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Tony stays in New York for a while. The tower is damaged but the power and structure’s still good, and it’d be a cold day in Hell before Tony misses the symbolic importance of him staying there in the aftermath of the Chitauri battle.

From there, Tony stays on top of things: repairs, clean-up and security, and salvaging Chitauri tech near the top of the priority list. Pepper and Rhodey come out to help (and hug Tony), whereby Pepper reroutes Stark Industry resources into the city programs, and Rhodey puts polish on the PR. But both of them have their own matters to deal with, and bow out once they get the momentum going.

Bruce hangs around for a stint, too, up until General Ross comes sniffing around. They both agree that he should lay low for a while, so Tony helps him pack his bags and doesn’t ask where he’s going.

This means that Tony is effectively alone in the tower on the evening that Steve Rogers shows up.

It’s a confusing surprise, but not an unwelcome one. Tony buzzes the guy up, curious and only getting curiosier when Steve steps into the not-at-all-properly-refurbished penthouse looking like someone pissed on his shield and he’s too polite to do anything about it.

“The shawarma was not that bad,” Tony says.

Steve starts a little. A corner of his mouth quirks, but the smile doesn’t complete its journey. “No, it was pretty good.”

“Don’t spare my feelings now.”

Steve looks pretty much the same from when they’d parted ways, right down to the plaid and khaki. Though that might be different plaid? Tony can’t tell. But the face is off, tense. He hadn’t been relaxed, exactly, when he’d ridden off on that ridiculous motorbike of his, but he’d looked better than this.

“Fury kicked you out?” Tony says. “You need a favor? What’s up?”

“I can’t just visit?” Steve retorts.

“Oh?” Tony turns on his heel, hands on his hips as he regards his surroundings. “Well, if you want the grand tour, there’s not much to see here beyond scaffolding and tarp and, uh—” Tony remembers that his table computer is still projecting the tower plans he’d been tinkering with. “Hey JARVIS, could you slide the—”

Very good, sir,” JARVIS says, and on the far side of the room the tower models blip off the screen.

Tony clears his throat, and just resists rolling his eyes at himself. It’s not like it’s a secret, or that he’s embarrassed about his thought experiments. The Avengers may be a one-and-done for now, but that’s for now, and of course Tony’s already thinking about what they might need in the future. They won’t be taken by fucking surprise the next time.

Tony turns back, a pithy rejoinder at the ready, but he’s startled to find Steve standing right there, close enough that Tony could’ve knocked him as he’d turned. And there’s that face again, watchful and intense, though for some reason it doesn’t ping Tony’s fight-or-flight instinct as it had on the hellicarrier.

“Uh, what?” Tony says.

Steve’s eyes are locked on his. “Hail Hydra.”

It’s a douse of ice water, shocking to the core. Oh, fight.

Tony flails away from Steve, heart hammering and arm flung out. The armor comes flying, the gauntlet first to wrap around his arm. Tony brings it around, repulsor aimed at Steve just as the other pieces slot into place, it’s when the HUD lights that Tony focuses on his target and he registers that Steve is... holding his body small, his hands up in surrender. There is nothing but relief on his face, which now sags.

“Oh thank God,” Steve says breathlessly. “I’m not Hydra. I swear, I’m not Hydra.”

“Then what was that?” Tony snaps. “An early April Fools?”

“I needed to see your reaction.”

“What the hell for!”

“Yesterday a SHIELD agent came up to me and said… that.”

“Hail Hydra,” Tony says flatly. “Like a joke?”

Steve’s face twists. “No. Not a joke. In earnest.”

“To you. To you? Why, did they have a death wish?”

“They said it…” Steve pauses, pained. He either hasn’t noticed or doesn’t care that Tony still has his weapons locked on him. “As if they knew I would welcome it. They had this little smile the whole time. Knowing. Confident. It wasn’t a challenge, or a threat. It was the sharing of a secret.”

“How did you react?”

“I was shocked, but they seemed to take the shock as a good thing. I didn’t say anything, and they walked away. Then I, uh… had to think.”

By physiological signs as far as I can measure them, the Captain appears to be telling the truth,” JARVIS says.

“But... Hydra.” Tony flips the faceplate up, staring at Steve in disbelief. “There hasn’t been Hydra since…”

“Are you sure?” Steve says.

Tony’s head spins. “Okay, SHIELD. That happened within SHIELD, so you couldn’t bring it up to Fury. Or Natasha, or Clint.”

“Honestly, I don’t think Natasha or Clint are involved, but…”

“Yeah, I get it.”

Tony quickly runs through his schedule for the day, sorting through what can be moved and what can’t. This has to be bumped up, but maybe not to the very top just yet because they don’t even know if there is a crisis, let alone the shape of said crisis. There’s also the fact that there’s a shaken (and trying to hide it) super soldier with barely any ties in this great ol’ 21st century on Tony’s doorstep.

“You got a place to stay?” Tony says.

 


 

In leaving SHIELD, Steve brought only the one non-regulation duffel bag, which he brings up to the penthouse.

Tony warns him that the tower is far from presentable in its current state, but Steve points out that Tony’s already been living here, to which Tony says that it’s fine for someone to live in their own mess but completely different to force someone else to, to which Steve replies that he’s lived in the ice for 70 years so this would still be a vast improvement.

Who is Tony to deny such flawless logic?

Steve takes one of the non-damaged guest rooms and, after another session where Steve recounts what he knows and suspects thus far, they agree to sleep on it before starting on a game plan. (Well, Steve will to sleep on it.)

In the morning before Tony has to head out, he slips a credit card under Steve's door, along with a note that tells him to go wild and only barely hints at the sad hobo state of the Captain’s scant belongings.

Tony minimizes the day's wheelin’ and dealin’ as much as he can, and returns to the sight of Steve’s having set up a workstation in a corner of the main floor. Three tables are shoved together, and the resulting surface is littered with books, files, a handful of weapons that Tony hopes are disarmed, and a laptop.

Steve has an elbow propped up on the table in front of him, his scowling face partially hidden by his curled hand as he exudes immense judgment on whatever it is he’s reading. The vibranium shield provides an incongruous splash of color where it’s propped up by a corner of the table megazord.

“You got a laptop?” Tony says. “Why’d you get a laptop? I could’ve built one for you in my sleep.”

“JARVIS said it’s fine,” Steve says without looking up.

When Tony’s mouth falls open, JARVIS says, “You did say that he could buy whatever he wanted, sir.

“That doesn’t mean…” Tony sighs and pinches his nose. “Did you at least make sure he’s not bringing the bubonic plague into my house?”

Of course, sir.

Tony tosses his jacket aside and grabs a stool with his free hand, which he hauls all the way across the room. Steve acknowledges his presence with a slight nod. Or maybe that’s just him getting the hair out of his eyes.

“You know how to use that?” Tony says.

“You click the buttons and the icons go ping.”

Tony hums. “Howard never said that you’re a snarky bastard.”

“You shouldn’t believe all the bedtime stories you hear.” Steve shakes himself a little, and moves into an impressive backwards stretch and shoulder roll. When Steve finally looks at Tony, his eyes are bleary and slightly out-of-focus, as if Steve is just another human being who’s been on the computer too long and needs a reminder that the outside world exists. His hair’s mussed, too, a few wayward strands falling over one eye, and there’s a faint line of dried coffee underneath his lip.

