“Kids, I want to tell you a story.”
“Don’t patronize them-“ the voice in his ear hisses, but Tony waves the concern away. Outside the conference room windows, the sun is a spotlight, peeking through low hanging clouds to direct all of the bright directly over SI.
All is right with the world, and Tony can’t help feeling inordinately pleased with himself.
“A story,” he emphasizes, “About how I seduced the greatest human being on earth.”
There’s an indignant squawk. “Seduced?”
Tony ignores it. He’s good at ignoring stuff. He runs his fingers against the thick, soft hair of his goatee. “The, uh. Future mother of my company, if you will. Our company,” He can actually feel the blush emanating over the comm. “…Maybe that was poor wording.”
Insistently, the voice says, “You think?”
“Hush now, daddy’s talking.”
“If you ever call yourself daddy in bed, I’m breaking up with you.”
“Please, you’d die without my tender, loving care.” Tony stops, assessing the faces staring resignedly up at him. They’re not used to pep talks from the big boss. Hell, they’re not used to Tony showing up, instead of leaving things in Pepper Pott’s competent hands. “You know what, maybe this isn’t the best time to talk about that.”
“Oh, now you learn discretion,” the voice fusses.
Tony grins, sharper than a pool-shark and filled with all kinds of schemes. “Don’t get used to it, sugarplum.”
“Mr. Stark, who are you talking to?” One brave member of Stark Industry’s board asks.
The guy’s got gray hair. The whole Board’s got gray hair, or silver, or white to match the wrinkles etched deep in their pale skin, because diversity isn’t a concept that applies to the upper echelons of society, and man, does that suck. Tony thinks about getting some of his scientists up here, promoting among the ranks, intermingling fresh blood, and what kind of battle that would invite – holy fire rained down in the press, injunctions out the wazoo, that sort of thing.
But while he’s lost in thought, the rest of the horde of rich fucks shift, suitably mystified. And waiting.
“Myself,” Tony replies, finally, remembering that there is a question to be answered here. Providing answers is his shtick, right? It wouldn’t do to let anyone down, but he’s not spilling the beans before he has to. He plans to savor every expression he conjures up from these well-lined faces.
“I’m eccentric. Don’t judge. Now where was I? Oh, right. My story! You guys are going to love this, it’s sensational.” Gray-haired guy frowns down at his blackberry, and Tony tacks on, “Phones off, guys. This is important.”
He waits while the Board obliges. Begrudgingly.
They’d probably oust Tony if they could. Stage a coup. Throw a mutiny. He’d be tied to a concrete grave in the Hudson if some of these bastards thought they could get away with it, but then they’d lose the Midas Touch, and a few billion in revenue.
Tony’s safe enough to pull off shit like this, and it warms him down to the cockles of his heart. He basks in his captive audience.
“Fantastic. If there are any interruptions, I’d hate to have to start all over again.” He throws the Board his most winsome smile to temper the threat, and they stare stonily back. He’ll wire up something new and shiny to make it up to them. Maybe. If the whim hits him. “I’m going to begin at the beginning. True art takes time, and all that.”
He lets the resounding silence that greets that proclamation filter through the air, along with small, golden particles of dust, the whole room bathed in sunshine.
On the comms, close and intimate, the voice accuses, “You’re only doing this to mess with them.”
“You betcha, honey bun.”
He claps his hands together, breathing in deep, and all of it – the history, the hurt, and his absolute delight in how everything has turned out builds beneath his lungs. He’s whole and hale and ready to torture his company’s ruling class for at least the next two hours.
There’s no better way to jumpstart a day.
“It was a year ago today…”
A Year Ago Today
Tony is minding his own business, reading one of the books Darcy left haphazard on his kitchen counter. So far, he gathers that the houseboat fire was arson, but he can’t quite pin down how the heroine and her strong, silent brute of a savior are breathing underwater.
They’re making it work, though. Tony isn’t exactly hot and bothered under his collar, but he’s considering it, warmth gathering beneath his skin.
He listens to Maria bustle around the kitchen, preparing an omelet that smells vaguely like burning rubber, while Vision coaxes her to start over in low, British undertones. Down on the street a taxi’s horn blares long and balefully, and the distant sound of sirens and wheels on rubber just barely penetrates the Tower.
The place is soundproof enough, but there’s something wrong about living in the city and missing out on the cacophony of light and noise, too-loud rap music at four thirty a.m. and high rise construction a lullaby that raised Tony through his youth.
To no one at all, he murmurs, “Remember when I sold my Tower?”
“And bought it back at a loss?” Maria asks from the kitchen. “That was a shrewd business deal.”
Then she yelps, singing her finger, which is karma.
Satisfied with all the justice the universe has to offer, Tony considers telling her to go home and burn down her own kitchen, but he likes living and breathing. Plus, Vision would give him those sad, disappointed android eyes of his for at least a week afterwards. Being a dad is hard.
There’s something called sex pollen in the book, which Tony doesn’t get the point of. If someone wants to spend a night banging someone they’ll regret in the morning, Jack, Jim, and José usually get the job done just fine.
T’Challa wanders past the couch, his scarily proficient bodyguard close behind. They’re staying on a visit to UNHQ, but the Tower is nine times more comfortable than accommodations anywhere down near the river, and Tony has this compulsive thing where he invites anyone and everyone over.
He regrets that now, the bodyguard’s feline-smirk climbing high on her face when Tony crosses himself and sinks deeper into the couch cushions. T’Challa flashes his teeth and makes his way towards the balcony, to majestically oversee the growing blush of dusk, swathed in plum and squash-colored strokes of color.
Out of the corner of his eye, Tony sees Maria give chase, trying to offer the wonder twins a plate of bonfire-eggs in complete defiance of Vision’s despondent pleas. T’Challa wisely advises Hill that he’s not hungry, but Maria isn’t fooled, and she and the bodyguard start shoving the plate back and forth.
Tony waits for one of them to fling the cutlery Frisbee-like towards the nearest building, wondering how much he’s going to be charged for yet another broken window.
It’s better to concentrate on whether the position the couple are testing out underwater is physically feasible, what with the lack of leverage and all, and that’s where he’s at when Clint Barton goes sailing over the back of the couch, hurled bodily.
There’s a difference between good natured heckling and violence in the workplace, but try telling that to a room full of assassins.
“Why can’t we all just get along?” Tony asks the ceiling beseechingly.
FRIDAY doesn’t supply a comeback, mostly because the team made him disable FRIDAY in the common room, and in all the bathrooms. Clint thought she was creepy.
Barton spent his career installing spy cameras and reconnoitering with pigeons at the top of skyscrapers, so Tony figures his sense of creepy is probably skewed.
He extra super thinks that when Clint holds the cold barrel of a gun to his head and hisses, “Don’t move.”
Calmly, Tony lets one of his gauntlets unfurl from his wrist. “If that’s a real gun, I have to warn you that the cleaning company charges extra for blood on the carpets. If it’s an airsoft gun, I’d still prefer it if you pointed it anywhere other than my face.”
“Shut it, Stark,” Clint says, readjusting the gun to angle it between Tony’s legs. “You’re my hostage.”
“Yeah, no, I’m not playing this game again. Barnes!” He hollers. “Tell Clint that he has until the count of three before I repulsor him in the face.”
There’s no answer from Bucky, because the Soviets taught him well.
Tony tilts his palm towards Clint, dialing back the repulsor settings so it won’t actually leave horrific facial scars.
“I’m quicker,” Clint warns, cocking the airsoft gun.
A bb to the dick is not ideal. Tony folds Darcy’s book protectively over his lap, eying the gun murderously. He wishes he never made the damn things. “I’m telling Steve.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“Wouldn’t I?” To the rest of the common room, he calls, “You hear that, Barnes? A Captain America lecture is nigh.”
There’s a lot of cursing from behind the ottoman, and okay, how did Bucky even get there without Tony noticing? Then the man himself emerges, metal arm glinting in the sunlight streaming through the penthouse’s floor to ceiling windows. “I give.”
“Ha,” Clint crows. “Victory is mine.”
Bucky is Most Displeased. His lips thin out, and Tony thinks that maybe Clint should stop singsong-ing his way through a sonnet about how the big bad Russian is afraid of Steve when-
“Ow,” Tony says. “Ow. Ow. Ow.” He glares at Bucky. “What did you shoot me for?”
Serenely, Bucky replies, “You were in my way,” which Tony does not buy for a second, okay, you don’t become a sniper when you can’t hit a dancing bastard with a handgun from halfway across the room.
Meanwhile, said dancing bastard howls in exaggerated pain.
The man has taken real bullets, but the three tiny pebbles from the airsoft gun appear to be much deadlier, given Clint’s bawling. Wounded, he cries, “You surrendered.”
Blasé as fuck, Bucky shrugs. “I cheated.”
“You’re both idiots,” Tony grumbles, rubbing his now-swollen cheek. “This is why the Cold War was a draw.”
“What do you say?” Bucky prompts Clint, and Clint groans.
Then he climbs on the top of the couch and claps his hands. “Listen up, gents and ladies. I want everyone here to know that I suck…and that I’m a girl…and I want to wear ribbons in my hair-“
He stops mid-tirade when Maria’s claws sink right into his thigh. “What was that, Barton?”
“It’s from Red versus Blue,” Clint whines.
“It’s how we settle bets,” Bucky adds, but he’s gone two shades paler, because T’Challa and Vision are at Hill’s heels, and neither of them look anything like amused.
“A girl?” T’Challa’s bodyguard prompts.
“I want to kiss all the boys?” Clint asks, but his entreaty is lost to yet more howls of pain. Tony is living with a group of kindergartners.
T’Challa kindly advises, “Try again.”
Clint clears his throat and says, “I want you to know that I suck. And that I’m Thor. And I like to wear ribbons in my hair. And I’m unnaturally attached to my psychotic brother.”
He does a quick check to make sure Thor’s not around to hear any of that, but Tony isn’t sure why he bothers. Everyone knows Thor enjoys it when Wanda does his braids, and even he admits that Loki’s cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.
Besides, he’s in space on a long holiday with his newly re-won Lady Jane, and the way Darcy tells it that means he’ll be comatose from raucous sex for at least the next six months.
Satisfied, T’Challa and company stroll off, either to intimidate foreign delegates or hide in their guest quarters in an attempt to evade Maria’s retreat to the trenches. Tony’s poor kitchen is never going to smell the same again.
At least Vision will conscientiously make the effort to clean it afterwards. He’s house-broken so well.
“You also owe me pizza.” Bucky drags his gaze away from T’Challa’s retreating back. He crosses his arms and cocks his head to the side, and not for the first time, Tony thinks about taking scissors to that shag carpet he calls hair. “Extra-large, with onions, and olives, and pepperoni, and-“
“Don’t you dare say pineapple,” Clint warns.
“Pineapple,” Bucky continues, really savoring the way the syllables roll off his tongue.
Tony has this surreal moment of oh, which happens a lot around Bucky, because this is the man who killed his parents.
Standing here, in his living room, picking out disgusting pizza toppings and shaming his Empire State ancestors.
“Pineapple? I object. I’m taking your New Yorker card away from you.” Bucky glares actual daggers at Tony, ouch, the beginnings of a Kid-From-Brooklyn rant perched on his lips, but before he can say anything the soft rumble of the elevator makes itself known. Tony lights up, saved again, and commands, “Quiet down, Jimmy. Daddy’s home.”
Predictably, Bucky’s eyes go wide and frightened, the coward, and he executes a perfect somersault on his way out of the common room.
Clint mutters, “Showoff,” and follows along right after him, with considerably more stomping.
“I hate you both!” Tony calls after them, but the only response he gets is Steve’s weary sigh when he slumps out of the elevator, old-gold hair glinting under the rockets’ red glare, or the Tower’s magnificent clean energy light bulbs. Whichever.
He’s wearing one of the absolutely hideous sweaters Vision knitted for every member of the team, a red, white, and blue monstrosity that is mostly balled yarn and is also at least a size too small. Tony’s is tucked in the back of his dresser, saved for board meetings and press events where he wants to be particularly embarrassing.
Steve pinions Tony under his tired blue gaze.
It’s blatantly unfair that Captain America’s eyes are deeper than the ocean he drowned in.
“Who did what now?”
Folding his book across his index finger, to save the page, Tony tells him, “No one did anything other than viciously assault me. Apparently there’s this new thing where you have to cage fight for food and popularity.”
“Right.” Steve throws himself down on the couch beside Tony, weight dipping the cushions. He eyes the tawdry romance novel folded over Tony’s crotch, with much more interest than he’s ever eyed Tony’s actual crotch, Tony notes with some dismay. “Darcy, or Sam?”
“Darcy.” Tony shudders, letting Steve’s words sink in. “I hope.”
The book would never betray him like that, right? Not the houseboat. Not the fire.
In his head, Sam’s face is replacing the romantic lead’s in every scene.
Steve lifts a shoulder like, what can you do, and hands Tony a distraction.
Which, yes, good, except not so good, because it’s a delicate envelope, dwarfed by the size of Steve’s massive, meaty paws. “This came for you.”
Tony doesn’t want to think about the envelope, or what he knows is inside.
He stacks distraction upon distraction, staring at the length of Steve’s fingers, knuckles chalked with what appears to be colored pencil in cobalt and ochre. He’s doing that thing where he obsesses, awkwardly, indefinitely, the way he stared at his Cap poster at age fifteen and wondered how macabre it was to get off to a dead man.
Steve’s not so dead now, he’s alive – incredibly, magnificently – and the curl of his broad fingers is inked with chartreuse, splayed over impeccable calligraphy instead of Tony’s thigh, and wow, does everything have to blow all the time, or does the universe deliver the godawful specially, just for him?
Tony covers by spluttering, “Is this- this is my mail! Are you my doorman now? Ralph, you’ve changed!”
“It’s from Pepper.” Steve politely declines to comment on the part where Tony is being an ass, but his disapproval comes through all the same.
Yeah. Duh, Tony thinks dully, and he can’t head this off any longer. He snaps the envelope from Steve’s hand, informing him, “Now you’re just being nosy.”
Then Tony flips it open, tearing the thick, expensive stationary. He pulls out the card inside, where Pepper and Happy’s wedding invitation waits, beautifully embossed in looping gold script.
Tony paid extra for the bling.
Tony paid extra for the whole wedding, because he is…well, paying for the wedding.
He doesn’t mention that to Steve, whose lips tick decidedly downward at the sight of the invite. “Did you know?”
“I know a lot of things. I’m a smart guy.”
“I’m sorry, Tony.”
“Don’t do that, it’s nothing. No skin off your back, right? She – they deserve to be happy. And my flinging myself at men, aliens, and other untoward folks with big guns wasn’t making her happy.”
Resolute, Steve decides, “You don’t have to go to the wedding.”
“Of course I have to go to the wedding. She’s my Pepper. And I’m footing the bill.”
“No.” Outraged, Steve turns the total focus of those insanely blue eyes on him, unleashing a glower that would make Lady Liberty cry. “Why would you do that to yourself?”
“You’re not the boss of me,” Tony pouts. “And because I believe in the powers of love and friendship. And guilt. So much guilt.”
“It’s not your fault that-“ Steve pauses, swallowing. Tony watches the bob of his Adam’s apple, the purse of his lips, and studiously does not remember what it felt like to kiss him. It’s on the list of things they don’t talk about.
Even if Tony wouldn’t mind talking about it, or even having a repeat sesh.
Oblivious to his unsavory thoughts, Steve concludes, “It’s not your fault that things didn’t work out.”
And everything delightfully unsavory flees Tony’s head. “Oh, yeah, no. Pretty sure it is.”
“Tony. It’s not,” Steve insists. “And you don’t have to pay Pepper to keep being your friend. That’s not how friendship works.”
It’s not like Tony would know. The only real criteria he has for friendship is an ability to tolerate him, but if he says so out loud, Steve is going to give Tony that mournful expression he usually reserves for national tragedies, like alien invasions or civil rights abuses. Tony can’t handle that right now.
Or ever. Pity makes him itch.
Steve can’t take a hint though – it’s one of those super-soldier prerequisites. He says, “Don’t go to the wedding.”
“Are we back on that?”
“Steve,” Tony replies blithely. His phone beeps, saving him from thinking up a suitably witty and evasive retort. He glances at the screen. “Natasha says she quits.”
“What?” Steve sounds alarmed.
“I know, right? I fired her yesterday. It’s too late to up and resign, god.” Tony says as much, punching it out in text form.
Steve relaxes back into the couch. “Is this like how you fired Peter last week?”
“And yet he keeps coming to work,” Tony says absently. “I fire Clint daily, but hell if it stops that fucker.”
“I know, my vocabulary is superb.” Tony rolls his eyes, still watching the phone. “Okay, now she sent me a gif of knives, like, in a slaughterhouse. Is there any right way to take that?”
“Let me see.”
Tony tilts his phone towards Steve, whose nose crinkles in an all-too adorable fashion. “I’m never going to understand gifs.”
“Yeah, everyone remembers the Winnie-the-Pooh incident, Cap.”
“I thought it would defuse the situation!”
“It did,” Tony agrees, gleefully recalling the last Avengers group-text gif battle. Ah, memories. “I laughed so hard I fell out of my chair.”
Defensively, Steve crosses his arms. “Thor liked it.”
“Thor thinks there are little men inside our phone screens.”
Tony glances one last time at his screen, and then sets his phone down. “Nat and Wanda are on their way back from the Ukraine. No injuries. They’ll be at the Tower within the hour.”
Steve relaxes even further, relief limning his body. Tony can’t fault him for it.
It’s a unique kind of masochism, this superhero-ing business. Ideally you take the bad guy down with effortless grace. In practice, you get punched in the face and then you go back for seconds.
They all know it, but that doesn’t mean any of them like watching their teammates limp home, bruised and battered.
“So, Pepper’s wedding,” Steve tries again, and Tony has never been so grateful to see Bucky waltz back into the living room.
“Hold up, Winter is coming.” Tony announces. Then he adds, “Where’s my pizza, Jimbo?”
Steve elbows Tony, gentle to the side, but he doesn’t do much more, and Bucky doesn’t care. He calls up the elevator and replies, “Ask Clint.”
Except his words make no sense. because Clint’s not going to buy Tony pizza. Clint’s going to hide out in his apartment with his super-hot wife and his bevvy of brats and stinge out, unless Bucky is there to enforce the bargain.
Tony protests, “What? I got shot for nothing? Wait, where’re you going? I demand vengeance for the part where you tried to massacre me in my own damn living room! Vengeance with extra pepperoni!”
But Bucky, unmoved, flashes a peace sign and says, “T’Challa,” like that’s any sort of answer at all, and the elevator doors snick closed in front of him.
“T’Challa?” Tony inquires.
“I gather they watch the playoffs and drink beer,” Steve says, and he’s clearly trying very, very hard not to sound like Bucky getting off on sports with anyone other than him doesn’t hurt. “It’s nice.”
“Nice. Right.” They must have bonded while Bucky was frozen. Maybe T’Challa used to sing Popsicle-Bucky lullabies. “That’s better than killing each other, I guess.”
Steve hums his agreement. Then, like a dog with a bone, he says, “Pepper and Happy would understand, if it hurt too much to be there. They’re not going to forget you if you’re not physically there.”
“Oh, but that’s my secret, Cap. I force people to acclimate to me by sheer proximity. Besides, it’s been – ten months? Christ,” Tony winces. “These whirlwind romances sure do fly. Ten months. I’m fine.”
Steve watches him with those keen blue eyes of his, searching for something that Tony outright refuses to acknowledge. He’s fine.
He is. He’s used to the ache at this point, the low thrum of a near constant headache beginning right where his neck meets his skull. He never gets enough sleep and self-medicates with an overabundance of caffeine, of alcohol, and sure, his heart will give out one of these days.
But it doesn’t matter, does it, because he’s moving forward.
Momentum. That’s key.
“Okay,” Steve acquiesces. “If you want to be there for your friends, I get it. But I’m coming with you.”
Tony chokes on his own spit.
Cleverly, he tries to cover it up by slinging an arm around Steve’s shoulders, acting as sleazy as possible. “Aw Pooh-bear, are you asking me on a date?”
Steve is unyielding. “I’m coming, and it will be fun, and if you need a shoulder to cry on, you have one.”
“What is this, prom? Are we going to bring our own flasks, too?” Tony turns Darcy’s book over and over in his hands, losing his page, a wrinkle in the cover catching at his fingernail. “Seriously, Steve. You don’t have to do this.”
“I want to.”
Steve meets his eyes, and that thing happens. The one that only ever manifests when Steve is around, where Tony feels like the sun is heating his shoulders and he’s standing under the bluest summer skies. Where Steve is watching him like every corny song about Sunday mornings he’s ever heard and never understood.
“Sure. Yeah. I’ll bring you to the- uh. The wedding. We’ll bond. It’ll be great.”
He does not sound even a little bit convinced, but it must be enough for Steve. He decides he’s blown Tony’s mind enough for one evening and asks, “How’s your armor?”
“My armor is fine,” Tony tells him, not done reeling.
Steve. His ex-girlfriend’s wedding. Steve in a suit. Steve in a suit at Tony’s ex-girlfriend’s wedding.
Great. Right. The universe is playing the weirdest practical joke right now.
Tony amends, “Just like it was fine the last time you asked.”
“I think I’ll go check on it.”
“It’s not going to rust! It’s an alloy that does not- oh, okay, you’re ignoring me again. Fine. The WD-40 is exactly where you left it, you worrywart.”
Steve’s retreating backside has a special swing to it as he saunters off, and Tony sighs. He lifts up Darcy’s book, not Sam’snotSam’snotSam’s, finding the line he’d left off at.
Sex under a burning houseboat, huh.
Definitely something he’s got to try.
“So you’re coming?” Pepper queries, no-nonsense in Tony’s ear, and he huffs a laugh, his concentration one hundred percent elsewhere.
“Yeah, sure, cake-tasting. Sounds like a gas,” Tony pants, ducking left past something slimy and noxious, and man, he hopes Steve didn’t use all the WD-40, because now the suit actually needs cleaning.
“Tony,” she says, in that tone that implies she doesn’t believe him for a hot-lick minute, which.
“That hurts, Pep. I’m genuinely-“ he huffs, well-placed repulsor blast eviscerating the skunky limb trying to ensnare him. “-hurt. You know nothing moves me like chocolate ganache.”
“You’re full of shit,” Pepper says bluntly. “But come anyway. Happy wants you there. It’d mean a lot to him.”
Tony softens. He doesn’t begrudge Happy a thing. The man’s loyalty has known no bounds, and the night Pepper asked him on their first date he called Tony in actual tears.
He decides, “If the Happster wants to taste cake with me, we’ll taste cake. I’m in, I’m down.” He glances at his feet, viscera swimming around his suit’s ankles. “You know you shouldn’t leave these things until the last minute. Those icing rosettes are a bitch to make.”
Pepper’s quiet for a beat. Then she asks, “Learn that from that baker you dated?”
“Dated isn’t the word I’d have chosen,” Tony replies, a lewd grin overtaking his lips.
Primly, Pepper replies, “Me either. I was being polite,” and Tony can actively visualize the tolerant face she’s making, phone cradled against her cheek.
The California sunshine would light her hair the color of a new penny, and she would be radiant, radiant, radiant. He listens to her soft exhalations on the other end of the phone.
He misses her like breathing.
She continues, “The rosettes had to wait. I’m a busy woman. Companies to run. Your messes to clean up. By the way, what’s this I’m hearing about monster guts on 28th and Lex?”
“Oops, gotta go. Have fun, stay safe, give Happy a big smooch for me.” Tony has FRIDAY disconnect the call, and now he can hear Steve and Sam bellowing on the comm line, battling back the monster’s swollen tentacles three city blocks away. It’s so much easier to cut and run when he’s got a whole country between himself and the other end of the line.
Tony sighs. He nudges something sludgy and purple with his boot. “This is all your fault,” he tells it, even though it isn’t, not at all.
Talking to Pepper always gets him down, these days.
The thing about her, the thing Tony hates to admit, is that she’s not the first person who has slipped through his fingers. There’re a lot of people who have come and gone, tricked Tony into thinking they’d be permanent before stomping all over his heart. But Pepper gets a pass, because for once, Tony understands why she ran off. He gets why she couldn’t handle being a superhero’s sidechick.
He gets why, long term, she couldn’t handle Tony.
He doesn’t even resent her for it. Not anymore.
It’s the cruel irony of life – the woman he loves driven away by the one thing that finally made Tony feel a modicum of whole.
Honestly, he doesn’t want to kiss himself right now, battle-worn and coated in gore. It’s only that…well. It still surprised him. This time he’d thought he finally had it right. They spent actual years together. Everything was falling in line.
Now Tony sees that life does that, right before it all falls apart.
Over the comms, Sam makes a fuss about the creature spitting acid, because he was busy futzing around with Redwing during the briefing instead of paying attention like the good little soldier Steve keeps assuring Tony that Sam is.
When Tony helpfully informs Steve and Sam of that, Steve says, “Get over it, Tony. Redwing was never supposed to be a coffee maker.”
“He was the best damn coffee maker I ever had,” Tony protests. He’s been bitterly wronged here, and one day, Steve will see that.
That doesn’t stop him from blasting off when Sam yelps, “Iron Man,” benevolently soaring to their rescue.
Tony rubs the ache in his arm and, not for the first time, thinks that he’s too old for this shit.
“Still sore?” Steve asks, sprawled across one of the big, soft recliners in the lounge with a bag of peas over one eye. Tony has no idea who even bought frozen peas. Those things are gross, and he doesn’t even approve of vegetables in his Tower.
He eyes Steve distrustfully, because he’s probably the pea perpetrator, but it’s hard to stay mad when half of the man’s cowl is shredded, a bruise mottling his left cheek.
Tony does not look at the blood speckling the chest of his uniform.
He says, “Sure, but numbness is setting in. Things are looking up.”
Steve snorts. “Right. That’s the first sign that it’s going to fall off, yeah?”
He grasps Tony’s sense of humor more and more these days. Living in the Tower has really improved upon everything about their working relationship.
“See, I know you think that threat is going to make me see a doctor, but you’re underestimating how much I, um, what’s the word? Loathe them.” Tony squints his eyes at Steve and adds, “Shouldn’t you be getting stitches?”
“Oddly not what I asked.”
Steve does that thing where he half-smiles, and it looks heroic and heartbreaking and like he’s seen wars and worlds ending alike. “I’m okay, Tony.”
He draws a finger across his heart, this grade school swear that has Tony sucking in a breath.
Tony replies, “Okay. Good. Okay. We’re all…okay,” and then mostly wishes he’d kept his mouth shut. The two of them are idiots, Steve with his burdened savior grin and Tony grasping for words in a way he hasn’t for years, and it’s becoming acutely uncomfortable right around the time Steve begins digging around under his ass.
That breaks the tension for about as long as it takes Steve to find the offending object, wrinkle his nose, and wave something square and blocky in Tony’s face. “Are you still reading this book?”
Tony tries to grab for it. “That novel is a very important work of fiction!”
Steve cracks it open and scans a page. Scandalized, he reads, “-the arctic cold of the salt water only amplified the magma heat of his throbbing-“
“Important. Work. Of. Fiction,” Tony emphasizes, eyeing the curl of scarlet on Steve’s cheeks.
