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With Words Other Than These

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“Sir.”

“Yeah, JARVIS.” Tony is already halfway out the door of the Rolls, shedding his jacket. The heaviness of the summer air bleeds into the garage, even at such a late hour.

“Captain Rogers has returned to Stark Tower.”

Tony’s fingers halt on his cuffs. “What, just now?”

“No, sir, he arrived two hours ago, at precisely 10:23 PM.”

“You… Why didn’t you—” He twitches with the need to yank JARVIS’ program up out of the ether, tear it apart and put it back together inside out. Somehow. He can’t do it down here yet, doesn’t have the equipment, but that might be a project to concentrate on if JARVIS is going to be unforthcoming about this sort of thing.

But there really are no appropriate words to express his displeasure. And if Steve’s home, Tony’s wasted enough time on this already. He waves a goodnight to Happy and makes for the elevator at a pace he won’t bother denying, punches the button for the top floor, then pauses as the doors close. “Wait, where’s he at?”

“Captain Rogers is in the gymnasium.” There’s something odd about JARVIS’ delivery, a particular ring to the words, but that could just be the way Tony’s ears have telescoped all sound. His blood rushes faster, thumping in his throat. It’s disturbing, how swiftly his pulse ratchets when Steve is concerned.

“With all due speed, JARVIS.”

The lighted buttons show the elevator’s progress accordingly and Tony has over thirty floors to drum his fingers against the wall. His suit is sweaty, his shirt clinging in all the uncomfortable places, but now he just wants to see Steve. All other considerations have fled, including how he might look after a night finagling gratuity out of snobs while not letting an inch of his smile drift. When the doors finally open on the right floor, Tony is through them fast enough to clip the back of his hand. He slows down with effort, drawing a breath just outside the doors to the gym.

He’s both ready and not ready to see Steve. He doesn’t know how that works, but it’s hardly an unfamiliar feeling. Always it clashes, and always the need overwhelms the rest. In this, as with everything else, Tony’s impatience consistently gets the better of him.

Still, he opens the doors quietly, and is immediately met with the thump-thump-thump of someone using the hanging bags by the boxing ring. He can recognize the personality of the sound, for god’s sake, and shouldn’t that be worrisome? Instead, a real smile slips free, something he thought he’d put away for the night. The settling sensation in his chest is equally quick, and far more sobering. It’s dead quiet in the gym otherwise, all the lights off except for the one over Steve, nothing but a filmy golden spotlight until Tony’s eyes adjust. Steve faces away from him, the breadth of his shoulders casting shadows down the vee of his back. He’s hitting hard, each impact landing heavily. Tony comes closer, the need for speed long gone: now that they’re sharing the same space again… It feels like Tony is the one who has come home somehow.

This time around, SHIELD took Natasha and Steve. They needed subtlety, and Tony will admit, he’s the last person to go to for that. With Clint and Coulson halfway around the world in the other direction, Steve, with his tactician’s mind and familiarity with the covert, was the clear choice. Tony still doesn’t know what they were doing, and now that it’s all wrapped up, he doesn’t need to. It’s enough to open a door and know that his home is full again, with a very specific missing piece.

Steve shows no sign that he’s aware of Tony, and Tony stops at the edge of the mat and leans against the wall to watch. He’s rarely afforded such stillness, certainly never around a soldier with super hearing. He has been here before, himself: Tony chooses to perform his exorcisms in a lab instead of a gym, but the expenditure of energy is the same. To relax, to really come home from any task, a final cleansing is essential.

The way Steve’s beating that bag, though—Tony traces the cadence as well as the lines of Steve’s body, and wonders if he might not need to know about the mission after all. There’s a lot of tension knotted in Steve’s shoulders, a frenzy to each punch. The precision lacks. Maybe Steve’s just getting started, and if that’s the case, Tony could be here a long, long while.

He’d call this mission, quite simply, an interruption. Maddeningly timed and just long enough to sting, like losing a book in the middle of a scene and losing all sense of the story when you find it again. The distance should have given them both space at the most, perspective at the least. But the only perspective it’s given Tony is that he wants Steve around him. The potency he feels when Steve’s there, the trip in his heart and the zing of pure, unbridled force… well, Tony will just say that this week was a bad time to break them up.

Which means, for their own good, it was probably an excellent time.

Right now, though, he can drink Steve up with his eyes, relish the fact that he’s got him back and not feel like he’s missed anything in the continuity: they are where they were and they’ll end up where they’ll go, and it’s fine. It’s roses. The immediate future is boundless.

Steve grunts at the next punch, drawing Tony sharply back from where his thoughts have drifted. The blows come faster, one tripping over the other, and the rhythm jolts. Tony eyes Steve’s stance. Evenly spaced, a little more than shoulder-width. One foot slightly in front of the other. Something’s off, though; he’s not sure where the discrepancy sits, but part of him is aware of it. He begins to track, cataloguing Steve’s form, the depth of his swings. Uppercut, jab, cross, jab, hook, hook, cross. Standard pattern, if less controlled than usual. If something happened on that mission, Tony can easily give Fury a shit-storm. He’s done it before in exceedingly obnoxious ways, and he can always, always put Fury on the wrong foot. It’s a god-given talent that he cultivates.

Steve clearly has extra stress to beat out of himself. Now that Tony’s eyes have adjusted, he can see the white shape of a towel on the floor by the speed bag, lying where the light doesn’t quite reach. Steve was making the rounds of the gym, then, so Tony makes them, too, peering into the darkness, pondering what else Steve might have—

He sees the other bag.

It’s propped against the wall in the corner. Tony had thought it was just an extra, but now he can see the cable that bound it to the ceiling draped down one side, the ends frayed like yarn. It’s one of Tony’s, then. One of Steve’s. That cable has the relative tensile strength of spider web, or as close as Tony could get it. But the bag is lumpy along the side, and the canvas looks weird, the fabric patched, almost rusty in—

He lunges off the wall before the rest of him comprehends, and crosses the space with his heart jammed up under his tongue. He gets between Steve and the hanging bag—so fucking stupid, what is he doing?—and catches Steve’s next punch, which Steve only manages to pull by the skin of his teeth. His fist thumps into Tony’s palms hard enough to rock him backward. Tony grabs hold of his hand, Steve sways alarmingly, and Tony’s fingers come away bloody.

“Shit—The hell are you doing?” Steve’s hand trembles in his grip, Steve’s whole arm is shaking. His fist is… He’s not wearing any wraps. None. His knuckles are a red, red mess.

Tony drags his eyes to Steve’s face, so pristinely angry at the idiocy, and Steve stares back with a frozen expression. But it’s not… frozen, it’s locked in place, it’s quaking along with the rest of him, gleaming with sweat, his skin tone ashy, and what the fuck?

“Steve.” Tony takes Steve’s elbows in both hands and watches Steve’s arms drop to his sides like he’s forgotten they exist. How long has he been down here? He should have asked JARVIS, gone with his gut, what the hell happened? “Steve?”

Tony can tell he’s listening, that he hears the words. Steve stares straight into him, not past him or through him, and the focus feeds the dread like a fire eating through Tony’s bones. He squeezes Steve’s arms gently. Thinks so very briefly of magic, and Clint with dead blue eyes.

“Tony.” It’s a rasp, but it’s still Steve. So much more of Steve than Tony expected that he nearly lets go, backs away. Because that kind of voice elicits very specific fight-or-flight reactions in Tony, much more ‘fight’ than ‘flight,’ but he and Steve, they aren’t there yet, and did he miss something? Did he forget about certain things they’ve done? Because that’s a voice that has caved in, carved in much further than either of them have ever gone.

“You talk to me right now,” Tony asks—begs. He’s never seen Steve this uprooted. If Steve were tired—hell, Tony expected him to be tired. Exhausted. The mission and the flight home, followed straight away by hours of pummeling his fists into pulp… But there’s still energy, and it’s vibrating right out of Steve’s frame into Tony’s hands. He looks and feels like he’s only just getting going, his blood up and his attention honed, sparks jittering from every pore. Tony releases Steve numbly, taking in the quiver of Steve’s frame through a new lens. He takes a deep breath, too, and then takes a better grip on Steve, scared that if he doesn’t hold on—

Steve will be gone.

“What happened?”

Steve doesn’t speak. Doesn’t even twitch, except for that low tremor still rolling off of him. Damn it, damn, fuck, JARVIS had sounded different, but Tony hadn’t bothered to investigate, so tripped up by his own relief. If he’d just asked JARVIS in the first place…

“Something happened.” He doesn’t know what he’s saying. Maybe just talking to talk, fill the ugly silence with things he can understand. He knows it was that fucking mission. What else could it be? Steve doesn’t look injured save for his hands, and for that, Tony gives a profound thanks. And Steve was moving well enough as far as Tony could see. Whatever went on, wherever he and Natasha were—

Tony jerks up, looks Steve in the eye. “Natasha?”

