Steve chews his lip as he approaches the bottom of the cliff. Dark trees bow in the light wind, framing a single silhouette winging its way across the evening sky. Steve readies his sword as a tinny growl rattles the vines draping the mouth of the cave.
His eyes never leave the screen. "Distract me from winning this level and I'll reprogram the coffee machine to make all your espressos room temperature."
There's no reply, so Clint must be sufficiently cowed by the threat. Steve squints at the approaching boss, swinging his avatar's blade. Up, down, spacebar, spacebar, X, X, up, down, up, left, left, up, space bar -
"Yes!" The horned beast whimpers as it crashes to the floor, ugly face slapping up a puff of dust. His avatar does a victory jig.
Steve checks that the camera is trained on the screen and carefully hits the spacebar again. Just like reports say, something flashes across the screen too fast for him to read. Steve sighs, roll his shoulders, and hit S to save the game. He spins around in his chair to crow at Clint about his victory -
That's not Clint. Tony Stark leans against the door to Steve's cubicle, one eyebrow raised.
Steve nearly swallows his tongue. "This - uh, this isn't what it looks like."
Mr. Stark blinks at him, gaze barely skimming over the top of his gilded sunglasses. "So you're not actually playing Lethal Rage IV during company hours?"
"Well, yes, but-" Steve's face burns. "Look, I interned for Hammer Industries-"
"And you've infiltrated SI with the intention of causing my downfall by playing with virtual swords instead of engineering?" Mr. Stark pauses, considering. "That's actually more creative than most of Justin's plots. I'll have to send him a fruit basket. An automated one, maybe, that throws tomatoes. Tomatoes are fruit, so they can go in a fruit basket, right? That seems reasonable? I could buy a farm to grow tomatoes, so I can throw them whenever I want. Maybe two farms. I could use them at board meetings-"
"Sir," Steve interrupts. "I'm not plotting your downfall. And I don't work for you."
"Sure you do, this is my building, my company, my people, unless they've staged a hostile takeover without letting me know, which could happen, but Pepper would tell me. Probably."
"My company's leasing this floor," says Steve. "We've been here since February."
"A likely story. And you're still playing video games at work."
"I just-" Steve wonders how to explain. "I helped program that game, so I feel a proprietary interest in it. So when I heard there was an Easter Egg in this level I hadn't designed, I needed to-" He waves his hands at the camera on a tripod peering at his monitor. "You know."
"Oh." Mr. Stark tilts his head, staring at Steve with intense eyes. "You wanted to know who was messing with your program."
He exhales. "Exactly."
"Huh." Mr. Stark nods sharply, then flashes him a smile, leaning against the cubicle's entrance. A burst of heat explodes in Steve's chest because, damn, the tabloids don't lie - Tony Stark is gorgeous. "I understand. I'd do the same if someone tried to mess with my bots. They're mine, you hear me? Nobody gets to touch them. Can you send people a memo? To the whole tower, that's a good idea. Tell everyone they're not allowed to touch the bots, unless somebody's bot-sexual and it's consensual, in which case I'll need to start making upgrades, lots of upgrades. You'll take care of that, won't you -" Mr. Stark glances at the name on his cubicle- "ah, Mr. Steve Grant?"
"I don't work for you," Steve reminds him.
Mr. Stark makes a face. "Then email my CEO to email me. Establish communication. You have an excuse to network with one of the smartest women on the planet, don't pass it up."
"An email, then. I'll let her know you don't want anyone touching your bots." Steve manages not to add 'non-euphemistically.' He grabs a pen - with feathers, thank you Darcy, that looks so professional - and writes down Mr. Stark's instructions on a Post-it note.
Mr. Stark nods, pleased. "All good, then. Keep on doing - whatever you're doing. Tomatoes. That's right, you're building me a fruit basket that throws tomatoes at Justin Hammer."
"Again, I don't work for you."
Mr. Stark frowns, but before he can reply, a feminine voice behind him asks, "Tony, what are you doing?"
Steve shrinks lower in his ergonomic seat. He met Ms. Potts when his design company moved into Stark Tower, and she still scares him.
"Steve here was agreeing to build me a fruit basket to hurl ripe tomatoes at Hammer during press conferences."
"Tony." Ms. Potts sighs. "We can't throw produce at our competitors."
"Actually, we can. If Steve hides the spring-loaded tomatoes behind the apples and oranges and whatever the hell is usually in a fruit basket, we can get it close to Hammer without him realizing, and then-"
"No, Tony." She shakes her head. "Come on, we have a board meeting about the Casket."
"That's why I'm here, I don't give a fuck about my dad's big secret, the message he left said he'd left ultimate power in the hands of wiser generations. Do I look wise to you, Pepper? Wisdom throws me off groove. We should be suing the Post for leaking the story. We've got lawyers. Don't we have lawyers?"
"Yes, and no, we won't be suing anybody. Sorry for the intrusion, Mr. Grant." Ms. Potts grabs Mr. Stark's arm and drags him away.
Steve lets out a deep breath and run a hand through his hair. Talk about memorable first impressions. Stark is another one of Fury's superheroes; maybe Stark's style is talking villains into submission. If that had worked back in the forties, Becca could have won the war for them.
Bucky's sister vanquishing Hitler. That's an AU he could suggest on one of the fansites Charlie showed him.
Still, tumblr must wait until after work. He exits the game, Java API open in the window behind it. He needs a stronger grasp on Pixel objects for the meeting this afternoon.
Tony's met your special project
Tell me they didn't break anything.
Or each other.
As far as I can tell, your man offered to build Tony an exploding fruit basket
Of course he did.
Keep me posted.
And don't let Stark screw him up.
Steve doesn't actually need to be here. An email or a memo would have worked just as well. Still, he wouldn't want Mr. Stark's plot to be discovered by his enemies - not Hammer, especially - and that's why he's visiting the man's office in person, not because he can't stop thinking about Stark's visit.
He steels his nerves and knock on the frosted glass door. Steve's a little surprised that Mr. Stark doesn't have a secretary to regulate his visitors - but then, it's not like he's CEO anymore, Mr. Stark never seems to be in his official office as head of R&D, and all the SI employees act too scared to bother their resident genius. Maybe Charlie was right to call Steve five kinds of idiot for intentionally encountering the man, but-
The door buzzes open. Steve clutches the reinforced wicker to his chest and step through.
Mr. Stark is sketching something furiously on a transparent tablet, stylus vibrating under his fingers. He shakes his head without looking up. "Pepper, I've said it before, you don't need to knock, nobody knocks, it's old-fashioned, and it's not like anyone but you comes by, and we're having actual sex so I'd say knocking on the door is a courtesy we left behind long ago, don't-" He finally looks up at Steve, and his torrent of words stops so fast the momentum throws Steve forward in his proverbial seat.
"Hi," Steve says.
Mr. Stark's eyes narrow. "You aren't Pepper."
"But you're in my office."
"I did knock, seeing as we're not having sex." Mr. Stark's eyebrows shoot up. Steve flushes. "Not that I would insinuate - I mean, not insinuate, but-" Stop talking. "Fruit!" He shoves the produce at Mr. Stark, pretending his face isn't as red as the suit Steve's seen flying among New York's skyscrapers. (He did not almost walk into traffic yesterday scanning the skies. That would be ridiculous.)
Mr. Stark takes the basket gingerly, possibly doubting Steve's sanity, and peers at the arrangement of apples, oranges, kiwis, dragon fruits, and plums. "This is fruit," he confirms.
There's a pause. Will Steve need to hide in a hole for the rest of his life? He might be able to survive on mushrooms. He took a mycology course at some point. That's a good plan, yes.
"Is there a reason you're giving me fruit?"
Ah. He doesn't remember. Steve shouldn't be surprised. "It's a trap."
"Uh. Not a very effective one, if you're telling me about it." Mr. Stark tilts his head. "New at corporate espionage?"
"A trap for Justin Hammer," Steve clarifies. Mr. Stark looks nonplussed. "You asked me to make one when you came by my cubicle Thursday. I still don't work for you, but I had a couple hours after work, and the Maker lab was open." Retrieving the basket, Steve props it against his hip and flips back the fake grapes hiding the launcher. "See, the platform here is on a servo connected to a Bluetooth USB, while the other connects to this remote controller. That way someone in the audience can aim the tomatoes at Hammer's head." He disengages the launch platform to display the mechanisms below. "I've got the piston hooked up to batteries. I considered adding an engine, but Charlie thought it might be too loud and alert Hammer. I had to move the cortex to the side to make sure the metal didn't interfere with the Bluetooth signal, but I'm a little worried that the basket will seem too empty for its size…" Mr. Stark's staring at him. Steve trails off.
When the genius finally does speak, he sounds amazed. "You actually built it."
Steve crinkles his nose. "You asked me to."
"Yeah, no." Mr. Stark shakes his head. "I ask people to do things all the time. Pepper said you didn't have to."
Well, there goes that excuse. Steve's feet are fascinating and require a close inspection right this instant.
He could say he misunderstood, but that would make him look like an idiot. He could say he'd love to publicly humiliate Hammer - true - but Mr. Stark would want to know why.
Screw it, he'll just tell the truth and leave out the you're unrealistically attractive part. "I was at the rally in Times Square last month, when you gave your speech about the Paris Climate Agreement." That's been one of the hardest things to adjust to since his revival, the way the planet's being destroyed and nobody in power even pretends to be worried. "This was a thank you." Because Steve's a teenager with a handmade Valentine for his crush. Now he looks like a stalker and has convinced People 's Two-Time Sexiest Man on Earth that he's twelve years old. This day is going so well.
There's a long pause, and then - "You sure you're not interested in sex?"
Steve blinks. "What?"
"I'd have to talk Pepper around, and it's not like I prostitute myself for cool tech - although let's be realistic, if I was going to prostitute myself, it would probably be for cool tech. Don't tell Hammer that, but honestly." Mr. Stark plucks the basket from Steve's hands and tilts it left and right, analyzing every square centimeter. "This is quite possibly the nicest thing anyone's done for me in the last year. Two years? Well, Rhodey saved my life a couple of times. So did Agent, unfortunately." He purses his lips. "I'd offer them sex, but Rhodey would laugh me off, and Agent might faint. Which would make it worth it. Anyway, I was saying." He snags an apple from the pile and tosses it. Steve manages to catch, though he fumbles it when Mr. Stark smiles again. "Kindness. Hot."
Stay calm, he's joking. "I'm flattered, but I'd rather not die at Ms. Potts's hand."
Mr. Stark laughs. "She's intimidating, isn't she?"
Steve twitches at the sudden voice behind him. He tries not to cower as the woman in question strides around him into the room.
"You are, dear." Mr. Stark leans against the front of his desk and kicks his heel, grinning. "We were just discussing how dead you'd kill Steve here if I managed to charm him into bed."
Ms. Potts crosses her arms. "Leaving aside the publicity scandals and potential lawsuits, I wouldn't be killing him , Tony. I'd be killing you ."
The genius doesn't seem much bothered by the threat, leaping up from his seated position and spinning a globe with one hand as he swings back around to his side of the desk. "Look, Pepper, he gave me booby-trapped fruit!"
"How nice," Ms. Potts says. "R&D wants you to know they can't accept the title block for the low-friction joint you sent them last week." She pulls up a schematic on her tablet. Steve chokes on a laugh - in the space for revision number, Mr. Stark has scribbled i dont know what day it is why the fuck would i know how many of these there are THIS IS THE GOOD ONE JESUS FUCKING CHRIST .
"This is the good one, it says so. Hire better engineers if these can't read."
"Steve knows what I mean, don't you, Steve? See, Pepper, Steve is on my side. I have a single friend in a vast world of enemies and boring people."
"I'm sure Mr. Grant understands the need for effective communication."
"An idea's no good unless you can share it," says Steve, his CAD professor's voice echoing in his head.
"Traitor," accuses Tony. "I should have you fired for treachery. I pay you lot to stand around applauding, and this is all I get. Professional cheerleaders, you people, and failing at it. Pepper, why haven't we given them pom-poms?"
Ms. Potts smiles and pats him on the head. "Because this is a professional workplace. And I sign the paychecks. Thank you, Mr. Grant. You can go."
Steve nods and makes for the exit.
One foot on the door sill, Steve turns.
Tony taps a finger to his lips. "Do you think Agent would faint?"
Steve grins. "If he does, send me the video."
Tony's delighted cackle follows Steve out into the hall. It's not until he reaches his desk and spins around in his chair a few times that he realizes Tony remembered his name, and that Steve hasn't stopped smiling.
Also, the man's name isn't Tony, it's Mr. Stark.
This could be a problem.
By the end of the third week, Steve's sick of pining. It's not helping, it's not getting him anywhere, and it's not going away
The thing is, Steve should forget him. Steve should join Tinder or visit bars or cosplay Plato's Stepchildren Kirk at Comic-Con or write RPF about Tony and Ms. Potts to get it out of his system or something. He needs to quit pining after unattainable, unavailable, heroic, handsome, out-of-his-league Tony Stark.
He soon discovers the flaws in this plan.
First, the whole world is apparently obsessed with Tony. He's at the top of half the news websites on Steve's desktop. Stark Develops New Semiconductor. Stark Pays for Five Million Mumps Vaccinations, Says Anti-Vaxxers can "Suck His D*ck." Stark Change Siri's Voice to His Girlfriend's. Stark Saves Central Park. Stark Teams up with Hulk to Defeat Dr. Doom. Drunken Stark Hijacks Times Square, Rickrolls Hundreds. Stark Photographed with Abandoned Kittens. Senator Calls Drunken Stark a "Public Menace," Stark Retaliates that Senate is "Dumber than Stark Industries' Newest Blender." Stark Industries Blender Profits Soar. Stark Invents Voice-Controlled Car. Stark Refuses to Pursue Key to Galactic Casket. Stark Saves Statue of Liberty. It never ends.
Second, the few million lines of code Steve plays with for his team's new StarkPhone app are so elegant they're distracting. Charlie can rave for hours about the obscene perfection of Tony's for-loops. According to Clint, programmers' porn videos have started reading Stark Industries pirated code.
Third, it's not his imagination - the articles about Tony's alcohol-fueled exploits are increasing in frequency. Once, when Steve passes him in the hall, Tony's surrounded by a gin-scented miasma. Steve can't tell if that makes him feel more angry or disappointed. Both emotions seem too proprietary.
Fourth, Steve makes Tony laugh when they end up in the same elevator. As a graphic designer, Steve offers his professional opinion on the shag green-and-black carpet (hideous) and the elevator's triangular buttons (contrived). Tony says the carpet is intended to intimidate business partners. Steve asks if he includes Tylenol in his Stark Industries gift bags to help with rug-induced headaches. Tony comments on Steve's impertinence. Steve reflects on Tony's apparent aesthetic blindness. Tony looks Steve up and down and says he's not completely blind, just as the door slides open onto Steve's floor. Clint asks when Steve got sunburned as he passes through the break room on the way to his cubicle.
Fifth, there's that Thursday. After middle management shoots down the design for the website Steve's been working on for the last two weeks, he steps in gum on the way to lunch, and he gets in a fight with Charlie about his crashing code only to discover that importing only specific packages really does fix the problem, he finds a single tomato atop his second edition of Building Java Programs . The tomato is cherry red and squishy, and it's sitting on a letterhead sheet, across which someone has scrawled "Pepper says giving you the whole farm counts as harassment." When Steve turns on his computer, his background has been changed to stylized tomato plants, and his cursor is maroon. He laughs until he cries.
His friends are not much help. In a way, he supposes it's sweet that they care, but he has difficulty feeling gratitude when Darcy corners him in the break room. "You could always drop to your knees and see how he reacts."
