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Say When

Chapter Text

 

 

 

I see you there, don't know where you come from

Unaware the stare from someone

Don't appear to care that I saw ya. And I want you

What's your name

Cuz' I have to know it

You let me in and begin to show it

We're terrified 'cuz we're heading straight for it, might get it.

 

You're in the song playing on the background

All alone but you're turning up now

And everyone is rising to meet you, to greet you

Turn around and you're walking toward me

I'm breaking down and you're breathing slowly

Say the word and I will be your man

 

Say when

 

 

* * *

 

 

Steve

 

All things considered, it was only fitting that the first time Steve saw Tony Stark in person, the man was crashing through the ceiling, seemingly out of nowhere and very much in his Iron Man suit, huge fireworks going off around him like it was the 4th of July and Christmas day all rolled into one. Steve had never seen anything so extravagant and big before. 

The first time he had heard about Stark, though… well, that had been more than half a year ago. Since then, he had methodically learned everything there was to know about the man and it was safe to say that Steve had become a low grade expert on Tony Stark.

He had read a dozen SHIELD issued psychological appraisals on the man's arrogance, his narcissistic tendencies, the love 'em and leave 'em lifestyle he’d been toning down lately but that had pretty much defined most of his adult life. He’d been informed and warned about Stark’s self-destructive behavior and the impulsiveness that had nearly gotten him and his personal assistant—or girlfriend, maybe, Steve wasn’t so sure about that one—killed.

The little things he had memorized like vocabulary: The way Stark drank his coffee (strong, black, and steaming), his favorite food, which would usually be either fancy and exotic gourmet food, as long as he didn’t need to cook it himself, or greasy fast food, as long as it didn’t take too long to get to it. He could easily recite Stark's favorite cars (mostly Audi or old-timers), his favorite fashion labels (and knew that he secretly preferred old ratty tank-tops and jeans, like that wasn’t contradictory at all), his favorite colognes, holiday destinations, movies and bands, and so on. It probably wasn’t the best use of Steve’s eidetic memory, however practical.

And then—then there was the list named character flaws. It was very long and included things like ‘stays up for over thirty hours on a regular basis’, ‘drinks coffee like it is water’ and ‘doesn’t want to be handed things’. That last one was even tagged as a minor disruptive behavior disorder, and, as with all the other strange little facts about Tony Stark, there was nothing left to do for Steve other than wonder how that man had managed to survive for all these years.

Certainly, there had been good things to know about Stark too, even if it took a little digging on Steve’s part. What had impressed him most obviously, were Stark’s inventions… from his helper bot DUM-E—which, Christ, he’d built when being 17 years old—to the arc reactor technology and the Iron Man suit. It had been a long, sleepless night when Steve had come across SHIELD’s files on Afghanistan, and while he was certain that the version he held in his hands probably wasn’t completely reliable… it was nothing if not an awe-inspiring tale. The way a single man—and let’s be honest here, Stark was a rich, spoiled kid, who probably never had to fight for anything in his life—how a man like that got kidnapped, and tortured and still refused to take the easy way out. How he single-handedly saved himself, how he simply refused to be used against his will. It was… well… it almost made up for every other bad thing that was written down in Stark’s file.

Almost.

Steve watched how the gals in the tiny Iron Man costumes danced seductively around Stark, swaying their hips from left to right. How the man himself, now dressed in a neat tux, grinned from ear to ear, clearly enjoying the view and how the crowd cheered his name, the Marry Me, Tony’s, the Take Me Home Tonight, Tony’s, the I Love You, Tony’s.

Steve had already had his fair share of bizarre experiences in this new world, and whatever most of SHIELD’s agents seemed to think about him, he wasn’t fazed easily. Still, there were times, like right now, when he was left almost speechless.

“Please, it’s not about me,” Stark announced, grinning crookedly, and obviously meaning the exact opposite.

Next to him, Natasha rolled her eyes, but there was an almost genuine smile playing on her lips. She probably felt Steve’s scrutinizing gaze upon her and shrugged her shoulders, brushing a strand of her hair behind an ear. It was still a bit strange to see her with a platinum blond wig, although it wasn’t by far the strangest thing he’d seen her wearing when going on a mission. Not that this was a mission. This was his last observation.

“Don’t let him fool you,” Natasha practically shouted, however given the current volume of the cheers and whistles around them, she might as well have whispered. “He only gives them what they expect of him. He was raised to hold over-the-top speeches like that.”

“Yeah, I know,” Steve said, and on a second thought added, “You know, that’s how I met Howard. He was presenting the first flying car in 1943. Wasn’t called Stark Expo then, but all in all, it’s not all that different.” Apart from Stark’s showy entry and the beautiful way the Iron Man suit had slowly dissolved around him. Sure enough, that was something Steve had never seen before.

“What did I tell you about Howard Stark?” Natasha asked.

Steve sighed. It was one of many rules in the How To Behave Around Tony Stark manual. “Don’t mention him unless you want to quit the mission,” he quoted. He still didn’t get that. Not really. Obviously, Howard had changed in the years Steve had been frozen in the Atlantic and Steve had accepted that he hadn’t been the best father to Tony. Still, deep down, Howard surely must’ve remained a good fella. He couldn’t have changed that drastically.

“It’s easier to stick to some rules,” Natasha replied, like she had read his mind—which she probably did on a regular basis. “Otherwise you’ll constantly question your own words and actions and you won’t come across natural then. Stark may not be the most observant person, but he sure isn’t stupid. If he thinks you’re lying to him, if only for a moment, he’ll never reveal anything to you.”

I know, Natasha,” Steve said, and he didn’t mean to sound so defensive, but he had heard all that before. He was ready for this. He had been trained for this specific mission nearly since the day he’d awoken in this time.

Anthony Edward Stark, however weird that sounded, was the one constant in Steve’s life and at this point, Steve was very sure, he knew more about him than any other member of SHIELD.

Natasha sighed. “I just…” she stopped and bit her lip in the kind of contemplative way that meant she was assessing how honest she had to be to get her point across. “I worry about you.” She finally said and the affection in her tone made him smile a little. “We won’t be able to have much contact. And Stark is… He can be a lot, Steve. And I don’t just mean his public persona.” She pointed at the stage, where Stark was currently taking a last bow, enjoying the applause for a moment, before leaving the crowd to an old film reel of Howard Stark. When the man took one last look at the crowd, Steve thought there was something flashing in his brown eyes. For a second it almost seemed like he was saying goodbye. And then he was gone.

“Deep down, he's just an insecure boy. He never got enough honest love in his life, and he's trying to hide behind all this macho-talk. He will do whatever it takes to get everything out of you without revealing anything about himself. And that is exactly what you’ll have to do, too, Steve. It won’t be easy, and this is the first time you’re doing an undercover–“

“Nat,” Steve interrupted, not unkindly. “I appreciate the thought, but trust me, I’ve got this.” He laid an arm around her thin shoulders. “I’ve learned from the best, now, haven’t I?”

And really, how hard could it be to reveal Tony Stark’s secrets? Surely, it couldn’t be all that difficult to make a self-centered man like Stark talk about himself.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Half an hour later, the main hall of Stark Expo was still brimming with people. The empty stage had done nothing by way of chilling the enthusiasm of being at one of the most talked-about places on earth.

“I brought your file.” Natasha said as they slowly made their way through the masses. “In case you had any last questions.”

“I’ve read the file a thousand times. He isn’t shallow, I know that. Still, at this point, I think I figured him out pretty well. Stop worrying about me. I can handle Stark.”

“I’m not talking about Stark’s file.” She said, pressing a few buttons on her phone, making his beep a second later. He opened his jacket, fishing it out of his inner pocket. He looked down at the screen.

Scott Rowan?” he asked incredulously, staring at the file that had automatically opened up on his phone. There was a picture of him and Steve couldn’t even remember having it taken. Probably fake then. Nowadays, Steve thought, there was honestly no way of telling anymore.

“There is a printed copy in your apartment. Along with your new ID, social number, insurance information, background history, bank details, cash, even some family photos. I checked everything twice. You’re all set.”

“An alias? Why didn’t I know about this?”

Natasha eyed him with a smile. “Because I knew it would bother you, so I decided to put it off until there was an opening. And now that Stark made Miss Potts new CEO it’s too late for any major changes.”

“That’s…” Steve’s brows furrowed. “…Conniving.”

“Thank you.” She sounded earnest about it. It should probably bother him more than it did.

“I thought I’d go in as myself. He doesn’t know me. No one knows me. I am a ‘blank slate’, wasn’t that the whole point in choosing me over you?”

“The point is that Stark’s AI won’t be able to track your identity.”

“JARVIS,” Steve remembered with a nod. That was something he was very much looking forward to: Meeting the first and only artificial intelligence in existence. Fury had, albeit a bit begrudgingly, admitted that up until this point, there was nothing even close to compare to Stark’s creation.

“Yes, JARVIS. We’ll have to do something about him scanning you per facial recognition though. The photographs of Project Rebirth are publicly known. Coulson told me the science department invented some kind of jammer. They’re going to install it on-site tonight.”

“That’s risky,” Steve said. It was Stark they were talking about after all. And while the billionaire surely was careless in a lot of areas, Steve was sure that the security of his systems wasn’t one of those.

“It is,” Natasha agreed, and then she grinned and it was such a shit-eating expression, that he was instantly appeased. “And it isn’t. Coulson just has the best kind of ideas. You’ll see.”

Steve hummed, letting the subject rest for the moment.

They reached the exit shortly after. Once they were out of the exhibition site, Natasha pulled off the platinum blond wig, stuffing it in the tiny pink purse she was carrying around this evening.

“So, why identical initials?” he asked eventually. It seemed too odd to be a coincidence.

Natasha huffed, combing her fingers through her red curly hair. “It’s sort of a tradition, like a private joke around SHIELD. Coulson started it with going in as Phil Collins when he went off to an undercover mission in Romania. We figured it’s convenient to have a phonetically similar name. Keeps reaction times shorter.”

“He kept his first name, though. I don’t understand why I can’t be Steve, then.”

Because,” Natasha started, throwing the car keys in his hand and looking intently at him over the roof of the car. “Believe me: it’ll be easier for you. It helps keeping some distance. It creeps up on you otherwise. Trust me. I’ve been there.”

“You went on a mission as Natasha?”

Her look became a little distant. She then shrugged her shoulders in a way that was disturbingly self-conscious. With Natasha, it was hard to say if it was an honest gesture or not. “Once,” she admitted after a moment while getting into the car.

Steve followed her and inserted the key, turning on the ignition. “And?”

A ghost of a smile graced her deep red lips while Steve steered the car in the direction of the highway. “I got too attached. Fell in love. Blew my cover. Betrayed my employer. Turned myself over… might have overthrown one or two regimes while I was at it.”

It had taken him half a year to figure out when Natasha was being serious and when she was just playing with him. Of course, he only realized that she was lying whenever she allowed him to. And now she was clearly and deliberately overdoing it, her lips twitching in a way that meant she was trying not to laugh.

“Very funny,” he said, smiling fondly.

She bumped their shoulders together. “Actually true, although that was much later. When I went in as Natasha Ramón, the mission went smoothly. Still—others who tried doing undercover work with their real names failed, and they failed fast, Steve. The ‘keeping your distance’ thing is one of those handbook rules you shouldn’t ignore.”

He itched to ask her about that other mission, but he knew her well enough to know that Natasha only revealed personal information about herself in her own time and under her own conditions.

“I just…” he said instead and furrowed his brows in a way that hopefully looked sorrowful. He’d learned to use the kicked-puppy-look to his advantage months ago. People always seemed to be too willing to believe that he was sad and alone and embittered. Not that he didn’t feel that way sometimes, but he was just too busy to dwell on it for the most part. “Waking up here made me feel like a stranger to myself… it’s just gonna feel weird, not hearing my own name for so long, I guess.”

Блядь.” Natasha rolled her eyes and tossed her red hair over her shoulder. “Fine. I’ll get your name for you. Just don’t come crying to me if you can’t handle it.”

Steve nodded, trying to hide how pleased he was.

“It’s still Rowan, though.”

Steve chuckled. “I can live with that.”

For a moment the only sound was the gentle hum of the high-end engine and the wind that was blowing outside of the car, and then, “You know you didn’t fool me with that, right?” Natasha asked.

Steve laughed, looking over at her with a fond expression. Of all things, he would miss her most. “’Course not.”

“I had a second file ready the whole time. You are too predictable Rogers.”

Steve snorted, more amused than offended. But then Natasha was taking his hand in hers and she squeezed it a little. “It’ll be good enough for Stark though. I did teach you well.”

He couldn’t force down the little proud smile that took over his face. Then, his eyes flickered to the rear view mirror. The lights of the city that had been as bright as the arc reactor in Iron Man’s chest only a second ago, were now slowly dissolving in the darkness. “That you did,” he whispered, silently wondering what the next weeks of his life would be like.

Chapter Text

  

Tony

 

He resented it all.

The world had become a cold, dreary place, and he resented it. Even after JARVIS’ fatal diagnosis, life was somehow carrying on, and he resented it. Even though he wasn’t CEO anymore, there were meetings every day and parties every night, and he resented every single part of it.

He felt himself slipping into a never-ending tedium, and every failed test run only reminded him why he resented the fuck out of this. Luckily, Pepper was used to his periods of excessive eccentricity, so even though she offered to talk from time to time, she didn’t force him to.

Resentment like this had been a long time coming. At first, there was nothing—nothing aside from the sideways glances from Pepper, the forlorn expression on Happy’s face whenever he overdid his brooding, and the not-quite-so-direct questions from Rhodey. Tony had found himself adrift, his mind busy with finding a solution. Even his dreams were now full of numbers and equations that never worked in real life. When he didn’t dream about black lines strangling him, it was the feeling of choking on water, and the fear of being back in that cave, close to dying from the torture. Whatever he dreamed though, every time he woke up, he was still very much dying, and he would remember how easy things used to be—before Iron Man, before becoming a superhero—and he started to resent that too.

What he resented most though, was that he was alone in his resentment.

Patience had certainly never been his virtue. His focus on everyday menial tasks had become singular over the past few weeks. He remembered waking up that morning a couple of months ago and finally admitting to himself that he felt different—not the ongoing pain in his chest—but a more potent pain all over his body. Time had passed, but the endless resentment had only grown.

Boxing with Happy had always been one of Tony’s most effective ways of relaxing. Aside from the more obvious choices of course, but he was trying (and failing) to tone down on the drinking and his sex life was a whole other matter he didn’t even want to think about at the moment. His mind kept talking itself into circles, and time was doing little to ease him into the concept that yes, he would die, and there was nothing he could do about it anymore.

So, boxing it was. It helped him unwind and was usually all around fun with a little friendly banter. It had always been an easy way to just stop thinking for an hour or two. However, these days even that didn’t stop him from brooding anymore. He kept thinking about how he needed to distance himself, how he needed to push away the people that were closest to him. How, if he really loved them, he needed to make sure they wouldn’t fully break once he was pushing up the daisies.

Sparring remained one of the rare times when Tony still allowed himself to be, well, himself. When he didn’t have to constantly think about deadly black lines around his heart, didn’t have to mull over terms like legacy or responsibility. When he could just shut his mind off for an hour or two.

He knew that he had to accept it eventually. In the end, this was his own fault. Afghanistan had been inevitable, it seemed. The arc reactor, everything, he deserved that—in some way. That was what he resented the most. He had to be held accountable eventually. How could be expect not to be? He always claimed to be a genius and yet—for so many years—he had been exactly as naïve as the young boy that Obadiah had always taken him for.

He’d become a shadow of who he used to be. His temper was easily provoked, and every time he made an effort to calm himself, his mood only worsened. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, and the people he cared for could never understand. What was there to explain? What could he possibly say to explain this? What was there outside of the truth? And truth wasn’t an option. This was his burden to carry, no one else’s.

He was only mildly aware that Happy had been speaking animatedly for the past half hour, only answering with the compulsory jabs and jokes when the timing seemed appropriate. He found himself purposely ignoring their sacred fair game rules, pushing Happy beyond his endless patience, and even if he didn’t show it much, Tony knew he was annoyed as fuck.

Well. Annoyed was better than grieving. Annoyed was better than devastated over something as stupid as his dead boss.

So he ducked one of Happy’s punches and socked him right in the face for good measure.

Happy staggered back, glaring at him. “What the hell was that?” he snapped, pulling off his sparring helmet.

“It’s called mixed martial arts, it’s been out for… three weeks.” Tony answered dully, trying not to wince when he hopped up and down. He was tired, his arms and legs hurt like a bitch and he couldn’t even remember the last time he had been able to take a long, deep breath.

“It’s called dirty boxing.” Happy told him angrily. “And there is nothing new about it.”

Tony grinned cheekily, going back into pose. “You’re just saying that because you’re losing,” he said, tapping Happy on the nose.

“I swear to god, boss, if you—” He stopped and his gaze drifted past Tony. “Damn it. What is it with today? First the damn training room is flooded and then, the one time you rent a public place...” he trailed off, pulling off his gloves.

Tony turned around and found himself confronted with one of the most impressive backsides he’d ever seen on a guy. The light was a bit dim in the far end corner of the large boxing hall, but that didn’t stop him from craning his neck to get a better view. It was a rare occasion that a guy caught his attention nowadays, but this one, well, damn if he wasn’t a wet dream come true. The shoulder to waist ratio was insane and the white workout shirt he was wearing was a little damp and made it so easy to see every muscle on his back twitch with the brutal hits he was dishing out on the punching bag in front of him.

“Yo,” Tony shouted before he could think it over. The guy didn’t even slow down. He finished his drill and only then did he turn sideways to glance irritably in Tony’s direction.  He stepped forward a little, his chest still heaving, his sculptured body a little pink with exertion and glimmering with sweat. And fuck, he was as gorgeous upfront as he was from behind. His blond hair, albeit a little outdated in its style, was falling down his forehead and even from the distance, Tony could see piercing blue eyes studying him.

“Care for a little match?” he yelled even as Happy started to shake his head beside him.

“Boss, you don’t even know who–“

He waved Happy off in favor of leaning over the ropes to wink at Blond ‘n Gorgeous. “Bet I can give you more of a fight than that bag.”

The guy just grunted, his gaze slowly assessing Tony’s form. “Not so sure about that.” He concluded while pressing a little white towel to his face.

Tony laughed, taking the bottle Happy pushed in his direction. He tried not to scrunch up his face at the taste; he’d almost gotten used to it.

“Why don’t you come up here and find out.” He countered and, God help him, he was wiggling his eyebrow, wasn’t he? He’d really lost his game.

The guy held Tony’s gaze and for a moment he thought he’d actually take him up on the offer, but then he was shaking his head. “Thanks. Maybe next time.”

I’m not sure I have a next time, Tony thought. “Maybe next time I’ll already have a busty blonde with me.” He said instead, because lewd lines were always easier than admitting he was being let down easily.

“That’s a risk I’m going to have to live with,” came the neutral answer and the guy hoisted up one of the five punching bags that had previously lain neatly on the floor beside him. What was that about anyway?

“At least tell me your name?” he shouted after the retrieving form.

For a moment there was no answer and the broad-shouldered silhouette had already disappeared in the shadows. Then, the voice shouted back. “Rowan.”

“First or last name?” Tony yelled.

“You’re Tony Stark. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

He didn’t figure it out.

The boxing club Happy had dragged him to was ancient. There were no cameras, no audio sources, hell, the owner hadn’t even checked Rowan’s full name when he’d entered. He wasn’t a frequenter; in fact, it had probably been his first visit, too.

So he eventually gave up on the matter. If he put enough effort behind it, he could make JARVIS track him down, of course, but at the end of the day, Tony was man enough to admit that the guy hadn’t shown any interest in him whatsoever. Best to just let it rest. That didn’t mean he stopped thinking about the handsome blonde entirely, he simply had other things to worry about… more important things than a nice backside, anyway. Like dying. It was ridiculous how much time you could spend on dying if you wanted to do it right.

There was still so much to do… and so little time to do it all.

“Tony.” When he looked up, Pepper looked at him from the other side of the limousine with a state of near-cold understanding.

Tony blinked and smiled apologetically. “Sorry. My mind’s somewhere else.”

“Color me astonished.” The vindictiveness flooding Pepper’s tone was nothing if not justified; that didn’t mean he had to sit back and welcome it.

“What do you want me to say?” he asked tensely. Pepper usually backed off when he adapted that tone of voice. The last go-rounds had made it very clear that he would never spill what it was that had him behaving like an a-grade asshole lately. The first dozen or so questions about his feebleness and the erratic moods that put pregnant women to shame had crashed and burned too many times. At some point, Pepper had stopped asking and Tony didn’t blame her.

Tonight, though, she seemed to give it another go.

“How about anything, Tony? Anything would be a good start,” she retorted impatiently. “Where are you?”

“Right here,” he said, straightening his back and giving her a little smile he hoped looked genuine.

She rolled her eyes in a gesture that clearly meant to say, No, you are not, but she let it drop anyway. God bless her. “I’m really glad you’re coming with me, you know? It’s been a while since you joined me on these events.”

Tony smiled. “It’s your first one as CEO. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

And he really was glad he’d agreed to come to the annual Stark Industries gala. Pepper had never looked more beautiful, the long white gown was an extreme contrast to her auburn wavy hair. She radiated a certain calmness tonight that he hadn’t seen on her before. There was pride in her eyes, too: the good kind, like this was where her life had been meant to head all along. It was a good look on her. She deserved it all.

“You’re making me blush, Mr. Stark”, she said, calling him on his staring, but the self-confident way she was leaning back betrayed her words.

“You look gorgeous,” he told her, suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling of letting her know it all. The adoration he’d always held towards her… his gratefulness, the sudden attraction. He had been trying so hard not to take this thing between them any further, because it simply wasn’t fair to her. Still, not trying was… awful, to say the least, because he could picture it so easily. It would be like breathing, just letting their longtime friendship develop into something more. It just made so much sense to be with her. It seemed… reasonable, somehow. She knew—better than anyone else—what a mess he was and she still liked him, right?

No. He had to reign himself in. He’d made the promise not to hurt her any more than he already would.Still. Not telling her how fiercely proud he was of the competent and beautiful woman she was, and the even more competent and beautiful CEO she had become, was simply impossible.

“Thank you,” she said, smiling. She reached for his hand and squeezed it. “Are you ready for this?”

“Shouldn’t I be the one asking you?”

“Oh come on, don’t fool yourself, I’ve been to more cooperate parties than you.”

Tony laughed, and as the car stopped in front of the main entrance, he could already see the shades of a thousand flashlights going off outside.

“Oh wait, I forgot to mention,” Pepper said before Tony could open the door of the limousine, “your new PA is going to be there.”

Tony arched an eyebrow at her. “I really don’t need a new PA.”

“Yeah, right. Like you could survive on your own for so much as a week. I thought we were way past that foolish prospect.”

He glared at her, pouting expressively. “Is she at least as frivolous as my last PA?”

That got him a mischievous grin. “Actually, he is ex-military. And frivolous isn’t exactly how I would describe him, no.”

Ex–what? Tony’s eyes widened and now he was the one stopping Pepper from opening the door. “You’re kidding me, right? Please tell me you’re kidding me. Pepper darling, honeybunch, light of my life, is this Prank-Your-Ex-Boss? Because after all this shit the government is pulling at me right now, you wouldn’t do something like that, right? You wouldn’t bring some stupid army-lapdog into my private life?”

“Actually, that’s the exact reason I chose him, Tony. He knows the way the military is operating and I’m sure he has some good opinions on the matter. He doesn’t work for them anymore; we’ve been checking his files numerous times. JARVIS has cleared him personally. He’s very professional, intelligent and if need be, he can protect you from–”

Tony snorted loudly—about to tell her exactly what he thought about his need for protection, but Pepper stopped him short. “More important: He’s also a great guy, Tony. I trust him to be there for you. Do you think it’s easy for me to let someone else into your life like that? To trust someone enough after what happened with Obadiah? Just give him a chance. Will you… for me?”

Well, that was a low blow and she knew it. Tony sighed, and if he hadn’t been so tired, he sure as hell would’ve pulled more of a fuss about this. But he was tired, he was exhausted, and at the end of the day, it probably didn’t matter all that much what he wanted and what he didn’t anymore.

Fine,” he conceded. “I’ll try not to give him a hard time.”

Pepper leaned forward and kissed his cheek, a little closer to his mouth than she usually did. “Getting mature in your old days?”

Tony smiled at her, eyeing her red glossy lips for a second.

Pepper had rescued him so many times—too many times to count, really. Not in life-to-death-situations, maybe, but in other ways. Smaller ones… She’d saved him in every way humanly possible and, for a moment, he really wished he could just be weak and let her work this out, too. That he could put all the weight of the world on her delicate but oh so strong shoulders… and just let her rescue him this one final time.

He wouldn’t, of course. She would have enough on her plate once it was all said and done.

“What’s his name?” he asked, leaning back.

“Who?” Pepper asked, and she looked a little dazed. Well. He hadn’t lost his game all that much, apparently.

There was a knock on the door.

“Military guy,” he said, straightening his black bow tie.

“Steve,” Pepper said over her shoulder while finally pushing the door open a fraction, before Happy was there to help her out. “Steve Rowan.”