Steve shakes his head, not the dour shake of confirmation but the sort of dismissive snap Tony’s never seen Steve make before. He still recognizes it, though, because Tony… is not overly concerned with people’s feelings. Not like Steve is. This, here, is not a kind motion. This is angry and impatient, and something else, a burst of sheer feeling, but then, just like that, Steve’s back to stone, staring down at Tony like there’s nothing else in the room.

He looks down himself, to get away from it. Turns Steve’s hands over in his own, afraid to touch, afraid not to. He hopes, prays, that Steve has not been going at the bags for the entire two hours since his return, but Steve’s not in workout sweats, not even shorts and a tee. Those are jeans and a polo, and why didn’t Tony perceive any of this before now? He’s still wearing his loafers, for god’s sake.

Tony grips Steve’s wrist and steps away, stretches as far as he can without pulling Steve after him and snaps a couple of the folded towels down from the rack on the wall to their right. The rest spill in a heap, but Tony takes the first, bunches another under his arm, and dabs at Steve’s hands.

“You have water?”

Steve still doesn’t answer and Tony’s not willing to let go of him to find a sink. Steve’s sweat makes the towel slick enough, though, and the blood slides off his knuckles almost on its own. The flesh is ragged, skinned away in deep, angry troughs. Tony gives up and holds the cloth firm to staunch the seeping blood, taking a brief and sharp pleasure in the miniscule jerk of Steve’s arms. Not as unaffected as he’d have Tony believe.

When the blood has stopped, Tony eases the sodden towel away and shakes out the other, then wraps the worse of Steve’s hands up in it.

He’s going to kill Fury. He’s sure it’s the director’s fault, and anything that changes Steve like this is not going to go quietly into the night. Steve is not one of Fury’s damn drones to be used for unsightly purposes at a whim; none of them are. He’d thought they were past this at last, after almost two years of working in the director’s company, but this smacks of trauma, a shock too great for Steve’s system to cope with. He’s resorted to crawling out of his skin in silence like he used to, bludgeoning his hands raw, watching Tony like he’s able to see through his skin. It’s a plea, one that is not finding its proper voice, and Tony has no idea how to get it out of him.

This expression on Steve’s face? It’s heavily layered, but the foundation of it is the way Steve used to look, when Tony first met him.

They sure as hell are not going back to that.

“Tell me what happened.”

Steve remains silent. But the air is changing, churning like the squeeze of Tony’s guts, and with it, the need to understand where everything’s gone wrong rises. If Steve won’t speak, there are other ways to get information, but there is no way he’s leaving Steve alone here while he does it. He doesn’t know what Steve will do.

It hurts. He used to know.

“Were you injured?” he tries, but Steve just looks at him. Tony can think of alternatives to ‘injured,’ different degrees of it, different methods of inflicting pain. Steve looks whole, but he’s a fast healer. There’s a horrible depth to his eyes that Tony senses like a song he knows but can’t place. He runs his hands down Steve’s arms, chafes upward again, down, anxious to trigger some change, any change—

Steve shudders.

And there is another human language in which Tony is utterly fluent. Sometimes he knows when another person is speaking it before they do themselves, and the answer to their question comes naturally, without anything uttered aloud. Words hold little power; words are broken by it. And yet, it can be a louder voice than any other.

What Steve needs, right this second, might have nothing to do with telling Tony what happened to him. Tony swallows, wonders if he has the gall to do this, but even that brief shiver is fading now. He can see Steve receding again, and he stops giving himself time to think about it.

If anything, it will jolt Steve out of this stupor. So he digs his nails into Steve’s nape when he pulls him down and fits Steve’s mouth to his. Answers back.

The kiss is no kiss. It hurts, it’s one-sided, it forces what’s already cracked into shards. Steve’s mouth tastes like blood. Their teeth clack and Tony grunts, takes, pushes deeper.

And then it’s over: Steve pulls back with an audible suck of air through his nose. Otherwise, he is so, so still, staring down at Tony wordlessly. Tony’s mouth feels too hot, tingly at the edges, and he can still taste Steve on his teeth. He can’t read a damn thing in Steve’s face, it’s like he’s shut down, all the doors that had been gradually opening for Tony slamming shut again. The loss is cataclysmic, a tiny implosion in Tony’s core that flash-drags the air inward and leaves him tottering on a blackened, crumbling edge he’d never expected. Not with Steve.

He’s busted down some barrier he never should have touched, something spiny and well-fortified and not meant to come down, fuck, what has he done? But he was never aware that there was still barbed wire wrapped around this part of Steve. Steve had never let on, and now he’s let it all come crashing down, finally. Hasn’t he? Tony feels himself pulling inward, trying desperately to erect walls of his own, but he’s out of practice in the company he’s keeping tonight, and he can’t actually move away.

Some part of him does move, though, in the only direction left. It’s nothing but the tiniest twitch, the bodily equivalent of the sound Tony’s soul is attempting to make.

Steve stares him right in the eye.

Then something flickers, then—Steve yanks him back, jaw clenching, a gust of air, and—kisses him, raw and hard. He opens, holy fuck, the way Steve’s unfolding all at once, crushing Tony to his front and lifting his weight, kissing the hell out of him the way that Tony just tried to kiss him.

They’ve kissed before, but not like this. ‘Like this’ was not on the table, it was nowhere near the table, but it’s here now. Tony can taste it in the back of his throat like a savory wine burning. Bitter. Memorable. So unexpectedly familiar that it judders Tony to his core.

He knows exactly where this kiss is headed.

And they aren’t here yet. They’re not. Tony was okay with that, he was fine, for once he wasn’t expecting too much from a potential lover, but Steve’s about to jump that line with a vengeance, it’s coming on as fast as a bullet, Steve dragging at his shirt, his teeth sharp over Tony’s lip. Steve’s bleeding, Tony’s mind tries, Steve’s hands are wrecked, but it feels outside them now. Steve’s past it, at any rate, pulling at Tony like he intends to crawl inside him. Tony fists Steve’s shirt in both hands, grips sweat-soaked fabric, licks salt from Steve’s lips and desperation from Steve’s mouth, and tries to think.

All he can think about, though, is Steve. Whatever’s gotten him here, Tony wants it so far behind them that Steve has to backtrack to remember it, and if this will punch it out of him, Tony will brandish his experience like a welding torch and sear this mess right from Steve’s skin.

Steve backs him up, and Tony hits the wall, rough and gasping, just behind the couch that juts off to face the boxing ring. Then Steve’s against him from thighs to chest, hot and damp. Tony sees red, a swipe of blood over Steve’s cheek. He rubs it with his thumb, feels Steve’s hand fist in the hair right over his nape and turn his head, maneuver him like he knows exactly how he wants Tony.

“JARVIS, lock it,” Tony manages before Steve’s mouth is on his again and all he’s aware of is the blistering heat, the way Steve is pulling things up and out of him as if he’s tearing them from Tony’s hands. It’s fast and fiery, and oh so close—Steve’s body is locked to his, constant movement, even the taste of him brims with force. It’s Steve’s power on the battlefield channeled down into a single ephemeral outlet not fashioned for this sort of exchange. There’s violence in it, and also that perfectly familiar sense of containment, as if Steve is still holding back, the length of that last thread biting into his flesh, he’s gripping so hard, but he’s there. He’s still there. Tony recognizes that, and the unease bleeds away.

He peels the sodden material of Steve’s shirt up his back. Steve lets go of him long enough to drag it over his head. The shirt, once white, is now streaked pink, and Steve clutches it into a ball against Tony’s spine as he hauls him back in, rocks full-bodied into the kiss. Tony struggles with numbed fingers at the buttons of his shirt, but forgets them when Steve slides down to his throat and stays there, latches on, cradling the side of Tony’s neck in one splayed, trembling hand.

Tony’s fingers skate on their own—he doesn’t need a grip at all, Steve’s holding him up for fuck’s sake, and before he knows it, he’s tracing the tough leather and dented metal of Steve’s belt, pulling one end through the other as Steve’s stomach bumps into his, as Steve succeeds in getting his shirt open, in dragging it down one shoulder, and why did Tony have to wear so much? Why, in god’s name, an undershirt, too? Steve hikes the end of it out from Tony’s waistband, gathers it in both hands and uses it to pull their bodies closer until the hem bites into Tony’s back. He hisses. Steve catches the sound across his tongue and laves Tony so thoroughly Tony groans.

Steve’s hard, a firm jut into the cradle of Tony’s pelvis. He grunts against Tony’s mouth, and Tony rubs his sides, a strangely docile massage he didn’t know he had on offer. For Steve, it seems he has everything. There’s a furrow just under Steve’s ribs on the right side, uneven, barely a bump. Tony follows the delicate line of it until it ends beneath Steve’s shoulder blade. Can’t remember any scars, but then he’s never touched Steve like this, never—never given in and—

Tony freezes for a single instant, then commits to the idea: he turns around in Steve’s arms, exhales, braces with his hands on the back of the couch and looks over his shoulder, down at Steve’s hip. Now that he’s breathing again, he’s can’t get a hold of it. It’s all ripping out of him; he can see the path he’s chosen to walk. Steve’s hands seize at his hips, an ironclad clench, and Tony’s body shakes in tandem. Tony fumbles with his own belt buckle, barely gets it loose before working his pants down over his hips. He presses back against Steve and feels the gap of Steve’s fly against his ass. The clink of loose buckles jangles obscenely in the high-ceilinged room. For an eternity, they just stand there, pressed together and heaving for breath, the knowledge of what Tony’s offering up swamping his mind like a deluge. He digs his fingers into the couch cushion. Licks his lips and feels Steve shudder.

