Tony had come to the conclusion that Thor's laugh really ought to be registered as a pathogen with the CDC, it was that contagious. With a range from hearty guffaw to Scooby Doo giggle, and the force of Asgardian lungs to back it up, that laugh had some range, too. It wiped the scowl off Tony's face and the huff out of his grumbling pretty much the instant he heard it from two turns and twenty yards of hallway away. And that was saying something, because that had been a full on Coulson-inspired huff he'd had going there, with a Pepper's-so-mean huff for chaser.
He turned to the sound like the needle of a compass, figuring that if Thor was going to cockblock Tony's entirely justified snit, then he totally owed Tony his share of the joke. The hallway gave out into one of the Helicarrier's many exercise and recreation areas, which more than okay too, because after the way Pepper, Coulson and Fury had banished him from the meeting (over HIS brilliant idea, thank you,) Tony felt like he could do with something to punch, and figured it couldn't hurt if that something could take it with a grin. That grin was often the scariest thing about sparring with Thor, actually. Aside from the part where you always lost to him in the end, and got to thinking how lucky you were that he wanted to be on your side of the fight when things got real.
So Tony expected to find Thor in full swing with at least six terrified agents trying to give him a run for his money in the boxing gym. What he actually found was Thor on his big Norse butt in the waiting area outside the gym rooms, feet up on the lockers, chair balanced on two of its legs and creaking prayers to the gods of physics as its occupant and potential destroyer chuckled over a pad of paper on the table beside him. He spotted Tony's approach through the glass wall and waved him over with a show of teeth that would have made an orthodontist weep into his pillow with shame.
"Welcome, my friend!" Thor cried over the filtered strains of someone's boring workout music, "I had not known you meant to venture aloft this day. Have we foes to smite?"
"Nah. I was supposed to be having a meeting, but apparently they decided to hold it in a genius-free zone." Tony gave a shrug and got himself a bottle of water from the cooler and went to peer over Thor's shoulder. "Boring stuff anyway. Whatcha got there?"
"Behold! The mighty Thor's very essence has been captured," Thor crowed, holding up the pad so that Tony found himself confronted by a pencil sketch of Thor… dressed up as Buffalo Bill? He choked a little as water and laughter fought for control of his throat. Yes, that was Buffalo Bill all right; fringed coat, twin pistols spitting little lightning bolts, white horse mirroring his heroic, chinny stare into the distance… and there was Loki in the background, scowling and hogtied to a cactus while Calamity Jane Foster kicked him in the knee. "Is it not the very likeness?"
"Spitting image," Tony said, plucking the notepad away as Thor flinched and gave it a nervous glance. "Who drew this?"
"Steven did," Thor answered, and took the sketchbook back as Tony flinched this time. "Truly, he is a man of talents many and varied. See here, what he has done with Clinton." He flipped the leaf back, and the next drawing was of Hawkeye, grinning and bizarrely foreshortened as he exploded from the mouth of a dumpy little cannon on the foredeck of an itty bitty Helicarrier.
Tony didn't even try to stifle the laugh. "Who else has he got in there?"
"All of our company," Thor said as he obligingly flipped another page to reveal Bruce in leotards, riding a unicycle across a high wire. At the right end of his balancing pole perched a potted daisy. At the left, the Hulk. The daisy seemed nervous. Tony figured he'd better put the cap back on his bottle of water for awhile.
Natasha's picture had her in an evening gown that would have done Jessica Rabbit proud; one foot each on the back of two galloping horses, reins in her wickedly smirking mouth, glocks in her hands, firing away. The spray of spent brass behind her looked eerily like wings.
Coulson was done up as a lion-tamer; tails and jodhpurs, boots and top hat. He waved a whip and hoop at six tussling Avenger-lion cubs, all of whom ignored him. The Tony lion had the Cap lion's tail in its teeth, while the Hulk lion was shoving the Thor lion's face into the wall. The Natasha and Clint lions appeared to be playing pattycake.
