and Steve already felt ready to burst. He wanted to say something else, and it was a close thing when they pulled up to the studio.

Tony was on the side next to the sidewalk, and he didn't take a moment before slipping out. Meaning Steve had to follow, the chatter of the press and snaps of flash photography blinding him. Tony held out a hand, and Steve, fully aware of the eyes on them, brushed his hand against it before pulling away. A shadow passed over Tony's face before he smiled, putting a hand on Steve's back and steering him forward in revenge. His thumb rubbed only against the small of Steve's back, but Steve could feel the touch through his entire body.

Tony's hand dropped away, leaving Steve cold and bereft as the dull roar of the crowd grew in intensity. Tony had gone on ahead, and even now he was hugging someone, a preternaturally beautiful brunette like everyone in Tony's orbit. When they parted, Tony leaned into her, their heads tilted together, and a reporter that had been coming up to Steve with mic raised and eagerness writ on their expression, made a sharp u-turn back into the crowd. William strode up beside his employer, and Tony stood back from where he'd been practically fondling his new companion.

Steve couldn't make out what they were saying, and his jaw was starting to ache from the clench of his teeth. He scanned their surroundings, instead. Better to be aware of exit routes than whatever gorgeous new thing Tony had lay his eyes on.

An unnatural gleam from the corner of his eye and, like a magnet, Steve's attention snapped to it. Time stopped for that second, before Steve spun around.

Tony!” he bellowed.

Tony jerked alert, the reflexes of an Ultimate at work, and his eyes met Steve's before the bullet dropped him.

Three more gunshots in rapid succession, and the screams erupted.

Steve dove forward, and Tony gasped as they crashed into the ground. His breath was short and labored, crushed beneath Steve's form. Steve tore his shield off his back and Tony curling up instinctively beneath it. There was blood pouring from his head, and if he'd been shot there, then Steve shouldn't even be moving him—

The crowd was pounding the pavement around them, tripping over themselves, the snap of heels and ugly crunch of cameras being crushed. People fell over the shield before scrambling up, yelling and dragging people along them.

“William!” Steve shouted, and looked over the rim of the shield, his hand pressing the unbloodied part of Tony's head down to the ground. “Tony's been hit, you need to get him to a safe pla—”

William's eyes stared back at him. The bullet had gone right through his neck, leaving his expression wide-eyed in shock. The smell of blood was already overpowering Steve's senses.

The car, then, it was bulletproof, and Steve heaved Tony up. Tony groaned, and Steve finally saw how the top of his right ear was gone, as more blood dripped down. He kept the shield firmly over Tony's head as he led them backwards. There hadn't been any gunshots in the meantime, although the panic and ensuing stampede would do their job for them in casualties.

“Fuck, Steve, I think I've been shot,” Tony moaned. “I think, it came from, Jesus, where did I get hit?”

“You're in shock,” Steve told him, struggling to keep his voice calm, so much harder here than even the middle of a Nazi battlefield. He couldn't stop touching Tony all over, face and chin and chest, careful of anywhere not his ear. “Shh. Slow now, I'm here. I've got you.”

“Steve, what about you? Are you hurt? If they hit you too, I—oh god, William, I saw, he—”

“I'll take him, Cap.” Pietro was there, already lifting Tony into a bridal carry, and Steve nearly shoved him away to snatch Tony back.

“His ear, he's bleeding, shot, just—take him to SHIELD, Fury!” The words came out in a rush. “Where are the rest of the Ultimates!?”

“Steve!” Jan flew over him. The Ultimates must have been watching the live newscast, Clint and Wanda following in short order. “Did you see where—”

“Yes,” Steve said.

“Steve,” Tony moaned again, trying to turn to him.

“Get him somewhere safe, now!” Steve yelled, and took off. He could hear Jan starting crowd control, yelling at people that the studio was more secure, stop and get out of the goddamn car or you'll become the murderer tonight.

The building across the street was dark, the businesses there closed for the day. Locks were a matter of smashing them with his shield, and he cleared flights of stairs in two or three bounds. The glint of the scope was in the corner of his mind's eye, and he should have checked the moment he left the car. He was getting distracted, complacent, and he'd never seen Tony so pale, not even after he'd thrown up his entire stomach's contents.

His second of memory guided him on instinct, kicking down the door with the window five stories up, third from the right. It looked like a private tutoring business, bookshelves crammed with textbooks, and papers fluttered around him as he vaulted over desks.

The weapon was on the floor, a large sniper rifle with its cartridge yanked out and dropped unceremoniously on the floor. The window was left wide open, and Steve ducked his head out. A fire escape had been dropped to his left, and he grabbed it in a single swipe, swinging from the bottom and pulling himself up. His ears were pounding, and he leapt over the last few rungs onto the rooftop.

There was a figure in black, not even making any attempt to be unseen, but they wouldn't have gone to the rooftops as a hiding place if they'd wanted to stay hidden. Steve scanned the sky, and over the sirens and hysteria, the roar of the helicopter motor was unmistakable. He sprinted, clearing the space between buildings with a leap, rolling to his feet.

The sound of the helicopter was closer, and Steve took his shield in hand. The figure in black was still sprinting, and Steve couldn't close the distance between them as easily as he should have. Whatever the was, it was at least some knock-off super-soldier serum Steve was facing here.

A super-soldier who had just failed to kill Tony, with plenty of bullets and time and panic to do the job. There was no way Tony shouldn't have been the person bleeding out on the street. A whim of some super-powered maniac, and Steve could have stopped to bash a fist through a wall if he'd had the time.

Whoever he was, they were nothing compared to him, and nothing compared to the shield. Steve hurled the shield, and it cut through the air in a dead beeline. He ducked beneath it, but that was more than enough time for Steve to close in on him.

The man rose to his feet, and Steve could only see the glint of anger through the eye sockets in this face mask. Steve's punch was caught, and the lack of broken hands confirmed his suspicions of the enhanced. He followed with a shot to the gut, and the man grunted in pain. Like a rookie, thinking that their bodies were made of steel because of some serum, someone who hadn't fought other supers like this.

The world tilted sideways as Steve was swept off his leg, and he kicked out, the momentum letting him scramble away. The man was on him in the instant, and Steve threw his arm up and took the slash of the knife in his forearm. The swing was forced wide, and it was short work to twist a wrist, the knife clattering to the ground. The man hissed like a snake, and went for Steve's arm, fingers digging mercilessly into the cut and making Steve's vision white out at the edges.

Still a damn amateur, though, with that single-minded focus and thinking he was dealing with someone who'd buckle underneath pain. It was short work to roll them over, and Steve gave up the advantage of leverage to let go, making a break for the shield a few feet away. His arm throbbed, like holding the wound over an open flame. He grabbed his shield, spinning and hurling it as hard as he could, his arm screaming in protest.

The man backpedaled, but the shield still got him in the gut. He grabbed onto it, but it wouldn't stop its momentum. He skidded across the roof right off its edge. Goddammit. Steve could have torn something apart, put a hole through a wall. That man had tried to kill Tony, and now he got off with a ten story fall to the death.

The roar of the helicopter drowned out all else as it rose above the building, and Steve wasn't even going to get revenge if they were going to gun him down here, defenseless without his shield.

The man hung onto the rope ladder. Then, with a tug, he pulled off his mask. Steve couldn't stop the jolt as his body recoiled.

He should have expected it, but there were photos, and there was this. Red Skull's face was barely that. It was like some sick carnival costume, but Steve had seen too many men's faces half blown off by mortar fire, the bright red of blood and exposed tendons. But here it was calculated, every inch sliced off and displayed, and Steve's stomach roiled, seeing this freak of nature.

“Remember this face!” the man shouted, his grin maniacal as he cackled. “I did this, all of it, just because I knew when I saw you, that you'd never forget it.”

Steve didn't know if he meant the self-disfiguration, or trying to kill Tony, and the memory flared up, of Tony with an expression further away than Steve's past, toasting himself in the mirror, and then emotions past horror propelled him. He sprinted, and if he could get a running start at the ledge, he'd be able to grab on, drag Red Skull down with him to the street below.

The shield caught him in the chest, and he let out a grunt as its familiar weight shoved him backward, barely clinging onto it. The shield was quickly followed up by gunshots, which bounced off its surface as Steve curled under it.

“I could have killed him,” Red Skull laughed. “I had his head right there, but it's more amusing to see you live in fear instead of despair.”

Another man had jumped from the helicopter and was now approaching him, armed heavily with a machine gun. All Steve could see was the helicopter floating in place.

“Remember, you did this to me!” Red Skull screamed. “It was all you, and you know why? Because you're the one who made me like this, abandoned me to be tortured by government pigs! I'm—”

His last words were drowned by the bullets raining off his shield that didn't pierce the haze, watching the helicopter make its escape. It was a matter of seconds before the machine gun was kicked half a rooftop away, and Steve stomped on the man's chest with a boot.

“What did he say?” he said quietly, and the heel of the boot dug in.

“There's plenty of cock to openly fuck you out there, now that you made the whole country think it's okay,” the man sneered. “It's only a matter of time before Stark is dead, anyway, with that brain of his?”

Steve felt teeth crack when he stomped on his mouth. The man coughed, blood oozing out of the corner of his mouth.

The world felt like it was behind static. “How the hell do you know about that?”

“You think that when you showed back up, that the Red Skull wouldn't notice? That it wouldn't enrage him that you remarried, and to Stark, of all people?”

They weren't talking about the cancer. Tony wasn't—Steve's blood ran cold. He forced the man up by the lapels of his shirt.

“What did Red Skull mean when he said I abandoned him?”

The man spit at him, before laughing. “Captain America, showing your true colors. Everyone already knew Stark was a disgusting abhorrent. If only that bullet had blown his brains out after all, huh?”

Steve let go, before he brought his fist back and punched him in the solar plexus first, before smashing the guy's face in. Blood spattered on Steve as the man's nose broke, and he toppled to the ground, whimpering, before he fell forward to vomit all over the ground. No super-soldier here.

“You can insult me. You can try to kill me. You can even attempt to skin my face off, if you're that sick. But if you fucking dare try any of it on my husband, there will be no trace of you left on this Earth for the dogs to eat.”

“Hah! Like you scare me. I'm dead anyway. I just wanted to piss you off enough so you could kill me first. Do it, before he gets to me. I took his moment of glory from him at the end. Fucking itchy trigger finger.” The man was gasping now, all the bravado from earlier vanished, tears from the pain running down his face. “You don't know, who he is, do you?”

“What in God's name possessed him to hate me so much he wants to hurt Tony? What. Did. He. Say?”