Objectively, he knows that shame is something other people feel, but he’s never been able to pin down what it’s like, and thank fuck for that. He leans across the arm of the couch, ribs creaking with the effort of it, and tries to free Hot Under-Houseboat Lovin’ from Steve’s arms. It’s exactly as ineffectual as he expects it to be.
Steve is full on reading, now, mumbling words like iron hard tumescence and the heroine’s door of femininity with an even mixture of disgust and fascination.
Tony frowns. “Don’t lose my page.”
Captain America, secret perv, flaps a hand at him, already lost in sex amidst the storm tossed waves.
Tony leans back into the plush of his sofa, getting resettled. He doesn’t get too many moments like this; there’s never much time to bask in quiet, or the fact that Steve is real and solid and here. But now, with Steve’s nose buried in the terrible wonderful book, Tony can look his fill, and it’s…something.
It’s definitely something. He watches the play of shadow and light across the ragged edge of Steve’s torn cowl and feels utterly at peace. Then:
“I was thinking we should get lunch tomorrow.”
That’s not a line from the book. Tony glances over, but Steve isn’t giving anything away, isn’t saying if he noticed the blatant staring. “Oh. Uh. Tomorrow’s bad. I’ve got to do…a thing.”
“A wedding cake thing?” Now Steve is carefully marking his page and setting Tony’s book aside. “It’s good, it’s fine. Don’t look at me like that. You’re always looking at me like I’m the last puppy at the mill, or something. It’s emasculation-ville up under those baby blues, Cap.”
“Tony.” Steve sighs. “This isn’t healthy.”
“We had this talk,” Tony reminds him. “It was painful enough the first time around.”
Steve’s stubborn as anything – Tony can still feel his shield crashing into the suit’s arc reactor, the crushing weight of his ire and disappointment and all that damn patriotism; has nightmares about it, even – and there’s a single, long moment where Tony is convinced he won’t stand down.
But all Steve does is ask mildly, “Can I come?”
“You can’t just tag along everywhere,” Tony says flatly. “You’re not a kitten and I didn’t adopt you.”
“No. I’m putting my foot down. It’s on the floor. Look. Down as can be.” Tony gestures at one bare foot, firmly planted in the plush carpet of the penthouse suite.
“Tony. I can do this for you,” Steve insists.
“You can. You’re a capable man, all star-spangled and with a plan. Except it’s not a thing I’ve asked for, or want, or need.”
“I left, Tony,” Steve says, and Tony inhales, sharp, because wow, was he not expecting that little non-sequitur. “I left you alone for too long. The least I can do is be here, now.”
Tony sucks on his teeth and tries to figure out what will stop this strange, swooping sensation in his stomach right in its tracks, but there’s not- there’s nothing.
“Right. Yeah. Yes. You can come.” He’s going for casual, working too hard. He compensates, “But only because I need help keeping Happy back from the meringue. His sweet tooth is out of control.”
It’s not like I want you there, he means, but that’s wrong too.
There’s never once been a moment when he hasn’t felt stronger with Steve by his side.
The makeup of the team is fluid.
Clint is, for all intents and purposes, retired, but he takes to boredom about as well as can be expected. Which is to say he sneaks out constantly, and takes gentle scoldings from his saint of a wife just as often.
Sam and Rhodey both have obligations to the Armed Forces that don’t always give them a lot of free time, even though Sam’s work with the VA and Rhodey’s job as an active serviceman – albeit one with a newly cushy desk job – are vastly different. It’s actually astounding, the time commitment Sam manages – to the Avengers, to team-ups with Steve, to training new recruits, and to his daily job. Tony is convinced the man never sleeps.
Natasha splits her time between the team and freelance work, with Bucky, of all people. There’s quite a few opportunities for operatives of their caliber these days, especially inside the sometimes hostile borders of Russia. The freelance stuff is scary dangerous since her cover blew. But as ever, Natasha is more so.
(Tony knows that extra-for-sure now, since BBC World News Investigative Reporting did a special on the Black Widow program that bred Natasha. It gave the entire team nightmares.)
Bruce, too, is on a divided schedule. A month on, a month out in the middle of nowhere. The Hulk likes it that way, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to disappear when Tony’s funding his credit card.
Thor’s determined that the people of Asgard need a (mostly) present king, and the other huge portion of his time is dedicated to adventure tourism with his lovely doctor friend. He shows up once in a blue moon, and no one begrudges him for it. Space is a hard place to tear yourself away from. And T’Challa has kingly duties as well, although he spends a fair amount of time holed up at UNHQ, rarely letting Wakandan reps go in his place. Avenging may have something to do with that. Both he and Thor consider themselves “on call”.
That leaves Wanda, Vision, and Tony on the fulltime roster, and Steve when he’s not pairing off with Bucky or Sam. Spidey joins in sometimes, but the kid’s got high school to worry about.
Oh, and then there’s Scott.
Scott, who purportedly has gainful employment in San Francisco, but Tony is convinced Hank Pym sends him here as a form of torture. The crotchety old bastard never did like the Starks.
Which brings Tony to the part of his future memoirs where he is hiding behind a counter.
Tony is hiding behind a counter because Scott Lang is brandishing a gun clumsily in the air. You’d think career criminals would be marginally competent with small arms, but apparently not.
“Who asked you to join in?” Tony hollers, cowering in the kitchen.
“Bucky!” Scott says, letting a tiny, plastic pebble of a bullet loose – accidentally – and calls back, “If only I could find him.”
“Of fucking course, Bucky,” Tony mutters. “He’s not here. Do you see him here? No, because he’s not.”
Then he turns to glare at his other problem. Who says, “Kale has multiple health benefits.”
“I’m too old for health benefits,” Tony protests. He’s got his arms crossed over his chest, clutching a box of Lucky Charms and ready to prevent a full-on offensive any second, from any side. “I like the taste of cholesterol slowly clogging my veins.”
Insistently, a red-hued hand shoves a glass closer to Tony’s nose. It’s filled with a lot of green, foul smelling muck, and Tony let Pepper bully him into protein shakes and salad smoothies for years – years. The lack of veggie snacks in his life may be the only boon of their break up. He is not about to cave to a bossy robot, even as said bossy, actual-intelligent non-robot hybrid says, “I’ve heard heart disease is an unpleasant experience.”
“Try heart damage,” Tony counters, dodging a stray airsoft shot from Scott, who is yelling Bucky’s name like maybe he’s hiding behind the entertainment center. Which, he’s a spy, so Tony’s not about to dismiss the idea out of hand. “I survived.”
Vision frowns at Tony.
Tony frowns at Vision.
“JARVIS never sassed me this way,” he says, which is a complete and total lie, because he built JARVIS to be a sass-monster, much like his finicky predecessor, too many years in the grave.
Vision says, “I’m not JARVIS,” but it’s really hard to believe him, what with the British accent and the sweater vest. “Drink your kale.”
“No. I realize I am playing a never ending game of chicken with myself in life, but I draw the line at kale.” Tony nudges a foot over the kitchen tile. “This is the line. Here. I drew it.”
“Bucky?!” Scott yelps, and lets out a wild blast of neon bullets.
“I told you, Lang, he’s not here!” Tony shouts.
It’s right about then that Steve chooses to saunter into the kitchen, looking apple pie fresh and just as delicious.
It’s aggravating, how Tony’s gaze snaps straight to him.
“You ready for today?”
“Raring to go,” Tony lies. He flaps a hand at the psychopath in the living room and pleads, “Could you take care of this?”
“Scott, put the gun away,” Steve says calmly. “Bucky’s on his run.”
“Oh. Oh.” Scott uses the nozzle of the thing to scratch the back of his neck and miraculously avoids shooting himself. He must be out of ammo. “I feel stupid now.”
“Now? Now is when you choose to feel stupid? You nearly blinded me.”
“You’ve got two eyes,” Scott replies easily, sliding into a stool along the breakfast nook. “Hey, is that kale?”
“It’s mine. I’m not drinking it,” Tony says. “But it’s mine.”
Gently, Steve extricates the glass from Vision’s fingers. “Drink your kale.”
“Traitor. America is the land of obesity and greasy food. You should be pro-Lucky Charms.” Tony shakes his box emphatically, the cardboard crushed from his death grip. “Wait, Comrade Grumpmeister is on a run and you’re not with him?”
Tony presses a palm to Steve’s forehead. He doesn’t miss the way Steve stiffens up, but he doesn’t drop his hand either.
The seconds tick by, pure agony because agh.
Tony knows he likes Steve, but what he doesn’t know would fill a book – does that liking spring from hero worship, loneliness? Is it proliferated by the kiss? That stupid, glad mistake?
Does Steve even like him back?
He hasn’t got a fucking clue. So he pokes at it, prods at it, wallows in this thing, this liking Steve thing. And Steve does nothing to help – he’s drop dead gorgeous, shower clean and eager, and he might not even be into Tony touching him.
Tony wants to ask, but before he can, Steve plays his stiffness off, asking, “Who bought Lucky Charms?”
“Peter,” Bruce provides, from the couch. Where he’s been sitting like a madman during Scott’s entire rampage, wholly invested in the science exposé on the cover of the Times, and not at all in assisting Tony.
His best science friend. The deserter.
Tony glares while Bruce ducks his head back into the paper, “You know there’s an app for that, Big Green.”
“I like the smell of the ink,” Bruce replies blandly, buried in the print. “It’s calming.”
Well. No one’s going to argue with that.
Impervious to Tony’s skillful misdirect, Steve shakes the glass of noxious in front of his face and says, “We’re trying cake in an hour. Lots of cake.”
“Cake?” Scott perks up.
“Cake that is not for armed intruders in my kitchen,” Tony says pointedly, eyeing the airsoft gun. “But will taste even better layered over a breakfast of Lucky Charms.”
Steve is the picture of disapproval. “Tony.”
Tony can taste the three cups of coffee he’s already inhaled, bitter in his throat. “Lay off, alright? Pepper was supposed to shove this crap down my throat every morning for the rest of my life, but she’s not here, and those are mighty tall stilettos to fill, Cap.”
He thinks he’s won.
For all of five seconds, Tony really thinks he’s won.
“I think I’ll manage,” Captain Bossypants retorts, not at all laying off. He shoves the glass towards Tony. “Drink,”
“It’s so much worse in liquid form,” Tony whines, even though he’d put up an equal struggle for the leafy version. He reluctantly accepts the glass Steve is pushing, like he’s Tony’s dealer or something. Then he takes a sip and cries, “It tastes like roadkill innards and tragedy.”
Steve rolls his eyes. “Are you actually ready to go?”
“Once I finish this.” Tony glowers at the glass. And at the black, thick coating of oil under his fingernails. “Plus, I need a shower.”
Steve does really good bitchface. “You spend an hour in the shower.”
“It’s me-time.” He pauses, thinking it over. Pepper does wear frighteningly tall heels. Easy to weaponize, and all that. “I’ll rush.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Judgey. You shouldn’t be so judgey. You like me-time too; I know you stole my fifty dollar bottle of shampoo.”
“Fifty dollars?” Steve mouths faintly.
“It provides luster.” Tony decides now is the moment to skillfully change the subject, before Steve starts recalling the good old days of the Great Depression or something. “Bruce, don’t you have a study date with Peter this afternoon?”
“He’s helping me in the lab,” Bruce murmurs. He shoves his glasses up the bridge of his nose and continues to imitate the old fuddy-duddy he’s probably been since birth.
Tony despairs of him. Forever.
Meanwhile, Scott asks, “Peter’s coming? I like that kid. He reminds me of me when I was that age.”
“Einstein forbid,” Tony yelps. “The last thing I need to do is bail Sticky Fingers out of jail.”
Steve nods his agreement, because he’s all about truth and justice and after school specials. He’d hate it if one of the Avengers ended up being the poster boy for adolescent delinquency. “Maybe we should get him involved in some extracurriculars?”
“Right, sure. Peter should start a band, in between debate club and superheroing,” Tony says amiably. “He can call it Plaid and Sadness. Wanda can join.”
“I wasn’t always a criminal,” Scott grumbles. “Besides, I think superheroing just about covers extracurriculars.”
Bruce points a finger at Scott. “Listen to the tiny man. Don’t let Steve steal my new lab assistant.”
Tony opens his mouth to argue that Peter is and always has been his protégé when he’s rudely, offensively interrupted.
“Let a bunch of superheroes move into your tower, Tony,” Tony says to himself. He takes a sip of his kale, grimaces, and adds, “You’ll never have another moment of peace and quiet, but hey.”
Steve is an unsympathetic bastard. He pats Tony’s arm and does not look even a little bit sorry.
“Stark!” Clint repeats, voice as pissed off as it ever gets. His footsteps are thunderous to match. He skids to a halt on the travertine tile with righteous indignation and his screechiness, a mug clutched in one hand and a bitchy twitch to his lips. “What the actual fuck?”
Scott chooses that moment to take initiative and shoot Clint in the foot.
For some reason, it doesn’t do much for his mood.
“I will end you, Lang.”
“Hey! I was just doing what the Winter Soldier told me.” Scott’s big, doleful eyes get wide. “I still get free pizza out of it, right?”
Clint turns on Steve, expression dark. “Fucking Bucky’s a dirty cheater, did you know that? Sending other people to do his job?”
“You were mad at Tony,” Steve reminds him, because he’s helpful.
Tony cuts the impending rage off at the knees. “Whatever’s got your panties in a twist, I didn’t do it.”
“You gave my kids that chemistry set,” Clint accuses, and he kinda seems like he’d like to murder everyone in the kitchen, except maybe Vision. But Vision’s never really forgiven Clint for the whole stealing Wanda-for-his-cause thing, so he should probably do the deed in self-defense. “And now my youngest has no eyebrows.”
Tony might have done that.
“Your youngest is like, two. Did he or she really have eyebrows in the first place?”
“You don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl?”
“Hey, I didn’t even know there was a third one until yesterday.” Tony turns his best beseeching expression upon Clint. “Is that thing you’re holding coffee?”
Clint frowns down at the mug cupped in his hands. “There’s a chance this might be whiskey.”
Tony makes grabby hands, as Steve mourns, “It’s ten a.m., guys.”
He is a buzzkill. Tony ignores him. “Give it here, Katniss.”
“Get your own.” Clint scowls. “You disfigured my kid.”
“Your kid disfigured itself, and I wouldn’t call singed eyebrows disfigurement anyway, there are real war injuries out there. Now be a good archer and provide me with the liquid sustenance you’re withholding, daddy’s had a long…um, morning.”
“But you’ve got that…really, really big glass of kale.”
Tony frowns down at it. “It’s gigantic.”
“Feeling inadequate?” Clint crows.
“Please. My dick’s bigger than my bank account.” Tony polishes off the kale in one long, foul gulp and makes gimme gestures at the mug. Clint, disturbingly, seems intrigued.
“We’ve got to meet Pepper,” Steve objects, distress written across every angle of his too-perfect face.
Clint’s eyebrows shoot into his hairline. “Pepper, huh?”
Without another word, he hands over his mug. Tony takes a long, burning swig.
Glass of kale long forgotten, he is now deeply satisfied with how this morning is turning out.
Of course, Steve’s glaring, but Steve’s got a stick up his ass a mile long. He’s practically always glaring.
“Alright, Rogers. We have some time. I’m going to jump in the shower. You…do whatever it is you do when you’re not bossing everyone around. Lang, I’m confiscating this gun for the good of the people living under my care.” Tony swipes the airsoft gun, deftly tucking it in the waistband of his pants. “Please disregard any further invitations to my home from Barton or Barnes, because I will be evicting them posthaste.”
“I’d like to see you try,” Clint crows.
Tony does the adult thing and shoots him in the other foot. When Steve makes an indignant noise, Tony shrugs. “Sometimes your life takes a turn for the ludicrous, and the best thing to do is just go with it. Lie back and think of Brooklyn.”
Steve gives him a look that clearly indicates he doesn’t know how to lie back, ever.
Tony does not note that it’s really hot or that he’d like to test that out as soon as possible, thanks.
Scott asks, “Does this mean I can have my gun back?”
“No,” Steve, Tony, and Clint chorus, vehement. At the same time, Vision says mildly, “I think that would be inadvisable.”
Bruce continues reading, because Bruce hasn’t got any skin in this game, and probably because that story on the explosion at the Advanced Photon Source is really interesting.
Tony decides to have FRIDAY read it to him while he showers.
It’s weird taking a town car that Happy isn’t driving.
Sure, FRIDAY is perfectly adequate – better than anything Google has been able to whip up, but. Happy’s one of his best friends. He knows all of Tony’s bad habits, most of his dirty secrets. He’s got the location of every single skeleton in every Stark closet.
And he’s great at banter. Tony used to appreciate that.
Before he saw how much Pepper appreciated it too.
He reminds himself that none of this is Happy’s fault. Or Pepper’s either. He’s thinking that as they roll up to the pastel confection that is the front of Pepper’s baker of choice.
He’s thinking it so long and so hard that it takes FRIDAY’s canned voice over the speakers chirping, “Boss, you’ve arrived,” to shake him free of the wistful nostalgia, this strident longing for days when everything wasn’t quite so hard.
That’s a joke, though.
Tony can’t remember a time when anything has ever not been hard.
“Deep thoughts?” Steve inquires. He’s been sitting there, patiently, while Tony sorted out everything in his head.
How completely mortifying.
“Eh,” Tony shrugs. “Glory be, hallelujah. It’s hard living in the twisted hellscape that is my life.”
Steve blinks. Before he can say anything, Tony clambers out of the town car, calling over his shoulder, “Take her for a spin around the block, FRIDAY. Try not to crash.”
“I’ve never,” FRIDAY says, perfectly miffed. “That was you, in the theater district, with the gin fizz.”
“I don’t believe I recall,” Tony says hurriedly. He can actually feel Steve’s gaze boring into his spine. “Be good, make Daddy proud.”
Coolly, FRIDAY says, “I’ll bill you for my psychotherapy.”
“That’d be funny if I didn’t know Viz was your therapist.” Tony rushes to the front door of the bakery. “You coming, Grandpa Rogers?”
Steve says something rude, but Tony can hear his even footsteps as he follows.
Tony closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and steps inside.
The bells hanging on the door jingle sweetly, the air of the shop tinged with too much sweet. Underneath the scent of chocolate fondant, he smells apples, laced with expensive perfume.
And there she is.
“Pepper! Hi! You’re glorious.”
He buries his face in her shoulder, half a hug, half a game of hide and seek so he doesn’t have to meet her eyes. Pepper smoothes a hand through Tony’s hair, pale, painted nails scratching along his scalp.
He leans into it, practically purring. There is nothing he doesn’t love about Pepper.
That’s why it hurts so damn much.
“Hi, Miss Potts,” Steve says. The bashful, respectful thing he’s got going on is adorable.
“Steve,” she exclaims, delighted. “I didn’t know you were coming.”
“Whoops!” Tony extricates himself from Pepper’s embrace. “Did I forget to mention that?”
“It’s fine!” Pepper laughs while Steve looks worried. “I’m so glad you’re here.” She gestures around the store. “I’ll confess, I’m a little overwhelmed.”
It’s easy to see why. The display cases glitter, each new delight more scrumptious and brightly frosted than the last. Everything is elegant.
Everything is so…official.
“This is giving me heartburn,” Tony complains, but really it’s the vague sense of nausea, intertwining with loss, that’s getting to him. Pepper’s long fingers curl around his shoulder, a comforting squeeze that doesn’t actually help.
She murmurs, “I know this is hard. I’m glad you came. Happy…”
She doesn’t need to finish the thought. Happy is ecstatic, bounding up and tugging on Tony’s arm to show him this cake and that cake, acting totally unconcerned that Tony’s heart has hopped up in his throat.
And Tony grits his teeth, taking it.
He owes his friend this much. Even if it sucks. Pepper and Happy deserve happiness more than anyone he’s ever met.
“Yeah, yeah,” he calls back to her, chuckling. “Just leave me out of the flower arrangements.”
Pepper smiles, sad and sweet. She might be remembering all the overzealous, botched arrangements Tony had delivered while they were dating.
Or she might be remembering all the birthdays she had to send herself a bouquet. Tony doesn’t ask.
He lets Happy drag him away, physically, demanding, “How do you feel about Oreo cream filling?”
“Like I’m on a fast lane to diabetes,” Tony replies, but Happy seems to think this is a good thing.
“You’ve got to try it, Boss. It’s incredible.”
“Your wish is my command,” Tony agrees. He dotes on Happy, tasting anything and everything that could possibly rot him from the inside out. He makes cracks about his blood sugar, while Happy laughs, frosting on his mouth. The preponderance of sweets delights him.
At one point, Tony has to stop and check his cell, but it’s just Peter declaring that he quits the team. Something about Clint, Scott, and an airsoft war. There’s a follow up text from Bruce which is either a keysmash or a sign that the Green Guy is out there, doing some actual smashing, but Tony decides if Steve isn’t calling for any type of assembling, things must be A-Okay.
He lets Happy’s exuberance take center stage.
Alright, he tries to let it. Pepper and Steve are too nearby, getting way too cozy for him to focus completely. It’s okay when they’re cooing over the artistry of tiny, iced rosettes, but then there’s a distinct shift in topics.
“I’m glad you and Tony were able to work out your differences,” Tony overhears Pepper say. He winces, but doesn’t lay off the eavesdropping. “…and after, he was a wreck.”
“We all regret what Colonel Rhodes went through. Sam, in particular…”
“It wasn’t Sam’s fault,” Pepper replies, a gentling hand on Steve’s arm. “I hear he and Rhodey catch a Nets game whenever they’re both in town.”
“Maybe so, but Sam still feels it.” Steve licks at his lower lip, a fleeting, uncharacteristic tell. Tony licks his own lips, echoing the movement. “I do too.”
He has to step away then, not ready to listen to…well, any of this. The rift that Steve caused was incongruous with Tony’s expectations of him, and maybe that was all Tony’s fault. He anticipated the man would live up to the hero he grew up with – and in so many ways, Steve has.
But this one time, he faltered. It sucked.
Even if pain is an old acquaintance of Tony’s – look at where he is now – it doesn’t make it any more welcome.
He narrows his attention to trying about sixteen different kinds of cake at Happy’s behest, the last of which is some kind of sick marbled pistachio.
“This tastes like the tears of baby cows and sugar fairies,” Tony gripes.
“How would you know?” Pepper inquires, apparently done making friends with Captain Red, White, and Blue.
Tony tries not to be glad for it. “I’ve got a vivid imagination, and it’s made you rich, sweetums, so don’t look at me like that.”
“Don’t call my fiancée sweetums,” Happy interjects, happily licking frosting from his lips.
Tony grins. “She might get offended if I save up all my pet names for you, honey doll.”
“Honey doll?” Steve repeats.
Tony is unapologetic. His pet names are capricious beasts. “Come try this whip, Cap. It’s divine.”
“Tastes better on top of all that kale, doesn’t it?” Steve retorts, but he obediently tries the delightful not-pistachio concoction that the baker is now offering up.
Incredulous, Pepper asks, “You had kale?”
“A kale shake. Liquid kale. It didn’t even taste healthy,” Tony protests, eyeing Steve. “Don’t give her ideas.”
“He whined through every sip,” Steve tells her.
“I’d expect nothing less.” Pepper leans in to peck Happy’s cheek, and in a low voice, she asks, “Is this the one?”
Happy shakes his head, but he’s beaming and chewing and completely aglow with joy.
Then he switches tack complete, mumbling through at least half a piece of cake, “You bringing one of your lady friends to the wedding, Boss?”
“Lady friends?” Steve echoes, like the idea that Tony would want to bring someone who’d actually put out had never occurred to him. “You’re dating?”
“Don’t sound so surprised, Rogers. I have like, zero impulse control. I reigned it in for Pepper, but she’s gone, and now my freak flag is flying.” Tony’s exaggerating, but he really, really doesn’t want Happy to know that.
Pepper gives an indulgent, “Gee, thanks,” and does not seem at all upset.
Tony swallows, sick pooling in his stomach. So he barrels on, “Thing is, though, I’ve fucked my way through the five boroughs, Hap. Steve here’s doing me the solid of wingman-ing, seeing as certain traitors – Rhodey – have important missions. National security and everything.”
Tony makes sure to do really emphatic bunny ears around the words national security.
Pepper opens her mouth to object to, well, probably everything Tony’s said. Not much of it was nice, really, but then she pauses, hand flying to her hip.
She checks the buzzbuzzbuzz of her phone and, reluctantly, says, “I’ve got a priority call from Washington.”
Honey, Tony does not say, because Happy’s right and he doesn’t have the right to pet names any longer. What actually comes out of his mouth is, “It’s Washington. Everything’s always a priority.”
“Take it,” Happy concludes, when a line forms between Pepper’s eyebrows. He is the most supportive, wonderful man, and Tony feels incredibly inadequate beside him. “We’ll still be here when you get back.”
Steve’s fingers lace through Tony’s, a quick squeeze.
He pulls away before Tony can really register it, but…abruptly, Tony doesn’t feel so badly anymore.
They’re in a rundown pizza shack bordering on the East Village, black and white tile on the floor and no seating to speak of. Flies flit behind the glass casing, a spotlight on the congealed cheese, Italian sausage, and pools of oil.
Tony loves it. Nobody does pizza like New York.
Steve’s got a slice cupped in one big hand, sharp eyes tracking taxi cabs and pedestrians outside the grimy window fronting this hovel. He says, “Before, at the bakery,” and pauses, wavering between tact and curiosity. “Do you want – if you want, I’ll back out of Miss Potts’ wedding. You can bring a real date?”
Tony grins, teeth thick with cheese. “I like the idea of you in a tux.”
Steve reddens. “Oh. Uh. Um.”
“Use your words, Cap.” Tony laughs. The tables at the pizzeria are small, the space tight. Steve’s knee keeps bumping Tony’s under the table, and each graze sends a pleasant shiver down his spine. He feels a bit like a lovesick teenager. “Don’t buckle under the pressure, here.”
Steve chuckles then, his nerves flitting away. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Good. It’s not just your all around handsome. You’re right about one thing – this is hard. It’s going to blow, and I’ll probably deal with it the way I deal with everything.” He does not say alcohol or random hookups, because he doesn’t have to. “I’m at that age where a legacy of hot mess is strangely unappealing.”
“I’m glad. But…You do know that…”
“Did you even learn basic interrogation techniques in the war? Because you’re terrible at this. Out with it, Rogers.”
“You’re answering, aren’t you?” Steve asks, one eyebrow lifted. Then he sighs. “Just. You’re aware that you were very rude? With Pepper, what you said.”
Tony tips back his beer, the edge of the bottle cold against his lips. He takes a long, purposeful swallow before he says, “Half the shit that comes out of my mouth is rude. You’re going to have to specify.”
“I know,” Steve replies, leaning over the table. Tony shies away from him, leaning back in his chair, picking up another piece of pizza. Anything to avoid eye contact, because oh, he knows where this serious tone is going. “It’s what really gets my goat about you.”
“You have a goat?”
