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The Avengers Tower’s medical lab is state-of-the-art, no expense spared, and has experimental technology at almost every corner. One would think that this would be enough for it to not smell of antiseptic and sadness, but apparently there are limits to the ingenuity that Stark resources can procure. Tony’s not that pleased about that, but he’s not going to say that out loud, because saying that out loud would get him kicked out. Helen’s already eyeing him suspiciously from beyond the glass divider, and he’s not going to push his luck.

The reason he’s here is, of course, one Steve Rogers. The Avengers’ illustrious leader is currently lying comatose in one of the beds, which is an unusual enough occurrence in itself. It had been a straightforward rescue mission, and not even all of them had gone for it – just Tony, Steve and Natasha – but even straightforward rescue missions can go sideways and result in the team’s only physically-enhanced member having to be airlifted out of the hot zone.

Helen did her magic, and Tony’s been here for a while. A few hours, maybe, or at least long enough to design three different surveillance drones for use with the Quinjet. He’s made himself comfortable on what he’s mentally calling bedside scaffolding: four chairs set in a specific configuration so Tony can prop his tablet up on one side and legs out in front of him as he chills.

He’s also asked JARVIS to order a few foldable cots and beanbags for the place. No one wants there to be a next time, but there will be those and more.

Steve stirs.

Tony starts to put his tablet aside, but thinks better of it and lifts it up to quickly take a picture of Steve in mid-waking grimace. Even ridiculously attractive people have their bad angles, and far be it for Tony to miss the opportunity of finding a new background to sneakily install on Steve’s phone.

“So.” Tony pauses, giving Steve a second or two to rouse himself to full lucidity. “Do you think we should file the Avengers as a non-profit?”

Steve blinks slowly. Deceptively slowly, in Tony’s opinion, because he’s clearly taking in his surroundings: how he’s lying prone in the bed with Tony’s sitting next to him, and weighing possible exit strategies.

“As opposed to what?” Steve says.

“A not-for-profit, I guess. But mainly, I’m thinking we should be a club. A social club, which comes under the non-profit, and side-steps the whole thing about we don’t have a product or a service mission, unless you count the safety of the known world, asterisk, because what is our scope? What is our jurisdiction? Who knows. Do you realize that we are damned lucky no one’s sued us for anything yet?”

Steve has a blanket on top of him, and slowly lifts it to peer down at the remains of his suit. They’d had to cut through some of it to get at the puncture wounds, which are all bandaged up now. “Isn’t Maria in charge of our legal team?”

“She is the legal team. Right now, technically, we’re a hobby. My hobby, since all funding is coming from me, but it just got me thinking about branding. Specifically, trademarking of the big A: The Avengers.

The blanket is almost all the way off now, and Steve’s scowling at his leg. “Is that… what is that?”

“It’s a cast,” Tony says.

“It’s in Iron Man colors.”

“You snooze, you lose.”

“I almost die, and your only thought is to paint my cast in Iron Man colors?”

“Print, Steve,” Tony says. “I printed it in Iron Man colors. With a little arc reactor, too, can you see it?”

Steve shifts the leg, bringing the light onto the small blue circle over the bridge of his foot. “I see it.”

“And you didn’t almost die,” Tony scoffs. “It’d take more than a truck falling on your head to kill you.”

“It could’ve killed me, and then you’d have to go hunting in the ice for another super soldier.”

“Ugh, that’d be so much work. Whoa, hey.” Steve tries to get up, so Tony puts a firm hand on his shoulder to push him back down. They both know that Steve could get up if he wanted, so this is merely a request, and the polite thing would be to acquiesce.

Steve makes a face, but relaxes back onto the bed. “Why do you want to trademark the Avengers?”

“What if bad guys use our branding?” Tony says. “What if Hydra uses it?”

“Ah yes, Hydra. Who are known for being respectful of trademark laws.” Steve’s still scowling, but that’s more to do with his careful rocking back-and-forth on the bed, testing what hurts and what doesn’t. “How long have you been sitting here?”

“Forever,” Tony says. “Since we landed. I haven’t eaten in three days.”

Steve eyes Tony’s fresh band shirt and the empty pizza box nearby. “Three days, huh.”

“You calling me a liar?”

“I’m calling you something.” Steve starts to scratch the edge of the cast, but Tony smacks his hand away.

“Here,” Tony says, pushing the tablet into Steve’s hands to keep them busy. “Catch up on the news. Write your report.”

“Maybe I just want to rest.”

“And maybe I want you to not touch the cast until we can take it off.” Tony jerks his head over to where Helen is reviewing Steve’s vitals on a monitor. “It only needs to be on a few hours until your bones settle. Yay for the serum, I guess.”

Tony settles back on the scaffolding of chairs, and wiggles downward to push the cushion firmer against his back. Now that Steve’s awake, he can probably get a little shut eye before whatever else on his schedule that JARVIS’s been covering for him. There can’t be anything that important.

It takes Tony a moment to realize that there’s no sound of Steve’s tapping away on the tablet. He turns, and Steve’s watching him.

“What?” Tony says.

“It’s really nice of you to be here,” Steve says.

“Yes, obviously.”

“God, Tony,” Steve says with a laugh, “you don’t make it easy.”

“I think you’d find that it’s opposite. I make everything easy. You can say anything you want, and I do not judge, because that’s the kind of friend I am.”

“You don’t judge?”

“I judge minimally,” Tony concedes. “As is only fair in this arrangement.”

Tony has the brief, fleeting memory of it not always being this way, and of thinking Steve the biggest self-righteous prick this side of the twenty-first century. But that feels like an incongruent outlier, before having to hunt for Loki and the Tesseract the second time, before setting up Avengers Tower, before the three weeks they’d all lived on an island playing Survivor: Avengers Edition.

The fact is, living for almost a month in each other’s pockets until those pockets frayed and fell apart due to lack of laundry and other modern amenities – it put into things into perspective. Forced them to rely on each together when stripped down to basics, and without the ability to quit the scene whenever arguments got too thick.

Tony almost wants to thank Loki for that particular experience, as frustrating as it had been at the time to be stranded on a higher dimension island with only what they’d had on them in the Quinjet. It’s funny – Loki thought that with four of six of them depowered that would make the team, but Bruce was a genius without the Hulk, Thor had lived without Mjolnir before, and Tony had lived through worse than a mere subtropical island without room service. Steve without the serum just made him angrier, too, which was half hilarious and half terrifying as everyone had to work together to ensure that the island didn’t kill him before they got off it.

Something snapped loose in all of them during those long weeks. They’d seen each other at their grimiest, slimiest, most humiliating worst. They’d had to huddle for warmth. They’d had to help each other at keeping hygiene. Personal boundaries got warped. Tony made comments about the Asgardian eye candy being the only thing keeping him sane, and got the shock of his life when Steve quietly agreed. (He later said that it was just a joke, which is possible, but the fact that Tony will never know for sure will haunt him forever. And set the tone for their relationship since.)

Tony can’t say that they came out of the experience stronger, per se. But it certainly rattled them into new shape, and helped them bring the great fist of avenging down on Loki’s head with such efficiency that it’s become one of Thor’s favorite drinking stories.

Then there’s Steve. Of the five that Tony got to Swiss Family Robinson with, Steve was the greatest, best surprise.

It’s like that time when Rhodey got rip-roaringly drunk at MIT and Tony valiantly stopped him from egging a professor’s house (Rhodey will tell the story differently). Or the time early in Pepper’s SI employment when she caught Tony in his lab using alligator clips beyond their intended purpose and reacted with little more than a scowl (Pepper will also tell the story differently). These are events that shifted Tony’s perception of the person involved. Made him realize that there is, if not exactly a kindred spirit in them, then at least a tolerant one who can give as good as they can take.

It’s the same with Steve. Tony may not have been surprised that non-serum Steve would still be the bossiest do-gooder on the planet, but he had not expected Steve capable of stooping to such lows as stealing Tony’s last wearable boxers and throwing them in a mud pit as revenge for Tony’s using the shield to store fish guts. Which was but one of a number of acts on Steve’s part that Tony secretly respects but won’t admit on pain of death.

Tony did wonder if that side of Steve would disappear once he regained the serum-blessed body with all its baggage and an ass to bounce quarters off, but nope, apparently that’s just him.

So, really, it’s Steve’s own fault that he has to deal with Tony being all up in his business right now, when he could be recuperating in peace and quiet. If he were less interesting, Tony wouldn’t bother at all.

“Don’t trademark the Avengers,” Steve says.

“Not even for merchandising?”