“Rowan?” Tony repeated, following her into the bright lights.

Huh. What a coincidence.

 

 

* * *

 

 

It wasn’t a coincidence, of course. It was him. And fuck if Tony didn’t stare at his familiar back for over a minute straight, zoning right out of a conversation with the board president of Stark Industries. Pepper was standing next to him, glaring daggers at his head, and yes, he was well aware of that, thank you very much, but he just couldn’t stop staring.

Rowan—Steve Rowan, it had to be—was wearing a tux, standing right next to a gorgeous dark skinned woman with curly black hair and a dazzling smile. He was twirling a glass of champagne between his fingers and while he seemed to be genuinely interested in what his companion had to say, his eyes darted over the crowd on a regular basis, like he was searching for someone.

“Could you excuse us for a second, Mr. Davis,” he heard Pepper say and then he was tucked away towards the buffet.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” she hissed at him as soon as they were out of earshot, and suddenly there was a glass of champagne in his hand. He took a little sip, still staring at the James Bond-lookalike sixty feetaway.

Pepper followed his gaze, and he didn’t look at her, but he was pretty sure she was scowling now. “What is it? JARVIS told me you haven’t met him before.”

“I actually have. Yesterday.”

There was a puzzled pause, then, “Where?”

“At the boxing club Happy dragged me to after the sparring floor was flooded, which—by the way—” He gave her a pointed look. “I personally installed these pipes while wiring JARVIS into the house and there is no fucking way they could have just broken.”

“I know. We’re already looking into it.” Pepper sighed, rubbing a hand over her forehead. “So why don’t you just go over to him, introduce yourself, talk a little. I’m going to try to salvage what I can with Davis.”

“Hmm… hmm,” Tony hummed and well, did just that.

Steve was deep in conversation, but the little, polite smile on his lips was all business and no pleasure. Good.

When Tony rounded the corner to the secluded area where the pair was standing, Steve seemed to notice that someone was heading directly towards them and glanced up. He immediately recognized him, obviously, just like Tony had. His eyes widened a little and he must’ve said something to the woman at his side, because she turned around a second after, eyeing Tony from head to toe.

“Mr. Stark,” she said, extending a hand towards him—which he took and kissed on the back.

“Good evening,” he said. “I hope you’re enjoying yourself, Miss—”

Mrs,” she corrected. “King, Veronica.”

Married. Huh. Tony eyed Steve, but the guy only shook his head, chuckling a little and boy, did he have a beautiful laugh. “Not the one,” he said, having read Tony’s gaze correctly. He reached for Tony’s outstretched hand and shook it in a firm, warm grasp. “It’s a pleasure to meet you again, Mr. Stark.”

“Indeed. I was just told you will be working for me.” Tony said. “First rule: Don’t call me Mr. Stark. I’m Tony, and if I remember correctly, you still owe me your first name.”

His smile was a little too tight around the edges, but he nodded anyway. “Right, I guess I do. I am Steve—Rowan, but you knew that already. Nice to meet you Tony.” His voice was firm, the eyes friendly enough, giving every impression that he meant what he said.

“So, you’re ex-military, huh?” Tony asked and it seemed to be some sort of taboo word, because Veronica King instantly laid a hand on Steve’s shoulder and leaned in. “I’ll see you later, Steve,” she said, giving Tony a stiff nod, before disappearing into the crowd.

“Well, normally I don’t scare women off like that.” Tony wondered out loud, looking after her retreating back. “Quite the opposite, I assure you.”

Steve shook his head. “It’s not you. Military is a bit of a sensitive topic around Vic.”

“I think I can relate to that.”

“Yes,” he said. “Miss Potts already warned me not to be too much—how did she put it—soldier material. Told me you’d have an allergic reaction to that.”

Tony glanced down and smiled to himself. It was fleeting, but for the first time in a long while, he felt almost normal. Felt something like himself sneak its way home. “Well, she does know me best, doesn’t she?”

“If it’s any consolation, Mr.—Tony… I don’t plan on selling you out or anything. I’ve watched your hearing last week…” Tony watched, a little amused, how the guy tried valiantly to school his expression, but the disapproving frown on his forehead was hard to miss. “…and while I would’ve used different words to defend my case, I agree that the Iron Man suit is your own property. So you really don’t have to worry about me trying to convince you to hand it over.”

“Good to know.” Tony nodded. He’d see about that. “So, when’s your first day? I remember you owing me a little rough and tumble.”

That brought the frown back full force. “A—what?”

Tony grinned, loving how flustered he’d made Mr. Unreadable look. “Sparring, handsome.”

It wasn’t much, and was gone in a blink, but there had been a faint pink highlight around Steve’s cheek for a second, and Tony considered it a win. “I don’t remember agreeing to that,” he said, and it wasn’t the first one altogether, but the first warm smile he’d given him so far. The guy sure had an attractive smile.

“Yeah, well. I am your boss now. So I might just order you to.”

That brought a shadow over Steve’s face, but he obviously tried to keep his friendly expression intact. “Because you always get what you want, don’t you?”

Tony’s brows perked with interest. He held Steve’s gaze, the silent challenge obvious in those deep blue eyes. He had to respect the guy for calling his soon-to-be-boss out like that. Tony thought about telling him that if he didn’t, he could always buy a suitable substitute whenever he wanted, but for some reason, he didn’t. “Not always, no.” He said instead, surprising himself with the honesty.

At that, Steve’s gaze dropped down to Tony’s chest and fuck, he needed to stop tapping on the reactor, for god’s sake. It had been an unnecessary habit from the get-go, and now it was just a blatantly stupid thing to do.

“Hard to imagine,” he said quietly, now searching Tony’s gaze for—what? An opening? A soft spot? Tony swallowed, taking a step back. He didn’t need another person hovering over him. Especially not now.

Instead he shook his head and gave Steve his best leer. “It’s true. Although, I gotta tell you, sooner or later, hot blonds like you always come around to do everything I want. One way or the other.”

It worked beautifully. It always did. The open curiosity on Steve’s all-American face crumbled, his eyes hardened, and he squared his shoulders, gripping the flute in his right hand so tight that it might’ve just cracked. “Congratulations on that, Mr. Stark. And as to your previous question—my first day is tomorrow. I will be seeing you on the plane.” He turned around to leave.

Tony shook his head, honestly confused. “What plane?” he called after him.

“Uh, that would be to… Monaco?” Steve asked, looking back at him like he’d just grown a second head. “You have seven big PR appointments there.”

“Huh,” Tony said because, yes, now he remembered Pepper telling him something about the Circuit de Monaco a week ago. In his defense, that had been a particularly bad day for him. The night before, JARVIS had analyzed the last possible element-combination that had at least the potential to power the reactor—and it had failed, and epically so. And… well. He’d already been pretty wasted when Pepper had come into the workshop to make him sign his upcoming schedule.

But that probably wasn’t something he should be telling his new PA.

“Well, that’s what I have you for, don’t I,” he drawled, poking his glass at the guy’s chest for good measure. “The, you know, not-quite-so-important stuff.”

Steve bristled with anger; it was actually quite funny how obvious it was behind the polite mask he was wearing. His blue eyes were blazing with fury, his jaw hardened, and Tony would’ve loved to see him snap, but he reigned himself in.

“Right,” he said so neutrally Tony felt like applauding him. “Have a lovely evening Mr. Stark.” And with that, Steve turned around and walked away. His shoulders were tense, and one of his hands was actually balled to a fist. Tony watched him going over to Mrs. King. He tapped her on the shoulder, whispering something into her ear. For a second, she looked over at Tony, but then she nodded and let Steve lead her out of the main room.

Tony let his shoulders slump, gazing towards his half-empty glass. He sighed; toasting himself for a job well done and knocking back the rest of the champagne in one go.

Well. He ought to be happy to have one person less to worry about crying at his funeral.

Chapter Text

 

Steve

 

The flight to Monaco was unexpectedly quiet. After Miss Potts had cancelled her attendance at the last minute, he’d expected Stark to, well, act on it; like pestering the flight crew or blaring loud Rock ‘n Roll music throughout the whole flight. Not that he’d been looking forward to that, but there had been reports about a stripper pole and excessive drinking on Stark’s private jets, for heaven’s sakes. And even if those stories weren’t true, Steve would’ve at least expected more of Stark’s insults and jokes on his behalf. Honestly, after their first conversation at the gala, he expected to hate every second of the flight.

Apparently he was wrong.

As it was, there was barely a low hum to be heard. The only actual sound within the cabin was the clinking of glasses from the galley area and Stark’s fingertips tapping on the tablet in his hand. When Stark had arrived only a couple of minutes late, he’d acknowledged Steve with a little nod, then sat down in his seat and hasn’t moved since. Almost six hours had passed like that and Steve soon found himself bored to death. No matter how irritating Stark’s one-liners and innuendos were, it had been somewhat soothing to listen to him speak.

“You’re fidgeting,” Stark said across from him. It were the first words he had directed at Steve and he didn’t even look up from what Steve assumed were blueprints of whatever it was he was working on these days. “Didn’t pack you for the antsy type.”

“I’m not… antsy,” Steve huffed, willing his foot to stay still. “I’m just not into planes all that much, is all.”

“Fear of flying?” Stark asked, every word oozing disinterest.

Fear of freezing, he mused, looking down at the wide, blue ocean below them. “A little.” Just a casual answer, that was good. Little crumbs of information that would make Stark feel like he was able to assess Steve’s character. Make the impression to give personal information without revealing anything at all, he chanted inwardly. He’d already messed up the day before. He wouldn’t let Stark get under his skin again.

Stark looked up and the little smile he gave him didn’t even look all that fake—sympathetic even. He rubbed his meticulous goatee, shrugging. “It gets easier with practice.”

“You were afraid of flying?” Steve found himself asking before he could think about it.

Stark chuckled. “No. I love flying. Always have, always will. But Pepper used to get sick a lot when she started to accompany me to my oversea-meetings. Now she sleeps like a baby whenever she has enough time to.”

Steve found himself smiling at the warmth in Stark’s eyes when he talked about Potts. He really must care deeply for her, then.

“That’s good to know,” he said and found he actually meant it.

 

 

* * *

 

 

He had known about the press, of course, the paparazzi, the cameras. Natasha had set him down to watch videos of Stark being surrounded by hundreds of flash lights and microphones. He’d seen the grainy recording of a four year old giving his first interview about the engine he’d built and he had watched, sick to the stomach, how the reporters had made him explain himself again and again until he got it right, until the smile he was forced to sport the whole time looked genuine. He could comprehend why Stark had become so incredibly good with handling the media. After all, he’d been cornered, photographed and exposed in so many ways he probably just didn’t care anymore.

So, yes—Steve had known about the press.

But no videos could’ve prepared him for the impact of this moment.

“Breathe,” Stark said beside him, and suddenly there was a warm hand on the small of his back, leading him forward. He was aware of Happy walking on his other side, isolating him from the chaos, but he just… he couldn’t think straight. “Almost there.”

God, he’d been trained to withstand torture, he had seen brave men crawling in their own blood, he should be able to handle a few flash lights, this was ridiculous, but it was all so much. He probably looked like a deer caught in headlights, and tomorrow there would be photographs of him everywhere.

Stark’s hand was gentle though, his thumb rubbing circles into Steve’s spine and then they were stepping through a door and a second later the noise was gone. Everything was gone. He could finally breathe.

“Yeah, no, thank you,” Stark snapped at someone, the doorman, or Happy maybe, he couldn’t be sure. He led Steve straight to an empty corridor, pushing him against a wall and down on a window sill. “Hey,” he said in a firm voice and goddammit, he was taking Steve’s head in his hands, tilting it upwards. He had to admit, Stark had nice hands. A little callused, maybe, but very warm and very firm. He tipped a finger against Steve’s temple, his brown eyes boring straight into Steve’s. “You still in there, big guy?”

How had this even happened? He’d done well up until this point, he was sure. He’d been professional and polite and he hadn’t given Stark any unnecessary insights. But the second they’d stepped out of the plane and into the frenzy of reporters, it had been like stepping into a bubble of noise. The people, the proximity—it was USFO all over again. And he had just lost it, pathetically so.

God, he must’ve looked like an idiot.

He took a deep, slightly shaky breath and squared his shoulders as best as he could. “I’m sorry,” he admitted, his voice embarrassingly raspy. “That was unprofessional.”

“Fuck it,” Stark said, running both thumbs over Steve’s cheeks before letting go completely. Steve found himself leaning in for a second, before he remembered himself. Stark smiled down at him and he looked honestly relieved. “Again: practice makes perfect and all that jazz. You’ll manage just fine. Thanks, you’re a sweetheart.” It took a moment for Steve to notice that the last part hadn’t been directed at him but at the waitress who had walked by with a tablet full of half-filled tumblers.

“Isn’t it a bit early for that?” Steve asked when they were alone again.

Stark barked a laugh, looking openly amused and already sipping from what Steve assumed was whiskey. “See, you already sound like Pepper. You’ll be a highly professional pain in my ass in no time. I am such a lucky man.”

And Steve, for all the training, all the information about Stark, could simply not decide if he was being sarcastic or not.

 

 

* * *

 

 

From there on, the appointments ran smoothly enough. Stark was oozing charisma throughout every interview, making small-talk with just about everyone in the restaurant, pulling jabs at persons he didn’t like without them ever noticing, and though he had just emptied his third glass of whiskey, he didn’t seem to be drunk in the slightest. It was actually very impressive. This was clearly Stark’s element and he really was a force of nature.

That was also the reason why it took Steve a few minutes before he noticed the change in Stark’s laid-back posture. He was talking to a guy with blond, short hair and glasses. His beige suit wasn’t as extravagant as Stark’s blue one, but it certainly tried to be.

The guy made Stark sit down with him and a blonde reporter Steve recognized from the infamous I Am Iron Man press conference. They were obviously boring him to death with whatever they tried to convince him of. But it wasn’t just boredom. Stark’s expression had gone … empty, like he didn’t even care how tiresome all this was. Like it didn’t matter.

Steve looked down at his papers, going through the names there. They didn’t have another meeting until after the race, but still, he knew the guy from somewhere. He scanned his memory, the list of Stark’s business partners and competitors, and just as he remembered where he’d seen the face before, Stark confirmed his assumption: “Look, Hammer, if you invent something that works, I’ll make sure to get you a slot.” Stark stood up and started to walk over to where Steve stood. Hammer looked like someone had just killed his dog.

“Steve, honey, Hammer needs a slot,” Stark informed him, patting his shoulder as he went by.

“I–,” Steve answered, unsure if he was meant to actually do something about that or if this was just Stark-code for just smile nicely and do exactly nothing.

When Stark didn’t come back after ten minutes, Steve went looking for him. The door to the men’s toilet was left slightly ajar. He risked a glance inside, and saw Stark leaning over the sink, one of his thumbs in his mouth. There was a little machine in his other hand, not much bigger than a USB-Stick, and it took Steve a moment to read the writing from that distance, but eventually he managed.

Blood toxicity.

Maybe he was just checking his alcohol level? But 53 percent seemed way too high for that, right? Even if Stark had drank quite a lot.

Inside the bathroom Stark sighed deeply and for a moment he looked so unbearably defeated that is was hard not to look away. This—all this—wasn’t the man Steve had read about at all. He was lead to believe that Stark always got his way, and if he didn’t, he just paved himself a new one.

But that man before him? That man wasn’t even searching anymore, and Steve found he would’ve preferred Stark to be the overconfident asshole he had reckoned with.

“Any more bad ideas?” the man asked quietly, staring at his own reflection.

Steve frowned, taking out his phone and silently snapping a photo of the little device, before he turned around and walked back in the dining hall. He sent the picture to Natasha, asking her if she had any idea about what this could possibly mean.

A minute later, his phone was vibrating.

We’ll look into it. Fury thinks something’s going on in Monaco. Keep an eye on Stark.

 

 

* * *

 

 

The name of something was Ivan Vanko. Steve didn’t know what angered him more, the fact that Stark actually managed to slip through his fingers, doing one of his foolish solo stunts by spontaneously driving the Circuit de Monaco himself, or that Steve had not been able to do anything to actually help him when the situation got dicey.

When Vanko had sliced Stark’s car in half, Steve had sprinted to the race course as fast as his body allowed him to. He probably shouldn’t have taken on full speed, but the thought to slow down to a more human level hadn’t even occurred to him at the time. He didn’t have his shield with him—it was still at his SHIELD apartment in Los Angeles—so there wasn’t much he could be doing without exposing himself.

He was on the scene just in time to see Happy Hogan throw a suitcase at Stark’s feet. The armor unfolded beautifully around the man and Steve thought that maybe the stern eyes of Iron Man bore into him for a second before Stark was throwing himself into the fight.

Steve busied himself with getting people out of the way, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the fight. He would interfere if need be, shield or no shield, but for now, Stark was holding up just fine.

He dragged Happy off to the tribune and made sure that no one else was in range of the Whiplash harness, but then someone beside him was screaming and it took him a moment to figure out what was happening.

Iron Man was kneeling on the asphalt, one of the whips pulled tightly around his neck. The electricity seemed to circulate straight through the armor, sparks flying in every direction.

Steve went on autopilot. He grabbed the nearest object—which happened to be one of the road signs that had gotten demolished—and broke the sign away from the post to hurl it in the direction of Vanko.

Next to him, Happy cursed loudly, but Steve didn’t care about subtlety. The sign propelled through the air, hitting Vanko straight in the neck. It wasn’t a strong impact, the sign wasn’t made of Vibranium after all, but it distracted him long enough so that Stark could stand back up. But instead of pulling away, he began to loop the whip around his whole body. The sparks intensified and Steve could see the armor shaking, but then he was suddenly right in front of Vanko and pulled out the glowing disc in the middle of the harness.

The effect was immediate.

Vanko sank to his knees and the electricity that had been surging through the whips a moment ago died out. Stark gave him a kick for good measure, looking down on him, the faceplate impassive as always.

“You lose, Stark,” the man suddenly shouted while spitting blood in Stark’s direction. He laughed gleefully, even when the police dragged him away. “You lose.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

The voices behind the thick wall were muffled, yet Steve was able to hear every single word. Of course, he was the only one able to. The men at his side were tapping frantically on their phones or talked quietly with one another. No one was paying attention to the conversation inside the prison cell. No one could.

“Hey Tony, before you go,” Vanko said. “Palladium in the chest. Painful way to die.”

Steve’s eyes narrowed. He’d heard about the palladium core before. It was one of the few details SHIELD was actually able to confirm about the arc reactor. It was its power source, wasn’t it?

He didn’t have any time to think about it, because a second later Stark was there, pushing aggressively through the door. When he stepped outside, he took a shaky breath and met Steve’s gaze. There were little cuts and bruises all over his face and he had to be one of the most irritatingly handsome men Steve had ever known, because even like this—even as battered and tired as he looked now—he was still a sight for sore eyes.

“What are you looking at,” Stark snarled, his brown eyes wide and vulnerable. Then he pushed himself away from Steve—turned around and marched through the dimly lit hall. The managers of the Circuit followed him like puppies, muttering their apologies in every language possible.

Steve grabbed for his phone, cueing up his secured connection to SHIELD. It automatically dialed Natasha’s number, while Steve slowly started to follow the group outside.

“Palladium,” he said when he heard the free-line signal. They were always like this when they talked business—short but to the point. There was no need for elaboration with Natasha. As expected, she didn’t waste time with formalities either and he loved her for that. “The element that powers the arc reactor.”

“Vanko said that it’s killing Stark.”

There was a pause and he heard Natasha talking to someone, but he couldn’t really make out the words. Fury, probably. “Actually,” she said after a moment. “That makes a lot of sense. Not the palladium, I mean, we know shit about how the reactor works, but that Stark’s dying, that would explain a lot.”

Steve nodded, his mind going backwards through the latest information in Stark’s files. “The big donations, making Miss Potts CEO, the speech about legacy…”

“Yes,” Natasha agreed.

Steve stopped, looking back over his shoulder towards the cell door. “Vanko–”

“I’ll take him to the Fridge myself.” She confirmed what he’d already expected. “He won’t be seeing daylight for a while, don’t worry.”

“Good. Are you on site?”

“Classified,” she said and he could almost hear her smile.

He rolled his eyes and huffed a sigh. “Right. I’ll find out more about the palladium.”

“Do that. I’ll talk to Fury about it.”

“If it’s killing him…” Steve started to say, but the line had already gone dead and suddenly he felt a little helpless. A little helpless and a little lost. If the reactor was truly failing, there was no one that could fix it, right? There was only one person who understood the specifics of it and if he hadn’t already figured out a solution, then maybe there simply wasn’t one.

Maybe Tony really was dying.

And maybe there was no way to save him.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Driving the Circuit, as Steve was told repeatedly over the last few hours, didn’t even make top five of the stupid, reckless things Tony had done in his past.

Next to him, Pepper leaned back on the couch, eyeing him. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t be shocked, or disappointed, or angry even. You can be all that. Actually, I encourage you to be all that. It’s kind of necessary not to hold these feelings in when dealing with Tony. What I’m saying is that you should think about if you can learn to deal with it, because he won’t change.” She gave him a pointed look. “Ever.”

Steve leaned back, too, eyeing the news real in front of them. The media was in a frenzy, taking apart every little thing Tony had done in the last few weeks. But mostly, there were close-ups of Iron Man holding Vanko’s reactor in his palm, crushing it to pieces. Next to it was a record of Tony’s hearing and him saying how far everyone else was from making anything even close to the Iron Man armor.

On the good side, there didn’t seem to be any shots of Steve running through the Circuit or him throwing the sign, but maybe SHIELD hat taken care of that beforehand.

He looked out through the window, an endless ocean before his eyes. “Did you?”

“Hm?” Pepper asked absentmindedly while typing dizzyingly fast on her laptop.

“Learn to deal with it.”

She laughed humorlessly. “In some ways, yes. But that doesn’t mean I don’t always get a heart attack every time he throws himself in danger’s way like that.”

She pushed the laptop away, setting it on the living room table. “Look, Steve. I know Tony can be too much even on a good day. Not only because of Iron Man and guys like Ivan Vanko. He’s borderline reckless and egoistic and sometimes he altogether forgets that there are other people in the world, too. He doesn’t eat or sleep on a regular basis. He’ll forget meetings, and doesn’t keep his promises. But that’s not even the worst of it. What is really going to make you hate him from time to time? That he tries to hide his real feelings behind this mask he has perfected over the years. He will always joke around what’s important. He will try to distract you from what is really going on in that genius brain of his.” She stopped, her gaze drifting towards the stairs, which led down to the infamous workshop he had yet to see. And her face got so desperately fond that Steve found himself wanting to feel like that, too. “But the thing is…” she continued quietly, looking back at him. “In the end, it’s all worth it.”

For some insane reason, Steve could almost imagine it was true. “How so?”

Pepper shrugged. “I think that’s something you need to find out for yourself—if you want to. I’m sure James and Happy and I have different reasons that have kept us at Tony’s side all these years.”

“What are yours?” He was probably being intrusive, but he couldn’t help himself, suddenly overwhelmed with the need to know, understand, to learn.

Pepper sighed and looked away, her eyes falling on the stairs once more. They were warm but distant, in contrast to her face that was hardened with fierce determination. “When I started working as Tony’s PA, it was just a really good chance, a… stepping stone. And over the time I think it was mostly his genius that kept me going through all his eccentricities.” She pointed at the monitors on the wall. “DUM-E, JARVIS, even the weapons he’s built, it was humbling to watch him, you know? It still is, but now…” She inhaled, frowned, and shrugged. “I just need him to be whole… and happy, I guess.”

Steve glanced down, his eyes fluttering shut, and the tightness in his chest intensified.

Outside, the wind whistled. The palm trees rustled and danced. And he surprised himself with the realization that he wanted that, too.

 

 

* * *

 

 

When Steve finally made his way down to the workshop, Pepper was already heading to some emergency meeting. Back on the return flight to Malibu, Tony hadn’t talked a single word to him. In fact, he had retreated into a different cabin altogether, locking himself in and pretending not to hear when Steve had knocked on the door.

Steve was glad that Pepper had given him an opening to stick around, asking if he would keep an eye on Tony while she was away assuring everyone that Tony had not, in fact, completely lost his mind and that Stark Industries still was the sole owner of the arc reactor technology.

She’d shown him to one of the guest rooms before leaving, a clean, open and impersonal space that reminded him of his own apartment at SHIELD.

Loud music was blazing up the stairwell as Steve made his way downstairs. A song by AC/DC—well, it was good to know that at least some things Steve had learned about Tony were true.

He stopped in front of a glass wall. The surface was darkened and it was probably impossible for humans to make out anything more than shades. For Steve? Not so much. Tony was sitting behind a couple of flat screens. There were holograms in the air around him, and while Steve had seen those before, they were definitely different to what SHIELD was working with. There were blue lights bouncing around, schematics spinning in the air, numbers and formulas moving and changing all around. It was sort of beautiful.

“You’re running out of both time and options,” a somewhat obscured, mechanical voice said behind the glass front and—that was JARVIS, wasn’t it? Tony was staring at something on the screen in front of him, and whatever he saw there, it brought back the defeated look he had sported in the bathroom in Monaco. “Unfortunately the device that’s keeping you alive is also killing you.”