Steve warns, “Tony. What I’m trying to say is, I think- I think you confuse the hell outta me, Tony. One day you’re saying things that I frankly can’t stand, all flash and no substance. And I used to hate you. Everything awful about Howard, with none of the good parts.”
Tony sets down his pizza, his stomach turning. He mutters, “My dad, the war hero,” even if the word profiteer is more commonly bandied about.
Earnestly, Steve barrels on, “Then you turn out to be every bit as heroic, and I wonder – in a different life – would I have watched you grow up?”
“Uncle Apple Pie.”
“And I like you, genuinely. I do. But what you said to Pepper made me remember the things I’m not…enamored with.”
Tony sets down his beer. “You’re talking about when I said I’ve fucked half of Manhattan.”
“It was mean. I shouldn’t have said it.” Tony shrugs, but he’s never been good at aloof. Not with Steve. “We handle things the best we can.”
Steve softens. He says, “Otherwise, I’d say you handled today really well,” and Tony feels like a pet schnauzer, or something, accepting treats and praise. He thinks about how much better the pizza would taste back in his workshop, sleek lines and engine grease and the comforting hum of his bots.
But Steve wouldn’t be there, and for some reason, Tony likes him close by. Even when he’s being an ass.
“Steven H. Rogers-“
“My middle name is Grant,” Steve says, confused.
“Steven H. Grant Rogers,” Tony replies smoothly. “I am an adult. I handle plenty of things well.”
Steve checks to make sure Tony isn’t leering – which, fair – and then he responds, “I know that. I don’t know how you do it, honestly. Your life is just…”
“Don’t,” Tony says, sharply. “All lives suck, Steve. All of them. The only difference between happy people and miserable people is how you frame it. Have a little humor. Say you had a bad day in a funny way. People lap it up.”
“That doesn’t make your day any less bad.” Steve lays his hand over Tony’s, touched with pizza grease and too much warmth. “I wasn’t going to say your life sucked.”
“What were you going to say?”
“That you juggle more than you should have to.”
“We’re never given more than we can manage, right? That’s what my mom used to say.” Tony screws up his mouth, a bad taste accompanying this entire conversation. He yanks his hand from Steve’s and snaps, “Don’t you have a girlfriend to harp at?”
Steve is nothing if not predictable. He bristles immediately, all talk of Tony’s flaws vanquished in the riptide of his ire. “For the last time, Bucky is not my girlfriend-“
“Can you really blame me? His hair is so shiny and luxurious, but no, I’m talking about the blonde. Aunt Peg’s kid.”
Steve blinks. “Aunt Peg?”
Right. He probably never mentioned that. Or acted like a decent human being and attended her funeral. He was having A Day, back then.
He was having A Year, if he’s being honest with himself. Except being honest with himself is something he tries to avoid like the plague, so no.
Tony explains, “She’s not my real aunt. She’s more like the aunt that came over to yell at my dad every time he did something wrong. Which was frequently.”
Steve’s confusion dissipates, like fog evaporating off the surface of water at dawn. “Oh. Uh. Well, Sharon’s not my- wait, how do you even know about that?”
“Erm.” Tony smothers a laugh. “Bucky and Sam might’ve performed a reenactment of your European rendezvous.”
Steve pales, which Tony takes as his cue to continue, “It might have gone something like this.”
He wraps his arms around himself and makes kissy faces, murmuring mmm, Sharon, oh, yes, Sharon.
Steve gets the closest thing Captain America ever has to murder eyes. “Anyway. Sharon’s not my girlfriend.”
Resolutely, Tony avoids saying something like, Good, that makes us sucking face that one time a hundred percent less awkward.
Because tact. He can have that. Occasionally.
“How’s she doing, anyway? Sharon?”
Steve is not fooled by this adept maneuvering of the conversation away from more difficult topics, like Pepper and Happy, and their unbridled joy, which will be followed by inevitable offspring, and…nope. Tony can’t go there either. He winces when Steve retorts, “Why, did you guys play as kids?”
“Ha, no. We’re not exactly in the same age bracket.”
Or social class, nor do they have any shared interests or hobbies. None of this consists of things Steve needs to know.
Carefully, Steve says, “She’s sharing an apartment with Bobbi Morse in the city.”
“Clint’s ex, Bobbi Morse?” Tony whistles.
“I didn’t know Clint was with anyone before Laura.”
Tony shrugs. “They were young. Life moves on. And on and on and on. Inescapably.”
He does not remember how convinced he was that Pepper was his soulmate, but he must let that bitterness seep into his words, somewhere, because Steve wants to say something.
It’s clear that he wants to say something.
This conversation’s getting too heavy for lunch, and Tony is tired of talking about feelings. He sends up a plea to the cold, callous universe for a miracle, but none arrive. Steve says, “I’m glad that Peggy and Howard became close.”
“Not close enough.” Tony shrugs. When Steve looks askance at him, he says, “Friends fall apart. Somewhere along the way, she stopped being Aunt Peg and started being Agent. Then she quit coming around completely.”
“That’s a shame.”
“I guess. You miss her, don’t you?”
“Every day.” Steve lowers his eyes, examining the sticky-shiny surface of the table. “That idea of her still aches. There’s this whole life I could have had.”
“That’s true of everyone. We make choices, we lose chances.” Tony juts out his chin.
“You’re right,” Steve allows.
His phone beeps, chiming in with Tony’s, and even though he hates being impolite, he checks it. Tony doesn’t bother. If it was an Avengers emergency, Steve would already be on his feet. Instead, the man’s expression darkens a shade.
“Why so glum, Cap? Buck and T’Challa snapchatting another B-ball hang? Jealousy doesn’t suit you.”
“I don’t have snapchat,” Steve snipes. “Wanda magicked Scott to the kitchen ceiling and she won’t let him down.”
Tony sighs. “Everyone move in with me, I said. It’ll be fun, I said. If we could just have an intervention for all of my life decisions, which are equitably the worst, that’d be great.”
Steve actually laughs. He says, “I’m happy, you know?”
“About Scott’s big move? I mean, the guy can be a lot to take, but he doesn’t accent the tile the way I’d like. We might have to redecorate.”
“Tony,” Steve laughs harder. “Not that.”
“The pizza, then?” Tony picks up the last slice. “Me too.”
“Not that either. I’m happy that you want me to come to this wedding.”
“Even though I drive you insane?”
“I said you confuse me.”
“Potato, potato famine.” Tony tilts his chair back on his hind legs. “You said you hated me, too.”
“I used to.”
“Don’t worry about it, Cap. I’m a Stark. Being hated is in my DNA.”
Earnest as hell, Steve says, “It shouldn’t be. You can be very, very kind when you want to.”
It’s a pretty nice statement until Steve adds, “But you have no idea how to be kind to yourself.”
Tony scowls, using a napkin to pat the pizza grease from his goatee. “This sounds like something you’ve really thought out.”
“I think about you more than I mean to.”
Tony swallows, then, napkin hovering in midair. His mind is stuttering, tripping all up over itself, but that’s what Steve does to him, isn’t it? Most days, his brain works so quickly that everything is standing still, black and white freeze frame while he figures it all out. But Steve is movement, spin and sound.
He’s color, 4D, the blaze of red and blue and the hard, dark gradients in between.
Impossible to solve, impossible to dismiss.
So Tony doesn’t dismiss him. He asks, “Is this because I kissed you?”
Of course, sure, he can’t for the life of him figure out why he chose now to bring it up, but. Blame it on the brain meltdown.
To Steve’s credit, he rolls with it. “Because you kissed me. Because I almost killed you. Because you made me watch those dumb space movies and showed me Google and gave me a home. Because you nearly killed Bucky, and you made Ultron, and confrontation is your favorite word in the dictionary.”
“That’s not true,” Tony protests. “It’s-“
“Where I’m going with this is, I can’t pin down what I feel for you. And I know, sometimes, as a result, I act…”
“Like a condescending dick?”
“Sure, let’s go with that.” Tony arches his eyebrows.
Steve reddens. “I’m trying to tone it down.”
“Bang up job.” Tony smiles to soften the blow.
“What I’m trying to say is, I’m glad. That you don’t…that you still want to spend time with me. Even if I’m figuring everything out.”
They’ve been a team for years, but Steve still has to figure Tony out.
Sometimes Tony thinks he should get a radioactive symbol tattooed over his heart and leave it at that.
He smiles thinly. “It’s my pleasure.”
“Bruce, darling, don’t take this the wrong way, but are you trying to replace me with a teenager?”
“You’re being dramatic.”
“It’s not drama, it’s flare,” Tony protests. He glares at Peter, who, despite Tony’s best efforts remains supremely gangly and addicted to skater-wear. “You’ve found a newer model. I understand.”
Bruce sips his tea and says to Peter, “This is the man you consider your role model?”
Defensively, Peter responds, “Him and Captain America. And you, Dr. Banner, sir.”
“Fawning won’t keep him from turning green, kid.”
“But it helps,” Bruce says, pleased.
Tony is bored with all sycophancy that doesn’t pertain to him. He faces Peter and asks, “How’s your hot aunt? Still hot?”
Peter looks like he’s going to puke in his mouth a little, which makes Tony inordinately proud. “She’s good. I guess. Please don’t date her.”
“She is hot,” Maria says, from her spot at the other end of Tony’s lab.
“Intrigued as I am by the assist, Hill, why are you here?”
“You hired me.”
“Okay, yes, but on a more immediate scale.” Tony gestures widely around his lab.
Innocent as can be, she shrugs. “I’m doing science.”
The noise Tony makes could be classified as uncouth.
Maria cocks an eyebrow. “What? You don’t believe I can do science?”
“I believe you can do anything you want to, honeybun. But I don’t think you want to.”
“I’m a woman of simple pleasures, Stark. I like my wine from Napa, my duck l’orange from France, and my corporate espionage riiight here.”
“Fine. Don’t tell me.” Tony crosses his arms and glares at her and Peter and Bruce in turn. He could, by rights, kick Maria out. Except for how she terrifies him.
She’s tough and efficient and indulges – well, not as many of Tony’s whims as Pepper had, but he never can quite shake the idea that she’s double dealing for Fury. And Bruce is just- not being helpful at all.
Tony announces, “Everyone is working against me.”
“It’s probable,” Peter tells him with great amounts of cheer. He’s got a notebook balanced on his knees where he’s scribbling math in, oh, pencil. Quaint.
Bruce shakes his head. “No, it’s not. She’s trying to get under your skin, Tony. No one is working against you, and I’m not trying to replace you.”
“Hill, do you think Bruce is trying to replace me?”
“Not my circus, not my monkeys,” Maria says, without looking up from her so-called science. Tony makes a mental note to access FRIDAY’s records on her every move. Fury had one thing very, very right: there’s no such thing as too much oversight.
As long as Tony’s the one doing it, because fuck answering to anyone else. “You hear that, guys? She’s trying to disown us.”
“You’re experiencing a lot of rejection today,” Peter says.
Tony frowns. “Helpful. You are incredibly helpful.”
“Your sarcasm stings,” Maria responds in a voice that is just as apathetic as before. She taps a few keys on Tony’s shiny computer.
Tony’s frown deepens. Then he moves past it, because her diversionary tactics are not going to distract him from the matter at hand, which is that Bruce is trading him in for a younger, clumsier version. “Honestly, Bruce, I’m not upset, just disappointed.”
Bruce chews on his lip for a moment. He says, “You seem pretty upset.”
“Seconded,” Peter agrees. He tears a page from what must be his math homework and tosses it towards a wastebasket in the corner of Tony’s lab. It swoops in, gracefully. “Nothing but net!”
“You’re genetically modified. It’d be shameful if you missed,” Tony tells him. “Bruce, don’t be preposterous. My upset face looks more like this.”
Bruce snorts at the parody of sadness Tony tries to affix on himself. There’s a reason he never made it in the high school drama club – it wasn’t just because he was eight, at the time. Then he changes the subject, the sneaky bastard. “How was today? With Steve?”
Tony doesn’t answer, the thought of Steve tugging at him. He doesn’t want to feel like this; he’s scared of desperation, of the fire it sparks, the decisions it inspires. The misery he feels. The memory of Steve letting him down easy is too new. Too raw.
“Tony?” Bruce prompts, all concern.
“Yeah, he’s. Steve. He jetted off to…somewhere. Some mission. He’s back in a few days.”
Bruce nods, even though what Tony just gave him is not any kind of answer. “Kazakhstan, was it?”
“You’ve got your Stan’s confused, muffin,” Tony replies, too absently to be convincing anyone that everything’s okay.
“Right. Kyrgyzstan, that makes more sense.”
Peter butts in, “When do I get to go somewhere cool?”
“When you get a diploma. Any diploma.”
“So if I get ordained online-“
“I spoke too soon.” Tony sighs and plops down beside him on the workshop couch. “What’re you working on, Arachnid-Boy?”
Happily, Peter begins babbling about advanced calculus with that earnest, soothing enthusiasm that Tony hasn’t been able to muster since he built his first circuit board only to have his dad break it back into its component parts.
The kid is so gosh darned innocent.
Tony never had that.
Half the time, joking about his fucked up childhood and being a broken man is exactly that; a joke. But there are moments when he feels it, like now, when he’s already down in the dumps.
Or, when he was younger, when he crept out of some one-night stand’s bed, her heartbeat a comforting thump and he wondered why – why couldn’t he be content with this? Why couldn’t he be satisfied with affection, freely given?
That’s the real definition of being broken. It’s not much fun.
Abruptly, he hopes that Peter never has to feel that way. He ruffles Peter’s hair and leans over his notebook, checking his work. It’s good. He’s quite the prodigy-in-training.
“I take it back,” Tony tells him, “It’d be an honor to be replaced by you.”
He doesn’t hand out compliments all that often, but this time it’s worth it, just to see Peter’s cheeks glow.
Bruce shakes his head. “I’m not replacing you, Tony,” but his lips are stretched wide, his smile open and proud. It’s this cute little domestic moment between the three of them, right up until Maria says, “That’s a shame. Peter’d be a better boss.”
Tony and Peter head into the kitchen around eight, right in time to witness Darcy dump a basket of weeds on Tony’s counter. She does so hard enough that his much-needed coffee rattles.
“You brought me flowers,” Tony coos tiredly. “But you cut off all the heads.”
“The LSD made me do it,” she deadpans, then flicks his forehead with one perfectly manicured nail. “They’re herbs.”
“Don’t you bring your illicit substances in here.”
“Idiot. I work for a national lab. I have to pee in a cup on the reg.”
“Gross,” Peter says. His eyes are fixed squarely on Darcy’s cleavage, a blush rising slowly in his cheeks. Which, sans the blush, same.
“Why have you brought your non-smokeable herbs into my dwelling? Tell me you don’t expect me to cook.”
She rolls her eyes. “You’re worse at that than I am, and I burned a hole in my counter last time I tried to play chef.”
Tony grimaces. “That’s why you borrowed my car filler?”
“I’m crafty. That and a coat of paint, and my landlord never noticed.” Temporarily pleased with herself, Darcy scoots onto a stool at the counter. “And I’m learning to forage.”
“To forage. It’s hard to sustain a healthy lifestyle when I crash here. All you have is junk food.”
Incredulous, Tony says, “You could try Whole Foods?”
“Who has cash for zucchini water?” Darcy chirps, cutting her grin Peter’s way. It’s sweet how he flushes. “What do you think, kid?”
“It’s a good idea,” he stutters. “I don’t know how sustainable it is in Midtown, but it’s worth a shot.” He chances a look at Tony. “Probably.”
“Suck up,” Tony sneers.
Bruce pops his head into the kitchen, face smeared with what looks like the viscous blue goo they’re trying to work into a kind of skin tight body armor. “Tony, have you seen my-“ His gaze lands on the basket, and he blanches. “Are those from my herb garden?”
“Oh. I was wondering why you had plants growing on your roof,” Darcy says serenely.
Bruce makes a guttural sound in the back of his throat, and yeesh, Tony should have recognized that that clump of weeds resembled what Bruce sticks in his herbal teas.
He’s so not a nature person.
“Bruce. Honey. Honey Boo Boo. Brucey. Why don’t you head back to the lab and Pete here will whip you up some chamomile?”
“Why me?” Peter whines.
“Do I look like I know how to boil water?” Tony asks. “I have people for that.”
La-zy, Darcy mouths. But Peter nods. “Fair enough.”
He heads to the kettle. “I’ll bring it down for you.”
After a few labored breaths, Bruce nods, mournfully backing away from all that greenery.
Tony turns his attention back to Darcy. “New rule. No scavenging in my tower.”
“Foraging,” Darcy corrects.
“Whatever. Bruce has had a rough day. We only just got Scott of the ceiling.” He speculates, “Is there any way we can stick all this back in the ground?”
“Wow. I thought I was bad, but you have no idea how plants work, do you?”
Peter mutters, “Are all scientists this stupid?” He catches Darcy’s side-eye and adds, “N-not you, Dr. Lewis. Of course.”
“Oh, so just Mr. Stark then.” Tony mocks, a frown stretching his lips. “Why don’t you ever use my proper title? I’ve got multiple PhDs.”
“Yeah, that’s hard to remember when you look like a schlep.” Darcy pokes at Tony’s grease stained shirt.
“I was working in the lab!” Tony protests, because he was. No better way to work off rejection and an anarchic home life than science, right?
The kettle wails. Peter scurries to fill Bruce’s Kiss Me, I’m A Mad Scientist mug and takes it downstairs. He does not jump to Tony’s defense before he goes.
“Bruce looked pretty mad. Do you think a stress ball will make it up to him?” She whips a spongey, star-shaped rubber thing from her overflowing purse. It’s emblem-covered with the words ‘Badass Labs: for all your Astrophysicking needs’. “I have tons.”
“Jane shot down that idea, huh?”
“She’s such a killjoy.”
“You love it.”
“Oh, most definitely. We’re going on a fieldtrip to CERN in two weeks and she’s going to let me touch the particle accelerator. I’m so glad I transferred majors.”
“Nerd,” Tony snorts, feeling vaguely jealous. What even? He made his own particle accelerator. He doesn’t need to touch CERN’s.
Even if it is the world’s biggest.
He hears something loud, but distant, like thunder rolling across the skyline.
Peter stumbles back into the kitchen. “Er. Mr. Stark, sir?”
“Sure. Tony, there’s something- in the lab. You’d better come see.”
Tony has made his peace with the fact that he’s doomed to work with ludicrously attractive people. He’s adjusted.
It was a blow to his confidence at first, but he’s a man among gods and super soldiers and regular soldiers who were in all kinds of special ops units, and trained assassins besides. Their biceps are all roughly the size of his head and feature prominently in his wet dreams, and that’s okay.
(Tony’s therapist says it’s okay to admit when he’s not okay, so he’s admitting it, and that’s okay.)
He’s even acclimated, for the most part, to the point where he doesn’t notice when Thor suns himself naked on the deck of the tower, communing with the All Father or whatever it is he calls the sun, or when Steve returns from a light jog – what most people call a marathon – with beads of sweat pooling along the graceful, strong arc of his clavicle. Tony hasn’t once tried to tackle and lick either of them, which is a real sign that he’s maturing as a human being.
But he’s been dealing with a fair amount of rejection recently, and this is just too much.
Scott, jackass though he is, must have been the prettiest man to have ever graced the inside of a jail cell. And now he’s lolling his head against Tony’s shoulder. “Too much alcohol. In my mouth.”
“Lightweight,” Darcy scoffs. She’s still slamming back the occasional shot like she trained in Asgard. Her cleavage heaves when she swallows, and it’s glorious.
Scott tells Tony, “You know I hacked your systems once.”
“Tried. The word you’re looking for is that you tried to hack my systems once.”
Scott’s smile widens, sloppy and loose. “Sure. Your security is tight.”
Tony’s eyes narrow. “Apparently it needs to be tighter. Thanks for the tip.”
“No nerd talk on drinking night!” Darcy drops her shot glass on the concrete with a thud. “If I wanted nerd talk, I’d go out with Jane.”
“But you like nerd talk,” Scott tells her, clearly puzzled.
Tony doesn’t blame him. She’s the one who appeared in his living room with three bottles of tequila and an intense desire to use the telescope on Tony’s roof.
“That’s because I’m a slut for scientists,” Darcy declares, spinning and swinging her legs onto Tony’s lap. “Absolute trash.”
“You’re a little young for me,” Tony tells her.
“Slow your roll, Antonio. It’s not like I have a grandpa fetish.” She arches her eyebrows at him, adding, “But I’m also a slut for free tech, so if you’re giving away anything shiny and new, I might be convinced to flash some nip.”
“Temptress.” Tony leans back on his palms, the pitted cement biting into skin. Fall is melting into winter. The air has that strange, quiet quality where everything smells like snow. Darcy’s legs are warm and Scott’s body is warmer, even when he falls asleep and begins to emit soft, snuffling snores.
Darcy sniffs, “Lightweight.”
“It only gets worse, after your twenties.”
“Say it ain’t so.” She clutches her tequila bottle close for effect. Then she begins fumbling in Tony’s pocket, searching for his phone. “This party is dead. We need fresh blood.”
“If you text Clint, I swear-“
Dangling Tony’s phone in the frosty air, Darcy says, “Chill, metal man. Barton’s babysitting his rugrats. He wishes I’d save him.”
The click of Darcy’s fingertips against the touchscreen is comfortingly repetitive, and Tony’s about to tell her to call Dummy up with all the ingredients for S’mores when he hears a familiar, heavy bootfall. Someone big is running up the stairs.
“Oh no,” Tony says.
She grins widely. But the expression falls from her face when Steve appears under the roof’s shiny, futuristic doorway. A Steve who is exhausted from his most recent diplomatic excursion to Kyrgyzstan, stubbled and bleary-eyed, and not at all amused by the tableau he finds. But oh, Steve with a beard is painfully sexy.
As in, he’s causing Tony actual pain.
“I didn’t invite you!” Darcy says indignantly. “Where’s Barnes?”
“You said it was an emergency.” Steve’s gaze drifts from the phone in Darcy’s hand to Tony to Scott and then back again. “We were watching Jeopardy, with T’Challa, and you said-“
“It is an emergency! My drinking buddies are weak.” Darcy crosses her arms. “I asked for Bucky. I can’t believe he sent up the party police.”
Tony watches the slip of Darcy’s thighs over his lap with mild interest, because it’s a thousand times better than focusing on how hot he is for Steve and his beard, which is A Problem. He says, “Wait, you left Jimmy and the King alone on my couch? I’ll have to get it deep cleaned.”
“They’re not- doing anything, Tony,” Steve says, annoyed and scandalized.
“I hope they’re doing something,” Darcy leers. The phone in her hand buzzes and she reads, “Sam is quitting the team because no one invited him over for Jeopardy. Lame.”
Conscientiously, Steve pulls out his cell to shoot off what is likely a very apologetic text to Sam. “This really isn’t an emergency?”
“Scott might have alcohol poisoning,” Tony offers. He pokes him in the cheek. “Nope, no dice. Sorry to disappoint.”
“You look like shit,” Darcy tells Steve. To Tony, she says, “You should write that in his performance reviews.”
Easily, he replies, “We don’t have performance reviews.”
“What kind of operation are you running? Now I know why Sam wants to quit. Say, Rogers, invite him over. He can be eye candy.”
“Should you be drinking that much tequila?” Steve asks, eyeing the half-empty bottle beside them. “You’re giving a lecture tomorrow. Columbia, right?”
“Amazing astrophysics for undergrads,” Darcy confirms. “Please, even hungover those nuggets will be eating out of the palm of my hand.”
“She is the Jane Foster’s partner,” Tony agrees. “In science that makes her a rockstar.”
Steve scratches his beard. Tony tries not to come in his pants.
He doesn’t even know if he likes you, he reminds himself. His phone vibrates again and Darcy says, “Your private appointment with Marchesa is confirmed. Going for a new look, Mr. Fancy Billionaire? I make an excellent stylist.”
“It’s for Pepper. Her, ah. Wedding dress.” He cuts his eyes guiltily towards Steve, who keeps stroking his scruff methodically.
Darcy says, “Man, the best thing my ex ever bought me was- wait, j/k, none of my exes every bought me anything. Chump.”
“You wound me,” Tony drawls. “And I’m not paying, I just used my pull to snag a last minute appointment. Thor. Thor would be a good time right now.”
“Ye gads, hells no. I love the big dope, but every other word out of his mouth ends with My Lady Jane.”
“Jane is a very fine woman,” Steve allows.
“I’m a very fine woman, riveting, even, and you don’t hear him spouting poetry about me.” Darcy laughs, bawdy and delighted with herself. She shifts over Tony while Scott slumps more heavily onto him, and he’s reminded once more that everyone he knows is too hot to handle.
“That you are, Ms. Lewis.”
Smugly, Darcy beams up at him. “Flattery will get you absolutely nowhere, but heap it on me anyway.”
Tony laughs, and after a moment of deliberation, Steve settles down onto the roof beside them, allowing Darcy to snuggle back against his arm. “Mind if I join you?”
She passes over the tequila bottle. Steve takes a long swig while Tony gapes. Steve. With a beard. And a bottle of sin juice. What is life? “Are you- wait, no, seriously, are you about to have fun?”
“It’s been known to happen.”
“I’m proud of you, Cap.”
Darcy snorts. “Stop flirting.”
“Who, us?” Steve asks, all innocence and probably traces of disgust. Or that last part might be Tony’s low self-esteem.
“Yes, you. You know they have a nickname for that little lover’s spat you two got into last year.” Tony almost swallows his tongue. He tries to figure out if the best way to shush her up is a hand over her mouth or just whisking her off the building – in the suit, probably, but he’s not counting out a freefall – when she continues, “The Civil War.”
“That seems…er. Insensitive to all the real ones that happen,” Steve replies, choosing his words with bemused, but careful precision.
“That’s what I’m saying. Also, there’s like seven of you. Seven people can’t wage a war.”
Tony does a quick calculation. “There are definitely more than seven of us.”
“Really?” Darcy shrugs. “I mean, the only badasses who really matter are Wanda and Nat, and Odin only knows why they let you drag them into your breakup.”
The pinking of Steve’s cheeks is immediate and formidable. Darcy can see it plain as day, but she’s only teasing – never truly cruel. She giggles a little and pets his arm. “Sorry, sorry, touchy subject.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“What would you say?” Tony asks, curious.
“That we’ve resolved our differences and we’re moving past it.”
“That’s very diplomatic of you, Steve.”
“I’m a diplomatic guy.” Steve watches the pathetic showing of stars trek overhead, the brightest of them a satellite that dances through what should be the Milky Way. But as ever, that’s lost in the wash of neon lights that make up the city. “We are, um. Moving past it, right?”
Tony purses his lips. “I think so. I hope so. I haven’t murdered Bucky yet, have I?”
“No promises,” Tony says, but he’s grinning. “I’m really- hey, what the heck?” Tony leans over Darcy and prods her in the shoulder. She emits a tiny snore, as though Tony prompted it from her sinuses, echoing Scott. “Who’s a lightweight now, I ask you?”
Steve swats at his hand. “Leave her be.”
Tony glares, “I know you’re new to this fun thing, but this is the time when we write things in permanent marker on her face. Or we wake her up. We rally! It’s time for one of those inspirational speeches you do so well, Captain America.”
