It starts small, which is the problem. Usually, Tony doesn't do anything by halves. The first day he met Rhodey, he tried to pay off Rhodey's student loans. Then his mother's mortgage when he realized Rhodey had qualified for all sorts of scholarships on account of him being amazing. (Tony had good taste in people. Except when he didn't.) When he'd decided that he liked Pepper, he'd bought her a pony, and a horse ranch in which to house said pony. Happy got ownership of his favorite gym.
Rhodey's mother had yelled at him for an hour, and then invited him to Christmas dinner--but neither she or her son had taken a dollar of his money. Pepper had donated the ranch to house retired race horses and other big animals from rescue efforts. Happy had (with Pepper's help, and permission of the original owner) turned the gym into a community center for underprivileged kids. Not the point. The point was that Tony had realized how important each of them would be in his life, even if he'd only known them for a few hours, whatever, and made a deliberate choice to declare it via over-the-top gesture.
With Stella Rogers aka Captain America, aka America's blonde bombshell pinup princess, it starts when she says, "That big ugly--"
And he gives her a look because excuse you, Spangles McGee, no one who deliberately designs a costume to imitate a flag--yes, he looked at his dad's notes because research, okay, know thy enemy, and her neat, curling script had been peppered all through Howard's slanted, aggressive writing--got to say anything snooty about anybody's taste in anything, ever again.
Then she does this incredible thing. She swallows back whatever else she was going to add--which is a little bit of a disappointment, because the fact that Captain America has a mean streak in her is actually fascinating--and wrinkles her nose as she says, "--building in New York?"
Oh, that's cute, Tony thinks. It's quick, there and gone again as the conversation continues. It doesn't even really break through the general itch under Tony's skin whenever Rogers is in the same room--on the same team, occupying the same planet, taking up space in his head with her stupid principles, antiquated way of thinking, demand that everything go at her pace, which is much too slow for Tony's liking.
It's a small thing. Anyone could have missed it.
But it sticks around, that thought, a buzz in the background of all the other, bigger things to worry about. The world is ending, and a ragtag group of broken people have to save it. So there's no time to really linger on how the clench of Rogers's jaw sends little tingles over his skin, how her subsumed sarcasm makes him grin behind his mask where no one can see.
When JARVIS asks if he'd like to call Pepper as he flies into the killing void, Tony says, "Yeah, might as well." Because they're in weird place right now, but Pepper is still family, even if they're not exactly significant others to each other anymore she's still the most significant person in his life.
And if, as the darkness encroaches on his vision and Pepper doesn't pick up, Tony tries to think happy thoughts as he dies and pictures honey-blonde locks in careful, out-of-date curls and blue blue eyes for just a moment, well, he's dying. No one is going to know, and it's not their business anyway.
Then he wakes up and all he sees are star-spangled breasts, and he thinks, Heaven's a surprise.
It turns out not to be heaven, but a ruined street in a battered New York, and Tony has never been happier to breathe in air that smells of burnt rubber and scorched metal and always faintly of sewage as he makes Captain America blush by looking her dead in the eyes and saying, "Please tell me somebody kissed me."
When she looks up at the sky, blue through the plumes of smoke, and relief and disbelief wash over her expression in equal measure as she says, "We won." Tony doesn't have any thoughts. Just the feeling of being punched in the chest--but he did just fall out of a hole in the universe three miles up and was smash-rescued on the way down, so if he equates that to injuries, he can't be blamed.
In the remains of a shawarma joint where the food tastes a little bit like plaster dust, Tony lets Bruce eat off his tray, and moves Rogers's food out of the way as she falls asleep right on the table, because he's doing the whole team thing, and he feels magnanimous and fuzzy--which may just be a concussion. It's not until he notices Natasha raise an eyebrow at him that he realizes he tucked a strand of Cap's hair behind her ear because it was tickling her nose and she'd made sleepy swipes at it without waking up. But Natasha let Barton put his feet on her chair, which has got to be the ex-Russian-spy equivalent of cuddling, so whatever, Romanoff.
By the time the band breaks up, Tony has built Bruce a lab while reconstructing one of floors that was mostly destroyed at Stark Tower, and he kidnaps Bruce instead of taking him to the airport, and, see, this is normal for the people Tony likes. Bruce adapts with aplomb, refuses lab minions on account of the Big Dude, and sneaks out of the country before Tony even knows what happened. Tony gives him rope before he finds Bruce via satellites and sends him the Stark-SMASH, his newest line of phones, practically indestructible.
Bruce calls him and says, "I'm coming back, but you've got to ease up for a little while, okay?"
"I'm not good at that," Tony says.
"I know," Bruce sounds fond, and see, this is why he's Tony's favorite. Well, top five.
