Steve doesn’t stop to really consider the depth of Tony’s character until the dust has both literally and metaphorically settled on the ruins of Stark Tower. He’s kipping on a cot on a lower level, metal grate flooring that clangs on the soles of his boots and presses red grooves into his palms during morning PT. There’s a reinforced steel bar in a closet that holds his weight, and he decides, three weeks after watching Thor blast off into another dimension with Loki like some creepy sidecar of psycho, that Tony isn’t as shallow as he initially assessed--but not by much. He pads out of the room in sweat-damp socks and stretches in the hallway. The low levels, situated under the ground, sustained minor damage in the attack, and only a little dust and flecks of paint shifter under his feet as he heads for the bathroom.
He’s using his shirt to mop sweat from his face as he shoves at the door with his hip, and that’s why he misses Natasha Romanov, perched casual as anything on the blindingly white marble countertop that runs along one blindingly white tiled wall.
“Geez,” he yelps when he catches sight of her, and skip-hops backwards in alarm. She’s in that blue bodysuit, and one of those snub nosed baby handcannons is fitted in her palm the same way some women wear silver bracelets across their wrists.
“Rogers,” she greets impassively. “Freeloading off Stark?” Steve rolls a shoulder sharply to hide how much the comment irritates him.
“SHIELD doesn’t own me,” he says, but there’s hesitation in his voice and Natasha’s eyes sharpen a little. She smiles a little, glossy pink lips and spring-tight curls in her hair.
“Whatever makes you feel better,” she says breezily, “I know where to find you.” She slides off the counter with easy grace and the steel studs in the heels she pretends aren’t in her boots click in neat sharp taps against the floor as she saunters past him and out the door.
“Find me for what?” he calls after her, and doesn’t really expect an answer. He waits a few minutes before stepping in the shower, and can’t help but thinking that I know where to find you sounded an awful lot like We’ll find you.
When he shuffles into the kitchen later there’s a well-dressed woman sitting serenely in one of the stainless steel chairs. Her attention is completely focused on a blackberry and the clear coat of polish on her nails catches the florescent lighting.
“Captain Rogers,” she says without looking up. Her blackberry vibrates once, a short sharp buzz, and she tucks it away, leaning back into her chair and crossing one long pale leg over the other. Her foot dangles gracefully in a shoe with a heel that Steve mentally adds to his running catalog of potential weapons in the room.
“Ma’am,” he says automatically, and she smiles.
“Mr. Stark has informed me you wish to emancipate yourself from the United States military,” she says, and Steve relaxes a little. If she works for Tony she’s probably okay and even if she isn’t okay there’s no way she can outrun him in that skirt and those heels.
“Um.” he says. “I have a room...” he clears his throat “Stark said I could--”
“Yes,” she says, “I know. You’re living in an enlarged utility storage room and your kitchen is a modified break ream designed for employee lunch hour.”
“The bathroom has foam soap,” Steve blurts, bewildered and a little sad, and she laughs. It’s girlish and unguarded and Steve gets the impression he surprised her.
“How would you like to move into your own place?” she asks. “Both Mr. Stark and Stark Industries are prepared to offer complete integration packages as a transitional aid--”
“For Captain America, reborn,” Steve says, bitter. “In exchange for another dancing show? If Stark wants me out I can find my own way.”
“For Steve Rogers,” she says. “To whom Mr. Stark, among many others, owes his life.”
“I’m not interested in owing Stark anymore favours,” he snaps, and then takes a deep breath. “It’s not that I’m not grateful--” He stops as the woman reaches across the table and taps her fingernail against a thick sheaf of paper.
“Contract,” she says. “You let Stark Industries design the new suit and hold exclusive corporate copyrights and patents. You consent to one public appearance as a guest of Stark Industries and you have the option to cancel the contract at any point of which you feel overtly uncomfortable.” The pen she sets on the tabletop is heavy, made of dark wood and shiny metal, and glistening at the tip with expensive ink.
“What do I get in exchange?” Steve asks. A drop of water from his shower runs down his spine and he presses back against the chair to stop the tickle.
“Your own apartment or house. Stark lawyers hammer out a contract with SHIELD for employment or help you seek alternative forms of income. Said lawyers ensure your autonomy from the Unites States Government.” She pauses, head tilting. “A car, if you want it. We can get your bike back, probably.” Steve feels a brief pang of longing. He’d loved that bike, but in the end felt that he hadn’t bought it, hadn’t earned it, and ultimately left it with SHIELD.
“Sign next to the x,” she says, and stands smoothly, gathering strawberry blonde hair into a loose ponytail at the nape of her neck. “The car is waiting in Parking Garage A.”
“How do you know I’ll sign?” he asks, flaring up a little at her calm confidence, and she shrugs, her blackberry once again in one hand.
“Parking Garage A,” she says, “please pack efficiently.” She taps behind her ear and says “Jarvis? Ready the third floor apartment.” She disappears into the hallway and Steve frowns. He takes a deep breath and feels his ribcage expand out and in again. There’s not a single trace of evidence that he’d broken three of them during the battle, and he knows the long gash on his side from debris has long ago healed over with perfect smooth skin. He hasn’t carried the scars from the train with Bucky since long before he woke up in a new century.
Steve finds himself in the room with his duffle bag lying against the wall and his shield propped by the bed like security blanket. The straps on his shield contour to his arm and creak a little as he flexes his fingers.
He leaves the cardkey to Stark Towers lying on the cot.
“I can leave anytime I want,” he says as a half question, sliding across black leather to face the woman from earlier. The car’s engine barely purrs under them as they pull away.
“Yes,” she says, and holds out a glass bottle. “Sparkling water?”
“How long have you worked for Stark,” he asks, “I thought he’d forgotten that he said I could have a room there.” She starts a little, and for a moment he thinks he’s offended her, but then he realizes that she’s surprised. She smiles again, but it’s a long slow curve of a smile, a cat’s smirk.
“My name is Virginia Potts,” she says, “and Mr. Stark works for me.”
“I thought you said I was going to an apartment,” Steve says as the car pulls up to wrought iron gates.
“Third floor apartment in the East Wing,” Ms. Potts says absentmindedly, attention completely focused on her blackberry. They roll easily up the driveway, tires crunching lightly on gravel, past an impressive array of cars that look more like the ones Steve used to see in magazines at the drugstore, and into a garage larger than several military bases Steve has spent time in.
Lounging on the hood of what Steve assumes is a ridiculously expensive racecar is Tony Stark in a tuxedo, black bowtie lying untied and loose and the first two buttons of his shirt casually undone. His fingers are tapping on the windshield and one shoe is hanging precariously from his right foot, its partner lying on its side by a front wheel. Ms. Potts sighs and exits the car in the way that comes naturally to women who wear a lot of dresses and impractical shoes.
“You’re supposed to be at the Engrim Fundraiser,” she says disapprovingly, but she’s smiling.
“I got bored,” Tony says flippantly, “Hey Cap.”
“Stark,” Steve greets, and shakes his hand. There’s grease worn into the creases of Tony’s fingerpads, and an angry red line is half visible under his sleeves, rolled back to the elbow.
“Loki threw me through a window,” he says, noticing Steve’s glance.
“I can’t imagine what would drive someone to do that,” Steve says blandly. Ms. Potts smiles again.
“Pepper,” Tony says softly, and steps right up into her personal space. His fingers curl into his palm and relax again, like he’s stopping himself from skimming a hand around the curve of her hip, the nape of her neck. Ms. Potts--Pepper? Steve thinks, it sounds familiar, like he’s heard it before or read it in the files--rests the very edge of a fingernail between the slight opening of his shirt, resting on the skin of his chest. He stills.
“Mr. Stark,” she says, “Happy and I will move Captain Rogers in. You will get dinner.” Tony smiles, and Steve shifts on his feet, feeling like an intruder in their space.
Tony leans against her finger, just a little, and his hair falls out of the gel to curl on his forehead, grown too long. “Will that be all, Ms. Potts?” Ms. Potts grins, and Steve watches Tony’s eyes drift down her throat and linger on her neckline.
“That will be all, Mr. Stark,” she says, and walks to the elevator. Steve shuffles along next to her, shield hanging tight and high on his shoulder and the driver--Happy? walks exactly three steps behind and one step left of him, carrying his duffel.
“Ms. Potts,” Steve ventures, “uh—“
“Keys,” she interrupts neatly, and dangles them from one finger. “Main Garage, Elevator, Main Building, Apartment. We run on codes and keyfobs, but we thought you might find physical keys… comforting.”
“I do,” Steve says finally, and takes them. They’re a good weight in his palm, neatly labeled, and he likes the way they jingle in his pocket.
“Your apartment is your own,” she continues without skipping a beat, “only you and the people you choose will be able to enter. There is a cleaning service but you can opt to not allow them entrance. Likewise there are two parking spaces in an enclosed space within the garage that are reserved for you.” They step off an elevator into a short hallway and she stops short of the door. Steve stops too, until she looks at him expectantly and he starts.
“Oh,” he fumbles in his pocket, “right, yeah.” It takes him two tries to get the door open, and his palms get hot as he feels her presence behind him, patiently waiting. When he finally falls through the threshold and wrenches his keys out of the lock he stops dead.
The apartment is massive. There’s an open kitchen with stainless steel appliances that Steve can’t even figure out on first glance and dark leather couches on flowing hardwood floors, a flat screened television mounted on the wall. A hallway stretches back with several other doorways branching off.
“Gym,” Ms. Potts says, still standing outside the door, “bedroom, bathroom, spare room. Washer dryer are located in the closet in the spare room, cleaning supplies in the bathroom closet. Linen closet in the hallway.”
“Is this the entire third floor?” Steve asks, and Ms. Potts looks impassive.
“I said third floor apartment” she says simply. “We’d like you to join us for dinner.”
“I think I… need a minute,” Steve says. “Or a week.” Ms. Potts nods once. “Wait—“ he stops her from leaving, “don’t I need a… something to get through the front gate?”
“No,” Ms. Potts says “Jarvis handles the front gates, as well as security.”
“Jarvis?” Steve asks, and is barely finished with the question when a calm British voice filters through the ceiling and the walls.
“Good evening, Captain Rogers,” it says, and rings hollow—even Steve can tell it’s not a real person. “Welcome home, Ms. Potts.”
“Thank you Jarvis,” she says, “that will be all.”
“Indeed, Ms. Potts.”
“Is that a robot?” Steve asks, but it doesn’t bother him as much as it once would. He guesses alien invasions and weapons from another dimension really open up a soldier’s mind.
“Artificial Intelligence,” Ms. Potts says.
“Okay,” Steve says. He feels tired. Emotionally, physically. Ms. Potts reaches out and closes the door. He can hear her heels all the way back down to the elevator, and the ding of it as the doors open and close.
Steve spends the next few days exploring his new apartment. He finds manuals for the appliances and pages through them half-heartedly, sticks his head in the fridge and finds it completely stocked with vegetables, fruit, deli meats and cheese. The freezer yields meats, frozen meals, and a glass bottle of vodka with a note that says live a little, Cap. Steve makes a lot of sandwiches and spends most of the time in the gym.
After a week he finds himself staring at two large white machines with a screen of that eerie electronic blue hue, a pile of dirty laundry at his feet. He clears his throat.
“Jarvis?” He waits. The clock on the wall ticks gently. He reaches out and pokes at a couple of the display options on the screen. One of the machines starts vibrating under his hand, whirring under his hand and sounding exactly like the last SHIELD jet he was on before takeoff. He slaps at the screen in a panic and the other machine hums to life with a high pitched whine. He slaps it again and it comes off in his hand.
“Excuse me, Mr. Jarvis,” he tries again, trying to fit the device back to the wires without any luck, and abruptly both machines calm to stillness. Steve waits. No accented voice tells him he’s a moron. “Thank you,” Steve says anyway—no reason to be rude.
Ms. Potts is in the main kitchen, her laptop glowing and a very small cup of coffee steaming by her right elbow.
“Can I have some of that?” he asks, and his voice drawls. Ms. Potts jumps, and her elbow knocks the cup off the counter. It cracks into a hundred pieces with a crash and she yelps as hot liquid splashes across the sleeve of her jacket, a dark whip-thin stain of caffeine.
“Oh,” she fumbles to get her jacket off, “oh Mr—uh, Captain Rogers, I—“
“Oh my gosh,” Steve blurts, and reaches to help her, “I’m so sorry, Ms. Potts, I was just—“ She twists as he turns, and they side step around each other. He tugs at a sleeve and she squeaks as her elbow bends awkwardly. He hears the seam rip and dies a little inside. “I’m so sorry—“
“It’s okay,” she says and her voice is muffled because the jacket is now somehow over her face and her arms are still trapped. “Just—let me—“ It comes off in a quick slide they both breathe a sigh of relief.
“Am I interrupting something?” Tony asks from the doorway, and Steve spins around, the pale pink jacket still in one hand. Ms. Pott’s fair skin is flushed and her hair is ruffled around her face. Steve’s own face is hot from embarrassment. He takes a large conscious step away from Ms. Potts.
