The first thing Steven G. Rogers saw upon waking up from the ice was a familiar, curving 'S.' He could remember seeing it before—behind a flying car and a man with a microphone—though he supposed, in his heavy sleep-addled mind, that it might have been a dream. There were no flying cars in the 1940s.
Nor, as it turned out, was there a Steven G. Rogers. At least not anymore.
The Steve of the 1940s was gone and so were his days of being bed-ridden and sick, of being beaten up in a back alley and trying desperately to escape beyond Bucky's enormous shadow. Not that the doctors told him any of this. He knew, the moment he woke—through the haze and the aching limbs—that he had not dreamed Project Rebirth. The physical evidence alone was overwhelming: the large expanse of his body, the weight of muscle when he lifted his stiff arms, a newfound height that left his feet dangling off the bed. And while he'd liked to pretend that the memories that followed—Bucky plummeting off the train and Peggy's choked voice as Steve dove a plain into the ocean—were all part of a dream too, the images were all too vivid to ignore.
But that was as much information as he got. Waking up in a standard 1940s designed room with a 1940s-esque nurse and an old 1940s radio playing an old 1940s baseball game, everything seemed perfectly normal, as though he'd fallen into the ice and woken up the very next morning. Everything, that is, except the game. The game on this supposedly "live" radio had been played long before his plane ever went down.
Steve had a stubborn streak a mile wide, and even when he'd been a foot shorter, ninety pounds, and completely vulnerable, he'd despised being lied to. Truth was hard, yes, but he'd always believed in his ability to take it. This time, however, even he could almost understand the deception; the truth wasn't exactly easy to hear.
In fact, it was damn near unbearable.
An hour after waking, Steve sat in a large office with a view of the entire city—though it was not a city he recognized. The New York of the twenty-first century (for that was where they were, or rather when, Nick Fury, the supposed ‘Director of SHIELD,’ whatever that was, said they were) was a whole separate world from the New York of the 1940s. This New York was brighter for one, more colorful, and everything moved so damn fast. Even up here—a hundred stories above the chaos—Steve saw nothing but ants—a million people hurrying off to their million different jobs with their million (what had Fury called it?) cell phones, while a million ads played on billboards behind their heads. Steve figured he should have been worrying—and he was—but mostly he was itching for a pen and paper to sketch the view.
With him in the office were a dozen or so men and women who called themselves "SHIELD agents" and Fury himself; the agents stood while Fury settled down in the chair behind his desk and folded his hands under his chin.
"We're going to take care of you, Captain," he said. He pushed a few pamphlets across the desk—papers about housing and food and short history lessons, but nothing that answered the pressing question of the day: why was he here? How was he, Steven G. Rogers, a soldier of World War II, standing before these agents today?
"It's a strange world, Captain," Fury said.
As Steve was escorted out of the building and led off to find his new apartment, he looked back one last time and watched the TV playing in the corner of Fury's office. It was large and thin, stretching out across much of the back wall, unlike anything Steve had ever seen before. The news was on, and the featured story told of an inventor recently rescued from the deserts of Afghanistan. The man was short and brunette, much like the man with the flying car, and at the bottom of the television screen was the 'S'—the same 'S' that had been on the radio in his room, and the same 'S' in the pamphlets about the ship that had rescued him. On the news, the 'S' came with more letters, spelling out a company called Stark Industries. The man in question, this Stark fellow, stepped on stage and announced the end of his company's involvement with weapons making.
Perhaps it was his imagination, or the ice affecting his brain, but Steve could have sworn he saw something blue shining from the man's chest.
Six months later, Steve still didn't know what angry birds were (except maybe the one in the tree behind his apartment, which chirped all night long), but he had a cellphone in his pocket, and SHIELD trusted him enough on his own to assign him a case in Malibu. It was an easy enough assignment, which was good as all Fury gave him was a file and a plane ticket.
The file was filled with information on one Tony Stark—inventor, business man, and, over the last few months, the self-professed superhero Iron Man. SHIELD intel had recently gathered that Stark was handing his company over to his assistant which was, apparently, a big red flag when it came to these rich eccentric types. "Unusual," the file said. It also said that Stark was unstable and possibly dangerous, though Fury had noted that he was more of the 'accidentally blow up a building while sleepwalking' sort of threat than full out villain. Still, Steve's assignment was the same: apply as Stark's new PA and keep him in check, keeping in mind the Avengers protocol that Fury had been hinting at for weeks. Stark clearly possessed "super" technology and, like Steve, had a tendency for putting himself in harm's way to save the day. But while Steve had already been cleared for their hypothetical project (apparently, he was "honest" and a "good leader"), this Stark fellow's future was up in the air. Would he be "Avenger" material?
By the time the plane landed, Steve's day was only just beginning. One long taxi ride across the city later, he was standing in the largest gym he'd ever seen. SHIELD facilities were impressive, surely, but this place blew all of that out of the water; a government budget simply couldn't compete with that of a billionaire. On one side of the room was a boxing ring large enough to fit a small army within its borders and on the other, a dozen treadmills and other running machines. Next to these were several weight machines, a wall of mirrors, several more sparring and yoga mats, and Steve was relatively sure he saw a full lap pool and hot tub behind the farthest glass door.
Beside Steve stood a tall redheaded woman who called herself Pepper Potts. They'd met only twenty minutes before when she'd let him into the mansion, announced that he got the job, and taken him to meet Tony face to face.
Seemingly unfazed by the impressive room (Steve supposed she'd seen it all before), Ms. Potts now waited in the center of the gym, holding a clipboard in one hand and tapping at it impatiently with one hand while she watched two men fight in the ring.
Even with his hood up, the shorter of the two was instantly recognizable; Tony Stark in the flesh. Steve had seen pictures, not to mention one very interesting TV spot where the man had said to the camera (while in court, mind you) "If there's one thing I've proven, it's that you can count on me to pleasure myself." Steve hadn't quite been able to get the words out of his mind since.
Steve liked to believe that he was the sort of man to take his work seriously. ‘Liked to’ being the key phrase, as, just weeks into his life-long dream of being a soldier, he'd broken every rule set out for him and fallen for the first woman he'd met on the job. All of his supposed morals aside, he and protocol did not exactly go hand in hand. Of course, Steve had no plans for a repeat—his job was simple and he'd complete it as he was meant to—but he would have to be blind not to at least acknowledge his immediate attraction for his new "boss."
Where Steve's strength came in bulging muscles and a towering height, Stark's was more subtle. His sweatshirt hung baggy around his waist, but the power behind each blow was still evident, not to mention present in the endless reels of Iron Man footage Steve had been forced to watch before taking on this particular assignment. Beneath his hood, Stark's jaw was sharp, his goatee perfectly trimmed, and his deep brown eyes alight with excitement.
"Steve's here," Pepper called across the room. She moved forward, pushing the clipboard into a more prominent position. "I promise this is the only time I'll ask you to sign over your company."
Tony turned, and, as he stepped out of the ring and deposited his gloves and sweatshirt in the corner, he met Steve's eyes. Steve held the gaze, and wondered how in the world a single look could feel so very physical.
"Steve the notary?" Tony asked. Beneath the sweatshirt, he wore a thin white tank top that did little to hide the expanse of lean muscle beneath it and the small, shining blue light in the center of his chest.
Steve had heard about the reactor, but only briefly—a single paragraph at the end of the file. It was far more interesting up close. Again, the strange inappropriate urge to sketch—to record that moment and that light—overtook him. Shaking his head in hopes to clear it, Steve said, quickly, "That's me."
"Steve the notary and your new PA," Pepper corrected. She smiled warmly at Steve before pressing a stack of papers into Tony's hand.
“Why do I need a PA?” Tony asked. “Don’t have a job that needs assisting anymore.”
Pepper rolled her eyes. “Without me here and nobody to take my place? You’ll blow up this place in a week.”
“In a day,” Tony corrected.
Tony looked Steve up and down. A few years ago, Steve might have blushed under such an intense, scrutinizing stare, but now he only stood up straighter, chin out and waiting. The approval came with a small nod and a much bigger smile.
Stark signed the papers.
He looked at Steve again, quirked an eyebrow, then smiled. “Anyone ever told you you look a lot like Captain America?”
“How’d you get around Pepper?”
Steve looked up from his spot on Tony’s couch. He had his sketchbook draped across one thigh, a pen in his hand. Tony sat several feet away at his desk, tinkering with a few tools Steve had never seen before—something he assumed were distinctly “twenty-first century.”
“How’d you get Pepper to fall for the PA stunt?”
Steve blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Oh come on.” Tony tilted his computer so Steve could see the screen. Window after window (that’s what Tony had called the pictures on the ‘internet’) showed Steve’s face: Steve being pulled out of the ice, and Steve getting his SHIELD ID, and Steve in his Captain America suit. “You think I didn’t know? Fury knew I’d know. Did you really think this was a ‘secret’ mission? You’re the point - throw Captain America in to scare me into submission. This was no secret. A,” He tapped one finger. “My ship. I know if I found Captain America. B,” He tapped another finger. “Have you seen you? C,” He tapped a third finger, “SHIELD is the easiest database in the world to hack.”
Steve raised an eyebrow skeptically. “Is that so?” he said.
Tony nodded. “It is. So what’s the big plan? Captain America come to sneak in and take my suits in the middle of the night? American-Hero-charm your way into making me give them to you?” Tony leaned back in his seat, spinning twice before stopping to stare at Steve. His eyebrows narrowed. “You look exactly the same. All those years my dad talked about you. What was it like, waking up from the ice bath?”
Steve rolled his eyes. Ignoring Tony’s last few statements, he said, “I’m not here to take anything. I’m not spying on you or trying to steal anything from you. I’m here as a friend.”
Tony laughed cynically. “A friend?”
Steve nodded. “A friend. You’ve had a hard year. SHIELD thought it would be nice if you had some help around here, especially with Pepper leaving. Well, I’m good help. I’m good at my job, aren’t I?”
Tony looked Steve up and down. Just like the first time they’d met, his gaze was piercing. Finally, Tony shrugged and turned back to his work. “You’re not bad on the eyes.”
