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Black Holes and Revelations

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After the Skrulls are defeated, Steve spends the next couple days just re-acclimating to life in Avengers Mansion. He gets acquainted with Ms. Marvel, and talks with her over a long lunch. He likes her immediately, and he thinks she's a great addition to the team.

He wanders through the enormous house, listening to the sound of his teammates bickering, watching TV, working out. He pretends he doesn't hear the news stories that talk about Captain America betraying all of humanity. He knows that wasn't him, and he has nothing to prove – but he still stays inside, away from the public eye.

The other Avengers are thrilled to have him back. They act like nothing happened, and they don't treat him any differently, which he is quietly grateful for. But none of them will talk about that other Steve, the Skrull who wore his face for so many weeks. Clint is perfectly happy to spend hours filling him in on the latest sports news, but clams up when it comes to any mention of the Skrull. And Jan and Tony won't even stay in the same room if he tries to bring it up, but quickly make excuses to leave.

Steve understands all this, but seeing their unease only fuels his determination to find out what happened while he was gone. He wants to talk to Tony about it, but he doesn't quite know how. He spends those first two days trying – and failing – to find the right time and place to sit down with Tony and just talk, but it's a losing battle from the start. Tony is busy doing damage control on the Avengers' reputation with the public after the invasion, along with supervising the necessary repairs to the mansion. When he is around, he's holed up in his workshop, creating new armor that includes a built-in Skrull detector. Eventually Steve gives up trying, and accepts that he's probably just going to have to call Pepper Potts and schedule an appointment with him.

It's not a very appealing option. Still, it has to be done, and it has to be soon. The lingering question of what happened with the Skrull needs to be answered.

But no one is willing to talk to him about it. And so Steve finally makes a decision. On his third day back, he sits down with the laptop Tony gave him, and he opens it up.

All the Avengers have limited access to JARVIS and the mansion's security systems. Only Tony, of course, has complete access (and T'Challa, Steve suspects, but that is probably meant to be a secret.) But there are things even Tony doesn't know, and Steve prefers to keep it that way.

Requesting the security footage of his and Tony's workout sessions was his own idea – and the first time he ever made a personal request of JARVIS. He wanted Tony to learn how to defend himself out of the suit, but just one workout was enough to show him how difficult that was going to be. Tony Stark was a good learner, but a terrible student. Reviewing the footage of their workouts was Steve's attempt at becoming a better teacher.

Early on, he discovered the pattern. Tony would blithely disregard most things Steve said and end up pinned to the mat, flushed and sweating but utterly unrepentant. The next day though, Tony would say that he had been thinking, and he wanted to try a new hold, or what did Steve think about trying this approach. All things that Steve had suggested in their last session. And always Steve humored him, pretending he didn't know full well what Tony was doing, letting Tony salvage his pride. It made no difference, really, whose idea it was, just as long as Tony kept improving.

He looks now at the laptop, and his breath catches when he sees the list of videos that JARVIS has forwarded to him.

He tells himself that he shouldn't be disappointed or angry. Why shouldn't Tony have continued working out with the person he thought was Steve? The Avengers had no clue that Steve was a prisoner of the Skrulls. Life had gone on as normal for them – or so they had thought. Why should this one thing be any different?

He knows it shouldn't be – but it is different. Fighting supervillains is one thing. But fighting each other, close together? That is something else entirely. That is intimate. That is personal. And suddenly it bothers him intensely that Tony didn't know it wasn't him.

What did the Skrull do to mimic Steve Rogers so perfectly that no one could tell it was an imposter? Why didn't Tony, usually able to see through deception so easily, notice anything was amiss? Why didn't anyone notice?

He clicks on Play All, and starts to watch.

He barely makes it ten minutes before he realizes he's made a mistake. He can't bear to watch this. He was a fool to think he could.

It's not just seeing a monster wearing his face, moving like he does, speaking in his voice. It's the way the Skrull talks, his voice harsh and cold. It's those blue eyes, so hard and unfeeling. When the Skrull-Steve throws Tony to the mat, his lips curl in derision.

Steve fast-forwards through the rest of it. He does the same with the next one, stopping only occasionally to watch a few seconds of video here and there. By then he doesn't really need to see any more, though, because he's already seen the truth take shape before his eyes. He marvels that Tony never saw it, but then, he has the advantages of hindsight and objectivity, two things Tony never had.

What he sees is simple enough. Having figured out Tony's weaknesses, the Skrull loses no time in chipping away at them. Cutting words and barbed insults, insinuations about Tony's proclivities, associating physical weakness and inability with his sexual preferences. Mocking him when he has to stop and catch his breath. Pushing him past his endurance and then making scathing comments about his stamina and weak heart while he lays there on the mat, gasping for air. Assuring him that he will never be good at this, that the lessons are a waste of time.

And Tony, so quick to detect bullshit when it's aimed at anyone else, gives in to it every time. He pushes himself to move faster, to run that extra lap, to take that second punch. He asks – no, he pleads – with Steve to keep up with the lessons, and promises to do better. And just when it seems like he might finally say enough is enough, the Skrull smiles at him and says, "I know you will, Tony. You're a fighter."

And Tony smiles back.

****

It's the third video, or maybe the fourth, Steve has lost track, when suddenly things change. He's got it on fast-forward, so he misses it at first. He has to rewind and slow the video down to normal speed.