“Tony,” she says, smoothing her hair with her fingers, “I—I spilled the coffee.” She takes a deep, calming breath and her features smooth out. Steve helpfully holds up the jacket as evidence.
“I see,” he says, impassive. “You hitting on my girl, Rogers?”
“No,” Steve blurts, and ineffectually tries to shove the jacket at Ms. Potts, who’s now busy making sure her blackberry survived the spill.
“Oh, I see,” Tony says, nodding. He’s wearing soft pajama pants and the arc reactor glows under his ribbed tanktop. “You wouldn’t do a thing like that.”
“No,” Steve agrees immediately, relieved.
“Pepper isn’t even that hot, really,” Tony says.
“Right,” Steve says, and then doubletakes hard. “No—“
“Tony,” Ms. Potts says, scolding. Tony grins, and scratches below his hipbone. His pants hang a little lower, his fingers hitching up the tanktop. Steve stares at him. He’s still not used to that glow in his chest, under features that look like Howard.
Tony pads over and leans in to kiss Ms. Potts, who puts a hand on his chest and stops him just short of their noses touching. “Suit,” she says, “tie, meeting with accounting. In that order, please.” Tony opens his mouth, protesting, and she slips her hand around his jaw to rest under his ear. “Heads of Research and Development Departments have to meet with accounts to pay for the fancy toys.” She kisses him on the cheek, a brush of her lips against his stubble, and then wipes at it with her thumb. Tony beams.
“You’re very attractive,” Steve says, feeling faint, still catching up. Pepper ducks her head to hide her smile, but Tony laughs at him outright. He whispers something to Ms. Potts and swoops past the coffee machine, smirking at Steve on his way out.
“Jarvis told Tony you’re having some trouble?” Ms. Potts asks, and Steve folds her jacket carefully over the back of a chair.
“I wasn’t sure if he could hear me,” Steve says.
“He can always hear you,” she reassures him, “but he wasn’t authorized to respond. Tony fixed that this morning.” She bends to pick up porcelain shards and Steve hurries to help her.
“I’m so sorry,” he says again, trying to nudge her hands out of the way. She glares at him.
“It’s fine. You just startled me. You haven’t come down very often.” Steve avoids her gaze.
“Just--adjusting, I guess.” They stand and Ms. Potts shows him where to dump the pieces.
“I don’t want you to think it’s a prison,” she says, neatening her papers. “This isn’t a military base.”
“I know,” he says. Ms. Potts frowns at something on her phone and sighs.
“Okay,” she says, looking at him again, “good.”
“Ms. Potts,” Steve blurts as she moves to pack up her laptop, “I don’t know how to work the washing machine.” She blinks at him, a briefcase hanging from one lopsided strap.
“Okay,” she says, “we can fix that.”
Without her heels she seems tiny, hair in a high ponytail, pouring out detergent in a designer skirt and her silk button up shirt untucked. She peers into the depths of the machine and Steve pages through the manual they’d dug out of a binder under the sink.
“Honestly,” she confesses, “I hardly do laundry myself anymore. And Tony would pick the most ridiculously high tech appliances to give you.” Steve traces a complicated diagram with a finger and Ms. Potts tracks the same path on the screen.
“Tony picked this stuff out himself?” Steve asks. Pepper hums in triumph as she finishes poking at the settings and the washer starts filling with water. “Doesn’t he have people for that?”
“Yes,” Ms. Potts says, “but he likes you. Okay, where’s the other load?” Steve start to point at the other pile before realizing his underwear is lying on top. He kicks his duffel back over to cover it.
“I can handle it,” he says, and Ms. Potts picks up her heels by the straps and sighs at the state of her shirt.
“Gotta change,” she mutters, checking her watch quickly. He catches her by the wrist, his thumb pressed on her pulse point.
“Thank you, Ms. Potts,” he says.
“Pepper,” she says, “no-one calls me Virginia anymore.”
“Steve,” he says, “is, uh. Me.” She smiles at him, a real smile.
“Don’t be a stranger, Steve,” she says, and leaves. Steve hops up to sit on the washing machine and leans back to throw a tennis ball against the ceiling. He feels better than he has all week.
Steve starts running around the grounds in the morning, which are both extensive and utterly gorgeous. He rests high up on a ridge littered with what looks suspiciously like missile debris and watches the sun rise. He comes in and Pepper is sitting at the kitchen island, stockinged feet resting on the metal chair legs, tapping away at her laptop, her blackberry or both. Sometimes he goes back up to his apartment to shower, sometimes he flops on Tony’s expensive leather couch and feels a little smug and lets his sweat cool on it.
On the fifth day he comes in, trying to decide if he wants to shower right away or flip through the channels of the flatscreen and finds a second cup of coffee perched on a saucer across the way from Pepper.
“I don’t know if you take sugar or cream,” Pepper says, and Steve sits across from her. He takes a sip and finds it exactly the way he likes it. He raises an eyebrow. “Okay,” she says, the corners of her mouth curling, “I do.”
“Your efficiency is terrifying,” Steve says.
“Yes,” she says, “I know.” Steve grins.
“You torture Stark with this?”
“Yes,” she says, and it’s not without a large amount of satisfaction. Her blackberry buzzes and Steve can feel her attention peel away from him and redirect with a laser focus. He takes another sip of coffee and slides off his chair, goes to poke around in the fridge.
“You like eggs?” Steve asks. Pepper makes an indifferent questioning noise. Steve digs around for a pan that looks suspiciously like it’s never been used, and tries to crack an egg against the rim. It crashes straight in and half the yolk and most of the shell slips down the side. He stares at it in dismay.
“Uh-oh,” Pepper says, and walks over.
“I really thought I could handle that,” Steve admits. Pepper hands him a tablet, thin and black like the ones SHIELD uses for debriefings.
“You know how to Google, right?”
“Yes,” Steve says, wiping egg on his sweats, “that I can definitely handle.” They’re having scrambled eggs and listing every herb they’ve ever heard of in an attempt to pretend they know what would make them taste better when Tony comes up from his workshop and faceplants into the couch, groaning.
“What day is it,” he moans, and Pepper gets up to pour him a cup of coffee. She pets a hand through his hair.
“Tuesday morning,” she says, “I’m going in soon. Take a shower and go to bed.”
Tony sits up. “Interesting proposition, Ms. Potts. Will you be joining me?”
“I will not.” Pepper leans in and gives him a soft kiss, almost chaste. “Maybe Steve will oblige you.” Steve stops mid bite. Tony leans over to look at him across the room.
“Pep,” he says in a mock whisper, “what if he’s got frostbite on his—“
“Have a good day, Tony,” Pepper says, and on her way back to her briefcase she slides her hand through the short hairs on the back of Steve’s neck, patting his shoulder. Tony’s eyebrows disappear into his hairline. Steve fumbles with his fork to avoid meeting his eyes.
“Thanks for breakfast,” Pepper says, having completely missed their reactions, and slings her back up onto her shoulder. She steps into her shoes and Tony shoots up from the sofa and crosses the room. He couldn’t have done it any faster if he’d been in the suit. Steve surges to his feet, scanning for a threat, but Pepper rests her hand on Tony’s back, totally at ease. Tony kneels and curls his fingers around her ankle, guiding it carefully in and buckling the thin strap with a steady attentive focus. He switches to the other foot and Pepper steps up, suddenly taller, more intimidating, imposing. Tony traces her ankle bone one last time and sits back on his heels.
“After you,” he says, and Pepper takes a deep breath. She leaves and Steve watches her feet until she goes out the door. Tony’s fingers left smudges in the dip of her ankle and she left them, his fingerprints inked to her skin.
“Hey,” Tony says, clattering around in the kitchen, “who made eggs? You know we have takeout menus on the fridge, right?”
Two weeks later he and Pepper are eating Steve’s failed attempt at a breakfast soufflé when an alarm starts to sound, and Jarvis interrupts Steve trying to convince Pepper to let him cook something else for her and Pepper pretending she doesn’t think the soufflé is that bad.
“Ms. Potts, Colonel Fury has paged Mr. Stark and Captain Rogers to high alert.” Tony appears on in the doorway, and metal is crawling up his arms and down his legs, locking with the whirr and snap of metal and high technology. He tosses something at Steve and Steve catches it automatically. It’s a blue suit, darker with red and white accents, detachable hood.
“How fast can you get that on?” Tony asks, and Steve grins. Adrenaline floods his senses.
“You’d be surprised.” Tony grins.
“Turn your back, Pepper,” he says, and Pepper steps up to kiss him. It’s the first outright kiss between them Steve has ever seen. In his suit, Tony is finally tall enough that Pepper has to rock the slightest bit up on her toes to reach his mouth, her eyes slitted open to watch him like she’s afraid to look away. Tony pulls her closer by the hip and she bumps against the unforgiving metal of the suit without complaint. “Come on Captain Spandex,” Tony says, and boosts two feet off the ground, faceplate rising. His eyes glow blue-white. “I’ll give you a lift.”
“Hurry back,” Pepper says as Steve leaves a run to get his shield, “both of you.”
“Nice of you to join us,” Hawkeye says, and Steve rolls his shoulders. Natasha appears out of the shadow of the police barricade.
“Nice suit. At least six guarding the perimeter, unknown number inside. They have a lot of firepower.”
“What kind,” Tony asks, his voice filtering out mechanical through the earpieces. Steve shakes his head, trying to sort out why he can’t hear Tony in his other ear. “Radio silence, except not really,” Tony says shortly, and then “I can take anything up to small missiles.”
“Automatic, as far as I could tell.” Natasha reports.
“Okay,” Steve says “Stark, pull their fire from the air and draw them up so we can come in below. Don’t push past the perimeter—drop straight down through the floors and meet us on the low level.” Tony’s palms and boots glow and he rockets away in an arc, rising and swooping in sharply. There’s a multivoiced shout and the chatter of gunfire, and then the whine and boom of Tony’s energy pulses.
“Go,” Steve shouts, and launches himself forward, taking point and angling his shield to cover as much of Natasha and Hawkeye as he can. They move easily around him, taking up positions in a triangle, and Steve uses his shield to smash through the hastily erected barricade of the front door of the research center. There’s a noise to his left and he ducks into a roll, coming up to crash the edge of his shield into the arm of a gunman before he can swing the barrel around. There’s a crack as the bone gives under the shield and Steve pushes through, slamming the gunman’s head against the wall. He straightens up as the man slumps away, unconscious, just in time to see Natasha smash some poor bastard’s head against her knee and drop him, looking faintly disgusted. The men are wearing knit masks, red with the bones of the face and jaw outlined in black. Steve stares, lost in thought for a second, before he feels a breeze and hears a sharp whistle, and jerks away from an arrow as it flies less than five inches from his face and buries itself into the throat of the third entryway guard rising up in his blind spot. He nods at Hawkeye and adjusts the shield on his arm. He assesses the first floor, the lull in action making his vision a little shaky.
They’re on the first floor of a strip mall office park, and the cheap florescent lights are flicking, the plastic casings shattered by stray bullets. There are a few scattered gunshots from above and then silence. Steve taps his ear.
“Stark?” Silence answers him.
“Did you really expect him to follow orders?” Natasha asks, and points to the ceiling. “There.” Hawkeye fiddles with his quiver for a minute before drawing and releasing an arrow from his bow in one fluid motion, not even pausing to aim. It latches to the ceiling, beeps twice quickly and explodes, blowing a neat hole three feet wide. He does it again to the second floor ceiling, and then touches his quiver again. Natasha steps close and he shoots one last time, a thin cable whipping out behind it. He loops it around his wrist and catches Natasha around the waist.
“Now it’s just like Budapest,” he says, and then the cable retracts with a whoosh and they shoot up. Steve is pretty sure he heard Natasha giggle.
“I’ll just take the stairs, then,” Steve tells the three unconscious terrorists.
“Damn Tony Stark anyhow,” he swears, taking the stairs four at a time. His calves tense up with the strain and then ease as his muscles adjust. It’s only two flights, and he’s somewhat mollified to see Natasha and Hawkeye had waited for him. The door to the stairwell bangs shut behind him and Hawkeye fits another one of his blinking red arrows to the notch on his bow, releasing smoothly and blowing another neat little hole in the wall for them to climb through into the main conference room.
The room is lit by flicking ceiling light fixtures and sparks from ripped cables and exoised wires. Another man in a redknit mask is lying on his side, breathing out red mist and gurgling nonsense. His eyes flash by Steve’s face but Steve is pretty sure he’s not tracking anything at this point. Steve can hear the mechanical whirring of Tony moving around from within the back projection booth and he swings over a stack of chairs lying sideways to slip through the door.
Tony is picking up a desk with one hand, and when he catches sight of Steve he tosses it casually into a wall.
“Do I have to use small words with you, Stark?” Steve snaps. Tony is completely unreadable in the suit, expressionless, no body language.
“Malfunction in the polarity of the neutron flow,” Tony says, from the suit instead of the earpiece. “SHIELD-ears only is still under development.”
“That has nothing to do with not following orders,” Steve responds, moving past whatever the hell Tony just said technically.
“It has nothing to do with anything,” Natasha says. “No evidence of Loki’s little friends.”
“Or their blasty sticks,” Hawkeye reports, and uses his boot to roll over another man. His mask is pulled down to the side, the stitched black jawbone gaping.