All in all, a far cry from the Cap of posters and newsreels.

“What?” Steve says.

“Nothing.” Tony pushes forward the burrito he’d been holding in his other hand. “Dinner, if you haven’t had anything yet. There’s more at the back.”

“How about you?”

“I’m not the one in waking up from an internet coma,” Tony says. “I’ll join you in a minute.”

Steve peels the burrito wrapping away, nostrils flaring as he catches the scent. (Captain America flares his nostrils, how fascinating.) “Any word from Thor?” Steve asks.

“Nope. Galaxy’s a big place. Loki could be anywhere.” Tony leans over to read whatever’s on Steve’s laptop screen, only to be blocked by a massive tricep that gets in his way. Steve’s fingers, strong yet delicate in their movement, tilts the lid shut.

“Aww,” Tony says.

“I’d like to discuss my plan about Hydra,” Steve says.

“You made a plan? I made a plan.”

“I’ve been working on this. You’ve been dealing with the city all day.”

“Is multitasking not a thing?”

Steve blinks slowly and looks up. “Literal meaning, or a reference?”

Literal meaning,” JARVIS says. “The ability to handle more than one task at a time.

“Thank you,” Steve says.

Tony scoffs. “You’ve been bonding with my AI?”

“And catching up on the future,” Steve says. “JARVIS is so much more helpful than SHIELD’s computers. I mean, the internet’s pretty good, too, but it’s....”

“A lot?”

“A lot,” Steve agrees.” Back to Hydra.”

“You should eat that before it gets cold,” Tony says, poking at the half-unwrapped burrito in Steve’s hands. “While you do, I will explain my plan to suss out if there’s anything Hydra-related going on—”

“Who here is actually familiar with how Hydra works?”

“Pfft, almost seventy years ago.”

“An outdated baseline is still better than a baseline of zero.”

“Unless that outdated baseline tips over into negative, then we’re pretty much screwed.”

“I accept the chance of being screwed. I came here, didn’t I?”

Tony gasps. “Okay, you know what? Give me the burrito.”

Steve frowns. “What?”

“Give it. If you’re so dead set on listening to yourself speak, I’ll eat first.” Tony flicks his hand. “Give.”

Steve holds Tony's gaze for a long moment, and then neatly twists the burrito in two. He hands half over, which Tony promptly takes a bite off.

“Okay, go,” Tony says.

“Been catching up on history, for two purposes. First was to find incidents throughout the past couple of decades that look like Hydra could’ve been behind it.” Steve catches Tony’s grimace, and nods. “Had to go for a run to clear my head after.”

“Yeah,” Tony says.

“But there are a few points I think could be interesting, and I’ve asked JARVIS to dig a little deeper, if that’s all right with you? Second, tried to trace Hydra’s history after World War II, with the dismantling, tribunals, investigative follow-ups. SHIELD handled a decent chunk of it, did you know that?”

“I do now,” Tony says. “So that’s what you’re on?”

“And I’m going to back to DC. Get into their files.” Steve’s eyes glint. “Need your help with that.”

“On it. I have no idea what they use, so I’ll give you a few options.”

“Good. What about you?”

“Right.” Tony folds the remains of the burrito wrapper in his lap, while Steve starts munching on his. “You're focused on the ‘what’. I've been thinking about the ‘why’.”

“Hydra’s agenda can’t have changed that much.”

“No, not that. I meant: why would Sitwell reveal himself to you? It makes no sense. So on my agenda, is figuring him out. Dig up who he is, what he’s done, who his allies are. And most important of all, his brand of humor.”

“It wasn’t a joke, Tony.”

“I can’t take your word for it. I’m sorry, I can’t. Because it’s ridiculous. C’mon, you have to admit that it’s ridiculous.”

Steve sinks back in his chair, his mouth a stubborn line.

“So it could be a joke,” Tony presses on. “Alternatively, it was a threat. But if it was a threat, they’re pretty damn slow on following up on it, which reads too incompetent to me. Alternatively alternatively, it was neither a joke nor a threat, but sincere.”

“That one,” Steve says immediately. “I pick that one.”

“Then he made the biggest honkin’ mistake in the world, which ties back to the incompetence part. And that, again, means that I need to find out everything about him to figure out why he could possibly think that you’re in on it. Did someone tell him that? Did you do something to make him think that?”

“I damn well hope not.”

Tony shrugs. “Or this could just be Loki fucking with us again. That would be funny.”

“Not if Hydra still exists, no.”

“Not even a little funny? A trickster god literally tricking an evil secret organisation into sabotaging itself in front of the worst person possible?”

“All right,” Steve admits. “It’s a little funny.”

 


 

The next day, Steve heads back to SHIELD, armed with half a dozen safe-cracking options and Tony’s kindly advice to not push his luck. Tony’s still inclined to believe it’s a joke, but if it’s not Steve can’t afford to get further on Hydra’s radar than he is and, frankly, Tony has no confidence in Steve’s ability to go double- or triple-agent on them. Better to just go in and get out, and piece things together from a distance.

While Steve’s doing that, Tony’s occupied with more clean-up and demolition, and meetings with the mayor and Department of Damage of Control. Another long, productive day in a series of long, productive days which, as has been habit, is wrapped up with long, productive hours sitting with JARVIS.

Somewhere in the middle of rendering his latest suit, Tony takes a break. He goes to his bedroom for a shower and change, and when minty-fresh detours to the kitchenette for leftover pizza.

Back on the main floor, Steve is standing in front of the holographic screens. Reflected light dances across his face, which is inscrutable. Tony walks to his side and pokes him with an elbow; Steve starts to shake his head, but changes his mind and takes a slice of offered pizza.

“How’d it go?” Tony says.

“Fury probably knows I’m here,” Steve says. “Sorry.”

“Figured there was a chance of that. It’s fine. You AWOL?”

“No, told him I was having second thoughts about SHIELD. The Tesseract’s a loose thread, and I said I wanted to get that tied down first.”

“Ah, so he thinks we’re in touch with Thor. That works.” Tony leans his hip against the table. “Where’s your stash? Plug it in, let JARVIS have a go.”

Steve does just that, and another screen lights up as the SHIELD data is uploaded. Tony skims it, but only half-heartedly, figuring that he’ll dive deeper once JARVIS has sorted through the cruft. Tony assumes that Steve’s skimming as well with his super soldier speedreading, but then Steve nudges his arm and says, “New suits?”

“Hmm?” Tony’s attention shifts to the other screen. “Yeah.”

“Plural? Or variations of a design before you pick a one to build?”

“Something like that.”

Steve has an impressive side-eye. “This is what you work on every night?”

Tony stuffs the last pizza crust in his mouth in lieu of answering.

“You do get sleep, though, right?” Steve says. “That’s still a thing in the future? I mean, I’ve only been here a few days but you—”

“Of which the only reason you know that I am not sleeping much is because you are not sleeping much.”

“I have the serum.”

“Oooh, a nifty excuse,” Tony says. “That must be really useful to toss out whenever.”