So he pours himself into rebuilding the tower and his armor and the city. He doesn't sleep, much, and he has meetings with Pepper who yells at him and then hugs him and then yells at him while hugging him. He doesn't sleep and redesigns War Machine three times and Iron Man eight times, and he doesn't sleep until he's jerked awake and doesn't know where he is. Nick Fury is standing over him like a grim, black-clad anchor in an otherwise spinning world.
"Bad dreams?" Fury asks as casual as can be.
"Oh my god." Tony presses a hand to his eyes, and swallows as things tick slowly back into place--he's in New York, in his lab, laid flat out on the little bed he keeps for just these sorts of situations. His hair's so much of a mess that he can feel how limp and messy it is, his eyes are burning, his mouth is a desert. He doesn't have any kind of reserve left to put up a front. "Get out you creeping creepy creeper."
Fury's silent for a beat, and then says, "I might consider it, but you have to let go of me, first."
Tony blinks in the darkness behind his hand, and then realizes that, yes, the fingers of his other hand are clenched around the cool leather of Fury's coat sleeve. It takes effort, it takes effort , to make himself let go.
More silence. Tony's too tired to interpret it. Just waits for Fury to leave or say something. It turns out to be the latter.
"We need you on the media circuit."
Tony laughs and it sort of comes out a choked, cracked, wheeze.
Fury continues like he didn't hear it. "People have questions. The Avengers changed the world, and we've been trying to deal with the fallout, but we need a public face."
"Have you seen my face, lately? I haven't and even I know your idea is a bad idea."
"It's not going to be you."
"Okay." Tony thinks about that for a while. "I'm insulted but I take back the whole 'you're an idiot' thing. Why are you here, exactly?"
"You're going to be backup."
This time, Tony manages a more a more convincing laugh. "Are you joking?"
It turns out that Fury is not, and that's how Tony finds himself in the back of a limousine with Stella Rogers, who's in full vintage hair and make-up, wearing a perfectly tailored uniform that's brand new but looks like it's from the 40s, and heels that are Manolo Blahnik if he knows his shoes. He's doing his best not to chew on his nails or stare at her legs or come apart at the seams. He thinks he succeeds in one out of three.
Captain Rogers is full of stillness and her perfectly painted red mouth is a flat line. She holds herself like she's facing a firing squad and hasn't made eye contact since their initial hello, where she had looked surprised to see him.
Tony's usually a whizkid at filling stilted silences, but it's weirdly important to him that he not upset her. She looks less happy to be here than him, and nothing he comes up with is clever enough to be a sure thing. He remembers her face turned up to the sunlight as New York smouldered around them, and thinks he'd be happy just to see some brightness in her eyes again.
"They made me wax my legs," she says, apropos of nothing.
Oh, yeah. Tony is not prepared to deal with this. She sounds like she's grinding glass between her teeth and cutting her tongue on the shards. He thinks desperately of Pepper, of Rhodey, hell, of Bruce. Any of them have more tact in their fingertips than he has in his entire giant brain.
"You know," he says, finally, trying not let the pitch of his voice slide into the nervous registers he feels vibrating under his skin, "if we completely screw this up they probably won't ask us to do it again."
A corner of her mouth quirks, and Tony counts it as a win. Then it flattens again, although her expression this time is more determination than that awful stoic neutral. "No. I had hot wax slathered on me for over an hour so they could rip the hairs out of my skin so the public wouldn't be offended by any unsightly razor burn. We're doing this." Her eyes are as blue as the sky above New York when she turns and points at him. "Don't screw up."
"No promises," he answers promptly.
When she responds with a very unladylike snort, Tony knows they're going to be alright.
So they do the press conference. When no one gets punched in the face and the building doesn't explode, they're scheduled for a whole media blitz. Tony warned Fury—he's not good at playing second fiddle to anyone, and the media isn't used to him being demur, so despite his best efforts at directing the conversation toward Cap, he gets asked the most questions, while Cap sits next to him and smiles that pretty, practiced smile that he's seen in so many 1940s promotional shots.
It works, weirdly. Cap's surprisingly good at interjecting sweetness or sarcasm in just the right places, and when he mentions it, she just smirks and says, "You're not the only one Howard trained to manipulate the press."
It's the first time anyone's mentioned his father in years where he hasn't immediately wanted to get the hell out of the conversation and maybe punch walls for a while. He doesn't ask her to elaborate, but he also doesn't flee into the next county, and she doesn't offer up any details so the comment passes without incident. She hasn't tried to talk to him about Howard at all, really, which Tony didn't expect, but is grateful for.
For a while, everything is fine. Tony is lovably obnoxious and Cap is charming and they have good chemistry under pressure. Tony gets asked about his plans for his company, his armor, his efforts to rebuild the city, how he joined the Avengers. Rogers gets asked about her hair, her make-up, her shoes, how she diets to look good in her uniform.
