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From Captain America's SHIELD file, Tony learns the following:

That Steve Rogers weighed about eighty-seven pounds before Erskine and Tony's dad administered the serum; that he was asthmatic; that he'd had a whole host of childhood and adolescent illnesses, in addition to his ongoing battle with colds and sinus infections; that his heart and nervous system were not in any sort of condition to support a soldier's lifestyle; and that he was prone to getting the utter shit kicked out of him. On a regular basis.

Mostly because he couldn't keep his damn mouth shut.

But after the serum, Tony reads on, it was as though Rogers were a new man. As though every damaged part of him had fallen away like magic. A clean slate.

He became physiologically perfect; he did not experience the effects of mind-altering drugs or alcohol because of his enhanced metabolism; he could heal at a much faster rate than normal men.

He still picked fights with bullies. He just started winning them.

From Howard Stark, Tony learned very little. This, other than that his dad was friends with Steve Rogers, is all he knows: Howard helped create Captain America and died still searching for him.

It was a greater gesture of esteem than he ever made for Tony.

It's buttfuck-o'clock a.m. on the morning after Tony was supposed to be having fantastic victory sex with Pepper, possibly in his sprawling living room with the huge windows and excellent lighting, but more likely in his bedroom with the lights off because Pepper, whatever, gets shy. Even though she's stupidly pretty and Tony's the one with weird shit installed in his body.

So instead of maybe waking Pepper up to some lovin' (she can be loose and relaxed and agreeable when she's half-asleep, every inch of self-consciousness drained entirely from her body, it's fucking beautiful), he's fact-checking the incident reports and biographies provided by SHIELD, because spies are filthy liars. They never give you enough information to be useful—just enough to make you dangerous, to form incorrect assumptions because you don't have enough data. He's mostly got the others squared away (Natasha-who-is-not-really-Natalie is absolutely not an Information Specialist, she's definitely a goddamned assassin; Doctor Bruce Banner's actually in West Bengal, not the Philippines, who is Fury trying to fool?), but this last search is dragging on and on.

"JARVIS," he asks, pressing his palms into his burning eyes because fuck, it's almost four in the morning and, for all his efforts, he isn't even getting a blowjob until whenever-Pepper-gets-back-from-DC. "Is it really so hard to pull a credit history on this guy?"

"I apologize, sir. My resources are momentarily divided."

Tony blinks behind his fingers, then peeks through them at the screen. "What else are you doing?"

There's a faint pause while Tony yawns, and then JARVIS replies, "I am discussing Van Gogh with Miss Potts, sir."

"Huh. Like, on her mobile?"

"Her tablet, sir. She is having dinner."

"Jesus," Tony sighs, because she's probably been in meetings since her plane touched down. He'd meant to feed her at some point, he really had—he'd just gotten caught up in the Tower, and how they were self-sustaining geniuses, and that they'd finally put aside some time for uninterrupted, well, all those gorgeous things Pepper'd whispered to him before gallivanting off with Coulson. Because she's cruel and mean-spirited and assumes he can work with a raging boner.

"What's she having for dinner?"

"Mixed seasonal fruit salad with a raspberry vinaigrette, sir."

"Isn't she allergic—?"

"Strawberries, sir."

"Right." Tony pages through the files projected into his living room, just sort of hanging out and being brilliant and high-tech, since that's Tony's thing. "What's she saying about Van Gogh?"

"Nothing that would interest you, sir," JARVIS says.

"Try me," Tony shoots back, skimming the annotations on Banner's spec sheets again.

"Specifically, Blossoming Almond Tree. It is one of her particular favorites. She was explaining to me the use of thick black outlines to call attention to the foreground, while the rest of the image fades out to appear half-formed and nebulous. Like the connection between human attention and human vision, sir." He pauses briefly, and Tony is startled to wonder if it's because he's talking to Pepper on the other side. "A person will focus on one or two things that catch their initial interest, and use that as a context for their understanding of the rest of the piece."

Okay, art. Ton can handle that. JARVIS has even brought up a display of the painting. It's nice. Tony can see what they mean, he totally gets that your brain compiles visual information out of what you're focusing on, and not necessarily everything that's there. "Why wouldn't I like that?"

"You sold it, sir."

Tony winces. Pepper's probably never forgiven him for the whole art-collection-thing—the part where they don't have it anymore, not the part where he gave her full authority to collect to her heart's content. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you were secretly trying to steal my girl behind my back, Jay."

"Undoubtedly, sir. Here is the information on Captain Rogers."

Thanks to JARVIS, Tony touches down in Stuttgart, Germany, with the supplemental knowledge that Steve Rogers has spent the last few months holed up in a Brooklyn apartment near an old corner store and a small, dated fitness center. He hasn't made any friends; to all appearances, he doesn't seem to want to.

Which, okay. People are overrated much of the time. But the deep-seated need for human contact is grievously underrated, and these are the main reasons Tony's had lots of one-night stands, but has only managed one actual relationship. But his one actual relationship is inspiring and emotionally fulfilling, and Tony is a better person for it; the fact that Pepper does most of the work involved, and that she's probably getting a shit deal out of this in the long run, does not escape him.

It's actually something he consciously takes for granted.

The thing is, Pepper's very sharp. She's so sharp, she's so intuitive and organized, that Tony knows she'll eventually come to her senses and leave his ass.

But the other thing is, Pepper's loved him for years. He doesn't really see that changing anytime soon.

You need people in your life to keep you from going insane and to save you from horrible, gut-churning depression. It is Tony's learned opinion that Steve Rogers has chosen a very poor way to start life in the twenty-first century, and he'd honestly like to help with that. Since he's such a stand-up guy and everyone else is really dropping the fucking ball.

SHIELD must have an abominable research department if the only thing they'd thought to play on the radio, the day Rogers woke up, was a recording of a baseball game he'd actually attended. JARVIS could've done about three hundred times better; JARVIS even said so when he'd pulled the report.

Tony hopes someone was fired, because that was a monumental cockup and they should've called him in immediately. It was his dad's project. He's in possession of Howard's research notes. The whole Captain America enterprise, while not necessarily belonging to Stark Industries, surely warranted his involvement.

Even if it isn't strictly true, SHIELD should have assumed Tony would have some insight into the whole ordeal. What does anyone else have? Legends and popular culture? Because according to the official comics, Captain America is loyal to a fault. He is strong, selfless, and a glittering beacon of purity and resolve. His men love him, his superiors respect him, and he's the all-around perfect soldier. To actively dislike him is to be, in a nutshell, unpatriotic.

But at least Tony knows the comics are full of shit, which is one of the few things Howard ever mentioned in passing. He bought them for Tony regardless, but he never read an issue after the very first.

Rogers spent most of his Captain America days hawking war bonds at twelve-year-olds who, in turn, would go all starry-eyed at their parents and boost sales. And because Tony has scans of the original paperwork, right down to Erskine's signature, Tony knows that Rogers lied through his teeth at least five times to even get into the army. He knows that Rogers was crap at following orders if it was something he personally disagreed with or took offense to.

Steve Rogers became a hero recovering the fragments of the one-oh-seventh. In doing so, in saving those men, he was deliberately disobeying his commanding officer.

It's this last part that gives Tony a glimmer of hope, because everything else he's heard so far, and read, and seen—and he has, he's pored over the video footage and swallowed his discomfort and nostalgia enough to pick through Howard's old photos and letters—has not been encouraging. He feels like they have no common ground other than the shaky connection of Tony's father, which isn't a safe journey for anybody, from any direction. There's too much at stake, there; too many things Tony's willed away, and he doesn't have it in him to accept Howard as a good man and a bad father both.

He's going to make this work, if only because SHIELD didn't want him in the Avengers initiative to begin with. They just ran out of options, but Tony has plenty of spite. He'll do the job, he'll do it well, and then he'll courteously be the bigger man and tell Nick Fury to go fuck himself with a hand grenade.

So that first time in Stuttgart, the first time he meets Captain America in the star-spangled flesh, Tony has resolved to do this right, to maybe hold his personality in check a bit: give Rogers a chance to get used to him by degrees. It's frustrating, he knows this, because while Tony can be charming and flashy with cameras, can be charitable at arm's-length, he's—difficult, up close. There are people who won't be in a room alone with him, because they're overwhelmed, or because he pisses them off.

A lot of people actually like Tony Stark before they end up meeting him.

Dialing it back isn't an effort Tony makes lightly. It's also not something he's very practiced at.

But Rogers wouldn't have gotten to know him through the media, or his business ventures. He wouldn't have been around for the Jericho fiasco, for the—the accident, or Iron Man's inception. So he has a chance, here; he can make a good impression. He can foster a working relationship with someone he has historical ties to, with someone who got along with his dad. A man who might possibly get along with Tony, because he hasn't learned yet that nobody else does.

But after Rogers says, "Mr. Stark," in colorless acknowledgement, Tony realizes Iron Man must have his own file; that Rogers will have surely read it; and that there is nothing about Tony he could possibly respect or agree with.

All of Tony's expectations bleed out, because in the end it won't matter that he knows what pitfalls to avoid (Bucky, Peggy, time travel); to take his time with anything (everything) Rogers needs to be brought up-to-date on; that Tony had every intention of going about this the right way.

Because Steve Rogers will never want to be Tony's friend. They're too different, ideologically, and what was Fury thinking, bringing him into this?

So Tony says, "Cap'n," and it just slips out, deliberately casual, deliberately opposite the polite (if distant) greeting Rogers offered first.

Rogers says nothing, just breathes heavily beside Tony and stares down at the dark-haired god on the marble steps.

But the tone has been set; the die has been cast.

Tony's problem is that, once he starts down a path, he can't make himself stop.

"Can we adopt Bruce?" He asks via JARVIS on the flight back to the helicarrier, faceplate down and external speakers off because he likes having private conversations with his very own girlfriend. Also because his head's still ringing from Thor's ridiculous hammer colliding with Captain America's ridiculous shield.

"I don't know, Tony," she replies, tilting her head with affected consideration. "What's he like?"

"Haven't met him yet," he grins. "But he's quite photogenic in the pamphlets."

Pepper laughs quietly. Mirth is lovely on her, and her makeup's doing an excellent job concealing the faint, blue crescents edging her eyes. He's managed (barely) to catch her between meetings, and while she seems happy enough to hear from him, everything about her is tinged with exhaustion. Her phone gets excellent reception in DC—Tony made it, of course it does—so he's able to recognize how tired she is, even if she tries to keep it from him. The video quality is excellent, so Tony sees all.

Outside the perfect barrier of Tony's suit, Rogers is standing restlessly near the cockpit, the same place—and almost the same position, really the guy has no imagination—he'd been in on the ride out. He isn't even making small talk with Natasha, who is a goddamn dime, and he's mostly ignoring Tony, despite Tony's very sincere attempts at friendly conversation (Are you cold, Cap? I'd kill for latte, how about you? Or didn't they have those when you're from?).

Thor's up, too, shifting his weight in what appears to be the small-spaces equivalent of pacing, and those two should really do a photoshoot together, or a porno—Perfect Aryan Supermen. Hammer and Shield. Putting It Down.

Tony clears his throat.

"Well, as long as he's house-trained." Pepper's looking at something on the table in front of her. It's probably paperwork. Probably stuff he'll have to sign when she gets back.

"Well, we might need to make some, ah, structural adjustments," Tony murmurs, watching Loki on Iron Man's main screen while Pepper scribbles something down from the smaller window. Thor's got him on lockdown, never out of arm's reach, and keeps glancing down with a kind of contemplative fixation. There's anger in his eyes, complicated and troubled, but there are other things, too.

Loki is steadfastly refusing to acknowledge his presence. He's going out of his way to be conspicuous about it. Which, actually, Tony's pretty familiar with that.

Tony used to have trouble with other people. He's always been so wrapped up in his own head—there's a lot of interesting stuff going on in there—that he missed things, sometimes. Like how Rhodey might have a high Tony-tolerance, but eventually he flips his shit. And even though all the signs are there, Tony never sees it coming.

He tries to get a better hold on this, tries to figure people out on his own; but sometimes Tony feels like he's holding up the world, even if it's just the world of his imagination. It's hard for him to disconnect, to see what's going on around his feet; it takes effort to notice other people. It's not because he's an asshole. It's just something he doesn't think about.

At least he has too much emotional garbage to be a legit sociopath. He takes small comfort in this.

Years ago, when she first started working for Stark Industries, Pepper was just another secretary they'd thrown at him. It was something that happened every few months because he was fucking up a lot: with the (constant) drinking and the (neglected) paperwork and how often he (never) went to meetings. He was still brilliant, he's always been brilliant, but even to this day he can't be bothered with details that exist outside his realm of focus.

But the Pepper-who-was-his-secretary became the Pepper of today, who was his PA for years, who is now his acting CEO since he's busy being Iron Man, and who is also his girlfriend (which is still sort of like being his PA all over again, just with more sex and less free time).

Single-handedly, she managed to take his measure that first day: she identified his various and sundry issues, and quietly maneuvered him into the role of a functional employer.

She's become indispensable to the convolution of his daily life. And at some point she learned to actually like him, which is more than Tony ever asked of anybody.

"That's—wait, structural—?" The-Pepper-of-today looks up at him, immediately suspicious. But not worried-suspicious, so Tony definitely feels they've grown as a couple.