Steve pauses. Tony has a pretty good vantage point to observe the stiffness of Steve’s shoulders, and the tiny snap of his chin upward – a brace for a fight, maybe? But there’s no scepter here; no other players and agendas in the mix. If they’re still a timebomb, it’s one temporarily dismantled, and perhaps welded in new configuration under shared battle.

Also, Tony’s just recently realized how nice it is to know that Steve Rogers has a temper. The guy’s flawed, relatable, almost even touchable.

“It’s not over for you, is it?” Steve says. “We beat the Chitauri, but it’s not over.”

Tony swallows. He makes a show of turning to the screen, where he flicks a few modules away.

“I know you’re not a soldier,” Steve says carefully, “but I’ve seen this—”

“You need to stop right there.”

“Okay.”

“Because it’s not of your business,” Tony says. “You don’t know anything, really. You don’t know me, you don’t know what I saw up there, you don’t know what’s happened to the world.”

Steve nods. If there was any fight in him before, it’s gone. He shifts a little, hip against the table in a mirror of Tony’s own stance, but everything about his body language is shockingly casual and careless. This is Steve taking the hit.

“Ahhh,” Tony says, “I want to apologize but I also don’t want to, so can we pretend that I did?”

“Apologize for what? I should be dead, I know that.”

“Okay, but you’re not dead, so it’s probably better if you… don’t think about that.”

“Just like how you don’t think about how you almost died up there?”

Tony doesn’t think about it, in the sense where the term ‘thinking’ implies a conscious choice, or at least a series of interlinking thoughts that bring that thought to the forefront of the mind. In Tony’s case it’s more like his whole body decides that he’s actually still there, a nuke on his back and cosmic army writhing in the void, greater than anything anyone on earth is prepared for. The doom of humanity, and there's only one, single, small human being hovering between the two. They do not come in peace.

It is a moment of death and non-death. Acceptance of his death for this cause, but with it a sudden sharp, acute, absolutely crystal-clear understanding that he cannot die. He cannot afford to die yet, because that would fail to give everyone on earth a fighting chance, and what would Tony be if he lets that happen?

Tony lives this moment over and over, be it in brief half-seconds flashes or longer minutes that seem to go on forever. Keeping busy helps, just as does staying awake, but it would just so much more convenient if it stopped entirely, because then he could get more shit done.

Tony blinks.

He’s halfway fallen on the floor, his legs folded underneath him. This isn’t new, but what is new is that Steve’s there with him, a hand on his shoulder and an arm anchored around Tony’s back to hold him upright. Tony’s face is mashed against a very strong bicep.

“You still breathing?” Steve says.

Shut up, Rogers, Tony means to say, though it comes out as, “Bleuh.”

Well, this is annoying. Bad enough to have what was possibly the most intense flash he’s had so far, but worse still to have it in front of Steve, whose face is only a couple of inches away and doesn’t even have the decency to look embarrassed or pitying.

“Sorry,” Steve says. “I shouldn’t have brought that up.”

“Naugh, it…” He stops and clears his throat. “No, it’s fine. Everyone’s talking about that now. You probably just short-circuited my brain ‘cause you were actually part of that whole... thing.”

“So… I shouldn’t have brought it up?”

“You know what? Let’s consider ourselves even. How’s that?”

“Hmm. All right.”

Tony realizes that his cheek and nose are still pressed tight against Steve’s sleeve, warmed by the skin underneath. Honestly, it’s pretty comfortable.

Or maybe the comfort is just in Tony’s head, like other off-kilter thoughts and ideas rattling around his head lately. When’s the last time he touched someone like this? Not a hug, even as awesome as Rhodey and Pepper’s hugs can be, but just… resting against another person. Not an interlude between conversation, but part of the conversation itself.

It’s nice. It’s really nice, and even Tony knows how pathetic that sounds. He’s Tony Stark, he’s self-sufficient, he doesn’t need this.

Especially not from Steve.

Steve, who’s solid and uncomplaining, and whose wrist must be turned at an awkward angle to hold Tony the way he is right now, not that there’s any discomfort to be read off of him. A few youthful fantasies over stylized posters have little to do with actually touching the man, inhaling the scent of him, feeling the shift of his chest as he breathes.

Feeling feverish and aware that he’ll never get the chance again, Tony turns his face more firmly into the bicep. He breathes in deep, and lets his eyes fall shut to rub them against the warm surface there.

The memory stored safely, Tony drags his face in a slow nuzzle along the same path of Steve’s upper arm, and reopens his eyes. Sure enough, Steve’s looking at him, watchful and free from judgment. Free from context, too, which makes Tony sigh.

“Just wanted to see if you’d punch me,” Tony says.

Steve’s eyebrows jump up. “You want me to punch you?”

“Noooo. Just. You know. Curious. If you’d smack me one for hitting on you.”

“But you’re not... ‘Hitting on’?” Steve starts to look upward, but Tony cuts him quickly:

“A colloquialism or slang. For making a pass. Uh. Sexually proposition?”

Steve looks shocked. “That’s what counts as a sexual proposition these days? You’re barely touching me.”

“Nothing barely about this, buddy.”

Confusion still mars his face, but that’s soon replaced by a cautious contemplativeness. Which is the completely wrong response to what’s clearly a joke. Though maybe that’s Tony’s own fault because it wasn’t a funny joke to begin with.

“Ignore that.” Tony draws back, rolling his neck as he does so. “It’s just...”

“A suggestion?”

“No!”

“Because I wouldn’t mind.”

Tony stares. “What.”

“It’s, uh…” Steve coughs, while his face takes on some charming color. “Look. I’m effectively back from the dead. I don’t know what’s going on most of the time. But in the past few weeks I’ve – eaten, watched, read, worn, done – things I have never tried before, or never even heard of before. So why not…” He makes a shapeless gesture with a hand, which Tony supposes is supposed to refer to banging a person, or banging a dude, or banging Tony in particular.

“Truly, a speech to sweep me off my feet,” Tony says.

“Still better than wiping your nose on my sleeve and calling it a sexual proposition.”

Tony laughs, startled. He also realizes that he’s getting better at reading at Steve, and the face he’s making right now is one of a man pleased with himself and trying not to show it.

“But just so we’re clear,” Tony says, “I’m not asking for a promise ring.”

“Casual sex existed in the 40s, Tony,” Steve says through gritted teeth. “Let’s go.”

There’s a veil of unrealness over everything about this, right down to the fact that Steve’s tapping his fingers almost impatiently on Tony’s back. But Tony does what he does best when faced with an impossible situation, i.e. he barrels right through it.

Which in this case means closing the space between them, mouth-first.

Steve’s lips are dry and, for a half-second, unresponsive. But then he moves, tentative at first, then less tentative as it goes along, and boy oh boy do his hands feel nicer when they’re moving with greater purpose over Tony’s hips. Arousal starts in a low simmer, tingling up Tony’s spine as he gets to know Steve’s arms and shoulders and little hairs at the base of Steve’s neck. Steve’s mouth is a furnace when Tony curls his tongue inside it. Steve makes a very nice sound in response.