Steve sighs and counts on his fingers. "One, no. Two, we're in a professional workplace, even if I don't work for him. Three, no. Four, he's got a girlfriend. Five, no , I've got my dignity. And six-" He runs a hand through his hair. "What if he wasn't interested?"
Darcy bites into a nectarine, leaning against the water dispenser and ignoring the liquid dribbling down her chin. "Then his loss. You pretend you're picking up a pencil you dropped. Easy." She shrugs, wiping her mouth on her sleeve.
He shakes his head. He can't believe he's even discussing this. "He wouldn't want to, anyway."
She narrows her eyes. "Dude. Have you seen you?"
"Yo." Clint and Charlie walk into the break room. Clint grabs a bag of Chips Ahoy from a box on the counter and rips it open.
Charlie gives Darcy a loose salute. "'Sup, bitches?"
Darcy smirks. "Steve's getting advice on offering Stark blowjobs."
Clint chokes on his cookie and starts hacking, while Steve hides his head in his hands. Charlie makes a face. "TMI."
"Dude," Clint says when he regains control of his windpipe. "You sure that's a good idea?"
"Are you kidding me?" Steve withdraws his head from his hiding place to glare. "Ms. Potts would eliminate me personally. She'd Doctor Strange me into a worm and then step on me in her heels."
Darcy wrinkles her nose. "Worm guts. Ew."
"Thank you for focusing on the most important part of that statement." Steve drags his fingers through his hair.
Clint studies him for a moment, then nods, apparently deciding something. "You'll work it out. Hey Darcy, think I can fit this entire bag of cookies in my mouth?"
Two weeks later, Steve's sitting at his desk again. The red letters in the console now report only 168 compile errors. He scrolls up to the line with the first error, and sure enough, the programmer has forgotten the escape sequence for a set of quotation marks. One tap adds them, and he moves the cursor back to the console, clicking the 'up' key once - javac WebsiteDesignLogo31.java - and hitting enter. 83 compile errors, now.
A chat box pops up in the corner of his screen: u ok?
Steve sighs, typing back: I'm fine, thanks. How are you?
Charlie: steve you need to learn to let go of spelling. this isnt a memo. u still debugging that intern's code?
He tries for optimism: This class at least doesn't seem to have any infinite loops.
Charlie: thank god for small favors
Hey u coming to lunch w us tmrw?
Steve: I'm looking forward to it!
The window closes, so she's gone back to work. Returning to the console, Steve rolls his shoulders and manages to knock a pen off the corner of his workspace. Just as he bends to retrieve it, the desk phone rings, making him jump and knock his head on the bottom of the tarred wood. Cursing, he pushes himself upright and fumbles for the landline, twining the curly wire around his left hand and slumping back in his chair. "Hello?"
"Steve Grant? This is Pepper Potts."
Steve sits bolt upright. "Ma'am?"
"At ease, soldier." She sounds amused, but there's no way he's relaxing. He reaches out and straightens the pencil next to his keyboard to make them both parallel to the monitor. "This isn't a business call. I have-" She pauses. "A personal favor to ask you."
To ask him? "What's wrong?"
"I need you to stage an intervention."
He frowns at the Hawkeye action figurine clinging to the corner of his monitor. "I don't understand."
There's a scratching in background, and he pictures Ms. Potts briskly filling out forms with both hands while a secretary holds the cell to her ear. "JARVIS tells me Tony hasn't left his lab in four days, which means he hasn't slept in at least four days. The lab has a coffee machine and smoothie, so that's all he'll have been eating."
"Have you considered buying him a panini press?"
A huff of air on the other end sounds suspiciously like a laugh. "Normally I'd drag him upstairs myself, but I'm a tied up in rather - ah, delicate business deals at the moment." Meaning multi-billion dollar affairs. "And Colonel Rhodes is in Germany, so I hoped you could help."
"Of course. What should I-"
"Short of killing him or sleeping with him, I give you permission to do whatever's necessary to get him into a bed."
For heaven's sake. Steve says with forced calm, "Despite what everyone seems to think, I don't intend to have sex with your boyfriend. Ma'am."
Good thing he doesn't work for SI. If he did, he'd now be fired.
There's a brief pause on the other end of the phone, but when Ms. Potts speaks again, she sounds a touch cautious. "You're right. I'm sorry."
Steve nods, even though she can't see him. "I'll head down there now."
"Good. Thank you, Mr. Grant." Ms. Potts disconnects. He replaces the receiver in its niche and stretches, his spine cracking. Mini-Hawkeye stares at him. Oh, what the hell - he tucks the toy into his pocket as he stands.
At 12:30 in the afternoon, the office is quiet. Charlie types furiously as he passes her on the way to the center of the building. Based on the green and yellow words flashing across her screen, she's either writing new scripts for the SI Health app or reprogramming the NSA's cameras to search for werewolves again. Just past the entrance to the main stairwell, doors of the elevator slide open as he approaches.
Steve steps inside only to discover the basement level has a lock instead of a button. He could call Ms. Potts back to ask how to reach her probably-delirious-and-possibly-armed beau, but she's obviously busy and (if memory serves) in Tokyo, which means the sleep deprivation issue is a case of the pot referencing the color of the kettle. Well, there's one thing he could - "JARVIS?" he asks in the direction of the ceiling, trying not to look like a student praying for heavenly assistance before a chem test.
"How may I be of assistance, Mr. Grant?"
Steve jumps at the disembodied voice, then laugh. "Gosh, you're more responsive than God ever was." Wait - do AIs mind blasphemy? "Or, well, at least more vocal."
JARVIS hums. "I'm sorry to hear that. My creator has always been distinctly outspoken."
That sounds like an understatement. Steve snorts. "I'll bet. Look, Ms. Potts asked me to force him to sleep. Would you mind taking me downstairs?"
"Certainly, Mr. Grant." They begin to descend. "Shall I alert Sir of your arrival?"
"Would that give him a chance to hide?"
"Then no, thank you."
"Very well." The doors slide apart onto a hallway with a frosted glass wall at the other end. When Steve presses his palm against a metal plate set into the crystal, a door swishes open.
The lab is something out of a teenage engineer's fantasy. Autonomous arm-bots roll over panels of grating that reflect the room's ambient violet light, straightening piles of wrenches and welding torches that gleam the chrome of highest quality. Countertops of blue glass display glowing schematics, some hovering half-out of the surface as holograms. Hums, crackles, and screeches of metal on metal resonate through the steel-tinged air.
"Dummy!" Tony's voice echoes from under the chassis of a half-stripped StarkCar. "I need - gimme - want - the thing, got it? The thing, I need it." One bot bumbles over to the car and sticks its hand under. "No, not that, I don't need that, why would I want a five-sixty-four? I said a three-thirty-two, I need it to - something. I should - leggo my leg!" Ignoring him, the bot just tugs harder, dragging Mr. Stark spluttering out from under the table.
Steve winces. The dark circles under Tony's eyes look like he walked into a door, then stepped back and repeated the experience a few dozen times. Burn marks spot his t-shirt, grime coats his face, and his hair is matted to his skull, and god damn he's attractive. Tony, for all his wealth, gets his hands dirty. If military officers did as well, lives would be saved.
He's startled out of his reverie when the bot's hand rotates, jabbing in his direction. Tony's gaze lands on Steve, and he frowns. "Didn't think I - don't remember asking you. 'M not done yet."
Steve doesn't like the hollowness of Tony's cheeks, which becomes more pronounced as he crosses the lab to stand above the inventor. "When did you last eat?"
"'S coffee count?"
Tony squints, sucking on his upper lip, before hazarding, "Monday...?"
"Jesus christ." Steve shakes his head. "Come on, you need to sleep."
No shit, Sherlock. "No, I'm Steve. Pepper sent me. I'm taking you to bed, and no , I will not be having sex with you."
"Pity." Tony rolls back under the car. "I need to finish this first, sleep can wait."
"No, it can't." Steve casts about for some option of subduing Tony Stark that doesn't involve a tranquilizer or Darcy's taser. "What's your bot's name?
"Dummy. Butterfingers is in the corner, and U is over there." A foot flaps, pointing out each bot.
"Dummy, huh?" Steve extends a hand, and after a moment the bot wheels over to lightly grasp his fingers in its claw. "Dummy, you think Tony needs a break, don't you?" The bot bobs its hand like a nod. "So do you think you could do me a favor and hide all the caffeinated coffee?"
"Hey!" Tony yells, scrambling out from under the vehicle as Dummy visibly perks up. "That's not cool! Dummy-" The bot races away with what can only be described as glee. "Dummy, don't listen to him! Bad bot! You don't even know Steve, how come he gets all the loyalty, huh? Do you two have a thing going? Is that it? Am I having my own robots seduced out from under me?"
"No one's seducing anybody." Steve offers Tony a hand up, which he ignores. "Dummy just likes me."
"That's not fair," Tony mumbles, rising to his feet and swaying.
"Well, sometimes you gotta take the crookeds with the straights." Steve debates looping an arm around Tony's shoulders as support, but Tony's not likely to accept that, so he just grabs Tony's arm and yanks.
Thank goodness, Tony doesn't fight him. "Is that our new hiring policy? That doesn't-" Tony stumbles a little as they enter the hallway. "That doesn't sound politically correct. Might get sued. That happens to me, and other people too, but mostly me-"
"It's August Wilson," Steve cuts him off, maneuvering him into the obligingly open elevator.
Tony squints. "Is he in HR?"
Genius and philanthropy must not leave much time for American literature. "He's dead, Tony."
Tony nods. "HR does that to people." He turns in a circle once, then again, finally seeming to register that they've left the lab. "Where are we going? Am I being kidnapped?" He jabs an accusing finger at Steve. "You're much nicer than the other kidnappers, but I still protest. On principle. Handcuffs would probably be a good idea, although they won't work, but hey, A for effort! Except that's bullshit, it's success that matters, not effort, I run a company, not a kindergarten." He blinks. "Where was I?"
"Getting out." They slow to a stop, but the doors don't budge. Before Steve can ask what's wrong, Tony lurches forward and types 25-15-21-24-9-14. The elevator opens, and he pulls away to cross the threshold unassisted, which is probably wise because Steve's stunned. The entrance room is larger than his childhood block. Wide windows let white light spill over space-age furniture and grey stone floors. Steve blinks at the contrast between the life-size portrait of Tony posing with his helmet against a boiling sky - this man, good lord - and the half-dozen mugs crowded on the nearest table. At least one is being used to hold screws.
"Ah! Room. Apartment. Suite. Floor? One of those, probably. Ooo, coffee!" He lunges for the half-full pot abandoned under a globe.
"No you don't!" Steve throws himself in Tony's path, which isn't the best plan because Tony apparently has no sense of balance at the moment and crashes into him. He falls, and suddenly he's got Tony goddamn Stark on top of him , which, no. Steve scrambles away. This is too close to the daydream that made him miss his Metro stop twice last week.
Tony blinks at him.
"Bedroom," Steve orders. "You're going to bed. No one will be joining you, so don't start."
He shake his head. "Come on, Tony." He heaves Tony to his feet and supports his weight as they shuffle through to a bedroom large enough to host the next Comic-Con, which he really shouldn't say out loud since Tony would probably take it as a challenge.
"Steve, bedroom, bedroom, Steve, introductions made, lovely, weapons under the side table, always keep enough to arm a small army, not that we need to, but we might, you never know, is that a new hair color? Or not, maybe not, did you know I solved the three body problem?"
Steve dumps Tony on the bed and folds his arms. "I'd be happy to hear about it as soon as you've gotten about fifteen hours of sleep."
"Fine, have it your way, I see how it is, Jarvis, take note, he's bossy, I should - should do something…"
Steve watches, bemused, as Tony's eyelids droop and his head falls back onto the pillows. He really must be tired. Within thirty seconds, his breathing evens out.
Steve walks out of the room as quietly as he can, closing the door behind him. His job is done, but it feels weird just leaving Tony there. Of all the people to need protection, a billionaire playboy is probably not at the top of the list, but still. "Jarvis?"
"Does Tony have any clean coffee mugs in here?"
"No, Mr. Grant, I believe they are all dirty or being used as tool receptacles."
"Doesn't anyone clean for him?"
"Sir prefers not to have people, as he puts it, touching his stuff. Cleaning staff are only allowed in the penthouse with special permission from Sir or Ms. Potts."
Steve frowns, considering the coffee pot under the globe, which may or may not be trying to create new life. "Do you think he'd mind if I stuck a few things in the dishwasher?"
He can sense the approval radiating from Jarvis, possibly because the lights in the room brighten, even though the AI's voice remains neutral. "I do not believe that would bother him."
"Great. Thanks, Jarvis." He gathers a few of the least moldy mugs, and Jarvis directs him to the kitchen area. He loads the dishwasher with the mugs and some dishes he'd found stashed in increasingly odd locations - he hadn't known it was possible to cram a saucer into a CD drive, but then Tony probably doesn't have much use for tech old enough to contain CD drives - and check the refrigerator. Ms. Potts left plenty of food, but it looks untouched. Steve bites his lip - but hey, he's technically on his lunch break.
Throwing together chicken noodle soup only takes about twenty minutes. He pours himself a bowl and stick the rest in the fridge. Labelling the pot TONY FOOD is possibly overstepping his boundaries, and leaving his Hawkeye figurine on top is probably even worse, but Jarvis doesn't object, so Steve risks it. By the time he's finished with his lunch, the dishwasher has also finished - Stark tech, hot damn - so he places a clean pot under the coffee maker, asks Jarvis to turn it on when Tony's about to wake up, and takes his leave.
He hesitates in the entrance, staring at the door to Tony Stark's bedroom. Jarvis says, "Mr. Grant."
"My databases have never been breached. I am the pinnacle of cybersecurity."
"Agent Coulson vouches for you, Mr. Grant. Your identity, therefore, is safe with me as long as you work in the best interests of Sir."
Steve holds himself still, though the implicit threat makes him want to bristle. "I'm a civilian, Jarvis."
"As you say. Have a pleasant afternoon."
News media is a distraction, and Steve is a professional. He doesn't pay attention to headlines when they pop up on his desktop. He doesn't care that Tony Stark and Virginia "Pepper" Potts Experience Romantic Trouble at Gala, or that Stark and Potts Argue during Press Conference . He ignores tabloids screaming that Break Imminent: Pepper Says Dating Tony is "Challenging" and Ladies, America's Most Eligible Bachelor is Almost On the Market!
So when Potts and Stark Separate! (The Story Behind their Tragic Breakup) shows up on the screen, Steve doesn't click on it.
If, when Tony arrives back at the tower, his bots have hidden all the hard liquor and his coffee has been switched out for decaf, there's no evidence suggesting that Steve was involved. Jarvis assures him of this. The AI is apparently very good at looping video feeds.
rhodey im fine i promise
its been five days
you can go now
i fuck up everything i touch, its an established fact, im over it
and could you turn off the beyonce music
its killing my man-angst
yes but rhodey i dont WANT to put my hands up
if you turn off the music ill make you lunch
In the interest of self preservation, I ordered in from McDonalds
You get one chicken nugget for every emotion you share
dont you have shit to be blowing up for uncle sam
Get out here and eat your fucking processed bird
"Never have I ever...set a friend up with someone they stayed with for more than a month."
Clint and Charlie both drink.
"Damn," Darcy whistles. "You guys are right little Emmas. Steve, your turn."
"Okay, um… Never have I ever flirted my way out of a speeding ticket."
Clint and Darcy toss back their drinks, while Charlie groans. "Dude, they've done everything that has to do with flirting. They've flirted with men, women, people of other genders, inanimate objects, abstract concepts, you name it."
