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the reason you ruminate the shadowy past

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Title art by hannasus. ♥

So, Captain America effectively manages to cockblock Tony for a year.

Maybe this isn't the right place for the story to start.

It starts with a television.

It's not the television's fault per se. That should be clarified early on in any story where Tony Stark, mad genius inventor, features heavily. No one should ever put it beyond Tony to invent a television that could cause apocalyptic damage—this is just a note to tell you that this isn't that story.

The apocalyptic television comes later in the Avengers' career, and was invented by Justin Hammer.

The knob.

According to just about everybody, TV is something Steve is going to need in order to make sense of the 21st Century. So he spends an hour prodding it just to turn it on, an hour ranting about how TV in the forties was so much easier because hey, two channels and a dial, hello. He loses a third hour making a picture appear on the screen.

Steve wishes he hadn't bothered. Mainly because he's completely appalled.

The only thing in his life that he's known for certain is that he wants to fight. He wants to battle anyone and anything that threatens the freedom of Americans. But is this what he is willing to die to save? Are people of this decade all this shallow, selfish, stupid?

Steve stares at the screen, stiff, hating, and he barely registers the sensation of the sofa dipping with someone's weight. That it's Tony who's flung himself down haphazardly is no surprise.

Steve had been assuming Tony's cavalier, ill-thinking bursts of attitude were a deviant from the norm, and that Tony got away with it with an absurd combination of schoolboy charm, his admittedly good looks and the fact he was rich. Even Fury had noticed that Steve had made it his personal mission to ensure Tony's ego got the robust and regular denting it required, but now he's just thinking Tony's ego aside, maybe this is just regular 21st Century behavior.

"Whatcha watching?" Tony asks, and then Steve catches movement in the corner of his eye—Tony had been watching him, and not the TV screen. "Oh, I'm a Teenage Pregnant Drug Addict! Have I missed any fist fights?"

Steve turns his face from the screen to face Tony, not even bothering to hide how appalled he is, because how can Tony be so blasé about this horror? Even Steve's particular brand of depravity doesn't lead to heavily pregnant girls shouting such repulsive things at each other. His shame is quiet and reserved, like himself.

Tony looks back, a furrow on his forehead that might be genuine. "Are you all right?" Tony asks, like they're friends, and that's not exactly been the case; it's not like they get on in the briefing room, and while they work seamlessly together in the field, Tony embodies a ton of things that Steve doesn't approve of. He's egocentric, flamboyant, wasteful with food and cars and people. He's impulsive and childish. He flirts outrageously with anyone in striking distance, tossing his hair and touching them indiscriminately.

Apparently Steve doesn't look all right, or Tony just never bothers waiting for an answer from anyone, as Tony continues. "You look like me the time Pepper ordered a DIY rectal examination kit from the Internet because I refused to see my doctor, and that thing had prongs. Seriously, are you all right?"

Steve debates whether to continue to stare at Tony, appalled, but it's probably not the best idea if he's going to continue talking about... rectums. "Copacetic. Is this-" Steve starts, as two of the heavily pregnant girls onscreen, as Tony intimated would happen, begin punching each other, "how are you okay with this?"

Tony's still smiling when he looks at Steve, but his smile fades. Steve's been told his seriousness is contagious. He doesn't want to be the one constantly killing the mood, but he can't always just sit back and let this new century wash over him. "It's staged. They're girls who need money. These TV people just want a show. It's a step above some of the more terrible things they could be doing."

"It's... uncomfortable viewing," Steve says, struggling to find the words. "I'm-" His face falls and he looks at Tony, frown fully in place. "How can this be the world we're supposed to save?"

"Oh," Tony says, like the question is a disappointment. "I think you're just not looking hard enough."

"It's not like there's much more on this screen apart from some debs who got knocked up... apparently beating each other up—where are their husbands?"

"Oh, I am seriously not going to be able to explain this to you properly." Tony rubs the back of his head furiously for a moment, making his hair skewiff, and he leans and absently snatches a black bar from the arm of the sofa nearest Steve, leaning over him and back in a flash. "They're not necessarily married? It's not such a big thing these days. Most marriages end in divorce, so girls... don't even bother getting married in the first place. It's... not a taboo?"

Steve stares a little. "I thought Agent Fury was kidding when he said something to that effect."

"Mr. Fury, to my chagrin, suffered a sense of humor extraction at a young age," Tony says solemnly. "And call him Nick, he hates that."

Steve pointedly ignores him, and leans back against the wall of the sofa, feeling a little awkward. "So where am I supposed to be looking?"

"On a different channel," Tony says. "Here. This thing—it's called a remote control—it has numbered buttons. Press them, and you switch channels."

Steve catches a glimpse of the number 202 flashing up in the corner, and then the screen says CNN and a woman in a suit is sat behind a desk. He's seen flashes of this before. It's the new version of television news, with colorful on the scene reporting instead of Pathé newsreels, and going at a speed Steve had never dreamed the news could go. The news was supposed to be staid and formal and precise, not this blur of information and pictures and sound.

"Here, this piece of news." Tony shuffles forwards onto the edge of his seat and gestures with the remote control. "It's a three month anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. For 30 years, Egypt's been under the control of Hosni Mubarak. The celebrations you see on screen? That's the Egyptian people, rising up. Taking their country back for themselves. People took to the streets wearing kitchen utensils on their heads, and took it on themselves to protect the museums, their heritage. Ordinary people. Not like you and me now, but the you and me when we were teenagers, when no one expected anything of us. Standing out in the street and fighting for their freedom even though most of them had no idea how to fight."

There are hundreds of people on screen, waving flags, shouting, crying, hugging each other. Footage of the people spread around museums, linking arms and standing tall in the face of armored tanks and soldiers with guns. Ordinary people with colanders on their heads and crude weapons in their hands.

"It's not just the news," Tony says. "Television has become an expression of what people want, what people need. What people hope and wish and dream. Here-" He pushes more numbers. There's people talking in front of a backdrop of black space and stars. "A science-fiction drama. Written by Americans who spend time dreaming what the future and what space travel would be like. This one-" More numbers flash in the corner of the screen. "A music channel. If you love music the most in life, you can turn on the TV and there's more people who love music the most in life. All expressing what's in their hearts, in their minds, on screen, into the air. Granted, it's no Vera Lynn-" Tony winks at Steve, and looks back at the screen. "-but you can't tell me that freedom to create, to express, that that isn't partly why you were fighting in the war in the first place." He throws the remote at Steve. Steve catches it automatically, because that's what his new reflexes do, and he's relieved he hasn't crushed the small thing. He hadn't noticed it before, but now he can see the numbers. "Try it yourself."

Steve cautiously presses three numbers. They flicker up in the corner of the screen, and fade away to show some guy dancing in the middle of the screen. Wait, not dancing—fighting. It's a fighting style Steve's vaguely seen the Black Widow using, but he thought it was maybe just a female style of fighting. They didn't have many dames fighting in the war, and they never moved in the way Natasha could move. Steve didn't even know if any other female could move like she moved.

He didn't know if anyone else could move the way she moved.

"A martial arts movie. That's a Tony too. Tony Jaa. He's a Thai martial artist. Thailand," Tony quickly clarifies. "Can you believe how much cultures have merged, have started to introduce themselves to each other? We've made incredible bounds since the forties."

The Tony onscreen lights his legs on fire and kicks someone in the face. Steve blinks. "That's impressive. Or stupid. I'm not sure which."

"Hang around me some more," Tony tells him, "you'll soon learn how to never tell the difference." He frowns then. "We need popcorn. You know what popcorn is, right?"

"I'm from the forties," Steve says, pointedly. "Not the Jurassic period."

"Coulda fooled me," Tony says, ruining his innocent expression with a wink. "I'll be right back. Don't watch any porn while I'm gone." He gets to his feet and starts to head over in the direction of the kitchen. "At least wait til I'm back before starting it."

Steve stares at him, and then back at the TV when he realizes staring at Tony's retreating back in condescension isn't as satisfying as he'd hoped. It's not very fulfilling when the person being stared at doesn't hang around long enough to feel the disdain.

So, popcorn seems to be some sort of 21st century free-for-all sign. Literally a minute after Tony bounces back down on the sofa, Natalie appears out of nowhere, snagging a handful of the snack, Clint comes in with another bowlful of it, and even Bruce sneaks in, sitting cross-legged on the floor and checking his heartbeat monitor with every handful, like maybe popcorn is one of his triggers.

Or maybe TV is. Steve can easily imagine TV making him angry.

Thor's nowhere to be seen. It's probably a good thing. Thor has slips when it comes to modern technology that are worse than Steve's slow, random flailing. If by 'slips' you mean copious damage and usually at least one small fire. Scratch that, maybe it's a bad thing. If a small fire occurs here there are enough of them to put it out, and Steve will have a valid excuse to stop watching television.

Tony has a problem with his attention span as he doesn't leave a single program on for longer than five minutes, except something called a sitcom about a group of people in a bar that Tony leaves on because Natalie digs him in the kneecap and Tony winces in that way when he's trying to hide how much pain he's in. Steve grins. He's made sure to remember that even though Natalie makes sure they all know the difference between Natalie, prim proper Stark Industries employee, and Natasha, the woman who could kill you with a Q-tip without even breaking a sweat, Steve never forgets that the latter lurks behind every single expression on the former's face. Natalie appears helpless deliberately. She's pretty damn scary, actually, but Steve knows how to behave around strong women. Peggy had finished the lesson his mom had once begun. Respect. It was all down to respect.

Steve always respected Peggy, and when she returned that respect, Steve felt like he could conquer the world. He missed her and that ache was almost as much as the guilt he had always felt around her. The guilt that he could never be the man she truly deserved. Life had stolen away his chance to try, but Steve felt a tiny curl of relief that he never had to see the disappointment crossing her face when she realized even his new muscles and strength couldn't take away the sickness in the back of his brain.

The sickness that makes Tony's constant nearness almost a torment.

Steve swallows it back down and keeps his eyes trained securely on the screen. Looking at the male form and wanting it, it's his curse. It's his torment. And he will do whatever he can to atone for thinking that way. He'll give his life protecting others if needs be.

Remembering the truth of why he keeps thinking of Tony in the terms he had earlier—shallow, egocentric, flamboyant, wasteful, impulsive, childish, outrageous flirt—they're all things to remind him there are things in this world he cannot have. People he shouldn't want like a dull ache in his abdomen.

That's why it was easier to look at the TV with disgust, and not break it down into the moments of wonder and passion Tony had pointed out for him. It made it easier to think these people he were saving were just as damaged as him. But they're not. They're not, and he really needs to stop noticing how nice Tony's arms are when he pushes his shirt sleeves up, and he-

Is possibly going mad. Tony's flicked it onto something he says is science-fiction, but the last science-fiction show Tony showed had space in it and stars, and this one has two men in military uniforms in a bar, and they're kissing like the world is ending.

Steve's stomach lurches uneasily. He risks a small look to the left. Natalie's sneakily stealing popcorn from Clint and Tony's bowl, alternating deftly between them both while watching the screen. Bruce is saying something about the show needing more doctors, which sounds in character; he catches Steve looking at him in confusion and Bruce just winks. Steve's eyes fly back to the screen where the two men are still kissing, and he feels tight and hot, and his fingers clench into the material of his pants just above his knees, and he feels absolutely frozen, because of course there's depravity on TV now, there's pregnant girls whaling on each other, and so of course there would be two men kissing, but why isn't anyone making disgusted sounds or changing the channel?

"Oh, this guy. Captain Jack—he's the one in blue—great character. First openly bisexual character in Doctor Who, I tell you, the Brits have some crazy TV moments but Doctor Who, nearly four decades of TV brilliance." Tony narrows his eyes. "Don't try and pretend to me my nerdy manners are odd to you, I've seen the things you dork out over."

"No, I-" Steve starts, and then frowns. The characters onscreen are fighting now. He hopes he doesn't sound too desperate when he questions, "Bisexual?"

"Likes men and women. In a sexual way," Tony says, "oh, hey, they're showing the whole season—do we have to do any formal Avenger work today?"

"Yes," Natalie says, at the same time as Clint says, "Acclimatising Captain America to modern-day culture sounds like a worthy use of our time." Natalie tilts her head and says, "Yes," to that too. Clint looks at her suggestively. Natalie throws him back a look saying quite clearly that those are the last two things she will ever be saying yes to around him. Clint just grins back at her, because he's a brave, brave man.

