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Truth Behind Masks

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“You are pushing your luck right now. You do realize that, don't you?”

“What, by calling you while people are shooting at me? That's, that's really not a thing, Rhodes, that's Tuesday in my world.” Tony banked hard to the left, pushing the armor to its absolute limit as he took the corner, repulsors screaming in his wake. Bullets exploded glass windows just a meter or two behind his feet, and he gritted his teeth for a second. Adjusting his trajectory, he dove under a bridge. He cut it so close that he was pretty sure he'd ruined the armor's paintjob, but it was worth it. Two of the robots went down in explosions that sent shockwaves through the air, knocking him off-kilter.

Tony had to struggle to keep himself on course, and he bounced off a bridge piling before he pulled himself out of it. He was still choking on a curse when his comm unit beeped. Tony rolled, nailing two of his pursuers with a single repulsor blast. “Gimmie a second here, Rhodey, I got another call.”

“Really? You've got another-”

Tony switched the feed, without so much as a flinch of guilt. “I'm on it, Cap, I've got it.”

“Where ARE you?” Steve snapped. “We are supposed to be-”

“I've got this,” Tony repeated, picking off two more before he flipped into a flat dive.

“Hawkeye says you just hit a bridge.”

“Barely a glancing blow, and Hawkeye is a snitch,” Tony said, trying for breezy, and probably failing. “One more on my tail, then I'll be-” He saw the opportunity and he took it, whipping his body around to nail the mechanical monster with a perfect shot. “As I was saying, I'll be right there,” he said, watching with a sense of deep seated satisfaction as the thing hit the the street and explode into a ball of flame.

“Get yourself back on target, we need you back here,” Steve said, and it was the Captain America voice. Tony grinned, pleased with himself.

“On my way.” Tony's eyes flicked over the HUD. “Give me five.”

“You've got four, we're doing a full press on the portal.”

“Aye-aye, Cap.” Tony flicked back to his other line. “Sorry, Rhodey. Had to take that. Cap's gonna have a GPS installed in this thing at this rate.”

“When did you add hold music?” Rhodey asked.

“Last night.” Tony cycled through the HUD menus, studying a map of the area as he headed back towards the worst of the fighting. There was a small pack heading towards Central Park, and he moved to intercept before SHEILD had to deal with them. “I was bored.”

“And is your hold music the theme song from the Avengers cartoon tie-in?”

“I thought that was a nice touch.”

“You would.”

“I'm good like that. Besides, for a bad reality show slash cartoon, the show's pretty good. Have you seen it? Iron Man is pretty much the best, I resent the fact that Clint gets all the best jokes, but he's stuck in that purple monstrosity of a costume, so it all evens out.”

“Why did you green light that?”

“The money from toy tie-ins has been phenomenal, I can pay for the grocery bill for the other guy for another couple of YEARS just based on those stupid green foam fists.” They were more fun than they should be, really. Tony grinned to himself. Some day he'd get Bruce in a pair. “Now, what were we saying?”

“We were saying,” Rhodey said, long suffering as always, “that this whole thing is going to blow up in your face one of these days.”

“What thing? You have to narrow it down, precious, I'm-” A bullet clipped the side of his helmet and Tony launched a missile back behind him without even looking. Judging by the explosion, he didn't really need to look. “I'm a little busy here.”

“The whole secret identity thing,” Rhodey said. “This thing that you're playing at, Tony, for reasons that I cannot understand. I gotta admit, I do not get this.” He snorted. “I help you do it, and I still don't understand it.”

“You don't understand why I have a secret identity?” Tony asked. “You do realize that I live in a giant building, in the middle of one of the biggest cities on Earth, that has my name on it? I literally-” The proximity alarm blared, hard and loud, in his HUD, and he rolled to the side. The instinctive move was enough to throw off the robot, which smashed into a lightpole instead of Tony. “I literally have postcards. They sell 'em in the souvenir stand across the road, there is no doubt as to where I live, and it seems to me that knocking over criminal enterprises and then going home to a building with my name on it seems like a really bad idea.”

He slipped between two buildings, his back arched, his body an arrow of force, and the speed made him dizzy for a second. “Even for me. Bad idea.”

“So instead, you pretend to be a bodyguard, living in the building with your name on it?”

“It makes sense when you're not the one explaining it,” Tony said. “You have a way of making ANYTHING seem like a bad idea. It's like a super power. Except it's not, it's just you. Sucking the fun out of everything, absolutely, I don't know-”

“No one could explain that in a way that did not make it insane,” Rhodey said.

“It's like, I have a conversation with you, and I can just feel the fun draining from my life,” Tony mused. “I'm amazed. You, sir, you are a special man.”

“We wouldn't have to do this if you just told your team mates.”

Tony made a face, safe in the knowledge that no one would see it. “No, we won't be doing that,” he said. The HUD beeped, and he banked off to the left, shooting before he caught sight of his target, and it did not matter. The last of his targets went down in a shower of fragmented metal.

“Tony...”

“Got the bastard,” Tony said, because he really thought some praise was in order.

“I never doubted it. Tony-”

“Can you come help me out, or not?” Tony asked, speeding back towards the rest of the team. “Simple question, Rhodes, I don't know why we're still having this discussion. Either you can help me, and we're still friends, or you can't help me, and I guess I'm in the market for a best friend.”

“Wow. Even for you. Wow.”

Tony grinned. “You love me, cupcake.”

“Less so some days,” Rhodey said. “Today? Today is one of those days.”

“Today is the first day of the rest of your life, you black hole of fun destruction, are you coming to stand around in my armor, and collect a medal so that I can be there as the Avengers' fairy godfather? It's just, it's just hard, when Iron Man and Tony Stark are invited to the same ceremony, and I could ask Pepper, but I really like to save that for emergency situations of thirty minutes of less. She hates the suit.”

“And she still gets into it, despite hating it, so that should tell you something,” Rhodey said. He sighed. “And you wouldn't have to abuse Pep, let alone me, if you'd just tell your team the truth.”

Tony made sure that his sigh was loud enough for Rhodey to hear it over the comm line. “Are you going to give me a damn alibi, or not?”

Rhodey was silent. “You know why you insist on this dual identity shit?” he asked, and Tony groaned.

“No, feel free to explain to my why I make my life choices,” Tony said. “Please. I have nothing better to do, oh, wait, I do. As a matter of fact, I should be shooting things right now, can I call you back?”

“You do it because of your ridiculous man crush on Captain America,” Rhodey said.

“Okay,first of all, no. No, there is nothing ridiculous about my man crush on Captain America,” Tony said. There was something ridiculous about the fact that he spent all of his time hanging around with a guy who was never going to reciprocate his feelings, but that was a completely different discussion. “I get this idea that you assume I will be defensive or ashamed here, and I'm not sure why, because you know me, Rhodes.”

“I'm just saying, using a secret identity to manipulate a completely in the dark individual into spending more time with you-”

“You say that like it's a bad thing,” Tony said. Before Rhodey could get started, he cut him off. “And that's not what I'm doing. Steve has two settings: 'man in charge' and 'comrade in arms.' That's it. That's Cap. I'm not saying that he isn't friends with the team, that he doesn't like and enjoy the company of the team, but he's hyper aware of the fact that he is in charge. Being charge changes things.” A strident beep from the HUD brought his head around and his arm up. He took the shot, and then had to dodge as the debris came crashing in on him. Biting back a curse, Tony dropped to get clear of it. “I should know.”

“Are you really trying to sell this as, what, an act of philanthropy?”

Tony grinned. “If the shoe fits.”

“That's stretchin' that poor shoe a bit,” Rhodey said. “Your feet must hurt like hell.”

“I'm just saying, when he's sick of being the guy in charge, when he's done with dealing with the Avengers, he has a choice. He can go talk to Tony Stark, and Tony Stark is fine with that.”

“Except Tony Stark is a lying liar who is also an Avenger,” Rhodey pointed out. “It's a flaw in the plan here, Tony. Also, the man has friends. He's a good guy. He actually does have-”

“Why are we having this discussion?” Tony asked. “I am in the middle of a fire fight. Do I call you in the middle of fire fights and ask you what you plan to do with your life and bring up the fact that you're a lousy friend?”

“That is how this conversation started, so I'm gonna have to go with yes,” Rhodey pointed out. “You make your own problems.”

“And I depend on you to get me out of them,” Tony said. They both knew it, so there really wasn't any point in lying about it. “So, are you going to?”

“Fly down there to save your spoiled rich ass? Don't I always?”

“And that is why you will always be my favorite,” Tony told him.

“Yeah, yeah. I'll get it cleared with the brass, forward me the date.” Tony could hear the smile in Rhodey's voice, and he grinned back.

“Thanks, Rhodes.”

“Just watch where you're flying, dumbass.”

“I always am.” Before Rhodey could come up with further objections or insults that were just thinly veiled concern, Tony disconnected the feed. “Jarvis, send him the details through the usual secure channels,” he said, banking hard and watching the HUD for additional attacks as he pressed forward for the meet up.

The only thing that popped up on his sensor grid was usually friendly.

“Hey, Shellhead!”

Tony's tipped his head to the side. “What's the good word, Wasp?” he asked, as Jan came shooting up alongside him.

“The good word is, Cap's going to bash your shiny little head in if you don't get back to the rendezvous point, like, now,” Jan said, her voice full of amusement. “He's a little steamed at you right now.”

“I'm absolutely confident that by the time this is over, he'll be more angry at Hawkeye than he is at me,” Tony told her.

Jan came in for a landing on his shoulder. “Maybe not,” she said, taking a seat, her tiny form curling into one of the armor's seams. “He's behaving for once.”

Tony adjusted his speed, making sure that he wouldn't throw her off, but Jan didn't seem concerned. “Want to put money on the fact that he'll make it through this mission in Cap's good graces?”

She snorted, her face tipping towards hers. “Sucker bet, Shellhead. Still doesn't mean we won't be joining him if you don't, I don't know, get to where we're supposed to be going.” She reached out with one tiny little fist and rapped on his faceplate. “Move it, mister.”

“Unlike most of the team, you do actually have the ability to fly without me having to carry you,” Tony pointed out. “Which means you're not reliant on me to get you there.”

“True, but if I show up without you, I'll be in for it,” Jan said. Her teeth flashed in a grin. “Away, Jeeves! Don't spare the gas!”

“You heard the lady, Jay,” Tony said. To Jan, he added. “Hold on, it's going to be a wild ride.”

“It's Stark tech,” she said, her hands and legs braced, her body angled forward into the wind. “I'd expect nothing less!”

“And I hate to disappoint a lady,” Tony said to himself. Grinning, he pushed the armor into overdrive. “Or the boss.”

*

Steve needed to punch something. Very badly. He was determined that it would not be a member of his team, and right now, that was a struggle.

“You pull that again, Hawkeye, and I'm going to bench you for a month.”

“I got him, didn't I?” Clint gave him a grin, his bow slung over his shoulder as he slumped lower in his seat. The seatbelt was the only thing keeping him upright at this point.

Natasha gave him a look. “He got you, too,” she pointed out. She was flying co-pilot, with Carol at the controls, but whenever the topic turned to Clint, she was going to be involved.

“Barely,” Clint said, with an unconcerned sort of shrug. “He barely clipped me. Does that even count?”

“Yes,” Steve said, ignoring the way that Bruce was chuckling, one hand cupped over his mouth to try to hide it.

“I'm just saying-” Clint continued, and Carol cut him off.

“Quit while you're ahead, champ, and before Cap has you thrown off the Quinjet,” she called back over her shoulder.

“He wouldn't,” Jan said, laughing. She had one heel braced on the edge of her seat, her arms looped around her upthrust knee. She leaned her chin on top of her knee, her big eyes twinkling as she grinned at Clint. “He'd feel bad.”

Steve scraped a hand over his face, the muscles of his back and shoulders pulled so tight that they were twitching. “I wouldn't bet on that to save him today,” he gritted out.

“Eh, Thor and Iron Man are out there,” Clint said. “One of 'em will catch me.”

“I would not place you bet there, either,” Wanda said, not even glancing away from the window. “I don't think that Iron Man was pleased with you today.”

“No one is ever pleased with me,” Clint said. He yawned, wide enough to show off his back molars. “Bruce still loves me, though.”

“No, I don't,” Bruce said, going back to his tablet. His lips were twitching as he ducked his head, though, and everyone knew it.

“Yes, you do, buddy.” Clint patted him lightly on the chest, then leaned back, resting his head on Bruce's shoulder. “Cover me. I need a nap.”

“Hey, no, wait-” Bruce let out a sigh as it was clear that short of shoving Clint to the ground, there was no chance he was going to be removed. He rolled his eyes.

“How do you put up with him?” Jan asked Bruce, who shook his head.

“He grows on you,” Bruce said.

“He's a pain in the ass, but once you show him any sort of affection what so ever, he'll follow you home,” Natasha said. Clint chuckled. “Also, don't feed him, Doc.”

“Too late,” Clint mumbled.

Shaking his head, Steve went back to his mission reports. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Wanda's head tip forward, the dark waves of her hair shifting along her shoulder.

“We are all fine, Captain,” she said, her voice pitched soft and low. Steve wondered if the words were intended for only his ears, and as such, he wondered if anyone else COULD hear them.

He huffed out a sigh, his heel drumming against the floor of the jet. “Too close this time, Wanda.”

Her head tuned in his direction, her eyes dark and sharp. “I think,” she said after a moment of silence, “that there is no such thing. Something that is close is, by nature, a miss.” Her lips curled up in a surprisingly wicked smile. “I like close, for that reason.”

Steve managed a smile for her. “That's one way of thinking of it,” he said, trying for diplomacy. Judging by the way her smile faded, the way that her legs curled up beneath her, the way she turned back to the window, he wasn't quite successful. But right now, he really wasn't in the mood for a chat.

The rest of the flight home, he stared, unseeing, at the mission reports, and stewed.

By the time Carol brought the Quinjet in for her usual perfect landing, he was ready to get off. But he hung back, as always, watching every one of his team mates as they gathered themselves and their gear and disembarked. His eyes sharp, he watched for any sign of injuries that might've gone unreported or damage to their equipment. Only after everyone was clear did he step out, grateful for the crisp bite of the wind.

“You all right, Cap?”

He glanced at Iron Man, his own face reflected in the slightly curved surface of the man's face plate. “Fine,” he said. “I just need a little time alone.”

Iron Man nodded. “Can't say I blame you.” His head tipped back in the direction of the landing pad. “If we're done for now, I'm going to go let Mr. Stark know we're back.”

“Thanks,” Steve said. “Let Thor know we're free until tomorrow, will you?”

“Sure. Have a good night, Cap.” Iron Man flipped him a loose salute, and took a few quick steps before launching himself skyward. Steve watched him go, intercepting Thor in mid-air, then peeling off towards the penthouse.

Taking a deep breath, Steve headed towards the rest of the team. “Take the rest of the night,” he said, as he passed through the group.

Natasha's eyebrows arched. “You think that's a good idea?” she asked, her voice neutral. “Director Fury's going to want to know-”

Steve held up his hand, palm out, and everyone fell silent. “Tomorrow,” he said, his voice firm. “Do we all understand? Tomorrow, we will have one heck of a debrief, but for right now, everyone go get cleaned up, get something to eat, and take the rest of the night off.” Without waiting for a response, he turned on his heel, stalking towards the wide, curving stairwell that lead up to the elevators.

The faint buzz of tiny wings was the only warning he got before Jan came flitting into view just to his right. “Cap?” she asked, hovering at his side. “You okay?”

“Just fine,” Steve bit out.

Her tiny face drew up, her nose wrinkling and her mouth drawing up into a pout. “Are you-”

“I really need to go pound a sandbag for a few dozen rounds,” Steve told her. He punched the elevator button with a bit more force than was strictly necessary. “I know you're trying to help, but right now, I just need to wrap my fists, and take on a target that won't fight back, and that I won't feel guilty for maiming.”

She sighed. “You shouldn't be alone, it's not-”

He managed a tight smile for her. “Go tell Hank you're okay, you know he worries,” he said, and as the elevator arrived, he slipped through the doors.

He made it back to his room, stripping out of his uniform and shoving himself into workout clothes in record time. Grabbing his bag from the closet shelf, he headed back towards the massive gym at a light jog.

“Hey, Cap, how'd it go?”

Steve turned, glancing back over his shoulder, as Tony came ambling down the hall. He slowed his stride, waiting for Tony to fall into step beside him. “About as well as we could hope,” he said.

Tony grinned. “You say the same thing every time,” he said. His legs weren't as long as Steve's, but his steps were quicker. He had a quick, fluid energy that let him keep up, no matter how fast Steve was moving. “Iron Man's okay?”

“Yes, and you ask that every time,” Steve pointed out. “Doesn't he talk to you?”

“Listen, no one ever tells their boss that they made a mistake or two,” Tony pointed out. He jammed his hands in his pockets, pushing his expensive jacket back. “Seriously. Did the armor-”

“It did the job just fine,” Steve said, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Stark nodded, a quick jerk of his chin, but his smile was satisfied. “Got some dents this time, but it definitely did it's job.”

“Dents I can pound out,” Tony said, waving a hand. “I've got some frustrations to work off.” He glanced in Steve's direction, his dark eyes sharp. “Don't suppose I could convince you to give me some sparring practice?” he asked.

Steve was already shaking his head. “We have an appointment tomorrow,” he said. “And I think that I need a session with something I can't accidentally hurt right now.” His shoulders rose and fell in a quick shrug. “It wasn't a good one, Tony.”

Tony's eyes flicked towards the ceiling. “How much of a fight is that punching bag giving you?”

“More than you do,” Steve said.

Tony threw his hands in the air. “Well, whose fault is that?” He was grinning now, and Steve reminded himself not to get suckered. Again. “I mean, you're the one teaching me hand to hand combat, Cap.”

“Yes, but you're not learning,” Steve said, and Tony laughed. “Seriously. Just... Let me go hit the bags for a while. Maybe later?”

“Sure,” Tony said. He shoved a hand through is dark hair, disordering the stands. “I understand. Don't worry about it.”

Steve's eyes slid in his direction. “Don't worry about it,” he repeated, his lips already twitching. He knew Tony, and he knew Tony well enough to know that there would be more to this conversation.

“Yeah, don't-” Tony waved a hand in the air. “Don't worry about it. I understand. You've got better things to do than spar with me.”

Steve rubbed a hand on the back of his neck, amused despite himself. “Tony-”

“It's fine," Tony said, his voice light. "Don't worry about it. I'll just stay here. Unprotected. Since, you know, my bodyguard is off playing super hero with you whenever you need backup. Which is surprisingly often, I don't know how you got by without him some days, he seems to be guarding you more than me, if we're being honest here."

Steve stopped walking. He struggled against the smile that threatened to break over his face. "Really?" he asked, his head tipping forward.

Tony spread his hands. "Don't worry about it, Cap. I'm sure I'll be fine." He made a sad face that would not have been out of place on an underfed orphan. "Here. Alone. Waiting for someone to come and try to kill me, or-"

Steve couldn't hold back a wave of laughter. "You," he interrupted, "are unbelievable."

Tony grinned at him. "You're laughing," he pointed out.

"It's hard not to, you are-" Steve was shaking his head, his shoulders still jerking with choked off laughter. "How does anyone take you seriously?"

"I have my moments of competence," Tony said, unruffled. He tucked his hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth on his heels. There was a puckish smile on his face and a glint in his eye that was contagious. "Come on, Cap, wanna spar?"

Steve was still shaking his head. "I'm not going to go easy on you," he warned, because this was a foregone conclusion, and they both knew it. Steve knew he should resent it, should want the time alone, but somehow, it was fine. It was fine, because it was Tony. There was something easy about talking to Tony, despite his fierce intelligence and rapid fire delivery, he was so easy to talk to, to be around.

And Steve realized that all of the strain that had held him too tensely upright had already bled out of his frame.

"Wait," Tony said, already striding in the direction of the gym. Shaking his head, Steve joined him. "You've gone easy on me? Ever? When was that? I do not remember anything that could be defined as easy. Not ever. A little bit less painful, sure, and occasionally you don't drive me to tears, but-"

"Tony?" Steve waited until Tony looked in his direction. "Today, I'm not going to go easy on you."

Tony's teeth flashed in a wicked grin. "Looking forward to it." He waved a hand in mid-air. "It's been a long day of wanting to strangle contractors. I've got some frustration to work off, and you're a pretty big target."

Steve gave him a look. "You really think you're going to get a hit in, Mr. Stark?"

"There's a first time for everything," Tony said, sanguine. "I bet you dinner I'll get you this time."

“Do you enjoy losing?” Steve asked him. “I'm always curious about that when you make these bets.”

“It's not that I enjoy losing,” Tony mused. “It's more that I don't have a dinner date for the evening, and I really despise eating alone. It's bad for the digestion.”

“There are eight other people in this building.” Not that Steve minded a break from the team every so often. It probably did him a world of good. “You can eat with us sometimes.”

“Eating with Thor is also bad for my digestion,” Tony said, chuckling. “C'mon, I found a new place. You'll like it.”

“I like how you're taking your loss as a foregone conclusion.”

“I assumed that if you won, I'd get to choose the restaurant as a consolation prize. That seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do.” They reached the door to the gym, and Tony peeled off his jacket. The fine fabric of his shirt stretched tight across his shoulders. Steve had to admit, for a business man with some very bad habits, Tony was in very good shape. Not that he'd noticed.

Tony stretched, his arms pulled up over his head, and that drew his clothing tight all over. Steve felt his face flush. All right, so he'd noticed. Didn't mean anything.

“That does seem like something I'd do,” Steve said, dragging his thoughts out of the gutter. It was harder than it should've been. “Except I'm feeling like getting a burger tonight.”

Tony grinned at him. “I think we can make that happen.”

He let out a quick burst of laughter, and Steve glanced at him. “What's so funny?” he asked, smiling.

“It's nothing. Just..” Tony said, reaching up to loosen his tie. “I was just thinking that right now? My life is just about perfect.”

“I do not understand you,” Steve said, and it didn't matter. It really didn't. Because right now, his life felt pretty good, too.

*

Everything hurt.

“You have broken ribs, don't you?” Pepper said, her voice pitched low, her lips a tight red line between the words. She was staring at the elevator door as it it held all the secrets of the world, and her arms were folded tightly over her files, hugging them tight to her chest.

Tony straightened his spine. “No. Why would you say that?” he said, and he thought he did a great job of selling that.

Pepper's head snapped towards him, her ponytail whipping through the air, and Tony took a literal step back. She glared at him. “Because you're breathing like a pug dog with a sinus infection in high humidity,” she said, her voice tart.

That stung. Tony pouted at her for a second. She didn't seem to care, and he gave up the effort. “Cracked,” he admitted. Her lips tightened even further, and Tony gave her his most reassuring grin. “Barely. Tiny. Tiny, hairline-”

“This isn't funny,” she said.

“I kind of agree with you, surprisingly enough,” Tony said. He leaned against the wall, his head back. “Pep. It's not the ribs. I mean, it is, but it's-”

“Two back to back missions, a board meeting, a national emergency, a session of congress and an attempted hostile takeover,” Pepper said.

“Yeah. That.” Tony let his eyes close. He was so exhausted that he wanted to cry. He didn't have the energy, but man, just curling up into a ball and sobbing sounded like a good way to end the week. “This week has been very unpleasant,” he said to Pepper, not bother to open his eyes again.

“Iron Man had a bad week,” Pepper said. “Tony Stark had a worse one.”

“I wish both of them weren't standing in my shoes right now,” Tony said. Everything hurt. His bones hurt, cracked ribs aside. “Did I just completely fuck over my life in less than five days?”

“In your defense, it took five days, three continents, an idiot with a spinning armored suit, and some underhanded business tactics, but yes,” she said. “Your life is pretty much fucked.”

“You are a ray of sunshine, Potts.”

Pepper sighed. “You need to tell them.”

Tony was waving her off before the words were even out of her mouth. “Oh, yeah, that's a great idea. Tell them that we came within a couple of pieces of paper of losing the company that keeps us all in medical insurance and fancy crime fighting gadgets? I'm sure that'll go well.”

Her gaze was cutting. “It wasn't any where near that close,” she said, because at her core, she was amazingly loyal. Whether he deserved it or not. “You handled it.”

“That's right,” Tony said. “I handled it. I don't need to tell them anything. It's fine. I handled it.” He was about three minutes from throwing up, passing out, or crying, and he honestly did not know which one of the three would be the winner of that little race. He leaned against the rear wall of the elevator, his head back, trying to steady his breathing. “Ribs aren't that bad.”

Pepper's face was tight and pale when she glanced at him. “It says something about your life, Tony, that the phrase 'ribs aren't that bad' does very little to reassure me.”

Tony grinned. “You're a bleeding heart, Potts, you really are.”

“I'm the one who has to cover for you when you make these messes,” she said, her voice tart. “Really, Tony. This is ridiculous. You should be in the-”

“How are we going to explain that?” Tony asked, tired of this argument, but having it anyway. Having it anyway because he owed Pepper that. Because he owed Pepper so much more than that. If this is what it took to keep her by his side and fighting for him, protecting him, Tony would have this argument as many times as she wanted him to. “Really? How? Even if we can keep anyone from finding out about the giant Achille's heel that I'm carrying in the center of my chest, I would need some way to explain the rest of my current injuries, and I don't have an excuse in my back pocket.”

“We could call Coulson,” she pointed out with a faint smile.

“Coulson is what got me into this mess. Him and his cover stories.” The elevator was almost there, and he pushed himself back upright, straightening his clothes along with his spine. “No one can know what Tony Stark just went through, Iron Man's taking a few days off because of his injuries, and no one can know what those are, either.” For a second, Tony's head fell forward, and he was so tired that pulling it back up took a monumental effort. “Everything is fine.”

Pepper was silent for a second. “This is going to become untenable,” she said at last, “when you start believing your own lies.”

“Well then, we're fucked, because that happened 'round about puberty.” Tony smoothed his hands over his head, trying to put his hair in order, and Pepper smacked his hands away. “What?” Tony asked, grinning at her.

“You're going to look like a eighties mafia goon,” she said, her lips tight. Her delicate fingers slipped through his hair, disordering the locks. Tony leaned into the contact, just for a second, and her hand came down to cup his cheek. “There,” she said, and her voice was gentle now. “Much better.”

Tony caught her hand in his, pulling it away. He brought her hand to his lips, brushing a light kiss over her knuckles as the elevator came to a halt. “Always looking out for me, Ms. Potts. Whatever did I do to deserve you?”

She made a disdain noise under her breath, but her cheeks were pink. “I'm not sure,” she said, her chin up. “But I'm sure that I'll regret whatever it was, sooner or later.”

The doors to the elevator opened, and Carol leaned in. “This a joyride, or are you planning on getting off here?” she asked, her teeth flashing in a grin. “Hey, Pep, haven't we told you not to bring this guy around?”

“Captain Danvers, I am hurt,” Tony said, as Pepper laughed. “I am absolutely hurt right now. I am your damn landlord, treat me with respect or I'm rewriting your lease.” With a real effort, he managed to pull himself straight and move out of the elevator.

“Absentee landlord, you mean.” As Tony went past, Carol slapped him on the back. He saw the blow coming, and even with the warning, his exhausted body refused to move fast enough to dodge. Her hand hit, not with the force she usually commanded, but it landed right on a spot that had taken a missile two days ago. Tony staggered, pain washing through him, and he barely realized that both women had grabbed one of his arms to keep him on his feet.

“Tony?” Carol's face was, for a second, a pale, featureless blank in front of him, and he blinked hard, trying to clear his vision. “Tony, are you all right?”

“He's just tired,” he heard Pepper say. “I tell him, he's got to sleep. But when the meetings stack up, we don't want to be the ones delaying the process.”

“Yeah, that can be taken as a sign of weakness in the business world,” Tony said, forcing his head up. The ground tilted under his feet for a second, then steadied. Tony gritted out a smile, one that probably lacked its usual panache, but there wasn't much he could do about that. “And it's not that I'm tired. Tired can be fixed with coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.”

“Until your heart stops,” Pepper said.

“But until that moment, I am so awake, I cannot even tell you,” Tony said, waving a hand. “It's more that last week, Cap tossed me halfway across the gym,” he told Carol. “Landed wrong, but I didn't want to tell him. I prefer having him bitch at me for letting a hit past my guard than I do having him fuss at me.”

Carol's face relaxed. “He is a champion level fusser,” she agreed. Her grin was quick and warm. “You okay, Stark?”

“I've got him,” Pepper said, before Tony could open his mouth.

“Never doubted it.” Carol slipped past them into the elevator. “Glad to have you back!”

Pepper waited until she was gone before she gave Tony a look. “You should head straight to the penthouse, right now,” she said. “Before anyone else starts asking questions and I end up having to spend time in that death trap.”

“I know you hate it-”

“You have no idea how much I hate it,” Pepper told him. “I do it. Why, I don't know. But I hate it, Mr. Stark, and it would do you well to remember that.”

“How could I forget?” he asked, grinning. “You always remind me.” She gave him a look, and his grin stretched. “Hey, Pep? Thanks.”

“Less thanking, and more taking care of yourself so it's not actually necessary,” she said. “Go to bed.”

“I need to put in an appearance,” Tony said. “How will it look if I just hide in my apartment?”

“It'll look like you're exhausted and need a scotch and about twelve hours of sleep,” Pepper said.

Tony groaned, and the sound was very nearly sexual. “You can't just say things like that, Pepper,” he said. “That's... Not in public.”

She rolled her eyes. “Go put in an appearance,” she said. “Then go to bed.” She turned on her heel, pushing the elevator button. “I'll go cover the rest of it.” She gave him a look. “Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”

“That will be all.” Tony forced himself up and forward. “Thank you, Ms. Potts.”

One quick trip down to the kitchen. That would be all it would take. One quick walk through. Tony focused on the thought as he forced his strides into something approaching ease. Someone would be down in the kitchen, someone was always in the kitchen. All Tony had to do was say hi, snark a bit at someone, and then he could go pretend that his life hadn't gone so amazingly to shit so amazingly fast.

“Hey, you're home.”

Tony looked over as Steve came around the corner. For an instant, Tony just allowed himself to revel in the very lovely visual that was Steve Rogers ready for a fight with a punching bag. He wasn't sure who was still selling that boy shirts about three sizes too small for his chest, but Tony really appreciated it. The sight of all that white cotton, stretched to its limits across Steve's chest was enough to make him dizzy.

Or it might've been a head injury. Hard to say.

“I am indeed home,” Tony said, grinning at him. “How've things been?”

“It's been quiet,” Steve said, and Tony knew that was a lie; he always wondered why Steve seemed to downplay what the Avengers had been up to when Tony Stark was 'out of town.' Maybe he just didn't want Tony to worry. Or maybe he didn't want to explain just what Iron Man had been doing with all of Tony's tech.

Hard to say.

“You're just in time. I thought you were going to miss another session.”

Tony was still so stuck on enjoying the view of Steve in those pants and that too-small shirt that it took a few seconds for the words to sink in. “What?” he asked, like the moron that he was.

Steve's eyebrows arched. “It's Tuesday. Time for sparring practice. Actually-” He checked his watch. “You're far overdue for your sparring session, you were supposed to be in the gym about three hours ago.”

Tony pushed a hand through his hair. “Sorry, meetings ran over. Steve, the thing is-”

“C'mon,” Steve said, and there was something eager about him, something so enthusiastic that Tony felt like a bully taking a kid's favorite toy when he even thought about saying no. “You have missed your last three sessions.”

“I was... Not in North America,” Tony pointed out.

“Doesn't change the fact that you missed your last three sessions.” Steve smiled. “Let's go. You have been slacking on your lessons, Mr. Stark.”

Tony stared at Steve's broad, open, welcoming smile, and resisted the urge to burst into tears. He stared at Steve for a long, frozen moment. Trapped, backed into a corner, so tired that he wasn't sure how he was still upright, he did the only thing he could do.

He lied through his teeth.

“I can't,” he said, and his voice sounded smooth and natural, regretful, even. He heard it as if from a distance, too drained to even figure out what he was saying. “I've got a session planned with Iron Man.”

Steve's smile faded, just a tiny bit. “Iron Man?” His head tipped to the side. “Hand to hand combat isn't really his specialty.”

The lie was perfect, so perfect that Tony was grinning now, grinning like an idiot. “Yeah, that's why I'm-” He patted Steve on the back, a little harder than he'd intended to. Steve being Steve, it really only hurt Tony's hand, but still. “I really thought it was a good idea if I had a chance to spar with different kinds of fighters.”

“Oh,” Steve said, and there was something to his expression that Tony couldn't read. “Still, I don't think-”

“I figured, I could switch it up a bit,” Tony said, his tone deliberately breezy to hide his desperation. “Try out a couple of different fighting styles, try out my moves with some different defenses, see how I have to adapt, depending on who I'm facing.” He grinned at Steve. “You are the best, but not everyone fights fair, Steve.”

“I'm aware of that,” Steve said, and his arms crossed over his chest, then uncrossed almost as rapidly. “He didn't say anything to me about this.”

“Didn't know if I was going to be back in time,” Tony pointed out. “Besides, he probably didn't even think you'd care. I take up enough of your time, he probably offered just to buy you a little breathing room.”

Steve's face was blank. “I don't mind,” he said. “I've never complained.”

“Cap, you don't complain nearly as much as you should,” Tony said.

“The rest of you pick up the slack,” Steve said. He shifted his weight. “Are you sure? I mean, I don't mind. I was rather-” He stopped, cleared his throat. “I think it's a better if we continue your training.”

“That's sweet of you, really,” Tony said. He patted Steve on the shoulder. “I just think-” He took a deep breath, and immediately regretted it. Pain swept over him, and his teeth ground together as he struggled not to let it show. “But right now? I got another date, Steve.”

Steve's eyes rolled upwards. “Very funny,” he said, but his lips twitched up on one side. “Tomorrow, then?”

There was no way he'd be able to stand tomorrow, and Tony knew it. “Maybe,” he allowed, but he was already retreating. “We'll see how today goes, maybe I should just, you know, switch it up a bit more, Steve.” He was so close to escape that when he grinned, it felt amazing on his face. He was so close to sleeping. “So, I'm just-” His head tipped back over his shoulder. “Gonna go catch up with Iron Man. We've got some serious work to do tonight.”

He gave Steve a grin, and a wink, and took off as fast as his battered body could manage.

Done with pressing his ever decreasing luck, Tony made it to the elevator and headed back to the penthouse. “Jarvis,” he said, as he stumbled out of the doors, “do not wake me for anything less than an actual world threatening disaster, and even then, wait half an hour.”

“Understood, sir. Do sleep well.”

Tony would've run at his bed if he'd been capable. Instead, he stumbled forward, his legs wobbling under him, and he stripped as he went, tie and jacket falling unheeded to the ground. His belt went flying in one direction, and his shirt in another, floating down behind him. He toed off one shoe, doing untold damage to the expensive leather, and he had to hop on one leg to get the other one off, fumbling at the lace with numb fingers. But both tumbled to the ground, and he got his pants unzipped with a force of will. He let them fall, stepping out of them almost before they were fully on the ground another step, maybe two, and he was at his bed. Tony collapsed, the groan that rumbled out of him the most obscene noise he'd ever made.

He was asleep before his body finished bouncing.

Chapter Text

Tony did not want to be awake.

He curled up tight, fumbling for the covers, for his pillow, anything he could use to hold consciousness at bay. Everything was a warm, pleasurable haze, and he stretched an arm out, hoping to find the other half of his bed occupied. But his hand slid over the silken surface of his sheets, finding them cool and empty.

And he was awake.

Tony stared at the wall, his vision blurry and his head spinning. “How long was I asleep?” he asked, and the words sounded slurred to his own ears.

“Two hours, twenty-one minutes,” Jarvis said.

Tony struggled to comprehend that. It took far, far too long for him to process it. “That, that is not enough,” he said to Jarvis. “That's not enough at all.”

“No, sir,” Jarvis agreed.

“Why am I awake, then?” Tony asked, his voice plaintive.

“I am unsure.”

Tony thought about that. He wasn't sure for how long. “I feel pretty good,” he said. Tony pushed himself upright, taking it slow, checking on how his body reacted. His head was swimming by the time he got into a sitting position, but nothing hurt. “I don't remember. Did I take the muscle relaxant or the painkiller?” he asked Jarvis.

“Both, sir. Maximum dose.”

Tony nodded. “Yeah.” He licked his lips. “That wasn't my best idea, was it?”

“I did do my best to talk you out of it, sir.”

“Is this going to be a problem?” Tony asked.

“I have checked your prescriptions, sir. While I would not recommend that you repeat the mixing of medications, I do not believe that you will suffer any lasting ill effects.”

“Yeah?”

“I have been monitoring your vital signs, sir.”

That was more comforting than it should've been. Tony licked his lips again. His mouth was painfully dry. “I'm thirsty,” he said.

“And likely hungry?” Jarvis asked.

Tony thought about that. “Yes,” he said at last. “Yes. I am.” As if on cue, his stomach grumbled.

“You have not eaten in more than thirty hours, sir. Perhaps this is why you are awake.”

Tony considered the edge of the bed. “Is taking drugs on an empty stomach a good idea?” he asked. He started the slow, careful process of maneuvering himself towards getting his feet on the floor. His legs weren't really cooperating, but with some effort, he rolled over.

“Some drugs require an empty stomach to be taken safely.”

“Oh. Were these that type?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, then why did you bring it up?”

“You seemed to require reassurance. I was hoping you wouldn't inquire further.”

“Okay, I can't fault you for that.” Tony managed to get one leg off of the bed and on the floor, and the rest of his body seemed to follow it in a smooth, almost liquid movement straight for the ground. He grabbed desperately for the headboard with both hands before he could end up on his ass. Fumbling for a grip, he got himself back into a somewhat upright position. “Okay,” he said, when his legs threatened to go in different directions. “That's a hell of a muscle relaxant.”

“So it would seem.” Jarvis' voice had taken on a concerned note. “Perhaps getting something to eat and drink would be beneficial for you at this time, sir.”

“Yeah, I think that's for the best.” Tony took a deep breath, and pulled himself up, forcing his legs straight. He swayed on his feet, trying to find his equilibrium. His head spun, something like pleasure flooding his body as he tried to move. Mah, he felt so good right now.. “Do I have food?”

“Yes.”

“Do I have food that is not frozen smoothie mix or protein bars?”

“Yes.”

“I think you're lying,” Tony said. He didn't eat here much anymore. It was so much easier to just eat with everyone else. Easier, and honestly, he was sick of eating take-out alone. The workshop fridge probably had more food in it than this one. “I should just go to the shared kitchen.”

“The variety there is much wider,” Jarvis agreed. “I believe there are leftovers from dinner.”

“Did I miss dinner?” Tony asked.

“Yes, sir.”

He was kind of disappointed by that. “What the fuck time is it?” he asked, and he almost missed the door. He grabbed for the wall and had to stand there for a second, leaning against the wall. He liked this wall. It was a nice wall. He should reward this wall. How does one reward a wall?

“Jarvis, we should totally put a picture or something on this wall, make it pretty, that would be nice.” There. That was good. Right?

“As soon as you have gotten some rest, I shall be pleased to provide you with some possibilities. In the meantime, sir, might I suggest that you dress before heading outside to the public area of the tower?” Jarvis asked.

“Fuck,” Tony said, his head thumping against the wall. “Sorry.” He patted the wall. “Sorry about that. Not your fault, buddy.” He pushed himself up and limped back towards his bedroom. “Jay, do I sound drugged? 'Cause I think I sound drugged. A little. Little bit drugged.”

“You are clearly not at your best, sir.”

“I can hold it together,” Tony told him. He managed to get a drawer open, and fumbled for pants. He really was not capable of dealing with zippers or buttons. Maybe something with a drawstring. He could work a drawstring, right? He found a pair and struggled to step into them. “Not the first time I've been doped up on painkillers or drunk on my ass around this place. I can hold it together.”

“Sir?”

“Jay?”

“You are wearing your pants backwards.”

“Yeah, well, that's a fixable problem. That's... Something I can fix.” He shoved the pants back down and tried to step out of them and his feet got tangled in the fabric, and he hopped and stumbled before sitting down hard on the bed. “See? Fixing it.”

“As you say, sir.” Jarvis waited patiently as Tony figured out which leg of his pants went on which foot. “Do you need me to notify Ms. Potts, sir?”

“Not unless there's a medical reason, okay?” Tony gave up on trying to tie off the drawstring and just hoped the damn pants would stay on. “I miss her,” he said, and he didn't know the words were there until they were out. But they felt real. He paused for a second, staring at his feet. “A lot.”

“Shall I call her, sir?”

It was tempting. But if he called her, she'd come. And once, that would've been the only reason he would've needed to call her. Now, though, now he knew the toll that their relationship took on her, the strain and the stress and the exhaustion that dogged her steps. She'd had one hell of a week, too.

He let his head fall forward, exhausted. “No. Just, do me a favor, Jay? Send her a text, tell her she's the best. You know, best at being-” He waved a hand in the air, his tongue too dry and too clumsy. “Tell her she's the best. But you know. Jazz it up a bit.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Thanks, Jarvis.” He pushed himself up. “Shirt. Shirt. Gotta...” He smoothed a hand over his chest, letting his palm settle just over the spot where the arc reactor pulsed.

The synthetic skin had been a top priority, after Stane. Tony had learned his lesson that day, and he'd made sure that would never happen again. No one would ever see his Achilles' Heel, glowing there in the center of his chest. Pepper knew, Happy knew, Rhodey knew, and his medical team knew. To the rest of the world, Tony Stark's injuries had been severe, but he'd recovered. The synthetic skin was relatively easy to apply, and almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

He'd refined the arc reactor's housing,, had smoothed the edge, had brought it almost flush against the contours of his chest. With the synthetic skin in place, there was no way to tell it was there, except by touch.

If any of his bed partners noticed, finding it too cool or too smooth to the touch, he merely explained that it was a fix for extensive scar tissue. And guided curious hands elsewhere before they could feel the hard, unyielding lines of metal and crystal beneath it.

Tony still expected the glow to show through, sometimes, but it was too well engineered for that. He'd seen to that. He'd spent a lot of time on that particular lie.

“I still need a shirt,” he said out last. “I gotta have a shirt without buttons, right? I can't... Be expected to work buttons right now.”

“Your t-shirts are in the third drawer, sir.”

“Right. Yes. They are.” Tony sighed. “I'm tired, Jay.”

“Perhaps you should go back to bed, sir.”

“I'm hungrier than I am sleepy.” He stopped, his shirt half on. “That wasn't right.”

“I understood your intent, sir. You have received a reply from Ms. Potts.”

“Yeah? What is it?”

“She asks, 'Why are you awake, Tony? Are you all right?'”

Tony grinned. “That's my girl.” But she wasn't, not anymore. He focused on making sure that his shirt was on properly, that he got all the right parts in the right holes. It was harder than it should've been. “Tell her I'm fine, and she doesn't know how to take a compliment.” Taking a deep breath, he headed for the door. “And that I'll be back in bed in...” He lost the thread of his sentence and stopped. “Jarvis?”

“Yes, sir?”

“If I ever try to mix meds again, you have my explicit permission to turn the sprinklers on,” Tony said.

“Gladly, sir.”

*

“How was the workout?”

Steve was kind of glad to find that the shared kitchen was occupied. “I've had better, I've had worse,” he said to Natasha. “Is there coffee?”

She pointed. “In the pot.”

“Thanks.” He crossed the kitchen, his arms burning. The ache would subside in a matter of hours, if not minutes. He almost missed it, some days, that bone deep exhaustion and ache that would have him asleep in a matter of minutes. Now, he just got hungry.

He poured himself a cup of coffee. “It was a couple of hours of pounding on a punching bag,” he explained to Natasha, who was still watching him. “Good for aggression, but not particularly effective for anything else.”

“Sometimes,” she said, “dealing with aggression is all that the workout needs to do.”

Natasha was in the chair closest to the wall, protecting her back as always, a half finished salad dotted with cherry tomatoes and cubed chicken breast in front of her. She was still eating, but seemed more interested in the SHIELD file that was open next to her plate. Jan had taken up the other side of the table, piles of sketches, all with bits of fabric swathes clipped and stapled to them, were spread in front of her. She ran her pencil over a page, a cookie clamped between her teeth as she bent over her work. To the side, Wanda was sitting with her legs tucked under her, her long skirt falling in graceful folds over her chair and to the ground. One set of bare toes, nails painted a red that matched the trim of her skirt, peeked out from beneath the fabric. She trailed long, graceful fingers over the print on the page, as if she was reading braille.

There was something quiet and peaceful about the room, and Steve lingered, leaning against the counter. “Anything I should know about?” he asked Nat, tipping his chin in the direction of her file.

She shook her head. “Not a mission. Just catching up on some paperwork that should've been done a while back.”

Steve smiled into his coffee cup. “I'm impressed you got away with it, then.”

“Yeah, Coulson is on me in a New York minute if I've got reports that he think should be filed,” Jan said, reaching for her tea cup. It was a delicate piece of china, and fit her hand like a glove. “How do you rate, Agent Romanov?”

“I cultivate an obvious threat, and the last time he tried to badger me into finishing anything, I had Clint fill it out for me,” Natasha said. Her eyelashes fluttered as she dug her fork through her salad. “Let's just say, the request wasn't repeated.”

“I can imagine.” Jan considered that, her lips pursed. “Do you think-”

Tony wandered into the kitchen, and everyone stopped in their tracks.

Steve stared, completely caught off guard. He'd seen Tony Stark in workout clothes, often enough, and in the workshop from time to time. But somehow, Tony had always maintained a certain control, a certain awareness of his appearance. He always seemed to be dressed for the occasion, even if that occasion was just making repairs to Iron Man's armor while discussing movies with Sam and Steve.

This was not a Tony Stark he was used to seeing.

Tony was wearing only a t-shirt and a pair of gray pants, his feet bare on the floor. His hair was a mop of disordered locks, and his cheeks were flushed. He moved with a sleek sort of grace, but barely seemed aware of what he was doing. As everyone watched, silently, Tony wandered over to the fridge, pulling it open, and propped his hip against the edge as he considered the contents. One arm slid up, catching on the top of the fridge, and Tony's body swayed against it.

Steve cleared his throat. “Tony?”

Tony's eyes slid in his direction, and his mouth curled in a smile that made Steve's stomach tighten. "Hey, Cap," he said, his dark eyes at half mast. His tongue flicked out, licking at his lips, and he turned back to the fridge. He pulled out a bottle of water and a random assortment of food, piling a bag of bagels, cream cheese, smoked salmon, and a plate of sliced cucumber and tomato left over from dinner in the crook of his arm.

He wandered toward the toaster, not even bothering to close the fridge door after him. Steve did it for him as Tony fed a sliced bagel into the toaster, dumping everything else onto the counter. He cracked open the water and downed the whole thing in one long, sustained gulp. When he finally pulled the bottle away from his lips, his face was flushed and the breath he took shuddered audibly.

He let it out in a moan that could only be classified as obscene.

“Thirsty?” Natasha asked. She was watching him, her chin braced on one hand, her eyebrows arched.

“You have no idea,” Tony said. He stretched, every muscle in his back pulling tight beneath the thin material of his t-shirt. The shirt shifted when he raised his arms, revealing a broad strip of golden skin between the hem of the shirt and his pants. Steve realized he was staring when Tony turned back around, leaning against the counter, his head still tipped back to stare, unblinking, at the toaster. The gray pants were yoga pants, Steve realized, something he didn't even know Tony owned, let alone wore. They rode very low on Tony's slim hips, and Steve jerked his eyes away.

“So, how did it go?” he asked, because the silence was starting to bother him. And none of the women at the table seemed inclined to break it.

"What?" His gaze was a bit unfocused when he looked at Steve. The toaster popped, and he grabbed his bagel. He piled cream cheese and smoked salmon on top, slapping the cucumber and tomato in place, and jammed it into his mouth.

"Your... Sparring session?" Steve repeated. "With Iron Man?"

"Oh, yeah. That." Tony grinned at him before sucking cream cheese off of his fingers. There was cream cheese at the corner of his mouth, and he swiped at it with his thumb, leaving his lower lip clean and bright red with the pressure. "Great. It was great. Very..." He stopped talking, and everyone just waited. He went back to his bagel, demolishing it in a couple of bites. After a minute or two, Tony seemed to realize that he hadn't finished the sentence. "It was really good."

"I see that," Jan said, a wicked smile on her face. "You... Done, then?"

Tony stared at her. "No," he said after a minute. His vision cleared, just a bit, and he pushed up and away from the counter. His body swayed with the movement. "It was a big success, but we're still, we're still going, I just needed a quick pick me up. I gotta-" He hooked a thumb towards the door. "Just... Going to... Get back to it." He stopped. "He's waiting."

With that, he padded out of the kitchen, bare feet almost soundless on the tile floor, his pants sliding dangerously low on his hipbones.

"Have fun!" Jan called after him, and he raised a hand in a half-hearted wave before disappearing out into the hallway. Jan sipped her tea. “Wow.”

“Wow,” Natasha agreed.

Wanda just shook her head, burying her face behind her coffee cup. “You're both horrible,” she said, but there was laughter in her soft voice.

Steve's eyes darted between them. He opened his mouth, about to ask, and then realized that he probably shouldn't. Instead, he emptied the coffee grounds and started a fresh pot.

“Well, it was only a matter of time,” Jan said.

"Stop it.” Natasha smoothed the grin off of her face. “It's not like it's a surprise.”

Jan twisted in her seat, her eyes large as she stared after Tony. "Well, no. But I've always wondered what he looked like on the morning after."

Natasha gave her a look. "Pretty sure you can find that out. Firsthand.”

Jan stuck her tongue out at Natasha, her eyes dancing. "I am in a committed relationship, thank you. Also, even if I wasn't, I wouldn't want to deal with the crazy."

"I'm just saying," Natasha said, going back to her file, her spoon tapping idly against the rim of her tea cup.

“You're both horrible,” Wanda repeated, her lips curved in a slight smile.

“So, Stark looks like he got hit by something small and sexy,” Clint said, wandering into the kitchen. “Not to mention energetic, judging by the way he's swaying on his feet out there. Didn't know he had a guest.”

“He doesn't,” Natasha told him. “He's been 'sparring' with Iron Man.”

Clint paused, halfway to the fridge. “Huh,” he said after a second. “I guess that was only a matter of time.”

“That's what I said!” Jan said. “Do you think they've been going at it all this time?”

Steve stared at them. “You think he's SLEEPING? With IRON MAN?” he asked, and he was pretty sure his voice hadn't cracked like that since he was fifteen. He cleared his throat. “He's not sleeping with Iron Man,” he told Clint. “They're just doing hand to hand sparring practice.”

“Well, he's been down on the mat, all right,” Clint said, chuckling. He threw the fridge door open and started pulling out sandwich materials. “Been down hard, judging by the way he was limping.”

Steve resisted the very real urge to close the door on his head. “Clint...”

“You do not get hair like that from a quick turn on the gym mat,” Natasha said. “You do not get hair like that from anything less than a full mattress.” Her teeth flashed in a wicked smile. “I always wondered if Iron Man lived with him, or had some other way to get out of Stark's apartment without any of us seeing him.”

“Yeah, how does that work?” Clint asked, waving a loaf of bread around. “Maybe he's got a secret elevator, or something.”

“Be easy enough to have a whole system of secret passages in a building this big,” Jan said, nibbling idly on a cookie as she considered it. “I mean, if it wasn't for Jarvis, I would've gotten lost myself.”

“If he does live on site, it's got to be an actual apartment,” Clint said, peering into the jar of mayonnaise. “It's not like he can eat with us.”

“Or he could be bunking with Stark,” Natasha said.

“I thought he was-” Too late, Steve realized that he had said that aloud, and everyone was looking at him. He cleared his throat. “Never mind.”

“Thought he was what?” Clint asked, his head tipping in Steve's direction. “Straight?”

Steve felt the heat rise in his face and refused to give into it. “All of his-” He stopped, cleared his throat. “After he and Pepper broke up, he's only brought women back here.” That sounded even worse, like he'd been monitoring Tony's paramours, which he absolutely had not.

Not actively, at least. It was just hard not to notice.

“I think Tony falls solidly into the 'bisexual' category, if a category needed to be applied,” Jan said. “I mean, I'm not a fan of categories, but he is definitely not a zero on the Kinsey scale.”

“Pretty sure he's made a polite pass at everyone on the team,” Natasha said, sipping her tea.

“Yeah, but do you get the idea that it was just a formality?” Clint asked, laughing. “He flirts as a matter of course, I think if any of us had tried to take him up on it, he would've been shocked.”

“Imagine if Thor had taken him up on it,” Wanda said, out of the blue, and Jan choked on her coffee.

“Well, now I'm imagining that, thanks so much for that mental image.”

“He hasn't made a pass at me,” Steve said, and immediately regretted it. Because it sounded kind of petulant. Kind of like he was disappointed by that. And he wasn't. He absolutely was not disappointed by that. And he absolutely was not kind of reeling at the news that Tony had dimensions that he hadn't anticipated.

“Everyone makes a pass at you, Cap,” Clint said, patting him on the shoulder. “You're just too polite to realize that people are lusting after you.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “I'm not oblivious,” he said.

“So, if he is sleeping with Iron Man-” Jan started, and Steve cut her off before this could go in an even worse direction.

“All right, this has gone far enough,” Steve said, trying to sound stern, which was difficult because he was thinking about all sorts of things that he should not be thinking about. “Stark has a right to a personal life, and it's disrespectful for us to gossip about him this way.” He looked around, meeting everyone's eyes. “The discussion is over.”

Jan held up a hand. “Gotcha, bossman.”

“I missed the discussion? What discussion?”Carol asked. She walked in, the bounce in her step sending her ponytail swinging behind her like a pendulum, still in a tank top and running pants. Her face was pink from exertion, and she was breathing a bit hard, but her eyes were bright, and she had a towel thrown over her bare shoulders. “Dammit, did I miss dinner? I just knew that last couple of miles would come back to bite me in the ass.”

“Don't feel bad,” Natasha told her. “I think everyone missed dinner tonight.”

“I see that.” As she passed by, Carol reached around Clint and stole half the sandwich he'd just finished making. “Thank you!”

“What, no, there's no thank you, why do you get to steal my food?” Clint asked, grinning at her. “Give it back, Danvers.”

She took a huge bite, her eyes sad as she hunched over it.

“If you think that'll keep him from taking it back, you really do not know him,” Natasha said. Carol reached for the other half of the sandwich, and Clint held it out of reach behind him. Nat considered the plate as it passed by, and simply grabbed the other half. Clint stared at her with an expression of betrayal. She shrugged. “You do make the best sandwiches, Barton.”

“Well, yes, but that doesn't mean I should have to make them for all of you,” Clint said. He held the plate out to Carol. “Give it back.”

“Let me eat it and the next time you're hungover I'll fly out to Newark and get you that “Five AM Voodoo Brew” espresso from that one coffee shop on the bad side of town,” Carol said, still guarding the sandwich.

Clint stopped. “Next three times,” he said.

“It's half of a sandwich, and I've eaten half of it!”

“Should've started negotiations before you stole something in front of Captain America,” Clint pointed out.

Carol's eyes slid in Steve's direction. He shook his head. “You did kind of lose the moral high ground, Carol,” he said, trying to keep a straight face.

“Fine, next three times,” she said, throwing herself into a chair.

“How good is this damn coffee?” Jan asked.

“Fan-fucking-tastic,” Clint said.

“Pretty sure the fumes alone could strip paint,” Carol said. “It's phenomenal. If it doesn't cure you, it'll kill you, so either way?” She bit into the sandwich and grinned. “It does its job. Stark can never know it exists.”

“Speaking of,” Clint said, going back to make himself another sandwich, “Stark's sleeping with Iron Man.”

“Clint,” Steve said, but no one was paying any attention to him.

“Yeah?” Carol looked around for confirmation.

“Seems to be,” Natasha said. “Let's just say, the general consensus is, no one is surprised.”

Carol nodded. “I'm not.”

"Why are we even having this discussion?" Steve asked.

“Because we're bored,” Jan said. “And we are adults who live together and one of us wears a giant metal suit all of the time and while we've accepted that, I think it's fair to say that we all are kind of curious as to who's under there and why they like living inside of a tin can.”

“Also, I will be honest and say I resent the amount of time Tony spends getting laid,” Clint said, before throwing himself into an open chair next to Natasha. She moved her file out of his way and pushed her salad in his direction. He stole a cherry tomato before taking a huge bite of his sandwich. He chewed, then added, “I'm a jealous man.”

“You jealous because he's having sex, or because he's not having it with you?” Natasha asked.

“I have one ex on the team, that's enough,” Clint said. “You're enough for any man.”

“True,” she agreed.

“Can we not discuss this?” Steve asked, rubbing his forehead.

“Apparently, we can't. Not. We're discussing it,” Jan said.

"What are we discussing?" Sam asked, loping easily across the kitchen.

"Who the hell are you and how did you get into our secret headquarters?" Carol asked him, grinning over the lip of her coffee cup.

He gave her a mock outraged look. "First, Secret Headquarters? It's got the damn logo on the side of the building, what the hell. Also, I miss one mission, and I'm out? Is that what you're saying here?"

"Intruder alert, Jay," Carol said, her head tipped back. "Shoot his lazy ass."

"I do apologize, Captain, but he does have full clearance for use of this area," Jarvis said, unruffled. "Until such permissions are revoked I am not allowed, as you so elequently put it, 'shoot his ass.'"

"The system works," Sam said, spreading his hands with a wide grin. "Thanks, Jarvis, I know you got my back, man." He slumped against the counter. "No, seriously, and I'm ignoring Carol entirely right now because she's not done chewing my ass-"

"Damn straight. Slacker."

"ANYWAY," Sam said, his voice rising above hers and making her laugh. "Does anyone else want to tell me what's happening in here?"

"Nothing," Steve said.

"Stark's sleeping with Iron Man and we're trying to figure out who he is," Clint said, and Steve glared at him. Clint shrugged, grinning. "What? He asked what we were discussing. That's what we were discussing."

"I was hoping we would stop discussing it," Steve told him. “In that it's not right to gossip about our teammate.”

"Good luck with that, Cap," Carol said. “C'mon, it's not like we haven't all been thinking about it.”

Steve had done his best not to think about it. To take Iron Man as an individual, whole in himself. He'd tried to remind himself that who was under the helmet didn't matter, it was Iron Man who was their friend and comrade. “He has the right to his privacy,”

“Yeah, but we can still speculate,” she said, standing and crossing to the coffeepot.

Jan leaned forward. "What do you think, Sam?"

He shrugged. "About Stark doing the horizontal mambo? I try not to."

Her big brown eyes rolled. "No, about who Iron Man is.”

“And we don't know that they're-” Steve felt his cheeks flush, and mentally cursed. “That's speculation we should stop having.”

"Oh, I bet they are, and good for Iron Man. Are we laying bets here? Is there a pool?" Sam asked. “As to who Iron Man is?”

"No," Steve said.

Clint slapped a ten dollar bill on the table. "Yes. Yes, there is," he said, a little too happy about this turn of events. "Ten dollars on Rhodes."

Carol groaned. "No chance," she said. She boosted herself up onto the counter, staying within range of the coffee. “He's military.”

“So're you,” Clint said.

“He's active duty military,” she said. “

“I don't know,” Natasha said. “It wouldn't be the first time that a military career was cover for something else. All you need is a couple of members of the brass that are in on the game, who can cover for him. He's an officer, which actually makes it easier. A few stamped orders here and there and a good cover story for when he's not going to be immediately accessible, and he's golden.”

“There's no reason to do it, though,” Carol said, her chin at a stubborn angle. “Why let a trained and qualified military officer be pushed into a non-miltary use?”

