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Staring into an Eclipse

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"In a way, staring into a computer screen is like staring into an eclipse. It's brilliant and you don't realize the damage until its too late."

Bruce Sterling

It was late. Tony was half asleep, having just returned from Taiwan. Happy had put him in the elevator – "or you'll fall asleep in the garage, boss," he'd said – but Tony was pretty sure he'd nodded off for a quick moment anyway. The elevator's speakers said, "Door closing," and that finally woke Tony up enough to leave it. He hadn't noticed arriving at his floor and the door opening beforehand.

He just wanted to go to bed. He hadn't slept for three days, and he was tired enough to risk nightmares.

Light coming from the kitchen stopped him. Who could be there . . . ?

Tony tightened his hold on the briefcase with the armour as he softly stepped in that direction.

"Tony? You're back?" Steve looked out from the kitchen, and for a moment Tony was lost.

Then he laughed, the briefcase falling from his hand.

Yeah. Steve. They'd started a team together. They lived together.

The Tower wasn't cold and alone anymore, a reminder of everything Tony had lost, even though he'd moved there instead of renovating the Mansion just for this purpose: to escape memories. That hadn't worked.

Inviting New Avengers to live there – inviting Steve – had.

Tony looked at him, tired. "Hi," he said.

Steve frowned. "You all right?" He gesticulated at the briefcase.

"Just tired," Tony said. "What time is it, anyway?"

"About 3 AM," Steve said. He picked the briefcase up.

Tony felt guilty for calling Happy at this hour, even though he knew Happy would have come anyway, to make sure he got home safely.

Moments later, Tony finally registered what Steve had just done, and he smiled against himself. Someone else held Tony's armour, and Tony wasn't scared, not even a bit, because it was Steve.

Steve was back in his life, and in this exhausted state just on the verge of sleep, Tony could admit what he didn't normally let himself think about: how much he'd missed it.

He was perfectly able to carry his own armour, but he was momentarily too glad Steve was there to try and argue.

"Why are you up?" he asked.

Steve shrugged. "Bad dreams," he admitted, turning into the direction of Tony's bedroom, sure Tony would follow.

He did.

"And my usual conversational partner was gone half around the world," Steve added playfully.

"I'm sorry," Tony said. If he knew Steve –

"Tony." Steve turned back to look at him, pulling him out of his thoughts. "I was joking."

Of course he was. No one needed Tony that much.

"But I do enjoy talking with you," Steve added, as if he read his mind. "Don't overthink it, genius." He said the word almost as a caress.

Tony shook his head. He wasn't – Steve wasn't making any sense, Tony decided.

He was so tired.

He wondered if he was getting old.

Steve opened the door to his bedroom and let him inside, put the briefcase down. "You're asleep on your feet, Tony. Go to bed."

Tony reached for him without thinking. "Okay," he said, his hand stupidly closed over Steve's wrist and pulling him towards Tony.

"Tony?" Steve was looking at him carefully, and that woke Tony up.

He realised what he'd just done, pulled his hand back quickly. "You're right." He put on his best smile. "Time to sleep. Good night, Steve."

Steve looked at him as if he was disappointed, but he left, closing the door behind him.

Tony didn't think about it anymore. He was too tired.

He lay down, in clothes and all, and he slept.

***

"You look like a zombie," Peter greeted him when Tony stumbled into the kitchen.

"And I'm here for your brain," Tony said, and then frowned. "No. Forget it. Definitely not."

"I'm not sure if I should be relieved or offended," Peter said.

"Both," Jessica Drew told him.

Tony went to the coffee machine. He needed it to wake up. He wasn't even sure what time it actually was – he'd guess late afternoon, if Peter was here and not at work – but he knew he needed coffee, and then he had to go over the documents to prepare himself for another round of tedious negotiations in a few days.

 

"Hi, Tony, nice to see you up," Steve said, coming in.

It was weird, how quickly the team got together, Tony thought, and smiled at Steve. "Hi."

"Sleeping beauty," Steve said.

Tony raised an eyebrow. "Peter called me a zombie." The coffee maker beeped once, and Tony reached for his cup and inhaled the scent.

"Peter has no taste," Steve said, smiling.

"Get a room," Jessica said.

Tony flinched so hard he spilt the coffee all over his fingers. He swore, the cup falling to the ground and shattering, and before he knew it, Steve was pulling him by his arm to the sink, pouring ice cold water over his hand.

Tony thought he should push Steve away, get some space, air, but he couldn't force himself to. The water felt amazing over his burnt fingers, and he heard someone moving, probably cleaning up the glass.

"What was that, Tony?" Steve asked quietly.

Tony shrugged. "Guess my balance was off," he said.

"Your coffee is precious," Steve said like a quote. "You –"

"God, Steve, accidents happen," Tony snapped, hating himself for it. Steve was just worrying about him. And better he focused on it than on what Jessica had said, anyway. Was Tony really this obvious?

Steve ignored him and stroked his arm slowly. "You all right?" he asked.

"I will be, Mister Quick Reflexes," Tony said. "Thanks, by the way."

Steve nodded.

***

Steve jumped to the left. Spider-Man's web splashed where he was a moment ago, and Peter swung himself from a pole, chasing Steve. Another pole emerged from the ceiling, moving at high speed.

For someone who allegedly didn't think about another Avengers team, Tony sure had been able to build a full training room fast.

Peter swung from the new pole and jumped in front of Steve, his web shooters aimed at him. He moved fast, confident in his abilities. He'd never had a proper training, but he'd been in the superhero job for a long time.

Steve threw himself to the ground, rolling away, prepared to avoid another attack.

The program around them powered down. Steve got up and looked around. "What –"

Jarvis slipped inside the now bare room. "Excuse me, sir," he said, "but it appears Master Anthony is in trouble."

***

Steve knew that taking the elevator forty floors down was quicker than trying to run it, but it didn't make him any calmer as he stood inside, waiting for it to finally reach the ground.

Peter had jumped out of the windows, swinging himself to the ground in front of the Avengers Tower, where Tony – Tony, not Iron Man – got attacked. He must have been there already, but this didn't calm Steve down either.

Tony was just a human under the armour. He could get hurt, injured – killed. He didn't have superstrength or a healing factor. Steve hated being reminded of it like this.

The elevator finally arrived. Steve ran out the Tower, his shield at ready. He quickly judged the situation.

Tony was standing on the pavement, not moving at all.

It took Steve a moment to understand why, and then he couldn't breathe for a second.

Tony's legs were covered in ice, slowly climbing up over his body. He was keeping still as if it could help, but his eyes were darting about, looking for help.

Steve looked further around. Spider-Man was webbing two men together with quick moves. They had simple black clothes, nothing identifying on them. Another one was standing on Tony's other side, fumbling with a device that looked like a gun and probably wasn't. Maybe it had caused the ice, Steve thought, or maybe they were superpowered.

Why would anyone attack Tony Stark in broad daylight in front of his home?

There was no time to wonder about it now. Freeing Tony was the priority.

He ran to him. "Tony," he said. "I'm going to –"

Tony was shaking his head at him. He was saying something, but Steve couldn't hear. Tony gestured at something in front of him. Steve squinted and then saw it, a weird flickering of light in the air around Tony, clearly some kind of a force field. They had to deactivate it, but first, he should make sure no one would interfere with it.

Steve turned to the last attacker. The man has just finished fiddling with his weapon and aimed it at Steve now. Steve moved in a zigzag, throwing the shield at him, knocking the device right out of his hands. The shield ricocheted off the lamp post and hit him in the back of his head. Steve picked it up and looked back at Tony.

Spider-Man swung to stand next to him, and Tony was shaking his head at him too, quickly gesticulating as if he tried to explain what was going on.

"A force field," Steve said.

"Yes, but how do we turn it off –" Peter cut off. Tony pointed to the left – to the man Steve had knocked out – and then moved as if he was firing a gun.

The ice was up to his hips now.

Spider-Man picked up the gun, ran his hands over it.

"Do you know what you're doing with it?" Steve asked. He didn't want to pressure Peter, but they were on a deadline. Steve couldn't stand seeing Tony slowly getting engulfed by the ice. It was too much like his nightmares.

"Well, weapons are more Tony's field, but . . ." Peter looked around them and experimentally fired at a spot on the ground. Ice covered it in seconds. "Yeah, I guess that's not the good setting," he murmured. He turned the device in his hands, found something like a clasp. "There we go," he said quietly to himself, and started fiddling with the wires underneath it.

Steve looked at Tony again. The ice covered his chest now, and he was back to standing still, but it didn't seem as if he even had a choice now, with his arms immobilised. Steve bit at his lip. He raised his shield, moved it as if he wanted to try and smash the force field, then tilted his head questioningly.

Tony met his eyes and slowly shook his head.

Steve balled his fists.

There was nothing he could do, nothing but watch as the ice crawled higher and higher.

Damn.

"Spider-Man!" Steve snapped.

"I can't work faster!" Spider-Man was rewiring the gun, occasional sparks dancing over his gloved fingers. "Almost there – why the hell does it need rewiring to change – here!"

He aimed at Tony, and hesitated. "I hope this works," he said.

"Do it," Steve ordered, as the ice touched Tony's chin, lips, nose –

Spider-Man fired just as it engulfed Tony whole. The air around Tony shone brightly for a moment. The earlier flickering was gone.

Tony was still in the ice.

Steve swore. He hit it with his shield, again and again, until it crushed, fell away from Tony. Steve's shield hit the ground with a loud clatter as he caught Tony, bonelessly falling forward, cold to the touch. His hand ran to Tony's neck, and after a moment he felt a pulse there, weak and slow, but even, and only then did he let himself breathe fully again.

"Call clean up," he told Peter, gathering Tony in his arms, and then he hurried back to the Tower, taking the elevator up.

Tony was all right, he told himself. All right and safe in his arms. He just needed to warm up. He was all right. He wasn't in the ice long enough for hypothermia to set in. He would be all right.

Jarvis was waiting outside the elevator, his posture straight, but radiating worry all the same. Like all of them, he was used to Tony fighting as Iron Man, relatively safe inside his armour, not attacked out of it.

"He's fine," Steve said, to himself as much as to Jarvis, before Jarvis could ask. "Can you make him something hot to drink?"

"Of course, sir," Jarvis replied, sounding remarkably composed, and Steve nodded and took Tony to his room.

Tony needed warmth. Hot chocolate and a hot bath, and maybe the climate controls knocked up –

 

Tony stirred in his arms and tried to say something, pushing at Steve's arms. His words were indistinct, he was still shaking, but Steve guessed he wanted to be put down. He did it, because it let him check Tony over, make sure he was okay –

Tony had almost frozen to death, Steve thought, and suddenly he couldn't move.

***

Tony was frozen to the bone, his skin almost blue, but it was Steve who was shaking, uncontrollably, running his hands over Tony again and again.

"Ste – Steve," Tony said, his teeth clattering against his will. "'m fine."

Steve nodded, and didn't stop, touched his hands to Tony's cheek, and his touch was burning. Tony leant into him, welcoming it.

He thought Steve might have been crying, but there was still frost on Tony's eyelashes, and it was hard to see. His thoughts were slow, too slow, but he realised he should shrug off his ruined clothes, and he tried to say something to that effect, his lips not cooperating at all.

Steve nodded again though, and started stripping him; he ripped Tony's shirt apart when it became obvious his hands were shaking too much for him to be able to open the buttons.

Tony remembered the ice closing over him, world becoming distant, remote; strange, blue mist covering everything. He remembered being unable to move, to breathe, and the cold seeping into every cell of his body. He remembered the long seconds when he waited to just suffocate inside the block of ice, and the familiar, so very familiar shield crushing it, hands in red gloves catching him as he fell.

Steve had held it together up until he got Tony back to the Tower, and then, he'd just fallen apart.

Tony thought he should be the strong one now, but he remembered the ice, and didn't know what to do.

There was warmth against him, more than that, hotness, it was almost scalding; he blinked his eyes open to Steve keeping him in a tight embrace, whispering Tony over and over again. He'd lost his uniform shirt too, and it was his body that was so warm and safe Tony thought he might forget the ice. He felt a soft material against his back and only then did he realise Steve must have gotten the blanket from his bed.

Tony tried to raise his hand, to hug Steve back, and couldn't, trapped in his arms like he was, so he just tried to move closer. That wasn't really possible, but that was okay. Steve caught his intent and pulled him even harder against himself, warming him up, and Tony closed his eyes again. He was so cold. A part of him thought he should push Steve away, that they were definitely too close, but he couldn't bring himself to do it.

Steve was warm and safe, and Tony lacked both of those things at the moment.

It felt like the cold was coursing through his veins. Steve was rubbing his arms, getting them warmer, and Tony whimpered pathetically and tried to hide his face in Steve's shoulder.

The more conscious part of him thought that it was worth it, just to feel Steve against him.

But Steve himself was still shaking a bit, and the movements of his arms weren't steady, but rather frantic.

"Steve," Tony tried to say. It came out too quiet, so he tried again. "Steve. I'm fine. Look at me."

Steve stopped moving. Tony felt him take a deep breath, and then he moved away just enough for Tony to look him in the eyes. "I'm fine," he said, he hoped clearly. "I'm not – you broke that ice."

Steve's eyes were red. It was nerve-racking to see him like this.

"I have nightmares about it," he whispered. "Losing my life in the ice again."

It wasn't you this time, Tony thought, but Steve continued. "Losing you to the ice."

Tony stopped breathing. He wanted to say something and couldn't think of anything. There was something in Steve's eyes, something Tony was sure he was imagining, he had to be –

Steve took a step back as if burnt, suddenly. "Sorry," he blurted out and darted for the door. He opened it, almost ran into Jarvis, managed not to and then just ran away.

Jarvis raised one eyebrow. "Hot cocoa, Master Anthony?"

Tony nodded, not really registering the words.

Steve –

Impossible, he told himself, pulling the blanket a little closer around himself.

Steve left, and Tony was so cold.

***

It took Steve a long time to calm himself down enough so that he could watch the footage and learn what exactly had happened in front of the Avengers Tower.

He went to the surveillance room and opened the recordings from this morning, scrolled until he saw Tony.

Tony was walking down the street in a suit, looking unhurried, he might have been returning from the Baxter Building, but Steve wasn't sure. He had finished a phone call and was putting his mobile in his pocket, metres from the entrance, when someone stepped behind him with the clear purpose of knocking him out. Tony must have heard the person, or maybe it was sheer instinct that made him turn around and block the punch. Security guards ran to him, and then two other men – the ones Spider-Man was webbing later, Steve guessed – stopped them and started fighting.

Tony looked at the guards and in this moment the man who'd attacked him took out the gun and shot at him.

Ice started covering Tony's feet. Another shot, and the air around him flickered with the force field. Tony punched it, and the ice immediately shot up to his knees. He stood very still after that.

In the next second, Spider-Man swung down.

Steve stopped the recording.

The question from earlier stayed in his mind. Who would attack Tony in front of the Avengers Tower? It was asking for trouble. And why the ice? Why the complicated device? Simple tranquillizing darts would have been a better option, if they wanted to kidnap him. A plain gun would suffice to kill him.

Steve was very glad they did it this way.

He felt a sudden urge to go check up on Tony again, but – he'd said too much already. And Steve had repeated to himself for years, "Don't ruin this friendship," and he didn't want to do it now – except, a part of him was more and more convinced it wouldn't ruin it. That maybe he should give them a chance, if Tony miraculously felt the same way.

But he wasn't going to ask now, when Tony was hurt, when he should just rest, and Steve should focus on Tony's recovery, not his feelings for him.

Steve had been so happy, starting a new team with him. He'd known he missed Tony when they had been apart, but he hadn't realised how much, until they were fighting together again. Steve could have started a new team without Tony, probably, but it wouldn't be the Avengers. It wouldn't feel like a team. It wouldn't be right.