The first time they met, Tony'd had a bitch of a hangover. It was an evolve-or-die moment: she was fearless, efficient, and could not be bullied or ignored. Her frank disapproval manifested itself in small, horrifying ways throughout that day, and by the time five o'clock rolled around, he was torn between firing her and giving her a promotion. He settled with making her his personal assistant.

Tony had to learn, very quickly, to preempt her brutal vengeances for every missed deadline, his obnoxious and ongoing commentary during meetings, and the general drunken disorderliness that was his life before (and a little bit after) the advent of Iron Man. Typically, punishments ranged from Pepper drowning him in paperwork; locking him in his office; hiding his booze stash; canceling his dates; and, on very rare occasions, worst-case-scenario occasions, threatening to leave his company entirely.

If you've screwed up badly enough that even Pepper Potts won't fix you, you're basically fucked forever. And, left to his own self-destructive tendencies, Tony would probably last a week at the outset.

What an embarrassing epitaph: Here Lies Tony Stark, Genius Billionaire Playboy Philanthropist, Died When Left to Own Devices.

Tony would still like to keep Bruce, though.

"Negligible structural adjustments," he answers promptly. "Just a few expansions. For comfort's sake."

"All right," she says, a smile tugging at her mouth; she knows to pick her battles. Even after all this time, in spite of his behavior and how well she knows him by now, she still trusts him. It's sweet. "But Tony—we've had this conversation, remember. There are rules."

"I know, I know," he sighs. "Anyone can come stay with us as long as there's space, but I can't refer to them as pets or bots. Since they are people and deserving of respect." Even though he has the utmost respect for his bots. Since he created them, and they are his progeny. So what if they're a little janky at times.

"And?" Pepper prompts. Tony can hear someone speaking behind her and feels a sudden flash of guilt—she takes care of everything, she's in meetings Tony himself should be attending, she does most of the high-profile presentations and runs his goddamn company. She keeps his ego in check and compensates for his ridiculous personality quirks without question, even if she doesn't understand them. She acts as a filter between Tony and the rest of the world so the two might hope to one day understand each other.

She does her level best for him, which is more than anyone else ever has.

"And... I can't force anyone to stay against their will," Tony says, "but I am allowed to bully them into friendship."

"At my express disapproval," Pepper replies, "yes."

"It is the only way," Tony says solemnly. "I must wear down the enemy forces."

"Speaking of enemy forces," Pepper says slowly, "those texts—"

"Oh," Tony says wonderingly, "I thought maybe you didn't get them. Since you didn't respond to a single one."

"We are not teenagers," Pepper says patiently, "and I'm working. And if you were texting-while-flying again, Tony, so help me god—"

"Hands-free," Tony admits. "Voice-to-JARVIS."

Pepper rubs the bridge of her nose and closes her eyes, lashes dusting her cheeks. She takes a few deep breaths. "Fine. That's—fine." She pauses. "But I think you need to cut Steve some slack. He probably isn't used to your mentally unbalanced system of backhanded compliments."

"What system! I don't have a system. And I'm just trying to be friends." He pauses. "Also don't call him Steve, I don't even call him Steve. It's weird." Tony complains. "And I haven't complimented him once!"

"Right," Pepper says dryly. Tony adamantly refuses to recall telling Steve, You look great for a nonagenarian, because he has no idea what she's talking about. Really.

"When are you eating lunch?" He asks, absurdly thinking about, well, maybe ditching this parade and flying to meet her. He could be there in—probably fifteen minutes. If he left now. He could order some slacks and a button-down en route, JARVIS knows his measurements, and they'd be off the rack but at least he wouldn't be in wrinkled clothes at a nice restaurant.

Or maybe they could just go to a burger joint down the street, or a diner, something simple—it wouldn't matter if he had wrinkled clothes, she might like that—

"Oh, I'll probably grab something from the lobby," Pepper says, shuffling something that sounds like paperwork and glancing off-screen while she blatantly lies to his face. Tony knows it's a lie, because when Pepper's in super work mode, she forgets things like eating (hypocrite!), and also to go to the bathroom. It's really not good for her kidneys, which means Tony is a terrible influence on her health. It's not something he's proud of.

"Make sure you do," is all he manages to say, at a loss, and there's some faint static—Tony'll have a look at that when she gets back, that kind of service is unacceptable—before she excuses herself.

"Hey," he says at the last minute, just before she hangs up, and she meets his eyes. The clear blue of her own glow like chips of glass. "You really—you do a lot for me, Pepper, and I appreciate it. I want you to know that." He wants to tell her he loves her, but the words are caught in his throat. He'd said it once before, when he was very intoxicated and she was very unhappy, and he'd bookended it with some other carefully constructed but ultimately piss-drunk phrases designed to make her less upset with the circumstances. He figures it didn't stick, so he gets a pass on it. Like it never happened at all.

He also wants to say how he doesn't know what he'd do without her. This is even harder, but least it's something she already knows.

"Thank you, Tony," she says, amused and slightly frazzled. "I'll see you when I get home. Be careful."

She hangs up, which is just as well. His throat is still too tight for anything more.

They get back to the helicarrier and Tony tries to ignore Captain Has-A-Point-About-Acquiring-Allies on his way to cargo. Rogers has his mouth in a tight line, but he doesn't say anything when Tony turns away from him; just sets his shield against a wall and walks out.

Tony pulls off his armor, exhausted, and drops the banged-up pieces unceremoniously onto the floor. It's scratched all to hell and he won't be able to touch up the paint until he gets home. JARVIS runs diagnostics almost constantly, so connectivity and function aren't problems at this point, but he should probably double-check the plating just to be sure. Wouldn't do to have a huge chunk of his armor break off during a fight.

Fury's tucking Loki in, probably with threats of grievous bodily harm, and if he manages to get any information out of the bastard at all, Tony can watch the surveillance records when he isn't near-comatose.

When he gets to his bunk, all he wants is a shower and a solid ten hours of sleep. What he finds is a black file folder with a blue sticky-note on it: brief 0800 command deck. Inside, it contains information about the tesseract—incomplete HYDRA research notes from the war, collected (and likely heavily truncated) SHIELD data, a whole packet of information from the thermonuclear astrophysicist Erik Selvig—and a primer on gamma radiation.

There're also a couple of papers from Doctor Banner thrown in, even though they aren't directly related. Tony reads these first. Then he reads the primer. After, he reads both papers a second time.

He peels off his clothes when he's finished and burrows into the repulsively small bed in his assigned bunk.

Four and a half hours later, he crawls back out.

He manages a shower, and just as he's trying to figure out the last time he ate—it's precisely the moment between digging socks and boxers out of his suitcase that the question comes to mind—he finds a few packages of blueberries. Probably Happy slipped them in, or Pepper, because they are kind and patient parents. He snags one and settles in with the SHIELD and HYDRA data. He saves Selvig's for last, and takes his time; this, at least, doesn't appear to have redacted information or blatant, gaping holes.

An hour later, he cleans up (nicely) and meets the day with the exciting buzz of new information in his skull and a fresh suit on his back. It more than makes up for his abysmal sleep schedule.

"It's not that kind of thing, Mister Stark," Agent Phil Coulson says, like Tony's never heard that before. In his experience, it's always that kind of thing.

"C'mon, take a weekend. I'll fly you out to Portland—"

But Phil just smiles in a polite way that is sincere and also like hitting a brick wall, and motions for Tony to join the meeting.

When Tony joins Rogers and the others, they're talking about Loki instead of the tesseract. He blows through that pretty quickly, focuses on the real problem—a theoretical energy source to get the tesseract to boot up—and then he gets to meet Doctor Bruce Banner. It's everything he hoped it would be.

He also plants his little JARVIS-babies virus.

Natasha seems distracted, Thor is listening with rudimentary interest, and the Captain looks lost. But Bruce is seriously awesome, and is probably going to become one of Tony's favorite people ever. He's small and funny and incredibly brilliant; he keeps his gestures and commentary neat and tidy, like he's constantly restraining every part of his body. He should go unnoticed, should be wholly innocuous, because that's how he carries himself. Instead, he's impossible to overlook: the giant green elephant in the room. Because of who he is.

He's got a monster inside of him, and Tony wants to make friends.

Tony finishes lecturing in record time, because he's more interested in playing scientists with Bruce than making people feel intellectually inferior.

"Is eating not your thing?" Tony asks, sidling up to him. He comes bearing fruit of the blue and berry variety. "Is the Hulk more manageable when you're hungry?"

"I wouldn't ever call him manageable, exactly," Bruce murmurs, brows knit above his glasses, the lenses reflecting endless lines of quantitative data. It's everything they've collected on global radiation levels specific to the tesseract's own unique gamma signature. And wow, those frames have seen better days. "If it's all the same to you, the sooner we find this thing, the sooner I can get off this flying death trap and go home."

"I'm sure you have nothing to worry about," Tony replies absently, studying the numbers over Bruce's shoulder. "As an aside, where is home?"

Bruce purses his lips. "I know I don't," and there's something seriously off about his tone. "And—Kolkata, I guess. For the time being."

"You guess?" Tony presses, but Bruce just wants to talk about work for awhile. Tony indulges him for about seven and a half minutes. Then he's trying to broach the you-should-come-live-with-me,-seriously,-I-can-grow-you-some-real-choice-shit-bro conversation when Rogers walks in on them. He shoots Tony a pretty irritating glare, like Tony's a child who deserves to be reprimanded for talking about soft drugs, and honestly it's like everything he does just rubs this guy completely the wrong way. Like that's Tony's fault.

When it comes up in conversation, he doesn't find Tony's computer virus even moderately cool. But between Rogers breaking and entering, Bruce's frank suspicions, and the demonspawn program progenated by JARVIS, who is Tony's soulmate, they find out about SHIELD's Phase Two more or less as a unit. The kind of unit with dysfunctional parts—they do their respective jobs well enough, they just don't exactly fit together.

Only then Fury shows up, and Thor, because Natasha's done some more of her sick manipulative spy shit and ferreted out Loki's angle.

There are two things Tony notices in the ensuing shitstorm:

That Bruce fucking hates it here; and that Natasha is sending mixed signals bordering on the bizarre. Tony has no idea how you can possibly feel responsible for and guilty about someone who fills you with abject terror.

In the end, Bruce's observation is entirely accurate: they're all just a chemical mixture. And then shit gets real.

The phase-two-is-tesseract-weapons-production-and-wow-that's-not-okay confrontation, which is basically Tony and Bruce and Rogers versus Fury and Natasha, bleeds out into a dozen smaller arguments. Useless, hurtful, insignificant and irrelevant: the validity of feeling a certain way, infamous reputations, how SHIELD is constructed from lies and mania.

Tony can see error easily in everyone but himself, but his own words taste silver on his tongue: sharp and bright and worthy.

There's a span of a few seconds where Rogers isn't even antagonizing him, and in a kind of backwards way might be defending him against Fury's jibe on the origins of Stark Industries. But by that time Tony's already seeing red, and he's on a roll. So he lets off some steam by aiming at every wound his words can reach.

The thing about Rogers, though, is that he let Tony get away a lot at the beginning of their association: a million small snarks and jabs and petty insults, a deliberate air of irreverence and disrespect. So Tony's a bit surprised to find himself on the cusp of a physical confrontation. With Captain America.

So maybe some people just have a long fuse. So what.

A small part of Tony curls in on itself at Bruce's declaration. Even though he's got his hands full with the two hundred pounds of all-American muscle doing its best to crowd his space while smelling really nice, (because that's apparently a forties intimidation tactic), and even though he's trying to figure out how to signal JARVIS, telepathically, to start wiping all Phase Two files, and the tesseract data in general for good measure, he takes a moment to make a promise.

It's a simple one, and he tucks it away in the back of his mind.

He will never, ever let Bruce feel this way again: that it would be better to be dead than to be himself.

Explosions go off and the helicarrier gets hit hard. It's about when Rogers says, "Put on the suit," for the last time, the time Tony agrees with; it's about when Tony's stumbling through the doorway with those warm, steadying hands at his waist and hip and rib.

But in all honesty, the realization has come in fits and starts, and maybe "You can't go by yourself," had a hand in it, too. And how Rogers stays close, doesn't peel away until he has to, until they part ways. Like he's afraid Tony will break.

So by the time they rendezvous on deck three, Tony's figured it out: the reason Steve Rogers spends a lot of time ignoring him is because Tony hasn't been saying very nice things. To Rogers. Possibly at all.

But it neatly dovetails with a second realization, and Tony learns something very important about Captain America: it doesn't matter if you irritate the piss out of him. Unless you're a seriously evil dude, he'll do his best to keep you safe.

Whether this is a nice thing, because nobody's ever done it before, or it's a shitty thing because it takes a man who doesn't even like Tony to bother with his safekeeping, is utterly unclear.

So half of Tony is starting to think, Shit. He's exactly like they say he is.

It doesn't make him feel any better.

The other half of him is dealing with a whole host of things he most certainly did not learn from the SHIELD files, the movies, the official reports, or the random bits of documented trivia. Some of them are:

The fact that, under his mask, Captain America has about three go-to expressions; they are Polite Disinterest, Express Concern, and Irritated Concern.

That, regardless of any friction between the two of them, he appears to trust whatever analysis Tony presents, and will actually defer to Tony in areas he's unfamiliar with. It's an efficient thing to do, and a mark of a good leader, to recognize the strengths of your team. Because a successful group dynamic comes from a combination of extraordinary qualities fitting together just so.