The man's smile made Steve feel disgusting, and his next words made Steve feel like he'd been shot.

“Red Skull is your son.”

A repulsor blast shot into the roof beside them, heat flaring up Steve's side. The man fell, right into his pool of blood and vomit, and his body began to convulse seconds later.

Tony landed with a small hop next to Steve. He flipped his faceplate open, and gaped at the corpse. The cyanide pill had done its work quickly, blood still running down the man's face.

“Holy shit.”

Tony was looking at Steve now, like he couldn't believe what he was seeing. Steve knew how he must look, arm bleeding and face and clothes and face covered with blood not his own, but he looked back at Tony, the one left alive, and he didn't regret it.

Tony's voice was the smallest Steve had ever heard it.


The cut had started to heal over already, the skin there new and pink. It wasn't deep, by any means, but it was his fault for, once in his life, not wearing his Captain America costume underneath his clothes.

Tony had probably the best luck in the damn world, getting grazed on the ear without any injury to the head. The medic had been awed as she'd dabbed at it with disinfectant. One in a billion chance. It hadn't even really hurt much, Tony had tried on Steve with a smile, he had been too caught up in the screaming and general panic going on. But the asymmetry when he looked in the mirror in the morning was going to drive him batty.

All Steve could see was William's dead eyes staring back at him, blood seeping out of his wound, and heard Red Skull's laughter in the back of his mind, and didn't smile back.

So, there were no complaints from him when Tony threatened to sue if they kept him on the Triskelion medical bay for further observation. Something about how the Ultimates no longer worked for SHIELD, and did they really want more unlawfully held people on their records.

The only time he'd left Tony's side that evening was when he cornered Fury in a hallway outside the medical bay.

“Tell me,” Steve said quietly. “Tell me why I shouldn't put my fist in your face this instant and leave.”

“Stark,” Fury said, without any sign that he was shocked or confused. If he had been, it'd been some plausible deniability, that Red Skull's words had no basis. But, of course they did. “You'll leave him behind, and we'll have no issue claiming him as our own.”

“What could you possibly do with him? Tony's not helpless. People will notice, and people will care.”

“You think he wouldn't go freely with us? Others might care, but why would he care about himself at that point? He'd be trying to minimize the collateral damage of his husband going rogue, and I think he'd be willing to do anything for that man's sake.” Fury smiled, then, his eye gleaming at the prey captured in his web. “Might be better for him if you were gone. His team of lawyers can't do anything against a gun, as demonstrated this evening. So, go ahead, Captain. He'd be safer under our protection than yours, anyway.”

Steve nearly punched him for that comment alone. His mind was racing, and he never felt more ready to break something. The law, the nearest wall, Nick Fury's face.

“You're putting me on this case,” Steve told him. “I'm going after him, and I'll be damned if you don't use me.”

He swore there was a flicker of triumph in Fury's eye as he raised his hand between them. Steve took it, feeling like he'd just signed something away.

“It's a pleasure to be working with you again, Captain.”

It took until they'd stepped into the penthouse for Tony to snap. Steve felt buried in shame for how his body opened up as he was pinned to the wall. The fear, the helplessness, the anger all rushed into his groin at once, muffling the sharp edges, and his half-hard dick was already pressing against Tony's thigh.

“Steve,” Tony fell on him, tugging uselessly at his clothes. Steve lifted his hands away, and Tony whined, loud and needy. “No, god, Steve, I really need to touch you.”

Steve nearly snorted until he noticed, in order: 1) Tony's wedding ring and, 2) the bandage against the side of Tony's face. “You're injured,” he mumbled, feeling his restraint crumble with each tug Tony made against his hold. “How are those painkillers not—?” Tony managed to get his shirt half-unbuttoned before Steve tried again. “You're mad at me.”

“I've been dying for the last half a year and telling the world to fuck off for the last half a life, and that didn't stop me from sex. You could have took the dog out the back and shot it and I'd still go down on you right now. That was the hottest fucking thing I've ever seen. I mean, I could have pissed my pants, I was so scared, but Jesus.” Tony gasped against his mouth as he kissed him. “Your face.”

“How could you think—” The bits of words Steve wanted to say floated around his head, like a cloud, swallowed up by Tony's lips. “How could you think that—nearly getting killed, ahh, is a turn-on?”

“Oh, no, I'm not into pain.” Tony shook his head, then mouthed at Steve's throat. “Uh, no, maybe I'd be into pain if it was you. The look in your eyes. You would have gone after God himself if you thought he'd wronged you.”

“That's ridiculous. You're ridiculous.” Tony's fingers found his fly, and Steve muffled a groan as he rubbed at Steve's erection through the fabric.

“Well, you're about to get a mouthful of ridiculousness. As many times as you want. Or more than you want, but exactly what you need. Let me ruin you, Steve.”

The adrenaline in Steve's system had never faded from the evening, and he wanted nothing more than a way to let it out, not allowed to run, not allowed to fight. Tony's mouth, his body promised that to him.

“But,” Steve tried.

“It's fine,” Tony said, pulling back. “You don't have to fall in love with every person you fuck. Sometimes it's just this, needing to let go. I don't mind if it's me. C'mon, Steve, please,” and he punctuated his words by pressing up against Steve, showing him just how badly he wanted it.

And that was what it came down to, that Tony needed this just as much as Steve did, and what other reason would Steve have to give in? Steve jerked up, throwing an arm over his eyes as Tony squeezed his balls through his pants before swiftly pulling them down.

Then he was on his knees, running the side of his beard against Steve's cock before fitting his lips over it. They hadn't even gotten any of their clothes off, fully-clothed and the sweat making clothes stick to his skin. It would bother Steve if he gave a care about anything besides his dick right now. Steve squirmed helplessly, and it felt like he could see his little words and moans in the air, muddled with the haze of lust and want.

Tony redoubled his efforts, and Steve reached down to stroke his hair, careful to keep it far away from his bandages. Tony hummed, content and pleased, like all his happiness came from Steve's cock, and Steve couldn't help the moan that escaped. He squeezed his eyes shut, and in an embarrassingly short amount of time, he was thrusting his cock down Tony's throat, muffling Tony's desperate moans and biting his own lip, running a hand over his chest, too much energy coiled up in him.

Orgasm hit him like a brick, and he barely registered Tony swallowing, licking up the last bits of evidence. Steve's mind cleared enough to realize that none of that had been comfortable besides coming. His clothes was too tight, like a second glue. He looked down, stunned for a moment at the sight, Tony hunched over, mouth half-open, hand shoved in his pants. He couldn't see Tony jerking his cock, but the suggestion of it, the intense, far-away stare in his eye, the muscles of his arm clenching, set Steve's mind on fire.

Steve growled, dropping down and crawling forward to take Tony in a kiss. He took hold of Tony's forearm and felt Tony resist, but he couldn't do anything as Steve tipped him over gently, pinning him down. Tony looked up at him, eyes wild.

“We can do it here too, find out if that pain kink really exists,” Tony laughed, and Steve wrapped a hand around his cock.

Tony gasped, stilling in Steve's hand. Steve shook his head, a hand holding Tony's hips still, as he crawled down and tugged Tony's pants and boxers down in one smooth motion. He sat back and pulled off his own shirt, tossing it to the corner of the room, before leaning down and licking up Tony's cock.

“Fuck,” Tony gasped, and he angled his hips up, trying to push himself closer. Steve pushed his hips down as he ran his tongue up and down the shaft, and again, finally letting his lips settle over the head of the cock. He suckled, stroking Tony's balls and the space behind them, just how Tony liked it, and Tony was panting hard beneath him.

“Please tell me you have lube in your back pocket,” Tony gasped.

Steve just shook his head, mouth full of dick as he sucked. He didn't think he'd ever be in this position again when he'd chosen his suit for the night. Tony had been a literal inch from death, and he drowned out the rush of dread by stroking more insistently with his fingers, letting Tony's moans fill his ears. What he'd give for some lube right now, his cock already heavy again between his legs, eager to fuck Tony. His fingers slid further, and he curled two of them to slip inside Tony, the next best thing as Steve pushed down until his nose was nestled against coarse hairs.

Tony's cock throbbed against his tongue as he tried to make things as wet as possible, make it as good for Tony as Tony did for him. His fingers zeroed in the spot they were aiming for, and he swallowed at the same time he rubbed them inside Tony.

“Oh my god,” Tony moaned loudly, hips jerking a bit, trembling like they didn't know where they wanted to go. Steve closed his eyes, timing his swallows and finger-fucking, and debated the merits of jerking himself off with his other hand. He echoed Tony's moan.

Tony adopted a slow, rhythmic undulation of his hips, his moans choked between the dual sensations, and his fingers ran through Steve's hair again and again, spurring. Steve didn't need the encouragement, the serum making up for any need for air, and his libido making up for any reflex to gag or choke on the cock down his throat, the fullness making his throat muscles flutter in desperation.

When Tony came, Steve was so turned on he was half-convinced he would come too, swallowing as much of the come as he could, rubbing more insistently with his fingers, like the harder he finger-fucked him the closer he'd get to his own climax. He sucked until Tony's cock went limp and slipped from his mouth, removing his fingers and sitting up, wiping his mouth with the back of his fist. He crawled over Tony, looking down at him, ready for a kiss until he remembered he wasn't allowed that anymore.

“I've had enough blood tests to last me a lifetime, but if we could just—get some fake blood and get it right here,” Tony's hand reached up, and his thumb swiped along Steve's cheek. “Would you indulge me?”

“Is that really the first thing you want me to indulge you in right now?”

Tony's hands smoothed over his chest, grin spreading over his features. He shook his head, and Steve couldn't hold back then, and leaned down. Tony groaned heartily into Steve's mouth when Steve kissed him, hard and relentless and full of promises of what to come. The desperation had been dulled, adrenaline no longer driving him when Steve leaned back, tugging Tony to his feet and into the bedroom.

Greg stopped by the next morning, but Steve intercepted him first. Tony was in their bed, sleeping, and Steve had made certain with the aid of a few zolpidem in his water that he'd remain so for the duration of this conversation.

“Did you know?” Steve asked. His voice had gone low in warning, and even Greg couldn't keep the front up. He adjusted his cuffs, and Steve could have punched him in the teeth then. He'd done worse for less.

Of course Greg knew. He knew that Red Skull hated Steve, he just never told him why. And Steve had bought the super-soldier theory, because there were plenty already who resented him for it.

Steve wondered what it was that had made him so stupid, lately. Was it the ring? They called it being whipped these days, Clint had told him once.