Fury was a carnival strongman, complete with leopard loincloth and ferocious scowl. He hefted the entire Avengers team on a dumbbell over his head. One armored hand was reaching down from above to tickle his armpit with a feather. That one made Tony glad he'd put the water down.
The Iron Man was, of course, the clown in this little circus; big, honkable rubber nose under the suit's gleaming eyes, gigantic ruffles around its neck and wrists. It balanced one-footed on a big rubber ball, unspooled like a fastball pitcher, and taking a blast of something splashy to the helmet as he let fly… a pie? Oh yeah. That was fucking hilarious.
"Nice. Real mature there, Rogers," Tony harrumphed, the annoyance of the morning returning with interest. Thor merely gave him a knowing look and turned the page.
And then it actually WAS hilarious. Because the other half of the picture was a screeching monkey in the Captain America costume, its muzzle poking out from under the cowl, old-school shield dripping with either pastry or some kind of secreted resin. It was using his tail to fire a seltzer blast right off the page.
"It is a very likeness," Thor said, lips twitching against a smile, "a very likeness indeed." Tony surprised himself by laughing. Once he'd begun, Thor's straight-man face collapsed into giggles as well, and Tony figured he'd better just give up on his bad mood altogether. Thor was winning this round too.
Several minutes later, when his ribs were sore, his eyes were watering, and he felt decidedly charitable about the world, Tony reached over to snag the second sketchbook from the table, saying, "So what, does he keep all the dirty pictures in this one?"
Thor caught Tony's wrist before he could flip back the cover though, the tension of his grip a solemn warning. "That would not be wise, my friend," he said, all trace of laughter gone now, "That book belongs to the lady Natasha, who has sworn that if anyone should look therein to spy what she has writ, she shall visit upon them such a ceaseless torment that they should henceforth redefine the meaning of-"
Tony dropped the book like it was radioactive. "Got it," he said, resisting the urge to check his fingers for blisters, "My definitions are fine just as they are. Only if she doesn't want people to look in it, what's she doing leaving the thing lying around here fraternizing with Steve's cartoon freakshow?"
With a look that made it plain his magical wetware translation thing was catching about one word out of any three, but he was game to try free interpretation, Thor tipped a nod toward a closed door in the far wall. "I believe that Steve and the lady Natasha are… swapping. Swapping?" he repeated at Tony's blank look, "Offering a service in trade for…"
"Yeah, I know what it means, big guy," Tony said, "it's just I can't imagine what the Super Soldier and the Super Spy would have to swap." Actually, there was a part of him -- the part of him that Pepper swore she couldn't take anywhere, -- was already imagining all kinds of swapping that could go on between two such fine specimens, and rather inclined to picture it in 3-D with a good, thumping disco backbeat, but as that was sort of terrifying in its hotness, Tony decided he wasn't going to think too hard about it. At least not until he had some privacy and a box of tissues.
"Ah, this, I can answer," Thor said as Tony uncapped his water and took a long pull. "The Lady Natasha wished to learn Stephen's art of making figures upon the page, and in return for this, she is teaching him new forms of lovemaking."
Tony's water did NOT come out his nose. Barely. Thor clapped him hard between the shoulders, until Tony waved him off. "They're doing what? Right HERE?"
"Making love. Though I do not understand this way of it. Behold," Thor pointed up to a security monitor that was cycling through its electronic sweeps of empty weight rooms, hallways, saunas, and treadmills. "I wish to see my friends in the room of fighting," he hailed the monitor like a butler, scowling when it offered a five second view of a boxing dummy instead. "It worked before," he said and got up from his chair with clear intent to fix it.
Tony scrambled to get there first. "No! No, let me just..." he cried, flipping down the touchpad to scroll the camera feeds back. Pool, track, boxing, yoga... "There!" And all of a sudden, the weird, too-slow-for-a-workout music made sense. Because there went Steve and Natasha, waltzing around the sword dojo in workout sweats, easy and graceful as if they did it every day. But dad said he couldn't dance. Tony thought, then remembered to close his mouth.
