sam_storyteller: (Alternate Universe)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2015-03-12 07:10 pm

Toy Soldiers (Avengers, Steve/Tony)

Title: Toy Soldiers
Rating: R
Summary: When Steve Rogers, five foot four and a hundred and ten pounds, met Tony Stark in a bar, he didn't expect it to lead to a relationship. Or that Tony would find out he's not an art student during a SHIELD rescue mission in Afghanistan.
Warnings: Violence; some brief discussion of suicide in a later chapter (no actual suicide or attempt).
Notes: Inspired by a prompt posted here. It got a little out of hand.

Also available at AO3.

***

Steve maybe didn't think this all the way through.

When he told Sam and Bucky to shut their pug faces, that he could totally score the number of the hot guy in the corner, he hadn't realized several things:

a) The hot guy in the corner was Tony Stark
b) They'd actually make him put up or shut up
c) The hot guy in the corner was so painfully hot up close.

He could see Sam and Bucky and Peggy all sitting at the end of the bar, watching him, so it wasn't like he could just tell them the hot guy in the corner got up and left before he got there.

And it wasn't that he thought he had no shot at all, but traditionally this kind of thing hadn't gone well for him. The fact the man was famous and therefore used to this kind of thing wasn't exactly helping his odds.

Tony Stark wasn't a tall man, but he was still taller than Steve, especially perched on a bar stool. When Steve sidled up to the bar next to him, leaning over as if to get the bartender's attention, he barely came up to Stark's chin.

He had a plan, though, and after all, the worst that would happen was getting shot down, which he had some experience with. He waited until he might convincingly have become impatient with the lack of service, and then sighed and leaned his elbows on the bar, turning his head a little.

"Hi there," he said to Stark, who had a half-full glass of what looked like scotch and a thoughtful look on his face. Stark glanced at him and nodded, a hint of a smile on his face. "Hey, can I ask you a favor?"

The smile turned sour, and Stark's eyes narrowed.

"Nothin' much," Steve said hastily. "I bet my pals at the other end of the bar I could could sweet-talk you into giving me your phone number."

Stark snorted. "Nice line, but that's not happening."

"Oh, I know. Sorry, I didn't realize you were rockstar famous from across the room," Steve said, and the narrowed eyes opened a little wider. "I mean, even if you were interested in a guy like me, I'm sure there are security concerns. No offense. You're way out of my league. I don't need your actual number."

"Then I'm failing to see what favor you want," Stark said, but he sounded more friendly now.

"Oh, nothing much, just a number -- not yours, just any number that comes to mind," Steve said.

"That's not gonna help much when you get back to your friends."

"Getting a fake number beats no number at all," Steve said. "They might not check. Anyway, there's a tragic nobility to being faked out by Tony Stark."

"Yeah, that's fair," Stark said, amused. "Fine, you have something to write with?"

"Sure," Steve replied, taking a napkin from behind the bar and offering it to him, along with a graphite stick in a pencil holder from his pocket. Stark looked at it, perplexed.

"You're a draftsman?" he asked.

"Art student," Steve said.

"How the hell old are you?"

"Twenty-six," Steve said, laughing. "I'm a grad student."

"I should card you," Stark said, but he was openly smiling now, scribbling a series of numbers on the napkin with the pencil. "What's your name?"

"Steve," Steve said. "Steve Rogers. Thanks, you probably just won me a free beer."

"Don't drink it all in one place, you look like you'd fall over in a strong breeze."

"I'm stronger than I look."

Stark swept him, head to toe, in a way that made Steve's face heat. "I bet you are. A regular Captain America underneath, huh?" he added, nodding at the Army shirt he was wearing, one of Bucky's old castoffs.

Steve felt himself smiling back. "Something like that. Nice to meet you, Mr. Stark," he said, and was about to turn away when a hand caught the back of his head, tugging him up, and Tony Stark kissed him.

"Authenticity," Stark said against his lips, then licked the tip of his nose and let him go. Steve let out a surprised huff.

"Thanks," he said, and strutted back to the other end of the bar, where Peggy and Sam were having fits. Bucky was rolling his eyes.

"Read it and weep and buy me a beer, fellas," Steve said, as Peggy punched him in the arm.

"I'm not putting out until I know it's real," Sam said, grabbing the napkin.

"Sam, come on -- "

"No, I think he's right, you're a little con-man," Bucky said, laughing and slinging his good arm around Steve's neck, pulling Steve's phone out of his pocket and tossing it to Sam. "For all we know, you paid him. Not that you'd have to, he's rolling in it."

"Did you know it was Tony Stark?" Steve asked.

"Should've checked twice before you bragged, Rogers," Peggy drawled, as Sam dialed the number. Steve rolled his eyes and prepared to act chagrined when the number failed, but then he saw Stark at the other end of the bar, taking his phone out of his pocket. He looked up, locked eyes with Steve, held the phone up to his ear, and said hello.

Sam's jaw dropped, his eyes widened, and he almost let go of the phone. After a second, he collected himself, stammered out a few words, listened as Stark said another few words, and then hung up.

"Son of a bitch," he said, turning to Steve. "What'd you tell him?"

"That I'm stronger than I look," Steve said, just as stunned. "What'd he say?"

"He said to tell you thanks, now he's got your number too," Sam said, just as the bartender approached.

"From the guy in the corner, his compliments," the man told them, setting a huge beer in front of Steve. He put out three shot glasses as well. "Said to say those are for your friends," he added, and Steve caught Stark winking as he poured out little shots for Peggy and Sam and Bucky. As Sam returned his phone, a text message popped up.

Hey artist, wanna be my kept man? Let me buy you dinner sometime. Leave the friends at home.

Steve swallowed, blinked, and texted back I don't like being kept but I don't mind being fed.

Sure thing, Captain America, Stark replied, and when Steve looked up, he put his hand up to his head, thumb and pinky extended, and mouthed, call me.

***

"So," Natasha said, not twenty-four hours after Incident At The Bar.

"Don't even start," Steve told her, as he checked his parachute straps.

"I'm not starting anything," Natasha replied, putting her comm in.

"Good," Steve said, glaring darkly at Peggy across the loading bay of the plane, because he knew who had told Natasha about his little cellphone adventure.

"I'm just saying," Natasha began, and Steve groaned. "I'm just saying, I try to set you up with every eligible single person at SHIELD who would be interested in you and isn't a creep, and you pick up Tony Stark at a bar?"

"I didn't pick him up at a bar, we just talked," Steve said. "And most of the people you think are interested in me aren't actually interested in me."

"That's not true, the girl with the lip piercing thinks you're delightful," Peggy said, checking her guns.

"She did think you were cute," Natasha agreed.

"She thinks I'm twelve," Steve complained. "Everyone thinks I'm twelve. Everyone thinks I'm a twelve-year-old analyst. It's because they never let me do any training for the new recruits."

"Well, darling, it's humiliating, being broken over the knee of a twelve-year-old analyst," Peggy said sweetly.

"You don't get to talk anymore," Steve decided.

"Hey kids, we're near the drop," Clint said from the pilot's seat. "Radio check, please."

"Black Widow check," Natasha said.

"Sparrowhawk check," Peggy said.

"And Nomad check," Steve finished.

"Okay, we're good," Clint confirmed.

"So are you going out with him, or what?" Natasha asked.

"Your fascination with my love life is bordering on the insane," Steve said.

"I'm not fascinated with your love life. It's your sex life that fascinates and bewilders me," Natasha said.

"That's not true, you've told me you just want me to be happy."

"Yes, happy and well-laid."

"Sex isn't everything," Steve said.

"Well, now I'm bewildered," Clint put in. "We're over the drop. If you're gonna go, go now."

"If you'll excuse me, I have a mission," Steve told them, opening the launch door.

"We have a mission," Peggy said. "Steve, don't you dare leap without -- "

Steve leaned out the door and leapt, happy to be in the air for a few minutes, the plummet and the cold distracting him from the embarrassment of Natasha's continued attempts to set him up. It was well intentioned, he knew, but being rejected by everyone in SHIELD because they couldn't see past his size -- because half of SHIELD still wondered why a short, skinny, hollow-cheeked waif hung out with the field agents -- was just so humiliating.

Still trying to prove yourself, Bucky's voice chided in his head. When'll it be enough, Steve? When you get yourself killed on a mission, somewhere you shouldn't be, and SHIELD won't even admit you ever existed?

He popped his chute and drifted down in the night sky, landing in a forest clearing. By the time Natasha and Peggy caught up to him, he'd packed up his chute and was checking his boots. They had a six-mile jog through rough terrain before they'd reach the farmhouse where a couple of ambassadors' kids were supposedly being held hostage, according to intel. He didn't want Natasha and Peggy, who had longer legs than him, to leave him behind.

"Are you going to see him?" Natasha asked, tightening her pack.

"We're having dinner this week," Steve said. "I'm supposed to call him to set it up."

Natasha gave him a dry look, then looked to Peggy.

"I'll make sure he calls," Peggy said.

"You are both traitors and I don't know why I like you," Steve told them, and took off jogging.

***

"Oof," Tony grunted, when he tried to lift Steve up off the ground, late on Friday night. "What do you have in your pockets?"

Steve, comfortably snugged up against Tony, thighs around his hips and arms around his shoulders, undulated and grinned. "Told you I was stronger than I look."

"Holy shit," Tony said, stumbling them up against one of the big glass walls of the penthouse. He slid his hands down to grasp Steve's thighs. "I have an entirely new motivation for taking off your clothes."

"Not stopping you," Steve said, nuzzling his neck. He tightened his thighs, holding himself up using the glass so that Tony could use both hands to open his shirt.

This was by far the best first date of his life. He hadn't had many, but still.

Tony started to laugh, a low rumble in his chest that built along the column of his throat, and Steve jerked back, almost on the verge of being offended. He looked up to find Tony gazing at the tattoo on his pec, glee crinkling his eyes.

"I thought Captain America was just a cute nickname," he managed, pointing to the Cap shield on Steve's chest, and Steve stuck out his tongue.

"You makin' fun of my patriotism?" he asked, rolling his hips. Tony kissed him, warm and open, groaning into it. Tony had called him Captain America twice during a very expensive dinner, and Steve had allowed it because it gave him a pleasant warmth inside, and because Tony was…

Well, Tony was just fun. Steve had rarely been out with anyone who was so much fun. Tony was smart and well-read and had an easy way about him that soothed Steve's nerves over the date almost instantly. Between the food and the wine and the long moonlit walk back to the entire building Tony Stark owned, he'd had an honest good time. And when they'd reached the Tower, Tony had seemed oddly like he expected Steve to thank him and walk away. Which was, truly, Steve's general reaction to first dates.

Instead he'd kissed him and asked if Tony could scare up some coffee in that big building of his, and Tony had looked delighted, and now here they were.

They'd skipped the coffee.

"I love a patriot," Tony said, hitching Steve a little higher before pushing the shirt off his shoulders. Steve wriggled, sliding the shirt down his back. "I'm very patriotic myself. Are you sure you're not a professional gymnast?" he added, fingers tucked in the back of Steve's pants.

"Little guys gotta be able to protect themselves," Steve said, arching away from the glass. Tony took the hint and stepped back, stumbling them both into the bedroom. He laid Steve down on the bed but Steve kept his thighs locked around his hips, arching, bringing his erection up against Tony's through their clothes.

"Jesus, you're beautiful," Tony mumbled, hips jerking, propping himself on his arms over Steve's shoulders. Steve pulled his shirt off over his head and ran his hands down Tony's thick barrel-chest, the soft indents of his abs. "What do you want, sweetheart?" Tony asked, as Steve undid his belt buckle.

"Don't usually move this fast," Steve admitted, tossing his belt aside. "What do you like? Can I ride you?"

Tony's hips jerked against him again, and Steve let go of him so he could take his pants off. When Tony lay down on the bed, Steve rolled over and crawled up his body, shedding his own pants (a size too big anyway, he really would have to buy some clothes that weren't his SHIELD-issued catsuit or Bucky's hand-me-alongs) and straddling Tony's hips. Tony's hands came to rest on his waist, big warm hands, sliding up and down from ribcage to thigh.

"You really are solid muscle," Tony murmured, fingers tightening for emphasis.

"Is that okay?" Steve asked uncertainly. He knew he was a stringy, wiry kind of muscular, body designed for speed and leverage rather than brute force. Maybe Tony liked smooth bodies, maybe he'd been hoping Steve would have slim arms, soft thighs --

"Very okay, baby," Tony said, pushing himself up to kiss him. "Bet you could throw me across the room."

You have no idea, Steve thought, but he just looked down at Tony, eyelids lowering a little, and asked, "Lube?"

As sweet-talk went, it was lacking, but it did get a pretty great reaction regardless.

He thought maybe he should have gotten on his knees, face buried in the blankets so he could feel Tony over and around him -- Tony seemed huge, especially the big hands opening him up, and the erection hot and thick against his thigh -- but then he knelt up and sank down slowly and decided this was better, this was perfect. Tony bucked underneath him, groaning, and Steve held onto his shoulders and undulated again, enjoying the last soft burn of stretch as he took Tony inside him. It was satisfying, on a very primal level, to make the man beneath him sweat, to make Tony thrust up so hard he had to focus on not getting thrown off. Thrilling to be in control, especially to watch Tony come under him, eyes fluttering shut, and to come with Tony's hand around his cock, all over Tony's belly.

Steve came down off the high of orgasm slowly, tumbling awkwardly into the bed and tucking himself up under Tony's arm, pressing his nose to one thick pectoral.

"You are a fucking spitfire," Tony said, and Steve noticed the fingernail-scratches, red against Tony's tan skin, that he'd left all along his chest. "What are they teaching you in art school?"

"Anatomy," Steve said, and buried his laughter in Tony's skin as Tony scruffed the back of his head. "You liked it, huh?"

"You need to ask?" Tony said, eyes closing.

"Well, I don't do this much. Sometimes it's hard to tell," Steve said hesitantly.

"Then I appreciate the honor," Tony said. "Though admittedly even if your standards are high, I'm quite the catch."

"And so modest, too," Steve replied. "It's not usually my standards that are the issue."

"Yeah, I remember," Tony said.

"Remember what?"

"In the bar? You said you weren't even in my league. Made me like you, actually, that you didn't seem to think you deserved anything from me," Tony replied. "Everyone thinks they're entitled to something from me."

"I wanted your phone number."

"You didn't even expect that. You were so polite about it, like I was a real person to you. And you didn't know it was me when you made that bet. I'm gonna have to thank your friends, by the way. Do they like cars?"

"Don't buy any of my friends a car."

"Too much?"

"No, they're terrible drivers that don't deserve nice cars."

Tony laughed, one hand still cradling Steve's head.

"People seriously turn you down?" he asked, thumb rubbing Steve's temple.

"Well, I'm short, and I know I don't dress that nicely, and it's not like art students make a ton of money," Steve said.

"Huh," Tony answered. He sounded sleepy. "So you can't get laid and I can't get anything but."

"Anything but?" Steve asked, propping his chin on Tony's shoulder. It was a dick move; he had a bony chin, and he was propping it on a nerve cluster, but he didn't want Tony to sleep just yet. Tony twitched awake.

"Did I use my outside voice for that?" he asked, looking down at Steve. "It's the poor little rich boy predicament. Woe is me, everyone wants to fuck me."

Steve pushed himself up on an elbow. "Nobody wants to be with you," he concluded. Tony nodded. "That's awful, Tony."

"Nobody's looking for your pity, Rogers," Tony said lightly, but there was an edge to it. Steve frowned, cupping Tony's face with one hand, fingers tracing the edge of his beard.

"I have a hard time pitying a witty billionaire with a cute goatee," he said. Tony's eyes flicked up to him. "I don't need your money and I'm not impressed with your fame, but I like the way you talk," he continued, lowering himself down on Tony's chest, mouth against one clavicle. "I like your body. I like your hands. I think you're funny, and I suspect you could be kind."

One of Tony's hands raised to rest on his shoulder, as if Tony wasn't sure what to do with this.

"I don't fall into bed with people I don't intend to see again," Steve continued. "Ask anyone. They made me try to get your number because they knew it's not really my thing, and that I'd be bad at it. I'd like to see you again after today."

"You might not think that the first time the press takes your picture doing the walk of shame," Tony replied.

"I don't believe in the walk of shame, and I don't care who takes my picture," Steve said, though that could become an issue. He didn't do much actual undercover work anymore; he was just so terrible at it. But if his face was all over, his handler at SHIELD might be pissy. Might make Tony's life harder, too, eventually. Still, he'd deal with that when and if he had to. He was, after all, very good at stealth. "Can I stay the night? Will you make me breakfast?"

Tony's laugh was a deep reverberation in his chest. "I can't cook."

"Will you take me out to breakfast, then? Can I see you next week?"

"I'm in Malibu, at the west coast plant. I leave Wednesday."

"Tuesday night?"

"Persistent mouse, aren't you?" Tony asked, but his body was easier than it had been, the tension melting out of his muscle. "You want me to take you to dinner Tuesday night?"

"Yes. There's a place in Brooklyn you'll like. Really good Cuban," Steve said.

"You want me to haul my ass out to Brooklyn for you?"

"I live in Brooklyn. I want you to haul your butt out to Brooklyn and let me buy you the best roast pork you'll ever eat," Steve said, nipping his throat, "and then I want to take you back to my place and make you late for your flight in the morning."

"You drive a hard bargain, Captain America," Tony said.

"I'm notoriously stubborn," Steve replied.

"Sure, okay. Stay the night. We'll see about Tuesday," Tony replied, and Steve settled down against him again, slinging a leg over his knees and an arm around his waist, as far as they would reach. "I was wrong. You're not a mouse, you're an octopus."

"You're buying me breakfast, don't forget," Steve said, and smiled when he felt the rumble of Tony's laughter under his cheek again.

***

The next morning, Steve was emerging from the shower and considering texting…well, everyone he knew, though he wouldn't, because he was a gentleman…when he heard a hissed breath from the heap of blankets where Tony was still collapsed.

"Did I do that?" Tony asked, and Steve twisted around to follow his gaze. He could, just barely, see bruises on his hips, and Tony had done those, but there were two big purple splotches higher up where the hostage-takers had put up a fight.

"I bruise like a ripe pear," he said, grinning at Tony. "The big ones are a couple days old. Fell off my bike."

"And into a wolverine pit?" Tony asked, pushing himself upright.

"It's nothing," Steve said. "You should see me when I get punched in the face."

Tony gaped at him. "Does that happen much?"

"Once in a while. I tend to pick fights. Bucky says I'm three hundred pounds of attitude in a hundred pounds of me," Steve said.

"Bucky, that's your buddy from the bar?"

"Sam's the one who called you, but yeah, Bucky was there. He spent most of our childhood pulling me out of trouble." Steve stepped into his trousers, hopping a little for balance. "Taught me to fight, too. I can hold my own."

"I believe it," Tony said, and Steve caught him leering. "Let's wrestle sometime."

"Don't be crude," Steve told him, but he did cross to where Tony was lying, bending to kiss him and smooth down his wild bedhead. "Come on, up and at ‘em; I was promised breakfast."

"I don't think I promised anything," Tony grumbled, but Steve tugged him up and towed him out of bed as far as the bathroom. "I'd shower faster if you were in here with me!" he called through the bathroom door.

"That's a grave untruth!" Steve called back, but he smiled to himself, satisfied and maybe a little smug, as he pulled on his shirt and checked his phone. He had a text from Bucky.

Text by 9am or I'm coming over to see if he murdered you in your sleep, it read. If you murdered him in his sleep, I'll help you hide the body.

Steve texted back a photo of himself smiling, with Tony's amazing view of Manhattan in the background.

Nice work if you can get it, was the grumpy response.

***

Tony took Steve to one of the best breakfast places he'd ever been to, and by the time he'd crammed himself full of chicken and waffles, kissed Tony goodbye for ten or twenty minutes, and made his way back to Brooklyn on the empty Saturday-morning subway, Bucky was halfway through the crossword and Sam had hidden the sports page.

"Hail the conquering hero," Bucky drawled, as Steve let himself into Sam's apartment. (Technically Sam and Bucky's, Steve supposed, but he wasn't sure if Sam had realized Bucky had moved in, and Bucky himself was in denial about having moved in.) "You smell like expensive soap."

"Lay off, I think it's nice," Steve said. He caught the mug Sam tossed him and helped himself to some coffee.

"How's lover-boy?" Sam asked.

"He threatened to buy you a car out of gratitude," Steve said.

"You wouldn't let him?"

"You keep forgetting cars can't fly, it's a real problem," Steve informed him, sitting next to Bucky at the breakfast bar.

"He's got stars in his eyes," Bucky said to Sam.

"I noticed," Sam replied. "You gonna dish, Rogers, or did you just come here to drink my coffee and look smug?"

Steve wondered what he could tell them -- what was appropriate to tell them, but also what he wanted to share. He didn't have many lovers; he often felt like he wanted to keep them locked away to himself, for as long as they'd have him. Which generally wasn't long.

Peggy still held the record. At least they'd broken up because two bullheaded risk-takers in the relationship wasn't working, and not because she got tired of him.

He didn't want to be crass about Tony, or share intimacies that weren't his to tell. A man like Tony Stark lived enough of his life in the spotlight. But he did feel like if he didn't talk about it at least a little he'd burst. Besides, Bucky had kept more and stranger secrets for him, and Sam was discreet by nature and training.

"He's mooning," Sam said to Bucky, coming around the bar to lean on Bucky's shoulder and fix Steve with a sardonic gaze.

"I am here in the room, you know," Steve replied, stung.

"He's not asking for measurements, Stevie," Bucky said, without looking up from his crossword. "You had a good time?"

"Yes, actually, I did."

"You like him?" Sam asked. Steve bit down on the What are you, my ma? retort, because it wasn't exactly fair.

"I do. I think he likes me," he added.

"Stark's got a reputation," Bucky grunted.

"We didn't exchange promise rings, Buck," Steve chided.

"Promise rings," Bucky repeated, rolling his eyes. He glanced sidelong at Steve. "You gonna see him again?"

"Tuesday night, I'm taking him to that Cuban place."

"Ooh, the Cuban place," Sam said, and Steve shot him a suspicious look, but he seemed sincere.

"You gotta be careful around that one," Bucky continued. "He breaks your heart, I'm gonna break his fingers, and I could do serious jail time for assaulting a guy with his kind of pull."

"I can do my own finger-breaking, thanks," Steve said, idly scratching his tattoo through his shirt, remembering Tony's smile when he saw it. "So can I spend the morning here basking, or do you two want me to scram?"

"Mi casa," Sam said, spreading his hands. "Peggy's coming over later. Text Natasha, we can do movies."

Steve sometimes, a little wistfully, missed the days when he and Bucky lived together, back when Steve actually was an art student, before Bucky enlisted (and Steve was recruited). Sometimes he wanted to come over to Sam's and just never leave. At Sam's, with Bucky and more so lately with Sam, he didn't have to be the big guy, he didn't have to constantly be on the attack. He could curl up on the sofa for a movie marathon, make himself into a small, warm ball tucked against Bucky's side, let Natasha pet his hair when she thought he was asleep, and relax.

He wouldn't give up SHIELD for anything, but it was nice to be able to put it on the shelf for a night sometimes.

***

Sunday afternoon, Peggy got a call about a homegrown terror cell with a dirty bomb, and by Sunday night Steve was on a plane to Montana. Coulson had briefed them rather than passing the brief to Peggy, which meant Nick Fury was probably watching them on surveillance, and that always made Steve a little twitchy. He hadn't really paid as close attention as he should until Peggy and Coulson agreed that this was a one-man, stealth-infiltration job, and he found himself loading up with Clint and Natasha.

He wasn't even going to get to parachute in, not this time. For some reason this mission merited a minijet, which could put down just outside the compound with nobody the wiser. At least as long as the terrorists didn't have radar, and he was pretty sure they didn't.

His plan to silently and stealthily infiltrate the terrorist compound, disarm and steal the bomb, and make it out before anyone saw him lasted about as long as it took for the pressure plate under the bomb to trigger an alarm.

"Rookie mistake," Clint said in the comm in his ear, as the floodlights outside the compound buildings came on and the alarm blared all around him. "Mind's not on your work, Nomad."

"Well, hell," Steve sighed. He tucked the bomb in the slim bag strapped to his back, grabbed a garotte and a gun from the bag's inside compartment, and drew himself up against the wall. When the door burst open, he went to work.

It wasn't that Steve especially enjoyed incapacitating people. Not like Natasha, who took a sort of fierce glee in it, or Clint, who made it a game. Steve just liked a job well and efficiently done, and if that job was happening to a bunch of neo-Nazi white supremacists with face tattoos of the SS logo, well, he wasn't going to lose any sleep over it.

He took the first guy down using the garotte as a tripwire, tripped the second guy over the first, flipped over them to put two in the shoulders of the guy behind them, and drew a knife just in time to bury it in the haunch of the fourth guy as he stampeded over his buddies. After that they got wise and just started shooting through the door, so Steve tugged the garotte free, threw it over a low ceiling beam, pulled himself up the wall, and swung through the top of the door, landing on the guy trying to shoot him.

After that it got a little violent.

"Any time you feel like calling for a ride," Clint said, sounding bored. Steve swung himself into a handstand, locked his legs around the thigh of one of the terrorists still on his feet, and threw his whole body into a twist. The man's hip cracked, and he went down hard.

"Almost ready, Hawkeye," Steve replied.

"Your boyfriend texted, by the way."

"My what," Steve said flatly. He'd left his phone, per operational procedure, in his locker on the jet.

"Your phone beeped, Widow's nosy," Clint continued.

"He wants a selfie," Natasha said. "What should I tell him?"

"Ugh, why did you even -- just put the phone away, I'll send him one later," Steve said.

"What did you tell him you do for a living?" Clint asked.

"Art student," Steve replied. Clint laughed down the line. "Nomad for pickup in two, please, I'll be on the roof."

"You got it, Wild Thang," Clint said, and Steve sprang over the groaning bodies, heading for the industrial-looking spiral staircase at the center of the building. He made it up without incident, though it sounded like there were more guys on the way, and hit the roof just in time to catch the pickup rope Clint threw down to him. Clint also fired two shots past him, and Steve swung wildly as he went hand over hand up the rope.

"Thanks for the assist," he said, when he was inside the jet. He was breathing heavily, heart racing, lying on the floor where he'd tumbled, and he was bleeding in a couple of places. Could be worse, really.

"Don't send a selfie right now," Natasha said drily from the pilot's chair, as she got them out of the range of small arms fire. His phone landed on the floor next to him.

"You could send him a dick pic," Clint suggested helpfully. Steve made a halfhearted rude gesture. He supposed right now it might be his best option.

"What do people with normal relationships do in our situation?" he asked Clint.

"I dunno. Who do we know who has a normal relationship?" Clint asked Natasha, who shrugged. Steve sighed.

"You gonna get off the floor of the jet?" Clint asked.

"No. I'm gonna lie here with a dirty bomb poking me in the back until we get back to New York," Steve groaned, rolling over onto his face. He felt Clint pull the bag off his back, and about a minute later there was a small metallic snick.