When Tony was next to him, everything was right.

***

Steve crumpled the morning newspaper in his fist.

There was a big photo of Tony covered in ice on the front page, and the headline screamed "STONE COLD STARK" in big letters.

"Daily Bugle says it's my fault," Peter said, his forehead leant against the table. "Um. This probably doesn't help. Sorry."

It was an innocent article, in itself, described the events as they had happened. There was no reason for it to be on the first page – apart from Tony being the topic, and the sensational headline. Steve didn't know why someone would do that, although he supposed he'd answered his question already: a sensation.

Tony shuffled into the kitchen, rubbing at his eyes, looking for all the world as if he'd just left his bed and hadn't really noticed it yet, if not for the fact that he was wearing a designer suit, the tie in a perfect knot at his neck. He looked well, if sleepy, no hint that he'd been almost frozen yesterday. He made a beeline for the coffee maker and Steve stopped him with an outstretched hand and handed him a mug that had been waiting for Tony.

Tony took it, inhaled, and smiled a brilliant smile. "Marry me," he said to the mug, and drank it.

Sometimes Steve thought Tony should be left alone with his morning cup of coffee.

Tony took the mug from his lips and looked at him, his eyes full of betrayal. "It's empty," he said.

Steve laughed. "Yeah, genius, you haven't yet invented a never-ending mug."

He could see the gears turning in Tony's head as Steve took the mug, refilled it and repositioned it in Tony's grasp.

Tony downed this one too, and then looked around, more conscious.

"Why is Peter trying to merge with the table? MJ might not like it," Tony said.

"I'm sorry for freezing you yesterday," Peter said.

Tony stared, and then laughed. "Jameson, huh?" He looked at Steve, and damn, he still had the crumpled newspaper in his other hand. "Is that it?" Tony asked, taking it from Steve before he could react.

And what was he going to do, really? Tear it to shreds so Tony wouldn't see?

Tony's smile disappeared as he saw the headline. "Well, they made good use of the occasion," he said in a steady voice.

"They shouldn't have," Steve said.

Tony shrugged, but he was tense, less relaxed than just seconds ago. "Free media, Steve," he remarked.

"You could sue them," Peter said.

"For what?" Tony asked calmly. "And anyway," he scanned the article, "it's just the headline. I've had worse."

But he shouldn't have, Steve thought. "Are you all right?" he asked, unable to stop himself any longer.

Tony usually got annoyed by the mother-henning, as he called it, but now he just looked at Steve for a long while, a snapping response clearly on the end of his tongue, but then he nodded. "Yeah. Thanks."

Steve felt relieved. "Any plans for the evening?" he asked.

Tony looked back at him, and slowly smiled again. "I've a meeting now," he said, which explained the suit. "But then I'm going to take that ice gun apart."

"S.H.I.E.L.D. promised to call if they learnt anything." And felt like they could share it, Steve added in his mind, but Tony knew that much. Jessica would tell them what was important, and Tony could probably always hack their databases.

"Yeah," Tony shrugged.

Busy evening at any rate, Steve thought, knowing perfectly well nothing would pull Tony away from disassembling a new piece of tech. "Lunch after your meeting?"

"Sure," Tony said.

Steve tried to contain his smile at least a bit.

***

Tony came back after twelve, still looking impeccable, though he was tugging at his tie, trying to get it looser. "I hate Lukin," he announced.

Steve got up from the sofa. "That bad?"

"I'm pretty sure I stopped him from taking over my company, so he probably returns the sentiment and more, but it was arduous," Tony said.

Steve knew the negotiations had been going on for a while, Tony's board of directors not exactly happy with him lately – apparently having his bodyguard on a new Avengers team wasn't good for stocks, and Steve had apologised only to hear Tony ranting about shareholders not minding their own business – and he was glad to hear they ended like this.

"Well, I thought burgers for lunch, but this seems like an occasion," he said.

Tony laughed. "Burgers are great, Steve. I'm starving. But in this case, let me change."

Tony looked great in the suit. Steve was tempted to think of an excuse to make Tony could stay in it, but he knew there wasn't any, not really. He went to grab his jacket and then waited for Tony, who returned in jeans and a buttoned up shirt, a jacket on his elbow. "There's a new place just on the corner," he said.

"Let's try it," Steve agreed, and they went to the elevator. Funny how it didn't seem that slow when they were there together.

Steve suddenly remembered how he'd held cold Tony in his arms in it just yesterday, and looked at him now, worried. Tony caught his gaze and raised an eyebrow.

"I'm –" Steve hesitated. "I know you're all right, but the ice . . ."

Tony looked away briefly, and then reached out his hand. "Look. I am fine. My skin is warm. You don't have to worry."

Steve bit his lip, and touched Tony's hand tentatively, feeling for himself how different it was from when he had held him yesterday. Tony's skin was a healthy shade, and his hand was warm, alive.

The elevator beeped, signalling they were on the ground floor, and Steve let Tony go.

Tony smiled at him easily, but there was something like worry hidden in his eyes.

"Thanks," Steve said, and went out first, Tony following him.

Cool air hit them outside, and Tony put on his jacket. Steve told himself Tony was all right, and he'd just shown him that. It was a normal reaction to the colder air outside, nothing to do with being almost frozen to death.

It was before people usually went to lunch, so the streets weren't that crowded yet, and the place Tony talked about was mostly empty. It was a small place, just a few tables inside, one taken. A blond girl was just collecting her take-away.

Tony smiled at the guy behind the counter. "Two of your classic sets and Coke," he said.

"That's –" He looked between Tony and Steve and recognition dawned in his eyes. He fumbled a bit, and clearly tried to stay professional.

Tony paid before Steve could. "You know, I thought it was me inviting you," Steve said when they sat down, six burgers set between them.

Tony shrugged. "I chose the place," he said and grinned. "Wouldn't want to ruin you."

Steve stole one of his chips for it. "Clearly, I'm choosing tomorrow."

"Deal," Tony said with a smile.

"So, Lukin," Steve said.

Tony winced. "Can we not talk shop?" he said. "One minute more and he'd have given me white hair."

Steve pretended to look at him very carefully. "I don't know," he said. "The light isn't best here, I'd have to check in sunlight. How old are you now, Tony? It's really hard time you started looking mature and serious. Greying temples might help," he said.

"I guess you can lecture me on that, old man," Tony said.

Steve smiled, finishing one of his burgers. "I'm asking, because if you had the final negotiations round today, and someone attacked you yesterday . . ."

"Not his style." Tony shook his head. "I'd expect assassins from him. Qualified ones."

Steve nodded. Tony had a point. The guys yesterday really had been amateurs at – whatever they wanted to do, kidnap him?

"This gun of theirs is interesting, though," Tony said. "I'm glad Spider-Man took it before S.H.I.E.L.D. could."

The place was slowly getting crowded, and Steve thought they shouldn't continue discussing such a sensitive subject here. He quickly thought of something else.

"I wish Carol stayed," Steve said.

"You and me both," Tony answered. "But it's her choice, right? And I really think she's happy now."

Steve smiled a bit. That was true. Carol had a purpose, and she enjoyed working on it. She enjoyed being the best hero she could be – and she'd been awesome, already. But he missed her on the team.

"It won't be the same," Tony said suddenly, quietly. "The team."

They'd been together for well over a month now. Steve knew it. He missed the old Avengers, he always would, but it didn't take anything from their new team. "Yes," he said. "I'm not thinking about it."

Tony looked away. "I am, sometimes," he admitted. "If I –"

Steve knew Tony blamed himself for the Avengers falling apart like that, because Tony blamed himself for everything, but they'd been over it. "Stop," he asked. "The new team is good. Let's focus on that."

Tony seemed to be far away with his thoughts for a moment. Steve wondered if he was thinking of the old Avengers team and the tragic way it fell apart, of Wanda losing control, their friends dying . . . Then Tony looked straight at Steve and smiled. "New beginnings, huh." He finished his burger. "It's good," he said. "I don't think about the old Avengers often, but with Carol here . . ." He trailed off, smiling. "You're right, the team is good. I'm glad you forced me to do it."

"I didn't," Steve said.

"You could at least admit it," Tony teased, and everything was all right again.

They went back to the Tower. It started raining, a cold, sharp, autumn rain, and Tony wrapped his arms around himself.

Steve wanted to reach out and touch him, reassure him – he knew how it felt to dread all cold, how it was to slowly lose all warmth and think it'd never come back, and even if Tony only got a taste of it, it was too much.Steve didn't know how to do that, how to comfort Tony now without having him shut off. They were in public, it might be inappropriate, and Tony sometimes got weird about people worrying about him.

They returned to the Tower in silence and found themselves in the elevator again.

Tony was still pulling his jacket around himself.

Enough, Steve thought, and put his arm around Tony, awkwardly hugged him against his side. "It's all right," he said.

"It's not," Tony said very quietly, but he didn't push Steve away. "How long did it last, a few seconds? And it's not this cold outside."

"It's all right," Steve replied, rubbing his hand over Tony's back in circular motions. "You didn't even let yourself rest, just ran into negotiations today. It's all right."

Tony nodded, but he seemed unconvinced.

"You sure you want to work on the gun now?" Steve asked.

He could feel Tony's sudden enthusiasm radiating off him in waves. "Yes," he replied, absolutely certain. "I've waited too long already." Steve felt him relaxing, and Tony added, "And if I know how they did it . . ."

It'll be as if he fixed it, even though there was nothing to be fixed, Steve thought. "Can I look?"

"It'll be boring." Tony shrugged. "But if you want, sure."

Steve did want.

***

Tony had put on a used jumper and he was taking the gun apart. Steve sat across from him, a sketchbook on his knees, and idly drew him.

It was a new sketchbook, bought after they started the new team. He had a few drawings of all of them, but it was mostly about Tony. Working, reading, smiling, of Tony's slender fingers and hands, of his eyes when he focused on something and how he sometimes seemed to be in a different world with his thoughts.

Steve thought back to yesterday.

"Steve?" Tony was looking at him with some worry.

Steve didn't understand until he realised he'd snapped his pencil in half. He winced. He'd liked it, the soft lines he could draw with it. "Sorry," he said.

"What's wrong?"

Steve looked at Tony. He had glasses pushed up his forehead, a bit of smear on one cheek, and the jumper was old and too big.

He looked beautiful.

Steve was done with pretending.

"Say, Tony," he started, his heart beating wildly. Tony tilted his head questioningly. "If I asked you for lunch tomorrow . . ."

"I thought we've planned that already," Tony said.

". . . as a date," Steve finished.

He had a sudden urge to close his eyes and not see Tony's reaction, or to just run away, but he stayed in place and met Tony's gaze dead on.

"I heard that wrong," Tony said, sounding dazed.

"You didn't." Steve shook his head.

"You said 'a date'," Tony said. "With me."

"Yes," Steve said. Tony didn't tell him to leave him the hell alone yet. That was good, right?

Tony shook his head in wonder. He approached Steve, stood close enough he could touch him. "I need you to say it again," he said.

"Go on a date with me," Steve said, and didn't know how he managed to sound so steady.

Tony laughed, a brilliant, happy sound. He threw his arms around Steve. "Yes," he said. "I will go on a date with you. If you mean it. I. Yes."

"I asked you two times already," Steve said, his hands going to Tony's waist and holding him. "That should convince you I mean it."

Tony was still laughing quietly. "Yes. Yes," he said. "I – yes." He looked at Steve, the one inch difference in their height suddenly more pronounced from that close by. "You might want to kiss me to shut me up," he suggested. "Um. Or. Is that too fast. I'm sorry, I, ignore me –"

Steve kissed him, and who would have thought, it did shut him up.

Tony's lips were soft against Steve's. He gasped a little, as if surprised, and then returned the kiss. Steve took a step closer and brought their bodies flush together. He had thought about kissing Tony before, of course he had, but he'd never really believed they would do it.

Having Tony kissing him back, making soft, whimpering noises, was almost more than Steve could stand.

Tony put his fingers in Steve's short hair, his other arm around Steve's neck, as if he wanted them as close as possible. With a growl that surprised even him, Steve turned them around and walked Tony a few steps back, until his back hit the wall, never letting him go.

Tony broke the kiss, took a few breaths. "Wow," he said, his whole face smiling.

Steve touched his forehead to Tony's and inhaled. "Wow," he repeated.

Tony's eyes locked on something behind Steve's back for less than a second, and Steve understood. He smiled easily. "I should let you get back to work."

Tony looked between him and the gun. "Work. Yes." He leant up and kissed Steve again, just a quick touch of lips. "God, Steve," he said.

"I know," Steve replied, utterly giddy.

"This work thing," Tony said. "You have to let me go for that to happen." But his hands never left Steve.

"You first," Steve said.

"I guess we're staying," Tony said.

Steve thought he'd never leave if he kept looking at Tony, his lips red from the kiss, his pupils blown wide. Steve closed his eyes and slowly took a step back.

"Great," Tony said. "Now you can't look at me."

"Idiot," Steve said like a caress.

They looked at each other and laughed, before Tony finally went back to his gun, almost immediately getting absolutely absorbed by it.

Steve left him alone, knowing all too well that if he stayed, he wouldn't be able not to touch him again.

Back in his room, Steve let himself think about what had happened. About Tony's yes and his lips and his body and just Tony, in general, all of him –

Steve was happier than he'd been for months.

He also had no idea where he'd take Tony for lunch. Or . . . Anything really, apart from the fact that he was going on a date with Tony, which made him smile uncontrollably again.

He reached for his phone almost without thinking, scrolled through the contacts list and put it to his ear. "Hi, Carol," he said.

"Steve. Is Tony all right? I saw the news, but . . ."

Oh. He hadn't called her after Tony had been attacked. He'd been too worried, but he should have let her know. Tony was her friend, too, after all. "He's fine," he said. "I. Um." He cleared his throat. "Iaskedhimoutonadate."

There was a moment of silence on the line that made him worry despite himself, and then Carol laughed. "Finally," she said.

Steve frowned. "What do you mean, 'finally'?"

"Absolutely nothing," she said, clearly trying not to laugh anymore. "You must have heard me wrong. You're an old man now, Steve, hearing issues are –"

"Carol."

"Come on," she said. "I know you. I saw you looking at him. And him at you."

He wasn't that obvious, Steve thought, but he was still too happy to really give it any thought. "Where do I take him?"

"Do you really think it'll matter to him? He'd go on a picnic with you."

A picnic did sound nice, actually, but Steve didn't want it ruined by press or just curious bystanders. He could think of a remote place, though.

"Steve?" she asked and he realised he'd been silent for too long.

"Thank you," he said. "Planning now."

"I want a detailed report," she said before he hung up.

***

"Huh," Tony said to himself, lifting up a small motherboard.

He'd thought some of the wiring looked familiar and now he knew why. "AIM" was proudly written on it in capital letters, because if you were going to create an illegal weapon, be sure to write your name on it.

The question was, was it AIM who had hired the thugs or had they just sold their weapons on the black market?

Tony thought back to the weapons conference in Madripoor. He hadn't been a part of it for years, but if he had, then maybe he'd know the answer. He couldn't really regret not going though. He wasn't going back to the years he always took part in it.

The gun looked like a prototype rather than a finished model. From what Tony gathered, it could work in four settings: it could freeze, as he knew all too well, or burn, and he was almost grateful he hadn't felt this effect. And then, also as he knew, it could create and destroy forcefields that served to enhance the offensive modes: cutting off external environment so that nothing could interfere with the device. But it still didn't have a simple switch to change between the settings.

All in all, Tony could admit it was a neat work. He thought of dropping by Steve's room to tell him what he learnt, and then he snapped out of the engineering mindset he'd been in.

Steve.

Steve, who'd asked him on a date and who kissed really well and whom Tony had loved for years and never thought he'd have a chance with.