Steve slants a look at him. “I thought you said we’re a non-profit.”

“How about for charity, like a Great Ormond Street? We get the trademark and give it to someone. Ohoho, how about…” Tony rubs his hands together. “How about I get the trademark for your birthday, and you can give it to whoever you want.”

“That… huh.” Steve smiles slowly, as handsome as the first cup of coffee on an early morning. “That might be something to consider.”

Yeah, one could argue that he and Steve are friends now. Pals. Buds. Not besties, because Tony would never betray Rhodey, plus Steve already has a dance card a mile long. But they do fine – better than fine, really, and definitely better than being mere functional colleagues that Fury had hoped they would be in the first place. (Much to Fury’s chagrin, which Tony and Steve agree is just what Fury deserves.)

“It’s Fury’s, though,” Tony says. “He came up with the Avengers name.”

“Oh, you got a conscience now?” Steve says.

Tony nods. “Point.”

A knock at the threshold snags their attention. “Steve?” Helen says. “You okay if I have a look at the leg?”

Steve says it’s fine, so Tony scoots back a little while Helen pokes and prods at him. A full scan later, she declares that the cast can come off, so Tony fetches the laser cutter. They get to work – well, mainly it’s JARVIS doing the precision cutting – and the cast falls away in pieces from the length of Steve’s leg.

“By the way,” Tony says, “next time you pull a stunt like today? I’m going to install safety protocols into your suit without telling you.”

“You wouldn’t,” Steve says.

“You gonna test me, Steve? You gonna try?”

The last section of the cast splits open. Tony helps gather the pieces, tossing them one after another into the basket on the far side of the room. He only misses the one, which Helen picks up after him as she walks out.

Steve, when Tony finally turns his attention him, looks apologetic enough. “I’m sorry, Tony.”

“You’re not,” Tony points out. “You’re sorry that we’re worried, but you’re not sorry that you did it.”

There’s a second where Steve wants to argue, but it passes. “You’re right. I have healing factor and all of you don’t, so that’s reflected in my decision-making.”

“Conclusion: safety protocols.”

“Come on!” Steve exclaims, half-laughing.

“You’re going to need a new suit anyway.” Tony looks down at Steve’s bare leg in front of him, and puts a careful hand on the calf. Tony’s had his fair share of broken bones, but Steve’s healing abilities are a whole other ball game. “How’s it feel?”

“Tender, but it’s usually like that after healing.”

“No pain?”

“No.”

Tony curls his fingers, massaging the muscle in a long, gentle line down the calf to the ankle. “That okay?”

“Yeah. That’s nice.”

“I’m only trying to get your guard down.” Tony works Steve’s ankle anyway, making small circular motions but taking care not to push too deep. The muscle is tense from being held in the same position, and knowing Steve he’d try to overwork it the first chance he gets. Steve’s legs are long, shapely, and dusted with fine gold hair. Even Steve’s goddamned ankles are shapely, it’s almost enough to make a grown man cry.

 Footsteps approach, followed by Clint’s: “Oh hey, Steve, you’re up.”

“Hey,” Steve says. “Cast is off.”

“Right,” Clint says. There’s a pause, after which he says, “Maybe I’ll come back when you’re not…”

Tony looks up, but Clint’s already sauntering off, a hand waving vaguely over one shoulder. “When we’re not what?” Tony calls out, though Clint doesn’t stop. “When we’re not what? What was that about?”

“Probably jealous that you’re giving me a foot massage,” Steve says.

“This isn’t a foot massage,” Tony says. “I know how to give foot massages, and I’m embarrassed for you that you think this is one.”

“Hey,” Steve says, “how about you can put some safety protocols in my next suit, if I can suggest what protocols to put in yours?”

“Do you know how many people I’ve allowed to give feedback on what I do with my suits?”

“No, I don’t, but I know you’re considering adding me onto that VVIP list.”

Tony pauses in his ministrations to sneer at Steve, whose blue-eyed earnestness does not waver. This is a familiar battle of wills in which there is no winner. But there are no losers, either, and that’s probably the more important part.

“Considering,” Tony says airily. He pushes his thumb along the instep, and flicks at Steve’s small toe when it jumps. “Just considering.”

The edges of Steve’s mouth flicker upwards. “Good enough for me.”

 

+

 

Helen gives Steve the clear, which is good because Tony was getting worried that he might have had to stay in the tower for Christmas. Bad guys never rest, it’s true, but they’d already missed Thanksgiving due to the big SHIELD blow-up (you’re welcome, Fury) and Tony was hoping that the team would have a break after the goddamned marathon they’ve been on.

How was it that Fury described the Avengers? A group of remarkable people, brought together to become more, and to fight the battles that others couldn’t. Something like that. Fury shoved them together for the sake of taking down Loki, and after they’d defeated the Chitauri they might have even parted ways. The Avengers: stored in a box until the next big bad came along.

But Loki’s escape kept them focused, sort of. Thor would’ve gone on the hunt on his own, if it weren’t for SHIELD’s insistence on being involved in recovering the Tesseract (which came to bite them in the ass, since close proximity revealed their Hydra duality), and Tony’s personal insistence on making damn sure Loki wasn’t bringing another army in for a reprise.

A week turned to weeks, to the island non-vacation, to actual space missions and a pit stop at Asgard for the dual goals of dropping off Thor and Loki, and asking for the favor of Frigga’s untangling the mess in Bucky’s head.

Steve breaking a leg on a pedestrian rescue is a wonderful kind of mundane, actually.

But the leg gets better, and Tony kicks everyone out of the tower for Christmas break. Natasha and Clint go off on whatever it is former-SHIELD spies do; Steve goes off with Bucky and Sam on whatever it is recovering former-military dudes do; Tony drags Bruce with him to Rhodey’s family gathering to eat the Hulk’s weight in good cooking.

Late into Christmas night, long after Bruce and most of Rhodey’s cousins have crashed, Tony and Rhodey sit outside watching the stars and talking about nothing.

Tony’s phone, tucked in his back pocket, buzzes. JARVIS only lets the vibration come through when there’s something important, so he takes it out. On the screen there’s a collation of social media posts from a few minutes ago, of the Christmas-lit but empty Avengers Tower, and a certain God of Thunder standing at the entrance looking dismayed.

“Oh my god,” Tony says. He pulls the chatgroup open, thumb dancing quickly: Who’s closest to the tower? Someone needs to rescue Thor.

Steve’s the first to reply: On it.

Then message from Natasha: You think this’ll finally convince him to get a phone?

Clint replies: but then where will we talk about him behind his back

Tony’s still grinning when he looks up. Rhodey’s watching him, a hand half-pressed to his face and doing a poor job of hiding the smile behind it.

“You want in?” Tony says. “I can ask.”

“Nah,” Rhodey says, shaking his head. “Maybe one day.”

“We could use you on the team.”

“I know you could.” Rhodey knows Tony well enough to have been one of the most skeptical about the Avengers working out at all. But it’d taken him just that one mission he’d helped out with – a few months in, when they’d needed help taking down the hellicarrier that Hydra stole – to change his tune.

From Rhodey’s point of view, it’s not the rest of the team that’s the real challenge, but Tony’s place within said team. Yet Tony also knows it took Rhodey five minutes to tell exactly how Tony felt about the Avengers. Reading reports or hearing Tony talk of them is one thing; actually seeing Tony with them brings the whole story to light.

The most obvious shortcut, of course, is in the ease of Tony’s physicality. Rhodey, who’d long ago been desensitized by Tony’s crawling into bed with him (to sleep, thank you) during their MIT days, has described Tony as touch-starved before but that’s obviously untrue. Tony enjoys personal space the way almost everyone enjoys personal space. Tony sets the limits and investigates the world on his own terms, and other people can earn their way in. Tony doesn’t consciously realize the steam’s gathering until the lid’s popped off and he’s going around touching Thor’s biceps and kissing Bruce during breakthrough moments and fiddling with Natasha’s hair when he’s bored. Not all the time, because Tony’s not a creep, but enough to tell a story.

Even now, this Christmas night where none of the Avengers are nearby, the way Tony holds the phone as he sends messages to them is a story, too.

“You’re coming for New Year’s, by the way,” Tony tells Rhodey. “We’re doing a thing. Well, I was going to do a thing but now it’s definitely got to be a bigger thing now, because Thor deserves nice things.”

“I’ll check my schedule.”

“I’ve checked it, you’re coming.”

“Oh, in that case.”