“No unholy unearthly tech,” Tony agrees, “but some nice automatic stock—looks like third country militia stuff. Pretty nice.” He stops to retract the faceplate, and Steve is one hundred percent sure it’s just so he can smirk. “Not as nice as mine, of course.”
“Your modesty inspires,” Steve spits, “are you proud of your ability to kill people faster than terrorists?”
Tony spreads his hands, but his faceplate snaps back, defensive. “Everybody be hatin me.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Steve says, “what part of do not push past the perimeter do you not understand?”
“The part where you’re the boss of me,” Tony says flippantly, but his eyes are starting to glow. “No offense, Captain Star-Spangled, but until recently you were a moral booster. I’m the best in the world—“
“I’m in charge of the team,” Steve interrupts, fists clenched. “When you make judgments independent of command structure it undermines—“
“Oh, I’m sorry I must have forgotten the part where I signed enlistment papers—“
“What did you think joining this team meant—“
“Found something,” Natasha calls from under the table, Hawkeye clearing debris and dragging out something in a big black box. Steve takes a step back. Tony shoves past him hard enough to bruise. Steve tries to count to ten, give up on five, and shoves his hood off, wiping at his hairline. He scrubs a hand through his hair.
Hawkeye gestures at the conference table. “If those among us with supplemented strength wouldn’t mind?” Steve grabs one end of the box without looking at Tony, who hooks two fingers under the other, and they hoist it up onto the long tabletop. Steve smashes the edge of his shield against the lock and tosses the pieces aside. Tony rips the lid straight off, the hinges spinning off onto the varnished wood. Natasha rolls her eyes.
“Boys,” she sighs, and tosses aside the heavy white canvas lining the box. She sucks in a surprised breath. Tony, who’d been tapping his fingers on the table, goes completely still.
“What is it?” Steve asks, reaching out to poke at it, “missile, right?”
“Jericho,” Hawkeye mutters. Tony’s arm shoots out and grabs Steve’s wrist hard. Steve pulls back.
“What is—“ Steve is drowned out by Tony reaching in, grabbing the missile and slamming it down on the table hard enough for a crack to appear in the expensive varnish. Natasha jumps backwards and Hawkeye flinches a little. Steve raises his shield.
“Should you be doing that?” Steve asks nervously.
“We do not want that to explode,” Hawkeye says, hand starting to raise in appeasement, “Stark, come on.”
“We don’t know what they’ve done to it,” Natasha chimes in, “if they’ve altered it—could be unstable.” Tony shrugs her off and turns the missile over, ripping a plate off the casing. He pulls out a handful of wires.
“Happy now?” he asks, and tosses the plate he’d torn off to Steve, who catches it automatically. “See you at home, baby.” He blasts off, ripping another hole in the ceiling, and his glow fades into the early morning sky.
“We still have to debrief,” Steve says automatically, and then turns the slightly curved bit of thin steel over in his hand.
Etched on the lower left corner is a logo, a straight angled swoosh and a name: Stark Industries.
Steve spends the night at headquarters, and then the next, and doesn’t make it back until mid-morning the second day. He’s tired, the cot was thin and hung too low and the mess coffee was shitty and Pepper wasn’t there to make the shitty powdered eggs and the shitty greasy ham seem interesting, and when he slumps into the kitchen with the full intention of a good cup of coffee he’s unprepared for Pepper to be sitting at the island in her usual spot. He pauses cautiously.
“Shouldn’t you be at work?” he asks, walking in slowly.
“Yes,” she says, “and yet.” Steve slips into his usual seat and looks down. There’s two cups of coffee sitting in identical positions, on saucers, but only one is steaming. He wraps his hands around it greedily and sips. He sighs happily.
“The other one is for yesterday,” Pepper says tightly. Steve looks up. Her expression looks like it’s two seconds away from cracking. The nail polish is worn off her pinky fingers. Stve puts down his cup. The coffee doesn’t taste as good anymore. He hesitates, and then takes her hand from across the table, gently. The nails are ragged, like she’s been tapping them nervously.
“I’m sorry, Pepper.” Pepper takes a deep breath.
“Phil is dead,” she says, and her shoulders start to shake. “He’s dead and I had to find out from Jarvis and Tony won’t come out of the damn basement and you didn’t come home for two days.” Steve lets go of her hand and tries to get up, to go around or to hug her. She holds up a hand to stop him.
“Just. Just—“ She takes another deep breath. “I have to go do my nails.”
“Okay,” Steve says, “wait—Pepper. You should do them out here. On the couch.” He picks up the cold cup, “let me put this in the microwave.” Pepper wipes at her eyes, and slides her fingers around her cheekbones.
“Okay,” she says.
“Okay,” Steve says.
Pepper changes into MIT sweatpants that Steve rather gleefully notes are short on her and a soft knit top that clings to ribs and rides up on the points of her hips. She files, shapes, polishes and paints her nails carefully and lets them dry while Steve makes her explain pop cultural references in soap operas. He switches it to Maury just as she moves a foot up on the coffee table, frowning at her toes.
“Wait,” Steve says, “here.” He tugs her foot onto his lap so she can stretch on the couch, and reaches for the little basket of nail stuff.
“Steve,” she protests, “you don’t have to do that.”
“I want to,” he says, “now tell me which of these I’m supposed to use first. And then explain why they’re dancing.”
He paints her toes with the tip of his tongue between his teeth, her foot warming the inside of his thigh. She twitches when his palm brushes the sole of her foot, and her toes wriggle when he misses and brushes her skin with dark pink polish. He’s so involved with her second foot that he doesn’t notice she’s asleep until he’s dropped the last cotton ball to the side. He turns her foot this way and that, careful, and when he looks up she’s leaned against the back of the couch, her hair tumbling around her neck as it falls out of the ponytail. Her hand is resting on her side, and she’s breathing evenly.
Steve presses his fingers to her ankle, right where Tony had left those smudges the first day he came down. He traces the bone until she shivers unconsciously and murmurs wordlessly, shifting in her sleep. Then he leans back, her toes tucking under his leg and her heel pressed warm against him, and lets his exhaustion sweep him under.
He stirs, later, and a hand sweeps through his hair, soothes him into staying half asleep. “Sshh,” Pepper murmurs, and settles him back against the couch. “Go back to sleep.”
When Steve wakes again the room smells like Chinese takeout and Tony is sitting on the floor, his back against the sofa. His hair is tickling Steve’s arm. The lights are off, and the room is lit by the glow of the muted television, the colours playing over Tony’s face.
“Hey,” Steve says. His voice is rough from sleep.
“Nice Ninja awareness.” Tony shifts around and uses a single chopstick to stab a jumbo prawn. He bites it in half and then tosses it aside. “I’ve been sitting here for like half an hour.
Steve sits up and stretches. He reaches for a carton of pork fried rice. “Where’s Pepper?” Tony slaps his hand away.
“If one wants takeout one should order it oneself.”
“Fine,” Steve snaps, and goes to stalk off. He gets as far as on his feet.
“Wait—here, I’m an asshole. You know that.” Tony offers him a greasy white carton, but Steve is pissed off now, and remembering every little reason why he first decided Tony Stark was a poor reflection of his father.
“You didn’t tell Pepper Coulson died?” Tony’s jaw flexes visibly. He stands.
“What Pepper and I talk about isn’t any of your concern. And correct me if I’m wrong, but you didn’t even know, so this righteous concern of yours—“
“He was a good soldier.” Tony spins and throws the carton at the wall. Shrimp and sweet and sour sauce drips down the plaster.
“We are not soldiers.” They’re both breathing hard now, and three steps closer to each other than they had been. Steve makes himself take a step back, take a couple of calming breaths. He relaxes his posture with an effort of will.
“She cried,” he says, and Tony flinches. “She worries about you.”
“Pepper is a professionally worrier.” Tony sits back down and props his feet on the table. He holds out a tumbler, peace offering.
“He was a soldier,” Steve says stubbornly, but he sits down and takes the offered glass. “And so are you.”
“A poor one.” Tony rolls a shoulder.
“Exceptionally so,” Steve says, and takes a sip. Scotch. He hands it back to Tony, who sloshes it around thoughtfully.
“Nothing wrong with being a soldier,” Tony says finally. “You’re a good guy, Rogers.”
“Steve.” Tony twists to look at him. Steve is a little surprised himself. “My friends call me Steve.
“Is friendship what this is?” And Tony’s back to asshole mode. “Only Steve? I don’t get to call you a special name? I’m hurt.”
“Calling me Steve is good enough for your girlfriend.” Tony laughs.
“Jarvis, I’m hungry. Call in for Malaysian.” He redirects to Steve, “You ever had Malaysian?”
“No. What about the Chinese?”
“Boring. You sure eating cultural food isn’t going to get your sash ripped off?”
“I’m secure in my nationality,” Steve answers drily. Tony changes the subject abruptly.
“Pepper’s out of town until next week.”
“You can help me in the workshop, if you want. I’m reworking your suit, maybe the shield.”
“Leave my shield alone,” Steve says automatically, and then pauses. “Yeah,” he says, “that would be sick.”
“Sick?” Tony arches an eyebrow.
“Jarvis compiled a list of modern slang for me.”
“Don’t do that,” Tony says, reaching for the remote.
“Thank God,” Steve mutters, and leans back to watch Sports Night.
Steve gets all the way through cooking the largest omelet he can possible fit in the largest pan before he realizes Pepper isn’t there to eat it with him. He tries halfheartedly to work the coffee machine by himself before throwing the omelet on a plate, grabbing a few forks and checking his pocket for his phone before heading down the stairs. A glass door is being propped open by a squat looking robot who chirps at him while he passes.
“Thank you,” Steve says politely. He’s not sure what the etiquette is for talking to robots. The door swings shut behind him and he’s taken two steps when there’s an alarmed beeping from behind him. The robot has gotten stuck on the other side of the door, it’s claw spinning anxiously. Steve puts down the plate hurriedly and opens the door. The robot rolls through and buzzes at him.
“You’re welcome.” Steve scoops the plate up and feels good about his adjustment to life in the twenty first century. Tony is sitting in a swivel chair, bent over a table top with a stylus tucked behind his ear. Steve drops the plate in front of him and digs the forks out of his pocket, along with his phone.
“Show me how to send picture messages,” Steve says. Tony beckons him closer with one hand and flicks the fingers of his other hand. Four holographic displays fly off the table and suspend in the air, three dimensional images and schematics spinning slowly. Steve recognizes his suit, his shield.
“Let’s get started,” Tony says.
Later, Steve texts Pepper a pictures of the omelet with one of Tony’s ruler next to the plate for scale. Pepper texts back a coffee mug sitting on the iron railing of a balcony, the Eiffel Tower looming in the background.
Steve “helps” Tony for three days, which mainly seems to consist of bringing Tony breakfast and then vetoing everything he wants to do to his shield and letting the robot (Dummy) nearly strangle all three of them with a tape measure. On the fourth day Tony starts mumbling about adjusting the suit to include reflector panels like the ones on Fury’s airship. Steve bows out, citing lack of expertise and also interest. He takes a long run around the grounds before crashing.
He sleeps in the next day, and hits the gym before showering and padding down to the big television. Tony comes in four hours later.
“You’re cavorting with my robots now?” he asks. Steve tips his beer at him.
“We’re watching the game.” Dummy rolls over to the cooler and brings Tony a beer. Tony flops down on the other side of the couch.
“You can’t watch soccer, You’re Captain America.” Dummy pops open the beer and beer foam sloshes on Tony’s legs, the armrest of the sofa. Steve passes him a towel without looking away from the game.
“I watch football and baseball too.”
“If Loki is sighted on a beach in Jersey we should leave him there,” Steve says seriously. The front door opens and closes. Pepper’s heels click down the entryway.
“Welcome Home, Ms. Potts.”
“Thank you, Jarvis,” Pepper leans in to kiss Tony, eyes closed, and then to kiss Steve on the cheek. “Boys.”
Tony pulls her into his lap and kisses her again. She sighs into him, and wiggles until her back is against the armrest, her legs extended onto Steve’s lap. He lifts them to settle them better, and then starts to unbuckle the first heel, quick and sure. He slips it off and drops it to the side before doing the same to the other. He rubs the tips of his fingers over the red marks on her skin and goes back to watching the game. He doesn’t realize Pepper and Tony have stopped moving and are watching him until he realizes he’s massaging Pepper’s feet. He stops.
“Sorry.” Pepper tucks her toes under his leg and leans her head on Tony’s shoulder.
“Mmm,” she says. Steve glances down and notices her toes have that ragged look to them, there’s dark polish on the knuckle.
“Hey, this is what I did. You didn’t redo it?”
“No,” Pepper says, eyes closed.
“But it’s kind of… bad.” Steve can’t help but feeling slightly appalled. She went to business meetings and met important people and was less than her perfectly polished self. Tony traces a finger up and down her arm, from elbow to shoulder.
“I like it,” Pepper murmurs, and falls asleep. Steve mutes the television. Tony rests his hand on Pepper’s hip.