“You have anything?” Steve’s voice sounds torn.

Tony clears his throat as best he can. He looks back again, eyes dropping to Steve’s shoulder. The rush of Steve’s exhalation spins off his cheek, Steve’s nose so insanely close to his skin. Tony could lift his head and kiss him. Suck him in. “I’m clean,” he manages around the sense of not getting enough air. “If you—”

Steve stills the steady roll of their bodies, a motion Tony hadn’t even noticed until it disappears. His body heat beats heady against Tony’s spine and the backs of his thighs. Tony closes his hand around Steve’s wrist where it’s pinned to his abdomen.

Then Steve nods, shaky, and thrusts his nose forward into the side of Tony’s throat. He smells of sweat and exertion, and of something foreign that Tony can only associate with the black hole of a bad mission. He leans over suddenly, pushing Tony into the back of the couch, and it takes Tony a moment to realize he’s digging into the bag sitting on the armrest. It’s Steve’s travel bag, the heavy duty one filled with gear that SHIELD provides on black-ops missions. He never even stopped in his room, he just—came down here and—while Tony was out—

Steve wrenches something free with a grunt and flips the top off so that it clatters across the floor. It’s some kind of body glide, made to prevent chafing under the recon suits. Steve slicks his palm with frenzied swipes and backs off of Tony a little. He works Tony’s pants lower, and then his hand disappears. He’s… Steve struggles one-handed with his own pants, and oh god, Tony wants to be the one doing that, but he’s too slow; abruptly Steve’s back, fingers clamping to his hip and pressing bare to Tony’s ass. Steve’s grip at his side tightens, his palm slippery, Steve’s every breath a hot rush over Tony’s nape.

Tony finds Steve’s unslicked hand and gives it a squeeze. Nods.

The first intrusion of Steve’s finger is easy, cooler than the rest of him. Tony braces over the back of the couch, rests his head on his arm, and concentrates on how it feels to be opened up at Steve’s discretion. He’s thorough about it, like he is with everything that matters, though not as efficient as usual. Almost taking his time, considering their fervor. His lips brush the back of Tony’s neck and Tony twitches, not sure if it’s more from the outer touch or the inner. Maybe both. Maybe all of it. Steve’s other hand creeps under his tank top, drifting aimlessly up his front. Tony wonders vaguely if it hurts Steve’s hands to do this, if he’s thinking at all about them, if maybe Tony shouldn’t be the one getting himself ready. But the thought shoves out of him on his next breath as Steve pushes in with another finger. And Steve’s not single-minded either; with the second finger, a wall falls down, and Steve’s mouth presses firm against his skin, moving with purpose from ear to nape to shoulder. Tony lets go of the hand he’s been clasping too hard, and Steve curls an arm low around Tony’s belly, cinching him close, dropping his weight and pushing his fingers further inside.

Tony has little leverage like this, but it’s okay. It’s just— He toes at the hem of his pants with one foot, succeeding in dragging them further down his legs. Once he’s able, he widens his stance, slumps even lower over the couch’s headrest, hisses at the first swipe against his prostate. Steve does it again, and again. He’s always been quick to follow a cue, but then, Steve’s done this before, long before Tony was even alive. Not often and not to excess, but enough to know his way around the male body. Tony’s never been sure how to feel about that before, but right now, it’s the closest he’s come to being thankful.

He clenches, feels Steve stiffen behind him, and then Steve kisses his neck messily and pulls his fingers free. Pushes forward with his hips. Presses in.

Oh, god, it’s still too tight. Tony grits his teeth, tries to calm his breathing, but it gusts out of him, every puff its own slick statement. Steve catches his chin in one hand, the body glide slipping over Tony’s face. He pulls back and out, “Sorry, I’m, Tony, sorry,” gasped into his neck, but Tony’s so far beyond it now that he can’t remember the discomfort. He grabs Steve’s hip and pulls him back where he was. In.

“S’okay,” he breathes, “it’s fine, go.”

Steve stutters into him, his arm tightening around Tony’s ribs. Tony feels the rasp of Steve’s chin over the back of his neck, the graze of Steve’s lips as he bottoms out. Tony reaches up, scrabbles to find a hold, on Steve’s neck, his hair, shoulder, something, and Steve lifts his head, turns Tony’s chin with shockingly steady fingers, and tongues deep into his mouth like he’s fucking him there instead. Their teeth knock, and Tony lets out a groan, can’t help it, opens up and lets Steve even further in, in every way. Steve thrusts forward, forces a cry from the center of Tony’s chest. Tony clenches his hand too tight, but Steve barely seems to notice, just pushes Tony up against the couch and cants his hips and, again, again, oh, there’s the rhythm, there it is.

The kiss breaks; Tony can’t possibly hold it, not while the rest of him is coming apart into a thousand splinters. Steve’s hand dives down his belly, drags over his thigh and up again, skating across his cock and tugging him even closer. He grips Tony’s shoulder, the hand that had been on his face sliding under Tony’s arm and around to hook him firmly across his collarbone. To hold him there. It’s a good place to be, Steve inside him and gasping into his mouth and, and touching him all over. Tony feels naked even though he’s not, neither of them are, but this, this feels naked, so beyond bare that Tony tastes the underbelly of it, that soft, intimate place he wasn’t expecting to go. Now, staring it in the face, he doesn’t want to look away ever again, not with Steve.

Steve’s hand skates restlessly down the back of Tony’s leg, bends him at the knee and coaxes his thigh up. He braces Tony’s shin against the back of the couch and slides even deeper, and Tony grunts, the sting of Steve’s teeth against his shoulder, the swipe of his tongue, and—Steve’s voice, guttural and slurred beyond reckoning, half words, half sounds.

Tony’s name is clear, the shape of it bright as a beacon among the rest.

It takes less than a minute before Steve hitches, pushes Tony solidly against the couch. The rhythm jags faster. Tony grabs hold of Steve’s hand where it grips his shoulder and laces their fingers, grips so hard he’s afraid Steve’s injured knuckles will crack. The fire of it unfurls fiercely in the center of his spine, swelling up, out, twitching at every nerve; he could come like this, or hang here on the edge indefinitely and never be able to speak, never know anything but Steve’s weight against him, Steve’s girth inside him, Steve’s perfect, perfect fit to everything about him, did he somehow discern that Tony wanted it sharp tonight, vicious with sensation, or is this what Steve needed? Steve kisses him again on the mouth, draws it out of him alongside a moan. Tony quakes, a wracking shudder that he thinks is it, but the wave just crests and rolls onward, not nearly done, each thrust pushing him closer and closer to a rim he can’t even see. He clenches down on Steve, forces Steve’s hand to his mouth and sucks at his fingers.

Steve spits out a word, doesn’t matter what it is, the tone is foul and broken and so, so beautiful. He twists their joined fingers together, plunges his other hand down and grips Tony, strokes up long and unforgiving once, twice—

Tony comes with a sob, keeling over completely, unable to go anywhere because he’s locked to Steve’s chest, his pelvis full of raging fire, chilly gusts, every nerve spiking in opposite directions. Instinct makes him arch, bred from too many nights of seeing to others’ pleasure first, and Steve grits that word again into his neck, and then, “Tony—” wrenched free as Steve comes.

He thrusts through it, forcing Tony into the hard edge of the couch, sending slivers of pleasure zigzagging through his body. He can’t stand it, he’s not made to take this, it’s unbearable, can’t feel his toes or his fingers, his lips, nose, and still Steve moves, fuck, fuck, “Fuck—”

And stops, an aching slide down over the headrest of the couch. Tony releases every muscle, can’t hold them anymore, and rests his forehead against the cushion directly beneath him. It’s scratchy wool, a frenzy against his skin, and it cuts through the fog trying its damnedest to swamp him.

“Steve,” he breathes. Maybe he doesn’t say it out loud, he has no idea. His hand hurts, the one twined around Steve’s, but he squeezes harder anyway because… Because. What else, what in god’s name else is there to do?

Steve’s grip shifts and resettles on his hip, greasy with body glide. Tony wants to keep Steve’s fingers right there, hooked into the small of that joint forever. “Okay?” he asks. It comes out a croak, barely human. He rolls his forehead against the cushion until he can see the pale flesh of Steve’s shoulder, heaving just beyond his own. “You okay?”