Steve expelled a deep breath. So it was true. The arc reactor was really killing him.

Tony was pulling his black sweater up, holding it there with his mouth. It was the first time Steve got a direct look at the reactor. There never had been a photo, only shots of a vague blue shape under Tony’s clothes. But now, even through the dark glass and the distance to Tony’s working desk, he could see every detail. The disc was a sharp contrast to Tony’s olive skin, but the blue light wasn’t invasive at all, it was cool and somewhat soothing. Unfortunately, Steve could also see the lines around it, the black grid that didn’t look natural at all. What was the palladium doing to him?

Tony’s fingers were clasping the casing, pulling the reactor out with an oomph. It was opening up and Tony turned it around until an honest-to-god burning chip fell out.

Steve decided he’d seen enough.

“JARVIS?” he asked, looking to the ceiling. “Hi, uh, I am—my name is Steve. I’m Mr. Stark’s new personal assistant. Can you let me in? I need to talk to him.”

He heard JARVIS announcing his presence to Tony. The man’s gaze flickered towards the door and for a second it was like he was staring directly at Steve. He looked indecisive, biting his lower lip repeatedly. Then he shook his head, jamming the new reactor in his chest and turning around.

“I am truly sorry, Mr. Rowan. It is indeed nice to meet you, but I fear Mr. Stark is currently indisposed.”

Great. His first conversation with the AI and JARVIS was already lying to him. It was probably wise not to call him on it, though. For all he knew, Steve hadn’t even seen Tony yet.

Steve sighed, trying not to stare at Tony directly, but unable to tear his eyes away altogether. The man was half lying on his desk now, breathing shallowly like the whole process had cost the last of his willpower. For some reason Steve felt his heart clenching and he couldn’t get past it. He had sworn to himself that he would keep his distance, that he would—what? Hate Tony? No, it hadn’t been like that, but whatever he was feeling now was a dangerous thing—he knew that. It wasn’t pity though. It wasn’t. He’d felt pity before, and what he was feeling right now was certainly not pity.

There was no single way to describe what he was feeling anymore.

It felt like for the past month he had been carefully defining this… image of Tony Stark. Like he had been deliberately wandering with his eyes and ears closed. He had been willingly looking in the other direction and trying so hard to convince himself of the accuracy of all these data and reports so that he didn’t have to ask the hard questions.

When he had met Tony only days ago, he’d wanted so desperately to ignore him as a man and know him only as his mission. It would’ve been easier then. Easier to keep himself distanced. Easier to keep himself disguised, too. It would have also been easier to hate Tony for what he did to himself.

And in the process, he’d somehow managed to ignore the pain in his eyes and the strain in his voice. The way he seemed to beg the people around him wordlessly to look behind his mask, to see the despair he was hiding underneath. And all Steve had ever done was ignore it, because he didn’t want to see the truth. Tony wasn’t the man he’d believed him to be. He had been naïve to think he could only scratch at the surface and find gold underneath.

That man in front of him was less than a shadow—less than a ghost. His eyes were hollow, his skin pale. There was blackness all around him. Yet somehow, he didn’t look weak or frail. He looked stoic—emotionless—and it was the most frightening thing Steve had ever seen.

The truth was this: He hadn’t wanted Tony Stark to be anything more than what he’d been led to believe, because—if he started to see him as something more… he would have to admit that the man underneath was someone who had a deep and frightening allure on him.

Within the workshop, Tony started to sit up. The bleak despair in his eyes drifted off, and a trembling sigh rolled down his back. “Shut everything down, J. I’m gonna take a nap.”

“Very well, sir.”

Steve barely heard him. His mind was a blur of realization—of feeling. He wanted to go in there and shake Tony until he started to do something about this. He needed him to do more than just stare numbly at his death sentence.

“Mr. Rowan, is there some other way I may help you?” JARVIS’ voice shook him from his reverie, and he blinked and looked up. There was no accusation in the AI’s voice. It was an observation and nothing more—still, the softness surprised him, but it was authentic, and he found he couldn’t summon any kind of wariness.

When he spoke again, his own voice sounded small and uncertain—his mind a thousand miles from where it had just been mere moments ago. “Yeah I… could you–” he started. “Could you tell him I’m going to stay the night? I can make him something to eat later, if he likes.”

“I will make sure to let Mr. Stark know about your inquiry,” JARVIS answered. That line sounded too well practiced to be random and Steve knew he probably just humored him.

Steve sighed. “Thank you.”

“It is a pleasure, sir.”

As expected, Tony didn’t surface for another three days and, as with everything else about Tony Stark, Steve didn’t know what annoyed him more: The act in itself or that it had the power to bother him so much.

Maybe it was time to for a different course of action.

Chapter Text

 

Tony

 

The alarm went off right in the middle of his first real shower in three fucking days.

“JARVIS?” Tony groaned, grabbing blindly for the showerhead to rinse the shampoo out of his face.

“There seems to be a security breach in the workshop, sir,” the AI answered a little pensive, obviously still analyzing the situation. “The alarm was triggered by Mr. Rowan. He is currently at you working desk, going through your files. He does not seem to be in hurry, sir.”

“He…” Tony sighed, turning off the water for good. “Haven’t I locked the doors?”

“I am afraid you have not, sir. And Miss Potts deactivated the automatic interlocking protocols after your last–”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tony said. He really didn’t need to remember that. “God, I’m really out of it,” he mumbled, opening the door and stepping out of the shower. “Cut the alarm. No need to call anyone.”

“Very well, sir.”

The bathroom was only a bit steamy. He paused and frowned, his head shooting up, meeting the eyes of his mirror’s reflection.

He looked… different. He wasn’t the man he used to be. The fatigue and stress of the last couple of weeks had left an impression on his skin. Aside from the black lines stretching over his upper body, he was thinner than he ever remembered being. Never before had he been able to trace his ribs with his fingers, and it wasn’t a look he liked.

It wasn’t bad… it wasn’t anything, really, aside from different.

He felt so different.

Tony sighed and shook his head, turning to the wall. He quickly rubbed a towel through his dark hair and pulled jeans and a new tank top on before heading down the stairs. He didn’t bother with socks and the tiles were icy cold under his feet while he was making his way to the shop.

And just as JARVIS had told him, Steve had the nerve to stand in the middle of his workshop, casually flipping through the papers lying on his desk, like he had no damn worry in the world. The fucker.

“What do you think you’re doing here?” Tony snarled, slowly walking into the room. “If you really think you can just walk in here and get your hands on a suit, I gotta say you have no idea what–”

“I am finding out what you’re hiding from me.” Steve interrupted him matter-of-factly. He didn’t even look up, still skimming through the notes lying around, as if Tony wasn’t right fucking there. “So how’s your blood toxicity these days, Tony?” he asked casually.

Tony opened his mouth, closed it.

What. The. Fuck.

“That’s none of your fucking business! I don’t know what kind of job description Pepper gave you, but this is not the Tuesday Night Club, Miss Marple. Now get the hell out of my workshop!”

Steve turned around but otherwise held his ground. He leaned back and stared straight into Tony’s eyes. “I am your assistant. It is my job to help you and right now, I don’t know how to do that.”

There was something in Steve’s eyes—and it took him a moment to put a name on it, because it was the last thing he’d expected to see there—it was worry. Open, unconcealed worry—and he didn’t get it. Up until now he had been sure, so sure, that Steve despised him; that he’d taken the job for the money, or the fame, or whatever else he had hoped to get out of this. But Steve’s eyes stared into his, like no matter what, he would be with him every step of the way.

There were really only two options. Either Steve was a really good actor, or he actually gave a shit about him. “I—look, I appreciate the sentiment, I really do, but there is nothing to help here… I’m fine,” he forced the word out of his mouth.

Steve stood up, slowly coming closer and only stopping when he was right in front of Tony. “Then what’s that?” He laid a finger on Tony’s neck, rubbing over his skin there, and Tony was so baffled by the sudden proximity that he didn’t realize, at first, what Steve was probably looking at.

Tony cursed harshly and whirled around, searching for his reflection in the big monitor behind him. When he found it, it was hard to ignore what Steve was pointing at. Shit. There weren’t enough words to describe how not in the mood he was for this. “Again, that’s none of your business,” he said weakly, turning away so Steve couldn’t see the black lines on his neck anymore. Tension held his every muscle hostage. He waved at him dismissively. “Toddle off—I don’t want your pity.”

He knew Steve was banking on him to cave, and he had every right to believe that. Tony had already shown him glimpses of how weak he had become—of course he would be digging into it now.

Steve still stared at him, and fuck it, he wasn’t getting sod all from him. He refused to take his sympathy, couldn’t stand it if the pity that was already right there deepened further. “Just drop it! It’s not important,” he snarled.

Steve took a deep breath, stepping into Tony’s way again. He laid his hands on his shoulders like he was about to shake him. “Why don’t you take off your shirt then, and let me decide for myself?”

Tony looked up at him, grinning defiantly. “You never struck me as the naughty nurse type, Steve. Sorry, I don’t do no-strings-attached. I stopped whoring around, haven’t you read the newspapers?”

“No. I actually tried to avoid them recently,” he said and he didn’t even blush this time. That was a real shame. And yeah, right… The press fallout after Monaco hadn’t been pretty, and the stocks were probably catastrophic. Pepper hadn’t talked to him in days.

“Look,” Steve said. “I know I’m just some kind of tin soldier to you. And that’s okay. But I might actually be able to help you deal with whatever this,” he pointed at the arc reactor, “is doing to you. And even if I can’t—I’m a good listener. You don’t owe me anything, so what do you have to lose?”

Tony held his gaze a minute longer, then sighed again, his eyes dropping to the ground. How the fuck had this happened? Steve had a way of wrangling more from him than anyone else could, ever since he and his wholesome military act had etched themselves into his life.

And he didn’t even press further. He just stood there, solid and strong and while he would certainly not be able to help him, he might… understand. Or be nice about it, anyway.

“Nothing,” he exhaled softly, shoulders dropping in defeat. “There’s nothing to lose anymore.”

Steve offered a sympathetic smile, like he had known all along that this would be his answer and maybe Tony should be worrying about that, but he was just so damn tired of being alone in this. Steve thumbed the pockets of his jeans and Tony’s eyes dropped unceremoniously to his crotch before darting away again. That… probably wasn’t the right time.

Steve walked over to one of the couches and sat down. And then, because the guy was a complete dork, he patted the vacant space beside him. “Tell me,” he said and it was neither a command, nor a plea. It was an offer to listen, plain and simple. He looked at Tony with his open blue eyes, and his smile that was doing things to Tony’s heart that weren’t necessarily connected to the palladium.

The walk across the room likely didn’t take as long as it seemed. He settled in, and Steve’s warmth was like a cocoon. “You won’t get a raise because you’re going all Freud on me.”

Steve snorted. “I know that.”

“Then why?”

His eyes softened. “Because I care. Is that so hard to believe? I care about you, Tony.”

“I don’t want it to be pity,” he said quietly.

Steve was very still for a second before saying, “It’s not.”

“Don’t want you gettin’ the wrong idea of me, either.”

“I don’t have any sort of idea of you,” Steve mumbled sourly, like the fact irritated him more than it should.

“Well, all you know of me is–”

“Don’t do that.”

“What?”

“Don’t project thoughts I should be thinking on me. I can make up my own mind just fine, thank you. And what I saw of you is—you’re a good man.” He shrugged and there was a mischievous little grin tucking at the corners of his mouth. “Underneath tons of bullshit.”

His heart jerked at that. What do I have to lose? He started smiling, couldn’t help himself, really, every nerve in his body singing. He took a long, deep breath, exhaled it. “I noticed the first signs a couple of months ago…”

 

 

* * *

 

 

So, that happened. He had poured his heart out to some ex-army guy. He probably should worry about it, but strangely enough, he didn’t. It was… nice… being able to talk about it. In the last few days he had felt lighter in a way he hadn’t in weeks. Even if Steve was still mostly a stranger to him, just having someone know about it, made it more real, yes, but it also made it easier to bear.

Also, trusting Steve with his secret seemed to have broken down a barrier between them, leaving the vague possibility that they could actually become friends.

“You could wear a scarf,” the blonde offered next to him. “That or make-up.”

Tony groaned, staring in the mirror in front of him. His crimson shirt was open except for a few buttons, the lines around the reactor painfully visible, but it didn’t matter anymore, did it? Steve knew, Steve had already seen it several times now, and Steve didn’t care that he looked like a complex circuit board.

“Can’t we just say you ravished me and left a very elaborate birthday-hickey?”

Steve chuckled. It really was a beautiful sound. “If I were to leave a birthday-hickey, it wouldn’t be on your neck.”

Tony’s gaze snapped upwards to study Steve’s expression. Amusement had switched to horror in record time. His eyes widened almost comically, and he took a step back from where he had just been hovering over Tony. “Oh God, that came out so wrong. I didn’t mean it like that.”

Normally, this would be the part where Tony seized upon Steve’s admission like a shark. He would be making with the eye-sex, and suggest they head somewhere a little more cozy to consummate this new and very exciting revelation. But as it were, Tony just laughed, waving him off as he began to button up his shirt. “Nothing wrong with finding me attractive.”

“I really don’t,” Steve assured him immediately, before he backpedaled. “I mean. No. You are attractive of course. I’m just not into…” he trailed off, obviously unsure of where to go with his.

“Men?” Tony offered.

“Superiors,” Steve finished, revealing a little powder box. He started to dab the little sponge on Tony’s neck, and now that he was close again, Tony noticed faint traces of a cologne that he didn’t recognize, but somehow reminded him of a different time altogether.

“But you are into men?” he asked, because he just couldn’t help himself.

“That…” Steve said, and the little smile was back. A guy like Steve should always be smiling. “…is none of your business, Mr. Stark.”

“Oh come on, you made me pour my heart out. Quite literally. You owe me one, Mr. Rowan.”

Something flickered across Steve’s eyes at the mention of his last name, but for some twenty-odd year old soldier he was frustratingly hard to read. “You already owed me one for the dramatics at Monaco. I think we’re even.”

“Now that’s just hurtful, Steven. I am hurt. I thought we had this deep trust exchange thing going on here.”

“Yeah,” Steve said so quietly, Tony could barely hear it.

“Come again?”

“Just turn around,” Steve said, and now it sounded like an order, and for whatever reason, Tony followed. He had a feeling he’d follow Steve anywhere. He started dabbing powder at him again, and a companionable silence fell about them. There was already music blasting through every floor of the villa, the bass making the walls hum steadily. Most of the guests had probably already arrived.

“Can I ask you something?” he asked after some time. Steve only hummed, not taking his eyes of the work at hand. “If this was your last birthday…”

The movement stopped. “It won’t be,” Steve said, like he simply could will the palladium out of Tony’s blood stream. Well, if anyone was stubborn enough to achieve that, it would be Steve.

“But if it were. What would you do with it?” He looked up to find Steve staring straight into his eyes. Not through the mirror, but directly into his face. He stood right in front of Tony, a hand slowly pressing over the arc reactor.

Tony couldn’t stop the little flinch he gave at that, but he remained right where he was.

“You’re not listening to me,” Steve told him. “When I say we’ll work this out, I don’t mean that in the It will all magically turn out okay way. We’ll find a solution, and we will cure you.” His gaze dropped to his side, as did his fingers, and Tony already missed the warmth of his touch. “And then you can go back to being your attractive annoying self.”

“Aha!” Tony cried, pointing a finger at Steve, who was putting the powder box back in the upper desk drawer. “So you are into men.”

“Neither confirming nor denying.” Steve sing-songed, his smile wide and a little gleeful.

He smirked at that and shook his head. “Well then,” he took the martini to his left in his hand and toasted, “this one’s gotta count, right?” He downed it in one go, setting the glass back on the desk and made to leave.

“Tony.” Steve called out behind him, moving closer. “If this was my last birthday, I—I’d make sure the people I loved knew that I loved them. If I had the choice, I would not leave anything unsaid.”

There was a story behind that and Tony itched to know all about it, but this wasn’t the time or place for it. Steve grabbed his own dinner jacket from the armchair and came to a halt at Tony’s side. He gave him a small smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Just saying…”

“No, I–” Tony sighed, one hand on the door frame, the other loosely hanging at his side. “You’re right. It’s just, I know I’m not the easiest person, but Pepper and Rhodey and Happy, they… love me, the poor bastards, and if I tell them now, all the time I have left with them will be bitter and sad. And I’m a selfish asshole. I want to remember them the way they are now: annoyed as hell but secretly glad about it.”

Steve nodded, and he looked so understanding that the urge to forget all else and just curl up in his arms became almost unbearably strong. “Then just—tell them everything else.”

Tony smiled a little. And then he blinked and looked down, realizing that his hand had somehow clasped around Steve’s, and his heart skipped a beat. God—that felt so normal. He pulled back and could’ve sworn that there had been fingers brushing back against his.

“You ready?” he asked softly, tipping his head to where the music and cheering was coming from.

Steve followed his gaze and furrowed his eyebrows. “You sure you wanna go in there with me? I’d understand it if–”

“Oh Steve, for fuck’s sake, let’s go.” And yes, he grabbed his hand again, actually not giving a shit about whatever anyone was thinking about him, and more reveling in the peace that rolled through his skin. This thing between them that had started to blossom after Monaco—this wondrous undefined but steadfast and soothing thing—made him feel very warm and very calm.

He knew the peace couldn’t last, though. He would have to tell the others eventually. He had to let them know what would happen. He needed to watch them grieve. It was only fair to take a part of their pain with him, after all.

And then—then he had to tell Steve how he had kept him from completely falling apart.

Perhaps tonight was just the boost he needed.

 

 

* * *

 

 

His plan would have probably worked better if he had stopped drinking at some point.

He remembered, albeit a bit vaguely, that he had put the armor on, dancing next to DJ-What’s-His-Name, before ceremoniously tumbling off the stage and landing straight on his face. There had been scotch involved somewhere in between. A certain amount of scotch, and Tony didn’t remember much afterwards. He only recalled being dragged away by two strong pairs of arms. Then there had been a pack of ice at his temple and ever since, he has been sitting suit-less on one of the couches on the far side of the room. He had no idea what time it was or what he must looked like—the party was still definitely going on around him, though. The music was too fucking loud and too fucking much and couldn’t he just die now? If there was ever a good time for dying, it would be now. Now would be brilliant.

“I’m going to sit with him, you go have fun,” a very female and very resigned voice said.

“I don’t need to–“

Go, Steve.” The fierceness behind Pepper’s voice left no room for discussions. It never did. “He just needs a second. No need for your night to be ruined.”

He heard a deep sigh and then it was just the two of them. He leaned to the side, breathing in Pepper’s sweet scent and nuzzling her neck. “I looove your freckles, have I told you that?”

That… probably had not been what Steve had had in mind by ‘not leaving anything unsaid’, but it was the thought that counted, right? At least he’d come clean in the freckle-department.

A long sigh shuddered through Pepper’s lips. “You mean, before today? No. Today? About twenty-three times, Tony.”

He waggled his brows suggestively. “I love them. They’re preeettyyy.”

She pursed her lips, moving forward until he was fully leaning against her, wrapping her free arm around his waist. He met her eyes tentatively, his lips quirking upwards into a grin. “I thought you were ignoring me.”

“It’s physically impossible to ignore you,” she said softly.

“Good,” he mumbled, settling in. It was so nice to be with her. Nice… and safe… and—not at all what he wanted.

God, this wasn’t what he wanted.

His eyes darted over the crowd, focusing on Steve’s every move. He was sitting at the bar, nursing a drink and talking to Rhodey of all people. They both had this extremely serious look going for them and Tony wanted to laugh, because he was so screwed if the three of them ever decided to team up on him.

He stared at Steve’s back, always from afar and always at his back, and it was crazy. God, he knew this was crazy. He was dying, for fuck’s sake. He couldn’t fall in love now. His plan had been simple: get drunk, get courageous, and get closure. Tonight was supposed to be the night he settled all scores. He needed resolution; he needed solace… what he did not need was one more person he would disappoint by dying.

But he couldn’t stop his eyes from drifting and couldn’t tear them away from the prize at hand. The golden color of Steve’s hair, the insane width of his shoulders, or anything that did everything to accentuate his masculinity and nothing to allegedly remind Tony that he was supposed to not even look at him.

Rather, his first thought was: I haven’t had sex in months.

And that was the alcohol speaking—he was well aware of that. Sure, Steve had had his cock’s attention from the start; but seeing him now, and running on both alcoholic confidence and the knowledge that he really had nothing left to lose, seemed to do little more than remind said part of his anatomy that it hadn’t known any love in a long time—aside his left hand, maybe.

The same disobedient hand that itched to run down the front of his jeans to cup the bulge pressed against the zipper.

Fuck.

“God, I wanna tap that ass.” Tony slurred, pointing his glass in Steve’s direction. He looked so nice in that suit—so so very nice. Steve looked nice all the time.

Beside him, Pepper did a double-take. “You—what?” she asked disbelievingly, following his gaze.

“I–” He glanced at her and okay, this was awkward. His head was throbbing, he couldn’t really remember where they’d left off the last time they had seen each other, and if it was horribly inappropriate to say stuff like. It didn’t use to be. “Steve. He’s attractive. That’s all,” he finally decided on. Attractive wasn’t so bad. He was allowed to find a guy handsome.

Pepper stared at him numbly but not unmoved. He knew for the way her mouth fell open, closed, opened again. “So you are…”

Tony waited patiently, and when she didn’t go on, he raised an eyebrow at her. “Openminded? Bi? Poly? Occasionally into dicks? Well, yeah.”

She offered a nervous laugh. “I didn’t know that—at all. How could I not know that?” she asked.

“Well, it’s not exactly Wikipedia knowledge.”

“But you never… in all these years…” Their gaze held for a minute longer before she broke away, her body wrought with tension. “Does James know?”

He snickered. “I guess he got the drift when I tried to go down on him in college, yes.” Pepper groaned in the way that said he was doing the oversharing-thing again. “Although he probably thinks that was just a phase. I haven’t really done that in a long time. Always been more of a ladies man… when you see a room full of pretty dresses it’s rare to notice someone in a tux.”

Except for Steve. Steve in a tux made everyone around him fade into darkness.

Her gaze darted into the room again. “And Steve…”

He waited for a second, but she didn’t continue. Rather, she reached for the glass of whatever she was drinking and took a long sip. “Does he reciprocate?” she asked then, pretending to be casual. Pretending that nothing had changed. But it was hard not to notice that her voice wavered a bit.

Fuck, he really should’ve stopped with the hard booze at some point.

“There is nothing to reciprocate,” he assured her, and he wanted to grab for her hand, but he didn’t want to give mixed signals. Not more than he already had. “I don’t want to marry him. Well, I wouldn’t mind blowing him, or him blowing me, really, I’m not picky but that’s about it. And no, I don’t know if he swings that way. He won’t tell me.” That probably came out a bit whiny.

Pepper nodded slowly, her eyes darting back to Steve and Rhodey. They were now talking to a gorgeous redhead in a flimsy black dress and shit, Steve looked so comfortable around her. The usual tenseness of his shoulders was completely gone and he was even slightly leaning in towards her. The woman’s gaze was very fond when she put a hand on Steve’s cheek.

That was probably answer enough whether or not Steve returned his feelings.

“For what it’s worth I think he might.” Pepper said, contradicting his thoughts, and sat up slightly. She leaned in and pressed a kiss on Tony’s cheek. “I’m going to go home now.”

“Pep,” he said, because drunk or not, he couldn’t let her go like that. “You mean everything to me, you know that, right?”

Pepper smiled and reached for his hand, a long shudder coursing through him when their fingers entwined. “I know,” she whispered, her thumb gently rubbing over the back of his hand. And then she was gone, just like that.

There seemed to be some kind of rotation going on, because a minute after Pepper left, it was Rhodey’s turn to stand at his side. His I-Am-Done-With-Your-Shit demeanor didn’t quite reach the silent-accusation-level of Steve’s Disapproving Frown (yes, the moods Tony inspired in people were always Capital), but it was a close call.

“Want somethin’ to drink?” he asked.

“Bottle of water?”

Rhodey snorted. “It’s cute that you think I would get you anything else. Hold on a sec.”

He was gone for a moment, and when he came back he tossed him a pack of what seemed to be Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, followed by a chilled bottle of water.

There were reasons why Rhodey was his favorite.

He immediately pried open the pack of Reese’s—cramming one into his mouth. “You know,” he said thoughtfully. “This wasn’t so bad. Well, Pepper might never speak to me again, but the house is still standing, no holes in the ceiling, no broken windows, people seem to be having fun…”

“…you nearly puked on DJ AM.” Rhodey filled in.

Tony snorted, and took a long sip of the water, knowing full well that he would be having the motherfucker of all headaches tomorrow if he didn’t. He cleared his throat, eyes pointedly set on the floor. “So, I thought about giving you one of my suits,” he said matter-of-factly.

As expected, Rhodey stopped dead next to him. He seemed to be having that effect on people tonight. Then, he looked at him for a long, quiet moment—his eyes dark and contemplative. His gaze flickered towards the empty glasses on the table. “You’re drunk.”