It was too good to be real, and Tony didn't deserve it, not at all. He knew he'd do anything to make it good, not to ruin it. Maybe the new team was a new beginning in more ways than just one, maybe he and Steve could get something good going between them. Logic told Tony he should be panicking, because nothing ever went that well for him, but he couldn't. He was too happy, could hardly contain his smile.

He wanted to hope, not to plan for the worst, and so he did.

***

As it got closer to the lunch time, Tony realised he didn't actually know where Steve wanted to go.

It was stupid. Steve lived on the other side of the corridor. Tony could just go and ask him, but a part of him wanted to make it special. He wanted to wait and see what Steve had planned, and even if Steve didn't mean for it to be a surprise, Tony wanted to have one.

Get a grip, Stark, he told himself. It wasn't his first date, he knew what to do –

Except it was. It was his first date with Steve, and that made all the difference . . . Tony took a deep breath.

Steve was his best friend.

Tony thought about it, and stopped worrying. They would have a great time. And if – if Steve decided he preferred them as just friends –

Tony shook his head and remembered the decidedly not just a friendly kiss yesterday.

He put on a suit – it was never a bad choice, and he knew he looked good in it – and went to the living room. He didn't realise he'd hoped it'd be empty before he ran into Peter watching daytime TV.

"Boring," Peter moaned, changing the channel.

"You do know there's full access to Starkflix here, right?" Tony asked, amused.

Peter shrugged. "I don't really want to watch something interesting," he said. "I'm waiting for MJ to get ready. We haven't had time for a date in ages."

"You could go work for me and be able to get days off," Tony said.

"I don't want you hiring me just because I'm Spider-Man," Peter replied, rolling his eyes.

Tony sighed. They'd had the argument a few times. He had mostly decided to leave it – he could understand Peter wanting to have a job of his own, even if Tony really did want him to work for Stark Industries R&D because he was brilliant.

Steve walked in, dressed rather more casually then Tony: a pair of jeans and a t-shirt with a star on it. One day Tony would go through his wardrobe to see if all of his t-shirts had this theme. Or he'd just take great delight in undressing Steve. That would work too.

Steve started to go to Tony, then noticed Peter, shot Tony what was clearly a questioning glance. Tony shrugged, reached out his hand, and when Steve took it, he pulled him down for a welcome kiss. It was just a touch of lips, really, but it made Tony smile, feeling almost light-headed with joy.

He knew Peter must have been staring at them, but he didn't care. They hadn't talked about it, but Steve clearly didn't want to keep them a secret, and neither did Tony.

"Damn it," Peter said. "MJ was right."

"MJ what?" Tony asked a bit dazedly.

"Nothing," Peter said quickly. "Absolutely nothing. I. Have fun, guys."

Tony looked at Steve, but he seemed as lost as Tony. Then he shrugged, and tugged Tony by his hand. "Let's go," he said with a smile. "Bye, Peter."

"Bye," Tony said, going after him. "Where are we going?"

"Out of town," Steve said. "I thought a picnic would be nice."

It would indeed, if Steve found a place that would give them privacy. Tony knew restaurants and cafés they could go to without fearing the media learning all about it, but it still wasn't the same as just him and Steve spending time together.

"A picnic," Tony replied. "Great. I should change."

"No!" Steve said quickly and then blushed a beautiful red. "I mean –"

Tony looked at him carefully. "Oh. Oh."

"You do look nice in a suit," Steve admitted.

"I'll let you draw me at some point," Tony promised. They got in the elevator and Steve pressed the number for the Quinjet garage.

"I've packed earlier," he explained. "So we're ready to go."

***

Tony put the thick blanket Steve had prepared on the ground. It felt so normal – they did fly here by Quinjet, but now Steve was preparing plastic plates and forks and taking out snacks and a bottle of sparkling cider.

They weren't superheroes here, just Steve and Tony. Tony could get used to it.

They were in a forest – Tony wasn't sure where exactly, he let Steve fly and enjoyed spending time with him – in a big cleaning. The sun was shining, and it was a very nice day, a reminder of summer when autumn set in.

Tony took off his jacket and loosened his tie. He felt Steve's eyes on him and pretended not to notice, opened the first button of his shirt.

Steve took out another small box of food and set it on the blanket, then sat next to Tony.

"You might want to try that," he said.

Tony reached for it and then smiled, delighted. "Blueberry muffins," he said. They tasted as good as they looked, it turned out.

"You have icing on your mouth," Steve said, amused.

"Do I," Tony said. He moved closer to Steve. Steve got the hint and kissed him, licked the icing from his lips.

Tony's back hit the ground moment later, and he was sure the cider spilt, but he couldn't care, not with Steve's mouth on his and Steve pressing him down.

"If you want to stop –"

Tony pulled him back in for a kiss, because the half-finished question was just stupid. Steve started opening his shirt, his eyes dark and focused entirely on Tony. It would be almost humbling if Tony could think of anything else than Steve.

Except then Steve sat up suddenly. Tony looked at him disoriented. "What –" He cut off when he felt the drops of rain on his face. He threw his arm over his eyes. "You have to be kidding me," he said.

"There's the Quinjet . . ." Steve suggested, looking thoroughly messed up.

Tony stared at him.

"You'll be explaining that to Logan," he said, getting up.

"Oh. Maybe not, then," Steve said, and Tony fought his disappointment.

They gathered the blanket and their things and made it back to the Quinjet just before it really started pouring down.

"That much for an ideal date," Steve said, putting the cider bottle back into the small fridge and forcefully closing the door.

"Hey, it was very good," Tony protested. "Before, you know, the weather decided it hates us."

"That lasted all of ten minutes."

Tony looked closer at Steve and then laughed. "Steve, I can't believe it, you're sulking."

"I am not," Steve said with an adorable pout.

"Steve. Hey, Steve." Tony stood in front of him, but he didn't touch. "Look, we're here together – that's ideal."

Steve looked at him for a long moment. Then he smiled. "Your shirt is see-through now," he said, and Tony started laughing.

***

"Oh, look," Peter said. "Reed and Sue are clearly getting divorced."

"It's bullshit," Tony said.

"Are you reading gossips again?" Steve asked without turning back. He didn't want his pancakes to burn when Jarvis finally let him make his own.

"It's fun," Jessica Drew said. "Read on."

Steve wanted to answer, but then Peter started laughing.

"Steve, I have news for you," Tony said. Steve turned from the pancakes to look at him, saw him standing next to Peter and reading over his arm. "'Captain America hasn't been seen in public lately. Is he on an undercover mission, or is he ditching reporters because he's dating someone?' Really, Steve? I'd expect you to tell me when you're going undercover. Oh, there's a picture!"

Steve sighed and gave up. He leant over the table to look and saw himself holding a bouquet of roses.

"'Flowers for the new love?'" Peter read.

Steve wanted to bang his head against the wall. He'd long ago accepted his life would never be just his anymore, but sometimes it got annoying.

"At least that's true," Luke said. "And whatever you say about Richards, he loves his wife."

"It took them three weeks to notice," Jessica said. "Oh, the next one is, 'Tony Stark hasn't been seen with a date for over a month.' I wonder when they'll connect the dots."

"To say I corrupted America?" Tony asked drily.

Steve turned back to his pancake, just in time to throw it around.

"Showing off," Jessica commented, coming in.

Steve didn't answer. Moments later, two warm arms embraced him from behind. "Does it bother you?" Tony asked quietly.

"I don't like it," Steve admitted. "I don't like that I might be a problem for you."

"You'll never be," Tony said. "Also, your pancake is burning. Don't let Jarvis notice." He stepped away, allowing Steve to save it.

"Any tropes on this AIM thing?" Jessica asked.

"Nothing new," Spider-Woman replied. "The thugs were hired by someone to take Tony. The one using the gun had been an old SI employee."

"He quit when we stopped making weapons," Tony shrugged. "They hired him because he knew how to use them, though. It doesn't make much sense. There are way easier methods to kidnap someone."

"Stop saying that," Steve snapped.

They'd been over this enough. Steve knew Tony had been monitoring the bank accounts of the men who attacked him, and looking for any connection to his known enemies – they really didn't know if it was AIM or not – but Steve couldn't do nothing about it, nothing but worry about Tony every time he was out alone.

"Kidnapping me usually doesn't end well for the kidnappers," Tony quipped, unconcerned.

Steve fisted his hands. He hated it when Tony disregarded his safety like that. The rest of his good mood, seriously disturbed by the gossip magazine, disappeared.

They finished the breakfast in awkward silence, and everyone left as quickly as they could, leaving just Steve and Tony there.

"Look, Steve," Tony started. "I can take care of myself. You have to accept this."

"I hate it when you don't have the armour nearby," Steve muttered.

"I hate it every time when we fight someone, and none of you is as well-protected as I am," Tony replied seriously. "I can't make an armour for you. It doesn't fit your style, you wouldn't feel good in it. I realise it, but I hate it."

"It's not the same," Steve protested.

"It is," Tony said. "Stop treating me as if I need protection."

Logically, Steve knew Tony was a capable man who could deal with pretty much anything thrown his way. He became Iron Man to escape captivity, and never stopped working for good afterwards. He beat down alcoholism and was sober for years now. He was a human on a superhero team that wouldn't even exist if not for him.

That couldn't make Steve stop worrying.

Tony had always been his best friend. The thought of losing him had always been unbearable. Now . . . Now it was more.

He nodded, unconvinced, and heard Tony sigh.

***

Steve wasn't sure what woke him up, but a moment later he heard a whimper and realised Tony was no longer in his arms. He was lying on the other side of the bed, curled in on himself, gripping the bed clothes tightly.

Steve crawled to him and shook him gently. "Tony," he said in a steady voice. "Tony, it's all right."

Tony struggled, and Steve cupped his face, ran his thumb over his cheek. "It's okay."

Tony's eyes shot open and he went rigid in Steve's arms, his eyes darting around. "Sorry," he gasped out. "Sorry, I'm sorry, I –"

"It's okay," Steve repeated, immensely glad he stayed with Tony tonight.

"It's not," Tony whispered. "I should have noticed something was wrong."

He didn't mean waking Steve up, Steve realised with a pang. He pulled Tony closer to himself. "We all should have," he said. "But none of us did. Don't blame yourself."

"How can I not?" Tony said against Steve's skin. "Predicting stuff like this is kind of my job."

"No one can see the future," Steve said. He felt Tony was about to protest and added, "No one but a few mutants at least. It wasn't your fault."

"I should have noticed," Tony repeated. "I'm never good enough."

With a pang, Steve realised that Tony did mean it, and the only reason he'd said it out loud was that, suddenly woken up like that, he hadn't had his defences up yet.

"You're more than that," Steve said, willing him to believe, and Tony just laughed emptily. He slipped out of his embrace.

"I won't get any more sleep tonight," he said. "I'm going to the workshop."

Stay with me, Steve wanted to ask and didn't.

***

Tony didn't show up for breakfast the next morning, and while he rarely ate something, he did usually show up craving coffee and, lately, hugs from Steve. Steve wondered if his absence had something to do with his nightmare, or if he simply had too much work planned for today, between juggling his three jobs.

But then Tony didn't even come in for lunch, and when Steve decided to check in his workshop, it was empty. He probably was in his office, then, and Steve wasn't going to disturb him there, but he suddenly wanted to see him very much.

He returned to the living room and almost ran into Peter. "Oh, Cap, I was looking for you – the news."

CNN was on, showing a burning building in Austin. "What's going on?" Steve asked, and then the news showed a recording from CCTV, showing a clearly super-powered human spitting fire in Texas. "Avengers –"

Steve's mobile rang, interrupting him. He took it out and he wasn't sure if he should be surprised it was Tony. "Where are you?"

"On a plane to Austin," Tony said. Steve could hear the wince in his voice. "An old acquaintance called me. Sorry for not telling you sooner – it was all a rush, and . . ."

And he was upset about the nightmare, Steve finished, but it wasn't an excuse for –

He stopped himself. Tony had a suit of armour that could break the sound barrier. He damn well could travel everywhere, but this, now – Austin was a pretty damn clear destination, and it was different.

"We're going there," Steve said. "Wait for us."

"No," Tony said. "I can handle it. As I said, it's a friend's issue."

"Tony –"

"Leave it, Steve," Tony said. "I have my armour, I have all the intel, I'm calling you to tell what I'm doing –"

"You're calling me because you know I'd see the news and you don't want me to come," Steve corrected him, feeling angry.

There was a pause, which was as good as the confirmation Steve didn't need. "Trust me," Tony said finally.

"It's not about trust," Steve snapped. "It's about you endangering yourself –"

"And how is that different from what we do every day?"

"You're not alone with the Avengers!"

"Just because we're in a relationship –"

"This has nothing to do with anything," Steve interrupted.

"Doesn't it? Because it sure as hell feels otherwise," Tony said, ending the call.

Steve consciously forced himself to relax his fingers. His mobile was resilient, designed by Tony, but he could still snap it in half.

"What was that?" Luke said.

"Nothing," Steve said. "Tony's flying there already. Prepare the Quinjet, Spider-Woman."

But before he even managed to finish the sentence, the Avengers alarm sounded, and Steve swore.

***

He called the Fantastic Four to ask if they could take care of it, but apparently they were on yet another trip to alternate dimensions, so the Avengers had to take care of Scarecrow themselves.

Jessica ended up with a sprained ankle, and the clean-up took them hours, but there were people trapped under stones, and they couldn't just leave.

Steve willed Tony to call him, but he never did.

They were on their way back to the Tower when NYPD called again, asking for assistance with Chemistro, and Steve wanted to yell.

When they came back to the Tower, the sun was setting, and Jarvis waiting for them. "I think you should watch the news, sir," he said, visibly worried.

Steve switched on the TV without a word and there, on a shitty camera recording he saw the same man who had destroyed the buildings in Austin taking on Iron Man without a sweat.

The suit looked wrecked, but on the recording, the villain ran away, leaving Iron Man under a car. Steve watched with some relief as Iron Man raised it. The recording ended.

"According to our sources, Iron Man is currently getting medical attention, but the mysterious man he'd been fighting is still a risk," the presenter said.

Steve switched it off. "We're going to Austin," he said, going to the elevator.

Luke caught him by his arm. "We're not," he said.

"Tony's hurt," Steve said. "He needs –"

"He managed to get that car off him, and he's probably in a discreet hospital already, god knows the man can afford it. You won't help him by being there."

"Nor by being here," Steve said, pushing Luke's hand off. "You can stay, but I'm going. What if this guy comes back?"

"He ran away when the copters arrived. You're dead on your feet," Luke said. "We all are. We've been fighting all day. We all need rest, or we'll just be a burden."

Steve knew that logically, Luke was right, but he was too worried about Tony for that to really set.

"Cap," Peter said quietly. "He took on Tony. We won't be able to stop him this tired anyway."

"If I may, sir," Jarvis said. "I am as worried about Master Anthony as you are, but you do seem like you need rest."

That settled it really, didn't it?

Steve nodded and left the room.

He took a shower, washing off the blood and dust. Warm water soothed all the little pains in his body and he realised that he did need rest. Tony would be all right. Steve was put in as his next of kin, had been even before they started dating; if something serious happened, he would hear.

He thought he wouldn't sleep, but as soon as he lay down, he was out.

***

He woke up eight hours later. Tony wasn't next to him.

Of course he wasn't. They didn't even spend all nights together, but Steve got used to having him near anyway. Steve's phone was dark, no missed calls or messages, and he sighed, got dressed, went to the kitchen.

"Good morning, sir," Jarvis said, preparing coffee.

"Morning," Steve said. "Any news?"

"Unfortunately, none," Jarvis said.

No news is good news, Steve told himself firmly. The team assembled, Jessica walking on crutches and visibly annoyed for it.

"I won't be of any help," she said.

"That's okay," Steve said. "Rest."

They quickly ate breakfast, and then Steve prepared the Quinjet for flying.

