One moment he'd been standing there, on his tiptoes, helping his ma set the table for dinner, and the next moment his left wrist was itching something fierce, worse than any rash or bug bite he'd ever had, but it didn't hurt—at least, it didn't hurt as much as it had the time he'd broken it when Hutch had pushed him down the stairs at school.
He drew his arm back to see what was wrong with it and turned his hand over to examine the inside of his wrist, where it itched the most.
Letters were forming on his skin from a pool of dark ink that looked like a bruise, but flowed down his arm like he'd spilled an inkwell and rubbed his wrist in it. As the words wrote themselves, the rest of the ink faded away, and then there was nothing but the words, neat and black on his thin wrist.
The words were printed in big block capitals—he could read those!—and Steve carefully sounded them out in a whisper:
"That's what we were about to ask you!" The last word was underlined twice.
They were his special words. He wasn't really sure what they were, except that most kids—and grown-ups, he guessed, because they probably didn't go away—had them and polite people didn't talk about them, and once you got them you always covered them. Sometimes the older kids made jokes he didn't understand. Everyone else had theirs when they were five. It was a year late, Steve knew, but he was smaller than all the other kids, so he thought maybe he'd needed to be a little bigger first.
"What's that you said, dear?" his ma asked. She'd stopped chopping the potatoes, thwack thwack thwack against the cutting board with the big knife, and she was leaning down to look at him.
"I have words," he said, and he was holding out his arm without thinking about it. "On my arm. My special words."
He held out his wrist for a little longer, and then, remembering what was right, he tucked his hand into his pocket. He hadn't been supposed to show his words like that. He wasn't supposed to show anyone, the other kids said—but it was his ma, and he had to tell his ma, didn't he?
"Oh," his ma breathed, and then she was kneeling down on the floor, hugging him, and shaking like she was going to cry. "Steven, darling, that's— that's wonderful, that is. Do you know what that means?" she asked.
He shook his head. "No."
"It means— it means there's someone out there who's going to love you," she said, and she kissed him on the cheek, wetly, like he was a baby.
Steve frowned and thought about this. "Just like you love me?"
His ma laughed, but he didn't see what was funny. "Maybe not quite like I love you, but your someone will love you all the same, in their own way. And you'll grow up, and you'll meet your special person someday. Your soulmate, they call it. And you'll know it's her—or him—because those words will be the first thing your soulmate ever says to you."
He looked down on his wrist with renewed interest. It seemed huge and wonderful and scary all at once, the idea that there was someone out there waiting for him, with Steve's own words on his—or her—wrist, maybe waiting right now, but not knowing it was him.
"My soulmate will love me?"
"Of course." She smiled. "Your da, God rest his soul, was my own true soulmate, and we fell in love the first time we laid eyes on each other. Not every man marries his soulmate, you understand. Sometimes they're only good friends. But they all love each other, every pair."
"And—" the idea occurred to him, suddenly— "does that mean I love my soulmate?"
His ma smiled again. "You will, you will. Maybe not the same way as your father and I loved each other, maybe so. You'll have to see. You'll know when you're around your soulmate. It isn't just the words. You'll both be so happy."
"Can I meet my soulmate now?" he asked, impatient.
She laughed. "It happens when it happens. You can't rush it. Now, you finish setting the table and I'll get the stew boiling and then... you can help me sew you a cuff for your wrist so that you can go out properly tomorrow, how do you like that?"
"Yes, Ma," Steve said, but he couldn't stop staring at the words, excited.
When Steve was nine, Hutch nearly pushed him down the stairs at school again. Steve staggered and held himself up against the wall so that he wouldn't fall, and when he turned he saw another boy pushing Hutch back. The other kid was someone he'd never seen, and that couldn't be right—Steve knew everyone.
"Hey," the kid yelled. "You want to pick on someone, pick on someone your own size!"
Steve stared. No one ever just helped him.
"Arnie," the kid said, grinning at him. "Arnie Roth. My family just moved here. First day of school."
"Nice to meet you."
"I'll draw you something," he blurted out, and Arnie looked at him a little funny. Steve guessed that maybe it was a strange thing to say when you'd just met. "I like drawing things," he said. "All kinds of things. Whatever you want. You helped me out, and it's what I can do—"
"Spaceship," Arnie repeated. "If you like drawing spaceships. I like them."
"All right," he said, and the bell rang.
The next morning Arnie looked impressed when Steve presented him with the drawing, all colored-in and everything. "This is really good," he said, and he sounded like he actually meant it. "I like the tail fins the best. You want to be an artist when you grow up?"
"Yes," said Steve, instantly, and then bit his lip. "No. I mean, maybe."
Arnie was grinning. "Yes or no?"
"Yes, but... I want to be a soldier," Steve confided. "Like my da was."
And Arnie didn't laugh at him, didn't tell him it was crazy and they'd never let him do it. He only nodded, slowly, like he was giving it a lot of thought, and Steve knew, right then, that they were going to be friends.
"Be both," Arnie said.
The room was only a little wobbly. He could walk a more-or-less straight line, all his furniture was in the right places, and when he looked up at Arnie he only counted one of him. It wasn't that bad.
"Geez, Stevie," Arnie said, frowning down at him, "I know it's been a good few weeks since Bill gave you that shiner, but that didn't mean you had to go get one in the other eye to match. You could have— I would have helped you out if you'd waited, you know that—"
But while he was complaining, he was handing over a cold washcloth anyway. Steve pressed it to his face, half-grateful and half-ashamed to need the help at all, the two feelings together roiling uncomfortably in his gut. Arnie'd always been a good pal, since they were kids, but they weren't kids anymore, they were seventeen and his ma had just—
—he couldn't think about his ma, he'd just start crying, and he had to be brave now, like she'd raised him to be—
—and anyway, it had been real swell of Arnie's folks to try to help him out. They'd always been generous, Arnie had always been generous, but there was only so much charity he could take.
Steve pushed down hard against the bruise, covering his eye, so that if he was going to cry at least Arnie wouldn't be able to tell.
"Thanks," he said, "but I was fine on my own." He knew it was sullen, even rude, but he couldn't bring himself to care.
Arnie stared at him for a long while in silence and then ran his hands through his dark hair and grinned, like they'd always been best friends, like they'd always kept talking to each other, like they weren't slowly drifting away even now. "Say, Steve, I've got an idea. If your face looks better by next Saturday night and you're not busy, how'd you like to double-date? I've been seeing this gal, name of Mary, and she's got a cousin, legs like you wouldn't believe—"
He shook his head so fast that the room started to spin. This was why they'd stopped talking, he remembered; Arnie always kept trying to introduce him to ladies, and he didn't want any of that. Why would he want that? Why would anyone want that? He had a soulmate, and that meeting would happen when it happened. Why would he want to date ladies who probably wouldn't be the one? What was the point? It felt dishonest, somehow, wrong and unfair.
"Why do you keep trying to force it?"
Steve didn't even realize he'd said anything until Arnie raised an eyebrow. "Force what?"
"Meeting your soulmate. All those gals you go with."
Arnie's mouth twisted, and something bitter and haunted passed across his face. "Maybe that's how I meet my soulmate, on one of these dates. Ever think of that?"
The answer was snapped back, and that was strange; Arnie had never been mean to him, never. It just wasn't like him. But still, it was an awful lot of ladies, and Steve would bet his last nickel that Arnie had done more than kiss them.
"You don't worry that she'll... mind? Your soulmate? If you've seen all these other gals first?"
He worried. That was why he hadn't ever done... that, he told himself. That, and the fact that he was pretty sure no one was going to want skinny Steve Rogers, with two left feet and no charm to speak of. So really, he ought to have nothing to worry about. His soulmate probably wouldn't even like him like that. Soulmates weren't all lovers. Sometimes they were friends. That was probably the kind he was getting. He'd figured that much out a while ago. He wasn't going to complain.
The bark of laughter was practically sad. "Hell, no. I don't care if they mind." He looked away, and mumbled the rest of the sentence. "I hope they mind."
What? "Arnie, why—?" It didn't make any sense.
Arnie shut his eyes. "My soulmate— he's a man. He's gonna be a man." He looked miserable. "I've never told anyone. Don't ask me how I know. It's— it's real clear. And don't— don't tell anyone. Please."
Steve blinked, confused, with the eye that wasn't swollen shut. "There's no problem with that. Lots of fellas, their soulmates are men too. It just means he's gonna be your best friend, that's all." That was how it worked. Everyone knew that was what happened.
Arnie started to laugh again, unhappy, like he was crying, and when he looked up at Steve his eyes were wet. "How dumb are you?" he snapped, like he was going to be the one to pick a fight, after all the years he'd protected Steve from the bullies, like he was trying to fight himself and Steve was in the way.
He held up his hands in surrender, unarmed. "Arnie, I—"
"That ain't what it means for everyone, and I'm not— I can't— it's telling me I'm gonna— with a man— and I just can't be—" But he didn't finish any of his sentences.
He had no idea what to say. No one had ever told him that was possible, men loving each other like that. It's all right, he wanted to say. It's still love. Arnie was his friend, and he wanted Arnie to be happy, and there was someone out there who would love him and what did it matter if he was a man?
None of the words he wanted to say came out and he could only stare as Arnie stared back, cold and, Steve saw now, terrified under the disdain. He wanted to hug Arnie, but he knew his friend was never going to let him.
"I'm going to prove it wrong," said Arnie, standing up unsteadily and moving to the door. "Maybe my words, whatever, it only happens once. A mistake. I'm going to find a girl. Marry her. Be normal. You'll see."
"Arnie," he said, helplessly, but Arnie was gone.
He knew why they'd picked him for Operation Rebirth, in the most general terms. He had volunteered. He had tried. He wanted to join the war effort in a way that mattered more than collecting tin and drawing posters. He just hadn't really expected it to be him. They would give him a new body, they said, a better body, to use in service of his country, and that sounded just fine to him. He wondered, though, why they hadn't picked someone who was already fit and strong.
Steve was 6'2" now, but that was all he had going for him; he'd grown up but not out, stick-thin and sickly, and here he was, a scarecrow and 4F to boot. Of course he'd been rejected. But he'd volunteered for Rebirth when they'd asked—of course he'd volunteered—and when Dr. Reinstein (whom Steve would later come to know had actually been named Erskine) had been reading off a bland series of inquiries—name, birthdate, birthplace—he had paused very significantly before the last question, which was of course incredibly personal and completely unexpected.
"And do you have a soulmate?" he asked, very precisely, the words clipped, while Steve, sitting there in his skivvies, tried furiously not to blush, because, geez, you didn't just ask that. His hand went to his wrist-cuff by reflex, covering it further.
Maybe the Army always asked this, though; what did he know? No one else had said they did, but that didn't mean they didn't. Maybe if he didn't tell them his words they wouldn't let him do this. But he just— he couldn't. Maybe there was another way. General Phillips had already been willing to let him into this special project even though he was 4F; maybe they could leave one little line blank?
"With all due respect," Steve said, finally, "the words on my wrist are personal and I would prefer not to divulge them unless it is absolutely required of me."
There. He'd said it. But he had a hand on the lacing of his cuff anyway, all the while with his stomach churning, horrified at the thought that they would want to see the words and write them down, impersonally, the same way they'd taken down his weight and height. He pictured his words ending up in his file, and everyone knowing. They couldn't ask this of him, could they?
Reinstein's next words were hurried denial. "No, no!" he said, before Steve could remove his cuff. "We do not need to know what the words are. Of course not! We only need to know if you have met your soulmate yet, do you see?"
He didn't see, but— "I haven't met my soulmate, no," he admitted, and the other man relaxed in... relief?
"Good, good, that is most excellent," he said, and he moved on, as Steve tried to put the awkwardness behind him.
After that, everything happened very, very quickly. It seemed like the Army wanted their super-soldiers as soon as possible, and he would be the first.
It was at the exact moment when Steve was being injected with the serum, under the apprehensive eyes of a dozen white-coated scientists, that he realized just why he had been chosen for this experiment, and why Reinstein had asked about his soulmate: it was a guarantee. It was a promise. He hadn't found his soulmate. Whatever happened now, it meant he was going to survive to meet his soulmate. This wouldn't kill him. It couldn't.
I'm going to live, Steve thought, hope kindling in him anew, and he gritted his teeth against the burn of the Vita-Rays. It's going to work. I'm going to make it through this. And I know it because I'm going to find you. I'll be strong, and I'll find you.
He didn't remember much of the procedure after that.
Reinstein died on the laboratory floor, and in his strange new body Steve looked down at him and realized they'd needed more guarantees.
They'll make a comic book about this very moment, later. And when Steve reads it—and he will—he will read a pristine, near-mint copy of Captain America #1, lovingly treasured for decades, apparently worth more than everything he's ever owned put together, except maybe his shield, and maybe not even that. (This fact will impress and appall him in equal measure.) And then he'll see this panel, and he'll laugh so hard he'll accidentally fold the pages in his hands, and while he'll be apologizing profusely for ruining it, the man who will have handed him the comic will refuse to hear any of the apologies, and tell him the book was his anyway, and tell him it was all worth it to see him smile.
It wasn't wrong, exactly, Steve will say. But we never sounded like that, and that wasn't all we said. And then he'll tell the whole truth. And it won't hurt as much to talk about Bucky as he thought.
But that's later. Much, much later than he would ever have thought.
This was now. And this was how it really happened:
"Holy shit," someone said from behind Steve, voice high and shocked, breaking halfway through. "You're Captain America."
This was going to be very hard to talk his way out of.
Steve was halfway into the uniform, bright blue pants on and the shirt tangled around his arms, and he looked up to see the kid at the door, in the doorway, mouth hanging open. Steve was positive he'd shut the door, and anyway it was chow call and surely—what was his name?—the kid ought to have been eating dinner, not snooping around other people's doors. Steve was starting to feel a little bit wary. Maybe the kid was a spy?
Steve squinted and placed the face, finally. He'd met him once or twice, the boy they kept around because the general'd been sorry the kid's folks had died. Camp Lehigh's unofficial mascot. Bucky Barnes, that was the kid's name. Steve didn't know much about him.
But it seemed like Bucky sure knew a lot about him, now.
He couldn't deny it. He knew that.
He pulled the rest of the costume over his head and nodded. "Suppose I am. But if you want to say anything more about it, come say it in here so the entire camp doesn't find out." He thought he did a good job keeping the anger out of his voice. It was supposed to be a secret, classified information, and this kid just wandered in and ruined it all—
Bucky's eyes were wide, but he stepped inside and pulled the door shut behind him. "I wasn't— I'm not gonna tell anyone else, I promise."
"Not going to brag to your friends?"
"What friends?" Bucky snorted. "No."
"Then what—" He couldn't think of a way to say it without making it sound like he was offering himself up to be blackmailed. What do you want from me to keep quiet about this? Geez.
Unluckily for him, it looked like Bucky knew what he was thinking without him having to say it. Bucky moved closer, tilting his chin up defiantly to try to look Steve in the eye. Steve almost remembered being that short. "The rumor mill says they're sending you overseas, Cap. I want to be on your team."
"You're a kid." Steve stared down at him in disbelief. He couldn't be serious. He didn't really think there was any way this was going to work, did he? Even if Steve agreed, what were they going to do, go to the general and ask to ship the camp mascot to the front?
"I'm sixteen," Bucky said, defensively, which didn't make it sound any better. "You don't think there's other guys my age enlisting, going to war?"
"Not legally," Steve pointed out, pulling his gloves on as he talked, working the left one up over the cuff. "And you're not a soldier. You're not trained for this."
The previous awe in Bucky's eyes was quickly turning to cool stubborn determination, a lake clouding over with ice. "I do what I can. I train. And they let me use the shooting range. I'm a better shot than any of the marksmen." Even pleading, he was proud.
"I prefer not to use guns." Steve's gaze went automatically to the shield in the corner.
"Exactly. That's why you need someone who does. Protection."
Steve blinked. That was... actually not a bad point, but that didn't mean it had to be Bucky backing him up.
"Bucky," Steve said, holding up a hand. "You talk a good game, kid, I'll give you that, but—"
And then he stopped, because Bucky was rolling up his left sleeve to reveal a battered black wrist-cuff, which he then began to unlace without looking up. Steve's mouth went dry. He was going to show him— could Bucky be— no, no, he wasn't, he'd remember, he'd have known if Bucky had said his words when they'd met, and he hadn't— so why was he— what if Steve just didn't remember? What if he'd missed it?
"Relax," Bucky drawled, pulling the string back through the eyelets like this was an entirely normal thing to be doing, like stripping and showing your bare arm was a thing folks just did without thinking about it. "It ain't you."
He wanted to say don't or stop that but he couldn't seem to make himself actually say it. "Bucky—"
"The way I figure it," Bucky continued, still undoing the cuff, "I know your secret now, right? So it seems only fair, you knowing a secret about me. And, well, I only got the one."
Steve knew he ought to look away but at the same time he couldn't take his eyes off Bucky's arm. He'd never seen anyone else's words. You just didn't, unless they were your soulmate. He felt like a complete and utter pervert, but he couldn't stop watching as Bucky picked the lacing out entirely and then peeled away the dark fabric to reveal underneath—
It wasn't English. Steve didn't know what it was. It was neat cursive, the hand strong and confident, but the letters weren't anything he'd ever seen. A couple of them looked like they might be English, but then the rest of it was swooping loops and words that looked like dark ocean waves, moving up and down across Bucky's wrist, some of them with little hooks below the line.
Steve was suddenly, profoundly grateful that he could read the words on his own wrist. It had never occurred to him to be grateful for that before. He wasn't sure if it was worse than the people you heard about whose wrists just said hello.
"What is that?"
Bucky shrugged, and when he looked up his eyes were sad. "Dunno. I tried to look it up once when I was a kid. Think maybe it's Russian, but, well, I can't rightly ask anyone, so I don't know if I'll ever know. I probably won't even know when I hear it."
"So you don't know what it says at all?"
"Nope." Bucky stared at him evenly. "And I'm sure not going to find out if I stay in Virginia, am I?"
Steve stared back, but he knew he'd lost the battle. "All right," he said, but when Bucky started smiling he held up a hand again. "But you're coming with me to explain this to the general. Don't think you're getting out of it."
Bucky was still grinning. "Who do you think told me who you were and where to find you?"
Then he explained about the SAS and the training and everything, how they'd been planning for this, and as he went on Steve began to get the sense that he'd been set up and that every moment since Bucky stumbling in had been an act. He wasn't sure he liked it.
"You couldn't have just told me you were already assigned?" he asked, when Bucky was finished.
"Sure, I could have." Bucky's smile was irrepressible. "But then I wouldn't have gotten to see that look on your face."
Unexpected laughter bubbled up in Steve's chest. "Stick with me, kid. We'll be a good team."
"Thought so. Wait till I show you my new uniform."
They'd set up a perimeter right after Jim and Toro had extinguished themselves for the night. Not that either of their powers would be much good, Steve thought, looking up into the clouded twilight; it seemed likely to rain soon. So the flaming duo were sleeping and Namor was... somewhere nearby, Steve hoped. Namor wasn't very good at taking orders sometimes, but Steve supposed that wasn't the sort of skill you really had the chance to cultivate when you were prince of Atlantis.
He and Bucky had the first watch, and already in the shadows of the trees it was growing so dark that even with super-soldier sight he would hardly have been able to see Bucky if not for the bright tip of his cigarette.
"You light that off Jim?" Steve asked as Bucky slid next to him with perfectly silent steps; the cig was burned down enough that he could have started on it while either of the two more flammable Invaders had still been lit up.
"Nah, Toro," Bucky said, taking a lazy drag. "Want one?"
Steve shook his head, as Bucky must have known he would, and they stood there in the quiet night together, backs to the camp, staring out into the forest. The branches rattled and whispered above them, and Steve looked up, taking in the sight. Ah, there. Everything was all right. Perfectly ordinary. All quiet.
"Hey, Steve?" Bucky's voice was low, unhurried, curious. He hadn't seen anything, then.
"You ever think about what you're gonna do when the war's over?"
He looked over; once his vision adjusted to the greater darkness, he saw that Bucky was leaning lazily against a tree, his arms folded across his chest. His rifle sat next to him.
"Not often," Steve said, just as quietly. "I feel like we've got to make sure it's going to be over before I have any business thinking about it."
"Captain America, all the time, that's you." It was the familiar joshing retort, and Bucky chuckled when he said it.
He resisted the urge to unsling his shield from his back and display it. "You'd best believe it."
"Me, I know what I'm going to do." Bucky's voice was quiet and intense. "I'm going to find her. Some nights I lie awake, and I'm wondering, is she thinking about me? I'm wondering, if I just stepped forward, would she be there, waiting for me, if I just kept walking?"
Steve smiled into the darkness. Bucky was eighteen, of course he was a romantic about his soulmate. It wasn't like Steve hadn't done his own share of adolescent daydreaming about the words on his arm. His one sentence—an easy retort, written in a neat hand, a drafting hand. Maybe an architect, he'd thought. They wrote on blueprints like that, didn't they? His future best friend, an architect, which meant a man. He had liked the thought of that, had envisioned a man who was a designer, a dreamer, whip-smart; he had pictured half-formed scenarios of his soulmate touching him, cuddling him, holding him, even kissing him. He hadn't thought of it as romantic, hadn't thought of it as anything more complicated than something that he just wanted, that he longed for, until the entire mess with Arnie happened and he realized what those feelings had actually been. He realized that, even if he did want that from his soulmate—and he didn't know if he really would when they met—it was likely his soulmate wasn't going to want him like that, if it was rare enough that Arnie was the only man he'd ever met who knew he'd be in love with his male soulmate. The odds were against him there. He wasn't going to mind it, Steve told himself. Of course he wasn't. He'd be happy just to find him. They'd be friends. It wasn't as if they had to— to kiss.
"We're facing east right now," Steve pointed out. "If she's in Russia, you probably would find her if you started walking."
"Yeah," Bucky agreed, sounding wistful. "But you don't think about finding yours?"
He didn't want to talk about it, not while his thoughts still circled how it wouldn't be. Something about the question touched something raw in him, an exposed nerve, and he knew if he kept thinking about it his mind wasn't going to go anywhere good. No point in dwelling on the loneliness. He thought maybe it lived in everyone until they found their soulmates. There was nothing to do for that except find them, and right now there were bigger concerns than that.
So he deflected the question. "You don't hear the other Invaders complaining about it."
He was sure Bucky was raising an eyebrow at him. He could practically picture the dubious stare.
"Most of 'em ain't got reason to complain." Red gloves moved in the dark, as Bucky began to tick them off on his fingers. "Jim ain't human, so he's got no soulmate. Toro—well, he hasn't said, but the way he flings himself at every lady he sees makes me think he's hoping to find his, same as I am. And that leaves Namor. I know he's half-human, but I asked him once and he said Atlanteans didn't have them, which I personally think is a good thing, because Namor's soulmate, can you imagine what that poor girl would—"
"I can hear you, you know," said an imperious voice from somewhere in the tree above Bucky.
To his credit, Bucky didn't startle—almost nothing startled the kid—and instead he looked up and stuck his tongue out. "Wasn't talking to you, Subby."
The branches rustled more vigorously, and then Namor, a pale shape in the darkness, launched himself out of the tree and flew high across the camp to settle in another tree, resuming watch in the other direction.
"Did you know he was there?"
Steve couldn't stop the grin that twitched at the corners of his mouth. "Yep."
"Were you gonna tell me?"
The noise from Bucky's direction was somewhere between a sigh and a laugh. "Anyway. Like I was about to say, everyone else is either trying or exempt. Not complaining. And it's good to think about finding your soulmate. Good to make plans. Good to try. And not just to take your mind off—" he waved his hand— "all this. You may be Captain America, but you're as human as the rest of us—don't you want to?"
He did, of course he did, but now all he could think of, now that he'd started thinking about it, were those innocent teenage fantasies, confusing and—he knew now—unachievable. And that was just an exercise in frustration, wanting any of that.
"I've got time. It's fate, isn't it?" He pointed discreetly to his wrist, even though he didn't think Bucky would see it. "I'm going to live to meet hi— them. That's what it means. So I can't see as there's anything that needs doing. It's going to happen."
"You're going to wait?" Bucky asked, aghast. "Cap, I don't think that means what you think it means. It just means you'll be alive. Doesn't mean anything else about the situation will be to your liking."
"What do you mean?"
Bucky held out his hands in the darkness. "You know how you told me they picked you for a super-soldier because you haven't met your soulmate? Because it meant you would survive for sure? Well, suppose it hadn't worked, huh? All that meant was it wouldn't have killed you. That's all it means. Maybe the procedure would have hurt you, driven you insane, crippled you. Maybe then you'd have met your soulmate and she'd have been the nurse in the hospital ward who changed your bandages."
"God, Bucky." What a thing to contemplate. "How can you even think about—"
"How come you can't?" Bucky retorted.
It was going to be all right. He knew it in his bones. He was going to meet his soulmate, and no matter how much his soulmate wanted—or didn't want—from him, it was going to be perfect. Even if he were in a hospital ward. How could it not be?
"I just know," Steve said, helplessly. "And even if it were like that, it would still be worth it, no matter what. I'd be alive. I'd be grateful."
Moonlight filtered through the tree branches and he saw that Bucky was smiling grimly. "And that's why they made you Captain America." He shouldered his rifle. "Me, I can imagine a lot of things worse than death. I'd rather not live through them, and if I can make it happen that way I'd rather meet her first than have her see me on the other side of them."
And then he stepped past the tree and moved on, a soldier on watch.
Steve stared after Bucky for a long time.
Reaching out, but there was nothing left—
And he fell—
Bucky's outstretched hand, outlined by a bloom of fire—
And he fell—
He'd been wrong. Everything was wrong. He wasn't going to make it. Bucky wasn't going to make it. Even though they hadn't met their soulmates. It had been a lie. It was the last thing Steve remembered thinking, as the water rushed up to meet him. Then the world was cold and darkness, and then there was nothing.
Even at five, Tony knew he was special. He had a gift, his mother said proudly, and even then his father just stared at him like that wasn't good enough.
He never expected his words to be special as well. Oh, he knew all about soulmates, he had read books about it, but none of them had said the words were so big.
Jarvis had just tucked him into bed, wished him good night, and left the room when it began. Tony watched in amazement as the words started at his right wrist and kept going all the way down his arm, a question mark in the middle, another question mark nestling inside his right elbow. And then it went even higher, one last question on his upper arm. Three questions! His soulmate had a lot to say! And he couldn't even read any of it, because the handwriting was so fancy, all cursive, even fancier than what they taught in schools. It wasn't like how anyone wrote now, except—he thought—really old people. Was his soulmate that old? They couldn't be! What did it say?
He wrestled his way out of the sheets and padded to the door. He had to find his father. His father would know what the words meant. He had a soulmate. His father would finally be proud of him.
Jarvis was still in the hallway. "What are you doing out of bed?" he said, frowning and kneeling down to be on Tony's level. "It's bedtime."
Wordlessly, Tony held out his arm.
"Ah," Jarvis said, and for a long while he was quiet, like he couldn't think of anything else to say, but he was smiling. "Congratulations."
"I want to see my dad." He couldn't just ask Jarvis what it said.
"Your father is very busy right now; I'm not sure that's a good—"
"I want to see him," Tony repeated, and Jarvis, sighing, stood and took his hand to lead him down the hall and down the stairs to his father's office.
"Sir?" asked Jarvis, and his father said something indistinct in reply. "Your son wants to see you— no, I informed him you were occupied. He was very insistent."
"All right," said his father, and Tony ran into the room.
"Look, look!" Tony said, smiling. "Dad, my words—"
His father didn't look happy. His father looked mad. What had he done?
His father turned to Jarvis. "Is Maria still up?"
"I believe so."
Jarvis inclined his head and left.
His father didn't say anything. He just stared at him, poured a shot of the awful-smelling liquor he kept in his top desk drawer, drank, leaned back, and kept staring, his face darkening like he was angry.
Tony tried not to cry, but tears were welling up in his eyes. It wasn't fair. He hadn't done anything wrong! He had a soulmate. Shouldn't his father be happy?
"Jesus Christ, kid," his father croaked. "Trust you to screw it all up without even trying. That takes some talent."
Then his mother was in the doorway, her face drawn and worried, and his father jerked his head in her direction.
His mother started to smile. "Howard, that's so exciting! Tony has his words!"
"It isn't exciting," his father snarled. "Tony, go to bed."
He could feel the tears starting. "But—"
He pushed himself out into the hallway, where Jarvis was still waiting for him. Behind him, he could hear snatches of his parents' conversation, and even more than snatches as his father's voice was raised.
"My only son, and he's got words from some— some— old-timey calligrapher in copperplate going all the way up his arm! That's not normal! How's he going to cover that? How's he going to run the company, huh? How's anyone ever going to take him seriously when he's got that?"
"It's only just past his elbow. There's a good chance he'll grow into it, you know that. And there are gloves—"
"You want him to wear ladies' opera gloves and long sleeves for the rest of his life? Our son?"
"Howard, it won't be that bad—"
"He's a freak!"
Tony turned away. He just wanted to go back to bed, somewhere where he couldn't hear any of this, and pretend it hadn't happened, pretend like it had gone the way he wanted it to in his head. It wasn't fair.
"I didn't do anything wrong," he mumbled. "I didn't."
"I know," Jarvis said, and held his hand all the way back to his room. "I know you didn't."
Tony had thought about his words. Of course he had. He had dreamed about his soulmate right up until he was old enough to do some research—and for Tony Stark, that didn't take too long. He learned that he was part of the two percent of Americans whose words would not fit under an average-sized wrist-cuff, and with his words up past his elbow he was definitely on the very far end of the normal distribution. And then, unfortunately, he'd researched the writing: Spencerian script, which—as he had found out—was the standard cursive hand in the United States from the mid-1800s until the mid-1920s.
So, setting aside the very remote possibility that this soulmate of his just had a fetish for antiquated handwriting, he or she was going to be both very confused and very, very old, even going by the most optimistic estimate that they might have been the last of the twenties kids to learn Spencerian in school.
Once he'd figured that out, well... he'd understood his father's disappointment a little better. Not that he wouldn't have been a disappointment anyway. It was maybe even more freakish than the unfortunate few who never had words at all, whose would-be soulmates had died too young to get them.
Tony was twenty-one now, and having known that this was what was coming made it more than a little difficult to look forward to. His soulmate would be practically dead when he met them. And those words—where am I? how did I get here? who are you?—that was probably senility talking. So much for that perfect dream that all the books, that all the movies, that all the happy lovey-dovey couples—hell, even all the happy platonic friends—had promised. His soulmate would probably meet him and keel over right then and there.
That crushed the daydreams flat, really.
He'd been around the world already. Tried to party everything away, live in the moment, take what he could get even if it wasn't going to be true love, or any love. It didn't help. He'd seen what he was missing. It was the one thing he couldn't buy, and it wasn't going to happen.
Well. He hadn't really thought he deserved anything better, had he?
There was a knock at the door. He poured himself another scotch. It was probably happy hour somewhere.
"Yeah?" He didn't bother to get up. "It's open."
Jarvis was standing there, grave and haunted. "There's been an accident."
The last of the morphine had run out yesterday, and Tony couldn't quite remember what it felt like not to be in pain. His chest was starting to feel damp, too damp for just sweat, like he was bleeding through the bandages again, but he didn't really want to look down to check. There were bigger problems. They had maybe ten minutes at the outside before the deadline, before their captors wondered where the weapons he'd promised them were, and Tony very strongly suspected they weren't going to like the answer "installed in an armored exoskeleton I'm planning on wearing in order to break out of here."
"Almost done," Yinsen said, doing something intricate with their one lousy soldering iron on the inside of what was about to be the suit's chestplate. "One more calibration. This is the most delicate part."
Tony pushed his sweat-soaked hair out of his eyes, took a deep breath, and then gasped as he felt his heart thud and stutter, a terrifyingly irregular, pained beat that felt like someone was ripping it right out of his chest. The shrapnel was moving closer. It was now or never. He was running out of time in so many ways.
He glanced up to where they'd suspended most of the suit's frame. He'd done the forging and big welds two days ago, constructing and shaping all the plates, because someone had to and he had been high enough on opiates that swinging a hammer almost hadn't hurt. He'd been planning on checking the fit again, but there just wasn't time. God. His hands were shaking.
He turned back and Yinsen was holding out the finished chestplate, its innards gleaming with circuitry. It was nothing elegant, nothing fancy. It was ugly as hell, it was obviously going to be uncomfortable, and it definitely needed a redesign once he got home. But it was going to work. It was going to get them out of here.
It was sort of like an external pacemaker, more or less, with a rechargeable battery robust enough to power a suit of weaponized armor as well as his heart. Well, as an invention it certainly had the advantage of novelty.
They'd talked this out while Tony had been frantically designing the suit, while they'd been building it. The chestplate would save him, but he would have to wear it nonstop. No one could ever know about this. How could he even begin to explain it? Tony would have to give up everything: the partying, the carefree life he had built, his quasi-romantic conquests. He was already the guy who wore what was practically a shoulder-length cuff full time, which was bad enough; now he'd never be able to take his shirt off for the rest of his life on top of it. And it was looking like that life wasn't going to be very long anyway.
"That's it. Put it on. You have very little time."
The massive chest piece—containing the life-saving chestplate—settled over his shoulders, heavier than he'd been expecting, and Tony panted for breath. It was off-balance and he strove to hold it up—God, he was so weak, he could feel his heart pounding and struggling—while Yinsen reached for the backplate that would counterweight it. The two halves snapped together, pressing down on his shoulders, and... nothing happened.
"It's not working—"
"It's not on yet." Yinsen was briskly handing him pieces of armor, in double fistfuls. "The chestplate powers the whole system, and I'm not turning it on until it's all in place. The charge is already low enough that we can't afford to waste it. Hurry. There's not enough time."
Tony looked down at himself. The silvery metal was bizarre, alienating, like looking at a stranger, a machine, but at the same time it felt... safe. Like a second skin, protecting him. In the suit, behind the mask, he didn't have to be Tony Stark anymore. He could be better. Do better. It was a heady thought. If he didn't have much time left, he might as well do something good with it. He'd always liked those stories about King Arthur, about Captain America, valiant and noble heroes, both equally mythic and remote. He was shaking as he slid the armor over his limbs, snapping the connections into place. His vision was starting to gray out at the edges.
Yinsen had the courtesy to turn away as Tony stripped off the bloodstained wrist-cuff on his right arm, sliding the vambrace over his forearm and watching as the first two questions were covered in metal. It felt strangely final, like he didn't have the words at all, like he was locking away the part of himself that still longed and ached and dreamed. He held the pauldron up to his shoulder, almost but not quite yet blocking off the final question on his upper arm: Who are you?
I am Iron Man, Tony thought, lightheaded, half-delirious, and he slotted the pauldron into place. The words were gone. And Iron Man can't have a soulmate.
Yinsen ran a cord from the chestplate's power supply to the laptop in the corner and tapped a few keys. There was a whirring and then Tony's heart lurched into sinusoidal rhythm; he took a deep, shuddering breath. It was working. It still hurt like a son of a bitch, but at least he could breathe now and think a little straighter.
"The rest of the system is booting up now," Yinsen said, quietly, handing him the helmet, his voice steely with resolve. "And you're still going to need more time. It's been a privilege and an honor, Stark."
He didn't understand until Yinsen picked up the semi-automatic in the corner, one of the few weapons they hadn't cannibalized for the suit. And then Yinsen walked out the door. With the lower half of his body immobilized by the suit, there was nothing Tony could do to stop him.
Over the echoing of gunfire, he slid the helmet on. He would make sure the sacrifice meant something. He was going to make his life mean something. This was his chance. He wasn't Tony Stark. He was Iron Man.
That was all there was. Steve was so terribly, terribly cold, and he couldn't decide whether everything hurt or whether it was too numb to hurt. It was dark, and either his eyes were frozen shut or he didn't have the energy to open them. Nothing felt right. He was lying down; the surface was cool and unyielding. Somewhere in the dark there were noises, low susurrations nearby, then faraway clanging. None of the noises made sense, nothing made sense at all, and he couldn't quite focus enough to figure any of it out. There had been— he had been— what had he been doing? Where was he?
Then he remembered.
His eyes snapped open—not frozen, then—and he saw above him an array of surprised faces. There were two men in garish costumes, one of them a massive man with a cape and armor and a huge hammer, the other in an odd red suit. There was something man-shaped and metallic—a robot? did the Nazis have robots?—gleaming and bright. And there was the quick blur of something that might have been a woman if she hadn't been under five inches tall and hovering in midair. He was hallucinating. He must be. They'd drugged him? They must have drugged him.
And they had Bucky. What had they done with Bucky?
He surged up and shoved them all away, swinging and landing a blow on the closest man, who seemed to be larger than he had been just a few seconds ago. Steve was yelling—he thought he was yelling Bucky's name, but he wasn't sure his mouth was working well yet so it might have been just screaming.
Someone was yelling back, calling to someone else, words he couldn't quite hear, and then air whooshed out of him as someone else fell heavily on his back, trying to pin him. Dazed, he struggled up and then—
The airplane. The explosion. Bucky was dead.
"It's useless," he said to himself, slowly. "I remember now. He is dead—he is! And nothing on Earth can change that."
But Steve had lived. He had survived. His words had kept their promise. He had to live to meet his soulmate. So that meant that maybe, just maybe, Bucky could have survived too. Somehow. Somewhere.
Wherever Bucky was, if he was alive, these people didn't have him.
Steve went limp, dropped, and whoever had been holding him relaxed his grip. They weren't intending to harm him, then. Blinking a few times, Steve looked around the... room? It was cramped, metal-walled, like a ship. And whoever these people were, they weren't Nazis and they weren't Hydra, at least not anyone Steve knew. Maybe they were Allies. Maybe they could be trusted.
He pushed himself to his feet, unsteadily, feeling unreal, like he was walking through a dream and any minute now he would wake up, the way he had felt after Rebirth when he had looked down at himself and seen a stranger's body. Dizzy, dazed, he stared at the people around him, who stared back, just as amazed. He rubbed his eyes again when he saw the tiny flying woman; she was still hovering there when he opened them again, and she grinned cheerfully back at him and waved.
Steve turned to the final figure, the robot, who shone brilliantly, red and gold, as fantastic as something out of Amazing Stories, sleek like the machine-man in Metropolis. Could the robot understand him? He didn't look as advanced as Jim, who'd always looked perfectly human, but who knew what machinery was on the inside of this one?
He might as well try talking to it. He was probably dreaming all this up, anyway. He'd wake up soon, and he'd be in London waiting for the next mission.
The robot tilted its head. His head. It was built like a man.
"Where am I?" Steve asked. "How did I get here? Who are you?"
And the robot stopped, jerkily, all at once, like one of his cogs had come loose or one of his springs had unwound. Maybe there was something wrong with him. Had Steve hit him in the fight? Maybe he didn't know English. Maybe he couldn't speak after all.
"That's what we were about to ask you!" said the robot. His mechanized voice sounded almost human—and completely, utterly astonished, and— and—
There was something he was forgetting. There was something very important—
Those were his words.
It had finally happened, and his soulmate was a robot. A robot.
He wasn't dreaming. He wouldn't have been able to dream this. This was real.
He was... happy? Was he happy? If it was his soulmate, he ought to be happy. Everything was just numb. The robot was staring at him. Was this it? He had no idea.