Steve frowns, perplexed, especially as one of the characters makes a reference to Captain Jack's um, bisexuality, and then Tony's attention deficit appears again and he idly flips the channel. Natalie makes a booing sound under her breath, but she quits when she sees what's on.

It's another news channel, this one a little less gaudy than CNN, but Steve can't even tell the name of the show. He's much too concerned with staring at the screen and the soldiers on it, in particular, the male soldiers who are kissing. There are screenfuls of it, over and over, men and women celebrating in uniform and throwing confetti and a 4 star General onscreen talking about something, but the words are a blur, and Steve finds himself digging his fingertips even more painfully into his leg, because this is surreal.

No one in the room looks shocked, or disgusted. Tony isn't instantly turning the channel over. This new world has apparently gone insane. Steve tunes back in and listens to the words and his brain blanks out, completely blanks out.

“Don't ask, don't tell - the 1993 policy signed by President Clinton that made it illegal for commanders to ask soldiers about their sexual orientation - has now been repealed. Gays and lesbians are now free to serve openly in the U.S. armed services. The U.S. military has been preparing for this repeal for months, updating regulations and training to reflect the impending change, and they have already been accepting applications from openly gay and lesbian individuals...“

Steve swallows, hard. He's not a freak. He's not deranged. He might possibly be very, very normal.

It's way too much to process.

"Is this another fictional show?" Steve asks then, his voice uncertain and quiet. His thoughts are so loud he thinks maybe he's actually shouted it, but Tony reacts as if he's the only one to hear; then again, Tony just seems to be tuned into him more than any of the others.

"It's the news," Tony says. "Fact." Then he pauses, and because he has no tact, he whispers, "Wait, are you crying?"

"No," Steve says automatically, and then blinks a few times, and because even though his life is unutterably bizarre he's still unflinchingly honest, says, "Um, yes? It's-" He searches for the word, and doesn't have to search far. He thinks of the words that were repeated through his childhood as fists rained into his small, weak body. "-disgusting."

"Woah, woah, wait a second right there," Tony says, heatedly, "I realize you're bringing with you forties' values and gung-ho stuck in the mud the army is the best anthems in your patriotic little heart, but you can't fling around outdated, unrealistic insults like that. Your generation had a fucked-up idea of what was okay and what wasn't; the sooner you learn that, the better you'll be able to function in this world. Christ, I can't even contemplate fighting evil alongside a homophobe, I- I mean, they're just kissing, kissing isn't anything-"

Tony's rant is a little confusing, but Steve's getting the gist of it at the end; especially the part where the idea of not fighting next to him is being contemplated and Steve interrupts, desperately, "I meant I thought I was disgusting."

"That makes more sense," Tony says. "Stupid sense, but sense. Hey. Welcome to the twenty-first century. Where it's not illegal to be who you are. Unless who you are is a paedophile, rapist, murderer, drug-dealer, genocidal lunatic and/or suicide bomber. Or a Kardashian. They should really look into that last one. I'm wary of the potential threat to humanity on that count."

Steve's face hurts. He probably looks strained. Maybe constipated. Tony looks like he's used to both of these reactions. Tony squints at him a little bit, and sighs.

"How about-" Tony starts.

"If you finish that sentence with getting Pepper to brief Steve on the history of homosexuality over the last seven decades, I'll shoot you in the balls," Natalie interrupts.

Tony turns to her, appalled. Steve blinks. He hadn't even realized she'd been paying attention. But then again, this is Natalie he's thinking about. "Would I?" Tony says, in his most injured tone, splaying his fingers over his arc reactor.

Although this new America is losing the shakily-formed foundations that Steve had mentally created for it (being gay is okay is long a thought Steve's had, and felt at odds with the whole world about; he'd thought he was mad and maybe, finally maybe he's not) there are some things in this life that are more solid than anything Steve's ever known.

"Yes," Steve says, at exactly the same time as Bruce, Natalie, Clint and Agent Hill, who nobody had noticed was leaning against the pool table, looking bored, "you would."

"Picking on the billionaire who can pay to have a thousand assassins take you out with no evidence ever being left behind to lead it back to him," Tony says, posing melodramatically. "Never let SHIELD or the Avengers ever be called anything less than brave."

"Speaking of brave, you do remember you have another school talk on heroism and bravery tomorrow," Agent Hill chimes in, tapping her SHIELD-issue PDA that, like pretty much everything else in Avengers Mansion, is Stark-design. "You and Cap this time, Tony."

"Ooh, relief. I keep getting stuck doing these alone. See, there's a reason I put a hefty segment of my philanthropic outgoings toward teachers," Tony says. "Sure, we take our tiny human bodies and pit them against skyscraper size aliens on a disturbingly regular basis. But teachers step in front of kids. Every single day. Haven't a freaking clue how they do it."

"Says the man who wears a metal suit who ran into a burning house last month," Steve mutters.

Tony squints. "Cap, I respect each and every one of your opinions" - even Bruce can't hold in the snort - "but teenage kids these days, they're complete monsters."

Steve resists the urge to snort too. Kids in his day weren't complete peaches. He knows first-hand. Well, first-knuckle, shoved in his gut; the tiniest kid on the block and yet bullies still pounded their fists into his weak body.

He knows kids aren't perfect, but kids this day...

...they couldn't be that bad, right?

He was wrong.

He was a thousand times wrong.

Bad was an understatement.

Steve's never nearly lost it in public before. Not when facing the terrible enemies they've faced in the past. Not when facing bullying and homophobia himself. But when that last kid told him how he was punched in the stomach for being gay, and pointed out his bullies, Steve knows he did not exactly display the calmest expression.

One of the bullies, Tony gleefully pointed out at the time, wet himself. Purely from Steve's expression. Like Steve should be pleased about that.

He feels dizzy and he's still angry—mostly with himself - when the principal shows Steve where he can get changed back into his civilian clothes. They do all public appearances in their Avengers suit. It's better that way. The suit distinguishes between the name and the person. You see the suit and you know you're safe. Or you should know it. But Steve had only blathered about his own history of being bullied, with the kid had seemed quite happy about, and the whole auditorium had applauded, and Steve just felt sick as he got off the stage.

Because he should have done something. There should have been some damn thing he could have done to make things better.

To show them.

If the law said being gay was okay, why didn't those kids know it?

Steve would be sick if his metabolism worked that way anymore, but the super serum gave him a super stomach which processed whatever Steve threw at it. Including Bruce's cooking.

Tony waits outside the door while Steve changes, which is oddly considerate considering Steve's not even showing flesh. He knows Tony's there because of the tapping sound he can hear. Tony can't help but tap his fingers against things. Anything. Wood, metal, books, his legs, tap tap tap. He can't stay still, pretty much ever, until he's absolutely exhausted. And even then sometimes he's still there, tapping his fingers against something. A pillow. The floor. Steve's leg, if he's sitting too close at the time.

"I should have done something," Steve tells the door. Maybe Tony's not there. It feels better to be saying it. Goodness knows he's thinking it enough. Over and over. I should have done something. The idea of that kid, thinking the same things Steve thought as a kid, but in a world where it was apparently supposed to be right and yet still thinking it was wrong...

There's an audible sigh. Tony doesn't like to talk about anyone's feelings. But because Steve's not directly asking for Tony's feelings, it's not the worst subject topic Tony can imagine. "You did good, Cap," Tony says, after a pause. The tapping stops. He's obviously really thinking about what to say. "Better than I would."

"Kids deserve something better than oh, hey, I'm a huge guy in spandex and I got my tush kicked weekly when I was your age," Steve says. "There has to have been something I could have done."

Another audible sigh. The tapping starts again, arrhythmic, muffled. His knuckles, then. "They're kids," Tony says, "you can kill 'em with kindness. Or kisses. I don't know. It's very sixties flower-power stuff, before my time."

"After my time," Steve says. He considers it. "And before."

"Confusion is one of the excellent side-effects to being a human popsicle," Tony says. "Seriously. You did what you could. You know what they say about genius needing time. My Iron Man suit wasn't built in an hour."

"I think the saying is Rome wasn't built in a day."

Tony makes a disapproving sound. "I like my version better." Steve can hear him cough through the door. "This sort of thing takes a long time to sink in. You've planted a seed, Cap. And now it'll spread. One person tells another and they tell another. You never know what one kind word or action will turn into. Only thing you can do is make sure the small things you do are well-intentioned. The message will pass on, so as long as you're sending the right message..."

Steve opens the door, adjusting his shirt collar, in time to see Tony's shrug. "And you say I'm better at making speeches. That was a pretty rock-fast one right there."

Tony turns away. He doesn't know how to cope with direct compliments, which for someone with as big an ego as his seems incongruous. Or would seem, if Steve didn't know how fragile Tony's self-esteem actually is. The bravado is an act.

Steve follows Tony out of the school, and by the time they reach the sidewalk Tony decides that they should walk back to the Mansion. Probably so that Steve can cool off a little. Or maybe it's because Agent Hill is their bodyguard for the day (SHIELD assigns agents whether they want them or not - Steve minds a little, but he understands. Tony minds a lot, might understand, but deliberately and loudly misunderstands as much and as often as possible) and she really hates having to babysit them.

She especially hates it when she has to babysit them and Tony refuses to adhere to her timetable.

Agent Hill is mumbling under her breath as she walks behind them, another agent flanking her, and Steve wonders if it's just Tony's usual masochistic tendencies revealing themselves again, because Hill might just snap and kill them both bare-handed one day.

"You are pretty good at that motivational speaking stuff," Tony says. Steve risks a look in his direction. Tony has his sunglasses on, so Steve can't even see his facial expression. Mind, even seeing Tony's face doesn't help Steve much - Tony's mood slips from joking to charming to homicidal in seconds. Steve's pretty sure it's the insomnia, or maybe - he's been uncomfortably thinking for a little while - it's the alcohol.

Tony's not drinking enough for it to be a problem, but the path is there, clear and bitter-sharp. Steve saw his father fall down that path and he has no wish to see anyone else go that way too.

Not someone he's pretty damn sure is his closest friend in this century.

"I... guess?" Steve says, unable to interpret it as a compliment even if Tony's mood is upbeat sunshine and honesty, because even a super-serum and a string of success in the superhero world can't completely undo a lifetime of damage to self-esteem.

"You rambled a little," Tony says in critique.

"From the master of ramble," Steve snitches back without heat. Tony bows, without even interrupting his stride, and Steve scratches a little as his sleeve.

"Itchy shirt? 'cause I can fire the laundrette," Tony says. "Or set them on fire."

Steve smiles wanly. It's taken him nearly a year to get the hang of how casually Tony can talk about anything that involves people getting fired - consequence of a childhood of hearing his mother and father argue about the precariousness of their jobs.

Tony doesn't mean it though. Usually. He's kind to his employees - when no one's looking. That was a painful lesson for Steve to learn, and he swallows down the idea every time he sees Tony do another stupid thing in the name of the Avengers that it was a lesson he might never have had the chance to learn.

"I'm fine, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't talk about fire—or at least refrain from running into burning buildings and freaking us all out," Steve says, meaning freaking me out. "It's just doing those talks in uniform, it takes much too long to get the suit off. So I leave it on under my other clothes until we can get back."

"How very Superman of you," Tony says, lifting his sunglasses and giving Steve an appraising sort of look which makes Steve's neck warm a little. "Huh. I guess I hadn't noticed you'd been putting your clothes on over that thing."

"Tony, your suit is a thing. Mine is a work of art," Steve corrects, trying to look solemn and serious and not the squinty look he knows was on his face when he first put on the new headpiece for his costume.

"I'll have you know," Tony says, "that- there's something going on over there."

"I see your pathetic attempt to change the subject when you know I'm right and-" Steve follows Tony gaze, "agree with you that something is definitely going on."

There's smoke in the distance.

Tony pats Steve on the shoulder, and holds his hand out to Agent Hill. With a long-suffering sigh, the agent passes Tony his Iron Man briefcase.

"Well, Steve - let's get your clothes off and save the world again," Tony says, flinging the briefcase down and kicking it open with one foot.

Steve pulls an expression that Agent Hill nods along with, so it's probably an acceptable Tony Stark-related reaction.

It's just a fire at the end of it all, but the fire engines only come screeching up after Tony and Steve have rescued the fourteen people from the five floors, so the crowd and the firemen are all pretty happy.

Steve's a bit peeved, but only because he's starting to have a track record of letting Tony stay longer in burning buildings than he's happy with.