"You see?" Thor said, tapping the figures on the screen and making the camera zoom in close. "These arts of lovemaking are not known to us in Asgard. To court with music, but not with song. And all clothed as for mock-battle, and never yet have I seen them recline together, nor even to kiss. It is... strange. Still, I am told that on Midgard this love-making is a means of inquiring whether a maid might consent to couple with a man, and the Lady Natasha does not seem disinclined."
And wow, yeah. Tony didn't even know where to begin unpacking that one. "Well that's one way of looking at it," he allowed, watching the pair fill up the empty room with only their movements. "There's usually a lot more to it than dancing though: flirting, getting drunk, making out, blood tests, the walk of shame, prenups, disapproving friends, papparazzi, non-disclosure contracts. There's a lot of steps between dancing and fucking."
On the monitor, Steve backed Natasha through a whirling move that was half step turn, half combat throw. Her feet kicked up and out, and Tony could imagine the swirl of a heavy, beaded skirt, flaring out like a dancer's fan around her ankles. Only Steve had misjudged his position in the turn, and wound up putting his elbow right into a jutting air duct. The metal crumpled but even as he stumbled and broke their form, Steve somehow managed to shield Natasha from any impact.
"Smooth," Tony laughed, because wasn't Steve usually the one fighting on the ground with her when the Avengers went live? Cap had a front row view of just how she could bounce like a superball off damn near any surface and come down on her feet and shooting. He should have known that air duct hadn't stood a chance. On the video feed, Natasha seemed to be of the same opinion, shaking her head with laughter as he rubbed his funnybone and grimaced.
"It did not seem so much like fighting before," Thor said, puzzled. "Is she victorious?"
Tony clapped him on the shoulder as the music stopped. "Buddy, the safest answer to that question is always going to be "yes, ma'am!" The camera followed the pair as they collected their towels and bags, grinning at each other like old friends, and Tony hurried to return the monitor to its randomized sweep. He managed it with enough time to get his phone into video mode before they walked out into the lobby.
Thor hailed them with a wave. "My friends! Truly that was the most graceful lovemaking I have ever witnessed!"
Tony managed not to laugh out loud when Steve turned lobster red and choked on nothing at all, but it was a near thing. It might also have had more to do with the death glare Natasha shot him than with any actual restraint on his part.
"That was dancing, Thor," she said with obvious patience. "It's not the actual lovemaking, more like a negotiation."
But the Asgardian was like a dog, proud of his catch and not ready to let go of the stick. "Aye. A negotiation for coupling, as I have said."
"No!" Steve, still scarlet and apparently in danger of spraining his wholesomeness, had to step in then. "No, it's not... not always for that. Sometimes it's just for, you know… fun."
Nobody could do baffled confusion like Thor. Just nobody. "Coupling is not fun on Midgard?"
Tony took pity on them all. "Now honestly, Thor, how would Steve even know?" he asked with a grin. Clapping the prince by the shoulder and jostling him into a brotherly hug was about as easy as manhandling the Hulk, but Tony gave it a try anyhow. "Now take it from an expert, Thor, coupling IS fun on Midgard -- it's really fun for everyone involved, unless you're doing it wrong. But the dancing thing is like… driving a car" Thor looked blankly baffled. Tony tried again. "Like riding a bike." More confusion. Tony kind of wanted to kick Thor in the Allspeak. "A horse?" There, at last, a smile of recognition. Tony grabbed it and ran. "It's like riding a horse. You don't always do it because you want to get somewhere, sometimes you just do it because the horse is awesome, and you just really want to ride."
"So dancing is like unto a negotiation for coupling. Or riding a horse," Thor ventured.
"With the right DJ," Tony grinned and tipped him the wink understood by Players everywhere. Then Natasha's voice cut through the room like a garrote from behind.
"Who moved my sketchbook?"
Huh. So whipping up to attention was actually an involuntary reflex. Who knew? Pointing at Thor though, was all Tony. And entirely deserved, because Thor was pointing right back at him and wearing the kind of idiotically guileless face that made you wonder how Loki ever got away with anything as a kid. Natasha peered, a pint-sized angel of absolutely no mercy whatsoever, clearly weighing the benefits of killing them both with the drawing pad she held to her chest.