"Dirty bomb no' mo'," Clint said triumphantly. Steve ignored him, pushing himself up to his elbows and studying the text on his phone.

Can't stop thinking about you, was charming. Send me a selfie I can show off to my PA a little less so.

Can't send a selfie, all my lightbulbs are burnt out, he texted back.

Tease, Tony said.

I'll look extra pretty on Tuesday to make up for it, Steve said, feeling daring. There was a long silence before Tony texted back.

I'm holding you to that.

"Are you seriously sexting a billionaire right now?" Natasha asked.

"There is literally no pleasing you," Steve replied.

"I do have very high standards," Natasha agreed solemnly.

***

None of Steve's injuries were particularly awful, though he did have one graze on his arm that only escaped stitches because he insisted they use superglue instead. A huge purple bruise was blossoming around it by the time medical was done with him, but otherwise he felt pretty good. Satisfied, really. Nothing like beating on someone who unambiguously deserved it to really keep you limber.

One of the other injuries was on his face, though, so despite Tony's pestering via text, he staunchly refused to send a selfie. By Tuesday, the scrape on his cheek was mostly healed -- it could be passed off as road rash, though God knew Tony was going to think Steve didn't actually know how to ride a bike -- and Steve was more or less vibrating with nerves.

"I could put some foundation on it," Peggy said, as Sam and Natasha examined and discarded various items of clothing from Steve's closet. "It's a wonder anyone sees the rest of your face, what with those eyelashes," she added, chucking him affectionately under the chin.

"No mascara," Steve said.

"You don't need any."

"That hasn't traditionally stopped you from trying!"

"When did she try mascara on you? Are there pictures?" Natasha asked. "Steve, is your entire wardrobe stolen from Bucky?"

"Usually," Bucky called from the other side of the studio, where he was sitting on Steve's couch, watching the TV on mute and having no part of the fashion consultation.

"I own things," Steve protested feebly.

"You own a lot of khaki," Sam observed.

"Khaki's good urban camo, it blends right in."

"Foundation? Yes or no?" Peggy asked.

"I feel like having a scrape on my face is less strange than having inexplicable foundation on my face," Steve told her.

"You are exactly the kind of boy who would rub it off without thinking," she agreed.

"All of you will be gone by the time I get home tonight, right?" Steve asked, genuinely worried that Natasha and Sam were considering staying in his bedroom to reorganize his closet.

"I could live here for weeks and you'd never know," Natasha said.

"That's true, I think she did it to Sam once," Bucky called.

"You mean like you are, right this minute?" Steve asked, and then shut his mouth with a snap. Natasha and Peggy both glared at him. Sam just threw a plaid shirt (not Bucky's) out of the closet.

"You think I don't know his ass moved in?" Sam asked calmly. Steve craned his neck to see if Bucky was freaking out. He looked pale, but okay. "I gave him a key, I dropped all the hints. I can't do everything for him. You gotta find someone to sublet your place on your own," he added to Bucky.

"Did that last week," Bucky replied.

"Well, good, then you can start paying your half of the rent. I'm not your sugar daddy."

Steve made a quick brow-wiping gesture of relief at Peggy, whose face clearly said he had narrowly escaped a dire fate.

"Are these skinny jeans?" Natasha asked, holding up a pair of faded black jeans.

"No, those are from eighth grade," Steve said.

"Why do you still have them?"

"They still fit?"

She muttered something that sounded like disaster and set the jeans aside. "Sam?"

"I think I've assembled something," Sam said. "How do you feel about the prep look?"

Steve studied the clothes he'd set out -- a pair of khakis, a white dress shirt that might also have come from the eighth grade era of his wardrobe, a new(ish) blue sweater, and a pair of loafers.

"Okay, those aren't mine," Steve said, pointing at the shoes.

"Well, they're not mine," Bucky said, leaning over the back of the couch.

"Where did they come from?" Steve asked, mystified.

"Who cares?" Peggy asked.

"I care, there are strange shoes in my apartment! And I'm not wearing them," Steve added.

"It's this or one of a series of increasingly worrying combat boots," Natasha said.

"The brown combat boots are fine," Steve said, pulling his t-shirt off and shrugging into the dress shirt, then shedding his pants so he could put on the khakis. He tugged the sweater over his head, smoothed it down, and presented himself for inspection.

"Buck, tell me how I look," he called, and Bucky tipped his head back over the couch, his grin going kind and affectionate, a rare look even after months of being home.

"You look good, kid," he said, his voice warm, as Peggy smoothed Steve's hair down, fussing over the part. "You look better than a guy like Stark deserves."

"Well, Stark's who'll have me, apparently," Steve said, ducking out from under Peggy's ministrations.

"Then I guess he can't be a complete dumbass," Bucky said. "Decent taste in fellas, anyway."

Steve checked the clock and almost swore. "Do you think he minds his dates being late? I gotta go -- "

"The Cuban place is five minutes away, and I'm pretty sure he's never been on time in his life," Peggy said.

"Okay, so everyone can leave now," Steve said pointedly. "Thank you for your assistance, go, I don't want a chaperone escort."

Peggy and Natasha began preparing to go, and Sam tugged Bucky out of the couch, wrapping an arm around his waist.

"Call if he gets handsy," Bucky said, stopping to check in with Steve as he left. Steve gave him a reassuring smile.

"I promise I won't let anyone but you murder him," he replied, and Bucky nodded and let Sam hustle him out of the apartment. When everyone was gone, Steve sat down at his drafting table, let himself be anxious for a few minutes, and then resolutely went to put on his combat boots.

***

It was, Steve had to admit, a little hard to read Tony Stark. Granted, he hadn't had much practice yet, but he was a spy with a pretty high clearance level, and he liked to think he wasn't bad at cold reads.

Tony seemed to be having a genuinely good time at the Cuban place, which was a little hole-in-the-wall that Steve had never thought was particularly shabby until he was dining there with a billionaire. But Tony smiled, and seemed to eat him up with his eyes, and he certainly ate like he enjoyed the food. He had smears of engine grease on his arms, and he was even less dressed up than Steve.

But Steve suspected Tony almost always seemed genuine even when he wasn't, and he couldn't imagine this wasn't just a little bit outside Tony's comfort zone.

"You look nervous," Tony said, picking a long strip of pork out of his sandwich and popping it into his mouth. "You know I would literally be happy if we left right now and had crazy sex in the alley, right?"

"You can't just say that in here!" Steve said, scandalized. "This is a family restaurant!"

"Too late now," Tony replied, grinning at him. "By the way, you're busted."

"Busted?" Steve asked anxiously.

"Your aversion to selfies isn't because you're a modest and retiring individual. You just didn't want me to see your latest wolverine encounter," Tony said, pointing at his cheek.

"You should know sooner rather than later that I'm a little accident prone," Steve replied.

He could literally see Tony gearing up for a "trip and fall on my dick" remark, and he reached across the table, resting two fingers on Tony's lips. "Don't say it."

"See?" Tony said, nipping the pad of one finger lightly before leaning back. "Already finishing each others' thoughts."

"Are you going to finish your sandwich?" Steve asked, eyeing the remains of it hungrily. He hadn't been able to eat much for lunch, nerves about the date making him queasy in a way parachuting into hostile foreign territory never had. (You knew what to expect with hostile foreign territory.) Now he was starving, and Tony was looking indulgent.

"Go for it," he said, leaning forward again to nudge his plate across. Steve took a huge bite of it, flattered and a little confused when Tony rested his chin on one hand, watching him.

"What?" he asked, newly self-conscious.

"I don't go on many second dates," Tony said, which surprised him.

"Why not? You can't be wanting on offers."

"I bore easily, which I acknowledge is a pretty terrible thing to say, and most people seem a lot more determined to charm me than you are."

"I'm...not un-determined," Steve ventured.

"No, but you're not going to let it get in the way of doing what you want to do. It's rare to find someone who isn't eager to change themselves for me."

"Probably why you get bored easily," Steve said, pleased now that he understood. "You're a very charismatic man. I don't think everyone could possibly have been after your money. At least some of them probably wanted you for your body."

Tony laughed. "And you?"

"Now you're fishing for compliments, and I don't bite that easily," Steve said.

"Would you bite if I asked nicely?" Tony asked, voice dropping.

"Guess you'll have to ask nicely and find out," Steve said, as he wiped his fingers and stood up. "Still interested in seeing how the other half lives?"

"I'll have you know I had a very strict budget in college," Tony told him, letting his arm fall around Steve's shoulders as they ducked out of the restaurant. He pulled him in close, a little possessive as they walked along, and Steve leaned against his side, enjoying it.

He lived at the top of a three-floor walkup, which wasn't too bad as housing went, though he realized his mistake as soon as he opened the door. Clothing was still strewn everywhere across the other end of the studio, and the mystery loafers were sitting under his drafting table.

He heard Tony say "Wow" and was about to make an excuse about some kind of...robbery, maybe, but Tony just made a beeline for the opposite wall, where his old art school work was haphazardly hung.

"You actually have etchings. I was gonna make a joke, but there they are," Tony said, studying the framed art intently. Some of it was sketches -- the best of his life study portfolio, including a perhaps more erotic than he'd realized nude of Peggy -- but most were lino prints from his art deco phase.

"They're old," he said, uncertain how to handle this, busying himself with bundling the clothing off his bed and back into his closet in a giant heap. "College stuff. Undergrad."

"Do you still do prints?" Tony asked.

"No, mostly it's sketching now," Steve said, thinking of the shoebox of comics that were most of the art he'd done recently. Funny little stories drawn on backs of reports during mission downtime, doodles to entertain Bucky, heroic sketches of Captain America.

"These are great. Is this a schematic?" Tony asked, gesturing at one that was a mass of angular gears and abstract dials.

"Should have known you'd gravitate to the machines," Steve said, coming over to join him. "Steampunk was just getting big, I thought I'd give it a try. Teachers hated it."

He'd done that one right before Bucky enlisted, a month or two before he himself was recruited from a parking lot where he was (for once) winning a fight against a guy who said he was too short to join the Army, but he should consider the Girl Scouts.

"I like it. Sort of like if Dali fucked Da Vinci," Tony said.

"Thanks, I think?"

"It was a compliment," Tony assured him. "I hear art school is brutal."

"Isn't so bad. Gives you a tough skin," Steve said, leaning up just a little to kiss Tony's bare nape, then nip it with his teeth. "We can talk art if you want, but I had a few ideas after I left on Saturday."

"And I didn't even have to ask nicely," Tony murmured, turning around. He tipped Steve's chin up with his fingers and kissed him, eyes open, watching for his reaction (probably for the blush -- he seemed to like the blush). "I'm in your hands. Tell me these ideas."

***

Tony was gone when Steve woke up in the morning, but considering he woke at eleven, pleasantly sore and with bite marks peppered across his shoulders, he figured Tony had the right to leave before he was awake. He did have a plane to catch, Steve remembered.

He was half-dressed, yawning and scratching himself on the way to the shower, when there was a knock at the door. Nearly everyone he knew either came in without knocking or would never come to his apartment. He hesitated, then decided anyone trying to kill him wouldn't knock, and peered through the door's peep-hole. On the other side was a nervous looking man in a chef's smock, with a bag in one hand. Perplexed, Steve opened the door.

"Steve Rogers?" the man asked.

"Yes..." Steve said.

"Mr. Stark sent me. He said to say he's extremely sorry he forgot to leave a note, and he wants to make sure you eat a nutritious breakfast," the man recited. Steve squinted.

"Okay, well, gimme a second, I can come up with a tip...." he said, wondering where his wallet was.

"Oh, that's taken care of," the man said. "I'm, uh, I'm not a delivery driver. I'm here to cook it for you," he said, holding up the bag.

"Cook it?" Steve asked.

"I'm Mr. Stark's Manhattan chef. He wanted to make sure you understood he didn't mean to forget to leave a note."

"Do you do this often?" Steve asked, beginning to be both amused and appalled.

"No, this is a first for me," the man admitted. "I have an assortment of breakfast meats, or I can make pancakes, muffins, fruit salad..."

"Okay, well, you trooped all the way out here," Steve said, standing back. "Come in. Actually if you could make some coffee, there's beans in the freezer, that'd be great."

"What else would you like?" the man asked, looking relieved.

"God, no, I'm not going to make you cook in my kitchen," Steve said. "Just, put the coffee on and take a load off, I need a shower."

"But Mr. Stark said -- "

"Mr. Stark knows I'm capable of feeding myself," Steve said gently. "Tell him you made me apple turnovers for all I care. Don't do the crossword!" he added, as he grabbed his phone and disappeared into the bathroom.

Then he sat down on the edge of the tub and called Tony.

"Did my breakfast arrive?" Tony asked, instead of saying Hello. "I swear to God, I meant to leave a note."

"I knew you had a plane to catch," Steve pointed out. "You are drastically overreacting."

"Yeah, that's pretty much my default state," Tony replied. "What's he making you?"

"Coffee, and then he's going home, because I don't like strangers in my kitchen."

"Oh," Tony said, sounding faintly upset.

"It was a very sweet gesture," Steve said. "I'm not angry, Tony, just not used to chefs showing up to make me breakfast."

"I can't cook."

"I think we discussed that. I promise I don't expect you to."

"You should eat more."

Steve laughed. "Tony. Enjoy Malibu. Send me some pictures of you doing whatever it is you do in California. I'll see you when you're back in Manhattan. I'll come over to your place and he can cook for both of us."

"Tell him if you're allergic to stuff."

"I'm allergic to a lot, I'll print him out a list," Steve said ruefully. "Hey, Tony."

"Yeah?"

"Don't with the grand sweeping gestures, okay? I'm a simple guy and most people don't even get as far as you have. I'm not gonna walk the first time you screw up."

Tony huffed out a breath. "Promise?" he asked sardonically, but there was a hint of entreaty underneath it.

"I promise. Now catch your plane or whatever."

"I'm already over Utah."

"Private jet?"

"I swear I won't send it to fly you out to Malibu when I get lonely."

"Good man. I'll talk to you later, okay?"

By the time he got out of the shower, there were sausage links cooking in his frying pan, and the chef was putting a cookie sheet in the oven.

"Apple turnovers?" Steve asked, resigned.

"Mr. Stark insisted."

"All right. Well, stick around until they're done, then you can eat too," Steve said, heading for the couch. "You mind if I put the news on?"

***

Steve made up for his earlier refusal to send selfies by sending Tony at least one a day while he was in Malibu, which had the additional benefit of calming Tony the hell down. It became evident to Steve fairly quickly that if Tony dumped him, he could just go on with his life, having learned self-sufficiency young. But if he dumped Tony, who didn't have a lot of experience with rejection in actual relationships, there might be permanent ego damage involved. It was a good situation for him, he supposed, but he resolved to keep an eye on that particular dysfunction.

Tony was in Malibu for the better part of two weeks. He attended at least two charity galas, and there were photographs here and there of him with various women on his arm, but Steve knew it was all puff; if People Magazine didn't have a story they'd invent one. He didn't think he was in a position to demand monogamy after only two dates, and anyway, even Tony didn't have the vigor required to cheat on him with five separate women over the course of two dinner galas.

Besides, when Tony came back to New York, Steve hitched a ride out to the airport in the limo with Happy. On the ride back into the city, Tony put the privacy panel up and made a concerted effort to prove to Steve how earnest he was.

After the best and certainly the most mobile blow job of his life, lying on one of the limo's bench seats, Tony half-dressed on top of his chest, Steve said, "So I guess you missed me?"

Tony, who hadn't actually gotten off yet, squirmed against him and nuzzled his neck. "Next time I'll put you in my pocket and take you with me."

"Funny," Steve said, even as he enjoyed the dense weight of Tony on his body. "So, no roving escapades in California?"

"Were you worried?" Tony asked.

"Lots of pretty ladies. I wouldn't exactly blame you."

"They were pretty," Tony said thoughtfully, wriggling his pants down to his thighs. Steve slid a hand down between them, and Tony groaned. "Didn't really cross my mind."

"Good," Steve said, pleased, and Tony whined between his teeth, bucking.

"Felt very bohemian, you know," Tony gasped, and Steve braced him from tumbling off the narrow seat with a well-timed thigh. "Thinking about my artist lover in New York."

"Think how I feel," Steve said. "Did you imagine you were my patron?"

Tony laughed around a groan. "I am now."

"Mm." Steve tightened his fingers a little. "Does that mean I get to draw you naked?"

"Do you want to?"

"What makes you think I haven't already?" Steve asked, licking the curve of Tony's ear, and Tony stiffened, breath a bare hiss as he came. He was quiet for a few minutes, breathing deep and fast as he lay still half-atop Steve.

"Come have dinner with me," he managed eventually, rolling off Steve and reaching for napkins in the minibar.

"Well, I wasn't planning on dropping you off and going out for a night at the clubs," Steve said, cleaning himself up. He hitched his pants up over his hips, re-buttoning the shirt Natasha had made him buy while Tony was out of town. "Besides, now your chef has a list of my allergies."

"What are you allergic to, anyway?" Tony asked. He didn't bother putting his own shirt back on, but he did start work on mixing what looked like a martini.

"Lots," Steve sighed. "Peanuts, pine nuts, whitefish, shellfish, soy...cats..."

"So, no lobster pesto."

"I don't much care for fancy food," Steve shrugged. "Give me a steak or a slice of pizza and I'm a happy man."

"Steak! Now we're talking," Tony said, as Steve settled his shirt over his shoulders. The car slowed, and Happy's voice clicked over the intercom.

"Coming up on home, Boss," he said. "Want me to take a loop around the park?"

"Not necessary," Tony said, as Steve fought a furious blush. "Very considerate of you to offer, Happy."

Steve failed to make eye contact with Happy as they left the car and took the elevator up to the penthouse, but he figured Happy probably wouldn't mind; they'd met when Steve was loading the chef back into the car for the trip home, and Happy seemed like a nice guy. Steve supposed a guy who spent as much time with Tony as Happy did had to be pretty tolerant.

When Steve and Tony arrived at the penthouse, there was a tall, strawberry-blond woman waiting for them, and Tony lit up at the sight of her.

"Pepper!" he said, sounding pleased. "Steve, this is Pepper, she runs my life and curates my art collection. Pepper, this is Steve."

"The artist," Pepper said, and Steve found himself shaking hands, feeling...well, kind of short, in comparison. "Such a pleasure, Steve. Tony talks about you in a way that makes me nervous for you."

"Good to know," Steve managed. She was like some kind of brusque Amazon, and clearly someone important in Tony's life.

"You should see Tony's art collection while you're here -- what's out on display, anyway," she continued. "Tony, I need three signatures and one decision from you."

"That's pretty good," Tony replied, taking the stylus she offered him and tapping away on a pad. "Signed, signed, signed, and....no."

"No?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.

"No. It's unethical," Tony said, and Steve wondered if he should be witnessing this.

"I'll let Obadiah know," she said with a smile that told both men she clearly thought Tony had made the right call. "He'll be mad."

"Heaven forbid. I think I can take Obie at his maddest."

"Well, just brace for it. Very nice to meet you, Steve. Have Tony show you the Demuth."

"You have a Demuth?" Steve asked, when she was gone.

"Steaks first," Tony said with a grin. "The Demuth's in the bedroom."

***

In the next few months, his relationship with Tony came to occupy a strange liminal space in Steve's life. It was not quite a part of it but not quite separate, and he was wise enough to know he wasn't quite a part of Tony's life, either. Tony, to be fair, was trying to protect him -- from the media circus, from the demands of his company, from the reality that what he did was design killing machines for a living. Steve didn't especially mind the latter -- he practically was a killing machine himself, so he understood -- but it seemed to gnaw at Tony. Steve wondered if the party-boy image, the charity galas, the occasionally worrying drinking, were all because Tony didn't really seem to like his job much.

There were wide stretches of his life that Tony didn't intrude into, either. He'd met Steve's friends, but only briefly; his schedule didn't leave a lot of leisure time, and Steve did kind of like to give Tony all his attention when he was free. It seemed like it would be sort of unhealthy, but it worked for them. And aside from the occasional three am booty call where Tony would show up on his doorstep smelling like scotch, he was pretty respectful of Steve's time.

Certainly he never complained when Steve was randomly unavailable, even if he didn't know it was because Steve was, say, in China playing bodyguard to a delegation of SHIELD agents attending an international law enforcement conference.

Steve was honestly sort of impressed they'd lasted as long as they had, between Tony's neuroses and his own insecurities, and the schedules neither of them had much control over.

"I'm going to Afghanistan next week," Tony said one evening, lying in Steve's cramped bed under the big skylight in his studio. He had one arm draped across Steve's waist, thumb rubbing the notch of his hip, lips brushing his shoulder gently. Steve lifted one hand, ruffling Tony's hair.

"That's dangerous, isn't it?" he asked, fully aware to the decimal point of the statistics regarding violence and military action in Afghanistan.

"Rhodey'll be there, I'll be fine. Just gonna demo the new missile," Tony said.

"The Jericho?"

"Yep. It'll be a quick in and out, though. One launch, some negotiating, a goodwill tour of the local base, back home in a day or two."

"Is Obadiah going?"

"No, he's minding the farm. Nice vote of confidence, actually. He says I'm more dependable since you."

"I thought you hadn't mentioned me to him?" Steve asked, curious.

"Not by name, but he knows I've got someone keeping me on the straight and narrow," Tony said, and Steve laughed.

"You can if you want."

"I wouldn't give him the satisfaction, nosy old asshole. But people have noticed, you know."

"What, that I make you a better man?" Steve teased.

"Yes," Tony said quietly. Steve rolled onto his side, hand sliding down to cover his heart.

"Well, I'm glad," Steve said. "I thought you were a pretty good man to start with."

"You're about the only one."

"Lots of people think you're a good person, Tony," Steve said, kissing him. An idea occurred to him and he drew back, considering. "You should take me with you."

"To Afghanistan?" Tony asked. "Why?"

"I've never been."

"You have classes, and it's going to be super boring. And hot."

"I'll skip. I'm a grad student, nobody notices."

Tony thumbed Steve's lip, shaking his head. "I want you safe here in New York. Waiting for me. Something to come home to."

Steve ignored his instinctive grumble of outrage at the idea of being kept safe. Tony didn't know he could look after himself, not in this sense, and Tony didn't know he wanted to go in order to keep Tony safe.

Maybe he could wrangle some kind of covert ops in the area, while Tony was there. Coulson could be indulgent when the mood struck him.

***

"Absolutely not," Coulson said, when Steve pitched the idea to him the next day.

"Why?" Steve asked. "I've been in much more dangerous situations."

"Because you want to go to keep an eye on your boyfriend, and I won't suborn that kind of behavior," Coulson replied, leaning back in his chair. "He'll have half the army and James Rhodes with him, he'll be fine."

"Is Rhodes any good?" Steve asked. Coulson blinked at him. "Whatever, I know he's a nice guy, I want to know if he can get the job done."

"If you knew Rhodes, you wouldn't ask," Coulson said. "If he can't protect Stark, Stark can't be protected."

"There's been a lot of unrest in the area. The Ten Rings -- "

"Are not your concern, Nomad, and you know that," Coulson said. "I know you want to save the entire world all by your lonesome, but you've never been seconded to the middle east, and your understanding of the situation in the area is incomplete. Setting aside the fact that it would take a very long briefing to get you up to speed, you're doing this for your boyfriend, and we both know this is a bad move."

Steve frowned, discontented. "He's a high-risk target."

"And Nick Fury has been briefed on your relationship and is actually weirdly happy about it," Coulson said. "He likes having one of ours so close to that particular global player. But this is not healthy for you. If you want to be his bodyguard -- "

"Is that an option?" Steve asked.

Coulson gave him a look. "You need to get him to sign an NDA, you need to tell him what you really do for a living, and if the relationship survives that little bomb, you need to secure his agreement to a SHIELD security escort."

Steve scowled.

"Listen, I am telling you this as someone who's been where you are," Coulson said. "If you see a future for yourself and Stark, don't follow him to Afghanistan, don't be that dysfunction. Kiss him goodbye, tell him you'll see him soon. When he gets back, make him a really nice dinner, look especially cute, and get him to sign the NDA so you can tell him. Any later and he won't thank you for all the lying."

"SHIELD mandates we keep cover -- "

"I doubt he'll grasp that subtlety," Coulson pointed out.

"So you won't send me to Afghanistan," Steve said, thoroughly cranky now.

"No. If you want, I'll send you to Brazil as a distraction. We have some issues that could be taken care of down there, but I promised Hawkeye he could go, so you'll have to thumbwrestle him for it."

"No," Steve said sullenly.

"Good call, Steve. Go home, get some rest. Work out what you're going to say to him. You could do worse, you know," Coulson added, as Steve rose. "A thousand socialites would kill to be in your combat boots."

"I could take 'em," Steve said, rallying a glint of humor. Coulson wasn't wrong, he was just so annoyingly right.

"I'd pay to see it," Coulson said as he left.

Out in the hall, Steve slumped against the wall and texted Peggy.

Pity party at my place.

The return text came from Sam. Peggy says to tell you my place is bigger and we have better booze.

***

Three vodka tonics later, Steve would have felt guilty about holding this pity party at Sam and Bucky's, but Sam was laughing at his rants so hard he was crying. Besides, Steve had stopped feeling guilt about anything to do with Bucky by the time both of them had hit puberty.

"He's going into a war zone to demonstrate a missile for the occupying forces in conflict with warlords," he continued, the outrage rising inside him. He could tell that he was well past tipsy, on the way to being drunk, but mainly because Peggy was humoring him, which she never did any other time.

"I know, my love," she said, petting Steve's hair, and Steve leaned into it, hoping it would soothe his rage.

"He's gone to Afghanistan before," Bucky pointed out. "I hate to say anything nice about someone unworthy of you -- "

"He isn't!" Steve interrupted. "He's beautiful and smart!"

"And he can look after himself," Bucky finished. "You seen that youtube video of him doing small arms assembly? Man knows his way around a gun."

"What? No?" Steve sat forward too quickly, and almost fell off the couch. "I wanna see!"

"Did you not google him?" Peggy asked.

"He's Tony Stark! It's not like he's hiding a -- a criminal record!" Steve gave the entire company a sullen look. "If he wants me to know something he'll tell me."

Peggy's fingers raked through his hair again, and he sat back, sandwiched between her and Sam. Sam rested a hand on the back of his neck, soothing, a tacit apology for his laughter.

"I'm not even mad about him going," Steve muttered. "I'm mad I can't go too."

"But it genuinely is crazy," Natasha said, "to use your job to follow him. What if you got too close and he made you?"

Steve didn't acknowledge that with anything other than a disdainful look. Natasha had trained him in stealth.

"Coulson says I should tell him I'm a SHIELD agent," Steve said. "Coulson's a jerk."

"Coulson's not a jerk," Peggy replied. "It's his job to tell you the hard truths."

"What if Tony dumps me?"

"Then he didn't deserve you," Sam pointed out.

"That's no consolation, I love him," Steve said mournfully.

"Then you'd better write a good speech for when he gets back. I'll help," Sam said.

"We can all help," Bucky put in.