"One day your tin can's going to burst in one of these fires," Steve grumps, picking idly at his wrist where some of his uniform has singed off. Agent Hill's looking constipated, which confirms Steve's sneaking suspicion on who actually does those magnificent patching jobs on his costume. (Fury himself. Because Fury is an expert at ensuring shit rolls downhill. And there's no way on Earth that anyone would voluntarily put sharp objects in Maria Hill's hands. Apart from maybe Natasha. Sometimes the Black Widow gave out that some people only want to watch the world burn kinda vibe.)

"Not today, Cap," Tony says, sounding like he's delighted to have thwarted Steve's wish to seem to him boiled alive.

Steve stares at him a little sourly, and Tony - mask flipped up - grins back, all teeth.

The cops, as usual, have decided to get the statements from the perpetrators and victims first. Most of the victims are clueless, but the gang of three Tony caught and stopped from fleeing the scene (by bending a streetlamp around them, apparently - Fury's going to send another of his annoying memos about destroying public property again at this rate. The Avengers would be the most hated superheroes in the world if Tony didn't go around buying twice as many things to replace the ones they destroyed accidentally) are confessing loudly.

And then Steve hears something that makes his blood boil.

"Well, he's gay, isn't he, the fag who runs that convenience store," the biggest one says, gesturing at the burnt out store underneath all the residential flats. "We just wanted to scare him, yeah? Show him it's wrong to like dick, yeah? We didn't know the fire would go upwards so quickly."

The cop taking their notes even seems to nod along.

Perhaps his rage is showing on his face. Steve looks down to see an Iron Man fist pushed into his chest, and Tony staring at him seriously.

"Leave it," Tony says, quietly.

"But-" Steve starts, and sags enough so that Tony's metal-encased hand isn't pushing into him. He looks up at Tony, miserably. "Guess you can change the law but not always people's minds."

"Think about the suffragettes, women's rights. It's taking society a while," Tony says, looking at the three guys, his expression a little strained.

Steve nods. Thinks about the women, brave enough to stand up for what they believed in. He thinks of the muttering he heard from his own men, about the women in the forces. He thinks of the snide remarks Peggy had to cope with, day after day. He thinks of how she had to stand up for herself continuously, when any other man half as courageous and strong as her would have been lauded and praised, and wouldn't have had to put up with sarcastic comments and verbal bullying. Steve's flung his fists into many a wrong situation, but the one thing he knows firsthand: a bruise to the face you can get over, but a harsh word to the heart can take a lifetime.

He thinks of Emily Davison, the suffragette who was trampled to death just trying to campaign for equal rights, and Steve's gut tightens.

Tony seems to notice straightaway that Steve's decided to do something. Since learning he didn't have to hide the one thing he thought made him a monster, Steve's never worked particularly hard at hiding his emotions.

"You're right," Steve says, and looks Tony full in the face. "Think of the suffragettes."

And he takes Tony's face in his hands, and kisses him.

It takes Tony about five seconds to sort of realize what's going on, ten more seconds to let himself be pushed up against the nearest wall, another five seconds to really realize what's going on and another ten seconds because, well. Steve's a really decent kisser.

And then he really, really realizes what's going on, and he shoves Steve away.

"Cap," Tony says, narrowing his eyes a little, trying to hide how hard he's breathing. And other things. Steve shakes his head. Ah. So this is one of those name moments. One of these days, Tony will understand Steve when he blathers on about the difference between Natalie and Natasha. "Steve," Tony amends, keeping his voice low. "What the hell was that?"

Steve, in front of him, flickers a look over to the men still wrapped in streetlamp, and shrugs. "Modern homosexual men need to know it's okay to be gay. Cowards who bully them need to know it's okay; if a couple of superheroes are okay with it, well, we're positive role models to the world."

Tony resists the urge to blast something. It's easy, with Steve so close. Hitting Steve - even though he doesn't even really feel it - is like kicking a puppy. Easy. Damaging to the soul. Irreversible.

"Steve- I'm not even gay."

"I know. They don't." Steve shrugs. "Besides..." A slight smug smirk twitches on his face for just a moment. "You felt gay back there."

" could feel that through the iron suit?" Tony asks, appalled, wondering just how good that super serum was.

"I meant you kissed me back," Steve says, unruffled. Then a slight frown creases his face. "Was there something else for me to feel?"

"No," Tony lies, "apart from my severe awkwardness."

"Your tongue in my mouth spoke that in volumes," Steve says, still in that ridiculous placid voice.

Tony sighs, and remembers the megatons of power in his palms before he faceplants into one of them. He had kissed back, but it was... it was rude not to, right? He already knows how much of a lie that is. Even if he hadn't slightly admitted it to himself, Pepper had shouted it enough in their messy distended break-up last year. He feels dizzy, annoyed, and Agent Hill is smirking so widely that Tony already has half a dozen plans to annoy her stacked up in the back of his head.

Number one: reprogram her TIVO so it only plays How I Met Your Mother.

It's hard to be very angry at Steve, because Tony knows everything he does is with the best of intentions, it's just... "It's all very well for you," Tony says, trying to figure it out. Trying to pretend he's not figuring it out as he goes. "You're not in the public eye as much as I am—the world knows you're Steve Rogers, and knows you're Captain America, and knows you're one and the same, but there's still a distinction for me."

Steve just looks a little puzzled now. "The world knows you're you, Tony."

"They don't know anything about me when I'm not in the suit." Tony shakes his head. "Even Fury makes the distinction. Iron Man good, Tony Stark bad-"

"You're not bad," Steve says, low and serious, like he thinks Tony one hundred per cent believes that.

He's sort of right to think that.

"And you're in the suit," Steve says. "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't think it would be this big of a deal. You're the one who said kissing doesn't mean much. And you know Fury's always saying with our power comes responsibility, and for one small thing, that's a whole crowd of people thinking differently."

He gestures behind them. Tony squints. There are a lot more faces turned angrily to the men wrapped in a lamp post. A couple of the cops look more confident too. "Wow," Tony says, because outlandish he can do whatever he's feeling, "look at what one kiss did. We should have had sex in front of them."

Steve, predictably, colors.

"Let's just drop our statements and get back to the mansion," Tony mutters. Because Steve is right. Tony remembers saying it. Kissing. Kissing isn't anything.

Pepper's right. There's a lot of things that go wrong in his life that are his fault.

Not like he'll ever tell her that.

Steve's silent in the car that Tony sends for to take them back to the mansion. It's pure guilt. Tony swallows, feeling guilty for making Steve feel guilty, because it always feels like he's kicked a puppy.

"Look," Tony says, unevenly. "I'm sorry I overreacted a little. But you have to understand, I know how the press works these days. They're rabid. One kiss turns into a tragic thirty year secret affair and hidden children and terrible rows and weddings in Canada. My reputation at the moment is shot to hell. Even though Stark Industries is, y'know, mostly Pepper's now, I still get reprimands from the Board of Controllers about my behavior. My stocks go down when too many bad rumors appear. I've been trying to limit that recently. I should have been more open with you about that."

Steve swallows noisily, drumming his fingers against his knee, a definite tell-tale sign he's kicking himself internally. Tony's pretty sure he gave him that tic. "I'm sorry, Tony. I really am. I didn't mean to cause you trouble." He looks at Tony, earnestly. "I'll do whatever I have to to make it up to you. A press release?"

"You kissed me to prove a point, yeah." Even though Tony knows Steve is trying to apologise, he can feel his bad mood rushing up like a hurricane and it's hard to hold it back. "They'll just assume we're dating, if nothing else. A press conference admitting less will just be proof to them that they're right."

"Then fine," Steve says, gritting his teeth a little. "You date people all the time. We'll just agree we were dating and it didn't work out."

"Are you kidding? You want me to dump Captain America? Captain Steve Rogers, America's Sweetheart, the last great honest man in the West, poster child of good, strong decent American morals and hero of the ages. If I broke his heart, the nation would take up pitchforks and lynch me," Tony says, flailing his arms around. Ah, he thinks. Maybe he's failed at holding back that bad mood hurricane. "You want me to get lynched, Cap? 'cause that's at odds with your picket fence apple pie image."

"It... really was just a kiss," Steve says, "they won't assume-"

"They will. They assume, they conjecture, they wildly leap to all number of crazy conclusions, most of which end up with me being a scoundrel. Dumping you is going to be a pinnacle of my media successes, believe me." Tony lets out a frustrated sound, plays around with the car's tiny fridge, and fails at opening it, choosing instead to stare blankly off into the distance. He huffs, and then sighs, and shrugs. "No, it's fine, you weren't to know. You haven't been around to see the news turn into the complete circus it is now, it's not fair at me to vent at you for something that had at heart such a morally decent thing to do, and of course it was morally decent, you're Captain America. Oh, god, I gotta stop talking, acid reflux. Nngh. Disease of the rich men, y'know. Gotta start building over-the-counter meds into the suit. Never know when you might need a tylenol in mid-air."

"Tony, you're completely babbling. Worse than that time with Loki and the beam machine thing."

"I found you under a whole building, I think it was all right for me to be genuinely upset," Tony says. "It wasn't even my building."

"Tony," Steve says, annoyingly level-headed, "how does that even make a difference?"

Oh. It doesn't. "Insurance," Tony says, knowing insurance baffles Steve.

"You're being ridiculous." Steve stops tapping his knee. He looks a little lost, still, but he doesn't look so frightened that he's hurt Tony's feelings. "Look, people trust me. I'm Captain America. So if I say I was just using you to prove a point, they'll accept it." He smiles, and it's quite a soft, sad smile. "Everything will be okay."

"Okay," Tony says, unevenly. Finally able to breathe until he looks at Steve directly again. But he repeats, "Okay," and starts to believe it.

Until they pull up to the Avengers mansion and find Pepper waiting for them.

Pepper Potts is efficient, beautiful, practical and inordinately eloquent.

Whereas Steve, Tony and the rest of the Avengers have been learning to hone their odd alliance in order to—in Fury's words—wield their power with responsibility, Pepper uses her superpower—the eloquence—for evil.

Pure evil.

Steve twitches as she blares at them both for being irresponsible, and crazy, and what were they thinking and her sanity is on the line, and didn't she say no more shenanigans and Steve starts to hear this buzzing in the back of his skull and it takes him a while to realize what it is. Because he's never mad at Pepper.

No one is ever mad at Pepper. Because Pepper is lovely. Pepper is the most perfect person on the planet. Even Time Magazine said so last month. But he is.

Steve opens his mouth to say something, but Tony beats him to it.

"Pepper," Tony says, and then, because he usually has to, to gain her attention, he repeats it some more, "Pepper, Pepper, Pepper," until she throws him a glare that would even make Nick Fury quail and fall silent.

"Pepper," Tony repeats.

"You've done that part," Pepper snaps.

"Pepper, my sweet," Tony amends, "I'm actually horrified by you. This is the longest lecture you've ever given me, and I didn't think you were so... prejudiced."

Pepper's eyes narrow.

"This is a million times tamer than the time with the Williams sisters in Venice. Or the time with the helicopter and the dancer with the exquisite ass, do you remember her?" Tony grins, showing his teeth. Pepper doesn't look amused. Steve doesn't blame her. He's heard a little of Tony's reputation, and now Steve's imagination is going full speed. "Or the time with the entire female hockey team from that college down South and the goat and the beer keg..."

Pepper's expression fades into realization, and her eyes narrow even further than Steve thought they could. "Tony, I can't believe you'd accuse me of-"

Steve looks across at Tony to see how his friend is going to react. Tony just raises his eyebrows.

"Well, all right," Pepper says, crossly, "I see where it looks like I'm- That's not the point, Tony. I'd be reacting like this had you slapped a nun or slept with the whole cast of Mamma Mia! or mooned the Queen of England. When I leave you a thousand memos to say one more thing and I will put your balls on a silver plate, I'm not screwing around. Stark shares are at a worrying low, Tony. One more dip and that's thousands of American families unemployed overnight." Her voice trembles. "One more time, Tony, that's what I told you."

Tony obviously swallows, and that's what he's been holding onto. That's what he was referring to. And he's been trying, so hard, and he obviously doesn't know what to say.

It's not his fault, it's not Tony's fault at all, and Steve doesn't know what to do to fix any of this. But Pepper is brilliant, so maybe she knows.

"How can I fix this?" Steve says, looking up at Pepper intently. "I swear, Pepper. This is all my fault. Tony wasn't a part of planning it. It's all on me. Tony was a neutral party. Some guys were bullying someone for being gay, and I just saw red."

Pepper looks at him, her eyes softening, but she shakes her head. "Right, Tony was a neutral party. And the crush he's had on you since he was a teenager had nothing to do with it."

Tony makes this strangled sound in the back of his throat. Steve blinks. That doesn't make any sort of sense to him.