The Skrull-Steve throws Tony to the mat. Tony lies flat on his back, too stunned to move. The Skrull drops fluidly to one knee, and presses the other to Tony's chest just beneath the arc reactor. He leans in, applying pressure, and clamps his hand over Tony's throat. "Give up?" he asks.

"Not…a chance," Tony groans.

The Skrull smiles. It is not a pleasant sight. In one fluid move he releases Tony and stands up to loom over him.

Tony is slow to rise. He's barely off the ground when the Skrull punches him.

Tony goes flying. He strikes the wall and slides downward, his entire body loose, his eyes dazed. Blood wells up at the corner of his mouth.

Intense heat rushes over Steve, fever-hot. He knows what it is. It's rage, pure and simple. He's seen Tony get knocked around before during their various battles with the forces of evil. But this is different. This kind of calculated cruelty fills him with absolute fury.

But there is nothing he can do. He can only sit there, fists clenched, almost shaking with the force of his anger – and watch.

"You let your guard down," the Skrull says coldly. "Again. How many times do I have to tell you?" His voice drips with disgust. "You're never going to learn. I don't know why I bother. I'm just wasting my time with you."

Tony sits up, one hand braced on the floor. He still looks rather dazed as he touches the back of his other hand to his mouth. He can't quite look at Steve as he says, "I'm not… I can do this."

"No," the Skrull-Steve says. "You can't. You've already proven that. You're no good at this. The same way you're no good at anything."

Tony flinches minutely. "Steve…"

"You think I'm wrong?" the Skrull says. "Prove it." Even on the small laptop screen, his posture radiates an unmistakable threat.

Tony looks up at him, still a bit stunned. He's clearly trying to figure out what is happening here, and the best way to satisfy Steve. "What do you want me to do?" he asks quietly.

"You never listen to what I say," the Skrull-Steve says. He folds his arms. "You talk too much. I think you should put that mouth to use in some other way."

The video image is perfectly clear. There is no way to deny Tony's reaction: that first, immediate flush of surprise, swiftly followed by greedy desire.

And Steve, watching it all from the safety of his own bedroom, is stunned to realize that Tony wanted it.

If I had… The thought chases itself through his mind, almost too swift to follow.

He can't think about this now. He can't. And yet he finds himself remembering days gone past, when it seemed like the silence between him and Tony was filled with strange tension. When he had sometimes caught Tony looking at him with what he can only describe as yearning. He had never responded, never asked Tony what he was thinking. It isn't his way to pry into a person's private thoughts.

I should have asked, he thinks.

On the video, the Skrull steps closer. As his shadow falls over Tony, that startled-but-pleased look on Tony's face slides away, replaced by a quiet wariness. "If that's what you want," he says.

"I wouldn't have said it if I didn't want it," the Skrull-Steve says. "And I think you want it, too, judging by the way you've been looking at me the past couple weeks."

Tony looks away, almost embarrassed. "And if I did?"

"You finally got your chance," the Skrull says. He spreads his feet, arms still folded, shoulders back. "Well? What are you waiting for?"

Tony hesitates for a moment before he starts to get up. The Skrull stands back and lets him. But the moment he is on his feet, the Skrull-Steve grabs at him, one hand at the back of his head, wrapped tightly in his hair, the other holding his arm possessively. He leans in, not for a kiss, but to lick at the blood trickling down Tony's jaw.

Tony gasps, and goes very still. He closes his eyes. The first uncertainty crosses his face, plainly visible to the camera, although the Skrull doesn't see it. It's not fear, though.

Not yet.

Abruptly the Skrull lets go of Tony. Freed, Tony almost staggers backward, still a bit unsteady on his feet from the earlier blows to the head. It requires no effort at all for the Skrull-Steve to push him down to his knees. "Go on," he commands.

Tony smiles at the Skrull, easy and charming. Steve's stomach turns over at the sight, because Tony is obviously still thinking that this is something he wants. And even though this has already happened and there is no changing it, Steve still wants nothing more than to reach through the screen and make it all stop.

"Aye aye, Cap'n," Tony teases. "Gonna make me walk the plank next?"

"Enough talk," growls the Skrull. He undoes his fly, revealing his cock, already half-hard.

Tony draws in a deep breath. He smiles, admiring and appreciative. "God, Steve."

The Skrull-Steve's expression loses some of its hard edges then. He looks proud. "You like what you see?"

"Very much," Tony breathes. He starts to lean forward, then he stops. "I have to admit," he says somewhat hesitantly, "this isn't exactly how I imagined our first time."

The Skrull lays his hand along the side of Tony's face. It's a tender gesture, and Tony tilts his head slightly, leaning into that touch. "Really?" the Skrull says. "This is exactly how I pictured it." There is fond affection in his voice, but it's distant. He might as well be talking about his dog.

Tony blinks up at him – and there, plain as day, is all the hopeless adoration he's been harboring for Steve all this time.

In that single instant Steve understands everything. He knows exactly why Tony let the Skrull treat him this way, why he was so willing to forgive all those small cruelties and come back for more.

Something dark and furious twists in his chest. It scares him, the intensity of that emotion. It makes him want to go out and do something, to stand up and speak out. The need to take action is so strong it's all he can do to continue to sit still.

He never knew he could feel this way about someone. Because suddenly this is not just about sex. This is so much more than that.

He never knew Tony cared that way about him.

He never knew…and now it's too late.

And the worst thing, what makes all this even more horrible, is realizing that he cares, too.