...That Steve Rogers has broad, powerful shoulders and a kind of decisive grace to his every motion, neither of which are done justice by his original costume, as evidenced by all recorded footage to date.

That his impossible metabolism causes him to sweat more freely and often than regular humans, and. Well, Tony can smell him, even when he's not super close. And the thing is, the man smells really good, and it's all the time, and it's not—cologne, or aftershave or, or soap. It's just. Clean-smelling and Steve Rogers-smelling, and it's. It does things. To Tony. Things he maybe mistook for irritation, for anger, in the beginning. Revisited, he's starting to wonder if they might be other things entirely.

All on his own, Tony's learning that he's in a little bit of trouble here.

He texts his complaints to Pepper, mostly for form's sake, up until the Steve and Tony Battle Brainwashed Guys and Clear Debris From the Engines and Basically Save the Day thing happens. So he mostly manages one message, via JARVIS, while he's suiting up.

It reads: Gotta fix helicarrier, they're making me take Steve why is this my life.

Then Iron Man gets beat all to hell, which sucks and Tony was in a pretty tight spot there for a minute. But Steve looks guilty and exhausted and so fucking relieved to see Tony's okay, and. It's nice. Steve's just—nice. So Tony absolutely does not feel guilty, he is not a child, but. He doesn't text mean little narratives to Pepper anymore.

And then Coulson dies, and Tony can't. He doesn't know what to say, or how to say it; he can't begin to internalize it, and there's this ball of fury and something like little slivers of glass all snarled up in his chest because everyone is an idiot, you can't trust anyone to get a job done and you have to do it yourself, because people are unqualified and they—they die. When Tony isn't good enough, when his hands are tied, when he takes too long and people don't wait for him, and.

...And Steve follows him out of the room, and talks to him. He isn't offended at all when Tony says some uncharitable things about a recently deceased friend. He doesn't push Tony, he just sort of gently prompts, and then he just. He closes the distance between them. He calls Tony by his given name for the first time.

He listens.

Which is just as well, because that's when Tony fills in the batshit-fucking-insane crossword puzzle—he thinks best when thinking aloud—that is Loki's master plan.

In between running Iron Man so ragged it nearly goes offline, and destroying New York, and getting thrown out top-story windows of buildings he owns, he doesn't really have the time to contact Pepper again. He hardly has time to think about it.

He tries to call her—well, JARVIS tries to, more accurately—as they're guiding the bomb through the portal. He's the only one who can do it, and he really thinks he's going to die; that this is the big one. Pepper always answers, she does, he can count on her.

Until she doesn't, and he can't.

The last human voice he hears: You know that's a one-way ticket, Stark.

Before he blacks out, wholly prepared to die alone when even JARVIS has faded into the static, he thinks: Fuck you, Steve Rogers. Me; wire. Laying the fuck down. Crawl the fuck over because we're saving this goddamn city.

Tony doesn't want to be a hero. But he'll settle for having been, at the very end of his life, a decent sort of person.

He wakes up on his back.

He's stiff and uncomfortable and heavy as the world spins: the Hulk heaving beside him, covered head to enormous toe in plaster and dirt and pieces of buildings. Natasha, her hair a tangled halo of red and a change of clothes in her arms. Clint beside her, holding his right arm at an odd angle.

Thor's hammer gleaming silver in the bright, dusty sunlight.

Captain America's hand withdrawing from where it has lain, lost and at rest, over Iron Man's arc reactor.

Tony feels wrecked. He feels like something tried very hard to digest him, but didn't do a good enough job of it to put him out of his misery. He feels like a turtle flipped over in the middle of a desert and then stomped on by some angry god.

Then his stomach growls and he mostly just feels—really, really hungry.

Well. That, at least, is something he can address.

Tony gets through dinner in his wildly battered armor, and he buys because it was his idea, and he has the most money; but he'll end up expensing it to SHIELD (well, Pepper will), so it doesn't really matter all that much.

Steve eats an appalling amount of food. Thor and Bruce do, too, and Thor even orders half again as much to go—presumably to bring to his brother, and Tony isn't going anywhere near that—but it's something you'd expect from a giant sky god and a guy who turns into a huge mass of muscle and wrath and violent insanity.

Steve is just a—non sequitur. He's big, yeah, but he doesn't move like he owns the whole world, or even like he wants to. He moves like he's trying to get just the smallest bit of space for himself, unobtrusive until there's an underdog to support, until he needs to seriously beat someone down for being an asshole. Then he just takes over.

Watching him eat like it's his last meal for a hundred years, like he's really trying to slow down and use his Polite Company manners—it's paradoxical, almost. And it sorta makes Tony want to buy him a restaurant that will cook him food all day long. To say, Here, Steve, take your time. And, There's plenty more where that came from. Maybe add that he doesn't have to hurry because the world is saved, but if he wants to be ravenous, well, he can go right ahead and do that, too.

Tony could always stop by when he needs a break from some frustrating thing that runs on electricity, and watch the show for a few hours. Just to remind himself that some people do, in fact, remember to eat. And don't need to be worried after once you've taken care of them.

And Tony might have a concussion, because he has no idea what the hell is even going on in his brain.

They leave the restaurant to rendezvous with their SHIELD escort, which has been waiting patiently about half a mile away. Iron Man hasn't been online for the last three hours, so Tony shuffles along behind everyone else until Steve glances back one too many times and actually catches him stumbling.

After that he slows until he can fall into step beside Tony. He isn't subtle about it, and he doesn't say anything at first or make eye contact. But he hooks his arm around Tony's waist like it isn't even a thing, like he's oblivious to Tony's alternate animosity and attraction, which, okay, forties.

He bears some of the weight, and Tony can shuffle a little faster for it.

"Fury wants us on the—helicarrier for the next couple days," Steve says eventually, and he's a pretty solid guy if there's hardly a pause over the unfamiliar terminology. It's heartening that he seems okay with his situation, but the implications chill Tony down to the husk of his corporate billionaire heart of hearts. To fall asleep, expecting to die, and wake up maybe wishing you had, because you've woken up having lost everything: too fucking much. Tony wouldn't even be walking, in Steve's shoes. He'd be dead from alcohol poisoning. Cashed the fuck out, because incomprehensible future coupled with complete social disconnect? No fucking thanks.

"Oh?" Tony tries. Ahead of them, Bruce is walking beside Thor with his hands in his pockets. Exhaustion hollows out every line of his body, and his shoulders are hunched close—though this is probably because the big god has a hand on his back, weighing him down. Bruce listens good-naturedly while Thor talks about his brother with broad, impatient gestures and a terribly earnest face.

Loki's been escorted back to the ship and is, presumably, once again on lockdown. It makes Tony a bit queasy, to think about the kind of power that monster has over his brother—how every cell in Thor's body shifts to needle-sharp focus whenever they're in the same room, how even when he's silent there is something howling like a wounded animal deep in his chest. How his anger at Loki can only be eclipsed by his love for him. And it's quite a lot of anger, so what does that tell you?

Tony never had a brother. He's never loved anyone like that. When Stane started stealing his things and trying to kill him, which is his closest point of reference, Tony cut that bastard loose, and he fought with everything he had, and he regrets nothing.

No, Tony knows where he stands with love. In his world, the people who love him want something from him. He thinks maybe he'd understand better if he knew what Thor wanted from Loki.

Further along are Natasha and Clint, who aren't walking particularly close together, or really saying all that much, but. There are all these little things, like how their steps are in perfect rhythm. How they glance at each other infrequently, but never miss that beat of eye contact, those small shifts in attention. Involved in some kind of wordless communication that exists in worlds Tony has never visited. Never even seen.

Steve clears his throat, and Tony tears his eyes away from his, his team. They're a team. He's responsible for every one of these assholes now. He sighs, weary, and meets Steve's eyes.

They're far closer than is currently comfortable for Tony. Also he's volunteering information, which is strange because Tony's pegged him for one of those—not Strong, Silent types, but. Not going out his way to talk to you unless he has instructions for you, or values your opinion. Which, Tony. So.

"Loose ends, I guess," Steve continues, tilting his head to indicate Thor. "Before they go home."

"Great," Tony sighs, "babysitting." He wants to go home. He wants to go home and sleep for a year. Everything hurts.

Steve glances down at him finally, and there's the smallest pull of a smile on his mouth. His eyes are blue, and close, and his breath smells like falafel—garlic and middle eastern spices and ground, fried chickpeas. He'd probably taste like cucumber sauce. It'd probably be great.

Tony wrinkles his nose, but sort of sets his head against Steve's shoulder, just to see if he can get away with it. He can always cite exhaustion. Some might call this devious, but Tony does with what he has all he can.

Steve looks like he wants to reply, but something else must catch his attention because he remains silent. But he does get a bit of a tighter grip on Tony, and it could be friendly, could simply be practical. It could be nothing, Rogers probably wouldn't even know how to cue that kind of thing; he might not even be touching Tony at all if he knew what was going on in his head.

"Tony," Steve says, and Tony jerks slightly because he's basically been sleep-walking, and Steve's mouth is close to his ear, and is this first-names business a thing now? Because no one else has died that Tony's aware of.

It's weird and intimate. He deals.

"Mm, sorry, sorry," Tony mutters, shifting back from all that companionable, patriotic heat. A sleek jet is parked, for want of a better term, a dozen yards away between a car with a hulk-shaped dent in it and a half-toppled building.

Steve's hand hangs around Tony's armored waist until the SHIELD agents usher them onto the aircraft. It falls away only when they're forced apart for preliminary medical care.

Fury asks levelly, "Am I to understand—help me, here, I'm trying to fathom how you could possibly think this was a good idea—am I to understand that after you rebuffed an alien attack, sustained mild to moderate injuries, and took a psychotic murdergod into custody that you went for—," he pauses, and glances down at the (alarmingly lengthy) report on his desk. "Fast food?"

"Not exactly," Tony hedges. "It was practically health food. It was vegetarian, even."

They're in the director's office. It's just Steve and Tony, because Bruce will probably never get chewed out (for obvious reasons), and Natasha's still having her ankle set, and anyway she and Clint are, for all practical purposes, property of SHIELD. Fury probably gave up on telling them what to do years ago. Or, whatever, he'll call them in later since Hawkeye broke his wrist or something. Tony was just knocked around a bit.

Steve was practically gutted, but since it's been a few hours, his belly's knit itself into a manageable flesh wound. It makes Tony sick to think about it.

Thor's with Loki, probably feeding him, but mostly doing a decent job of Not Taking His Eyes Off Him Even For A Second.

It's very, very unfair, Tony thinks. He's always the one who gets in trouble. And he has a headache, and there is intense, tight pain in muscles he didn't even know he had from hauling that armor around without power to offset the weight, and he wonders if this is a sign of things to come.

"We were hungry," Steve says simply. "Team needed a break."

"And that's your call to make? Standard procedure is to get your asses back here for debriefing."

Steve doesn't wilt, doesn't look unhappy or guilty. He simply says, "We just saved New York City from an extraterrestrial threat. Wasn't gonna tell them they couldn't eat dinner." He pauses briefly. "I believe it was my call, sir."

Fury looks at the two of them long and hard, and Tony thinks: This is what it's like to have a friend. A partner-in-crime. It's pretty sweet.

Tony isn't used to making them; usually he throws money at people and they drive him around or run his company or hang out with him when he's hammering out the details for military contracts. Which he doesn't do anymore, and Rhodey still visits, so he has at least one other friend who is not in his employ.

He's probably mistaking—ugh, genuine respect, he can't really call it anything else, it's there—for physical attraction. That's what this is, with Steve. Steve, who's nice to him and probably doesn't like him at all, which makes Tony angry and grateful and debilitatingly determined. Willing to work for it, even.

"Your team, your responsibility." Fury is telling Steve. Then, to both of them, "Get out of my sight."

They're halfway down the hall when Steve puts a hand on Tony's shoulder.

"Um," Tony says, but doesn't shrug him off.

"You're limping," Steve says. "You shoulda let medical examine you."

"I'm not limping," Tony insists. "I'm just sore."

Steve purses his lips and doesn't say anything.

"Also I maybe hit my head," he allows. "But I'm fine. Natasha was limping. You should check on her."

They come to a split, and Tony's room is left and sickbay is right.

"That's—yeah," Steve says, and Tony watches him leave.

Thinks, That Brooklyn accent, he really cleans up when he wants to. He really lets it slip when he doesn't.

Thinks, Jesus fucking christ. Because that ass, holy shit.

Then Tony locks himself in his small room, strips off clothing stiff with dried sweat and dirt and a teensy bit of blood, and forces his aching body into the standing shower. Leans heavily against the stainless steel wall and soaps up. He's sluggish and tired in his bones, rinses off with arms like lead weights. He doesn't think about Steve's assets, and he certainly doesn't try to fantasize about Pepper and then give up in frustration when she keeps morphing back into someone blonder, bulkier, and of the decidedly wrong gender.

After a good five minutes of not doing either of these things, Tony presses his palms into his eyes and breathes in. Ribs twinge and his shoulders feel jostled and raw, and he can't even manage to beat off thinking about his marvelously beautiful and capable girlfriend.

Tony doesn't towel off so much as drag the terrycloth over his head once or twice, so he's still pretty damp when he falls into bed. He doesn't bother with anything more than boxers, and his body basically gives up as soon as he hits the mattress. It's bliss. It's perfect, soft clarity. He doesn't have to think about this complicated Steve Rogers bullshit because he's floating, and the world is a million years beneath him, and he's free, and—

—and his goddamn phone rings.