"I collected the comics," Tony says, "that doesn't-"

Pepper throws him a look. Tony quietens, and steadfastly doesn't look in Steve's direction.

"Just tell me what to do to fix things," Steve says. "Press conference, ignoring the press, litter picking-"

"You know," Pepper says, "there is one way out." She narrows her eyes thoughtfully at the pair of them. "Seeing as it's all conjecture in the media by now anyway. The rumors are already flying full speed."

"Pepper," Tony says, "no. C'mon."

Tony's quick and clever, when it comes to figuring people out as well as machines, but Steve's a bit slow at both when there's no gunfire or immediate threat. "What did I miss?" he asks, looking between them.

"It wouldn't look so suss," Pepper insists. She puts her hands on her hips. "You could have pushed him away, Tony. Or made it look more platonic. Then I could have come up with a press conference that might have fixed things. But you didn't want to. And that makes this whole thing have an easy way out. A year should do it."

"A year," Tony yells, melodramatically. "Pepper-"

"What," Steve interrupts, "what's happening in a year?"

Pepper turns on him, a shark-like smile on her pretty face. "This is your fault, so you can fix it. Date Tony. Make it a charade for an extended period of time, say twelve months, followed by an amicable break up at the end leading to reduced aspersions cast on his character."

"Okay," Steve says, drawing out the sound, thinking there's going to be more explanation coming.

"Okay?" Pepper repeats. She claps her hands together. "Great."

Steve frowns, and then he realizes what she's actually saying. "No, I was just saying okay as in... what else is there to this great plan? Not okay okay."

"You don't have a choice, Rogers," Pepper says. "This fate was yours when you kissed him. You don't want to see Tony hurt, do you?"

"Of course not," Steve says promptly.

"This way won't hurt anyone and broadcasts your gay-is-okay message even better than one kiss," Pepper says. "He won't get lynched, you get your moral dose, everything's perfect."

"Great," Steve says. Frowns. "What's perfect?"

Tony sighs and facepalms.

"Couch this to him in superhero language for me," Pepper says, "I have to go tell the board." She swivels on her heels, clacking off down the hall. Steve turns to Tony, who reluctantly pulls his face out of his hands.

"You and I," Tony says, slowly, "are going to pretend date for an extended period of time. Long enough for it to look like it's genuinely not my fault when we 'break up'. And you're going to agree to it because otherwise my reputation will take another nosedive it can't afford, and I'll spiral into a deep depression which will affect the effectiveness of the Avengers Initiative."

Steve stares. Tony pats a still stunned Steve on the shoulder, and walks away, whistling.

Steve knows that whistle. Tony's already planning to get Jarvis to show him screenshots of Steve's face later.

Steve might ask for copies. He must look pretty stunned.

It's easy enough for Steve to almost forget about the whole thing, because a fortnight goes by without anything much but Jarvis displaying all the gossip articles about Captain America and Iron Man's passionate affair on the screens in his bedroom.

Apparently, according to the press, they've been madly in love since Steve was unfrozen.

Some of the newspapers have even combed through every single piece of official and unofficial Avengers photography, and found photos where Steve and Tony just so happen to be looking in the same direction.

"A super love!" one headline screams. "Just another fling?" someone asks, over a clip of them getting flung by a bad guy's giant robotic squid into the Chrysler building. "Another of Stark's conquests?" questions another.

There are a lot more like the last one. Steve blackmails Agent Hill into jailbreaking his Stark devices so Steve can bypass all the filters Tony's put on his TV access now. When he sees what people are actually saying about his friend, Steve gets angrier and angrier, and vows silently not to let Tony down.

He'll help the media see any fault is all on him. He owes Tony that much for using him.

Tony ignores him for most of the fortnight, which Steve can't pretend doesn't sting, but on the fifteenth day of this new arrangement, Tony joins Steve at breakfast like nothing has happened, and like he hasn't spent fourteen days pointedly ignoring him.

Tony finishes his breakfast before Steve does, and waits for Steve to finish, looking at Steve almost warily, dragging his spoon around his empty bowl. Steve swallows the last of his cornflakes, and looks warily back at Tony.

Eventually Tony gets up."C'mon," Tony says, smacking Steve on the arm with what looks like to be considerable force but just feels like being hit by a piece of paper. Tony walks off, jerking his head in the direction he's going. Wanting Steve to follow.

Steve automatically follows him, still irrevocably conditioned to following orders, before realizing he has no clue what he's following Tony for.

"Ahah," Tony says, when Steve asks. "There's a charity ball tonight."

"Right," Steve says. "And we're patrolling?"

"Nope," Tony says. "I'm the special guest." He smiles happily to himself for a moment. He pauses when he realizes Steve's stopped still, confused. Tony sighs. "Normally I have a whole host of beauties lined up for these events. But Cosmo did vote you the prettiest Avenger - and don't think Natalie wasn't peeved at that - so I'm sure you'll do just as good a job as the two busty Brazillian Victoria Secrets models I had lined up... Wait, you won't. But too bad, you already agreed to come. And as my date it's your job to hang off my arm, my every word and to look pretty to charm the sponsors."

"Uh," Steve says, scratching the back of his neck. "I thought dating in the 21st century was all going out for dinner a couple of times and making multiple references to our sex life on twitter."

"But as we don't have a sex life, and you broke twitter single-handedly the one time you tried to use it," Tony says, "I think we'll stick with forties' dating. Which means- more fun for me."

"Not having a sex life on twitter works out as more fun for you?" Steve asks, hugely skeptical. "How is that even possible?"

Tony just grins even wider.

Okay, asking that question was a bad idea.

Steve wriggles, and earns a pin in his knee for his troubles, and he might have super strength and super endurance but sharp things still smart like anything.

Apparently Tony's idea of making this more fun, in his words, is: "I don't have to suffer alone."

Steve, like the occasional mug he is, thought Tony actually suffered horrible and agonising bodily pain. He should have known better. Tony's attention span, unless he is focussing on something technological, is about the same length as a goldfish's memory. What he actually means as suffering is: suffering boredom.

Still, it's difficult for Steve to stay mad at Tony - even though he's been at this damn monkey-suit place for nearly two hours already and the tailor keeps measuring his inseam like it's continuously changing - because Tony's right. Steve kissed him without permission. Intentions aside, Steve can put up with a little bit of humiliation to set things - well, straight.

And when he tries on the final tuxedo for the night, and Tony comes over to the full-length mirror to have a look and actually swallows and looks away before managing to look Steve in the eye, it's pretty sweet. Tony obviously planned the whole suit-fitting torture without fully considering the consequences.

Which is, that even before the super serum, Steve's mom had always told him how good he looked in a suit.

Tony swallows again as he looks over from paying the bill, and ducks his head, his cheeks coloring. Steve takes it as a success - Tony's probably just jealous that Steve pulls off the fancywear better than Tony himself does.

Steve's looking for where the clothes he came in wearing have been put when Tony saunters back over from the cash register.

"Leave it on," Tony says. "The event's in an hour."

"I might crease it," Steve says, worried. He knows how much Tony spends on clothes, and he really wants this suit to be wearable afterwards. It better last a long time for it to be worth the price Steve suspects Tony has paid. There's no price tag on the suits, which is always a dodgy sign in Steve's book.

"Mr. Stark, sir," the overly-friendly assistant says, "we do have some shoes for the sir that you can look at."

Steve throws Tony an appalled look, and thankfully, amazingly Tony takes pity on him.

"I've got some out in the limo," Tony says.

Steve sags in relief.

Right up until the point Tony does hand him a shiny, black pair of what look like Italian shoes in the limo. Steve stares at them, and then at Tony.

"Don't even throw me that what do I do with them expression," Tony says. "It's not clever or cute. Well. It's a bit cute. They're shoes, big guy. Guess where they go."

"Out the window? To a charity who could auction them off to a sum which might feed a whole block of people for a week?"

"You have no idea what those shoes are worth," Tony mutters. "Just put them on. Pepper will have both of our hides if I let you show up in those sneakers."

Steve resists the urge to sulk, because they're not sneakers and they're comfortable, but he toes them off and dutifully puts on the ones Tony's got him. He feels about eight year old. "They're pretty heavy," Steve says, shifting in his seat a little. "Is that how you know shoes are expensive?"

"Purely the weight. The weight of the Avenger is also proportional to the cost of the damage they do to public property, too." Tony grins. "Fun fact. We're also only about ten pounds in difference once I've got the suit on, so you might want to lay off some of the cake in there."

"I don't gain weight," Steve says. "I mean, I can't."

Tony freezes for a moment, and purses his lips for a moment. "Um. Maybe don't mention that to some of the women I have to shmooze tonight."

Tony isn't kidding about the shmoozing. Steve spends the first hour in an almost whirlwind, unable to really take in the details of the thing. There's a lot of money Tony extracts from these people, though, and it's for a great cause.

It's like Steve's been thinking - sometimes a superhero's responsibility isn't just the responsibility of stopping large, homicidal robots from space from enslaving the human race. Sometimes it means using your voice for good. As well as the robot thing.

Steve finds himself enjoying it after a while, although he thinks maybe his smile is going to stick to his face. Tony, at his side the whole night, is a dervish. He gives the eternal impression he's a slacker, but this Tony is something Steve hasn't seen before.

He tells him so when they finally settle down to some tables while some people start making speeches about the good work of the charity.

"Ha," Tony says, "I'm slacking. You should have seen my father at one of these things." Tony's expression tightens and he says, roughly, almost off-hand, "Did you ever see. uh. you know. My father? At one of these things?"

"I saw some of the expo on TV," Steve says with a shoulder shrug. "And I saw him in action with some of his technology." He looks across at Tony. There's the usual tightening across Tony's shoulders, across his forehead, that Steve's starting to recognise as pain caused by the subject matter. Steve remembers a period of hating Howard Stark, and thinks about talking about his own father, and feels a corresponding tightening of his own shoulders.

Best to change the subject. "I like you more," Steve says, solemnly. "Your father saved my life, but... I could never really trust him. He fondued too much."


Steve still can't help coloring a little. "I thought it was an allegory for sex."

Tony pulls a face. "Yurgh."

"He hit on Peggy a lot too." Apparently Steve must show enough of the sadness he feels when saying her name, because even Tony notices. "Peggy would have loved this. She was going to teach me to dance." His face feels leaden. "I guess it was good that I missed our date."

Tony takes a swig of his champagne, and pulls a face at it. "Well," Tony says, not looking at Steve's face, "I've seen your pictures of her. Man, you really dodged a bullet there."

Steve knocks Tony's shoulder with his own, smirking. The elderly couple sitting near them look over, frowning. Tony pulls a face at Steve - an oops, caught out messing around in the classroom expression that's identifiable whatever decade anyone's from.

"More like she dodged a bullet," Steve says, in a carefully lowered voice. He fidgets. Looks down at his hands. "I guess... I thought everyone was right. Back then. It was a phase. And I really thought- I really thought Peggy might be the one. To fix me."

"Hey," Tony says, and all trace of joking is gone, as he adds, "nothin' to fix, Cap. And that's what I do. Fix things."

"Well, technically, you break things as an excuse to build something better in its place," Steve says, grinning ruefully and squinting up at the main stage, wondering if he should be paying attention after all.

"I still have time to break you," Tony says, like he's grumbling, but there's a pink tinge to his cheeks that Steve finds himself suddenly, furiously not wanting to call him on.

Except, he deeply regrets it when the talks are over, and Tony's done his version of a speech (namely, "Y'all are fantastic - except when you stand next to me, so duck and weave and hand me lots of money for charity or I'll just walk behind every one of you for the rest of your lives, making you look pale and dull in comparison! Thanks, folks, see ya next time. Except for those I see in jail!") because Steve should have rolled with the opportunity to mock Tony.

Because Tony wants him to dance.

"You're insane," Steve tells him, frowning. "I know this because you're insane."

Tony rolls his eyes, and leans in. "You're supposed to be playing along with the fake dating," Tony says, "and my fake and real dates dance."

"But," Steve says, "I-" He looks down, and regrets, well, everything. All at once.

"Hey." Tony's voice is nearly a whisper. Steve looks up at him, doing the holding-back-tears squint he's been perfecting since the first time he was beaten up, age seven. Bullies went for crying victims the most. "You can't go your whole life not dancing once. Peggy would be pretty mad at you. I mean, she'd have been mad you stood her up after saving the world. Most women, that sort of thing pisses them off."

"Shut up," Steve says, grinning sheepishly, and he lets Tony drag him up.

