Dear Captain Rogers,
I hope you don't mind me calling you by your real name, instead of your title, but I feel like I know you so well already. My name is Colin and I'm your biggest fan. I've looked up to you since I was a kid, and now that your really alive and here, I can hardly believe it.
I might only be a waiter and not a superhero, but I try to live my life like you would want. I'm honest and loyal and I try to help people whenever I can. It's not always easy, because people are really rude to guys like me, but I just grit my teeth and try to keep smiling, because I know its what you would do.
So anyway I just wanted to write and say how much I admire and respect you, and if your ever in Queens for a special event, maybe I'll get to be your waiter. And don't worry, I won't ask for your autograph, haha.
It was Steve's last day in the hospital when he heard a voice from the doorway. "So, you gonna tell me what happened?"
He had been trying to read one of the books Sam had brought for him. It was just getting to the good part, and he was annoyed at the interruption. He looked up from the book, and of course it was Tony Stark. And only a day later than Natasha had predicted he would show up. "Why don't you just read about it? I'm sure it's all over the Internet."
"Actually, it is," Stark said. "But why would I do that when I can come straight to the source?" He sauntered into the room, as maddeningly graceful as ever, reminding Steve of a jungle cat. Always stalking his prey, was Tony Stark.
Steve sighed and turned away. With a bit more drama that was strictly necessary, he put the bookmark in place and closed his book, then set it on the table beside the bed.
"Actually, what I really wanted was to offer you a job," Stark said.
Steve looked back at him. "What," he said flatly. "Security guard at Stark Industries? No thanks."
Stark kept going, past his bed, to the shield leaning up against the wall. He ran a finger over the curved edge. The sight of it got Steve's hackles up; he didn't like anyone else to touch the shield, especially someone as greedy as Tony Stark.
"Not bad," Stark said with a tight smile. "But no." He tapped the shield. "You'll need this for the job."
"Oh," Steve said, more heated than before. "I get it. Put on the costume, do a little song and dance? 'Come on everyone, buy stock in Stark Industries.'"
Stark spun on his heel and pinned him with a slightly puzzled, slightly hostile stare. "Wrong again, Cap. But I do like the tone. Keep that up." He shoved his hands into the pockets of his designer jeans and rocked back a little on his heels. "No, what I had in mind doesn't involve SI at all. Well, I guess technically it does because that's where all the money for this is coming from, but otherwise, no. This isn't a business deal." He grinned, teeth flashing like a shark. "It's much more than that."
After five days of being stuck in the hospital while the world continued to fall apart around him, Steve was not in the mood for games. He wanted to get out of here, he wanted to eat some real food, and he wanted to find Bucky – in that order. "What do you want," he said.
"I want to put the team back together," Stark said.
Steve blinked. He couldn't possibly have heard that right. "You?"
Stark nodded. "Me."
"Why?" Steve asked. His thoughts raced. Had Stark already convinced everyone else? Was Thor back from Asgard? If Natasha already knew about this, why hadn't she said anything to him about it? "You're already Iron Man. I thought you didn't play well with others, remember? You showed how much you don't need us with that whole Mandarin thing."
Stark winced a little. "Yeah, about that." He made a shoo fly gesture, as though he could swat away all his troubles. Which he probably could, given how rich he was. "Point is, I think we could use the Avengers right now. And with SHIELD gone, I'm the only one who can provide what they need."
"Yeah?" Steve challenged. "And what's that?"
"Money," Stark said without an ounce of shame. "Tech. Gear. A place to live. Got a whole great big Tower with an A on the side, just waiting for people like you to move in."
Steve stared at him. Slowly it dawned on him that Stark was serious. But he still didn't get it. "Why would you…? I mean, I thought you didn't care."
Something flashed in Stark's eyes, too quick to identify. Anger, maybe. He gave Steve that tight little smile again, just an upward curve of his lips. "Yeah, well, people say that a lot about me."
Steve felt suddenly ashamed of himself. He knew better. Tony Stark did care. His actions during the Battle of New York had proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt. Just because he hadn't made any overtures toward anyone else since then didn't mean he didn't care. And the loss of SHIELD and Nick Fury had to have shaken him up. After all, he had known them longer than anyone besides Natasha and Clint Barton.
It could work, he thought. Maybe. They had all rubbed each other the wrong way when they first met, but there had been outside influences at work then. Time had passed and they had all changed since that terrible day when Loki and the Chitauri had brought them together.
And he had to face the fact that he had nowhere else to go. His apartment in DC was the site of a government investigation and under constant surveillance. The media couldn't wait to get their hands on him and ask him all kinds of questions. In Stark's great big Tower he could hide away for a while longer, and avoid the press – and anyone else he wanted.
But though he had to admit that a part of him was tempted, he already knew what his answer was.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I can't."
"Why not?" Stark asked. He sounded curious, not angry, and so Steve answered him honestly.
"There's something I have to do," he said. "Someone I have to find."
Stark considered this for a moment; clearly he knew who Steve was referring to, but to his credit, he didn't ask any questions. "Okay," he said simply. "I get that. But just so you know, I've got both the money and the tech to help you find your little lost sheep. No strings attached."
This was undoubtedly true, and it made the temptation to go to New York that much stronger. Steve had to remind himself what was at stake. Until he knew what he was dealing with, he couldn't risk anyone else's life. Not when he didn't even know if Bucky was still in there, lost inside the persona of the Winter Soldier. He knew Stark could take care of himself, but Bucky was dangerous, and Steve refused to expose the man to that kind of danger.
He shook his head. "Thank you, but…this is something I have to do myself."
"Fair enough," Stark said. "Well, the offer still stands if you change your mind." He held out his hand, and Steve shook it. "No need to call ahead. Just show up."
"Thank you," Steve said again – but he knew that was one invitation he would not be accepting.
Three months later, though, he was forced to concede defeat. Bucky was still out there, and he clearly did not want to be found.
He and Natasha and Sam had done everything they could and tried everything they could think of, but they still had no leads. The painful truth was that the trail had gone cold weeks ago, and now Steve had no idea what their next move was.
"I'm sorry, guys," he said. They were holed up in a hotel in Lithuania. The man who might have been able to tell them a little more about the Winter Soldier had turned out to be dead – had been dead for two months, in fact. "I feel like I've just been dragging you across the world, and all for nothing."
"Hey," Sam said. "If we didn't want to be here, we wouldn't be here."
Steve gave him a small smile that was really nothing more than a twist of his mouth. "Thanks," he said softly. He did appreciate Sam's loyalty, but lately his guilt outweighed his gratitude. It was time he let his friends go. Time for him to swallow his pride and admit that he needed help.
"Petrov had –" Natasha started.
"No," Steve said.
She looked up at him, a map of the Baltic spread out on the table in front of her. She had cut her hair short recently, and it curled gently about her shoulders. "So what then?" she asked calmly.
Steve couldn't look at either of them as he said it. "We go back," he said.
"We're giving up?" Natasha asked.
"No," Steve said. He would never give up on Bucky. "But we need to regroup. And we need…resources. Things we can't get out here." Without SHIELD backing them, even if it would have been unknowingly, through Natasha's information and contacts, their search was as good as over. And he should have known that right from the start, he realized now.
"Back to DC?" Sam asked. He wasn't completely successful in hiding the note of hope in his voice.
"No," Steve said. He felt amazingly calm, as though this moment had always been inevitable. "To New York."
It was drizzling when he got out of the taxi at the foot of Stark Tower. In one hand he carried a small suitcase; the shield was hidden in a large artist's portfolio strapped to his back. He paid the fare, thanked the cabbie, and then just stood there for a bemused moment, wondering if he was really going to go inside. Stark hadn't given him any instructions, so after a glance to either side to see if anyone was watching, he went in.
He wasn't sure what he had been expecting, but it definitely wasn't this. The entire first floor of the Tower had been turned into a museum honoring superheroes. There was even a gift shop full of books and toys and T-shirts and all kinds of tacky merchandise. Each of the Avengers had their own section; even Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four were represented. A display near the center of the shop announced that this month's featured hero was War Machine.
Steve looked at it all with a rueful smile, then hurried past. He hadn't done anything to disguise himself, not so much as a ball cap over his head. Any moment now, someone was going to recognize him.
"Captain." A voice behind him confirmed that he had been indeed spotted.
He steeled himself for the inevitable admiration from a fan, and turned around. "Yes?"
The man who approached him was very familiar, even though they had only met once, and briefly at that. Steve's eyes widened. "Colonel Rhodes."
Rhodes looked meaningfully over his shoulder. "This way."
Clutching his suitcase with both hands, Steve let himself be steered through the lobby and back into the rainy morning. Once outside, Rhodes led him to the left, around the building and to a smaller entrance set off the street that Steve hadn't even known existed. "This one's ours," Rhodes said. He entered a short code on a keypad set in the place where a doorknob would normally be.
"Thanks," Steve said as the doors swung open and they went inside. "I didn't know where I was supposed to go…"
"Yeah, I'm not surprised," Rhodes said. Beyond the doors, there was a much smaller lobby, this one almost completely empty. A long table stood against one wall, along with a rack of coat hooks; two umbrellas and a forlorn overcoat hung here. Brass elevator doors gleamed at the far end of the lobby. Rhodes walked over to them and hit the Up button.
"Thanks for the save," Steve said. "I think in another minute I would have become the star attraction."
