The Lost art of Laying Paving Stones

For their first date, a hazy, temperate Saturday in early summer, Steve packs a wicker basket with homemade roast beef sandwiches and holds Tony's hand all the way to Central Park. They get half an hour of sprawling together on a blanket in the grass while Tony convinces a forlorn Steve that he really can not feed the ducks before overripe clouds drift sleepily over the sun and start flooding the air with plump, gentle raindrops. They wind up running back to the tower through the concrete-warm puddles, giggling like idiots and trading covert sips from the bottle of red wine that was Tony's contribution to the picnic. Once they're home and in dry clothes Tony cranks up the air-conditioning and Steve makes hot chocolate and they curl up on the sofa to watch all three Men in Black films. It's one of the best days of Tony's life, not that he's ever going to admit it.

Three days later when Pepper has finally returned from Germany Tony sits her and Steve down with a really expensive chocolate cake and an even more expensive bottle of brandy and they have the polyamory talk. It goes significantly better than Tony had hoped. Steve is confused and uncertain but Pepper gives him book recommendations and reassuring hand-squeezes and Tony promises him that everybody's equal and happy and Steve smiles one of those big earnest Captain America smiles at him and tells them that as long as they're happy he's happy. Tony's mentally making gagging noises because he's kind of an incurable asshole, but he's got enough sense to smile back at Steve and offer appropriately mushy sentiments in return- or at least as close as he ever gets. Pepper pats his head when Steve leaves and Tony lunges up, teeth snapping playfully at her fingers.

"Fuck you, ok? Not one word or you're sleeping on the couch."

She chuckles. "I think he's good for you. It's adorable."

"I am not drunk enough for that, stop it."

"No, I'm serious." Pepper kneels down so their eye level and clasps Tony's hands. "It makes me feel better, knowing there's someone else to take care of you when I can't be here."

"I don't need taking care of."

"You know what I mean."

Tony slumps, dropping his head forward to rest their foreheads together. "I suppose."

Pepper squeezes his hands, meeting his gaze earnestly. They stay there a moment, breathing each other's air, just being. "Tony," Pepper says softly. "Have you made absolutely sure Steve and Howard never slept together?"

Tony throws himself backwards, swearing creatively and clawing at his skull, feet lashing out in a flailing attempt to kick Pepper in the face. Cackling, Pepper falls backwards to avoid him, arms stretched out above her head, smirking up at Tony, hair loose and spilling out onto the rich carpet.

Tony shakes his head back and forth. "No. No, no, you are a terrible person. No one has ever liked you. Stop that. Stop your face. You are not distracting me with sex. I am scarred by this. You are paying for my therapy."

Tony holds out for a good ten minutes. He's pretty proud of himself.

The next morning Tony slides into the kitchen on socked feet, swearing under his breath and trying to tie his tie with one hand and dab on cologne with the other. Pepper is chasing him, waving her Starkphone around and uttering a steady string of perfectly calm threats on Tony's life if he's not out the door in the next two minutes.

"Hey Tony," Steve says from over his newspaper. He's obviously just arrived from his morning run, all damp and flushed and windswept, and is eating a giant bowl of oatmeal and gulping an equally big glass of milk. Tony wants to lick his neck, right where a drop of sweat is caught in the hollow of his clavicles.

"Morning."

"Don't forget we've got team-building exercises after lunch," he says. Tony blinks.

"Yeah, sorry, really can't. And I mean that. Ask Pepper. I'm booked solid this week. It is unusual and disgusting."

Steve sighs. "Tony, this is important."

He dumps the rest of the coffeepot into his travel mug. "So is running a company, honey."

"I thought that was Pepper's job?" Clint snarks from his perch on the countertop, because Tony's apparently running the continental breakfast buffet for bored super heroes now, what the fuck?

"Mmhm," Tony caps his coffee and checks his own phone. "That was the impression I was under as well, but funnily enough it doesn't actually work that way. Bruce, Pittsburgh, yes or no?"

"Yes, with rights," Bruce replies. "You got a delivery last night, by the way. And if you don't open it I will - and then I will steal it. I feel I need to be honest here."

"What are your conditions," Pepper demands, attention snapping from Tony to Bruce. Tony takes the opportunity to flutter his eyelashes at Steve in apology. Steve frowns back. It's his disappointed face. Fucker.

"I really wish you would have told us about this sooner," Steve says, gently reproving. "We could've rescheduled."

"I can't fly in on Thursday. I have a thing," Bruce says absently.