Steve nods into his back, right against his skin, and the sensation slithers down Tony’s spine like it’s chasing his orgasm. Tony shudders but even that is too loose, too beaten to do anything notable. Something hot and humid presses down on Tony’s shoulder blade, and he realizes it’s Steve’s mouth, open and panting, and holding as close to a kiss as either of them will get. And right then, it’s impossible for Tony to breathe. There’s no room in his chest for his lungs.

It recedes gradually. Steve’s whole body is damp with sweat; it slicks the back of Tony’s thighs and gathers at the small of his spine, evaporates off his shoulders. The place where Steve’s mouth rested aches, deep and sweet, and Tony wonders, a little bit stunned, if maybe Steve was just returning there at the end, the damage of teeth and tongue already long done. He doesn’t remember, everything’s harshly plucked nerves and exquisite exhaustion. He makes himself release Steve’s fingers, just a little, fuck, he’s not letting go if he doesn’t absolutely have to, and Steve moves again, this time with a groan. His hand leaves Tony’s hip and braces against the couch, pushing himself up and away.

Tony bites hard into his lip as Steve pulls out, all those pleasure-deadened nerves exploding freely into pain again. He doesn’t think he can move, but Steve turns him over with sluggish effort and pulls him upright, his thumb lingering to rub at that same hollow at Tony’s hip that he’d been squeezing before. It’s bruised; Tony moans into another kiss, the sound lost in Steve’s mouth. They’re panting too hard to hold it and the kiss breaks and rejoins, breaks and rejoins around noisy breaths.

Steve doesn’t say a word. His hand is back at Tony’s nape, cradling him like he’s breakable. Tony feels breakable. He feels broken, ready to crash down into pieces on the floor. Couch, there’s a… He gets a hand around Steve’s arm, hopes he’s holding on because he still can’t feel his own fingers, and tugs. It’s the most pathetic of movements, but it must do something: Steve pulls back again. Not far, not even breaking contact. Just easing Tony to his feet and shuffling them along the back of the couch until it’s not there anymore and Tony, most of his weight relying on its presence, nearly falls backward onto the arm.

Steve catches him.

They make it down onto the cushions, lengthwise and twisted together, waiting just long enough to tug clothing back into place. Tony shifts back against Steve, wriggling a foot between his calves. Steve’s hand rests over the place where the arc reactor used to be, and Tony winds his fingers around it again. Shuts his eyes. Exhales, long and slow.

**

Steve’s ringtone is a gentle ping that still manages to resonate. It’s one of Tony’s designs, after his earlier, more antagonistic efforts lost their punch. The sound drags sleep off of Tony like a blanket. They’re facing each other now. Steve’s legs are still tangled with his, a flicker away from being too hot, Tony tucked deep into the back of the couch as he is. Steve shifts and Tony stretches, molding to him, lengthening his spine in order to taste the tiny endorphin rush.

The ring silences and the arm Steve has under Tony’s body cleaves more tightly to his side.

“Rogers,” Steve murmurs. “Yeah. Yes, sir.”

Tony drowses, hanging like a sheet of glass between worlds. He feels so damn loose. So content, through and through. He’s sweating, but he’s comfortable, slung over and around Steve like he’s always been there. He can feel his own spots of nakedness: his right hip where his trousers slide low, his bare arms. His side where it feels like his tank top has hitched up, now that Steve has moved his arm.

“Yeah. I can be there. No, sir, it isn’t… Yes.”

The phone clicks off and for a long moment, the only movement is the rise and fall of Steve’s chest. Tony can hear the strong heartbeat where his ear rests just below Steve’s shoulder. The steadiest beat Tony knows. He feels himself sinking again, lulled by the perfect cocoon.

Steve moves again, disentangling his limbs with a feline grace. But his weight remains on the couch, and eventually the leg that was between Tony’s knees settles down atop his legs instead. Tony almost opens his eyes, but it feels like so much effort, especially when Steve has yet to get up.

Will he just leave, then? The morning, seconds ago so warm and solid, turns, the faintest hint of an oncoming chill. It was always a risk, but Tony had never expected to risk it with Steve. He’d never thought their first time would happen on these terms. That he’d leave Steve with not only the opportunity, but also maybe the need to depart before Tony woke.

It should be shocking that Tony hadn’t even considered the option of escaping himself.

But Steve’s not moving. His hand finds its way into Tony’s hair and strokes, so slow as to be absentminded. Only it’s not: Steve’s taking his time again. Tony can feel the intention as clearly as if he could have seen it on Steve’s face.

It’s quiet and sinfully comfortable. And Steve’s not leaving; something in Tony realizes it and starts shutting down everything else like switches flipping off. Anxiety, he muses woozily, that’s the word. He’s been in its company for far too long. And it’s no longer welcome here, not when Steve breathes gently in counterpoint, when Tony thinks he could sleep for three days if he just stops fighting it.

He pulls Steve closer, snugs both arms around him so he can feel the expansion of his ribs as he inhales. Settles in.

He dreams that Steve’s in him again, but not moving, just there, wrapping him tight in every way, swaddled into stillness by the heat and anchoring Tony on this plane when otherwise he was going to step off, try his luck in other worlds. But he’ll never leave, not now, leaving Steve is the epitome of the end, and then he dreams Steve is leaving, murmuring to him, and Tony can’t understand the words but he can speak the language, and he tells Steve no, he thinks, and then Steve says his name and comes back, comes back to him, and Tony drops deep.

He wakes to an empty couch, the room’s air cool at his back. It’s hard to push upright; the muscles in his arms feel like liquid and he can’t seem to make his hands grab onto anything. When he finally manages it, it’s more than clear that the gym is empty as well, sunlight tracing warm lines over the tumbling mat.

“Good morning, sir.”

“JARVIS.” It’s more rumble than name. Tony runs a hand over his face and across the top of his chest, then keeps rubbing, pressing with his fingertips until it burns. Steve’s clothing is gone, but Tony’s belt hangs over the back of the couch. “JARVIS?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Did he…” Tony doesn’t know what the question was meant to be. A whole lot of things at once. His lungs constrict and his belly follows as he surveys the room again.

“Captain Rogers has asked me to convey his apologies. He was urgently needed at SHIELD headquarters and regrettably could not stay longer to explain.”

Tony stares, incredulous, up at the ceiling. “And you let him go?”

“He did attempt to wake you, sir.” One of the holo-projectors whirs to life, training its lens onto the floor in front of Tony, and a thready image flickers into view: Steve, sitting up on the couch beside Tony where he stretches full-length. Steve’s shirt is still gone, his pants resting at the hollows of his hips with the fly undone. Tony leans forward, forgetting that he can’t touch, and stops short of trailing his fingers through the tableau.

“Tony,” the recording of Steve says. It’s not the first time he’s said it, his tone makes that obvious. And still the sound is low, coaxing. It fits with the laziness the sunlight, and Tony wonders just how long ago Steve left. He sees himself mumble, and his dream tumbles by on the outskirts of his memory, words he couldn’t understand, himself telling Steve to stay. Tony shuts his eyes briefly and rubs at his mouth.

When it becomes clear that the Tony in the projection is not going to wake, Steve straightens with a visible sigh. For a long moment, he gazes down at Tony without moving, and then he lifts his eyes to the ceiling. “JARVIS.”

“Captain Rogers?” JARVIS’ recorded voice responds in an equally soft tone. Tony has never heard his AI speak so cautiously before.

“Will you tell Tony that I…”

He stops. And JARVIS waits, and if there isn’t something judgmental in that silence, Tony doesn’t know his AI at all.

Steve gives another sigh. When his voice comes again, it is not for JARVIS at all, and Tony twitches at how close Steve bends, right down to press his mouth twice—three times to Tony’s temple. And holds each time, like he’s clenching his eyes shut and shuddering through each breath. Like he can’t bear to drag his mouth from Tony’s skin.

Steve’s hand, threaded into his hair, trembles.

Tony is at a loss. Incapable of moving now, unable to shatter this fragility. It’s terrifying and unfamiliar.

“JARVIS.” Steve’s voice is almost inaudible this time. “Tell Tony I had to leave. Please. And that I’ll be back.”

JARVIS’ response is long enough in coming that Steve goes on.

“You’re recording this, I know you are. Show it to him. Tony,” he says after a brief pause, soft and personal, “I swear to you, I’m coming back.”

He sounds so fervent and so leaden at the same time. Tony fights a swallow.

“Of course, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS answers. It’s not unkind.

Steve thanks him. He lingers for just another second at the side of the couch, his thumb brushing gently behind Tony’s ear. Then he stands, and goes. The recording fades out.

Why, oh, why did he not wake the fuck up? He would have gone with Steve, strode into Fury’s office and stood in the way until Fury explained whatever the hell he’d done to twist Steve up so badly. But that at least is one thing Tony can take some pride in—more than some, shit, he’s a little too warm with the enormity of it: the Steve in that recording was not the same Steve who bludgeoned his hands to shreds last night. Something has finally worked itself loose. Hell, Tony can still feel the ache of exactly how Steve had done it.

