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I (created from fantasies) exist solely for you

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"You know," Steve says, over his comm line, "if the Goblin spends any more time trying to break into Stark Resilient, I think Mr. Stark will have to start charging him rent."

"Pretty sure he's got a solid claim to adverse possession by now," Hill's voice tells him over the comm. "My sweep indicates he's in the twelfth basement level. The heat levels indicate he's burning his way up. Apart from the fall-out, it's a smart plan. Totally bypasses Stark's perimeter sensors."

"Copy that. Should I intervene?"

"Our program suggests the elevator shaft two corridors over should — Hold a second. Wait for new orders. Remain covert. The system's going crazy."

Steve resists the urge to snort. He always has to when SHIELD gives him a 'stay covert' order. If they wanted him to blend into the shadows so much, perhaps dressing him in bright blue, red and white wasn't the best direction to go.

Steve only minds the uniform when he's trying to hide. In the troubled atmosphere of post-Battle-of-New-York America, and the vigilante superhero culture that had risen after Dr. Selvig's tragically heroic death, the country needs all the reassuring symbols it can get its hands on.

Of course, most of the American public seem to think "Captain America" is a string of regular soldiers, taking up the mantel of America's first superhero. They have no idea it's the same Steve Rogers who survived seven decades frozen in ice.

The country needs heroes but doesn't believe in miracles. Steve doesn't blame them one bit.

He leans against the wall, hoping someone might temporarily mistake him for a flag (it's happened!) while he waits for Agent Hill to get back to him.

"Four floors up," Hill says, a few moments later. "I did a heat sweep and there's only one heat source with a distinctive pattern. And he's hovering outside Stark's Weapon Development Lab."

"Iron Man," Steve says, realising. "On it."

"Do you need directions?"

"This is the seventh time in five years someone's made a hit on Stark's Weapon Lab that I've been called in on. I think I can remember the way."

"Copy that. Two patrols are scheduled, regular pattern. If Goblin has mercs on scene, the temp's too cool to register on the scan, so there shouldn't be any group bigger than four as an obstacle."

"Thanks, Agent Hill. Comm silence for now. I'll bounce you a signal if I need any extra support."

"Be careful, Captain," Hill tells him, and the buzz sounds in Steve's ear to inform him she's disconnected.

"Always am," Steve responds, telling empty air.

The super serum that gave Steve his powers, as well as apparently the capacity to survive decades under deep freeze, also gave him eidetic memory. While there are downsides to that (remembering the face and name of every soldier dead from his command in WWII is always going to haunt him) there are upsides too. And that includes the fact that if Steve's been somewhere once, coming back a second time is nice and familiar.

Seven times, and the place practically feels like home.

It's much easier to be stealthy when feeling this comfortable with an environment, even though he's curious as to what must be so interesting that it means taking on the paranoid levels of surveillance and security that Stark Tower's owner — the reclusive billionaire, Tony Stark — lathers the place in.

Despite Steve's confidence and familiarity with the place, the bland military grey corridors do start to look similar after a couple of minutes, and Steve has a moment of doubting himself until he sees first a scorch mark, and then a couple of unconscious security guards.

The first is definitely Iron Man's handiwork. Steve's caught the edge of one of those hand blasts, and even though it didn't hit him straight on, he could definitely feel the heat of it. Iron Man's a lethal weapon — it's easy to see why he's considered a national threat.

Also there's the fact he's seen flying around with supervillains from time to time. That's kind of a clue too. One that Steve doesn't exactly like so much. Because Iron Man doesn't always act like a villain around him unless the public's around.

Agent Fury says that's probably part of Iron Man's schemes. To get Captain America on his side. Whoever has Captain America, Fury says, has some pretty big currency.

Trust a super spy to make Steve feel like a dollar bill.

The men are unconscious, not dead. Which is a clue that they're Iron Man's handiwork too — despite the nuclear bomb Iron Man infamously carried during the Battle of New York, which would have killed Manhattan's ten million in one fell swoop, Iron Man seems to have a distaste for spilling blood.

Steve looks down at them appraisingly. The men are messily unconscious, blood dribbling down one man's forehead. Iron Man seems to be nicer to employees of tax-paying organisations as opposed to rogues and mercenaries. Iron Man wouldn't knock out his own men, ergo, these are the Goblin's mercs.

Therefore Iron Man's working against the Goblin. Not with him. Steve wonders if he should radio this titbit in, but Hill and Fury both usually tell him to can it. He hurries towards the Weapon Lab just in time to see Iron Man blasting at the door.

For a moment, because he's thinking about Fury's theory being right about trying to mess with his head, Steve thinks Iron Man's trying to break into the lab. But then he looks closer, and Iron Man seems to be fusing the door closed, using his hand blasters to melt the door shut rather than blast it open.

The sound of the blasters is loud, but Iron Man still turns his masked face in Steve's direction. "Captain America," Iron Man greets, his computerised voice devoid of any inflection.

"Iron Man," Steve greets, with a terse nod. "Are we going to have to fight? If you're stopping the Goblin getting Stark's weaponry, I have to tell you — I'm not in the mood."

Iron Man makes a sound, which might be his operator — Steve doesn't know for sure there's someone inside the suit, but that's a reminisce for another day — laughing. "Aw, baby," Iron Man says, a hint of swagger in his distorted voice, "have you got a headache?"

"Mm," Steve agrees, shrugging. "He's about six foot tall, green, and rides a hoverboard."

"He is an insane version of back to the future, too," Iron Man says, and Steve pauses, because there's no way Iron Man knows that Steve's from the past, because they've been keeping that secret. Not even Tony Stark knows that his expedition pulled Steve from the ice. The world knows Captain America is back, but the rumour is that it's a ton of different soldiers, all suiting up and perpetuating the myth.

And then he remembers one of the boxsets that Agent Coulson sent him for Christmas. The Green Goblin is an insane version of Back to the Future 2. Right. Iron Man hasn't rumbled him after all.

Steve feels an odd pang which he ignores. It's just fruitless wishing that someone apart from a select few at SHIELD knew the truth about him. It's hard enough to adjust to a new time period, where everyone he once knew is dead, without even being able to talk to anyone about the troubles he's having.

"Like Marty McFly and the Hulk had a baby," Steve says, trying out the reference. He wonders if it's too much — there's more trouble waking up in the future than just not knowing anyone — because Iron Man doesn't react.

And then Iron Man laughs, which his vocal distorter turns into an almost musical sound. "Do not talk to me about the Hulk," Iron Man says eventually, turning his blasts to the top of the door. He's mostly done sealing it shut. Steve doesn't want to think about the pitch fit Tony Stark's going to have when he realises even he can't get into his own weapons lab. "I still have a lump on my head from when he threw me into the Statue of Liberty."

Steve tries not to start. It's the first time that Iron Man has pretty much outright said there is someone inside the suit. Steve's been pretty sure, but confirmation is a shock — Iron Man's been riding the rumour hard that there's nothing inside the suit, and that it's all computer programming and a distant operator.

Then his comm vibrates against his ear, and Steve pulls a face.

"Mom and dad calling, huh?" Iron Man quips. "Tell them we're fighting over who has the last jelly donut."

"You're ridiculous," Steve tells him, and connects. "What's the emergency?" he asks his comm. "I'm a little busy."

"Busy watching me save Stark's bacon with the aid of copious damage to personal property," Iron Man mutters in the background. Steve waggles his fingers in the universal shut the hell up gesture. It just makes Iron Man titter.

"What was that?" Agent Hill asks down the comm. "Never mind, don't tell me. Our heat sweep indicates that the Goblin's one floor below you. Right below you."

"Right," Steve says, "I suppose that explains why the floor's getting hot."

"What," Iron Man howls in the background, "son of a bitch!"

"What was that sound?" Hill asks.

"Is the floor to the lab not reinforced too?" Steve asks Iron Man.

"Hold on," Hill says, thinking the question's for her, "I have someone checking the blueprints."

"It is," Iron Man says. "Just appreciating, sourly, the circumvention of the floor sensors. But no, the lab's safe — the floor in there is too thick for him to burn through. Which means the Goblin has to come up here, and get through the door, and good luck with that."

"I thought by busy you meant you were fighting Iron Man," Hill says, "not making conversation." "We are fighting," Steve tells Maria through the comm.

"Terrible fighting," Iron Man yells, "awkward, domestic arguing about what colour curtains this place should have."

"Just smash his face in before you have to face down the Goblin and Iron Man," Hill says, tiredly. "Wait a second."

Steve freezes for just a moment.

"The voice in your ear telling you something good?" Iron Man asks, sending one last pulse of energy into the door, showing sparks on the floor. Steve shrugs, and takes a couple of steps back — the floor's heating up rapidly.

"The army's here," Hill says. "Is the weapons lab secure?"

Steve looks at the melted door. "It'll hold at least ten minutes," he guesses.

"At least twenty!" Iron Man howls, obviously displeased even over the computerized tone. "Maybe thirty if the Goblin's used up too much of his battery power on the way up."

"ETA five minutes for the army to override Stark's protocols and get in," Hill says. "Your orders are to evacuate. Do not engage the Goblin. If you can get out before he even sees you, our analysis indicates he'll be less inclined to target you in the future." "Evacuate," Steve says out loud for Iron Man's benefit. "Gotcha. What's the best exit point?"

"Fourth floor," Hill says, "laundry chute."

"Well that's dignified," Steve says, already turning and jogging towards the stairs. Eight flights up in under five minutes. It would have been impossible in his pre-serum days. "ETA two minutes," he barks, and closes down the comm line again. Hill will buzz him again if it's urgent.

"Are we fleeing?" Iron Man says, from behind him. "Care to share an exit point? I don't exactly want to face-off with the Goblin today. He's so tedious. The man can brag for hours."

Having been on the receiving end of some boasting from Iron Man before, Steve shoots him an amused look through his mask.

Iron Man can only see his mouth and eyes, but that's enough. "Point taken," Iron Man says.

"Fourth floor," Steve says, reluctantly.

"The laundry chute?" Iron Man says, disbelief ringing through his disguised voice. "SHIELD treats you so good, baby."

"So I should join the dark side, huh?" Steve says. "Do you have cookies?"

"And milk. And nice bedtime stories," Iron Man says. "And much more stylish escape routes."

In hindsight, Steve should really have seen it coming. As it is, he doesn't, and he lets out a rather undignified squeak that Iron Man chuckles at. The sound's low and warm in Steve's ear, but that's not really what he's fixated on. No, Steve's much more concerned about suddenly being a couple of feet off the ground.

"Hold on," Iron Man says, sounding gleeful, "and enjoy the ride, Captain."

All things considered, Steve would probably have enjoyed it more if Iron Man hadn't grabbed him in a bridal lift.

The Goblin gets away. Admittedly empty-handed, but Steve's still a little peeved. It's got to be the fourteenth Green Goblin encounter where SHIELD have pulled him away. At first he thought it was because they were being cautious with him — contrary to the world's opinion that SHIELD do only have one of him.

Now he's just pretty sure they're using him almost as bait. To see what the Green Goblin's master plan is. It's smart, and something Steve would have been all on board with, apart from the fact Fury thinks it's awesome not to tell him that it's the plan.

Steve doesn't like being manipulated at the best of times, but being manipulated to do something he would do anyway? Yeah, he's not a big fan.

Today he wasn't so much bait for the Green Goblin — getting there after the Goblin had already chewed up some of Stark's outer defenses. Unless he's bait for Iron Man, which is just weird. He just wishes Fury would let him on some of these things. Then again, maybe Fury thinks he's too young — he's only technically a nonagenarian, mentally he's still in his twenties.

He sits and waits at the briefing table anyway, because that's part of his usual orders, and waits some more. He can't even pull his mask down, which is irksome — the helicarrier's a little hot — but no one is supposed to know his true identity. Probably so Fury can bump him off and replace him with the string of soldiers that everyone keeps talking about. No one would be the wiser. Apart from Captain America either becoming much less daring (Steve only makes the leaps he does because he's fallen from those heights too as well as managing crazy leaps through explosions and so knows he can survive) or dying and coming back to life more times than Steve's rumoured to have done so (once!)

Fury doesn't stop by for long, just sweeps over to the table, his coat billowing dramatically, and arches one of his Iron Man, again? expressions.

Steve just shrugs, and gives a brief outline of what happened while Fury paces back and forth by the table, listening.

"Hm," is Fury's first response, which Steve has learned can mean anything from I have an ulterior motive for not responding to you in sentence form to this is one of the most boring parts of my otherwise cool job to disappointment to, well, hm. "Agent Hill gave her report a little differently." Steve squirms a little in his seat, but keeps his upper body immobile so his discomfort doesn't show. "Do I need to remind you that Iron Man is a registered enemy of SHIELD? Or do we need another history recap of one of the many years you missed where Iron Man tried to nuke Manhattan?"

Steve bristles, because he has his own theories on that. "Iron Man wasn't my priority. The Goblin and the weapons lab were. Protocol dictates I focus on the priorities of the mission as dictated by my SHIELD handler."

"You're riding protocol pretty hard, Captain." Fury pauses in his pacing. "I'd say you were in need of a vacation, but I'm not sure you understand the word."

Steve's mouth twitches to one side. "I was asleep in the ice for 71 years, sir. I think that was enough of a break for a lifetime."

Fury says "hm" again, which sounds like it's the disappointment variety. "No more missions planned for the night," Fury says, eventually, "but Marketing want to see you. Something about another PSA."

Steve nods. "Agent Coulson mentioned something a few weeks ago about target times, and how it would be more efficient if pedestrians parted on the sidewalk, like cars do on the road for emergency vehicles."

Fury mouths some of that sentence, and tilts his head.

Steve shrugs again.

"Dismissed," Fury says. "Go and have fun drawing yourself."

"Yes, sir," Steve says, because it's easier than anything else he might say. Steve's priority is obeying orders (as long as they're morally right orders, of course), not questioning his superior's phrasing.

Besides, Steve doesn't know how else you would say it.

He does draw himself.

It's not as narcissistic as it sounds.

It was just an accident.

After Steve woke up, a year after the Chitauri ravaged New York, and the mysterious Asgardian demi-god (small g, please) Thor saved the day and disappeared, Steve found it difficult to adjust to modern day. The SHIELD missions helped. Steve liked being useful, and it turned out that after an alien attack, US citizens were pretty pleased to accept the idea of superheroes.

Well. Superhero singular. Steve's kind of the only one, if you don't count the Avengers as part of the equation. SHIELD protocol stipulates that because the Avengers are freelance, and their identities unknown, that they can't be accepted as superheroes. With their refusal to be brought under any kind of government control, the Avengers that patrol New York and protect the remains of the city are officially vigilantes, nothing more.

New Yorkers don't really care that the Avengers are vigilantes, and accept them as easily as they accept "Captain America".

To increase the acceptance of Captain America, SHIELD allows the government to put out certain amounts of propaganda. This, oddly, makes Steve feel more at home in the current decade. Propaganda is something he knows. It's a terrible comfort that some things haven't changed.

To cut a long, slightly dull story short, Steve had been sitting in a meeting for over three hours, with most of the discussion going over his head, and as a result he had ended up doodling in his message pad for most of it. Agent Coulson, ridiculously addicted to picking up anything and everything Steve doesn't nail down, picked up his sketch and proposed the idea of making public announcements with illustrations of Captain America. It would propagate the idea of there being several Captain Americas (which could, apparently, only make the public feel safer), and the comic-style illustration would give the right kind of message to the public.

Steve's sketch started out on the idea board, and somehow worked its way up into the final draft, no one bothering to sketch out an alternative. Then before Steve knew it, the Marketing department painted up his sketch into the final thing, and from then on, no one has thought to requisition sketches from anywhere else.

Steve had been a comic artist back in the twenties. He guesses it kind of makes sense, even though there's a weird disconnection he feels between his jobs: saving the day, and then illustrating it. It's the same disconnection he feels between being Captain America and being Steve Rogers, though, so maybe life is just supposed to feel like he's living two different people's existences at once.

He fetches takeout on the way home. It's lonely eating on his own, but the only people Steve meets know him as Captain America; it's probably sad that he has to turn on the television to get some sound in his Steve Rogers side of life. Maybe Fury was right about the vacation, Steve thinks, idly flicking to a news channel and moving his portable drawing board to the lounge table so he can pick at his risotto, and watch TV over the top of his sketch.

Fury makes sarcastic comments sometimes about Steve's "student lifestyle", but Steve can't help it; multi-tasking was the only way to get things done during the Depression. Adjusting to the future doesn't mean having to leave all of the past behind.

Steve's getting quite into the sketch (he's not in charge of the text, else it would read:"If you see Captain America running, he's either running away from something dangerous or to something dangerous" rather than "please stand as far to the side of the sidewalk as you can if you see Captain America approaching") when his watch vibrates, jolting his hand to the left.

He flips up the lid, expecting to see someone's face in the small screen, but it's just a text. Switch to channel 7. Steve ignores how SHIELD know he's even watching television, because that's an intrusion into his privacy that he doesn't know how to handle, and he does as he's told, because that's who he is.

At first he doesn't see the connection, and then he hears them say his name.

It's always odd hearing someone saying Steve Rogers out loud.

It's some sort of article about Captain America. They pop up every now and again. At first, they made Steve uncomfortable, but now he accepts them. People are curious. And really, when they thank him, it's a thank you to Dr. Erskine, rather than celebrating Steve himself. That makes it easier to take.

"Is Captain America a row of volunteers? Or is he actually the same person? Monty here from Brooklyn insists that Captain America isn't just one person, he's the original Steve Rogers from the Erskine experiments," the pretty blonde journalist drawls, and thrusts a microphone in the face of one of Brooklyn's homeless. Steve pauses, the remote control still extended in his hand. He's seen the guy around, maybe at the soup kitchen on Joralemon Street, but he looks way too young to have known Steve back when.

Not that it means Monty can't identify him. Steve once met a couple of women who met Captain America on one of his bonds-tours. They had been eight at the time. Steve helped carry their groceries, and they'd told him, warmly and earnestly, that he reminded them of the lovely Captain America.

That's the closest Steve's come to anyone outside of SHIELD discovering he survived seven deep frozen decades without even aging.

Except maybe now.

"You all," Monty says onscreen, after gaping at the camera for a few seconds, "you media types, you keep spreading the story that Captain America is a row of army men. But I'm here to tell you he's not. He's not. He's just one person."

"Many people have that belief," the journalist says, eagerly, "based on the rare public appearances."

"It's obvious, isn't it? He doesn't hide his mouth or eyes. It's one guy all right. There's no normal human could do what he does, leaping from building onto monsters, it isn't natural — the Avengers are proof of that."

"So you're saying Captain America isn't human?" the journalist questions.

Steve wriggles on the sofa. He's wondered that, on several post-serum occasions. How much did the serum change his basic DNA? Does he even class as human anymore?

"I'm saying, he's the same Steve Rogers. The original Captain America. That German doctor, what's his name. Erskine. They said Captain America was injected with a special serum. I swear, that serum's kept him alive. You don't just disappear in the middle of a war. Not if you're Captain America. Naw, Steve Rogers has been donning his uniform in secret for the last seven decades, you count my words!"

"So, you're saying it's the original Steve Rogers, he's still Captain America. He's ninety year old and leaping around in spandex to save the day." The journalist's neutral tone slips a little, betraying her disbelief.

Monty shuffles, realizing the journalist isn't believing him. "I'm saying the serum didn't age him. Rogers is gonna live forever."

"Right," the journalist says, sarcasm now clearly lacing her tone. "Steve Rogers disappeared in the forties and only now, during the last five years, pops up around the world to save the day? Missing all the conflicts where we needed him over the last seven decades, including the Battle of New York where Dr. Erik Selvig sacrificed himself to save the world."

"Just listen to me," Monty continues, ignoring her, and stabbing his finger at the camera lens like he's just about to prove everything, "lookit all the official Captain America illustrations. They're signed SR! Steve Rogers was a comic book illustrator before the serum."

"So that's what he was doing in his seventy-year break? Drawing pictures for posters telling us to back away if we see Captain America in action?" the journalist questions.

Monty stares back at her, his mouth working wordlessly.

"There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. The street's view on Captain America. Not a row of trained military men, taking on an old hero's name to make us all feel safer, but a nonagenarian artist from the thirties." The journalist pouts to exaggerate her full, collagen-enhanced lips. "I guess I do feel safer at that idea. Until Steve Rogers needs a hip replacement, New York's streets are as safe as ever."

Steve sighs, turns the channel off, and throws the remote to one side. The silence that follows buzzes in his ears for a moment, until the faint hum of Brooklyn's downtown starts to filter through his windows again.

The sound's calming. The chatter of people coming home from bars. The thunder of aging cars screeching down the narrow roads. The honk of car horns, and the soft laughter of Brooklyn's sizeable art crowd, staying up late and gossiping on the street corners, batting down offers from ladies of the night. Even considering that it's a rare break from the rain, and it's missing that soft layer of rainfall as a bass line, it's kind of Steve's lullaby.

It's a reminder that while the world has changed and evil has advanced in his years on ice, that some things have stayed the same. That there's still goodness to fight for and people to protect.

Even if Steve also has to protect idiotic journalists along the way.

Still, Steve smirks, if the truth ever gets out, he hopes Monty gets a chance to tell that smug journalist I told you so. In Monty's honor, he looks down at his latest sketch and neatly scrawls the biggest SR he's ever written at the bottom right of the drawing, near his boots.

His watch buzzes again, and Steve, in a pique of annoyance at having his drawing already interrupted for a news article that doesn't actually affect him, almost doesn't check it. But he's way too conscientious for that. He sighs, flips open the screen, and Agent Hill stares at him.

She looks exhausted and strained.

Steve doesn't even hesitate to fling himself to his feet.

Transferring Agent Hill's voice to his in-ear comm piece, Steve heads up the secret staircase to the roof of his apartment building and hurries into the small out-building where he changes into his uniform.

"We got a heads up on Iron Man targeting an unscheduled shipment. I'm sending you the co-ordinates now," Hill says. Steve's wrist device vibrates with the message. "Your job is to intercept him, and bring him to the helicarrier."

"Intercept Iron Man?" Steve says, glancing down at his wrist and adjusting his course. "He's got way more firepower than I do."

He can almost hear Agent Hill shrug. "So catch him unawares. Good luck."

The line goes dead. Steve sighs, and ups his pace now he doesn't have to talk and run at the same time.

It's easy to think as he runs. Steve has always supposed one day he would have to bring Iron Man in for questioning, but he hadn't expected it would be so soon. Or maybe he didn't expect it to be after Iron Man had been basically helping Steve on SHIELD business.

Maybe Steve's just so caught up with the theory that Iron Man is good that he just doesn't want to see the truth.

The world knows Iron Man is a villain.

Maybe he is.

Iron Man is not a villain.

Steve's been telling himself carefully the whole way to the specified co-ordinates that Iron Man may very well be a villain, and as such he's semi-prepared to find him throwing repulsor blasts at kittens, and twirling a metal moustache.

He finds him instead guarding a shipment of political refugees from, well, Steve's not too sure. But instead of taking Iron Man in, Steve spends an hour fighting off these small darting fighter jets that must only have room in for one pilot. It's long, hard work and, half-way through, the ship carrying the refugees is hit in the hull. Steve gets drenched helping them out onto shore and under cover, while Iron Man lays down cover fire.

As the captain of the ship stutters his thanks to Steve (well, to Captain America), and Steve gets a glimpse of the official papers in his hands for the refugees, Steve knows there's no interpretation of this scenario that paints Iron Man as anything but a hero.

It takes Steve a moment to locate Iron Man after he leaves the dripping refugees to the (very late arriving) police, but he's spent a good portion of his five years awake chasing after the guy, and most of that, fighting alongside him. Or pretending to fight him.

Mostly just exchanging cute banter, if he's being honest about it.

Iron Man's leaning between two large racks of shipping containers, his legs bent, his masked head tilted back against the nearest container. It's raining now, but Steve's already wet — he hurries over to Iron Man and holds his shield up over Iron Man's head.

Iron Man doesn't move his head, but Steve gets a strong feeling that Iron Man is side-eyeing him. Then he worries that Iron Man is actually made of iron, and that Iron Man is rusting, and he quails — it's one thing "letting Iron Man go". It's another thing "carrying a rusted Iron Man to somewhere safe and somewhat forgetting to take him into SHIELD's custody".

"The armor's made of gold-titanium alloy," Iron Man's distorted voice tells him. Steve jumps a little, and is glad that it's raining so Iron Man can't see Steve's embarrassed blush at being startled.

And then he has a little extra panic, because this is a brand new New York that Steve's woken up in, and even before freezing himself, he'd seen things beyond belief. "Are you psychic?"

Iron Man makes a buzzing sound which might be a laugh. "You're just precious sometimes, Cap," Iron Man tells him.

Steve blinks, partially to get rid of the rain drenching his eyelashes, but partially because he needs time to think. "What did you just call me?"

Iron Man's head does turn to him then, the blank mask staring at Steve. "Cap. Captain America. Does no one at SHIELD call you that?"

Steve shakes his head. "Captain, or Captain America." He glances up, into the rain. "Or spandex drowned puppy, on occasion."

It's definitely a laugh through Iron Man's voice modulator this time. "I do approve of the spandex. Especially wet. That's a good look on you."

Steve's cheeks heat a little. It's cold and late and raining, and he can't feel a thing.

He rarely can when Iron Man is around.

"You can't stand there and use your national icon as an umbrella all night, Cap," Iron Man says, turning his mask away again. "I'll be fine. Unless you're actually going to take me into SHIELD this time. But I don't think you will."

"You don't?" Steve says, meaning to be cool, but his voice breaks a little, and Steve shrugs. "I won't."

Iron Man turns back to him, and stands up straight, fully facing Steve. Steve lowers his shield slowly, sliding it down so it's at his side, and Iron Man moves in closer. "Aren't you going to get in trouble for that?" Iron Man says, and even through the modulator, there's a distinct rasp to Iron Man's tone.

Steve's eyes lock on where Iron Man's eye holes are. He should be afraid. Iron Man is a villain. With a mega-wattage of power at his disposal. Iron Man could level a building in seconds.

He's not afraid. Iron Man twitches one of his metal-covered hands, and lifts it hesitantly to Steve's cheek. The metal fingers are cool to touch, colder even than the raining falling between them, but Steve doesn't care about the rain flooding down on them.

He's drawn to the man in front of him, and the soft glow of Iron Man's eyes, and the almost magnetic pull he feels whenever the so-called villain is around.

"When you're around, I can't seem to help myself," Steve admits, his voice a little raw.

Iron Man stares at him soundlessly for a long moment, and then he raises his other hand. Steve's aware that Iron Man could be getting ready to hurt him, but he stays, passive. He trusts Iron Man, and maybe it's time for someone to show Iron Man that he is trusted.

It's working. Steve's sure it's working. Iron Man takes his hand away, but moves it to the base of his helmet, like he's about to lift his mask, and Steve's heart is pounding, and he can't look away, even with the rain hitting his face and falling in his eyes. His whole world is narrowed down to this moment. He's finally going to know who Iron Man is. He's finally going to find out if he's the only one who feels the frisson of something between them.

"When will I see you again?" Steve blurts, and then swallows, like he's trying to pull the words back in.

Iron Man could be looking anywhere, but Steve has the feeling whoever is inside that suit is looking directly at him. He looks for a while, and then, Iron Man's distinctively masked voice says, "Don't tense up."

Steve frowns, and almost flinches, but holds still as Iron Man puts one metal hand over Steve's face. Over his eyes. There's a smooth jnnnnnk sound, like a metal panel pulling back, and Steve shuts his eyes tight, putting himself completely at Iron Man's mercy.

He hadn't quite realized just how deeply he trusts Iron Man until this moment.

"You'll see me sooner than you think." That's Iron Man's cadence, definitely, but without the distortion. It's a husky voice, definitely male, and strong. Steve thinks there's something almost familiar about it, but then he can't think at all.

Because Iron Man kisses him.

Unable to see, the kiss is the most intimate thing that Steve's ever been a part of. Iron Man's mouth is warm and decidedly human, and fits against Steve's own mouth like it was made to fit him. Iron Man's definitely not a newbie at this kissing thing, kissing Steve in a hazy mess between precise and frantic wanting, and Steve, his heart pounding, kisses back. Iron Man has a beard, and that's not something Steve's even daydreamed about, and that makes it real. It's the closest to alive that Steve's felt since waking up in this century.

And then Steve's wrist alert goes off, shattering the moment in two pieces. Steve can feel the moment fold back in on itself, and he lifts his wrist device to his mouth, carefully deactivating the video feed in case it goes two ways and they see Iron Man there with him. "America here," Steve says.

Something low in his gut lurches as Iron Man lowers his hands from his face, and starts to step backwards. When Steve slowly opens his eyes, Iron Man's mask is carefully in place again. It tastes like disappointment.

"Fury wants you in," Hill says.

"Roger that," Steve says, his voice still feeling raw.

"Were you able to restrain Iron Man?" Hill asks. Her tinny voice floats through the air, amplified by the metal containers either side of them. Iron Man freezes imperceptibly.

Steve doesn't look away from Iron Man as he says, "Negative. Unable to capture Iron Man." Iron Man nods at him, mask as ambiguous as ever, and he flies off through the rain.

Steve touches his mouth in wonder and follows his flight path with his eyes until Iron Man is gone, and he sinks back against the wall, still touching his lips. Iron Man is good. And a hell of a kisser. Steve knows which of those two things will be going in his report to Fury.

He can't make himself move, lost in the rain and his thoughts.

Three thoughts, in particular.

About three things, Steve is absolutely positive.

First, Iron Man isn't a villain.

Second, there's a part of Steve — and he isn't sure how dominant that part might be — that has a little bit (aka a lot) of a swooning crush on Iron Man (because heroics and good deeds have always turned Steve's head a little.)

And third, Steve is unconditionally and irrevocably unable to follow Fury's order to bring Iron Man in.

"So you're telling me, even with your years of experience and serum-enhanced abilities and your immaculate mission completion record, that you couldn't bring in Iron Man," Fury says, folding his arms and pacing back and forth. He doesn't bring up the barriers around the briefing table.

Steve's going to be humiliated publicly, then.

Steve tilts his chin, challengingly. "I could. But not without endangering children and vulnerable adults."

Fury visibly grinds his teeth, and shakes his head. "The whole thing smells fishy to me." "The altercation with the terrorists was at the docks," Steve says, deliberately being obtuse. "That smell might be me."

Fury stops, and stares at Steve with his one bad eye. "You know precisely what I mean."

"Maybe not precisely," Steve allows. He steels himself to voice the theory he's been forming on the helicopter ride up to the helicarrier. The papers in the captain's hand had been very official. The kind that takes months to procure, and go through all the databases for verification.

All the databases, including SHIELD's.

"It was a test," Steve says, not even hiding the challenge in his voice.

"Really," Fury says, and does slam up the barriers so the rest of the helicarrier bridge crew can't see or hear them. "And what precisely was I testing?"

"You know precisely what I mean," Steve taunts back. You were testing me. To see if I would follow orders over my own morality.

Fury sighs, audibly.

"And I didn't fully pass, did I?" Steve looks up, hard. "You were angling for proof I would follow all orders, mindlessly. That's not what Erskine enhanced me for. I'm not a mindless weapon. I stand for what's right, and that's not always going to coincide with what SHIELD thinks is right."

Fury's silent, which is just about all the confirmation that Steve needs to know he's right.

"So what happens now?" Steve says. He leans back like he's trapped and might as well be comfortable, but it's an obvious lie — both he and Fury know he could escape if things turn sour.

"Officially? You're on probation." Fury shrugs. "I've got an undercover mission for you. If you hit your aims on this one, SHIELD will let me put you back on active duty."

"An undercover mission," Steve repeats. He's done a few of those, although not on probation as it were. "Undercover villainy? Another SHIELD division?"

"A civilian operation," Fury says, and clicks something in his pocket. A large screen drops down. "Have you heard of The Retaliators?"

"Sure," Steve says, his eyes tracking the screen, as several comic book covers zoom up to fill it. "It's an independent comic that's done pretty well for itself on limited release, despite the fact that it's rumored to be a fictionalization of the actions of the vigilante group known as the Avengers."

He pointedly ignores the few times he's shown up in the comics as 'Captain Awesome', a blue-suited superhero-slash-villain who shows up, says irritatingly patriotic, judgmental things and bounds away to fight Metal Girl for no good reason.

Captain Awesome and Metal Girl even have their own cheesy superhero catchphrase exchange. 'I'll get you next time, Metal Girl' — 'Not if I get you first, Awesome.'

Steve can't even think of a situation where anyone could say those clunky, cheesy words and not lose all dignity instantly. "I also know that it's located in Stark Towers, above the Green Goblin's favorite target area of Tony Stark's energy company."

"Phil Coulson has been working there undercover for the last two years as a penciller," Fury says, surprising Steve out of his slightly whiny thoughts about how he's represented in the comics.

Steve knows Agent Coulson. Sadly, a little too well. The guy gets pretty clingy whenever Steve shows up.

"I thought we could continue to balance his agent work alongside this task. But unfortunately," Fury says, "I pulled him out of the comic book's office to try and track the Green Goblin after he left Stark Tower yesterday, and he got a little too close, and now he can't draw. Which is a problem. With the Goblin so interested in something inside Stark Tower, I need someone in there, keeping an eye on things."

"So you want me to... be the penciller for the — " Steve swallows down ridiculously insulting publication and replaces it with " — for the comic?"

Fury looks at him, like he knows what Steve is thinking.

Steve's probably grinding his teeth a little too loudly, and goes for the next thing bothering him. "I know processes have changed since my um, incident — " Even though the barriers are active, Steve's careful with this part of his history, " — but don't I need to interview for that?"

Fury shakes his head. "We forwarded your portfolio, and Coulson personally recommended you; I also pulled in a couple of favors, and Stan Lee and Joss Whedon both called Stark Creative's CEO, a Miss. Virginia Potts, to vouch for you."

Steve's eyebrows both shoot up. Even though Fury can't really see that through Steve's constrictive mask, his reaction is obviously still clear, because Fury smirks.

"Here's your recon information," Fury says, throwing a tablet across the table. "Read it. You start tomorrow."

"Yes, sir," Steve says, recognizing a dismissal when he hears one. He pushes up from the table. "Permission to disembark the helicarrier?"

"Permission granted," Fury says, turning the barrier off. Steve turns to leave. "Oh, and Captain?" Steve turns his head. "Be careful."

Steve just nods sombrely.

This job must be harder than it seems on the surface.

Those words very rarely leave Nick Fury's lips.

It can't be any harder than it seems on the surface.

Steve doesn't know whether to be shocked or laugh.

Director Fury's basically sending him undercover to be a weather boy.

Seriously, that's it. Steve jumped automatically to the bottom of his papers, where his mission parameters are, and found it in neat black and white: four times a day, Steve has to check the weather, and note down any time the particularly rainy New York weather turns into a thunderstorm.

The cover is basically ridiculous. An excuse to get him into the building. And then, four times a day, Steve has to check the weather, and note down any time the particularly rainy New York weather turns into a thunderstorm.

He stews for a moment before lifting up his wrist communication device and pressing the button that connects him through to Agent Hill.

Her face appears immediately, her hair scraped back in its usual efficient style. Steve can see clouds drifting behind her. Much like Steve himself, Maria rarely leaves her station or does anything that's not work, work, work.

"Ah," Hill says. "You've either read all the information, or just the job summary."

Steve's mouth curls into a weird shape all on its own. "I presume if I kick up a fuss about not being used effectively that I'll be denied?"

"Excellent presumption as usual, Captain," Hill says. Captain, after having Iron Man call him Cap, sounds so weirdly stiff and formal and almost distant. Like the rank doesn't even really belong to him anymore.

When she doesn't say anything, Steve realizes the truth. "This is how Fury gets me to go on vacation? Seriously?"

Hill's face stays absolutely still, but the microphone picks up a small cough from the back of her throat. Steve's exactly right. Steve stares, and Hill's face finally crumples into an assertive expression. "The serum enhanced you, Captain, but you're still human. You need a break before you burn out."

Steve stares in disbelief.

"The assignment is important," Hill says, but she doesn't sound as assertive as usual, and she knows it. She actually sighs, and Steve resists the urge to note the epic event in his diary. SHIELD agent shows sign of genuine emotion. Must research other potential apocalyptic signs. "Oh, fine," Hill says, when Steve shows no sign of stopping his stare of epic disbelief. "Fury's gonna give you a week off your assignments. Then I guess you can jump around the city in your spangly outfit again if a call comes in."

Steve wants to smile, but the spangly outfit snark obviously twists his smile into something amusing to Hill, because she smirks at him. The smirk falls after a second.

"If there is anything else interesting that comes up in your research," Hill says, and then her tone drops a few decibels, "perhaps it's best you don't call me."

Steve only has time to frown before she breezes him a sunny smile, in her favorite I can cut you in a thousand different ways before you have time to blink once manner, and cuts off the link.

He stares at the blank screen.

In their business, interesting means danger and disaster and possible death, destruction and dastardly deeds.

Interesting is one of Steve's favorite words.

Interesting as a potential outcome of the upcoming research means that Steve is less grouchy than he could be as he reaches for the large box of papers. There are cardboard dossiers on all the employees of Stark Creative, but their files are thin — either SHIELD have never had to research them much, or Fury's holding back — and there's not a complete back-run of The Retaliators but a key selection of the comics, along with a memo which claim that they're considered by fans of the Retaliators to be the seminal issues.