Tony arched an eyebrow. “What does that have to do with anything?”

He grinned at that. “Good point.”

Tony leaned to the side, his head resting on Rhodey’s shoulder. “You’re only getting the Mark II, though. You know, the crappy silver one.”

Rhodey nodded with a small smile. “Whatever you say, Tones.”

They were quiet for a long minute. Tony stared through the big glass windows into the open night. The music was still loud, but there were fewer and fewer people around. He still didn’t know what time it was. “I was lying,” he said then, because he couldn’t bear the silence. “It’s not crappy. It’s awesome. All of my suits are awesome.”

Rhodey chuckled soundlessly.

“One condition.”

“I’m listening,” Rhodey replied quickly.

“You’ll be the only one flying it. I won’t program it into it, in case there’s an emergency, but you’ll have to promise me.”

Rhodey nodded absentmindedly, his gaze turning inward. He was probably mulling over all the discussions and hearings he would have to go through to enforce Tony’s will. “Yeah, I promise,” he said finally, and Tony knew he meant it.

Tony clapped Rhodey on the back, trying to stand up. “Good talk, buddy.” His head was still spinning, but he probably would be able to drag his old man’s body upstairs and into his bed.

“Tones,” Rhodey called quietly. “If there is something you want me to know—you can tell me everything, I won’t judge you, you know that right?”

Tony stopped and, well, there was his opening. He could just turn around and say it. Say, I am dying. But he didn’t. Instead he shrugged sheepishly. “I have the hots for my new PA.”

Rhodey stared at him for a minute straight. “You mean, the blond guy I was talking to earlier? Steve?”

“Yep.”

“You have the hots for him.”

“Yep.”

“That was your big secret.” Despite his nod, Rhodey did not look convinced. The frown marring his brows left little to the imagination.

“And here I am, telling you.” He waved a hand expansively. “It’s so good to finally have it out there, man. Thank you.”

Rhodey paused, like he wanted to say something profound. Say something that meant more than the dance of shallow talks they’d been performing around each other lately. The notion faded the next second. He probably knew that Tony wasn’t honest with him, and either decided that he needed to come around himself, or that he just wasn’t worth the trouble. Anyway, things were undeniably easier when kept to known terrain. Tony knew this as well as anyone.

“I’m…” he started, trailing off again. “I’m there for you, if you want to talk about,” his gaze swapped towards Steve, “your crush. Or whatever else that’s bugging you.”

Suddenly, there was a lump in his throat the size of California. “Sure thing, Rhodes…”

The silent hurt in Rhodey’s eyes struck a nerve, and sure, he knew he was being unfair, but he didn’t have the strength to offer explanations. Explanations led to discussions, and discussions led to a world of no. After a moment, Rhodey clasped his shoulder a final time, standing up. Tony watched him leave through the crowd and when he looked over to the bar, his eyes met Steve’s piercing gaze. The woman was gone now. Steve was alone, looking for all the world like there was nothing he wanted to do more than come over here and kiss him.

God, he really needed another drink.

 

 

* * *

 

 

“You have the preeettiest eyes,” he told Steve, leaning heavily against him. Which was kind of inevitable, seeing as Steve had thrown him over his shoulder and carried him away cave man style. He may or may not have licked his neck at some point, he couldn’t be sure. He really, really should have stopped drinking this time. “Bet you’re pretty everywhere.”

Steve sighed and then he was being sat down on something smooth and warm—his bed, probably. He groaned and let himself fall down, nudging the big pillow with his nose.

“No, don’t sleep yet. Come here,” Steve said and a second later he was pulled upwards again. He slumped against a firm but very warm surface, a steady beating right at his ear. “This is gonna sting a little, but it’ll make you feel better, I promise.”

He was pretty sure there were lips at his temple but he only had a second to appreciate it, before there actually was a sting right at his throat. He whimpered, trying to bat the needle away, but a strong hand clasped around his wrist, pulling it back. “No, let me, just a second—there you go.”

“Wha’a’ya doin’…” he slurred. There were fingertips at his throat, skimming over his neck and down his collarbone. They were rubbing in circles, before setting over his heart. He couldn’t put a finger on it, but he felt like a weight had just been lifted from his shoulders.

He breathed in and out. No pain. Huh.

“I’m helping you.”

“Why?”

There was a long pause and he almost thought that Steve had drifted off, but then his voice was back, however distant, if real at all. “Because you need it.”

“Why?”

A sigh, then, “Because I like you.”

“In a pr’fesh’nal way?”

Another sigh. “No, not in a professional way.”

“Good.” He had a feeling that he hadn’t known that before. He should probably try to remember that in the morning.

“Sleep now. You’ll need all the strength you can get before facing Pepper tomorrow.”

God, his eyes were so beautiful. He wanted to get lost in them and never resurface. When he would die, he wanted to flow in a sea that had the color of Steve’s eyes. If he really had to go, he wanted to drown in azure.

“Gonna die…” He mumbled pathetically, closing his eyes and hating it, hating all of it, because he wasn’t finished, he just wasn’t.

Steve inhaled and shuddered against him. “You’re not.”

He felt his face heating with anger, but didn’t look up at him. “Why are you so damn sure about this?”

Steve sighed again, and now he really was kissing him on his forehead, and he had to remember that, he had to—it was important knowledge, because purely platonic friends didn’t kiss each other on foreheads.

“Because you can’t die now.” Steve was hugging him, burying his face in Tony’s neck and why the fuck did he drink that much, he shouldn’t be drunk now—this was probably the only time he’d get close to Steve like that and he’s wasting it. “I can’t lose you.”

Surprise filled every inch of his body. Well, surprise and the most potent rush of lust he’d ever experienced. His dick was erect in a second, which honestly was quite a surprise, what with having more alcohol in his blood than the whole Barrymore family had possibly ever seen. He rumbled several encouraging moans and nuzzled at Steve’s throat, his eyes remaining shut.

“Tony, no,” Steve gasped, his urgent tone a direct counterpoint to the way he was leaning in closer.

Every nerve in his body was on fire; he was swimming in warmth. God, there’d never been a feeling like this. Never in all his years, and he’d been around the block for a few times. And yet, it was possible that he’d never been this hard before. So he moaned, rolling his hips as he began to lazily thrust against Steve.

A long, trembling breath tore through Steve’s lips, and he felt his eyes fluttering shut against Tony’s skin as he shivered beneath him. Tony gasped along with him; the pace of his movements increasing.

But then there were hands at his forearms and he was being lifted backwards. Steve’s eyes were glazed over, almost black with lust. The tent in his pants was hard to miss and his breath was labored. He kept shaking his head, though, and Tony had a feeling he knew the next words coming out of his mouth.

“We can’t. You’re drunk.”

He tried not to whine too much as Steve pushed him off and away, until his head was back on the pillow. “You need to rest. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

“Cocktease,” Tony mumbled defiantly, but was already settling in, because he knew a losing game when he saw one.

He felt Steve’s fingertips caressing his hair for a moment. The fucker actually started to tuck him in and he would have thrown words at him for that, but he felt warm and sleepy and he found he didn’t actually give a shit.

What he did care about, though, was Steve’s lips at his temple and the little Sleep well, Shellhead he whispered in his ear.

Fuck, he needed to remember this.

He needed to remember…

He needed…

Chapter Text

Steve

 

It was only a little crush. A harmless Okay, so Tony’s not nearly as annoying and obnoxious as I thought he would be crush. But it was still only a crush. A nothing-will-ever-come-of-it crush on Tony Stark.

It took a while before he realized how much he smiled when he’d been around Tony in the last few days. How often Tony made him laugh. How he looked forward to spending time with him in the workshop, or even just quietly sitting next to Tony while he was in a meeting.

And somewhere along the way, he had realized that he didn’t just like Tony. He liked him. And these feelings… they were suddenly simply there—in him. Always. Sparking. Growing.

He didn’t even mind Tony’s antics anymore. Somewhere along the way, they had become endearing instead of annoying. Most of the character defaults he’d memorized were suddenly kind of adorable, and instead of being offended, he found himself laughing at his lewd jokes and blunt one-liners.

He didn’t mind it when Tony talked while having a screwdriver in his mouth.

He just wished he could be the screwdriver.

And he knew he couldn’t do anything about it without blowing the whole mission to hell.

That night, after the birthday party, he’d been sitting at Tony’s side for hours. He had waited for him to fall asleep in his arms and he’d held him, stroking his hair and kissing his forehead, knowing full well that he was overstepping a bunch of social borders while doing so.

The sun was already rising before he could force himself to head out once more. He’d been deeply grateful that Natasha had brought him the syringe with the lithium dioxide dose, he really was. The marks on Tony’s neck had faded instantly, yes, but it would just take the edge off, not cure him, she’d made that perfectly clear. And it wasn’t enough. Nothing would be enough before Tony was fully healed.

So he walked down to Tony’s garage, took one of the company’s cars and drove to Los Angeles in less than half an hour. While he drove, he kept recalling over and over what Tony had looked like while sitting in his lap. How Tony’s ass had cradled his own erection. How his chest had pressed against him as his mouth had worshipped his throat. His lips had ghosted over Steve’s skin while he’d moved on top of him—while he was honest-to-God rutting against him—little moans spilling from his mouth like it wouldn’t have taken much more before he’d…

Steve groaned, and gripped the stirring wheel tightly, his knuckles going white. This was ridiculous. He’d been informed of Tony’s charm beforehand. It was right there in his file, and he’d been sure he would never succumb to it, that he’d never so much as think about it. He used to have more self-control than that.

He hadn’t even thought about a man like that in ages. Back then, before the serum… he’d looked, sometimes, from afar and with a great deal of cautiousness. On rare occasions, he may have even wished he could give it a try, if only once, just to see if he’d really like it the way his body made him believe he would. It hadn’t been possible, though. Not without putting a great deal of planning behind it and not without putting himself and others in danger. And it wasn’t like he didn’t like gals, too, because he did. The moment he’d seen Peggy ramming her tiny fist into Hodge’s face, he’d been done for. From then on, he hadn’t felt the need to find out if he liked… this… and thought it probably just wasn’t worth the effort.

And now Tony. It was simply embarrassing how fast Steve had lost all self-control around the genius. The urge to turn around now and finish what they had started was almost too much to bear.

He parked the car and sprinted down the courtyard to SHIELD’s west coast headquarter faster than he probably should.

Most of the higher-ranking officers had moved to New York recently, so he had to make do with a videoconference to Fury. To his surprise, it was Natasha appearing on the screen in front of him, meticulously dressed in her black cat suit.

“I take it the party is over?” she quipped, leaning back in what Steve supposed was Fury’s very spacious swivel chair. She must’ve directly flown to New York after leaving Malibu. She pressed a button on the desk in front of her, tapping something into a console behind it. Five seconds later, a short bald agent he didn’t know entered the room with Steve and headed straight towards him. The guy nodded respectfully—and a bit intimidated—before producing a machine, some sort of weird pointer, and instantly began to scan Steve’s sides with it.

Steve frowned at him, but didn’t move away. Then he got it, and looked up questioningly at Natasha. “I’m not bugged,” he told her.

She arched an eyebrow. “This is Stark we’re talking about. For all I know, he put some tracker in your internal organs while you slept.”

He surprised himself with how angry that actually made him. “If you think that, I’m not sure you know who Tony Stark is.”

“It’s also protocol.” She shrugged.

The agent at his side stepped away, shaking his head. “He’s clean, ma’am.”

Natasha nodded, waved him away and walked around the desk, sitting down at its front. “So, Hill said your next report isn’t due before Friday. What’s wrong?”

“Where’s Fury?” he asked.

“Busy. What’s going on, Steve? Five hours ago, you told me you were doing fine. What happened?”

“I want Tony to have full access to SHIELD’s database. I want him to get all the material that even has the slightest chance to help him. I want back up, I want a team of scientists, inventors, mechanics, I don’t know. I want–” He had to take a deep breath so he wouldn’t choke. “I want SHIELD to help him.”

Natasha’s eyes focused on him, analyzing him for a moment. “He grew on you,” she said, a small smile tucking at her mouth.

“That’s irrelevant,” Steve barked. “He helped people, he’s a hero—and he’s wounded. He deserves our respect and protection.”

Natasha snorted and cocked her head to the side. “No need to quote the Geneva Convention on me, Steve. We already arranged the transfer.”

Steve blinked, then blinked again. “What transfer?”

Natasha stood up, grabbing for some papers behind her. “After Monaco, Fury ordered all SHIELD scientists on research duty. I know it’s hard to imagine, but the man actually gives a shit about Stark. So, the science division came across some of Howard Stark’s records. Videotapes, notes, sketches, you name it, and they think they found something.” She held up the papers. “It’s all gibberish to me, but they’re sure there’s something there, they just can’t put their finger on it. So Fury decided to pass everything to Stark. Let the actual genius take a look at it.”

“When?” Steve asked, standing up.

On the screen, Natasha pressed a button at her utility belt, looking down on it. “Ten minutes ago.”

Steve swallowed. “My cover…”

She gave him a wry smile. “…is still intact. All agents on-site are fully briefed on the status of your mission. Quit worrying.”

“I…” he swallowed, “thank you.”

Her gaze became assessing. “Why are you taking this as a personal favor?” She studied him like his soul was laid bare to her. God, if she found out, she would never let him live this down. “God, I don’t even want to know,” she said with another snort. “Look, Steve. I’ve been meaning to call you. Coulson is your primary SHIELD contact for the next couple of days.”

“What, why?”

“Clint and I got assigned to New Mexico,” Natasha said and grinned like she knew something he didn’t—which again, was kind of the status quo between the two of them. “I’ll keep in touch when I can. Say hi to Tony from me,” she said, fully aware that he wouldn’t. Then the screen turned black.

Steve was out of headquarters and in the car in under a minute.

 

 

* * *

 

 

He drove back to the villa, and yes, as promised, the huge parking slot was filled with a dozen black vans. He stepped into the foyer, swiftly nodding to Coulson as he walked by. There were several cleaning crews going through each room. The entry hall had already been cleared, and there wasn’t a single dust particle or fingerprint to be seen. It almost seemed like the party had never happened. Steve stopped short as he got closer to the spacious balcony and watched as Tony—still in his bathrobe—stood up from one of the longing chairs. He turned around and walked a few steps, revealing… Fury.

Of course.

Next to them were a dozen of boxes, all labeled Property of H. Stark. They contained a various mess of models, paper folders and huge blueprints. It would probably take days to go through that stuff.

Steve cleared his throat as he stepped over the porch. “Tony?”

“Oh hey,” Tony said, smiling at him without any sign of wariness. He’d really forgotten about last night, then. Steve had banked on that, of course—what with ramming a needle in Tony’s neck and kissing his forehead a couple of times. Still, he couldn’t help the little surge of disappointment going through him at the completely unbiased expression on the other man’s face.

Tony pointed at Fury. “Steve, Captain Hook. Captain Hook, Steve.”

Fury rolled his single eye, standing up and shaking Steve’s hand with an unreadable expression. “Nicholas Fury.”

“Steve Rog—Rowan. Steve Rowan. I’m Mr. Stark’s personal assistant.” Oh wow. That had been his first slip. What was wrong with him, today? Up until now, the false name had come natural around Tony and he had no idea where that had just come from. He needed to keep it together. He couldn’t let his mind drift off like that. This was an important mission and he had been trained for this, for heaven’s sake.

Fury only arched a single eyebrow at him, before glancing over at Tony, who obviously hadn’t even paid attention to them. He was still flipping through some papers, biting his lip while doing so.

“Oh,” Tony exclaimed, looking at Steve. He pointed at Fury, mouthing international top spy.

Fury shot him a dirty glare and cracked his knuckles purposefully. “Nice, Stark, now I’m gonna have to kill him.”

Tony looked adorably horrified at that and Steve really had to pull it together not to laugh out loud. Behind them, Coulson didn’t seem to have that problem. He chuckled loudly while handing Fury his phone.

“Oh, so very funny, Nicholas,” Tony mumbled.

Fury shrugged and looked down on the device. “So, you’re good, right?” he asked Tony, standing up. Tony objected that he wasn’t, that he had no idea where to go with this, but Fury just talked over him, ignoring all of his interjections. “You got this?” He fetched his black leather coat. “Great. Agent Coulson will remain here until further notice.”

“Mr. Rowan,” he said, giving Steve a pointed look. “Oh and Tony?” His eye zeroed in Tony and he cocked his head. “Remember, I got my eye on you.” He grinned slyly while nodding his goodbye and vanishing through the front door like the shadow he was.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Tony groaned loudly at his side, closing the folder he’d been flipping through for the last thirty minutes. DUM-E whirled his claw at it, poking the cover a couple of times before eagerly rolling away to fetch another file.

Steve looked up from the box in front of him. “What’s wrong?”

Tony rubbed a hand over his eyes. “That’s a loaded question.” He huffed and extended a hand in Steve’s direction, ticking off the reasons on his fingers. He raised his thumb in the air. “First, I am hung-over as fuck, and I don’t remember the better half of last night. Pepper doesn’t answer my calls, so I guess I messed up bad. I did not, however, puke on Paris Hilton again, JARVIS confirmed that, so that’s a win.” His forefinger followed. “Second, I have the distinct feeling I forgot something important, but I can’t get my head around it, and It. Fucking. Bugs. Me.”

Raising his middle finger, he stopped for a second, slowly raising his eyes to Steve. “Three, I didn’t get around to actually follow your suggestion. And it was a good suggestion, and I should’ve just… I guess I should stop drinking sometime, but now it’s too late to take it back and…”

He took a deep and slightly shaky breath, a fourth finger in the air. “Four. It’s great that they decided to stuff my house with dozens of these standardized suitcases—I really did not have enough of those already—but this… is getting me nowhere.” He let the new folder DUM-E had just handed him fall to the floor and shoved it away with his naked toes. “There are all these hints, and I think I even know where my dad is trying to lead me here, but there are no schematics, no actual blueprints. I’m good but I can’t stomp a new element out of ideas.” He leaned back in his chair, his eyes fixed at his own hand. He raised the fifth finger, then, pointing it at the ceiling. “And Agent Kay upstairs refuses to bring me coffee.” He pouted expressively, making Steve chuckle.

Steve shoved away the box in front of him and stood up. “A new element?”

“Well, more like a rediscovered one.” Tony stood up, too, and walked over to another trunk that had already been opened. He bent down and pulled out some sort of a huge disc. “I think, back during World War II, my dad was actually in possession of it…” he turned around and held the disc in Steve’s direction, effectively rendering him speechless—because this? This was a prototype of his shield. “Never mind, this is all… complete bullshit. I can’t, god I don’t even want to look at this.” He threw the disc away, smashing it into a far wall of the shop. “It’s like hunting a fucking ghost and I don’t…” he trailed off, rubbing his palms against his temple. “Can you leave me alone for a moment?” he asked.

Steve stood up, attempting to walk over to him. “Tony…”

Tony held up a hand, walking further into the room. It was littered with papers, film reels and giant diagrams, schematics and more blueprints. He stopped in front of a huge model that leaned against the wall and nearly reached the ceiling. He pulled down the blanket covering it and stared at the little toy town he had revealed. Suddenly a shrill, hopeless laugh tore out of Tony’s throat and a second later, he tossed his arms up in despair. “Fantastic,” he laughed, and Steve got a glimpse of the unwelcome prickling of tears stinging Tony’s eyes. “This is all so fucking helpful.”

Tony.”

“Steve,” Tony said softly. He paused, drew in a breath, and turned around. He looked broken. Haunted. “I just need… a moment, can you do that for me? Please?”

And Steve just stood there, feeling utterly useless. A trembling breath pressed against his lips. Just standing there, watching Tony try so hard, made his body tighten with a familiar yearning that he was growing to both crave and resent.

He sighed, but decided not to argue. Instead he nodded, turned around and silently slipped out of the workshop. He walked upstairs towards the room he had inhabited for the better half of the last month. His legs were somewhat trembling, his heart sore, and his mind unable to shake the image of Tony looking as he had—so hopeless, so alone. The knowledge had him completely thrown, and he didn’t know if he could take it to see Tony like that ever again. He went straight to the huge closet at the far side of his room, shoving some piles of clothing aside before he pulled out a round black bag.

He opened it, his fingers drifting over the smooth surface of his shield. Steve swallowed and his arm sank down heavily. He walked out of the door, rounding the corner. He looked down in the foyer and waved Coulson over.

He didn’t even wait for a greeting, and he knew he was being impolite, but he was tired of not knowing. “The element Tony’s searching for? It’s Vibranium, right? And I have it, don’t I?” He held up his shield again, pressing it against Coulson’s chest. “So give it to him.”

Coulson watched him impassively, his mouth forming a line of understanding. “We can’t,” he started, grasped Steve’s wrist without warning and dragged him towards the nearest corridor. “Look,” he said quietly. “Fury had our teams look into it. Yes, the material of your shield might be a suitable substitute—” A pause. “—and that’s just speculation. But the shield would be lost, Captain. Inevitably. You see, it’s calibrated perfectly. I’ve read all the reports about it and this was one of Howard Stark’s masterpieces. It’s perfectly balanced, it has a perfect radius, and just the right amplitude, and if you take away even so much as a notch, it will cease to be functional.”

He wanted to scream that he didn’t care, but that probably would give away too much. “Can’t we—re-forge it? I can handle a smaller shield.”

Coulson sighed. “We could try, but chances or not on our side. I saw the calculations, and even those are just hypothesis. There is no one alive who has ever worked with Vibranium before… the only one who I’d trust to make it work is Stark himself.” He met Steve’s eyes knowingly, and the open understanding he saw there was comforting. “Anyway, how do you want to give it to him, Captain? Wrap it up with a little red white and blue ribbon? Write him a gift card?” His voice wasn’t spiteful, but openly curious. Still. Steve could feel the irritation surging through him.

“I don’t care how. He’s dying.” And he couldn’t let him die. He just couldn’t.

Coulson cleared his throat and glanced sideways. “Look, Steve, I don’t say it’s off the table. It’s not. At the very least, we can still give it to him for inspections. He’d probably be able to reproduce it without destroying it in the process. But we still have time. Stark’s on the right track now, and the guy is a genius. He’ll figure it out—there is no need for you to blow your cover right now.”

Steve didn’t trust himself to look up. “One day,” he said quietly. “I’ll wait twenty-four hours, and then I’ll give him my shield.”

Coulson sighed heavily and turned on his heel. “If you already made up your mind, Captain, why did you even ask me?” As he rounded the corner, Steve saw him taking out his phone.

He shook his head shortly as he headed for the other end of the corridor. He put the shield back in its place, before going downstairs. He planned to go back in the workshop, not letting Tony hide from him now, but decided to make a little detour to the kitchen. Even if he wasn’t able to help Tony with all his other problems—this was something he could do. He made his way down the stairs, into the kitchen and straight to the coffee machine. He was about to take one of Tony’s huge cups out of the cupboard, when a voice made him stop short.

“Mr. Rowan?” the familiar mechanical voice echoed through the vast space of the kitchen. “Or shall I use your real name?”

A short game of connect-the-dots, before Steve’s eyes widened and he leapt to the inevitable conclusion. Oh God. How could he have slipped like that—he’d completely forgotten about JARVIS. His mind had been busy with a thousand of other things and he had simply overlooked the fact that he had very good reasons never to talk to SHIELD within the premises of the villa.

“I can explain,” he said hastily and only just resisted the urge to lift his hands in surrender.

“There is no need for that, Captain. As you might know, I am a highly functional super computer and I am quite able to decipher a ploy without needing further explanations from you. You are a member of SHIELD—and if my recent analyses are correct, you also seem to be Steven Grant Rogers a.k.a. Captain America, and thus I conclude that this is an undercover mission to gather information.”

“I—yeah, that’s… true.” He stared at the ceiling, trying to look his most honest. “I am not his enemy.”

“As you might have noticed, Captain, there is no alarm blaring. Yet. However, you seem to be holding back a sufficient replacement for the palladium core, and thus, you are letting Mr. Stark die. As far as my programming goes, I would consider that hostile activity.”

There was a sober twist at that, and Steve felt himself leaning forward as the words reached his ears. He was letting Tony die.

“If you know all that, you also heard that I am willing to give my shield to him,” he said, albeit a bit weakly. “The lithium dioxide is keeping the palladium at bay right now, and you know Tony better than anyone. He would probably get so angry with me that he wouldn’t even accept my help. If there is any way, we should try and let him find a solution by himself.”

There was a very long, deafening silence, and then, “It seems sir has just rendered our dispute irrelevant, Captain Rogers.” JARVIS’ voice sounded oddly excited.

Steve froze. “What?”

There was no answer.

“JARVIS?” he gasped, ready to turn around and jump off the ledge towards the first floor when the AI resumed talking.

“Our conversation is now irrelevant, because,” A pause. “Mr. Stark seems to have found what he was looking for.”

The revelation came so fluidly that it nearly took him by surprise. It was unwise to allow himself to hope with so little knowledge, but there it was—a smidgeon of hope. “He found it.”

“I am still favoring you not lying to him any longer, Captain.”

Steve nodded. “I’ll tell him. Soon.” And then, because he felt the weight of these words press down on him, he dropped his voice. “I’m afraid he won’t forgive me.”