Steve pets a hand over Darcy’s hair. She’s drooling on his clavicle, a little. Tony grins.
Steve does too. They two of them look out over the city skyline, the Chrysler building a bright, chrome beacon pointing up to the barely-there stars. “It’s gorgeous out here,” Steve says.
Tony darts his gaze towards Steve, still exhausted and battle-worn, shadowed and weary.
He hates to be cliché, but…
“You’re in a mood,” Steve observes, the next morning.
Tony’s possibly still nursing a hangover, but he’s not in a mood. Not really. But that’s because of Steve. He calms him, even as his thoughts, ideas, and worries rage; Steve makes his brain go crazy but a piece inside his soul go still.
It’s peace like Tony has never known, and isn’t that the worst? Steve will never feel the same.
Tony tries to assume maximum grumpiness. “Bruce destroyed my lab.”
Tony nods. “He was in a mood. I meant to tell you. Good to see you back, by the way. Back and beardy.”
Tony does not salivate at the sight.
Nor does his heart do this little flip that’s completely unbecoming.
Beardy Steve asks, “What happened? Everything looks okay…”
Tony jabs him in the chest. “You’ve been gone two weeks, buster.”
“The Scott thing, with Wanda, involved a lot of yelling…and then Darcy picked all the flowers in that big green baby’s garden. Then, far as I can tell, one of Clint’s munchkins got loose, messed with the robots. Perfect storm of chaos. Gave the Big Guy a fright.”
“Oh.” A muscle jumps in Steve’s jaw. He’s trying to keep from laughing. “I think that was Ms. Hill, actually.”
Well. Tony was surprised that a child of Clint’s genetic code could reprogram his bots at will, but it made more sense than Clint himself, or Peter, who is too nice a kid to like things like pranks or fun.
“Hulk scared the shit out of Spidey. Kid near came out of his underoos.” Tony leans back against his desk, frowning at Dummy. “Wait, back up. Why is Maria messing with my robots, and why do you know about it?”
Steve shrugs. He doesn’t seem particularly unsettled by any of this, though, so it must not be super spy related, and he must have already heard the full rundown.
Tony suspects little occurs with the team that Steve doesn’t know about.
He taps the side of Dummy with his screwdriver and asks, “I never got a chance to ask. Mission go okay?”
Steve’s gaze goes distant, like he’s standing on the bridge of a plane over an ocean of endless blue, or watching the moon rise over a Brooklyn that no longer exists.
He’s lost, and then his eyes snap to Tony.
Abruptly, he’s found again. “It went. I brought sandwiches.”
Tony eyes the brown bag clutched in Steve’s hands and waits for Steve to offer it up. Which he does, after a moment. Steve says, “So the robots. What’s wrong with them?”
The bag’s got an Italian sub, straight from Tony’s favorite delicatessen. The smell is thick and spicy, and Tony breathes it in.
“Nothing. That’s the problem. Dummy and You have never been so efficient.”
Steve frowns, clearly not understanding why that’s a problem.
“They’re obnoxiously helpful. Dummy tried to brush my teeth,” Tony adds despondently. But then he brightens. “He also did Bruce’s work for him. An entire year’s worth of work, done in a day by this little guy.”
His explanation has no small measure of pride.
Steve smiles a little, and gives Dummy a fond pet. “So where is Bruce now?”
“Exiled, to the Compound. Self-exiled, before you ask. Wanda went up with him. And Thor. I can’t imagine that party.”
Steve winces. “Sometimes I worry about how much money you’re sinking into this team.”
“Eh.” Tony lifts one shoulder, even though the movement grates. He’s overstrained himself, trying to figure out what Hill did. Even if the little guys can brew a perfect cup of coffee, they were Tony’s inefficient robots. He’s going to unfix them if it kills him. “What’s money for if you can’t throw it at reinforcing the infrastructure your super powered friends keep destroying?”
Steve chuckles, but he’s watching the way Tony’s moving. His laughter dies out, and in the quiet of the lab, Steve’s fingers touch the hard plane of Tony’s shoulder, all that tense muscle bunched tight. “Can I help?”
He digs in without waiting for an answer. His grip is perfect. Shit.
“You’re prettier than my last masseuse,” Tony says, and it’s as much of a concession as he’s willing to make.
“Shucks, Tony.” Steve ducks his head, and Tony can feel warm breath on the back of his neck. “You sure know how to flatter a guy.”
Tony stills, trying not to show how much the closeness is getting to him. “Yeah, well. Mom sent me to etiquette school. I aced that class.”
Steve murmurs a low, disbelieving sound that is so light and happy that Tony can’t call him on it. Then Steve says, “You’ve always got an answer for everything, don’t you?”
He doesn’t mean anything by it. Tony can tell, just by his tone, that if he turned, Steve’s lovely eyes would be dancing with fondness and mirth.
That doesn’t stop Tony’s hackles from raising. “That a bad thing?”
He might still be sensitive about the other day. Maybe.
“What? No! Of course not.” Steve hesitates, one of his big thumbs pressing under the wing of Tony’s shoulder blade. “Not most of the time, anyway.”
He can’t leave well enough alone.
Of course he can’t, he’s Steve. Stubborn, beautiful, proud, obnoxiously righteous Steve.
Steve’s hands snap away. “Come on, Tony. I don’t mean it the way you’re taking it. Only, sometimes, I wonder…”
“What? What do you wonder, Steve?” Tony asks, voice careful and measured and not at all spiked with hurt.
Steve sucks in a breath. “Sometimes I think that all you care about is being right.”
Tony mutters, “Don’t you get it Steve? Sometimes, being right is all I have.”
Very, very quiet, Steve reaches for him and says, “That’s not all you have, Tony.”
Steve’s fingers are wrapped tight around his bicep and Tony can’t think, can’t focus, not even to breathe. There’s nothing other than this, the electric feel of Steve, touching him.
“Your desk is blinking,” Steve says.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Tony snaps, wired and oversensitive. “That’s not my desk, that’s the phone.”
And it is, a steady red pulse beneath a mountain of paperwork – gifted to Tony by Pepper, carefully curated by Maria while she was more officially on his payroll, and utterly forgotten by Tony until this precise moment.
Steve grimaces. “You buried your phone?”
“Please, I’m a responsible adult, I would never.” Tony pats his cell, tucked in his front pocket, and does not mention that SI’s board would slaughter him. “I buried the space phone.”
“The space phone,” Steve repeats. “The phone we gave Gamora in case of emergencies?”
Tony points at Steve. “Bingo.”
Steve’s mouth is pinched, his eyebrows furrowed. Tony wards off the impending lecture by doing the sensible thing – he picks up the phone. “Hi. Friendly neighborhood Earthling, speaking.”
“Stark?” A voice that is definitely not Gamora’s yelps.
Not that Tony knows Gamora’s voice intimately or anything.
“Quill,” he drawls. To Steve, he whines, “Now I wish I didn’t pick up.”
“You call that a greeting?” Peter asks, and Tony will never get over this. Dude lives in space! And isn’t Thor!
“Sorry, my liege. How can I be of service?” Tony asks, winking at Steve. “Better?”
“Quite-“ Quill starts, but he’s cut off by a woman’s voice on the other side, demanding who’s that?
“The world’s richest man,” Peter replies brightly.
“I’m not really-“ Tony starts, thinking of Doom, when the woman goes, Stark? Ew, gross. “Wait, who’s that?”
With the kind of cheerfulness that, in Tony’s experience, is only possessed by the stupid and suicidal, Quill replies, “My sister-in-law.”
“Repulsive,” the woman grits out.
“You got married?” Tony yelps.
Steve is wide-eyed. The suspense must be killing him.
“My future sister-in-law,” Peter amends.
“You think somebody would marry you?” Tony asks, offended by the very concept.
“Gamora has taste,” the woman – Nebula, it must be – butts in. Tony’s inclined to agree with her.
“She did sleep with me, after all.”
Oops. Did he say that out loud?
“What?” Steve is stunned.
“What? No way, when?” Peter asks, voice nearing an incredulous shout.
Nebula intones, “This is disgusting. You’re both disgusting.”
She sounds close enough to the receiver that Tony begins to wonder if all her cybernetic implants will let her crawl through it.
And kill him, with his luck. Hastily, he decides to change the subject. He avoids Steve’s eyes and says, “You’re marrying Gamora. That’s neat. Does she know?”
“Hey! I didn’t even call you to get insulted, man.”
“That’s a shame. I’m really good at it.”
Nebula sniffs. “He’s not wrong.”
At this point in the conversation, Steve’s clearly grown bored with all this witty repartee. He’s wandered over to Tony’s suit, where he is now polishing a nonexistent speck of dirt.
“I’m flabbergasted that you persist in this,” Tony says, but he imagines he’s in the armor all the same, imagines he can feel Steve’s fingers over his metal heart.
“I’m nothing if not persistent,” Steve replies, completely unfazed.
“I know you salt of the earth types. Hard work, dedication, rolling up your shirt sleeves.”
“I’m from Brooklyn, not a farm.”
“Is that Captain America?” Quill demands, with fanboy glee. “Oh man. Hi, Cap! I still can’t believe we know Captain America.”
“Captain America and his trusty pal are about to hang up on you if you don’t get to the point, Peter,” Tony drawls.
“Don’t do that! I was wondering-“
“I imagine that happens to you a lot.”
Don’t be mean, Steve mouths.
The insult is lost on Quill anyway. “-can you send me more music?”
“Zune not doing it for you anymore?”
“Rocket broke it,” Nebula supplies.
“I knew it was him!” Peter shouts. “Rocket!”
“Mind the volume, space man.” Tony covers his ears and rolls his eyes upward. “And I already told you, there’s an uplink on this phone. I do a weekly dump of anything you might like. All you have to do is press the home button and find the app.”
“The app,” Peter says, full of doubt. Steve seems to be brimming with sympathy and solidarity for this whole man out of time thing. Tony flicks a finger at him. Stop empathizing with idiots.
“It’s the one with the music notes on it.”
“Right. No, no, Nebula, give it back-“
The line goes dead.
Steve sighs. “We have to send them a new phone.”
“That’s a problem for future Tony.”
“Oh yeah? What’s current Tony going to do?”
“Eat a sandwich.” He grabs for the bag Steve bought and happily digs in.
Steve joins him, but Tony catches his eyes flicking towards Tony while he chews. He wonders what Steve’s thinking up in that big, broody brain of his. If he’s wondering how they can do this – fight, and bounce back so quick – or if he doesn’t care. If he’s happy just to sit here, comfortable, now that the storm has passed.
In retaliation for all the airsoft bullets Tony’s taken to his soft parts, he programs FRIDAY to play a screamo interlude he’s dubbed The Winter Soldier every time Bucky enters the room.
“Does that ever get old, Stark?”
“It hasn’t yet.” He’s still trying to figure out how to get back at Clint. It may involve gifting his brood of children with finger-paints and then leaving Spidey to babysit.
“I should quit this team,” Bucky grumps.
“You’d be joining a long and prestigious list of alumni,” Tony tells him. “But no one stays gone for long. Isn’t that right, sugarplum?”
He makes like he’s going to kiss Natasha on the crest of her red hair, but dodges at the last second, something sharp and expected pricking at this throat.
Tony does not try to look at whatever weapon she’s brandishing today- it’s best not to think too hard about these things. He straightens and says, “But we’ll miss you when you go, Jim, really.”
“Please stop calling me that.”
“James just sounds so formal.”
In the midst of pouring her cereal, Natasha interrupts. “You’ll never win, Barnes.” Then, with clinical precision, she adds, “It’s easier to take revenge.”
And then, like some kind of avenging breakfast angel, she shoots Tony in the foot.
With an airsoft gun, but still.
“That’s it, young lady, you’re getting a theme song.”
“’Kay,” Natasha deadpans. “But jazz it up, I’m not loving the Death March.”
“I didn’t even know you were in this game.”
“I repossessed this,” she spins the gun on her index finger, “From Clint. He and Laura are taking the kids to Central Park.”
Bucky curses. “He owes me a pizza.”
“It’s 6am,” Tony says, aghast.
“And you haven’t gone to sleep yet.” Bucky rubs his metal arm and frowns at Tony. “Is that healthy?”
“I’m a disaster zone,” Tony retorts. “No need to rub it in. Although, should you really be judging?”
Bucky shrugs. “I was systematically brainwashed over the course of decades by one of the worst regimes the world has ever seen. What’s your excuse?”
“Daddy issues,” Tony replies breezily. “Hey, Tash, do a guy a solid and get Jimmy with a headshot.”
Natasha smiles her scary smile.
Bucky gulps audibly. He doesn’t quite stammer when he says, “I thought you said this game was childish.”
Natasha’s lips stretch eerily wider.
“Don’t hurt him too bad,” Tony advises. He holds the coffee pot up to the light, examining the thin layer of brown grime coating the carafe. “Hey, who drank the last of the coffee?”
Neither answer, because they’re in the middle of trying to murder each other with plastic guns, as adults do. Tony shakes his head, dragging his finger though the scum of coffee grinds past. He asks, “Follow up question, does anyone do dishes around here?”
That gets Natasha’s attention. “Do you?”
“What? No, that’s nonsense talk.” Smiling, he goes about setting up a new pot.
That lasts him for a while, but not long enough.
“Why are you people always awake at the worst possible hours?” Tony groans, two hours later and back in the kitchen.
“It’s eight p.m.,” Maria says incredulously.
Okay, maybe it’s twelve hours later. He hasn’t been keeping the best track of time today.
She shakes her head, not a single dark, glossy hair out of place. “I worry about you, Stark.”
Natasha hums. “So say we all.”
“This is all your fault anyway,” Tony tells Maria, waving a screwdriver in the air like a madman. Dummy’s finally acting like a spaz again, so at least the damage she caused wasn’t permanent.
“What was that?”
She’s using her SHIELD voice.
Tony slumps, defeated. “Nothing. Ma’am.”
The mad cackle she lets loose with does nothing to reassure him. He turns his eyes back on Natasha, then Wanda and Vision, and then he zeroes in on the real outlier in the group. “Isn’t it past your bedtime?”
Peter’s cheeks turn rosy. “I’m not in kindergarten.”
“So you keep trying to convince me.”
Smoothly, Wanda says, “We’re looking at Pepper’s wedding dress.”
Tony tastes sick in his mouth.
Vision holds up a tablet, oblivious. “It’s beautiful work. Would you like to see?”
Tony would not like to see. He’s already seen, in the flurry of texts where he argued with Pepper to let him look at it already and would she stop trying to spare his feelings, please?
It hurt, but what Tony’s figuring out is that it hurts a little less each time. Impossibly, he’s acclimating.
Around the dryness in his throat, Tony says, “Thanks, but when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. White. Lacy. Sparkles. Pretty standard stuff.”
“But the embroidery,” Vision protests, because he’s a big nerd.
Tony knew he shouldn’t have let JARVIS spend all his free time on knitting websites, way back when.
He turns his attention back to Peter. “Why are you even a part of this conversation, Shortstack?”
With a mix of shyness and cocky-mischief that only a teenager can manage, Peter says, “Pepper hired me on as her photographer.”
“She did, did she?”
“Peter’s quite good,” Wanda informs him. Peter’s cheeks pink again, and she continues on, “He’ll have his own gallery in no time.”
Peter stutters, “Actually, I was thinking I’d like to be a biochemist. When I, um.”
“Grow up?” Tony inserts. Mercilessly, he adds, “Turning on Darcy already? Your new crush is cute, Spidey, but she’s taken.”
“Am I?” Wanda asks, with some surprise. Tony cuts his eyes towards Vision, and it’s her turn to be bashful. “Why don’t we change the subject?”
“Excellent idea,” Maria says, glaring at Tony. Why is everyone always glaring at him?
“I hear you’re going to the wedding,” Natasha intones, and oh, she’s sly. She was waiting for an opening, Tony can tell. “With Steve.”
“Ooooh,” Peter says. He’s clearly grateful for the subject change, and that cannot stand. Tony’s going to make a collage of every girl he’s ever liked and hang it off the Tower. Or maybe in the living room- he finds the idea of actually destroying the kid’s social life less appetizing than he would have even a year ago.
He’s going soft in his old age.
“Shut your mouth,” Tony tells him. “You’ll catch radioactive spiders that way.”
“Har har,” Peter knocks his shoulder against Tony’s, like they’re – ye gods – friends. “I didn’t know you were dating Captain Rogers.”
“I’m not dating Captain Rogers,” Tony objects. “There is a long list of people I have dated and will date and our fair Captain will never make the cut.”
Peter pouts. “Why not?”
Tony reconsiders the collage. Maria and Wanda exchange some kind of mental telepathy, and then Maria has her arm around Peter’s shoulders, “Hey, brat, why don’t you show me those pictures of the outer boroughs again?”
There’s a whole half minute where the three of them collude over the picture gallery in Peter’s phone, and Tony thinks he’s safe, relief hanging heavy on his shoulders. Then Natasha sidles up to him, and Ye Gods.
“I hate it when you smile,” Tony tells her. “It’s creepy.”
She is, fortunately, beyond immune to his inimitable rudeness. This is probably why she has yet to slit Tony’s throat in his sleep. “Tony.”
She prods at Tony’s skull with a fingertip. “Your big brain is so fucking limited when it comes to what you think you deserve.”
Natasha’s fingers are cool and pointy, great for clawing someone’s face off. Tony shudders. “Don’t kill me.”
She swats at him. “Steve likes you, Stark. What’s the problem?”
He’s the problem. He’s always the problem. “Erm.”
Natasha cocks an eyebrow.
Tony wants to tell her how it used to be, how he would have faith in a thing, or a person, or an idea, and it failed him. Always. There came a point when he stopped blaming the thing or the person or the idea and shouldered it all on himself. After all, he was the only common denominator.
Tony wants to tell her, but he also has a complete aversion to sounding pathetic. “No problem,” he lies. “Except for how Steve in fact does not like me.”
“Says who?” Natasha counters.
Her gaze softens. “Oh.”
“It’s quite the conundrum,” Tony agrees.
“Not really.” Natasha reclines in her chair, arms crossed. “You’re both idiots.”
“Seconded,” Peter agrees, listening despite the clever diversion.
Maria sighs and thirds the motion, and then Wanda and Vision chime in with fourths.
Tony surveys them all with a frown. He says, “I don’t need your affirmation. Forbes says I’m a genius.”
They all blink.
“Forbes,” Tony emphasizes. “And GQ. And MIT…okay, fine, stop looking at me like that.”
“You are pretty smart,” Peter allows. “Maybe you can help me out. I like this girl-“
“Right. I’m gonna stop your right there, because you know what I’m really good at? Feelings.” Tony continues, “Said no one ever.”
“Seconded.” Everyone’s chimed in at once this time.
Peter snorts, hiding the tiny laugh behind his hand a moment too late. Tony frowns. “Look, you want to know the secret to wooing your lady love?”
“Yes,” Peter says eagerly.
“This should be good,” Maria mutters.
Tony beckons Peter closer, and closer still. He leans in and whispers succinctly, “Be me.”
Peter’s bitchface is instantaneous. “Dude. Unhelpful.”
“I told you he’s an idiot,” Natasha announces.
“Forbes,” Tony says again. “MIT.”
He’s ignored. No one appreciates him, these days.
Bucky injures himself in the middle of the crossfire between a mad scientist and the Avengers somewhere near midtown. There aren’t any civilian casualties, but the gaping, bloody hole in Bucky’s chest is pretty much the end of the world for Steve.
He paces outside Bucky’s hospital room like a tiger caged in a zoo, restless, eyes roving. Carefully, Tony asks, “How’s Jimmy doing?”
Steve’s footsteps still. “He’s handling this about as well as he handles everything else.”
“Stoically, with a side of deeply hidden pain?”
“Precisely. I’m worried, Tony.”
Tony claps a hand against Steve’s strong shoulder, feeling the muscles tense under his touch. He wasn’t there, during the fight. He was trailing Pepper down the fragrant rows of a flower shop, his fingertips grazing burgeoning blue peonies, blazing red poppies, and deep indigo monkshood. He was standing by a vibrant display of birds of paradise when he got the call, and at first Pepper didn’t notice.
She was explaining that Happy’s favorite flower was bougainvillea, but it wasn’t quite practical for a bouquet. On a previous trip, Natasha had recommended a simple clutch of foxglove, while Maria favored bluebells. Tony didn’t know the difference between a sunflower and a black eyed Susan, but he knew that he was drowning. He knew, in that place, among the heady scent of Pepper’s future bridal bouquet that he would never know a love that didn’t hurt – honey and venom in equal measure – and then his phone gave a loud, life-saving brrrng.
Okay, so actually it played a chorus verse of these hos ain’t loyal, because Loyal is what he’d changed Steve’s ringtone to in a moment of pure antipathy. But Pepper didn’t realize Tony had stalled, talking in a hushed, rapid voice until he was back at her side, next a group of dyed carnations and dropping a kiss on her cheek with a quick goodbye.
Now, to Steve, Tony says, “I’m sorry I wasn’t here sooner.”
Rueful, Steve replies, “You got here as soon as you could. Besides, I don’t think anyone really expected you. Given the circumstances.”
The circumstances where Bucky murdered Tony’s parents and basically destroyed everything he ever loved. Yeah. Right. That’s a good reason. Tony does not tell Steve that he’s not exactly here for good old Jimmy. He says, “Bucky’s not all bad.”
“He’s not, is he?” Steve laughs. “I had a crush on him. When I was a kid.”
“Tell me more, tell me more. Am I about to hear a real American scandal?”
Steve rakes a hand through his hair and his lips twist, wistful. “No. He never returned it. Always chasing dames.”
There’s a gentle quality to Steve’s words that bely how deeply his feelings once went. Tony’s jealous and intrigued all at once. He admits, “I don’t get that.”
“What? Chasing dames?” Steve’s eyes narrow, like he seriously doubts the validity of that claims.
“No. Heavens no, have you met me? Unrequited love.”
It’s a lie and it’s not – Tony’s recently become accustomed to what it’s like to want someone in the face of impossible odds. He’s wistful as a Victorian heroine for this amazing man.
But he’s also scared, and angry, a bit. He doesn’t know how he got cornered into liking Steve so damn much, and fuck if he’ll face it. He’s not in unrequited love. He’s over this.
It never even happened.
Steve’s surprise is evident. “You’ve never had a crush?”
“I’ve had plenty of crushes. But if the person I liked didn’t like me, I was never bothered by it.” Tony doesn’t say that he expected it, that he expects not to be liked, not even by Steve, and is perpetually shocked when he is. Somehow, though, Steve hears it anyway. He opens his mouth, brow furrowed, and Tony rushes to say, “But, I get it from the other side.”
“I don’t follow.”
Tony pauses, thinking of Pepper – the silky fall of her hair against a pale shoulder, the sweet, firm way she’d kiss him. Softly, he says, “I get…wanting someone after they’ve left. But yearning for someone you’ve never had? Resenting them for not, I don’t know, not yearning back? I don’t get it.”
“I never resented Bucky. I know some people do, in that situation. But I think…I know,” here, Steve squares his shoulders and tenses his jaw. “It was for the best, that we were never together. If we had been, I might never have gone on, after his death. I might never have met you.”
There’s weight in Steve’s words.
Tony’s first impulse is to wave it all. “That’s not true. You’re Captain America. You’d keep calm and carry on, and all that.”
“That was Churchill.”
Steve’s laugh is raw. “Not so much.”
A doctor emerges from Bucky’s room, but all he does is give Steve and Tony a tight lipped smile and scurry past. Tony frowns. “No status update?”
“If anything major happened, Clint would tell us. Or T’Challa. They’re in there.”
The blinds are pulled shut against Bucky’s recovery room, but if Tony listens, he can hear the low rumble of T’Challa’s voice, and the high, offended pitch of Clint’s. It sounds like he’s yelling at Bucky to stop being a pussy and wake the hell up already.
Steve asks, “Hey, how is your armor?”
“I did some maintenance last night, Steve. Same as I do every night.” Tony’s annoyance rises, because how can Steve even focus on that at a time like this? “It doesn’t rust. It can’t rust. I wouldn’t build something so shoddy that it would rust.”
“Stand down,” Steve says, holding up his hands. His lifeline and love line are broken by calluses. “I worry about you, is all.” He glances at Bucky’s room. “I worry about each and every one of you.”
“I get that. And I get that I’m a weapon, same as you. I know what kind of responsibility that entails.”
“You’re not a soldier.”
“No, and don’t you think I know that lack of training makes me even more dangerous?” Tony sighs. “My armor is fine, and you can’t save everybody from themselves, Cap.”
“I don’t wanna save everybody. I just want to save you,” Steve points out obstinately. “And Bucky. And the rest of the team.”
Tony crosses his arms, point proven. “How much longer do you think it’s going to be?”
“I’ve got no idea.” Steve rubs at his under-eyes, the heels of his palms pushing up into thin skin. “This is the part of the job where I’ve learned to develop a tolerance for ambiguity.”
“Fuck that. Ambiguity is for losers.” Tony taps his wrist. “FRIDAY, check the hospital’s records and see what the verdict is.”
Steve’s expression is grateful as he slumps back against the wall.
“I hear other people live in places where condiments don’t try to go all kamikaze on the counter,” Sam says.
“Yeah, yeah. Order in the court and all that,” Tony jokes, rummaging around in the mess the Avengers stacked high. Wanda hands him what he’s looking for, and he yells, “Eureka! You’re a doll.”
“It was nothing,” Wanda says shyly, and Tony wonders if she’s ever going to be completely comfortable around the rest of them. Then again, one of Clint’s brats is hanging on to the back of her leg, and she’s dealing with that better than Tony ever would.
“Where’s my soup?” Bucky yells, because he’s an ungrateful wretch.
He’s got Tony’s novel propped on his stomach, and T’Challa basically acting as a human crutch, holding him up with one strong arm wrapped around Bucky’s shoulders in companionable silence.
He’s reading over the other’s man head, and Tony wonders what he makes of houseboat shenanigans. His poker face is fan-fricking-tastic.
“Patience, princess. Chicken noodle is an art form!”
Tony thinks maybe he shouldn’t have made fun of Hill and her lessons weeks back, because it’s an art form that he has no idea how to master.
When he told Steve he’d keep an eye on his bosom buddy this is so not what he meant.
Sam sets a saucepan on the table with a clang. “Let’s never promise Steve anything ever again.”
“Agreed,” Tony says. “How’d you even get roped into this, Bird-boy? You don’t live in my tower.”
“I owe Steve a lot. And I owe Bucky a pizza.” Sam scratches the back of his neck. “I lost the latest round of assassins.”
“Is that why you tried to quit the team last week?”
“No, that was because Natasha drank me under the table.” Rueful-faced, eyes cast down, Sam says, “I thought I knew hangovers, but that was before I went toe to toe with her.”
“Ah, yes. Her blood is made of chilled vodka and just as cold.” Tony wags a finger at Sam, lips quirked. “I won’t tell if you don’t.”
“Food!” Bucky wails, pitifully. T’Challa rubs his arm in a slow, soothing circle, but it’s his metal arm, and Tony wonders if he can even feel it.