First, Steve pulls out a sheet which has a summary of The Retaliators.

The Retaliators are vigilante superheroes who battle supervillains, all the while trying to convince the civilian Ron Drake that he's actually the mysterious North god Quetzal, aka "Sore"; his memories were parted from him by the terrible price he paid protecting humanity from the evil Gregori. Ron must gain his memories back so he can find his Magic Staff, Murmur, before the bad guys figure out how to get hold of it and use the power for themselves. Murmur has enough power to take over the whole world.

Steve goes to the dossiers first. Before the war, before the serum, comic books were the only territory that made sense, along with the sensation of being beaten up by bullies, and comics rarely changed from issue to issue. If there's something "interesting" to be found, it's probably in the dossiers.

There's nothing too much in them. A brief summary that barely says anything, and some headshots. MS. NATASHA ROMANOV seems to share creative credits to the comic along with TONY STARK, but in Steve's experience, billionaires who fund creative projects don't tend to be heavily actually involved in the creative process. Natasha's bio is very brief, but her headshot shows that she's a beautiful woman. Her stats say she's relatively short, but there's something almost dangerous on her placid expression. Something which reminds Steve suddenly and insistently about Agent Hill.

Perhaps this assignment isn't as vanilla as the précis suggests.

There is very little about the inker DR. BRUCE BANNER, apart from the fact he's a doctor of physics and comes from a heavy science background, and his headshot shows a man with scruffy hair and a tired demeanor; there's even less about the "scientific consultant" DR. DON BLAKE, a younger man with short blond hair and eyes as blue as the sky.

The smallest file is on MS. VIRGINIA "PEPPER" POTTS, and a note saying she'll be Steve's superior for the duration of his assignment. It doesn't give her real age, but her photo is clear. She's absolutely gorgeous, and she's apparently been working diligently for Tony Stark for years. Her brief bio describes her as loyal to an extreme, completely competent, and has a tiny note at the bottom about her terrifying ability to run in heels.

Next, Steve flicks through DR. TONY STARK's biography, and this one is a little longer. Steve doesn't linger too much on the headshot. It's not a good photo of Tony Stark — it's mostly a blur, like someone's taken it from a distance and missed — and Steve finds himself oddly reassured by that, because he remembers Howard Stark, and doesn't know how he'll respond to the adult son of someone he remembers as a young, reckless, brilliant scientist.

Tony Stark's biography is a realistic extrapolation of Howard Stark's reckless, playboy side — up until a point six years ago, when Stark withdrew from the public. Completely. Something happened with his business partner Obadiah Stane, and there's a vague reference to an "incident", but that's all. Something happened to take Howard's playboy son off the streets and out of the glitzy parties, but the file doesn't have the details. So it's either something to do with SHIELD's favorite subject weaponry (Stark Industries used to make weapons until it turned to green energy) or something to do with money, which SHIELD has no interest at all in.

It's when Steve turns to the colorist file, a MR. CLINT BARTON, that things start to click into place. He nearly skirts past Clint's headshot, but his eyes move up of their own volition to the photo, and Steve's fingers falter on the pages of the file.

Clint Barton's face stares back at him from the page, framed with a hairstyle which makes it look like Barton's just wandered in from dallying around inside a hurricane; brown hair sticking every which way.

It's familiar. Really oddly familiar. Steve frowns. He remembers faces. He always remembers faces. Clint Barton's face isn't ringing any coherent bells of awareness; more an insistent echo in the back of his brain somewhere. That hairstyle is pretty distinctive, and —


Oh, it can't be.

But the way Steve's stomach almost pulses in excitement tells him he's onto something. Steve opens all the files at once, headshots prominent, and he pulls forward Clint's, Natasha's and Bruce's photos and stares at them pensively.

Even Bruce's face is ringing a bell now. Steve has met Bruce Banner before. Only twice, but Steve's definitely met him. Once in downtown Manhattan, and another time on Staten Island. Both times the Hulk had been smashing up supervillains in the vicinity, and a man — who Steve now knows is Bruce Banner — hurried past him. Bruce knocked into him once, and he apologized. He had a nice voice and a very soft manner about him; the more Steve thinks about it, the more he remembers.

Steve frowns. Clint's hairstyle. It's identical to Hawkeye's. Steve — as Captain America — has come up against the Avengers countless times. Usually at a distance. And protocol dictates he has to ask them to leave the vicinity to let the official forces deal with incidences, but because the Avengers are usually doing good, Steve doesn't shout that loudly to get the attention of the official forces.

If Clint Barton is Hawkeye... Natasha Romanov could easily be the Black Widow. They both wear masks, and Steve normally encounters them in the dark and the rain, because New York has practically been besieged by rain since the Battle of New York, so he's not 100% sure that the Black Widow has red hair, but she definitely has short hair, much like Natasha Romanov's.

And if Steve's right, and Clint is Hawkeye, and Natasha is the Black Widow...

The Hulk's pants are always torn. Like he's suddenly grown and exploded into them. He could transform, from a human into his regular size. And now Steve looks at Bruce Banner again, there is something weirdly familiar about him, too.

If there is anything else interesting that comes up in your research, Hill told him, perhaps it's best you don't call me.

So SHIELD might already know the people who work on the Retaliators are maybe, possibly, potentially, actually the Avengers, and for some reason, SHIELD are unable to formally accept that they know who the Avengers are.

Because then we would be sent after them in earnest, Steve thinks, feeling a little queasy. The Avengers might be illegal, and thus in SHIELD formal terminology they fall into the category supervillain despite their errant do-gooding, but they're practically the only people keeping New York together from the constant attacks. If Steve was single-handedly patrolling New York, the Green Goblin would have conquered New York years ago.

Steve looks up from the papers so he can catch his breath. He feels like energy is crackling through him. It's been a long time since he's felt the thrill of a chase when he's stationary and in civilian clothing, and he's never felt it when he hasn't had a pencil in his hand and put to paper.

He barely knows what to do with himself. He thinks back to his briefing with Fury. Fury, the ultimate spy. The lying liar who lies. The lying liar who seems to take the most pleasure in lying with the truth.

What is it that Steve said himself about The Retaliators?

It's an independent comic that's done pretty well for itself on limited release, despite the fact that it's rumored to be a fictionalization of the actions of the vigilante group known as the Avengers.

It's kind of ingenious. The Avengers themselves turning their own adventures into a comic to sell. It's a morally ambiguous way of earning money, that's for sure, but vigilante heroics can't be cheap. And there's definitely got to be an amount of creativity involved, because Steve does know one part of the comics — the cheesy Captain Awesome and the insane Metal Girl — are entirely fictitious. Because while he kinda is a nemesis to the Avengers, he's not cheesy. And Iron Man's not a girl. And Steve's butt is entirely natural, not padded.

Anyway. Frustrations aside. Perhaps there's maybe something he can learn about the Avengers from their comic.

Even though that's not a thought Steve ever imagined he'd be saying.

Although having thought that, Steve used to be an eighty-four pound weakling from the 30s, so what does he really know about things being impossible?

He settles down and starts to read the comics he's been issued, and picks a random one in the middle.

Steve finds himself sucked into the story before he remembers he's supposed to be reading it analytically.

In the issue he's reading, the Black Mamba, Shi (an "incredible sulk") and Kookaburra (or "Kook") the archer are tracking down "Quetzal" aka "Sore", the North god with the power to control the weather, who lost his obsidian staff in the terrible battle against the evil Gregori. They're having to battle the Indigo Imp, who is the only one in the world who knows where the staff is, only for Captain Awesome and Metal Girl to get in the way before they can find out if the Mafia have the staff or not.

Steve frowns when he gets to the point with "Captain Awesome", because if he ignores the fact Awesome sounds like he's possibly got Sore's staff rammed up where the sun doesn't shine, the scene is pretty identical to one he remembers. A day when he was sent to deal with the Green Goblin, and ended up spending an hour hemmed down by Hawkeye's arrows.

On the panels before him, Captain Awesome is hiding under his shield while Kook fires at him. In exactly the same crouch that Steve had been forced to hold for nearly twenty minutes, before then having to get up and trade bad blows with Iron Man while the Green Goblin and the Avengers skipped away.

Maybe The Retaliators is more than inspired by the Avengers' adventures.

Maybe The Retaliators is a fictionalized version of what the Avengers have actually experienced.

But what would that mean? Steve flips back to the front of the issue, pausing to admire the cover where some of the characters are reflected in a stylized version of his shield, and takes an uncertain breath while he tries to apply the theory and see how likely it is to be true.

Sore the North god. Could that be Thor, the Norse god? He was lost to the world at the end of the Battle of New York. Steve's had more access to the truth of what happened that day, but even he's sketchy about it. The Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk were all involved, but they couldn't hold back the sheer number of aliens. A lot of the Chitauri escaped out of the clumsy perimeter the cops belatedly sent up. The aliens wreaked devastation; several of New York's famous landscapes were devastated, including Grand Central Station and the Empire State building.

Most strikingly, the day was saved by a scientist called Erik Selvig, who managed to destroy the Hydra cube at the heart of the machine letting the Chitauri invade New York, at the cost of his own life.

Steve wonders if there's an edition of The Retaliators that covers those events. Maybe there's more truth in a fictionalized comic than the world knows.

He settles down and translates the comic into real life terms, his theory growing with credibility with every moment. The Gregori in The Retaliators must be the Chitauri. If he continues to apply the theory, in the period of recent history the comic in his hand covers, the Black Widow and Hawkeye were trying to find out the location of Thor's hammer from the Green Goblin.

The 'mafia' must be a fictionalized form of the 'Maggia', New York's intricate formation of rich crime families that have plagued America even when Steve was a kid.

So that's what the Avengers are doing.

Trying to find the location of Thor's hammer from the Green Goblin, who for some reason can't get hold of the hammer himself.

Despite himself, Steve finds himself reading through more of the comics SHIELD sent him, even though it keeps him up until 4am. It's a good thing he doesn't need a lot of sleep. Through the issues he has, Steve finds his theory feeling more and more right the more he reads, to the point that he finds himself frustrated that there's not much about Metal Girl — because if Metal Girl is an allusion to Iron Man, it means the Avengers know as much about Iron Man as he does.

Steve feels the heat in his cheeks even now — hopefully he knows more about Iron Man than the Avengers does, if it's true that no one knows much about him.

He forces himself to bed even though there's a few issues left in the box to read, because he's got a big day tomorrow.

He's going to work with the Avengers.

On a comic about the Avengers.

In what might be the Avengers' secret headquarters. Big day probably doesn't even cover it.

Steve's only ever been in Stark Tower when he's been infiltrating the basement, or staving off a Green Goblin attack, and he's always had to find external entrances — the roof is a good entrance, because Tony Stark's penthouse is pretty damn easy to get into it, and the garbage chute, also a usually good bet. Normally Steve jumps across from a neighboring building, and uses a SHIELD-issued device to get safely through a window.

This is probably the first time he's ever been able to come through the front door.

The security is non-existent after the first bank of security guards; the first guard who sees him checks his ID, stares at it for a while (as Steve pretends to ignore the fact that his name is probably a popular one for kids and their fake IDs), rings up a number and then dials Steve through after a long pause.

"Uh, where am I supposed to be going?" Steve asks. The security guard stares at him blankly, like Steve's speaking a foreign language. Even though there's a whole bank of words Steve's never heard of before flying around modern-day America — what the hell is Oppan Gangnam Style anyway? — he's pretty sure language hasn't changed that much.

Eventually, the guard points waves a thumb behind him and grunts floor eight and Steve follows the vague direction of the thumb up to a bank of elevators. They're identical, so Steve presses the call button to the nearest one, and it opens almost immediately.

He presses the 8th button, leans back in to wait, and tries to ignore how nervous he's feeling, because it's ridiculous. He's Captain America. He's fought HYDRA agents single-handedly, and leapt through blazing fires, and once he roundhouse kicked a T-Rex in the face (and the less said about that the better), but it takes an elevator and a new job to make him nervous?

Steve supposes it does make a sort of sense. Back in the thirties, he was such a junior in the office that all he ever really did was sketch in backgrounds and maybe detail. As Captain America, he has the spandex and the shield to hide behind.

For this situation, he has nothing to hide behind. He's raw. Exposed. Like a nerve.

These people might not like him.

For all intents and purposes, Steve's going in as himself.

These people might not like him.

For a moment, Steve almost freezes with the terror of it all, and then he realizes just how silly he's being. He tries his best to be a good guy — if you disregard the lies he's planning on telling ("Sure, I'm just an artist! Nothing sneaky about me whatsoever, no siree!") He's telling the lies for the greater good. Sure, he made a lot of enemies back when he was tiny, but that was because he didn't know when not to fight. He doesn't really have anything to worry about.

He's just rolling the idea around in his brain, hoping to get it to stick, when the elevator slows and stops at the second floor. Steve stands in an unassuming position, hands behind his back, eyes carefully to one side, as the door opens to reveal a man standing at the other side.

The man's handsome, in a on the front of magazines kind of way; Steve can tell that much even though the man's wearing sunglasses. He has a close beard, and a tumble of dark hair that looks like the man just got out of bed, but is apparently a modern style that takes a while to perfect (give Steve a comb and pomade any day), and he's wearing a suit that even back in the thirties would alert Steve to the fact that the wearer had money.

The man doesn't even acknowledge Steve. He strides into the elevator, swivels on his heels, and jabs the button for the penthouse before settling back into the middle of the elevator.

There's something familiar about the man's jawline, and Steve's just realizing that the man has to be the blur in his Tony Stark file when Stark turns, sees Steve, and sighs.

"Dammit," Stark mutters, not even bothering to hide his displeasure. He twists something on his wrist, and says, "Pepper, what did you do wrong this time?"

"Excuse me?" a female voice snaps out. Her voice is muted. Stark has a communicator of some kind on his wrist, then. Steve runs through the brief amount of information he had on Tony Stark. Billionaire, playboy philanthropist. Had a brief shining few years of genius; studied at MIT, gained PhDs in Physics and Electrical Engineering, before throwing that all away to be a reckless CEO of a multi-billion dollar weapon company. Then after a brief incident with his business partner, Stark turned abruptly from weapons to green energy, and pretty much disappeared from national radar.

That's pretty much all the file had to accompany the blurred photo. In amongst various notes about Stark's daddy issues and possible alcoholism and definite egocentrism.

It's got to be the latter to fault when Stark snaps, "Your security snafu has reared its head again. There's another workman in my elevator. And although this one's cute and not sweaty, it's not good. Especially considering the situation..."

Considering the situation? Steve thinks it through. Stark's tone lingered over it cautiously. Like it's a secret. Steve doesn't like secrets.

Well, he doesn't like how obsessed he gets when there are secrets which he can potentially find out. The conspiracy theories he has about The Retaliators swim around his head again.

He had barely considered Tony Stark's involvement in it all last night, too caught up in the surprise of it all, but superhero-vigilantes like the Avengers couldn't get away with operating under their employer's nose, could they?

Then again, creative types are unpredictable. Steve's got more to keep an eye on here than the weather.

"There aren't any workmen scheduled for the day," Pepper replies to Stark, placidly. Steve's reminded sharply of Agent Hill. Nothing much shakes her, either.

Stark side-eyes Steve, and doesn't bother to hide his disdain. "One got through security then. Or has been secretly living in the building since the Goblin hit. Seriously." Stark reaches out and actually punches the stop button to the elevator. "I'm uncomfortable with this. I told you to sort it out."

Steve compensates for the lurch of the stop, but tenses anyway. He's always prepared for a fight, no matter what happens, if only because he's seen the weirdest things happen in his life so far. He's never precisely had to fight a billionaire playboy in an elevator, but then, Steve's had a lot of experiences in his life that he hasn't been expecting.

And he's missed out on some that he was expecting. Learning to dance with Peggy. Being Bucky's best man at his wedding to some gorgeous British dame. Growing old. Steve shakes his head. Melancholy is for later, in the dark, on his own. Not for when he's gearing up for an undercover mission.

Still, Steve's glad to remember them. Missing Peggy and Bucky, it's awful, but it doesn't hurt any more. Their memories twinge, like guilt and regret and sorrow, but Steve doesn't feel weighed down by them anymore.

If anything, he's spurred on by them. He has to be the man they believed he was, or their deaths don't mean a damn thing.

"Security says there's only been one new person in the building," Pepper says, still in that unruffled, calm tone. "The artist that Creative Temps sent over."

"Barring the fact that an artist shouldn't have been able to call the elevator, I know the difference between a workman and an artist, Pep," Stark snaps, and hits the stop button again. The elevator lurches. Steve frowns, but carefully doesn't say anything until the elevator stops on the eighth floor.

"Maybe you don't," Steve says, as the doors slide open to reveal the large Stark Creative logo painted on the wall. Steve dimples his best smile at Stark, and walks out of the elevator with every intention of not being dramatic, and —

Oh, who is he even kidding? Steve should probably just walk out, but he's feeling pretty melodramatic now; he glides out of the elevator, his beige trenchcoat billowing in what can only be described as Director Fury-style, and he turns just in time to wink at Stark as the elevator's doors close.

Stark's expression is, and there is no other word for it, hilarious. His sunglasses drop to his nose to reveal dark, pretty eyes, and his eyebrows leap for his hairline, and Steve can't help the grin as he turns back to face the painted logo.

He allows himself a moment to wonder how Stark's reacting when he realizes he doesn't have to; SHIELD gave him a pack of papers that Stark Creative sent Steve's "temp agency" (a fake SHIELD company, of course), and in those papers were the contract Steve has to sign on arrival which state that his immediate boss is Pepper Potts, and she has complete say over his employment, and that he is to go to her office immediately on arrival at Stark Creative. He should get some clue on how Stark's reacting by how tense Pepper Potts is when he arrives.

There's only one direction to go — right, past two other closed elevators. Steve follows the curve of the corridor. The weird encounter with Stark made him forget his nerves in favor of amusement, but now the nerves are jumping around in his stomach, and aren't allowing him to ignore them.

As he turns the corner, he meets a face he does know from his research — her photo was much clearer. A pretty redhead waits for him, her hair pulled from her attractive face into a stern ponytail, and she's wearing both an expensive trouser suit and an amused expression.

Either Stark reacted well to Steve's melodrama, or reacted so badly it was amusing.

"Steve Rogers, I presume," Pepper Potts says, smiling widely. She lifts up her hand, and Steve takes a closer look at the elegant device on her wrist. It looks like a small athletic watch, like the kind that were popular when Steve woke up; a sleek cylinder just big enough to clearly show numbers, attached to a thin cable that circles the wrist.

"Tony," Pepper speaks into the small device, "I can't believe you thought this guy was a workman. You should have looked at his shoes."

Steve glances down at his shoes self-consciously. They're nothing special, just a pair of nondescript black shoes he got from a mall on the edges of the city, and he looks back up at Pepper with a question clear on his face as Stark rants to Pepper through the communicator.

"Looked at his shoes — Have you lost your mind? I'd believe that. First I get sweaty workmen, and then a sassy artist. Next I'll find a US senator in there."

"His shoes are clean," Pepper says, but Steve gets the feeling she's talking to him as much as to Stark. "Plus, he has ink all over his right hand. But I guess you were too busy ogling his ass."

"Pepper!" Stark's voice shoots up at least one octave. "And you're the one who sends me on all those in-house sexual harassment seminars."

"Notice how he's not denying it, Mr. Rogers," Pepper says, and that's definitely just to Steve. Stark splutters, though.

"Is he — How long has he been there? Did you just let me stand here and — " Stark starts. "I should fire you. Both of you. Insubordinates. Insubordinates, everywhere."

Steve can't help his lurch of an expression. Getting fired before even getting to draw once is not exactly on his agenda.

Pepper shakes her head, covers the communicator with one hand and says, quickly, "He won't fire us. He needs us too much." She uncovers the communicator, and smiles, sugar sweet. "Don't worry, Tony. He wasn't here for the part where you whined about how hot you thought he was."

Steve hides his face in his hands as Stark makes a strangled sound of denial.

"He's facepalming," Pepper says. "I can't tell if he's pleased about you checking him out or not. I'd guess if you were rude to him, he's probably not best pleased."

Steve shuffles, taking his hands from his face, and wonders what he's done to deserve Fury assigning him to this madhouse.

Then again, it might be the Avengers' secret headquarters, and everything makes terrifying sense. You kinda have to be a little mad to dress up in spandex and smack supervillains around.

Steve should know.

"You should see what you did," Pepper says. "I make a little safety programming error, and you make the new boy uncomfortable."

"Just come see me when you're done," Stark mutters, and there's a beep. Pepper sighs, and lowers her wrist; obviously Stark's severed the communication.

"It's like working for a baby sometimes," Pepper says, shaking her head from side to side. "Although I think babies may be less demanding."

Steve quirks a smile. "I believe it."

"Oh, excuse my manners. And all of the last few minutes, if you would. Sometimes Mr. Stark needs crazy in his vicinity. It lowers the output of his crazy." Pepper walks forwards on dauntingly tall heels like she's walking on air, and holds out her hand. "Pepper Potts. I'll be your immediate manager for the time you're with us."

"Steve Rogers," Steve says, taking her hand. He makes sure to shake gently — super enhanced strength can be hazardous on people with as slender a bone structure as Pepper's — but she grabs his hand in the firmest handshake Steve's had in a long time. He smiles automatically, liking her already.

"Let's get your documents signed, then I'll give you the tour," Pepper says, and starts walking.

"I just need a corner to work," Steve says, hurrying to match her. She strides with purposeful efficiency, and Steve has to quicken his pace to keep up with her. "You must be very busy."

"Exceedingly," Pepper says, leading him through a large open space office which might be the main office for the comic. There are a lot of framed pictures of The Retaliators on the walls, and a few different kinds of workstation spread out in the space, and a lot of natural light coming through the window, but Pepper doesn't slow the pace enough for Steve to take it all in.

"I don't want to be a burden," Steve says. "Are you trying to get rid of me?" Pepper arches him a side glance. Her expression is shrewd.

Steve feels acutely vulnerable again. "I just get the impression Mr. Stark doesn't like to be kept waiting," he says, awkwardly.

Pepper nods soberly. "He doesn't." Then she grins, and Steve can't help but smile at the mischief in it. "Follow me, Mr. Rogers. Let's make your assignment here legal."

Steve fingers the fake ID in his pocket. "Yeah," he says, pleasantly. "Legal assignments are good. We artists need a great deal of money in our crusade to be mistaken for workmen."

"Ah, a sense of humor," Pepper says, with obvious delight, "you might just survive your stint here after all."

"There's been doubt?" Steve asks.

"We went through seventeen artists before finding Phil Coulson," Pepper says. "Tony — Mr. Stark — was all for firing Coulson for breaking his arm."

"It was terribly inconvenient of him," Steve agrees, because sarcasm is clearly okay in this environment. "I guess you're fired is Mr. Stark's favorite joke?"

"We all get fired daily," Pepper says. "Unfortunately, he made me the boss, so anything he says — or does — to you is strictly a civilian matter. Sadly, this means if he does sexually harass you, the most I can do is toss him out of the office." She peers at him with a long, assessing look. "Unless you like being sexually harassed by him."

Steve instantly goes pink, which seems to delight Pepper.

"You are his type," Pepper says, and swings around, arm outstretched. "Here's my office. In just three signatures, you'll have a job, and I'll have your soul."

Steve double-takes.

Pepper smiles beatifically.

Steve's not entirely sure she's joking.

He signs anyway, aided by a weird moral moment where he reasons as a ninety-odd year old who's recorded as missing in action he can't actually be held to any legal documentation, even if Pepper has found some way to make acquiring his soul actionable.

Then Steve realizes he's earnestly thinking about a corporation taking hold of his metaphysical self. And then, paranoid, he wonders whether humans with super-serum-enhancements even have a soul. And then he tells himself to shut up and sign the contract so that Pepper can get on with giving Steve a tour and annoying Stark and whatever else it is she does around here.

"Great," Pepper says, snatching up the contracts barely a microsecond after Steve's pen leaves the paper. "I'll send you a copy after Mr. Stark's co-signed the health and safety section. Would you prefer them to your home address, via your agency, or in your newly-appointed Stark Creative cubby hole?"

"Home will be fine," Steve says, a little blindsided by all the options. Options always did give him a headache. Going grocery shopping for the first time in this new decade had been... interesting. And a major migraine. Just how many varieties of soda did one person even need, anyway?

"So this is my office," Pepper says, gesturing at the elegant, large room with expensive furniture and minimal decoration. "I don't spend much time in here," she confides with him. "I'm technically your boss, but I'm Mr. Stark's PA, and I liaise with all the Stark companies — Stark Industries on the top floor, Stark Creative here, Stark Resilient on the basement levels, Stark Development somewhere even below that. And I even think I'm a major shareholder for Stark Candy, but I always forget which floor that's on."

"Stark Candy," Steve repeats.

Pepper gives him a one-shoulder shrug. "Mr. Stark has a certain... attention related problem. He likes to pick up new toys, and then he gets distracted very easily."

"Do we have much dealing with him on creation of The Retaliators?" Steve asks, and starts to follow Pepper as she walks out of the room.

"The others do. A weekly creators' meeting. Nothing you'll have to handle, unless Coulson's arm doesn't heal and the team want you back for another month," Pepper says. "We've not really had to have a temp in for a long time, but I'm sure you'll be fine. I guess as a freelance commercial artist you're used to bouncing around places?"

Steve thinks about all the places he's been to as Captain America, across Europe and Africa and Asia, and one memorable weekend on a Space Station. He guesses it counts as bouncing around. "Absolutely," Steve says. "Although from the portfolio I forwarded, most of my recent work has been for SHIELD's marketing department."

"Ugh," Pepper says, and shivers. Steve frowns at her. "Sorry, SHIELD kind of gives me the creeps. I don't know how you stand working for them."

"They give me free stuff," Steve lies blandly, and shows her his SHIELD-stamped satchel. "Also, I kind of don't know how you stand working for Mr. Stark," Steve says, remembering again how rude Stark was.

"Touché," Pepper allows. "Although, if you can get me one of those bags, it would be awesome to see Mr. Stark flip."

Steve side-grins. "I'll see what I can do."

"I guess I've always been curious what it must be like. Working as a civilian for such a shadowy organization," Pepper says.

It might just be polite small talk. Steve finds himself wanting to please her, though. There's definitely something about Pepper Potts that might explain her long years of service under Tony Stark — and that something is possibly that she's the perfect woman.

"I just get assignments," Steve volunteers, and it's true; this is kind of how the SHIELD marketing department uses him. "Usually pushed under my apartment door. On these tiny, typed slithers of paper."

"Creepy," Pepper says. "Okay. First, we're coming up to the rest room." On Steve's look, she explains. "I swear I didn't name it that. Our colorist called it that for a joke and it sort of stuck. Because it's a room they... rest in. The team might be in there, actually. If I didn't have instant access to the security logs, I'd think they never leave this place."

Steve follows, and does his best to pretend he hasn't read the files of the Retaliator team, because it's always an awkward moment in any introduction when he has to remember what he should know as opposed to what he does know.

Being a spy is hard. Give Steve an enemy to bash over the head with his shield any day.

He's concentrating so hard on just being neutral that he doesn't take in the rest room until he's standing in it, after following Pepper through the door. And then he doesn't have to worry about a genuine reaction, because the surprise is as real as it gets.

Steve remembers the staffroom from back in his comic days — a grotty room in the corner, with smoking stains up the walls, old broken chairs, and a coffee machine that sometimes provided coffee and sometimes provided tar and sometimes nothing at all.

This is completely different.

There are bookcases, and vending machines, and giant beanbags, and over in the corner, a giant-sized chess set. One wall is covered with framed pictures of every cover of The Retaliators so far, and another glass case is filled with trophies. There's a couple of hammocks strung across one corner, and large tables, and computers, and dotted around, there are even several gum machines.

It kind of looks like a kid's idea of a great office. Which, considering how Pepper has described Tony Stark, might not be too far from the truth.

He's so surprised by the layout, that he almost misses the fact that there are occupants in the beanbags. Steve wasn't really expecting to meet them all at once, so his reactions are definitely genuine.

Pepper puts two fingers in her mouth and whistles loudly. "Kids, line up," she calls, clapping her hands like she's coaching little league. "The new guy's here."

"Ooh, Pepper, you have time to play with us instead of playing pick-up-after-Tony," the man Steve shouldn't already know is Clint Barton says. "How did you score that?"

Clint looks a lot like his picture, but he's a little shorter than Steve remembers Hawkeye being, and slightly stockier. But then, as Steve knows from firsthand experience, spandex is kind of slimming on the eye.

His hair really does look like he's constantly trapped in a wind tunnel, rather than just an unfortunate profile picture, and any doubt Steve's been carrying about his theory not being true starts to filter away.

Clint's eyes are sharp on Steve for a second, and then almost lazy. Like he can see Steve as one thing: an easy target to hit.

Pepper shrugs. "It's what happens when Santa has you on his nice list," she tells Clint.

Clint exhales, but doesn't argue. He glances at Steve, nods, looks back at Pepper, and then looks back again at Steve. "You're not Coulson," Clint says, and manages to make it sound like a question.

"No," Steve says, and shoots a side glance at Pepper, who shrugs. Steve looks back at Clint, and holds out his hand. "Steve. Steve Rogers."

Clint looks down at Steve's hand, and bursts out laughing.

Steve's ears burn a little, and he tilts his head, and then dives his right hand — left still extended for a handshake that apparently isn't coming — into his pocket in search of his driving license. It's sort of fake (wrong birth year), but it's a SHIELD-fake, which makes it impossible to tell it's not real. He holds it out, flicking it in Clint's face. "Steve Rogers," Steve repeats.

Clint grabs Steve's extended hand in a loose handshake. "Clint Barton," Clint says, in a low, embarrassed tone. "I'm the colorist."

"He's got a few IQ points missing," the woman on Clint's left says. Steve glances at the redhead. She's as beautiful as her photo implied — a black pencil skirt emphasising all the curves in the right places, stopping short enough to show a generous amount of leg. "Natasha Romanov. You can call me Tasha, or Natasha. I'm the writer, editor, social media expert; pretty much anything and everything."

"Hi, Tasha," Steve says. When she shakes his hand, it actually hurts, so Steve doesn't hide his wince; she's strong, and she knows it, and being stoic will only make her suspicious of him.

Natasha's deceptively strong for such a slight woman. Steve's Avengers' theory is looking more and more correct every moment.

"Steve Rogers. Like Captain America Steve Rogers." That's from a nervous looking man with dark scruffy hair and serious dark eyes. He must be Dr. Bruce Banner. Bruce looks at Steve, a delighted expression on his face, and shakes his hand exuberantly.

"My da was a fan," Steve lies, with a shrug. "He never forgave pops for not calling him Steve when we had the surname in place."

"Well, that explains how someone so cute got into comics," Natasha purrs, posing at Clint's side.

"You're not allowed to flirt with him," Pepper says. "If you really want to, though, I'm sure I could find a replacement writer from the same agency Mr. Rogers here is with."

Natasha rolls her eyes and sniffs. "The comic would die without me. A tragic, tragic death."

"Funny," Pepper says, "the Retaliator fan polls all have you as the least popular member of the creative team."

"Only because I don't post shirtless for the tumblrs," Natasha says, pushing herself to her full height, and glaring at the others. Clint shrugs, and flexes a bicep at Steve with a wink.

"She's just jealous of my curves," Clint says.

"Don't mind them," Bruce tells Steve, shuffling in closer. His dark eyes are alight with humor as he watches Natasha and Pepper exchange another barrage of banter. "They only bicker to show us guys that it's futile to argue with either of them. I'm Bruce. Bruce Banner. I guess we'll be working pretty closely."

Steve glances at Bruce, and makes sure he's seen checking the fleck of ink around his fingernails before he says, "You're the inker. Your work is amazing, Mr. Banner."

"Doctor Banner, actually," a deep voice says, making Steve jump. He looks up into the bright eyed face of the tall blond who had been hanging behind the others, but had snuck up on him while Steve was distracted by Natasha and Pepper's bickering. "And I'm Doctor Don Blake. You can call me Don. I'm normally with Stark Resilient, but for a couple of days a week, Stark Creative borrows me for the science research."

"Oh," Steve says, startled and trying his best not to show it. Don's file didn't say anything about how huge the guy is. He surreptitiously sizes up the guy as he moves closer. "Science, sure. Aliens and superheroes and machines; it's an insane amount of technology involved. I wondered how The Retaliators kept all the science stuff straight."

"Well, between me, Dr. Banner's nuclear physics PhD and Mr. Stark's contributions, we're pretty set for science," Don says, and grabs Steve's hand in a firm and friendly shake.

"Does Mr. Stark have much involvement with The Retaliators?" Steve asks.

"He met Mr. Stark in the elevator," Pepper interjects. "Don't tell him the bad stories, please," she adds, before smoothly resuming bickering with Natasha.

Steve's mouth drops a little.

"He likes to work with us," Bruce says, kindly, "but as you're just here for a little while, you probably won't run into him much. Has Pepper shown you our main office yet?"

"We walked through it," Steve says.

"I was just about to give him the tour," Pepper says, "and — Oh, shoot. One moment." She paces off to one side, and puts her hand to her ear. "How many explosions?" There's a pause, and then, "Tony," in a tone Steve last heard when he was four years old and nearly set himself on fire with some matches. And then Pepper says, "I'm on my way."

"I can finish giving Steve the tour," Bruce offers.

"We'll all do it," Don says, in his pleasant, gravelly voice.

Pepper nods at them thankfully. "Drop by my office later if you have any more questions," she tells Steve, and then turns, hurrying off on her skyscraper heels, far faster than anyone wearing those shoes has a right to.

Pepper Potts' file, if no one else's, is startlingly accurate.

"Well," Bruce says, "this is where we hang out when we're not working, figuring out ways to annoy Mr. Stark, and going out to find food." He gestures with his head in the direction Pepper went. "Let's go check out the main office."

Steve dutifully follows, surreptitiously checking the way the cameras follow them, and the location of a few sensors. Tony Stark's a paranoid son of a bitch when it comes to his security, but based on the number of times supervillains try to get into his labs, he's probably right to be a bit overly cautious.

Bruce points out all the stations, while Natasha and Clint go to their desks. Don stays with them, and points out the trick to getting into the stationery closet (apparently he got over-enthusiastic one day and broke the handle single-handedly), and Steve makes a mental note to ask for more information on Dr. Don Blake — because he's getting an odd feeling, like there's something to know about him.

Steve's about to turn and follow Bruce to the kitchen, when he's distracted by a piece of paper taped to the wall. It looks like some sort of schedule, with Clint, Natasha and Bruce scrawled neatly into different timeslots on different days. It bears the legend WTIITSTD? There are too many people around to covertly take a picture of it, so Steve might have to smuggle in one of those long-distance camera things that SHIELD have.

"What's this?" Steve asks, as politely and disinterestedly as he can manage.

Bruce pauses. The muscles in his face tense all at once, and then he relaxes, a smile curving its way onto his face. Steve forces himself not to tense in reply; he's only known Bruce maybe five minutes, but this is the first false reaction he's seen from him.

"Kind of a long story joke type thing," Bruce says, waving his hands. "We'll explain it once you get to know us all better. C'mon. Kitchen tour." Bruce claps his hands, while jerking his head in the direction of a small alcove. Steve pulls away, not wanting to seem too interested, but he's already trying to figure out what the letters stand for. WTIITSTD? What time is it to seize the day? When the illustration is total, send them down? Whose turn is it to sexually transmit diseases?

Steve files it away for later, and follows Bruce into the small kitchen while Don hovers outside. There's an oven in there, with four gas hobs, a substantial fridge filled with items labelled with post-it notes (more specifically, post-it notes which say NOT CLINT's, NOT CLINT's, NOT CLINT's on everything but a sad dying salad in a plastic container which has a sad sagging little post-it note reading I AM CLINT'S DIETARY SHAME), a large microwave (labelled THE NEXT PERSON TO MICROWAVE FISH IN THIS KITCHEN WILL DIE), several cupboards of cups (labelled I'M NOT YOUR MOM IF YOU CAN HOLD A MUG YOU CAN WASH IT), a sink, a kettle, a crazily-comprehensive row of coffee and tea items, and — something else.

Steve pauses by the last thing, and tilts his head. It looks like a cross between a coffee machine and a photocopier. Steve points at it, a question on his face.

"Don't even ask," Bruce says, with a shrug.

"It's a coffee machine," Don says, still steadfastly staying outside the small kitchen. Steve's grateful — he's a rather large guy, and would make the tiny space feel claustrophobic. "Bruce wouldn't know. He drinks all these herby health drinks when he's forced to drink on-site. I don't think he could make coffee if his life depended on it."

"I could," Bruce says, crossing his arms, scowling, and shaking his head at Steve in one fluid combination. "I do drink coffee, I totally could," he adds, and paces out of the kitchen towards Don's desk. Steve ambles behind. "And it's a ridiculous construct, who needs coffee to save the day, anyway?"

Don shrugs, and follows. "I don't know why you won't use the coffee machine, it looks like it's perfectly simple to operate," he says, like it's an old, old argument. "It wouldn't take much for Pepper or Clint to show you how to use it."

"I know that," Bruce says, a hint of surliness in his voice. "But I don't need to learn how to use it. It doesn't make hazelnut macchiatos. The shop down the street does. And it also doesn't try to kill me. I like things that don't try to kill me."