"You know it's bad luck to kill billionaires on government property," Tony ventured, backing toward the door, "Like really bad luck. The worst."
She glanced to her left, where Rogers was flipping closed his own sketchbook with a look of such annoyance that Tony figured he'd probably wait to call her off until someone had been maimed. Luckily, the cavalry arrived at just that moment in a gorgeous and unstoppable charge of Shiseido and Jimmy Choo.
"You know, Mr. Stark," Pepper said in that voice she always used when she didn't want to encourage his wacky hijinks by laughing, "when I asked you to step outside and get yourself some coffee, I'd kind of expected to find you in the commissary down the hall, not three decks away, tormenting your teammates."
Tony favored his rescuer with the best grin in his arsenal and spread his hands wide. "Hey, I have a spotless record of noncompliance with attempted administrative detention! If you wanted me to wait outside the Principal's office, you should have hired strippers."
"Or had Phil taze you," she answered, pecking him on the cheek. "Now stop recording and come on; your signature is needed, and I want to explain what's getting leveraged before Fury pricks your finger for the blood."
Natasha scoffed, still glaring. "Stark's not eligible for that contract, Potts -- we have it on good authority his soul is already mortgaged."
"To the hilt, Ginger," Tony agreed with a mocking salute. "See ya Fred-O!" But Steve's attention was fixed on stashing his sketchbook in his gymbag, so he missed Tony's barb altogether. Which sucked, because that had been a good one.
Before Tony could reload and fire again though, Thor tapped Steve on his shoulder. "Steven, my friend, I would not trouble thee, only I have given my word to Jane, and..." he took an iPad from beneath his cape, looking a little forlorn as he rightly should, because whoever had given him such a pre-digested chunk of Apple shit-tech deserved to be whacked upside the head with it. "My tablet does not seem to remember how to ...skype."
"Oh! Shoot, it's Wednesday already, isn't it?" Steve asked, which was totally the most idiotic question ever, being completely and entirely the wrong question altogether.
Tony tugged loose of Pepper's hold, and turned around to set things straight. "Wednesday? What's Wednesday?" By which he meant to say, 'THOR, YOU IDIOT, WHY ARE YOU HANDING A COMPUTER TO THE CAPCICLE?'
"Woton's Day," Thor explained to Tony as if he were three. "It is my Father's nameday, and in deference to the Allfather's wisdom, it is also the day when Steven helps me to practice Googling."
"Googling," Tony demanded, peering narrowly between the two, "Like in the computer kind of Googling, not some weird, archaic 40's term for fucking, right?" Because Captain Purity putting the moves on Thor was a lot easier for Tony to wrap his brain around than the idea of Steve Rogers, man out of time, understanding, let alone teaching, anything computer related. Especially when they had a perfectly good genius on hand to do it properly.
Steve stared back, coldly furious, (and yeah, that joke still wasn't old.) But then his glare went thoughtful, and softened into amusement. "No, Tony," he said, dimpling as he copied Thor's explaining tone, "Googling just means the search engine. Doesn't Fury need you to sign something?"
"Fury can wait-" he began, then found himself lurching backward by the belt loop. Pepper could get some pretty frightening traction in those shoes, it seemed.
"Fury can refuse to sign the contract you got me up here to pitch to him too," she said, making for the door, "Come on, Playboy, it's time for work."
"But!" cried Tony as she dragged him from the room, "He's teaching Thor to use the Internet!"
"Someone has to," she agreed.
"Right! Someone who didn't get his first computer six months ago!" He grabbed a passing doorway and clung. "Let me go, woman, this is a job for -- yeow!"
"Tony!" Pepper said, using her grip on his ears to point his face directly at hers. "Do I have your attention?" She made him nod then, which was totally not fair. "Okay. You're going to come with me, you're going to explain to Director Fury that you won't use the combat-reactive training units on the gym level for Evil, and you're going to let Steve make friends with Thor in his own way. Even if that involves helping him learn his way around computers."