On one hand, this is perfectly understandable. Battlefield buddies, comrades-in-arms, all that. Sure, this usually takes place immediately after said battle when there’s adrenaline to be worn off, but Steve and Tony’s undeaths around the Chitauri incident bump up the effect to higher than is their usual paygrade, and that lingers.

On the other hand, Steve isn’t a fairytale, and Peggy Carter was – well. That’s got to be raw. That goodbye’s been barely a month for him.

A spike of conscience has Tony pulling back, their lips smacking lightly as they part. Steve blinks dazedly, mouth swollen and a flush all over his neck.

“Um,” Steve says. “Is that okay?”

Tony relaxes. Steve’s a big boy; if Tony gets to call the shots on what he wants, then Steve does, too. “No complaints. Well, one complaint.” He reaches for Steve’s belt buckle.

Steve jolts, but doesn’t stop Tony’s opening his pants. “Right here?”

“What, a whole penthouse not private enough for you?”

“Sure, but it’s kind of…” Steve looks around. “The open space makes me feel self-conscious, I think.”

“The solution to that is—” Tony reaches in and wraps his fingers around the thickening length, making Steve gasp, “—to not think at all.”

Actually, Steve does have a point in the floor being a less than ideal spot. But Tony’s not going to say that out loud, not when he can cheat by climbing onto Steve’s lap, the super soldier’s super padded butt being the best cushion between him and the floor. Tony does exactly that, takes his own dick out as he does (Steve helps), and then gets to work.

Steve’s dick is thick and veiny, with a pert, swollen head that already looks like he’s ready to come, except when Tony wraps their dicks together it swells even more. Steve’s making sounds like he can’t breathe, so Tony sets his lips back on his, and grins when Steve sighs with relief and goes to town on his mouth.

While Tony works them over, Steve’s hands are everywhere – up Tony’s back, in his hair, grabbing at his ass. Tony likes that, just as he likes the taste of Steve’s lips, the way Steve’s chest vibrates when he moans, the whole-body jolt that runs through Steve when he comes. Tony draws back to watch the way he twitches in the aftermath, hand rushing over his own cock towards completion, which is achieved only when Steve wraps his hands around Tony’s balls and squeezes.

“Ah, fuck,” Tony hisses.

It’s pretty good. Or maybe it’s just mediocre but they both really needed it, so what’s the difference, really?

They take a couple of minutes to regain their breaths – Steve faster than Tony, though Steve seems fine with letting Tony stay there half-sprawled on his thighs. Post-sex Steve is less pink, more sweaty, and highly skilled at making a come-spattered shirt look like high fashion.

Tony huffs, surprised after the fact. He’s just had sex with Steve Rogers, which is surreal as all out.

He frowns. Is this how normal people feel when they have sex with Tony Stark? Because that would be annoying.

Tony’s shaken out of those thoughts when he registers that Steve is plucking at Tony’s shirt, in a futile attempt to straighten the wrinkles.

“Don’t make this awkward,” Tony says.

“I’m old enough to be in a museum,” Steve says. “That makes me awkward by default.”

“Hah.” Tony grins and pushes himself up and off the floor. Steve grins back up at him, sheepish but pleased, and Tony knows that they’ll be fine. “C’mon, let’s get cleaned up.”

 


 

The SHIELD data keeps them busy, well into the next few days.

Tony clears his schedule as much he can and dives in, every so often tossing interesting chunks Steve’s way for his own investigation. Tony doesn’t know exactly what he’s looking for, because SHIELD being shady is a-given at this point and doesn’t necessarily point to a darker agenda. Steve’s right in that he’d probably be better in identifying Hydra’s grubby fingerprints, so Tony goes the path of randomness, reading snippets of anything and everything in no particular order.

Something catches his eye. Tony reads it properly, then reads it again. “SHIELD has hyperrealistic nano mask tech.”

“What’s that?” Steve calls out from his side of the room.

“Face disguises that are hyper accurate.”

“And that means…?”

“Nothing, I guess. Just expands the scope of what SHIELD can do.” Tony leans back in his chair, thinking. “Espionage with someone else’s face. Like what Loki can do, except using tech instead of magic.”

Steve hums distractedly. Tony doesn’t blame him, really. They’ve been at it for – Tony glances at his watch and grimaces – a while. JARVIS has been thoughtful enough to send food and coffee up, so that hasn’t been a problem.

Tony pushes his chair back from the station and spins slowly in his chair. A few weeks ago he and JARVIS had been right here, working on nothing more exciting than revolutionizing the worldwide energy game by powering up the tower with a scaled-up arc reactor. It was meant to be surprise for Pepper and SI once it worked, but the universe had other, bigger surprises in store.

Ground zero of an alien attack, and the start of… something.

“JARVIS? How many floors were functional on Chitauri day?” JARVIS answers in a percentage, and Tony continues, “How about the floor Steve bumped shields with Loki? The cameras working?”

Tony drops into the zone, focused on the footage and readouts that JARVIS pulls up for him.

A few minutes later there’s a scrape just behind Tony’s shoulder, where Steve has brought his chair over. “What are you looking at?” he asks.

“What? Oh.” Tony shakes his head, clearing it. “SHIELD’s facial disguises just got me thinking that it’s possible that the Fake Cap you encountered was another human being, not Loki.”

“Not possible,” Steve says. “He was as strong as me. Fought like me. You can see it right there.”

The footage certainly corroborates that. Fake Cap has the same gait, the same body language, the same absurd arc of the arm when he throws the shield. JARVIS has pieced footage from different floors together, following the fight down to the concourse.

Tony taps his pen in the air. “What happened there? Why’d you get distracted?”

Steve doesn’t immediately answer. For a moment Tony thinks the answer is something far too terrible or embarrassing, but then he says: “I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember? Don’t you have—”

“He scepter’ed me.” The words are followed by camera footage of Fake Cap doing exactly that, tapping the edge of the scepter to the center of Steve’s chest. “I remember seeing him, fighting him, but there are a few seconds that are… hazy.”

“Hmm.”

“Hmm?” Steve echoes.

“Can fight like you. Disarmed you. Knows how to use the scepter.”

“What are you saying? Tony, what are you saying?”

“JARVIS,” Tony says. “Is there more footage of what Not Cap was doing around my tower that day?”

A pause. “Actually, there is, but it’s been encrypted. Give me a moment.

“Sure thing,” Tony says. “Got popcorn, Steve?”

They don’t have popcorn, but they do sit shoulder-to-shoulder when JARVIS finishes uncovering the footage and plays it for them.

They watch it once in full, and then again with various points sped up and slowed down. JARVIS can’t find Not Cap’s entrypoint – a blind spot somewhere, which is at least understandable for a new building – but they do get to watch Not Cap’s purposeful march, through hallways and up stairs without a single pause for doubt or second-guessing, into the service elevator with the STRIKE team.

Sadly there’s no audio there, sir,” JARVIS says.

“Don’t worry about it.” Tony hasn’t missed Steve’s thunderous expression. The camera angle doesn’t help with lip reading, but Sitwell’s body language is enough. “We get the gist.”

There’s more to this, but Tony doesn’t say anything when Steve stands up sharply, chair scraping the floor behind him. Steve doesn’t do anything so crass as stomp, but his retreating footsteps and the ding of the elevator doors have a definite edge to them.