"These are good," Stark said as he flipped through one of Steve's older sketchbooks. "These are really good." His long fingers flipped the pages slowly, his eyes lingering on every drawing with sincere attention. Since beginning this job, Steve had often seen his boss bluff his way through 'observation,' seen him flip through the stacks and stacks of "important documents" Pepper left on his desk in ten seconds flat or merely glance at an email. Never before had Steve seen Stark so focused on anything apart from his own projects.
Steve wasn't shy about his work—protective, yes; wary about showing it to the wrong people, certainly. He didn't just go throwing his sketchbooks around to anyone, and more often than not, they just sat around collecting dust under his bed. But he wasn't ashamed of them, wasn't even modest—at least, not exactly. He knew he had some skill, knew they were at least better than average, but he wasn't about to go bragging about it or parading them around for the world to see. His art was … personal. Something he had to do rather than something he chose to do. Something that pestered at the inside of his brain until he answered the call, sketching or painting or drawing whatever it was that caught his attention so intensely.
In that moment, he longed to sketch Tony's hands. There were quite a lot of things about Tony that he wanted to sketch (and had; those sketchbooks were definitely hiding under his bed), but there was something artistically unique about Tony's hands. Engineer's hands—hands that made, that sculpted and crafted and created something from nothing. Those were hands worth preserving.
"Why don't you sell any of these?" Tony asked. He flipped to the last page of the sketchbook, staring at it with his tongue between his teeth. Finally, he closed the book and handed it back to Steve. "You should try. I could set up a gallery or something. Uh … what's that big place downtown? You hang all these up, we'll bring in a crowd and—"
Steve laughed and shook his head. He prayed to God that the heat rising in his face didn't show. "That's not necessary," he said. He looked down at the sketchbook, at the dent on the corner when he'd bent it too hard in a moment of severe frustration, at the rip on the cover page from when he'd been drawing too hard. "It's just a hobby."
Tony smiled, something warm and bright that Steve so rarely saw these days when Tony spent all his time locked in his lab, avoiding the news' crews, avoiding Pepper, avoiding his responsibilities and his life. Every day that smile Steve had seen so prominently displayed on TV seemed to be slipping more and more. But it was moments like these—moments when Tony truly, fully smiled—that Steve realized: the smile on TV had never meant a thing. Charming and dazzling and everything Tony had constructed it to be, it had nothing on the real, happy smile he wore now.
"One hell of a hobby," Tony said.
As his boss turned back to his work, Steve took a seat in the far corner and set to work on his next sketch. He wondered, briefly, when exactly Tony had become Tony and not 'Stark' to him.
A long while later, Steve looked down at his paper and became aware of two new drawings; Tony’s hands, and a glowing, sparkling blue light surrounded by smooth tan skin.
Steve pushed his rook across the chessboard. Tony, his head in his hands, groaned softly and face planted into the desk.
"This game is boring," he complained.
Steve nudged his elbow. "You're winning."
Tony spoke without looking up. "I know. I always win."
Steve rolled his eyes. "Always so modest," he teased. While Tony was busy sulking, he turned the board and rearranged a few of the pieces so that he was winning. Cheating wasn't usually his style, but hell, it would be worth it to see Tony's face when the genius realized what he'd done.
Tony lifted his head, wrinkled his eyes at the board, then took his move without question. "Cheater," he said simply, looking positively unfazed by his new predicament. "You're still going to lose, Rogers. I'm unbeatable."
"Go ahead and try."
Tony's mouth twitched—just a small smirk at first then a full on grin. "Sassy, sassy, sassy," he said. As he waited for Steve to go, he tapped the center of his chest. It was a habit that seemed to occur whenever he was thinking. Steve wondered if he even knew he was doing it.
"You ever talk about it?" he asked. He didn't look up. It hadn't taken him long to pick up on Tony's quirks, so he knew that if he were to meet Tony's eyes in a moment of vulnerability, he'd risk any truth Tony might have told him. Tony Stark was many things, but an expert on feelings and truth-telling was not one of them.
Tony looked down at this chest, then back up at Steve. "What's there to talk about? My heart's still beating. It's doing its job."
"Does it hurt?"
Steve pushed his pawn up one space and waited until Tony spoke again. He was not disappointed. After a short breath, Tony cleared his throat and said, "It's just … heavy. It sits on my lungs and … well, it's not pretty, you know."
"Actually, I don't." Steve waited for Tony to make his move then finally looked up. He caught Tony's eye. "You won't let me see it."
Tony held his gaze and shrugged. "Trust me, Rogers, you don't want to."
“Tell Fury I’m inventing time travel.”
“Tell him I’ve brought dinosaurs into the twenty-first century.”
“No, Tony.” Steve scratched the top of his head and tried hard not to smile—no use indulging his boss a minute further, though he couldn’t help but find the idea amusing. After all the crazy things he’d seen Tony do in the last few weeks—not in the least blowing up his lab on a daily basis—dinosaurs and time travel didn’t seem so very far fetched. “I don’t tell Fury anything. I’m here to help, I told you.”
“You’re here to help on Fury’s orders,” Tony corrected him. He grabbed Steve by the hand and dragged him into a nearby pizza parlor. Steve took several deep breaths and forced himself not to blush. Tony let go immediately, a smirk taking over his previously carefree expression.
“Am I upsetting the Captain’s delicate sensibilities? Men still not touching men?”
Steve knew Tony was teasing, knew he was just trying to get a rise out of him, but he couldn’t help his reaction. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared. “I don’t care. Why would I care? No, the 40’s wasn’t the most open minded time period, but I was. I am. I don’t like bullies, and … anyway. I’m not against it. I,” he scratched the top of his head once more. Why had he put his foot in his mouth? Why hadn’t he just shut up and let the moment go? “I’ve made eyes at men too, you know.”
Tony whistled, then grinned. He slung an arm around Steve’s shoulder, and, ignoring the furious blush Steve was now trying to hide, ordered them up the entire menu.
Alone in the mansion, two hours before Tony's birthday party, Steve found his boss in the living room, slumped in one of his oversized couches and staring out the window. Beyond the glass that separated Tony's private space from the outside world, the ocean waves slapped against the shore; the sound filled the mansion from wall to wall, close enough that the water might as well have been inside. Steve often wondered why his boss had returned to this particular house when Steve knew how little Tony enjoyed the ocean, how every splash made him flinch, and every grain of sand reminded him of the desert.
Tony spoke without turning, as though sensing Steve's presence in the room. "If this was going to be your last birthday, how would you spend it?" he asked.
Steve crossed the room and took a seat on the sofa across from Tony. Under the dim overhead lights, he could see the bags under his boss' eyes and what looked like veins—though they were too dark, too frequent—sticking out from under his collar. The blue light in his chest, always so present around the mansion, was mysteriously missing under layers worth of shirts. "I'd make sure I was spending it with the right people. And I'd do something worthwhile."
Tony scratched his chin. He'd shaved recently. Steve should have been surprised that he noticed, but when you spent as much time around Tony as he did, you saw the little things. You knew something important was happening when Tony dressed up—when the suits came out of the closet and cologne replaced that constant air of metal. You knew something was wrong when Tony locked himself down in his workshop and didn't come out until he had a beard growing and his eyes were bloodshot.
"Right," Tony said after a moment. He stood and made his way to the door. Down the hall, music was already blasting, guests already arriving.
Before he could leave entirely, before Tony—the tired, honest Tony—was replaced with Tony Stark, the host, Steve called out, "You're covering it. The reactor. You only cover it when you go out."
Tony looked down at his chest as though he'd only just noticed the device protruding from his chest. "Huh. Guess I am," he said.
"You don't hide it when it's just us here," Steve said.
Tony shrugged. "Well, it's you."
"I already told you, I don't want to join your super secret boy band."
Tony glared at Fury from across the table. He lay, slumped against his still gauntlet-covered hand, looking hung-over as hell and still wearing the Iron Man suit but for the mask.
SHIELD'S director sat on the other side, glaring Tony into submission. Steve stood next to them both, a small needle in his hand.
"This will only hurt for a moment," he promised. He waited for consent—for Tony, grumpy, pained and angry as he was, to nod—then Steve carefully pressed the needle into his friend's neck. Tony winced, but the treatment was working; the network of blue lines like, violent road rash across Tony's neck and chest, were slowly fading away.
"What do you want from me?" Tony asked.
Fury laughed; it was a cold, condescending sound that Steve was only too used to hearing. "What do we want from you? No, what do you want from me? You have become a problem, a problem I have to deal with! Contrary to your belief, you are not the center of my universe! I have bigger problems than you in the southeast region to deal with!"
While the two continued bickering, Steve took a seat at Tony's side. "You're fired," Tony said.
Steve’s lips twitched upwards, but he forced down the smile. If Fury knew just how close Steve and Tony had gotten over the last few weeks, if he knew how Tony had made notes in Steve’s file, how they’d written Steve’s assessment of Tony together, Steve would be fired in a heartbeat.
He’d find out soon enough though. The file was now full of crude little notes, and where Steve was supposed to decide if Tony was a good fit for the Avengers, there were several very large check marks and a highly inappropriate little cartoon.
Steve was so, so fired.
"What was the point Nick? This whole charade? A babysitter, really?” Tony asked. “You think I wouldn’t know?”
Fury smiled; it wasn’t quite pleasant or welcoming, anything one might expect from a smile. “Oh, I was counting on it. But Captain America does make a wonderful babysitter, doesn’t he?”
Steve glared at Fury then sighed. “Tony, it wasn’t like that. You know that.” He knew it was a risk, knew Fury was watching, knew the consequences if he got "emotionally involved", but he'd already chosen his side, hadn't he? He'd sat with Tony not Fury. Throwing caution to the wind, he placed his hand over Tony's and gave it a long, firm squeeze. "I joined SHIELD to protect people. And I took this assignment to get to know you, to try and help the man I saw on TV the moment I woke up, to get to know the man whose company saved my life. I took this assignment to thank you, not babysit you.”
Tony sat, silent and glaring for quite some time, then attempted to scratch his cheek with one gauntlet covered finger. "Captain America, America’s Babysitter,” he said in a exaggerated ‘patriotic’ tone.
Steve snorted. “Mature, Tony. Very mature.”
"What do you mean you were dying?" Pepper hissed into the phone.
"I was trying to tell you," Tony said. His voice was muffled through the suit's intercom.