He helps Sam and Wanda combine soup stock with the rest of their ingredients, including Wanda’s homemade noodles, because she is a show off. Tony tells her as much and she smiles serenely. “Cooking isn’t that hard. Practice helps.”
“Pass. I have robots for that.” Dummy burns ramen noodles, but she doesn’t need to know that. Tony likes them crunchy.
Sam stirs the soup with a spoon. It seems slightly lumpy, but it’s not like Tony has to eat it, so he keeps the observation to himself and helps Wanda swing Clint’s kid back and forth between them. Sam says, “You’re good with him.”
Tony glances dubiously at the thing. It kicks and shrieks and is generally delighted, which is not quite cute enough to make Tony ever want children. “Insult taken,” he tells Sam, and he’d probably have more to say on the subject if Rhodey didn’t burst into the common area.
Bucky shoots off the couch, or maybe T’Challa shoves him, but either way, they’re both on their feet before they realize that there’s no danger here. Urgency evaporating, they throw themselves back on the couch.
Rhodey frowns and says, “Are we having a party? And I’m not invited?”
“Don’t take it the wrong way, Pooh Bear, but this is more of a hospice case.” Tony hides his mouth behind his hand and hisses, “The Winter Soldier’s going any minute now.”
“You wish,” Bucky mutters, easing himself back into a comfortable position.
T’Challa laughs good naturedly and says, “It’s good to see you, Colonel Rhodes.”
“And you, Highness.” Rhodey does a really bad job of not appearing giddy at addressing a king. Tony thought he trained him better than this. “Tony, I need to talk to you.”
“By all means,” Tony says, dangling Clint’s kid from one arm, because Wanda has released him on her side. “Share with the group.”
Rhodey sucks in a breath and glances around. He’s on better terms with Sam these days, and clearly there’s some kind of hero worship going on with him and the King of Wakanda, and hell, Wanda probably reminds him of his favorite niece. She’s got that way about her. But his gaze lingers on Bucky, because above all else, Rhodey is the best damn friend any man can ask for. Tony had to let bygones be bygones with everybody’s favorite pain in the ass assassin, but Rhodey kept on hating him on Tony’s behalf.
Still, he relents. “Justin Hammer was released from Seagate. On probation.”
Idly, Tony asks, “They give probation to morons?”
He lets go of Clint’s hellspawn to peer over Sam’s shoulder. The soup is still lumpy; it’s unnatural. Wanda appears at his other side. She wiggles her fingers, letting red energy spread over the surface of the soup.
Sam tries to swat it away with his spoon.
“I can do it,” he insists, but Wanda’s magic is already thinning out the broth. Cooking takes practice, Tony mouths at her, as bitchy as he can be.
Her lips curve in an impish grin.
Rhodey says, “Tony, this isn’t a joke. He has it out for you.”
“Who doesn’t? He can get in line.”
“Is my soup ready yet?” Bucky asks in the most petulant way possible. Tony didn’t even know that whining was a thing assassins could do.
Sam spoons it into a bowl, which Tony balances gingerly between his hands. With a scowl, he stalks into the living room, dropping it into Bucky’s lap, sloshing the contents. “Anything else? A fresh beer? A pint of blood?”
“Are you offering a transfusion?” Bucky grunts, leaning heavily against T’Challa. “What’s your blood type?”
“Red,” Tony retorts. “Hands off.”
Rhodey makes a noise that means he’s irritated and frustrated and just the teensiest bit fond. He’s been dealing with Tony’s shenanigans too long to be truly put out. Now, hip propped against the counter while Sam busies himself cleaning up, he is a tableau of patience and loyalty.
Then Sam shoves him lightly out of the way. “Budge over. You’re blocking the sink.”
Months ago, Rhodey might’ve come back with something snappy. Even though he knew what happened was not entirely Sam’s fault – that being War Machine came with risks – he’d found it hard to forgive. But their friendship is blossoming, and all Rhodey says is, “Hey, can you make some of those cookies? Your grandma’s recipe?”
When Tony asked him the same question half an hour ago, he made a rude gesture. For Rhodey, though, he says, “Sure thing, man. By the way, while I have you all here – has anyone seen my book? I left it in the living room, and never got a chance to finish.”
Shit. It is Sam’s. Tony frowns, deeply unsettled and intrigued. “That’s a shame. It’s steamy.”
T’Challa nods his head, eyes gleaming. “The descriptions are very lifelike.”
Bucky shakes his head and waves it in the air. “It’s trash.”
“Bite your tongue,” Tony and T’Challa chorus.
It’s awkward; after, they exchange a long, assessing look.
Sam sighs. “Who here hasn’t read my book?”
Rhodey and Clint’s brat raise their hands. Wanda, haloed in the mid-afternoon light and perfectly angelic, does not. She volunteers, “I loaned it to Viz. He was interested in the cover.”
Sam hangs his head. “This place needs library cards.”
“There, there,” Tony calls. “I’ll load the book onto your kindle and the movie onto your phone.”
T’Challa perks up. “There’s a movie?”
“Welcome to the cheap world of Harlequin thrills, your Majesty,” Tony drawls. He tops it off with a lascivious wink, which T’Challa returns, deadpan.
That man has more layers than an onion. And abs that won’t stop. And probably 8,595 cats.
Too bad Tony’s allergic, and emotionally unavailable and everything.
Bucky informs T’Challa, “I have a ton of spy novels. They’re more interesting.”
“Lies. We all know the only thing you read is the Babysitter’s Club,” Tony snarks. Bucky rolls his eyes.
“You’re the one with the emotional maturity of an eighth grader, not me.”
From the kitchen, Sam calls gaily, “Beg to differ.”
At least someone’s on Tony’s side. He snickers and plans to gracefully exit the conversation with a well-placed kitty litter pun. Only, the elevator door slides open, and out steps Laura.
She lights up the room.
There is exactly one universally liked adult member of the extended Avengers team, and that’s Laura Barton. It took some doing for Clint to convince her to move to Jersey – the country is safer, less hectic, and has about a thousand square miles more for the kids to run around in.
But she was eventually wheedled into the idea. Scholarships from the Stark Foundation to some pretty fantastic private schools and Clint within touching distance really sealed the deal. Now, she and the kids set up shop in the Tower on weekends, often laden with armfuls of paper daisy chains and other arts and crafts from kindergarten and, on one memorable occasion, an outrageous picture of the Hulk riding a unicorn that Tony immediately put on the fridge.
Laura smiles warmly at all of them and asks, “Staying out of trouble?”
Her little beast detaches from Tony and Wanda, running full-speed into Laura’s arms. She swoops her child up with practiced skill, laughing all the while. The woman is made of actual sunshine.
Bucky does his best impression of a hospital patient so that she’ll stroke his head sympathetically, and T’Challa ducks his head and asks very politely how her weeks has been going. Tony watches it all with the soft, indulgent smile he sometimes finds himself wearing these days.
It’s gross. He must be stopped immediately. “Rhodey, I need you.”
“What else is new?” Rhodey mutters. Still, he makes his way over to Tony, because he’s great at following orders. And also because he’s a good friend, probably.
Bucky perks up. “Is this a houseboat situation?”
T’Challa bites back a laugh.
“No- what? No. Where would I even find a houseboat?”
“That book was pretty good,” Laura allows, and in the background, Sam makes a pained noise.
“Everyone has read it!”
Wanda pats his shoulder soothingly.
“What happens on houseboats?” The little girl asks.
Her mother tells her, “Nothing you need to know about.”
“Ew,” Clint’s daughter says, and Bucky and T’Challa chuckle.
“Nothing is happening on the houseboat,” Tony protests, pulling Rhodey along toward the exit. “Because there is no houseboat.”
“Sure. Sure. Make good choices,” T’Challa hollers after them in his lilting accent.
Tony flips him off, but judging by the abrupt outburst of laughter that follows the gesture, it’s about as effective as saying thanks, dad.
Rhodey asks, “Did you just give the King the finger?”
“The King deserved it,” Tony says.
Without Bucky, they’re a man down on missions.
Actually, they’re several men down. T’Challa is back in Wakanda, attending to very important kingly duties. Peter’s got high school, and his incredibly attractive aunt doting on his every move – which, it’s not like Steve entirely endorses the pipsqueak throwing himself headlong into danger anyway.
Rhodey’s playing up that not-a-full-time-member card, what with his very important military duties, and Thor’s still quarantined himself among the stars, because his brother’s menacing the eight legged horses or some odd thing.
Then there’s Scott, who’s on the west coast, soaking up the sun and flirting with NorCal ladies like the lucky sonofabitch that he is.
(Technically, Scott left a handwritten note saying he quit the team before he flitted back to the Bay Area, which is ludicrous since he’s barely a member of it. Tony made sure to text Hank Pym a poignant plea to keep him in San Francisco next time. Hank texted him back a middle finger emoji, which, touché.)
And Clint, for his part, is tied up with his family, and even though the whole brood is wreaking havoc in the Tower, he’s off active duty, for the moment.
Mostly he spends his time making an utter nuisance of himself on the comms.
“Left, left. Your other left!” Clint yells right in Tony’s ear.
“I have an AI for this. Her voice is more soothing than yours,” Tony informs him, dodging a missile and talking at the same time. Who says he can’t multi-task?
“Pay attention Iron Man,” Steve warns, low and warm instead of stern.
“I am paying attention. I’m totally paying attention,” Tony says, and then he switches off his comms to speak with Hope Pym. Not about his texts to her dad. “I’m sorry, you were saying?”
Tony’s always liked Hope, but it’s mostly because he enjoys watching her and Pepper butt heads at collaborative meetings. Right now, he’s liking her a little less, because Pepper’s recused herself from SI business to pick out a string quartet for her upcoming nuptials – what does she have against DJs, anyway? – and that’s left Tony to deal with all the things he promoted Pepper for.
“I’m saying that if you don’t back down, I’ll destroy you,” Hope says calmly. She’s not taking the part where SI’s trying to buy her company – for the third time – very well. So much so that it’s impossible to move past the theoretical phase; she’s got a plan for Pym Technologies, and god help anyone who gets in her way.
Tony admires that in a person.
He admires it more when he’s not being shot at. “Look, Wasp. Can I call you Wasp, or is that little project still under wraps?”
“I’d prefer it if you called me Ms. Van Dyne,” she responds.
“Fair enough,” Tony says, watching Steve bound off Hulk’s shoulders in an incredibly feat of acrobatics. Not quite as incredible as Natasha, who is hanging one handed off a helicopter that is suspended high above a choppy East River, but few people ever can one up Nat. “I don’t want to buy your company. I can barely handle my own company. Oh, and don’t forget the part where your dad is a crotchety bastard. I’m sure he’d make my life a living hell. So, yeah, zero interest-“
He cuts out for a moment because Sam wings him, literally, flying too close for comfort. Only he’s not flying, he’s falling, Tony realizes, and he flips himself into a dive. He catches Sam with a moment to spare, and hands him off to Vision, who took it upon himself to play medic on this excursion. Probably so he can make googly eyes at Wanda, doing her witchy thing, but who is Tony to judge?
Breathlessly, he tells Hope, “Thing is, I need something to get the board off my back. They eat shiny labs for breakfast, and after Scott’s romp around Frisco, your biotech is the fairest in the land.”
“What are you asking for?”
“A cooperative effort, with my R&D guys. Something new, that would get us both the publicity we need to put this merger endeavor to rest.”
“Deal.” Doubt creeps into her voice. “You’re breathing hard. Are you exercising?”
“Treadmill,” Tony agrees.
“You need to get in more cardio,” she says, ruthless. “It’s not like you’re getting any younger.”
“Thanks for the reminder.” Tony laughs, because she’s a shark, and he wouldn’t be surprised if she takes Pym Tech to levels SI will never reach. “I’ve gotta go, but I’ll get one of my minions to set up the paperwork.”
“Pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Stark.”
“Right back at you, Ms. Van Dyne.” Tony switches over to his comms, only to find that Clint is still yelling directions in everybody’s ear. He is nowhere near as relaxing as FRIDAY. “Hey Hawkeye, don’t you have children to helicopter parent?”
“They don’t listen to me,” Clint retorts.
“I can’t imagine why,” Tony says breezily. “Calm your tits. We’ve got this covered.”
“Head back in the game?” Steve queries, but there is laughter in the question.
Tony watches him destroy a robot that has something vaguely resembling trees growing from its body. He’s breathtaking; red, white, blue and strong. But that’s nothing new. Tony says, “I’d never leave you all on your lonesome, Cap.”
Steve’s quiet for a moment.
Then Sam’s strained voice says, “Guys, flirt later! We’ve got incoming.”
“Should he be doing that?” Tony asks as Bucky quite literally prances across the ice, leather jacket flapping to reveal his black and red Vision-sweater. “He’s only half healed.”
“He’s only half man,” Clint mutters back, bitter at losing the morning’s game of trying to accidentally-on-purpose shoot Tony in the eye.
Tony pointedly munches on his pizza, telling the archer, “There’s still time to quit.”
“You’d like that too much,” Clint retorts.
“He wasn’t this good when we were kids,” Steve cuts in before Tony can agree.
He’s always like that – defusing the situation just when it’s getting fun.
They headed to Bryant Park for the pizza. They stayed there for the show. Natasha and Bucky were the only volunteers to lace up, on account of Clint’s bad hamstring – my kid bit it – and Bruce’s fear of public exhibition. Tony refuses to give anyone a performance. And Steve, Steve appears to want to do nothing other than hover protectively at the side of the rink, just in case Bucky manages another boo boo.
Time’s getting short, and Tony’s got to scoot down some avenues for the real world. But between SI, avenging, his new suit designs, and sleeping, he’s been lacking in low-key friend time.
Of course, Bucky and Natasha aren’t all that great at low-key.
“In Mother Russia,” Clint intones, “Ballet lessons are part of the training.”
“Falsehood,” Bruce says.
He’s hoarded three pieces of pizza all to himself, but no one wants to call him on it. The Big Guy gets protective about pepperoni.
Steve agrees, “Don’t let Tash hear you say that.”
Natasha performs a slick triple axel, and Clint says, “I cannot tell a lie. She’s better than the Bolsheviks en pointe.”
“Bolshoi,” Tony corrects.
“What would you know?”
“I’ve dated a few ballerinas.” He watches Natasha showboat. She’s good. Graceful. A little short for a professional ballerina, but in another life, Tony doubts that would have stopped her. Idly, he tells the group, “In fact, I can do that.”
“Bullshit,” Bruce coughs, but Clint crows with absolute delight.
“Oh yeah? Show us then, fancy man.”
Bruce’s cheeks dimple. He’s biting back a smile. Naysayer. Tony takes another pointed bite of pizza.
“Unfortunately, my dance card is full.”
Steve snickers behind his hand. There’s no faith in this bunch. “Got somewhere to be, Tony?”
“Always at your side, sugarplum,” Tony coos. He’s mildly gratified when Steve ducks his head, bashful, but he gives them all an apologetic shrug. “Seriously, though. I’ve got business to attend to.”
“Convenient,” Clint scoffs. He’s already losing interest in the conversation, though, finally giving in and grabbing for the last piece of pizza. Bruce eyes it enviously.
“Are you going to retouch the armor?” Steve asks, startling him out of observation-mode. He bristles.
“No, I’m not going to retouch the armor. The armor is perfect, and not at all in need of retouching.”
Seriously, Steve counters, “We all require maintenance, Tony.”
He frowns. “What do you think I do in my lab all day? Stream Netflix?”
“Science,” Bruce says in a bored monotone.
He’s watching Clint’s pizza like it might hold the secrets to life, the universe, and why he accidentally irradiated himself. Tony points to him. “Listen to the man. Science and suit maintenance. That’s my motto.”
“I thought your motto was changing the world for a better future.”
“That’s Stark Industries’ motto,” Tony retorts. “Which you know perfectly well. Steve Rogers, stop pretending you know how to be funny.”
Tony wonders how he can get Steve to do it again.
Natasha and Bucky’s skates hiss across the ice, totally indifferent to the bickering rink-side. They really do make quite the pair.
Steve steeples his fingers together, hiding his smirk. “So, where are you going?”
“If you must know…to give a speech.” Tony rolls his eyes upwards like, ugh, I know, I’m so popular.
Clint gags. “Why would anyone want to listen to you?”
“No idea.” Tony splays his arms wide. “But Princeton is paying me quite a bit to do it.”
“People pay you to talk?” Clint demands, outraged. “No wonder you never shut up.”
“Rude.” Tony sniffs. “I can’t help it that everyone loves me and your own kids won’t listen to you.”
Mouth agape, Clint retorts, “My kids could take your Princeton students any day.”
“In a fistfight, sure.” Tony crosses his arms. “But what about in a debate?”
“Tony,” Steve objects. “Clint’s kids haven’t hit puberty.”
“Oh, that excuses them?”
Heatedly, Clint shoots back, “Not all of us graduated MIT in diapers.”
“Designer diapers,” Tony corrects. Natasha is stalled on the ice now, a decidedly murderous gleam in her eye. She must have heard Tony badmouthing her godchildren. He gulps as she skates over, amending, “But I’m sure your brats will go to perfectly decent, well-ranked schools.”
Clint sighs, shoulders slumping. “My oldest wants to be a NASCAR driver.”
“Career planning that young is admirable,” Natasha says firmly. She frowns at Tony. Everyone is always frowning at Tony. “Shouldn’t you be in the Garden State, enlightening minds by now?”
“It’s New Jersey. I’m stalling as long as possible.” Bucky skids to a halt next to Natasha and Tony says, “Careful, guys, winter is coming.”
He may overuse that joke.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Steve frets, watching Bucky like he’s fragile as a Fabergé egg.
“I don’t mind,” Bucky tells him. “It makes me sound like a badass.”
Tony grins wide at Steve, daring him to play peacemaker some more. “The big, bad assassin worried about his street cred?”
Bucky shrugs. “Don’t want people thinking I’ve gone soft now that I’m an Avenger.”
“Don’t forget the King of Wakanda’s boo- oof.“
Steve elbows Tony. He says he thinks Bucky and T’Challa are dating once, once, and this is the reaction he gets. Tony rubs his stomach and glares, the effect slightly lessened by the fact that Natasha is still glaring at Tony. Her glares are much scarier.
He tells her, “Relax. I’m waiting for Bruce to finish his pizza.”
“Why me?” Bruce grumbles.
“Yeah,” Natasha agrees. “Why him?”
“We’re co-presenting…” Tony trails off. “This is totally new information for you, isn’t it?”
Bruce looks distinctly green.
“You know what, never mind, I will…handle it. I talk enough for the both of us anyway.” He looks towards Steve, touching his shoulder without thinking about it. It’s a prolonged touch. Bordering on groping, really. The man has boulders for biceps. “Watch the troops for me?”
“You’re drooling,” Natasha informs him.
Steve’s mouth quirks. “Play nice.”
“Not really my thing, darling, but for you, I’ll try,” Tony responds for her, turning the whole thing into a joke. He tries to subtly retract his hand. He doesn’t exactly succeed.
But Steve’s a saint. All he says is, “Don’t be late. Go on.”
And he’s right, of course he’s right, but Tony still wishes he could stick around for a bit.
He wants to stay with Steve, in the sun.
He’s in Madagali with Rhodey.
There was a situation, but Tony handled it.
“I handled it,” Rhodey corrects. “You stood there and egged the bad guys on.”
“They needed to rally,” Tony protests, but he’s grinning behind his faceplate. “It’s pathetic, getting your ass handed to you so quickly.”
Rhodey frowns pointedly at a ding in Tony’s armor that may or may not have come from a gun.
“They rallied too hard,” Tony allows. “Mistakes were made.”
“Mistakes,” Rhodey repeats. He’s totally making bitchface behind the mask. Tony’s developed a sixth sense about these things. “That was a good chunk of vibranium they had.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” Tony says breezily, even though he most certainly had.
“Tony,” Rhodey worries, because he is a worrier. “What if Hammer did this?”
Tony makes a rude noise. “I know you mean well, Sweet Cheeks, but Hammer? He’s an incompetent moron.”
Rhodey gives him the side eye. “The same has been said about you.”
“Please. No one would dream of calling me incompetent.”
“Tony. Last time Hammer was free, he nearly destroyed you.”
“I wouldn’t give him that much credit, Rhodester.”
Rhodey ticks off points with his fingers. “A, don’t call me that. B, yeah, the man’s a lunatic-“
“Terminology is important.”
“Fine. Hammer’s a buffoon. But he’s got resources, and he obsesses. Mostly about you.”
“Ah, the trials of being popular.”
“Fine. Make a joke out of it. But when he comes after you-“
“I’ll remind my brain to play a chorus of I told you so’s in your dulcet tones on loop.”
“You’re not cute.”
“Forbes would beg to differ.”
“You slept with the editor.”
“Slander! Horatio and I went to boarding school together.”
He’s not wrong.
Tony frowns up at the sun. SI and the king of Wakanda control all known stock of vibranium on earth. What little they’ve managed to recover is certainly part of a larger mass, and it’s missing. To make and mold it, whoever has the vibranium is going to need tools, stuff that even today is on the cutting edge of technology.
Buffoon or no, that sounds like Hammer’s gig. Maybe a little caution wouldn’t be completely unwarranted.
He keeps that thought in place right up until Rhodey says, “Man, wait until Steve hears about this. You’re gonna be in trouble.”
“And why, pray tell, would Steve hear about this?”
Rhodey shrugs. “Mission report?”
“You’re not an Avenger. You don’t write mission- oh my god, you’ve already made a mission report, haven’t you?”
The blank face of the armor stares impassively back at him.
“Traitor,” Tony wails. “I’ve never betrayed you like this.”
“You told Carol I can cook,” Rhodey points out, and yes, maybe, Tony might have told Rhodey’s pretty, impressively super-powered new girlfriend that he was a skilled chef. “I can’t cook.”
“But now you have a funny story to tell your future rugrats!” Tony’s comm pulses rhythmically. “I’ve got incoming and it’s all your fault.”
Rhodey snickers. “Ooh. Sleeping on the couch tonight, are you?”
“Gay jokes. Clever.” Tony taps open the line, fully prepared to be reamed out. “And yet it does nothing to allay the sting of betrayal. Go for Iron Man.”
Flatly, Steve announces, “Bruce quit the team.”
“Again? I convinced him not to run away to Kilimanoor last Saturday.”
“I recall. Related detail: you’re going to need to renovate the lab on the seventeenth floor.”
“Who poked the green guy?”
Steve pauses. Over the distance, Tony can hear the gentle inhale and exhale that means he’s trying to calm himself. “Scott and Thor took an unauthorized tour. Never mind that. Did you catcall a terrorist?”
Rhodey is the worst and Tony is never going to forgive him. Tony cringes. “It was more of a whistle.”
“We’ve had this talk.”
“With great power comes a great responsibility to be serious during business hours, I know.” Tony’s voice pitches to a whine. “I get so bored.”
“Don’t I know it,” Rhodey says snidely.
“You hurt me, Gummy Bear,” Tony shoots back. “Hold the fort down, Rogers. I’ll be back soon.”
“Then I can yell about procedure to my heart’s content, right?”
Tony gasps a laugh. “Something like that.”
“Great. We’ve missed you. Come home, Shellhead.”
So he does. Tony chases the sun across the curve of this earth, Steve’s laughter low and close in his ear.
The wind is a muted roar, the engine shaking their spines.
Steve’s in his element. He’s a complete speed demon, too, but Tony doesn’t mind that so much. He likes the heat of Steve all down his front, the strength in his biceps and thighs. Steve has complete control over the motorcycle. And Tony.
He’s getting riled up at the thought of it.
Quickly disrupting the roller coaster ride of lust and yearning in his head, he says, “Clint’s gonna be bummed he missed this.”
Steve nods, weaving between two taxis. Up ahead, Tony can see the broad, squat buildings and tenements that make up Queens, a motley mixture of stately red brick and newer, browner materials. “Everyone will be.”
Tony does not say that Clint probably wants to film this and blackmail the kid.
“I hear your archnemesis is on the loose.”
“Please, don’t insult me. I’ve got way scarier nemeses than Justin Hammer.”
Steve’s lips twist, humor and concern at war with each other. “But you’re being careful.”
“I’m always careful,” Tony lies. He wraps his arms more tightly around Steve’s middle. “I still say we should have taken the quinjet.”
“To a high school?” He can feel Steve’s laughter rumble through his ribcage, right beneath the palms of Tony’s hands. “That’d be inconspicuous.”
“You know Cap, I might not be cut out for stealth,” Tony admits.
“It’s good to know your limits,” Steve replies indulgently. His voice is muffled through the helmet, but still laced with laughter.
Tony’s not a stranger to bikes – hell, he owns a few, although he can’t remember the last time he took one for a spin. But Steve’s? She’s a classic, sophisticated machinery combined with old school masculinity, the kind that makes Tony think of whiskey and leather, cigars and backroom deals. New builds wish they could emulate all that.
And somehow, despite Steve’s working class ethos and pull yourself up by your bootstraps vibe, Steve fits, here. Tony leans into him, anticipating.
This is gonna be good.
Peter has a bit role in his high school’s play. A role, to hear him tell it, that was foisted upon him by his good friend MJ and requires him to wear tights. No way were they missing that.
Nor was Tony missing the chance to skeeze at Hottie McAunt Mae, who has, historically, shot down his advances with admirable speed, but hey, hope persists.
They pull into the overcrowded parking lot of Peter’s school with a low rumble. A few parents spare the motorcycle a cursory glance, but no one pays much attention to the two grown men who clamber off it. This is Queens, after all.
Tony had Happy drive ahead and reserve them some seats, because he can still do that, odd broken love triangle or not. Plus, Happy likes the kid. He’s got gumption.
Pepper greets Tony and Steve in the front row with perfunctory, but warm, perfumed kisses. Happy gives them bear hugs. Aunt May raises her eyebrows at Tony and doesn’t climb to her feet until she gets an eyeful of Steve.
“Hi. May, I’m,” she says firmly. Pepper hides a small grin. “I mean, I’m May.” May’s cheeks redden.
“You’re Peter’s aunt,” Steve replies with recognition. “He’s a great kid.”
“The best,” May agrees, recovering more quickly than Tony managed, the first time he met Steve. “I hadn’t realized he’d made so many friends at his…internship.”
The way she says internship reminds Tony that she knows all about Peter’s recreational activities. He continues to be amazed that she still lets him put on the suit. He hasn’t got a paternal bone in his body, but nevertheless hates watching people he loves throw themselves in harm’s way.
Earnestly, Steve says, “We’re all quite proud of his accomplishments, ma’am.”
They all settle into their seats, Pepper and May murmuring lowly to each other until the lights dim, while Happy unloads and shares a briefcase full of illicit snacks. Right before the curtain rises, Tony tells him he’s proud of his newfound career as a smuggler.
He eats popcorn the whole way through.
Afterwards, Tony hangs snapshots of Peter’s play on the fridge, much to Peter’s complete and utter mortification. No one blames him for his embarrassment – the play was a musical.
It was also not good. Or, more aptly, Peter was not good. A career as an actor isn’t in the cards for the kid.