“To get access to the suit?” Jan mused. “I'm sure the US Military would like to make a few copies for personal use.”

“Or just to stay in Stark's good graces,” Clint said. “After all, he's not making weapons right now, but the military tends to be optimistic about their chances of throwing cash at someone and getting what they want.” He shrugs. “Maybe they think he'll hit a rough patch, and need the cash, or maybe just that his priorities will change.”

“What he's creating now might not be weapons,” Jan said, “but it has significant worth.”

Carol's nose wrinkled. “It's not Rhodes.”

"You just say that because you like Rhodes," Jan said, her eyebrows arching.

"I like Iron Man, too," Carol shot back.

Jan's lips curled up. "Not the same way."

Carol shoved a finger in her direction. "You shut up," she said, grinning. But she fished a bill from her pocket and held it up. "Ten on Happy Hogan.” She slipped down from her perch and crossed to the table, slapping the bill down on top of Clint's. “He's been Stark's driver and bodyguard forever.”

“He's also been, well, not particularly good at it,” Clint pointed out. “I've never seen Stark actually let him drive.”

“All the more reason for it to be him,” Carol said with a grin. “He's a former boxer, a scrapper, and he's incredibly loyal to Stark.”

Natasha's ten landed on top of hers. "He's no one," she said, pushing her chair back from the table. "That identity is his only identity."

Everyone glanced at each other, and Clint whistled. "Dead file," he said, one foot flicking against the side of his chair leg. "That's an idea."

"Dead file?" Steve asked, and then mentally cursed himself for doing anything to encourage this conversation to keep going.

"Someone who has been reported deceased," Natasha said. "It's hard to get a new identity unless you have connections." Her head tipped forward over her tablet. "The sort that Stark has."

"The money doesn't hurt, either," Clint said. He waved a hand at the table. “Jan? Sam?”

Jan chewed on her lower lip. “A StarkIndustries employee,” she said, as she scribbled an IOU on a napkin.

“Too broad, and what, don't you have any cash?” Natasha asked her, her lips twitching.

Jan pushed her hair away from her cheek with a flick of her perfectly manicured fingernails. “Who carries CASH?” she asked, her teeth flashing in a grin. “And fine. If you insist on being pedantic about it. A StarkIndustries employee that we have never met.”

“Barely acceptable,” Clint told her, and she blew him a kiss. "You in, Wilson?"

Sam arched an eyebrow. "You're all overlooking the obvious," he said, shaking his head. He fished his wallet from his pocket and pulled out a bill, pinned between two fingers. "It's sad, really. How easy it is to take money from all of you."

"Money where your big mouth is," Carol said. "What's your bet?"

He slapped it down. "Pepper." In the silence that followed his proclamation, he leaned back against the counter again, his arms crossed over his chest, a smirk on his face. "Oh. Am I the only one who made the connection between the person who seems to know all of Stark's secrets? The one who is constantly around him? The one who has a perfect excuse to be there?"

"The one he forces out first if there's trouble," Jan said, her lips parting in a little oh of dawning interest. "Always."

"Am I the only one who thought of this? I am?" Sam looked around. "Y'all are sexist."

"Oh, my God," Carol said, balling up a napkin and throwing it in his direction. He batted it away easily.

"He's not wrong," Natasha said. "We should've thought of it."

"She's too small, isn't she?" Clint said. "She's... Tiny."

"How much of that suit is the person inside and how much is just the damn suit?" Sam asked. "He never lets her stick around. She's always gone when Iron Man shows up. Unlike Rhodes, she's got every reason to be right here, right now, and traveling with him when he's out and about. And she was the only other person confirmed to be on site at StarkIndustries when Iron Man was first spotted, during that whole mess with Iron Monger?" He spread his hands. "Makes sense to me."

“She doesn't seem exactly comfortable around the armor,” Jan said. “But she wouldn't be the first woman to mask her abilities by pretending to be uncomfortable around aggression and violence. Playing into that can be very effective.”

“Especially around men, and almost all of Stark's enemies have been men.” Natasha paused. “How is that possible? How has he not been shot by an angry ex yet?”

“He's really charming,” Jan said.

“He has a lot of ex's.”

“And he's very, very charming.”

“But yeah,” Wilson said, heading for the fridge. He pulled out a bottle of water and twisted it open. “Easy to over look the PA.” He downed half the bottle in a couple of gulps. “Pretty much the perfect cover.”

“Well, Wanda?” Jan asked.

For the first time, Wanda looked up from her book. “Yes?”

Jan folded her arms on the tabletop. “Who is it?” she asked, gleeful.

Wanda leaned back in her chair, one graceful hand closing the book. She left her fingers resting on the cover, light and easy. “Why do you think I know?” she asked, her lips twitching.

“Because you know everything.” Jan grinned. “Tell the truth.”

Wanda laughed. “I've told you before,” she said, shaking her head, “that my powers do not work that way. If you'd like to deal in telepathy, I'm afraid I can't help you.”

Jan studied her. “Booooooo,” she said at last, making Wanda laugh again. “C'mon, help a girl out here, you have to know something.”

Wanda reopened her book. Steve wasn't sure, but he was pretty sure that she'd gone right back the the same page she'd been on, without any sort of marker. “I know,” she said, a sly smile playing around her lips, “that the only person who knows for sure, is the one inside the helmet. And why he-” She glanced up, and inclined her head a bit in Sam's direction. “Or she chooses to put on that helmet? I cannot say.

“But I have trouble believing anyone would do it, just for the pay. It is someone who will sacrifice anything to keep Stark safe.” She leaned her cheek against the knuckles of one hand. “Which is something to keep in mind before you start digging into something like this. Some people will do anything to keep their secrets. No matter what the cost.”

In the silence that followed, Clint leaned forward. “So, you're not in?” he asked. She gave him a look. Clint grinned at her, unperturbed. “C'mon, I'll spot you, Wanda.” He pulled another ten from his wallet and held it above the pile. “What's your guess?”

Shaking her head, she went back to her book. But she smiled when she said, “Jarvis.”

“Wanda's got ten on our eye in the sky,” Clint said, dropping the bill. “Which, if everyone is right about the whole 'Tony's banging the help' concept, well, then, that puts a whole new spin on Tony's relationship with his tech.”

“All right, we are done.” Steve pushed away from the counter, crossing his arms over his chest. “We decided this, when we formed the team. We decided that we would accept Tony's offer of a place to live, a place where we could be together and protected. We also agreed that Iron Man would be on the team, and that we would respect his rights to protect his identity.

“That for whatever reason, he does feel the need to adopt the identity of Iron Man in public. And I don't know why that is. I don't know if he's protecting himself, or protecting someone else, or if he's afraid of something, but I know that it doesn't matter. Iron Man has served this team well. He has pulled our collective asses out of the fire often enough. He has earned our respect, and while I can't speak for the rest of you, he has earned my friendship.”

Steve looked around the room. “Now, you can speculate all you want. I don't like it, but I can't exactly stop you. I will not, however, allow him to be questioned or harassed here. If it comes down to him feeling like his identity is respected and his life is safe here, then that is more important than any one of you having your curiosity satisfied.”

He paused, took a deep breath. “Now. Does anyone else have anything to add?”

There was a moment of silence. “You know who would know?” Jan asked, and Steve turned a disbelieving look on her. “What?” she said, all innocence. “I won't bother Iron Man, Cap, Scout's honor. But you know who would know?”

“Heimdall,” Carol said.

“Well, yes, in that Heimdall knows everything,” Clint said, “but I'm pretty sure that even if we could put through a collect call to Thor in Asgard, he won't tell us.”

“Bruce,” Jan said, grinning. “I bet Stark's told Bruce.”

Steve let out a breath on a sigh. Sam patted him on the back. “Sorry, buddy,” he said, grinning. “But this is the saddest group of people you ever met. Think there's no chance we're putting this genie back in the bottle.”

Steve gave him a look. “Heck of a lot of help you were,” he pointed out.

“Sorry,” Sam said, sounding anything but. “Let them get it out of their systems. It'll blow over.”

Steve took a deep breath. “I hope so,” he said. “I really do.” Shaking his head, he rinsed his coffee cup at the sink and put it into the dishwasher.

Sam watched him, his eyes hooded. “Where are you headed?”

“Back to the gym,” Steve said. “I think I need to go a few more rounds.”

So that he could stop thinking about why Tony hadn't made a pass at him.

Chapter Text

Tony woke up to a metal finger tapping him ever so lightly on the forehead.

Tony pried an eye open, blinking up at the familiar, shining faceplate. He grinned, still half-asleep. “Oh, darling, how I've missed you,” he said, his voice a throaty purr.

The Iron Man faceplate flipped up, and Rhodey stared down at him. “You're an idiot,” he said, amusement twitching in the lines of his mouth and warming his brown eyes. He held out a paper bakery bag. “Here. I brought you breakfast.”

“I love you so much,” Tony said, fumbling for the bag with greedy fingers. He managed to latch onto it and drag it down under the covers with him.

“You gonna eat it, or just cuddle with it?” Rhodey asked.

“I can do both,” Tony said, burying his face in his pillow, one arm looped around the delicious smelling bag. “I love my breakfast. And you.”

“All my dreams have come true,” Rhodey said, his tone wry. “Finally. My prince has come.”

Tony made kissy noises. “I knew you'd come around to my way of thinking eventually.”

“You overestimate how good you look right now.”

“Excuse you, I always look awesome,” Tony said, yawning.

“Oh, yeah, that's attractive. You might want to get that cavity looked at.” He sank into a chair next to Tony's bed. “Eat. Because to tell you the truth? You look like death warmed over.”

Tony shrugged. “How is food supposed to help with that? A shower and a shave would probably do the job a bit more efficiently.”

“I don't see how a solid meal can hurt,” Rhodey said. “So humor me.”

Tony rolled his eyes, but he dug into the bag, pushing himself upright as he did. Everything ached, especially his head, but survival seemed inevitable. “Did you stop at a diner in the suit?” Tony asked.

“I channeled you, and did just that,” Rhodey said. “For some reason, the counter staff didn't seem surprised to see Iron Man. They just asked if I wanted the usual.”

“And I see you said yes,” Tony said, pulling a breakfast sandwich from the bag. Egg, turkey sausage, pepper jack cheese and a dash of salsa on a multigrain English muffin. “Where's the-” Rhodey held out the cup of coffee. “I really do love you,” Tony told him, taking it.

“Uh-huh.” Rhodey shoved his legs out in front of him. “Less food induced emotion, more eating.”

Tony considered saying something to that, but the sandwich smelled amazing. He took a massive bite, forgoing manners and safety in favor of getting the food into him as fast as possible. He managed not to choke on it, and downed half of the coffee in a sustained gulp.

Rhodey leaned forward with a sustained sigh, his elbows braced on his knees. "You sure you're-"

"I will hit you," Tony said around a mouthful of tasty, tasty breakfast sandwich. He chewed with intent, and swallowed before he continued. "In fact, I would hit you just as a matter of course, except for the fact that this is pretty good. I mean. Yeah." He took another huge bite. "Pretty good."

Rhodey's eyebrows were arched, one hand cupping his mouth. "How long has it been since you've eaten?" he asked.

"I eat," Tony said, his mouth full of food. "Now. I'm eating now."

"Uh-huh."

“I ate when I got home,” Tony said. “So, yesterday.” He paused. “Right?”

“That was two days ago,” Rhodey said, and he had that worried look on his face again.

Tony paused, mid-chew. “Really?” he asked, his mouth full.

“Really,” Rhodey agreed.

Tony shrugged and swallowed. “Well, then, good you brought me breakfast.”

“Yes, it is.” Rhodey leaned back, folding his hands over his flat stomach. “So, when were you gonna tell me about the threats?”

Tony made a face. “I see Pepper has been busy while I've been unconscious.”

“Yeah, you should consider not being unconscious for two, three days at a time. It gives your friends all sorts of time to figure out what you've been up to,” Rhodey said, his head tipping to the side. His dark eyes were concerned. “So. What've you been up to?”

“Lots of stuff, great stuff, world changing stuff,” Tony said, his mouth full. “Gonna have to narrow it down there, sport.”

Rhodey was not easily distracted, which was one of the reasons why he'd survived as Tony's friend for this long. Or just plain survived Tony. “Okay, since we're playing stupid again, Pepper says that you've been receiving threats. Serious ones.”

“Pepper says a lot of stuff,” Tony said.

“And most of it is completely true,” Rhodey pointed out. “When it comes to you, almost all of it is completely true.”

“She gets a little upset and exaggerates sometimes,” Tony said, finishing his sandwich. “Little bit. Little bit of an exaggeration sometimes.”

“Well, she keeps getting shot at,” Rhodey said. “Shockingly, this upsets most people.”

“I'm fine with it.”

“Most rational people,” Rhodey corrected.

“I'm rational,” Tony said, trying for hurt and failing. “Besides, you're fine with it, too.”

“I'm not fine with it. Not at all. I really hate when people shoot at me.” Rhodey crossed his arms. “And the more time I spend with you, Stark, the more time I spend getting shot at.”

“You're in the Air Force!”

“And more people shoot at me when I'm hanging out with you then when I'm out on active duty military service, so what does that tell you?” Rhodey asked.

“That you're not doing your job right.”

“Tony, I don't think these threats are something to laugh at,” Rhodey said. “I think that you need to-”

“Happy's handling it,” Tony said, finishing his coffee. He ached, but he felt almost human. He wasn't sure if it was the coffee, the food, or just having slept for more than a few hours. Either way, he was pretty sure he was going to live. He stretched, his shoulders pulling tight.

“I'm aware of that, but Pepper and I have been discussing it, and I think that you need to-”

“How much of your free time is spent talking to Pepper?”

“My free time is pretty much talking to you, or talking to Pepper about you,” Rhodey said.

“You need a life, man, really, you need to get a date or something.”

“Great, I'll keep that in mind, can we just-”

Tony pushed himself out of bed, ignoring the way that his entire body objected to the movement. He gritted his teeth, and kept going, getting his feet on the floor and his body upright. For a second, he swayed on his feet, and Rhodey grabbed his arm.

“Hey, slow down, it's-”

“You should just ask her out,” Tony said.

Rhodey blinked, his head twitching back. “What? What're-”

Tony glanced at him. “Pepper. You should ask her out.”

Rhodey's jaw dropped. “Tony-”

“I'm serious, the two of you are perfect for each other, and she likes you, I think we can both agree about that? Right? She likes you.” He patted Rhodey on the chest, his fingers rattling against the armor's chest plate. “And you like her. You should man up and ask her out.”

“Really? Did you just tell me to man up?”

“I did, because, you need to man up. You've been a complete-”

“Why do I talk to you?” Rhodey asked the ceiling. “Why do I even bother trying to have a conversation with you, it's like talking to a drunk cat.”

“That seems unnecessarially harsh,” Tony said. His head had stopped spinning, and he pulled away from Rhodey's grip. “Serious, though. Go woo.”

“Woo?”

“It's a legitimate term,” Tony told him. “Woo. You know what I mean.”

“What do you-”

Tony stopped, one hand braced on the wall, steadying himself. “You like her,” he said, looking at Rhodey. “Don't you?”

Rhodey took a breath. “It's... A weird situation,” he admitted. “What with the fact that you and she used to date.”

“I date a lot of people,” Tony said. “If you've going to exclude people I've dated from your dating pool, and only stick with women, you're gonna end up with a pretty small dating pool. And miss out on a lot of very lovely ladies.”

“I was worried how you might react,” Rhodey said, ignoring him.

“I'm going to do you a favor,” Tony said. “And not tell Pepper you said that. Mostly because she would kill me on her way to killing you. Because, wow.”

Rhodey's eyes flicked up towards the ceiling. “You know I don't mean that you have the right to say who she does and does not date. I mean, we're both your friends.” His lips quirked up in a faint smile. “Some might say, your only friends.”

“Hey now,” Tony said, grinning at him. “I'm a very popular guy. Legions of friends.”

“Of course you are.” Rhodey took a seat on the edge of the bed. “But that... Might make things weird. For you.”

“You know what would make things weird for me?” Tony said. “If Pepper starts dating that guy down in legal.” He shuddered. “Bow ties. He's-” Tony's face scrunched up. “I can't deal with that. It's- That's not acceptable. Legal guy in those weird two tone shoes and bow ties, I-” He waved a hand in Rhodey's direction. “Look, I'd like to say I'm not so much of an asshole that I'd prefer that my friends put my needs in front of theirs, but I'm pretty sure I am that much of an asshole. So I think of it like this: if either of you starts dating someone OTHER than each other, there is no way that your new significant other will put up with me.”

Rhodey had a hand cupped over his mouth, trying ot hide a smile. “Tony...”

“No, really, my only chance is to get you to date one another, because you're both already immune to my existence, so I'll get to keep you both.” Tony pointed a finger in Rhodey's direction. “Win-win.”

“You're an idiot,” Rhodey told him, but his dark eyes were dancing.

“My GPA was higher than yours,” Tony pointed out. “And I took two finals drunk off my ass.”

“I hate you,” Rhodey said. “Tony-”

“Lies.” Tony waved a hand through the air, wobbling his way towards the bathroom. “Go woo the best woman you've ever met.”

“No.” Rhodey stood, the armor moving seamlessly with him. “I'm going to spend some time being seen in this thing, because you've been out of commission for a couple of days, and so has Iron Man, and we need to avoid things like that if we'd like to have a chance in hell of keeping your stupid secret.”

“Go, fly, be free like the beautiful butterfly that you always wanted to be. And, remember, ask Pepper out.”

“Stay out of it, Tony.”

“What? You can do it now. She's on the suit's speed dial, you can multitask. Let me know if you need any tips. I got tips. I can-”

“NO.”

“Fine, good luck getting things done on your own.” Tony slipped into the bathroom. He needed a shower more than just about anything else he'd ever needed in his life.

*

“Bad day?”

Steve's fist landed, hard enough to send the massive punching bag swinging on its supports. Breathing hard, he backed off, his hands falling to his sides. “Had better,” he admitted, as he watched Iron Man walk across the gym floor. Steve steadied the bag with one hand. “You?”

“I'm not the one punishing that bag,” Iron Man pointed out. “You okay, Cap?”

Steve's nod was sharp. “Yeah, just working off some frustrations,” he said. He glanced at Iron Man. “How've your workouts been going?”

Iron Man's head tipped to the side. “Workouts?”

“Tony said the two of you were-” Steve waved a hand in Iron Man's general direction. “Training.” He hoped he didn't sound as petulant as he suspected that he did.

“I'm sure he did,” Iron Man said. “It's going just fine. But actually, that's why I'm here.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “We have a problem,” he said, and Steve went still.

“What've you got for me?” he asked, stepping back from the punching bag.

Iron Man's head tipped towards the door, an instinctive little twitch, checking to see if anyone else was around. “Maybe nothing,” he admitted.

“But you don't think it's nothing.”

“I don't think it's nothing,” Iron Man agreed.

Steve's breath was still coming in sharp, hard bursts, and he gave a sharp nod. “Then it's something.” He started to unwind the wrappings from his hands. “What's happening?

“There have been some threats sent to StarkIndustries,” Iron Man said, and Steve's head snapped up.

“What kind of threats?”

“Non-specific. For now. There's been some...” Iron Man shook his head. “Look. There's been some backroom dealings, ones that aren't public. I can't tell you much about that, but things may have gotten ugly, and someone's looking for additional leverage.”

Steve's eyes narrowed. “You can't give me more than that?”

“I'm overstepping myself just letting you know the situation exists,” Iron Man pointed out. “What the business side of things is, I don't fully understand. But Mr. Stark seems to be handling it. Enough so that whoever's on the other side doesn't seem to think that they can win at the conference table.”

“Which leads to the threats.” Steve looped up the wrappings. “How bad?”

“I'm taking them seriously.”

“That's bad.” Steve took a seat on the nearby bench. “You need a leave?”

“I'm going to stick with him as much as I can, but he's...” Iron Man's voice trailed away.

“Stubborn?” Steve filled in, his lips quirking up.

“That's one way to put it,” Iron Man admitted. “I doubt I'll be able to convince him to change what he's doing, or how he's doing it. He's not going to let me take point on anything, but Ms. Potts is going to keep me appraised of his schedule. I'll do my best to be with him, whenever I can, especially when he's on the move.” He shifted his weight, armored boots heavy on the gym floor. “But when he's here, I could use your help. He's more likely to listen to you than me.”

Steve let out a sigh, his arms crossing over his chest. “I don't know how true that is,” he admitted.

“From my perspective? It's true.” Iron Man pushed himself upright. “This could get bad. Someone's gunning for him. If the negotiations don't go the way they want, I think there's a very good chance that they will make an attempt.” He paused. “It wouldn't be the first time that someone saw Mr. Stark as the only thing standing between them and a lot of money and a lot of power. I don't think it will be the last.”

Steve wished it was easier to read Iron Man. But the voice modulator hid a lot of his inflections, and the armor hid his facial expressions and all but the most broad bits of body language. Steve had gotten used to it, as much as he was capable, but he still found himself searching for the hints that could help him understand his most mysterious teammate. “What do you need us to do?”

“Just keep an eye on him.” Iron Man shook his head. “No. Help me keep an eye on everything. Everyone. If they do go after Mr. Stark, there's a chance that the team might be involved.”

“Because we live here.”

“And because your his friends,” Iron Man pointed out. “It wouldn't be the first time someone's gone after the target's nearest and dearest, to use as a point of leverage.”

Steve's lips twitched. “Well, on the plus side, I think we're less likely to fall victim to the average kidnapping plot,” he pointed out.

Iron Man chuckled. “Can you imagine if someone tried grabbing Thor?”

“Or Carol.” Steve shook his head. “That won't end the way they might hope.” He crossed his arms. “We should warn the team.”

Iron Man was silent. “I've overstepped myself just telling you,” he said. “We're pushing him, as hard as we can, to come clean with everyone. But if he finds out I went behind his back...” His voice trailed away.

“He'll stop telling you, too,” Steve agreed. He huffed out a sigh. “I don't want to think that he would, but-”

“He's stubborn. And he likes to control his image,” Iron Man said. “He likes for the rest of the team to think that things are always under control. He's got a firm grasp on the bankroll, but he doesn't want to put an additional strain on everyone, and if they start worrying where their next meal is going to be coming from, that's going to be a tough thing to ignore.”

Steve nodded. “For now, we'll keep this between us,” he said. “I'll keep an eye on him, as best as I can. Rhodey's aware of this?”

“Pepper let him know.”

“Not Tony?”

Iron Man's sigh was audible. “Not Tony.”

“He's mighty secretive when he wants to be,” Steve said. “Fine. But if I get a hint that this is going to put any of us at risk, or if I think he is at risk, the team has the right to go into that situation fully informed. He might think that we're only here because he's footing the bills, but I'd like to think that they'll back him, no matter what. They're not going to let anyone mess with him. Not if we have anything to say about it.”

Iron Man nodded. “Thanks, Cap.” He pushed himself upright. “I'll see if I can't convince Pepper to slip you his schedule. Just... If he goes missing, or doesn't end up where he's supposed to be? Let us know.”

“I will.” Steve hated this. And he hated, even more, that he couldn't go and grab Tony by the shoulders and demand to know what was going on. He glanced at Iron Man. “You stick with him,” he said. “Understand?”

Iron Man laughed. “Hey, where do you think I've been for the past few days?”

And that was something Steve really didn't want to think about. The fact that Tony and Iron Man had both been among the missing for a couple of days. He wondered if the others were right, and the two of them were together.

Steve pulled himself out of that line of thought with a firm jerk. “Get me that schedule. If you're not with him, I'll try to be.”

*

“So, awkward question,” Tony said, against his guest's lips.

“You've forgotten my name,” she said, tilting her head and her hips, her teeth nipping at his jawline.

“Ms. Lulabelle, I'm hurt,” Tony said. “Deep down hurt that you would suspect me of that. I mean, it was a good party, but it wasn't THAT good.”

“I apologize.”

“Accepted.”

“So is it a good time to admit that I've forgotten your name?” she said, laughing against his throat.

“It's on the side of the building,” Tony pointed out. “Wanna go back out? I can show it to you again. Right there. On the damn building.”

She was laughing too hard too reply, and Tony took a moment to enjoy the view. She was remarkably pretty, with big, warm brown eyes and a cloud of auburn brown hair. She had a wide mouth that always seemed on the verge of a grin, and a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose and her cheeks.

Tony had a thing for freckles. He was pretty sure he could blame that on Pepper.

She was short and curvy and wore heels that allowed her to get within easy reach of Tony's lips. He appreciated those heels, and the rest of her outfit. Her pale blue dress had a sweetheart neckline and a skirt that swirled around her thighs in a layered flounce of fabric that got darker as it got closer to the hem. It was lovely, and no protection against the cool air of the evening, so Tony had given her his coat.

She was adorable in it.

The elevator slowed with a faint ping, and Tony wrapped a companionable arm around her narrow waist. “Let me give you the tour,” he said, leaning in for a kiss that made no demands, just offers. She leaned into his body, her fingers sliding up his chest, her mouth hot on his, and Tony sank into the kiss, letting a pleasant wave of heat sweep through him.

When she broke the kiss, those broad, high cheeks were flushed dark, and her pupils were big and black. “Tour?” she breathed, and the word wicked over Tony's lips like a physical touch.

“Full tour, or the quick and dirty version?” he asked, his hands still stroking her waist.

“Very quick,” she said, putting her hands on his chest and pushing. He let her, walking backwards as she moved forward, out of the elevator. “And very, very dirty.”

“Welcome to Avengers Tower,” Tony said, waving a hand. “Let's go upstairs.”

She burst out laughing, grabbing him by the lapels. “Not that quick, Mr. Stark. Give a girl time to savor.”

“Women,” Tony said on a mock sigh. “Always complaining that things are going to fast.”

She smacked him lightly on the chest. “Men,” she said, still giggling, “always rushing to the end and then forgetting where they were going.”

“In my defense, it's a very big Tower, easy to get lost,” Tony said. He turned back to the room. “So, this is-”

A little too late, he realized that the room was already occupied. “This is our resident night watchman,” he continued smoothly as Steve stood up from the chair where he'd been sitting. “We don't pay him enough, really, we don't. Always on duty, ready to serve.”

Lulabelle gave a little squeak, ducking behind Tony. He laughed. “Not a bad guy! It's fine, really.”

“I didn't mean to startle you,” Steve said. He looked abashed, a book hanging forgotten in one hand. He ran his fingers through his hair, his brow furrowing as he looked from Tony to her, and back, a question on his face that Tony couldn't identify.

"It's fine. Hi, Cap," Tony said, gleeful in a way that he only managed when he was on his way to being truly drunk. He wasn't there yet, drunk sex was not good sex, but he had a good start. "You're up late."

"Or early," Lulabelle said, still hiding behind him, still giggling against his shoulder, her breath warm through the fine fabric of his shirt.

"Or early," Tony agreed, which only made her laugh harder. He grinned at Steve, who managed a tight lipped smile back. "Cap, this is Lulabelle," he said. He tipped his head back over his shoulder and almost lost his balance. She placed her hands in the middle of his back and gave him a shove back upright. "She's stronger than she looks," Tony said. "Lulabelle, this is the one and only Captain America.”

She peeked around his shoulder. “Hiya,” she said, offering him a hand, and Steve, always, always the gentleman, took it.

“I'm pleased to meet you,” he said, and his smile was a little easier now. “I'm sorry, may I speak to Tony for a moment, miss?”

She bit her lip, looking pleased. “I don't suppose I should say no,” she said, her accent getting a bit thicker.

“Probably not,” Tony agreed. “What if it's a matter of national security?”

“Then I doubt he'd be talkin' to you about it,” she said. “Aren't there superheroes around this place?”

“A couple,” Tony said, grinning. “We don't like them, though.”

“Tony...” Steve started and Tony choked on a laugh.

“Madam, I beg your indulgence,” Tony said, taking her hand and dipping a bow over it. Not quite steady on his feet, he bobbled a bit, but managed to pull it off. Her eyes were dancing as he managed to pull himself upright again. “Five minutes.”

She arched an eyebrow at him. “And how am I to amuse myself for five whole minutes?”

“I can have Jarvis take you all the way upstairs, and you can see the city from the best vantage point around,” Tony said. “It's stunning.” He gave her a grin. “Second sexiest thing you're going to see tonight, I promise.”

She considered that. “Can I take a selfie on your little landing pad thingy?”

“I would insist upon it.”

Lulabelle bit her lower lip against a giggle, her cheeks going pink. “Fine,” she said, her voice arch. “Five minutes.” Her eyes darted in Steve's direction. “Don't worry,” she said, sotto voce, “You take your time. I'll wait as long as it takes.”

“Thank you, miss,” Steve said. He opened his mouth. Closed it. “Are you feeling all right?” he asked, his voice quiet.

She blinked at him for a second, confusion on her face. “He's asking,” Tony said, wandering across the room to the bar, “if you're sober enough to know what you're doing.”

Her expression cleared. “Well, aren't you just the sweetest thing,” she said, her lips curling up in a smile. She held up a hand, like a scout reciting a pledge. “I do solemnly swear, Captain America, that I know just what I'm doing, who I'm doing it with, and honestly, I would so like to get back to doing it, so if you could transact your business quick like, I'd appreciate it.”

Steve nodded. “Sorry,” he said.

“No, that's sweet of you,” she said. “Really. But I'm a big girl, and I may have had a mojito or two tonight, but I plan to have something else, too.” She patted Tony lightly on the butt on her way past. “So hurry it up, before I get bored and go home.”

“I swear this evening will get more interesting,” Tony said, saluting her with a tumbler of scotch. “Now, just follow the pleasant disembodied British voice, and he'll lead you up to the roof for a bit of sightseeing.” He wandered back over in Steve's direction. “He'll also answer up to three in depth questions about my preferences, you know, if you want to get a jump start on the rest of the evening.”

“You're a piece of work, Tony Stark,” she said, giving him a sly look over her shoulder, but there was laughter in her voice.

“So I've been told,” Tony agreed, taking a sip of his drink. “Go. Be queen of the world, I'll be right there.”

Cap waited until she was safely in the elevator, then he turned to Tony, his expression unreadable. “What are you doing?” he asked, his voice quiet.

Tony's eyebrows arched. “Do... You need an explanation of this?” he asked, amused. “I mean, how much do you know? Are we going into the birds and the bees, or can I jump ahead to something beyond the missionary, because I would've thought SHIELD would've given you the safe sex lecture, or didn't the Army do that back then? The 'watch what trenches you dive into' lecture, I thought that was-”

“What about Iron Man?” Steve asked, and Tony stuttered to a stop.

“Well,” he said, after a moment, “I'll be honest, I usually let the other party suggest a three way, because it just seems greedy when I do it.” He sipped his drink. “And honestly, I'm not going to pretend that I haven't taken part in a few three ways in my time, but really, they're not worth the trouble most of the time, it's a lot of work to keep everyone in play, and that is a headache that I don't need to deal with, I'm too old for that shit. Let's leave that to the twenty year olds.”

Steve was staring at him. “Tony-”

“I mean, you, you could probably handle that sort of thing, pretty sure she wouldn't be unhappy to see your face if you showed up, not to mention the rest of you,” Tony said, because it was fun to watch the blood rush to Steve's cheeks. “No, seriously, if you have a three way and don't invite me, I'll feel hurt, Cap, I deserve to be there for your first mini-orgy, you need back up on these things.”

He knew he was babbling, in that drunk way of his, or at the least, he could blame this on being drunk later, because Steve's face was red, but he wasn't taking Tony up on that offer. To Tony's everlasting regret. “But she hasn't said a word about Shellhead, so I'll let him sleep in tonight.”

Steve's throat worked. “Do people- I mean-”

“Do people get off on the suit?” Tony said, bluntly. His shoulders rose and fell as he took a quick sip of his scotch. “Sure. People get off on a lot of things, Steve, honestly, it's not even that big of a deal, it's just a pain in the ass, mostly, because you know, it's hard to DO anything, there's such a big chance of something getting pinched in a joint, and it's a pain to clean, and really-” He slanted a look in Steve's direction. “Cold metal is something someone's gotta be into, really.”

“But... In the suit?”

“It's possible,” Tony said, spreading his hands. “It's modular, you know, you can take off bits and pieces as needed, I have to do that if the armor's damaged, so it's all meant to be taken apart and put together that way.” He considered the bottle. He'd probably had enough.

Steve's mouth opened and closed. “Do you really-” His teeth came together with a click. “It's none of my business.”

“I'm actually amused here,” Tony said, setting his glass aside before leaning back against the bar. “What's this all about, Steve? Seriously, is something wrong?”

Steve crossed his arms over his chest. “How drunk are you?”

Tony waggled a hand in mid-air. “Sober enough to know what I'm doing, drunk enough to enjoy doing it,” he said. “Got a bit of a buzz, but I promise, I know what I'm doing, Cap.”

“Do you?”

Tony pushed himself upright. “I do not know what's gotten into you,” he said, and for the first time, a sharp note slipped into his voice. He caught himself, choking back the feeling of frustration that threatened to swamp him. “I don't know, and I don't care. What, exactly, do you want from me here, Steve?”

Steve met his eyes. “Does Iron Man know you-” He waved a hand. “Does he know what you're up to?”

“Well, I've never been much of one for kissing and telling, but yeah, as he is responsible for my personal safety, at least on some level he's well aware of how I spend my nights,” Tony said, his lips kicking up on one side. “I don't make much of a secret of it, Cap. If I was going to hide it from anyone, it would be you.”

“Why-” Steve stopped, giving his head a sharp shake. “It doesn't matter, this isn't about me, Tony. He doesn't care?”

“What, about-” Tony scraped a hand over his face. A wide range of sharp, caustic answers rose to mind, hovering on the tip of his tongue, but he just shook his head. He hated feeling defensive, feeling like the expression that he couldn't read in Steve's eyes was disapproval. He was used to that sort of open disappointment, but somehow, he'd never expected to see it on Steve's face. “He might be my employee, Steve, but I'd also like to think that he's my friend,” Tony said. “All he cares about is that I'm happy.” He moved for the elevator. “Now, if you're done grilling me about things that are none of your business-”

Steve's hand caught his arm, his grip gentle, but Tony jerked to a stop as if Steve had hit him. “I'm your friend, too,” Steve said, his voice very soft. In the silence that followed, he moved in front of Tony. “At least, I thought I was.”

Tony avoided his eyes. “I thought you were, too,” he said. “Guess that's up to you.”

Steve let out a sigh. “I am your friend, and I want you to be happy, too.” He shifted his weight, and he was suddenly closer, close enough to bring Tony's head up. There was a faint, almost sad smile on Steve's lips. “Are you sure you are?”

Tony opened his mouth, about to say something sharp and vicious and instead, what came out of his mouth was, “You have freckles.”

“What?” Steve's head tipped to the side, but his lips stretched in a grin. “What're you-”

Tony's fingertip brushed against his cheek, delicate and light, and the words trailed away. “You have freckles,” Tony said, leaning in. “I never noticed.”

If anything, Steve's face only got redder. “Well, they've always been there,” he said.

Tony realized, a little too late, that his fingertips were still resting against Steve's cheek, and he jerked it back. “Sorry,” he said, even as he curled his fingers into his palm, as if he was trying to hold onto the warmth. He pulled away, one step, and another, a physical pull as he tried to back himself away. “I should go. She's waiting.”

Steve nodded, a quick, sharp jerk of his chin. “Yes. Of course.” He turned back to the bar, collecting his book. He paused, one hand flat on the slim volume, his back to Tony. “Tony?”

“Yeah?”

He glanced over his shoulder in Tony's direction. “Are you happy?”

“Working on it,” Tony said. “But you know, if you want me to check with her about that three way...” He let his voice trail off, leaving the joke hovering in mid-air where it somehow didn't seem like a joke at all.

Steve's lips twitched. “I'm not the one you should be asking, am I?” he asked. And with that, he jogged up the stairs and disappeared from sight.

Tony watched him go. “Yeah. I know,” he said, even though there was no one left to hear him. That's the way his crushes tended to turn out, after all. Unacknowledged.

He took a deep breath, and turned to the elevator. It was rude to keep a lady waiting.

*

“Oh, sorry.”

Steve looked up. “Good morning,” he said, trying for an easy sort of smile. Judging by the way the woman's face relaxed, he was successful, at least to a point. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” He waved a hand at the pot. “There's plenty, and it's hot and fresh. I do warn you, though. We, well, we drink it a little strong around here.”

She glanced at it. “Are you-” She shifted, and he realized she was barefoot, her shoes in one hand. “Aw, to hell with being polite, I need a cup so bad right now.”

Steve hid his smile behind his own coffee cup. “You have no idea how many times I've heard that.”

She grinned at him. “Tony's dates get lost that often?”

Steve's smile died. “I didn't mean to-”

“Aw, you're sweet.” She was laughing as she crossed to the coffee pot. “I know you didn't. But I imagine you've seen a couple of women trying to find the front door.”

“I meant,” Steve said, stressing the words, “that most people here had that morning.”

“Yeah, but you guys, you know, save the world.” She took a mug from the rack and filled it with practiced hand. “I'm surprised that there isn't a Starbucks counter in here.”

“There's one down in the lobby, but honestly, they don't brew it strong enough for Tony,” Steve said. “You might want to add some milk or sugar to that-”

The expression on her face was somewhere between pleasure and pain, and Steve gave her a sympathetic smile. “I did try to warn you,” he said, as she swallowed.

“Dear GOD,” she said, the words rough. “Wow. That's...” She coughed. “That's something else.” She stared down into the cup. “Does this stuff eat through the china?”

“Maybe. It doesn't stick around long enough to do much damage, most days.” Steve pushed the sugar bowl towards her. “Seriously. A little sugar cuts it nicely. I drank it black in war zones. Here? I take cream and sugar.”

She laughed, and it was a nice laugh, warm and bright. “That does seem safer.” She thrust a hand in his direction. “Hi, again,” she said, with a sunny, easy smile. “I'm Lulabelle, but just about everyone calls me Lu.”

Steve shook it. “I'm Steve. I thought Tony called you-”

She waved him off. “Tony likes the sound of his own voice,” she pointed out, wrapping her fingers around her coffee cup. “The more syllables, the better.”

“I can't argue with that,” Steve agreed. He shifted in his chair. “May I ask you a very rude question?” he asked.

She blinked, her expression going blank for a second. She took a sip of her coffee, maybe to stall, to buy herself a moment. Then she set the cup aside. “Sure,” she said, sweeping her hair back with a flick of her fingers. “What's on your mind?”

“Why did you-” He stopped. “I mean, Tony-” He shook his head. “You know what? I'm sorry, never mind.”

“Why did I sleep with Tony Stark?” she asked, her eyebrows arching. “Is that what you were trying to ask?”

“No, I-”

She picked up the cup again, rolling it between her palms. Her eyes flicked up, and she considered him with a smile. “You really want to know?” she asked at last.

Steve thought about that. “I guess I do,” he admitted at last. “It's rude of me to ask. But I guess I do want to know.”

Lu smiled. “Because it's worth my time.” She took another sip and leaned back in her chair. “Do you know why women don't have one night stands, Steve?”

He shook his head. “I don't know why anyone has one night stands, I guess,” he said, and she laughed.

“Well, they're not for everyone.” She leaned forward, folding her arms on the edge of the table. Without her makeup, and with her hair pulled back, she looked younger. “Women don't have one night stands because, A-” She held up a finger. “Men don't tend to be kind about it. They offer, we accept, then the guy, he's got a tendency to turn around and call a girl a slut for sleeping with him.”

One eyebrow arched. “And B?” She held up a second finger. “A lot of guys who are looking for a one night stand are just looking to have a good time, but don't really see any reason to extend that good time to their partner.” She swept a lock of hair behind her ear with a flick of her fingers. “Some men don't really see the point in impressing a girl he's never going to see again. So a girl may not even get an orgasm or two to outweigh the cost of being treated like trash. And the kind of guy who pulls that shit? Is going to talk, loud and long and to anyone who'll listen.”

Steve felt the heat rise in his face. “I... See,” he said at last, a little startled by the blunt thrust of that explanation. “That seems unfair,” he added after a moment.

She giggled. “Well, I've always thought so.” She reached for the coffee cup again. “But Tony? Well, Tony's different. Women talk too, you know, and we warn each others who's to be avoided, and who can't be trusted when he's got a whiskey or two in him, or who thinks he doesn't have to keep his hands to himself.

“But we also talk about the ones that are, well, worth it.” Her lips curled up. “And word always was, if Tony Stark asks? Well, unless you're really not interested, you should say yes.” Her teeth dug into her lower lip, a flush rising on her cheeks. “He does offer, you know, and it's actually an offer. He puts it out there, wanna give it a go? And if you say no? He's fine with that. He's never nasty, or rude, or vicious. He never makes a girl suffer for a 'no,' the way that some do. He just lets her know that the offer stands, just hit him up, and if he's not involved, then, well...”

She shrugged. “Maybe we could have a good time together.”

Lu took another sip of her coffee. “So I'd heard, I actually work in publishing? For Marie Claire magazine? And when I first made my way into the right circles, a model told me, she heard I was going to a particular party, and she took me by the shoulders and said, 'just so you know, if Tony Stark hits on you, say yes. Use protection. But say yes.'

“And I kind of laughed it off, to be honest, like, why would I do that? But then I heard it again from a girl down in production and layout, and I was at this other party and someone-” She stopped, laughing. “Let's just say, Tony's got a reputation for showing his partners a very good time, and he lives up to the reputation.”

Steve nodded, and his face felt hot. He looked down at his hands, wrapped around his coffee cup. “You planning on-”

“Trying again?” she asked, interrupting him. “Nooo, no thank you. I mean, I enjoy sex as much as the next girl, but I don't think I could deal with him on a semi-permanent basis, you know? His lifestyle is exhausting, and the press, and the whole-” She waved a hand. “The super hero thing, I don't think I could live surrounded by you guys, or even stay here often. I keep waiting for people with guns to start shooting out the windows or something. Bad stuff happens around you guys.”

“I've noticed that,” Steve mused. “You think it's us?”

“I think it might have something to do with you,” Lu agreed. “But no. Even if he offered, and I doubt that he'd offer, but even if he did-” She shook her head. “This isn't for me.” She leaned forward. “But if anyone asks? I would definitely say, sleep with the guy once.” She grinned. “He makes sure it's worth your time.” She stood up. “No woman's ever left this place without a big ol' smile on her face, Captain, and let me tell you? If he had a feedback form posted somewhere, I'd be checking off 'five stars, would totally ride again.'” With a wink, she gathered her wrap. “Thanks for the coffee, but I think I'll avoid an awkward mornin' after and just skeedaddle now.”

Steve stood. “It was nice meeting you,” he said.

Lu paused. “You know what?” she said. “I think you actually mean that.”

Steve chuckled. “I do.”

She shook her head. “You are a sweetheart.” She paused. “Hey, since you were so terribly rude, I get to be rude, back. Any chance you'll take a picture with me for my little brother? He'll totally freak out.”

Steve's eyebrows arched. “I think that's fair,” he agreed, grinning back at her. “Want me to get the suit?”

“Nah.” She leaned over his shoulder, fishing her phone out of her purse. Her cheek next to his, she held it out at arm's length. “Smile!”

Laughing, he did just that. Lu checked it. “Thanks!”

“Anytime,” Steve agreed. “If you see me at one of those media things, say hi, okay? It's always nice to see a friendly face.”

“Thank you. I will.”

Chapter Text

“I have arrived, let's begin, tight schedule, come on, Cap, if you want my full attention, you've got to be ready for me when I walk through the door,” Tony sang out, slamming his way into the gym. It was deserted today, other than Steve, who was taking out some serious aggression on the punching bag. Tony appreciated the sight as he headed over. One of these days, he was going to find out who was selling this man shirts that were three sizes too small, and then Tony was going to reward them handsomely.

Also, his ass really was fantastic. Tony heaved a silent sigh. These were not thoughts he could risk having right before coming into full body contact with the man.

“Considering how often you've been ducking your workouts?” Steve asked, his attention still on the punching bag. “I've stopped expecting you to show up, Stark.” He threw a brutal right hook that sent the bag twisting on its chain, the support bolts groaning with the force of it.

Tony stripped his sweatshirt off and started stretching, flexing his arms up and behind his head. “Aw, did you miss me?” he asked, grinning. “That's sweet, Capsicle.”

Steve glanced in his direction, one eyebrow arched, a faint smile on his face. “You're pushing it, Stark.”

“Well, yes, that's what I do, I push boundaries, I push limits, I push buttons,” Tony said, slinging an arm around Steve's shoulders. “Literally and figuratively, of course, I'm multitalented.” Steve stared down at him, his mouth a flat line, his eyebrows dipping low over his eyes. Unconcerned, Tony grinned at him. “Hi, Cap,” he said, patting the other man lightly on the chest.

“Less sass, more stretch,” Steve said, but he couldn't hold the straight face any longer. He shrugged Tony's arm off of his shoulders, his eyes rolling up towards the ceiling, even as he smiled. “We're about a month behind at this point.”

“I missed like, three lessons, tops, and I'm a fast learner,” Tony said, still grinning. He threw a few quick jabs, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Let's go, you're holding me back.”

“Stretch,” Steve said, unwrapping his hands. He glanced up, blue eyes bright beneath the damp fringe of his pale bangs. “We have plenty of time for me to knock you on your ass.”

“Looking forward to it, Cap.” He was, that was the strange thing. He liked sparring with Steve, who never pretended that Tony was going to win. Which was probably why he'd improved so quickly under Steve's training, because every other trainer he'd ever had hadn't been willing to risk the job by risking Tony's ego. It was a problem that Steve did not have.

Steve seemed to love bruising Tony's ego. And the rest of him.

Of course, that wasn't the only reason Tony was getting better. He had a sad, pathetic urge to have Steve's approval, and while it wasn't hard to come by, it was addicting. A pleased smile, or a word of praise, and Tony found himself wandering in Steve's wake like a besotted teenager.

He really had to work on his desperate need for approval. It was bothersome.

“Hey.”

Steve's hand flashed in front of his face, and Tony refocused on him. “Ready?” he asked.

“Are you?” Steve was smiling at him now, a real, warm smile that heated Tony in all sorts of ways. “You were doing that thing again, where you wander off mentally on me.”

“It happens, my mind is a dark and twisty place,” Tony said. “Attempts at providing a stable map have been unsuccessful.” He finished with his stretching and headed for the maps. “Sorry, got a lot on my plate right now.”

“So I hear.” Steve was right behind him. “Everything okay at SI?” He cleared his throat. “Negotiations going all right?”

“Just fine,” Tony said. “Pepper has everything well in hand, and Pepper is the best.” He pointed at Steve. “Best. Don't let anyone tell you any different.”

“You going to-”

“Weren't you the one who said I was behind in my training?” Tony asked, amused despite himself. “Shop talk can wait.” He took up position, letting his body fall into a beginning stance, his feet braced, his body weight centered. “C'mon, Cap, hit me with your best shot.”

Steve shook his head. “I need the shield for that,” he said, taking up a stance opposite Tony. “Ready?”

“Ready,” Tony said, and Steve moved, fast, but not inhumanly fast. He could drop Tony in a second, if he wanted to, but he held back during these sessions. Held back enough that Tony had a chance to dodge, blocking the hit and slipped easily out of range of the thrust.

“Good,” Steve said, and Tony felt that stupid fission of pleasure go through him. “Again.” He struck, Tony dodged, and this time, they kept going, Steve pushing forward, Tony staying out of reach and out of trouble until there was something that resembled an opening. He tried for it, a short, sharp thrust of a fist, and Steve blocked it without turning an eyelash. He shook his head. “Don't get impatient, don't try for a hit when you can't make one, you're opening yourself up.”

“There will never be a real one,” Tony pointed out. “I'm fighting you.”

He caught a glimpse of Steve's smile, and then he was ducking to avoid a punch. “Well, bring Iron Man next time. Maybe if I'm focusing on him, you'll have a better shot.”

“Why, still pushing for that threeway?” Tony gasped out, and swung.

It connected.

Tony stopped dead, confused by that, and Steve came in under his guard, flipping Tony onto his back. He hit hard, too stunned to remember how to fall, and for a second, Tony just lay there, struggling to get his breath back. Steve took a step back, giving him space to get up. “Okay?” he asked, and Steve was breathing hard, Steve was breathing hard and his cheeks were flushed.

Tony's brain ground to a halt. Steve was breathing hard.

Tony stared up at him, sucking in one careful breath after another as he tried to make sense of that. A sparring session this easy, this short, should not be enough to make Steve short of breath. He shouldn't be so red, his face flushed and his eyes caught Tony's only for an instant before jerking away.

Tony's lips parted on a soft, pleased sound. Wasn't that interesting?

“You want to take a break-” Steve started, and Tony was already getting up.

“No, not at all,” he said, an unholy glee sweeping through him. He fell back into position, almost bouncing on the balls of his feet, because this required actual testing. He had a hypothosis, and now he just had to field test it. He suspected he was going to enjoy field testing it, because he was a very bad person.

Steve was giving him a suspicious sort of look, and Tony launched his next attack before he had time to question anything. “I mean, I suppose I could invite Iron Man down to one of these,” he said. “I'm no adverse to the idea of the three of us all going at it, but I suspect that you couldn't handle the two of us tag teaming you.”

Steve's face was distinctly red now, but he was moving more easily, despite it. “Concentrate on what you're doing,” he said, and Tony grinned.

“I'd have to, because knowing the two of you, I'm pretty sure that I'm the one who'd get the worst of it, after all,” Tony said, ducking easily under Steve's punch. “Yeah, fairly certain that scenario would end up with the two of you tag teaming me. Which I'm fine with, by the way, just say the word. Easy enough for one of you to overwhelm me, I can't imagine being pinned between the two of you.”

“Tony-” Steve took a step back and actually tripped over his own feet. Tony lashed out with a short, sharp kick, and Steve barely deflected it. “What are you doing?”

He was laughing. “Well, I guess that's up to you,” he said, and his next swing connected, too. Now, he knew how to handle this, how to time his attacks with the flinch that he knew was coming. The tell was huge, it was enormous, and Tony was absolutely going to exploit it. “Like I said, the way you manhandle me, and the way that he manhandles me, I'm fairly certain that if the two of you teamed up, all I could manage would be to enjoy myself and try to minimize the amount of time I spent on my back.”

Steve's eyes were almost completely black right now, and Tony almost felt guilty about this, almost, this level of innuendo was just obnoxious, even for him, and Steve was going to snap out of it at some point and knock his block off.

Still, he couldn't resist coming in hard and sharp, full body to body contact, and in the split moment he had, he stared up at Steve's wide eyes and whispered, “Unless, of course, that's where you want me, flat on my back under you.”

Steve's mouth dropped open, and Tony reached up, tapping his fist into Steve's nose. “Got yo-” was as far as he got before he found himself flying through the air. He hit the mats with a thump, and it took a second for the world to rearrange itself back into familiar patterns. Steve was standing over him, his body still posed for the end of the throw, his face drained of color, looking shocked and appalled, and Tony started to laugh, gasping, joyous little twitches of sound.

“Sorry,” Steve said, shoving a hand through his hair as he leaned over. “Oh, God, I just- Instinct, Tony, you okay?”

“I got you,” Tony said, or he tried to say, but whatever breath he'd had left had been driven out of him by the fall. He lay there, gasping for breath, and triumphant despite that. “I-” He stabbed a finger in Steve's direction, his face gleeful. “I got you, Rogers.”

Steve stared at him, his face unreadable. And then his head fell forward, shaking slowly from side to side. “You got me,” he admitted. “You cheated, but you got me.”

“I did not cheat,” Tony said, grinning. “That was not cheating, that was sound strategy.” He let his head fall back, his eyes close. “Oh, God, Steve, if a super villain ever starts talking about sucking your dick, you're doomed, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I won't-” He couldn't hold back another choked off giggle. “I shouldn't tease you, but your FACE.”

“I'll work on it,” Steve said, his mouth twisted in a wry smile. “And next time you start harassing me, I'm filing an official complaint with the team mediation board.”

“I expect the case will be found in your favor,” Tony said. He braced his hands and tried to push himself upright. A jolt of pain went through him as his shoulder twisted, and he collapsed back to the mat, his face twisting, his breath going out of him in a pained sound.

“Tony?” Just like that, Steve was on his knees next to him, his hands settling on Tony's shoulders. “What's wrong?”

Tony sucked in a breath, waiting for the pain to subside. “Nothing,” he gasped out. “It's fine. I just hit wrong.” He managed a smile. “Guess we've gotta go back to tumbling, huh?”

“With all the practice you've had in falling, you should be better at it,” Steve said. When Tony tried to sit up again, Steve's hand tightened. “Stay still. Pull yourself together-”

His hand shifted, coming down over Tony's breastbone, over the hidden arc reactor and the thin layer of synthetic flesh that protected it, and Tony's arm snapped up, slamming into Steve's wrist and knocking his hand away. Steve jerked back, hands up, open and easy, in a placating gesture that made Tony feel horrible. But he ignored the sting of his conscience, rolling away, out of Steve's reach.

“Sorry, I wasn't-” Steve started, and he looked confused, confused and a little hurt, as if he couldn't figure out what he'd done wrong.

“It's fine,” Tony said, pushing himself up. “Sorry. I just-” He avoided Steve's gaze, heading back for the bench, for the towels piled there. “Don't like to be, uh, pinned, so-”

“Okay,” Steve said. He rolled to his feet. “Do you want to call the rest of the session?”

Tony shook his head. “Not on your life. Let's go, Cap, I'm like six points up on you at this point. You've got some catching up to do.”

Steve shook his head. “I'll see what I can do,” he said, smiling, and Tony grinned back.

Well, it had been fun while it lasted.

*

“I'm just saying, it's not really a team building event, if half the team isn't playing,” Jan said, her hands on her hips. The basketball went flying over her head and she didn't even blink.

Steve caught the ball and passed it to Clint, who tried to pass it over to Sam. Natasha smacked it out of his hands and passed it to Carol, who dribbled her way towards the basket, dodging neatly around Tony, who did his level best to get in her way. “Bruce doesn't want to play-”

“Bruce will not risk an elbow to the face and then the screaming and the running and the smashing,” Bruce said from the bench on the sidelines. He had a whistle around his neck and a tablet on his knee. “I'm fine being the ref.”

“And Thor ditched us for a date,” Sam said, grinning.

“Loser,” Clint said, blocking Carol's shot.

“Spoken like someone who doesn't have a date,” she said, turning hard on one foot and shooting around him. It was a valiant effort, but the ball bounced hard off of the rim and Tony grabbed it on the rebound, tossing it over Wanda's head to Steve.

“If I had a date, I wouldn't be here with you people,” Clint agreed. “Shoot it!”

Steve shot, and Natasha blocked it, smacking it away from the hoop. Jan picked it up and didn't bother to do anything with it. “That's what I mean,” she said, bracing the ball on her hip. “What about Iron Man?”

“What about Iron Man?” Steve asked, as everyone gave in to the inevitable and took a break. He caught the water bottle that Sam tossed him, taking a quick swig.

“Well, why didn't we invite him?” she asked, sweeping a hand through the air.

"Because he's at the Malibu facility today. Besides, I don't know what would be funnier," Tony mused, accepting a bottle of water from Bruce. "Him trying to play in the full armor, or in regular athletic gear and just the helmet." He grinned. "Don't think I'll suggest it."

"Doesn't have to be the helmet," Jan wheedled, slipping her arm into the crook of Tony's elbow. She grinned up at him, her eyes wide and innocent. "I can make him up a nice mask. Zorro style would work pretty well, I think."

"Like, a little domino mask?" Carol asked, stretching. “There is nothing about this idea that I don't love.”

“I don't think he'd find that to be quite enough coverage,” Tony said.

“I could design him a fabric version of his suit,” Jan said. She tapped a finger against her pursed lips, her eyes narrowing. “Fashionable and flexible!”

“Like what Spider-Man wears?” Clint asked. He flopped on the bench next to Bruce. “That'll be a change. From a hard shell to a-” He spread his hands. “Spandex wedgie.”

Steve, caught in the act of drinking, choked on the water. Coughing, he clapped a hand over his mouth and tried not to think about that. It was harder than it should've been. He squeezed his eyes shut and ordered his brain not to start thinking about Tony's voice, saying very inappropriate things. Things that he shouldn't want nearly as much as he did.

“I'm pretty sure he won't agree to that,” Tony said, chuckling under his breath. He patted Steve on the back. “Whoa, there, Cap. You okay?”

“Fine,” Steve managed, his voice raw.

“Closer to onesie pajamas,” Jan explained.

“And he definitely will not agree to that,” Tony said. “Lacks dignity.”

“I've seen Spider-Man's costume,” Clint said. “It's a lot of things. Dignified ain't one of them.” Natasha stared at him, her arms crossed. Clint stared back. “What?”

“You were a CARNY,” she said.

Clint nodded. “Yeah?”

“Not sure you get to determine the dignity of someone else's outfits, we've seen the posters,” she said, a faint smile hovering around her mouth.

“Yeah, I got experience with not dignified,” he agreed. “And I'm gonna have those posters framed, the are that classy.”

“Speaking as a fella who started his professional career wearing short shorts over tights,” Steve said, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth, “he might have the right of it.”

“I'll take an Iron Man onesie, though,” Tony said. He leaned in, grinning. “I think that I can make it work.”

“Kinky,” Natasha said.

“Whenever possible,” Tony agreed.

“Okay, let's get back on the court,” Steve said, and it was a little too loud, and a little too sharp, and everyone looked at him. He managed a thin smile. “We're supposed to be exercising here. And working on our teamwork.”

Carol and Sam exchanged a look, but Carol held her hand out to Jan for the ball. “Captain's orders, let's get back to it. We've got boys to embarrass.”

Jan tossed it to her with a grin. “Looking forward to seeing you do it.”

“You could help,” Natasha said.

“No, I really can't,” Jan said. She paused. “Unless I use the Pym particles to-”

“NO!” everyone yelled at once.

Jan made a face. “Fine. Spoilsports.”

“We like the gym in its current, unbroken state, Jan,” Carol said, bouncing the ball idly from one hand to the other. Sam made a grab for it, and she gave him a hip check with an unrepentant grin. "Watch the hands, birdbrain."

He ducked around her, one hand flicking out to snatch the ball away. "Some of us don't need super powers to play the game," he said, executing a beautiful hookshot before she could take it back.

“Some of us don't need little toy wings to fly,” Carol shot back, snagging the ball on the rebound and tossing it easily over to Clint. He caught it and executed a neat bounce pass towards Steve, but Wanda got there first, snagging it and flinging it over her head in the most awkward, off balance skyhook of a shot that Steve had ever seen.

It hit the rim and rolled around, and just when Steve was sure that it would tip back into Sam's waiting hands, the ball dropped neatly through the hoop.

Clint considered that, his hands on his hips. “Was that-” he started.

“You'll never know,” Wanda said, her cheeks flushed, her long dark hair slipping out of its ponytail. Jan lept at her, her arms going around Wanda's neck and clinging as she squealed, and Wanda laughed. “It is not that much of a miracle!” she said, mock slapping at Jan's arm.

“It is, it was a miiiiiiracle!” Jan sing-songed.

“Good shot,” Steve said, pleased just that Wanda was here, was playing. She grinned back, her dark eyes dancing.

“Foul!” Sam yelled, as Carol wrapped an arm around his waist and lifted him off of his feet. “This is definitely a foul!” Laughing, he made a grab for the ball, and Carol held it on her other hand, easily keeping the ball out of reach. Sam tried to elbow her. “Why isn't the ref stopping this madness?”

“Because the ref is kind of scared of her,” Bruce said from the sidelines. “So he's going to allow this.”