JARVIS was quiet for a moment, and when he spoke again, his voice was noticeably kinder. “Sir tends to be forgiving towards the people he’s fond of.”

There was a long, pregnant silence as that last statement rang through his ears. He felt himself blushing, feeling stupid for his reaction towards a machine, but he couldn’t help himself. “I am fond of him, too.”

“I would hope so, Mr. Rowan,” JARVIS said and Steve frowned at that, but then he heard footsteps behind him and whirled around.

“Chatting with my AI, huh?” Tony asked, grinning widely. Both of his hands grabbed unceremoniously for Steve’s, and he dragged him away, before Steve could even so much as put the empty cup down. “I’ve been searching for you. You really gotta see this.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

It was breathtakingly beautiful.

The workshop was lit with blue lights, little circles were calmly floating around the air, like he and Tony were standing in the middle of an entire solar system. If you didn’t look too closely, they were just that—circles, some kinds of mythical orbs, but if you really looked at them, you could see that each circle, each light contained a world of its own. There were lines in between, ellipses and little objects rotating around each other, pushing and pulling, and while Steve didn’t know what any of this meant specifically, he sure could appreciate the sheer elegance of it.

“These are all atoms,” Tony explained, stepping behind Steve. He laid his arms on top of his and guided Steve’s outstretched fingers into the lightbulb right in front of them. “They’re pretty similar to uranium. They have the same transgenic properties,” he murmured next to Steve’s ear. He kept pushing his hand forward. “It’s unique, though, as it simply absorbs any kind of vibrations, or any sort of kinetic energy directed at it.” At first, Steve was sure his finger would just push through the projections, but they started to react to his proximity, first swirling around one finger, and then around the others. “It’s called Vibranium. Like I said, my dad once possessed a small amount of it back in the forties, but he decided it was best to forge the whole deal into a weapon, instead of keeping parts for research.”

Steve swallowed, and he would tell Tony, he would tell him everything. But not now—this moment wasn’t about him.

“This,” Tony breathed, his whole body pressed against Steve’s, “is going to save my life.”

Steve felt his eyes water and turned around in Tony’s arms. It had saved his life, too. And, in a way, it was saving him now once again.

And then, because he couldn’t help himself, he pulled Tony into his arms. He still couldn’t quite grasp how he had gotten here. Before the mission, he had read Tony’s files a thousand times and he had believed, had known without fault, that he wouldn’t like this man. That Tony Stark would just annoy him. That, after everything he knew about the man, there was nothing left worth learning. But he knew better, now. He had seen Tony at his best and worst and he had never, never been so glad to be proven wrong.

“You did it,” he marveled, and it wasn’t an act, it was pure, unadulterated adoration. “How?” he asked and then he just let Tony’s soothing voice wash over him, the excitement buzzing in each syllable. They watched the old tape of Howard again, and he felt Tony wiggling uncomfortably next to him until Steve laid a hand on his knee and pulled him closer. He patiently explained the schematics of the early Stark Expo-model to Steve, although at the end of it, the structures still didn’t look like anything to him. He did laugh at JARVIS’ joke about the Belgium waffles stands though.

Together, it took only a couple of hours to prepare the workshop for the synthesizing process. Tony had put his goggles and working clothes on and it took more force of will than Steve liked to admit to keep his fingers to himself.

If he’d once thought that Tony was a force of nature with handling reporters, he clearly hadn’t seen this coming. Seeing Tony like this, watching him planning and calculating, watching him creating… It was—how had Pepper put it?—It was humbling.

When they were finished, the workshop was a complete mess. There were these huge pipes Tony insisted had to be positioned exactly in these directions (which meant they had to drill several holes in the walls). In the middle of it all, Tony had installed a huge laser.

The last part was a tiny silver triangle.

“That’s just for tryouts,” Tony winked as he clipped the triangle into a pedestal at the end of the room. “If this works, I will probably be able to build a whole tower out of this.” He grinned at Steve cheekily and Jesus, he was so beautiful; more so than he would ever dare admit aloud. More so than he’d allowed himself to think until that moment. Most thoughts like that were beaten down the second they surfaced, but he couldn’t deny it while staring right at him. Tony was beautiful, looking as he did now: so vibrant and full of life, he was gorgeous.

Steve shifted uncomfortably, and let his gaze sweep over the room instead. He had no idea what he was supposed to do. “Where do you need me?”

Tony mumbled something unintelligible, and even with his super hearing, he could only make out the words naked and bed but it wasn’t hard to guess the rest of it. He vaguely remembered not having to blush at Tony’s lewd lines, but they hadn’t meant anything then. They did mean something now, and he felt his face heat at the intimate indication.

“Come again?” he asked, clearing his throat.

Tony pointed over to his working desk, pulling the goggles over his tousled black hair. “Just sit there and look pretty.”

He should probably be offended by that… if he weren’t so busy blushing. Christ, he wasn’t like that, usually. He didn’t blush, and certainly not that often, but he also couldn’t remember his insides jumping whenever he was so much at looking at another person.

Tony went over to the laser, pulling off his black shirt to reveal some tight tank top that did nothing to ease the heat radiating off of Steve’s cheeks. He put a key into the machine in the far corner of the room and suddenly there were blue lasers blinking sporadically within the pipes.

“Initializing prismatic accelerator,” JARVIS announced. It was all going so far over Steve’s head and still, it was impossible to tear his eyes from the proceedings.

Tony walked over to the valve at the top of the pipes. He places his hands on it, as the noise grew to a deafening level, and the whole composition started to shake violently. Tony seemed to realize that he couldn’t keep the laser steady, and Steve was about to walk over to him, but Tony already had a wrench in his hand, fastening it at the valve in order to adjust the beam.

“Whoops,” he said as it cut straight through a column, and Steve had to laugh at that because jeez, this was such a Tony-thing to say while demolishing a wall. The blue laser slowly approached the console, making a complete mess of the shop, but Tony probably didn’t care and neither did Steve. He felt his heart beating faster with every inch.

“Approaching maximum power,” JARVIS cut in, his voice louder now and elusively excited.

Finally, the beam reached the triangle. The blue energy fastened itself to the metal. The hum it produced began to grow louder with each passing second. It was sending off a dazzling white-blue light and Tony waited another two seconds before he shut it all off.

“Did it work?” Steve gasped, not even having realized that he’d been holding his breath the whole time.

“JARVIS?” Tony asked, and Steve could hear the terror in his voice.

The moment it took JARVIS to answer felt like a lifetime passing. “Congratulations sir, you have created a new element.”

In an instant, their eyes met. Tony, for his part, seemed torn between laughter and tears. His eyes were laden with emotion and he didn’t hide them—didn’t even try. It looked like his mouth wanted to twist into a grin but gravity kept pulling it down again.

Then, a snicker bubbled off his lips, his body lurching forward and his face falling into his waiting hands. It seemed that once he started laughing, he wasn’t able to stop anymore. Something snapped—something primal and inevitable. Hard, body-consuming laughter rippled through Tony’s shoulders, as he sank down to the floor.

It was only then that Steve managed to wrangle in his own emotions, and he was able get on his feet, walking over to where Tony was now leaning against DUM-E’s strut for support.

“I’m fine,” Tony said, throwing up a hand. Gradually, his manic laughter died out.

There was an uncertain pause when Tony looked up at him. He didn’t cry, but it seemed to be a close call. His eyes were glassy and red and Steve couldn’t stop himself from laying a hand on his cheek.

“You will be,” Steve said with a firm voice, and sat down on the floor next to Tony.

Tony nodded, and it took a few moments for his emotions to calm again, though when the lingering chuckles faded into awkward silence, the air also grew thicker than before.

“Yeah,” Tony said quietly, before—all of a sudden—he leaned forward and pressed a little kiss on Steve’s left cheek. “Thank you,” he whispered against his ear, before pulling back again. “For all of it, really. I’m not sure I’d still be here without you.”

Tony slouched back against DUM-E for a moment, patting his claw with a soothing gesture, before he stood up again, walking over to the post where the triangle still gave off some sort of humming sound.

Around Steve, white noise filled the air. He was too stunned to answer, much less move, because right in this moment, realization hit him like a sledgehammer.

This wasn’t a crush anymore. Sure, even as an agent of SHIELD, he was allowed to find his mission subject attractive as long as it never transcended that—which, inevitably, it had. He wanted this. He wanted Tony. He didn’t know what it was that he felt, but it kept growing stronger with every moment he spent with the man.

Throughout his life, Steve had regretted a lot of things—but he knew now that, at the end of the day, the present was what mattered. He didn’t forget the mistakes he’d made, of course—they were something you needed to remember, so you wouldn’t repeat them in the future. In a way, life was a lot like a living work of art. Some strokes were less attractive than the rest, but ever evolving into something grander than the person himself. His past was gone and couldn’t be rebuilt. He knew that. All he had was the moment in which he lived, and all the ones to follow.

And now here he was. He watched Tony carefully removing the triangle and setting it into the new arc reactor. Clearly, it would take some time for him to recover, but he would. Tony would live, and the look of his face as the reactor started to glow beneath his fingers would surely remain with Steve forever. The flash of brilliance, the relief he radiated with a simple smile was enough to cripple giants.

He watched Tony for a minute longer, before sighing softly and turning his eyes to the windows. There were a thousand things he wanted—a thousand things he hadn’t known he needed until now.

It felt like his mind was on record, memorizing every expression Tony was making, every sound, every movement, because for now, for as long as Tony was his mission… this was everything he was going to get.

Chapter Text

Steve

 

Slowly, Fury put the report down and sighed. “This is your final word?”

“Yes, sir,” Steve answered evenly. The finality in his tone was probably a bit too firm, yet for whatever reason it didn’t earn a real objection.

Instead, Fury waved a dismissive hand at the file. “It’s not what I expected, Captain.”

“I figured.”

“Full approval for Stark,” he repeated, more to himself than to Steve. “I’m not sure whether I should be happy about the tech he’s going to provide us with, or mourning the days I didn’t have a full-blown headache.”

Fury’s fingers skimmed the file. “Mr. Stark’s behavior remains occasionally skittish … Ability to remain focused when it matters most … Full physical recovery … A new sense of positive balance is likely to emerge due to Mr. Stark’s averted demise …” Fury looked up at his, clearly insinuating what he thought about that. And yeah, okay, Steve might’ve gone a bit overboard with predicting that Tony would ever possess something like a balanced mind. In his defense, he had been high on a feeling of relief while he’d written that report.

Mr. Stark finally came clean to his loved ones, and was able to receive support by talking about the recent events, thus restoring a sense of inner calm and healthy physical and cognitive functioning.” Fury snorted, shoving the file away. His eye focused on Steve and he pointed at his chest. “If he blows this all to hell, this is on you, Rogers.”

Steve smiled in spite of himself. “I can live with that.”

“Your mission is complete then,” Fury said, phrasing it as a question and Steve started to shift uncomfortably on his chair.

Steve cleared his throat. He’d rehearsed this part: had repeated it so often he had to rein himself in to not simply blurt it out in one breath. “I believe it would be wise to stick around Stark for a while longer, sir. With Stark Tower and his new role at SHIELD, he is about to make a few very important decisions, and I think it would only be logical to let my mission continue until he has a bit more solid ground under his feet.”

A still beat settled over the room. Fury’s expression revealed absolutely nothing. No irritation, but also no mischievous glee.

Steve didn’t panic, though. He knew who he was talking to, after all. He was well aware that Fury cared about Tony, more than he let on, anyway. He had seen the proof of it in Tony’s file. There had been too many photos with a smiling Fury holding a young Tony in his arms for it to be a coincidence. It was really obvious. Back then, Fury must’ve been something like a proverbial uncle, and now he still looked after his little nephew from afar. He obviously didn’t want anyone else know—especially not Tony—that he was sort of a silent guardian, a father figure in disguise, and Steve respected that.

When Steve had started his study on Tony, he had been sure that Fury didn’t know about the pictures, that he wasn’t aware that Steve had been able to get such a private glimpse of him. Now, though, it seemed more like Fury had intentionally put the pictures in Tony’s file. That he had wanted Steve to see for whatever reason.

“You are aware that putting him on the team will eventually lead to him finding out, right?” Fury asked.

Steve shrugged a little. Every nerve in his body twitched with the need to move. The need to be anywhere but here. The need not to be under Fury’s piercing gaze. “Yes,” he said shortly. “I plan on telling him. After we get settled in New York.”

Fury mouthed we and plastered on a dangerously innocent smile. “I see,” he said with a nod, his eye shaded with deep amusement he somehow kept from his voice. “Fine. Make sure to give us a heads-up before you tell him. I’m gonna be… not here… then.”

Steve nodded numbly, and stood up. As he walked out, he heard Fury picking up his report once again. “Modesty issues,” he murmured, turning his chair around. “Guy has two sex tapes online, and he calls that fucking modesty issues.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

Naturally, the big presentation of War Machine was one giant show-off. Tony was in full showman-mode: He joked around, making even the grimmest politician laugh at one point or the other. His hands were everywhere, gesturing widely around War Machine’s newest gadgets, the unique weapons (that Steve knew Rhodey had insisted on, much to Tony’s displeasure) and the patriotic paintjob, on which Steve would have loved to comment but couldn’t.

Throughout the whole performance, Tony kept grinning like a maniac, waving at the cheering crowd in front of him, and Steve couldn’t find it in him to be annoyed by the constant flirting, the bawdy innuendos, because Tony was still here, breathing and alive, and it was the most wonderful thing anyone could have ever given him. The last time he had stood down there, within the cheering crowd, was almost three month ago. It seemed like a different life-time altogether.

At some point, Tony’s eyes drifted sideways to where Steve stood behind the curtain, and it was so easy to imagine that the little mischievous smile turned a bit softer then.

Suddenly, there was a tap on his shoulder. “Tell me, Steve,” Pepper said without preamble, stepping up next to him. “Have I thanked you yet?”

Steve jumped a little. He hadn’t even known she’d be here today. The introduction of War Machine had been scheduled for quite a while now—it was the grand final performance at Stark Expo this quarter—but Pepper had been in Tokyo for almost three weeks, and he hadn’t been sure if she would make it in time.

She looked better. Last time he had seen her had been right after Tony’s confession about the palladium poisoning. There had been tears on her cheeks and a slump in her posture that told him it would take a while for her to let all of this sink in. The last weeks of the ordeal had taken their toll on her, but she seemed to handle it. Pepper always did. “There is really no need for that, Miss Potts.”

“It’s still Pepper, Steve,” she said. “And there is. So, thank you. For looking out for him.”

Steve looked back at the stage. At some point, Tony must’ve stepped into the Iron Man armor. He and Rhodey were in their usual victory-pose, letting the reporters take their photos.

“It’s my job,” he said, not feeling it.

For a moment, Pepper was silent, but there seemed to be a million thoughts running over her face. “He never would have told me without you, you know,” she whispered after a minute.

Steve didn’t pretend that he didn’t know what she was talking about—because he knew. “He would have. At some point.”

Pepper chuckled. “At some point, yes. With Tony, there are only ever two options. A, when he’s already found a solution or B, when I would’ve found out by myself.”

Steve swallowed hard. Words abandoned him. “Pepper...”

A soft smile of fond reflection tickled her mouth. “No, it’s alright. I know he had a lot on his plate, and I’m glad he had someone he could rely on.”

He frowned and shifted uncomfortably, “I found out by myself, too, you know that, right?”

She took a shaky breath. “It’s different. He’s different—with you. He would have told you before it was all too late.”

No, he wouldn’t have, Steve thought. Not on his own, anyway. Steve was aware that Tony had only confessed to him because he’d confronted him up-front. Still. Denying the thrill that her words incited would be as foolish as denying the color of the sky—because he knew what she was hinting at was true. But there was so much defeat in her tone, and if there was one thing he couldn’t stand, it was defeat. Defeat wasn’t meant for strong people like Pepper.

“Do you love him?” Pepper said, and immediately clamped a hand over her red lips. “Oh God, I’m sorry. I sound like an embittered ex-wife. It’s none of my business.”

“We’re friends,” Steve assured her. “We haven’t… There’s nothing else going on between us.” It was the truth, after all. Tony didn’t even know what happened at his birthday party, and they had barely hugged since.

Pepper looked at him for a moment. Then she nodded, seemingly registering that he meant what he said. It didn’t wipe off the sad look in her eyes, though. “There was a moment, you know. When I thought Tony and I could be more than we are now. I think we did have… a certain timeframe. And I love him. I have for a long time. And then, for a little while, he started looking at me like maybe he felt the same way.”

Steve just stood there awkwardly, because he had a feeling he knew where this was going.

“But then, I found myself looking for the little things he had directed at me, like the affectionate smiles and the longing gazes… and they just… stopped. Or they haven’t stopped, but they are not… directed at me anymore.”

Pepper wasn’t looking at him any longer. She was calmly eyeing the stage and sure enough, when Steve followed her gaze, Tony was looking directly at him. His cockiness had all but evaporated, leaving his expression open and warm. He was staring straight into Steve’s eyes like he might vanish if he dared so much as blink. As though it was just setting in that Steve was real.

“You will be good for him,” Pepper said, making Steve jump again. For a second, he’d completely forgotten she was even there.

He sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. “I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything,” Pepper said and she obviously tried to sound brave and professional and it made it all the harder not to feel sorry for her. And Pepper Potts certainly didn’t need pity. “Remember when I told you that I need him whole and happy? That’s still the case.” She sighed. “I think… we both kind of expected to fall in love with each other eventually. It seemed like the next logical step. But you cannot plan love. It shouldn’t be convenient. It should sweep you off your feet and leave you breathless, at least for a little while. It never was like that for us… not for me and certainly not for Tony.”

It was exactly how it was for Steve though. It was quite a sensation, feeling the world slow to a standstill every time he looked at Tony. To feel the weight beneath his feet stop moving for a little while.

It was futile to deny it any longer. He was too far gone for that.

And it was a strange sensation—to watch Tony with that knowledge in mind. To be watched by him in return. Whether it was the impact of these feelings or the burden of his secret—the sensation was large and frightening, but strangely, more reassuring than anything else that had ever happened to him before.

Pepper’s eyes softened. “There you go,” she said and there was an amused twinge in her smile now.

“He is my…” Mission. “…boss.”

Pepper started to giggle loudly and leaned against Steve. “I’m sorry,” she wheezed, “it’s just… funny, that you think Tony cares about that. I see the way he is looking at you, Steve. It really doesn’t matter who you are, what matters is who you can be for each other.”

There was no sense arguing with that logic. Still, he couldn’t let Tony know about the intensity of his feelings—not yet. Not while Tony still recovered. Not with all these secrets between them. He didn’t want to make a grand confession, or have Tony confess whatever he was feeling—only to destroy it all afterwards. It had to be the other way around. He needed to tell Tony about his mission first, he needed to make him understand that nothing of this had any kind of influence on the sincerity of his feelings.

Steve was aware that this wasn’t just a crush anymore. He knew the signs. It had been like that with Peggy, only it was stronger now, more imminent.

There would be some hard decisions coming up. He needed to plan this. He needed to do this right. There was no way to tell how Tony would react to all of this. The sky was the limit. There were so many things he could be misjudging, so many ways this could go wrong. And there were so, so many things he didn’t want to chance. Not with knowing how much he had to lose.

Not with knowing that Tony might never forgive him for this.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Steve liked Pepper—he really did. He just… wished she would be leaving already.

He had strategically planned the whole evening. Tony had scheduled the implementation of the arc reactor into the main ocean pipe at nine pm. Days ago Pepper had told him that she would only be sticking around until Stark Tower was officially self-sufficient. She had said she didn’t even have enough time for so much as a toast—that she had to catch her flight to London at nine thirty.

That had been two hours ago.

Steve was aware that it probably wasn’t a big thing to reschedule flights with private jets. He was also aware that Stark Tower had been her project too, and that she deserved this moment. Still. He had had plans and he hated seeing good plans fail.

Leaning back on the couch, he expelled a long sigh. The penthouse had only been finished two days ago, but Steve could already feel the stress pour out of him. Tony looked relaxed too; carefree in a way he had probably never seen him before. He and Pepper were still chatting next to one of the monitors on the other side of the room. A hologram of the tower was rotating between them, and Steve knew he should probably be more enthusiastic about everything being stable and functioning, but he just wasn’t. Instead, he kept sighing, deeper now, raising his eyes to inspect the food still standing on the kitchen counter—the food he had spent a good four hours making, in order to really make this evening significant.

He knew he was being moody, but this would have been the perfect time to tell Tony. He would still be mad, of course, but he had had a huge scientific break-through today, and if there was ever any chance to salvage this thing between them… it would be on a night like this.

He only noticed the two of them coming over when Tony opened the bottle of champagne Steve had bought for the thing—the date-slash-big reconciliation-thing… not the tower-thing.

“I was doing an awesome job, thank you very much.” Whatever it was that Tony complained about, he did it with a wide shit-eating grin.

Pepper snickered. “I’m just saying that next time, you could do a little more doing and a little less awesome.”

Tony shrugged shamelessly, dazzling her with one of his patented smiles. It was damn near impossible to resist standing up and kissing it off his lips, yet Steve managed admirably. “See, Steve,” Tony said, running a hand through his dark wavy strands, “five minutes and we’ve already run into a problem. I can’t do anything without being awesome.”

“You’re so full of yourself,” Pepper laughed.

Tony snorted. “Yeah, yeah. You love it.”

Pepper didn’t even flinch at that. She really had seemed to move on from Tony, and Steve was glad for it. Even though her moving on seemingly had no influence whatsoever on the development of Steve’s and Tony’s own relationship.

“I’m getting another glass,” Pepper announced, pointing at the two flutes on the table. When she came back, she held a glass and a silver plate in her hands, putting both on the table.

“Oh my god, I love corn dogs,” Tony cheered, awarding Pepper a thumbs-up.

“I know. Actually, there’s a lot of food you like in the kitchen, it’s…” Pepper’s eyes narrowed, her eyes landing on the three champagne glasses in front of her. Then she looked back to the counter, where Steve had positioned various plates of Tony’s favorite dishes.

Oh no.

“To Stark Tower,” Tony said, ready to clink glasses. When no one followed him, he arched a brow. He frowned, smiled—then frowned again. “What?”

There was a long beat of silence as Pepper considered Steve, head tilted curiously and oh God, he knew this was going to be bad. Really, really bad. He felt his cheeks heat before Pepper even spoke up.

“Was this meant to be a date?” she asked, looking between him and Tony.

Tony snorted. “No,” he glanced over at Steve. “I’d have known that, right?”

There would be no blushing now. He would take a deep breath and—

Right?” Tony repeated with a little shrill undertone.

Steve cleared his throat and smiled at him. “Right.”

There was a considerable pause and whatever Steve must’ve looked like, it didn’t seem to be very convincing. Tony gaped at him as a half-dazed, half caught-in-headlights look came about him. “Oh fuck,” he breathed and Pepper expelled a very unladylike snort next to him. Steve put the glass down, groaning and laying his hands over his face.

“God, Steve, you could have just said something,” Pepper said, and suddenly her lips were pressed against his temple. He watched through his fingers as the two of them raised their glasses with matching looks and took a little sip. Then Pepper stood up, embracing Tony in a tight hug. “Okay, I’m going to leave now. Don’t forget, opening ceremony starts at ten.”

“I think I’ll notice…” Tony mumbled. “You know, seeing as I’m living here.”

Pepper rolled her eyes, as she tucked Tony with her. “Goodbye Steve.”

He kept looking down when his emotions threatened to get the better of him. “Bye Pepper.”

Tony came back from the elevator a few moments later, sitting down next to him. “So,” he said with a fair amount of amusement in his voice. “This our first date, Steven?” When Steve didn’t answer him right away, he gave his arm a good nudge.

Steve let his hands drop to look up at him, summoning all the bravery that came so easily to him on the battlefield. “Do you want it to be?”

“Dunno,” Tony said with a wide grin. “I might have already made plans to really wine and dine you when things have settled. You now, take you out someplace nice. Maybe get you in a tux again—and preferably out of it, afterwards.”

He tried to read Tony’s expression, but couldn’t grasp it. He clearly tried to look neutral, probably giving himself a chance to get out with a little dignity if need be. Steve cleared his throat. “So you want to date me?”

Tony smiled, twirling the glass in his hand. His voice dropped a little. “For a long time, if I have my say.”

Steve felt himself smiling, too. “Well, you know how it is. The blonds always come around and do everything you want.” Tony looked up, and the surprise in his features didn’t make sense to Steve at all. He hadn’t really held back on his adoration within the last weeks, unwilling to let his cowardice steal away the few precious moments they had together. Tony really should have noticed his feelings by now.

Steve shrugged, grinning at him. “Seems like I’m no exception after all.”

“You’re the exception to everything,” Tony mumbled, probably banking on Steve not to hear it. He cleared his throat, speaking up. “Well. If I got any kind of lesson out of the whole palladium dramatics, then it’s that life’s too short to wait for anything,” he mused.

Steve chuckled. “You’re just saying that because you want to get in my pants as soon as possible.”

Tony blinked, and barked a laugh, his fingers stroking his cheeks as though to smother the little crinkles there. “Well, can’t say you’re wrong about that,” he drawled, but his eyes turned serious a few seconds later. He cleared his throat again. “I just figure… if everything can keep from going to shit for a few weeks, we do have a couple days in our future, huh?”