"I want to check in on Tony," he said. "The guy hasn't attacked again, and finding him in a crowd might be hard, especially without Logan."

"Do you even know where Tony is, or –"

Their Avengers cards sounded. Steve flipped it on. Jessica's face appeared as a blue hologram over the dashboard. "He showed up again," she said. "Blowing up stuff in Temple, Texas. That's about seventy miles north of Austin."

Steve swore and corrected the course.

The trip was just over an hour, but it seemed to take ages. Jessica kept them updated, but halfway there, she cursed. "He's gone. Running north, but he's so fast – you guys might want to go to Temple anyway, civilians are trapped under rubble."

"We won't find him before he attacks again," Steve said grimly.

"Probably," Jessica admitted. "Not until Logan comes back at least."

***

They were too late to save everyone, but they did save lives in Temple, helping to get trapped people out and lifting big chunks of rubble.

It was good work, even if Steve wished they had come there in time to help everyone.

Steve couldn't stop thinking about Tony.

***

"Cap?" Tony's voice in his communicator was so clear that for a moment Steve wondered if he imagined it after working in the sun for a few hours. "You hear me?"

"Iron Man?" he asked, relieved.

"I've noticed calls from you – sorry, I was revamping my armour, he practically destroyed it, and –"

"Revamping your armour," Steve repeated, feeling angry. "You didn't answer the phone, the news said you were in hospital –"

"News said Iron Man was in hospital," Tony said. "Sorry, I – you'll see."

"Where are you now?"

"Taking down Mallen," Tony said.

"The guy we'd been chasing?"

"The very same," Tony said.

"What? No! Iron Man!"

"A much better armour," Tony said, and cut off.

Steve punched the stone he'd been getting out of the way before calling the team.

***

When they landed in the Round Rock suburbs, everything was over.

Iron Man stood among the rubble, in what was undoubtedly a new armour, and facing away from a headless corpse.

Steve had wanted to yell at him, but in this moment, he couldn't.

They didn't kill, not unless it was absolutely necessary. Tony looked defeated even in the armour, and Steve knew he hadn't had another choice.

***

It was a long time before they were alone.

Between ending Mallen's case and leading the FBI to lock up Maya, Tony didn't speak to him much. Steve knew he was tired and hurt, both by what he had had to do and the betrayal of his friend. To learn that it was Maya's research, Extremis, that changed Mallen into an insane superhuman must have been a shock to him.

Steve was still mad at Tony, but it could wait.

As soon as everyone finally left them, Steve wrapped his arms around Tony and held him tight.

"Wow, if I knew you'd missed me so," Tony said.

"You idiot," Steve said. "I was so worried."

"I'm sorry," Tony said. "But the new armour is pretty, isn't it?"

"That's not the point," Steve said. "I – call me, next time, just call me!" He didn't mean to yell, but Tony was so frustrating at times.

His mobile rang.

"Check it," Tony said.

"That would require letting you go," Steve argued, pulling him in closer.

Tony took a step back, though, and kissed the tip of Steve's nose. "Check it."

There was something weird in his voice. Steve took out his phone and looked at the screen.

Tony Stark

"I don't understand," Steve said.

"Answer it," Tony said, so Steve did.

He was looking at Tony, and Tony never moved his lips even as Steve heard his voice in the phone. "When I said I was revamping the armour," and there was a smile in his voice, "I might have meant myself."

Steve hit the end call button.

"Tell me it was a recording," he said, knowing it wasn't.

"It's called Extremis," Tony said.

"Ex – you injected yourself with what made Mallen into this monster?!"

"No," Tony said, infuriatingly calm. "Extremis is – a programming language for the human body, for lack of a better description. I wrote my own code."

Steve hoped he wasn't hearing that right. "Your code," he repeated. "Tony. You're a human, not a computer."

"Debatable, now." Tony shrugged, and he seemed so damn pleased with himself. "I couldn't take him down otherwise."

"You could've asked for help," Steve said. "That's what being on a team means. You didn't have to do – this."

He felt dizzy. He walked to his bed and sat down, pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose. Tony had never been particularly cautious when it came to his own body, but this? Whatever "this" was, really, but how could Tony do that after seeing what Extremis had done to Mallen? And for what, an update?

"I wasn't fast enough, in movements or in thinking," Tony said. "Now I am."

As if that was a good reason.

Steve shook his head. "I can't talk to you right now," he said. "I was so worried about you, and you went and –" He cut himself off. "I am worried about you," he corrected himself after a while, and he didn't look at Tony.

"I'm better than I've ever been," Tony said. "I'm happy, Steve. Why are you so negative about it?"

"I need time," Steve said.

He heard steps, and the door closing.

Tony had said he had reprogrammed it. What exactly had he done to himself? He seemed different, but Steve couldn't put his finger on it.

It was as if he was more relaxed and stressed at once, in a way. He'd been smiling, really, honestly smiling, but he had the air of being tired, busy, as he did sometimes when he was multitasking for hours, saving the world as Iron Man while trying to think of a new invention.

Steve had only wanted to hug him and never let him go, to shower him with kisses and affection, to feel Tony was with him and safe –

Now he was lost.

***

Steve went through his gymnastics routine. Physical exercise usually helped him calm down, but it didn't work today. He jumped, thinking of Tony, landed with a roll, thinking of Tony, stretched his arms and made a somersault, thinking about Tony.

Tony, who –

Steve couldn't think about it. He needed to vent. He needed to hit something.

That was a thought.

He took a few sips of water and headed towards the punching bag. A part of him wished that it weren't made specially for superstrong heroes, that he could tear it to shreds with his fists.

He started hitting it.

Tony never thought about his own health, never tried to understand that it might matter to someone else beside him. Never believed Steve that throwing himself into danger hurt Steve, too.

It was infuriating.

Steve wanted to know why Tony did it – and what exactly he'd done. He'd used his mind to call Steve, but how did it work? Was it some connection through his armour? Had he made himself a technopath? Did Extremis even let him do that?

Steve wanted to know, but he was too angry to ask, because whatever Tony had done didn't change the fact that he shouldn't have.

Steve kept hitting the bag until his hands hurt and some more. It didn't help.

He took a shower, didn't even notice where he was going until he stood in Tony's workshop and Tony looked up at him, surprised.

"Will you ever listen?" Steve asked. "I care about you, you can't go and inject yourself –"

Steve stopped talking, because Tony was suddenly on him, kissing him. "You infuriating man," Tony said when he paused to take a breath. "Will you ever understand some things aren't yours to decide? Will you –"

Steve kissed him too, angrily, biting into his lip and fisting one hand in his tank top.

He pushed him towards the wall.

"Not – everything – is – your – decision," Tony said, punctuating each word with a quick, biting kiss. He flipped them around with strength Steve was sure Tony hadn't had before yesterday.

Steve dug his nails into Tony's back. "Not yours, either," he said, and then Tony made sure he couldn't make a coherent sentence.

***

"That was good," Tony purred like a cat.

"It was," Steve agreed.

"We should do that again," Tony suggested.

"Bed," Steve said.

Tony went without arguing.

Back in Steve's room, Steve pushed Tony on his bed, climbed on top of him and pulled his top up.

He meant to kiss his body, but he stopped, and stared.

Tony's chest, once covered in scars, was ideally smooth.

"What –" Tony started speaking and stopped himself. He threw one arm over his eyes. "Are you going to lecture me on that too?"

Steve took a deep breath. He shook his head, lay down next to Tony. He reached for Tony's hand and held it.

"Tell me," he said. "Tell me exactly what you did."

Tony chuckled, and then Steve felt something weird under his hand. His first instinct was to let go, but he knew Tony, so he just wrapped his own hand tight around Tony's wrist and lifted his hand to his eyes.

Gold material, uncannily resembling his underarmour, covered Tony's palm, and was spreading out, to his wrist and arm – his whole body.

Steve bit his lip hard.

"I'm Iron Man," Tony said. "Quite literally."

"How," Steve said through gritted teeth.

Tony shrugged. "I store my underarmour inside my bones now." He looked at Steve, and huffed a breath. "Don't give me that, Cap. Do you know – I'm not a superhero, Iron Man is. I'm just a man, or I was. Do you know how that felt? Do you know what being surprised without my armour was like? And now . . ." He trailed off, and in a moment Tony's armour flew into the room, the door opening and closing on its own. The armour assembled in front of the bed. "I can put it on, just like that," he said.

Steve should be relieved. He'd thought so many times about how vulnerable Tony was without the armour, even though he was a strong man – but what Tony said was true. He was just a normal human. Steve knew he should be glad. But Tony's eyes were too dark, and Steve didn't see the man he loved in them. He saw someone he didn't know.

But there was something Tony had said that had never been true, and Steve couldn't leave it.

"You're wrong," he said, and continued before Tony could interrupt him. "You are the hero. You are Iron Man, Tony, but you're so much more than that."

Tony stared at the ceiling. His eyes were blue again. Steve wasn't sure if it had been just a play of light earlier. "I'm an arms dealer, Steve."

"Not anymore," Steve said.

"I wear the armour for a reason. I keep my identity secret for a reason." He closed his eyes. "I'm – look, Steve, you have to be aware you're the only person who thinks that."

Steve shook his head. "It's not true."

"Extremis rewrote me," Tony started as if Steve hadn't said anything. "It healed my body, all the lingering heart issues, all the damage I've done to my liver. I have a healing factor. I can connect to virtually any device with my mind. I can see through satellites." His tone was light, steadily growing more certain and happy, just as Steve was getting more and more upset.

"You know what it did to Mallen," he said.

"Mallen couldn't understand it," Tony said. "He injected himself with an experimental tech he couldn't control."

"And you can?!"

Tony's eyes grew darker again. "I did say I rewrote it," he said. "I personalised it. It worked. It's a part of me now. Call it a quickened evolution."

Steve gritted his teeth. He couldn't understand it. Why did Tony do it? Why did he experiment on himself again? What did it mean that he could connect with tech?

Steve was afraid for him, and that made him angry, that Tony went and did something like this without thinking, without asking, without any reason, leaving Steve scared.

The first part, the healing factor, that the armour would always be near him – all of that was great. But all the rest – the direct uplink to all of his technology? It scared Steve. Tony closed himself in his head too much, too often anyway, and having his tech in his mind couldn't help him.

"I'm happy about it," Tony said, sounding anything but at the moment. "Why can't you?"

"I'm worried," Steve said.

A moment passed, and then Tony rolled on top of him and kissed him gently, and Steve crossed his arms over Tony's back, holding him like that, letting Tony's weight convince him Tony was all right.

***

"Morning," Tony said, coming into the kitchen at six. He was dressed in a suit already, awake like he only was when he didn't sleep at all. Steve knew Tony took ages to wake up, and he could wash and dress with his eyes closed, but not hold an actual conversation.

"When was the last time you slept?" Steve asked.

Tony turned towards the coffee maker, put the mug in there and didn't switch any button, but fresh coffee started filling it anyway. He was looking at Steve, his eyes dark in the way Steve had learnt to associate with Extremis.

"A few days back?" Tony shrugged. "I don't need –"

"Don't give me that," Steve snapped. "You do need to sleep every once in a while, everyone does, can't you try to take care of yourself?"

Steve missed falling asleep with him, he didn't say, because things were still too new with them, and while he always wanted to wake up next to Tony, he wasn't ready to tell him that.

"I don't," Tony said. He reached for his coffee without looking, raised the mug to his lips. "Extremis –"

"You're not a machine!"

Even if he was acting more and more like one.

Tony drank his coffee. "Quit acting as if you're responsible for me," he said steadily. His voice was cold, almost emotionless.

Steve wasn't sure who he was talking to anymore.

Tony walked out without another word.

***

Tony turned around the model of the new Starkpad in his mind. It was almost ready, but maybe if he moved the elements on the motherboard, there'd be more space for –

He finished soldering the cables to the prototype of the holoshield he'd been working on lately. It had started as an idea for a body armour, but he wanted to test a smaller version first –

The CPUs could go to the right, this way he'd fit in another port –

There was a movement outside the door to the workshop. Security cameras showed Peter, stepping from one leg to the other. Tony opened the door, and Peter walked in.

"Hello," Tony said without turning from his work.

"Um. How's work?" Peter asked without moving.

Tony couldn't help it. He laughed. "That's what you wanted to ask?"

"Steveissulking," Peter said on one breath.

Tony swore, dropping the iron. "Steve is a grown man who can deal with his issues," he said.

"He's sulking," Peter repeated. "It sucks. Come on. It's less scary to talk to you about it than be in one room with him. That means something. Tony."

Tony deliberately saved the Starkpad model.

"Peter, I like you and all, so don't get this wrong, but this is none of your business," he said.

Peter twitched. "Sorry," he said. "We all hate to see you arguing."

"None. Of. Your. Business."

Peter half-shrugged. "Okay." He looked around. "Back to the first question though. That looks interesting." He walked towards Tony's workbench. "A shielding mechanism? And –"

"Sorry, Peter," Tony said. "You can play with it later."

In his mind, he connected to the video call Maria Hill was paying Steve now. He could explain the shield to Peter at the same time, but he knew Steve would rather have him nearby for the confrontation, and Tony preferred to be with him, too. S.H.I.E.L.D. had to know the Avengers had a common front, and standing together in front of camera, even just for a video call, always worked better for it.

Tony listened in on the call, not letting them know he was doing it. He shooed Peter out of the workshop.

"It's creepy when you do that," Peter said.

"'That'?" Tony raised his eyebrows.

"You're talking to someone in your head."

Tony grinned. "You're just jealous."

Peter shrugged, walking into the elevator behind him. "Still creepy."

***

Tony sided up with Steve and gave Maria a winning smile. "Discussing the team without me?" he asked.

Out of the camera, Steve reached and briefly squeezed Tony's hand. "I was just telling Director Hill we're not going to change our mind about working with S.H.I.E.L.D."

Tony had heard Steve's words on this subject before, and he was putting it mildly now.

"The New Avengers are dealing well," Tony said. "Stark Industries lawyers are dealing with Jameson's accusations. No need to make it a bigger issue."

"What about you, Stark?" Maria asked. "Because I've heard our database was outdated in calling you a non-powered human."

"Oh, I updated the armour," Tony said. "New team, new look, all of that. But it's still just me inside it."

Extremis was dangerous. The last thing they needed was S.H.I.E.L.D. offering Maya a job, and they surely would if they heard about what it could do.

"If that's all, Director," Steve said.

Maria Hill cut the connection. Tony made sure every recording device was indeed off before pulling Steve closer to him. He breathed in his scent, remembered the feel of his muscles under Tony's hands. Steve was irrational in his arguments, but Tony missed him all the same.

"Any plans?" Steve asked, his breath hot on Tony's ear.

Tony shook his head.

Using Extremis, he sent a message. Mrs Rennie, please cancel everything today.

He did miss Steve.

***

Tony lay on Steve's chest, listening to his heart beating in regular intervals. Extremis analysed it for him, compared it with how it had been moments ago, wild, or to Steve's heartbeat when he slept, and Tony tiredly shut the information off. He didn't want it here. He wanted to focus on Steve, as he was right now – warm, lazy, his arm heavy on Tony's waist.

They should move and shower, but – not yet.

Steve gently stroked down Tony's cheek with his other hand. "What are you thinking about?" he asked.

"You," Tony said.

"Now you have to share," Steve replied, sounding amused.

Tony pinched him lightly. "I'm not going to stroke your ego."

"Oh, so you're thinking good things?" Steve asked, fake surprised.

"Shut up," Tony laughed.

"I was thinking of you too," Steve said. "I love you."

It was a good thing, Tony thought, that he had a perfect memory now. That he could go back to this moment and hear Steve's words again and again, even when he inevitably would decide he didn't really need Tony.

Tony pressed his face into Steve's chest and didn't say a word.