Greg wasn't looking at him, like he was trying to find some diplomatic way to say that telling Steve the truth meant he'd have lost all control over him, that this whole business was all about who could make the good little super-soldier listen to them.

“You knew he would try to hurt Tony, and yet you didn't—”

“I didn't know that,” Greg said, like ice. “If I actually wanted Tony to die, I would just talk him into suicide.” He was angry, and it was disquieting, the moments where the family resemblance shone through. “I knew it was likely he would make an attack on you. No, it was a certainty he would, after his last murder.”

Steve bit his lip. The Ultimates lived and breathed danger, Tony had told him, and fending off world-ending threats is what kept him alive. It didn't seem fair, that it was Steve's old ghosts was the thing that could tear Tony away from him, after everything they'd been through.

“Why not,” Steve curled his fists, “when I was with Jan, that was public. Why not then?”

“Did you really believe you and the Wasp could last? She was publicly cheating on her husband, you were co-workers. To many people, the leader of the Ultimates and the only female member of the team seemed more a match for PR than for love.”

“I loved her.” She had loved him, too. Sometimes, he thought, that what they called love these days wasn't the same. If what Hank and Jan, or Betty and Bruce, or Tony and Natasha counted as love in this future, then all Steve could do was be grateful for Gail and Bucky, who were lucky enough to have found each other in another time.

The writing had been on the wall from the beginning for him and Jan, he could say that now, but he wouldn't forget how much he loved her. Same with Gail. “Not everything is made to be fed to the media wolves.”

Tony would have agreed with him. Greg just looked at him like everyone had in the beginning, when Steve had used words and said things that weren't deemed appropriate anymore—with some mix of embarrassment, pity, and contempt.

“You're working with SHIELD now, I heard,” Greg said, in a brusque show of diplomacy.

“I am.”

“My offer still stands. More people are going to die, and it's not going to matter to them if their deaths were tragic consequences of the sanctioned military operation or not.”

Steve thought of Tony, still curled up in bed. “I know.”

“Then,” Greg added, “you should also know, SHIELD's taken your friends into custody.”

Steve looked at him, incredulous. “What friends?”

Born to Gail Richards, the dossier read. The father's name was left blank, like they'd forgotten to declassify that in this version of the records.

Tony flipped through the pages, years of growth data, physical examinations, intelligence scores, emotional development, all painstakingly cataloged. On paper, a sound, healthy young man, exceptionally so, considering how he outstripped any world records and expectations like paper.

“So, that's how you manufacture the world's most dangerous assassin,” Tony mused. His eyes flickered to Steve, and even now, his expression didn't betray his emotions. At least Steve had figured out there was something underneath, and that the world's Tony Stark was the best distraction from Tony, the man he married.

“The super-soldier serum was passed down genetically, as you can see.” Fury flipped through the pages himself, not blinking at the gruesome remains that the Red Skull had left behind. “Cloning didn't work, attempts to recreate the serum didn't work. Turns out good ol' mother nature had us beat here.”

“What I want to know is, any reason you didn't throw this guy in the breeding grounds the moment he got defrosted?” Tony offered a grim smile, but he wasn't joking.

“You saw what happened the last time we tried. In fact,” Fury directed at Steve, “you being with Stark is possibly the best and the worst thing that could happen.”

“You never know,” Tony said, resting his cheek on his hand. “I might get forcibly turned into a girl by a crazy killer AI tomorrow.” He was soundly ignored.

Fury glanced at the computer screen, posture breaking from rock-stiff as his shoulders slumped.

“They've arrived,” he said, clearing the table of the dossier. Steve curled his hand into a fist on his leg.

“Can they come in?” Fury asked him, and Steve closed his eyes. He nodded, sitting up straight, avoiding Tony's gaze.

The door opened, and Fury waved his hand to dismiss the SHIELD agents after the couple stepped in.

“Gail,” Steve said. Bucky stood next to her, arm around her shoulder and hand in hers as they took their seats at an angle to Steve and Tony.

“I'm so sorry, Steve,” Gail blurted out. She was trembling. Steve didn't think he'd seen Gail shake, not even when she'd gotten the news about her brother, back in the war. “I'm sorry. I was young, and so scared. For the longest time, I thought he was dead. Surely he would have tried to find his mother, once he found out the truth. But he never came, and I was too much of a coward to investigate on my own.”

“It wasn't your fault, ma'am,” Fury said, voice gentling. “We told you that he was getting adopted into a good home, vetted personally by the military, and that his case would be highly classified after that point. I take full responsibility of the case.”

A super-soldier, raised in a military facility. They treated him as ethically as they could, but there was no getting around the fact that he was the single existing super-soldier completely under their control. A human-sized lab rat.

Hell, Steve resented being used as much as he was, and he was still a free man.

Tony's mouth was against his knuckles, and he looked deep in thought. Even though Fury glided over the amount of death caused, no photographs or files for them to browse through at their leisure, it didn't escape Gail or Bucky's attention.

“So,” Bucky said, breaking the silence the room had fell into, “he's the one who tried to murder Stark?”

Tony leaned forward, clasping his hands between his knees.

“He's my son,” Gail said quietly. Steve saw Bucky squeeze her shoulder. “I still remember holding him after he was born. He had your eyes, and I just think, if I had been there for him...”

“It's not your fault, love, everyone can see that,” Bucky told her.

All eyes turned on Steve, like he was the one who had the final say. Why? Gail was the one who gave birth to him. Fury was the one who helped raise him. What right did Steve have, just because this man shared half his DNA? But, of course, it was the half that the world cared about. The half that made the people in this room believe that Steve was the one who could understand him the best, despite their one meeting where they tried to kill each other.

“I can't think of him as my son. I'm sorry. But I still feel some pity for him. He was never given a choice by anyone. But, after he broke free, through murder, he made his own choices, and that was to continue killing. And,” Steve glanced over at Tony, “he targeted my husband.”

“I'm not taking it personally,” Tony blurted. “Really, I assumed when I married you that I was getting you caught up in my crazy relations, and not the other way around.”

“I understand,” Gail said. “It doesn't feel real to me, and I know that's part of why I'm being so sentimental. But the truth is, I don't really know him at all, and it's plain to see he's caused a lot of suffering in the world.”

“None of it to do with you,” Steve told her. “And all of it with me.” He got no response.

When he left the room, Steve lingered, Bucky and Gail were out a moment later. Bucky offered a small, sad smile, and Gail wouldn't meet his eyes.

“Gail,” Steve tried. “I really am sorry. I'll make sure this—” Turns out well? Ends quickly, so they could go back to their normal lives, and pretend nothing between them has changed?

She offered him a small smile, and he remembered a time when her happiness had meant the whole world to him. “I know you will, Steve.”

Bucky put his hand on Gail's shoulder, leading her down the hallway, back to their bodyguards and their SHIELD safehouse.

Tony crossed his arms, not offering any words as they watched them go. Steve tried not to think of this as giving up one for the other.

The elevator was taking its sweet time, and Steve jammed the button again. The number for the penthouse still didn't light up, and he was just about to give up and take the stairs, when a throat cleared behind him.

“So,” Tony said as Steve whirled around, his grip on his bag going tighter. “Where is my husband going at 3 AM in the morning? Even Captain America shouldn't be taking a run around New York when it's pitch black outside.” He grimaced. “Well, nowadays, even broad daylight isn't safe.”

Steve didn't say anything, and Tony sighed. “We really need to work with you being put on the spot. I bet the only thing you can think of saying right now is blurting that you're going after Skull.” He cocked his head. “Yes, then? That baseball cap and leather jacket won't let you blend in anywhere if you can't lie to save your life.” He stepped forward, and Steve didn't shuffle back, even when they were chest-to-chest.

“You still want to go after him on your own, even though it's all come out?” Tony finally leaned back then. “You don't need me to tell you what a dangerous stunt that is.”

“They want to do this right, with a team, where they can monitor me. It's not about my safety, it's about their reputation.”

Tony didn't look convinced. Steve couldn't deal with this right now, not knowing whether Tony was mad at him, or whether he tolerated him for the sex, or whatever game it was he insisted on playing.

“He would have killed you. Who's to say he won't, now? Or with Gail and Bucky, or Jan.” Just to hurt a father he'd never met. “I'm not going to sit here, hiding behind security. Living in fear, because of him.”

He just had to hope that whatever Skull's vendetta against him, he was a bigger target than his loved ones. The bandaging around Tony's ear was gone now, but you could make out the slight unevenness, even though Tony had joked about growing his hair out from now on.

“That sounds nice,” Tony said, leaning back and putting a hand on a hip. “But, really. I expected you have skipped town the night we got attacked. So, color me curious on what convinced you.”

Steve was still wearing his ring. He'd never asked Gail, if she'd kept the one he'd given her on his last 48-hour leave. He had the sudden realization that it would have been easier to go inconspicuous without wearing it, but—

“Making up for lost chances, is it? Even at her age, I can see why. Well, that settles it,” Tony sighed. “Don't bother with the elevator, it's locked. The stairs are, as well.” He held up a finger. “And no jumping out the window, there's no rooftop around you could safely make it to. I made sure of that when I married you.”

Then he left Steve there, blinking at nothing, before he could say something about how Stark Tower existed long before their marriage. Would exist long after their marriage, and he was close to making a break for it when Tony emerged again from the living room and coming back with a bag slung over his shoulder.

Steve gaped. “What the hell do you think you're doing?”

Tony adjusted the strap. “Well, I figured I should put up the pretense of an argument. Though you'd punch even me out to escape if you thought it was necessary.”

Steve opened his mouth to protest that of course he wouldn't, because Tony was—

“You really think I'll let you go out on your own?” Tony asked. “Knowing you, you'll like the freedom too much and decide that being a hobo is better than the billionaire high-life.”

“So, what, you want me to have both?” Steve murmured, settling his hands on Tony's waist.

Tony's grin was wide. “Don't try that, darling. I'm still pissed you hid all this from me. Oh, we haven't even gotten to that argument yet, have we, what with all the drama?” He stepped back. “But we're Ultimates, and the safety of the world comes before our domestics.” He shrugged. “Besides, I learned this lesson with the tumor. What good am I for, if not to give up everything in the end?”

“You shouldn't have to.”

“Neither do you, and the hero complex is getting tedious. I've grown boring and uncreative in my married life, but I'm not seeing a ending to two super-soldiers fighting other than death. You'll have a far greater chance of capturing him alive if Iron Man's with you. Remember, we're just the drunk cancer patient asshole and the geriatric. Better us doing this than them, right?”