Rhodes chuckled. "Yeah, I think you're right. Good thing for you I was down there and saw you."
"What're you doing here?" Steve asked as they stepped inside the elevator.
"I live here now," Rhodes said. "Or do you mean why was I in the museum?" And now he looked somewhat abashed, and yet also strangely proud. "Tony had me sign some merchandise, you know, War Machine stuff. The museum gives that stuff away to kids in need, that kind of thing."
Steve didn't know what to say to that, so he remained silent. He was thinking about the fact that War Machine lived in Avengers Tower. And it made him wonder who else was here. Clint Barton, maybe? Bruce Banner?
"What about you, Captain? What are you doing here?" Rhodes asked.
"I was invited," Steve said.
One of Rhodes' eyebrows lifted. "That was three months ago."
"Well," Steve said dryly, "I was trying to be fashionably late."
Rhodes smiled a little at that. "Well, you're definitely late," he said.
Steve smiled back.
The elevator stopped near the top of the Tower. "I was on my way out," Rhodes said. He held the doors open and pointed straight ahead. "Just go on in. If Tony's not there, JARVIS will announce you."
"Who's Jarvis?" Steve asked as he stepped out of the elevator.
"See you later," Rhodes said. He let go of the elevator doors and immediately they began to close.
Steve turned away and stood still for a moment. After a bit he squared his shoulders and began moving forward.
The penthouse of the Tower was one great big open room, full of light in spite of the drizzle outside, thanks to all the windows. One wall was dominated by stonework and a glass bar. Modern yet tasteful furniture was set about the room, giving it a more homey feeling in spite of the size and the obvious wealth behind the decorating decisions. The floor was redone from how Steve remembered it, with no sign that once there had been a Loki-shaped hole in it.
"Good morning, Captain Rogers," a cultured, yet electronic voice said. It had a British accent. "If you would be so kind as to wait, Mr. Stark will be with you momentarily."
Steve looked around, but saw no one. He glanced up at the ceiling, expecting to see a camera where his mysterious host was watching him. He saw nothing, though, and after a moment he gave it up.
While he waited, he set his suitcase down next to a leather sofa and wandered over to the windows so he could gaze out at the city. From this far up, the chaos and noise of Manhattan seemed serene. He wondered if Stark ever stood here and looked down, then smiled wryly at himself. Of course someone like Tony Stark wouldn't do something like that. He was above the people, right where he had always been, and a man like that didn't even see the need to look down.
But that wasn't fair, and he knew it. Tony Stark was more than just a filthy rich man. He had only to think of what Jim Rhodes had said in the elevator to remember that.
So why was it then, that he was always ready to assume the worst about Stark? Why was he so quick to jump to conclusions?
He hadn't even heard the elevator, or anyone approach. Startled, Steve whirled around.
It was like the whole room brightened when Tony walked in, like he carried light with him, in defiance of the gray day. Steve stiffened, well aware of how stupid that thought was, but it was the God's honest truth.
"I'd about given up on you," Stark said with a smile. He stood there wearing a tank top that had probably started out life as white but was now a filthy shade of charcoal in most places. The light of the arc reactor was gone, Steve saw; his tank top lay flat against his chest. Beneath his jeans he was barefoot, and there was a small metal tool stuck over one ear, cocked at a rather rakish angle.
"I was, ah, aiming for fashionably late," Steve said. The joke that had gone over so well with Jim Rhodes fell flat in here, though.
Stark stared at him for a moment, then seemed to give himself a mental command to snap out of it. "Whatever," he said. "Well, you're here now, so let's get started." He walked over to a glass table, set both hands on the table's rim, and made a raise up gesture.
Instantly three computer screens rose into the air, blinking only once before hanging there at eye level. All three were covered in data that Stark quickly swiped to one side as Steve walked up. "Neat trick."
"Yeah," Stark said absently. He smelled like flame, like he had been welding something, probably on the Iron Man suit. Standing next to him, Steve felt a strange clarity drop over him, rendering the room in vivid detail. He couldn't explain it, couldn't understand why every nerve of his body suddenly seemed to be firing at once. "You never know when a good idea will strike. Nothing worse than forgetting some random thing while you're trying to find a way to record it."
"You could always try a pencil and paper," Steve offered.
Tony looked over at him, his head turning quickly. He looked bemused, like he wasn't sure if he was being mocked or not. "Maybe," he said. He sounded distracted. "Anyway, now that you're here…" He tapped at one of the screens, then made a gesture like he was holding something invisible, his fingers bent around absolutely nothing. He pulled back, and a blue holographic design came with him, rising into the air in front of them to swiftly become a virtual model of Stark Tower.
"So," Stark said. He reached for the model of the Tower and pulled out one floor set beneath the penthouse. "I was thinking this would be yours. You can—"
"Hold up," Steve said. He hadn't even had a chance yet to explain why he had come back, and already he was getting swept up into things that felt beyond his control.
"What?" Stark asked. He looked somewhat annoyed at being interrupted.
Steve bit his tongue. It could wait, he decided. If he told Stark what he wanted this early, he ran the risk of making the other man think he was only here for his money. And while that wasn't strictly true, it was close enough that Steve didn't want to chance it.
"So," Stark said, moving on. "You've got a whole floor here, and I was thinking—"
"A whole floor?" Steve hadn't meant to interrupt again, but as the significance of what Stark was saying sank in, he couldn't remain silent. "What am I going to do with an entire floor of a tower?" He shook his head. He should have known it was too good to be true. Of course Tony Stark was trying to buy him. Sam had warned him about this, before they left Lithuania, but he hadn't wanted to listen.
Tony just looked at him. "Well, I was thinking the usual. You know, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, but hey, whatever floats your boat."
Still in disbelief, Steve said, "You're serious."
"Of course I am," Stark said. "When am I not being serious? Okay, don't answer that. Anyway, SI's got an army of designers and contractors on retention, so anything you want to do, knock yourself out. Just run it by me first, okay? I don't want to get on the bad side of these people. You wouldn't believe how much damage they can do with a bolt of purple silk."
It still all sounded too good to be true. "Why?" Steve asked. "Why are you doing this?"
Stark looked nonplussed. "Why not? This is your home now," he said. "Well." He tilted his head to one side and made a slight grimace, as if he was regretting his words. "I mean, if you want it. It can be your home." He cleared his throat a little, possibly embarrassed. "So why shouldn't you make it into whatever you want?"
He was really serious, Steve realized, and his suspicions fell away abruptly, leaving him – once again – ashamed of himself. He had to stop reading ulterior motives into everything Stark did. It wasn't like him, and it demeaned them both. "Sorry," he said. "I guess I'm just not used to this kind of thing."
Tony grinned. The expression lit up his whole face, and Steve felt a frisson of electricity course through him at the sight. "Stick around here long enough," he promised, "and you will be."
Alarmed by his reaction to that smile, Steve did not smile back. He didn't know what was going on here; all he knew was that he felt too warm suddenly, like he needed to step away and catch his breath.
Stark looked around. "So where's your stuff?"
Steve held out his arms, then gestured to his small suitcase. "This is it. Me myself and I."
Stark looked appalled. "That's it? God, you're like a little lost puppy showing up on my doorstep." He dug into the pocket of jeans, but came up with nothing, which was kind of funny, because Tony Stark was the last person Steve would expect to carry a wallet. Sounding disgruntled, he said, "Okay, fine. Go get yourself some new clothes, whatever you need. I'll give you something so you can just have it all put on my account."
Any humor Steve saw in the situation died in a hurry then. "I'm not taking your money," he said.
"Fine, I'll deduct it from your paycheck," Stark said.
"I'm serious," Steve said. "I can pay my own way."
Stark sighed dramatically. "Oh my God, fine," he said. "I guess I'm coming with. Does that make it any better?"
Still trying to figure out how he had gotten himself into this situation, Steve said, "No."
"And we'll even do lunch," Stark said. "Make a proper date of it and everything. And I promise to have you home by curfew."
It was so ridiculous, so over the top, and Steve knew suddenly that he was bested. Better now to just give in gracefully. Besides, he could tell Stark about his plan to find Bucky over lunch. "Fine," he said and hoped it didn't sound churlish. "Okay."
"Yeah?" Tony looked hopeful, and Steve realized that he was actually eager to go, strangely enough.
That dispelled the last of his cynicism. "Yeah," he said, and this time he meant it. "Let's go."
If anyone had asked Steve even that very morning if he would ever consider spending an afternoon with Tony Stark, he would have immediately said no.
But after a few hours in Stark's company, he had to admit that he had been wrong to think that way. Tony Stark, when he wasn't trying to show off, was actually quite pleasant and funny.
He was also very attractive, too, especially after he had cleaned up and changed into a dark blue shirt. And that was where Steve found himself feeling uncomfortable again. He didn't know why he was thinking about Tony Stark that way, but he had to stop.
And speaking of things that had to stop…
"You can stop that now," he said.
They were sitting in a restaurant, not something fancy like Steve would have expected, but an establishment that was barely one step up from a dive. Whatever their location, though, they made incredible pizza, Steve had to admit that.
Across from him, Stark abruptly halted his latest story, which was something about how he had been given the key to the city after his most recent heroics as Iron Man. "Stop what?"
"Trying to impress me," Steve said.
"Is that what I'm doing?" Stark asked. He had on his most innocent expression. "Here I thought I was just having lunch with Captain America."