“The ref is a smart man,” Carol said, as Sam elbowed her. She dropped him back on his feet just in time for him to grab the ball and give it an easy toss.

“The ref is a coward,” Sam told him, and Bruce blew his whistle.

“Badmouthing the ref,” he said, pointing at Sam. His eyes were dancing behind the lenses of his glasses. “I'm awarding a penalty shot.”

“I'm taking it, I'm taking it, I'm taking it!” Jan yelled, and her whole team groaned.

“First of all, you couldn't hit the hoop if it was the size of a hula hoop,” Natasha said, trying to hold back a smile. “Second, Bruce, there are no penalty shots in basketball. Those are in hockey.”

Bruce blew his whistle. “I rule penalty shots are now mandatory in all our games.”

“Are we keeping any of the rule book?” Steve asked, amused despite himself.

“We're Avengers, we make our own damn rules!” Carol said, giving Jan the basketball. “Good luck, shortstack.”

“I got this,” Jan said, bouncing easily on the balls of her feet. Her perfectly coordinated sneakers squeaked on the wooden floor. “If I sink it, Iron Man gets to play in our next game.”

"You can feel free to ask him,” Tony said, wandering over to the bench and throwing himself down next to Bruce. He was breathing a bit hard, his hair damp, his face flushed. He rubbed a towel over his face, over his head, and Steve caught himself staring at the way his arms flexed with the movement. He jerked his attention back to the foul line, where Jan was staring at the basketball hoop, her eyes narrowed, the tip of her tongue sticking out between her lips.

“Wait, are we betting?” Clint asked. His teeth flashed in a grin. “What do we get if she misses?”

“Nothing,” Sam said. “Unless you like taking candy from babies.”

“I'm fine with it,” Clint said. Everyone looked at him, and he shrugged. “What? Oh, don't act so surprised, you knew it.”

“Clint Barton, the Avengers' moral compass,” Carol said, her voice dry.

“Technically,” Jan said, shuffling from side to side as she tried to find an appropriate spot for her shot, “he is. We just check to see where he's pointing, and go in the opposite direction.”

“Broken moral compass,” Sam agreed. “If she misses, you guys buy dinner.”

Carol and Natasha groaned, and Jan let out a laugh. “Really? That's the worst you can do? Fine! I accept your bet.”

“Get her black AmEx,” Carol said to Wanda, who covered her smile with a hand.

“No faith,” Jan said. She set her feet, spread wide, gripped the ball between her hands, and leaned over, swinging the ball down and between her legs. She snapped back up and the ball went flying, up in a long, off-center arc. It fell, seeming to hang in the air, back towards the hoop. It hit the rim, bounced, hit the backboard and the rim and tipped forward.

Then it snapped backwards and fell through the net.

Everyone turned, as one, to Wanda. She tipped her head to the side, her lips pursed, her eyes narrowed. “That MIGHT have been me,” she allowed, and Jan threw her hands in the air.

“We are the champions!” she sang, and Clint threw a towel at her. She ducked, giggling.

“Fine,” Tony said, his arms crossed over his chest, his mobile mouth turned up in a puckish smile, “I'll ask him, but you'll probably have more luck convincing him, Jan. He likes you.”

“Everyone likes me,” Jan said, her nose in the air. “I'm likable!”

“You are,” Tony said. “You can ask him for the next game and I'll bow out.”

Steve frowned. “You don't need to stop coming, just because he does,” he pointed out.

“No one wants to hang out with the boss,” Tony said, stretching his arms over his head. The muscles of his arms and shoulders flexed with the movement. “And besides, if he joins up, in whatever capacity, the teams'll be uneven.”

“He could take my place,” Wanda said. “I could be the-” She paused.

“Line ref,” Bruce offered.

“Yes, the line ref!” Wanda said, smiling at Bruce. “Thank you!”

“There's no line ref in basketball,” Sam said. Wanda glared at him, and he held up his hands. “You know what? Apparently there is now.”

“Thank you,” Wanda said again, patting him lightly on the arm.

“No way, Iron Man's on our team,” Clint said.

“How is that fair?” Carol asked him, still tussling with Sam for the ball. They never stopped playing until someone turned off the lights. “We're already outclassed.”

“They can have Iron Man, we'll take Thor,” Natasha said, and the men groaned.

“I will ride him! Like a PONY!” Jan said, and Wanda cleared her throat, the warning coming a little too late.

“Should it be necessary to carry you such, I shall do my best to serve,” Thor said from the door of the gym. There was laughter in his voice, and in his eyes, and Jane was right behind him, biting her lip. He was still dressed in a well tailored black suit, his golden hair pulled back in a simple braid at the nape of his neck. “Have we then missed the game?”

“I think we're done,” Steve agreed. “Sorry.”

“Our arrival is well timed, then. Our meal was most pleasing, and Jane suggested that we might bring some home for all to enjoy,” Thor said, grinning. “Come, we have brought you lasagna.”

“This is why Thor is everyone's favorite,” Clint said. “I am starving!”

“Just so we're clear, I meant, I would ride him like a pony in a purely non-sexual manner,” Jan said to Jane, as the group grabbed their gear, packing everything up as quickly as possible. “I just want to be a little closer to the hoop, and he's tall.”

“I do the other kind,” Jane said, her face bright red. “You're missing out.”

Carol, laughing, wrapped an arm around Jane's shoulders. “You know what? Let them have Iron Man. You can play on our team.”

The team headed for the door, a loud, boisterous, laughing lot, and Steve stepped to the side, letting everyone pass. He touched Tony's arm as he passed, the briefest contact, but enough to draw Tony's attention. Tony paused, ducking out of the way. Sam glanced back, his expression curious, and Steve waved him on. “We'll be right there,” he said, and Sam's eyes cut from him to Tony, and back, but he just gave Steve a salute and a grin. The door shut behind them, and Steve glanced at Tony.

“I've asked him,” he said, and Tony's eyebrows arched.

“I know,” he said, shifting his weight. “He told me. But the armor's.... Tough.” He shrugged, a twitch of his shoulders. “I think he's afraid of getting in the way.”

Steve's mouth went thin. “He's not-”

Tony held up a hand. “I know, Steve. And you know. But-” He stopped, his head tipping back, his breath going out of him in a sigh. “Look, I'll talk to him, and Jan'll talk to him, and maybe you can drop a suggestion.”

“I don't want to pressure him into doing anything he doesn't want to do,” Steve said.

Tony smiled, faint and easy. “He respects you,” he said, and there was a note in Tony's voice that Steve couldn't quite understand. “If you ask, he'll show.”

“You should come, too,” Steve said, and it was stupid, but he wasn't willing to give up on this, either. He didn't want to examine that too closely, but on some level, he was always waiting for Tony to tell them that he was too busy. That he had a company to run, that he had things, important things to do, things that took precedent over hanging out with the Avengers. Things and people.

Steve really didn't want to think about the inevitable day when that would happen.

“He

“He's different when you're around,” Steve said, before he could think to stop himself. Tony glanced up at him, brown eyes surprised, and Steve bit back a curse. “I didn't mean it like that,” he said, frustrated with himself. “He's just- A bit more formal.”

Tony smiled, and threw an arm around Steve's shoulders. “Everyone's more formal when the boss is around,” he said, warmth in his voice. “You go into parade rest automatically around Fury, you know.”

Steve blinked at him. “I do not.”

Tony was laughing out loud now. “You absolutely do, Cap. C'mon, let's get something to eat before it's all gone, and I'll put in a call to my security team, see how they're doing. Iron Man should be back by tonight.”

“Good,” Steve said. And tried not to think about the fact that he really did like Iron Man better when Tony wasn't around. Because that seemed unfair, somehow.

*

“Are you taking this seriously? At all?”

“Good morning to you, too, sunshine,” Tony said, without looking up. His fingers careful, he continued his repair work. “I missed you! You never call, you never write, it's like what we have means nothing to you.”

A stack of papers were slapped down on the bench next to him, and Tony spared them a glance. “Were you planning on telling me about this?” Rhodey asked, bracing one hand on the workbench. He leaned over, his face a thundercloud as he glared at Tony.

Tony tapped the top page with the back of his welding tool. “Well, as it says right here, these are classified documents, intended only for certain employees of StarkIndustries, and you are not an employee of Stark Industries, so...” He shrugged. “No. I wasn't. You've got enough problems, how did that rescue mission in Chinese territorial waters go?”

Rhodey's jaw took on a very stubborn angle. “Goddammit, Tony!”

Sensing that his peaceful and happy repair time had come to an end, Tony turned off the system with a sigh. “How did you get these, anyway?” he asked, picking up the pages. He leafed through them, idly reading a word here and there.

“How do you think?” Rhodey asked. “Tony-”

“Pepper and I need to have a chat about confidentiality agreements,” Tony mused. He reached for his coffee. “Seriously. Does she have you on speed dial?”

“You know what?” Rhodey said, his eyebrows arching. “I'm glad someone thinks enough of me to keep me informed. I clearly can't count on you for that.”

Tony peered at him from over the rim of his coffee cup. “Rhodes.”

Rhodey leaned over. “Stark?”

“This isn't actually your problem.” Tony tossed the pages down, and pushed himself up. “You do realize that, don't you?” He waved a hand at the papers. “This. All of this. None of it is actually your problem.”

“You know what's my problem?” Rhodey asked, crossing his arms over his chest as Tony wandered across the workshop to the coffee pot. “You. You are my problem, Tony. And this-” He picked up the pages, the gesture sharp and frustrated as he snatched them up, one after another. “This is a very credible threat against your life, and that makes it my problem!”

Tony resisted the urge to roll his eyes. It was very difficult. “You're employed by the US Air Force,” he said, grinning, as he poured himself a fresh cup. “You are not my head of security.”

“No, that's Happy,” Rhodey said.

“That's Happy,” Tony agreed.

“Uh-huh. I love Happy like a brother, Tony, but the man wasn't really qualified to be your personal bodyguard, let alone the head of security for a multinational corporation,” Rhodey said.

Tony pointed his cup at Rhodey. “I'm telling him you said that.”

“I said that to him the day you gave him the job,” Rhodey said. “He agreed with me.”

“He's grown into the post. Does a good job with it.” Tony wandered back across the workshop. Rhodey stopped him with a hand on his chest, and Tony rolled his head in Rhodey's direction. “Yes?” he asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Someone wants you dead,” Rhodey said, his voice very quiet.

“Rhodey, someone always wants me dead. But not this time, not this someone. In this case, someone wants me intimidated,” Tony corrected. “Different situation entirely.”

For a moment, Rhodey just studied him, his face unreadable, his dark eyes hooded. Finally, he let out a sigh. “I can't do this again, Tony.”

Tony handed him the coffee cup and took the papers. “Sure you can.”

“Tony-”

Tony's head canted forward, and he gave Rhodey a smile. “I'm fine.”

Rhodey stared at him, his mouth working. Then he took a drink of the coffee. “You're a pain in my ass, Stark,” he muttered into the cup.

“You love me,” Tony said, slinging an arm around Rhodey's shoulders. “Come on, buck up, honeybunch, it'll be fine, someone gets his jollies from writing poison pen letters, I mean, if that's their thing, good on it, but they're not even original.” He held up the pages. “'I will see you dead,'” he read aloud, “'but not before you have suffered, not before you have bled, you will pay for your sins in pain.'” He slanted a glance at Rhodey. “It's like a bad emo rock lyric, I think I can work up a three chord backing and we'll make a million off of it.”

Rhodey glared at him, his mouth a tight, straight line. “You're not taking this seriously.”

“True. I am not.” Tony gestured wildly with one hand. Rhodey ducked, despite the fact that Tony wasn't any where near him. Tony decided not to take that personally. “Mostly because it doesn't bear being taken seriously, it's literally just an attempt to put me off my game, and that, that is not going to happen, my game is unshakeable.”

“Right,” Rhodey said. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with tense fingers. “You are going to be the death of me, Stark.”

“Uh-huh, only if you don't actually get your shit together and ask Pepper out,” Tony said. Grinning, he headed back to his work. “If you'd actually do that, then Pepper could be the death of you, and she's much more fun. Really.”

“Stay out of my love life.”

“Fine, I'll just ask about her love life.” Tony gave Rhodey a wide eyed look. “Do you know if Pepper is dating anyone right now? 'Cause there's a new guy down in accounting that seems like just her type.”

Rhodey set his coffee cup down with a very pronounced click, and crossed his arms over his chest. It was a remarkably defensive posture from Rhodey, and Tony ducked his head to hide his grin. “She's not going to date anyone from work, Tony,” Rhodey said, sounding put out.

“It worked fine the first time she did it.” Tony brought up his plans and flipped through them, his fingers dancing through the air. “She got a good run out of that one.”

“She got a lot of gray hairs out of that one.”

“I'm a great date, and you know it. You're a better date, though, you should-”

“I'm not discussing this with you.”

“Well, if she's not going to date anyone from work, that leaves her with a very small potential dating pool,” Tony pointed out. “As she does nothing but do that and go to gallery openings, and about half the men at those are not interested in her rather feminine charms, and the other half are old enough to be her grandfather. Hell, some of them are both.”

“Tony...”

Tony paused, bracing a hand on the bench. “I have an idea,” he said, eyes wide. “You should ask Pepper out, have I mentioned this?”

Rhodey's mouth opened, then closed. “You are a pain in my ass,” he said.

“Want me to ask Pepper out for you-”

“No joke, no kidding, if you pull this shit, Tony, the next time you decide you need my help, I'm changing my phone number and blocking my email.”

“I'll find you. I have ways.” Tony reached for his welding torch. “No, seriously. Good job with that pilot pick up.” His eyes tipped up. “The suit need any repairs?”

Rhodey's face relaxed, just enough to smile. “You can take a look at it,” he admitted. He leaned back against the bench, his arms crossed over his chest. “You keeping tabs on me, Stark?”

“Always, Rhodes.” Tony leaned over the circuit board he'd been working on. “I worry, you know.”

“Yeah, I bet. Worried about your suit.”

“That's unkind, that is-”

The words died in a strangled noise as a shock of pain rolled through him. Tony's body snapped forward, his numb fingers losing their grip on the soldering iron. It clattered to the bench, the sound not quite loud enough to cover his moan.

“Tony?” Rhodey's voice had an edge. “Hey, what's-”

Tony held up a hand. “It's nothing,” he managed, but the pain was excruciating now. He pushed himself upright, his fingers clawing at the cloth of his shirt. “Okay,” he choked out, his mouth working as he struggled to breathe. “Maybe it's something.”

“You think?” Rhodey's arm went around his back, half lifting him off of the stool. “Let's go, you look like you're going to pass out.”

“Knife,” Tony managed, the word gritted out from between clenched teeth. His hand locked on Rhodey's wrist, his fingers digging in. “Get- Knife.”

“What? Why-”

“It's- Arc reactor-” Tony forced his head up, ignoring the way his vision went white on the edges with the movement. “Knife.”

“Couch first.” Ignoring his protests, Rhodey half wrestled him over to the couch, lowering him down. “Put your legs up,” he ordered. “I do not like the way you're looking right now.”

Tony fought his legs onto the couch, his head falling back. “You- Know how to hurt a guy,” he said, managing a grin. He closed his eyes and focused on breathing. “I'll have you know- I was on People's Sexiest Men list again this year.”

“If they could see you now, they'd print a retraction, Tony.” Rhodey touched his shoulder, and Tony's eyes opened. Rhodey, his face set, offered him the knife, hilt first.

“Cruel,” Tony said, taking it. His hand was shaking, and he struggled to hold it still. Rhodey's fingers closed over his, steadying it. “Thanks,” Tony said.

“Thought you worked all the bugs out of this damn thing,” Rhodey said, his voice tense.

“You and me, both.” Tony took a breath, and another, and dragged his t-shirt up. Without being asked, Rhodey held the fabric in place, out of the way. “Thanks,” Tony managed, fumbling the knife into the hollow of his palm.

“Just do it,” Rhodey said, his voice tense but steady. But when Tony sank the blade of the knife into the fake skin that covered the arc reactor, Rhodey flinched.

Tony chuckled as he sliced away the high tech skin. “You've been to war, what're you getting squeamish about? It's not gonna bleed, you know.”

“Yeah, well, the visual's uncomfortably close to some nightmares I've had, so you'll forgive me if I don't enjoy watching you stab yourself in the chest,” Rhodey gritted out.

Tony's mouth went tight. “Yeah. Sorry,” he said, even as he slipped fingers into the neat cut and used the slit to pull it away from his skin. It pulled, hard, and he bit his lip, almost hard enough to draw blood, but he didn't have time to deal with releasing the epoxy correctly.

The pain was getting worse.

It took him a few seconds, painfully long and awkward, and then he was pulling the arc reactor out of its housing. It took him a single glance to know that it wasn't anything he could fix. “Shit,” he hissed.

“Not the reaction I was hoping for,” Rhodey said. “What's-”

“Something's wrong,” Tony said, and the words were harder now. He shoved it back into his chest, because it wasn't working at full capacity, but it was working. It was working well enough to get him onto his feet, to get him up to his suite. “The core's shot. I need- Replacement. Upstairs.”

“You don't have one here?” Rhodey asked, one arm going around Tony's back and heaving him up. Tony's knees threatened to give way, and he locked them in place.

“No. Not safe.” He hadn't needed to, before. The cores had burned out before, but this one had gone much faster than any of the others. He usually had plenty of time to get upstairs, and keeping spares in the workshop had seemed a pointless risk. Too many people came into the workshop, too many teammates, too many of the Avengers. None of them came into his suite, that was his space, and everyone knew it.

All of his secrets, he kept close. And kept private.

“Let's go,” Rhodey said. “You're not looking good.”

Tony dragged his shirt back down, over the damaged pseudo skin, and it was harder than it should've been. His hands were shaking, and his fingers weren't working the way the should be. “Anyone see you come in?” he asked.

“What?”

“Did anyone-” He stopped, saving his breath. He glared up at Rhodey. “See you come in?”

Rhodey stared at him, his brows drawing low. “No, I used the emergency entrance on the garage, thought you'd be down there, so-”

Tony pushed himself up, and it took a massive effort, but he managed it, through force of will or just force. “Get the suit.”

Rhodey's head jerked back like Tony had hit him. “Are you out of your mind?”

“Do it,” Tony snapped.

“I think we've got bigger problems than this stupid little game you're running,” Rhodey snapped back. “You are out of your goddamn mind, Tony, this is-”

“You are wasting time,” Tony shot back. “Keep fighting me. Or-” He sucked in a thin breath. “Or just get the damn suit, Rhodes!”

Rhodey stared at him, his face blank. “Just so we're both clear what's important,” he said, his voice very quiet, and filled with frustration. Tony ignored it.

He was good at that.

*

Steve tucked a cookie in his teeth, juggling a stack of folders and a cup of coffee, doing his best not to spill anything. His bare feet quiet on the floor, he headed up the hallway, mind still half on the report he'd been reading as he headed back to his apartment.

He felt compelled to do this, some nights. He liked the way the tower was still, in the late hours of the night or the early hours of the morning. It was never quite deserted; he'd often find someone in the kitchen, making a snack or a cup of tea, or the common room, watching a movie or reading in front of the fireplace. Maybe that's why he walked the halls, almost every night, because he liked to make sure that everyone was present.

Sometimes, people wanted company. And sometimes, Steve just wanted to check in on them, because there were bad nights for all of them. Nights when they were afraid of sleep, or too desperate for it. Nights when they went looking for help, even if they couldn't ask for it.

He shifted everything, one way, and then back, freeing his hand enough to snag the cookie with the fingers that weren't busy holding the coffee cup. He paused, trying to get himself situated, and heard the ping of the elevator. Curious, he headed down the hall, wondering who else was up and around tonight.

He was expecting a lot of things. But seeing Iron Man half carry, half drag Tony out of the public elevator, that wasn't one of them. Steve tossed the files and the coffee cup at a nearby table and took off running. “What's wrong?” he snapped out.

Iron Man looked up. “He's-”

“Drunk,” Tony said.

“Drunk?” Iron Man asked.

“So drunk,” Tony said. He took a step and his legs seemed to buckle, going out from under him. Iron Man grabbed for him, one arm going around Tony's waist and dragging him back up. Tony's head fell forward, swaying on his neck.

“Right. Let's go,” Steve said, ignoring the way that Tony tried to stumble back, out of reach. “Bruce can-”

“Don't need medical,” Tony mumbled. “Just gotta sleep it off.” He grinned up at Steve. “Not my first time at the rodeo, Cap.”

“Right,” Steve repeated. But it wasn't right. Tony's breathing was erratic and labored, face pained, and his skin had a sickly gray cast to it. Steve looked up at Iron Man, his eyes narrowing, but there was no help there. Iron Man's mask was as unreadable as ever. “Right,” Steve repeated. He reached out and scooped Tony into his arms. “Where are we going to sleep it off?”

“Bedroom,” Tony said.

“All right, let's go.” Steve adjusted his grip, expecting Tony to put up a fight, but he didn't seem inclined to struggle. Instead, he just leaned into Steve's body, his breathing erratic.

“Who invited you?” Tony asked, grinning. His eyes closed, his head falling onto Steve's shoulder.

“I invited myself,” Steve said, heading for the elevator that ran from the common team quarters up to Tony's penthouse suite.

“Well, that's damn forward of you,” Tony said. One hand came up, his fingers twisting in the fabric of his shirt, bunching it against his breastbone. He sucked in a breath. “Also hot.”

''Great,” Steve said. Iron Man was right on his heels. The three of them stepped into the elevator, and Steve seethed, his jaw locked, his teeth gritted against the urge to yell at both of them, or at himself. He wasn't quite sure.

The trip seemed to drag on forever, and when Steve stepped off the elevator into Tony's suite, he almost had himself under control again. That lasted until Iron Man turned to him and said, “I'll take him.”

Steve's arms tightened, and that was irrational, that was stupid, but he didn't want to let go, not just yet. “It's fine,” he said. “Where are we-”

Iron Man stepped in front of him. “It wasn't a request,” he said, and every instinct Steve had bristled.

“Put me down, I can walk,” Tony said. “Before the two of you end up punching each other around me.” He pushed at Steve's shoulder, and Steve set him back on his feet. “Not- The sort of threeway I'd envisioned.”

“Stop it,” Iron Man said. And before Steve could say another word, he'd swept Tony through the room, heading straight for the bedroom door. It closed behind them with a solid, unmistakeable click, and Steve wanted to punch something.

Instead, he stalked across the room to stare out of the huge windows that lined the walls. From this high up, the view was stunning, and he barely noticed. He just waited, his heart pounding in his chest, for that door to reopen. It took a very, very long time for that to happen, and when it did, Iron Man emerged alone.

He paused, then closed the door behind him. “Can I do something for you, Cap?”

Steve kept his eyes on the city, far below them. His hand was in a fist against the cool glass of the window, his arm braced above his head. “What's wrong with him?”

A beat of silence, then Iron Man said, “He's drunk. It happens. Less now that it used to. But it happens. You know that.”

Steve let out a bark of laughter. “I know a lot of things,” he admitted. “And I know that that? Wasn't drunk.” He scowled at the city skyline. “What's wrong with him?”

“Nothing, now. He just needs to sleep.”

“So, is this more important than his health?”

Iron Man was silent for a long moment. “Is what more important than his health?” he said at last. “Let's be specific, if you're going to be picking a fight, Cap.”

He was right, and Steve knew he was right, but that just made him madder. “This secret identity thing,” he snapped out. “All of this!” He pushed away from the window, turning on Iron Man, frustration and confusion and something he didn't want to look too closely at, something that felt like need, all bubbling in his chest. “If he needs you, do you need the armor more?”

Iron Man's head tipped forward. “He needs the armor more than he does me. I'm just the guy running it.”

For some reason, that cut deep, and Steve couldn't figure out why. “Is that what you think of us, too? That we only want the armor?” He turned away, his hands in fists, his breathing ragged. “One of these days, you're going to have to decide if you're on this team or not. If we're to be trusted, not not.”

Iron Man held up a hand, one finger stabbing the air in front of Steve, never touching him, but coming perilously close. “You agreed to this, when we started.”

“I respected your choice, because you didn't know us!” Steve snapped back. “I just thought this would- Would have an end date. That eventually, we'd get to a point where you would-” He stared at Iron Man, but all he could see was his own reflection in the flat gold mirror of the face plate. He looked agonized, and he hated that. “That you would trust us. That you would trust me.”

Iron Man nodded, just a quick dip of his chin. “You know what?” he asked, his voice tense and strained, even through the mechanical means that he used to disguise it. “You want to know how long this is going to go on? Then ask him. Because I don't have an answer for you right now.”

And with that, he stomped back towards the bedroom, leaving Steve to stare impotently after him. And wonder just what their relationship was.

*

Chapter Text

“Sir?”

Tony squeezed his eyes shut. “No.”

Jarvis wasn't capable of sighing. But he gave it his best shot. “Sir.”

“No,” Tony mumbled, squishing his face into his pillow. “Don't. Don't you dare.”

“You have an appointment. In ten minutes.”

“Cancel it.” Tony rolled over, flopping out spread eagled on the mattress. “Did you get the number of the bus that hit me, Jay?”

“In a truly surprising turn of events, for once you were not involved in a vehicular collision,” Jarvis said. “However, you were experiencing issues with-”

“The arc reactor.” Tony's hand closed over the crystal face.

“Currently operating within optimal parameters,” Jarvis said. “However, the palladium-”

“Won't work long term, I know, I know. I'm working on it. YOU'RE working on it.” Wincing, Tony pushed himself upright. “But the new core is stable?”

“For the time being, yes.”

“I'll take it,” Tony said. He rolled to the edge of the bed. “Ugh, man, that kind of stress is not good for me. Cancel everything, I need a shower.”

“Col. Rhodes is still here.”

Tony paused, halfway to the bathroom. He winced. “He is. Is he.”

“He is,” Jarvis said, the voice of doom. “And to anticipate your next question, yes, he is already awake and waiting for you.” He paused. “Might I suggest that you not compound the situation by keeping him waiting?”

Tony groaned. “Horrible idea,” he said, even as he started the slow, unhappy deathmarch towards the door. “Horrible. You have the worst ideas, Jarvis.”

“So you have told me, sir.” Another pause. “Another threat has been received, sir.”

Tony shoved a hand through his hair. “Usual wording, 'you'll regret your evil, evil person, sincerely, people's champion of goodness and light?'”

“Words to that effect,” Jarvis said.

“They need a new script, this one's not working.” Tony headed for the living room. “Put it in the confidential server, my eyes only.”

“Sir...”

“You have your orders, you obstinate AI. Stick it in the back of the file and start me some coffee, I think I'm going to need it.”

Rhodey was sprawled out on the couch, his long legs tossed out in front of him, his arms braced on the back of the couch. He was watching something on the big screen, the sound turned down low. Tony thought it was one of the 24 hour news channels, until he caught sight of the familiar red and gold form.

The footage was old, one of the first press conferences he'd done after those first, disastrous days. With the distance of time and safety, Tony stared at his own image, and wondered how he'd held himself together. On the video, he seemed ready to fracture, his eyes unnaturally bright, and his smile verging on manic. No one seemed to notice, as his chattered away, all that fire and force blinding the press. He wasn't the center of attention, anyway. It was easy to disappear in Iron Man's shadow, the gleaming, new, ground-breaking sleek lines of the armor eclipsing everything else. Tony, for all his spark, could disappear, even if he wasn't in the armor.

The armor eclipsed him, and he knew it. As long as the Iron Man was there, he never had anyone's full attention.

But Iron Man reached out, resting a hand on Tony's shoulder, sliding it around to his back. The Tony in the footage seemed to steady, leaning back against that faint support. If Tony didn't know it had happened, he might not have noticed. But even after all this time, he could feel the pressure of Rhodey's hand inside the armor. Holding him up, as Rhodey had done, so many times.

“Little trip down memory lane?” he asked, his eyes catching on the list of file names that ran down the right side of the screen. All the dates would've matched up with their first efforts to introduce Iron Man, body guard and StarkIndustries employee, to the world.

“Asked Jarvis to pull it up for me.” Rhodey's eyes slid in his direction. “You okay?”

“Give me some coffee and I'll be one hundred percent. Right now, I'm at about eighty.” On the screen, the armor twitched to the side, and Tony winced. “Can't believe no one saw that,” he mumbled.

Rhodey didn't even look in his direction. “I can't believe you lived,” he said, his voice quiet.

Tony huffed out a sigh, crossing his arms over his chest. “Yeah, well, we all get lucky, sometimes.” The inside of his wrist lined up against the solid, unmoving surface of the arc reactor, and he pressed against it until the contact was liable to bruise. It was horrible and he hated it, hated that it was forced on him, hated that it was still there, a massive, glowing Achilles’s heel, just waiting to be discovered. But at the same time, it was a security blanket and a crutch. He could almost feel it sometimes, faintly warm beneath his fingers, even through the fake skin.

Now, exposed except for the thin fabric of his shirt, he could almost believe it pulsed under his hand.

Rhodey rubbed a hand over his face, long fingers scraping over his familiar features. “Yeah,” he said. He tossed the remote down on the couch next to him. “Luck. And a lot of help.”

“Well, yeah, I-”

“No.” Rhodey didn't raise his voice, didn't get sharp or mad. It was precise and quiet and firm, and Tony winced. Rhodey just kept staring at the screen. “This is my own stupidity coming home to roost, that's what it is. I knew, back then, back-” He stabbed a finger at the tv. “Right there. I knew. As I was standing there, that this was stupid, this was a mistake.”

Tony's eyes rolled up to the ceiling, pulling a face behind Rhodey's back. “So why did you do it?”

Now, for the first time, Rhodey twisted around. “I did it to protect you,” he said, so quiet, so achingly quiet. “You know that, right?”

Tony couldn't hold his gaze for very long. “Yeah,” he said. He shifted, shoving a hand through his hair. “And I appreciate it, you know-”

“I'm not doing this for a cookie, Stark.” Rhodey pointed at the screen. “You were a damn mess. You were barely able to get onto your feet right there. And the walls were closing in on you, I get that, and that is why I said yes. When you said, help me pretend that it wasn't me. When you said, get in the armor, the barely functioning armor at that point, I gotta point that out-”

“You really don't, I remember trying to fix it, and that was not fun, that was the opposite of fun-”

“When you said,” Rhodey said, speaking over him with ease, “hide me, I said yes.”

The flinch was involuntary, and Tony hated it. “'Hide me' is putting it a bit strong, don't you think?” he asked. His best effort at keeping his voice light, at keeping the strain at bay, wasn't quite good enough.

Rhodey gave a snort. “Not by a long shot.” He slumped back against the couch, his head falling back, his eyes closing tight. “This whole dual identity thing, you owe that to me. And you damn well know it.”

“You're not as important as you like to think you are,” Tony said, crossing the room. His bare feet were silent on the plush carpet, but Rhodey didn't seem surprised when Tony sank down on the couch next to him. “You weren't the only one to don that suit, back then.”

“That's true, you managed to browbeat both Pepper and Happy into fumbling around, too,” Rhodey said. He glanced at Tony. “But you needed me. They were decent enough at standing and waving. Might've been able to pull off a couple of easy moves. But when it came time for the big stuff? The flying and the fighting and showing off all your shiny toys?”

“I needed you,” Tony admitted.

“You needed me,” Rhodey said. He sounded tired. Probably because he was tired. “I let you drag me into this mess. And when you-” He stopped, his brow wrinkling. “I let you use me.”

“You loved it. You still love it,” Tony said.

“Not saying I don't. That is more than I ever dreamed I could do. It's addictive,” Rhodey said, matter of fact about it. “That much freedom, that much power. I started for you, I keep doing it for you, but I do love it, most days.” He shook his head. “It's the 'most days' that worry me.”

“Most days, I don't love anything,” Tony grumbled. His head fell back, and he let his eyes shut. His hand rested lightly on the surface of the arc reactor now, his fingers tapping an aimless rhythm against the face of it. He liked the tactile sensation of flesh and bone impacting, light and easy, with the crystal face. “So you're doing better than me. Which we all knew, all along, I guess. You knew that, right?”

Rhodey let out an audible sigh. “Look at me, Tony.”

“No, you're going to make me feel guilty and I don't know why you think I'd volunteer for that.”

Rhodey's laugh was short and low, but real. “'Cause you already feel guilty, so you might as well be an adult about it.”

Tony pried one eye open. “I don't volunteer to be adult, either.”

Rhodey smiled at him. “Yeah. I know.” He leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees, folding his hands between them. “You owe me.” Tony opened his mouth, and one of Rhodey's hands shot up, a finger pointed in Tony's face. “You owe me,” he repeated.

“Yeah,” Tony admitted. He pushed Rhodey's hand away. “I'll get you a really good birthday present this year.”

Rhodey's eyebrows arched. “Are we back at MIT?” he asked. “Didn't you learn that trying to buy me off wasn't gonna work more than a decade ago?” He shook his head. “You tried that, the day we met, and how'd that work for you?”

“You told me to go fuck myself,” Tony said. He grinned. “If memory serves, I offered to fuck you, instead.”

“Why the hell did I keep talking to you?” Rhodey said,his head falling back, but he was grinning.

“I assumed it was because you were considering the fucking, but-” Tony laughed when Rhodey gave him a hard shove, and he moved sideways on the couch, safely out of reach. “Admit it! I was a gorgeous hunk of manhood back then!”

“You were a scrawny little white boy with a big mouth and an ego to match,” Rhodey said, grinning.

“Just your type,” Tony agreed. Rhodey took another mock swing at him, and Tony laughed. “Fine, I won't get you a birthday present.”

“You're damn well getting me a birthday present, but you're not buying me off with something that you found in an old Skymall catalog,” Rhodey said.

“I miss Skymall,” Tony said. “When I was drunk, I could get the best crap out of that thing. I'd wake up three days later with a pile of boxes and a credit card bill and it was like Christmas all over again.”

Rhodey was grinning at him now, wide and bright and Tony grinned back. “You're an idiot.”

Tony shrugged. “Maybe.”

“You're an idiot who owes me,” Rhodey said.

Tony made a face. “Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

Tony met his eyes, and sighed. “I owe you,” he agreed. “But not for being the one who ended up in that armor. Not for being the one who sold the lie, who was the public face of Iron Man, side by side with me, until no one would even think that I was the one in the armor. Not for being the one who got me through it.” He sucked in a quick breath. “Not for being the one who kept looking for me, when everyone else gave up.”

“No, you owe me for all of that, too,” Rhodey said. “That, and more. You owe me so goddamn much I pretty much have your soul in hock.”

Tony ignored him. “I owe you because you should've punched me and walked away, all those years ago,” Tony said. He shrugged. “Still not sure why you didn't.”

Rhodey considered it. “You were pretty cute,” he said at last, and Tony started to laugh.

“Oh, honeybunch,” he said, throwing himself down on the couch, his head in Rhodey's lap. “I knew you loved me.”

Rhodey smiled down at him. “Let's not go that far,” he said, but his eyes were full of warmth and humor. He rapped his knuckles against Tony's forehead. “You owe me. I can't do this any more. I can't be the one who makes this lie possible. You can lie to the world all you want, but you've complicated this. You know that, right? If you wanted to keep your heroing separate from your personal life, maybe you shouldn't have let a whole bunch of super heroes move into your house.”

Tony folded his hands over his stomach, not bothering to sit up. “That's not fair,” he said. “And you know it. I didn't let them move in.”

“You forced them to move in,” Rhodey corrected.

“I forced them to move in,” Tony said, grinning like a fiend.

“With a secret identity. And a massive hole in your chest.”

Tony shrugged. “No one ever accused me of being forward thinking.”

“You call yourself a futurist all the time!”

“No one ELSE ever accused me of-”

“Don't call me anymore. No. I'm serious. Don't you-” Rhodey threw his hands in the air. “I do not want to hear a single thing out of you, do you understand-”

“Sir, it is ten fifteen,” Jarvis said, just as the elevator dinged. “You had an appointment-”

“I do, I do have an appointment,” Tony said. “Steve is checking in on the tech, I was supposed to meet him in the workshop, at ten, actually, shit, let him in, Jay.”

“Yes, sir.”

The doors to the elevator opened, and Steve poked his head out, cautious as always in Tony's space. “Tony? Are you-”

“Here!” Tony pushed himself upright, levering himself off of Rhodey's lap. “Sorry,” Tony said. “Jarvis tried to remind me, but I overslept.”

“I wouldn't have bothered you,” Steve said, carefully, “but I was concerned, you weren't doing so well last night, and Iron Man's out of radio contact, didn't know if you were alone, or-”

“Nah, shellhead had to go give Pepper an escort,” Tony said. He hooked a thumb in Rhodey's direction. “He asked Rhodey to come baby sit.” He stood. “Not that I needed a babysitter. I'm fine.”

“He always needs a babysitter,” Rhodey said, his voice wry. He gave Steve a wave, and Steve nodded at him, his eyes darting back and forth between them. “I just wanna know why I'm first on the list of sitters.”

“You work cheap, I have good booze, and I've driven all the others to tears,” Tony said. “Also, you know that if you don't, Pepper gets stuck with it, and she's going to quit on both of us at this rate.” He stretched, his arms over his head, the muscles of his back pulling tight. “I drank too much, it happens, I'm fine, not even a hangover. Meeting. We have a meeting-”

Rhodey was suddenly on his feet, an arm going around Tony's shoulders. “Shower, first,” he said, and before Tony could open his mouth, Rhodey was hustling him through the living room, straight back towards the bedroom. “Give him five, Steve, he just needs-”

“It's fine,” Steve said, and Tony craned his head back over his shoulder, catching sight of Steve's tense face as he sank down onto the couch. Their eyes met for just a second, and then Rhodey was shoving the bedroom door shut.

“Since when have you been so desperate to get me-” he started, and Rhodey cut him off.

“You're going full on ET on us,” he said, his voice very quiet. “Might want to do something about that, Tones.”

Tony's head dropped, and he stared, shocked, at the faint, almost imperceptible glow of the arc reactor through the black fabric of his t-shirt. “Shit,” he said. “Shit, shit, shit!”

“It's fine,” Rhodey said. “Pretty sure he didn't see it. He seemed to be looking at me more than you, probably wasn't expecting to see me.”

“Fuck me,” Tony said, already moving back towards the bathroom.

“For the last time, no,” Rhodey said, and Tony grinned.

“Your loss.” He slapped a hand against the bathroom mirror, and the hidden scanner whirred to life, a pale light sliding over his palm. As soon as the fingerprints passed muster, there was a hum from behind the medicine cabinet. The packets of fake skin were waiting, and he pulled one out.

“Arc reactor?”

“It's fine,” Tony said, ripping the packet open with his teeth. “Checked it this morning.” He closed the cabinet and caught Rhodey's gaze in the mirror. “The last core was just defective. This one's holding up without any problems.”

“For now,” Rhodey said. Tony considered arguing, but Rhodey's face made it clear that he wasn't interested. Rhodey nodded at the fake skin. “You need help?”

“No, I got it, I've done it often enough.” Tony stripped his shirt over his head, tossing it to the side. “Can you go stall him?”

“Yeah.” Rhodey braced a shoulder on the doorframe. “Tony? Since when do you forget that you haven't got it covered?”

“It was just you,” Tony pointed out. “You already know.”

Rhodey was silent for a moment. “Until it was me, and Cap.”

Tony shrugged, already at work adhering the new fake skin to his chest. “Yeah, well, how many times have you accused me of being less than careful about, well, everything? We both know you're right.”

His head was down, his attention focused on his work, but he heard Rhodey's sigh. “Just tell him, before you end up backed in a corner with no way out.” His footsteps retreated. “Because when that happens, Tony, I'm not going to be there to cover for you.”

In the silence that followed, Tony looked up, catching a glimpse of his own face in the mirror. He looked gaunt, his eyes too big and too dark, and he ran a hand over his jaw. He needed to shave.

And to figure out where his life had gone wrong. He would've said it was that day in the desert, weapons at his back and a martini glass in his hand, but he suspected it had started to spin out of control long before then. Long, long before.

Gritting his teeth, he turned his attention back to the task at hand. He was already running late, and leaving Rhodey and Steve to make chitchat did not seem like a good idea.

Not at all. And he knew from bad ideas.

*

“Why are we fighting dinosaurs?”

“Because they're not responding to diplomacy, Hawkeye, so we were forced to resort to physical force,” Jan said, laughter audible in her voice. “It's shameful, I agree, but if you'd like to try negotiating again...”

“Last time he tried that, they tried to eat him,” Natasha pointed out.

“Once a foe has attempted to consume you, best you cease attempts at friendship,” Thor agreed. Lightning cracked across the sky, and Thor let out a massive roar. “Flee before the God of Thunder, or face my wrath, creatures!”

“He gets the best lines,” Clint said. “Who's writing his stuff?”

“Let's cut the chatter and pay attention,” Steve said, trying to sound stern. “These things might not be smart, but they're fast, and they're angry.”

“Cannot imagine why,” Iron Man said. Out of the corner of his eye, Steve saw him shoot by with a roar of his repulsors, leading three of the creatures on a merry chase. The beasts, which looked like oversized, neon colored Pterodactyls, were attracted by movement, and he was taking advantage of it. Right behind him, Hulk jumped through the air, snagging one of the reptiles out of mid-air. “Thanks, big guy!”

“SHIELD has containment en route,” Coulson said over the comm. “ETA less than five minutes.”

“Good, I'm running out of net arrows.”

“Do the best you can, Hawkeye,” Steve said, running hard across the edge of the roof, keeping pace with the giant flying reptile that was heading straight for Dr. Strange and Wanda, both of them lost in whatever ritual that they were attempting. Steve didn't really understand, but he respected the power that was currently churning around the two of them.

Besides, it wasn't like he could do anything about the massive, glowing rip that had opened up in the sky Miami. All he could do was try to contain the damage and keep these things from making it out to any of the theme parks.

“Carol, what's our perimeter like?”

“We're two blocks out, and we're pulling that in by the minute,” she said, crisp and efficient. “I've got one who's pressing hard to the East, I can't quite get him back in line, but-”

“On the way.” He took the corner hard, recentering himself and going full speed towards Carol's location. On the edge of his vision, he saw the metallic streak of red and gold cutting through the air, and he grinned.

He reached the edge of the roof and kept going, kicking up gravel as he launched himself into the air.

“He's airborne,” Nat said, sounding bored.

Steve twisted in mid-air, kicking his legs back, reaching for the next rooftop with one outstretched hand. He wasn't going to reach it, there was no chance he was going to reach it. Not even he could clear that distance, and in a single breath, he'd reached the zenith of his jump and felt gravity take hold of him again.

The arm that wrapped around his chest was less a restraint and more a support, the two of them falling in tandem for a moment, bodies coming together in a tangle of limbs. Steve caught a glimpse of his reflection in the golden faceplate of Iron Man's helmet, and then Iron Man's repulsors kicked in, pulling them out of the dive.

“Took you long enough,” Steve said, a note of glee twisting through the words.

“You want a more prompt pick-up, next time, give me some warning.”

Steve threw an arm around Iron Man's shoulders, his fingers finding a secure grip on one of the joints. "What would the fun be in that?" he asked, and heard Iron Man's chuckle over their comm. Steve grinned. “Admit it, you love it.”

“Keeps me on my toes, that's for sure.” Iron Man swung wide around a building, and Steve caught sight of their target. Iron Man clearly did, too. “I need both my hands, Cap, how's your grip?”

“As long as your armor holds, so will my grip,” Steve said.

“Charming thought. Okay. Hold tight, we're going in hot.”

Iron Man's hand slipped away from his waist, his touch withdrawing slowly, carefully. As if he wasn't quite certain of Steve's grip, and wasn't willing to risk it. But Steve was steady, his hand locked into place, his muscles pulling tight with the strain. “Go for it,” he said. “If I think I'm slipping, I'll just wrap my legs around you.”

“Wouldn't be the first time,” Tony said, the servos of his armor whirring above the wind as he adjusted his stance. “If you feel the need for a full body hug, now's the time.”

“GO!” Steve said, and Iron Man went.

It was the most exhilarating ride he'd ever been on, every single time. Iron Man knew just how fast he could push his armor and Steve's grip, and he scraped both of those upper limits, every time. Steve wondered, as the armor drove them into a steep, hard drive that threatened to suck the air from his lungs, why he didn't resent that. Why he wasn't angry at Iron Man for pushing both of them too hard, for testing the strength of Steve's grip. Why he wasn't angry at the rashness of it, at the risk.

Instead, it felt oddly like trust. On both their parts.

“Hard right, lock knee,” Iron Man said, the faintest hint of strain creeping into his voice over the comm.

Steve slung a leg over the back of Iron Man's, hooking his knee around Iron Man's. A flash of motion on his left caught his eye. “We've got incoming, eight o'clock.”

“Of course we do. Hold on!”

“Always do,” Steve said, grinning.

*

“Ms. Potts! Light of my life!”

“Mr. Stark. Bane of my existence.”

“That was hurtful,” Tony said, his sleek leather portfolio tucked under one arm and clinging to his triple shot espresso with all his might. “I'm hurt.”

“You're really not.” Pepper slipped the portfolio out from under his elbow. “Please tell me this is the updated schematics.”

“It is,” Tony said, burying his face in his coffee cup. “Hard copy.” He shuddered. “I do this under duress, Pepper. There is duress at work. I am duressed!”

“That's not a word.” She dropped the folio onto the desk and flipped it open. “Any problems?”

“How much time do you have?”

“Not enough to hear your problems,” she said, her lips twitching, just a bit.

Tony threw his hands up. “Then why do you ask, Potts? Why would you possibly set me up for this kind of-”

“Because ranting gets your blood up, and you look like you could use it.” Without looking up, she took the cup away from him, holding it easily out of reach. “When's the last time you've eaten?”

“You're no longer my PA,” Tony pointed out. He considered making a grab for the cup, but he suspected she could outfox him at this point and he didn't need the humiliation. “Speaking of, don't I have a secretary? Where is my secretary? There's a desk out there, and no secretary, I was able to waltz right in here.”

“As if you owned the place?” Pepper asked.

“As if I owned the place,” Tony agreed. “Did you fire Bambi?”

Pepper shut the folio. “As if I could. Eduardo, down in administration, his wife went into labor prematurely. Mother and baby are both fine, father is apparently a nervous disaster, and is rightly on leave for the time being. HR had arranged for a fill-in, but-” One shoulder lifted in a slight shrug. “Apparently, baby Elana did not check the company calendar before putting in her appearance.” She leaned her hips back against the desk, her arms crossed over her chest. “So Ms. Arbogast pointed out that you had nothing planned for the next few days, and offered to fill in until a better solution can be found.”

Tony was nodding, more out of habit than anything else. “What if someone calls for me?”

“The calls are being routed to her new workstation.” Pepper's eyebrows arched. “And no one calls for you.”

“You are a woman of exceptional cruelty, you know that, right?” he asked, grinning.

“Only to those who deserve it.” She checked her watch. “And we are right on time.”

“Right,” Tony said, trying to straighten up. “Negotiations. Right.”

“You're not coming,” she said, and his shoulders slumped with relief.

“Oh, thank God,” he said. He managed two stumbling steps and fell onto his couch. “You sure?” he asked, even as he toed off his shoes. “I mean, I can.”

“You look like hell,” she said.

“I put on a suit, Potts, I put on a suit and shaved and combed my hair and everything, what more do you want from me?” he asked, his head falling back with a groan.

“You need to stop burning the candle at both ends, Tony,” she said.

“Well, I'm only burning it at both ends because I haven't figured out way to burn it in the middle without lighting myself on fire,” he pointed out. “Yet. Haven't figured it out yet. I'm an engineer, and I like fire, I'll figure this out, fucking candle isn't going to defeat me.”

“Uh-huh.” Pepper hugged the folio to her chest and let out a sigh. “You know what's going to happen, when you figure that out, Tony? You're going to get burned.”

“That's going to happen either way, might as well go out with a bang.”

“Speaking of bangs, how did-”

“Minor casualties, Clint caught a window with his face like the stubborn birdbrain that he is, and Jan stung Reed in the ass. She won't admit it, but we all know that she did.” He gave her a thumbs up. “In our world, that's a roaring success.”

“How's the suit?”

“I'm trying not to think about it. I can afford to do that. I have a backup.” One. One more backup. He'd trashed three suits of armor in as many weeks, and he wasn't catching up. Too much work, not nearly enough hours in the day. Tony sank a little lower in the couch. “I should come to the negotiations.”

“No, you should take your jacket off, lie down, and get some sleep,” Pepper said. Her voice was gentle, affectionate. She reached out, cool, delicate fingertips smoothing Tony's hair away from his forehead. “All I need are these updates. They're not important enough for you to show up, and they know it.”

“They're going to get insulted.” Tony leaned into her touch, and she cupped his cheek with one hand.

“Let them. When they're insulted, they try to make themselves look important. When they try to make themselves look important, they give me things they weren't intending to give me.” Her teeth flashed, bright and sharp. “I enjoy it when they do that.”

“You're a shark,” Tony said. “Vicious. Shark.”

“Thank you, Mr. Stark, what a nice thing to say.” She straightened up, her hand falling away. “Lie down. Get some sleep.” She stared down at him, and Tony smiled up at her.

“Don't make that face,” he said, waving her off. He fumbled his way out of his suit jacket, and she took it from him, folding it over the back of a chair. “I hate that face.”

“I hate having to make this face,” Pepper pointed out. “Stop giving me so many reasons to make it.” She leaned in, and pressed a light kiss to his forehead. “I'll wake you when the meeting's over.” Gently, she nudged him to the side, until he flopped sideways on the sofa.

“Fine, fine,” he said. “If they start whining about my tech again, Potts, this whole thing is off.”

“Right.”

“Don't you 'right' me, you're humoring me, I can tell, I'm serious. If they want me to go back into these designs again, designs that are light years ahead of anything else on the market, then they can go to hell.” Tony yawned and threw his legs onto the couch cushions. “This whole thing has been a nightmare.”

“Trust me, I'm well aware.” She shook her head. “I'll be glad when it's over.” She gave him a sideways look, and he could see the question forming on her lips.

“How's your love life?” he asked, cutting her off with ruthless efficiency.

“None of your business,” she said without missing a beat. But it distracted her. Distracted her from the threats, from the growing malice on a handful of lines. Distracted her from the worry. He couldn't stop it. But he could do his best to distract her from it.

“Did he ask you?” Tony asked, eyes narrowed.

“Not. Discussing. This. With. You.” But her face was flushed, her cheeks bright pink, and that was enough.

Tony grinned. “Ha! He did! He found his balls and asked you!”

“You are absolutely unbelievable,” Pepper said, smacking him lightly on the head with the portfolio.

“Did you say yes? You should say yes.” Tony folded his hands on his stomach, wriggling a bit to find a comfortable position for his sore back and shoulders and legs. Luckily, he'd picked this couch specifically for sleeping on, so it wasn't hard. “He likes you, and he respects you, and he's your friend.”

Pepper's eyes rolled. “There are a lot of men who like me, respect me, and are my friend. I don't date them.”

“Because you don't like them,” Tony said. “But you like Rhodey.”

“I'm not discussing this with you.”

Tony closed his eyes. “I love you, Potts,” he said, and the words that had once been impossible came easily now. He couldn't remember why he'd had such a hard time saying them, for so many years. But just because they were true didn't make them easy. “I love you both. And I know both of you have given up a lot for me.” He stopped. His eyes burned, and he kept them closed. “Too much. Don't give up anything else.”

There was silence, a long, long moment of silence, and he'd almost convinced himself that she'd slipped out of the room, and then her hand brushed over his hair. “Don't tell me what to do,” she said, and the words were soft and affectionate.

“You tell me what to do all the time,” Tony pointed out.

“Yes. But I know what I'm talking about.” Her hand pulled away, but there was an echo of the warmth, of the kindness of the touch, lingering on his skin. “I have to go. Get some sleep.”

“You should-”

“Pushing your luck, Stark, pushing it so hard.”

“Yeah, that's what I'm best at. Knock 'em dead, Potts.”

There was a little laugh, almost a giggle. “Don't I always?”

“Yes. Yes, you do.” He rolled halfway onto his side. “Hey. Eduardo from Admin. Did I send him anything? For his kid?”

“Of course you did. You're a man who remembers his employees,” Pepper said.

“I owe you.”

“Yes. You do.”

*

“Hey!”

The ball hit the floor with a thump, and Steve caught it, reflexes taking over for his inattention. He glanced up, not really surprised to find Sam tossing his gym bag at the bench. He passed it back with a thump and a bounce. “What's up?” he asked.

Sam caught the ball and tossed it in the air. “I was about to ask you the same thing,” he said, his voice easy. He started to dribble the ball, bouncing it easily between his hands. “Come on, one on one, you and me, let's do this.”

Steve's eyebrows arched. “I was going to hit the punching bag for a while.”

“I know. But you've been disappearing into the gym to pound that poor bag for days now, and I don't think that more solitude is really what you need.” Sam spun the ball on his finger tip. “You've been growling at everyone all day, and for most of the team, I'd suggest maybe sitting down with someone and seeing if they had anything to get off their chest, but you don't tend to respond well to that. So I thought I'd check in.” Sam passed the ball to Steve, who caught it. “We gonna play, or you gonna just stand there and let me run rings around you?”

Steve couldn't quite bite back his smile. “You are not my therapist,” he said. He gave the ball a toss. “And if you think you can run rings around me, Wilson, I'd love to see it.”

“You're going to regret that. See if you don't.”

“I'm already regretting it, can you get on with it?”

“I'm not your therapist,” Sam agreed, bouncing the ball easily with one hand. “I'm your teammate. Your friend. Someone you can talk to.” He slipped around Steve, just out of reach, and took a shot. Steve's hand snapped out, slapping the ball out of the air. “You know. If you need to talk.”

“I don't need to talk,” Steve said, as the two of them scuffled for the ball for a second. Laughing, Sam relinquished it, and Steve dribbled it back out before turning back to the basket. “I don't. I'm fine, Sam, and you are my friend and my teammate, but you should not have to be my therapist.”

“Man, I love how much you fight against depending on anyone. How noble and self-sacrificing you are,” Sam said, slapping the ball out of Steve's hand. He tried to dribble around Steve, and this time, Steve was ready for him. “It's adorable.”

“Really.”

“No, you are a pain in my ass, I mean, I know you were raised at a time when people would sooner bleed to death than do anything as uncouth as admit they need help, but you're better than that. You've always been better than that,” Sam said. For a moment, they both focused on the ball, and it was a fight, physical and probably harder than it should've been, but Sam was grinning as he stole the ball and shot it.

It hit the hoop with a dull clang, and Steve caught it on the rebound as Sam swore under his breath. “So, what's going on in that head of yours?” Sam asked, bracing his hands on his hips.

“Really, Sam, I'm fine.” Steve dribbled an easy loop around the court, enjoying the flex of his legs and the steady beat of the ball. Sam just watched him as he dribbled back out past the three point line and then took a shot. It dropped smoothly through the hoop. “See?” he said, trying for a smile. “I'm doing just fine.” He took another shot, because Sam was still standing there, watching him, dark eyes unreadable.

Sam huffed out a breath. “Wanda's worried.”

Steve froze, his body twitching to an awkward stop. “Is this a team complaint?” he asked, humor dying in an instant.

Sam held up a hand. “She didn't make it that official,” he said. “But she was concerned enough that she cornered me and asked me if I wouldn't just check in with you.” He met Steve's eyes, his gaze steady and calm. “Seemed reasonable enough. She's one who notices things, I don't question it, I just respect her insight. So this is me. Checking in.”

“And playing basketball,” Steve said.

“Well, I'm trying to, man, but you're being a real ball hog here.” Sam made a grab for it, and Steve skipped back out of reach. “So what's chewing on you, Cap?”

“Nothing,” Steve said, immediately. And when Sam let out a rather indelicate snort, he tried again. “Everything.”

“Okay, we've got the two extremes,” Sam said, grinning. “Let's bring it in and see if we can't find some middle ground.” He stole the ball, darting past Steve's guard. “I'm gonna take a guess here, Steve, and you're within your rights to tell me I'm wrong, even if I'm right, or just to tell me to shut up.”

He took a shot, and Steve snagged it out of the air. “Oh, this is gonna be rich,” Steve grumbled, and Sam laughed.

“Nice defense mechanisms, but not good enough. So,” Sam said, blocking Steve's shot, “what's going on with you and Iron Man?”

The ball hit the backstop so hard that it banged back against the wall. “Nothing,” Steve said, snagging the ball again. “What-”

“Wanda's gonna try to get the team to cool it with the gossip about who he is, and who he's been doing. She seems to think that it bothers you.” Sam held out his hand, and Steve passed the ball over. “You've never been one for gossip, but you've always just been above it. Now, you're starting to snap at people, and it's out of character.”

“It's not right,” Steve said, his voice quiet. “We agreed, as a team, that he belonged with us. We agreed that we respected his choice to maintain a secret identity. We agreed, it's not right to turn on him now.” He stole the ball from Sam, and turned, shooting one handed. He didn't even watch it fall through the hoop. He caught it and passed it back to Sam. “And it's not right to assume he's sleeping with his boss.”

“We assume a lot of things about a lot of our teammates,” Sam said, breathing a bit harder now as he tried to get past Steve's defenses. “Because we're a bunch of grown adults, all living in each others pockets. And while I think we're all friends, that we all love each other on one level or another, you have to agree-” He grinned at Steve. “That there's zero chance that we won't be all into each others business.”

“It's not right,” Steve said, stubborn about it.

“You saying that for us, or your own benefit?” Sam asked. His eyes narrowed, he took a shot. Steve didn't bother trying to block it, and just enjoyed the perfect curve as the ball fell through the net. Sam snagged the ball one handed and passed it back to Steve.

“Everyone's benefit.” Steve faked to the left, and gave the ball a toss when Sam moved to block him. It hit the hoop, swishing cleanly through the net.

“So what's really bothering you?” Sam asked. “The prying into his identity, or his personal life?”

“What's bothering me is my reaction to it,” Steve said. He shook his head, hard. “I don't-” Sam passed him the ball, and he started back up the court. “I just thought I'd react differently. I agreed. I knew that these were his terms. That we were never going to know him.” He picked up the ball and passed it to Sam. “I accepted that.”

He stood there. “So why do I resent it?”

Sam smiled, just a little. “Because you are, as much as you like to deny it sometimes, human, Steve,” he said, his voice gentle. “And human beings have a tendency to handle complicated, confusing things by boiling it down to the most simple question.”

“And what's that?” Steve asked, when Sam fell silent.

Sam tossed the ball towards the hoop. “'How does this affect me?'” he said, his teeth flashing in a grin. “It's selfish, it's egoism in action, but that's reality. That's how we cope, Steve, with a complicated society full of complicated people. Because we don't know why someone does what they do. But we understand, and are vividly aware of, how their choices effect us.

“It's easy to forget that some things are not about us,” Sam said, the words blunt. “That sometimes, people have to protect themselves. They have to hide things, out of shame, or self-preservation, or simple desire to not have certain parts of themselves seen. They tell half-truths, they omit, and they flat out lie. Because something in their life, in their past, in their experiences with other people who they loved and trusted, has made that necessary.

“And the hardest thing to do, sometimes, is to put aside our own feelings and focus on the feelings of someone who may have done that.” Sam's eyebrows arched. “To be blunt, Captain Rogers, not everything is about you.”

Steve couldn't quite hold back a smile. “Really.”

“Shocking, but true.” Sam passed him the ball. “You accepted it, you accepted Iron Man, and maybe it bothered you, a little maybe it nagged at you, that he had that part of himself that he chose not to share. But you trusted him-”

“I still trust him,” Steve said immediately.

“You trust him,” Sam revised. “So his deception, as it is, does not hurt the team. He's not using it to manipulate or hurt anyone else. For all we can tell, he's doing it to protect himself and he has that right.” He glanced at Steve. “Right?”