Tony doesn't really do protective, because he may be an asshole, but he's not an overbearing asshole. In private, in the limousines or hotel rooms, or video conferences where they review their plan for their public face, he calls her "penguin queen" and "Goldilocks" and "Lady Liberty" but in front of cameras or anyone with a microphone, he calls her Captain Rogers with an emphasis on Captain and a glare that says "I have an army of lawyers who would love to ruin your pathetic careers, you social piranhas."
At one point during an interview, he puts his hand on the back of her chair. That, apparently, is all the excuse the gossip magazines need to start speculating about whether or not they're dating. When they aren't immediately discovered in some sort of clinch, the speculation starts as to who they might be dating instead, are they dating in secret? Is Rogers pregnant and who's the baby daddy and is Tony being supportive or is he encouraging her to give it up?
Rogers ignores everything like a pro, and denies when asked directly with just enough bite that most of the mainstream stops bringing it up. To her face, anyway. As their popularity grows, so does the bloodlust of the media beast. An upskirt shot gets sold to Superhero Star for a ridiculous amount of money. Tony buys Cap about a hundred different pair of increasingly ridiculous underwear and then quietly calls Pepper, only to find that she's already made enough extremely discrete and extremely effective threats to spread the fear of SI's legal firm through all the magazines but Playboy, whose response is respectful nonetheless. Tony's years spent dating various Bunnies apparently paid off.
Still, Cap's smile has a steel edge to it after that point that makes Tony think this is going to blow apart fantastically; it's only a matter of time.
They're doing a radio interview—some shock jock that Tony was surprised to even see on the schedule, when Cap draws her line.
The host has been pretty tame, so far, leading in with questions about the recent rumors that Tony and Pepper have gotten back together, their visit to Japan, the upcoming Christmas season.
Then he says to Cap, "So, which dick is your favorite?"
Cap gives him a steady look, but her shoulders twitch as she sits up a bit straighter. "I beg your pardon?"
"I mean, you've seen them all by now, right? Some good looking guys on your team. And I think most of the US and half of Europe has already seen Tony's."
Tony laughs automatically, because it's a programmed response to anything that even vaguely sounds like a joke when he's in interviewee mode, but out of the corner of his eye he can see Cap's game face shift from facing-a-civilian to facing-a-threat and is a bit surprised that the guy hasn't been tossed through a wall, yet.
"You're a—what did they call it in the 40s? A hot dame? And you've got 80 years of frustration to make up for. So maybe the real question is: who gave it to you the best? Who made you see those Fourth of July fireworks?"
The host looks at her expectantly, smug like being a shithead is some sort of gift. Tony is finally starting to feel outrage bubble to the surface under the shock, but Cap sits forward before he has a chance to say anything.
She puts her victory red lips close to the black microphone and says, "With all due respect," in a way that means what's due is none at all, "go fuck yourself."
Then she takes off her headphones, stands up and leaves the booth.
Tony finds her by the back door, smoking and scrolling through something on her Starkphone.
"It's not like I can get cancer," she says before he can make any kind of comment. He hesitates, and then settles against the wall nearby, close enough to show solidarity but not to encroach on her space. "Not that we knew about that, back then. They just said smoking was too dirty a habit for a woman. Peggy gave me my first pack. She said, if a fella comes on to you and you can't get him to go away, blow smoke in his face. And if he doesn't go away even after that, drop the ash in his lap, cuz there ain't nothing a man cares about more than what's between his legs." She stares at the graffiti marked wall on the opposite building for a long moment, her expression bleak. "Seventy years later, and some things haven't changed at all."
"He'll make an official apology by tomorrow morning," Tony promises.
"He'll make one now," she counters, holding up her phone so he can see some sort of list she's compiled on her screen. "And not just to me."
So they head back inside, and Tony tries to wipe the grin off his face so that he doesn't give the game away, but he doesn't think he's particularly successful.
Cap is an unstoppable force that politely blows past anybody who tries to stop her from going back into the recording booth. She sits down and picks up the headphones and smiles like sweet poison in the face of the host's surprise.
"Got your hormones in check, now, Cap?" he asks.
"It's Captain," she says. "It's not just part of the code name. It's my rank, which I earned on the battlefield at a time when women weren't an acknowledged part of the front line. We were there. We've always been there. And for as long as we've been there, we've been taking shit from pissants like you. So if you think there's anything you can say that I haven't already heard many times over from men who could at least find a clitoris with both hands and a flashlight, you are sadly, pathetically mistaken."
When he sputters a reply, she cuts him off with a neat, "Son, just don't."
Then she makes him apologize. Not only to her, but to any of the women that he's humiliated or offended on his show. She has names. She has numbers. She calls people and people call in, and it's three hours of Cap in control of the airwaves, talking about women in history, talking to women who've made history. It's glorious. Tony orders lunch for everyone from a nearby eatery he enjoys and cancels the rest of their appointments for the day, and then offers a job to anyone on the guy's staff who'll quit as soon as they leave.