Halfway through the liminal week between Christmas and New Year’s, Avengers Tower is reopened for business and Tony gets on the very serious planning for the New Year’s party. All Avengers can bring their friends and family and other people of importance. There will be good food and drinks and entertainment. Steve is in charge of security. Tony takes Bruce and Thor out clothes shopping.

On the night itself, Rhodey does come to the party despite his oblique threats not to.

He probably thought it would’ve been like one of Tony’s previous scenes, which is so two years ago. Instead, he gets to be impressed by the powerful combination of Tony’s money and Maria Hill’s controlling hand, resulting in a tasteful albeit loud gathering in the penthouse concourse of Avengers Tower.

“No strippers,” Rhodey says.

“First thing you say to me? Really?” Tony hugs him anyway, grateful for his presence, then shoos him to the food. “See that guy? That’s Sam, Steve’s newest bosom buddy. I need you to kick his ass at pool. Thanks, I believe in you.”

Pepper comes, surprisingly, and not only to force Tony to sign some SI-related documents. She partakes of the refreshments, has a far-too-cheerful conversation with Natasha that Tony only just stops himself from asking JARVIS to listen in on, and any awkwardness that might have arisen from the post-Chitauri break-up is plowed through as if it never existed in the first place.

“Just admit that you like what I’ve done with the place,” Tony says to her.

“I admit it,” Pepper says. “I like what you’ve done with the place.”

Tony clutches his chest. “Be still my fucking heart.”

“It’s still an expensive hobby,” Pepper says.

“We’re a non-profit.”

Pepper’s mouth flattens into a line. “You are not.”

Fury comes, too, though he spends what feels like half the evening ambushing Tony whenever he’s unaccompanied and insisting that Steve should be seconded to the project of rebuilding SHIELD out from the ashes of Hydra.

“Just ask the man yourself, geez,” Tony says, trying for what feels like the dozenth time to change the topic. “He’s the boss of himself.”

“What makes you think I haven’t?” Fury counters.

“What makes you think I can change his mind on anything he’s already decided on? Come on.” Tony grabs a flute of champagne from a passing server, and slides it neatly into Fury’s hand. “Do you know how not to talk shop? Let me introduce you to a friend. You met Maya Hansen yet?”

Tony steers Fury away and takes cover with Thor, who pulls Tony into a hug and tells him that the revelry is most pleasing and he’s made a number of marvelous new friends.

“Though of course,” Thor says, “Asgardian parties reach far greater heights than this. There’s been no bloodshed all night long.”

“Thor,” Tony says. “That is a good thing.”

Thor pats the back of Tony’s head indulgently. “Of course. I’m respectful of Earth customs.”

“Uhuh. What’s the plan now that you’ve got Loki on lockdown?”

“Your Hydra foes are still mine, and I’m determined to finish what we’ve started. Though I’ve also been contemplating a sabbatical in London, with Jane.” Thor sounds wistful, despite the fact that Jane is literally just across the room watching Darcy concoct a dubious cocktail at the bar. “I would like to see the sights. Father doesn’t approve, of course, but I’m sure there are evils in London that need dealing with, too.”

“How long does it take for you to fly between here and London?” Tony says.

“Do you know,” Thor says thoughtfully, “I have not tried.”

They look at each other.

“Later?” Tony says quietly.

“Yes,” Thor agrees.

Then there’s Steve. When there are so many larger-than-life figures in a single place, one would be hard-pressed to decide on who’s the life the party. One could even argue that Steve’s relatively subdued, calming presence would discount him from that position. But Tony would say that they’re wrong, that in a storm of electric personalities there needs to be the eye, the center, the maypole around whom they dance.

That’s Steve Rogers, of whom even Tony can’t resist drifting towards many times over the night. Well-wishers and friends and the curious waft around him like a permanent corona, but Tony manages to dip in a few times as well, stealing moments for himself.

And Pepper used to say that Tony can’t stand when someone else hogs the spotlight from him. Hah.

Steve does get a break later in the evening, slipping away to join Tony by the windows. Some early fireworks have already gone off, which has thinned some of the party’s crowd as more and more find a spot by the glass to watch.

“You check in on Bucky yet in the—” Tony checks his watch, “—past half-hour?”

“No,” Steve says. “Bucky stopped replying at around 9.”

Tony laughs. “Smart guy.”

“Sam calls it karma,” Steve says ruefully. “Bucky told him how much I used to stress him out back in the day. And now I get to stress out over him.”

“Let him set his own pace.”

“I know that,” Steve says, a tad impatiently. “I’m trying.”

“And he knows that. The fact that he knows enough about himself to bow out of social engagements is a good thing. It’s also a show of trust.”

“How so?”

“That he can tell you that,” Tony says. “It’s hard to say no, especially to people you care about.”

“Yeah,” Steve says quietly. “Sorry, it’s…”

“What’re you saying sorry for? For caring too much? Wow.” Tony bumps his fist against Steve’s upper arm, drawing a small, pensive smile from the man. “You’re the worst.”

When Steve falls into a contemplative silence, Tony turns back to the view. Another early firework rises over the harbor – yellow and reds this time, which burst into dots of white. When it fades, Tony’s eyes refocus on the reflection in the glass: Steve in his dark blue button-down, his hands in the pockets of his slacks.

“Geez,” Tony huffs softly. “You look ridiculous.”

Steve looks down at himself. “I think I look fine.”

“No, ridiculous. What is this.” Tony turns and holds his hand out to frame Steve’s waist, and the impossible angles at which it tapers down from the broad of his shoulders. Tony literally has Steve’s measurements but so often the numbers seem fake, drawn from the void to give Tony a permanent headache. “Dr. Erskine does amazing work.”

“You had me worried there,” Steve says. “For a second I thought that you liked me for my mind.”

“That sounds awfully unshallow, and not at all like me.” Tony shakes his head. “If you were into merchandising, we could make a fortune with a pin-up calendar. You and Thor alone

“You’d be a pretty big draw, too.”

“Please. Anyone who wants to see me naked can just look on the internet.”

“Nothing recent, though.”

“Okay, true,” Tony concedes.

A slow-growing rumble of noise eventually trickles past their little bubble at the window. As Tony’s ears clear, he registers it as numbers: the countdown towards the New Year. A quick check confirms that Tony’s flute is empty and the servers have all skedaddled elsewhere, so Tony frantically pats down his suit, emerging triumphant with a noisemaker that he jabs between his lips.

“…three, two, one – Happy New Year!”

Tony blows into the noisemaker. “Pzzzt.” It’s a disappointing sound, and weaker than Tony’s annoyed, “What,” that he grumps when he tosses the thing aside.

“It’s the thought that counts,” Steve says kindly.

“No, hey.” Tony looks at him, and jabs a finger at the stiff plane that is Steve’s abs. “New Year’s.”

Steve blinks. “What?”

“Gotta usher in the New Year correctly. Come on, let’s go.”

Tony rolls his eyes at Steve’s befuddled frown. Steve’s a lot of things but he’s not stupid, and he’ll surely get with the program when Tony cups his hands around Steve’s face – wow, that is a really close shave – and leans in. Okay, leans up. His heels barely leave the ground, honestly.

Steve has soft lips. Steve smells good. None of these are great surprises, truth be told.

Then Steve kisses back, a careful press and parting of lips that has Tony huffing with amusement through his nose. A flicker of pleasure tingles at the base of Tony’s spine, making him linger just a second longer, impressed by the brave glide of Steve’s lips on his.

“Wow,” Tony says when he pulls back. “That was nice.”

There are two spots of color high on Steve’s cheeks. “Thank you?”

“You ever kissed someone with facial hair before?”

“Uh. No.”

“Interesting, right?” Tony starts to grin, but through the haze of accomplishment he notices that Steve’s eyes are wider than they should be. That’s surprise on Steve’s face – genuine surprise – instead of the easy-going still-waters-run-deep good humor that Tony so treasures about the guy.

“Oh, hey,” Tony says quickly, “sorry if that was too much.”

“No, no, it’s—” Steve swallows and smiles, though the stretch of his face still looks a little tight. “It’s fine.”

“I know, I push too far sometimes—”

“Tony.” Steve puts his hand at the back of Tony’s elbow, a confident curl of fingers that keeps Tony grounded. “It’s New Year’s. Don’t ruin the moment.”

“That… Okay, yeah. Good idea.” Tony studies Steve’s face a second longer, but whatever it was seems to have passed and he’s just Steve again, relaxed and statuesque and smiling his small Buddha smile of ultimate mystery at the view of New York fireworks.

“Happy New Year,” Tony says.

Steve shifts next to him, his arm pressing a warm line against Tony’s. “Happy New Year.”