His body should hurt, and in a way, it does. A phantom of pain, like he’s been doing crunches for too long, lifting weights just this side of too heavy, straining past his boundaries. He gets up from the couch cautiously, wincing in expectation, but Extremis takes care of everything physical these days, and there’s nothing here that he can truly call sore.

“Has anyone come down to use the gym?” he asks, an afterthought, and JARVIS answers in the negative.

“Agent Romanoff has not yet returned to the Tower, and Dr. Banner is still in his quarters.”

And Thor’s off-world. Tony thanks whatever angel has been sitting on his shoulder for the last twelve hours. The worst thing right now would be a knowing look directed Steve’s way by one of their teammates.

Not that Tony would know how to explain himself either. “Shit.” He hasn’t reeled like this in a very long time. It figures; only Steve would be able to unhinge him to this degree, make him restless and lethargic at the same time, jittery and calm. It’s not like he hasn’t been left before, the morning after, and this isn’t even that sort of departure. But his balance is still off, and he has the feeling that only a direct emotional shift is going to get it back.

He decides to aim his guns at Fury.

The lab is three floors down, and there’s no one to watch him pad barefoot up the hall to the elevator, to step in alone, to ride it directly to the sliding glass doors. Once inside the lab, his skin seems to fit a little better, but the smell of Steve is all but gone, and that’s unsettling in a new way. He ignores it as best he can and sets about peeling down SHIELD’s firewalls.

He hacks in without feeling in the slightest like an invader. It’s gone beyond that now; Tony’s never listened to Fury before when it didn’t suit his purposes, and now it’s pretty clear that they are at cross purposes concerning Steve. Tony doesn’t care if it was unintentional. He never wants to see Steve break like that again, not their rock, the team’s lodestone. If Tony’s being perfectly honest, his own lodestone, which he’ll gladly keep to himself, thanks. He believes in going into a fight prepared, knowing more about his enemy than his enemy knows about him.

There’s something here, but it’s code, Tony’s sure of it. Or, come to think of it, a pseudonym, like Iron Man or Hawkeye. It does strike a weak chord: someone who made a lot of trouble for SHIELD a while back, but the hack that unearthed that particular information was all for show, back when the metal suit was in the club but the man inside it wasn’t. When Tony couldn’t give a rat’s ass about SHIELD’s troubles.

This code name also feels older than that, though, plucking away at memories from when Tony was much younger, but he can’t place the context. He needs given names, damn it, something personal he can track down and pry apart and learn about. The more he knows, the better equipped he’ll be to extricate the rest of this toxin from Steve, and, ah, here, now he’s getting somewhere: male, Hydra involvement, decorated service record with the States, now that’s interesting, legal name James Buchanan—

It’s eerie, such silence. When he remembers to breathe, his lungs burn with it.

He stands for a long time with his fingers resting on the keys, staring at the name. So long that the letters becomes meaningless, and then burgeon with implication again. Half of him thinks it’s a trick. The history of Steve Rogers is not exactly unknown, not to people who know where and how to look. If someone wanted to hurt Steve, the messiest of blades would certainly stab here, especially in Hydra’s hands.

But. This circumstance is also not impossible. Steve came back, after all. Steve survived. Why not another?

Trick or not, the damage—Tony grips the edge of the display top, bends down over it and banks the anger. Calling Steve’s state of mind “damage” is too generous. That, last night, that was devastation.

His lip is bleeding freely by the time he notices he’s chewing on it.

Tony attacks the database, burrows in and yanks all the pieces out. If it is a trick, he’s going to mangle it. And then he’s going to find the people who dared to throw this in Steve’s face and make them wish he’d left them to SHIELD’s tender mercies.

**

An hour later, and it’s… real. That, right there in Cellblock 1F, flesh and bone and blood, is no trick. Whoever or whatever he is now, generations ago, he was James Barnes.

Barnes has been fucked six ways to Sunday, and when Sunday rolled around, they did it all over again with blunted instruments. Tony only has vague images of the person his father spoke of so highly, cobbled together in a boy’s mind from snapshots and pencil drawings he now knows were Steve’s. But this man, though recognizable in face, is so far off the reservation that Tony can’t reconcile the two lean frames, the dark sweeps of hair, the flint-sharp eyes.

There’s a monstrosity of metal grafted to Barnes’ body, the edges where the tech meets the skin of his shoulder sloppy and brutal. It’s beaten and dented, hanging awkwardly against its owner’s side when he moves.

There are also hours of footage of Barnes screaming his voice bloody in the confines of his SHIELD cell.

Tony reads Natasha’s report of what happened in Turkmenistan. His teammate is nothing if not efficient, and for once, Tony’s thankful for the paperwork. Barnes came after Steve without warning in the middle of the rutted street, wielding a Taureg knife, then did it again with a hatchet two minutes later. Subduing him took ten agents including Natasha, and cost the lives of three of them. Natasha herself did not come away unscathed: she suffered a nasty gouge in the thigh, a sacrifice made to get her legs around his neck and cut off the flow of blood to his brain. Why they took Barnes alive is clear, but seeing the result of their efforts bellowing hoarsely in a cement cell, Tony has to question it.

When Natasha appears in the footage, standing just outside the partition, Barnes smiles, then spits in the direction of her feet, regardless of the glass in the way. Natasha’s expression doesn’t change, but the tension where her neck meets her shoulders ratchets visibly. For her to lose control is monumental, and though she tucks it away in seconds, the bitterness is already plain.

Someone on site deftly blocks the audio feed down to a single camera, the one inside the cell. Tony lets it happen, skirting nimbly around it only as it pertains to his own access. There’s obviously one other person there besides Natasha who can understand what is being shouted through that glass wall, and is attempting to provide a modicum of privacy, or perhaps just confidentiality in a bunker full of trained spies.

And after a very short while, Tony starts to agree with the precaution. Natasha spends close to an hour as the dartboard for Barnes’ epithets, standing grimly outside the cell’s viewing window with her arms crossed. Tony can’t understand what Barnes is saying—it’s all in some Slavic language, but he can guess. Natasha barely moves as he fast-forwards through. The brainwashing at work is clear, the way her mere presence sets off cascades of response: Barnes comes to life under her gaze and the words start to meld together, until Tony’s gut burns sour with the sound of it all.

But that’s nothing, as it turns out, to what happens when Steve shows up.

Tony’s completely engrossed in Natasha’s stone-faced vigil, and then suddenly Steve steps up beside her in the clothing from yesterday—god, from any day before that, maybe, how would Tony even know?—and sends him jerking back from the screen. Tony looks at the timestamp and sees that this took place nearly sixteen hours ago, and then Barnes lunges forward, slamming against the window with the full weight of that metal arm, inches from Steve’s face. Three times in a row.

The glass holds.

Tony swallows down his heart and listens to abuse in English this time, insults that dig right under the skin and rip violently upward. Words that no friend would ever call another, secrets that only Barnes would know about Steve, shouted for the entire compound to hear. Death and not-death threats that make Tony sick with the imagery and detail, and it is way too fucking long before he swings back around to that strange imperfection in the skin at Steve’s side, under his hands last night.

Oh.

He didn’t think. He never even considered that it might be new, that a terrible wound might have only just closed.

His eyes sting. He can still recall the vital heat of Steve’s body under his palms, the way he’d paused over that blemish, the blood pumping steadily beneath his hands and the taste of salt and distinctive iron when he licked into Steve’s mouth. The entire night takes on a hideous light in one great flash, and then it fades, but it’s too late: He knows the feeling of understanding, of all the angles, not just the ones he allowed himself to see while it was happening.

What he and Steve did… He doesn’t know what that was anymore.

He forgets to study Steve. How can he not, when this monster is prowling the cell like it’s a tiger’s cage, eyes fixed ever on the prey animals just on the other side of the glass? It’s hard to look away from Barnes, hard to imagine anything but repulsion in his face or violence in his gestures. If not separated from Steve and Natasha, he would certainly make another attempt on their lives.

And then.

And then Barnes calms down and starts talking about himself and Steve.

It had always been the obvious assumption. Too obvious, Tony had thought. Nothing was ever that straightforward, especially concerning Steve. It was a lesson Tony had been taught again and again, and had finally learned to the degree that he stopped assuming, merely considered and brushed things aside, especially when it came to former lovers. It was early days for them yet; Steve would tell him if and when he was ready.

Now, he’ll never be able to tell if Steve was ready. He can’t see anything but the mortal wound carving in behind Steve’s eyes.

It is Natasha who finally walks away, her stride furious even in the three steps it takes to get her out of the camera’s frame. Steve stays. He stays, and he listens as Barnes belittles everything that ever defined Steve in his best friend’s eyes, including what he felt like when he was being fucked.

“Tell me this, Rogers,” Barnes asks, world’s most abhorrent sneer bending his lips. He makes a grab for his own crotch. “Have you found some other way to fill the hole?”

Tony feels utterly filthy.

**

He goes to SHIELD because not going itches. Because he wants Fury to know that he knows. Because he thinks that once he arrives, he’ll know his next step. By the time he reaches Fury’s office, he has even less of an idea than he had before.