Steve resisted the urge to pull out his hair. It seemed he was often resisting that particular urge around Tony. He stood next to Pepper in the ruins of the Stark Expo building, attempting to keep the crowd under control and out of harm's way while still keeping the phone on speaker and hoping—as he always seemed to be these days—that Tony didn't die playing the hero. He knew that Tony had failed to tell Pepper about his faulty reactor (and had disapproved), but Steve never thought they'd pick a time like this to air their dirty laundry.
Then again, nothing was ever to be expected when it came to Tony Stark.
"What do you mean you were trying to tell me?" Pepper yelled. "You didn't tell me!"
"I'm telling you now!" There was a crash in the distance, Tony groaned, and then his voice returned, louder than ever, as though screaming over some background chaos. Steve didn't doubt it. The way he and Rhodey had run off, a full out battle seemed imminent. "I was trying to spell it out. With the eggs."
"When you get back, we're going to have a long talk about appropriate ways of sharing information," Steve said. He tried not to chuckle—he did, really; nothing about this was funny—but he couldn't help the small, amused sound escaping from his throat. Eggs. Only Tony would try and reveal something as monumental as his own potential demise with eggs.
"Yes, dear," said Tony, and then the line went dead.
The day Loki arrived on Earth, Steve was sitting on the balcony of Stark Tower, sketching the skyline while Tony and Pepper bickered from the next room over about furniture designs and paint colors. For all their insistence that they weren't together—that their one and only kiss that been a failed experiment and that they preferred friendship—they sure did argue like a married couple. For reasons he couldn't and didn't want to explain, Steve was irrationally glad for their "friendship" status.
They didn't get the call until later that night. Tony was off putting in the final piece for his green energy project—undoubtedly Steve's favorite of his projects, minus JARVIS perhaps—while Steve wondered down to the gym.
Since being relieved of his PA duties, Steve had reluctantly returned to New York where SHIELD provided him an apartment and several smaller jobs. A week later, Tony arrived in the Big Apple himself, planning to revolutionize the world, starting with his gaudy tower. Steve had found himself over for dinner and unabashedly using the facilities nearly every day since. The Stark gym was much bigger than the one by his apartment.
Anyway, the company was better.
Fury came as he always did—sweeping in like a ghost in black, his frown deeper than Steve had ever seen it. The Avengers Initiative was back on the radar, and their first mission began now.
They were neck-deep in alien beings, a growling Hulk, and a murderous alien god before Steve had fully wrapped his head around any of it.
Steve waited for the relief that was meant to accompany the end of battle. But when the last Chitauri fell, when Loki's plan failed, Steve still felt nothing but heart-stopping panic as he looked down at Tony's frozen body and the flickering light in the center of his chest.
They'd come too far for it end like this. Tony had already beaten this—already fixed his failing reactor when death had come so close. How many times was Steve supposed to watch him die? Tony still had so much to give, and Steve still so much to tell him. Why hadn't he ever said it before? Every time Tony looked him in the eye, why hadn't Steve told him exactly how he felt? What good were these feelings tangling themselves up inside his head, when Tony deserved to hear every one of them, to know that he was loved, to know that he mattered, to know that Steve …
Tony's eyes flashed open and he surged forward, gasping for breath. "Please tell me no one kissed me," he said.
Steve let out a deep sigh of relief, every muscle in his body seeming to loosen and ease, the racing of his mind stilling, and his panic subsiding. Tony was okay. Tony was alive.
Everything else—every little feeling and word beside sheer dumb relief—fell to the back of Steve's mind.
"No hard feelings?" Tony asked, thrusting out his hand for Steve to shake.
Steve stared at it for a long moment before the image of Tony, lights out, fluttered back into his mind. He went in for the hug instead. Clapping his friend on the back and pretending that the contact hadn't left his heart racing, he pulled away and smiled. "I was going to ask you the same thing."
Tony shrugged. "Let bygones be bygones, Hakuna Matata...what else we got?"
"Kumbaya?" Steve suggested, and Tony grinned.
They'd reached the airport by then. Still talking amicably, they shuffled out of the private car. Steve had been apposed at first, more apt to take a taxi (which he could actually afford), but his short stunt as a PA had taught him to appreciate the fancy things in life—at least when Tony was throwing them at him. He'd take a cab when he was alone.
"You sure you don't want to come back? Dum-E's going to cry himself to sleep," Tony said. Behind him, the engines of his private plane whirred and screamed while the pilot stood in the doorway, waiting to take him back to California.
Steve surely hoped that the longing didn't show on his face. "Got to go to D.C.. I've been reassigned," he reminded his former boss/friend/teammate. The list was quickly adding up.
Tony tapped his chest in that old tired habit, then forced a smile Steve had once seen on the television. "See you around, Capsicle."
Steve rolled his eyes. He stared at Tony's fingers, at the small protruding ridges through his T-shirt—the only telltale signs of the reactor. He only wished he could see the light. "See you, Tony."
Steve's heart was beating out of his chest. He couldn't remember what it felt like to breathe properly, or what job he'd just been assigned, or what Fury was saying to him over the phone (probably because he'd dropped it to the floor mid-call). All he knew was what was on the television, in the perfect clarity of the twenty-first century HD: the broken remnants of Tony's Malibu mansion and a headline that read, Tony Stark, dead. The news said it was the Mandarin, said it was the same sort of attack that had taken down a theater a few days before and caused even more destruction abroad. Steve had seen the stories in the papers, on the news, from the mouths of every SHIELD agent, but he hadn't been assigned the case. Still the idea of a terrorist so close to home left every cell in his body aching to intervene. We have it covered, SHIELD said. It's being dealt with. it'll be fine.
Steve had never seen anything less 'fine' in his life.
Plucking the phone off the ground, he shoved it under his ear and held it to his shoulder as he began packing up his things at top speed. "I'm going to California. Re-assign this case. This isn't urgent. You don't need me here."
"You'll stay on the case you were assigned, Captain," Fury said from the other end of the line. "Do not vacate your post."
"All due respect sir, but my country needs me a lot more than you do right now. The President is in danger."
There was a long beat of silence and then, "Is that who you're really going back for, Rogers?"
Steve stared at the phone. Without offering a word of answer, he hung up and called a cab instead.
By the time his plane landed in California, the Mandarin mess had already come to a close; Steve watched the news during the long trip, unable to catch even a second of sleep. Not with how much he was worrying. Not with the way his mind was racing.
He listened to reporters speak of the President's kidnapping, watched, hours later, as the Vice President was arrested and the reporters announced: Iron Duo's Heroic Rescue, President Safe. Steve breathed a sigh of relief and tried to tell himself it was simply because the day had been saved.
He found Tony holed up on the penthouse floor of the city's wealthiest hotel. The inventor's eyes were wide and bloodshot, his shoulders hunched as he maneuvered between one holographic screen to the other, making notes occasionally and mumbling to himself while he continuously set a variety of house plants on fire. As each one charred and burned, he’d push it aside and grab another.
"I don't know what the plants are for, but it's better than human subjects. He's only got the one trial patient," Pepper said as she let Steve into the room. Steve had a good guess who the 'patient' might be; there were only two people on the floor, and Tony would never test a thing on Pepper.
Steve reached out to shake her hand, to thank her for letting him in, but she stepped away. She shook her head violently from side to side. "No, no, don't touch me," she said.
Steve frowned. He knew he hadn't showered recently—and the plane ride had been long—but he didn't think he smelled that bad. Certainly nothing about him was contagious.
"She's scared of burning you," Tony called from his desk. He turned, smiling tiredly. "I keep telling her it's crazy, but she doesn't listen to me."
Pepper rolled her eyes. "I wonder what that's like to have someone that doesn't ever listen to you," she said with a teasing smile. She dropped her arms to her sides, her eyes softening. "Tony, it's true. I'm dangerous. I'll leave you two alone." With one last, fleeting smile—more forced than Steve had ever seen it—Pepper turned on her heels and left the room.
"What brings you to my side of town, Capsicle? I thought you were saving … Canada? That's not very patriotic." Tony wrinkled his nose in faux disapproval, and Steve followed Pepper's lead in rolling his eyes, though he couldn't help the grin that followed. Tony was alive. After everything Steve had seen, after everything he'd feared—a thousand terrible scenarios constantly playing through his mind—Tony was fine. A bit dirty, a bit tired looking, perhaps a tad (or a lot) overworked, but undeniably alive.
"It's classified," Steve said, striding the rest of the way across the room. He took a seat on the edge of Tony's desk. "But it wasn't Canada." He paused, his eyes drifting over the plants, the embers drying on the carpet at Tony's feet, the notes and the scientific equipment in every direction. "Does Pepper really catch on fire?" he asked. It was better than asking 'are you okay?', easier than 'what happened?'. Steve spoke Starkese well enough to know that neither question would get him the answers he wanted.
Tony turned back to his work. "Yup," he said. He tapped the center of his chest where the reactor shown, bright as day. His T-shirt was ripped in a circle around it to accommodate the weight. For a moment, Steve lost himself staring into the deep blue light until Tony's voice brought him back to the present.
"You didn't answer the question,” Tony said. “Why are you here?"
Steve shrugged and reached out to touch the leaf of one of the unburned houseplants. "I'm not allowed to miss an old dead friend?"
Tony grinned. "You wish."
Tony didn't ask; he told. Of course, Steve had no real reason to ask; it was Tony's body, Tony's choice, and nothing he thought could change that. But it didn't stop his worrying. It didn't stop the way his heart plummeted into his stomach when Tony announced that he was giving himself Extremis and removing his arc reactor. It didn't stop the way Steve's jaw clenched when the needle pierced Tony's skin, or the way he stopped breathing when Tony shook with pain as the Extremis took effect.
Tony said he had to test it before he gave it to Pepper, said if he had to test it, he might as well do something useful with it in the meantime.
He didn't say much of anything once the Extremis started.
Later, Steve would only remember the night in flashes: the embers rising under Tony's skin, Tony's forehead—hot as fire—resting on his shoulder, the yells of pain, the breaking of glass. He never was sure how much time passed, just that when it all ended—when the threat disappeared and Tony didn't blow up—they were lying side by side on the cold concrete ground of the workshop.
"You weren't supposed to stay," Tony said. "What if it didn't work?"
"You said it would," Steve said simply. Yes, rationally speaking, he'd seen the risk—his friend potentially turning into a human bomb was sort of a big problem—but when it came to Tony, Steve never really was rational.