Tony takes a deep breath and releases it slowly.

The Avengers lasted long enough to see in a New Year. That’s pretty damn cool.

 

+

 

Tony doesn’t do New Year’s Resolutions but he does enjoy To Do lists, so at the end of December he’d installed a digital noticeboard in the Tower’s common area for a shared To Do list that everyone can keep track of and add items as they come up, so the group knows what’s what.

The plan was to get the noticeboard up and running on the first day of the new year as a prosperous start on the Avengers’ next chapter, but as it turns out that had been too optimistic. Tony’s actual first day of the new year is spent mostly in recovery.

He wakes up late and is generally useless, though he does retain enough sense of mind to notice Steve’s uncharacteristic staring at him as he lumbers around in service of his stomach. Tony immediately tells Steve that what happened to Thor might have been partially his fault but in his defense, Thor thought it was a good idea, too, and it’s only because Thor got bored halfway across the Atlantic that the rescue was necessary. All in all, more embarrassing than dangerous.

It’s a good enough explanation, Tony thinks, but Steve still seems off. Watchful, in way that prickles Tony’s tiny animal brain and would make him nervous if it were anyone else besides Steve doing it. But since it’s not anyone else, Tony pays it little mind.

Second day of the new year is more promising. When Tony goes down for breakfast, he hears the argument that’s going on in the pantry from well outside in the corridor.

An argument in itself isn’t worrying, because arguments are the lifeblood of the Avengers, and it is through vocal and vehement disagreements that information is shared, revelations are uncovered, and solutions are found. A communal eureka, as it were, depending on the combination of the six who are involved in said argument. Three’s good, four’s better, and all six together have literally saved the world multiple times.

Hence, Tony’s a little hurt that this argument’s in full swing before he’s even arrived. He speeds up his steps, and turns the corner into the pantry just as Clint’s yelling, “Yes, it’s obvious, Steve!”

“What’s obvious?” Tony asks.

He’s awake, almost bouncing on his feet, ready to tackle whatever problem’s hit them. But the pantry is suddenly pin-drop silent.

The scene: Clint is crouched on a chair, Natasha’s sitting properly in another chair, Bruce is by the table wringing his hands, Thor’s at the counter eating something Tony cannot identify at first glance, and Steve is standing in the middle of the floor in an attack-readiness pose – hands by his side, legs parted, shoulders hunched – that’s no less alarming for the lack of the shield on him.

No one says anything, though furtive looks are exchanged between everyone except Tony.

“Oh my god,” Tony says. “Are you planning my surprise birthday party? Because that’s ages away, and I’m not so much a fan of that kind of thing.”

“See,” Clint says, with exasperation that hints at the argument’s going on for a while, “and now we have to throw Tony a surprise party.”

“I said I’m not a fan of that kind of thing,” Tony says. “That wasn’t reverse psychology.”

“I can vouch for that,” Natasha says.

“Thank you.” Tony eyes everyone again, but still no one’s forthcoming. Tony could be hurt, or concerned, but mainly he’s just hungry. He inches over to the counter, where he fetches cereal and milk, and lets the silent discomfort of the room curdle over.

“Actually,” Natasha says loudly, “we were wondering if there’s a policy about dating within the team.”

Tony grabs a couple of apples from the fruit bowl and stuffs them into his pocket. “Why would there be a policy? We don’t even have HR.”

“Technically,” Bruce says slowly, “Maria’s HR. She did bring Helen in. That makes her HR, right?”

“I guess. But why does it matter?” Tony jolts upright when the meaning sinks in. “Wait. Who wants to date within the team?”

Silence again, which is only broken by Thor’s loud munching in his corner.

Then, a sigh. From Steve, who says, “Me.”

“You?” Tony says in disbelief.

“Yes.”

You?”

“Yes!” Steve takes a deep breath, and is calmer when he next says: “Me. I’m interested in dating within the team. Which could change things up.”

Tony stares, wheels in his head turning. It might be arrogant for him to have believed that he has a decent handle on Steve as a person by now, but he’d very much thought that he did. Yet this is a surprise – Tony’s never gotten any sort of feeling from Steve that he was interested in dating anyone, let alone someone within the team. But, as Tony thinks about it further, the team aspect is probably the most reasonable part of that whole statement, because Steve’s social circle is a tad limited.

Then there’s the other important question.

Tony casts his gaze around the room, from one Avenger to the next. Bruce – sweet and vicious and cute in his way, probably a really fun date but has Hulk-sized hang-ups over that kind of thing and Steve isn’t the sort to push. Clint – no way, no how, zero likelihood. Thor – hmm. He has Jane, but maybe they’re not exclusive. He and Steve together would be really fucking hot, actually.

Thor’s still eating his mystery breakfast, and looks mildly alarmed at the way Tony’s eyeing him. Tony opens his mouth.

“Tony,” Steve says, “whatever you’re about to say, I’d suggest that you not say it.”

Tony closes his mouth. Last but far from least – Natasha. Who’s now resting with her chin on her propped-up arm, eyebrows raised at Steve.

Oh yeah. Huh. Tony nods, satisfied.

“If we need a policy, I can pull a draft from SI,” Tony says. “Honestly, I don’t think it’s necessary, but I guess if we ever get audited it’d be good to have something lying around. But as far as I’m concerned – do whatever. Live your life.”

“Hear, hear,” Thor says.

“JARVIS, mark that down, would you?” Tony says.

Yes, sir,” JARVIS says. The pantry’s noticeboard lights up with its first entry: HR policy + intrateam dating.

Tony pauses on the way out of the pantry, grimacing at Steve’s locked shoulder. “Geez, Steve, relax. And come up to the ‘shop whenever you’re ready, we need to finish the suit.”

“Yep,” Steve says, sounding terse despite there not being a single visible hostile in the room. “Sure thing.”

As far as arguments go, that was pretty anti-climactic. There’s probably some detail that he’s missing, but when the others get weird like that it’s usually best to let it fester and spill out organically, which it will after a time.

For now, Tony wanders off to the workshop where there is work and coffee, and he dives into both.

It’s not long before Steve shows up. Steve’s come up to the workshop enough uncountable times that Tony’s amassed a catalogue of signs to be read in Steve’s entrance. If he’s doing the big stride and knocks loudly, there’s something important he needs Tony’s opinion or help on; if he shuffles in with a smile and rapid-fire drum of knuckles on the threshold, he probably just wants to waste time or hang out under the guise of being useful; if he just barges in like a tank, that means there’s something on his mind and his subconscious is so sure of his welcome that he’s taking Tony’s permission to enter utterly for granted.

Things like that. Tony has been paying attention.

This time when Steve enters, he’s shuffling a little, but he also doesn’t knock. There is a smile in Tony’s direction, but it’s distracted. Something on his mind, but he doesn’t want to make a big deal of it, maybe? Also of note is that Steve is still carrying some of the stiff-necked tension of earlier.

“Good timing,” Tony calls out from his location on the floor. He’s half-sprawled on a yoga mat, and uses a leg to point at the next of transmitters on the bench. “Micro-repeaters are ready. Need you to help shoot me up.”

The fog of distraction clears from Steve’s face, and he marches across the room to the tray. “You’ve already started.”

“Just in the legs.” Tony stretches said legs out in front of him, where the insertion points are bright red mosquito bite-like marks.

“JARVIS?” Steve says.

The injections are safe, though it’s advisable to give it at least four hours for the body to acclimatize per batch before completing implant.

Steve pins Tony with a glare. “Four hours.”

“Four minutes?” Tony says.

“Four hours.”

“One hour?”

“Four hours or I’m getting Helen up here.”

“Ugh, fine.” Tony drags himself and the injector over to the bench just as Steve’s inspecting the first aid kit with undue seriousness. Tony’s calves sting a little, but he manages to haul himself up onto the stool next to Steve. “You don’t need—”

“Leg, please.” Steve taps his knee. Tony lifts one leg up and pops it across Steve’s thigh. Steve cleans the insertion points on Tony’s calves with gauze and antiseptic, then does the same for the next. “Now your arms.”

Tony places both arms on bench, palms upward. “You see the pen marks?”

“Yeah, I see them.” Steve hesitates. “That’s a lot.”

“Just eight. Okay, eighteen. But only eight for this batch. Then we gotta do my back.”

“In four hours.”

Tony sighs. “Okay, yeah.”

The shot go in, one after another. Steve insists on the antiseptic wipes on each, and checking the insert points carefully. Once the two rows are done, Tony flexes his arms experimentally, and Steve stays close, his palm on the muscle near Tony’s elbow to check the give.