Pepper glares. "What is your thing? I will have it rescheduled. You are not getting out of the reception."

"Sorry, Cap," Tony says, popping the 'p'. "Take it up with Pepper. We all know I can't be trusted to schedule my own life."

"I'm not," Bruce says evenly, "going to sit through a keynote by a guy who's fifteen years out of date and too arrogant to retire gracefully."

"Not your PA, Tony," Pepper sing-songs.

"Who even let you watch Sherlock? That wasn't even clever the first time you said it. It does not get better with age."

"You're an adult, Tony," Steve says, and he's still rocking the 'not-angry-just-disappointed' eyes, which generally only leave Tony wanting to be less sober. "You need to take responsibility for your own actions."

"So you're just going to stick me in a room full of the most intelligent scientists in North America and trust that-"

"Do *not* even try to pull the Hulk card, just because certain people still think you'll turn green if you stub your toe. It does not mean that I'm going to let you use it as an excuse."

"I'm still really sorry about that," Steve mutters. Tony inches backwards toward the door. It's probably not subtle. Tony doesn't care. Steve leans forward, holding out a hand. "I don't want to be this guy, Tony."

"Then don't," Tony says cheerfully.

"No, no, I swear to you I have prior plans for Thursday. I will go Friday morning and spend the entire weekend there and not complain once." Bruce crosses his heart still holding his spoon and almost smears yogurt all over the front of his shirt.

"You made me promise that if we started seeing each other I wouldn't treat you any differently in the field, and that goes both ways. I'm not going to let you get out of training exercises." Steve pulls back his hand so he can cross his arms.

"Whoa, whoa, last time I checked we were talking about corporate bonding shit- would you like to see my office supplies tower? Because it was really great and Pepper has pictures-"

"There was a cannon. Tony is banned from corporate retreats from now on."

Tony waves a hand. "No one said we *couldn't* make it weaponized - and you laughed. I saw you. I remember these things."

Pepper snorts. "I spent that entire weekend drunk, I am glad one of us remembers."

"Noon, Tony. I will set Fury on you. Don't think I won't."

Tony shakes his head. "I can take Fury. Look, I promise I'll keep track of the next pep rally, Cap, but today's out."

"I'm putting it in my phone right now," Bruce says. "Friday through Monday and I'll even present the stardust cancer paper."

"Oh hey, did Foster give you first author on that?" Tony glances up from his phone where he's trying to pull up pictures of the cannon.

"No, but if I say I'm presenting it she'll come do it with me and then I'll have someone to hide behind all weekend."

"I'm sorry, stardust cancer paper?" Steve asks, distracted.

"It's- it was a really long night. It'll have a proper title by the time we present."

"I am not paying for Jane Foster to fly to Pittsburgh so you can avoid making friends," Pepper says sternly.

Bruce positively beams. "She's working for SHIELD as of a week and a half ago, actually. They can pay her way. Advancing the world of military scientific research is oh so important, after all. Your tax dollars at work."

Pepper coughs. "Because your research was oh so privately funded."

"I rest my case."

Tony notices a flicker of movement in the mirrored surface of the espresso maker. "Agent Romanov. Good morning."

"Stark." Natasha strolls into the kitchen, sleek dark sunglasses shoved up into her shiny red hair, tiny leather flats padding silent against the tile. She smells like sunscreen.

"God, what does SHIELD do, kick you out at six AM? Steve I understand, his apartment is on the verge of collapse- and I mean that quite literally. Jarvis and I played building-code-violation bingo. It was a good time. But you and Legolas over there? Given how much you despise my companionship you're sure here a lot. Does this look like a hotel to you?"

Pepper clears her throat. She's seen the blueprints and is a horrible traitor.

"Hi, Natasha," Bruce says mildly. Pepper's smile goes shark-like and delighted. Natasha glances between them coolly. If she were any other person, Tony thinks, she'd be running in the other direction as fast as her legs could carry her.

"Morning, Cap," she says to Steve, who smiles back happily and kicks out a chair.

"Hey, Natasha. There's bacon in the pan still, if you're interested."

The chair he's put out is right next to Bruce's. Pepper casually rests a hand on the back of it, still smiling. Bruce sets aside his paper and turns his body very slightly towards the chair. Natasha's gaze flickers around the kitchen a little frantically. Tony... should probably feel bad, but it's really not his fault that he happens to be very close with the two people who can actually unsettle the woman who stabbed him in the neck.