“So,” Tony says, as Steve hesitantly curls his fingers around Pepper’s ankle. He freezes with his palm pressed to the bone. “Who’s playing?” Steve immediately recites an impressive number of statistics and they have a whispered argument over which sport is truly the Beautiful Game. Steve brushes his thumb across her Achilles tendon the whole time.
Steve comes down for breakfast and finds Pepper and Tony waiting for him. Tony points at him accusingly.
“This is an intervention.”
“What?” Pepper rolls her eyes and hands Steve his coffee.
“We just think that maybe you’ve been avoiding leaving the house.”
“When was the last time you even left this building?” Tony asks.
“You haven’t left either,” Steve accuses, and Tony shrugs.
“I’m not suffering from culture shock.” Pepper pushes Steve into a chair and brings him a plate, homefried potatoes, sliced skirt steak, two poached eggs.
“It’s not culture shock,” Steve argues “This is my culture.”
“Shut up Tony,” Pepper says serenely, and rests her hand on Steve’s arm. “It’s not the culture you knew, and it’s fine that you feel overwhelmed.” Steve stares at his plate.
“I don’t understand how so much could have changed,” he says quietly. Pepper frowns.
“Hey,” Tony says, “baby steps. Let’s get you that bike.”
“I don’t have a driver’s license,” Steve confesses. “Well I do but I imagine it’s... expired.”
“I’ll handle it,” Pepper is already pulling out her blackberry, “go with Tony and pick something out.”
They’re in the back of the car ten minutes into the ride before Steve can screw up enough courage to confess. “I don’t think I have enough money.”
“What are you talking about? You’re rich.” Steve does a double take.
“My father took control of your accounts. Paid for a funeral, tombstone and then invested the rest in stocks, cashed out when they became profitable. The money’s been sitting in your account gathering interest since you got a little icy. That reminds me, should probably have that stone taken down and burned or something, bad luck.”
“What.” Tony takes one look at his face and raps his knuckles against the black partition.
“Happy, detour. Take us to the bank.”
Tony beats Steve back to the house, and Steve rumbles to a stop at the highest part of the driveway. Pepper is waiting outside, and Tony is waving his hands around as he talks to her. Steve cuts the engine and swings the keys around a finger.
“—used, Pepper, he bought used.” Steve sighs. The argument is fairly familiar, since they just finished having it right before Steve had to sign his name three hundred times on all the paperwork.
“Just because I have all that money doesn’t mean I should use it,” Steve says stubbornly.
“You have a black AmEx,” Tony says despairingly.
“I don’t know what that means,” Steve says cheerfully. Pepper smiles. Tony makes an outraged choking noise. “Ms. Potts you wouldn’t buy new just to spend money, would you?” Pepper’s smile widens.
“These shoes cost eleven thousand dollars.” Tony and Steve both do a double take.
“You spent eleven thousand dollars on a pair of shoes?” Steve asks. He thinks he spent maybe thirty dollars on his sneakers, and remembers that he thought that was astronomical.
“No,” Pepper says, “Tony spent eleven thousand dollars on these shoes. I bought them as a birthday present for myself a few years ago.” Tony leers.
“I have good taste,” he says. Steve boggles a little, and then recovers.
“If a motorcycle could look as good as you do in those shoes I would spend eleven thousand dollars,” he says. Pepper laughs, delighted.
“He bought a used five thousand dollar motorcycle,” Tony moans. Pepper ignores him.
“Well, show me,” she says, and Steve grabs her hand to lead her over, chattering about engines and horsepower and kick and pointing out different things that hadn’t existed before he joined the military.
“Here,” he says, “sit behind me sidesaddle. We’ll go over and park it in the garage.” Pepper eyes him.
“If I fall—“
“My wallet couldn’t afford replacing your outfit,” Steve jokes “we’ll idle over, it’ll be fine.”
“You have a black American Express card,” Tony shouts, and then points a finger at him. “Heathen.”
“Hedonist,” Steve snipes back, and climbs on the bike before twisting to help Pepper perch precariously behind him.
“I swear to god, Steve, if I fall off.” Steve catches her arm and guides it around her waist.
“I won’t drop you,” he says. Pepper sighs. Steve grins and kicks up the engine, walking it over the garage on his toes and into the first open spot. It takes forever and his calves complain, but Pepper tightens her arm around him over ever little change in the pavement and it’s the best motorcycle ride Steve has ever been on.
When they get back to the house Tony is sulking, but he’s also ordered pizza and recorded a soccer game, so they eat and squish onto the couch and when Tony leans his arm around the back of the sofa to brush Pepper’s shoulders the tips of his fingers rest on the back of Steve’s neck.
“Sometimes you have to be unhealthy,” Steve says when Pepper looks slightly aghast at him rolling sausages links into pancakes. He pats the bacon down with a paper towel to absorb the grease. Pepper continues to look horrified. He grins.
“Plain pancakes in the oven.” He points a spatula at the oven. “To keep warm.”
“Very smart, Mr. Rogers.”
“I try, ma’am.” Pepper opens the fridge and rummages around. Steve perks up. “What do you have today?”
Pepper grins and fishes something out, triumphant. “Guava.” The glass of the syrup bottle clinks on the table. Steve grabs his plate and meets her at the table.
“Oh,” Pepper says when they’ve been eating for a while, “This came in late last night.” She slides a laminated license over to him. “Motorcycle and car.”
“How did you get this so fast without me taking a test or anything?”
Pepper licks syrup off a tine of her fork. “I have my ways.”
“I think I’m going to go out today,” Steve says. He keeps his eyes on his plate. “Tony gave me an earpiece that links to Jarvis, and I think I need new clothes. Books, maybe.” He glances up without moving his head.
“It would be my pleasure to provide Captain Rogers with navigational aid.”
“I appreciate it, Jarvis.”
“I think that’s good,” Peppers says, dumping her plate in the sink. “Have fun.” She points a finger at him. “Helmet.”
Steve points at his skull. “Superhuman healing.”
“Tony wears a helmet. You’re going to wear a helmet.”
“I’ll buy one while I’m out.”
“You’ll use the one Tony dug out and left for you in the garage. Jarvis, call me if he tries to drive without it.”
“Naturally, Ms. Potts.” Steve sighs. Pepper ruffles his hair and kisses his cheek.
“See you for dinner?”
“Yeah. You do good at those… things you do.” Pepper arches an eyebrow.
“Run a multi-billion dollar company dominated by misogynistic old men with cigars who are convinced I got this job by screwing Anthony Stark?”
“Yes,” Steve says, “although to be fair you are now uh,” he fumbles. “With… Tony.” Pepper stares at him. “I’ll bring you a present,” he finishes weakly. Pepper smiles.
“I love presents.” She packs her briefcase and checks her phone one last time. “Jarvis, page Happy for me.”
“Certainly. Have a pleasant day, Ms. Potts.”
“Thank you.” She turns to Steve. “Walk me out?”
“Sure,” Steve takes her briefcase and trails her to the garage, chatting lightly about what kind of clothes he might be looking for, Pepper recommending books, movies, television. He opens the door for her before Happy can, and Pepper wiggles her fingers at him in a wave before the tinted window rolls up and the car disappears out of the gate. Steve jogs back to the house to grab a jacket and his wallet and the little earpiece Tony fitted up for him that connects him to Jarvis. It’s so small it he has to concentrate to put it in.
“Good morning, Captain Rogers,” Jarvis says into his ear. Steve scoops his keys off the dresser.
All in all it goes well, except for a minor incident where a teenager worker at Walmart recognizes him, bursts into happy tears and faints and a major incident at a Marshalls where Jarvis cuts in at the cash register and informs him that Pepper has left direct instructions limiting the amount of plaid shirts he’s allowed to purchase. He’s coming out of a bookstore when his phone starts buzzing and playing a guitar riff he doesn’t recognize but makes Pepper roll her eyes.
“Jarvis says you’re shopping at Walmart.” Tony sounds a little gleeful.
“And you’re keeping all of this in the saddlebags of your motorcycle.”
“Is that bad?”
“No. If you crumpled Armani to fit in your bag Pepper would stroke out. You ready for lunch?”
Steve checks his watch. “I could eat.”
“Excellent. Jarvis will direct you.” Steve looks down at himself.
“Should I change?”
“Sure what the hell,” Tony says, “we’ll go someplace befitting your new wardrobe.”
“This is a Burger King,” Steve says ten minutes later, walking in. He slides into the cheap plastic booth. “Even I know about Burger King.
“You shopped at Walmart.” Tony waves his hand and a nervous looking teenager in a blue visor shuffles to their booth. “I rented out the place due to your delicate nerves. I’ll have the quarter pounder with cheese, fries, pepsi.”
“This is Burger King,” the boy says. He looks a little terrified.
“Quarter pounder is at McDonalds.”
Steve takes pity on him. “He’ll have a cheeseburger with fries and a coke. So will I.” The boy flushes a violet shade of red.
“Okay sir-Captain—Mr. America, sir.” He flees.
“He has a crush on you.” Tony is looking for something in the inner pocket of his suitjacket. Steve glances back towards where the teenager is busy dropping bags of frozen French fries into the dryer and flinching as the grease splatters back at him. “Ah, here.” He hands Steve a folded up piece of thin cardboard. Steve unfolds it to reveal a cheap crown cutout.
“Here you’re royalty,” Tony says solemnly. Steve hooks the ends together and props it on Tony’s head. Tony shakes his head so it falls to one side and lounges.
“It suits you,” Steve teases.
“My grace and ease with power and wealth?”
“Your delusions of grandeur.” The kid comes back with their food on plastic trays and Tony eats ten fries in one bite.
“Fury called me,” Tony says. “Offered me a spot on the team.”
“He mentioned he might.”
“He said you expressed concerns.”
“Everyone expressed concerns.” Steve dumps pepper into his ketchup and stirs it with a fry. “When you operate independently of the team it compromises the situation, the team. Puts people in danger.” Tony is frowning.
“This is about the last mission. I told you, I could handle it. And I did.”
“It doesn’t matter if you can handle it or even if you hadn’t missed something, gotten it wrong—“
“Which I didn’t.”
“Because when I can’t count on you to do what we agreed on, I’m in the dark about what the rest of the team should do. It puts people in danger, people who can’t heal like me and can’t take hits like you.”
“Except Bruce. The point is, Tony. I know you don’t like the army or SHIELD but it isn’t about keeping you on a leash. It’s about working with people, knowing what they’re going to do and being able to count on your teammates to do what they’ve agreed to do.”
Tony frowns. He peels a long thin strip of bun away from his burger and eats in quiet. “I’ll think about it,” he says reluctantly. Steve reaches out and pushes the paper crown more firmly down on his head. Tony grins.
“So,” Steve says, “that missile was yours?” Tony stiffens.
“The last weapon I ever designed, apart from the suit.”
“How’d they get a hold of it?”
Tony shrugs, but there’s tension in his posture, all along his spine and up to his shoulders. “I know a lot of Stark firepower was making its way along the blackmarket. Pepper is investigating within the company for leaks.” Tony plays with his napkin before tossing it aside. He pulls of the crown and looks at it.
“I’m really good at designing weapons, best at designing long range explosive devices, like the missiles. That one, the Jericho could take down any kind of bunker anyone could build. There’s nothing else even close.”
Steve frowns. “In my experience people can make better armor just as fast as they can make better guns.”
“The best bunker in the world is to that missile as the best foot soldier body armor is to the suit.” Steve can’t help being surprised. Tony half-smiles, broody. “I’ve only ever been good at designing things to murder human beings.”
“I am the thing designed to murder human beings,” Steve says bluntly. Tony tosses the crown to him.
“I know why I started doing this,” Tony says, “my hardware, my responsibility. And it’s fun. But you, you are seriously just that patriotic?”
Steve considers for a minute, chewing the last bite. “The war… it really was like the world was ending. And I wasn’t even around for the worst of it. All I wanted to do was help, be useful.”
Steve shrugs. “I’m good at it. They haven’t been able to make any more of me, after all. And the world always does seem to be ending.” He drops the crown on the table. Tony shoves the tray away from him.
“Yes. I’ll call Fury later.”
“Good,” Steve says, and pulls a slim leather cover from his back, an electronic reader nestled inside. “I need you to show me how to use this. And also I need to bring something for Pepper and it can’t be eleven thousand dollar shoes.”
They bring Pepper a cat sweater from Goodwill. She has Jarvis incinerate it immediately.
Steve comes down one morning and Pepper is having coffee with Bruce.
“Hey,” he says, awkward. Pepper hands Steve his morning coffee.
“Hey,” Steve says. “You want breakfast?”
“No,” Bruce says, standing up, “I came to borrow something from Tony. I’m uh,” he flushes, “I’m meeting a friend.”
“It was nice to see you again, Mr. Banner,” Pepper says warmly. “Please let me know if you need anything else.”
“I’ll see you around,” Bruce says to Steve, “I signed that thing for Fury.” He looks good, Steve thinks, filled out a little, looks less haggard, warmer.
“Yeah,” he says. When he turns from waving Bruce off Pepper is holding a clear plastic wrap of coffee beans and looking smug. He puts down his coffee cup and points at her.
“What is in this,” he demands. Pepper leans away from him, hiding the bag behind her.