But he looks happy in the pictures, sandwiched between stills of Clint’s brood and their many, many crayon drawings; Wanda’s recent birthday party; a snap of Vision and Sam knitting Hulk-sized caps; Natasha and Bucky sharing an ice cream cone, wearing other’s undercover wigs; and Tony’s particular favorite – Steve, laughing, as hovers in War Machine’s boots.
Tony doesn’t dream often, and when he does, it’s nightmares.
Alien invasions, dead superheroes. Dead Steve. The weight of a nuke against his spine, lifted from its trajectory. Dead Steve. Pepper, screaming, when he thought he lost her to the fire. Dying Steve, just for variety.
He prefers not to dream.
Tonight it was Afghanistan.
At this point, what happened there isn’t the worst thing that’s been done to him, but it’s still Tony’s origin story. Iron Man, as a concept, was forged there. Tony’s much, much higher threshold for pain was born there. Hell, his newfound moral compass was built in all that desert heat.
What’s more, it was his first in a long string of misadventures. You never forget your first, right?
So yeah, he wakes up choking on a scream with this crazy itch under his skin, fright and horror imprinted on his brain and all he wants is to forget.
The first person he thinks of – safety – is Steve.
He thinks about Steve too often, now. So he tries to change it, make the thought into a Steve-shape, a distraction without a face. But that doesn’t work for long.
Everyone Tony’s ever been with is their own unique brand of special. Maya was passionate and driven, Rumiko was whip smart and made him laugh in a way he’s never forgotten, and Pepper, oh, Pepper. Pepper walked all over his heart in towering stilettos, fearless, to this day.
But Steve is a living miracle, a modern Lazarus, and that’s its own kind of intimidating.
Sexy, and intimidating.
Tony swallows the last of his fear, the dream pushed the hazy edges of his memory.
Steve, Tony thinks, playing his fingers across the vulnerable skin of his stomach. Steve.
He bites his lip, anticipating – it’s been a journey, learning to draw this sort of thing out. To treat himself, instead of trying to get it over and done with before he loses sight of his next algorithm/design/otherwise brilliant invention.
Not that Tony doesn’t enjoy sex – he’s got playboy on his business cards – but masturbation requires a measure of self-love he hasn’t felt since he was a desperate twenty-something, lauded and praised. But now…
His fingers begin to spiral a lazy journey southward.
“Hey, Tony,” Steve says, scratchy-voiced and weary. “How’s your armor today?”
Tony yelps, snatching his hand well North of his waist. “It’s fine. It’s always-“ he swallows. “Fine, because I am excellent at what I do.”
Steve appears scandalized, but only that Tony would take his mothering as an insult. He didn’t see.
“I know that. A little caution never hurt anyone.”
“Tell that to my ego.”
Indulgently, Steve says, “Yes, well. Your ego could use a little deflating. Only a little.”
“The armor’s over there. Have at it.”
Steve does, circling red and gold like he has an inspector’s license to go along with all that prudence.
Tony’s workshops are identical no matter where he is. There’s something comforting in the duplication of sleek metal surfaces and oil-stained concrete. The most dynamic surface is the interface he built for FRIDAY – she’s got less synergy than JARVIS, but that’s only to be expected in an AI Tony built at a more advanced age.
He built JARVIS to be a friend. He created FRIDAY when he already had some.
He doubts Steve notices any of those nuances when he asks FRIDAY to run a full diagnostic and she’s perfectly polite in her compliance. None of the sass she gives Tony.
But that’s different too, toned down. Programmed, albeit in a way that allows her to grow organically from the code. Tony never wants to unleash something even a quarter as advanced as Ultron out on the world again.
FRIDAY finishes her check, and tells Steve so.
“See? No rust. No dings. No critical malfunctions,” Tony announces.
Steve produces a small smile. “Good. Wouldn’t want you to fall out of the sky.”
“Eh. Thor would catch me. Or Hulk. Or Vision. I’d prefer Viz, actually. He has such a tender embrace.”
The smile disappears. “Tony. You can’t depend on that.”
“I can’t?” Tony asks, mystified. “Why do I even have teammates, then?”
“What gave it away? Certainly not my flawless delivery.”
Steve’s shoulders relax. “Certainly not.”
He doesn’t leave, then, which makes Tony wonder about the authenticity of that armor story.
“So. What else can I do for you, Cap? Looking to bond?”
“Something like that,” Steve agrees. He stretches, his very, very, very tight shirt riding up to reveal a strip of taut, golden skin. Tony doesn’t quite come in his pants, but if he was young enough to retain the ability, he would.
Steve touches the silvery surface of the lab’s tables and says, “I read about you in a magazine once.”
“I’m very marketable.”
“The author said you were a sociopath.”
“I believed her, for a while.”
“Yes, yes. Your formerly poor opinion of my esteemed person was duly noted and appropriately filed.”
“Tony, you’re not listening to me. I’m sorry. I was quick to judge.”
“It’s okay. I grow on people. Like fungus.” Steve makes a face at the dismissal. So Tony continues, “I don’t enjoy hurting people. I do it. All the time. But I don’t enjoy it.”
“I know. I do, Tony. Before…everything,” Steve says, and Tony knows he means the Accords, and Winter Soldier- the some odd eight years of sporadic avenging and more infrequent peace. “We weren’t friends. Not really.”
It hurts to hear that, even though Tony knows.
“But you kept drawing us together. Here, in the Tower…you’ve made us friends.” It sounds like an accusation until Steve adds, “You’ve made us family.”
It’s this grand announcement, echoing in the familiar space of Tony’s lab. It’s a life changing thing, and it’s also nothing, a string of words, and Tony refuses to be undone by words. “No big deal.”
“It’s a huge deal. I wanted to say…thank you.”
He’s so not tearing up. Tony lays back again, draping an arm over his eyes and muttering, “Funny way of showing gratitude, you lot. I built you a beautiful compound, but you ungrateful wretches made me buy my tower back.”
“Who would want to leave New York?” Steve asks, and then answers firmly, “No one. It’s the best city on Earth.”
“The compound was in New York. Upstate!”
The glare Steve throws his way indicates this is clearly not the same thing, and Tony has lived in California for too long.
“You came down here to harangue me about geography? I was in the middle of-“ He stops, remembering exactly what he’d been in the middle of. “Something.”
Steve settles on the couch, directly on top of Tony’s legs. Tony yelps, retracting them as quickly as he can from beneath super soldier butt. “I came down here because FRIDAY told me you needed the company.”
Tony grimaces up at the ceiling, where FRIDAY doesn’t actually live. “Traitor.”
He wiggles his toes back under Steve’s ass, just because. Firm. Nice.
He yawns, too, because his nap was nothing at all like restful. “Tell me about your day.”
Steve starts talking about baseball, which is a clear indicator that he’s talking just so that Tony can hear his voice. He went to a game with Sam, and the sporting match was very sporting, or something of that sort. It’s not that Tony’s not listening.
It’s just that it’s so peaceful there with Steve, so safe, that he falls back asleep.
No nightmares this time.
Happy has texted Tony roughly fifty nine pictures of Morning Suits, some in Day-Glo colors.
So far, Tony has only texted back one word. No.
He’s staring down at his phone, horrified by Happy’s complete lack of common sense and taste, when Rhodey says, “Distraction kills, you know.”
Tony glances up. “Mind your own beeswax, my love.”
He flashes the suit at Rhodey, whose mouth gapes open. “Pepper would murder him.”
“I know, right?” Tony tries to offer up his phone to everyone else in the air, but no takers. T’Challa has the nerve to tell him to focus, albeit very regally, so Tony puts his phone away and runs with that.
“Ye gods. I’ve surrounded myself with soldiers and a king. You gonna knight them, your majesty?”
T’Challa’s mouth pulls into a smile. “I believe the rest of our comrades have already been bestowed that honor.”
They’re crouched in a helicopter, a tight squeeze for five adults, and Sif keeps eying Tony like perhaps he is distasteful, hilarious, or both. He’s worried she’s going to push him out of the helicopter.
Which is silly. Even if she does, the armor is primed and ready to go.
And the military does not knight you.
Even so, Rhodey looks like he’s biting back giggles, and Sam’s close to joining him. Tony informs them, “You’re all jerks.”
“Right back at you,” Rhodey replies with ease.
“Ah, but I am the example we should all aspire to.”
“You’re a wealthy manchild who thinks his shiny new righteousness gives him the mandate to control an incredibly powerful killing machine.”
“Nah, I think my many, many, many years of experience in the arms industry and my genius intellect give me that right, but fair enough on the manchild bit.”
Rhodey snorts. “At least you shared.”
“Only with my best guy.”
Tony grins, all teeth, and Rhodey pats his cheek like a favored pupil. Wryly, he says, “Thanks, buddy, but you’re not my type.”
“Not blonde enough?” Tony asks innocently.
One eyebrow crawls up Rhodey’s face.
“Now we’re talking about your type.” He could leave it there, but he tacks on, “Not to mention that whole American flag fetish.”
T’Challa, Sam, and Lady Sif all give Tony knowing looks, which. Sif’s been with the Asgardians since before, uh, yesterday. What does she even have to know?
Thor is such a blabbermouth.
“Hey, everyone, the objective approaches!” Tony announces, trying (and failing) to shun the spotlight.
“The Captain is very handsome,” Sif tells him gravely. “There would be great honor in witnessing your union.”
Tony blinks. “Did you just ask to watch us have sex?”
Sam seems torn over whether to laugh or, raucously, or feel a bit ill. He settles on a faint, “Don’t invite me.”
Rhodey nods, with vigor, but T’Challa has the gall to appear mildly interested.
Sif shrugs. Still very solemn, she says, “I would not object.”
“We. Should jump out of this plane now. Right now. Let’s go.” Tony lifts the king of Wakanda by the arm pits and hopes it won’t get back to Bucky that he’s being handsy. T’Challa is a very attractive man, after all.
Then he jumps out of the plane.
T’Challa’s the coolest customer, throughout the freefall, and then subsequent hover over their target location. He throws Tony a smile edging on a leer before he tugs down his mask. “Thank you. For the ride.”
“That’s what friends are for,” Tony grumbles, but T’Challa is already tumbling to the ground.
Graceful. Like a cat.
Ugh. Tony hates cats.
Tony slows to a controlled hover above the roof while T’Challa tucks and rolls. He can hear the low whine of Rhodey’s suit coming to a complete stop beside him, and Sam on his other side.
Sif, on the other hand, doesn’t go in for any of this crafty, surreptitiousness. The roof ripples when she lands in one of those especially heroic kneels that Thor favors.
So much for quiet reconnaissance.
Whatever, it’s Tony’s building, which, “Ballsy. I can’t believe someone was ballsy enough to steal from me.”
“Sure,” Sam agrees. “Because you’re so tough.”
Tony’s head swivels. He pointedly ignores Rhodey’s attempt to fistbump Sam. “Wanna go, feather brain?”
“You are all quite easily distracted,” T’Challa calls up. Sif shakes her head in vigorous agreement.
“Now we’re getting insulted by royalty,” Rhodey mutters, at a volume just high enough to be audible to everyone. “Way to go, Tony.”
“How is this my fault?” He demands, holding up a finger. “No one answer that.”
He stalks forward across the roof, toward the access door. It’s dented, warped along the seams. Property damage is like a Wednesday when you live with Winter Soldier, Clint Barton, and the Hulk, so Tony doesn’t bother getting twisted up about it. He gives the door a hard push, and it falls straight off its hinges.
He steps over the hunk of metal, his boots denting it even more.
T’Challa pads stealthily after him, while Sif and Rhodey are noisier. Sam hangs back, surveilling the roof. It’s doubtful the thief will make a repeat appearance, but better safe than sorry is the Avengers motto. Well, it’s Steve’s motto, and what Steve wants goes.
The stairway down from the roof is bright and sterile. Sif is decidedly unimpressed, but she’s that way about pretty much everything on Earth. One would think spaceship living would have toned down her expectation that everything match the glory of Asgard, but that’s a neg, and Tony admires the way she sticks to her guns.
Still, he’s got to defend his company. “The offices are nicer. Probably. Maybe. I don’t do site visits.”
“You got kicked off site visits,” Rhodey mutters.
“Kicked off is such strong phrasing. I was disinvited.”
“You were helicopter parenting your scientists.”
Tony argues, “I can’t help it if they’re not as talented as me.”
His words taper off though when they reach the landing to the fifth floor, where the wreckage is more absolute. Scorch marks etch the hall’s hospital-like serenity. Prototype shells for Tony’s robotic sentries – not AI directed, not after the Ultron debacle – litter the path.
He kneels down to lift a shoulder pauldron. “Fuuuuck. The Board is going to crucify me for this.”
He sighs. Ever since he became Iron Man, villains have targeted SI property like there’s some kind of demolition fire sale. His liability insurance has gone through the roof.
“You’re not going to make Pepper field them?” Rhodey questions.
“I wouldn’t do that to her. Not on stuff like this.” Tony straightens up, T’Challa and Sif flanking his sides. “FRIDAY’s done a full scan on the feeds. Nothing out of the ordinary, other than a few crying interns.”
Calmly, T’Challa asks, “And what did they see?”
“The veil of their own tears, mostly. No one even whipped out a camera phone. I’m losing so much faith in today’s youth,” Tony tells them.
Sif nods, like this makes perfect sense to her.
“Fan out,” T’Challa instructs, a born leader. “If there’s anything to find, we will.”
It turns out, there’s nothing, and for the first time, Tony begins to worry.
“You can’t keep hiding out,” Pepper says gently. She sounds so close from the doorway of his workshop.
She sounds like she did when she was Tony’s.
“Yes, I can. It’s better this way. The day star burns.”
Her heels click as she makes her way inside. “Your tan will fade.”
“Want to tell me what’s wrong?” Pepper’s weight beside him on the bench is subtle, barely there.
“Everything? Everything, final answer.”
“Tony. Your team is worried about you.”
“Funny thing, that.” Tony groans. “I’m worried about them.”
“What if everyone’s right, and Hammer’s gunning for me?”
“Hammer’s an idiot,” Pepper says, and that’s why she was his girl.
“You complete me.”
“I know. Is this- we haven’t really talked about...”
“Spit it out, Pep.”
“Is this about the wedding?” There’s a broken edge to her voice that lets Tony know this has been haunting her. He scowls. He’s been dragging this out for too long.
“No. It’s not about the wedding.” He taps his fingers against his own thigh, a drum-drum nervousness. It’s time to come out with something he’s always meant to say. And maybe- it might go bad, but it might be good, too. That’s how life goes, right? Nothing will ever be what you expect it to.
Some things will be better. Some things will be worse. But never exactly the same.
“Pepper, I never apologized. For being such a mess. For my life being such a mess.”
There’s this still moment where Pepper watches him, careful and kind. She’s so cautious with him these days. She exhales, soft. Then:
“Your life is messy and strange and wonderful, and I loved being a part of it.” She pauses, tucking a strand of penny-colored hair behind her ear. “I’m still a part of it. Peripherally.”
Tony nods. In a way this feels just like getting the breakup speech again. At least the end part. But he is marveling at how much less it hurts this go around.
Especially when Pepper puts her hand on Tony’s knee and continues, “You seem happy now, with Steve. I couldn’t be gladder.”
Tony’s jaw drops. “Et tu, sugar biscuit? I’m not with Steve.”
She blinks those big blue eyes of hers and replies, “Not yet.”
“Is everyone conspiring against me?”
“Of course not!”
“You have conspiring face.”
“That’s not a thing.”
“I work with spies! It’s a thing!” he protests.
Outraged, she responds, “I’m not a spy!”
“Hey now, don’t discount yourself like that. I bet you’d be great at corporate espionage.”
She jabs a finger his way, which for Pepper is the height of rudeness. “You’re absurd.”
“Guilty as charged.”
She smiles, then, a lovely, uncertain thing. “I’m glad we still have this.”
She gestures between them. “No, you goon. This. Us. I know it’s been rough.”
“In a word.”
“You’re not only my closest friend, Tony. You’re my family.”
Ugh. This keeps happening to him. His friends are overly intrusive busybodies who mean well. And they keep giving him feelings. Feelings he almost even…likes. It’s been a long time since people…cared.
It’s nice. It’s warm. It’s fuzzy.
He’s beginning to gross himself out.
Internally kicking himself, he tells her, “You’re my family too, Pepper. You and Happy. You always have a place at the tower.”
“Twelve percent of a place,” she replies wryly, because that will haunt Tony until the end of his days.
He steamrolls over it, “And I wish you both all the best. You know that, right?”
She relaxes, like maybe she was worried that Tony would reject her, or secretly hated her, or some such nonsense that would have been so incredibly true of who Tony Stark was ten years before. But he’s different now, in large part because of her. He’s stronger.
And maybe a little bit more adult.
She says, “We wish that for you too. But I’ve got to say- you seem incredibly happy already. In the Tower. With Steve.”
“Conspiracy!” Tony cries.
The word is drowned out by her laughter.
Thor has…er…a complicated family life, and supposedly a kingdom to look after, so his visits of late have been brief. That said, it’s hard to escape him when he’s home.
“Tony!” Thor cheers, one of those beer funnel hats carefully balanced on his head. One side houses a bottle of Anchor Steam, while the other boasts a can of Molson’s Canadian. Both sides are sloshing on Tony’s tasteful wood flooring.
He makes a note to get the bots up on cleaning duty later.
“Hey, buddy. Whatcha got there?”
“A most marvelous invention!”
Thor thinks everything on Earth is most marvelous, including reality television and toilet paper.
“Clint bought it for him,” Natasha says.
She and Maria are lying tangled on the couch, Nat with her head back against the armrest, one leg stretched long across Maria’s lap, the other bent, foot tucked beneath Maria’s thigh for warmth. She’s wearing one of Vision’s hideous sweaters, a book carefully balanced over her face. Her perfectly manicured nails are a bright mauve against the cover: a couple, entangled beneath the fiery blaze of a houseboat, Tony notes with some satisfaction.
Maria, meanwhile, is flicking through the headlines on a tablet, half focused on the home improvement show blaring on the TV. She’s carefully avoiding Thor’s gaze, which is best, because the man’s chaos thrives on attention.
“Why am I not surprised?” In one smooth move, Tony plucks the Anchor Steam from Thor’s hat and downs the last gulp. “How are things in space? Valkyrie’s still ignoring my calls.”
“She is a wise woman,” Thor says, with equal amounts of fondness and respect. Tony’s inclined to agree – anyone who turns him down clearly has a good head on her shoulders. “And space is…Good.” Thor booms. Then he follows up with, “Mostly good. Adequate, at least.”
“Loki at it again?”
“Aye!” Troubled, Thor continues, “He regressed to a child-state, I fear to punish me. The scamp. He was a most trying youth.”
“Why do I get the feeling you gave him more than one swirly?” Tony inquires, settling the bottle on the counter.
Thor has no idea what that is, but he chuckles anyway. That’s what Tony likes about the guy. He’s always a good time. “I was a child of much mischief.”
He’s still a child of much mischief, as far as Tony’s concerned.
“By the way,” Maria says, still studying the tablet with absolute concentration. “Wanda has threatened to quit the team if you don’t return her Disney-on-Ice tickets.”
She pats a formal looking letter on the armrest on her side with one hand, then moves the same hand over to Natasha’s knee. Natasha peers up from her book and says something in Russian, which Maria answers in kind, all wolfish grin.
Tony ignores their clear conspiring and replies, “Then we’ve got one less witch on the team, because I don’t negotiate with terrorists. SI policy.”
“You’re a goofball,” Natasha replies immediately.
Thor, however, is infinitely saddened. “What crime has our Wanda committed?”
“She helped Clint cheat at assassins,” Maria tells him. “With her witchy voodoo.”
Incensed, Tony cuts in, “She hit me in the neck! It hurt!”
Natasha flips a page. “Baby.”
Thor is delighted. “Ah! I love this game. It is good for young Wanda to learn the dark arts.”
“I’m sorry.” Tony raises his hand. “Did you just call spycraft the dark arts?”
Everyone pretends not to hear him, save for Thor poking Tony in the shoulder to add, “And you, my friend, should learn to dodge.”
“She was too fast!”
“Or were you too slow?”
“Excuse you. I train every day. My body is a temple.”
“To pizza, whiskey, and machine oil, maybe,” Natasha snarks. Maria high fives her.
“Okay, alright. Is Steve around?”
“The Captain!” Thor nearly swoons. “I have not seen him yet.”
Natasha makes a kissy face at Tony out of the corner of his vision, and Tony retorts, “He’s holding Wanda’s tickets for me.”
Maria gasps. “Steve would never stoop so low.”
“He would for Tony,” Natasha says knowingly.
Arching a brow, Maria pouts. “Way to besmirch Captain America’s honor, Stark.”
“That’s Boss to you. Don’t you still work for me?”
“Not really, no.”
“Ugh, fine. Mix your allegiances. Be shady like that.” Tony crosses his arms. “Steve?”
“He’s on the roof garden, with Bruce.” Natasha hesitates, probably because she and Bruce have some weird, unspeakable thing Tony doesn’t get. “He’s having a tough day.”
“Bruce? I’m so good at cheering him up! Remember that time I played the panflute to calm down the Hulk’s savage soul?” It was less playing and more grating notes, but whatever.
“Steve,” Maria corrects, before he can follow that line of thought any further.
Tony feels a pang of concern mixed with urgency. It resembles heartburn. Blech. “Ah. I’ll go, uh. I’ll go.”
With Thor hot on his heels, Tony marches to the elevator. He lets the big guy push the button, because it makes the god’s afternoon.
When the doors slide closed, he catches one last strain of Maria and Natasha’s quiet conversation. It’s about the rapidly deteriorating conditions in Venezuela, and whether they should step in to fix it.
Dark arts indeed. Once again, Tony is reminded that they terrify him.
Bruce is carefully tending the remains of his herb garden with the tender expression he reserves for plants, Peter, and baby animal memes. He’s beginning to winterize, as the cold’s set upon the city with sharp, biting teeth. Steve sits on a stone bench, watching him. He’s got tired-face, bags under his eyes that even the serum can’t hide.
“Wow, Cap. You’re death warmed over.”
Steve tilts his head up, one hand shading against the sun. “Thor! Nice to see you again.”
His enthusiasm is lackluster. Even Thor notices.
“Captain.” He does the formal head nod thing he always does with warriors like Natasha and Steve. “What troubles you on this fine day?”
Steve grimaces. Bruce, ever compassionate, finds the words for him. “He visited his mother’s grave today.”
And that is all the explanation Tony needs to hear. The pain of losing a parent always stays fresh, but more so for Steve, who lost his mother over a century ago and still feels it like it was yesterday. It doesn’t help that Sarah Rogers’ gravestone is a crumbling heap of rock, worn away by time.
Steve isn’t ready to get a new one, and one is willing to push him on it. Not even Tony.
“Bummer,” Tony says, swooping down beside Steve to sit. “What can we do?”
He isn’t expecting the small smile that overtakes Steve’s face, weary though it is. He takes Tony’s hand and squeezes. “Nothing. But I appreciate the thought.”
“Well, I would appreciate some help moving these pots into the atrium.” Bruce waves a hand over the huge stone basins, brimming with parsley, rosemary, and sage. Or something. They’re plants, they’re green.
Thor, beer hat askew, hefts two in each hand. “I’m at your command, Dr. Banner.”
“Me too.” Steve climbs to his feet, letting Tony go. All across his palms, there’s this rapidly vanishing warmth, this tingle that is just so…Steve. Tony stares at it, mouth slight agape.
Then it occurs to him he looks like an idiot. When his friends all look to him, he says, “Oh, not me, thanks. I have a delicate…spine.”
Bruce shoves a pot at him with his foot anyway.
Dr. Strange is not officiating, thank all that is holy, but he might as well be, given the way he’s ordering everyone into place at the rehearsal dinner.
“You don’t even go here,” Tony says, because honestly, the man barely knows Pepper.
He shrugs. “I’m quite likeable.”
Tony guffaws mentally at that. Out loud, he grumps, “I don’t know why. All you ever did was, er, save lives…. I could be a surgeon. I’ve got great hands.”
“Yes,” Strange does not quite drawl. “But they’re always so dirty.”
Tony refuses to be insulted by someone who smells like ozone and moss.
“Perhaps,” Strange says, “You should be more concerned with the dark forces stirring against you.”
“Okay, Miss Cleo. Tone it down.”
“I’m simply stating facts. Tell me, how are the health benefits for Avenging these days?” Strange sneers with the petulant tone of someone flush with cash.
In the exact same tone, Tony answers, “Pretty damn good, considering I foot the bill.”
Not for everyone. Sam, Bucky, Steve, and Rhodey all prefer the VA for minor stuff. T’Challa’s a king and Thor’s a god, both of which are pretty hard to match, even with Tony’s stock portfolio. But Natasha, Clint, Wanda, Peter, Maria, Scott, and Viz all benefit greatly from SI’s contractor plan, thank you kindly.
Clint’s kids especially. Who even knew tiny humans could get the sniffles so often?
Strange rolls his eyes upwards. “Beware those that would move against you, is all I’m saying.”
“That’s great. Totally not cryptic.” Tony goes to find his seat, which is at a mish mash of chairs pulled from everything they could find in the tower. Which is where this rehearsal dinner is, primarily because Natasha is hosting it.
No one argued with her about the locale, that BBC special still fresh on everyone’s minds.
And also because she tells them family sits together through thick and thin, duh.
Tony doesn’t know about that, or all this ooey-gooeyness. The tower is like a hotel for wayward superheroes, but whatever, as long as it makes the former love of his life and the scary assassin lady happy.
Said scary assassin sits at one end of a long, long table she procured just for the event, delicately spooning ossetra caviar atop blini. She’s got T’Challa on one side, his posture impeccable, and Bucky slumped on the other.
“I’m just saying,” Tony leans in close to Steve. “They could be.”
“They’re not,” Steve hisses. “I really wish you’d leave him alone.”
“They could be,” Tony insists. Pepper’s sitting on T’Challa’s left, and he throws her a cheery, mischief laden smile that she returns with combined humor, trepidation, and a mouthed, “No!”
She looks meaningfully at Natasha, which, rude. Tony wasn’t even planning on doing anything.
Somewhat content, she turns back to her conversation with Happy’s boxing bud, who is big, veiny, and a bit out of place among the long line of Avengers, but that was Natasha’s idea too – spacing everyone out the way they’ll be at the actual wedding, even though some attendees here won’t make it to the real event.
Further down the table, Vision is speaking earnestly with Strange, who is stroking his goatee in response, like an old timey villain.
Tony has better facial hair. He tells Steve so, and Steve gives him a Look. He turns back to his conversation with Wanda, but Darcy has already stolen her away. Wanda is watching her with focus, hanging on to every bubbly, enthusiastic word Darcy says. There’s no way Steve is winning her back.
Steve sighs. “You have a lovely mustache.”
“I know,” Tony agrees. “And the rest. Look at this refined taper.”
“Do you pay that much attention to your body hair?” Darcy catcalls, over Wanda’s head.
“I keep a neat house,” Tony replies.
Wanda rolls her eyes and Darcy grins. Steve’s cheeks grow red.
Oh. This is fun.