Steve tilted his head a little, in a silent challenge.
"Okay, okay," Tony said with a smile. He reached for his glass of iced tea and drank. "But it's kind of hard not to. I mean, you're pretty intimidating. Stiff competition and all."
"Me?" Steve shook his head. "I'm just a guy."
"Believe me," Stark said, "you are not 'just a guy.' There is nothing 'just a guy' about you."
Steve dropped his head and stared at the crumbs beside his plate. He didn't want to hear that. All day, through one department store after another, people had been staring at him. The fact that he was with Tony Stark hadn't helped, of course, but he knew they would have been staring even if he had been alone. And he hated that. He wanted to be "just a guy." Not Captain America.
"Hey, it's okay," Stark said. "I'm not 'just a guy' either. So you're in good company."
"Look, Stark—" Steve started to say.
"Tony," Stark interrupted.
Steve looked up at him. "What?"
"Call me Tony," Stark said. "I insist that all the super soldiers who let me buy them lunch call me by my first name."
"Oh," Steve said. He gave Stark – Tony now – an arch look. "And are there a lot of those? Super soldiers who let you buy them lunch?"
Tony drained his glass and set it down with a devilish grin. "First time for everything," he said.
Steve looked away as he suddenly realized that what they were doing was nothing short of flirting. His whole body felt electrified again. It was that smile of Tony's, the one that made the laugh lines around his eyes crinkle and his whole face light up. Against that smile, he was utterly helpless.
He felt like a teenager with a crush, alternately hot and cold all over, miserably aware of the heated flush on his face and neck. For a panicky moment he thought about rising to his feet and stumbling out of the restaurant, never to return again. He had made a terrible mistake in coming here, and the only possible option now was leave and never come back. Ever.
"So," said Stark – but no, he was Tony now. And Steve had to admit that he preferred it that way. "What brought you back to New York? I'm guessing you didn't find your lost sheep, since you came alone."
Steve let out a sound that wasn't quite a laugh. He should have known that Tony would see right through him. "No," he had to admit. "I didn't."
"Then you came to the right place," Tony said.
Steve looked up at him. This time he did not doubt Tony's sincerity. "It's not just me," he said. "I mean, I came here alone today, but—"
"But you're a package deal, I get that," Tony said. He even smirked a little. "And believe me, I'm more than happy to get my hands on Wilson's wings."
Steve bristled and sat up straight. "If you—"
"Relax," Tony said, amusement dancing in his eyes. "I only meant that they were originally a Stark Industries design. But they were never finished. Not by me, I mean. Obviously someone else did that. But I can make them better."
"Oh," Steve said.
"And Natasha?" Tony said it casually enough as he toyed with a piece of pizza crust on his plate, but there was something in his voice that made Steve remember they had a history. And Natasha was the one who had written Tony's profile for SHIELD, which was one of the first things Steve had read about him. A mistake, he saw that now. He had let those words color his impression of the man even before meeting him in person. Maybe that was why even now he had a hard time letting go of his suspicions about Tony's intentions.
"She's working with me," he said, and left it at that. Natasha hadn't said if she planned to return to the Avengers or not, and he wasn't about to speak for her.
Tony nodded. "Fair enough." He tossed the pizza crust to one side and wiped his fingers on his napkin. "So we have a deal? Bring whoever you want, and when we're not Avengering, we'll look for your old pal, Mr. Barnes."
Steve didn't much care for that dismissive way of speaking about Bucky, but he thought he was starting to figure Tony Stark out. When he talked like that, it didn't actually mean anything. He had already said the important words when he had said they would continue to search for Bucky. Anything after that was extraneous.
He nodded. "Deal." He held his hand out.
Tony eyed his hand with narrow suspicion for a moment. Seeing that made Steve feel marginally better about his own cynicism – apparently he wasn't the only one having trouble with this new partnership.
But Tony did reach out and take his hand. And when their fingers touched, Steve wasn't alone in drawing in a sudden breath. Across the table, Tony's eyes widened a little.
With the sinking knowledge that he was utterly doomed, Steve shook Tony's hand and sealed their deal.
Dear Captain Rogers,
I hope it's okay to write you again. I talk to you a lot in my head. I know that sounds weird, but it kind of helps me get through the day if I feel like I have a friend there beside me. Kind of like you and Bucky Barnes used to be, you know?
I saw on the news that you moved into Stark Tower. Part of me is really happy, because it means your closer to me and who knows, maybe one day I'll see you on the subway or something. Wouldn't that be cool? But if you don't mind a bit of advice from a friend, I would be careful if I were you. Keep an eye on Tony Stark. He's not the kind of guy you want to get too mixed up with. I'm sure you already know that, but I just wanted to warn you, anyway.
So hey, now that you're in town, my invitation still stands. Next time your in Queens, stop by sometime. :-)
The day after he moved into Stark Tower, now called Avengers Tower, Steve received a phone call from Natasha. After a perfunctory greeting, she asked, "Are you still in New York?"
"Yeah, why?" he said.
"Stay there," she said.
She sounded as enigmatic as ever, but he knew her well enough by now to hear the warning in her voice. And it was surprising how much it hurt. "He's there, isn't he? In DC."
Natasha hesitated. "There's been contact," was all she finally said.
Steve closed his eyes. The fact that Bucky had found Natasha, but waited until Steve was out of the picture to do so, told him everything he needed to know. "You'll be okay?" he asked without opening his eyes.
"Sure," she said. "I'll be fine. I'll call you when I can."
"Okay," he said.
She didn't apologize, or go into any detail about her meeting with Bucky. She just ended the call, and Steve was left standing there in the rubble of yet another broken dream.
It was one of the great ironies of Steve's life that the only times he ever wanted to get drunk were ones that involved Bucky.
So he was sitting there in the penthouse, a glass of liquor in one hand and a half-empty bottle at his feet, when Tony walked out of the elevator and came right up to him. "Fancy meeting you here."
Steve sniffed back the last of his tears and waved his glass in Tony's direction. Despite everything he had drank, he didn't even feel buzzed. "Want one?"
"Normally I'd say yes," Tony said, "but something tells me that you don't really want a drinking buddy right now."
"We found Bucky," he said. He stared down into his glass, at the inscrutable amber liquid that might as well have been water for all it helped him bear this new pain.
"Oh," Tony said, at a loss for words for once. He sat on the couch beside Steve, a bit closer than was probably warranted, given that they still hardly knew each other, but Steve was beyond caring.
"He found us, I guess I should say. He doesn't want to have anything to do with me." He blinked rapidly, trying to hold fresh tears back. He didn't want to cry in front of Tony Stark of all people.
But Tony surprised him by not saying anything. He just reached out and put a hand on Steve's shoulder, giving him a slight shake and then a comforting squeeze.
Steve pressed his lips together so he wouldn't make a fool of himself and say something he later regretted.
"You'll be okay," Tony said.
He shook his head. "I should be out there helping him."
Tony squeezed his shoulder again, then dropped his hand back to his lap. "Sometimes all you can do is wait for someone to be ready for you."
Steve sniffed again and looked over at him. "That's surprisingly wise of you."
Tony gave him a rather bittersweet smile. "That's me," he said quietly. "Just full of surprises."
Two days later, Sam came up to join him. He had already spoken to Natasha, so he knew their search had come to an end – but only after wasting those months in Europe. "He was probably here the whole time, just waiting for us to come back."
"Probably," Steve sighed. He had had enough time to come to terms with it, but he still wished he could be back in DC, where he could see Bucky himself.
"How are you holding up?" Sam asked.
"I'm fine," Steve said. It wasn't exactly true, but he couldn't bring himself to say anything else.
Sam looked around. "So what's it like living with a bunch of superheroes? Do you all get in your pajamas and have slumber parties, or what?"
They were sitting in Steve's private living room, which was a concept he was still trying to adjust to. Living in Avengers Tower was like having an enormous apartment, one that gave him the ability to look down on the city from all four sides of the building. Several floors above this one, there was a communal floor for everyone to meet on, but so far he hadn't encountered anyone else there when he had ventured up.
Not that the Tower was exactly crowded. Tony had promised that the next time he heard that Thor was in town, he would extend an invitation to him. So far only Clint Barton had made his home here, along with Jim Rhodes and Bruce Banner. And that was it. Along with him and Tony, the three of them were The Avengers, a team Steve barely even saw.
But now Sam was here, which already made things better. "It's fine. I mean, I never see anyone, but it's fine."
Sam's eyebrows shot up. "You never see anyone? In this cozy little place? I'm shocked to hear such a thing."
In spite of himself, Steve smiled. "Okay, that's not entirely true," he allowed. "I do see Tony."
"Oh?" Sam asked. "How's that working out for you?"
Steve hesitated. He wasn't sure how to answer that. Until now, he hadn't even really thought about it. Not the fact that whenever he seemed to find himself feeling lonely, Tony was just there, as though magically summoned. Not the way Tony had casually offered to take a look at his costume and shield and see if he could make them better. Not the way he hadn't even minded – much – when Tony ran his hands over the shield, examining it.
In fact, thinking about that incident, which had happened yesterday afternoon, filled Steve with a flush of heat. He had been in one of Tony's labs then, a few floors beneath this one, surrounded by computers and machines he couldn't even identify, but he hadn't felt out of place. He had watched Tony inspect his shield, and while Tony had been busy with that, Steve had studied him.