"Dance with me," Tony says, low. Their gazes meet and for a moment it's like there's no one else alive in the entire universe. Steve swallows, and nods, not trusting himself to speak.

Reality and expectation have often been vastly different throughout Steve's life. Steve had learned early in life that expectation rarely matched reality, and usually for the worse, but Tony inverted that. Tony turns everything on its head, regularly. Steve has thought his whole life that should he dance, it would involve chaos and standing on his partner's feet and clumsiness galore.

Tony, of course, proves him wrong.

When Tony gets him out onto the polished dance floor, leading Steve in some sort of waltz, Steve's stunned to find that it's not difficult at all. Tony must be a master of leading, because Steve moves in the steps automatically, gliding over the dance floor like they're both pros. His chest feels tight, and he can't help the smile, and he feels a little giddy. It feels impossible, like someone else has control of his legs, like-

Oh. Oh. And that makes a world of sense. Steve rolls his eyes, lets his legs go lax, and the dance continues, smoothly.

"Like them?" Tony says, with a smug grin. "Latest invention. I knew Peggy had promised to teach you how to dance, and I'd never steal that away from her. But for the occasions you need to dance, the shoes are yours."

"This is incredible," Steve says. "And slightly creepy."

"That's the trademark of Stark technology," Tony quips, like he's reciting from a Stark Industries brochure. "Just wiggle your big toes in unison to turn it off."

Steve dutifully wiggles his big toes and nearly stumbles forward. Tony catches him smoothly. Their faces now extremely close, Steve looks up apologetically, and Tony just winks. Steve straightens, wiggles his toes again, and the tech kicks in.

The music changes to a four-beat tune, and the shoes adjust automatically. Steve laughs, honest and surprised, and Tony mirrors his grin, obviously delighted that they work.

"I'd appreciate if you didn't mention the shoes to the journalists, though."

"Which journalists?"

"The ones waiting outside." Tony jerks his head at the door. "Definite con to being as rich, famous and devilishly handsome as I am." He looks at Steve. "I guess your looks won't hold them back any, either."

"Oh," Steve says. There have been paparazzi everywhere, and Steve's been getting used to not saying much, but the idea of them following Tony around everywhere—including a date—sits uneasily in his stomach. "I didn't think of that, I guess."

"Wish I didn't have to," Tony sighs. "It's pretty straightforward. Just tell them we enjoyed our date and the food was good."

Steve makes a rumbling sound in the back of his throat which Tony, unfortunately, picks up on.

"What's the matter?" Tony asks.

"I know it's my fault we're having to pretend this is a thing," Steve says, somewhat reluctantly, "I guess I'm just not as good—or as comfortable - at lying outright as you are."

"I never lie," Tony lies outrageously. He shrugs. "What's there to lie about?"

"Uh," Steve says, "this isn't a real date?"

"Really? We're hanging out. We had food. We're dancing. You kissed me. I took you on a date. What's to lie about?" Tony shrugs. "We don't have to say we're in love. People generally fall in love after numerous dates. And even then it doesn't always work out."

Tony falls silent and Steve doesn't fill the space. This is an ache Tony has to work through on his own. Losing Pepper hit him hard. Tony insists harder than anyone that he's happy that she's happy with Happy—Happyception Tony calls it, whatever that's a reference to, Steve's learned not to ask because usually then he gets shown, and that has led to more than one mistake—but Steve has definitely learned the lesson: what Tony says he means does not always resemble what he actually means. A lot of the time it's the complete opposite.

And other times he's disturbingly, painfully honest.

"We just have to say we were on a date and had a good time," Tony eventually says, with a one-shouldered shrug. "There's no lie in that."

Steve blinks.

"I know it works differently in your head," Tony says. "And it can again. You are really helping by maintaining this charade. It's not too bad, is it? It could be worse. You could have accidentally kissed Natasha."

"I could have kissed Bruce. In his Hulk form."

"Or Thor." Tony grins, amused by himself. "Kissing in front of witnesses after a battle is probably an Asgardian marriage proposal."

"Gah," Steve says, eloquently.

"Flowers in his hair," Tony continues, "and mead and women for everyone. Loki would be your step-brother."

"Doesn't sound so bad now," Steve quips.

Tony pulls a face and looks to check if Steve is joking or not. "You're hilarious," Tony deadpans. "Wanna face the press now and then go for hamburgers?"

Steve's stomach, eternally insatiable, grumbles as if on cue. "I thought you'd never ask."

And he's feeling pretty positive about the whole thing, and then he has to go outside and kiss Tony again.


Steve doesn't know why he didn't expect it to happen. The first one, on the steps of the museum that the benefit had been held in, was perfunctory and Steve was expecting it and it was business-like. Apart from how Tony reeled him in with just a couple of fingers on the small of his back, and Steve's knees went a little. Well. Yes.

But it was just the briefest of kisses, a brush of lips, and Steve thought—over the roar of his thundering heart—that maybe this year wouldn't be so bad.

And then they go for burgers, because the meal at the benefit had been six hours ago and tiny. Most meals are too small for Steve's metabolism.

Going for burgers takes three times as long as it might have taken Steve back in the forties.

Not because cooking methods had changed (although Steve's pretty sure someone changed the recipe to tomato ketchup while he was out) but because of the autographs they have to sign when they're out in public. Steve didn't like having to do it at first, hating the attention, until Bruce pointed out that meeting them made kids happy. Making someone smile might not be quite as important as keeping them safe when no one else can—but it's so little effort for a lot of payout.

Steve is pretty much a big fan of seeing kids walk away happy.

"You're such a softie," Tony says, as Steve signs what is probably his eightieth autograph that night.

"You're just peeved more people want mine than yours," Steve says, just to tease him, because if there is a competition in this area of his life he doesn't care about it.

Tony straightens, pushing his fingers into a triangle and staring at Steve over the top of his sunglasses. "Think of a number between one and ten. Multiply it by ten."

"Math isn't my strong suit."

"Humor me."

"Humoring you is all I do," Steve grouches. "But fine. Okay."

"Take the zero from the end," Tony says, "and then subtract the original number."

Steve frowns. "But that's-"

"Exactly equal to the number of fucks I give," Tony says, grinning.

"Very cute."

"Aw," Tony says, "My boyfriend thinks I'm cute."

Steve pulls a face. "Your what?"

Tony's grin widens. Steve's heart sinks a little. He has the feeling he's walked straight into something here, and he's not entirely sure he's going to like it. "Would you prefer significant other? My current life partner of choice? Honey bear?"


"Captain oh captain of my heart?"



"I like that one," Steve says.


"Sure. And I'll call you wookums. It'll be completely adorable," Steve deadpans.

"I don't do adorable," Tony says, outraged.

"Too bad, wookums."

"Back at you, snookums. I'm going to call you it all the time. We'll see who cracks first in front of Fury."

Steve blanches. "On second thoughts, boyfriend is just fine."

"Oh, thank god you capitulated," Tony admits, "I think I might have peed my pants a little in fear of you not conceding that this was a ridiculous game of chicken."

"Um," says the teenage girl standing at their booth, holding out the edition of Time magazine where they all posed with their weapons melodramatically—Tony insisted they looked like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and that was one of the many pop culture references Steve wasn't sure he wanted to be caught up on, "I have some incontinence pads in my handbag if you're stuck, Mr. Stark."

Steve gets just a glimmer on Tony's face of what his original stunned expression must have been like when Pepper suggested the fake dating thing in the first place.

"All right, Chuckles," Tony says, grabbing the girl's magazine and scrawling his autograph on Natasha's ass (he likes her expression when she is given the same magazines later to sign—Steve got JARVIS to look up the word masochistic once, and JARVIS showed Tony's face in slot 3 of the official definition), "let's get out of here."

Steve thinks, maybe this fake dating thing really isn't going to be all that bad after all, but he really needs to stop thinking things like this. Because after Tony gives the girl her magazine back, and they approach the doors of the burger place, it's clear to see that the ring of paparazzi surrounding the whole joint is a lot denser than usual.

"Oh," Steve says quietly, realizing it's all his fault. He swallows nervously. "You weren't wrong about the increased press attention."

"It gets worse," Tony says, his voice somewhat too suspiciously bright. "They'll be looking for evidence that we're fake dating."

"Uh," Steve says, "why would we be faking it?"

Tony just gives him a look. Steve wrinkles his nose.

"Apart from that," Steve says, "and your history of mostly dating women, and the constant rumors of your sex life. But really, what would even fake dating me achieve?"

Tony shrugs. Looks through the glass doors at the mass of press. "A better image. Reputability. You're the image of everything that's good in America. Most people are just waiting for me to mess up with you. And if it wasn't you, it would be something else."

"It's a good thing it is me, then - we'll disappoint them for sure." Steve bumps Tony's shoulder companionably. "C'mon."

Tony looks at him wordlessly for a moment, then nods, and takes the lead, shepherding Steve out with the starting-to-be-too-increasingly-familiar gesture of two fingers on the small of Steve's back. Maybe it's not the familiarity that Steve's too pissed about.

Maybe it's how much he already likes it.

And then Steve doesn't have the time to think about anything, because the press starts yelling for them to kiss.

"Really," Steve says, flatly, fighting the urge to cross his arms. "Really? Once wasn't enough?"

"Ah," Tony says, "I knew there were downsides to dating me that I forgot to mention. I guess I missed the making an ass of oneself in public aspect." He moves to whisper in Steve's ear. Steve's seen this move before. He assumed in the past it was sweet nothings. "If we don't, it won't look genuine."

That's definitely not a sweet nothing. "If we don't what," Steve almost says, but Tony pulls back, pulls his sunglasses off, and he looks so uncertain and vulnerable for a moment that Steve doesn't. He holds it in, and nods at Tony instead, giving unspoken permission.

Except, maybe he's not entirely ready. Steve's mouth has never felt drier. "Do you remember when we first met? And we did nothing but fight?"

Tony's grin is steady and almost serious when he replies with an almost laugh, "Cap, when did we stop?"

Steve doesn't know what he's expecting. Maybe another one of the brief, perfunctory pecks that Tony gave him outside the benefit dinner. Steve could have just about, maybe, possibly put up with a year of them.

He won't survive a year of this.

Tony moves in so swiftly Steve has no time to do anything but surrender to the kiss. Tony fits his mouth to Steve's with an assured confidence. Steve has to cling onto Tony's neck for a moment to find his balance and Tony licks into his mouth, slick and hot and just on the right side of imprecise—Steve makes some sort of sound which he can only describe as desperate, and kisses back purely because if he doesn't it feels like Tony is winning something. Tony pushes right into his space, solid and firm and alive, and kisses Steve so thoroughly that Steve's brain completely shuts off, and the only thing he knows is that he loves this, that he could do this forever, take Tony and shut them both together away from the world, and-

Oh. Oh. No.

Tony pulls back, darts in for one last softer kiss which has Steve's heart thumping like crazy, and Steve just stares at him for a distended minute, because shit, all of the holy shits, crap. Steve's never sworn so much in his head in such a short time because this whole situation was messed up before, and now he doesn't know if he can do it.

He doesn't know if he can pretend to be Tony's boyfriend when he's just realized that he's already very much in love with him.

Tony's as polite as anything when they get back to the Mansion. The others?

Much less so.

"You dog," is Clint's reaction, slapping Tony on the ass when they get back. Clint doesn't do subtle. Behind him, the TV in the rec room is already playing footage of their kiss outside the diner. Steve dies a little inside. "I knew you had an exhibitionist streak but that was pretty much vertical porn."

"It wasn't," Tony hurries to reassure Steve, who goes promptly pink at the insinuation, which is probably what Clint is aiming at. A reaction.

"Should we give you some time alone?" Thor asks. "I have a scrunchie that Agent Hill bequeathed to me. It is to be put on doorknobs when the inhabitants are copulating."

"I'm too young to hear this," Steve says, sinking to the nearest chair and taking off the shoes before he accidentally sets them off and starts waltzing around the rec room.

"You're over a century," Tony says, "you're plenty old. Oh, god. I know I've called you old a thousand times but it hasn't sunk in yet that I'm dating an older man."

"Fake dating," Steve says.

"Um," Tony says, looking over nervously to where Clint's still laughing, beating his fists on Thor's side as Thor looks down at him, perplexed.

"Wait," Steve says, "everyone else knows that Pepper-"

Tony's shaking his head.