Steve smiled and pulled at Tony’s hand until it was lying on his knee. Warmth spread across his skin like wildfire. These weren’t words he’d ever expected from Tony. It did, however, spark so much hope in him, that he really had to stop before he got ahead of himself. Tony’s allowance for a future might mean nothing in the long run—but for now it gave him a glance at something he had wanted longer than he could recall. “Yeah,” he said.

“Pepper was right, you know? You should’ve said something. And I don’t just mean today… I…” he took a deep breath. “I was never even sure if you were interested and…”

“I am.” …and, yeah, that probably came out a bit too insistent.

Tony chuckled. “Yeah, I got that now. But those last weeks…”

“You were busy. We all were. It never seemed right to say something.”

“Mmm… And now it is?”

Steve was about to nod, about to say yes, when he remembered and shook his head instead. “There’s something I need to tell you first and … you sure as hell won’t like it.”

Tony expelled a breath, giving him a long hard look. “Will it keep me from kissing you in the next ten seconds?”

Steve swallowed, considering this. “It might…” It might keep Tony from kissing him. Period.

Tony nodded and leaned forward until he was just a breath away. He studied his face for a moment and raised a tentative hand to palm his cheek reverently. “Then by all means, Steve? It can wait another minute,” he said heatedly, thumb caressing comforting circles into his skin. “Because this might be something I’ve wanted to do for a while now…” He gently drummed his fingers against Steve’s temple, then slid his touch southward until it rested next to his mouth.

Steve felt himself leaning forward until his brow was touching Tony’s, his mouth provocatively near his own.

“Tony…” he murmured, trying to remember why he couldn’t be doing this now. His hands wandered to Tony’s upper arms, keeping him away.

Steve,” Tony whined, moving around until he was fully seated in Steve’s lap. Memories of Tony’s birthday-party rushed through Steve’s mind. Memories of quiet gasps and needy thrusts. Memories of Tony moaning against his neck and … God. Resolve was becoming entirely too difficult to hold onto. He couldn’t tell Tony now. He didn’t know if he ever could. This wasn’t something he could just whisper in his ear in-between kisses. There was no middle ground to reach—Tony would either forgive or hate him forever. And God, he felt his erection against his stomach, and consequentially, all good reasons why this was wrong abandoned him.

He felt his own hands fall down and the next thing he knew, Tony’s arms were around him, and their lips were finally touching. And he melted. He drowned into Tony’s mouth, drawing desperate kisses that drove him rightly out of his mind.

Faintly he heard the repeating buzzing-sound of his phone somewhere in the background, but he didn’t care—God help him, he didn’t care about anything other than Tony’s lips on his. The hammering of his own heart echoed through his veins. There was no room for thought or second-guessing anymore. His hands tugged Tony closer, his tongue requesting entrance to his mouth, which Tony granted with enthusiasm. God, he tasted so good. If life had a flavor, Tony surely embodied it.

“Tony,” he whimpered, drawing him even closer. He felt how hard he was. How hard they both were. The dice were cast and he felt them rolling out of reach. He couldn’t resist this—he needed to have Tony, if only this once. Around him, the world outside ceased to exist. It was just him and Tony. No mission, no secrets, no hiding. Nothing else mattered.

“I have a bed,” Tony breathed against his lips, his voice strained and somewhat shaken. As though he expected Steve to come to his senses at any second. “The floor doesn’t bother me, but… ahh, maybe you’d prefer…”

Instantly, he lifted Tony in his arms, and he didn’t care that they were probably moving way too fast, because Tony was alive and safe and whole and he had wanted this for so long. It was impossible not to give in now.

“Yes,” he whispered, blindly walking them both towards the master bedroom.

“Shit, okay,” Tony breathed and leaned in again. His tongue licked a stripe up his neck towards his lips and good God, he was gone, so gone for this man, and he felt like laughing because he couldn’t remember ever having been so happy in his whole life. Their lips brushed against each other, full of need and urgency, which was ridiculous because right now—they had all the time in the world. Tony wouldn’t go anywhere. Ivan Vanko was locked away at SHIELD with whatever crazy ideas he might have been up to, and the lines on Tony’s skin were gone forever. He was safe and the world around them was peacefully quiet.

They had all the time to savor this.

“Tony…” he groaned loudly as Tony ground his cock against his, and the word was too full of something to just be a name. It was an I’m in love with you and an I want you, here, like this, always and he hoped that Tony could hear it.

As they stumbled through the door, Tony sighed deeply against his neck and laid his hands on Steve shoulders to look up at him. His eyes were so intense that Steve had to pause for a moment, before walking further. Tony swallowed. “Steve, I—”

Suddenly, a loud shrill blare flared across the room. At first, none of them reacted—too engrossed in each other’s eyes, but the noise grew louder with every second. Tony turned around in his arms, stretching his whole upper body to look at one of the wall monitors. He cursed loudly then, and motioned for Steve to let him down.

Steve knew that look—it was the look of another persona taking over. It was probably the same expression he wore every time he needed to step up as Captain America.

As Tony cursed some apologies and sprinted towards his dressing room, Steve found himself walking back into the living area, before he even knew what he was doing. He stopped at the couch table and reached for his phone. He turned the device around, staring at the screen. As he’d expected, there were several messages. From Natasha.

We have a situation.

Cover’s up.

Fury is calling us in.

A new message appeared.

That means Stark, too.

As on cue, JARVIS’ voice echoed through the penthouse. “This is the A-35 line, sir,” he announced, as if that would explain everything—which it probably did. Tony was an Avenger now, after all. “All Avengers are called on-site right away.”

A long, dark shudder seized Steve’s body, as he turned around to look back at the doorframe leading in the bedroom. After a minute, Tony walked out, pulling up one of his black body suits and tossing him a little apologetic smile as he came closer.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Normally I’d say Fury should shove it where the sun won’t shine and believe me, there is nothing I’d like to do more than continue where we’ve just stopped, but SHIELD and I got a little agreement, and if Fury’s using his one direct line to me it’s gotta be bad, as in… apocalyptic-bad.”

“I know”, Steve said, because it didn’t matter anymore, did it? “Tony, I know this, and I…”

“Steve”, Tony said as moved towards him. He pressed his lips against his, hard and demanding, before he pulled back again. “It’ll be all right,” he whispered against Steve’s lips. “Just follow JARVIS’ instruction, yeah? If he says you need to get out of here, do it. Otherwise? Stay put. This is the safest place you could possibly be at the moment.”

“It’ll be all right,” Steve repeated though he didn’t know to whom he spoke. Tony was still pressed into his side, his arms wrapped around his middle, every inch of his body buzzing with life, and he needed to keep this. He needed to keep Tony, he couldn’t lose him now. Not to whatever it was they would be facing—and not to his own stupidity.

Christ, why hadn’t he just said something? How could he have been so damn egoistic?

This was Tony. He was everything and this was worth everything. And he’d messed it up, because he’d been too afraid to explain himself.

“It will be,” Tony promised, pressing another short kiss on his lips before he turned around and walked towards the balcony door that led straight to the landing platform.

Steve shook his head, following him. “Tony, no—wait a second.”

“I can’t,” Tony said unhappily. “JARVIS will keep you updated, okay? I’m sorry. I really am.”

There was nothing left to do but watch as Tony sprinted towards the gangway, only slowing down as the machines methodically began to build the armor around him. When the faceplate snapped shut, he blew Steve a kiss with one of his metal hands, surely grinning like a maniac while doing so.

Then he was up in the air and out of sight in seconds.

His phone was vibrating against his leg and Steve grabbed for it with shaky fingers.

Quinjet ETA 2 minutes.

“I’m so, so stupid,” Steve breathed into empty air.

“I honestly wish I could contest that statement, Captain,” JARVIS replied, and Steve couldn’t decide if he should be laughing or crying.

Chapter Text

Steve

 

It hadn’t even been ten minutes. Ten minutes since he’d kissed Tony, ten minutes since they’d nearly tumbled into bed together. Ten minutes since he’d been the happiest he’d ever been in his life.

The walk to the command area of the Hellicarrier had never seemed longer. It felt like he happily allowed himself to be led like a lamb to the slaughter. Natasha walked at his side as they made their way through the hallways. She had waited for him on the landing platform with his SHIELD uniform in her hands, but hadn’t said a word aside from a short greeting.

He probably looked like the world had already ended.

It certainly felt like it had.

Natasha’s hand brushed against his as they neared the entryway. It stayed where it was, even as the door was opening, and her fingers felt heavy against his. He nearly would’ve lost it then, but they were already at the bridge, and there was nothing else to be done but square his shoulders and face the mess he’d made.

Natasha squeezed his hand one last time before she walked off towards a row of computer screens. The bridge was buzzing with energy. People were walking around, discussing tactics and comparing notes. On the huge wall screens, Steve could see other high-ranking SHIELD members giving orders per video call. In the midst of it all, Fury stood at his consoles, shouting at various agents to get their asses moving.

The room was full of people, full of noises, and he’d never felt more alone.

As soon as Steve stepped into the hallway, he was handed a thin report folder. He flipped through the papers for a moment, only stopping twice: once at the report on Loki’s mind control over Clint, and once on a picture of the Tesseract. Then, he felt familiar eyes boring into him.

Steve looked up with a sigh, already knowing who it was and what it meant.

This was it. There was no going back. Cover’s up indeed.

“Steve?” Tony said disbelievingly, hurrying closer from where he’d stood talking with Coulson only a second ago. “What are you doing here? This is war zone. You’re not supposed to…”

He trailed off, his gaze dropping down to the report Steve still held in his hands. Then it flickered over Steve’s jacket, stopping where Steve knew the SHIELD insignia was.

There was nothing to say. Nothing to defend himself with. God.

“You’re not…” Tony started again, brows hunched together now. “You’re… not…”

Agent Hill stepped up next to them, handing Tony a status report of his own. “Mr. Stark, this is Captain Rogers,” she told him absentmindedly, obviously not bothering to ease him into it.

But it didn’t matter anyway. Tony had already figured it out. He was too clever not to put the loose ends together immediately. Steve watched as his eyes turned icy. Shock frosted. His gaze became calculating. Tony took a deep breath, closed his eyes for a moment and when he looked back at Steve, his expression was empty, like it had only taken this single breath to get rid of all his feelings at once. He was looking at him like Steve was a stranger.

His world might as well have stopped then… strange, when all his heart wanted to do was beat in sync with the man before him. His body was ready to explode and freeze at the same time.

“Captain, huh?” Tony eventually said, obviously trying for nonchalance. He did a pretty good job at it too, if it weren’t for the little wavering in his voice. “Well, I guess you really are that good. I believed every second of your little charade. Congratulations.”

“Tony it wasn’t a—”

“Oh, spare me the mission details. Rogers was it? I don’t fucking care what it was.”

Hill’s eyes slowly wandered over to Steve. She probably filed that comment away for further inspection. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. She cleared her throat. “It would be crucial to lay your discrepancies aside for the moment, gentlemen. Captain Rogers is an Avenger as well, and we need you to work together on this.”

“An Avenger, too?” Tony laughed humorlessly. “So you’re not just one of Fury’s little agent poodles? What’s your game, I mean, other than being a backstabbing traitor. You’re fired, by the way.”

Hill rolled her eyes, before finally walking away.

“I never betrayed you,” Steve insisted. “I didn’t lie to you, either.” At Tony’s raised eyebrow, he backpedaled. “I mean, yes, I lied about my name and parts of my past, but I never lied…” About us. “…about anything important.”

“Hey.” Suddenly Natasha was back at his side, holding up a round, black bag. Steve groaned, watching the flicker of recognition in Tony’s eyes as he took Natasha in.

“You were at my birthday party.” He said and his jaw flexed.

Natasha raised a single eyebrow at him, clearly unimpressed. “Oh, don’t look at me like that—I even bought you a 94’ Auvenay Burgundy. You’re welcome.”

She turned towards Steve. “We brought the shield for you. The new armor is in your room on deck four.”

“Shield?” Tony asked. “Is that a metaphor or...” He broke off, shaking his head incredulously as Natasha opened the bag. Tony barked out a loud laugh. “Really? A literal shield? Who the hell wears an honest to god shield nowad—” He stopped short, as the painting became visible, and Steve's world turned to a halt. And there it was, the familiar red, white and blue. He’d certainly missed holding it.

“No way,” Tony breathed, now openly gaping at him. “Are you fucking kidding me? That’s what you're calling not important?

“I wanted to tell you,” Steve insisted. “After you found a replacement for the palladium, or even before. I wanted to tell you every single day”, Steve said miserably and he took the shield in his hand, and it was such a swift, easy movement, like missing a part of his arm.

“Rogers,” Tony repeated to himself and his eyes went wide. “Steven Rogers. Captain America. Well, fuck me. And… and you’re the real deal?” he asked, curiosity obviously getting the better of him for the moment.

“Yes.”

“Immortal?”

“Frozen.”

“Huh.” The frown on Tony’s face refused to fade. He waited for a second as though expecting something. Steve couldn't blame him—he was expecting something, too.

Expecting anything, really. He would take anything. An anything that didn’t come.

“I wanted to tell you,” he started again. “I would’ve told you. I wouldn’t have…” He lowered his voice, looking over at Natasha, who was flipping through a stack of notes. He honestly couldn’t tell if she was still listening or not. “I wouldn’t have taken this any further without telling you.”

“And here you are mistaken, Cap. You think I care. You think you were anything more to me than just a fling. Admittedly you were a greater trophy than I expected. I mean, I almost tapped Captain America, and that’s pretty awesome if you ask me, but don’t believe I’ll dissolve into tears because of you. The only regret I have right now is that I didn’t get to fuck you while I still had the chance.”

Steve swallowed. “I know you’re just saying that because I hurt you.”

Tony bristled, breaking eye-contact again. “You didn’t hurt me. I would have needed to give a shit about you for you to be able to hurt me.”

He saw Natasha giving them both a long look before finally walking away, but he couldn’t find the strength in him to care. She had probably known long before this.

Tony’s gaze flickered past Steve and he did a double-take, a pitiful groan tearing out of him. “Jesus, even the girl you had with you at the gala?” He pointed at agent Klein, who was sitting at one of the desk stations in the far corner of the hall. “Tell me. Was Veronica King her real name, Steve?”

A painful smile split his lips. “Tony, come on...”

“No, we are done. We’ll deal with this mess and when I come back to my tower, you’re gone.”

“Tony, that thing between us, it wasn’t a charade, are you even listening to me? Do you really think they told me to fall for you?”

“Fall for me?” Tony said with a shrill voice like he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. For a second he looked at Steve like he was the one thing that kept the earth moving. Then his face closed in again and he stepped back. “I already told you. I don’t care what this was or what it wasn’t. Fool me once, fool me twice, and all that jazz. We’re done.”

He tried to grab for Tony’s hand, but was pushed off aggressively. “Come on,” Steve pleaded. “At least let me—”

“Dr. Stark?" a man with roguish brown hair said, his eyes darting between him and Tony like he wasn’t sure if he had interrupted something or not. “It’s… uh… it’s good to have you on board with this. I’m—”

“Dr. Banner. Yeah.” Tony took his hand, and shook it with a tight smile. “Huge fan of your work on anti-electron collisions—and, you know, the whole Smashing Big Green show you’ve got going. Now, you only have to stop calling me doctor and I’m sure we’ll be best science buddies.”

Banner chuckled with a relieved expression. “Done and done.” His outstretched hand turned to Steve. “Captain Rogers. It’s a real honor.”

Tony tossed both hands in the air. “Did seriously everyone else know about you? I’m going to have words with JARVIS.”

“It’s not his fault. He couldn’t track me. They never re-established my real identity.” Steve took a deep breath. Might as well get it all out at once. “And SHIELD installed a jammer that stopped him from scanning me per face recognition.” He decided that now probably wasn’t the best time to tell Tony that JARVIS had voluntarily kept his secret for nearly three months now.

There was a longer pause, and when Tony spoke up again, his voice had adapted a vicious undertone, “Are you really just telling me that you messed with my AI?”

Steve sighed and shook his head. “We didn’t do anything with JARVIS—not that we could’ve. He is far too well protected. The jammer is external—and it’s not even there anymore. I’m just trying to be honest with you.”

“There is a time and place for everything, I guess,” Tony mumbled. He grabbed for his phone, pressing a few buttons. Probably telling JARVIS to run a check-up on himself.

Steve huffed. “Can you stop being passive-aggressive for one minute and just listen?

“Did you really just call my reaction to you lying to me for almost half a year bitchy?” Tony yelled.

“So…” Banner started, “I figure you already know each other.”

“Yes,” Steve told him at the same time Tony said firmly, “No.”

“No we don’t,” Tony insisted, fixing Steve with his icy glare. “I don’t know you.”

Anger sparked within him at that. Not much, but enough. “You damn well do!” he shouted.

“Did you just swear at me? You know that pretty much makes my whole point right? You never swore.”

“I swear! I always have. For example, I swore plenty when you drove the damn Circuit, or when you decided to take on Vanko without any kind of goddamn help!

Something in Tony snapped at that. “Well it wasn’t like I could have asked Captain Stealthhead America for help, right? Because I thought he was MY FUCKING ASSISTANT!” Tony’s hands were balled into fists at his sides. There wasn’t an inch of him that didn’t tremble, and the pain-drenched conflict in his eyes struck Steve hard. He was warring with himself—fighting a battle, all because of him.

Beside them, Banner rubbed his neck, taking a few steps back. “Okay, I’m going to leave now…”

“NO,” they both yelled in unison, effectively stopping Banner dead in his tracks. “No,” Tony said like an afterthought. “We’re done. I’m leaving. You,” he pointed at Steve. “Don’t follow me.”

“Tony.”

“Don’t,” he said, quieter now. His eyes were a sea of pain. The quiet made the honest hurt in his voice more apparent, and all in all, Steve thought he’d preferred the shouting. Tony studied him with such intensity that sent shivers across his skin as his insides trembled. He knew his eyes must have been heavy with longing. He let Tony leave, though, knowing him well enough that he understood that Tony needed to lick his wounds in peace, if only for a few moments.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Tony stood stiffly next to the wall where Coulson’s blood was still drying. He was pointedly not looking at the red spot, though. Instead, he leaned over the railing, glancing down into the vast open space where Hulk’s cage had been, only half an hour ago.

Steve felt a pang of sadness going through him as he thought of Coulson. Maybe if he hadn’t been so focused on Tony, maybe he’d… No. He swallowed and shook his head. He couldn’t dwell on the past now. There would be time to mourn the man and now wasn’t it.

He looked back at Tony. There was no movement in him at all. When Steve had first stepped up as Captain America, Tony had at least shot a few hidden glimpses at him. Probably eyeing his uniform. Probably also making silent notes about its inadequateness. Now—after their spiteful screaming match in the laboratory, and after Coulson—he wasn’t looking anymore. Now he wasn’t doing anything at all.

For Steve, there was nothing to do but stare at the motionless figure for long, endless seconds. It felt like he was frozen, too—frozen all over again, like his feet were stuck to the floor beneath him—as unable to move as they were unable to carry the weight pressing down on him.

“Tony,” Steve called quietly, making a few cautious steps into the room. Tony gave no visible indication that he’d heard him, but Steve had expected as much. “Can we talk?” he asked.

There was no response. Of course there was no response. He’d known Tony would make this as hard as possible for him. Steve exhaled deeply, and he felt his heart breaking a little at the obvious sorrow clouding Tony’s beautiful brown eyes.

He had no idea what to say—he didn’t even know if there was something to say that would make this better. “Please, Shellhead,” he added, his voice tense.

There was a long pause before Tony finally looked up—and for a moment, Steve thought there might have been a flicker of familiar longing in his gaze; a flicker which only proved to be nothing but wishful thinking. Instead, his expression was painfully empty, his face drained off any feelings. Steve might as well be Agent Hill, asking him to join them in debriefing.

His heart fell.

“You do know me,” Steve started. He was aware that he was repeating himself, but talking was the only way to go. There was nothing else to be done. “I didn’t lie about us Tony, I promise…”

Tony just shook his head, and his eyes fastened on him with cold assessment. “You won’t promise me a thing,” he spit out. “You hear me? Not. A. Thing.”

Steve exhaled deeply and took another step forward, flinching when Tony took a step of his own—in the other direction. He swallowed hard, and he felt his eyes misting. It was no good. He had to keep a level head. This wasn’t the time to break down. “What I said before, in the lab… I wasn’t… I didn’t mean any of it.”

You just love making yourself miserable, don’t you? You are so emotionally stunted you wouldn’t know a good thing if it looked you straight in the eye.

He had known, even while speaking, that he wasn’t in his right mind. That these words weren’t his own—and the timing couldn’t have been any more disastrous. He was fueling a fire that was already blazing fiercely.

Not that Tony hadn’t given as good as he got.

You are nothing more than a self-promoting political lackey who is only here because they need someone who will jump on the wire without even asking.

After that, there had seemed to be no way to stop the words tumbling out of their mouths. No way whatsoever. He’d seen the pain crossing Tony’s face, had seen that every jab felt like a physical blow to him, but he was unable to do anything about it. Unable to stop throwing even more hateful lies at him.

You are just an insecure little man. You hide behind your shiny toys to compensate for what you know you lack.

What I lack is common sense! How could I have not seen that all there is to you is just some stereotypical soldier mindset! All you do is follow orders! You really are the perfect picture of obedience, aren’t you?

At least I have a purpose! Without the armor—you’ve got nothing. No wonder you won’t let anyone get close. You don’t want them to realize that the man underneath isn’t even worth trying!

God, how could he have ever said something like that? It was the complete opposite of what he was feeling and so far away from the truth it was ridiculous. That did not, however, stop Tony’s face from closing in completely, his gaze becoming distant like he was actually asking himself if Steve was telling the truth.

“Bruce said that Loki’s scepter manipulated us,” Steve explained, shaking his head to make the memories go away. “I couldn’t do anything about it. I wanted to stop, but I… You are worth it, Tony—and the suit is nothing without you. You have to know I didn’t mean any of it.”

Tony chuckled darkly from where he stood cross-armed, leaning against one of the columns. “Well,” he sneered. “Everything’s hunky-dory, then, huh? Why don’t we just head off to your little SHIELD apartment? You can fuck me on your little SHIELD bed, maybe buy me flowers afterwards—you know, with your little SHIELD money. Oh no, sorry, my mistake—you got your payment from me, of course. Guess I’ll buy the flowers myself then. What d’ya think? A red rose for every time you fucked me over?”

It felt like an iron hand closed around his throat. He had to tear his eyes away from the coldness in Tony’s face, turning his gaze to the ground instead. “You have to listen to me,” he pleaded quietly, looking up again. “It was real, Tony. Everything I feel for you is real.”

For a second, Tony’s eyes flickered. It was brief but very present, and though it faded before he had time to really assess it, he knew it had to mean something. “No. You have to listen to me,” Tony said calmly—a stark contrast to the way his hands began to shake. “I. Don’t. Care. We are through, Captain. I’m not joking about this. I’m not saying this to make you try harder, or even just to make you feel worse. I’m not playing hard to get here. We are over. No, strike that—we never even were—and there is no reason for you to follow me around.”

Tony shook his head hard, once, obviously willing himself to stop trembling. It didn’t work. “I was your mission, right?” he continued. “Fun fact about me: I’m not stupid. I know that SHIELD agents always analyze their targets before going on assignments. That means you played me—you tricked me, knowingly, and you made me believe that…” He cut himself off, and took a deep shaky breath. “I’m serious, Steve. Just fuck the hell off.”

A cold blast of indignation seized Steve’s spine and held. “No, I won’t,” he ground out. “We need to settle this. We need to put this behind us. I can’t go out there, fighting a God with you by my side, when I know that you can’t even trust me on a basic level.”

Another long beat passed between them. Tony obviously wouldn’t give him any ground to stand on. He only shrugged matter-of-factly. “Well, welcome to the age of endless disappointment, Cap. It’s a brave new world we live in,” he said.

Steve’s eyes fluttered closed, forcing his temper back. There was probably little to be gained by screaming right into Tony’s face at this point. “I know I should’ve told you sooner,” he admitted with gritted teeth. “I know that. It wasn’t supposed to go this way, with you finding out right in the middle of a crisis. I never wanted to put you on show like that—”

“On show?” Tony repeated and at first, his eyes were full of anger, before it all evaporated within a second. “On show,” he repeated, suddenly staring straight at the blood on the wall. “Of course… Loki, he… this is exactly what he’s doing. He’s putting on a show for us. For all the world to see. He needs a—” Tony gestured wildly, suddenly walking towards Steve and right past him, only turning around when he was already up the stairs, towering over him. “He needs a platform for this. A… stage, a monument. He needs—”

His eyes widened with realization and suddenly, Steve knew exactly where Tony’s mind was going.

“Stark Tower,” he breathed.

Tony nodded heatedly. “Stark Tower. That son of a bitch.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

The flight back to New York was eerily quiet. Natasha threw him a look over her shoulder and mouthed say something, but Steve just shook his head. Tony was standing next to him, grasping the handle of the rear hatch like he was ready to flee at any second. He still looked shaken—his eyes screaming with disturbed confusion, and Steve hated himself for being the one who put that look there. His anger seemed to be gone now, though, instead he looked tired… and defeated.