And it vibrates.

And the status light keeps flashing.

And then it rings a second time, and Tony wants to throw it against the fucking wall.

"What." He snaps, face pressed into his pillow.

"Oh, Tony, oh thank god," Pepper sobs, and Tony sits upright. Mostly. It hurts like a bitch in his ribs and makes his head ache.

"Pepper?" Tony croaks, and situates himself so that he can maybe doze a bit while she talks at him. Because, priorities.

"I've been trying to reach you for hours," she says tightly, her voice hoarse. She's been crying. She's still crying. "I saw the—it was on the news, I saw you, I," she can't get the words out, and she's crying into his ear and Tony can't remember if she's still in Washington or if she's home or what day it even is.

"I'm sorry," he says. "I lost power when I went through the portal." He's not making excuses, but that's what these conversations always feel like. Every time they talk about Iron Man. He loves Pepper, but there are times—steadily more frequent times—where he fucking hates talking to her. He knows what she's going to say next, he knows it by rote.

"Went through the—Tony, I saw you, I saw the nuclear warhead just. It just vanished, and then you were falling from the sky and I—it's been hours, I didn't even know if you were okay!"


"Why didn't you call me? I don't have a direct line to anyone at SHIELD except for Phil, and he wasn't answering either and I thought—"

A cold weight settles in Tony's stomach. "Pepper, please, about Phil—"

"I thought you'd died, I thought the helicarrier went down, I didn't, I," she's crying again, the kind of crying you do when you've spent the last few days handling everything as the Unflappable Pepper Potts, perfectly put-together, and then you call your boyfriend Tony Stark and he's terrible or something.

"I didn't die," Tony says softly. "I tried to call you from JARVIS. Before." Before he fell back to earth, before everything flickered and faded out and went black. Before he closed his eyes, expecting it to be the last time.

"I saw," Pepper whispers, and there it is: guilt, harsh and wet in her voice. "I thought it might've been my last chance to—I thought I'd missed—"

The sad truth is it almost was. And she had.

"It's okay, Pepper," he says, and hisses softly as he rolls onto his stomach.

"Are you hurt?" She asks, upset all over again, and Tony just wants her off the phone, just wants to sleep. But she's only worried about him and he can't hold that against her. It really demonstrates how he's grown as a person, that he acknowledges this at all.

"A little banged up," he says. "Nothing serious."

She sighs like she doesn't believe him. She always does, because she never does. It's not like he's lying to her. "I had everything salvageable moved to Stark Manor or storage. We're ready to get started with the repairs as soon as you give the go-ahead." She pauses for a moment. "When are you coming home?"

"A few more days," he says. "Thor wants to visit Doctor Jane Foster before they leave. She's sort of his, uh. Girlfriend. Thing. I guess." He scrubs a hand over his eyes because he feels like utter shit, and instead of sleeping it off he's explaining Thor's love life to Pepper. "We're keeping an eye on Loki here until he gets back."

"You're—keeping an eye on Loki—? So Thor can go on a date?"

"He lives on a another planet, Pep. They had a bridge or a gateway or something they could use to travel here, but I guess he broke it? I don't know the full story. It's probably long and involved and stupid." He thinks for a minute. "He doesn't know when he'll see her again. And he did just help save Earth. I'd say he deserves a date or two."

Pepper doesn't say anything. Tony has no idea what that means, but he's not putting her on videophone. "So I'm—," he starts, trying to let her go, but she's started talking again.

"He could stay," she says. "If he cares about her? If he might never see her again. Why doesn't he stay here?"

What? "I don't know about all that. I don't know Thor very well, and I don't know Jane at all except by reputation. I only know Thor's a god and crown prince of Asgard." It's sounds ridiculous to say it outloud, and Tony feels a headache coming on. "He has obligations to the throne." And wow, that also sounded way better in his head. "Jane's an extradimensional scientist," and that's a bit better, that's at least technically a thing now. Aliens and deep space portals and other realms of existence are all things.

"There's always someone else willing to take up the mantle," Pepper points out. It's the worst thing she could have said.

Tony hates meta-fights more than any other kind. He hates having conversations about one thing when they're actually about another.

"There isn't always someone else," Tony says, and manhandles the conversational ball back into his court. "His father's narcoleptic or something. His only brother is adopted, of a different race entirely, and also evil and insane. Pepper, I haven't slept for like twenty hours and I'd really like to pass out. Please."

"Oh! I'm sorry, Tony, you should've said. I'll talk to you in the morning, okay?"

"I'll ask you about Washington," he says. "I would tonight, but."

"I know, I know. Get some sleep."

"Bye." He hangs up and sets his phone on his bedside table, except it clatters to the floor when he misses. He doesn't bother with picking it up.

He feels so heavy, but presently he doesn't feel anything at all.

Tony wakes up to someone talking loudly at him, to rough hands on his shoulders, and he comes to, hazy and lethargic. The room's spinning just a bit, just faintly tilted on its axis, and Steve Rogers' face is tight and concerned above his own.

"What—" Tony mutters, sitting up and rubbing a palm over his face. "'S there an attack, what are you," he says, but Steve doesn't let him crawl out of bed.

"What the hell, Tony," Steve mutters, looking relieved and irritated at once. He's wearing civvies, but not normal person civvies. He's got on slacks and a plaid button-down that hardly fits around his arms, and a white t-shirt that peeks through the collar. He looks homeschooled. If a homeschooled kid were built like a brick shithouse.

"What's going on? Why are you in my room?" Tony yawns. His head aches.

"You've been sleeping for the last eighteen hours," Steve says. "You didn't come to the door. You didn't answer your phone."

Tony blinks and leans unsteadily over the bed. His phone's down there, and it's even intact. But the—eighteen hours?—the battery's probably died.

"Shit," he mumbles. He feels awful.

"You're seeing a doctor. Now."

"I'm fine—"

"You probably have a concussion. This is an order." Steve's jaw is tight, and he's such an asshole.

"I do not, and no. Emphatically no." Tony hates hospitals. People die in hospitals. And the doctors aren't half as smart as he is, and always crowding you and telling you to stop drinking, or they do open heart surgery on you in caves and sometimes commit suicide-by-saving-you and Tony fucking hates them. His only good memories about doctors involve Bruce, and those are brand new. They're basically the stem cells of good memories. They're good memories he's still trying to develop.

Steve leans down, his arms on either side of Tony's hips, and their eyes are level but he's using his size advantage to—to menace Tony. Into healthcare. Who does that.

"You can walk," Steve says firmly, "or I can drag you. Your choice."

"Fuck you," Tony snaps, and Steve hauls him out of bed by his underarms.

Tony remembers he's wearing boxers when he's standing, mostly naked, in front of Captain America. Who is currently staring, unabashedly, at Tony's chest.

Tony swallows and bites back a whole host of scathing retorts. He forces down the knee-jerk reaction to cover his arc reactor with his hands, like he could trap the light and be, when compared to the olympian perfection of physicality before him, a normal humiliated dude rather than a handicapped humiliated dude.

"That's," Steve says, voice soft, and his fingers twitch like he wants to touch it.

"Right," Tony says coldly. "Can I please get dressed?"

Steve's eyes snap up, lock on his face. There's color on his cheeks, and Tony's confused and a bit woozy and has no idea what's going on here.

"I'll wait outside," Steve mutters, and closes the door awkwardly behind him.

Tony does, in fact, have a concussion.

"You fell from the sky and were slammed into a building by the—by Doctor Banner." The woman tells him. She's skinny, in her fifties with flyaway gray hair and brown eyes. She is distinctly unimpressed with him. "Of course you're concussed." Her name is Martha or Margaret. It's hard for Tony to focus on her name tag, he keeps forgetting to double-check. It just doesn't seem important.

Steve's leaning against the window, watching her with interest.

"It was only a little one," Tony complains. "You would've told me to sleep it off anyway."

"But it might not have been," Steve insists. "It wasn't very smart, Tony."

He's talking to him like Tony's a child, and he's doing it in front of other people. It gets his hackles up.

"I don't remember asking your opinion," Tony snaps, shoving himself off the examination table.

...And promptly listing to the side, because holy fuck is he dizzy.

Doctor Meredith steps neatly out of the way, since she's a complete dick like most doctors. But Steve steadies him without hesitation, gets an arm half around his shoulders. So that's all right, even if Tony was pissed off about. Something. Whatever.

"It'll be a bit worse today," the doctor says, already turning her attention back to the paperwork in her hand. Tony has Grave Suspicions that it belongs to another patient entirely, even though she makes like she's taking notes. Tony is the heir apparent of Pretending to Take Notes, he knows what doodling looks like from the other side. "But you should feel better after that."

"Thank you, Mary," Steve tells her. Ah, that was it.

Wordlessly, Steve leads him from the room. Tony shoves his arm off, and Steve lets him.

"Look," he says, frustrated and careful. It's a strange combination, and sets Tony on edge. "I'm responsible for you. Gotta make sure you're all right. I'd appreciate it if you could work with me a little."

"Worried about me, Rogers?"

Steve looks confused, twin lines between his eyebrows, lashes dark against his cheeks as he glances down at Tony. "Course I am."

Tony has half a hundred things to say to that, mean and cutting things. But he doesn't.

He looks away instead. Doesn't quite close his eyes, but lets them fall to half-mast and forces his brain to process.

Steve doesn't think Tony is an idiot. He's just mad because Tony could've been hurt worse than he was. He is not impressed by Tony's careless attitude.

He worries about Tony. He wants Tony to be all right.

"Okay," Tony says, and tries not to think about the tight feelings that have suddenly gone loose in his chest; how good it feels to resolve something, how it's over with, and Steve's not—sulky, or mad in small, subtle ways. "So, uh. Any directives from the Director? We just hanging tight for a bit? What time is it, anyway?"

Steve smiles, and it's not his Captain America smile. It's shy and sweet.

And just now, right this minute, it's. It's sort of just for Tony.

So Thor fucks over to New Mexico while Tony is sleeping off head trauma, and Loki's holed up in Thor's bunk under lock and key until such a time as Thor comes to collect him. This is not Tony's idea of a fantastically secure location for an extradimensional war criminal god, but seeing as Loki really isn't in any sort of shape to run off—not after the Hulk got through with him, anyway—Tony figures they'll all just chill out for a few days until Thor returns to take his villainous ass home.

Tony sets up shop in the lab he's been sharing with Bruce and starts to catch up with Stark Industries designs.

Three hours and two pots of coffee later, Bruce leans over his shoulder and asks, "I thought you weren't doing weapons anymore?"

"It's not a weapon," Tony protests. "It is very clearly an instrument of defense."

"Not saying I don't believe that you believe that," Bruce laughs, "but Tony, I've seen the guy use the thing. It's definitely a weapon."

"It's not for mass production or anything. I just thought—well, Dad made it, so."

"You wanted to make it better." It's not a question.

"It doesn't seem," Tony tries, and comes up with nothing. "It's not very," he tries again.

"I'm not sure Steve goes for flashy," Bruce tells him, turning back to his work. "I think he's probably happy with what he's got." There's a pause while Bruce frowns over some charts. "It's a nice gesture though, Tony."

Bruce loses himself in his research, which Tony knows from snooping is a pointless endeavor to reverse his—condition. Often he'll run tests he's run dozens of times already. Like he was maybe doing it wrong, consistently, for the past three hours.

It's more a side project, these days, Tony thinks. Something Bruce does when he's bored, a reflex that's almost like meditation. He hasn't even asked about taking some samples from Steve, which is the first thing Tony would've done.

So he can't be that serious about it, but the idea of Bruce just—going through the motions is disheartening on every existent level.

Tony wonders if Bruce feels trapped. Or if maybe he just doesn't like change at first, but once he gets used to a place, he doesn't feel too strongly about moving on until something else comes up.

He gets the terrible impression of gunmetal clacking against teeth; of eyes squeezing shut and a monster bursting forth; and feels sick.

He doesn't really know much about Bruce, but he wants to learn everything.

Some more time passes, but Tony wouldn't be able to say how much; he's up to his elbows in the Tower floorplan redesigns, and he's pretty excited about them. He's mostly working on Bruce's level right now, since it'll take some careful (and sturdy) architectural tricks. He'll probably have to add something similar to the containment chamber Fury had on the helicarrier—well, before Loki dropped it out of the sky.

The important thing is that it can't be a cage, Bruce hates that. He's not an animal.

And he'll be more likely to live with Tony if he knows he won't be able to hurt anybody. That's Tony's angle, anyway.

So, an indeterminable amount of time later, there's the deliberate sound of footsteps and a door opening, and peripherally Steve's brown, polished shoes and gray slacks and pale orange collared shirt.

"What's up?" Tony asks, hands splaying on his desk as he stretches, cracking his back.

Steve blinks, clears his throat. Crosses his arms. "They're serving lunch in the mess hall."

"There's a mess hall?" Tony asks, eyebrows raised, and—

Steve blushes. There's no mistaking what it is.

And god, what does it say about Tony that he immediately wants to exploit that.

"Might not be called that anymore," Steve says. "Um—cafeteria?"

Tony studies him, bewildered. "No, I think—yeah, mess is probably right. I was just. I wasn't thinking about it." But now that he is, his stomach makes an effort to rumble faintly with interest.

"Oh," Steve says. They stand there for a moment, silent, and Tony has no idea why it's awkward.