“You have to increase your palate.”
“Let me see that—Jarvis!” Pepper puts the coffee on the counter and swings her bag on her shoulder.
“Don’t tell him, Jarvis.”
“Certainly, Ms. Potts.” Steve swats at her with the spatula, playful, and dips his head so she can kiss his cheek goodbye. She leaves and he dumps the dishes in the sink. Tony wanders in and dips his fingers in the spray to flick water at Steve’s eyes.
Steve dried his hands on the dishtowel. “You want coffee?” Tony picks up his cup and takes a sniff. He puts it down quickly.
“You know what’s in that?”
“Ms. Potts left specific instructions,” Jarvis chimes in. Steve glares at the ceiling.
“Ah,” Tony says, “a Pepper thing. Fury called, training exercise. Come on, we can Starbucks on the go.”
“Nice suit,” Natasha says. Steve heaves a long suffering sigh.
“Tony wanted to put Captain America across my ass.”
“It’s the fashion,” Tony insists.
“I know,” Steve says, “the fashion for girls.”
Tony taps metal fingers against his reactor. “Ever since he learned how to google he’s been insufferable.”
“Ladies, if you please,” Fury’s voice filters through a loudspeaker. “Your objective is to locate and capture the package. Go..” Hawkeye’s bow unfolds with a snap.
“Plan?” Natasha asks.
“Yes,” Tony replies and points at Bruce, “handle it, Hunky Hulk.” Bruce adjusts his glasses.
Steve tightens his grip on the shield. “You know this is an exercise in extraction. Finesse. Hawkeye, you take our sixes, Natasha and me in front. Tony, you’re on air support.”
The first part of the scenario is easy. Letting them take a minute to gel when the fate of the world isn’t on the line, Steve figures. It’s when they sweep the first warehouse and move into the second that they run into problems.
“Infrared reads no life signs.”
Bruce chimes in through the mic and earpiece, “Could be they left the package unguarded to trick us.”
“Unlikely,” Natasha says immediately.
“They should be trying to keep the simulation as realistic as possible,” Hawkeye agrees.
Steve bites his lip. “We treat it like urban warfare, clear every building.”
“Wait,” Tony cuts in, “I see it.”
Steve raises his shield. “Where?”
“Next building, roof. Ten—wait, fifteen bogies.”
Hawkeye pulls an arrow out of the quiver. “We’re on our way.”
“I can get it,” Tony says, “stand by.”
“Negative,” Steve shouts, and he and Natasha start running, “wait for the team, assume a tactical position and wait for orders.”
“Relax, I’m about to finish this exercise in time for sushi. You’re gonna love eel.”
“Stark, I am ordering you—“ They round the entryway and Steve throws himself sideways to catch Natasha, bringing up his shield. Three paintballs splatter in the inner circle, clustered neatly. Steve lands in the dirt and rolls awkwardly, scrabbling to his feet. Natasha rolls easily and comes up firing, double tapping the guard in the chest with pale yellow paint. On the next rooftop a flare explosion booms and dies quickly. Tony swears in Steve’s ear.
Steve throws his shield to cover Hawkeye’s left flank and loops an arm around the guard rushing him, choking him out and tossing him aside. Natasha drags him sideways around a building for cover, and Hawkeye runs over under the cover of Steve’s shield. He holds it out.
“Here---shit!” He shoves the shield into Steve’s chest hard enough to knock him sideways. Three thumps hit Hawkeye’s chest in quick succession, neon green arcing on his vest. He throws his arrow down in frustration. The buzzer sounds, and Fury gets out of a car thirty meters away.
“Impressive.” Tony lands in front of them. His faceplate is sparking, and he twitches sideways before ripping it off with one hand. He tosses something in the dirt—remnants of a flare wrapped in charred brown paper.
“Shitty package,” he says. Hawkeye is taking an inordinate amount of care in putting his bow away, muscles clenched.
“C’mon Clint,” Natasha says, “I need to shoot something.”
Steve wheels on Tony. “Didn’t we just finish talking about this?” Tony’s brow furrows.
“I told you I was going in—you don’t even carry a weapon, it makes sense for me to swoop and grab-“ Steve grabs him, fingers slipping for purchase against the smooth metal, and finds grooves in the arm pieces. He throws Tony sideways.
“You got Hawkeye shot.” Tony jerks in his grip before knocking Steve’s hands away, hard. Steve spins back, ready to throw a punch, just so fucking angry, but Tony pushes him off balance before he can steady himself.
“I’m sorry,” he says quietly, and Steve stills. “I said I’d think about it and I did, okay.”
“It was our first training exercise,” Steve concedes. “Hey!” he shouts at Natasha and Hawkeye, who are walking into the distance, back to base. “Come on, we’re going again.” He looks back at Tony. “We’ll get better.”
Steve is doing pushups when Tony starts banging on his door at five in the morning, and when he opens the door Tony is bouncing on his toes, hair in complete disarray.
“I finished it,” he says, “hey is that your apartment? I like it, very Spartan, very boring, very you—very nice,” he backpedals, talking a mile a minute and then pauses. “Very Pepper, actually.”
“Why are you at my door at five in the morning,” Steve asks, and resists Tony’s attempt to push past him.
“Holy crap it’s five in the morning, time for bed. I came by to drop this off.”
“This is my phone,” Steve says, looking back to the table where he usually leaves it, “how—“
“It’s upgraded. Smash it and Jarvis pings me. You should really… check your pockets more often—are those drawings on the walls? Are those your drawings on the walls?”
“No they’re very nice I just had no idea you possessed talents. Well, talents that don’t include punching Nazis out with the American flag—“ Steve shuts the door in Tony’s face and goes for a shower.
“So Tony stole my phone and did something to it,” Steve says to Pepper later that morning, “I’m worried.”
“Something untoward?” Pepper asks, and manages to waggle her eyebrows in a refined manner.
“Most likely.” Steve drops French toast on two plates and slides into his seat at the kitchen island. “A panic button, I think. It was hard to tell.”
“Oh,” Pepper says, dabbing at her mouth lightly with a napkin, “I’ve got that too. You know how Tony is.” Steve is reflecting upon how weird it is that he actually does know how Tony is and even finds it a little endearing, and so he misses Pepper’s strange look at the toast.
“Steve—“ she says, “Steve is there fruit in this, I-“ she coughs, and rubs at her chest, flushed. Her breath drags raggedly.
“Yes,” Steve says, standing abruptly. His fork clatters to the floor. “Strawberries, strawberry extract, it was a surprise. Are you okay?? Pepper?” He catches her around the waist and lowers her to floor. She’s panting a little, her chest arching with the effort.
“Jarvis!” Steve calls frantically.
“Ms. Potts is allergic to strawberries,” Jarvis replies, “Emergency services are on their way and--” The back wall explodes with a blue pulse and Tony skids to a stop from a full out flight so fast he drives deep grooves into the floor.
“Mr. Stark is also on his way,” Jarvis finishes. Something flashes in Tony’s hand and a needle hisses into Pepper’s arm.
Pepper takes a deep breathe, coughing deeply, and starts breathing more normally, her lips flushing healthy.
“Holy shit Pepper,” Tony breathes, cradling her, and she wraps an arm around his shoulders, patting the upper arm of his suit. Steve backs away, almost frozen, his face a horrified mask.
“Steve,” Pepper says, her breathing calmed. “It’s okay, Steve.” Steve takes another step back, ready to flee, but she reaches a hand out to him and he can’t leave.
“I’m so sorry,” he says, and kneels carefully next to her, laces her fingers in his.
“It’s my fault,” Pepper says, “I thought there was just a few strawberries cut up in the batter. I’ve never had a reaction like that before.”
“Allergies are subject to change every seven years,” Jarvis adds helpfully.
“Shut the fuck up, Jarvis,” Tony snaps. Steve privately agrees.
“Wait,” he says, “you knew you were allergic and you knew I made you strawberry pancakes and you ate them anyway?” Pepper blinks at him.
“You made them,” she says, leaning heavily into Tony. “I wanted to eat them.” Tony and Steve gape at her.
“You need a medical alert bracelet,” Tony says, at nearly the same time that Steve declares:
“Jarvis nothing with strawberry is allowed in the house.”
“Hey,” she protests.
“Noted, Captain Rogers.” Jarvis says.
“You should run a full allergy panel,” Steve says, “I read an article on Yahoo News.”
“I’ll do you one better,” Tony says.
“Emergency services are now entering the premises,” Jarvis reports.
“Full body scan,” Steve says to Tony.
“With a complete blood panel. Maybe a MRI.”
“Isn’t the radiation harmful?”
“I can fix that.”
“Oh Christ,” Pepper mutters, and then she’s being helped up by paramedics and argues the entire way to the ambulance. Tony pages Jarvis to page Happy and tells Pepper they’ll meet her at the hospital. Tony goes to change out of the suit.
When he comes back Steve catches his arm. “Those panic buttons. I want one that pings me for Pepper.” Tony pauses.
“I can do that,” he says. Steve takes a deep breath.
“I want one in your phone connected to me.” Tony considers him.
“Done. You ready?”
“Wait—“ Steve goes into the kitchen and dumps everything, the plates, the pan, the utensils, into a stainless steel drawer that seals with a hiss. “Jarvis?”
“Incineration and disposal commencing, sir.”
He turns to Tony. “Now I’m ready.”
Pepper has already managed to discharge herself by the time they’ve found what floor she’s on, and she argues Tony down from complete bed rest for the rest of the day to working from the couch for the rest of the day.
“I’m still mad at you,” Steve tells her as he helps her into the car. She’s a little dizzy still, shaky, and she slides over the seat bench to lean against his side.
“No you’re not,” she says. Tony slides in the other door and picks up Pepper’s legs, propping them up on his lap. Steve sighs. “Mm,” Pepper mumbles, and falls asleep on Steve’s shoulder. Tony falls asleep with his face pressed against the window, finally crashing.
Steve eases Pepper’s head down to his lap and tucks her hair behind her ear. He reaches over and pulls Tony back so his head won’t bang against the door. “Happy,” he calls, rapping on the partition with the tips of his knuckles, “drive around for a while, please.” Tony mumbles something about fission and Pepper’s thumbs twitch. Steve leans his head back against the seatrest and closes his eyes.
On Tuesday, it’s Pepper’s birthday. She takes Steve with her to work and plays hooky, showing him the massive art collection she’s managed to hide from Tony’s whims. Steve drinks it in, greedy, and Pepper finds the styles that hadn’t really existed when Steve was around, pieces that he could never afford to go see. After, Steve drops her off to go have dinner with Tony and asks Jarvis to find him an art supply store, real charcoal and thick paper. He goes to a coffee shop, a hat pulled over his face, just another artist wannabe, and doesn’t leave until late.
When he gets in there are wine glasses on the coffee table, and Pepper’s wrap is looped around the railing of the stairs. A heel is on the floor of the kitchen, its partner on the first floor landing. Steve leaves his present on the coffeemaker. It’s charcoal, rough lines and sharp planes: Pepper sitting in a high skirt and button blouse, looking down into her cup of coffee, Steve’s back as he faces the stove, spinning tongs over one finger, Tony entering the room on the right, half-in half-out of the suit and arguing with Dummy, who’s rolling in with three syrup bottles, dripping maple all the way.
On Wednesday Tony and Steve leave at two in the morning, Steve skidding down the stairs in the suit, tugging his hood on with one hand, his shield strapped to his back. Pepper is already up, in shorts and one of Tony’s dress shirts. She holds up a hand to Steve.
“I understand you’re conducting your own investigation but this is the second time we’ve had terrorists come forward with Stark merchandise that hasn’t been released onto the market. You had your chance, now I want every person that had access out of bed and in the office.” She taps her ear. “Tony’s on the way,” she says to Steve, “SHIELD is sending a jet to land in the back.” Steve nods. Pepper taps her earpiece again. “Lorie? I need you at the office. Page security and at least two people from HR and PR.” Steve scoops her up and spins her around.
“You’re something else,” he tells her, and kisses her on the forehead.
“Don’t let Tony do anything stupid,” she tells him, and Steve throws her a salute on his way out the door.
On Thursday Alcatraz falls on Steve and Bruce. Hulk had tried to take the brunt of the concrete falling on Steve—or he’d been trying to punch the concrete falling on Steve, it’s hard to tell with the other guy. Steve has a brief moment of wondering if this is going to be the thing that kills him before Tony slams to the ground in front of him, puts both hands up and explodes something out of his palms. A blue-white arc of light that shimmers and solidifies and holds for almost a minute before Tony makes a choking noise and collapses. Something heavy slams into Steve’s temple and his vision flashes white, narrows, and then disappears altogether.
When he wakes up he’s lying face down in the dust. He coughs, and then spits. “Tony?” he rasps weakly, and coughs again. “Tony? Bruce?” his voice rattles out. It’s completely dark, and Steve gropes around, scrabbling on the ground over pieces of concrete, insulation. He closes his fingers around a piece of rebar before tossing it aside. He sits back on his heels and takes a deep breath.