"Hey." Steve's hand was warm on the nape of Tony's neck. "It's supposed to be a good thing."

"It is," Tony said. He swallowed. "And back at you, Winghead."

Steve flipped them over in one smooth motion. Tony didn't really have the energy to protest against it, and he enjoyed having Steve over him anyway, as if he didn't want to let him go. Steve kissed him, slow and languid, his lips wet and gorgeous.

(This too Tony would get to keep forever.)

"Hey," Steve said. "Stop thinking, genius."

Sometimes Tony thought Steve knew him too well.

"I was wondering," he said. "There's a Stark Industries gala next week." As the words left his mouth, Tony realised just how much he hadn't thought about it.

"Yeah?" Steve encouraged him after a few moments of silence.

Tony dug his fingers into Steve's back. "I." He stopped. He really hadn't thought about it past a stray thought, and now – now Steve was smiling at him, and he had to know what Tony was trying to say and wasn't stopping him, and . . . "I thought you might want to play my date," he said quickly.

Steve raised an eyebrow. "Play," he repeated.

Tony closed his eyes and sighed. "I've rarely been more serious in my life," he admitted, "so please, let me pretend I'm not."

He felt Steve kissing the top of his nose. "You're adorable," Steve said. "Of course I'll go."

Tony opened his eyes. "Do you mean it?" he asked.

"Yes," Steve said without hesitation. "Unless you don't. Are you sure you want everyone to know about us?"

"Get off me, you're heavy," Tony said.

Steve did, but he kept one leg over him, keeping him in place. "Tony."

"Yes," Tony said. "I. Yes."

There were so many issues: the board of directors would get mad, for once. Maria Hill could get more annoying, throwing charges of fraternizing in their faces. All the homophobic people.

Out of it, only the last worried Tony, because it was the only thing that would concern Steve as well, really. Tony didn't want to hide him to keep his directors happy, he designed smartphones for that. Maria Hill was annoying, but didn't have any power over them. But people . . . Normal people . . . Tony knew Steve wouldn't be ashamed of him, wouldn't let anyone sway his opinion, but Steve, while used to the attention as an Avenger, wasn't used to having his private life on display like that, commented and judged. Wasn't used to people throwing expletives at him.

But going public – that would mean something.

"Then I'll go," Steve said. "I know it's not that easy, I know people will demand answers as if it's their right to know about our private lives," he said with distaste. "But I don't care."

Tony wondered, briefly, about Extremis. About how unhappy Steve was with it. He wondered, if he were to remind Steve of it now, would his answer stay the same. Maybe he should do it, but in the end, he was too much of a coward. These moments with Steve mattered too much to him.

Tony smiled, and turned on his side to fit into Steve's warm body.

***

Tony was fixing a small dent in the chest plate when the cameras in the corridor registered a move. His hands never faltering, he looked and saw Steve, dressed in his pyjamas but looking infinitely tired, going to the living room.

So he too couldn't sleep. It wasn't really surprising.

A part of Tony's brain still watched the footage of the fight; the bomb going off a second too early, the civilian torn to pieces in front of his eyes.

He wasn't sure if the ability to perfectly recall everything was a blessing or a curse, but now it was definitely the latter. Before Extremis, he could try to forget. Now, everything was saved in bright technicolor, forever. Even further back in time, he would have drunk to forget, and he was always tempted to try, but didn't even know if he could get drunk anymore. Maybe he could program himself to. Maybe . . .

Steve switched on CNN and watched the news, the recap of the fight there.

It was Tony who wore an indestructible suit of armour. Tony who should have gotten to the civilian in time and brought him to safety. It was Tony's fault, and Steve shouldn't blame himself. He was exhausted, Tony knew very well, and he should rest.

It wasn't even a brief struggle. He powered down his workshop and went up, switched the TV off with Extremis as he stood behind Steve. "You should rest," he said.

Steve looked up, and Tony had expected him to at least get annoyed about Extremis again, but he just shook his head. "I can't sleep," he admitted. Tony nodded. He put his hands on Steve's shoulders, knotted at his tense muscles.

"You should rest too," Steve said, and Tony didn't stop moving, but he let out a bitter laugh.

"Pot, kettle," he said, and then, "I'm sorry."

Steve tensed under his hands again. "What for?"

"I should have noticed he was still in the range. I should have noticed the timer was off. I should have –"

"Shut up," Steve interrupted, and his voice was sharp. "Not everything is your responsibility."

"Look who's talking," Tony says, and resumed moving, trying to get Steve relaxed, though he knew how hard it'd be. "Bombs are kind of my speciality, in case you forgot, Steve."

He had known he wouldn't have the time to disarm it, but he had also known he would at least be able to take it up high enough that it wouldn't harm anyone. He stopped to fight Chemistro and he had it all counted out, and he was a futurist, he shouldn't make mistakes like that . . .

"Fuck," he said, quietly.

Steve slipped from under his hands, stood up and walked around the chair, stood in front of Tony, just in his arms reach. "Not. Your. Fault."

"Sit down," Tony said.

Steve gave him a look.

In Tony's mind, the bomb went off again, and again, and again; Tony heard the short scream before it got cut off, remembered freezing for a second, long enough that he hadn't avoided the hit that had dented his armour and had bruised his ribs; Extremis would take care of it, but it wouldn't of –

An explosion, ground shaking, fire, and screams, screams, screams.

Someone was shaking him.

Tony pushed the person away, and they didn't move, not at all, strong hands set on Tony's shoulders, and a voice saying his name.

Tony forced the video to the back of his mind again, and Steve was looking at him, worried even as he seemed mad.

"I hate it." He took his hands off Tony. "What it does to you."

Tony wanted to say it helped him, and also let him protect people, but it was a lie, wasn't it? The fight today had proved that very well.

"Well, it's a part of me now," he snapped.

"Only because you made it so!"

It was better that Steve focused on it instead of the fight, Tony thought, even if a part of him wanted just to sit with Steve on the couch and cuddle into his warmth. "It's a part of me," he repeated. "If you can't accept it--" He couldn't finish the sentence. He turned around, wanted to leave, but Steve caught him by his hand, enveloped him in a warm embrace, and didn't say a word, but didn't let him go.

***

Tony was on his way to the Baxter Building when something suddenly went wrong. It took him less than a second to notice, and then he fell to his knees, his hands at his head, unable to move for the pain over him.

He was trying to reach out with the Extremis, but this was what was wrong: he couldn't feel it. There weren't any feeds in his mind, nothing, just the pain. Before he could try and think past it, pain concentrated in his neck, a sharp, quick sting, and then there was nothing.

***

Steve woke up. Even as he reached for Tony, he knew he was alone in his bed. It wasn't strictly cold – his sheets were warm, the air-conditioning set over twenty degrees – but Tony's warmth was missing, and Steve felt that intimately.

He thought he might be getting a bit too used to sleeping with Tony. What if Tony decided he wanted to move on? What if he wanted someone who actually belonged to this century? Steve trusted him, knew Tony meant it when he'd said he loved him, but . . . The weeks just after they got together were the happiest in Steve's life, but he didn't know how to feel about Extremis. He wanted to like it, because Tony obviously did, but . . . It was like looking at Tony and seeing a different man in his place, a man who was moving away from Steve instead of closer to him.

Early in the morning, still a bit asleep, Steve could admit he was afraid of it.

The thought woke him up. He went out of the bed and on his morning run. The sun was going up, and it seemed like it was going to be a nice day.

Steve thought of the SI gala Tony had invited him to, and laughed at the insecurity he'd felt earlier.

***

Steve was drawing. His hand moved in practised motions, the tip of the pencil just touching the white sheet as he sketched Tony's eyelashes. He was drawing from memory, the lines of Tony's face as clear in his mind as if he were looking at him right now. The Tony on the paper had a slight smile, like the one Tony often had when his eyes met Steve's. It was just a subtle smile, the corners of his mouth barely raised, but it was honest and beautiful.

"Cap?"

Steve carefully pulled the pencil back before looking at Peter. "Yeah?"

"Have you seen Tony? We were supposed to test something in his lab, but he's not there."

Steve frowned. Tony rarely missed out on lab time, especially when he promised to work with someone else. "Not since yesterday," Steve said. "I thought he was working on something, but it might be an SI thing."

Peter flipped himself up and sat on the wall. "Fun has to wait," he said to himself, shot a web at the TV remote and brought it to himself.

"CSI," Steve said, going back to his drawing.

"You aren't even watching it!" Peter called incredulously.

"CSI," Steve repeated mildly. He knew Peter enjoyed it, and if Tony did end up walking in, it'd be worth to see his frown.

But Tony didn't walk in.

He didn't show up to dinner, either.

Steve called him, and Tony didn't answer.

Except, Tony always answered, especially now that he had Extremis and could make phone calls with his thoughts.

But he didn't answer.

Steve bit his lip, sudden worry gnawing at him. The news didn't report any fights with Iron Man in them (and Steve wanted to think that Tony would've called him, if something happened). He wasn't in his office, he didn't leave for any SI journey, he wasn't in his workshop, he wasn't answering his mobile.

It was 11 PM. Steve scrolled through his contacts and called Tony's assistant, not even feeling guilty about it.

"Mrs Rennie," he said. "Forgive me the hour."

"Captain Rogers," she said. "You have more manners than my boss."

"Speaking of whom," Steve said. "Did he have any plans for today?"

"He cleared his morning and said he'd be at the Baxter Building," she answered without any hesitation, clearly knowing his plans by heart. It was admirable, seeing how often Tony changed them. Steve expected the inevitable question – why he was calling her in the first place – but it didn't come.

"Is that all, Captain?" she asked finally.

"Yes. Thank you."

He disconnected the call. There was a chance Tony had gone on an engineering binge with Reed and forgotten all about the time, but – he wasn't answering his damn phone, and his phone was in his head.

It was late, but superheroes rarely kept normal hours anyway. With this justification, Steve called Sue.

She didn't sound asleep when she picked up the phone and said, "Steve?"

"Hey, Sue," he said. "I'm calling – is Tony there?"

He could hear her calling out to Reed, and a few moments later she replied. "No," she said. "Reed said he'd been supposed to come, but hadn't showed up. But you know them, always losing track of time."

"Yeah," Steve said, feeling very cold.

"Steve? What's wrong?"

"It's all right," he said. "Thanks, Sue."

He brought the phone down from his ear.

Tony was gone.

***

Tony woke up with a gasp.

He couldn't access Extremis. He couldn't – he should always be able to, but he couldn't, not now, it was wrong, wrong, wrong, there were no feeds in his head, just terrifying silence, and –

It wasn't true.

“Upload,” someone said.

The feeds returned all at once, and something was –

Something –

Tony –

No.

***

Anthony Stark was a genius.

He would think that AIM realised it, but he supposed he couldn't expect too much from them. Wearing beekeeper suits, really? Which was still nothing compared to how they thought they could kidnap him and try to make him work for them. Really, he thought that after Afghanistan, everyone would have learnt how kidnapping him usually ended.

But this place was different from the primitive cells of warlords, and Anthony had no interest in destroying it. The labs were quite something, even if the so called scientists left a lot to wish for. Still, they could work on easy tasks.

The Scientist Supreme uniform was on a hanger in the room's corner. Anthony had no intention of wearing it, but it worked as a reminder to everyone he called in. The best one of them thought he could outsmart Anthony, and now all that was left of him was the painfully ugly suit. Soon other AIM cells would hear, but . . . Not yet. He wasn't ready yet.

He hummed and immersed himself in the Extremis feeds.

The sensors outside the facility didn't show any signs of life. The speakers emitting a low frequency sound did a good job of keeping animals away, and there weren't many humans around to begin with. There was a storm going on, snow flying wildly. It was minus twenty degrees, five AM.

On the lower levels of the facility, beekeepers were waking up and preparing to continue with their jobs. Anthony thought with disdain about how they needed to sleep so much, still. Extremis took care of it for him. Soon, he could make everyone better, update them to the future just like he had updated himself. A part of his mind was working on a more limited version of Extremis, reverse engineering it from himself. Anthony Stark certainly was a genius, but so was Maya Hansen. He wrote his own code in a programming language of someone else, and he couldn't break it down just yet.

This was okay, though. He would, in time, one core of his mind always focused on that. If it came down to it, he could also break Maya out of prison, but he wanted to avoid that for now. For AIM to, well, advance, it had to have the best minds, yes. It had to be led by Anthony himself. But he had to plan carefully, and he couldn't announce himself just yet. When the time came, he wouldn't need the element of surprise, but it was always better to have it on his side. When he was sure nothing could threaten him, then he would go to Maya. As he said, she was a genius. Extremis was a thing of beauty, a thing that could advance the whole humanity. Even if – when – he broke it down and learnt all its secret, it was Maya's creation, and only with her could he design something that would be safe for the whole population. It could solve cancer. It could make everyone live longer. If they played with it, tried it on plants – it could end world's hunger.

But first, he had to have the power to use it, and that meant staying here and working.

He forced himself to stop contemplating the possibilities, returned to slowly unraveling the code in his mind.

The rest of his consciousness focused on something else: the new armour.

AIM hoped he'd build many Iron Men for them. He wouldn't. Extremis was something to work on, and, when it was safe, to let everyone benefit from it. Iron Man . . . Iron Man was his. In a perfect world, he wouldn't need it, and once he was done with fixing humanity, he really wouldn't, but for now . . . He'd been taken without his armour, and for some reason he knew he couldn't just reach for it.

He frowned. Why couldn't he –

He focused on something else: the new armour.

He had to build it. The schematics were almost ready, but it was a research part of AIM, and it didn't really have what he would need to build it. He'd catalogued it already and sent a few of the beekeepers to get the resources for him. Of course, most of what he'd put on their shopping lists was unnecessary, but no one should know what really was needed. He expected everything to arrive in a few days.

He moved on. He looked at American news stations now.

Someone was levelling New York. Anthony sighed. He didn't know their motivation, and maybe it would be worth it, because the end result was what counted, but it was so much destruction. The speaker said, "The Avengers were able to stop –"

The Avengers –

Anthony had to build a new armour for himself. The schematics were almost ready . . .

***

The armour was amazing. It was beautiful, gorgeous, a wonderful piece of tech, it was the best Iron Man suit Anthony had ever designed. It was all sleek lines, painted in black and red. The repulsors were stronger, and he'd put in another set of wiring, a security layer for Extremis, mostly. He knew very well that every system could be hacked.

He vibrated with excitement as he let the armour embrace him.

It was like coming home, to feel the suit around him, responding to his commands. He could remote control it, of course, and it might be the logical thing to do, but it wasn't the same. He needed to be in the armour.

He mentally looked over the code again. He knew there weren't any bugs, but he checked anyway.

There was . . . Override . . . 34-44 . . .

He mentally looked over the code again. He knew there weren't any bugs, but he checked anyway.

Everything was perfect.

He smiled. He turned three hundred and sixty degrees around. "What do you think, Ste--" He cut himself off. There was no one – there should be a man –

He mentally looked over the code again. He knew there weren't any bugs, but he checked anyway.

Everything was perfect, and Anthony was pleased with himself.

***

Extremis was amazing, Anthony thought, raising his hand to his eyes. The skin was bright blue, but as he looked it changed to red, violet, all the rainbow colours – back to his natural shade of skin, a pale olive one. He could program himself to do so much more –

His thoughts strayed to alcohol. He could drink, and it wouldn't harm him now.

No, he told himself. He wouldn't – every theory had to be tested, and he couldn't risk it, no matter how tempting it was.

But Extremis was amazing. He couldn't wait to give it to everyone.

In his mind, the code was unravelling.

AIM scientists working on lower levels were building weapons to his specifications. No more of those half-assed ice guns; he knew how to design the perfect weaponry. All was going well.

***

Anthony was overlooking the weaponry testing when the sensors outside alerted him to someone approaching.