Then Bruce saves the day because he is Tony's ultimate hero.

"That's a good idea," he says. "I could eat." Except then he leaves them alone, and he's actually a turncoat because it is terribly un-bro-like behavior to bail on your buddies.

"I was starting to wonder where all the coffee was coming from," Tony says, on autopilot because, hey, he's Tony Stark and basically the king of making conversation.

But it doesn't lighten the mood, and Steve looks pinched and unhappy again. "You haven't been eating?"

"Well, there were—I had blueberries. And shawarma, remember the shawarma? It was glorious?" Steve should know all kinds of things about glory.

"Blue—the ones you were eating with Bruce? Days ago? And shawarma was—you haven't eaten since shawarma?

"I'll have you know I eat quite a lot," Tony says testily. "It's just a bit. Sporadic."

Steve glances at Tony, and then around at the lab. After a long moment he asks, voice somewhat tight, "If I brought you food, would you eat?"

"You don't have to—"

"It's not a problem. What do you want?"

"I'm not a little kid. You don't need to go out of your way to—to feed me and shit," Tony says, irritated all over again. "Just, I'll stop by later, okay?"

"It's not out of my way," Steve tells him firmly. "I'm already making the trip."

This is how Tony learns that Captain America is hand-delivering food to their resident powerhouse nutjob. And taking meals with him.

Not that Tony would know, because Tony skips quite a lot of meals when he's in an unfamiliar place, or when he's working, or when he's at home. Basically he eats out a lot, whenever he manages to make time for it. And he has his bots to make healthy smoothies the rest of the time. Really. They sustain him with nutrients and natural fruit sugars throughout the day.

Just not when he's working somewhere else, they're kind of a pain to transport and mostly useless anyway. Tony keeps them around for very personal reasons which have nothing at all to do with sentimentality. Also he didn't expect to be on a helicarrier for a week.

His stomach rumbles again, much more loudly and traitorously, and Steve fires off this little smirk that makes Tony want to punch his stupid face. Or, you know, maybe shove him up against a wall. It flashes hot through his body, unbidden and patently ridiculous, and Tony likes redheads, what the hell.

Shut up shut up shut up, Tony thinks wretchedly to his brain, or his dick. Whichever, it's not like either are listening to him at this point.

They hit up the cafeteria, and Steve piles two trays high with food. And they let him. The friendly SHIELD-approved level 6 security-clearanced food service people don't even look at him funny. Even though Tony's definitely looking at him funny, so everyone could join in and it wouldn't be rude, even.

Then he glowers, because Steve expects him to carry some of it.

"Guy's got an appetite," Steve explains, as if he doesn't eat half his body weight every single day.

"Fine," is all Tony says.

Thor's room is like Tony's room, except the bed's on the opposite wall and the bathroom is a hair larger. Also Loki's curled up on the decidedly too-small-for-him bed.

"Captain," he says, shifting very slowly into a sitting position. Tony's presence gives him pause, however.

"Hi," Tony says, because what else do you say to a broken god who threw you out of a window, killed a friend of yours in cold blood, and destroyed a giant chunk of New York City?

"Stark," Loki acknowledges, and his eyes stray to Steve, and then to the trays of food.

Steve takes a seat on the floor like it's nothing, and he doesn't even have his shield with him. Stunned, Tony watches as Loki follows suit, easing himself down from his bed. He's really not in awesome shape.

"I have already, I believe, informed you that your ministrations are unnecessary," Loki says stiffly, though he is already reaching for a plate piled high with broccoli and mashed potatoes and some kind of green bean casserole. "I will heal regardless."

"But it'll take longer," Steve says. "I made a promise." It sounds like a reminder. Tony is lost.

Loki doesn't say anything, but his mouth twitches unhappily. Tony is even more lost.

It's possibly the most awkward meal Tony has ever had. Steve and Loki sit in relative silence, inhaling food—Steve efficient and methodical, Loki surprisingly delicate, but both consuming an alarming quantity—and Tony manages to unearth a giant bowl of soup, cleverly protected from spills beneath a plate of blueberry muffins. He snags one of those, too.

Tony lets his mind wander back to Avengers Tower; he can't call it anything else now that his internal dialogue has been overwritten, but once they get the sign buffed up he won't have to correct people anymore (even though he hasn't made any kind of formal announcement and won't for months). He's trying to puzzle out a way to fit a portal into Thor's bedroom—he'll get Jane in on it, between the two of them and Bruce they should be able to come up with something to emulate the Bifröst, but it'll seriously cut into the power supply, probably by half, but running the Tower for six months on arc technology is still impressive, still years ahead of—

"Thor will be back tomorrow evening," Steve is saying, snapping Tony out of his reverie.

"Lovely," Loki replies. "You will no longer have to look after me as though I am a child." His voice is completely colorless, and Tony wonders which is worse—to be trapped on a world you failed to conquer, held captive by the enemy you were unable to defeat; or to return home where you will be put on trial for your crimes by the family you once loved. It makes his head hurt.

"Finish your soup," Steve says, this time to Tony, and maybe it's because he wasn't paying attention, but. Something about his voice, the quality of command, it's like everything's been flipped over in Tony's brain. He's never realized this before, but there's a split second where it's as if he's at the top of a rollercoaster, only the track can fork left or right, and he can choose whether to be stubborn and pissed off about it, or—

—impossibly, dangerously aroused. It sinks into his gut, the hot memory of Steve telling him to put the suit on, except this time it isn't hot with anger, specifically; and now Tony's thinking that, maybe someday, Steve will be ordering him to take it off, and wow. Tony never would've guessed he had an—authority kink. What even.

He just, he needs to. Get his head on straight. Maybe call Pepper, and this is when he remembers that he should've called this morning. Which was actually probably twelve hours ago, and much of that time he'd been asleep.

Also he forgot to plug his phone back in, and she's going to be livid.

"You haven't made a lotta friends, Loki," Steve is saying bluntly, continuing a conversation Tony hasn't been following. "You know Thor asked me to—"

"I'm not hungry," Tony interrupts, standing. "I'll catch up with you later. Well, not you, obviously," he says to Loki, but the liar god simply continues to stare somberly at his plate.

"Farewell, Stark," he offers.

"Tony," Steve says, and he's standing, too.

"Thanks for lunch," Tony says, because he doesn't know what else to say. And he leaves the two of them alone in Thor's room.

Two hours after that, Tony still hasn't called Pepper or charged his phone, but he's made a ton of headway on the Tower.

He loves his technology, loves generating the designs like they've come out of the plain air, out of whole cloth. There is no tired medium he has to translate, nothing separating him from the pure act of creation, and he works so quickly, moves through so many ideas, that the mere thought of having to rough out plans the old fashioned way makes him feel tight and claustrophobic.

Brings him back to a cave in the desert with his heart hooked up to a car battery.

Fingertips calloused and bleeding from laboriously-etched technical drawings on smudged tracing paper.



He steps back from his workstation, lets his hands fall to his sides, and takes a deep, steadying breath. Presently, his heart rate returns to normal; his eyes burn from being open so intently for so long, and he presses his palm over the arc reactor. Tells himself it's there, forces all the threads of his thoughts back to zero, to center. Like he's hauling everything in.

Bruce glances over at him. "You doing okay over there?"

"Peachy," Tony says.

"Well, I'm done working for the day. I'll see you in the morning?"

"Yeah," Tony says. And then, remembering, "Wait—come over here, let me show you something."

Tony pulls up the schematics for Bruce's floor, , and pitches it. Just sells the fuck out of it, and Bruce is listening quietly and looks the smallest bit overwhelmed.

"And here's your research lab," he says, driving it home. "Full access to all Stark Industries resources."

"Tony," Bruce starts, and he looks hesitant and wary.

"And your own spectrometer," Tony throws out hurriedly. "I've already ordered it."

"Tony, you can't just—," he interrupts himself, eyes glazing slightly. "My own spectrometer?"

"Yes," Tony says firmly. "Also a new laptop. I don't like your old one."

"There's nothing wrong with my current laptop."

"It's a subpar product," Tony huffs.

"It isn't a Stark Industries product, you mean."

Tony smiles with teeth.

So that's squared away, signed and sealed: Bruce is coming home with him tomorrow. And when the renovations are complete, he'll move into Avengers Tower with the rest of them.

After Bruce leaves, Tony finally manages to hunt down Natasha. She's been spending most of her time in an empty cargo wing, using the open space for physical exertion, of all things.

"Your excuse not to go to the gym," Tony says, appalled, "is that they don't have a gym on the ship. And yet you just come down here and make one. It baffles."

She's stretching, dressed in white yoga pants and a loose pink sweater, and it should clash with her hair, all of it should be too pastel for her dark sense of humor, for the deadly intent that follows her fingertips even when she's off-field. It doesn't, though. There's sweat drying along her hairline and throat, and she's so limber it makes Tony's throat dry, because—right, redheads.

He does admit it's jarring to see the Black Widow dressed in weekend-sleepover girlfriend clothes, though.

"I guess that means you don't have an excuse," she teases. "You should join me. Work off some of that unemployment fat."

"Just because I'm not up to the physical standards of a disturbingly acrobatic assassin," he tells her, "doesn't mean I'm out of shape."

"Whatever you've got to tell yourself," she says easily, folded over in a kind of arching backbend, "to get out of bed in the morning."

"You are needlessly cruel," he sniffs, "and I'll have you know I'm gainfully employed."

"Right," she says, straightening and adjusting her scoop-necked collar. "Anything else?"

Tony rolls his eyes while she stretches both arms behind her back. "How's your ankle?" He asks.

"Fine," she says, lifting her leg and rotating her foot. There's an audible crack, and Tony winces. "Stiff, but functional."

"That's what she said," because Tony can't fucking help himself and is clearly a fifteen year old.

Natasha snorts. "What do you want, Stark?"

"I need to talk to you about moving in with me," he says, and her head snaps up. "Not like that," he amends quickly. "I mean, yes, but—let me start over."

"Please do," another voice chimes in, and Tony glances up to see Clint in the rafters, back curved lazily against a support beam. He's got his bow in his lap, hands relaxed over it like he was—sleeping up there or something. With his bow. Huh.

"Oh, good, I see you are hanging out in the ceiling like this is perfectly acceptable behavior. Saves me the trouble of tracking you down later, I guess." Tony pauses significantly. "Clint, you do realize it's fucking weird to stalk your own girlfriend." Tony would love for either of them to deny it, to shoot it down, to sputter over everything wrong with this sentence, because honest-to-god he has no idea what's up with these two.

They completely ignore him, and Natasha's face doesn't even change, and Clint just smirks.

"You were saying?" She prompts, and goddamn, she's almost smiling, too.

"Even though you two are very creepy, I want you to come live in my Tower. That I'm still building, sort of. Because we broke it."

"Clint and I," Natasha clarifies, "and you, and Pepper?"

"And Bruce," Tony says. "And Steve."

There's a beat of silence. Tony fills it. "I've got the layouts for your levels. Take a look when you have time." He passes over two flashdrives, and Natasha takes them both. Then she glances up at Clint, who tilts his head and shrugs.

"We'll take a look," she says to Tony. "But why are you—?"

"We're superheroes now," he says flippantly. "We need a swingin' superhero pad."

What Tony doesn't say: You're so much better than SHIELD, Natasha. There's more to life than living out of a hotel in a foreign city, or a cramped bunk on a helicarrier a mile over the ocean.

And: Clint. It isn't all stand-up showers and red-eye flights and long distance assassination. You know that better than anyone. If we're all in this together, we have to be in this together.

The last person Tony needs to talk to about his brilliant Avengers Tower plan is Steve, and he's avoiding him a tiny bit because everything is so hot and cold all the time—one minute it's great, they're getting along, it's awesome. Tony has a friend. Steve has very dry humor, and he's patient and capable. If he knows something, he sticks to his guns; if he doesn't, he's all ears. He's—really just a good person. Tony's heart sinks, because he knows so few of them.

Pepper's one. He really, really needs to call her. He isn't looking forward to it any more than he was three hours ago.

The other problem with Steve is they argue, usually because of some stupid forties thing he's hung up on, though much less now that he's sort of got a handle on Tony's personality. But the other times, with the. The casual proximity, the way he kind of fusses over Tony, even if he does that with everyone, because he's their leader and apparently that means something.

The way he goes quiet when Tony's said something he really likes, a direct inverse to the simmering anger that eventually boils over when Tony pisses him off.

The way he takes up the whole room without even having to talk over people all the time like Tony does: bright, present, patient. Like if you fuck up, it'll probably be okay because Steve's there, he's a solid place to stand. You can move worlds if he's got your back.

...The way Tony's desperately attracted to him, because now that the idea's had time to take root, it's almost all he can think about.

It's a goddamn mess, is what this is.

Eventually it goes the other way: Steve tracks him down first. Tony wasn't exactly hiding, just holed up in his room and maybe making himself unavailable. But he's wrapped up in a project, so when there's a knock on the door he isn't really thinking about it.

"Come in," Tony says, offhand and inattentive, and he's got his laptop open and schematics up for Captain America's shield, is standing around his desk and sorting through all the old prototypes and pulling together his favorite bits, tweaking the conglomeration like it's fucking magic because he's Tony-fucking-Stark, and when he opens up files on his computer they take up his whole bedroom.

"Holy cow," Steve says when he walks in, then looks immediately chagrined. "Still getting used to this," he adds, waving a hand.