Peggy and Natasha gave him a look that so clearly said a crowdsourced "Sorry I'm a spy" speech was an awful idea that Steve laughed.

"You can help," he said, pressing his face into Sam's shoulder. "Bucky can't talk about Tony without threatening his life."

"I just want to make sure I get dibs on murder."

"Aw, Buck, you know if Sam hurt you I'd kill him for you too," Steve said. There was a moment of silence. "Sorry, Sam," he said into Sam's bicep.

"How about that youtube video," Sam said, and a few seconds later he held Bucky's phone under Steve's nose.

Steve watched, a little unsteady but very focused, as a grainy video of Tony played. He was young, so young his beard was still a scraggly attempt at facial hair, wearing a white tank top and a pair of ratty jeans, and obviously clowning for someone behind the camera. There were a series of small arms on a table in front of him, and Steve felt something warm and affectionate fill him as Tony disassembled, checked, and reassembled each gun with quick, efficient movements, monologuing to the cameraman all the while about alloys and stress points, the benefits and drawbacks of each piece.

"There you have it," Tony said, when he was done. "Welcome to the MIT gun show," and he flexed, and the camera turned around to show a young dark-skinned man with a wide grin, rolling his eyes at Tony's behavior.

"That's nice," Steve said, when the video ended. "He's nice. I should call him."

He saw the looks that went around the room, but nobody stopped him, so he stood up and made his way out to the fire escape, taking out his phone. Tony answered on the second ring.

"Hello, Sunlight," Tony said, and Steve smiled, even though he knew Tony couldn't see it.

"Hey, Tony," he drawled, leaning back against the brick. "Whatcha up to?"

"Pricing out materials for a project off the company books. Nothing much. Why, you want to get lunch?"

"S'nine o'clock," Steve pointed out. "At night."

"Are you drunk?" Tony asked.

"Might be," Steve admitted.

"I don't think I've ever seen you drunk, my God," Tony said. "Did something happen?"

"You're going to Afghanistan," Steve said sadly.

"You got drunk because I'm going on a business trip? I've gone on business trips before."

"I'm worried," Steve said. "It's not safe, and -- and if you die it'll be awful, and I love you and I don't want you to die."

There was a long silence on the other end of the phone.

"Tony?" Steve ventured.

"Where are you right now?" Tony asked.

"Sam's place," Steve answered. "It's safer than a war zone."

"I'm glad. Hey, how about you tell Sam I said to give you a glass of water and put you to bed?"

"I'm not a child, Tony. You should come over. Sam's got good vodka. Promise I won't let Bucky murder you."

"Was that a concern?"

"He thinks you're gonna hurt me."

The silence this time wasn't quite so long.

"Well, I'm too busy for that this week. Sleep it off and I'll buy you breakfast tomorrow, how's that?"

Steve heaved a sigh. It was probably the best he'd get.

"Okay," he said, defeated. "Text me tomorrow."

"Promise I will."

"I love you."

"You will probably regret that someday," Tony said. Steve hung up and went back inside.

The next morning, hung over and half-awake, he climbed into Tony's Audi and sleepily asked, "Did I drunk dial you last night?"

"Yep," Tony said. "I'm taking us to the berry syrup pancake place."

"It's called an IHOP," Steve said. They'd had this discussion multiple times. "Did I say anything weird? I just missed you."

"Nope," Tony said. "Nothing at all."

***

When Tony was taken by the Ten Rings, Obadiah and Pepper were the first notified. Pepper was the one who asked, "Has anyone told Steve?"

"Who's Steve?" Rhodey asked down the videoconference line. His face alone was bruised and bandaged enough that she was genuinely worried for the rest of him.

"Tony's boyfriend," she said.

"The artist? Nice to finally get a name," Rhodey said bitterly. "No, I don't know where or who he is, so no, I haven't told him."

"I'll take care of it," Pepper said, and then she let one single crack of worry show through. "James...do you really think he's alive?"

"If he were dead, it'd already be on the news," Rhodey said, with a practicality she appreciated. "No way do the Ten Rings grab Tony Stark and not film the -- "

"The beheading," she said softly. Rhodey nodded. "Find him, Rhodey. Fast. Please."

"Working on it already."

"Any resources you need from SI. Come to me, not to Obie."

"Thanks, Pepper. I'll keep you in the loop."

She called Steve once she was sure her voice was steady, but it was a short call. He spoke briefly -- asked a few questions, level and insightful -- and then thanked her, and hung up. It was weird how detached he was, she thought, and she wondered if Steve was a gold-digger after all, every shred of evidence to the contrary.

***

Rhodey spent two days at the hospital, confined by orders until he was declared fit for duty, but he ran the initial search from his hospital room -- the investigation, the canvass of the area, the interrogation of the one man they'd captured. He was hitting dead end after dead end, both on getting released and on finding Tony, when he was informed he was suddenly free to go, and that he had visitors.

It turned out the visitors were a cadre of rangy-looking men and women waiting for him in a conference room. They had the air of professional soldiers, and they were clustered around a diminutive blond man in what Rhodey vaguely recognized as a SHIELD uniform, potentially the smallest SHIELD uniform he had ever encountered. He hadn't had much cause to do business with SHIELD, and his contact in the org preferred suits.

"Colonel Rhodes," the small man said, standing and offering his hand. "I'm Special Agent Steve Rogers with SHIELD. I've been authorized to offer you assistance with the search and rescue for Mr. Stark. Phil Coulson sends his regards."

"I wasn't aware SHIELD was invested in Tony's recovery," Rhodey said, looking around in confusion.

"We are," Rogers said briefly. "I understand this is your hunt, Colonel, and we're not here to take over. You run things. But you can't keep us out."

"More hands are better," Rhodey said, and he saw a few of the team exchange glances of relief.

"I'm glad to hear it. This is Special Agent Margaret Carter, Special Agent Natasha Romanoff, Special Agent Clint Barton," Rogers reeled off. "Sergeant Sam Wilson, Pararescue specialist, and Sergeant James Barnes, qualified Army sniper. Wilson and Barnes have been deputized and are under my command."

Rhodey noticed Barnes only had one arm. Barton looked like he had an archery bow slung on his back. Nobody but Rogers was in uniform.

"Could you excuse me for a moment?" Rhodey said.

"Of course. I realize it's a lot to absorb," Rogers replied. Rhodey stepped into the hallway and reached for the phone at the nurse's station and dialed.

"Phil Coulson," Coulson answered.

"Phil, it's Rhodes," Rhodey said.

"Ah. I bet the A-Team showed up," Coulson said.

"If by that you mean a twelve year old and a bunch of mercenaries, yeah," Rhodey said. "Did you authorize this?"

"I think it would be more accurate to say I didn't actively discourage it," Coulson replied. "When asked, after something inevitably goes wrong, if SHIELD authorized Special Agent Rogers to bring a crack strike time to Afghanistan to help locate Tony Stark, SHIELD will deny all knowledge."

"One of those," Rhodey said.

"One of those," Coulson agreed.

"What's SHIELD's stake in this?" Rhodey asked. "Don't tell me any stories about SI contracts, nobody else sent their goon squad."

"You should speak to Agent Rogers about that," Coulson said.

"Am I gonna like what I hear?"

"Probably not, but don't go too hard on him. He has his reasons. We're on the side of the angels on this one, Rhodey -- he'll do whatever is necessary to help, and he won't get in your way."

Rhodey pinched the bridge of his nose. "This might be a long haul."

"Well, if it helps," Coulson said, in what proved to be a prophetic moment, "there is literally no one more stubborn than Steve Rogers."

When Rhodey went back into the conference room, it was empty except for Rogers, who said, "I'm dating Tony Stark."

"Excuse me?" Rhodey asked.

"You want to know why we're here. It's because I'm dating Tony."

Awkward.

"He thinks I'm an artist," Rogers continued, which did solve at least one problem, that of Tony potentially having multiple boyfriends. "I wasn't cleared to tell him what I do."

"And what is it that you do?" Rhodey asked.

"I'm a counterintelligence field agent for SHIELD," Rogers said. "Phil Coulson is my handler. I have some search-and-rescue experience. Not as much as Wilson or Carter, but enough that we won't collectively be a hindrance. I'm here for the purpose of finding Tony. No agenda, no ulterior motive, no politics."

"You seem pretty cool-headed about this," Rhodey said.

"Don't mistake professionalism for apathy," Rogers said. "I am holding onto sanity by a very thin thread, Colonel Rhodes. I know that you and Tony are friends, so I assume yours isn't much thicker. Until Tony is found alive or we bring his body home, emotion is going to have to wait."

Rhodey considered this. "I think we can work together."

"I hope so. I have briefing packets on the skills and abilities of the team I've brought, if you want them. We also have some very specialized equipment."

Rhodey took the files carefully, studying him. "Where do you think you'll be most useful?"

"Standard search," Rogers answered. "Treat us as another platoon of grunts for now. If you get a good lead, cut us in. Agent Romanoff and myself are specially trained in intelligence gathering, and Sergeant Barnes served here previously, so we may ask for some shifts off to do some work in that area. If you can oblige us, we don't need any other special treatment."

Rhodey studied him. "Do you think he's alive?"

A brief shadow flickered over Rogers' face. "I don't think there's any point in thinking he's dead. So yes, until I see a body, I'm going to assume he's alive." He pressed his knuckles into the conference table and stood. "If that's all, I need to settle my people and make a few calls."

"I'll see you in the briefing room, 0600 tomorrow," Rhodey said.

"Thank you, Colonel," Rogers replied. He left with a brisk, efficient lope that looked somehow very dangerous, if the wrong person were to cross him.

***

In the second week of his captivity with the Ten Rings, Yinsen asked Tony if he had a family. He opened his mouth to say no, automatically, but -- then he thought about it for a while.

He'd been thinking about a lot of things, in the caves. Thinking more deeply than he had. It was painful, but everything was painful here.

"Got a boyfriend," he said finally, studying the backgammon board. "He's an artist. Been together six or seven months now, which is a record for me."

"An artist? You have beauty in your life, then."

"Sometimes." Tony rolled the dice and moved. "Been kind of a shitty boyfriend to him, to be honest, I'm not sure why he stays. People are always taking my picture with women at parties. I drink more than he likes, I talk about sex in public. I was going to break up with him."

"Why?"

"He told me he loved me."

"You don't love him?"

"I probably do. I just don't really know how to be in a relationship where that's a good thing."

"Maybe you should make the attempt," Yinsen said. "I look forward to seeing my family again. I love them very much."

"Yeah," Tony said, and cast around for a change of subject. "You like sports?"

***

The problem, in the end, wasn't with the boot rockets on the armor. Tony thought about this with the part of his mind that was and would always be an engineer's, even as flames rose up around him and he scrambled to get out of the now-nonfunctional suit.

He'd fought his way out of the caves -- Yinsen had sacrificed himself, and Tony was trying not to think about that right now, about voluntary sacrifice and the promise of heaven -- and he'd set the mountain, the guns and rockets and tools of his trade, on fire. In about five minutes, he guessed, the entire place was going to go up as the fire hit the ammo store.

His plan had been to hit the boot jets and fly out of here -- well, more like a long, sustained fall, but it would get him out of the blast zone. And he was sure he'd built the boot jets correctly, so it had to be faulty parts, the reason they weren't firing.

The armor was intended for breakaway once its purpose had been served, so getting out of it was easier than getting in, but it still took him a few harrowing seconds when he was both unarmed and undefended. If any of the Ten Rings had been left conscious, they could have picked him off easily. None of the bodies moved.

He couldn't run his way out of the blast zone, not in the time he had, but he supposed he could try --

There was movement in the distance, and Tony darted behind a pile of crates. People were running back and forth at the entry to the camp, some with visible guns. He caught a glimpse of an American flag insignia, and when he shaded his hands and looked beyond, there was a god damned Black Hawk helicopter in the sky.

"Great," he mumbled. "Now the cavalry shows up."

Still, they had to get out of here, and fast. He ran forward, arms in the air, yelling "Get out! The ammo store's on fire!"

"FOUND HIM!" one man yelled, and Tony literally saw the man next to him snap someone's neck before looking up. Both ran forward, but the smaller man, the one who'd just killed one of the Ten Rings, was much faster.

And then he realized he must be hallucinating, because that was Steve, Steve in a set of baggy fatigues and a kevlar vest, carrying a rifle over his back. Steve, darkly tanned and with blood spatters on his face, huge blue eyes reflecting the desert sun and the flames.

"Tony!" Steve yelled, as the other man with Steve -- a one-armed man, which was just more support for this being a fever dream -- took off running in the opposite direction. "Stay there!"

Tony couldn't have moved if he'd wanted to. He was going to die here, hallucinating that Steve was rescuing him.

"Jesus Christ," Steve said, panting as he reached him. Tony stared down at him. "I know this makes no sense right now, sweetheart, but I promise I'll explain," he said. He jumped lightly, arms wrapping around Tony's neck, legs around his hips like they were home in Steve's snug little studio. Something clicked behind Tony's back, and Tony's arms came up around him automatically. He registered the warmth of him, the solid reality of him, and then Steve said, "Falcon, now!"

There was a jerk and a sway, and then the world was falling away from both of them, Steve holding tightly to him, someone above them carrying them away. The ammo dump went up when they were still ascending, and it felt like they were hit with a wall made of molten brick. Whatever was carrying him by the harness Steve had thrown around his arms lost stability for a minute, jerked left and right, and they tumbled for a few second before regaining altitude.

The helicopter appeared with frightening speed, and Tony tried to shield what he could of Steve's body as they were slung unceremoniously into it. Boots rang out on the metal plating behind them, then there was another thump, another person landing.

Tony turned in time to see a woman with wings, clinging to the edge of the copter, the wings retracting into a pack on her back as she clambered inside with the help of a man with an identical pack. He recognized that tech -- it was a flight rig, he'd designed parts of it himself -- but it'd been retired from use at least a year ago.

Someone was trying to help him up -- Rhodey, that was Rhodey -- and Tony threw himself at Rhodey like he was the one thing that made sense in the world, which at the moment wasn't untrue.

"Hey," Rhodey said in his ear, holding onto him. "We saw an explosion, figured it was you."

"This is real, right?" Tony asked. "This is happening?"

"It's real," Rhodey laughed. "And you're okay. Hey, someone wants your attention," he added, and Tony looked where Rhodey nodded, to see Steve stripping off the kevlar vest, watching him warily. Tony turned and sat hard on his ass on the floor of the copter, uncertain what was happening.

"I may not have been entirely honest about what I do for a living," Steve said, and the woman with the flight rig snorted.

"You're in the Air Force?" Tony asked, blinking.

"We'll talk later," Steve said. He came forward hesitantly, like he wasn't sure he should, and Tony reached out, offered his hand to be helped to his feet. Steve pulled him up, let Tony touch the blood on his face.

"It's not mine," Steve said.

"For once," Tony said shakily. "You killed that man in the camp."

"Yes, I did. He was about to shoot Bucky."

"You do that often?"

"When the moment calls for it," Steve said. He helped Tony to one of the copter's bench seats, carefully strapping him in and crouching in front of him, hands on his thighs. "Don't worry about it. Right now, you need to let Sam look you over. He's a medic."

Tony glanced at the others in the back of the copter. Sam was the one who'd called him the night at the bar when he'd given Steve his number, he faintly remembered; they'd met a few times since. Bucky was the war veteran with the missing arm, Steve's best friend since childhood, the one Tony hadn't like at all until he'd realized Bucky and Sam were a thing and neither was any threat to him. Without her flight gear, he could see the woman in the rig was Peggy, Steve's ex, and the other woman was Natasha -- he'd met her a couple of times and sensed she was dangerous, but he was never quite sure how.

"Are all your friends secret agents?" he blurted, as Sam joined Steve, examining him gently.

"Most of them," Steve said ruefully. "I was going to tell you when you -- "

He broke off sharply. Sam had pulled down the multiple layers he had on to pad him against the armor, and the reactor lit up the dim interior of the copter. Silence rolled out from them like a wave.

"Is that a bomb?" Steve managed.

"It's keeping me alive," Tony said. "It's not a bomb. It's an arc reactor."

"What happened?" Steve asked, looking up at his face. Tony wanted to tell him, he did, but the copter shifted sharply and the change in air pressure was the last straw; he was hungry and thirsty, cut up from the interior of the armor, well into shock from everything that had just happened, and so very tired.

He didn't even fight it when his vision tunnelled down, when the world greyed out and the ringing in his ears drowned out Steve's frantic yelling. He just slumped back and let unconsciousness take hold. This would all make sense when he woke up, he was sure.

***

He woke in a hospital room, which did make sense, and Steve was there, which was nice.

"Hey," he croaked, and Steve looked up from the tablet he was reading, beaming when he saw him awake. "I had a dream about you."

He'd dreamed Steve had rescued him from the camp. As hallucinations went, he'd had worse.

"Hope it was a good one," Steve said, reaching out to take his hand. "How're you feeling?"

"Beat-up."

"Not surprising. You're in intensive care at a military base in Germany," Steve said. "Rhodey's down the hall if you want me to get him."

"Not yet," Tony said. Steve scooted closer, kissing Tony's bandaged knuckles. He had scruff on his chin, which was shocking; Tony had never seen him unshaved. He ignored the dark tan of Steve's skin and asked, "How long have I been out?"

"About eighteen hours. Malnutrition and dehydration, mainly, plus shock from the trauma," Steve said. "I almost flew in your chef, but Pepper nixed the idea."

"Is she here?"

"She's in California, getting your paperwork in order, opening up the Malibu house," Steve said. "She'll meet us off the plane; they want you in California to recover. I've got military transport standing by, soon as you're well enough to move."

"I dreamed you rescued me," Tony said dazedly.

"Well, it wasn't just me," Steve replied. "Sam pulled us out of the explosion. And Rhodey's the one who had us in the area in the first place." He smiled. "Got to know Rhodey pretty well in the last two months, you'd be pleased at how well we get along. He's pretty great, Tony."

"Wait, what?" Tony asked.

"He's been running the search for you," Steve said. "Two months solid. The Air Force wanted to downgrade the search two weeks ago, but Rhodey shouted and I pulled a few strings."

Tony stared at him. "So that really happened. You saved me."

Steve smoothed his hair back, which felt really good. "You saved yourself. We just pulled you out. I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner. I wasn't cleared to."

"What are you, exactly?"

A flicker of hurt crossed Steve's face, and he leaned back. "I'm a special agent with the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division," he recited. "Specifically, I'm a counterintelligence field agent."

"A spy," Tony said.

"Yes."

"Oh, God," Tony said, realizing that all of it -- the meet cute in the bar, the sex, the dates, the text messages and photos -- all of it might have been --

"SHIELD had nothing to do with us," Steve said, probably reading the expression on his face. "It's not a honey trap, I wasn't sent to you. I don't report on you, I swear. It's a coincidence, that's all."

"You're a spy."

"Yes," Steve said reluctantly.

"But not a spy...on me."

"No. I'm..." Steve looked around, hapless. "I'm your boyfriend, Tony. I mean, I hope I still am. I'm -- honestly at this point I don't care if you hate me, I'm just glad you're alive. When Pepper told me you were taken...Christ, I'm glad you're alive," he said, voice wavering. Tony leaned up as much as he could, given the various sensors attached to him and the soreness of his body, and pulled Steve against him, mindful of the arc reactor.

"Guess I'm not the only one who has some making up to do," he said, and Steve slowly pulled back.

"You have nothing to make up for, Tony, you were kidnapped," he said.

"Not that, I know that," Tony said, and his tone must have been particularly sharp, because Steve smiled. "I had a lot of time to think. I'm gonna make some changes."

"You don't have to -- "

"It's not just us. Bigger things." Tony inhaled. "We don't have to talk about it now, it doesn't matter to this." He gestured between them.

"Are we okay?" Steve asked uncertainly.

"Not being okay just sounds really exhausting," Tony said. "When can I go home?"

"I think the military wants you up and around as soon as possible. They're gonna want a lot of cameras on you to prove they got you back alive. Stane wants the same," Steve said.

"You've met Obie."

"Briefly, by videoconference," Steve said, and the rest of what he didn't say spoke volumes. Tony trusted Obie, and to a point he liked him, but Obie was also there, in part, to be the ruthless one, to be the bastard Tony didn't like to be. He couldn't imagine Obie and Steve got along very well. "You are still technically under USAF rescue parameters, and Rhodey's running this show. You take the time you need. Rhodey and I will back you."

"I'd like to go home," Tony said wistfully. The wide open ocean below the Malibu house sounded like heaven. So did the sunlight and central heating. He was so tired of being cold, so tired of the pervasive damp chill of the caves.

"If the doctors give the go-ahead, I'll make it happen," Steve promised. He stood, hand still in Tony's. "Rhodey wanted to see you when you woke up, I should go get him."

Tony nodded, letting him go reluctantly. "Hey, your friends," he said.

"Yes?" Steve asked, turning, hand on the doorknob.

"Tell them thank you," Tony said. "For the assist."

Steve grinned. "I will. Rhodey!" he called, as he left. "He's up!"

***

When he heard that Tony was awake and Rhodey was with him, Sam went looking.

He found Steve in the corner of an empty locker room, curled into an impossibly small ball, face pressed to his bent knees. He was gasping softly, deep whistling breaths, hands laced at the back of his head.

Sam eased down next to him, settling an arm around his thin shoulders. It was always shocking, how small Steve was. His presence could fill a room, and Sam was well aware of how lethal Steve could be, having seen him and Bucky sparring. But like this, vulnerable and quiet, he was reminded that Steve had spent most of his childhood very ill, and barely came up to Bucky's chin. Bucky had grown up with Steve and was used to it; Sam was still figuring it out.

In the past two months, ever since Tony was taken, Steve had been a kind of quiet, controlled, well-ordered soldier that Sam knew from his work at the VA -- a guy relying on sheer force of will not to just snap in half under the strain he was feeling. He had expected this, though not perhaps so soon.

"The others are sleeping," he said, ignoring the hitches in Steve's breath. "Peggy's catching the next transport out in half an hour, she's gonna go ahead of us and start setting up for everyone to come home. She said to tell you Coulson's working on extending your leave paperwork so you can stay with Tony."

"He's going to Malibu," Steve said, voice muffled and thick. "He wants to go soon as we can."

"You want me to have her pack you a bag, send it on ahead?"

"Dunno if he'll want me there."

"How'd he take it?"

"He's tired. Not quite all there yet. Probably have to tell him again the next time he wakes up."

"Was he angry?"

"No. He was great. Doesn't mean that'll last."

Sam tightened his arm a little. "Last couple of months have been hard on you. Body doesn't know if it's coming or going at this point. You need a hot meal and some sleep. Let us look after all this for a while."

"What if they move him and don't tell me?"

"Rhodey's gonna make sure that doesn't happen."

"I knew this would happen, I should have just gone with him, I could have stopped this -- "

"Hey, asshole, you're not responsible for the Ten Rings, unless you're way more evil than I thought," Bucky's voice said, and Sam looked up gratefully. He scooted to one side, pulling Steve with him, so that Bucky could settle on his other side. "You pulled the same thing when I lost the arm," Bucky added.

"Buck," Steve said, sounding stricken.

"You're not commanding officer of the universe, pal," Bucky informed him. Sam grinned at him over Steve's head. "Come on, we gotta cram some spaghetti down your throat and wash the blood off your uniform, Coulson just reassigned you to bodyguard for Stark."

"Well, that's a god-damned reversal," Steve said.

"Maybe Clint bribed him. Come on, playboy, on your feet," Bucky said, and between the two of them they got Steve standing, let him wash his face, and marched him down the hall to the hospital cafeteria.

Once Steve got a whiff of food cooking, he zeroed in on it with single-minded intensity; Bucky and Sam trailed him around the cafeteria, sat while he inhaled about a week's worth of calories in a single sitting, and then split up, Sam to check in with Rhodey while Bucky practically rolled Steve to the empty room they'd commandeered and filled with beds to make a haphazard barracks for the team. By the time Sam got back, Steve was asleep in the bed next to Clint's, and Bucky was collapsed on a couch nearby.

It wasn't going to be easy for Steve, Sam thought, and particularly not for Tony; even if he'd been treated well, and it was evident he hadn't, imprisonment was hard on the psyche. Steve had some experience with trauma, after Bucky came home, but it was different when it was your partner, and Tony was a different kind of man.

"Hey," he said, when he saw Bucky's eyes open. "Thanks for the assist."

"I should be telling you that," Bucky answered, sliding back to make room for him. Sam eased himself down onto the couch cushions, arms around Bucky's waist. "You didn't sign on for all my fucked up friends."

"I'm not here just for your hot mess," Sam told him, and Bucky snorted. "Steve's my friend too, you know. He introduced us. And when he frets, you fret. I'll be glad to get all of us home again."

"It was a little fun though, right?" Bucky asked. "Being in combat again. Flying again."

Sam nodded. "Wish I could keep the wings," he said ruefully.

"Well, if Stark's feeling generous, ask him to buy the prototypes back."

"I think I'll wait until he's able to stand on his own," Sam said. "I like a challenge."

Bucky nodded, eyes closing. "Obviously," he said.

***

Clint woke Steve about twelve hours later, all but pulling him out of bed.

"Oh my God, what," Steve managed, resisting the urge to flip Clint over the bed and stand on his neck.

"Rhodey just heard, they're trying to shift Tony," Clint said urgently, shoving a bag into Steve's hands. "Get your shoes on or you're gonna miss the flight."

"What?" Steve asked, even as he pulled his boots on. Clint hung his vest over one shoulder.

"Obadiah Stane wants Tony in front of the cameras yesterday. A transport jet just landed, they're prepping to move Tony now. Stane pulled strings above Rhodey's head. I got the air traffic guys stalling them over a refuel issue but that can't last long."

Steve took off running, bag in one hand, shirt only half-buttoned. The hangar was on the far side of the hospital, but he managed to catch Tony's wheelchair at the hospital entrance, much to the evident surprise of the orderlies.

"He's with me," Tony said, giving the guy pushing the wheelchair a pointed look.

The pair of orderlies looked Steve over. Steve, who hadn't hit his preventer inhaler in probably about thirty-six hours, prayed he could catch his breath without choking on it.

"Steve Rogers, SHIELD," Steve said, yanking his badge out of his vest pocket with a minimum of fumbling. "I've been ordered to escort Mr. Stark to his destination."

One checked a clipboard, then shrugged at Two, who gestured for Steve to walk with them. They allowed him as far as the transport bus, then loaded Tony into the back and tried to insist Steve ride up front. Steve kicked one of them out and sat resolutely in the back. Tony mostly looked stoned and flinched when they hit potholes.

Then there was the arrival at the jet, boarding, sorting out Tony's papers and his own, and settling in. The jet wasn't deluxe, but at least it had padded seats without industrial nylon harnesses, so Steve had been through worse.

"Are you hungry?" he asked Tony, who looked pale and weary.

"Just some water," Tony said, and while Steve poured, "remember that place we went to in Red Hook? The cheeseburgers?"

Steve smiled, handing him the glass. "Yeah, those were great."