“What’s the range going to be?” Steve says.

“That’s what we’re going to test. Tomorrow, of course. Dress rehearsal, gonna be…” Tony trails off, distracted by a sudden twinge in his chest. “JARVIS, you got anything?”

The resonance frequency, as theorized.

“What?” Steve says. “What is it?”

“Minor hiccup, nothing to worry about.” Tony exhales carefully through pursed lips, just as his left arm tenses up. “It’s not the core that’s the problem, it’s the – okay, long story short, expected this, made a new arc reactor to compensate. Could you get it from…”? He jerks his head to the fabricator, and there’s an empty space at his side where Steve’s rushed off to collect.

“Why’d you leave it over there?” Steve says. Tony has a vague impression of Steve running, or perhaps teleporting, across the room and back. The new arc reactor is in his hand. “You need to switch it out?”

“You do it.” Tony can see Steve start to protest, so he adds, “Left arm’s gone tingly.”

Steve’s nostrils flare. “Tony.”

“Might as well.” Tony twists in the stool, setting the bench against his back as he lets his body go partially lax. “Might need to do this one day, during a fight or something, so better learn now. Look, I’m paralyzed, I can’t talk. Oh no, I’m dying.”

Steve makes a small sound at the back of his throat. He moves, his free hand sweeping up Tony’s chest, pulling his dark tank up, over his stomach, over the arc reactor, and bunching it under his armpits.

“How—” Steve’s hands are steady, his eyes a little less so. “How do I—”

“Can’t help,” Tony says. “Too busy dying.”

With Tony’s head tilted back a little, only the top half of Steve’s head is in his field of vision. He can feel Steve’s fingers pressing carefully at the arc reactor in search for the catch.

There’s a second there where Tony’s mind unexpectedly goes grey with the memory of Obadiah’s smell and breath over him – but it’s gone when Tony focuses on Steve. This is Steve, whose eyes are set in a gratifying, focused glare on the mission that needs to be completed. This is Steve, whom Tony owes his life to a dozen times over, and not just from the physical act of saving him from physical peril.

God, it feels good to have this. To have Steve close and knowing that Steve can handle this, that he’ll take care of Tony and yell at him afterward, and be intense and wry and let Tony yell at him back when the occasion calls for it.

Tony holds his breath when the arc reactor is pulled out. The pressure in his chest shifts, the brief vacuum almost folding his torso in, though Tony knows that’s mostly just in his head. Tony doesn’t like this part, though on this occasion he’s given an excellent distraction in the form of one of Steve’s hands, which settles at the side of Tony’s face to hold him steady.

Steve’s hand is warm and calloused. Tony tilts a little into it, because why not.

A click, and the new arc reactor is in. Tony takes another long, steady breath.

“JARVIS?” Steve says.

It’s working, sirs. The reactor and the transmitters.

Steve nods. “Good.”

“Excellent work, Captain,” Tony says with a grin. “I owe you one.”

“You do not,” Steve says sharply. “That was dangerous.”

“But you rose to the challenge. As I knew you would.”

“That is…” Steve trails off oddly. His eyes are locked on Tony’s, almost as though he’s just now noticing where he is, leaning into the space between Tony’s open legs and a stiff breeze away from falling right on top of him. With Steve’s eyes so large and almost unblinking, Tony can see the flecks of green in the sea of blue. Steve hasn’t moved his hand from Tony’s face either, which is nice because it’s pretty damn comfortable right where it is. The muscle in Steve’s jaw jumps, and then his gaze moves down – down Tony’s neck, to the arc reactor, to the bare of Tony’s chest.

“Oh.” Steve’s hand disappears from Tony’s face, since he needs both of them to pull Tony’s tank down.

“Thanks.” Tony stifles a laugh. This is far from the most compromising position he’s been in with a friend, but the trust exercise inherent in it feels like a nifty cherry on top. “God, this is… Man, we’re lucky Natasha’s used to this.”

“Hmm? Natasha?”

“Rhodey once had a girlfriend who hated how I used to bongo butt on him.”

Steve just looks perplexed. “What?”

Tony mimes drumming his palms in the air. “On Rhodey’s butt. Liked doing that. Can’t say I’ve done it for a while, though.”

“What are you talking about.”

This,” Tony says, gesturing between them. “The Avengers. The way we live in each other’s pockets. Most people – normal people, as I’ve been told – can get weirded out by it. Though I guess you military/spy people have warped perceptions of boundaries in the first place, so it works out. And Natasha gives better hugs than you, so I am not gonna stop asking for those.”

“What… Natasha?”

“You did ask her out already, right?”

Steve stares at him. “You think… I want to date Natasha.”

“You said that it’s not Thor,” Tony points out.

“Jesus Christ.” Steve pushes his stool back with an absurdly loud scrape on the floor, and jolts to his feet as if there’s an alarm blaring somewhere that only he can hear. His glare has taken on a more personal, appalled stint, and Tony can gape at him in bewilderment. “Really, Tony?”

“Wait.” Tony scrambles up to his feet, at a loss. “Steve, wait.”

But Steve’s already clear across the room, almost at the elevators. “I’m going out.”

“No, no.” Tony looks around wildly, finds the last uneaten breakfast apple, and lobs it at Steve’s head.

Steve turns and catches it. It’s a clean catch, neat into his palm, and almost absent-minded in its accuracy. It’s sexy as hell.

“You’re not allowed to do that,” Tony says. “We made a pact. You ever get mad at me, you have to tell me why.”

Steve unclenches his jaw. “I’m not mad at you. I’m just annoyed.”

“We debating semantics now—”

“I need to get some fresh air.”

“We haven’t even started on your suit!”

“I’m going,” Steve says firmly. “And I’m taking the apple.”

The elevator doors open and close, taking Steve with it, and leaving Tony bereft of company and explanations. He could ask JARVIS to stop the elevator, but then what?

“What the hell was that?” Tony says. “JARVIS?”

The captain appears to be having a snit, sir.

“I’ll say!”

 

+

 

Just to be contrary, Tony spends some time working on the Steve’s suit without him. He’s tempted to print out a fake set of combat pants that’d ride high enough to give Steve a wedgie, but the excitement of the idea lasts less than ten hot seconds before Tony’s baffled all over again and tosses the design into the trash.

Tony does come out of the workshop eventually. He’s downstairs having lunch when Steve returns, pausing in the doorway when he sees Tony there at table. A half-dozen options race through Tony’s head, and he settles on not saying anything (thus removing the risk of saying something stupid) and moving his mouth into an exaggerated downward curve of ultimate heartbreaking sadness.

Steve narrows his eyes, but he squeezes Tony’s shoulder and everything’s all right with the world.

Mostly all right, anyway.

Steve does help Tony finish up the remaining transmitter shots, and promises to help out with the Mark XIX’s dress rehearsal once everything’s ready. Tony can’t fault Steve’s actions, but his attitude? It’s off. It’s worrying. Steve’s not even angry (sorry, annoyed) at Tony anymore, but Tony is the master at recognizing unfinished business.

It has to do with Natasha. It must, because that’s the only thing that makes sense.

If Tony ends up being responsible for breaking up the Avengers over something as stupid at this, he’d never forgive himself.

The matter niggles at him, makes him restless and keeps him restless, all the way into the next day when he should be focusing on the Veronica protocol. He’s in Bruce’s lab, both of them doing their usual dance back-and-forth of code and simulation models, when Tony accidentally kills sim!Bruce with sim!Veronica's re-entry.

“Sorry.” Tony pulls the simulation code out of the way. “A tad distracted.”

“It’s fine,” Bruce says. “We can take a break, if you want?”

Actually, a break sounds good. Tony pushes the screen out of the way and spins on his chair, turning it around so he can face Bruce instead of streams of code. Bruce may have the Hulk mostly under control, but he still likes having plenty of space around him, hence the spacious, brightly-colored lab and non-rock soothing music.

In here, Bruce seems like a guy who has a good handle on things. Especially his teammates, whom he trusts and whom trust him.

“I’m an okay guy, right, Bruce?” Tony says. “A not-so-bad teammate?”

Bruce seems to shrink back, away from what he thinks is a trick question. “Yes?”

“I care about you guys, right? I’m supportive. I find out some of y’all are interested in dating, I support that. Go on, find your happiness, reach for it, grab it with both hands. But when I spoke to Natasha, she just gave me this look.”

Bruce hangs there for a moment, staring at Tony, and then slowly inches over to his stool to sit down. “You spoke with Natasha? About?”