Tony smiles crookedly, because the alternative is saying something insensitive like, "I know what you mean," or worse: "I'm sorry everyone you loved is dead or in a nursing home."

If he allows himself to break the fourth wall, to actually see Steve out of context—if he allows himself to remember for even an instant the gravity of this man's circumstance—everything comes crashing down in his stomach, falls through him like a stone through water, and the thought alone makes him feel like he's drowning. He has to keep it at arm's-length, because this? This is a fucking travesty. This is something that should never have happened to anyone, and Tony was such a fucking asshole with those—those Capsicle jokes, Old man, and. It isn't like with Bruce, not really—you can't pick at this particular weakness until it becomes a strength.

Tony should've learned by now that his particular brand of conversational, preemptive self-defense is usually just a paper mask for base cruelty. He's sad a lot of terrible things to Steve.

(There's a whisper in Tony's mind, in the voice of a young god, about imagined slights. He carefully ignores it.)

And yet, here Steve is. Talking to him, being civil, being kind. Tony doesn't deserve all these good, impossible people in his life.

"Is that my," Steve asks, oblivious to the turmoil raging beneath Tony's skin as he glances around the room.

"Yes," Tony says, moving onto firmer ground, letting his excitement carry him. "I was thinking—well, how do you feel about firepower? I could affix an energy source," and here he pulls up the center of the shield, "say, at the heart of the star. And you wouldn't need to charge it. Like, ever. I know my father—"

Maybe after a long day of selling himself, Tony's lost his edge. Or maybe Steve's just not that kind of guy; regardless, he holds up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Wait," he says. "Before you go any further."

"If we made it heavier overall, we wouldn't have to compromise durability—I know defense is your offense—but I really think," Tony just powers through, but Steve is still shaking his head.

"I'm not you," he says. And ain't that the fucking truth, christ.

Tony doesn't mean to, he doesn't mean to shut down. It's a personal problem, he's trying to work around it, but. It's a different animal, earning someone's friendship by doing something for them. Tony's not adept at forging relationships; he has a hard time figuring out what people want when it isn't money or sex, which are his usual modes of attack—to just throw out one or the other until the situation improves.

Money is something he can't really run out of. But time? Effort? Trying to make something with his own two hands and coming up short? Tony needs to stop thinking. It's the cycle he had to break when he was a kid, when Howard never—when Tony wasn't ever good enough.

But Steve must see it all on Tony's face, because he immediately takes a step forward. He looks apologetic and, for some patently absurd reason, guilty. "Not like that," he says hastily. "Having options works well for someone like you. You think a mile a minute. But simple is better for me. Anything too complicated would just slow me down."

Tony licks his lips before biting them, turns away from Steve, moves his hands in deliberate, efficient gestures to minimize the files and tuck his perfect little universe back into his laptop. He's able to drum up a tired smile. "Right," he says. "I'm not sure what I was thinking, I just," and he shuts down his computer, carefully snaps it closed. "I like making things better." We have too many weaknesses as people to lay ourselves bare as heroes, he thinks.

"Right," Steve echoes awkwardly, suddenly close, and Tony glances over his shoulder in surprise. Steve is just behind him, tracking his movements contemplatively. Tony feels like he's on display, discomfited, scrutinized: stripped bare to his base parts. He has to force back the impulse to turn around and protect himself.

"Some things are fine the way they are," Steve finally adds. And then, hesitating, he settles his heavy palm on Tony's arm. "But thanks for thinking of me."

"Not a problem," Tony replies, unnerved at the contact, at the air going out of the room, at whatever has become the opposite of distance swirling inexorably between them. It feels like gravity, like it's only a matter of time. Like Tony won't be able to stop himself. "Um. Did you need something?"

Steve blinks, purses his lips. "I was gonna ask you earlier," he says, letting his hand fall, and Tony turns to face him with his arms crossed. Leans back against the desk, wedges a bit of space between their bodies. "You don't really take care of yourself."

"Is that your question?" Tony sighs, scrubbing his hand back through his hair.

Steve ignores him. "I don't know how it was before, but. Other people rely on you now."

Tony looks up, and Steve's shifted closer again: angled into his space, warm and broad and tall. And whatever Tony's feeling right now, it's not intimidation; it's not inferiority. It's not comparing himself to a legend and coming up short and imperfect and human.

Mostly, right now, Tony just feels an overwhelming surge of want.

"I've been doing just fine these past few years, thanks," he says sharply. "I'm not a liability, Rogers."

Steve raises his eyebrows, surprised. "I wasn't implying," he starts.

"The hell you weren't," Tony snaps, and if there is ever a point, in retrospect, where he actually lost control of the situation, this is probably it—where he crowds in close, hunches his shoulders like a threat. "We managed to get our shit together enough to be a team, but I'm sick of this—this mother-henning, you're not my—you don't fucking own me—"

Steve narrows his eyes, frustrated tension all along his arms and in the lines of his face, the angles of his shoulders and back. He's too young, in every way that matters, for the burdens and memories he carries. But he's close, and angry, and he's got his hands against the desk and he's caging Tony in, and Tony is. Tony is heavily conflicted, and there's heat in his belly and he wants to thrash and snarl and bite, and he wants to—

"I," Steve parrots at him, "like making things better."

"Go fuck yourself," Tony says nastily, because he meant that as a peace offering, and Rogers is throwing it back in his face like every other douchebag Tony's ever made an effort with. There haven't been many. He shoves his hands against that broad solid chest. "And get off me!"

But what actually happens is:

Tony's fingers slip over the soft cotton button down, and Steve drops his arms automatically and covers Tony's hands with his own.

They're warm, and big, and Tony tilts his head up, startled, because Steve's eyes are impossibly blue. And his pupils are dilating. And he's looking at Tony like—

"Look," Tony says breathlessly, because Steve isn't talking, and he isn't letting Tony go. Like he's frozen in place, like he's stuck. Tony's last words still hang between them, and do nothing to push them apart.

So this is it, then. There's a part of Tony that's almost relieved.

"I don't do this much anymore—and, honestly, not too often with," Tony tries, but he cuts himself off. Swallows.

Steve's eyes fall to his throat, follow the motion. "What are we doing, Tony," he asks, voice a rough whisper, and his hands tighten until it's almost painful.

...And Tony makes a very bad decision. But there's no helping it; he's fought it for days, tried to skirt the edge of disaster like a sinkhole. But sinkholes just keep spreading, wider and wider until the entirety of the foundation has simply gone.

Very carefully, so as not to startle him, Tony removes one of his hands from Steve's iron grip. Steve looks pained, nervous, uncertain. It's not like him at all.

Exhaling, Tony raises the calloused pads of his fingers to Steve's cheek. Casts his gaze away. He is lost.

Says, very slowly and deliberately, "You have beautiful eyes, Steve Rogers."

"Oh," Steve answers, like Tony's given him something. He lets his forehead fall until it's resting gently against Tony's hairline.

"Were you worried about me, before," Tony asks, low and curious with his eyes closed, "when the helicarrier was listing and you sort of. Manhandled me out the door."

"Habit," Steve says, his face warm at every point of contact. "Protecting civilians. Ingrained reaction."

Tony waits, trailing his fingertips in soothing circles over an angled jaw, the hollow beneath a cheekbone. It feels like any other face; Tony is fascinated and caught.

"But when I thought I—that I pulled the lever too late. The red lever." Steve concedes, and if Tony wasn't sure before, he is now. He's not alone in this.

It's going to be a problem. It's easy to walk away when you know someone doesn't want you. It's harder when there's a chance, but.

…It's impossible when they—when you know they do.

Tony is so fucked.

He frees his second hand, which Steve has still been holding, and trails it over solid obliques. Drifts it down to cup a sharp hip bone. He can feel the heat rolling off Steve's body in waves, and. The way he smells, it's. It's too much. "Glad to see I've grown on you." Tony whispers. It comes out rougher than he intends.

"Like a fungus," Steve breathes. "To be fair. You wanna upgrade my shield." It sounds like his throat is dry, and he's finally reaching out to touch Tony. His hair, his shoulders, his arms. Light, careful contact like Steve wants to get his hands over all of him, like he's afraid Tony will disappear, like he isn't sure where to start or what to do. Like he doesn't want to miss anything.

"To be fair," Tony repeats quietly, matching him for pitch, "you're not a god or a monster. You're not a master assassin. You don't carry a legitimate weapon and you don't have super scifi future armor." After a moment he adds, fondly, "Or an intellectual capacity that is nothing short of miraculous."

It gets a laugh out of Steve, at least. Soft and precious and fragile, but wholly present. It's there; Tony gets to have it, regardless of whatever follows.

I'm sorry, Tony says, with no idea why. Except he can't get the words out, which is just as well. They fade away, unspoken, on the back of his tongue.

Steve's cautiously curling his fingers around Tony's neck, leaning in to cover that last critical scrap of distance. Like he's decided to try something, maybe. To take something he thinks he might want.

When Steve finally gets his mouth on him, it's soft and warm; his lips are parted only just, and the contact is almost chaste. He's touching Tony like Tony might break.

And maybe Steve is a patient, searching kind of person, maybe he's reflective or maybe he just likes to ease into things. But Tony isn't, and isn't, and doesn't; this, Steve Rogers kissing him, is all the permission Tony needs.

He gets his fists twisted up in Steve's shirt without preamble, opens his mouth and slides his tongue over Steve's lower lip, nips at it trying to gain entry.

Steve's breath hitches, and Tony finds himself shoved up on the desk next to his laptop, back knocking against the wall, wrists held captive above his head by one huge palm. Steve's between his legs, pinning him beneath hot pressure, beneath a force that's keeping Tony together as much as it's crushing him.

"Didn't even know if I, if you were, if we," Steve gasps, dropping a hand high on Tony's thigh and squeezing, and he really needs to stop talking, as in right this second, because Tony needs to be kissing him.

Tony pushes against him, frustrated, gets a lock on Steve's mouth even as his hands are pinned in place, even as Steve fits their hips together like he can't help it. His face is flushed, pink and shy and damp with moisture, and he's so fucking gorgeous it's murder, jesus fucking christ.

"Bed," Tony manages, "bed, now. Bed bed bed."

It's the wrong thing to say, because Steve goes rigid. "We," he stutters out.

"Now, Steve," Tony barks, and maybe it's because there's still a bit of residual soldier left in him, enough that he follows orders on impulse, especially if you surprise him with one. He's letting go of Tony and stepping back, and the room is cramped and small and Tony manages to slide to the floor without knocking anything over, manages to shove at Steve until the low bed buckles his knees, until they topple onto the sheets together.

And this is—this is good, this is fucking wonderful, Tony with his thighs apart and slowly jerking his hips, stealing contact through multiple layers of clothing, and there's half a moment of fear where he's terrified that this is all on him, that Steve isn't—but Steve kissed him first, he did

But, no. No, this isn't all on Tony, Steve is impossibly hard, he's huge where their dicks are pressed together, and Tony's first thought is, Shit, it's been a long time and this guy is going to split me in half. And his second thought is, I can't fucking wait.

"Tony," Steve says, fingers trailing under his t-shirt, skimming over his belly because apparently Rogers is a goddamn tease, but he doesn't look playful—he looks worried, he. He looks like he's thinking about this too much and all Tony wants to do is liberate some of this star-spangled glory. This national goddamn treasure.

Tony is done thinking; he's already decided to make the mistake. He'll fucking pay for it, sooner rather than later, but he's going to take what he wants.

Tony pushes people. Steve is someone who's pushed back. He makes Tony feel like a fucking human being, instead of some crazy person that can't be pieced together, even in private. When Tony shouldn't have to play at being a less damaged version of himself.

Steve can handle Tony, and that feeling—being safe, being understood, being challenged. It's perfect, it could fucking work, and Tony wants it so badly he's sick with it. It's all he wants.

There are a great many people in the world who would be whatever Tony needed; some could pull it off so seamlessly that the performance might go unnoticed for years, or forever. But Steve's sense of self is as immovable as stone, as displaceable as the ocean floor. Tony has no idea how to appeal to that kind of integrity, or what he could possibly offer someone who carries convictions as steady as a vibranium shield, who never strays over lines drawn with all the clarity of justice.

But right now it doesn't matter. Steve Rogers wants him, Tony can read it in every straining limb, in the heat trapped beneath his thighs. In every breath and every buck of his hips.

Even if he only gets this once, there's no helping it. Tony's going to ride him into the fucking mattress.

So he jerks his shirt off over his head and floods the space between their chests with blue light. This is a part of him, as vital as the marrow in his veins, as the air in his lungs.

"I know it's weird at first." He leans back, straddling Steve's hips, and Steve shifts a bit so he's mostly sitting up. Wraps an iron forearm around Tony's back, pulls him close so he can reach up and skid his fingertips over the delicate, durable construction of metal and glass and perfect energy that saves Tony's life with every heartbeat.

"No," Steve says, and the bottom drops out of Tony's stomach because he continues, "it's beautiful." He's tracing it, skidding his fingers from flesh to steel to flesh, like he's reveling in the contrast of textures. Tilts his head like he wants to maybe kiss it, but glances up at Tony curiously. The light colors his face, catches in his eyes until they burn a deeper shade of blue than Tony has ever known.

"You say that now," Tony huffs, because Steve keeps caging it with his hands, transfixed. Reverent. It twists up in Tony's gut, uncomfortable and warm. "Just wait 'til you're trying to fall asleep."