"You including yourself on that list?" Darcy asks.
"Abstract concept of kickass," Charlie fires back. "Your turn."
"Never have I ever shot a gun," Darcy says, smirking at Clint. Steve taps his Dixie cup against Clint's and Charlie's, and all three of them drink in unison. The Sprite is flat from being out for so long, but Darcy insists on pouring all the cups before they start the game each week.
"Really, Darcy? Never?"
"I'm more of a taser girl. Shocking, I know. Clint?"
"Never have I ever been sunburned so bad I couldn't put on a shirt."
Steve picks up another cup. Darcy makes a face. "Does it count if I just didn't want to put on a shirt?"
"No, Darce. My turn." Charlie purses her lips, then grins. "Never have I ever kissed a boy."
Darcy, Clint, and Steve drink, and then Darcy processes what Charlie just said. "Wait, you've never-"
"You thought my hair was the only part of me that was flaming?" Charlie rolls her eyes. "Uh, no."
Darcy scrunches her eyebrows together. "Am I the only one here who didn't know Charlie likes women?"
Steve shrugs - he'd met Charlie at the City College Queer Student Union, and Clint doesn't seem much surprised either.
"Is that a problem?" Charlie asks, a hint of steel coloring her voice.
Darcy tilts her head to the side, resting her cheek on her palm. "Nope. So are you open to dating coworkers, and if so, you free Wednesday night?"
Charlie blinks. A wide smile breaks across her face. "Uh, yes, and absolutely."
"Does this make me a wingman?" Clint asks the room at large. Darcy kicks him under the table. "Steve, not Stark, right?"
Steve sighs. "Do I look like Coulson fired me for consorting with the enemy?"
"You're playing virgin drinking games with a bunch of degenerate coworkers after hours," says Charlie. "In the office. For the view."
But jesus, what a view. The break room overlooks the New York skyline, twinkling with glowing skyscraper windows and pulsing slightly from ever-changing advertising billboards.
And then the tower's lights go off, making it an even better view and plunging their quartet into shadow.
"That's not supposed to happen, is it," Clint says, sounding resigned. Charlie walks over to the window and peers out, but none of the other buildings seem affected. Darcy draws a taser out of her cardigan pocket.
"Jarvis?" Steve asks. His stomach sinks at the silence. "Jarvis, please respond. What's going on?"
"Uh, guys? You might want to see this." Charlie gestures downward.
Joining her, Steve cranes his neck to see the bottom of the building, where figures swarm. "The building's supposed to be empty," he points out. "To- Stark is at another fundraiser tonight. Perfect time for an attack."
He glances up in time to see Clint and Darcy exchange a look. To his surprise, a smile curls at the corner of Darcy's mouth. "They really shouldn't have picked game night."
"Hammer Industries, probably. I've got a bow stashed at my desk, but we'll have to leave Charlie somewhere secure," Clint says, stripping off his suit jacket and slacks to reveal a black tank top and - tights? Darcy mimics him, shimmying out of her cardigan and checking the buckles on her boots.
Steve has a really bad feeling about this.
"Hold on a sec," Charlie objects. "I'm not being left anywhere, and who put you in charge?"
Clint pulls a wallet out of his belt and flips it open. "The US government. Agent Clint Barton, spec ops. We were stationed here to keep an eye on Stark, and that's all you need to know."
"Agent Darcy Lewis, spec ops," Darcy agrees, tugging her own ID out of her boot. "Clint's showing me the ropes. I'm new, unlike grandpa here."
So much for having actual friends in this century. Steve crosses his arms. "Just to keep an eye on Tony?"
Clint flashes him a smile. "Fury likes efficiency. But we hang out with you because you're chill, not because you're a threat, Cap."
Steve flinches - he hasn't used that title in seventy years. Charlie gives him a concerned glance, liking the compromise of his secret identity no better than he does. She knows how much it took him to confide in her during college.
Clint - no, Agent Barton - no, Clint - closes the wallet with a snap. "You in or out for this one?"
As if there were any question. "I'm in," Steve says. "You need weapons, right? I know where there's an arsenal. Charlie and I can both shoot, and I have a bone to pick with Hammer Industries. Their company culture was misogynistic, homophobic, and more interested in profit than humanity."
"I wouldn't mind screwing them over myself," Charlie agrees. "You know where to find weapons?"
"Upstairs." Steve cuts his gaze between Clint and Darcy.
Clint bites his lip, then nods decisively. "More equipment could be useful. And I'm in charge of this operation, so if I say be a chicken, you squawk, got it?"
"Yessir." Steve salutes, his voice deadpan. "This way."
The elevator is offline, so after Clint retrieves his bow, they take the stairs. Steve winces at the clattering of everyone's footsteps but Clint's, since Clint apparently either is part cat or can float. Charlie's out of breath by the time they reach the top and are confronted with a keypad. "Dammit," she mutters.
"No, wait, I got this." Steve closes his eyes. "25-15-21-24-9-14." The keypad beeps as Darcy types it in, and the door swings open. The stairs lead into the same living room as before, just on the opposite side. "Kitchen to the right, bedroom to the left. Watch out for used coffee mugs."
"Steve," Charlie says tentatively from behind him, "where are we?"
"Tony's apartment, didn't I say?" He doesn't wait for a reply, walking briskly into the bedroom, which sadly doesn't have a hot engineer in it this time. "He said they were under the side table…" Steve crouches down, peering at the underside of the wood.
"He said? You don't know?"
"He only mentioned it in passing. We were a little busy at the time." There - a button hidden in a knot of the wood. Steve presses it, and a muffled 'christ!' behind him attests to his discovery of the weapons locker. He sits back on his heels and find himself eye-to-eye with Hawkeye - the figurine, that is. Tony keeps Steve's action figure next to his bed?
"Steve, why were you in Tony Stark's bedroom?" Charlie sounds stressed.
Given the attack, Steve can't blame her. "Because he doesn't know when to stop?" Steve grimaces, remembering how exhausted Tony'd looked in the lab. "So, weapons?"
"The best," Clint reports. "Pistol, repulsor, other?"
Clint tosses him one. He runs his fingers over the metal, checking that all is in order.
"Clint-" Charlie starts.
"I know," he says grimly. "I have first dibs on his ass."
Steve blinks. "Whose ass?"
Darcy knocks on the door frame, taser at the ready. "You guys ready?" Charlie shoves a pair of handguns like Steve's into her belt loops and nods, Clint giving her a thumbs-up out of the trapdoor at the base of the bed. "Then let's go."
The four rappel down the elevator shaft. Steve's glad he knows his way around wire, although Charlie doesn't seem too upset about having to hold on to Darcy. He doesn't like that they're bringing a civilian with them, but - he's seen Charlie in action. She can hold her own.
"Shoot to disable, not to kill," Clint says as they descend.
Clint pries open the elevator doors on the third floor, and they all swing out. Clint lands and draws his bow almost in a single motion. Clint takes point, the women following him side by side and Steve at the back, his gaze flickering to and fro. The building is oddly quiet.
Then it's not.
Clint barely has time to yell to "get down!" before gunfire rips through the air. Steve instinctively throws himself in front of Charlie - he can survive bullets easily, she can't - and she sways around him, firing past his ribcage just like they used to practice. A buzzing announces Darcy's taser as enemy after enemy go down with arrows in their limbs. A sniper has his gun trained on Clint, but then he's writhing on the floor and Steve's pistol has one fewer bullet.
Just like riding a bicycle.
This floor has rows of computers without cubicles, so Charlie and Steve slide behind a metal desk, Charlie peering around and firing off a few more shots. Clint and Darcy have already vanished around the corner, the invaders following. Steve needs to help them. "Can you cover our rear?"
"Never phrase it like that again and you've got a deal," Charlie says, reloading her gun. Her face is pale, but she's holding up well. "Go whack-a-mole 'em."
Steve salutes and vaults over the desk.
A couple bullets fly past him, but Steve isn't easy pickings. He fires in the direction of one shooter, ripping a monitor off a workspace and hurling it in the direction of the other. Both go down. The next room is a lobby. Darcy and Clint are pinned down, so Steve doubles back and runs through the corridor to another entrance. One of Hammer's men sees him coming at the last moment, but Steve clotheslines him, whirls him around, and flings him into a pair of his fellows. Two of the remaining shooters go down by arrows, one by a taser, and one by an StarkPad, the closest thing Steve could find to a frisbee.
"Charlie?" Clint demands.
"Here!" She runs in behind Steve, panting. "No baddies on the upper floors."
Clint nods, ripping a barbed arrow out of a fallen man's shoulder and rolling his eyes as the guy whimpers. "Then we need to secure the ground floor. Move out."
About thirty bullets, two minor flesh wounds, and an unfortunate couch later, they've made it down a level. Darcy uses her mirror to let them see over the railing: a figure in a dark coat manipulates a smoking machine on wheels. Guards with machine guns stand on each side of the contraption facing outward.
"Sloppy," Clint mutters. "They never think to look up. Third-rate villains are such a pain."
"Hasn't anyone radioed in our attacks?" asks Steve.
"Doubt it," Darcy says with a smirk. She pulls what looks like a combination of a TV remote and a microwave from inside her jacket. "Given that I'm jamming all radio signals. We'll apologize to Terry Gross later."
"Cap, I've got the North and West assholes if you can get South and East," Clint says, nocking another arrow. Steve nods. "On three. One, two-"
Steve throws himself over the side as Clint shoots, launching himself off the machine to tackle South. East twists around and yells, but Steve rolls out of the fall and shoves himself off the ground with his arms, catching the man in the gut with his boots. The man howls, curling over. Steve somersaults upright and punches him upside the jaw, knocking him unconscious.
The scientist guy twitches at Darcy's feet as she inspects the machinery. "Guys, I don't know what the hell it is, but I doubt it makes cotton candy."
"Can you shut it off?" Clint asks from where he's tying up their captives. Steve goes to help him.
"There's a passcode-"
"Stand aside," Charlie says, spinning the keyboard on its swivel post. Her fingers fly across the keys, her eyes narrowing as the machine starts to smoke. A giant red countdown clicks down on a plasma screen facing the front entrance.
Then several things happen at once. Charlie yells "booyah!", the countdown jumps to zero, Darcy tackles Charlie out of the way, and the contraption explodes.
As soon as his ears stop ringing, Steve gets up and looks around. He's not surprised that he's bleeding, a shard of shrapnel having taken a sizeable chunk out of his arm, but that'll heal in a few hours. Clint is using some kind of communication device. Darcy's got an arm around Charlie, who's hunched over, her shoulders shaking.
Steve joins them. "Hey. You okay?"
Charlie makes a noise that sounds nothing like a sob. Steve rocks back on his heels, grinning, as he realizes she's laughing hysterically. She shakes her head, panting for breath. "It blew up. It fracking blew up, that's so cliche, oh my god."
"You did great," says Steve.
"You bet I did. Corporate dicks everywhere, fear me."
Eyes bright, Darcy studies her. "That was crazy hot. So are you a 'wait for the third date before tonsil hockey' kind of girl, or-"
Steve gets up in a hurry, leaving Charlie to her blossoming blush. When he reaches Clint, emergency services are already massing outside. "Took their time."
"Didn't think anyone was in the building," Clint says, stretching out a hand that Steve shakes. "They didn't count on a bunch of friendless vagabonds playing drinking games."
"Virgin drinking games," Steve reminds him.
"With you, Cap, doubt they could be anything else."
Clint's smile thins. "At least I hope not."
Emergency Services choose this moment to decide approaching the building is safe, and a wave of concerned EMTs sweeps Steve away. They're really, really concerned about his arm, which is sweet, but Steve is fine. Honestly, he's fine. Yes, he's bleeding profusely, but he's had worse. A Nazi armed with a goat nearly took off his foot once. No, he's sure he didn't hit his head.
A familiar red-and-gold figure swoops in through the open door while Steve's being wrapped in a blanket. Tony's suit folds off, reassembling into a suitcase at his feet as he surveys the chaos. The nice EMT asks Steve questions while checking his pupils, which might be a problem because Steve suspects they may have just gotten a lot wider.
At some point in the chaos, Fury must have arrived, because he and Tony are arguing over by the souvenir shop, moving from next to the little Stark Tower snow globes to the remnants of Hammer's machine. Steve's a little surprised when Charlie joins them, but she did get the best look at its inner workings before it blew up.
Steve hates to interrupt them, but Fury's giving him the stink-eye that says he's either getting a lecture now or later, and Steve's never been much one for putting things off. Except for his date with Peggy, and wow, putting that off was a helluva mistake. As soon as Lisa, the nice EMT, finishes bandaging his injury, he heads in their direction.
"Steve!" Tony exclaims, lighting up. Steve tries not to react excessively at That Smile being directed at him. Then Tony notices the gauze wrappings, and his expression shifts to horror. "Steve?"
"He'll live, but thank you, that reminds me," Charlie says, before slapping Tony Stark across the face.
"Charlie, what on earth-!" Steve splutters. Fury chuckles.
"Uh," Tony says, raising a palm to his reddening cheek, "while I'm sure I deserved that, why…?"
"Steve knew his way around your bedroom, you asshole," Charlie hisses, tossing her ginger hair over her shoulder impatiently when it falls in her face. "He deserves better than to be your rebound."
"Uh," repeats Tony.
"Oh my god." Steve hides his faces in his hands. Ah, the sweet sense of humiliation. "Charlie, I helped him up to bed once after he wore himself out in the lab. Ms. Potts asked me to." The conversation earlier makes a lot more sense now.
"Oh." Charlie blinks. "Never mind then. Carry on." She goes over to check on Darcy and Clint.
"Your sweetheart, Mr. Grant?" Fury asks, putting extra emphasis on the surname. Apparently they're not telling Tony about his true identity.
"Given that she's lesbian, that seems unlikely. Also, Director, it's insulting to imply that any woman who defends a man must have romantic interest in him."
"You two know each other?" Tony asks, raising an eyebrow.
"'Course they do. Man In Black here probably had to take Steve in for questioning about his unnatural jawline," Clint drawls, joining them. He nods to Tony and Fury in turn. "Boss. Creepy guy in creepy coat who's definitely with the government." Based on the slight narrowing of Fury's eyes, Clint's messing with him, but Steve does have to admit the coat's a little creepy. How does it billow out behind Fury without a wind? "Figured you guys were the ones to tell - the heroes, they're gone."
"What?" Tony and Steve say simultaneously.
Clint rolls his eyes. "Beefy dude dressed like a patriot's wet dream? Crazy guy with arrows? Slightly hard to miss? You know, Steve, the ones who literally just saved our asses?"
"Ah," Steve says, hoping he doesn't sound as lost as he feels. "Those guys."
"They bailed," Clint says, and Steve finally registers that Clint's back in business clothes. Sure enough, when he checks his waistband, his pistol's gone too. Agents, jesus. "Said they had to wipe the tapes to protect their identities and poofed."
"Typical," Fury snorts. "Hawkeye's allergic to paperwork." Steve's eyes widen. Oh. Of course. Arrows. Hawkeye. Darcy's figurines suddenly have a whole new significance.
How many superheroes are working in this building? Despite Clint's claim, Steve doesn't believe his own presence is a coincidence. Fury's got a lot of explaining to do.
"Steve," Tony says, putting a hand on his arm, "you might not want to, ah, death-glare the Director. Pretty sure he'll string you up by your toes while mind-washing you with tangerines."
"I didn't have time for dinner before the bad guys attacked, okay? I'm delirious with hunger."