That's why he's so angry. Why he wants so badly to reach through that screen and smash the Skrull's face in. He can't stand to see Tony being hurt like this because he can't stand to see Tony hurt at all. He would do anything to take that pain away, to undo the past and protect Tony from this fate.

But no shield can do that, and no feat of strength can turn back time. He has to accept what has already happened.

He is not powerless, though. What's happening in the video is proof of that. Without knowing how or when it happened, he has somehow become Tony Stark's undoing.

But it works both ways, and he knows that now. It's not just friendship and respect that has him sitting here almost shaking with the desire to keep Tony safe. And it isn't loyalty that makes him want to see Tony again as soon as possible, not only to reassure himself that Tony is all right but just to see him. All of him. His charming smile and the way his hair falls into his eyes and the light that fills his face when he thinks up some incredible new idea.

He wants to walk up to Tony and smile at him in the way that Tony smiles at him. Because he understands why now.

Because somehow, somewhere along the way, he fell in love with Tony, too. And he never knew it until now.

A sound from the video captures his attention again. On the screen, the Skrull-Steve is lightly stroking Tony's cheek. His thumb presses in on the wound on Tony's lip, setting it to bleeding again. Tony flinches, then holds still. He never takes his eyes off the Skrull's face.

The Skrull slides his hand down to cup Tony's jaw. His fingers flex, digging in. Tony's mouth opens on a gasp of pain.

The Skrull thrusts forward.

Steve hastily looks away. He doesn't want to see this. The sounds are bad enough. He will go insane if he has to look at what's happening on that screen.

He gets up and stalks away from the laptop. His fists are raised high with the longing to strike out at someone, anyone. He almost wishes that the Skrull were here in front of him now, so he could try to kill it again – and finish the job this time.

The sense of betrayal is incredible. It ate away at him all those weeks when he was a prisoner of the Skrulls, imagining what might be happening back on Earth. But now that he knows, now that he sees what did happen, it's almost beyond enduring. Witnessing all the other atrocities the Skrulls committed left him angry and determined to win against them. But this moment, when one of them hurt the man he loves while wearing his face, is unforgivable.

This is personal.

He's ready to walk out and leave the hateful video behind when he hears something new, something audible even over the sound of Tony choking.

Laughter.

The Skrull is laughing, ugly and mocking.

Steve hurries back over to his desk and stares at the screen.

"This is terrible," the Skrull says. "Is this really the best you can do?"

Tony gags a little as the Skrull-Steve's cock is pulled from his throat. Saliva and precome glisten on his chin, tinged pink where his lip is still bleeding. On his knees, his hair hanging in his eyes, he looks very small.

"I knew this was a bad idea," the Skrull says, and with one powerful sweep of his arm, he backhands Tony into the wall.

Tony slumps to the floor, unconscious.

In his room, three weeks after the fact, Steve Rogers stands still and thinks very calmly that he now knows what the Hulk feels like, living with so much rage bottled up inside that all he wants to do is smash everything in sight.

Onscreen, the Skrull stands there for a moment, staring contemplatively down at Tony. Then he reaches down and takes his dripping cock in one hand and starts to stroke himself. He looks almost distracted, like he's thinking about something other than what he's doing. He doesn't touch Tony again, which is the only saving grace about the whole thing.

When the Skrull-Steve comes, he grunts quietly. His skin becomes tinged with green, and for a moment his face shifts and lengthens, folds overlapping on his chin, his ears growing pointed. It's a terrifying sight, half-man, half-Skrull, and it explains why he didn't let Tony finish.

He looks dispassionately down at Tony, who is still unconscious, his white tank top and right forearm now painted with come. The corner of the Skrull's mouth lifts in a sneering smile. The green fades from his skin, and his features become wholly human again. He remains where he is for a moment longer, then he turns around and he walks away.

Ten seconds later, the video ends.

Steve sits there for a long time, staring at the blank laptop screen, before he finally accepts what he has to do.

He makes himself sit still for a while longer, though. He has to calm down before he talks to Tony. Because whatever happens next, it has to be right.

He has to make this right. Or he will never forgive himself.

****

Tony is not in a good mood when he arrives back at the mansion. "Make sure you take Mister J. Jonah Jameson—" he sneers the name "—off our Christmas card list."

"I have already made sure of it," JARVIS replies calmly. "Although I repeat that he was never on the list to begin with."

"Good," Tony snaps. "And he's never getting on it."

He still can't believe the bullshit he had to listen to, standing there in Jameson's office. Everyone knows it wasn't really Steve who said those things, urging the people of Earth to surrender to the Skrulls. Everyone except for the high-and-mighty J. Jonah Jameson, that is. And unless he gives in to Jameson's ridiculous demand to let some kid photograph Captain America in action, the Daily Bugle is going to be full of horrible lies and slander about Steve.

And speaking of the devil. Steve is standing here in the assembly room, waiting on him, evidently. "Oh good," he says as he raises the faceplate and walks forward. "You're just the person I wanted…to…see…"

He stops. Steve does not look pleased to see him. In fact, Steve looks like he's one step short of Hulking out. He's pale and his jaw is clenched and there is a light in his eyes that looks positively murderous.

And for a second, just a second – but long enough for Tony to hate himself for it – he wonders if this is really Steve, and he's glad he's in the armor.

"You okay, Cap?" he asks. Keeping it light. Pretending he didn't just have that traitorous thought.