He could no longer deny that he was attracted to Tony. He wasn't sure what to make of that, or what it said about him, but it was something he no longer questioned. It simply was, and he had to accept it.
Yesterday, standing there in the lab, he had been utterly fascinated by the way Tony focused on the shield to the exclusion of everything else. Even Steve had ceased to exist for Tony just then, which had given him an unexpected opportunity to observe Tony without being noticed.
He had watched as Tony worked on the shield, running his hands over the curved surface, bending down low so he could see it up close. And he had very much liked what he saw. Tony had beautiful hands, dirt grimed beneath the fingernails, the backs of his hands studded with old nicks and burn scars, evidence of a man who had worked with his hands for most of his life. All his attention had been on the shield, his eyes dark with concentration, alight with the desire to learn and absorb knowledge. As he had leaned in, tilting his head so he could examine the edge of the shield better, his lips had parted – and Steve had nearly shivered with the sudden desire to know what they felt like.
"Steve? Earth to Steve?" He startled as Sam waved a hand in front of his face.
"Sorry," he murmured. "I was just…" With an effort he remembered the question Sam had asked. "It's good," he said. "Tony is… He's not like he is on TV. Not once you get to know him. He wants to take a look at your wings, see if he can improve them."
"I just bet," Sam scoffed.
"You should let him," Steve said seriously. "He knows what he's doing."
"Yeah?" Sam said. "You let him improve your shield?"
"No," Steve said. Then, dispelling the momentary victory in Sam's eyes, he added, "But only because there's nothing that can improve it. But he is working on my costume, adding some protective layering and making it safer."
Sam gave him a long look. "Man, you should see your face when you talk about him."
Steve was a little bit embarrassed by this, and a little bit defiant. "I was wrong about him, Sam. I'm man enough to admit that."
Sam laughed, but in a good-natured way. "Yeah, I'm sure you're man enough for Stark."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Steve asked.
"Nothing," Sam said. "Rumors."
Steve scowled. "You know I don't pay attention to that kind of stuff." He changed the subject, not wanting to talk about Tony anymore. "So when are you going to move in?"
"And be an Avenger?" Sam said. "Are you kidding me? I'm already packed. As soon as I find someone to rent my house, I'm outta there. I'm not missing this chance to play with the big boys."
Deeply amused, Steve just stared at him.
A look of horror crossed Sam's face. "That came out all kinds of wrong."
Steve laughed. "Don't worry. I think I get it." He was thrilled to know that Sam would be here soon, too. At least then he wouldn't feel so alone in this great big Tower.
I hope it's okay to call you by your first name. I feel like we're so close already, it just makes more sense this way.
I saw the Avengers battle against the Crimson Dynamo on TV, and I just had to tell you how incredibly brave you were. All of you. I saw the way you stopped to help people who were trapped in that restaurant. Your courage and nobility keep me going. I try every day to be like you, to be the kind of person you would want me to be.
I got a new job, by the way. Still just a waiter, but now I do more catering and stuff, fancy receptions and dances. It pays better, and people aren't nearly as rude, which is good. I figure it paid off, acting like you and not dumping hot soup in people's lap even when I wanted to. So I owe you for that. Thank you, Steve. Even when your not being a big superhero on the street, your still changing people's lives. Like mine.
Within another two weeks, he and Tony were sleeping together.
It wasn't something he had planned. In fact, the first time they did it, everything went so fast that Steve barely had time to realize what was happening.
He had just finished a pass through the obstacle course Tony had built in one of the Tower's sub-basements. The whole thing was controlled by JARVIS, but Tony had personally designed each level. The threats and obstacles that popped up were random each time, and there was enough of a variety that Steve knew he would never face the same challenges in the same order twice, no matter how often he ran the course.
He was sweating, just the tiniest bit out of breath. Lounging against the far wall, Tony stood with his arms crossed. He had come down to watch Steve's progress, he had said upon first arriving; since then he hadn't said a word. But as Steve undid his cowl and came over to him, he said, "Not bad for a Capsicle."
Steve frowned. He still hadn't made up his mind about that nickname, couldn't decide if he hated it or was reluctantly growing fond of it. "What do you mean, 'not bad?' What did I do wrong?"
"Oh, nothing," Tony said. He pushed himself off the wall with a twist of his shoulders and walked out to meet Steve. "But I could still take you."
"Like hell you could," Steve replied. Despite his superhuman stamina and endurance, he felt even more out of breath than before. It was that twisty little move Tony had just made, forcibly reminding Steve of his lithe grace and muscled arms.
Tony smirked at him. "Care to make a bet?"
"Put on the suit," Steve said, echoing words he had first said all those months ago on the helicarrier.
Tony said nothing. He just gazed at Steve, his eyes dark, his lips parted. He too was breathing more heavily than usual, and a flush overrode his summer tan.
The air between them was electric. Steve felt every inch of his costume hugging his body, doing nothing to hide his arousal. "Put on the suit," he whispered.
Tony's gaze dropped to his crotch, then back up to his face. "I was thinking more about taking things off," he said quietly.
Barely aware that he was doing it, Steve nodded.
Tony crossed the space between them with a speed Steve wasn't sure even he could match. Then they crashed together and Tony's lips were on his, and he groaned out loud in pure lust.
Tony tore his mouth away long enough to say, "Lock the doors, J," and then there were no more words. Just lips and tongues and hands. And when Steve came, pressing Tony against the wall, arching into Tony's clever fingers wrapped around him, he uttered a ragged sound that Tony stopped in his throat with another searing kiss.
And that was just the first time.
Steve had had sex before, although always with women, and in rushed circumstances – war did not give a man a whole lot of leisure time. He had never expected to find himself attracted to men, and oddly enough, that seemed to still be true for him. Only Tony Stark had captured his interest and his desire, and while Steve did spend a little time wondering just why that should be, he didn't give it much thought beyond a cursory reflection. It was what it was, and there was no sense in trying to figure it out.
For his part, Tony was perfectly happy to confirm the rumors that he was attracted to both men and women equally, and even happier to teach Steve what he needed to know in order to have sex with another man.
Steve liked to think he was a quick learner. And sex with Tony was amazing, moving from teasing laughter to intense passion within moments. He loved learning Tony's body, discovering those places where he was most sensitive, and the things that made Tony moan between his teeth and arch his back. Even more he loved the way Tony looked down at him so seriously before kissing him, or the light that shone in Tony's eyes as he drove Steve wild with a wet tongue over his nipples or fingers curled inside him.
Outside of the bedroom, though (and the gym and Tony's workshop and the pool), things were different. Some of the friction that had existed between them at the start was gone, dissolved by the sexual chemistry they had discovered together. But in its place, a new tension had arisen, and more often than not, that manifested itself in heated words and arguments.
When they weren't literally at each other's throats, kissing and sucking and even biting in their desperate need, they were at each other's throats figuratively, trying to tear the other person down with words. After every argument, Steve felt guilty and ashamed, and promised himself that he would do better, that he wouldn't give in to the temptation to snap back at Tony. But every single time, he let himself be goaded into saying ugly things and doing his best to get under Tony's skin.
He didn't understand it. Before they had started sleeping together, they had been friendly toward each other. And in bed, they knew each other intimately. When they touched, it was with the desire to give the other person pleasure. So why then were things so different the rest of the time?
The other Avengers noticed it, too. It was hard not to, actually. They didn't know that he and Tony were sleeping together, but they sure as hell knew about the arguing. At one time or another, they had all stepped in, silencing the bickering with firm glares and pointed comments. And every time, every single time, Tony had to have the last word.
"You know I'm right."
"Yeah, we'll just see about that."
"I'll expect your apology in the morning."
And the kicker, the one that Steve never had a comeback for, no matter how much he wished he might: "You don't like it, you know where the door is."
On one rainy afternoon, Steve let himself into Tony's main workshop. He was a man on a mission. Tony had been up for over 48 hours by that point, working on a project he had declined to share the details of. Frankly Steve didn't care what it was. All he knew was that he was worried. Whatever this thing was, it could wait. If the Avengers got a call right now, Tony was so worn out that he would be more of a hindrance than a help. Exhaustion made a man slow, and that meant a greater risk of being injured or even killed. For his own sake, he needed to rest.
But when Steve tried to say this, it came out all wrong. Instead of expressing his concern for Tony's well-being, what he said was, "You have to stop, Tony. This isn't healthy."
Tony had been looking at him, tired and unshaven, but still seemingly pleased to see him. When Steve spoke, though, something shut down in his eyes. His whole demeanor changed into flat hostility. "This is who I am, Steve. This is what I do." He folded his arms. "You don't like it, you know where the door is. I already tried changing once to make someone happy, and that didn't exactly work out so well. I'm not doing it again."
Immediately an angry retort rose to his lips, but Steve made himself remain silent.
He had never heard Tony volunteer something so personal before, or reference anything beyond what was happening with them right here and now. Steve had been living here for almost a month now, but since the day of his arrival, he and Tony had never really talked, just the two of them. At night they had amazing sex, but they never stayed the night, and they never talked afterward.
Maybe this was his chance to finally get to know the man whose bed he was sharing.
"You're talking about Pepper," he said carefully.
Tony nodded curtly.
Steve's mind raced. What he knew about Pepper Potts came mostly from what he had seen on TV and heard from the other Avengers; he had never actually met her. He knew she was in California these days, running Stark Industries and still in touch with Tony, but he didn't know what had happened to end her personal relationship with Tony.