“Stark—” Fury starts, looking abruptly weary.

“You know what, you can shove it,” Tony says over him. And shockingly, for a second, Fury does.

Or maybe he’s just as lost as Tony is.

Tony sniffs. Takes a survey of the office and the bright sunlight shining through the window. “Just tell me this. Is he in danger of getting out?”

Fury sighs. “If he hasn’t broken through yet, he’s not going to.”

A fair assumption, and surely there are at least fifteen agents placed to take Barnes down should he succeed anyway.

“Getting out doesn’t exactly seem to be his goal,” Fury continues.

“No, not until he’s done ripping Steve and Natasha a new one,” Tony bites out, and watches something very close to a wince skate across Fury’s face. The man is clearly well aware of the content of those insults. Hell, the director’s probably the one who blocked off the feed in the first place. “I want Steve out of there.”

Fury just looks at Tony, in the space of two seconds somehow completely back in control. What the hell doomsday material are these SHIELD agents made of? “Stark, Captain Rogers has requested to remain.”

It stings, down deep where Tony will never get his hands on it, that Steve would choose this over home, over… Yes, over him, alright? Over Tony. And yet it doesn’t surprise him, because there are some things about Steve that are starting to seem pretty permanent.

Instead of giving any of that away, he glowers. “And Romanoff?”

The look on Fury’s face says clearly that she’s in the same place. A bloom of anger surges, then snuffs just as quickly, but the burn is still there. What the hell does Barnes have that pulls them in? That rips them apart?

“Well.” Tony taps his fingers against Fury’s desk. “I hope that whatever this is, is worth it. I hope for your sake, Fury, because that? What’s happening down there? That is the opposite of good.”

“You think I haven’t tried to convince Rogers to leave?” Fury spits, the first tell of how frayed his nerves are. “That I want two of my best in there, standing in front of that onslaught?”

“Yes, Nick, sometimes I think you might,” Tony growls.

Fury glares at him with his one eye, but he doesn’t argue. He doesn’t, because whatever he might personally feel, there is information at stake that SHIELD needs, and as always, the fucking organization comes first.

“If you’d like to go down,” Fury grates out at last. “Convince him to leave. Be my guest.” He waves a hand expansively at the door and Tony glares back. The air feels like it’s shuddering.

But it wouldn’t do any good. And that’s why Tony doesn’t argue either. If he couldn’t keep Steve there with him on the couch simply by virtue of what they’d just done, then parting him from James Barnes, no matter what Barnes has become…

It’s acidic knowledge. It’s also not new. And it’s slowly curdling into something else much, much worse.

Tony glowers at the wall. All the words are slipping away, hanging just off the edge of his tongue where he can’t get a grip on them. He takes a deep breath and points at Fury. “Tell Steve I came by. And when he’s ready—”

Fury’s eyebrow lifts, but he nods once, no frills. He opens his mouth, but Tony is out in the corridor before any inquiry presents itself.

**

He goes home. He routes all feeds into his penthouse subsystem, and he takes a mess of useless half-finished equipment with him from his lab. And he watches. It’s all he can do.

With Steve, anger makes him desperate. Both words are far too small to encompass this creeping, infiltrating sensation.

He’s not entirely sure what his role is. But it’s hell to watch Steve truly grieve. He thought he’d seen it all when the closest thing to Steve was death itself: it had taken his friends and his world, even him in the end. There’d been a certain sightlessness to Steve then, before he made the decision to step into the new century and to accept what he saw there. And when that happened, Tony hurt with the realization that the Steve he thought he’d known had been nothing compared to the real Steve, the open Steve, the Steve no longer trapped in his own agony. That had certainly been grief.

Tony runs the recording back to the previous day, before he found Steve in the gym, and this time he accesses the cameras out in the cellblock’s corridor, his hands shaking with ugly presentiment.

He finds what he was looking for. The five hours’ footage of Barnes screaming in his cell, and outside in the hall where the interior camera can’t reach, where even Barnes couldn’t see… Steve, watching the whole time as if physically incapable of walking away.

If that, before, was grief? Tony’s scared of whatever this is.

**

The timestamp ticks along in real time. Tony’s been here for two hours, hunched over on his island stool feeling chilled to the bone.

Barnes at least has gone quiet, but that might be because he’s been left alone for the first time. Tony doesn’t trust it, can’t bring himself to look away from this newest threat. He wants to understand why everything keeps upending on him in the least predictable ways, and in Barnes, his brain illogically whispers, is the answer.

Steve strides into view from the corridor, head high and mouth fixed, and Tony sits up straighter. Battle plans, that expression. Skirmishes Steve is going to win. Tony has a moment of displacement, and then it slides home: That sense of overwhelming loss, that was yesterday. This is now. Today, Steve is no shadow, and no shell. Today he’s found the footing he needs. He has dug in until he gets what he’s come for.

This time, Barnes stares placidly back at Steve through the glass. At first, Tony can’t hear what they’re saying, but he can see the shape of the name on Steve’s lips.

They continue to converse quietly, almost normally. Tony knows it’s not normal. It would be like Pepper coming at him again and again with fingers clawed, wide-eyed and lunging for his throat.

“I feel like you’re not listening to me, Steve,” Barnes sneers, loud enough at last. They’re sitting now, almost back to back on either side of the glass. But this incarnation of Barnes would never do that, and so there is a good three feet separating their leaning forms, a distance Steve has not attempted to close. Barnes must have at last worn himself out; Tony has no idea why he’d sit down otherwise, until it becomes clear that he’s using the proximity to bait Steve in other ways. Intimacy, closeness without being close, a facsimile of what they used to have.

“You’d be right,” Steve mutters. He’s looking at Barnes sideways through the glass, though Barnes is not looking at him. This is Steve’s method of wearing the other man down, Tony knows it from personal experience. Edgy people like him, and apparently like Barnes, have to respond to this sort of attention. They are genetically incapable of ignoring it. “I haven’t been listening to you since you opened your mouth.”

“Now that’s a downright lie,” Barnes answers, voice lilting almost into a song. He swivels his head, rolls it against the glass until that cold, carefree grin is aimed properly at Steve. “Incidentally, if you’re listening for ‘him,’ don’t bother. There’s only one of me in here.”

“You’re going to come back to me,” Steve states softly, not really talking to Barnes anymore. He’s just looking at Barnes with those unguarded eyes, exposed in a way Tony’s never seen before, and certainly never seen directed at himself. Someone could step right in and pull everything that matters out of Steve in one smooth tug, he’s so open right now. “You’re in there. I know you are. And I am getting you back.”

The last sentence takes on edges, the fierceness Tony’s come to recognize in his teammate. The real Steve Rogers, or a big part of him. There are a lot of different sides to Steve, but, looking at him and Barnes together, sitting on the floor on either side of the partition, Tony feels like he only knows a few of those facets. Not even most.

Steve shifts a little and presses his palm flat against the glass, spreading his fingers in a wide star. Barnes eyes it derisively, but Steve keeps his hand there, as if he’s touching Barnes himself.

This is invasive. This is beyond the pale, leaden in Tony’s chest. This, right here, is not for him. It’s not for anybody but the two people on the screen.

His hand shakes as he shuts off the feed.

**

He loses track of time. It’s easy enough when he decides to drink. But he’s not actually drunk, because for whatever reason, the alcohol is not dulling the ache. Even this has abandoned him, his oldest, most reliant technique, one that he thought could weather anything simply by the grace of being inanimate, not subject to human unpredictability. He puts the bottle aside after two glasses and stares at it instead, mutinous at first, and then feeling betrayed beyond understanding.

He doesn’t want to deal with this sober.

It’s dark again by the time he rouses to a warning from JARVIS: Steve is home, and making his way slowly up through the tower. He stops off at his rooms, stays in his doorway for an endless moment, and then returns to the elevator. Instead of going down to the gym, however, the elevator ascends, climbing to the top floor, and Tony just knows Steve’s asked JARVIS where to find him.

He digs his fists into his eyes until all he sees is white. He doesn’t want to deal with this sober.

Whatever else, he can’t not let Steve in. He doesn’t have it in him. The elevator door slides open in the hall and Tony pours himself some water, desperate to clear the bad taste from his throat. He turns around, exhaling, just as Steve steps into the room and comes to a stop. He’s in his leather jacket, jeans and white t-shirt. Tony doesn’t think he’s changed clothing. He wonders if any of it would still smell like him, were he to get close enough.

“You know about him,” Steve states, hands in his pockets. There’s no question in it, and Tony shrugs, not about to deny it.

“Child’s play,” he mutters, gesturing at the walls, the computer consoles, everything.

Steve’s nod, though, is relieved. One less thing to explain, one less trial to relive. It also means, Tony realizes, that Steve knows that Tony saw everything. Heard everything. Tony’s not sure what to make of that.

“Where—” Tony clears his throat and swirls his glass. “Where’d you find him?”