“Of course.”

“And you only got tight about it once we started speculating-”

“Gossiping,” Steve corrected, and Sam laughed.

“Gossiping,” he agreed. “So. What about the relationship bothers you?”

“The relationship.” Steve stopped, and rephrased. “The possibility of a relationship.” His eyes closed. “Even the possibility of a relationship.” The ball hit the ground hard, his feet pounding along at the same speed. “When anyone else on the team has fallen in love or- Or-”

“Or gotten laid,” Sam filled in for him. Steve gave him a look and Sam grinned. “Okay, fine, or found a compatible sexual partner that makes them happy,” Sam amended.

“Thank you.” Steve turned, and Sam smacked the ball out of his hand. “And yes. I always felt, well, glad.”

“Until now,” Sam said. “Even when it looked like Stark and Pepper were hooking up, you didn't seem to sweat it. So what's different here?”

“I don't know.”

“I think you do.” Sam skipped out of reach, and took a shot. “Tony knows who Iron Man is.”

“He's always known that.”

“Intellectually, you may have known that, Steve, but I think this drove it home. Because if their relationship is sexual,” Sam said, “then that means that Tony's getting something that Iron Man is holding back from you, and I don't mean sex. I mean an intimacy that he's denying the rest of the team.” He dribbled a wide arc around Steve. “It was one thing when Tony HAD to know who Iron Man was, wasn't it? But the suggestion of a sexual relationship, that changes things.”

“It shouldn't,” Steve said, but his heart was pounding, heavy and hard, and he gritted his teeth. It felt, for all the world, like the start of an asthma attack, something he was seventy plus years removed from. But the terror was there, he'd never be rid of the terror.

“I think we all, to varying degrees, feel a little hurt,” Sam said. “Cause, you know, Stark know something we don't know, Stark has something we don't get.”

“They're my friends, and I should be happy for them!”

It came out too loud, too violent, the words cracking through the air, and they both froze at the unexpected loss of control. Sam paused, the ball resting lightly between his hip and his wrist, his long fingers just barely ghosting over the rubber. His head tipped to the side, his eyes narrowing, just a bit as he studied Steve's face. “Maybe,” he said, very quietly. “Unless there's another reason you're conflicted about their relationship.”

Steve took a deep breath, and it shuddered along the length of his body. For an instant, they just stared at each other, their eyes locked, and Steve felt his shoulders go tight.

“Unless it's not his friendship that you're worried about losing,” Sam said, in the mounting silence.

Steve swallowed a faint sense of nausea. “And if I'm in love with him, is that a problem?” It came out harder than he'd expected, aggressive and strident. And just like that, he was back in one of a hundred dirty alleys, small and angry and sure he was never going to fit in, was never going to be normal. The fear of being exposed, of being discovered was still there, screaming in the back of his head, telling him to stay quiet, to stay hidden, to stay safe.

Because exposure meant disaster.

Sam considered him. “See, the thing is,” he said, his voice quiet, “I could take offence at that. I could make this about me, my hurt feelings and my sense of entitlement, my right to know things about you that you might not feel comfortable sharing. It would be easy enough.”

He brought his hands up, the ball cradled easily in his fingers. “Or I could say, thank you for trusting me. I know that had to have been hard. I know that you took a risk, exposing something this personal. I don't want you to ever regret telling me this, so if I ever do or say anything that hurts you, or makes you uncomfortable, I need you to tell me, so I can stop.”

He smiled. “You are my friend, and I love you, and I will do whatever I can to make sure that you feel safe when you're with me.”

The ball dropped straight through the hoop, barely rustling the net as it passed through. Sam snagged it on the rebound, and set it carefully on the ground. “Now, tell me the truth,” he said, meeting Steve's eyes with a level gaze. “How long have you been waiting for someone to say those words to you? Words you didn't even know you needed, until you heard 'em just now?”

Steve stared at him, his throat closing up, his eyes burning. He sucked in a breath, and it shuddered through him like a sob.

“How long?” Sam repeated, and Steve's head fell forward.

“A long time,” he said, his voice shaking. “God. A-” He scraped a hand over his face, hard enough to hurt.

“I'd like to hug you, but I would understand if you would prefer I don't. You okay with that?”

Steve reached out, blind and helpless, and Sam met him halfway. “Okay,” Sam said, his arms closing around Steve's shoulders. “It's okay, man. It's okay. We're fine. Thank you.”

Steve was half laughing, half sobbing against Sam's shoulder. “Shouldn't I be the one who needs to say that?” he managed, his voice shaking.

“Depends.” Sam's grip on the back of his neck was firm, strong, and Steve sank into it. “Do you feel better, now that you said it?”

Steve nodded, and pulled himself away. “Yes.”

“Good.” Sam tipped his head towards the bench. “That was stressful. I gotta sit down now.”

The laugh was faint, and a bit watery at the edges, but it felt real. “Thanks, Sam.”

Sam threw an arm around Steve's shoulders. “You don't have to tell anyone anything, we respect your privacy, Steve, but I don't think anyone would think differently of you.” He paused. “Okay, Clint would probably try hitting on you, just because he could.”

“Clint does that anyway,” Steve said, shaking his head.

Sam dropped onto the bench, his hands braced on either side of his hips. “Yeah, I sometimes wonder how many people on the team he's slept with.”

“I don't want to think about it.” Steve dropped his head into his hands. “So that, that was pretty awkward, wasn't it?”

Sam pulled a water bottle from his bag. “Hey,” he said, “when you do a big reveal, you do a BIG reveal.” His eyes slid in Steve's direction as he took a quick chug of water. “So, question. Which 'him' were you talking about?” he asked, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand and holding the bottle out to Steve.

Steve took a gulp. “I don't know where that came from, to be honest. I'm not in love with him.”

“Okay,” Sam agreed, easily. “Which one aren't you in love with?”

Steve swallowed. “I don't know.” Because now that he'd given voice to the nameless terror, he couldn't quite manage to silence it again. The thought, the concept, was suddenly all he could think about, and it was both of them, and this wasn't good.

Sam nodded, slowly, crossing his arms over his chest. “Steve.” His head tipped in Steve's direction, his mouth stretching in a crooked grin. “This is some soap opera shit right here, you know that, right?”

“This is why I didn't want to tell you,” Steve said, making Sam laugh. He shook his head. “I am well aware of how crazy I sound.” He stood, nervous energy humming over his nerve endings. “I can't explain it. I've never been so-” He waved a hand through the air. “Inconsistent.”

He shook his head, pacing now, his feet quick on the floor. “How could I think of being in love with Tony, we have nothing in common, and how could I even think I'm in love with someone, when I don't know who he really is?” Steve asked.

“Except you are.”

“No.” Steve's eyes closed. “Maybe. Maybe I'm just-” His shoulders slumped. “Confused.”

“Confused how?”

Steve sucked in a breath. “Some days, most days, I fit with Iron Man like I never have with anyone else, except maybe Bucky. He knows what I'm thinking, before I think it. I trust him. I dread heading out without him. Not because I don't trust everyone else on the team, but somehow, when he's there-” He struggled with the words. “It's easier. I feel more stable, more confident when he's there.” He shook his head, his feet still moving. Sam watched him, his eyes tracking Steve's movements. “Most days.

“Other days, it's like I don't know him at all. He can turn distant and unreadable in the blink of an eye and I never know who I'm going to get, and I don't know what I've done to make it happen.” His hands formed fists at his sides. “I want to ask what I've done wrong, and before I can, it's all over, and he's back. Like he never left, like it never happened.”

Steve scooped the ball up with one hand and took a shot without taking time to aim. It dropped into the hoop anyway. Steve caught it as it bounced across the floor and dribbled it between his hands. “But there are times when I want to ask him, anyway.”

Sam was silent and Steve was grateful. “Then there's Tony. Who's always just what he seems, always there, and he's warm and he's full of heat, and-” He swallowed, his face heating. “Maybe it's just sex. Just desire. Just-” He threw the ball, too hard, an expression of frustration that shocked him. The ball hit, hard, with a sharp clang. “I know Tony. Tony, at least, isn't hiding from me. Maybe I just want that.”

He looked at Sam. “I don't know anymore.”

Sam nodded. “Would it change anything,” he said, the words careful, “if you knew who Iron Man was?”

“I don't know.” Steve rubbed his twitching hands on his thighs. “Sam, does it matter? If it's Rhodes or Pepper or Happy or someone we've never met? Chances are pretty good, who ever Iron Man is, he and Stark are-” His throat tightened. “Not available.”

“That's just team gossip, and you know it,” Sam said. “Maybe we shouldn't put any actual weight to it.” He leaned back, his head falling back. “I'd really like you to sit down with a SHIELD therapist. Or, if you don't trust SHIELD, I know a couple I can recommend, but I want you to be able to talk to someone who isn't invested in this.”

Steve sucked in a breath. “I'll think about it.”

Sam pumped a fist in the air. “I'll take that as a victory!” he said, and Steve laughed.

“Hey, Sam?” He met Sam's eyes. “That was.” He stopped, swallowed. “Thanks. For what you said.”

Sam rolled to his feet. “Thanks for extending me that much trust.” He grabbed his bag and tossed his free arm over Steve's shoulders. “I'm not listening to you whine about your confusing love life, just so we're aware, that's not happening, no.”

Steve's eyebrows arched, even as they headed out of the gym. “Really?”

“One hundred percent.”

Steve nodded. “Sam, do you have any idea how long I've been listening to you moon over Agent Brand?”

Sam fell silent as they continued up the hall, his mouth pursing up as he considered that. “Okay, so I'll listen to your confusing love life a little.”

“I can't tell you how happy I am to hear that,” Steve deadpanned, and Sam gave him a shove. Laughing, Steve punched the elevator button, and it dinged almost instantly.

The elevator door opened, and it was already occupied.

Steve had a single moment to realize that the couple was caught in the act of a very passionate kiss, and then Rhodey and Pepper sprang apart, their faces almost comically guilty. “Sorry,” Steve said, as they all stared at one another. Rhodey was possibly wearing more of Pepper's lipstick than she was.

Sam's hand clamped down on his elbow. “We'll take the stairs! Enjoy yourselves!” he said, and he dragged Steve away from the elevator.

Only once they were in the stairway, the door closed firmly behind them, did they both stop, and stare at each other. “Huh,” Sam said.

“Now I'm just confused,” Steve said.

“I thought-”

“So did I.”

“But-

“I know!”

Sam pointed a finger at him. “This is some SOAP OPERA SHIT,” he said.

“I'm going to go for a run,” Steve said.

“Anything to get out of this place before I lose my mind.”

*

Chapter Text

“What are you doing up here?”

Steve had heard him coming, heard the burn of the repulsors, before he spoke. Now, he tipped his head back. “Waiting for you,” he said. “And enjoying the view.”

He loved the roof, the swirling landing pad that Tony had installed to allow Iron Man to come and go with total freedom. Steve loved the view, loved the sensation of height and freedom he got from sitting here, looking out over the city, loved feeling both isolated from and connected to New York.

Mostly, he loved that Tony let him use it. Sometimes, if he hovered out here long enough, with a cup of coffee or a sketchpad, Tony would emerge from the penthouse to join him. Not always, but often enough that Steve tried it every couple of days.

And, of course, it was the best place to catch Iron Man. To have a moment of privacy that didn't involve the team, or anyone else.

“You all right?” Steve asked, as Iron Man came down for a landing next to him. “I expected you back before now.”

“I was enjoying the sunset. Didn't think we needed much of a debrief today,” Iron Man said.

Steve nodded. “I thought maybe you heard something from Tony.”

Iron Man shook his head. “Everything's quiet on that front. I got an earful about Sam's wing harness, but other than that, I think he's distracted.”

Steve had wondered why he hadn't come out. But that explained a lot. “Any problems with the negotiations?” he asked.

“Now, that's classified, Cap. Can't be giving away the company secrets.”

“Oh,” Steve said, and even as he said it, something slotted into place in his head. Something that made all of this so much easier. “It's you.”

Iron Man's head turned in his direction, tipping forward as he considered Steve's face. “It's me,” he repeated back, and there was humor in the words, there was .warmth and familiarity to them. “Big as life, twice as awesome.”

Steve's lips twitched up. “Did you get hit in the head today? I mean, I try to keep an eye on you, but-”

“I think that's my line.” Iron Man headed over to lean on the railing next to him. He folded his arms, metal on metal, ignoring the city below them, his attention on Steve. “You all right, Cap?”

Steve nodded. “I just- I've been thinking over the last few days.” He pushed himself upright. “I need to ask you a question.”

“All right,” Iron Man said, not even straightening up. “Shoot.”

“It's rude.”

“Wow. Now I want to hear it even more,” Iron Man said. “I mean. I want to know what you'd consider a rude question. Do you not like my haircut?”

“Pretty sure that's not anything I have a problem with.” He sucked in a breath, the cold night air clearing his head in a single inhalation. “What's your relationship with Tony?”

Iron Man went still. “Huh,” he said, as the silence stretched. Slowly, he pushed away from the railing. “When you decide to ask the hard questions, you don't mess around, do you?”

“Making up for lost time, I guess,” Steve said. And then he said no more, letting Iron Man think on it, letting him decide what to say, and how to say it. Instead, he retreated to the broad ledge that ran along the building, back away from the railing. Steve sat down, leaning his head back.

Iron Man's fingers flexed against his leg, and the sound of metal on metal, the flex of the plates and the joints, was as familiar to Steve as the man's voice, or his laugh. “My relationship with Mr. Stark is...” Iron Man paused, and his knuckles scraped against the metal of his thigh. “Complicated.”

“Yes,” Steve agreed.

“Why do you ask?” Iron Man asked. Steve glanced at him, but there was no hint to be found on Iron Man's face, on that flat and empty faceplate.

“Because so's mine,” Steve said. He sucked in a breath, and forced himself to hold his gaze on the slits that hid Iron Man's eyes.

“You're friends,” Iron Man said, his head tipping to the side. “At least, I thought you were?”

“We are.” Steve smiled. “But I think it's more. At least on my part.” He cast about for the words, for the right words, for the words that could uncomplicate the whole matter, even if he suspected that they didn't exist. “So I need to know what they are on your part.”

Iron Man leaned forward, head swinging around to look out over the city. “You've lost me, Cap. I'm not trying to be obtuse, here, but, I am lost right now.” He shook his head. “You're gonna have to be a little bit more blunt with me, since we're being blunt.”

His mouth was dry. This felt wrong, but right, in a way that he couldn't define. Steve stared down at the glittering lights of New York. “I was lost, for a long time,” he said, his voice quiet. “When I was...” His lips twitched up. “Defrosted,” he continued, his voice wry, “I was so alone that I never thought I'd ever feel like part of something again. I'd lost so much, Shellhead. That the idea of gaining something was just...” His head fell back, his eyes searching the sky for some of the stars that he'd seen as a child. But the light pollution was so much worse now. The sky might not have changed, in the last hundred years, but the earth below it definitely had.

He looked back to Iron Man. “I value you. I need you. I love you.” He stopped, and it felt right to say that. “And even knowing that, I still want him.”

Iron Man was still. “You... Want him,” he said, his voice strangled, even with the mechanical overlay, there was an audible note of confusion, or of pain, there. “You, and T- Mr. Stark.”

Steve took a breath. “Yes.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Iron Man stood. “Why not- Why not him? Why are you-”

He twisted away, his feet coming down so hard that Steve almost expected to see sparks thrown up with each step. “Because you love him,” Steve said. “Don't you?”

“What? You-” Iron Man turned back to him. “He's pretty loveable, Steve, it's a thing, he's-” He stopped, his hands coming up, hands out and open, fingers flexing. “Okay. Let's start over.” He sat down next to Steve. “Look, I know that Mr. Stark has been...” He stopped, and his fingers rattled against his knee. “Teasing you. About the three of us having-”

“Having sex?” Steve asked. Because if he was going to do this, he had to get over the sense of shame that still clung to his brain, the fear of being exposed, of being discovered. His face felt hot, but it was cold out, the night wind still brisk, enough to give him some cover. “Having a threeway?”

“Wow, that wasn't even on my bucket list,” Iron Man said. “Hearing Captain America say threeway. Saying threeway to me. Never even considered that would be a possibility.”

“Brave new world for everyone,” Steve said, and Iron Man laughed.

“Yeah, it is.” He inhaled, the sound audible through his speaker. “Steve. Ignore him. I'll, I don't know, I'll speak to him, tell him to knock it off, if you don't want to, but you don't have to do this, you don't have to humor him. He's not-” There was a pause. “He's not serious,” he said, and there was a note to his voice that Steve couldn't identify. “He's not going to pressure you into having sex with him.”

Steve had never wanted to see his face more than he did at that moment. “I didn't think he would,” he said, picking his way carefully through the words. “I figured... I thought, well, I thought you were like me.”

“Like you?”

“That you wanted him enough to risk it,” Steve said.

Iron Man was still. “You think we're fucking.”

“Yes,” Steve said.

“You think-” Iron Man leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands. “Okay. Suddenly, this makes a lot more sense.”

“Glad someone's getting things straight,” Steve said, with a morbid sort of amusement.

“You think we're lovers,” Iron Man said, and there was a giddy sort of amusement to the words. “God, Steve, you really think-”

“Everyone does,” Steve said.

“EVERYONE does?” Iron Man asked.

Steve shrugged. “Yes.”

Iron Man pressed a hand to his faceplate. “Everyone?”

“Everyone,” Steve agreed.

“But Mr. Stark isn't-” Iron Man stopped. “He isn't actually subtle about his trysts.”

“No, he's not. So I thought you knew. And were... All right with it,” Steve said. He sucked in a breath. “I thought you might be okay with, well, me. Being one of them.”

“Are you asking my permission to-”

“No!” Steve held up his hands. “No. I'm-” He sucked in a breath. “Iron Man. I'm asking if I'll ruin what we have, our... Our relationship,” he said, because there was no other word to use. “If I ask him. If I ask him, will that ruin what I have with you, because...” His voice trailed away. “I love you.”

“And him.”

“I don't know,” Steve said. His eyes closed. “Probably.”

They both fell to silence, and Iron Man turned away, pushing himself up. Steve stared straight ahead, his hands in fists on his knees, mourning a loss that he didn't even have time to absorb before Iron Man spoke again. “You want a tryst, or something more?”

Steve thought about that. Thought about the heat of Tony's skin, the heat of his eyes, of his smile. Thought of the way that Tony's body fit against his, fit under his, when they hit the mats in the gym. He thought of the way Tony's voice rose and fell, how it got low and silken when he was flirting, or even when he was tired. Steve thought of the way his arms flexed, the way his body moved.

Thought of the the way he wanted, how he woke from dreams filled with heat and need and the teasing, wicked touches of fingers that he'd never known.

“Do you love him?”

Steve stood. “I won't ask him. For more,” he added. “If I'll be hurting you when I do it. I-” He managed a smile. “I need you, too.”

Iron Man turned to face him, and Steve caught a hint of his own reflection in the flat, gold expanse of the helmet's faceplate. “What if I want you, too?” Iron Man asked, and the shudder caught Steve off guard. “What if-” He reached out, and the touch of his gauntlet covered fingers was cool and hard and impersonal against Steve's jaw. Despite that, Steve's heartbeat accelerated, his breathing coming in hard, quick pants.

“What if?” he repeated, and his voice was raw on the words.

“What if I want you, and he doesn't?” Iron Man asked. His hand swept along the line of Steve's neck, and Steve's head fell to the side, giving him the access he wanted. “What if we both want you?”

Breathing was hard. Thinking was impossible. “I-” His eyes fell shut. “You wouldn't. You- Wouldn't let me.”

The hand stilled, and then, the pad of Iron Man's thumb stroked over the line of Steve's adam's apple. “Usually, I wouldn't,” he said, and Steve wasn't entirely certain that he knew he was speaking. The words were almost a whisper, through the speakers. “But for you... God. For you, I might.”

The sound Steve made was almost a whimper, high and thin and so needy that it was a humiliation. Iron Man snatched his hand back, and Steve stumbled back a step. For an instant, they just stared at each other. Steve pressed a shaking hand to his face. “I shouldn't have-”

“Yeah, you should have,” Iron Man said, interrupting him. Steve looked up, and was suddenly aware of just how much his body had reacted. His erection was painful, and he realized, a little too late, that he was still in the damn uniform. That he hadn't even changed before he'd started this.

“Do you trust me?” Iron Man asked, his voice quiet.

“Yes.” There was no pause, the word just came, instant and true.

A faint chuckle. “You shouldn't.”

The smile caught him off guard, but it felt right on his face. It felt normal, and natural, and right. “I do a lot of things I shouldn't do,” he admitted. “But I don't think this is one of them.”

Iron Man nodded. “Close your eyes.”

Steve didn't question it. He didn't question any of this. He just let his eyelids fall shut, let his head fall forward.

There was the hiss, one of the seals on the suit giving way, and Steve's breath left him at the same time, leaving him empty and shaking. Almost dizzy with it, almost hollow, he just stood there, waiting. He'd expected a kiss. The touch of lips, of breath, he'd braced himself to hold still, to be kissed and to kiss and his pulse was loud in his ears as he waited for it.

The touch, when it came, was not what he had expected.

A single finger stroked over the plane of his cheekbone, light and delicate and almost tentative, and the warmth of skin on skin was so shocking that his whole body arched. His eyelids twitched, but he kept them shut with a force of will. He just stood there, swaying on his feet, as Iron Man touched him, for the first time. So small a thing, so delicate, almost innocent, and his head swam with pleasure.

Slowly, carefully, the fingers slid against his skin, the tips rough and the touch tentative. Steve twisted into it, his mouth falling open as Iron Man's hand cupped his face, his palm settling against Steve's cheek. It was almost too much, and he barely realized what he was doing as he turned his face into the cradle of that palm, his lips pressing against the skin.

Letting his breath shudder into Iron Man's hand, not a kiss, but somehow, far more intimate.

The fingers slid away from him, and he wanted to follow them, he wanted to grab and cling and take, and he forced himself still. Forced himself to stand there, shaking, his hands in fists at his sides, his mouth open and gulping at the air.

His desperation, his need, his base need had to be all over his face, and he struggled against the sense of humiliation.

“I can't do this,” Iron Man said, his voice strangled. He sounded like he was in pain, and Steve felt a wicked sense of satisfaction. Maybe it wasn't just he who was aching right now, who wanted things that he should not want, that he couldn't have.

“I wasn't stopping you,” Steve said, his eyes very carefully still closed.

“Yeah, but you should've been.” Steve could hear the clatter of metal, of the armor being put to rights, and he wondered how it all came apart. How much Iron Man would have to strip it off before he could find some relief from the heat of his own need.

He knew thinking about this was wrong, but he couldn't help it.

“You don't even know who I am,” Iron Man said “You shouldn't- It's not right.”

“I might not know who you are,” Steve said. “But... I know you. I know it's you, today. Sometimes, it's not. I figured that out, something in my head knows. Knows when it's not you. There's a hesitation, it's tiny, it's not even a real hesitation, but it's there. Before I move-”

“Before you throw yourself out of a plane?” Iron Man asked, his words wry.

“Before that.” Steve smiled. “Sometimes. I hesitate. I never knew why. But that's what it is. Sometimes, you're not... You.” He exhaled, and the pleasure and pain were swirling through him, the need clawing at his mind. He smiled anyway. “Sometimes, it's someone else in there. Not often. But I know you.”

His eyes opened. “I know you,” he whispered. “I know... You.”

Iron Man leaned in. “You need to find someone who can give you everything. And that's not me. And it's not Stark, either.” He turned away. “You need to- Find someone better.”

Steve watched him go, and it didn't feel like rejection, somehow. If felt like the start of something entirely new, something that he didn't have control over, some force of nature.

He smiled. “I don't think I can.”

Iron Man said nothing. He just hit the edge of the roof and took off. Steve watched him, his own shooting star, and his knees went out from under him. He collapsed back, his whole body shaking. “And even if I could, I'm sure I don't want to.”

He wasn't sure how threeways worked. But he wasn't shocked to find out that he was willing to learn.

*

“Good morning, heading to work, no time to eat,” Tony said, breezing through the shared kitchen, his jacket slung over his shoulder.

He'd expected to find Steve and Sam at the kitchen table, both of them were early risers. Barton, that was more of a surprise. He didn't mind. At this point, he didn't mind anything that could distract him, could keep him from crawling over the table and shoving Steve down.

He had to get out of here before he lost his mind.

Tony paused, considering Clint, who was flopped face down on the table, one arm thrown out in front of him, his fingers locked in a death grip on a coffee cup. Tony looked at the other two, an eyebrow arched. “Is he... Did he jog? Really? Clint?”

“Fuck you, Stark,” Clint mumbled into the tabletop, and Steve ducked his head to hide a smile. Sam didn't bother.

“Hey, cut the guy some slack,” he said, slicing a banana into his cereal. “He just got in.”

Tony reached out and patted Clint lightly on the shoulder. “Late night, huh?” Clint's free hand came up. Tony studied the raised middle finger. “What did you break?” he asked. “Or more to the point..” He arched his eyebrows. “What am I paying for?”

“Nothing,” Steve said, at the same time as Clint said, “Screw you, Stark.”

“His language is improving,” Tony said. He slipped his suit jacket over his shoulders, smoothing the fabric into place with an easy flick of his hands.

“Hey, it can't possibly get any worse, man,” Sam said, and Clint raised his head, just far enough to aim one bloodshot eye in Sam's direction. Sam grinned at him. “We'll pour him into bed, try to keep him from bleeding on anything,” he said to Tony.

“I would appreciate that,” Tony said, tipping his head back. He snugged the knot of his tie up against his throat, making sure it lay flat before snapping the tie tack into place. “He's bled on a lot of my things, it's getting to be a problem.”

“I hate you all,” Clint mumbled.

“Is that any way to talk to the guys who're gonna be covering for you in SHIELD meetings today?” Sam asked him. “'Cause that's harsh.”

“Steve's covering. I love Steve. The rest of you can go to hell,” Clint said.

“I was gonna cover, then I realized I got better things to do,” Sam agreed.

“And I'm going to be closeted in my office all day,” Tony said. He paused. “Also, I don't like you.”

Clint made kissy noises at him, and Tony laughed.

“Busy day?” Steve asked, sipping his coffee.

Tony avoided his eyes; more out of self preservation than anything else. “Another day, another million,” he said, his voice light. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a streak of red and gold slice across the skyline, glinting in the morning sunlight beyond the windows.

Steve saw it too. “Iron Man going to be guarding you?”

Tony's brow furrowed. “Guarding me? Why? I'm not leaving the building.” He grinned at Steve, wide and warm. “I don't need him clomping around my office all morning.”

Steve frowned. “Any update on the situation?” he asked, and Tony sighed. Sam didn't say a word, but his eyes narrowed, picking up on the unspoken currents of the conversation with his usual skill.

“We're finishing negotiations. As soon as this is done, so's the threat.” Tony snagged a cup of coffee. “He'll be with Pepper today. I don't need him.” He glanced at Steve, his head tipped forwards, his eyes narrowed. “That is, if that's all right with you, Cap.”

Steve's mouth went tight, but he nodded. “Tell us if your plans change,” he said, and it wasn't a request.

Tony tried to tell himself that it wasn't a turn on, that the whole messed up situation wasn't a turn on, but he caught himself smiling anyway. “Aw, worried about me, Cap?”

“Think I've got reason, don't you?” Steve stood, picking up his dishes. He paused in front of Tony, close enough to touch, almost close enough to kiss. It wouldn't take much, just a small shift forward, a tip of his chin, his fingers on Tony's jaw. Close enough that Tony could swear he could feel the heat of Steve's body through his suit. Steve didn't seem to notice, he just arched an eyebrow. “You've missed more hand to hand sessions than you've made in the last month.”

Tony reached out with his free hand and patted Steve lightly in the center of his chest. The thin cotton of his t-shirt was slightly damp, and only the barest barrier between Tony's hand and his skin. “I think you have enough problems without adding me to your list, Steve.” He pulled his hand away, latching it to the handle of his coffee cup to keep himself out of trouble. “I'm a big boy. I can take care of myself.”

Steve was silent, and Sam let out a sigh. “No man's an island, Stark,” he said, pushing himself up. He kicked the leg of Clint's chair. “Up. Or I'm getting Romanov.”

Clint stumbled to his feet. “Hate,” he said, even as he threw his arms around Sam's neck.

“Yeah, I'm getting that.”

“Sir,” Jarvis said, his voice smooth as ever. “I do not mean to interrupt, but Iron Man is waiting for you in your office, and Ms. Potts-”

“Will be here soon, yeah, I know, thanks, Jay.” Tony tossed back the rest of his coffee in a couple of quick gulps. “Tell him I'll be down in five.”

“Yes, sir.”

Tony gave a wave, and headed for the elevators. “See you tonight, if everything goes well.”

“If everything goes well?” Steve echoed.

Tony shrugged. “If everything doesn't go well, I'm going to be out hustling for more contracts. Or drinking.” He flicked them a two fingered salute, and slipped out the door.

As soon as he was safely on the elevators, he slumped against the wall, letting his head fall back. “Thanks for bringing the armor around, Jay,” he said. He scrubbed a hand over his face. “Have it prepped and ready?”

“Of course,” Jarvis said. “Stealth mode?”

“No, they saw him come in, and they'll see him leave. Keep my office locked down, rout any calls over to the armor HUD or my cell, and let me know if anyone tries to break in.” The elevator came to a stop, doors opening to the StarkIndustries offices. Tony stepped out, nodding at the receptionist.

“Good morning, sir,” she said, smiling at him. “There's personal correspondence waiting for you, if you'd like it. Heading to R&D today?”

“Sadly, I've got paperwork to see to, I'll be in my office,” he said, taking a pile of letters from her.

“Ms. Arbogast is still down in HR today,” she said. “Do you require-”

Tony waved her off. “No reason for anyone else to be bored along with me.”

“Understood. Please let us know if you need any assistance today,” she said.

“Thank you, if anyone comes looking for me, tell them I'm not here,” Tony said, tucking the bundle of envelopes under his elbow.

“You picked a good day for that,” she said, even as the phone started to ring. “Most of the executive staff are either prepping for the last round of negotiations, or out of the office today.”

“Just the way I like it.” With a final wave, Tony headed for his office. It was as quiet as she'd promised, with only a handful of people crossing his path before he made it. He nodded and smiled, exchanged a few pleasantries, and in a matter of minutes, he was in his office, shutting the door behind him. He set the lock with a sense of relief.

He tossed the mail at the desk, and his coat on top of it. “Jarvis, anyone down in the workshop?”

“No, sir, your path is clear,” Jarvis said, his voice calm.

“Yay,” Tony said, yanking his tie off and flinging it in the direction of his chair. “Crack open the secret passage, Jay, and let's blow this joint.

A panel on one of the interior walls flexed, then slid back and out of the way with a faint hiss of hydrolics. He'd engineered the elevator as small as he could make it, just big enough for one person, or two if they had no personal space requirements. It was a straight shot from his office to the workshop, a tidy little bolt hole that he'd put in when this secret identity stupidity was barely a half-formed idea.

He stepped out of the elevator, and Jarvis resealed it behind him. The armor was waiting, the panels unfurling as he strode towards it. A moment later, it was closing around him, the mechanics locking it into place around him, going solid around his limbs.

Tony's arms flexed, his legs, finding his balance as the HUD flickered to life inside the helmet. “All systems at full power, ready for flight,” Jarvis said, and Tony was off and running

One step, two, and the repulsors fired, pushing him up and away. Jarvis opened the doors for him, giving him a clear shot towards the brilliant blue morning sky. The first moment of complete freedom, when he shed gravity and the limitations of his body and every nagging doubt and just flew, it was like sex, it was like alcohol, it was the best thing he'd ever known.

That first moment, when there was nothing but the wide open sky, and no limitations, was worth every struggle, every moment of pain, every fear he still carried. It was everything, and he pushed the armor straight up, as fast as he dared, streaking through the sky with no destination other than 'up.'

He climbed, straight for the sun, until he reached the upper limits of the armor's capabilities, until the alarms were blaring all around him, and then he cut the repulsors, letting gravity catch hold of him and drag him back down again. He savored the freefall for a moment, the weight of the armor and his bones, before he fired the repulsors again, rolling out of the dive and back on course.

It was stupid, but some days, he felt like he deserved to just be able to fly.

He shot across the city, slipping between buildings, skimming over the tops of streetlights, slowing down to wave at children and cabbies and cops, darting above traffic, following the streets and finding paths between the buildings. Outrunning everything, even his own brain.

Jarvis cleared his non-existant throat. “Sir, Ms. Potts will be leaving for work soon. If you would like to speak to her, perhaps-”

“All work and no play, huh, Jarvis?”

“Heaven forbid any work be accomplished at all, sir.”

“Yeah, I'm making note of that tone of yours,” Tony said, even as he triggered the outgoing call. It connected in two rings, and he said, “Good morning!”

“Good morning, Tony, what do you want?”

“It's a lovely morning, isn't it? How're you doing? How's Rhodey?” he asked, making his voice as bright and chipper as he could.

“What do you want?” Pepper asked, suspicion heavy in the words.

“Potts, I am wounded. I am, I am just mortally wounded over here, I am trying to show some empathy, some understanding for your personal life, for you as a PERSON and not just as an employee, and-”

“You make my head hurt,” she said.

“Point taken.” Grinning, Tony flung the suit sideways, his back arching as he whipped around the corner of a building. Pushing himself a little harder, a little faster, he shot straight up, letting his stomach almost skim the contours of the building until roared past the roof, his body spinning in a tight spiral. “I miss you. Let's meet for breakfast.”

“Let's not.”

Tony cut the repulsors, letting himself go into freefall and re-initiating them just before he would've crashed into the roof. “Let's.” His feet touched down, one than the other, both feather light. “How's Rhodey?”

There was a long moment of silence. “Are you on my roof?”

“I'm on your roof,” Tony agreed. The silence stretched. He spread his hands out. “Let's have breakfast!”

“I can't,” she said, her voice frosty. “I have meetings.”

“You know I'm going to call your bluff, Potts, let's just-”

The roof door opened, and Rhodey leaned out. “You are an ass,” he said.

Tony eyed him. Rhodey was wearing nothing but a pair of Air Force sweatpants, his bare chest gleaming in the early morning light. “You done good, Potts,” he said over the comm.

“Thank you,” she said, and he could hear the smirk. “Don't hit on him. You had your chance.”

“Move your shiny metal ass,” Rhodey said, and Tony was laughing as he wandered into the stairwell. Once the door was safely shut and secured, he popped the face plate.

“Good morning, honey bunch,” he said.

“Give me one good reason not to push you down these stairs,” Rhodey said.

“Insurance premiums are high enough already.”

“You'll buff the dents out of the armor yourself.”

“I meant Pepper's homeowner's insurance, I'd sue her ass.” Tony grinned at him. “Breakfast?”

“I should've tossed you in the Charles when I had the chance,” Rhodey said, but he was smiling, too.

“There's always the Hudson.”

Down at he bottom of the staircase, the penthouse door opened. “Will both of you just get your asses down here so I can reset the security system that Tony, in his infinite wisdom, decided to set off?” Pepper called up.

“She's sweet,” Tony said.

“Move,” Rhodey told him, his lips twitching.

Pepper was waiting for them, a coffee cup in her hand. Tony made a grab for it, and she held it over her head. “Uninvited guests get bread and water,” she said, handing it to Rhodey. She was in a crisp blue suit, perfectly made up and ready to go, but barefoot on the plush carpet.

“I'll take a few slices of toast and a Perrier on ice, with a twist of lime,” Tony agreed, releasing the latches on the armor. It parted with a hiss and almost inaudible slide of metal on metal. He stepped out of it, stretching as he went.

“Pushing it, Stark.” Rhodey took the cup from Pepper, leaning in for a kiss when he did. Grinning, Tony headed for the kitchen. Might as well help himself while they were distracted.

By the time they caught up to him, Tony was happily ensconced at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a muffin. “These are horrible,” he said, popping a chunk of it into his mouth. He made a face. “Is it bran? Is it wheat? Is it dirt?”

“It's vegan,” Pepper said. She lowered herself into the seat next to him.

“Gluten free and vegan,” Rhodey said. He peered at the coffee pot. “Did you finish this?”

“I started a new pot, I'm not a savage,” Tony said.

“I've had enough anyway,” Pepper said. She looked at Tony. “I do have meetings.”

He made a face that wasn't completely about the muffin. “Do I have meetings?”

“I should make you have meetings, you deserve to have meetings. But I do not deserve to deal with the aftermath of your meetings.” She smiled, her eyes dancing as she stole a piece of his muffin. “How're the upgrades to the energy transfer protocols going?”

“Ahead of schedule. I,” he said, holding the muffin out to Rhodey, who took a corner as well, “am a genius.”

“That,” she said, “was not in doubt.” Her phone chirped, and she sighed. “That's my final warning, I'm afraid.” She rolled to her feet, leaning over to drop a kiss on Rhodey's lips. He tipped his head back, following the warmth of her lips until she finally pulled away, her cheeks pink. “Do me a favor,” she told him. “Make sure that you remove him from the premises before you leave.”

“I'm right here,” Tony said, with a mouthful of muffin. “Right here.”

“I'll do my best.” Rhodey gave Tony a sideways look. “Might have to call security.”

“Wouldn't be the first time,” Tony said. He toasted Rhodey with his mug. “Won't be the last, either.”

“You're a mess,” Pepper told him, but she ruffled his hair, the gesture strangely affectionate. Tony batted at her hand, making a token effort to shoo her away.

“Respect the hair!” he said.

“Oh, yes, the rat's nest deserves respect,” she said.

“You should've seen it when he was perming it,” Rhodey said.

“That never happened,” Tony said, holding up his hands as Pepper gaped at Rhodey. Rhodey smirked at Tony. “Pepper. The man lies. He is a base, vile liar, no such thing ever occurred, and-”

“And I'm going to have to wait for tonight to hear the whole story,” she said. “But thank you, Colonel, that visual will sustain me through this very difficult day of finalizing financial negotiations.”

“Crush them,” Rhodey said.

Pepper made a face. “You know what would help me with that?” she asked, snagging her purse from the counter. “Pictures. Pictures of Tony with a perm.”

“Those are classified, matters of national security,” Rhodey said.

“Never happened!” Tony said, his head falling back. “Go knock 'em dead, Potts!”

“I'll do my best. Stay out of trouble, both of you.” With a smile and a flip of her hair, she was out the door and gone.

“So,” Tony said, as the coffee pot beeped. Rhodey stood and headed over, helping himself to a cup. “She seems nice.”

“If you try to take responsibility for this, I will toss you off of the roof,” Rhodey said, holding up a hand. “Just warning you now.”

Tony gave him a wide eyed look. “I had something to do with it.”

“You got out of the way, I'm not sure if that counts for much,” Rhodey said, leaning back against the counter, his arms crossed over his chest.

“I did you a favor,” Tony said, popping a chunk of muffin into his mouth. “Just saying. You owe me.”

“I'm sure you'll call it in at some point,” Rhodey said. “No matter what I say right now.”

“Yeah, about that...”

“About that?” Rhodey asked.

“I'm calling it in now.”

“Of course you are.” But there was a faint smile hovering around Rhodey's mouth. “What have you done now, Tony?”

“It's less about what I've done, and more about who wants to do me.” Rhodey just stared at him, his eyebrows arched, sipping his coffee, and Tony sucked in a breath. “Steve might've propositioned me.”

Rhodey choked on his coffee. Clapping a hand over his mouth, he bent double, coughing as he tried to clear his throat. “Might have?” he managed, his voice raw. “MIGHT have?”

“Might have,” Tony agreed. “Okay, he did.”

Rhodey stared at him, his eyes wide. “Well, then,” he said, the words slow, “how is there a 'might' involved here?”

“Well, he didn't ask me, he asked Iron Man.”

Rhodey set his coffee cup down. “Wait, he propositioned you, or he propositioned Iron Man?”

Tony winced. “It might have been both. I'm not... Sure.”

“How, how can you not be sure?” Rhodey asked.

Tony leaned forward. “This may come as a shock to you,” he said, his teeth flashing in a sharp grin, “but Steve is NOT GOOD at propositioning someone. Especially when he's propositioning the suspected lover of the person he wants to proposition!”

“Suspected lover?” Rhodey asked. “Wait, he-”

“Thinks Tony Stark and Iron Man are fucking? Yes. It would appear that this is exactly what he thinks, and apparently the whole team thinks the same thing,” Tony said. “I resisted the urge to ask if he thinks that Iron Man keeps the damn armor on during these trysts.”

Rhodey stared at him, his mouth hanging open. “Okay,” he said. “I see where he might think that.”

“You see-” Tony scraped a hand over his face. “I don't!”

“You might be a little too close to the situation,” Rhodey mused. He looked at Tony, his dark gaze level. “What did you say?”

“I didn't kiss him.”

Rhodey paused. “I didn't ask if you kissed him, oh, God, Tone, tell me you didn't-”

“I thought about it,” Tony said, his head falling back. “Or maybe I didn't THINK so much as WANT to do it.”

“Tony...”

“I didn't.”

“Because he still doesn't know?”

“What was I supposed to do, whip off my helmet and say, 'Armor on or off for our first time, Cap?'”

Rhodey was silent, and Tony slumped low in his chair. “I've backed myself into a corner,” he said, his voice very soft. “And I don't see a way out.”

Rhodey shook his head. “Tony. You've got two choices. Live there in the corner with your back up against the wall, or walk away.”

“I gotta leave the armor behind, if I do that.”

“No,” Rhodey said, very carefully. “You have to tell someone who's in there.”

“Yeah.” It shouldn't have been as terrifying as it was. He stared at the windows, unseeing, and then Rhodey was in front of him, his hand closing on top of Tony's. Too late, Tony realized his fingers were clawing at the fabric of his shirt, over the unyielding knot of the arc reactor. Rhodey pulled his hand away, but kept their fingers tangled together.

“I know why you hid it at the beginning,” he said, his voice soft. “I know you couldn't trust these people. But that was a long time ago, Tony. Now, you have to ask yourself, are these people on your team, same as Pepper and I? Or are you going to be on the outside for as long as you do this? Are you going to live your life as two people, or are you going to let them see you, flaws and all?”

Tony opened his mouth, but before he could say a word, an alarm started to blare from his phone, one Jarvis reserved for actual emergencies. His stomach dropped, fear a hard, sharp punch to the gut as an alarm started to whine. “Jarvis, what's-”

“There has been an explosion at StarkTower,” Jarvis said.

“Shit,” Rhodey said, and at the same time, Tony said, “How bad?”

“Damage is localized, structural integrity of the building has not been compromised. Systems are offline on several floors, but evacuation has begun on all-”

“Pepper,” Rhodey said, and Tony's vision went white on the edges.

“Ms. Potts is unharmed,” Jarvis said. “She is currently spearheading evacuation from the StarkIndustries offices.”

He was moving, he hadn't even realized, but he was moving, and somewhere behind him, he heard the chair hit the kitchen floor. It echoed in his wake, and he was running full out, straight for the armor. “Jarvis, the Avengers? What happened? Was it the workshop, the lab? An attack?”

“Unable to determine the cause of the explosion at this time,” Jarvis said. There was a beat of silence. “Explosion originated in your office, sir. Damage is contained, but fire suppression systems have been activated to deal with the resulting blaze. Exact number and severity of casualties unknown at this time, but the Avengers are responding.”

Rhodey grabbed his arm. “Your office-”

Tony stared at him, his body swaying on his feet. “They think I'm in there,” he said, his voice coming from a long ways off. “Told them. I'd be in my office.” He wrenched free, ripping his wrist from Rhodey's grip. “Oh, God, they think I'm in there, tell Pepper-”

“On it. Go!”

Tony went.

*

Chapter Text

He didn't know how he got there.

The blare of alarms echoed in his ears, reduced to background noise, the high, sustained whine drowned out by the thump of his heartbeat, by the rush of his breathing. He was talking, but the words made no sense in his ears, he heard them, but they weren't for him. They were for his team, for the people that streamed around them, civilians with pale faces, with panicked eyes, struggling to breathe in the smoky, thick air.

Steve said something, said anything, and they calmed, they moved, they followed orders. He could pick out faces in the crowd, could pick out voices rising and falling, saw Sam go by, a woman carried in his arms, blood on her shirt, on her neck. Wanda floated past, pale pink in the corner of his vision, whispers of magic clearing the age, and the people followed her like the Pied Piper.

Steve slammed the shield into the remains of a door, pushing it back, ripping it open, reaching in with his free hand. The man who came out first had another man on his back, and Carol was there, taking his weight without a flinch, clearing the way for everyone behind them. She said something to Steve, her red lips stark through the smoky air, but he didn't stop, he didn't even pause.

They moved, as a team, and Steve was giving orders he couldn't hear. He just kept moving. He had to keep moving. He knew the way. He'd walked it often enough. He'd walked it, so many times, with Tony next to him, and now, he could hear the echo of Tony's words in his ears, mingling with the wail of the alarms. Now, he scanned every face that passed him, a sick twist of panic rising in him with each step, each unfamiliar form, each new face.

In a matter of minutes, the hallways were empty, except for the smoke that still billowed out, despite the best efforts of the ventilation ducts.

“Jarvis, what are we looking at here?” he snapped, his mouth pressed to his forearm. His throat burned, his lungs, but he could handle the smoke better than most.

“The explosion resulted in several small fires, unknown accelerant involved. Fire suppression systems are handling the flames, but fractures in the exterior windows of sir's office are making it difficult for the ventilation systems to clear the air. Additional time will be required.”

A light fixture sent a rain of sparks down over the damp carpet, and Steve brought the shield up without thinking, muscle memory carrying him forward. Explosion. Explosion. Not an accident. He had to keep reminding himself of that, this wasn't an accident, this was someone trying to kill them, trying to kill Tony. “Where is he?”

Jarvis didn't ask who. “Unknown.”

Steve's eyes squeezed shut. “Is he in there?” he asked, throwing open a door, his eyes sweeping over the empty office. Behind him, the lights flickered, electrical power struggling to stabilize. “Jarvis, where is Tony?”

“Unknown. Systems are damaged. Limited data. Please remain here. Sir's office is structurally unsound.”

“Jarvis-” Through the smoke, coming from the direction of the offices, Steve caught sight of the silhouette of a man, and stopped listening. His footsteps picked up speed, desperation clawing at him. “Tony!”

Two steps forward, three, and his heart sank. The man coming towards him, Pepper right on his heels, wasn't Tony, wasn't anyone that Steve recognized. Steve gave the man a cursory glance, but he was moving on his own power, his steps steady despite the shell-shocked look on his face.

“Steve!” Pepper was close behind him, her face chalky beneath the film of grit. Steve caught her by the shoulder, and her fingers wrapped around his wrist, her grip almost painful. “Get out, we don't know what's happened-”

“Is everyone out?” he asked, even as he pulled her away from the doors. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her into the shelter of his body. She was shaking, faint tremors that rolled through her slim form, but she was moving. Steve's arm tightened, the shield providing what cover he could manage.

Tony had to be gone. He couldn't be in there. Could he? Tony wouldn't have left Pepper. Tony wouldn't have left Pepper alone to handle it, he wouldn't have left his people, he would still be here, with Pepper, forcing Pepper out, or trying. Tony wouldn't have left, until everyone was gone.

“Yes, Bill was the last of them, I couldn't get any further in, it's-” She swallowed. “It's bad. Tony's office is-” Her face twisted, and Steve's breathing hitched.

“Where's Tony?” he asked, the words coming from a long way away. Pepper's mouth opened, then closed, and Steve's stomach dropped, a sickening twist of fear that threatened to knock the legs out from under him. “Pepper, where's Tony?”

“He's not here,” she said, her voice raw. “Steve, everyone's out, there's no one-” She looked back, and he followed her gaze, back to where the smoke still rolled along the ceiling, despite the way the sprinklers were working. Her eyes flicked back to Steve. “He's not here.”

Steve stared at her, his feet still moving. “You're lying,” he said, the words slipping from between numb lips. “Why're you-” His head spinning, his heart pounding in his ears, his head jerked back, looking behind them. And he knew. “He's still in there.”

Her hands locked on his arm, her fingers digging in. “Steve, he's not, I swear, he's not in there. Let's go, we need to get out, the fire department is coming-”

“Cap!” Clint's voice echoed up the hall. “Cap! Jarvis says we're clear, what the hell are you-”

He came into view, and Steve lifted Pepper off of her feet, thrusting her at Clint. Clint stumbled back a step, but he latched onto Pepper with both hands. “Get her out!” Steve snapped. “Go! I'll be right behind you!”

Pepper twisted in Clint's grip. “Steve, don't, don't you DARE, he is NOT IN THERE!”

Steve wasn't listening. He couldn't hear. His brain was screaming at him, screaming that he was too late, that he was always too late. That there was nothing to find, in the flickering flames that was likely all that was left of Tony's office.

But he'd risked more for less of a hope, and he couldn't stop.

Water was pouring from the sprinkler heads, and even with that, it was heat and smoke and the stuff of every nightmare he'd ever had, as tenement dwelling child. He'd dreamed of fire, of smoke, because fire killed and destroyed and fire swept through the old buildings with brutal, unspeakable speed. Fire was a lurking menace at all times, in the narrow, trash filled alleys that carved dark spaces between every rattrap of a building. He'd heard the fire bells and smelled the smoke and like every other kid who'd grown up in the stinking, windowless maze of hallways and stairwells, he'd dreamed of fire.

He breathed in smoke and it was like being asthmatic again. His jaw locked against a cough, the kind of cough that would lead to more and more, until he wasn't going to be able to breathe at all.

Steve went low and moved, ignoring the way the air burned his throat, his nose, his eyes. Behind him, he could hear someone yelling, and he didn't bother to try to decipher the words. They might've had meaning, once, but now, everything disappeared into the smoke, and he could imagine the flames licking alongside his feet with each step.

The shield held high to block any falling debris, he shoved the door open, hoping against hope. “Tony!” The word didn't have any force behind it, his throat was raw and breathing was harder by the second. But he set his feet on the floor and shoved, hard, forcing the door open.

There was little left of Tony's office. Just burnt, shattered remains, the stench of melted plastic and the thick, chemical taste of the smoke. The windows, massive sheets of glass, had cracked under the strain, spiderwebs of fractures running along the surface. The explosion had been violent, ripping apart the furniture and imbedding fragments into the walls and ceiling. The makeshift shrapnel was still deadly, and still ugly.

“Tony!” Steve tried not to look at the remains of the desk, at what had once been Tony's chair. At the charred scraps of carpet and the shards of what might have been a coffee cup, might've been the coffee cup that Tony had carried out of the kitchen this morning.

His foot hit something, and he looked down at the tangle of burned fabric. And knew Pepper was telling the truth. There was no one left alive in here.

The crack of glass brought him around, brought his arm up, the shield at the ready. There was an instant of heat and a rush of air, and then an arm went around him and lifted him off of his feet. “Are you out of your MIND, Cap?” Iron Man growled in his ear, and Steve lost it.

“Let me go,” he snarled, even as Iron Man's repulsors fired, tearing them both free of the ground. Before Steve could do much that howl at him, they were through the shattered windows and out into the sky. Iron Man wheeled them around, shooting upwards towards the penthouse.

He'd barely touched down on the landing pad before Steve was ripping free of his grip. “He's not down there!” Iron Man said, his hands up, his posture placating. “Steve. Listen to me.”

Steve twisted around, but Jarvis was already raising the shutters that blocked off the platform, blocking off that route. He turned back, rage and fear and loss sweeping through him. “Where were you?” he asked, and he hated himself, he hated Iron Man, he hated Tony. “Why didn't you take the threats seriously? Why weren't you WITH him?”

“He is not in there,” Iron Man snapped. “Steve. He is not. Pepper's got him on the phone.” He gave Steve a shake. “Cap. Listen to me. He is alive. He is fine.” He leaned in, the visor of his helmet filling Steve's vision. “He is NOT in there.”

Steve stared at him, trying to breathe, seeking desperately for the lie that he knew was there. “He's-”

“I'll have Jarvis patch him through to the speakers, Steve, do you want-”

“He said he was going to the office, he said-” Steve's voice broke, on a cough or a sob and his knees went out from under him. Iron Man's hands locked on his arms, holding him more or less upright, and Steve slumped against him, his eyes squeezing shut. “He said-” One hand came up, the side of his fist slamming against Iron Man's chest, a desperate sort of blow. Iron Man rocked back, but his grip was firm.

Steve subsided, leaning into Iron Man's hands. “He was going to his office.”

Iron Man's sigh was a faint whisper of sound. “Yeah,” he said, after a moment. “He did say that, didn't he?” His hands fell away from Steve's arms, and Steve looked up. Just in time to see him flip the visor up, and he stared in shock at the familiar brown eyes.

“But we both know he's a liar, isn't he?” Tony asked, a faint, wry smile twisting his lips, and Steve's vision went white.

He wasn't sure what happened, but when he blinked his vision clear again, he was on his knees. Iron Man was right in front of him, crouched down so they were at eye level, and Steve shook his head. “It's... You,” he managed, and Tony managed a crooked smile smile, relief lighting his eyes.

“Yeah, it's me,” he said, and one gauntlet covered hand cupped Steve's cheek, tipping his face up. In the shadows of the helmet, his face was worried, his eyebrows tipped up. “Sorry. Gave you a bit of a shock there, didn't I?”

Steve reached up, his fingers catching Tony's hand and holding it against his skin. “You're alive,” he said, because he wasn't sure he could manage more than that.

“Wasn't even in there when the bomb went off,” Tony said. “I have a, a back door, I go into the office and I can duck out the back-” He stopped, his eyes squeezing shut. “I wasn't there, Steve.” His fingers flexed against Steve's cheek. “I swear. I'm fine.”

Steve nodded. “This,” he said, sucking in a hard breath, “explains a lot of things.” He looked up, meeting Tony's eyes. “Doesn't it?”

Tony's eyes slid shut. “Steve, I-”

Jarvis's voice cut him off, a note of strain to the words. “I am sorry to interrupt, sir, but Thor is approaching from-”

Tony's hand shot up, slamming the visor down with a flick of his fingers. “Jay, what-”

“Ms. Potts has told them that you have been in contact, and are en route back to the building. They know you are safe and unharmed.”

“God bless Pepper,” Tony said, and Steve's head fell forward, his breathing coming in short, hard gusts. His head was spinning, and he couldn't seem to get a grip on himself.

“All this time,” he said, mostly to himself, and Tony stiffened, the plates and joints of the Iron Man armor whirring as he drew back. Steve looked up, staring at his own reflection in the surface of the Iron Man helmet. “How did I not see it?”

*

He'd known it would end. He'd always known that. He'd spent so much time with Steve, with all of them, but especially with Steve, knowing that it was borrowed time. That the lies would catch up with him eventually. No. Not just the lies. His entire life. All his mistakes, all his choices, all his failures, all of it had made this inevitable. He'd known that, all along.

His life had changed, with the armor, and again, with the Avengers. He'd made a new life, of sorts, and he'd told himself that he could keep it. It wasn't the lie that had been the problem. It was believing the lie, believing that the life he'd created was one he could keep. Because now he could see it collapsing around him, and the sense of loss was enough to bring him to his knees.

And he had no one but himself to blame.

Behind them, the shutters parted, and Tony resisted the urge to tell Jarvis to keep them closed. It was a stalling tactic at best, and even if he did, he wasn't sure they were Thor proof. Delaying the inevitable wasn't worth more structural damage to the damn building.

There was a gust of wind, hard enough to rock Tony back a step, even in the armor, and a second later, Thor came in for a landing, slamming down hard next to them. “My friends,” he said, unfolding to his full height. “Are you well?”

“Fine,” Tony said, even as Thor offered Steve a hand. Steve grabbed hold of it, letting Thor help pull him to his feet. He swayed for an instant, but the wrecked, agonized expression was gone from his face, from his eyes. His breathing was approaching normal rhythms, color slowly returning to his face. He was back in control, and Tony was glad.

“You?” Thor asked, his brow furrowed. “Clint was concerned.”

“Pepper musta given him an earful,” Steve said, his lips twitching up in something like a smile.

“That, and more,” Thor agreed. He looked at Tony, extending a hand. He clasped Tony's shoulder, giving him a faint shake, as if he wanted proof that Tony was real. “Should you not be with Stark?”

Tony took a deep breath, trying to get his stomach back where it belonged. But before he could say a word, Steve spoke up. “He's safe,” he said, drawing Thor's attention. “I've heard from him.” His shield was lying on the floor, just inside the shattered window, and he crossed over, leaning down to retrieve it. His fingers curled around the grip, and he straightened up, bouncing it easily in his palm. His face, when he looked over at them, was open and calm. “This is how he wants things, for now,” Steve said, and Tony stared at him, not comprehending for a moment. Steve looked directly at him, a faint smile tugging at his mouth. “Iron Man stays with us, until Tony gets back on site.”

And Tony understood; he wasn't going to tell them. For now, at least. Steve wasn't going to tell them. Relief swept over him, making him dizzy and lightheaded. He swayed on his feet, and Thor gripped his shoulder, hauling him back upright.

“Steady, my friend.”

Tony waved him off. “Sorry. Pushed it a little hard getting here.” The words sounded odd to his ears, like he was hearing them from a long, long way away.

Thor nodded. “Then we should descend now, there are many worried.” His eyes darted between them. “About you both.”

“We're going to get yelled at,” Iron Man said, the words coming from a long way away.

“Can't imagine why you'd think that,” Steve said. He straightened up, flexing his shoulders. “Give me a lift, Shellhead?”

He held out a hand, and Tony took it, running on auto pilot now. This, he knew. This, he could do without thinking, even if it was the last time. “Ask and you shall receive, Cap,” he said, and Steve stepped into the circle of his arm. Steve slung an arm around Iron Man's shoulders, and Tony's body knew this, knew the pressure of Steve's grip and the weight of him as the repulsors fired.

He wondered, as they headed down to street level, if Steve would ever put his life in Tony's hands again.

At street level, he leaned over, letting Steve slip from his grip down to the pavement. “I need to check on Ms. Potts,” he said, never even coming to rest. “You all right from here?”

Steve looked up at him, his eyes clear. “I'll brief the team. Make sure that Tony talks to us, as soon as possible. They're going to be worried.”

Tony managed a salute, twisting his body around in midair and streaking over the sidewalk, darting between the fire crews and the SHIELD response units, pushing the suit hard. Across the street, in the shelter of an ambulance and two SHIELD armored vehicles, Pepper was talking to Coulson. Or, judging by her posture, berating Coulson.

Behind the shelter of his mask, Tony caught himself smiling. “God, I love that woman,” he said, for Jarvis's ears only.

“Quite, sir.”

Tony came to a skipping stop next to them, his feet skating over the pavement. “Ms. Potts, are you all right?”

Pepper's eyes and nose were bright red, her hair a mess and her clothing streaked with dark marks. But she nodded. “Fine. No fatalities,” she said, knowing what he needed to hear. “Minor injuries only.”

“Everyone's accounted for?” Tony asked.

“Every single person,” she agreed, managing a thin smile. To Coulson, she said, “Excuse me. I need to speak to Iron Man.”

Coulson nodded. He didn't look happy, but than again, he almost never looked happy. “Keep us updated,” he said. With a quick nod, he headed back across the street at a brisk jog.

“How much trouble are we in?” Tony asked, the words barely audible.

“He's understandably concerned about the fact that someone tried to blow us up,” Pepper said.

“Understandably,” Tony agreed. Everything hurt, he ached down to his bones. He sucked in a breath. There was no chance to talk, they were too exposed, and he didn't have time to find a safe spot. “Jarvis, give us some cover.”