Steve thought of having to learn from a news report what had become of Tony. There was no point lying to himself anymore, because if that happened, he'd take everyone down with him, not just the Red Skull.

“Okay,” Steve said. “But you stick with me.”

Don't leave, he wanted to add, but he didn't have the right to say that anymore.

A car stopped in the parking lot of the rest stop, and a family clattered out. At first glance, hardly worth keeping an eye on, although they both scrunched up regardless. You could never know.

Steve lowered the rim of his hat over his eyes, adjusting his jacket. The phone in his hand was locked, but it provided some semblance of cover.

Tony was keeping an eye on the new arrivals, which meant that Steve could look without consequence.

There was a thin chain around Tony's neck, barely noticeable, meaning it was nothing at all like his usual style. Looped at the end was his wedding ring.

“Is all you brought for a disguise really sunglasses?” Steve asked.

“You'll see,” Tony said. “The thing is, most people have only ever seen us on a screen. Camera angles, lighting, the fact that we're probably a few inches tall on their TVs. Maybe just over a foot for the rich. Seeing someone like that, not confined by the corners of a box? If they're not looking for us, it'll be pretty hard for them to find us.”

“I still think you should have shaved your goatee.”

“I'd rather have Red Skull shoot me in the head now, darling.”

“Don't joke like that.”

Tony raised an eyebrow pointedly, before sliding his finger along the chain, catching it along the edges as he lifted it up and down under his sweater.

Well, now he looked like a Tony Stark that wasn't married, as opposed to a Tony Stark that was.

“You know,” Tony told him, and here he shoved his hands back into his pockets and planted his feet in the ground, looking up. “Fury was right. It's a good thing you ended up marrying me. We can't produce a super-genius super-soldier with an addiction to alcohol and adrenaline. I mean, I never planned on it anyway, but knowing that even Captain America's kid turned out to be a sociopath makes me happy my terror will never be unleashed on the world.”

The breeze made Steve huddle into his jacket, as the daughter begged her mother for a soda from the vending machine. They hadn't talked about any impending divorces, not after they'd started sleeping together again after Tony's near-brush with death. But, Steve wasn't going to kid himself pretending Tony wasn't still sore at him for everything. He had no idea why Tony was bothering to bring this up.

“You don't want kids?”

Tony grimaced and shook his head. “I might have considered it, before Iron Man. Well, and once after.” He shrugged. “Natasha would have hated the idea, anyway. But even I know that a helpless baby shouldn't be dependent on me.” Tony frowned. “What about you, Cap? You want kids, don't you?”

“Yes. No.” Even being consulted on eulogies on people he hardly knew or, worse, hadn't had the greatest opinions of, wasn't as uncomfortable a line of questioning compared to this. “I was planning on it, with Gail. Don't know about now. I barely understand the world now, how am I supposed to explain it to someone who wouldn't know a thing?”

“Now, that'd make for a fun social experiment. Child of the 21st century, grows up with the social conventions of the fifties.” Tony frowned. “Or no, I'm sure that already happens in the Bible Belt.”

“Our kids would have you to counter that,” Steve said, stupidly, and that conversation was over.

The family piled back into the car, the mother sending them odd looks. He just hoped that was for the two strange men loitering around a rest stop on the way to the campground, and not because she recognized them. Steve would have suggested a smoke for an alibi, but that was frowned upon, these days, and illegal in the campgrounds.

Captain America and Iron Man, arrested for not obeying smoking prohibition laws. What a thought.

There was a beep from Tony's phone, and he whistled when he answered it.

“Bingo,” he said, wiggling his phone in front of Steve. “Guess who just pinged a video camera. We have maybe a half-hour lead at the most before SHIELD picks up on this. Now, where did our awful, gas-guzzling Frontier go?”

“How close are they?” Steve asked him.

“Well, you should know, Captain. Why else did you drag me out here into the middle of the big, scary outdoors?”

Their lead was an eyewitness report on someone who had stopped at a gas station at 4 AM the night of the upstate murder, and the videos of the license plate captured on the cameras.

There was only one man in the video, but it was what they had. The perpetrators wouldn't have traveled together, anyway, and Steve doubted whether most of them had even made it out in vehicles.

Thanks to facial recognition technology in open-circuit video cameras, which Steve would find deeply unsettling if he thought longer on it and if national security weren't in play, they'd tracked the car, and then the man, to here. The forest of Shenandoah National Park, full of backpackers, hikers, and families dragging their teenagers to a place with no cell reception. Scenic, rustic, and most importantly, worryingly close to DC.

Tony was sitting cross-legged in the dirt, balancing his laptop on his knees.

“Anything?” Steve asked.

Tony just shook his head, fingers flying over the keyboard. “Give me a sec, this satellite imaging is taking its sweet time. If only I'd taken Elisa up on her offer to go camping years back, then maybe I could do better than piecing together public image datasets to fill in the holes.”

“Tony,” Steve said, “someone's coming.”

“Well.” Tony's fingers picked up the pace. “Please don't scare them to death if they're hikers who lost the trail. If they're not, you're allowed to knock them silly while this finishes. Who approved the processor on this piece of crap? I didn't get seven doctorates and start my own company at eighteen to hire people with no standards.”

Leaves were being crunched underfoot, accompanied by indistinct grumbling, and Steve decided that there was a time and a place, and this wasn't it. He knelt down, put a hand on Tony's cheek, and by the time the three men had come into plain view, was kissing Tony.

He received no reaction, and Steve reached around Tony's waist, tilting his head so that Tony had to lean up a bit into the kiss. Tony made a small, high noise, and Steve felt the moment he gave up, carefully closing the laptop lid and setting it aside before he wrapped his hand around the back of Steve's head. Steve didn't moan, but it was a close thing, even though he tried to keep the brunt of his attention on the men.

They had stopped, a certified deer-in-the-headlights moment, but they hadn't been scared off, and Steve broke the kiss. He kept his fingers cupped under Tony's chin.

“You should be paying attention to me, not your work,” he told Tony, pitched low but enough to carry, and heard the sound of them scrambling away.

Tony's lips were parted, looking at Steve from beneath his eyelashes.

“I think we're safe.” Steve said, dropping his hand. “Sorry.”

“You better be.” Tony straightened himself, dusting off his shirt. “Didn't even use tongue.”

“Don't open that up again,” Steve said, as Tony reached for his laptop. “We need to go.”

“You recognized them? Thought you were paying attention to me and not your work.” Tony stuffed the laptop into his bag, then was hot on Steve's tail. “Even terrorists are cowed by people making out. How humanizing of the murderous sons of bitches.”

“Wouldn't bet on it,” Steve avoided the branches and piles of leaves on instinct, and winced whenever he heard Tony not follow in his footsteps. “Better to cover up whatever's going on if they don't make a scene by shooting the amorous couple before the plan goes off.”

“But that kiss was a promise of things to come tonight, right?” Tony asked, in a conspiratorial whisper.

“You can test your luck later if you can listen to me now. Quiet, now.”

“Captain America's turned to extortion now, I see,” Tony grinned.

It was quickly clear that the men didn't have a clear idea of what they were looking for, either. Steve had the benefit of his enhanced hearing, and knew to stop whenever they did, which included plenty of detours, u-turns, and long forays into areas with no suitable land markers whatsoever.

Tracking them was far simpler than he'd expected, which was why when a bullet rang out, Steve caught it with his shield, and Tony shot a repulsor blast, downing them. The next rain of bullets was as easily caught, Tony poking his head from behind the shield just long enough to raise his gauntlet and gun down their enemies.

Which meant the next step in their arsenal was hand-to-hand. Steve tossed the shield aside as he side-stepped, cleanly flipping the first person to try rushing them, pistol shots leaving his ears ringing. Tony ducked behind his newly-acquired shield, and his blasts caught the next three men closing in on them in quick succession.

Steve spun around the next man, parrying his knife and twisting it out of his hand, squeezing his wrist before sweeping him. There was a loud clang, and Steve spun around to see the shield fall to the ground, Tony having shoved it face-first into a new man, now unconscious on the ground.

“Geez,” Tony muttered, shaking his arm, “how can you stand that recoil when something hits this thing? You sure my arm isn't going to fall off?”

“You're holding it wrong,” Steve told him, kicking the shield up onto his arm. “Don't tense your arm up or it'll shatter like glass. The shield will absorb the impact.” He looked up. “Get down!”

Tony let out a yelp of pain, not having dodged the thrown knife in time, and Steve jumped in. He charged the man, trying to get up from the ground, and flung him with a resounding crack against a tree. Steve was on him on the instant as he rolled over, teeth bared, another knife in his hand, and kicked his chin up. The man didn't have the air to breathe before Steve stomped on his neck. It snapped beneath his foot cleanly, and his boot left a visible imprint on his neck.

“Jesus, Steve.” Tony looked like he was about to be sick. “Did you really have to--”

Yes. “They hurt you,” Steve told him in simple explanation, not allowing Tony to break eye contact.

He thought maybe Tony would laugh it off, tell Steve how hot he was, like the last time it'd happened. But now, Tony just swallowed, averting his gaze, still looking pale.

At some point, Steve had stopped surprising himself with what he'd do for the man.

“I guess the bastard's willing to kill innocents,” Tony muttered shakily, and Steve nodded. It was something he'd had to come to terms with, during the war, and the little sympathy he'd felt for the Nazis had vanished upon stumbling upon the helpless under them. Even as an Ultimate, Tony didn't have that understanding, and maybe he would one day. But for now, Steve would hope that his husband wouldn't ever be a soldier.

“It was just a flesh wound,” Tony told him, as Steve grabbed him to check his shoulder. “Practically bounced off of me. Guy was on his last legs already.”

There was another flash of movement to their side, but Steve shoved the shield down, and the crack of bone came soon afterward. The man hissed in pain, and Steve kicked him over so his face was in the dirt. He ground his boot against the back of the man's head, pushing him further in the ground.

Tony had gone to the other men, save the one Steve had just dealt with, rendering them all unconscious with a repulsor blast to the head. His shots were set to stun, because of course they were, it was Tony.

Due to some cosmic justice, the man was the one they'd caught in the video, who'd led them here.

“Did you really think a mere dozen of you could take on Captain America?” Tony asked when he'd returned, his sour expression suggesting he hadn't found much of interest on the other men's bodies. “Better men than you have sent more people to try to take him down.”

The man was silent, and Steve swiped across the back of his head with his boot. His resultant growl and silence meant that he was still willing to hold up. That was fine with him.