T’Challa leans forward, ever so slightly and says something to Bucky. Bucky straightens for the first time all night, snapping to soldierly attention. He smiles, more genuine and warm than Tony has ever seen him. “I’m right,” he decides.
Steve glowers, but gives up the fight. He can be such a pushover about some things. He’s terrifying when it comes to others, though, so Tony chooses not to push his luck. He chooses to be gracious and unassuming all through dinner, charming Steve and Wanda and Darcy, and a few SI members as much as humanly possible. It’s boring, but unassailably normal.
Tony can’t stand it.
Dinner’s just about wrapping up when he spies Steve’s sketchbook beyond them, in the living space. Tony had offered Natasha the use of one of the Tower’s glitzier, sleeker venues, but she’d chosen to stick with the kitchen because that’s where families eat.
Now, that works to Tony’s benefit, because he spots the sketchbook, discarded beside Sam’s infamous houseboat book, and he has an idea.
“Hey, have you ever been to level eight?”
“Eight?” Steve’s brow furors. “Isn’t that part of your SI offices?”
“Nope.” Tony pops the ‘p’. “It’s something much, much better. Steve, lemme show you a thing.”
He’s brilliant. Stupid for never thinking this up before – discounting the carefully chosen pieces he mounted in Steve’s suites – but now, he’s brilliant.
He steals the excuse to leave the dessert mingling, dragging Steve into the elevator and pressing the eight button with purpose.
Persuading Tony to take his artwork out of storage had been Pepper’s work. He couldn’t keep rotating a select few through his Malibu home when said home fell off a cliff.
Besides, sometimes at night, Pepper would head down, a glass of Pinot Noir or a mug of tea clutched close to her chest while she wandered the gallery, barefoot and dreamy-eyed. The art helped her think, she said.
Steve isn’t Pepper, not by a long shot, but they share a few things – their courage, their strength, and their love of the beauty people can create.
Tony? He just likes a nice, expensive painting.
“I find bright colors soothing,” he explains.
Steve does not appear convinced, but he beams all the same. He’s awestruck, plain overjoyed, and Tony wonders why he never did this before. He says, “So you don’t hate it.”
“No. I don’t hate it,” Steve agrees. He starts down a row of contemporary stuff, things Tony picked up, truly, for the bright colors. “This is a museum.”
His pale blue eyes dart from painting to painting with fevered devotion, and he says, “You have a museum in your basement.”
“I have a storage room on the eighth floor of my tower.” Tony waves a hand airily. “As you can see, I’m a bit of an impulse buyer.”
“You own all of these? How long did it take you to collect it all?”
“Not as long as you’d expect. I have a special talent for spending money.”
Honestly, he’s always viewed a good portion of his collection as investments. He tends to find beauty in other things – a nice pair of legs or a neatly done circuit board. This was always Pepper’s passion.
“It’s like a museum,” Steve says again.
“You’re welcome to see it any time. I’ve already keyed in your access.”
In fact, there’s nowhere in the Tower, or the Compound, or any of Tony’s real estate holdings that Steve doesn’t have access to, but Tony decides that now is not the best time to tell Steve that.
“Oh.” Steve looks ridiculously pleased. “Thank you.”
Tony waves it away. “It’s not the Frick.”
“It’s better,” Steve says, and Tony wonders if he’s ever actually been to the Frick. “Curated collections like these say a lot about the person who owns them.”
“Oh? You know a lot of collectors?” Tony asks, with a healthy amount of skepticism.
“Well, no. But the art you like reflects upon you.”
Tony frowns at a portrait of a Dutch woman clutching a hen. “I hope not.”
Steve follows his line of sight. “It’s lovely.”
“I’ve gotta level with you. Pepper picked out a lot of this.”
Steve nods, like he expected that. “But you kept it.”
“You give me too much credit.”
“Most days, I give you less credit than you deserve.”
Tony’s not sure how to respond, so he doesn’t. He falls into step beside Steve, pointing out the pieces he wouldn’t mind mounting in his bedroom, and Steve his. The party upstairs winds down, scatters apart, and still, they tour the gallery together, admiring the art as the hours creep later.
Neither of them feels the need to be anywhere else.
Blearily, he peers up at Steve. “What?”
“There’s an attack. Downtown. We need Iron Man.”
Tony groans, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hands. “Great.”
His voice is wrecked, not enough sleep and too much of Dummy’s favorite coffee-whiskey-motor oil brew. Slowly, he lumbers to his feet.
Steve puts a steadying hand on his shoulder, but all it does is put Tony off center. He falters, glimpses his bare, scarred chest, and pivots to search for his shirt, freeing himself from beneath Steve’s rough knuckled grip in a clumsy swivel.
“I’m sorry,” Steve worries. “I know you’re exhausted.”
Tony shrugs. “Superheroing waits for no man’s beauty rest.”
Tony finds his white dress shirt draped haphazardly over the coffee maker – probably in an attempt to hide it from his bots.
“Aha,” he cheers, shrugging it over his shoulders.
He had come straight to his workshop post gala. He always needs space to breathe after those things. Too much caviar and cloying perfume, and too many people who make him feel like they’ll pull him apart at the seams.
Besides, in the run up to Pepper’s wedding, he doesn’t think he can take many more formal events in a single week.
He fumbles with the first button at the collar, yawning, then starts when Steve’s fingers graze his navel. Tony’s hands drop limply to his sides as Steve begins buttoning his shirt from the bottom up, his thick fingers surprisingly gentle as he works up the row.
It’s an incredibly intimate thing to do, but neither of them says a word. Steve’s lips are quirked in a small, sweet smile. Tony swallows drily and tries to keep his heart from thundering.
It’s only when Steve steps back that Tony manages to fully exhale. He’s dizzy from sheer proximity.
“So,” he tries, realizing the whole moment came to pass in less than thirty seconds. He motions for FRIDAY to get the suit ready for him up on the helipad. “Bad guys?”
They trudge up to the roof of the Tower, Steve hovering a careful hand below Tony’s elbow. Clint is waiting for them at the top. He sees Tony’s face and goes, “Oof, hard night? Sorry, Stark. Villains are like Santa Claus. They see you when you’re sleeping.”
“You should do what I do,” Bucky adds.
“Sleep in a Faraday cage?” Tony asks, because among other things, Bucky’s suite actually is one. Per his paranoid request, of course.
Bucky grins toothily. “Don’t sleep at all.”
Steve makes an indignant noise, and Bucky rushes to say, “Joking. Joking. Of course I sleep. Tony made it so that my suite makes ocean noises.”
That’s true, but Steve doesn’t look like he believes it.
“Right,” Clint interrupts, before Steve can start mothering or Tony can object that mostly, he already does the no sleep thing, thanks. “None of you have healthy REM cycles, okay, and not one of you should be giving advice.”
Steve opens his mouth. Clint shakes his head. “Not a word, Captain Binge-Watches-Soap-Operas-At-Two-AM.”
“That’s a really long pet name,” Steve says. “I like Tony’s better.”
Tony gives Steve a not very discreet middle five. “Snookums!”
“Except that one.”
“What about you, Barton? I didn’t know you owned a tux.” Tony screws up his face and yawns. “Are you allowed to be fancy? Don’t you have kids to bother?”
“Peter’s watching them. Laura and I were going to hit the town.”
“I’ll warn Manhattan to prepare itself. What first? The Lion King on Broadway?”
“Har har har, Stark.”
“Are you at least paying our most junior Avenger for his services?”
“No.” Clint breaks into a grin. “He turned down my cash. I love that kid.”
“At least buy him a pizza.”
“Can’t. Bucky beat me to the punch.”
“Bucky…wait, did you finally beat him at assassins?”
“Finally? I’ve got moves!”
Bucky shakes his head.
Tony says, “It had to happen eventually, I guess.”
He’s waking up, adrenaline high in his veins. There are many, many strange things about this superhero business – teammates can turn to enemies and back just as quickly, and all that spandex – but Tony lives for the moments like this, riding high on a battle soon to come.
Clint tells him, “You’re a dick.”
Tony steps into the waiting shell of his suit – he notices Steve giving it a not-so-discreet once over for rust – and prepares to leap off the Tower. It’s always the best way to end an argument.
His boot’s on the ledge when Steve calls, “Wait!”
Tony turns his head quizzically. “Do you need a ride, Cupcake?”
“False alarm,” Steve says.
“False. Alarm?” The modulated voice of the suit isn’t great at scandalized, but Tony tries. “What kind of false alarm?”
“The kind that was a real crisis but then T’Challa fixed on the way here.”
“Alright!” Clint declares, “Hamilton is back on!”
Tony rolls his eyes and snaps off his faceplate. “Tourist.”
“Is T’Challa back?” Bucky asks Steve.
Puzzled, Steve taps a few buttons on his fancy commander tablet. It’s not really that fancy and Tony can see everything he’s looking at in his HUD, but he doesn’t want to ruin the illusion. “En route, I think.”
Bucky turns tail and bounds back into the common area. Tony gives Steve a pointed look, like, see?
Steve ignores him. Steve’s getting really good at that. Soon it’s going to be almost impossible to get under his skin.
Tony sheds the suit but tells FRIDAY to keep it warm for him. She says something mean back because all of his creations loathe him and love him in equal measure, much like his friends, family members, and the general population of America. All is as it should be.
He’s barely stepped foot in the living room when T’Challa makes it in the door. He’s easy grace and too much humility – stopping a super villain on the way home? That was nothing.
Bucky doesn’t think it was nothing. Bucky is talking at T’Challa with more volume and verbiage than Bucky ever uses with anyone else. It’s rare, the way he’s lit up.
Tony decides to prove Clint right – he is a dick – and tells Steve out loud this time, “See?”
“For the last time.” Steve throws up his hands, “Bucky and T’Challa are not dating.”
Steve might use a little bit of volume himself.
“Uh,” says Bucky.
“Erm,” says T’Challa.
“Oh my Asgardian gods,” says Tony, gesturing wildly. “I’m a genius.”
“You’re kidding me.” Steve makes a face that is somewhere between fish and aneurism. His hands clench into fists.
T’Challa’s expression is one of a man who never kids.
Bucky repeats, “Uhhhhh.”
Steve emits an offended noise, but he manages to muster up that Captain America dignity. Then he says, “I can’t believe you wouldn’t tell me.”
“Steve,” Bucky says. “Come on, it’s-“
No one finds out what it is, because a patented Captain America temper tantrum is in full swing. Steve doesn’t quite storm out.
It’s more like decorous marching.
“Don’t worry,” he assures them. “He’s not upset. Just disappointed. I hope we can all be sensible about this and not create any diplomatic incidents.”
T’Challa snorts softly. “Give him time.”
At first, Tony thinks the words are meant for him, but then he notices the way T’Challa touches the Winter Soldier’s arm.
Ew, Tony thinks.
Then he scurries, because it is so not his job to make Bucky Barnes feel better.
Outside the common area, Steve’s standing with his back against the wall, staring at the paint with an intensity that makes Tony worry it’s going to crack. “Hey there, soldier.”
“I don’t mean to brag, but I was so, so right.”
“Not the time, Tony.”
“You’re right. Obviously, you’re right. But I have to ask, Cap. Are you…in love…eurgh…with Barnes?”
Steve is startled. “What? No!”
“Absolutely. Sure. It’s only that your reaction back there was a tad…dramatic,” Tony explains. “Yes, that is definitely the word I’m looking for.”
“Ah. It was, wasn’t it?” Steve winces.
He winces again when a shout comes from the living room that clearly indicates Clint’s decided now is the opportune time to start up air soft assassins again. The guy has trouble reading a room sometimes.
Serenely, Tony says, “Toddlers have lesser tantrums.”
Steve turns endearingly red.
“Honey pie, don’t fret. I’m the king of public meltdowns.”
That gets Steve to crack a smile. But it slips too soon. He sags back against the wall. “I used to know who I was. And Buck. And this city. But the city’s changed, and so have I. What I fight for. Who I fight with. Other things…”
He says the last part meaningfully, as though Tony should know what those other things encompass.
He doesn’t. He wants to, but he’s still learning his way around Steve. There are questions he can’t ask.
Steve continues, “Bucky was the last thing I could rely on.”
“You can rely on me,” Tony offers, without thinking. Obviously, because reliable isn’t even a word he understands half the time.
But Steve seems to accept the offer easily, nodding. He says, “Did you really think I felt that way? About Buck?”
“You used to,” Tony says, and then he slumps. “Can you blame me?”
“Well. I thought, what with you and I-“
“You and I?” Tony asks sharply. “What about – uh. You and I?”
Steve clasps his hands. Like a fricking boy scout. “Tony, you know that I. I feel.”
Tony waits, because he has no idea how Steve feels.
Steve clearly doesn’t either. He blinks, stalled out like an old car. Without meaning to, Tony steps forward. And Steve, impossibly, goes stiller.
“Steve,” Tony says. He can feel the reverb of his own voice in his chest.
“Tony,” Steve replies, low and raw. There’s this too-heated moment where Tony would swear that Steve might kiss him.
But it passes.
That moment always seems to pass them by.
“This. Is pathetic. Whatever is happening here does not deserve to be called a party.”
“No strippers, Boss,” Happy replies, with all the cheer of a man in blissful, stupid love.
Happy shakes his head adamantly, still grinning, and Tony slumps back into the couch. The couch loves him. The couch never rejects his brilliant ideas.
Steve pats Tony’s shoulder with a mockery of sympathy, but that’s to be expected. Steve is too classy for strippers.
Rhodey probably wouldn’t mind strippers, but all of Rhodey’s focus is centered on the video game Peter’s currently whupping his ass in. He’s all disbelief and muttered curse words. And Bruce is just a lump in one of the reclining chairs, a cup of steaming hot herbal tea soothing the beast within and all that.
Worst party ever.
True, this isn’t Happy’s real bachelor party. That’s planned for later, with a group of his boxing buds, and Tony has gracefully bowed out of the festivities. He gets a kick out of palling around with Happy’s friends, the few times he’s done it. But this is Happy’s day, and he’s Tony Stark. Whether through resentment or awe, he doesn’t want to distract any of the guys.
And maybe, a little, he’s worried they’ll call him out for being there. Pepper’s ex, crashing the fun.
Tony refocuses his attention on Steve, and Steve’s marvelously blue eyes, which are admittedly looming close enough that Tony’s breath shrivels into a half-gasp.
“I never understood strippers,” he says, and absolutely no one in the history of eternity is surprised.
“Boy scout,” Tony manages, forcing oxygen back into his lungs.
“Only conceptually,” Steve agrees, like the Boy Scouts of America haven’t granted him honorary membership. “Core values are important.”
Tony nuzzles against his arm, in part to avoid Rhodey’s full body swerve as he rapidly moves with the game controller, and in part because Steve’s biceps are silky smooth, rock hard heat. Mmm. “You would say that.”
“I suppose I’m predictable.”
“Constant,” Tony amends. “It’s comforting, all that consistency.”
“Guys, guys,” Happy announces. “I can’t thank you enough for being here.”
“Uh, we’re always here,” Tony responds, because hey, he owns the building.
Happy is as undeterred in his delight as ever. “It means a lot. I know most of you only know me as Tony’s sidekick-“
Here, Rhodey makes a scoffing noise, and Tony isn’t sure if it’s because he’s the sidekick or if it’s the concept of Tony having a sidekick. Happy assumes the former, course-correcting, “-as one of Tony’s sidekicks, don’t you worry War Machine, but even so. I consider all of you a part of my extended family. Except maybe you, Steve. I don’t know you that well.”
Steve has the audacity to cringe. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to crash.”
“No, no! The more the merrier.” Happy gives him a good-old fashioned slap on the shoulder. “It’s good to see the Boss so happy.”
Tony bristles. “Not you too!”
“What?” Steve asks.
“Nothing.” Tony leaps to his feet, ready to defend his own honor. “Hap, a word?”
Happy nearly tumbles over himself in excitement. “Right, you want to talk about the best man speech! I’m not saying you have to drop a line in about heroism, but-”
“No. Not. What? No, buddy.” Tony tugs him into the adjacent kitchen in a poor attempt at gaining privacy. He hisses, “Pepper is poisoning your mind.”
The grin drops right off of Happy’s face. Heavily, he says, “I was worried something like this might happen.”
“I’m- what? Happy! I’m not- okay, at the beginning, I was a little jealous. But this has nothing to do with that. You and Pepper are rock solid.”
He brightens. “You think?”
Tony takes a deep breath. Maturity time. “I don’t think she’d be marrying you this week if that wasn’t true.”
“Right. Right,” Happy agrees, like he still can’t believe this stupendous thing is happening to him. Which, it’s Pepper, and he has every right to be starstruck, but that’s so beside the point at the moment.
“You can’t believe anything Pepper says about me and Steve,” Tony insists, by and large because everything he’s said to Pepper on that subject was told to her in confidence, upcoming marriage vows be damned.
“Pepper hasn’t said anything about you and Steve. Except that you’re both stupid,” Happy replies, puzzled. “Incredibly stupid. Massively stupid, really – but nothing other than that.”
“Gee. That’s…swell. Okay. Just making sure.”
Happy nods. This all probably makes perfect sense to him. It doesn’t make any sense to Tony, but then, nothing involving Steve ever has. “But Boss?”
“Steve likes you. Everyone can tell.”
“Not everyone,” Tony tells him, wincing. He can smell pizza grease, cake icing, and despair in the air, months past trauma flooding back.
“He does,” Happy says firmly. “You should go for it.”
“Okay, no. We’re not doing this. I don’t pay you for romantic advice.” Tony pushes Happy back out into the living room. “Get out here. Play your damned video games. Watch Rhodey lose spectacularly-“
“Hey!” Rhodey yelps.
“-I’m going to go order strippers.”
“No strippers!” Happy chirps, and that’s just. Ugh.
Tony plops back down beside Steve, who gives him A Look. “What was that all about?”
“I don’t know,” Tony grumps. “But it was all your fault.”
“Genetically engineered kittens,” Tony moans. “The idea seems so harmless.”
“Kittens love birds,” Sam says mournfully. He’s still coated in a thin veil of spit. “What time is it?”
Tony pulls up the display on the suit.
“Shit. Time to go, buddy.”
Sam frowns down at his clothes and echoes, “Shit.”
They trudge back to the Tower, utterly defeated in how ludicrous their lives are. The only person home to complain to is Bucky. He’s laying splayed out on the couch, watching a documentary on penguins with rapt fascination. The only thing he says when they walk in is, “You’re dripping on the carpet.”
Sam makes sure to loom over him, sharing the moisture. “Where is everyone.”
“Out.” Bucky lifts a shoulder.
“Even Steve?” Tony asks, stepping out of the armor.
“Even Steve,” Bucky agrees, which is…odd, but Tony figures he had something else to tie up before the big event.
Sam changes extraordinarily faster than Tony manages. He’s got that military routine down. Plus, Tony spends a fair bit longer than he should in the shower, dousing himself with a steady stream of steaming hot water and trying to psych himself into some form of excitement. It doesn’t totally work, but at least he feels a little bit better.
When he walks out, suited up real pretty-like and not a trace of kitten saliva to be seen, Sam says, “Next time, we only answer the call for something normal. Like a death cult.”
“Death cults!” Tony says with glee. “I can deal with death cults.”
From the couch, Bucky drawls, “Gosh, Stark. You’re more excited about death cults than you are about this wedding.”
“You’ve caught me out.” He turns to Sam. “Want to go back to the giant kittens?”
“Suck it up, Avenger.” Sam grabs Tony by the arm. It’s comforting rather than rough. “Besides, I hear you’ve got a hot date.”
“Is that supposed to be more or less frightening?”
“Definitely more,” Bucky says. “You don’t deserve him.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
Sam shrugs. “I bet, if you tried, you could figure out how to deserve him.”
That’s…something Tony didn’t know.
He opens his mouth to say something sassy, but all that emerges is a meek noise. So he smoothes back his hair and asks Sam if he’s interested in driving the Maserati to the church. He gets a resounding yes, followed by half an hour of impending cardiac arrest.
Sam doesn’t know the meaning of the word slow.
The reach the elaborate, gothic cathedral right in the heart of midtown with minutes to spare. Tony tumbles through the back entry and into Happy’s anxious arms mere moments before they’re supposed to take their places at the end of the aisle. “Boss! I was worried you wouldn’t make it.”
“Ye of little faith. There were kittens…” Tony pats Happy’s cheek, un-creasing the worry lines in his forehead. Happy doesn’t care about the kittens, not right now. He asks, “How are you feeling, champ?”
“Scared,” Happy says. He’s heart-wrenchingly honest. “What if this isn’t…?”
“Isn’t what?” Tony prompts.
“Isn’t the right thing to do? What if I mess this all up?”
Tony squares his shoulders, places his palms on Happy’s shoulders. “Happy. Do you love Pepper?”
“More than anything,” Happy says immediately.
“Then it’s absolutely the right thing to do. Let’s get out there.” He goads Happy out into the church proper. Time to face the music.
The ceremony is an even mix of Avengers, business contacts, Pepper’s college friends, Happy’s boxing buds, and various family. Pepper’s maid of honor is Natasha. Her bridesmaids are Maria, Hope, an unfortunate looking cousin, her reasonably attractive secretary from SI, and an old college roommate.
Her PA is over on Happy’s side, along with Tony. But being on Happy’s side doesn’t stop every single bridesmaid from giving Tony a death stare when he stumbles up into place, perhaps a little out of breath and shiny-faced with sweat.
Thank Christ Pepper hasn’t made his grand entrance yet. Barely, though. The orchestra strikes up a new song, and it’s go time.
Pepper’s wedding is beautiful, by and large because Pepper has impeccable taste. Tony can’t take an ounce of credit for it, and he doesn’t want to. He stands quietly beside her and Happy, in a place of honor, beaming with pride.
But no face is as bright as Happy’s; this radiance is shining from his pores.
And here’s the thing:
Tony wants to die a little, but he’s also oddly delighted.
He loves Pepper, more than he ever thought he could love anyone, and he loves Happy, who has never been anything other than loyal and adoring. They positively glow in each other’s presence. It’s great.
Sure, a little piece of Tony still wishes it was him in the tux, waiting to be with her for the rest of eternity, but they’re elated, and he can’t fault them for that.
And honestly? He’s also a little bit…well, relieved.
Nostalgia and affection for Pepper have been a razor’s edge of constant pain in his life, recently. He’s wallowed in it, even as Steve eclipsed all that.
Letting go feels nice.
Nice, and big, and scary, like flying a nuke into space.
Like honestly, finally growing up.
It’s a strange mixture of emotion, and one he’s not ready to deal with. So he loses himself in the ceremony, in the words of love and binding, of joy and wonder. The pastor’s words float over him and sink into his bones.
Once or twice, Tony has the presence of mind to search for Steve in the crowd, particularly while Happy is giving the bride the deepest kiss of her life. But he never finds him, and it doesn’t occur to him to be concerned.
At least not until he sees Clint, waiting by the back pew.
“Tony,” Clint says, when Tony manages to fight his way through the crowd waiting to congratulate the happy couple. He’s in civvies, inconspicuous. “There was an armed attack in a civilian area. Steve was there-”
“And not here,” Tony says, and then, a bit guiltily, adds. “It was lucky Steve was there to help out.”
“No, Tony. You’re not getting me. Someone’s taken Steve.”
He feels those words like a kick to the teeth, blood on his tongue and a skull-shattering jangle overloading his brain. Everything numb, for a second or five right after. Then, “What the fuck do you mean?”
The immobility in his spine dissipates as quick as it came.
He hears Clint’s explanation in jolts and starts. The SI model sentries, holding vibranium chains. The news clips of Captain America being overwhelmed. The way he crumpled to the pavement when they finally took him.
The realization is poison, dripping down the back of his throat. Tony swallows it down. He needs a plan. He needs backup.
Half the Avengers are in Pepper’s wedding party – hell, Tony is too, but no way is he making anyone else skip out. He doesn’t want to steal away Pepper’s guests, or cause any kind of panic. Besides, not even he is low enough to steal a bride’s thunder. So he quietly asks Clint to run comms.
“What are you going to do?”
“Don’t worry, Hawkguy. I’ve got a plan. And backup.”
Clint’s going to worry anyway. He’s almost as much of a mama bear as Steve. But they’ve been teammates a long, long time now. Clint trusts Tony more than he doesn’t.
Making excuses to Pepper isn’t as hard as Tony expects. She’s rosy with adoration, her and Happy posing in front of Peter and his ratty Nikon out, away from the guests.
“Pete, can we have a sec?” Tony asks. The kid beams, awestruck by how opulent the whole ceremony of being wed is. “Sure, Mr. Stark.”
“Tony!” Pepper kisses him on the cheek.
Happy kisses him on the other, prompting Tony to say, “No, we don’t do that now.”
“Sorry,” Happy replies, but he’s got zero guilt about him and clearly intends this to be a thing. Tony sighs.
“The ceremony’s lovely,” he tells Pepper and Happy. “I particularly like how, uh, white everything is.”
“Tony,” Pepper warns, even if the fond smile doesn’t drop off of her face.
Happy beams, “Thanks, Boss.”
“Anyway, I’ve got to run.”
“On my wedding day?” That gets the smile to go away.
Pepper is outraged with him. It’s an everyday occurrence, but Tony still regrets it had to happen today.
“Sorry, Pep, I’ve got a world saving emergency. I’ve got to save Steve, from,” Tony waves a hand in the air. He won’t tell her the truth – Hammer’s shenanigans nearly got her killed last time he was a free man. She doesn’t need that kind of stress now. “You know. I don’t know. Maybe a death cult? Or something mutated. A thing. It’s important.”
Pepper sighs, her fingers curling tight, then uncurling just as quickly. “Or you’re trying to get out of an awkward situation.”
“Why can’t it be both?” Tony grins winningly.
Pepper hesitates. “If this is uncomfortable for you-“
“No, hey. Pep.” Tony takes a deep breath.
He’s not going to ruin this for her. For once, he’s not trying to steal anyone’s thunder or be a handful, even if that’s all he knows how to do. Hating every second of this conversation, Tony says, “Pepper, just because you know how to handle me doesn’t mean you should have to. Don’t worry about me. I need to- Steve. I need to get to Steve.”
“Okay,” she says, and she is as beautiful as she’s ever been, in her veil and her mascara and love a blush high on her cheekbones. She squeezes his arm. “Do what you have to.”
“I really am sorry.”
“And I…I’m really glad you came.” She kisses him on the cheek, a softer, more nostalgic thing. “It wouldn’t have been right without you.”
Tony grins. “If I can make it back for the reception, I will. Promise. I wouldn’t want to miss this guy try to cut a rug.”
He slaps Happy’s shoulder, and Happy bristles, even as he brims with laughter. “I’m an amazing dancer!”
Pepper is laughing too now, and Tony somehow knows everything is going to be okay.
“Amazing!” Happy insists.
Tony leaves them like that, picture perfect and teasing. It’s not time for him to get the fairy tale. Not quite yet.
He’s left the suit behind. Just this once, in his whole wretched life, to honor Pepper, the way he couldn’t when they were together. Bad opsec on his part, right? Superheroes never get a day off.
But t’s for the best, anyway. Pepper would never forgive him if the Iron Man shot like a bottle rocket out of her reception, unseating the floral arrangements and causing chaos.