Feeling like someone else was talking using his mouth, he explained that he was Captain America. He told them the last thing he remembered. He showed off the shield. One of the men challenged him to a practice bout; he won handily.
The robot stared at him and said nothing. Steve wondered, in some small, inexplicably calm corner of his mind, how he was supposed to deal with this. How anyone was supposed to deal with this. Maybe it was a coincidence and someone else would say his words to him; they couldn't be that uncommon. Maybe his real soulmate was somewhere else.
"Listen, this is going to come as a shock to you," the woman said. She was somehow normal-sized now; Steve considered this development and decided that he was physically and mentally incapable of being surprised about absolutely anything else that was going to happen today. He wasn't even going to ask. "But it's important. We've got to tell you something. It's that... the world's not the way you remember it, Captain. The war's over. We won. You were frozen in the ice. That's how you survived. You've been frozen for decades. Over half a century. Closer to three-quarters."
She stood there, smiling encouragingly. She was waiting for him to say something.
"Oh," said Steve, finally.
In the future, people could have robot soulmates, he supposed. He had never thought of it as a possibility before; he knew Jim hadn't had one. Maybe now they could build... human souls? No, that didn't make any sense. The very idea was more than a little disquieting. And the robot had no words on his arm; how did it work without words? Maybe the robot wasn't his soulmate. You were supposed to like your soulmate. You were supposed to feel something. How could he tell? He wasn't sure what he was feeling right now, honestly. Confusion clouded everything. Was he really awake after all?
The robot was still staring, and Steve's eyes met that glowing mechanical gaze. Talk to me, he thought. Say something. The strange feeling deep within him could have been that excitement that everyone promised would come, when you first saw your soulmate. Steve shook his head, dazed, stunned. He just wanted the robot to talk to him— he wanted— he wanted something. He didn't know what he wanted. He was smiling, he thought. Maybe he was smiling. Was this his soulmate? The world tilted, and he shivered. He couldn't slow down; he was feeling everything somehow too much and not enough.
Why wasn't the robot talking to him?
He realized the woman was waiting for him to say something else.
Everyone he knew was probably either dead or about to be. Steve contemplated this numbly. The observation seemed remote, like the way he had felt just now coming out of the ice, like nothing could affect him.
"That's... unexpected," Steve said, as politely as he could.
"Are you all right?" she asked, and how could he even begin to answer that?
She smiled again—it was beginning to look strained now—blinked a few times and then turned to the red-suited man behind her. "Do you think he's in shock? What do I do? Did I break him? I don't want to break Captain America!"
Too late, Steve thought.
His soulmate was Captain America.
The one saving grace of the Iron Man suit was that no one could see his face. Tony was positive that he didn't want anyone to know what he looked like right now. He didn't want to know either. Captain America. It must have been a mistake. The universe was wrong. It had to be a mistake. Oh God. He wanted to laugh. He'd been right about his soulmate being very confused and very old, but— not like this. He could never have imagined this.
God, but he'd had posters of the guy in his room when he was a kid! He'd kissed them good night! And when he'd gotten a little older, well— could you blame him for the fantasies, really? The guy was dead, he was a safe, harmless crush that, okay, had never really faded.
And now he was standing right here. Alive. And he was Tony's soulmate.
Tony swallowed hard as everything within him oriented toward the man standing next to him in one sudden overwhelming rush of feelings: happiness, need, caring, and most of all a great fond warmth, like everything empty within him, everything that had ever been broken and hurting and lonely was just gone. He would never be alone again, the feeling was telling him. He would always be loved. He would always love this man. He remembered that once, drunk and cynical, he'd mocked the way a classmate had described it. Nothing like that could be real, he'd said. Nothing that perfect was real.
The feeling passed through him, locked onto him like the armor wrapping around his body, around his heart, pulled him like a compass to magnetic north. He couldn't stop staring. At least with the helmet on, no one could tell. Cap was staring back at him, poleaxed.
Maybe that explained why the words were so big, he thought, stupidly. Captain America was a big man, so of course his soul's words were huge as well. It made sense. He's big all over, huh? The thought floated through Tony's mind and he stifled a laugh, even as heat ran through him at the idea of it.
Thor had said something and Cap had said something back, and then he was picking up the shield and hefting it onto his arm, demonstrating a few moves in the tiny space, the speed with which he could evade an attack. Tony watched as he did a handspring and all of Tony's feelings suddenly slid into an entirely new dimension, the way they'd been falling anyway: overwhelming attraction. The glimpses of bare skin under the torn uniform were mesmerizing, the play of his muscles even more so. He wanted to kiss him, to touch him, to run his hands through blond hair and see if it was as soft as it looked. He wanted to throw his arms around him and breathe when he breathed and hold him so tightly that they could be one soul in two bodies.
He couldn't, he thought, and everything crashed down around him.
He couldn't have this.
Even if he'd been someone who even remotely deserved someone like Captain America—because Captain America sure as hell didn't deserve an arms dealer whose hands were drenched in more blood than he could think about, more than he could ever atone for—there was no way he was going to live long enough that it was at all a good idea for Cap to get attached to him. If one of the Avengers' many foes didn't take him out, his heart certainly would. He'd had enough close calls already with the chestplate.
And then he'd be the guy who died and broke Captain America's heart. The guy who'd never been worthy of it in the first place. They couldn't do this. He had to not get attached. He had to push him away. It couldn't be that hard. He'd managed it with almost everyone else. Tony Stark, the asshole. That was easy enough to be. And he only had to manage it in one identity, Iron Man, because if he did this well enough Cap was never going to know who he was under the suit. He'd have no reason to suspect Tony of being anything to him; the words wouldn't match the second time.
It was for the best.
He shut the external speakers off so that he wouldn't be able to make any kind of incriminating sound, and hastily he fled the room as Jan started to try to explain that this was the future. The last thing he saw were hurt, confused blue eyes, still tracking him.
He'd left the rest of them in there with Cap. That didn't mean he couldn't listen in; there was a terminal nearby, and it was an instant's work to hack the security audio feed into his helmet.
"—hungry?" Giant-Man was saying, uncertainly.
"Certainly you must be, friend," said Thor. "Let us provide sustenance for you after your long slumber."
There was some rattling, the noise of footsteps in the other direction toward the galley, and then the whine of a microwave.
"Here," Jan said. "It's just— chicken soup, from a can. Nothing fancy."
"I—" The voice hesitated, and he could imagine the look already, Captain America trying to decline.
"At least hold onto the cup if you won't have any," Giant-Man suggested, voice full of uncommon kindness. "It's warm."
There was a pause, and then a quiet slurping sound. "You heated that awfully fast."
Jan gave a little laugh. "Welcome to the future. There's more if you want it," she added, hastily. "There's as much food as you want. You don't—" her voice went higher, a little awkward— "you don't have to worry about being hungry. This is all on Tony Stark's dime anyway, and, oh, maybe I should start over and explain things properly!" She paused. "Does anyone else want to begin?"
"We are the Avengers," Thor said, and his voice resounded proudly. "Your people term us superheroes."
"My people?" Cap said, incredulous.
Jan cut in. "It's a little complicated. We... well, we protect the Earth, when it needs protecting from things that are a little bigger than regular people can handle. Thor here is the Norse god of thunder, from another realm."
"The... god?" Tony thought maybe Cap's voice was sounding a little faint.
Mjolnir rang against the deckplates; Tony could guess that Thor was proving his divinity. "Aye," said Thor. "It is an honor to meet you, good captain."
"Likewise," came the stunned reply.
"And I'm Wasp and this is my partner Giant-Man—or Ant-Man, depending on the situation. You've seen that our powers involve changing size—"
"—due to an application of Pym Particles—"
"—which Giant-Man can and will talk your ear off about at a later date," she said, and Tony could imagine her grinning fondly. "Pleased to meet you, Captain."
"Steve," the other man offered. "Steve Rogers."
Steve. He'd known Captain America's real name, of course; it wasn't quite common knowledge, but all the SI contracts had gotten him an in to the muddle of partial declassifications after the war. It had felt oddly presumptuous to use the name himself. He hadn't exactly spoken to him other than to say the words that had made this infinitely more complicated. My soulmate, part of Tony's mind said, happy, content, and then oh God no.
"Steve, then," Jan said. "So, the Avengers, that's the three of us as well as Iron Man—"
"Iron Man? Is that— was he the one in the red and gold—"
He didn't even have to see him to hear the hope in Steve's voice, the rising excitement. Tony shut his eyes and dropped his helmeted head into one gauntleted hand. This was going to kill him. And they didn't know he was listening, and he really didn't want to know what they said about him when he wasn't there.
"The one and only." This was Giant-Man. "Not sure where he had to go off to—he's always running off somewhere, don't worry about it—but he's our other teammate. I'm sure he'll be back soon."
"Iron Man... the design is gorgeous." Steve's voice was low and awed, and it wasn't anything like the usual compliments Tony got for the armor, from fellow engineers who were impressed with what he'd done, or people who just liked the lines of it—no, Steve sounded like he was half in love with it, and God, God, he was his soulmate, he probably actually was. "I've never seen anything like Iron Man. He's beautiful."
Tony wanted to cry. It wasn't fair. It wasn't.
"Tell that to Tony when we get back to New York," Giant-Man suggested. "You'll make his day. Maybe his year. He'll be so thrilled when we tell him we found Captain America—"
Tony's bitter laughter echoed inside the helmet.
"Tony Stark," Jan clarified. "I mentioned him earlier? CEO—um, owner—of Stark Industries. He made Iron Man. Technically Iron Man's his bodyguard, but he loans him to us. Tony's basically— well, he does a lot of things for us—"
"What she's trying to say," Giant-Man said, "is that Tony is a genius engineer, he's filthy rich, and he's the guy who makes the Avengers possible. He bankrolls us, he makes gear for us, he keeps Iron Man in good repair, and he lets us live in his mansion."
"He's a rich fella who just wants to... give money to superheroes?" Steve sounded skeptical.
"Pretty much." Jan's voice was happy and entirely uncritical. "He's really turned a corner lately, after the— well. That's another topic. Not that the parties he threw in the old days weren't fabulous, but he's a new man."
"Did we mention he's a billionaire? This submarine is also his," Giant-Man said, a little ineptly, too loud, and thank God, because he really couldn't take any more of Jan fucking praising him because he'd done better, because he'd— Christ, he could nearly taste the blood and the sand and feel the click of the landmine that had taken everything from him— he wasn't different, he wasn't better, he was still the same man— he couldn't do this—
"I'm on a submarine?"
"Indeed, good Captain, we travel swiftly beneath the waves," Thor said. "A fine mode of travel, is it not?"
"We were actually out looking for... someone else," said Jan, and Tony was grateful that she omitted mentioning the Hulk. The world was probably complicated enough. "We never thought we'd find you!"
"I never thought—" Steve didn't finish his sentence, and Tony could just imagine exactly what he was thinking. That he'd find his soulmate today. "I never thought a lot of things would happen today, either. It's a lot to take in."
"We'll leave you alone for a bit, then?" Giant-Man offered, and there came the rattling, shuffling noises of the Avengers making their way out the other door.
In the otherwise-silent room, Steve sighed, and Tony finally cut the feed.
Maybe he could convince Steve it wasn't real at all. Hell, Steve had barely been awake. He could just avoid him, pretend it hadn't happened. The words weren't that specific, didn't mention anyone's name; maybe if he just never talked about it Steve would conclude it was a mistake, and anything he might have felt when they met could be passed off as part of the haze of waking up decades in the future.
It was a plan.
He could do this. He had to do this. So what if it felt like ripping his heart out? He'd practically done that once already. He could survive.
Tomorrow morning they'd be in New York, Giant-Man had told him, over dinner. The meal had consisted of a variety of mostly-identifiable foodstuffs coming out of cans and packages, whose quality the Avengers kept apologizing for. It was better than anything Steve had had recently. He kept staring at the door, wondering if Iron Man would join them. Iron Man didn't, but he suspected Wasp was pushing more food than Steve would have presumed to take onto his plate while he was distracted by looking for Iron Man.
And then it was night—or so they said; he couldn't tell. With the addition of a bedroll, the table they'd laid him out on earlier was a much more comfortable place to bunk down, no worse than a number of places he'd slept, and better than dirt. But that didn't mean he could sleep. He stared at the riveted metal above him and thought about how this morning Bucky had grinned that goddamn cocky grin of his at him over the mission briefing, twelve hours, a sheet of ice, and a lifetime ago. He shut his eyes and the plane exploded behind his eyelids in endless plumes of flame. He opened his eyes again, and he knew he shouldn't be cold, but he was shaking with it. Cold sweat was pooling in the hollow of his throat. And if he slept— what if he woke up again tomorrow another century in the future?
Steve reached out, not even knowing what he was reaching for, but there was only air beside him. He felt— he just felt so alone. If only Iron Man had come back, he thought, selfish and knowing he was selfish and resenting himself for it. He didn't know why that should be the thought he tried to pick to sustain himself. Iron Man had no obligation to see him. He was probably off charging or whatever it was robots did at night.
It means he isn't your soulmate, something in him said, calm and inexorable. They were your words but they weren't his. It was probably because he was a robot, after all. Because if Iron Man had been his soulmate, if Iron Man had thought so too, he would have come to see him. He wouldn't have left him alone. You wouldn't do that to your soulmate. So he had to be wrong; that was all there was to it, and he just had to stop thinking about it.
Steve sighed and shut his eyes again.
In his dreams the plane exploded and Iron Man fell through the sky with him and it was Bucky looking down at him and grinning as he lay on the table.
Hey, Cap, you made it, said Bucky, cheerfully, but something about him was wrong, and then Steve blinked again and blood dripped from Bucky's mouth and he opened his own mouth to scream—
He woke up.
Maybe he'd just stay awake all night.
Tony meant to stay out of Steve's way. He had a plan. Okay, maybe it was cowardly as hell, but it was still a plan and it was going to work for him.
His resolve evaporated as soon as he saw the Avengers breakfasting. He hadn't planned to see them for breakfast either—after all, he couldn't exactly eat in the suit—but he caught sight of them at the other end of the corridor, with Giant-Man and Wasp laughing shoulder-to-shoulder and Thor systematically demolishing what looked like several entire melons. And Steve sat there clenching a cup of coffee, white-knuckled and bleary-eyed, not focusing on anything. Shit.
He was down the hall and in the room before he'd really registered making the conscious decision to do so.
"Hey, Shellhead," Giant-Man said, and Tony snorted and hoped that particular name didn't catch on any more than it already had. "Did you want breakfast, or is the coffee going to fry your circuits?"
"Do I look like I can fit a coffee mug anywhere in here?" Tony retorted, and Steve's head shot up the instant he started talking.
"I— Iron Man?" Steve said, his voice a little wobbly, his eyes full of so much hope, and Christ, how could Tony even contemplate doing this to him? All he had to do was say yes, take the gauntlet off, show him the words, make them both happy...
It was the bond talking, Tony reminded himself. Fucking neurochemicals wanted him to be happy, but he knew there were more important things than his own pathetic happiness, like preventing Captain America from being hit too hard by his death from the next unavoidable heart attack. He was just thinking long term, that was all.
"That's me," Tony said, as briskly as possible. "Sorry about running out on you yesterday, Captain; I had to inform Mr. Stark of the news."
Steve grinned like just hearing Tony's voice was the biggest favor anyone had ever done him in his entire life and God, that smile was going to be hard to resist, he just wanted to kiss him so much, make him smile like that and never stop—
"No offense taken," Steve said. "And it's Steve. Please."
Tony could feel himself melting, everything in him just wanting to give in. He should have anticipated this.
"I was thinking," he began, wondering why his mouth was opening when he hadn't actually been thinking anything, "about what happens when we get to port. I'm thinking we go up, the Avengers, run the press gauntlet, give the usual PR statement, and then when the fuss dies down we go get—" he motioned— "Steve here from belowdecks. Put you up in one of the spare rooms, feed you some more, let you get some real sleep in a real bed—" like mine— "get you all settled in to our brave new world, and then we can do all the formal announcements about Captain America later, what do you say?"
Steve relaxed visibly, but then pursed his lips. "I'd hate to be a burden—"
"I'm sure Mr. Stark will give you a room in the mansion," Tony said. "There are lots. You could have more than one. Knock a wall down."
This had possibly been the wrong thing to say. Steve looked even more distraught. "I really wouldn't want to impose—"
"Believe me," Tony told him, "I am one hundred percent certain that Mr. Stark will enjoy your company."
Boy, would he.
He hadn't meant to— well, he hadn't meant to say any of that at all, and he really hadn't meant to be nice about it. He'd have to try harder. He could do this.
Nothing went according to plan, of course.
Perhaps too optimistically, Steve had thought that the future would be done surprising him. And then, after waiting in the bowels of the submarine for much, much longer than he had been told their meeting would take, he clambered up into daylight to find that there were statues of the Avengers, right there on the pier, captured as if they'd been in motion the second before.
The future was very, very strange.
New York was as bright and loud as ever, even if the buildings were newer, sleeker—it was different flesh over the old bones, and Steve wondered if he ought to be more disoriented or less. There was a hotel room, and then there was Rick Jones, the very image of Bucky, which just threw him completely for a loop. And then there was an alien with a ray gun and it turned out he had made the Avengers be the statues and— and—
It had been Namor's orders, the alien said, cringing, cowering, and Steve flinched hard. He'd seen Namor, what, last month? They'd been fighting together. And not only was Namor alive, he had some kind of vendetta against the Avengers, and Bucky, no, Rick, it was Rick standing there staring at them in amazement, because Bucky was dead—
Steve pushed back the cowl and scrubbed at his face with his hands, feeling more out of sorts than ever. Either the future was too different, or it wasn't different enough.
The Avengers looked grateful to be unfrozen. Three of them did, at any rate; Iron Man only stared at him, impassive.
"Thanks, Cap," said Iron Man. "We'll see if we can get more out of him. Whatever Namor's up to, it can't be good."
He used to be good, Steve wanted to say, but clearly that didn't matter. He waited for Iron Man to say something else, to be friendly again, to mention how Mr. Stark had offered him a place, to invite him—
He went back to the hotel room. What else was he supposed to do?
Curling up on the bed, he couldn't shake the feeling that there was supposed to be someone next to him. It was a soulmate thing, common wisdom had always said. You just knew. But it couldn't be right, it couldn't be Iron Man, even if he wanted it to be. Wanted it to be a robot? half of his mind said in disbelief, while the other half shrugged and said, you wouldn't have minded if Jim had been your soulmate, would you? It didn't matter, anyway. He must have been wrong. But it hadn't felt wrong, when he'd met Iron Man...
Steve was woken in the morning out of a nightmare he couldn't remember, unpleasantly, by a heavy pounding on the door. He opened it, shield in hand, to find Bucky—no, Rick, his name was Rick—standing there out of breath. It still took him a few seconds to remember, and then he had to brace himself against the doorframe, joy aborted, only searing grief left.
"The Avengers are looking for you," Rick said, chucking a thumb behind him in an entirely indeterminate direction. "But they didn't know where you were, so I said I'd find you—"
The Avengers still had to help the alien and find Namor. Steve still had a mission. He could do this. He owed the Avengers this much for rescuing him, at the very least. He might not have any right continuing to be Captain America when Bucky was dead, but it would be wrong not to finish what he'd started.
"And you've found me," Steve said, trying to smile, arranging his still-wrecked uniform as neatly as he could. "Point me to them, son."
Which was how he ended up in diving gear, ready to salvage an alien spacecraft.
The team came together with ease. He'd been expecting the Avengers to work well together, of course; he'd seen the way they talked, the way they had handled their informal debriefing of him on the submarine, smooth and fluid even though it had to be entirely unrehearsed. He knew they were going to be good.
When he and Giant-Man hadn't been able to shift the spacecraft by hand, it didn't take the team any time to formulate a new plan: Iron Man had outlined a scheme about constructing a platform out to the crash site, standing on it and using the power of Mjolnir to lift the craft out of the water. He even had the wood ready. He was prepared, Steve noted, admiringly, and the team fell to building without complaint, only trading quiet jokes and laughter as they worked.
What surprised him was that they included him.
"Pass the hammer?" asked Wasp, from the far side of the half-completed decking.
Thor frowned. "You could not lift—"
"Not yours," she said, grinning. "The one for lesser mortals will be fine, thanks."
Giant-Man—not as giant as he'd been earlier—slid the hammer down the planks. "Your wish is my command." He was smiling, as happy as anything, and Steve, remembering how they'd been the day before, started to wonder if there was something else going on between those two.
"Pass it back when you're done," said Iron Man, and the robotic voice sounded amusedly impatient. Steve couldn't help but feel something warm within him at the sound. Stop it. It's not real. It can't be what you think. Iron Man was sitting on the outcropping pounding the supports into the wooden pylon with one curled crimson fist. Clang, clang, clang. "This is hell on the paint job."
Iron Man cared about how he looked? Were all robots vain in the future? It seemed like a strange thing to make a robot be. It wasn't as if they really needed to impress anyone with their appearance, was it?
"You can take it, Tin Man," retorted Wasp, with a laugh. "I need this thing. You don't. You've got options. You can even just repulsor the nails in, can't you?" Steve wondered what that meant.
Even Iron Man's silence sounded pointed, and then he started humming. Steve didn't recognize the song—which didn't surprise him—but both Giant-Man and Wasp started to chuckle.
"If I had a hammer?" Giant-Man said. "Really? That's your plan here?"
When Steve looked over again, he saw Iron Man shrug with exaggerated nonchalance, the movement so very human.
"I was going to offend Captain America with communist folk songs until he felt moved to intervene on my behalf. Or intervene to shut me up, whichever." Iron Man's voice was light, teasing, inviting a shared joke even if Steve didn't understand it. Something in Steve's chest felt bright and tingly.
"Offend me with what?"
"Pete Seeger," said Iron Man, which was supremely unhelpful, and then he began to sing words to the same tune he'd been humming. "If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning, hammer in the evening, hammer— uh. Something. Words. I forget." Maybe his android memory had gaps? Why would his creator give him that?
"No, keep going," Steve said. Iron Man could carry a tune surprisingly well, especially for a robot, and whatever modern music this was, it sounded comforting, like a song he could have known once.
Wasp was still laughing. "I don't think your plan is working, Shellhead; I think he likes you." Steve tried furiously not to blush. "And, anyway, I bet Cap would enjoy the song. And I'm sure Thor will love it too. I remember all the words." And she started singing, in a high, pleasant voice, and hammering on the beat as she went. The song wasn't half-bad, either, all joyful and optimistic, the sort of song that was meant to bring people together.
Steve bent to the work and found himself smiling. He liked these people. They weren't the Invaders. Rick wasn't Bucky. But maybe it could be something good. Maybe he could still be Captain America. Maybe he could help. If they'd let him.
"You know," he said, after they'd built the platform, after Thor had used Mjolnir to shift the craft up, "you Avengers make a great team! In fact, I was wondering—"
Then there was an explosion, and he was flying, and he was falling, and the water was beneath him, closer, closer, and, oh, not again, he thought, as he went down under the waves.
They couldn't lose to Namor. They'd never live that one down.
Tony twisted desperately in mid-air, trying to get enough space between him and Namor to bring the repulsors to bear. It wasn't working. Tony landed hard, hands outstretched, and he felt something in the armor crunch. And then Thor was trying and failing, and Namor had taken Rick Jones as a hostage for Christ's sake, and— where was everyone else?
Giant-Man, grown huge now, struggled up out of the water, fists swinging, but there were too many of them, Namor was too strong, and then—
"Stand down, Namor," a voice yelled, pure command, and Tony stared, open-mouthed, as Captain America pulled himself up out of the sea to stand tall, water running across the scales of the armor in rivulets, down through the rips that exposed bare skin, and God, this was not the time to be distracted. "And let the boy go."
Namor stopped. Stared. "Captain America," he said, and Tony could feel his eyebrows trying to crawl all the way up his forehead. There was some history here. "I had not expected to see you."
"I could say the same," Steve returned. "Please, Namor, whatever you're doing—"
Namor's lip curled. "If you fight with the Avengers, you will suffer their fate."
And then the island exploded.
Tony was getting really, really sick of explosions. On the plus side, when it was over Namor was gone. And everyone else seemed to still be there, so that was... good. Yeah. The best. His ears were ringing.
They dragged themselves upright, Tony a little slower than the rest—something had shorted out in the right gauntlet, probably about when Namor had been trying to punch the living daylights out of him. And gradually, ever so gradually, the Avengers gathered together in a circle. Tony glanced around at all their faces and saw the same mix of emotions that were running through him—relief, excitement, hope, with the dizzying rush of adrenaline not quite gone from anyone's stance—and he knew what he had to say.
"We have an offer to propose to Captain America," Tony said, and behind the mask he grinned, feeling halfway to delirium with the joy of it even as he knew this wasn't the only offer he wanted to be making.
He couldn't resist him. He couldn't stay away, not entirely. All he had to do was... not tell him the whole truth. He'd lied to everyone else. He could manage that much. He had to.
When they all reached out their hands, Steve's gloved hand brushed his armored one and then, just for a second, held on tight.
He wondered what to expect from Tony Stark.
When they'd gotten back to New York, the Avengers had parted ways rather unceremoniously, with Giant-Man and Wasp heading off together, and Thor promising to be at the mansion tomorrow evening before flying off. Rick, nervous and awestruck, assured Steve repeatedly that he would be fine—trying to adopt another orphan already? something that sounded a lot like Bucky's voice said in his head—and then it was him and Iron Man, and Steve wondered if he could ask, wondered if maybe he was wrong, if he was right, and he just wanted everything to stop being so damned confusing—
"I have to go," Iron Man said, apologetically, before Steve could say anything. "Duty calls. I've let Mr. Stark know you're here, and there'll be a car to take you to the mansion shortly. I'll see you tomorrow for the team meeting."
And then, in a blaze of light, Iron Man shot up into the sky. Steve tilted his head back and stared, his mouth falling open. Iron Man could fly? That was— that was so wonderful. Amazing, really, the way he flew. He'd have to—well, he'd definitely have to compliment Iron Man's inventor when he met him.
A dark car, windows tinted, pulled up next to him. A man flashing a Stark Industries identification card was calling out for him, and it was time, Steve supposed.
As the car pulled out slowly into traffic—that was one thing that would never change about the city—Steve thought about what he knew about the Avengers' mysterious benefactor. He was rich, some kind of engineer, and Wasp had mentioned something about parties. Whatever he'd invented to be able to build Iron Man, to make him fly, he'd probably patented it and made a mint. Steve knew the type, didn't he? He'd certainly met enough of that set and done enough gladhanding for the cause. He pictured a middle-aged millionaire, hair streaked with gray, women on either arm and a drink in one hand, dissolute, fancy suit in disarray, clinging to his power and his money like a dragon coiled on hoarded gold, trying to assuage some emptiness in his soul by giving only just enough to the war effort to make himself feel better. They'd always been the sort of men who wanted to meet him just to say they'd met him, to score some kind of political coup by standing next to Captain America, and Steve had hated it. And now he'd practically signed up to live with one, sight unseen. Hopefully he could move out soon and wouldn't have to put up with him for long, or maybe he wouldn't have to see him much.
They turned onto Fifth Avenue and the car pulled up to the curb; the driver got out, held the door open, and Steve found himself standing in front of a massive, gated mansion and rapidly reevaluating his guilt about having eaten too much of the provisions on the submarine. He was beginning to think the entire submarine was a drop in the proverbial bucket for a man who owned something like this. The mansion sprawled out before him, elegant, in a style that was at least familiar to Steve even as it spoke of more wealth than he had ever been comfortable around.
A butler opened the door—of course there was a butler—and Steve tensed up, starting to feel more than a little out of place as he stepped into the grand entrance hall. He was suddenly, acutely aware that his uniform was ripped, hanging off him in places, and still damp—and here he was, needing to make a good impression on the man who funded the Avengers. He looked around wildly, turning to stare at the vaulted ceiling, the plush carpet, the gleaming wood paneling.
"Hi there," a warm voice said from behind him. "Captain America? I'm Tony Stark."
Hastily Steve turned, and everything else was driven out of his head.
Oh, he thought, stupidly. They didn't tell me he was handsome.
The man standing before him was young, and that was the first shock. He couldn't be much older than Steve himself; he might even have been younger. He was nearly Steve's height, which meant that Steve was staring helplessly into bright blue eyes without even having to try. Dark hair curled messily across Stark's forehead, the only thing that was out of place in his otherwise impeccably professional appearance; his mustache was neatly trimmed and he was wearing a suit, which he filled out nicely. And his smile—God, his smile! He was smiling at Steve like there was nothing in the world except him, like every scrap of his attention was focused on him, on this one moment.
Steve tried to remember to breathe. He tried to remember how to breathe. He had no idea what expression was on his face. Oh, he had thought about men occasionally, and even more frequently after he figured out his soulmate was likely to be one, but most men—most people, for that matter—just didn't move him. Clearly he had found the one exception. His heart was pounding. He couldn't think of a thing to say. He couldn't stop staring.
Stark held out a hand, and by rote, Steve reached out to shake it, then shivered when they touched; it felt like lightning running down his spine, his newly awakened desires kindling in him like he'd put his fingers to a flame. The grip was firm, strong, and the hand in his was warm and calloused, the skin a little scarred, not at all what he had been expecting from a billionaire. This man worked with his hands.
They were still holding hands. Steve wanted to keep holding his hand forever. This was going to be a problem.
Steve dropped his hand away and tried to tell himself he had only imagined the flash of regret in the other man's eyes when he did.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Stark," Steve said, finally remembering that he ought to say something. "Steve Rogers, U.S. Army. Uh. Possibly. I'm not really sure. If I'm technically still in the Army."
He needed to shut up. He sounded like an idiot.
"I'll find out for you," the other man said, "but, just, please call me Tony."
Tony. All right.
"Tony," Steve said, and Tony smiled wider. "Call me Steve, then. I wanted to thank you for, well, finding me. They said since I was an Avenger now I'd have a place to stay." A potential complication occurred to him. Maybe they hadn't asked Tony; Iron Man had sounded like he was assuming the whole thing would just happen. "But I suppose, since you own the place, you'll want to approve—"
"No, no," Tony said, quickly, "you're an Avenger if they say you are, room and board covered. You have the run of the house. I have absolutely no veto power. I just put up the cash. All Avengers are welcome. Not that you wouldn't be welcome anyway," he added, with another grin, and some wild part of Steve hoped he was flirting.
"Glad to hear it."
What was wrong with him? Since the serum, people practically threw themselves at him all the time, but none of it seemed real, none of it was anything he wanted. Everyone looked at him and saw only his body. Tony wasn't looking at him like that, hadn't been eyeing him like a piece of meat. He was moving with a half-desperate, nervous energy, looking at him like the only thing he wanted was for Steve to be happy, and Steve... had no idea what he should do with that, except he was pretty sure he shouldn't just grab him and kiss him.
Did other people feel this about just anyone? Was this how you were supposed to feel about your soulmate? If this was how you felt about people who weren't your soulmate, how the hell did you survive being in the same room with your actual soulmate? Tony wasn't his soulmate. The words hadn't matched. All Tony had said first was hi. He ought to— whatever he felt, he ought to stop thinking this. So maybe he was going to get along well with Tony. That was all it should mean.
"So," Tony said, stepping back, practically bouncing on his feet, "do you want the nickel tour?"
Steve couldn't help grinning back. "Do I ever! Fresh out of nickels, though."
"You know I'm the one paying you, right, Avenger?" Tony asked, and, almost but not quite touching him, guided Steve to a staircase. "Come on. You'll actually want to see the basement levels first."
The mansion was impressive, Steve had to concede. On this basement floor alone was a gym, a pool, some kind of combat training room, and a medical area full of more supplies and equipment than Steve thought he had ever seen in one place.
"There are two more levels below this one," Tony said. "The Avengers have a tactical room down there—I'm sure they'd like to show you it themselves, and you'll probably be seeing enough of it anyway—but it's mostly just storage, rack space for the servers—" whatever those were— "and a fabrication area. Lab space. Workshops. For me and Giant-Man, mostly, but you're welcome to stop by if you have the urge to create anything."
Steve stuck his hands in his pockets, fidgeted, and then took them out again. "What do you mean, fabricating? For your company?"
Tony's grin was a little crooked, his tone droll. "SI's got enough factories. Nah, this is all for the Avengers. Iron Man always needs new parts. For some reason people keep breaking him. Very inconvenient."
Surprised, Steve stared at him. "You fix him up yourself?"
"Yeah, of course." Tony's eyebrows raised. "Who else do you think should do it? I invented the suit."
"I—" He couldn't come up with a way to word it that wouldn't be horribly offensive. He had thought that surely the Avengers' rich benefactor would, well, put up the money and leave. Hire someone else to actually get his hands dirty. "I suppose I wasn't thinking. So... that's what you do? Build things?"
"Engineering's where my heart is," Tony agreed, and he laughed a little, like there was something very privately funny in what he'd said. "I build whatever the Avengers need built, and in my copious free time I run Stark Industries. Or maybe the other way around." He grinned, eyes bright. "Just kick me or something if I start droning on about integrated circuit design. I'm going to break the five nanometer limit this year, see if I don't."
Steve wasn't sure Tony was speaking English anymore. "I have no idea what you're talking about." Even so, Tony was obviously passionate about the subject, and Steve was enjoying watching him as he gestured, as he talked.
Tony took pity on him. "Oh. Of course. Among other things, I design... equipment that uses really small transistors?"
"What's a transistor?"
Now it was Tony's turn to stare, but then he looked away like he was trying to think of something. "1947," he mumbled to himself. "Right. Yeah. Sorry. They're part of a lot of things now. Electronics. Mostly computers."
Steve's mind went instantly to soldiers computing the firing solutions for artillery. That couldn't be right. "I— uh—"
"No on computers?" Tony's voice was so gentle that Steve didn't feel stupid for not knowing. "The Allies were developing them during the war, to break German codes, but... I guess they didn't let you know about any of the really fun classified projects, back in the day."
Steve was already forming an impression of the sort of things Tony would consider really fun.
"Oh, I don't know," Steve said, deadpan. "I kind of liked the classified project I was in."
Tony burst out laughing, and the sound was glorious, and God, Steve just wanted to step a little closer, lean in, put his hand against Tony's jaw— he'd only have to tilt Tony's face up a little— kiss him—
"I bet you did," Tony said, still chuckling, walking back to the stairs. "Here, come on, there's a lot more house than this."
Back on the first floor, there was a richly-appointed library, a formal dining room, and an immaculately-landscaped garden that he couldn't see much of in the twilight. It was everything he would have expected in such a mansion, unlike the contents of the basement. The butler, whose name was apparently Jarvis, stood impassively and watched them as Steve, bemused, followed Tony through a massive kitchen that would not have been out of place in a restaurant.
"You like it? The mansion?" Tony asked, and there was an odd note of anxiety in his voice, as if this were very important to him, that Steve enjoy this place.
"It's lovely," he said, honestly, and Tony seemed to relax a little.
Tony turned back. A smile creased his face again, heartbreakingly beautiful. "Good, good," he said, voice soft. "Happy to hear it."
They traipsed up the main stairs to the second floor. "This floor is all bedrooms," Tony said. "I'd show you the third floor, but there's nothing there right now except empty hangar space. Not very exciting." He said this like it was completely normal to have a hangar built atop a mansion.
"Hangars? For airplanes?" Was it some kind of joke?
"For airplanes," Tony confirmed. "Well, quinjets. Really excellent airplanes. You'll like them; they're fabulous. We're just waiting on the new one. The Avengers are awfully rough on them."
"You design airplanes?" He was beginning to think that when Giant-Man had called Tony an engineering genius, that was understating it. This man was brilliant.
"The quinjets? No, they're Wakandan. But I suggested a few, hmm... improvements."
There was no hint of modesty in Tony's voice, no bravado, as if of course I can also design airplanes was a perfectly reasonable thing to say, so obvious that he didn't need to bother saying it.
"Like how you made Iron Man fly?" Steve couldn't help but ask. "That was— that was really something else." He knew he sounded overawed, far too excited.
Tony leaned against the hallway wall; his smile was proud, but the way he looked away spoke of maybe a little embarrassment. "You like him, huh?"
"Yeah," Steve said. His tongue felt thick in his mouth; his whole body suddenly seemed huge and clumsy. "Yeah, I really do. A lot."
There was really no good way to say I was wondering if your robot bodyguard was my soulmate, so he didn't.
Tony half-smiled, still not meeting Steve's eyes. "I'm glad. He— the armor— it's the best thing I've ever made in my entire life. The best thing I've ever done with my life." His voice was raw, too honest, and Steve didn't know what to say. But then Tony stood up straighter, seemed to shake himself. "Right. Let me show you your room."
The rest of their walk down the hallway was strangely silent; no one seemed to be in any of the bedrooms. "All the Avengers live here?"
"They have rooms." A few of the doors Tony waved a hand at were labeled. "They come and go. None of them actually live here full-time at the moment. Giant-Man has a lab somewhere he crashes in more nights than not, and Wasp has, well, several homes of her own." The words seemed to be carefully selected. She was rich too, then. "I don't think I've seen Thor ever stay here for more than a couple days at a time, but there's a doctor in the city, Donald Blake, who knows how to reach him when the Avengers need him. Sometimes Don makes house calls here. Nice guy."
"And Iron Man?"
"Ah." Tony looked a bit uncomfortable. "He stays off-premises. Security concerns." Maybe there was a robot facility, Steve thought. "But he's around the place a lot anyway, maybe more than I am. You'll be able to get in touch with him for Avengers business, no worries. I don't need him all the time." He grinned a little. "I share my toys. Anyway, here you are. I put you across the hall from me, but you can always move if you'd rather have a different room."
"I'm sure this is fine."
They stopped in front of a door at the end of the hallway. There was a plain wooden table next to the door; on it were stacked some thin red boxes, which Tony ignored, pushing the door open and guiding him in.
"Your room," Tony said, talking fast, like maybe he was nervous, although Steve couldn't imagine why. "It's not much, and you can always rearrange it, get new furniture if you hate this stuff. You don't even have to stay here. I can find you a place of your own whenever, wherever you want, just say the word—"
Instead of the flashy opulence he had been expecting, Steve found, to his surprise, something far less showy. The colors were pale and the wooden furniture only lightly finished, but the bed looked big enough to actually fit him, there was a small couch he liked the look of, and although the shelves by the desk were a little bare and lonely, it seemed altogether a room he would be happy to live in. It felt like... like someone who'd known him had picked it out.
"No, this is perfect," he said, and he could feel himself smiling. "Thank you so much."
Tony waved a hand. "It was the least I could do for Captain America."
"You didn't have to do any of this."
"No problem. I had the space." Tony's eyes darted around the room, like there was something he was ashamed of. "So, this might sound a little weird, but, well... I have a few things that used to belong to you. Papers, mementos, a picture or two, that sort of thing. They're in storage right now, and I haven't had a chance to get them out, but, well, they're yours, and I know you don't have anything except the shield and the clothes on your back, so if you wanted—"
"That would be great," he said, honestly, ridiculously grateful that someone, anyone, had wanted to keep anything at all of his. "I'd really appreciate that. Though I have to say, it seems a little strange that folks would hang on to my things this many years later."