"No," Steve says. "I am not okay." He takes a short breath through his nose. "We need to talk, Tony."

"Okay," Tony says.

Steve starts to speak, then he checks himself. "Can you get out of the suit?"

"Is that wise right now?" Tony shoots back. He's only half-joking.

"Tony, please," Steve says, and it's the please that decides him. That, and the memory of Jameson gloating as he rattled off the list of Steve's "crimes."

"Fine," he says. "I'll meet you upstairs in five."

Steve exhales in relief. "Thank you."

Alone in his shop, Tony sheds the armor and the undersuit. He gets dressed again in a black tank top and jeans, rakes his fingers through his hair, and tries not to think about how ashen Steve was just now.

What could be wrong, he wonders. Maybe Steve already knows what Jameson plans to do. Or maybe he knows damn well what Steve wants to talk about and he's being an idiot by ignoring the green-skinned elephant in the room.

There's only one way to find out. He squares his shoulders and heads upstairs.

****

Steve is waiting for him in the game room. The place is looking a little worse for the wear after the last poker night "disagreement" between Hulk and the Thing, but it's cool in here with the drapes drawn, keeping out the summer sun and heat.

The delay appears to have helped Steve calm down – he no longer looks like he's ready to heft the shield and leap into battle. Now he looks very serious.

Tony wishes fleetingly for a drink. But it's too late to turn around and walk away, because Steve has seen him. And anyway, he can't leave. Not without finding out what's going on.

"So what's up?" he says. Being the futurist that he is, he prides himself in being able to predict how a conversation will go. And the way he sees it, this could go one of two ways. Either Steve knows where he just was, and has decided that it's finally time to corner him into talking about the Skrull invasion. Or else Steve is going to try resigning from the team, which is frankly something Tony expected to hear from him two days ago.

And even then, somewhat prepared for it, it's a shock when Steve says, "I saw what the Skrull did to you."

Tony stares at him blankly. At first he can only think about the virus the Skrull Queen infected him with. He doesn't like to think about those hours he spent lying there in agony, believing the other Avengers were either already dead or else going off to their deaths. And worse, the raw betrayal of hearing that beloved voice – Steve's voice – identify itself as a Skrull. But he doesn't know how Steve could know those things. And a moment later Steve confirms it by saying, "I saw the videos of you two sparring together."

The other shoe drops. Tony gets it then. Anger and humiliation surge through him. He doesn't know how Steve managed to see all that, but the how isn't important. Steve saw it. That's all that matters.

"Good for you," he snaps. "I hope you enjoyed the show. Now if you don't mind, I have work to do." He walks stiffly toward the door, refusing to look at Steve. He's not fleeing, he tells himself. He's getting out while he can still maintain his dignity.

He almost makes it out, too. He's at the door when Steve says his name. Just that, nothing more. But it's enough to stop Tony in his tracks.

"I needed to know," Steve says, "how it managed to fool everyone."

That's a question Tony has asked himself a hundred times since the Skrull invasion. How they could all have been so blind. How they had all managed to overlook the little things that should have tipped them off. The Skrull's insistence on attacking the Kree without first trying to talk things through. Its tiny cruelties and sly sarcasm. The fact that it actually asked questions about things like pop culture and the other Avengers instead of being all manfully stoic and muddling through on his own, the way Steve insists on doing.

It doesn't make him feel any better that he can't actually answer the question.

Steve says, "When we first started sparring together, I asked JARVIS to send me the video footage of the sessions. I wanted to be a better teacher for you, Tony."

He can't stand this. He really can't. It's bad enough that Steve has seen the videos. But now this, to hear the reason why they even exist in the first place… It's too much.

He turns around so he can look Steve in the eye. Already he has a calm but scathing retort planned out. But before he can say anything, Steve beats him to it.

"I saw what it did," Steve says. He doesn't look quite as angry as before, but there is a dark, grim determination in his eyes. "And I know that—"

"Don't," Tony croaks. Because he suddenly understands exactly what Steve is referring to. Steve isn't talking in generalities, about the way the Skrull-as-Steve constantly pushed him to do better and try harder, spurring him on with casual insults and challenges to his manhood.

This is about that day.

That day he's tried so hard to forget.

"I want you to know that I would never do that to you," Steve says. An awful light burns in his eyes. It's a look of desperation. Tony knows it well. He ought to – he's seen it in the mirror all too often.

"Don't," he says again, more harshly this time. "Stop."

Steve acts like he didn't hear. He still looks angry, but beneath it, there is a terrible and growing bewilderment. "I just don't understand how you could think that was me. Am I that…cold? Did you really think I was capable of treating you that way?"

Tony closes his eyes.

And reluctantly remembers

****

He doesn't like this new side of Steve, but he tells himself that there are reasons for it. Steve was a soldier during a war. And Steve's patience only stretches so far. Back then there was no time for weakness, for taking time to learn a new skill. Failure to learn meant death on the battlefield, pure and simple. Even though they aren't at war now, it must be hard for Steve to unlearn those lessons from the past.

So this is the drill instructor he's seeing now, Tony has decided. This is Steve when he's determined to make a point, to teach a lesson, to see something through. And while he might not like Steve's methods that much, he can't deny that the end result is worth it.

Or it will be, if he can ever learn to defend himself properly.

He's flat on his back, gasping for breath, his entire body bruised and aching. Before he can get up, though, Steve is suddenly there above him, one knee pressing painfully on his chest, compressing his lungs and making it even more difficult to breathe.