"I thought about those when I -- " Tony stopped abruptly, still clutching the water, not drinking. Steve just waited. Eventually Tony's eyes flicked up to his. "I'd like two things when we land. I do want a cheeseburger. We can go to In-n-Out."

"I've never been to one," Steve said. Tony had mentioned them a few times, but the attraction of it eluded him.

"And I want..." Tony's eyes took him in, and Steve thought he saw a certain hunger there.

"I think maybe a couple more cheeseburgers first," Steve said with a grin. "Don't want to break you."

"It's not what you think. I need a press conference. I'll ask Pepper," Tony said, looking away. Steve came around the table and sat next to him, but he didn't touch him. He wasn't sure he was allowed, anymore.

"Hey, do you remember earlier?" he said. "The...the SHIELD thing?"

Tony gave him the most withering look someone with that many drugs in them had probably ever given. "Yeah, I remember."

"I don't blame you if you're angry. It's a huge lie. I was an art student, I have the degree and everything, I just...that's not where life took me. I can't just tell people I'm a spy. For one thing, I tried that, a version of it -- nobody believes it when you say you work for the CIA, they definitely don't believe it when you say you work for SHIELD. And you're..."

"Tony Stark," Tony said dully.

"I'm sorry," Steve said. He reached out carefully and pulled Tony's head forward, pressing their foreheads together. "Just let me get you safely to Malibu and I'll leave you alone, if that's what you want."

"I don't want," Tony said. "I'm just really tired."

"Sleep, it's okay," Steve said. "It's now actually my job to keep you safe."

Tony nodded against him, and Steve caught one of the miscellaneous staff of the jet eyeing them as Steve leaned away and helped him get settled to sleep. He carefully ignored it, but as soon as Tony was sleeping, he took out his tablet and pretended to read it while he counted the number of staff on the jet. Tony's standard staff was a pilot, copilot, concierge, and two attendants. Usually the attendants were the kind of pretty young woman that would have made a different man from Steve suspicious.

This was a Stark jet but not Tony's usual jet, which wasn't that strange considering the length of the flight. But there were one too many flight attendants, and there were no doctors or nurses, he realized. The orderlies hadn't come aboard with them.

And Tony was on an awful lot of drugs.

He checked Tony's pulse, made sure he was sleeping, and then popped the red satphone emergency button on his phone and texted his team.

If the plane goes down, it wasn't an accident.

Peggy came back first. What can we do?

Track my phone and scramble S&R on standby. Might have to take Tony out the window. Seeya soon, he answered, and set the phone down. He took his kevlar vest out of his bag, tucked it under the blanket on Tony's chest, and felt for the knives up his sleeves. He had a gun in his boot but he didn't like to use that on a plane, and he was willing to bet the goon squad wouldn't be using guns either.

He pushed the call button next to their seats, and all three attendants plus the concierge lurked their way into the cabin. Steve stood up and stepped into the aisle. He cracked his neck, rolling his shoulders, and let the knives tip down into his palms.

Three large men and a very muscular woman. Good; four against one made things about even, and Steve had some issues that could use a workout.

"Before we begin," he said, "does anyone wanna get out?"

***

Tony woke, hazy but not nearly as fogged as earlier, to a strange click-whoosh sound, repeating without a rhythm. When he opened his eyes he found that it was Steve, feet up on the table in front of their seats, a pack of playing cards in his hand. He was flicking the cards casually at a man in the corner who looked like he'd been gagged, tied, and then propped up for the sole purpose of entertaining Steve. Steve had a little trickle of blood running down his face, but he looked sort of serenely satisfied. He caught Tony's eye and smiled.

"What happened?" Tony asked, bewildered.

"Someone wants you dead," Steve replied. "The flight staff were hired to kill you. You were drugged way beyond what you needed, too."

"That's inhospitable," Tony observed.

"I thought so. I considered putting big bows on them for when you woke up but I thought that might make me seem very crazy, and we didn't have any ribbon." Steve tossed another card, which hit the prisoner in the nose. "We've got another five hours before we touch down in Malibu. You can go back to sleep if you want."

"Pilots?" Tony asked.

"They're just pilots, I checked." Steve turned to him, head resting against the chair, looking remarkably innocent for a man who'd just taken out an entire team of assassins. "Considering this," he said, "we have to consider also the idea that your convoy wasn't attacked by accident. Someone may have told the Ten Rings where to find you. How many people do you know who are that powerful and that ruthless?"

Tony shook his head. "You get two enemies in the business," he said. It was something Howard had told him as a child. "Rivals and hippies."

Steve's lips quirked. "Hippies, huh?"

"Peace activists."

"They don't have that kind of power, or they'd be putting it to better use. Who are your major rivals?"

Tony smiled. "Stark has no major rivals."

"Egotist," Steve said affectionately, fondness breaking through the weird defensive shell he'd worn since he'd found Tony in the desert. Tony wondered, honestly, if this would be harder for Steve to get past than for him.

"Justin Hammer," Tony said. "Roxxon."

"Roxxon's an oil company."

"SI deals in green energy. Not much, yet, but Roxxon's hated Stark for two generations. Also Lockheed Martin, maybe Northrop Grumman." Tony could feel bile rise in his throat, a soupy mixture of hunger, nerves, and guilt. It must have shown in his face, because Steve hurried to a cabinet set into one wall and got a bottle of water, opening it and pressing it into his hand. Once he was done drinking, Steve offered him a rice krispy treat, the pre-made kind in the blue wrapper.

"Sorry the food's not fancier," he said. "It's softer than a granola bar."

"I'll take it," Tony said, biting into it. "What do we do with him?"

"Him?" Steve turned to look at the bound man. "Well, that is the question, isn't it?" he said, in a drawl that Tony had never heard before. He got up from the table and went to crouch in front of the man. "You know who I am?" he asked. The man shook his head. Tony watched, understanding dawning that he was seeing an interrogation, as Steve showed the man his badge -- but just the badge, not the ID card, which was smart.

"I'm an agent of SHIELD. You hear of SHIELD?" he asked the man, who nodded. "If I snap my fingers you'll disappear into the intelligence network and never come out again. You know that, right?"

A nod. Tony couldn't work out what he was feeling, but he decided the closest was probably inappropriately turned on.

"I'd like to avoid that. It's my least favorite part of my workplace. So I really do want to help you help yourself," Steve said. "If you tell me who sent you and your friends, I'll make sure you get taken into police custody. You'll do twenty to life, but at least your family will know where to find you." He gave the man an oddly reassuring smile. Tony did love Steve's smiles. "I'd like to take the gag off, now. If I do, will you tell me what I want to know?"

The man nodded. Steve peeled the tape off his mouth and then pulled out the rag he'd apparently stuffed in there.

"Who was it who paid you?" he asked. "Who pulled the strings?"

The man's jaw worked as though he was loosening it to talk, but instead there was a sudden crunch.

"Hail, Hydra," the man said, foam bubbling between his teeth. Steve grabbed his throat and shoved his fingers in his mouth, but it was too late; by the time he found the remains of the false tooth and the glass poison vial, the man was dead.

"Dammit," Steve said, and he was up quickly, heading for the rear cabin door. He opened it, leaned in, and then punched the doorframe, hard. "They all had them. Should have done a mouth check. Stupid, sloppy..." he shook his head.

"There are how many dead people on my plane?" Tony asked.

"Four, now. SHIELD will handle it when we land. I singled him out because he looked like he'd crack fastest," Steve sighed.

"What did he say when he died? Hail Hydra?"

Steve nodded. "You know who that is?"

"Weren't they..." Tony focused hard. "Nazis?"

"Yeah. Fringe splinter faction. I need to do some research." Steve seemed thoughtful as he dragged the body in the main cabin back to the rear, dumping it with the others. Tony raised a hand to wipe the sweat off his face and realized he was shaking. He brought his hand down a little too fast on the table, and Steve was suddenly there again, leaning over him.

"Breathe, easy," he said, and Tony tried to match Steve's carefully loud inhales and exhales. "That's it, just breathe. I used to have asthma as a kid, you know. I mean, I still do, but I have meds for it now. Not panicking was the hardest part. Course, I used to wanna punch someone when they told me to just breathe, like my airpipe wasn't swelling shut. There you go," he added, as Tony managed to take a deep breath. Tony reached for him, pulling him onto his lap, and Steve went as easily as he had months ago, when they were new lovers, settling on Tony's thighs lightly.

"Talk to me," Tony said, face pressed to Steve's shoulder.

"Sure, sweetheart, anything," Steve said. "It won't be long now, we'll be landing soon. We'll get you some hot food, take you to your place in Malibu. I'll stay with you, I'll keep you safe. It's warm in Malibu, right? You can sit out on the deck all day and drink expensive coffee. Do you have any charcoal, or some markers? I'll draw."

Tony felt himself laugh into Steve's shoulder. "You don't have to pretend."

"It's not pretend. I like art. I have layers," Steve added, kissing the crown of Tony's head. "Do you surf? I've never been surfing. I'd like to try it. You could teach me -- I bet you look great in a wetsuit."

The warm press of Steve's body was comforting -- anyone's touch would have been, he thought, but it was Steve and that was especially good. Steve promising to protect him, speaking nonsense just to soothe him, his beautiful and terrifying artist who was now both for entirely new reasons.

His breathing slowed and the panic ebbed, at least enough that Steve could climb back into the seat next to him and take a minute to get in touch with one of his apparently millions of friends and subordinates, someone to handle the dead assassins when the plane landed. Tony drowsed, watching Steve tap out messages on the phone, line after line of orders and demands.

"You trust Happy, right?" Steve asked, looking up at him.

"Yeah. If they got to Happy, I might as well just let him kill me."

"Happy and a couple of SHIELD agents will meet us at the airport. Pepper too. How secure is the Malibu house?"

"Celebrity playboy secure. Not Fort Knox secure," Tony said sleepily. "Never needed more than JARVIS. Hey, wake me when cheeseburgers," he murmured, and fell asleep again.

***

When Tony -- working on his third cheeseburger, in the middle of a press conference Steve didn't think he should be giving before he at least went home to rest -- announced that he was closing the Stark weapons manufacturing arm, Steve's head whipped around towards Pepper.

She was standing in the back of the room with Happy; Steve was lingering in the doorway, ready to spring into action the second a reporter looked at Tony wrong. She saw him move and met his gaze, shaking her head. She clearly hadn't known. Obadiah Stane, a stomping giant of a man who smelled like expensive tobacco, didn't seem to know what to do either. But Tony was aglow, eyes bright, and as soon as he said the words, despite the clamoring of the reporters, he looked thirty pounds lighter. His shoulders squared up, his chin lifted, and he glanced briefly at Steve.

Steve nodded. He wasn't sure what else to do.

He'd known Tony didn't particularly enjoy being the Merchant of Death, and he'd suspected the drinking and the occasional unreliability were on account of it, but on the other hand -- Stark weapons were cheap, dependable, and efficient. A Stark flak jacket had saved Bucky's life, even if it hadn't saved his arm, and Sam and Peggy's flight rigs were Stark-built. Steve carried a Stark sidearm for preference, had since long before he knew Tony personally. They were simply the best you could get, and he lived close enough to soldiers to know that this would sound to the military like Tony was hanging them out to dry. He could imagine Bucky's reaction very clearly. He could imagine Rhodey's reaction and it made him want to flinch.

And yet. Tony looked -- he looked so happy.

"You couldn't take a nap before deciding to torpedo Stark stock?" Pepper asked, as Steve led the pair of them out of the Stark press room and towards Happy's waiting car.

"This couldn't wait," Tony said, sounding determined. Steve hurried down the steps to the car, ducked down to check the undercarriage, then gave Happy a thumbs-up and held the back door open. He closed it behind Pepper and Tony, then climbed into the front seat and rested his sidearm on his thigh.

"Do you have to do that?" Happy asked, about twenty minutes into the drive, when Steve hadn't stopped scanning the front and sides, hand casually resting on the gun. Pepper and Tony hadn't yet stopped bickering in the back seat. It was heartening, in a way.

"Until I know who's trying to kill Tony, I do," Steve said. "Don't worry, I'm a good shot; I won't hit you by accident."

"More worried about return fire."

"If I see them first, they won't get the chance," Steve said grimly.

"You're a little terrifying."

"Emphasis on little?" Steve asked, raising an eyebrow. Happy looked conflicted between laughing and wetting himself. "Relax, I make the joke so you don't have to," he said.

"Steve, how long are you staying?" Pepper asked, leaning forward.

"Until we know who's trying to kill Tony. I may bring in some outside help -- they'll all be close, trustworthy people," Steve said.

"Do you have clothes? Anything I can order for you?"

"I have..." Steve thought about it. "Two uniforms and a kevlar vest and the underwear I'm wearing."

"I'll find you something a little more comfortable," she said. "Happy can take you shopping if you'd rather go yourself."

"I think Peggy's going to send me a bag. I can wear the uniforms for now. Probably should, anyway."

He finished just as the car pulled up in front of a beautiful house, all thick concrete slabs and wide curves and glass. Steve admired it even as he checked the landscaping for snipers. When they were safely inside, he set his bag down near the door -- Tony had gravitated to the high windows, and Pepper and Happy were at the kitchen bar. Steve watched Tony tap the glass, bringing up the display, and heard JARVIS wake up over the speakers.

"Welcome home, Sir," JARVIS said, his voice warmer than Steve had ever heard it.

"Hello, J," Tony replied, as affectionate as his AI. "How've you been, my baby?"

"Despondent without you, Sir."

"Just what I like to hear. Hey, I'm gonna put some new security protocols on you soon, but until then, clench up, okay? Top-tier monitoring and security. And add Steve to all the Malibu house protocols, admin level."

"Of course, Sir. Welcome to Malibu, Agent Rogers," JARVIS said, and Tony twisted to raise an eyebrow at Steve.

"I unofficially read JARVIS in," Steve said, joining him at the window, pressing his hand to the glass so JARVIS could scan it for a palm print. "He helped a lot in getting difficult-to-obtain classified information."

"Who blocked you off?" Tony asked.

"Army. Thunderbolt Ross didn't think finding you was more important than what he considered National Security."

Tony got a look that said he was having trouble processing the way Steve spoke, or perhaps the things he said.

"Tony," Pepper called, and Tony twisted the other way to look at her, then winced and actually turned. "Obie's blowing my phone up, and Communications and the Board are both going to start yelling soon. I need to go to the office."

"I'm sorry," Tony said. She came forward and kissed him on the cheek.

"Don't be. I'm just glad you're home, and I'm proud of you," she told him.

"Take Happy with you," Steve said. Both of them looked at him. "If someone's after Tony, you're the next softest target. Tony's got me; you should take Happy."

"He's not wrong, boss," Happy said. "Your call, but..."

"No, go with her," Tony agreed, nodding. He hugged Pepper, leaning his body at a strange angle -- avoiding pressing the edge of the arc reactor into her chest, Steve realized. When she let go, Pepper carefully wiped the corners of her eyes with her fingertips and gave Tony her best brave smile. (Steve had seen quite a bit of that one recently.)

"Hold the fort for a few more days," Tony said.

"Of course," she answered. "Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"

"That will be all, Ms. Potts," Tony said, and soon it was just the two of them and JARVIS, and a silence that Steve couldn't decide was awkward or comfortable.

"I lied," Tony said, because Tony didn't really do silences for very long.

"About what?" Steve asked, not quite looking at him.

"There were three things I wanted," Tony said, and when Steve glanced at him he looked sidelong at him under long, dark lashes. There was a certain hunger in his face. Steve nodded thoughtfully.

"I bet the view from your bedroom is amazing," he said.

Tony's face lit up, and he offered his hand; Steve considered just climbing him, the way he'd done often enough before, but he was still underweight and underfed, and coming off a lot of painkillers. So he took the hand, followed Tony down a winding hall, and completely ignored the wide, beautiful vista through the windows in the bedroom.

"Are you sure?" Steve asked, as Tony worked his SHIELD jacket off and tugged the black t-shirt over his head. "We don't have to -- "

"We really do," Tony insisted, leaning in to kiss him, hands working his belt open.

"Okay but -- " Steve reached for Tony, leaning up, hands coming to rest on either side of his jaw. "Hey, no rush, I'm right here. Let's take a breath, huh?"

Tony pulled back, away from his hands. "Look, if the thing freaks you out..."

"What?" Steve asked, blinking. One of Tony's hands went to the front of his own shirt, almost absently. "What -- no, Tony, I don't care about that." He wrapped both hands around Tony's, pulling gently until Tony let go of the shirt. "What I care about is that you spent a long time in a dark place so hungry you just ate three cheeseburgers in a row. I'm concerned about not hurting you. I'm not here for a quick lay, so let's make sure this is good for you, huh?"

Tony took a breath, then reached up with his other hand, the one Steve wasn't holding, and undid the top two buttons. Steve let go of his hand and spread the fabric wide, popping the third and fourth button as well. Blue light shone out from the device in Tony's chest, and Steve smiled.

"I think it's beautiful," he said.

"You think everything I build is beautiful," Tony muttered.

"Yes, I do. But this is you, surviving until I could come for you." Steve leaned up, kissing the notch of Tony's collarbones, then pressed his forehead against the light. It hummed gently against his skin. "Thank you for surviving, Tony."

"Okay, whatever," Tony said, cuffing the back of his head gently, and Steve leaned back, beaming at him. "Can we fuck already or what?"

"Such charm," Steve said, pulling him along by the open fronts of his shirt. "So romantic. We can, on one condition."

"Conditions, now?"

Steve turned him and maneuvered him gently onto the bed, holding onto his shirt to make sure he didn't flop too hard. "You let me call the shots."

"Since when have I ever done anything else?" Tony asked.

"Then you should be very comfortable with it," Steve informed him, lowering himself to his knees. Tony's eyes darkened, and one large, callused hand reached out to smooth Steve's hair down as he worked Tony's belt open.

"Easy, easy," he reminded him, when Tony bucked up into his touch. Tony snorted.

"I've been living in a cave with surveillance cameras and a roommate for two months," he said. "You're lucky I didn't go off when you smiled at me."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Steve replied, sliding his hands up Tony's thighs before taking him in his mouth, careful and slow. Tony wasn't a huge man but he was bigger than Steve, and Steve liked the way this felt -- encompassed in Tony's body somehow, sheltered, loved. The solidity of him had always been a comfort, and even if he was pale from his time in the caves, thinner and still oddly fragile, this was the same. The weight of him on his tongue, the choked-off groans and absurd endearments. Tony never worried about being ridiculous during sex.

"Steve, baby, come on," Tony babbled, tugging on his shoulders, and Steve curled his tongue as he leaned back, one last lick before he sat up and looked up at Tony's face. "Come up, I need you up here," he demanded, and Steve obligingly clambered onto Tony's lap, replacing mouth with hand, other arm around his neck for leverage as they kissed.

Steve's wrist bumped his own cock as he stroked Tony, fast and clumsy now, shifting his weight every time Tony's hips jerked.

"It's okay," he said into Tony's throat, pushing his chest hard against the arc reactor, feeling the hum of it in his skin. "Come for me, Tony, you're safe, I'm here -- "

Tony came with a harsh breath, almost a sob, both arms wrapped tight around Steve's ribcage, one hand twisted tightly in the hair at the back of his head. Steve rode out the pain, holding him through his orgasm, and tightened his arm when he felt Tony's body begin to shudder.

"You are amazing," he said in Tony's ear, feeling Tony gasp in a breath against his shoulder. "It's okay, you're safe, I'm so proud of you and I love you so much, Tony. I was terrified you were dead but I never believed you were. I knew you wouldn't go down without a few explosions first."

Tony laughed brokenly, letting go of Steve's hair, hand flattening against the back of his head.

"Sorry," he said.

"Did you just apologize?" Steve asked, teasing. "I'm gonna have JARVIS make that my ringtone."

"I can -- " Tony reached between them, but Steve caught his wrist gently.

"This was for you," he said. Tony gave him a confused look. "This wasn't about me, Tony. I missed you and I am very into you right now," he added, when Tony looked like he was going to take offense again, "but I am more concerned with your health than I am with getting off."

"I'm not that fragile," Tony said.

"I know how strong you are," Steve answered. "Just -- lie back, okay?"

He pushed Tony down, climbing off to undress and manhandle him until they were both on the bed, then threw one knee over Tony's and curled against his side, tightening his leg around the back of Tony's calf.

"Like this," he said, rolling his hips, pressing up against the solid muscle of Tony's thigh. Tony turned slightly, leaning around to kiss him, pulling him over until he was almost on his chest, rubbing lazily against his hip.

"Talk to me," Steve said, pushing his face into Tony's neck, inhaling sweat and metal, the faint tang of hospital disinfectant. Not quite Tony's usual cologne, but darker and more alive.

"My social calendar's been blank lately," Tony said, and Steve laughed, pleasure zinging through him. He'd missed this, the furnace of Tony's body, the smart mouth and deft hands.

"Tell me you thought of me," Steve pleaded, breath starting to come faster.

"A lot," Tony said. "I did. I thought about you a lot, I thought, Christ, he was right."

"Don't care about that. I never wanted to be right."

"I thought, I wish he was here, but I was glad you weren't because it was -- God, it was awful, I never wanted you to know, I hoped they wouldn't find my body so you wouldn't know. But I wanted you so badly, I was selfish, if I could have had you there I would have, I would have traded a hand to have you there. I just wanted to hear your voice. I replayed whole conversations in my head, stupid conversations, times you laughed...just..."

Tony raised a hand to his face, and Steve pulled it down and kissed the palm, burrowing into it, smothering his orgasm against the skin. The tension drained out of his body and he probably would have tumbled to the blankets if Tony hadn't kept an arm around him, propping him on his chest. Steve, boneless and relaxed for the first time in months, let himself be held up, uncaring of the mess they'd made or the cooling sweat on his skin.

"I was going to dump you," Tony said.

Steve blinked, then pushed himself up carefully, using a hand on Tony's chest for leverage. "Excuse me?"

"When I got back from the demo. I had it planned out," Tony said, and this time when he covered his face, Steve let him.

Bewilderment washed over him, but only for a moment. Tony could be self-absorbed but he wasn't cruel; he wouldn't use Steve this way and then kick him out of bed, wouldn't tell him this if he meant to follow through with it. The silence stretched out and he realized that there was something much deeper behind this, some reason Tony had told him, but without all the pieces he wasn't going to put it together. Tony could make that kind of intuitive leap; he couldn't.

"This is the part where we talk about some things," Steve observed. Tony nodded behind his hand. "Okay, well, I'm gonna not be covered in bodily fluids for this conversation. And I'm gonna assume you aren't dumping me now."

"No," Tony said quietly.

"In that case, I'll be right back. You sit there and figure it out," Steve said, and rolled off, heading for the doors across the room, one of which was open, showing a white tiled bathroom with shining chrome fixtures.

The linens were easy enough to find, and he cleaned himself up, rinsing off the washcloth with warm water and carrying it back to Tony, touching his thigh before using it so that he wouldn't startle him. Tony lay quiet, passive, almost eerily so, until Steve climbed back onto the bed, bringing a corner of the blanket with him and wrapping it around himself, sharing the edge of it with Tony as he curled up against him again. Tony turned onto his side, letting his hand fall.

"So," Steve said. "When you came back I was going to tell you what I really did. And you were going to break up with me. You go first."

Tony did find a smile for that, which was heartening. He wouldn't meet Steve's eyes.

"That slipped out," he admitted.

"I guessed," Steve said.

"When you called me, before I left. That one night."

"The drunk dial?"

"Yeah. I -- you said you loved me. Twice."

Steve rose to sitting, outraged. "You seriously -- you wimped out of a relationship over that? Jesus, Tony -- "

"I know, okay -- "

"Could you be any more typical?"

Tony's eyes went wide. "What?"

"Oh my God, you're every guy in every 90s sitcom!" Steve said, laughing, and fell over onto Tony's shoulder. "You should be glad you didn't dump me 'cause if you actually did get home safe and tried that I'd have laughed you out of whatever restaurant you took me to in order to break up with me."

"That's what you're upset about?"

"I'm not upset, you idiot," Steve said, kissing behind Tony's ear before pulling back to curl up with him again. "I just think you're funny, that you believe I'd fall for a fear-breakup. That I'd let you go without a fight, knowing what I know about you and your very special brand of insecure. Wow. I assume that two months in a cave gave you some perspective?"

"Little bit," Tony said, looking annoyed now.

"So you were going to dump me, and now you're not, and you wanted me to know that," Steve said. Tony nodded. Steve lifted his hand and pressed his finger to Tony's nose, affectionately. "I'm an artist, so I'm fluent in symbolic language. I love you too." Tony was still looking peeved, so Steve scooted closer and kissed him. "And I promise I won't make fun of you for being a gigantic coward," he said.

"I had a whole speech about why I wasn't going to dump you now," Tony pointed out.

"Oh yes?"

"Listen to me," Tony said, and Steve settled in, a little more sober now. "I got a second chance, I did, and that means some changes, but this isn't some mystical spiritual bullshit thing. I made my second chance myself, with my own hands. But even if it was me, if it was my work, it was still a second chance, okay?"

"Okay," Steve said, nodding against the blankets.

"So if I...owed myself to live up to that, to take advantage of this second chance, then I wasn't going to -- I wasn't going to do shit I didn't want to do, or be afraid of things I knew could be good for me. Losing you would hurt, a lot. If we do this in a serious way -- if I take this seriously and I lose you -- that will be hard, harder than otherwise. But I've been through worse than a bad breakup. So I might as well see if it would go well."

"That's why you shut down the weapons plants, isn't it? The second chance?"

Tony nodded. "I saw what Stark weapons did. I knew what they did before, but I didn't...know I knew? I tried not to think about what I was doing. I think I drink too much," he added. "Because I knew, and it was hard."

"I think you drank too much," Steve agreed. "I think this might solve that problem. At least a little."

"You think?" Tony's voice was oddly hopeful.

"I do." Steve smiled, pleased. "But you know -- you want help, I can help, too. Whatever you need. Sam knows some guys."

"No," Tony said. "Not yet. I want to -- see how this goes, just me." He heaved out a breath, and his eyes drifted down Steve's chest, to the tattoo on his pectoral, the shield and the white star. "Your turn."

Steve smiled and brushed some hair off Tony's forehead. "I'm not saying this because I want to avoid that conversation," he said, "and I will tell you everything right now if you want. But you look exhausted. Are you sure you don't want to sleep first?"

"Worried I'll start to snore in the middle of your confessional?"

"Worried about your health."

"Why? I'm not."

"Then someone has to be." Steve slid his hand down to rub the tight muscles at the back of Tony's neck. "I was sick all the time growing up. I spent most of my childhood exhausted and in pain. I don't like to see that in others, and I've spent two months imagining what might be happening to you. Indulge me for a little while, okay?"

Tony's eyelids were already drooping. Still, he rallied long enough for Steve to wrap the blanket clumsily around both of them, and then dropped his head to Steve's shoulder.

"Kick me if I smother you," he said, and Steve agreed quietly, and let Tony drift off, blue light shifting across his body every time Tony inhaled.

***

"Agent Rogers," a voice said quietly, and Steve grunted and tugged against whatever was on top of him, heavy and too-warm. "Agent Rogers, your attention is required."