Tony seemed not to be able to deal with the gratitude; he hunched his shoulders and didn't quite meet Steve's eyes. "You have no idea how famous you are, do you? What you mean to m— to people?" he murmured. Then he stood up straighter: sharp, crisp, composed. "Your measurements were, uh, on file, so there's some clothes in the closet that should fit you. It's not a complete wardrobe; I figured you'd want to pick things out yourself later. I'm working on a replacement of your uniform as well, but that's custom, that'll take a little longer to turn out. Maybe by tomorrow, maybe a couple more days. That one's just a stopgap, though, because there are so many great bulletproof fabrics these days that it would be practically criminal if your uniform didn't get a high-tech redesign to—oh, right, that reminds me, the tech. Hang on."
Tony stepped outside for a moment, and when he came back in his arms were full of the boxes that had been next to the door. There were three, of varying sizes, and judging by the pictures on them they all contained some kind of blackened glass rectangle; the largest one was somehow combined with a typewriter.
"What are those?"
"I didn't know if you were going to get on better with a laptop or a tablet," Tony said, ignoring the question and handing him the boxes, one by one, "so—careful, they're on the delicate side—I got you both. Pick your poison. StarkPad, StarkBook, and the small one's a StarkPhone."
Steve might not have understood what they were, but— "You made these too?"
"The company does, yeah."
"Surprised you didn't insist on naming the team the StarkVengers," Steve said, blandly, and Tony cracked a smile.
"I should have thought of that. Anyway, this is what we sell. Well, some of what we sell. There are instructional videos— uh, films, when you start them up. Everything you need to know about how to use them is on there, it's pretty self-explanatory, and once you get the hang of one the rest should be easy. But if there's anything you really, really can't figure out how to do, let me know and I will definitely pass that onto the UI department—"
"What do I do with them?"
"A lot of things." Tony spread his hands wide, a salesman hawking the future. "But for your current purposes, they'll let you communicate with people, and you can read up on—or watch—the things you've missed. I'll try to compile some reading material for you and put it on there. Just haven't had the chance yet. And the phone is, uh, also a phone. Makes phone calls. We still make those. Some things haven't actually changed."
Steve frowned. "There's not a telephone in the house?" He couldn't possibly need one in his room.
"In the house? Yes, but— oh. These days everyone has their own. Portable, wireless. Really cool. What do you call it, the bee's knees? You'll love it."
He was still trying to put the whole thing together in his mind. "So I use it to radio the Avengers if I need them?"
But Tony was shaking his head, aggrieved. "Damn, I knew I forgot something. No, no, this is for civilian use. The Avengers have communications cards, but I'll have to make you one from scratch; I don't have any extras lying around right now." He pursed his lips, glanced at the clock, ran a hand through his hair. Steve was beginning to see why his hair was untidy. "That's, hmm, a five-hour job? Those screens were finicky little things. I can have that for you by tomorrow morning. You're going to want it ASAP. Who needs sleep, right?"
"You're not really going to do that," Steve said, horrified at the thought that this man he'd just met, this captain of industry who likely had so many more important things to do with his time, was going to spend all night hunched over a workbench building something with his own hands for him. Just for him. "You don't need to drop anything." He looked around the room, at the pile of boxes Tony had given him; he guessed all those things were expensive as well. "I can manage. You don't need to go to any trouble. You didn't need to do all this for me."
Tony's head snapped up, blue eyes staring into his, and his gaze was intense, piercing, transfixing.
"I need to," Tony said, quietly, but there was steel in his voice. He glanced away, shut his eyes for a moment, face furrowed in something like shame, and then met Steve's eyes again. "I'm not an Avenger. I can't fight. I can't save the world. You can. But this—I can do this. I make sure that the Avengers have everything they need to be able to do what they need to do. A roof over your head. Food. Gear. Whatever you need. That's what I do. That's how I fight. Let me do this for you."
There was no sound in the room but their breathing. Tony's face was set, strong, determined, and there was a tension in his stance, like he was ready to fight if Steve denied him. And that just... made Steve want to kiss him even more, to feel Tony's body pressed against his. He wondered if Tony would yield, if Tony would let him take the lead, or if he'd push him up against the wall, still with that look in his eyes, and—
There was something wrong with him. Tony was a stranger. Tony wasn't his soulmate. He wasn't supposed to feel like this.
"All right." Steve swallowed hard. "Thank you."
Why do you care so much? Steve wanted to ask him. Why are you doing this for me? For the Avengers? But he'd just met the man; he couldn't ask this. Not now, and maybe not ever.
Tony looked away, half-smiled, and the spell was broken. "Right. Going to need a picture, for the Avengers card. If you could put the cowl back on...?"
As Steve pulled the cowl back up over his head, Tony pulled something out of his pocket that was dark and metallic, maybe the size of a pack of cigarettes, but thinner. Much, much thinner.
"That's a camera?"
"This," Tony said, holding the device up, "is a phone. And a camera. And a lot of other things. Yours is in that box there. Stand back, just against the wall there, right."
The device flashed a little and clicked like a camera shutter, and then Tony nodded approvingly and reached into another pocket, rummaging around a bit before pulling out some kind of pen. "Stylus," he said, pressing it into Steve's hand—Steve shivered when their fingers touched—and then poking at the camera... phone... thing. "Here, sign your name on the screen. I'll copy it to the ID."
Steve did, and handed it back, feeling suddenly awkward as he pushed the cowl back again. "Anything else?"
Tony looked at him, and he bit his lip. Steve had the oddest feeling that maybe Tony wanted to kiss him too. But if he wanted that, wouldn't he have asked? Surely he was the sort of man who could have anyone for the asking, the sort of man who was used to flirting, used to asking for whatever he wanted?
"It's silly, but..." Tony's voice trailed off, and he looked away.
"I was wondering if I could take another photo. Uh. With the two of us." Tony's grin was nervous, self-effacing, and his hand went through his hair again. "It would— it would mean a lot to me."
Oh. Tony was a fan. That explained it. That was what he'd wanted. Not... anything else. He wasn't going to feel sad about this. He wasn't.
"Well, sure, of course." Steve flashed him his best newsreel smile, since that was what he wanted, right? "Does that thing have some kind of timer?"
"Not quite. We—here, I'll show you—"
And then Tony was standing next to him, close enough for Steve to smell him—an odd and intriguing combination of hot metal, machine oil, and expensive cologne—holding out the camera in one hand, at arm's length. He'd done something to it so it was showing a little film of both of them, where he pointed, but they weren't quite close enough to both be completely in frame.
"Yeah," Tony said. He shuffled a bit but didn't move near enough.
Steve held out one arm, back behind Tony's shoulders, some twisted part of him half-hoping he could use this as an excuse to hug him, to touch him. "Here," he said, bringing his arm down, "if you just come over here for a sec—"
Before Steve could even touch him, Tony jumped out of the way like he'd been struck by lightning. He brought his free hand up strangely, palm back, and stared at him, terrified, wild-eyed. What had Steve done?
"Sorry," Tony said. He took one ragged breath and then another, apparently calming himself by sheer force of will, and he put his hand down. "I don't— I don't like people touching me. At all. It's not personal. I'm sorry, I should have said."
Ashamed, Steve looked away. "I shouldn't have assumed."
"No harm done. You couldn't have known," Tony said, pasting a smile onto his face like it didn't bother him, even though something was clearly very wrong. "Do you mind if we try that again, then?"
It went a little easier the second time. Steve was staring, fascinated, at the rest of the device, and he entirely missed it when Tony took the picture. He hoped Tony had been smiling. He didn't even know if he'd been smiling.
"There," said Tony, pocketing the camera and stepping back. "Thank you. And that's your first selfie. Uh, picture of yourself. Like that. And I guess that's your first new slang word from the future. That's appalling, I'm sorry, I should have picked a less annoying word. And I promise I won't post this anywhere, if you were worried."
"You won't... mail it?"
"No. Yeah. Kind of." Tony waved his hand. "Go look on Urban Dictionary. Wait, don't."
Steve felt like he could follow one word in five. "I. Um."
"Don't mind me," Tony said, flashing him a final grin as he walked to the door. "I'm going to get started on your Avengers card. You should play with the computers. If you need food I'm sure we've got some. Jarvis'll know. It was nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you too," Steve echoed, watching as Tony disappeared down the hall.
That was— that was—
He had no idea what that was, other than that Tony Stark was the most attractive man he'd ever met in his life and that Tony's robot bodyguard might or might not have been his soulmate. And he had no clue what to do about either of those things. He was probably just confused. He'd been in the future for two days. Of course he was confused. Hell, he kept thinking Rick was Bucky, and that obviously wasn't true. Iron Man couldn't be his soulmate. It was ridiculous. Not possible. Even if he had been human, the words must not have matched; Iron Man would have said. He would have.
It didn't stop him from wanting it to be true.
If Bucky had been here, he would have been laughing his head off.
"It would mean a lot to me," Tony muttered, nasally mimicking his earlier words, as he stumbled into the workshop. Jesus. He might as well have said I've had a giant crush on you since I was a kid and, oh, actually you're my soulmate. What had he been thinking?
He hadn't been thinking, that was the problem. Falling into the nearest chair, he reached for the nearest power cord, unbuttoned his shirt one-handed, and plugged the chestplate in. He might be a lovesick idiot, but at least tonight he wasn't going to be a dead lovesick idiot. He'd almost let Steve touch him. Steve could have felt the chestplate. That would have given it all away.
Iron Man was a hero. Iron Man was brave and selfless and noble. Iron Man had never built bombs for the highest bidder. Iron Man had never gotten blackout drunk and woken up naked save for his cuff with strangers whose names he couldn't remember and didn't care about. Iron Man couldn't be the man who had done that. And Tony Stark was... well, not someone Tony liked being, most days. So it was for the best, really, if no one could ever connect the two.
He'd thought it was bad before, not being able to touch anyone anymore. He'd learned to move nimbly, not to crowd anyone at parties, not to sit or stand too close, how to duck away from a hug in greeting. So people thought he was cold and stand-offish now. That was the trade. That was the price. And as for romantic relationships—well, they were of necessity brief, shallow, conducted in near-darkness, and he'd gotten really good at going down on people without reciprocation. It wasn't fair, but who had ever said life was fair? He'd been handling it.
And now his soulmate was here, and he wasn't sure he could handle it at all.
God, it was so much worse out of the suit, so much harder to resist the temptation to touch Steve, to hold him, to kiss him, to tell him everything, to bare his arm and show him that everything he must have been thinking was right. God only knew what Steve thought was going on here. It doesn't matter what he thinks the situation is, Tony told himself, as long as he doesn't know the truth.
Pretty soon Steve was going to find out about all his sins, anyway, thanks to the wonders of the internet. At least that ought to reduce some of the... intensity... of the situation, when Steve figured out he didn't want to be around him.
Hissing through his teeth, Tony turned the nearest computer on and found the Avengers card CAD files. He'd been right; the comm cards were tricky, especially with the flexible substrates on the screens. This was going to take all night. But it was for his soulmate, he thought, and his poor broken heart pounded heavy and fast in his chest.
He pulled his phone out to transfer the ID photo and signature to the computer, and stared thoughtfully at the picture he'd taken with Steve. Steve was smiling politely, confused, the face of someone who'd never seen a smartphone before in his entire life but was willing to go with it. Tony's face in the picture was one huge joyful grin, like this was the best thing that had ever happened to him, and somehow he'd been looking at Steve. If anyone else saw that, they'd know he was in love.
He printed a copy anyway.
Steve picked up the device that looked more like a typewriter, in the hope that it would be the most familiar and therefore the easiest to use. There was a scrawled note in hurried, messy handwriting stuck to the outside of the box telling him how to turn the thing on. As Tony had promised, once he had done that, a film started to play, and he'd been right, it was easy enough to learn.
In a few more clicks, he'd discovered both Wikipedia and Google. Decades of history stretched out before him. He decided against reading up on Tony or the Avengers; it seemed invasive, rude. If they wanted him to know something about themselves, they'd tell him. That left people he couldn't talk to.
Laboriously, Steve pecked out letters on the keyboard: James Barnes.
Well. Bucky had been famous, it seemed. There he was, in a faded and overexposed picture. From the strange way it was lit, he'd probably been standing next to Toro. He'd had films made about him, whole films! They all had. Bucky would have loved that.
And then he found an article about their disappearance, and the smile was wiped clean off Steve's face. The mission had long since been declassified; there were maps of the plane's course, of its suspected location. No one had found Bucky's body. He would have had to have been dead when he hit the water, some scientist said, and Steve shook his head fast, trying not to picture it.
He must have lived, Steve thought, numb, lived just long enough, somehow, for someone, a Russian, to pull him out of the water, to say something, to hear those incomprehensible words from his soulmate—
Maybe that was enough of the Invaders for the evening.
He couldn't have said what made him type in Arnold Roth.
It turned out there were a lot of Arnold Roths in the world, but Steve remembered Arnie's birthdate. The first result was an obituary. Twenty years ago, it said, and Steve's throat closed up. His oldest friend, and he'd missed his entire life; he'd watched Arnie walk out that door, and he never came back. Hell, Steve had even lied to his face about who he was the one time he'd seen him at Lehigh after the serum, after Arnie had enlisted. He'd had to.
He is survived by his partner and soulmate Michael Bech, the obituary read, and Steve read the sentence, reread the sentence, and reached out to touch the words on the screen. There was a picture, too, Arnie as a middle-aged man, holding hands with another man Steve didn't know, the both of them smiling.
Arnie'd done it. He'd changed his mind. He'd found his soulmate. He'd been happy after all. That was... that was something. He'd gotten to have that, even if Steve hadn't been there to see it.
That was worth something.
I want that, some unworthy, jealous part of Steve's mind said, and he slammed the laptop shut and closed his eyes.
Tony was the last to enter the meeting, exhaustedly clunking in a little more noisily than he should have been, new comm card clutched in his left gauntlet. The right one was still a little slow to respond. Hmm. He'd meant to fix that; he just hadn't had the time. Maybe tonight.
"Hey, Cap!" he called out, and Steve's face lit up like a star going supernova. "Present for you from Mr. Stark."
He slid the Avengers card down the table, and Steve picked it up, turning it this way and that, flexing it gently, poking at it so that the embedded screen turned on.
"Oh, this is like the telephone he gave me," Steve said, looking pleased, but not exactly as amazed as he should be at the fact that Tony had made it the size and thickness of a credit card and actually bendable. Tony needed to show him some ordinary consumer technology just so he could be suitably impressed. "Tell him thanks from me, Iron Man. This is really keen."
"Can do." Tony held up his hand and cringed a little as the wrist joint locked. Definitely fixing that.
"Tony didn't give me a phone," Giant-Man said, cheerfully enough that he clearly wasn't actually complaining.
"You didn't need one, handsome," Wasp pointed out.
Tony finally unfolded his hand and rested his arm on the table. "Well, I guess Steve's special like that."
Damn, damn, damn, he needed to not say every thought that floated through his head, because now Steve was looking at him again and smiling and smiling and this just wasn't going to work.
Jan cleared her throat. "Right. Avengers, calling this meeting to order, because someone has to." Tony knew there was a reason they'd elected her chairperson.
The meeting went on as it usually did; Steve was assiduously taking minutes with a pencil and notepad. He was really into the organizational side. It was impressive. By next week, Tony thought, they'd probably end up making him Avengers chairperson. They evaluated the plan they had come up for helping the alien, talked about how they could have improved it—if Namor hadn't shown up, Giant-Man quipped, and Steve made a pained face. Tony was going to have to ask the guy about Namor sometime.
"Is there any news of the quinjet?" Thor asked.
What did he care, Tony thought, when he could fly? "Not sure yet. I'll let you know when the boss has an update."
"We'll try not to crash this one," Giant-Man said, though Tony wasn't finding this particularly reassuring.
"Question," Steve said. He was rolling the pencil between his fingers. "Do we know— are there other people or entities who have been threats before, who we—I—should be aware of?"
Tony watched as Wasp and Giant-Man looked at each other and by mutual silent agreement, did not mention the Hulk.
"There are Avengers files," Giant-Man said. "On the computers. Your account ought to be able to access them."
User permissions. Damn. He'd been really distracted by Steve's presence, hadn't he? "I can get you access to those," Tony offered, sheepishly. "Notes on everyone we've come up against. Everyone who's gone after me before we formed the Avengers as well." His own notes were a bit spottier, actually. He'd never thought other people were going to need them. "We're so recent that I can't say for sure whether we're likely to get the people with a grudge against me—or you—or brand-new problems. Probably both."
"That's cheerful," said Jan, glumly, chin in her hands.
"Tell me about it." Tony looked around the room. "Any other official business? Speak now or forever hold your peace."
No one said anything, but the corner of Steve's mouth twitched.
"Right." Tony clapped his hands together, lightly; the gauntlets rang and scraped. "Onto the fun part. Everybody upstairs."
They filed out of the room, Giant-Man and Jan talking animatedly about one of Giant-Man's projects, and Thor gave Tony a sidelong glance as they entered the dining room, because no one could miss that he'd never actually stayed for the Avengers dinners before, even if he'd bought his share of them.
"You cannot eat."
"No," Tony admitted, "but I thought I'd stay this time. Team bonding and all."
Thor looked at him again, and he had the strangest feeling that Thor was trying to tell him something, but Thor just smiled.
Okay, so he wanted to be near Steve. So what? Team bonding was still important. He was pretty sure.
The pizza arrived shortly thereafter, and after establishing that, yes, Steve had in fact had pizza before, Tony flung himself down into a chair, stuck his legs on the table, and watched everyone else enjoy the food. He leaned back. The chair creaked in protest.
Jan eyed him speculatively. "How much do you weigh?"
"Enough." Tony waved a hand. "Why, Wasp, going to throw me around?"
"I could," she said, challenge in her eyes. "But I was mostly concerned about the chair."
He'd known Jan Van Dyne socially, of course, and it almost made him laugh to think about, well, before, when they'd made polite chit-chat, champagne flutes in hand. It was a far cry from being a superhero. He still wasn't sure whether Iron Man ought to admit to recognizing her.
Giant-Man grabbed the last piece of the pepperoni before Thor could take it. "You break it, you buy it. That was what Tony told me when I told him about how you were there when—well, it was only a minor lab accident."
"I got your ants in me, Ant-Man." Tony shuddered. That had been... a bad day. And he had still paid for the entire lab clean-up in the end, anyway, after vacuuming the armor very, very thoroughly.
While Giant-Man was trying to defend himself, Jan ate the pizza off Giant-Man's plate. Steve was looking at the two of them, Tony realized. Well, he wouldn't be the first to wonder if they were soulmates. Tony had been wondering that himself. Jan and Giant-Man were awfully close. But he wasn't quite that tactless. If they were, and they wanted to tell people, they would. It was supposed to be easy.
Of course, it wasn't easy for him, but then nothing ever was, was it?
"Anyway," Tony said, spreading his hands. "I am not concerned. I'm drawing two paychecks, remember? I can replace a couple of chairs."
A couple chairs... a mansion... an airplane or five. Very similar, really.
"Good to know," Jan said. "Steve, how are you liking the food?"
Steve had neatly put away an entire pizza and was making hopeful-but-ravenous looks at the other boxes. "Oh, it's great," he said, happily, like pizza had made his entire day, like everything was uncomplicated enough that that statement had a chance of being true. "Thank you."
"Thank Iron Man," Jan said, toasting in his direction with her can of Coke. "It was his turn to bring the snacks."
And then Steve was smiling at him like it was just the two of them, like they'd been on a date and Tony had paid and they were going home together, and all at once something frustrated and aching within Tony was trying to tug them together. He felt like he was about five seconds from ripping the helmet off and lunging at him, identity be damned.
"Thank you," Steve said, almost shyly, and lowered his eyes. "I appreciate it."
This was going to kill him.
In Steve's dreams, someone was screaming. When he opened his eyes into the darkness of the future, in his new room, he realized it was him. He hoped he hadn't woken Tony up. Maybe Tony wasn't here; he hadn't seen him today, but he might have come home during the Avengers meeting. He didn't want Tony to know. Maybe the Avengers would have understood, but Tony was... Tony was a civilian. At best he wouldn't have the frame of reference, and at worst it would just make him feel awful.
He certainly wasn't getting back to sleep now. He pushed himself upright, flipped on the light, and considered his options. He could read up on history, he supposed; there was a lot of that. But the computers were such strange things, and as the residual panic slowly began to fade within him Steve decided that he wanted something familiar. There were probably history books in the library, and surely Tony wouldn't mind if he borrowed one.
He pushed himself up out of bed, pulled on a t-shirt, pants, and his cuff—in case he ran into the butler in the hall—and headed downstairs.
Warm golden light spilled from beneath the library door, and when Steve opened it he saw Iron Man sitting at a desk. Iron Man's right arm was braced palm-up on the glossy dark wood, a glowing circle shining forth from his hand, and he was leaning over it with a screwdriver. Tools Steve didn't recognize covered the rest of the desk.
The last of the forgotten nightmare dissipated, and Steve smiled.
"Hi, Cap," Iron Man said, without looking up. He twisted the screwdriver, and a few bright metal pieces next to the glowing... thing... in his palm dropped onto the table. "Fancy meeting you here."
Without really thinking about it, Steve pulled up a chair on the opposite side of the desk. "I couldn't sleep."
"Bad dreams, huh?" Iron Man did look up, then, and Steve could almost swear that the glowing eyes were sympathetic. "Yeah, I've been there."
Since when did robots dream?
Steve peered at the intricate arrangement of metal and wires. "What are you up to?"
Iron Man flexed his fingers—or tried to. Two of them didn't move. "Oh, nothing much. Just some late night repairs. Namor got a little rough on the suit."
"You didn't want to wake Mr. Stark up for that?" He remembered Tony's insistence that he fixed Iron Man himself, though he supposed that it was good to have Iron Man be able to fix the smaller things himself.
"Nah," Iron Man said, "the boss needs his sleep. Besides, I'm pretty handy with this thing by now. Minor armor repairs, that's me. He's the one who does the big stuff. He's the engineer. I'm just the mechanic."
Steve watched as Iron Man began to strip off even more pieces, little wires and boxes and metal rods. Steve motioned towards the glowing part, which still kept glowing no matter how many other pieces he removed. "What's that?"
"This?" Iron Man tapped the glowing thing with the end of the screwdriver. "This, my friend, is a repulsor. Tony Stark's greatest invention." He sounded almost as proud as if he'd invented the thing himself.
"What is it?"
"It's a lot of things. Flight stabilizer for the suit. Energy weapon. A floor wax and a dessert topping." The voice was perfectly deadpan. Then there was a staticky crackle, and Steve realized Iron Man was laughing at his own incomprehensible joke.
"I'll pretend I know why that was funny."
"Probably for the best," Iron Man said cheerfully. "It's not a very good show anymore, anyway."
Steve stared at the growing pile of metallic parts. "Can I help?"
Iron Man paused, like he was thinking about it. "Sure. You can help get the screws off of me. They're a bit magnetized, I'm also currently a bit—" he gestured with his free hand— "magnetic." Then he laughed again.
Steve wouldn't have thought a noise like a broken radio was charming before yesterday, but clearly he was willing to reconsider a lot of things.
"Maybe it's your personality," he offered, hoping that Iron Man would see the joke, would see the compliment, would realize— well. Maybe it would have helped if he'd ever actually learned how to flirt.
The noise this time was lower, more derisive. "You think anyone would give me the time of day in this thing? Hardly."
Steve was about to reply, when Iron Man's words hit him, like a punch to the chest, knocking the air out of him. In this thing, he'd said. The suit, he'd called it. The armor, he'd called it. Like there was a man in there. A suit of armor. A knight, in shining armor.
He took a few deep breaths, stunned, trying to pull himself back together.
If Iron Man were human, then maybe he could be his soulmate. Maybe the words matched. But why wouldn't he have said? Steve pictured a mysterious wrist, his own confused questions written there, just under the layer of metal Iron Man was tinkering with, or in the arm he held up. Right there. He could nearly touch the words. The sheer power of the fantasy made him shiver with desire.
Iron Man tilted his head, curious. "Cap? You all right there?"
"I— yeah. Yeah." Steve took another few breaths. "I've got a question, actually. It's a little silly."
Iron Man spread his free hand wide, inviting. "Hit me."
Steve took a breath. "I thought you were a robot, but you're not, are you?"
"God, no!" The tone, as near as Steve could make it out, sounded dismayed, and then there came that crackling laughter. "I— oh, God, sorry, I'm not laughing at you, it's me, I just— you must have been so confused. I had no idea. I would have told you." He curled his free hand into a fist and knocked it against the helmet; it rang out. "Ol' Shellhead, that's me. I promise there's a head in the shell. And, uh, the rest of a body, too, under all this. I'm not doing the brain-in-a-jar thing."
The weight on Steve's chest lightened. "So you're... a man?" He paused. "A woman?" Maybe they could make the voice sound like anything.
"Very progressive guess," Iron Man said, sounding amused. "But, no, right the first time; I'm a man. Just a man. And that's all you're getting. Secret identity."
The growing sense of hope within Steve began to wither. "No one knows? Surely you could tell the Avengers. I wouldn't— we wouldn't tell anyone."
Iron Man shook his head and picked up one of his tools again. "Mr. Stark knows. And that's it. And that's the way it's going to stay. Mr. Stark and I agreed on it."
He knew the charter protected their identities, but somehow it didn't seem fair. All the Avengers knew who he was, and Steve remembered Wasp saying something about how her identity was easy enough to figure out, though she hadn't said more. Giant-Man was an unknown, but at least Wasp knew who he was. At least an Avenger knew. Thor was a bit mysterious, true, because apparently no one knew where he went when they weren't Avenging, but, well, he was a god. He could probably go anywhere he liked. "Suppose that a villain targeted your friends? Your family? Wouldn't you want us to know, so we could help you?"
Iron Man's voice was bleak. "Not a lot of friends, Cap. No family. I'm just Iron Man. It's better that way, really."
A fountain of sparks shot up from the gauntlet, and Steve leaped up in alarm.
"Whoa!" Iron Man said, and the sparks died down as Steve watched. "Hey. Okay." The words, low and calming, were directed at Steve. "See, totally minor. No big deal. Nothing actually stayed on fire. You can sit back down."
"Do you want me to go get Mr. Stark?" Steve asked, uncertainly.
"No, I'm good." Iron Man didn't move to pick the tool up again, though. "Why do you ask?"
"I was just thinking," he said, and he hadn't been, but the plan unfolded as he spoke, "that if Tony knows who you are, he can fix the suit with you out of it. Or you can. Power it down, take it off, and nothing catches on fire."
The hissed-static laugh sounded sad. "I wish. Doesn't work like that."
"Life support." Iron Man tapped one metal finger against himself. "Power goes off, I die."
The fragility horrified him. He pictured the power turning off, Iron Man suffocating. Had the Avengers known? Had Iron Man told anyone?
"You can't take it off?"
Iron Man shook his head. "Nope."
Even if Iron Man—the man in the suit—were his soulmate, he couldn't touch him. They couldn't do anything. Steve pushed away the unworthy thought. Why should he even care about something like that? It was obvious, anyway, that Iron Man didn't want romance at all; he'd neatly rejected all of Steve's hamfisted attempts at flirting. They could just be friends. And they could be friends anyway, whether or not they were soulmates. Maybe it wouldn't matter.
Iron Man shrugged, plates of metal creaking. "It is what it is, Cap."
Are you my soulmate? he wanted to ask. He wanted to pull off his cuff and show him the words. It didn't matter if he could touch him, it didn't. It didn't even matter who he was. Whoever he was, Steve would be happy. It wasn't as if he knew him already, after all. But he couldn't just ask that, out of the blue. He had just woken up when he'd met him. He'd been confused. He might have misheard.
Iron Man would have said. Iron Man had no reason not to remember. And if they were soulmates, surely Iron Man would think that was more important than hiding his identity? So it wasn't true. But that didn't explain why he was drawn to him like no one else. Certainly he didn't feel like this about the rest of the Avengers. Or anyone ever, really. Except now you think Tony Stark is incredibly attractive, some not-quite-evolved part of his brain pointed out. But that too could just be confusion, his exhausted and bewildered body giving out every possible response. He hadn't even seen Stark since the day he'd moved in, and that had been at the tail end of a long few days. It could simply have been a momentary aberration.
It was a mess, that was what it was.
Confused, he bid Iron Man goodnight.
When he went to bed again, he dreamed he was once again standing in the library with Iron Man, peeling every piece of armor slowly away until all that was left was the helmet. He splayed his hands across cool metal, lifted it— and woke up, panting, tangled in the sheets and half-hard.
He wasn't sure it was better than the nightmares.
The thing was, Tony thought, it was easy to love Captain America. That part wasn't a surprise. Everyone loved Captain America. It didn't take long for word to get out that he had returned, and the Avengers press conference was a thing of beauty; Cap had just charmed them, flashing smiles like a movie star, talking so earnestly and honestly about what he liked in the future, about vaccines and civil rights and the moon landing he'd missed. He'd even gotten the reporters from the bloodthirsty gossip rags to smile when he, looking endearingly awkward at the question, named a couple of attractive celebrities for them—and of course they'd all been dead for years.
He was unfailingly kind to everyone he met. He did in fact help old ladies cross the street. He attempted, with varying levels of success, to give tourists directions. He posed for every single picture, signed every autograph, and knelt down to talk to every kid with a Cap shirt, even if he was just out for a cup of coffee, which of course he did in full uniform. He just radiated goodness, true and sincere, in a way Tony couldn't even begin to conceive of or quantify; if Tony could live a life that was even a pathetic fraction as kind and selfless he'd count himself lucky.
In the field, they were perfect together. It wasn't that they always agreed, or even always approached the problem the same way, but Cap was always pushing at him, always asking the right questions that would get him to consider something twice, to shore up his tactics. Cap was great at tactics; he was the born leader that all the stories had promised. And in fights, well, the first time Tony had let loose with a repulsor blast that Cap had angled perfectly off his shield without them ever needing to discuss it, Tony spent a good five seconds with his mouth hanging open in sheer awe. They fit.
He eyed Cap's daily workouts jealously and wished he could join him, but what he really needed was hand-to-hand practice out of the suit and he couldn't have that. But he would have bet anything that Cap would have been the best sparring partner ever.
Oh, sometimes they did disagree, and damned if Cap didn't have a stubborn streak, but in the end they'd always talk it out afterwards, plan and do better—and they did. Tony wasn't sure if it was the bond pushing them to reconciliation, but he'd take it.
Tony had met a soldier once, on one of SI's defense-related jaunts, who was platonically bonded to another member of her unit, and when they'd gotten to drinking together after the weapons demonstrations Tony'd asked her how that was for her. If there were problems. If she liked it.
"I always love her," the woman had said. "I don't always like her, but I always love her, and I know that she's got my back. For good."
It was like that with him and Cap. Except maybe the platonic part wasn't so platonic, but Cap didn't need to know about that when it couldn't happen, did he? Cap didn't even need to know they were soulmates at all. Then he wouldn't get attached. Captain America couldn't get attached to him. This was already cutting it close.
So that was him and Cap, and if it had just been that, that alone was more happiness than Tony had ever expected to have in his life, even if half of it was frustrated sublimated longing.
The thing that really surprised Tony, though, was that it was just as easy to love Steve Rogers. It wasn't that Steve was a different person, but Captain America... well, Captain America was near-mythic by now. And it was Steve who was the foundation. Steve was just as good—better, even—and Steve was real.
He was the most obnoxiously cheerful morning person Tony had ever met. He sang in the shower at ungodly hours; you could hear him all the way down the hall. When Tony finally dragged himself out of bed on the days he'd carved enough room out of his schedule to get a full night's sleep, there'd often be nothing to show Steve had been in the house except a stray sprinkling of seeds from his bagel on the kitchen counter.
He looked so grateful when Tony'd finally dragged up a few boxes of things that had once belonged to him, and he didn't ask about where Tony had gotten them or why Tony had them and they didn't actually have to have an awkward conversation involving the words I've had a massive thing for you since childhood and I might have collected a vast amount of memorabilia related to you. Tony suspected Steve knew anyway and was nice enough not to point it out.
He threw himself into learning about his new world with a tenacity Tony could only admire, and he liked Radiohead. Tony was still trying to get his brain around that. Sure, it had been Tony's fault, but he hadn't really thought it would stick. Steve learned all the words to "Karma Police" and then told him that Iron Man's laugh was like a detuned radio. Tony was still trying to work out whether that was a compliment.
(He didn't like "Creep," though. Tony had played it for him, Thom Yorke had gotten as far as "I don't belong here," and Steve had reached over and silently flipped the stereo off. Yeah, so maybe that had been a bad idea.)
Unexpectedly, Steve had a wicked sense of humor, dry and deadpan, and he liked to try to convince Tony that he'd never heard of things that had in fact been invented before his trip into the ice. Maybe he just liked the explanations. Tony still wasn't sure.
Steve loved science fiction and fantasy, and Tony was a little jealous that he got to read Tolkien for the first time right now; he zealously kept the spoilers and the movies away from Steve until he was finished. He was thrilled to find out that there were more Lensman stories, and Tony privately thought that Steve would have made the best Lensman in the galaxy. Tony handed him Starship Troopers and then The Forever War, and two days later Steve very quietly thanked him. His eyes were red.
Sometimes he saw Steve curled up in one of the overstuffed chairs in the library, clutching a book or a tablet or a sketchpad, his body fitting awkwardly into the space as if he had picked it expecting himself to be thinner. Steve was always reading or drawing or working so intently, half-smiling to himself at what he was seeing, what he was doing.
And Tony always looked over at him and thought the rest of the world doesn't get to see you like this and I'm so glad I do.
If he was Iron Man at the time, he'd usually get up and ruffle Steve's hair a little. He liked to be Iron Man. Steve knew Iron Man. Steve barely knew Tony Stark, and that was fine by him. When he was Iron Man he'd lay a hand on Steve's shoulder, put his arm around him, give him a hand up in battle. He touched him when he was Iron Man, because when he was Tony he didn't get to. This was how it worked.
It was, Steve had discovered, incredibly easy to get sidetracked while looking things up on the internet.
It had started simply enough. He had been curious about how wrist-cuffs looked these days. He'd noticed, he thought, a trend: people were more... immodest... about them. They weren't only in dark, sober colors now. Some of them were, to be sure, and anyone wearing long sleeves was of course fine—for example, men in suits still looked as professional as ever, although there seemed to be fewer of them about. (He'd never seen Tony in anything other than a suit.) The cuffs Tony had provided for him that he'd found in his dresser—and it had given him a strange frisson of extremely inappropriate desire to think about Tony picking them out for him—were black, perfectly respectable and unobtrusive.
But the rest of the people on the streets of New York these days seemed to regard the cuffs as some kind of accessory, like any meaningless bracelet. There were bright colors, every color, multiple colors, sequins, gaudy leopard-print fabrics. Like they wanted you to look, only you weren't supposed to look, were you? Steve wasn't so certain that custom still held. Even Wasp sometimes wore a gorgeous wrist-cuff with dangling beads that was more like a work of art, wire-looped, gleaming copper. She was a fashion designer, she'd said, and she'd actually held out her wrist for him to look at the cuff, at which point Steve had nearly choked on his own tongue.
Hell, there were even Avengers cuffs, sold by street vendors on every corner. They had one in bright blue with his shield on it; Steve had done a double-take. And someone had mysteriously bought a set of the Avengers cuffs and left them in the briefing room. Iron Man never took them, Thor apparently had no soulmate (he had said Asgardians didn't), and Wasp had her own designs, but Giant-Man used them all indiscriminately. And often.
"I have a lot of lab accidents," Giant-Man had said, sounding a little distracted and looking singed around the edges, when he had shown up to the Avengers meeting with folded newspaper rubber-banded to his arm. "It was only a very small explosion."
"Today you get the best cuff." Iron Man had thrown him the wrist-cuff with—naturally—Iron Man's own helmet, in shiny red and gold, and Steve had tried not to wince visibly as Giant-Man put it on right there under the table.
It was the future. This was how people lived now. He would have to adjust.
So here he was, sitting in his room, looking up "cultural history of soulbonds" on Google and already feeling furtive, when he happened upon the picture.
All he could do was stare. One of the ladies in the picture was a famous singer, the caption said, and here she was, hair bleached white-blonde, wearing almost nothing. She was topless, but it wasn't like he'd never seen naked pictures before. That wasn't the shocking thing. She was leaning in close to the other woman, a brunette, also topless, and they smiled, half at each other, half at the camera. From the lighting, Steve suspected it was meant to be artistic rather than pure pornography. But that wasn't what was making his mouth go dry. He had never seen dirty pictures that remotely approached this.
They were holding out their arms to the camera, and he could read the words. Dear God. The blonde woman's wrist said you know who I am, don't you? The brunette's wrist was a reply: of course I know who you are. And there they were, soulmates, showing their wrists in front of God and everyone. He couldn't make himself close the picture, and oh, Christ, he was getting hard—
"So you've figured out the internet's for porn," Tony said from somewhere behind him, and Steve nearly fell out of his chair.
He flung the tablet onto the bed. "I— I wasn't," he stammered, but he couldn't even turn around and face Tony.
"Hey, it's a free country," Tony said, and Steve still couldn't bring himself to look at him but Tony's voice was reassuring. "You of all people should know. What you get up to in your own bedroom is your own business. But I have to say, I figured you'd be the kind of guy who'd want to close the door first— oh, hey." Tony broke off, and Steve thought maybe he was imagining that Tony sounded disappointed. "That's the famous shot of— you were looking something up, weren't you?"
Relieved, Steve breathed out. "Yeah, I was. Didn't know I'd find that, though."
And then he turned and saw Tony, and that was maybe more shocking than the picture had been. Tony was leaning against the doorframe, grinning, and he was—for the first time—in shirtsleeves. The shirt he was wearing was nicer than the t-shirts most people wore these days, as it was still a button-down, but it was short-sleeved. He could see Tony's arms. And Tony's right arm was— it was—
He was trying not to stare but he suspected he was failing. Tony's right arm was covered in what had to be the largest cuff Steve had ever seen, sleek black fabric that went from his wrist all the way past his elbow, ending at about where the sleeve of the shirt began. It was right there and so huge and it was so hard not to look, and he felt like ten kinds of pervert for not being able to get it out of his head when Tony Stark was someone else's soulmate.
Tony looked back at him with an inscrutable little half-smile, like he knew exactly what Steve was thinking, what he wanted to look at.
"So," Steve said, weakly, "you're left-handed." The words were always on the wrist of your non-dominant hand.
Tony's eyes went wide; he laughed. "That is very possibly the most diplomatic thing anyone's ever said to me."
Tony lifted his right hand a little, and now Steve's eyes couldn't help but be drawn to the motion. Was Tony doing this on purpose? Did Tony want him to stare at him? Was this how people behaved now?
"Yeah," Tony said, with a sigh, still holding his arm out. "Somebody just had to go and write all over my entire arm when I turned five. One of the many reasons I don't own a lot of short-sleeved shirts." He sounded irked, and more than anything else, tired. His face was downcast. "If you've got something to say, go on and say it. I guarantee that I've heard it all before."
He was waiting for insults, Steve realized. Mockery. Like he thought Steve would want to hurt him. Like he couldn't imagine anyone wouldn't want to hurt him for being different.
A scrap of a phrase, half-remembered, floated through Steve's mind.
"Your soulmate must love you very much."