Tony gives it a minute. He spells out a couple more things for JARVIS to search for and then gets up, following Steve’s route one floor down, to the incomplete R&D floor underneath.

It’s mostly drywall and undressed concrete here, but at least all the windows are still up. Steve’s standing at one of said windows, facing out and his hands in half-fists behind his back.

Tony joins him. The view is of a New York that’s broken but healing, though it’s just as likely that Steve’s not seeing a damned inch of it. Tony thinks up and discards a couple of opening lines, each one more useless than the one before it.

He tries to imagine it: sending the nuke through the wormhole, only to come back and find that a second, figurative nuke got detonated in its place.

“How?” Steve says quietly. “It’s not like it was just me fighting them.”

“There were lots of good people,” Tony agrees. “But sometimes pieces fall between the cracks.”

“I died to stop Hydra. I’ve lost…” Steve swallows, face twisted. “And it doesn’t even matter.”

“It matters.”

It doesn’t.” Steve punches the window, a lightning-fast motion of a fist hitting glass. The sound seems delayed in Tony’s ears, resonating after the fact – just as the perfect view is a split second later distorted by spidery cracks.

Steve exhales shakily. “Sorry.”

“Nah, be my guest. I’m tearing everything down anyway.”

“What?”

“The whole penthouse,” Tony says. “I’m tearing it down soon. So. You know. Hulk smash all you want.”

Steve almost does it. Tony would honestly not judge him for it, because breaking a few inconsequential objects is far from the worst thing someone could do in Steve’s situation. But Steve rears up and deflates almost as quickly as his window-punch, and then there’s just 6 foot plus of decade-spanning sadness staring into the splintered view of New York.

Tony shifts closer to Steve’s side. A hug seems is too much but a shoulder-touch too little (whether or not one takes into account the fact that they’ve touched dicks). Tony chooses compromise, and settles a hand in the crook of Steve’s arm, squeezing gently.

“We’re going out,” Tony says.

“Tony, I can’t—”

“We’re going out.” Tony tilts his head, forcing Steve to meet his eye. “We’ve been holed up here for a while. Get a breather. You can’t say no, I’m letting you crash at my place.”

It doesn’t quite take – Steve doesn’t smile, but at least his eyes ease up a little.

“Now,” Tony says. “C’mon, chop chop.”

They spend a few hours in the city walking around, making random stops, and talking no shop at all – not SHIELD, not Chitauri, not Hydra. That last one takes far less willpower on Tony’s part than expected, because Steve seems just as willing to listen to Tony ramble about the city, Stark Industries, and about two dozen embarrassing society mishaps. Steve doesn’t talk much in return, but he relaxes enough to take Tony’s ribbing with nothing more dangerous than an eyeroll, and even falls into conversation with a handful of locals who recognize him.

In the evening, after they’ve returned to the tower and watched the sun set from the remains of the helipad, Tony tells Steve, “You saved this – all of this. Twice over, even. So, you know. Literally not a waste.”

Steve doesn’t acknowledge him, but that’s all right.

“Okay,” Tony says, patting Steve’s knee. “I’m heading in.”

At the entranceway, Tony glances back over his shoulder. Steve’s moved a little, his head now tilted up to look at the stars.

“Keep an eye on him, yeah?” Tony says quietly. JARVIS doesn’t need the instruction, but it’s nice to say it out loud.

 


 

The next morning, Tony’s pleasantly surprised to find that Steve’s still in the tower. Tony caught a few hours of scattered shut eye before getting back to work – the Mark VIII’s done and the design sent to the fabrication, among others – and he’s in the kitchenette blending another smoothie when who should make an appearance but Captain Photogenic Bedhead himself.

“Oh hey,” Tony says. “Smoothie?”

Steve comes over and takes a whiff. “What do you put in those?”

“All essential vitamins and minerals for the growing boy. I’ll make you one.” Tony pops the cabinets back open, pulling out the cannisters he’d just returned to their places.

“Hey,” Steve says quietly. “About yesterday.”

“Don’t mention it.” Tony stops, and internally rolls his eyes at himself. “Sorry, no. Feel free to mention it all you like. In great detail, if that’s how you want it.”

Steve blinks rapidly. “This is really not your expertise, is it?”

“I’m just saying.”

“That you don’t like talking about uncomfortable things, but don’t mind if I want to?”

Tony dumps the last powder into the blender and flicks the ON button. Their stare-off lasts the thirty seconds of blending, after which Steve blinks first and says, “Why’d you look surprised to see me?”

“I don’t know,” Tony says with a shrug. “Thought maybe you’d be channeling all that rage into storming SHIELD. Or wandering down some abandoned highway like a bad country song.”

“That doesn’t sound productive.”

“You keeping a balanced scorecard now? Have a smoothie.” Tony slides the drink the few inches across the counter towards Steve’s closest hand. He doesn’t take it, though, opting to stare at it skeptically instead. Tony sighs and shifts sideways, bumping his hip to Steve’s and pushing the glass firmly into Steve’s hand. “Don’t say I’ve never done anything for…”

He trails off, attention snagged by Steve’s breath catching – at Tony’s proximity, apparently. It’s not even as if Tony’s trying anything here, but there it is, and that’s interesting. Tony squints up at him, and Steve’s face shifts into a painfully bad attempt at politely blank.

“You don’t want a smoothie,” Tony says slowly. “Want a blowjob instead?”

Steve jerks, the motion starting somewhere in his knees and zig-zagging up to his head. “What?”

“Not as nutritious, but considerably more fun. Yes?” Tony turns, his motions pointed and purposeful, his hand brushing Steve’s stomach – which jumps. But Tony backs up, just in case. “Or a hug, if that’s what you’re looking for. That’s cool, too.”

So this is what it looks like when Steve is embarrassed. “It’s that easy?”

“In this case? Yeah.” Tony carefully pushes the two smoothies away from them, towards the wall. “We can make out first?”

Can’t blame the guy for being needy, all things considered. Tony’s the one who fits himself in the lee of Steve’s body and slides his hands up Steve’s sides, but it’s Steve who comes in for the kiss, open-mouthed and wanting.

It’s different from the first time, with Steve now bold enough to take more, to ask more, to plunder Tony’s mouth until his whole body’s thrumming with the ache of it. A quick learner, is Steve, though that should not be surprising either.

“Okay, okay, let me—” Tony pulls away and turns them, arranging Steve’s back to the counter before lowering himself down to his knees.

Steve’s wearing drawstring pants, which are blessedly easy to open. Underneath are boxers, and underneath is a dick at half-mast. Steve helps take it out, his hand at the base while Tony takes hold of the shaft, guiding the thick head to the space between Tony’s lips.

There’s musk and saltiness, and a very satisfying heft on Tony’s tongue. He swallows around the shaft experimentally, and once he finds the right give of his jaw, starts in earnest. Suction in steady pulses, up and down and back again, with little flicks of the tongue against the glans whenever he eases up. His hands are busy, too – one massaging Steve’s balls and the other working the shaft in time with his lips.

Up top, Steve provides the motivational soundtrack of a man having the time of his life.