"The coffee machine didn't try to kill you," Don says, remarkably placid. "You just overloaded it."

"It nearly blew up in my face," Bruce says.

"You overloaded it," Natasha calls over. "And then you got angry and — " She pauses, interestingly.

"Then we had to repaint the wall," Clint says. "And re-outfit half the kitchen."

Bruce colors.

"And the wall, if I recall correctly," Don chimes in. "Seriously, for one coffee machine, it caused a surprising amount of damage. Perhaps you have made a wise decision frequenting the coffee shop instead."

"Why don't you go and do your work on whatever it is Stark has you researching, and I'll show Steve where he's working," Bruce mutters.

Don inclines his head, and walks over to his corner of the large open plan office.

The others are clearly at work now, probably still working through what Coulson has left them with. Steve sneaks a look at all their work as he passes.

Clint's sprawling back in his chair in a position that looks lazy, but — according to a health and safety poster near his workstation — is supposed to be the optimal degree position for avoiding back problems. He's got some sort of tablet in his hand, and a pen, but onscreen color's appearing on a scanned-in version of Bruce's inked pages as if Clint's literally painting them. It looks so close to a watercolour effect that Steve wants to stop and watch Clint at work all day.

Natasha's typing, but has three monitors attached to her one keyboard, looking up something on one screen and typing on another; there's scanned-in handwritten notes showing on another.

Don's now on a computer near her, with a single monitor, and something about blood spatter open on his browser.

With all the technology around, Steve's a little worried — until he comes around the bank where Natasha and Don are working — and he can't help but breathe a sigh of relief.

It's a large workstation, with two different drawing desks on it. There's an immaculate row of pencils, all of different hardness. There is a large laptop, but it's currently closed, and the desk itself is surrounded by boards of illustrations, pages from the comics, and —

His Captain America artwork.

Steve turns to Bruce, mouth open into a half-formed question he's not sure he can coherently get out, and Bruce winks at him.

"Why do you think we hired you without an interview?" Bruce says, shrugging easily. "We asked Coulson if he recommended anyone. Coulson's been using your illustrations as basis for the whole Retaliators feel anyway. When he suggested you, it seemed perfect."

"He's been basing the whole thing on my art," Steve repeats, flatly. He doesn't know whether to be angry or impressed. Coulson's always seemed terribly eager to know about everything Steve is doing. Hill told him it was hero worship, but maybe not.

"Yeah," Bruce continues. "I know you've not had the best intro to him, but Stark's the brainchild behind the Retaliators. He really thought the kind of 40s look, combined with a noughties coloring style would really bring across the message, y'know? Good old-time superheroics in a modern age."

Steve nods.

"We've got a bible for you on the laptop," Bruce says, hurrying over and pushing the screen up. The OS loads instantly. Steve's thinking, why would I need the Holy Bible to sketch for an action comic? when Bruce clicks on an icon on the desktop, and some images are brought up.

Oh, it's the character design bible. So Steve knows what the characters look like — front, back and side profiles, and other notes — and reference photos of usual locations, scans of pages of the comic from the Retaliators' flying headquarters, schematics of the Retaliators' "quadjet", the Retaliators' apartments, etc. and a summary and synopsis of all the issues so far.

"What we've got for you to start off with," Bruce says, "is a script for a sixteen-page special issue that's just going online. This is your probation, if you will. If the fans like your style, we'll keep you on file. If they don't, you still get paid. I know how you Brooklyn artists starve."

"I'm doing okay," Steve jokes, putting a hand on his stomach, and it helpfully growls at him, which makes Bruce laugh. "I'm just nervous," Steve says, shrugging.

"Anyway. There's also a file of Coulson's sketches on the desktop, if you need a reference to how much detail I need to ink. I mean, we'll probably be working the closest. I can work with pretty much anything you want to give me."

"I'm usually pretty specific on the foreground," Steve says, thinking back to his first days in a comic office. As a rookie penciller, his task was filling in background details, and he didn't think himself particularly gifted. Where he shone was later, when he was allowed to start pencilling in the main characters. Back then, he was always told off for being too detailed — things have changed in the comic world since. Pencillers are allowed more space to be creative now than they ever had back in Steve's original time. "Background details aren't my forte," Steve admits. "I'll show you the first panel when I'm done, and you can tell me if you need more."

"Coulson left us the pages with a storyboard of Tasha's script, so you can follow that for the moment; obviously if our pace picks up, layout will be part of your job too. Pepper can fill in the gaps I've missed, but feel free to bother any of us whenever. At the end of the day, we're all here for the same thing." Bruce smiles, and rocks on his feet. "Any other urgent questions you need to know, or do you just want to get a feel for your new station?"

Steve doesn't know whether to nod or shake his head, so he says, "The latter, thanks. As long as I'm not interrupting by asking questions when I need to know."

"It's only an interruption if I'm getting some ass," Clint calls, shamelessly eavesdropping from his station.

"You're foul," Natasha tells him, without pausing from her typing.

Steve almost loses himself in the bible and the sketches Coulson has left for him. It's very much a crude attempt at his style. Steve's a little less precise, perhaps, but they'll have seen that in the portfolio Fury had forwarded to them, and he's already privately thinking the comic could do with a bit more movement in it. At one point, he hears a weird buzzing, and almost immediately after Natasha leaves the office for a short spell, and Steve makes a mental note of the disappearance.

He's rewarded five minutes later when the Google Alert he has on his SHIELD-issue phone lights up with the information that the Black Widow has been spotted downtown, fighting some sort of robot.

Steve pretends to be looking over a sketch that Coulson's done that he already has lodged in his brain (photographic memory, another gift of the serum.) This whole assignment gets more troubling as more time passes. It's almost too easy — Natasha disappears from the office, Black Widow reappears in the city. Fury has to know the Retaliators' creative team is the vigilante Avengers.

Are the rumors true? Are the Avengers actually a SHIELD initiative that never got approved funding? Tony Stark is well-renowned as a philanthropist, but would he go as far as to fund Fury's vigilante team?

There's more than one mystery here. But if Steve's going to decipher the mysteries going on around him, he's going to have to blend in. To hold on for the full four weeks. And that means he's definitely going to have to do amazing work for the comic.

Even if it is a barely concealed re-telling of the Avengers' activities.

Even if "Captain Awesome" — very often painted as a villain to the Retaliators — is such a poorly concealed twisted version of Captain America.

Well, at least that's one character he'll be able to draw no problem.

To pencil the layout, Steve needs to know how much detail Bruce needs to do his inking, so he turns and watches Bruce for a while at work. Bruce doesn't seem to notice the scrutiny — he's completely off in his own world.

Bruce inks sketches traditionally, with a combination of pens and thin brushes. It's probably the first time Steve's ever noticed that The Retaliators doesn't use a lot of black. Back in his day of comics, everything was blocked in heavily in black, but Bruce is painstakingly cross hatching one darker section without filling it in solidly. His work is detailed, beautiful, exact; a contrast to Bruce's hectic workstation, which is a tumble of pens and brushes and sketches and easels with four pages on the go at once. It looks like Bruce works on the original sketches, which is a mark of how good Bruce is, and how much the others trust him.

From where Steve's sitting, and from the sketches Coulson's left him, he can see one thing that's troubling him. He gets up, but Bruce is still immersed in his work, and Steve doesn't want to disturb him. He glances across. Natasha's back, but Clint looks the least busy.

"Hey," Steve says, awkwardly shuffling over. Clint looks up from where he's coloring some sort of advert announcing the 16-page online comic. "Do you mind if I ask you something?"

"You just did," Clint says, cocking a grin to one side. Steve sags a little. Clint takes pity on him and says, "Shoot."

Steve's aware of Natasha in his peripheral vision. She's stopped whatever it is she was typing to listen in, and his shoot made her smirk. If Clint is Hawkeye, like Steve's suspecting, then that would make sense.

"Um," Steve says, "Coulson just used grey pencils, but I was trained slightly differently to do my base shapes with blue pencil. I know my other workplace has no problem with that, but — "

"No, that's fine," Clint says, wrinkling his mouth for a moment like he was assuming it was going to be a different question entirely. "When I scan in Bruce's inks, the blue'll come right out."

"Great. Thank you." Steve turns to go, but Natasha stops pretending to listen in, and she swivels on her chair to look up at him.

He pauses, and finds himself having to suppress the urge to swallow.

"That's a little old-fashioned," Natasha says, narrowing her eyes for a barely perceptible second before smiling kindly.

The thing is, Steve's heard whispers of the Black Widow program. If Natasha is an outcome of that, her observational and interrogation skills should be topnotch.

He kinda hopes he's wrong, but luck's not Steve's strongest attribute in life.

"I guess," Steve says, affecting his best self-deprecating tone. "My art tutor was kinda old." It's not a lie. His tutor was born in the 1880s.

Natasha looks at him for a moment longer, but obviously decides there is no lie in it. She nods. "Can't see wait to see what you do with my story," she says, and turns back to her monitor, starting to clack away at the keys.

Steve nods awkwardly, and moves back to his workstation, casually glancing at what she's typing. As he looks, he notices something moving on her wrist as she types. A black device like the one on Pepper's wrist. A casual sweep of the room lets him see what he missed the first time; all of them except Don are wearing one.

There are phones on the desk. They shouldn't need communication devices.

Unless, of course, Steve is right and they're definitely part-time superhero vigilantes.

Steve settles down at his station, picks up his favorite blue pencil, and starts to work, his brain on overdrive.

There's no way Fury doesn't know the Retaliators' art crew are also secretly the Avengers. Fury's like, the ultimate spy. But if Fury had wanted Steve to spy on them, he would have asked Steve to.

Maybe Hill's right about it being a vacation, but the weather part of the assignment is troubling. It's been raining in New York pretty constantly for six years. Steve doesn't think that'll change much.

Some things here aren't adding up at all. Coulson's been here for a couple of years, based on the number of sketches in the book. Maybe it's been Coulson's job all along to keep an eye on them, and Fury just forgot to mention that part because it's just so obvious? Maybe Coulson just plain didn't notice he was working with vigilantes? Maybe Coulson noticed and wasn't telling Fury for some reason?

Steve doesn't know.

But he's going to find out.

Even though it would be so easy to get lost in the art, Steve does manage to keep an eye out on the comings and goings in the office.

It doesn't take long for Steve to figure out that the small devices on their wrists are all connected. His hearing is exceptionally good — the serum enhanced all sorts of things — and he can hear the tiny vibration of the devices against their wrists. When that happens, one of them will invariably slink out of the office and disappear for thirty minutes.

It takes until 1pm for Steve to realize whoever gets up coincides with the WTIITSTD timetable, and then — even though none of the devices vibrate — the others get up and wander out at around 1.30pm and Steve's sort of confused until he realizes it must be lunchtime.

He does feel oddly abandoned. Steve's not sure of usual office protocol. Maybe it's normal practice to ignore the new guy. He is only a temp, after all. Still, he feels weird, so he goes to see if they're in the rest room.

The rest room's empty. Steve frowns into the empty space, and turns. A security camera follows his turn. Snooping's out of the question, then, until SHIELD can send him something to bypass Stark Creative's cameras.

He can legitimately go to Pepper's office to see if she's there. He's semi-expecting her not to be, but she is. Steve knocks on her door and she calls for him to come in, and when he does tentatively step into her office, she raises her head and smiles quite genuinely.

"Steve," Pepper says. "Oh, let me guess. They left you alone, huh?"

Steve nods. "You said we were free to come and go as long as we clock in the hours with security?" Stark Tower does have the most insane security systems in the world, but Steve thinks about how infatuated the Green Goblin is with it. The high security is probably highly warranted.

"Yeah," Pepper says. "Or there's a canteen on the fourth floor that does a great soup."

"Is that where they are, or — " Steve shrugs, feeling self-conscious.

"Oh, no. Monday afternoons, they have a four hour creative meeting with Mr. Stark," Pepper says. "I should have mentioned the specifics of that, I apologize. You won't be needed in it." She smiles at him, brisk and professional, and Steve feels a weird feeling in the pit of his stomach, like he's missing something huge.

Or maybe he's just feeling left out. "Okay," Steve says, amiably. "Thanks for letting me know. I'm, uh — just going out for lunch but I'll be back."

"The others haven't scared you away yet?" Pepper asks. Her tone is light, but her eyes are a little wide. Like it's a possibility. Like it's happened before.

"It takes a lot to scare me," Steve says. "But I do get the feeling if I were to be scared by anything, I think it would be Natasha."

Pepper's professional smile lurches into something much more genuine. "Good observational skills, Mr. Rogers. You really might just survive your four weeks here."

Steve smiles tightly. "I hope so."

After briefly checking in with Hill, and reporting "no incidents" for the moment, Steve meanders down a few sidewalks with his thoughts for company.

It's funny. From all the movies Steve has seen while trying to acclimatize to the twentieth century, New York's streets used to be just as exhaustingly busy as they were in Steve's time. Now, though, he has opportunity and space to wander without getting crushed by a crowd of determined businessfolk.

The Battle of New York affected the city much more deeply than it affected the world. The word got more paranoid, but New York? It hasn't really recovered. Steve feels a pang in his stomach that he wasn't found until it was too late. He doesn't know if he could have even made a difference on his own, though.

Steve settles for an open-air café just by Grand Central Station. It has a good view of Stark Tower, and Steve orders a sandwich and some coffee, and idly finds himself sketching the surrounding buildings as he thinks.

Grand Central Station is a shadow of what it used to be. He can still make out the name carved in stone, but it's a crumbling ruin. Local legend says a whole crowd of people hid in there from the Chitauri during the Battle of New York, and the aliens just threw in grenades and blew them up. The building's been left decimated in their memory.

A pretty, blonde waitress who looks barely old enough to be working comes over to top up his coffee. "Hey there," she smiles, with a dimple. Steve glances up from his sketch for only a second. Her nametag reads Lydia. "That's a nice drawing."

"Uh," Steve says, unaccustomed to compliments, and if there's one thing that hasn't changed in his life, it's his ability — or lack thereof — to speak confidently with women. "Thank you?"

Lydia dimples a smile, and gestures at Grand Central Station with her coffee pot. "So many people sit here and just ignore that it's there. They just blank it out, like they're trying to forget any of it happened. I like to take special care of the ones that do."

Steve's obviously got the question on his face.

"My sister Beth was one of the Grand Central victims," Lydia says, her voice a little subdued as she tops up his cup.

"I'm sorry," Steve says, looking her straight in the eyes, trying to let her know he really means it. 'I'm sorry' seems to be flung around all too easily in this decade without any intent behind it.

"Thanks," Lydia says. "And I mean that. Too many people come here just to look for the big guy."

"I'm sorry," Steve says. "The big guy?"

Lydia tilts her head. "You must be new. Loads of people see Iron Man here. Flying past. Him and sometimes the Avengers. We're a bonafide supervillain spotting site." There's a weird hitch to her voice.

"You don't approve of the Avengers?" Steve says. She wouldn't be alone, but she's not in the majority; CNN keep taking polls, and even though the majority of New Yorkers feel safe that the Avengers exist, there's still a large number who believe they should operate within the law.

Lydia looks back towards the small front which the café operates from, obviously checking to see if her bosses are looking. "I don't approve of Iron Man," she says. "I think the government should have had him in by now. Instead of helping people like my sister, he was just furthering his own agenda. I can't stand it. I don't care if Iron Man's not got a kill record; as far as I'm concerned, he still has blood on his hands."

Steve squirms. Guilt by inaction. It is always something he is scared of being guilty of himself. It was why he always used to get into fights with people he shouldn't, back in the pre-serum days. Because he knew if he sat back and did nothing, the guilt would hurt more than getting beaten up. "So you club the Avengers in with him?"

"They didn't show up until later," Lydia says. "The Battle of New York was their first gig. Iron Man was definitely around a long time before that. He has no excuse."

"I can see where you're coming from," Steve says, slowly. "But I'm not sure I'm entirely with you."

Lydia's face closes, like she's shutting down. "Oh," she says, and then, in a tight small voice, "I hope you enjoy your coffee." She tenses as if to move, so Steve jumps in quickly.

"I just," Steve says, "believe that this government would nuke the whole city to save the rest of the world. Ten million lives in exchange for billions. My theory is the nuke Iron Man was carrying? That was sent by the government to wipe us all out."

Lydia shuffles. "Guess I didn't think of it like that," she says. "Huh. I've never heard the theory that Iron Man's innocent before."

"That's because he's not," another voice says. A clipped, almost annoyed male voice. A voice Steve realizes, abruptly, that he recognizes. Steve turns, angles his head up, into the now sunglasses-free face of Tony Stark. Tony nods at Lydia, and takes a seat next to Steve, smiling up at her. "Iron Man is a menace to society. If he had worked with SHIELD instead of trying to further his own agenda, I firmly believe the victim count would have been much lower. I'm sorry for your loss, ma'am."

Lydia colors, dimples at Tony. "Can I get you anything, sir?" she says, completely ignoring Steve.

"No," Steve mutters, feeling weirdly resentful that Stark's come in and waylaid the nice conversation he was starting to have. It's taken him a long time not to stutter and continually offend a woman in conversation, and now Stark's swept in — all charm and coherence — and Lydia's blushing and responding to Stark in the way Steve's only dreamed of women responding to him. (Although, to be fair, the twentieth century has been good to Steve: the open attitude to sexuality and love has made him slowly realize that maybe part of the reason he hasn't been great with women in the past is because he's been angling his awkward flirting to the wrong gender entirely.)

"Sure," Stark says loudly, over Steve's muttered no. "I'll have what he had."

"Coming right up," Lydia practically purrs, and bounces away to get the order.

"Making friends already?" Stark asks, leaning back and staring openly at Steve. Steve drops his pen onto his sketch, and takes it as an opening to glare back.

"I don't know," Steve says. "It's difficult when you're a workman to make friends."

Stark openly winces. "Look, that's why I came over when I saw you. I'm sorry. You should, uh, make a note of that. Write the date down, the time. I don't often say it. I'm a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropic smart ass with pride issues. Revel in this moment."

Steve frowns, and shakes his head a little. It's a lot of information in a very short time to process. "Okay," he says. "Um. Apology accepted. And I'm sorry I got in your elevator?"

Stark shrugs. "Steve — can I call you Steve?" After Steve nods in assent, he continues. "I was just having a hell of a morning and I was taking it out on everyone. The Green Goblin attacked my facilities the other day, and you have no idea how much paperwork that attracts."

"Ugh," Steve says, thinking about the amount of paperwork he has to do for SHIELD. "You have my condolences, Mr. Stark."

Stark smiles tightly. "Call me Tony, please. I'm not your boss. Not really."

Steve nods. "So. Um. You do believe the propaganda about Iron Man?"

Stark's — Tony's — jaw tenses oddly for a moment. Perhaps he has some history with Iron Man. Then again, Iron Man seems to break into Stark Resilient as much as the Green Goblin does. Maybe it's displaced paperwork rage. "I don't know," Stark says eventually, shrugging. "Maybe you're right about the government. Maybe our lovely waitress was right about Iron Man doing more during the attack. I don't know." There's an odd tinge of regret to Tony's voice, like he genuinely regrets himself not being able to do more, and Steve resonates sharply with that feeling.

"That's enough melancholy for the day," Tony says, stretching, and looking around himself for a moment. No one pauses to look back at him. Steve supposes people don't expect reclusive billionaires to appear in relatively cheap cafes in such a rundown part of the city. "Tell me about yourself."

"There's not much to tell," Steve says. Lydia brings over Tony's sandwich, but he ignores it — and her, to Lydia's obvious dismay — in favor of listening intently to Steve. "I was born in Brooklyn. My dad died before I was born. My mom got cancer. I dropped out of school to pay for her medical bills, took art classes at night, and — " Steve shrugs. A shrug isn't much to cover up 'and then I had a special super-serum administered to me, and I fought in the war and killed Nazis and defeated Hydra agents, and then went and got myself deep frozen hours before my first ever date', but it's all Steve's got. "Ever since then, I guess I've been bouncing from one assignment to another."

"No Mrs. Rogers in your life?" Tony asks. Steve looks at him. Tony seems particularly intent, his attractive dark eyes locked to Steve's face, and Steve feels almost like Tony's x-raying him just with his eyes. But even in their world of superhero vigilantes, that's not a power SHIELD has picked up. Yet, anyway.

"No," Steve says, and it's probably a little too fast. It burns his throat. "No, I don't think there ever will be," he adds. Not when someone like Tony Stark is looking at him like he is right now, Steve realizes. Or when a decidedly male Iron Man kisses him and Steve's been sort of replaying it in Technicolor ever since.

Iron Man had facial hair, and so does Tony Stark, and Steve colors with the memory of it. Now he knows what being kissed by someone with facial hair is like, he automatically wonders what kissing Tony Stark would be like.

Iron Man has ruined him for life. Maybe he is a villain after all.

"Selfishly glad to hear that," Tony says, in a quieter voice, eyes lingering for a brief moment on Steve's pink cheeks. He straightens in his chair, moving a little closer in to the table — and thus closer to Steve — and he starts to ask Steve something, "Do you think — " but his question is cut off by the device on Tony's wrist vibrating sharply. Tony clicks it and his eyes go unfocussed for a moment.

There's obviously some sort of earpiece connected to it. Steve strains to listen, but he can only hear something akin to a light buzzing noise.

"Blast," Tony mutters, clicking the wrist device again He gets to his feet, throws a couple of bills on the table, and Steve moves to rise with him. "Oh, don't move," Tony says. "Lab emergency. I've got to go." Steve settles back into his seat, but Tony lingers for a moment, like his feet have suddenly gotten terribly heavy.

"I — " Tony starts, and then his shoulders tense, and he smiles oddly. "I guess I'll see you later," he says, and it's definitely not what he originally intended to say.

"Okay," Steve says amiably, and Tony nods sharply and starts to hurry away. Steve watches him go, confused, and turns back to the table. The bills Tony threw down — hundred dollar bills — are way too much for the sandwich he bought. Steve leaves them — Lydia will probably need the money to console herself that the handsome guy she was flirting with has disappeared, leaving her with the crazy guy with the crackpot Iron Man theories.

"You're a moron," an old man from a nearby table tells Steve, leaning over and glancing at him derisively. "You should have asked for his number."

Steve stares at him, and the old man shrugs and returns to his own food. The 21st century is weird.

When Steve gets back to the office, it's mostly empty — Don's in there, hunched over his laptop, but Clint, Natasha and Bruce are still gone.

It's a good opportunity to find out more about him. Don's the only member of the main comic team, apart from maybe Pepper, who probably isn't an Avenger. If he is involved, it's behind the scenes, somehow.

Steve had been thinking he might even be Thor, but with a different name. But if the Avengers had Thor at their disposal, he'd be out fighting with them, not stuck in the office with Steve. Also, Steve's seen photos of Thor.

Don is as nearly as tall as Thor, and has the same color eyes, but that's where the similarities end. Don isn't as broad as Thor, and his hair is a darker shade.

Steve waits until Don goes for a drink in the small kitchen, and sidles over casually.

"So," Steve says, trying to navigate Bruce's collection of tea to find something that doesn't sound like it might taste like a flower garden. "Just how long have you been working for the Retaliators?"

Don pauses, and peels off a NOT-CLINT's post-it from a bottle of orange soda. "Only for this last year," he says. "But I've been working for Tony Stark for nearly six years now."

"Since the Battle of New York," Steve realizes, accidentally saying it out loud.

Don freezes at that. It's not a long frozen moment, but it's enough of a pause for them both to notice it. The rain outside, which started after Steve got back into the office, loudly fills that moment of silence. "Uh," Don says. "Actually, yeah."

He looks a little dazed, which is totally weird.

Steve settles on coffee, deciding to risk the dangerous machine. If he's reading the whole situation right, the machine isn't too difficult.

Bruce must have just Hulked out in the kitchen from pure frustration.

"You're very brave," Don says, watching Steve start to turn the handles and fill the appropriate part of the coffee machine with water.

"Not really," Steve says, pressing a button and watching the machine rattle into life. "I think it's like a lot of things. Difficult until you know the truth. Then that awkward moment when you sit and stare and get annoyed at yourself for not seeing what's right in front of you." Steve slides a mug in, and presses a big red button. His mug fills neatly with hot, steaming coffee, and Steve smiles at Don.

Don instantly returns the grin. He's certainly nearly large enough to be the Norse-god Thor, but Steve's seen the footage of the Battle of New York — Don carries himself like an apology rather than with Thor's swagger and grace.

"Bruce has been fanboying you since Coulson first brought out your Captain America illustrations as his reference point," Don says, ferreting out some cookies from one of the cupboards and offering one to Steve. "If you show him how to use the coffee machine without getting angry, you might be his undying hero." Steve resists the smirk. He sort of is an undying superhero, after all. "The others are still at their meeting, right?" Steve asks, following Don out of the kitchen before edging a few paces away towards his own desk.

"As far as I'm aware," Don says. "Yes. But if you have any questions, I've been here long enough to maybe help. If I'm not here, you can get me on extension 8467."

"Thanks," Steve says. He jerks his head back at his monitor. "Guess I'd better get back to the drawing board."

Don nods, and Steve carries his coffee and cookie carefully as he wanders back over to his corner of the office.

Steve does have a question, actually, but he can't pose it to Don, because either he's lying, or the team and Pepper are lying to Don too.

The question's pretty simple: How come the comic crew are with Tony Stark in an all-afternoon meeting, when Steve's just spent time with him at the café? He's sort of been assuming that if the Retaliators crew are the Avengers, then Tony Stark knows about it. But maybe it's not that simple.

Steve settles back in his chair, and feigns scrolling through the Retaliators' bible while Don contentedly types away in his corner. It's an odd feeling to have someone in the office with him. Steve takes a moment to assess the odd feeling — he's had a lot of luck with his gut reactions to things in the past — and he's surprised to realize what it is he's actually feeling.

He feels oddly safe. It's reassuring to have someone else there he can ask questions to, or chat with.

Especially someone who is probably not an Avenger, which Steve finds out for sure when he checks his Google Alerts again to find out the vigilantes had a scrap with the Green Goblin during the afternoon. Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye were there.

Right when Bruce, Natasha and Clint were supposedly in a meeting with Tony.

Steve scrolls down. The reports then say Iron Man joined the fray later, but no eye witness has a consistent story as to whether Iron Man was helping the Avengers — or hindering.

He feels a sad jumbling feeling in the pit of his stomach. Maybe Iron Man's been pretending to Steve — well, to Captain America — that he's a good guy, purely to woo him over to the dark side.

It's definitely a sad thing to have to think about, so Steve doesn't. He gets out his pencils and loses himself in the artwork instead. It's not a permanent solution to his unhappy thoughts, but it's a temporary one and it works for the rest of the day.

If he stays up all night brooding about it, the serum wouldn't show the effects of that insomnia to a soul, so the coming morning Steve doesn't have to admit it to anyone.

He ignores the fact that he doesn't have anyone in his life to admit it to.

Steve, contrary to apparent current office odds from what Pepper tells him as he passes her in the hall, and in defiance to the almost-apathy that curled around his spine from the moment he went to bed until his morning alarm sounded, does come back to work for The Retaliators the next day.

Don isn't there today, his computer screen blank and staring, but Bruce is busy at work on the first of Steve's boards, and Clint and Natasha are huddled together. Giggling.

Steve smiles at them politely as he passes them and wishes them good morning, but it just makes them giggle more.

Paranoia is a bitch, especially when the Avengers are involved. Steve resists the urge to surreptitiously check whether there's an embarrassing hole in his pants, or toothpaste on his face, but he can't resist the urge to double check that they haven't rigged his seat to fall apart. The Howling Commandos usually tried some sort of trick like that, in the rare occasions they had actual furniture instead of trying to find the least uncomfortable tree root in the vicinity.

The seat's fine. Steve lowers himself onto the chair, nods a good morning at Bruce when Bruce finally notices he's there (and Bruce does have a smear of ink on his face, but Steve doubts Clint and Natasha are laughing at that), and lowers his satchel gently down onto the ground, nestling it under the writing desk.

Steve lifts up the laptop screen to power it on, settles the page of text for today's sketching, and is about to pick up his pencil when Clint sniggers and Steve realizes why.

There's a post-it note stuck to the centre of his laptop screen.

Steve sighs, wonders what sort of joke is going to be on it, and leans forward to tug it off.


Holding it between his fingertips, Steve frowns at it, and then glances back at Clint and Natasha. Clint ducks his head behind his monitor, and Natasha manages to look instantly innocent.

Steve swallows down his real feelings. Which is mostly a distillation of the fact that he's always been pretty grateful not to have had to directly attack the Avengers during his career with SHIELD, and that relief is well-founded — Natasha and Clint are crazy people.

"Did you — " Steve frowns, and then shakes his head. "Did you two leave this on the laptop? If it's a joke, I don't get it."

"We didn't do anything to your laptop," Clint says, in a weirdly strung-out high pitched voice. Like he's too busy holding back laughter to bother sounding like a rational adult.

Steve frowns at both of them, puts the post-it note down, and shrugs his coat off so it falls on the back of his chair neatly. He picks up his blue pencil, that he put neatly in the reservoir at the bottom of the drawing desk, and moves it up to the board. He already drew in the boxes for this board — a triple panel fight scene — and now just needs to put the vague outlines in before he starts sketching the Retaliators and villains. He makes a rough oblong where the "Black Mamba" should be.

Or he tries to.

Clint just bursts out laughing uncontrollably, and even Natasha can't help a couple of sniggers, even as she pretends to be hard at work typing something.

Steve sighs, and squints down at the pencil. In the 30s, when he worked in his first much busier comic book office, it was a common prank to paint a pencil tip with nail polish. It was much easier before different colors were invented; the first time it happened to Steve, he was able to spot it before putting the pencil to paper. The last time it happened, before the war, someone used a cornflower blue polish, and he hadn't noticed, and had nearly gotten fired over it.

This pencil is exactly the same shade as it should be. But Steve remembers how quickly new shades came out in the 30s, as women vied to look like movie stars, and he realizes that while he doesn't know it for sure, it has to be possible for invisible polish to have been invented while Steve was busy playing human popsicle.

He has a choice. He can either sharpen the pencil down and hope the blade shaves off the varnish, or he can go see if he can get some nail varnish remover.

Steve doesn't show that he's irritated. He gets up from the chair with his pencil, lifts up the post-it note from his laptop just in case the pranksters get any more ideas, and he goes to see if Pepper Potts has any. He can vaguely recall that her nails were a shiny pink color; he hadn't lingered. Lingering on any sort of makeup thoughts makes him remember Peggy, and that ache never gets any better.

Steve knocks politely on Pepper's door and waits for a response. As he looks away so he's not staring at the door, he has to startle when he sees Tony's dark head bowed over a monitor, typing away at something.

That's weird. He got the feeling Tony Stark didn't really work on this level; the few times he's been in the tower as Captain America, he's mostly seen Stark at a distance in the Resilient labs.

Come to think of it, he always sees Tony Stark in the tower. If it wasn't for seeing Tony outside at the café, Steve would think Tony never leaves his tower.

"Come in," Pepper calls. She doesn't look too surprised to see it's Steve — for a moment, he think that she's just that good, which wouldn't surprise him, but then he sees a small reflection of the contents of her monitor in the window, and by the side of an official looking document are various windows showing CCTV footage.

She's watching them all, then.

"Ah, Steve," she says, like it is a surprise. She lies very smoothly, as someone would have to, if they were covering up the existence of vigilantes under their supervision. "How can I help you?"

Steve holds up his pencil. "Someone's pulling a very common prank, I'm afraid."

Pepper frowns. "Rubber pencil?"

He shakes his head and hands it over. Frowning and smiling all at once, which is an achievement, Pepper takes it and runs it over her blotting pad. She looks up, her expression landing fully on a frown. "How — ?" she starts.

"Nail varnish," Steve says, with a shrug. "I was just wondering if you either had some remover on the premises, or if you could direct me to the nearest drugstore? I'm still not too familiar with this area of the city."

"You're in luck," Pepper says. "Mr. Stark is so used to me being available and immaculate at all times that I have to keep a full set of products in the office." She slides open one of her drawers, and produces a small bottle of liquid and some cotton wipes. "Here you go."

"Thank you." Steve retrieves his pencil, and uses one of the wipes to make his pencil tip clear again. He returns the items to her desk, opens his mouth to make a polite goodbye, and then recalls the surveillance windows on her desktop. "One more thing, if it's no trouble."

Pepper freezes, barely perceptible, and the corner of her smile wobbles. Steve pauses, because he's mean like that — she's probably expecting something she'll have to lie about, and liars should stew in their guilt, even if they're lying for what they think is a good reason. "Of course not," Pepper says, too brightly.

"Do you know who left this on my laptop?" Steve asks, proffering the post-it note. "Natasha and Clint were giggling, and I'm not ruling out being pranked twice."

"Oh," Pepper says, almost breathily. Her smile twitches into something which looks more genuine. She returns the post-it. "That's Mr. Stark's handwriting. I..." She looks thoughtful for a moment. "I didn't know you'd met him at lunchtime yesterday?"

She phrases it like a question, but Steve's put some decent study into body language — there's a pulse twitching in the side of her neck, and a bead of sweat on her forehead.

It might not be guilt.

Maybe it's worry.

But why would Pepper worry about Tony going outside for some lunch and forgetting one meeting?

"It wasn't for long. He was hurrying to some sort of creative meeting with the others," Steve says, and beams his widest there's no problem here at all, ma'am smile that he uses on most of the unsuspecting public to cover up crazy supervillain escapades that might be about to blow up half of the planet.

"Right," Pepper says, still looking strained. "I guess you should give him an answer. Just stick it on his door."

"I'll do that," Steve says. "Thanks again."

"No," Pepper says. "Thank you. Tony hasn't caught up on his Retaliators' paperwork for months. So if you're the cause of that, I owe you."

"Well, you're hiring me," Steve says. "Starving artists always appreciate that."

Pepper laughs and Steve leaves the office. He holds up the post-it, and thinks for a second, and scrawls on it in the blue pencil:

"So you can insult me some more?"

He sticks it to Tony's door and walks away, unable to help his smile, but when he moves around the corner, his enhanced hearing picks up on Pepper's voice, tense and fraught and high-pitched. If he stays still and concentrates, he might be able to at least hear her part of the conversation.

Steve drops and pretends to be retying his shoelaces.

"You went outside? On your own? What were you thinking? Tony, I — The Goblin came just the other day, are you out of your mind — I know it's not — I know you have to live your life — Tony — I'll go to security. Get them to wipe any CCTV footage you left behind. And if you're not working on your paperwork when I get back, you're in serious trouble — "

Steve lurches to his feet and just about makes it around the corner before the distinctive clack of Pepper's heels stride right past him, towards the elevators.

He's not entirely sure what's going on, but that half of the conversation makes it sound like Tony might be in danger, and that thought doesn't sit right with Steve at all.

But he can't follow Pepper around right now, and he has no valid excuse to go see Tony Stark. It's just one more mystery to add to the growing pile.

Clint actually makes the cutest sound of disappointment when Steve sweeps back into the office and doesn't make a fuss about using his now-fixed pencil to work on his second board. Although Steve managed to hold back any sort of reaction until then, he can't help but snicker, and when he turns around to raise an eyebrow at Clint pointedly, revelling in his fail, Natasha bursts out laughing again, and Clint holds up his hands.

"Okay, I surrender," Clint says. "You're too cool for prank school."

"He likes to needle the newbies," Natasha says, nodding in Clint's direction. "Definite A plus for your reaction, though. It takes a cool head to survive in this place. So I guess you passed. Which is completely unlike your predecessors."

Steve raises both eyebrows in question.

"Coulson threw his board out of the window in frustration," Bruce says, without turning around from his work.

Steve can't help the burst of a smirk threatening to break through. He keeps it mostly under control. Mostly. He's never going to let Coulson hear the end of it.

"And Tasha's friendly with some cops, so she got them to visit us on their lunch break," Clint continues. "Coulson thought he was being arrested."

"Yeah?" Steve says.

"Yeah," another voice floats over from the doorway. They all look over to see Tony standing there. He's wearing a shirt which is a little too large for him, with the sleeves pushed up over his elbows, and he looks tired. "I was four floors downstairs at the time and even I could hear the squeal he made."

Steve snickers, even though he's already thinking about Pepper's high-pitched, strained words to him, and wondering if there's an opening he can use. He watches Tony carefully, but there's no sign he's emotionally distressed over anything. "Maybe I can meet Coulson before the end of my four weeks," Steve says. "I would sure like to."

"I'm sure you'll get the chance to." Tony shoves his hands in his pockets and starts wandering over towards them. "How y'all doing?"

"Spot inspection?" Clint says, twirling insolently in his chair. "That's new."

Tony colors interestingly. "It's been a few months," he mutters.

Natasha's eyebrow quirks up.

"Fine," Tony says, "I had to scavenge parts from the coffee machines in R&D and Pepper informs me that you have the only working coffee machine in the whole building."

"That sounds more like it," Natasha says, watching as Tony shuffles over to Bruce.

Steve's brain goes into overdrive for the millionth time. There's a coffee shop down the street which is probably safer than the dubious coffee machine in the kitchenette. But Pepper's sent him here.

And Tony did get extremely fractious at the "security snafu" of Steve being in his elevator.

There are definitely more weird things going on here than Steve ever initially suspected.