There's a long, tense moment where no one moves, and then Natasha spins on her heel and stalks away, vanishing into the depths of the tower to lurk and give Tony nightmares. Steve looks confused. Bruce and Pepper keep on with their conversation about Pittsburgh, far too mature to acknowledge their victory in round eight-thousand of the 'unnerve Natasha game'. Clint shoves past Tony to put his bowl in the sink, shoulder checking him harder than can be accounted for by an accident. Tony finishes the email he's been typing out with his unoccupied hand and turns away from Steve and his disapproval and texts Happy to bring the car around.

He shows up for the fucking teamwork exercises. It gains him a brilliant smile from Steve. It loses him a contract with a software company in France. The tradeoff seems acceptable for about six hours.

On the grand list of projects involve in the rebuilding of New York having new letters built and installed for the tower is a pretty low priority, but the afternoon the workmen arrive to do the job Tony is right there with a celebratory bottle of champagne. He stands across the street where he can see everything and pops the cork as the last workman disappears from the side of the building. Steve comes around the corner in a baseball cap and jeans that fit his ass fantastically. He's carrying shopping bags that stretch and bulge in the awkward way that screams art-supplies binge. Tony grins and waves.

"Hey! Cap! Get over here and bask in my presence. I'm thinking of having a block party. You know, boost morale and shit all under the freshly remodelled personification of my determination and phoenix-like ability to come back from any sort of catastrophe. I am a shining beacon of hope. Literally, look up."

Steve steps in beside him and obediently looks up. "Oh. You... put your name back up."

Tony frowns, because he doesn't sound nearly as excited as he should. He's not even mocking Tony's purposely pretentious monologue. "Hey, you ok?"

Steve nods quickly. "Yeah, no, I'm fine. That's great, Tony. I guess it must feel nice to have everything back to how it was before."

The sun beats mercilessly down on Tony's back through his suit jacket and the heat and the bubbly drunk of the champagne leave him light-headed. He elbows Steve gently. "Not everything, Cap. I seem to remember a distinct lack of adorable blond super-soldiers in my bed before."

Steve blushes and ducks his head. Mission accomplished. "I guess that might be a good difference."

Tony loops an arm around his waist and it is absolutely not for balance. "I'm definitely taking it under consideration." He offers Steve a sip of champagne, which he declines. "Fury wanted me to leave the A up there on its own, did I tell you that? A for Avengers, get it? Because clearly I want to make my billion dollar investment and clean energy demonstration into a giant advertisement for a band of "super heroes" organized by a shady government agency and lacking entirely in media relations training, Christ."

Steve shifts from one foot to the other, and Tony glances at him, incredulous. "Wait. Don't tell me you think that would've been a good plan?"

"I- it would have been nice, honestly. A symbol to the public that we're, you know, watching over them. And you have to admit, it would be nice to have a home base that's not the helicarrier."

Tony still has the blueprints, la la la la. "Look, Steve. I'm sure it would have been a charming gesture, but I've got thousands of civilians in that tower every day. And quite a few businesses. There're licensing issues - not to mention the city requirements for signage and public advertising. It's ok if it's an eccentric billionaire's name. It might be a little different if it was a para-military response team partly responsible for the destruction of the city."

"We saved the city!" Steve snaps.

"Come on, Steve. You've seen the news. Stick a bunch of obviously government sanctioned white guys with dangerous weapons in front of everybody and you're gonna get accused of something. Just our luck that for once we weren't guilty."

"That doesn't seem right," Steve says sadly.

Tony snorts. "No no no, it is very right, don't worry. This isn't a matter of innocent until proven guilty, Steve. This is a matter of power and who had it and what they tend to do with it when unchecked."

Tony's pretty proud of the 'welcome to the world of critical thinking, you can never leave' lecture that follows. It takes him all the way through the entire bottle of champagne and back up into the penthouse for a couple glasses of scotch. Which is why it's really goddamn inconvenient when Steve shows up a week later in Tony's office to kidnap him for a hotdog and Tony's in the middle of a vicious argument with Richard Macclari, senior partner in one of the larger law firms downtown and Tony's banter partner at boring parties for the last eight years. The argument itself is, kind of, maybe, a little bit about tax evasion. More specifically, the best way to engage in it, with a few jabs about their respective taste in women and ruby port. Tony can't help it, ok? Mac brings out the privileged asshole in him.

Steve stands awkwardly in the corner, trying to blend in with the potted plant. Finally Mac's phone vibrates on the desk, and he glances down at it.

"That's my next client. Can't stand around chit-chatting with you all day. Let me know when you inevitably need my services, Stark." As soon as his hands stop moving he's got the phone in hand, texting rapidly.