He looked at the security feeds. It was snowing, of course it was, and the normal cameras weren't of much help. He switched to thermal view. There were five figures making their way towards the building. They were good, they only triggered the last line of sensors.

Anthony activated the defence measures and thought out. They'd had to get here somehow – oh, there it was. A Quinjet. He wasn't sure how he knew the name, but he immersed himself in the plane's systems. They seemed familiar, as if someone built it based on his work – and why wouldn't they, his work was the best. He smiled as he broke the control systems. They wouldn't be getting out of here.

To Anthony's left, a beekeeper aimed at an almost red-hot piece of metal. He fired. There was a hiss, and then ice engulfed the metal in a second, staying strong.

Good.

There was a sudden explosion. Anthony spun around, calling his armour to him, as the south wall crumbled, cold air immediately coming in.

A few people jumped in. He immediately got a lock on their positions, fired. The feeds hadn't alerted him that they got through their security – this was worrying. This meant tests, and a lot of them. The attackers looked human, but his sensors showed him all the ways they weren't. Just one of them, dressed like an American flag, registered as fully human.

Captain America –

Anthony's head hurt. Extremis refused to show him more info. He swore, stopped trying.

A man dressed in a spider suit was shooting webs out of his hands, binding the beekeepers together. Anthony fired at him again. A short man with claws extending out of his fingers was almost at Anthony, and he flew up, fired a repulsor and watched as the burn healed almost immediately. Healing factor, then. A good one.

An energy blast hit his armour, and he flew back.

"Careful!" the first man shouted. "We don't know who's inside the armour –" He rolled away as the beekeeper who'd been testing the gun fired at him, ice surrounding the place he'd been in moments ago.

"I really do think," Anthony said, "that if it's you invading my lab, you should introduce yourself."

One of the AIM scientists said, "But they're the Avengers," and Anthony spasmed once. He didn't know them.

It wasn't important.

He focused on the man with the shield, because he seemed like the leader of this little group. He fired, but the shield reflected it. Steadily firing low-level repulsor shots to distract him, Anthony flew closer and punched the man. His fist collided with the shield with a loud, metallic bang, and the man stumbled a few steps back.

"Who're you," he gritted out. "Where's Tony Stark?"

Anthony raised his eyebrows inside his armour. "My name is Anthony," he said. "I don't think we're quite close enough for nicknames."

The unibeam hit the man straight on, but one of his teammates tackled him to the ground before it could make any damage. This was getting tiresome.

The shield hit him, and he fell down. Through CCTV, he saw it ricocheting and returning to the man's hand.

"Tony," he said.

"I'm Anthony," Anthony said, getting back up.

"Are you," the man said, something almost sad in his voice. Then there was just steel. "Let me try something. 34-44-54-64, armour override."

Anthony started laughing. "Do you think I include something as simple –"

"Armour, disassemble," the man continued, and Anthony's armour fell to the ground around him.

No. This wasn't possible –

"You need overrides, Steve," Tony said.

"I don't –" Steve started protesting.

"Just in case. It's a computer program, and they can always get hacked."

His head hurt. Something wasn't right.

He saw it coming, and he had a lot of tech at his disposal here, a lot of tech he could command with Extremis. He did nothing as a woman clad in red punched him in the face.

***

Steve ran to Tony's side immediately. Around him, Spider-Man, Wolverine and Logan were subduing the last beekeepers. Spider-Woman stood over Tony. "He'll sleep for a while," she said.

Steve nodded. Tony's armour – one Steve hadn't seen before – lay in parts around him. Tony himself was in loose black clothes. There was a bruise on his face blossoming already. Steve reached out to touch and stop himself.

He looked like Tony. He was Tony. But –

He wasn't Steve's Tony. Not unless a punch to the head was all it took to fix whatever was wrong – he must have been mind controlled somehow, but he seemed to be in charge here, and Steve wasn't sure what to think. He wasn't able to keep his cool, all logic leaving him in face of a Tony who tried to fight him, who didn't remember him, who –

"Cap," Spider-Woman said. "You all right?"

He nodded, distracted. He wanted to gather Tony in his arms and knew he couldn't. Hating himself for it, he took out a piece of rope and bound Tony's hands together. It wouldn't help them if he woke up and went rampant with Extremis, but better to keep him bound anyway.

The trek through the Arctic hadn't been easy, but . . . It kind of had been, at the same time, when he'd known – hoped – he'd find Tony at the end of it. Now . . . He shook his head.

They needed to call S.H.I.E.L.D., but Steve wasn't going to let them have Tony, mind controlled or no.

"Spider-Woman, can you get the Quinjet here?" he asked.

"On it, Cap," she said.

"Spider-Man, Wolverine, Luke, go through the rest of this facility, find out if there's someone else here," Steve said. It wasn't a big AIM cell, but they had to be sure. And – if Tony actually worked for them as it seemed so – they had to find his tech and destroy it."Spider-Man, make back-ups of what you can, delete the rest."

"Gotcha," he said.

Steve looked at Tony again and immediately forced himself to take his eyes off him. It was too difficult not to reach out to him. Instead, he slowly walked to where AIM scientists were webbed together. He knelt next to one of them.

"We're going to have a little talk," Steve said, pulling the man's helmet off. It revealed a rather scared looking, middle aged man.

"I'm only a chemist!" he said.

"Yeah, you've had nothing to do with what's going on here," Steve said. "Tony Stark." He ran his finger over his shield.

The scientist swallowed. "They brought him in a week ago," he said. "A day later, the Scientist Supreme was dead, and Dr Stark took his place."

"I have problems believing that," Steve said. "See, Tony Stark is a friend of the Avengers. Not likely to go running a terrorist science lab."

The chemist started frantically shaking his head. "I don't know what happened," he said.

Steve stood up, leaving him. He should talk with someone higher up, but –

The Scientist Supreme was dead, the man had said, and the suggestion that it was Tony who had killed him was more than clear. But Tony wasn't a murderer, and if he was kidnapped and mind controlled – by whom? If the leader of this organisation died? Did they brainwash Tony, and lose control over him? Tony was a genius; with his morals stripped, he'd make a formidable villain.

And when he came to himself, he'd be terrified at himself. Steve fisted his hands in anger.

"Cap!" He turned to see Spider-Woman, back, very distinctly Quinjet-less. She took a few gulps of air. "The Quinjet is down. The systems are fried, as if . . ."

"Extremis," he finished for her. "Okay. Another plan. Look for some AIM transporter. We'll call S.H.I.E.L.D. for clean up, but I want to be able to get back to New York without them."

He didn't exactly trust Maria Hill, not even close.

They would need a dampening field, something to stop Tony from fighting them with Extremis when he woke up. Steve had to ask Spider-Man when he was back. Alternatively, Tony had been talking with Reed a lot lately, maybe he would know how to subdue him.

Contacting the woman who created Extremis was out of the question. Maya Hansen was in prison, and with good reasons.

Spider-Man came back at last, a few USB drives in his hand. "That's it, Cap," he said.

"Good," Steve said. "Keep them safe. Now, if Tony wakes up and he's still – hostile – we have to find a way to stop him from using Extremis."

Peter shrugged. "I don't know how it works exactly," he said. "But it lets him connect to tech. There have to be wavelengths of some kind . . . We can try shutting him in a screen room. Tony has some in the Tower, for tech safe-keeping." He ran his hand over his head, as if he would try to mess up his hair if only he didn't have the mask on. "If he wakes up on the way . . ."

It won't be pretty, Steve finished in his head. "Okay. Spider-Woman found us an AIM plane. We're taking it home as soon as S.H.I.E.L.D. gets close."

Everyone nodded.

Steve steeled himself and called Maria Hill.

***

Steve called Pepper and Rhodey on their way back. Even if Tony wasn't quite himself, they were worried about him, and Steve had promised to let them know as soon as he found him. Then it was just waiting, strapped in in a strange plane, watching over Tony, waiting for any signs of him waking up – just so he could knock him out again, if it came to it.

Steve hated it, but he knew he had to do it. Tony with Extremis was dangerous, extremely dangerous, and if he hurt them, it wouldn't be his fault, but he wouldn't see it this way.

It was nerve-racking, waiting for the smallest twitch with nothing else to do but think.

Think of how Steve's override codes worked on what seemed to be a new armour, an armour that Tony had only just built. Steve wasn't sure how he should feel about it. He'd tried them more out of desperation than anything else, not really expecting them to work – and judging by Tony's words, he hadn't expected them to work either. Had he put the codes in subconsciously? But he didn't know Steve. He didn't recognize him, or any of the Avengers.

What the hell had they done to him?

Steve reached out and pressed his hand to Tony's cheek. He wanted him to wake up and be his Tony. He wanted him to be all right. He wanted him to be safe.

He was scared, not just for Tony, but also of him, and he hated it.

***

They arrived at the Tower without any problems. Tony was still unconscious, and – they weren't really sure it was him. Peter took a blood sample, because they couldn't very well run any tests on Tony himself – if he woke up, surrounded by high-tech scanners, he'd break them.

Then they emptied one of the screened rooms Tony had of all tech, put in a small cot, and lay Tony on it. Steve stayed inside. They didn't want to risk leaving even just a simple camera there, nothing that Tony could in any way hook up to. No one quite knew what Extremis was truly capable of.

A part of Steve wondered, deep inside of him, if it wasn't Extremis doing this to Tony. Tony had been so . . . distanced lately. Not like himself at all. Steve had been afraid of losing him. What if his fears had been correct? What if that was it? Not AIM's work, just the virus Tony had injected himself with?

Steve shook his head. He couldn't think like that. He didn't even know if –

A small moan caught his attention. He wanted to sit next to Tony and hold his hand, but his hands were cuffed, and Steve forced himself to stay on the other side of the small room. It was a few moments before Tony's eyes shot open. His face was screwed up in pain.

"Tony?" Steve asked carefully.

Tony looked at him, and Steve knew – it wasn't his Tony. "Ah, it's you," he said. "I told you it's Anthony."

Steve took a deep breath. "Anthony," he said, hating the word. "Do you know me?"

Tony – Anthony raised his cuffed hands. "That doesn't seem to make me want to answer."

"You have to understand proper security," Steve said.

Anthony snorted. "A dark room with no tech –"

"Problems with Extremis?" Steve asked in a pleasant voice. With every breath, he was reminding himself: do not show that you care. Do not think of Tony. Focus on who this man is, and how he came to be. But it wasn't this easy.

"Yeah, that's not too friendly of you either," Anthony said. He was breathing slowly, carefully. Steve wondered if being cut off Extremis hurt Tony.

"So you won't say anything," Steve said.

"Not unless you do, no."

"Good bye then," Steve said. Anthony didn't react.

Steve left, carefully closing the door behind him. Luke was sitting on the other side.

"You're alone," he said.

Steve closed his eyes, let himself slide to the floor. "It's not Tony," he said. "Or, well, it is – it looks like him, he has Extremis – but . . . Peter's running the tests." He shook his head. "I'm going to call Reed. We need help here."

Luke nodded. "I doubt Tony could break down this door, but I'll stay."

"Thanks."

***

Anthony opened his eyes when he heard the door opening again.

His head hurt.

Extremis worked, Anthony tested it on himself, everything was all right with it, but the externalk feeds were cut – he clearly was being kept in a screened room – and it made his head swim. He wasn't used to hearing just his own thoughts anymore, to feeling a barrier between himself and the world – his armour included. It was wrong, and it hurt, and it unsettled him. It was hard to keep his thoughts in check. He should be trying to think of a way to break out of here, but his thoughts returned to the blond man who had visited him earlier, who by all evidence was the one holding him captive here – and Anthony realised he should be more worried about it, but he wasn't.

The man who now entered the cell was middle-aged, with greying temples. Anthony thought he looked familiar, and a moment later his mind supplied: Reed Richards, Mister Fantastic. Anthony fought the urge to rub at his temples. He shouldn't have had problems recognising him . . .

"Hello, Tony," Reed said.

"It's Anthony," Anthony said, not really sure why.

"That's a new thing," Reed said. He sat on the floor, and Anthony noticed he had a chessboard with him.

They had switched to playing on multiple chessboards years ago, but there weren't any conditions here for that, Anthony knew.

Reed was a friend, in a way, so Anthony raised his hands. "I' never thought you'd talk to me when I'm handcuffed and not mention it."

Reed smiled in a strange, sad way. "You're not feeling well," he said. "I've only one board with me, so . . . Do you remember where we stopped at board eight last time we played?"

Anthony did, but he was sure so did Reed. Still, he told him where to put the figures. Reed was clearly looking for something in Anthony, and Anthony wanted to know what it was.

"Steve is worried," Reed said, putting his queen in place.

The pain in Anthony's head flared up.

Reed was a friend, in a way, so Anthony raised his hands. "I've never thought you'd talk to me when I'm handcuffed and not mention it."

Reed raised his head, very suddenly, his neck extending until he was just next to Anthony. He looked him in the eyes intently, and Anthony felt unsettled by the scrutiny. "Did you bring this chess board here to look me in the eyes?" he snapped.

Reed slowly moved back. "Do you remember where we stopped at board eight the last time?" he asked.

Anthony did.

***

"How is he?" Steve asked as soon as Reed closed the door behind him, the old-fashioned chess board under his arm.

"I think you know the answer to that, Steve," Reed sighed. "Extremis – I think it's Extremis – doesn't let him think of some topics. You're included there. It didn't change his intellect, but everything else . . ." Reed shrugged. "I have to run tests on him."

"No," Steve said without a pause.

"Extremis," Reed said. "I know. He – Anthony – he knows me, but I don't trust him not to turn on me in my lab. You said none of the AIM scientists know what was done to him. Telepathy is not AIM's thing, but even then, Tony tested it after getting Extremis – it's hard to influence him this way now – so our best bet is that it is kind of an Extremis virus. The only way to check that is to connect him to a computer and run a scan."

Tony wasn't a computer to be scanned, Steve wanted to say, but even he knew he was, a bit, these days.

"You want to drug him," Steve said.

"Believe me when I say I don't want to do it." Reed shook his head. "But I don't see another option." He frowned. "You said Peter had run scans on him, but I might repeat some."

Steve knew protesting wouldn't lead anywhere. Reed and Tony were similar, both of them scientists, and Tony always preferred to get his own results. Steve missed him so much. He knew Reed cared for him – they were good friends. He wouldn't risk his life or health.

"It has to be your lab?"

"I work better there." Reed hesitated. "However, Tony's might be more suited to the Extremis work."

"I'm gonna call Hank," Steve said. He hated the idea of drugging Tony, but they couldn't risk him running away. The only thing Steve could do was to make sure Tony was in safe hands.

***

The wait was excruciating.

Steve was in the gym, punching the bag, because if he couldn't keep his mind busy, he would at least keep his body doing something.

Sure, he could be in the lab with Reed, Peter and Hank, he could sit there and watch what they were doing without understanding a single thing, and all the time, Tony's prone body would be in his sight. Steve wasn't sure he could stand that.

He just wanted Tony back.

The week he'd been gone had been hell, but at least Steve had had something to focus on: finding Tony. Now . . . Now he couldn't do anything. There wasn't a problem he could punch in the face. It was something out of his grasp and experience, something he couldn't help with, and he hated it. He hated Extremis, for doing this to Tony.

He almost hated Tony for getting it in the first place.

"Cap?"

Steve slowed his movements, turned around. Hank McCoy was standing in the door. He didn't look as if they had had a breakthrough. "You got something?" Steve asked anyway, not daring to hope.

"I'm sorry," Hank said, his voice gentle. "We're a bit out of our depth."

Steve looked down. If they said that, who could help?

"It's definitely an Extremis issue, but – it's like a programming language for the human body, and none of us know it. What little Tony told Reed isn't enough for us to try and reverse what AIM did to him, or at least not to do it without risking Tony's health."