He remembers SHIELD flying them over the evacuated area, people still trickling out of houses and down the street, National Guard and police directing. National Guard and tactical teams had cleared the city, but Fury had volunteered their team to move in on the island, where the gunmen had taken their stand and almost two hundred tourists hostage. They’d lounged around on the boat with the hostage negotiators before Fury had gotten the green light. He remembers Tony towing him and Bruce underwater, chafing at how slow they’d had to go, the feel of the regulator and the tank on his back.
He can’t remember why the building had fallen. He thinks they’re in the power building, that seems right and familiar, but he can’t remember what had happened or who had done it. He can’t remember what happened to the hostages. He goes to scrub his hands over his face and they come back wet and sticky. His head feels fuzzy.
“Tony,” he calls again, and starts moving more slowly, more systematically. His fingers touch smooth metal—his shield. He slings it on his back and breathes a little easier. “Banner,” he shouts, and a groan answers him.
“Rogers,” Bruce mumbles, and Steve heaves a sigh. At least he isn’t stuck under a collapsed building in the dark with an angry green giant. “I’m okay.”
“Why didn’t you answer,” Steve asks, and hesitantly tries to stand. His head tilts alarmingly, but he pushes through, one hand raised until he feels the rubble ceiling over him—except he never feels it. Instead his fingers press against something smooth, strong, and tingly. He presses his palm against it experimentally and feels no give.
“I’m meditating,” Bruce says evenly—very evenly.
“Ah,” Steve says, “carry on, then.” He puts both hands on the smooth surface and shoves hard.
“Please stop that,” Tony whispers faintly from his left. “Believe me when I say you don’t want that to fall down.” Steve moves towards him, crawling on hands on knees, until he jams his finger painfully against the metal of the suit.
“You okay?” he asks, and traces up until he can feel the faceplate.
“Under the back, feel for the release switches. Just the plate, not the helmet.” Steve has to strain to hear Tony, and his voice lacks the robotic tinge it usually does. He fumbles around in the dark for a while until he finally presses down in the right places and there’s a hiss of air. The plate comes off in his hands and his knuckles brush skin. He tosses the faceplate aside.
“I bet you wish I’d redid your shield now,” Tony says, and he sounds a lot better. “You hurt?”
“I’m okay,” Steve says, and then promptly vomits. His head pounds, and he dry heaves a few times before coming back to himself. His face is pressed against cool metal.
“Did you just vomit on me?” Tony asks, “it’s dark but I think you just vomited on me and then laid your head in my lap and cried.”
“I may have hit my head,” Steve says, and sits up carefully. He wipes at his mouth.
“Do you think it’s easy cleaning vomit out of this suit? Believe me, I’ve done it.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Steve snipes. “Come on, get up. We have to work out a plan.”
“I can’t,” Tony says, and Steve sits up straighter, thinking about spinal injuries and realizing how fragile Tony is compared to him and Bruce when he’s not in the suit. “Power’s down,” Tony continues, and Steve relaxes fractionally. “It’s all rerouted to the shield.”
“How long can you hold it?”
“Not sure. I shut down the monitoring after an hour. You’ve been out for two.” Steve digests the information for a minute.
“Thoughts?” he asks. “Natasha, Hawkeye?”
“Not sure. Didn’t see them and Bruce doesn’t remember.”
“We could… if Bruce could shield us and then push out—“
Bruce rustles from his corner, “We considered it. Tony would have to drop the shield right as I… change. And then you’d both have to hope the other guy doesn’t panic.”
“Do we have any other options?” Steve presses one hand against his temple and takes deep breaths.
“Jarvis broadcasted a message out right before I raised the shield,” Tony says.
“What does that mean?” Bruce asks. Steve gently eases himself down until he’s prone on the ground and closes his eyes.
“Well,” Tony says cheerfully, “we just have to wait for Pepper to save us. Shouldn’t take long, she’s terribly efficient.” Steve coughs. He presses his face into the metal of Tony’s side. His cheek is against a groove in the metal, and his blood is making his skin slip and slide.
Dimly, he is aware of a warm presence settling in next to him, and Bruce’s hands hot against his forehead. He lists away, feeling overheated, and pushes closer to Tony, the cold soothing on his skin.
“Aren’t you a doctor?” Tony asks, and Bruce snorts, his breath huffing through Steve’s hair.
“The same way you are,” he says.
“I have several doctorates, actually. How is he?”
“Hard to say.”
“Because of the lack of medical degree?”
“Because of the lack of visibility. He has enhanced healing abilities, we’ll just have to hope for the best. And for Ms. Potts.”
“Pepper is the best,” Steve says. Bruce pats him on the head.
“I’ll be able to tell when it’s about to give,” Tony says. “Hulking out can be our Hail Mary.”
“Go to sleep, Steve,” Bruce says, “it could help.”
“I’m already on it,” Steve assures him.
He’s not sure how long he’s been dozing when Bruce starts shaking him awake. “Steve,” he says, “We need to move Tony.” It’s brighter when Steve opens his eyes, only a thin bit of light coming in, but enough to sting his eyes. All he can really make out are the rough dark shadows of Bruce and Tony, and a rough semblance of the rubble around him.
“I thought you said he would be better,” Tony is saying, and Bruce is shoving Steve into a corner, propping him up against the shield and pushing him down when he tries to move.
“I thought he would be,” Bruce says, panting as he drags something heavy over the floor to Steve.
“Ow, watch the head, watch the head.”
“Can’t we take some of this off, use your reactor as light?”
“As much as I would love to be your personal bug zapper the only way we’re lightening me up is if Steve has an industrial socket wrench in his jockstrap.” Steve’s vision is clearing a little, well enough that he can crawl forward and help Bruce pull Tony into the corner of their small space. He can tell now, that the buzzing he thought was in his ears is actually coming from outside, and see the dust is vibrating off the debris around him.
There’s a muted explosion somewhere up and to the left of them, and a couple large chunks of cement shift to allow a large beam of light into the cavern. A shadow moves into it, and Steve cranes his head up to see Hawkeye bent over, boots on Tony’s shield.
“Hey,” he calls down casually. “Is there any way to pass through this part of the shield while keeping the rest of it intact?”
“No,” Tony snaps, “what do you think this is, Power Rangers? It’s a fucking force shield.”
“Roger that. Any other ideas?”
“Tunnel,” Bruce says, “Up and through? Drop a shunt in to let one side collapse and keep us safe and then pull out of that hole. Letting the other guy take a chance.
“Work, won’t work, work,” Tony says. “Tunneling will take longer than just digging us out.”
“That’s what we figured,” Hawkeye says. “Alright hold tight.” He leans closer, “Cap you look like hell.”
“Head wound,” Tony calls, “isn’t showing any signs of healing but not worsening either.”
“Have a medical team on standby,” Bruce says.
“Aren’t you a doctor?” Hawkeye asks.
“We’ve been over this,” Tony snaps, “Also I’m going to need a harness lift out of here. No power.”
“Natasha,” Steve says, fighting to focus.
“She’s fine,” Hawkeye says. “Ms. Potts says you’re both in big trouble.”
“We didn’t drop the building,” Tony argues.
“She says the terrorists are in bigger trouble. See you soon.” He disappears from view and Bruce starts poking at Steve’s temple again.
“Didn’t we establish you’re not a medical doctor?” Steve bats at his hands. Bruce grins at him.
“Nice to hear you complain.” There’s a rumble, and a little more light filters through. Steve can hear the sounds of the machines now, the shouts of workers, but he’s feeling fuzzy again, and Bruce has to catch him so he doesn’t faceplant into Tony’s chest. He wretches again, and Bruce yanks his hood off over to wipe at Steve’s face.
“Maybe he shouldn’t sleep,” Tony says worriedly, “Is he going to be able to climb out of here? You’re a lean mean fighting machine, Bruce, but Steve isn’t on this side of slight.”
“We’ll manage,” Bruce says, and then “Just rest, Steve, okay. It’ll be fine. I am, in fact, a doctor.”
“Shut up Tony,” Bruce says, but he’s smiling. Steve figures not a lot of people try to joke around with him.
“Pepper’ll kill you if you don’t wake up,” Tony warns, and Steve drifts off again, feeling sick and woozy and thinking of Pepper’s head in his lap and Tony’s hand playing with the hair on his neck.
Steve wakes up in the hospital, the one he woke up in that first time, the radio even playing the same broadcast. It is at once familiar and so, so alien. Pepper is sitting in a chair against the wall, in a cream blouse and dark blazer, form fitting slacks and flats.
“You’re not wearing heels,” Steve croaks. “Did Stark Industries go under?” Pepper rises and bends to kiss his cheek, a familiar gesture, but lingers, her face dipping into his neck. Steve brings his hands up and hugs her gingerly. Pepper half straightens and fusses at his hair.
“The doctors said you’ll be fine.”
Steve points at his head “Superhuman healing.” Pepper cracks a smile.
“Didn’t I tell you to wear a helmet?”
“I’ll get Stark to make me one.”
Pepper snorts. “Believe me when I say he’s already on it.”
Steve frowns. “I don’t like it here,” he says, “I want to go home.” Pepper glares at him. “I feel fine,” he protests. Pepper clicks her nails against the screen of her phone, thinking.
“I’ll handle it,” she says, “Bruce wants to see you.”
“Hey,” Bruce says, “you look good.” He’s with a tall woman, pretty with dark hair. She excuses herself quietly and Steve shakes Bruce’s hand.
“So,” Steve says, “that’s your… friend.” Bruce grins. “How does that work?” Steve asks without thinking. Bruce’s grin widens.
Ten somewhat awkward minutes later Steve is sliding into the car, Happy giving him a friendly grin. As soon as the tinted door shuts behind them Steve finds himself with an awkward lapful of Pepper, her arms around his neck in a crushing hug. Steve takes a deep breath of her perfume before she pulls away and smacks his bicep.
“Don’t you do that again,” she orders, and pulls out her blackberry again.
“So many things I didn’t want to know,” Steve says.
Tony grins at him when Steve makes his way down to the workshop.
“No brain damage,” Steve reports.
“Says you. You gonna let me upgrade your shield now?”
“Not on your life,” Steve says, and Tony frowns.
“Not my life,” he says. “Try not to do that again. Pepper didn’t eat breakfast for three days.”
“Yikes,” Steve says, “no coffee for three days?”
“I think she made four separate high ranking members of search and rescue cry.” Tony tosses Steve a piece of heavy material and Steve catches it automatically, rolling it in his hands. It’s another hood, but denser, coarser to the touch.
“Upgrade?” he guesses, and Tony grins. He picks up three other hoods, each glittering a slightly different way.
“Let’s get started,” he says.
Steve comes down for breakfast and finds Pepper passed out on the table, her blackberry still in hand. He discreetly moves the coffee further away and gently shakes her shoulder.
“Come on,” he murmurs.
“I’ve got a meeting with possible leaks at twelve,” Pepper protests. Steve brushes his thumbs under her eyes and the dark circles become more pronounced, pale powder sticking to his fingers.
“Sleep until eleven thirty,” he pronounces and Pepper snorts.
“Ten at the latest,” she says with a sigh, and heads over to the couch. Steve waits a beat.
“Eleven-thirty, Jarvis,” he says.
“Ten, Jarvis,” Pepper says from the living room. “Steve you better make my coffee undisappear before I wake up.”
Pepper taps her pen against the yellow pad. She doesn’t really need or use paper anymore, but it looks good for the CEO to be taking visible notes and looking less like the CEO is playing tetris on her phone.
“The fact that you would be accusing my department of something so disgusting is completely ridiculous. Frankly, this company has been going downhill ever since Stane retired.” Pepper divides her attention evenly from paying attention to every affronted department head and not rolling her eyes at the fact that no one has questioned their cover up story on Stane.
“Thank you, Dr. Lee,” she says when he pauses to draw breath. She pushes the pad across the table.
“I’ll need the name of every person who worked on or had access to the design. Send in Dr. Lore on your way out.”
Dr. Lore isn’t a name that rings a bell, and Pepper takes a few seconds to page through his file before he comes in and sits across from her in her office. Worked under Tony in testing the missile, no red flags, clean background check. Pepper sighs, and rises to her feet to shake his hand.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet me,” she says politely.
“To be honest, Ms. Potts, it didn’t sound much like a request.”
Pepper loses a little bit of her carefully reserved patience. “To be honest Dr. Lore it was not a request at all.” She takes a few extra seconds settling herself in her chair to calm her frustration.
“I’m sure you’re aware there has been a serious leak within Stark Industries regarding missile UAE-5678, nicknamed Jericho. This has resulted in a large number of civilian casualties at the hands of domestic and international terrorists on multiple occasions.”
“I watch the news,” Dr. Lore allows.
“Then I’m sure you realize how important it is to Stark Industries that this leak be plugged. Immediately.”
Lore spreads his hands. “I’m just not sure how I can help.” Pepper taps her pen against the pad again.
“Dr. Lore,” she says abruptly, “you’re not an idiot. If you were an idiot we wouldn’t have employed you. You’d know if there was something amiss in your department. I want to know if there was. And I want you to tell me the flat out truth.”
Dr. Lore frowns, drumming his fingers on the desk. “There might be something,” he says hesitantly, “only—I don’t want Stark to find out. Will you accompany me to a late lunch?”