"Mmm, hit a hole-in-one for me," Tony replies. Mac flips him off cheerfully and heads out. His ASL interpreter is a skinny kid with floppy dark hair who lingers briefly to stare intently at Steve. Tony rolls his eyes. "Yes, he's who you think he is. Now shoo."

The kid scampers away, and Tony swivels his chair to look up at Steve. "So. Hot dogs?"

It takes until they're sitting on a bench, licking mustard off their fingers before Steve brings it up. "Tony. What you said last week, about people who have power and what they do with it—"

"Tony holds up a hand. "Look, Steve. I'm having a good day. I don't want to fight. Think big picture. SI donates more money to social programmes than almost any other Fortune 500 out there. We're spending millions on the rebuilding project. I like being able to choose where my money goes and when it goes there. That seems perfectly reasonable to me."

Steve shakes his head. "It souds illegal. Taxes are there for a reason, and I think I trust the government to know where the money is needed more than I trust one person, no offence."

"That's because you're possessed of a charming naiveté that makes you the perfect poster boy for apple pies and SHIELD," Tony says, amused.

"It's still wrong," Steve insists.

Tony shakes his head. "No. Killing people is wrong. Developing weapons and not keeping track of them is wrong. And guess what? We don't do that anymore. We don't kill people. We've got literally the best benefits, medical coverage, and non-discriminatory hiring practices in the country. Honestly, I've checked. All that being said, it's a public company, run by "Howard's kid and his secretary". I shut down the weapons divisions and our stocks crashed. It gets buried under my reasons for the shut down, but that was one of the worst business moves the corporate world has seen in a long while. Making Pepper CEO hit pretty hard, too, though she got things back up inhumanly quickly because she's magic. I'm young, Steve, at least in comparison to most of my peers. And Pepper didn't just break the glass ceiling, she through a nuclear bomb at it." (Tony can say the words nuclear bomb now without a panic attack, he's very proud) "It's cyclical and unfair and a self-perpetuating mess of unfairness breeding unfairness, but at the end of the day we're out to turn a profit, and sacrifices have to be made."

Steve purses his lips. "And Pepper is ok with this? I mean, she's experienced the discrimination, she can't want to- you know, be involved in the... sort of culture that doesn't want her there?" Steve throws up his hands, obviously not sure how to articulate what he wants to say.

Tony taps his fingers against his leg. SI has set up over a hundred scholarships for young women. "We run national science camps for little girls. We have a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment and I already mentioned the non-discriminatory hiring. But at the same time, Pep's got to play ball with the old boys' club every day. She can't afford to be typecast as 'The Woman', absolutely cannot be seen as soft-hearted or too liberal."

"That doesn't seem right," Steve says simply. "I hoped that the world would be beyond that sort of thing by now. Peggy- She was such an inspiration because she had just as much respect as any of the fellas. She didn't change to make us respect her, she changed us."

And ok, Tony has opinions about this that he hasn't really wanted to express for fear of hurting Steve. "And now the thing she's most known for is being Captain America's girlfriend. And seriously? My dad had some recordings from the war, mostly tests of your shield - actually, remind me to show you. But I saw the training in the background and I think it's pretty telling that Peggy's favourite insult for her men was to call them "girls"."

Steve presses his lips together. "It's not Peggy's fault, or my fault, the fact that people are more interested in who someone was stepping out with than what they've done with their life."

"Ok, ok, that was a stupid thing to bring up. I'm sorry Steve. I know you miss her."

"That doesn't have anything to do with anything."

Tony slumps and tosses his crumpled hotdog paper into the trash can at the end of the bench. "You should be talking to Pepper about this. I don't know what to tell you. I should set you up with a blog. If the internet realized you're not a right wing nationalist mindlessly devoted to the military industrial complex I bet our popularity would soar."

"I was a starving artist," Steve chuckles half-heartedly. "And like you said, Captain America came out of a bottle. I'm no example for pulling yourself up by your bootstraps."

Tony winces. "You know I didn't mean that, right?"

Steve shrugs. "You meant it at the time."

"When we were being influenced by the glowy staff of rage, sure." Steve doesn't look convinced. Tony breathes in, stares up at the slowly encroaching clouds. "And when all I saw when I looked at you was the guy who my dad cared about more than he ever cared about me. The guy who accused me of being a coward -not untrue, mind you, but no one wants to hear it- and the guy who was treating Bruce like he was a paper cut away from killing everyone." (…)

"God, Tony," Steve takes his hand between both of his. "You're one of the bravest men I know."