Tony froze where he stood, arm still in the air, mouth falling open. "What?" Whatever he had expected Steve to say, it wasn't that.
"Your soulmate must love you very much," Steve repeated. "It's just a thing that people used to say sometimes, when someone— when their words took up a lot of space." He felt a little ridiculous repeating it. It was just an old wives' tale. "They used to think that if your words were bigger, it was, uh. Better. That your soulmate loved you more. But then there were studies, they asked people how happy they were, and people found out that wasn't true, I think, so mostly they stopped saying it. That was what I heard. It was old-fashioned even when I was a kid. People don't say that anymore?"
Tony was still staring at him, stunned. His jaw worked a little, he blinked a few times like he was trying to hold back tears, and Steve had no idea how the words could have affected him that much. It was just a saying. He'd been trying to make him feel better.
"No, no one says that anymore," Tony said finally, and then, under his breath, low enough that a normal human wouldn't have been able to hear: "But I wish to God they had."
Oh. That was it. No one had ever told Tony he was okay, that he was normal. No one had ever told him that this was in any way positive. Steve's heart ached for him. He wanted to hug him, to tell him it was okay—but Tony didn't want to be touched.
"I'm sorry," Steve said, and he meant it.
Tony's smile didn't reach his eyes. "It's all right. I don't believe in soulmates anyway."
Now Steve was the stunned one. How could anyone say something like that? His gaze dropped automatically to Tony's arm. "Seems to me like you've got a fair amount of proof."
"Not like that." Tony shook his head. "I know people have them. I mean... personally. For me." With another jerk of his head, he indicated where Steve's tablet lay, guiltily tossed away. And he changed the subject. "You know that's fake?"
Steve glanced over at the photograph, the two women locked together, frozen in that revealing pose. "What do you mean?" Tony had explained about how altering photographs worked these days; it was apparently very easy for anyone to do. But this one looked so real to him. "Is it... someone else's bodies, with their faces?"
"The words are faked," Tony said, and his mouth twitched like he was trying to smile but couldn't bring himself to actually do it. "It was a real photo, but they covered their wrists with makeup. Wrote new words on top of them. They're not actually soulmates. They were trying to be edgy. Shocking. But when it came down to it, they couldn't really do it. I don't know what that tells you about modern society. Maybe that we're cowards."
Absurdly, it made Steve feel better to know that there were still actually some limits.
"Maybe it tells me that some things are still sacred."
"Optimist," Tony said, sounding fond but looking world-weary, as if he were the one who was nearly a century old. "Haven't you heard? Nothing's sacred anymore. I only know it's faked because I've seen her wrist."
"Not Madonna," Tony clarified, as if this were the important part. "The other one. In my, ah, more hedonistic days. She wasn't the only one. Come on, you can't say you've never...?" The question trailed off.
"Are you asking if I've ever slept with anyone or if I've seen their wrist?" Steve replied, halfway to scandalized, still trying to think this through.
"Surprise me," Tony said, in a tone that suggested he wasn't seriously expecting an answer.
"No to sex." Steve figured he might as well tell the truth; he was, after all, waiting for his soulmate. That was what was right. "Yes to wrists. Once."
Tony blinked a few times. "That really wasn't the way I expected that answer to go. Figured you'd be utterly devoted to your soulmate. Unless it was your soulmate?" He asked the question in an odd manner, flatly, like he already knew the answer was going to be no.
"No." He pictured the foreign letters spidering across Bucky's wrist. "Not my soulmate."
"The historians think they've decided who your soulmate is, you know." Tony picked up one foot, leaned it against the doorframe.
He'd been avoiding reading things about himself. About what people thought of him. How they thought he thought, what his life meant to them. "Have they?"
Tony nodded. "Consensus is pretty solid that it was Barnes and neither of you said. Made for some great movies. Brothers-in-arms and all. Some of them were a little more romantic."
"It wasn't Bucky."
"No? You've just made entire history departments and several Hollywood producers very sad."
"I saw his words," Steve said, curtly. He didn't want to talk about this. For everyone else Bucky was years dead; his grief was newer. "He was my best friend. But it wasn't him."
Tony raised an eyebrow, and belatedly Steve realized it would probably have been less revealing if he just said he'd slept with Bucky instead. Not that he had.
"Okay," Tony said, "so I'm a nosy bastard. You want to ask me an embarrassing personal question? Even the score?" He held up his hands. "I don't embarrass easy, though. How about gossip instead? Maybe you've wondered about Giant-Man and Wasp."
He had, actually. "Are they—" he began, and didn't know how to finish. Are they soulmates? Are they together at all?
Tony's smile was just this side of lewd and made him uncomfortably warm. Then Tony held his right arm out and rubbed two fingers of his other hand over his wrist, over the cuff, back and forth, in a slow caress, right there in public where anyone could walk by and see him. It was the most obscene thing Steve had ever seen anyone do, and that was counting all the times he'd walked in on people actually fucking. He couldn't shake the thought that he wanted Tony to touch him like that.
"I actually don't know," Tony said, while Steve was trying to remember how to put a sentence together. "Maybe they are, maybe they aren't, maybe they don't know because their wrists say hi. I'm hoping they tell the rest of us eventually."
"Oh," Steve said, stupidly, still fixated on Tony's wrist.
"And here I am embarrassing you again." Thankfully, Tony didn't repeat the gesture. "Your turn again."
Steve leaned forward. "Why don't you believe in soulmates? In your soulmate?"
That was not the question he had meant to ask. He had meant to ask why Tony helped them, why Tony was here, or even—on the more embarrassing side—did Iron Man talk to him about him? Did Iron Man think Steve was his soulmate? He shouldn't be asking about Tony's feelings like he thought he could have some chance with him, when Tony's soulmate was someone else, when his own soulmate was someone else. How could he keep liking Tony so much?
Tony turned his face away; Steve had somehow found the one question he didn't want to answer.
"You don't have to—"
"No, fair's fair." Tony took a ragged breath. "You haven't looked up anything about us since you met us, have you? About your fellow Avengers? About me?"
Steve shook his head. "I thought if there was something you wanted me to know you would tell me."
"Yeah. Not so much." Tony's eyes were hooded, shadowed. "You should know this about me, then: I am not a good man." He said it with absolute conviction, and abruptly Steve was seized with the vicious desire to hurt anyone who had made him believe this. "I was born into money, into power, and I've lived my life to excess. I've done everything depraved and debauched that you can possibly imagine. At least twice." Steve imagined Tony in the picture with the women, his wrist bared like theirs, and he couldn't say whether it aroused or horrified him. "My parents died a couple years ago. I inherited SI. Didn't really clean up my act any."
"That doesn't make you a bad—"
Tony held up a hand. "We made a lot of things, the company, but the big money was in defense contracts. Weapons. I designed missiles. Built guns. Made bombs. Sold them. Didn't really care who I was selling them to. I... didn't have much of a conscience, you might say. And I paid for it." His gaze focused on something far away. "Not that long ago I was overseas in a war zone and I tripped over one of my own landmines. It wasn't pretty. I was taken prisoner by a man who wanted me to build weapons for him. Let's just say it was a wake-up call."
The first thought Steve had, completely irrationally, was that Tony would understand his own nightmares. "Did they— what did they do to you?"
Tony's smile was bleak. "They didn't have to do anything except let me bleed. I'd been wounded pretty badly. If I didn't get out of there I was going to die without medical attention."
"But you got out."
"I built Iron Man. Not alone; I had help. And I only got out at all because the man who had helped me traded his life for mine." Tony's voice was distant. "I flew the suit myself. It nearly killed me to do it. I've got a weak heart, you see." He chuckled, low and morbid, and the hair on the back of Steve's neck prickled. "Not sure how much life is left in it, these days. There have been some close calls."
"So here I am, helping the Avengers as much as I can, telling myself that it makes me less of a monster. That somehow I can atone for all the death I've caused. You think anyone will fall for that? Everyone knows what I've done. How I've lived. You think it's some fairy tale, that true love always wins in the end?"
"Your soulmate will love you." That was the truth. That was always the truth. Tony wasn't a monster. His soulmate would see that.
Tony laughed. "They really shouldn't. And even if they did, I don't think they'd appreciate me dying young when my heart finally gives out on me. Might as well spare them the pain."
"So you're not going to look for them? You're not going to try? Wouldn't you want to have them in your life anyway, if the situation were reversed? I would." Oh, Bucky would have laughed if he'd heard Steve arguing this. "What are you going to do when you meet them? Just ignore them? Tell them sorry, you've already decided this for both of you?"
"They'd be better off not knowing I existed," Tony said, voice ringing harshly. "And that's my answer. Since you asked."
And then he was gone.
Well. He'd really fucked that up, hadn't he?
First there had been flirting, the awful flirting—because apparently when it was his soulmate involved Tony didn't even bother stepping up and bringing his A game, just filthy hand gestures and discussions of all the hot models he'd ever loved. Charming. Especially when Cap there was pure as the driven snow. Not that he'd have expected anything else from the guy.
And of course Steve had no clue it was him, so he'd probably looked like an asshole for even trying because as far as Steve knew they were both taken by other people.
And somehow he'd ended up pouring his entire fucking heart out, which was one of those things people always said just happened around your soulmate and which luckily was a thing he'd mostly managed to restrain around the guy while being in the suit—the habits he'd developed as a consequence of being Iron Man were deeply ingrained by now.
Steve had just asked him, and, well, if anyone needed an illustration of why Tony's soulmate was better off not having him, it was definitely his soulmate. Steve was probably horrified. Steve might like Iron Man, but he wasn't going to love Tony Stark.
Time to recharge. He headed into his room, got his shirt off, and plugged in. He'd managed to keep that particular detail secret from everyone so far, even if his weak heart itself was public news. And even if it didn't out him as Iron Man, he wouldn't want Steve to know about the chestplate anyway. How was his soulmate, the zenith of human physical perfection, going to react to Tony's need to wear a giant metal plate and charge it daily? It was pathetic.
He was willing to be with you when he thought you were a robot, a voice that sounded awfully close to sane and reasonable pointed out. He doesn't care. Other people might, but he would never. Even if he weren't your soulmate, he still wouldn't judge you. That's the kind of guy he is.
Tony poured himself a drink. He had reasons. Good reasons. He was sure of it.
The next day turned out to be worse. At least it was a different kind of worse. The Hulk had come back and tangled with the Fantastic Four. And instead of backing out of what was clearly Avengers business—Richards, Reed Richards, he was going to have to remember that name—the Fantastic Four had joined the fight and been unable to prevent the Hulk getting to Tony's door. And while Tony couldn't fault them for their enthusiasm and general helpfulness it did mean he had several Hulk-sized holes in his mansion.
Standing around as the Avengers pledged to disband temporarily until Mr. Stark could get the mansion fixed, Tony tilted his head back in the suit helmet and watched a large chunk of ornamental trim detach from the ceiling. The good news was that there was probably no major structural damage, right? The upper floors were still intact.
Tony wondered when his life had become something where the words "good news" and "probably no major structural damage" even belonged together in the same sentence.
He shook Steve's hand, told him it had been a pleasure to fight with him. God, if he only knew.
He watched as Steve clapped Rick on the back, watched them walk away, heard him talking: "Remember those acrobatic tricks I promised to teach you?"
Sighing, Tony half-sat, half-collapsed onto the splintered stairs, which creaked but didn't break. He shut his eyes. Iron Man got a break from the Avengers, but Tony Stark had to fix the damn mansion, fast. Who was he going to get? How was he going to vet them? They'd need to be kept out of the sensitive stuff—luckily, there was no basement damage, but that didn't mean they wouldn't try to poke around. And they had to be able to do restoration. He missed that ceiling already. And then there was Steve, and everything he'd said to him yesterday about soulmates.
"You keep going, Rick," he heard Steve say. "Meet you there in a minute or two."
There came the scuffling noise of someone picking their way through the piles of rubble, and then the stairs next to him creaked with additional weight.
"Iron Man?" Steve's concerned voice was very close. "Are you all right?"
Tony opened his eyes. "Fine, fine. I—" I had a really awful conversation with you last night and I'm sorry I said any of it. "I've just had a really long day, you know? With the Hulk."
"So when I asked at that first meeting if there were any threats we were likely to face again and no one said 'there's this big green fella who used to be an Avenger and used to be Rick's partner and he's angry enough to put holes in the mansion...?'"
Tony winced. "Yeah. Sorry. It was... we all behaved poorly, then, and I don't think any of us wanted to bring it up to you. I know I didn't."
Did he seriously not know the answer? "You're Captain America. It wouldn't have given you the best impression." They couldn't very well tell Captain America that before he showed up they'd been having some severe personnel problems.
Steve's eyes softened. "Hey, Shellhead," he said, and it was half-rebuke, half-tease, "I'm your teammate, that's what I am. If there's information I need to know, tell me. Don't cut me out because you think I won't like it."
Behind the mask, Tony couldn't help but grin. "Duly noted, Winghead."
Steve's hand went to one of the little wings on his cowl, covering it, protecting it. "Winghead?"
"Yeah," Tony said gamely, his mouth going all-in on the nickname before his brain was really done processing it. "Winghead."
Steve's wry smile looked more than a little embarrassed. "I designed this uniform myself."
"Oh, I know," Tony assured him. "Don't think I don't know that's why you're not taking Wasp up on a redesign. Or letting Mr. Stark rearmor it. Besides, all the Avengers have nicknames. It's a tradition. A new tradition."
At least he managed not to tell him that he thought the wings were adorable.
"If it's a tradition, then what's Wasp's nickname?" Steve sounded suspicious.
"Right." Steve still had one hand over the wing. "So what do I have to do to make sure that nickname never leaves this room?"
Tony's brain helpfully provided him with a series of very, very vivid mental images by way of suggestion. He tried to ignore it.
He whooped and leaped off the stairs, kicking the boot jets in as soon as there was enough clearance not to ruin the stairs any more than they already were, and then he was hovering several feet in the air. Luckily, the ceilings were high. He stared down at Steve, feeling lightheaded, dizzy with unexpected joy. He hadn't even meant to do anything like that, but being around Steve—when he could be Iron Man, when he could be better than himself—just made him so happy.
Steve looked up at him, thoughtful, like he was trying to work something out in his head—and then he jumped. He jumped straight off the stairs, a standing leap, nothing a baseline human would ever have tried... and his hands locked around Tony's ankles.
"Like that?" Steve called out.
The suit went wild for a few seconds trying to deal with the extra weight and the uneven distribution, dipping and wobbling lopsidedly, and Tony hastily diverted more power into the repulsors so he didn't end up diving. Steve swung in the air, still clinging to Tony's legs, and Tony winced as he pictured what the boot jets could do to someone's unprotected face. To Steve's face.
"Keep out of the way of the jets!"
"Got it," Steve said, sounding completely unconcerned, and then, with the two of them still hanging in midair, he started to climb.
Steve had his hands all over him. He could see it but he couldn't feel it, couldn't feel any of it, but Steve was holding him. Steve's arms were wrapped around Tony's legs, his waist, muscles flexing as he lifted himself up, and God, he was beautiful, he was strong, he was handsome, and he was Tony's, he was all Tony's, but he couldn't ever be.
Eventually Steve got one foot, and then the other, balanced on top of Tony's boots, and he managed to stand up completely, one arm wrapped around Tony's waist, one braced on his shoulder. Tony wasn't sure Steve needed the help but put his own arm around him anyway. For support. Yeah, Stark, keep telling yourself that.
"Caught you," Steve breathed, and his bright eyes lowered almost shyly.
He could take the helmet off right now. He could take it off and kiss him. His soulmate. He couldn't.
"Yeah," Tony managed. "You did."
"You can keep calling me that, though," Steve added. "It's cute."
Tony laughed weakly. "Sure thing, Winghead."
"Transmission coming in from New York," said Iron Man, from the pilot's seat of the new quinjet. "It's Rick Jones. Supervillains in the streets."
The rest of the Avengers' heads lifted, albeit slowly. Giant-Man looked exhausted, covered in dirt; Wasp's usual elegance was gone; even Thor looked a little worse for the wear. Steve didn't want to think about how he looked. He was still a little shaky from Iron Man blasting him out of the rock, his nerves raw and stinging. As for Iron Man himself, his paint was a little scratched, but if the man inside the suit was tired, he didn't show it. The suit was probably holding him upright.
But they were Avengers, and this was their duty, and if that meant more super-powered criminals in New York directly followed lava men and the Hulk again in Arizona, then so be it. This was what he had been made for. People needed him.
Steve cleared his throat. "What's the situation?"
"Not good," Iron Man relayed, his mechanized voice tight and tense. "Three of them all at once. We've got the Black Knight—"
"We fought him," Wasp said.
"Yes," added Giant-Man, a little morosely, "and he defeated us."
Thor let his hammer dangle from his fingertips. "Aye, he is the only foe I have faced who was able to stand against the might of Mjolnir."
There was a pattern here. Three enemies, each of whom had likely fought, and beaten an Avenger—this could be trouble.
"Dosimeters," Giant-Man said, urgently. Whatever those were. "Iron Man, tell me we've got some."
"We've got some," Iron Man confirmed, and then he turned his attention back to the communications. "And the third is—" Iron Man's voice cut out entirely; when it came back it was brimming with dismay. "Oh. No. No, no, no."
Steve started to unbuckle himself from the straps, his body obeying some atavistic urge: he needs my help. As if they were really soulmates, when they couldn't be, they couldn't, because Iron Man would have said.
"I'm fine." He held out a splayed hand, not as a threat; the repulsor was dim. But he didn't sound fine. "It's just— they've also got the Melter."
A name like that, and Iron Man... you didn't have to be a genius like Tony Stark to see the problem.
"It didn't go well, before?"
Iron Man shook his head. "I was lucky. He only clipped one of my arms, but it took the whole left arm of the suit clean off. I don't know what he does, exactly, because it didn't melt hot, but—there are parts of my suit that absolutely have to stay where they are." His voice shook with fear. "This isn't just about my identity. The suit stays on or I die."
Steve could picture it all too easily: a ray hitting Iron Man, the suit disappearing, the man who had been inside it breathing his last.
The other Avengers were staring at Iron Man with equal amounts of horror. Iron Man hadn't told them that, then.
"It'll be all right," Steve said, confidently, the tone he kept for speeches, for raising spirits before a battle—because that was what this was. "You don't have to face this alone. None of you do." He glanced around the jet, saw faces brightening, just a little. "We're the Avengers. We're a team. It'll be different now. We can do this."
"It will," Wasp echoed, and Giant-Man smiled at her.
Iron Man looked back at Steve, over his shoulder. "I have to wonder what they've got planned for you, Cap. There's one bad guy for each of the rest of us to reenact This Is Your Life with, but they seem to have forgotten to bring you a present."
"All my enemies are long dead," Steve countered.
Thor raised his head; his gaze was piercing and somehow foreboding. "Let us hope so."
Giant-Man, meanwhile, had been rummaging through some of the supplies, and was now clipping some kind of badge to everyone's uniforms.
"Try not to get too close to Radioactive Man," Giant-Man said, tersely. "That would be bad. If this badge changes colors, that would be a sign of things being bad."
Iron Man turned back, and his helmet tilted like he was looking Cap up and down. "You have to wonder if the serum increased your radiation tolerance, though, don't you?"
"Let's not find out," Steve suggested. "All right, people, here's the plan: no one faces down an enemy alone. We split into two teams. Our opponents will presumably want to face the Avenger they've beaten before—so we lure them in, and then surprise them with one they haven't faced. Wasp, Giant-Man, Thor—you all take the Black Knight. Iron Man and I will bring down the Melter, and then we'll all find Radioactive Man."
When they actually landed—well, there was a phrase involving the words "no plan" and "survives contact with the enemy" that fit particularly well here. He hadn't expected the drums of industrial adhesive. Neither had anyone else, and they were all stuck together at the mansion until Iron Man found the solvent and swapped it into their foes' adhesive tanks. It was a setback.
But then they were on the streets again, the three villains ahead of them, and Steve knew the plan was still good.
"Black Knight! Go!" he called out over the comms.
"Got it, Cap!" Wasp yelled, and then she was shrinking, shrinking, and flying, soaring after the knight on his winged horse.
Giant-Man looked back over his shoulder, grinned, and then started to grow, taller and taller. He began to run.
Thor swung his hammer and then he, like Wasp, was airborne. "Aye, Captain."
The rider on the horse turned in the saddle and looked at his pursuers; any emotion on his face was obscured by the helmet, but right away he hauled back on the horse's reins and they launched into the air, flying with great sweeps of feathered wings, faster than Steve would have thought possible. Quickly, too quickly, they turned the corner at the nearest block and disappeared out of view.
"We're following!" Giant-Man boomed out, growing ever larger. His stride was huge.
"Comms on," Steve shouted back. "Keep us posted!"
He caught a glimpse of Wasp's energy blasts as she flew and dove, before the entire group was lost from sight.
"Hey!" Wasp was calling out, laughing, a sly taunt. "Remember us? Well, we're back, and our buddy Thor's helping us out—"
Mjolnir rang out, pure as a bell, and Steve winced and had to cut the comm just as Iron Man, next to him, doubled over with his hands on the sides of his head. Maybe he should have told Thor to stay off comms.
"You all right, Shellhead?"
Iron Man nodded grimly. "The Melter's got to be around here somewhere. Bring it on."
He tapped one gauntleted fist into the palm of his other hand and there was the high whine of repulsors starting to power up.
"I'll cover you," Steve said, hefting his shield onto his arm. "The shield's vibranium, and nothing any villain can invent ought to be able to—"
He didn't see the blast until it was too late.
Iron Man was half-turned toward the Melter's beam, one hand flung up to protect his face, repulsor glowing—and then the gauntlet was gone, and Iron Man was staggering backwards. Steve had a brief flash of bared skin to halfway up his friend's arm, black writing, and then Iron Man was folded over himself, cradling his right arm to his chest.
Over the comms came low, rasping breaths, the sound of a man in pain.
"I've made some improvements to the weaponry," the man who could only be the Melter said. "Do you like them?"
Steve saw red. He slid his shield into his hand, balanced it to throw, turned—
And that was when the second blast slammed into Iron Man, as Radioactive Man raised an imperious hand. Whatever it was, the energy knocked Iron Man off his feet and into the air, a high and perilous arc. Steve could see the boot jets flare into life as Iron Man desperately tried to control his flight. But because he was missing a gauntlet, he was lopsided, off-balance, and all the jets did was flip him wildly end over end, making him fly faster, higher—
Iron Man smashed into the glass facade of a building just down the street, shattering it. There was nothing on the comms but the sound of screeching metal.
"That was fun," Radioactive Man said, with sickeningly gleeful cheer, because he'd just— he'd— Iron Man—
He couldn't let himself be distracted.
Steve threw his shield, but one lazy energy blast from Radioactive Man's hand sent it sailing back.
The Melter eyed the shield with something that looked like frustration. So his weapon wouldn't work on the shield after all, Steve thought, vicious and victorious, and he stepped forward, fists clenched.
But the villains began retreating. No, not retreating. They were running in the direction of the rest of the fight.
"We're coming back for you, Captain," the Melter sneered. "We just want to help our friend even the odds a little first."
And then they were off, faster than Steve would have thought.
"You've got company incoming!" Steve called into the team channel, and then switched to the private comm. "Iron Man! Iron Man, report!" His voice shook and broke in the middle. Iron Man had to be alive. He had to be.
There was silence on the other end of the line.
Steve grabbed his shield and ran.
Iron Man's flight had taken him into a bookstore—thankfully, evacuated before the battle. Steve leaped through the broken window, onto shattered glass, over smashed and fallen rows of bookcases, every one of which had broken Iron Man's fall. At the back of the store, following a long track of smoking, ruined carpet, a familiar figure was half-sitting, half-lying there, propped against the wall, gleaming red-gold, and Steve's heart was pounding so fast he thought it might burst as he scrambled to meet him.
One of Iron Man's glowing eyes flickered.
Should he take off the helmet? Could he take off the helmet? What if Iron Man needed it to breathe?
Iron Man's bare right arm—human, wounded, vulnerable—was still curled against his stomach, hiding from view the words Steve had glimpsed earlier. His arm had been sliced open during some portion of the fighting, probably by the glass, and was streaked red, dripping bright with blood. Too much blood. He was bleeding onto his armor.
He was bleeding. His heart was still beating. He was alive.
Iron Man's head lifted, and out of the speakers there was a wet, racking cough. "Cap? Where— how— what happened?"
Steve slid a hand behind Iron Man's head, reflexively cushioning it even though it was helmeted. "Radioactive Man hit you. Right into a building. Knocked you out, I think."
"Computer says it wasn't hard radiation, just an energy blast," Iron Man said, after a pause, though he still sounded dazed. "Radiation is well within safe levels. I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm ready to fight— shit."
Iron Man's gauntleted hand slid weakly to the floor, and his helmet moved as he looked down at his other arm. His bare arm. Quickly he clutched it more tightly to his body, but the noise that came through the suit filters was an inarticulate cry of pain.
"Let me help you," Steve said, but it was the wrong thing to say, somehow, because Iron Man twisted away even harder.
"No— my words—"
Steve was already stripping off his gloves and pulling the gauze and bandages out of his belt pouches. If Iron Man had a concussion there wasn't much he could do for him right now—Steve hoped there was a way for him to get his head examined—but he could fix this before his best friend in this century bled to death.
"Listen, Shellhead," he said, trying to make his voice calm, reasonable, friendly. "I know it's personal—heck, I wouldn't want anyone to see my words either—but you're still bleeding. A lot. Looks pretty nasty. We have to do something about it right now. There isn't a choice. I promise I won't tell anyone what words I see. I'll take it to my grave. I swear it on my shield. I'll swear it on anything you like."
Iron Man shook his head, violently. "I don't want anyone to know."
"I'm not going to tell anyone—"
"I don't want you to know!" Iron Man's voice had risen in volume, a hoarse, terrified shout.
Steve caught his breath. Iron Man didn't want him to see. Him in particular. Because it was him. It had to be. He had never said. Why had he never said? But it had to be true.
Iron Man was his soulmate.
"Give me your arm." Steve's pulse pounded dizzily in his head. "I'll shut my eyes. I won't look. I swear. Please."
He closed his eyes and held out his hand, and then there was the weight of another hand in his, all warmth and heat and stubborn life. He unrolled the gauze and pinned the end of it to the inside of Iron Man's wrist, feeling the man's fast, unsteady pulse under his fingers, feeling bare skin curving under his thumb. He'd never held anyone's wrist before.
Iron Man shivered beneath his fingers. He was alive, he was real, he wasn't a robot after all. Under the metal he was a man, and Steve was achingly all too aware of that. This felt close beyond all possible intimacy, like he'd taken off his clothes, like he could take off his skin.
Steve drew a shaking breath, blindly unwrapped one of the other gauze pads, and pressed it down hard on the rest of Iron Man's arm, hoping the wound was clotting. He couldn't tell without looking.
He didn't know what to say. He was overwhelmed with the feeling of it. This was what it was like, to touch your soulmate. Iron Man had to know. He had to feel like this too.
Slowly, fumbling, he bound the injury, wrapping the bandage higher and higher around Iron Man's arm until his fingers reached the metal of the suit. He jerked back, surprised at the sudden impersonal contact after the warmth of flesh.
"That's good," Iron Man breathed, and Steve tied the bandage off and slid his hand back down Iron Man's arm, to settle his fingers at the pulse-point in his wrist, over the spot where everyone wrote their words. No one but a soulmate would have ever, ever presumed to do this. Steve wanted to laugh, to cry in joy. He was ten feet tall; he could take on the whole world.
He opened his eyes.
Iron Man inhaled audibly, a sharp, surprised breath coming through the filters, but he didn't move his arm away.
"When this is over, we should talk," Steve said, very quietly, "about the fact that I know what your wrist says even with my eyes closed."
And he smiled.
The pulse in Iron Man's wrist, still erratic, spiked hard under his fingertips. "Steve—"
"Avengers!" a harsh voice cried out, and Steve had already spun around, bringing the shield up to guard Iron Man's wounded side, before he even caught a glimpse of the mounted figure in the ruined store.
"Black Knight," Steve returned, coolly.
The knight hefted a lance; his horse pawed the ground. "While my companions are engaged in their battle, I am to deliver a message to the one known as Captain America. We are the Masters of Evil, and I bear a message for you from our leader. You will have heard, I think, of Baron Zemo? He awaits you in this very city. Even now your... new partner, shall we say?... is under his control."
Zemo was alive? He'd— he'd killed Bucky, Steve thought numbly. Bucky was dead because of him. He couldn't seem to make himself move.
"That's your blast from the past, Winghead," said Iron Man, next to him, grim and determined. "And, hey, Sir Lancelot—here's mine!"
There was a horrible, ear-splitting whine that would have shattered glass if there'd been any left to shatter. Iron Man brought up his armored hand, braced it with his bare hand, and then half of Steve's field of vision went blue-white and dazzling.
The Black Knight took the repulsor blast square in the chest, flying backwards, out into the street. The horse reared, flapped his wings once, and then bolted to follow his master.
Iron Man had turned his hand over and was examining the gauntlet thoughtfully. "I think something's really wrong with the failsafes. Not that I didn't appreciate it, but that was an overload." He sounded distant, distracted.
Zemo. Zemo was here.
"I have to," Steve began, inarticulately, struggling to his feet. "You should rejoin the rest of the team, I have to go— I have to—"
Iron Man stood up next to him. Blood was soaking through the gauze but he was standing steadily. He'd be all right.
"I know what you have to do," Iron Man said, and Steve knew, somehow, that he was grinning at him under the mask. "I'm fine. I'll catch up with the others. Go punch Nazis."
He picked up his shield. He was going to do this. He was going to avenge Bucky. And then he was finally, finally going to talk to his soulmate.
The debriefing was a mess.
Tony's head pounded in time with a beat only he could hear, and he was willing to bet anything that the unpleasant stickiness down his face was blood. His arm had clotted, though; that was something. He'd been able to use his one remaining gauntlet well enough to help the rest of the Avengers take down their opponents. Encasing Radioactive Man in lead had, he thought, been one of his better tactical decisions.
Steve was sitting across from him, on the other side of the table. His cowl was pushed back and blood matted his hair; one of Zemo's bullets had creased him. He was staring at Tony, face bright, smile irrepressible, with such intensity that Tony would have suspected him of having a much worse head injury than he actually had. And it was only Tony who knew the truth.
Jan and Giant-Man looked at each other, and then looked at Steve, clearly waiting for him to start talking, as he usually did.
"Cap?" Giant-Man said, hesitantly. "Are you... doing okay, there?"
Steve's grin was wide and dreamy; Tony felt like a nervous teenager all over again. "I'm wonderful."
"I, uh," said Giant-Man. "You know what? Okay. Let's get this over with as soon as possible so we can all get the medical attention we need."
Thor drew himself up proudly. "We routed the enemy!"
"With no civilian casualties," Jan said, "and only a little property damage."
"That would be from me." Tony raised his bare hand. He would need to change those bandages, he noted absently. "I took a header into a Barnes & Noble." His skull throbbed again and he winced.
Jan looked stern. "You are planning to get yourself looked at, aren't you? We're not asking you to compromise your identity, but—"
"Yeah, yeah," Tony said. "Don't worry, Mr. Stark has it all figured out for me."
They didn't need to know that Mr. Stark's plan involved a very large bottle of Vicodin and a supply of icepacks. If it didn't get better soon, he'd consider other help, but he'd been worse before and he wasn't dead yet.
"I can request of my friend Donald Blake—"
Tony held up a hand. "Very kind, Thor, but I don't think I'll be needing him," he said, even as his headache vociferously disagreed. "So, we got everyone in custody?"
Giant-Man nodded. "Police picked up Zemo, Radioactive Man is safely contained, the Melter won't be melting anything anytime soon, and the Black Knight's noble charger is baffling biologists. I'd like to get my hands on it, just to see how it flies—"
"Giant-Man," Jan said in an undertone, "maybe not today, handsome. You've already got an ant collection to think about."
Steve stirred, his expression finally forming into something that wasn't a dazed smile. "The police won't be able to hold Zemo."
"I'll work on— I mean, I'll talk to Mr. Stark," Tony said, and he bit his tongue. He had to be more careful about what came out of his mouth. "I'm sure he has some ideas."
"I'll help," Giant-Man volunteered.
Jan looked around the table. "Is there anything else anyone wants to mention, urgently, or shall we adjourn before Tin Man here bleeds all over Tony Stark's furniture?"
"Hey!" said Tony, indignant. "The bleeding stopped at least an hour ago!"
"I will pay good money if you never need to say that sentence again." Jan sounded fond, at least.
"In this line of work?"
Jan snorted but didn't reply.
She pushed her chair back, and the rest of the Avengers did too, rising and heading to the door—except for Tony, who still sat there, and Steve, whose gaze was fixed on him like he was the best thing he'd ever seen in his life.
Tony swallowed hard. There just wasn't any way to live up to that, was there?
"I almost can't believe we got Zemo," Steve began, and that sure wasn't the way Tony'd been expecting him to start. "He— it's his fault Bucky is dead, and I swore I'd avenge him, and now I have, Zemo's in custody, and it's over just like that." He snapped his fingers.
"That's when you find something else to live for."
Steve smiled faintly. "Yeah. Yeah, Shellhead. It's time for me to move on. I've got a whole future right here waiting for me. Time I opened my eyes."
The room was silent; the erratic beat of Tony's wounded heart pounded through him.
"How are you feeling, Cap?" he ventured, softly.
"I think," Steve said, quiet but firm, "that you know exactly how I'm feeling."
Tony took a deep, ragged breath and tried to calm his wildly pounding heart. "I might have a good guess," he said, wishing for the first time in his life that the suit's vocal filtering didn't strip out half the emotion in whatever he said. "But why don't you tell me anyway?"
Wordlessly, Steve stared back at him. Then he stood up, walked around the table until he was at Tony's side, and pushed himself up until he was sitting on the table edge, smiling, nervously meeting Tony's gaze for a moment and then looking away, slowly peeling the glove off his left hand.
Steve still said nothing, but his throat worked as he swallowed hard. Under the glove, sleeve pushed up, there was a wrist-cuff, dark, the old-fashioned kind with lacing instead of elastic. It was probably even one of the ones Tony had bought him, feeling half-justified and half-perverted as he'd done it, knowing he was buying something that would touch his soulmate's bare wrist.
Steve's fingers were shaking as he undid the laces, and then the cuff fell away.
That's what we were about to ask you. They were Tony's first words to him, in his own handwriting, the neat block capitals he used on the blueprints he hardly ever wrote these days, standing out in black in the smooth vulnerable hollow of Steve's wrist, on skin that was pale enough to have never seen the sun.
Steve looked up at him, wide-eyed, trembling.
His words. Tony had known, of course, since he had said them, but it was one thing to suspect it, another thing to see them, and yet another thing to know that it was this man who bore them, this man whom he'd idolized for years, whom he'd dreamed about, who had fought for what was right, who had saved the world. In all the pictures Tony had hung on his wall, in all the films he'd pored over, Captain America had stood proud and tall, had fought valiantly, had been good and brave and noble. He'd belonged to the country, to the world. Everyone had wanted some part of him and the whole time Tony had been bound into him, written on his skin, a secret just for him, and no one had known it. He had been Tony's all along.
He imagined one of the reels he'd loved, overlaying itself over reality in dizzying double vision: Captain America in jittering black and white, in a rare informal moment, grinning at some unseen friend just out of frame, his hand up at his face, adjusting his cowl. And even then, seventy years ago, if he'd pulled off his glove, pushed up his sleeve, unlaced his cuff, Tony's words would have been there, under the uniform, under the myth.
He'd meant to stay away. He'd been trying to avoid this. But he couldn't; he knew that now. He wanted to be near Steve and he wanted Steve to know and he just wanted to touch him so badly. He wanted his soulmate. God, he'd been an idiot. He had to have this. They had to. It would kill him trying to keep the rest of this a secret, but he couldn't just deny it and walk away. He couldn't do that to Steve.
"Yeah," Tony said, hoarsely, lightheaded, "yeah. That's me."
Steve breathed in once, short and sharp, and made a tiny noise at the back of his throat, the rest of the sound choked silent. He was still staring, wide-eyed, eyes glassy like he was about to cry. He was smiling, too, smiling at Tony like all he'd ever wanted was to be sitting here in a briefing room with a battered and bloodied man wearing most of a suit of armor, like this was his dream come true even though nothing about it could possibly be like he'd ever pictured it.
Tony reached for the end of the gauze on his arm to unwind it, to show Steve the part of his words that were actually visible with the gauntlet off, but Steve shook his head.
"You don't need to show me," he said, quietly. "Not now. You're hurt. It can wait. I believe you. I trust you."
Slowly, deliberately, Tony reached out with his bare hand and pressed two fingers against Steve's wrist, over the words. It was an almost-physical shock, like a circuit switching on, like a live wire under his hand. He was touching his soulmate's skin— he was touching his soulmate's words— he hadn't thought it would ever be like this. He hadn't thought he'd get to have this.
"Oh." Steve gasped, a quiet little sound, and his eyes fell shut. He was smiling, blissed out, looking like nothing could ever hurt him, all the confusion and haunting sadness that had shadowed him since they pulled him from the ice completely gone. "I didn't— I mean, I knew soulmates did this, but I didn't know how it would feel— oh, God—"
Even with the armor, he felt raw, open, unprotected, but at the same time he knew, deep in his bones, that he would be safe here. This was his soulmate.
"I didn't either," Tony said, and it was the truth. Even— even before, he'd never done this, never touched another person like this. There were some lines even he hadn't been able to cross.
And he wanted to tell Steve that, to tell him everything, to tell him the whole truth. He shook himself mentally, hard. That particular truth would only mean something coming from Tony Stark, and... he couldn't. It was the all the chemicals, endorphins and bonding hormones, rattling around his brain, making him feel warm and safe, making him feel like this was a good idea, and it really, really wasn't. Steve could never know who he was; hell, if he found out it was Tony in the suit he'd probably have him benched permanently, on account of the health risk if nothing else. Steve would be happy with Iron Man. A superhero. Someone good. There was probably a very simple reason he'd never seen Steve while he was out of the suit since that uncomfortable conversation about Tony's checkered past: Steve didn't like him. Steve might want Iron Man, but he wasn't going to be happy with Tony Stark.
When Steve looked at him again, his pupils were so dilated that his eyes looked more black than blue, dark with desire. "I—" he started to say, halting. "I wish I could see— just, are you happy with this? With me?"
"I— yeah. Yeah, I am. But." He stopped. He had to say it, he had to, but it was hard to say. His tongue tripped over the words. "This isn't going to be easy. Maybe you'd rather—"
Steve cut him off. "You didn't tell me," he said, and now his gaze was piercing. "You knew about this, and you didn't want to tell me that you knew we matched, when I was confused enough to wonder if I'd invented it all." He winced. "Was it me? Is it me? Do you not want me?"
How could anyone alive not want Steve Rogers?
"It's not that." Tony's voice cracked, dry and pained. "God, it's really not that. It's just that... you can't know my name. You can't see my face. You deserve more than this. Better than this."
Steve looked at him, steady, confident, unafraid, like they were walking into battle together. "I don't need to know your name to know who you are. You're Iron Man. You're my best friend in this entire century, and one of the bravest and best men I've ever known."
"I could be ugly," Tony countered. If Steve ever actually got to see all of him—well, he wasn't quite as vain as he used to be, but a lot of the scarring was never going to fade. "You don't know. I could be repulsive."