Steve struggled awake, disoriented for a second in the dim light, unsure what time it was or even where he was. This wasn't New York, but that was JARVIS speaking -- right. Malibu. Something like ten time zones away from where his body clock thought he was. Looked like either evening or dawn, outside.

"I'm up, JARVIS," he said quietly, not wanting to wake Tony, who was asleep all over him like a clingy eel. "What time is it?"

"Six oh three pm. Per heightened security monitoring, you are notified that there is a vehicle approaching the house," JARVIS said. "License plates indicate it is Mr. Stane."

"Does Pepper know about this?"

"Not to my knowledge. Shall I notify her?"

"Where is she?"

"Stark Industries headquarters. She intends to leave within the hour for her home. Mr. Hogan intends to go with her."

"Good. No, don't tell her," Steve said, squirming away from Tony. "She's got enough to deal with right now."

Tony tightened his grip for a minute, then grunted sleepily and let him go, rolling over and huddling up in the blanket. Steve found his clothing in heaps on the floor, dressing hastily in the half-light. "We're gonna let Tony sleep," he said, leaving the bedroom barefoot, pulling his SHIELD uniform shirt on. He supposed he should be grateful it wasn't the stealth catsuit; hard to look imposing in that thing, at least until you started to kick ass. "I'll deal with whatever issues Stane has."

"I believe he wishes to brief Sir before he leaves for a board meeting in New York," JARVIS said, bringing up the lights in the living room once the bedroom door was closed.

"Well, Sir can't go to the board meeting in New York right now and he's made his stance clear, so there's not a whole lot of point in talking it over beforehand. Tony holds a controlling interest in the company, right?"

"Indeed, Agent Rogers, considering his indirect holdings through Ms. Potts."

"So his word is law."

"That is perhaps a somewhat black-and-white view of things," JARVIS ventured. "But not incorrect, for your purposes."

Steve buckled his belt, smoothing down his hair. "You don't like Obadiah Stane, do you, JARVIS?"

"I have no evidence of malfeasance or reason to hold ill will," JARVIS said.

"Yeah, but you don't like him."

"No," JARVIS said. "As much as my programming allows me preference, I do not. Sir's heart rate and blood pressure rise in proximity to Mr. Stane. Ms. Potts frequently indicates a fight-or-flight response to his presence. I trust their judgement."

"That's a very logical chain of reasoning," Steve said.

"Thank you, Agent Rogers. Mr. Stane will arrive in approximately five minutes."

"Good. Give me four and a half minutes' worth of context so I know how to handle him."

When Obadiah Stane stepped into the living room, he found the lights on, the fountain by the stairs running, and Steve in the kitchen, pouring a mug of coffee.

"Mr. Stane," he said, setting the mug down. "JARVIS just told me you were coming up the walk. Can I pour you a cup? I'd offer champagne after the last few days, but I'm afraid it's not good for my health."

"Agent Rogers, good to see you again," Obadiah replied. "Cream, no sugar, thanks."

"Of course. Tony's sleeping; we're both still jet-lagged, but I'm trying to hustle back to California time. Figured I'd let him adjust a little more naturally."

"You're looking after him pretty well," Obadiah said.

"Well, officially I'm assigned as a bodyguard. Did Pepper brief you about the incident on the plane?" Steve set Stane's coffee on the kitchen island, then sipped his own.

"Hired killers, I understand. I appreciate SHIELD handling it. Who do you suppose it could be?" Stane asked.

"Dunno," Steve lied. "They didn't say anything before they died. SHIELD's got its fingers in now, though, and we're pretty good at digging. Meanwhile, here I am, just in case."

He hadn't told Obadiah about his relationship with Tony, but he knew he'd guessed. Tony had talked to Rhodey and Obadiah about him, even if he hadn't used names, and the first time they'd videoconferenced about the abduction, he'd seen Obadiah's little mental double-take. Obadiah was smart and ruthless. He'd never bring it up, but he knew.

"Just in case," Obadiah echoed. "What is SHIELD investigating, exactly?"

"Tony gave me a list of places to start. Hammer, Roxxon, a few others. This is a little intense for a personal grudge; we figure if it's not retribution from the Ten Rings, it has to be industrial."

"No jilted lovers," Obadiah said, smiling.

"Not unless you know someone he's slept with who's capable of taking out an entire flight crew and sneaking their own on board," Steve agreed.

"Not likely. If that's the case, SI is happy to help you take out a competitor. Please let me know if you need any help from us."

"Thank you, Pepper let me know who to contact. In the meantime, I promise to be as unobtrusive as possible."

Obadiah nodded. "I was hoping to speak to Tony about this...defense shutdown idea of his."

"I'm not surprised, but I'd rather not wake him. I don't think he has much new to contribute. You won't have a problem with that, right? Enforcing his decision with the board?"

"Does he know what Rhodey thinks?" Obadiah asked. He was moving closer, not in any visible intentional way, but he was beginning to loom nonetheless. Steve tilted his head back a little.

"Not yet," he replied. "I'm sure Rhodey will tell him, once he's had a few days to recover."

"Tony, or Rhodey?"

Steve narrowed his eyes. "Both, I'd think."

"Good point."

"I know this is startling," Steve continued. "He didn't tell anyone. But he's a genius and you're a businessman. I'm sure you'll make it work."

"I'm sure we will," Obadiah replied. He took a long drink, studying Steve over the rim of his mug. "You're a smart young man, Agent Rogers. I imagine you've gone a long way in SHIELD."

It caught him off guard for a second, the sudden change in topic, but he thought he covered well. "Thank you. I enjoy serving my country."

"You're probably considered one of the elite, within SHIELD."

The emphasis Obadiah put on "within" was odd, Steve thought, and he tried to keep the wariness out of his voice. "I never thought about it, to be honest."

"Well. I'm sure you have a bright future. We should speak more about that, sometime. Tony and I, you know, we're in the business of changing the world for the better. Might not seem like it sometimes, but our intentions have always been for the best. And often, conveniently, aligned with SHIELD's," Obadiah finished, slugging back the last of his coffee. "And I need to get to New York. Tell Tony I'll email him about the board meeting. I'll bring back some pizza -- you like Famous Ray's or Original Ray's?"

"Famous Original," Steve said with a grin. Obadiah touched his forehead in salute, turning briskly as JARVIS opened the door for him. Once the door was closed and he was gone, Steve settled on one of the chairs at the island.

"That was weird, right?" he asked.

"I am not an experienced judge of human behavior, but against his baseline metric, it was unusual for Mr. Stane," JARVIS allowed. "He is not given to effusive praise."

"How's my fight-or-flight response doing?" Steve asked, grinning into his coffee.

"So far as I have observed, Agent Rogers, you appear to lack a flight instinct entirely," JARVIS replied.

Steve burst out laughing, covering his mouth when he remembered Tony was sleeping in the next room. "Thank you, JARVIS. That's one of the nicest things anyone's ever said to me."

***

Tony woke in the dark, or as dark as the world around him got, these days. The arc reactor was throwing blue light on the sheets, sheets on a real bed. For a minute he thought he was having one of the dreams he'd had in the caves -- dreams where he was home, in Malibu or his penthouse or in Steve's studio -- and he wanted to cry. Those were the worst dreams, where everything was okay again, and then he'd wake up cold and miserable and starving.

But memory flooded back, hazily, and this felt real. He was in Malibu. The surf crashed softly outside. He could smell sex on the sheets, and the lingering scent of Steve, even if he wasn't in the bed.

He found clothes neatly folded at the foot of the bed, and he could smell food cooking. When he walked out of the bedroom, Steve was in a light-flooded kitchen, frying something on the stove. JARVIS had Coldplay on the speakers (so fired) and Steve was butt-wiggling, dancing more dorkily than should be humanly possible. Tony leaned in the doorway, watching him fondly.

I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
Roman cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword and shield --

Steve must have seen the light of the reactor out of the corner of his eye; he stopped mid-booty-shake, turning, and then smiled when he saw Tony in the doorway.

"JARVIS, turn that travesty off," Tony said, coming to sit at the kitchen bar. It looked like pancakes were cooking in the pan.

"Yes, variety has never been known to be the spice of life," JARVIS complained, but he silenced the music.

"Thanks. Did I sleep through the night?" Tony asked, jerking his thumb at windows.

"You did. I'm pleased," Steve said, still beaming. He didn't even ask if Tony was hungry, just turned to the oven and took a plate out of it, pulling a tinfoil tent off the top. The plate was warm when Tony took it, filled with bacon and pancakes, scrambled eggs and fried potato.

"How much food did you make?" Tony asked, stuffing his mouth with scrambled eggs.

"Enough for leftovers. Pepper stocked the fridge," Steve said. "Coffee?"

"Jesus, yes," Tony agreed fervently. When Steve poured out a mug for him, he wanted to crawl into it.

"She's coming over today. Obadiah left for New York last night, said to tell you he'd email you about the board meeting."

Tony rubbed his forehead. "I'm sure I'll pay for that at some point."

"Should I have woken you?"

"No. What else was I gonna say?"

"That was my thought," Steve said, with an approving look. "I told him we were going to let you sleep."

"How'd he take that?"

"He was weird."

"Obie's always weird." Tony waved his fork dismissively before attempting to eat an entire pancake without cutting it. Steve didn't even bat an eye.

"No, this was extra weird. JARVIS agrees. He was really nice to me."

"How strange," Tony drawled. "Maybe he was trying to butter you up."

"Why, because I'm your boyfriend?" Steve asked.

Tony chewed thoughtfully, and for quite a while, until he could swallow comfortably. "He's -- we usually work in sync. That's going to change. Obie's good at knowing which way the wind blows. If he thinks he can get me to change my mind through you, yeah, he'd try that."

"If I told you to keep making weapons, would you?" Steve asked curiously.

"Do you think I should?" Tony asked.

"I think you're going to make a lot of enemies, lose a lot of money. Stark defense did some good, you know." Steve's eyes cut away. "Stark body armor. My sidearm's a Stark. Do not make a joke about Stark guns," he added, when Tony opened his mouth. "It's not that I think you should. I'm behind you, Tony, I have your back. But I can see how the world will see this and it's not pretty."

"I know that," Tony replied. "I'm ready for it. Most of it. Some of it. And the thing is...if you asked me to keep going, you wouldn't be the man I thought you were, and you wouldn't be the kind of man worth listening to."

Steve's smile was secret and self-satisfied, almost a private thing.

"You sound like a philosopher," he said.

"Well, don't spread it around," Tony replied. "You carry a Stark, really?"

Steve nodded, scooping pancakes out of the skillet and setting them aside. "It's a great gun. Never jammed on me. Cleans easy, too." He looked up. "Is it weird to hear that?"

"No, why?" Tony said hurriedly.

"You get this look on your face, when I say stuff like that. About the job."

Tony pointed the fork at him. "I believe I did say it's your turn."

"Yeah, I deserve that," Steve agreed, turning off the heat on the stove and coming around the kitchen island. He hitched himself up on the counter, ass next to Tony's plate, for once taller than Tony.

"Bucky and I grew up together. When my mother died -- I was in high school, and his folks took me in so I wouldn't go into the system. I got a scholarship for my art degree and Buck and I went to college together but Buck's smart, just not...academic. He was in and out of class, worked when he couldn't afford tuition. My senior year, he was still a rising junior, he decided to enlist -- he could get his degree on the GI bill after his hitch." Steve looked down, face flushing a little. "I was jealous. I wanted to enlist too. I'd always wanted to serve, but..." he gestured to his body. "Too short for nearly everything, and underweight for the rest. I tried anyway, after he got in. Got into a fight outside the recruitment office and I just...I saw red. And this recruiter for SHIELD -- Erskine -- saw me, this little bantamweight, kicking the hell out of a guy twice my size...so he took a chance."

He looked at Tony, a weird, searching look.

"This is the place where people usually laugh," Steve added.

"Not really seeing much humor in the situation," Tony replied. Steve nodded, clearly thinking it through.

"Anyway, Erskine got me into SHIELD, and they trained me. Turned out I had aptitudes. Natasha, you've met her, she decided I was a good candidate for stealth and advanced combat. I thought I was going to be an analyst, but I ended up with her and Peggy and Clint in the field. We're a good team. But you can't just tell people."

"So you said. Nobody believes you."

"And it's classless. I mean, if you have to talk about it, it's not worth talking about, you know?" Steve said. "It's real macho. I don't like that part much. But I do love the job. I like making a difference."

"You've killed people," Tony said.

"Yes."

"How many?"

"Don't know. Probably could give you a count from the reports. You can't keep track of stuff like that, Tony, it'll make you bananas."

"How do you..." Tony frowned, working out how to say this.

"Live with myself?" Steve asked, mirthlessly.

"No, not like that -- "

"I know. But that's the essence, isn't it? And the answer is, I hold to the idea that I do more good than harm. I act to secure freedom, without violating that freedom. At least, I try." He sighed. "I wanted to tell you. I wasn't sure how. I was worried you'd think I was spying on you -- more worried you'd be angry I lied. But Coulson -- my handler -- he said, tell you now, before I regret it. Too late, I guess," he finished, pulling back a little. "I'm sorry, Tony."

"I want to be pissed off about it," Tony said. "I'm having a hard time finding the energy."

"Eat more pancakes, you'll get there. They're high-protein, I put almond butter in them."

Tony smiled. "Stop feeding me health food, asshole."

"Stop almost dying, jerk." Steve slid off the counter, pulling himself up as tall as he could. "I want you to be okay with this, and I will do what I need to, if we can make that happen. Whatever it is you need to feel like you can trust me again. It's important to me, Tony."

Tony considered it, shifting around to face him. He caught Steve's belt with his fingers and pulled him into the spread of his legs, kissing him.

"You spent two months in hostile territory trying to find me, you and your weirdo super spy friends," he said, nipping Steve's lower lip. "You got me clear of the camp. You killed for me. You are," he said, grinning, "my tiny rage duckling."

"There's really something very wrong with you," Steve told him.

"Sweet spybaby."

"No."

"Dandelion of National Security?" Tony suggested, and Steve rolled his eyes.

"My callsign is Nomad," he said.

"Why Nomad?"

"I go where I'm needed," Steve replied. "Plus it seemed catchy."

"Catchy," Tony said, shaking his head. "Honestly? It's not trust that worries me."

"Then what worries you?"

"That you spend a lot of time being shot at," Tony said. "Captain America," he added, hand rising to Steve's shirt, covering the spot where the tattoo was. "I'm not cut out to be a soldier's girl," he added with a grin.

"It's not as dangerous as it sounds," Steve said, and Tony thought that was probably a lie, but it was a reassuring lie, so he decided to believe it. "If that's all that worries you then -- then I think we're okay, aren't we?"

"Aside from the fact that I just torched my company and someone wants me dead," Tony said. "Also I feel a little like I'm in The Bodyguard, now."

"Is that a TV show?" Steve asked.

"You are a heathen. A classless heathen," Tony said.

"It's part of my charm," Steve replied.

"Come back to bed," Tony said, kissing him again.

"Come outside," Steve countered. "It's beautiful, and the air will do you good. Smells good -- like the Jersey shore on a nice day."

Tony let himself be pulled to his feet. "You want me to teach you to surf, still?"

"I want you to rest. You can watch me wipe out a whole lot, if you like," Steve said with a grin. He backed through the door, out onto the balcony, and climbed up onto the rail, sitting with his legs just open enough to bracket Tony's hips when he pushed in and kissed him.

It was nice out -- already warm, with the promise of a hot, balmy day. He could smell the ocean and, from this angle, could see only Steve and the broad water beyond him. It wouldn't be so bad to stay here for a few days before leaping back into work. Though he would have to draft a memo to the Stark Industries workforce, and start looking for a way to employ the arms factory workers. He couldn't just abandon them, and even if he wanted to, the union wouldn't let him. And then there were new avenues to explore -- green energy with the miniaturized arc reactor, the tech sector --

"You want to do work, don't you?" Steve asked, ankles locking behind Tony's back, pinning him there. "You taste distracted."

"Yes," Tony admitted. He did; above all else, he wanted a tablet and CAD, and to rework the armor he'd built in the cave. It nagged at him the way ordinance designs used to. "But I like this too."

"Good." Steve kissed him again, messy and intent, but he unlocked his legs, and eventually leaned back. "I'll bring you a tablet. Tell me when you're hungry, there's lots of food. I have to get in touch with SHIELD, but I'm going to stick close. Do you mind?"

Tony shook his head, hands on Steve's hips as he jumped down from the rail -- carefully not helping, just...holding. Steve gave him a dry look, but he was interrupted by a chirp from his phone.

"It's Peggy. Pull up a lounge chair, I'll get your tablet," Steve said, and headed back towards the living room, phone to his ear. "Peg. Good to hear your voice. Oh yeah? Heard that before."

Tony watched him go, chest clenching up in anxiety even as his body filled with warm affection. It was terrifying, all this, but after the caves even the terror of a relationship was muted. He watched Steve chatter away on the phone, rummaging for tablets in the living room, and tried to calm the nervousness. Steve was just as afraid of losing him, after all, was willing to do a lot to make up for the really pretty negligible lie. Tony knew about secrecy acts and confidentiality clauses. He'd signed his first nondisclosure agreement when he was nine.

"...don't trust analysts with this," Steve was saying, as he emerged again, carrying two tablets. He skimmed one frisbee-style to Tony, smiling when he caught it. "No, I agree. Okay, well, JARVIS can patch me up a VPN. Yeah, verbal only for now, and only outside HQ. Thanks, Peggy. I know you hate playing dumb."

He butted his head into Tony's chest, kissing the skin just above the collar of his t-shirt, and then leaned back, pointing imperiously at one of the deck chairs on the balcony. Tony mock-bowed in obedience and went, while Steve smirked and flopped on another one.

"Okay. Yeah, say hi to Sam and Buck. Tell Clint thanks. Yep, I'll roll out the red carpet. Okay. Bye." He hung up and stretched. Tony ogled. "JARVIS can help me set up a direct line to SHIELD that no mortal man can crack, right?" Steve asked, turning his head to beam at him.

"Yep, you've got admin access now. Let me know if you're going to hog the bandwidth."

"I almost definitely am."

"Spoiled," Tony commented.

"Well, what's the point of being your kept man otherwise?" Steve asked. "Hush now and we'll both pretend you're resting when you're actually working."

***

Pepper was expecting that Tony would go back to his workshop pretty quickly, once he was home; he'd always gravitated to it, especially when he was upset. Still, she didn't expect to be summoned down to the workshop within a week of Tony arriving in Malibu.

She certainly didn't expect to see Tony lying on a gurney, hooked up to a heart monitor. Or Steve, standing nearby with a hangdog expression on his face.

"Hey," Tony said cheerfully. "You have tiny hands, right?"

"What?" Pepper asked, bewildered.

"Show me your hands," Tony ordered, and Pepper held up her hands apprehensively.

"Yeah, her hands are totally small enough," Tony said to Steve, who winced.

"Small enough for what, exactly?" Pepper asked. "I swear to God, Tony, if this is your way of suggesting a threesome -- "

"I love you, you would murder me, no," Tony said. "I need you to help me change the reactor."

She looked down at the plate set in his chest, and the glowing light he held in one hand. "That's what's keeping you alive."

"Soon to be an antique, and you two are really unnecessarily freaked out about this," Tony said. "I'm swapping it out for this," he added, holding up the light. "Just a little snag, or I could do this myself -- "

"A little snag that's going to cause cardiac arrest," Steve put in.

"Little snag. Tiny. There's an exposed wire under the device and it's causing a short -- " Tony tugged on the plate in his chest.

"Tony don't -- " Steve started, but there was a buzzing noise and Tony's chest jerked alarmingly. Steve sighed as the entire plate came out, accepting it from Tony when he offered it.

"You just need to reach in and lift the wire out," Tony said.

"I tried," Steve added, sounding guilty. He held up his hands. "My hands are too big."

"That's what they all say," Pepper replied, but it was true. For a little guy, Steve had sizeable paws.

"You know what they say about men with big hands?" Tony asked. Steve opened his mouth to protest, but Tony cut him off before he could speak. "They can't fit their fingers inside my chest cavity."

"So I have to do it," Pepper said.

"You...can do it," Tony tried. "And I would like very much if you would, because our next option is Steve takes out his butterfly knife and a chopstick -- "

"I'm positive it would work," Steve said.

"Okay, no butterfly knives," Pepper announced, biting her lip as she reached into Tony's chest.

It was slimy and there was a smell that Pepper didn't like to think about; Tony wouldn't stop talking, which he probably thought was soothing, and Steve just watched her with huge blue worried eyes, which also did not help.

By the time she'd pulled the wire out, accidentally pulled the magnet out, induced cardiac arrest, and managed to get the new reactor into place, she was freaked out and sweating, and Steve looked like he might actually collapse.

"Was that so hard?" Tony asked, as if he hadn't been having a heart attack thirty seconds ago. "You did great, Pep. Didn't she do great, Steve?"

"Great," Steve echoed absently. Tony laughed.

"Don't ever make me do anything like that again," Pepper told him. "Next time I'm leaving you to Steve and his chopsticks."

"Fair enough," Tony said, with a warm smile that looked almost grateful. "Thanks, Pep."

"I'm going to go wash your insides off my outsides now," Pepper said. "Steve, you okay?"

"No," Steve said in a strangled voice.

"Can I help?"

"Probably not," Steve admitted.

"Okay. I'm gonna go, Tony, you help him find his words or something," she said, and retreated. As she left she heard Tony say See? I told you, wasn't that better than making you get your knives out?

***

It was a good few weeks in Malibu, at least it seemed so at the time. Steve's work had never been regular, so he'd spent a lot of time on call, but that meant he hadn't taken many real vacations, either. Technically he was on assignment, but a day's worth of work was enough to secure the Malibu house to his liking, and as long as he kept alert the rest of the time he was more or less at his leisure.

Tony rested most mornings, or at least he worked while sitting down; after lunch he'd disappear into his workshop and Steve would check in with Peggy or Coulson to see if there was anything he should know about. He ran on the beach before Tony was up in the morning, and in the evenings learned to surf while Tony watched and laughed. If it weren't for the handful of times Tony had woken from nightmares, holding him painfully tight but refusing to talk, it would have been idyllic.

Steve tried not to think about the nightmares. That was a battle Tony had to fight alone -- he'd learned that lesson with Bucky. He could stay up with him, pet his hair and reassure him softly, but he couldn't have the nightmares for him. If he could have, he would have.

"So, how long are you keeping me a prisoner in my own home?" Tony asked one morning, lying in bed, Steve draped over him bonelessly. Steve laughed and nipped his ear.

"It's been a month, Tony. You're still underweight."

"Not for lack of trying." Tony twisted his head, smiling. "I feel bad making Obie take everything in the face. And I want to make sure SI recovers. I need to get out soon."

Steve contemplated this silently for a while. "You've seen the news."

"They think I've had a nervous breakdown. They think I haven't left my bed."

Steve rolled off him. "I wish."

"Very funny." Tony pushed himself up on an elbow, leaning over him. "There's a Stark Foundation gala tonight. I want to go."

"Tony..." Steve frowned. "If you go, I need to come with you."

"I want you to come with me," Tony replied. "I need to be seen, and I need to talk to Obie. He's ignoring my email."

"I should go ahead, then, make sure it's secure -- "

"No, Steve -- " Tony pressed a thumb against his mouth. "I want you to come with me. As my date."

"As your -- " Steve sat up, turning sideways to look at him. "Publicly?"

"If you're okay with that."

"You've just never wanted..." Steve gestured with one hand. "You don't have to. I get why we keep this quiet, Tony. I know it's as much for my sake as yours."

"I know I don't have to make this public. I want to. If you want to. I want to -- show people that I'm with someone, and that it's you. I'm not ashamed of you."

"I never thought you were. I just think -- " Steve stopped, abruptly. "Tony, where's this really coming from?"

Tony sat up too, holding up his hands. "Before you ask that, listen, I've wanted to do this for a while -- "

"JARVIS, show me the morning news summary," Steve said, turning to the smartpanes. Tony had been awake before him, had gotten up and done something before coming back to bed...

JARVIS, in sheepish silence, put up a magazine cover on the smartpane. A fuzzy photo of him and Tony, dining together at the little coastal seafood shack up the highway. Their heads were close together, Steve's fingers dangling over his wineglass in a way that looked more sexual than it had been. He'd just been about to pick up his glass. But he looked --

"Wow," he said, tilting his head. Tony leaned in behind him, and Steve saw him calculate risk in the reflection of the glass before he bent to kiss his shoulder.

"Wow?" Tony prompted.

"I'm -- " Steve didn't look at himself in the mirror very often. He knew what he'd see. But in the photograph he didn't look small or weak or easily underestimated. He looked -- ethereal, his art training supplied. Seductive. He'd never thought of himself as beautiful before. "Is that how you see me?" he asked Tony.

"Yes," Tony said, mouth still pressed to his shoulder. "And unfortunately, it's now how the whole world sees you."

"Time for my debut in society?"

"Only if you want. But yes, speaking as a man who's had to handle his spin since he was seven, that would be politically best. How will your alias hold up?"

"Steve the artist? Probably it won't. But Steve the SHIELD Agent is pretty well hidden. They won't find a grad student, but they won't find much of anything." Steve nodded. "I wish we had more time to prepare."

"Me too. But it has its upside. I get to show you off. And you're now officially on the arm of one of the most powerful men in the world."

"Prove that," Steve said, as Tony shifted to bracket Steve between his legs, pulling him back against his chest.

"Come to the gala with me," Tony murmured, one hand rubbing circles on his stomach, the other sliding up his thigh.

"I don't have a tux," Steve replied. Peggy had sent him a bag of clothes, but they were still mostly wardrobe he'd stolen from Bucky.

"My tailor makes house calls," Tony replied, sucking on his neck.

"Do not give me a visible love bite," Steve ordered. Tony let go of his neck with an apologetic lick. "I've never been to a gala."

"What, never once as James Bond?" Tony asked, hand cupping his dick. Steve arched and rolled his torso to settle in against Tony's body, head falling back on his shoulder. His other hand kept rubbing his stomach, a secret pleasure Tony had picked up on with embarrassing speed.

"Never was any good at that kinda spying," Steve drawled, throwing one thigh over Tony's so that he could get a little more leverage. Tony pinned him with his arm, but Steve snaked a hand out and reached behind him to slide his fingers into Tony's hair.

"Just stick with me," Tony said in his ear, and Steve shivered. "Everyone will see you with me."

"Tony," Steve begged, twisting in his grip. Tony laughed low and dark, stroking him faster, thumb sweeping over the head of his cock in an unpredictable pattern.

"You're so beautiful," Tony said into the nape of his neck, voice vibrating down his spine. "Everyone will envy me. Everyone can see how much I want you."

It was always amazing how easily Tony brought him to the edge, Steve thought wildly, amazing how fast he could get there, and how long Tony could hold him there, desperate, vulnerable. He felt a sharp flush of shock and adrenaline, enough to push him over, bucking against Tony's wiry, muscled arm as he came. He felt Tony jerk forward, heard him whimper sharply, and felt a wet warmth on his back.