Back in the limousine, Cap starts laughing breathlessly, and Tony can't help but to join her. She's taken off her jacket and undone her top buttons and her hair is loose. Tony's always known that she's an attractive woman. He had pictures on his wall since he was a kid, after all. But now it hits him, like an uppercut to the solar plexus, just how beautiful she is.
"That was fun," she says when she catches her breath.
"#justdontson is trending on Twitter."
"I don't know what that even means."
"Sure you do."
She wobbles her hand at him. "I don't really get Twitter, okay. I'm working on it." She kicks off her shoes and goes to root around in the minifridge, coming back with two small bottles of wine. She cracks one and drinks it straight up.
"None for me?"
"Get your own," she says, even as she tosses him a bottle. A little of the mirth dies down, and she tucks a stray strand of hair behind her ear as she considers the wine label. "There's gonna be fallout."
Tony cracks his bottle but doesn't drink from it. "I can handle that, if you want me to."
She thinks about it and then says, "Yeah, if you don't mind."
Tony's making plans in his head, who he'll need to call, what the official statement should read, how aggressive he needs to play it, when she crawls over him to get to the front window, where she knocks and then asks to be let off in Times Square. Tony has his hands up on instinct, and she snorts as she settles beside him.
"At ease, soldier."
He drops his hands and gives her a curious look. "You have somewhere to be?"
"Not anymore. You cleared our schedule, didn't you?" She stares out the window as the city crawls by—traffic is always terrible at. Well. Pretty much any time of day anywhere in New York. "I'm going to see if I can stop searching for the past everywhere and actually look at the city how it is, now."
Tony nods. That sound reasonable, healthy. A little rebellious, but in a classy way. "I'll try and keep the paparazzi off you."
The way her mouth curves into a sly smile does weird things to Tony's stomach.
"Or you could come with me," she says.
He doesn't even really have to think about it before he says, "Yeah, that sounds like way more fun."
So they go to Wicked, and he buys a shirt for himself that says Never Apologize for Talent and she buys him one that says Defy Gravity and he buys her a beanie and socks and glasses with green lenses, all of which she puts on immediately, and somehow—she looks ridiculous, but it works for her.
They get recognized, but everyone's pretty polite about asking for autographs until Tony can flag their driver and whisk them to his favorite avant-garde restaurant where they dip flash frozen champagne darts into strawberry foam. Rogers makes friends with the nice contortionist on the aerial silks above their table, and Tony's cheeks hurt from smiling so much, but he can't seem to stop.
At the end of the night, he drops her off in front of her hotel, which is a weird place for her to still be living, and he says so, half hanging out the limousine while Cap stands on the street and adjusts the strap of one heel.
"Couldn't find a place I really liked," she says, shrugging. "Wasn't really looking all that hard, to tell you the truth."
Before he can say anything about that, she leans down and presses a kiss to his cheek. Her hand is firm on his jaw, tipping his head up. Her lips are soft. She smells like strawberries and orange blossom. When she lets him go, Tony just manages not to overbalance and land on his face.
"Thanks for the lovely evening, Mr. Stark."
"Yeah, um. You too, Captain," he manages, and can only hope it doesn't sound as strangled as it feels, collar suddenly too tight.
It's not until about four o'clock in the morning, as he's poking at schematics for a space-worthy quinjet, that the words actually sink in. Then he thumps his forehead against his work table and repeats, "You too?" in despair. Only JARVIS and Dummy are awake to notice. JARVIS makes some dry offer to purchase a how-to book on getting the girl, and Dummy makes an attempt at a comforting movement and knocks over Tony's thankfully empty coffee mug.
Tony valiantly ignores them both, and opens the plans for the various Avengers floors in the Tower. Selecting the one marked Captain America, he gets back to work.
Cap 2.0 takes the world by storm. She gets a modern haircut and discovers jeans and tennis shoes, and experiments with neutral lipsticks and bright eye shadows, but can just as often be seen without any makeup at all. She's got a smattering of golden freckles across her nose that distracts Tony every time he sees a picture of her without foundation. More often than not, she goes to talk shows by herself. Tony wishes he could've been a fly on the wall for whatever conversation got Fury to agree to that.
When Tony does go with her, he spends a lot of time smiling and less and less time being the center of attention, something he's oddly content with. It also makes him feel sort of glow-y and proud, not that this triumph has anything to do with him, really, but he's having a lot of fun riding Cap's coattails.
The gossip magazines continue to insist that they're dating, so Tony tries taking a few super models with him to the next charity function. Then they claim he's cheating. He's not sure what would be better for Cap's reputation, so he keeps inviting at least two girls to hang off his arms to various social events, even if flirting with gorgeous twenty-to-thirty somethings isn't nearly as entertaining as it used to be. The girls are polite, but bored, so he introduces them to some people who'll be good for their careers and then goes to find Cap hanging out with the catering crew, swapping traffic horror stories and sharing cigarettes in the stairwell.