"Huh," Steve says, "and the rest of the Avengers are buying you and me as-"

"Steve," Tony says, "I'm sorry as to what this says about you and your bad taste, but I've been getting constant warnings from all of them. Fury, Clint, Natalia and Natasha - and actually it's Natalie that's the creepy personality I'll have you know that for a start- and also Bruce, oh, and then Hulk offered to smash my face in, the sentence was nearly grammatically correct too, it was pretty damn impressive-"

"Maybe we should tell them," Steve interrupts, dubious. He's still feeling raw and incredibly vulnerable. Bucky was right—love was complicated stuff. Steve swallows down the guilty feeling for the hundredth time. "I mean... they're our colleagues. We shouldn't be lying to them."

"That's just your perfectly intact moral side speaking," Tony says. "Look, it doesn't hurt. We are technically dating. Food and dancing and kissing in public, remember?"

Steve goes even pinker. It apparently is possible. Eventually, he just says, softly, "I'm sorry."

"Oh, yeah," Tony says, bumping Steve's shoulder with his own. "You're hot, great company, and don't bitch me out every few minutes. Dating you is such a burden."

Steve watches as Tony saunters over to the others, feeling sickly as Clint jabs Tony in the abs, making more jokes about their slightly too-public making out session that is apparently already all over the internet. Fake dating is awkward enough without Steve making it worse. All the feelings are on him, and him alone. He swallows, hard. He can do this.

Tony doesn't have to know Steve's keeping one more lie on top of the other one.

Except maybe he does.

Steve doesn't know. He's completely at a loss here. Before this whole thing, he'd have just gone and found Tony for some advice. He goes and changes out of the penguin suit, gets into his training gear, and punches some of his reinforced equipment to try and see if everything he's ever felt is actually wrong and maybe violence does hold the answer somewhere.

Alas, it doesn't. He sighs a little, and swallows it back down because he's not a moody teenager, he's a grown man and hell if he's going to spend the next year moping around because Tony Stark's dashing personality and ridiculously tender heart has claimed yet another victim. Steve's just going to have to man up and see if he can even be around Tony after realizing this without letting Tony know. And go on from there.

It's nearly midday. Steve doesn't know where the morning has gone. They got back in from the hamburgers at about 2am. Steve went to the gym at 3. He knows he worked out for maybe an hour, so that's eight hours he's lost staring at the wall.

Love really makes an idiot out of people.

He asks JARVIS where Tony is, even though Steve suspects he knows, and of course Tony's in his workroom. Steve's gotten into the habit of taking him food down every now and again, because he'd been concerned and liked fighting with colleagues who were at full strength.

Steve's been telling himself that it's been for general Avengers wellbeing, but even now he has to admit it's all been a giant lie. Maybe he's been in love with Tony since the beginning. All that irritation and clashing heads has been nothing but Steve being unable to decipher his own heart.

Or being so sure it was nothing but wrong and evil that he didn't want to know what those feelings meant.

Steve grabs food from the fridge and heads for Tony before he can spend any longer staring at the wall and thinking. He's always been a more action-first kind of guy, hence the kissing and the getting beaten up in an alley a lot and the being injected by an experimental serum thing. When Steve gets through Tony's security system, he has to yell several times to get Tony's attention away from the things he's hitting with a hammer over in the corner of his workroom.

"Hey," Tony says, yelling a little because of the ringing probably still in his ears, "oh, sustenance. Brilliant."

Steve settles down on the floor in the part of the workroom which looks like it holds the least distractions for Tony. Tony's attention span is about the same as a mayfly's life. Short and frantic and he's very easily distracted.

Tony thumps down next to him, bare footed and covered with grime, and grabs at the food. "Thanks for this."

"Least I could do," Steve says.

Tony gives him a strange look over his sandwich. "You do realize you are doing me the favor? Really? In the general scheme of things? I'd have screwed up way worse on my own. You helped me screw up in a non-fatal way."

Steve shrugs, disbelieving him but playing along.

Tony sighs. Maybe Steve is that easy to read. "All right. Fine. No. You ruined my life," Tony says, dramatically. "I'mma punch you when I've finished eating."

"No moving after eating," Steve lectures, "You'll be sick."

"Yes, mom." Tony wrinkles his nose. "Seriously. Dude. You gotta stop thinking. It's wearing me out. I can't think and have you thinking at the same time. Even if it was your fault, it's a year of not dating. I don't think it will kill me. My urologist might even thank you."

"But," Steve says. Predictably, Tony doesn't let him finish. It's probably a good thing. Steve's not entirely sure of what he might say.

"Oh, this is just 'cause my reputation of being a man-slut?" Tony shakes his head a little. "I can survive without sex just as well as you can. In fact, I may have an easier job of it. You have accelerated, super... everything." Tony gestures with his sandwich, dropping cheese everywhere. "Cold showers and Kleenex tissues, my man. It'll be just like high school."

Steve keeps the straightest face he can manage. "What do tissues have to do with anything?" he asks, innocently.

"They're, y'know, for when you- When-. Thor, he caresses Mjollnir's handle. Hawkeye waxes his bow? Fury- I don't even want to think about what Fury does, but there's a joke about one eye, one hand... Loki polishes his staff?" Tony squints. "Do you get my—- Oh, you're laughing. Nice. Mess with the man who's protecting your virtue and all that tough, tough work. Go on, keep laughing."

"JARVIS," Steve says, having burst out laughing at the mental image of Loki furtively polishing his staff with a Kleenex, "please note on official record that Mr. Stark has given me permission to laugh at him."

"Noted sir," JARVIS says, an unmistakeable gleeful note in his voice.

"Betrayed," Tony says, "by my best friend and by my own Artificial Intelligence."

"Woe definitely is you," Steve says as deadpan as he can manage, but he bursts out laughing again.

"Can't even find a decent fake date," Tony whines, but he shoves Steve in the side amicably, and Steve rubs chips in Tony's face, and they both terribly lose the ensuing food fight, and Steve knows for sure that everything's going to work out just fine.

Tony doesn't have to know Steve's in love with him at all.

And that's sort of the way the year goes.

A date. Some banter. Press and the paparazzi. Jokes with the other Avengers. And then they retire to Tony's workroom with takeout, and banter some more. It goes much too quickly for Steve to notice, if you ignore all the heartsick longing. Which Steve tries his best to do (ignore the heartsick longing, that is, not stare at Tony when he hopes no one is noticing. He does that too. He's only human.)

In between training and saving the world, and Tony's once-a-month-ish charity balls, and monthly Avenger media panels, there isn't much time left.

Steve takes to automatically taking Tony dinner to make him stop tinkering with whatever new invention he has on the go. It pays off a couple of months into the whole thing, because a paparazzi sneaks into the lab by hiding in the trunk of one of Tony's more expensive cars, and bursts out with his camera, hoping to catch something interesting.

Instead, he gets a picture of Steve and Tony, in work-out clothes and bare feet, crouched down on the floor around bits of discarded technology, eating sandwiches and playing rummy.

From that moment on, even Pepper seems to forget this was all a sham, and the media stops analysing every single moment of Steve and Tony in public to see whether their relationship is a publicity stunt or not. Sometimes even Steve forgets, until he leans in to kiss Tony, and Tony only responds if there are people around.

And if there's no one around, Tony pulls away, and then it feels like being kicked in the stomach. Just for a moment.

Steve feels the same sensation part-way through a dinner, one March night. They fall into an easy habit of going out in public to eat at least once a fortnight. Tony's stocks have stayed high over the last year, and Tony wants to celebrate, and that's when Steve feels that familiar whump in the base of his stomach.

Tony's stocks have stayed high for a year.

This is very nearly it.

The end.

Steve's distracted by that thought when the incident happens. Tony's halfway through talking about his new idea - making his Iron Man suit invisible by fusing display screens into the front panels, and installing an array of cameras at the back, thus projecting what's behind him to his front - and someone's a jerk.

Specifically, one of the other diners.

Steve didn't notice him on the way in. He sort of has telescopic concentration when Tony pulls him on one of these odd-dates - he doesn't notice much but the food and the company - so it takes Steve a moment to size the guy up. He's in his forties, balding, a little paunchy, a little badly dressed for such a classy restaurant (Tony doesn't really do cheap burger joints) - and clearly drunk off his skull.

"It's you," the drunk guy says, "them faggy superheroes-"

Steve's reactions are slow, dulled by his own thoughts, by how sad and bereft he's feeling that he won't have an excuse to stick close to Tony in public, or hang out with him as nearly as much, to really react properly.

Tony's not distracted, and his mind is as quick as ever. Unfortunately, without Steve on his a-game, it's a disturbing spectacle of what Tony will get up to when he doesn't have to cart Steve around like his human Jiminy Cricket.

Tony kicks out his briefcase, steps into it, and his Iron Man suit smoothly assembles itself around his body. Tony charges up his right hand blaster before the guy can even blink, and aims it at his face.

"Wanna rephrase that?" Tony asks, smiling through the small gap his mask allows.

"Uh," the guys says, and promptly soils his pants.

"Check please," Steve sighs.

Because it's a good hour before they're usually finished with dinner, Happy's a few blocks away. Steve sticks his hands in his pockets and stares down the street, squinting down at the rain splashing on the street. The thought is lodged in his head: maybe the real 12 month anniversary is in a couple of days, but if Tony brings it up, Steve can't hold him to it exactly.

"You're annoyed with me," Tony says, wrongly surmising Steve's drawn expression.

Steve swallows his sadness back in. It's selfish, just like the impulse to kiss Tony in the first place, setting this whole charade off. Tony's expecting him to be annoyed. It's improvement of a sort that Tony even cares about someone's emotions that aren't his own - it would be churlish to reward him with whining when in the end this whole thing is Steve's fault. "You can't shoot every homophobe in the world."

"I could try?" Tony offers

Steve tries in return not to smile, but he can't help himself.

"If it made you smile like that, I'd threaten to shoot all the homophobic idiots in the world," Tony says, and it's so serious and earnest, and he's so close, and the thought is still stupidly strong in Steve's brain that this might be the last time they even go out to dinner like this, and it's not like Tony will ever stop threatening to blast people even if all the Avengers are around, and Steve can't help himself. Even though there's no one around at all, Steve leans in to kiss Tony.

Steve freezes for a second, expecting Tony to pull back. To do that thing he's been doing all year in his workroom, pull away and make a mumbling comment about not wanting to make a show of it for no reason. Tony's been frustrated as hell the whole year. Steve's been apologetic the whole time. Even offered something crazy a couple of times, and Tony pulled away both times, a terrible look on his face that made Steve feel insecure. Steve's already feeling the curl of it in his stomach, the hideous tug of worry that Tony would never like him even in another universe where they could maybe, possibly, really be together.

But this time, Tony kisses back. It's honest and it's hungry, and it's too close to what Steve wants forever from life that he can't help himself: he pulls Tony towards him desperately, and Steve's just about thinking that he really could do it forever when a bright light flashes over them. Steve pulls back, squinting, to see a guy with a long lens camera leaning out of a window on the eighteenth floor of the hotel across the street.

"Hey!" Steve yells, and the camera flashes again. He turns back to Tony, his heart pounding, his mouth still tingling from the kissing, but Tony shuts down, his eyes blank.

"Let's get back to the mansion," Tony says, his voice subdued, his gaze going anywhere but Steve's face. Steve nods tersely, and follows him.

He's still muddling over Tony's odd behavior later. They separate when they get back to the mansion to change into something more comfortable, but Steve finds himself heading towards Tony's lab before he can think about it. He swerves by the kitchen when his brain does kick in, picking up some food from the fridge, because Tony's melodrama made them miss out on lunch.

When he gets into the lab, Tony's already bashing away at a piece of metal. He's been doing it a lot. Natalie says he's sublimating his sexual tension with that hammer. Thor thinks he's just mimicking him, badly. Bruce and Clint both just smirk when they see it. Tony has been doing it an awful lot more than he used to.

Steve feels another twinge of guilt. Natalie's right, and it's Steve's fault. If he hadn't kissed Tony that first time, Tony might have (would have, Pepper says, quite often) done something stupid all on his own.

Then again, that stupid thing might not have been as easy to recover from.

Steve settles into his usual spot on the floor, and starts unwrapping the food. The fridge is always stocked up. Several superheroes with accelerated metabolism all in one location do make a hefty dent in any food budget. Tony bashes at the panel and gives up when Steve unwraps the cheese. Tony can't resist cheese very easily. Soon Tony's at his side, quietly eating his sandwiches, looking a little pale.

"Look," Steve says, after a moment, "I'm sorry."

"We're going to talk about this?" Tony pulls a face, and reaches for one of the chicken sandwiches, even though they're Steve's favorites. "Did we turn into girls without us looking?"