"Hey, this is good," Tony says, gesturing at Bruce's inking with a pen, and then jabbing the pen in Bruce's side. "No reaction?"

Bruce reaches out and steals the pen without looking. This is clearly a practiced routine between them. "There's easier ways to give me stationery, Tony," Bruce says. "And if this is good, you can blame the new penciller. He's much better with the detail work than Coulson. And the perspectives."

Steve's ears go pink, and he turns back to his board, pretending Tony's not looking at him over Bruce's head speculatively. "Well," Tony says, "Mr. Rogers does seem to have some interesting perspectives."

"Ooh, loaded statement," Clint says, idly doing something with his graphics tablet that looks more like he's playing Angry Birds than doing anything productive. But maybe that's just how he works. "Do tell."

"Steve, here," Tony says, drawing out Steve's name as he ambles over to Steve's desk, peering exaggeratedly at the newest board. It's still all circles and ovals and blocking at the moment, and Steve feels abruptly self-conscious, "has a theory that Iron Man is a good guy."

"Really," Natasha breathes, sounding quite interested. "See, I totally told you we could run with more empathy in Metal Girl's storylines. I told you I wasn't the only one with crackpot Iron Man theories. We could tap into that."

"Ah," Steve says, "so you don't even pretend that the Retaliators isn't your fictionalized account of the Avengers, then?"

Natasha shrugs, and effortlessly lies, "They're public domain and fair game. Besides..." She quirks a grin. "We change enough that even if the Avengers ever became something more legal, they still probably couldn't sue us."

"It helps having a billionaire benefactor too," Tony says, and then — while Steve's distracted by the banter — Tony shoves something against Steve's face and wanders off towards the kitchen. "Someone show me how to use your beast of a coffee machine? I told Pepper I could design something better. And preferably not Bruce," he adds, not even turning around. That just seems to be their style; unforced banter and witty, warm repartee. Steve envies their obvious friendship pretty intensely for a weird second. He hasn't been allowed to get close to anyone since he was found in the ice. He doesn't know if that's because SHIELD has actively been running interference, or if it's Steve's own reluctance — because as soon as you get close to someone, you lose them.

Steve brushes that painful train of thought to one side. If that is his subconscious, this assignment is a terrible place to try and find friends. Firstly, the Avengers are in the villain category, because SHIELD don't employ them. Secondly, this assignment is only four weeks long.

Practice, then. He can practice befriending these people. The mission probably demands that, really, although he's already sad that in a few weeks, this will all be gone, and he'll be back to sitting alone in his sad little apartment, waiting for his next assignment.

It's a sharp hit, and Steve's winded by it; this realization that since being found in the ice, Steve's probably not had a life at all. And it's taken this oddball assignment for that to click. For him to notice being that alone has to be a problem.

He ducks his head to take a deep breath, to keep his composure, because Steve's not exactly ready to explain to these people why he's upset — because he's still not exactly ready to confront the truth 100% in the face.

That this is the first time he's not felt alone since waking up, and in a few weeks time he's going to have to give it up.

That maybe the reason he's latched onto Iron Man, and is hanging onto the theory that he's good so stubbornly, is because Iron Man is basically the only person in this century who even tries to talk to him.

Opening the note Tony shoved into his hands is probably the best distraction. The Retaliator crew probably wouldn't appreciate him sobbing into his pencils, which is probably the only other option at the moment.

It's another post-it note. "...I'm paying?"

Steve looks over to where Natasha is showing Tony how to use the coffee machine. He wrinkles his mouth for a moment. He's only here a few weeks. Getting attached is probably a bad idea.

Practicing, though. Practicing how to make friends. Maybe it's a skill Steve can replicate later, if Fury will actually let him socialize. Steve's life, now he thinks about it, has been rather manipulated the last five years to keep him busy. To keep him on a leash.

Steve reaches for the mug he'd left at his station the previous day, and as casually as possible heads over to the small kitchenette, rinsing out his mug and listening to Tony and Natasha good-naturedly bickering over the machine's settings, and he fills up his mug with squash because the coffee maker is emitting some weird sounds, and he pushes his response into Tony's hands on the way out of the kitchenette.

"Sure. If you answer one question first."

He hides the smirk as he casually walks back to his seat, and he's pretty sure one of the noises of frustration Tony makes at the coffee maker is that Steve's not included the question in the note.

Either Tony being in the office changes the working dynamic, or Natasha, Clint and Bruce have adjusted to Steve being there already, because it's already a more pleasant time than yesterday's more stilted atmosphere.

It might help that Steve pretends not to notice when one of them goes missing for a while. He especially works hardest at pretending not to notice when they go missing in accordance with a) Steve's phone silently alerting him to supervillain activity in New York and b) the WTIITSTD timetable on the wall. Clearly, they take it in turns to save the day.

Whose Turn Is It To Save The Day.

Steve should feel proud at figuring that out, but he's still feeling weirdly detached and disengaged; the only things keeping him locked to reality is the banter in the background, the art appearing under his fingertips, and the dance of swapping post-it notes with Tony Stark.

"Go ahead," is what Tony's next note says.

"Do I really look like a sweaty workman??" is the question Steve sends back.

"Not really?" Tony's response would be more reassuring if it didn't have the question mark.

Steve loses a few moments, looking down at himself in worry, before responding with a simple, all capitals, "EXPLAIN." He underlines it for emphasis.

By now, their note swapping has attracted attention — the group is close knit — so Tony puts his response directly on the fridge door. Steve idles for a while before going to pick it up, and Natasha gets to it first, snapping a photo of it on her phone and obviously texting it to Clint. Clint doesn't even hide that he's laughing at Steve.

Blushing, Steve goes to retrieve the note. "Maybe it's the pomade. The 1940s called. They want your hairstyle back."

The easiest response requires a guess — Steve's been brushing up on the history he's missed but there's a lot of it — and he leaves it just as publicly on the fridge. "Tell them to liaise with the 70s for the return of your goatee."

Natasha doesn't even pretend to be dignified about it — she runs for the fridge. Tony realizes a second too late — Natasha has her phone outstretched and she snaps a picture of it before Tony can grab it.

"I'm going to fire the lot of you," Tony announces, loudly. "In fact, that's my next note."

Steve leans back on his chair and watches as Tony writes out, "If I could fire you, I would."

Steve leaves "No, you wouldn't" on the fridge later in the morning, because there's no point in being secretive about it now, and there's probably no supervillain attacking the city, because Don Blake invites him via an e-mail to Natasha to the fourth floor cafeteria to try the soup that Pepper recommended on Steve's first day, and Clint, Natasha and Bruce all join them.

This is another floor Steve's never been on as Captain America, so it's easy to perfect the act of a newbie stumbling around, not knowing where he's going. And he's never really been good at talking to anyone — Bucky was always the one who started conversations in groups — so he's probably coming across as completely awkward.

Which, considering these people have seen him before — and may see him again — during a fight, and Steve's mask only covers up half of his face, awkward is probably a good impression if he wants to completely disconnect his physical precision as Captain America from the person beneath the mask, Steve Rogers.

He manages pretty well at a discussion about movies — it's the first time Steve's actually been grateful for the creepy piles of DVDs that Agent Coulson gives him every Christmas and birthday — and it's easy to laugh at Don's description of the scientists in his Stark Resilient department, but then Natasha asks him something which makes him freeze like a rabbit in headlights.

"So, Steve," Natasha says, pushing her empty bowl away and leaning back in her chair, "who's your favorite musician?"

Steve tries not to stare and show that he's flummoxed. Music was never really his thing; Steve liked to go to the movies. He reaches for the first answer he has at hand, and hopes that it's not completely weird for someone in this decade to like old music. "Uh- Maybe Vera Lynn?" Natasha looks a little blank, so Steve casts around his rusty brain for another possible name. "Or Judy Garland."

Clint's face goes tight, like it did before Steve discovered his pencil had been covered in clear nail varnish, so he's trying not to laugh, but Bruce looks thoughtful — like it's an okay answer — and Natasha says, with a weird sigh, "All the best, single ones."

"All the best, single ones what?" Steve questions. He looks at Don, but Don just shrugs. He doesn't know the answer either.

"Hey," Clint says, "I'm single and straight."

Natasha smiles, and starts to get up. She pats him on the head as she picks up her bowl and tray to return to one of the trolleys. "I said all the best ones, cupcake."

Clint pulls a face, but follows her to his feet, and Steve realizes it must be some sort of cue to leave, so he copies them and so do Don and Bruce. It's easier to know how to act when there's people around to surreptitiously copy.

Although, he probably won't be copying Don any time soon — on their way out of the cafeteria, a guy with a clipboard wearing a lab coat crashes into him (and to be fair, Don is huge, so it's probably easier to collide with him than anyone) and spills hot coffee all over Don.

Don's expression goes thunderous, and he backs the guy into the nearest pillar in a moment's notice. Clint and Natasha exchange a highly worried expression, Bruce backs off, and a crack of lightning from outside diffuses the situation almost instantly. Don's eyes go a little vacant as he looks up from the guy to the window, and the thunderclouds gathering up in the sky.

Bruce moves over to Don and puts a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Come on, let's get you to Mr. Stark. I think Tony keeps spare clothes in his penthouse."

He does, actually — Steve once as Captain America had to hide in Tony Stark's closet when he used the penthouse as his entry point, and a woman who he now knows was Pepper Potts was in the penthouse setting out some paperwork.

Captain America might know that, but Steve Rogers shouldn't, so he hangs back and surreptitiously thumbs a note on his phone about the lightning, and he tags along with Clint and Natasha as they leave the fourth floor and head to the elevator.

Tony's still in his office on the Stark Creative floor, so Don and Bruce head in to see him, and Steve has to go with Clint and Natasha to get back to work in the main office, and he's lost in thought.

There's something off about this whole situation in general. This place is so haphazard, and the way Don went from amicable to angry in a second, and the lightning, crackling across the sky in concordance with Don's mood. Steve's missing something, something big.

But then Tony throws him a smirk when he passes the main office with Don and Bruce in tow, and Steve can't remember what he was thinking about, apart from the thought he was onto something interesting. If it's an important thought, Steve figures, it'll come back later.

The next day, now his third at Stark Creative, Steve's on his own in the office. It's not a surprise — there's been a vehicle pileup on Brooklyn Bridge, and he barely has to glance at his Google Alerts to know that Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk are on the scene.

He's pretty much resigned himself to the fact that he's working with the Avengers, and they're pretending to be regular people, maybe for Steve's benefit, except there's only three Avengers, and the others may just be innocent civilians. Pepper — although she seems super organized — also doesn't give off the I could snap your neck with one hand vibe that Bruce, Clint and Natasha do.

The thing that's left with Steve is whether Tony Stark knows he's employed the Avengers or not.

Either way is perfectly plausible. Tony Stark is primarily involved with weapons tech and green energy, more of the latter since a vague incident five years ago engineered by his once-business-partner Obadiah Stane; he probably wouldn't know that this flaky method of creating a comic isn't exactly industry standard.

But then, Tony Stark has been reclusive for the last five years, a much more muted version of the person that the Internet says he used to be (as far as one could trust the Internet — Steve's seen more than enough conspiracy theories about himself on the Internet, for example, than would ever make him trust anything online. The news article with Monty was the tip of the iceberg when it came to the insane theories about Captain America; although, of course, several people do come uncomfortably close to the truth sometimes, as Monty had also been a great example of) so maybe Tony Stark has been funding the Avengers.

Which kind of makes him a villain, if you translate terrorism laws strictly. Funding vigilantes is a serious crime.

And then there's Steve's ridiculous crush on Iron Man to consider now, along with Steve's maybe-flirting-maybe-not post-it adventures with Tony Stark. Apparently Steve is possibly developing a type.

For villains.


Then again, Steve's an incurable optimist, and he much prefers to believe that Iron Man and Tony Stark are both misunderstood good people.

And they're both completely crazy. Iron Man likes to bridal lift him out of buildings, and Tony Stark leaves him silly post-it notes that make his cheeks go a color of red that they haven't really turned post-serum before.

"Probably not," reads the next one, waiting for him on the fridge, in response to Steve's you wouldn't fire me note from the day before. "Who else would I woo over lunch if you weren't here?"

Steve can actually feel the heat from his cheeks if he hovers his hand over his face an inch. It's ridiculous. He needs something to get his mind centred back on real life, and he takes a deep breath and decides to tackle the coffee machine again.

After leaving a post-it note reading "Clint" underneath Tony's note, of course.

It must have just been a fluke the other day, getting it to work in front of Don. The machine is a hell beast from crazy land. That's the only explanation. Steve tries for ten minutes to get it to produce something, but it gives him a trickle of cold liquid and Steve gives up and fixes himself a mug of herbal tea from Bruce's impressive tea collection.

He's just putting the kettle away neatly when Tony appears in the office.

Tony looks pale, and his shirt looks rumpled, like he's fallen asleep in his clothes. They look a lot like the clothes he was wearing yesterday, actually.

Tony gives him a bleary smile, and moves over to the coffee maker, effortlessly managing to make it work. Steve throws it a scowl for betraying him as Tony glances at the fridge. Tony turns and pulls a face at Steve, before actually pulling a post-it note pad out of his pocket and adding something below Steve's.

Steve side-glances at it and can't help the smile. "I think I suddenly just lost my appetite." Tony grins back.

"You're good with your hands, right?" Tony asks. An odd pink tinges his cheeks, and Steve tries not to think that Tony's dark hair frames the blush really nicely. "I mean," Tony's eyes slide away to Steve's desk, "office equipment and the like."

"I can usually fix it when it goes wrong if that's what you mean," Steve says, getting up. Tony starts walking in a direction that Steve realizes is to Tony's office. "I didn't think you used the office on this floor a lot."

Tony waves his hand vaguely. "I like to use this one when I'm having a lonely moment."

Steve looks at him sharply. Tony's face creases into a wince.

"Hey, I'm not trying to elicit sympathy," Tony says, "I'm perfectly fine — it's just a lot of my work in Stark Resilient is on my own in a small, cramped room. Believe me, sometimes all I do crave is a couple of days in a well-lit office just signing off paperwork and hearing human voices that actually exist. Don't tell Pepper, though. It's much more fun whining at her."

"My lips are sealed," Steve promises.

Tony's eyes slide for a moment to Steve's mouth, before he faces straight ahead and quickens his pace. "I have an office on every floor," Tony explains. "Pepper, actually, arranged for them each to look the same. I thought it was kind, until the first time I was halfway through scanning through a phonebook's worth of memos, and realized I had no idea what floor I was on."

Steve puts in a minimal amount of effort to hide his grin. Tony squints at him sourly.

"Anyway," Tony says. "For once, this office doesn't look the same as the others."

Steve follows Tony through a heavy oak door, and for a moment doesn't know what Tony means. The office is lovely. Plush black leather furniture, and a sleek black glass desk, and a state of the art Stark Computer, and —

Oh. There's where the trouble lies.

Steve moves around Tony's desk. "Do you normally put your desk equipment in jello?" Steve prods at the red gelatine encasing Tony's computer mouse. "Because that doesn't seem so very efficient."

There's a note stuck in the jello. "Seeing as you're hanging out with us more, I thought you might like a snack or two!" Steve takes it out and squints at it. Definitely Clint's handwriting.

"Don't be a smart ass," Tony says, "that's in my job description, not yours."

"Oh, yeah," Steve says, giving the mouse another prod. "Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropic smart ass."

"It's on my business card," Tony says. "Wait, go back to the genius part."

"I might have been wrong. Your keyboard is growing something." Steve prods at the greenery coming from it, tugs some out, and eats it.

"Woah," Tony says. "I thought I was the only idiot who ate anything that could be potentially dangerous."

"It's just cress, quit the melodrama," Steve says. "Contrary to popular geek belief, greenery and vegetables don't kill you."

"I'll put out a company memo to that effect. Some of my engineering nerds could do with that info," Tony says, and starts pulling ineffectually at the cress.

"Is there any particular reason your office equipment is now part-garden, part-dessert?" Steve asks, pointedly.

"Well, I hardly use it," Tony says, prodding his jello-covered letter opener. "That, and Barton and I have a long-running prank war going on."

"Do you want the opinion of an outsider?" Steve says.

Tony arches an eyebrow. "Proceed. With caution."

"It looks like you're losing."

"Ouch," Tony says, splaying one hand on his chest, "I'm hurt."

"Barton messed with my pencils," Steve says, somewhat disconnectedly.

"If that's a metaphor, he's fired," Tony says.

"No metaphor."

"So... you might be predisposed to... helping me fight back?" Tony says, poking his jello-covered stapler sadly.

"The Stark-Rogers offensive begins tomorrow," Steve says, and shares a conspiratorial grin with Tony. "I'll get the supplies."

Steve's so busy strategising for the prank war, that he almost doesn't connect the vibration at his wrist to the fact that he should be answering that said alert.

It's the first time in a long time that Steve's almost forgotten he's Captain America.

He grieves for the few seconds it takes to get back into the right mental space — goodness knows he's been seconds too late to save people in the past — but what's done is done.

It's just Agent Hill, wanting an update of the weather. She's gamely pretending that it's all valid, worthwhile data, but Steve feels stupid as he recites the observations he's made.

Although, from the way Hill goes suddenly sombre at the very brief thunderstorm Steve mentions, maybe there is something useful about this assignment after all, and he's obviously not allowed to be privy to that information.

The exclusion combines with the loneliness and it feels bad, until Steve remembers Iron Man's kiss, and thinks, resolutely, of the memory of the warmth of the kiss. Iron Man's facial hair had been a heady and addictive sensation against his skin, and the memory of it warms him past the gut punch of the loneliness. It makes it survivable. What was it that British bloke had said during the war? When you're going through hell... keep going. There is always something to keep you moving forward, and for the moment, the memory of Iron Man's kiss is going to have to be it.

The enjoyment of stocking up on items to prank Clint with is less than it had been earlier in the evening, but Steve dutifully picks up the items. The idea of Clint's expression is enough to lift his spirits a little, but he is completely distracted.

So distracted he nearly walks straight into Natasha without realizing she's there.

Steve is seriously off his game, and he needs to start paying more attention and stat. Captain America can't afford to be this distracted.

Natasha doesn't look so startled, but she does shuffle, like she's feeling guilty about something. Steve glances surreptitiously at the contents of her basket.

First aid items. Guilt curls in the bottom of Steve's stomach, adding to the cocktail of already worryingly distracting emotions. The Avengers might be technically working outside the law, but they have saved people and they continue to protect New York from villains. Without SHIELD there to look after them, they probably have to patch up most of their own injuries.

The government would pick up on constantly going to hospital with supervillain inflicted injuries, Steve supposes, which is definitely a tick in the box of Tony not knowing and not funding them, because why would someone with his resources be allowing them to pick up their medical supplies in a dime store?

Steve gets away with surreptitiously checking out what Natasha's buying, because she blatantly looks into his basket and raises one perfect eyebrow. "Should I ask?" is what she opens with.

Steve's not big with small talk, so he appreciates that she's not either. He shakes his basket at her and smiles disarmingly. "Clint pranked me first."

Natasha's other eyebrow joins the first, and she smiles almost appreciatively. "That's a very slippery slope, Mr. Rogers."

Steve shrugs. He's seen that appreciative smile before, now he can connect her identity with the deadly Black Widow. Mostly he's seen it at a distance, when she's approved of some sort of violence. "I'm not taking him on alone. Two against one. Tony's desk got jello'd."

There's an almost knowing expression on Natasha's face. "Tony, hm?"

Steve colors a little at the implication in her voice, and finds himself rushing to explain. "It's not like that." He's not a very good interpreter of the reactions of other people, especially when it comes to women, but he doesn't think he's imagining that a shade of the kindness on Natasha's face drops away.

"There's someone else?" Natasha tilts her head a little, and Steve feels less like she might be considering him a friend, and more like potential prey. He can't help thinking of Iron Man, though, and the blush that's probably covering his cheeks is genuine. Too genuine, based on Natasha's suddenly intense expression. "That's a shame," Natasha continues, realizing Steve's not just being shy. "I've not seen Tony Stark smile in a long time."

The vestiges of Steve's excitement about the pranks withers a little, although he can't fully explain why. "You might be about to see him smile more," Steve says, faking a hopeful grin and shaking the contents of his basket at her.

The intensity of Natasha's expression does fade away a little as she peers again into his basket. "Pranking Clint Barton. I don't know whether you're brave or stupid."

Steve answers more genuinely than he intends to when he says, "For all my life, I've never known the difference."

Natasha looks like she might understand.

Natasha, bless her, doesn't even twitch when Steve passes her the next day with his SHIELD satchel suspiciously bulging. Steve doesn't have to wait for long for them to disappear — and it's Natasha, Bruce and Clint this time. A quick check on his phone reveals why — two attacks at two different parts of the city, and one of them is crazy huge.

Steve feels a little guilty at not being there as Captain America to fight, but if he wants to go out on his usual missions, he's going to have to play by Fury's rules for now.

Even if they're strange and odd and still make no sense. What does the weather have to do with anything? The weather in New York has been off since the Battle of New York, with rain levels increasing, but Steve still doesn't understand how weather around Stark Tower can have anything to do with important SHIELD work at all.

Don's working in the office today, so Steve quickly finishes off the panel he's working on, before tugging out his bag of prank equipment. He's planning to start off small, but if there's one thing Steve remembers from his days in the trenches, pranks are always funnier the more people who are in on them.

There's an almost perfect opening when Don goes to the kitchenette to make himself a coffee, and gets into an altercation with the coffee maker from doom. Steve even thinks Don's broken it when Don yells at it, and it's accompanied by a random rumble of thunder from outside. Steve notes that occurrence of thunder down, and then trots over to help Don.

Today seems to be a day where the coffee maker works for Steve, although remembering his last altercation with it makes him understand why Bruce would Hulk out in rage at it. Temperamental is much too kind a descriptive word.

"I must confess," Don says, "I have no idea how you work that thing."

"Apparently it's not as easy as it looks after all," Steve says, and he helpfully passes Don a mug of the coffee before making his own. "I was about ready to promise my first-born child to someone to get it to work the other day."

Don's broad hands make the mug look like a child's cup, and Don smiles pleasantly as Steve places another post-it note on the fridge, under Tony's declaration that Steve made him lose his appetite.

"I'm happy to eat your lunch too," Steve's written this time. "I'm a growing boy."

Don squints as Steve pulls away, because Steve hadn't just been holding the post-it note. "Is there any particular reason you're carrying fishing line? I must admit, I am at a loss to most artistic methods, but this is not one I'm familiar with."

"Oh, this?" Steve acts casual, but can't hold in the mischievous grin. "Clint put Mr. Stark's office equipment in jello. And made his keyboard into an indoor cress garden. I'm just engineering a little payback."

Don considers the fishing line, and frowns. "I suppose he won't expect it coming from you," Don says. "Natasha told me of Clint's attempt to flummox you with the nail varnish on your pencils. Your unruffled reaction was most impressive."

"I heard about Coulson's response," Steve says. "You know what else Clint wouldn't expect?"

"Me helping you?" Don suggests, and grins. His smile is honest and infectious, and Steve can't help but smile back.

It turns out Don's not all that good at tying knots — he gets frustrated, and when the rain outside turns to thunder and lightning again, Don gives up, and lets Steve tie the fiddly knots while Don pulls out the drawers fully and holds them while Steve ties everything together.

"This is a magnificent prank," Don assures Steve. Steve smirks at him, and thinks melodramatically that with the lightning crashing down, flashing through the office, that he may even look a little like a supervillain.

He wonders if he should cackle. Even that probably wouldn't be enough — he's much too clean-cut for villainy. No, he should probably grow a moustache to twirl if he wants to pull the evil look off. Steve might be mischievous, but the serum turned his blond hair and blue eyes that used to just make him look a bit washed out into the super-innocent all-American look. It would take a lot of work for anyone to believe Steve was evil.

This prank might help up his evil quota a tiny bit. By the time everything's tied together, and Don's frustration at not being able to do the knots has calmed — and really, it's not surprising he can't do it, his fingers are huge — the storm has abated back to rain. Steve thumbs a note in his phone after high-fiving Don (something he won't be repeating; the man's got a hell of a thump) about the storm, even though he's still pretty sure it's a pointless assignment and that Hill is right about the vacation thing.

Steve does have to wait a while for his prank to pay off — Steve's alerts confirm that they're on their way back before they even make it into the office, because the Avengers always clear out of the scene before the cops get there.

"Did you three have a nice time out in the rain?" Steve asks, as politely as he can manage, as the three of them try and slink nonchalantly into their seats.

"Oh, man, we should have invited you," Natasha says. She's the best liar Steve's ever seen — if he didn't know she was lying, he'd have reasonable cause to wonder if she was being truthful. "We found the best place for lunch in the city."

"I've been on a roll with my sketching," Steve says quickly, gesturing at his boards, cutting off her lies before they become painful to listen to.

"Really," Clint says, flatly. "I don't know. I think you're scared of coming with us for lunch somewhere outside the relative safety of the Stark tower."

Even Natasha quirks an eyebrow at Clint for that, unsure of where he's going.

"Please," Clint says, as he reaches for his draw to pull out his graphical tablet, "he's just reluctant because he knows he couldn't compete with my game — "

His bragging is punctuated by everything crashing out from his desk onto the floor. Steve and Don share a smirk over Clint's howls.

Rather brilliantly, it takes Clint another day to figure out that his prank on Tony is behind the sudden calamities befalling his desk.

Even more brilliantly, he doesn't seem to notice that Steve is the one helping Tony.

First, Steve takes advantage of Clint and Bruce not coming in until later (there's some sort of a kraken in Lower Bay; Steve's long since given up on figuring out the motivations of supervillains) to hide a radio in the ceiling tile above Clint's workstation.

Tuned to nothing but country.

Steve punctuates the prank by putting a small piece of tape under Clint's mouse to block the sensor, and as an added measure, he removes all staples but two from Clint's stapler.

Natasha just smirks at him.

Through the course of the day, Steve manages to remove Clint's staples three more times, and as an added measure, flips Clint's screen upside down (Ctrl + Alt and the up key — that was one of Tony's suggestions) four times before Clint cottons on that a) he's being pranked and b) Tony has something to do with it, because one of the CCTV cameras has been moved to point at his desk, and he's thwarted from doing something about it by a vibration at his wrist — Hawkeye is needed somewhere out in the city.

His return prank is pretty decent for 8am on a Monday where Clint's been out fighting something giant and slimy the whole weekend according to ONTD_Avengers, and still had to come into an office early in the morning to pretend to be a regular, non-superhero, working schmo.

Steve comes into the office to find that Tony — asleep at his desk in a towering pile of paperwork — has been photoshopped into everything. Everything. The Who's Turn Is It To Save The Day? timetable. The Retaliators' 2013 calendar hanging on the wall. The full display of Retaliator covers in the rest room. The photo Bruce has on his desk of himself and a pretty brunette. All of Steve's reference sketches on the walls.

And even Steve can't stop laughing when a strangled yell comes from Tony's office and they all run to find that Tony's office is full of cups of water. Literally full. On every surface.

Steve does take advantage of Clint laughing and taking pictures of his prank to put on the Retaliators' tumblr page to steal Clint's Katniss Everdeen action figure from on top of his monitor and leave a carefully printed ransom note where she should be.

Clint doesn't even notice, not for a long time.

Of course, it's mostly because he's too busy prank calling Clint.

Specifically, waiting until Clint leaves his desk before Steve dials the extension of the phone by Clint's computer, and then hanging up just as Clint reaches it.

Clint's been trying to leave his desk for an hour. He hasn't figured out Steve's behind it, although he does shoot Steve a dirty look when Steve manages to get to the kitchenette without his phone going off.

Bruce comes to the kitchenette too, but Steve suspects it's just to make Clint angrier.

There is something funny about making Clint angry. Or maybe there's something thrilling about making Clint angry and living afterwards.

"I was actually going to invite you to join me for lunch," Bruce says companionably. "But it looks like you've got a better offer."

Steve follows Bruce's gaze to a post-it note on the fridge.

It reads: "I BET YOU ARE." It takes even Steve's excellent memory a few seconds to remember what his last post-it note said.

I'm happy to eat your lunch too, I'm a growing boy.

Steve's cheeks color automatically and Bruce smirks knowingly. Steve buries himself into the coffee maker, and grunts in frustration when he can't make it work. He has a very hit-and-miss relationship with the coffee maker, and it's lucky he doesn't have his shield with him; then their relationship would just be hit.

"You can have some of my tea," Bruce says. "I'm amenable to people using my tea. As long as you put the tin back in the right place, and let me know if I'm running out."

Steve glances at the teas. They're in alphabetical order.

"Yeah, I really wouldn't move them." Steve and Bruce both turn to see Clint leaning against the fridge, looking triumphant that he's managed to escape his desk."You gotta keep them in order or he goes berserk."

"I don't," Bruce mutters, but he crosses his arms and shuffles, looking a little guilty.

"He has a condition," Clint informs Steve, raising an eyebrow. Steve nods, and surreptitiously presses the re-dial switch on his cellphone.

Clint's phone starts ringing again.

"Son of a bitch," Clint growls, turns on his heel and flees for his desk, "if they freaking hang up one more time — "

With Clint turned away, and Bruce looking a little downcast, Steve pulls his cellphone out of his pocket, and shows the display to Bruce. Calling CLINT (WORK). Bruce smothers a laugh when Steve hits disconnect, and Clint's phone stops ringing just as he reaches it. "Son of a bitch!" Clint yells again.

Steve slides his phone back into his pocket just in time for Clint to look in their direction, and Bruce matches Steve's neutral expression.

"What did I tell you about swearing in the office," Natasha tells him, not even looking up from her typing.

"But — " Clint scowls at her. "I can't get more than ten metres away from my desk without my phone going off. And by the time I get there, they hang up!"

"So?" Natasha says. "If it's important, they'll call back."

Clint mutters something under his breath.

"I'm sorry, I don't speak mumble," Natasha says.

"He said," Don calls across, obviously trying to be helpful, "that he missed a call from his landlord and got in trouble."

"I should probably feel bad for that," Steve mutters to Bruce.

Bruce smirks. "Probably."

"Hey," Clint adds with a howl, spinning on his chair and looking around the office wildly, "and where the hell did Katniss go?"

"According to this note," Natasha says, swiping the ransom note from Clint's monitor, "you've been a bad boy, so Katniss is off fighting the Capitol. She'll be back when you've paid the mercenaries three boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts to be placed in the kitchenette by five o' clock Friday, or Miss. Everdeen might suffer a terrible fate."

That's not actually what the note says — Tony just suggested one box of donuts, and there's nothing on there saying Clint's a bad boy — but Clint's resultant pitch fit is too loud, protracted and kind of hilarious for any of them to get the truth in edgeways.

Working at "The Retaliators" isn't all fun and games and pranks, though.

Steve does have work to do, and he gets a lot more of it done when Pepper ventures out of her office to hand-deliver him a note from Tony with a rain check for lunch. It's not too much of a disappointment, because the note is an invitation for take-out food when work finishes tomorrow.

The problem with the work is that it's fun work, and Steve finishes it much too quickly.

He taps his pencil against the last board, smiling to himself at the scene, because it's from a day he was there for (and as such, he's pretty sure it's not exactly accurate.) It's a little weird drawing himself as Captain Awesome being airlifted away by SWORD, crying like a baby while the Retaliators look on in glee, but Steve's always been able to take the piss out of himself, and it's kinda fun.

Really, it's never not going to be funny that Steve is a villain to the Retaliators.

Steve stacks the last board at the bottom of Bruce's to-do pile, and then has a nervous internal panic that temps get fired if they finish their work early, and then he has a rebellious moment where it wouldn't technically be his fault if the assignment finished early, so Fury couldn't really get too mad if he ends up getting "let go" from The Retaliators too quickly.

He taps his pencil against the empty drawing desk, and then crosses the room to Natasha's desk and clears his throat when she doesn't look up from her typing. The Black Widow is probably the most active Avenger; it's definitely a good explanation as to why she's always frantically completing work at a breakneck pace, because she doesn't have a lot of time to do it in.

"Can I help?" Natasha asks, politely. Even her polite tone makes Steve glad he has good bowel control.

"Uh," Steve says, feeling nervous. "I'm done."

"Great," Natasha says. "Move onto the third board."

"No, I'm done," Steve says. "All sixteen of them."

Natasha stares. Over in his corner, Bruce looks up from his inking, and startles at the number of boards lying by his desk, even though Steve's been busily stacking them up all last week.

"He's right," Bruce murmurs, "these are done. More done than Coulson even gives me."

Natasha continues to stare at Steve.

Uncomfortable is too slight a word to describe how Steve is feeling.

"Okay," Natasha says. "Well. Um."

Clint leans back so far on his chair that Steve is surprised it doesn't break, and he looks impressed. "Dude, did you just break Natasha?"

"He didn't break me," Natasha snaps, automatically. "I just — This is how we've always worked, so I didn't realize Coulson was slow."

"Ooh, he could do something for the tumblr," Clint says. He looks up at Steve. "The fans on there are a little... interesting."

"They're lovely," Natasha corrects, and then reconsiders. "And interesting."

Steve's got no idea what she's going on about. But he's getting the sinking feeling that interesting might not be his favorite word anymore.

"Maybe you could do a Metal Girl and Captain Awesome piece," Natasha says. "A set of alternate covers. Yeah. Take some of our last covers, and pretend The Retaliators is all about them. You can do covers, right?"

"Of course," Steve says.

"Ooh, make them shippy," Clint says, clapping his hands together. "The fans like that."

"You do realize the more you encourage him, the more work he'll end up sending your way," Natasha mutters, smiling brightly.

Clint wrinkles his nose, and then notices Steve is staring at him.

"Shippy?" Steve asks. "The fans like them on a boat? What kind of boat?"

Clint starts to laugh. Natasha grins, and gets up from her chair.

"Come on," she tells Steve. "I'll load you up the sites on your laptop and introduce you to some of the... more interesting parts of the internet."

It's... well, interesting is about the best word for it.

And it's definitely no longer Steve's favorite word.

Natasha briefly explains what shipping means, and Steve tries his best not to blush.

Especially when it comes to a portmanteau that means a lot in the online Retaliators communities: Awesometal.

"Tasha ships Awesometal a little," Clint explains from across the room. Natasha doesn't even look; she picks up one of Steve's erasers and pitches it backwards, smacking Clint in the face.

"I'll get you a replacement," Natasha says. Steve just smiles and nods.

Awesometal, apparently, is a shipping name. For fans of the Retaliators who believe Captain Awesome and Metal Girl are dating behind the scenes. Or just humping like bunnies after all their arguments. Something like that. There are stories, and picture sets with new captions, and some of the fan art makes Steve's blush impossible to hide.

The majority of the pieces seem to especially, genuinely like the 'I'll get you next time'/'Not if I get you first' exchange. They unironically like it.

Steve's mind is kind of blown.

"Every now and again we like to put a moment in the Retaliators to cater to the shippers," Natasha says. "Nothing opaque, but... we like to tease them."

Steve nods, thinking he's got it.

"Spend some time looking over the online communities and fan pages," Natasha says. "Get a feel for it."

"He should check out the RPF stuff too," Clint says. "You know."

Natasha squints. "The Cap_Ironman guys?"

"Yeah," Clint says. "Them."

"The Cap what?" Steve says, but his stomach sinks, because he thinks he suddenly knows, and that's — That's — That's —

Well, Steve can't even use the word weird.

Maybe uncomfortably close to the truth is a better fit. Steve has to really tense his elbows to resist the urge to touch his mouth. Iron Man's kiss is a lingering ghost on his lips even now.

"Well, you know," Natasha says, gamely, "it's not a secret where we get some of our inspiration from. Although I think you'd agree we've been very creative."

"Sure," Steve says. "I particularly like you making the Hulk a lion-type creature."

Natasha smiles, and shrugs at Steve. "There are a lot of people who think Captain America and Iron Man have a thing going on. I know, it's pretty farfetched. Captain America's like the good guy and Iron Man's a supervillain, but it takes all sorts of people to make a world."

"Natasha ships it," Clint says, and then holds his hands over his head when Natasha throws him a dirty look.

"I don't," Natasha mutters. She looks at Steve, a defensive expression on her face. "I just see where people are coming from, is all. A lot of people like the opposites attract kind of thing."

Steve really doesn't want to think about it too much, because he's already felt more than once his life has descended far down the rabbit hole, and that was before this assignment even started. "You mentioned RPF," Steve says, prompting Natasha before she keeps talking about it.

"Real Person Fiction. It's fanfiction written about actual people, rather than fictional characters like the Retaliators," Natasha says, quickly, like it's an embarrassing concept. "It's not something you have to worry about," she adds, quickly. "You'll find a library of our covers in the rest room. Just draw Metal Girl airlifting Captain Awesome out of a dangerous situation," Natasha says. "We'll just scan it in, so have a ball with it. If it's good, we'll auction it off for charity. We do it all the time."

"Ooh," Clint coos. "Pressure. Ooh — you know what you should do?"

"If you link him to the Retaliator kink meme, I will end you," Natasha says.

"Idea shelved," Clint says, instantly.

Steve decides he doesn't want to know, although he does make a mental note to Google Awesometal more thoroughly later.

Just for research purposes, of course.