Clint mutters something that sounds suspiciously like 'more like thirst' and leaves, but Steve ignores him valiantly. Maybe he really did hit his head, though, because he hears himself say, "I haven't eaten either. There's a nice place down the street, if you'd be interested after we finish up all this." His stomach reminds him how flipping off a balcony feels.
And oh god, Tony's grinning. "Absolutely, if you don't think I'm overdressed. I'm overdressed, aren't I, I can fix that, there's lots of dust around here, I'm sure I can-"
"Stark," Fury cuts in, because oh right, he's still here. "I'll need you in the briefing. If this is Hammer's work-"
"Then letting him out of prison was a dumbass move, you don't need depth perception to see that."
"We'll feed you in the meeting. Come on."
"Steve, we need your help with some stuff," Darcy says, appearing. She raises an eyebrow at the hand Tony's still got on Steve's arm, which, huh. Maybe Steve's chances are better than he thought. "If you're not busy doing better things." Or people, he can hear loud and clear.
"Raincheck, then?" Tony asks. Drawing away, he pulls out a Sharpie and scribbles something on Steve's palm. "You can call me."
"Sounds good." Steve lets Darcy lead him away.
"Steve finally asked Stark out," she tells their group as soon as they join Clint and Charlie at the stairs. The squealing doesn't stop for several minutes, even after Steve politely asks Clint to shut up.
Remember the Easter Egg I told you about?
In Lethal Rage IV?
yeah, the one that you were playing when you met stark, you only told me about it five times
I finally looked at the footage.
A screenshot from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog flashes across the screen when you beat the boss.
You know, the "the other hammer is my -----" quote.
Signed "xoxox, Tony Stark."
what an icon
*Now* you like him??
anyone who drags hammer is ok in my book :D
"Hello, Ms. Bradbury."
"Um, hi? Sorry, you're number's blocked, who is this?"
"This is Agent Coulson. I'm with SHIELD."
"Would you like to explain what you're up to?"
"You mean the database I'm compiling? I've noticed there's been some inefficiency with the data on our health app, so I thought I could streamline how user information gets inputted into-"
"You know what I'm referring to, Ms. Bradbury."
"Uh, sorry, no I don't."
"Would you then care to explain why you're currently extracting funds from a private citizen's bank account?"
"Crap. Okay, fine, you win, but I'm not using the money myself! It's all being donated anonymously to the Human Rights Campaign."
"Which is why I'm calling and not handcuffing you right now."
"I know it looks bad, but honestly, with what Nick Spencer is doing-"
"Ah. In that case, carry on, Ms. Bradbury. Next time, don't get caught."
"So you're not going to - hello? Hello? Okay, you hung up. I'll hang up too. I - okay."
"I go by Steve these days, Director."
"You should think very seriously before giving me attitude, Rogers."
"Sir, I've punched Hitler in the face more times than Clint's played Farmville, so it's hard to be intimidated by a man holding a latte."
Fury leans back on his stool, and Steve silently thanks Darcy for suggesting this location for their rendezvous. Fury's easier to face over a peppermint mocha.
"We want you back, Cap," Fury says, staring through the window at people passing on the street. Scarves and knit hats, particularly yellow ones with eyes, seem to be the fashion of the day. Steve flinches as a young man on his phone nearly walks into traffic, but a girl grabs his hoodie just in time. "Barton tells me you're still good. New York needs some good these days."
"There's no war to fight anymore, sir," says Steve. "The bad guys are harder to spot."
"The bad guys, Rogers, tend to be the ones blowing shit up." Fury stands and addresses the back of Steve's head. "You're booked Thursdays, starting now. You and Clint've got bowling night."
"I didn't know Clint bowled," Steve says, swiveling around and giving the Director his best Captain America smile.
Fury snorts. "You seen him with projectiles?"
Can you watch Tony tonight? I'm in San Francisco, and I don't think a Skype call would have the same effect
But I don't get why he's upset
Mad scientist attacks happen all the time
The scientist lost his girlfriend to SI missiles in '03. He wanted revenge, apparently
A couple of the scientist's minions tried to capture me, but security took care of it
The hostages were all Tony's recorded one-night stands and dates
I'll look after him, don't worry
Steve calls from his desk phone, asking if Tony's free for lunch that day.
Tony's in a meeting.
Steve calls again two days later, wondering if Tony would like to have breakfast together.
Tony has a meeting that morning, sorry.
Would Tony be interested in having coffee sometime that weekend?
Steve wouldn't believe the number of meetings he's in.
No apologies get offered, no alternate times suggested. Steve can take a hint. He stops calling.
Surprisingly, the Director is true to his word. Clint only comes by to pick Steve after work on Thursdays, accompanied by the most terrifying woman Steve's ever met. Her name is Natasha, and she doesn't take any of Clint's crap. Charlie takes one look at her, squeaks, and goes silent. Apparently her hero crush on Black Widow is as long-standing as her love for Wonder Woman.
Returning to his training habits is like putting on the costume - awkward at first, but familiar. Steve already goes jogging in the mornings, but soon he finds himself stretching his runs out by three miles, six miles. People watch him when he's jogging, which has Steve taking various new shortcuts through Central Park every few days to avoid seeing the same people repeatedly. He's not sure what their deal is, but maybe they're noticing that no matter what Darcy says, these shirts really are too small.
Maybe he'd rather not know, he decides after he finds Charlie collapsed in a fit of giggles, muttering about how #DoritoRunner is trending.
Soon Steve's spending his weekends training too - he designs his and Clint's and Darcy's obstacle courses, learns codes, studies modern villainy and its accompanying socioeconomic effects. He'd never minded training, but he'd forgotten how much he enjoys practicing with a team. Nostalgia hurts - it always does - but he manages. Darcy tosses doughnuts that Clint shoots arrows through. Natasha and Steve only break the mat twice while sparring. Charlie drops by to watch sometimes, and Natasha improves her aim in exchange for SHIELD's files on herself and Clint. Steve doesn't want to know how Charlie accessed those.
Darcy invites them out for laser tag on her birthday. Steve apologizes and helps sweep up the ashes afterward.
He can feel himself falling back into old habits - "Dude," Darcy objects, "how can your posture get more perfect" - and can't decide if he's glad or not. If he's a soldier, he's not sure he trusts his general to distinguish between good and evil.
He's willing to bet, though, that the man trying to torpedo Times Square right now isn't one of the good guys.
His shield slams into one bomb, sending it corkscrewing into another. Both explode in a blast of fire and shrapnel. Snagging the shield out of midair, Steve launches himself off a car roof to seize another of the falling missiles and sling it back up at the mothership.
Pedestrians, shrieking as always, are clearing the area with the help of a few SHIELD agents. Bomb after bomb spirals down from the sky, because supervillains don't understand subtlety. Steve grins as two seemingly spontaneously detonate, thanks to some well-placed arrows. "Hawkeye, three at six o'clock."
"I see 'em." Clint's ensconced under a building's overhang where their nemesis can't see him. "Normally I'd ask what to do until then, but-"
"But you know better than to make old jokes while I'm on the comms," Natasha puts in.
"Nat and I have a deal," Clint says, firing three arrows in quick succession. Something grabs Steve's leg; what he'd taken for shrapnel is actually a tiny robot with a flamethrower. Steve jabs the edge of his shield into the crablike contraption's center and it fizzles, but five more climb over a pile of rubble. "For every crack she doesn't like, she gets to lay me out once on the sparring mat."
"Only for every joke? Wouldn't that benefit you more than her? You go down every couple minutes."
"First, Cap, phrasing . Second, I resent that remark."
Steve rips off one robot's antenna and throws it into another's legs, tangling the creature. It falls into one of its fellows. "You can't handle the truth."
"The target has been dealt with," Natasha announces abruptly. As if listening to her, the robots power down. "Jones is out."
"Dead?" Steve asks.
"Stunned. We need him for questioning."
"Good call," Clint says. "Now, Widow, get off that ship."
"As soon as a copter comes to - shit," she curses, and Steve tenses. "There's a self-destruct."
Steve stares in horror at the hulking metal monstrosity above. If that things falls - "How long?"
"Nat, get out of there now," Clint orders, the strain evident in his voice.
"No parachutes, and this thing will flatten blocks. We have to stop it." Though the comm doesn't pick it up, Steve can guess that she's scanning the computers - and Natasha's brilliant, but this is Charlie's specialty, not hers. "Boys, this is going to take me longer than eight minutes. I need backup."
"Can't fly up there," Steve says, realizing with a sinking heart what he needs to do. "I've got this." It's a mark of the trust they've built that Clint doesn't question him. Steve unbuckles the holster on his belt and pulls out his phone, hitting one on speed dial.
The call connects instantly. "Hi, this is Tony Stark's personal phone, so you're either a friend or a really stupid hacker, because let me tell you-"
"Mr. Stark," Steve interrupts, remembering at the last moment to pitch his voice lower. "This is Captain America. We need your help in Times Square." Switching over to video, he points his camera at the ship. "There's six minutes on the self-destruct."
"Be there in three," Tony promises, all humor gone from his tone.
He's there in two and a half. Steve looks up from where he's evacuating bystanders to see a red flare streak across the sky, straight into the hole in the ship's hull. The bystanders gawk, but Steve keeps moving them along. Captain America doesn't have time to be afraid for his team.
His earpiece shrills, and then Tony's speaking in his ear. "Cap, Iron Man here. This has a sixty percent chance of working, so cross your fingers and toes and eyes if that suits you."
A loud noise shrieks in the background. The ship wobbles and slowly begins to list sideways. No, god, no. Heart wrenching, Steve scoops up a pair of children and runs.
Then with a great creak, the ship shudders to a stop.
"Told you it would work," says Tony, cool as you please.
Steve takes deep breaths, reminding himself that strangling Tony Stark would give SHIELD a bad rap. PR matters.
"What's happening?" asks a civilian boy, his voice shaking.
"Everything's going to be fine," Steve says. He hunkers down so he's on the boy's level and smiles. "Our mechanic had difficulty commandeering the ship, but he's got it under control."
"Mechanic?" Tony demands over the comms. "I have more than four thousand patents to-"
"He's new," Steve explains.
"And it's a temp position."
"I will buy out all the mattress companies in the nation so your sleep will never be comfortable again," Tony threatens.
"We might see if we can train a full-time employee to take over his duties," Steve says, winking at the kid as a strangled cry of outrage rattles over the comms.
Later, after Steve deals with the press, Iron Man corners him on his way to transport back to SHIELD headquarters. "So," he says. "Captain America has my number. Want to share with the class?"
Steve clears his throat. "That's classified."
Crossing his arms, Tony manages to convey a glare through an immobile mask. "Even after you broke into my tower."
Technically, Steve had been there the whole time. "Also classified."
"I'd sue you for property damage if I knew who you were, but lemme guess, your identity-"
"A man of mystery. Well, Scooby-Doo, next time you need me to keep from blowing shit up, give me more warning. We can't all lie in SHIELD coffins until our handlers decide we're useful."
So that's what he thinks. Steve shouldn't enlighten him, but the strike hits a little close to home. "Actually," he says, "I have a date tonight." He doesn't, but Charlie and Darcy do, and Charlie's going to describe it over the phone for at least an hour afterward, so that counts.
"Lucky lady. Where does a walking flag take a date to dinner? Wait, don't tell me - it's going to be patriotic. Bacon cheeseburgers, that's properly American, maybe in the back of a pickup truck painted red, white, and blue. With a bald eagle. And an apple pie. Maybe the eagle can eat the pie while driving the truck, that sounds reasonable."
Steve rolls his eyes. "Cubbyhole, actually." Then he walks away before Tony can process that Captain America brings dates to a gay bar.
The next morning, when Charlie calls, the first thing she tells him is that Tony Stark was at the bar for an hour staring at people, what did Steve do this time? Steve sighs and confesses, then puts the phone aside until she can laugh herself out.
"Darcy wants you to know you should hit that," she adds.
"If he ever stands in the way of justice, I'll be sure to pummel him with my patriotic fists," Steve promises. He changes the topic.
so the newspapers have started calling u ppl the "avengers"
I believe Director Fury came up with the name.
Do we know whom we are supposed to avenge?
am i right or am i right
i prefer the name "Hawkeye and his merry guys & gals & nonbinary pals"
hahmggnp for short
"Avengers" it is.
Regarding the meeting this morning you missed
for fucks sake im not sitting in a conference room for an hour so a bunch of idiots can tell me how much it would benefit SI if i unlocked the casket
ITS LITERALLY CALLED A CASKET
I AM NOT A HORROR MOVIE HEROINE
Actually, I meant regarding last month's attack
We've learned the hostiles were hacking our HR records
I don't know
maybe they have a hard-on for paperwork
sounds like the kind of thing agent would be into
Charlie's the first one to quit SI. She and Coulson have been 'bonding,' which is a terrifying image, and he's asked her to work for him personally. Steve doesn't have the nerve to ask whether that entails hacking terrorists or reality TV shows. Maybe both.
Lunch is lonely without her, and Darcy mopes. Steve catches her listening to Panic! At the Disco, which Charlie always told him was a warning sign for black eyeshadow and bad poetry. Darcy should never be juxtaposed with such things. When he asks, he learns that Charlie's been too busy tracking a flare of ghost sightings in the midwest - Steve assumes that means ghost cells, not actual ghosts - to go on a date in weeks.
Steve relates. Other than a couple run-ins as Captain America, he hasn't seen Tony in a couple months. The man is avoiding him, there's no doubt about it.
He isn't surprised when one morning Darcy's desk is empty too. Good. No more handling his friends' sexual frustration. He's glad to be someone they can turn too, but Darcy tells him more about her sex life than he ever needed to know. Makes it hard to look Charlie in the eye.
Steve codes and designs, but the workplace loses its appeal with half their group gone. Steve's work stagnates.
No part of this dip relates to Tony Stark. None.
Steve's so over him, in fact, that he turns off the news notifications on his computer and takes down the two (and only two, Charlie, stop exaggerating) Iron Man posters in his apartment. He changes the background on his computer from tomatoes to the Grand Canyon, ignoring Clint's suggestions of 1) bald eagles, 2) fireworks, 3) baseball, or 4) bald eagles setting off fireworks while playing baseball. Probably for the best that he hasn't told anyone that his birthday is the Fourth of July.
When he finds himself crushing his stylus while sketching, Steve gives in to the inevitable. He can't concentrate, not when he knows there are civilians he could be protecting. His letter of resignation has been sitting on his desktop for days. He BCCs Clint on his email, since he suspects the man is only still here to keep an eye on him. Now that Natasha works as Ms. Potts's PA, they don't need to worry about watching Tony to make sure he doesn't explode anything, up to and including the planet.
Later that day, Ms. Potts shows up at his desk. Steve gulps.
"Coulson tells me you'll be leaving our building, Steve," she says, blocking the door to his cubicle. "I was sorry to hear it. We were glad to have you here."
"Thank you, ma'am."
She searches his face. "If someone made you uncomfortable-"
"No," he says quickly. God, he doesn't want to get Tony in trouble. "It's just time to move on."
She sighs. "Tell Coulson he owes me. Training people to handle Tony takes time."
"Yes ma'am. Do you have a preferred form of recompense?"
"A small island would be a nice start. Or dinner at Candle 79 for two. Ideally with Coulson himself, but I'd take Director Fury in a pinch." She shakes his hand. There's no two weeks' notice required in New York, so Steve packs his belongings into a box and leaves.
Which doesn't mean he manages to avoid Tony Stark entirely.
"So how was your date?"
Steve punches a Nazi in the face instead of answering.
"C'mon, Cap," Tony whines, shooting one of Hydra's giant snail-bat cyborgs out of the sky. It squeals as it crashes into a parked car, setting off the proximity alarms. "You're killing me. Worse than the bad guys. They could weaponize your silence and take me down with a single blow. This is a tactical weakness."