At his approach, the minions scatter, and Cap gives him a look that's flatly neutral, but it would be more awkward to turn around at this junction, so Tony screws his courage and sits two steps below her.
"I'm not great company, right now," she says. "Maybe you should go back to your dates."
She puts the slightest emphasis on the plural that nevertheless makes Tony wince a little. "That didn't really work out. Sorry about that, Cap."
She lets that hang for a moment, holding herself still, and Tony can't look her in the eyes. Finally she stirs and says, "What are you apologizing for, exactly?"
"I was trying to get the asshole media off your tail about the two of us being a couple, but I guess I'm off my game. Until I figure out something else, you're going to be stuck with it. I'll see if Pepper has a better solution."
Tony can't really read the quality of her silence, so he sneaks a glance in her direction. Her expression looks a little angry, a little incredulous. "You're dating beautiful women for my sake?"
He grimaces. It does sound a kinda stupid when she puts it like that. "I didn't want to tarnish your image. I've got something of a reputation, and you shouldn't have to deal with that."
She doesn't look reassured. In fact, she looks angrier.
"I just thought--"
"Shut up, Stark."
He shuts up. After a minute, she offers him what's left of her cigarette. He shakes his head.
"Can't, sorry. Not my vice. Plus, I've got a--" He gestures in the general direction of the arc reactor, "--a lung thing."
"Shit," she mutters, and he really can't get enough of Captain America swearing. She stubs out the cigarette and looks contrite. "Now I've got to apologize. Sorry, I should've guessed."
He waves that away. "You want to get out of here?"
This time, they find themselves at diner with mid-century décor that had probably been on the walls since the actual 50s. There's a 24 hour breakfast menu, and they only get a few sideways glances at their fancy party clothes. Tony drinks bracing coffee and eats what feels like his weight in good old American grease, and doesn't care about any of the eyes on him except Cap's.
Cap mentions that she's not really keeping regular sleeping hours, either, and Tony says, "Well, if you're awake and want to talk, I'm usually up."
That night she texts, You're smart.
When nothing else seems forthcoming, he puts down his soldering iron and answers, Yes?
Invent better bras. They're not as bad as they were in the 40s, but there's a lot of room for improvement.
Sorry. Not my area of expertise.
You know you can actually just do this :(
Yes, but then I can't do it extra emphatically. Like this: *FROWNY FACE*
*STICKS TONGUE OUT*
The second night, Tony rambles half-incoherently about a design he had in his dreams for a prison housed in a pocket dimension.
Are we on a first-name basis now?
If it's okay with you. I'm going to forward most of this to Bruce. He's in a different timezone, so he'll be able to look at it while you sleep.
Tony lay his head down, It's the first time in a while that I had a dream that didn't involve falling.
Her answer takes a little while to come. When I dream, sometimes it's the ice. But more often it's watching someone fall and not being able to save them.
Tony doesn't have to ask who it is she can't save. He probably knows more about her life than she does his, and that's a novelty now that he thinks about it. I'm sorry to make it worse.
No. The text is almost immediate. You make it better.
Tony closes his eyes as he tries to think of a reply and doesn't wake up until morning.
During a particularly boring meeting, he texts her, Give me a list of your favorite artists.
Why? *suspicious look*
Can't tell, dear, it'll ruin the surprise.
All right, "darling." But if I find out you've used this for nefarious reasons, we will have words, young man.
He chuckles and then has to hastily stifle it as his board members shoot him looks.
The next time Pepper makes her way into his lab, she has an expression on her face like she's not sure what she's seeing, like the first time she caught him halfway out of the Iron Man armor, except maybe without that underlying horror. He has to look down at himself just to make sure there are no unexpected wires sticking out any where.
"You moved up the timetable on the Tower Project," she says, a little cautiously.
He's restless under that look. He shifts rapidly through designs, tossing a few in the trash and moving to open more over the holographic fabricator. "So?"
She doesn't answer for a moment, just considers some of the hovering blue virtual documents. "Are you buying art? "
"I've bought art before!"
"No, you've bought terrible Iron Man memorabilia. I bought all the actual art you own. This is a good choice." She points to the private auction of an original Dali. "Where are you getting this sudden influx of taste?"
"A friend is giving me advice."
"Mm." The look she gives him is calculating and warm, which is a combination only Pepper can pull off. "Is this 'friend' leggy and blonde and can punch a man out without breaking a nail?"
He holds up both hands. "Pleading the fifth."
She flicks through a few other selections that he's picked out, and then ambles over to look at his 3D holographic model. "Is this the Captain's floor?"
It obviously is, so Tony doesn't even bother verbally answering. Just opens up a wall with a twitch of his fingers, angling it and adding windows so she has better afternoon light. Pepper props her hip against the table close by, though not as close as she might have once been. Sometimes he still feels the little spaces between them like a physical ache, but every day it gets a bit better.