The next day, at the close of the work day, Clint has to go out for a WTIITSTD related incident (Steve doesn't even bother checking Google Alert any more), so Steve takes advantage of the situation, and pauses from his work to set up another prank. His current work is now a rough sketch of Captain Awesome holding hands with Metal Girl — okay, Metal Girl either getting ready to throw Captain Awesome off a building, or she's stopping Awesome from falling; either way, Natasha's already clucked approvingly at the rough outline and her cheeks went a bit pink, so maybe Clint's right about her shipping it. And Steve's really trying so hard not to think about it all being related to him and Iron Man, and he's definitely not thinking about that heart-racing artwork. Nope. Not at all.

Steve's denial is thorough, and robust; Steve doesn't do anything by halves.

He's progressing well enough that when Steve holds up his roll of foil and points at Clint's desk, Natasha gestures with a feel free motion, and Bruce — actually giggling — hurries over to help Steve wrap up Clint's desk with the foil. Steve then hides a tape deck in the bottom drawer of Clint's filing cabinet, and as an afterthought, messes with Clint's autocorrect on his email and his word processor.

Every time Clint tries to type 'the', it will be replaced by 'donkey'.

Bruce is super disappointed that Clint doesn't turn up before home time, but Steve promises to ask Pepper for a copy of the security tape for when Clint turns up and does find the surprise.

He doesn't have to. Steve packs up as if he's going home, putting his coat on, and slinging his satchel with his favorite art materials in (he doesn't trust leaving them near Clint) and walking out as if he's going back to his apartment — but he has plans to have takeout with Tony.

When he goes to find Tony, Tony's already lounging in his Retaliators' office. He's moved the two low sofas from the edges to form a V-shape around his computer screen, and he beckons Steve over and doesn't have to explain: the monitor's already showing the Retaliators' office and Clint's desk.

It doesn't take long for a delivery guy to show up with food, and for Clint to come in and find his desk covered in foil.

Clint actually appears to have fun ripping the foil off, and Tony's disappointed, but then Steve's tape recorder prank to start showing results, and it's so much better than sitting and watching a film with someone.

Tony's laugh is a really pleasant sound, and Steve can't help the smile when he explains. "I just recorded a loop of silence, and then someone knocking. Long pauses. More knocking. And then a tiny voice saying help, I'm stuck in here."

"You're amazing," Tony says, through a mouthful of noodles, laughing delightedly again. The sound goes straight down Steve's spine, making him feel like he's half made of liquid, and Tony looks so delighted that Steve can't help but look at him.

Tony's managing to eat without getting sauce in his facial hair, which Steve personally thinks it's an achievement — it's not something he's really thought before, even though Dum Dum, one of his old unit, used to have a great big bushy moustache and sometimes he picked food out of it hours later.

Dum Dum Dugan is dead. Of old age, Steve's brain reminds him, and Steve's gut tightens. He has to distract himself. It's best, or he starts thinking about the full implications of everything he's lost, and then he'll just be glum. And while that's been okay for the last few years, because that kind of depressing cycle tends to only happen when Steve's not on mission, it's not okay now.

Right now, he's not on his own, and Steve has to take advantage of having company while he can.

He does feel queasy at that thought. The idea of having to give Tony up is not a nice one.

"Are you okay?" Tony asks, voice low with worry.

Steve, still looking at Tony's sauce-free facial hair, must look like a complete idiot. He blinks a few times. "Uh," he says, remembering suddenly, viscerally, how good Iron Man's facial hair had felt when they kissed. Would Tony Stark feel the same?

Better, whispers a voice somewhere deep inside Steve that he's not ready to listen to yet.

"My dinner's just really good," Steve blurts rapidly, thrusting his box of food into Tony's face.

Tony pulls a pleasantly surprised face, and spears a piece of Steve's chicken, and Steve (because he does denial with as much earnestness and vigor as anything else) denies that he's watching Tony lick his lips.

"Mm," Tony says, and it might be Steve's imagination, but Tony does seem to be looking at Steve's mouth, "that is pretty delicious."

"Wait — just stay there." Steve frowns, and dips and digs in his satchel, pulling out his sketchbook. "Hold that expression."

"My oh my god, that orange chicken is divine face or the what the hell are you doing one," Tony quips. Steve can almost hear Tony's confused frown.

"The one where you look two inches from a good time," Steve says, distractedly, tugging out his favourite 2B pencil.

"Honey, I'm always two inches from a good time," Tony says. "If you know what I mean." His lips quirk for a moment. "I mean most guys aren't well endowed enough for me."

"Proof we've never slept together," Steve says, because he's distracted when he draws, and speaks his mind without any filters, and he only realizes what he's said when Tony laughs, delightedly. Steve manfully holds back the embarrassed flush, because it's okay to be that honest about sex. Morals in the 2010s are looser than in the 1940s. Or maybe it's the fact that tongues are looser, and nothing in this regard had actually changed — except now Steve takes more notice of it.

"Can I ask what you're doing?" Tony says, obviously noticing Steve's blush and not calling him on it, which is pretty nice of him. "Besides not sleeping with me, I mean."

Oh. Okay, Tony is calling Steve out on his blush. Which just makes the blush worse. There's probably no human words to salvage this situation and still let Steve retain some dignity.

"I mean," Tony continues, "I'm your boss, I pay you for your time, I can ask what you're doing on company time at any time, so you have to tell me what you're doing-"

"I," Steve says, alternating between long loose lines in his sketch and flickering objective little looks at his captive model, "have done my clocked-in eight hours for today and surpassed my four weeks of work, apparently. This — as is clearly demonstrated by the half-eaten Chinese cartons between us — is called a dinner break, which according to my Stark Creative contract is my own time, and any independent work I do on my own time, as long as it is completed on a speculative nature, is strictly my own."

"Mm," says Tony, "remind me to ask you to speak in legalese sometime. It's doing wonders for my libido."

Steve makes a strangled noise he can't help, and scowls at his paper while he briefly shades in something on the piece. "That reminds me," Steve says, feeling mean, "I saw Miss. Potts earlier. She says you have that sexual harassment seminar scheduled tomorrow."

"Miss. Potts is an adorable hell demon," Tony says. "C'mon. Show me."

Steve gives him a flat look and shades a little more of the sketch, and then flips it around. Tony squints at the sketch of himself. Steve mocked up a skyline, like Tony's standing triumphantly on the outside of Stark Tower, looking down on the world.

"Well," Tony says, unable to hide a swallow, "I can see why I hired you."

"You hired me because Stan Lee and Joss Whedon recommended me to you," Steve says, still feeling quietly guilty that Nick Fury had made them cash in some SHIELD-owed favours for this.

Because with those favors cashed in, there aren't any more to cash in to get Steve to stay, even if Fury would do that for him. And if Steve's being honest, and he has to about this if there's other things he has to be in denial about, he wants to stay.

He likes sketching. The Avengers are proof that Steve could do a regular job around saving the day, especially in an environment like this one.

Staying is impossible, and Steve has to stop thinking about it.

"Yes," Tony says, unaware that Steve's not paying as much attention as he should, "and that would have meant jack shit diddly if I didn't like you. Or if I'd been drinking too much the day Pepper showed me your stuff."

"Hmm," Steve says, disapprovingly. He turns the sketch back around and lays it on his knees, idly adding to it, bring in more depth and shadow. "I like this. Maybe I'll model a new hero on you and pitch it to Natasha."

Tony pulls a face. "I'm no hero," he says, in a final sort of tone.

"I think the schools and refuges you donate millions to every year would disagree," Steve says.

"Yes," Tony agrees, "because I pay them to disagree. Hey, hey, watch — "

Steve opens his mouth to tell Tony off for changing the subject so suddenly, because it's a cheap technique to avoid talking about something that is important, but laughs instead.

Because Clint's currently snooping around the bottom of the filing cabinet, looking incredibly confused.

Tony laughs too, and Steve loves the sound of it; it's out of control and it's carefree, and Steve remembers the tense Tony Stark that stepped into the elevator just over a week ago, and the two Tony Starks don't match at all. That one was tense and stressed, and this one is joyful and carefree, and half of Steve's smiles at Clint's increasingly bizarre actions showing on the monitor are at Tony, really.

It's a thought too confusing to dwell on, but it's a warming thought nevertheless.

Clint seems to catch on that something weird is going on, and he calls Don over, who looks clueless. He points at Clint's computer, obviously suggesting that Clint sends Pepper an email about it.

Four minutes later, a pop-up comes onscreen, obscuring the footage of Clint acting bizarrely. It's a notification of an e-mail from Pepper. Tony leans forward, taps on the now-cress-free keyboard, and brings up the text of it.

FWD: Funky sounds in donkey office Pepper, Donkeyre's something funky going on in donkey office. Donkeyre's someone trapped in donkey filing cabinet and donkey're calling for help. Donkey filing cabinet is locked. I can't work like this. Donkey sounds are strange and distracting. Yours, CB. PS. Can you look at donkey CCTV footage and see who kidnapped my Katniss doll please. Donkey idiot who did it is destroying my ability to concentrate, and donkey comic is suffering because of it.


Tony and Steve exchange a look at the same time and burst out laughing.

Clint eventually gives up and leaves the building, muttering, and it takes a while for Steve to catch his breath. He hasn't laughed so hard since... since before losing Bucky, if Steve's going to be truthful.

"Hey," Tony says. He looks at Steve with an odd expression, and Steve gets caught up in it. There's something about Tony's eyes. Like they've seen more than any one person could dream of seeing. "Seeing as you're off duty, do you, uh-" Tony rubs a hand bashfully on the back of his neck and ducks his head, but it's only for a second, because he's back to staring at Steve with those enigmatic, knowing eyes so quickly Steve's breath seems to arrest in his throat. "You're off duty. We should go get a drink."

There's an unsure note in Tony's voice. It's a note that's been there in some form all the time, but it's raw and present. Steve feels a rush of empathy that he doesn't think Tony would appreciate; Steve's done his research, as much research as he can do with the vague details available.

About why Tony Stark randomly dropped off the scene.

There weren't too many reports about it, but the general knowledge was that something had happened to Tony Stark during a weapon's test in Afghanistan. Steve suspected that it involved Tony's ex-business partner Obadiah Stane in a really bad way, considering Stane reportedly died in a suspicious factory explosion and the authority gave off that we're actually pretty pleased about it vibe, but the whole thing was hushed up. Iron Man started his supposed crusade of villainy around about then. His first targets had been some Stark Industries weapon facilities, but Iron Man's vendetta can't have been against Tony Stark — because he's been protecting Stark Tower recently.

So maybe Iron Man was targeting something that Stane had left behind.

Steve's seen the videos of pre-Afghanistan Tony. Tony was cocky and arrogant and smooth at all times. He's still some of that, but then there's these moments and touches of insecurity, and Steve feels sad, because no small incident can account for a personality shift; he thinks it would have been nice to meet Tony before all of that. Then again, he did get to meet some of that Tony in the elevator, and Steve likes this Tony better.

The one that's watching him avidly, looking nervous that Steve's about to say no.

"Sure," Steve says, and it startles him; he should really say no in case Captain America is needed. But the weather thing is probably a cover, and Fury has probably just sent him here to keep an eye on the Tower and its inhabitants. Tony Stark definitely counts as part of that.

It'll be entirely awkward if Captain America is needed, though, and Steve's halfway through talking himself into blurting out something to change the sentence into "Sure, we should do that sometime."

But then Tony says "Great," with such a relieved, almost shy smile that all of Steve's impulses to raincheck the drink automatically die.

He probably should have delayed the drink. Raincheck is about the right term for it.

Mind you, ever since the Battle of New York, New York in particular has enjoyed that steady increase of rain, so it's not like the rain should have been a surprise.

Steve does have a good time with Tony.

They get caught in the rain on the way there, which prompts Tony to buy them Pina Coladas and sing a weird song about a couple whose relationship has gone stale, and they accidentally fall in love on a dating site, not knowing who the other actually is.

Tony outlines all the reasons why the song is painfully ridiculous, and Steve counters — only because he does have the secret insight that if he ran into Iron Man and he wasn't in the suit that he clearly might end up liking the guy a second time — argues back that the song is entirely possible. Tony calls him a romantic, and Steve calls him a pessimist, and he's having such a good time that he doesn't even have to think about faking being a little bit tipsy.

The bar Tony took him to starts to get a bit noisy to carry on a conversation, so they head out onto the street to find somewhere else — it's raining pretty hard, but that's really nothing new for post-Battle of New York New York — and a car (and who drives in New York but cabs and assholes, really, Steve said that enough about 40s New York and its only gotten worse since) skirts past and drenches Tony in an altogether unfetching combination of dirty water and mud, and Steve doesn't think it's a problem in inviting Tony back to his apartment to clean up — it's closer, after all — until Tony's standing in his dingy hallway and Steve remembers some of his 21st century teaching, and that inviting people back to your apartment was pretty much 100% an invitation to sex.

"Um," Steve blurts, coloring a little, "my bathroom's over there. I'll go find you a change of clothing."

Tony gives him an askance look, but doesn't make any overt moves into Steve's personal space, and then the askance look turns into something much more assessing. "Do you even have anything that'll fit me?"

Steve narrows his eyes. "You're an engineer. I'm sure you can figure something out."

Tony smirks, but then nods, thankfully and heads into Steve's bathroom, which is ensuite to Steve's bedroom.

Steve feels oddly clumsy when he goes into his bedroom to the dresser — especially with the bathroom door open a crack. He can hear Tony moving around inside, singing under his breath about liking pina coladas and walks in the rain, and he's off-tune and Steve's not used to having sound in his apartment beyond the TV, or talking to a various number of SHIELD agents on his wrist communicator, and it hits Steve low in his gut: he likes this. He likes knowing someone else is in his small apartment. The bare walls and plain functional furniture and small space suddenly feels warm and homely, like it's a place Steve might want to come to one day, rather than it just being the only place Steve has to go when he's not working.

Steve hurries to his dresser and tries to find clothes that might fit Tony. Tony's deceptively tall, but Steve is taller, and Tony's not as broad in the shoulder. He roots out a pair of sweatpants with a drawstring, and a SHIELD t-shirt that he once shrunk a little in a tumble dryer (it was his first time not line-drying clothes; Steve didn't think it was too bad a clothes disaster for someone who didn't know how to use modern laundrette facilities) that Steve can pass off as a work freebie, as long as Tony doesn't end up ferreting around and realizing that beyond the plain white t-shirts Steve wears for work, SHIELD t-shirts are all he has.

Steve pauses at the bathroom door for a moment, because he's only human and Tony Stark is nice to him and has a lovely voice and an addictive curve to his forearms that Steve is a little bit preoccupied by when they're together, and then he pitches the clothes through the gap in the door and mumbles that he'll be in the lounge.

Because if Tony comes out of the bathroom, hair dishevelled and standing that close to Steve's bed, that's an image that would be much too difficult to wipe away from Steve's brain any time soon.

Steve's sheets and bedding are awfully plain. White sheets and beige covers. Tony would be colourful enough for them. Sometimes when he bites his lips, they go a delicious red color, and sometimes when he's embarrassed, his neck goes pink. Tony would be color enough for Steve's bed, and Steve would bet good money that Tony holidays abroad, so he probably has a lovely tan, and —

"You okay there, soldier?"

Steve is startled out of his thoughts, and he flushes at Tony. He'd just been standing staring into space. Tony must think he's an absolute idiot. "Uh," Steve says, "I was just thinking — Uh-" And then he has another thought, much more insistent than his daydreaming, and one that crunches his gut with panic, because he didn't think there was any evidence lying around about his identity (he wouldn't have invited Tony back if there was the slightest chance) but Tony called him soldier and there's no way he should know that. "Soldier?"

"Your bed," Tony says, and Steve's spine almost fizzles with something, that Tony was looking at his bed, that maybe he was thinking the same sort of thought too, "the corners. Military precision. You were in the forces?"

"107th regiment," Steve blurts. "Uh. War. Not for me, in the end." He rubs the back of his neck, sheepishly. "Kind of got frozen out at the end."

"War, huh?" Tony still has one of Steve's towels, and he dries his hair off roughly, leaving it sticking up every which way. It's ridiculously adorable, actually. He's rolled up the sweatpants, and they're riding low on his hips, and Steve's t-shirt looks pretty good on Tony, actually. "Afghanistan?"

There's something about the way Tony's voice catches on that. Steve looks at him sharply. "You sound like you were there too?"

A haunted expression flitters across Tony's face, and Steve remembers Tony's blank file and the vague threatening mention of Obadiah Stane throughout all the rumors about what happened to him. Whatever happened, Tony's still haunted about it six years later.

Steve empathises. Thoroughly.

"I've been there, but it wasn't really for war," Tony says, vaguely. "At least, not in a way I could be remotely proud about." He frowns at Steve, and then taps on his chest. "This happened there."

Steve frowns, wondering what Tony means by this, and then he sees it. SHIELD don't scrimp on the quality of their uniform, and the t-shirt cotton is thick, but not thick enough to stop the soft blue glow from pushing through. Steve finds himself moving towards it almost like he's hypnotized, his hand stretched out, although he manages to stop himself before he touches Tony. Because if there's something that's emitting light, stuck in someone's chest, then it's a big enough thing to have caused pain. And people didn't generally like being reminded of painful things.

"Sorry," Steve says, because apologizing for everything is just the kind of person he's always been, even before the serum.

"Nah, don't be," Tony says, his eyes weirdly locked on Steve's for a moment, and then he pulls off the SHIELD t-shirt, and pulls Steve's hand towards it, so he's touching it. "It's called an arc reactor. I have shrapnel in my chest, heading towards my heart; this little circle of light keeps them from killing me."

Shrapnel. Whatever happened to Tony in Afghanistan has to have been traumatic. The metal's cool against Steve's fingertips, and the glow is difficult to look away from.

Steve does look away, right into Tony's eyes, and Tony leans in, his movements mostly imperceptible; Steve is drawn to him, irresistibly, almost like a magnet dragging him closer. He can't help himself. He can almost feel the heat of Tony's mouth, so close to his.

Tony's so close, and Steve feels safe. Weirdly safe. A lot like he feels when he's around Iron Man, actually, which is probably a terrible excuse for what happens next.

Which is mostly Steve freezing, suddenly and obviously panicking, and backing away.

Which Tony instantly takes as a rejection.

Steve tries not to look too horrified in case Tony takes it personally. He's mostly horrified at himself.

"Sorry," Tony says, instantly, casting around to find the t-shirt he dropped to one side, "sorry, I, uh. Misinterpret things sometimes." He offers Steve a weird expression that Steve identifies with, and Steve shakes his head.

"No, no. It's not that. It's really not — It's just — " Steve twists his hands. He can remember Iron Man's kiss again, and its perfect simplicity, just Iron Man's mouth brushing against Steve; nothing of Tony's all encompassing-heat that Steve could feel inches away from him without even touching him. Heat that had nearly carried Steve away. Since the ice, heat of any kind has been addictive. "There's sort of someone else," Steve finishes, awkwardly. "Not that we're together," he adds, hurriedly, "but — "

"No," Tony says, smiling weirdly now as he covers his arc reactor back up, "no, I think I understand. I shouldn't have — There's kind of someone for me, too. Can we just chalk it up to — "

"Rain," Steve says. "And too much post-it note flirting. We should cut back on that."

"Absolutely," Tony says. There's an awkward, long moment. "I, uh. I should probably go. Call a cab — "

"No," Steve says, like it's a recurring theme. He tilts his chin. "We've been headed to a really great friendship. We can't let a weird moment mess that up. I don't know about you, but I'm not really drowning in friends right now. Also, I don't have a phone. I... don't have much of anything."

"Yeah," Tony says, looking around Steve's apartment. "I see what you mean."

Steve flushes a little, a little embarrassed at the sparse space. "We should order some food and watch bad TV," he says. "I'm vaguely sure that's what normal people do. Um. I'm sure there's a phrase my mom taught me — make yourself at home?"

"If you don't have a phone, how do you function?" Tony says, and does, indeed, make a brave effort of making himself at home, sprawling out on Steve's couch, and poking appreciatively at the half-finished Captain America sketch on Steve's portable drawing desk.

"I have internet," Steve says, "I just don't have a handset. I Skype when I have to use the phone, and my Temp Agency — " Steve tries to think of the right time-appropriate device to mention. " — they page me when they need to talk to me."

"They page you," Tony repeats, amusement in his tone.

Oh, so maybe that is a little anachronistic. "They're a little old-fashioned, I guess," Steve says, flipping the screen up of the laptop SHIELD assigned him.

He probably should have shut-it down properly — it loads up on the research he was doing the other night on Awesometal.

Steve winces, and squints with one eye to see how Tony's taking it.

Tony blinks. Several times. Steve's been making sure to only look at the tame stuff, to see what the fans like best, but the image is of Captain Awesome and Metal Girl having a picnic together in Central Park, clearly on a date — although how the fan artist thought Metal Girl would eat strawberries and drink champagne through her impenetrable metal mask is another story. "Did Natasha not show you this stuff?" Steve says, surprised.

Tony shakes his head. "No."

"She says it's based on people who think Captain America and Iron Man are having some sort of an affair," Steve says, with a shrug, scrolling up the page and showing Tony the awesometal livejournal community header.

"People on the internet are weird," Tony breathes. "We should get food and look at more."

Steve laughs at the segue, loads up a local pizza shop in a new tab to make a food order, and starts to show Tony some of the weird Retaliators' stuff he found while researching them.

Tony's favorite, it has to be said, is probably the fanfiction. He reads out big long passages of it, completely unaware that Steve is inwardly dying of a weird sort of shame because it's all kind of hot and Steve's trying his very best not to think this is all really based on Iron Man and me and he's mostly failing.

"This is amazing," Tony says. He basically adopted Steve's laptop about an hour ago, and Steve's very glad he has a no-secure-SHIELD-work policy on the SHIELD-issued laptop, because his apartment could be broken into at any time and then where would SHIELD be. Tony would have found it instantly — he's already mocked Steve for the total lack of porn on his hard drive.

Steve tries not to agree that the Awesometal stuff is awesome, and he's very glad that Tony doesn't go over to Cap_Ironman, because going that far into the internet is too much for his already fragile psyche.

That's already weak as anything from the near-kiss earlier. From Tony being so close to him all night, dressed in Steve's own clothes.

They finally decide to call it a night when Tony finds a tumblr devoted to a gender-swapped Captain Awesome and Metal Girl in all different combinations, and it's really ridiculously hot, and they decide by mutual agreement to shut it down before the moment gets even more awkward, and because the weather is still ridiculously awful, Steve gets Tony some sheets so he can sleep on the sofa. When he gives Tony a spare toothbrush, he tries his best not to think about how nice it would be to kiss Tony.

And how almost familiar it felt to be pressed up against him.

Steve's distracted by that as he's saying goodnight to Tony, and it's probably the one thing that keeps him from giving in to the impulse to kiss him. Even though Pepper's technically his boss, Tony does own the company, and he's already risked making his whole assignment there awkward once. He probably shouldn't again.

"Good night," Steve finally blurts, and almost runs to his bedroom, although he's pretty sure Tony can see the blush crawling up his neck.

"One thing," Tony says.

Steve swallows, and worries that Tony is finally going to ask why Steve's apartment is so empty.

He needn't have worried. "Do I have to cut back on all the post-it note flirting?" is what Tony asks.

Steve fights the flush that crawls up his cheeks. "No, I should hope not," he says, and Tony flashes him a brilliant smile. "Good night, Tony."

"Good night, Steve," Tony says, in a tone which, when Steve finally manages to forget that Tony's so close and manages to fall asleep, haunts Steve all night through his dreams.

The morning isn't as awkward as Steve fears it's going to be.

In fact, it's unbelievably nice. He finds an identical t-shirt and pair of sweatpants to loan to Tony so he has something fresh to wear on the way to the tower, and they share breakfast on the narrow breakfast bar that Steve's used precisely zero times since moving into his little apartment, and even though the breakfast is cold pizza, it's really nice. They argue about the Avengers' vigilante status, and then about whether pineapple really is acceptable on a pizza, and even though they're opposed on just about every subject, it's...

Steve really needs to work on his vocabulary, because nice doesn't even cover it.

He could just do it forever, is about all he can think. Even if it means eating bad breakfasts. Waking up and having Tony Stark, adorable bed hair and all, in his apartment is pretty freaking fabulous — also his expression, when Steve lets him wake up to a tiny sketch of him and his fabulous bed head, is adorable.

So adorable that Steve forgets how to breathe for an embarrassing second.

It's a glimpse of a life that could be, that can't be, even though — maybe it could have been. Steve doesn't want to think about how that life could have been an inch closer to possibility. Like this might be something he could keep. But it would mean giving up on Iron Man, and while that's probably what Steve should do, he can't.

At least, not right now. Maybe it's something he needs to bring up with Iron Man the next time he sees him.

He can't say anything to Tony with Iron Man still a lingering thought in his head, so Steve pretends. Just for a little while. Pretends that this isn't just temporary. Parcels up each second and holds it in his mind as motivation for when this assignment is over, and he's Captain America, lonely and alone — motivation to find a life in this century, instead of letting life pass him by.

Steve's just suggesting that they should try and maybe do this again, because he still has three weeks left with Stark Creative, and this doesn't just have to be a once only thing, surely, when — just as is usual in life — he doesn't always get what he wants.

His wrist alert goes off, just — thankfully — at the same time as Tony's phone goes off. Steve pretends to load up his laptop and Skype call someone, while Tony huddles in the corner of Steve's kitchen, talking in a hushed voice.

Agent Hill seems to notice something's up — she just tells him in clipped tones that the Green Goblin is attacking Stark Tower. Again.

Steve guesses that's SHIELD terminology for your vacation is over.

Steve's just about opening his mouth to make some sort of an excuse, but Tony beats him to it. "That was Pepper," Tony says. "The Green Goblin's attacking my tower again. I've got to go."

Steve doesn't have to fake his worry. "Uh, you're not going to your Tower while it's under attack from a mad man, are you?"

"No," Tony says, holding up his hands and scooping his dirty clothes up into his coat, rolling it into an easy bundle to carry. "No, I've got a friend in the army. Rhodey. James Rhodes. Splendid fellow. He's my usual liaison when this sort of thing happens. Uh," Tony scratches his head, making his bed hair go even more hilarious, but Steve's suddenly not in the mood to laugh. "You probably shouldn't come to the tower until a little later. I'll let Pepper know where you are."

This is his reality. Supervillains and interruptions and not being able to keep the people in his life.

"Thanks," Steve says.

"Who was your uh, page from?" Tony asks, probably trying to salvage some sort of civility from the moment.

"Oh, the doctor moving an appointment," Steve says, showing Tony to the door. Tony looks alarmed for a moment. "Allergies," Steve lies. "I have lots of allergies."

Tony looks him up and down, with a small frown. Steve shrugs, feeling self-conscious. "I'll see you later," Tony says, and pauses, like he wants to say something else.

Steve doesn't push him for whatever it is. "I'm just working on some alt covers, apparently — so maybe I can come keep you company while you do some of the irritating, we've been attacked again paperwork?"

Tony smiles, and it makes something low twist in Steve's gut. Low and soft and real and confusing and exactly like the feeling Steve gets when he's with Iron Man. Tony's smile fades a little and that's when Steve realizes that they're standing there, just staring at each other, and Steve's thinking, oddly, that maybe he's sort of blown off the wrong guy. Iron Man could be anyone, and Tony's real and right there.

"Or not," Steve says, hurriedly, not wanting to think too much that he's made a mistake. "Sometimes I fill in forms better on my own, and — "

Tony blinks. "Sometimes I completely zone out. I'm not used to having someone around to call me on it."

The thing curling in Steve's gut ripples with empathy. "I think I know what you mean," Steve says, quietly. So he can pretend one more thing: that he's not admitting the loneliness out loud.

Tony nods, like he understands, and he leaves with a small wave, and Steve's apartment feels suddenly, painfully empty.

Steve closes his eyes, and counts to thirty to give Tony enough time to leave the apartment block, and when he opens his eyes, it's Captain America hurrying forth.

Some days he just has to make the difference clear, or he'd go mad.

That is, if he hasn't already.

The reason Steve's apartment is so empty is because it's not his only space in the building.

On top of the building, locked to all other residents, is a small room equipped with SHIELD equipment and, most importantly, Steve's main uniform.

He bounds upstairs and changes in record time, before locking his small room and starting to run. The quickest way to Stark Tower is not the route a sensible, normal person might take, but to Steve's augmented physicality, it's highly practical, so he straps his shield on his back and takes his first flying leap.

There's something ironic about a so-called spandex-clad superhero leaping across tall buildings, but Steve tries not to think about it too much.

Getting into the Tower is interesting. He's not travelling via helicopter, so the penthouse is out, and the ground floor is likely to become clogged up.

Breaking a window is probably his best bet. Steve regrets having to do it, but he figures they can probably pin the blame on the Green Goblin; he needs to be in that building, because the Goblin's after something in Stark's weapon labs, and if he wants it badly enough to be attacking again after a mere ten days, then it's something huge.

Steve leaps across from a neighboring building and smashes a window on the 7th floor, which — must be Stark Candy, actually, because it's all painted in a garish bubblegum pink, and he lands in a room which seems to be filled with nothing but a giant gumball machine.

It's very odd, but then that's Tony Stark for you — a little bit different, a little bit unexpected, and so very easy to like.

Or to love, Steve thinks, on a tangent, and his gut tenses again. He frowns as he slides through the room, out into the corridor, and starts sidling down the corridors in the best pattern he's been idly figuring out over the last week as might work in avoiding most of Stark's security cameras.

Love. That's not — Steve's not in love. That would be weird, considering there's two candidates in this time period, and he's not really known either of them for that long. Relatively.

He's not in love, but he's very much in like. With Iron Man and with Tony Stark.

Steve's never been 'that guy', and he has to be practical about it. He's not really in a position where he could really date either of them, but if the near-kiss last night had any truth behind it, he might really have a chance with Tony Stark. Probably not much of one, especially now Steve's brushed him off, but more of a real chance of happiness than with the mysterious, supervillain Iron Man.

He resolves next time he sees Iron Man to tell him that kissing can never happen again between them, nu-uh, no way sirree, and it's just about typical that he runs into Iron Man basically ten minutes later.

Guarding Tony Stark's weapon lab again.

There is definitely something in there.

Steve doesn't get the chance to talk to Iron Man straightaway — the Goblin's managed to smuggle in a bunch more minions this time to keep them busy — and Iron Man's being very careful not to scorch the walls any more than he has to, which is pretty nice of him. Then again, Iron Man is a probably a really nice guy. But what Steve really wants is someone who could be in his apartment at the end of the day, and maybe Tony Stark's not that person — but Iron Man's definitely not.

There's a lull in the fighting, and Iron Man turns to him, almost expectantly, and Steve has to say what he needs to, so he does.

"Look," Steve says awkwardly, "um. About that kiss. Wow, that's not something I really ever thought I'd start a conversation with. Especially with you."

Iron Man looks at him, noiselessly.

Steve swallows. "There's. Uh, there's kind of someone in my life that I think, maybe, might be worth a chance?"

Iron Man continues to stare impassively.

Steve actually thinks he's sweating. It's an odd feeling. With the serum enhancements, it takes a lot to make him sweat. "Iron Man, I don't know you. I can't go through life leading two people on at once."

For another long few seconds Iron Man continues to stare, and Steve has a sudden, paranoid moment.

The world thinks Captain America is a string of all-American soldiers. Steve, of course, knows differently, and Iron Man's seen him up close enough to know the truth — or at least, decently suspect he's been dealing with the same guy.

But even though it's not true for Steve, and he's the same person, it might not be true for Iron Man.

Iron Man could be twenty different guys.

Steve's clammy with the paranoia, and Iron Man's five seconds of silence feel like an eternity.

Except Iron Man says, finally, in a subdued voice, "I can appreciate that."

Steve looks at him, apologetically. Because it's not Iron Man's fault. When Iron Man kissed him — when Steve let Iron Man kiss him — there was no one else. But now there's Tony, and now there's a chance at something real. Maybe. If Steve wasn't hallucinating how hot their near-kiss would have been.

Steve would be a coward to not try and see if there's something there.

"One thing, though," Iron Man says. Steve nods. He'd still probably do just about anything for Iron Man, now he knows for sure Iron Man's not a villain. "If this new thing doesn't work out for you? Call me."

Steve smiles, a weird sort of relief flooding through him, because he was making a risky sort of choice, if you looked at it coldly, and he thought he was closing off the possibility of Iron Man forever by choosing to see if Tony Stark was a viable option. This is a better outcome than Steve dreamed of.

"Oh," Steve says, surprised into blunt honesty, and he probably sounds ridiculously stupid when he blurts, "But I don't have your number."

There's a sound which might be Iron Man snorting, under the mask. "Emergencies get your attention? Me too. Maybe yelling 'I'm on fire', that kinda works for me."

Steve nods. "Okay. Do I actually have to catch on fire, though?"

Iron Man makes a sound, exhalation through the voice modulator, but can't reply, because more of the Green Goblin's minions start crashing through into the corridor and they're too busy fighting to talk.

Because a medical appointment wouldn't last long, and Steve didn't call Pepper to delay his workday, Steve doesn't have much time after finishing fighting off the Goblin's minions; he just about has time to get out of the uniform and into civilian clothes so he can appear outside Stark Tower when he's supposed to.

Don, Natasha, Clint, Bruce and Tony are all there on the sidewalk, standing just outside a ring of fire trucks and a SHIELD van, obviously waiting for the building to be pronounced clear again.

"Hey," Steve says, awkwardly, hands shoved in pockets, "what's going on?"

"Man," Clint says, "you should have been here earlier. The Green Goblin tried to get into Stark Labs again, and Iron Man was there too, and Captain America came. They say it'll probably be another ten minutes before we can get back in the building, though."

Steve nods. Tony looks up at the building, a worried look on his face. "Did the Goblin take anything?"

"That's what we're waiting to find out," Don says.

Steve looks across at Tony. He's obviously stressed, and tense, and Steve just wants to tell him that the Goblin was chased away without getting a single thing, but then that would have to be accompanied by a worrying conversation about how Steve would know such a thing.

He kinda really just wants to talk to Tony about anything, if he's honest.

And everything.

But he can't. Not without letting things slip which shouldn't be let slip. So Steve distracts himself, and looks over to where Clint is practically bouncing in place.

"You look remarkably pleased for standing on the sidewalk in the freezing cold," Steve says. "I mean, I'm personally beyond psyched that we had a supervillain in the building where we draw supervillains, but — you're overly excited."

"See," Bruce says to Clint, "I told you to tone it down. You'll totally burst his bubble."

"Burst my what now?"

"You're kinda going to lose your job," Clint says, twisting his mouth wryly. Behind him, Tony looks sharply at Clint in surprise.

Even though it's a fake job, and Steve has a real, more important job to go back to, Steve's stomach still plummets regardless. He hasn't had a job rejection in over eighty years, but it's a familiar feeling, a sickness in the pit of his stomach. Feeling about two inches tall, he manages, "Have I been working too fast? Missing things? Have the official polls decided I'm not good enough?"

"What?" Clint blinks, several times. "Oh, with us. No, god no, I'd never let Pepper take Coulson back if I could, you're like, one of us now. No, your SHIELD job."

Steve frowns, completely not getting it. There'll always be supervillains in the world. Always someone who thinks they can make the world better. People like Steve will always have a job, if they can handle the pressure.

Then he remembers, and he frowns. He doesn't remember dying in the tower. Captain America is definitely still alive and well and... confused — but to be honest, for Steve, that's nothing unusual. The twenty-first century continually surprises him. (Which, memo to self, he really needs to stop betting Fury that he can't surprise Steve anymore, because his SHIELD wage is not inexhaustible.)

"I told you to try and hide it from him," Natasha says. "It's not particularly nice to let someone know they're probably out of long-term work in the cold in public like this."

"Seriously," Steve says, "this isn't funny. What's going on?"

"I'm kind of wondering that my own self," Tony mutters, scuffing the sidewalk with his shoe.

Clint pulls out something from his pocket, a tablet PC of some kind, although it looks swankier than any of the ones currently filling the billboards around the city, and he presses play on a video and Steve just about loses his mind.

"EXCLUSIVE: CAPTAIN AMERICA IS A TRATOR TO THE STATE" is the caption rolling across the bottom of the screen. Above it, a primped-up reporter — the same one that talked to Monty about him the other day — is chatting animatedly while a small inset screen shows Captain America and Iron Man, battling together.

It's a compilation of many of the times Steve's ended up working with Iron Man against some villain or other, and it's a very clever edit of events — if Steve didn't know the truth, he'd be almost convinced.

Hell, he's even semi-convinced, and wonders in a small panic whether Fury might have been secretly using him for evil, but that's ridiculous. He and Iron Man are good guys. So why the hell has someone put this video out? Why discredit him now? As the video cycles on, Steve's sick feeling twists into something heavier, because there's probably only one organization who could pull something like this together with this nigh-on-perfect execution.

SHIELD itself.

Fury's up to something, and Steve really does not like where that something is headed. It says something pretty huge when Tony moves in next to Steve to watch the video alongside him, and Steve doesn't turn his gaze away from the video.

"I think we have bragging rights for a century," Clint says, jabbing at the screen excitedly. "The Retaliators are the only media entity in the world which has ever suggested that Captain America is a bad guy. We always knew Captain Awesome was a villain. Always getting in our way."

"And you identify with the characters way too much," Natasha says, quickly, and jabbing Clint in the side with her elbow. Steve barely notices the slip she's trying to cover up, though.