Steve pauses again, his hands slowly falling until they're firm around Tony's bare waist. He doesn't say anything, but it's there between them: a question, suspended, that could make or break this moment. There's the smallest part of Tony that whispers, You could stop; it isn't too late.

But that's a damn lie. The want was enough to ruin everything. Tony's already bought the ticket—he just hasn't gotten on the train yet.

It doesn't matter how you frame it. Tony knows exactly where he's going.

So Steve says, with careful intent, "I'm a heavy sleeper."

"Then we'll do just fine," Tony murmurs, relieved, before bending down to kiss him.

There's a slight disconnect: Steve takes his time, edges a thumb over Tony's wrist, gets a hand on Tony's bare back. Works his mouth slowly, careful and focused, and Tony just wants it messy and fast.

"Look," he hisses sharply as Steve bites down with excruciating gentleness over the ridge of Tony's jaw, just below his ear, "are you gonna fuck me or what, Cap?"

Steve freezes, and he's close so Tony sees his pupils dilate; sees the hot flush bleed across his cheeks, down his neck to disappear in his stupidly wholesome button-down. "I—," he stammers, at a loss, and Tony rocks forward, shifts their very noticeable erections meaningfully against one another.

Steve makes this small, tight sound, and it's like he deflates, like he loses his sense of presence for a few hard seconds. Then his arms tighten around Tony and everything rushes back, his breath and his heat and the intensity of his focus, and Tony finds himself being manhandled once more—rough hands on his ass hauling him close, a soldier's close-quarters mastery of groundfighting that ends with Tony's body trapped against the sheets beneath Steve's heavy weight.

Tony's got his thighs splayed out like goddamn whore, and Steve is rutting against him for more glorious friction and life is amazing.

"I need you to," Tony gasps out, his nails raking through Steve's hair, tugging at it until Steve moans, and he's distracted by fingers like raw flame sliding beneath his jeans, sinking into the bare curve of his ass.

"What," Steve gets out, hips still jerking, and it's all Tony can do to fumble with his fly, tangling his hands between their bodies, doing his level best to get to a place in his life where he's naked in bed with Captain America.

Then Steve stops touching him, which is just absurd and horrible, but it's kind of okay because he's leaning back and pulling at his shirt buttons, efficient and practiced while Tony watches, aching.

The undershirt comes next in a mess of polyblend that ends up somewhere inconsequential. Tony really isn't concerned, not even a little, not even at all; because, when Steve is exposed, he's a wonder of pale muscle and smooth skin that doesn't burn in the sun. Arms that can help you do things like save people, and stop you from doing something monstrous when you've spent too much time in your own head to see what's right and real. Arms that can protect you and keep you safe.

Tony sort of freezes up, because this is. This is different. This is Steve Rogers, this is Captain America, and he's. He's physically perfect, he is scientifically engineered to be physically perfect and Tony's, Tony's not—he's just. He's brilliant, sure, but he's only human. And he's defective. He's had to install hardware into his body to keep it from becoming a problem, that's how inelegant and damaged he is.

Steve touches his face carefully, and Tony realizes he's been staring into the middle distance.

"We don't have to," he says softly. "We have time. We can wait. We have time." He's on his knees, curved over Tony with his impossibly broad shoulders, shielding him with his body like he wants to—shut out the rest of creation. To hard-boil existence down to a fine point where nothing is real but the two of them.

Or maybe that's just Tony.

He wants to insist, No, we don't have any time; but his throat is dry, and all he can do is go for Steve's slacks, pop the button and wrestle the fabric over those lean hips.

By the time Tony realizes he doesn't have any condoms (why would he have condoms when he's travelling without Pepper, and jesus christ is Tony terrible) they're naked and Steve's wet mouth is all over him, filling in the hollows of his ribs, pulsing against the cords of his throat, tracing the scarred tissue around his arc reactor until there is nothing left in Tony that feels the even the faintest echo of imperfection.

"I don't," Tony mumbles, "I don't have," but he's self-distracted: his hand twines around Steve's cock, his thumb slicks covetously over the tip.

Steve gasps sharply, his tongue pausing over Tony's nipple. Abruptly, he reaches over off the bed (leaving Tony's flesh bereft and wet and rapidly cooling, it's agonizing) and fishes around on the floor. He's still holding Tony in place with one hand and most of his body, and when he resettles easily over him, it's like he never left.

Except for the small square foil in his hand.

Tony takes it from him, mystified. "Why do you know what this is?"

Steve rolls his eyes, exasperated. "It was the nineteen forties, not the nineteen hundreds. Military passed 'em out to all of us."

Tony scoffs, because this is patently ridiculous. "Is this—this isn't a seventy-year-old condom, is it? Is it, Steve?"

More than anything so far, this is probably a defining moment in their relationship: Steve blinks at him, slowly. And then explains with the utmost patience, a hand creeping down to press into Tony's hip in a kind of exploratory way, "You might not know this, Tony, but these used to come in envelopes. Small paper ones." He sighs, wistful. The expression is sweet on him. "Had some pretty creative brand names."

"So," Tony mutters, because his brain is trying to figure out how Steve could be in possession of prophylactics if they aren't a relic from an earlier time, "so you—what, you bought one?"

Flushed, Steve wrinkles his nose and looks away. "No, they. When I woke up. They gave me some. Box of 'em, actually." He inhales sharply, because Tony's hand is still around his dick and Tony's starting to remember that, too. He pumps it once, slowly. "H-Had me attend a class about modern STIs and everything."

Tony stares at him, the wheels turning.

"Put a couple in my wallet," Steve mumbles sheepishly, cheeks flushed, eyes glazing over. "Seemed like the thing to do."

Steve brought condoms. His wallet is nowhere in sight, which means Steve brought condoms to Tony's room in his pants-pocket, which means he consciously planned this out.

Tony has lube in his nightstand drawer. He lunges for it, and Steve leans up to give him space.

Then he blinks at the bottle in Tony's hand. "You—?"

"You're the guy who came prepared," Tony interrupts. "Which I'd like to talk about, by the way. It was pretty presumptuous. At least my excuse holds water. No one uses a condom to jack off."

Steve looks confused, but then his face clears because Tony's tearing into the wrapper. He gets a grip on Steve's ass and holds him in place, shimmying down the bed and maneuvering that fucking gorgeous dick forward so it's at a workable angle. In no time he's rolling on the lime green latex, and because Tony's a flashy guy, he uses his mouth.

"Tony—" Steve gasps, his fists falling to tighten in the sheets. "Jesus."

If his mouth weren't otherwise occupied, Tony'd be smirking; you'd think the guy'd never gotten a blowjob before.

The heat from Steve's thighs, gentle and trembling around Tony's face, is intoxicating; he's still got his hand on that muscular ass, that olympian god of an ass, to hold Steve in place.

He plays a bit, varies the pressure in his throat, wets his lips and sucks hard to trap the heat until Steve is moaning and sighing above him. Dusts his fingers, feather-light, over Steve's balls until the sounds shift to breathy pants, half-choked whimpers.

He doesn't spend a lot of time on this, though, because he has grand designs on this particular erection. Intense, sweaty, eye-watering designs.

Steve makes a small sound of disappointment when Tony releases him with a wet pop. When Tony licks his lips, his blue eyes track the motion through a haze of arousal, pupils impossibly dark and forehead creased with naked want. There's no mistaking it for anything else.

Heart racing, Tony tries to get a handle on his shit, tries to conduct himself like a normal person about to bang a goddamn wet dream.

He gently guides Steve back a bit and fumbles for the lube. It's cold on his fingers, and when he sits up a little and reaches down between his legs, parts his thighs and props up his hips and pushes a finger inside, there's nothing for Steve to do but watch.

Tony takes his time; Steve is too huge to rush this, the guy's seriously packing, and it's—it's really been a while. It's an effort to focus on what he's doing, because Steve's entire demeanor—hungry, fierce, fingers twitching like he wants in on it, even though this whole show is for him—is full and heavy with so many things Tony has never felt before. He hadn't even known, before this moment, that you could even feel the weight of someone's gaze, like. Like a physical presence. Usually Steve's pretty transparent, but right now there's a wall between them: he's watchful with singular intent, and it makes him unrecognizable.

Tony works in a finger, and then two. Scissors himself open, and when his dick twitches, Steve licks his lips unconsciously. Tentatively settles a hand on Tony's side, smoothing the pad of his thumb over Tony's belly. It sends bursts of lightning skidding and curling in his gut.

"Can I," he asks, voice rough, hoarse and Tony isn't looking at him; can't meet his eyes because this is. It's too much, it's more of himself than Tony ever wants to give away.

Steve touches his jaw, tilts his head up. Forces the connection, stares him down, and rasps, "How's that feel?"

"Good," Tony says, breath hitching as he slides in a third finger. "But not as good as you're going to."

Steve swallows, and he's huge and straining and he twitches his hips until their dicks brush against each other. It's more than a man can bear. Tony isn't known for his patience when it comes to anything outside of his workshop.

"Oooookay," Tony says in a high, wavery breath, withdrawing wet fingers. "I'm going to have to ask you to not move right away."

Steve blinks up at him, distracted. "Sorry?"

Tony doesn't respond because he's getting his knees up, pulling at the body suspended hot and close above him. Breathing in the sharp, beautiful scent of it. Reaching down and giving Steve's dick a squeeze, guiding it forward until the swollen head nudges into his ass. He means to take him in by degrees, but Steve's apparently decided to become an active member of this shared activity. Mindless and needy, he starts to move all on his own.

"Oh christ," Tony moans, because Steve goes from that first, careful inch to fucking balls-deep inside him, and it's too much, he's too big, and Tony feels his body tighten involuntarily. Like he can't even breathe without bursting. He's gasping by the end of it, short and harsh, beads of perspiration clinging to his temples and lower back. It's a trial to force his body to relax, to adjust.

"Tony, oh god, Tony," Steve sighs against his ear, his arms strong and solid and cradling Tony's body close, and Tony can feel how tense he is with the effort of staying still, can smell his sweat; wants to cut great damp swathes through it with his tongue.

"Can't, I can't. Tony. You're, you're so," Steve chokes out, burying his face in Tony's neck.

"Shh," Tony whispers, voice uneven. He pushes with his thighs, slides very, very gently back; it's just a couple of inches, and then Tony pushes forward again until Steve is fully seated once more. Breathing hard and almost trembling with restraint.

It doesn't hurt. It's rough, but it doesn't hurt. "Is this okay?"

"Yes," Steve manages, in a way that makes Tony wonder how long it's been for him, if this is. If maybe it's one of those situations where a guy just needs to get his rocks off, and Tony is fucking—fucking low-hanging fruit, if he's. If he's ruined the great thing he had going with Pepper for something that won't—

But then Steve, his hands spread over Tony's hips, eases out as slow as he humanly can; eases back in, and it's. It makes Tony's brain derail, just wrecks the entire goddamn train, and. He recognizes the fact that he was pretty much ruined for Pepper the minute Steve refused to rise to his bait. The minute Tony got roped into working for his attention, and the minute Steve Rogers told him to put on his suit to go a few rounds, right before using his body to shield Tony's, even for a few bare seconds, against the stuttering jolt of a helicarrier being shot out of the sky.

Before Tony met someone, for the first time in his life, on an even playing field.

It's been days. It feels like a lifetime.

"Are you—ready?" Steve asks, but he's pleading, moving in small increments; and Tony isn't, but he manages. Spreads his legs a bit wider in invitation, and Steve pulls out, fucks into him in one strong, smooth stroke.

It gets easier after that, and the feeling of overwhelming fullness graduates to a kind of perfect pressure that builds and builds, that threads through his belly and his back and his chest in heavy, warm bursts. That tingles in his wrists and makes his heart stutter out sharp melodies to his blood.

He comes sobbing into Steve's neck, inhaling the perfect scent of his body, and for the most part he manages to keep a lid on it.

Steve doesn't make a sound, but Tony can feel him biting it back, restraining it tight and hot behind his throat.

Spent, Steve doesn't move off of him for long moments. His weight, the sticky peel of their bodies and the gorgeous heat trapped between, the way Tony's arc reactor leaches at the highlights on Steve's face, bleeds into the gold of his hair: it creates a space inside of him, clear of clutter. A space where Tony exists, quiet and at peace, and his million-and-one thoughts don't crowd in around him, and he doesn't feel antsy or unbalanced, and he doesn't feel like the asshole who still refuses to tell Pepper he loves her. Meaningfully. Even after all these years.

After time interminable, after thoughts start slipping back into his head like sand through cupped fingers, Tony faces the gravity of the situation head-on. He doesn't bury it or hide it, but sorts through every relevant course of action. He could make noises about having to get up early, or that he has trouble sleeping with someone else in the room; he could say it would probably be a bad idea for Captain America to be seen leaving Iron Man's bunk seven hours after entering it. There are plenty of ways to delicately remove someone from this sort of situation; some of them would even be the truth.

Instead: Steve gets up to toss the condom into the trash bin, and then stands hesitantly by the bed.

In the blue light, Tony can make out faint indentions in his flesh, premature bruising that will never fully develop: ridges and angles from the pressure of metal and glass. It does something to Tony, something like possession, like synchronicity. Like belonging. So Tony hooks an arm around him, pulls him back onto the blankets. Twines his limbs around Steve's more muscular ones, fills in all the space like water sluicing down into cracks in the pavement, freezing there, expanding to close every gap between their bodies.