"So what you're saying is we won't get Tony back," Steve said, amazed at how he could even get the words out. His body was very tense, and he was staring straight at Hank now, as if daring him to say that was it, Tony was gone, this strange villain left in his place.

"I'm saying we need someone who knows Extremis," Hank said.

Someone who . . . "No," Steve said. "No. She's in jail for a reason."

"Maya Hansen is a genius, and your only chance of getting Tony back," Hank said. His posture, full of worry and insecurity, was at odds with how he looked, blue fur and limbs ten times stronger than a normal human's.

Steve knew he was being irrational, but – if not for this woman, none of this would have happened, and now he had to ask her for help? Who was to say she wouldn't make it even worse?

"AIM managed to do this to him without her," he said.

"AIM didn't particularly care about frying his brain," Hank said sharply.

Steve inhaled. That hit home. "Okay," he said, "but she's still in jail."

"And you're saying Captain America can't get her out," Hank said. "Come on. Call S.H.I.E.L.D."

Calling S.H.I.E.L.D. now was even lower on the list of things Steve wanted to do than inviting Maya Hansen in, but the alternative was to break into her prison, and that was out of the question. Steve unwrapped the bandages from his hands.

He didn't like what he was about to do, but it was still a hundred times better than not doing anything at all.

***

Maya Hansen looked disbelieving. "He shut down my research, he put me in jail, and you're expecting me to help him," she said.

Steve leant over the table. "Correction: you put yourself in jail by giving Extremis to Mallen."

"Are you arguing over semantics, Captain America?" she asked. "You seem very desperate to save an arms dealer."

He took in a deep breath. "We're offering you a chance to redeem yourself."

"Redeem?" she laughed. "Five years, and I would have cured cancer. I'm not the one in need of redeeming."

"You help him, you get to work again. Do you really prefer to be locked up, all your ideas wasted? Do you want to spend the rest of your life thinking of what you could have achieved?"

"And who would oversee this lab, I wonder," she said.

Steve wouldn't be above begging her. She was stubborn and too sharp for her own good. He could see why Tony liked her. She was a genius, and dangerous, she was what Tony could be if he didn't care about what was right.

How Tony was right now, Steve didn't think.

"Help him," he said.

"I couldn't care less about Tony Stark," she said. "This lab had better be good."

He let out a breath of relief.

***

This time, Steve decided to stay in the lab. He trusted Reed. He didn't trust Maya.

He tried not to look at Tony, lying very still, a cable connected to his neck. It was wrong, he wasn't a machine . . . He'd made himself one. Steve hated Extremis.

"This is not pure Extremis," Maya was explaining. "Of course, it's programmable, it was designed this way, but the first tests were made with supersoldiers in mind." Steve had to fight not to yell at her at that. "Tony edited it for himself. A technopath instead of a soldier," she said. "Of course, it's very him. He always has to know best." Despite her words, she ran her hand through Tony's hair with something like care. "You're telling me they made him into a villain. Do you mean, he's more like me?" she said, sarcasm dripping from her words.

"Maya," Hank said. "Stop. You know Tony. He'd hate it."

Steve hadn't been sure if he should be surprised or not that they all had known each other, Peter aside. They each focused on another branch of science, but they'd met on various conferences, or back in college, when all of them had been younger than most other students.

"And why should I care," she said, but she started looking through the readings of Tony's brain activity. She nodded, walked to the screen that apparently had the code of Tony's mind on it.

Steve's head hurt at the thought of it.

"Okay," she said. "That was brute force. But . . ." She scrolled a bit more. "The person who did this. They might have worked on the early stages of the project with us."

Steve snorted. "And you deny being a terrorist," he said.

She turned around, faced him. "So when one of your superheroes snaps and goes on a killing binge, does that make you a supervillain?"

"Steve," Hank said. "I think you should leave."

"And leave her with Tony," Steve said, shaking his head. "After she gave it to him in the first place –"

"You think I gave Extremis to him?" she asked, something weird in her voice.

"After he injected himself with it and for all I know, she watched –"

"Yes," she said. "I watched for twenty four hours, because there was 97% chance he'd die, and –"

There was – what? "And you let him do it?!" Steve yelled. He knew Extremis was dangerous, but . . .

"You should know there's no letting Tony Stark do anything!"

"You were friends, and you let him risk it, risk killing himself and for what –"

"To save his life!" she yelled. "3% chance of survival beats 0%, which he had with the internal injuries Mallen had given him!"

Steve looked at her with wide eyes. It didn't make any sense, what she said. It didn't. Tony – Tony wanted to update, he'd said so much, he hadn't been dying –

"He didn't even tell you," Maya said, understanding dawning on her face. "You hate Extremis, you blame it – and he didn't even tell you it saved his life. Talk about trust," she said.

Steve went out without a word.

Tony had been dying. He'd known it, and he hadn't called Steve. He'd injected himself with an experimental virus that had saved his life – and he still hadn't told Steve, instead choosing to argue about it. Steve didn't know what to think. He wanted to think that Tony trusted him. No, that wasn't it. He knew Tony trusted him, but clearly not enough to share something like this with him. Why didn't he? Steve leant his forehead against the cool wall.

He'd thought they were done keeping secrets from each other when Iron Man's armour had dissolved, leaving a naked Tony underneath it.

***

Steve was sitting in the living room. He was watching some sitcom and not hearing anything that was said. He'd wanted it to distract him, but he'd been kidding himself.

Tony had been about to die. Extremis had saved him.

Extremis had been used to take control of him. To take him from Steve.

Steve wanted to break into the helicarrier and punch every AIM scientist they still had in their cells until he felt better.

"Cap?"

Steve turned to see Peter, a lab coat thrown over his costume. It should look hilarious, but Steve couldn't bring himself to smile.

"Maya says he's fixed."

"Is he?" Steve asked, tiredly.

Peter half-shrugged. "Hank said the drugs will wear off in an hour or so, if he doesn't dose him again. We thought you'd like to be there."

Did he?

Steve wanted to shake himself. Of course he did. He loved Tony, he wanted him back. They could talk about everything later. He nodded. "We have to lock him in the screen room again," he said, not a question.

"Yeah, I don't want his armour to blast my head off if he wakes . . . wrong."

"Peter," Steve said.

"Sorry," Peter said.

They walked to the lab. Maya was sitting in the corner, drinking coffee, and Steve forced himself to remain silent. Reed was leaning over Tony, checking something on the computer screen, and Hank kept his hand on Tony's pulse point.

"We think it'll be him," Reed said, seeing Steve.

"Good," Steve said. "But you're not sure, so we have to get him to the screen room again," he said.

Hank nodded. "Yes. Physically, he's all right. You can take him there."

"I'll wait with him," Steve said. He lifted Tony up. He was a bit heavier than before Extremis, the underarmour hidden in his bones. His weight usually was reassuring; less so now. But holding him like that, Steve wanted to think he could also protect him. He carried Tony to the same room he'd been in before, put him on the cot. It took him a while to remember he should bind his hands again, so he reached for the cuffs that still lay there and put them over Tony's wrists.

Steve knew he should keep away, but he'd been doing that for too long. He sat next to Tony, and waited.

***

Tony stirred, suddenly, and in the next moment he was awake, raising his bound hands as if in defence. "My armour," he gasped out. "Where is –"

"Tony," Steve said, putting a hand to his cheek to ground him.

Tony looked at him, his eyes wild. "Steve? What's –" He stopped talking and looked around. "What's going on?" he asked finally.

"It's you," Steve said, feeling giddy with relief.

"Of course it's me, why wouldn't it be me, Steve, why am I cuffed, what have I done, where's my armour –"

"It's fine," Steve said, reaching for his wrists. He opened the cuffs, threw them away. "How are you feeling?"

"What's going on?" Tony demanded instead of answering.

"I will tell you, but first I need to know you're all right," Steve said.

"I am," Tony said. "And I have a healing factor now, Extremis –" He bit his lip suddenly. "I can't feel anything. No feeds. Nothing." He was working himself up again.

Steve grabbed his hand. "We're in a screen room," he said.

"Why?" Tony asked.

"Let's get you out of here," Steve said. "Can you stand?"

"Yeah, I –" Tony tried to get up and grasped at Steve. "Sorry. Dizzy. Okay now."

"If you want to lay down . . ."

"No," Tony said. "I can't feel Extremis here, it's making my head hurt, I need to get out."

Steve didn't want to be hurting him. He led him outside, nodded at Luke. "He's fine," he said, and in the next moment, Tony fell to his knees, clutching at his head.

"Tony? Tony!" Steve swore, knelt next to him, ran his hand over Tony's back. He glanced back at Luke, who was standing up, alarmed. "Get Reed," he said. He wasn't sure how long it was when Tony let his hands fall down, and he went limp in Steve's arms. "Tony?"

"What have I done, Steve?" he asked, voice painfully quiet. "God, Steve, I killed a man – I worked at AIM – I attacked you."

Steve shook his head. He pressed a kiss to Tony's hair. "It wasn't you."

"But it was!" Tony was shaking. "It was me, I remember all of it, oh my god, Steve, how can you look at me –"

Steve put his arms tighter around him. "It wasn't you," he repeated. "You were brainwashed."

Tony laughed, a hollow sound. "And does that magically fix everything I've done?"

He didn't try to push Steve away, at least. He leant his head against Steve's arm, and breathed deeply. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm really sorry. I should have guarded myself better. I should have – I should have –" He broke off. He was trembling a bit, but he said, "I'm okay, let me –"

He'd just gotten back a week's worth of memories, memories of being the very thing he hated. Steve thought he had all the reasons not to be okay, but he also knew Tony hated showing weakness in front of anyone. "Reed's going to be here soon," he said.

Tony pushed him away, straightened up. "Ah." He took a few deep breaths. His eyes flashed deep black for a moment, a clear sign he was using Extremis. Then he asked, "He fixed me?"

"Hank McCoy and Maya Hansen helped," Steve answered, instead of wondering what exactly Tony had just done to himself.

Tony tensed. "Maya. I'd expect her to poison my coffee at this point, not help."

Steve could see why. "I promised her a lab funded by you."

"Steve, she's insane," Tony protested.

"Overseen by you," Steve added.

Tony shook his head. "A terrible idea."

"She saved your life," Steve said. "And forgive me if I would do anything to –" He heard steps and stopped talking.

Tony stood up, obviously hearing Reed himself. "Sorry for being a dick to you," he said.

"Tony," Reed smiled. "Welcome back."

"Well, I've heard I had the best engineers."

Steve tried not to wince at the word, at Tony comparing himself to a machine once more.

Extremis saved his life, Steve remembered. He had to accept the changes it brought. Keeping Tony alive was worth everything. And if he changed . . . He was still Tony, Steve told himself. Still the man he loved.

"Maya put another firewall on your mind," Reed said. "I expect you'd like to check it yourself, but from what I saw, it's sound."

Tony nodded. "Thanks." He looked absolutely composed, as if he was about to enter business negotiation. "Okay, Reed. Lab time. I feel like myself, but I really want to get through a few scans." He turned to Steve. "I have to do it."

"I know," Steve said. "I'll be waiting for you. Remember that."

Tony gave him a weak smile and left with Reed.

***

Tony raised his eyebrow when he reached his lab. A S.H.I.E.L.D. agent was standing outside. "That's for me or . . .?" he asked.

"Maya Hansen, sir," the agent said. She looked young, must have hated her duty, standing around in the Avengers Tower to guard genius scientists.

Tony sighed. "Great."

He entered his lab to see Hank and Maya sitting there, drinking coffee in silence. Two of his workstations were powered, but he felt out with Extremis and made sure no one had touched those where he worked on the armour. Peter, in his costume and a lab coat thrown over it, was sitting on the wall. Tony smiled in his direction.

"Tony," Hank said. "It's very nice to see you up. How are you feeling?" He started walking to Tony, an intent look in his eyes Tony recognised from all the occasions his doctors were about to shout at him.

"Just fine," Tony said, and it wasn't even a lie. Extremis did wonders on this whole things-he-didn't-want-to-think-about thing.

Steve would hate it.

"Any wooziness?"

Tony looked at him sharply. "You sedated me."

It was logical; they had to keep him under, unable to reach Extremis, or he would have fought them, but –

"And it seems like you didn't even notice," Maya called. "Extremis working wonders, right?"

"Aaaand you," Tony said. "Hello. Short time no see."

He didn't like facing her now. She was too much like he'd been, when AIM took his conscience away. Extremis wasn't safe, and the means mattered, and she didn't understand it.

Maybe Steve was right in promising her a lab to work in. Maybe she could put her brilliant, brilliant brain towards good. Maybe. And Tony wasn't going to break Steve's word, but he'd lock her up the moment her research strayed.

"Stark Industries bought out Futurepharm," he informed her. "I've heard I'm supposed to hire you as a thank you."

He hated what she did, he hated he had to look at her as a villain, he hated that the friend he remembered from years ago seemed to be gone. That was always a risk, when you valued your work enough, and he knew it better than anyone, but – if only she saw it. He was so tired of not trusting people he'd considered friends.

"And I'm supposed to be grateful, trading one prison for another," she shot at him.

"I didn't make your decisions for you," he reminded her, the old argument. "Steve promised, so you'll get the lab."

He connected to the agent's earpiece. Tony Stark here. Can you assist Dr Hansen to her room? Aloud, he added, "Thank you. Now, this nice agent will make sure you get to your room – we have wonderful guest facilities here, if I say so myself – and we'll talk details later."

"Call it the cell it is, Tony," she said, but she left without arguments, and Tony sighed.

"Do you trust her here like that?" Reed asked quietly.

Tony shrugged. "It's not as if she can do anything in the Tower without alerting me," he said. "And –" He cut himself off. She doesn't mean bad, he wanted to say, and he almost laughed at himself. The road to hell was paved with good intentions. He'd know. "I really want to make sure my mind is mine again," he said. He hesitated. "Spider-Man. Do I want to ask how much of my tech they got?"

"None," Peter said, sounding proud of himself. "Cap's got some pendrives for you, but I destroyed all of their hard drives, and they didn't make back ups on external servers."

Tony nodded. He remembered cutting the connection outside, making sure no one could hack into their databases, just after he murdered the Scientist Supreme. He took a deep breath. Do not care, he told himself again, pushing it away, making its thread priority even lower. "Thanks," he said. "Okay. Tests now."

***

Steve sighed, looking at Tony who held the black and red gauntlet in one hand, his face blank.

When Reed and Hank had left, Steve had waited for a while, hoping Tony would show up as he'd promised. But Tony hadn't, and when Steve had gone looking, he wasn't really surprised to find him still working – but what he was working on . . .

"Hi," Steve said, though Tony must have seen him coming.

"It's good engineering," Tony said. "Of course it is. It was me designing it."

Steve went to stand behind Tony. He reached his hand, lightly touched Tony's back. "Not really."

"Do you know another person able to make a suit of armour like mine, Steve?" Tony said. "Because you might want to share that knowledge with the world."

Steve didn't react to the bait. He wouldn't let Tony push him away. He moved his hand up, cupped the nape of Tony's neck. "It wasn't –"

"Stop saying it wasn't me," Tony snapped. "It was me. It can be me. Do you think I need to have Extremis hacked to become this, do you think I never consider the world would be better if I could steer it –"

Steve forcefully raised Tony from his chair and turned him around. Tony looked him straight in the eyes. "I can be a monster, Steve, just ask everyone protesting in front of the Tower every day, I –"

"No," Steve said. "You're not a monster, Tony. You're not a power-crazy villain."

"How can you know?" Tony demanded.

"You're making this choice, the hard choice, every day. To be a hero, to be Iron Man, to fight on the right side. Not to make weapons anymore, even though everyone expects you to. To make the world a truly better place."

Tony stood very still. "It wasn't mind control, Steve. No one told me what to do. They changed a few things – but, Steve, it's not as simple as setting an object's attribute to good or evil. They didn't add anything that wasn't here already."