“Yes, sir.” The faint buzz rattled in Tony's ears, high and sustained. It was an innocuous little invention, the sound barely audible to human ears, but it played havoc with listening devices. It wasn't perfect, but it made electronic eavesdropping very difficult.

Still, Tony pulled Pepper back, into a narrow gap between two buildings. “Tell me you're okay,” he said.

She gave him a look. “I'm fine.” Her head tipped forward, her lips pursed. “Don't start with the guilt. We don't have time. Everyone made it out. If you-” Her nose wrinkled. “You or Tony had been been there, then we would've had a problem. As it was, no one was close enough to get more than a concussion.”

Tony exhaled. “Yeah. Good.” He looked up, where a thin stream of smoke was still twisting up towards the sky. “We have a problem.”

She followed his gaze. “Yes,” she whispered. “We do.” Her jaw went tight. “The negotiations are going to go forward. You know that?”

He was already shaking his head. “You're not-”

“And you're not my boss.” She gave him a tight smile. “I'll discuss that. With Mr. Stark.” She straightened up. “You know what you need to do, and so do I.”

His eyes closed. “Yeah. I do.”

She nodded. “I've updated Rhodey. Let him know when you think it's safe for Tony to head over. He's waiting for your call.” And with that, she turned on her battered heels and headed back towards the building.

Tony watched her go, relief twisting through him. “I can take a hint. Jarvis? Get the man on the line for me, and start compiling any and all the data we've got." He hit the respulsors, lifting from the ground with a roar. As the information started pouring into the HUD, Tony waited for Rhodey to pick up the line.

It didn't take long. “How bad?”

“She's fine,” Tony said.

“That's not what I'm asking, I-”

“Yes, it is. And, yes, she's fine,” Tony said, his voice going to a sing-song pitch. “I know you worry.”

“Not about her, she's got sense.”

Tony grinned, even as he banked slowly around the building. “Uh-huh. So you're not pacing right now.”

“What makes you think-”

“You're not doing that military march thing where you see if you can cross an entire room in five steps or less?” Tony asked. “You're not-”

“Listening to you? No, I'm not. Why do you have to-”

“She's fine,” Tony said, and Rhodey fell silent. “She's absolutely fine.”

“I wasn't worried.”

“I almost feel bad,” Tony mused. “Almost. I mean, you were such a fine, upstanding, honest citizen. And then I happened.”

“You're an ass, you know that, right? You are aware? That you're-”

Tony swooped around the edge of the building, scanning the glass and metal as he went, looking for hot spots, for stress fractures. “So you tell me.” He rolled, hands tucked behind him, pushing the armor to it's limits in a quick burst. “You planning on coming in?”

“You'll need me in the armor. Not a good idea for me to be there in person, only to disappear when Tony Stark shows up.” Rhodey exhaled, and Tony could hear the strain in it. The fear.

His eyes slid shut. “I really fucked you over, didn't I?” he said, his voice almost shaking with exhaustion.

“No.”

“Yeah.” Tony pulled up, studying a scan of the tower's facade. “Yeah.” He huffed out a breath. “I wouldn't blame you if you showed up. You know that.” There was silence, and he sighed. “Tell me you know that, Rhodes, tell me you know I'm not that petty, that I'm not-”

“No matter what you like to think, Stark, not everything is about you and your feelings,” Rhodey said, cutting him off with ruthless efficiency. “The rest of us have lives, too. And we make our own choices.”

“Yes, but your lives are just so boring,” Tony said.

That coaxed a laugh out of Rhodey. “Sorry I don't have a secret identity to keep you company,” he said.

“I don't, either.” Tony took a deep breath. “Or I may not. I don't know.”

“Tone?”

“I told Steve, and I don't know what that's going to do, and I don't want to talk about it, but he knows.” Just saying the words was enough to bring the bile up in his throat and he swallowed against it, determined not to throw up inside the helmet. He'd never get the smell out.

“Okay,” Rhodey said at last, and there was a note of strain to his voice that Tony hated, hated, hated.

“Another secret for you to keep track of,” he said, self-loathing twisting through the words. “Sorry.”

Rhodey ignored that. “You sure about this?”

“It's done. Doesn't matter what I'm sure of, and what I'm not, it's done.” Tony shot upwards, and around again. “Like I said, don't want to talk about it. Just wanted you to know, in case something happens-”

“Nothing's going to happen.”

“You must not have seen my dayplanner, Rhodes, a lot of things are going to happen and one of them is going to get me one of these days, so-”

“Not funny.”

“Neither are you, and I still love you.” Tony sucked in a breath, and another, in through his nose, out through his mouth, trying to get himself back under control. “You know that, right?”

“Why do you think I waste my life covering your ass?”

“Because it's one of nature's most perfect miracles, and it deserves full miltary protection, in fact, I'm pretty sure that it deserves better than you, I should have a full honor guard for it at all times, dress uniforms, sabers, pretty much my ass deserves-”

“I love you, too.”

“And my ass?”

“You ARE an ass, does that count?”

“I'll take it.” Tony paused, looking down towards the building. “She's fine. Running SHIELD ragged as we speak.”

“I love that woman.”

“I know, right?” Grinning, Tony shot back down. “You should come see her bust some balls.”

“Let me know when you need me to take tin can duty.”

“Jarvis will keep you in the loop.”

“You want me to come down there and be your stand in? You can damn well call me.”

Tony's eyes closed. “Someone'll call you.”

“Yeah, well, 'someone' better get on that.” He paused. “When are we going to discuss that someone tried to kill you today, Tony?”

“Let's wait until I'm not armed for that one, okay?”

“When'll that be?”

“I'll keep you appraised.”

“You do that.”

*

They were saying it was a bomb.

He stared down at the website, his heart pounding in his ears. A bomb. Instant internet news wasn't always reliable, he knew that, everyone knew that. But it was too much of a coincidence. Stark was many things, but he wasn't careless.

An unrepentant asshole and thief, but not careless.

He threw the tablet down with more force than was strictly necessary, stalking away. “Come on,” he hissed into his phone. The call still hadn't gone through, and he was at the end of his patience. “Pick up the phone, you bastard, I know you're-”

The faint click was the only warning he had before the line connected. “I was wondering when I would hear from you.”

The voice was soft, assured. Almost amused. He turned, bracing a hand on the edge of his office window. “What have you done?”

There was a momentary pause, and for a moment, he thought the bastard was thinking about it. “What you asked me to do,” he said at last, and then, a faint chuckle rolled over him, low and mocking. “What did you expect?”

His hand went into a fist against the line. “I never asked you to do this!” He reared back, frustration and fear and panic curling through him. “I never asked you to hurt anyone!”

“Hmmmm. No. You didn't. You just told me to handle it. Didn't you? You asked me to take care of Stark. To stop this.” His voice dropped. “To make him suffer, for what he's done to you.”

His legs were shaking, his stomach rolling. “What did you do?” he whispered.

“I did what you wanted. What you didn't have the balls to do. I handled it.”

“You could've killed someone. You might've-” He stopped, bile rising in his throat. “I never wanted you to kill anyone!”

There was a long moment of silence, and then a faint sigh. “No. You wanted to snap your fingers and get everything you wanted, but to keep those fingers of yours nice and clean. That's not how the world works. You wanted things fixed? Well, they're fixed. And now we're in this together, you and I.”

His eyes closed. “No. No, I don't want this, I don't-” His fist thudded down on his desktop. “Forget it.”

“Forget it? Forget what? That you came and begged me to fix your mistakes? To get you your toys back? Oh, no. It's too late for that. You wanted my help. Now you have it. And when we're done, when Stark is dead, when you have everything you want, then that's when you're going to have to pay the piper. That's when my associates will be taking what they need from you.”

He couldn't breathe. “I never wanted anyone to die.”

“And this is why you lost your company. Because you don't have the guts to make the hard choices. And pull the trigger, when the situation calls for it.”

The line went dead. For a long, long time, he stayed there, staring unseeing at the windows, wondering how things had spiraled so far out of control.

*

He found Steve crouched in the remains of his office.

Tony wasn't surprised. Steve had barely said a word, not to him, not to anyone, during the debrief. SHIELD had crawled over every inch of the room, looking for the source of the explosion, looking for the accelerant that had sent it spiraling out of control so quickly. Everyone had been going in a dozen different directions at once, going over chemical data and video footage and Steve had been a rock at the center of it, calm and controlled and silent.

It was the silence that scared Tony.

It had been a long day. Tony felt like he'd spent half of it changing in and out of the armor, with Pepper and Rhodey running interference every time he had to disappear. They'd both stuck close, all day, Pepper with her white face and bandaged hands, and Rhodey with his clipped sentences and sharp eyes. They hadn't said a word about it, and neither had Tony, but he could sense the fight on the horizon.

He wanted to have this one first.

His office was a complete loss. Between the explosion and the fire, it had been beyond help. The efforts to put the fire out just put paid to the whole thing. He didn't care, all that much. Structurally, the building was sound. It had held, and it would take some time, and some money, but he could fix it. They'd already sealed off the broken windows, and as soon as SHIELD and the police finished their investigations, Jarvis would have crews in, putting everything right.

Of course, some things, Tony had to handle on his own.

He paused, trying to find the words to make this better, but that was beyond him. He took a breath. It hurt, but he was used to that. “Steve.”

Steve didn't move, didn't even seem to hear him. There was a smudge on the line of his jaw, something that Tony had taken for a bruise, but it was still there. An hour, two hours later, it was still there. Soot, or something similar, the shadow of smoke.

“Steve,” he repeated, and Steve was looking at the shuttered windows, his eyes blank. Tony sucked in a breath, and the air was damp and heavy, tasting of chemicals and ash. “Hey. This is a crime scene. Maybe let's get out of here, okay, Cap?”

Steve jerked, his whole body going tense. He looked up, his face clearing. “Tony?” He straightened up, pushing himself up, his hands in fists on his knees, at his sides. “What-”

Tony reached out, very slowly, very carefully. “Steve, let's put that down, okay?”

“Put-” Confusion sliding over his face, Steve looked down, staring at his hand as if he didn't recognize it. His fingers flexed, his white-knuckled grip relaxing with painful reluctance. Tony reached out and slipped the charred scrap of fabric from his hand.

He looked down at the piece of his jacket. “I don't think this is salvageable,” he said, his voice quiet. “Pretty sure this is a complete loss, actually.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. His throat worked. “I saw it. When I got in here. Before Iron Man-” Tony flinched and Steve drew back, his shoulders flexing forward. “You. Before you got here.” He looked up, and his eyes were pale and haunted. “I saw you put that on in the morning.” He swallowed, his tongue flicking out to lick at his lips. “I remembered that jacket. I... Liked it,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.

“I did, too,” Tony said, with a sigh. Now that it was in his hand, he didn't know what to do with it. It was too big to put in his pocket and tossing it on the ground seemed strangely disrespectful. Instead, he lay it carefully on the remains of his desk. His fingers lingered on it, just for a second. “I thought I looked good in that one, really, it was-” He stopped, shaking his head. “It was just a jacket.”

Steve stared at him, his face unreadable. “I saw you put that jacket on,” he said, and his voice was steadier now, slow and careful. “And then I saw it here.”

Silence fell, and he looked away. “I thought you were dead.”

Tony nodded. “I'm fine,” he said, and it was inadequate, it was absolutely nothing compared to the way that Steve's hands were shaking, his fingers twitching against the sides of his legs. “Steve. I'm fine.” He swallowed, ignoring the raw ache of his throat. “I'm sorry.”

“I thought you were dead,” Steve said. “And you're not.” He nodded, a slow bob of his head along with the words, as if he was trying to reassure himself. “You're not.”

“I'm not,” Tony agreed.

“You're not dead,” Steve said, “but you are both of you.” He stopped, and shook his head. “You're both you. So. That's. That's a thing.”

“That's a thing,” Tony said, wishing he could read Steve's face. “Steve, I-”

“In the space of a couple of seconds, I went from thinking I'd never see you again to realizing I wouldn't have to choose,” Steve said, and Tony's brain ground to a halt.

Which didn't stop him from meeting Steve halfway.

They slammed together with more force than grace, the kiss awkward and fumbling and the hottest thing Tony could remember in his rather debauched life. Tony's fingers clawed at Steve's shirt, trying to get a grip, trying to get closer, half crawling up Steve's chest. His lack of control would be embarrassing, but Steve didn't seem to notice. His arms were wrapped around Tony in a deathgrip, his mouth open and hot on Tony's.

It wasn't a practiced kiss, but it was addictive.

When they finally broke apart, Tony was gasping for breath, his head spinning. “Okay,” he managed, and Steve's hands tightened on his hips. “Okay,” he repeated, and it was hard to talk, because Steve's mouth was right there, it was RIGHT THERE, and Steve was staring at Tony with hungry eyes. Tony braced his hands against Steve's chest. “Getting mixed signals here,” he said. “Not that I mind. I was expecting more punching. I'm, I just want to make it clear here that I'm fine with the no punching and even more fine with the kissing, and well, anything else you want, but-”

Steve's mouth swallowed anything else he was going to say, and that was probably for the best.

“I thought you were dead,” Steve whispered, and Tony shuddered against him. “You're not. It's hard to work up much anger about anything else.”

Tony's fingers tightened in the fabric of Steve's shirt, and he forced them to relax, forced them to let go. “You'll manage it, eventually,” he said, with a wry smile, and Steve's arms went around him.

“Maybe,” he said, the words soft against Tony's hair, hugging him close. His arms tightened, and Tony pressed his face against Steve's shoulder. “Don't know.” His arms relaxed, and he pulled back, his hands dropping away. Tony missed the heat of his body instantly, but he took a step back, giving Steve his space.

“I wish I knew why,” Steve said, his eyes flicking up. “I don't-” His face worked, his brows drawing down. “At the beginning, you didn't know any of us, I get that, but Tony...” His voice trailed away. “If this hadn't happened, would you have told me?”

Tony flinched. “I-” He shoved a hand through his hair. “I don't know. I -”

“Tony-”

“Yes.” His head came up. “It was that or cut you off. As Tony Stark and Iron Man.” He sucked in a breath, and it hurt, it always hurt, but he was used to it. “And I couldn't do that. This whole thing-” He met Steve's eyes, just for a second, his eyes flicking up and dropping immediately. It hurt. Holding Steve's gaze hurt, more than he'd thought was possible. “Steve, why didn't you tell them?”

“Tell-” Steve's brow wrinkled. “Tell the team? Or SHIELD?” He was already shaking his head. “That's kind of a lousy thing to say to me, don't you think?”

“I'm lying to everyone,” Tony said, his voice bleak.

“Yeah, well, I'm sure you've got your reasons.” Steve looked up. “It's not my place to tell everyone your secrets, Tony. But this is going to trip you up eventually. This is going to-” His hands came up, gesturing at the remains of the room. “This, something like this, is going to happen again, Tony, and your secrets are going to effect us, too.” He shook his head. “This isn't just about you. Not any more.”

“I know. I know, it's just-” Tony shook his head, trying to find the words To find the way to explain why he couldn't, why he had to hide, why he had to keep Iron Man separate, had to keep him apart, had to keep him from sinking into Tony Stark's life. Had to keep him from infecting Tony Stark's life. He closed his eyes, struggling to find some way to make Steve understand. Trying to find the words.

Exposed.

That's what it was, this was him, this was all of him, exposed, laid bare, and he could feel the arc reactor, hot and hard, like a coal burning beneath his breastbone. He sucked in a breath, and another, but he couldn't get enough air in his lungs, he couldn't understand why the more he breathed, the more light headed he got. The arc reactor had been a burn, an ache, it had been an annoyance before now.

And now, he looked down and there was a hole where the arc reactor should've been, where his heart should've been. But he was hollow and empty and he was dying, even as he struggled to breathe, faster and faster, air sliding worthlessly over his lips.

“You really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?”

“Tony!”

Tony snapped back to the present with a gasp, his whole body seizing as he jerked backwards. For an instant, he was caught, confused, the memories too sharp, too vivid. But Steve was staring down at him, his face white, his eyes dark and wide. Tony's head dropped, and he stared down at where Steve's hands were gripping his arms, holding him up or holding him still, and just like that, that bare point of contact, and he was back.

“Sorry,” he managed. “Sorry, I-” His head fell forward, and he tried to steady his breathing.

“Okay,” Steve said, his voice very soft, and very careful. Just as carefully, he let go of Tony's arms, his hands hovering in the air, waiting to see if Tony would need the support. “It's fine. You have your reasons. I'm not going to ask about them. Just-” His face twisted. “God, don't look like that again.”

Tony scraped a hand over his face. “Sorry,” he managed. “I didn't- I'm sorry, I should-”

“We should get out of here,” Steve said. He shifted closer. “Let's go.”

Tony nodded. “Yeah. I- Yeah.” Without thinking, he reached out, his hand fumbling for Steve's. Before he could catch himself and pull it back, Steve caught it, tangling their fingers together. “We need to talk,” he managed.

“We need to sit down and have something to drink,” Steve said, steering him towards the door.

“Can it be alcoholic?”

“God, yes.”

*

Chapter Text

Steve smelled like smoke.

Tony hadn't noticed it before, or rather, he'd thought that the smell would be left behind in the ruins of his office But now, in the elevator heading for the penthouse, it was clear that the scent clung to Steve, to his uniform and his skin. Every time Tony breathed in, he could taste the ash on the back of his throat.

He tried not to think about how he ruined everything, and everyone, he came in contact with.

“You all right?”

Tony jolted back to himself, sucking in an involuntary breath. “What?” His eyes darted towards Steve, even as the elevator came to a stop. “Yes. I'm fine.”

He took a step forward, and Steve caught his arm. “Hey,” he said, his voice soft. “Look at me.”

There was no force to Steve's grip, and Tony could've shaken off his hand without much effort. But the contact was somehow comforting. He managed a smile, because Steve was watching him with worried eyes. “I'm fine,” he said. Steve studied him, his face unreadable, and Tony tried again. This smile felt better on his face, more natural, or maybe just less of a lie. Without thinking, he reached up and brushed at the smudge of ash on the angle of Steve's cheekbone. Steve's skin was warm beneath his fingertips, and he let his palm settle against Steve's jaw, cradling his face in the curve of his hand. “I'm fine,” he repeated.

Steve covered Tony's hand with his own. “Right,” he said, and Tony bit back a snort of laughter.

“You're going to have to trust me on this one,” Tony said, without thinking, and the flickering hint of a smile on Steve's face died. Tony's stomach twisted, a sickening drop of nausea, but he kept smiling as he pulled his hand away. “Or not,” he said, his voice calm, filled with a confidence that he didn't feel. “C'mon. I really do need a drink.” Without waiting for a response, he headed out of the elevator and up the broad foyer.

The living room, a broad, well designed room, full of sleek, modern furniture and ringed by massive windows that provided beautiful views of the city from almost any angle. It was the place he did most of his entertaining, but he didn't spend all that much time here, on his own. Somewhere along the way, the common space that the Avengers used, a few floors below, had started to feel much more like home.

When he had the energy, he'd worry about that.

“Iron Man.”

Tony paused mid-step, glancing back over his shoulder to find Steve looking at him, a faint smile on his face. “Testing my responses?” he asked, eyebrows arching.

“No, just realizing that I should've recognized that stride,” Steve said. He turned towards the window, bracing an arm against the pane, and leaning into it. “Even with the added weight, that walk is...” He huffed out a sound that might have been a laugh. “Distinctive.”

Tony paused. “Really?” he asked, his lips twitching.

“Just a bit,” Steve said. “Now that I know what I'm looking at.”

“And what is that?” Tony asked.

“Trouble,” Steve said, and Tony grinned at him.

“I won't argue with that. As for not making the connection, I don't think you should blame yourself. The armor doesn't showcase my ass in the same way, so...” He shrugged. “Easy to get distracted by more enjoyable sights. It happens to the best of us.”

“Oh, is that the difference?” Steve asked. He pushed away from the window, crossing to the couch and sinking down with a sigh. He looked tired, but the strain was gone from his face. He seemed, strangely, like he'd found some measure of peace, and Tony didn't know what to make of that. But Tony drank in the sight of him, wanting something that he couldn't even put define.

Tony tucked his hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunching forward. “You're taking this better than I expected,” he said, because he'd never been any good at quitting while he was ahead. Steve gave him a look, and Tony couldn't quite keep a smile from twisting his lips up. “What?”

“Well,” Steve said, and there was a ghost of a smile around his mouth now, the slightest curl of his lips, “I gotta say, it wasn't an outcome that I was expecting, but it's better than most of the outcomes that I was expecting, so I'm not gonna fight it.” He paused, his eyes coming up to meet Tony's. His eyes were almost unbearably blue, and Tony's breathing hitched. Steve smiled. “I mean, it is you. That's more than I was expecting.”

Tony made a sound that was embarrassingly like a giggle. “Sorry to disappoint,” he said. “I know most of the other options would probably have been easier to deal with.”

Steve shoved a hand through his hair. “Well, it makes some things a bit harder and some things a hell of a lot easier,” he said. His head fell back and he stared up at the ceiling. “Want to know what my first thought was, when you took off that helmet?”

“'Well, at least now I don't have to go back into the burning room?'” Tony guessed.

“That would've been more logical, honestly. No. My first thought was that I could not believe I wasted so much time researching polyamory.”

The bark of laughter caught him off guard. “You didn't,” Tony managed, and Steve was grinning now, a hand pressed to his eyes. Tony sank down next to him, shaking with laughter. “Oh, God, Steve, you didn't.”

“You're the one who kept bringing up threeways!” Steve said, and Tony bent double, his head down, his arms wrapped tight around his stomach, laughing so hard that he could barely draw breath. “You kept bringing it up,” Steve said, ignoring the way that Tony was pretty much losing it next to him. “I couldn't stop thinking about it.” His grin was luminous, his eyes bright. “I thought I was losing my mind. I really thought I was off my nut, Tony. I just-”

He stopped and Tony looked up, his cheeks wet with tears, laughter still bubbling out of him. Steve's eyes fell to his mouth, and Tony stopped laughing. “You just?” he asked, his voice uneven, breathless.

“I thought I was losing my mind,” Steve repeated, but he was smiling. He was smiling, his mouth an unbearable temptation. “Guess not.”

“Guess not,” Tony agreed. Steve turned away, glancing back at the windows, and Tony considered the bar. It seemed an impossibly long way away, but he pushed himself up anyway. Everything hurt, his legs and his back, his shoulders and his head. Every step was agony, and he wondered if he had a bottle of aspirin over with the maraschino cherries and olives.

Probably. That was the kind of life he lived. A dirty martini with a twist, and a chaser of a handful of painkillers. It was the Stark special by this point.

“Though you know, Steve, no effort is wasted, provided you learn something from it,” Tony said, steadying his steps with a hand on the bar as he slipped behind it. “Who knows, maybe it'll come in handy later.”

Steve made a noise, not quite a snort, not quite a sigh. “Don't know,” he said. “Doesn't seem like me.” He pushed himself forward, bracing his elbows on his knees, his head hanging down. “Always knew I had a jealous streak, but never really thought of myself as a greedy man, Tony.”

Tony paused, his fingers resting lightly on the cut crystal decanter of the scotch. “Were you really jealous?” he asked, his voice light. “That's adorable.”

Steve's head came up, just far enough to give Tony a look from beneath the sharp line of his brows. “It's really not,” he grumbled.

Pulling the stopper free with a practiced gesture, Tony reached for a glass. “Kinda is,” he mused. “Considering that I deliberately monopolized your time by entering two different names on your dance card, Steve.” Filling the tumbler with ice, he poured the scotch with a heavy hand, not really interested in moderation right now. “So if you're looking at me for censure, that's, that's-” He shook his head, adding a measure of soda water. “It's not going to happen, Cap.” He gave the drink a quick stir. “Want one?”

Steve was staring at him, understanding dawning in his face. “Oh, my god, you did, didn't you?” he asked, sitting up. Tony tensed, his fingers going white-knuckled on the tumbler, but Steve was laughing, a hand cupping his mouth. “You-” He slumped back against the couch. “You rat!”

Tony leaned against the bar, relief sweeping through him. The sensation was becoming familiar, but he couldn't quite trust it; the situation was full of invisible pitfalls everywhere. Steve knew. Steve knew and was still here, still talking to him, still laughing and smiling and still, by some miracle, his friend, but there was nothing stable about their situation.

One careless step, one unthinking word, and it could all come crashing down around his head.

With a casualness he didn't feel, Tony shrugged and took a sip of his drink. The liquid washed over his tongue, a burst of cold followed almost immediately by a curl of warmth. He glanced down at it with a critical eye. Too much high end scotch, not nearly enough soda, it would appear, but he took another drink.

“I'm a greedy, greedy man,” he said, his voice arch. “And I have been cheerfully monopolizing you.”

To his surprise, a dark flush swept across Steve's cheeks, making his ears pink. “Guess you have,” he said. His head ducked down, a surprisingly boyish gesture. “Surprised you didn't get sick of me, after all that.”

“Not even close,” Tony said, and it came out too honest, too needy. Mentally cursing himself, Tony took another sip of his drink, flinching when the ice cubes in his glass rattled. “Want one? Or something else?” he asked again, setting it down.

“I can't get drunk,” Steve said, his voice almost apologetic.

Tony rolled his eyes. “Did I ask if you wanted to get drunk?” he asked. “I mean, I understand the impulse, god knows you've probably wanted to a few times in the last day or so, but that's not what I asked.” He paused. “Do you want to?” he asked, a plaintive note slipping into the words.

Steve smiled. “No, but-”

“Good. So do you want a drink?” Tony asked, bracing a hand on the bar. “Because it tastes good and it can take the edge off, and I'm feeling a little awkward drinking alone.” He arched an eyebrow. “Not enough to stop, mind you, because I desperately need a drink right now.”

Steve considered him. “Got a beer?” he asked, and some of the tension went out of Tony's shoulders.

“Ale or larger?” he asked, bending to the bar fridge.

“I'm not picky,” Steve said. He stood and walked across the room, sinking down onto one of the barstools. Tony fished an icy bottle from the cooler and handed it over. Steve stared at the label. “Fuzzy Baby Ducks IPA?” he asked, giving Tony a look.

Tony shrugged, and poured himself another scotch and soda. “Sometimes,” he said, leaning against the bar, “I might possibly go through websites that review craft beers and then order the most ridiculous sounding ones that I can find.” Steve looked at him, a slight smile on his lips, and Tony smiled back. “That might be something that I do.” He took a quick gulp of his drink. “Occasionally. Or more than occasionally.”

Steve nodded, very slowly, and turned the bottle over in his hands. “You already drunk when you do this?” he asked, laughter running through the words.

“Also occasionally,” Tony admitted.

“Do I want to know WHY you-”

“Because Rhodey almost always ends up having a beer when he's here, and he likes to grouse about microbreweries and their stupid names.” Tony shrugged. “I, meanwhile, like to give him something to grouse about that isn't me. Takes the pressure off.” Steve was considering the cap of the bottle, and Tony reached for it. “Here, it's not a twist off, I can-”

Steve looked up, his blue eyes dark and clear. He smiled, just a little, his lips curling up at the corners, and snapped the cap off with a flick of his thumb. “I got it,” he said, as the cap, bent nearly in half, wobbled across the bartop.

Tony picked it up. “So you do,” he said, considering the bent bit of metal. “This how you pick people up? Manhandling beer caps? Because I have to admit-” He shifted his weight, enjoying the warm heat of arousal that was pooling low in his stomach. “It's surprisingly effective.”

Steve paused, the bottle at his lips, his eyebrows arched. “That all it takes?” he asked.

“Well, I'm easy,” Tony said.

“Now he tells me,” Steve muttered, and Tony couldn't hold back a laugh.

“Cap, that's pretty much an open secret, not my fault you never made an offer,” Tony said, leaning his arms on the bar. “Drink your beer.”

“Someone's bossy,” Steve said, and Tony grinned. Still, Steve took a cautious sip, and then, his eyebrows arching, a deeper one.

Steve's head tipped back, draining the beer in a few quick gulps. Tony watched his throat flex with each swallow, watched as his eyes closed, as his damp lips pulled away from the glass. “Any good?” he asked, and he was pleased, his voice was steady, almost amused. Not at all like he was a heartbeat away from crawling over the bar and ripping Steve's shirt open.

Steve's tongue flicked out, licking his lips, and Tony wanted him so much that for a second he was dizzy with it. “It's not bad,” he said. He swiped his thumb across his lower lip, leaving it damp and pink in the wake. “I'd order it again.”

Tony reached into the cooler, pulling another bottle out. He set it on the bar, but when Steve reached for it, he didn't let go of the icy glass. “You planning on paying for any of this?” he asked, because he was an idiot. He really was.

Steve leaned forward, his hand closing on the bottle, and Tony's hand. “Figured you'd let me put it on my tab,” he said, and this was flirting. Tony was pretty damn sure this was flirting, especially with the way that Steve's hand was pulling at his, dragging him forward.

“I'm gonna need some promise of payment before I can set you up on credit,” Tony said. Unable to resist any longer, he reached out, letting the pad of his thumb stroke at the damp skin of Steve's lip.

Steve caught Tony's wrist, turning his hand over. “What if I don't have cash?” he asked, his breath warm on the skin of Tony's palm, making him shiver. “Will you let me work off my debt?”

“Planning on washing dishes?” Tony asked. Steve had both of his hands now, and Tony gave a small tug, just to feel the solid strength of that grip. It was a mistake; Steve let go instantly, and Tony missed the contact before his skin even had time to cool. But he took advantage of his freedom, hooking a finger in the collar of Steve's shirt. “Or do you have more specialized skills to offer?”

Steve leaned forward, his pupils blowing wide as Tony's knuckles ghosted over his Adam's apple. “Haven't got much by way of skills,” he said, his voice wry. “But I'm a quick learner.”

Tony smiled at him, his heartbeat pounding in his ears. “Do you take instruction well?”

“Not at all,” Steve said, and he was halfway over the bar now, Tony's lips hovering just over his. “That a problem?”

“I think I can work around it,” Tony said, sliding his hand around to the back of Steve's neck, letting his fingers stroke the short hairs there. Steve shivered, his eyes drifting shut, and Tony knew he was breathing too fast, too hard.

Steve smiled. “Good of you,” he said, staring at Tony, his expression hungry, and Tony wondered when, exactly, he'd gotten in over his head with this. He had a lifetime of experience, maybe a couple of lifetimes at this point, and he needed to be the one to take a step back.

Thing was, he wasn't sure he remembered how.

“This is-” Tony tried to string a handful of words together, and failed at it. He had to struggle to breathe, his head swimming with need, with things he couldn't even define. “This is probably not healthy, Steve. I mean, you probably need time to process, and I haven't-” Steve was so close that Tony could feel the heat of his breath on his open lips, and without thinking, his tongue flicked out, wetting his lips.

Steve's eyes closed, a shudder rolling over him. “Probably not,” he said, and his voice was low and raw and hot. Tony wondered if he was going to end up with an erection every time Steve talked to him from now on, because that was going to be very awkward.

Unless, of course, Steve stopped talking to him. Then it would be the least of his problems.

His fingers tangled in the fabric of Steve's shirt. “I need to stop lying at some point,” he whispered. “I just don't know how.”

Steve leaned his forehead against Tony's, the contact fleeting, almost delicate. “Do you want this?” he whispered. “Or was that another lie?”

Tony leaned into him, his eyes falling shut. “This,” he managed, “is the only thing that was never a lie.” He sucked in a breath, and he was not sure if he vaulted the bar or if Steve dragged him over it, or a combination of the two, but somehow he was over and in Steve's arms, and something glass hit the ground with a crash.

The kiss was enough to fry what was left of his brain. It was probably a good thing. He stopped thinking and just sank into it, into the solid heat of Steve's body, into the pressure of his hands and the desperation of his mouth. Tony gave up, almost shaking as his fingers clawed at the fabric of Steve's shirt, needing it to stay upright at this point. Steve's hands slid up his sides, coaxing him closer. Tony bit back a groan, and Steve's hands tightened, an almost involuntary flex of his fingers.

“Is this what you wanted?” Tony heard himself whisper, the words spilling from his lips, against Steve's mouth, his cheek, his jaw. “How many times have you pinned me down, Steve? How many times have you put me on my back on the mats?” His eyes floated open, his head spinning, feeling drunk on a pleasant cocktail of arousal and relief. Steve was staring at him, his eyes huge, his lips parted, and Tony leaned in, brushing a kiss against Steve's slack mouth.

“Or on my stomach?” he whispered. “Your tendency to flip me over makes so much more sense now...”

“Incapacitate,” Steve said, leaning forward, chasing the kiss. “Easier. If I can pull your arms back.”

Tony smiled, his fingers smoothing up Steve's chest. “It's easy, however you do it,” he pointed out. “You've got the training, and the size, and the-” He pulled back, watching his fingers pull against Steve's shirt. “The body for it,” he finished. His eyes canted up, meeting Steve's from under the sweep of his lashes. “Ever need a long, cold shower after our sparring matches?”

Steve's heartbeat was pounding beneath his palm, but his voice was steady. “A few,” he said. “Especially after that last one.” His face flushed, a darker wash of red over his cheeks, across the bridge of his nose. Tony had to resist the urge to lean in, to kiss every inch of that pink skin, to check to see if it felt warm beneath his lips. Steve cleared his throat. “Mostly, I had, uh, dreams.”

Tony's eyebrows arched upwards. “Yeah?” he whispered, a grin flashing over his face. “How dirty were they, Cap?”

“Dirtier than I was expecting,” Steve said, and Tony couldn't take it anymore. He leaned in, and Steve met him halfway, their mouths tangling. “You and him,” Steve growled against his lips. “Sometimes one of you, and sometimes both of you, and sometimes it was him, and then you, or the other way around and I am an idiot, my subconscious figured it out before the rest of me, but, God-” He broke away, burying his face in Tony's neck. “Thought that was just wishful thinking.”

Tony's head fell back. “Polyamory does sound workable in that situation,” he said, his voice coming from some distance away. He barely knew what he was saying anymore, but man, did it sound like fun. “Iron Man's one of the few who could manhandle you, isn't he?” Steve said nothing, but a shudder swept over him, and Tony let out a sound perilously close to a whine. “Never thought about having sex in the suit, but I'd be willing to try it if that's what you-”

Steve shut him up with a kiss, and Tony realized that he was absolutely fine with this.

The buzz of an alarm had them jerking apart, Steve twisting around to face a threat, Tony grabbing for his shoulders to drag him back. “Jarvis?” he choked out, trying desperately to get some blood back into his brain. “What is it, what's-”

The alarm ceased. “You have visitors coming up,” Jarvis said, his voice tense. “I apologize, but I was not able to notify you through customary means, as your attention was on other matters.”

Relief flooded over him, and Tony swayed on his feet. “Just stop the elevator, Jay, what the hell-”

“They are not using the elevator,” Jarvis said, his voice icy, and Steve sprung back, putting some distance between them, just as Sam crested the edge of the landing pad outside, coming in for an easy landing. An instant later, Jan expanded into sight next to him, and the two of them headed for the door.

Steve was trying to smooth his hair, his clothing, and Tony grinned at him. “They can't see in,” he said, sinking down onto the nearest barstool. “One way glass.”

“They're coming in eventually,” Steve said. One of the other stools was on the floor, next to Steve's beer bottle. Steve leaned over, picking both of them up.

Tony rubbed a hand over his face. “No, they're not,” he said, his voice dark. “Jarvis, tell them I'm asleep or something, will you please?”

“They are concerned for your welfare, sir, and I suspect they are also concerned that you and Captain Rogers may be arguing about the situation at this point.” He paused. “His behavior today has not gone unnoticed.”

“Sam knows,” Steve said, and Tony's stomach dropped, the warm, perfect afterglow that had never been disappearing in an instant. Steve looked up, and caught his eye. Confusion slipped over his face, and in its wake, understanding. “Tony. Tony, he knows I'm-” He swallowed. “That I'm interested in you. And in, well, Iron Man, he-” He shook his head. “I didn't tell him. Anything else.”

Tony's fingers were locked on the edge of the bar, and he forced them loose. “No,” he said. He licked his lips. “No. Of course you didn't. No.”

Steve leaned in, his hands hovering over Tony's shoulders. Not quite touching. Not quite daring to touch. “Tony. Look at me.” Tony's eyes went up to his, and Steve smiled. “I don't need to understand why you have secrets in order to respect them,” he said, his voice gentle. Almost sweet. “I will protect your right to have them, any way I can. Just-” He took a deep breath. “Promise me, that if your secrets put us, put all of us, in danger, then you will consider letting the rest of the team know.”

“It won't-” Tony started.

“All of us includes you,” Steve said, his voice almost breaking on the words. “I can't lose you.” His lips twitched. “Either of you.”

Tony nodded, taking a deep breath. “I'll consider it. I promise.”

Steve smiled. “We're your family, Tony.”

A shiver rolled over him. “Just because you consider someone to be family doesn't automatically mean they're on your side” he said, and he stepped back, pulling away before Steve could take hold of his shoulders, pull him up, shake him, force Tony to meet his eyes.

“For thirty years, I've been holding you up! I built this company up from nothing! Nothing's going to stand in my way- Least of all you!”

“Tony?”

Tony's head snapped up. “Yeah,” he said, and there was bile in his throat, harsh and sickening. He reached for his drink, and he was so proud that his hand wasn't shaking as he wrapped his fingers around the tumbler. “Sorry. You said something, Steve?”

Steve's face was pinched and pale, but he took a physical step back, taking a seat at the bar. “Can we let Jan and Sam in?” he asked, his voice quiet and gentle.

Tony waved a hand in mid-air. “Yeah. Sure. Let's get this over with.” And he tossed his head back, swallowing the rest of the drink in one long gulp. The glass hit the bar with a clatter. “Get this over with.”

*

It was just past three am when the kitchen door opened. Steve looked up, some small part of him hoping against hope that it would be Tony walking in. It wasn't. He wasn't surprised. But he was a little disappointed.

He wondered how long it would be before he managed some emotional equilibrium in this mess.

“Sorry,” Rhodey said, pausing in the doorway. “Wasn't expecting anyone else to be up this early.”

“There's usually one or two night owls,” Steve said, his voice pitched low. “But I doubt we'll have company this morning.” He leaned back in his chair, waving Rhodey in. “Team's scattered to the winds at the moment.”

“Yeah, I saw Thor standing guard up on the roof,” Rhodey said, slipping into the kitchen and letting the door swing shut behind him. His feet were bare and silent on the floor as he crossed to the fridge. “Got a wave, but he's taking his post seriously.”

“Thor takes most things seriously. Carol's out there, too,” Steve said. “She decided on a wide patrol, with Iron Man.” He ran a hand over his face. Frustration curled in his stomach, a lead weight that had made sleeping impossible. “I was kind of hoping he'd stay closer to home, at least tonight.”

“You and me both,” Rhodey said. “But you might've noticed, he doesn't take orders easily.” He paused, giving Steve a speaking glance. “Or, you know, at all.”

“I had noticed that,” Steve said. He ignored something that felt perilously like a headache building behind his temples. “It just wasn't a fight I wanted to have tonight. Of all nights.”

“Hate to tell you this, Cap, but I've been having that fight, or a variation on that fight, for as long as I've known that jackass,” Rhodey said. “I'd say get used to it, but...”

His voice trailed away. “But you never do?” Steve filled in for him.

“He finds ways to keep it new every time,” Rhodey said, and Steve couldn't quite hold back a chuckle.

“Great. Something to look forward to.” Rhodey reached for the coffeepot, and Steve added, “It's decaf.” He picked up his own cup. “Sorry. I'm on edge enough as it is.”

“That's actually why I came down,” Rhodey said, poking around in the cabinet for a clean cup. “Tony doesn't believe in decaf, and I'm not up for the high octane shit he's got in his machine right now.” He took a deep breath, and Steve could hear the strain in it. “I'm not likely to sleep today, but I like to keep hope alive, you know?”

“I think we could all use more rest than we're likely to get,” Steve said. Rhodey nodded, not even glancing in his direction. Steve tossed his pen down and leaned back in his chair. "So. When did you agree to live a double life?"

Rhodey paused, his hand resting on handle of the coffee pot. For an instant, he was still, and Steve couldn't see his face, but he could almost see the rapid fire calculations and decision making going on in Rhodey's head. It only took a moment, and then he gave a slight laugh. "Some things," he said, glancing back over his shoulder, a wry smile creasing his cheeks, "you just fall into."

Steve arched his eyebrows. "Is that so?" he asked. One finger tapped on the notepad, on the neatly printed rows of dates and figures. "That's a hell of a pitfall. Thought you were smarter than that."

Rhodey grinned. "I do give the impression of being a lot smarter than I actually am, Cap. Especially when certain people are concerned. Tony's very persuasive." He paused next to the table. "Mind if I join you?"

"I'd appreciate the company, actually." Steve waited as he settled down, his coffee cup cradled loosely in one hand.

Rhodey reached out, and Steve moved his hand, letting Rhodey pull the pad across the table towards him. "This is cryptic," he said, eyes scanning the lines. He looked up, and his gaze was sharp. "Didn't anyone give you a tablet?"

"Some things, I figured it was better to keep analog," Steve admitted. He inclined his head towards the list, dozens of neatly printed dates. "How much of this was you?"

Rhodey's shoulders rose and fell in an easy shrug. "Most of them, since I think these are all times when he was playing his other role.” He tapped a fingertip against the page. “I took to it almost as easily as he did, so, if he needed to be seen, I generally handled the undercover work,” he said, handing the pad back. "You've got a good memory."

Steve sighed. “I felt stupid,” he admitted. “When he told me.” He paused. “Well, relieved first, then stupid.”

“Then pissed?” Rhodey asked, a faint smile hovering around his mouth.

“That came later, and mostly, aimed at myself.” Steve reached for his cup, more for the desire to have something in his hands than for any need to drink more of the sludge. “I didn't know how I could've missed it, I'd always figured that I was more observant than that, you know?”

Rhodey sipped his coffee. “I don't think you should blame yourself,” he said, his eyes meeting Steve's over the rim. “He's very smart, Cap, and he knows how to use his reputation to his advantage.”

Steve stared into the cup. “So does SHIELD,” he said, his voice quiet. “I thought about it, and...” He shook his head. “All the footage they showed me, when I was catching up on things, all of it-”

“Was Tony and Iron Man,” Rhodey finished, when Steve's voice trailed off. “Makes sense. Everyone else had Tony's rather checkered past to hold against him, and you didn't. So the best way to make sure the idea never crossed your mind was to introduce both of them together.” He shook his head. “They primed the pump.”

Steve stood, his bare feet cold on the kitchen floor. “I shouldn't have fallen for it.”

“Tony wanted you to fall for it, I hate to point that out, but that is the truth,” Rhodey said, as Steve headed for the coffee pot. The coffee wasn't any better, but at least it was warmer.

“And he had help,” Steve said, filling his cup. "The way I see it, you might've had a harder job than he did.”

"I don't think so." Rhodey took a sip of his coffee, not quite quick enough to hide the smug smile on his face. "I'm not going to lie. I like that part of the job. I like-" One hand sliced through the air, a calm, balanced gesture. "Flying. I got to do that, and I got-" He paused, his eyes narrowing. "I got the better side of it."

Steve shook his head, sinking back into his chair. "I don't see-"

Rhodey's coffee cup hit the table with a firm click. "Look at your dates there. You're not right, not all the time, but the times when it had to be me, really look at them." He leaned forward. “What were they?”

Steve picked up the pad, considering the data. "Exhibitions."

"Exhibitions," Rhodey agreed. His fingers beat a rolling tattoo on the table top, firm and sharp. "If Tony had to be there to do the razzle-dazzle thing he does so well, someone needed to be doing the so called grunt work." His lips flicked, a slight smile. "I'm not going to lie. I loved it. All the fancy flying, the demonstrations, it was all the good stuff. When it was a meet and greet, a publicity stunt, I was the one doing it. All of the showing off..." His voice trailed away, his mouth going tight.

"None of the getting shot at?" Steve finished.

That surprised a bark of laughter out of him. "Yeah, that's a good way to put it. None of the getting shot at." He took a sip of coffee. "Get enough of that in my day job. Despite the fact that the goal was to protect him, he's not good at letting anyone take risks on his behalf.” His eyes closed. “Iron Man was seldom an effective bodyguard, Cap.”

Steve studied his page. "You did more than exhibitions, though.”

“Occasionally,” Rhodey agreed. “Sometimes, that was the only choice. He didn't like it, though. He knows he's put a target on his back, and it's not in his nature to let someone else take the hit that's aimed at him.” He leaned forward in his chair, propping his chin on one fist. A faint smile curled his mouth. “Luckily, I'm just as stubborn as him.”

“Think that's a bit more than lucky,” Steve said. “He couldn't have pulled this off without you.”

"I've got to admit, I enjoyed getting to step into his shoes, and bask in the spotlight for a little while. I've got enough of an ego that I can admit, well, I liked it." Rhodey held up his cup. “Kids love Iron Man. Almost as much as soldiers do.”

Steve laughed. “I've always liked him,” he admitted. “Guess I'm a little of both.”

“I, uh, I heard,” Rhodey said. His head tipped forward, his eyebrows arching. “I admit, Cap. I'm a little hurt. You never hit on me when I was on the job.”

“Considered doing it when you were off the job,” Steve admitted, and Rhodey choked on the sip of coffee he'd just taken. Rhodey gave him a disbelieving look, and Steve grinned at him. “But I figured if I was wrong, and you weren't moonlighting as Tony's employee, then I was going to get a reputation as a flirt.” He shrugged. “Two people, that can be written off as trying to make an educated choice. Three? That's pushing it,” he mused, shaking his head.

Rhodey was laughing, a hand clapped over his mouth, his eyes dancing. “You know, I think you just might have what it takes to survive this chaos,” he said.

Steve nodded, running his thumb over the cup's handle. He smoothed it up and down, considering his next words carefully. “Someone tried to kill him,” he said, and he couldn't look too closely at that. He would lose it, if he did. If he allowed himself to focus on that. “I'm not happy about that.”

Rhodey nodded. “Imagine how I feel.”

“What're the chances he's going to let us handle this?”

Rhodey burst out laughing. “None,” he said. “Absolutely no chance at all, Cap.”

Steve rubbed his forehead. “Yeah. I kind of thought that might be my answer.”

Rhodey leaned forward, holding his cup out. “Tell you what,” he said. “Call a meeting, get everyone else to show up, and Pep and I will make sure he shows. From there? It's all you, and I wish you luck with it.”

Steve clicked his cup against Rhodey's. “Deal.” He settled back. “So. How long before Iron Man comes back from patrol?”

“I'd say about thirty minutes before said meeting,” Rhodey said. “If we're lucky.”

“I don't know about you,” Steve said. “I'm not feeling lucky.”

“Cap? Get used to it.”

*

“I've been in front of congressional oversight committees that were more welcoming than this,” Tony mentioned. It wasn't far from the truth. The Avengers, when gathered in one place, could work up a wide variety of disapproving faces. When they were gathered around a conference table, every one of them being disapproving in his direction, it was a bit overwhelming. Even with Pepper seated on one side of him, and Iron Man on the other.

Of course, none of them could hold a candle to Steve. Steve, as it turned out, was the king of disapproving faces.

“Have you almost gotten them killed, too? 'Cause I think I can understand it if you almost got them killed, too,” Clint said, his feet propped on the table. He was leaning back in his chair, balancing a pen on the tip of one finger. “I mean-” His chair rocked violently to the side, and he grabbed for the table, the pen going flying.

Next to him, Natasha smiled, just a little. “Shut up, Barton,” she said, as he opened his mouth. He shut it.

“You're not helping,” Jan told him.

“Who said I was trying to help, I was trying to LIVE,” Clint said. “I like living!”

“You also like living rent free,” Tony pointed out. He glanced up from his tablet, and immediately regretted it. Steve was frowning at him, his mouth a thin line. Tony pretended not to notice. “Lack of rent carries certain downsides. Like people trying to blow up the building.”

“They weren't trying to blow up the building,” Steve said, his voice very quiet. “Just you.”

“SHIELD suggests that we locate a safe house for you-” Coulson started, and Tony didn't even look up.

“No,” he said, his tone of voice deliberately bored.

Coulson released a faint sigh. “Mr. Stark, you have to realize-”

“No,” Tony repeated. He flicked his way through the data, his fingers dancing along the surface of his tablet with what he considered a buoyant enthusiasm.

“Tony,” Steve said, bracing his hands on the table. There was a muscle jumping in the line of his jaw. Tony studied him from under the arch of his brows. He got the impression that Steve did not appreciate his boyish wit right now. He tried a bright smile. Steve scowled at him. “These people are trying to kill you.”

“Yep. Lot of people have tried to kill me,” Tony said. “And I'm still kicking, so... Not all that concerned.” He looked up, giving everyone a flat, thin smile. “And I'm not going to be chased out of my own building by this.” He stabbed at the tablet with a little more force than was strictly necessary. “I'm not making Pepper's job any harder.”

“I appreciate your consideration, but I can handle the negotiations. Want to know what would actually make my job harder?” Pepper said, her head tipped in his direction. She gave him a saccharine smile. “Having to plan your funeral.”

“That would not be hard at all,” Tony said, grinning. “I left you instructions.”

“And they are the instructions of a narcissistic madman,” Pepper said, her voice flat.

“I don't know why you expected anything different,” Tony said to her.

One fingernail tapped against the tabletop. “Tony?”

He hid his smile behind his hand, pretending to rub his chin. “Pep?”

“No,” she said, her lips forming the word with due deliberation.

Tony tipped his head in her direction. “Aren't you supposed to be backing me up here.” He waved a hand at the table. “The superheroes are judging my leadership skills right now.” His nose wrinkled. “Judging. They're-” He glanced at them. “They're judgey.”

“No, this is pretty much what we've always assumed happens at StarkIndustries,” Carol said, her hands propped on her hips. Tony opened his mouth, and she tipped her head forward, giving him a look. “We've met Pepper, Tony. There was never any doubt as to how this was going to work.”

“Don't suppose you can talk some sense into him?” Sam asked Iron Man.

Iron Man shook his head. “He's not as worried about making my job easier,” he said.

Tony refused to wince. Rhodey was going to have his head later. Still, he plunged forward. “You get hazard pay.” He looked around the room. “I appreciate the concern. I do. But we know there's a problem now. Everyone's on high alert, including me.”

“This may not be enough,” Thor said. His arms were crossed over his chest, his jaw tight. He'd refused a seat, and towered over the rest of the group, looming over Steve's shoulder at the far end of the table. “This foe will not announce himself, nor fight by any rules but his own.”

“We've dealt with worse,” Natasha said. “For less.”

Jan perched on the edge of the table, one leg swinging in midair. “I like being on familiar ground,” she said.

Carol nodded. “I don't like splitting our forces,” she said. “If he goes to a safehouse-”

“I'm not going to a safehouse,” Tony sing-songed.

She ignored him. “Then we have to prepare for attacks here, and also assume that they will find him. Who stays and who goes?” She glanced at Steve. “His absence would be noted. He's-” She looked at Tony.

“Gorgeous? Charismatic?” Tony filled in. “Noble?”

“Loud,” Carol said. Her eyes dancing, she leaned back. “If he goes off the grid, they're going to know he's gone.”

“Which doesn't matter, as long as we can keep him under wraps,” Coulson said.

“Do you hear yourself?” Jan asked him. “How do you manage to SAY that with a straight face?”

“Years of practice,” Coulson said. Still, he rubbed his head. “All right, Mr. Stark. What is your plan?”

“Staying right here, beefing up security, and having Iron Man stick close until this is over,” Tony said.

Steve's eyes narrowed. “You need more backup than Iron Man,” he said.

Tony met his eyes without flinching. “I don't,” he said, with an easy smile. Almost without looking, he continued with his work. “I'm not putting anyone else in harm's way. Iron Man and I will deal with this.”

“Really.” Steve braced one hand on the table, leaning his weight on it. “Iron Man.”

“Do you have a problem with my bodyguard, well, guarding my body?” Tony asked, very carefully.

“I think that you need more than Iron Man to do that job right now,” Steve said. It sounded like he was grinding his teeth. “He needs sleep, as much as you do.”

“I'm working on eliminating that from my schedule,” Tony said, and Steve's hand twitched against the table. “If we need help, you'll be the first one to hear about it.”

“At least see if Rhodes can get leave,” Sam started, and Tony gave up on humor and subtlety.

Tony stood, taking his time about pulling himself out of his chair. "I will not be chased from my own home," he said, his voice very calm, and very controlled. Steve scowled at him across the length of the table, and Tony leaned in, bracing his hands on the smooth wood. "I will not be intimidated, and I will not be threatened."

"No," Steve said, his voice tight, "but at this rate, you might be dead."

The spike of rage was as irrational as it was sudden, and Tony gave him a tight smile. “I think we're done here.” He shoved away from the table, heading for the door. Pepper was just a beat behind him, and Iron Man stood as well.

“Shellhead, a word?” Steve asked. His head was down, his palms spread on the table. “Unless your employer objects?”

Tony waved a hand. “Catch up when you're done,” he said, and he stomped out of the room, tablet clutched in one hand.

For a minute, Pepper just followed, letting him calm down. “That wasn't your best showing,” she said as he stabbed at the elevator button. It wasn't judgmental. It wasn't scolding. It was just a calm statement of fact. Somehow, that only made Tony feel worse about the whole thing.

Tony stepped into the elevator. “Yeah,” he said. He slumped back against the wall. “I'm aware.” He shoved a hand through his hair. “I'll do better next time. If there is a next time.”

Pepper's head tipped back. “You're going to have trouble.”

“I know, I know, I know,” Tony said, bringing his head forward and letting it fall back against the wall of the elevator. “Steve is pissed.”

“Well, yes, but-” She gave him a sideways look. “Wanda didn't say a word. She is not happy with you.”

Tony made a face. “She can join the very large, very varied club,” he said. “At least she's not currently trying to bomb me.”

The elevator moved up in silence. "There's only one person who benefits from this," Pepper said, her voice low and tight.

Tony glanced at her, momentarially confused. She looked at him, her face worried, and it clicked. "No.” The faint chime announced the floor, and he pushed himself upright.

“Tony...”

“Pep,” he said, striding out of the elevator, “he doesn't benefit from me getting my ass blown up."

"Fairly certain he does," Pepper said. Her heels were making a snapping sound against the tile, sharp and cracking. He wasn't sure how she did it, but when she wanted to, she had angry feet. Her eyes twitched in his direction, going narrow and mean when she caught sight of his grin. "It's not funny, Tony."

"Just thinking about your shoes," Tony admitted. “I like them.”

"I'll buy you your own set, can we focus?"

"You know we can't," Tony said, waving a hand through the air. "And no. He does not benefit." Pepper came to a stop, her jaw coming up at an obstinate angle, and Tony leaned in. "He doesn't. If I die, you inhereit, and you will burn his company to the ground and salt the earth on which it stood. You will nuke him from low orbit, and he KNOWS that."

Pepper's eyes narrowed. "You're not wrong," she admitted at last, so grudging that Tony had to smile.

"People try to kill me because they hate me, or because I've pissed them off recently, or because they're crazy, or because I'm standing between them and the thing they want at the moment they want it," Tony said.

"It's not comforting that there's a list of reasons why people try to kill you," Pepper said. She hugged her tablet to her chest, her perfect nails scraping against the unyielding surface. “Also, that it's so extensive.”

"But true," Tony pointed out. "And it's also true-" He leaned in, clasping her shoulders. "No one tries to kill me to gain a business advantage. You'd bury them."

Her chin came up. "I would, and you're not distracting me," she said.

"Yes, I am." He leaned forward, brushing a kiss against her forehead. "Thanks, Pepper."

"Making time with my girl?"

They both turned as Iron Man stepped through the door, Rhodey pulling the helmet free as soon as it was closed behind him. "She was my girl first," Tony pointed out.

"And she's her own girl forever, because you're both idiots," Pepper told them. She crossed the room to the bar, slipping behind it. She set her tablet down and went for the beer cooler. "Fuzzy Baby Ducks?" she asked, making Tony laugh.

"Stupidest damn name," Rhodey complained.

"That's a yes," Tony said, yanking his tie loose. "He loves his Fuzzy Baby Ducks."

"One of these days, I swear I'm going to toss you off the roof," Rhodey said. But he took the bottle that Pepper offered him with a murmur of thanks and a light kiss. She took it as her due, her fingers cupping his cheeks to draw it out.

"If you were going to do that, it would've been back at MIT," Tony said, sneaking behind her while she was distracted. This relationship was going to be useful. "You've mellowed."

"And you've gotten worse." Rhodey arched an eyebrow. "Way worse." He reached over the bar to set a finger in the middle of Tony's chest, right over the arc reactor. "If you die-"

Tony threw his hands in the air. "I am not going to die!"

Rhodey looked at Pepper, who shook her head. "Do not," she said, dumping half a dozen olives in a martini glass. "I've had this discussion. You're late."

"I was heading off worried superheroes," Rhodey said. He rubbed his forehead, his face scrunching up. "So many worried superheroes.”

Tony leaned on the bar. “For a bunch of people who can throw a tank into Jersey from midtown, they fuss. I did not expect that. The fussing. It's worrying.” Shrugging, he picked up the gin, only to have Pepper snatch it out of his hands. “I was using that-” he started.

“And I don't care,” Pepper said. To Rhodey, she added, “Would you like to trade responsiblities? I can offer favorable terms."

"I'll take Tony and you'll take the rest of the team? Watch it, I might take you up on that."

"With friends like the two of you, who needs enemies?" Tony asked, to no one in particular. They turned to look at him, identical gimlet glares from very different faces, and he couldn't help the grin that broke over his face. "You're starting to look like each other. Isn't it early in the relationship for that to be happening? Shouldn't it take at least a few months of dating before you merge into a single entity that exists only to worry at me?"

"Most people wait until they have children before they have to stress this much about another person," Rhodey said. He took a long drink of his beer, the armor's gauntlet bright against the dark glass. “I need you to get some less stupid beers,” he told Tony, even as he took another long sip.

"Do I get one?" Tony asked. “I mean, it is my bar and my booze and all of that is in my penthouse, so I'd think that I'd get-”

"No," they both said at once.

Tony stopped, his eyes rolling up to the ceiling. “Do I need to be here for this?” he asked. “Or can you two handle it on your own, without my input? Because I have things to do, things I should be doing, maybe I should-”

Rhodey pointed a finger at him. “Don't even try it, Tone.”

Tony smirked at him. “Have we met, Rhodes? I'm going to try it. I'm always going to try it. You name it, and I'm going to try. It's-”

Rhodey smacked his bottle down on the bar and reached out, cupping Tony's head between his hands. “I love you,” he said, and Tony stilled. Rhodey leaned in. “I do not want to lose you over something this stupid.”

“Telling you now,” Pepper said, leaning on the bar, her martini held loosely in one hand, “if you die for something this stupid? I'm 'losing' your funeral instructions and I'm tossing your body into the Hudson.” She looked over, fluttering her eyelashes at Tony. “And you'll be naked.” With a sweet smile, she drained her drink.

“That woman is just mean,” Tony said to Rhodey, who smiled.

“I love that about her,” Rhodey agreed. “And she's right, so... I'll help her.” He let go of Tony's head, the cool metal of his fingers slipping away. “Seriously, Tony, someone tried to kill you, I think you need to take that-”

“Seriously,” Tony finished. He stole one of Pepper's olives, and this time, she let him. He popped it into his mouth. “They weren't trying to kill me.” He shrugged. “If they had been? I would be dead.”

Rhodey's eyes narrowed. “Okay,” he said, slow and careful. “What's going on in that head of yours?”

Tony rolled the olive around in his mouth, savoring the salty sting of the brine. “If they were trying to kill me, why didn't that envelope blow up sooner?”