"If it helps," Don says, obviously seeing Steve's distress, "I'm disquieted too. Captain America as a villain. It seems — "

"Weird," Steve says, as Clint packs the tablet away, and Tony resumes staring at his building in worry.

"No," Don says, with a slight frown as he stares off into the distance. Steve follows his gaze but there's nothing of interest that Don's looking at. Nothing Steve can see, anyway. "I mean, yes, of course. Weird is right. But it's not the sensation I'm feeling."

"What is the sensation you're feeling?" Steve asks, because he's curious now. There's a timbre to Don's voice sometimes which is almost addictive, like Steve would do anything he asked. That's a weird sensation all on its own.

"Like nothing is what it's supposed to be," Don says, after the longest moment. "That everything I thought to trust has turned directly on its head, and there's no anchor. Nothing but space."

Don looks completely vacant now, like he's forgotten anyone's even there. It's a rare rainless day in New York, and for a moment, the world is oddly silent. Then another van comes screeching up, filled with SHIELD guys with guns, and Tony swears under his breath, and the odd silence is broken.

"Steve," Natasha says quietly, sidling closer as Steve watches the trained SHIELD soldiers pile out of the van, "could I have a quick word?"

Steve turns to her with a start, but he nods, and his stomach swoops as Natasha pulls him a few paces away. The movement drags Tony's attention away from the building, and Steve sends Tony a weak smile as Natasha tugs him away.

When they're just far enough away not to be overheard, Steve turns to Natasha, his stomach churning. Hopefully he can pass off any visible nerves as weirdness about the whole situation of working in a building targeted by supervillains, or nerves of being a temp who could be fired at any moment.

He gives her his full attention. It's probably the best thing to do, given what the Black Widow is capable of.

"Do you want to explain to me why Tony's wearing your clothes?" Natasha asks, in a low voice which sounds like a threat.

It's not the question Steve is expecting. "How did you — " he starts.

She gives him a flat, disappointed, you underestimate my powers look. "The pants are the wrong length for anyone but you and Don, and they're not wide enough for Don. And considering you're the one person I know who carries around things with a SHIELD insignia on them..." Natasha pokes his satchel pointedly.

"It's not what it looks like," Steve says hurriedly, his cheeks going bright pink. He can feel the blush painfully in the cold morning air.

Natasha actually looks disappointed. "I'm kind of sorry to hear that," she says, and Steve's eyes fly to hers in surprise. "Were I to find you were still... unavailable, and were leading him on... I don't think you'd have too pleasant a time."

"Leading him on — " Steve starts, and his blush deepens. "No, no, I'm not — There's not — " He shuffles, because this is an awkward conversation to be having at any sort of a time, let alone so close to Tony on an exposed sidewalk barely fifteen minutes after a fight with the Goblin's menacing minions. "That — uh, other situation. It's not a thing anymore. It — It didn't really work out."

"What didn't work out?"

And oh, that's the worse person to overhear. Natasha smirks, as it's Tony who's ambled over, obviously concerned with their intense looking conversation.

"I pay for this comic, I really should know if there's a problem," Tony adds, in a confused business-like tone. He looks between them, a weird tension to his face.

"There's no problem," Natasha says, breezily, and smiles at them both, curtsies a little, and hurries back over to where Clint, Don and Bruce are trying to calculate how long it would take ten people to sweep a building the size of Stark Tower.

"What was that about?" Tony asks, an intense expression on his face.

"Oh, you know," Steve says, airily, but Tony's expression doesn't lighten, and Steve can't help the serious note in his voice as he says, carefully, "Natasha asked about a certain... situation I might have mentioned last night, and I clarified that I talked to them this morning after you left and... they're no longer an issue."

It's hard to find the words when he can't say I blew off Iron Man for you.

"Basically, she was just making sure I didn't hurt you," Steve adds.

"Oh," Tony says, too fast, on an inhale. His eyes study Steve's, like the answer to his next question really matters, as he asks, "Do you think you are in a position where you might hurt me?"

Steve takes a sharp breath. This isn't what he should be thinking about. The Green Goblin's clearly up to something, and he oddly just let down Iron Man, and his heart probably shouldn't be pounding so fast, and he steps closer, a little braver, and asks, unevenly, "Do you want me to? Be in that position?"

Tony's smirk is unbalanced and wide. "There's a lot of positions I'd like you in," he says, his eyes flashing with something akin to promise. "I would — "

"Mr. Stark," a voice calls out, and Steve and Tony both turn in unison, disappointment tangible and biting like a wave of acid in the pit of Steve's stomach. Pepper might have more information about the building for Tony, but this isn't a conversation he wanted interrupted.

"And now I'm in trouble," Tony says to Steve, ruefully. "We're continuing this conversation later."

"I like how that's not a question," Steve says, but Tony doesn't smile in response, which is kinda weird. Steve looks to see what's distracted Tony, and it's Pepper's expression — it's almost frantic, on the edge of angry. Her face is pinched and pale.

"Jesus Christ, Tony, are out of your mind, what the hell — " Pepper spares Steve an odd look, and then turns her fire and fury fully on Tony. "What the hell are you doing outside the tower? I thought we agreed that until the new — " She side-eyes Steve again " — technology was ready that you would stay inside. Do I need to remind you that I can basically use the death threats against you as wallpaper? The Goblin wants your head stuffed and mounted in his hunting cabin, the Mandarin, Hammer — "

"The Goblin was attacking the tower," Tony says, mulishly, for what sounds like the hundredth time. Knowing the number of times the Goblin has targeted Stark Tower over the last five years, it might be an accurate count. Steve's stomach curled. He's always encountered the Goblin trying to get in to Stark's basement weapon labs, and had assumed he was after some of Tony Stark's technology, not Tony Stark himself.

He remembers overhearing Pepper the other day, after Steve let slip to her about having lunch with Tony outside. You went outside? On your own? What were you thinking?

Steve's stomach twinges miserably. Tony went out at night with him. At night. Sure, Tony was safe with him because Steve's Captain America, but Tony doesn't know that.

Tony put himself at danger, just for that?

Just for him?

"You mean you came out with me even though you could have been killed?"

Steve doesn't realize he's vocalized the question out loud until Pepper and Tony both look at him. Pepper looks at Tony triumphantly, and Steve doesn't understand, apart from what he's feeling must be showing on his face. The terrible pressing fear at what might have happened to Tony. The idea of Tony even being in danger...

The idea that even now, with Tony on the streets, he might be in trouble.

"This isn't a conversation I want overheard," Tony says, and pushes his sleeves back to show a sleek wrist device that looks closer to the wrist devices on the Avengers' wrists than Pepper's silvery communication device. He pushes a button on it, and then there's an odd hum in the air that's probably too high-pitched for Steve to be able to hear.

If he wasn't a serum-enhanced super-soldier, that is.

"It's one of Stark Resilient's most popular products, especially amongst the military," Pepper tells Steve, obviously noting his confusion. "We won't be overheard." She fixes Tony with a stare. "And believe me, I'm just as curious as you as to why it's necessary."

Tony throws her an almost defiant look in return, and then he looks away, like it's hard to keep up.

"I can't stop these villains from letting me have a life," Tony says, grouchily. "I've let them for too long keep me hemmed up and quiet and locked away. Way too long." Tony looks up at Pepper determinedly. "I deserve to be happy. And not locked away in a tower like a stupid princess."

"You should have told me it's dangerous for you to be outside," Steve says, firmly. Pepper nods, backing him up. Tony makes a sound of protest. "No, don't sound like that. There's things we can do. Precautions. Going out recklessly without preparing is just what bad guys like. You could have played right into their hands."

Tony huffs. "I just wanted — " He looks away, and sags, and says it almost to the floor. "There's probably not long until — "

"Not long until what?" Pepper asks, her brow furrowing.

Tony looks torn, like he's about to tell her, but he shuts down and looks at her apologetically.

Pepper frowns at him. "Tony, I don't understand."

Tony looks at them both, his expression almost desperate. "There's something that the Goblin wants more than he wants me dead."

"And you... have this something?" Pepper stares. "Can't you just give it to him?"

"It's not that easy," Tony says, and nothing's making much sense.

Steve tries to make it make sense. The Retaliators in the comic are looking for Sore's staff. Meaning the Avengers in real life are looking for Thor's hammer.

The Indigo Imp — The Green Goblin — is the only one who knows where the hammer is, but he has two potential locations. One with the Mafia (Maggia), and one...

Well, the comics never say, but Steve has been inside Stark Tower seven times over the last five years, and he's been fighting the Green Goblin every single time.

"Quetzal's staff," Steve says, and Tony looks at him, almost indecipherably. "And it... it doesn't matter if it's in the Tower or not. As soon as the Indigo Imp knows it's not in one location, he'll know it's in the other and he'll stop at nothing to get it from there." Tony says nothing, but something in his eyes urges Steve to continue. "And.. the Mafia... their location is pretty concretely safe, apart from... soon. There's something coming up soon which the Goblin could use to get in. So either way, if the staff's in the Tower or with the Mafia... the Goblin's going to get hold of it."

"And that... staff is so powerful that anyone the Goblin wants dead is a goner," Tony says, simply.

"Wait, come on, wait a second," Pepper says, now looking between them both. "You're both talking as if your little stories are real. Tony — "

"Come on, Pepper," Tony says, taking her hand and looking at her, somewhere between softness and sadness. "You're not that slow. You know, really, that no creative team would have to be as absent as the Retaliators' crew is. You know that it's weird that we keep getting attacked by supervillains. And the thunder and lightning, just showing up around the tower? You can't call that normal. You've known the whole time that this job isn't what it seems on the surface."

Pepper looks away, like she's holding back tears. Steve feels a tinge of empathy for her. It's one thing suspecting something weird is going on — it's far another thing knowing it.

And Tony's known all along that his employees are the Avengers, but that's nothing Steve can really think about right now.

He's too busy thinking of Tony saying, "There's probably not long until — "

Not long until what?

"It's going to be okay, Pepper," Tony says, over Steve's thoughts. "I'm expecting a call from Director Fury of SHIELD at any time. He promised New York would be safe in the aftermath of the Chitauri invasion, and I promised him in return I'd do anything to help that happen."

"Anything," Pepper repeats. "Tony — "

Steve sorely empathises with her stops and starts, and her inability to say much else past Tony's name.

Anything sits badly with Steve too. He's been in the anything zone, and he emerged on the other side alive, which was entirely unexpected for everyone involved.

Including him.

Tony gets pulled away by the SHIELD agents that have come to secure the tower, and he takes Don and Pepper with him while Steve hangs around on the sidewalk with Clint, Natasha and Bruce. Except, Steve swears he turns around for maybe three minutes (okay, to stare at Tony as he talks to the agents), and Clint, Natasha and Bruce are gone. Steve's stomach twists uncertainly.

The Avengers don't disappear for no reason.

The reason follows for Steve a moment later. His wrist lights up, and Steve checks around. Tony sends him a small smile across the crowd of police, but then Tony turns and disappears into Stark Tower with a few of the agents, Don and Pepper in tow, and Steve takes advantage of not being seen to slip around the corner.

"Hill," Steve says, flicking up the screen of his small communication device.

"Not this time." Steve squints, and the masculine voice makes sense — it's Fury's face filling up the tiny screen. "Meet me on top of your apartment block."

Fury's waiting for him when he gets there, Steve's Captain America uniform outstretched. Steve takes it and dutifully slips into the small outhouse he uses to change in and out of it, and he quickly strips and puts the uniform on as rapidly as he can.

"So I guess I'm not just at Stark Tower to take notes on the weather," Steve says, through the door. Then, because his eidetic memory sometimes comes with lag, he says, "What happened to your coat?" because Fury's sweeping, dramatic coat did look a little scorched around the edges when Steve swept past him.

"The helicarrier's been subdued by enemy forces," Fury says. Steve can't see him, but he can definitely hear that Fury's speaking through gritted teeth.

"You should have recalled me from Stark Tower," Steve calls, struggling to get into the tight blue Captain America pants because he's rushing too much. He feels vaguely resentful that Captain Awesome never has to deal with fighting with his spandex, and then he realizes he's feeling resentment towards a fictional character, and he shakes his head to dispel the weird thought.

"Keeping the Goblin's forces out of Stark's weapon labs is more of a priority than keeping the helicarrier," Fury says, although he's definitely still gritting his teeth. "I need you to go up there."

"What, and take it back?" Steve yanks the door open, even though his headpiece isn't on yet, and even though the two guys piloting Fury's helicopter aren't supposed to see his face. This is too important for Steve not to see Fury's eye when he answers. "I'm good, Director. I'm not that good."

"Well, as you might have seen on the news already," Fury says, "that's what I'm banking on."

Steve frowns. He jams his headpiece on, the tight mask clinging to his face. "Yeah, you're going to have to clarify exactly how you intend the Goblin to fully believe I'm a bad guy. The timing of it just so happening to come up on the news now? It's kinda convenient."

"The footage of you and Iron Man is remarkably effective," Fury says. "Especially the kiss."

Steve narrows his eyes. He'd blush, but he's more angry. There was something about Tony's voice, down on the sidewalk outside of Stark Tower, that has left Steve feeling unsettled and anxious and on the edge of fury that he can't quite decipher.

Then again, Steve works for SHIELD, and SHIELD has its very own brand of Fury.

"Iron Man's not a villain," Fury says, fixing Steve with his one bad eye, "on that part, you've been right all along. Iron Man's been on SHIELD's secret retainership for the last six years. He had a big hand in helping to save Earth from the Chitauri."

"The nuke was from the government," Steve says, buoyed by the glee of being right. "I knew it." He pauses, because there's obviously a time sensitive issue here, or Fury wouldn't be in his face, delivering the order in person. "What does that have to do with this?"

Fury sighs, like Steve's being deliberately obtuse. While Steve does do that sometimes, other times he just doesn't think the same way as the superspy does. "We need you to find out what the Goblin has planned. How he intends to get hold of what he wants."

"Thor's hammer," Steve says, because now's not the time to play around.

Fury looks at him sourly, like he's annoyed Steve's deciphered his secret code. "I've been in talks with Tony Stark for years," Fury says, sounding almost reluctant. "There's nothing in his labs to steal, but we've been dropping the rumor that there is, and the Goblin's been believing it."

"Okay," Steve says, slowly. The idea of Fury talking to Tony Stark is a little mind-boggling. His two worlds are already colliding a lot more than he's happy with. Some things are just too far for him. "So you want me to find out how the Goblin plans on retrieving the hammer?"

"I'm sure you're aware, Captain. If the Goblin ends up with the hammer, we might as well hand over the planet to him. I have someone in there, but I can't get them out," Fury says. "I tried to get him out and lost the helicarrier. The... agent... whom you should recognize when you see him? They should have the information by now about how the Goblin intends to get the hammer, but I can't get to the information or the agent with the forces I have." Fury looks at Steve pointedly. "Your job is to get in, do exactly what you have to, to get him to believe you, and get close enough to get the information from the agent. By any means necessary, we need to know how to get that hammer, and how to get it before the Goblin can."

"By any means necessary meaning..." Steve prompts.

"... that you're going to do whatever it takes to prove that you're evil to the Green Goblin," Fury says.

Steve adjusts his shield further up his arm and fixes Fury with a look.

Fury sighs. "Maybe blow up a building."

"Kill people," Steve says, thinking unhappily of the costs of war. It wouldn't be the first time he's taken lives in the name of saving more, but it never gets any easier. Fury nods simply, which is too easy — there's something else.

Something worse.

"But you think it's going to be something else," Steve says, not really wanting to voice the curling suspicion creeping along his spine, vertebra by vertebra.

Fury sighs, and pauses, which just confirms every worst fear Steve's ever had all at once.

Steve's always thought he's meant to lose every good person that ever turns up in his life.

Fury confirms the soundtrack of his nightmares. "The Goblin does seem fixated on Tony Stark," Fury admits.

Steve can't help but freeze at that. The idea of Tony in danger gives him a full-body, trembling, visceral, too-real reaction.

There's probably not long until — Tony said. And there's something the Goblin wants more than he wants me dead, but if Steve forgets about Quetzal's staff — uh, Thor's hammer — there's still the Goblin wants me dead left behind.

Steve is silent, for the longest beat.

"It still could be a request for you to burn children on a bonfire," Fury says, sounding weirdly optimistic and way too cheerful for such a concept. Then he sobers. "But whatever it is, your orders are to do it."

Steve could wallow over his painful thoughts, but the longer he does, the more time they lose, and the worse the situation may get. "And then?"

"Retrieve the information from the agent, which will only be possible when the Goblin trusts you. You can't take out the helicarrier on your own, but you're the best damn chance I've got of someone managing to get in and get out with the data."

And who's Steve kidding, he's definitely still wallowing. The panic, and the thought of Tony dead — of knowing that it's even a possibility —

It's only Steve's serum-enhancement that stops him from throwing up, right then and there.

He's never felt like this about Iron Man, and now he's starting to realize just how much Tony Stark has started to mean to him, and Fury's suggesting Tony might end up in danger. That he might —

How is this my life, Steve thinks, and the whiny thought has been an annoyingly regular customer for longer than Steve would like.

"It's your job to keep Stark safe, as much as possible," Fury says. "And also to retrieve the agent in the Goblin's possession. But your real mission is to do whatever it takes to find out how to stop the Goblin getting the hammer. I don't care if the Goblin wants Tony Stark, or the President of the United States, or wants you to go back in time and stab your mother in the face, Steve. The Goblin is capable of terrible things, and if he gets the power of Thor's hammer for himself... We're talking millions of lives." Fury's face sobers. "Maybe billions."

Steve tilts his chin upwards, trying to be stoic and focus on the facts, because his mind is screaming over a few of the details. "Tony Stark knows the stakes, yes?" Steve says, pushing for absolute confirmation. "And I'm to do anything to prove I'm a villain."

"Yes. And yes."

Steve takes a slow, long breath. "Okay," Steve says. "I'm going to start by stealing your helicopter."

Fury's expression is only of little comfort in the face of thinking about Tony Stark having to have anything to do with the crazy Green Goblin.

Steve makes the pilots drop him off on the helicarrier deck, but he makes them fly away. He knows where all the parachutes are stashed, all over the helicarrier, but they wouldn't know that.

Steve has a greater chance of escaping off the helicarrier alive than anyone he knows.

Steve manages to sneak past several troops of minions, all looking vaguely lost on the vast expanse of SHIELD's primary flying base. It has to have nearly killed Fury that he couldn't stop the Green Goblin from taking it.

He can see why. There are minions swarming all over the place. Infiltrating the operation is literally the only way.

Wishing yet again that his uniform wasn't quite so distinctive, Steve realizes he can't keep sneaking around the helicarrier. He'd maybe get as far as one of the engines before being overwhelmed.

He has to get to the Goblin. Before one of his minions decides to be as stupid as they look and open fire on him before Steve can make his plea for villainy.

The Goblin has set up shop on the helicarrier's bridge, and Steve can't help but go the melodramatic route; sneaking in the ventilation shaft, and dropping down centre into the bridge, where Fury normally stands and surveys his people.

The Green Goblin's sitting at the head of Fury's briefing table, and his expression is reedy through his distorted mask. He's surrounded by maybe sixty minions wearing all black, and there are more around the edges of the room. It's almost a cliché — not that Steve's going to tell him that.

Not if he doesn't want the Goblin to throw him off the helicarrier. "Captain America," the Green Goblin sighs, spreading his arms. "Why am I not surprised?"

"Well," Steve says, and steps forward, aware of all the guns from the Goblin's many minions tracking his movement. "I couldn't keep working for SHIELD after they found out I was working with Iron Man. And Iron Man kicked me out of his headquarters because apparently he doesn't like being on the news quite so much. I kinda thought you were my best shot of a job."

"A job." The Green Goblin grins, showing bright-white teeth. His canine teeth are pronounced, and Steve just about manages not to tense up and clutch his shield more tightly. "Captain America coming to me for a job." There's a titter of laughter from the minions training guns on Steve. The Goblin's grin drops, and his expression through the mask is ice cold. "And I'm supposed to believe that's what you want why?"

Steve stares. Alters his stance a little. He shrugs after a moment. "If you don't want me, I can go."

He turns as if to go, but the Goblin says, too quickly, "Let's not be too hasty, Captain. I admit, I'm intrigued." His head tilts. "It's a trap," he says next, in a strained tone, and then, in a more sing-song, "but let's play anyway. Agreed."

Steve frowns. "I did have an offer from Justin Hammer to consider — " he starts, and makes another motion, like he's thinking about leaving.

"Let's say I believe you," the Green Goblin says, and Steve turns back. "You'd think less of me if I didn't demand proof, right? You'd have much less respect for me. No, we can't have that. We all agree." Steve doesn't pause to ask who we are — it's either the weird conversation the Goblin's having with himself, or the way-too-many-minions, and both options are something he doesn't want his thoughts to linger on. "You'll do something for me, to prove your loyalty to me."

Steve tenses. He has to do anything. Steve knows it'll be bad, but to give his talent for denial credit, he does manage to think quite positively about the possibilities — right until the Green Goblin says, in a cold voice, "Bring me Tony Stark."

Steve pauses like he's thinking about it, and then says, "Do you have a preference for dead or alive?"

"I think I may end up liking you," the Green Goblin says, sounding delighted, while Steve's inwardly calculating just how many minions he would have to take out before managing to get to the Goblin, and the math doesn't look good. Even for him.

He sighs. Even if he managed to swerve the helicarrier into the least populated area of the planet, there are still nukes on board. Any kind of nuclear explosion would do crazy damage.

It says something that nuclear fallout is still preferable to the Goblin having Thor's hammer.

The Green Goblin sends him to Stark Tower with a sizeable number of minions, and three of his best assassins, all with orders to cut Steve if he betrays him.

With the realization he probably is burning his best entrance into Stark Tower, Steve directs the two helicopters from the Goblin onto Stark's helipad, and when he shows them the decently, barely-protected entrance, they start chattering eagerly and sending the Goblin photos of it. It's apparently shown that Steve might be serious about this supervillain stuff, because they chatter to the Goblin on communicators that look lumpy next to Steve's memory of the sleek technology the Avengers use as communication devices.

Devices Tony invented. Steve's stomach rolls. He has to do anything, and it's best that Steve's the one getting him — the Goblin has been fixated on Stark Tower, and Tony will be a target eventually. Steve's the best person to retrieve him, because he's probably the only one that will fight for alive as opposed to dead.

And, for the record, Steve totally hates his job right now. He wishes he really was a supervillain. Then he could get Tony and they could run away and find a nuclear bunker and hide from the world forever, and —

The impracticalities of that delusion aside, Tony said it himself. He's tired of being locked away from the world.

It's all fire and frying pans as far as the eye can see, and then one of the minions activates the Stark Tower security system.

"Lasers engaged," a dispassionate voice says.

"I really hate this part," Steve tells one of the faceless minions.

Thankfully he's beaten the laser matrices before, and he manages to disable it before too many of the minions get scorched. If Steve takes a minute longer than he needs to, well. He's a supervillain now.

It has to be true — it's on the news.

There's nothing new added to the security, though, which weirds Steve out a lot when they reach Stark's security hub and turn off the internal CCTV. There's always something new. A few weeks ago the new elements were the floor sensors, and the Goblin learned to circumnavigate those really quickly. Now there's nothing; at least, nothing that Steve can see. Tony and Don are the only active signals in the building, and they're in the Retaliators' Rest Room.

It's only when Steve comes into the main room of the Retaliators' office, the minions sticking close to him, that he knows what Don and Tony are doing.

It feels strange to be in this room now he's been in it in a different capacity. Steve thinks now he may have even been in this room long before he started work as a penciller; in the low red light of Stark's active and complaining security system, it seems familiar and strange all at once. Steve's corner, which has been a refuge for the last two weeks, now seems like a weird shape, consumed by shadows. Steve feels like a stranger looking at his past, and it's not a good feeling.

It feels like a goodbye, and Steve doesn't want to say goodbye to this place.

He has to, though. There's probably no way that Fury would let him come back, even if Steve argues it was all, really, kind of a way to go on vacation, and he has to have a fair few months of vacation time accrued by now.

Steve knows what they're doing, because while it's all entirely very clever, Don and Tony do not know that the now-villainous Captain America is actually their colleague Steve Rogers, and thus have no clue whatsoever that designing some sort of obstacle system out of Steve's own pranks is a bad idea.

It's his own voice that clues him in. The tape recording he made to drive Clint batty, into thinking there was someone trapped in his filing cabinet. They've even used the same tape.

It's really clever. Apart from the fact that it's really stupid.

One of the minions is lured in by Steve's taped voice yelling, muffled, "I'm in here! Hello! I'm in here!" and puts his hand out to touch the handle to the rest room.

Steve makes the army gesture for back off, immediately and the minion, frowning through his black balaclava, does so. Sliding his shield from his back, Steve pads over to the door, and holds a finger up to his mouth to silence the minions.

"I'm in here," Steve's voice tells them, from the tape recorder.

"Yeah," one of the minions whispers into his headset, "I think he's waylaying us. Definitely prevaricating."

Steve shoots the whispering minion an angry glance. The minion shrugs. Steve points at the door, gesturing widely. Feel free.

The minion totally deserves the face full of water (tying the fishline around the hundreds of plastic cups of water still apparently lurking around was pretty ingenious), and Steve hauls the minion aside just in time to miss the small explosion that cracks the door in half.

"Now are you going to let me go in first?" Steve asks.

The soggy minion nods almost miserably.

Tony has a gun when Steve gets through the door, and he does fire it half-heartedly. Steve blocks it with his shield. Don's nowhere in sight, which is odd — the Stark sensors definitely showed that Don was in the room — but then Steve notices that there are soft white balls littering the floor. Don must be hiding inside one of the beanbag cushions.

It's very sad indeed that Steve won't be able to mock him about it. Even if they can stop the world going to hell, Steve won't be allowed back.

But there's no time now for being sad, even though he does spare a second of sadness for the source of the explosion: the hell beast coffee machine.

It's much easier than thinking about what he has to do.

He looks at Tony, edging into the room gingerly, but this is easy. Manageable. And that's more than an answer to any question Steve could ask him.

Fury is right, and Tony's aware of the danger he's in, and he's letting himself be taken regardless. Steve swallows down the memory of anyone through his life who has called him brave, because it means nothing.

Nothing in the face of this bravery.

"Okay," Tony says, one of the minions yanking the empty gun out of his hand, "take me to your leader."

It's with foreboding that Steve steps out of the helicopter onto the deck of the helicarrier, pushing Tony forwards, Tony's hands bound up tightly in front of him. Steve tied the restraints himself — Tony still has a chance to wriggle out of them, but Steve doesn't know what good it would do. Or how far he could get before the Goblin's minions mowed him down.

Tony doesn't seem scared or frightened at all, which is so impressive. Most people, without any sort of protection against a crazy supervillain, would have run when given the opportunity. Or be trying to escape now. But Tony's being incredibly brave.

Or incredibly stupid. Steve's not sure which.

Either way, he's there. And Steve won't let anything bad happen to Tony. Not if he still has breath left in his body.

The Goblin cackles when he enters, obviously pleased with Steve's success.

"Stark," the Goblin croons, bounding over and tracing a finger down Tony's cheek. Tony shudders, and Steve has to bite his tongue. Literally. The sharp tang of his own blood is the only thing that stops him from leaping over Tony and beating the hell out of the Green Goblin.

"Now you've done this for me, I suppose I should reveal my true identity," the Green Goblin croons, dramatically removing his mask to reveal a greying older man in a sleek, expensive suit.

Steve tilts his head.

"It is I," the Goblin coos dramatically, "Norman Osborn."

Steve stares.

"Of Oscorp," Norman Osborn adds.

Steve shakes his head.

"Norman Osborn, Oscorp, richest man in America?" Osborn stares at Steve in disbelief.

"I thought the richest man in America was Tony Stark," Steve says in a dull tone, jerking a thumb in Tony's direction. Steve is having way too much fun with the way the vein on Osborn's forehead is pulsating.

He is vaguely aware of Norman Osborn, but it's funnier not to tell him that. Tony's lowering his head in a pitiful attempt to hide his wide smirk.

"Okay, I'm the second richest — It's no wonder Stark's stupid comic paints you as annoying, you're a total peach," Osborn snits, staring at Steve with almost appreciative loathing. "But stupid as you come across," Steve scowls, "you've got brains, or I doubt you would have been able to bring me Tony Stark so easily." Osborn pauses. "Unless he let you."

Steve tries not to freeze in fear. That would prove Osborn right immediately, and as he's made this risk, as Tony is in terrible danger, he might as well as play the charade right through.

Tony shoots him a startled look, which kicks Steve into gear.

"What else do you need?" Steve says. "Access codes to the helicarrier? Someone taken care of? What?"

"I think you're going to prove how much you're under my control, America." Osborn delights in saying America, like he's a friend, like he has the right to be familiar with him. Steve's stomach tenses unhappily, but it's not himself he's worried about. "Kill Stark."

Steve's stomach drops out of his body completely. His face feels numb. "What?" he says, staring in horror at Osborn. "You can't be serious," he adds, when his brain catches up.

"Deadly," Osborn says, and cackles at his own joke.

"It's okay," Tony says. Steve looks at him, horrified. Tony's staring off into the distance, until he notices Steve is looking his way, and then their gazes meet. Tony's pale. Already shaking a little. He swallows, and turns his chair, so he's more accessible. "It's okay."

"This is not-"

"You kill me," Tony says, in a thin, determined sort of voice, "or Osborn will make some other demonstration. And maybe it'll be Agent Hill. Or maybe it'll be the small town that's about a mile down from here."

"He's not wrong," Osborn cackles. "C'mon, on your feet, boys." He tilts his head. "If the Goblin has to do it, it won't be pretty, and the things he will burn if you disobey him, Captain — you have no idea how far he'll go."

Tony tilts his chin and gets slowly to his feet, and then he walks over to the huge panelled windows. He keeps his gaze locked with Steve's. Diffident. Strong. So quintessentially Tony Stark that Steve gets to his feet in a daze, already thinking a million different strategies. All of them fall short.

Steve had lost a lot of soldiers in World War II. Some for good reasons, some for worse reasons, but all for the best play he could make. And there isn't a single tactical thing to do in this situation that can get them out of this.

Not that wouldn't kill them both.

Fury's got a goddamn lot to answer for, putting him in this situation. Anything. Maybe Steve walked into this situation on his own. Denial's easy, but when it goes away, the sting is worse than everything. Except the thought of Tony, dead.

Steve doesn't even know what he was expecting. He's been fooling himself for so long, over so many different things. First about his lonely life being okay, and then about Iron Man, and now Tony and Steve only knows one thing now: life is never going to be the same again.

"There's nowhere to run to, Stark," Osborn catcalls. "Or are you going to throw yourself out of the window? I suppose I would enjoy that show just as much."

Tony does tremble at that, looking back at the glass, and then he looks back at Steve. Then he makes a small movement that goes unnoticed by everyone but Steve — but that's only because Steve's waiting for it.

The device on Tony's wrist, which Steve left on when he restrained him. The Goblin's minions scanned Tony with a handheld device of their own, but it didn't pick up the wrist device, because it's nothing much. Just a silencer.

But maybe it's enough to do something.

When Tony speaks, it's not a crazy plan of escape.

"You've got to kill me," Tony says through gritted teeth, and Steve hates this, hates everything fiercely. He can't kill Tony. They were inches from being friends, really good friends, even with Steve's secret between them.

There's a hundred minions in this room and more on the helicarrier. There's a nuke onboard, and somewhere, an agent who knows how to stop the Green Goblin.

Maybe there's no way out, and he has to kill Tony for the greater good.

It's time to put his willingness to do anything into action, and to put aside everything he's feeling.

This is ripping him apart.

"You can't kill me from across the room," Tony says, his voice a dichotomy of fear and firmness. "Get over here, soldier, and throw me out this damn window." Tony's voice settles into an order, and Steve is a soldier, and knows what to do with orders.

Steve moves closer, the minions following him with their guns. He moves stiffly, hating each moment. He moves until he stands so close into Tony's personal space that he could just be going in for a hug. He lifts one arm slowly, like it's someone else's arm. Like it doesn't belong to him.

Before his hand can even connect with any part of Tony's body, Tony pushes forwards. Steve doesn't even tense, because his subconscious wants Tony to take him out. To remove him entirely from this terrible equation.

But Tony doesn't try to hurt him. Tony turns the silencing device off.

Steve wants to scream. He nearly does. He holds it in, as Tony turns to the Goblin — Norman Osborn — with a cocky grin. "C'mon, Osborn," Tony says, "a last request, for the sake of old times?"

Osborn blinks at him. "We did... have some good times," he allows. "But if it's for a parachute, I'm afraid you're out of luck." Osborn cackles, like it's a hilarious joke. Uncertain laughter echoes around the amassed minions.

Osborn's minions are definitely a walking cliché.

Apart from the number of them. That's the part Osborn's gotten right.

Stupidity is impossible to fight en masse.

"I only want one thing," Tony says. "A kiss from Captain America."

Steve almost freezes. "What?"

Osborn laughs so hard for a moment he nearly falls off the chair. He bangs the table with his fist, and his face turns so red that Steve hopes, passionately, fruitlessly, for him to explode with it.

"I've always wanted to," Tony says, looking at the ground.

Steve's never wanted to experience being deep frozen again, but it seems like his body has totally remembered how to behave in solid ice, because he can't even move to breathe. Does Tony know it's him?

"Let me guess," Osborn says. "A crush from your childhood?"

Tony makes a noncommittal sound which rings pretty true.

"Well," Osborn declares, "oh, this is even better than I hoped! Oh, ho ho, a doomed love! I couldn't have scripted this brilliance."

Steve opens his mouth to point out that, despite it actually being scarily and eerily close to the truth, doomed love requires both parties to be involved, but a look of determination crosses Tony's face and before Steve knows it, Tony has grabbed the back of Steve's head.

Tony pulls him down, and fits his mouth to Steve's before Steve can even think about what's going on. It's the briefest touch of a kiss, but Steve knows this.

Steve knows this kiss.

Tony steps back a pace, and he looks frightened and exhilarated and wild-eyed, and everything in Steve's life slots into place.

Steve doesn't have feelings for two different people. He has a whole lot of feelings for just one.

"Push me, Cap," Tony whispers, his eyes scraping Steve's face, willing him to understand.

And even if he hadn't understood at the kiss, Steve would understand it now.

There is only one person in the world that calls him Cap.

Tony Stark is Iron Man.

"Any time now," Osborn cackles in the background.

Steve straightens, and puts both of his hands on Tony's chest. He can feel the chest plate of Tony's arc reactor beneath his palms, through Tony's shirt, and feels like an idiot for a moment. Tony smirks down at his hands, clearly thinking the same.

No one expects a reclusive billionaire like Tony Stark to be a hero.

Steve should have. He should have known. He was just as gullible as the rest of them.

But maybe that's what's going to save them.

"I haven't got all day," Osborn says.

"I'll be fine," Tony mouths, looking up at Steve intently.

Steve feels sick. Even though he knows now that Tony is Iron Man, Tony's not wearing the suit now. But Steve has to trust him. If Tony thinks he'll be fine, then Steve has to believe he will be. The suit must attach to Tony somehow.

He pushes into Tony, shoving him up against the glass; when Tony's back connects with the glass, he does look nervous, but then his face steels.

"Do what the man says," Tony says, a firmer tone to his voice. That's the tone Steve's heard for years, processed through Iron Man's vocal modulator, and it's an order.

Steve's always been good at following orders.

He keeps his eyes locked on Tony, and he pushes.

It's a clean push.

The window shatters in one go. The resultant force rocks Steve — there's a difference between pressures, or its drag from the engines — and the wind from outside almost sucks him out with the glass to join Tony's tumbling body. Steve has to hold onto one of the long aluminum frames.

He closes his eyes while the helicarrier's air regulation system brings back some sort of equilibrium to the room, compensating for the lost window, and then he turns back to Osborn, who's looking absolutely delighted.

"I can't believe you pushed him," Osborn crows.

Steve narrows his eyes. "Was I not supposed to? You really shouldn't have said to if you didn't want me to."

"Oh, I did want you to," Osborn says. "Stark's been a pain in all of our asses since he stopped producing weapons." He drums his fingers on Fury's glass table. "Still, one part of this is a shame."

Steve tilts his head.

"That even after killing Tony Stark, I still don't believe you're a bad guy," Osborn says. He straightens, clicks his fingers, and gestures to his minions. He fixes Steve with an intense look as Steve's stomach plummets, because, no way is this happening. No way.

No way was he about to kill Tony for nothing.

"Take him to the cage," Osborn says, snapping his fingers. "Throw away the key."

Steve's last glimpse of Osborn is him turning his back, and sliding the Green Goblin mask back on, before the minions descend on him.

Steve isn't unconscious when they take him down into the bowels of the helicarrier and throw him into the circular cage, but he is hurt, and he does have his shield.

He couldn't fight stupid en masse — that many minions at once was an impossible ask even for him — but he could annoy stupid. In the end they throw him in with the shield, just to stop him from hitting them.

"If it can withstand the Hulk," one of the minions mutters as they slam the cage shut, "it can withstand a crazy guy in spandex with a shield."

"Does Captain America qualify as crazy?" another minion questions him as they walk away. "I mean, dude. We work for the Green Goblin." Their voices trail away as they move to stand guard at the door. Steve frowns into the floor, and he's too angry to even feel sick when he realizes the floor is glass and is above tens of thousands of feet of air.