Still, at least now he had a hint.
Hoping that Tony would open up to him, he said, "You know, not too many people would feel comfortable letting their ex-girlfriend be CEO of their business."
Some of the bristling defensiveness left Tony then. His shoulders came down and he seemed less like a man looking for a fight and more like someone having a normal conversation. "Yeah, well, Pepper isn't just an ex. She's a lot more than that, and I'm lucky to still call her my friend, and why are we talking about Pepper?"
"We're not," Steve said.
"In fact, why are we even talking at all?" Tony said. "That's not what you came down here for, is it?"
Of course that was exactly why he had come down here, but abruptly Steve threw that idea out the window. He was a good strategist – he knew how to adapt on the fly. Besides, after some enthusiastic sex, Tony would probably fall asleep. So in the end Steve would get what he had come for anyway.
And even now, with two days of stubble on his face and smelling like he hadn't showered in all that time, Tony was gorgeous. And Steve wanted him.
Oh, he wanted him.
The incident in the lab was proof that they could work something out without arguing, that they could actually talk to each other like real men. Armed with that conviction, Steve felt a fresh determination to forge an actual connection with Tony.
Unfortunately he didn't get the chance. Not two days later, they fought again, this time because Tony insisted on going ahead with his plans to build a new armor he was calling the Hulkbuster in spite of the insult its very existence was to Bruce. They nearly came to blows that time, and Thor, newly arrived from Asgard and already back on the team, had to step in and physically make them separate.
That night Steve found himself alone in the communal kitchen. These days it was unusual to find this room empty. More and more the individual members of the Avengers were spending their time on this floor instead of within their own apartments. But tonight there was only himself.
He sat morosely at the large table where just hours ago, they had all been sitting, having dinner and sharing jokes. It had been a while since he had felt a recurrence of that sinking feeling he had first felt when he agreed to move into the Tower – but he was feeling it now. Like he had made a terrible mistake, and he was just now figuring that out.
He looked up as footsteps approached, bracing himself for Tony to show, but it turned out to be just Sam. "Hey." He smiled weakly.
Sam sat down opposite him. He shook his head.
"What?" Steve said.
"Man, I can't figure you guys out," Sam said.
Steve sat up a little bit straighter at that, hearing the scolding even if Sam hadn't actually scolded him. "I don't know what you mean."
"You get along with everyone on this team," Sam said. "So does Tony, believe it or not. But you two…" His eyes narrowed a little, and Steve fought desperately to keep his expression neutral and not give anything away. "You're like kids on a playground, throwing sand at each other just to get a rise out of the other one."
"That isn't… We're not…" Steve fumbled to a halt, knowing damn well that Sam was right. What he and Tony were doing was childish.
The hell of it was, he didn't know what to do about it. Every time they lay in bed and he tried to steer their talk toward something more serious, Tony shut him down. Usually this was with the best kind of distraction, kissing him until he forgot what he had intended to say. The resulting sex was always mind-blowingly incredible, but the ugly truth was that Tony still did it to keep them from having any kind of adult conversation – and Steve was letting him do it.
He hated the way they kept arguing all the time. And always over the dumbest things, too. As though they were obligated to sabotage their own relationship any time it seemed like they might take what they had in the bedroom and turn it into something real.
As though they were frightened of what might happen if they tried.
He looked at Sam, who was staring at him patiently, waiting for him to get a clue. "Okay," he said. "So what am I supposed to do?"
Sam made a Are you kidding me? face. "You're a grown-ass man, Steve. If you can't figure that one out on your own, then I don't know what to tell you."
Steve grimaced. He supposed he had that one coming.
"Look," Sam said, his tone a bit softer now. "Just…talk to the man, okay? Without shouting or arguing. I know you can do that."
The last few weeks had clearly shown that he couldn't. But he wanted to try, damnit. He really did. "And if I can't?" he said.
"Then Jim and I will get together and put you two in time-out," Sam said very seriously. "And you aren't getting out until you kiss and make up. And War Machine's got a cannon. I'm just sayin'."
Steve's heart jolted at the mention of him and Tony kissing. He knew it was just a joke, that Sam had no idea that he had inadvertently hit upon the real problem between him and Tony, but that didn't make it any easier to hear. "Fine," he said. "Okay."
Sam looked at him, his serious expression lightened by the humor in his eyes. "I'm only half-kidding, you know," he said.
"I know you are," Steve said. "Believe me."
"Okay then," Sam said. He stood up. "Now, I believe you owe me a rematch in Mario Kart."
He did. And suddenly that was all Steve wanted – a fun evening playing video games with his friend, eating popcorn and drinking beer. He didn't want to sit here brooding on whether or not Natasha was meeting Bucky tonight somewhere in Washington, DC. He didn't want to think about Tony, or try to guess who would be the first one to give in and darken the other person's door. He didn't want to imagine what they would do to each other all night long, getting himself uncomfortably aroused in the process.
But mostly he didn't want to think about what would happen with him and Tony if they couldn't work out this thing between them.
"All right," he said with a smile. "You're on."
He didn't get back to his own floor until almost one o'clock in the morning. He brushed his teeth and undressed, but he didn't bother getting into bed. Now that he had a plan of action, he was ready to put it in motion.
And he wanted Tony.
It was strange how his desire for Tony always seemed to burn hotter after they had been arguing. Even when he wasn't angry anymore, that heat still seemed to flow through his veins, adding to his need to feel Tony's body beneath his.
Tonight was no different.
Tony was in bed, not waiting for him, no, because that was beneath someone like Tony Stark. But when Steve approached, Tony sat up and reached for him, and without a word, they came together.
He wasn't the only one to feel different after they had been fighting. He could taste it in Tony's kisses, his lips swollen and burning. He could feel it in the fevered heat of Tony's hands on his bare skin, palms dragging down his stomach, making molten fire pool in his groin. He wrapped his arms around Tony and almost threw him down to the bed, rolling with him, legs entwined, Tony's breath hot against his neck.
"God, Steve," Tony whispered.
Steve did not speak. He was too busy kissing Tony.
But later, as they lay together, he made himself find the right words.
They never spent very long like this; the silence that they maintained during sex never fit right in this time afterward, and before too long one of them would get up and that would be it, they would be done for one more night. Until recently, Steve had just accepted that this was how things were with them. But his talk with Sam had made him see things in a whole new light.
It was time for a change.
"So," he said.
"Mmm?" Tony said. He sounded sleepy. It was all a sham, though, and Steve knew it. Tony was perfectly wide awake, waiting to pounce on what he would say next if it wasn't something he wanted to hear.
"What are you doing for lunch tomorrow?" he asked.
There was a moment of complete silence when he could practically hear his heart pounding. Then Tony said with studied casualness, "What do you mean?"
"Well," Steve said, trying not to stammer over the unfamiliar words, "I was thinking, if you weren't doing anything, that we could maybe grab a pizza or something."
Silence drew out between them once again. In the darkness of Tony's enormous bedroom, Steve lay very still and listened to the sound of Tony breathing beside him – and he waited.
After a long moment Tony said cautiously, "I guess we could do that."
He could make a joke now, something about liking all the billionaire industrialists he slept with to go to lunch with him, but he didn't dare. He was balanced on a very thin high-wire right now, and if he said or did the wrong thing, he was in for a very long fall.
He rather suspected he was going to fall anyway, though.
"Okay," he said. "Let's do that, then."
There was another long pause, then Tony said, "Okay."
Steve smiled into the darkness.
Beside him, Tony lay still for a while. It was the longest they had stayed together like this after sex that Steve could remember, and it was nice. It was more than nice. He liked knowing that Tony was here next to him. He liked feeling Tony's body heat, hearing Tony's breathing, smelling the scents that were uniquely Tony.
"Wait," Tony said. His voice was thick with suspicion. He rolled onto his stomach and propped himself up on his elbows so he could stare down at Steve. In the dark room, he was nothing more than a silhouette; the light that used to shine from his chest had gone forever, granting him the mercy of shadows once again. "Why now?"
Steve lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "I just felt like pizza," he said.
He could feel the weight of Tony's stare, even if he couldn't see Tony's face. He sensed, rather than heard, the barely audible sound Tony made as he relaxed again. "Okay," Tony said, and lay back down.
The danger was past. He had taken the first step toward maybe creating an actual friendship with Tony, something based on more than the amazing sex they shared. Feeling good about what might happen tomorrow, Steve let out a long, silent breath.
His first date with Tony Stark. He was ready.
Steve had suggested a pizza lunch mostly because he couldn't think of anything else to say, not because he had any real desire to eat pizza. So he had no objections when Tony took him instead to a place famous for its Thai food, which was, according to Tony, "to die for."
The restaurant was small but it smelled good. The food was indeed very good, although Steve wasn't sure that he was willing to die over it. Still, the meal was enjoyable and the company was even better.
It was like a switch had been thrown. Away from the Tower and the need to be insufferable, Tony once again proved to be a great companion. The absence of tension was a wonderful thing, and Steve was able to relax and stop needling Tony, and truly enjoy himself.
They took their time over the meal, neither of them wanting it to be over. Steve watched Tony with an artist's appreciation, following his beautiful hands as he set down his spoon. He enjoyed the line of Tony's neck when Tony turned his head to hail their waiter and ask for another mug of tea. And when Tony smiled – a real smile, not his fake plastic one that worked so well for the press and the admiring public – Steve felt little prickles of heat bloom in the pit of his stomach.