"Yes, we did," Steve says. "Turn around so I can braid your hair."

"Well played."

"I didn't know," Steve blurts out. Quickly. Before he can change his mind. Tony looks at him, curious. "I didn't know there was anyone with a camera around."

"Then why-" Tony starts, and freezes, his eyes moving to Steve's. He swallows visibly, and his eyebrows furrow a little. "Oh. Well. That." He coughs, suddenly awkward. "I see."

Steve nods, wordlessly, and then Tony knocks over into Steve's side. Steve steadies him with one hand, and peers around Tony to see Dummy zooming back into original position, hanging its hand, making it look for all the world like a sheepish puppy. Tony turns his head to level a look at Dummy, and Dummy droops even further, and Tony looks back at Steve—and freezes again. Like outside the restaurant.

Steve swallows, like they're on the edge of something terribly important. Tony's so close. It would be so easy now to drown in him. He forces himself to speak. To say something. "Was it really going to take you more than a year?" Steve says.

Tony makes a noncommittal, confused sound in his throat. "I don't know what-" he starts.

"To explain what Pepper meant, back at the beginning. That you had a crush on me." Steve stares at Tony, unmoving. He doesn't move to touch Tony, even though he's so close. Steve knows how he feels about Tony. He's always known, to some extent, but he didn't suspect until he chose to kiss Tony that first time, and he didn't know for sure until that third kiss outside the diner.

Tony wasn't just the convenient choice to put his message forward at all.

Tony's eyes skitter across Steve's face. He's awkward and suddenly shy. But Tony's no coward, and he looks Steve straight in the eye, and he says, a cheeky grin twitching the side of his mouth, "I was waiting for you to bring it up. Because, y'know, you've sort of been bringing it up for me for decades. If you know what I mean."

This moment is quiet and intimate, and Tony tries to ruin the mood by pointing at his crotch, but Steve's not having any of it. The grin he knows is on his face right now must look pretty scary. He reaches up to touch Tony's cheek, and Tony, despite his bravado and lascivious remark, is already leaning up to the touch that isn't right there yet—

- and the door opens.

They break apart like they've been scalded. Steve rubs the back of his neck and stares down guiltily at the remains of his sandwiches. In the moment, he's apparently knelt on one of them. He picks up pieces of bread and crumbs from his knees, and, when he's sure he's not blushing as bright as one of their many explosions, he turns.

Tony's on his feet, leaning fake casually against a table. Natalie's not buying a second of it, but Steve's grateful for the pretence.

Wait. That's not Natalie. Steve knows that head tilt. She's fully in Natasha mode.

"What's the situation?" Steve says, moving straight for the door. He throws Tony a look. A clear we'll deal with this later look. Tony's cheeks go an interesting shade of pink.

"Flirt later, suit up now," Natasha says, striding in front of them.

"I can hear you smiling," Tony tells her, but speeds up to match her pace.

It's as routine as an Avengers mission ever is, if any of their missions can be considered routine. A scientist called Richards made a machine which sort of... exploded when a rival scientist broke it (or something like that, Steve was too distracted thinking about Tony to listen to every detail of the briefing, and that's ridiculous for something to be interfering with serious Avengers work, so Steve vows they're really hashing this out when they get back to the Mansion, sooner rather than later. No matter how it ends. Steve can't afford to be distracted when the fate of the world hangs in the balance. And having thought that, it is ridiculous how many times they've had to save the world.)

Anyway, the machine exploded into a little planet-side black hole-type-thing, and is busy trying to suck in Staten Island by the time they get there.

The rival scientist, Victor-something-or-other, has also apparently sent hundreds of these robot things - that Bruce calls "Bots!" in a horrified voice - to stop them from halting the world-sucking phenomenon.

"I don't get it," Steve says, hurling his shield into a line of the bots. They topple like bowling pins. "Why do these archnemesis villain types try and blow up the world? They're in the world. Or on it."

"Supervillain lairs tend to be underground. I suppose that counts as in," Tony says, lifting him up from the ground as one of the Bots shatters that piece of the ground in two.

"Either way - don't they get eaten like the rest of us?"

"Wait," Tony says, "are these things going to eat us?"

"The black hole thing."

"Oh," Tony says.

And then doesn't say much more, because fighting a hundred Bots while trying to destroy a supervillain's piece of epic world-destroying equipment is pretty exhausting work. And even when Thor smashes Mjollnir into exactly the right place in the equipment, there's one last whirlpool trying to suck the Staten Island ferry down to the ocean bed.

The Hulk, Thor, Black Widow and Hawkeye work together to take out the Bot stragglers while Cap and Iron Man rescue the ferry, and Steve thinks they're done—finally¬—when Tony's suit cameras pick up a woman on a speedboat hurtling towards the vortex of the whirlpool.

"Iron and water," Tony grouches, even though everyone knows his suit is made of various alloys and he does regularly zoom underwater whenever he gets the urge, "brilliant combination."

"Just fly me over," Steve sighs, pointing as his feet, even though Tony takes extra-special glee those times he has to airlift Steve by the ankles. It even, Tony says, erases the gloom he feels at having to be Steve's personal helicopter.

Still, no human life lost, the supervillain bound up by the docks (Natasha really likes to tie up her captors—there's some fun for her in the fact that ropes can't hold her. Or maybe she just really likes the Black Widow and the wily web she weaves thing), only a little damage to public property... overall, Steve's feeling pretty good about the whole operation.

So of course the woman clinging to the edge of her speedboat turns out to be a complete idiot.

"I won't be rescued," the woman shrieks, "not by a couple of God-damned gays!"

Steve opens his mouth, and swallows a spray of sea water for his trouble. He splutters, and is about to say something, when Tony speaks up instead.

"Fine," Tony says, his Iron Man amplified voice booming louder than the roar of the whirlpool, "we can arrange that."

And he turns and starts flying them back to the shore.

"Tony," Steve says, wriggling a little. He's strong, and he thinks maybe, just perhaps, he could swim through a whirlpool? Maybe? "Tony."

"What happened to superhero names while on mission only," Tony grouches, but turns around so fast that Steve's calf gets a little roasted accidentally.

The woman slips to the bottom of her boat, and Tony lowers Steve down. Steve holds his hands out.

"Okay," Tony yells, "you've got a choice. You either help us rescue you. Or I'm going to rescue you regardless because I have this weird belief that all life is special. And my view of the world might appear strange, but it is much more awesome than yours. Sure, you could sue me for saving your life, but lady, I'm Tony Stark. I have enough money to keep you in court for years. You'll have to spend days and days looking like an ungrateful asshole next to the bisexual man who saved your life. But it's your choice."

The woman's face, before she grabs Steve's hands, is absolutely priceless.

In the confusion that follows nearly every big rescue, Steve finds himself being sort of kidnapped by Tony.

Well, Tony—still in his suit—grabs him by the elbow and they sneak around the news crew and end up walking aimlessly a short way from the disaster. Maybe it's not so much kidnapping as evasion. Steve wonders how odd a sight they look—two superheroes, suited and burned from saving the world for the nineteenth time (Tony keeps count) and walking down the sidewalk like it's a perfectly normal sight.

Tony's in the middle of recreating the woman's expression when Steve remembers again that tomorrow is their last day. His stomach clenches, and Tony's face goes slack, and he swallows, and then he's crying like a baby.

Except that's a stupid thought. Steve squints, and realizes it's just rain. Steve grins wryly, mostly amused at his own silly imagination, "We need to get you inside. Iron rusts."

Tony doesn't smile back. He looks pretty serious as he nods and says, "I know a nearer place than the mansion."

They end up laughing as they run for no reason Steve can pinpoint. It might be sharp relief at delaying the weird well, let's break up after not really dating talk. Especially after that moment in Tony's lab. It might be sheer joy at being alive. It might be the mental image both of them have to have in their heads—of how bizarre it must look for two superheroes to be running in the rain. Steve thinks, if he saw that, he wouldn't know whether to follow them (they could be running from something like an explosion) or go in the opposite direction (because they could be running to something, like a giant robot or some mutant lizards or something equally disgusting and/or life threatening.)

Whatever reason, they're still laughing when Tony pulls them into a hotel.

It's a pretty swanky place, polished tiles and a chandelier, and Steve frowns at Tony as they walk up to the reception, dripping water in their wake. The concierge isn't batting an eyelid. Perhaps their main clientele is soaked superhero.

"What, do you have a section in your suit for your gold card?" Steve mutters.

"Well, yes," Tony says, "but also, I own this hotel."

Which doesn't—when all is said and done - surprise Steve, and is definitely a good explanation for the way they get ushered to an elevator without even being reprimanded for the puddle of water they've tracked in.

He also isn't surprised that they get taken up to the Penthouse suite.

"Help yourself to the mini bar," Tony says, collapsing his suit down and stepping out of it like he's just stepping out of loose-fitting shoes.

"Those things usually cost a fortune," Steve starts, because he forgets sometimes who he's with. Tony just gives him a look, and Steve wrinkles his nose sheepishly. "Right. Thanks."

Steve pulls out an assortment of stuff from the mini fridge, stuff that goes really badly together just in case it raises a smile from Tony, and when he turns around Tony's pulling out white pyjamas from a sleek mahogany set of drawers. He throws them to Steve. Steve catches them out of impulse, and can't help himself blushing, so he turns back to the mini fridge, willing the heat away.

It's just this odd undercurrent between them. Steve pulls out more food than is humanly consumable (and thus is just considered a snack for him, Bruce or Thor), dumps it awkwardly on a table and takes the pyjamas and changes into them in the bathroom, which is so big that Steve could fit a house in it, he's pretty sure. He cleans up the burn on his calf, but that's already starting to heal. Thank you, super serum. Giving up alcohol's effectiveness for rapidly-healing burns is something Steve might have traded voluntarily given the choice.

When he comes out, Tony's wearing matching pyjamas and lying sprawled on the huge bed, his arc reactor glowing through the material onto the assortment of candy he's steadily working his way through.

Something low in Steve's gut twists sharply at the sight, and he pads over to the table, dropping his uniform onto the chair nearby and grabbing a can of soda because his mouth is dry. Steve pries it open and starts to swallow it down, but he's slightly distracted by Tony staring at him, his expression somewhat... focussed.

Steve's seen that expression on Tony's face before. It was a couple of months ago, after yet another Stark Industries charity ball. Tony had been flirted with all night by Miss. Brazil, and she had been pressing herself up against his arm the whole time despite Steve being at Tony's side, and when they got back to the mansion—sans Miss. Brazil—Tony had the same expression that he's wearing now as he looked at Steve's throat. Steve, a little giddy from the perfunctory kiss for the press Tony had given him, had blurted out an offer than he was sure he fully meant. But Tony drew away, his face closing down.

His face isn't closing down now.

Steve drops the can and heads over to the bed. "Shove over and stop hogging all the Junior Mints."

"Captain America, they call him," Tony mock-complains, shifting over anyway. "Captain Bossypants, more like it."

"Are we talking about my pants?" Steve asks. "Because they're nearly see-through. Couldn't your hotel afford more fabric?"

"They could. They know I like to leer at my guests, though," Tony says, and leers appropriately and obviously at Steve's crotch.

Steve grits his jaw and tries manfully to fend off the blush, but he knows he's not fully successful. He feels like he might burn up from the heat. "How come your arc reactor looks white when you're Iron Man, but is bluer up close?" Steve blurts, instead of anything else he might say.

"Well, I could give you a science lesson," Tony says, "but I really wanted to resume the conversation we were having earlier."

"Oh," Steve says, "well, I do have several theories about supervillain motivation. Mostly it's to do with the lack of love from a maternal or paternal figure, and-"

"Steve," Tony says, voice low, and he's too close, and Steve can't look away.

Steve swallows, hard. "I'm not good at this," he says. He knows his voice is shaky but he pushes forward anyway. His eyes lock with Tony's. "This intimacy sort of stuff. I'm just a kid from Brooklyn after all's said and done."

"Is that what's going on here?" Tony's still lounging on the bed, carefree, one elbow levering him up, but his expression is serious, a complete contrast to his laconic pose. "Intimacy?"

"Tony," Steve says, and he can't help it. So much of what he's been feeling, what he's been holding back, grazes into his voice and he lets it. Just for that second, he lets it and he lets it, and it's just two syllables, but it just so happens those two syllables are sort of everything to him now.

Tony's eyes don't move from his, and they darken, as if he understands. As if he somehow, impossibly understands.