“Balkanabat.” Steve scruffs a hand from nape to crown. He looks misplaced, like all he’s looking for is something he recognizes, a space where he can rest. Tony finds himself staring and forces his eyes down to his glass. Steve comes further into the room, his steps muffled in the carpet. He hasn’t taken his jacket off. “SHIELD had cold intel for a long time, and then suddenly, there he was. So we went.”

Tony murmurs acknowledgment.

“I don’t think I was ready.” Steve sounds like he might be talking to himself, or possibly no one. An epiphany just as it comes. “I don’t know if I even believed until he…” He gestures, a sweep of his hand, and Tony follows it like it’s a bird, hating the lurch in his chest. “God, Tony, he’s so different. He’s so completely other.”

Like Natasha was, probably, once. It’s a distant thought, like observing an experiment through glass. Tony takes a drink, feels the ice’s chill over his tongue. Swallows and swirls his glass again. There’s still the tang of booze in the water, he thinks absently.

“Part of it's chemical. They had him on so many receptor antagonists, he's going to have to detox for weeks before we can get anywhere.” Steve sighs. “But he remembers,” he says heavily, staring down a gallows, and Tony looks up.

He can feel his face heating, because he remembers, too, he remembers exactly the things Barnes was talking about, except happening against his own body, under his own hands, the taste of it flooding his own mouth. Barnes is still Barnes, and he’ll still hurt Steve like this, and that is infuriating and demoralizing all at once. What must Steve be thinking about what he and Tony did? What must he be thinking about what he and Barnes did, so many decades ago?

“I know,” Tony croaks out, then looks away, because Steve’s eyes rise to find his, and he can’t meet that gaze. He clears his throat again, puts the glass down and picks up one of the pieces of equipment he brought up with him and hasn’t touched since. “Is it reversible?” he asks, toying with a spring. “What they did to him.”

“I hope so,” Steve answers, fervently enough to jar Tony. Again, that fight Steve plans to win, at any cost. And then Steve’s entire demeanor slumps. “But what happens then? You know that he… knew Natasha? For years. They worked together, Tony, they… And he remembers all that, too. He lived another life, he did things that he’d never have done. I have no idea who he’ll be when he comes back. Who or what he’ll need.”

Steve’s frantic about what happens after, if—when Barnes regains himself. Steve or Natasha? The past or the present? And none of it, none of it, circles around Tony.

All Tony has left to do is get out of the way.

He’s… not going to be able to speak and keep this from being heard. It’s a skulking sort of devastation, and god, how many different kinds of devastation are there? He’s felt them all in the last two days, he’s sure of it, always one more, just when he thinks it’s finally safe to drop his guard. And Steve’s going to hear all of this in the very next sentence he speaks.

“Are you.” Whatever he’s about to reveal, he’s not a quitter. He’ll beat it down with a hammer if that’s what it takes. “How are you? With this.”

Steve’s eyes flick over his face, that searching intelligence trying to discern the situation.

“I don’t know,” he says at last, and his voice cracks.

Tony bites hard at the inside of his cheek to keep his face straight.

He always does this, gets into gear too late and ends up going down in flames. Why do his emotions always choose this moment to jump off the cliff and fall headlong? It’s like a part of him understands the fluctuations of the universe and times it just right to cause the most lasting damage. Because, oh god, he’ll hold a spot if he has to. If all there is for him is a holding pattern spent locked in Steve’s arms, slicked with Steve’s sweat, ears filled with endearments not meant for him, moved and embraced and pushed over the edge repeatedly by Steve’s body until the real thing comes along… hell, Tony’ll take it. The horrible thing is that he won’t even complain, and the blazing emptiness eats its way through him, that he doesn’t even want to hold onto his pride anymore.

He’s gone. He’ll be Steve’s, any way he can get him, until he’s forced out.

“Tony,” Steve breathes, a full-body sigh, and sags. It has weight. “I don’t know if I can do this.” He presses the heels of his hands to his eyes and makes the most pained face, like he’s trying to squeeze reality right out of existence.

Tony’s heart gives a heavy sideways hitch.

“It’s fine,” he says into the quiet, glad of his sobriety for the first time. Glad that his ability to put on another face is so ingrained. “Don’t worry about it. No harm done, it’s good. We’re good.”

Steve stares at him, and Tony looks down. It’s too hard to hold his composure otherwise. Let the other details work themselves out when they do; he’s not going to push his way into Steve’s bed. He’ll end up there in other ways before this is all over, though, he can feel it. Fuck, he can remember exactly what Steve will do to lead him there. In technicolor. But it’s too hollow an image to cling to, and a piece of Tony screams raw at the unfairness, of being deprived of this one small comfort right at this instant.

“We’re good?” Steve’s words sound as flat as an echo, as if the room has grown too big. His jaw works.

Tony sniffs again and nods, turns the thing in his hands, he doesn’t even know what it is, but he turns it, looks at all angles. “Of course.”

There is a long silence.

“What is this?”

Tony jerks up, because Steve’s voice. It shouldn’t belong to him, should never belong to him, not that amalgamation of shattered parts forced together with all the points sticking out. Tony jerks up, and he finds Steve’s expression broken, his eyes red and wide, everything twisted in a way it wasn’t before, even on the night Tony found him in the gym.

Steve’s walls aren’t there anymore, not a whisper of them. This is what Steve looks like when he just opens his hands and lets everything fall.

Tony takes a step forward and Steve steps back, and they both freeze, Tony’s hand raised between them as if to calm a shying horse.

“What?” Tony manages, because he doesn’t know, he doesn’t understand what he’s looking at anymore. Steve swallows and the motion just shudders. Tony has a sudden and shocking glimpse of the man Steve was, thin and cowed despite constantly standing tall, ground down by the hugeness of the world itself.

Steve swallows again, and looks away like he can’t help the skitter of his eyes. One hand clenches at his side and releases. “No. Oh.” The second word is more a rush than a word, the kind of sound one makes when about to be sick.

“Steve.”

Steve locks eyes with him and for a moment, it’s just heat, that incredible, unquenchable inferno that twisted through Tony’s guts and razed up his spine and took him apart against the backside of that couch. Then it snuffs, so fast Tony sucks in a breath, and Steve puts a hand over his eyes. His shoulders tremble.

“I don’t know what it is you want me to say here, so, just, Tony, what is this? Because I thought it was something, and you’re saying we’re good? We’re—” He chokes on it and catches himself, then straightens his spine slowly, with a resigned self-awareness. His throat pinks a little, and then the color fades. “Damn it, just. No. No, no, no…”

This is not his Steve. This isn’t remotely close to the man Tony knows. He crosses the room without thinking about it, just needing to get closer, and stops short of Steve himself. Realizes he’s still holding that unnamable object in his hand. “I don’t… want to make this harder for you, Steve, god, you know I don’t.”

“Oh, it’s pretty damn hard,” Steve grits out. He rubs his mouth, back and forth, and glares wide-eyed at nothing over the top of his hand. Finally he sweeps the hand back up through his hair and massages his neck brutally. When he looks at Tony, his eyes beg. “I don’t want to be just good, Tony. I can’t, can’t be that. I didn’t intend for what happened to… happen, but all of this, I cannot handle this if we’re…” He gestures and his hand shakes. “I don’t think I can do it.”

The familiarity of the phrase niggles. Tony crouches, sets down the object he’s holding before he drops it. Steve’s not the only one shaking. “Steve.”

“Look.” Fuck, he’s really shaking, the very air around him vibrating. It’s scary and horrible to Tony, knowing he’s contributed to it. Steve inhales fast. “Look, I’m not—I don’t want anything you’re not willing to give. But I was hoping you’d, I mean. I didn’t think what we were doing would go like this, I honestly didn’t, so if you did—”

Tony’s insides are collapsing again, almost too fast to keep up. “It was, it was the moment. I get it, god knows I’ve been there. I just wanted you to be you again. And you weren’t you, you were, hell, Steve, I didn’t recognize you, I couldn’t just stand there. And I don’t handle things right, I never do, and I’m sorry.”

Steve stares at him like Tony’s cutting him, damn it, what the fuck is he saying that’s doing this? Steve clears his throat roughly. “Do not tell me you regret that, Tony. I can take a lot, but I don’t think I can take that.”

It punches a sound from Tony’s lungs before he can stop and think, think about why those words don’t jive. “Steve, I could never regret anything I do with you. Least of all that.”

That. Reducing what it was to a single, unattractive word. Steve looks at him, really looks, and it’s so tense Tony could knead his hands into it and hold himself upright. Steve opens his mouth, but suddenly Tony can’t be the last one to speak; he doesn’t know what Steve’s going to say and he doesn’t know how to begin to combat it.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he says gruffly. “Steve, I’m not—I can’t. Do you even see that I’m…” He raises his hands and lets them fall, hating himself in ways he’s never hated himself before. Hating mostly that he’s so very tender underneath all the armor. That there are so many places he can still be pierced. “You tell me what you need and I’ll do it. I’ll do it.”