“What?” Rhodey glanced at Pepper, who shook her head.

“Oh, please, like he tells me anything,” she said.

“Stop threatening to throw me in the Hudson, maybe I'd trust you more,” Tony pointed out.

“Only if you die in a manner I consider stupid,” Pepper pointed out. “That's fair, Tony. That is me being perfectly fair.”

Tony considered that. “True.”

Rhodey rapped his knuckles on the bar. “Can we focus on the attempted murder here?” He reached for his beer. “What do you mean, what envelope?”

Tony leaned his arms on the bar. “The explosion, ” he said, eyeing Pepper's glass. She handed him the jar of olives. “I've been looking at the data, the scans, the security footage. Not hard to figure out the flashpoint.” He fished an olive out of the jar and popped it in his mouth. “I picked up a pile of mail from the receptionist, dropped it on my desk just before I headed to your place, Pep. Figured it had been sitting there for days already, I could handle it when I came back.”

He leaned forward. “And one of those envelopes exploded. After I left.”

“An envelope?” Pepper asked, shaking her head. “Doesn't everything get scanned before it's allowed in the building?”

“Yeah, it is,” Tony said. “Jarvis, can you give us an image?”

The holographic image snapped into place over the bar. It was a slightly oversized white envelope, the kind that might hold a small catalog or some eight by ten pages folded in half. Tony reached up and rotated it with a flick of his fingers. The address was handwritten, with a flowing, elegant script, and the flap was sealed with a kiss, the lipstick bright pink against the white paper.

“The mail room apparently decided not to open something that was clearly-” Tony arched his eyebrows. “Personal.” He stopped the rotation with one finger. “It was the only thing in that stack that hadn't been opened.

“However, it arrived six days ago. Sat in the mailroom for one day and with the receptionist after that, because Bambi's been doing double duty.” He straightened up. “So. Something triggered the explosion.” He looked up. “About an hour after I touched it.”

He picked up the image and tossed it to Rhodey. “They weren't trying to kill me. They were trying to scare me.” He reached for the olives. “They just didn't care if they killed anyone else while they were doing it.”

Rhodey caught the hologram, steadying it in the air. “You're sure it was this?”

Tony made a see-saw motion with one hand. “Ninety-five percent. It's the only thing that made it to my office intact, and the flashpoint was definitely the mail pile. Scans, security footage, everything makes that clear. This is our culprit.”

Rhodey was already shaking his head. “No way anything this small-”

“Yeah, that's the problem,” Tony said, cutting him off. “This small. This light. Scans picked up nothing but paper. But somehow-” He rolled an olive between his fingers. “It exploded with enough force to rip a chunk of the building apart, and it did it only after I touched it.” He glanced at Pepper first, then Rhodey. “We're talking about a completely unknown tech. Tech that got past Jarvis.”

He studied the olive, and popped it into his mouth. “It limits the suspects. Mostly to people I hate.”

“Yes, it does,” Rhodey said. “SHIELD know any of this?”

“I'm considering letting them in on my conclusions, but...” He stopped, glancing at Pepper, who was staring at the olive jar, her brow furrowed.

“But?” Rhodey prompted.

“How close are we to gaining controlling interest?” Tony asked Pepper.

“Very close,” she said.

He nodded. “And how desperate do you think he is to stop that?”

“Desperate enough to involve someone who hates you almost as much as he does,” she said, very quiet.

“In other words, desperate enough to get in way over his head,” Tony said. “I think he tried to recruit some muscle, only to find he can't control them.”

Her eyes flashed up. “This wasn't to scare me, or you.”

“I think they were trying to scare him,” Tony agreed. “I hate to ask, but maybe, can you-”

“Speed things up a bit?” Pepper finished. She reached for the martini shaker, refilling her glass with a practiced hand. “Yes, I think that would be a good idea.”

Rhodey tapped a finger on the bar. “Anyone feel like cluing me in here?” he asked.

“Do we tell him business secrets?” Tony asked Pepper.

“He has clearance, and he's currently extremely well armed,” she said. “So I vote yes.”

“Hey,” Rhodey said. “I'm always well armed.”

The door chime brought all their heads around. Rhodey grabbed the suit's helmet off of the bar, pulling it on in a smooth, practiced motion. Still, Tony stepped between him and the elevator. “Jarvis?” he asked.

“Captain Rogers is requesting access to the penthouse,” Jarvis said.

Tony reached for Pepper's martini. She slapped his hand. “Let him in, maybe he'll actually be on my side,” Tony said, giving her a hurt look. She sipped her martini, obviously unimpressed, so he rubbed his wrist and tried to look hurt. Pepper rolled her eyes.

Giving up, Tony headed for the elevator. “Hail, hail, the gang's all here,” he sang as the door opened. “Are you here to-” His voice trailed away, the words dying in his throat.

Steve stepped over the threshold, still in full uniform, and Tony was pretty sure that was never, ever going to get old. He was never going to get used to that, to that man, in or out of that particular suit, stepping into his space.

The view wasn't quite enough to distract him from the massive duffel that was thrown over Steve's shoulder. Tony stared at it, then at Steve. “Moving in?” he asked, as a joke, of course it was a joke, right up until Steve gave him a steely eyed look.

“Figure 'Iron Man' might need a break, despite your opinion,” Steve said, dropping the bag. It hit with a very final sounding thump. “And me being here keeps the rest of the team off of your doorstep.” He took a deep, audible breath. “You know they're not going to let you do this alone, Tony.”

Tony stared at the bag. “This is a horrible idea,” he said to no one in particular. But there was no panic to the words, no anger.

He'd never admit it, but he was sick of being alone.

Steve took a step forward, not quite in Tony's personal space, but close enough that Tony could reach out and touch. If he'd been inclined to do so. Which he was. Always.

“You need backup,” Steve said, his voice quiet. “Tell me you know that.”

“I know this is a really lousy idea,” Tony said.

“I know,” Pepper said, her voice bright. “Let's take a vote! All for someone actually staying with Tony when I'm halfway across the city and Rhodey is halfway across the country, raise your hand.” She raised hers. Steve raised his. And Rhodey raised both of his.

“What are you doing?” Tony asked him. “What're you, seven? You're seven. It's adorable. Seriously, what is this?”

“Casting my vote,” Rhodey said with a smirk. “And Iron Man's.” He turned on his heel. “C'mon, Cap. Let me show you where the guest rooms are.”

“You're all traitors,” Tony said. It didn't bother him nearly as much as he'd expected.

Chapter Text

This was the stupidest idea he'd ever had, and that was saying a lot. Steve had had some dang dumb ideas in his life.

He rolled over, trying to find a comfortable spot on the couch. It was a losing battle, but he preferred the attempt to just lying there and staring at the ceiling. Now, at least, he could stare out the windows at the city skyline beyond it.

And try not to think about how close they'd all come to disaster.

A flicker of light went past, an arc of something golden and gleaming, and he smiled. Looked like someone else was still up. Carol usually didn't bother with the light show unless she was about to hand someone their ass. Which made this a particularly obvious show of force.

Comforted that he wasn't the only one watching their six, Steve pushed himself upright, tossing the blanket aside and standing. It was strange to be half dressed, in a pair of training shorts and a t-shirt, in the middle of Tony's living room, strange to be there at all. He sucked in a slow, calming breath, and stood, heading towards the bathroom.

He shut the door before turning off the light, blinking as it flared to life. He turned the water in the sink on, as cold as he could get it, and splashed his face before reaching for the cup sitting beside the toothpaste.

“Captain?”

He started, just a bit, his muscles going tense all at once, the water sloshing over the rim of the glass. He exhaled, setting it down and reaching for the tap. “Jarvis?”

“My apologies for startling you,” Jarvis said.

“It's fine, I just-” Steve shook his head, letting his breath out in a sigh. “I'm a bit on edge, Jarvis. It's been a long day.” He paused. “Long couple of days, actually.”

“Yes, Captain. It most certainly has.” Jarvis paused, just a beat, but long enough for Steve to look up, towards where he suspected the camera might be.

He gave Jarvis his best attempt at a reassuring smile. “What's up, Jarvis?”

“There are several guest bedrooms within sir's personal quarters,” Jarvis said. “Perhaps you might find it easier to sleep in a proper bed.”

Steve nodded. “You're probably right,” he said. He picked up the glass and drained it in a couple of quick swallows. “But I'm not here to sleep comfortably. I'm here to-” He stopped, suddenly realizing how stupid this all was. What did he think he was going to do? He glanced up, catching sight of his pale, haunted face in the mirror.

He sucked in a breath. “Protect him,” he said, because maybe he couldn't do that. Maybe he couldn't keep Tony safe. “Or at least, I can make sure he's not alone.” He shook his head, and filled the glass again. “It's fine, Jarvis, I can sleep almost anywhere.” He took another sip. “And I have.”

“I understand.” Jarvis sounded almost amused, and Steve glanced up. “Still, there is no reason-”

The scream, sharp and harsh and stifled in an instant, brought them both up short.

“Captain!”

Steve heard Jarvis, but didn't really take in what the AI was saying. He was already running, full out, his legs chewing up the distance, wanting the shield so much that it was a physical ache, but not willing to backtrack for it. He just ran, taking the corner so fast that his bare feet slid against the carpet, and then he was crashing through the door to Tony's bedroom, coming in fast and low, ready for anything.

Tony was sitting upright in bed, his head snapping up as his door came bouncing across the floor. His eyes locked with Steve's, one hand up and out in Iron Man's characteristic repulsor position, but his palm was empty and his arm was shaking. For an instant, they just stared at each other, the sound of Tony's scream echoing like a fractured drumbeat in Steve's ears.

“What-” Steve started, and he was an idiot, because he already knew what it was.

Tony sucked in a breath. “Just-” His face was pale in the low light, his eyes huge and dark and full of something Steve couldn't quite identify. His hand subsided down to the bed. “Just a nightmare, Cap,” he finished, and he tried to smile. It died, not quite formed, and Tony ran both hands over his face. “Sorry, I must've...” His voice trailed away.

Steve slumped back against the wall, his breath coming in quick, hard pants, adrenaline and fear still churning through his blood. “Okay,” he said, and he couldn't stop from scanning the room, over and over, trying to find a threat that he knew wasn't there. “You're sure?”

The sound that came out of Tony was a strange, choked off cough. “Yeah,” he said, when Steve looked at him. He managed a wan, wobbly smile. “Yes. Absolutely certain. Just-” His head bobbed. “Just a nightmare.”

“There is no one else present at this time,” Jarvis said. “And no detectable threats.”

Steve nodded, embarrassment sweeping over him in a wave. “Just me,” he said, because he was an absolute idiot. “Sorry-”

Tony drew his knees up, folding his arms on top of them. “No, it's-” He shook his head, and when he looked up again, he was smiling. “Thanks. Thanks for-”

“For crashing into your bedroom and probably scaring a few years off of your life?” Steve asked, managing a slight smile of his own.

“It was a little bit of a shock. I mean. You knocked my door off of the hinges,” Tony said. He sounded vaguely stymied by that.

Steve leaned forward, bracing his hands on his thighs and sucking in a slow, deep breath. “Trust me,” he said, his head shaking from side to side. “I'm aware.”

“You just-” Tony's voice faded out. “You knocked it right off, there.”

“Yeah. I know.” Steve pushed himself back upright. “Look, I'm sorry, that was an over reaction, I didn't mean to make you-”

“That should not be as hot as it was,” Tony mused, and Steve lost his train of thought mid-word.

He stared at Tony. “What?”

Tony peered over the edge of the bed at the remains of his door. “Are you all right?” he asked.

“Are you asking me or your door?” Steve asked.

“Pretty sure even if the door had ever been capable of answering me,” Tony said, his eyes tipping up towards Steve, “it's not now.” His mouth curled up in a smile. “I liked that door.”

“Sorry,” Steve said, running a hand through his hair. And then, because he didn't have any idea what else he should say, he repeated it. “Sorry.”

“Hard to be mad at you for it.” Tony slumped back against his pillows, his head falling back. He took a breath, and his chest flexed with the force of it. Tony's lips parted on a long, slow exhale, and Steve caught himself staring at his mouth, at the line of his jaw and his exposed throat.

He jerked his head down, staring at his feet. Adrenaline and his own particular brand of lovesick need was not a good combination.

“Are you all right?”

Steve's head snapped up. Tony was staring at him, his brow furrowed. “Steve?” he said, pushing himself back upright. “Are you all right? Did you hurt-”

Steve waved him off. “No. Just-” He glanced down at the remains of the door. “Nothing's hurt but my pride.”

“The worst kind of injury,” Tony said, with a straight face. “I would know.”

“I'll just, I can deal with this now,” Steve said, even though he had no idea how. “Or I can-” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder, already taking a step back towards the hall. “I'm going to go back to the living room, and deal with this in the morning.”

“You could stay.”

Steve paused, his hands locked on the ragged remains of Tony's door frame. “I don't think that's a good idea,” he said at last. His exhaled, and it sounded obscenely loud in the silence of the room. He looked back over his shoulder, and immediately regretted it. Tony was sitting there, naked to the waist, his sheets and blankets pooled in his lap, his skin gleaming a tawny gold in the low light of the bedside lamp. Tony shifted forward, and the muscles of his chest and shoulders flexed. Steve's fingers curled against his palms, sucking in a slow, uneven breath. “Do you?”

Tony smiled, just a little, a wicked curl of his lips, and Steve couldn't stop his eyes from dropping, from focusing on that mouth. “Probably not,” he agreed. He sucked in a breath, and nodded, a quick dip of his chin. “You're probably right.”

Steve opened his mouth, about to agree, when Tony reached up, pushing a hand through his hair. Even in the low light, he could see Tony's hand shaking.

“Yeah, bad idea,” Steve said. “Give me a second.” Without waiting for a reply, he turned on his heel, heading back out into the hallway and across Tony's apartment to the living room. He stopped only long enough to grab his shield from beside the couch, and then he retraced his steps back to Tony's bedroom.

Steve paused in the doorway. “It's a big bed,” he said, and Tony's head came up.

“I do love a man who brings protection for his first time,” Tony said, as easy and glib as ever, but Steve knew that he wasn't imagining the look of relief that rolled over his face.

“Still a bad idea,” Steve said, but he couldn't keep his feet from moving in Tony's direction. Tony obligingly moved to the other side of the massive mattress, and Steve found himself faced with the prospect of crawling into his bed, in between sheets still warm from his body.

He was losing his mind.

“It's all right,” Tony said, as Steve set the shield down within easy reach and paused, his fingers just brushing against the fabric of the sheets. “I trust you.”

Steve gave him a look. “Maybe you shouldn't,” he said, but he threw back the blankets and crawled into bed. It was a horrible idea, it was the worst idea he'd had in at least a couple of decades, because the sheets smelled like Tony's skin, of his soap and his shampoo. Steve settled down, half-burying his face in the pillow, and inhaled.

Maybe insanity was going to work out for him.

The silence stretched, and Steve opened his eyes to find Tony staring down at him, his dark eyes shadowed by the long sweep of his lashes. He reached out, his fingers brushing a lock of Steve's hair away from his forehead. His fingertips lingered against Steve's skin, the gesture gentle, and Steve stopped breathing.

Tony pulled away, moving down under the covers, and Steve said, “Tell me you're not naked.” It slipped out before he could stop it, the words echoing in the space between them, and Tony choked on a laugh.

“I'm wearing pants,” he said. “But I can fix that pretty quick, if you need me to.”

Steve's face felt hot, and he concentrated on not thinking on just how quickly HE could fix that. “Let's just keep the pants on,” he said. “Probably-” He cleared his throat and tugged the blankets a little higher up on his chest. “Safer.”

“Probably,” Tony agreed. He settled down. “Jarvis, can you drop the lights? Give us-” He looked at Steve. “Twenty-five percent okay with you?” Steve nodded. “Make it so, Jay.”

The lights went down, and Steve tried to relax. Tried not to focus on the way the Tony's skin went shallow as the shadows closed in. It took a second for his eyes to adjust, but when they did, Steve found Tony looking back at him. “You okay with this?” Tony asked.

Steve nodded. “It's a big bed.”

“It was here when I moved in,” Tony said, waving a hand through the air. He shifted, and the blankets moved against Steve's skin. “I told the decorator that I wanted a big bed. I was thinking King sized, maybe a California King.”

Steve stretched his arm out, across the broad expanse of the bed. “I think they skipped those and went directly to 'orgy sized.'”

Tony choked on a laugh. “Well, that explains so much,” he said, rolling over. “I wasn't aware that it was an official classification for beds.”

“You learn something new every day,” Steve said, because he was losing his mind, and he didn't even know what he was saying anymore. But Tony was laughing, low and warm, little bursts of laughter, and that made up for the fact that Steve was making an idiot of himself. “I mean, if you're going to be regularly throwing orgies, you need room to move. You don't want elbows hitting all over the place.”

“Kills the mood,” Tony agreed, his voice so carefully bland that Steve had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing out loud. “Completely. Knocking funny bones when you should be knocking boots.”

“'Knocking boots?'” Steve asked, grinning up at the ceiling. “Really?”

“It's hard to keep up with you,” Tony said. “I mean, who knew you were so well versed on orgy etiquette?”

Steve shrugged. “Well,” he said, and he could never resist a dare, spoken or implied, it was a weakness, and right now, he didn't care. He might've been reveling in it. “I try to be subtle about these things. Once you get a reputation for being an 'orgy guy,' well, that just follows you everywhere.”

“That's the kind of thing that they wouldn't be able to resist putting into your Smithsonian exhibit,” Tony said. “I mean, they'd have to rename it.” He paused, and Steve just waited, grinning into the darkness. “'Steve Rogers: Captain America and Dedicated Orgy Guy,'” Tony said, and Steve buried his face in his pillow to muffle his laughter.

Tony waited until the worst of it had passed, then added, “I like it. It's got a real ring to it. It's got brand recognition.”

“Pretty sure that the Smithsonian isn't going to use the phrase 'dedicated orgy guy,'” Steve said, rolling onto his side. He bunched his pillow up under his cheek and stared into the darkness, smiling as Tony's head tipped towards him.

“Well, not for YOU,” Tony said. He shifted, and so did Steve, rolling onto his stomach, then flopping onto his back, trying to find a comfortable spot. After he stilled, Tony added, “It would just be too shocking for the American sensibilities.”

“Not ever,” Steve said.

“It's the Smithsonian, they'd need direct sources, and who's going to claim they were in an orgy with you?”

“Every single girl who was part of my USO tour,” Steve said, pressing a hand to his face. “A couple of those women are still around, and let me tell you, they are firecrackers, every one of them. Most of 'em would relish the chance to shock their grandkids one last time.”

“I can fund this exhibit, you know this, I think I'd really enjoy the company of your USO dancers,” Tony said, and Steve laughed.

“God, now I'm imagining them skipping saying they had an orgy with me and saying they had an orgy with YOU,” he said,

“I'm fine with this,” Tony said. “I like scandals. I mean, look who I'm sharing a bed with. A known orgy instigator. And I'm not judging at all.”

“You're a stand up guy,” Steve said. He rolled over, trying to find a comfortable spot, and found himself face to face with Tony. His breath seized in his throat, just for a second, or even less. Because somehow this was fine. It was better than fine.

Tony was still for a second, his eyes brilliant in the shadows. “Know what the real problem with this bed is?” he whispered.

“Not enough lumbar support?” Steve whispered back, like these were secrets they were sharing.. “No, I know, you must have to get the sheets custom made.” Tony let out a snort of laughter. Steve grinned. “I'm serious, what do you do, hire your own factory? There's an acre of cotton here, I think, and-”

“Is this because I called you an orgy guy?” Tony managed.

“No, I like scandals,” Steve said, mimicking his inflection, because he loved the sound of Tony's laughter, half-muffled in the pillows. “Look who I'm sharing a bed with.”

“A gorgeous, sexy, hot-”

“We need to work on your self-esteem.” Steve grinned, tucking an arm under his head. “What's the real problem with this bed?” he asked.

Tony was silent for a moment. And then his hand moved, just a few inches closer. “When you're sleeping alone, you know it,” he said. “You're aware of just how empty it is.”

His fingers brushed against Steve's, the tips just barely making contact. The touch was fleeting, almost cautious, and Steve moved without thinking, tangling their fingers together. He let his eyes fall shut, focusing on the feeling of Tony's fingertips against his.

“Steve?” Tony whispered, and Steve made a soft sound of acknowledgment. He heard Tony chuckle, and his fingers flexed against Steve's. “Good night, Cap.”

Steve was pretty sure he said good night. It seemed like he polite thing to do.

*

“I have coffee,” Tony pointed out. “I have a kitchen and it's well stocked with coffee.”

“I know,” Steve said. He smiled at Tony, even as he guided him towards the elevator. Tony went, but he let Steve nudge him in the right direction. The contact was comforting, and he resisted the urge to lean back into Steve's hand. Or better yet, his body. “But the team needs to see you.”

Tony's eyes rolled up towards the ceiling. “I'm absolutely certain that's not true,” he said, as the elevator closed. “They saw me yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. I haven't changed much, and I'm not really up to put on a show, so maybe-”

Steve's fingers caught his chin, tipping it up. Tony stilled, the words dying on his tongue, as Steve leaned over. The kiss was soft and warm, and he smiled against Steve's mouth. “Maybe,” Steve whispered, “you're a member of our team, just as much as Iron Man is, and our friend. Maybe, just maybe-” He straightened up. “You need to be reminded of that fact right now.”

Tony's breath stuttered in his throat. “Can't imagine what you're talking about,” he whispered. “I consider myself the center of the universe, no reason for me to-”

Steve kissed him again, and Tony swayed against him. “Is this how you plan on shutting me up when I start babbling?” he asked Steve. “Because I approve.”

“Maybe I just like kissing you, that ever occur to you?” Steve asked, and as the elevator slowed, he took a step back. “Have breakfast with everyone. Okay?”

“I'm having breakfast with everyone,” Tony agreed, as they stepped off. “Then Iron Man and I have business to take care of.”

Steve gave him a sharp look. “What kind of business?” he asked.

“StarkIndustries business,” Tony said, his footsteps picking up speed as he headed for the kitchen. His best bet was to get in the middle of the others before Steve could start asking questions that he really didn't want to answer.

He threw open the door to the kitchen. “Morning, one and all,” he crowed, and headed straight for the coffee maker. “Everyone accounted for?”

Jan, perched on the counter next to the toaster, paused in the act of retrieving her toast. “Wanda's meditating,” she said, slapping jam on with a heavy hand.

“And Thor just took over perimeter patrol from me,” Carol said.

“And I've got third shift,” Sam said, yawning as he poked at his scrambled eggs. “Unless Iron Man's got dibs.”

“He's keeping an eye on the SI offices across town,” Tony said. He considered the stove, but food seemed like more effort than it was worth. He reached for a coffee cup. “Pepper needs him more than I do right now.” He gave them a smile. “I've got all of you, after all.”

“Does that mean we start getting a salary for bodyguard duty?” Clint asked. “Cause I'm fine with that.”

“Sure, and I'll be raising your rent accordingly.” Tony poured himself a cup of coffee. “Steve? Want a hit of this?”

“Thanks,” Steve said, even as Natasha waved him over. She held out a tablet.

“New intel from SHIELD,” she said. One pale eyebrow arched. “Came through last night, but you didn't answer your door.”

Steve took it from her. “Yeah, I spent the night with Tony.”

Everyone stopped dead. Tony's head snapped up, his eyes going wide as they met Steve's. Steve opened his mouth, and closed it.

“Oh, you diiiiiiiiiiiid, did you?” Jan asked, sticking the spoon from the jam in her mouth. She grinned around the stem of the spoon. “Cap, you dog.”

“Okay, wait,” Steve started, as Sam's fork clattered to his plate.

Sam stared at Steve, his mouth gaping open just the tiniest bit. Steve held up a hand, shaking his head. Sam leaned back in his chair, spreading his hands wide, nearly clipping Carol with his coffee cup. She, for her part, propped her chin on one fist and sipped her coffee.

“I like this,” she said. “It's like playing Charades, but without the bother of getting any hints.

“Four words,” Natasha said from her other side. Her eyes narrowed on Sam. “First word. You. Second word, Are-”

“An idiot,” Sam finished for them, giving them a sideways look. “Who invited you two into this conversation. Really, this is a private conversation-”

“This group has never met a private conversation that they couldn't interrupt,” Steve pointed out. He crossed to the coffee pot. “Sorry,” he mouthed at Tony.

“Hey, feel free to announce to anyone that we spent the night together,” Tony said, leaning back against the counter. He smiled at Steve, warmth curling in his stomach. “When I do it, it just looks like bragging.”

“Rogers, can I have a word with you?” Sam asked, standing up, and everyone's head swung back in Steve's direction.

“No,” Steve said.

“Wait, no secrets,” Clint said, shoveling a spoonful of chocolate and marshmallow cereal into his mouth. He hunched over his bowl, his eyes darting back and forth. “You can't have secrets. We're a team. Secrets make bad teams.”

“I have secrets,” Tony said, almost without thinking.

“No one cares about your secrets,” Clint said.

Tony paused, his coffee cup halfway to his mouth. “That's strangely comforting,” he said.

“You're supposed to have secrets,” Carol said, waving a piece of toast at him. “Cap is an open book. Secretless.”

“I have-” Steve stopped, and pressed a hand to his face. “Why are we talking about this?”

“Because no one at this table has a love life?” Bruce said, staring down at his scientific journal. Tony grinned at him, amused by his attempt to ignore what was happening, but incapable of leaving.

“Excuse you,” Jan said, her hands going to her hips. “I have a love life.”

“No one here has a love life, except Jan, who's just a nosy bitch,” Carol said, and grinned as Jan threw a balled up napkin at her.

Natasha ignored them, studying Steve with narrowed eyes. “Steve has secrets,” she said at last. She stole a piece of cereal from the edge of Clint's bowl.

“No, he doesn't,” Tony said, holding up his hands. “Really, it's-”

“He sure as hell does, and I think he should be telling someone his secrets,” Sam said, bracing his hands on the table.

“Nothing happened!” Steve said. Everyone looked at him. Then everyone looked at each other. Steve groaned. “Not that it's any of your business, any of you, but nothing happened. I was on guard duty, in case there was another attack. Which you all know.” He looked around the room. “And that's all. Is that understood?”

There was a beat of silence. Jan looked at Tony. Tony gave her a 'what?' shrug, and poured himself another cup of coffee. With a sigh, Jan stood, sashaying her way across the kitchen. Then, with the flare of a presentation model on a television game show, she gestured at Steve. Steve stared at her, confusion all over his face.

"Hey, don't blame me," Tony said, grinning at them. "I made a pass, Van Dyne. He's the one you've got to convince."

Steve flushed. "Okay, I think we're done with this topic of conversation "

Jan heaved a sigh, then crossed back across the kitchen, pivoted neatly on one hand, and repeated her presentation gesture in Tony's direction. Tony, because shame was a foreign concept even when he didn't have an audience, posed.

"Yes, thank you, I'm aware," Steve said, pressing a hand to his eyes. "Can we not do this right now?"

“We can do it later,” Tony said to Jan.

“If we're going to convince him, you need to be dressed better,” she said. “Where did you get that shirt?”

Tony arched an eyebrow at her. “My closet.”

“Oh, yes, the place where fashion goes to die,” Jan said, tapping a finger against her lips.

“Are you negging me?” Tony asked. “Really. Are you just insulting me in the hopes that I'll let you into my pants?” He took a sip of his coffee. “Or rather, hoping that I'll give you my pants?”

“I'll get you better pants,” Jan said with a bright grin.

“I'm sure that will help my romantic endevors. But no, I'm not sleeping with Steve.” Tony took a sip of his coffee. "Just to clarify, I'm not sleeping with Iron Man, either," he said. He arched an eyebrow, his eyes sweeping across the room. "Who had that in the pool?"

"What pool-" Jan started with a bright smile.

"You told him about the pool?" Clint asked Steve, indignant, and Natasha reached over, smacking him hard on the back of the head. Clint jerked to the side, trying to move out of reach. "OW!" He rubbed his head. "What was that for?"

"General stupidity," she told him. And to Tony, "No one had that in the pool."

“Does that mean I win?” Tony asked.

“I think it means that Bruce wins,” Natasha said.

“I do not want to be involved in the pool,” Bruce said, but he was smiling down at his journal.

“You're not, you're just reaping the benefits,” Natasha pointed out.

“Well, then, in that case, I'm fully in favor of the pool,” Bruce said. “I take cash or personal check.”

“Steve...” Sam said, and Steve let out a sigh.

“Wait here,” Steve said to Tony.

“I need to take a shower,” Tony said.

Steve gave him a narrow eyed look. “Not an answer,” he said.

Tony held up his hands. “I'll be here,” he said, taking a seat next to Bruce and reaching for the plate of toast. And it said a lot about his life that the lie came so easily.

*

Tony pulled the brim of his hat down, tipping it over his forehead as he slipped out of the elevator. The garage was empty, but he moved carefully, sticking to the places where he knew the camera coverage was spotty. There was no way to avoid being seeing entirely, but he could make sure that he wasn't seen clearly.

And move as fast as he could without running. Because the last thing he wanted was to attract attention. If he did this right, if he was careful, he could make it to one of his less obvious cars and be out of the Tower before anyone realized that he was-

"Where are we going?"

Tony bit back on the impulse to swear. It was harder than it should've been. He pasted a pleasant expression on his face with a force of will and turned around. Steve was standing there, a couple of yards behind him, and Tony had no idea how he'd gotten that close without Tony hearing him. The bag Steve had tossed over his shoulder clearly held his shield, and Tony managed a thin-lipped smile. "Conversation with Sam didn't take long, I see.”

“Sam was a bit concerned that I might be jumping into a sexual relationship that I wasn't prepared for,” Steve said, with a tight smile. “Considering my feelings for both you and Iron Man.”

“Good that he's watching out for you,” Tony said.

“I gotta agree. So. Where are we going?”

“I don't know what your plans for the day are," he said, his voice breezy, "but I'm heading to work."

Steve's eyebrows arched. "Really?" he asked, wrapping a hand around the strap of his bag. It shifted against his back as he re-centered his weight.

"Yep. The offices across town, everything's been shifted until we get things cleaned up here, so we've got a busy day ahead. Lots of work to do to recover from-" Tony waved a hand at the garage ceiling above him. "All that."

"You're going to work," Steve said. His head tipped forward, his sharp blue eyes locked on Tony's. "In a gray hoodie."

"Casual Friday," Tony said, without missing a beat.

"It's Wednesday," Steve said, his eyebrows arching.

"I own the company, I can walk in wearing a pair of gold hot pants and a purple cape, and no one's going to say anything," Tony said. He tried to subtly inch towards his car. Steve matched him, step for step.

"You've got a very understanding Human Resources department," Steve mused.

"Absolutely the best," Tony agreed. "So, if you don't mind-"

"So, after all of our discussions about you not being alone as-" Steve leaned in, his blue eyes going sharp. "Iron Man can't always be with you to provide the backup you depend on from him, you still decided to sneak out."

"'Sneak?'" Tony asked. "Who's sneaking? I left my place, and came to my garage, to get to my car to take me to my work. How is that sneaking?"

“You're wearing a gray hoodie, Tony, and a-” His eyes flicked up. “A very ugly hat.”

“My wardrobe choices, and I'm rather insulted here, someone tried to blow me up yesterday, I'm trying to keep a low profile, exactly the way I promised you that I would,” Tony said, stung. He pulled the hat off and shoved it into his pocket. “I repeat. How is that sneaking?”

"When you don't leave by the front door and instead duck out via some back way-"

"How did you know I was down here, anyway?" Tony interrupted. "Not that I'm admitting anything, but if I was sneaking, I'd do a better job of it, wouldn't I?"

"Think you did a pretty good job of it," Steve said. He braced a hand on the roof of the car, his thumb resting on the door, holding it shut. "I just asked Jarvis to let me know if you headed out of the building at any point."

Tony stopped, his jaw locking. "And he told you?"

"As it turns out, sir, I have no specific instructions preventing me from providing this information to Captain Rogers, provided that he made the request," Jarvis said, as unruffled as always. "In the absence of rules preventing me from doing so, I inferred that you would wish him to have this information, in accordance with the agreement you made with him last night."

"And the fact that I left via the secret passages didn't enter into your calculations about whether or not I wanted him to know where I was going?" Tony asked.

“Secret passages,” Steve said. Tony ignored him, because right, that was not something he wanted to discuss.

"No," Jarvis said. "I have instructions not to discuss the secret passages, but I did not. He did not ask for the means for which you were leaving the building, only if you were."

"Splitting the hair pretty fine there, Jay.”

“My life is one of strict accordance to rules that often require quite a bit of interpretation,” Jarvis agreed.

"You have secret passages?" Steve was staring at him, his brow drawn up tight. “Passages, plural?”

Tony glared at him. "Yes, to go with my secret identity, singular," he said. "Jarvis, can we not tell Steve about the secret passages?”

Steve's lips twitched up, some of the strain going out of his face he gave Tony a look. “Technically, you told me that,” he pointed out.

"And as he is already privy to that information, your request seems highly questionable,” Jarvis said. He sounded smug.

"Ever wonder what would happen if I punch your server racks?" Tony asked him.

"Inadvisable, as the bones in your hand are-"

"You are going to be purged, I swear you are, I am going to set fire to something you need," Tony said. "Something absolutely essential."

"And ironically, he's trying to keep your essential pieces in place, so you've got a real crazy sense of gratitude," Steve said. Tony yanked on the door, and Steve's hand tightened, his fingers going white at the knuckles. "Tony..."

Tony gave up. “Fine. I'm going to have a quick talk with someone.”

“About what?”

Tony stared at him. “A business matter,” he said, absolutely truthful about that point.

Steve stared back, unfazed. “Does this have anything to do with the attack, Tony?”

“I don't know that yet, right now, it's a discussion of a business matter.” Tony leaned in. “Look, if I let you get into the car, will you just let me get on with my life?”

“Depends,” Steve said. “If I get in the car, do you promise you're not going to try to ditch me somewhere along the way?”

“How?” Tony asked. “You expect me to kick you out of the damn car on the highway?”

“At this point, I wouldn't put it past you to try,” Steve said. He reached out, his hand curling around Tony's shoulder. His grip was solid, and stable, but there was nothing threatening about the contact. “Just this one time,” he said, his voice quiet, “let me be your backup.”

Tony reached up, covering Steve's hand with his own. “You really think you haven't been my backup all along?” he asked, his lips kicking up on one side.

“Then let me help,” Steve said. “Please.”

Tony sighed. “Fine. Get in the car.”

“Was that so hard?” Steve asked.

“That was the hardest thing I've done in the last couple of years,” Tony said.

Steve leaned in. Tony saw it coming, and met him halfway. The kiss was sweet and warm and somehow familiar, despite being new. He'd expected it to be short, a quick little gesture, but Steve's lips clung to his, and Tony grinned against his mouth. He let his hands slide along Steve's sides, around to his back, pulling him in until their bodies were flush together. It took a second, a beat or two, but then Steve's arms wrapped around him.

When the kiss finally ended, Tony was breathing hard, his pulse loud in his ears. He let his eyes open, just to see the lovely image of Steve's face, so close to his. “What was that?” Tony asked, his lips hovering over Steve's.

Steve's laughter was warm on his skin. “I knew I was bad at this, but I'd hoped your experience would kind of make up for that.”

Tony leaned back. “You're not bad at this, you're dangerously good at this,” he said, his hand slipping behind Steve to catch the door handle. “Any better at this, and I'd be taking your pants off right now.”

Steve's eyes went wide for a second, his face flushing. “I can try again,” he said, his head tipping down towards Tony's.

Tony pressed a finger against Steve's lips, stilling him. “I'd encourage that, but I suspect you're trying to distract me.” He took a step back, and tugged on the door handle. For a second, he didn't think that Steve was going to take the hint, but at last, he stepped to the side. “Which was the point of that kiss. To distract me.”

Steve huffed out a breath, his shoulders twitching upwards. “You agreed not to do this alone,” he said, moving around the car. “Thought I was being grateful.”

“Think you were trying to get me to associate you getting your way with me getting laid,” Tony said.

Steve paused. “Does that work?”

“It sure as fuck might, you're dangerous.” Tony yanked the driver's side door open. “Get in. You can kiss me later.”

Steve was chuckling as he slid into the passenger seat. "Where are we going?" He twisted around, slipping his bag into the backseat.

"I," Tony said, stressing the word, "am going to handle the situation. You are going to stay here in the car and provide me with cover."

Steve studied him for a long moment. Then he pulled the door shut with a very final sounding click. "Cover." He sounded amused.

Tony gave a confident nod. "Yes."

One corner of his mouth hooked up in a lopsided smile. "Tony.” He shook his head, slowly and deliberately, something like pity in his eyes. “Did you really think that would work?"

"I was hoping," Tony said. "Look, you cannot come, you are very-" He waved a hand in Steve's general direction. There was a lot of general direction. "You're very large, Steve. You're hard to miss. You are just-" His face scrunched up as he tried to find the right word. "You're kind of obvious."

"Strange, that's what I was thinking about your explanation," Steve said. He buckled his seat belt. "Tell anyone who asks that I'm your driver today. That Happy's got the day off, and I'm covering for him.”

“But you're not driving,” Tony pointed out, starting the car.

“You don't let Happy drive, either, so it's perfectly in character.”

“So, Captain America's picking up so extra cash by working as my driver?”

“Or you can say we're on a date,” Steve said.

“I could do that, but I think it'd take the conversation in a different direction than I'd like it to go in,” Tony said, putting the car in gear and heading for the exit.

He had a few precious minutes of silence as he dealt with New York traffic, but he could feel Steve's eyes on him the entire time. Finally, as he decided to actually stop for a red light, he glanced in Steve's direction. “What?” he asked, his mouth kicking up in a smile.

“What are we walking into here?” Steve asked.

Tony took a deep breath, his fingers tightening on the steering wheel. “I'm not precisely sure,” he admitted. “We're going to talk to the obvious suspect.” The light changed, and Tony hit the gas, cutting in front of a taxi as he took a turn. “Despite the fact that he didn't do it.”

Steve's chin dipped in a short nod. “You're sure.”

“I'm pretty much staking my life on it,” Tony said, with a flat smile. “And yours, as it turns out, thanks for that, I prefer not to do that, Capsicle, so-”

“So be right,” Steve said, cutting him off. He looked in Tony's direction, one hand cupping his mouth. “So if he's the obvious suspect, but not your suspect, then-”

“I think he's being set up,” Tony said. Secrets. So many secrets. Things he didn't even say aloud to Pepper and most of the time he didn't have to, because Pepper was used to him, Pepper understood him. When it came to business, especially, Pepper was one step ahead of him most of the time. He didn't have to explain things to her. It was how she'd survived him, by not expecting the explanations he couldn't give her.

His eyes flicked shut, just for a second, and still longer than was strictly safe in New York traffic. He took a breath, and let it out. “About a month ago, there was a concentrated hostile takeover attempt of StarkIndustries,” he said, and the words hurt his throat, they hurt to say, and they hurt more once they were out.

The truth never set him free. The truth only exposed him.

Steve's eyes went sharp, but he didn't say a word, and Tony found he was grateful for that. He kept his eyes forward, staring out the windshield as he shifted gears, the gesture hard and sharp. “It was never going to work,” he said, and his voice was steady. Almost calm. “Pepper has too good a grip on our stock, who has it, who could be pressured into selling it-” He shook his head. “Between me, her and some Rhodey's got in trust, any attempt to force us out isn't going to work. They can try to manipulate the board of directors, but-”

He smiled, and it felt vicious, almost feral, on his face. “I made sure the board understands that if that happens again, I'll purge them all. One or two might get stupid, but it's not going to be widespread, and it's not going to be for long.”

Steve didn't ask. Tony somehow had known he wouldn't. “But someone tried a hostile takeover anyway,” he said. His fingers drummed against the plane of his thigh, a quick flicker of movement as he listened.

“Someone tried,” Tony agreed. “Someone who should've known better. But-” The light turned yellow, and he shifted gears, changing lanes twice to slip through the traffic. “I think he had backing. He had someone, or multiple someones, who dripped the right poison in his ear. Who told him that they had the money, and the influence, and the people, to get it done. That they'd back him, and when it was all over, he'd be in charge.”

“Didn't work out for him, I take it,” Steve said.

“It did not work out for him,” Tony agreed. “In fact, if anything-” He glanced in his rearview mirror, and took the turn a little too fast. “It left him open to attack.”

“From?”

“From us,” Tony said. He glanced at Steve out of the corner of his eyes. “The best way to make sure a potential threat isn't a threat anymore is to-” He made a face. “Neuter it.”

That won him a slight smile from Steve. “From a business perspective, I assume.”

“Assume all you want, but don't underestimate a very angry Pepper Potts who feels like her people have been threatened,” Tony said.

“I'll keep that in mind.” Steve shifted in his seat, the muscles of his shoulders and arms bunching under the thin fabric of his shirt. “So someone else was pulling this guy's strings?”

“Setting him up to fail, pushing him into a corner, and waiting until he was desperate,” Tony said. “I thought, all along, that the intent was just to push him off a cliff and see if we retaliated. If we did, it eliminates one more competitor from the marketplace, and if we didn't, well, he'd probably be so overextended that whoever was pulling his strings would force him into line.”

“It was a business move, then,” Steve said.

“Well, that's what I thought until, you know, someone blew up my goddamn office,” Tony said. His fingers were aching, and he made a deliberate effort to relax his grip. “That's when things took, as we like to say, a more sinister turn.”

“And you had to assume that they didn't want his company, they wanted you dead and someone else taking the fall for it,” Steve interpreted.

“That is starting to look like a possibility,” Tony said. He slowed the car, cutting across traffic into the entry way of a parking garage. “And it would piss me off less if they hadn't also almost killed a whole bunch of other people who aren't, you know, me.”

Steve opened his mouth to say something, but Tony had already turned his attention to the guard stepping out of the security booth. Tony rolled down the window. “Hi,” he said, grinning his best grin at the kid. The guard blinked, his guard dropping. Tony leaned an arm on the steering wheel. “I'm here to see Simon.”

The kid hitched his pants up. They immediately slid back down his hips. “Do you have an appointment, sir?”

Tony's grin just got wider. “Nope,” he said.

“Oh.” The guard waited. Tony kept grinning at him. “I'm sorry, sir, I can't let you in without an appointment or a pass.” He took a step back. “I can call upstairs, see if they can work you into Mr. Williams' schedule, Mr. Stark, but-”

“Right,” Tony said with a nod. “Sounds like a plan.” He reached for the clutch. “Not my plan, but it is a plan.” Then he stomped on the gas.

He caught the kid off guard, and out of his booth, and the car went screaming through the flimsy gate. It shattered against the car's front bumper, the pieces raining down to the garage floor in their wake.

“Subtle,” Steve said, but he was smiling as he looked over his shoulder.

“I'm a subtle, subtle man,” Tony said, his head dipping to the side. He glanced at the rearview mirror, where the guard was scrambling for the alarms.

“I do like that about you,” Steve agreed. “You know he's going to lock down the elevators, right?”

“I do know that,” Tony said, with a tight smile. “I also know that we're not going upstairs.” He pulled the car in a tight turn, accelerating towards the rear of the garage. “We don't need to.” Steve's head swung in his direction, but Tony's eyes were on the rows of cars as he sped through the rows.

The cherry red Lamborghini stood out like a beacon, and Tony hit the brakes, skidding to a stop behind it. “He's going to come to us.”

Or rather, he was already here. Simon was standing frozen, his hand on the trunk, his face set in unreadable lines. Tony took a deep breath, and threw the car into park, effectively trapping the Lamborghini in place.

“Tony?” Steve asked, his voice quiet. He reached into the backseat, pulling his bag into his lap.

“Do me a favor,” Tony said, pushing the car door open. “And stall the security guard.”

Steve gave him a sharp look. “Tony-”

“I just need to talk to him, and you're-” Tony pointed a finger in his direction. “Going to make it look like I brought the muscle.” He slid out of the car. “Keep a nineteen year old with an unhealthy Dirty Harry fixation from shooting me in the back, okay?” Steve opened his mouth, and Tony could see the objection coming. “I need you to do this for me,” he said, the words blunt.

Steve frowned, but he nodded, pushing his door open. “I'll head them off. Be careful.”

“Aren't I always?” Tony asked, with a bright smile, and slammed his car door.

Tony tucked his hands in his pockets as he wandered in Simon's direction. “Hey, Simon,” he said, never looking back. But he heard Steve's steady footsteps retreat, leaving him to it. Tony gave Simon a grin. “How're things? Anything new? New product line looks amazing, good job on that, you're going to get a significant uptick in your stock price.” He tipped his head forward. “By the way, did you try to kill me a couple of days ago? Asking for a friend.”

Simon was silent for a long moment. “You shouldn't have come here, Tony,” he said at last.

“Probably not.” Tony glanced at the pile of luggage in the trunk. “Going somewhere?” Simon was silent, and Tony looked up at him. “You're being set up,” he said. “You know that, don't you?”

Simon's mouth opened, and shut. “I don't know what you're talking about,” he said, and his voice was shaking. “You're-” He shook his head. “You're the one who's trying to destroy me, Tony. You're the one-”

“Who's your backer?” Tony asked, cutting him off. “Simon.” He stepped forward. “I'm trying to save your skin here, you damn idiot, and you're not making that particularly easy, so maybe just work with me here?” He leaned in. “Who set you up?”

“I don't know what you're talking about,” Simon said, but there was desperation in the words now, in the way he said it. In his face. In the way he avoided Tony's eyes.

“Simon,” Tony said, and Simon's eyes went wide, something like fear or terror rolling over his face. It was all the warning Tony got. He spun around, his hands coming up, but it was already too late.

His brain, usually so quick, so efficient, processed everything in fractured, uneven bursts. The empty maw of the gun barrel, the gleam of the weapon in a black leather clad hand. The quick, sharp retort of the gunshot, a crack that hurt his ears, that made his head swim. That almost drowned out, in a strange, disjointed way, the impact of the bullet. The way pain sliced through him, first the hard, crushing blow to his chest, then his shoulder and back slamming into the car behind him, and finally his skull slamming into the glass of the window.

Everything went sideways, went down, his body sinking down, dragged down, glass raining down with him, on him. He stared up, shock sweeping his vision black, and he could've sworn that the skeleton holding the gun was laughing.

Then there was nothing but the thought that maybe, this time, he wouldn't be awake to feel his heart stop.

Chapter Text

It all happened in slow motion.

He'd seen it, out of the corner of his eye, the man step out of the shadows behind Tony, saw Tony turn, saw the man's arm come up. He'd heard the retort of the gun, seen the muzzle flash, and he'd seen Tony's body slam back into the car.

It had all happened, in the space of one breath, in a single heartbeat, and then Tony was sliding, boneless and limp to the ground.

Steve's heart stopped, and the rest of him kept moving.

He was throwing almost before he'd finished turning, his brain a step behind his muscle memory, his instincts. Tony was there, in the corner of his vision, the only fixed point he cared about. The shield was launched, with the full force of the turn behind it, with the full force of his rage behind it.

The attacker turned, the fabric of his coat swirling out as his arm snapped up. With a fluid, effortless movement, he knocked the shield aside, with a rattling scrape of metal on metal, and went spiraling off to the side, smashing into the side of another car. The car rocked on its wheels, the edge of the shield biting deep into the metal.

The man's head tipped to the side, his eyes catching the light in the hollows of the skull mask, and he raised the gun, pointing it straight at Steve. "Good bye, Captain America," he said, and Steve froze, caught between attack and flight, rage and helplessness making everything too sharp.

Tony was on the ground, and the man he'd been talking to was crouched next to him, his face a mask of shock. Steve had no idea what had become of the security guard he'd been talking to, but he suspected the man had taken off running at the first shot. Help was likely on the way.

He stared into the empty barrel of the gun and knew it wasn't coming soon enough.

The movement was so subtle that for an instant, Steve was certain he'd imagined it. Sure that it was just the muscle spasms of a man who was either dead, or so close to it that his body didn't know the difference. Tony's foot twisted against the floor, his leg twitching.

And before either of them could react, Tony's leg came up, his foot slamming hard into the back of the attacker's knee.

The man staggered, his body twisting to the side as he struggled to get adjust his weight, and the gun wavered, his arm swinging out to the side. Steve was moving, before he could adjust, shoving himself forward in a rush. He heard the retort of the gun, the crack of the air splitting in it's wake, but Tony had thrown the aim off, just enough.

Steve crashed into him, and they both went down, hitting the concrete of the floor hard. Steve was swinging, even before they hit, rage giving him power. The masked man caught his fist in one hand, twisting him around and flipping them both. His gun clattered across the floor, and Steve kicked it out of reach. The distraction cost him; the attacker's fist caught him on the side of the jaw, with enough force that Steve's vision whited out for a moment. He lashed out, with a leg, with a fist, the attacks clumsy and awkward, but enough to break them apart. The masked man broke free, rolling out of range, his gloved hand stretching across the floor for the gun.

The sound of screeching tires was all the warning Steve got, and it was barely enough. He caught a glimpse of the black car as it came speeding around the corner, clipping two of the parked cars as it accelerated in their direction. Steve scrambled backwards, out of the way, rolling back between two cars just as they opened fire.

Steve ducked, pressing himself down against the concrete as windows shattered above him, glass and chunks of shattered plastic and metal raining down on his back. He brought his arms up, covering his head, and pushed himself sideways, under the rather tenuous cover of an oversized SUV.

He watched, frustrated and impotent, as the man in the skeleton mask wrestled the stunned looking business man into the back of black car. Another burst of automatic gunfire nearly covered the sound of the car door slamming shut, and then the car tires squealed as the driver hit the gas.

By the time he rolled free, they were already disappearing around the corner. Steve pushed himself to his feet, rage a physical pressure beneath his breastbone, but he knew there was no catching them. By the time he got to his shield, they'd be out on the streets and gone.

And he had other priorities.

"Tony!" He scrambled across the way, his feet sliding in the fragments of glass that covered everything now. "Tony!"

Tony's head came up, his eyes flicking open, and Steve could breathe again. "Call-" He stopped, a cough, catching him and rocking him forward.

Steve slid to his knees next to Tony, his heart pounding in his ears. Alive. Alive. Tony was still alive. Alive and aware, his dark eyes dilated, his body shaking with the force of his attempts to draw breath. His fingers were locked on the front of his shirt, his fingers white knuckled on the fabric, pulling it tight against body. Steve caught his wrist. "How bad?" he asked, his voice sharper than he intended. With his other hand, he got his phone out, triggering the SHIELD panic button with the flick of his thumb, and letting the phone fall to the ground beside them.

Tony stared up at him, his face bone white. He blinked, rapidly, as if he was struggling to focus. "I-" He stopped, his breath hitching in his throat, and another cough rattled through him. "I think it's pretty bad, Cap."

Steve tugged his hand away, and it was harder than it should've been. Tony's fingers scrambled to hold onto the fabric, bunching it tight, and then, reluctantly, releasing it. Steve coaxed it away.

Instead of the red blood that he was expecting, pale blue light was spilling out between Tony's fingers. Steve stared at it. "Tony?"

Tony snagged his wrist, his fingers biting into Steve's skin. "Pepper," he said. "Call-" His face twisted, a cough shaking his body, and there was blood on his lips. "Call Pepper, she knows- Knows what to do. Tell her, code- Code blue." He blinked, once, twice, and then his eyes slid shut, his face going limp. His fingers spasmed against Steve's wrist, and slid free.

Steve caught his hand before it could fall to the ground. “Tony!” There was no response, Tony's face was lax and still, but he was still breathing, and the pulse at his wrist was steady. Cursing, staring at the pale light that spilled across the fabric of Tony's shirt, he grabbed his phone.

It took three long, painfully long rings for Pepper to pick up. “Hi, Steve, what-”

He sucked in a breath. “Code blue,” he said, and Pepper stopped dead.

When she spoke again, her voice had changed completely. "What happened?"

"It's Tony, he's been shot, but he's not-" Steve pushed Tony's shirt out of the way, his fingers sliding over the smooth skin of Tony's chest. He shook his head, even as he probed at the edge of the neat, glowing hole. "He's not bleeding, there's just light, he's-"

"Where?" Pepper snapped.

"Chest," Steve said. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear sirens, and his head jerked up. "Pepper. What the hell is-"

"I don't have time to explain," she said, her voice calm and precise. "There's a button on the underside of his watch. You'll have to take it off to reach it."

He didn't question that, he just reached for Tony's wrist. The watch came off easily, and he flipped it over. The button was almost invisible, the gold disc set into the reverse of the watch. He pressed it down, and it clicked into place. "What does this do?"

"Gives me a GPS signal to follow, and scrambles any non-StarkIndustries tech communications," she said. "Video cameras, cell phones, recording devices." She sucked in a breath. "Do you have a knife?"

He reached for his pocket. "Yes," he said, his fingers closing around the familiar shape of his pen knife. "Small one, though."

"Doesn't matter. As long as it's sharp." There was a beat of a pause. "I need you to trust me, and not ask questions right now." He nodded, and despite the fact that she couldn't see him, she seemed to take his agreement as a given. "If there's no blood, the bullet hit-" Her breathing accelerated. "Something else. I need you to slide the point of the knife under the edge of the wound and cut it open, so I know what we're dealing with."

Steve's jaw locked, and he braced his left hand on Tony's chest, holding him in place. "How far?"

"Just a few inches. It's not real skin. You're not going to hurt him. It's there to cover certain... Medical devices. If they've been damaged, I need to know."

He nodded, and slid the tip of the knife beneath the torn skin. There was immediate resistance, not the sort that skin or flesh would provide, not even bone. He'd hit all of that with the blade of a knife, he'd done that and worse, but this was different. This was metal on metal.

Or, he realized, when he pried the 'skin' back, metal on glass. The first slice was the worst, he was braced for blood, for Tony to wake up, to make any sort of a sound. But the knife slid through, slicing the skin away, without resistance, and Steve stared down at the glowing hollow he'd created.

"Is that-" His eyes darted up to Tony's face. It was still, pale in the icy blue light, but still unmistakably human. His lips were parted, his breathing rising and falling along with his chest, his long, dark lashes spiky against his cheeks. Steve's hand settled against his chest, and found the steady rhythm of his heart. "Pepper. Is this an arc reactor?"

He heard the familiar roar of repulsors an instant before Iron Man came smashing through the window, scattering glass in all directions. Steve ducked, his body instinctively folding down to cover Tony, his hands hitting the pavement on either side of Tony's hips. Iron Man hit the floor a dozen feet away, feet skidding across the concrete, throwing up sparks and shattered chunks of stone.

The armored figure straightened up. "Yes," Iron Man said, and the voice came through the suit's speakers, and through the phone. Pepper strode across the garage floor, clad in ruby red metal trimmed with thin lines of silver, subtlety, unmistakeably different than the armor he knew.

But he only knew that, because he knew that armor so well. And the man who wore it.

Pepper crouched down next to him, one hand going to Tony's chest. She leaned in, the armor gleaming in the low light. She spread her hand over the arc reactor, and a flash of light swept from beneath her fingers. A web of light, like a thin mat of circuitry, swept over the surface of the armor's arm.

Her exhale was audible. "Still functioning," she said, her head coming up, and it was odd, it was so strange to hear Pepper's inflections, the rise and fall of her voice, through the armor's speakers. "But the connections have been damaged, it must've taken a direct hit. Still, it probably saved him, if the bullet had gone into his chest, it would've been much worse."

Steve stared at her. "Why does he have this in-” He shook his head. “What- Is he a robot?”

Her head came up. “What?”

“An android, a- I don't know! Why-”

"No, despite his best efforts, he's still quite human. I don't have time for this discussion, Cap. He needs help." She reached down, her arms slipping under Tony's limp body. There was a faint hiss, the sound of gears and joints locking, and then she was straightening up, Tony cradled in her arms. He didn't stir, his head lolling against the metal plane of her shoulder.

Steve pushed himself up. "I signaled SHIELD-"

"Fury will send an intercept to the tower if we need a physician, I need you to-"

"Fury knows?" he burst out, and it wasn't voluntary, it wasn't rational, and she ignored the question entirely.

"SHIELD will lock down the building, your transport will be here momentarially," she said, and with that, she turned on her heel. One step, two, running fast across the floor, and then she was airborne. The blast of hot air, like a shockwave, knocked him back a step, and by the time he recovered his balance, she was out the window and gone, a faint streak of red arcing across the New York skyline.

The sirens were close now, were likely at the entry of the parking garage, and somehow, Steve got his feet under him. Got up. Got moving. He had to get his shield, had to-

The air split, red light washing over everything, and Steve turned to face the new threat.

Wanda was standing there, one hand outstretched. “They need us,” she said, and Steve grabbed his shield, wrenching it free from the side of the car with a twist of his wrist.

“How-”

“Pepper,” she said, light in her eyes, on her skin, rolling in waves over the fabric of her coat. “SHIELD will handle the rest. He needs you.”

Steve grabbed her hand, and the world washed out in a flash of red light.

*

Everything hurt.

“Yeah, well, you got yourself shot, you ass. Be glad you're still alive to feel pain.”

Tony sighed. “You reading minds now?” he asked, and his voice was rough to his ears. He took a deep breath, and exhaled on a cough. “Ugh. Really? I got-”

Everything came rushing back to him, and his eyes shot open. “Steve.”

Rhodey was right there, his hands on Tony's shoulders, his faint smile a comforting sight. “Steve's fine,” he said. “Fretting up a storm, and man, that boy can fret. But other than that, he's fine.” He leaned in, dark eyes sliding over Tony's face, his smile dying. “How're you?”

Tony took a shallow breath, and then a deeper one, and Rhodey's hands tightened on his shoulders, his grip steady and strong. Tony fumbled up with one hand, wrapping a hand around Rhodey's wrist. “I feel-” He took another breath and pain stabbed through his rib cage. “I feel like I've been shot,” he managed.

“Yeah, well, that's because you're a dumbass who got himself shot,” Rhodey said.

“Wow. That explains so much.” Tony let his head fall back, and slowly, Rhodey released him, sinking back into the chair next to his bed. Tony gave him a narrow-eyed look. “Did you drag that in here?”

“What, I'm supposed to stand at attention here, waiting for you to wake up?” Rhodey asked. Tony's mouth opened and Rhodey held up a hand, heading him off. “Don't answer that.”

“Killjoy,” Tony said. He reached up, his fingers finding the uncovered contours of the arc reactor. His fingertips smoothed over the crystal face. He took a breath, and ignored how it hurt. “Pepper replaced it?”

Rhodey nodded, a quick dip of his chin. “You took a shot directly to it,” he said. He reached for the glass and pitcher next to the bed, pouring out a cup of water. “It held, but-”

“It was the backup,” Tony said, his eyes falling shut. “Right.” Because the cores were still failing, and he'd spent the night with Steve, so he hadn't had a chance to change it out.

“Yeah.” Tony opened his eyes to find Rhodey holding the cup out to him. Tony took it, mostly so that Rhodey would sit back down and stop hovering. “It twisted in its housing, knocked it all out of whack,” Rhodey said, sinking back into his chair. “Don't think it's salvageable, but Pepper managed to get it loose and a new one in place. Steve's fine, the new player in our game apparently grabbed Simon and took off with them. Steve didn't think he went willingly, but we have no idea what's happening with that. SHIELD's looking into it, we're leaving that to them for now. Pepper's first priority was getting the arc reactor replaced.” He paused. “She's pissed, by the way.”

Tony winced. “How pissed?”

“I'd define it as 'angry pissed,'” Rhodey said, but he was smiling, just a little, his dark eyes warm. “She doesn't like the armor, Tony.”