God, why hadn’t he told him sooner?

The empty minutes were filled with awkward silence. There was nothing to say.

“ETA five minutes,” Natasha informed them quietly.

All of a sudden, Tony spoke up. “I had all these crazy ideas in my head,” he said softly—so softly that Steve wasn’t sure whether he was speaking to him or not. “How I’d tell you once things got a little calmer.”

“Tell me what?” Steve asked.

Tony gave him a long, hard look. “You know what.”

And Steve knew, and he was consumed with the duality of relief and shame. How could he be so happy that Tony had fallen in love, too, when he was in so much pain now?

“Is it really too late?”

He hadn’t thought it possible for Tony to look even more haunted, but he did. He shrugged apathetically. “I can’t trust you. And I can’t love you if I can’t trust you.” Tony laughed shortly then, and shook his head. “Who would’ve thought? Tony Stark in need of a healthy trust-based relationship, huh?” There was no humor in his voice, though. It was sad and drawn.

“I never lied about loving you,” Steve said then, because it didn’t matter anymore that he hadn’t said it yet. Right now, honesty was the only way to go. Tony needed to hear this. Tony needed to know.

“Loving me?” Tony whispered, obviously hating the weakness in his voice.

“Was there ever any doubt? I went into this mission believing that I wouldn’t even like you and that conviction turned on me within a week. I fell for you so fast it was ridiculous.”

Tony’s jaw clenched. “And yet you never told me.”

“I was afraid to lose you. There was every chance that you wouldn’t forgive me for this and I… I was selfish. I wanted to be around you for a little while longer. I planned on telling you yesterday.”

Tony glanced up wearily, his bleary eyes drenched with exhaustion. “On our not-quite-date.”

“Yeah.”

Natasha spoke up again, “Two minutes, boys. Better delay the talk until after we catch the psychotic God.”

Tony grabbed for his helmet without turning his eyes off Steve. “Even if you did…” He broke off, breathing hard and searching his gaze. “How can I be sure that it was real?”

“It was,” Steve replied, cradling his shield with one hand. “Just give me a chance to prove it to you.”

The hatch opened, letting a harsh cold wind sweep through the cabin, but Tony kept looking at him, helmet-less, his gaze so intense that a spark of electricity shot through him.

The plane stopped moving, floating in the air. “Drop zone,” Natasha yelled over the noise.

Tony’s eyes fluttered shut. He was trembling hard, visibly trying to rein in control. Long, heavy breaths rolled off his chest, and he was so gorgeous that Steve wanted nothing more than to kiss him again. “After. We’ll talk after this is over,” he said finally, and then, like a miracle, a little smile crept across his lips, albeit a tad self-conscious one, which only made Steve love him more. He felt himself nodding numbly, his gaze slowly trailing upward until he was drowning in Tony’s beautiful brown eyes once again. God, there were no words to how much he loved this man, and maybe… maybe he could have this. Maybe there was still a chance.

Tony put the helmet on, and Steve watched it closing around his head, the intense, cold eyes of Iron Man flaring to life. He pushed the shield down on his back, stepping forward. “Gonna make me take the parachute?” he asked with a little smirk he solely blamed on his new-found optimism.

Iron Man cocked his head at him and he could picture Tony rolling his eyes so easily it almost hurt. And then he was in Tony’s embrace, the metal hands slowly running up and down his sides. He felt one of them wandering further downwards until it was giving his ass a little squeeze, and Steve couldn’t stop himself from barking a laugh at the blunt move. Both hands eventually settled on his belt, pulling Steve flush against the suit. “I am inclined to quote Twilight on you…” Tony said, gradually moving backwards, “…which, in itself shows how messed up I am at the moment.”

Steve laughed again and pressed his forehead against the helmet, looking straight into Iron Man’s eyes. “I’m so sorry, Tony,” he whispered, not sure if Tony could even hear him over the loud wind. Together they stepped over the ramp, falling head-first into open air, and for a few seconds, they were in free-fall—and in Tony’s arms, it was almost like being completely weightless.

He found himself whooping before he could think about it, and after a second or two, the beautiful sound of Iron Man’s distorted voice joined him.

 

 

* * *

 

 

It didn’t come as a surprise to Steve, how much they all clicked on the field once hell broke loose on New York. Natasha, Clint and Steve had already worked together dozens of times and they knew how the others operated. It was different for the two of them, of course, they were in complete sync with each other, but whenever he saw them acting out another maneuver, he was able to take over without them ever saying a word about it.

Hulk and Thor did their own thing, mostly. Thor had his own personal agenda with Loki and Hulk wasn’t used to paying attention to various team members at a time. But they were there when it counted, and all in all, that was what mattered right then.

As for Tony—it was so easy to picture it. How good they could be together. How good they already were. And while the city around him started to crumble, he could always be sure that, whenever he looked skywards, Tony would be there, shooting at their enemies from afar.

That was until he suddenly gave his thrusters full speed, and the next thing Steve knew, he carried a nuclear bomb on his back.

“Tony,” he whispered, numbly following the far away figure with his eyes. He didn’t know what to say; if there was anything to say.

“Steve,” Tony answered after a long minute, his voice strained and a heavy sigh crashing through the coms. “Nothing’s ever as simple as you expect, is it?”

“Don’t,” he pleaded, hating the weakness in his voice, because he could still remember being on the other side of that particular conversation. Knowing what you did to the person you loved only made it harder, he knew, but he was drenched in cold dread; his heart at once pounding and frozen in fear and he couldn’t stop himself from saying it again. Don’t. Don’t do it.

Tony didn’t answer as he pushed through the portal. He still heard him breathing for a second, then, there was a white noise, followed by nothing.

There was nothing.

“He’s gone,” Thor said beside him, his voice layered and Steve felt himself gasp, his vision blurring. A roar of emotion engulfed his chest. At once, his skin was burning and reality drowned out, leaving nothing but hysterical shrieking in his head. He couldn’t feel—he couldn’t feel because he felt so much. Because he felt everything and nothing. He was lambasted with loss and sorrow.

From the very start, from the moment he had awoken in this century, months before they even met, Tony had been the only true constant in his life.

And now he was gone.

“Close it,” he demanded, the words choked out as a sob seized his shoulders. As he frantically searched for something to hold onto as the world once again yanked the carpet from under his feet.

“Steve?” Natasha asked over the comm, and if he hadn’t known her so long, he wouldn’t have heard the little hitch in her voice.

There was no hope. There was nothing at all. He felt silence settling all around him.

“Do it.”

The beam of light that went straight through the clouds into the sky intensified. There was a surge going through the circle and then the beam was gone. For a moment, Steve watched the gap between the worlds become smaller, before he had to look away.

He didn’t notice the change in Thor’s posture until there was a loud shout of triumph at his ear. His eyes snapped upwards once again, just in time to see the streak of red and gold rushing towards earth again. 

The pavement felt heavy under his boots, and the sun all but blinded him. He ran until his surroundings melted into a shapeless blur.

He stepped closer to where Hulk was still cradling Iron Man in his giant hands like a rag doll. There had never been a more deafening silence. Sound faded, leaving only a high-pitched buzzing. Steve’s head grew light, his legs buckling, and the shield in his hand toppled heavily to the ground. His senses were assaulted with a thousand wild distractions, and the ground spun too quickly for him to regain balance.

He reached for the faceplate, and when he revealed Tony’s lifeless face, his legs failed him completely.

“Is he—” Thor supplied, looking down quickly. The scent of tears hit the air, but Steve honestly didn’t know who’d shed them. He glanced up slowly, eyeing the grey clouds above him. He tried not to move, not trusting his muscles to budge or his eyes to keep the tears clamoring for freedom at bay. It no longer mattered. Let them see him cry rivers. Cry oceans. Tears were nothing. Just another word that had lost its meaning.

And then there was the sound of a booming roar and Steve felt the body under his hand jerk. When he looked down, his own eyes bore straight into deep, brown ones, and then, because he couldn’t wait a second longer, he bent down and kissed Tony.

An electric shock speared through his body the second their lips touched. It was warmth not unlike the moment the serum had surged through his veins, and yet unlike anything he’d ever felt before—a fiery heat ripping through every cell of his body.

When he pulled back he felt tired eyes soaking him in. “What just happened,” Tony asked with a gasping breath, reaching for him.

“We did it,” Steve answered, his fingers weaving through Tony’s sweaty black hair. “We won.” Tony ducked deeper into Steve’s arms and the intensity of the movement was enough to cripple any man.

Eventually, the shaking of his body stopped and he looked at him. Really looked at him. The shock in his eyes wavered before fading entirely. Fading in favor of something Steve had never seen on Tony’s face before. As though it took that moment—it took falling through the sky—for the insecure man in his arms to finally, finally understand he wasn’t alone.

Tony looked at him with awe and wonder. Now that he finally understood what it felt like to be touched. To be loved.

“I love you,” Steve whispered hoarsely, not minding Thor or Bruce to hear it, not minding anything at all, besides the man at his side. Tony nodded, barreling into his arms once more, wrapping himself around Steve. His face pressed against the torn star at his chest, his hands everywhere. He clung to him and Steve held on, so the world couldn’t pry Tony away again.

There was still so much left unsaid, yet in that moment, Tony was his. Entirely his.

In that fragile moment they belonged to each other.

Chapter Text

Tony

 

His bedroom was disturbingly quiet. During those last days, there had always been sound. The noises of hundreds of construction sites all around the city, the sounds of renewal and recreating, but also weeps of goodbye and loss.

Today though—today the city was thoroughly quiet, a minute’s silence stretching into hours for every single victim.

Even before the invasion, when Stark Tower had still been heavily under construction itself, there had been Steve’s breathing from his makeshift bed at the other side of the penthouse. The sound of pencil on paper, creaks and cricks and some indication to give away the fact that, yes, someone other than Tony lived here.

There was none of that now. Steve and the twin agents had gone to DC to file in their mission reports and debrief with Fury about whatever had made SHIELD fire a fucking nuke at New York.

With Steve gone, there was nothing left to do but study the ceiling, and listen to nothing.

He would come back for him. He had said as much, right?

Silence.

God, could silence kill.

Tony knew from experience that the Earth could never truly be silent. Even in the quietest part of night, something stirred and created sound. An electric buzzing within a power cable, the whirring of a thousand little cogwheels, the pulses of magnetic fields all around—there was always something. Something to remind the world that it was still turning.

But right here—right now? The silence was deafening.

Nothing should be this silent. Silence was where the dead lived, and he hadn’t died, had he?

He tried to concentrate on brighter things. Like Steve’s ass in the Captain America uniform. Or Steve’s shoulders… his waist, his groin, his thighs—really, it didn’t matter… Steve in the uniform was one of if not the sexiest thing Tony had ever seen in his life. Even if the idiot had been lying to him since the moment they met. Tony was only human, and he wasn’t ashamed to admit that he’d nearly caved in the moment Steve had first stepped up in the damn uniform. And the way he’d looked at him the whole time… with these huge sad eyes. If Tony was really honest with himself—he had been playing a losing game from the start. Trying to cut Steve out of his life had felt like cutting off a part of his body.

It had certainly not stopped him from letting Steve wallow in his guilt for as long as possible, though. The fucker damn well deserved it.

Steve Rowan. God he’d been so stupid. That was probably what had angered him most. That he hadn’t seen it. That SHIELD had been able to trick him like that. He’d known that there was more to Steve than met the eye. He was obviously so much more than just a soldier, and certainly no personal assistant material. He was way too sassy for that, and—honestly—way too stubborn and short-tempered. Tony had known all that, and yet… he’d been too close and too much in love to see it.

And Steve hadn’t told him. All this damn time and he hadn’t deemed it necessary to…

Tony sighed and turned on his stomach, pressing his face into the pillow underneath. It was stupid to think about it any longer. They couldn’t change the past, and Steve loved him. Really loved him. He’d made a mistake, a huge damn mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. He was genuinely sorry, and Tony might not be the most mature person on the planet, but he was able to forgive when it counted.

Did he trust Steve? Maybe not yet. But he would, eventually. They would overcome this, and they would move on.

Steve only had to come back.

The minutes stretched endlessly and he felt himself drifting off again…

After having come so far, there was a certain measure of frustration in the knowledge that something like an inter-dimensional portal had had the power to unmake him like that. But he couldn’t help himself. His mind turned itself over with thought after thought of what might have happened if he hadn’t made it out in time. And he couldn’t rest. He needed rest, but he just couldn’t.

When he closed his eyes the scene often remained the same. He’d memorized the way he’d flown the nuke into the city. As far as his weak eyes could stretch, he saw it in the plane of his mind: the vast space, the stars, and the fear of an endless fall.

Tony sighed heavily and lowered his head, resignation shuddering through his body. He feared how his mind might wander if he allowed it to sleep. Without Steve here to talk with him, what might happen when he shut himself down?

What would he dream?

Perhaps, had he cared more, he would have thought it strange that he could still feel so fatigued after nearly dying—again. Before Afghanistan, before the arc reactor, he’d lived for adrenaline. Adrenaline had been his only power source, such to the point where he didn’t even remember drowsiness or exhaustion any longer. Even afterwards, the threat of Obadiah and Vanko had prevented exhaustion. The simple knowledge—that if he succumbed to his physical limitations, people would get hurt—had been enough to keep him wide awake. He’d known that then, and thus, even tired, he hadn’t slept more than was absolutely necessary.

Now, though, now that he’d been cured, now that the threat of alien armies and trickster Gods was gone, he felt himself drifting away against his own will.

Sleep didn’t care about nightmares. Sleep didn’t care that he would soon scream himself awake. It came to him without bias, and took him away in a matter of minutes…

The dream was a lot like a phantom pain. The flashbacks were fragmented, and without logic.

 

Sharp pinpricks scratch at his chest. His heart aches with insistent pangs that only grow stronger, but he ignores it. Ignores the pain just as he ignores the hopeless tone JARVIS has taken on lately.

There is a distant figure mauling some innocent punching bag. Blond hair, muscled back—handsome, sure, but clearly uninterested. He can live with that—he is Tony Stark. He’s been turned down before, not often, but it’s not exactly big news either.

It’s the same guy at the party, and he is simultaneously ignoring and watching him. It’s pretty easy to figure that out once you realize how his eyes have a different expression than the rest of his face—always so full of purpose while his smile remains completely impersonal.

He says his name is Steve. He lies about his last name.

Huge blue eyes stare into a thousand flashlights, and there is a first genuine smile as Tony tries to make him relax with some joke at Pepper’s expanse.

Tony thinks he could get used to Steve’s smiles.

Steve stands outside of his workshop, looking for all the world like he is staring right at him—which, in retrospect, he had… and Tony was a damned fool for not noticing it back then.

There are days full of warm words and cautious touches. He feels the echoes of emotional relief gripping every part of his tired and worn body.

Drowning his sorrow in alcohol has always been his best and worst way to deal with pain. He remembers forgetting the warm body pressed against him that night, which was a strange experience in itself—but the memories are suddenly back in living color. He remembers moving against Steve, hot breaths against even hotter skin. He also remembers falling in love then—and this, he’d never really forgotten…

It’s an odd mixture: A flood of words and reassurances, a dozen private smiles and lingering touches are coupled with an evanescent pain, as his body accepts the new reactor. He thinks it’s probably fate that Vibranium was the only thing that could’ve saved him.

Life, as it turns out, is full of low points. In his sleep, he tries to hold on to the easy days for as long as he can, before reality begins pounding against the walls protecting him. The phantom pain changes into one of betrayal and hurt, but it’s not able to fully darken the light that rushes through his veins: a sudden knowledge, deep inside him where his doubts and insecurities are only a distant echo. Steve was… is… always at his side, always there, a constant presence.

And every sequence flashing before his eyes is only there to sharpen a simple truth he never had the strength to say out loud.

He isn’t alone. And he is loved.

Steve’s smile fades, but it feels like he is still here. Then there is a nuke, then darkness, then nothing. He is falling and he isn’t sure where he’ll be landing—if he’ll be landing. Once again, he is drifting into nothingness.

 

That was, until, his alarm clock’s shrill tone pierced the quiet twice.

One.

Two.

And Tony shot awake, panting and clawing at his own chest. He jerked violently. There was a quiet curse at his ear—someone must have turned the alarm clock off and it took him a moment to realize that there was a hand on his chest, too.

“Easy,” came the quiet murmur. The mattress dipped and suddenly he was surrounded by a strong pair of arms. He felt Steve’s chest against his, felt him steadily inhaling and exhaling and tried to copy the movement. “Breathe. You’re here. You made it out. You’re here. Breathe.” The mantra was an endless, soothing wave and Tony soon found himself complying.

“I’m sorry,” Steve whispered, the arc reactor bathing his face in a soothing blue light. “I should’ve been here sooner.”

“JARVIS might have indicated…” Tony wheezed, gulping for breath. “…that I suffer from panic attacks.”

Steve nodded against his forehead, his lips brushing against his sweaty skin. “I know, he told me. That’s why I came back early.”

Tony shook his head and pulled back, but only slightly. “He shouldn’t have,” he mumbled, clawing at Steve’s sweatshirt, drawing him in. “You didn’t need to hurry.” Steve probably knew it was a big fat lie, but he needed to say it anyway.

“I wanted to.” His breath ghosted over Tony’s neck and he could feel himself shivering. “I missed you.” Steve bent down to kiss his cheek.

His eyes danced across Tony’s face, questioning for a second, before his hands began to travel down his throat and every molecule in Tony’s body fell perfectly still. It had been too long since Steve had touched him. Raw emotion rolled through his chest and threatened to burst through his lips in thankful sobs of mutual adoration and relief. He had needed Steve to be here, needed to talk to someone, needed to feel his skin against Steve’s, and here he was.

Steve’s fingers explored with cautious curiosity, a thumb running along his naked chest, skimming his neck and inspiring trails of gooseflesh.

“Mmm,” Tony murmured, eyes falling shut. Fingertips explored his cheeks, rubbed along his lips, briefly brushed over his brows before rolling lightly over his nose. Tony wanted to laugh at that, but then Steve tunneled a single hand through his hair, and massaged his head with such tenderness, he nearly came apart.

“Are we doing this now?” Tony asked with a sly smile as he felt Steve’s other hand ghosting over the waistband of his briefs. “Cause if I’m having sex with Captain America, I should probably announce this somewhere, you know, maybe hold a little press conference…” Tony breathed against Steve’s neck, slowly rocking up and down against his body.

Steve huffed, pressing up against him. “That’s what’s getting you off now? The Captain America part? I vaguely recall you shouting at me for this.”

“What can I say?” Tony grinned deviously. “When I found out, I didn’t know whether to scream at you or jump your bones right then and there.”

“Would’ve preferred the latter.” His hand found Tony’s chin, tipping his head upward to finally kiss him. God, he’d missed kissing Steve.

“I’ve wanted you for so long—it’s getting ridiculous that we haven’t done this yet. I feel cheated by life,” Tony gasped into his mouth, coaxing his arms to link behind his neck.

Steve nodded, his fingers carding through his hair. “Mutual,” he moaned, arching against him. “What do we—I mean… Do you want to…”

“Yes. Whatever,” Tony started, licking down his neck. “Whatever you want. Seriously. You say jump, I say how high.”

“What’s with all the jumping?”

Tony chuckled. “I have no idea. I think my brain got stuck or something. What do you want, Steve? Tell me.”

He furrowed his brows. “I don’t know…”

“You wanna fuck me? I’d love that. Or I’ll fuck you. Or we can finish off like this, too, if you want. I’m not going anywhere Steve. You’re stuck with me for as long as you’ll have me…”

“Forever,” Steve breathed without hesitance.

“Yeah,” Tony said, his voice reverent. “Point is—we have time. We can take this slow if you want. I could blow you, or we jerk each other off. Really, I don’t care what we do, as long as I get to touch you in an incredibly inappropriate way.”

“I want that,” Steve admitted with a faint blush. “All of that. And I can wait, too, but if you want, I’d like to have you…”

“Then have me,” Tony replied instantly. They kissed, slowly, breathing each other in. Then, like a second thought, he leaned back, arching an eyebrow and said, “but with having me you mean fucking me, right? Just so we’re on the same page here.”

Steve laughed, laying his forehead against Tony’s. “Making love to you is too old-fashioned, huh?”

Tony snorted. “Whatever works for you, buddy.”

“Let me make love to you, then,” Steve whispered, leaning down.

Tony nodded against his lips, nipping at them. Then he pulled back again, shaking his head. “Nope, you know what? Way too sappy. I feel like there need to be butterflies and little fairies all around us now. You got rose pedals somewhere, Steve? And candles, there should definitely be candles. In fact, Pepper knows this famous string quartet who could play Ode to Joy while you fu—”

Steve clamped a hand over Tony’s mouth, rolling his eyes at him. “You’re borderline crazy, you know that?”

Tony laughed, licking his palm until he removed it again. “Yeah, and you were well aware, Miss Congeniality. You probably have a little filing box about all of my character defects.”

Steve cleared his throat, his eyes darting away for a second. “I have not.”

He totally had. Interesting. Tony leaned back, studying Steve. There was a thought. “So… all that stuff you memorized about me before the mission…”

“Tony.”

“…did you watch my sex tapes, too? Did you look at my naked body for educational reasons? Did you make notes? Strategic sex plans? Orgasm charts?” He laughed loudly as Steve tackled him into the mattress.

“Steve…” he wheezed. “Tell me.”

“I’ve seen the videos,” he admitted. “Once. But I’d rather not think about you having sex with someone else right now.”

“Did you like them?”

“Tony, come on,” Steve whispered, and suddenly there was a hand on his cock and Jesus, he hadn’t even realized that Steve had pulled down his briefs. Captain Stealthhead indeed. “Let me have this.”

It felt so real. Steve’s scent wafted into his nostrils. Steve’s hand pumped and squeezed, loving him base to tip. It had been so long since he’d been touched—so damn long since another person’s hand had curled around his dick. God, he’d completely forgotten what this felt like.

“Let me remind you,” Steve whispered. He realized then that he’d been muttering to himself, but couldn’t find the power to stop—Steve’s lips were hot on his neck, dotting his skin with sweet kisses and Tony’s insides split with light purer than the arc reactor’s. God, the strokes of Steve’s hand… he hadn't felt this in so long…

“Steve…”

“I’m here,” he promised. His voice sounded wrecked and Tony hadn’t even touched him yet. “I’m always gonna be here.”

Honestly, sex was something he hadn’t given much thought to within the last year—until some stubborn military guy had tumbled into his world—and he felt surge of nervousness going through him. It was completely ridiculous, of course—Pepper would probably die laughing right now—but it was true, and there was little he could do about it. Still, no matter how long it had been for him, it had probably been way longer for Steve. He had to be careful, even when all he wanted to do was shove down on Steve’s dick and remember what being alive truly felt like.

But he understood the significance of this moment with perfect clarity. He was aware how long it had taken them to come this far. How he had nearly lost this. Because this was Steve with him: Steve’s skin beneath his fingers, Steve’s heart against his chest, and Steve’s eyes staring into his. Steve—Rowan or Rogers—had been with him every step of the way, and the realization was enough to choke him with awe.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” he whispered and laid his hand on Steve’s arm to stop the movement on his dick. As amazing as it felt, he wanted their first time to be something more special than a handjob.

“I can’t either,” Steve replied honestly, and—understanding Tony’s gesture—raised his arms high. Tony took the cue and drew first the SHIELD issued sweatshirt and then the white t-shirt over Steve’s head.

Fumbling fingers reached for Steve’s fly. It took half a second for Tony to realize Steve was attempting to undress himself, his body shaking nearly as hard as his. With a soft smile, he took his wrists in his hand and lifted them to his mouth, pressing a gentle kiss on each palm. “Let me worry about that,” he said.

“Sorry. I don’t really know what to do,” Steve admitted. “I’ve never… not with a man—”

Tony shook his head. “None of that now. Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted this?” He opened the buttons of Steve’s jeans, shoving them and his briefs down in one go. He allowed himself a glance downwards, very much appreciating what he saw there, before he looked back into those insecure blue eyes.

Steve laughed a bit, nervously. “That’s exactly my point. I have all these fantasies to live up to, and the last and only time I had sex, I was twenty. I’m a centenarian now.”

Tony snickered. “Hardly.”

“Close enough.”

“Seriously, Steve. What do you have to worry about?” He asked, while Steve finally kicked off his jeans and closed the space between them. Steve’s naked flesh was against his and… Fuck. His cock had been hard since he’d realized he was in Steve’s arms and now with it between their bodies, rubbing against Steve’s own erection—he could barely reign himself in.

“I want to be good for you,” Steve whispered. “I want you to enjoy this…”

“Quit worrying,” Tony murmured, running his hands up and down Steve’s arms. “I love you. I do. That’s not something I say for laughs.”

Worry lines receded, but not completely. “I know that. Me neither.”

Tony nodded, before leaning in and plundering Steve’s mouth with his. If life had taught him one lesson, then it was that there was little that could not be proven with a test run, and the only way he knew to erase Steve’s fears was to lay them bare.