“About stuff Steve likes to do,” Tony says irritably. “You know, date ideas. That place in the village he likes.”

“And she gave you a look.”

“Yeah. It’s almost the same look Pepper gives me when she thinks I’m being extra stupid just to spite her.” Tony sits up sharply and points at Bruce. “Whoa, there, that’s it. That’s the look. How’re you doing it?”

“I’m – I’m not.” Bruce coughs weakly. “This is above my paygrade.”

“This is exactly your paygrade. Tell me what I’m doing wrong. I trust you.”

“Um. Well.” Bruce is clutching his hands in his lap, looking all the world like a li’l ‘ol lady about to dispense useful advice or, failing that, a flip-flop to the head. “Well, you know. Steve.”

“I do know Steve,” Tony agrees.

“You’re pretty close. The two of you.” Bruce squirms on the stool, but Tony waits him out. “And, um. You know. You kissed on New Year’s. So it’s, uh. There’s that.”

Tony frowns. “Is Natasha jealous? Because that’s not—”

“Whoa, no, none of that. It’s just. Well. You like Steve, right?”

“Of course I do.”

“But you like like Steve. Really like. A little bit in love with, even.”

“Obviously.”

Bruce does a full-body double-take. Almost like he’s being electrocuted, though Tony knows for a fact that his shoes are rubber-soled. “Obviously?” he echoes.

“Well, yeah,” Tony says, no less confused than he was ten minutes ago. “Everyone’s a little bit in love with Steve.”

Bruce’s mouth falls open. “That is not true.”

“Of course it is. It’s Steve – everyone loves Steve. Even people who’ve never met him love Captain America. I guess you can argue that members of Hydra don’t, but I’ll bet you find that a lot of their hate stems from very complicated grey-area feelings.”

“Tony, I swear to you, that is not the case.”

“Yes, it is. You know what? Let’s take a poll.” Tony stands up and starts walking.

It takes a few seconds for Bruce to realize what’s happening. By then Tony’s already out of the lab and down the corridor, forcing Bruce to run to catch up.

“Wait, Tony, Tony!” Bruce exclaims. “I’m going green, it’s green, the Hulk’s coming!”

Tony doesn’t pause in his march. “No, he isn’t.”

Bruce scurries after him, but Tony doesn’t slow down and doesn’t acknowledge his attempts to distract him from his goal. Tony goes down two flights of stairs, round the corridor and (after a pointer from JARVIS) storms into the sitting area.

To his immense pleasure, almost everyone is clustered around the coffee table: Steve, Clint, Maria, Helen, and even Sam and Bucky. Thor and Natasha are absent, but this is more than enough for quorum. Sure, there are folders open on the table that must mean that there’s a meeting in progress, but that can wait.

“Okay!” Tony claps his hands together. “Anyone here who is not a little bit in love with Steve, please raise your hand.”

A few hands go up.

“Maria,” Tony says patiently, “that is what is known as a lie.”

“It isn’t,” Maria replies.

Tony squints at Helen. “Doc, I admit that I don’t know enough to call you out. But you—” he points at Clint, “that is also a lie. You have classic Captain America merch.”

“Oh, does that count?” Clint lowers his hand. “Okay then.”

“See!” Tony whirls on Bruce. “Everyone’s a little bit in love with Steve. It’s normal.

“Is it?” Steve says.

Tony looks at him. Steve’s in one of the chairs, holding a folder in one hand and his phone in the other. He’s half-turned in the seat to look up at Tony, and though his expression is set in the cool composure of Captain America at work, there is a sharpness in his eyes that suggests of a gauntlet being thrown somewhere.

“Yes, it is,” Tony says.

“So you’re a little bit in love with me, too,” Steve says.

Tony sighs in exasperation. “Everyone is. That’s the point.”

“Well, I’m not asking if everyone is,” Steve says, his tone as evenly balanced as his vibranium shield. “I’m just asking about you.”

Tony makes a face at him. He came down here for answers, not more questions, so where does Steve get off giving Tony yet another headache on top of the one he already has? The debates that Tony has with Steve may be one of his newest, most favorite hobbies, but in such discussions he always knows what’s at stake. What he’s gunning for. What he’s aiming to swipe Steve’s legs out from under him in order to win.

Now all Tony’s got to work with is a question that’s not the full question, and Bruce tugging weakly at the back of Tony’s shirt to try to get him to do… what? Surrender?

“That cannot possibly be a problem,” Tony says. “What are you, twelve? Of course I love you, you’re awesome, you’re one of my best friends. No offense, Barnes.”

“None taken,” Bucky says quietly, just before Sam smacks him in the arm.

Steve’s face does not change, but there’s a loud crack from the vicinity of his lap. Tony follows Steve’s gaze in looking down, where the phone Steve had been holding is snapped clean in two.

“The hell,” Tony says.

Steve clears his throat. “If you’ll excuse me.” He stands up, all formality and politeness, and puts the folder down. The broken pieces of phone stay cradled in his hands. “I need to be elsewhere. I’ll be right back.”

He goes.

“Aaaand he’s mad at me again,” Tony says, planting his hands on his hips. “Damn it.”

Clint has both hands over his mouth, and his voice is muted when he says, “I don’t understand what’s happening.”

“You and me both, buddy,” Tony grumps. “Sorry about your meeting.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Maria says. “What’s an Avengers gathering if someone isn’t storming off every five minutes.”

There’s a chorus of agreements, which at least makes Tony feel better.

 

+

 

Normally when he and Steve have a disagreement, they take a breather before it hits fever pitch, and once tempers cool, it doesn’t matter who reaches out to whom. They’ve been through this enough times to have worked out a system that works, and mutually decided that reaching an end result is more important than personal pride. At least, whenever the argument is over something that actually matters.

The problem here is that Tony has the barest, slimmest, narrowest idea of whether this is present flare-up actually matters or not. In the feverish thoughts that follow him over the rest of the day, he conjures the worst possible scenarios: Steve actually taking up Fury’s offer to rebuild SHIELD, the Avengers splintering along partisan lines, Tony having to haul everything back to Malibu and start all over again.

He knows, of course, that this is just conjecture. Extrapolation. Being preemptively melodramatic.

If it were anyone else, Tony might try to play it cool. Pretend that there’s nothing bothering him and everything’s hunky-dory. He could every try to fake it, i.e. that he knows exactly what’s up with Steve and that he’s on fixing it because he’s a genius and that’s what he does.

But it’s not anyone else, is the thing. This is Steve, with whom it’s far more fun to spin bullshit together instead of against each other.

This is Steve, whom Tony is contemplating actually betraying Rhodey for.

Late at night, Tony’s back in the workshop tinkering with the Mark XIX’s gauntlets while Bruce Springsteen croons about small-town dreams being dashed. Tony thought that he’d be ready for the dress rehearsal by now, but this is probably for the best. Gives him something to occupy his time and thoughts.

Even when he’s deep in hardware mode, JARVIS knows to notify him when someone arrives, and he must have, yet Tony didn’t hear him. This is why as soon as Tony gets a loose plating out of the way, he’s startled by Steve’s standing right there, leaning over the bench and trying to peer over at what he’s doing.

“You did hear me,” Steve says.

“Of course I did,” Tony says. “I’m always vigilant. Aware of my surroundings.”

“Mm-hmm.” Then, there is it: Steve’s peace-offering smile.

Tony relaxes, a full-body release of tension that he finishes up by putting the gauntlet down. “You want to review your suit?”

“Oh,” Steve says. “Sure, I guess we can do that. Or we can, uh.”

“Sure. Whatever you want. You want a drink? Something to munch?”

“Thank you, I’m fine.” Steve’s taken the stool and is making himself comfortable, though he hasn’t brought any of his usual accessories with him – no tablet or book, or even the broken phone Tony assumed he’d want him to fix.

Steve’s changed into one of his cotton shirts that draws too tight across the pecs. He’s partial to these shirts for sleepwear, though Tony knows that it’s usually toss-up between his wearing one of these or just going shirtless to bed, which has made for some delightful middle-of-the-night emergency missions.

“The issue, I think, is communication,” Steve says. “I know I need to be better at that.”

“If you need to be better, there’s no hope for any of us.”

Steve huffs. “Tony.”

“Just saying.”

“Are you going to let me continue?”

“You can talk all you like, I’m just happy to listen.”

Steve does laugh at that, scrunched-up face and all. Tony’s night has just picked up in the best way, and he’s even curious now to what’s got Steve all twisty weird. That’s its own kind of interesting, because they’ve really not known each other that long, and there’s so much more about Steve that Tony doesn’t know. And wants to know.