Steve grits his teeth. "Iron Man, you're on the comms."
"Yeah, I know, I designed them. Hey, Widow, Hawkeye, you guys are spies. You should help me find out more information about Cap's date."
"Belay that," says Steve.
A snail-bat - Hawkeye calls them snats - hurtles toward a Starbucks on the street corner. Something hits it in the chest, and it seizes, spiralling into a building. This would be easier if the civilians had agreed to evacuate. One of the downsides of protecting New York so effectively is that citizens start to consider waiting for their caramel macchiatos during an incursion an acceptable risk.
The sound of a raspberry echoes over the comms, and wow, this is the guy Steve fell for? He's questioning his own taste - and then Iron Man does a somersault in midair and blasts the snat behind him, and Steve remembers the origins of this damned crush. Halfway through a firefight is not the time to have butterflies in his stomach, especially since with Hydra's recent experimentation, the chances of meaning that literally have skyrocketed. "Captain's a wet blanket, alert the tabloids."
Clint snorts into the comms. "You wish. Wet and draped over you, sounds like the kind of thing you'd go for, Stark."
How is this his life. Steve's face flames as he flings his shield around a corner, taking out a trio of Hydra foot soldiers. "Cut the chatter, Hawkeye."
Tony laughs with delight. "Hawkeye, you're a man after my own heart."
"Nah, Cap's the one after that, unless he's only after your-"
"Hawkeye," Steve interrupts as he punches a snat through a window, "Iron Man doesn't know your secret identity, but I do. Specifically, I know where you live. You want to finish that sentence?"
But the damage is done. "Hold up," Tony says, "did he just imply Cap is after my dick?"
A snat dives at an elderly lady crossing the street. Steve grabs it by one wing, slams it into the ground, and rips its head off for good measure.
"Quiet, Stark," Natasha says. "If I wanted to hear about your dick, I'd watch FOX News." Steve hasn't seen her in five minutes. Nor has he seen the forty or so heavily armed Hydra soldiers Tony reported approaching from the west. The soldiers never stood a chance.
"What can I say," Tony sighs. "They're obsessed. You might even say-"
"Stark," says Natasha, "I'm warning you-"
"They're a- dick -ted!" crow Tony and Clint together.
Steve wants to bang his head against a wall. He settles for slamming two Nazis' skulls together.
"You will pay for that," Natasha promises.
"I'm on the comms too, you know," Agent Coulson says mildly.
"Hey, Agent! Apparently Captain America's after my dick."
"I doubt that, Mr. Stark. The Captain has taste."
"Agent, you wound me. This is an unreasonable reaction. I just need what the kids call juicy deets on Cap's date."
"To be honest, Stark," Steve says, unable to take it anymore, "I got stood up."
Clint's sharp inhale makes him wince - okay, so he hadn't shared that with his friends yet. The bitterness in his voice must translate through the comms, because nobody mentions his love life again during the battle.
"Who stands up Captain America?" Tony demands, landing next to him.
Steve manages not to say you, apparently. "Doesn't matter."
"Hey," says Tony, placing a light hand on his shoulder. Afternoon sunlight glints off the suit. "Their loss. You're good people, Cap."
Which would be a lot more convincing if Tony wasn't the one who'd dumped him in the first place. Can you dump a person you never dated? Based on the roiling in his gut, yes. "Thanks."
He tries again to move away, but Tony's metal fingers tighten, and damn if his traitor heart doesn't flutter. "God," Tony says, "it's gotta be illegal to let you walk off like that. You look like someone ran over your dog. Dogs. Hey, that's an idea. Agent, you still on the line?"
"Yes, Mr. Stark?"
"I'm going temporary supervillain, have the paperwork sent to my PA, or her PA." Steve can hear Natasha's dangerous silence, even if Tony can't. Maybe that's a Russian thing. "And Cap's going to be late for debrief, because I'm kidnapping him. This is a kidnapping. You can put that on my resume - kidnapped Captain America, survived. I hope. Anyway, see you!" He sweeps Steve into a bridal carry and takes off before Steve can react.
Well. Steve has an excellent reaction time. It's just strategically beneficial not to let everyone know.
Tony shoots straight up four hundred feet and pauses, giving Steve the chance to look down. The view makes his heart skip a beat. Taxis and buses inch along strips of road like resistors in series on a breadboard, not that he'll be telling Tony that.
"If you've got vertigo, Cap, say it now."
"All good," Steve says, a little breathless. Which is the result of his whole new perspective on vanishing points, not that fact that he's being cradled in Tony's arms. "Turning off the comms." Clint wolf-whistles and Natasha sighs. Steve shifts to reach his ear, secure in the conviction that Tony would catch him if he fell.
"So," Tony murmurs suggestively, "now that I've got you alone-"
Steve's stomach drops a few hundred feet.
Tony laughs, shooting forward and away from the carnage of the snats. "Street food, Cap. Whatcha want?"
"Everyone keeps feeding me hot dogs," Steve answers honestly. There's an innuendo there, so he plows forward before Tony can make it. "A change could be good."
The look on the gyro vendor's face makes Fury's inevitable chewing-out worth it. This time, Steve wraps one arm around Tony's shoulders, the other holding the plastic bag. Tony hooks an arm around his waist and takes off, waving as the phone cameras flash. Yeah, Fury will murder them slowly.
"With cheese graters and vats of wax," agrees Tony as they set down on the crown of the Statue of Liberty. "And if he's feeling sadistic, PR managers."
Steve dangles his legs over Lady Liberty's forehead, running a reverent hand over one of the rays shooting from her crown. A light breeze cools his overtired muscles. "You did kidnap one of his agents."
"Semantics." Tony passes him the gyro wrap and peels his own shawarma. "So. Weepy girl talk first, or food?"
"I can name four women off the top of my head who'd snap your neck for that comment."
The suit folds off Tony into a briefcase at his side. "They'd have to wait until my CEO was done. She'd finish me with a single shoe."
Steve Rogers would agree, but Captain America just hums and takes a bite of his wrap. Clouds drift above the pier far below. He closes his eyes and lets the sunlight soak his aching muscles. "Thanks."
Tony doesn't ask what for. They watch the skyline for a while, eating in silence. Tony's like a second sun at his side, radiating warmth he can't ignore for a second. When he glances over, Tony's staring at him. Steve's heart squeezes. Has Tony figured it out? Does he have something stuck in his teeth? Either would be horrible.
Reflection from the water tints Tony's cheeks pink. He goes back to his food. Steve runs his tongue over his front teeth, and no, nothing there that he can tell. He surprises them both when he clears his throat and says, "There's this guy."
Tony lowers his shawarma and looks at Steve.
Nope, he can't do this with eye contact. New York, though, that's a great view. "I like him a lot. And now I don't think he'll want to see me again. It sucks."
"Guy must be a blind eunuch to turn you down."
Steve shakes his head. "It's complicated." There's a long conversation to be had here, but Steve isn't Natasha, he'd never pull it off without revealing himself. "I haven't tried commitment since college, anyway."
"College?" Tony squints, clearly trying to parse the SHIELD information packet and whatever he's hacked from their database - not much, Charlie made sure of that - with actual Steve. "In the forties?"
"A few years ago, after they found me in the ice. City College of New York. I studied art." Electronic Design and Multimedia, to be precise, with a minor in electrical engineering. All Charlie's influence - they'd roomed together sophomore year, after bonding during that godawful Hammer Industries internship, and she convinced him to try an intro to engineering class. 3D modeling and coding aren't so different from sketching, and Steve wants every possible edge he can manage in this century.
Steve can't say any of this.
"You know I'm going to hack the City College database the second I've got decent wifi," Tony says, swinging his heels against Liberty's hairline.
"Coulson tells me there's nothing to find."
"Coulson is a lying liar who lies."
"He's also a professional."
"Fuck you, Cap. I am a genius. I am the king of technology."
"You have mayo on your goatee."
Tony squawks and dives for a napkin. Steve laughs.
"Hilarious. Yeah, mock my state of dress, when you've got a silver star emblazoned across your chest." Tony wipes at his chin, pulling a face. "And spandex. Blue spandex. You've totally caught up with the fashions of our age."
"Two words," Steve says. "Man bun."
"Point taken. And you make the spandex work." Tony hesitates and then says all in a rush, " Butyoudlookevenbetterwithoutiton. "
A pause. They stare at each other.
Steve's lips twitch upward. "That the best line you can come up with?"
"Oh, fuck you very much." Tony sounds relieved. Possibly he thought Steve was going to go all American Family Values on him. Steve should talk to Fury about Captain America coming out publicly - it could do kids good to have another role model. "I have amazing game when I want to."
"I'll prove - look at that!" Tony suddenly points at something below them.
Steve cranes his head. "What?"
"That," Tony insists, leaning forward to see. He overbalances and pitches forward.
Steve grabs him, pulling him back to safety. "Jesus, Tony!"
Shaken, Tony rests his head on Steve's chest. Steve's heart races. Too close, way too close.
Then Tony gives him an evil smile, and Steve realizes he's got the man tucked against him, one arm wrapped tight around his waist. Steve's mouth drops open. "Why, you-"
" Amazing game," Tony tells him, and cups the nape of his neck.
In days to come, Steve will wonder what would have happened next if he hadn't jerked back so fast he concussed himself against the metal spike of Lady Liberty's crown. Which made for an interesting conversation after Tony flew him to SHIELD HQ. Especially given that Steve was half delirious and rambling about bees.
Hiding under a rock for the rest of eternity. Sounds like a decent job opportunity. Steve should look into it.
"This one too," says Darcy, tossing one of the canvases onto the rug. "Bet your boo could get you a VIP pass."
Steve stops the painting before it can skitter into the fireplace and sets it on the stack Darcy's already approved. She's got the best head for Con business, so he trusts her judgement regarding which of his works should be made into prints. Not that he feels energetic enough to care. Steve can mope like the best of them. His blood slogs through his veins with all the enthusiasm of a goth teen volunteering at Disneyland. "I'm a vendor, not a visitor. And he's not my anything."
Darcy gives him a dry look.
"'Sup," Charlie says, sticking her head into the room. "Oh, hey, art!" Setting a bowl of popcorn in Darcy's lap, she lifts the top painting, and her lips press together in an abysmal attempt to hide a smile. "Nice Iron Man suit."
Steve pinches the bridge of his nose. "It's an objectively beautiful piece of engineering."
"And this," says Charlie, picking up the next painting on the stack, "is another nice Iron Man suit."
"Sunlight plays off the metal when we're fighting, I was testing whether I could reproduce it."
"Steve." Charlie hunkers down in front of him, her kind gaze searching his face. "How many of these do you have?"
"Three or four."
He swallows. "Or fifteen."
Charlie winces and wraps her skinny arms around him in a hug. He lets his chin sag onto her shoulder. "Dumb blond," she whispers in his ear. "Why'd you go falling for the maniac playboy? City College kids not good enough? Luther, maybe."
Steve chuckles, sounding pathetic even to his own ears. "He was high as a kite the whole time I knew him."
"From weed, not a freaky flying suit. Classier."
"You could just tell Stark the truth," says Darcy. "Boom, Clark Kent's Superman, best of both worlds." She tosses Charlie a piece of popcorn, which Charlie catches in her mouth.
Like Steve hasn't considered that. "First," he says heavily, "Tony Stark can't keep a secret." Coulson had debriefed them all on Tony's symbiotic relationship with the media. He didn't hide his lasting irritation at Tony's decision to reveal himself as Iron Man. "Second, I don't have authorization to tell him. And third, what kind of conversation would that be? Hey Mr. Stark, remember that graphic designer you were avoiding? That was me, only turns out you like me better barking orders in costume. Surprise."
God, he'd wanted to kiss Tony so badly that afternoon. His heart and his stomach had both said yes at Tony's blown pupils and smirk, but his stupid, honorable brain had shrieked something about deceit and unfair advantages. Thus, the chicken's egg lump on the back on his skull.
"So he likes spandex and domination," says Darcy with a shrug.
"Darce, you'll break Captain America."
"Can we talk about something else?" Steve pleads.
Charlie purses her lips but lets it go. "Darcy and I are going as Hermione and Ginny, Clint's Jason Bourne, and everyone's afraid to ask who Natasha chose."
"Question," Darcy throws in, "if Natasha were down for a threesome-"
"Any day of the week," says Charlie without missing a beat, a blush coloring her cheeks.
"So if I got her number at the conference-"
"As long as all sexting happens in group chat. Steve, based on the costumes I know you own - Kirk or Gandalf?"
"No more beards," he says. The incident with the cement mixer and fisherman had been enough to put him off facial hair for a lifetime.
Darcy stuffs a handful of popcorn in her mouth and talks around it. Steve can just imagine his mother tutting. "You know, Clint has a pair of suspenders left over from Bill and Kate's wedding, and Coulson gave me a microphone headset."
Charlie gets a wicked look in her eye.
Steve slides the Ferengi's credit card through the reader attached to the tablet. "I'll just need your signature," he says, pulling out the two prints - Hawkeye and Iron Man - she purchased. "Have a good conference."
The Ferengi grins at him and strokes her earlobe as she scuttles back onto the red conference floor. Steve tallies the sale and turns to a new page in his record book. He's been selling well enough that Clint decided all pizza dinners going forth would be on Steve's card. Steve reminded him that all proceeds went to the ACLU, and Clint said he was no fun.
"Steve, you know Sam," Natasha says, steering the man in question in front of her.
"Hey," says Steve, surprised. Sam is his jogging partner; they've been training for a marathon. How does Natasha know him?
"He's an Avenger now," Natasha says, her tone brooking no disagreement. Steve registers the tear in her Claudia Donovan costume and how she looks mildly frazzled, which is the Natasha equivalent of running around screaming while on fire. He must have missed an incident.
"Already approved it. Sent him the footage ten minutes ago."
"I was just in the area," says Sam. "There were robot snakes."
"He saved at least twenty civilians," Natasha says, her arms folded like she's expecting Steve to object.
If Natasha and Fury both vouch for the man, Steve has no complaints. Sam has the kind of balanced sarcasm and grace that makes Steve trust him implicitly. "Welcome to the team, Avenger."
Sam shakes his hand, giving him the stink-eye. "You just forgot to mention I was training with Captain America."
"You were almost keeping up," Steve says. "Didn't want to inflate your ego." Taking in Sam's Captain America costume, he adds with a wink, "Plus, it suits you better."
Sam makes the I'm-watching-you gesture as Natasha drags him into the crowd, probably to introduce him to more of the team. They'll like him, Steve's sure.
Steve adjusts his unplugged headset to stop it pinching behind his ear. The stage makeup on his forehead feels heavy and strange. No worse than his cowl on an average day, though. A pair of Sailor Moons (Sailors Moon?) ask about his tumblr, and he explains again that he's put a moratorium on commissions until he gets some personal stuff worked out. Turns out the brunette runs a popular trans positivity blog; she squeals with delight when he says he loves her content.
The girls buy the life-size oil painting of Black Widow from the back of his booth, which leaves a hole in his display. Steve shuffles through his stock. The Iron Man prints have been selling fastest, probably thanks to the extra time he put into the originals. He's got a watercolor snat under his desk - he could put it up and see how people react.
"Hey Tentacles, people have been saying you've got the best paintings of me, and I love self-portraits for obvious reasons, so let's see 'em."
Why is Steve surprised. Fate made it clear long ago she was out to get him.
"Haven't got all day, Octo-boy, you deaf?"
Steve schools his face into a neutral expression and turns.
"Cause I know ASL," says Tony, "and we could-" He registers Steve's identity and halts.