“What I want to know is, why are you here? What's the Red Skull interested in, out in the ass end of nowhere, to send his operatives on some wild goose chase?” Tony said. “It was funny seeing that, you know. Truly, you're people who strike fear into the heart of men.”

The man snorted, and Steve eased off a bit, willing to let him talk. “You don't know.” He snickered, louder, and Steve couldn't tell whether to call his bluff. “Oh, to be one step ahead of the Americans!”

Tony shared a look with Steve. “You realize your leader you've pledged your worthless loyalty to is American, Mister-Midwestern-Accent?”

“He turned on this country, just like it deserves. Same as me. You say you're dispensing justice, and all you're doing is bombing the poor and saying it was deserved because they would have grown up to be killers anyway. Way I see it, you're just the same. You SHIELD lackeys and your Director Fury have spread more terror than any of us.”

“Well,” Tony shrugged. “That's why we went private. Too bad about the hypocrisy, complete lack of regard for human life, and right, all the murder. I'm sure we could have had fascinating geopolitics discussion over a few cocktails.”

“You piece of shit warmonger,” the man snarled, and Steve stomped his head back down into the dirt.

“Trained assassin death squads working together with radicalized terrorists?” Steve muttered. “I don't like it.”

The man stilled, and Steve reevaluated his words, cursing.

“Now, don't get me wrong, piece of shit and warmonger are perfectly valid reasons to hate me. You'd have to get in line behind everyone else, though. But I have to tell you, my partner here doesn't have the time or patience to show mercy.” The smile in Tony's voice widened as he crouched down, pushing his hand against the man's arm, and gently pushing Steve's foot aside. “Then again, I heard your Red Skull is like that, too? You might as well enjoy the ride with us, then. At least you'll be alive at the end of it. Maybe.”

The man began to seize up, the current from Tony's device locking his joints still, but his body was still shaking. Steve stepped away, watching as the man got—tasered? Electrocuted? in front of them, and he was about to push a hand out when it stopped. The man lay there, trembling from the exertion.

“And that's just level 1,” Tony muttered.

“Do I want to know what it does at higher levels?”

“Let's hope we never find out. Greg's men will take care of him,” Tony sighed, as he pat down the man. “Terrorists are of perfect interest to SHIELD. Hell of a honeymoon we're having, huh?” His eyes lit up, and he dug around the man's jacket, eventually extracting a case, the size of a small notebook, from the inside pocket. “Oh, now, what do we have here? Something to let me one-up my dear brother?”

Despite Tony's glee, Steve felt numb. He couldn't find it in himself to be surprised, though. If the person Red Skull hated most in the world was Captain America, then of course just killing the man wasn't enough. He had to tear down everything his father stood for along with it.

The only question, how many innocent people would die before he'd decided that his revenge was enough?

Tony stretched his legs out on the couch, putting them up on Steve's lap. He was warm and heavy, which was why Steve didn't pick up his feet and roll him off onto the floor.

This was nice. A private cabin, just for the two of them, although the receptionist had filled in the blank in her own head somewhere and been quite pleasant in telling them to enjoy their party with their guests.

Tony had winked at her, saying there'd definitely be a party going on, before Steve had hustled him out, fighting the blush.

Not that anything of the sort had begun yet, Tony having taken to the contents of the small case with the same glee as he did to alcohol, and occasionally Steve. He'd found a few discs, flash drives, and electronic devices in it, so here they were now, with Tony's feet in Steve's lap as he tried to unravel the terrorist plot.

“Okay,” Tony said finally, lying back with his eyes closed for a second. “I have my script chugging away, and it's just a matter of time, now.”

He set the laptop on the coffee table, before taking his feet off Steve's lap, pulling them flat against the couch cushions. He didn't break eye contact for a second, and Steve felt heat curl in his gut.

After a long silence, Tony jabbed at him with a toe. “This is where you tell me I was warm, and you want my feet back.”

“I don't,” Steve said, and then crawled over him to kiss him. Tony surged up, meeting him in the kiss as good as he got, and Steve was fine with Tony taking over the kiss, opening his mouth for easy access. As much as Steve liked the kissing, it wasn't long before they'd fit their hips together, humping fully-clothed on the couch like teenagers.

Tony gasped when he broke the kiss, holding Steve's face in place to stop him.

“Couch make-outs later, c'mon, bed,” Tony told him, and that was their cue to stumble over, on their way to the bedroom, still kissing, and Steve suspected it was only his reflexes that prevented them from toppling together onto the carpet. His body felt like a furnace, but all he wanted was more heat, feeling Tony's skin hot under his hands. Steve turned the handle of the double doors without breaking the kiss and they fell back onto the bed. Tony took the opportunity to run his hands up and down him as they kissed.

“C'mon,” Tony insisted, and moved his attention to Steve's throat. His tongue darted out to lick at Steve's skin. Steve shivered, reaching his hands up to thread through Tony's hair. Tony rolled his hips again, and Steve closed his eyes, sinking into the blunted pleasure.

Tony was warm, and dry, but Steve knew that if they kept even this slow rhythm up, he wouldn't remain so for long. His arms wrapped around Tony, eyes closed as he rocked his hips back up against Tony's, tugging his head up for a kiss.

His body froze as he pushed and held his thrust for too long, and he blinked away the orgasm with short little gasps. Tony was tight in his grip, and he already felt the dampness spreading, and let go immediately.

“Pfft,” was Steve's warning, before Tony nearly collapsed on him, body trembling with his barely-restrained laughter, and Steve's face burned.

“Shut up,” he muttered, and pushed Tony off.

The springs in the bed protested as Tony bounced in place, and Steve thought of how creaky they were already. Tony laid on his side, propping his head up with an arm, laughter still dancing in his eyes.

“Oh, are we done already?” he asked. “Not that I expected the man I'd marry to be a gentlemen and pay attention to my needs. That'd be entirely out of character.”

Steve tugged him in for a forceful kiss, and try to draw Tony into the kiss as much as he liked, it didn't stop Tony's smirk from widening against his mouth. By the time they let go, Steve's pants were uncomfortably tight, only drawing attention to his premature consummation.

“You're always so grumpy after the first orgasm. Do super-soldier endorphins take a while to kick in? Or is that just a Steve quirk?” That won Tony another kiss, and Steve ground his palm roughly against the tent in Tony's pants, and that ended any laughter.

“Well, if we're trying to make me a happy camper, then first, pants off. I can see you're already hard as a rock again, but it is really hot seeing how fast you can get it up again in action.” Tony muffled his groan into Steve's mouth as Steve kissed him again, hard and relentless. He was gasping when Steve let go. “Can I make a list? We might have to add some things, or change the order around. Won't know until we get there. Might have to start back from the top if I change my mind.”

Tony was promptly rolled over as Steve pinned him down, hands on his shoulders. “Look at you already. What was that first round, then,” Tony teased, running a hand around Steve's neck, “a warm-up? Just you stretching your muscles?”

Steve didn't deign that with an answer. Even though it was true, that after he'd come, he hadn't felt the content calm wash over him. His body was still wired, a pressure cooker, and he felt driven to the ends of his sanity with the need for relief. He sat back, undoing his belt, and Tony laughed, leaning back and running his hands over the exposed skin as Steve pulled his pants down. It was incredibly distracting, and Steve smacked his hands away so he could kick off the last of his pants, before pulling his shirt off and tossing that, too.

“Your turn,” Steve demanded.

“I would have, you know, if you didn't insist on pinning me down this whole time,” Tony said, and he did a little... gyration with his hips. Steve growled as he shifted his hips off Tony, self-conscious about his ass in the air, and promptly burying his face into Tony's neck and providing more distractions for the both of them. But Tony had enough of the foreplay at this point too, it seemed, as he swiftly took advantage of the opportunity to kick off his pants, reaching down and making things quite awkward as Steve darted his tongue out, bristles of facial hair odd against his tongue.

Tony put something in his hand, and when Steve uncurled his fingers, he frowned.

“Was this in your pants?” Steve asked.

In all honesty, he was more surprised he hadn't noticed the small tube of lube in Tony's pocket with the way they'd been pawing at each other before.

Tony's eyes were lidded, smiling lazily up at him, his hard cock betraying his lack of urgency. Steve bit his lip, the heat in his groin coiling, and he wanted Tony to—

Steve flipped open the lid, generously spreading the liquid over his fingers, then reached down behind himself. He felt Tony tense beneath him, and the unfamiliar sensation of being breached.

“Oh,” Tony breathed. “Oh.” His eyes widened. “Oh my god, you're, yes, keep going.” Tony wiggled, a hand reaching for Steve's wrist, gently pushing Steve's fingers further in, and Steve couldn't stop the whimper from escaping.

His fingers in himself, and it was almost strange enough to stop, but Tony was murmuring the Lord's praises. The position was too uncomfortable to keep up, especially now that Tony was running a finger around Steve's, around the rim, unable to keep his hands off, and Steve sat back. Tony sighed, looking up at Steve with a nearly giddy look, and Steve didn't think Tony had ever looked so delighted in bed.

Not that anything was being done to Tony, and Steve could have taken offense to that, that all the times Tony had taken his cock hadn't made him look so reverent, the praises falling like a litany from his mouth, one hand running over Steve's inner thigh and up to his hip, and the other one pushing greedily against Steve's fingers. Tony's dry finger finally slipped in alongside, an easy slide next to Steve's own two slick fingers, and Steve moaned.

He couldn't even say if it felt good or not, physically, just a heavy, inescapable pressure that was uncomfortable in its intimacy. But just Tony's voice could have made him squirm and beg for it like a slut, and he thought if he touched himself now, it would have been enough to come, their fingers and Tony's voice.

This was what he wanted when he'd decided to fuck himself on his hand. The smile was wiped clean off Tony's face, his eyebrows furrowed and lips parted, the smartest man on the world focused only on his pleasure, on Steve's pleasure, whichever, blanking out any other semblance of emotion. Steve groaned, reaching out to press a thumb against the corner of Tony's lips, and Tony sucked him into his mouth at once, sticking another finger alongside the ones already there. Steve felt the throb throughout his entire body, and pushed back against Tony's fingers, the crick in his own fingers not enough to dissuade him from shoving his ass back, his moans ratcheting up in pitch. Tony's other hand took Steve's, holding it steady, and Steve wanted so badly to break his grip and fuck himself as he liked, and felt sweat slide down the side of his face from the effort.

“Shhh,” Tony whispered, fingers tightening around Steve's wrist again. With his other hand, he gently stroked Steve from the inside, his touch sparking odd sensations in their gentleness. Then he curled his fingers, to stroke again at—

Steve made a high, desperate noise, and only the last shred of self-control he had prevented him from shoving back and spraining Tony's goddamn wrist. “Oh, fuck, Tony.”