And then, as though that's not bad enough, Steve wraps one hand about his throat and squeezes, ever so slightly. "Give up?"

That's never an option, and Steve ought to know that. It's hard to speak, though, with the breath being forced from him. "Not…a chance."

Steve smiles. Not with pleasure, but with dark promise. Tony is starting to hate that look. It means Steve has something planned for him, something that will push him to his limits and beyond. He knows it's all designed to make him a stronger, better fighter – but he still hates it.

For a tiny instant, Steve's hand tightens about his throat, completely cutting off his air. He panics, fear sweeping through him in a rush, and with startling swiftness, Steve releases him and stands up.

Tony drags in a deep breath; it burns in his throat and lungs. He starts to get up.

He sees the punch coming, but there isn't a damn thing he can do about it. Steve's fist catches him in the mouth. Pain flares hot and bright in his jaw, and then he's airborne, literally knocked off his feet. The back of his skull strikes the wall, and the entire world splinters into pieces. He feels himself fall, but he's powerless to stop it from happening.

"You let your guard down," Steve says. He sounds angry. "Again. How many times do I have to tell you? You're never going to learn. I don't know why I bother. I'm just wasting my time with you."

The words cut Tony to the quick. So does the disgust in Steve's voice.

For a moment he simply lies there, trying to process what just happened. Steve has never hit him before. Not like this. Accidentally, sure. They both have. They're trading punches during these sessions, after all. But Steve has never struck him with such deliberate intent.

He's suddenly very aware of how physically vulnerable he is to someone with Steve's strength. Outside of the suit, his ability to defend himself is almost laughably non-existent. A small voice in the back of his head says that if he would concentrate and actually learn what Steve is trying to teach him, he wouldn't feel that way. But over the years Tony has become very good at ignoring that voice – and he ignores it now with ease.

Steve is still standing there, glaring down at him. He has to do something; he can't just lie here. He blinks rapidly, trying to clear his vision. He sits up and touches the back of his hand to his mouth, feeling gingerly at the cut there. "I'm not…" he says. His jaw aches and it hurts to talk. "I can do this," he insists.

"No," Steve says flatly. "You can't. You've already proven that. You're no good at this. The same way you're no good at anything."

Tony can't help flinching a little. All he's ever wanted is to prove himself to Steve. To be the kind of man Steve thinks he is. Every time he walks away from these lessons, battered and bruised, nursing a wounded ego along with the fresh hurts on his body, he tells himself angrily that he has to do better. He has to do what Steve tells him and learn what Steve is trying so hard to teach him.

"Steve…"

Steve looks unmoved. "You think I'm wrong?" he says. "Prove it." He stands tall over Tony, unmistakably issuing a challenge.

Tony stares up at him. He has the distinct – and very uneasy – feeling that things are spiraling out of control. This has gone well beyond a simple lesson in self-defense and become something else.

"What do you want me to do?" he asks quietly.

"You never listen to what I say," Steve says. He folds his arms. "You talk too much. I think you should put that mouth to use in some other way."

There is no question about what Steve really means. It's in the way Steve's hips cant forward slightly, and the growing bulge in his workout pants. It's the light in Steve's eyes, challenging him, daring him to pretend that this isn't something he hasn't thought about for weeks now.

Because he has thought about it. A lot. He was always in danger of falling for Steve, for that selfless heart and unending courage. These workout sessions between the two of them, involving physical contact and sweat and exertion, have only served to seal his fate. He wants Steve, wants all of him, body and soul.

He just never thought Steve felt the same way about him. And it occurs to him suddenly that maybe the reason Steve has seemed so frustrated with him lately is because Steve is frustrated. Not over his lack of progress, though.

Maybe Steve is frustrated because Steve wants him, too – and just never knew how to ask.

Evidently Steve has finally figured it out, though. He steps closer, and his shadow falls over Tony. Abruptly he realizes how he must look sitting here on the floor with his lip still bleeding. He's not sure that this is such a good idea, no matter how much he might have daydreamed about it. Steve might have made the offer, but he isn't exactly acting like this is something he wants – and Tony himself isn't so sure that he wants to do it under circumstances like this.

But he does want to do it. There is no denying that. He can already feel his cock stirring at the thought of getting to suck Steve off and bring him to orgasm. "If that's what you want," he says.

"I wouldn't have said it if I didn't want it," Steve replies. "And I think you want it, too, judging by the way you've been looking at me the past couple weeks."

Embarrassed, Tony looks away. So Steve knows. And here he was thinking he had been doing such a good job of hiding his feelings. "And if I did?"

The faintest smile tugs at Steve's mouth. "You finally got your chance," he says.

Tony hesitates. He's still not entirely convinced that this is the best thing to do right now. For one thing, this is not how he imagined things would be once they got to this stage. For another, even though Steve appears to be on board with it, he gets the impression that this is not meant to be something fun.

At least, not for him.

Steve spreads his feet, arms still folded, shoulders back. "Well? What are you waiting for?"

****

"Tony?"

He startles, jerked out of the memory and brought back to the present. To this here and now, where Steve – the real Steve Rogers – is looking at him with worry and sympathy and other things he absolutely does not want to think about.

It takes him a moment to remember the question Steve asked him. I just don't understand how you could think that was me. Am I that…cold? Did you really think I was capable of treating you that way?