"The things you do to me," Steve said, when Tony released him. He leaned forward and Tony ran his fingers up his back, spreading the mess. "Yes, thank you, that was what I needed."

He could hear the humor in Tony's voice. "Well, you wouldn't let me mark you up."

"We're not teenagers." Steve eased off the bed, feeling a little shaky still. "I'm going to shower."

"I'll call my tailor," Tony said, rolling over, reaching for his phone. "JARVIS, make us cocktail reservations somewhere close to the gala for an hour before, I don't want to drink on an empty stomach."

"Dinner reservations, JARVIS," Steve corrected, stepping into the bathroom. He shut the door and the shower went on automatically, steam beginning to fill the room.

"Did Tony freak out when he saw the photo?" he asked, ducking under the spray and rinsing himself off before reaching for the shampoo.

"Not as much as one might expect," JARVIS answered.

"How was the article?"

"All things considered, somewhat positive," JARVIS said. "You have not yet been named, but the writeup remarked that Sir was looking healthy and relaxed. The location of the restaurant was not mentioned, and no remarks were made about your height."

Steve laughed, washing lather out of his hair. "Well, I suppose that's good. As long as it was kind to Tony."

"Shall I begin a clippings file?" JARVIS asked.

"For what, our relationship?"

"Sir maintains a clippings file for you," JARVIS replied.

"Can't be much in it."

"He has had me search several archives for...evidence of your presence," JARVIS said tactfully. Ah; Tony was looking into ops he may have run.

"Should you be telling me that?" Steve asked, working soap into the bath puff.

"You have admin-level access," JARVIS said blandly. Steve supposed it was a point.

"I don't think I need a file. Keep an eye on the news for me, though, would you? Anything that might be relevant to my job or Tony's safety."

"Duly noted, Agent Rogers."

The tailor showed up an hour later, hauling a garment rack full of tuxedos after him. He looked at Steve, who was sitting at the kitchen bar, and then at Tony, who was sprawled on the couch in the living room.

"I told you," Tony said.

"Told him what?" Steve asked, suspicious.

"He told me that you were a delight wrapped in a disaster," the man said, coming forward to offer his hand. Steve shook it, then tilted his head when the man grasped the loose cuff of his shirt. "Mr. Stark, I know the tuxedo is a rush, but there is a wardrobe to be built here -- "

"Not my call," Tony said, waving his hands.

"I'm still in the room," Steve said, annoyed.

"I'm so sorry, Mr. Rogers. I'd like to speak to you about perhaps having some shirts and trousers tailored," he said smoothly. Steve had a lot of experience with smooth, however.

"How much is that gonna run me?" he asked.

"My tab," Tony called, without looking up from his phone.

"Is this where the Kept Man line starts getting crossed?" Steve asked him.

"Pretty sure no kept man ever saved my life," Tony answered. "Have you tried giving an inch, ever, in your life?"

"I'm not known for being malleable."

"Believe me, nobody knows that better than I do," Tony said with a grin. "Think of it as a gift for me, you in a properly tailored pair of pants."

"We can talk about it," Steve told the tailor, who smiled. "Let's see how you do on the tuxedo. It doesn't have to be perfect -- "

"Yes it does," Tony put in. "Blue accents, please."

"Why don't we take your measurements and I'll get to work," the tailor said, apparently approving. Steve sighed and resigned himself to his fate.

***

Steve barely ate anything at dinner that night, too concerned about spilling something on the crisp white tuxedo shirt, nervous about the gala and the red carpet leading up to it. He knew Tony was trying to be reassuring and educational when he said things like "when the flashbulbs start popping just keep moving, don't stop walking" but it sounded more like going into combat while unable to hit back than going to a fundraiser for wounded firefighters.

"How do you introduce me?" Steve had asked, during the final fitting for the tuxedo that afternoon. "Your boyfriend? Your bodyguard? A close personal friend?"

"Boyfriend, unless that freaks you out," Tony had called from the other room.

"No, that's fine. I'm officially an artist if anyone asks."

"Fair enough."

"Should I intervene if people are hassling you?"

"Only if it looks physical. I'm going to be having a lot of hostile conversations tonight."

"Lucky you," Steve sighed.

"It's fine. I'm used to a certain amount of push and pull. I've been doing this longer than you've been alive."

"You were seven when I was born," Steve pointed out.

"I was on Carson when I was six."

"What was wrong with your parents?"

"Curse of the child prodigy," Tony replied, walking into the room. Steve, one leg still unhemmed, spread his arms. Tony's eyes darkened.

He was still giving Steve that look now, glancing over occasionally from the driver's seat of the Audi, racing south towards the glitzy Los Angeles venue where the gala was being held. Steve would preen, if he weren't so nervous.

"Relax, I'm doing all the heavy lifting tonight," Tony said, as they zipped past the security check and up to the valet stand. A man in dark livery ran up to them, and Tony turned to him. "You ready?"

"Of course," Steve scoffed, and got out when the valet held the door. Cameras flashed everywhere, a blinding constellation, and then went supernova as Tony climbed out of the other side, tossing the keys to the valet.

He offered Steve his elbow as he came around the car, and Steve summoned up a smile and rested his hand in the crook of Tony's arm, hustling a little to keep up as they walked quickly down the red carpet, up to the steps and inside. Tony waved and occasionally greeted people, but he didn't stop moving until the doors had swung shut behind them.

Inside it was quieter, at least, even if Steve -- attuned to the way people moved, to the moods of crowds -- could see a gentle shift in their direction as people noticed that Tony had arrived. Obadiah was there, and the crowd seemed to wait for him, to part for him so that he could be the one to greet Tony first.

"I'm sorry about the magazine article," he was saying to Tony, as Steve surveyed the room.

"You know, it's almost nice," Tony replied, patting Obadiah on the back. "As scandals go it's low down, and easily fixed. How'd the board take it?"

"Let's talk about that later."

"That good, huh? Well, let me try and fix some mess, okay?" Tony said. They drifted away from Obadiah, towards other guests, people Steve didn't know or knew only from occasional glimpses of gossip rags in the supermarket. He catalogued names and faces out of habit, but he tucked them away somewhere unimportant, more focused on making sure Tony's six was covered.

"Nobody's gonna knife me at a gala," Tony murmured to him, probably the fiftieth time he'd turned away from the conversation to scan the crowd. "Relax, Steve. Have some fun. God knows I wish I could. I need to go talk to Pepper," he added, and steered them both towards the bar. "You be all right alone for like, ten minutes?"

"I'll try to contain myself," Steve said drily, and Tony kissed him on the forehead mockingly.

"Two martinis, extra dry, extra dirty, and a ginger ale for the square," he said to the bartender, who gave Steve an uncertain look. Steve nodded, waving a hand at Tony as if to say what do I do, and took his ginger ale when offered. Tony swept up the martinis and carried them across the room; Steve could just make out Pepper, half a head taller than most of the women around her, laughing politely at something that probably wasn't funny.

"So, you're the new trophy boy," a voice said behind him, and Steve turned, wary. A beautiful woman with styled blond hair and a larger-than-normal clutch purse was standing at his elbow. She hadn't been there a moment before; now she took him in, eyes keen. "He doesn't usually sleep with men; you must be something special. How old are you, sixteen?"

"You must be a journalist," Steve replied.

"What gave me away?" she asked. She didn't really care, and she wasn't flirting, either; there was no hint of amusement in her face. "Christine Everhart."

"Steve Rogers. You opened with a neg and a question. I have no comment, except to wonder how you got in," he said, sipping his drink.

"Persistence and cleavage," she replied. "How did you charm Mr. Stark?"

"My manly physique," he said. That wrung a small smile out of her.

"You know what he does, right?" she asked.

"I know he used to sell weapons."

She reached into her clutch and he tensed, but all she took out were a handful of photos, which she laid on the bar.

"Believe it or not, I'm not a society rag kind of girl," she said. "I'm an investigative journalist. Have you seen these?"

Steve picked up the photos, studying them. Stark-branded weapons. Men who were not US soldiers in front of them. Similar to what he'd seen in the Ten Rings camp when they extracted Tony, but he'd never seen these images before.

"When were these taken?" he asked.

"Yesterday. In a town called Gulmira."

He looked up at her sharply. "Stark Industries doesn't sell weapons to terrorists."

"Tony Stark might not. Stark Industries is apparently having a liquidation sale."

Nobody had contacted him about this. Granted, he wasn't a part of SHIELD's middle east taskforce, but SHIELD knew about him and Tony; he should have been briefed. He wondered if Peggy or Natasha knew.

"Who took these?" he asked.

"Who wants to know?"

He considered her. "Are you serious about not being interested in the society page?"

She leaned forward. "Depends on what you can offer me."

Steve considered her -- the hunger in her eyes, the cut of her dress, the way she watched how he stood, how others in the room moved.

"Agent Steve Rogers of SHIELD counterintelligence is asking," he said. "I can do it with a subpoena, if you want, but I don't think you want that."

"Well. Isn't that interesting," she answered. "No, I don't want that. We have a correspondent embedded in the area who sent them to me. He's safe at the moment because the government isn't looking at Gulmira."

"Then I'll make you a deal. I'll keep SHIELD out of Gulmira for the next twenty-four hours; you keep my job out of the papers."

"And I have right of first refusal on an exclusive in-depth personality piece on Mr. Stark."

"Yeah, that's never gonna happen," Steve said.

"I only want first-refusal."

"Fair." He offered his hand, tucking the photos into the inside pocket of his tuxedo. "I need to find Tony. I'll be in touch when I have information I can share. Excuse me."

Tony was standing with Pepper, speaking with an older man who had the unmistakable posture of a former soldier. He looked up when he saw Steve coming, caught Steve's expression, and excused himself.

"What happened?" he asked.

"I just spoke with Christine Everhart," Steve said.

"Jesus, I'm sorry, she's -- "

" -- got photographs of Stark weapons in the hands of the Ten Rings," Steve interrupted, taking the photos out of his pocket. Tony frowned and accepted them, flipping through them the same way Steve had. "She says they have an embedded correspondent who took those yesterday, in a town called Gulmira."

Tony's head jerked up. "Gulmira."

"You know it?"

"It came up in the camp," Tony said.

"Is it possible Obadiah's selling arms to warlords?" Steve asked. "They had your weapons when they took you, Tony, and now they have more -- "

"I need to find Obadiah."

"I'm coming with you."

"No -- if this is a national defense issue he can't know you know." Tony looked troubled. "The board locked me out of the company this morning."

"What?"

"Pepper just found out from Obie. He said it was a momentary issue, that a little spin would fix it, he just needed time. He's pushing me out and he thinks I'm dumb enough to go," Tony said bitterly.

"How can I help?"

"Let me handle this. If he thinks you're my distraction, even better." Tony took Pepper's undrunk martini from her, shot it down, and handed the empty glass and the toothpick full of olives back to her. "You're driving," he added to Steve. "Get the car."

***

By the time the valet brought the car around, Tony had found Obadiah on the steps and Steve watched from the valet stand as they spoke, Tony swaying a little; Steve didn't think he'd had that much, but he hadn't been drinking much lately in general, and he'd swallowed the martini awfully fast. He waited, engine idling, while Tony and Obadiah posed for photos, Tony slightly glassy-eyed. Tony stumbled down the steps, opened the car door, fumbled his way inside, and said, "Go fast now please."

Steve, who did enjoy a fast car when it was on offer, gunned it and peeled out as fast as he dared. By the time they were on the ten, headed for the PCH, Tony was sitting upright, eyes focused once more.

"You're not nearly as hammered as Obadiah thinks you are," Steve observed.

"Nope," Tony said. "But I might as well play to my strengths."

"What did Obadiah tell you?"

"Nothing I hadn't already guessed." Tony looked out the window as Los Angeles streamed past. "He's been double-dealing. Maybe for years. And I was too -- " he slammed his fist into the dashboard. Steve reached over and caught his wrist, pulling it away, holding onto it until Tony tugged free.

"If he's selling arms to known enemies of the country, that's treason," Steve said.

"Good luck proving it when I'm locked out of the company's records," Tony replied. "Nobody'd even give you a warrant. And if they did, SI would fight it. It'd take years. Decades. Meanwhile my company, my father's company, circles the drain with that bastard at the helm. And Gulmira burns."

"Gulmira is personal for you."

"Yinsen was from Gulmira. His family was slaughtered there."

Steve had heard Yinsen's name spoken a total of twice, in the weeks since Tony had returned. Once in a report on casualties from the extraction, and once by Tony, in his sleep.

"What are you going to do?" Steve asked.

"I don't know," Tony admitted, turning to look away again. "I don't know, yet."

"I'm going to have Coulson put me in touch with the middle east desk at SHIELD tomorrow," Steve said. "I'll see what I can come up with. I promised Everhart I'd give her a day's notice before SHIELD gets into Gulmira -- it was the price of her silence, Tony," he added, when Tony turned a betrayed look on him. "My company, my call. Coulson will know what our options are legally, with regards to SI."

"And illegally?" Tony asked pointedly.

"Well, we're not the CIA, we can operate in-country," Steve said. "I don't approve of unconstitutional search and seizure, but I'm not above committing an unsanctioned op to blow a few whistles."

"You're talking about infiltrating SI."

"Robbing it," Steve corrected. "As a last resort. I don't want to shut down SI, Tony."

"And it doesn't help Gulmira."

"No, it doesn't, but at this point not a lot will. Can you talk to Rhodey? Have the Air Force get involved? Surveillance if nothing else."

"I don't think Rhodey feels super kind towards me at the moment."

"I don't know if he'll care, Tony, if national security is at stake. What if the Ten Rings get Jerichos next?" Steve tightened his fingers on the steering wheel. "What if Obadiah's the reason they took you, Tony?"

"No," Tony said automatically. "Obie's a bastard but he's not a murderer."

"He's in bed with warlords. He's doing business with the men who took you. Men who tortured you," Steve said. "And he clearly didn't stop when they had you. Son of a bitch, I'm going to rip his throat out myself."

They'd left the city behind now, the coast scrolling away on the left.

"There's nothing you can do tonight," Tony said dully, and looking back later Steve should have noticed the phrasing. Nothing you can do. "I can't look at legal solutions until the morning. We should sleep. Come at this fresh in the morning."

Steve sighed. "That's not a bad idea. I can't even tell Coulson tonight; I promised Everhart, he didn't. Peggy'll keep it quiet, though."

Tony made an absent, affirming noise, clearly already miles away. Steve didn't like to let him stew, but he didn't see how he had much choice.

When they reached the house on the cliff, Tony made for the bedroom; Steve changed out of his now-rumpled tuxedo, laying it aside reverently, while Tony showered. He meant to wait for him to come out, but the bed was warm -- and the anxiety before the gala and anger he'd felt on the drive home left him exhausted, once they had ebbed. He fell asleep while Tony was still in the shower.

***

When Steve woke the next morning, Tony hadn't been to bed.

Well, he might have been, but his side of the bed was undisturbed, and the blankets weren't rumpled enough; besides, Steve usually woke if Tony came to bed after him, at least long enough to curl into the furnace of Tony's chest. He hated being cold when he slept.

He rose, worried, and called, "JARVIS?"

"Mr. Stark is in the workshop," JARVIS replied promptly.

"Has he had breakfast yet?"

"I don't believe so."

"Was he in the workshop all night?" Steve asked, shrugging into one of Tony's discarded t-shirts and wandering into the kitchen.

JARVIS didn't respond.

"JARVIS, was Tony in the workshop all night?" Steve prompted.

"No, Agent Rogers."

"Well, where was he?"

"He is in the workshop."

Steve knew JARVIS was technically all around him, but sometimes you wanted to give someone a look. He tapped on the smartpane in the kitchen and glared at the news report that came up. "You're deliberately misinterpreting me. Where was Tony last night after I went to bed?"

"He went to the workshop."

"Goddammit, JARVIS, now is not the time -- " Steve paused. "Wait, is he okay? JARVIS, is he injured?"

JARVIS seemed unsure how to answer that. "Sir is not seriously wounded."

"Jesus -- " Steve took off at a run for the stairs, hurtling down them three at a time, almost falling as he hit the bottom. One of the tempered glass panes between the hallway and the workshop was shattered, and he bounded off the cement wall to avoid the broken glass. He skidded into the door and keyed it open, stumbling to a halt just inside.

The workshop was wrecked, more disorderly than he'd ever seen it, bits of glass and metal strewn about, the shop's TV a blackened hole in one wall. Tony was standing on some kind of...platform, wearing a weird suit of red armor. Various robotic arms were pulling at the pieces, and he was arguing with them the way he always did, calling them names.

Tony looked up when he saw him, eyes going wide.

Steve stared back, eyes even wider if possible.

"Being fair, this is not the biggest lie anyone's told in our relationship," Tony said.

"Are those bullet holes?" came a voice from behind Steve. Pepper was standing on bottom step. She looked from Tony to Steve and back.

"I just got here myself," Steve said.

"There's a rational explanation for this," Tony said.

Pepper pointed over her shoulder. "I'm going to go upstairs and make myself a tequila sunrise."

"Ooh! Make a pitcher!" Tony called.

Steve crossed his arms as Pepper retreated.

"You shouldn't be down here in bare feet," Tony continued, as the robots managed to get the leg armor off him. "There's glass everywhere."

"You shouldn't be down here in what looks like half a Ferrari riddled with bullet holes," Steve said. "What the hell's going on, Tony? JARVIS won't say where you've been, you didn't come to bed last night. Were you down here testing prototypes? Please God tell me you didn't give Dummy a gun to test the tensile -- "

"I went to Gulmira," Tony said. Steve blinked at him. "I've been working on a new version of the armor I built to get out of the caves."

"What armor? Tony, what -- "

"I didn't tell anyone," Tony continued. There was a feverish light in his eyes. "I didn't want to talk about it in case it didn't work. I built -- ow, JARVIS -- "

"Please hold your chest still, Sir," JARVIS interjected.

"I built a suit of armor to escape from the caves, with crazy-ass flamethrowers and boot jets and shit," Tony continued. Steve couldn't figure out if he was watching a nervous breakdown or a genius at work. "I thought -- I thought maybe it could be -- for search and rescue."

Steve scowled. "You thought bullshit. You built something fun and it got wrecked so you decided to rebuild it just to see if you could."

Tony shrugged at him, unrepentant.

"It flies?" Steve asked. Tony nodded. "How fast?"

"Mach 2 sustained. Mach 3 in bursts," Tony said. "Got to Afghanistan in four and a half hours."

"You got to..." Steve rubbed his face with his hands. "I'm so proud of you and so incredibly ready to strangle you."

"That's a very familiar feeling amongst my people," Tony pointed out. "You're actually late to the game if this is your first time with that emotion."

"What did you do in Gulmira, Tony?" Steve asked through his hands.

"I blew up all the Stark weapons I could get my hands on, as well as a couple of tanks," Tony said. "I took out an entire cell of the Ten Rings."

Steve ran his hands back through his hair, wishing he wasn't in his pyjamas for this conversation.

"I liberated a town, Steve. I liberated Yinsen's home," Tony said. "And I fixed one of my fuck-ups."

"How on Earth is this your -- " Steve asked, and then stopped. "The Stark weapons."

Tony nodded, climbing down off the platform. "I'm not sorry."

Steve sighed. "I wouldn't expect you to be."

"You'd have done the same. You especially, Secret Agent Man."

"I have done the same, Tony, but I had training," Steve said. He couldn't walk forward, not unless he wanted to cut himself up on the glass. "It's my job to run that kind of operation. You're not a soldier or a secret agent, you're a..."

"A civilian?" Tony suggested, mouth curving upwards mirthlessly. "I was piloting jets when I was twelve. I was sharpshooting with trained snipers when I was fourteen. I designed my first bomb when I was eighteen. I was so young I don't even remember designing my first small arms. I know what I'm doing. And even if I didn't, you couldn't stop me. Rhodey already tried. With fighters."

"When?" Steve asked, distracted.

"About two hours ago. He's coming over this afternoon to have a look at the armor." Tony eyed Steve uncertainly. "So if you're going, you should go sooner rather than later."

"Going -- Tony, I'm not leaving you, I just can't walk over there because I have no shoes on!" Steve yelled. "Even if I wanted to leave you right now, and let's just be clear that I do not, your stupid butt needs me now even more than you used to! And you were quite frankly a mess when we met!"

Tony's smile warmed a little. "My stupid butt, huh?"

"I swear to God, if you don't come over here I'm going to throw something at you," Steve threatened. Tony crunched across the glass, still wearing the -- Jesus, the jet boots, and Steve pulled Tony's head down to his shoulder. He was even taller in the armor, which was very unfair.

"You have bullet holes in your new doodad," he said shakily.

"But none in my body, so I'm counting this as a Day Without A Safety Incident," Tony replied.

***

They spent the morning quietly, the blowup in the workshop notwithstanding. Tony hadn't slept in almost thirty-six hours, so Steve settled on the couch with Tony's head in his lap and held him down every time he tried to get up until he finally fell asleep. Once he was sure Tony was far down in sleep -- he did sleep like the dead once he finally crashed -- he and a slightly tipsy Pepper exchanged notes about Obadiah.

"He's always made me uneasy," she said, sitting in a nearby chair, tablet on her lap. "And he's not always nice to Tony. I mean, I'm not always nice to Tony, but that's for his own good. It seems like Obie's sometimes just mean for the sake of it."

"Why is he here, anyway?" Steve asked. "I mean -- who made the call to bring him into SI? Not Tony, Tony doesn't need help. Ever. Even when he does."

Pepper made a face. "You learn to live with it, or you go."

"I'm not going anywhere."

"Good. Too many people have gone already," she said, and Steve ran his fingers through Tony's hair. "Howard brought Obadiah in. Before my time. Tony was...thirteen? Ish? I don't know all the details, but Howard was an older man when Tony was born. Tony says Howard wanted a bridge in place in case Tony was too young to run the company when he died. Which turned out to be prescient, I suppose," she added. "With what little I know of Howard, I think he thought Tony wouldn't be as ruthless as SI needed him to be."

"He wasn't wrong."

"He didn't seem to think that was a good thing," Pepper said.

"Howard Stark was involved in the founding of SHIELD. It's no secret in the organization," Steve said. "But people don't talk about him much. You hear he helped build it, but you never hear what he did. Not like the other founders. He's not a hero at SHIELD. There are rumors he left because of some scandal, but SHIELD's had SI contracts continuously since the start, so it had to be personal, not professional. Between what you've said and what Tony carefully hasn't said, I don't think I have a very high opinion of Howard."

"I think he tried to give Tony every advantage he could. I'm just not sure Tony wanted or needed some of them," Pepper said. "And Obadiah...what, he's definitely trying to take over SI, probably tried to have Tony killed?"

Steve nodded.

"I know you're technically a law enforcement officer," Pepper said, "but you're a nice guy, Steve, so I'm trusting you're not going to report me when I offer you a hundred thousand dollars to kill Obadiah Stane and make it look like an accident."

"Where would you get a hundred thousand dollars?"

"Petty cash," she said with a smile. "Why, did I low-ball you?"

"I could do it for free," Steve replied. "But I don't think I will. I want to see the law get him -- I want him executed for treason. I want to walk into SI with a warrant for his arrest, give a press conference about Tony Stark cooperating with SHIELD in an investigative sting resulting in treason charges against Obadiah Stane, and then I want to testify at his trial. I don't like how much I want it to hurt," he admitted, "but I'm going to make his humiliation as legal and long-lasting as I possibly can."

"Good," Pepper said softly.

They were silent after that, Pepper working on her tablet, Steve enjoying the silence and calm, knowing it couldn't last. Still, when it finally did break, it was because Rhodey arrived from the airport in a car driven by Peggy, which was a nice surprise. Steve woke Tony when JARVIS gave them the five-minute warning, and he was reasonably lucid by the time they arrived.

"Hey, Captain America," Rhodey said, slapping Steve on the arm as they shook hands. "You taking care of business?"

"Doing my best," Steve said, stepping aside so Rhodey could greet Tony as well. They hadn't been on good terms, lately; Steve didn't know what had gone down, but Rhodey was responsible for Stark Industry defense contracts on the military end, so Tony's little surprise shutdown had probably put a crimp in Rhodey's career. Hopefully not permanent; he was still a PR darling for saving Tony in the first place.

"I notice you showed up in time for lunch," Tony said, looking only mildly surly.

"Hey, screw lunch, I want to see the suit," Rhodey replied with a broad smile, and Tony's hesitant smile back did a lot to put Steve at ease.

"You're looking well," Peggy told him, as they followed Tony and Rhodey down the stairs to the workshop. "California agrees with you. I see you're keeping up the tan."

"Doing my best. It's good to see you, Peggy," Steve said.

"Feeling a little unmoored, are we?" she asked, patting his shoulder. "Coulson thought you sounded strained."

"Little bit," Steve agreed. He hitched himself up onto one of the worktables, watching Tony introduce Rhodey to the armor. The bots had swept up the glass as best they could, but the place still looked pretty trashed. Peggy leaned against the table, arms crossed.

"So this is the infamous workshop. I expected more robots, to be honest," she said.

"They're charging," Steve replied absently.

"Are you taking the piss?"

"I would never. I'll introduce you later, they're nice." Steve nudged her with his shoulder. "But you didn't come all the way out to California to drive Rhodey here and meet some robots."

"No. Coulson and Natasha weren't comfortable conveying certain information over the telephone," she said. "Though really there's nothing concrete to report."

"Pretty sure they could have texted that," Steve pointed out.

"Officially, Natasha can't find any information on Hydra that isn't available in Hitler-conspiracy books written by, and I use this term very precisely, nut jobs," Peggy said. "And if there were to be an official record, which there will not, it would reflect that. Your verbal report to Coulson regarding Hydra, Steve, is considered null and void, a nonentity. Your information will not be noted in SHIELD's database or in any written material."

"Wow," Steve said. "Unofficially, what did they find that blew up in their faces that hard?"

"Natasha and Clint are now on a long-term off-book operation," Peggy said. "Coulson's approved it, but they can't even tell me much. They believe that Hydra is still active, which sounds even more tin-hat than the conspiracy theorists, but -- "

"Natasha doesn't act without intel," Steve said.

"I think, just from what she and Clint have said, that they've found Hydra are trying to infiltrate it. I don't know how; they're not undercover so far as I know. They're taking other SHIELD jobs in the meantime. I think this is going to be a long haul, Steve."

"Not if I can crack Obadiah Stane," Steve said. "I'm sure he's involved."

"Better check his mouth this time."

"Low blow, Peggy."

She smiled sidelong at him. "Well, one has to aim low, with you."

He gave her the most expressive eyeroll he was capable of. "Never heard that one before."

"It's good to see you too, you know," she said. "You seem happy. Even with all that's gone on. Sam and Bucky send their love. Bucky's bereft without your constant harassment."

"He should miss me, I'm good for him," Steve sniffed. He watched Rhodey try on one of the gloves to the armor, and barely flinched when it shot a beam of light across the workshop and charred the opposite wall. Peggy sighed.

"You know, Coulson wanted a report on Stark's mental state. He asked me to do it so you wouldn't have to," she said. "I've no idea what I'll tell him."