Then Tony's fingers were gone, and so were Steve's, as Tony tugged his hand out, and Steve whined at the emptiness. Steve stretched his fingers out, the soreness settling in, and Tony took him by the shoulder, surging up and rolling them over. Tony shuffled up Steve's body for a long, deep kiss, and Steve could barely feel self-conscious about how his mouth fell open for Tony's, letting himself be kissed.

Tony towered over him, his knees bracketing Steve's thighs. Steve couldn't lie and say their positions did nothing for him. The world was slowly coming back to rights, and it was embarrassing, how loud his breaths were as Tony looked on, and why didn't he even think of the humiliation when he'd been bouncing on the man's fingers?

“Well?” Tony turned his head, eyes running up and down Steve. “We're in the middle of nowhere, Virginia, in a cheap cabin under fake names. No Captain America, no Iron Man. We could be anyone, darling.”

Steve pushed his hands under Tony's shirt. The motions of his hands up Tony's sides pulled the shirt along with it. Steve watched the skin get revealed, his thumbs rubbing circles against Tony. Tony lifted his arms so that Steve could take the shirt off, tossing it across the room.

“And here I thought we were still Steve and Tony,” Steve said.

“That one's my favorite,” Tony replied, then leaned in and kissed Steve.

Steve looked down, and seeing Tony gripping himself, slathering the lube over himself. Steve closed his eyes as Tony guided himself in. It was like his body had forgotten the pleasure of a minute ago already, almost protesting the intrusion. The pressure was inescapable, and Tony didn't let up, murmuring gentle assurances as he pressed in slowly, not stopping until he was fully hilted in Steve.

Steve breathed in deeply. He thought about Tony's fingers, and how he'd felt stars explode in that gentle, insistent touch. He thought about how, if Tony moved in him like Steve moved in Tony, how he could handle it, that much feeling at once, and he felt his pulse pick up. Tony grunted, running a hand along Steve's collarbone.

“Shh,” he whispered. “It's okay. Just relax.” He pressed kisses all over Steve's face. “I'll make you feel so good, just like you do for me.”

He rolled his hips, slow, like he was testing Steve, and Steve's body finally felt like it was past the hurdle, a warm wave of pleasure washing over him. He closed his eyes, ready to take Tony at his hardest, too. But unlike the hurried, frantic fingering, Tony moved in him slow, the drag of his cock filling all of Steve. Tony's moans were low and guttural in response to Steve's, and Steve ran a hand through his hair.

“Tony,” Steve muttered, “hurry up.”

“Mmm, no. You're always so demanding,” Tony sighed. “Want it all at once, intense and unforgettable, but. Even I can appreciate living in the moment sometimes.”

Steve growled, pulling at Tony's hair, and Tony laughed. “Don't be like that, you're the only one here who's already come once.”

If Steve really wanted to, he could have flipped them back over, and taken control himself. But he grumbled his disapproval instead, wrapping an arm around Tony's neck and kissing him.

It was something about the universal constant of irony, that the one time they took it slow, and intimate, and agonizingly gentle, they were in an unfamiliar bed with rough sheets and who knows what else in the room with them.

At some point, the desire became muffled, desperation shoved under the surface. It would have felt like a particularly vivid dream, except Tony's skin stuck to Steve's with sweat, and Tony's goatee left Steve's neck tingling, and Tony's look of blissful pleasure seemed more important than any primal need to come.

Steve had thought this would make him feel too open, too vulnerable, and it'd be an exercise in self-consciousness and pain. He had trouble remembering that, or why he was so against this, his husband making love to him.

Orgasm came like the rest of the sex, like a wave, except here it crashed over him, and the ebb and flow of his orgasm leaving him floating. Tony helped it along, still moving in Steve, panting against the corner of his mouth, until he pushed all the way in and let go. A few short, quick thrusts later, Tony sighed and collapsed on top of him.

When they were finished, Tony purred as Steve put an arm over his shoulder.

“Really? Cuddling?” he whispered loudly, because he could never just let silence speak for himself. Steve could, and wrapped Tony closer to him, which was answer enough.

Tony let out a low whistle, while Steve curled up on his side, feeling the sheets bunch up around his waist. The light of the screen created long, dark shadows along Tony's cheekbones. Steve wanted to follow them with his fingers.

“Done?” he asked.

“The encryption's done with, but diving into all this juicy intel is just starting,” Tony said.

Steve scooted up next to him, resting his cheek against his ribs, and Tony angled the screen down and pet his hair.

There were designs for an underground base, it looked like, with what felt like pages of details on construction materials and the science behind them.

“Chock-full of anti-radiation measures,” Tony muttered. “Definitely planned by some paranoid bastards.”

“Are these those fall-out shelters from the... Cold War?” Because Steve had fought in the war and given his life for his country, just so that people could move on to being terrified in their own homes.

“As I said, paranoid bastards,” Tony said. “This isn't one of those neighborhood basement ones, though. The size of this, and the planning—look, they even had plans to implement their own transportation system. I'm guessing to connect to all the other poor bastards during the apocalypse. This was meant for a military structure. And guess where it is,” he sing-songed. “Oh, the park rangers sure would get a hoot out of this, wouldn't they. What do you think they keep down there now? New species of alien, perhaps?”

“I'm more concerned with what Red Skull wants to do with this place,” Steve said. “Set it up as a new base?” He could imagine the horrors already, a place of this size and with this level of protection, within striking distance of most major cities on the Eastern Seaboard. And they were already working with terrorists. He'd seen the videos of what'd happened on 9/11, and he wasn't looking forward to seeing incidents with Red Skull's hand in it.

Tony stopped petting his head. “Well, I guess that's for us to find out, isn't it?”

“I've missed this guy,” Tony said, the helmet turning toward Steve, and Steve felt the gauntlet wrap more tightly around his waist. “I don't even have to get drunk to fly him this go around. You crazy bastards, going into battle without a suit of armor.”

“You were scared?” Steve asked him, adjusting the straps on his helmet.

“Darling, I always am.”

Tony might be afraid, but it was a comfort, having Iron Man by his side, having abandoned going incognito. They were infiltrating an underground base with an unknown number of enemies, and Steve suspected Red Skull knew they were coming.

“I could always call Thor in,” Tony suggested. “If you don't trust the more SHIELD-affiliated of our ranks.”

Steve knew Thor, and there was no mercy to be had for anyone who'd tried to hurt Tony. Obviously, Tony had married the wrong person, but Steve had known that from the beginning.

“You are so stubborn. You still want to capture him alive?” Tony asked. “Oh well, I'm not the one who'll have to justify your sliding sense of morality to whoever you have to answer to.”

“What, you're not culpable either for this?” Steve curled his head in toward Tony's shoulder, to block out the wind.

“Of course not. I'm your hostage,” Tony said sweetly. Steve was glad for the faceplate separating them, as he rubbed his face with the back of his glove. “Watch your head now, time to descend.”

He flew down over the tops of clumped trees, a patch of forest indistinguishable from the rest. They were relying on the fact that Red Skull's people would be using technology to keep watch, rather than actual people. They couldn't have that big an operation, Tony had mused, and they'd probably take out a good chunk of it earlier that day. Considering how the men they'd found had little idea of where to find the place, even if anyone did spot them, they'd likely rather keep the fight to the compound.

“It'll be hidden,” Tony said, as Steve stepped off his boot, “but not impossible. It was meant first as a nuclear fallout shelter, not as some secret military base.”

“What direction was the side entrance on the blueprints?” Steve asked.

“Hmm, it just ends where the supposed entrance is. It looks like some sort of hatch, or a hole to go down,” Tony told him. “Look down?”

Steve tried to look for a clearing where the ground had been disturbed recently, soil patted down too neatly and the attempt at making it natural had swept the dirt in too-neat of a formation. There was nothing of the sort, and he wondered if their little operation would end here, with them sniffing around in circles like dogs. All they really had was Tony's guesswork on how the shelter could have fit the geography of the park, mapped onto the appropriate coordinates, but even technology had to give away sometime.

“Is it really here? They couldn't possibly have an opening that was meant to go under the dirt.”

“I'm not wrong,” Tony said, voice flat. No room for argument. “Cloaking technology. I suppose someone's been by recently to upgrade their facilities.” He knelt down, supposedly scanning the area.

Whatever they had wouldn't hold up to close scrutiny. Steve stood back, taking the shield off his back and bouncing it off the ground. It landed with a pathetic thud, and it went like that until the third go around, when the ground glitched. He passed the shield through, the light reflecting off the vibranium surface, before lifting it up and smashed the ground in.

“No use being stealthy now,” he told Tony, as they looked at the small hatch cover, and Tony reached down to pry it open.

They clambered down into the small metal corridor, like the inside of a ventilation system, and the deja vu of crawling in dark, cramped tunnels was quick to follow, as they made their way through.

“Next time, I'm taking the time to go in through the main entrance,” Tony said.

At least they weren't getting shot at or crawling away from a grenade set to blow. Although, they couldn't be quite as sure on that last bit, yet.

The corridor angled downward, and finally, Steve could drop to the floor. It was still a tight fit, one where a person his size had to watch their head.

At least Tony was only smacking the helmet against the ceiling, although he didn't seem too pleased, slightly hunched over.

The only light coming from the armor turned the experience into something more reminiscent of his bouts of spelunking during the war. It was dark and dank, a particularly airtight bunker with the smell of earth. He wouldn't be surprised if the place had been chosen because of the natural cave system already in place.

It was a bad place to engage in a fight, that was for sure, with no cover whatsoever, the lack of space making it difficult to use his shield, or to cover Tony.

“I think we're coming up on the actual base soon,” Tony said. “There's a hanger around. Home to some top-secret aircraft, or, at least, top-secret back in their day. If they're going to try to launch a large-scale attack, then whatever we're looking for will be there.”

Steve wondered. His instinct told him that there was no one around, but it also told him that wasn't natural. Those men had been looking for this place. Was it possible they were the scouting party, sent to clear the place for their leader and deem it suitable, but it was him and Tony who had beaten them to the chase?

The hallways gradually widened, and the hairs on the back of Steve's neck rose as they shuffled through the dark silence. What he would give for some emergency lighting now, even though he knew Tony was there, and was keeping an eye out for any heat signatures around. There were no doors in this place, and Steve could understand the reasoning, of needing freedom of movement and the prevention of being locked somewhere, which would be catastrophic here.