“Damn it, Tony,” Steve says, “quit looking at me like that.”

“Like what? Like I think you’re a decent human being? Fine.” Tony forces his face into a scowl. “You’re the worst, Rogers. Get out.”

“Hah!” Steve lifts a hand, almost as though he’s about to touch Tony’s eyebrows. But he withdraws, just as he seems to remember what he’d come here to say. “Right. Right. So. This is about, uh. We’re friends.”

“I like to think so.”

Steve raises an eyebrow. “We’re friends, and I think good friends at this point. I trust you, and you – geez. You trust me, too. It’s great. I’m… very grateful.”

“A promising opening. Now to the thesis statement.”

“We’re very, uh… We’re comfortable around each other.” Steve pauses, giving that a second for Tony to parse that with greater thought. “I know that this is just how you are with close friends. But the other day, you kissed me, and it was… It was different.”

Tony winces. “I know, I get carried away. I can dial it back, it’s not a problem—”

“That’s not what I’m saying.” Steve swallows. “I’m saying that it was different, but it was also nice, and I liked it. So. Do you want to go out with me, Tony?”

“What for? There’s food downstairs.”

Steve closes his eyes, takes a breath, and opens them again. “You do remember I said that I want to date someone in the team, right?”

“Yeah.” Tony waits, but Steve’s just looking at him expectantly. “Well, that’s. Oh.”

Tony’s first thought: the kiss was nice, but not that nice. They didn’t even use tongue.

Tony’s second thought: wait, he’s not into Natasha?

Tony’s third thought: oh fucking hell.

“Steve,” Tony says. “Sure, you’re important to me if you think about—”

“You enjoy my company,” Steve says firmly. “You think I’m funny and interesting—”

“Because you are funny and interesting.”

“You find me attractive. You talk about my butt all the time.”

“It’s a good butt!”

“You like touching me!”

“Because we’re friends!” Why are they shouting. “You’re my friend, we can’t date.”

Steve starts. His eyes widen, and his face goes soft and inexplicably sad. “Have you never been friends with the people you date?” he asks softly.

“That’s – that’s not—”

It’s not relevant, that’s what it is. That last question has nothing to do with the discussion currently the table, so there’s no need for Tony’s hackles to go up, or for him to defensively flip through the rolodex of his memories for names and more names, and to go – hah, Pepper! Only to remember that Pepper was his employee long before they were anything else which made the boundaries between them strange and permeable.

Anyway. Anyway. That’s beside the point. Tony’s priorities today aren’t the priorities he had ten, twenty years ago. And that has nothing to do with what Steve’s actually asking.

“That’s like asking if I’d date Rhodey or Bruce,” Tony says. “I do like you a lot, Steve, but…”

Steve has the face. He’s pulled out the jaw-clench of determination, metaphorical targets in his narrowed eyes. Tony’s whole body freezes in a startled uh-oh, but Steve is just scooting forward, pulling his stool with him, until he’s close enough for his knee to press solidly against Tony’s thigh.

Tony’s breath catches at the first touch of Steve’s hand on his cheek. It’s just Steve’s hand – palm fingers – set against the side of Tony’s face. Steve’s thumb rests on Tony’s cheekbone, his fingers are tucked under Tony’s ear. Once the hand is there, it stays, unmoving.

Steve holds Tony’s gaze, and his eyebrows go up a little. Tony knows the question in the gesture, but not so much the answer.

It’s just Steve’s hand. He’s touched him like this before. There’s always been this thread of attraction between them, but it’s just background noise, the default setting of the world, only as pervasive and unobtrusive as breathing. This touch is nothing.

This touch pulls a slow, tingling pulse up Tony’s spine.

“I’m not imagining this, right?” Steve asks quietly.

Tony licks his lips. Steve is very close. “No.”

“Am I really the same as Bruce or Rhodey to you?”

Tony’s next breath rattles all the way through his ribcage. “No.”

“So what is it?”

The moment needs levity, but Tony’s brain utterly fails him. He says, “I’d still take it, though. Nothing wrong with keeping us exactly the way we are, because this is… this is precious, isn’t it? This is epic.”

The corners of Steve’s crinkle when he nods. “Yeah, it is.”

“When I got you at my back, I know I can do anything.” Tony coughs, suddenly discomfited by the press of his words in the mostly-empty room. But he’s said it, and it’s true, and he knows that Steve’s about a breath away from kissing him. Tony’s going to let him do it, too. “Doesn’t mean we can’t change, though. I guess.”

There is no special occasion or holiday today. No bystanders around them making noise and atmosphere; no excuses for plausible deniability. There’s just the two of them, and the inexorable pull between them.

Steve tilts his head a little when he comes in for the kiss. His lips are parted when he presses them to Tony’s, cautious at first and then pushing at Tony’s mouth. Making himself comfortable.

Sure, they’ve kissed before, but there’s intent here. There’s meaning here, and that’s what has Tony’s neck growing warm, his fingers tingling, his stomach tightening. Tony kisses back, slotting their mouths together, then curling his tongue against the full of Steve’s lower lip.

Steve hums – a rumbly, contented sound deep in his chest. The vibration seems to move from Steve’s body to Tony’s, where it settles deep in Tony’s chest. Where an unseen switch abruptly goes click.

Maybe it’s because it’s been a while. Or maybe it’s because it’s Steve. Whatever the case, the sound Steve made has Tony surging forth, hands gripping Steve’s upper arms for leverage. Tony deepens the kiss and breathes hot against Steve’s mouth; and when Steve’s hands land on his hips, it’s only a hop-skip-and-a-jump off of the stool and onto Steve’s lap.

Steve’s chest and shoulders and thighs are fucking solid. Tony thinks he could bounce right off of him without leaving a mark or having any sort of effect on him whatsoever. But Steve’s far from unaffected; he’s moving with Tony, chest heaving against him and hands pawing eagerly at the meat of Tony’s upper thighs.

“Geez, Tony,” Steve hisses, the sound going straight to Tony’s dick.

Pleasure is an electric current, and they are the circuits. Something like that. All Tony knows is that Steve’s hands, which he’d only ever known for comfort and teasing and work, are now instruments of pleasure, pushing Tony’s shirt up from his waist and burning searing handprints into Tony’s skin.

Tony’s shirt goes first – Steve’s seen him shirtless before countless times, yet the wide-eyed way he feasts on the view is new. Steve sweeps his hands up Tony’s ribs, thumbs flicking at Tony’s nipples, and murmurs approvingly at Tony’s gasp. Steve’s feet have purchase on the floor and he bounces his thighs once, twice, more – against Tony’s inseam, which highlights the hard-on he’s got going down there.

This is Steve when he’s horny. Good to know.

Steve’s shirt goes next, and he makes a high-pitched gasp when Tony latches his mouth to Steve’s bare shoulder. Tony grinds down, Steve meets him in going up, and they find the rhythm as easily here as they have in the fight, except the goal is a rather more fun one. Tony has the stray intrusive thought that this might be taking things too quickly, but so what. They’ve always, always pushed at each other.

“You gonna come in your pants?” Tony says.

There’s a grin in Steve’s reply: “Are you?”

Tony pulls back to frown at him, but said frown doesn’t (can’t) last long. Steve’s stupidly handsome when he’s laughing, especially when he’s laughing with Tony, and especially when he’s laughing because of how fucking happy he is to be here with Tony.

“Okay, we’re doing this.” Tony gets up, and bats away Steve’s attempts to pull him back. “C’mon.”

There are storage cabinets all over the workshop, but Tony’s only interested in the one, which is tucked between the couch and the yoga mat. He rummages around the drawer while Steve comes up behind him, chin hooked on Tony’s shoulder and arms around Tony’s middle.

“Why do you have lube in the workshop?” Steve says.

“In case I need to rub one out, obviously.”

“You masturbate in the workshop?”

“It happens!” Tony bumps Steve away with his hips, and gestures at him to take his pants off. “Adrenaline, nerves, to help me focus, whatever. Oh please, like you’ve never jerked off in the gym.”

Steve folds his pants over an arm. His lovely cock hangs heavy between his legs, which makes for a nice juxtaposition with the appalled way he’s staring at Tony. “No, I have not.”

“You’re probably the only one,” Tony says.

“No.” Steve catches the strip of condoms Tony throws at him. “And why do you have condoms in the workshop?”

“Obviously,” Tony says as he kicks his pants off, “in case a friend makes a pass at me and we’re going to have sex.”

“And how many friends has that happened with?”