And no, of course he doesn't think that. At the time he made all kinds of excuses for Steve's behavior. Mostly he blamed himself for it, for being too slow, too weak, too stupid. It's the story of his life, after all. No matter how smart he is or how amazing his inventions are, they're never good enough. He is never good enough.

Why should working out with Steve be any different?

Steve is still looking at him anxiously. He owes Steve an answer, and it has to be the right one.

"No," he says. "I don't think that."

Judging by the way Steve's brow furrows, that isn't the right answer. "But then…" Steve shakes his head. "Why did you let it treat like you that? If you thought it was me… Why, Tony?"

What the hell is he supposed to say to that? I thought he was right is too horrible. But so is I figured I had done something to deserve it. Far worse is the truth: I'm in love with you and I would do anything to make you proud of me.

He swallows hard, tasting bitter shame. All those excuses he made, all those lies he told himself, all to justify what the Skrull did. He knows it was wrong. He should have defended himself. He never should have let it go so far.

But mostly, he should have known that wasn't Steve. He should have known Steve would never be so cruel and cold, or treat him like that. That very same day, they went out and confronted the Kree for the first time, and the Skrull forced them into an attack. And still Tony hadn't realized the truth. He had done nothing, said nothing.

And in his silence, he had betrayed Steve.

"I would never," Steve says, and he looks so upset, so angry, so confused. "I would never force you to do something like that. Never."

"He didn't force me," Tony says, and it's like someone else is speaking with his voice. The words sound so far away. "I wanted to do it."

****

He does want this, even though it's not at all what he imagined, nor is it remotely pleasant for him. His jaw aches from the earlier punch, and Steve towers above him, radiating anger and hostility, apparently deriving no pleasure at all from the act, despite how hard he is.

So Tony tries harder, licking and sucking at Steve's cock with all his considerable skill, pushing past the pain in his jaw, forcing himself to relax his throat and take each thrust without gagging. He wants to make this good for Steve, to show Steve how things could be. This has to be memorable and special, so Steve realizes what they could have together and decides he wants more.

And instead Steve starts to laugh.

"This is terrible," Steve says. He sounds thoroughly disgusted. "Is this really the best you can do?"

Tony gags a little as Steve's cock is pulled from his throat. He can't help it. He's sure he makes a great picture right now, stinking of sweat, drool and precome on his chin, his hair hanging in his eyes. No wonder Steve is disgusted with him. He would be, too.

Disappointment rises within him, and an almost desperate desire to prove himself. He can't lose Steve, not like this. Not when he's only just been given him.

Only the dregs of his pride keep him from begging Steve to give him a second chance and let him try again, maybe later tonight in the privacy of his bedroom. He'll do it right this time, showering Steve with kisses, touching him like he deserves to be touched, blunting all the hard edges he seems to carry around lately with the warmth of his hands, before taking his cock in his mouth and sending him over the edge.

But then Steve says, "I knew this was a bad idea," and Tony knows that's it. This is over, whatever they might have had. It's over, and they never even really had a chance to begin.

Steve hits him and he goes flying, and all he can think is why and then he's out, gone into that black hole where no thought can follow.

****

He can't be out for very long. When he wakes up, he's lying near the base of the wall. His head hurts, his face hurts, his whole body hurts. And there is something sticky on his arm.

It takes him a long moment to figure it out. It's on his tank top too, and he knows it's come, but he doesn't understand. It can't be his, because he was just starting to get hard from the blow job. And it can't be from Steve, because Steve was repulsed by him, Steve actually hit him, and what the hell is going on here…

Tony sits up, groaning as the pain in his skull threatens to lay him low again.

Maybe he was unconscious longer than he thought. Maybe he did this to himself, like being a horny teenager all over again, dreaming about Steve and finishing what he started, only doing it right this time, so that Steve looks down on him with love, not disgust. Or maybe he woke up and something else happened, something he truly can't remember.

There are too many possibilities. They make his head ache.

The only thing he knows for certain is that he isn't going to figure it out lying here on the floor. Only one person can give him the answers, and that person is nowhere to be found.

He gets to his feet, groaning again as his headache intensifies. He wipes the sticky fluid on his arm on a fairly dry patch of fabric on his tank top, and makes his way toward the locker room that adjoins the gym.

Maybe Steve had a PTSD attack. Maybe they had wild sex and he blacked out again. It doesn't matter, he tells himself. He doesn't know what happened here, and he probably never will.

And he has to admit that in truth, he doesn't want to know. Sometimes it's better to forget, to give up the pursuit of knowledge and just embrace ignorance. He never wants to remember the way Steve looked at him, or the callous sweep of Steve's arm, flinging him backward and knocking him out. Or the fact that Steve just left him where he fell.

Inside the locker room, he scrubs at the come on his arm until it's all gone. He grabs a clean towel to dry off, and heaves a deep, shaky sigh. He doesn't want to look in the mirror, but he forces himself to do it, anyway. The sight is enough to make him wrinkle up his nose in pained disgust. He's far too pale, and his eyes look deeply shadowed. There is an ugly bruise forming on his jaw where Steve struck him. It's not the first time he's come away from their workouts with fresh scrapes and bruises, but this one feels different. This one was no accident, Steve not pulling his punches enough. This one was put there deliberately.

He leans forward, gingerly touching his face, trying not to wonder if all the bruises on those other days were deliberate too, and he just never realized. He's still studying the mottled color on his jaw when he sees movement behind him in the mirror.

Quickly he stands up straight and spins around.