Tony wasn't lying about the hanger and its size. Steve affixed his headlight on and craned his head back. The beam went far, narrowed down to a tiny ball of light on the ceiling. craned his head back. They must be under some sort of mountain now, with how tall the room was.

“Well,” Tony breathed, “hello, beautiful.” He was running the armor's fingers over the surface of a plane. “What's a pretty little thing like you just sitting here?” Can I just—” he removed a gauntlet, and his gloved hand ran across the surface, streaking the dust away.

“Is there anything here actually relevant to us? Or that Skull would use?”

“Don't knock the Blackbird or I'll file for divorce. They seem antiquated now, but cloaking technology wouldn't be the same without it and Johnson's other work. I'd be six feet under now if this wasn't made sixty years ago.” Tony held up his gauntlet next to the nose of the plane. “The robot and the stealth craft. Look at that generation gap.”

Steve couldn't shake it. What was special about this place, with its outdated aircraft and lack of power, far away from everything.

“By anything, do you mean something that could wipe out half of DC, because why think small?” Tony asked, spinning back toward Steve. “I'm not picking anything up.”

Steve began to trace his steps around, carefully tapping out a rhythm against the wall with his shield.

“I know you love your pulp fiction,” Tony told him, “but this is the US military, not some ancient civilization with gods and temples and curses. According to the blueprints, there's not any secret passages or—oh.”

Steve passed the shield against the wall again, hearing what was behind it, and then grunted as he placed his hands and pulled. The paneling gave way, not to It had worked the first time, after all.

“The war I fought in was closer to the Cold War than your modern espionage. I think I know what they were thinking better than some tech-head of the 21st century.”

“Always a secret passage, is there? I shouldn't even be surprised, at this point. I'm losing respect I didn't even know I had left for the government.”

Passing through was like stepping through decades. The walls wouldn't be out of place on the Triskelion, carefully ordered and precise.

“I'm guessing this wasn't here when this place was first built?” Steve asked Tony.

“Huh,” Tony said. “What in the world would compel them to revisit an old, abandoned shelter? What's here that's so special?”

Steve's eardrums lit up from the explosion behind them, from the hangar they'd been in. Tony grabbed Steve roughly under the arm, repulsors flaring up in the darkness as he flew them down the passageway. In rapid succession, explosions rang out through the passage, collapsing it behind them.

“Steve,” Tony said, “before we get caved in, I should tell you, that you're maybe the—”

The wall slammed shut behind them, the last of the explosions abruptly cut off, and the lights shut on. A normal person would have slapped a hand over their eyes, but Steve just squinted. He disentangled himself from Tony, and they looked back at the wall.

“A one-time use passage,” Tony said tersely. “Hell of a security measure. But what the hell is this place?” They were in a room, presumably leading to the rest of the facility, a door between them and whatever lay behind.

“Whatever it is, it's what we've been looking for. It's what Red Skull was looking for,” Steve said, and he opened the door leading to a staircase. The stairs circled around the edges of the structure, leaving the center gaping. Meaning that Steve could grip the railing and look over, as Tony came up behind him.

“Found the men,” Steve told him, before bringing his shield up as gunshots rang out.

Red Skull's men were on the lower floors, so there was only one way to go. Steve bounded down the stairs, smashing all the doors in to reveal empty workrooms and labs, security stations and even more hallways. Tony was putting his flight to full use, and any conventional weaponry that would have worked against him would be idiotic to use in this enclosed space, easily taking them out. Steve caught up with him a few floors down, as Tony knelt down to one of the men. They all wore gas masks, it looked like, and Steve shared a look with Tony.

“Let's see if we can find anything out from them,” Tony said, trying to pull one of the men's masks off, before the armor's eyes shut down for a second. “Holy—”

“Iron Man!”

The systems were back online a second later. “What the hell? It just surged my armor, somehow, but that should be impossible.”

Steve shoved him backward, and they watched as the man's mask began to malfunction. It was the only way Steve could explain it, little pops, electricity visibly surging, and it grew steadily larger and louder, until the controlled explosions ended, leaving no mask and no head behind.

“What the fuck,” Tony said flatly. “What, what the fuck is wrong with this guy? The man was unconscious! What is this, no one gets to take off the goddamn brainwashing horror movie alien mask? Jesus.”

“Tony,” Steve said, averting his eyes from the sight. “We have to move fast. There could be more, and we know they have some way of shutting down your armor. Stick behind me.”

“Jesus,” Tony whispered again, but he shakily followed Steve without another word.

Two groups of men slammed open the two floors ahead of them. Tony flew over the railing to the men a floor below them, and Steve leaped down the whole flight of stairs for the group in front. They couldn't work together at all, never been trained in anything other than explosives and blind shootings. Steve picked them off like roses, kicking them into each other, shoving men into the wall and over the railing. The shield bounced back into his hand like its second calling, and the last thing he did was use it to crush someone against the stairs.

The door had been left ajar, and revealing a room lined with consoles on either side, still active, screens filled with imaging of molecules rotating slowly. Sciences unrelated to espionage hadn't been included on his SHIELD training, but the structures here weren't unfamiliar to him. VX, and sarin, and the others he didn't recognize on sight. But he had an idea of what they were working on here, and his blood ran cold.

Steve stepped in, and flinched. Along the wall, a dozen corpses lay. Most of them had been shot in the head. Clean, quick deaths, for the majority of scientists who'd worked here, although one of them had a purple face, tongue lolling out and the visible marks of wire on his neck.

The disgust that had overtaken Tony already was starting to creep up on Steve, and when Tony flew to meet him he stood for a long moment in the doorway. There was an explosion from below them, and Tony started.

“Cover me,” Tony told Steve, as he looked at the floating holograms. “I can't tell what exactly they're trying to accomplish with this, but give me a moment to get access to their databases.”

“Right,” Steve told him, and swiped a gun from a corpse whose mask had self-destructed. There were people pouring out now, and his aim was perfect. He tossed the gun away after its cartridge was gone, running and slamming a head into the wall, flipping the last down into the space below.

“It's a biological agent,” Tony confirmed, when Steve returned, closing the door behind him. “That's why everyone's wearing a mask. Good news is that they're not trying to burn everyone's faces off. They were trying to synthesize a weaker version, that could be passed off as some freak gas accident. I found the layout of this place. They're going to send it from here, the secret underground military base network, to DC, to the White House itself. Stir as much chaos up top, mysterious deaths and people falling dead for no reason, for shits and giggles before they just bomb everything when they're bored.” Even from the armor, his voice was rising in pitch, and he added in a strained giggle for good measure. “Your son's a real piece of work, trying to recreate the bubonic plague centuries later.”

“Why, thank you.” They spun around to face the screen on the opposite wall, where Red Skull smiled at them. “Welcome, father. And stepfather, I suppose. I wish you would have lived to see America fumigated, like the rats they are. But you're included in the count, so I suppose it's time to die of your own making, in your own house.”

Red Skull fit a mask over his own face, before the connection cut.

“That's why the gas masks explode. So we can't take any for ourselves.” Tony nearly sobbed on the last word.

The door slammed open and a half-dozen men swarmed in, seemingly aware that this was their final stand. Steve raised his shield, shoving them all outside, and when he saw the bombs in their hands, swung his shield, knocking them away and over the railing, where they went off in mid-air. The men were on him then, with knives. Steve turned the weapons back on them, and it was like clockwork, his ears ringing as he tried not to breathe too deeply.

Tony was still hunched over the console when he checked.

“Tony, what are you doing? We need to get the hell out!”

“No, we don't,” Tony said tersely. “I need to see if there's a way to stop this from here. Go up to B8! That's where Skull's transmission came from. I'll meet you there when I'm done!”

Steve gasped, and he knew he shouldn't, not when he was breathing in poison, but he felt light-headed somehow, thinking of the words to say.

Instead, he clapped his hand over his chest, pressing until he could feel the outline of his ring on the chain beneath his fingers, then kicked the door shut behind him.

Steve sent the first man flying over the railing, and they'd learned that if they were standing, that just increased their chances to get tossed overboard. They crouched down, aiming at him, and Steve leapt up stairs at a time, smashing rifles with his shield and hands and kicking heads in.

He was on B12 now, and the last man stood up. Steve tensed, judging whether to move right in or not. The man reached behind his head, and removed his mask. His face was already mottled, covered with angry red skin that was starting to blister from the burn, and threw the mask.

Steve threw his hands up, and the explosion caught his left hand that hadn't been pulled back quickly enough. It seared his glove away, turning the skin red and mottled. He'd done it on purpose, Steve realized, died to activate the ticking time bomb on his face. Just to hinder Steve.

Tony was right. It was a brainwashing program, and the main tenet was the hatred of Captain America.

On B8, Steve kicked the door open. It was a lab, too, with everything shut down now, the wiring ripped out of the consoles.

He stepped forward, slowly, evaluating.

“I know I'll be unable to outdo myself. Defeating Captain America and the Ultimates, causing the collapse of the nation. If I lived, I would be forced to govern a useless people, and I have no interest in anything besides destruction.” As he spoke, Red Skull removed his mask, and he tossed it over Steve's head, down into the space below. “I would end my legacy now, as the person who ended Captain America.”

Steve held the shield up. “Just try it, son.”

Red Skull's fist caught the shield dead in the center, like a statement. Skull ducked under it, and even when Steve tried to backpedal, he was on him, vicious and unerring. Steve tossed the shield aside, earning himself an opening for a solid kick, with no effect.

He'd seen the reports. His son had outstripped him on every physical and mental measurement, and even Steve's hyper-resistance to any chemical agent was flagging, his mind growing light-headed.

He grunted as Red Skull got a shot in on his gut, and he twisted, shoving forward with his shoulder, even though he got a knock on the temple for it. Steve's head spun dangerously as they crashed to the floor, and Steve threw as many punches as he could, only half of them getting any purchase. Skull roared, locking his legs around Steve to force the hold, before flipping them around and throwing Steve to the side.

Steve crashed into a workstation, his back lighting up in pain. He couldn't breathe when Skull was on him again, kicking him in the side. Steve curled up, and his first attempt at reaching got his fingers stomped on. His left hand, then, the burn marks still stinging as he dumped his pouch contents onto the floor. When the kick came, Steve sprung forward, gripping the leg tight between his arms. His fingers fumbled, nearly dropping the device, but Steve managed to get it on an ankle before activating it and letting go.

Red Skull stumbled, and that was Steve's chance. He picked up two more, slapping them on a thigh and a foreleg, and Red Skull howled as Tony's device activated, locking him in place. He struggled against it, and Steve dumped his pocket's worth of the pulses on him, scrambling to pick up his shield and slamming the face of it on him.