"But I helped Steve learn- Ow!"
"Clint Barton helped Steve with that," she said, not easing up at all, "YOU tried to convince Steve that Goatse was Google's login page, and Hentai was a universal search parameter!" Which had been fucking hilarious. Tony's only regret was that he hadn't thought to have the webcam running when Steve had figured out just what he was looking at. That would have been YouTube gold, right there.
Pepper dropped her pinch on his ears, and gave him to understand in the silent way of Pepper that she really could read him like a pop up book, and she would quit in two seconds flat if he kept on in that direction. She'd done it before often enough, but somehow Tony got the sense that 'I quit' as his girlfriend would be harder for him to fix than 'I quit' as his personal assistant, or even his CEO. He made an effort to choke the laughter back.
" This. Right. Here," she said to him. "This is why Thor asked Steve to teach him rather than you."
"What, because Steve can't take a joke? Look, even Thor knows that when it comes to tech, I-"
Pepper rolled her eyes, and turned off down the hall, like she knew he had no choice but to follow. "You know more about it than Steve can. Or anyone can, probably, but Tony, can you even remember what it was like not to understand computers?" She took his arm when he caught up to her, and Tony decided to take it for a sign of forgiveness. "You built and coded Dummy when you were eight. How in the world could you explain it to someone whose science and magic are the same thing? That'd be like sending a Cub Scout to Dr. Frankenstein to get his first aid merit badge."
"But look; if you need to learn to do something, you want to learn it from the best, right? I mean, I'd rather learn from the expert than the beginner."
She gave him the side-eye and smirked. "Like hell you would, Tony. Anytime you needed to learn anything, you looked up some references, took something apart, and made up whatever wasn't obvious. Then you told everyone you'd known how to do it all along."
Tony stopped, incensed. "I never did! Ok, when did I ever do that? Except for when I did that and it turned out awesome? Which is always, because, hello, genius!"
At which she gave him a triumphant grin and tugged him down the hall again. "Oh, how could I forget what a huge name Stark Guitars is in the music industry today… Only didn't Eddie Van Halen wind up sending his complimentary sample back?"
Which only went to show that it was no good trying to play fair with Pepper, because she'd cheat every time. The argument lasted all the way through the contract signing, and then through dim sum and cocktails, and only ended when she rigged the game so that Tony wasn't quite able to form coherent sentences. Dirty pool, a-la Pepper Potts was actually his favorite way to lose any argument, but he tried to keep that fact to himself.
Jarvis didn't have any trouble finding and compiling the Helicarrier security footage of Steve's interactions with the other Avengers when Tony asked for it the next morning. He'd apparently anticipated Tony wanting something of the kind, and had been collecting the footage on the sly while amusing himself by playing tag with the poor SHIELD code monkeys trying to find him in the system and get him out. Either that, or he'd been bored. Bored was always possible with Jarvis.
The pattern was plain: most Mondays, Steve and Clint would sit down in the computer lounge together over lunch. On Tuesday mornings, Steve and Natasha would leave SHIELD HQ together in civvies, with sketchbooks under their arms. Most of the time they'd come back in the afternoon, change into workout clothes, and meet up at the martial arts gym for a dance lesson. Tony watched the whole progression of those, from stumbling, awkward Steve all the way through the Steve who seemed to be making up steps of his own, and had to admit that serum was pretty awesome.
On Wednesdays, Steve sat down with Thor and his crappy little tablet for 'lessons'. Those were the primary points of interaction, but several times now Clint had found Steve in the evening hours, and they had left together wearing Brooklyn Cyclones baseball caps. Tony had to look up the logo to figure out it was a minor league team. Minor fucking league! And that wasn't even the worst.