"Tell Coulson that he's recovering better than most, or he's repressing, and either way, he's fine," Steve said.

"Is he fine?"

"What's not fine isn't fixable right now," Steve said. "He's functional. He's -- he's been Bucky-fine. You remember Bucky when he was about two months back from the last tour?"

Peggy nodded. Bucky had been fine, everything had been fine, fine fine fine, until Steve -- who had seen through the fine -- took him to a group meeting at the VA that Sam was running. And then nothing had been fine for quite a while.

But after, he'd been better. And Steve didn't think Tony needed the sharp shock Bucky had -- or maybe he had needed it, and the armor had done it for him already.

"He's okay." Steve nodded at Tony, who was carefully placing the suit's helmet on Rhodey's head. "Tell Coulson I said he's okay."

"Good enough for me."

They were silent for a few minutes, watching Tony and Rhodey work, while Steve summoned his courage.

"I don't think I ever talked to you much about Erskine," he said. "I mean, we talked about him, obviously, but...did I tell you what he said to me when he was qualifying me for training?"

"If you did, I don't remember it," she said. "I know what he said about you. He certainly thought you were something special, or he wouldn't have assigned you to me."

"On the...third or fourth medical consult, when he was still trying to convince SHIELD I was qualified," Steve said, "I asked him why he was even bothering. It's not like there weren't better guys out there for the job. Most of the people in the cohort had at least six inches and forty pounds on me, male or female."

"Well, you've amply proved yourself since."

"But neither of us knew that at the time. And he told me SHIELD didn't just need strong fighters. He said SHIELD needed genuinely good men and women."

"Oh, well, I got that speech myself," she said.

"But he also said..." Steve furrowed his brow, remembering. Erskine had been a unique man in many ways, and he'd made a large impression in the few months between recruiting Steve and being shot on a field mission he should never have taken. "He said that I'd be ready by the time SHIELD needed me."

"Ready for what?" Peggy asked.

"He didn't say. I asked. He just said I'd know when the time came."

"Well, he was a futurist," she said thoughtfully. "He could hardly have predicted all this, though. It's not like even the best computer model could account for you asking for Tony Stark's phone number in a random bar on a bet, Steve."

"No, but a good model might have predicted Tony being taken. And there's a link to SHIELD somewhere in all this," Steve said. "Erskine might have -- he might have been hand-picking people to act within SHIELD, for whatever reason."

"A defense agency within a defense agency?" Peggy asked. "Made up of half a dozen people?"

"I don't know. I can't quite see the shape of it. There are puzzle pieces missing," Steve said. "But he assigned me to you, and he put both of us under Coulson along with Natasha and Clint, and he must have known Natasha would train me. He recruited Clint, didn't he?"

"And Clint flipped Natasha -- which was an assignment Erskine gave to Coulson before he died," Peggy said. "Quite the little legion he was building. Erskine always did fancy himself a kingmaker."

"Did he recruit Coulson?"

"No, but he mentored him. Not Fury, but Fury's friend..." Peggy looked troubled. "He and Maria Hill were close, too."

"Is any of this even actionable? It's all just speculation."

"I'll mention it to Clint. He's a good big-picture man, and he's getting Natasha's intel too. Don't bring it up to Coulson."

"I have my hands full enough already," Steve said, as sparks flew from where Tony and Rhodey were disassembling a boot.

***

Peggy spent most of the afternoon catching Steve up on less serious SHIELD gossip, while Rhodey put Tony through his paces. Steve was willing to admit that while he loved Tony perhaps more intently than he should, it was a relief to have someone else for Tony to work out his genius on.

Pepper left before dinner; Steve dug some steaks out of the fridge and grilled on the balcony overlooking the ocean, shamelessly luring Tony out of his cave with the promise of fresh hot food. It was the first time he'd spent any real time with Rhodey when both of them weren't taking part in an active manhunt, and Tony had never really seen the two of them interact; Steve caught him watching them at times, a half-smile on his face.

"You and Rhodey get along well," Tony remarked, once Peggy and Rhodey left for the night, Rhodey with a promise to return in a few days to talk handling on the armor.

"Yeah," Steve said, leaning on the balcony railing, watching the last few minutes of the sunset. "He's a good guy. I think he appreciated the respect he got from my people when we were looking for you."

"You didn't want to take over?"

"I wanted to, but he was the best man for the job. I mean, he and Bucky served in the region, and Sam and Peggy had done rescue flights there too. So it was really just me and Clint and Natasha who didn't know what we were doing, and given Natasha's history, really just me and Clint." He glanced sidelong at Tony. "I don't like politics and that attitude has kept me back in SHIELD, but it means my missions go smoothly and my people get home safely. Rhodey was the guy who could do that for you. I was just glad SHIELD didn't keep me stateside."

"What would you have done if they had?"

"Cut and run. Natasha could get us into the country without external support. We'd have come and found you, Tony."

Tony nodded, leaning next to him, a half-empty bottle of beer in one hand.

"I will always come and find you," Steve added. Tony was silent. "All right, come on, you've still got sleep debt to catch up on, time for bed. Especially if you're going to spend all day tomorrow hammering bullet dents out of the armor and writing a training module."

"A training module?" Tony asked, raising an eyebrow as he followed him inside. "Rhodey put you up to saying that?"

"No, though training him isn't a bad idea either. I want suit training," Steve said, setting their plates in the sink. "Eventually, I'd like you to put me in the armor. Might have to take the legs in a little," he added. "Maybe my own suit, we can talk about that."

"Why?" Tony asked, sounding baffled.

"Because you don't care about your own safety, but if I'm in the armor, you'll know exactly where the weak points are," Steve said, turning around.

"Touche," Tony agreed. "Do you really want one of your own?"

"No; I think it'll cut my maneuverability, and I don't think SHIELD should have the immediate access to the suit they'd demand if I was in one for the job," Steve said. "But I want you to make it safe. If I'm in one for testing, it'll be safe. That'll translate back to you."

Tony nodded, eyes dark.

"Bed, now," Steve said gently, hooking his fingers in Tony's belt and towing him towards the bedroom. Tony shed his shirt halfway there, stepped out of his shoes on the threshhold, and got his arms around Steve's waist, lifting; Steve quashed his first instinct, which was to kick back and break his attacker's nose, and instead braced his hands on Tony's arms, twisting his head around to nip the tendons of his throat. Tony dumped him on the bed and he rolled, wriggling out of his khakis, letting Tony help him with his shirt.

"You always get possessive after Peggy's been around," Steve told him, letting Tony straddle him. He wrapped his left hand around Tony's neck from behind, fingers of his right hand resting against the arc reactor. It hummed warmly. "You know she's not carrying a torch for me, right? Or vice versa."

"Indulge me."

"She's got a casual thing with a barista in New York, Angie something -- and she's got her eye on Rhodey," Steve continued, as Tony untangled his hands and held them above his head. Once Steve had demonstrated how a little guy like him could put a big guy like Tony on his ass from this position, and Tony had...he'd seemed to like that. The idea that anything he did to Steve was something Steve allowed, not something he simply couldn't stop. "No offense to Rhodey, but God help him if they decide to team up on him."

"Stop talking about Peggy Carter," Tony said.

"Jealous?" Steve asked with a grin, lifting his legs to wrap around Tony's waist. He twisted just hard enough to unbalance Tony, forcing him to let go of his wrists in order to catch himself. "I make my own choices. I'm stubborn that way. Peggy and I weren't good for each other."

Tony sat back, head bowing, eyes dropping. Steve pushed himself up on his elbows.

"And we are?" Tony asked, and Steve's heart just about broke.

"Yes, of course we are. You make me happy, you've opened up my world. And obviously I'm really good for you," he added with a grin. Tony's smile spread a little more slowly, but he leaned forward and eased down until most of his weight was on Steve's chest and hips, pinning him to the blankets.

"Please don't leave me," Tony said.

"No, I won't," Steve assured him, pressing their foreheads together. "Nobody's leaving you, Tony, not me or Pepper or Rhodey. I swear."

"I have more work to do -- my weapons are still out there," Tony said. "I'm going to destroy them. I'm going to find them and fuck them up. I need to know you're in."

"I'm in. I just want you to tell me next time," Steve said.

"Okay," Tony said, kissing him. "Okay, deal."

"Good," Steve said, and rolled them until he was on top. "Now, back in the present, tell me if you like this..."

***

Steve woke the following morning at peace with the world, Tony's warm, solid body curled around him, big broad hand resting on his hip, breath soft against the back of his head. He tightened the blanket that was tucked around his shoulders, and got a huff of laughter from Tony.

"You awake?" Tony asked.

"Just barely," Steve replied.

"Go back to sleep if you want."

"Nnh. Enjoying the warmth."

"How have you ever survived a New York winter?" Tony asked. "You should stay out here with me forever. Temperature never gets below fifty degrees."

"I like Brooklyn. Besides, all my friends are there," Steve said. "I think we should go back, once all this ugliness is over. Even if it's just to visit."

"Yeah, maybe," Tony agreed. His body had tensed, though, and Steve knew he'd ruined the moment.

"Speaking of all this ugliness..." he prompted. Tony sighed and kissed the back of his head. "You've been awake for a while? Making plans?"

"Yep."

"Gonna share?"

"Kind of have to," Tony said. "They're plans for you."

"For me?"

"You and Pepper. I need your help."

"Doing what?"

Tony tightened his arm. "I'm locked out of SI, but Pepper isn't. Obie doesn't know she has full administrative access -- the systems literally think she's a CEO. And she has physical access to the building."

"What's your plan?"

"I want you to escort Pepper into Stark Industries, to my office. There's an encrypted connection to the SI mainframe. I need her to find wherever Obie's stashing his double-bookkeeping. This isn't a drug deal on a street corner -- if he's selling to terrorists, he needs to track payments, money laundering, bribes, smugglers' fees, wire transfers. Obie's not old school, he'll keep it somewhere digital, and he'll keep it on the Stark servers."

"Why would he be that stupid?"

"He knows I wouldn't think to look, and he knows anyone outside the company can't get in. I wrote the security protocols on our mainframe. Even JARVIS can't get in or he would have already. It's not for lack of trying."

"So Pepper goes in, uses her access to find his records, gets out. Then what?"

"Then I use the records to find my bombs, and I blow them up in place," Tony said.

"I was really hoping you'd say, then I give them to you and SHIELD arrests Obadiah Stane for high treason," Steve said reproachfully.

"That too. But if that happens, the bombs disappear. Or they go into international legal limbo and they're out there for years while SI tries to get them back. I have to hit them first. There can't be that many or this would have blown open long before now. I just need a little time to take them down. SHIELD can have him when I'm done."

Steve considered this, trying to see it from Tony's angle, from Pepper's -- Rhodey's too, and Coulson's. SHIELD wouldn't like a civilian getting up to that amount of international political violence, but then again SHIELD would approve of the efficiency of Tony's solution. If he didn't do it, they might send someone themselves. Hell, they might send Steve.

"Pepper's not going to like it," he said finally. "She thinks you're going to get yourself killed."

"Maybe I am," Tony replied, so calmly that Steve felt a chill.

"Do you want to die, Tony?" he asked carefully.

"No, I don't want to, but I'm not afraid to. This is bigger than me. I'd think you'd understand that."

"I do. But I work in a job where I'm trained to be concerned when one of my colleagues stops being willing to die and starts being eager."

"I'm not eager to die. I just think -- " Tony bit off whatever he was going to say. Steve waited until it was evident he wasn't going to continue, and then inhaled.

"When I was young -- really young, two or three -- I had a terrible fever," he said. "My ma thought I was going to die. So did most of the doctors. The fact that I didn't die never seemed that important to me until I was older, because as far as I knew I was always teetering on disaster. Until I hit puberty I was sick so much. Bronchitis nearly every year, pneumonia some years. If there was a rare flu strain flying around, I caught it. I had asthma, I was allergic to everything. When I was eleven I asked Ma if I was going to live to grow up, because I honestly didn't know. She said she knew I was and I asked how."

"What'd she say?" Tony asked.

"She said she knew I would survive because I was destined for great things. She said God lets a lot of babies die and no one knows why, but He wouldn't have saved me from the fever if He didn't have a great purpose for me. And I mean...I'm not devout or anything, I don't know if it was God who did it, but -- "

"I can't have survived for the rest of my life to mean nothing," Tony said. "Yinsen told me not to waste it. As he was dying he told me not to waste my life."

"And sometimes not wasting it means risking it," Steve said. "But risking your life to finish the job doesn't mean recklessly endangering it."

"I'm not suicidal, Steve. I just know what my life is for."

"Good. Then I will help you."

"What did she think your purpose was?" Tony asked. "Your mother. What did she think you were meant to do?"

"I don't think she cared," Steve said. "It was enough for her that I was alive. She died before I knew either, but I guess she'd probably have let me work it out for myself anyway."

"Would she approve?"

"Of SHIELD? I don't know. She wouldn't approve of how long I lied to you about it. Might not approve of you," he added with a grin Tony couldn't see. "But for Ma there was a big difference between approval and affection. It took her years to approve of Bucky, but she loved him the minute she met him."

"How's that work?"

"Who knows? Complicated lady, my Ma. She'd love the Doodad, though."

"Don't call it the Doodad, we're not calling it the Doodad," Tony insisted.

"Well, it's shorter than Thingamajig."

"It's a repulsor-aided individual defensive combat-oriented prosthetic."

Steve worked this out. "You're calling it RAID COP?"

"Best backronym I could come up with."

"You think RAID COP is better than the Doodad?"

"Raid Cop sounds awesome."

"Raid Cop sounds like a c-list comic book superhero someone invented in the fifties and they're trying to make cool and relevant again."

Tony tugged the pillow out from under Steve's head and hit him with it. "You're making breakfast, my tiny murderous nerd."

"I always make breakfast, because you're a spoiled brat who can't cook," Steve replied, tossing the pillow over his shoulder. "While I make breakfast, you get me some floorplans for SI so I can plot a few routes in case of emergency."

"Yeah, yeah, make me look bad by actually planning things," Tony said, rolling out of the bed. "I have to write the program to find Obie's stash, too. Jesus, I will never get over how easily you bruise."

"Hm?" Steve asked, sitting up. He glanced down at his thighs, which were spotted with purple-blue bruises where Tony had gripped them. "I like them. Nicest bruises I get."

"I'd prefer you not get any."

"Go wash and get me some floorplans and I'll make you an omelette," Steve ordered. Tony saluted and disappeared into the bathroom.

***

Pepper was every bit as apprehensive about this plan -- both her role, and Tony's larger goals -- as Steve expected. Steve tried to be quietly, unobtrusively reassuring. Eventually she did look from Tony to him, then back, and said, "This is removing the chest magnet all over again, isn't it?"

"I probably won't have heart failure if you don't get the files," Tony said.

"Not helping," Steve sing-songed under his breath. "This is low-risk for you," he pointed out to her, because he wasn't that great at navigating complex emotions, but he knew how to mitigate risk aversion. "I'll be there if anything goes wrong, but there's no reason anyone should even suspect anything."

She sighed. "When do we do this?"

Tony tossed her the flash drive that he'd loaded with the search program. "Soon as you're ready."

"Gives us less time to get nervous," Steve said.

"Yeah, you look really nervous," Pepper replied.

"I'm a very good liar," Steve told her. Tony smirked.

"Okay, let's go commit corporate espionage," she said. "You're driving."

"You're gonna regret that!" Tony called after them, as Steve followed her out.

Steve thought he drove very sedately, taking Pepper along the coast towards SI's headquarters. He wasn't expecting perfect poise when they walked in, but she went up to the security desk, got him a visitor's badge ("He's helping me take some of Tony's desk toys home"), and led him calmly through the building to Tony's office.

"That was slick," he said to her, as they left the elevator.

"I lie to people for Tony all the time," she replied. "That's not what worries me."

"Then what worries you?"

"Obadiah," she said softly, and Steve nodded. They passed an empty desk, and Pepper badged the door behind it open.

"I'm going to stay here," Steve said. "If anyone asks, you didn't want me rummaging in Tony's stuff while you're trying to pack. If anyone comes by, I'll ping your phone and stall them."

She nodded and swept inside, and Steve tossed himself down into the empty desk chair, tossing his feet up on the desk and taking out his phone. He swept his thumb over the screen, pretending to play a twitch game while he watched people come and go -- not many on the executive floor, but enough that he wanted to be alert and aware. Some of them looked curiously at him, others knowingly.

One of them must have called Obadiah Stane, because the man looked a hundred percent unsurprised to see him when he came lumbering down the hallway.

Steve hit the button to alert Pepper, eased his legs off the desk, and stood to greet him, gently blocking the doorway.

"Agent Rogers," Obadiah said, all geniality. "Enjoying a little SI hospitality this afternoon?"

"Mr. Stane, nice to see you again. I heard the cafeteria here is great, I thought I'd try it out," Steve replied. "Pepper said she'd get me on her employee discount."

Obadiah laughed. "Well, we do what we can. Is she around?"

"Yeah, she's just packing up a couple of Tony's things. Toy cars or something."

"Tony does love his toys," Obadiah said. It was a little pointed for his nice-uncle act, but meaner bastards had said worse. Steve didn't blink.

"Some more than others," he agreed blandly. "Did you need Pepper? It's just Tony's expecting us back as soon as we eat."

"No, no, just heard she was here and wanted a word," Obadiah replied, moving forward, not so much around Steve as through him. Steve made a split-second call not to try and block the door -- that would be actually suspicious -- and stepped out of his way.

"Knock yourself out. I'm not allowed inside," he said.

"Company data security policy," Obadiah said. "You understand, I'm sure."

"SI is full of all kinds of secrets," Steve said, and Obadiah ignored him as he passed into the office. He saw, just before it closed, Pepper seated at Tony's desk, holding some kind of useless office ornament.

"So, what are we going to do about this?" he heard Obadiah ask, and then the door swung shut.

It was a harrowing three or four minutes, after that, but Steve knew there were no other exits from Tony's office, and Obadiah wouldn't kill her knowing he was out here waiting. He wished he'd been able to bring a gun. SI security might have wanted to wand him, so all he had was a set of ceramic-and-plastic knives and his fists.

Worst case, he reminded himself, he and Pepper were escorted off-property without the information they came for. He could defend them from anyone up to about five guys, and he didn't think SI security was likely to be an elite unit.

The door opened, and Steve heaved an internal sigh of relief as Pepper, and Pepper alone, appeared.

"Get everything?" he asked, and she put an open carton of junk in his hands.

"Yep," she said, and then in an undertone, "walk fast, he's going to see what I did if he takes the computer off screensaver."

"Got it," Steve murmured, hustling ahead of her towards the elevators.

They made it all the way to the front lobby of SI before a security officer stopped them.

"Ms. Potts, there's been an issue with your ID," he said, rising from his seat at the lobby desk. Steve checked his hands, saw that one of them was on a taser at his belt, noticed his partner coming around the other side of the desk to block their exit, and moved as fast as he dared.

He flipped the box full of junk over, hoping there was nothing particularly valuable in it, spilling executive toys all over the floor. Some of them shattered, while others bounced and rolled away.

"Crap!" he said, and then handed the now-empty box to the guard, who took his hand off his taser to accept it automatically. "I'm so sorry, I'll pick it up -- "

He punched the guard holding the box in the face, two quick jabs that sent him falling backwards. With his left hand he grabbed the taser and with his right hand he took the box back, swinging it around to clock the other guard in the head while he tased the first one. He knelt on the second one's neck as he yanked his handcuffs out, then flipped and cuffed him while the first guy was still jerking his way to unconsciousness. Several people, stunned by the sudden violence, began to scream and flee.

Steve cuffed the other guard, pulled the guns off their belts, hooked himself a billy club with his foot, and shoved both guns in his pockets, grabbing Pepper's hand.

"Security won't be far behind us, come on," he said, pulling her along a now-deserted hallway, deeper into the building.

"Shouldn't we be going the other way?" she asked breathlessly.

"If the guards at the front were meant to stall us, someone's already told the gate guys," he said. "I have an internal contingency plan."

"Which is what, exactly?" she asked, as he made a sharp turn after the third door and burst into an empty office.

"No security cameras on the manufacturing floor," he said, passing through an interior door and into the roar of the manufacturing plant. Stane had mandated no cameras in manufacturing or, more vitally, in the physical plant where the oversized arc reactors pumped power to the rest of the campus. Too many industry secrets, Tony had said.

Lots of shenanigans to get up to if nobody's watching, Steve had replied.

"Give me your phone," he yelled over the clang of the machinery. Pepper handed it to him and he popped the battery out as they sidled down a narrow alley off the main corridor of the plant. He handed the pieces back to her and then disabled his own phone, carefully counting stairwells up to the second level until he hit the last one. He led her up to the landing, shot out the lock on the fire door on the landing, and then continued up the steps to the second level. Hopefully, if anyone did search the plant, they'd find the door damaged and assume he and Pepper had bolted through a fire escape.

On the second level, he found the ladder he was looking for, recessed into a back wall, cleverly hidden so that it was only visible from a single corner of the catwalk. Cold war paranoia at its finest.

The ladder took them down three flights, below the SI sub-basement, to a location that wasn't on the expansion plans Tony had given him but was on the original building design sketches once they'd dug those out.

He walked past a huge vault door next to the ladder and stepped through the round doorway, clicking the emergency lights on as Pepper was still descending. Dim yellow illumination filled the room, and ancient ventilation fans creaked to life.

It was a large chamber, lined with bed frames at one end, benches and tables at the other. Along one wall were shelves and shelves of expired food. Dust-caked linens sat in bins nearby.

"What the hell...?" Pepper asked, coming up behind him.

"The Stark Industries bomb shelter," Steve said, his voice echoing in the space. "Designed to house and feed the entire population of Stark Industries, circa 1963, in the event of a nuclear holocaust. I will say this, Howard Stark was not even close to screwing around when it came to the Cold War."

"Oh my God, this is -- did Tony know this was here?"

"Apparently he'd forgotten. Obadiah probably never knew." Steve reached out to gently coax her inside, then started to turn the wheel to close the vault door. "I don't like running myself into a dead end, but at least we have a chance to regroup before we try to run for it."

"How do we do that?" Pepper asked, sitting on one of the benches. She looked pale and shaken, but he didn't think their crazy run at freedom was entirely why.

"Stark Industries is probably going to lock down," Steve said. "But you can't just keep the entire staff imprisoned here overnight because Tony Stark's boyfriend assaulted a security guard. Obadiah wants this kept quiet. He's going to have the campus searched but when he comes up empty, he's going to let his people go home. He's going to leave when they do. There'll be guards here, watching our car, watching the exits, but once he leaves, we have a shot. What we really need is to get just far enough outside the plant to call for help."

"Steve, the things on Obadiah's ghost drive..." Pepper shook her head.

"What? What did you find?"

"Plans for something like the armor Tony built," she said. "And a video...Obie hired the Ten Rings to kill Tony. The only reason they didn't is that they got greedy and tried to raise their price. There was this video of him..."

She swallowed, clenching the drive tightly in one hand. He sat down next to her, wrapping an arm around her shoulder, taking the drive from her fingers gently.

"You did great," he said, tucking it into a snap-pocket in the knife band up his shirtsleeve.

"You didn't see him, he was -- "

"Pepper, it's in the past. I got him out of Afghanistan, didn't I? I promise you, I will get him out of this, too. I'll get us out of this. I've been in worse spots."

"When?" she asked.

He smiled. "That's classified, but trust me. I have four fully functional limbs, two guns, and you; I've been in much worse spots. Besides," he added, leaning back and reaching for a large white box on one of the shelves, "We've got a lifetime supply of Lucky Strikes."

She looked down at the cigarette carton, dusty and several decades old, and let out a laugh.

***

When JARVIS told him that Stark Industries was locked down, Tony checked the news, but there was nothing; no reports about any kind of incident at the factory, no police scanner notifications. His corporate email account had an all-staff notice that security was conducting drills and searches in the building, but nothing more. No messages from Steve or Pepper, and when he tried to call them, they both went to voicemail.

He tried not to worry. Steve had spent almost the entire day memorizing the Stark Industries ground plans, working out escape routes and safe hiding places. If he hadn't heard from them, that was good. It meant they hadn't been caught. Yet.

He had to be patient. He couldn't put the armor on and go destroy his own company. He couldn't tip his hand, not until he knew for sure they were in danger. Steve would be so furious if he did. They'd planned for this. He had to stick to the plan.

When his phone rang at six o'clock that night and Pepper's name came up, Tony snatched the phone off the table.

"Pepper, Jesus, what the hell happened?" he asked, but instead of an answer he heard a high, building whine.

His limbs seized up; his neck and jaw locked, and someone took the phone out of his hand. He flicked his eyes as far to one side as he could, desperate to turn his head, and saw the edge of Obie's face out of the corner of his vision.

"Breathe," Obie said, voice low and soothing as Tony's balance failed and he tipped backwards. A warm hand clutched his neck, Obie's other hand on his shoulder, lowering him to the sofa. "Easy, easy."

His head was twisted away from Obie, painfully, and a small device was held in front of his eyes.

"You remember this one, right?" Obie asked. And Tony did; when he was seventeen, after his parents died, he kept having dreams where he couldn't move, and the grief counselor Obie got him said it was sleep paralysis. He'd explained the theories behind it, the neurology of REM sleep, and little teenaged MIT golden boy Tony had instantly seen how a defense company might monetize the idea. R&D had taken three years to produce the paralysis machine from Tony's initial idea, but the government wouldn't buy it. Obie had been furious at everyone, including Tony.

"Is that what you're gonna give me?" he'd demanded. "Expensive failures, Tony?"

Tony had turned around and taken control of SI away from him, in revenge, which had been the start of immense growth at SI and a long, slow spiral for its CEO...

Obie tilted his head back to the front, into his face, breath stinking of cigars and onions. "You know, when I ordered the first hit on you, I worried that I was killing the golden goose."

He disappeared from view, and Tony heard the mechanical squeal of some other device being activated.

"When I ordered the hit on you in the airplane, well, that was just vengeful and petty. I'm man enough to admit that," Obie continued.

A side effect of the short-term paralysis, Tony knew, was flashbacks; it was basically artificially induced hypnagogia. Every time Obie spoke, the world blurred for a moment. Memories flashed up and vanished -- the stiffness of the shirt collar on his suit the day he met Obie for the first time when he was nine; the way Obie had stayed in Cambridge longer than Dad had, to help him settle in at MIT when he was fifteen; Obie explaining girls to him when he was twelve -- Obie's grave, concerned face when Tony asked what he knew about boys, and the tacit agreement they'd made never to bring that up to Howard or Mom...

Obie pressed the machine to his chest and Tony felt his body jerk helplessly as it gripped the reactor. Obie must have disabled JARVIS; Tony had written a panic protocol into him weeks ago, a specific set of instructions for what to do if the reactor was tampered with, but JARVIS was silent.

"Do you really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?" Obie asked him. "Your father, he helped give us the atomic bomb. What kind of world would it be today if he was as selfish as you? We'd all be speaking Japanese."

Tony wanted to scream, inhaled like he could, and then choked on saliva at the back of his throat.