"Hey," Steve says. He sounds normal enough. He even smiles a little.

Tony stands there, the edge of the sink pressing into his back. He hates himself for that, for freezing up, for suddenly feeling so wary around Steve. But he can't help it.

"Are you ready to head up?" Steve asks. "I could eat a horse."

It's all so…normal. Like nothing happened. Steve always eats a ton after their workouts, and he always waits on Tony, because he is quicker in the shower. Right now he's standing there, his hair damp but drying, back in uniform, looking just the way he always does. It's confusing as hell, and for the first time, Tony wonders if his overstressed mind didn't just make the whole thing up. Maybe it was all nothing more than a weird dream-thing that happened after the first time Steve rung his bell.

"Okay," he says. It comes out sounding high-pitched and weird, but Steve doesn't seem to notice.

"Okay," Steve says. "Let's go."

After a moment's hesitation, he follows Steve out of the locker room. He's still holding the towel, which isn't so dry anymore. They don't speak as they ride the elevator up to the main floor. Tony stands in the back corner and stares at the rigid line of Steve's spine and plucks his sticky tank top off his stomach with a grimace.

The silence between them is becoming awkward. And it's his fault, he realizes. Steve has already made it clear that nothing has changed, that everything is just the way it always is, and maybe he really did just imagine it all, his body playing its role in some dream he can't actually remember.

It's too confusing, and his head aches, and he just wants to get back to work and forget this day ever existed.

As they enter the kitchen, Tony forces himself to act normal. He uses the towel to wipe the sweat from his forehead and says lightly, "Well, I think that went pretty well as far as our workouts go. I only blacked out that one time."

It's not a test, he tells himself. It's really not.

Steve's response is pitched low, and Tony's ears are full of the whissking noise of the towel as he rubs at his sweat-damp hair. But it sounds like Steve says, "Is that how you remember it?"

Tony stops dead and stares at the back of Steve's head as Steve keeps on walking. He can't have heard that right. He can't.

He never gets the chance to find out, though. Hulk is sitting there, belching and eating with his usual lack of table manners – and after some awkward small talk, eventually dropping his bombshell about the Kree attack. And between that sudden turn of events and Tony's insistence on forgetting what surely didn't happen, he simply doesn't think about it again.

Not until now.

****

"He didn't force me," Tony says, and it's like someone else is speaking with his voice. The words sound so far away. "I wanted to do it."

It hits him suddenly what this means. What it really means. Steve didn't just see him meekly taking abuse from the Skrull. Steve saw him willingly get down on his knees and open his mouth for Steve's cock.

What a way for Steve to find out about Tony's feelings for him.

It's one more humiliation piled on top of all the others, but this one makes him bristly and defensive. He tilts his head back a little, stands tall with all the condescending arrogance he's often been accused of having. "Does it bother you that I felt that way?"

Steve looks taken aback at first, but he swiftly recovers. "It doesn't bother me," he says. "It surprises me a little. I had no idea you…" He stops. "Wait. You said 'felt.' Does that mean you don't feel that way anymore?"

He's not sure what to make of Steve's tone. It almost sounds like Steve is distressed at the idea of him having given up. But that can't be, because Steve has never shown any interest in him. And even if Steve had been interested, surely he isn't now. Not after watching Tony eagerly give a blowjob to a Skrull who just so happened to be wearing his face.

"I'd like the chance to earn your trust again, Tony," Steve says. "If you'll let me."

Tony just stands there and stares at him. Because the stupid thing is that he does trust Steve, even after everything. He knows that's not rational, but he's never been able to think clearly when it comes to Steve Rogers. The video Steve watched is surely proof enough of that.

"I believe in being honest," Steve says, which is possibly the biggest understatement of the millennium. "So you should know, that if anything like that ever happened between us, it would be because we both agreed to it. And it would be something we both enjoyed."

There is no way this day can get any more surreal. Tony is torn between anger, shame, and plain old confusion. And as always, the desire for knowledge wins out. "You… But why? You don't feel that way about me. Do you?"

Amazingly, color stains Steve's face. "And if I did?"

"Since when?" Tony asks, and it comes out sounding more like a plea than an actual demand for information.

Steve looks down then, and freed from the relentless pressure of his gaze, Tony edges backward a single step. "You're a handsome man, Tony," Steve says. "I'd have to be blind not to have noticed that. And…" He breathes in deep and looks back up – and once again Tony feels pinned in place.

"You're right," Steve says. "I didn't feel that way about you before. Or maybe I did, and I just didn't know it. All I know is that I watched that video tonight, and all I could think about was what it was doing to you. And I couldn't stand it.

"When I was waiting for you to get back just now," Steve says, "I thought about a lot of things. I thought about the times we spent together. Like when you took me on a tour of Washington DC and showed me around. Or when we went to dinner together at that revolving restaurant in Times Square. I don't think you knew how much that all meant to me. I didn't either, I admit."

His eyes are so damn blue. It's impossible for Tony to look away.

"I sat there remembering all the times you were there for me," Steve says quietly. "And I thought about how much I would miss you if I never got to see you again. And I realized that was what I wanted more than anything. To see you again."

It's suddenly hard to breathe. The room feels too small, the walls too close. His heart is doing funny things in his chest. If this were anyone else, he would know for certain that they were mocking him and what they had seen on the video. But this is Steve. And just like he said, Steve is always honest.

Steve means what he is saying.

And that is one revelation more than Tony can handle right now.