“Oh God,” Steve gasps. “Tony, I – it’s – oh wow, oh that’s – that feels – I can’t—”

There’s nothing filthy in what Steve’s saying, but it goes right to Tony’s dick anyway. Each hiss and sigh and failed description of what he’s feeling is a caress, like a fingertip tracing a path from under Tony’s balls all the way up to the tip. If Tony arranges his knees just so, the crotch of pants are just tight enough around his erection to be a relief.

Steve makes an amazing, shocked sound as he comes. His thighs shake and his hands are warm but careful on Tony’s head, eventually relaxing enough to pet his hair. There’s a lot to swallow, but Tony does his best.

As soon as Tony slides off, Steve immediately lowers himself down a little, hands on Tony’s arms to help him to his feet.

“Let me,” Steve says.

“It’s fine, I can just—”

“Dammit, Tony, let me.” Steve pushes Tony against the counter, a reversal of earlier, except Steve is much less considerate in his opening of Tony’s pants.

“Orgasms are supposed to be calming,” Tony points out, while Steve scowls his way through pushing Tony’s underwear down and freeing his erection. “This isn’t a competition, Steve.”

“I know it’s not,” Steve says.

“Do you really?” Steve’s shoulders are right there, so Tony plants a hand on each, a perfect scaffold to hold on to as Steve touches him. “Because you’re acting you’re being graded. That’s more Nick Fury’s scene and… I am going to stop thinking about Fury right this second.”

Steve ignores him, which in this case is probably the best move. He’s busy, anyway, fitting his fingers loosely around Tony’s dick and testing the give from sweat and precome. Steve makes a tiny nod – that’ll do – and tightens his fist.

Tony’s knees buckle. He’s not ashamed to admit it.

Steve’s firm grip moves along Tony’s dick in a steady rhythm not unlike a heartbeat. It should be far too slow for what Tony needs but the pressure is good and the motion good. Tony thrusts his hips forward, fucking the tight little knot of fingers like it’s a glory hole Steve made just for him.

Steve’s smiling. The fucker is smiling as he jacks Tony off, as if Tony didn’t just rock his world a couple of minutes ago. The fact that Tony feels hard enough to pound nails is not at all a decent tradeoff for having to sit through more of Steve’s pompous confidence up close.

“I’m going to die,” Tony says.

Steve rolls his eyes. “No, you’re not.”

“I’m going to die. You’re going to kill me.”

“By your dick?”

“By my dick.” Tony shudders at a particularly good twist of Steve’s fingers. He loses his balance when his arms go wobbly, but Steve’s there, adjusting his stance and letting Tony fall forward against his chest.

Tony murmurs when Steve bumps the sides of their faces together, nose trailing curiously over the line of Tony’s goatee. But then Steve keeps moving, his face nudging at Tony’s as though he wants to – oh, okay, kissing. More kissing, Steve’s lips meeting his, and Steve pushing his tongue into Tony’s mouth to taste himself.

Tony comes with a shocked gasp, spilling hot and heavy between them. Steve’s free arm holds Tony tight against him, which is very nice as it gives Tony a solid, warm surface to twitch against as he rides it out.

What a world they’re in. One day you’re arguing over false assumptions of each other’s heroic credentials, and the next you’re trading bodily fluids.

“Not bad,” Tony says, once he can breathe properly again.

“I try my best,” Steve says.

Tony pulls back to study Steve’s face, but the teasing glint there is sincere and good-natured. “You sure do.”

They clean themselves up, and Steve does Tony the honor of actually drinking the smoothie he made for him. Steve needs more than that for breakfast, though, so Tony leaves him to it, and returns to his workstation armed with smoothie and coffee.

A couple of minutes later he hears Steve approach, the clink of a full plate in his hands.

“What’s that?” Steve asks.

“While you were busy having your sulk – a perfectly understandable sulk, but a sulk all the same – I asked JARVIS to look into some things. Since we got footage of Not You, I wondered if there were other doppelgangers running around the tower. Sure enough, there it is.”

Steve sits on the empty chair slowly, eyes caught on a particular window on the left side of the screens. “That’s you.”

“Yep.”

In the window, the recently-decrypted security footage is playing on a slowed-down loop. In it is Tony – a Not Tony, maybe – creeping near the wall in this very penthouse. It’s a side of the open floor that has a huge blind spot, but JARVIS was able to piece together enough for a clear view of a Not Tony who’d been standing there, watching as the Avengers took Loki under arrest.

“And you had no idea?” Steve says. “Not even JARVIS?”

I didn’t know this footage existed until yesterday,” JARVIS says. “It was encrypted, but in a way to not be noticed in the first place.

“Tell him who encrypted it,” Tony says.

Sir did.

“But not you you,” Steve says slowly. “Other you. Not You.”

“Ten points to Gryffindor,” Tony says. “Uh, that’s a reference to—”

“I got that one,” Steve says, smiling. “But thank you.”

“Right.” Tony clears his throat. “Anyway. As far as JARVIS can tell, it was just the two Not Us. No Natasha, no Clint, Thor or Bruce, or anyone else. And they were only here on that one specific day. What was Not Me doing? As far as we can tell, he popped in here – literally right over there – like a freaking Peeping Tom and a few minutes later jumped out the window. As for Not Cap...”

Steve sighs. “What else did Fake Me do?”

“You missed it yesterday, but here we go.” Tony replays the footage from the elevator. “Not Cap took the scepter from them and, after an interlude with your fine self, walked right on out of here.”

“Shit,” Steve says.

“No, no, wait for it,” Tony pulls another video file up and tosses it to the player. “Twenty-two minutes later, here’s what happened.”

This footage is of Sitwell and the STRIKE team at the first floor and heading for the service exit. Again, the angle is poor, but there’s the figure of yellow, red and blue coming to intercept them again.

Steve starts in surprise. “He took the scepter and then gave it back?”

“Yep.”

“Is it a switch?”

“Nope,” Tony says. “From the SHIELD data you took, STRIKE logged in the real deal scepter. Readings all consistent with what they got from the Tesseract.”

Steve devours a waffle as he contemplates this. “So Fake Me borrowed the scepter. And Fake You was… what? Sightseeing?”

“He was after the Tesseract.” Tony’s grinning as he pulls up another set of footage, this from the lobby’s comedy of errors. “They almost got it, too. I thought that maybe they were working with Loki to help him escape, but this… is not that.”

“The agent who almost walked out with the Tesseract case was Fake You?”

“Yep.”

“You sound far too happy about this.”

“I like patterns,” Tony says. “Before it was baffling, but now there’s a pattern, and patterns can be deciphered.”

“Is it even worth deciphering if Fake You failed to get the Tesseract?”

“Obviously he’s a poor copy of myself,” Tony says promptly.

“Oh, so he’s a copy now?”

“Copy, clone, robot, alien pretender, mirror universe version – who knows. Most of those might even be possible, since we live in a reality of wormholes and millennia-old gods. It would be damned cool if bulk theory is accurate, so I’m not ruling anything out. But!” Tony draws his fingers along the holographic screen, pushing the video files aside. “I don’t think they have anything to do with Hydra.”

Steve nods. “I don’t think so either.”