"Mr. Stark." He's tempted to add, we've got to stop meeting like this.
"Uh." Tony blinks at him. "Three eyes. Tentacles. Cthulhu?"
"Cecil Palmer," says Steve. He'd spent most of last night inking the curling purple appendages onto his arms. And now he's wearing a violet bow tie in front of Tony Stark. Great.
Steve frowns. "Addams?"
"No, Wednesday," repeats Tony, eyes fixed on Steve's body art. He shifts his weight from foot to foot. "There's - thing. A thing. Would Wednesday work, for a thing?"
Steve's heart leaps into his throat. He'd been so sure Tony had been avoiding him deliberately - but this sounds like an invitation to a date. Damned if he's going to say no. "I could," he says cautiously, "be free Wednesday."
"Wednesday. Okay. Thing on Wednesday. Stark Tower. Seven o'clock? Great. Good. Yes. Bye!" Tony ducks back into the press of Wonder Women and Balrogs.
Steve stares down at his record book, a grin forming on his face. Wednesday. A warm glow settles into the pit of his gut. What do you know.
PEPPER I SAW STEVE
STEVE GRANT REMEMBER
THE PRETTY ONE WITH TOMATOES
I remember Mr. Grant, Tony
Natalie showed me photographs of his work
I might want one for the office
awwww of me??
you supposed to have better taste than this Pepper geez
but im not hurt, even when ive been passed over by my ceo for an idiot with pointy sticks
I'm kidding, Tony
Did you and Mr. Grant have a nice chat?
his costume had tentacles
T E N T A C L E S
pepper im not kinky enough for this
Steve shows up at Stark Tower twenty minutes early. Tony shows up fifteen minutes late.
Steve can't say he's surprised. The concierge had thrown Steve a sympathetic look and a Sudoku puzzle when he came in. Given how readily she'd produced the puzzle book, Steve wonders if entertaining Tony's guests is on her job description. From what he can see, she's taking advantage of his distraction to play 2048 on her phone, but he can't begrudge her efficiency. Seems like something Tony himself would do.
Steve's filling in the last line when someone coughs. Steve looks up and freezes because, suit. Not Iron Man suit, actual tuxedo suit. Goddamnit, how is he supposed to handle this.
Which also means he's underdressed in the button-up he told Darcy was three sizes too small, but of course he'd been shouted down. At least he won't rip it by inhaling too deeply, given that he can't breathe because of that suit . Steve clamps down on a pathetic whimper.
The concierge clears her throat, rolling her eyes when they both jump.
"Right!" Tony says, eyes a little too wide. His gaze skitters over Steve to the potted ferns behind him. "The elevator's waiting. They ought to be, I own them. Company loyalty and whatnot. Eloyalvators." The concierge clears her throat again, eyebrows raised. Tony narrows his eyes at her. "That's judgement, I can feel you judging me. You're not a judge, we've got super-PACs to fund politicians to appoint those. Your job is to talk to the boring ones so important people don't have to."
She sticks out her tongue and goes back to her phone.
Steve stifles a laugh. "You were saying about company loyalty?"
"The elevators better be more respectful," Tony mutters. He makes an aborted half-gesture like he's reaching for Steve's hand but changes his mind. "Right this way, you're getting the VIP tour of the lab and I'm not even incapacitated this time, you're welcome."
Steve speeds up to walk at his side, since walking behind Tony Stark can be, ah, distracting. Steve can feel his heartbeat in his palms. God damn that suit. "Have you been sleeping enough?" he asks like an idiot. Tony doesn't have dark circles under his eyes anymore, so he must be sleeping better. Unless he's wearing makeup. Steve's face flames, and he vows to refuse Darcy's next offer of Sunday night nachos and Project Runway, because no, Tony Stark would not look hot in makeup. Get it together, Rogers.
Then again, he's quite fond of Sunday night nachos and Project Runway. He'll just tune out Clint's critiques of the contestants' contour.
Come to think of it, what would Tony think of Steve in makeup?
"Are you alright?" Tony asks, stopping abruptly. "You're as red as a McDonalds sign, and I don't even like McDonalds. Their clown is terrifying. If you're uncomfortable, you're under no obligations-"
"I'm fine," Steve says, mentally cursing himself for being obvious. "And the clown houses the families of hospitalized children."
Tony eyes him with suspicion as they walk into the elevator. "I'm not sure I trust a Ronald apologist."
"Weasley or Reagan, sir?" Jarvis inquires.
"Hi, Jarvis," says Steve. "How's the firewall holding up?"
"Sturdy as ever, Mr. Grant."
"Glad to hear it." Steve assumes Jarvis understood that he was referring to his own secret identity. He has a sneaking suspicion that Jarvis might be smarter than the rest of the Tower combined.
"So," Tony says, fidgeting. "New job."
"Newspaper artist," Steve lies. "I do some designs for the New York Times, some for the Economist."
"Bit of hacktavism on the side? Ha, binary pun."
"Byte me," says Steve before noticing the double entendre. There's got to be a hatch in the elevator ceiling he can escape through. On the other hand, this might be a date, so flirting's acceptable. Anything to avoid an awkward silence like the one descending right now. "And I paint," he adds a little desperately. "I'm working on a mural in Brooklyn."
"What's it about?" asks Tony. "Me?"
Steve rolls his eyes. "The city's refurbishing an old storage building, and they didn't like the blank walls." He goes out there when he's not training, or at work, or volunteering at Sam's veterans' center. It settles his mind.
He succumbs to badgering and pulls out his StarkPhone to show Tony a picture of the mural. It's not done, but the basic elements are clear: a sepia-toned photograph of a starlit movie theatre curling at the edges to reveal a blue flood of binary underneath, a robotic arm craning over the top right corner to peer at the time-stained civilians below.
Tony's temporarily rendered speechless. Steve files this away as useful for later. "Did you paint Dummy on the streets of Brooklyn?"
Steve's saved from answering by the elevator doors sliding open. He follows the inventor down to the workshop. Pieces of armor lie scattered across the floor. His fingers itch to inspect the holographic models bobbing over various counters, but Tony makes a beeline across the floor to an unusually clear workbench. A monitor overhead displays glowing red lines crisscrossing a map.
Steve grabs the projectile before it can fly over his shoulder, earning himself an impressed whistle. He raises his eyebrows. "A tomato clip-on earring?"
"Flavors include apples, mangos, watermelons, and lemons, and come as cufflinks, pins, phone ornaments, patches, wristwatches, anklets, and toe rings. Stark Industries, saving the world one accessory at a time." Tony grins. "Press it."
Steve presses the tomato, and an internal light flashes red.
"One click sends your name and location to your preset contacts or to the nearest police station. Two clicks also activates the microphone, which streams all noise in a thirty foot radius to a secure SI database with voiceprint recognition. A third click sends an alert to any registered StarkFruit upstanders in the vicinity, who can intervene before the police arrive, with three-dimensional directionality."
Steve pauses to process this information. It sounds like - "An alarm system," Steve says, "for people in potentially high-risk civilian positions."
"Got it in one, Stevia. Louder than a scream, can be activated without your aggressor noticing, and quicker than a 911 call. Wristbands can also be configured to monitor blood alcohol content or pulse rate."
This could save lives. This could help authorities get to domestic violence scenes faster. And if Steve had owned one of these when he was working at Hammer Industries - "Why are you showing me this?" Steve asks. "It's incredible, but why me?"
Tony fiddled with the computer screen, not meeting his eyes. "Can't have employees trapped in the tower without a way of calling for help if we're invaded again. Would you use that, as a customer? Consider yourself a test group."
"Yes," Steve says without hesitation.
"Good, that's good, I'll tell the board that, they'll be pleased. Happens rarely enough, it's good to shake them up now and then. Not quite as good as throwing tomatoes at Hammer, which is still a fantastic idea, by the way, but I haven't found an excuse yet, so-"
"These are amazing," Steve says, interrupting Tony's babbling. "Thank you for showing me."
"Yeah, well. You gave me the idea, it's only fair you see it come to fruition. Ha, no pun intended. And I did have a bit of a selfish reason to show you specifically."
Steve's heart rate kicks up a notch. "Oh?"
"I don't have the world's best track record - okay, let's be honest, I have a terrible track record, it balances out all the fabulous parts of me - when it comes to the safety of people I date. They kinda end up kidnapped a lot. And tortured. And things. You know, maybe this was a bad idea, I'll just go-"
Steve puts it together. "You're saying you ghosted me because you were scared I'd be a target for your enemies." Not because he wasn't interested. Not because he preferred Captain America to Steve Rogers.
"More or less. I mean, yes. I was concerned about that."
Steve torn between an instinct to laugh and to shake Tony. He's a nonagenarian, for god's sake, he's jumped out of planes without a parachute and stormed Nazi strongholds and once arm-wrestled a giant squid, and Tony worries that dating will put him in too much danger?
That does it. Steve doesn't care how bad of an idea Coulson thinks it is, he's going to tell Tony his identity. SHIELD has paperwork to allow that. Steve checked ages ago. SHIELD has paperwork for everything.
"I can keep myself safe," Steve says. "But I'll wear this anyway." He might as well, it's such a thoughtful yet vaguely condescending gift. Steve clips the earring on and takes a deep breath.
And that's when the alarms start blaring.
"Jesus fucking christ," Tony groans. "Supervillains have the worst timing. Jarvis can show you out, this happens often enough-"
"Wait," Steve says. The siren gives him courage, somehow, which is not a thought he wants to inspect. "Before you go."
"Don't really have time to chat. Being attacked, you know."
"That happens twice a week. Listen, my schedule is flexible these days. You could let me know when you're available for dinner. As a date."
Tony starts to grin. "Love to. But I don't have your number."
Steve almost says 'of course you do' but crap, no, Tony has Captain America's number. Giving it again would out himself, and he doesn't have time to explain, not while the alarms are ringing. Dammit, he should have ignored Charlie's teasing and gotten a home phone. He could give Tony Charlie's number and negotiate through her, but she has a 785 area code.
"718-467-8836," Steve says, a sinking feeling in his gut. This will end badly.
And when he gets out of the building, his phone dies. What did Steve do to deserve this.
"How can you not tell the difference between sexting Natasha Romanov and Tony Stark?" demands Steve in despair.
"It would have helped if you warned me before you gave my number to your boyfriend!" Darcy shoots back. "It was an unknown number!"
"They're not even the same gender ."
"I figured she was either trans or talking about a strapon!"
Steve moans and hides his head in his hands. Charlie pats his shoulder, but he can feel her laughter shaking the couch. So much for his post-date interrogation and popcorn.
"You think I'm happy about this?" Darcy asks. "I used some of my best lines on the man who's after my girlfriend's best friend - totally breaks the bro code."
"You were trying to sext my best friend," Clint points out.
"You don't count, Barton. We aren't bros."
Steve chuckles at the mortally offended noise Clint makes, but nothing can distract him from his humiliation. He will never recover from this. He'll have to trek halfway across the country and dig a hole in the ground and hide in it forever. Or jump through a wormhole. Or anything to avoid facing Tony Stark again.
"If it makes you feel any better, he was into it," Darcy says.
Steve comes out of his cave of sadness long enough to stare at her. "Why would that make me feel better?"
"Because you've got America's Most Eligible Bachelor eager to get it on with you?"
Steve buries his face in his hands. "That was before. What if he hates me now?"
"Then you'll know better than to give out my number!"
"Still hasn't texted back," Sam says. He's on phone-watching duty while the rest of them yell themselves out. Steve wants to know the second Tony replies to his "oh my god, my friend got ahold of my phone when I wasn't looking, I'm so sorry" message.
"Tell me there's an invading alien I can beat up," Steve pleads. "I need the distraction."
"I'll ask Phil," Charlie says, whipping out her phone. Ever since Fury made her a handler in training, she's been all too eager to confront bad guys. For once, though, Steve doesn't mind.
"Wait," says Clint, "since when are you and Coulson on a first name basis?"
Charlie flips him off without looking up from her phone. "Phil says, no aliens, but they're getting reports of vampires in Rochester if we're interested."
Steve has never suited up so fast.
"I nominate Darcy to clean the machetes," Clint says as SHIELD loads the vampire bodies into the back of a truck.
"I nominate Natasha," says Darcy, "to take revenge on Clint for implying that cleaning is women's work."
Steve ignores them. He has a lot of practice doing that. "Sam, we need a flyby. See if we missed any of them in the grass."
"You got it."
"House is clear," Natasha says over the comms.
Steve rolls his shoulders. He can think clearly now, with adrenaline pumping through his veins for legitimate reasons. Detaching his shield's razor edge, which he and Charlie designed for slashy situations, he runs through a checklist of anything from the attack he might have missed. Civilians: safe. Enemies: contained or dead. Cleanup sweep: in progress. Should be good.
"All clear?" Charlie asks through his headset. "Some guy keeps knocking on my door. You'd think the pride doormat would dissuade the evangelicals."
"That's the danger of working from home."
She snorts. "I need some of your fanart for my front walkway."
Steve winces. Ever since people started asking for NSFW Captain America/Iron Man paintings, he's refused to take commissions. A pity - he draws a damn good Spirk. "Still got that Balrog cosplay?" Silence. Steve furrows his brow. "That was a joke. Don't scare them, Charlie, they mean well. Charlie. Charlie ."
A tone echoes over the line, telling him the call disconnected. Poor evangelicals. They won't know what hit them. Hopefully not a Balrog's whip.
The fields are empty. Clint and Sam each snooze on one of Natasha's shoulders during the ride back to the city, while Darcy listens to music, and Steve stares at his phone. Still no texts from Tony. Not even an update on whether his defense of the Tower succeeded. Although Steve supposes it must have, since the idea of Tony sexting while in battle breaks his brain a little. Particularly since Iron Man and Captain America could hypothetically open a private channel when working together, and wow, that's an unprofessional thought. Yep, that one too, and - jesus, he's been hanging out with Darcy too much for that image to even enter his head. Steve inhales, fighting down a blush. Natasha raises an eyebrow at him, and he prays she can't actually read minds.
The adrenaline crashes soon after they get back to SHIELD HQ. Steve's the only one to pretend to concentrate through debrief - it's three in the morning, and Charlie doesn't even bother to dial in. Fury glowers a bit, as per usual, but he lets them out soon enough. Steve strips out of the uniform in the gender-inclusive bathroom on the first floor, glad he'd stored a spare The Force Awakens t-shirt in his locker since he doesn't feel like putting back on his button-down from the date. He rubs at the marks the cowl leaves around his eyes. Can't call an Lyft looking like this. Guess he'll walk.
No photos of Tony on the ever-shifting billboards on his way home, thank god. Steve breathes in the cold night air, letting it chill his throat. Car horns wail like a chorus of porgs, people yell curses and blessings, and Steve realizes he's smiling. This is the place to be.
The last thing he remembers is opening the door to his apartment and feeling something jab into his neck.
He scowls at the black and gold tiles, searching for a pattern. The last level had peeled away from the rock face once he'd straightened the tangle of wires into an orderly grid, careful to keep at least two edges connected to each vertex. These directions came from the murmuring that fills his skull, fizzing like a shaken bottle of pop. Peering
"-listen to me-"
closer at a tile, he catches a glimpse of some irregularity. He leans forward and presses his cheek to the stone wall, studying tiny shadows from the peaks and valleys of the tiles, too cleanly cut to be accidental. There's his pattern. He stands back, the zigzag X committed to memory, and shuffles the tiles so that the gold ones outline that selfsame X. The tiles glow softly and disintegrate into dust, revealing a circle inside a maze. The murmuring
"-out of time, we have-"
absorbs his knowledge of the texture and recommends he move the circle through the maze without hitting any of the red sections. Tilting his head, he maps out the potential paths, eliminating
Something rips away from him, something like a finger, a tongue.