They talked long after the meal was ended, and it was surprisingly easy to keep the conversation light-hearted and in safe territory. They only bickered once, and that was when the bill arrived, and Tony moved automatically to claim it and pay for it.
"No," Steve said. He resisted the urge to lean forward and snatch the piece of paper from Tony's hand. Doing that would get him nothing but a ripped bill, along with a dirty look and a scathing comment about how apparently even living legends still needed to learn manners.
Tony's expression hardened. His grip tightened on the bill, so the paper made a faint crumpling noise.
"This was my idea," Steve said. He smiled, trying to show that he wasn't arguing, just stating a simple fact. "Besides, you got the last one. It's my turn."
Tony stared at him for a moment, then he surrendered with an impatient roll of his eyes. "Fine," he said, sounding rather ungracious about it.
But he did give the bill over to Steve, which was enough of a victory that Steve could even say, "You can get the next one."
"Oh?" Tony said. He leaned back in his chair. "Who said anything about a next one?"
"You did, actually," Steve said. "When you mentioned that Greek restaurant. I'd like to check that out."
Tony chuckled. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you were trying to fatten me up."
"Nothing a few rounds in the gym won't take care of," Steve said as he reached for his wallet. "If you're feeling up to it, that is."
Never one to back down from a challenge, Tony's eyes narrowed. "I'm not afraid to hit an old man, you know."
"I know," Steve said. "So what do you say? Maybe later this afternoon?" He would be ready to hit the gym once they got home, but that wouldn't be fair to Tony, who would still be working on digesting the massive lunch they had just eaten.
"Well, I don't know," Tony said, pretending to think it over. "Working out gets a person awfully hot and bothered. Could be distracting for certain old people who have limited attention spans."
"Or genius billionaires who can't stay focused on what's right in front of them," Steve said with a smirk.
Just yesterday that would have tipped them over into an argument. But he judged their banter was safe enough. There was an edge to their words, but they weren't in danger of falling into the old traps. Steve couldn't even begin to explain it, but he knew they were okay. For whatever reason, they were both making an effort today, and it showed.
"Oh, I'm focused, all right," Tony said softly, and there was no mistaking his meaning.
Steve looked down quickly so he wouldn't have to see that spark of desire in Tony's eyes. He fumbled his wallet open and stared blindly down at the contents. He didn't see the money and the credit cards, though. In his mind he was already in the gym, lying on the mat with Tony, half-naked and sweating, his body straining upward into Tony's touch.
"Steve? You okay? Need me to call Life Alert?"
Annoyed, he looked up and saw Tony was openly smiling at him now. "See anything in there you like?"
Steve just shook his head and looked around for their waiter. While he paid the bill, Tony remained mercifully silent – but he was very aware of the way Tony watched him the whole time, and it made sweat gather in between his shoulder blades. He strongly suspected that Tony was thinking about what they would be doing in a few hours, too.
Outside, the day was blindingly bright and hot. So much so that at first Steve didn't even realize they were being photographed. It wasn't until he heard Tony's irritated huff that he understood what had just happened. But when he looked over, Tony was smiling brightly for the paparazzi, one hand held up, fingers spread in a V.
"Smile, Cap," Tony said without moving his lips.
Steve refused to smile. He glared at the cameramen clustered on the sidewalk across the street.
"Don't look," Tony said. He spoke quietly, still barely moving his mouth. It was a skill Steve hadn't even known he had. "Just keep walking, and don't look at them. That's the trick to it."
Steve knew a command when he heard one. And this was one to be obeyed. His shoulders squared, he marched along the sidewalk beside Tony like a soldier headed into battle.
The hell of it was, he knew he was right. Shots had been fired on this day – and he hadn't even come armed.
The paparazzi pictures of the two of them leaving the restaurant together ended up online later that day. They were also featured in a few of those weekly celebrity magazines, the kind that had a section labeled "Seen About Town." Some of the captions said that he and Tony had been plotting Avengers business over lunch. Others were more bland, simply stating that Iron Man and Captain America had been seen out together.
No one – yet – hinted at anything besides a professional relationship between them.
There was nothing shameful about the pictures, but Steve was still torn between chagrin and amusement. Tony just shrugged and took it in stride. Steve supposed that kind of attitude came from growing up in the public eye. He envied Tony that easy acceptance, even while he knew that he would never be able to feel it himself.
A day after the magazines with their "Seen About Town" pictures came out, he got a call from Natasha. She was still in DC, and still in contact with Bucky. Listening to her, Steve felt a hot spear of jealousy slide through his stomach.
It wasn't fair. He should be the one down there, gently talking Bucky down, bringing him back into civilization. He hated being stuck up here, far away from the man who had once been his best friend in the world.
"We saw those pictures of you and Stark," Natasha said.
The use of that word, we, sent another stab of jealousy through him. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," Natasha said. "It was good. We were able to talk about you without all the baggage."
All the baggage. Steve stared blankly at the far wall of his bedroom, seeing nothing. Just then he missed Bucky so fiercely that he could have cried from it. "Oh," he finally said.
"You should try to get your picture in the paper more often," she said dryly.
He blinked, understanding that she was teasing him – but only partially. Beneath that surface note, however, she was deadly serious.
"I'll try to keep that in mind," he said, striving to mimic her tone.
And he did have it in mind two days later when he asked Tony to join him for lunch again. But it had lost some of its urgency by then, and he was able to smile and mean it as he sent the text message with his invitation.
Tony didn't respond until later that night, after they had worn themselves out from another round of energetic sex. They lay sideways across the bed, legs dangling over the edge, Steve's foot hooked around Tony's ankle.
As though the intervening hours hadn't even happened, Tony said out of the blue, "If we do this, there's going to be more paparazzi photos. And sooner or later people are going to start connecting the dots and coming up with their own picture. You sure you're ready for that?" He rolled his head on the bed so he could look at Steve.
There was a strange look on his face, almost like he was hoping Steve would say no.
Steve didn't need the warning; he already knew that would be the case. He was counting on it, actually. He wanted those pictures to show up, so Natasha and Bucky could sit together, miles away, and talk about him. Maybe this time she would be able to suggest coming to New York and arranging a meeting.
But there was another element to it, too. He found that he didn't actually mind the pictures. They were intrusive and annoying, yes, but they were also strangely gratifying. The photos were proof that he and Tony were working things out and becoming actual friends. And he wanted that, very much.
And then there was that look in Tony's eyes, daring him right now to say that he couldn't deal with the press and the inevitable fallout. He thought about the way Tony always shut down any attempt at making real conversation after sex, and he thought that maybe he wasn't the only one who was bracing himself for a fall.
"I can handle it," he said.
And hoped that he was right.
They went to an Italian restaurant next, a small family-owned place that Steve hoped would be okay. His guess was confirmed when Tony breathed in deep of the aroma of garlic and marinara sauce and admitted that a pan of homemade lasagna was both his downfall and his nemesis.
Steve grinned to hear that. "Garlic rolls," he said, sopping up some of the butter with his roll. "I could eat these all day."
Tony licked butter off his fingers, deliberately ignoring his napkin. For once he seemed innocent of any ulterior motives; there was nothing suggestive about the gesture, but Steve's mouth still went dry at the sight. "The way I figure it, if you don't have to spend a few extra hours in the gym afterward, it wasn't a good meal."
"Good point," Steve said, and reached for another roll. He gave Tony a somewhat shy smile. "I'm glad you like it. I wasn't sure you would."
"Are you kidding me?" Tony asked. "My mother was Italian. I know the real deal when I see it."
It was the perfect opening to learn more about him, and Steve seized it eagerly. "What was she like?"
"I mean, look at this place," Tony said. "No tacky sepia pictures on the wall of supposedly old Italian families. No copper pans hanging from the ceiling. No grapevines. This place is authentic." He glanced at Steve, an almost feverish light in his eyes, and quickly looked away again, pretending to be fascinated with the crumbs on his plate. "It kind of reminds me of this place in California called Leone's. Only this is a lot smaller. And they don't have…"
On and on he rambled, comparing the two restaurants, then branching out to include actual places in Italy where he had eaten. By the time the waiter brought their meal, Steve had got the hint: don't ask personal questions.
For a while they ate in silence, pausing only to swap plates so they could sample each other's meal. Then it was back to the food. It was a companionable silence, though, not like the tension-filled abyss that usually came between them when they found themselves alone outside the bedroom. It felt good, too. Even a few days ago he wouldn't have thought such a thing was possible.
After they had finished, he said, "You know, I was in Italy, too."
"Yeah?" Tony said.
So Steve talked about his early war experiences, about the tour of Europe where he had been greeted with more jeers than cheers, and his growing unease with being nothing more than a glorified salesman. He was honest with Tony about his discomfort over the name Captain America, and the idea behind it. "I mean, I understand," he said. "Sometimes people need a symbol more than they need a man. But still…sometimes I wonder if it wouldn't be better just to retire the shield altogether."
"I can answer that one for you," Tony said simply. "No."
"Well that's…very convincing," Steve said with a dry smile.
"You want proof?" Tony said. "'Cause I can do that."
"No, no, it's okay, I think I got it," Steve said. He worried that this line of conversation would just lead them into another argument and ruin everything they had managed to achieve so far. Best to drop it now while they still could, and move on to safer topics.