"I-" Steve starts, but there aren't any words, and he is a man of action first, so he reaches forward. Slowly this time. No chance for Tony to have no clue of what's coming. Steve doesn't reach for Tony's face this time, but for Tony's hand. He pushes it down into the pillow, and deftly moves forward in one swift, suave motion, pushing Tony down into the bed beneath him. Tony's not trapped, but Steve's intention is clear. Steve stares at Tony, as if daring him to call Steve out as not serious.

"There's no cameras," Tony says, and his breathing is a little shallow. Steve can feel his pulse, erratic against the soft flesh of the back of his hand, Tony's wrist pushed into it. The strong planes of Tony's face are hazed in blue, reflecting from the arc reactor, glowing like Steve pictures his own heart shining, and all Steve's light- All Steve's light is just for this man, lying beneath him. Tony pushes up against him, firm, careful, and calculated to make Steve hiss in the back of his throat, a sound Tony looks inordinately pleased about drawing from Steve's throat. "And you're definitely not a kid from Brooklyn. Hello, Captain."

"Must you always lower the tone?" Steve complains.

"Always," Tony says, but the lack of a clever comeback, and the way his pupils are blown wide, is all the evidence Steve needs to know he's not the only one caught up in this.

Steve's heart is pounding. This might just be a weird moment. This might just be this one night, and in the morning Tony will want to break up just like Steve agreed to, and that- that's just going to have to be enough. If this one night is all Steve can have, he wants it.

"This isn't for the cameras. It's just for us," Steve says. He doesn't know how much he wants it until this moment, where he's so unsure he'll get it. He feels fractious, like there's too much of him, that his skin isn't enough to contain him.

He feels like he might die if he can't get Tony's hands on him. He feels like he might die if he can't get his hands on Tony.

Some of this urgency must be clear, because Tony hesitates, and ducks his head just for one moment, a pleasing flush on his cheeks that Steve nearly forgets about when Tony lifts his head and smirks.

Steve's seen that smirk turned on many a different woman over the length of his friendship with Tony, but he's never quite had the full force of it turned on him before.

He'll never judge the way their knees go weak again.

"Just for us," Tony repeats - soft, acquiescent, yes.

Steve swallows, smiles and reaches; Tony follows.

The morning has to come eventually. Steve wakes up slowly. His face stretches into a smile before he can even stop it, and he reaches out to nudge Tony, because there are a million things to say this morning, all of them more ridiculous than the next, and those are always the conversations that Tony enjoys the most.

Except when Steve's hand reaches out to the other pillow, he finds nothing but empty air.

Tony's not there.

Steve's heart clenches, disappointment tasting sour like ashes, and Steve buries his face in Tony's pillow. He thinks he can almost still smell him, but it's just the detergent the hotel uses. Maybe Tony uses the same cleaning services for the Mansion. It would make sense.

Steve rolls up to his feet, knowing it would be too easy to lie around the bed and mope.

He knew exactly what he was getting into. It was the last day of his fake relationship with Tony. They're both grown-ups. Steve had wanted it even if was only that one night, so Steve's not going to roll around moping because he got the smallest version of what he wanted.

He's an Avenger. He's going to act like one.

Steve showers, brisk and efficiently, relishing the ache and soreness movement brings. He'll remember how this feels. How it felt to be that close, that intimate, with someone he loves. He'll always remember it. But he'll never let it get in the way of Avengers business.

It's when Steve leaves the bathroom and pads back out into the room that he sees it.

Smoke. In the distance.

Steve's never gotten his suit on so quickly. The hotel staff don't even react when he thunders out of the elevator heading straight for the door. Maybe Tony stays here a lot for that casual a reaction.

The pedestrians part as Steve approaches. Either they're becoming too used to him running around the city like a mad man in a streak of red, white and blue, or maybe there's some public information video going out that Steve hasn't seen yet. Caution: if you see a red, white and blue blur helter-skeltering down the sidewalk towards you, it's probably Captain America. Move to one side, public, and let him save the day.

The commotion is over in the Industrial District, and Steve's brain is looping through all the potential enemies it could be. The smoke has a distinctive red tinge to it, so it's not the giant lizard-things from a few months ago. There's not enough smoke for it to be those fire beasts. Steve is thinking maybe robots again when he turns the corner and he's sort of right.

It looks almost like a giant TV. With legs. And two very long metallic arms. And the Hammer Industries logo on the side.

That's not really what's gotten Steve's attention.

What mostly holds his attention is the fact that—besides the fact that Justin Hammer seems to have invented some sort of robot television, and Steve always knew TVs were evil—Tony seems to be the only Avenger on site.

And he's thoroughly getting his ass kicked.

Steve flings himself into action. He turns on the remote headset that automatically activates all the alert systems for the Avengers. "Avengers assemble," Steve roars into the headset, "sending you my co-ordinates now."

"What's the sitch?“ Clint's way-too-cheerful voice buzzes down the line.

"A giant marauding television," Steve admits. "America out."

“Hahaha. Roger Rogers,“ Clint cooes, the joke never growing old for any of the Avengers. Except for Thor, but Thor doesn't count, because he doesn't understand the joke.

And all Steve understands right now is that Tony's fighting on his own.

Steve hurls his shield at the television's glass chest and starts running.

The television tried to suck in the whole planet at one point.

Their foe had literally been an apocalyptic television.

Steve has officially given up on being surprised by their enemies. Or what their foes could turn into world-ending devices.

Exhausted and now sore from running around for four hours, dodging the television's flailing arms, Steve limps over to where Tony's finishing receiving medical care by the side of the site, his mask flipped back, and a crusted trail of blood on his forehead that Steve plans to yell at him for at least ten minutes about.

Steve's tired, and he's annoyed, and too emotionally worn out to even remotely reference that there is anything around the bush to beat. "We need to talk," Steve says, before Tony can even open his mouth enough to say something.

"I guess we do," Tony says, obviously too tired to even fight back. "I'm okay, Lou," Tony says, to the medic patching him up. Lou frowns but nods, and leaves them alone. "I'm sorry about. Y'know. Leaving you to wake up in bed alone."

"No, you're not," Steve says.

"Excuse me?"

"You're not," Steve insists, "because if you were really sorry you wouldn't have done it. I presume you left me alone in order to fight this whatever-it-is?"

Tony nods. "I don't suppose it lets me off the hook that I ran off to do something heroic?"

Steve looks at him for a long moment, and shakes his head.

"Didn't think so," Tony says, and looks out into the devastation caused by Hammer's rogue invention. "I-"

"Just say it," Steve says. "We're both somewhat grown-up, occasionally responsible adults. Even you, Tony, before you argue. I'm not some dainty flower you can accidentally break." Steve forces himself to continue, his heart hurting as he adds, roughly, "Last night was last night, and it doesn't have to mean a thing."

"That's sort of the impossible crux of the matter," Tony says, still carefully not looking at Steve. "It does sort of mean a thing."

Steve frowns. His heart is thumping again, and he almost wants to make Tony stop, because this conversation could hurt so much, and he wants to go away and hide and he wants to hold Tony and kiss him and never stop, and everything is a conflicted crescendo of emotions and he can barely stand it.

So he doesn't speak.

This is all up to Tony in the end, anyway. Steve steels himself as best as he can for Tony to say the inevitable. That they're friends. That he's been grateful for the year, but he's even more grateful for his freedom.

"You don't even understand," Tony says. He turns to Steve, and stares until Steve stares back. "I didn't want to talk to you this morning because I thought you would remember that this was the one year anniversary. I didn't want to talk to you this morning because I didn't want to break up with you, okay? Okay? That's the truth. That's the goddamned truth."

Steve can't respond. He's blindsided. He's never thought that this is something he could have, never.

Of course, Tony thinks Steve's lack of response is all horror, because Tony keeps going. "And I get that me saying that means it's going to be all kinds of awkward for you, because you were just trying to prove a point, and it just so happened to be me, but Pepper was right, I've been in love with you probably my whole life, first the idea of you, and then you defrosted and you were even more amazing than I ever thought you would be, so of course I was mean to your face because I hardly ever say what I feel, not really. And I thought you were straight and then that stupid TV thing, and, and- you aren't punching me."

"No," Steve says, bemused. "I don't think I am."

Tony paces five, six steps. And stills. His huge brain is obviously racing. Steve just looks at him. Waiting for him to get it.

"You," Tony says. "You're not freaking out."

"That would be you," Steve says. He's having trouble speaking. He wants to yell. He wants to dance. He wants to kiss the hell out of Tony, but the other Avengers aren't very far away. Probably wondering what sort of domestic spat this even is. Let them wonder, Steve thinks, viciously. This moment is mine. Tony looks at him and realization is dawning slowly on his face. This moment is ours, Steve thinks, dizzy.

"Oh," Tony says. "Oh."

"I didn't want to wake up either," Steve says. He steps closer to Tony, and takes Tony's chin. "I didn't want to wake up and hear you say we were over."

"Because it's convenient to date me," Tony mutters, a crazed look in his eyes.

Steve actually laughs. "You? Convenient? Tony, you're most inconvenient person on the planet. You forget the world when you invent, you fight when you should go for backup, you- you drink too much, and you're really rude."

"Right," Tony says, stepping away from Steve's touch, "I'll go and be rude over there, shall I?"

"You're inconvenient," Steve repeats, "and I want to be with you anyway."

Tony blinks. Shuffles a little closer. "Are you sure?" he asks, much more sotto voce this time. "Because I'm crazy. Wild. Anyone will tell you. Are you sure you don't want to dump me and be done with this?"

Steve grabs at Tony's iron-clad hip, yanking him closer. "Are you kidding? You want me to dump Iron Man? He's Tony Stark, the nation's golden child, helper to millions of disenfranchised schoolchildren and the creator of America's greatest inventions. If I broke his heart, the nation would lynch me," Steve exclaims, flailing his arms in a pretty funny mockery of the way Tony had pitched a fit way back at the beginning, when kissing Tony had been a symbol, and not just as necessary as breathing.

Tony obviously remembers his own words, and the way Steve's twisting them, and he looks like he might be finally, finally accepting this.

"You might want to rewind, play that last bit again," Tony says, his hands pressed into his sides as he looks carefully off into the distance, pretending he's not feeling a thing. Steve had been bothered by his casual apathy, once upon a time, but now he knows Tony's not a robot. Iron Man is just a mask. Tony's heart is softer than most, and he shows as much passion and emotion as anyone. Just not to anyone.

He shows it to me, Steve thinks, and he yanks Tony closer, smirking down at him. "Fine," he says, making a song and dance of rolling his eyes. "He's Tony Stark, philanderer, insane inventor, and crazy billionaire. If I broke his arc reactor, he'd have me hunted down and killed."

"I would," Tony says, "like a dog."

"And I'm so in love with you, it could never, ever happen," Steve says, and his heart sings with the truth of it, a crash in his ears that's so loud that Steve hopes desperately no robot turns up to end the world, because Steve won't hear it.

"Oh," Tony says. "Right, then. That's. That's brilliant. That's absolutely an unexpected conclusion, admittedly it's almost too perfect an epilogue to this particular-"

"Tony," Steve says, impatiently, because he's in love, and because Tony has maybe loved him his whole life, and even though he secretly loves Tony's rambling too there's something he wants to be doing more, "shut up."

Tony's eyes flash with indignation automatically. "Make me," he demands.

"Okay," Steve says, and does.

And he is definitely, definitely not thinking of the suffragettes this time. Nor any of the times to come.

His heart stays always, firmly, full of Tony.

And later, when Pepper comes to find them to remind them that Steve's fulfilled his obligations, and Pepper sees rather more of Steve's anatomy than he's comfortable with, Steve's still too happy to worry. His past self might have, but that's a version of Steve from his past, a version of himself that Steve will always remember. A Steve that lived in the shadows.

This Steve lives in the sun. With Tony at his side. And all the hope for tomorrow in his heart.

And a punch or two reserved for any ill-behaving televisions that might come his way.

For what remains of his life, Steve never grows to like television.

Except for Little House on the Prairie re-runs, but Tony reprograms JARVIS and no one ever finds out.

Apart from when Steve accidentally squees too loudly on meeting Melissa Gilbert, and Justin Hammer makes a video of it and puts it on YouTube.

The knob.

Apart from that, Steve and Tony save the world, beat up many villains, save the world and love their way to World's Hottest Couple seven years in a row. And they save the world again. And some more.

And did I mention saving the world?

Yeah, they do that. And then they live happily ever after.

Even when Tony stages a coup d'état at their retirement home. And keeps using Steve's shield to prop up his particle accelerators. And making Steve's shoes dance at inappropriate moments.

But I suppose that's true love for you.