"You've made something beautiful, Tony," Obadiah said, and then he pulled, and Tony felt the comforting thrum of the magnet die to nothing as the reactor was disconnected. Pain began to trickle through his chest. "This is your legacy. A new generation of weapons with this at its heart? We'll steer the world onto a new course, a better course. I'm not a bad man, you know. I just understand that progress requires sacrifice. Sometimes of people we love," he added, and stroked Tony's hair. "I want to bring a little order to humanity, Tony. And order, like all truly useful things, comes from fear."

Tony fought the ringing in his ears, the rise of his blood pressure, as Obie tucked the reactor into a box.

"I don't appreciate you sending your bitch and your boyfriend to steal from me," Obie continued in that same calm voice. "But I'll find them soon enough. Shame about the boy; he would have made a fine recruit. Too bad all his loyalty's in his pants. And I liked Pepper. Selfish of you to involve them, son. Now I have to kill them both."

The latches on the box clicked, and Obie stood up.

"I'll see myself out," he said, and a few seconds later, Tony heard the front door shut.

He could feel the paralysis fading, but he could feel the shrapnel beginning to work its way through his chest as well -- the startling stabs of pain, the kick of adrenaline. That, at least, helped him wobble stiffly to his feet.

Obadiah didn't know he'd changed reactors, or that Pepper had mounted the old reactor in a case as a gift. Please God let him not know that there was a spare reactor in the workshop. If he could get to the workshop he could survive this, maybe long enough to warn Steve and Pepper --

One thing at a time. For now, he had to focus on the workshop, on reaching the reactor and restarting JARVIS. Steve and Pepper would have to defend themselves until he could get there.

At least, he thought grimly, Steve had a lot of experience in that.

***

When Tony answered Pepper's call but didn't respond, Steve knew they'd miscalculated. Obadiah must already have made it to the Malibu house.

Steve had cautiously crept out of the bomb shelter at half past five, but they'd still been searching the plant at that point. Once the search moved past the access ladder to the shelter, he'd given it fifteen minutes and then climbed up, followed by Pepper, and crept back through the plant to the nearest loading dock. They were there now, sheltered behind a dumpster, and while he'd been in more dangerous situations he had not often been in smellier ones.

"Call Rhodey," he told Pepper, as the SHIELD emergency line on his own phone rang. "Tell him and Peggy to meet us at SI. Obadiah will come back here. We need backup."

"Who are you calling?" Pepper asked, phone held to her ear.

"SHIELD has a field office in LA, they can send enough people to -- yes, this is Field Agent Steve Rogers, Counterintelligence," Steve said, as the SHIELD office picked up. "Callsign Nomad, badge identification number 332045. I have a major incident to report at Stark Industries. I need all available agents, off duty included."

By the time he'd convinced SHIELD to send a strike team, Pepper had hung up and was watching him nervously.

"What do we do?" she asked, as he checked the guns he'd taken off the guards.

"I want you to go back to the shelter," he said. "You're a civilian and I want you kept safe."

"Like hell," she said.

"Pepper -- "

"Look, I'm not a super secret spy agent but I have seen a lot of action movies and I know what happens when the team splits up," she said, and as much as he hated it, she had a point. For all the wrong reasons, but she did have a point.

"Did you see anything at all in the files that might tell me where to go to sabotage Stane?" he asked.

"Sector 16. He's building something there," she said.

"You know how to fire a weapon?"

She nodded, and took one of the guns when he offered it.

"Stay behind me, keep an eye on our six," he said, gun in one hand, club in the other. "If you see me engage someone, don't help. Just keep your head down and let me work."

The production floor was quiet and empty, now that the workday was over. With Tony's edict against weapons manufacture still technically in effect, the swing shift had been deactivated; the swing and graveyard shifts that normally would work the plant in full production were cancelled. Steve wondered if Tony knew two thirds of his plant staff were either out of work or reassigned elsewhere. That must have happened after Obadiah locked him out.

As they went, he reached out and plucked a round, shallow nose-cone component off the line, holding it in front of him like a shield, protecting them both at least a little against sudden attack.

Nothing came. They made it all the way to the exit doors leading into the administration wing before they hit trouble, in the form of guards on the door with big, proper assault rifles. Steve stopped, then passed the shield to Pepper and pointed to a curve in the wall. She tucked herself into it and made a worried face. He smiled reassuringly and then turned back to the guards.

Two minutes later, they were unconscious and mostly naked, and he was trussing them with their own zipties. He'd stuffed their undershirts in their mouths, loose enough that they could still breathe, tight enough they couldn't yell for help, and with Pepper's aid he dragged them into a corner. Pepper unconcernedly stripped down and pulled one of the uniforms on, settling the helmet on her head.

Even the shorter guard's pants were comically long on Steve.

"You can have my heels if you want," Pepper offered, as he stuffed the cuffs into the tops of his also-too-big boots and tied the laces around his calves. "You'd rock a nice pair of Manolos."

"You know, I am literally in the process of saving your life," Steve replied, picking up his makeshift shield again, one rifle strapped to his back, the other carried in ready position. "You could save the sass for when I genuinely deserve it."

"I'm grateful, I'm just making jokes so I won't start screaming," she said. "I had no idea you could move that fast."

"I'll try not to take the jokes personally, then," Steve told her. "Come on. When we walk through these doors either someone's gonna ask us why we left our post, or nobody's gonna ask us anything. We're going straight to Section 16, and once we clear it we're going to go meet Rhodey at the front gate and get him and Peggy through."

Section 16 was locked, and Pepper's card didn't get them through; Steve put her behind him, shot out the lock, and cleared the entryway before he let her in.

"He must have been skimming the books for years to make this place," she said, as Steve circled the lab, clearing the darker corners. "This is insane. How did he get away with it?"

"He didn't," Steve replied. "He's getting caught. Right now."

"Then how did he get away with it for as long as he did?"

Steve sighed, tapping a smartpane, watching as Obadiah's login came up. "I love Tony, and I don't blame him, but even before Afghanistan it was obvious to me that he spent a lot of time not wanting to see what SI was doing. And I can't imagine he spent a lot of time reading the bookkeeping."

"Well, you're not wrong," Pepper admitted.

"Hey Pepper?"

"Yes, Steve?"

"As an agent of federal and international law enforcement, if you see Obadiah Stane you have my permission to shoot him in the head. I'll testify at your trial that it was clearly in the best interests of the nation."

"Thank you, Steve, that's very sweet," she said, and then, "Hey, there's something -- "

Steve turned, and for a second his brain couldn't make sense of what he saw. It was the sheer scale of it, the brutal lines of a suit easily four times the size of the Doodad, like something out of a nightmare -- and it was unfolding from a crouch, preparing to advance on her.

"PEPPER, RUN!" he shouted, but she was already moving. His shout did draw the attention of the monster, which turned with humanlike curiosity towards him, raising an arm with rocket mounts and -- Jesus, the thing was bristling with automatic weapons --

Steve opened fire, but the assault rifles weren't going to stop that thing; a speeding train probably couldn't stop it. He saw Pepper dive for the doorway, saw the monster come hurtling past it, and knew she was safe; it was a good time to turn and run.

He clocked its speed as he dodged through the lab, trusting his instincts to take him towards safety. It was much, much faster than him on a sprint but it couldn't corner; it lost ground every time he turned. It was almost like a baby learning to walk still, or like someone learning a new navigational system --

Oh God.

Oh God, Obadiah Stane was inside it.

It was almost enough to make him turn and fight, but that would be suicidal. There was a door ahead and he shot it straight off its hinges, plowing through it, breaking out into the physical plant hangar where the huge, glowing arc reactor was housed. Stane didn't dare fire openly here, if he could even make it into the room --

The suit burst through the wall, and Steve opened fire again, emptying a full clip of the ifle from a position under the reactor.

There was a deep chuckling laugh from the armor.

"Is that all you've got, boy?" Stane asked, voice booming through loudspeakers set in the suit's shoulders.

Steve carefully, silently scuttled his way along the reactor, praying Stane didn't have thermal imaging in the suit, or at least didn't have it turned on. He slipped his knives out of their sheaths and into his palms, and then slunk carefully into the shadows next to the wall Stane had just come through.

He waited until Stane turned the other way, apparently searching for him, and then with a running leap he bounded off the remains of the wall and landed on the monster's back, knives catching in the wires on the exposed joints. It jerked wildly, trying to throw or pull him off, but he braced his feet high, curled his left hand around the edge of the backplate, and brought the thin edge of the billy club down deep into the mechanism at the neck. There was a satisfying crunch, and then a sizzling noise.

"You little son of a bitch," Stane roared. Steve leapt free, backflipping into the wall again and then using it as a launching pad to skid through the machine's legs while Stane was still reaching behind him. He bolted across the open floor, dodging as fast as he could.

He used his second clip to shoot through another door and outside, tossing the rifle away as he ran. The security staff that he and Pepper had hid from before were in total disarray now, and he could hear sirens in the distance.

There was a roar like a thousand engines revving at once, and then Stane burst out of the top of the reactor hangar, landing in front of him. Steve stared up at the suit. There wasn't anything else to do. Handguns were useless against this thing, his knives were still somewhere in its back --

And there was a promising streak of light in the distance.

"You know what your problem is, Stane?" he asked, and the armor laughed again.

"What's that, Rogers?" Obadiah said. A little tracking dot appeared on Steve's chest.

"You're a bully," Steve said.

"Doesn't seem like a problem to me," Stane said. "You know what your problem is, Rogers?"

"Well," Steve said, "it was you."

"Was?" Stane asked, confused.

Steve held up his hand and waved, bye bye, and that was when Tony and the armor hit Stane from the side, blowing both suits into the ground. Steve reflected that it was probably the most badass exit line he'd ever get, even as he was turning to run.

The brave thing, of course, would be to stay and help Tony, but without his own armor he'd be a liability -- sometimes brave and wise weren't the same thing. If he could rally the other guards or get SHIELD agents behind him, they could help, but this wasn't a back-up-the-boyfriend-alone situation.

His phone rang as he ran for the front entrance, where there were a lot of flashing lights. He answered breathlessly.

"Tony?"

"Hey buddy, you wanna not ever face down a giant evil robot alone again?" Tony asked. There was a huge flare of light behind him.

"I'm getting reinforcements," Steve said. "Just keep him away from populated -- "

"Too late," Tony said, and Steve turned to see both of them go hurtling into traffic beyond the security fence of the building.

"Fuck -- fuck -- GET OUT THERE!" Steve yelled, as he reached the pointlessly milling crowd of SI security officers and, thankfully, SHIELD agents.

"Steve?" Peggy called, incredulous.

"SI security, you are now under the command of SHIELD," Steve yelled. "I want every SI security officers out there on the freeway -- stop traffic, close down the roads. CLOSE IT DOWN!" he shouted, and the SI officers began to move a little faster, climbing onto ridiculous little security jeeps and heading for the freeway on-ramp just past the entry gate. "Get barricades up in both directions. Call the police and get everyone redirected away from SI. SHIELD!" he called, and a dozen faces turned towards him. "Heavy arms and body armor, I want us ready the second they clear the traffic. Has anyone seen Pepper? Pepper Potts?"

"Pepper's still here?" Rhodey demanded.

"Obadiah went after her, he's got a suit," Steve said. "She got clear but I don't know where she -- "

"She's in the building," Peggy said, one hand gesturing to the bluetooth in her ear. "I think Stark's on my line."

"Gimme," Steve ordered, and she tossed him the earpiece. "Tony?"

"I sent Pepper to the reactor hangar," Tony said. Steve accepted Peggy's phone, tucked it in a strap on his vest, and took off running again, breath whistling in his throat.

"I just got out of there!" Steve said. "Why would you do that?"

"Listen, you have to trust me. Find Pepper, make sure you keep her safe. We're gonna blow the reactor with him on top of it, it's the only thing that'll stop him."

"Are you insane?"

"Just let me get him back into the building," Tony said. "I don't have a lot of time for a less explosive solution, Steve!"

He could see Pepper, now, standing over the reactor console, flicking switches.

"Hey, rage duckling," Tony said in his ear, grunting. Steve watched as two streaks of light went straight up in the sky, both suits taking off in flight. "I'm gonna sign off in a second here so listen up."

"Tony, don't risk your life, I have reinforcements on the way -- "

"Kinda committed now," Tony said. "Altitude's gonna cut me off soon. I love you, Steve."

"I swear to God you are every bad cable TV movie ever," Steve heard himself say. Tony laughed. "I'm keeping the earpiece in. Call when you can."

"You got it," Tony said, and the line went dead just as one of the lights in the sky went dark.

Steve watched, heart beating triple-time, as one of the suits fell out of the sky -- the monster, Obadiah's suit, tumbling and turning, jets going in fits and starts. It righted itself eventually, but even with the jets going it landed hard on the roof of the hangar and lay there, inert.

Then the second light went out, and the Doodad came tumbling down as well. Tony caught himself with half-working jets a handful of times on the way down, but eventually he crashed down next to the monster. And the monster was rising --

"Now!" Tony yelled -- and it was Tony's voice, echoing down to them through the hangar, unaltered by the suit. "Pepper, set it off!"

"Get out of the way!" Pepper yelled back.

"DO IT NOW!" Tony shouted, then dodged to the side as the monster dove for him.

Pepper looked to Steve, who nodded; she closed her eyes and flicked the last switch, and the reactor's hum rose to a tooth-jarring whine.

Steve grabbed her around the waist and pulled her away from the console, back through the hole in the wall and into the lower level of Section 16, a deep concrete well filled with server racks. He scooped up the nose-cone shield as he went, tucked them both behind a rack of servers, and held the shield over Pepper's head just before the whine cut out and a shockwave hard enough to knock the breath from his body washed over them.

Debris crashed down around them, filling the air with choking cement dust, and something hit Steve hard in the head, stars dancing in his vision for a second before he passed out.

***

The funny thing about it was that Steve was hurt worse than Tony.

It wasn't really funny, or at least Tony didn't think so, but Steve did. He sat on the back of a SHIELD truck, a breathing mask over his face, and couldn't stop laughing. He felt a little high from the pure oxygen, and he knew he'd be sore in the morning, but mostly it was just so goddamn funny.

Tony had been able to rip the reactor out of Obie's chestplate and roll free of the blast in one move; by the time Peggy pulled Pepper and Steve out of the debris of the big reactor's explosion, Tony's miniature one was back where it belonged in his chest, humming away. Now Steve pressed his forehead against it, giggling helplessly.

"You are a mess, Cornflake of Justice," Tony told him, both arms around his head, one hand holding a rag against his scalp. Steve was getting blood all over the Doodad from a fairly gush-y wound he'd taken when the reactor blew, but head lacerations always looked worse than they were, and someone had said something about paramedics, so presumably sooner or later he'd be okay. Peggy had taken field command and was seeing to security and triage for the other injuries, and Rhodey was shouting the SI security guards into submission, so that was all taken care of. Pepper was fine, Tony was only a little dinged up, and he, Steve, couldn't stop laughing, so everything was okay. It was all okay.

He pulled the oxygen mask down from his mouth and said, "I left two good knives in Obadiah's back and ceramics aren't cheap. You better replace them."

"Yeah, I'll give you the half a dozen he stuck in mine," Tony replied.

"That's funny on account of it's a backstabbing joke," Steve informed him.

"Yes, my own, that's why it's funny," Tony sighed. Steve fumbled with his shirt cuffs, which were torn and filthy, and eventually produced the flashdrive from his knife strap, leaning back and shrugging out of Tony's grasp so he could give it to him.

"Here," he said. "We got the data. Pepper did great!"

"Yeah, she did," Tony agreed, taking the drive and pocketing it. "Hey, I'm gonna get you a doctor now, okay?"

Steve nodded, pulling the mask up again so the EMTs wouldn't yell at him, and watched Tony carefully as he jogged over to the command center Peggy had set up.

"Bucky Barnes is gonna kill me," Rhodey said, taking Tony's place in front of him. Steve beamed up at him dopily.

"Peggy wouldn't let that happen, she likes you," he said. Then he realized he still had the oxygen mask on, and Rhodey probably hadn't understood a word of it.

"Don't take your mask off," Rhodey warned. "I don't need to hear your thoughts right now."

Steve was going to reply in sign language, but Tony had returned with an EMT, and life got less pleasant then; he had to have three separate injections and multiple stitches, and they poked him all over to make sure his arms and legs and ribs weren't broken. It was generally awful until Peggy shooed them all away and loaded him and Tony into a car with Pepper to drive them home.

He fell asleep on Tony's shoulder in the car, listening to Tony and Pepper argue about whether or not it was okay to let concussion victims sleep after a head trauma.

***

Two days later, Tony -- with barely a scratch on him -- gave a press conference. Pepper got to hang out in the back, but Steve and Rhodey had to be up on stage with him. Coulson had shown up with a very concerned Bucky and Sam, handing them off to hover over Steve while he provided a fake alibi for Tony for the night of the battle, as well as an "explanation" of the fight itself and of Obadiah's death. He'd brought index cards.

"That's what he does," Steve said, as Tony flipped through the cards in the anteroom before the press conference.

"He's your boss?"

"Yep."

"Why?"

Steve grinned across the room at Coulson. "He grows on you. Just read the cards and we can all go home and I can go back to bed."

"You could have stayed in bed to begin with," Tony pointed out. Steve could feel stiffness in every inch of him, from the carefully-combed-over wounds on his scalp to the blisters on his toes from the badly-fitting boots. Still, he had to be here, and they both knew it.

"Don't antagonize him," Peggy said to Tony.

"I'm not! I tried to get him to stay in bed!"

"I meant Coulson," she said. Steve grinned, then winced when grinning hurt.

"You know, Iron Man's not a bad name," Tony remarked, shrugging into his suit coat with Pepper's help.

"Well, it's no RAID COP, but it has a dramatic flavor to it," Steve agreed.

"And it's a bitchin' metal anthem," Peggy drawled, drawing their attention. "All right, children, time to put on a dog and pony show, and if you're all very good you'll get sweets after."

"RAID COP?" Rhodey asked Tony as they headed for the door.

"Badass, right?" Tony prompted.

"No," Rhodey said.

Steve dutifully trooped out onto the stage, trailing Tony and Rhodey, and tried not to stand at parade rest when Rhodey did. After all, technically he was still Steve Rogers, Artist, not Special Agent Rogers, Spy.

Christine Everhart was in the audience, he noticed. Front and center -- good for her. She was also eyeing him weirdly. Well, he supposed most of them were.

The conference started so well. Tony made a joke, he took out the cards, he started reading from them --

And then, without breaking eye contact with Steve, Christine Everhart asked, "I'm sorry, Mr. Stark, but do you honestly expect us to believe that those were automated drones?"

Tony just sort of gaped at her. Steve had never seen him so surprised.

"Knowing as we do that you have several capable bodyguards," she continued, "do you expect us to believe you didn't have a pilot in one of them, and that the exercise our press packet refers to wasn't a thwarted attempt on your life?"

Steve fought to keep his poker face. She thought it was him. She thought he was the one in the suit. She knew he was SHIELD, she knew he was close to Tony, she was probably angry that Tony trashed Gulmira ahead of the 24-hour warning.

It made sense. It also made him want to laugh out loud.

He risked a glance at Tony, and could see him rapidly coming to the same conclusions he was. Still, his poor bruised boyfriend did try -- he hedged, he made a joke about his own unreliability, he kept whiffing the increasingly fast pitches Everhart was throwing him --

Then he said, "The truth is...Steve Rogers is not my bodyguard. He's my boyfriend. And I am Iron Man."

The place went nuts after that. Everhart was the only reporter who didn't leap from her seat; when Steve narrowed his eyes, she gave him a smile and a call me gesture, then got up and walked out while Rhodey tried in vain to calm the crowd down.

***

Tony spent the afternoon in his workshop, ignoring the outside world. Steve, resting in bed, read the speculation on news sites and message boards for a while. He watched video of a poor, harassed Communications manager giving a second press conference to discuss, in the vaguest of terms, the future of Stark Industries. The company had been in free fall for a month, so Steve wasn't too worried. Tony would turn it around as soon as he was in a place to take control of the company again. Steve estimated that would be about two days. He'd start pestering him after three, if necessary.

He slept a little, early in the evening, and woke when he felt Tony climbing into the bed. He reached for him sleepily, instinctively, and he heard Tony laugh as he clung to him.

"Hey, Dandelion," Tony said, smelling of weld and clean sweat. Steve nuzzled closer, pressing a thigh between Tony's legs, curling his other leg around Tony's thigh. "Someone's ambitious."

"Want you," Steve mumbled, rolling his hips sharply. Tony, gratifyingly, whimpered.

"Don't let me hurt you," Tony said, pulling him close and turning a little so Steve could move more freely.

"As if you could," Steve slurred sleepily, enjoying the pliability of Tony's body, the way he gave in so easily. He hitched his hips, tucking a hand in his pyjamas to slide them down his thighs, mouthing at Tony's collarbone.

"That's it, baby," Tony replied, tugging his underwear down, kicking Steve's pyjamas free. Steve grunted at the contact, the thick hard cord of Tony's thigh against his cock. "You want to rub off on me?"

"Yeah," Steve agreed, lost in the hazy pleasure of it, the ease with which Tony took him in and held him there. He could feel Tony, half-hard against his hip, and he slid a hand down to stroke him, enjoying the way Tony groaned and twitched under his touch. One of Tony's hands was in the small of his back, thumb tucked against his ass, and Steve arched up just enough --

Tony made a thoughtful noise. "Are you too sore?" he asked, pushing his thumb against Steve's hole, rubbing it back and forth gently. "We can wait."

"I want it," Steve admitted, still moving leisurely against Tony's thigh. Tony let go of him and leaned away, changing the angle, eliciting a sharp cry --

"Easy, Duckling," Tony teased, rummaging in the bedside table. "Just -- here we are."

Steve buried his face in Tony's throat but relaxed his legs, spreading his thighs as Tony rolled them so Steve was on top. He felt a slick finger rub over him and then push inside, and he made a soft, high sound of pleasure.

"That's it," Tony murmured as Steve bucked back, taking him deeper. "That okay?"

"Yeah," Steve breathed, propping himself up with his hands on Tony's chest now, head tilted back, mouth open. He panted, letting a soft Uh -- uh! out when Tony started to stretch him. "You can go faster -- I wanna feel it -- "

"I'm in no hurry," Tony said smugly, the fingers of his other hand tracing lightly, gently over Steve's erection. "You want me to fuck you?"

Steve whined, trying to work Tony's fingers deeper.

"Tell me you want it," Tony said, the tip of his third finger brushing lightly over already-sensitive skin. "Tell me you want me inside you. I love it when you say you want to ride me."

"You're so huge," Steve managed, the words falling out of his mouth with next to no control from his brain, the way they always did when Tony was close to fucking him. "Not just your dick -- that too -- "

"Thank you."

"Your hands are huge," Steve said dreamily, jerking forward to bow his head as Tony added a third finger. "I love you can get your hands around me the way you do, I love how big the marks are. Being with you's like riding a bull, you're all power and weight -- " he ran his hands down Tony's chest, the heavy pectorals and thick obliques that let him control the armor, the smooth skin padding them. "I like the size of you. I like what you do to me."

"Tell me you want me to fuck you," Tony said, and Steve bent to kiss him, crying out when Tony spread his fingers inside him. "Tell me you want to ride me until you come so hard you scream."

"Tell me you love me," Steve challenged back, and Tony laughed.

"I love you," he said, pulling his hand away and pressing Steve's thigh's back, idly slicking himself with what remained of the lube on his fingers. He wrapped his hand around the base of his cock and Steve eased down, mouth going wide as he took him into his body.

"I do love riding you," he said, voice shaky as he adjusted to the girth of Tony's cock inside him. "I want you to fuck me, Tony, I want you to come in me -- "

Tony tipped his head back, hips bucking, and Steve tightened his legs, flexing his hips forward. It brought Tony's cock up sharp against his prostate, sparks dancing along his nerves. Words abandoned him so he flexed again instead, leaning back for better leverage, hips working up and down.

"You're a hell of a ride," he said, and Tony's hands tightened on his waist. "Come on, Tony, let yourself go, I can take it."

He did almost lose his balance when Tony thrust up again, but he grabbed one of Tony's wrists for balance. Tony was so deep, felt so good there --

He could almost feel his body pulling inward, focus narrowing down to Tony at his least controlled, the harsh pain-pleasure sting of how deep he was. His cock was wet with precome, dripping down onto Tony's abs, and when Tony let go of his thigh to stroke him, he gasped and tightened and came, still clutching Tony's wrist.

"You want to stop?" Tony asked, as Steve leaned over him, bracing himself on Tony's sternum.

Steve shook his head, bowing to kiss the skin above the reactor. "I want you to come, I want to feel it."

Tony rolled them and his erection slipped free; Steve was ready to go onto his back, but instead Tony turned him again, pulling up on his hips until he was kneeling, bent at the hips, face pressed to the pillow. He could feel Tony holding onto him, pressing in again, and he spread his thighs a little and pushed back, hyper-sensitive but unwilling to let this end.

Tony, one hand resting on Steve's back and the other holding his hip, didn't last long; through a haze of afterglow Steve felt him come, and heard him groan Steve's name low and quiet.

When Tony slid over into the blankets, Steve turned and weaseled his way close, aware that they were a sticky, sweaty mess. Tony kissed him, allowing Steve to push and pull him until they were curled comfortably together.

"Feels like the first time," Tony said.

"Good memories," Steve said with a yawn. "Glad it's not, though."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah, this is better," Steve said.

"Why's that?"

Steve grinned. "You use more expensive sheets in Malibu. These are soft."

Tony smiled back, one hand sliding up and down his thigh, the other rubbing his bicep. He could get tactile after sex, clingy and sometimes only half-aware. Steve hummed happily as his hand drifted up to rub his stomach.

"Are you flying tomorrow?" Steve asked. "Hitting some bomb sites?"

"Soon," Tony said. He didn't seem inclined to hustle. "I think after the week we've had I can afford a few days of vacation first."

"Stay in bed with me?" Steve prompted.

"Yeah," Tony agreed. "You're my best baby rage duckling."

"Don't call me that," Steve said, without any real passion.

"Will if I want to," Tony replied. "Sleep now, angry floof."

Steve, floating on a thick cocktail of endorphins, closed his eyes and butted his head against Tony's collarbone. "M'kay. Make you fr'tt'a't'm'rr'w."

Tony laughed. "Sure, that's fine," he said, which was the last thing Steve registered before he fell into a deep, satisfied sleep.
azurelunatic: A glittery black pin badge with a blue holographic star in the middle. (Default)

[personal profile] azurelunatic 2015-03-14 07:03 am (UTC)(link)
God, I love a juicy AU, and comics are the best place for it.

Stane: evil at any speed.
jjhunter: Drawing of human JJ in ink tinted with blue watercolor; woman wearing glasses with arched eyebrows (JJ inked)

[personal profile] jjhunter 2015-03-16 03:03 am (UTC)(link)
So, so good. (I have trouble deciding what I like best, though Tony's nicknames for Steve are def. high up there.)