Pepper's voice is soft near his shoulder. "Have you asked her about it?"
"No. It's." He waves his hand and dismisses the whole thing. "Just wishful thinking, Pep. It's not going to happen."
Pepper doesn't answer directly, just distracts him with excellent Chinese food and terrible sci-fi and, at some point during the night, he's pretty sure she gets Cap's number off his phone, but nothing comes of it immediately, so it's something he sort of forgets about.
About a week later, Stella texts, Sorry in advance.
When Tony gets the text, he's elbow deep in the guts of a Pontiac Streamliner. It's five AM and his hands are still shaking from the remnants of a nightmare, so he doesn't give it all the attention he probably should. By six AM, Tony's Twitter feed is blowing up, and Tony's trying to avoid everyone and everything, because he doesn't want to know. He doesn't want to know what was bad enough that Stella thought she should warn him, when they've both been wading hip-deep in the tiger pits without flinching for nearly half a year, now. Fury calls. Maria Hill calls. Rhodey calls.
"Aren't you in some undisclosed location in Afghanistan?"
"Man, if there were ever a reason to christen this ridiculous call-from-anywhere phone you gave me, it's this. Congrats on your crush calling you cute on national television."
"Do you even know what's going on? Should I use smaller words? Simple graphs?"
"Fuck you, Rhodes," Tony says easily and goes looking for a report while Rhodey laughs at him.
Captain America Declares Iron Man a Hero is the headline on the New York Times. It's ridiculous that it's on the front page, like there's nothing better to talk about.
JARVIS brings up the actual interview, which turns out to be someone sticking a microphone in Cap's face while she's holding grocery bags and demanding to know when she was going to tell the world about her secret love affair with Tony.
She rounds on the reporter, her eyes fire and says, "If we were dating, I wouldn't lie about it, because dating Tony Stark is nothing to be ashamed of. He's a hero and a philanthropist and attractive and single. Anyone who has any brains at all'd be proud to be with him."
"She sounds more Brooklyn when she's angry," Tony says, faintly, something warm that he doesn't want to look at too closely opening up in his chest. He's distracted when his phone buzzes again.
Your CEO is amazing. And scary. *sweats*
Tony blinks and then texts Pepper. Are you having breakfast with Stella?
Tony knows where they are because he knows where Pepper takes people she's vetting to breakfast. He reaches their table just as they're being served the second round of coffee.
"Don't believe a word she says about me," he tells Stella urgently.
Pepper is done up in her long, smooth ponytail, Zac Posen suit, Jimmy Choo shoes. Stella's ponytail is short and messy. She's wearing a t-shirt that says "And Yet, Despite the Look On My Face, You're Still Talking," and Converse shoes that might have been white at some point, but that she's covered in detailed, vibrant pen strokes.
"So, you don't want The Avengers to move into that big, ugly tower of yours?" Cap asks with wide, innocent eyes.
He glares at her, and then he glares at Pepper, who sips her coffee serenely. Cap's expression turns a little anxious around the edges as Tony tries to hold out against Pepper's good intentions.
"I mean," she says. "I wouldn't want to impose..."
"No," Tony says and drops into a chair the waitstaff brings over like his legs have been cut, because there's no way he won't give in when she looks at him like that. He's going to get engine oil all over the pretty silverware. "I mean, yes. That is—" He takes a breath and un-straightens one of his forks, so that it lays crooked in the lineup of cutlery. "It's just something I dreamed up."
There is sunlight in Cap's smile as she says, "I think it's a good idea, actually. My only concern would be that putting everyone in one place might make for an easy target, but Ms. Potts has been giving me a rundown of your security features and they're very impressive."
Tony tries not to preen at very impressive, and probably fails if the look Pepper gives him is any indication. "We'd have to get the word out."
"True enough." Cap wrinkles her brow, and Tony has to stop himself from blurting out how cute he thinks she is. "I'm not even sure where anyone else is."
"I am." He shrugs at the double whammy of stern frowns Stella and Pepper turn in his direction. "What? It's useful to know."
Cap seems willing to let that go, for the moment, and leans her elbows on the table as she says, "Tell me where. I'll round them up."
So Tony gives her addresses—or the closest approximation JARVIS can compile based on movements in the last forty-eight hours, and Cap heads out with promises that she won't come back without the team, and then Tony can help her move all her stuff into the Tower. Tony's about 60% sure that she says it just so that he'll make a face at the idea of physical labor, and he doesn't disappoint. She laughs and leans against the cab door and he sways toward her without meaning to, drawn in by the warmth in her eyes. She tilts her head and gives him an expectant look.
He pulls away before managing to do anything really embarrassing and says in his most old-timey voice, "God speed, Captain."
There's a rueful hook in the curve of her smile, but Tony doesn't know what to do with that as she answers, "By your leave, Mr. Stark."