Okay, Pepper would. Tony would kick himself a few times, though.
He loosens his tie, yanking so hard the whole thing comes undone. He requisitions a car from the valet – not his, some sleek, old Lincoln, a classic in ice blue – despite protests, and guns it back to the Tower. There, he parks on the curb, glibly letting FRIDAY know to ring his own valets.
A car that pretty doesn’t belong in impound.
Then he’s in the elevator, panicking, panicking – until he steps on out, straight into Bucky Barnes’s face. Bucky’s holding a grilled cheese between his teeth and a video game controller in his hands. He cuts his eyes at Tony warily, caught out with greasy hands on the couch. But all Tony says is, “Suit up, Jim. They’ve got Steve.”
That’s all he really has to say.
“Wish every bad guy had their name emblazoned outside their door,” Bucky says idly, while Tony tries and fails to comprehend what is happening.
“One, why would Justin Hammer take Steve? I think prison broke his brain. Two, how did Justin Hammer take Steve? He is one hundred and ten percent not smart enough for that. And three, what the hell is he doing to Steve?”
“I don’t know.” Bucky enunciates. He hefts his trusty bazooka on one ripped shoulder. “Let’s find out.”
Tony sighs. “I told you not to bring that thing.”
“You wouldn’t let me bring Redwing.”
“Redwing is Sam’s.” To his credit, Tony does not mention what good coffee Redwing brewed.
Bucky sulks anyway, shoulders slumping. “Sam’s at the wedding.”
“Aw, Comrade. Feeling left out?” Tony taps his own cheek, giving every appearance of thoughtfulness. “You could be at the wedding too. Pepper’s classy – I know she invited you. Against my better judgement, I might add.”
“Steve told me not to come,” Bucky grumps. “Said it wouldn’t be appropriate for Miss Potts, seeing as I killed the founder of her company and all.”
Tony winces. His hands automatically curl into fists, and he has to force himself to release them. For the briefest moment he feels his mom’s cool fingertips against his forehead, hears the tenor of his dad’s voice. But then it vanishes.
They’ve been gone a long time, and it really, really wasn’t Bucky’s fault.
“There’s that.” Tentatively, he pats Bucky’s bazooka. “Life’s rough, kiddo. But you know, not that rough. I did make you a suite with ocean noises.”
Bucky brightens. “I like the whale sounds. And the loons.”
He imitates a loon call. Tony is so out of his depth here.
“Why don’t we go save our damsel, hey?”
Bucky straightens and clears his throat, the picture of soldierly embarrassment. “Sure.”
“Okay. I’m glad you like the loon sounds, buddy.”
“Thanks for that.”
“Thanks for not murderizing me in my sleep. And for shooting Clint in the knee the other day. I appreciated that.” Tony appreciates any day no one catches him in the crossfire.
“Clint’s wife didn’t. She made me apologize.”
“Laura’s good people.”
“She is,” Bucky says fondly.
It hits Tony then, what people mean when they tell him he gave them a family.
With Pepper, with Steve, everything was so organic, so easy, so obvious – of course he would provide for them. In any way he could. But with a guy like Bucky? Somehow, Tony’s managed to outmaneuver himself, to put someone he has no business caring about in a position where they are forced to care and be cared for.
He’s so used to making sure his Avengers – his team – are happy, healthy, and comfortable. All the closeness, the fuzziness that comes with it? It’s secondary, and unintended.
Even so. Sometimes, intent doesn’t matter. Tony still accidentally on purpose did good.
He tells Bucky, “I’ve got your six,” because cognitive dissonance doesn’t mean they’re not on a mission. They’ve got a super soldier in distress, days to save. Same old.
Bucky moves along the wall with careful steps, stealth a thing that lives in his marrow. Tony follows behind, pace slower and less graceful. They make it to the door with zero incidents, which is not...usual, for entering a bad guy’s lair. But they step through anyway, traps be damned.
The air smells of musty disuse. The entire lobby is all threadbare carpets and lead paint on the walls.
“I never knew retro had a smell,” he tells Bucky.
Bucky lifts his metal shoulder, an apathetic shrug. But then he says, “Put on your mask.”
“I don’t want Steve to bitch me out if you get shot in the face.”
“That might be the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me.” Tony blinks back the rest of the garishness. The whites of his eyes are stained red, less bloodshot and more blood-tinted. He rubs his knuckles across them and sighs, “Right. It’s Hammer time.”
Bucky misses the reference, or doesn’t care for it, or doesn’t hear it, whatever. He stalks forward with predatory grace. Tony follows behind at a slow hover. The joins in the armor are nearly silent, but not completely, and he’s going for as incognito as possible, here.
He murmurs, “What’s the plan here?”
“We kill them all,” Bucky says confidently, one hundred percent filled with Soviet murder-gleam.
“No. No, we don’t…kill…anyone. Ever. If at all possible,” Tony says faintly,
“Relax, Stark. I was fucking with you. I’ll shoot to disarm, if I can.” When Bucky doesn’t get a response, he waves his metal fingers in front of Tony. “Hello? Avenger? You there.”
“I’m having some incredibly weird PTSD right now, maybe you could lay off,” Tony snaps, thinking about murder and the Winter Soldier and his mom, and Bucky has the decency to respect his space for all of half a second.
All that bonding outside, gone.
“Freak out later, work now.” Bucky points up ahead. “We’ve got the opposite of friendlies.”
He’s right. The robot guards blocking the path look familiar.
“Fuck me,” Tony curses.
“Pass,” Bucky replies flatly. “Are those…?”
“My cutting edge tech? Yes.”
“Huh. Hammer must have hacked it.”
“I can’t be hacked.”
Bucky grimaces pointedly.
“I can’t.” Tony frowns at the sentries, which are painted black. With flames. Talk about gaudy. “Especially not by Justin Hammer.”
“Maybe we should drop by. Ask him how he did it.”
“You read my mind, Barnes.”
“While we’re at it, we can ask why he’d kidnap Steve.”
Tony lifts one shoulder. “I’m formulating some guesses, now. Professional jealousy?”
Bucky snorts. “Of course you find a way to make this about you.”
“Whoa, there, Jim Jam. I don’t begrudge you your bespoke villains. Which are who again? Oh yeah, the American public.” Tony doesn’t even need Steve’s chiding voice saying his name; his shame is instant. “I’ll admit, that was a low blow.” He shifts on his feet and says, “I’m worried.”
“Me too,” Bucky replies, and it’s as close to a truce outside the loons as they’re ever going to get. “Let’s find our boy.”
Like every mediocre villain, Hammer is far from the action, manning the controls of his lair in a well-guarded, strategically placed room. Except here, manning the controls means playing Candy Crush, well-guarded means Tony and Bucky barely broke a sweat defeating Hammer’s cronies, and strategically placed means the most obvious, plushest corner office in the building.
Sure, they had a little bit of trouble with the sentries, but hacked or not, the metal-heads are still Tony’s tech. As for the human element, well…
“This is just insulting,” Tony says, the modulated voice of the armor strangely dull in the sound-proofed office space.
“Gift horse. Mouth,” Bucky intones.
“Gift horses are where all the Trojans live.” Tony frowns at Hammer. “So where’s the trap?”
Hammer, as he is wont to do, sputters a bit before he recovers. “Anthony!”
“Justinius,” Tony replies, quite politely in his opinion.
A furrow appears between Justin’s eyebrows. “You know that’s not my name.”
“Justinata? Justinator? Justintta? Ridiculously formal names for Justin are hard to come up with.”
“Must you call me Anthony?” Tony squints, observing the view – it’s the outer reaches of Brooklyn, always greener than one would expect from a sprawling borough. “What’s the game here?”
“Game?” Hammer asks innocently, gaze darting towards Bucky every half second or so. “This isn’t – ah – a social call?”
“Please. I’d have to like you for that,” Tony retorts.
Bucky huffs a laugh, but regains his composure with practiced restraint. “Where is Steve?”
“Steve? I’m afraid I don’t know anyone by that name.” He addresses one of the lackeys Tony and Bucky jumped outside his door, now bound and gagged, slumped against the far wall. “Do you know a Steve?”
The lackey fervently shakes his head.
“Quit the act,” Bucky growls, gesturing expansively around the office. Which, yes. There is that. “Steve.”
Hammer’s guiltless act, while disingenuous, won’t stop. He splays his hands, leans back in his chair. “Sorry, fellas. I’m at a loss.”
It just happens to be really hard to buy when his walls and desk are plastered with Captain America memorabilia.
‘Buy War Bonds!’, Cap declares from a poster over Hammer’s head. A kitschy Cap clock ticks away next to that, and below it, a glowing, plastic rendition of Steve’s shield sticks out of the wall – the kind they sell at superstores, in aisles next to Tony’s mask or Bruce’s big, green fist.
There’s a replica of the plane Steve went down in hanging next to a limp fern, and a true to life cardboard cut-out of Steve in his USO gear in the corner. The desk, as the piece de resistance, is lined with no less than a dozen framed newspaper clippings of Steve, doing good deeds all across Manhattan proper.
Tony acknowledges, “It’s good to see you’ve moved on to other obsessions. I…really hope you didn’t have this kind of collection when you wanted to kill me.”
Hammer bristles, “I would never kill Captain America! He’s a hero!”
“So you do know something?” Bucky glowers.
Hammer shifts. “Erm.”
“You’re really upping the creep factor,” Tony tells him casually. “It’s very entrepreneurial.”
To his right, Bucky’s mouth presses into a straight, flat line. He’s never been one for banter. “I’m going to ask one more time. What. Have. You done. With Steve?”
The angles of Hammer’s face settle into a mask of fear. “You’ll never break me!”
“I’ll have a real good time trying,” Tony growls, but the suit modulates it into something less sinister.
Usually the digitized voice ups the intimidation factor for bad guys, makes him always seem calm and in control, but in this particular case, Tony wants Hammer to hear the murder in his voice.
He starts forward, servos whirring, and drags back his fist.
Bucky stops him.
“What, you’re anti-violence now?”
Bucky bares his teeth. “Leave him to me. You find Steve.”
“Why should you get to have all the fun?” Tony pouts.
Flatly, the Winter Soldier replies, in all his scary glory, “Because I’m trained in enhanced interrogation techniques.”
“Sure. Good reason.” Tony flashes Hammer a one fingered salute, “Try not to cry too loudly.”
“Wait. No. You can’t- don’t leave me with him.” Hammer pales. Tony’s already backing out of the room. “No. You can’t. You think you’ll get away with this, Anthony? I will be avenged!”
He calls back, “I know a team that can help you with that,” but he doesn’t wait to find out what Hammer will say. He’s got a super soldier to find.
He’s got a friend to save.
Steve is in a room swathed in sheer curtains of sea foam green and indigo, fuchsia and cobalt and saffron. There are pillows in plump, disorderly rows along the floor; it’s all very bohemian, except for the very naked, very pissed off super soldier sulking in the middle of it all.
And the Hammer logos, of course, obsequious on the ceilings, the light fixtures, and vaguely visible through the fabric on the walls.
But Tony wants to go back to focusing on Steve. Who is naked. And shackled. Shackled and naked, which Tony feels ways about.
He tamps down on every single dirty thought his mind throws at him and sets about this very important task of rescuing. “Honey, I’m home!”
Steve’s lips press into a thin line. “Very funny, Tony.”
“I thought so. Quite the temple you’ve got dedicated to yourself here.”
Vibranium chains. Huh.
Flatly, Steve replies, “Hammer’s lost it.”
“He never had it,” Tony murmurs, crouching down beside Steve. The shackles are strong, super-soldier proof to be sure, but not particularly hard to pick. Tony could have cracked these locks before he learned to form words. “Free at last.”
Steve rubs his wrists as the metal falls away. “This is humiliating.”
“It’s sweet that you’ve got fanboys.”
“Kidnapping is not sweet,” Steve rebukes him. Then, his eyes grow wide. “Tony, oh. Pepper’s wedding!”
Tony winces. “Yeah, that’s over now.”
“Tony, no. You shouldn’t have left.”
“What was I supposed to do?” He gestures expansively down Steve’s body. “Leave America in chains?”
Cheeks flushed, Steve bites out, “You could have sent someone else.”
Tony grits his teeth. “No, Steve. I really couldn’t’ve. You okay? Hiding some psychological trauma?”
Hellbent on arguing, it takes Steve a moment to change gears. Earnestly, he replies, “I’d like to send Justin Hammer to prison now, please.”
“Barnes is already reeling him in.”
Surprise lights Steve’s features. “Bucky’s here?”
“He’d of shot me if I left him behind.” Tony shudders.
“I’ve never seen you two work alone, together.”
“Clearly.” Steve swallows. “I appreciate the rescue.”
“Ain’t no thing.” Tony is looking quite firmly at a tangerine colored pillow. The alternative being all that skin, which Steve appears to be in no hurry to cover up. “Say. How ‘bout pants?”
“Probably a good idea.” Scrambling to get dressed, Steve crouches low, throwing aside pillows while he searches.
He’s making it really hard for Tony not to look at his ass.
“Stark.” Bucky’s voice crackles over the comm. “Is Steve secure?”
“I’ve got him locked down,” Tony says. Not looking, not looking.
Bucky’s voice comes back, softer this time. “Is he okay?”
“Peachy. I mean, I was expecting less nudity,” Tony says, glancing from one wall to the next. “Considering the potential apocalypse of it all.”
“Do I want to know?”
“That depends. How familiar are you with Steve’s ass?”
The lines goes dead. Tony guesses things with Hammer are going okay. That or Bucky just got punched in the face.
The thought gives him some mild satisfaction.
Steve doesn’t chide him for teasing Bucky, which is a first. But Tony has a feeling that Steve is still a bit miffed about the whole secret relationship aspect of his best bud’s life, so he doesn’t press the subject. Instead, he tries not to watch Steve search until Steve lets out a loud, angry huff and announces, “They’re not here?”
“Hammer’s last traces of sanity?”
“My pants.” Steve sends a speculating look towards one of the long, silky curtain things. “I guess we have to improvise.”
“Do we, though?” Tony asks plaintively. His mouth so isn’t connected to his brain sometimes.
Steve actually grins, even as his cheeks are tinged pink. “Enjoying the view?”
“Honestly, I’m trying really, really hard not to look.”
“Don’t strain yourself on my account.”
“Oh, trust me, Cap.” A wink, a leer. “It’s difficult.”
Laughter bursts from Steve’s mouth, short and gruff. He actually chucks Tony gently on the chin before ducking away again. “You know, this wasn’t really how I pictured this day going.”
Tony obediently tilts his head back toward the ceiling, which is not nearly as nice as Steve’s butt. “Thought you’d catch the bouquet?”
“I’d envisioned more…romance?”
“Oh, you’re one of those wedding guests. I bet you shed a tear every time the happy couple kisses.”
“I meant romance with you.”
The bluntness is what throws Tony off track. Not the words. Not at first.
Then they sink in and he says, “What?”
Never one to shy away from a fight, Steve straightens. “You heard me.”
“But. What?” Flabbergasted doesn’t look great on Tony. Especially while he’s wearing a war machine that makes him seven feet tall, every awkward motion made bigger.
He chooses to shrug off the discomfort, opting for mild outrage. “You…you don’t want anything with me.”
It’s Steve’s turn to be puzzled. “I never said that.”
“Not in so many words.”
“Tony. What on earth are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about a few months ago. At the pizzeria. When you said you didn’t know how you felt about me. That you were figuring things out.”
“I said that,” Steve agrees, clearly bewildered about why it matters.
He’s got his hands on his magnificent hips now, and Tony can’t even appreciate it. “I know a blow off when I hear it, Steve.”
Steve’s mouth drops open, his lips a perfect ‘o’ of slow, simmering anger. “I wasn’t trying to reject you. I was thanking you for letting me take it slow.”
“Take what slow?”
“You. Me. Us,” Steve practically yells.
“There’s an us?”
“I thought so,” he replies quietly. He’s stopped looking at Tony, examining one of Hammer’s gaudy logos on the ceiling. “Now I’m not so sure.”
“No, no. I-I like the idea of us,” Tony’s voice is gruff, throat raw. All the guns he had blazing for Steve’s rescue are cooled in the face of this. Of hope. It doesn’t hurt that Steve is still very, very naked. “Soooo. What you’re saying is…you do like me?”
Steve’s gaze snaps back to him. “Objection. Leading the witness,” he snarks, but he’s soft and slightly rough in that way he only gets when he’s trying not to show he’s nervous. “I should have said something sooner, I guess. I…I don’t know how this works.”
“Me either,” Tony tells him. “And I’m supposed to be the expert.”
Steve cocks a brow. “No one has ever accused you of being an expert at love.”
Tony throws up his arms despairingly.
“Why won’t anyone read my Playboy special?” Then he pauses, dumbstruck. “Love.”
“I think we might be past the crush stage, don’t you?”
“Crushes are for preschoolers,” Tony agrees, a low tingle spreading all over his body, accompanied by the sudden clarity that only comes before a fight. “Want to seal it with a kiss?”
It’s cute that Steve goes bashful, ducking his head. He mumbles, “You’re trying to make me blush.”
“I am transparent that way.”
He wants to say something else, nonsense words that he keeps stocked in the arsenal of his vocabulary. But Steve says, “Oh, shut up,” and plants one on him, dead on the lips. And who is Tony to argue with that?
It’s the kind of melting kiss that only results from desperation and adoration, comingled and set to boil. It’s like sunlight is sinking into Tony’s bones, setting him aglow.
Then Steve’s hands settle on his hips and more insistent warmth takes over.
He kisses Steve back with a year’s worth of enthusiasm and pent up frustration. It’s better than he remembers, especially when the blunt tips of Steve’s fingers skim over Tony’s hips and around, down, cupping his ass through the armor. Granted, Tony can’t feel it, but that’s easily remedied.
“Hold on,” he says, mumbling into Steve’s mouth, “Just one sec.”
Steve’s a gentleman. His hands fall to his sides almost immediately, disappointment flooding his expression. But that vanishes as soon as Tony shucks the suit, understanding taking over. Tony practically falls into Steve’s waiting arms.
Steve kisses him again, deeper this time, and the soft warmth lighting Tony’s marrow slips into something sinful, wanting. Tony murmurs, “We should probably-“ he gasps as Steve does something particularly clever with his teeth and tongue. “-stop.”
Steve draws back again. He’s still real, real naked.
He’s still incredibly gorgeous. Tony swallows hard and tries not to stare at the half-hard length of Steve’s cock. Steve asks, “Is that what you want?”
“Not even a little bit. But I’ve got a reputation for, uh, slutting sluttily, etcetera, and I’m ninety nine percent certain there are cameras in here.”
Steve lifts one perfect, blond eyebrow. “Performance anxiety?”
Tony might swoon. “Never. Are you saying you want to-?”
He’s already thinking about how to get FRIDAY to grab the security tapes. But he stops himself, adding, “You wanted to take it slow.”
“We’ve been taking it slow,” Steve replies, settling his hands against Tony’s waist. He presses himself close and tight against the line of Tony’s body, a dark, dangerous thing dancing across his face. Then. Then.
Steve falls to his knees and presses a chaste kiss against the inseam of Tony’s trousers. He says, “I think I’m ready to move a little faster. Aren’t you?”
Tony can’t help himself. “Is this a trick question?”
“Then it’s just a stupid question.”
Steve beams, his breath hot over Tony’s crotch. He pulls down Tony’s zipper with his teeth, which.
“You’re fucking obscene,” Tony tells him, chucking him right under the chin. He’s so humbled right now. He pushes his slacks off with happy abandon.
Steve’s mouth is on the inside of his knee, and Tony is losing it completely. He bunches his fingers in Steve’s hair and yanks him to his feet, scrabbling friction.
“Maybe later. Want to test out that upper body strength of yours?” Tony asks, and Steve looks like he feels the words flutter in his stomach, turning everything warm.
There’s this moment where Steve lifts him off the ground, his skin Touching Tony’s, nothing short of miraculous. They scrabble against each other, Tony exploring the line of Steve’s throat with his mouth, the two of them falling back into a mountain of pillows.
And, well, Tony’s not as young as he used to be – or as flexible, when it comes down to it. He’s been spoiled, too, by a special brand of bedroom theatrics from ladies and gentlemen hellbent to impress. But he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve and a whole lot of enthusiasm.
Besides, Steve’s the kind of good old fashioned boy who is less likely to be wowed by sexual gymnastics and more likely to be undone by how much Tony’s heart is in this.
He doesn’t just want this; he wants Steve. Beautiful, hard headed, self-righteous, selfless, wonderful Steve.
Steve straddles Tony’s thighs, posture soldier-straight, face like an avenging paladin. He’s so serious, eternally stoic. But all that intoxicating focus of his, it’s square on Tony. He wraps his hand around Tony’s length, moves quick and smooth.
Tony swallows against the desert his mouth has become. He chokes out, “Easy there, soldier. I’ve got a heart condition.”
That’s a lie, a blatant one, Tony’s heart is better than new these days, but so far no one’s asked the intimate details of his Extremis ordeal, and he hasn’t offered, so. It’s better than admitting he’s nervous, right? Wrong.
Steve’s momentarily abashed, his respective grips on Tony’s hip and cock loosening.
That won’t do. “I’m kidding, I goof. Ticker’s working fine, right on schedule. Please don’t–“
Go, Tony wants to say.
Stay, he wants to beg, because if this keeps on, he might not last.
Steve tightens his hand, and oh. Tony wants to give Steve everything. He wants to give Steve more than hand jobs in a Hammer-approved sex dungeon. But how he hopes that will come later, because he can’t halt what’s happening now. Steve’s body is lean, strong. Sleek musculature rippling beneath perfect skin. He’s crafted like a Greek statue, like everything Tony thought he would be. Tony can’t help but touch him back, rough-calluses stripping Steve’s cock until he’s moaning, until he envelops Tony’s hand in his own and works the both of them.
For this one moment, they are a crescendo.
Then they devolve into something messier, a little bit desperate, Steve’s hand on both of their dicks moving faster and more frantically.
Watching Steve move over him is like staring at the sun.
Tony can still see his afterimage burned on the back of his eyelids, even when Steve comes. Even when Tony follows him right after.
“What do we do now?” Steve asks, as Tony cards his fingers through Steve’s hair.
“Get the hell out of here,” Tony shudders. “Before Hammer sees and takes it as an invitation.”
Bucky clears his throat in Tony’s ear. “I took care of Hammer.”
The comm. Oops. Tony forgot about that.
Tony touches the device. “Great. Um. Did I…turn this on recently?”
“Recently. Yes.” Bucky grunts in a way that conveys distaste, apathy, and a leer all at once. Tony gulps, and even though Steve can’t hear the other side of the conversation, he goes pale.
There’s two ways to play this, so as usual, Tony chooses the worst possible one. “I didn’t know old Jimbo was such a voyeur.”
Bucky makes an indignant noise. But to Tony’s surprise, Steve leans in low and close. He murmurs, “Anything to get his jollies, eh, Buck?”
Tony laughs, startled. “Don’t encourage him, Captain. He and the King might ask to join in.”
“I’m interested,” Bucky deadpans.
Tony turns off his comm. He meets Steve’s grin. “Don’t even think about it. We’ve got a party to go to.”
“Pepper’s reception should be an all-night shindig.”
Worry crosses Steve’s features. “Are you- will you be okay?”
“For fuck’s sake, Steve. It sucks, dealing with my ex, but I’m a grown up, and I’m in love with you. I thought that part was obvious by now.”
It takes Tony a few beats to figure out why Steve’s face goes slack, and what he’s actually said. And then a few more, because he’s never said the L word first before.
He didn’t even know he was capable of it.
Stunned, Steve is all cow-eyed and ridiculous. Tony wants to give him a bag of jellybeans and a pat on the head. But he supposes he’s already done the emotional equivalent of that, because Steve moves even closer. “Do you really mean that?”
Valid question. Tony says a lot of meaningless things. Byproduct of deeply loving to hear himself talk.
“Yeah,” he agrees, tasting Steve on his lips. “Yeah, I really do.”
They make it to the reception right as the main course is being served. The string quartet is playing a soft, lilting melody, and the skyscrapers loom brighter than the stars. Central Park is alive with crickets just barely surviving the winter freeze, but inside the tent, space heaters create a cozy, close space.
“Tony!” Pepper cries when he limps in, and if he ever doubted she wanted him around, he doesn’t know. She’s surrounded by vases of flowers and lantern light, the scent of bouquets and wax thick in the air. She envelops both him and Steve in a hug, and murmurs to Tony, “You look like you’ve worked things out.”
“Busybody,” he hushes her, but tightens the hug back. “Have I told you how proud I am of you two?”
Pepper pauses. “Not in so many words.”
“Well. Before I forget.” He flashes her a smile, full of everything – his well wishes, his thankfulness, his love. She helped form him, made him good enough for this, for Steve hanging off his side. “You and Happy are going to have an amazing life.”
She laughs, a little bit dazed. “I know.”
She beckons them both up to the main table, where they’re fed choice cuts of prime rib, a myriad of colorful, seasonal vegetables, and more cake than Tony knows what do with. And afterwards, the band strikes back up again, and Tony looks to Steve with more delight than he ever thought he’d be able to muster here, in this place. “I believe you were looking for some romance?”
He holds out his hand.
Steve laughs, brilliant in the dim candlelight. “Are you going to show me how it’s done?”
“I was thinking you’d take the lead.”
Steve leans over his chair and kisses him, soft and full of promise. “How about we figure it out together, hmm?”
Tony’s okay with that.
One Year Later
“And that’s that, folks. I saved the guy, and then I saved him a dance. And one for the bride, and one for the groom.” Tony opens his arms wide to the room, several Board members staring at him, completely appalled. Tony notices one lady’s particularly wide eyes and tells her, “And I saved one for you, too! Boy, we cut a rug.”
“I remember,” she sniffs, reclining haughtily in her ergonomic chair.
Tony remembers too. The reception was a blast.
It could have been more of one.
Tony’d offered to build Pepper a suit as a gift to wear to it. He’d even named the thing Rescue. But she’d declined. Which, fine. The suits aren’t really great for dancing anyway.
And wow, did he and Steve dance.
There was a lot of other mushy crap, like staring into each other’s eyes and maybe more groping than Steve usually prefers in public. The entire shindig was great.
And life with Steve, now, is even greater.
“Mr. Stark,” one brave Board member ventures. “This is a lovely story and all, but I’m not sure we needed all that exposition. Particularly the last bit.” He glances towards a woman fanning herself. “Is there…perhaps…a point in all of this?”
“Oh! I’ve left out the best part. Steve and I are getting married.”
“What?” Steve squawks over the other end of the line.
“I’m thinking we call it the wedding of the century.” He splays his hands on each word, little starbursts. For effect.
“No,” Steve says flatly, but Tony can imagine the slight crinkle of skin by his eyes, the way he gets when he’s trying to keep a smile from bursting forth. “If you call it that, I’m quitting the team.”
“Sure, baby.” Tony suggests innocently, “The millennium?”
“We’ll talk it over.”
“We’ll fight it out,” Steve corrects, as prissy as he ever gets.
“We always do.”