Pain blossoms white-hot behind his eyes. He staggers. Silence. So much silence. He's alone. God, no, where are the others? The murmuring, he needs the murmuring, he's alone and they're gone -
"Hey, you're okay, Steve, listen to me."
Someone's shaking him, crouching next to him.
"Oh my god, please don't be dying, you're not allowed to die, I can't lose anyone else, Steve please-"
"What," he croaks.
Charlie rocks back on her heels in relief. "Thank god. They went Borg on us, Steve. We're in a hive mind." He can feel her trembling through the contact. Or maybe it's him, him shivering with a silence as total as when he'd gone under the ice. He can't move his fingers. He can't open his lungs. Everything's so cold, his feet are freezing off. His heart is going to pound out of his chest, he can hear it in his ears, he -
"Steve, breathe with me. You can do this, I'm right here. In." He inhales around the gong of his pulse. "Out. In. There you go. It'll be over soon, you can do this. Out. In. Out. You're doing great, see, much better. In."
"Thanks," he says a couple minutes later.
"Sure thing." She looks like she's about to walk into a linear algebra final, her face pale but hardened with determination.
Steve glances around, torn between horror and a frightening lack of surprise. A chain of avatars - digitally rendered representations of people - stretches down the wall, each intent on their own puzzle. His own arms are unnaturally round and hairless; if he squints, he can see the pixels. Empty sky above meets smooth ground below, and Steve can't see anything tangible but the people and wall in any direction. An electric blue thread trails from each person's ankle, weaving into a major bundle that parallels the wall. Checking, Steve finds a similar thread attached to a cuff around his ankle, only his thread has been snapped. It tingles under his fingers, sparkling with a long string of letters and numbers.
"The code keeping you attached to the others in the neural net," explains Charlie. "Like an umbilical cord. Ew, no, that's a horrible image. Anyway, I hacked it."
When he tries to fit his fingers under the cuff, it tightens against his skin. Steve growls a curse, disgusted with himself for getting trapped. He's got the serum, the training, he should have been the first one lucid.
"Which was easier," Charlie adds, "since I designed it."
Steve experiences a split-second of terror, since if Charlie defects to be a supervillain they're doomed.
"Not like that," she says, reading his mind. "Remember the scholarship I got from a Hammer Industries last summer? The prompt asked us to conceptualize a better kind of computer, so I suggested working with the best kind of computer we know - the human brain. Maximize human intuition and teamwork by hooking people's minds together, and then streamline the information by having the smartest person at the center of the web filtering and improving the best ideas. I recommended they use engineers, since we have problem solving so deeply ingrained. Of course, I also suggested they use volunteers, not people they kidnapped off the street."
"Coulson told me Hammer has been hacking HR databases around the state," Steve says, putting it together. "He was trying to figure out who the best people were for his neural net."
"Stupid of him to include me. I wrote the preliminary code for how you could use electrodes to wire people together. Of course I left myself a back door."
"We need to get everyone else out."
"We can't, the Borg Queen would notice if all her engineers went offline at once. You and me are glitches, any more and she's got a bug she'll have to track down."
Something awful lurches in the back of Steve's mind. Not the Borg Queen. "Not a she." Under the murmuring, there had been a familiar pressure, a shaping force creating structure from chaos. A voice. "Tony Stark."
Charlie sucks in a breath. "Shit. If Hammer's trapped Stark, we don't have much time. Even if we took everyone else out of the game, he'd barely be slowed down. But if we take him out of the information circulation, the flow collapses." She bites her lip, looking uncertain. "My hack isn't large-scale enough for that to work, and I don't know how to create new code while we're inside the game."
Inside the game. The game he recognizes now from the monitor on a coworker's desk at Hammer Industries. They'd been working on different projects at the time, his coworker's puzzle-based, his RPG, but they'd been working for the same platform, which means, if he's lucky, "Is there any chance we could get from here to Lethal Rage IV?"
"Remember that Easter Egg I told you about?"
"This is the future of LARPing," Charlie says as she admires her crown in the mirror. He ignores the tension in her voice, since he's feeling it too - whatever Hammer has planned, it can't be good, and the living neural net will complete its task soon. "I'd buy this system if Hammer were using it for gaming instead of villainy."
Steve buckles his jerkin, tugging on the bottom hem to make sure it's in place. "You could suggest it, if we meet him." They can't send the man a memo, at this point, which is a pity. Steve likes memos.
"I can't believe you gave us this much flexibility with our avatars. Good on you for giving the women breeches."
He'd traded a few passive-aggressive emails with colleagues at Hammer Industries before they'd conceded that not ALL the female characters needed to be in miniskirts and bikinis. And if some of those colleagues' exploitive porn collections somehow got posted to their Facebook accounts, well, Steve and Charlie certainly knew nothing about it.
He shoulders his shield, grateful that Captain America is famous enough that including the shield in the game's arsenal hadn't raised any eyebrows. "Ready?"
Charlie's smile, despite its wary edge, is downright predatory. "So ready."
The cloakroom opens onto a forest of spindly trees, with chipmunks darting out of sight. Charlie shuts the old oak door behind them. She sniffs the air and makes a face. "Smells like chemicals."
"Smelled like that in the last one too," Steve says. "We didn't program scent into the game. This must be where we're being held."
"I never wanted my brain to be pickled," Charlie says gloomily. "Preserved as a computer program for the enlightenment of future generations, sure, but never pickling."
The scent reminds Steve more of alcohol than formaldehyde, so he hopes they're in a hospital rather than a lab. Then again, his last exposure to formaldehyde was a soggy, stiff worm in a biology GE.
Evening light filters through the trunks, glinting like crystal. Like the crystal inside a watch that could tell him how little time remains. Based on what he remembers, the engineers were speeding up as they got used to exchanging information. Maybe a half hour before they're done. He and Charlie need to hurry.
An old gnarled tree, modeled off the one outside his dorm freshman year, provides the landmark he needs. Shield in hand, he stalks into the murky depths of the woods.
In retrospect, the flute music comes across as more ridiculous than eerie. Charlie hums along. She's tone deaf, but Steve doesn't object. Maybe it bolsters her courage. In any case, he's been to enough LARPing battles to know he does not want to piss off the Queen of Moons while she's holding a sword.
The trees open, soon enough, onto a cliff draped with vines. Orange firelight outlines the mouth of the cave where their opponent awaits.
Charlie groans. "What is it with you people and rock faces? Is this a metaphor for crappy communication skills?"
"Two words," Steve says. "Leesha Johnson."
"A simple misunderstanding."
"She thought you were a talent recruiter for NASA."
"So my pickup lines needed work. I was a sophomore, cut me some slack. Some people like to talk shop, how was I supposed to know she thought she was in an interview-"
A roar cuts them off. Steve raises his shield and peers into the cave, gesturing for Charlie to get behind him.
Inside, a massive creature stomps in circles, snorting. It looks like the lovechild of a Texas longhorn and komodo dragon - not quite as bizarre as a snat, but with more spiky parts. He'll have to keep an eye on those horns. Torches flicker in alcoves, illuminating a bathtub-sized nest in the corner, a shiny egg nestled in the center. Bingo.
"Think the monster would buy it if we said we're not the digitally rendered heroes it's looking for?" Charlie asks.
"Guard the door," Steve says. "Make sure no one interrupts us." He has more combat experience than she does - having to watch out for her would only distract him. Ignoring her protests, he marches into the cave. "Excuse me."
The beast snaps its head around to stare at him.
Given that the creature is intelligent enough to use torches, there's a chance he can communicate with it. "My name is Steve Rogers. I'm here on behalf of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. If you would let me access the egg behind you, we would be happy to provide sufficient recomp-"
The end of his sentence gets cut off by a blast of fire breath. Steve whips his shield in front of his face just in time. So much for appeasement.
The beast rushes toward him. Steve waits to the last moment to jump, slamming his heels into its neck vertebrae. The beast staggers under the blow, then bucks. Steve falls and lands hard on his shoulder. He rolls to his feet and slams the edge of his shield into its belly, aiming for the ribs. Its tail swings at his head. He ducks and slings his shield toward the mouth of the cave. It ricochets off wall and hits the creature's left eye. Bellowing in pain, the beast sprays fire everywhere. Steve grabs his flying shield and huddles behind it, blazing air burning his face.
Once its head swings away from him, he springs to his feet and batters it again. One blow, two - but he forgot its horns, one of which catches him in the arm and gashes his flesh. Damn, that'll limit his movement. He bashes it upside the head and kicks it in the throat, but has to roll out of the way when its chin comes down. Too slow. Maybe the game's lagging. He dodges a claw and uses the shield like a guillotine on the creature's back leg. There's a realistic crunching noise. The monster wails louder still and clotheslines him with its tail.
He slams into the cave wall. Charlie's screaming. He stumbles to his feet, readying his shield to throw again when Charlie's words process in his head. He turns toward the entrance. She's holding the egg over her head and yelling for him to get out of there, you fracking moron. The monster starts to turn again. He books it.
"How the hell," he starts.
"There was a side entrance." She punches him in the arm. "You forgot the first step in the engineering design process - define your problem properly. We need the egg, not the victory."
"Can you use it?" Steve asks.
"Duh. I'm a genius. We want the code, not the content, no matter how funny your boyfriend thinks he is."
They find shelter in a clearing. Charlie rips strands out of the cuff on her ankle and splices it with the Easter egg, which upon close inspection turns out to be woven of lines of code as well. Steve stands guard. They've rendered the moon too large; it hangs over the trees like an undercooked snickerdoodle.
If Tony's mind is being used to direct the flow on information, maybe even process and improve it, how long will he be able to survive? For Steve, the voices had been a filtered murmuring. God knows what Tony can hear. Will he be the same when - when, not if - they get him out of here?
"Booyah!" Charlie says around a mouthful of code. She spits the stray bits onto the ground, where they gleam like unicorn hair, and holds up a massive blue knife. "One Hammer hack, as ordered."
Steve claps her on the back. "Good job, soldier."
"Don't chain-of-command me, Steve, I'm training to be a handler. I should be in charge here."
"Give yourself a few ops first, ma'am," Steve says, dodging her swat. "How do we get to Tony?"
Charlie sticks the knife in a nearby tree trunk and drags it down, making a slit which she pulls open like fabric, revealing only darkness beyond. "Let's see how deep the rabbit hole goes."
Steve follows her through, and the slit closes behind them.
A single spotlight shines down from high above, empty space stretching out in all directions. The only disruption in the blankness is a glass box, inside of which lies Tony, deathly still. Electrodes sprout from his forehead, each one linking to a string of code, bundles of which twist through tubes into the floor.
Steve bites back a hysterical laugh. He wouldn't have pegged Tony Stark as Snow White.
"Come on, Prince Charming," Charlie says. Steve doesn't know if he spoke aloud or if she just read his mind. "Time to kiss the guy."
"Do you think that would help?"
"I won't tell Darcy you said that."
The glass coffin's lid doesn't lift off, and they can't find any hinges, so Steve smashes it open with his shield. He brushes away the shards, careful not to let any scratch Tony, while Charlie gets to work sawing through the threads of code.
"Can I help?"
He has to repeat the question a couple times before Charlie hears him, which happens a lot when she's in the zone. She shakes her head, not looking up from her work. "The code has to be disrupted in targeted places so it doesn't backlash on him, but I have to get him out before Hammer shuts down the program or it'll leave him brain-dead. Unless you've improved since the 2015 Hackathon, sorry, no."
Detaching Tony from the network takes an eternity, during which Steve feels twelve kinds of useless. All the hype about Captain America, and all he can do is sit here and squeeze Tony's hands. At least Tony Stark knows how to play a crowd, so maybe he can handle the whispers that must be inundating his mind, but the tiny furrow in his brow tells Steve he's in pain. He deserves so much better, after all he's been through, after -
Afghanistan. The arc reactor. Isn't the glow supposed to be blue, not green?
This is not how Steve imagined unbuttoning Tony's shirt.
A green bar enclosed in a silver rectangle stretches four inches just under Tony's collarbone. There's a slim blank space between the right edge of the bar and the rectangle. As Steve watches, the bar lengthens, and the blank space shrinks to nothing. Like a progress bar.
Oh god. Tony's done buffering.
"We're out of time," Steve says urgently.
Charlie curses, grabbing the last bundle of code and ripping her knife through it.
White floods the space. Shading his eyes, Steve can just make out Tony sitting bolt upright. "He's opened the Casket."
And the world dissolves.
Steve slams back into the real world like a ripe tomato being hit by a baseball bat.
"Fracking Hammer," Charlie groans from a couple beds down. "My head's going to explode."
They're in the Tower infirmary, rows of cots full of stirring coders crammed over every square inch of floor space. Steve can hear grumbles about hangovers and the gig economy and wait, where the hell are we? and who are you people? from all around. In a couple minutes, they're going to have a full-fledged mutiny on their hands.
"Hey everyone!" Charlie yells, then winces like the sound of her own voice hurts. From the whining wave that follows, the others agree. "Stay, uh, stay put. We've been kidnapped by persons unknown, but, the men in black are coming, so just be chill. My partner, Agent Grant, needs to go handle the baddies, so if you could just move aside to let him through, that would be great. And Agent Grant, catch!"
She pulls something from her jacket and flings it at him. Catching it, Steve inspects the rectangular parcel, which looks like a folded flag. Oh hell yes, he hadn't known that SHIELD finished prototyping the ultra-lightweight suit he requisitioned.
There's a pair of guards at the door, but neither seemed to expect their prisoners to wake up. Steve's elbow downs one of them, and he flips the other one over his hip while ducking the guy's punch. He doesn't wait to hear them hit the floor - he has to get to Hammer before the guy can use whatever was in the Casket.
As soon as he's out of sight of the coders, Steve tries to stuff himself into the new suit, which turns out to be about two sizes too small. The cowl is the only thing that fits properly. Thank god the material's stretchy. Did Darcy put them up to this? And then, as Steve hops around trying to shove his legs into the leggings, his ear flashes.
So that's new.
Hammer's people must be as incompetent as the man himself, if they didn't bother to remove his StarkFruit earring, or maybe Tony actually accomplished subtlety for once. The red tomato body has gone translucent, with a single glowing green spot off to the side. When he turns the earring, the spot stays in the same point in physical space, like the needle of a compass pointing north.
Best lead he has. Time to climb some stairs.
Steve's starting to believe that all roads lead to the penthouse. He shouldn't tell Tony that, though - Steve doesn't need any phone calls from Ms. Potts asking why Tony turned up to Senate hearings in full Roman regalia. He hangs back at the entrance, which gapes open like a slack-jawed smile, and listens.
"-really scared this time," Hammer says. "I've finally got you where I want you - at my feet, in my power. Ha!"
"Why Justin, you kinky bastard."
"I - what? No, shut up. You can't talk your way out of this one, Anthony. You run on power, but I'm holding power, and that means I'm in control of the situation. Not you, me! Hammer has come out on top. Suck it up."
"Wow. Is this a sexual repression thing?"
"You'll be the first one to go, Anthony, in my brave new world. I could just do it now, but I want you to know what you'll be missing. I'm going to start - by making myself Secretary of Defense."
"You mean the position I suggested they give me a couple weeks ago?"
"And I'm going to make Angelina Jolie and Miley Cyrus fall in love with me."
"And then. And then , I'm going to hire all of your best engineers, and make them my engineers, and we're going to make all of our tech fifteen percent more expensive but people will think it's a deal because we're so much better than all the competition. Because you won't be there."