The scream pierced his ear drums, until it didn't. Skull toppled over, his mouth was wide open, staring up at the ceiling in desperation, a thousand seizures overtaking him at once.

Level five. Meant to incapacitate super-soldiers, according to the files in Tony's hacked laptop.

Red Skull was on the floor. His mouth opened, and his throat gurgled, eyes widening in panic when Steve stood over him. In the end, even super-soldiers were as small as any regular person when facing their death.

In another life, maybe, it wouldn't have ended up like this, and it was easy to get caught up in the sentimentality. But, and Steve pressed his hand against his chest again, circling his finger around the outline of the ring, life was about taking the hand you were dealt, and making compromises, and coming out of it as best as you could. And if this was the best that he could come up with, then there wasn't much to say, other than--

“I'm sorry,” Steve said, and he meant it. He brought the shield down.

Steve sat down, hard, barely aware of how the air here was slow poison, compared to the beating his body had taken. He stared at the Stark tech, still scattered around and unused. The way to stop a rogue super-soldier, the notes had said, in a contract signed with SHIELD.

Fury hadn't known then, that all it'd take to stop him was Tony. Steve gave up and lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling. He reached up, touching fingers to his giant welt in his head. He brought his hand away, and it was red, until he realized that was the color of his gloves. He couldn't even tell if he was bleeding. It felt like a silly thing to worry about, now that he thought about it.

He closed his eyes. God, he hoped Tony would be okay. Although knowing him, he'd stopped the onset of the biological agent already, and he had the armor, so he could safely breathe in here. There were electronics, too, so he would be able to communicate with the outside world, and the Ultimates could come and retrieve him. He laid his hand over his heart again, feeling it beat slowly against the metal of the ring.

Something was shifting, and the sound was almost irritating enough for Steve to snap. Then cool lips pressed against his own, and Steve opened his eyes to darkness. There was something being fitted over his head, and Steve tried to thrash, to get away, because if he breathed in much more—


He opened his eyes, and saw Tony on the screen at the same time the helmet snapped shut, almost painful against his skin. He gasped, and the air was warm and humid, but the helmet's internal filtration system felt like he'd finally breathed for the first time in days. He scrabbled at his face, at the cool metal of the Iron Man helmet, trying desperately to tug it off.

“Tony!” he shouted. “What are you doing, get this damn thing off, if you breathe this in then—”

Tony shook his head, then locked his arms around Steve, cradling him in his arms when he stood up, placing the shield between Steve's arms as he walked them out of the room.

“Going up,” Tony laughed, his face already pale. Steve tried to beat his fist against the armor, but Tony just wrapped his arms around more tightly.

“Stop talking, you bastard, you're making it worse,” Steve shouted, and Tony smiled as they flew up. All the way to B1, and the wall was down, the passage caved in. A dead end.

Tony set him down, and Steve had recovered enough to tug at the helmet again, feeling the metal dent beneath his fingers.

“Please don't take it off,” Tony told him, leaning against the wall. “I want one surviving relative who'll say nice things about me at my funeral. 'Brave sacrifice in the line of duty', was it?”

“Shut up, Tony, goddamn you, just shut up!”

“Hey, Steve,” Tony told him. “I'm still wearing the ring you gave me.” He held up his left hand, gauntlet gleaming. “Oh, wait, you can't see it. Damn it.”

“Don't be cloying, it never suited you.” The helmet refused to budge, and Steve pulled harder, his head feeling like it would go off with it. He wouldn't care if it did, but then Tony wouldn't be able to get the helmet on.

Tony's eyes were closed.

“Tony!” Steve nearly screamed as he gave up on the helmet and wrapping his fingers on Tony's cheeks. “Don't you dare, I'll never forgive you, Stark, I'll spend the whole service telling people what a selfish jackass you are.”

Tony's eyebrows furrowed. “I love you so much, Steve, but shut up.”

The ceiling collapsed. Steve dove forward to cover Tony, gripping his head between his fingers. The lightning strike lit up the whole room, like it was making it come alive.

Tony cracked open an eye, and he smiled, before a mask was roughly fitted over his face, and he slouched over like a puppet with his strings cut.

Thor knelt down next to him, holding Tony upright in one arm, and Steve leaned over, tears welling up. There was a hand on his shoulder, next, and Steve looked up at Thor.

“He's survived worse,” Thor said gently. “Rest easy, Captain.”

Steve cleared his throat, lest he let out a sob. “You don't need a mask, too?”

Thor stared at him, raising an eyebrow.

“Tony requested assistance hours ago,” he finally said, looking down at the man. “It took me quite a while to find the place, but I came just in the nick of time.”

“Hours,” Steve looked down at Tony, with the respirator over his face, and felt like he could shake him and kiss him at the same time. So much for respecting Steve's wishes and not calling for backup, but he couldn't even bring himself to care. He wrapped both his arms around Tony, holding him close. Thor removed his arm to watch them.

“If you've come prepared,” Steve asked, holding Tony against his side. He couldn't take his eyes off him, running a hand through his hair, like doing that would keep the tears back. “Do you have an extra mask?”

“You know, like that, I almost feel sorry for him.”

Tony turned away from the glass, like he didn't know whether to offer a reassuring smile or not. On the other end, Gail had the Red Skull's hand between her own. Bucky was beside them, a hand around her shoulder as they spoke their final words to him. The ventilator wouldn't keep him going for much longer.

Steve shrugged, as they stepped away from the wall together, walking down the hallway side-by-side. “A lot more people out there for you to feel sorry for, Tony. Probably many more deserving.”

“Well, when you run in my circles, it's either you hate their guts or feel sorry for them. And hate takes so much more effort, doesn't it, darling?” Tony bat his eyes at him, like he knew exactly how nutty that drove Steve. He was also leaning over, occasionally bumping shoulders with Steve, and soon he wouldn't be able to pass it off as still feeling faint from his ordeal and being unable to walk steady.

Steve scowled, and then he was crowding Tony up against the wall. He tilted his chin up with his fingers, and the smirk was already forming at the corners of Tony's mouth. It didn't get wiped away, even when Steve kissed him.

Someone cleared their throat, and Steve stepped back slowly, removing his arm on the wall and his hand from Tony's neck. He turned to see Greg and Fury, both sporting identical blank expressions. There was a blonde woman standing a ways behind them. Their silence was judgment enough, and Steve held his head high. Tony, without any shame to begin with, was grinning enough to light up the whole room.

“I didn't think you could actually do it, Rogers,” Fury said. “Congratulations on saving the nation. Yet again. Not even under government sanction either, but as a private citizen. I must say, you've surprised me, in... many ways.”

Steve didn't look over, but he was sure Tony's smile had grown a couple of watts.

“Thank you, Director,” Steve said. “I'll try to exceed your expectations from now on.”

Fury nodded, and continued down the hallway, the woman following close behind. Greg paused next to Steve.

“Not without some inside help though,” Greg said under his breath, so that Steve could hear it. “Captain America is too important to keep hidden from the public sphere, or locked out from the private one.” Steve turned toward him, gears clicking into place on who had outed him and Tony's marriage.

The door down the hallway opened, and Steve turned. Gail sped up, her shoes clacking against the floor in her haste, and he threw his arms around her when she closed in.

“Thank you,” Gail whispered into his chest, and dabbed her handkerchief at her eyes again. Steve blinked away his own tears, sharing a shaky smile with Bucky, who was blowing his nose now.

“Everyone gets some closure,” Fury said, smiling a bit, before he and the woman went into the room together.

Steve wrapped Gail more tightly in his embrace, kissing the top of her head. He clasped his hands around each other, stroking his ring.

“I hope so,” he said.

Steve had decided to wait until they were back at Stark Tower to say something. Except the moment they walked in, a full two weeks after they'd left, Tony groaned, making a beeline for the couch and landing face-first into the cushions. Steve sunk into the recliner by it, his heart beating an unfamiliar rhythm against his chest.

“So, look at this,” Tony said, turning to his side and refusing to move from his spot on the couch. Steve had to pad over from his spot. His palms were starting to sweat when Tony showed him the screen.

“An interview? Still?”

“I'm thinking of saying yes. I figure that's the best place to announce our intentions,” Tony told him, burying his cheek into the couch cushion.

“In front of millions of people?”

“It was fun, Rogers,” Tony told him. “You can tell your probable grandchildren all about how your shotgun marriage stopped the assassination attempt against the president. I mean, the news networks will be sad about the marriage, but surely they'd be drawn to our riveting story of saving America?”

“You're so—”

Steve got to his knees, and reached for the thin chain around Tony's neck. Tony's eyes widened as Steve tugged the ring out from underneath his shirt. The thin gold ring felt so small and fragile between Steve's fingers. Watching Tony the entire while, Steve leaned forward until his lips met the metal.

Tony's jaw unclenched, and he stared at Steve, mouth slightly ajar. Steve straightened, letting the ring fall from his fingers and bounce against Tony's chest. Tony slowly sat up, and Steve rose to meet him, scooting forward into the v of Tony's legs, his hands resting on Tony's knees.

“I'll be honest, I thought you were going to yank it off me,” Tony breathed, and Steve glared at him. It wasn't the time to scowl, and that was finally what made Steve feel his cheeks burn.

“Then, have I cleared up any doubts?”

“Let's check,” Tony told him, then took Steve's left hand. He raised it, before closing his eyes, leaning forward and kissing the ring there, letting it linger.

Tony finally let go and looked up, smiling at him, small and disbelieving and genuine. Steve swayed a bit, and the feeling couldn't be bottled up. Steve felt like he'd jumped off a plane, just to show he'd been swept off his feet with a smile.

“I knew rings were your kink,” Tony laughed. “You never would have done any of this if marriage didn't rev your engine.”

Maybe. Would he have fallen for Tony, if they hadn't gotten forcibly married? Did it even matter, when they'd reached this point, where Steve wouldn't change a single thing that had led him here, smiling at Tony Stark in the impossible future that was his.

“Well,” Tony said, “the look on your face says it all. Leave it to Captain America to accomplish it all without any of those annoying words.”

Steve's hands settled on Tony's hips, pulling him in closer. “This isn't Captain America speaking, Tony.”

“Oh, right. That Steve Rogers. Not a very popular fellow, but if I could share a secret with you, I like him way better.”

Tony was laughing into the kiss, and at some point, Steve would properly kiss him past the laughs and the jokes and the high, but for now, their teeth clacked together and noses bumped together as they smiled.

It didn't matter if it was an unpopular opinion. As long as it was Tony who thought so, that was good enough for Steve.