“Mr. Stark does not run this company,” Pepper bites out, “I do.”
“Mr. Stark runs Research and Development,” Lore counters, “and as such will be the one to review my transfer request.”
Pepper rises. “Fine. But Dr. Lore, please do not forget who will review your application to continue employment with Stark Industries.”
Dr. Lore holds her office door for her, “Well put, Ms. Potts.” Pepper opens the messaging function on her phone.
“I’ll message my driver.”
“Please, Ms. Potts, allow me to offer my car. You never know who’s listening.” Pepper frowns again. The heads of departments do tend to be a little paranoid and anyone Tony hires is probably more than a little unusual.
“Let me text my previous lunch date,” she says finally. “And my assistant.” Meeting run late, she taps to Steve, and then Dr. Lore, lunch to her assistant.
Steve is lying on a workbench in Stark’s basement, lobbing easy catches with a tennis ball at Dummy when his phone buzzes. He tosses the ball to Dummy before fumbling to see his message, and the ball rebounds off the edge of Dummy’s claw before rolling off. Dummy whirrs despondently and goes after it.
“Pepper can’t make lunch,” he says to Tony, and has to lunge to catch the ball before it whips into Tony’s ribcage. “Take five, bug guy,” he tells Dummy, “go help Happy clean the cars.
“Stupid fucking robot,” Tony mutters, his head partially obscured in a deconstructed section of the suit. “Should have him taken apart for scrap.” In the distance and out of sight Steve can hear a despairing whistle.
“Leave him alone,” Steve says, “he does the best he can.”
“Stop defending my robots,” Tony grumbles.
“I’m worried,” Steve says, ignoring Tony almost completely.
“About Dummy’s self-esteem?”
“About Pepper. She’s working herself too hard trying to figure out this Jericho thing.”
Tony frowns. “Pepper is committed. Won’t let me interfere.”
“And you aren’t anyway?”
“Of course I am. But there haven’t been any leads worth going around her for yet. What did she say about missing lunch?”
“Dunno. Says a meeting is running long.” Tony heaves a sigh.
“No, I want burgers.”
Tony grins at him. “I like it when you get uppity.”
Nearly four hours later Steve is sketching out possible formations and designing training exercises for the team when Tony pounds at his door.
“Happy called. No one’s heard from Pepper since she left for a lunch meeting at twelve thirty.” Steve grabs his boots by the laces and goes down the stairs at a run behind Tony, heading for the suit.
“Undeployed. Stark security cameras have her leaving with a Dr. Lore, works in simulation and field testing. When did she text you about lunch?”
Steve adjusts the straps that hold the shield tight to his back, the curved edge pressing into his back. “Twelve thirty.”
“Same time she texted her assistant.” Metal crawls up and down Tony’s arms and legs, interlocking as it goes. His arc reactor glows.
“Sir,” Jarvis says, “reports indicate a large shield has been erected around a Stark warehouse. Security feeds were intercepted and severed prior to the incident. Records indicate Dr. Lore was on the Stark team you assembled to design the shield device.”
“Suit up,” Tony says through Ironman’s speakers, “take the bike.”
“Colonel Fury has been notified,” Jarvis reports. Steve swings one leg over his bike.
“Not that one,” Tony says, and yanks a tarp of a red and gold racerbike. “Don’t dawdle.”
“Nice bike,” Natasha says.
Hawkeye comes up behind him. “Where’s your suit?”
“Didn’t have time,” Steve says. “What’s going on, are we ready to go in? Where’s Tony?” Natasha grabs him by the wrist and uses his forward momentum to turn him around.
“We’re not sure Potts is inside,” she says. “Fury won’t let us charge in there if we can’t prove there’s a hostage. Go suit up.”
“I left it at home,” Steve says helplessly.
“There’s an extra,” Hawkeye says, carefully herding him along to where Tony and Bruce are bent over blueprints, arguing quietly, “doesn’t have Stark’s little tweaks but it should do.”
“Don’t suit up.” Tony flips a page and traces something with his finger. “You don’t remember this because you were unconscious, but Bruce and I worked out that your shield can bend my shield.”
“A little,” Tony says, “if I can hit it at the right speed.”
“Theoretically,” Bruce says, “I’m not comfortable with this, Tony.”
“I don’t really care,” Tony says.
“I don’t either,” Steve says, “what’s the plan? Throw me?”
Tony snorts. “As much confidence as I have in nothing being able to penetrate your skull, there’s no way anyone who’s not me in this suit could withstand the speed. Give me your shield.”
Steve hesitates. “You’re going in alone? Piggyback me.”
“No way,” Tony says, and holds out his hand, “shield.”
Steve locks eyes with Tony. “Bruce?”
“This particular plan only works for Tony.”
“Or you if you get a bit tetchy,” Hawkeye points out.
Bruce smiles thinly. “That might not end well for Ms. Potts.”
Steve slips the shield off his back. “Don’t fuck up, Stark.” Tony spins the shield on a finger.
“As soon as I take down the shield you’re cleared to go in. Natasha and Hawkeye have to come with me, find Lore and any hardware. SWAT teams are going in to capture and neutralize terrorists.”
“Aren’t I going in with Natasha and Hawkeye? What about Bruce?”
Bruce is rummaging in a dark duffel bag, pulling black items out and draping them over his arm. “It’s generally been decided I’m a ‘last resort’ sort of solution. Or if the incident is located in an already decided demolition zone. Here.” He hands Steve black cargo pants, a SWAT jacket and helmet, riot mask.
“You’re going in with SWAT,” Tony says evenly, “because SWAT’s responsibility is the terrorists.”
“And the hostages.” Steve nods. Bruce beckons him over to the blueprints.
“The team will go here,” he traces down one hallway, and then another, “then here. But we think Pepper would most likely be held in the offices, here.” He taps a corner of the map. “They’re going to sweep in a pattern, as one team, moving this way.” Steve nods, head bobbing.
“They’ll get to her last.”
Bruce pats him on the back. “I think he’s got it.
Steve traces the fastest route from entry to the offices and commits it to memory. “Fury cleared this?”
“Not so much.” Tony wraps his fingers around the shield and power up his boosters, hovering. Hawkeye and Natasha peel off to stand just at the barrier of the shield. Bruce hands Steve a rifle. “You got Pepper, right?”
“Yeah,” Steve says, because obviously. “Don’t dent my shield.”
Tony moves through the air in a wide arc, leaving a trail of light behind him that brightens as he gains speed, and there’s a boom that shakes the ground as he hits the barrier, Steve’s shield stretched out in front of him. Steve is standing with the second wave response team, and the only noise is the shifting of their boots on the gravel, the scrape of the riot shields against the straps and their boots.
Abruptly the shield disappears, no shimmer or cracking or noise, just one second it was there and the next it was gone. Steve surges forward and then has to pull back, moving in with the rest of the team. In front of them he can see Hawkeye and Natasha running flat out, and Natasha springing off Hawkeye’s hands with a twist that sends her sailing up to catch the window, where she hooks her body around to smash her heels through the murky glass and disappear inside. As soon as they breach the perimeter Steve ducks past several tactical team members, holding the blueprint route in his mind, and takes off at a dead run, knocking the bulky mask and helmet off to clear his vision.
There’s a shout behind him, and Steve flicks his wire out of his ear so he doesn’t have to listen to the SWAT leader ream him a new one. He hits the hallway of offices and makes himself slow down to a brisk controlled run, reining in his breathing and bringing his rifle up to sweep each office.
He kicks open a door and barely manages to dodge before a piece of metal pipe flies over his head at the same time a foot connects just behind his knee. His legs buckle, and he moves with it, into an awkward shoulder roll that brings him back to his feet. He sights the rifle and the jerks it up.
“Steve,” Pepper yelps, dropping the pipe. “Sorry. What are you doing here?”
Steve lets his gun hang from its strap, catching his breath. He blinks. “Rescuing you,” he says. Pepper stares at him. “Where are your shoes,” Steve asks stupidly. Pepper heaves a long suffering sigh, but her eyes are still a little wild.
“Lore’s in the next office over,” she says, “zip tied to a chair. I knocked him out with a stapler. When I heard the boom I locked myself in here.”
“You knocked someone out with a stapler?”
“I hit him. A lot. Where’s Tony?” Pepper looks at him a little more closely. “Where’s your shield?”
“They’re rooting out the last of the missiles, shield devices, anything else Dr. Lore might have slipped out. Come on.” Pepper takes his hand, her knuckles white. He presses a palm against her diaphragm.
“Take a deep breath,” he says softly. “Look at me. You did great. You’re fine. You and me are gonna walk right out of here right now.”
“Okay,” Pepper says, and sighs. “My dress is ruined.” Steve cracks a grin.
“We’ll make Tony buy you a new one.” They walk out together, Steve looking for pieces of glass that could cut up Pepper’s feet and shrugging apologetically when the SWAT team passes them, the team leader looking like it’s taking him an epic force of will from trying to strangle the life out of Captain America.
When they reach the doorway Pepper balks. “Are there cameras out there?”
Steve stares at her. She’s smoothing her hair back, trying to tame it. She holds up a finger before he can open his mouth. “Don’t you start with me, Steve.” Steve catches her hands. He brings them down, and carefully brushes her hair back behind her ears. He adjusts the collar of her dress.
“You’re okay,” he says. Pepper takes a deep breath. Her face trembles.
“I just… need a minute.” Steve tugs her forward lightly until her forehead rests on his shoulder. He matches their breathing. Pepper’s shoulders shake. “Did you find my blackberry,” she asks, muffled and teary into his borrowed jacket. Steve laughs quietly.
Pepper takes one last shaky sigh and pulls upright. Her shoulders square.
“Let’s go,” he says, and they walk out hand in hand.
Tony finds them sitting on the back bumper of an ambulance, Pepper trying to fix her makeup with a surgical handmirror. Steve’s job is to exchange her crumpled piece of gauze for a clean one, dampened with a bottle of water. Tony comes in with a rough landing, skidding on the gravel, and falls into Pepper. His fingers clench on the back ambulance doors and crumple the metal like tissue paper. Steve peels Tony off Pepper, who’s patting him gently on the back, and deposits him on the ground. Steve sits back down on the bumper and tosses Tony another bottle of water. Tony scoots closer, leaning back against Steve’s legs, and props his elbow on the ambulance so he can hold hands with Pepper.
Natasha wanders over after a while, and inexplicably produces a small makeup kit out of nowhere.
“Thank you,” Pepper says primly, like she’s not even curious where in that spandex bodysuit Natasha was storing a small canvas bag of product.
“Don’t ask,” Hawkeye says helpfully, and nods at Pepper. “Miss.”
“Agent Barton,” Pepper says. “Where’s Bruce?”
Hawkeye grins. “He’s in charge of assessing the hardware that was seized. I think he’s enjoying ordering around the troops.” Pepper leans against Steve’s shoulder a little harder, and Natasha finds water for her and Barton.
Bruce comes over eventually, and waves at Pepper, peering over Tony’s shoulder at the arm panel Tony has pulled off the suit and is tinkering with. “Hey, good to see you’re okay.”
“Thank you, Dr. Banner.” Pepper is firmly absorbed in Steve’s phone, where she’s done something somehow to get access to her email. Barton is examining the shafts of his arrows with a careful eye and Natasha is sharpening a large double sided blade. Bruce sits next to Tony and starts poking at the various circuits and wires, and that’s the picture that makes the cover of every news magazine and newspaper: Bruce and Tony’s heads bent close together, Hawkeye handing Natasha a fresh whet, Steve’s leg’s bracketing Tony his arm around Pepper, who’s sitting regal wrapped in a shock blanket arranging three different press releases simultaneously.
“Hey,” Tony says two weeks later, lounging on Steve’s couch while Dummy brings them another beer, “you still want to spar. Me in the suit, you in the… spandex.”
“No,” Steve says, leaning away as Dummy explodes half the beer all over his carpet, “I kind of like you now.”
“No. Punching you in the face would be extremely satisfying.”
Tony twists on the couch to throw Steve a mock betrayed look. “Satisfying?”
“Well let’s go. You gonna be mad if we bail on you, Pepper?”
Pepper, who is sitting at Steve’s dining table on her laptop, doesn’t even look up. “Working.”
Tony waggles his eyebrows at Steve. “Amuse theeselves, shall we?”
Steve has seen Tony in action, but he’s never really appreciated how fast the suit is. Tony isn’t even able to go full speed because of the size of the room. Tony is also completely indifferent to how much damage he does to his own house. Steve ducks an elbow heading for his head and presses in and up with the shield, surging Tony back against the wall. Tony’s arm goes through the drywall. Instead of pulling out cleanly Tony scrapes his arm through the wall, coming out with a fistful of plaster dust and pink-purple scraps of insulation and flings it into Steve’s eyes.
Steve blinks rapidly, trying to induce tears and finds the wall with his back, crouching below his shield as cover. He hears a high pitched whir to his right and opens his eyes in time to see Tony coming straight at him. Steve flips his shield until it’s edge up, more instinct than actual strategy, and it cuts through Tony’s glowing arc in a curving slash. Tony stops dead mid-rush and looks down at himself.