"So," a ridiculously familiar voice says, "did Fury send you on a one-man mission to reclaim the helicarrier?"

Steve shoots up into a sitting position, despite the bone-crunching pain, and feels like he might have died in the melee and gone to hell.

Hell probably does provide your very own Agent Phil Coulson to torment you for eternity, Steve thinks. "Not exactly," Steve says, and holding his head, hopes for the hundredth time that Tony wasn't lying when he told Steve he'd be okay.

Tony is Iron Man. The facial hair. The fact his company stopped making weapons. The arc reactor in Tony's chest. Steve's not exactly sure where he should have gotten the answer Tony Stark is Iron Man from those clues, but he feels stupid for not figuring it out regardless.

"Oh," Steve says, as Coulson just smiles in an odd way at him. "You're the agent with the information." He stares accusingly as Coulson nods. "Your arm isn't broken."

"Uh," Coulson says, looking down at his intact arms. "No. Director Fury does have his own set of codes for things. Broken arms can mean taken hostage. Last resort usually means you're kind of plan A but he doesn't want to tell you. And trust me, you never want Fury to 'send you to Portland'." Coulson makes air quotes with his fingers of the last one and then he shrugs, as if brushing his obvious annoyance with that last code aside. "I know exactly what the Goblin has planned."

Steve looks at him, and tries to push his aching body into something a little more dignified than the half-sprawl he's currently rocking.

"Oh," Coulson says, realizing belatedly that Steve's waiting for the plan. "The Goblin plans to make another hit on Stark Tower tonight. If that's unsuccessful, then tomorrow, there's a party in New York. One of the Maggia families is normally guarded by heavy, black magic, but the night of the party is the one night of the year that guy gets wasted."

"Wasted as in killed?" Steve asks, remembering the Maggia back in his days, and the terrible bloodshed in Brooklyn when two rival Maggia families took out each others' speakeasies on the same night.

His mom's shoulder was grazed by a stray bullet. Steve does not have fond associations of the Maggia.

"Wasted as in drunk," Coulson explains, waving his hand airily. His neutral expression sinks into something much more sober. "It's been so frustrating. So close to the Goblin's plans, and no way to get it out." He raps his hand sadly against the see-through cage's floor.

The melancholy settles around them both, and Steve breaks the odd silence by giving Coulson at least a brief outline of what's going on, although he does fudge the details a little, because talking about Tony, and Iron Man — It's still way too raw. It's going to take a long time for Steve to process it all.

Coulson in return gives a précis of his story — he's been infiltrating the Green Goblin for the last couple of years, because working for the Retaliators gives him such an easy work schedule, and working in Stark Tower gave him an in with the Goblin. Unfortunately, Coulson's cover was broken, and the Goblin's been carting him around, waiting to use him as a bargaining chip against Director Fury.

Coulson waxes lyrical about how confident he is Fury will rescue him from the Goblin at some point, but Steve remembers how Fury said anything, and he knows how alike he is to Fury.

They're both willing to make the hard plays.

Even Fury said it himself — getting Coulson's information out trumped getting Coulson out.

Steve would just get the information out if he had to, but they're stuck together for the moment. He'll have to get them both out.

Alas, Steve's burgeoning supervillain inner voice says.

"So there's absolutely no way out of here," Steve says, banging his shield against the cage a little.

Coulson shakes his head. "It was designed for the Hulk, but we've never been able to test it. Perfectly designed to withstand force, or to be ejected in the case of an emergency."

Steve frowns, and thinks about that for a while. "Would it survive falling maybe, thirty thousand feet?"

Coulson shrugs. "I guess not. Checking protocols used to be part of my job rota before my undercover work — there was never a protocol for retrieving it whole once ejection had taken place. I mean, we ran projections on it when we installed it, because the theory was that if it did fall, we needed the Hulk to survive if he reverted to human-size."

Steve eyeballs him for that. Of course SHIELD needs Hulk.

At the end of the day, the Hulk's a weapon of mass destruction.

Coulson flushes, and continues to explain. "The theory was that the cage would crack on impact. Pretty badly, from the estimates, but I guess we'd rather have a way to get the Hulk back in captivity, so injuring him was never seen as a bad thing."

"And what could make it eject?" Steve says, thoughtfully.

"Extreme stress," Coulson says. "We ran an emergency protocol on it once, and the computer model thought that if the Hulk smashed at the same point repeatedly maybe, a hundred times that it could cause a resonance to maybe detach one side of the clamps, which would make the whole thing fall, but we've observed the Hulk for years. It's a creature of passion, and there's no way he would consciously hit at the same spot for — "

Coulson trails off, because he is SHIELD trained, and is highly smart.

Steve waggles his shield at Coulson.

"This is going to suck, isn't it," Coulson sighs.

"Do we have a choice?" Steve questions. Rhetorically. He starts to bash at the same spot of the cage with his shield, near where the clamps are, and ignores the fact that for safety, he's probably going to have to cover Coulson's body with his own.

He's kind of getting the vibe that Coulson might kind of enjoy that.

Coulson might enjoy it on the way down, but he doesn't enjoy the landing.

Steve ends up just a bit rattled, and an inch away from slashing his eyeball out on a large fragment of the cage, but falling thirty thousand feet and surviving is always exhilarating, and this time it was without a parachute.

Steve would write a novel of his life if anyone would believe it. Or if people wouldn't need to be shot after reading it.

On second thoughts, maybe he'll just start up his own comic.

In delightful melodrama, something Steve is always secretly fond of, Coulson breaks his arm on landing — but he also hits his head pretty hard, and because he hasn't had a super-serum procedure inflicted on him, Steve forces him to stay behind and find help at the nearest town.

Steve himself can't afford pause. He doesn't even start looking for Tony's body. Either Tony's alive, or he's dead. Alive means looking for him is a waste of time. If he's dead, then he's still going to be dead after Steve's stopped Osborn from getting the hammer.

Steve starts making a run for the nearest town that he can see in the distance. He pulls out his wrist comm, from the various places in his uniform that he pulled it apart and hid it. It wouldn't have worked in the cage, but Steve regrets not putting it together while he was in there, because every second feels like he's wasted too much time. "Hill," he yells, "if Fury's right and the hammer's not in Stark Tower, it's being held in NYC by the Maggia, and the usual magical security is low at the latter because of some sort of a party."

"Let me look at that. One moment," Hill says, sans any kind of greeting at all. She's probably been on high alert since Steve started this odd scheme of Fury's.

"It'll be the Hammerheads. Top Man's throwing a ball tonight. I can get you in as ground staff," Hill says. "If you can retrieve the hammer before Osborn's forces — One moment."

Steve keeps running, because time is always of the essence in this job; usually moreso when Hill says one moment. "Hill?" he prompts, when her one moment spins into three.

"Intercept order. You're to get to Stark tower. Immediately. You'll be liaising with the Avengers there. You're to work with them, not engage them."

Steve ignores how matter-of-fact Hill is about the Avengers, because that's something to think about later. Somewhere in his subconscious is a little, smug voice saying see, I knew that Hill and Fury already knew they were the Avengers. "Give me options on how to fulfil immediately when I'm ten miles out of the city," Steve says.

"On that," Hill says. "If you can procure transport to two kilometres down the road north from where you are, I'll have something waiting for you."

"Appreciate it." Steve closes down his side of the comm line, leaving the earpiece open; he's going to have to push himself to the max, and Hill doesn't deserve to hear his heavy breathing down the line.

He doesn't have to bargain hard when he accelerates into the town he saw in the distance. There's a sixty-foot high version of one of the Captain America awareness posters plastered to a billboard, and even though his brain tries to distract him with thoughts on how the tiny flaws in his sketches really look majorly distorted when blown up that big, he pushes those crazy thoughts aside to ask the first person he sees with a car for a lift.

They look between him and the poster, and that's when Steve realizes it.

It is his newest sketch, but it doesn't have the text Steve expects. It has the text: "BEWARE OF CAPTAIN AMERICA. HE IS A PUBLIC ENEMY AND IS NOT TO BE TRUSTED. INFORM THE POLICE AT ONCE IF YOU SEE HIM. DO NOT APPROACH."

The driver stares at him, and then takes off running.

Steve watches him for a second, perplexed, and then realizes he's wasting time. The guy did leave his keys in the ignition and it's an emergency.

Steve's not a great driver, but he can manage the fundamentals after going through SHIELD's basic agent training, and he makes it to Hill's co-ordinates, abandons the car, and runs across to the waiting helicopter. They take off, climb high, and then something knocks into them.

"What the hell?" the SHIELD pilot yells. "Adjusting."

"It's the helicarrier," Steve realizes, and lurches closer to the two pilots. "The helicarrier must be above us. They're probably going to where we're going."

"Yeah," the second pilot mutters, "right into a storm."

A storm? Steve shifts over to the door so he can look out the large windows. It's been raining more in New York than Steve ever remembered from his life in the past, but he hadn't realized quite how focused those rainstorms have been; here, from a couple miles out, over miles and miles of clean, bright suburbia, it's obvious that the rainclouds are clinging to New York like a bad smell. It's almost like a dome of bad weather, coming down over the part of New York City where Stark Tower is.

Steve might be wrong, but he's starting to get the impression that Stark Tower lies at the exact centre of that storm.

His weather assignment might not have been so stupid as Steve assumed it was.

Stark Tower has probably always been at the centre of most storms for the last five years.

Steve thinks about the thunder and lightning, when Don Blake got annoyed at tying knots. At the guy knocking into him in the cafeteria. The rain and the lightning and the thunder, did it all correspond to Don's moods?

The Retaliators are vigilante superheroes who battle supervillains, all the while trying to convince the civilian Ron Drake that he's actually the mysterious North god Quetzal, aka "Sore"; his memories were parted from him by the terrible price he paid protecting humanity from the evil Gregori. Ron must gain his memories back so he can find his Magic Staff, Murmur, before the bad guys figure out how to get hold of it and use the power for themselves. Murmur has enough power to take over the whole world.

How long has Don been working for Stark Resilient?

Five years.

Thor hasn't been missing.

Thor has been in plain sight the whole time.

Don. Lost memories. If losing the hammer can cause lost memories, a change of appearance is probably just as easy.

And if Steve has realized this, he might not be the only one.

He stays near the door, ready to leave at a moment if he needs to, worry churning in his stomach. It's almost heart-pounding. The helicarrier won't be able to land in New York, but it can hover above and it can send down any number of aircraft which can land. Peering through the window, his heart sinks when he sees that Stark Tower is surrounded by lightning.

"I burned the penthouse entrance," Steve says, apologetically. "Had to tell the Goblin's minions about it."

One of the SHIELD pilots look at him askance. "It was an emergency," Steve says. "The security system will know it's a weak point now. I need another entrance."

"There's the exit you didn't use last time," the pilot suggests, helpfully.

Steve doesn't even have time to contemplate the indignity of things — the laundry chute leads to (or from, if you're being pedantic) floor four, and that's only four more floors up to the Retaliators' floor.

Where Don might still be masquerading as a giant human bean bag.

The agents on the helicopter lay down cover fire as Steve leaps out — the Goblin has minions everywhere. Steve's still not in brilliant shape himself, but it doesn't matter now.

All that matters is stopping the Goblin.

Steve careens his shield at a row of minions, before leaping up onto a large wheelie bin to make a leap for the laundry chute. He can almost feel the sting of reflected gunfire as the SHIELD agents on the helicopter open fire, keeping any pursuers away from the chute.

It's a good thing the Goblin's probably not going to be attacking Stark Tower in the future, whether he wins or loses, because Steve's kind of running out of ways into the building.

And he's probably not going to be allowed through the front door anymore, either.

Steve wriggles up the chute as quickly as he can, but it's slower than he would like. Sometimes the bulk the serum gave him is a disadvantage.

And then it's an advantage again, as he emerges from the laundry chute right into the middle of a four-minion squad.

Steve drops the shield from his back and spins like a whirling dervish, the edges of the vibranium clipping them all neatly on the chin. He smirks as he sends them all flying onto their backs. His reputation might be smeared to hell, and he had to push the guy he likes a lot out of a window to possible death, but at least he's still a force for evil to reckon with.

Sometimes you have to take your victories where you can find them.

The raid on the tower, where Steve casually knocked out most of the security, has unfortunately meant that the upper floors are overrun.

Probably the basement floors too, but that's not where Steve's going. The Avengers can wait until Steve's gotten Don out safely.

Except, it turns out Steve's not the only one to have come to this conclusion, because when he manages to fight his way to the rest room and it's now slightly charred section, he comes face to face with the Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the Hulk.

The room is barely tall enough for the Hulk. Don's there too, cowering against the wall, holding the cover of the beanbag he was hiding inside of in front of him pathetically.

"Um," Steve says, looking at the arrow and gun and giant green fist pointing at him, "I'm a good guy?"

"We're legally bad guys," Natasha says. There's a colder note to her voice when she's the Black Widow. The Black Widow can definitely kill you; Natasha likes your potential death to be ambiguous.

"I guess I'm a bad guy?" Steve says. He tilts his head as he thinks about it. "But I'm a good guy, the bad guy thing is just propaganda."

"I think we're kind of the same," Clint says. His Hawkeye voice is no different, but then, Steve's normally three hundred feet away, standing in a headwind, when Hawkeye hurls insults at him.

Hulk turns to Natasha and Clint, his huge forehead creasing. Up close, he does look a lot like Bruce Banner, but the doctor's soft-spoken eloquence is missing when he asks, jabbing a thick green finger in Steve's direction, "Hulk smash?"

Clint makes a noncommittal sound. Natasha elbows him in the side. "Hulk no smash the walking star-spangled flag," Natasha says. "We're going to be working for SHIELD in the open when this is all over. Just like him. Hulk no smash colleagues." Natasha flicks a look over at Don, cowering in the corner. "I mean, Hulk no smash colleagues again." Natasha flickers Steve a curious look. "During the Battle of New York, Hulk got a bit smashy with Thor. It was a thing."

"Right," Steve says, and looks over at Don. His face is completely different from Thor's, but the size is there, and the thunder rumbling outside tells him that his theory is a hundred per cent correct.

As does Natasha's knowing gaze. "We have to get him out," she says to Clint. "Or down to the hammer. How many floors down do you think Stark's stashed it?"

"The hammer's not here," Steve says, keeping his voice just as quiet. "We've got the location. It's only a matter of time with the Goblin's forces before he realizes it. He's going to make the hit on the real location tonight."

"Shit," Natasha exhales. "The Goblin's definitely going to find this out today? Is Iron Man not holding him off?"

"No," Steve says. He coughs uncomfortably. "I sort of pushed him out of a window."

Natasha's expression narrows under her mask. "Tell me it was a first floor window."

"Technically," Steve says.

"Technically — " Natasha prompts.

"A first floor window thirty thousand feet in the air," Steve says. Even saying it quickly, it still... hurts like hell.

Natasha gapes.

"Tony did say he was okay with being kidnapped," Clint says.

"He was kidnapped?" Natasha swivels on Steve, full force of her fury bearing down on her face. "You kidnapped him?"

"Uh," Steve says, tightening the grip on his shield automatically while resisting the urge to cover his crotch with it.

"Oh, guess that was when you were doing the thing with the thing," Clint says.

"You mean when I was single-handedly taking out a room of twenty minions?" Natasha says, through gritted teeth. "And fighting my way up here because all I got was a message that Don had been stitched into a beanbag and the tower was surrounded?"

"Hulk helped," Hulk interrupts. He grins at Steve. "Hulk smashed."

"I bet you did," Steve says, pacifying him. It's quite interesting seeing the Hulk like this. He supposes it makes sense that a creation that SHIELD says is controlled by his emotions can control his emotions to access the same power.

"Yeah, that's when I mean," Clint says. He smiles, but the smile fades. "Oops?" he offers.

Natasha says several things in Russian under her breath which she obviously thinks no one understands. She looks up curiously at Steve's flinch. "You speak Russian?" she asks.

"No," Steve says, "There was a Russian soldier in my unit. War has a lot of waiting in it. Plenty of time to learn new swear words."

"War — Afghanistan? Iraq?" When Steve shakes his head, Natasha guesses again, "The Gulf?"

"World War II," Steve says, distracted by the Hulk edging closer to him, clenching his fist hopefully.

"World War II-" Natasha looks at Steve, and rubs her forehead with one hand. "Today is a crazy, insane day."

"I'm kind of with you there," Steve says.

"Dude," Clint says. "World War II? You'd have to be... the original? Man, you're the original Captain America, aren't you? Holy shit." He barks in laughter.

"Hawk said a bad word," Hulk says.

"Hawk did," Clint says, hurriedly. "Hawk very sorry."

"Hawk should be," Hulk mutters, mulishly.

"We have a guy in our office whose parents named him after you," Natasha tells Steve. "How did you live this long?" And because she's the Black Widow and pulls no punches, she adds in a softer, sadder voice, "And how come you couldn't join in on the Battle of New York? We could have really done with the help."

Yeah, there was something in the précis about the Battle of New York that said Natasha was with Selvig when he died. "I spent seven decades in ice," Steve says, apologetically. "SHIELD defrosted me too late."

"I," a strained voice interrupts, "think you all need to go the hospital, please."

All four of them turn to look.

"Hulk not allowed in hospital," Hulk says, in a plaintive tone. "They afraid Hulk will smash babies." Steve edges a look at the Hulk's fist, and Hulk notices. "Hulk wouldn't smash babies," Hulk says with authority. "Babies too small for Hulk to smash. Hulk prefer to smash people."

"See, you're clearly insane and in need of psychiatric care," Don says. He looks at Steve, who as the last to enter, might be the sanest.

"Does this condition look psychiatric to you, Doctor?" Steve says, pointing at the Hulk.

"Well," Don starts, and sags. "But it's insane. The comics aren't real. I've been working on them for five years, they're just stories, you've all just said the whole time that they're just stories — "

"They're true stories," Natasha says, turning to him. Her voice is compelling and she sashays over to him, her eyes wide, and she's showing her wrists, trying to subconsciously get his trust. "I'm sorry Don. They're all true. Apart from maybe how we vilified Captain America a little..." She twists her head and sends Steve a wry, apologetic expression. He shrugs.

"It can't all be true," Don says, "because — But it's all so horrible. The Gregori, and the way that doctor died at the beginning to save New York, and- and- you can't say all of it's true. What about the Metal Girl story, where her boss has her kidnapped in Afghanistan, and waterboards her, and she builds Metal Girl and has to take out her own company?"

That's not an issue that SHIELD provided him with. Steve's entire being goes cold. Afghanistan. Tony's arc reactor. Waterboarding. Don's right. It's all so horrible.

And if it's true, no wonder Stark's been locked in his tower for five years.

Apart from, Steve guesses, his excursions as Iron Man.

It's enough to blow Steve's mind, and he lives half of the Retaliators' storyline personally.

Poor, mindwiped Don.

"How could that even be true? It's barbaric and — you're all insane, and — " Don shakes his head, and steps forward, obviously growing stronger with conviction. "And what, oh, what, am I supposed to be Ron Drake, who's secretly Sore? I'm supposed to prance around in my underpants saving the world?"

"Well, in cool armor, really," Clint butts in. "We used artistic license."

"And Quetzal's costume is highly ceremonial," Natasha says. "The jaguar pelt signifies great virility."

Clint gives her a you're not helping look. Natasha shrugs.

"I don't feel like an alien," Don says, spreading his arms wide. "I certainly don't look like one. And if you think my hair looks like that — "

They don't really find out what Don's hair tirade is going to be, because the door smashes inside, and minions just start pouring through.

Steve automatically fights back, but he's weary, and it's a small space.

They're in serious trouble.

Steve fights, anyway, because that's who he is, and — it ends up being quite nice, even as they're overwhelmed. Because he finally has people who really have his back. It's been a long time — over five years in Steve's perception of time, and over seventy-six years in real time — but the sensation of having a team to rely on is back and it's brilliant and it's going to be short-lived as anything, because there's just too many damned minions. He can feel that they're losing ground (well, carpet) and Steve curses the time they wasted, just talking, when they could have been finding a more defensible ground.

There's got to be some way of taking out the windows, but the middle floors all have reinforced glass, and Steve doesn't have his SHIELD issued window-cutting device with him.

It's just as Steve has to duck, nearly getting knocked out by the Hulk — not because the Hulk is bored and wanting to just smash the only target in reach, but because it's way too close quarters to be in a fight with the Hulk on any side of the equation — when a brilliant, terrible light fills the air.

A feeling of burning scorches past Steve's face, but it doesn't touch him. The light seems to be only touching the minions. The light continues, and continues, and Steve freezes to the spot, slowly moving his head just in case he somehow attracts the lightning.

Because it is lightning, and it's coming from Don's hands, and he looks so scared that Steve's heart leaps with it.

The lightning crackles forth, and the last minion drops to the ground, unconscious, and the lightning fades away.

Don stays still, with his hands outstretched, and he's just staring and staring.

There's silence as everyone takes in what's just happened, and then there's another loud sound — Steve swerves on his heel just in time to see Director Fury.

He's standing in the open hatchway of a large flying vehicle of some sort, and he's holding onto some sort of grappling device, and... the whole long window from the rest room, including most of the frame, and some of the wall.

Some of the Retaliators' covers rip from the wall in the wind, and Fury grins and lets the window drop to the ground. Even in the rain, they can all hear it shatter.

"I thought you might like a lift," Fury says.

"Yeah," another voice sounds from behind him. "And to do some work. Or would you rather just lounge around the rest room while I do the hard stuff, like usual?"

Steve's heart flips over in his chest harder than it did when he was in the Hulk's cage with Coulson, hurtling down through thirty thousand feet of air.

Tony's alive. In the Iron Man suit, with the mask flipped up. Steve's relief is palpable.

Next to him, Hulk's shrunk down to Bruce, and the relief on Bruce's face is just as bright and intense as Steve feels.

"You're okay," Bruce breathes. "We heard about the kidnapping."

"And assumed the worst," Clint adds, sounding almost cheerful about it.

"Sorry for making you push me out of a window," Tony says to Steve. There's something funny about Tony's voice that takes Steve a while to place, and that's — even with the noises of the minions dashing around the building, causing mayhem — Tony's voice is polite.

"Sorry for having to maybe kill you for the greater good," Steve says, trying to mimic the polite tone and feeling incredibly awkward.

"You didn't have a choice, Cap," Tony says, shrugging. And his tone is polite, but it's still friendly, and Steve nods, ducking his head, to hide his emotions as well as hide his eyes.

He's still too busy processing Tony Stark is Iron Man to further process what will happen when the Avengers find out that he's Captain America.

Or maybe he's just scared that he's thinking when.

Steve helps the Avengers into the flying jet, which he guesses is the Avengers' version of the Retaliators' "quadjet", in order to distract himself by how impending that when actually is. His mask and cowl are still on, but Natasha's observation skills are amazing, and Tony knows him so well, he's probably about to be outed and he doesn't know quite how to handle the notion.

Fury closes the bay door, and Steve catches a glimpse of Agent Hill in the pilot seat. The Avengers all move to different seats, obviously their seats, and Steve casts around awkwardly and sees a row of empty seats.

Feeling like an interloper, he lowers himself into one of those spare seats, and ignores the thought that goes, this is it, you're no longer part of this group.

Steve refuses to feel sorry for himself, because it's not right. Tony's alive. He should be focusing on how amazing that is, against all the odds, and maybe finding a tactful way to tell Fury his plans are completely stupid — except for they've seemed to miraculously work so far, so maybe Steve's idea of stupid is missing an ounce of brilliance.

Tony's alive, and the Avengers are all here, and they know now where Thor is (albeit without his memories, but expecting perfection is just a quick path to disappointment), and The Retaliators is pretty much entirely... what's the internet term, again? Trufax?

It's all true, including Metal Girl's backstory. Steve's stomach flips uneasily for the millionth time that month. The internet communities all said Metal Girl is called Toni as a reference to the comics' funder, Tony Stark.

Steve wonders how the internet would react to the fact that it's all real. Actually, the Awesometal and Cap_Ironman comms would probably react really well.

Well, there'd be some capslocking and keyboard smashing.

Fury asks for a briefing, so Steve quickly relates his adventures with Coulson.

"Wait. Our Coulson," Natasha interrupts, when Steve gets to the point about detaching the Hulk cage.

"Wait," Bruce says, "you have a cage just for me?"

"Yes, and yes," Steve says, looking between them so fast he almost has whiplash. He grimaces, which is visible through his mask. "I'm sorry I broke your artist's arm."

"It's okay," Clint says. "We've kind of got a new guy. He's the one named after you."

Fury looks confused for a moment, but shakes it away. "I'd appreciate it if we could get back to business," he says, and outlines a brief plan of action — an agent "that they will recognize" (and that's an irritating phrase for Fury to pick as his favorite) will let them into the party, because they've been able to infiltrate the party's waiting staff but only for one person, and it needs to be someone who can handle it — but that the Goblin won't recognize. That person will let them into the party, and then SHIELD will try to delay the Goblin while the Avengers search for the hammer.

"And if we don't manage it?" Natasha prompts, her pretty eyes tracking Fury's face menacingly.

"If the Goblin gets the hammer, then I remote-explode the nukes on the helicarrier," Fury says.

There's silence on the "quadjet" as that sinks in, the engine the only soundtrack for a long, long moment.

"Nuke?" Don says, into that silence.

Steve almost jumps — he kind of forgot Don was there. Clint, Natasha and Bruce all turn to him, starting to tell him about the party, and about the hammer, and how he really is actually Thor, and Steve's fascinated at watching the usually terribly competent trio flailing around and pretty much failing.

He's so engrossed he doesn't even notice when Tony sits down next to him. Fury sniggers when Steve visibly jumps, so Steve eyeballs Fury until he rolls his one bad eye and turns around to try and help the Avengers convince Don.

Or maybe he's gone to annoy Hill — Fury's the definition of the worst backseat pilot you can imagine.

"So," Tony says, drawing the sound out awkwardly.

"So," Steve says, smiling blankly at Tony and thinking, well, I guess now's the moment we're close up and he figures out the truth.

"I just wanted to thank you," Tony says, in a weird rush.

"For being willing to kill you to stop the Goblin killing other people?" Steve says. "You're not as welcome as you think you should be."

Tony frowns. "Is that a compliment?"

Steve squints. "Whatever helps you sleep at night."

Tony bares his teeth in what's probably meant to be a grin. "I was fine on the helicarrier. I have bracelets that can call the Iron Man suit to me wherever I am. I only had to fall about ten thousand feet."

"Only ten thousand feet," Steve repeats.

Tony's frown deepens. "You sound a lot like Pepper Potts, my PA."

Steve smiles. "Is that a compliment?"

"Yes," Tony says. "It actually is."

Steve nods.

"I mean... thank you for prodding me into seeing the light. About... thinking about two people at once." Tony looks at him, with an almost sad expression. "I don't know you, but there's someone I'm starting to get to know. Someone that I think, maybe, might be worth a chance, y'know? I mean, of course you know." Tony scratches his neck awkwardly — wearing a metal suit obviously has some of the same drawbacks as wearing spandex for long periods of time. "So. Thanks."

"You're welcome," Steve says, feeling awkward, because there are two different things which Tony could be meaning. Either he means Steve, or he means someone else, and oh, god, how is this Steve's life. Really.

Tony just smiles, oblivious, and he reaches out to pat Steve's shoulder hesitantly. "Well, you're a villain now. Maybe we can get into some scraps together in the future?"

Steve winces.

Tony frowns. "We don't have to," he says. "I just — "

"Oh, it's not that." Steve grimaces. "Got into a bit of a minion pile-up on the Helicarrier after I pushed you to your probable death."

"Ugh," Tony says, "can you quit with that? I wouldn't have been so forceful about it if I didn't know I had the Iron Man suit at my beck and call. Seriously, I'd have been screaming like a girl and paying you off with billions of dollars to get me away from there if I didn't. I knew I was fine."

Steve shakes his head. "I didn't," he says, in a quiet voice. "But I wasn't wincing out of guilt." When Tony frowns at him, Steve tugs up some of his uniform, and looks at the damage. He knows he didn't break anything, and the serum means his injuries are already healing, so the spread of bruises on his stomach are already turning green and yellow.

It does look pretty nasty, and it does not feel awesome.

"Hey," Bruce says. Steve jumps. He was so focussed on Tony, like he always is, that he didn't notice Bruce had come to sit opposite them. "You look more like the Hulk than I do right now." Bruce prods at his own human torso. He looks comfortable at being half-clothed in ripped pants — then again, Hulk has been around for a while. Bruce has obviously had a long time to adjust.

Steve prods at his chest, to double check his ribs aren't broken, and he lowers his uniform. He's good to fight again.

"Your six pack is insane," Tony says, sounding a little regretful.

"Wait," Natasha says, twisting in her seat, "did I just miss Captain America being shirtless?"

"Yup," Tony tells her. "And miss is the right word. Damn."

"That would have been an awesome find for the tumblr," Natasha says, dreamily.

"Hey," Clint bitches from the pilot seat, "the fans are plenty happy with my guns, thank you very much." He leers at Hill. "I pose shirtless for our fans quite a lot, but I'd be happy to pose for you any time. Just say the word, baby."

Steve puts a hand over his face so he can hide his instant smirk. Natasha narrows her eyes, but actually, Steve's not sure who she wants to kill — Clint or Hill. That's an interesting development.

"That's funny. I'd be happy to eject you from this aircraft at any time." Hill looks at him impassively for a moment. "Just say the word, baby."

Clint makes a muffled sound which might be fear for his life or might be arousal. Steve doesn't want to know. While the Avengers start to rib Clint for his complete lack of game, Steve gets up from his seat and sidles over to Fury.

"Sir," Steve says to Fury, "who is the agent we'll recognize?"

Fury fixes him with a look. He's just as expressive with one eye as most people are with two.

Steve sinks inwardly, but there's fire in his realization, because Fury wouldn't have given up the helicarrier without a fight, and the Goblin's sheer numbers would have made it ridiculously difficult for a peaceful retreat.

Fury's probably low on resources right now.

"I got out as many people as I could," Fury says, tersely. It's hard for him to admit anything he perceives as a failure. Steve doesn't say the reassuring things most people would need: Fury's not most people. "He knows my face. And Hill's."

Steve's face is a question that Hill answers by turning back briefly to face him from the pilot controls. She has two very bad black eyes, which make Clint make an impressed sound. Natasha nudges him, and Clint gets to up to take the co-pilot chair. Hill shoots him an unimpressed look, but Clint grins cheerfully.

He teases Natasha and lives — Hill's on the same danger level as Natasha. Baiting both of them that might not be the greatest plan in the world, Steve thinks. Personally, he's going to stay in the arena of not baiting either of them.

"Right," Steve says. "I guess I'll go and get him." He searches around for a parachute, and then nearly stumbles. Because the "quadjet" (and Steve doesn't think that's the real term for it, but he doesn't want to awkwardly ask its real name) rocks suddenly, and Hill swears under her breath.

Steve instantly tenses, because Hill never swears. She has absolute control at all times.

"Sitrep," Fury barks at her.

"It's Stark Tower," Hill says, with an almost apologetic tone, and she twists around in her seat again to look apologetically at Tony before looking at Fury, all business. "He's burned it to the ground."

Steve looks across at Tony. He goes instantly pale.

It's actually Don who speaks up at this point. "Miss. Potts — " he starts.

Tony looks sickly across at Don, and shakes his head. "I made sure she got out, before I came to get you from the office," Tony says. Don still looks confused, but there's a moment of relief on his face.

Steve heads over to a row of parachutes, and quietly starts to try and slide one on.

"I guess that means he knows for sure that the hammer isn't there," Tony says.

"I still don't get why the Goblin's been attacking us for the last five years when it's been elsewhere the whole time," Clint mutters.

"He tried," Fury says, smirking. "Even the Goblin can't fight magic."

"And we don't have any magic at hand?" Steve asks, pretending he's not struggling with the parachute straps.

Fury looks at him sadly. "The Battle of New York scared them all into hiding. Anything that makes a Norse god disappear..." He doesn't finish his half sentence, but it's clear. If a city had something which could make a Norse god disappear, it could easily be seen as a place to be feared. "We couldn't persuade any of them that it was simply grief that stole Thor's memories away." Fury can't help the brief glance he gives Don.

Steve finally shrugs the parachute on, and nods. He's ready to do this.

Fury shrugs. "We'll make preparations. I've got people set up in the Brooklyn safe house. Hill will tell you when to jump. The Avengers will meet you at the event."

Steve starts to edge over to the rear of the "quadjet".

"Oh," Clint suddenly says. "Um. I know this isn't the right time, but... If anyone who wanted to admit to stealing Katniss from me could just let me know whether she was in the Tower or not when it flamed, I'd appreciate it."

"You're right," Natasha says, grimly. Clint looks at her hopefully. "This is not the right time."

"Yeah, my entire livelihood and the place I've basically lived nonstop for the last six years burns down, and you're worried about an action figure?" Tony says. "When this is all over, remind me to put you in donkey hell."

Clint starts spluttering, and Steve has to hide a laugh in his hands.

"You're donkey worst, Tony Stark," Clint bitches.

Fury looks at Steve for a moment, confused.

"Don't ask," Steve says. "You'll be happier."

Steve can hear the Avengers approach before they reach the door.

That's not to say they're loud and noisy, but he's got enhanced hearing, he knows what they sound like, and he's expecting them.

When he opens the side-door just in time to let them in, a little of their shock is that he's so neatly predicted their entrance.

Most of their shock is in seeing him.

Steve smiles politely, and resists the urge to adjust the tight neck of the very formalwear he's been pushed into along with the rest of the waiting staff. He's even wearing a tie. It's not the first time tonight he's wondered whether the Geneva convention covers the cruel and unusual punishment of waiting staff uniforms.

"I knew you were too good to be true," Clint bitches, ducking oddly through the door so he doesn't have to take his quiver from his shoulder. "SHIELD. I should have known."

Steve shrugs. "You should have picked up that it was too convenient to find an artist so quickly," he says.

"We've never needed one before," Bruce says. "Coulson was — "

"SHIELD too," Natasha chimes in.

"Really?" Bruce says, his face falling. "I missed that in the mayhem." He looks at Steve. "There's a lot of things going on."

Steve nods, because that's a very good summary of events.

Natasha tugs a still very bewildered Dr. Don Blake behind her as she passes Steve into the building. The corridor is very small to begin with; with Don now in there, towering over them all, it seems to almost shrink.

Steve doesn't know how to feel about Don being there too. He's a civilian. But a civilian that can shoot lightning from his hands when he's in danger, Steve remembers. And if they can wake up Thor's memories, something which the hammer might be able to do, the upcoming fight will be a piece of cake.

"I'm still kind of pissed at Coulson," Tony says, a weird note to his voice as he follows up the group, pushing into the small space and closing the door behind him before sliding around Steve to stand guard by Don. Tony's very graceful in the Iron Man suit. Steve remembers the feel of Tony's muscles against his, and shivers — Stark's graceful mechanics work aside, it still must take a lot of strength to move Iron Man in the effortless grace he appears to move.

Tony's dark eyes, framed by his raised visor, linger on Steve's gaze for a moment. Steve can't get a read on the emotion, which is a little unsettling. Is Tony pleased or displeased at finding out that Steve's a SHIELD agent?

Or has he realized the truth of who Steve really is?

He probably should have told Tony himself. Who he really is. It's probably too late now.

"I should have called Coulson before Captain America told us he was SHIELD," Natasha says, blithely cutting across the weird undercurrent between Steve and Tony. "The way queues just part for him at Starbucks is unnatural."

"If it helps, I was only assigned to you because I kept messing up my own assignments," Steve offers.

"So you're SHIELD's sloppy leftovers," Tony says, still in that weird tone.

"If they don't want you back, we'll keep you," Bruce says. "Seriously, your line work is divine."

"Your inking is incredible," Steve says promptly in return, because it is, Bruce is a master.

"Can we have the fanboy squee somewhere where we aren't all squished into a tiny service corridor?" Clint demands. "You're all fucking excellent. Now let's go kick some ass and save the day."

"We're kinda superheroes," Natasha tells Steve apologetically as she flips out a tablet and starts directing them off towards a flight of stairs to the basement level. "Oh, and Iron Man's a good guy," she adds, waving her hand vaguely.

Steve looks at Tony, his face clearly visible. Their gazes lock, just for a moment. "Yeah," Steve says, "I was always betting on that theory anyway."

Tony looks at him wordlessly, and then nods tightly, remembering Steve's Iron Man theories.

"I have to get back upstairs," Steve lies. "Try not to destroy the whole mansion on your quest for the hammer? It's hard enough pretending to be a waiter and serve margaritas, let alone while trying your best not to be crushed by falling debris."

"We'll do our best," Bruce promises, patting Steve on the shoulder.

Steve nods, and at the next intersection moves in the direction of the stairs back up to the first floor, while behind him the Avengers move off to the basement.


Steve pauses. He knows Tony's voice. He turns, apprehensive, and nerves tug in the bottom of his stomach. Is this it? Is Tony going to know now that Steve's been pretending too?

Tony hurries up to him, the Iron Man armor smooth and silent even on the tiled floors, and Steve just waits, letting Tony speak first. He'll just have to handle whatever it is.

He's sort of expecting why did you lie, or maybe aren't you going to fight with us, Captain America? So when Tony just swallows oddly and says, "Be careful," Steve's resulting expression doesn't have an inch of artifice to it. It's all real.