Having just shared something personal about himself, he could have tried to get Tony to do the same. He knew how useless such an effort would be, though. Despite knowing him only a couple months, Steve already knew that Tony Stark couldn't be made to do something he didn't want to do. It was that simple. And Steve respected that.
Nor did he want to push. If this thing between them was ever going to grow, then it had to happen naturally. Tony would open up and share more personal information when he was ready – not before.
"So you've been around the world," he said. "What would you recommend for a guy who'd like to see a little more of it?'
Tony looked amused – and a little bit puzzled, like he was having a hard time following Steve's train of thought. "Travel tips, Cap?"
"If you have any," Steve said with an exaggerated casual voice that he had to work to achieve.
"Well, that depends. Are we traveling on a budget?" Tony asked with a smirk.
"No," Steve returned promptly. "If I'm with you, I'd expect four-star everything."
Tony looked taken aback by this. Also vaguely alarmed. But he recovered quickly, and within moments he was smiling again, his eyes alight with good humor. "Okay, then," he said. His tone promised that Steve would be sorry he asked.
Steve, who had zero regrets, folded his arms on the table and settled in to listen.
Six hours later, the restaurant was serving the dinner crowd – and he and Tony were still sitting at the same table.
Steve couldn't remember the last time he had spent such a pleasant afternoon, or when he had last laughed so much. Tony was a good storyteller, and his anecdotes, gathered from years of traveling around the globe, left Steve in stitches. Some of the humor bordered on mocking or cruel, but Tony never took it too far. More importantly, he was willing to laugh at himself, which was more than Steve could say for a lot of people.
He learned many things about Tony that afternoon, although Tony himself almost certainly didn't realize how much he was giving away. But mostly what Steve learned was that he wanted this afternoon to never end. He wanted to share laughter and easy conversation with Tony on every day, not just during the occasional lunch date. He wanted to watch those laugh lines crinkle around Tony's eyes, and see the way Tony tucked his chin in when he was surprised into sudden laughter. He wanted to banish the shadows from Tony's eyes and watch them shine with happiness, even if it was only for a few hours.
He was falling for Tony. He knew it, but could do nothing about it. And by the time they looked around and realized that they had spent all day in the restaurant, Steve discovered that he no longer cared. The thought of falling in love with Tony didn't frighten him anymore.
It exhilarated him.
After a brief discussion, they decided to stay and order dinner and a bottle of wine. "You're going to have to roll me out of here," Tony said with a fake groan.
"You and me both," Steve said as their waiter – a new one by now – approached with a fresh basket of bread.
"Oh well," Tony said. "It's for a good cause, right?" He raised his wineglass in a toast. "To blowing off a day of work."
Steve could drink to that. "I bet that's not something you do very often."
"Mmm," Tony said as he drank. He set his glass down. "My shareholders would disagree. They think that's all I ever do."
"Well, we know the truth," Steve said. He tore open a roll.
Tony gave him a funny look. "Yeah" he said. "I guess you do."
Steve didn't miss the way Tony had used the singular pronoun instead of his own we. He contemplated the bread in his hand for a moment, then said, "But I'm betting there wasn't this much garlic on your other days off."
Tony chuckled. "No," he said. "There was not."
Their waiter came back then, pen and pad in hand. After such a big lunch, Tony didn't want much for dinner but Steve felt bad for taking up a table all day long, so he ordered one of the more expensive items on the menu.
Tony scoffed and told him not to worry about it. "No one in their right mind is going to kick two superheroes out of their restaurant. Besides," he smirked, "I tip well."
That was undoubtedly true, but Steve still had a guilty conscience. "We still should have—"
"Tell you what," Tony said. "Get dessert to go. Something with lots of chocolate." Teasing light shone in his eyes. "We won't need plates, though."
Steve flushed all over as he realized what Tony had in mind. Suddenly the restaurant seemed far too warm, the small room almost stifling.
If it were up to him, they would have left right then and there, gone back to the Tower, torn each other's clothes off, and started the really fun part of the day. Instead, they were at the restaurant for another hour, Steve dutifully eating his meal while Tony merely picked at his. To-go boxes were assembled, the check was paid (Tony did in fact tip very well), and they finally walked outside.
It had been a bright sunny afternoon when they went inside, but night had fallen while they sat at their little table and talked and talked. The streets were full of traffic, and lights shone out into the night. Across the street, a few of the hardier paparazzi suddenly straightened up and began taking pictures, their long vigil having finally paid off.
"Vultures," Tony muttered as he and Steve began to head down the sidewalk.
"We could hold hands," Steve offered. "Really shake 'em up."
Tony shook his head, but he was smiling a little. "Tempting, but no."
More disappointed than he wanted to admit, Steve said, "Okay." Maybe next time, he told himself. Next time they went out he could let his hand "accidentally" brush against Tony's, so he could see what Tony would do.
And there would be a next time. He knew that now. There were going to be a lot more "next times." This thing with him and Tony was really happening.
"But if you want," Tony said, "I can go back and tell them that later tonight I'm planning to eat chocolate cake off a very naked, very hot Captain America."
Steve cleared his throat; his heart was suddenly beating very loud and very fast. "That…that sounds like a good plan," he said.
"You think so?" Tony teased.
"Yeah," Steve said, and wondered how long it would take for them to reach the Tower at their current pace.
"Every now and then I come up with a good one," Tony said cheerfully.
"Every now and then," Steve agreed.
I know your a busy man, and you probably get hundreds of emails like this every day so I guess I'm not surprised that you didn't read my other email. But its still disappointing. But hey, friends don't give up on their friends, so I'm going to try again.
I see you in the news a lot. Always with Tony Stark. Steve, you have to know this is not good. People I work with already think you guys are a couple! And their not exactly the smartest guys, if you know what I mean. It's all on the news, too.
Please, Steve, stay away from Tony Stark. You are much too good for him. He's already dragging you down just by being seen with him. It worries me a lot. What if people start to turn against you? What if they don't want you to be Captain America anymore? I couldn't handle that.
Please think about it. I know you'll do the right thing.
PS – more than ever, I'd like to see you. Will you be in Queens anytime soon?
Thor brought news that far across the galaxy, a Kree terrorist had been thwarted in his plans to destroy a planet called Xandar. Natasha called to report that Bucky had joined her on a solo mission – but to where and doing what, she would not say. The Avengers found themselves in Arizona, taking out a HYDRA base.
When they were on the way back from that mission, Tony told Clint to deviate from their projected flight path. "It's still a work in progress, but there's a hangar for the Quinjet at the Tower."
A moment of silence greeted this announcement. Then, "When were you planning to tell us this?"
"Didn't any of you read the blueprints I gave you?" Tony said with some exasperation. He was still in the suit, standing in the back of the plane; the entire right side of the armor was scorched black and badly dented. But he was unhurt – or so he claimed – and without any evidence saying otherwise, Steve had to accept that he was telling the truth.
"Anyway," Tony continued, "the hangar isn't done yet. So you can just set it down on the roof."
"Yeah, I think that's called theft," Sam said dryly.
"Actually, it's called an acquisition," Tony said. "Congratulations, you're now looking at the owner of five Quinjets."
The Avengers stared at him in astonishment. Even Clint turned around from the pilot's seat to look.
"What are we going to do with five Quinjets?" Bruce asked.
Tony just shrugged. "You tell me. I'm not the one who needs 'em."
That night Steve insisted on making sure Tony wasn't hurt. The armor had taken a hell of a lot of abuse during the fight against HYDRA, and it still seemed nothing short of a miracle that Tony had walked away from it all without injury.
He was careful, though. He didn't make it seem like he was giving Tony an examination. Instead he just laid Tony back on the bed and kissed him all over, running his hands lightly over those places where he expected to feel bruises and see Tony wince. Only when he was satisfied that Tony was perfectly healthy did he let himself sigh and relax, dropping his head to press his forehead against the comforter.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Tony said, "am I boring you?"
"No," Steve murmured. He picked his head up. "I was just trying to decide where to kiss you next."
"I have a few ideas," Tony said, reaching for him, and the moment was past. Tony was fine, everything was fine, and Steve was an idiot for worrying so much.
Two days later they were supposed to go to lunch again, but Tony kept putting him off, saying he was busy. Except, Tony being Tony, he didn't actually speak to Steve himself, but had JARVIS send increasingly annoying text messages that said he was almost done and would be right there. Torn between calling the whole thing off and marching down to the workshop and reading Tony the riot act, Steve ended up wasting the afternoon sitting in front of the TV, watching as one mindless show after another played out in front of him.
By the time Tony showed up, a bit breathless, the hair around his temples still wet from where he had hastily washed up, four hours had gone by. "Those wings of Sam's are a pain in the ass," he said without an apology. "But I've just about got them finished." He grinned. "Get ready to see a new and improved Falcon out there."
Steve turned the TV off and tossed the remote onto the couch. "Did Sam ask you to work on his wings?"
"No," Tony said. "But I could tell he wanted to." He made a gesture. "Come on, I'm starving."
"What if I have plans?" Steve said lightly.
Tony blinked. "Do you?"
For a brief moment Steve considered pressing his point and reminding Tony that they were supposed to go out four hours ago. He was even pretty sure he could do it without sinking into sarcasm.