She gets in her cab and Tony dives back into his plans for the Tower, and tries not to think about how much he wanted to kiss her and how much he feels her absence from the city. Instead, he tries to track down Thor, and finds Jane Foster and offers her a job, to which she says, "Not if this is just because I'm Thor's—whatever." While her friend tries to shush her by reminding her how long they've been living on instant ramen.
"Dr. Foster, I've read your theory on the Einstein-Rosen bridge. This is not charity."
She chews on her lip until the decisive brunette pushes her out of the way and says, "We'll be there in a week. Are you reimbursing us for travel?"
Stella texts, Russia = even colder than I remember. *FROWNY FACE*
Tony guts the plumbing out of her floor and starts over, just to make sure everything is up to par. He doesn't even realize Natasha is in the building until he backs out from under a sink and she says, "This is the wrong color blue."
He maintains that his high-pitched shriek is totally justified. "What the hell, Romanoff! I have a heart condition. And a wrench." He holds it up to show her that he could, in theory, be menacing with it.
She mostly ignores that, except to say, "That reminds me: we need to work on your hand-to-hand."
Tony, in turn, ignores that. "What do you mean the wrong color blue?"
"You're going to tear up the walls anyway when you redo the wiring. I'll come back with samples."
Then she's gone and Tony doesn't get to ask how she knew about the wiring thing. It's not that he doesn't trust the guys he's hired. They do good work. But he feels better when he knows exactly what things look like, underneath, when he's built something from the bones up.
Stella texts, Indian food is AMAZING, while Tony's putting the drywall back into place, a gritty layer of plaster over his hands and arms and in his hair.
Try pani puri, he types, smearing gunk all over his screen. It'll change your life. He doesn't say, Come back. He doesn't say, I miss you. And counts it as a win, even if his chest hurts. It's probably from inhaling drywall dust for the last two days.
Jane shows up and geeks out gratifyingly over all of Tony's cool tech toys. Then Bruce shows up and the three of them have slumber parties in the lab, braiding each others' hair and talking about advanced wormhole theory. Thor eventually joins them, and though he has less to offer on the whole science front, the bots like him and he has some really excellent insight on the Chitauri weapon design that Tony's been trying to dismantle since the Battle.
I'm on a boat, is Stella's next text. Tony's been tiling all day, so now he's lying flat on his back on the floor, trying to get the kinks out.
That's so 2009.
Clint sucks. These drinks aren't bad. There's an off-center picture of what looks like a tequila sunrise against the backdrop of a bright sky and a blurry partial shot of the side of Clint's head.
Taking a vacation, Cap?
Working! Helping Clint. See? She sends an out-of-focus snapshot of a group of men with their backs toward her, lined up on a railing. Most are wearing swim trunks and what skin is showing is covered with tattoos. Bad guys!
This is going to end with me having to send someone to pick you up in the middle of the Atlantic surrounded by the burning remains of a yacht, isn't it? :( :(
We'll see! This new fangled phone you gave me is waterproof, right? *HUGE GRIN*
The rest of the week is radio silence. Natasha comes back with her promised samples and they spend all day picking out paint and curtains and getting weird looks every time they make gagging noises when people assume they're a couple. Darcy and Jane get roped into painting because they've already figured out that Natasha is the scary one, despite the fact that in her off days she apparently dresses like a hobo grandmother in way too many layers that are way too big for her, the fuzzier the better. It takes them three days and it ruins a pair of Tony's favorite shoes and Cap doesn't text him at all.
When they're finished, Tony gets Thor to help him hang paintings and art prints and move furniture until he's satisfied with the layout. Cap doesn't text, and Tony hires movers to gather up all her things and shift them into her new space. He feels a little bit creepy about it, but not enough to stop himself. Cap doesn't text, and Tony finally gives in and calls Fury.
"Look, I know we're not exactly on speaking terms, but you'd tell me if she was dead, wouldn't you? Also Clint."
"This is an unlisted number," Fury says in a flat tone.
"And yet here we are exchanging words like you're surprised at either my capabilities or my lack of shame, both of which I know for a fact Agent Romanoff thoroughly documented two years ago."
"I'm hanging up now," he says and he does.
Later, Tony gets a text that says, They're not dead. They'll be back as soon as they're out of quarantine.
Standard procedure, Stark. Just hold your butt.
Now all that's left is to wait, and he's terrible at waiting. It's as he's in Stella's room fluffing her pillows, that he realizes he has to get out of there. He writes a note and leaves it for Cap. Then he books a flight to California and spends the next 48 hours with his phone off, bothering Pepper until she whaps him with a sheaf of papers like he's a bad puppy and says "It's not my fault that Stella left and you had too long to think about things and now you're freaking out. Stop picking on me before I kill you with a thousand paper cuts!"
"Can't you just comfort me in my time of need?" he asks with as an exaggerated a pout as he dares to pull off in her presence.