“Which is, I'd like to say, that's very hurtful, I made her armor and she doesn't like it, that's like building someone a house, a very nice house with very nice things in it, and having them hate it because of the color of the tile in the second floor bathroom,” Tony said. “It's just-” His fingers rattled against the crystal covering of the arc reactor. “It's just completely baffling.”

“No, it's more like you built someone a house and sometimes, without warning, the house goes stomping across the city and the army shoots at it and all they wanted to do was take a bath in their ugly, ugly bathroom,” Rhodey said.

“That's just stupid,” Tony told him. “That's a stupid analogy.”

“Yeah, well, I do the best I can with what I've got, Stark.” Rhodey leaned back, and his chair rocked onto its back legs. He braced one foot on the edge of the bed, the tip of his shoe flicking up in down in a quick, nervous rhythm. But his face was calm, his eyes clear. “Which, I'd like to point out, isn't much. You don't give me much to work with here, Tone.”

“Not my fault you can't work with prime material, always been a failing of yours, you-” A cough rattled through him, catching him off guard, and he slumped back against the pillows, his head spinning.

Rhodey reached for the pitcher beside the bed. “You're a mess, that's what you are,” he said, pouring out a glass of water. Tony reached out to take it from him, and Rhodey ignored him, bringing it to his lips. “Just drink, you ass.”

Tony drank, wrapping his hand around the glass to steady it. After a moment, Rhodey let him have it, leaning back into his chair. He braced his elbows on his knees, his legs spread, his head tipped up. He watched as Tony drank, one hand coming up as Tony finally lowered the empty glass. “Get off, Frederick Nightingale,” he said, sucking in a long, slow breath.

“God forbid anyone help you,” Rhodey agreed, throwing his hands in the air. “Really. Who needs that? Maybe it's for the best. We'll just slow you down.”

Tony ignored the rapid flow of words. Rhodey had a tendency towards melodrama, especially after someone had gotten shot, it was something he'd learned to deal with. He took another sip of the water, his free hand still fiddling with the arc reactor. His thumb slid along the edge, along the smooth sweep of housing, trying to take comfort in the familiar lines. A little too late, he realized that Rhodey had stopped talking. He looked up. “Sorry, what?” he asked, since Rhodey was looking at him like he was expecting an answer to a question that Tony hadn't heard.

“Want a shirt?” Rhodey asked again, his voice quiet.

Tony's fingers tightened. “It's a little late for that, isn't it?” he asked. He didn't wait for an answer. “Yeah, that's probably a good, a good idea.”

Rhodey got up. “I'm not wrestling you into a t-shirt,” he said, heading for the closet. “I think a button down dress shirt will be easier-”

“Yeah, but I'll look ridiculous,” Tony pointed out. One fingernail slid across the crystal face of the arc reactor.

“Not high on my list of priorities,” Rhodey said, his voice echoing back into the bedroom. “Actually, it isn't on the list at all.”

“Cruel,” Tony said, as Rhodey came back, holding up a simple dark blue shirt. Tony waved his hand through the air. “Sure, whatever, it's fine, I'm going to look like a complete fop sitting here in my shorts and a dress shirt, what is that, I mean-”

“Did you just say 'fop?'” Rhodey asked. “What, you been in the regency romances again? Lean forward.”

“It's a good word,” Tony said, leaning forward so Rhodey could help him slide the shirt around his shoulders. “Also, dandy. I can't pull off dandy, though. I can pull off fop. I've got a certain foppish attitude, I think it works for me-”

“I have to stop listening to you,” Rhodey said, finagling one of Tony's arms into a sleeve.

“Yeah, that's probably a good idea.” Tony stared down at his chest, at the arc reactor as the fabric fell over it. It was dark enough to dull the pale glow, but it didn't hide it. Nothing could hide it, not ever again. He took a deep breath. “Steve knows.”

Rhodey went still. Tony looked up at him. “Doesn't he?”

Rhodey's eyes slid away from his, and he scraped a hand over his face. “Yeah,” he said at last. “Bullet pierced the fake skin, Tony. He-” Rhodey nodded, his mouth going tight, as he sank back into his chair. “Yeah, he knows.”

Tony took a breath, and another, waiting for the panic, for the fear. It was always there, a constant companion, hovering just out of view, and just barely under control. The slightest hint of exposure, of a crack in his carefully planned armor, and it would come roaring out, drowning everything in its wake.

Drowning him along with the rest.

He stared at Rhodey. “He knows,” he said, and the words lacked any force, any emotion at all. Except, strangely enough, something that sounded like relief to his ears. “I-” He sucked in a breath, and another, his fingers locking on the housing of the arc reactor. When he exhaled, it came out as a rough chuckle. “Okay. Okay.” He started buttoning the shirt, and he was pleased that his fingers weren't shaking. “He pissed?”

He didn't expect an answer, but Rhodey gave it to him anyway. “Pepper says he was concerned you might be a robot.”

Tony's eyes flicked open. For a second, he stared at Rhodey, his mouth hanging open. Rhodey cupped a hand over his mouth, trying to hide a smile, but it was a losing battle. “What?” Tony asked at last.

“You have a tiny mechanical battery in your chest,” Rhodey said. “It isn't that much of a leap.”

Tony grinned, and took another sip of his water. “Well, this is going to be a fun discussion,” he said at last. “I'll pay you a million dollars to do it for me.”

“The last person I told about the arc reactor tried to kill you by taking it out of your chest, so, no. You can get this one,” Rhodey said, his arms folded over his chest.

Tony paused, the water glass hovering at his lips. “What?”

Rhodey gave him a look. “I'm not talking to Steve for you, you can-”

“No, no, fuck that, go back.” Tony struggled into a sitting position. “Go back. What the hell are you talking about?”

Rhodey's eyes flicked up towards the ceiling, and he heaved a put upon sort of sigh. “It doesn't matter-”

“Yes, it does,” Tony said, the words flat. “It absolutely does. You're talking about Obie, aren't you? Tell me you're not harboring some sort of weird, martyristic sense of responsibility about the fact-”

“I'm the one who told him,” Rhodey burst out, and Tony fell silent. Rhodey slumped back in the chair, his head swinging from side to side. “I'm the one who told him. I told him. I gave him the information, and he tried to kill you, he used-” His fingers twisted into fists on his knees, the tension sweeping up his arms and across his shoulders. “I told him.”

Tony stared at him. “You're an idiot,” he said at last, and Rhodey mumbled something that sounded like a swear. “No, you're a-” Tony reached for him, and came up about a foot and a half short. “Lean over,” he demanded, holding up his glass. “Lean over here so I can hit you over the head with this.”

Rhodey's lips twitched. “Wow, even for you, that's not subtle.”

“I'm serious. Totally serious. Lean over. I'm going to-” Tony pushed himself upright, swinging the cup wildly through the air, and Rhodey took it away from him without any difficulty at all. “You asshole, you get over here so I can pummel you.”

“You're going to pull something, Tone, just-” Rhodey considered him. “We're really doing this?”

“I'm going to kick your ass,” Tony said, trying to pull his pillow out from behind his back. “I'm just going to-”

Rhodey sighed, and leaned forward. Tony punched him in the shoulder. Rhodey arched an eyebrow. “We done? We good here? Got that out of your system?”

“Yes,” Tony said, and then, “Fuck it, no.” He punched Rhodey again, trying for more force this time.

Rhodey stared at him, his face blank. “Ow,” he said, after a few seconds, and Tony threw a pillow at him. Grinning, Rhodey caught it and slung it right back, catching Tony on the side of the head. “Lie down, you dumbass, you pull something and Pepper's going to have my head.”

“What, are you scared of Pepper?” Tony asked.

“Yes,” Rhodey said instantly.

“Yeah, that's probably smart, she's small, but she's utterly terrifying,” Tony said. Rhodey nudged his shoulder, and he slumped back onto the bed. He huffed out a breath, trying to ignore how exhausted he was after such a small amount of exertion. “Tell me that this hasn't all been guilt.”

“What?” Rhodey frowned at him, his arms braced on his knees.

“Iron Man,” Tony said. He pressed a hand against his aching ribs. “Are you just doing this because of some misplaced sense of guilt?”

Rhodey rocked back in his chair. “Aw, for Christ's sake, no. That's not-”

“Isn't it?” Tony interrupted. Rhodey fell silent, and Tony bit back a swear. “Look at me.”

“No, you look horrible,” Rhodey said, but his eyes slid in Tony's direction.

“It wasn't your fault,” Tony said, his voice quiet. Rhodey looked away, and Tony sighed. “Rhodey. Hey.” His fingers traced the edges of the arc reactor, pressing against the scarred skin there. “He was my medical proxy, Rhodey. You know that. If you hadn't told him, he would've heard it from me. Or my doctor.” He smiled. “It wasn't your fault.”

“Yeah. I know.” The words were dull, and Rhodey's smile was thin.

Tony took a breath. “You need to stop bleeding for me before it kills you,” he said, his voice quiet, and Rhodey rocked forward pushing himself to his feet.

“Yeah, okay,” he said, waving a hand through the air. “Move over.”

Tony immediately spread all of his limbs in all directions. “No,” he said, but he pushed himself to the side when Rhodey threatened to sit on his arm. “The hell? This is my bed, get out unless you're willing to put out, this is just unacceptable, Rhodes, I mean-”

“I did it because you asked me to,” Rhodey said, and Tony stopped talking. Rhodey lay down next to him, his head tipped in Tony's direction, his brown eyes dark. “You get that? You have to know. That's all you've ever had to do, Tone. Is ask for help.”

Tony stared at him, his eyes burning. “That's fucking hard, though,” he said, letting a whine sneak into the words, and Rhodey muttered something obscene under his breath. “No,” Tony said, “no, it's hard, you're very intimidating, you just stand around and glare and judge, there's a lot of judging, I resent that, I mean, I have had a very hard life, Rhodey, I'm-”

“I love you, too,” Rhodey said, reaching out. Rhodey's hand cradled the back of his head, big and warm and steady, and dragged Tony in.

Tony pressed his face into Rhodey's shoulder and gave a chuckle that was watery and rough at the edges. “This feels familiar,” he said, his eyes closing. “Remind me. Why didn't we ever hook up in college?”

Rhodey hummed under his breath. “Huh, I don't know,” he said, and his voice was warm. “Maybe because you were like twelve?”

“I was fifteen!” Tony said, laughing. “Made it all the way to seventeen before I left MIT!”

“You were this scrawny, angry, sexually aggressive little white boy,” Rhodey said, and Tony was laughing in earnest now. “Also, drunk. Did I mention drunk? Cause you were drunk an awful lot, Tony.”

“Jesus, just because I threw the best Tuesday night parties-”

“I mean, when we first met, I was pretty sure you were rabid. At the very least, I thought I was gonna end up getting expelled because they weren't going to expel you for the stupid shit you pulled, there are buildings named after you on campus-”

“That's how dad handled the stupid shit I did,” Tony said, grinning despite the way it hurt.

“Yeah, well, I always figured that they were going to punish someone, and it was going to end up being me, so, not really a sexual turn on.”

“Jesus, you're picky,” Tony said.

“That, and I'm not really into men,” Rhodey said, his hand smoothing over Tony's head. “You're cute and all, but not my thing.”

Tony gave him a look. “What, you couldn't make an exception?”

“Trust me. If there was going to be an exception for that, Tone, it would've been you.”

“Damn straight,” Tony said. “Damn. Straight.”

He heard the faint sound of the door opening, and then a sigh. “Could you please stop seducing everyone you come into contact with?” Pepper asked, and Tony pulled away from Rhodey. She was standing in the doorway, her hands braced on the frame, her expression one of resignation.

“I cannot help it,” he said, trying for wounded dignity. “It is my raw magnetism.”

“I don't know why I try to have a serious discussion with you,” Pepper said.

“It's a mystery,” Tony said, as Rhodey sat up.

“It truly is.” Pepper leaned back. “He's awake. And trying to steal my boyfriend. Do something about that.”

Steve appeared behind her, and Tony's heart jumped in his chest, a painful jolt that went all the way through him. But Steve just smiled at him. “That's unkind,” he said, and Tony grinned.

“Your forties morality doesn't interest me,” he said. He paused. “I have dated everyone in this room. Go me.”

Steve's eyebrows arched. “Oh, are we dating? News to me.”

“He's very tricky, you have to watch him,” Pepper said, with a smirk. “Turn around twice and you'll end up with a ring on your finger and a hangover, and you'll have no idea how you acquired either of them.”

“I'm just that good,” Tony agreed.

Steve's cheeks were flushed. “I'll, I'll watch for that,” he said, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck.

Rhodey was staring at Tony. Tony shrugged. “What?”

“We never dated.”

“I spent two months living in your room, what do you call that?”

“A desperate attempt to get work out of you before we both flunked out of MIT for failing to pass in coursework,” Rhodey said, as Pepper crossed the room.

“How're you feeling?” she asked Tony, pushing his hair back from his forehead.

“Horrible,” he said, giving her the full force of his best sad eyes.”

She nodded. “Good.” She smacked him lightly on the side of the head. “You scared the hell out of me, Tony!”

“A slight scare is good for you, sometimes!” He said, as Rhodey laughed on the other side of the bed. “Gets the blood up! You live a very sedentary life, Pepper, it's not healthy-”

“It's not healthy? Not HEALTHY?” she snapped. “There's only one part of my life that's not healthy and it's working for you!”

“She's not as mad as she seems,” Tony said to Steve, who was staring at Pepper, his eyes a bit wide. Steve looked at him, and Tony gave him a smile. “I'm bringing that up because you seem a bit nervous.”

“You got shot,” Pepper said, bracing her hands on the mattress next to him. She leaned in, her eyes narrowed. “You got shot. Again.”

“It happens,” Tony said. “If you're going to get this upset every time I get shot-”

“Probably! Because I don't learn!” Pepper said. “I don't! Otherwise, I woul've left you to your messes years ago. I still don't know why I haven't.”

“It's a mystery,” Tony agreed, folding his hands on his stomach. “Pep?”

She straightened up, her eyes going narrow. “No.”

“What do you mean, no?” Tony asked. “You- You don't even know what I'm going to ask. How can you say no?”

“Very easily. No.”

“This is very hurtful,” Tony told her.

“He's going to pout,” Rhodey said. “Maybe you should listen to the question, at least?”

“Like that would stop the pouting,” Pepper said. She crossed her arms over her chest, but she was smiling, just a bit. “Fine.” Her chin came up. “Ask your question.”

“Want to get in bed with us?” Tony asked.

“I'm not helping you any more, man,” Rhodey said, pressing a hand to his face. “You are absolutely on your own here, you are just-”

Tony reached over and patted him on the shoulder. “Thank you, you've done enough.”

Pepper stared down at him. “No,” she said at last.

“It's a very big bed,” Tony pointed out. “And Rhodey's already here.” He pointed at Rhodey. “Right there.”

“There is nothing you can say to convince me to join you on that bed,” Pepper said.

“Someday, in your memoirs, you can brag about sharing a bed with three superheroes,” Tony said. He grinned at her. “Simultaneously.”

Pepper's lips pursed. “Dammit,” she said at last, stalking around the end of the bed towards Rhodey. “I'm going to make that the TITLE. Move over.”

Laughing, Rhodey held out his hands, catching hers and pulling her down into his arms. She landed half on and half off of him, and immediately kissed him. Then she gave Tony a look. “Mine,” she said, wrapping her arms protectively around Rhodey's head, ignoring the way he laughed into her breasts.

“Well, if you're going to be like that,” Tony said. He looked at Steve, who was still standing, half in and half out of the doorway. “You coming?”

“I'm fine here,” Steve said. He crossed his arms, leaning back against the wall, a faint smile on his face. But there was a flush rising on his neck.

Tony pushed himself up, slowly, carefully rearranging himself against the headboard. “And here I thought a seasoned orgy guy such as yourself would jump at the chance,” he said.

Steve covered his face with a hand. “Oh, my God.”

“He was just telling me,” Tony said to Pepper, who had leaned back to let Rhodey breathe, “about his past as an aficionado of the orgiastic arts-”

“Stop,” Steve said.

“And his long history of-”

“Oh, God, please stop,” Steve said.

“Are you going to make a liar out of Pepper in her own memoirs? After she saved my life?” Tony asked. He patted the bed next to him. “C'mon, get over here.”

Steve dropped his hand. For an instant, his eyes locked with Tony's, and his lips curled up in a faint smile. Tony smiled back. And Steve pushed himself away from the wall. “This is for Pepper,” he said, striding in their direction, with all the determination of a man going to war. “Not you.”

Tony rolled his head in her direction. “Thank you, Pepper.”

Pepper watched Steve, her eyebrows arched. She folded her arms on Rhodey's chest, leaning into them. “No, no,” she said, grinning as Steve sank carefully down on the edge of the bed. “Thank you.”

“I'm beginning to suspect that you've exaggerated your orgy experience,” Tony said to Steve. “Based on the fact that you still have both of your feet on the ground right now.”

“I just walked into the room with your ex-girlfriend and found you in bed with her boyfriend, I think I'm doing pretty well,” Steve said, and Tony couldn't hold back a laugh.

“Not bad for a guy who didn't know what polyamory meant, a week ago,” Tony agreed.

“And that's our cue to leave,” Rhodey said, sitting up. Laughing, Pepper scrambled out of his lap, and down to the floor.

“But it's just getting interesting,” she said. “I always have to deal with the tearful aftermath, I never get to see the interesting parts of-”

Rhodey wrapped his arms around her waist, lifting her off the ground. Laughing, she let him do it. “Call us if you need help with him, Steve,” she said, peering up at him through her tumbled hair.

“Don't call us,” Rhodey mouthed over her head.

“Thanks, I will,” Steve said, trying his best for a straight face.

“Hey, Pep?” Tony called, before Rhodey could wrangle her towards the door. He waited until they both looked back at him to smile. “Thanks.”

“Scared ten years off of my life,” Pepper told him.

“There will be a pile of shoe boxes on your doorstep by this evening,” Tony said.

“It had better be mountainous,” she said. But she smiled at both of them. “We love you, Tony.”

“I don't,” Rhodey said. “I don't love him at all. He's going to get us all killed.”

“We love you, stop being an ass,” Pepper said.

“But I'm so GOOD at it,” Tony said. Pepper was still chewing him out when Rhodey got her out the door, shutting it firmly behind him. Tony took a deep breath. “Hi.”

This close, Steve's eyes were an impossible blue, bright and clear, and it hurt to meet them. He did it anyway, even when Steve reached out, cupping Tony's cheek in one hand. “Hi,” he said, his voice quiet. “You're a mess.”

Tony smiled. “Yeah, well, it happens.” He leaned into the warmth of Steve's palm. “I think that's the side of my face that hit the ground first.”

“You've got a heck of a bruise here, so I think you're right.” Steve's thumb swept over the hollow of Tony's cheek. “Tell me you're all right.”

“I'm fine,” Tony said, and when Steve just nodded, his mouth a thin line, he repeated it. “I'm fine.” His smile stretched. “Also? Not a robot.”

Steve's face scrunched up. “Heard about that, did you?”

“It might have been mentioned. In passing.” Tony took a breath, and another, too fast, too shallow, but Steve's hand was on his cheek, the small touch an anchor in a way that he didn't really understand. “I took a load of shrapnel to the chest,” he said, the words coming from somewhere dark and deep. “Before being captured by a gang that had an interest in keeping me alive, if not healthy, at least for a while.”

Steve stilled, his eyes going wide, and Tony forced his eyes closed. “To keep the shrapnel out of my heart, to keep it from killing me, one of my fellow captives installed an electromagnet that held everything in place, kept me in a kind of medical limbo.” He took a breath, it caught in his throat, choking him. For an instant, he was back in that place, that one, or one just as bad, a hole in his chest and blood on his fingers, and he couldn't breathe, couldn't breathe, couldn't breathe.

His mouth worked, mute and helpless, and Steve's thumb rubbed against his cheek, a tiny, almost involuntary flicker of a movement. The touch slid over his skin like a jolt of electricity, and just like that, he was back where he should be. His eyes snapped open, and he sucked in an audible, shuddering breath. He stared into Steve's pale, agonized eyes, and said, “I made the arc reactor. I took what they did and I owned it, I-” His breath was gone, and he couldn't remember how to take another. He muscled on, his lungs empty, his voice shaking. “It's part of me, now, because I made it part of me, I used it, and I'm just as human as I was.”

He stopped, and he wondered if he should feel lighter, or cleansed, or any of the other fucking nonsense that the SHIELD therapists had told him that he would experience. Maybe he wasn't doing it right, because there was nothing, he was empty, he was hollow and empty and so close to shattering.

But he could meet Steve's eyes now, without flinching, without worrying that Steve would see something, would know something, would figure something out, and it was easier, being hollow. It was easier to know just what weapon to expect, if someone chose to cut him down. He hadn't been expecting it, with Obie, he should've, but he hadn't, and that was what had hurt.

The betrayal was bad enough. That his failure had caused it was what really hurt.

“I'm still human,” he said. “Just a lot... More scarred.” Steve took a breath, and Tony did too, mirroring the action, grateful for it. “I need the armor.”

Steve nodded. “Tell me you're all right,” he whispered.

Tony's mouth opened. “I don't think I am,” he said, at last. “Is that a problem?”

Steve shook his head. “No.” Slowly, carefully, he leaned in, his forehead just brushing against Tony's. “You're alive. That's good enough for me.”

“Alive and fully functioning,” Tony said, and he was grinning, he was grinning as Steve's hand slid around to the back of his neck. It wasn't a kiss, he'd expected a kiss. This was something different, something gentle and coaxing and intimate, for all that it was just Steve's fingers, stroking over the nape of his neck. Tony's eyes canted up, meeting Steve's. “I think I need to make that clear.”

Steve was smiling back, those lovely lips so close that all Tony would have to do was lean forward, and he could have them. He could distract Steve, he could change the flow of the conversation, he was good at that. He could make this about sex, because he could understand sex.

Instead, he sat there, memorizing the way that Steve's fingers slid through his hair.

He reached up, his fingers hovering over the arc reactor, over the pale glow that was showing through the thin fabric of his shirt. “You okay?” he asked.

Steve blinked, a flicker of surprise. Then his lips curled up in a smile. “Not going to lie,” he breathed. “I could use a hug right about now. If you feel up to it.”

Tony choked on a laugh. “Getting physical already, Rogers?” His hands came up, winding around Steve's neck, coaxing him in. “I never would've expected that.”

Steve's arms curled around his waist, tentatively at first, and then when Tony just leaned into his body, with more force. “You're pretty irresistible,” he whispered.

“Damn straight.” Tony buried his face in Steve's shoulder. He could feel the arc reactor, there between them, and Steve must've been able to feel it, too, but he just held on, his breath warm against Tony's temple. “Steve?” He took a breath. “That 'are you okay' thing?” He exhaled. “I'm working on it.”

Steve's arms tightened. “Let me know if you need anything,” he said, and Tony's chest went tight.

He rubbed his cheek against Steve's shoulder, breathing in the smell of his skin and his shirt. “I'll let you know,” he said, and curled as close as he could.

He could handle this.

*

“Shouldn't you be sleeping?”

Wanda looked over her shoulder, a soft smile blooming on her face as she caught sight of Steve. “I tried,” she said, tucking a dark curl behind her ear. “But it's been a restless night.” She looked back at the stove, where the kettle was steaming. “For you, as well, it would seem.”

“It's starting to be a problem.” Steve wandered into the kitchen, not entirely certain why he was here. Maybe he needed a little distance, a little space to think, and since Rhodey and Pepper were still up with Tony, he could risk it. The communal kitchen was quiet, the lights turned down low, but Wanda didn't seem to mind his presence. She just leaned back against the edge of the counter, watching the kettle as it heated. The light above the stove gilded her dark curls, and made her cheeks glow. Her dark red robe swept around her legs with her slightest movement, the fabric curling around her bare ankles and feet.

“Maybe I was waiting for you,” Wanda said, bringing Steve up short. He looked in her direction, but she was still watching the kettle, her eyes unblinking. “Sam's worried, you know.”

Steve huffed out a breath, and shoved a hand through his hair. “Yeah,” he said. And then, because he didn't know what else to say, he repeated it. “Yeah.”

Wanda turned off the stove and lifted the kettle. There was a tea pot waiting on the counter, and she lifted the lid, filling it quickly. “They're going to want to see Tony tomorrow.”

Steve nodded. “He should be up for that.” For a long, quiet moment, he stared down at the floor. “They're worried about him?”

“You know they are.” She held the tea pot out to him. “Put this on the table, please? I'll get the cups.”

Steve took it. “I know,” he said, moving to the table. “I just-” His voice trailed away. He had no way to verbalize what was going on his head, and he'd stopped trying. He was tired. When he set the tea pot on the table, the delicate porcelain rattled against the surface. He looked up in time to catch Wanda's eye. “Sorry,” he said, with a lopsided smile.

“It's fine, Steve, it's not going to fall apart from a little rough handling.” She crossed over, setting two tea cups on the table, and sinking down into her chair. She tucked her bare feet up under her, the posture childlike and easy, and reached for the tea pot.

"Thank you," he said, and Wanda looked up. "For your help today." He took a deep breath and let it out. He felt like he was walking a knife edge, but Wanda just smiled at him, her face placid, as she poured the tea. "I appreciate it."

Wanda nodded, and looked down, her spoon sweeping precise, languid arcs through her tea. "Would you like a cup?" she asked.

Caught off guard, Steve shook his head. "Thanks. No."

She glanced up, a smile hovering around her lips. “Are you sure?”

He opened his mouth, but his denial died unsaid. Instead, he found himself reaching for the chair next to her. She didn't say a word about his sudden change of heart, she just set the second cup on front of him, and reached for the teapot. “Tea is a strange thing,” she said, as she poured. “It has so much to do with timing. Pick the leaves at the wrong time, and you end up with something undrinkable. Dry them too long, brew them too long, heat the water too much or too little-”

The pale amber liquid pooled in the hollow of the cup, steam rising from the surface, and Wanda set the pot aside. “Timing is everything, with tea.” She looked up, and met Steve's eyes. “Have I ever told you about the first time I met Tony?”

The change of subject caught him off guard, and he fumbled for a moment, for something to say. “No,” he said at last. He reached for the tea cup, the china feeling too small and too delicate for his hands. He held it by the handle, his other hand cradling the bottom of the cup. It felt awkward, but he soldiered on anyway. He was good at that. “I don't think you ever did.”

Wanda nodded. “I met him before you,” she said, reaching for her spoon. “At SHIELD. I do not think it was intended, our paths crossing the way that they did; he was there to argue something with Director Fury, some bit of information or arms going astray-” She waved her spoon through the air. “I didn't pay attention, to be honest. I had problems of my own.”

Steve nodded. “Pietro was, he had gone missing, hadn't he?” he asked, careful about it. Wanda didn't talk much about what brought her to SHIELD, what had brought her to the Avengers. He didn't pry. She was his team mate, one he'd come to rely upon.

“Yes.” Wanda set her spoon aside, and took a sip of tea. “I suspect that we were put together in the waiting room for a reason, but to this day, I'm not certain if the director wanted Tony to size me up, or if he wanted me to size Tony up.” She smiled, puckish and bright, just behind the brim of her cup. “Perhaps both.”

“Fury does like to work all the angles,” Steve agreed. The heat from the tea cup had seeped into his palms, and he should probably put it down. Instead, he just shifted his grip. “Two birds, one stone.”

“Quite possible,” Wanda said. “But Tony was locked in his own frustrations, and I-” Her face went still for an instant, the warmth in her eyes and cheeks leeching away. “I was locked inside my own mind.”

Her eyes flicked up, and they were hollows in her face, dark and bottomless. "I was... Agitated." Her brow furrowed. "It is not a state I enjoy. It is not a state that I consider-" She set her cup down, and it rattled against the saucer. "Safe. For myself, or those around me."

Steve shifted in his chair, not sure if he should say something or not. But the movement was enough, her head came up, and this time, her eyes were clear and bright.

"I think he noticed. Or maybe he wanted to feel useful." Her lips curled up in a slight smile. "Have you noticed that? He dislikes forced inactivity."

"He hates," Steve said, one finger tapping against the side of his tea cup, "being made to follow someone else's schedule."

Wanda laughed. "That, too," she agreed. "And yes. I suppose you're right. We'd been told to stay put, and I think that grated on him. So he asked me if I'd like something to drink.” She glanced at Steve. “I think the offer surprised him as much as it did me. But he did offer, and then, having done so, he seemed to like the idea.

"I was not feeling well, and I was..." Her lips parted. "Frightened." She was staring at nothing, her eyes unfocused. "When I was very young, when my powers were first evidencing themselves, my mother would give me tea, tea with mint, to calm me. To calm my stomach, to calm my nerves."

She looked up with a smile. "I asked him for peppermint tea. With honey. And he found it for me." She brought her cup to her lips, and took a long, careful sip. “How, I don't know. But he stormed out of the room and he came back thirty minutes later with a paper cup of peppermint tea.” She looked at Steve. “And a bottle of honey shaped like a bear.”

Steve choked on a laugh. “He does try.”

“It was remarkably comforting, actually. I looked at that bear, and I just started to laugh. I hadn't expected it, if you'd told me five minutes before that I'd be sitting there, hugging a plastic bear full of honey and giggling like a little girl, I would've thought you not overly bright.” She was laughing now, just a little, and when she reached up to push a dark curl away from her face, her cheeks were flushed.

“It was an act of kindness, I don't think he really thought much of it. He wanted coffee, he was going to get coffee, Fury and all of his staff bedamned if they tried to stop him, and might as well as the weird woman in the long black coat if she wanted anything.” Wanda exhaled. “It was an offhand offer, to see if I wanted anything, since he was going anyway.

“But that bear, and that tea, might well have given me something I needed, right at that moment.” She smiled at Steve. “Because I asked him for something beyond the pale, and he got it for me.”

Steve realized he was smiling back at her, an expression that felt more natural on his face than he'd expected it to.

“The rest, you know,” Wanda said. “There was you, and there was Thor. And Natasha, Bruce and Clint, and Jan on their heels. Carol and Sam, and Iron Man.”

There had been others. Those who had joined them for a matter of days, or months. Pietro, when Wanda called upon him. Hank had been the one that Fury had recruited, but he'd left, uninterested in heroics. But he'd brought Jan along with him, and Jan was suited for the Avengers in a way that Hank never had been. They'd borrowed Jessica and Bobbi from time to time, but both had a loyalty to SHIELD first, and Steve couldn't fault them for that.

But he ached for every teammate he'd had and lost, for all that they were still safe and alive and fighting the good fight out there.

“Do you remember our first real fight?” Wanda asked him, breaking into Steve's thoughts. “When we were all together?”

He nodded. “Uh, it was, it was the Kree attack?”

“Yes. And an ugly fight it was, too.” She leaned back in her chair, her breath leaving her in a gust. “We won. But it was ugly.”

“Especially since we were still trying to figure this Avengers thing out,” Steve said. “We picked it up pretty quickly.” He arched an eyebrow. “Thank God for that.”

She laughed. “Indeed.” She reached for the tea pot, and refilled her cup. “And afterward, as we were all staggering in circles, exhausted and shell shocked, Iron Man went for coffee.”

Steve clapped a hand to his eyes. “That's right, he did, what-” He choked on a laugh. He could remember it clearly, even now, Iron Man standing there with stacks of paper cups in paper trays, wandering amongst his exhausted team mates, handing out cups of strong black coffee and packets of sugar as if that was normal. Steve had stared at him for a good thirty seconds, and then taken a large cup with two sugars.

He'd never had a better cup of coffee than that one, his back braced against the shattered remains of a brick wall, with Sam and Nat sitting silently on the ground next to him, as Thor and Clint sat high on a nearby rooftop, with Bruce huddled between them, wrapped in a blanket. Carol and Jan never came down at all, two bright points in the sky, flying higher and higher until Iron Man tempted them back to Earth.

And Wanda, quiet and still, bathed in light as red as the sunset, holding her cup with both hands.

“You got coffee,” Wanda said. She paused. “I got peppermint tea. With a packet of honey.”

Steve's head snapped up, his mouth going dry in an instant.

Her eyes opened, finding Steve's. "How odd," she said, her head tipping to the side. "That he would tell his body guard about a cup of tea that I had once asked him for. And that his body guard would remember it, so many months later.”

Steve was suddenly aware of his pulse, pounding fast and loud in his ears. "You didn't enter the pool."

She smiled. "I don't gamble."

"It wouldn't be a gamble for you." He rocked his weight forward, his arms braced on the table. "Would it."

Wanda studied him, silent and still. "Now, I think I've mentioned," she said, pushing her chair back from the table, and rising to her feet. Her eyes flashed up to his. "My powers don't work that way." Her smile went sly, a wicked little curve. "I've enough secrets of my own. I don't think I need to bother with anyone else's."

She collected her tea cup. "There are too many around this place."

Steve didn't move as she walked past him, rinsing the cup and opening the dishwasher. "We all do our best to keep our secrets," she said, her voice very quiet. "But we are betrayed, not by large things, but by the things we cannot hide." She looked up, and her eyes were a clear, warm golden brown, pale at the edges, fathomless and unsettling. "The parts of us that make us-" She paused, her fingers reaching out to rest, ever so lightly, against Steve's chest. "The things that make us who we are. Those things, they are hard to hide.” She smiled. “Especially if we think that no one sees them at all.”

She shut the dishwasher. "If either Tony or Iron Man need anything from me, or if you do, of course, please let me know."

Steve watched her, his heart still pounding. “Pepper-”

“Pepper and I-” She paused. “Understand one another.” She looked back at him. “Good night, Steve. And say hello for me.”

“Say-” Steve started, but she was already out the door and gone. Steve ran a hand through his hair. “What the hell did she mean by-”

“Excuse me, Captain,” Jarvis said. “Director Fury is here to see you.”

Steve stared at the kitchen door. “How the hell does she do that?” he asked.

“I could not say, Captain. May I inform the Director as to your location?”

Steve picked up his tea. “Sure. Send him up, Jarvis.” He glanced up. “Everything okay upstairs?”

“Sir is sleeping comfortably, for the time being,” Jarvis said.

Steve nodded. “At least someone is.” Shaking his head, he drained his tea.

“Hittin' that cup pretty hard, there, Cap,” Fury said as he strode across the kitchen. Despite the late hour, he looked as crisp and alert as he always did. “How you doing?”

Steve put the empty cup down. “I'll tell you when I figure it out, sir.”

Fury lowered himself down in the chair that Wanda had recently vacated. “You do that, soldier.” He dropped a file folder on the table and folded his arms on top of it, his one dark eye sharp as he looked Steve over. “Whatever's driving you to drink, is it something I should know about?”

Steve considered him. “How much does Wanda know?” he asked at last.

Fury let out a slight snort, but there was a slight smile lingering on his lips. “Honestly?” He leaned back in his chair, his crossed arms resting on his chest. “Not even I have any idea the kind of info going through that woman's head. But I find it safer to assume she knows everything. Including things you don't.”

“Right.” Steve looked at him, then down at the folder. “That for me?”

Fury nodded. “Got you some intel on our newest problem. Think you're going to need it.”

Steve reached for it. “Am I going to be happy about this?”

“Why do you think I'm here, and not Hill or Coulson?” Fury asked. He pushed himself to his feet and crossed to the coffee pot.

“Because I'm not going to be happy about this,” Steve answered his own question.

Fury flicked the pot on. “No, Cap. No, you are not.”

Steve took a deep breath and opened the folder. “Well, wasn't like I was getting any sleep tonight, anyway.”

Chapter Text

“Where's Iron Man?”

Tony set his phone down in the center of the table, and sank carefully into an empty chair. “He's following along on speaker, but he's with Pepper,” he said. His eyes canted up to catch Steve's. “I figured I had enough backup.”

“I don't want to be responsible for you,” Carol said, giving his chair a light kick as she walked behind him. He held up a hand, and she slapped it. “I don't get paid enough to be responsible for you.”

“Wait,” Sam said, sinking into a chair on Tony's other side. “You get PAID?”

“Only when Tony's involved.”

“Both of you are horrible,” Jan scolded. She took a chair next to Steve, giving him a worried look. Steve shook his head, a bare flicker of movement, but it was enough. She turned her attention back to Tony, brushing a strand of hair away from her cheek to cover the movement. “How are you feeling, Tony?”

“I'm really sick of people trying to kill me,” Tony admitted, with a wry smile.

“Imagine how the rest of us feel,” Steve said, and Tony rubbed a hand over his jaw. He wasn't quite fast enough to hide a smile.

“Well to be fair,” Jan said, her head tipping in his direction, “you've been around longer for people to try to kill.”

“Less about time,” Sam mused, “and more about his ability to pick a fight with everyone he meets in ten words or less.”

“Yeah, you wouldn't know anything about getting on people's nerves, would you?” Carol asked him, and Jan licked the tip of her finger and flicked a hashmark in midair.

“That's not a point,” Sam told her, stabbing a finger against the tabletop. “That was barely a comeback, it sure as hell was not a point.”

“The judges disagree,” Jan said, with a smirk.

Tony glanced in Steve's direction. “He's got your number,” he said.

Steve arched an eyebrow. “And I've got yours,” he pointed out, as Bruce and Wanda came in, their heads together, talking in low voices. Steve kept a wary eye on them, but they headed to the other end of the table. Steve leaned forward. “You need to-”

“Everyone here? Good.” Phil Coulson stalked into the room, a stack of folders under his arm and Thor, Natasha and Clint right on his heels. “Take a chair, people.” Without waiting for them follow that order, he headed to the head of the table, dropping the files onto the polished surface and turning to trigger the screen in front of them with a flick of his thumb. “This is our suspect.”

Tony pointedly turned his attention to Phil as everyone went quiet. Steve, frustrated despite himself, rocked back in his chair. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jan watching him, her eyes narrowed, but he couldn't do anything about that now.

Phil gestured at the screen behind him. "Eric Williams. Older brother of our missing man, noted 'bad seed' of the Williams family. Currently goes by 'the Grim Reaper.'”

Sam leaned back in his chair with a groan. “Guy's got the subtlety of a brick to the face.” Steve stared up at the screen, and found it hard to disagree.

“What's his deal?” Clint asked.

“He split from the family business more than a decade ago, the exact cause isn't well known, but intel indicates that he was ousted after a routine audit turned up some improprieties in the books."

"Improprieties?" Sam asked, one eyebrow arching.

"Embezzlement," Tony filled in. He had his arms crossed over his chest, his face unreadable.

"He stole from his family's company?" Carol asked, her head tipping in Tony's direction.

Tony shrugged, but Phil was more forthcoming. "Actually, he probably didn't. The embezzlement was very subtle, highly structured and most of the funds were funneled back into the company. Mostly to fund departments and projects that the board had denied budget increases for. The company took a loss, but it wasn't nearly what it should've been.

"Eric has had underworld ties for years, so he was the obvious suspect, but he didn't have the access that would be necessary, and wouldn't benefit."

"So he was the scapegoat?" Clint asked. The tip of his pen beat a rapid, rhythmic pattern on the edge of the table.

Phil opened his mouth, but Tony got there first. "He took the fall." His eyes slid towards Clint. "The internal investigation had barely started when he claimed responsibility." He leaned back in his chair, his fingers tented in front of him. "Simon let him."

Carol crossed her arms over her chest. "Brothers, nothing but trouble." On her other side, Thor let out a rumbling sound of agreement. They both shifted, almost in unison, shoulders braced side by side against the wall.

"Family has a pull," Tony agreed. “Whether we like it or not.”

"Which puts him in a position to blackmail Simon, or just simply call in the favor that Simon owes him, it's impossible to tell which." Phil flicked through the screens. "But both options place Simon in a difficult position."

"Let's be honest, Simon got himself into that position," Tony said, his voice wry. "He was young, and stupid, and playing fast and loose with the rules, but he could've just held his ground, pointed out that he might have done an end run around the board, but he'd done good work with the money he'd 'repurposed.'" His jaw locked. "He could've gotten off with a slap on the wrist and a reputation, instead he set himself up perfectly."

Jan gave him a faint smile. "Just because you could've pulled that off, Tony, doesn't mean that anyone else could. You have a certain..." Her lips pursed. "Something that allows you to get away with things like that."

Tony considered that. "Balls," he said, with a wide grin.

"That might be part of it," she agreed.

"Or he just thought, you know, that his older brother was looking out for him," Clint said. The pen was moving so fast now that it was almost invisible. "He probably wasn't expecting this sort of double cross."

"Then he wasn't paying attention," Tony said.

Natasha reached out with one hand, covering Clint's pen and pinning it to the table. "Everyone has blind spots," she said, and Tony's eyes flicked towards her, and then away. She looked at Phil. "What's his play?"

Phil leaned forward, bracing his hands on the edge of the table. “Tony?”

Everyone's head swung in Tony's direction, and he took a deep breath. “StarkIndustries has been facing a very carefully concealed hostile takeover attempt,” he said, and everyone stilled. Tony kept going, as if he didn't notice, but Steve could see the tension in his shoulders, in his face. “Simon was the face of it, but he doesn't have the backing. We think that Eric popped up, fed him a line about an influx of cash, how with his help, Simon could make WilliamsTech a global powerhouse. Absorb StarkIndustries, combine the product lines, extend WilliamsTech into a bunch of different industries where they hadn't been able to get a foothold.”

“Well, that sounds reasonable,” Sam said. “Except, you know-” He pointed at Tony. “You.”

“Yeah, except me,” Tony said. “I've got a large family of super mouths to feed now, and wasn't really interested in being forced out of my own company, so...” His smile was quick and sharp. “Pepper took care of it, and since making the attempt left him overextended and cash poor, we managed to turn the attack back on him.”

There was a long moment of silence. “Do you own WilliamsTech now?” Bruce asked, his head braced in one hand.

“Only on paper,” Tony said, his teeth flashing in a feral grin.

“Which presents a problem,” Phil said, tapping a finger against the table. “Because he didn't have the money or the clout to do this on his own. Eric wasn't hooking him up with a bunch of bored venture capitalists with an eye towards clean energy initiatives.”

“Maggia?” Jan asked.

“Eric might've been in bed with them before,” Tony said, “but they want cash, and power, and they could stockpile both with this kind of a scheme, but not fast enough.”

“We think he's picked up a new employer,” Phil said. He forwarded the slide. “AIM.”

Clint threw his hands in the air. “All right, gonna shoot me some beekeepers!” Nat nudged him in the side with a sharp twitch of her elbow, and Clint scooched his chair sideways. “You were thinking it!”

“But she had the control not to say it,” Steve said. To Phil, he said, “We're sure?”

“As sure as we can get without direct confirmation,” Phil said. “They've got the money, the reach, and they want SI. However, if Eric failed to deliver that, he could serve WilliamsTech up on a silver platter, and that's a plum of a consolation prize.”

“Except he can't.” Wanda's face was hidden behind the sweep of her hair. “Because now Tony has that locked up.”

“Right,” Tony said. He braced an elbow on the edge of the table and set his chin on it. “We've... Complicated things. If they try to get a foothold in WilliamsTech, Pepper's going to find out about it.”

“And if their whole intent here was to get a foothold without exposing themselves, that won't be the path they choose,” Phil said.

“So, they wanted your holdings, or his, and now they've been thwarted in both,” Thor said. “Their kind seldom leaves empty handed, nor will they easily accept such a loss.”

Tony didn't say a word, his head just tipping towards the windows. Phil waited a beat, two, and then filled the silence. “We think he's taken Simon to hand over instead.”

For a long moment, no one spoke. “They expected a company,” Natasha said. “Manufacturing, patents, infrastructure. He's offering them one man instead?”

“No matter the man, it's unlikely to satisfy,” Thor said.

“Not one,” Wanda breathed. Her head came up, her eyes locking on Steve's. “Two.”

His eyes narrowed. “Two? I don't-” Tony shifted in his seat, an almost involuntary twitch, and Steve's stomach dropped. “No.”

Tony exhaled. “Cap-”

Steve met his eyes, his brows drawing down. “No.”

Tony's mouth pulled up on one side, a lopsided smirk. “Not your call to make.”

Carol held up a hand. “Okay, enough, can someone slow down this conversation for the rest of us?” she asked, and Steve rocked back in his chair, struggling against the anger that was churning in his chest. Carol studied him for a second, then switched her sharp gaze to Tony. “Okay, Stark, you've got the floor.”

For a second, Steve thought Tony was going to balk, but then, finally, he said, “AIM is going to want a return on their investment. They're locked out of both companies, and Simon's too much of an ass to agree to work with them.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “At this point, the only thing keeping him alive and safe is Eric's protection.” He rocked back in his chair. “And I don't think that's worth jackshit at this point.”

He glanced up, his eyes meeting Steve's. “His best chance of survival is the offer of something more profitable.”

Next to him, Sam nodded. “You want to go after him. Use yourself as bait, to see if you can draw them out.”

Tony made a face. “Bait is such an ugly word,” he said, with far more amusement than Steve would've liked. “I prefer 'lure.' It sounds more technical.”

Sam glanced at him out of the corner of his eyes. “You know that's crazy, right? What makes you think they'd go for it, even if you found a way to get in touch with them?”

Tony shrugged. “I do a lot of crazy things,” he said. “Not out of the question that I'd do this, too.”

“We think he intended to take both Simon an Tony during their last... Encounter,” Phil said, his voice making it clear that he was still pissed that Tony, and by extension Steve, had moved without vetting it through SHIELD first. “By that point, he had to have realized that the negotiations had failed, and he was going to be put in a bad position with his new employers. He'd expected Tony to show up to confront Simon. He just didn't expect Steve to be there, too.”

“Which threw off his plans. So he cut his losses, took Simon, and took off,” Carol said.

“Assuming that he'd get a second chance at you later,” Steve said. Tony met his eyes, just for a second, and Steve gritted his teeth, fighting against an urge to say something he'd certainly regret later. “No.”

“I know-” Tony started, and Steve wasn't listening to him any more.

“What's our play?” he asked Phil.

“Cap, I know-” Tony said, and Steve turned on him.

“They tried to kill you,” he said, the words bitten off with a great deal of force. “They nearly did kill you.” Twice. He didn't say it, but he wanted to. Other than Wanda and Phil, none of the others knew that Tony had been shot. But Steve did. He squeezed his eyes shut. “We're not risking your life on the harebrained idea that you're worth more to them alive than dead, because right now, that's a very shaky hypothesis. It's just as likely that he's angry enough right now that killing you seems like a worthwhile trade off.”

“He's not going to-”

“He already has,” Steve said.

“So we're leaving Simon to die instead?” Tony snapped.

“No. We're going to do our best to get him back, too,” Steve said. He took a deep breath, getting himself back under control with an effort of will. Around them, the room was still and quiet, but Steve could almost feel Sam eying him, and he didn't need this right now. Pointedly, he turned away from Tony and back to the head of the table where Coulson was waiting, his hands folded in front of him. “Phil. What's our play?”

“We think we have a good idea where he's being held,” Phil said. “AIM is generally low threat, more interested in corporate espionage and information brokering than direct confrontation. But we keep a close eye on their global footprint, because when a more...” His mouth went tight. “Radical organization goes shopping for a new toy, AIM's the Walmart they tend to hit first. Cheap, fast, and available in your own home town.”

“Open twenty-four seven,” Clint muttered.

“We're going to start clearing out their nests,” Phil said. Another gesture at the screen, and he brought up a map. “The faster, the better.”

“Because if he's somewhere you don't hit on the first wave of attacks, Simon's not going to live long,” Tony said. “Even if you augment the Avengers with SHIELD squads, there's no chance of clearing them all at once, this is-”

Steve stood, and everyone went still. “This isn't up for discussion,” he said, his voice very quiet and very calm. “Phil has your assignments. Tony, you're staying here.” He met Tony's eyes without flinching. “And Iron Man's staying with you. Until we have this under control, your safety's our first priority.” Tony's eyes flared, and before he could open his mouth, Steve held up a hand. “Anyone else have any questions?”

The room was silent.

Steve took a breath. “Then go get prepped. We're wheels up as soon as we can get everything in order.”

No one objected. No one said a word. In a matter of minutes, the room was empty. Empty except for him and Tony. Phil was the last one out, shooting Steve a speaking glance before he pulled the door shut.

Tony leaned back against the table, his arms crossed over his chest, his face expressionless. “Want to explain what you're doing right now?” he asked, his voice tight.

The urge to lash out was almost overwhelming. Steve closed his eyes and took a deep breath, in through his nose, out through clenched teeth. “My job,” he said, and Tony's head jerked to the side, his mouth a thin line. “No.” Steve leaned forward. “This is me. Respecting your choices, and protecting your cover.”

“Do not pretend that this is for me,” Tony snapped, and Steve wanted to throw something, wanted to shake him.

Instead, he took a deliberate step back, holding himself in check. “You are a civilian,” he said, and Tony's head snapped back as if he'd been hit. “Tony-”

“I thought I was a part of this team, actually,” Tony said.

“You are. As a non-combatant,” Steve said. His hands were in fists at his sides, and he forced his fingers to relax, forced the tension out of them, one digit at a time. “You do not fight, Tony.

“You know that's not-”

Steve held up a hand. “No,” he said, very carefully, very quietly. “No. What I know, what you told me, does not change things. You-”

“Of course it does!” Tony slapped a hand against the table, the crack of his palm on the unyielding surface like a gunshot. “It changes everything, you know, I-”

“You almost died.” The words cut through Tony's raised voice, and he fell silent. Steve met his eyes without flinching. “Twice. And to our team, the people who trust us, who depend on you, who-” His mouth twisted. “Who would do anything to keep you safe, Tony.”

Tony stared at him, his face closed, his eyes flat. “Because they think I need protecting.”

“Because they believe what you've told them,” Steve said. “You cannot blame them for believing what you want them to believe, Tony.” He took a breath, and another. “I'm sorry.” And he was, that was the shocking thing, that's what hurt. “But whether you choose to believe it or not, I am protecting you right now, I am protecting BOTH of you.”

“Right,” Tony said, with a smile that could've cut glass. “This is all for me. Right.”

Steve straightened up, forced his spine straight. “I thought you were dead,” he said. “Both times.” Tony didn't flinch, but he didn't meet Steve's eyes, either. “Not for long. But long enough. They know you're-” His throat closed and he had to swallow twice to force the words out. “That you're my friend. And for me to agree to this, when they've already tried to kill you, when they've literally blown out the side of the building, Tony?” He shook his head. “I agreed to protect your identity. And this is how we are going to do it, by keeping Tony Stark out of the line of fire.”

Tony was silent for a long moment. “If he dies, that's on me,” he said.

“If he dies, that's on his brother,” Steve said. “And you know it.”

“So that's it?” Tony's face was cold, empty, and it hurt, it ached low in his chest, in his stomach, it HURT. But Steve had hurt before, and he'd hurt again. And this was nothing close to the agony of thinking Tony was dead. Even for a minute, even for a second.

This pain was bearable. He'd had worse.

“You want to help?” he asked, his voice quiet. “Narrow it down. Help us find him. Help us get him out, the way only you can.”

“From safely behind you,” Tony said, and he pushed himself away from the table. “Tell me, Steve, if you didn't know the truth about the two of us, would you still be forcing Iron Man off the roster, too? Would you still be handicapping yourself, handicapping the whole team, that way?” He set his hand on the doorknob, his head hanging down, his shoulders tight. “Ask yourself that.”

Steve said nothing, and after a moment, Tony opened the door. He slipped through, shutting it quietly behind him, and Steve stood there, wishing he had an answer.

Or wishing that he didn't care quite so much about the question.

*

“Simon's brother.”

Tony didn't even look up from the files. “Simon's brother,” he agreed, his voice tight. He stabbed a finger at the holographic display, trying to narrow down a stream of data from SHIELD's files. He was missing something. He hated that feeling, that niggling feeling that he was making an easily avoidable mistake.

Rhodey stepped up behind him, bracing a hand on the edge of the bench. “You knew.”

“I suspected.” Tony's fingers rattled against the crystal face of his arc reactor, his t-shirt not much of a barrier. “I was hoping I was wrong. But...” His chin dipped. “Yes. I suspected.”

Rhodey nodded, his eyes narrowed on the wall of video footage that Tony had playing. “This is going to complicate things, isn't it?”

Tony's shoulders rose in a faint shrug. It was a mistake; a sharp spike of pain sizzled across his nerve endings with the movement. He gritted his teeth. “It is. If we're following SHIELD's lead on this.”

That brought Rhodey's head around, his dark eyes narrowed. “You thinking of doing something else?”

Tony rubbed at his aching chest, wondering if he could get away with another dose of painkillers. The shot may not have killed him, but damn, it had hurt. He reached for the bottle. “No,” he said, popping the lid. “SHIELD's running the show.”

Rhodey eyed the pill bottle, but he didn't say a word. He just pushed himself away from the bench, crossing to workshop to the sink and grabbing a coffee cup. “Since when?” he asked, his voice wry, as he filled the cup with water.

Tony took it from him with a mumble of thanks. “Since I got shot,” he said, tossing a dose of pills in his mouth and washing them down with a gulp of water.

“Is that all it takes?” Rhodey crossed his arms over his chest. “Now you tell me.”

Tony couldn't quite keep a grin off of his face. “You want to go? Let's go. You and me. I'll get the suit, it's-”

“I think I'll wait until you can stand up without looking like you're going to throw up on your own shoes,” Rhodey said.

“Good luck with that, I've looked like this since high school,” Tony said. It was almost a joke. Almost. He rubbed his chest, fingers digging into the thin cotton of his t-shirt and the scar tissue underneath.

Rhodey was silent for a moment. “You didn't cover it back up,” he said, his voice quiet.

Tony glanced down. “No.” Through the t-shirt, a faint glow was visible. “I didn't bother. I just kept my sweatshirt on downstairs, it's fine.” The synthetic skin had been one step he couldn't manage right now. His real skin was too sensitive, the scar tissue raw and bruised. He flattened his hand over the arc reactor, letting his palm swallow the glow. Rhodey was silent, and Tony glanced up. Rhodey was studying him, his hand cupped over his mouth, and Tony shook his head. “It's fine.”

Rhodey took a deep breath. “Is it?”

Tony tried not to roll his eyes. “Yes.”

“Because this isn't the first time you've forgotten it,” Rhodey said.

“I didn't forget, I didn't say I forgot, I didn't-” Bother with it. He stopped before he could say the words, because he could feel them and there was something wrong there. Something he didn't want to face.

“You're slipping.”

Tony looked up, and found Rhodey watching him. “Excuse me?”

“You're slipping,” Rhodey repeated. “If I didn't know better, Tony, I'd say you're doing it accidentally on purpose, because you've never made a mistake like this before, not even once, and now, you're doing it all the time.”

“I don't think twice counts as 'all the time,'” Tony said. Had it been twice? Three times? He didn't remember now, how could he not remember? But it was a nuisance, it was painful to do now, and he hated it. He stopped. No, not hated it. He'd always hated it, honestly. But now...

Now he resented it.

“You can tell someone,” Rhodey said, and the words hit Tony sideways, knocked the support out from under him, sent him grabbing for the edge of the bench. He clutched at it, trying to keep himself upright with a force of will. Rhodey, somehow, didn't seem to notice. “Tony, you can-”

“I know that.” He looked up at the data. “I told Steve, which you didn't like, so why-”

“Why do you think I didn't like that?” Rhodey asked, his voice quiet.

“Because you didn't,” Tony said. “I know-” He shook his head. “I know you didn't. So yes. I didn't put the damn synth skin on, because I'm tired, and everything hurts, and no one could see it, anyway.”

Rhodey crossed his arms across his chest. “So this isn't your way of trying to tell people without having to, you know, tell people?”

Tony stared at him, his chest aching for an entirely new reason. “No,” he said, and his lips fought him on that word. “Don't read anything into it, Rhodes, I'm just tired.”

“Yeah, how could I read anything into this?” Rhodey said, his eyebrows arching. “You're letting SHIELD call the shots, and you-”

“SHIELD and Steve,” Tony said, and Rhodey fell silent. “Did you listen to the whole-” He paused, his fingers flicking through the data stream. “Was that a lover's quarrel? I think it counts. I mean, we're not lovers, and at this rate, it doesn't look like we're going to be lovers, but still.” His eyes slid in Rhodey's direction. “That was a spat.”

“That what we're calling it?”

“I turned off the feed off before you two could really get into it,” Rhodey said. “Felt a little too much like listening to my parents fight.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Tony said, his eyes flicking up towards the ceiling. “What, you afraid mom and dad are getting a divorce?”

Rhodey reached past him, adjusting a data point. Tony opened his mouth to object, then reconsidered, and shut it. “Yeah, that's right,” Rhodey said. “I saw that. That thing you almost did.”

“Shut it,” Tony told him. He shifted backwards. “Jarvis, can you give me the cell data?” There was a faint ping, and another layer of numbers appeared with the rest. “Thank you.” He kept his eyes on it. “Rhodes?” Rhodey's head tipped towards him, and Tony's mouth worked. “Never mind.”

Rhodey leaned against the bench. “Say it.” Tony shook his head, and Rhodey sighed. “You got enough poison inside of you, you really want something else to carry?”

“Is that what I'm doing?” Tony asked. He realized he was rubbing his chest again, his fingers digging into the skin around the arc reactor. “Poisoning myself?”

“Yeah, look, Tone,” Rhodey said, his voice quiet, “no one blames you for doing whatever you need to do to protect yourself. That's your right, that's everyone's right. Hell, I do it, too. I've spent my whole life doing it.” He leaned forward. “It's a horrible way to live, but you do what you have to do. We all do.”

Tony met his eyes with a wry smile. “You saying I'm not special?”

“No, I'm saying that you're not the only one who is facing a world that can sometimes be brutally hostile,” Rhodey said. “And that you're the only one who can decide how to do that. How to handle that.”

He leaned forward, his hands braced on the workbench. “What I'm saying is, you've got the right to keep your secrets. Because if no one knows your weaknesses, they can't use them against you.”

The way that Obie had. The words were unsaid, because they didn't need to be said. Tony's shirt felt tight, and he looked down to find that his fingers were locked on the fabric, bunching it up right directly on top of the arc reactor. Simultaneously hiding it and drawing attention to it.

“But Tony? They can't save you, either,” Rhodey said, and Tony's eyes shot up to meet his. Rhodey tried to smile, a good attempt, but his eyes were sad. “Your secrets are killing you, Tony. They're...” His mouth worked. “Sooner rather than later, you're going to need a lot of help, and no one can help you with problems they don't know you have.

“I'm not telling you what to do, I'm not telling you how to live your life, I'm telling you, if Pepper and I can't get to you, if Happy isn't with you, if you've locked Jarvis out, if you're keeping Steve at arm's length...” Rhodey's voice trailed away. “Tony. They can't hurt you, right now. But they can't help you either. And I think that what they want, is to-”

“I can't.” The words slipped out from numb lips, and Rhodey stopped, his face going still. Tony took a breath, and another, trying to get his heartbeat under control, trying to ignore the way that he was shaking. He braced a hand on the edge of the workbench, his head falling forward. “I-”

Rhodey's hand closed on the back of his neck, rubbing hard, almost roughly against Tony's skin. “It's okay,” he said, soft and gentle. “Tony, it's okay. You're safe. I'm here. It's going to be fine.”

Tony let his eyes close, a raw bark of laughter shaking his shoulders. “You promise?”

“Hey, when have I ever lied to you, you ass?” Rhodey's fingers tightened, just enough pressure to center Tony, to give him something to cling to. “You're the liar in this relationship.”

“Yeah, so I guess I owe you a couple of reassuring little white lies, huh?” Tony asked, and his voice was steady now. Weak, but steady.

“More than a couple.” Rhodey gave him a slight shake, and Tony looked up. Rhodey gave him a faint smile. “What are you going to do?”