A few minutes later, Steve’s argument had vanished completely, replaced with an eager mouth and wandering hands that roamed Tony’s body without reserve. Eventually, Steve hissed and broke away, breathing hard. “Tony…”

Tony panted. “Yeah. Need you… now.”

Steve nodded jerkily, and in a blink, he had Tony on his back, his body laying between Tony’s legs, his cock nudging against Tony’s as his mouth rained kisses on his neck. “You’re so beautiful,” Steve whispered, lips dancing across Tony’s goatee, dropping a kiss on his mouth before traveling down his throat. For a moment, he felt cautious fingers ghosting over the casing of the arc reactor and was surprised how much he actually enjoyed it.

Maybe he already trusted Steve after all.

“Tell me about the mission,” he whispered.

Steve groaned irritably. “What? Now?

“I don’t… I keep thinking about it.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore, Tony. I’m here now.”

He made a face at him. “I know you are. I forced JARVIS to tell me all he knew, anyway. By the way, I know about the shield. Thought very much appreciated. But I also know you kind of hated me, and I just…” He sighed. “I don’t want to hear what kind of bullshit-information SHIELD gave you on me—that doesn’t matter. I just—I need to know.”

His stomach twisted at the thought of Steve hating his guts, but he didn’t want to focus on the negatives now. Rather, he hooked his attention on something that would keep the mood between them light. “Why don’t you start with that birthday-hickey?” He let his hips jerk forward so the length of his cock slid against Steve’s. Jesus, his super soldier body was nothing but smooth heat and hard muscle, and it was his to explore, his for the moment, at least.

“Oh God,” Steve moaned, arching against him. His hands found Tony’s forearms, fingers digging, his teeth playing with his lower lip. “Do that again.”

Tony grinned. Now he felt a bit more like himself. A bit of swagger returned, and he was damn glad to see it again. “Do what?” he replied, sliding his cock against Steve again. “That?”

Yes.”

Tony complied, pushing against Steve until they were both gasping. “Tell me,” he remembered, shoving his left hands sideways, blindly opening the drawer of his nightstand, and scanning the items there until he found what he was looking for.

He felt Steve tremble a little as he put the bottle of lube in his hand. Arching a questioning eyebrow, Tony held the condom up between their faces.

Steve inspected the foil package for a second. “Can’t get diseases,” he breathed, shrugging.

“Right.” He let the condom drop unceremoniously to the mattress. “Fine by me,” he decided, a little whimper tearing over his lips as Steve squeezed his balls before curling his hand around his cock once more, taking a slow rhythm. “Steve, tell me,” he whined.

Steve sighed deeply. “I had been unfrozen for about two weeks when I first saw you on the news. It was the press conference where you made the Iron Man announcement. SHIELD went completely crazy afterwards. I never heard Fury swear like that ever since…”

He heard the lid pop open, followed by a cautionary prodding at his entrance. “This all right?” Steve whispered, hooking an arm under Tony’s left knee and burying his face in the crook of his neck. “You feel so good.”

Tony chuckled, rubbing his cheek against Steve’s. “You usually push inside someone before saying that.”

Steve grinned against him, his hand giving Tony’s cock a few more lazy strokes. His hips kept moving in small, shallow thrusts against his leg and yeah okay… that did feel good. In fact, that felt fucking spectacular.

“I got the assignment a month later. They told me your behavior was off and that they wanted someone at your side to keep an eye on you.”

Tony gave a low snort at this, which promptly turned into a long drawn-out moan, as Steve pushed a finger into him and fuck—that was weird. He hadn’t taken it up the ass in so long that he had forgotten how weird it felt at first. “Off—how?” he choked out.

Steve’s finger slipped into him, in and out, settling over his entrance, testing him with a soft tap before dipping in again. When Tony gave him a warm gasp, he seized permission and began massaging him slowly.

“You settled things. First, the new foundations, reviving Stark Expo, then Pepper… They weren’t sure where you were going with this. I think Fury was actually worried about you.”

Tony groaned as a second finger entered him soon after. Steve started to scissor in slow sensual movements, and he could barely make a straight thought anymore. “Stop,” he gasped, as Steve’s other hand wandered towards his cock again. “I’m too close. Wanna feel you first…”

“So beautiful,” Steve murmured, running his now free hand up Tony’s arm until their palms were pressed together, their fingers entwining. He felt reawakened, and that wasn’t even covering it. He was reborn, tumbling into a world he’d forgotten even existed. Steve held him so tightly, pushing back inside him, and he would whine every time Steve dragged his fingers out were it not for the overwhelming bliss of him sinking back home.

“I forgot,” Tony whispered, as pleasure started to really surge through his body. “I forgot what this… feels like.”

“Mmm,” Steve replied, kissing his cheek before nuzzling along his chin. Tony felt his hole hug him, stretched open and welcoming, and he knew Steve could feel it, too. “Tell me.”

“Tell you,” he repeated dazedly. His free hand found Steve’s cheek, and he wasted no time sucking Tony’s finger between his lips. “I feel… open.”

“In a good way?” Steve asked, nibbling softly on the fingertip. His cock kept lazily slipping against Tony’s leg and the quiet gasps he breathed against his neck were surely the best sound in the whole damn world. Steve’s teeth came down gently on his finger, smiling when Tony smiled up at him. “Tell me this is good, Tony.”

At that, Tony bit his lip and leaned up, pressing his mouth to Steve’s as he started to fuck himself on his fingers. It wasn’t overly hard, but quicker, and signaling the burn he knew Steve had to feel too. “It’s great, but I want more,” he pleaded.

As the third finger entered and Steve—deliberately or not—pushed them straight against his prostate, Tony arched, and embarrassing sounds clawed at his throat. “Fuck,” he groaned. “Oh, God, Steve, tell me, I can’t—just tell me something.”

“I never hated you,” Steve said and the obvious strain in his voice actually calmed Tony down a bit. “Sure, you made it easy for me not to like you right away, but I never… Pepper once told me that she and Rhodey and Happy all had their reasons why they stuck with you and that I needed to find my own one, if I wanted to.”

Steve’s thrusts got more insistent and he kept spreading his fingers, kept rocking Tony’s whole body into the movement until he couldn’t do anything else but hold onto him. “Did you?” he asked after a moment and good God, Steve’s mouth was everywhere, exploring his chest, marking his skin, and teasing his nipples with his tongue.

“Yeah,” Steve murmured. He leaned up and pressed his forehead against Tony’s again. His eyes were a clear lake, full of wonders and unknown territories and it was his to discover, his to take apart. “You’re my reason,” he declared softly. “Everything you are, all of the things you try to hide, or those you openly show—you are the only reason I ever needed.”

Tony could’ve come then, and was only barely holding on. He felt waves of torn bliss crash over him as Steve’s fingers pushed into him one last time, before he drew them away. He licked his lips hungrily and spread his thighs as Steve settled between them.

“I love you,” Tony swore ardently, his breathing hitched.

“I love you, too.” The look Steve gave him was nothing short of beautiful. His chest was heaving, and his gaze peeled back layers without even trying. Then, he was pushing into Tony and for a second, everything stopped.

Tony had always known—with deep clarity—that there were only a few moments in life that had the potential to redefine a human being—and this was one of them. After so many years of searching, after he had been tortured, after his body had nearly withered away… the simple fact that having someone close like that had the power to erase decades of pain was taking his breath away.

Steve was big, so wonderfully big, his cock filling him in ways he hadn’t thought possible, and Tony tried to hold him inside, clenching and gripping around him, sucking him as deep inside him as he could fit.

“Oh God,” Steve hissed, bracing his hands on each side of Tony’s head. “Tony… Oh my God.”

Tony groaned, mimicking Steve’s rhythm. “Fuck, Steve, this is gonna be over real quick…”

Steve nodded and bent down to kiss his lips, his hands now cradling his hair. He hesitantly sped up the pace of his thrusts, his eyes drinking in every reaction flashing over Tony’s face.

His balls tightened as he approached the verge of climax, but he didn’t want to come yet. He wanted to see Steve tumble over first. He wanted to watch pleasure wrap around him and make him tremble until he felt nothing at all except Tony’s heat. Until all his pain and the loss of seventy years were a blink in the past and he had nothing left but now.

“I love you so much,” Steve whispered against his lips, thrusting harder, needier. His eyes were wide and his mouth formed a perfect little circle, one Tony couldn’t keep from kissing. His strokes became even faster and Tony found himself moaning with every hit of his prostate.

“Fuck,” he groaned, twisting a hand in the sheets.

“You’re close, right?” Steve asked above him, his gaze feral, and Tony nodded wildly, hips bucking, because close was an understatement—he was barely grasping the lifeline.

“Your cock is amazing, you’re amazing… I’m so fucking into this, I wasn’t sure, it’s been so long, but I am, God, I am…”

Steve kissed him and he responded desperately, scratching his lips with his teeth, tongue wrapping around his and releasing small little gasps into Steve’s mouth. One hand once again linked with his, while the other wandered down to Tony’s cock to tease his slick flesh. He was right on the edge; every hard thrust was shoved back, and Steve’s cock hit him so brutally perfect, he was about to cry. It built on and on and emerged into a powerful crescendo he needed to catch. He needed…

St-Steve,” he groaned against his lips, and then he was gone. He felt his hole tighten, felt come spurting out of his cock, his body breaking down into endless tremors. He forced his eyes to stay open through climax and was rewarded only a second later. Above him, Steve gasped, his eyes widened, his body resisting for a moment and demanding it all at once, and then he was gone, too. Tony watched the pleasure on Steve’s beautiful face and etched it safely into his memory.

After a moment, Steve buried his face in the crook of Tony’s neck. He cried out and sank his teeth into his skin, sucking it between his lips. Every single one of his muscles contracted, shuddering hard as he spilled himself inside Tony.

He heard his name, but he didn’t answer it. He was too overwhelmed, too far gone to form words. Instead, he just petted Steve’s hair, and when he felt coherent again, he started to whisper sweet nothings into his ear, telling him how good he had been, and how good Tony would be for him—always and forever for him.

There were a few minutes of content silence, then, before he heard Steve mumbling something against his neck, and suddenly his body trembled hard above him.

“What? Steve?” Tony asked and tried to get a look on Steve’s face.

Steve’s whole body shuddered with laughter as he leaned up. “I said: There you have your birthday-hickey.” He put his tongue down on his neck again, licking the undoubtedly colorful skin there.

Tony chuckled. “Well, I hope it matches my suit for the big I had sex with Captain America press conference.”

Steve grinned, moving his body up a little, and sweet baby Jesus, he was hard again, wasn’t he? Hard and still very much in Tony’s ass. How was that even fair?

“If it doesn’t,” Steve said with a smug smile, and started to move his hips a little. “I can always try again.”

Tony groaned with the overstimulation but couldn’t have stopped his body from automatically moving with Steve even if he wanted to. He’d never be able to get it up again so quickly, but damn if that’d stop him.

This time around, they didn’t break eye contact once, and Tony was sure, so sure, that this was the path he’d been meant to go all along. Now, the ground under his feet was a blank slate and it only waited for new footsteps.

The ones they would take together.

And when they finally collapsed into each other’s arms, content and very much in love, the world was remade.

And as long as he lived, he would never take Steve for granted.

Chapter Text

Steve

 

Tony had a strange contemplative look on him as the motorcycle came to a halt. Steve didn’t really know the reason for his sudden brooding—all in all, the last days had been a success. It hadn’t always been pretty, sure, some questions the committee had thrown at them had hit too close to home, and some had been downright degrading, but in Steve’s opinion, the outcome really made up for their trouble.

It was somehow strange to think that, only a little over five days ago, Steve had been alone here, in his old apartment in DC. He hadn’t known where he stood with Tony, then, and he’d been so damn alone.

Now Tony was pressed at his back, his fingers firmly buried in Steve’s leather jacket. When Steve turned around to look at him, the irritation on his face vanished in favor of a warm little smile that Steve still couldn’t quite believe was directed at him. And while he would never allow himself to forget the pain that his heedless actions had put Tony through, he similarly wouldn’t dismiss the way that had brought them here.

Steve had hoped, of course, but even now, his heart all but melted every time he thought about how lucky he was. Every time he considered the sheer wonder behind Tony’s presence next to him, right in this moment.

It was strange, realizing how much a single year could change a man. Steve had known there were times and situations that demanded a certain willingness to adapt, and to change. It had happened with the serum, and it had happened again after seventy years in the ice. It had all changed him—and for the better, he hoped—but nothing had made his complete inner self shift like Tony. Of course, the last year had changed Tony, too. They had come from places that couldn’t be any more different. But somewhere in the middle, they had met, linked, and were now steadily walking forward.

However, when Steve stood up and pulled Tony with him, the irritation was already back on his face.

He sighed and tossed Steve a quick glance. “It’s nothing,” he said, and gestured impatiently in the direction of the stairwell.

Steve rolled his eyes at him, but decided to indulge him for the moment. “Of course,” he said walking up the stairs and tapping his fingers on the railing. Tony followed quietly.

“I should warn you,” Steve added after a moment of fiddling with the keys, obviously once again jarring Tony out of his thoughts. “I didn’t have much time to decorate. I don’t have a TV, and the bed is a one man standard, so if you were expecting—”

Tony smiled comfortingly and placed a hand over his. “It’s fine, Steve.”

“You sure?” Steve grinned at him, as he opened the door. “This could be a rude awakening for you. Last chance. We can still book the Ritz and all…”

“Very funny,” Tony said with a huff. “You’re here. I’m here. Color my expectations met.”

Steve paused at that to lean in and press a little kiss to Tony’s lips. “This feels so surreal,” he admitted, leaning back to brush another kiss over his forehead. “I never thought I’d be here with you. Never thought you’d…” Forgive me. He couldn’t say it, because he didn’t know if Tony had actually forgiven him yet.

“I know. Me, either.” Tony sighed, and paused for a second as he stepped over the threshold. “Can we… just not talk about all the serious stuff tonight? I know you’re guilt-ridden and I know we still have a lot to go through. Hell, we have an entire year to go through, and just thinking about it makes me really tired and… I just… It’s been a really long day.”

There was a beat of silence, and eventually, Steve nodded his agreement. “Yeah,” he replied. “Of course. Come on. I’ll give you the not-so-grand tour.”

As Steve walked Tony through the three rooms of his apartment, for which Tony hardly seemed to pay attention as he took his handbag and placed it at a nearby counter.

“I planned to buy a new bed, sometime,” he told Tony as they briefly peeked in to the bedroom. “I know how much you love having extra room for sleeping…” The words somehow caught in his throat and he glanced down. They hadn’t actually… been with each other… after their first night together in New York. The hearings had been too nerve-wracking and emotionally draining that on most nights, they’d simply fallen into bed and slept right away.

And no matter how much love there was between them, Steve saw the tiredness in Tony’s eyes and knew tonight wouldn’t be any different.

Tony offered a little chuckle, as he first looked at the bed, and then up at Steve. “I prefer big beds, because you’re a bed hog, Rogers.”

Steve scoffed. “I’m not. You do like ‘em sizey, that’s all.”

Tony snorted loudly. “You could say that.” He gave the place another once-over and shrugged. “It’s, uh… nice, or… nicer than I thought, you know, for a SHIELD apartment. But it seems a bit small for you.”

Steve shrugged, brushing past Tony as he headed for the fridge. “It was okay when it was just me…” he started, and scratched his neck, pointedly looking down at the contents, which… well, he had a few bottles of water, some cheese, and a carton of noodles that probably weren’t edible anymore.

Tony walked up behind him, and leaned down to hug Steve’s crouching form. “Good thing it’s not just you anymore, huh?” he murmured and kissed his neck. He drew quiet for a moment, and when he spoke up again, his voice had a nervous edge to it. “I don’t intend to stay in DC for much longer. There’s a whole tower and all waiting for me back home, so… if you got nothing better to do here…”

Tony was pointedly not phrasing it as a question, and he tried to sound noncommittal, like he didn’t much care what Steve was going to say either way. A few months ago, that would’ve stung. Bad. Now, Steve only felt a wave of fond exasperation rush through him. So that’s what Tony’s mood was about… like it was even a question if Steve wanted to come back with him.

For once, he decided not to indulge Tony in his little game, and instead opted for honesty. “I’d love to come back with you, if you’ll have me.”

Tony smiled against Steve’s back and nodded. He accepted one of the bottles Steve offered him and popped it open. “Another thing to talk about tomorrow, right?”

Steve closed the fridge. “Good thing we have the rest of our lives to work off that list of conversations we need to have.”

Tony’s smile grew at that, eyes glowing with something Steve couldn’t quite put a finger on. He tilted Steve’s chin down so that their eyes would meet. The kindness on his face was reassuring, but it still somehow felt like walking on eggshells. For everything that had happened between them only a few days earlier—the words Tony had thrown at him, and the furious conviction behind them—it still felt like Steve’s dream could collapse any second. That everything could fall back to how it was before. When it was just him, alone in this tiny apartment. Him, mad at himself and at the world in general. Before he even knew who Tony Stark was. Before Tony fell in love with him, and before Steve realized that this was the person he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. The man he nearly lost because of his own foolishness.

“Can you stop it?” Tony asked and pecked his cheek. “I can hear you thinking.”

Steve sighed and took a sip of water. “Sorry. What a day, huh?”

An ironic chuckle rumbled over Tony’s lips. “What a day doesn’t nearly cut it,” he retorted. “I don’t know what I expected, but if I never see another court room again it will be too soon.”

Steve reached up to cup his cheek, shivering a bit in content as Tony leaned into him.

“I just… hate being questioned and judged by people who I know lie their way through their whole damn life,” Tony said. “I mean, have you heard what Stern said about Bruce, that’s just—”

“I know. It’s over now.” Steve put his bottle on the counter and hugged Tony fully, pressing his chest against his. He swallowed hard, thinking about how to phrase his next question, as he gently caressed Tony’s back through his shirt. “If I promise that I’ll never lie to you again, would you believe me?”

Tony glanced sideways. He smiled but ultimately shook his head. “Everyone lies eventually, Steve. You just did it the wrong way around.”

He frowned. Did Tony really believe that? He knew he hadn’t exactly given him much proof of the contrary, but, still…

Tony gave him a hard look. “Okay, this is the last time I’m saying anything about any kind of goddamn mission today.” He took a deep breath. “You are probably gonna hurt me in a million different ways, Steve. I don’t say you’ll plan to, I don’t even say you’ll consciously do it, but that’s just how human beings are. We fuck up, we hurt each other, we try again. It’s certainly how I do it, and you’ll have to learn to accept that if you want to be with me. It doesn’t matter what you promise me now. We’re going to be working on this, together, but that doesn’t mean we automatically get a Happily Ever After.” He pressed his lips to Steve’s forehead reverently.

Steve pursed his lips, and he knew his eyes were somewhat fogging as he forced himself to nod in acceptance. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Tony. I’m so sorry.”

Tony’s eyes fell, and he drew him into a loving kiss. “No, don’t be. I didn’t mean it like that…”

The word barely had time to escape before Steve pulled Tony back down, tasting every inch of his being. The warm skin beneath his fingertips felt so real, as did the cloth of Tony’s dress suit, and the lingering scent of metal and coconut.

Right here, right now, it was just the two of them. The silky feel of Tony’s tongue caressing his, and the exploration of a mouth he’d gotten to know so well by now. Having love back up what he wanted was one of the most heartwarming things Steve had ever stumbled across, and he knew then that he would never give this up without one hell of a fight.

Not when he finally had Tony with him.

Steve had fully expected Tony to break every connection that had ever existed between them, and that he had instead chosen to try this again was more than he’d ever dared to dream of… and more than he deserved. The only thing he could do to amend what he’d done was to love Tony as wholly as he could.

“I’m sorry,” he sputtered between kisses. “I’m so sorry. I’m—”

“Don’t,” Tony gasped against his lips.

“I—”

Tony pulled back, laid both hands on Steve’s face and stared at him. “Are you listening to me? I don’t want to be sorry anymore. I don’t want you to be sorry. Not with what we have before us.”

Steve swallowed hard. “Neither do I.”

“Then don’t. Just… forgive yourself.”

Steve knew he was shaking. “Have you?”

Tony smiled. “I will. Believe me, I will.” It wasn’t the words he’d hoped to hear, obviously. He’d be lying if it didn’t sting a little, even though he knew he deserved it all. But the tone of Tony’s voice made his insides melt all within one heartbeat. It was the honesty that did it. Tony meant what he said, and one day, he would forgive him.

Steve smiled sadly, his eyes fluttering closed as he pressed his forehead in the crook of Tony’s neck.

Tony heaved a sigh against him, resting his cheek against a crown of golden hair. “You’re not a man to get over easily, Steve Rogers. Don’t know who I was trying to fool. All you had to do was punch a bag in a boxing club and my life changed all over. I know I said a few… not so nice things on the Helicarrier, but I…” He sighed. “I don’t want to see myself without you anymore. The last time literally almost killed me.”

Steve shook his head. “You won’t have to.”

He felt Tony grinning against his head. “Just so you know. I’m putting a lot on the wire here, soldier.”

“Very cute,” Steve said with a snort. It was. Then he leaned back to meet Tony’s eyes.

The air grew heavy for a few seconds, before Tony turned around, and looked over to the bed. “I think I’d like to stay in there for a couple of days… or weeks… if you don’t mind.”

“Exhausted?”

A tired smile spread across his lips, as he nodded. “And then some.”

“Me, too.” Steve tossed a sideways glance to the sofa. “It’d probably be more comfortable, if I—”

Tony held up a hand and shook his head with a rumble of amusement. “You didn’t actually think I’d say yes to that, did you?” he jested, tilting his head considerately. “Told you—the bed’s big enough. I’m just not really up to anything more right now.”

“Just let me hold you?” Steve asked with a heartfelt smile.

A heavy breath escaped Tony’s lips. “Yeah… I’d like that.”

Tony turned to the counter where he had abandoned the handbag. They changed clothes with military efficiency, and when they finally lay side by side, pressed together from head to toe, Tony drew very still, searching Steve’s eyes for… something, like he still had trouble to really place Steve. And… he did not blame him for that. With everything that had happened, Steve understood perfectly well that Tony needed time to come around to the idea that Steve had never pretended to be someone else… that the man Tony had fallen for hadn’t been part of the illusion.

“All right?” Steve asked quietly, as he rested his brows against Tony’s. Their breaths intermingled, and no matter how many times he experienced this—just having Tony close—he couldn’t get enough.

And it only got better. With every second Tony was with him, it only got better.

Tony blinked sleepily. Fingers laced—words and more than words between them—he squeezed Steve’s hand, and drew him even nearer. “All right.”

And with the way he looked at him then, like there was no place he’d rather be in this moment, Steve knew they would eventually pick up where they had left off, and start something new.

Something better.

But that was for tomorrow. Tonight it was just the two of them… and nothing in between.

 

 

* * *

 

 

4 months later

 

Like with all things in life, it took some effort to make their relationship work. That, Steve had known from the start. From the moment he had taken Tony’s file in his hands. From the moment their eyes had met in that boxing club an eternity ago. From the moment Tony had found out about his real identity. He’d known it wouldn’t be easy. And it wasn’t. On the good days, there was light banter, but there were also big fights to the point where they wouldn’t talk to each other for days. In the end, though, they always made up, and every moment spent together was laced with trust, friendship, and above all, love.

As with all things in life, there was no going back. Every step was set in stone, and there was only going forward.

Some days were easier than others, and some seemed to rightly break them. But then, there had always been some kind of battle to face. Some kind of enemy to defeat.

Just like today.

Another enemy to face together.

Steve ran out on the rooftop, and the door flew open without missing a beat. “Hey,” he called, as he jogged over to the landing platform.

“Hop and go, Cap. We’re missing all the fun already.”

Tony began to walk in his direction and gestured him near. “So,” he began conversationally, like they weren’t about to leave for a potential life-threatening mission. His faceplate was still up, and the trademark grin was on display as he looked down on Steve. Tony—as Steve had learned pretty fast—loved to loom over him whenever he was in the armor. Still, there was also a kind of domesticity behind Tony’s voice that still elevated Steve to levels he had trouble admitting even to himself. “Ready for another cat-and-mouse with the Mandarin?” Tony asked, as he pulled Steve flush against the suit.

Steve stepped on Iron Man’s boots and gripped the handles on the armor’s shoulder blades tight.

“With you? Always.”

A soft smile stretched over Tony’s face. As usual, he gave Steve’s ass a little tap, before he stretched both arms downward until they were up in the air.

And as they rushed over New York together, Steve felt peace settling within him. Peace he hadn’t thought this world still had to offer to someone like him. Peace he had been so sure had died with him in the ocean. However, now—now Tony was in his arms, his body pressed against his, he felt whole. With all his ephemeral nature and skittishness—Tony had given him peace.

And he had infused him with life.

This was a fresh beginning—the start of something new. A missing piece falling into place.

Between Natasha, Clint, Bruce, Thor, Tony and him, the Avengers certainly were a homecoming for the most unlikely people—but Steve knew, it filled them all with a sense of belonging for those who didn’t belong. Whatever would happen today, whatever the Mandarin decided to lay upon them next, they would face it together. Until then, they had each other.

In the end, that simple assurance was all that mattered.