"Don't," he whispers.

Steve steps closer and sets a hand on his shoulder. The air between them is instantly charged; he would swear the arc reactor's light burns brighter than it ever has. "Tony."

He wants to turn away, to step back, hell, to run from the room. He can't do this. It's everything he ever wanted, but he can't accept it. How can he, when he's forever going to hear the Skrull laughing at him with Steve's voice?

And how can Steve even stand to be near him after seeing what he let the Skrull do to him?

"Tony." Steve says his name quietly. It should maybe calm him down. Instead he just feels his heart beat faster, his entire body taut with dreadful expectation.

Steve's hands rise toward his face. Tony doesn't even flinch. He's already braced for what comes next. He knows he deserves it.

But Steve doesn't strike him. Steve's hands come to rest on either side of his face. Warm and strong, and yet touching him so gently. "Tony," Steve says. "You are an amazing man. You're brilliant, you're incredibly brave, and you have such a generous heart. You took me in and you gave me a home, and you didn't have to do that. You showed me that I could live in this crazy new world, and you made me feel like I belonged. You're my best friend."

If that was it, if there were no more words, Tony thinks he could die happy. But Steve isn't finished yet.

"But you're more than just a friend," Steve continues. He shakes his head, and a rueful expression crosses his face. "It should never have taken me this long to figure out how I felt about you. But I know it now. And I'm not going to let you go that easily." He pauses then, and breathes in deep. "Unless you want me to."

Tony just stares at him. If he ever had any doubts about the truth of Steve's feelings, they are completely erased by the fact that Steve's hands are still resting on his face. Touching him not with possessive need, but lightly, as though afraid of hurting him.

It's unreal. Things like this don't happen to him.

He feels absurdly close to tears. After everything Steve saw, for him to still say those words, for him to mean them…

The fingers of Steve's right hand brush through his hair. A light smile tugs at Steve's mouth. "I'm trying to say that I love you, Tony Stark. Although I seem to be doing a terrible job of it."

"I—" It's all Tony can manage.

Steve's thumbs stroke lightly over his temples. "When I saw that video… It made me angry. Hell, it made me furious. I wanted to save you. I know that sounds stupid, but—"

"Don't," Tony says. He reaches up and takes hold of Steve's forearms. If he wanted, he could pull down now and remove Steve's hands from his face. He's pretty sure Steve would let him do it, too.

He doesn't pull.

"Don't talk about that," he says. "Don't even think about it. He wasn't you. I know that."

"I would never hurt you like that," Steve says.

"I know," Tony says. He remembers how shocked he was when the Skrull first hit him, and that terrible moment when he realized his own physical vulnerability. Before that day, he always felt safe around Steve, even when they were punching at each other in the gym. After that day, though, things had never been quite the same between them.

But he feels that old sense of safety again now, and it's such a relief to have that back that he lets himself dare to believe that what Steve says is actually true.

In spite of all his faults, his weaknesses, his flaws, Steve loves him. Knows the truth about him and loves him anyway.

A heady rush of joy sweeps through him. It's impossible, it can't be true, it can't be.

But it is.

And after that, it's ridiculously easy to admit to his own feelings. To finally stop making excuses and hiding from the truth. To accept that he is allowed to love Steve without shame or reservation.

Just this once, maybe, he finally gets to have something he wants. Time will tell if he gets to keep it, but for now, this shining precious thing is actually his.

He can't bring himself to say the words, though. It's too soon, and he's still reeling from the assorted shocks he's been delivered today. And though he feels safe around Steve again, he's starting to get uncomfortable from the prolonged touch on his face.

It's almost funny. He's always been the kind of guy who jumps in with both feet, often without looking to see how deep the water is first. But now he finds himself almost recoiling from that thought. He can't rush into this. He already tried that once, and yeah, it was with a Skrull, but still. He's learned his lesson.

He's going to take his time. Savor the thrill of discovery. Let Steve set the pace and follow his lead. After all, Steve is an old-fashioned kind of guy, and he would probably appreciate them going slow. And Tony isn't stupid enough to think that everything is going to magically be okay between them. The ghost of the Skrull is going to linger for a while; they're both going to have to work hard to banish it completely.

He hopes they can do it.

He tightens his grip on Steve's forearms, just a little. And Steve gets it, understanding his meaning without words, the way they've always been able to communicate. With one last caress of his temples, Steve removes his hands – and Tony lets go of him.

"Are we okay?" Steve asks.

Tony nods. "Yeah," he says. "I think we are."

Steve looks uncertain, no doubt regretting his impulsive declaration of love. "You're sure?"

"I'm sure," Tony says. He still feels a bit dazed, like the world is spinning too fast around him – but he's finally starting to catch up to it.

"Good," Steve says. "I'm glad." Hope lights up his eyes, and he smiles.

That smile transforms his face into something so beautiful it almost hurts to look at. And it's so simple then, so easy, to say, "I love you too, you know. I have since the day we first met."

He can actually see Steve's chest swell with emotion. "Tony…"

They're hugging then, and he has no idea how it happened, but who cares, because he's holding Steve close and Steve's arms are around him, and Tony has never been happier. He knows he's done nothing to deserve this wonderful man, but now that he has him, he's going to make damn sure he doesn't lose him.

"I won't let go," Steve whispers into his ear.

And of all the amazing things to happen on this day, that's the best one of all. To know that Steve shares his thoughts.

To know that he isn't alone anymore.