"I could have been wrong," Tony said. His frown was more serious than Steve had ever seen it, all that raw confidence, that pretty showmanship gone. Steve just wanted to turn it around, to fix it, and his hands were reaching out, fingers brushing against Tony's lips before he realized what he was doing.
"I trust you. Anyway, I wasn't going to leave you to blow up alone," he said.
Tony blinked, attempting to stare down at Steve's fingers but going cross-eyed in the process. "What's happening here?" he asked. His lips moved over Steve's fingers, his breath ghosting along Steve's skin, and Steve was only slightly embarrassed to admit that it gave him goose bumps.
Rather than answer, Steve moved closer, bridging the barely existent gap between them and cupped Tony's face in his hands. Tony let out a small, breathless "ohhh" just before Steve's lips met his.
To say that Steve worried was an understatement. Pepper, pacing the halls, her heels clicking on the tile floor and her always perfect hair unraveling from her ponytail, was worrying. Rhodey, watching every move the doctors made with a warning I-Will-Kill-You-If-You-Hurt-My-Best-Friend glare, was worrying. Steve? Steve was losing his mind.
It was irrational—insane, really. Steve was a soldier. He'd seen men killed in war, seen injuries and battle-side operations that still haunted his nightmares. When it came to his teammates—to his friends—being injured, the experience was old-hat to him. The worry was always there, always a constant prickling under his skin, and he'd never like it—never even come close—but he couldn't exactly say he was surprised, either.
Losing men was part of war—part of the job that he and Tony and the rest of the Avengers had all undertaken. But loss just didn't come easy to Steve. Maybe it was his old stubborn streak or the serum running through his veins, but he'd never known when to let go, when to move on, when to walk away. Whether it was a back alley brawl or infiltrating enemy lines to bring back the 107th, Steve was always pushing the boundaries, always holding on to hope until his knuckles were white from the strain.
So worry? Worry was normal—just another side-effect of the game he called his life. Feeling like his heart might jump clear out of his chest for every second Tony stayed under anesthesia? Not so normal.
All those unsaid things between them, all the words he'd always meant to tell Tony but never got around to played now in the corners of Steve's brain, taunting and screaming. One kiss would never be enough; even a lifetime would hardly suffice. How he'd gotten here—pacing the floor, ringing his hands, sweating like a maniac while he waited for the doctor's word—he had no idea. Just 24 hours ago, he'd still been calling Tony "just his friend," still adamantly been denying, even to himself, how deep his feelings truly ran. But there was no denying it now—no way he could, no way he even wanted to—when the idea of Tony not making it through, of him not waking up, felt like having his heart ripped straight from his chest.
He'd left just friends—just teammates—far behind. Now, it was just a small little dot in the distance.
This wasn't worry; this was panic.
What was probably an hour later but felt like days to Steve, a doctor stepped out of the operating room and came to greet them. All at once, Pepper, Rhodey, and Steve came rushing forward, stopping at the doctor's heels and waiting expectantly for news—preferably the good kind. The doctor's face—a mix of sorrow and guilt—did nothing to stifle Steve's nerves.
"We tried our best," the doctor began, and all at once, everything dropped inside of Steve, his heart plummeting into his stomach, his mind racing as he assumed the worst. "But there was too much internal damage." The doctor went on to explain—in more medical terms than Steve could remember but all of which he mostly understood—that due to the initial "cave surgery," there was no possible way of removing the reactor without causing further, worse side-effects. In order to accommodate the reactor, Tony's ribs had been broken and torn open, his sternum removed, and without the reactor to hold everything together, it was highly likely that his lungs and chest cavity would collapse entirely, and even Extremis couldn't fix that in time. Further surgery would be fatal. "There's nothing else we can do."
Pepper sighed heavily; Rhodey swore. And Steve, trying not to imagine the cruelty of a dirty surgery in a desert cave with no anesthetic, stared the doctor down until he’d digested every word. Only when the doctor announced that they could see Tony did Steve blink his way out of his daze and follow him down the hall.
Tony was still asleep when Steve arrived. There were machines by his bed—precautions if the Extremis didn't work, Steve guessed—and Tony’s chest was wrapped in fresh bandages. The light of the reactor shown through, staining the white dressings a bright, shimmering blue.
It did not take long for Tony to wake up, not with the Extremis working overtime to heal the doctor's work. Steve had only been in his room for ten minutes or so when Tony opened his eyes, groaned, and said, "When I imagined this, you were dressed in a naughty nurse's costume. You look like hell."
Steve tried to roll his eyes, attempted to muster just a small inkling of exasperation, but could manage nothing but a grateful, face-splitting smile. "You don't look so great yourself, you know," he said. "Pepper thought—" He turned to locate his redhead friend only to find himself alone in the room, Pepper and Rhodey both mysteriously missing. Strange, when just minutes ago they'd both been so intent on seeing Tony. Steve broke off mid-sentence and turned back around only to find Tony fully conscious now and looking horrified.
His fingers were grasped over his chest, and he began pulling off his dressings at a pace faster than even Steve's super-soldier instincts could think to stop him. When he'd removed the last of it and his fingers fell against the cold metal of the arc reactor, Tony's breath hitched and his hands began to shake.
"Tony?" Steve tried, but if Tony heard him, he gave no indication; he was mumbling to himself, his breathing too hard, and shaking too much, and nothing should ever make Tony look like that—panicked and terrified, lost and confused.
Steve reached out and carefully pulled Tony's shaking form into his arms. It wasn't easy to maneuver—working around machine cords and IV lines—but in the end he managed it: lying by Tony's side in the cramped hospital bed, holding the inventor close to his body and whispering words into Tony's hair that even Steve wasn't aware of saying.
"It's okay. I know this wasn't what you planned, but it's going to be okay. I've got you. I'm here." It was all meaningless—a string of useless platitudes, but it filled the silence, and maybe that alone was enough. Maybe Steve's voice anchored him back to reality, or perhaps it was the comfort of touch, but after a long, stretching moment, Tony's shaking finally slowed and his breathing eased, and he whispered into Steve's chest;
"I'm going to sue."
Steve laughed. "Who?" he asked, stroking one hand through Tony's soft hair.
Tony shrugged. The movement pressed against Steve's chest and stomach from where Tony lay against him. "Would it be counterproductive to sue myself?"
"Probably," Steve said. "But it'd make for an interesting case."
"Which side would you be on?"
"Both. I'd just switch seats whenever the other version of you was up at the stand."
Tony laughed—a shaky, breathless sound that Steve felt somewhere in the hollows of his chest. When Tony pulled away, his jaw was set, but his eyes—always the most expressive part of Tony—gave it all away: the anger, the panic, the sorrow. Tony had not—and probably never would—tell him the whole story, but Steve was a smart enough man to piece it together.
For Tony, the reactor was a double-edged sword; it was both the device that saved his life, and the machine that had been actively killing him for months; it was a symbol of his rebirth, of his new life and new heroic philosophies. But it was also a harsh reminder of all he'd been and all he'd seen—of Afghanistan and a surgery in a dank dirty desert cave that ripped open his ribs and bolted in a battery where his heart should have been.
Tony would often go without pants in the mansion or tower and was unabashedly proud of his reflection, but not once had Steve ever seen him without his shirt. In fact, now, lying by Tony's side in a harshly lit hospital room, it was the first time Steve had ever really seen the arc reactor up close.
He'd seen the it briefly in passing, of course—seen it poking out of the T-shirts with holes cut in the middle, seen it against tan skin for a brief second when Tony changed in front of him—but never had he had the chance to truly study it, to see every intricate light and the smoothness of the metal surface. Up close, it was beautiful. Up close, it was brighter than Steve could ever have imagined.
Spanning out from the bright blue center, scars crisscrossed along Tony's chest, white and pale, years old. After glancing down, Tony's face closed off, and he reached for the discarded bandages to cover the marks. Steve stopped him with a soft brush of his hand. "You don't need to," he said. "It's beautiful. Can I—" His fingers hovered over the reactor's surface.
For a moment, Tony simply stared at him, his eyes wide. Finally, he nodded. "I guess," he said, shrugging, as though it made no difference when Steve knew quite well that it made all the difference in the world.
Very aware of the trust Tony was placing in him, Steve rested his palm against the reactor's surface, surprised by how cool it was in contrast to Tony's warm skin. He traced his fingers along the edges, felt the edges where the metal touched skin; at this, Tony flinched and Steve immediately pulled away.
"Did I hurt you?" he asked, panic evident in every syllable.
Tony shook his head. "No, it's just … weird." He placed his hand over Steve's and guided it back to the center of his chest.
With one hand placed over the reactor, Steve leaned forward for a kiss. Tony was immediately responsive, his mouth opening slightly, his hand reaching up to bury itself in Steve's hair. Neither of them moved for quite some time, enjoying the close proximity and a sensation they'd yet to truly indulge in until that moment.
Then a man cleared his throat from somewhere across the room. "So, you're looking better," Rhodey said. Pepper stood beside him, doing nothing at all to hide her smirk.
Steve pulled away, the heat rising in his face but Tony just laughed. "Better?" he said. "I look great."
The tower was always loud in the mornings. It was something Steve had learned to tolerate, a certain "quirk" of his living situation that he'd grown used to, but there were still mornings—the ones where Thor used his power of lightning to make his popcorn rather than the microwave, or where Tony blew up half the third floor during one his experiments—that still managed to surprise Steve.
Like waking up to find the Hulk chasing Clint around the kitchen because the archer had the nerve to shoot a Nerf gun at his butt and steal his cookies—freshly baked courtesy of Sam Wilson's quite lovable and talented mother. That was still surprising, and Steve doubted he’d ever grow used to it.
Everyone was there—Natasha looking amused and unhelpful as she sprawled across the living room couch; Thor eating breakfast and only looking mildly concerned; Sam's wide eyes, empty tin of cookies in his hand. Everyone that is, except for Tony.
Since he'd opened up his home a month ago, Tony had rarely joined them for breakfast but snuck in around ten to grab a cup of coffee and head back to his lab. It usually wasn't until after noon that he was awake enough to socialize. But the days that things went wrong—when Bruce Hulked out or Natasha strangled Clint again—Tony was always side stage, ready either for the show or to break it up—whatever seemed more important at the time ('break it up' was rarely the chosen option for any of them). Chaos, it seemed, was just another word for "life" in the day of an Avenger.