"You aren't," said Steve, with absolute certainty. "You're my soulmate. You're beautiful. Heck, Iron Man, the armor's beautiful."
How was he even real?
"You can hardly touch me," Tony said, suddenly bitter. Surely Steve would want someone he could touch.
Steve jumped a little, like something about that had stung, had hurt him somewhere deep. "We don't have to," he said, and all of a sudden he was hesitant, and that wasn't even what Tony had said; Steve was answering some entirely different question that only he had heard. "We don't have to touch at all. I always figured my soulmate wouldn't want— I mean, most fellas with men for soulmates, they don't want to— they're just good friends, right? And you're in the armor, it's probably not possible to, uh. So, friends, that's what you want to— that's how it is, right?"
Tony watched as Steve blinked a few times, wetly, and he realized he was seeing Steve Rogers from long ago, the skinny kid from the Lower East Side who must have grown up believing no one could ever want him, who'd probably been so certain that his soulmate would love him only platonically. He'd sure reacted like he'd thought that.
"Are you kidding me?" Tony said, incredulous, and Steve jerked his hand away like he'd been burned. "No, I mean—" Frustrated, Tony swung his hands out to the side, one bare, one gauntleted. "Under all this, I'm only human. I'm just a man. You think I look at you— you think it's not killing me that I can't— do you know how much I think about it? Do you know how long I've thought about it?"
"Iron Man?" Steve's eyes were bright with hope.
Tony took a deep breath. "Shut your eyes."
"It'll be better than the last time, I promise."
Steve obediently closed his eyes.
Tony took a fortifying breath and stood up. Hoping he wasn't making a giant mistake, he reached out and covered Steve's eyes with his bare hand, just to be sure. Then with his other hand he hit the helmet release, yanked the helmet off his head, and kissed Steve.
Steve made a quiet noise of surprise against his lips, but then his mouth fell open and he was kissing back, so clumsily that Tony wondered if he'd ever kissed anyone in his life, but so perfectly eager and ardent in his innocence that Tony wouldn't have wanted it any other way. Steve was gasping, soft little noises of pleasure, as Tony tasted him, slow and lingering, savoring the sweetness. Then Steve got an arm around Tony's bulky, armored shoulders, leaned in, and Tony thought maybe he was wrong about the innocence as Steve's tongue slid into his mouth, hot and slick, licking into him like he wanted to be inside him any way he could. Kissing had never felt like this before, like just kissing was already better than the best sex of his life. Tony groaned helplessly and Steve moaned back and they had to stop this, he was getting carried away, and in a few more seconds he was going to forget about all his secrets—
With difficulty, Tony pulled his head away and dropped the helmet back into place.
He dropped his hand, cleared his throat. "I'm decent," he said, filters on, face obscured. "You can look again."
Steve was patting dazedly at his own mouth, red and wet, like he thought his face might not have been entirely real. "I'm not sure—oh, God, Shellhead, what you do to me—I'm not sure anyone who kisses like that can ever be called decent. Oh. Oh, wow. I never thought you would— that was wonderful." He gave a happy sigh, then squinted a little in concern. "That didn't hurt you, did it? Taking the helmet off?"
"I can go without it for a bit."
Or, you know, a lot. Whichever. Liar.
"Oh, good." Steve relaxed, but only by a fraction; his perch on the table still seemed nervous. "You know, you didn't have to do that just to make me happy—"
"Yes," said Tony blandly, "that was my entirely altruistic tongue in your mouth."
Steve's laughter was bright and ringing. "Point taken. I like the facial hair, by the way. I guess I never pictured it."
"Never kissed anyone with a mustache before, eh?"
He wasn't going to connect those dots, was he? It wasn't like Tony was the only guy who had one.
Steve shook his head. "First time. It was nice," he added, a little shy.
"Good. I, ah, I liked it too. The kissing. Everything." Daring, Tony reached out, ran his bare thumb along Steve's lips, and Steve turned his face into Tony's palm, stubble scratchy on Tony's skin. Steve mouthed at his thumb, with a zing of heat and lightning that went straight down Tony's spine to pool deep in his belly, and fuck, but this was a bad time to be wearing close-fitting armor.
"You should go," Steve murmured, and then hastily corrected himself. "I mean, I don't want you to, but you ought to get yourself checked out, at least."
At this point Tony was floating on so many endorphins he was pretty sure he couldn't feel any pain whatsoever, and his body was telling him most emphatically that a much better thing to do would be to kiss Steve again.
"Yeah," Tony acknowledged, reluctantly dropping his hand. "I know I should. And I've got things I have to do right now, sorry; I really need to get started on that gauntlet rebuild today."
Steve frowned. "You—? Oh, you mean you're going to ask Mr. Stark."
Shit. Way to keep your secret identity secret, idiot. Maybe it was the head injury after all.
"Yeah, yeah," said Tony, quickly. "That's what I meant. I'll see you as soon as I can, I swear."
"I know," Steve said, and then, very quickly, he leaned in and kissed the helmet. "Go on."
This wasn't going to end well, Tony thought, turning to walk up the stairs, still tasting Steve on his lips, his mind still giddy with excitement. There was no way it could end well. But he was going to do it anyway, and hell if that wasn't his entire life story right there.
Steve's concentration for the rest of the day was completely shot. He had a soulmate. He had his soulmate. Iron Man had kissed him. Iron Man had touched his wrist. He wasn't going to be able to stop thinking about that any time soon.
He showered. He washed the blood out of his hair. He thought about how Iron Man's mouth had felt. He tried to write up a report for the Avengers' files. He pictured Iron Man's hand, strong and scarred, fingertips brushing against his wrist. Nope. He clearly wasn't going to be good for anything else today. He wondered how Iron Man was managing with his work; right now he was probably in the basement with Tony fitting a new gauntlet. He could go see him. No, no, he would only be a distraction. Even if he had just found his soulmate, there were limits.
When he headed down to the kitchen to fix himself a few sandwiches, he found that he wasn't alone; Wasp and Ant-Man were still here, standing close, and when Steve entered they jumped away with the sort of guilty quickness that suggested they'd been up to something. Steve couldn't help grinning again. At least everyone was happy.
"Don't mind me," he said, getting the turkey and swiss out of the refrigerator. "Keep doing what you were doing."
Giant-Man coughed. "It's not really a spectator sport."
He looked up from assembling his sandwich to find that Giant-Man and Wasp were bright red.
"Oh," Steve said. "Well, then, I'll just." He couldn't think of a way to finish his sentence.
Wasp smiled. "No worries. Eat your sandwich. We can keep our hands off each other."
And there he was, picturing Iron Man's hands again, probably smiling that dopey smile that had been pasted on his face all day—
"Are you all right, Cap?" Giant-Man asked.
Wasp looked at him thoughtfully. "Are you in love?"
Steve nearly choked on his sandwich.
"I. Uh." He didn't know if Iron Man wanted to mention this to the rest of the team. They hadn't talked about it. But he could answer for himself. "Yeah," he said, and he knew he was smiling. "Yeah, I am."
"Hey," Giant-Man said, "good for you. Who's the lucky lady? Anyone we know?"
"Um," Steve managed, awkward and inarticulate; somehow he'd never pictured now as the moment he told anyone he liked men. He'd had plenty of time to think about it, being queer Captain America. He'd imagined some press conference, some official disavowal, the entire country dismayed about something that there was nothing wrong with, nothing at all, ending in him getting a blue ticket. He hadn't imagined it would be here, like this, over sandwiches with friends. "We, uh, we haven't really said anything official yet. It's very new. I haven't told anyone else. About him."
Wasp's eyes went wide, and then she grinned bright and fierce. "Well, when you're ready, I for one would love to hear all about him. I'd like to meet him."
"I know you," she said, leveling a finger at him. "And anyone you date is unquestionably a wonderful person. You wouldn't settle for less."
He's my soulmate, and I know you already like him, Steve wanted to say, but he couldn't. Not without asking Iron Man.
"Well," Steve allowed, "I like him a lot."
Wasp laughed, and Steve took the opportunity to finish his food and then leave the two of them in peace. As he left he heard quiet, joyous laughter behind him.
He slipped into bed, fell quickly into sleep after the long day he'd had, and was woken, abruptly, by a light tap at the door. He opened his eyes. The only light in the room was from the window; it was still night. He sat up in the dark, threw on a shirt and cuff to go with the pants, and opened the door to find... Iron Man.
His heart pounded, half euphoria and half pure combat-ready adrenaline. "Is it a mission?"
"What? No, no," Iron Man said quickly. "I just... I missed you. Can I come in?"
Steve stepped back and gestured at the rest of the room. "Be my guest. Please."
Iron Man stepped inside. His eye-slits glowed white in the dimness, and Steve watched, hot and self-conscious, as his gaze settled on the bed.
"Thanks, I'm glad you like it," Steve said, aware that he was starting to babble. "Mr. Stark picked it out, really, but I thought he did such a wonderful job that I decided to keep— you probably don't want to talk about him, anyway. Never mind."
Iron Man's laughter was staticky. "Hey, if that's what you want to talk about, feel free. I'm perfectly happy to sneak into my soulmate's room in the middle of the night, cuddle up to you, and talk about my boss. If that's what you're into. I don't judge."
"I imagine," Steve told him, "that under that thing you're raising your eyebrows and trying not to laugh harder." The kiss had changed everything; he felt like he had permission to think about Iron Man's face now, how he might look, what expression he bore.
"Maybe," Iron Man said, and the artificial voice was slyly teasing.
"I'd be happy with the cuddling though," Steve offered. He felt a little awkward just saying that, but, well, Iron Man was his soulmate. Surely he wanted that too. "That part sounded good."
Iron Man tilted his head a little to the side in thought. "As appealing as that is, I'd probably better take a raincheck. I weigh over four hundred pounds in the armor. The bed's not sturdy enough for both of us."
"Oh," Steve said, disappointed.
He didn't have much time to feel disappointed because Iron Man was leading him back to the bed anyway, gauntleted hands on his shoulders. He supposed that meant Iron Man and Tony had been up all night fitting a new gauntlet.
"Here," said Iron Man, and the filtered voice was reassuring. "You lie back down. I'll pull up a chair."
"The chairs will hold you?" Steve wondered, as he rolled back into bed.
"Sure. Mr. Stark told me that he made sure to only buy chairs for the mansion that could hold the suit. Didn't want me breaking more furniture than I had to." He paused in the act of dragging Steve's chair over to chuckle. "Guess he didn't figure that your bed needed to be rated for it as well."
"Now I'm getting the idea that you want to talk about your boss in bed," Steve said, and Iron Man laughed harder.
It was a little uncomfortable, saying these things, hearing them, because all Steve could think about was his unfortunate attraction to Tony Stark, and how maybe he wouldn't mind if they did talk about him. It was a horrible, perverted fantasy. He had a soulmate. His soulmate was right here, for God's sake. He shouldn't be lying here thinking about someone else.
The laughter died away, and there was a soft metallic click, then another. Steve turned his head to see Iron Man reaching for something at the edge of the gauntlets.
"Want to help me take these off?" Iron Man asked, softly. "I don't need them to stay on all the time, and I thought maybe you might want—"
"Yes," Steve said, instantly.
Iron Man laughed. "Okay," he said, still soft, gentle. "Yeah. You want. Good."
Steve slowly eased the gauntlets off his hands, one after another, exposing Iron Man's bare forearms. His right arm, the one that had been hurt in the fight, was bruised on the outside and covered in large flesh-toned adhesive bandages. Steve ran his fingers over the wounds, in the air just above them, not touching.
"I'm feeling better now," Iron Man said, and then he exhaled static as Steve turned his hand over. "Oh, you want to look? Go ahead. I'm yours."
The promise in his voice made Steve shiver.
The words on Iron Man's wrist went lengthwise, starting at the base of his palm and going to the very edge of where the rest of the suit began. Where am I? The question—the very one he remembered asking—was in Steve's neatest and most formal script, like his soul had wanted to make the best possible impression. It was large, too; the letters took up the whole of his wrist, and even so, half of the question mark had disappeared under the edge of the armor.
"Yeah, I know, it's weird," Iron Man said, sounding oddly... self-conscious? "No one else has giant horizontal words."
"Your boss probably does," Steve said, absently, not even thinking about what he was saying, and why was he talking about Tony Stark? Why was he thinking about Tony Stark's arm?
Iron Man tensed; the tendon in his wrist stood out. "Something you want to tell me about you two, Winghead?" he said, and his voice was joking—but it was too casual, a pretense.
Did he really think Steve would have looked at— well, with the reputation Tony had said he had, maybe Tony would have shown him— and it was a thousand times worse because some awful part of him wished it could have been true, wished that it had happened.
Steve went hot. "It's nothing. I just— I remember seeing him once, with a wrist cuff, but not— not like how you're thinking, he didn't show me anything— and it was a huge cuff, bigger than that, and I was just thinking that, well, you'd probably have something in common, if you were worried about that. But it's nothing to worry about. I don't think it's that strange. Yours probably still fit under a regular cuff, right?" He was babbling again.
"Right," Iron Man said, and he seemed to relax very slowly. "Right. Yeah."
Steve exhaled hard. "Anyway, I like it. Them. Your words."
"Do you?" Iron Man sounded pleased and maybe a little disbelieving.
"I put them there, didn't I?"
Iron Man laughed. "Yeah. Yeah, you did."
"So why shouldn't I like them?"
He reached out, took Iron Man's hand in his, lifted it, and very gently pressed a kiss to where the words began. Iron Man shuddered once, convulsively, his hand trembling, his body folding in on itself, and the strangled noise from the suit sounded like a gasp.
"Oh," Iron Man whispered, brokenly, hoarse enough that the suit's voice was nearly pure static. "Oh, God. That feels— oh, please, don't ever stop."
"Ever?" Steve breathed, between kisses, and the rush of knowing that Iron Man was his soulmate, that he was making his soulmate feel like this, well, that was better than anything.
"Mmm. Ever. I like the sound of that."
"Might get a little awkward in battle," Steve pointed out, trailing more kisses down Iron Man's wrist.
"Nah." Even the mechanical voice was a happy, breathy sigh. "Can shoot the bad guys with my other hand. No problem."
Steve laughed, kissed him one last time, and then moved away a little to work at the laces of his own wrist cuff.
"Hey!" Iron Man objected, bereft. "Come back, what are you— oh." He must have realized what Steve was doing; his voice went low and easy, and Steve realized with a shudder of mirrored desire that this was arousing his soulmate. "Oh. Hi, there. Don't let me stop you. Definitely don't let me stop you."
Steve stretched out his newly-bared arm, still feeling like he couldn't quite believe that this was happening, that they could really be like this. Iron Man's fingers traced lightly over his wrist and he gasped, pleasure overwhelming him, breaching the last of his defenses.
He couldn't have said how long they stayed like that, only that he never wanted it to end.
He hadn't thought it could get better, either, but then Iron Man's hand slid over his, pressing their wrists together, the very words touching each other, the gesture reserved for soulmates since time immemorial. And it was his soulmate, finally, his soulmate touching him just there and it was perfect.
He was breathless, overwhelmed with happiness, brighter than the sun. He was floating. He thought he might have been aroused—it was a deeply sensual thing—but somehow that didn't matter. Naming it didn't matter. It just was, and he was happy.
After forever and no time at all, Iron Man stroked his wrist again, and that was good too. It was all good.
"You know," Steve said, watching Iron Man's illuminated gaze lock on his wrist, watching his hand move back and forth, "I always thought you'd be an architect."
"Really?" Iron Man's hand went curiously still for an instant. "Why?"
Steve shrugged a little. "The writing. That was— that was why I thought you'd be a man. I thought it looked like how architects wrote, and I suppose now there are women architects, but there weren't really when I was... younger. I mean, I was wrong, obviously, about the profession..."
"Hmm," Iron Man said, noncommittally. "Disappointed with your superhero, then? I mean, I could try to design a building, if that's what will make you happy—"
Steve laughed. He liked how Iron Man made him laugh. "No, no, that's fine. Not disappointed in the least. Trust me. I'm happy."
"I thought you'd be old," Iron Man said, sounding sheepish. "And confused."
Steve wrapped his free hand around Iron Man's other hand and grinned. "You were right, though. I am old. And I was awfully confused when you woke me up."
"Never imagined this." It was hard to tell, but his voice, Steve thought, had gone a little softer still. "I can't even begin to tell you what this is like."
Iron Man nodded. "Really good. I can't—" the mechanical voice broke a little— "I don't deserve this."
"Sure, you do, Shellhead," Steve said, and bent his head to kiss Iron Man's exposed skin again. "That's what soulmates are for. We're meant to love each other."
Iron Man's hand tightened on his. "I was wondering," he began. "I mean, you can't touch a lot of me, but my hands are free, and you're—" he motioned vaguely to the rest of Steve's body. "I could, uh. I can touch you. If you'd like that."
For a few seconds he didn't understand what his soulmate was offering, and then he did, and he went hot all over, picturing what Iron Man could do to him, what no one had ever done for him. He wanted that, he did, but— "No, thank you. I mean, I'd like that, but I'd rather wait. Until I can... until we can. Together." He wanted to be able to touch Iron Man. He could wait for that.
"You might be waiting a while, Cap." Iron Man sighed.
"Then I'll wait. I've been waiting this long. It'll be worth it."
Maybe he could talk to Tony about this. Maybe he could explain. Surely anyone would make an exception to the secret identity policy, at least, for a soulmate. Even if Iron Man couldn't take the helmet off for long, he wanted to see him, to know his name.
"Okay," Iron Man said gently. "We can do that. This, though—" he lifted their entwined hands— "you're okay with this?"
Steve nodded. "Yeah. Very much okay." He suddenly remembered meeting Wasp and Giant-Man in the kitchen, how he hadn't known how much Iron Man was comfortable with him saying to them. "I think the other Avengers know I— they didn't know it was you, because I didn't know if you wanted me to tell them, so I didn't, but can we?"
"You want to tell people?" Iron Man sounded surprised. "About us?"
"Not the entire world," Steve said, quickly. "Not yet, anyway. Not until I can also tell them my name, because it's me, as myself, who feels this. Just the Avengers for now. I think they should know. I don't want you to be a secret. It wouldn't feel right. When I— before— I figured out you were going to be a man, and I knew it was going to be more than friendship, for me, but I couldn't tell anyone then, and I hated that. I know it's rare, like this, but it's not wrong, and I'm not ashamed, and I want people to know."
"You want to come out because it's the right thing to do, and we're not even to second base yet," Iron Man said, with affection, shaking his head. "Guess that's what I get for assuming things about the past. Sick of the closet, huh? I— yeah, yeah. Let's tell them."
"Okay," Steve said, and he smiled as Iron Man brushed the hair back from his face. "You should get some sleep, Shellhead. We've had a long day."
"I'll stay until you fall asleep," Iron Man said. "Close your eyes."
Steve did. He meant to ask Iron Man to kiss him again, but he was already drifting into sleep.
When he woke up, it was light and Iron Man was gone.
The chair had been put back in its usual place, but Steve knew it hadn't been a dream.
Smiling, he went downstairs, to find that Tony Stark was in the kitchen, clutching a mug of coffee. The other man was dressed as if he thought it was cold: he wore heavy dark sweatpants and a thick sweatshirt, and his shoulders were shaking a little. He was shivering. He was standing near the windows, turned away from Steve, silhouetted in the morning sunlight so that Steve couldn't really make out much else about his appearance.
Steve blinked a few times in surprise, feeling as if the ordinary routine had been upended. Tony wasn't usually up and about the mansion this early; actually, Steve hadn't seen much of him at all since that awkward conversation about the photo he'd seen on the internet.
"Good morning." Steve poured himself a cup of juice. "You're down here early."
Startled, Tony jumped, like he hadn't known Steve was here at all. The coffee in his mug sloshed over his fingers and he hissed.
"Hi, Steve." Tony's voice sounded hoarse.
Tony turned to face him, slowly, gingerly, and Steve stared in horror. There were huge dark bruises along Tony's jaw and cheekbone, and a bandage held together both sides of a deep cut on his forehead, clotting dark and sticky. Tony blinked a few times, slowly, and Steve could only keep staring at him in return. It looked... well, it looked pretty awful.
"Tony?" Steve nearly reached out before he remembered the man's reaction to touch. "My God, Tony, what happened?"
Tony laughed weakly. "Oh, you know. Ran into a door."
Steve crossed his arms. He knew that one, did he ever. "And I suppose the door had a vicious right hook."
"You could say that." Tony looked away, evasive.
"Listen," Steve began, hearing the words echo strangely as he spoke; he was positive he'd been on the receiving end of dozens of these speeches himself, when he'd refused to tattle on his tormentors. "You don't need to protect anyone, and you damn well don't need to protect anyone who did that to your face. You're a smart fella, you know that."
Tony's laugh was dry. "I know, trust me. It's not like you think. I didn't join Fight Club. I'm not being abused. Can we just say it was an unlucky accident and leave it at that?"
Details were clearly not forthcoming.
Iron Man was Tony's bodyguard. Iron Man was supposed to keep him safe from things like this. That was the entire point of Iron Man's job. Had this happened while they were busy fighting Zemo and his Masters of Evil? Had the Avengers been asking too much of Iron Man, to take him away when Tony really needed him? Or worse, had it happened when Iron Man was sitting with Steve? Had his own selfishness resulted in Tony getting hurt?
"Is it—" Steve began, haltingly. "Did it happen because Iron Man was off with the Avengers? I know we've been borrowing him more than we used to, but he's your bodyguard. If you need his services, please don't feel like you can't ask us, because we can get by without him—"
"It wouldn't have helped." Oddly, Tony was smiling just a little, although nothing was funny. "Besides, he told me what went down, and it sounded like you all needed him much more than I did. But it's very sweet of you to offer."
"If there's anything I can do—"
"I'll let you know." Tony took a slurping sip of coffee and then set the mug down on the counter. "Congratulations, by the way."
Steve was sure the stupid grin was back. "Oh. Iron Man— he told you?"
"Mmm-hmm." Whatever facial expression Steve was making seemed to be delighting Tony. "You should see how you look right now. It's like happiness punched you in the face." He gestured ruefully at his jaw. "Much better deal than I got."
"So he talks about me?" Steve's mind was taken up with the possibilities. What did Iron Man say to Tony about him?
"Yeah, he does. He always has." Tony ran his thumb and finger across his bruised chin. "He told me. Not that he had to say much, really. He— it was awfully clear."
Steve took a deep breath. "You know who he is."
Sighing, Tony closed his eyes and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. When he opened his eyes again, he looked weary. Exhausted. Like he'd been functioning on nothing but coffee and sheer willpower, and both of those were in short supply. His eyes were very blue in the morning light and also completely bloodshot.
"I was wondering when we were going to have this conversation." Tony just sounded... sad. "I was really hoping to put it off for as long as possible."
"You know who he is," Steve pressed, stubbornly.
"Of course I know who he is." Tony sighed again. "It would have been very hard to hire him without knowing. The decision to keep his identity secret was mutual, and believe me, it was more difficult than you can know. It would be... potentially disastrous... if his identity were revealed. Please don't ask either of us to reconsider."
What stake did Tony have in any of this? Iron Man was only his bodyguard. It shouldn't matter to him what Iron Man did with his identity. It wasn't going to threaten him.
Steve held out a hand, pleading. "He's my soulmate. I know you said you don't believe in your soulmate, and that's your decision, but please, believe in mine. This won't hurt you. I won't tell anyone. I swear. I will keep his identity an absolute secret."
Tony looked at him, and for an instant, Steve could have sworn his eyes were full of anguish. His lips parted, and Steve wondered, crazily, if Tony had changed his mind. But then he shook his head.
"Let me ask you a question." Tony's voice was level, even, almost emotionless. "Do you know Wasp's real name?"
"No. She hasn't told me—"
"Her name is Jan. Janet Van Dyne."
How could Tony violate the trust of one of the Avengers? Why was he doing this? His voice had settled into something harder, colder, almost cruel, but his eyes were wide like he was terrified. What did he have to be afraid of? And why would he be willing to tell him Wasp's name, but not Iron Man's?
"What—?" Steve began. "How can you even—?"
Tony held up his hand. It was shaking, and he didn't seem to notice. "I'm going to tell you how I know that. There's a point to this. Pay attention." The words were snapped out, harsh. "First off, Jan's famous. She's old money. I know her. We've traveled in the same circles for years. And her outfit doesn't have a mask. It's not hard."
"Iron Man's your bodyguard." Steve realized his hands were clenched into fists. He took a few steadying breaths. "How recognizable can he be? It's not like you hired a fellow billionaire. So how is that at all relevant?"
Tony just looked at him, refusing to fight back; the anger slid off of him like it had been hitting Steve's shield. "It isn't, I suppose. What's relevant is the other reason I would know, even if she had been masked. Which is that I have root access to the Avengers servers."
"I don't know what that means."
"I can read your reports," Tony said, his eyes as cold and pale as ice. "I have your communications transcripts. And even if I didn't have them, there would have been witnesses, so you can just imagine other people knowing these things anyway."
Tony... read their reports? Had Steve been on the comms yesterday, when he'd rescued Iron Man? Had that been recorded? Had Tony pored over their every word to each other? Steve felt sick. For a man who valued his own privacy so highly, Tony sure seemed to want to invade everyone else's.
"What are you trying to tell me?"
"There have been a couple times she's been hurt or missing in the field. Giant-Man has called her Jan. And after that, well, it would be easy enough to narrow down. Especially with the comments she's made about her career. Like I said, she's famous." Tony stepped forward, stabbing at the air with one finger. His stare was a weapon, but his eyes were still tense with fear. "You can't tell what you don't know. Can you look at me now, can you look at me and honestly promise me that if your soulmate goes down in battle and you think he might be hurt, or dead—that you will never, ever, even once be tempted to say his name?"
Steve swallowed hard. He opened his mouth but no sound came out.
"Yeah," Tony said, and the word was half of a sad little laugh. "Didn't think so."
Tony stalked past him and out of the kitchen without a single word of farewell, and all Steve could do was wonder what had made him so afraid.
He needed to apologize. Sure, it was completely fucking up any plans he had of keeping his identities separate enough that there would be no chance of a slip-up, but he couldn't get in the suit and hold Steve's hand—God, he was every teenage soulmate soap opera cliche brought to life, but he hadn't quite realized they were cliches for a reason until now—and then have to face Steve with the mask off and have Steve staring at him like he wanted to cry or punch him or maybe both because he wouldn't tell him who Iron Man was. He just couldn't deal with his soulmate looking at him like that, even if his soulmate didn't know it was him.
He got his chance a few days later, when, passing through the halls, he heard the low sound of the television, and then Steve yelling "Out! He was out!"
Tony leaned his head into the doorway. "Enjoying the game?"
Steve's face went still for an instant, but then moved in what looked like a conscious decision to smile. "Hey."
"Do you want company?"
"It's your house," Steve said, determinedly, and that was really not the reaction Tony had wanted at all. "Go where you'd like."
Going to the kitchen, Tony grabbed the first thing he saw—a bag of popcorn—and headed back, holding it defensively in front of him. Steve's eyes flicked over when he saw him in the doorway, but this time he didn't say anything.
"This is my apology popcorn," Tony said.
"My apology popcorn," he repeated. "Because I owe you an apology, after that talk the other day. I was— I'd had a hard day, and that didn't go at all the way I wanted it to, I phrased everything badly, and I shouldn't have outed Jan, because that was shitty, and I'd like— I'd like to be friends. If that's possible."
Steve looked at him, his eyes wide, and there were traces of an actual smile on his face. "Bring your popcorn, then."
"There's also apology beer in the fridge."
"Thanks, but I don't want—" Steve stopped and frowned. "If that's the rest of the beer Thor brought after the meeting last week, how is it apology beer?"
"A great scientist takes credit wherever possible," Tony retorted, miming polishing his nails against his chest.
Steve chuckled. "How modest," he said, and Tony's heart soared to hear Steve laughing.
Tony sat carefully on the other side of the couch. He couldn't really lean back, because the chestplate made for some awkward positioning when it took away his ability to slump. But at least he was here. He squinted at the corner of the screen, trying to read the team names. "And who are we cheering for?"
"Funny thing," Steve said, wrinkling his nose, "I'm not really sure anymore. The schedule said Giants-Dodgers, and I thought, well, if they still have a rivalry going at least some things haven't changed, but—" He waved a hand inarticulately at the screen.
"Oh, geez." Tony laughed and held the popcorn out. "I'm sorry no one told you about California baseball before now. But don't worry; they still hate each other."
Steve reached for the popcorn; their hands brushed, and Tony watched as Steve went wide-eyed at the contact, the little frisson of the bond that... he had no idea existed. Tony wanted to grab his hand harder, to pull him close, to tell him everything, and why had he ever thought this was a good idea? It was incredibly hard to be around him out of the suit and keep his hands off him.
Steve yanked his hand away. "Sorry," he said, and the word was laced with... shame? "Didn't mean to, uh, bump you."
"I can handle it," Tony said. He was beginning to wonder if he wore the mask too much; he needed to remember how to lie when people could see his actual face. God, that was an awful thing to think. "Not the worst I've ever gotten."
Steve probably hated him.
"I'm not actually trying to be an asshole," Tony said, to his horror, because apparently while he could fight whatever part of the bond that made him want to stare non-stop at his soulmate, he still had no defense against the part that wanted him to pour his heart out. Which was probably worse. Wasn't like he had much of a heart left. "Believe me, I'm not. It's just— it's a complicated situation, and if Iron Man could tell you, you would see immediately why he hasn't. It was the best of a bad slate of options. For what it's worth, I'm sorry."
Steve was silent for a long time, so long that Tony wondered if that was his response, just ignoring him. Then he sighed. "All right."
"All right," Steve said again. "Apology accepted. If this is what we've got, then this is what we've got. I'll have to live with it. And I'm sorry I pushed you about it. I'd like to be friends, like you said."
Friends. It was simultaneously not enough and too much.
"What," Tony asked, lightly, joking, "trying to get in good with your soulmate's boss already?"
"Maybe," Steve said, chuckling and taking a handful of popcorn. "And I'd like to be on good terms with my housemate. The guy who owns the house. Who is also my soulmate's boss." He shook his head, grinning. "This is so incredibly complicated."
You have no idea, Tony agreed.
Life went on.
He and Iron Man told the Avengers they were soulmates. Jan threw them a very small party, Avengers only, the highlight of which, Steve thought, was watching Iron Man try to drink Asgardian mead through a straw stuck in his mask. He stole every moment he could with Iron Man, who came to visit him every night he wasn't needed—just sitting there, talking, holding hands in the dark. Slowly he and Tony Stark began to be better friends, too. It was a wary friendship, and Steve suspected it would have been better if he weren't... well, honestly, if he hadn't been so attracted to the man. Maybe it would fade.
Avengers Mansion began to play host to new and varied superheroes; Steve had been very surprised to return from South America and find that the other four Avengers had taken a temporary leave of absence, giving him command of an archer named Hawkeye and a pair of mutant siblings, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. He had stared, dismayed, when Iron Man told him he was leaving—they had fought so well together! How could he fight better with anyone than his soulmate? How could he think of giving that up? But then he remembered seeing Tony Stark's bruised and bloodied face, Iron Man unable to protect him because he had been with the Avengers. This was his duty. Steve understood that.
The other Avengers had discreetly given them some time for farewells. He overheard Giant-Man and Wasp telling the new Avengers to give them some space, because Cap and Shellhead were soulmates, and didn't they understand how that must feel?
"Hey," said Iron Man, giving him an awkward, armored hug, and then—as had become their custom—pulling off one of his gauntlets, touching him skin to skin in the only kind of kiss they'd managed since that first day. "It'll be all right. It's not like I won't be around. Just talk to Mr. Stark if you need me. He always knows how to find me, and I swear, I'll do everything in my power to come to you if you need me. You know that, right?"
"Right," Steve said, but his throat tightened over the word. He knew Iron Man loved him, he knew Iron Man wasn't really leaving him... but it felt an awful lot like that, and suddenly he was the gawky kid who'd never go on a date, never have a soulmate who wanted him like he wanted them to want him, because who would?
Iron Man must have seen something in his eyes, because the helmet tilted down, like he was slumping, trying to meet his gaze. He had big, expressive body language—the only kind that worked with the armor, Steve supposed—and Steve had learned to read it well enough.
"Aww, no, Winghead," Iron Man said. "Don't— hey, don't be like that. It's all right." He brushed one bare fingertip down the side of Steve's face, and Steve shivered despite himself. "Shh. Close your eyes for me."
"Why?" Steve asked, even as he was shutting them.
"Because I want to kiss you."
There was the hiss and click of the helmet unlatching, and then Iron Man's breath was warm on his face, his mustache scratching against Steve's skin, his lips soft on Steve's mouth. The kiss was gentle, easy, tender, and Steve leaned into it, letting Iron Man hold him up for just a few seconds, savoring every moment of it to remember, because this was his soulmate right here, kissing him. It wasn't perfect—it couldn't be, Iron Man was leaving—but he was doing everything he could to comfort him, and that knowledge warmed Steve more than any words could have.
The thought floated through his head that he could open his eyes; he could see Iron Man. If he opened them right now he would know what his soulmate looked like and he would betray all the trust that had been placed in him.
And people thought Captain America was perfect. Steve Rogers wasn't. Because more than anything, he wanted to do that.
All too soon, Iron Man backed away, and Steve heard the helmet clicking back into place.
"Not too long?" he asked, concerned, opening his eyes. Iron Man had never actually said he needed the helmet to breathe, but surely that had to be the reason he never took it off?
"I'm good," Iron Man replied, his voice nearly as soft as the kiss had been. "Are you good?"
Steve smiled. "I will be. Glad you've still got the mustache, by the way."
"You like it? It's grown on me," Iron Man said, and then he cackled at the horrible joke.
Steve rolled his eyes. "Why do I put up with you?"
"You like me. Universe says so." He tilted his head to the side smugly. Steve could never really tell how much Iron Man was joking when he said things like that about soulmates.
Steve cupped his palm to the side of Iron Man's helmet. "Of course I do. Now go on before I decide I'm taking a leave of absence to follow you."
There were definitely things to keep him busy. Their foes got stranger: the Swordsman, the Mandarin, the Circus of Crime. Kang the Conqueror came back to torment them again. Zemo came back as well. Doctor Doom, the Collector, the Black Widow. He ended up taking a few short leaves of absence himself to deal with old enemies, once the new members of the team—and there always seemed to be new members—had settled in. Wasp and Giant-Man, now Goliath—whose real name, they'd learned, was Hank—were back. Some days he wondered if Tony Stark had even met all the people who were living in his house now. He thought maybe Tony was sleeping most nights at one of his factories. He'd hired an extra bodyguard and another personal assistant, Steve knew, but it didn't seem to reduce his workload; whenever Steve saw him he was always hurrying like he had fifty things to do and was behind on all of them.
With the constantly-changing roster and the constantly-evolving threats, Steve was beginning to feel like he was stretched about as thin as Tony looked to be. He nearly collided with him one day in the hall, missing him only by dint of the fact that Tony leaped sideways with an agility he wouldn't have suspected of the man, slamming himself hard into the wall with a resounding thud. He did this rather than touch him, Steve knew. If Tony hadn't mentioned the issue when they'd met, he might have thought it was personal.
"Whoa," Steve said, reaching out a hand in case Tony needed the balance; Tony didn't take it. "Are you all right there?"
Tony nodded, a little distracted, organizing the sheaf of half-crumpled papers that he'd nearly dropped. Looking at him, Steve felt once again a wave of desire, the same thing he'd tried to convince himself he had eliminated. He didn't want to run his fingers over the planes of Tony's face, kiss him hard and deep, watch his eyes alight in joy. He didn't want that. He had a soulmate. Something was wrong with him.
"I'm okay," he said, looking up and starting to smile, wide and pleased and real, not like his expression in any of the pictures that showed up on the news sites. Steve adored that smile, and he hated himself for it. But then the smile faded from Tony's face. "But are you all right?"
Steve couldn't tell him the truth. "Fine," he said. "Just tired, I guess. A lot of unpleasant people to fight. I didn't expect so many people I knew from the war to be alive and after me."
"You don't have to fight all the people you knew."
"No," Steve agreed. "Some of them are Nick Fury. Whom I am not fighting. Why in the world did you put him in charge of SHIELD? And how is he still alive? He was awfully cagey about that."
Tony waved a dismissive hand. "In reverse order, science, and because I thought you'd get a kick out of it. Besides, I thought the former leader of the Howling Commandos would be a good choice given that the former leader of the Invaders was already spoken for."
"Sounds reasonable." Tony had done that for him? Fury hadn't been one of his best friends, but political appointments of someone's friends were a strange thing to do for someone to make them happy. Still, Tony liked him. Ruthlessly he damped down the little glimmer of happiness at the thought.
He recalled himself to the present; Tony was looking at him, clear-eyed and earnest.
"You know, it's all right to take another break, Cap. The Avengers, what you've made here... it's a good thing you've done, and it's bigger than you, or Iron Man, or Wasp, or Goliath, or any single person. They'll go on without you. Leaving doesn't mean you can't come back. They'll still be here when you're ready."
The speech wouldn't have sounded at all out of place from the mouth of an Avenger. Steve half-smiled. It sounded like something Iron Man might have said.
"I want to stay until one of the original Avengers takes command," Steve admitted. "I would feel better, turning the team over to one of them. I don't suppose you can drop a word in Iron Man's ear when you see him?"
"He's a little busy." Tony looked guilty. "I've been keeping his schedule pretty full."
Steve tried not to sigh. "It's all right." He'd been hoping Iron Man would have the time to come by, even if he couldn't take the team, that they could just enjoy each other's company, that being in his soulmate's presence would lift his spirits—but no.
"Think about taking a break," Tony said, and there was some indefinable expression of sadness on his face; Steve couldn't read it at all. "You can stay here as long as you like, even if you're not a current Avenger. Call it special dispensation. I— I worry about you."
Tony reached out and brushed a steadying hand over Steve's shoulder, like the gesture had somehow been reflexive and familiar, and he left.
Steve stared after him, confused. Tony didn't touch people. Tony had said he didn't touch people. Tony had practically run into the damn wall to avoid him five minutes ago, and now, now, he'd had his hand on Steve's shoulder? What was going on? The most awful part, the part he could hardly bear to think about, was that Steve wanted him to do it again. To keep touching him.
He quit the Avengers the next day, after Hank had confirmed that his powers were at full strength. He practically stormed out of the meeting. He rented his own apartment. Maybe he needed some time alone. Maybe he needed some space.
Even sitting alone in his new apartment, he couldn't stop wondering how Tony was. It was natural, of course. He'd been thinking of Iron Man—he was always thinking of Iron Man—and Tony Stark was the only way to contact him. But that didn't make it any easier.
He kept tabs on the Avengers too, coming back when they needed his help. Black Panther had joined, and there had been a massive fight with one of Hank's creations gone deeply wrong—Ultron. And then somehow out of that the Avengers had found themselves an android, the Vision, for a new teammate.
Iron Man had been joking with him about this the next time they saw each other out of battle, which turned out to be the even bigger fiasco that was Hank—or rather, Yellowjacket—and Jan's wedding. They'd held a second reception afterwards. One with fewer snakes and less property damage.