“So let’s get back to business, yeah?” Tony shakes his smoothie glass, the straw rattling faintly against the sides. “If STRIKE is Hydra, their mission logs should make for interesting reading between the lines. You should get on that, while I will take a deeper peek into SHIELD’s security systems. Hydra would not be keeping their actual super-secret diaries lying around where other people can find them. They have another base somewhere else, and we’re going to find it.”

“Don’t you have that event at City Hall today?”

“Hmm? Yeah, but it’s not until… When is it?”

In three hours, sir.”

“Thanks, J. Plenty of time.”

“I’ll come with you,” Steve says.

“What ever for.”

“Tony.” Steve’s plate is empty now, and he sets it down on the table, taking care to avoid the expanded keyboard. “It’s not much, but you’re doing good work for the city, and I should help. I know it’s not much, but it’s something.”

It’s also something unnecessary by multiple measures. But Tony hears what Steve’s admitting, which is that dealing with Hydra’s looking to be a marathon instead of a sprint. Tony knew that that would be the case if it were true, but Steve needs – needed? – something immediate and urgent and right there to hit.

But he could also slow down. Pace himself.

“Sure, why not,” Tony says. “Could always use a Captain America boost.”

“I do have some experience gussying myself up,” Steve reminds him.

“Really? I had no idea.”

Steve laughs, and it’s… a very nice sound.

 


 

All things considered, Tony should’ve seen the next part coming. But there are a number of moving parts to track at the moment, and for better or worse, Steve is low down Tony’s threat list.

They have a decent day hobbing ‘n nobbing, and afterward get some decent headway in familiarizing themselves with STRIKE’s profiles, activities and allies. But then it’s night.

It’s late, and long after Steve’s gone to his room with the stack of books they picked up on the way back to the tower. Tony’s spent some of it chatting with Bruce before he begged off, and the rest of it juggling various drawing boards. There’s so many moving parts.

It’s then, just as Tony is reviewing a simulation of a possible planet-wide satellite defense system, that he hears footsteps. Imminent threat: one Steve Rogers.

“Tony,” Steve says.

“Nope,” Tony replies.

“I only said your name.”

“And I only said, ‘nope’.”

Tony’s workstation still has the extra chair, which Steve now sinks into. Tony braces himself for a speech, but there’s only the rustle of movement – Steve stretching his legs in front of him and opening a book.

It’s like that for a while. Steve reads, and Tony adjusts high orbit trajectories.

Tony sends three different models into render with a flourish. JARVIS acknowledges the numbers with absolutely no sarcasm, which is in itself enough a reason for Tony to pause.

He looks over. Steve, delightfully, has terrible reading posture, which is a nifty data point. Tony leans towards him, their shoulders bumping. “How far you in? What’s happening?”

“Do you actually want to know, or are you being an ass?”

“Probably the latter,” Tony admits. “I think Russia’s the baddie in this one.”

“Oh now it’s ruined.” Steve slaps the book shut and glares at him. The faux irritation shouldn’t work, not on him, not for this, and not when Tony knows exactly what he’s doing. “Thanks a lot.”

It shouldn’t be Steve sitting here and seeing Tony like this. It should be Rhodey, or Bruce, or even Pepper, who at least make sense. But lots of things don’t make sense lately. Or maybe it’s the whole universe that’s shifted and still shifting under Tony’s feet – redefining what’s real and true and important.

“What do you want, Steve?” Tony says.

“Right now?” The weight of Steve’s gaze should be unsettling, but isn’t. “It’d be nice to go to bed. Want to join me?”

“Okay,” Tony hears himself say.

Steve stands up. He holds a hand out and Tony takes it, letting himself be hauled to his feet. As they go, Steve leading the way, JARVIS turns off the screens behind them without prompting.

It’s not Tony’s room that’s the destination, but Steve’s. Tony almost comments that his room is bigger and has a nicer bed, but Steve probably knows.

“I read that just lying down helps,” Steve says.

“Sure, why not.” Tony peels off his shirt and jeans, which he half-folds and tosses at a nearby chair. When he turns to the bed, he’s hit with the sight of Steve stripped down to only his shorts, miles and miles of skin on display. It’s a lot. Strong shoulders and carved muscles and a tapered waist, with an ass like a cherry on top.

Tony shakes it off quickly, and focuses on climbing into bed. The mattress shifts when Steve follows, crawling under the covers to join him. The bedside lamp dims, leaving the glow of the arc reactor the only source of light in the room. Tony pulls the covers up to his neck, swallowing most of the light.

When’s the last time Tony shared a bed with someone? It’s been a while, hasn’t it. He hadn’t even noticed.

“Just so we clear,” Tony says, as he picks a spot on the ceiling to stare at, “this is not about sex?”

“Not about sex,” Steve says.

“Thank god, I’m not up for it right now.” Tony pauses. “Get it. Not—”

“I get it.”

Tony doesn’t want to sleep. He’s not entirely sure why he agreed to this, aside from the fact that Steve’s blue eyes are lethal. There’s so much that needs doing, and he doesn’t even have a proper timeline to work with. How long does it take for a space army to recoup? Will Loki try again now that he has the Tesseract? What if they—

A touch on his arm makes Tony start. It’s Steve’s hand squeezing gently, his thumb moving in a feather-light line to and fro near Tony’s elbow.

Tony exhales slowly in a low, controlled whistle. He doesn’t want to sleep, but he’ll try.

He drifts off.

And stays off for... a few minutes, a few hours? It’s hard to tell. All he knows is that wakes the same way he’s been doing lately, i.e. gasping and in a cold sweat, and with blue light dancing behind his eyelids.

This time, though, Steve’s there.

Tony rolled over his sleep and is now mostly lying on his stomach, with his head facing the wall. But Steve’s up against his back, a long line of heat that reminds Tony where he is. One of Steve’s hands is on his waist – not holding, just resting – but then it moves, up to Tony’s forehead to wipe at the dampness there.

“Yep,” Tony says quietly.

“It’s okay,” Steve says. “We can stay up if you want.”

“It’s not about want, Steve,” Tony says, though there’s little heat in it. “I don’t have a choice. Not for this, not for any of it.”

“Any of it?”

“Earth. All of it.” Tony presses up into Steve’s palm, where he’s still petting Tony’s hair. It feels good, so what? “Someone has to do it, and it has to be me. There’s that ol’ arrogance you know me for.”

“I suppose it is arrogance to claim responsibility over protecting the whole Earth.”

“Damn right it is. And damn right I’m gonna do it.” Tony sighs when Steve shuffles closer, chest pressed up to Tony’s back and chin brushing Tony’s shoulder. That feels good, too. It’s enough for Tony’s heart to slow its rapid-fire beating, anyway. “No complaints on that, Steve?”

“Don’t think this is the time nor place for constructive criticism.”

“Best kind of pillow talk, in my opinion.”

“Then maybe you could consider asking for help. Whenever it’s convenient, of course.”

Tony grunts. Steve doesn’t seem to mind, though, and just wraps an arm around Tony’s chest, taking care to avoid the arc reactor.

“You awake?” Tony says.

“Yeah?”

“Tell me something stupid about yourself. Just ‘cause I asked.”