Tony squirms. "Cliché alert, cliché alert."

Steve shakes his head, but his smile seems more genuine. "The thing with Bruce really bothered you that much?"

Tony groans. "That wasn't an invitation to talk about feelings, Rogers." He pauses.

Steve remains silent.

"Yes, ok, fine, it really did. I don't really have a lot of friends, in case you haven't noticed. And also filed under 'stunningly obvious facts' I kind of over-identified with Bruce in a lot of ways. Don't get me wrong, you and Clint and Nat and Thor are all great, but Bruce and I- I've never really clicked with somebody like that right off the bat before. I was kind of experiencing insta-best-friend syndrome thirty years late."

Steve squeezes Tony's hand. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize."

Tony snorts. "Not a big deal, Cap. And I really mean it. Forgotten. Done. Come on, let's go do something. I feel like playing hooky."

Steve frowns. "Isn't this the first time you've been in the office this week?"

Tony waves a hand. "Details, details. I telecommute from home. Any paperwork I have on my desk can just as easily be done from bed."

Steve's cheeks pink faintly and he licks his lips. Tony grins.

The next morning, Tony has an idea for an engine. It's a fucking genius idea and it's going to be really, really great as soon as he can actually conceptualize it. Whatever, it's still going to be great. He'll work on the details once he's built it. He locks himself in his workshop after sending off the initial sketches to Pepper. It takes thirty-six hours before he figures out that the fuel that would be needed to run the engine without it exploding doesn't exist yet. He emails Bruce, and naps for four hours on the cot in the back of the workshop. He wakes up to the email alert on his personal account. Bruce needs twenty hours. Tony twitches and paces and drinks more coffee and answers most of his work email and exactly an hour has gone by, so he starts fiddling with the armour because it's his default make-work project. He cleans everything, and then he adds in a AM/FM radio, and then he eats a nutrition bar, and then he gets distracted by one of the rejected concepts for the helicarier and wow, he must have been having a stupid day when he discarded this, because the flaw is right there in neon, glaring up at him.

"Tony?" Someone touches his shoulder. Tony jerks up, blinking. Lines of math swim across his eyeballs and he's overcome with dizziness from remaining hunched over for so long. Bruce is standing behind him, carrying a small metal container.

"Ok, ok, yes, hello."

Bruce grins affectionately. "I've got your fuel."

"You, Dr. Banner, are a genius. Come on." Tony leads Bruce over to where the bots have finished assembling the prototype engine. It's fast work, but the lining of the combustion chamber is expensive as fuck and rare, and Tony isn't willing to wait months to get enough to make a mini replica. If this works the (then) SI can start working on obtaining a contract with some of the companies that refine it, but for the moment Tony's pretty happy to use his one sample on this project. Bruce makes appropriately impressed noises, but he's not an engineer, and when Tony starts waxing lyrical about the type of coating on the wires he starts inching backwards.

"Ok, fine," Tony mock-pouts. "I see how it is. Go on. Get out of here. Go eradiate bugs or whatever it is you do up there." He knows exactly what Bruce is working on, of course, because any R and D projects need to be fully documented in the online database to which Tony has complete access, but he prefers to imagine Bruce keeping glass cages full of giant wasps and ants. It makes his daydream where the two of them become super-villains and take over the world a lot more exciting.

"Sir," Jarvis says once Bruce has left. "Shall I set an alarm for the point in the experiment when additional fuel must be added?"

Tony shrugs. "Sure, go ahead."

He adds two thirds of the liquid from Bruce's container. "Jarvis, reference Bruce's file on this stuff in my notes."

"Already done, Sir."

Tony sets aside the container, screws the cap back onto the hastily thrown together tank attached to the main body of the engine, and steps back a safe distance. "Ok, Jarvis, begin trial run, 1.0 with the new fuel and inner combustion lining. Trial 3.6 on the overall project, mark."

There's a clicking at first, like a car cooling down after a long drive. And then the engine hums almost silently into life. Nothing explodes. Tony high fives himself. "God, I love being me."

He's got at least three hours before he needs to add the rest of the fuel, so he wanders back over to the helicarrier project with a fresh cup of coffee. His eyes are gritty and his hands shake a bit, but he's gleeful enough to ignore any physical discomfort. He's about an hour in to the test, poking at the newest snag in the cloaking technology, when Steve comes in.

"Hey, Tony," he says, strolling over to stand behind him. "What're you working on?"

Tony doesn't trust him one little bit. "Busy, Steve. Busy and keeping properly hydrated and nutritionated and everything, bye."