"Ha." Iron Man had nudged him in the side with one metallic elbow, after Vision had walked by both of them to go talk to Reed Richards. "You remember when you thought I was a robot?"
Steve flushed. "Don't remind me."
Iron Man slurped champagne through a straw. "Well, I thought it was sweet. You still liked me."
"You wouldn't have been the first android I'd ever liked," Steve said, thinking of his friendship with Jim.
Laughing, Iron Man clapped a hand to his chest in faked shock. "Cap! And here I thought we had something special!"
And then Jan and Hank were coming up, and Iron Man was congratulating them, and all Steve could think about was how lucky they were, in spite of everything. He wished he and Iron Man could... well, there was no point in wishing for that.
Very shortly thereafter, everything went wrong.
Tony was off somewhere in Nevada to help SHIELD with some kind of equipment testing; Iron Man hadn't been too clear on the details, and he didn't know when they'd be back, and he was sorry he hadn't been able to spend much time with Steve recently, but he was going to change that. He promised.
Steve kept rereading the email from Iron Man and smiling fondly.
Then his email reloaded. There'd been an explosion at Stark Industries.
Steve had kept rechecking the news sites furiously, heart in his throat, pacing and staring out the window at the rainy night. Tony Stark was all right, they said. Tony Stark had been at the factory, but he was in seclusion there now. Tony Stark had assured the press he was in no need of medical attention. None of the articles mentioned Iron Man.
Tony didn't return any of his phone calls.
It was a complete surprise when Iron Man showed up the next day to help him and Nick Fury take down a few Hydra agents. He just— he wasn't right.
In fights he always knew where Iron Man would be, trusting that when he turned he'd see him, and Iron Man would swoop in to execute complicated maneuvers; with just a word or two, Steve knew exactly where to run to, when to jump so that Iron Man could catch him. They understood each other. But this fight was wrong. Iron Man wasn't where he thought he'd be, and every time Steve reached for him he grabbed air.
They still got the Hydra goons, of course, but... something was off.
"Thanks for the help," Fury said, with his usual gruffness.
"Hey, Shellhead," Steve said, gratefully, putting an arm around Iron Man's armored shoulders, walking with him away from the scene of the fight. "Boy, am I glad to see you! You didn't want to tell me when you were coming back? You didn't want to tell me you were okay?"
Iron Man didn't lean into him. Iron Man didn't pull him into an alley, peel off a gauntlet or two, and run his hands over every part of him he could reach in the post-battle high of being alive, in the relief at having survived the factory explosion. Iron Man only kept walking.
"Oh, you know how it is," Iron Man said. The voice was a little more mechanical. Maybe he'd changed something about the suit? "I thought I'd surprise you."
Steve was beginning to feel a little uneasy. "Okay," he said, slowly. "I'm back in the mansion for a bit now. You should come by."
"Maybe I will," Iron Man said, and it was friendly enough, with the right amount of eagerness, but it was viscerally wrong in a way that horrified Steve, with some awful aspect that he couldn't quite express in words.
No one else had looked at Iron Man like they thought something might be wrong. He wondered if this was what going crazy felt like.
He watched as Iron Man walked on ahead of him, then fired up the boot jets and jumped into the sky.
There was something wrong. This wasn't how Iron Man behaved. Except it was, it was how he talked, and clearly his behavior reflected that this was not the place for an intimate reunion. All of it had been something Iron Man could have done. But it didn't feel right.
He became aware that Fury had been saying his name for a long time. "What?"
"What's the matter?"
He frowned. "Nothing. Nothing I can put my finger on."
The next day he left Tony another message, asking if he'd done something to the suit, if he'd altered it somehow, if something had happened in the explosion. Tony never called back. Iron Man didn't come by.
That night he was wondering whether he should try calling Tony again when the Avengers card beeped, a call to assemble. He wasn't technically an Avenger anymore. He should probably go anyway, he thought, but he couldn't seem to summon the willpower to stand up. Something was wrong with Iron Man. Maybe really wrong. Something was wrong with him. But he had to fight, the Avengers needed him—
The comm beeped again, in the pattern that meant whoever was in the basement HQ had switched to the private line.
"Cap?" Hank's hesitant voice came over the comm. "You— you really need to join us. Guards at the SI factory on Long Island called us. They said— they said there's fighting— they said Iron Man's trying to kill Tony Stark."
It couldn't be true. It was happening.
Oh God. No. No. Not Iron Man. Not Tony.
He couldn't have said what he told Hank, or even what he did, only aware of the terrified beating of his heart, but then somehow they were there, at the factory, the rest of the team pounding through the corridors ahead of him. Someone on his left—Goliath, maybe—was saying something indistinct about how the guards said Tony had put on the old Iron Man suit, the first one, and he was attempting to fight back.
Tony had said he'd worn the suit before, when he'd first made it, Steve remembered. It nearly killed me, he'd said, and he'd told Steve about his heart problems, and he'd smiled an awful, haunted smile. Tony couldn't survive the suit even without fighting Iron Man.
Iron Man wasn't a murderer. Steve knew that deep in his bones. Iron Man didn't kill people. He didn't. He was his soulmate. Steve remembered Iron Man's bare hands gentle on his wrist, the static of Iron Man's laughter, the taste of his mouth. Iron Man couldn't be doing this. Everything about this was wrong, and somehow it was happening anyway.
There were tears slipping down Steve's face. He ignored them, and he ran on.
And then they were on the factory floor where a huge vat of molten metal bubbled away, red-hot. Above it a catwalk spanned the length of the factory, and that was where the fight was. Iron Man lashed out with repulsors at full strength, accurate and deadly. The other figure, in a massive golden suit Steve had never seen before, doubled over and sagged against the edge of the catwalk, blasting back one-handed with a much less powerful volley. His other hand clutched at his chest.
Tony—because that was who the man in the golden suit had to be—clambered slowly to his feet, clenching his fists like he was still determined to keep fighting to his last breath, even as the repulsors in his palms flickered and died, out of power. He was brave, Steve thought, God, he'd had no idea how brave Tony was, but it wasn't going to be enough to stop Iron Man, Iron Man whose suit was lighter and had untold improvements in technology, Iron Man who had the advantage of wearing the suit every day, Iron Man who was a trained fighter, Iron Man who couldn't possibly be doing this—
Iron Man kicked Tony, punched him once, twice, and then lifted him bodily in the suit as if he weighed nothing.
"No!" Clint yelled.
"Iron Man, stop!" called Hank.
Steve tried to add his voice, but when he opened his mouth no words came out.
Poised at the edge of the catwalk where the safety railing had broken, right over the vat, were the two men: Iron Man in red and gold, triumphant, holding Tony in the golden suit high above his head. They stayed there for a second, motionless. They were still figures in a terrible tableau, and then Iron Man threw Tony forward—
Tony's golden-gauntleted hand reached for one of the suspension cables, wrapped around it, held on, clung for dear life—
Iron Man, carried by the momentum of his throw, plunged over the side of the catwalk and fell, thirty feet through the air and into the molten metal, sinking without a trace.
He couldn't breathe.
He couldn't breathe.
Tony's chest hurt more than it had ever hurt in his life, worse than it had hurt when the landmine had hit him, worse than in those last minutes before he'd first worn the chestplate. The old suit's chestplate hadn't been enough to power the weapons, the suit, and his heart. He clawed his way back up to the catwalk with the last of the strength in his numb hands.
Heart attack. Of course it was a heart attack. The shrapnel was probably moving, too. He was going to die.
At least— at least he'd taken out the Life Model Decoy.
You really think Captain America wants you? the LMD had asked, chuckling, as it had put on the Iron Man suit. You're broken. I am perfect. He'll never suspect a thing. I met him and he never guessed. He'll love me more than he could ever have loved you.
Sweat dripped down his clammy skin.
He'd always known that this was how he was to going to go. At least he'd done some good with his life, right?
He should have told Steve. God, he should have told Steve everything. Too late now. Steve would figure the truth out when he never saw the real Iron Man again.
He pushed himself to his feet, staggering, seeing the Avengers team—Goliath, Vision, Wasp, Yellowjacket—running to him, shouting things he couldn't quite make out about how Iron Man could have dared to attack him. It was so hard to hear.
Behind the rest of the team, frozen in shock and horror, face bone-white, stood Captain America. He had been crying.
He thinks I killed his soulmate.
Tony ripped the helmet off his head.
"No," he said, or tried to say. He wasn't sure what he was saying. It hurt so much. He tried to hold out a hand, but there didn't seem to be enough strength left in him to do more than raise his arm feebly.
"Relax," someone—Hank?—was saying, but even so, his voice was tense. They were worried about him. "Don't try to talk."
"Must... explain," Tony gasped out. "You saw... LMD... out of control..."
The LMD was a replacement. He tried to explain. The words must have gotten through, because a tiny glimmer of hope shone on Steve's face and he ran forward, pushing past the other Avengers, shoving them aside like he cared about nothing else in the world.
"The real Iron Man is on a special mission?" Goliath asked.
Steve was there, right in front of him, holding his hands out. He was shaking, and his eyes were wide and terrified, like he didn't dare hope for this, for there to be something good about this. "Iron Man is all right?"
All right? Tony wanted to laugh. Oh, God. Why did dying have to hurt so much? He supposed that a man like him wasn't owed a painless death. At least this would be quick.
He tried to keep looking at Steve, to meet his eyes, but everything kept going in and out of focus.
"He—" Tony gasped for air but found none. "He... may not... return..."
I'm Iron Man, he tried to say. The words didn't come out. I'm sorry. I love you.
His heart beat one last arrhythmic beat as the shrapnel twisted in his chest, pounding agony through his body, and then everything went black.
The hospital was the smell of antiseptic. It was white walls, harshly lit. The beeping of heart monitors. Words like cardiac arrest and tissue damage and not a good candidate for transplant. And Tony Stark, lying unconscious in a SHIELD-guarded room, pale and dying. You could watch the life ebb away from him.
The Avengers had come to sit in vigil. It felt, Steve thought stupidly, as if he hadn't realized how much he liked Tony until now, now that they would lose him forever. Sure, he'd thought he was handsome, but he'd spent so much time trying to argue himself out of thinking that that it seemed like he ignored the more basic truth: he liked Tony. He'd been a friend. Probably his best friend in this century besides Iron Man.
And now they were here to watch him die.
There was the noise of someone outside arguing with the SHIELD agents, and Thor, who had been absent from their group, stepped in, dragging behind him a confused and windburned gentleman in a white coat. Thor must have flown him in.
"On the advice of Donald Blake," Thor said, "I have brought Dr. Santini, a preeminent specialist in these matters. He says that there may yet be hope for our fallen friend!"
The doctor smoothed his hair back into place and started to explain something that Steve wasn't quite following, about making Tony an entirely new heart out of synthetic tissue. It sounded complicated; the doctor stressed that it was entirely experimental, and that there was no guarantee that Tony's new heart would not fail him, but that in his opinion there were no other paths that offered anywhere near the same chance of success.
And then everyone looked at Steve.
"You're his health care proxy," Clint said.
"You didn't know? He told me. You would have had to sign a form. You're—" Clint shrugged— "the person he wants to be able to make medical decisions for him, if he can't. Guess he thought Captain America would do the best job."
Steve took a confused, surprised breath. Sure, Tony had had him sign a few things when he was first settling into the team, but he'd assumed it was all Avengers paperwork. Tony had done this and not told him? Why had Tony picked him?
Still, he knew what Tony would want. He'd want to live. Tony had been funding this man's research into this very subject, apparently. He'd want whatever gave him the best shot, even if it was new, even if it was untried. He was a man who'd built a suit of armor and flown it out of a war zone. He'd want this.
"Do it," Steve said.
It said something about their lives as Avengers that the next thing that happened was a repeat visit from Kang the Conqueror. Steve didn't really have the energy to care. It was all over quickly, anyway.
And later, when they'd been sitting for hours in a hallway, half of the Avengers slumped against the wall and half in uncomfortable chairs, with no word about the operation, Steve began to wonder about the entire thing. And even he could be pessimistic. There were so many ways this could go wrong. And where was Iron Man? Why hadn't he come to save Tony? Why wasn't he here now?
Steve sighed and tipped his head back against the wall.
"I don't understand why Tony did it," he murmured. "He knew— he had to know that getting in that suit would kill him. Why did he do it? Why didn't he wait for Iron Man? Or us?"
Thor looked up. "Would you not have made the same choice as he?"
Steve spread his hands wide in frustration. "Yes, but I'm— he's not superhuman. Not an Avenger, except in the honorary sense. We don't ask anyone else to take these risks."
"Tony Stark," said Thor, gravely, "is no less a warrior in spirit than you or I. He fought well and bravely, and we should honor him for it. He knew the choice when he made it."
"He shouldn't have had to make it," Steve said, and suddenly his face was hot with tears. He was so tired, grief-stricken for a man who might still die, and everything he felt washed over and through him with no way to control it. He closed his eyes, but all he could see when he did was Iron Man—the LMD—holding Tony above his head, about to drop him. He saw Iron Man falling into the metal. What if it had been the real Iron Man?
He wished Iron Man were here.
He slumped down, head in his hands. Dimly he felt the weight of someone's arm across his back, over his shoulders, rubbing in circles. He didn't remember who was sitting next to him and didn't particularly feel like turning his head to look.
"Hang in there, Avenger," someone said. Jan. It was Jan. "We're with you. We've got your back."
Through his narrowed gaze, someone with blue boots—Clint—nudged at his foot. "Hey, if there's no news in half an hour we can get out of here, huh? Sneak out the back, avoid the crowds. I'll buy you a beer. Multiple beers."
"Clint!" Jan said, disapproving.
"I don't think that's a good idea," Steve said dubiously, looking up.
Clint stretched. "It's a great idea. Forget your troubles. Listen, we all like Tony too, yeah? And I know the two of you are close."
Could everyone see that he had a crush on Tony? "It's not like that— I've got a soulmate—"
"Way to jump to conclusions." Clint snorted. "News flash: you're allowed to care about people who aren't your soulmate. Ol' Shellhead's not going to hold it against you when he gets back. And really, Cap—you need a bit of a break. Anyone would."
And then a petite young woman in scrubs stuck her head around the corridor. "Avengers? Dr. Santini wants to talk to Captain America."
Steve leaped to his feet. "How's Tony?"
She smiled a tired smile and led him down the hallway. "We're calling it a success. He's sleeping. You might want to ready the press conference now. There were a few complications; the doctor will have the details for you."
Tony was alive. That was the important part. Everything else would be all right.
After finally being released from the hospital, it was another few days and yet another unwanted trip to the Aegean courtesy of Madame Masque and her associates before Tony managed to see Steve again. But finally, he could sneak into Steve's bedroom once again. It hardly counted as sneaking around at night anymore now that the mansion was inhabited by more than just the two of them and everyone on the floor could hear him clanking down the hallway. So what? They all knew Steve was his soulmate.
Steve opened the door and dragged him in before he was even at the doorway.
"Oh, God, Iron Man," he said, breathlessly, wrapping his arms around Tony, going up on his toes and burying his face where the helmet and shoulder plating met. It had to be uncomfortable. From the way his shoulders were shaking Tony thought he might actually be crying against the metal. "You're okay, you're okay, tell me you're okay."
"I'm okay," Tony said softly, bringing his hands up to rub Steve's back even though he couldn't feel it with the gauntlets still on. He wanted to touch him. He wanted it so much, with an ache that was nearly physical. "Heard you've been having some bad days recently."
Steve gave a weak laugh. "You have no idea, Shellhead. I thought you were dead, and then Tony— his heart— and he said you might not return—"
Tony watched as Steve choked through an explanation, feeling his own chest tighten in a mirror of his soulmate's emotions. It seemed like Steve cared for him—as Tony—maybe a little more than he'd thought, but that didn't mean he'd be happy if he ever learned the truth. Not wanting someone dead was a far cry from wanting them as your soulmate. He couldn't tell him. He couldn't. And if someone let it slip—well, he had a lot of enemies, in either identity, and plain old Tony Stark was even more breakable these days if Iron Man's or the Avengers' enemies wanted to get to them through him. He'd seen the most recent set of mission logs; while he'd been out of it, the Avengers had actually traded themselves to Kang in order to get him back to the hospital. It was unacceptable. And that was just something they did for Tony Stark, the man with nothing to offer them but dirty war-profiteering money. He couldn't even conceive of how much danger the team would needlessly put themselves in if they knew the truth. And they shouldn't. He couldn't do that to them.
Even his new heart could give out at any time, the doctor had said. The risk wasn't worth it. But he wanted so badly to do something. Even if he couldn't tell anyone the truth.
"I met the LMD, you know." Steve looked up at him; his face was tear-streaked.
Steve nodded. "It helped me and Fury fight Hydra agents. It— something about it wasn't right. I don't think anyone else noticed it wasn't you. I thought I was going crazy."
Tony tightened his arms around Steve and remembered the LMD telling him Steve had fallen for it. That lousy bucket of bolts had been dead wrong. He wanted to laugh. "Hey, remember that time when you thought I was a robot?"
Steve's laughter in reply was harder than the joke called for. "Which time?"
"Either." Tony shrugged. "But you were right the second time. Be proud."
"He said he built the LMD to be a replacement for you." The tone of his voice was suddenly dark, and Tony knew where his thoughts were headed. "Did you know if— do you think he would have sent him to me—?"
"No," Tony said, aghast. "God, no!" He winced and downgraded the opinion Steve had of him out of the suit by several notches. "He would have sent the LMD on missions. Given me some downtime. He wouldn't ever have wanted to trick you like that."
Unlike how he was tricking Steve now. Yeah, that's a great justification, Stark.
"If you're sure," Steve said, but he was shaking in Tony's arms.
"I'm real," Tony said. "Want to cut me? LMDs don't bleed. Whatever you need to convince yourself."
Steve shook his head. "Seen enough blood. Just... if you have any pull with him, can you please tell him not to do that again? No more robots. We've had enough."
"I think he's pretty firmly decided on that."
Steve only hugged him harder, then drew back, inquisitive.
"Can we—" he looked a little awkward at having to ask— "can we at least get your gauntlets off? If you want. I'd really like to touch you. Some part of you."
Tony was halfway to hitting the gauntlet releases when he realized that he didn't need to wear the armor anymore. He didn't need to keep the chestplate on. He could actually, finally touch Steve. True, he'd have to keep his identity hidden somehow, but— he could touch him. Everything in his body realigned in one huge dizzying rush of need and desire and disbelief.
"Iron Man?" Steve asked, when he'd stopped moving.
"I've got another offer," Tony said, lightheaded, hoping the blood rushing vertiginously through his body didn't mean his new heart was dying on him right now. "Maybe you'll like this one better. Recently Mr. Stark... made some technological improvements to the armor. To me, in a way."
"That's why you were gone so long?" Steve murmured. "Being a guinea pig?"
Tony didn't correct him. Steve was, in a sense, right.
"He did a lot of things. The upshot is, the armor isn't life support. Not anymore. I can get by without it."
Steve caught his breath, and the look in his eyes was pure, unmixed joy, like someone had handed him everything he ever wanted gift-wrapped. "You can take it off," he breathed. "Oh, I'm so happy for you. You must be so glad to finally be able to do that."
And wasn't it just like Steve to think about his feelings first?
"Yeah," Tony acknowledged, awkward, wrong-footed. "It's nice." Really nice, actually, setting aside the mornings where he woke up half-panicked that he was dying because there was no longer a crushing weight on his chest, as ironic as that was. "I thought it might be nice for you as well. For us."
Steve was smiling and smiling up at him like he couldn't believe it. "You're offering to take the armor off? For me? Right now?" His smile was blinding. "But your identity— unless—"
"Still a secret," Tony said, and it felt like something ripped up his insides to say it, the words taking a bit of the light out of Steve's eyes.
Steve recovered well enough, but his smile shone just a little less brightly. "You have some kind of plan, then."
"I have a bifurcated plan," Tony said, and he held up two fingers illustratively. "The non-negotiable part of the plan: you can't see me. I'm sorry. Blindfold on, lights out, the works. You also can't hear me."
"I can't?" Steve's face was beginning to fall, just a little.
Tony shook his head. "Not without the vocal filters. But there are two ways to accomplish that. Either I keep the helmet on and keep talking—or I take it off, but be silent. Your choice."
"If you keep the helmet on, can I see the rest of you?"
Tony considered it. For about half a second. Seeing the scars on his chest would be a dead giveaway—though he hoped Steve wouldn't be able to tell by touch—as would the actual extent of his soul's words, which he had carefully kept Steve from seeing on Iron Man after Steve had seen the size of Tony's own cuff. Two left-handed people with words up past their right elbow was as good as positively identified. Steve wasn't stupid.
"No. Sorry. Can't risk it."
But even this didn't faze him completely; Steve still stared up at him, wide-eyed and hopeful. "But I can touch you. All of you."
"Yeah." Tony sighed; the suit speakers crackled. "Yeah, Winghead. That's the offer."
"And what," Steve asked, halting, hesitant, like he didn't want to be the one to say it in case he was wrong, as if he could possibly be wrong about this, "do we do, silently in the dark?"
"Anything you want," Tony said, and in the suit he was shaking, and God, Steve was the virgin here, shouldn't he be the scared one? "Everything you want. Tell me and you can have it."
"Yes," Steve breathed, his eyes darkening with desire, blue nearly gone to black. "Everything. Please."
The pressure against his head relaxed as Iron Man finished tying the makeshift blindfold, blotting out all light. Steve smiled. He wondered if he ought to be nervous; he remembered people talking in whispers, soldiers trading dirty stories, all about what it would be like to be with your soulmate. All he could feel was excitement, low and tight in his belly, spreading through him like it did in the still moments just before a fight.
"How many fingers am I holding up?"
Steve shrugged. "Can't tell."
Metallic fingers brushed against his cheek briefly. "Excellent." Iron Man made a noise that sounded like a hissing breath; Steve wondered if Iron Man was nervous. "Why don't you lie back down on the bed, make yourself comfortable, and I'll get the armor off?" The words sounded a little tense.
Steve flailed back with one hand until he found the wall, and he pushed himself back further on his bed and lay down, his head approximately on the pillow.
"I'm pretty sure I've read this story," Steve said, grinning as the thought occurred to him. "Fairy tale. Myth. Whichever. The one where the girl's soulmate is mysterious, and tells her that they can only be together at night, in the dark, when she can't see him."
There was a familiar click, the sound of the gauntlets unlocking. "Did it end well?"
Steve laughed. "Yeah. Eventually. You'd be either a bear or Cupid, though."
"Alas," Iron Man said, with the same crackly laughter Steve had come to love, "I am one hundred percent human. Sorry to disappoint you."
"You could never," Steve said, with everything that was in his heart.
Iron Man's laugh rattled, a bark of disagreement. "I think I could, but now is definitely not the time to discuss it."
There were a few more clicking sounds, and a heavy thud. That was new. Steve was beginning to feel... not vulnerable, exactly, because he trusted Iron Man with his life, but just... alone. It was frustrating not to be able to see him, not to know where he was.
"Yeah?" Iron Man's voice sounded a little faraway. There was another heavy clunk, followed by the hiss of something mechanical.
"Can you keep talking to me?" he asked, unsteady. "Anything. Tell me what you're doing."
Iron Man's reply was instant and soothing. "Sure thing. That was one of the arm pieces just now." Another clunk. "And the other arm. Now for the boots. I'll lose a few inches of height when I get out of these. Very sad."
"You're already taller than me," Steve pointed out.
"Ah," Iron Man said, "but I'm not—uh, I mean, I think I wouldn't be—when I'm out of the armor. Bye bye boots. Have I shown you the roller skates in them yet? You'd like the roller skates."
"You really have roller skates?" Steve couldn't work out if Iron Man was joking.
"I really do." Iron Man laughed, delighted, and then there was the clang of something heavy falling on something else. "They're jet-powered. Oof. That was the hip plating. Ah, oh, and the groin plating. Oh God, that feels so much better. Um." The mechanical voice sounded relieved and apologetic.
Steve suddenly pictured the likely state of affairs; the armor had been very tightly-fitted, after all. He winced. "Have I been torturing you the whole time we've been together?"
"Not much," Iron Man assured him over the sound of one last metallic thud. Probably the chestplate. "At this point I mostly don't get hard while wearing the armor. I think my body figured out that it wasn't much fun." There was a pause. "I'm, uh. Making up for lost time pretty quickly on that front. Since you asked what I was doing."
It was a rush to know that he was doing that to Iron Man. Steve smiled dazedly into the darkness. Of course he knew Iron Man wanted this, Iron Man found him attractive, but there was knowing and there was knowing.
"I wish I could see you," Steve said, desire suddenly gone wistful within him.
"Maybe someday," Iron Man said, very softly.
The bed creaked and the mattress dipped next to him. Steve reached out and his fingers brushed against the textured cotton of a shirt, the rough snag of a belt loop. He was taken suddenly with the the idea that under the brilliant armor Iron Man was just a man, a man who dressed in ordinary clothes, a man he might have seen walking down the street and smiled at, unknowing. It filled him up with a rush of intense longing, a sudden imagining of how it might all have been.
"Still dressed, eh?"
"So are you," Iron Man pointed out. But he didn't move to undress either of them, not that Steve could tell, and Steve wondered if Iron Man had seen something on his face, some expression he couldn't see or control.
"Iron Man?" Steve ventured, when he hadn't said or done anything, and the darkness again began to overwhelm him. "Are you all right?"
A hand brushed against his arm, fingers slid over his wrist, locking tight, thumb gliding over his words. It was a familiar intimacy, and it was even more intimate in the darkness, when there was nothing but the touch to focus on. Steve shivered.
"Just got lost in my head for a second," Iron Man said. "I can't believe you really— I just want to make this good for you."
"You are," Steve said, the words a little more breathless than he intended as Iron Man's thumb stroked lightly over his wrist. "Come lie down here. I think there's room."
The bed dipped again, and then a warm body pressed all along his. Before he could think about it, he threw an arm over Iron Man's shoulders, drew him closer, ran a hand up his shoulders to—oh, there was the helmet. He let his hand still where it lay, against Iron Man's bare neck, pulse thrumming under his fingers. He could feel Iron Man's throat work as he swallowed. The scent of the metal was on him, and his skin was a little sticky with sweat; it was probably hot in the suit. It was all so real that Steve wondered if maybe he had gone through reality and come out the other side, if maybe he was dreaming it, if maybe he'd invented all these little details. It had to be real. He could touch him, he could finally touch him, the man under the armor.
"Hi," Iron Man murmured, and even through the filters his voice was a little awkward. Self-conscious. "You've got me."
Steve slid his hand down, palm flat, scraping over the first few buttons of Iron Man's shirt, until his hand lay over his soulmate's heart. "Can I— can we— take this off?"
"Sure." Even the mechanical voice sounded a little tense, and Iron Man's heart beat a little faster under his palm, but his fingers reached up to tangle with Steve's, deftly unbuttoning the shirt. Iron Man paused at the last few buttons. "You should know, uh. There's some scarring. A lot of scarring. It's not pretty."
"It's all right," Steve said, steady and gentle. Was that why Iron Man had wanted him blindfolded anyway? It didn't matter to him. Iron Man was beautiful. He was sure of it. "It's part of you. It doesn't bother me. Unless it hurts to touch? I don't want to hurt you."
Iron Man rolled away and the bed dipped like he was sitting up, probably taking the shirt and his cuff off. Steve decided this was a great opportunity to get his own shirt off, which, after some work, he managed without dislodging the blindfold.
"No, it doesn't hurt—" Iron Man began, and then his voice cut off into hissing silence, a surprised breath. "Oh, hey. Would you look at you!" The voice sounded cheerful, warmly approving.
"You like that? The way I look?" He knew he sounded uncertain.
Since the serum people had found him attractive. He knew that. But it had felt strange to appreciate it; it hadn't really been him, his body, only the one he'd been given to do his duty. It was complimenting someone else's designs. He didn't know what he wanted Iron Man to think. He didn't want Iron Man to like him only for his body, but he still wanted him to like him. He just didn't know if the one came without the other, these days.
A hand cupped his jaw. "Steve," Iron Man said, suddenly. "It's all right. It's not about— well, okay, I'd be lying if I said the muscles didn't do something for me, but I would have liked you before. You know that, right? Hell, I know that." The filtered voice sounded sheepish. "There were pictures."
"Yeah, Winghead." The hand ruffled his hair just above the blindfold, where the wings would have been if he'd been wearing the uniform. "All you. I'll spare you the details of my sexual awakening, but suffice to say, you were prominently and repeatedly featured. I might also have had some pictures of you before the serum."
Iron Man had liked him. Before he'd even known him, Iron Man had liked him. "That's..." Steve smiled, hot like the sun was focused only on him, somewhere between embarrassed and aroused, floating on the ambiguous feeling. "Gratifying."
Iron Man's hand rested on his stomach, and Steve went even hotter, blood pounding through him at the touch. Yeah, that was gratifying, all right. He resisted the impulse to move, to push his hips up, to let his soulmate touch him just there, where no one else had.
"But I wouldn't have met you if you hadn't had this body, to survive as long as you did," Iron Man began, "so I'm pretty grateful that—"
Steve pulled him over.
Impatient to touch, Steve dragged Iron Man back down to him, running his hands up Iron Man's sides, along the planes of his chest, the scars twisted and bumpy. He wondered what had happened; the scarring was massive and whatever had caused it must have been incredibly painful, and his heart cried out in sympathy. He ran his hands up to Iron Man's shoulders, taut with wiry muscle. He was strong; the armor must have demanded it of him. Something in Steve glowed, hot and needy, to imagine Iron Man's strength against his.
He pressed kisses against Iron Man's skin wherever he could reach: his scars, his shoulder, the hollow of his neck. He grabbed at Iron Man's hand, pressing his mouth blindly against where the words were on his wrist until Iron Man was trembling and there was no noise from him except hoarse panting.
"I think," Steve murmured, "I'm done with talking." He slid two fingers up to the edge of the helmet. "Take that off and kiss me now."
He wanted Iron Man to kiss him, to touch him, to keep kissing him until he couldn't remember anything else, couldn't think of anything other than this.
The helmet clicked, and Steve worked his fingers under the edge where it had loosened, slowly lifting it up and away. He spread his hand out against the back of Iron Man's skull, running his fingers through sweat-dampened hair that curled a little, tickling against his skin. He wondered what color Iron Man's hair was, what color his eyes were. Would Iron Man answer, if he asked?
Letting the helmet slip out of his fingers at the side of the bed, Steve brought his hand back, fumbling, until he brushed at last against Iron Man's face. The mustache prickled at his skin. He could feel that, under his fingertips, Iron Man's mouth was parted. He could feel that Iron Man was smiling, smiling, and then Iron Man pressed a kiss into the center of Steve's palm. Steve shuddered; the sensation was lighting him up everywhere, running down his nerves like fire.
Iron Man's head slipped down through his hands. Steve felt a split second's worth of breath against his face before Iron Man kissed him, hot and heavy and entirely overwhelming. One of Iron Man's hands was tangled with his own and the other was locked in his hair as Iron Man pressed his head back against the pillows and kissed him like it was what he'd been born to do, like he'd never wanted anything else but this.
Oh, Iron Man had kissed him before, and he'd enjoyed it then, but this was something else entirely. This was a kiss with intensity, with intent, a kiss that said I know where this is going and you want this and let me show you how much I want to make you happy. Iron Man drew back just enough for Steve to catch one shaking breath before he leaned in again, licking at Steve's lips, biting, and Steve could only gasp out his pleasure and reach out for him in the darkness, his shoulders, his back, anything—
Iron Man laughed a delighted laugh against his mouth and it was real, human, the first sound he'd heard him make out of the suit, a sound in his real voice, and that was its own kind of joy, gone straight to Steve's head like the sweetest drink, like bright sunshine, God, he wished Iron Man would talk—
Iron Man kissed him and kissed him and Steve floated dreamily through the kisses, tasting him again and again, slow and leisurely, but still passionate. There was a destination, but they weren't in a hurry, and it was all so good he could hardly stand it. It felt like Iron Man was kissing him for hours, here in the darkness, and he never wanted it to end.
And then Iron Man shifted position, sliding over him, half on top of him, his weight pressing Steve into the bed, and oh God, he was hard, they both were. Steve wasn't thinking anymore. He was just a collection of instincts, of sensation and feeling, and he thrust his hips up, grinding against Iron Man, who moaned and pressed back.
"Oh," Steve breathed, and he hardly recognized his own voice, low and broken with desire. "Please, yes, like that, just touch me— oh— please, now—"
The pressure against him slackened, and there came a few recognizable noises: a zipper being undone, a belt sliding loose, fabric dropping on the floor. That was Iron Man undressing. Then he came back. Hands lifted Steve's hips up, and obediently he followed the gesture, arching in place while the last of his clothing was removed.
Skin to skin, Iron Man was there, human and alive and real, and their mouths met again and again, messy and urgent. Iron Man slid a hand between their bodies, stroked him fast and knowing. It was a thousand times better than his own lonely hands, better than anything, because it was his soulmate, and Steve arched into it and let himself go. Iron Man, clearly practiced at this, kept kissing him even though Steve's own coordination was shot, even though he could do nothing but let himself be kissed, let himself thrust up into Iron Man's fist. And then Iron Man's kiss was in rhythm with everything, his tongue licking into Steve's mouth, and behind the blindfold Steve closed his eyes and came, seeing stars in the darkness.
Iron Man pressed another few kisses, lightly, against Steve's mouth.
"Can I do that to you? I want to touch you," Steve whispered. "Please. Can I touch you?"
Of course, Iron Man said nothing. He would have mentioned if he hadn't wanted that, right?
Fingers caught at Steve's hand, lifted it up. Iron Man kissed it—he felt the breath against his skin, and then the slide of Iron Man's lips, the scratchiness of his mustache—and then Iron Man brought Steve's hand up to his scarred chest, down to his stomach, a wordless suggestion to move further.
He didn't think he was going to be as good as Iron Man had been, but when he wrapped his fingers around Iron Man's length he discovered that he seemed to be wrong. Iron Man loved it. And he was vocal. Steve suspected that if he'd allowed himself to, Iron Man would be talking, but as it was he was moaning and sighing with every little thrust, and when Steve squeezed him a little harder Iron Man groaned, buried his face against Steve's shoulder, and mumbled something that might have been his name against his skin before lifting his head and gasping, soft breathy little moans that blew warmth against Steve's face.
Steve turned his head in the darkness, tried to kiss Iron Man's lips, missed, got his stubbled jaw, and followed the line of it all down his throat. Iron Man tilted his head back, baring his neck, and he groaned like it was the best thing anyone had ever done to him. When Steve, heady with newfound power, bit a bruising kiss against the soft skin of Iron Man's neck, Iron Man shuddered, moaned again, and came all over Steve's hands.
He managed to kiss him a few more times as Iron Man, trembling, collapsed on top of him. Steve ran his free hand through Iron Man's hair, down the back of his neck, holding him close. His soulmate. His.
"I love you," he said, smiling into the dark, and after a few seconds Iron Man lifted Steve's wrist and kissed it, right where the words were.
It was answer enough.
As far as stupid impulsive decisions went, Tony reflected the next morning, it could have been worse. Sure, it made the whole identity thing harder to handle—because there was no way they were not going to do this again now that they'd started—but Tony found that he couldn't bring himself to care right now, because that had been, in all sincerity, the best night of his life. Apparently when everyone had said that sex with your soulmate was amazing, they'd been right. He knew he'd been cynical about this at some point, but it was all starting to feel like a bad dream next to the very real memories of Steve Rogers in his arms. He smiled again, just thinking about it.
It had been like— God, he didn't even have words for it. Like when he compiled code and everything just worked, instantly. Like the first time he'd jumped out of the quinjet, throwing himself into the sky, into glorious freefall, in the seconds before the boot jets kicked in and then he was flying—
Tony stretched in boneless, sleepy lassitude. It was a good morning. There had been sex. How long had it been since he'd slept with anyone? Since before he'd met Steve, certainly. Downstairs there was coffee. Steve was out on his run; maybe Tony'd have a cup or two of coffee, suit up, see if when Steve got back Iron Man could talk him into going back to bed instead of doing all the important Avengers business he probably had to do.
He considered the likelihood of that and frowned.
Well, he could at least have the coffee.
The sole occupant of the kitchen was Clint, who stared at him and lifted one strangely suspicious eyebrow. "Stark."
Tony felt his mouth shaping into a stupid grin before he could do anything about it. Apparently today he was just going to be an idiot. "Barton," he returned, warily, with what he hoped was a modicum of restraint.
Clint was still making a face at him. "I see someone got laid," he said, and he made it sound like some kind of threat.
Oh. Right. The hickeys. Steve had pretty much mauled him. It had felt incredible.
He resisted the urge to cover them with his hands, and instead he lowered his gaze, tilted his head and gave Clint his best seductive smile. "What's the matter, handsome? Jealous?"
Clint snorted. "Hardly." And then he put his hands out and leaned on the kitchen island, and it was definitely a threat: he stared at him through narrowed eyes, the rest of him still, like a predator tracking prey. "Listen. There's no way to say this that you won't manage to make a joke out of, but I'll just say it: Steve. Stop it. Just stop it, Stark. I don't know why you're doing it, I don't care why you think you're doing it, but you need to cut it out now."
Tony blinked. "What about Steve? Cut what out?"
Clint stared at him like he was the dumbest person on Earth. "He likes you."
"Why shouldn't he like me?" Tony said, confused. "I'm great. I'm wonderful." If he had more days like today, he might even begin to really believe that.
Hissing air through his teeth, Clint stood up and stalked around the island. "When you were in the hospital, he was a wreck. He was crying. It looked like something more than friendship the way I saw it."
"I'm just his friend." Tony tried to say it breezily, but something awful and icy gathered in his stomach. "Really. I think I would know if I were sleeping with him. Also I'm pretty sure that then Iron Man would punch me in the face. I'd like to avoid that."
"You flirt with him." Clint's voice was cold.
Tony's retort was automatic. "I flirt with everyone."
Did he really? Did he really do that anymore? Well, sure, a little, but it wasn't like he meant it these days. It wasn't like he actually wanted to sleep with anyone except—ha!—his soulmate. God, his past self would be appalled at how much of a romantic he was.
"Yeah," Clint said, steely-voiced. "You do. Like how you came in here and flirted at me just now. Only, see, I know you don't mean a single word. I see those pictures of you these days at your society galas and awards ceremonies, posing with actresses, and—unlike the pictures you used to be in—I'm sure you're just being polite. It's not serious. It's flirting. But, man, Stark, I see the way Steve looks at you and I see the way you talk to him and I'm pretty sure he thinks you mean it, so what the fuck kind of game are you playing?"
"I— I—" Tony stammered, but no words were coming out.
"He has a soulmate," Clint hissed. "He has Iron Man. I don't know how they manage it, and honestly I don't really want to know, but I am positive they're not just good friends, if you get what I'm saying."
Tony tried to summon up a shrug and another insouciant half-smile; he thought maybe it came out closer to "terrified rictus grin." Steve didn't like him. Steve couldn't like him. If Steve found out who he was it was all going to come crashing down.
"It's a brave new world," Tony drawled, and he could not think of a time when he had hated himself as much as right now. "What if he does like me? Even soulmates aren't exclusive these days, or are you going to tell me you've never slept with anyone who wasn't your soulmate? Saving it for marriage?"