Tony took a deep breath, and then another. “When I figure it out,” he said, with a lopsided smile, “I'll let you know.”

Rhodey's hand squeezed, fingers digging into Tony's flesh in a way that strangely comforting. “Well, you keep me posted. I've got a full calendar, Tone, you gotta get on there sooner rather than later.”

“Busy social life, sure,” Tony said with a snort of a laugh. He pulled back, just a step, one, then two. He met Rhodey's eyes with a smile that he had to force onto his face. But he could stand up straight without the support now, without Rhodey holding him up. He could do it, because he had to.

“Right,” Rhodey said, shaking his head. “You keep me in the loop, Tone, okay?”

Tony waved a hand through the air. “Fine, off with you, I know where to find you, and if I don't, I'll just call-”

He stopped, his head coming up.

Tony stared at the information scrolling through the air in front of him. It wasn't until his vision started to white out that he realized that he was holding his breath. He sucked in air through gritted teeth. “Rhodey.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rhodey pause, halfway to the door, and Tony forced himself to turn, forced himself to face him head on. “One more time,” he said, and his voice was steady. “Once more. I'm going to ask you to do this, to-” His throat stung, a taste like copper or ash thick on his tongue, and he ignored it. “Help me. One more time. And then-”

He stopped, and shook his head. “And then, I'll never ask it of you again,” he said.

Rhodey's face softened, his mouth tipping up at the corners, his brows rising. “Tony, you know,” he said, with a faint shake of his head, “that is utter bullshit.”

Tony paused. “Probably,” he said.

“Probably?” Rhodey stabbed a finger at him. “Probably?”

Tony threw up his hands. “Definitely, okay? Fine, you're right, you're always right, it's definitely, I'm definitely going to make you do this again, but it sounded good, didn't it? I mean-”

“For the split second it was believable?” Rhodey's head bobbed from side to side in a nod. “Sure. Yeah. That was believable. For a split second, and then I remembered it was you, and you're-”

“Fine, fine, forget I asked, I can do this by myself, who needs you, you're-”

Rhodey arm wrapped around Tony's shoulders. Tony glared in his general direction. Rhodey, probably a little too used to that, just leaned in. “Pretty sure you need me,” he said, his eyes dancing.

Tony huffed out a sigh. “Maybe,” he admitted.

“Pretty sure you're always going to need me,” Rhodey said.

“Pretty sure you're just slowing me down at this point,” Tony said. “If I didn't have you holding me back, it would be so much easier to keep things on track, but here we are, and by this point I'm responsible for you, so I guess this is what we're-”

Rhodey patted him on the back. “Anthony?”

Tony paused, turning his head towards Rhodey. “James?”

“What do you need?”

Tony stopped, and let the smile break over his face, slow but absolutely certain. “Everyone.”

*

“The cell phone.”

Steve glanced up, surprise9d to find Tony standing over9 him. Shock melted into something like relief, and he didn't really want to look at that too closely. “Cell phone?”

Tony dropped down onto his equipment case. “Simon's cell phone. It's still on.” He leaned in, his eyes bright. “Steve. It's on, and I can track it.”

Steve stared at him. “Either they've ditched it, Tony, or it's a trap.” He shook his head. “There's no way they'd make a mistake like that.”

Tony waved a hand through the air. “Of course it's a trap,” he said with a grin, his dark eyes brilliant. “Here.” He shoved at tablet in Steve's direction, and Steve took it, sinking down to one knee next to Tony. “I've tracked it back to a known AIM base.”

Steve pulled up the map, studying it with a frown. “SHIELD cleared this one out months ago,” he said. He pulled up the images, one after another. “It's abandoned now.”

“It was abandoned,” Tony said, leaning forward. “I don't think it is, not anymore.” He braced his elbows on his knees, close to Steve now, his voice pitched low. “I don't know if Simon's there, but someone is.”

“Of course someone is,” Steve said. “The landscape is a nightmare. It's pretty much a half-destroyed warehouse in a rock canyon.” He gave Tony a look. “If I was setting up a trap, this is the sort of place I'd choose.”

But Tony just grinned at him, wide and bright. “Right?” he said. Steve raised an eyebrow, waiting for the rest of whatever was happening in Tony's head. “Steve. The phone is on. What happens when we call it?”

“Nothing?” Steve said, his lips twitching.

“Not if it's me calling.” Tony glanced around, but the others were giving them some space for the moment. “Steve, we've got a trump-”

“No,” Steve said, and Tony rolled his eyes.

“Hold your horses, Captain Overprotective. A trump that isn't me,” he said. “Steve, why did AIM want StarkIndustries? Why was Eric Williams able to get them to pony up the sort of money that the hostile takeover attempt would've cost? What do I have that they want that bad?”

Steve's head snapped up. “The armor.”

Tony's grin was brilliant. “The armor,” he agreed. “That's what they want. They want the underpinnings, of course, the relays and the electrical systems and the AI elements and the hardware and the software, but what thy WANT is the armor.”

He met Steve's eyes. “If I call Simon's phone, someone's going to pick up. I'm sure this is a trap, Steve, that they're just expecting us to trace the signal and come rolling in, guns blazing, but if I call the number and offer them what they want...” His voice trailed away, his eyebrows arching, and Steve nodded.

“You think you'll be able to arrange an exchange,” Steve said.

“I think it's worth a try.” He took a deep breath. “A quinjet. With Iron Man piloting.”

He'd known it was coming, but he hated it anyway. He hated every bit of this, in a way that he hadn't anticipated. “I really thought,” he said, the words a bare whisper, “that once we got this thing figured out, I wouldn't have to worry anymore.”

Tony's mouth curled up. “I don't think you're capable of not worrying,” he said, his voice just as low. “And besides, Steve, I think we're a long way from having this thing figured out.” He took a breath, his eyes locked with Steve's. “Aren't we?”

Steve was acutely aware of the rest of the team, of the SHIELD support staff that were hustling around the periphery of his vision. He hated that they were there, he hated that he and Tony were here, he wanted to be having this conversation somewhere else, anywhere else. Anywhere where he could reach out and touch, could reassure himself, could reassure Tony with something other than words.

He took a breath. “We're making progress,” he said, and some of the strain went out of Tony's face, his shoulders relaxing by stages. Steve looked down at the tablet, hating this, hating every bit of it, and soldiering on anyway. He was good at that. Seemed like he'd been doing it his whole life by this point. “Can Iron Man pilot the Quinjet in armor?”

“He can, but if we go with the Mark 42, the modular armor, we won't have to,” Tony said. “It's the easiest on and off, he can make it work.”

Steve set the tablet down on the equipment case next to Tony, using it as an excuse to lean in, close enough to feel the heat from Tony's body. “Help me understand,” he said, his voice quiet. “Why is this so important to you? Why can't you just let us handle it?”

Tony rubbed a hand over his face. “Because I know what it's like to be deceived and left to die by someone you trusted,” he said, his voice quiet. “And I don't have to watch history repeat itself here, Steve.”

Steve nodded. “Even if they agree,” he said, with a wry smile, “it'll still be a trap, Tony.” His eyes went up, wanting him to understand. “And you're vulnerable, if you're alone.” He straightened up. “Iron Man can't do this alone, Tony.”

Tony was silent, and Steve shook his head. “Tell me you know that.”

Tony went still, his lips parting as he sucked in a breath, and released it. “Steve.” He stood, and it was jerky, strangely disjointed, like he wasn't steady, like he was trying to find his balance. He leaned in, close, so close and yet not nearly close enough. “Steve, do you trust me? Do you trust Iron Man?” He stared at Steve, his eyes hollow and fathomless. “Do you trust us, Steve?”

The question terrified him in a way that he couldn't define. “Yes,” he said, because it was the truth, because he knew it, and Tony had to know it, too. “You know I do.”

Tony's eyes closed, his face a mask that Steve couldn't read, couldn't understand. Steve reached out, his hand stilling in the air a bare inch from Tony's shoulder, wanting to touch him and not sure if he had the right. Not sure if it would make things worse. “Tony?”

Tony took a breath, and another, his hand coming up to claw at the fabric of his shirt. But before Steve could say a word, before he could say the wrong thing, or do the wrong thing, Tony's eyes opened. He stared at Steve, clear eyed and calm.

And smiled. “Then I need your help.”

*

“Where is Stark?”

"You really think SHIELD would allow him anywhere near here?" Tony asked, amused despite himself. He was pretty sure that was going to come through, even through Iron Man's speaker, but he didn't much care.

The silence stretched, and Tony waited. Not patiently, he'd never been patient. But he could wait. Wait as the man in the skull mask weighed his words.

“So you think you're going to waltz in here and make the exchange for him?” The Grim Reaper, the man once known as Eric Williams, raised his hand, pointing the long black pole in his hand towards the just over Tony's shoulder. “Or perhaps your friends have other ideas?”

Tony held up his hands, keeping his fingers curled in against the palms, keeping the repulsors there out of play. “Just me. Which you know, because I'm sure you scanned the Quinjet already. You did that before I even had a chance to land. It's like Stark told you,” he said. “Give us Simon, and we'll make it worth your time.”

The Reapers shifted forward, bracing the tip of the pole against the cracked stone of the concrete. “Let me see.”

“Simon first,” Tony said.

“What makes you think you're in any position to change the deal at this point?” The Reaper said, dark laughter running through the words.

“I want proof of life, and if you can't provide it, we'll handle this in a very different way,” Tony said, smooth and calm. He took a step forward, the servos of the armor whining as he braced himself.

The Reaper brought the pole up with a twist of his hands, whipping it through the air. There was a hiss, a crackle, and a long, sweeping blade made of light curved through the air. The Reaper held up the scythe, letting Tony get a good look at the deadly length of it. There was a moment of silence, and Tony let his fingers flex, the joints rattling like shell casings.

“Let's not let a business transaction get any more complicated than it has to be,” Tony said, and the blade dropped, just an inch or two, but enough. “You can fight me. Or you can give up something you never wanted, and get what you were after all along.” He shrugged. “Time to choose. Business or stupid?”

“Fine.” The Reaper raised one hand, gesturing behind him at the crumbling ruins of the building. Almost immediately, two yellow clad figures emerged from the dark interior, a limp form suspended between between them. They moved forward, dragging Simon over the rough pavement, until they were just a step behind the Reaper. He swung the pole out, catching Simon's chin and tipping his head up. “Wakey, wakey, baby brother.”

Simon twitched, trying to pull his head back, but the Reaper held him in place without any difficulty. His face was mottled with bruises, his eyes swollen almost closed, his lips split and his nose showing signs of a recent break, and he was bound, hand and foot, with heavy metal shackles. But he was breathing, almost certainly aware.

The Reaper pulled the scythe away, and Simon's head fell forward. “And just so you don't get any ideas, Iron Man...” He swung the weapon through the air, and AIM agents began to spill from the ruined building, standing up on the roof, appearing from behind broken walls and along the cracked lines of the rock formations that surrounded them.

The armor's weapons systems locked onto each movement automatically, a whine of alarms rolling through the helmet. Tony's eyes slid across the HUD, watching as the AIM agents fell into place, surrounding him, dozens of weapons pointed down at him and the Quinjet.

He didn't flinch. “Do you want the armor, or not?” he asked.

The Reaper's head tipped to the side, and he gestured towards the Quinjet. Half a dozen of the AIM agents headed for the open door. “Pull them out. One at a time.” His gaze never left Tony. “I want to check them.”

It took them an agonizingly long minute to pull the first of the armor cases out of the jet. One, then another, until all five were arrayed in a line in front of the Quinjet. The Reaper paced forward, his head still tipped in Tony's direction. Tony held still, his hands half raised, his attention focused on the Reaper, trusting in Jarvis and the armor to keep track of the rest of the threats.

“Five,” Tony said. “As agreed.”

The Reaper said nothing, just popped the lid on the first case, pulling the helmet of one set out. He held it up, tipping it from side to side on the palm of his hand. "How do we know you didn't rig them to blow the second you're out of range?" He rubbed a fingertip across the faceplate, leaving a dark smudge on the polished red surface.

"An eye for an eye, an explosion for an explosion?" Tony asked. The Reaper chuckled, low and smug, and Tony shrugged. "You don't. Guess you'd better tell the guys who are holding your leash to move fast, if they want to reverse engineer them."

The Reaper's arm came up, fast and fluid, the movement almost too fast to track. Tony glanced down at the glowing, sparking blade of the scythe that was now tucked just under his chin. The helmet the Reaper had been holding a moment before rolled slowly across the ground, rocking to a stop next to Tony's foot. "I don't have masters, and I'm not on a leash," Grim Reaper said, and there was a note to that, a spark of rage that was bleeding through his attempts at control. “Unlike you.”

Behind the faceplate of the helmet, Tony smiled. That button, it would appear, was going to be useful.

He reached up, setting one index finger against the pole of the scythe and pushing it away from his neck. “Consider it. A steady paycheck's nothing to sneeze at in this economy.”

The Reaper took a step back. He waved a hand, and the AIM agents who had been holding Simon tossed him in the dirt in front of Tony. “Take him, and go,” the Reaper said.

Tony reached down. “C'mon, Williams,” he said, hauling Simon to his feet. A quick flick his wrist, and he snapped the cuffs on Simon's wrist, and then the ones on his ankles. On his way up, Tony slung Simon's nearly limp body over one shoulder. “Nice doing business with you, Eric.”

The Reaper leaned over, picking up the helmet he'd dropped. “This one's damaged,” he said, holding it up.

“Sorry, you took delivery,” Tony told him, backing up towards the Quinjet. “No returns, no exchanges.”

“Five suits of armor.” The Reaper's scythe came up. “And if this one's no good, I'll just take the one you're wearing.”

Tony brought his hand up, the repulsor humming to life. All around the landscape, weapons rattled and charged, a thin, sustained whine like a bee hive hit by an errant rock. “Don't make this any harder than it has to be,” he said, his voice calm.

“That's not up to me,” the Reaper said. He raised his hand, and there was something in his hand, a tiny mechanism cradled between his fingers. The skull tipped to the side, and Tony was certain he was smiling as he triggered it with a flick of his thumb.

Simon screamed. And then he burst into flame.

Tony stumbled backwards, Simon rolling free of his grip and hitting the ground with a bone-rattling thud. Tony stared, shocked, as a strange, rolling pink flicker of electrical fire sliced over Simon's body. It started at his chest, and slammed outwards, curling over Simon's skin, crackling against the fabric of his shirt. Tony thought, at first, that he was burning, that he'd been doused in something.

Then he realized that the light was coming from under Simon's skin.

"Oh, Simon," Tony breathed. “Don't-”

“He's not listening anymore,” the Reaper said. He sounded amused. “He might not have been the most sucessful experiment, but at least he'll be of use.” He raised one hand, wiggling his fingers in a slow, mocking wave as Simon pulled himself to his feet. “Good-bye, Iron Man. Try not to to-”

The repulsor hit him right between the shoulder blades.

“I think that is quite enough.” The armor pushed free of the case, upright and moving despite its lack of a head. One hand came out, and the helmet on the ground came flipping through the air towards it. Jarvis reached out, snagging the helmet from mid air and dropping it into place. “Surrender.”

The Reaper turned, his scythe whipping through the air. Jarvis ducked under it, smooth as silk, and came up firing. “Sir?”

“I've got this,” Tony said, as three of the cases blew, one after another, Pepper, Rhodey and Happy emerging, all of them already firing. “Deal with AIM!”

“Gladly.” Rhodey took off, swirling around to take a shot at the Reaper as he cut through the air. The armor was heavy, less maneuverable, but with all the power Tony could pack into it, and weaponry built into every available inch. Happy was right behind him, bulk and force, the earth shaking with each ponderous step.

The Reaper turned to face the new threat, the scythe cutting through the air, and Pepper held up one hand, an energy shield snapping into place around her palm, solid and strong enough to stop him dead. “Iron Man! Watch out for-”

The blast of energy caught him dead in the center of the chest, lifting him off his feet and slamming him backwards with a force that forced the air out of his lungs and setting off every single alarm the armor had simultaneously. Simon was on his feet now, light pouring out of his skin, energy crackling around his head, around his shoulders, around his hands. He stepped forward, feet dragging across the concrete, and leaving blackened scars on the pavement.

Tony fired a quick burst, the repulsors at their lowest setting, trying to get Simon's attention, trying to keep it on him. “Simon,listen to me-” he said and Simon's hands came up. The second energy burst sent Tony crashing to the ground, his head bouncing across the stone. Tony rolled over, shaking his head to clear it. “Jarvis, I think we need to pull the fire alarm.” He pushed himself to his feet, scrambling out of the way before Simon could get another shot it. “Blow it!”

Jarvis didn't say a word across the comms, but the last suit of armor split apart, revealing a single glowing spot of light. It didn't look like much, but their best defenses never did.

An instant later, there was a burst of red light, and suddenly, the team was there, spilling outwards from a spot that had been empty a second before. Thor, Carol, Jan, and Sam shot skyward, with Clint and Nat right on their heels, weapons already up and firing. The Hulk stood there, filling his lungs with dusty, smoke filled air.

A shot hit him right in the temple, and his head rocked to the side. He reached up, one massive palm patting at his forehead, and then he turned, squinting at the spot the shot had originated. The AIM agent, showing a massive amount of self-preservation, dropped his weapon and fled. Grinning, Hulk threw himself after him, his feet churning up the stone with each step.

Steve's shield slammed into the Reaper's back. “Good job,” he said to Wanda, who was a step behind him.

“I hate traveling by magic!” Clint yelled, even as he scrambled up to the top of the Quinjet, shooting the entire time.

“I'll trade you,” Pepper said, sweeping up behind him, the hard light shield deflecting a burst of gunfire. “I got here in a coffin.”

“Point to you,” Clint said, taking a shot with a grin.

Reaper caught Jarvis by one arm, throwing him into Steve. He only stopped them for an instant, but it was enough. He broke away, turning to run. He didn't get far. Pepper caught him around the waist, swinging him around and throwing him, with a great deal of force, at the nearest armor case. He hit dead center, and Happy was right there to slam the case shut. His head lolled forward, and he went still.

Pepper landed, her boots skipping across the ground. “Jarvis, seal it.”

“God, I love you,” Rhodey said.

“Fight now, love me later,” she said as Simon let out a scream of rage.

Steve was running in his direction, his shield up, and Tony cut in front of him. “It's Simon,” he yelled, and Steve's eyes went wide behind the cowl. “Take care of AIM, they did this, make sure they don't have any other experimental subjects, Cap. I've got him.”

“Iron Man-”

Tony didn't stick around to hear any objections, he just charged at Simon, every bit of energy the armor could manage rerouted to the repulsors. He hit hard, his arms wrapping around Simon's waist, the armored weight of his shoulder digging into Simon's stomach. It was enough, enough to catch Simon off guard and tear him off the ground.

Tony shot straight up, trying to get Simon away from anyone else before this could get any worse. He had a few seconds, a precious few moments where he was in control. And then Simon seemed to wake from his stupor, his hands coming up to claw at Tony's face plate. His fingertips scraped against the metal, energy scarring the surface. “Watch the paint job,” Tony said, yanking his head back out of reach.

The light was blinding now, only the black hollows of Simon's eyes and the helpless, silent movement of his mouth visible in the purple-pink wash. He barely seemed human anymore, barely seemed like anything anymore. It was just light and energy, crackling within the thin membrane of his skin.

"Energy readings have reached critical levels," Jarvis said, his voice smooth and calm. "Sir. Disengage."

"What does 'critical' mean?" Tony snapped, knocking Simon's hand away before he could unleash another blast.

"It means that in roughly three minutes, his body will not longer be able to sustain the buildup of energy that he is generating. It is likely he will simply... Come apart."

"Explode." Tony stared into the empty holes of Simon's eyes. "Jesus, Simon, this was dumb, even for you, this was fucking STUPID."

"Sir, disengage," Jarvis snapped.

Tony's head jerked around, staring down at the ground below them, at his team. All of them. Everyone he loved was there, right in the line of fire. He sucked in a breath, knowing what he was going to do, even as he asked the question. "Will the suit hold?"

"Unknown."

"WILL IT HOLD?" Tony yelled.

"There is a sixty-four percent chance that it will, but the shielding will likely prove inadequate for you to survive the energy exposure," Jarvis snapped.

"Doesn't matter, I'm not going to be in it." Tony was shaking, and that was all right. "Jarvis, on my mark, I'm dropping the suit. I need you to reform it around him, before he can kill half the people on the ground."

"Sir-"

"Swoop and scoop, Jay, I know you can do it. Lock on the central mass, and seal him." Tony took a breath, and another. "Understand?"

"This is not advisable-"

"Do it." He sucked in a breath, knowing it would be the last one he'd get for a while, and triggered the emergency release.

The suit went to pieces in an instant, every joint releasing, slipping away from his skin, boosters roaring to life to carry them away. Simon, his hands still clamped on pieces of the armor, his fingers digging into a shoulder joint, the edge of the chestplate, howled as his prey slipped free of his grasp. He let go, one sparking, sizzling hand slashing through the air, trying to latch onto Tony, but he was still going up, carried by the armor, and Tony wasn't.

For an instant, it was like he was suspended in space, his body still following a trajectory that it was no longer equipped to handle. He hung in the air, caught between the brute force of his acceleration and the inexorable pull of gravity.

Gravity won.
\
He fell backwards through the air, wind rushing past him as he fell. He kept his eyes on Simon, watching, his heart in his throat, as the pieces of armor clamped into place, one after another, despite Simon's struggles. Simon was shrieking now, high and full of rage, but the pieces were sealing in place, one after another, faster than he could fight them off.

Tony grinned, the thin air cold on his teeth. "Good job, Jay," he said, and there was no sound, he had no breath left to speak, and he was in freefall now, a tangle of limbs, of thought. The world spun above him, below him, above him again, and he was falling, at a speed he'd never imagined was possible, and there was no time to panic.

The impact, when it came wasn't nearly as painful as he'd thought it would be.

Tony's eyes snapped open, shock rolling through him as arms wrapped around his chest, one leg and then two around his waist, cushioning him even as it ripped him free of his headlong rush towards the ground. He blinked down at the hand that had locked on the front of his undersuit, right over the arc reactor.

He knew that glove.

A flick of light, and Jan was in front of his face, tiny and bright and moving so fast he could barely track her. "He's alive!" The words crackled across his comm unit, matched to the way her lips were moving, and he grinned at her.

"If you're Tinker Bell," he said, and he could almost hear himself now, now that he could breathe again, and he did, sucking in one long breath after another as Sam wrestled his limp weight through the air, "does that make him Peter Pan?"

"I will drop your ass," Sam yelled over the comms, and Tony was laughing, somehow he'd found the breath to laugh, even as two forms came barreling past, so close that he felt the air collapse in their wake.

His head snapped up and he watched as Carol grabbed one of the armor's arms, and Rhodey grabbed the other, both of them hauling straight up, adding to the force of the repulsors. They shot upwards, dragging the armor that held Simon trapped slung between them, pink energy hissing at the joints, in the slits of the eyes.

"Get him on the ground!"

Happy was roaring towards them, his arms outstretched, and Sam didn't even pause, didn't ask, he just dropped Tony into his waiting grip. The armor sank beneath the sudden burden, a momentary bobble, and then Happy was compensating, swinging them down towards the ground, Sam and Jan right on their heels.

"Everyone in!" Below them, Pepper was flying low, her body skimming across the landscape. "Hurry!" She swung up and around a rock outcropping, and Clint jumped, his hands clamped on the ends of his bow. Pepper caught the bow in the center, streaking along with him braced under her. Tony was pretty sure Clint was laughing, his legs kicking in the air. "Wanda!"

"I'm here." Wanda appeared on the other side of the Quinjet in a shower of red sparks. One hand was raised above her head, magic curling between her fingers, and her other arm was wrapped around Natasha's waist. "Cap, I need a head count."

Steve was running flat out, boots chewing up the ground. He swung the shield, clipping the boot jet of an AIM agent who was trying to get airborne, dropping him back to the ground. Steve snagged him by the back of his suit, dragging him along without missing a step. "How long do we have?"

"Sixty seconds," Jarvis said across the comms. "Captain Marvel, Iron Man, disengage and remove yourselves to a safe distance. I will hold him."

They hit the ground, one after another, Happy's feet crunching divots in the rough stone. Almost before he was down and stable, Tony was struggling out of his grip. "Boss," Happy said, and Tony wasn't listening.

"Where's Thor? Bruce?" he yelled.

"Far enough away that they can take the hit," Natasha said.

“What are you basing that on, you have no way of-”

Steve was there, grabbing his shoulders, half lifting him off his feet, wrestling him back towards the Quinjet. "Are you out of you MIND?"

"Well, yes, obviously," Tony said, and that was probably the wrong thing to say, because Steve was looking at him like he wasn't sure if he should kiss him or strangle him, and Tony was pretty sure that shouldn't be the default expression for people he was dating.

"Are we dating?" he asked.

"If we don't die in the next thirty seconds, I'll consider it," Steve said. "Iron Man! Cover them!" He pointed at the cluster of AIM that Natasha and Clint were already herding up the ramp into the Quinjet, slapping restraints on them with remarkable speed.

"Right," Happy said, at the same time as Rhodey came in for his usual overly showy landing. Happy paused. "Wait, which Iron Man?"

"Not me, I'm busy,” Pepper said. "Wanda?"

"Ready," Wanda said, her voice calm, stepping up behind Pepper, and the two of them turned, back to back, arms coming up. "Avengers. Get down."

No one questioned her. They just moved.

Tony saw, out of the corner of his eye, Rhodey and Happy wrestle the last of their captives into the ship, and get the door shut. He saw Carol, straight and tall, floating a foot off the ground, her hands in fists at her sides, saw Sam grab her arm, pulling her back down, saw Jan shrink and disappear. Saw Wanda's head fall back, until her hair spilled down the back of Pepper's armor, until the crowns of their heads were touching.

Their fingers wove together, and their arms came up.

Wanda's magic roared across the metal skin of Pepper's armor, both of them lifting off of the ground. The Rescue armor's deflector shield initiated with a whine of energy. Tony watched, stunned, as what he'd designed as a small, personal protection swept outwards, a massive, glittering dome of brilliant pink light.

Tony stared up at the glittering wall of energy, magic and tech merged into a single facet. "Well," he said, and he sounded giddy, he sounded half-hysterical. Steve's arm wrapped around his waist, wrestling him down behind the shelter of the Quinjet, the shield up and ready. Tony barely noticed. "That's new."

Wanda's head tipped in his direction, the smallest little dip. "We've been practicing.”

He stared up at the sky. “Yes. Yes, you have.” His head fall back against the solid support of Steve's shoulder, pain arcing through him as he watched the tiny spot of light streak across the sky.

Steve's arm slid around his chest, pulling him back, and Tony's hand came up, fumbling to grab hold. “Don't watch this,” Steve whispered in his ear.

“He shouldn't die alone.” Tony's face twisted, but he kept his eyes open. “If I can't be with him, then he deserves the respect of a witness, Steve. He deserves...” He sucked in a breath, and felt a tear slide down his cheek. “He deserves that, at least.” Steve didn't say anything, but his arm tightened around Tony. Tony was grateful for it, as he watched the light fade, disappear into the night.

The explosion, when it came, caught him off guard.

It lit the sky, bright as the noon day sun, bathing them in a sizzling pink heat. The shockwave hit a second later, rattling the ground under their feet, slamming into the dome of protection that Wanda and Pepper had created, knocking both women to their knees. But the armor held, and so did they.

Tony stared up at the sky, trying to see the armor, trying to see some fragment of something left behind, until his vision washed out in a white blur. Then, he let them close. “I'm sorry, Simon,” he said, and Steve's head was next to his, Steve's breath loud in his ear. “Jarvis?”

“The armor appears to be intact, but almost all systems are offline. Emergency propulsion only. Attempting to gain further information now.”

Tony nodded. “Thanks, Jay.” He pushed away from Steve, pulling himself out of Steve's arms. It was harder than it should've been. “Let me... Know.”

Wanda lowered her hand, and the glittering dome that had encased them fell away. She was breathing hard, her face pale, but when Jan came charging up to her, she held out her hands with a laugh.

“You,” Jan shrieked, throwing herself into Wanda's arms, “are a GODDESS!”

“Not so much,” Wanda said, but she hugged Jan tight, her face buried in Jan's shoulder.

“No, I think that definitely counts.” Carol clapped her on the shoulder, and Wanda reached up to cover Carol's hand with hers.

Steve pushed himself up, his hand gripping the edge of the his shield as he used it to lever himself upright. “She's right. Good job, both of you,” he said, and Pepper nodded.

“Glad it worked,” she said, as a rush of wind swept over them.

Thor touched down, Bruce's limp form cradled in one arm. “He is fine,” he said, as everyone lunged in his direction. “But the green one has no liking for such explosions. I think he remembers, at some level, from whence he came.” He let Carol help him lower Bruce down to the ground beside the Quinjet. “One moment he was there, the next, he was gone.”

Wanda leaned over Thor's shoulder. “He will be fine,” she said with a smile.

Tony wasn't sure why it was a relief when she said things like that. It shouldn't be. “Thought your powers didn't work like that,” he said, and her head turned in his direction.

“You,” she said, her voice gentle, “aren't the only one with secrets, Tony.”

And just like that, he realized he was exposed.

Literally. Fully. Exposed.

The silence stretched, and Tony forced himself to breathe, forced himself not to panic. He was good at that, he'd had practice. “So,” he said, and his voice didn't shake, it was steady, he was proud of himself for that,“I suspect you have questions.”

“Yeah,” Clint said, before Natasha could get to him. He ducked out of reach. “So he's him, but who are-” Natasha caught up to him, clapping a hand over his mouth.

“Ignore him,” she said, but Rhodey was laughing now. He reached up, and pulled the helmet off. A beat later, Happy released his. Pepper popped the seal on hers, exhaling as the dusty wind caught strands of her red hair.

“Does this mean,” she asked Tony, “that I don't need to do this anymore?”

Tony felt the smile sweep over his face. “Fine. You're fired, Potts.”

Clint wrestled free of Natasha's grip. “Great. Moving on to the important questions, who won the pool?”

Tony's head swung to the side, the movement slow, confused. “Pool?”

“No,” Steve said. “No one won the pool, because you shouldn't have been betting on his identity at all.”

“Not that pool,” Jan said, tucking a folded blanket under Bruce's head. “Your pool.”

Steve blinked at her. “My pool?”

“Natasha was the only one who put her money on Stark,” Carol said, and everyone groaned as one.

“You suck,” Clint told Natasha. “You fucking suck.”

“Not my fault you're a sucker bet,” Natasha said. “You forget that Steve never does anything the easy way.”

Clint threw his hands in the air. “I took the smart money bet! And you're making fun of me for it?”

“Wait.” The word came from a distance, echoing hollowly in his ears, in his mouth. They weren't his words, but they were, Tony recognized his own voice. “Who was the smart money on, then?”

“Sam,” Clint said, and Sam was laughing, he was bowing, his outstretched arm flicking out in a glittering wing. Carol and Jan were both booing at him, their hands cupped around their mouths, Jan doing it with so much force that she was rocking forward on her toes, her wings flicking out behind her.

“Haters gonna hate,” Sam said, and he was laughing, his face bright with it. He did a little hip shimmy, doing an exaggerated fan dance with his wings.

“Oh my God,” Steve said, one hand pressed to his face. “Oh my GOD.”

“You couldn't have held out?” Clint asked him, so indignant that Tony felt laughter curling through him, laughter that was completely out of place, out of character.

He felt it break over him, relief and fear and shock and surprise, emotions he didn't want to identify, emotions he couldn't begin to understand. It was like something broke, deep inside of him, some barrier or maybe just his heart, but he shattered, and he started to laugh.

A hand grabbed his arm, his shoulder, an arm wrapped around his shoulders, and Tony slumped back into the support without a second thought. He didn't have to look, he knew that grip, even through the layer of metal. Rhodey had caught him often enough, held him up often enough, that Tony knew his hands.

He was laughing so hard now that he could barely stand, and it was okay, because Rhodey was on one side, and Happy was on the other, and Pepper was in front of him, her face pale and confused, and Jarvis was in his comm unit, asking careful questions about Tony's health and well-being that he was absolutely not equipped to answer right now.

“Tony?” Pepper's voice came from a long way away, and he knew she was worried, knew he should do something about that, but all he could do was laugh.

“Maybe someone should slap him?” he heard Happy say.

“How many years have you sparred with that man? Has it ever worked out for you to sucker punch him?” Rhodey asked, his voice wry. “You wanna hit him, you can do that, but I'm not going to.”

“I believe he is in shock,” Jarvis said.

“Oh, you think?” Pepper asked, her eyes rolling up towards the sky. “Really, maybe he's in shock? I can't imagine-”

Tony's hands closed on her helmeted head, dragging her forward, and he dropped a loud kiss on her lips. “I'm in shock,” he said, struggling against the laughter that was bubbling through him. “I am absolutely in shock.”

“Hey, now,” Rhodey said, starting to laugh himself, and Tony turned, grabbing his shoulders and kissing him, too. Happy tried to fend him off, laughing, but Tony managed to press a kiss to his cheek as well, ignoring the way that Happy was beating theatrically against his shoulder.

“Sir, your heartbeat is accelerating in a manner that concerns me,” Jarvis said.

“Be glad you don't have anything he can kiss,” Rhodey said. “Tony, you okay, man?”
.
“I'm fine,” Tony said, and it might've been a lie, he'd said it so often that he wasn't sure what was and what wasn't a lie any more, but it didn't FEEL like a lie. He said it again, just because he could. “I'm fine.” He waited for the sharp, sickening drop of his stomach that always came after he said the words, and this time there was nothing. Nothing but laughter and the support of steady hands.

Tony sucked in a breath, as deep as he could, and his head spun with it. “I'm fine,” he said, and the words were steady. Quiet.

Most surprisingly, they might actually have been true.

“I'm just saying, it makes more sense,” Carol said, because no one was paying attention to him anymore. It was remarkably refreshing.

“You bet on Sam, too,” Jan said, her voice indignant.

“Sam's a bit steadier, but that assumes Steve's looking for steady; he's a man who couldn't pick a parachute out of a lineup,” Natasha said, and Steve mumbled something that might've been an obscenity into the cradle of his palm. Natasha ignored him. “And I've seen Sam moon around Brand, there was no chance Steve was going to turn his head.”

“Hey, hey, HEY,” Sam said, holding his hands up, “I do not MOON. I do not-” He pointed at Natasha. “I take offense to that, Romanov.”

“You can take offense to whatever you want,” Clint said, with a wide smile. “Doesn't change the truth, buddy.”

“Have you even had a date in the last six months?” Sam asked him.

“Why, are you asking?” Clint asked, with a shit-eating grin. “I'm free on Tuesday.”

“This is untrue,” Thor said, very disapproving about it. “We have a game scheduled on Tuesday.”

“Okay, I'm free on Wednesday,” Clint said without missing a beat. To Thor, “A game?”

“Of the shuttlecocks.”

“Oh, God, I'm not playing badminton with you again, we had to patch a hole in the wall last time, I didn't even think that was POSSIBLE,” Clint said.

“Oooh, I call doubles!” Jan said. “Nat, you in?”

“Depends, who's my partner?”

“Lady's choice.” Jan bounced past them, draping an elbow onto Pepper's shoulder and grinning up at her. “Looks good on you.”

Pepper grinned back, and did a quick pose. “It's not my favorite outfit, but it's custom tailored.”

“You make it work.” Jan glanced at Tony. “Know what my first thought was, when I saw you falling out of the sky?”

Tony considered that. “'The man I love is about to die?'”he asked, and Rhodey groaned.

Jan smiled at him. “No, you dummy. I thought, 'well, that makes a lot of sense.'” She leaned in, brushing gentle lips against his cheek. “You okay?” she whispered.

Tony squeezed his eyes shut, ignoring the way his chest ached, the way he wanted to burst into tears. “I-” He blinked hard, and her fingers cupped his cheek. “I'm working on it,” he managed.

“Okay.” She gave him a sunny smile. “Tell me if you need anything, okay?” She pulled back. “Actually, Pepper? Tell me if he needs anything.”

“You offering to babysit?” Pepper asked, her helmet under her arm.

“I can stick him in a lab with Hank for a few hours,” Jan said with a sunny grin.

“I don't need a babysitter,” Tony told Rhodey. Rhodey made a see-saw motion with one hand. “You know what? Shut up.”

“There's the silver tongue we all know so well,” Clint said. “Know and love.”

“Stop flirting with everyone,” Nat told him.

He considered that. “No.”

“Do we have an ETA on the SHIELD task force?” Steve asked Natasha.

“Less than five,” she said, her arms crossed over her chest. “They'll round up the stragglers, but we managed to incapacitate most of them.” Her smile was sly. “Let the SHIELD juniors earn their pay.”

“In other words, good try, but that's a pretty lousy distraction,” Carol said, floating up to take a seat on top of the Quinjet. Her legs sprawled out over the metal, she braced her hands behind her and tipped her head up towards the sun.

“Bruce is coming around,” Wanda said, catching everyone's attention. She was kneeling next to him, pink light flickering around her fingers where they rested against his chest. Bruce's eyes fluttered a few times, before shooting open. Wanda leaned over. “Fight's over.”

“And we won,” Thor added from behind her.

Bruce stared at Wanda, then Thor. “Oh. Good.” He struggled into a sitting position. “What did I miss?” he asked, and as one, everyone looked towards Tony.

Tony took a deep breath. “I... Am Iron Man,” he said, and it was a relief to say it, to say it out loud, to say it to all of them, to claim his team from both sides. He smiled. “I'm Iron Man.” He glanced over at Happy, at Pepper and Rhodey. He made a face. “Despite the fact that I'm the only one who isn't... Wearing armor. I'm Iron Man.” He struggled for a second, and then gave up, adding, “Really.”

Bruce blinked at him, his eyes narrowing to a squint. “Okay. We're having this discussion here?” he said, and Tony didn't know if he was humoring him or if he just wasn't surprised.

“Seemed a good a place as any,” Tony said. “Everyone was here. Nothing better to do. I think I did okay with this, Banner.”

“God, every time you say that, something catches fire,” Rhodey said, staring at the sky.

“You're talking now? You didn't even bother catching me.”

Rhodey waved a hand at him. “Sam had it.”

“Sam had it? SAM had it?” Tony repeated.

“Hey, I've caught Steve more than anyone on this team,” Sam said. “When it comes to idiots falling out of the sky, that's pretty much my JOB on this team.”

“You're very good at it,” Jan told him.

“Thank you.”

“Also he and Steve are shacking up,” Clint said. “More important info. Nat won the pool.”

“We're not-” Steve squeezed his eyes shut. “Barton, we are not-”

“I'm working on it, okay? Can you give me some time to work? I'm good, but I'm not that good.” Tony shoved himself upright, and Rhodey was there, Pepper and Jan and Happy, all grabbing his arms, steadying him. “Jesus, will you all relax, I'm fine, and can you give me a few minutes?”

“Sure,” Rhodey said. “If you really think you can get him that fast.”

“Shhh,” Pepper whispered. “Play your cards right, Rhodes, and maybe he'll take Tony off of our hands.”

“Hold out for a dowry,” Tony said to Steve, who was smiling at him, his face red, his eyes bright. “They can afford it.”

“I think I'd just rather have you,” Steve said, and Tony took a step forward, too, stumbling, half-falling into his arms. Steve was there, solid and stable. “Tony, are you-”

Tony stretched up, wrapping his arms around Steve's neck, and dragging him down. He was sick of the question, but he had a feeling he was going to hear it, over and over, and maybe that was okay. Maybe that was good. Maybe he'd need that, moving forward, the constant comfort checks, the constant reassurance.

He wasn't afraid, but how much of that was Steve, Steve's mouth and Steve's hands and Steve's body, and how much of it was his goddamn team, who were making critiques of his technique even now. Tony grinned against Steve's mouth, and ignored the way that it forced the tears out of his eyes. Which was fine, because Steve's fingers were cradling his cheeks, smoothing the tears away as fast as they were falling.

“No, seriously,” he heard Bruce say. “What did I miss?”

“Sir?” Jarvis' voice came across the comm unit. “We still have vital signs.”

“Well, I goddamn hope so,” Tony said, his hands sinking into Steve's hair, feeling as much as hearing Steve laughing against his mouth.

“Sir? I did not mean you. The armor.”

Tony jerked backwards, his head coming up in time to see the armor, damaged and charred, float down to earth, the repulsors coughing as they cut out, and it tumbled own to the ground. Thor was there, arms up, to catch it and lower it to the cracked concrete. Tony's fingers dug into Steve's arm, afraid to hope. “Jarvis?”

“Simon is still alive.”

*

“Hi.”

She turned, and Steve knew the moment that she recognized him. For an instant, she maintained the bright, smooth, socially acceptable smile, wary of this new encounter. And then, as Steve watched, his lips twitching, her face split in a huge, brilliant grin. “Oh, my God! Steve!”

“I told you to say hi, next time we were both stuck at one of these things,” Steve said, leaning down so she could brace a hand on his shoulder, brushing an air kiss next to his cheek. “I don't get the real thing?”

“Sure, if you want me to mark up that cute little cheek of yours,” Lu said, laughing. She gripped his shoulders with both hands,leaning back to give him a thorough once over. “Look at you, Captain! You look amazing!”

Steve ducked his head, feeling his face flush. “Thank you,” he managed, peering up at her from under the angle of his brows. “You're looking quite nice yourself.”

“Like it?” She twisted her hips, making her knee-length, sea-foam green skirt swish around her legs. Laughing, she smoothed the fabric back down. The sweetheart neckline of the dress strained against her cleavage, and Steve pointedly kept his eyes where they belonged. She looked up, grinning at him. “I always feel a little bit like 'Southern Belle Barbie' at one of these things, so I figured I might as well embrace it, you know?”

Steve grinned back at her, some of the tension going out of his shoulders. “As a coping mechanism, it seems pretty straightforward.”

She pressed a hand to her chest, her head tipping to the side. One big, loose curl bounced against the bare skin of her shoulder, and she tossed it back with a flick of her head. “I'm a pretty straightforward sort of girl.” Her eyes dancing, she snagged a flute of champagne from a passing waiter. “What're you doing at this boring shindig, Steve? And in a tux, no less?”

“Holding up various walls, ducking out of awkward conversations, avoiding people who want me to endorse their horrible ideas,” Steve said, taking his own glass from the waiter with a nod. “Thank you.”

“Yep, sounds like a Manhattan party all right,” Lu said, with a giggle. “I'm doing all of that, and avoiding grown men who act like teenage boys.”

“A bit uncouth?” Steve asked, his lips twitching.

“Know how many guys have spent the night talkin' to my cleavage?” she asked, rolling her eyes. “I get it. Boobs. They exist. But do men not understand that they might get to see more of them if they could pretend to be interested in my face, too?”

Steve choked on a laugh, and she grinned up at him. “I'm pretty uncouth, too, sorry 'bout that.”

“No, you are honest, and you are right,” he said, grinning at her.

“And see? You're making eye contact! See how easy it is?” She wrinkled her nose and took a quick sip of her champagne.

“Well, that's probably because my ma raised me right,” Steve told her. “Also, I'm desperate for you to continue talking to me, because it's holding the guy who writes that super conservative column for the Times at bay.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Where?”

“Behind me, over my right shoulder,” Steve muttered into his glass. “Don't make eye contact, I'm pretending he doesn't exist.”

She looked anyway. “Oh, THAT guy,” she said, and the disdain just dripped off of her words. “Is pretending he doesn't exist helping?”

“Not really,” Steve admitted. “Despite making it clear that I think he's a jackass, he still seems to think that we should be best friends.”

“You can do better,” Lu said.

“Well, that's why I'm over here, talking to you, and not over there, making a scene by throwing him into the punchbowl.”

“Wait, you like me, so using me to protect you from him?” she asked, grinning. “A lady does not like to be used, sir.”

“Tell you what, next fella who tries to have a conversation with your cleavage, you just give me a sign and I'll cut in on your dance,” Steve offered.

“Fair deal. I mean, you can do that anyway. It'd really improve my standing at the office if you'd do that.”

“You won't get a reputation?” Steve asked, grinning.

“God, I could use more of a reputation. Right now? I'm the country hick, and that gets boring, let me tell you.” Her eyes slid to the side. “Speaking of reputations... Tony come with you?”

Steve hid a smile. “Why, need me to protect you from him?”

“No, just curious,” she said, her cheeks flushing. Steve gave her a look, and she fluttered her eyelashes. “I don't have any intentions, like I said, once is enough, but I'm human. I like to be up on the gossip, so I do want to know who he goes home with.”

Steve paused, and then raised his hand to shoulder level.

She frowned. “Well, I mean, yes, in that the two of you live in the same building, but I mean, who he's GOING HOME with.”

Steve kept his hand where it was. “Still me,” he said, and watched, amused, as a series of expressions rolled over her face. Surprise, then disbelief, and then her face split in a grin of unholy glee.

“Oh, my GOD.” She smacked him in the chest with the back of her hand. “You did NOT,” she said, her voice rising to an excited pitch. Steve just arched his eyebrows and sipped his champagne. Her teeth dug into her perfectly painted lower lip, her eyes huge. “Well, good for you, Captain America.”

“Thank you,” Steve said with as much dignity as he could manage. “Someone who seemed trustworthy told me if I got a chance, I should take it.” One shoulder rose in a shrug. “So... I did.”

“And?” she asked, her eyebrows arching.

Steve glanced at her. “The intel was good,” he admitted, and she made a small, high pitched squealing sound of pleasure. Steve burst out laughing. “So, thanks.”

She glanced one way and then the other, she said, her eyes sliding towards him under the sweep of her lashes. “All right,” she said, leaning in. “Since you think that was good, I've got another little tidbit for you.” Her eyes narrowed. “Now, this is a closely guarded secret. I'm breakin' all sorts of girl rules just by telling you.”

Steve gave her a slightly suspicious look, but Lu just waved a hand through the air, gesturing him closer. “I heard this from a certain high powered editor of a sister magazine,” she said, her voice pitched low. “And she damn well knew what she was talking about, or I wouldn't be bringing it up.” She stretched up, one hand on Steve's shoulder, and he leaned over, letting her whisper in his ear.

A moment later, he was snapping upright. She grinned up at him, just as wide and bright as ever, but now there was a wicked gleam in her eyes that he wasn't sure he could trust. “You're KIDDING,” he said.

She held up a hand. “Scout's honor,” she said, rocking forward on the balls of her feet, her heels clicking against the marble floor. Steve felt his face heating, and she started to giggle. “I promise!” She tipped her head in his direction, one eyebrow arching. “Would I lead you astray, Cap?”

“I'm beginning to suspect you would,” Steve admitted, setting her off in gales of laughter again. He hid his own grin behind his champagne glass, but he studied her over the rim. “Really?” he asked at last.

She leaned in. “Really,” she said. “The woman who told me, she said-” Her cheeks were red now, almost dark enough to hide her freckles. “She said that men that are always in charge, sometimes, they don't WANT to be in charge. Not all the time.” Her head went down, but not quick enough to hide her smile. “She was right, in this particular situation.”

Steve leaned back against the table, trying to keep his brain on socially acceptable thoughts. “Well, I'll be,” he said. He cleared his throat. “That's... Something,” he managed at last.

“It surely is.” Lu grinned up at him. “You going to try it?”

“I don't think so,” Steve said. But he was thinking about it now. God, he was incapable of thinking of anything BUT that now. He rubbed his free hand over his face. “No. Probably not.” She smirked up at him, and Steve gave her a look. “No,” he repeated.

Lu spread her hands. “I know, I heard you. I'm just saying, leave your options open.” She drained the last sips of her champagne. “Options are good, Cap.”

“So I've heard.” He glanced at her. “I suspect you're better at options than I am.”

“All you need is practice,” Lu said. “I have faith in you, sir.” Her eyes slid in his direction. “I don't suppose this conversation is on the record?”

“Sorry, no,” Steve said. “I don't mind if anyone finds out, but I don't out other people. ” It was strange, but that was true. He didn't care. He looked up, his eyes sliding across the room. Somewhere along the line, and Steve didn't really like to think just how far back it happened, he'd gotten very good of picking Tony out of a crowd.

He was holding court by the bar, handsome and relaxed in a tuxedo that flattered every line of his body. As Steve watched, he half turned, giving his attention to the elderly woman who was clearly teasing him. When he spoke, his face lit up, and when he laughed, everyone around him laughed, too. He was a bright spot in a room full of people that left Steve feeling out of place and uncomfortable.

Just looking at him made Steve's chest ache, in the best possible way.

He looked back at Lu. “And neither do you.”

She crossed her arms over her chest, her champagne flute hanging empty between her fingers. “And how can you be so sure about that, Cap?”

He smiled at her. “I know a class act when I see one,” he said, and she started to laugh. “Also, you work for a fashion magazine.”

“Listen, everyone likes gossip, everyone,” she said, her head tipped in his direction. “But yeah, even if I wanted to break that story, no one'd do it without confirmation. Tony's made too many women happy over the years.”

“No angry ex's I need to watch out for?”

“I'm sure there's one or two, but you're very disarming, I think you can take care of yourself.” She patted him lightly on the shoulder. “Big boy like you. You'll be fine.”

“Thanks, I guess,” he said, and she laughed again.

“Though...” Her eyes slid in his direction. “If you were feeling like THANKING me for my obvious discretion, there is something you can do...”

“This feels like blackmail,” Steve said, grinning at her.

She held her hand up, index finger and thumb an inch apart. “Tiny bit?” she wheedled. “I only came here tonight because I heard that Janet VanDyne might be putting in an appearance, an I'd really, really like to meet her.” She gave Steve a hopeful smile. “Don't suppose you'd introduce me?

Steve considered her. “You want an interview?”

“No, no, I'm no journalist. I just want to say I've met her.” Lu's face flushed, her fingers fumbling on the stem of her champagne flute. “She's kind of my hero.”

Steve tried not to smile. In the face of her pleading eyes, it was a losing battle. “In fashion or in defeating evil?” he asked.

“Life in general,” Lu said. She bit her lip. “Please? You know I'll behave.”

“You say that now, but if you can behave once Jan gets going, you're a rare woman,” Steve said. He set his empty champagne glass on a nearby empty tray and offered her his arm. “Come on, let's see if we can find her.” She half tossed her glass towards the tray and eagerly slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow. Steve looked up, trying to spot Jan through the crowd, but before he could, his eye caught on Tony.

Tony was watching them, his head tipped to the side, one eyebrow arched. Steve gave him a grin, and Tony's lips curled up behind the rim of the heavy tumbler in his hand.

Lu leaned against Steve's side. “Are you using me to make Tony Stark jealous?” she asked.

“No. That would make me a bad person,” Steve said, trying to keep a straight face. “I have it on good authority that I'm the very embodiment of America, mom, and apple pie.”

“You're totally trying to make him jealous.”

“Maybe a tiny bit,” Steve admitted.

“Oh my God, this is the best night of my life.”

*

Steve liked watching the sunset over New York. He liked the reddish gold light that it cast over everything, he liked that moment of being in between, of transition. He liked to close his eyes and feel the sunlight on his face, the last, dying warmth before the city day bled into night.

He liked the way that in the final moments, when the last, sharp bright light of the sun flared out over the skyline, it could almost be the skyline he'd always known. When the details were erased in the brilliant, burning glow, when it was only the ghostly black blocks of skyscrapers and high rises, it was the same.

It was New York on the cusp of night, and he recognized that. He knew that.

Steve reached for a pencil, his other hand holding the pages of his sketchbook down against the wind. He liked watching the sun set from the highest point he could reach, from Iron Man's landing pad on the top of Stark Tower. He paused, and smiled to himself. Avengers Tower, now. Even if this part of it was always going to be Tony's, was always going to be Iron Man's roost, it was Avengers Tower. Rhodey landed here now, in the heavy, gray and black War Machine armor, and so did their other fliers, Thor and Carol and Sam.

Steve didn't fly, despite Tony's efforts to build him his own armor, but he liked sitting here, his legs dangling off the landing platform, with a cup of coffee and the newspaper, a tablet, or just his sketchbook.

He liked sitting there at sunset. He greeted sunrises from street level, jogging along the neat grid of streets as they lit with each morning's dawning potential, but sunset was best viewed from above. He drew, some days, but most days, he just watched, letting the dying light burn itself into his eyes with his sketchbook in his lap. He had plenty of time to draw, after all. But each sunset was fleeting, and he liked to savor them.

He heard the door behind him slide open with a nearly inaudible hiss, and the soft, confident stride of expensive shoes crossing the distance. Steve stilled, a smile curling his lips, knowing what was coming. A calloused palm slid in front of his face, warm fingers cupping over his eyes.

“Guess who.”

The words were warm and soft, whispered against his ear, and Steve let his head tip back, pretending to think. “Give me a hint,” he said, and felt the laughter against his cheek, against his neck. His head was tugged to the side, and a gentle kiss was brushed against his lips. Steve's tongue flicked out, sweeping across his lips, as he pretended to think. He shook his head. “Okay, I've got nothing.”

He loved to feel the laughter against his skin, against his hair. “You are the worst liar, you know that, you are just an embarrassment.”

Steve reached up, brushing the hand away from his eyes. “Oh,” he said, and it never got old, that moment of recognition, that moment of knowing. The moment of acknowledgment, the way his heart skipped a beat and his breath caught in his throat. He smiled, the way he always did, slow and inexorable. “It's you.”

“It's me,” Tony agreed, leaning forward for another kiss. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Steve whispered back, and Tony started to laugh against his lips, quick, bright bursts of laughter that made Steve grin. “Someone had a good day.”

“Well, it's getting better,” Tony said, straightening up. He tucked his hands in the pockets of his pants, squinting towards the sunset. The wind ruffled his hair and whipped the fabric of his suit against his body, but he was steady on his feet, a faint smile creasing his cheeks. “This, this is better.”

Steve leaned back, bracing a hand on the landing pad behind his hip, so his shoulder rested against Tony's leg. Tony reached out, smoothing a hand over Steve's hair, playing with the strands. “Long day?” he asked, closing his sketchbook.

Tony's shoulder rose in a half shrug. “I've had shorter. And longer. It could've been better.”

“Yeah?” Steve looked up. “How?”

“Well, you could've been naked when I walked in,” Tony said, and Steve burst out laughing. Tony gave him a tiny nudge with his hip, and Steve moved over, giving him room to take a seat next to him. Tony settled down, letting his head flop against Steve's shoulder. “Why are you laughing? I'm a serious man with serious requests.”

“You're a piece of work, is what you are.” Steve reached out, smoothing Tony's hair back from his face. “Want to talk about it?”

“About you being naked? Sure. Early and often,” Tony said, and Steve pressed a kiss to his temple.

“About your day,” he said. He slid an arm around Tony's shoulders. “How's Simon?”

Tony heaved a sigh. “Alive,” he said. Then, after a beat, he added, “Getting better.”

Steve looked down at him. “Yeah?”

Tony nodded. “Yeah.” He let out a breath, and Steve tightened his arm. Tony gave him a wry smile. “Sorry.”

“Yeah, this is horrible,” Steve said, resting his cheek on Tony's hair. “Hate this.”

“It's the worst,” Tony said. “You have dinner yet?”

“I was waiting for you,” Steve said.

“I told you I wasn't going to be home until late,” Tony pointed out.

“Jarvis let me know you might've had a change in plans,” Steve said.

“Oh, he did, did he?”

“Also that you might appreciate a slice of pizza and a beer.”

“Jay, stop telling him all my secrets,” Tony said.

“So sorry, sir,” Jarvis said over the loudspeaker. He did not sound sorry at all.

“You do not sound sorry,” Tony said, and Steve grinned against his hair. “You're helping him seduce me. At this rate, he's going to get in my pants.”

“I had rather thought that's where you wanted him, sir,” Jarvis said, and Steve choked on a laugh.

“Yes, but I want him to work for it,” Tony said, throwing a hand in the air.

Laughing, Steve kissed his hair again and pulled away, swinging his legs up and around so he could clamber to his feet. “Come on, we'll have Jarvis order you something cheap and horrible.”

“Tempting,” Tony said, half turning. “But you're going to have to sweeten the deal to get me off my ass, Rogers.”

Tony smirked up at him, and Steve could almost hear Lu whispering in his ear again.

Steve took a deep breath. Then he leaned over, his fingers closing carefully on the silk of Tony's tie. It wasn't much, just the tiniest tug, the smallest amount of pressure, but Tony's head snapped up. Steve watched, stunned, as Tony grinned at him, his pupils dilating. “That'll do it,” he said, his voice dropping to a pitch that made Steve shudder.

“Glad to hear it,” Steve replied, his lips curling up. A little more confident now, he twisted his wrist, wrapping the tie around his fingers. He leaned in, pulling gently on Tony's tie as he did, and Tony let himself be guided to his feet, meet Steve halfway. The kiss was hot and hard and needy, rocking Steve back on his heels.

When they finally broke apart, Steve was breathing hard. “Well,” he said, his hand tightening on the Tony's tie. They were pressed so tightly together now that it was trapped between them, and Steve was fine with that. “I think we can call that one tested and confirmed.”

“Hmmm?” Tony nuzzled at Steve's throat, his lips hot, and his hands had somehow ended up on Steve's ass, his fingers digging in with just the right amount of force. “What's tested?”

“Nothing,” Steve said. “Everything. Let's-” Tony's teeth nipped against the skin of his neck, just below the line of his collar, and Steve choked on a moan.

“Yes?” Tony purred, arching up into Steve's body. “What do you want, Steve?”

Steve took a deep breath, and another, nearly dizzy with the pleasure of it. His hand, still tangled up in Tony's tie, nudged at the underside of Tony's chin, bringing his head up. Tony stared at him, his dark eyes shadowed beneath the sweep of his lashes. He arched an eyebrow, his swollen lips tipping up in a smug little smile. Steve smiled back, his chest aching. “You,” he said.

Tony started to laugh, even as Steve leaned in, catching his lips in a kiss. It didn't stop him, he just laughed against Steve's mouth, against Steve's jaw, his neck, his shoulder. Steve just grinned against his hair, pulling him close, letting Tony lean into his body, laughing so hard he could barely stand up.

Finally, he lifted his head, his eyes dancing in the low light. “You've got me,” he said, and there was no tension in his face, no shadows in the depths of his eyes. Just laughter and affection. “So, what are you planning on doing with me?” His grin took on a wicked edge. “Or, perhaps I should say, to me?”

Steve arched his eyebrows. “Know what?” he whispered. “I like 'with me.' That's more my speed.”

Tony's arms slid up Steve's back, looping around Steve's neck. “I find I'm fine with either,” he said, and Steve choked on a laugh. Tony ran a hand through Steve's hair, ruffling the strands.

Steve's knuckles brushed against Tony's breastbone. Through the finely woven fabric of Tony's shirt, he could see the soft, muted glow of the arc reactor, and he let the tie slip free of his fingers, smoothing his palm over cool light.

Tony glanced down with a faint smile. “The new element seems to be doing the trick, at least for now.” His hand came up, covering Steve's hand with his own, holding it tight against his chest. “It's fine, Steve.”

“I know.” Steve smoothed his thumb over the smooth crystal face, the fabric of the shirt not much of a barrier to his touch. Tony's fingers tightened. “I just...” He smiled. “It always surprises me a little. To see it.”

Tony waved a hand through the air. “No point in putting the synthetic skin on,” he said, with a lopsided smile. “It's just you.”

“Just me?” Steve asked, grinning at him. “Should I be insulted here?”

“That's up to you, I just thought you preferred me as naked as possible,” Tony said, and Steve's breath left him in a rush. Tony's smile took on a distinctly smug edge. “Thought you were taking me somewhere?”

“Thought you wanted a pizza,” Steve said with a grin.

“I'll take a raincheck.”