Steve kisses the smooth plate of the arc reactor, and then he kisses Tony. It's long and lazy and slow, and Tony can't find it in himself to bother about the mess on the sheets and on their skin.

When he falls asleep, it's to warm breath against his ear, to the afterimage against his eyelids of the shape of Steve's face beneath a tracery of blue light.

And Tony feels safe, like a child with a night-light: protected and kept.

"I'm so sorry," Pepper says against his ear, her slim arms tight around his torso. She's warm and close and skinny, something to get his hands on, something to cherish. And she loves him, and worries about him, and he's a shitty, shitty boyfriend.

He wants to say, It's fine, Pep, I hardly knew the guy.

Wants to say, He was a goddamn idiot and he didn't need to die.

Wants to say the things he'd said to Steve, who had listened. Who'd even understood.

But Pepper's wiping her eyes with the heel of her hand, and her lashes are beaded with tears, and she's so beautiful. She's the most selfless person Tony knows, and he can't fucking take it.

Bruce is upstairs settling in, bypassing the whole Coulson-is-dead conversation, which Tony would also like not to be present for; he'd like that very much, in fact. But, as so many things in life, it's just another circumstance that can't be helped. Even if you're Tony Stark.

"You should've told me sooner," Pepper sighs, her face against his neck. Her head fits just so beneath his chin, and he squeezes her once before letting go.

"I know," he whispers.

He'd woken up alone this morning, exhausted and sated and guilty, cataloging every ache, every overtired muscle, every bruise. He'd tried to puzzle out which were products of a truly epic battle involving alien gods and magical technology leviathans from space, and which were from Steve Rogers manhandling him in bed. He couldn't find it in himself to feel regret. He still can't.

The note Steve had left for him, folded into a careful square, is in his pocket even now.

Pepper goes to kiss him and he turns his head that critical inch, tries to get some comfort from the curve of her cheek against his face. She presses her lips to the corner of his mouth and steps away, gives him space because she knows when Tony wants to be touched and when he doesn't, even if she can't always know why. It's going to break his heart when she finds out.

Not as much as it's going to break hers, though.

"I'll go check on Doctor Banner," Pepper says with a watery smile. "I'm not sure he realizes that you expect him to move in. I think he interpreted "stopping by," as "visiting for a day or two."

Tony drums up half of a grin.

Pepper looks down at her hands, folded in front of her. The she looks back up at him. "I'm glad you're back, Tony."

He doesn't say he missed her, or that he loves her. He doesn't say anything a good boyfriend should, even though it's true. He can only offer, "Sorry we broke your baby." It'll have to be enough; it's all he has.

"Not as sorry as you should be," she replies, wrinkling her nose, because it's true: he can't even wait to get started on the redesign. It's an itch in his fingers, the siren call at his back. Irresistible and ideal, and Tony can go there, to that place at his core: elements in perfect harmony, and he their divine orchestrator. Where nothing can touch him, where Coulson didn't die violently and Tony isn't a failure and Pepper isn't about to get her life pulled to pieces because Tony had to fuck up and get into some sort of, of thing with Captain America. Where Tony isn't in pieces himself.

He likes life better as a vessel for creation. A generator of limitless constructs.

The Stark ancestral home has been acceptably updated, as much as it looks like your run-of-the-mill sprawling mansion from every nineties horror movie. It's not his favorite place; he's spoiled rotten from living at Stark Tower during the last months of its construction. And pretty soon, Pepper's probably going to start making noises about Malibu again. She loves the Malibu house. She's always said so.

But the Manor makes do for now, and Tony has an office on the main level that suits his purposes. He'll have all of the preliminary schematics ready for approval in less than a week, and then construction can start. So pretty soon he'll be living in his swingin' superhero pad with Steve, and also Bruce, and Natasha and Clint. He hopes they can get split custody of Thor, like maybe Asgard can have him every other weekend and on holidays.

He'd been kind of sad to see the big guy go, though the send-off had gone as well as could be expected; Loki, while certainly unenthused about his return home (and probably the, what, the enchanted muzzle Thor had fixed over his mouth) had walked beside his brother with his eyes downcast, resigned and silent. All the fight gone out of him. He didn't even jerk away from the contact when Thor settled his hand on Loki's back, or after he thought to keep it there.

When his cell rings around seven-thirty, Tony realizes he's been holed up with his Tower plans for the better part of six hours. He's putting the finishing touches on Natasha's bathroom right now.

"Yeah," he mutters into the speaker, and there's a slight pause on the other end. It radiates disapproval.

Steve says, "That really how you answer the phone?"

"My personal mobile that maybe ten people have a direct line to?"

Steve doesn't say anything, but there's a faint sound like he's exhaling through his nose.

"What's up?" Tony asks, making the bathtub a smidge larger because, hey, Natasha: flexible, inventive, terrifying. He feels like a voyeur, designing what basically amounts to a sex playground for a couple of master assassin-spies (probably a couple; the nature of their relationship is still annoyingly opaque). He's also pretty okay with this.

"You doing anything tomorrow?"

It's a loaded question, and Tony isn't sure where to begin. He's got about fifty different meetings on hold at Stark Industries that he should probably attend at some point, as well as an overdue prototype—codename StarkEngine—that uses arc technology for transportation. He has to do maintenance on his own reactor. He has to have a long, horrible conversation with Pepper. He has to make Bruce feel at home so he won't disappear in the middle of the night and fuck off back to India or wherever, and he has to contact construction workers and there's bound to be a veritable wasteland of PR garbage with this whole extraterrestrial threat thing.

And he'll be in these Avengers Tower plans up to his balls for the next hundred and fifty hours or so, because that's a physical need and he's going to be drinking away his separation anxiety every minute he doesn't have his hands in it.

But then he realizes that Steve Rogers is, very possibly, asking him out on a date.

"What did you have in mind?" He asks.

Tony's thinking dinner, which means triple-digit meals and a limo ride and really fantastic suits. And a five-star hotel at the end of the night, if all goes well (and, for Tony, it usually does).

But Steve's thinking coffee, which doesn't really mean any of those things, and heavily implies that the best Tony can hope for is another goddamn button-down shirt and pressed slacks. Not because it's fancy, or dressy, but because that's just how Steve was brought up.

They settle on an outdoor cafe that fits like a missing tooth between the rows of skyscrapers crowding in on every side. Apparently it's a place that Steve frequents, because a young girl with blonde hair and freckles smiles and waves him over to one of the tables.

"Do you need menus today, Steve?" She asks, and there's a thread of—something in Tony's gut. Not necessarily irritation or jealousy, just. He feels at odds with her familiarity.

Then she glances at him and her eyes go wide. "You're—are you Tony Stark?"

It's moments like these where he appreciates the tacit agreement between a public figure and a restaurant that charges eighty dollars for a glass of champagne: no one's going to freak out if they run into you.

"The one and only," he says, tipping his sunglasses down and flashing her a brilliant smile.

"People come here to see you fly over," she says, hands in her apron pockets. "I don't think they'd ever expect you to actually eat here."

Tony thinks, Funny story. I wouldn't have, either.

"Don't worry, I'll keep your secret," the girl gushes, lips spread in a smile that, okay, might be sort of pretty. But not really. She about scrapes the bottom of the barrel for pretty.

Steve has this sort-of smile where he's trying to show polite interest, but the truth of the matter is that insincerity is one of those things that doesn't come naturally to him. Tony's seen flashes of Steve's wry humor, has seen him weak with relief and livid with anger. Desperate and hot with lust.

"Menus," he affirms, neatly cutting off further conversation. He turns back to Tony, apologetic. "I wasn't—thinking."

"It's fine," Tony says. He orders a latte and a blueberry muffin. Steve orders coffee, black, and about half of the menu.

"How's Bruce fitting in?"

"I lured him with promises of spectrometers and resource privileges and endless lab space, except then we kinda banged up the Tower. So. As well as can be expected until we finish remodeling."

"That's... good," Steve says, drinking his coffee. Tony leans forward, elbows on the table.

"It is good," Tony says. "It'll be good when everything's finished. It'll be great."

Steve furrows his brows, meeting Tony's eyes, and. He looks puzzled.

"I mean, it—won't be for a solid three months, at least. I have a lot of guys working on it, there wasn't too much structural damage, but I've redesigned the top ten levels, so."

Their food arrives, and Steve—doesn't say much. Tony wonders if maybe he's moving too fast, or whatever. But it's not like Steve won't have his own space, his own supremely awesome space, Tony has so many brilliant ideas for the Captain America level.

"So we're staying at my—at the house. The family house. While we wait for the remodel."

Steve looks up from his three deli sandwiches. "We?"

"It's just me and Bruce and Pepper right now. And JARVIS, but—"

"Pepper?" Steve asks quietly.

Tony's mouth goes dry. "So we need to be clear that this isn't—that I wasn't keeping this from you. Okay? This isn't a secret, I just never really had time to bring it up—"

"Let me guess," Steve says, like he's trying to tell a joke. "You're married with three kids?"

"No," Tony says, and there's no way around it: "But Pepper is my girlfriend."

The worst part? That Steve doesn't say anything. He doesn't look angry or upset, he doesn't look put-out. He doesn't look disgusted, which Tony supposes is a plus, but. He sort of just gets that closed expression, like he's deeply considering what's been said. He really is a level-headed kind of guy.

Tony's kind of a nut at the best of times, and his heart sinks.

Eventually Steve wipes at his mouth with the cloth napkin and clears his throat. Rests both forearms on the table. "It won't be an issue, Tony," he says.

"Good, good, I'm glad," Tony says, and he should feel relieved, but—it doesn't come. He feels anxious, he feels uncertain and more than a little foolish. "How, uh. How's Brooklyn working out for you?"

Steve purses his lips, glances around them. Glances back at Tony, but doesn't meet his eyes. It's a moment or two before Tony realizes Steve is staring at where is chest reactor sits, though right now it's invisible beneath three layers of clothing. "It's big," Steve answers. "Different."

He's probably lonely, Tony thinks, pained. "You know, you can. You can come by. Whenever you want, it'll be like Avengers Central. Until the Tower's done."

"Right," Steve says. "Thanks."

They finish eating in silence, and Tony tries to make small talk; it was only this morning that he was overflowing with questions, like whether or not Steve has an mp3 player yet or if his shield sustained any structural damage during the battle, or what he thinks about musicals.

But Steve is silent, contemplative; he isn't exactly inviting conversation. Or he could just be hungry and enjoying a quiet lunch and Tony's company. Tony has no idea, so he sips his latte and eats his muffin.

When Steve gets up without a word and goes over to the waitress, the bill is paid before Tony gets it together enough to insist he'll take care of it.

Steve comes back, but he doesn't sit down. "Thanks for meeting me," he says, and Tony doesn't know what that means.

"I'll call you," Tony says, standing hastily. "I need to ask you about your shield, I was throwing around percentages and I'd like to get some data from when Thor, uh. Dropped his hammer on you."

"Sure," Steve says, and he isn't smiling—not his small, shy one or his half-sized fake one. He's not even really looking at Tony.

"And you should come over sometime," Tony blurts out, doesn't even care that he's repeating himself because Steve's moving in with all of them anyway, that is happening.

Steve does look at him now, and the distant New York sun as filtered through the high towers of human progress lights him from behind, catches and glows and sets blue fire to his eyes.

Tony swallows, and. He really wants to kiss Steve right now.

"I don't think that would be a good idea," Steve eventually says.

"I'll give you some time, then," Tony allows, hands up, and Steve gives him that terrible fake half-smile that means this conversation is over but he's too polite to say so.

They part ways.

Tony makes a promise to himself: he won't call Steve for a week. After Steve's had a week to think about it, to get used to the idea, he'll call him and they'll hash this out, maybe work on, on. On making this a thing.

He still has Steve's letter. His hands slide into his pocket, fingers the flat paper. He doesn't need to retrieve it; he has it memorized down to the lilt of Steve's messy, painstakingly legible scrawl. Down to the extraneous creases, the dents from Tony pressing his thumb nail into it. The pattern of the ink where it fades at the ends of letters.

It contains no romantic platitudes or declarations; it's two short, simple lines. But they're lines he left for Tony:

Went for a run, back in a few hours. Didn't want to wake you.

It was an honor working with you.

Steve's contact information is at the bottom, next to sketch of, of Tony's arc reactor. Perfect angles and technical shapes. An indication that he'd seen it, and remembered. That he'd liked it enough to transcribe.

Tony remembers Thor returning before Steve, remembers everyone meeting up at the SHIELD-approved departure site. Remembers never getting an opportunity to talk to Steve about the fantastic sex they'd had that night, about maybe doing it again sometime. About making it a regular thing, maybe, pinning this shit down because he wants Steve. Wanted him the morning after, wanted him the whole way home. Wants him now, and tomorrow, and probably in three months when, in Tony's ideal brainworld, they will all be living together.

There's a tight, anxious knot in Tony's stomach, like maybe he's missed his window of opportunity. But it can't be helped, and all Tony can do is all he can do.

He has time; he has plenty of time. He can make this work, it's there, he just. He has to sort this mess out with Pepper, which apparently involves giving Steve his space.

Tony goes home to work on the engine prototype, to let his head air-out and settle into the clarity that comes from focused, technical construction.

He ends up working on Avengers Tower plans instead, and he doesn't leave the office at Stark Manor for the rest of the month.