Clint's hands clenched into fists. "Jesus fucking Christ, Stark. It's not about me. Steve is from 1945 and you can't honestly take one look at him and tell me that you don't believe that guy was raised on tales of his soulmate, his one true love, the only person he should ever want to be with in his entire life. That's how it works for him. I'm not saying it's the way it should be for everyone, but that's how it is for him. That's what he learned. That's what he expects out of life."
He remembered Steve, kissing him and kissing him, telling him he loved him—
"Well, it can't be like that," Tony's smartass mouth pointed out on autopilot, "if he likes me like you say he does."
"Goddammit," Clint said, thickly, but he was unclenching his fists. "Will you listen to me, genius? He probably doesn't even know he likes you, because it hasn't occurred to him that liking someone else is even an option, but I've seen the way his face lights up when you walk in the room. I've seen the way he talks about you. And someday soon, especially if you keep flirting with him, he's going to notice. And he is absolutely not going to know what to do when he figures out that he can like someone who isn't his soulmate. He's going to come back from his run and see you with hickeys all over your neck like you're sixteen again and you're going to flutter your eyelashes at him and try the same stupid line on him that you did on me and one of these days it's going to work. And it's going to break him."
Tony's mouth was dry. "You're imagining things."
"I'm not." Clint stared him down. "Speaking as an Avenger, it's in my best interests to have Captain America functional. And the same goes for Iron Man, who would probably not be thrilled to hear about this, I'm going to guess. Speaking as someone who considers Steve a friend—and I know he's your friend too—I would really like to spare him this. Jesus, Stark. It's not hard. Just pick someone else. Anyone else. I don't care who. But don't do this to Steve."
Clint had to be seeing things. Something. Anything. Steve didn't like him. This wasn't possible. It wasn't going to be possible. Steve could have Iron Man, because Iron Man was everything Tony wasn't, good and noble, a man whose past was unshadowed. Steve couldn't have Tony Stark.
"There's nothing going on between us," Tony said, icily, fear transmuted into anger, "and nothing is ever, ever going to happen. I'm so glad you care about his virtue, though."
Clint mouthed something that looked a lot like asshole as he turned away, and Tony made it back up the stairs before he actually started shaking.
Tony pulled up the hood of his sweatshirt—which had the side effect of covering the hickeys in case anyone else came by to make further brilliant observations—and leaned his head against the wall. Clint was wrong and that was all there was to it. He wasn't going to hurt Steve, because Steve didn't want him. Not when he was Tony. And Tony couldn't stay away from him in any identity. He couldn't. It felt awful just thinking about the idea.
There was a rustling noise behind him, the tread of feet on the stairs, and he turned to see Steve, back from his run, grinning at him, flushed and sweating and— okay, he really needed to not pursue that train of thought right now. Tony's chest tightened, and it might have been happiness, and it might have been the soulbond, and it might have been cardiac failure, and he really wanted this not to be his life.
"Tony?" Steve asked. "Are you okay?"
"Fine," Tony said. "It's been... a long night."
Steve scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Say, after I shower, you want to get breakfast with me?"
No. No. "Sure, of course." Dammit. "You wouldn't rather wait for Iron Man?"
Steve smiled when Tony said "Iron Man." Tony knew exactly what that smile was, brilliant and wide and full of everything Steve was remembering about a passionate night with someone he didn't know was standing in front of him, and Tony felt like ten thousand kinds of asshole.
"Nah, he's not too keen on eating in public. Besides, I'm sure I'll see him soon," Steve said, with all the confidence in the world, and Tony bit his lip so that he didn't actually whimper.
The strangest thing was this: Tony touched him, now.
The first time it happened, he'd been on his way out the door and Tony had accosted him to talk about some improvements he'd been making to the gear: better range on the comms, some new and hopefully more bulletproof fabric that he wanted to put in Steve's uniform, a very subtle redesign of Iron Man's armor. Steve had been heading quickly down the hall and Tony had flung an arm around his shoulders, slowing him down, pulling him closer, close enough that he could feel the warmth of Tony's side pressed all against him. It was friendly. Casual. As if it were something he'd always done. A bright spark of excitement surged through him at the touch, a pleasure disproportionate to the contact, and Steve didn't quite understand why.
"Right, I'll let you get on with your day," Tony said, briskly, patting him on the shoulder one last time, and then Steve was out in the sunlight blinking and wondering what in the world had happened, remembering all the other times Tony had leaped away rather than be so much as an arm's length from him.
It wasn't just Steve that Tony touched. Not all the Avengers were physically demonstrative, and Tony probably didn't really know all of them that well, but he knew Jan, and Jan hugged anyone who would stand still. Tony hugged her hello when he was at the mansion. Every time, now.
But it was Steve that Tony touched most. There were casual nudges here and there to point out things to him, standing shoulder to shoulder as they drank their morning coffee. Once Steve had paused halfway through an evening of reports to stretch and work the kinks out of his neck, and Tony had drifted by and lightly kneaded the troublesome muscles, unasked for and without comment. Not that he thought about that often. Maybe he did. It had just felt so good when Tony had touched him, skin-to-skin. It was like when Iron Man touched him, he thought, that same bright steadying warmth that felt somehow beyond just the physical, and he felt guilty for even daring to make the comparison to his soulmate. It wasn't his soulbond. It couldn't be. So Tony had good hands. He worked with his hands; of course he knew how to use them. And, well, he was... experienced. Maybe it was possible to learn to touch other people like that, to make them feel like they were your soulmate; what would Steve know about it? Anyway, it didn't mean anything.
But why was Tony touching him? Why was he touching anyone? It was a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. Maybe the heart surgery had given him some kind of perspective on life? Maybe the sudden near-death experience had convinced him that it was worth touching people, that going through life so alone could only hurt him? It was the only solution Steve could come up with to explain the sudden change in personality, but somehow it still didn't feel quite right.
He'd been working the heavy bag in the gym when Tony came up to him.
"Hey, Steve," Tony said from behind him, and first Steve almost couldn't place his voice because Tony was never, ever here. Steve had never seen him in the gym at all.
He steadied the bag, dropped his hands, and turned. Tony was dressed in a white t-shirt,—had he ever seen Tony wear t-shirts before?—a huge exercise-rated elastic cuff covering his arm like another sleeve, and loose-fitting dark pants. He was grinning at him and bouncing on his feet, excited, like a kid with a secret.
The tighter shirt fit him really well, some part of Steve thought, admiring him guiltily. Tony was more muscular than Steve had thought an engineer would be, and— he needed to stop staring. Tony wasn't his soulmate. For God's sake, he'd just spent most of last night blindfolded and cozied up to Iron Man out of his armor, cuddling and kissing and... well. He was hit with the sudden sense-memory of one of Iron Man's hands curling over his hip, caressing him, and somehow it overlaid with what he was seeing, and it was just wrong.
"Hey, Tony," Steve said, deliberately casual. "What brings you down here?"
Tony ran his hand through his hair. "Oh, I, uh— I was wondering if you'd do me a favor."
Why wouldn't he? He'd do anything for Tony. And that's the problem, isn't it? "Sure, of course. What do you need?"
Tony shifted his weight from foot to foot. "I wanted to know if you'd spar with me. Maybe teach me some moves. After what happened with the LMD, I'm thinking there's an advantage to being able to protect myself when Iron Man isn't there. And you're the absolute best fighter I know."
It made sense. He wondered why Tony had never asked him before. Of course he'd be happy to help Tony out.
Tony nodded. "If you're not busy."
Steve motioned vaguely toward his chest. "And your... your heart?" He remembered what the doctor had told him about exerting Tony's new heart. He couldn't imagine how he'd feel if he pushed Tony too hard, if he caused Tony's body to reject the synthetic tissue.
Tony rolled his eyes. "I can take it, Wing— Steve, come on."
"All right," he said, and Tony followed him to the mats. "Stretching first."
It turned out that Tony actually wasn't that bad. He could box. Happy had taught him a bit, he said, and he had an unexpected agility and daring as he darted in and tried to take advantage of the little openings Steve had left him, the ones there shouldn't have been enough room to take. It was almost as if he could anticipate him. It reminded him of nothing so much as fighting with Iron Man, the way they worked so well together in the field. Steve took a punch to the shoulder and shook his head in dismay, inwardly laughing at himself. He had Iron Man on his mind, all right.
"You know," Tony panted, his shirt starting to soak through with sweat. "I know you're going easy on me, super-soldier."
Steve blinked. "Tony, I'm not actually trying to hurt you. Of course I'm holding back."
Tony swung his arms wide, pleading. "Yeah, and you think if anyone comes after me they're guaranteed to be baseline human? I'm not saying you need to put me through the wall, but I'd like to see what I might be up against."
He had a point. Steve swung out, faster than he had been, faster than a normal human could, and Tony laughed and leaped back, missing the blow by inches, landing with his feet wide, hands gone flat in a strange way that Steve supposed was helping Tony balance himself.
"Like that?" Steve asked.
"Exactly," Tony said, and with a determined set to his jaw that Steve could remember from the days when he'd tackled bullies twice his size, he waded back into Steve's range like he was completely unafraid of anything Steve could do. Steve grinned in admiration.
As the fight went faster, Tony's fighting style started to... slip. There wasn't really any better word for it, and something about it was eerily familiar. Tony was hitting lighter, moving slower, but he didn't look tired enough for it to be something Steve could chalk up to fatigue; it looked like he honestly expected the punches to be effective. The only comparison Steve could come up was in reverse: in the weeks after Rebirth, he'd had to relearn everything about how to move in his body, how much strength to use for even the simplest tasks. The first time he'd had to knock on a door he'd actually put his fist through it. Tony was fighting exactly the opposite way; it was as if he expected to be stronger than he was.
Maybe he was still weak from the surgery, Steve decided. Maybe he used to be stronger.
He caught Tony's bare fist in one hand and slowly lowered it.
"Done already?" Tony asked, a challenging smile curling about his lips.
Steve thought about it. Tony looked a little tired, but not exhausted, and they'd probably gotten enough tension out that practicing falling would be easier now. "No, I was just thinking that we could switch it up. Show you something else."
"Sounds good to me." Tony looked down. "Is there always handholding? Because I have to say that if there is, my other instructors have cruelly deprived me."
He still had his hand around Tony's fist. Oh. Damn. Hastily, he let go.
"We could practice throws and falls," Steve said, grateful that his mouth was coming up with the right thing to say when the rest of his body clearly wasn't doing so well at that. "You probably should learn how to fall properly."
"I can fall," Tony said, amused. "Try me."
Moving just slowly enough to give Tony some warning, Steve brought his hands up, lunged in and pushed Tony's shoulders hard. Tony got one leg behind him, went back and down to his knees, and the momentum carried him through a perfect backwards roll and back up to kneeling. Tony grinned crookedly and pushed his hair out of his eyes.
"Okay, yeah," Steve said, honestly surprised. "You know a few tricks."
"Can I skip to the advanced lesson?" Tony widened his eyes and looked at him in a manner that Steve suspected was supposed to be an obvious parody of flirtation, but one that was unfortunately working far too well on him. "I promise I'm a quick learner."
Steve stepped back and grinned. "Sure, Tony. Here's the advanced exercise: take me to the mat. However you can manage it."
Tony's grin matched his, suddenly feral, combative, and he dropped into a crouch. "Oh, I'll manage it."
Tony was still for a few seconds, sizing him up, and then rushed him; Steve dodged easily. The next few passes were similar. And then Tony got inside his guard, fast and hard. He didn't try to push Steve; he had to know he wasn't going to win based on strength. But he was leaning with his full weight, inching forward, and then all of a sudden he had one leg between Steve's and something went through Steve at the touch, hot and dizzying and wanton, and he went slack with surprise.
Tony took this opportunity to yank his foot back and knock Steve's feet out from under him.
It wasn't going to be that easy. They were going down together or not at all. Steve grabbed Tony, curved his hands around Tony's chest, pulled them close, and rolled them both before he lost his balance entirely. Tony gave a surprised grunt as he hit the mat with Steve above him, but before Steve could pin him he shoved up and they were tumbling across the mat together, landing side by side in a tangle of limbs.
When they came to a stop, Tony had an arm and a leg flung over Steve's side. He didn't even move. The weight of him was warm and surprisingly comfortable. Having tucked his head in against Tony's body when they rolled, Steve lifted his face from Tony's shoulder and looked up. Tony even smelled good. God, no, he shouldn't think that.
Tony's eyes shone a vivid blue, electric, and his mouth was parted in a delighted, triumphant smile. "I won." He appeared to be addressing the ceiling.
Steve raised an eyebrow. "How do you figure that?"
"You hit the mat," Tony said. "You didn't say it had to be you first. Or permanently."
It was then that Steve started laughing and couldn't stop, because wasn't it just like Tony to find a loophole in everything? And Tony was grinning back, Tony was laughing and reaching out and ruffling his hair. Steve ducked into the touch, and when Tony's fingers brushed against the back of his neck, Steve realized, with a shock, that he was hard.
It was adrenaline, he told himself. These things happened. It didn't mean anything. It didn't mean he liked Tony, except he did, he did. He would have acted like this around Iron Man. He felt like this around Iron Man. Exactly like this. It wasn't supposed to happen. It wasn't supposed to be like this. He wasn't supposed to be able to feel this for anyone who wasn't his soulmate. Maybe the serum had broken him. Maybe the frozen years had done something. Maybe he'd come back wrong.
"Steve?" Tony asked, and his eyes were shading into concern.
"I think we're done for now," Steve managed, pushing himself away. "Probably want to hit the showers," he said, and even as he said it he realized that the sheer thought of catching even the tiniest glimpse Tony in the shower was going to be a very, very bad idea.
Tony stood up, shaking his head. "Nah, I've got a better one upstairs that I'm planning on taking advantage of," he said, and Steve was both disappointed and intensely grateful. "Thanks for the lesson. See you round, Cap."
And then Tony was gone. Lying on the mat, Steve stared at the ceiling and tried to tell himself he wasn't thinking about Tony's body pressed up against his.
That night he got out the laptop, opened up the search engine, and typed something he had never before considered existed, with an awful, filthy dread twisting him: is it possible to have two soulmates?
What if Tony checked his internet history? Worse, what if Iron Man did?
He swallowed hard and hit enter.
In the world he'd left, these things were simple. The ideal, as it had been, was a romantic soulbond between a man and a woman, and certainly these were the most common. Some smaller number of people had platonic soulmates—usually, but not always, same-sex—and the appropriate ambition for them was to marry someone else whose soulbond was platonic as well. The number of people with same-sex romantic soulbonds was small enough that Steve had never met anyone then besides Arnie who'd had one, small enough that a lot of people viewed it as some kind of unfortunate aberration. Steve had always been sure they were wrong about that.
As it turned out, they had been wrong about a lot of things.
There were a lot more people with same-sex romantic soulbonds than he had ever, ever suspected: apparently a lot of people had hidden them in his day, had never married, had married someone whose same-sex soulbond was just as "platonic" as theirs in order to provide cover. Now they lived with or married each other. Openly. There were completely platonic soulmates who married each other anyway, or who never married anyone, who were perfectly content to make a life with each other that way. There were even people—like Tony, he supposed—who spurned the idea of soulmates entirely and, as far as Steve could tell lived their lives happily with whoever they wanted. Even the people with blank wrists—and they had marches now, crowds of people, bare arms raised to the sky, hands fisted—were talking, were telling everyone that they were normal, that they deserved to be treated just the same as anyone. It was amazing, all this history—and so much of it had been going on before, people had always existed like this, and he had never even known.
And what was even better was that a lot of people now were fine with it. Not just tolerating it, but accepting it, seeing it as a bright new future, a change for the better, a thing to have pride in. We're all people, one young woman insisted in a video, and however we live our lives, it's not wrong. Steve watched that video twice.
And then he found the people with two soulmates. They said it could happen. They said it wasn't wrong or freakish. Just different. There were people who thought they might have two because their words could have applied to two people. There were people who swore they had words from two people. And there were people who had simply decided that that must be the truth of it.
It doesn't matter who my words are for, someone named Danny wrote on a message board. I love Luke and Misty just the same. It's not any different. Why should I say that my love for one of them is better or more real just because of some words on my wrist? If I had no words I'd still love them. If the universe, God, whatever—if some higher power picked one of them out for me, that doesn't mean I don't still get a choice. I've got plenty of love to go around.
It made sense, Steve thought. It all sounded so simple. Maybe that could be him. Him and Iron Man and Tony. Maybe if he just talked to them, explained the situation. Maybe they would tell him it was okay. Maybe they could do this.
It felt selfish of him, though; what if Iron Man didn't want it? What if he felt neglected or unloved? He'd hate to do that to him. He was his soulmate. Steve didn't want him to hurt, at all, and he especially didn't want to be the one to hurt him. It would be cruel to do this, to think only of his own pleasure. Surely one soulmate should be enough.
And then he remembered Tony. Tony didn't believe in soulmates... but he hadn't met his, the one his words were for. He was destined to. And suppose that having a soulmate changed his mind about all of it? Steve could picture it: she'd be a woman like those elegant high-society ladies Tony was always being photographed with at events, someone petite and dainty and well-bred. She'd like Tony for who he was, who he really was, not his money and fame. She would be someone who would smile at all of Tony's jokes, someone who would be thrilled that her soulmate was brilliant and clever, that he could build amazing things, that he was brave, that he gave so much of himself to help other people. Tony needed someone who would be like that. And Steve couldn't take that chance away from him. He couldn't offer himself up and arrogantly claim to be better for him than his soulmate. He couldn't give him that.
He had Iron Man. He loved Iron Man. It had to be enough.
Tony's life had begun to settle down. True, there were entities bent on destroying the Earth—and if he never saw Ultron again it would be too soon—but that wasn't ever going to change. Thanks to not having a chestplate to worry about, he was no longer risking death once a week due solely to forgetting to charge up. He was beginning to like it. It felt like freedom. And he needed that freedom. The Kree-Skrull War, for example, had been a little more... galaxy-spanning than their usual affairs. But they'd gotten more Avengers, too, from time to time, to help them shoulder the burden of their missions lately: Black Widow. Moondragon, for a bit. Beast. Once the Guardians of the Galaxy had even swung by. Cap seemed to be getting along great with Falcon—and Tony, to his eternal bemusement, had become fast friends with Ms. Marvel.
As for his relationship with Steve... well, that depended on which relationship he was talking about. Steve and Iron Man were great, had always been great, would continue to be great, and they had bounced back from every Avengers disagreement with complete resilience. The make-up sex was always a plus there. Even if Steve couldn't see him, even if he had to keep his mouth shut the whole time—it was still amazing every time, and he was ridiculously, stupidly grateful that one version of him got to have this.
He had no idea where Steve and Tony Stark stood, most of the time. Oh, Steve was his friend—and clearly Clint had been wrong when he'd told Tony that Steve wanted more, because that couldn't be the case—but sometimes it seemed like Steve was avoiding him. Weirdly, furtively, guiltily, and dear God, it was the most awful thing to see Captain America do guilt. He didn't know how to bring it up, so he didn't. And it wasn't like Steve talked to Iron Man about Tony, so he had no clue what was going on.
The last time he'd really seen Steve, out of the suit, was a little bit after— after that mess with the Carnelian ambassador. He couldn't even name it without flinching. Say it, Stark. You killed the Carnelian ambassador. It was your hand. Your repulsor. He was going to have nightmares for the rest of his life. Somewhere in the depths of his drunken despair he'd wanted to tell someone, anyone—Pepper, Happy, Rhodey, Jarvis—that he was Iron Man, just so someone would understand why and how much he no longer wanted to be Tony Stark. But he couldn't tell them and not tell Steve, so he told no one. He'd never told anyone. It had made for a few tricky conversations, the times he'd had to get Happy to wear the suit for him. He'd always told them—and at least he'd always made sure Steve had known it wasn't him, after the LMD business—that the "real" Iron Man couldn't be there.
He'd much rather have been Iron Man. There'd been a few slips and close calls, but he'd figured out pretty quickly that flying drunk was a very bad idea. So Iron Man, on the whole, didn't have a drinking problem. No, that was all Tony.
Steve had found him in the kitchen in the middle of the night, gathering up every bottle he had in the mansion and pouring them methodically down the drain, one after another.
"I don't want to talk about it," Tony said.
Steve held up his hands, defenseless, reassuring. "I'm not asking about it. Just— do you want help?"
Tony snorted. "Pretty sure sobriety is a journey I've got to make on my own. But you can help pour if you want."
Steve picked up a bottle of whiskey that had cost... well, more than Tony liked to think about now, and he dumped it neatly into the sink. Tony tried not to look at it draining. He would just imagine the taste if he did.
"Do you want me to tell the team?" Steve asked, repeating the process with another bottle, and as Tony recoiled back into the seductive, awful darkness of you want to tell them I'm a drunken fuck-up, Steve hastily reached out and put a hand on his arm. "Not— not like that. I wouldn't tell them it was you. I wouldn't tell them the reasons. I'd just tell them the mansion was dry now. If it would help."
Tony blinked his way out of the oncoming misery and remembered that Steve had actually lived through Prohibition. "Thanks, but no. They're adults, and they should be able to do what they want. Drink what they want. They live here."
"You live here too," Steve said, earnestly, his eyes wide and pleading. "It's your home, and you should feel welcome in it. You made me feel welcome, when I had nothing, when I had nowhere to go. We can do the same for you."
Tony shook his head. "I'm not going to say that no one can keep alcohol in the house because I can't— because I can't deal—"
He choked on the rest of the sentence, and goddammit, he wasn't going to cry, and his hands were shaking like he still had the fucking DTs, and he didn't want to do this here, now, in front of Steve—
"Shh," Steve said, and then Tony was enfolded in warm, strong arms. "Come here, Tony. It's all right."
There was no light in the kitchen but moonlight. Steve was gray in the shadows. The world was something liminal, not quite real, a dream that wouldn't exist in the morning, a secret between the two of them, and that made it okay for him to just bury his face in Steve's shoulder and breathe in and out, long sobbing breaths that were halfway to tears.
Steve's hand rubbed his back in broad circles. "It's all right," he repeated. "I believe in you, Tony. You're strong. You can do this. You're doing this. I'm proud of you."
God, Captain America, proud of him, wasn't that a trip? It was everything he'd ever wanted when he was a kid. If he was going to be honest with himself, it was still everything he wanted.
He didn't know how long they stood there, alone in the dark, with Steve holding him up.
"I should go," Tony said, suddenly awkward, ashamed to need this. "Maybe I can get back to sleep now."
If it had been last month, he would have poured himself a drink. If he had been in the suit, he would have asked Steve if he could join him in bed. But it wasn't, and he wasn't, and so he was on his own.
With one last comforting pat on the shoulders, Steve released him. "All right." He smiled, soft and kind, and Tony could almost pretend he deserved it. "You know where to find me if you ever need anything. Anything, Tony. I mean it."
He'd left, and Tony'd tried not to think about it, because it wasn't really the kind of thing he could think about like it had actually happened.
And then one day, he found himself opening his mouth and inviting Steve to a charity gala.
"It's going to be in the mansion anyway," Tony said. "We're opening the first floor for the night. You live here, you'd be here, you might as well be downstairs." Steve looked unconvinced, and he put on his best smile, the one he always saved for Steve; it was so easy to smile around him. "It's a benefit for sick children?" he tried.
Steve sighed and looked away. "It's nice of you to think of me, Tony, but I've done Avengers PR. I've done things that weren't supposed to be Avengers PR but that turned into it the moment I walked into the room. This is your event, and if I show up, suddenly it's going to be about me, about Captain America, about what Captain America supports, when it shouldn't be at all. People should want to help. They should help out because it's the right thing to do."
"So don't be Captain America," Tony said, and Steve just looked at him, uncomprehending, like he couldn't even conceive of not being Captain America. "No one outside of the Avengers knows who you are with the cowl off. Be Steve for the night. Put on a suit. I'll tell people you're my bodyguard if you want. No hands to shake, no pictures to pose for. Just keep me company."
It would be almost like a date. The kind of thing he'd like to do if he were with Steve, really with him, out of the armor. He'd dress him up, show him off, dance with him. Charm him. Impress him. They'd make the society pages for holding hands. He's my soulmate, he'd say, and then if Steve told them who he really was they'd probably make the front page. This was as close as it was getting to any of that.
Steve sighed again, but something in his eyes had softened. "All right." His mouth had curved into the smallest possible smile. "Just for you."
The mansion had been transformed.
There was soft music, understated lighting, New York's elite laughing politely, gesturing with their glasses, draping themselves against bannisters, everyone there to see and be seen. Tony watched a pair of people in animated conversation standing in front of the painting he'd once commissioned of the team, the one that was hanging there to cover up a hole the Hulk had punched in the wall that they'd never found the exact replacement wallpaper for. He wished he hadn't decided to hold this affair at the mansion. It felt uncomfortably like his worlds were colliding.
Tony shook the hand of the businessman who'd come up to him, with a perfect fake smile painted on his face, his mouth moving on autopilot as he thanked him for coming, asked him about his company, talked up Stark International's new plans, and left him feeling, hopefully, the warm fuzzy glow of Tony Stark paid attention to me.
He turned to see Steve behind him, standing unobtrusively against the wall, wearing a dark suit that was much better-fitting than any of the other bodyguards'. He cleaned up nicely—nice enough that looking at him in the suit mostly made Tony want to peel him out of it. Tony wished he could have gotten him in an actual tux, but then people would have taken him for one of the guests, and Steve had been clear enough that he didn't want to be that. Steve didn't look bored, at least. No one but Tony had said a word to him all night, and he seemed to be liking the anonymity.
"Enjoying your time out of the spotlight?" Tony asked, and he could tell that he must have been actually smiling now, because Steve was smiling back.
"It's interesting," Steve said, seeming to give the question actual thought. "It's a little more fun when they're not all looking at me. How do you do it?"
"Years of practice," Tony told him, and then Jan was there, hugging him, her usual ebullient self, and Tony grinned—here was one guest he was actually happy to see.
"Tony!" Jan said, cheerfully, smiling up at him.
"Jan! Great to see you! Nice dress," he said, because it was; it was a little reminiscent of one of her uniforms, if something that was shimmery and floor length could be said to be that. Black and gold predominated in the iridescence. "Your own work?"
"Of course," she said, and then she looked past Tony to Steve and her eyes went wide. "New bodyguard, hmm? I haven't met this one." Her eyes sparkled; she was in on the joke now.
"Just for tonight," Tony said. "Trying him out. If I like him, I'm keeping him for good."
Steve held out a hand. "Steve Rogers, ma'am." His mouth was twitching like he was trying not to laugh.
"Say, has anyone ever told you that you look just like Captain America?" Jan asked, brightly.
"I might have heard it once or twice," Steve said, perfectly deadpan, holding a grave stare for a few seconds, and then they grinned at each other.
Tony shrugged when Jan gave him a look like she couldn't believe he'd actually done this. "I talked him into it," Tony admitted. "I wanted a friendly face around." And, okay, he wanted someone whose presence would remind him not to drink. But he couldn't say that. He thought maybe Steve had guessed it, though.
Jan laid a conspiratorial hand on Steve's arm. "Steve, he'd better be paying you whatever he pays Iron Man for these gigs. You should hold out for time and a half."
"Iron Man," said Tony, with great dignity, "is a salaried employee. Steve's here for the hors d'oeuvres and the pleasure of my company."
"I hate to be the one to tell you this," Steve said, not really sounding too sorry, "but the security personnel don't get the hors d'oeuvres."
"Fine, then, just the pleasure of my company."
Steve's smile practically glowed.
"You have actual bodyguards too?" Jan asked.
"Sure." Tony craned his neck to see. "Happy's over by the door. I gave Iron Man the night off. He couldn't really fit a suit over a suit, could he?"
"At least you've got the two of us if anything goes really wrong. Remember the time the Hulk showed up—"
Tony held up his hands. "No shop talk, you two. My party, my rules."
Jan pouted. "Aww, Tony."
"You'll traumatize the other guests. Or jinx it."
"Okay," Jan said, unfazed, and then squinted at the other side of the room. "Whatever makes you happy. Is that— excuse me for a minute, would you please? I'll be back. Later. Sometime."
After Jan had left, Tony turned to Steve and raised an eyebrow. Steve was grinning, a little ruefully. "I wasn't expecting Jan," Steve said. "I'm not sure the secret identity bodyguard thing is my best idea ever."
Don't knock it until you try it, Tony wanted to retort. But, actually, don't try it. "Don't worry; your secret's safe with me."
"Hey, do you actually want the hors d'oeuvres?" Tony asked, remembering belatedly that Steve's super-soldier metabolism would probably appreciate it. "I can get you something if you're hungry."
"I think that would draw attention. To your new bodyguard."
"I am eccentric," Tony said, with conviction. "I am allowed to feed my new bodyguard an entire tray of those miniature quiches if I want. Or we can skip the rest of this shindig and drink all of the soda out of the mini-fridge in the workshop. I might even throw in a sandwich if you play your cards right. If you want to be industrious about it and actually get some work done, I can show you the specs for something I'm prototyping for Iron Man. You probably ought to be able to tell the Avengers about it—Tigra's new enough that she wouldn't know much about how Iron Man fights, right?"
"I thought you said no shop talk." Steve's eyes lit up, teasing.
"A little! Just a little! Hardly counts at all."
"Actually, I'm going to go get some air." Steve motioned vaguely in the direction of the garden, which was closed off from the party guests; the night was just a little too chilly for it to be comfortable. "I'm assuming you'll be safe without me." He was still grinning.
"You are a horrible bodyguard. I want you to know that."
"Think of it as me guarding a currently vulnerable point of entry," Steve said, and he disappeared through the crowd.
Tony circled the room, pausing to obtain a glass of sparkling water from the bar. He might not be drinking again, but he was damned if he was going to do this without something in his hand; he felt unbalanced without it. He waded through the crowd. He smiled. He schmoozed. He shook hands. He thanked everyone for coming. Jan hugged him again.
But it felt like he was off-balance, missing something, and eventually it dawned on him, after he'd greeted what felt like everyone at the party, that what he was missing was Steve. He kept expecting to turn around and see him, and it was unnerving not to. He felt better when Steve was there. More stable. Maybe it was a soulmate thing, although he wasn't sure if it should work when Steve didn't know he was Tony's soulmate. This situation wasn't really the kind of thing that happened a lot, because why wouldn't soulmates know about each other? It was hard to say what normal was.
It wouldn't hurt anything if he went and saw Steve for just a bit.
When he pushed his way out to the garden, Steve was the only person there, sitting at the far side, on one of the benches, staring up at the light-polluted sky. He smiled and moved over to make room when he heard Tony coming, though the smile faded when he saw the glass in Tony's hand.
"It's just water," Tony said, and Steve smiled again. The approval felt warm within him, like something actually physical.
A cold wind blew as Tony put his glass down and eased himself onto the bench, which was already chilled metal. He shivered. "I would have thought that you'd have had enough of the cold."
"I can take it," Steve said, almost absently, again staring at the sky. He might have been a super-soldier, but the temperature was making his face flush a little, tinting his skin red, and his eyes looked strange, too pale. "I had a few nightmares, when I first woke up. But mostly I don't dream about the ice. I don't actually remember it very well. Or much of right before it."
Until this precise moment, Tony had not contemplated the horrific idea that Steve would remember any of it. He pictured Steve falling, sinking, submerged under the ice and struggling for air. "That's good, right?"
Steve shrugged. "Maybe. I just replaced it with different dreams." He didn't share, which was a good thing, because there was no way Tony was explaining his unconscious weekly viewings of the Killing The Carnelian Ambassador Show. "I'm not sure it's an improvement."
The wind blew again, and Tony kept shivering. It was cold. Too cold for anyone but super-soldiers to stay out here long.
When Tony breathed out a rattling, chattering breath, Steve looked over at him. "You're cold? Here, come here, let me just—"
Steve pulled him close in an awkward sideways half-hug. It didn't help completely, but the parts of him that were touching Steve started to feel a little warmer. And then Steve's gaze ranged about the rest of the garden, seeking something, not finding it.
"Afraid of photographers?"
"No," Steve said, too quickly. "Well, maybe."
"No one's here tonight except that kid from the Bugle," said Tony, reaching up and patting the arm that was around him in reassurance. "And he's inside. Besides, what's Jameson going to print? 'Tony Stark sits on bench with unidentified bodyguard?'"
Steve looked a little dubious. "He might."
"Trust me," Tony said, bleakly, "this is nowhere near the worst thing I have done at one of these parties. It is nowhere near the worst thing that there is even photographic proof of." He winced. "You still haven't looked me up, have you? Seen any of those pictures?"
Steve shook his head. "I told you. If you wanted me to know, you'd tell me. It's not my business."
"A lot of people would make it their business."
"I'm not most people," Steve said, all determination. "And it doesn't matter to me."
Steve leaned in, animated. "Why? It's not going to make me think less of you. None of it is. None of it could. I know that you're brave, and generous and—heck, if you wanted to be on the team, I'd find some way to make you an Avenger. You're one of the best men I know. I like you, Tony, and I'm not going anywhere." He swallowed. "I'm your friend. If you'll have me."
Steve's face was very close to his, his gaze fixed on Tony's, his eyes wide and dark. He was too close, closer than he should be, well into Tony's personal space. Tony willed himself to pull away, to move, to get back, but he was transfixed by that look: stubborn determination, nervousness, and... desire?
Steve wanted him. Oh God. Steve couldn't want him. He couldn't. This couldn't be happening.
Clint had been right after all.
Helplessly, his gaze dropped to Steve's mouth, as Steve licked his lips. Another few inches and they'd be kissing. One of them just had to lean in, a little closer, a little closer still.
Steve's breath plumed out of him, visible in the cold night air, warm against Tony's face, and very slowly they both started to lean toward each other. Steve was turning his head a little so their noses wouldn't bump, sliding a hand up to the back of Tony's head. It would be so easy to do this. Steve was right here, and looking at him, finally looking at him, because he could finally see him, and anticipation twisted its heat all throughout Tony because this was what he'd always wanted, for Steve to see him, to know it was him, for Steve to look at him, to want him—but he didn't know the truth, and this was wrong.
Tony took a breath.
"This is a bad idea," Tony said, and everything crashed to a halt.
Steve jerked back from him like he'd been shot, folding in on himself, moving away so that they weren't touching. His face had gone ashen, shadowed and guilty.
"I'm sorry." Steve's voice was hoarse. Pained. He ran his hand over his face. "I don't know what I was thinking. I wasn't thinking. I shouldn't have done that."
"It's all right," Tony said, reflexively, even though it really, really wasn't, and he wanted to touch Steve, to calm him, and wasn't that the problem right there? "It's as much my fault as yours—" a lot more, actually— "but we stopped, all right? We're okay. No one did anything. No one's going to do anything they'd regret. That's the last thing I'd want to do to you. I know you have a soulmate."
Steve's face crumpled into misery. "I love him."
"I know." God, did he know. "Of course you do."
Steve turned his face away, his profile harsh in the night, in the light shining out from the mansion. "I shouldn't feel like this," he said, low and wretched, and it looked like he was about to cry. "I can't stop. I think about you all the time. I think about you when I'm with him."
He had to tell him. He had to. Fuck his secret identity, fuck everything, and Steve was very probably going to hate him for the rest of his life, but he had to do this. He couldn't let Steve sit there and beat himself up because he thought he was in love with someone else. How long had he been thinking this? Probably since they'd met. Tony hadn't known. He hadn't had the faintest idea.
"I looked it up," Steve continued. "There are people who— they think they have two soulmates. I don't know— I don't even know how you feel about me, but I—" his voice rasped, miserable. "I was going to talk to Iron Man. Talk to you. But you've got your soulmate out there, waiting for you, and I decided I couldn't do that to you. To your future soulmate. To my soulmate."
He had to say something. I'm your soulmate, he could say. I'm Iron Man. He could show him his words now. He couldn't let Steve feel like this. He had to let him know the truth.
Tony hooked his fingers under the sleeve of his jacket, under the fabric of his cuff, tight against his skin. "Steve—"
"I have to go," Steve said, interrupting him, pushing himself up off the bench, not meeting Tony's eyes. "I can't be here. I have to go. I'm sorry."
Before he could say anything, Steve was gone.
Tony watched him walk away into the night, and then he dropped his head into his hands.
He wanted a fucking drink.
Steve couldn't go home—home was Tony, home was Iron Man, home wasn't safe—but he didn't know where else to go. He walked aimlessly through the streets, head down. He found a diner, an old one—but not old enough—all patched seats and chipped Formica tables. He ordered endless cups of black coffee, barely tasting them as he drank them down, drinking them hot enough to burn his mouth.
He couldn't believe he'd done that. Nearly kissed Tony. The hell of it was, it had seemed right, so right he hadn't even thought about it, right like being with Iron Man was right. And he would have done it, if Tony hadn't stopped him. At least one of them had been thinking straight. It had probably meant Tony hadn't even wanted it, and now he'd completely ruined his friendship with someone who was one of the best friends he'd ever had in his life because of one stupid, selfish kiss. A kiss they hadn't even had.
Tony was probably a fantastic kisser, Steve thought bitterly.
And the worst of it was, he still had to tell Iron Man. He couldn't keep this a secret.
He drank more coffee.
He stared out at the street, at the passing cars, at the oncoming dawn, and he finally dropped a twenty on the table and left. He couldn't justify staying away any longer.
It was dawn by the time he got to the mansion. The public areas still looked a little askew from the party, but the place was empty; the gala was long since over. No one else was awake yet, and Iron Man didn't seem to be around. He went down to the empty gym and pounded the heavy bag until his knuckles started to bleed, but he couldn't even lose himself in that.
He was in his room, uniform on, toweling off his hair after his shower before putting the cowl on, when someone knocked at the door.
Steve swallowed. "Yes?"
"Can I come in?" Iron Man asked. "I've— I've got something I really need to talk to you about."
Ha. So did Steve.
He'd better get this over with now. No sense dragging it out. He opened the door. Iron Man stared down at him, expression as always unreadable in the armor. He stepped inside, closing the door behind himself. Iron Man looked around the room, slowly, intent on every detail, as if he somehow thought this was the last time he was going to see it. Then his illuminated gaze focused on Steve and he sighed a crackling sigh.
"Listen, Steve," Iron Man said. "You're, uh. You're probably going to want to sit down for this."
He sounded sad and somehow desperate, like the strain in his voice was too much for the modulator. He knows, Steve realized, swamped in a wash of bleak despair, knowing that everything good he'd had was about to end.
"Tony told you," Steve said, dully. Of course he had.
Iron Man drew his head back, a surprised motion. "He— yeah, in a way. I know what happened last night."
"I'd say I could explain, but I can't." Steve dropped his gaze, miserably, to the floor. "I don't have an explanation. I don't have a defense."
"You don't have to explain yourself," Iron Man said, and one of his hands brushed Steve's arms. Steve didn't look up. "I'm not mad at you. It's... it's natural. Perfectly natural. That you'd like him. That you'd want him."
Was Iron Man going to tell him that he understood? Was Iron Man going to tell him that it made sense that he should want to be with someone he could see? Someone who had no hidden identity? He loved Iron Man. He did. But he loved Tony, too. He couldn't have both. He couldn't have either.
"I can't do this to you," Steve said, helplessly.
Iron Man started to laugh, slow and sad. "Funny," he said, and Steve looked up. "That's exactly what I came here to say." His voice was harsh, angry. "I'm furious with myself. Not with you."