"Jarvis says you haven't eaten in a day, Tony."

"Traitor!" Tony yells at the ceiling. He reaches over for his coffee cup, but Steve moves it out of his reach.

"When was the last time you slept?"

"Recently," Tony says hurriedly. "I slept on the cot, ok? I'm totally fine."

Steve's frown is reflected in the metal surface of the work table. "You need to sleep, Tony. And eat something."

Tony sighs. "Don't you get sick of this song and dance, Cap?"

"Not if it means taking care of you."

"Look, ok, I'll eat. I've got stuff in the mini-fridge. I will absolutely eat it. But I can't sleep yet, doing a thing, a very important thing- hey, hey, what are you doing?"

Steve tosses Tony over his shoulder and heads toward the door. Tony isn't even tempted to smack his ass, which is right there. That probably says something. "You need to get out of here for a little while. It's not healthy. I'm worried about you. At least come up to the kitchen to eat something."

Tony glares darkly, but Steve can't see his face. "Fine. I'll eat, but then I need to come right back down here, ok? It's really important. Don't let me fall asleep or get distracted."

"Sure, Tony."

Steve leaves him on the sofa while he reheats leftovers, and Tony updates his twitter to keep himself awake while he waits. The food is... really good. Fine. Steve sits beside him and wraps an arm around him and Tony tries to explain twitter between bites of food. When he's done, Steve tells Tony he'll be right back, he's just going to clean up the dishes. He walks away with Tony's phone, still poking confusedly at the account Tony's set up for him, leaving Tony with no form of distraction. He goes to stretch across the sofa to reach the tablet on the end table, and once he's flopped out on the cushions it's really hard to get back up again. He's not going to fall asleep, he's just-

"Good morning, Sleeping Beauty."

Tony jerks awake, confused and uncomfortable. Jesus fuck, his back hurts. Clint is perched on the back of the sofa, knees drawn up staring right down at Tony like it's not the creepiest damn thing Tony's woken up to in a long time.

"The fuck, Barton?"

"Oh hey, you're alive. I was starting to wonder. You've been asleep for like, twelve hours. You even slept through Steve's introduction to the Power Rangers."

Tony throws himself off the sofa, his stomach already churning. "Motherfucker! Jarvis!"

"I tried to wake you, Sir," Jarvis says immediately.

"Fuck fuck fuck fuck fucker!" Tony ignores Clint's utterly baffled expression and bolts to the elevator. The descent to the workshop seems to last forever, but as soon as he sees his workshop he wishes it had taken longer. The engine is in pieces, the walls and floor around it scorched black. The remaining fuel is tipped on to the floor, the container lying sadly against a table leg. Dummy wheels over and bumps against Tony's shins. Tony drops an absent hand to pat his chassis and finds it slick and damp.

"Oh geez, did you try to refill the engine, buddy?" Tony leans down a bit. Dummy's arm waggles a little. Tony lets himself slump down to sit on the floor, dropping his head into his hands. "Hey, good try, kid. Fuck."

Tony scraps the entire project. He can't really justify the expense of trying again, and he's self-aware enough to recognize that he'll have lost interest by the time the months required to receive more of the material for the lining have passed. He calmly explains the situation to Steve that night, and then refuses to speak to him for the next two weeks because mature people also trust their boyfriends to know their own limits.

The Friday after Steve finally admits that he was wrong and he and Tony have a romantic dinner by candlelight followed by awesome kinky make-up sex, Bruce leaves for Pittsburgh. This in itself is not particularly noteworthy, but it does mean that when they get called in for a pre-mission briefing at SHIELD and Coulson's handing out the information packets Bruce isn't there to automatically grab an extra one and set it down on the table in front of Tony. It's not a thing they've ever talked about nor really of enough import to draw anyone else's attention. But Steve sighs impatiently when Tony twitches away from Coulson's outstretched hand and its intrusive stack of folders.

"Come on, Tony," Steve says irritably. Tony carefully reaches out and sort of tips a folder out on the table with his fingertips. The meeting continues. Without Bruce there to pass notes or have side conversations with or even exchange glances Tony finds himself struggling to keep focused on what Coulson is saying. The mission has something to do with Hydra, which reminds Tony that he'd been meaning to design Steve a GPS chip for his shield because one of these days some villain is going to think it's a barrel of laughs to steal the thing and that is one temper tantrum that Tony would prefer to avoid if at all possible. He's also trying to figure out just how long this whole thing is likely to take because Rhodey's in New York Saturday night until Monday afternoon and Tony fully intends to monopolize any time that he's not spending in meetings. He's going to be very upset if Hydra fucks up his plans.