No, the worst was when Tony realized that now he probably knew what Bruce's mysterious 'standing engagement' on Thursday afternoons was, or at the very least, who else was probably involved in stealing his lab-buddy away from playtime. "Son of a bitch," he said to the screen, "What is this, Avenger's Pokemon? Save up for the trading cards, why don'tcha... wait, pause that. Scroll back." He peered, tilted his head, then poked at the screen. "Zoom in here. Now rotate it... what is that?"
"That would appear to be a drawing of you holding a dead rodent by the tail, sir," Jarvis supplied. "I believe I detect Captain Rogers' artistic style in the rendering. The caption reads,"
"You're nothing but a lab rat," Tony said along with him, still not quite able to get over the look of wrathful disgust Steve had managed to capture in the drawing. Then he looked again and realized that the dead rat in question was wearing a tiny little Captain America suit.
"Sir, Dr. Banner has returned," Jarvis cut in almost gently.
Tony checked his watch then, startled to realize that the afternoon had slid well into evening while he'd been sorting through the feeds. Dummy was parked at his elbow with a glass of green sludge. He'd missed lunch again. Also that conference call with the shareholders.
Tony collapsed the picture, then reconsidered and saved a screencap instead. "Jarvis, order flowers; Pepper I'm Sorry number five. And ask Steve if he wants to come on up with Bruce. And... Pizza. Order pizza, would you? Enough for five."
"Little Anthony's is closest for delivery," Jarvis said, "but I believe Captain Rogers prefers Dante's-"
Tony waved him silent and headed for the kitchen. "Yeah, yeah, make it happen. Do we have any milk?"
"Yes, but I... wouldn't advise drinking it, sir."
Tony peered at the little carton in the fridge, and its wholly disappointing sell-by date. "Bet Steve could drink it though. Hey, d'you think he can even get food poisoning?"
"I'm quite certain it's possible, sir, but perhaps Captain Rogers might like a Coke instead?"
"Seems legit," Tony agreed, heading to the bar, "We have that, right?"
"Yes sir, we have that. And also the hemp microbrew that Dr. Banner requested this week." The lights inside several of the cupboards went on to guide him to the pint glasses, ice, Cokes, and Bruce's weird hippy beer. Tony poured himself a shot of his favorite bourbon, just to be companionable, and took all three glasses to the sofa as the numbers over the elevator climbed.
"-lieve they could actually fly at all in something like that. It just seemed so... flimsy," Steve was saying, hands spidering through the empty air as the doors slid open.
"Well, it wouldn't fly here on Earth," Bruce agreed, leading Steve into the penthouse. "It was built for lunar gravity, and no atmospheric drag at all."
Steve didn't look convinced. "I sure as heck wouldn't have trusted something like that to get me ten feet off the ground, let alone to the moon. How did it even-"
"Booster rockets," Tony answered, ice clinking in his tumbler as he saluted them both. "Crude, wasteful, brutish enough to get just about anything into orbit, and way too big to haul around to museums for traveling exhibits." Both turned to face him, surprised to find him holding up half of their conversation, or perhaps just to see him anywhere but in his workshop. He tipped a nod at the drinks, and soldiered valiantly on. "My psychic powers are telling me that you two went and caught Dr. Richards' How-Mr-Fantastic-Single-Handedly-Discovered-Space roadshow, and I feel a moral obligation to point out that he totally bought that replica lunar module as a kit, and didn't actually have anything to do with the Apollo program at all."
Steve, whose face had clouded when Tony broke in, laughed then and shook his head. "You can buy those?"
Tony tipped a nod to the bottle Bruce had come to collect, and which he was now sipping with obvious relish. "That right there is a beer made out of Pot, which is, as yet, not a legal herb in this country. I'd say it's proof that you can buy just about anything these days."
"As only a billionaire would know," Bruce replied, dropping into the sofa with a grin. "I'm surprised to see you out of the dungeon at this time of day. What happened? Did you break up with the flux capacitor already?"
Tony sniffed as if offended. "We're on a trial separation until she gets her EMP bursts under control. Temperamental is one thing, but shorting out Dummy from across the lab is kind of a deal-breaker." He cast a glance at Steve, who had stopped well shy of the seating area, looking uncomfortable and slightly lost. He gave the glass of Coke a gentle nudge with his toe. "That one's yours, Cap."