Tony hasn't realized Steve's a superhero too. Tony thinks Steve is a regular human, albeit a SHIELD-trained one, and is fragile and in possible danger from their mission.

Steve swallows, and remembers pushing Tony through a window, thirty thousand feet in the air. "You too," he says, his voice wobbling with worry. "I — "

Tony tilts his head, but Steve doesn't finish his sentence. Steve's not entirely sure what he was going to say, actually. All of it is lost by a rocking sound from above.

It's a familiar sound. "The Green Goblin," Steve says, his eyes locking with Tony's. "Blasting through the front door. His explosions are pretty distinctive."

"Guys," Tony says, calling over Steve's shoulder. "You get Don to the hammer. I'm going to go up and hold back the Goblin." His face creases oddly for a second. "Hopefully people will just think it's supervillains fighting over their territory."

"Radio me if you need me," Bruce says, nodding authoritatively. Tony nods a little in return. Steve watches with worry and fondness twirling into one emotion as Tony lowers his mask and turns and starts heading for the stairs.

Steve follows him automatically. There's no time now to go for his uniform, but there's still a lot he can do as a civilian — besides, his enhanced strength and speed isn't dependent on the spandex. Thank goodness. His uniform does sometimes ride up his ass. It's probably got a lot to do with the stern expression he wears quite often; the stern expression the Retaliators give "Captain Awesome" a lot.

"Where do you think you're going?" Tony asks him, and even though the Iron Man modulator's on, Steve can hear a lot more of the inflection of Tony's voice through it.

"Upstairs with you," Steve says.

"No, you're not. You're going to wait back here until I'm done."

"You'll have to physically stop me," Steve says. Tony's pace up the stairs falters, but only for a couple of steps. "You might need me. There's a lot of civilians up there. I presume even if you're trying to keep your supervillain status going, you don't really want to be taking out civilian collateral damage."

Tony grunts, the Iron Man modulator turning that into a whine. "Fine. But my repulsor blasts are pretty hot. I might actually accidentally fire you, literally." He pulls up to a halt at the top of the stairs, where the corridor branches off in three directions. "Um — " Tony starts.

It's not often Tony Stark is lost for words. Steve mentally adds or Iron Man, and then feels like an idiot.

Because nothing's changed over the last hour — they're the same person, and that's something Steve has to get his mind around.

If you like pina coladas, Steve thinks irreverently, and draws parallel to Tony and looks straight into the glowing eyes, knowing now which pair of alluring eyes lie behind the mask. "This way," Steve says, backing off down the corridor which goes straight for the ballroom.

"Why's there no security around?" Tony asks, as they jog along to where the sounds of the Green Goblin's attack are coming from.

"There was," Steve says, and dimples a grin at him. "SHIELD trained."

Tony makes a strangled sort of sound, which sounds relatively pleased, actually. "So I guess Director Fury told you that I was a good guy," Tony says, the words sounding quite stiff even despite the fluctuations of the modulator.

"No," Steve says, surprised. "He didn't tell me anything." He looks over at Tony as they run for the ballroom, where they can now hear screams and blasting sounds. "I figured it out by myself."

They draw to a halt outside the ballroom. Steve takes in a steadying breath, readying himself. Tony looks at him. The Iron Man mask is as impassive as always, but it's almost like Steve can physically feel the emotion that Tony's projecting at him.

It's confusion, but tinged with admiration.

"Thank you," Tony says, and in that quiet voice there's more of his own tone through the modulator. "I don't think I've ever had anyone believe in me before."

Steve's halfway through inhaling to blurt out but your father before he remembers a) that would out him as Captain America and that was one of Fury's more specific orders over all of this, and b) Howard Stark had been brash and brilliant and cocky and arrogant and distracted, and maybe that's a good combination for a talented inventor, but maybe it's not a peach of a combination to grow up with. "I do believe in you," Steve breathes, instead.

"Okay," Tony says, his voice strengthening as he turns to the door. "Let's do this."

There's something you can say for the Green Goblin: while he's crazy, he's actually sort of predictable in that crazy. So Tony's plan — which just seems to be attack! — is to start shooting upwards as soon as he kicks the door in, and it's justified — the Green Goblin is flying on his hoverboard delivering some sort of psychotic supervillain speech about taking over the planet.

Steve feels a little bad for Norman Osborn for a moment, now he knows the slick-talking businessman is the brain behind the Green Goblin, because although he must have had some sort of villainy in his soul from the start — both his dominant personalities seem to have a let's destroy the world bent to them, it's got to be a terrible illness too. Something he should be getting help for. Agent Hill mocks Steve a lot of the time for insisting that most villains can be rehabilitated into society, but Steve knows he's right about Norman Osborn. Osborn should be in a hospital, not prison.

Well. Maybe a prison hospital.

"Get as many people out as you can," Tony yells to Steve, and Steve nods and heads for the side doors where some of Osborn's minions are harassing the waiting staff — Steve has a reverse-Titanic class ideology when it comes to vacating scenes of terror.

Steve takes out a couple of the minions with the aid of an appetizer-plate, slamming the silver plate and the handful of bite-size shrimp pancakes into their faces. He does seem to have a weird preference for circular-shaped weapons. After clearing the way, while Iron Man trades repulsor blasts with the Goblin, Steve starts to shepherd people out of the building. To pleasant surprise, some of the other waiting staff — noticing his waiting-staff uniform — actually join in shepherding the rest of the staff and the guests to the party out.

"Hey," a voice says to Steve's elbow, and he turns to one of the waitresses at the event, and realizes he knows her. Lydia, from the café near Stark Tower. "I guess you were right about Iron Man, huh?"

"Guess so," Steve says. Tony had voiced a hope that he could pull this off as a supervillain versus supervillain spat, but there's no mistaking the way he's fighting — drawing fire so that the civilians don't get hurt.

After this day, the world will know Iron Man is definitely a hero. The world will never be the same again.

"I hope we get a chance to thank him," Lydia says, staring at Iron Man with that new perspective. Steve manages to get her to leave the building, just in time, really — Tony sets off some sort of explosion at the DJ booth of the party which sends tables and chairs flying.

Steve is knocked to the ground, and thankfully, he seems to be the one most hurt by the blast. He struggles out from underneath the debris, and comes face to face with Iron Man. "Knocked the Goblin out of the game, but he won't be out for long," Tony grunts, unable to hide a slight wheeze through the modulator. Steve looks behind him. The Goblin's pinned to the wall by two giant chandeliers.

Improvising in unusual locations always does bring out the most interesting sort of weapons.

"Then you need to try to wake up Thor," Steve says, nodding at Tony. "Or at least convince him to do a replay of the rest room lightning."

Tony nods. "You get out of here."

"I will," Steve promises.

He's not even lying. Getting out of the ballroom is his plan.

Tony nods again, and turns and goes for the door, taking out a stray couple of Osborn's minions as he goes. He doesn't even look when he sends the small missiles to slam them into the wall.

Being a hero doesn't mean stopping all the BAMF moves that accompany supervillainy.

Steve waits until Tony's gone, and then runs after Tony, hurrying down the stairs and ducking into the room he stashed his uniform in.

There's definitely no way he's skipping the rest of this fight.

Maybe Tony should have used more than the chandeliers, because no sooner has Steve — sorry, Captain America — caught up with Iron Man and the Avengers, then Osborn bursts through the doors with an insane number of minions.

Steve joins the fight with no hesitation, falling in to fight next to Tony as he's been doing for the last five years. Fighting with Iron Man has been so easy, and Steve knows the rhythm so instinctively, that it's no wonder he got on with Tony so very, very quickly.

Because they've already really spent the last five years being friends.

Just without knowing it.

Hawkeye, in his purple mask, but with Clint's ridiculously distinctive whirlwind hair sticking up behind it, is hanging at the back next to a case with what must be the hammer by the way he's guarding it with his body.

Except it doesn't look like a hammer — it looks like a stick.

Don's cowering behind Clint, looking terrified, and staring at his hands, like he's trying to figure out how he made the lightning come before, and Clint's loosing arrow after arrow, guarding Don and the stick with his life.

Steve's never had to fight with Natasha in close range before — the Black Widow has deadly close range moves, and it's only due to Steve's serum-enhancements that he even survived the long-range confrontations with her. She's so vicious when allowed to contact with her enemies, and seeing her up close, it's like watching a dancer. A dancer who can kill you with her pinky.

He has fought Bruce before, and that was technically in close range — before the Hulk threw him a hundred feet into the Chrysler Building. He's never seen the Hulk actually become the Hulk, and it's fascinating to watch, even just in the periphery of Steve's vision. As the Hulk, Bruce seems to have become even more controlled than he ever has; carefully targeting Osborn's minions, and flinging the guys trying to shoot and stab them into Osborn himself, like little human missiles.

Maybe it's the inking that's given Bruce the control. There's nothing as calming sometimes as sitting down and drawing. It's a unique form of meditation, but it's clearly working for him.

Despite the fact that together the Avengers and Iron Man and Captain America are a formidable fighting force, they're losing. Somehow. Maybe it's the combination of the really tight space, or the fact that they're all protecting Don instead of being able to let loose, or maybe it's that they're all exhausted. These people hold down full time jobs, Steve realizes, cracking two minions at once with his shield, only for two more of them to replace them almost instantly. And they're always all over the city, saving people and stopping supervillains.

They've got to be tired.

And Osborn is as rich as Tony, and has obviously used some of his wealth to fund an almost impossible stream of minions.

They're going to lose.

Unless they somehow managed to get an extra player on their side.

Like a certain Norse god.

"We have to wake Thor, or Thor's power. As soon as we can," Steve shouts to Tony, as soon as he can get close enough.

"Well if you have any bright ideas on how to do it," Tony shouts back, staggering down almost to the ground when four minions dogpile on him — Steve hurls his shield at them while kicking the nearest minion attacking him in the face, and Tony's able to get back onto his feet and slam them with a blast of energy pulses that Steve's been on the receiving end of before and they sting. "We've been trying for the last hour, telling him the truth, but it's not working. I don't know, he doesn't trust us. He thinks we're bad guys, and I think that's what's keeping him back. Fury's theory is we need him to touch the hammer."

"Let me give it a go," Steve says, rolling over the back of one minion, and getting punched in the face for not moving fast enough — he slams the very edge of his shield into the puncher's nose and they go down in a fountain spray of blood.

Tony snorts, the sound coming out cleanly through the modulator, like he hasn't programmed it to hide honest emotional responses. "Go, go, Captain Awesome."

"Ugh," Steve says. "I've read all that stupid comic, you know."

"You mean brilliant comic," Tony says. "We even called the stick thing."

"The what?" Steve pauses in the middle of the battle, and gets punched in the head for it. He turns and smashes out the offending minion.

Tony points at the case at the back of the room, and fights as he explains, "It must have disguised itself. Like Thor hid himself as Don, the hammer's masquerading as a stick. We tried to move it, but... we've got a new theory."

"Yeah?" Steve says, smacking out more minions.

"That Thor's the only one who can pick it up," Tony says.

"Oh," Steve says, like he's winded. Because the plans they've had in place... the things they were willing to risk to stop the Goblin... He was willing to kill Tony Stark to stop it, and it might have all been for nothing. The Goblin might be able to go right up to the hammer with no one to stop him, and still be unable to take it.

His stomach churns from all the what ifs spiralling through his head.

"The Goblin could still channel its power," Tony says. "We don't know for sure. And unless we can get Thor back, I don't know if we can hold all his forces at bay."

Steve looks at him wordlessly, smashing another minion in the face without even looking. Tony's right. They don't know for sure.

"Go," Tony says. "I'll get you next time."

"Not if I get you first, Metal Girl," Steve snarks, and he takes a running leap to dive over several minions at once, before turning and smacking the whole line of them down with his shield. They fall like dominos. It's a little satisfying. "Hey, Hawkeye. Swap places, huh?"

Clint gives him a sour look through his mask. "Why should I?"

"Because you're all out of arrows," Steve says, and smacks the nearest minion in the gut, kicking him to the ground.

Clint swipes at his quiver, realizes Steve is right, and lets out a frustrated growl. "Fine. But if he dies, it's your fault."

"If I die," Don repeats, in a thin, reedy panicked sort of voice. "Seriously, who the hell are you people?"

"We told you," Clint says, angry, "we work with you. We're your friends. All we want you to do is pick up a damn stick. It's not hard."

"Not a chance," Don says, backing up into the wall. "You're the Avengers. You're vigilantes. The news says you're bad guys. You want me to pick up a stick, then it's a bad thing."

"Ugh," Clint howls, and then gets kicked in the side of the head by a minion, and he launches himself on the bad guy, tumbling them both to the ground.

"The news says you're bad too," Don says to Steve.

"The news lied," Steve tries. "All that stuff was computer generated by the Green Goblin, wanting you to distrust me. I'm a good guy."

"Then thank goodness you're here," Don breathes. Could you please assist me on escaping this madness?"

He looks wild-eyed, and Steve really wishes he could.

But lightning and thunder has been coming down from the sky every time Don has gotten upset. And lightning came out of Don's hands.

Were this man just Dr. Don Blake, regular human joe, Steve would help him, no problem.

But he isn't, so Steve can't.

"Do you trust me?" Steve says, tilting his chin.

Don searches Steve's mask-covered face, looking for some sort of deception. "I think so."

"Because I'm going to ask you the same thing," Steve says. "I need you to pick up the stick in that case."

Don's face goes pinched, and his shoulders sag. "You will not help me either." He seems to shrink in on himself, and go small. "I should have known I would die somewhere strange."

"The Avengers aren't bad guys," Steve says. "In fact, I think they're good guys. They've just been forced to hide, in order to be safe. And I think that's what's happened to you, Thor."

Don's eyebrows knot together. "Thor," he repeats, dully. "I don't understand why you all keep calling me that. Thor's a story."

"Look," Steve says, "don't you see it now? You've been working with The Retaliators for five years. Haven't you been reading the stories?"

"Yes, of course." Don shakes his head, and cowers when Steve has to turn and fend off a couple of the minions that the other Avengers couldn't stop.

"And you hadn't noticed that the Retaliators basically just do what the Avengers do," Steve says, patiently.

"Well, yes," Don says. "Everyone knows that. But it's still fictionalised heavily. The storyline of Sore, the North God, sent to Earth in punishment, and his memories were stolen, so he searches for the staff, Murmur, that legend says would restore his lost memories, and his lost powers of..." Don looks down at his hands again, eyebrows furrowing again, and an almost dazed look on his face, that Steve's seen time and time again, every time lightning crashed down from the sky. "But..." Don's head lurches up and he stares at Steve, intently. "That's not possible. That can't be possible."

Steve just nods.

"But the Avengers, these people, they've been working with me — they want me to pick up the stick. They must want something bad — " Don shakes his head, clearly confused. Maybe this is what happens every time he gets so close to the truth.

"Look at me," Steve says. "You know I'm a good guy."

Don nods slowly. "You're Captain America," he says, forthrightly. Steve feels a little bit of validation, that the one news broadcast couldn't erase five years of a good reputation.

"Sometimes people just have to hide," Steve says, and right there, in the middle of the battle, he knows he has to do it. Hiding his identity has been the one part of his order that he's managed to do perfectly, and it's the one order he has left to break. Steve pulls off his mask, and smiles simply at Don. "Sometimes it's what you have to do, in order to do the right thing. It's what you did, Thor. You burned yourself out, and you had to hide to rejuvenate. And now you have to come out into the light." Steve shrugs. "Sometimes we all have to just look and find out who we really are."

Don stares at him, dumbstruck. "Steve Rogers," Don murmurs, like Steve's name is some sort of a spell, and if it is, it works. Because Don crosses over to the case, and lifts the glass away, and he puts his hand out to touch it. He looks at Steve sharply, an awareness starting to come into his eyes. "I'm scared," he admits, the emotion thick on his face.

Steve smiles sadly, and puts a hand on Don's elbow. "I'm always scared too," he admits, and it's true. He is. "But you're strong enough for this. I know you are."

Don nods, and even though the battle is still going on behind them, for a moment, there's nothing but silence between them and around them. Like the stick is emanating it. "The stick even looks a lot like the one in the comics," Don says, somewhat approvingly.

It does, actually, and Steve makes a sound of approval. "Hey," Steve says, "on the off chance this works, you'll do me a favor for me helping you get your memories back one day, right?"

"Sure," Don says, in an almost joking tone, like he thinks this isn't going to work at all, and he's actually been kidnapped by total lunatics. "Gotta be good to have a North god on your side."

Steve shrugs, and pulls a wry face, and he looks back at the stick, because it's pretty hypnotic. He likes the way it bulges at the end. Don's fingers wrap around it and he pulls it up and —


Don actually teeters for a moment, the stick held aloft, like he was expecting it to do something too, and then he sags again, the stick going limp in his hand, and it knocks against the ground twice.

And brilliant light floods the room. Steve stumbles back, covering his face in his hands. He automatically slips his mask back on while he's still unable to see so that his hands will be free for his shield, just in case. Then the light drops, and there is silence in the room.

Complete, awesome silence. All the minions have stopped in unison to stand and stare.

There's quite a hilarious moment, because Hulk's the only one not to get the memo that something epic is going on, and he sends a group of five silent, staring, gobsmacked minions through the air in a quiet, flailing blur.

They don't even make that much sound when they hit the wall with a deafening crack, because there's a solemnity to the whole room now, and even the Green Goblin's crazy cackling has stopped.

Because everyone's staring at Thor.

Steve's spent so long drawing Sore in his Quetzalcoatl-inspired-uniform that the Norse god armor actually throws him for a while, and Thor's brilliantly crimson cloak confuses him.

Thor, however, is not so easily stunned. He steps forward, the stick now a brilliantly-intricate hammer, clenched in his hands. Lightning's already crackling around the stick and dancing through the head, and he looks furious. "All right," Thor says, "which villain requires a taste of my lightning first?"

The Green Goblin utters a high-pitched sound that only serum-enhanced Steve and dogs can hear, and he tries to flee.

Thor beams. "Ah, the universal response to truth and justice of the evil and loathsome," he says, sounding completely too cheerful for what's actually happened to him, and he starts to spin the hammer in his hand.

Steve just watches. It turns out he vaguely underestimated the power of the hammer when he drew the stick's power in the comics.

The Goblin doesn't only fail to flee, the truly slapstick nature of an almost graceful three hundred and sixty degree somersault, followed with faceplant into the wall, is true YouTube gold. Although, hopefully, no one's filming this.

And hopefully, maybe, Fury will give him some time after all of this to go back to the Retaliators and draw the correction. Steve really hates drawing factual inconsistencies the most.

The battle, after that, is short and fantastic, and Steve's quite satisfied — until Thor takes off at the end without even saying goodbye, and Steve stands on the steps to the Maggia's now-wrecked mansion, and stares up into the sky.

Iron Man — Tony — draws up parallel to him, and they both look in the direction that Thor left in.

"Well," Steve says, somewhat awkwardly, "I guess that was kind of an anticlimax in the end." He looks across at Tony, who's still staring upwards. "Congratulations at finding him."

"Hm," Tony says, with an enigmatic grunt. He lowers his head, and looks back to Steve. "Hopefully I'm good at finding people."

Steve tilts his head.

Tony reads the question in it. "I had a friend here. One of your SHIELD guys, actually. I really hope he made it out okay. He's, uh — " Tony shuffles awkwardly, and then he looks back up at the sky.

"Do you need some help looking for him?" Steve asks, rocking on the balls of his feet and trying to be polite.

"I don't know if you'd want to, Cap," Tony says, and takes the mask up, and looks straight at Steve, like he's trying to be brave. "He's, uh, kind of the one I think I have a chance with. In real life. Without the mask."

"Oh," Steve says, and it's half-exhale, half-pain, and it does hurt, because he's a little confused. He's been weirdly convincing himself that somehow Tony might have been talking about Bruce, and Bruce is right over there, with Clint and Natasha, waiting for the police to come before they make their escape. The idea of there being someone else in Tony's life that Steve doesn't know about that isn't him, but is important — it burns. He's crazily jealous, and he's glad he's had years of perfecting a smile he doesn't feel, because it's useful now.

"So, thanks for the offer," Tony says, "But I'll think I'll be good and look for Steve on my own. Until next time, Captain." And instead of the cheeky salute Iron Man normally gives him, Tony holds out his hand. Steve.

Well. Of course it makes sense. Steve doesn't know why he didn't think that immediately.

Maybe because good things rarely happen to him.

Steve's too stunned to do anything but take Tony's hand, the metal of the Iron Man suit cold in Steve's firm grip. "Good luck in finding him," he says, in a somewhat daze. "I'm sure you'll be happy."

"You know him? Steve Rogers?" Tony asks, shaking Steve's hand and letting go. "You think I've got a chance?"

"I know Rogers better than you'd think," Steve says, and it's so hard to hide the smile that wants to split apart his face, because his chest is almost bursting with it. All along, there's only been the two of them. It's kind of incredible, really. "I'm one hundred per cent sure you have more than a chance, Mr. Stark."

Tony smiles, and it's like the sun, and Steve's about to explain exactly why he's so certain when a bolt of lightning crashes down in the distance.

Their faces both fall into something more serious at the same time. The sky is bright blue — had the fight really taken them through the night and into dawn? It must have. It felt like no time at all.

Because I was having fun, Steve realizes. In amongst all the mortal danger. And now that source of fun's probably going to go away.

He can't linger on that depressing thought — because there's only one thing that causes that much lightning in post-Chitauri New York.

"I'll look later," Tony says, jamming his helmet back down. "Want a lift to the lightning?"

Steve tilts his head and considers it. He's so light-headed he think he might be able to fly himself. Tony was talking about him. "Yes, please," Steve says. "But if you grab me in a bridal lift again, I'm going to cut you."

Even with the mask down, Steve can feel Tony's wince.

The mystery of the lightning is solved even before they get there — Agent Hill contacts Steve on his wrist communicator halfway to the source of the lightning to tell them that Thor has reclaimed the Helicarrier for them as a thank you.

Apparently he had been on the helicarrier before, sometime during the Battle of New York, which is slightly less creepy than Steve's first impulse, which was to assume Thor was really all that powerful and just knew the helicarrier was in trouble. Even though Don didn't have Thor's memories, maybe Thor has Don's memories. Maybe the helicarrier had creepy guns capable of blasting the Goblin down from the sky. And Steve's thoughts aren't getting any less creepy.

Steve wonders what it would have been like, being unfrozen a year earlier, getting to meet Thor before meeting Don. He wonders for a second whether he would have still liked him.

He thinks so. Then again, as Steve's not really met anyone he hasn't liked, or at least considered redeemable — discounting the Red Skull — it's probably a moot concept.

Clint, Natasha and Bruce make it there a moment later, and Thor smiles at them all.

"I've spoken to my father," Thor declares, "and it is time for me to finally return home. But it would be churlish for me to leave without thanking you. I heartily thank all of you. Even when you didn't know who I was, you treated me with such kindness. It will not be forgotten."

Thor takes his time to say goodbye to all of them, and maybe Thor has some sort of power, or maybe people are just general wary of parks where lightning crashes down from a clear blue sky, or maybe everyone's been hiding inside since the sky cleared up, because New York's been covered in clouds since the Battle of New York, and now that Thor has his memories back, New York has a chance of freedom too.

Steve watches as Thor pats Tony on the back so hard it hurts through the suit, and something wells up in his throat, because the future's looking good for him too.

And then it's his turn, Tony winking at him as he moves away from Thor, letting Steve in to say a private goodbye.

"Well," Steve says, and extends his hand, "I guess this is goodbye."

Thor reaches out and grips Steve's hand in a powerful grasp, that's strong enough to haul Steve a pace forward. Thor smiles down at Steve with knowing eyes. "It is not goodbye, my friend. I'm an Asgardian. We do not believe in goodbyes."

"What do you believe in?" Steve asks.

"Honor. Strength." Thor beams, and leans in conspiratorially. "And over all, Steve Rogers," he adds, quiet enough for the others not to overhear, "Love." Thor glances pointedly at Tony, chatting amicably to a now regular-sized Bruce, the Iron Man mask flipped up.

Steve follows his gaze, and his face colors under his mask, and Thor smirks like he can see it. Steve doesn't feel too surprised that Thor remembers who he is, even through all the chaos. He feels a weird sense of relief. Here's someone who knows who he is, who he really is, and is still treating him the same.

It's a gift, and Steve's always going to treasure it.

"Your identity is safe with me," Thor says. "But perhaps you should consider revealing it to your shieldmates."

Tony looks over at them, as if sensing their attention, and Thor and Steve look back to each other, raising identical smiles at Tony's exasperated expression.

"Do tell your people, if they should have need of Thor of Asgard, they have but to call me," Thor says. "You and the Avengers have done me a great service. I do not rest well in debt. Beyond all that, I consider you a friend; one call will have me at your assistance."

"Thank you," Steve says. "Although I think it is us who are in your debt. I shudder to know how the Battle of New York would have ended without your sacrifice."

"It was not I who made the greatest sacrifice that day," Thor says, and his eyes glaze over for a moment. Steve's stomach clenches. The files said Selvig was a friend of Thor's. War takes all the best people from us. Thor smiles sadly when he realizes Steve understands his loss.

Sometimes war takes people away, but sometimes — in the trenches — you can find a friend for life. If you both survive. Steve's starting to think Thor counts in this category.

"Goodbyes are not our custom," Thor says. "But for partings..." Thor straightens, lets Steve's hand go, and raises his voice. "For partings we say for now. For it is only a matter of time before we meet again on the battlefield. As enemy or ally. In our case, I suspect ally."

Steve nods. "I hope so."

Thor nods in return, and then looks distracted. His face tightens, and he looks up into the sky. "Of course, All-Father," he says, out of nowhere, and he looks down at Steve, looking saddened. "It is time for me to go."

"Then there's only one thing I can say. For now."

Thor inclines his head. "For now!" He reaches his hammer up to the sky, and holds it high, his gaze fixed firmly on the gathering storm clouds ahead. "Uh," he adds, in a tone which is much more like Don Blake's self-effacing mild-mannered form of speech, "you may wish to take the Avengers and retreat to a safe distance. Mjolnir takes my position as god of thunder entirely too literally sometimes."

"Right. I appreciate the warning," Steve says, hastily, and jogs over to the Avengers. "Apparently we've gotta move or become Asgardian barbecue," he tells them, and they move with him to a safer distance.

The sky blisters apart with lightning, and it's an almost terrible beauty, the way the clouds curl in together, and lightning bolt after lightning bolt crash down around Thor like a Tesla coil gone demented. The sound is immense, like a thousand armies rolling to meet each other in the same small spot, their weapons clashing, and the air fills instantly with the electrical tang that only lightning leaves behind. The wind whips up around them, strong and intense, hurling fallen leaves and dropped litter into a maelstrom whirl around where Thor's standing, Mjolnir stretched out high.

Steve thinks arbitrarily for a moment that the noise and the thunderous clouds and the wind will last forever, but just in that moment they all drop, in the space of a heartbeat, and the silence that's left behind is almost as painful as the sound.

When the clouds and debris clear, the only sign that's left of Thor is an intricate looking carving in the dust.

For a moment, Steve stands there, with the Avengers and Iron Man, and for that moment it feels right. Like this is somewhere he's meant to be. But then the Avengers make their excuses at the sound of people in the distance, and Tony goes with them, and Steve's left alone. Like usual.

But this time...

Maybe it's not permanent.

Steve's kept up in the helicarrier for fourteen hours making a complete report of events, and he even has to explain the kiss, which is all kinds of awkward, while Fury glares at him knowingly.

However, once it's all over, Fury isn't always completely — in modern parlance — a douchebag, so while it's entirely unnecessary, he does let Steve change into civilian clothing and take one of the helicopters and a small crew to Stark Tower to say goodbye. Apparently Hill's definition of "burned to the ground" was melodrama - it's pretty thoroughly gutted for the first fifteen floors, but it's still standing.

It's pretty damn decent of Fury to let him say goodbye, but it's probably pure afterglow at having Thor promise to come if they need him. It's definitely reassuring knowing they have a Norse demi-god at their disposal if they ever need some epic firepower.

Considering the supervillains that keep popping up, Steve is positive they're going to need him one day. He's already looking forward to it. Don was a good friend. The spell — or whatever it was — only hid his appearance. It didn't change his personality.

Steve's not too surprised when the chopper lands on the helipad to see the Avengers — in their civilian artist clothes — amassed outside on the platform. They're all looking worried, Bruce standing off to one side obviously ready to Hulk out if the incoming flight is an enemy, but on seeing Steve slide open the door and hop out, Bruce shoves his hands in his pockets and ambles to join Clint, Natasha and Tony over by the main window.

Pepper's there too, looking quite friendly with the Avengers, which answers the question of whether she knew about them or not. It's not such a surprise now that Steve knows Tony is Iron Man.

"So," Tony calls out, as Steve approaches them, the helicopter's blades spinning behind him, amplifying the dizzy air pressure of being out on Tony's helipad, a freakishly large number of feet up in the air, "SHIELD are actually letting us have you back? Or are you just here to spy on us some more?"

His words are faintly antagonistic, but there's no real heat in them. Steve shrugs at him, because it's not like Tony can pull the you've been keeping secrets from me card. "I came to say goodbye," Steve says, pushing the words out even though he doesn't really want to say it.

The reaction is immediate. Bruce's mouth downturns. Clint's shoulders sag. Natasha's face moves into a different expression — disappointment at Steve. And Tony — His eyes moisten for a moment, and there's a terrible expression on his face for half a second, and then Tony forcibly wipes it away into something more ambivalent.

It's a mask. Maybe just as inscrutable as the Iron Man mask. But Steve knows what lies behind that mask — the metal Iron Man mask and Tony Stark's nothing effects me mask — and it's something worth fighting for.

Goodbyes don't always have to be permanent.

"So you're just going to let us flounder, huh?" Tony says, like it could be any other day and any other time to banter. "Where are we going to find another penciller on such short notice? I don't suppose the temp agency you come from actually exists."

Steve draws up, holding steady a couple of metres in front of the Avengers. Even in their civilian gear, their unity is almost tangible. Even though they're standing right there, Steve feels an ache low in his gut.

He wants to fight with them permanently. He wants to be part of this team so badly. But there are things afoot which mean Captain America still needs to be a sign of good, and the Avengers need to be a sign of bad. There are supervillains to fight and to infiltrate, and this divide is necessary.

It won't be forever, though, and that's the thing that Steve's clinging to.

One day, he'll be an Avenger for real.

This isn't really goodbye. This is just for now.

"I brought you a present, actually," Steve says, and gestures at the helicopter. The Avengers look around him to see Coulson hopping out of the helicopter, his left arm in a sling. "Turns out Captain America," Steve smiles wryly, "did break his arm in the end, but he's a right-handed artist, so you can have him back."

"You're still better," Clint mutters, side-eyeing Steve.

"Closest you're gonna get for now," Steve says, and throws Clint a small object.

Clint looks down at the Katniss Everdeen figure he automatically caught without thinking about it, and actually tears up. Natasha pats him on the back comfortingly.

"For now," Tony repeats, and his voice is strong enough even with the wind to let them all hear the touch of reverence to it. It's not just an important Asgardian greeting. For now is just as important to Tony as it is to Steve.

Steve's stomach feels like it's full of bubbles. This is important. They're important. They're something worth waiting for, he's pretty sure. But waiting without anything to hope for is empty, and too dangerous. They've gone too far for silence. He takes in a breath as Coulson ambles towards them, ready to say something, and Tony interrupts.

"We figured after the Thor thing you wouldn't be allowed to come back," Tony says. He doesn't bother to hide the sadness crossing his expression at the words, and Steve looks back at him, trying to be just as honest. Trying to let Tony know just how much of a sting it will be to leave them.

It's only been a couple of weeks, but it's been five lonely years since being found in the ice, and the Avengers are the closest thing he's felt to family since waking up in this decade.

For now, he tells himself again.

"You do need a SHIELD presence here," Steve says. "Unofficial or not. And who knows? Coulson might break his right arm for real?"

"I could break it right now," Natasha mutters under her breath, just in time for Coulson to approach and wave sheepishly at them. She smiles toothily at him. "Welcome back, Phil."

"Or is it Agent," Tony chimes in. "His first name is probably Agent."

"I've considered changing it to that," Coulson says.

"Really?" Tony says, surprised.

"No," Coulson says, flatly.

Tony wrinkles his nose. "It's good you're back. We have a new character for you to design."

"Yeah?" Coulson moves forwards to take the notepad Tony's waving around, and he looks down at it.

"Yeah," Tony says, and his gaze locks with Steve's. "Roger Stevenson. He's a civilian that turns up to work in the Retaliators' office, and at first they're wary of the muggle, but then he ends up being a really well liked member of the team. Until there's an incident and the Retaliators discover he's secretly working for the government agency SWORD."

"Wait," Steve says, "you're making me a character?" He can't help the delight seeping through his voice, even though he's technically already a character in the book as Captain Awesome; it's the same delight he feels whenever anyone speaks to Steve as opposed to speaking to Captain America. Sure, he's technically both of them — but only one of them is really 100% him. "That's really awesome."

"Well," Tony says, rocking on his heels, and throwing the notepad over to Coulson, who clumsily catches it, "maybe he can be a recurring character." He looks up at Steve with pure hope on his face, and Steve smiles shyly, because that's what he wanted to know: that Tony was still interested in him, despite knowing that he works for SHIELD.

"I think he will be," Steve says, simply, and the hope on Tony's face blossoms into a smile. He jerks a thumb back at the helicopter. "But right now I do have to go."

Tony's face slackens a little, but he nods and doesn't move to stop him. Even though from this height, if Tony pushed for him not to leave and Steve resisted, Iron Man could potentially land a lucky blow and cause him some damage. "I guess Fury's got you on a timetable."

Steve nods, and glances across at the Avengers. "It was great working with you."

"You, too," Bruce says, and Clint and Natasha nod, looking a little subdued. There's a lot of things in their line of work which are unavoidable, and goodbyes are one of them.

And even though this is a for now, it is still a goodbye, however temporary a goodbye Steve wants it to be.

If he's saying goodbye, there's one person here who deserves it more than anyone else. Steve turns to give Tony his full attention. It doesn't take much effort. It probably never will.

"Y'know," Steve says, "you should call me."

Natasha cheers a little in the distance. They all give her matching, weird looks. She shrugs unrepentantly.

"I don't have your number," Tony says, automatically.

"I don't know," Steve says, "I'm on fire should work pretty well."

His gaze locks with Tony's and holds steady. Tony frowns, and mouths the words, like he should know where they're from, but he can't place them.

"I'm really honored to become a character in the Retaliators," Steve says, when it's clear Tony needs a little more of a clue. "The fans are going to love the SWORD twist. But there's one plot twist you might want to think about adding," Steve says, stepping closer to Tony.

In the periphery of his vision, he can see Natasha's grin, approving this development. Despite the fact they're not alone, Steve reaches out and reels Tony in with one hand around his left hip.

"Oh, yeah?" Tony practically purrs, looking Steve up and down and letting Steve pull him in closer. "What would that plot twist be?"

Steve pauses and tilts his head like he's thinking about it, and then he looks down at Tony seriously, takes his right hand and places it firmly over Tony's eyes before leaning in and kissing Tony, deep and thorough. A claiming kiss. A memorable kiss.

A kiss Tony should both remember... and recognize.

He feels it the instant Tony does. Tony makes a pleased sound in the back of his throat, that might sound embarrassing if the wind and Steve's mouth weren't muffling it, and the kiss curls into something even more desperate.

Steve pulls back, even though he's light-headed and starting to think he could consider kissing Tony Stark as a worthy and admirable career move, and he darts in for one last brief kiss, humming in pleasure.

Tony stares back, eyes wide. "Pina Coladas."

"And walks in the rain."

"We're a goddamn Rupert Holmes song," Tony says, but he doesn't sound mad. He looks stunned, but in a happy way.

"Not really," Steve says, feeling a little giddy. "We haven't been dating for a long time. Nor is either of us a woman. And we didn't find each other via the personal ads — "

"Semantics," Tony breathes, and kisses him again.

Steve kisses back, but he can't stay forever — Agent Hill already gave him his next assignment on the flight there. He can't help the smirk as he forces himself to back off, and he strides off towards the helicopter, ignoring the Avengers and their mixed, curious looks.

"I'll get you next time, Metal Girl," Steve calls, without looking back. He can't help the grin as he can hear Natasha's sharp inhale, Bruce's huh, Clint's muttered son of a bitch, and Tony's pure shout of laughter.

"Not if I get you first, Awesome," Tony yells back, a giddy laugh of delight in his tone.

Steve pivots on his heel, throws his best Captain America salute at them and a genuine grin of delight, before hopping onto the helicopter and instructing the pilot to fly to his next destination: some supervillain lair that needs clearing out.

It all washes over Steve's head, and by the time he's changed back into his Captain America uniform, he's still grinning in a probably creepy way.

Steve could care less. It's the first goodbye of his life that hasn't hurt.

Maybe that's because it's not really a goodbye.

It's just for now.

And when for now is over...

Well, Tony Stark's a hell of a kisser, a heaven of a guy, and Steve knows one thing for certain. The ramifications of the Battle of New York might be over. This whole fiasco of losing Thor and finding him again is now at an end. That chapter of his life is done.

But for Tony and him, for Iron Man and Captain America, and for a love that surpasses identity and crazy post-it notes and saving the world...

It isn't the end.

It's just the beginning.