Steve was never quite sure when it happened. One day he was living on his own—a quaint little apartment near SHIELD headquarters that didn't really feel like home but a semi-decorated hide-out—and the next he had his own floor in Avengers tower. (When it became Avengers Tower and not Stark Tower, he was also unsure, though he did remember the letters S-T-R-K being ripped off during the battle of New York). Steve still had his apartment, still visited it occasionally, but it was slowly feeling less and less like home.
The rest all came in their own ways—as Steve knew they would.
Clint came first after Steve, bleeding and grumbling after his last mission, insisting that the Tower had been the closest place for a shower and a warm bed for the night. He never said where he’d come from or what he’d been through, but he also never left.
Natasha followed weeks later, never really announcing her arrival and silent all but for the thud! of her bags falling in the entryway. Two days later, she complimented Tony on her floor’s decoration, and that was that.
Bruce had never really left to begin with, but stopped by at least once a week to tinker into Tony’s labs. Every night he insisted he had a home to go back to until one day he just didn’t.
Thor’s living situation happened without much thought. Always traveling, he lived a few days of the month in the tower, a few at Jane’s place, and the rest back in Asgard. He wasn’t around much, but when he was, you knew it, both because the fridge was suddenly empty, and because his voice echoed off every surface known to man.
Steve, well, Steve followed Tony back from the hospital, claiming to have free time on his hands, and soon that time just kept adding up.
It was refreshing—uplifting even—to be surrounded by teammates, a fond reminder of Steve's army days when he'd known that the men on either side of him would always have his back. And, like any good team, they noticed when a member was missing.
Steve found Tony in his room, wide-awake—already an irregular occurrence—and sitting on his bed with a tablet in hand. He was shirtless, the light of the arc reactor filling the room around him like some mystical blue aura. He made a few notes that Steve could never pretend to fully understand but still found endlessly fascinating, then set the tablet aside and stood up. He moved in front of the mirror, still obviously unaware of Steve's presence. The look on his face couldn't be confused as anything but repulsion—anger in every line of his mouth.
Without a second's hesitation, Steve stepped into the room and wrapped his arms around Tony's waist from behind. His hands fell against the surface of the reactor, his fingers splayed so the light still shined through. "Don't do that to yourself," he said. He pressed a kiss to the back of Tony's neck then ducked his head to Tony's shoulder so he could see both their reflections in the mirror. "It's beautiful."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Okay, Mr. Artist."
"I'm serious." Steve smiled at Tony's reflection and tried—unsuccessfully he was sure—to transfer everything he'd ever felt into that one simple look: the happiness, the respect, the affection that grew with a frighteningly swift pace each and every day. "You know, you were the first thing I saw when I woke up. First thing was the Stark Industries Logo and then a story on TV about you coming home. I saw that blue light, and it was the only thing that made me think it might be worth it to learn about this century. I just had to know what it was."
Tony fumbled for a moment, then reached out and placed his hands over Steve's. "Was it worth it?" he asked.
Steve brought Tony's hand to his mouth and kissed his knuckles. "Absolutely."
"Okay, what? What's wrong?" Because the world was cruel and Steve clearly did not have fate on his side that night, Tony stopped his aggressive exploration of Steve's lower body and fixed him with a skeptical look that didn't exactly promise good things to come.
"Nothing," Steve said. He dropped his hands—which had previously been digging dents into the mattress—to Tony's hips and let the skin on skin contact bring him back to Earth. It didn't help as much as he'd hoped. If anything, it just made things hotter. "There is nothing, nothing wrong."
"You have your face," Tony said.
"Yes, Tony, I have a face. You do too. I like yours very much." Steve nudged Tony's nose with his own. Tony smiled, but only for a brief, fleeting moment before the worry came racing back.
"What do you want? What do you think I'm going to say, no?" He asked.
Steve shrugged with a great effort. "Well, yeah. You already have. But, Tony, it's fine. I don't care. Just—"
"So you do want something? Just tell me. Come on." Tony splayed his hands across Steve's bare chest, and it was that—that simple motion—that prompted Steve to finally speak.
"I want to see you. All of you." He slid his hands up, higher and higher until they nudged the bottom of Tony's T-shirt. He didn't move any further—wouldn't without Tony's permission—but from the moment they'd started in their relationship, Steve had wanted it desperately. "It's just, I'm naked, and you're—"
"Not," Tony finished for him. He sighed then nudged Steve's hands away to grab his shirt for himself. "Just don't blame me when it ruins the mood and—"
Steve stopped him with a kiss. "I just want you," he repeated. "And I'll take you however you're comfortable. But Tony, I don't care. I don't care about the scars or whatever else you think is the problem here."
"Yeah, you say that now but—"
"I'll say it," Steve interrupted. "Until it stops being true. I wouldn't hold your breath."
Tony's mouth quirked upward, and then, mumbling to himself about what a stupid idea this all was, he pulled off his shirt. Steve leaned forward to press a kiss to the center of the reactor then proceeded to do the same to the skin around it. Tony let out a deep sigh that could be confused as nothing but sheer relief. And though the reactor left scratches on Steve's chest where it rubbed against him, the light filed the room, and the closeness—the real skin-on-skin contact without a T-shirt between them—was worth everything.
In the end, it was Steve who fell asleep in Tony's arms, lulled away by the bright blue glow, and the whirring of the machine in his lover's chest.
He didn't know it then, but he'd soon be unable to sleep without the sound.
The first thing Steve saw when he opened his heavy, swollen eyes was a hazy blue light and a familiar curving 'S.' For one heart-stopping moment, he thought it had all been a dream—that once again, he'd woken up in a new time, a new world: no Bucky, no Peggy, no Tony, no Avengers, no one from any life to guide him. But, slowly, the memories came back—Washington D.C., the destruction of SHIELD, Fury's death and 'resurrection', and, of course, Bucky. Bucky who had a metal arm and no memories, Bucky who looked at Steve and saw right through him. Bucky who could have killed him but didn't.
The last thing Steve could remember was pain—Bucky's fist pounding into his face, and yet that hadn't been the source of the pain at all. All the hits in the world combined couldn't explain the pain of having Bucky deliver them, of Bucky's scared, empty eyes staring down at Steve—at a stranger.
As the memories came flashing back, too vivid to escape, a sharp beeping filled the room; Steve realized only too late that it was the sound of his own heart beat rising. A hand fell—gentle and inexplicably comforting—to rest against the center of his chest, and the memories subsided to a dull, but forever present ache.
"Hey, hey, you with me, Steve?"
Steve blinked. Brown eyes hovered above him—familiar brown eyes, eyes he could—and had—gotten lost in many times before. Before Steve's brain could catch up, before he was even awake enough to place a name to the color at all, his subconscious had already taken over, and he lunged forward, reaching up with heavy arms to grasp the man in front of him. "Tony," he breathed.
The brown eyes lightened and the mouth—a mouth that Steve had memorized, that he'd tasted, that he knew—twisted into a smile. "There he is," said the mouth. Tony: Steve finally placed a name to the face and smiled sleepily. Tony was here. His Tony.
Steve struggled to sit up then raked a hand through his hair. It was only after a brief survey of the place that he realized it was not the first time he'd woken up in this very spot. He had a memory—brief and hazy as it was—of waking up in the hospital to find Sam Wilson by his bed. Sam—who had become a greater ally than Steve ever could have predicted—had just smiled and played some old song to fill the silence. A song to explain the world.
"How long have I been here?" Steve asked Tony.
Now that Steve could see clearly and his mind was fully back on the map, he noticed the great bags under Tony's eyes and the haggard, tired look of his clothes. The slump of his shoulders. Tony had been here for ages—hours or days, Steve could only guess.
"A couple days," Tony confirmed. He scooted his chair closer to Steve's bed, and for the first time, Steve realized they were holding hands. He squeezed Tony's with the little strength he had and tried for a smile. "You know," Tony said. "I like to be around when government agencies fall to pieces. You really couldn't have waited to let everything go to hell until I got back in the country?"
Steve laughed. "I tried," he said. "But no matter what I said, they just wouldn't hold off their evil plans. You know I can only stall for so long." The smile plummeted as more and more of the past few days came drifting back to him. "Tony. Howard—"
"I know," Tony said. "I got the whole story."
"Tony, I'm so sorry." Steve supposed that it wasn't surprising—Hydra killing Howard, Hydra ruining another part of their lives—but it would never make it easier to digest. When he'd piloted that plane into freezing waters 70 years ago, Steve had thought he'd ended Hydra once and for all. He'd been frighteningly, terrifyingly wrong.
Tony waved the apology away with one hand. "It's an answer. That's all I ever really wanted." He rubbed a circle over the back of Steve's hand with his thumb. He wore a thin gray T-shirt that did very little to cover the shining bright blue light in the center of his chest; as Tony was always so careful about his "secret," Steve could only assume that he'd rushed out to the hospital from wherever he'd been. While Steve had been dealing with 'The Winter Soldier' and the fall of SHIELD, Tony had been in Japan on business; he would have had no idea of what happened until he returned.
"It was Bucky," Steve whispered. "It was Bucky. All of it. He's—they changed him." Steve wasn't sure how much Tony knew (though, trusting Tony's genius and curiosity when it came to uncovering intel, he was sure it was quite a lot), and he wasn't sure that he was even making sense anymore, but he also didn't care. He needed to speak so desperately it was as though the weight of the words was physically pressing against his brain, pounding and pounding. If he didn't talk about it, he thought he might explode.
For a moment, Tony didn't say a word. Instead, he rose from his chair, shifted the wires and IVs and machines carefully from Steve's side, and took a seat on Steve's bed. Steve wasted no time, but immediately buried his face in Tony's chest and allowed the comforting blue glow surround him and the soft rise and fall of Tony's chest ease away the pain. "It was Bucky," he said again. "He has no idea who I am. He saw me, and he looked right through me. The last thing I remember, he was trying to kill me, and now I'm here."
"We found you on the shore. Someone pulled you out. There wasn't anyone around." Tony rested his chin against the top of Steve's head then pressed a kiss to his temple. "He remembers. It's just buried. He's in there."