"Justin. I don't know what to say. Your vision is so…"
"I was thinking more 'feeble and derivative,' but sure, let's go with that."
"And there's nothing you can do to stop me."
Steve kind of hates himself for barging in on such an obvious line, but he does need to enter at some point. "Maybe not alone," he says loudly, stepping into view. "But Iron Man has backup."
Hammer and Tony both look up at him in surprise. Steve feels a twinge of worry at the sight of Tony tied to a chair with yet more electrodes connecting to his forehead, Hammer looming over him, but Tony gives him a laid-back grin and rakes his eyes shamelessly over Steve's suit. "Glad you could join us, Cap."
"Captain America?" Hammer whispers. "Captain America the superhero? Here? No, no no, no, this doesn't make sense. You're an impostor!"
Tony winces. "Do you have to speak in exclamation marks? You're holding Dad's secret infinity stone, for god's sake, have some class."
"This building is completely sealed off from the outside world! There's no way you could get in! None!" Hammer whips out a gun and presses the muzzle to the back of Tony's head. Steve's vision tunnels. "Tell me how you got in!"
Rage bubbles in the pit of Steve's stomach. That's it, he's done with this charade. "You brought me in."
"Only registered Hammer Industries staff and former employees-"
Steve rips off his cowl, exposing his face for them both to see. Tony's jaw hits the floor. No time to focus on that - Steve glares at Hammer, whose words have trailed off into spluttering.
The wannabe villain finally manages, "Steve Grant? The intern?"
"Steven Grant Rogers, of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. You should screen your employees better. Now get your gun away from his head."
The Captain America voice comes in handy. Hammer drops his weapon, then glances down as it clatters to the floor like he's surprised he obeyed.
Steve takes a step forward. Hammer's hand snaps up again, brandishing a blue jewel. "Hold it!"
Steve freezes, cold zinging down his spine. Something about that stone awakens a hunger deep within him. Light winks off the gem, a heaving sea rushing toward him, and he plants his feet to keep from staggering. Not because he fears the impact - because he can see how it would have been (could still be) averted. A hum like the inaudible whirring of a forgotten printer permeates the room. That stone can change history. Steve doesn't know how he knows it, but he knows.
He can see what will happen. Hammer will go down with one good punch upside the jaw. Steve will pick up the stone. Everything will be awash in blue light, and he'll close his eyes, and he'll be home . He'll be back at the base, in time for his dance with Peggy. Or, or, he could go back to before Bucky fell from the train. Before he even got captured in the first place. His first loyalty was always to his family, they can finish the war together.
Hell, why stop there? Steve punched Hitler in the face for years - why not go back to before the war started and kill the man outright? Or even further back - he could prevent Archduke Ferdinand's assassination, he could fight for abolitionism before the Civil War, he could create an America that treated all people equally from the Constitution onwards, he could do anything. He could alter the entire course of history, make it better . How far back, that's the real question. Focus. Use the engineering design process. Charlie had said to define his problem. His problem is when to start fixing things. Goal - to avert the evils humankind has been doing to itself for millenia. Constraints -
Dammit, dammit, no , there must be something he's missing. But the truth settles in his gut like a stone.
Constraints: the farther back he goes, the more people he erases from existence. No matter how short of a jump backward he makes, he'll be killing random civilians.
Schmidt would have argued the end justifies the means.
Steve bows his head, and the world starts to move again.
"I'm in control here," Hammer insists, unaware that he's already been defeated. "I can change history. I can make it better. I've won!"
"What do you mean 'no,' I've got the power to change everything-"
"You can't make it work," Steve says. Cold anger suffuses his voice. Hammer dared to give him hope that he'd see his family again. This is personal. "Changing the timeline won't change who you are as a person. You're a lousy engineer, Hammer, and a lousier person. You want people to love you? Forcing them to accept second best won't do it."
"Especially not here," Steve says, talking over him. "This is New York City, Hammer, the first capital of the new United States, flashpoint of the Stonewall Riots. Take it from the little guy who got the shit beat out of him on these streets because he wouldn't stay down - New Yorkers will never give their city up without a fight, and they certainly won't to a rinkydink businessman who needs interns to help him fix his broken Tickle Me Elmo."
The line hits as hard as he'd hoped. Hammer's head looks like it's going to combust. "That was a beloved childhood toy! You signed a nondisclosure agreement!"
"Weren't they first produced in 1996?" asks Tony, his voice choked.
"You can send your complaints to Philip Coulson," Steve says, "but your attorneys are going to have bigger fish to fry, trying to keep you out of prison for the rest of your life."
"Do you really believe New York will reject me so quickly, Captain?" Hammer steps forward, his face screwed up in a sneer. "This is the twenty-first century. People only care about what they can use and buy, and Hammer Industries will be having a sale for the ages."
Steve shrugs. "Doesn't matter what I believe. I was just distracting you long enough for Stark to saw through those ropes."
Hammer's eyes widen just before Tony clobbers him from behind with a coffee mug. He collapses limply to the floor, the gem skittering out of his hand. Tony sweeps it up and goes still.
The ambient buzzing intensifies.
"Tony," Steve says urgently, "listen to me."
"I could fix it," Tony murmurs, gazing into the depths of the stone. "All of it."
Pounding footsteps in the stairwell. Steve doesn't know whose side they're on. He stumbles toward Tony, struggling against the gem's magnetic pull. "We can't."
"Do you know how much blood I have on my hands?" It comes out in a monotone, worse than a shout. "So many lives. I could save them."
"And how many lives do you sacrifice?" Steve demands, his teeth clenched as he trembles against the stone's insistence that he give up, give in, make things right . "How many futures taken to undo your sins?"
"You've lost more than any of us," Tony hisses. His voice resonates in sync with the stone, which now visibly vibrates in his hand. "How-"
Steve squeezes his eyes shut, his gut twisting. Bucky. Peggy. The Howling Commandos. He'd die for them in an instant, even now.
"Steve," Charlie calls from behind him.
She, Darcy, Clint, Natasha, and Sam crowd the doorway, just beyond the blue glowing dome that's formed over him and Tony. If Steve changes history, they will never exist.
Steve's loyalty is to his family, and they're standing right here.
Steve grabs Tony's chin and pulls his face up, locking their gazes. He searches Tony's eyes for a place to share his realization that he's home, that he has too much in this century to leave behind. "I could go back to save my friends. I could save my mother from sickness, and my father from the War, but there would always be someone more to save. You're a futurist - don't let yourself be entrenched in the past."
Tony bows his head, grief ghosting over his expression. The gem's noiseless whine intensifies. Steve's teeth are going to rattle out of his skull. He wonders if Peggy would be proud of him.
"Besides," he says, the adrenaline making him giddy, "I owe you dinner."
They're standing less than an inch apart, when did that happen? Steve cradles Tony's jaw with one hand, the other anchored to Tony's shoulder. His limbs have frozen in place.
Tony stares up at Steve through his eyelashes, a trickle of blood running down from his nostril to curl around his lip. They don't have much time. "Dinner, like friendly platonic team dinner, or-"
"Dinner for two at a quiet restaurant of our mutual choice." To hell with everything, if they're about to implode from gem-induced fatal levels of self-denial, he's going to make his intentions crystal clear. "Afterward, we will go back to my apartment and, with your permission, I will relieve you of your suit jacket, tie, and all other apparel, and then-"
Clint clears his throat. "We're still here."
"Shut up," Darcy hisses at him, "and let my OTP become canon, you blabbermouthed fucknugget."
"Well," Tony says, his voice rough. "Let no one say Tony Stark doesn't know a deal when he hears one."
In a single motion, he wrenches away from Steve, scoops up a steel box from the ground, shoves the stone inside, and slams it shut. The blue dome vanishes as clicking attests to the Casket's resetting of its locking mechanism.
The gears are startlingly loud in the sudden silence.
Tony clears his throat, looking unruffled in the way he only does to hide embarrassment. "Cap, if you said that last bit to get me to power down, I get it, and you're under no obligations to-"
Steve grabs him by his shirt collar and crushes their mouths together.
Distantly Steve can hear the others cheering, but most of his attention is focused on Tony's noise of surprise, the crash of the Casket as Tony drops it - hope it's structurally sound - and then Tony Stark flush against his body, licking his way into Steve's mouth. Steve hums something that might be Tony or finally or possibly just gibberish because the Internet did not exaggerate, Tony Stark can really fucking kiss. Tony's got one hand fisted in his hair and one gripping his hip and they must be giving the others a show but Steve can't bring himself to care.
Before his brain melts permanently, Steve breaks away long enough to gasp, "You know Justin Hammer's been crawling toward the fire escape this whole time."
As if in response to his words, there's a loud splattering noise followed by a low groan of pain.
"My apologies for the delay, sir," Jarvis says from above. "Agent Bradbury just restored my mainframe. Mr. Hammer has been restrained, and he seems to have fallen victim to a freak volley of tomatoes from the November boobytraps."
Tony's eyes dance. "Pity. I liked those tomatoes."
He wraps a hand around the back of Steve's neck and pulls him down for another kiss.
"Stop smiling," orders Darcy a few days later as she drags herself into the SHIELD break room.
Steve looks up from his phone to beam at her. "Good morning."
"Remind me never to get you laid again," Darcy grumbles. "Your cheerfulness makes me want to stab you with a fork."
She's wrong, in fact. So far he and Tony haven't gone farther than eating a couple meals together and making out a bit in the taxi. They're taking it slow, which makes Steve hope against hope that Tony wants this to last. Steve certainly does.
"Just made a fresh pot." Steve grins, remembering the look on Tony's face when Steve showed up at Stark Tower this morning with coffee and blueberry muffins. Definitely worth the wait to get past the Tower's increased security. "Coulson says the Casket is ready for transport. We'll accompany it to Area 51 and make sure it gets locked down correctly."
Darcy grunts. The bruises under her eyes make her look like a super-senior during finals week.
"Are you okay?" Steve ventures.
"Fabulous. Fuck off."
Steve offers her the donut box. She grabs a powdered sugar donut and chews moodily for a second before muttering, "Natasha's dating Sam."
Huh. That's new. "Disappointed?"
"Nah. Just, Charlie was super into her, so I thought inviting her to join us could, you know, stabilize our relationship. Keep her from getting bored."
Darcy whips around, a squeaking noise escaping around her mouthful of donut.
Charlie stares at them from where she's just walked in, files slipping out of the slack folder in her hand. "Darcy, I'm not going to get bored because we're not dating Natasha."
And that would be Steve's clue to leave, but Charlie's blocking the doorway. Steve covers his awkwardness by taking a swig of his coffee. He nearly chokes, having forgotten how hot it is, and spills it down his shirt, biting back a yelp as it scalds his skin. Darcy and Charlie ignore him.
"You have a crush on her," says Darcy.
Charlie snorts. "I've got a crush on Carrie Fisher too. Doesn't mean I'm going to dump you for her."
His collarbone shrieking with pain, Steve grabs for the sink faucet to spray cold water on himself, but his fumbling makes him misjudge his strength. The spout snaps off in his hand. A geyser of water shoots out, soaking everything in a nine foot radius.
"But you're smarter than me," Darcy says to Charlie, sounding uncharacteristically uncertain.
Charlie rolls her eyes. "I'm better at software, yeah. You do hardware and interpersonal communication and astrophysics, if the paper I found on Google Scholar last week was anything to go by." She punches Darcy playfully in the arm. "Patriarchy tells us we have to be the best at everything to be valid professionals. Frack them."
While trying to find paper towels under the sink, Steve accidentally ignites the cupboards.
"I named an exoplanet after you," Darcy confesses, her blush accentuated by the wall of flames behind her. "My old lab partner just found some new ones and was asking for suggestions."
Charlie's grin might split her face in half. Steve couldn't tell you who moves first - he's too busy looking for a fire extinguisher - but when he turns back around, the women are making out against the break room table, Charlie's folder smushed between them.
Coulson sticks his head into the room and peers at the spray of water from the broken faucet, the scorch marks on the counter, and the coffee seeping into the rug, though his gaze skips politely over the two women. "Everything under control?"
"Yes, sir," says Steve, holding a fire extinguisher in one hand and a soggy box of donuts in the other.
"Good. Carry on."
Norm Osborn (FOX News) @patriotismisthenorm
Avengers do not represent USA just because they have Capt America. Members' rumored homosexuality = be skeptical of their "leadership!!"
Captain America (Official) @captainamerica
Well, I can't speak for my team, but to clear up the rumors: I'm not homosexual, I'm bisexual.
Iron Man (Official) @iamironman
Black Widow (Official) @widowsbite
Hawkeye (Official) @mynameisnothawkguy
aro & bi
Falcon (Official) @flybiagoodguy
Trans ace biromantic
War Machine (Official) @warmachineofficial
I guess this makes me the token straight friend
Iron Man (Official) @iamironman
saving the world: the REAL gay agenda
Iron Man (Official) @iamironman
also im gay af for cap
Hawkeye (Official) @mynameisnothawkguy
"Falcon, War Machine, corral the robots toward the center of Fifth Avenue. Widow, do you have eyes on our villain?"
"He's in the grocery store crowd," Natasha reports. "Using them for cover and camouflage."
"Draw him out. Hawkeye, cover her." Inside the cockpit of the lead robot, Steve twists the frayed ends of two wires together, checking the circuit to make sure he laid out the feedback loop properly. Perfect. He plugs his section back into the mainframe. It sparks. Steve climbs out onto the robot's shoulder, the road pitching forty feet below him. He straps his shield across his back and switches his comms to transmit only to Tony. "Iron Man, I need pickup in three, two, one."
Steve throws himself off the platform as the robot explodes beneath him. He plummets toward the ground. Wind screams in his ears.
Arms lock around his waist, and his head snaps forward from the suddenness of his stop.
"Would it kill you to warn me, Cap? Because failing to warn me might. I get that you're falling for me, but grease spots on the pavement ain't patriotic."
"I knew you wouldn't let me fly solo."
Tony swerves for a second before regaining his flight path. Steve tips his head back and laughs.
"First I learn he can engineer," Tony complains, warm with affection, "then he starts hitting on me during a fight. I'd be justified if I rammed into a building by accident. These working conditions are untenable. No one is allowed to be that hot, it's unconstitutional."
"Iron Man, we need backup at the corner of East Houston and Bowery," Rhodey says over the comms. "And since you're not chattering at us, I assume you're flirting with your boyfriend. Save it for later."
"Agent Bradbury says she found a flaw in the robots' code," Coulson says. "Uploading the hack now."
"Tell Bradbury that she needs to come work for me," Tony says. "I will buy her cars. A house. An introduction to Oscar Isaac."
"Bradbury wants you to know she's lesbian."
"An introduction to Daisy Ridley, then," says Tony, swooping near the ground to let Steve join Natasha and Clint.
"This is where I get off," says Steve, working himself free of Tony's arms before Tony can retaliate for the quip.
"Bradbury says you're supposed to be wooing her bestie, not her," Coulson says, his voice dry enough to power a desiccator. "Broadcast the hack on my mark."
Natasha crashes through the glass front windows of the grocery store, somersaulting into a crouch next to Steve. Evil laughter echoes from the bowels of the building.
Over the comms, Steve can hear Charlie enjoining the flyers to set phasers to kill, Clint complaining about supervillains' lack of fashion sense, Sam snarking at Clint, Darcy wondering whether the high density on the Avengers of engineers and queer folks means they're the Avengiqueers , and a low chuckle which might be Fury listening in.
Something red winks from the rubble. Steve pulls out an unscathed tomato. This is one hell of a century.
"You ready, Captain?" asks Natasha, electricity sparking from her wrists.
Steve smiles and unhooks his shield.