"Just a regular old Coke, I promise," Tony offered to the tentative smile that pulled at the side of the man's face. "Not even I can get the kind with cocaine in it these days."
"It'd be a waste of money even if you could," he said, coming to join them as the smile won out. "Pretty sure it wouldn't do much for me." He took the drink and sipped, but managed to look about as comfortable on the cream leather sofa as a kid in his grandmother's Victorian parlor set; feet squarely on the floor, butt only taking up the front half of the cushions, leaving his knees jutting, and his shoulders nowhere near the back rest. It was almost adorable, except for the way it made Tony want to throw something at him.
"I didn't know you knew Reed Richards," Bruce said before the silence could produce unfortunate results.
"I wouldn't say I know him, exactly," Tony answered, trying not to watch Steve fiddle with his drink, "It's more like our orbits occasionally intersected back when Stark Industries did military contracts. NASA asked for some guidance system programs from us, then handed them over to him for peer review..." Bruce winced theatrically, and Tony nodded. "I see you know Reed Richards too then."
"We corresponded on his Gamma radiation research," Bruce admitted. "Once."
"Some of the exhibit write-ups made it sound like he was a hero," Steve ventured, obviously choosing his words carefully.
Tony laughed. "Sure, I guess. He fights crime, has super powers, and a nemesis, but it's not like being a hero absolves the guy from being an egotistical jerk nobody likes!" God damn it, there went his mouth again. Why did he keep doing that? Tony hid a grimace in his glass and tried to think of something less loaded they could talk about.
Luckily, Jarvis chose that moment to save them all. "Sir, the pizza has arrived." Whatever Jarvis had paid to get the food that quickly, and that far outside of the restaurant's delivery zone, Tony was prepared to call it totally justified.
"Great," he said, pushing to his feet and waving Steve back down. "Power up the AV station and cue Apollo 13 while I go tip the driver. Might as well give Captain Rogers some actual Space Race history while we eat."
"I didn't..." Steve began.
"What, you have a hot date?" Tony tossed back as the elevator opened for him. Steve's face went still, hard, and cold for a moment, but then he swallowed and shook his head. Tony spread his hands with a grin that he hoped would hide the fact that he had no fucking idea what he'd just done wrong. "Then stay for dinner and Hollywood's idea of a history lesson. It's actually pretty close to reality for once. And I promise you'll get to see a booster rocket."
There. That got an eyeroll at least. Things couldn't be that bad if Cap was willing to diss him in his own living room. All the same, it was halfway through the second pizza before Steve fully unwound. Turned out the movie had been a good choice; it had enough hard science to make up for the gooshyfeels, and the tech was accurate enough to keep his and Bruce's nitpicking to a minimum, and apparently the plotline was downright stirring to the Captain's patriotic soul. He was so engrossed he hardly noticed when Bruce snuck out to take his regular two hour phone call with the mysterious woman he wouldn't talk about (as if that was gonna keep it a secret from his lab bro for long!)
So when the credits rolled, Tony found himself pleasantly buzzed, faced with a Steve Rogers more at ease than he'd yet seen, and seizing an opportunity he hadn't actively realized he'd wanted until the moment he heard himself ask, "So, Cap, I've been meaning to ask you; what's going on with all the team building exercises?"
Steve pulled in a little bit at that, and his face had gone wary as he looked over. "Team building…?"
"Art and dancing lessons with Romanov?" Tony asked, ticking down fingers and damn the torpedoes, "Baseball games with Barton? Museum exhibits with Bruce? Google dates with Thor? You're pulling straight from the Corporate Teambuilding Handbook, man. What are you up to?"
That made him frown, but it was somehow more open than before. "If any of that had been about the team, you'd have been a part of it," he replied, earnest enough to give lesser men a cramp. "You must realize that. Without Iron Man, the Avengers would have lost Manhattan to the Chitauri last year."