Tony comes up to Steve, and puts his hands on Steve’s waist. With both of them in bare feet, Tony can admit that Steve has maybe an inch or so over him, but just barely.

“Only the one,” Tony says.

Steve nods. “Damn right.”

Honestly, Tony thought that his slutty, slutty days were over, because there’s a shitload of other things going on in his life right now. But here he is, putting the workshop on blackout and crawling buck naked on top of Steve, who’s being very polite about lying flat on the yoga mat. They kiss while Tony opens himself up, and Steve keeps on nuzzling him as Tony reaches back to find Steve’s condom-covered length.

Tony bears down. A nudge and Steve’s inside him, sliding as deep as he can go. There’s the stretch and thickness and sweet burn of being filled up.

“Oh, God,” Steve gasps. “Tony.”

Tony braces his hands on Steve’s stomach, and starts rocking onto the saddle of Steve’s hips.

It’s been a while, but Tony remembers how it goes. He rolls his hips, and feels his face stretch into a grin when Steve arches under him. With his eyes, Tony traces a long line along Steve’s body: the thatch of dark blond curls under Tony’s cock, to the span of Steve’s abs, through the valley between Steve’s pecs, and the long stretch of his neck when Steve’s head is thrown back.

It’s heady stuff. It’s also a single true point of focus the entirety of Tony’s being.

“That good?” Tony says. “That doing it for you?”

Steve opens his mouth, tries and fails to speak, and tries again. “Can’t complain.”

“That sounds very neutral.” Tony raises his arms over his head, putting all his weight onto his hips as he rolls and squeezes. Steve makes a choking sound and shudders. “Boring, even.”

Steve makes a hoarse, glottal sound that Tony belatedly realizes is a laugh. “No.”

“What?” Tony says.

Steve’s fingers are digging deep into the meat of Tony’s thighs. There’s a faint shadow of sweat behind Steve on the yoga mat. He shakes his head, Adam’s apple bobbing frantically, unable to speak.

“What’s that?” Tony says. “You need it tighter?”

Steve garbles uselessly.

Tony speeds up his motions, squeezing around the shaft he can almost feel pulsing inside him. “You’re pretty damn big, Steve. Feels like I need to make room for you, and you need more? C’mon, I’m stuffed full as it is, don’t be greedy.” Tony keeps his weight forward, reducing the distracting brush of his prostate in lieu of getting Steve to a gratifyingly quick orgasm.

Which is pretty damn gratifying.

“Aww, look at you.” Tony draws his fingers on Steve’s stomach, which moves with the recovering heave of Steve’s chest. “This should feel more surreal that it is.”

“What’s surreal?” Steve says, voice still hoarse. His arms flop uselessly at his side, and his hair has taken on a brownish tint from the sweat gathered there.

“I mean, this morning I thought you were mad at me,” Tony says. “And that since I had no idea where that came from, I thought that it’d kick off a chain reaction that’d split the Avengers apart.”

“That’s a bit drastic.”

“How was I supposed to know otherwise?” Tony says.

Steve makes a face midway between fond and exasperated. “Between the two of us, you’re supposed to be a genius.”

“In some things, Steve,” Tony says. “In others, I need help.”

“That’s where I come in?”

“That’s where I need you.”

Steve startles a little, though this should not be new information at all. He needs to hear it, maybe. Or he needs reminding

“I need you, too,” Steve says. “I needed you before… even before I realized what you’d already given me.”

“The Avengers?” Tony laughs at Steve’s pursed mouth. “A home. Yeah, I know.”

“Okay.” Steve lets out an almost impossibly long exhale, and carefully draws his dick out from Tony. “My turn, right?”

“What’s that?”

Steve moves. He and Steve don’t spar often, usually because Tony prefers Natasha or Clint in training, but Steve’s done exactly this to him before: flipping Tony over with a single sharp snap upward of his hips. This is the first time he’s done it for sexy reasons, though, and he is nice enough to catch Tony and shield the back of his head before he hits the mat.

Tony stays low on the floor, watching the very sexy show of Steve rising up to his knees and peeling off the condom to switch it out for a new one. His movements are swift, functional, efficient. Tony is sad he doesn’t have any bills on him to offer as tips.

“You can still go…?” Tony whistles, and the tips of Steve’s ears go pink. “Thank you, Dr. Erskine.”

The moment isn’t even spoiled by DUM-E, always trying to be useful, rolling over to the edge of the yoga mat with a BIOHAZARD bucket. Steve disposes the used condom with a polite thank you, and then crawls back on top of Tony.

“Hey,” Tony says.

“Open your legs for me,” Steve says.

“What do we say?”

“Do you want me back inside you or not?”

“You can still go…” Tony whistles. “Okay, I’ll take it.” He’s partially turned on one side, and Steve pushes one leg up, opening a space between Tony thighs for him to slot into. It’s a clumsy kind of scissoring, but most important is that Steve gets to nudge the head of his dick up against Tony’s still-wet hole, rolling gently in search of purchase.

“Please,” Steve says.

Tony blinks dazedly up at him. “What?”

“Earlier, I just. I thought I was being funny, but it’s actually—”

“I don’t care, just get in.” Tony’s mouth falls open when Steve does actually that. “Okay, that’s good. That’s – all the way – yes – right in.” Tony tries to move with it, clenching down at the liquid-tight friction of Steve’s shaft against his opening. “Okay, move. Just – just fuck me.”

Steve puts a valiant effort, starting slow before realizing that Tony doesn’t need slow anymore. Tony needs to be fucked, and Steve complies with firm, solid, tooth-rattling thrusts that go as deep as they both can manage. Their sweat-slick bodies squeak faintly against the yoga mat, but that’s a distant sound, irrelevant.

Tony feels like he’s burning up. Steve’s inside him, lighting him up from within, but he’s also over him, caging him against the floor and touching him everywhere that his hands can touch. Tony’s nipples are sweetly sore from Steve’s plucking them, and he would not be surprised if the arc reactor is flickering from how hard his heart is hammering.

“Right there,” Tony breathes. “Yes, please. Please.

Steve’s cock is purposeful in the way it fills Tony up, each brush against that sensitive spot sending a chain of lightning-sharp pleasure all the way through Tony’s own cock, which spits and thickens with growing desperation.

“Fuck,” Tony whispers, too short of breath, “it’s like you’re getting bigger. You’re not, right?”

Steve shakes his head, still smiling. His body doesn’t pause its lewd movements, though he does speed up a little. His face is close to Tony’s – close enough that they can trade clumsy, open-mouthed kisses, and close enough that Tony can watch a drop of sweat travel from the tip of Steve’s nose onto Tony’s shoulder.

“Steve, hand.” Tony’s dick is abruptly wrapped in warm, calloused goodness. He moans, shameless and approving, while Steve strokes him carefully, getting him nice and wet. Tony puts his hand on top of Steve’s, partially to get him to go faster, and partially to feel flex of Steve’s knuckles as he jacks Tony off.

“I’m close. God, Steve, I’m close, I need—”

“Yeah, I got it.”

A handful of heartbeats more and Tony comes with a harsh cry. He doesn’t think he’s that loud about it, but even if he is, Steve definitely appreciates it. Steve’s thrusts turn stuttered and erratic, and then Tony feels teeth at his shoulder as Steve comes a second time.

If Steve was genuinely discomfited by the idea of Tony’s jerking off in the workshop, now he has absolutely no leg to stand on. A handful of messy orgasms on the yoga mat beats all. Tony’s have to throw out the whole thing now.

Steve slips out of Tony and they rearrange themselves, lying side by side with their shoulders and arms touching.

Through the post-sex haze, Tony turns and considers Steve Rogers. There’s intimacy, and then there’s intimacy. He’d more than appreciated the first one, and as fun as this second one is, Tony would be hard-pressed to declare if either is more valuable. But the beauty here is that that a question that doesn’t need answering at all.

“Head’s up.” Tony rolls on top of Steve. They’re sweaty and gross and will need a shower in a few minutes, but for now Tony’s going to drape himself on top of Steve and press his face to Steve’s chest. Steve’s arms come around Tony, holding him. One might even describe this as cuddling.

“Hey.” Steve had two orgasms, but his face lights up at this, too. It’s a perfect mirror of the warm swell in Tony’s heart at his getting to be here and doing this.

“I really like you, Steve,” Tony says.

“Oh thank goodness,” Steve says. “This would have been very awkward otherwise.”

Tony can’t even laugh. He can only smile gratefully against Steve’s chest, and closes his eyes when Steve touches that smile with his fingertips.