“Oh boy, I’m sure spoilt for choice.”

Tony’s laugh comes out as more of a wheeze, but that feels good, too. “Yay, it’s my birthday.”

“Wait, literally?”

“No, Rogers, figuratively. Please proceed.”

 


 

It’s not a decent night of sleep, but it’s something. When Tony finally gets up in the early morning, it’s with the pleasure of crawling out of a bed filled with bed-headed, sleepy-blinking, mostly-naked Steve.

When Steve squints up at him, Tony considers jumping back in and onto Steve’s morning wood. The temptation is there, but it’d feel like he’d be chasing satisfaction that he doesn’t really need. Not at the moment, anyway.

“You okay?” Steve says.

“Yeah,” Tony says. “I’m just gonna…”

“Sure.” Steve lies back down and rubs his knuckles against his eyes. “Is it too early to go for a run?”

“Nah, should be good.”

Steve fixes Tony with an eye. “Want to join me?”

“Not if you paid me, and you can’t afford me. Pick up breakfast on the way back.”

“Only if you don’t complain about whatever I get you.”

“You don’t get to set the Terms & Conditions, pal.” Tony grabs a handful of blanket from his side and throws it over Steve’s head. “I’ll have coffee ready.”

Steve’s still wrestling with the blankets when Tony closes the door.

A few hours and a not-bad breakfast later, it’s late morning and a few things are clear.

Tony suspected this yesterday, but by now there’s no denying it: there’s not much more they can do with Steve’s slice of SHIELD data. It’s been a decent start but barely more than that. Their next move, clear as day, would have to be infiltration.

“You’re going to have to go back to SHIELD,” Tony tells him. “Get to know people, observe how they work from the inside.”

“Espionage was never my strong suit,” Steve says.

“It’s not espionage. It’s… being yourself up close. You are the new guy – Captain America or not – and they have to earn your trust and good will.”

“But there’s the fact that I know, definitively, that some of them are Hydra. I can’t mask my feelings.”

That’s as close to Steve admitting that he’s a self-righteous prick who can’t control his self-righteous prickness. Something very close to affection swells in Tony’s chest. Or maybe that’s just the cream cheese bagels.

“Yeah,” Tony says, “you bleed judginess all over the place.”

“It should be you.”

“What’s that now?”

“It should be you doing the infiltration,” Steve says patiently. “You know how to do it and what to look for.”

“The only way Fury would ever let me in would be if I was under his thumb. But he knows he can’t afford me, either.”

“Not even in, say… an advisory capacity?” Steve says. “After what you’ve done for New York?”

Tony frowns at him. “You’re kinda invested in this?”

“Look, we know that SHIELD is not all bad. Not when Natasha and Clint are there. Hydra could be a rotten limb – or maybe more, yes, but we don’t know for sure yet. But if we can salvage SHIELD, it’s all right there. They have the manpower, the firepower, the tech.”

“To do what?”

“To protect Earth,” Steve says. “Your… project.”

Tony stares at him. Steve shrugs a little, almost embarrassed. As the realization settles in, so does a shiver move up Tony’s spine.

Of course Steve’s been paying attention. He doesn’t listen for funsies, but to hear that spoken out loud, back at him – it’s too much.

“No,” Tony says weakly. “That’s not – that’s not why we’re doing this. This is to get at Hydra.”

“Multitasking,” Steve says promptly. “A new word I’ve learned recently.”

“Jesus, Steve—”

“I was just thinking, you literally found out that there’s someone with your face running around—”

“What?”

“Copy, clone, robot—”

“I know that reference,” Tony says, exasperated. “I just don’t see what that’s got to do with any of this.”

Steve reaches over, taking Tony’s hand in his. Tony realizes with sudden clarity that this is a planned maneuver, kind and insidious and thoughtful. Steve’s brought out the big guns – not the guns that are threatening to break out of his sleeves, but his damned deadly gentle smile, aimed at Tony like a goddamned tractor beam.

“I may not get the full implications,” Steve says, “but I can tell that it’s huge. And not only that – you’re also thinking about Earth, and the Chitauri, and what happens next, which is massive enough in itself. But then here you are, still putting all this effort into pinning Hydra down? Pretty different scales there, Tony.”

“You need it,” Tony blurts out. “You need something.”

Steve nods, far too calm about the fact that there’s very little tethering him to this brave new world. Having something to punch is still having something.

“There can be more than one something,” Steve says.

Oh no, Tony thinks. Oh no.

Sure, Tony had had the idle thought that it would be nice if Steve listened, but he hadn’t expected him to actually listen. Surprise and panic are a concoction, followed by a tiny golden thought of pure delight at the possibility of having someone – Steve – at his back. Maybe. Possibly. It’s too early to make any sort of declaration, and one battle won together does not mean other battles will be as clean-cut.

“I was going to send you to DC, then head back to Malibu,” Tony says.

“Why Malibu?”

“That’s where I live? Oh, and because the demolition team is coming in on Tuesday.”

“The what?”

“All the upper floors.” Tony waves his hand vaguely at the penthouse around them. “Fire sale, everything must go. Rebuilding from near-scratch.”

“Oh,” Steve says. “Okay. Yes, that makes sense.”

“Wanna come with?”

Steve starts. “What?”

“Want to come to Malibu? West Coast, I know, you’ll hate it, but. Howard’s archives are there, and he could have SHIELD records lying around, so that might be worth looking into. And, and, and we could do a bit more planning about SHIELD. Hydra. Whatever other hare-brained schemes you got sloshing around your skull. That.”

Tony thinks he has an excellent game face, what with his having had years to polish it in both public and private. But in this moment of dire need – with Steve’s eyes fucking lighting up like a goddamned twin stars at the invite – it crumbles entirely.

“Yes, I’d love to come with you to Malibu,” Steve says, sincerity hitting harder than any vibranium shield.

This is a moment. A Moment, even. Steve’s still holding Tony’s hand. Tony should probably not ruin it.

“I thought we agreed not to make it awkward,” Tony says.

“You just invited me into your home, unprompted,” Steve says. “I may be Rip Van Winkle, but even I know what that means. So, effectively, you made it awkward first.”

“Oh my god—” Tony laughs, embarrassingly loud and gasping for breath and all. Goddamned Steve with his goddamned sneaky sense of humor. Tony’s not in any danger of falling over but Steve scoots closer anyway, a hand on Tony’s forearm to hold him steady. Tony says, “You’re not supposed to spell things out like that! We’re men – we sublimate, we dance around the facts.”

“No, not interested,” Steve says. “Waste of time.”

“Right. Of course. I forgot who I’m talking to.” Tony clears his throat and tries to tamp down the hopeful, buoyant feeling under his arc reactor. “So.”

“So,” Steve says. “Do you need help packing?”

“Sure, why not.”

“Then let’s get to it.” Steve starts to get up, thinks better of it, and instead forward. The kiss he plants on Tony’s mouth is brief, perfunctory. It leaves Tony tingly all over.

“Okay,” Tony says stupidly.

Steve just smiles. “Where do we start?”

 


 

 

 

“Hey, Tony.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you think the other Us are sleeping together, too?”

“What, you thinking about a foursome? Wait, no, don’t answer that.”