Damn straight they would have! And yet. Tony took a drink and leveled a finger. "So what are you doing then, insidiously hanging out with every-"
Steve laughed and shook his head. "We didn't call that kind of thing 'team building' in my day. We called it 'making friends'."
"And what, I don't qualify?" Fuck. Steve's face froze up again, went as sharp and focused as if he had the cowl on and shield in hand. Fuck it all, Tony hadn't meant to say that. Why had he said that? He looked at the bourbon level in the decanter for an answer, and had to kick himself again; he had drunk-mouth. Why did anybody let him talk when he'd been drinking?
Steve blinked then, slowly, thoughtfully, and that piercing expression melted into something that had just fucking well better not have been pity. "Honestly, I didn't think you'd be interested," he said with a shrug that looked... embarrassed.
Well okay then. Embarrassed was better than pitying. Tony could use embarrassed. "Interested in what, exactly?"
That made him look away, as if the scrolling names on the screen held his diplomatic answers. "Interested in anything I could offer, really, other than being a patsy for your jokes." He cut a wry glance at Tony and smiled without mirth. "I never did much like that kind of thing.
"Outside the suits you and I, we're in such different worlds that sometimes it's like we don't even speak the same language." Now it was Steve's turn to tick down fingers point by point. "You went to the best colleges in the world; if I hadn't been too sickly at 16 to get paying work, I probably wouldn't have made it out of high school. You got your start at one of the richest businesses in the country; my first job was painting billboards in Brooklyn while I tried to get into the army. You grew up in a mansion, with robots and nannies; I grew up in an orphanage with nuns and bullies. You built yourself a computerized butler to take care of your house; I'm still working out how to use modern phones. You're a billionaire playboy who can spend more in a week than I made in twenty years of my life, plus seventy years of interest while it sat in the bank." He boosted both hands as if he'd run out of fingers, then shook his head sadly. "Outside the Avengers, you and I have exactly one thing in common, and Fury's already warned me that Howard's not your favorite topic. It doesn't give me much to build on, you know?"
Tony glared, stung, burned, and just drunk enough that he couldn't deny the truth of it. But he'd have to be a lot drunker before an excuse that half-assed could get by him. "So you don't think I can reach outside my own gold-lined box?" he dared, wanting the truth out of that blue-eyed enigma even if it broke something.
Steve met his glare for a long moment, unflinching, deciding. Tony couldn't tell if it was Steve Rogers considering his secrets, or Captain America considering his tactical advantage, but that look made him want to shove Steve right out of his silence, right out of his caution, and into some kind of a reaction that wasn't fucking planned! Then, without smiling, Steve gave his head a slow, solemn shake.
"No, that's really not it," he said, setting aside his empty glass and rising to go, "I just don't think Tony Stark has got much use for a friend like Steve Rogers, is all." Then, in the moment that Tony decided he was like fuck going to let that star-spangled asshole march out on a closing line like that and began to struggle up to his own feet, Steve turned back. That almost-smile lit his eyes, caught his lips to the left and quirked them up into a blatant dare. "But if you'd like to prove me wrong, you have my attention."
Well, he'd saved the fucking world on less of a chance than that one, hadn't he? Tony stalked around the sofa and right up into Steve's personal space. Part of him was disappointed that Steve didn't back up but another part was pleased to be met without allowance for once. This was Steve Rogers for real, not Captain America doing whatever his team needed even if that was forcing himself not to rise to Tony's shit in the interest of team harmony. And Steve, it seemed, was not scared of Tony in the least.
Also, Steve really smelled good up close, but that was very much beside the point. Tony leveled a glare of steely determination, boosting his chin to aim it at Steve's eyes instead of his lips, which were absolutely not twitching against a smile, goddamn it! "Challenge accepted," he declared, giving the man a solid poke in the sternum, just where his star would have been.
Steve didn't waver, 'cause he was the fucking Super Soldier, after all, and that pretty much made him poke-proof. But the smile did break free as the elevator arrived with a ding.
"Challenge accepted," he agreed, and poked Tony right back.