"If you really believe that, then you're an idiot, Tony," Steve said. "And I have it on good authority you're a genius."

"I set my unibeam on you. It – it can burn the flesh from the bones."

"Oh, do I look like a skeleton now?" Steve asked. "Because no one told me."

Tony gave a short laugh.

"Whatever they did, I'll never understand the details. But even as not-you, even with your mind turned around like that, you programmed in an override for me. You didn't harm me. Don't you think that means you're a good man, Tony?"

Tony made a step towards him, leant his head against Steve's arm. He was simultaneously closer and further, no longer facing him, always hiding behind his masks. "Maya Hansen and I are very much alike," he said, and then added, with terrifying honesty, "It scares me. It scares me, because for a week I was a man who understood what she wanted to do with Extremis. A man who planned to do that, and more. To upgrade humanity."

"But this man is not you, Tony," Steve said gently.

"Isn't it? I call myself a futurist. How is that different, really?"

"You plan for the future. You're trying to make it better. But you don't actually create it by force. You're seeing it, and you wait for us to catch up. This is different."

He understood why Tony was so unnerved, because he knew that becoming the man who called himself Anthony was one of Tony's worst nightmares. Because he only wanted to work for the better, because he loved the planet they lived on and the people who were on it, because he wanted what was best for them, but only if they welcomed it.

“Why did you remember Reed and not me?” Steve asked quietly.

Tony almost smiled at the question. “Extremis changed my memories,” he said, “to fit the personality AIM wanted me to have. Remembering Reed didn't interfere with it. But you, Steve? Extremis couldn't change my memories enough to make me consider you an enemy. So it made me forget instead, put in the failsafes so I wouldn't remember.” Tony looked at him seriously. “You always make me a better man.”

Steve wanted, needed to talk about Extremis with him, but this wasn't the moment. He wanted to suggest sleep, but then Tony shook his head abruptly and took a step back, slipping out of Steve's embrace.

"One question," he said. "And be honest."

"I always am," Steve said.

Tony smiled a bit. "Yeah, that's what worries me. How did you get her out? You know S.H.I.E.L.D. can't have Extremis." Tony stared at his hands.

"Not always then," Steve corrected himself. "I told them Extremis was something she was working on, created Mallen, and you were given the last dose."

"This is pretty truthful," Tony said, sounding uncertain.

"I said AIM forced it on you, and you were uncontrollable," Steve said, looking away. In the corner of his eye, he saw Tony flinch anyway. "This wasn't true," he said. "For all S.H.I.E.L.D. should know, Extremis is gone, can't be recreated."

"And Maya went with it?" Tony asked quietly.

Steve shrugged. "Yeah. I'm not sure why, honestly, but it worked, so . . ."

Tony nodded slowly. Steve could see he wouldn't let it go, but he did seem tired now, and he should rest. Steve pulled him in for a hug again.

"Come to bed, Tony," he whispered in Tony's ear. "You must be exhausted."

"Extremis lets me –" Tony cut himself off, shivered. "Okay. Sleep."

Steve put his arm around him and steered him towards their bedroom.

***

Steve woke up truly relaxed for the first time in days. Tony was in his arms, breathing regularly, using his chest as a pillow. It was 5 AM. Steve usually got up, took a shower and went for a morning run, but today, he didn't want to. He didn't want to leave Tony, not after he was gone for so long. He doubted he'd fall back asleep, but it was okay. He could just hold Tony in his arms, and he didn't need anything else at the moment.

***

"Mmm, Captain America in bed at ten AM?" Tony asked and pressed a kiss to the corner of Steve's mouth. "I corrupted you."

Steve blinked awake. Tony was grinning down at him, looking rested. Clearly Steve had been wrong about not going back to sleep. He reached up to kiss Tony, pulled him down.

They both had fallen asleep almost immediately yesterday, but now, Steve felt all the worry finally leaving him. "I'm so glad you're okay," he said. "You can't imagine. I'm –"

Tony kissed him too, effectively silencing him, his lips hot and demanding. His hand wandered down, and god, they had so much to talk about, but Steve had been so worried about him, he had to feel he really was back, alive and well.

***

Tony went to the kitchen to make himself a cup – or three – of coffee and ran into Peter, eating peanut butter out of the jar. "I'm not sure I said it," Peter said, "but I'm really glad you're back. And you. Not as a crazy genius."

"Are you suggesting I am not a crazy genius," Tony said. Joking was better than remembering.

"But it's our crazy," Peter shrugged. "That's a good crazy. Not Doom-crazy."

Tony smiled at Peter's babbling. He hadn't remembered the Avengers at all, in the AIM facility, and he wondered about it. He knew AIM only added basic hints to Extremis' code, guidelines to his behaviour, thoughts. It was Extremis deciding how to accomplish it, not unlike an AI. Half of the memories he had there didn't make any sense, but as Anthony, he'd never noticed. It was like Tony told Steve: Extremis couldn't have forced him to treat the Avengers as enemies and this was why it'd blocked his memories of them completely. Only now, remembering that week, Tony saw how much something was missing from him then.

The sensors around the Tower alerted him to someone approaching. He recognized Carol and opened a window for her. Moments later, she landed in the kitchen, and jabbed her finger at him. "Is calling to say, 'hi, Carol, I'm all right' so hard to do, Mr Computers-In-My-Head?"

He smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. Only had a few hours for myself."

She snorted. "And I expected you'd call me before working on your armour, okay, stupid of me."

Tony half-shrugged. "You know me so well."

She glanced at Peter. "Sorry. I'm kidnapping him on a coffee date."

"Don't say it where Steve can hear," Peter advised.

"He's out with Sam, you're safe," Tony said.

"Great. Come on."

He knew there would be no discussion with her, so he followed her out, to a little café on the other side of the street. It was almost empty, and they took a secluded table in the corner.

She looked at him seriously. "Are you all right?" she asked.

"Getting there," he admitted, playing with the long spoon for his latte. "A few AIM goons know my identity now." Because of course Anthony didn't care about details like that. As long as they would be kept in separate cells, it would be all right, but then . . . Tony didn't want his company or friends targeted.

"Public identity isn't that bad," Carol said with a smile.

"I tried that once," he reminded her quietly.

"Just saying. Don't worry about it in advance, genius."

"That's kinda my thing," he said, but he smiled almost despite himself.

"Steve was going crazy with worry," she said suddenly. "You mean a lot to him."

He stilled.

He knew it, in theory. Steve had told him as much, and Tony believed him. But hearing it from someone else – that was different.

"You still don't want to join us?" he asked to change the topic.

Carol's look told him she knew exactly what he was doing, but she was going to let him get away with it this time. "I'm good," she said.

"I miss you," he pouted.

She reached across the table to smack him gently. "Then you might call. Did I mention? A telephone? Allows you to--"

"Shut up," he said, laughing.

***

Steve and Tony were left alone in the living room, the rest of the team long gone to sleep. Tony had his feet in Steve's lap, and he was playing with something on his tablet. Steve was rereading The Hobbit, but he suddenly set it down.

"Tony," he said, and waited for him to turn his attention away from his work. "Extremis."

He could feel Tony tense. He tried to sit up, but Steve grabbed his ankle and run his fingers over his foot.

"Yes?" Tony asked, not relaxing one bit.

"You didn't tell me it saved your life," Steve said. This time, when Tony tried to move back, Steve let him.

"Who told you that?" Tony asked with a blank face.

"Maya Hansen," Steve replied. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Tony stared at something behind Steve's head intently. "What was the point?"

"The point is, we're in a relationship. You were badly hurt, you –"

"I got better," Tony interrupted. "What would telling you accomplish? You'd just worry over something you had no way to change. As you're doing now."

Steve took a deep breath. "You said you wanted it."

"I did," Tony said, looked straight at Steve. "I took it, because I was dying, and it had a chance of saving me. This is true. It doesn't mean I wouldn't have tried anyway."

Steve closed his fist. "Why are you always so difficult, Tony?" he asked.

Tony ran his hand through his hair. His eyes were clear blue, all of his attention on Steve. "You hate Extremis," he said. "You made it pretty clear. Steve. Look me in the eyes and tell me I'm wrong."

Steve sighed. "It changed you," he said. "I didn't understand it. I still don't."

"You told me a few days back I'm still me," Tony reminded him sadly.

Steve wanted to reach out and touch him. "You are you," Steve said. "But you have these new powers I don't understand, and it's – I feel like you're getting further from me," Steve admitted, hung his head low.

Tony inhaled sharply. "I'll never leave you," he said like a promise. "But I –"

"You were dying and you didn't even tell me," Steve said again.

"I didn't want to worry you," Tony said. "You couldn't have done anything, you –"

"This is worrying me!" Steve cut in. "I love you, Tony, you can't just hide things like that – I will always worry about you, stop trying to protect me, it doesn't work like that!" He broke off, breathing quickly. "You came back, and you were different, and you were acting as if it was your choice –"

"It was my choice!" Tony yelled. "Why can't you get it? Yes, it saved my life, but it was my choice to take it. I know you hate it, why do my reasons matter?"

"I don't," Steve said quietly.

"What?" Tony asked, sounding lost.

"I don't hate it," Steve explained. "It saved your life. I can't hate it. I just wish you'd told me."

It felt like they were going in a circle, moving on only to end up where they started. Extremis changed Tony, but it didn't change what was important about him, it didn't change what made Tony Tony. Steve didn't know how to make him understand that he always would be worried about him, that hiding things only made it worse, that he loved Tony and wasn't going to stop because he thought him weak – and Tony Stark was the very antithesis of weak anyway. Steve wished he were telepathic, that he could show him how he felt about him.

"I don't get you," Tony said, and Steve knew exactly how he hated admitting to not understanding anything.

"And I don't get you," Steve said. "Not always. But I love you."

"Is it that easy," Tony said.

"We can make it like this."

He waited for Tony to protest, and after a while, he moved closer to him, kissed him on the forehead. Tony reached up, gripped Steve's arm tight. "I thought of you," he said. "Of course I did. But I couldn't call you, because hearing you – I wanted to call you, and I was so afraid."

Steve held him close. "Just – promise me you won't hide things like this from me," he said. "Your health matters to me."

"Okay," Tony said. "Promise you won't get mad the next time I'll land myself in hospital."

"Yeah, no," Steve said, and Tony laughed.

They kissed, without rush, just to feel each other being there, and then Tony leant his forehead against Steve's. "We missed the gala," he said.

"Well, make another one," Steve said. He would gladly focus on that instead of the thought of Tony hurt – again.

"Yeah. Good idea. 'Stark Industries gala to introduce the CEO's boyfriend. The press would love that." Tony dug his fingers in Steve's arm. "You still want to do it," he said, and it sounded just a bit like a question.

Steve leant in and kissed him again before answering. "Tony. Do you really doubt it?"

There was a flash of emotion on Tony's face. "I . . ." He hesitated.

"We've had this talk already," Steve reminded him, smiling playfully.

Tony seemed incredibly tense all of a sudden. "That was before I attacked you," he said.

Circles, Steve thought. "Not you," he said. "And yes, I do want to come out with you."

Tony looked at him for a few moments, and then he nodded, smiling.

They were getting back to normal.

***

Tony watched Maya through Extremis for a bit before coming in. She looked immersed in her work, that, as far as Tony could tell, really had to do with curing cancer and not creating supersoldiers.

"Morning," he said.

She didn't look up at him. "Hi."

He sighed. "Thanks," he said. "I appreciate being back to myself."

"Of course you do," she said.

He came closer, sat on the edge of a desk near her. "I know what Steve told S.H.I.E.L.D. Why did you go with it?" he asked, looking at her intently.

"Not out of sentiment, if that's what you're asking," she said, saving her work and turning to him.

"I'm not an idiot," he said, because there were things neither of them would admit to aloud. "But S.H.I.E.L.D. would give you money if you told them what you can do."

"Supersoldiers were never my goal, Tony," she said. "And that's what they'd want."

Tony shook his head. "That's not it."

She smiled wryly. "Perhaps. I can't trust S.H.I.E.L.D. I can't trust you, either," she said. "But at least now I know what to expect from you, I think," she said.

"Fair enough." He nodded. He hesitated. "If you want – I had enjoyed working with you, before . . ."

"Get out," she said, but there wasn't malice in her voice. He left, but he felt better afterwards.

***

It wasn't the first time Steve had attended one of Stark Industries galas, but it certainly was the first time he had been there as Tony's date. He had to admit he liked it. He'd thought he would feel self-conscious, but that wasn't the case at all. Tony was at his side, and that meant everything felt just right.

Peter was there too, with his camera and journalist pass, and he'd promised to take enough "loving couple" pictures of them to last them a lifetime. Steve couldn't even take offence – he'd realised he hadn't had any pictures with Tony, and he wanted to change it.

There was slow music, and on the parquet, a few couples were dancing. Steve turned to Tony with a grin. "May I have this dance?"

"Everyone will stare at us," Tony said. He looked amazing in the Van Dyne suit, lean and tall. The dark blue tie complimented his eyes. Steve had troubles looking away from him.

"Do I look like I care?" he asked.

Tony laughed quietly, delighted. "And everyone will say I corrupted you." He shook his head, took Steve's offered hand.

"Don't say that," Steve asked.

"It's the truth," Tony said, following him. "But guess what. I don't care either."

Steve wanted to kiss him, but he settled on pulling him close, his hand on Tony's arm.

Tony stepped closer in his space. "I always wanted to dance with you," he admitted quietly. "You always move a bit like a dancer, when you fight. It's beautiful."

Steve could feel his blush. "Have you looked in a mirror today?" he asked.

"Subtle, Steve," Tony laughed, moving after him in the rhythm.

Steve kept him close enough he could still whisper. "I owe Jan a lot of ice cream for that," he said.

"Mmm, might go bankrupt," Tony said.

"Good job my boyfriend is a billionaire then," Steve said.

"I knew you only wanted me for my money," Tony said, mock-offended.

Steve couldn't help himself, he leant in and pressed a chaste kiss to Tony's lips.

"Apology accepted," Tony said, and Steve smiled, feeling utterly happy.

Around them, flash lights were going off, and he knew their pictures would be in every newspaper the next day, and he didn't care.

***

"AMERICA IN LOVE," the headline read.

There were others, less positive. Much less positive. Tony put a filter on what Extremis was showing him, and focused on this one newspaper. A picture of him and Steve dancing at the last Stark Industries gala took all the place on the first page. Steve's profile was visible, and he was smiling gently, his hand resting on the nape of Tony's neck. Tony knew his own expression had been similar. Swaying to the rhythm of slow music with Steve, pressed against him, felt wonderful. He'd gladly stay that way forever.

That was a scary thought.

Across the kitchen from him, Steve held a physical copy of the newspaper. His expression was . . .

"You said you wanted it," Tony said, preparing to apologise, defend himself, do anything.

Steve blinked. He looked at Tony as if he didn't understand. "What are you talking about?"

"You said you wanted to do it," Tony repeated. "You said you were okay with it, you –"

Steve crossed the room to him, the paper in his hand. "I remember," he said. "Why are you acting like that?"

"You're looking at his picture as if you want to burn it," Tony said.

Steve laughed. Tony started to get he must have really, really misunderstood Steve's expression.

"I've never seen myself look at you," Steve explained softly, and god, Tony loved that man.

"I'm dumb," he said.

Steve nodded. "Yes. You are. Luckily for you, I love you anyway."

Tony reached up and kissed him, and he felt Steve carefully putting the newspaper on the table to their right before he put his hands on Tony's hips and held him in place. "I'm keeping this picture," he said.

"I guess old people are sentimental." Tony had to fight to get the words out through his suddenly tight throat. He blinked a few times. "I love you," he said.

"I know," Steve answered.

The future was looking bright.