"You're confident," Steve said. He didn't bother looking up. Tony's chest was warm, and the metal of the reactor through the T-shirt was cold—the perfect mix of remedies against his bruised and cut face. What was more, Tony smelled like cologne and metal and coffee and everything that was familiar and home. After the last few days from hell, Steve could use familiar.
"Of course I'm confident," Tony said. "How could anyone forget you?"
Steve read Bucky's file everyday for weeks. He poured himself into every sentence, every word, every syllable in case maybe—just maybe—there was a secret buried inside. A clue. Any small bit of direction to set him on the right path. Weeks passed, and still he found nothing. Bucky, for all the commotion he'd caused in D.C., was still a ghost. He was still the Winter Soldier.
Steve knew he'd been distant, hardly himself at all since the whole commotion of SHIELD’S downfall. With no new mission to distract him, no project to escape into, he was prone to moments of moody reflection and distracted silence.
Through it all, Tony was his rock. If Steve didn't talk too much on their days out together, then Tony just talked louder; if Tony caught Steve staring off into the distance, lost in a million questions, lost in that heart wrenching guilt, then Tony pulled him in close without question—kissed from his jaw all the way up to his mouth and held on until the rush of proximity snapped Steve back into the present.
On the very worst nights, when Steve needed to be alone more than anything and wandered off for a midnight run or to raid the kitchen for the thousandth time, Tony didn't bother him. Normally, this meant Tony gave him his space by heading down into his workshop and disappearing until his fingers were burnt and Steve's mind was clear.
Steve preferred the nights where he'd pull Tony into his arms and they talked long enough to chase the nightmares away. The nights where the blue of the reactor filled the room and the sound of Tony's breathing reassured him of his own damn good luck. But mostly, it reminded him of his mortality—that life was short, and that he'd better enjoy every God gifted moment he had.
But even when the nights were not so nice—when the nightmares of Bucky falling from the train, of Bucky's fist in his face and his darkened empty eyes haunted Steve from the very darkest places of his mind—Steve still refused to give in. The pain could come, and it would sting and it would throb, and it would damn near kill him, but he wouldn't let it win. So he'd run too far. And he'd eat more than any man really should. And he'd scream to the empty night, but it was always with Tony that he ended his days.
It didn’t help, of course, that the Winter Soldier had probably killed Tony’s parents, that it was at Bucky’s hands that Tony had been left orphaned, left in charge of a company and a name and a grief he wasn’t ready for. It didn’t help that Steve’s anguish was not just for Bucky, not just for himself and that broken line between friends, but for his boyfriend too, another victim that would never have had to suffer had Steve not caught Bucky on that train so long ago.
“Seems to me the Winter Soldier, and your Bucky are different people,” was all Tony ever said on the subject, and they left it at that.
Two a.m., and Tony was still awake; his back straightened when Steve opened the workshop door, as though he'd been waiting, as though he'd expected it. When Steve's arm slid around his waist from behind, Tony would always lean back into the touch even as he pretended to be absorbed with his work. He'd always smile; Steve could see it around the corners of his mouth, even if he didn't turn around just yet.
Steve dropped his face against Tony's shoulder and mouthed into his skin, "Come to bed?"
Tony fiddled a screwdriver through the spaces between his fingers. "Steve," he said. It wasn't a yes and wasn't a no, but Steve knew the game. To say he was working was Tony's best excuse—one that gave Steve the freedom to handle his grief however he needed; he could leave the tower, have his "alone" time and never feel guilty as long as Tony claimed he was "busy anyway." And Tony was working; he was always working, but Steve knew better than to think it the reason he came down here on those worst of nights.
Steve buried his face deeper into the crook of Tony's neck and whined unashamedly. "Tonyyyyyy."
Finally, Tony turned in his arms so they were face to face. His smile did not go unnoticed. They didn't say anything; they didn't need to, but when Tony shut down his projects and they headed up to bed, Steve pulled Tony into his arms and fell asleep without worry. That night, he didn't dream of a damn thing—no nightmares, no fears, at least not then, not when Tony was so close and ready to chase them all away.
Sometime during the night, between the moment when Steve's back hit the mattress and when his eyes grew heavy, the word "love" came racing into existence.
"He'll love you." Steve stood in the doorway of the workshop, his arms crossed over his chest as he tried desperately not to fidget in nervous anticipation. Tony stood a few feet away, hovered over his desk as he closed up the last of the day's projects. A single bottle of scotch sat on the desk and though Steve knew it was empty—though he'd known it had been empty for years, just a crutch now, an idea to get Tony through those particularly long sober days—it still worried him. Perhaps it would always worry him. Then again, it would always worry Tony. As with most things in their suddenly thoroughly tangled lives, they were in this together.
Maybe Tony could even help, gather Bucky into the inner circle and teach him how to quit. But where Tony had years of abuse and repair under his belt, Bucky was just starting out—taking to the bottle with the determination that only a truly lost man could know. A man who hardly knew who he was; a man with blood on his hands and no idea how it had gotten there.
No, it would take time for Bucky to heal—perhaps he never would at all—but this was a good step. Give Bucky family again, give him purpose, companionship, a place to spend the holidays and feel that he belonged again, and maybe, just maybe, he'd find himself again.
Bucky's memories might have returned, but Bucky hadn't—not really. The man Steve had found wandering the city days ago, the man who had come to him, clutching his shirt, whispering 'I remember, I remember' with tear stained eyes, was a ghost of the man Steve once knew. He was alive, he was him—technically—but he was broken. Much of Bucky, Steve knew, had died on that train all those years ago.
But they'd been given a second chance. The road was steep—brainwash and torture and years lost were no easy feats to defeat—but it was one he was more than willing to climb until the end of the line.
Tony turned around. He snapped his fingers then clapped his hands together—a habit Steve had seen a thousand times. It was surefire sign that Tony was nervous and trying to hide it, but that he was also a business man, and when he had a goal, whether it be to sell a product, or change the world, or meet his boyfriend's long-dead best friend, he was going to get it done, and get it done well. "Love might be a strong word," he said.
Steve smiled. He crossed the room in two strides and reached out to clasp both hands behind Tony's neck. "It worked for me," he said. They kissed for perhaps half a second before there was a knock on the door, and Bucky cleared his throat.
"I interrupting something?" he asked.
Steve pulled away. After several months living with the Avengers—a group who frequently burst into the room at any given moment and sometimes literally dropped down from the ceiling—Steve was more than used to being caught. He didn't blush, didn't falter. Why should he? He was proud to be with Tony—beyond proud, actually, more like ecstatic or blissful or something else very meaningful and profound that Tony would call cheesy, though they both knew that deep down, Tony was the cornier of the two.
Still, this was Bucky. Bucky who had been to war—both literally and in his own mind, those twisted Hydra bastards—Bucky who hadn't known love in a very, very long time. Bucky who had dragged Steve around for years, on blind dates and double dates and dances and anything and everything that involved "a pretty lady." Steve never did get a pretty lady—as far as he was concerned, he got far better (no disrespect to the beautiful women of the world, of course, but this was where he belonged)—but he had gotten exactly what Bucky had always hoped for him: companionship. Love.
"Um, okay. Bucky, meet Tony. Tony, meet Bucky." Steve moved to breach the distance between the men, standing at an equal distance between the two in hopes that they would move to meet one another in the middle. They didn't, but they did both thrust out their hand at the same time to shake, so Steve considered it a win.
"Stark, right?" Bucky looked to Steve for confirmation, then back to Tony. "Howard's kid?"
Steve frowned. In his haste to organize this meeting—his very near desperation for the two most important men in his life to greet and like one another—it had completely slipped his mind to properly brief either of them on 'topics not to be mentioned in front of the other.' For Tony, the list started with a blaring, boldfaced: Howard.
Tony, for what it was worth, didn't seem to mind. Then again, even if he had minded, Steve knew he wouldn't have let it show, at least not in any way that anyone else could detect. These days, it was very difficult for Tony to hide anything from Steve. Tony's facades were easy to see through if you looked through the right lens.
"Yup," Tony said. "In the flesh." He shook Bucky's hand firmly, then both men let go. For a moment, they seemed to size each other up, and Steve knew this could go a million different ways.
And then Bucky said, "How long have you two been, uh—" He gestured between Steve and Tony, as though to make them a unit.
"A year after Christmas," Tony answered.
"Do you love him?" Bucky asked.
Tony nodded. "Unconditionally."
Apparently it was a good enough answer because Bucky nodded—one curt, accepting nod—then immediately changed topic to instead point a finger at the center of Tony's chest. "Why are you glowing?"
Tony looked down at the shining blue light beneath his T-shirt, as though seeing the arc reactor for the first time. "Huh," he said, straight faced. "When'd that get there?"
Tony Stark was, without a doubt, the most infuriating man Steve had ever met. The Avengers were a team, and, as a team, there were certain expectations set upon them. Like following orders, for example—even if it was only occasionally—or listening to each other or, hell, letting the rest know before you ran off on a suicide mission because you had a "feeling."
Eight times out of ten, Tony's "feelings" were right, but during those two times—those heart wrenching, nauseating two times—when Tony was wrong, it was Steve who sat by his hospital bed for hours on end praying that his stupid boyfriend would wake up.
Steve wanted to say that he was mad because Tony ignored a direct command and went flying in the opposite direction, but it had all worked out; in fact, it was Tony's last minute stunt that helped save the day—bad guy defeated, civilians saved, the battle won.
Steve wanted to say that he was mad because Tony didn't come to bed the night before, and couples were usually mad about that sort of thing, but he wasn't; Tony's work was important, and most of all, it made him happy which in turn made Steve happy. He also knew that if he ever decided that Tony had worked too much and decided to bodily carry him out of the room, Tony wouldn't complain.
Steve wanted to say that he was mad because just five minutes before the Avengers Alert went off, he and Tony had been toe to toe in their worst argument to date, but Steve couldn't remember what it was about anymore—the dishes or the TV or something else very unimportant; all he could remember was Clint telling them to "just get married already.” In that moment, Steve had thought that if he had to fight with someone, he was sure glad it was Tony. Mad was overstating things then.
And maybe now, as Steve stood crouched in an alley, his hands covered in blood and Tony's unmoving body at his feet, mad was still an overstatement. Maybe mad wasn't even on the radar. Maybe he'd never been mad at all.