"Stark!" Coulson snaps, and Tony's head whips around.

"What? Yes, hi, good. Sure."

"You're not even listening, are you?" Steve asks, and he's clearly frustrated now.

"I am totally 100% listening," Tony lies. He's recording the whole meeting on his phone and Jarvis can let him know any pertinent details he's missed.

"Lives are at stake here," Steve says. "Can you please take this seriously?"

Tony crosses his heart. "Sorry, Cap. I promise to put my listening cap on from here on in."

This promise lasts about five minutes. Coulson tries to project an image of the Hydra weapon on the big screen and has to fiddle with some cables before he gets it working, which he really shouldn't have to do if that's Stark Media tech, and if it isn't then why the fuck not? SHIELD is one of their biggest contracts, there needs to be some goddamn customer loyalty. He's pulled out his phone and is texting Pepper before he really thinks about it, and doesn't look up until he realizes that the entire room has gone utterly silent.

"Oh good, are we done?" he asks absently, hitting send and relocking the screen.

"You could at least pretend you're trying to pay attention," Steve says coldly. "I'm real sorry we're not as interesting as the latest online gossip, Tony, but this is kind of important."

Tony slumps a bit. "I've got Jarvis taking notes. I'm not going to go in uninformed, Steve."

"Because why do something yourself when technology can do it for you, right?" Clint snipes. Steve nods along. Natasha and Coulson look like they'd like to strangle everyone and do the mission on their own. Come to think of it, that'd probably work out better for everyone. Tony glances over to Thor expecting the same frustration or perhaps his frequent 'Midgard is baffling' expression, but he looks surprisingly thoughtful, and he catches Tony's gaze when he notices, offering an encouraging smile. Weird.

The briefing moves on; Tony tries to pay attention and fails, unsurprisingly. They're going to wait until the next shipment of weapons arrives at the Hydra base to sneak in and attack, which means they've got until the following Wednesday to prepare. Tony gets out of there fast enough that Steve doesn't get a chance to try and have a conversation. He locks himself up in the penthouse and spends the rest of the day drinking steadily and texting Bruce and Pepper and trying to forget the disappointment on Steve face. Steve calls at one point but Tony doesn't answer. They've had the painfully awkward conversation about Steve's alcoholic bastard of a father- and there's one emotional landmine with which Tony can empathize no problem. He's not going to subject Steve to a serious argument after Tony's well on his way to blacking out.

The next morning is a different story. Tony stumbles out of bed around noon and walks right past the six feet of blond super-soldier loitering shyly in his kitchen to get to the coffeepot, completely oblivious. He's usually pretty careful about matching his alcohol and water consumption to avoid hangovers because high-functioning is a label he takes very seriously, but when he's got caffeine in hand and turns to notice Steve his stomach lurches uncomfortably. He's wearing soft grey jeans and a t-shirt with an artsy, out of focus impression of the American flag across the chest under a plain black cardigan that is probably meant to be over-sized but just winds up highlighting all his stupid shoulder muscles. His hands are shoved deep in his pockets and he's standing hunched a little bit. Captain America's body is too big for Steve Rogers and all Tony can think is how fucking young he looks- *is*, Christ, he's a fucking kid trying to live up to a propaganda poster while simultaneously relearning what it means to be a strategic battle commander and a good friend. For the first time, Tony thinks they should have never defrosted him and there's no malice behind it.

"I came to apologize," Steve says carefully. "I could've handled yesterday's meeting better."

"I can't do this," says Tony, and if there's a background note of hysteria in his voice there's no one around to judge him.

Steve's jaw tightens. "Tony-"

"No." Tony holds up a hand. "Apology accepted. Hindsight puts ophthalmologists out of business, etc. etc. I mean I can't do this. Us. It's going to blow up in our faces and then we'll have to work together and it'll be all sorts of awkward and then where would the world be? It's a risk to the team dynamic, fucking up our synergy. What if we were too busy bickering about whose CDs are whose to stop an alien invasion, Steve? Imagine it. For the good of the world, Steve. For America. We need to break up for America- please say something, I can't stop talking and this is becoming downright embarrassing, or it would be if I were still functionally capable of feeling embarrassment, which I'm not, really, so I guess it's kind of a moot point-"

"Tony," Steve says again, and he doesn't actually sound at all upset. Tony's expecting cracking or whispering at the least, ok. Then again, maybe Steve is having the same thoughts, is just glad Tony's said it first. "Tony, calm down." Tony actually meets Steve's gaze and oh fuck no, that is his 'humouring Tony' face and this is not a situation where Tony needs humouring.