"Have you even talked to her about this?"
"I don't even know what this is, yet."
She hits him again. "Are you serious? I haven't seen you crush this hard on someone since you crushed on me."
"But I haven't even done one of my grand gestures, and you know how I like my grand gestures."
"Tony." The look she gives him says this is the dumbest you've ever been since that time you tried to apologize by killing me with strawberries. "You built her a house."
"I built everyone a house? That was sort of the point."
"Oh? Did you spend a day and a half tiling everyone else's bathroom?"
He stares at her for a long moment and she stares back. Several things click together in his brain, a whole host of revelations that had been hovering out in denial-land.
"Oh my god," he says.
"Yeah," she says.
"I need to get back."
"Probably," she agrees, then yells, "Talk to her!" at Tony's back.
He gets back to New York in record time, having taken one of his suits. Not the most comfortable way to fly coast-to-coast, but the fastest. As the metal bits are peeled away from his body, he says, "JARVIS? Where--"
"Rec Room 12A, sir. She asked to be informed as soon as you arrived."
"Ah," he tries not to be worried about that. "Did she sound...angry?"
"I wouldn't presume to speculate on the captain's state of mind, sir."
"So...yes." Tony sighs, and steps into the elevator. "Okay. Take me to see her."
He has the entire elevator ride—which isn't long at all, actually, to get nervous and worry that maybe he's making a mistake. Maybe he should give her space. Maybe she needs more time to settle in.
Maybe he should not be such a coward and just talk to the lady, like Pepper told him to. Pepper is rarely wrong.
He considers himself in the mirrored doors and says to the man there who looks, truth-be-told, a little terrified, "Don't screw up."
But when he walks out of the elevator and sees Stella, all ability to talk vanishes. The punching bag is still quivering a little beside her, though JARVIS has obviously given her enough heads up for her to spot him immediately when he comes in. She's wearing a sports bra and work-out pants that sit on her hips just so, a sheen of sweat highlighting toned abs and wisps of hair framing her face, high color on her cheeks. But it's the look she pins him with that makes his mouth dry and his heart stutter.
"Mr. Stark," she says evenly, in a tone he can't parse. She's unwrapping her hands as she considers him with an intensity that makes him feel pinned.
"Uh," he says. "I'm sorry. For running."
"I figured." Her tone doesn't change, and she drops the neatly rolled wraps in her duffel bag without taking her eyes off him. "Since you ran all the way back."
Starks don't fidget. So that's absolutely not what he does. "Right, so. Glad you're not a zombie."
"I actually get that reference," she says as she walks toward him.
"Glad to see you're embracing the modern era," Tony says, and finds that he's backing up a little, in the face of her prowling approach.
"Yes," she agrees, "except where you were concerned."
Tony has some sort of pithy reply to that in him, he knows it, but he doesn't get a chance to say anything, because she reaches out and pins him to the wall, a hand covering his arc reactor. The impact is barely anything; she's careful with her strength, but it still knocks all the words off his tongue until he can only stare at her, hands itching to touch, though he doesn't because he still can't get a read on her mood. He half-expects he's going to be punched and braces for it as she moves into his space.
"I was waiting for you to kiss me," she says, quiet breath against his cheek and he shivers down to his toes. "Some old-fashioned holdover, I guess. But I'm done waiting."
The wall is cool at his back; Stella radiates warmth in a line as she presses against him hip-to-chest, and her mouth is hot and demanding and Tony opens to it enthusiastically. When she pulls back her hands have found their way into his hair and he's clutching her arms and possibly makes a whimpering sound of loss when she breaks the kiss, but who wouldn't, in his situation, really?
"That was the best idea," he tells her. For him, anyway, but he remembers how much shit she took when the gossip magazines only had vague, unsubstantiated speculations about them being together and makes himself continue, "But, it's not going to be rainbows, dating me. Are you sure you want to--"
"I waxed my legs for you," she says, loudly enough to cut him off, and he sort of immediately wants to put his hands on said legs, but then she keeps talking and he focuses in on her words. "You left a note on my bed, in the gorgeous room you designed for me, that said Welcome Home, Cap . And everything was perfect, but it didn't really feel like home without you here."
"That's the cheesiest --" but Tony can't even finish that sentence because his throat closes around it and his heart feels like it's expanding with way too much emotion.
She shrugs. "So, I'm cheesy, and dating me is probably not going to be all roses, either. I have a temper and sometimes everything about this decade make me want to punch everyone in the face forever. But I'd like to try. Is that something you want to do?"
I restructured my entire life so that you'd have permanent residence in it, he doesn't say, because it's probably too soon.
Instead, he says, "I want you to kiss me again. And then stay forever."
Well, okay. But over-the-top gestures are sort of what he does.
She smiles at him, and it feels like that moment again, like the sweetest breath he's ever taken, the sky so blue above him, and all the odds stacked against him beaten. Like coming home.