If Tony didn't open his eyes again, if he left him alone again, lost again, empty again, then Steve would be more than mad; he'd be furious. If Tony didn't open his eyes, and he didn't move, and he didn't wake up right that second, right that moment, right now, then Steve would be livid, irate, incensed.
If that blue light didn't flicker ever again, if it never came back on, mad would never be enough.
Tony coughed. The light flickered—once, twice, then full, shining, burning blue capacity. One at a time, Tony's eyes opened, and Steve thought he might actually be sick from the whiplash from horror to relief.
"And another thing," Tony started as though they were right back in the kitchen, standing too close, civilian clothes and deep frowns, arguing about nothing because they wanted everything. Because a year and a half in, and they both knew they that they knew everything there was to know about each other and that the path they were on was heading only one way. Because you could only eat breakfast together so many times, only curl up on the couch watching bad movies or stubbornly stay in bed together when one was sick before you started thinking about forever. Gray hair and arguments that didn't matter because you had forever to figure it out, and Steve wanted it—wanted so desperately to be mad if it meant being mad with Tony.
Steve laughed—laughed harder than he had in days, laughed until his stomach hurt and he could barely suck in a full breath. Soon, Tony joined in, and for what seemed like hours, they sat there—battered and dirty in a dark alley post-battle, laughing like a couple of maniacs.
Tony raked his fingers through his hair, settling the places where Steve's fingers had messed it up. Ten minutes before the wedding was to begin, and all their hard work to look proper—to look "presentable" as Bruce had put it—had gone to shambles. Tony's jacket was wrinkled, his pants still unzipped, and while Steve at least had the super soldier serum to instantly heal his swollen, kiss-bitten lips and the hickies down his neck, he'd lost his tie somewhere in the dark expanse of the store closet.
"Ah ha!" Tony said, plucking it from the corner where it had somehow gotten wrapped around the head of a mop. He straightened it out, pressing his fingers deep into the wrinkles, then tied it back around Steve's neck. With expert hands—hands that had seen one too many corporate events and parties over the years—Tony tied Steve's tie and patted it down against his lover's chest. "Natasha is going to kill us," he said. He didn't exactly look upset it.
Steve, for all that it was worth, couldn't quite wipe the smile off his face either. Prude, shy, blushing virgin—he'd heard it all before: the perfect, celibate 'Captain America Image' that hung over his head day after day, but screw it all if he was supposed to keep his hands off of Tony when he was dressed like that. He'd seen Tony in every way—sleep mussed in boxers and a tank top, dressed to the nines for a press conference, suited up, completely naked. And while a grease stained T-shirt would always be his favorite—Tony truly in his element—Steve was only human, just as susceptible to a well-pressed, well-tailored suit as the next guy.
Tony zipped and buttoned his own pants, straightened down his suit jacket, then took Steve's face in his hands and pressed one last, searing kiss to his lips. Steve felt the sensation like an electric shot, a burst of undeniable happiness that raced uncontrollably through his body, from the tingling of his lips, to the erratic spinning of his stomach. It had been years—so many years—since Steve had been drunk, but he thought it might have felt like this.
They slipped into the back of the church just a few minutes before the start of the ceremony. Steve was still quite unsure of the bride's identity (and the groom's too for that matter, though he, at least, Steve had seen once upon a time in the offices of SHIELD). But Natasha and Clint and seemingly everyone they knew insisted that it was important, insisted that it was wise for them to make a good appearance and to support old "friends" ever since SHIELD went under. A cryptic phone call from the not so very dead Fury had confirmed; the Avengers, for whatever publicity reason, had to show.
The ceremony was beautiful, as wedding ceremonies so often are. The bride was adorned in a beautiful, flowing white gown, and when she walked down the aisle, her groom beamed until it looked like his face might split in two from the pure happiness of the moment. Steve watched for quite some time, appreciated all the little details of the wedding—an artistic touch he would always pay attention to—but before long, he felt his attention being pulled away. Not by the music or the flower girl in the corner tearing her petals to shreds, not by the crying parents at the front of the church, or even by the vows—lovely and beautiful as they were. No, Steve was distracted by the man sitting to his right.
Tony's hand was locked with Steve's, their fingers intertwined, Tony's moving and fiddling and tapping as they always did, though he was clearly trying to be quiet now. Tony's eyes were focused on the happy couple, and Steve couldn't help but wonder what he was thinking. Tony who had sworn up and down and sideways that he didn't believe in love and would never marry; Tony who had whispered those same three words into Steve's ear a dozen times a day, who now talked in terms of "forever" and "we" and "us."
Could he have changed his mind? Tony certainly didn't look at the ceremony now with anything resembling distain or disapproval, but of course, this wasn't their wedding, wasn't them promising eternity to one another, wasn't the two of them exchanging rings.
The realization hit Steve with all the force of an oncoming train; he wanted it. Wanted that—the two of them at the front of the church, or City Hall if need be, exchanging rings, promises, all of it. He wanted forever. He wanted marriage.
Steve had always known it deep down—had had a picture perfect image in his head of his wife and kids in some nice house where they sat around at the dinner table talking about their day. But that picture had been in the 1940s, something ripped out of the pages of a magazine. It wasn't real, couldn't be real, not when Steve had so much life left to live and knew so little of his own possibilities. That picture didn't account for all the good he'd find—the great—just by waiting a little longer, by keeping his eyes open and his possibilities endless.
He wanted the church, wanted the friends and family gathered, wanted the ceremony and the traditions, but he'd just as soon get married alone with just a judge and a piece of paper if that's what it took to call Tony his.
Funny how quickly things changed.
He leaned close to whisper, "I love you," in Tony's ear.
Tony beamed. Tugging his eyes away from the ceremony in front of them, he turned in his seat and gave Steve a short chaste kiss as he whispered those three words back into his mouth.
It wasn't long before the reception started up and women kicked off their heels, men straightened their ties, and the music filled every empty space. Tony dragged Steve out onto the dance floor the first chance he got.
"You know I don't know how to dance," Steve said.
Tony shrugged. "I'll teach you." Tony arranged Steve's hands against his body, lining them up until they at least looked like all the other couples on the floor.
Except that the other men on the dance floor didn't keep stepping on their partner's feet.
"Shit, sorry, er." Steve kept his eyes cast downward, trying to gauge where his steps would take him—plan it all out before he could mess up again.
Tony laughed. He lifted Steve's chin with one hand; with the other, he tugged Steve's body closer. "At ease, soldier,” he said. "You've got it, see? Just takes a couple tries."
He was right. After several rounds of repetition—one step, two step, repeat—his feet seemed to be moving without his consent or control. He was dancing. After a lifetime of waiting, he was finally having his first dance.
Like most things in his life, it wasn't what he expected; he'd spent months agonizing over the date that would never be with Peggy, but it had all been for a reason, hadn't it? Had he not crashed that plane, had he not been frozen, he'd never be here. Steve supposed he might have been happy in that other life, but it was a happiness that came from ignorance, not true bliss—happiness when you didn't know yet that out there, somewhere, there was better.
Sometimes Steve liked to think that Tony had always been waiting for him, that all this—this crazy life they'd found themselves in—was meant to be.
Compared to that—to fate, to destiny—marriage seemed the most natural thing in the world.
“You’re not fine.”
“Tony, in what universe is an alien flu ‘fine’?” Steve carefully pushed his boyfriend back into bed. The Avengers’ Alert was blaring through the tower—an awful, piercing shriek—and though outside the windows, octopus like creatures were attacking the city with surprising veracity, this was no time to go racing into the fray unprepared. And Tony, for all his insistence that he was fine, was the definition of unprepared.
Neither Tony nor Bruce could identity what the virus was exactly—and that alone was enough to worry Steve—but they’d established that it was not, at least, fatal. Which, considering most of the airborne alien viruses they’d encountered, was a huge relief. Still, whatever Tony had come across had left him with a sickness even the Extremis couldn’t kill immediately, a sickness that left Tony bedridden, much to the engineer’s constant annoyance. An annoyance that Steve had heard all about in great detail every minute since Tony had gotten sick.
“I don’t want to stay in bed. I want to go. I can help. I can—” Tony started up on another rant, attempting to call the suit to him even as he coughed between ever word.
“You can sleep,” Steve finished, quite thankful for JARVIS’ intuition as the AI conveniently failed to hear Tony’s commands. Steve yet again dragged his boyfriend back to bed.
It was not the first time Tony had been sick, and it wouldn’t be the last. Extremis was powerful, but it would never be the super soldier serum, not completely. Tony was still susceptible where Steve was not, and though Tony had sworn on everything Steve found holy that he’d be alright, Steve couldn’t help but worry. Even worse (according to Tony), Steve couldn’t help but dote.
“I’m not going to sleep,” Tony huffed, staring at the star on Steve’s uniform rather than his face as he always did when he was feeling particularly stubborn but knew he was incapable of winning whatever argument they were having at the time.
Tony was dead asleep when Steve returned.
Tired and smelling of some sort of octopus alien goo, Steve trudged back into the medical wing to find Tony right where he’d left him—worn out and passed out in a faded gray T-shirt, beard slightly overgrown and scruffy, bags under his eyes, and all together looking worse for wear, but, for once, asleep and quiet. Steve looked immediately to Tony’s chest, but the reactor was as bright and shining as it always was—still glowing, still working.
Breathing out a sigh of relief, Steve fell onto the edge of the bed and rested his hands in his lap. The med-wing wasn’t much to speak off. Though Tony had done his best to get the place decorated, paying for ridiculously expensive mahogany fixtures and—go figure—red and gold beddings a few weeks back, it was still cramped— beds too small in a too small space. Despite the multitude of windows, the entire floor always smelled like antiseptic and death, as though someone had bottled the very scent of humanity’s end and set it loose in the vents. The end of SHIELD—who was supposed to both fund and run the place—had done little to fix the problem. But it was safe, and the doctors did their job, and as long as Tony was stuck down there, there was no other place Steve would rather be.
The exhaustion hit him like a physical weight. For the last few hours, he’d seemed to be fighting on auto pilot—hit, duck, duck again—while his mind had been drifting miles away, waiting right here in a dirty little med-wing next to a man who knew very little about his own limits or worth. Next to the man Steve hoped would soon become his husband.