“Huh.” He pokes at the dark circle. “That’s never happened before.” He falls to one knee.
Steve’s hands go numb. His shield clatters to the ground. “Tony, fuck.” He moves forward, panic making his heart beat loud in his ears. Tony pulls the helmet off before Steve can help him to his feet. He’s grinning.
“Just kidding.” Steve gapes at him. Tony’s grin morphs into an easy smile. “That really has never happened before, though.”
Steve finds his voice again. “That’s not fucking funny, Stark. I thought I’d killed you.” The smile slips off Tony’s face.
“Hey,” he says, and his voice is so genuinely sincere that Steve starts to soften—until Tony continues. “It may be because of your adorably old fashioned values but I really want to wash out your mouth with soap right now.” Steve’s fists clench into balls.
“Really,” Tony says, “it’s an almost visceral urge—“ Steve hoists Tony up by grabbing the grooves between the chest plate and the arms and shoves him into the wall. Tony goes quiet, eyes wide.
“Shut up,” Steve snaps. Tony blinks at him, tousled hair and guileless brown eyes.
“This suit is very heavy,” Tony says quietly. His hands come up and flex against Steve’s shoulders, metal warmed from the spar.
“I’m very strong,” Steve tells him.
“That’s good,” Steve says quietly, and then confesses: “I think I’ve broken three fingers.”
“You’ll heal,” Tony says, and kisses him. He tastes metallic, with extra copper from biting at chapped lips, and bitter coffee. Steve’s tongue curls before he presses back into Tony, murmuring wordlessly. Steve thinks he probably tastes like paint dust and fiberglass, but as Tony presses closer and slides down the wall his hands drop to Steve’s hips. Tony’s heels hit the ground with a heavy clink, and he presses bruises into Steve’s skin through the suit that will fade completely in a few hours.
“Okay,” Pepper says from the doorway, “I haven’t heard any crashing in a while—oh.” Steve tries to shove himself backwards, away from Tony, and trips, falling awkwardly. Tony stares at him, and then jerks his gaze away to Pepper, horror slowly dawning over his face.
“Pepper—“ Tony and Steve both fall abruptly silent as Pepper raises a finger. She turns on her heel and walks away. Tony looks shattered.
“I’ll talk to her,” Steve says quickly, “I—I’ll fix it, don’t—“ Tony fires up the boosters in his boots and hands, disappearing out the window before Steve can finish his sentence. A chunk of the wall falls over, spilling onto his shield.
“Ms. Potts has left the premises,” Jarvis says.
Steve packs his bags the next day. He has a lot more than he did moving in, and he doesn’t have enough room to really pack it, so he sets little piles on the sofa, neat little bundles of clothing, electronics, books, art supplies, a charcoal of Tony and Natasha eyeing each other warily while Hawkeye laughs and Bruce reads a book. Then he cleans for the rest of the day to put off actually moving out, sorting out the fridge, wiping down the counters and gym equipment.
Right before he goes to sleep he gathers his courage. “Jarvis,” he says quietly, “call Tony, will you?”
“Certainly, Captain Rogers.” Steve holds his breath.
“Mr. Stark is currently unavailable.” Steve exhales like he’s been punched. Jarvis almost sounds sorry for him. “Ms. Potts is currently in a meeting.”
“Will you send her a message that I’ll be moving out tomorrow?”
“Of course. Shall I send the same to Mr. Stark?”
“No I want to try him again tomorrow.”
“Goodnight, Captain Rogers.”
When Steve wakes up Pepper is sitting on his couch, looking out the window. He freezes.
“Do you know what this apartment used to be?”
“No,” Steve says, taking a hesitant step forward.
“Tony used to take girls here and leave to spend the night in the workshop when they fell asleep.” Steve tries to fit his brain around that—Tony flirts with everyone but Steve has never seen him not orbit around Pepper, never seen Tony remotely interested in any other woman.
Pepper taps her nails on the armrest, still staring out into the distance. “I used to be Tony’s assistant—I was an accountant, actually. I found an error and Tony saw my picture, hired me on the spot. PR was the hardest to get used to—girls would take pictures, sell their stories, and the maids were even worse.” Steve settles himself hesitantly on the other side of the couch, listening quietly.
“I would pick up their clothes, have them drycleaned, deliver them the next morning at eight, escort them out of the house.”
Steve reaches over and takes her hand, almost flinching before she relaxes, lets him wrap his palm around hers.
“When I first saw you, I thought about that—I wondered if your suit could be drycleaned.” Pepper wipes at her eyes and laughs a little. “And I was jealous. Oh my god, I was so jealous.”
“Pepper—“ Steve says. Pepper turns to face him, eyes bright.
“I was jealous of you and Tony,” she says, and bites her lip.
“I’ll go,” Steve assures her, “Tony loves you, it was just—I don’t know. Don’t worry.” Pepper is shaking her head.
“You’re so dumb, Steve,” she says fondly, and kisses him, outstretched on the sofa, her hands on his chest. It’s closed mouth at first, and then she crawls into his lap and licks into his mouth. She breaks the kiss after few seconds, smiling, and kisses him again, quick and flirty.
“Um.” Steve says. He gapes at her.
“Let me talk to Tony,” she says, “and then you talk to Tony, and then we’ll all talk.”
“Um,” Steve says. Pepper bites under his jaw and Steve’s eyes close. When he opens them Pepper is smiling a scarily similar smirk to Tony’s.
“Don’t move out,” she says against his pulse point, and then leaves, hips swaying.
“Okay,” Steve says stupidly to the empty room.
It takes Tony four hours to gear up enough courage to knock at Steve’s door, and even then he pretends it’s because there’s a game on. There isn’t, and so Tony leans against Steve’s fridge and bullshits about misreading the schedule, tapping the cap to his beer nervously on the countertops.
“I’ve got a good thing with Pepper,” he says abruptly.
“I know,” Steve says. He decides to go with soda instead of beer. “I wasn’t trying to do anything like that.”
“No I know. That’s what I told Fury, that I had a good thing going with Pepper. He said it was just another reason I shouldn’t join up with the team. And Pepper isn’t even—you know.”
Steve feels a falling sensation in his stomach, the quickdrop. He busies himself with scooping ice out of the freezer. “Right,” he says hollowly. Within the team, is what Tony means. Like if he was with Steve, is what Tony means.
“It would really piss Fury off.” Tony digs in Steve’s fridge. “What the hell happened to all of your food?”
“I cleaned the fridge—wait are you saying you’d,” Steve stumbles over his words, “with, with me—just to piss Fury off?”
Tony makes a triumphant noise and comes out with a jar of pickles. “Of course not. It’d be a side benefit. Why didn’t you toss these?”
Steve blinks at him, trying to balance both sides of the conversation. “Do pickles go bad?” Tony tilts his head at the jar, then shrugs. He starts banging it on the counter. “Give me that.” Steve yanks the jar out of Tony’s hands and turns to get the towel off the fridge handle.
Tony’s hand settles warm on the nape of Steve’s neck. “Pepper can be a force of nature when she’s got a clear goal.” He’s stepped close, and Steve can feel Tony’s breath huffing on the side of his neck. “What do you want, Steve?”
He scratches his nails over Steve’s spine and the glass crashes against the tiles, vinegar brine splashing over their feet. “You and Pepper are the best thing that ever happened to me,” Steve says finally, and then: “my toes are sticky—there’s glass on the floor.”
“Want me to clean it up?” Steve carefully, cautiously, hesitantly, leans back until he feels Tony against him, and makes himself relax until they’re melted into each other.
“No,” he says, “it’s fine. It’s all fine.”
For a week nothing changes. Steve walks on eggshells for the first day and then eases into their new routine. Tony starts showing up for early morning breakfast, half asleep and completely disdainful of every healthy thing Steve serves. Pepper refuses to give him coffee until he mutinously chops vegetables for Steve, and he hums, counting up logarithmic functions while he bumps hips with Steve and throws little white pieces of green onion root at Pepper while she’s glaring her morning inbox into submission.
Before Pepper leaves for work Tony presses her into the kitchen island and makes a show of it, bending her over and cradling her head with his hands, one of her long lean legs pressed between his. Then she moseys over and kisses Steve on the cheek, completely chaste.
“Hey—“ he says, and pulls her back until she’s flushed and a little out of breath, lips swollen. Tony crowds at her back, and leans over her shoulder to kiss Steve.
“Boys,” Pepper says, and it’s a sigh. Steve hands her the briefcase. Tony waggles his fingers in a little wave.
“Wanna spar?” Tony asks when she’s gone. Steve frowns.
“You shouldn’t have that arc showing like that,” he says. “I’m surprised no one aimed for it sooner.”
Tony rolls his eyes. “It’s not lined up with the real deal, Rogers. It’s stylistic.”
“It’s at your center of mass and it literally glows in the dark.”
“If someone is shooting a missile at me the suit can’t handle it won’t matter if it’s aimed at my center of mass.”
Steve dumps the dishes in the sink and flicks his fingers until they dry. “Point.” He pauses. “Hey. I have some ideas for training, team and individual.”
Tony taps his fingers on the circle in his chest. “Okay, yeah. Let’s see em.”
When Pepper comes home Tony and Steve are elbow deep in holographic renderings, with Tony breaking only when Steve accidentally moves his hands the wrong way and demolishes several buildings of their model.
“Hey,” Steve says absently, engrossed. Tony doesn’t look up. Pepper sighs.
“Dinner in an hour. I don’t suppose you broke for lunch?” Steve ducks his head sheepishly. Pepper hands him a thick manila envelope. “This is for you.” Steve fusses with the brass tack for a second before a sheaf of thick stock paper falls out into his hands.
“Discharge papers,” he says. He stares at them.
Pepper bites her lip. “I know it’s not something you necessarily wanted, but it’s the only way we could get you under your own orders, so to speak.”
Steve nods. Under the discharge papers is another packet. He squints at it. “What’s this?”
“An employment contract with SHIELD, acknowledging you as an independent contractor. The terms are good, as good as Tony’s.” Steve flips to the last page.
“Fury signed it,” he says.
“Yes. You can sign it into effect, or you can meet with the lawyers and go back to renegotiate. It’s up to you.”
“Pepper,” Steve says, “this is…” Pepper smiles.
“Least I could do.”
Tony stretches until his spine pops. “Pepper! Didn’t you just leave?”
Pepper ignores him. She points at Steve. “An hour. Save work, take shower.”
Steve pushes Tony into the bathroom. “Strip, Stark.”
Steve laughs despite himself. “Why I like you, I don’t even know.” He smoothes his hand over Tony’s hair, and Tony presses into the touch like a cat. When he speaks again even he can hear the fondness in his own voice. “C’mon, we’ve got Pepper-orders.”
Tony’s smirk turns leering. “Pepper is going to blow your mind.”
“Don’t be crass, Anthony.” Pepper speaks from the doorway, leaning against it, barefoot.
“Don’t call me Anthony.” Tony yanks off his shirt and tosses on the ground. “My shower is very large,” he informs Steve.
Steve feels a little faint. “I see.”
Pepper takes out one earring, then the other. “Mm. Unzip me?” Her dress is very soft, and kind of slippery—or maybe that’s because Steve’s hands have started to sweat. She shimmies out of it, and props her leg up on the edge of the vanity to roll her nylons off. Tony reaches around Steve and undoes the buckle on his belt, but stops short of pulling it off.
“You good, Rogers?”
Steve stops for a minute. Pepper pauses, head tilted at him. Her bra strap falls off her shoulder. Steve reaches over and hooks his finger through it. He can feel that Tony is holding his breath behind him. Steve loops the strap back over Pepper’s shoulder. Tony’s body goes completely rigid behind him, and Pepper’s face flickers. She turns to grab a towel and Steve stops her with a hand on her waist.
“Big shower, huh?” His finger trails down the center of her back and stops at the clasp of her bra. Tony grins against his neck, biting softly.
“Huge,” he promises, and pulls them both back into the bathroom.
Later Steve is panting, flopped facefirst on the bed with Pepper lying on his right, propped up on her arms and Tony lying on his left with his legs draped over Steve’s back.
“G’off,” Steve mumbles, “too hot, Jesus.”
“Dark arc,” Tony says without explanation.
Steve considers rolling over and dismisses it as too much effort. “What?” Pepper curls into him and he swings an arm around her waist, tugs her a little closer. Temperature be damned, Pepper is languid and lazy and Steve can still taste her a little on his tongue.
“What you said, take away the glow.” Tony’s fingers tap against the headboard. “you heard me in our spar, too—make the suit silent, cushioning on the landings and take offs—crap we need to call someone about renovating that practice room.”
“Handled,” Pepper says, half asleep. Holy crap, Steve thinks I’m sleeping with two people who multitask during sex. Steve’s breathing starts to even out. He sighs, content, and pets his hand down Pepper’s flank. “Return on shares is up three percent,” she mumbles, and falls asleep.
“Night,” Steve says, and Tony shifts his legs back over Steve’s torso, pushing himself almost off the bed.
“Prisms,” Tony mutters, “reflect, refract. Bend.”
Stuffed peppers for breakfast tomorrow, Steve thinks, and closes his eyes.