Steve’s eyes are wide, and maybe he does get it, because suddenly he’s grabbing Tony’s arm, or maybe that’s because Tony is swaying. Tony shoots out a hand and braces against the countertop, leaning awkwardly, Steve’s hand hot around his elbow. Steve pulls him upright, slides his fingers roughly under Tony’s jaw and holds him still, forcing their eyes to meet. His thumb trembles just at the side of Tony’s mouth, pressing.

Tony’s whole body shudders, and it’s like a wheel set in motion, gears released. Steve shakes his head, forehead crumpling, maybe he’s whispering, Tony doesn’t know, because his lips are on Steve’s again, on and then away, skipping together like hands clipping a stranger’s on the street, and then, oh, and then.

Steve tastes like salt and vehemence and misery, his tongue making short work of Tony’s mouth, shoving him open, holding him open, teeth clacking, and it’s different from that first night and it’s the same. It’s the same, pulling things out of Tony that he never meant to release, but this is Steve and Steve will always do this to him without fail.

“Please don’t wait for him,” Tony begs against Steve’s mouth, slurs, thank god, because he doesn’t want Steve to hear this. “Please don’t—”

Steve makes a sound deep in his throat like he’s been wounded and attacks Tony’s mouth again, pulls him in too hard, it’s painful, but god, it’s Steve, not waiting, whatever else is going to happen. His hands are everywhere, and Tony’s hands are everywhere else, he’s never needed to touch anything or anyone like he needs to touch Steve. If there were a way to feel all parts of him at once, just to make sure he was wholly there, Tony would do it in a fraction of a second, less than.

Steve hauls him up, pulls them bodily together, and Tony cries out at the stifling pressure against his groin, hoists himself up against it without conscious thought and molds himself there. He’ll do it right here on top of the counter, or on the couch, against the nearest wall, hell, on the floor, he’ll get down and spider his limbs around Steve and relish every burn of the rug against his spine if it means Steve is the one shoving him down into it, answering a plea he can’t even begin to voice.

Steve’s hands fumble with Tony’s belt, and Tony stutters in a stupor, overloaded by every graze, every breath. Steve gets Tony’s pants down with a violent jerk, reaches back and strips the t-shirt over his own head, and this, this isn’t what Tony wanted for them or expected or—but it’s also them, isn’t it? It’s their tension and their energy, their clash and their fierceness, and it’s magnificent.

“Fuck me,” he hisses against Steve’s mouth, “right here, Steve, right—”

“No,” Steve gets out, and then he lifts Tony away from the counter, shuffling him past the couch. Bed, bedroom. Tony knows it’s behind him, but he’s never going to make it, not if Steve keeps—

“Fuck,” he groans as Steve backs him into the wall in the hallway and pushes him up against it, almost off his feet. Steve shoves a hand down his boxers and gets hold of him, and Tony can’t help it, he clamps his teeth around the skin arcing from Steve’s shoulder to his jaw. Steve grunts, his breath skating hot over the side of Tony’s face. He pulls Tony’s shirt open, over his shoulders, drops it on the floor, and then they’re turning again, through the bedroom door this time. The mattress hits the backs of Tony’s knees and he topples onto it, and Steve comes down with him, Steve gets him on the bed—

The shock, the change of pace, is so complete that Tony freezes at the first touch, Steve’s hands gliding heavily up his sides from hips to armpits, stretching his spine. Tony can’t help himself. He arches, shudders up against Steve, and Steve cants his hips down, holds him there, pinned against the mattress.

It’s slow. It’s invasive, it’s… Tony shuts his eyes, but Steve makes a noise so peculiar that he opens them again. Steve is so close. Tony can smell the tang of his sweat, see the sheen forming across his collar. Feel it between their bellies. He shifts instinctively, widens his legs and, god, there they are, that’s—Tony cranes his head back, presses it into the mattress and loses himself for a long, loaded minute trying not to let it end like this.

When he slumps back down, his fingers have dug into the flesh of Steve’s shoulder blades. He makes himself let go, lets his hands hover instead, barely touching. Steve’s eyes never leave his; he reaches under the pillows, feeling around, and then his hand slides firmly back down Tony’s side to his thigh. Up again, easing Tony’s legs wider and settling Tony’s knee over the crook of his elbow. Tony clenches his fingers in Steve’s hair this time instead of his skin, can’t stop moving, little hitches and swells with every breath.

Steve opens him up, so much more thoroughly than the other night. The lube is cold, and Tony bites his lip because he can’t catch up, he’s not… There’s nothing fast about it, just measured, and yet it’s leaving him in the dust. He gropes at Steve’s shoulders, his nape, squeezes when Steve adds a second finger, strokes inside Tony until the heat shoots in ruinous waves up his spine. He feels words bubbling up, because this, this can’t be new to Steve. Not when he’s steadily working Tony open for him, not when his mouth doesn’t leave Tony’s for more than an instant while he’s doing it, not when he can stare Tony in the eye like he knows what he’s thinking, and not falter in the slightest bit.

“Do you love him,” Tony gasps.

And Steve looks at him like he’s finally seen Tony’s insides. He stops everything, everything, the room so still it’s uncomfortable, and cradles Tony’s face. Holds his gaze for a lengthy, shuddering moment. “It’s not the same,” he whispers.

It’s not an answer, is what it is, and then Steve’s lips touch his ear, more breath than voice, “Nowhere near the same.”

He’s in Tony before the words fully register, a smooth cant of his hips that calls to mind Steve’s perfection in battle. Tony huffs out a breath, sucks it back in again, finds Steve’s mouth readily close and thrusts his tongue inside it for all the ways Steve isn’t just fucking into him. It’s a rote reaction, it’s—Tony inhales shakily as Steve inches in again, adjusting the lay of Tony’s hips across the blanket. Tony can feel Steve’s muscles straining, beautiful tension under the skin of his lower back, along his waist, and it’s still their force and their heat, but it’s other things now, too, the longing and frustration and respect, the headiness of standing in Steve’s space and the fucking trust, and Tony opens his eyes, utterly stunned.

He’ll bet everything he owns that Barnes never had this, because Barnes never had what they have.

“I’m not—” He stops, trembling beneath Steve’s heat, winded under the epiphany. He actually gets to have this, not just Steve, but them, it’s here, and it’s not…

For the immediately foreseeable future, it’s not going away.

Steve presses him back, presses into a kiss that shuts it all down, sends him rigid and then loose and dismantled, like his muscles aren’t his anymore. This is what this is, damn it, this is the way he will be because of Steve. Stripped down to the roots without any knowledge of how he got there. “Steve.”

It’s begging, begging for something he can’t put words to. Steve tucks a finger lightly to the corner of his eye, kisses him again, and Tony clenches his eyes shut, feels the tear break free to cool his cheek. Steve hugs him close, low at the hips, changes the angle, slides all the way inside in a full, agonizing push.

“You think I’m going anywhere,” Steve grits out, and shudders. “Anywhere that’s not here—”

Tony clenches. Wraps his legs tight around Steve’s back and hooks his ankles. Feels like every inch of them is touching, too hot, too much sweat, uncomfortable and intimate and so fucking close. Steve doesn’t finish the sentence. He presses in slow, working even further forward in small hitches until Tony moans into his mouth again, until he can’t keep silent anymore.

Hell, he wants to be Steve’s. Without caveat, without stipulation or escape clause, just wants to be marked and marked, inked and claimed and etched with a red-hot stylus until there’s not a centimeter of him that he doesn’t share with Steve. Steve thrusts into him with intent now, forces Tony’s hips up until his back curves, fuck, where is that choirboy he first met ages ago? He knows now that he was fooling himself, making it comfortable in terms of his own adjustment, working happily without any of the pertinent information. Steve is no gentle soul when it comes to sex. He’s a man, he’s untapped lust and urgency, overwhelming want in the heat of it, just like Tony. And just like Tony wants. But he’s also with Tony, not just in him, with him, looking him in the eye as he draws them even closer, how is that possible, nosing his mouth with each intentionally contained thrust. Steve’s drawing this out. Making it last.

Making a fucking point.

Tony hopes he’s made his point, because now he’s absolutely certain what it is he needs to convey. He winds his fingers back into Steve’s hair and holds their foreheads together, breathes Steve’s air, sinks himself straight into the feeling of them, and shuts the rest of the world out. Steve’s fingers dig into his waist as if something deeper within him is reaching. He locks eyes with Tony and holds them, all pupil, just the thinnest gleam of blue around the rim. Tony covets that color. Blue has always been Steve’s color.

Tony’ll never outright tell Steve that he’s his. Not during sex, when it speaks as much of physical reaction as it does of true intention. But he wants to. Wants to hiss it in his ear, wants to state it aloud so that Steve can’t refute it. Wants to hear it for himself so it’s that much more real. So he’ll have to make it known in other ways.

If it ever comes to it, if Barnes ever opens his eyes one day and regains it—all of it, sharp and hot and so damned precious…

Tony’s going to fight for Steve. Despite history, despite the right of way or the flare of coals long banked, he’s going to get squarely in the way and fight. Give it the best he’s got, because everything is all he knows how to give anymore.

~fin~