Since the moment the idea took root at the wedding, Steve had been quite incapable of focusing on anything else. He and Tony had been together almost three years, which was by no means a lifetime, and yet it felt like one—three years that had stretched on for eternity. He couldn’t imagine another alternative, couldn’t fathom a universe where he didn’t end up right here, right now, daydreaming of doing the dishes and the laundry and buying a welcome mat, and all the silly insignificant domestic things that now sounded like paradise.
Steve had always wanted a purpose in life, had wanted to be worthy, to make his mark on the world if it meant he could save it. All he’d ever really wanted to do was the right thing—whatever that meant anymore—and for so long, the right thing had been very complicated—fights and wars and super human beings popping up all over the world. ‘Right’ had always seemed so large, so unreachable, a quest to save billions with one right move; the risk of losing it all with one wrong step. It had only recently occurred to him that his big life worth, his job, could be a single person’s happiness, that if each person on this earth loved another with all they had, that alone could save the crazy world in which they lived.
“You’re doing it again,” said Tony’s voice from beside him—a voice that was gruff and sleep-ridden, muffled and hoarse in every syllable. A voice that was comfortingly familiar in every form.
“Doing what?” Steve asked. He reached out for Tony’s hand, rubbed circles over his knuckles, smiled selfishly to see him awake, though he knew he should tell him to go back to sleep. Soon; he would do that soon.
“Being pensive and seriousness. It’s very effective in the suit.” Tony coughed but smiled all the same as he gestured to the stars and stripes across Steve’s chest. “You’re wearing the old one.”
“I thought you said you liked this one better. More ‘patriotic.” Steve tried to roll his eyes but smiled instead. “I’m thinking about serious stuff.” Thinking about marrying you, he thought. Thinking about kids. Thinking about the future. It should have been terrifying, he was sure, but it wasn’t—wasn’t anything more than normal, and perhaps that was the scariest part.
“Well think and lay and then tell me about it,” Tony said.
Steve laughed, looking at the pathetically small space between Tony and the edge of the bed, barely an inch across; the only place to lay with Tony was on him. “I won’t fit,” he said.
Tony shrugged. “We’ll make it work.”
Stripping off a piece of his shield was no easy feat. Vibranium—found only in Steve’s shield and Tony's reactor—was one of the rarest elements on Earth and by far the strongest. Steve thought that was fitting somehow; something that strong, that powerful that only they shared, he and Tony alone. When he set out to get a ring, it was the clear choice. Taking off a piece of the shield and getting Bruce's help to bend into a ring was difficult, but it was still the easy part.
Asking was the hard part. It wasn't the question—will you marry me was basic, easy to remember, suitable for every couple—but it was the lead up that Steve was struggling with. Go too big, and he knew he'd send Tony running for the hills. Tony was the extravagant one, the one with all the big plans and over the top ideas and eccentric notions of what was romantic and what was not; Steve didn't mind, liked it even, but he knew it wouldn't work both ways. Throw too much at Tony too fast, too many big plans, too much forever, and all his life-old doubts would come seeping back in.
A fancy dinner with a down-on-on-knee proposal was out of the question. It was too traditional, too classic—the start of too many marriages that had gone wrong. Tony wouldn't appreciate it, and, the more he thought about it now, neither would Steve. What was the point in doing exactly what everyone else had done before him? It didn't mean anything, didn't say anything about them or who he hoped they could become over time. It was easy, but it wouldn't do.
Uniqueness, as it turned out, was much harder than Steve could have ever imagined. Several centuries worth of proposals before him, and nothing Steve thought to do seemed "original" anymore. So what he said—that pre-question speech, that introduction to the rest of their lives—it was going to matter all that much more.
He was practicing in front of the mirror when Natasha walked in.
"That's what you're going to say?" she asked.
Steve frowned. "Is it that bad?"
Natasha shook her head. "Your funeral." She moved the rest of the way into the room and took a seat on the edge of Steve and Tony's bed. Her smile quirked up around the edges, not quite the mystery that it used to be—not since D.C., not since they'd gone from teammates to true friends—but it was better for it. She looked happy. She looked,well, like Natasha. Or as Natasha as she'd ever be in front of an audience. Maybe she'd never lose all her masks, but at least a few had been stripped off over time.
He winced. "Well, what should I say?" he asked.
"I'm not writing your proposal for you." Natasha laid back on the bed and surveyed her fingernails as though this was all perfectly normal—as though she helped construct marriage proposals for gay superheroes everyday. "But cut all the cheesy stuff. This isn't a romcom."
Steve scratched the top of his head. "But it's all true," he said.
"It's still cheesy." Natasha sat up. "And if it sounds cheesy, it doesn't sound true. Don't talk about love. Everyone thinks they're in love, and everyone thinks their love is the best love. Prove it. Talk about you two. You've known each other for three years, there’s got to be material in there to work with.”
Steve sat down beside Natasha and stared down at the little ring in his hands. He twirled it between his fingers. "After Project Rebirth, I stopped feeling like a person. I stopped feeling human. I'm not saying I'm ungrateful. This..." He looked down at his leg. Once there'd been nothing but skin and bones, and one kick could do him in; now there was nothing but muscle. "But it's the serum that most people see. Especially here. Now. It's Captain America and what he can do for this country, and I'm proud to be able to give that, to help. But it was easy to forget who Steve Rogers was, like I never really took off the suit. When I'm with Tony, I don't feel like an icon or a name. I feel like me. And...this isn't right, is it? This isn't what you meant?"
Natasha smiled. "It's exactly what I meant." She nudged his shoulder lightly. "Keep going."
"Everything he eats for breakfast is disgusting," Steve said.
Natasha laughed. "That's not what I meant."
Steve shook his head. "No, it's … " He scratched his nose and tried to think of the right words. He smiled as he remembered stacks and stacks of pancakes and an omelet drenched in syrup. "It's disgusting, and I'd miss that if it ever changed. I like the way the whole kitchen always smells like syrup and coffee."
"And an impending heart attack," Natasha said.
Steve grinned. "Yeah," he said. "That too. But it's Tony. He'll make a new heart." He held up the ring and watched the way it reflected the bedroom lights and the one strip of sunshine streaming in through the window.
He thought of what Natasha had said—about them. He thought about how Tony got all cuddly and clingy in his sleep, but Steve was cuddly even when awake. He thought of how easy it felt on those mornings when he was cooking breakfast for the team and Tony snuck into the kitchen just to wrap his arms around Steve's waist. He thought of the early mornings in bed with Tony pressed against his chest, and the late nights when AC/DC blasted through the workshop, and if Tony's project wasn't working out, and Steve's sketch wasn't coming along, they got up and danced like idiots until they fell asleep on the workshop couch.
Natasha was right. Big declarations of love were fine, but it was the little things that spelled out forever.
"That," Natasha said, "is how you ask." She stood up, patted his shoulder once, then disappeared from the room.
Tony got home from his meeting an hour later. His tie was undone and slung around his neck, and he'd begun speaking before he even entered the room. "What about that Chinese place down on second?" he was saying, tossing his tie onto the floor and kissing Steve hello all in one breath. "Or you want to just order pizza? I'm starving."
Tony shrugged off his shirt. The arc reactor shown bright and blue from the center of his chest, all of Tony's old reservations gone. Alone with Steve, he didn't hide when he dressed, didn't turn away when he changed shirts—not anymore. There was nothing but confidence in his stance now as he stripped down and changed out of his work clothes.
The words came tumbling out of Steve's mouth in a rush, unplanned and ungraceful, nothing at all like he'd hoped for.
"Will you marry me?"
Tony stopped in his tracks, his shirt only half on. He pushed his arm through his sleeve then looked back at Steve, his nose wrinkled as though he'd misheard. "What?" he asked.
Steve gulped. He held up the ring. "Will you marry me?"
Tony stared at the ring, then at Steve, then back at the ring. "Is that part of your shield?"
Steve nodded. Suddenly, he couldn't remember how to speak. Everything inside him was waiting on an answer, on one single word that could make or break his life.
Tony smiled and took the ring, slipping it onto his finger. "Yes. So. Celebratory pizza?"
Steve was chatting with one of Sam’s friends at the dessert bar when a hand grabbed his hip from behind. He turned to find Tony standing behind him, beaming and nursing a glass of something bubbly in one hand.
"It's surprisingly hard to find your husband at your own wedding," he said. He turned to the woman Steve had been speaking with—a pretty blonde that Steve was supposed to be "putting in a good word" with for Sam—and dropped his drink on the nearest tray. "Mind if I steal him away?"
The woman smiled and waved them off.
They stopped outside the reception hall slash ballroom. Beyond the glass doors was a simple lobby and none of the elaborate decorations, food, or drinks that their guests were enjoying inside. Tony wasted no time in pushing Steve against the nearest wall and kissing him within an inch of his life.
While kissing Tony as his husband might not feel any different physically, it still left a warm, satisfied feeling in Steve's chest.
Husband. He was sure he'd never grow tired of the word.
"Has Rhodey threatened to kill you yet?" Tony asked. He rested one hand against Steve's chest while the other slid under the waistband of Steve's pants.
Steve nodded. "Three times tonight."
"Ha," Tony said. "I got four from Bucky."
Steve smiled. He'd been smiling so much over the last four hours that his face felt sore from the muscle strain; still, he couldn't stop. "I'm not sure what that proves," he said.
Tony shrugged. "I have no idea."
As they kissed again—slow and sweet and far less chaste than anything they'd done up at the alter when the man announced them 'husband and husband'—Steve placed both hands over Tony's chest, his fingers splayed over the place where he knew the reactor lay beneath layers of expensive clothing. Beneath the sound of the music, beneath the clattering of plates and the laughing of guests, Steve thought he could still hear the reactor working, that soft comforting hum.
Steve closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against Tony's. Tony squeezed Steve's shoulders, and for a moment, they just stood there, their first moment alone together since they'd publicly vowed a lifetime of moments to come.
"I love this song," Steve breathed as an old 70s classic came over the speakers in the ballroom. It was the first song he'd discovered after waking up from the ice, and it had been his favorite ever since. He could just barely hear it trailing in through the glass doors.
"We can go back," Tony said. "You want to dance?"
"One minute," Steve said. He kept his eyes shut tight, letting the feel of Tony's body under his hands and the music in his ears wash over him.
The first thing Steven G. Rogers saw upon opening his eyes was Tony's bright, amused smile, and Steve knew without a doubt that he'd woken up where he was meant to be.