What? Iron Man hadn't done anything wrong. It had all been Steve. "I don't understand."
Iron Man took a deep breath, so loud that the vocal filters picked up on it, and let it out. He stood very still, motionless in the suit, and suddenly Steve thought of the day they'd met, Iron Man's voice, the first voice he'd heard out of the ice, the way Iron Man had been so still then, the moment he must have known they were soulmates.
"There's something I have to tell you," Iron Man said. The words were measured, like he'd been rehearsing them for a long while. "Something no one knows. I should have told you a long time ago, but I was— I was afraid. Oh, I had all sorts of rationalizations, but in the end it was all fear. And I'm sorry for how much I've hurt you. I am really, deeply sorry."
"Shellhead?" What was going on? "You're not the one who has anything to be sorry for."
"You should know," Iron Man continued, like he hadn't heard, "that I am fully prepared to resign from the Avengers permanently. It won't be instant, because I'll need some time to transfer the armor servicing equipment to another location, but after I tell you this I can be out of your life. For good, if that's what you want."
"That's the last thing I want—" Steve began.
His Avengers card beeped.
"Avengers Assemble!" it cried, in a tinny approximation of Thor's voice.
Iron Man stared at the card. "This is the worst timing ever."
"Truce?" Steve offered. "Look, Iron Man, whatever you have to tell me, it can wait until after the mission, right? Whatever it is, it can't be that bad." It can't be worse than what I did.
"You don't even know how bad it can be," Iron Man said, with another hissing sigh. "All right. Truce. Let's go save the world one last time."
They were going to New Jersey, of all the godforsaken places in the world, to fight someone who called himself Molecule Man.
Well, that couldn't be too tough, right?
They could save New Jersey in a couple of hours, easy. That'd leave him plenty of time to ruin his life after.
Steve began to suspect that they might have underestimated the difficulty involved here when they discovered that Molecule Man had put a nearly-impenetrable forcefield around his lair. When they finally made their way inside, it turned out that they had definitely underestimated him.
That was when his shield vanished from his hands. Vaporized. Gone.
Next to him there were similar cries of dismay: Thor yelled for his hammer, the Silver Surfer his board. Iron Man's angry yell was half-modulated, half-human as his armor presumably slipped away, and something about his voice was so familiar—
There was no time to think about any of that, because the only reason Molecule Man would have stripped them of their weapons was to attack them, and if Steve was going to keep standing right there he might as well have painted a target on himself. He ducked and rolled—and it was a good thing he had, because Molecule Man waved his magic wand, somehow the walls had tentacles, and the other Avengers were gone.
He hadn't heard Tigra cry out, though. Maybe she'd escaped. Maybe she was bringing reinforcements. The Fantastic Four could probably figure out how to get through the field.
He could get another shield, he told himself. Somehow. Tony had made him all of those steel replicas when he'd been trying to reverse-engineer the vibranium alloy. Maybe Tony could make him a new shield. He could worry about it later. The important thing now was to take down Molecule Man and get the rest of the Avengers back.
Molecule Man didn't know he was still here. The wand dangled loosely in the man's grasp.
Steve jumped forward and snatched the wand from Molecule Man's unresisting grip.
Slowly, Molecule Man turned to face him. "You escaped the walls." He didn't sound particularly concerned by the fact that Steve was holding what was clearly his primary weapon.
"I was prepared. I knew you were going to attack us. You wouldn't have disarmed us otherwise."
Steve held up his fists, tensed for another attack. He considered knocking Molecule Man out, but that wouldn't bring his shield back. It wouldn't bring the Avengers back. He had to find them first.
Still, knocking him out couldn't hurt. And where was Tigra?
"Missing something, Captain?" his adversary said, tone mild.
"Yes," Steve said, through gritted teeth, circling, circling, looking for weaknesses. "My shield."
Molecule Man looked delighted. "It was made of so many interesting molecules. I've never felt its like. The hammer and the board too—those were exciting. But, pfft, that armor? So boring. Just metal and circuitry." He laughed, and Steve desperately wanted to punch him in the face on behalf of Tony and Iron Man, if nothing else. "You and your friends are helpless, Captain. And with the Avengers out of the way, the entire planet will be mine. I'll take it all apart. You think Galactus was threatening? You haven't seen me."
It was your standard villain banter. Steve nearly rolled his eyes. It was nothing he couldn't handle. Even without his shield. He had the wand.
"How are you going to do any of that when I have this?"
Steve snapped the wand in two, and let the pieces fall to the floor.
"Oh, Captain, Captain." Molecule Man tsked. "I just liked having the wand. The power's in me."
Steve stared, dumbfounded.
And that was when the tentacles wrapped around his arms, his legs, his throat— he couldn't breathe—
He blacked out to the sound of Molecule Man's laughter.
When he awoke, he was lying on slanted metal sheeting, with more angled metal high above, giant spikes matching the dips he was lying in, like the cogs of a giant machine. This didn't really seem, he thought disjointedly, like a great place to be. He tried to push himself up, but he couldn't move. It seemed that whatever forcefield had been active outside was in here too.
"What are you planning to do to them?" It was Tigra's voice. She hadn't gotten away after all.
"What does it look like, furbrain?" Molecule Man asked, sneering. "I'm going to smash them."
This was definitely not a place he wanted to be. He didn't know what the Surfer and Thor could handle, but he was not going to survive this. Iron Man was not going to survive this. They were unarmed, restrained, and going to be crushed.
He listened to Tigra plead with Molecule Man not to kill them, not to kill her.
Molecule Man paused thoughtfully. "You live. They die."
The top half of the crusher came down, gleaming bright, like a blunted guillotine, and Steve shut his eyes.
It didn't touch him.
The metal under him was disappearing, and he fell through the crusher, down and down, as above him the halves of the crusher slammed shut with a thunderous clang. Then he was still falling, but all around him was air, and there were people falling next to him—the Avengers?—and then he hit the floor hard, the breath shocked out of him.
Next to him, the Silver Surfer was already on his feet, and he offered Steve a hand up. "I disintegrated a portion of the crusher. We are now directly beneath it, on the level below."
Steve inclined his head. "Thank you, Surfer."
The team. He had to check on the rest of the team. Behind the Silver Surfer, someone blond—Thor?—was picking himself up from the floor, and his clothes seemed to have changed. In fact, he looked like... Donald Blake. Exactly like Donald Blake.
Well, Steve thought, stupidly, that explained how Don always knew where to find Thor.
That left Iron Man. Iron Man without his armor. So much for secret identities, but there was no way around this. He just hoped Iron Man wasn't going to be too angry because of the way this was happening, the invasion of his privacy, the fact that they couldn't help but go against what Tony had asked him not to do. On the other hand, this morning Iron Man had offered to quit the Avengers, so it couldn't get too much worse between them, could it?
He'd wanted to see Iron Man's face. He'd wanted it so badly. He hadn't wanted it to be like this.
Leaving Don and the Silver Surfer to confer, Steve turned around.
Iron Man was lying curled on his side, his back to Steve, his arms raised up around his face to cushion his head in the landing, and slowly he was unfolding himself, unknotting his fingers from his curling dark hair. He was bigger than Steve had thought he would be; he must have overestimated the size of the armor. The skin of Iron Man's back was pale, marked by scars that, from the looks of his, wrapped all the way around his ribs. It got thicker as it went; that must have been from where the scarring on his chest started. Steve was able to notice this because Iron Man was wearing tiny red underwear and absolutely nothing else. It was... well, in another context it would have been extremely flattering. Honestly it already was.
"Iron Man?" Steve asked, hesitantly. "Are you hurt?"
Iron Man pushed himself to his feet and very slowly turned around.
And then it was Tony looking at him.
Tony was Iron Man. Iron Man was Tony.
Tony was smiling at him, but the smile was shaky, like he was afraid of what Steve might do, really afraid, like he'd been building it all up in his head. He probably had.
Steve was dimly aware that his mouth had fallen open.
"It was always you," Steve whispered, awestruck. "It was only ever you."
It all made sense. He'd never even suspected. Tony wouldn't have built the suit and just let someone else fly it. Tony hadn't wanted to tell him who Iron Man was, when he'd told him who Jan was. Iron Man had blindfolded him, had never let Steve hear his real voice—because he would have recognized him instantly. For God's sake, other than the LMD fiasco and a handful of times Iron Man had told him it would be Happy pretending to be him while he went off on an important mission, Steve wasn't sure he'd ever seen Tony and his so-called "bodyguard" in the same room!
Tony's smile was still weak, but there was a flare of hope in his eyes. "Hey, Winghead," he said, softly, fondly, and Steve had dreamed about hearing Iron Man's real voice, filters off. He'd wondered what it would be like. And now it turned out that he'd known it all along. "You remember how I said I had something to tell you after the mission?"
"Yeah?" Steve's voice was faint in his own ears.
Tony held his arms out to the sides, showing himself off. They were totally bare—that was really the least of the things to be concerned about here—and there was writing all the way up his right arm, past his elbow, more extensive than the words he'd seen on Iron Man. His chest was covered in scars, the same scars Steve had felt in the dark on Iron Man's body. He realized he'd never seen Tony with his shirt off.
His heart, God, was his heart okay? Everyone had known about Tony's heart, and it had been concerning enough when he'd thought Tony's lifestyle was relatively sedate—but to think that he had been fighting alongside them, day in, day out...
"This would be what I was going to tell you."
Tony's smile was fading now, hands coming up like he was bracing for an attack. Like he thought Steve might hurt him.
"Those are—" Steve cleared his throat— "those are still my words? All of those are my words?"
Tony looked down at his arm like he hadn't even noticed it was bare, and he held it out. It was the same question he'd seen on Iron Man's arm: Where am I? But then the words kept going, all the way up Tony's arm: How did I get here? Who are you? It was his handwriting. He remembered saying it. It was the first thing he'd ever said to Iron Man.
"I made sure the armor covered the rest of it," Tony said, blue eyes laced with guilt. "You'd have... you'd have figured it out if Iron Man's words were the same size as mine."
Steve found that he was smiling. "You're my soulmate," he breathed. He'd loved both Tony and Iron Man because they were the same man. It was so simple.
Tony's answering grin was still trembling, disbelieving. "If that's what you want. If you can forgive me."
"Yes," Steve said, instantly. "And also yes. And I'd like you to stay on the team." It had hurt, yes, but— dwelling on that wasn't what they needed right now. They needed to stick together. Tony could explain it all when they weren't in danger. And of course he still wanted to be with him. Beyond everything else there was that, and maybe it was the most important part. He paused. "This wasn't how you thought this would go, was it?"
"I thought I'd be wearing more clothes, for a start," Tony said, a little sheepish. "But I saw you heading back to your room and I had to talk to you, and I had to get the armor on in a hurry." He shrugged.
"We're still talking about this later, you know," Steve said. "We don't have time for this now. We've got to find Tigra and take down Molecule Man."
"You've got some priorities, Cap," Tony said, an entirely facetious complaint, just the sort of thing Iron Man would have said—and now Steve knew why. "Save the world first. Sheesh. What is it with you?"
"You love me."
Tony smiled. "Yeah. Yeah, I do."
He held out his hand, and Tony took it.
They saved the world. Again.
The defeated Molecule Man even reassembled the Surfer's board, Thor's hammer, and Steve's shield, which he promptly clutched to himself like he never wanted to let it out of his hands again. To be honest, Tony felt a little bit jealous. He was less amused when it turned out that the Molecule Man couldn't reconstruct any of the circuitry in his armor and therefore gave him a red and gold leisure suit instead. No. Just... no. It was better than wearing Don's shirt around his waist, but that wasn't saying much.
The first thing he did when they got back to the mansion was change back into actual clothes and a spare suit of armor. Slipping the helmet on as he left the workshop for the briefing room, he felt a little silly—after all, the Avengers, such as they were now, all knew who he was. But there was a debriefing, and it didn't seem right to attend it out of the armor. Iron Man was expected to show up.
When he stepped through the doorway, he found he was the last one there—Thor, Tigra, and Steve had spread out across the length of the table, which could easily have fit ten more people. The team was getting too small.
Steve looked up, and his smile was warm and soft. "Hey, Tony," he said, quietly, almost uncertainly, like he didn't know if he was allowed to say his name.
Tony's reflexive reaction was a wave of instant, choking panic—oh God, I'm in the suit, he's figured it out—before he took a deep breath and remembered that Steve knew now. He knew. It was all right. It was going to be all right.
But he must have made some noise of dismay because Steve was looking up at him curiously, worried. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Tony said, hoarsely. "I just... forgot that you knew that I..."
He didn't bother finishing the sentence because he was positive it was only going to sound worse if he did.
"It's all right," Steve said, still smiling. "Look, I saved you a seat."
Tony looked down the near-empty table. "You saved me a lot of seats."
Steve reached out and patted the seat to his left. "I saved you a particular seat. Unless you'd rather...?"
"No, no," Tony assured him, taking the offered seat and trying not to ponder how much his joy at that simple gesture made him feel like some kind of lovestruck teenager, pathetically in search of some sign from the object of his affections. "This one is good. Great."
"Right," Steve said, turning his attention to the table at large. "This meeting is called to order."
It started off reasonably enough, as they went through the basic outline that would almost certainly be in all their reports, up to the capture by the Molecule Man.
"When my hammer was wrested from my grasp," Thor intoned, "I returned again to the body of Donald Blake, and in that way I was able to be overpowered."
"He got my armor." Tony sighed. "And then tied me up. I have to say I am really not into the naked tentacle bondage."
And then he watched as Steve's face heated up. Oh, that was cute.
"He didn't put me in the crushing machine. He... liked me," Tigra said, with a shudder, and Tony wondered how she was holding up. She hadn't done well facing Ghost Rider recently, and this, identity debacle aside... well, it was a pretty normal week for the Avengers. She needed to be able to handle it. He was a little worried.
"I attempted to stop him," Steve continued, determinedly, like he hadn't heard what Tony had said, "but I misidentified his power source and was also captured by the, uh, tentacles."
"Not your kink, huh?" Tony muttered. Muttering was never very quiet in the suit.
Steve shot him a look. His face was still bright red. "Moving on."
"And then," Tony said, impatiently, "the Surfer dropped us through the floor and we all had some exciting revelations that are not, strictly speaking, relevant to the mission."
"I suppose not," Steve said, and something sad passed over his face. "Do you want— do you want the details redacted?"
He saw what Steve was offering. What Steve was trying to offer him. "No," he said. "Keep it in. Please. I have something to say on that note later. Another point of business."
Steve smiled in relief. "Okay. And then...?"
They went over how they'd joined forces again with Tigra, how they'd eventually subdued Molecule Man, how he'd turned himself in because Tigra had talked him into getting psychiatric help. It made a change from the usual fight.
"And that's that," Steve said. "Anything else to add to the agenda?"
Tigra held up a hand. "I'd... I'd like to leave," she said, and they all looked at her. "The team, I mean. I appreciate the chance that you've given me here. It's been great. But I know I'm not on the same level as... as the three of you. Maybe I will be someday."
Steve nodded, like he'd expected this. Maybe he had. "We're sorry to see you leave. You've been a valuable member. Of course we'll support your decision, but I hope you come back sometime. You're always welcome."
Tigra flipped her comm card onto the table. "Thank you, Captain."
"Slide that down here," Tony said, "I'll part it out, cannibalize it for the new ones."
"You'll paste someone else's picture on?" Tigra asked, joking. "Avengers fake ID?"
Tony chuckled. "Sure. The next Avenger will be thrilled at the exceedingly personal touch, and it'll save me some work."
"You make those," Steve said slowly, realization dawning, like he'd forgotten, like he was just now putting together that the guy sitting next to him both fought on the team and kept the gear in order.
"Yep," Tony said, cheerfully. "That'd be me. Your resident engineer. I wear a lot of hats around here. Metaphorical ones as well as the shiny red one."
As if on cue, his nose started to itch. It was one of the worst things about being in the suit, that if there was some kind of discomfort he just had to endure it, because there was no way to take it off. But he could now. He grinned. Freedom.
"Excuse me. Nose itches. One sec."
He took his helmet off and set it on the table. Scratching at his nose with the gauntlets on was a little less satisfying and more painful than he'd imagined, but when he looked up Steve was staring at him, wide-eyed in pleased surprise, like even after seeing him at Molecule Man's lair he really hadn't grokked the whole Tony-Iron Man thing until now, seeing him underneath the armor.
"Still me," Tony said, softly, smiling, hearing his own unaltered voice, a little thinner on account of it not resonating in the helmet anymore. "Hi."
"Hi," Steve returned, just as softly, staring and staring like he never wanted to look away, like he couldn't, and with every passing second Tony suspected that Steve was forgetting that they were in the middle of a meeting and, God, Steve was staring at his mouth and licking his own lips.
Tony coughed. "As I was saying. This dovetails with Tigra leaving, but I was going to say it anyway: we need more Avengers. I was thinking an informal meeting-slash-party, recruitment open, as soon as we can schedule it. We can round up everyone we think might be interested, all the old gang. Hopefully not the same way Moondragon just tried it."
She'd summoned a mixed group of Avengers and X-Men and made them fight each other. It hadn't been one of the Avengers' better days, and half the team had left.
"Seconded!" Thor boomed. Tony suspected he just liked to second things at the meetings, but the support was appreciated.
"We can just contact them individually," Steve pointed out. "There's no need to round them up, especially if you don't want to remind them of what Moondragon did." His eyes were still wide, like he couldn't quite believe Tony was saying these things that Iron Man would have said.
"There is a need, actually." Tony's smile came out more nervous than he'd intended. "I wanted to announce something in a relatively private and controlled manner, and I really only wanted to have to say it the once."
Steve's mouth opened and then closed. "Oh," he said, amazed. "Well, we can definitely throw you a party for that. You're... you're sure?"
Tony nodded. "I'm sure. They should know who I am." Steve knew and was staying and none of it seemed terrifying now. Not when Steve was with him. He should have done this years ago. "It's important."
"Tony," Steve breathed, meeting his gaze and smiling and Tony realized that all this time he'd been missing out on getting to hear Steve say his name, his name, in that tone of voice, all wonder and happiness and desire, like he'd done something, something right, something perfect.
"Meeting," Tony prompted, when Steve had been staring at him for at least ten seconds and hadn't said anything else.
Steve looked down at his notes, which had been upside-down this entire time. "Uh. I. Move to adjourn?"
"Seconded," said Tony, instantly.
Thor looked a little annoyed to have missed his chance. "Thirded?"
"I need," began Steve, looking like he didn't quite know where he was, "to talk with you, Iron Man. Privately."
Tony had just enough time to grab the helmet and tuck it under one arm before Steve was hauling him out of the chair and up the flights of stairs, across the foyer and up the main stairs. Armored, Tony was strong enough to resist him. He didn't.
They'd gotten to the second-floor hallway when Tony thought to try asking. "Steve, what—?"
And then Steve slammed him against the wall hard enough to scratch the paint with the back of his armor, hard enough that the Avengers still in the basement could probably hear, then went up on his toes, and kissed him, open-mouthed and slick and hot and needy and turning Tony's spine to water. If he hadn't been in the suit, he'd have fallen. Tony moaned against Steve's mouth.
"I thought you wanted to talk," Tony murmured, when they broke apart.
"I did." Steve's eyes were so dark the blue had nearly disappeared. "I do. After."
Tony had clearly been an influence on him. A bad influence. A great and wondrous influence. "Your place or mine?"
"Yours," Steve said, stepping back just enough to let him move forward, and Tony led them both to the end of the hall and pushed the door to his room open.
He lobbed the helmet at the closest chair. "Home sweet home."
He'd knocked out the adjoining wall; it was bigger than the rest of the Avengers' quarters, and it partitioned neatly into a sitting area and a bedroom, all in sleek modern styles. Tony had let the interior designer have free rein; it wasn't as if this room really felt like his. The workshop was his. This was just somewhere he passed out sometimes.
Steve looked around with interest as he began to work his uniform gloves off, and that was when Tony remembered that he probably hadn't been in here before. "I always wondered where Iron Man slept."
"Not here." Tony chuckled. "Not here, and not enough. Too busy. Usually the cot in the workshop downstairs, if I'm fixing up the armor. Sometimes the office couches at SI. If I'm here at all and I've got the free time, I'd always rather sleep with—"
You. He cut himself off, by habit, even though he knew as he said it that Steve wouldn't judge him, that Steve wouldn't mind, that Steve would in fact appreciate hearing it.
Steve's smile was soft. "You like my bed better, huh?"
"It's got you in it."
The door slammed shut, thunderously, as Steve pushed him back against it, kissing him just as intensely as he had in the hallway, heavy and commanding, with a strength that was dizzying. Tony wondered if Steve could actually fuck him through the door, and then he wondered if that really ought to be as much of a turn-on as it was, because dear God, what a thought. He gasped into Steve's mouth, aching with sudden need.
Steve's hands splayed over Tony's head, one hand curving around the back of his skull, the other over the side of his neck. Steve's thumb traced a light path, back and forth, over the line of his jaw and Steve pulled his head back to stare at him, breathless, panting. "I want to see you," Steve whispered, practically begging, desperate. "Tony, please, Tony, just let me look at you."
He'd blindfolded Steve every other time, of course, and he'd known that Steve—though he'd accepted it as a necessary part of the secret identity deal—wasn't really into the blindfolding as a thing, per se. But only now was it dawning on Tony exactly how much he'd been depriving him. Steve really wanted to look at him.
"You like to watch, huh?" Tony murmured. "You think about watching me? Us? You think we'd look good together? That what you like to think about?"
Steve's hands on his face tightened and he shuddered, a full-body wave of arousal. His mouth fell open, and he clearly wanted to say yes but the only noise that came from him was a breathy whimper. It was the hottest thing that Tony had ever seen, knowing that Steve—his soulmate, God, his soulmate—was this far gone, with only a few words.
"Shh, okay," Tony said, and he lifted his still-armored hands to Steve's arms, pulling Steve's hands away. Steve's moan now was nearly piteous. "Easy, there. We can do that. We can definitely do that. You can look all you want, I promise. But you've got to let me get out of the suit first, all right?"
"All right," Steve echoed, dazed, sounding like he was responding more to the tone than the words. "All right. Let me?"
Before Tony could ask him how he was planning to help when he didn't know how the suit came off, Steve was thumbing the release catches in the armor like he'd done this a hundred times before instead of never. The gauntlets dropped to the floor, and, okay, Steve had seen him take those off before, but not any of the rest of it.
"The removal method's not supposed to be obvious," Tony said, astonished, as Steve briskly lifted his arm up for him and hit one of the releases on the underside. Those things were hidden. Well-hidden. He'd thought so, anyway. "It's, uh, kind of a major design flaw if it is."
"It isn't obvious," Steve assured him, as he tossed the entire arm piece in the approximate direction of where the helmet had gone. "I've just... spent a long time looking. No one else would have noticed."
He'd known all this time, Tony realized, how to get him out of the armor. He'd known and he hadn't said anything. He'd been waiting. For this.
Steve slid two fingers along Tony's upper arm, across the gap between the end of his shirtsleeve and the beginning of his wrist-cuff. "Oh," he said, mouth fallen into a disappointed pout. "Now you're wearing clothes?"
"Wasn't sure I was going to get lucky," Tony said, honestly. "And the backup armor kind of chafes." And then he grinned, daring, enticing, turning the charm on. "Still got the same underwear on, though, if you liked it."
"Oh, I liked it," Steve said, his voice low with desire. "Going to show me?"
Tony hit the release catches at his hips, dropped the groin plate, and promptly pushed the waist of his pants down over one hip until he could catch the thin fabric of his underwear with his thumb and pull it up so Steve could see it for himself.
"Is that what you wanted? You want a show? I'll give you the best show you ever had."
Tony flattened the palm of his other hand against his hip, hooked his thumb into his pants and pushed down a little, exposing an inch of skin. Steve was staring at him, mesmerized, tracking every motion he made. When he didn't move, Tony reached out for one of Steve's hands, laid it on his own hip. Steve was trembling, almost imperceptibly, eyes wide.
"Audience participation is highly encouraged," Tony said, stroking the back of Steve's hand lightly, hoping he would get the hint.
Steve pushed one hesitant thumb down past the waist of Tony's pants, against his bare skin, and Tony groaned, even at that little touch. "You can—" Tony offered, "you can touch me as much as you want. Anywhere you want."
Steve smiled and looked him up and down. "You've still got half the armor on, Tony."
He shucked the rest of it in ten seconds flat, and when he stepped down and out of the boots Steve was staring down at him rather than up.
And then he leaned in and kissed Steve, fast and quick and positively dirty, the kind of kiss Tony really liked, wet and with enough tongue that the intention was unmistakable. Steve was panting, hoarse and rough, when Tony stopped.
"Bed," Tony said. "Come on."
He pushed Steve all the way back through the room until Steve was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring up at him. His breathing was heavy, and even in the thick uniform pants he was obviously hard.
"Shh," Tony said. "Just sit there. Enjoy the show. Make yourself comfortable." He motioned significantly to Steve's lap. God, he was big. Maybe Steve would fuck him now. They hadn't before. It wasn't that they couldn't have figured out some workaround with the blindfolding, but he'd kind of gotten the idea that there were some things Steve had wanted to wait for, at least until they could see each other.
And then Tony started to strip.
He'd never considered himself particularly graceful; he knew he was charming, but that was something he did more with words, with expressions, than with his whole body. But Steve was staring at him, entranced, as he slid one hand down his torso, back up again, tangling his fingers in the buttons. When he slid his hand down again to palm his aching cock, it was Steve who groaned.
"You like that?" Tony asked. "You want to watch?"
He kept one hand on his cock, rubbing his thumb over it, undoing the buttons of his shirt with his other hand, feeling desire rise in him as he traced his own fingertips across his bare skin, letting the shirt fall to the floor. If Steve noticed the scars—and he had to notice them, how could he not?—he didn't care; Steve's eyes were fixed on him, his breathing fast and shallow. In another instant, he'd pulled off the wrist-cuff, letting it fall as well, holding his wrist out, running one finger lengthwise across the words.
"It's you," Steve said, low and amazed. "It's you. You've always been here."
Tony smiled at him. "Always," he said, and then he slowly undid his pants and stepped out of them.
When he looked up, Steve was still staring, fists clenching and unclenching at his sides like he wanted to do something with his hands.
"Touch yourself," Tony suggested. "Touch yourself and think about all the things we could be doing. I know I will." He slid his hand, and then the length of his wrist, down over his hard cock, barely concealed in the underwear, rubbing his words against himself.
"That's the filthiest thing I've ever seen," Steve said, and when Tony looked up his face had gone hot with arousal or maybe embarrassment. Or both. But his hands, shaking, were unfastening his uniform, and Tony smiled. All good, then.
"I can get filthier," Tony said, with a grin. "You want me to come on my wrist? Yours?"
Steve groaned, low and wanton, and Tony thought maybe that was a yes.
"Getting a good look?" Tony smiled, and he knew he didn't have to pretend anything. "Sorry about the blindfolding. You know, I was thinking that one of the things I enjoy is talking. You've probably noticed that we've missed out on that. So I thought that, while you were admiring the view—" he palmed at his own cock again, just to watch Steve go glassy-eyed— "I could suggest a few things you might like. I'm a little camera-shy these days about this kind of thing, but I get the impression that you'd really enjoy mirrors."
"Mirrors?" Steve said, and he had the top half of his uniform off, the pants undone, and he was staring at Tony like he'd never heard the word before.
"Mmm-hmm." Tony pushed the underwear all the way off and stroked himself lightly, gasping, because even that touch was almost too much. "Kind of decadent excess now—you really missed the height of their popularity, sorry, already took the mirrors off the ceiling—and maybe they're a little, ah, mmm, quaint these days, but I think you'd really like it. Oh God." He was going to talk himself into coming. "Could—mmm—get a lot of 'em. Watch from every angle. Everywhere you looked you'd be looking at us. Bet you'd like that. You could. Mmm. You could fuck me if you wanted. You'd get the best view in the house."
And then Steve was reaching out for him, pulling him down to the bed, moaning, clearly taken by the fantasy. "Can I— you said— can we do that anyway?" The words were broken. "God, Tony, you're beautiful," he added, and his hands were running over Tony's arms, his chest, the line of muscle at his hips.
"Anything," Tony said. "Anything, that, yes, of course, I love it."
Steve still had his boots on, the ensuing few minutes were a disorganized scramble, and the floor ended up covered in bright leather, Tony's clothes, and gleaming pieces of metal—but finally Steve was sitting next to him on the edge of the bed, looking up at him, naked, his gaze oddly vulnerable, and Tony was reminded that having blindfolded Steve before meant he'd never really seen much of his face.
"I haven't done this before," Steve said, slow and halting, and Tony couldn't quite tell if that meant he thought that he should have or that Tony shouldn't have.
"It's all right," Tony said, going with the first option, low and soothing, and he'd guessed right; Steve relaxed a little. "It's easy. Easiest thing in the world. You'll see. Just do what feels good."
He put his hand to Steve's face, stroked his cheek lightly with a fingertip, and as Steve shivered he leaned in and kissed him. Steve's arm went around his back and then Steve was pulling them both over, gently, Tony on top of him. Steve's hands slid down Tony's back, into the dip at the base of his spine, over his ass, and Tony shuddered and rocked forward, and God, Steve was right there, hot and hard against him, holding their bodies together, arching up against him in rhythm.
"You're a natural," Tony gasped, and he meant it to sound fond, affectionate, a reassurance from the voice of experience. His voice was low, breathy, entirely subsumed by need. Well. That worked too.
Steve tilted his head and kissed him again, messy and wet and halfway missing his mouth at first, kissing him hard and deep like he wanted to fuck him with his tongue, and the thought of that sent dizzying lust spiraling through Tony, God, he wanted everything, he couldn't remember wanting anything this much before in his entire life.
He flailed around for the nightstand until he found the lube. "Condoms if you want 'em," he added, passing Steve the lube, "but I'm clean and last I heard you couldn't give or get anything and I am never going to sleep with anyone else ever again in my entire life." He was pleasure-mazed already, so relaxed, so goddamn happy that it felt like he could just say anything, everything, Steve wasn't going to judge him.
"Glad to hear it." Steve was smiling like Tony had made his day. His year. His life. Tony rolled off him and Steve examined the lubricant a little dubiously. "How do I...?"
"Slick your fingers up," Tony said, pouring some out onto Steve's fingers. "Then slick me up. Or I can do the prep, if you'd rather."
He rolled onto his back, arched his hips up, and Steve slid a hand under him, one finger rubbing lightly, around and around, making pleasure clench low and tight in his gut. Tony circled his own cock with his fist, slowly, priming himself for the feel of it, as Steve pushed one finger in and Tony's stomach turned inside-out with the strange not-quite-there feeling of it.
"Oh," Steve breathed, and his face was so enthralled that Tony really wished he could have taken a picture. "That's so— that's amazing."
He worked his finger—God, he had big hands—in and out and then in and in, and Tony gasped and arched up off the bed, seeking more, and suddenly everything flipped over from not bad to fucking wonderful, so good it was almost too much to be pleasure, and Steve kept his finger just there, and Tony shoved himself down on it, again and again, open and slick and aching for more. "Fuck," Tony breathed. "Yeah, see? Already perfect. Could just fuck me now, come on, come on, your fingers are plenty big enough—"
"I don't want to hurt you," Steve said, but he was already slicking himself up with his free hand.
Tony laughed and could feel himself clench down as he did. "You put another finger in me, I'm coming. Do it."
And then Steve was sliding his hand away, bracing himself, lifting one of Tony's legs high. There was a blunt pressure, hot, heavy, bigger than fingers, just where he wanted it, and Tony exhaled as Steve pushed into him, huge and perfect and hitting everything just right. "Oh, fuck." The words felt punched out of him, gone with the air. "Oh, God. Steve."
Steve had stopped, barely inside him at at all, staring at him with wide eyes, lust-darkened, trembling visibly with the effort to stay still. "Can I— are you all right? Is this okay?" His voice was little more than breath. "You're so— you feel so— I can't even describe it. Can I move? Please say I can move. I'm not sure I can take this—"
It was his first time. Tony remembered how that felt, considered the absolutely awestruck look on Steve's face, considered how he was feeling right now, like everything else he had ever done had been a pale imitation of this, and then he grinned and pulled Steve down and in and hard and perfect, oh God, and when he clenched around him Steve gasped and threw his head back and moaned out something wordless and ecstatic.
"I can't," Steve said, shaking, leaning his forehead on Tony's shoulder, skin shining golden. "Tony, oh, it's so good, you're so good, if I move, if I move at all, I'm going to— I can't—
Oh, right. It was definitely his first time. Tony turned his head and kissed Steve's ear, his jaw, the pounding pulse at his throat. He brought his hand up to Steve's shoulder, then his arm, then interlaced their fingers together, the words at Steve's wrist pressing against his, a different kind of pleasure, soft and knowing and right, and Steve shuddered when he saw it. They were together, bodies as close as souls, Steve all the way inside him.
"Go on," Tony said, coaxing. "Go for it. I can catch up later."
Steve lifted his head and he was biting his lip—his already-red lip, slick and swollen by kisses—like he desperately wanted to but felt like he had to refrain. "Tony—"
"Hard as you want," Tony said, and he could feel his mouth curve, daring Steve with his smile. "I can take it. I want you to come in me. Please."
He squeezed down again and that was it, that did it, Steve shut his eyes and thrust into him, fast, hard, setting up a pounding rhythm, just there, exactly where he wanted it, Steve's cock hitting him just right as Steve gasped and fucked into him, one thrust more, two, three, trembling right on the edge. Steve's fingers, still locked with his, tightened convulsively and then Steve was groaning, coming, eyes falling shut, leaning forward, and Tony kissed him and kissed him, every inch of skin he could reach, running his free hand over Steve's back, his neck, through his sweat-spiked hair.
When Steve lifted his head he was smiling, wide and dazed, pleasure-drunk, smiling like nothing could ever make him stop smiling, and eventually his eyes focused on Tony.
"Good?" Tony asked, not quite able to keep the smirk off his face.
Steve laughed weakly. "Very," he murmured, and then he was still smiling, delighted. "Give me— give me a minute and I'll make it up to you."
Before Tony could attempt to even say something self-abnegating and noble like you don't have to, Steve was sliding out of him and back down the bed, curling up with his head at Tony's hip, nudging Tony's legs apart with one hand.
"Can I?" Steve asked.
What he meant, Tony had no idea, but he was definitely up for it. "Anything you want."
Steve looked along the length of Tony's body, hungrily, needy, and then he slid two fingers back into Tony's still-slick hole at the same time as he dropped his mouth down over Tony's cock and Tony was suddenly surrounded by wet heat and clever fingers exactly where he wanted them.
"Fuck," Tony panted, trying not to thrust up and choke Steve. "That's— oh God, you're good at that. Oh my God. Perfect. Perfect hands, perfect cocksucking mouth, God, I can't believe you've never— I can't believe I'm the only one—"
They hadn't done this before, any of it. They'd just stuck to hands, because even though he was pretty sure Steve would have gone down on him if he'd asked, it felt too weirdly impersonal to do it when Steve had to be blindfolded.
This was anything but impersonal. Steve had his cock in his mouth and he looked up at Tony, pulled off a little, and grinned, bright-eyed, like he'd never wanted to do anything else but suck him off, like his mouth was made for this, like he knew exactly how Tony felt and wanted to bring him down to this, down to where there was nothing but each other, nothing but pleasure.
Steve was rocking a little where he was lying pressed against him, like he was rubbing off on him, impossibly hard again already and getting off on doing this, and that was probably the most arousing thing Tony had ever seen in his entire life.
And then Steve pushed his fingers in Tony exactly right, twisting, rubbing up exactly where they needed to be and took him all the way down like he didn't even need to breathe. Tony felt the pleasure rising up within him, coming up fast, high and bright, all-consuming, like soaring into the sun—
"I'm—" he gasped out— "Steve, I'm going to come—"
Steve lifted his mouth off, not quite all the way, and wrapped his free hand around the base of Tony's cock, stroking him fast and tight, in the same rhythm as the fingers inside him. His lips still rested on the head of Tony's cock, and he licked him once again, just there, his eyes focused intently.
He wants to see, Tony realized, and he shuddered and came hard across Steve's lips, on his face, all over his own stomach, and then his leg was hot and wet and Steve was moaning and licking at his lips like he wanted to swallow it all and coming again because he'd watched Tony—
Drained, Tony dropped back onto the pillows and Steve crawled up the bed to join him, flinging one very sticky arm over his chest. They were a mess. Tony didn't really care. They could stay stuck together the rest of their lives. Actually, he thought, sleepily, that sounded like a really good idea. Sticking together. Not the sticky part. The together part. Rest of his life. Soulmates.
"Stay," Tony said, locking one arm over Steve's. "Don't go."
"Wasn't planning on it," Steve said. "I'm right here."
"Move in with me," Tony said muzzily, beginning to drift into sleep. "Really stay. Drag your stuff across the hall. I'll get new furniture. Get you whatever you want, yeah?"
Steve kissed him. "I just want you. All of you. Tony. Iron Man. That's what I want."
Tony smiled back. "You've got me."
In the kitchen at the mansion is a corkboard, on which is pinned the usual detritus of any life: letters, notices, calendars, holiday cards, scraps of paper with phone numbers, takeout menus. The caricatured doodles of superheroes are possibly a less usual feature, but there are nonetheless a few of them as well, all done in one style and clearly by the same artist. In the bottom corner of the board, almost hidden by a scrawled memo reminding residents to label their leftovers with their names unless they actually want Thor or Clint to eat their kung pao chicken, is a photograph.
It's crumpled at the edges, creased down the middle, like the previous owner kept it in a wallet. It's a selfie of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, posed awkwardly, a little too far apart; the edge of Steve's head is just out of frame. Tony looks a few years younger than he does now, and the photo clearly predates his now-trademark Van Dyke; Steve always looks the same. Steve's uniform is a faded, ripped mess, his cowl's pushed back, and there are scrapes on his face; he looks a little dazed, eyes too wide, like he doesn't know exactly where he is or even what day it is, but his confused smile is happy and bright. Tony—ever dapper and put-together—wears a business suit. His face is tight, nervous, but with a kind of eagerness to it. He's smiling too, smiling like he was trying to hold it back but has since given in. It's not the smile he shows the press. This one is real. He's smiling at Steve, who is looking at the camera and doesn't see Tony's face.
Next to it is a much newer photograph, glossy like it's just been printed. This one isn't a selfie. Steve and Tony are next to each other on one of the mansion's couches, lying sprawled out on it in post-battle exhaustion, leaning on each other, touching from shoulder to thigh. Steve's in uniform, cowl once again pushed back, hair in disarray. Tony's wearing jeans and a faded MIT t-shirt, with a wrist-cuff almost all the way up his right arm and a gleaming repulsor gauntlet on his left. They're holding hands, fingers interlaced; Steve's left arm lies between Tony's right arm and his body. The insides of their arms are pressed against each other, elbow to wrist, in an intimate gesture depicted in Western art, literature, and culture for the past two thousand years. The meaning is unmistakable. Tony's head is tipped back, pillowed on Steve's shoulder, and he looks to be solidly asleep, completely trusting. Steve's awake, but just barely. His eyes are half-lidded. He's looking down at Tony, and he's smiling, soft and gentle.