"I'm serious," he says hurriedly, and then puts a hand over his mouth so no more words can try to dart out.

"We knew this wasn't going to be easy," Steve says, still calm and reasonable. "If we gave up at every rough patch it wouldn't be much of a relationship."

"No, no, no, you are not listening to me." Tony crosses his arms and almost tips coffee all over his shirt. "Jesus Christ."

"I am listening," Steve says quickly. "I'm just not... agreeing with your logic."

"You're going to make me talk about feelings, aren't you? Fuck, ok. Look. I know every relationship guide ever tells us that balance is a good thing. That opposites attract. Whatever you want to call it. Which hey, I am all for balance, and it's the popular consensus that I could sure use some in my life. But the thing is, Steve, to have balance you've got to have equality."

"I think you just contradicted yourself," Steve says, fondly amused.

Tony frowns thoughtfully. "Ok, say, so you're putting your two objects, substances, in a scale. Weight aside, they've both got to be able to fit on the scale. A massive bag of feathers and a handful of coins might balance out, but they're not equal."

"I feel like this analogy is flawed, and yet I'm still following it," Steve says dryly.

Tony sets down his coffee so he can throw up his hands. "I'm almost twenty years older than you. I've got multiple doctorates. I'm a billionaire." He can see Steve shutting down, so he forces the next sentence out through his pride and panic. "You're Captain America. I just- this can't work in the long-term. I'm sorry."

Steve's brave captain face is possibly the most heartbreaking thing that Tony's ever seen, and he can't help leaning over to press a gentle, closed-mouth kiss to his down turned lips. Steve reacts immediately, a little desperate, and Tony eases him back carefully.

"We are not having break-up sex," he says more for his own benefit than Steve's. "Sorry, Cap."

Steve pulls in a shaky breath. "What am I supposed to do now?" he asks, and looks promptly horrified that he's let that slip out.

Tony desperately wants a drink. "You'll figure something out," he says, trying to be reassuring. "And hey, still friends, ok? That's not gonna change."

Steve nods jerkily. "Sure, Tony."

"I mean it. I'll be very upset if you stop returning my calls." Jesus Christ, Tony is awful at this.

Steve's smile isn't very convincing, but Tony gives him points for effort. And for not breaking Tony's nose. "I think I should go," he says after approximately a decade of awkward silence.

Tony shrugs a little.

Steve crosses the kitchen slowly, like he's waiting for Tony to change his mind, to call him back. Tony pours more coffee.

At the doorway, Steve turns back, glancing at the floor, then at Tony. He opens his mouth a couple times, then says all in a rush "I'm not Captain America. I'm just Steve and I'm from Brooklyn and I like to draw."

Tony clenches his hands together. He didn't know it was possible to feel any worse about this, but Steve always brings his A game. "You're gonna find somebody who can see that without overlying Captain America," he tells Steve earnestly. "But my dad made it pretty impossible for me to be that person."

"Ok," Steve says, like he means it. Tony is 100% certain that he doesn't mean it, but he's never going to be the person who's allowed to call others out on emotional falsehoods. Steve leaves finally, oh God, and Tony stumbles over to a chair to collapse.

"That," he says decisively, "was one of the most terrible conversations I have ever had." Jarvis doesn't comment.

Tony calls Pepper because the thought of making himself presentable enough to take the elevator down to her office is exhausting. "Pep," he says as soon as she picks up. "I just broke up with Captain America."

"I'll be right up," she says. And then, "For the record, who did the actual breaking up? I'm asking for a friend."

"I can not believe you took bets on this," Tony says flatly. And then, grinning weakly, "Wow, Steve really is too nice to be in a relationship with me, isn't he?"

"You said it," she replies promptly. "Also well done on not saying he's 'too good'."

Tony glares down at the table for lack of Pepper's face. "Look ma, no therapist!"

Pepper hangs up and Tony sits at the kitchen table and broods into his coffee and refuses to acknowledge the endorphin rush of no longer being constantly concerned about his relationship with Steve. Pepper comes in and she hugs him, and tells him 'I told you so' even though she's told him nothing of the sort, and then she gives him a stack of paperwork and a kiss and steals his coffee and he's a little disappointed in her faith in him when she admits she lost the bet with Bruce. It's not ice-cream and talking about feelings, but nor is it a bottle of whisky. So that's a start.