But he knew if he did, it would only lead to an argument. And he didn't want that. They hadn't fought in a couple weeks now. Things were going so well, and he didn't want to be that guy, the one who got angry and jealous over something that was, in the long run, petty and insignificant. Mostly though, he didn't want to run Tony off before they even had a chance at this thing growing between them.
So he said, "Well, I do now, now that you're here." And he smiled.
It wasn't a very good smile, but it must have worked anyway, because Tony relaxed. "Yeah, sorry about that," he said, surprising Steve with an actual apology. "I just got caught up in it all and I'll let you take a look when we get back, but you'll have to act surprised when Sam shows you 'cause he'd kill me if he knew I let anyone else see first, but yeah, they're really cool." He grinned.
This time Steve's smile was more genuine. It was almost impossible to stay angry with Tony when he talked in that rapid-fire manner, the words blurring into each other in his enthusiasm for his subject. It wasn't just his eyes lighting up then, it was his whole body, on fire with whatever his latest and greatest idea was.
That was the thing about Tony Stark, Steve mused as they left the Tower to grab dinner. The thing almost no one else understood, what Steve himself still struggled to remember. Before he was Iron Man, before he was an Avenger, even before he was the head of the world's largest weapons manufacturing company, Tony had been an engineer and an inventor. And he always would be. To deny him that was to deny his very nature.
And in spite of the aggravation, Steve knew that he wouldn't change that about Tony.
He wouldn't change a thing.
Once, quite a while ago, Steve had seen part of a video about flowers. It must have been some nature documentary, he thought. He didn't really remember for sure. What he did remember, though, was the time-lapse footage of flowers opening their petals to the morning sunlight. It had been beautiful to watch.
Getting to know Tony Stark was a little bit like that.
That was how he tried to explain it to Sam, at least.
"I know that sounds stupid," he said. They were at the batting cage, where the helmets they were required to wear served as enough of a disguise to keep people from recognizing them and clamoring for autographs. Or in Sam's case, a quick flight over the streets of New York. "But that's the best way I can describe it."
"He's opening up to you," Sam said. He grunted a little as he swung at the ball coming his way; the bat connected with a solid thunk.
"Yeah," Steve said. He smiled a little. "I think I'm…" But then he stopped.
"You what?" Sam swung at the next ball and missed by a mile. He glanced over at Steve, then returned his eye to the mechanical pitcher.
"Nothing," Steve said. He didn't want to say the words. Saying it out loud would make it real, and he wasn't sure if he was ready for that.
I think I might be falling in love with him.
During their fifth date he accidentally let it slip that he had a list of things he wanted to learn about, things he had missed during his sleep in the ice. Tony's head came up immediately, like a hunter scenting its prey. "A list? You have an actual list?"
Steve could have kicked himself. "Yeah," he said grudgingly. "I have a list."
Sam had already helped him with several items on it, but such was the nature of the list that no sooner did Steve cross one thing off then another took its place. He was missing seventy years of history and culture; sometimes he thought it would take him another seventy just to get caught up.
"Can I see it?" Tony asked.
"I don't have it with me," Steve said. He didn't need it in places like this; plus he thought it was rude to interrupt conversation to jot something down. Instead he kept the list in the drawer of his nightstand, where he could easily reach it if he thought of something in the middle of the night. He had added to it a lot recently, remembering things Tony had casually mentioned during their dates.
Undeterred, Tony said, "Well, when we get back, can I see it then?"
His first reaction was to say no, that it was private. But there was a part of him that wanted Tony to see that list, to know what kinds of things he was interested in learning about. He had a feeling that Tony could be extremely helpful in getting him those things.
And it wasn't just about money and resources, either. Some of the items on the list were more abstract, things he needed to read about and talk about. Now that they were friends, why couldn't he talk about them with Tony?
"Only if you promise not to laugh," he said.
Tony raised one hand and made the ancient criss-cross motion over his heart. "I promise," he said, and although his eyes glinted with amusement, he spoke very seriously.
"Okay," Steve said. "When we get back, then."
Tony was as good as his word. He didn't laugh. But the very next day, Steve got a text telling him to bring himself and a small packed bag to the roof, and if he wasn't there in fifteen minutes, Tony was leaving without him.
So began his whirlwind trip through the latter half of the 20th century. Tony took him on a private tour at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They visited Berlin and the site of the infamous wall. They went to a club in London that was a 70s disco theme, where Tony insisted they couldn't go in unless they were wearing the proper polyester suits.
All of this in one week, and suddenly Tony Stark and Steve Rogers were everywhere on the news. International tabloids printed their picture with the same enthusiasm as the ones back home, often with sleazier captions. The first hint was made that there was something "special" about their relationship. And one website wrote that clearly all this was just a way for Iron Man to indoctrinate Captain America into the military-industrial complex.
They were on Tony's private plane when that journalistic gem hit the Internet. Tony was at work as usual, bent over a tablet on his lap. Steve was nearly done with his latest book.
Those books were something of a mystery. On their first trip, he had brought one with him to pass the time during the flight. Tony hadn't made any comment, but after that, his plane just suddenly happened to have its own library. And most amazing of all, they were all books on subjects Steve was interested in.
"How can you just let them say those things?" he said now. He wished JARVIS hadn't brought the article to their attention. He could have gone on the rest of the day without knowing what awful things people were saying about him and Tony. "Don't you ever want to set the record straight?"
"For the record," Tony said with a smirk, "the record has never been straight." He winked.
Suddenly aware that he was in way over his head, Steve just turned back to his book. He could feel his cheeks burning, but there was nothing he could do about it, so he just pretended to be focused on the words in front of him.
But he didn't forget that comment. And later that night, as they lay together in an enormous bed in Tony's expensive penthouse in London, he found himself thinking about it.
Sam had hinted at it when he had first moved into Avengers Tower. Steve had dismissed it then, saying that he didn't pay attention to "rumors." Later Tony had confirmed it without shame or excuses, stating a simple fact about himself.
And Steve? He didn't know. He wasn't attracted to anyone else, male or female. There was only Tony for him.
Tony, who was currently draped atop him, kissing and licking down his chest and stomach. His skin was on fire wherever Tony touched him, and it was getting harder to think about anything except what was happening at this moment. And truthfully he didn't want to think about anything else.
He gasped and arched into the heat of Tony's lips and tongue, needing more, wanting more. And then suddenly Tony reared up, making little pleh sounds and plucking at his tongue. "That's it, I'm calling a press conference."
A little bewildered and feeling inexplicably cold all over, Steve just stared up at him. "What? Why?"
"The world needs to know," Tony said simply. "Captain America has belly button lint."
Steve blinked. "You're a troll," he finally said.
"Guilty as charged," Tony said with a wicked grin. He settled back down to lie beside Steve, and kissed Steve's stomach again. One hand crept up Steve's thigh. "But you wouldn't want it any other way."
Steve let his hand rest on Tony's head, his fingers twining through that thick hair. "No, you're right," he said. "I wouldn't."
"Thought so," Tony murmured against his skin, and then he stopped talking and started using his mouth for other things.
Grateful for the excuse to stop thinking altogether, Steve closed his eyes.
I really need you to meet with me. It's just too hard to explain things over an e-mail.
I know your the kind of guy who believes in the truth. You stand up for what's right. That's why it's so important for you to meet with me. I need to explain to you why you shouldn't be seen with Tony Stark. Why you shouldn't be around him. He is not good for you, Steve. He needs to be stopped.
I wish I knew what I could say to make you understand how serious I am.
Please write me back and let's arrange a time to get together. If things keep going like they are, I really don't think I can be responsible for the consequences.
Steve looked up, startled by the sound of Tony's AI calling him by name. Normally JARVIS did not initiate contact with any of the Avengers, although he was quick to respond if any of them asked him for help with something.
"Captain, I must inform you that my security protocols insist that I alert Mr. Stark to the contents of this e-mail."
If things keep going like they are, I really don't think I can be responsible for the consequences.
The threat was unmistakable. Although he wasn't quite sure how much JARVIS could actually see, Steve nodded. He had known this moment was coming. He had known it for a long time, actually, once it had become clear where Colin Thomas' e-mails were headed. What he didn't know was why he had chosen to remain silent about it for so long.
"Captain?" JARVIS prompted. He did not sound friendly today, the way he usually did. This was a side of the AI he had never seen before.
"No," he said. "I'll do it."
"My programming does not permit me to withhold such information from Mr. Stark," said JARVIS. "However, I can delay the reveal of that information until you have spoken with him."
Steve nodded again, aware that he felt gratitude toward an entity that did not technically exist. "Thank you."
JARVIS didn't say anything further on the subject, didn't warn him that he only had one hour to comply or something like that. But Steve knew his time was short; if he didn't tell Tony soon, JARVIS would do it for him.
So he did what he always did when an unpleasant task awaited him. He took a deep breath, and he got right to it.
He found Tony on the roof of all places, working on the disassembly rig for the Iron Man armor. He was stretched out on the ground, squinting up at an exposed section of wiring. In spite of the chill wind that was a constant at this altitude, he was dressed only in a T-shirt and black jeans.
Steve hated to interrupt him when he was working, but he had no choice. "Hey, Tony."
Tony glanced over at him, then returned his attention to the wiring. "Cap."
"I need to talk to you about something," he said.
"Can it wait?" Tony said impatiently. "Little busy right now."
"No," Steve said. "It can't."
Tony sighed in exasperation, but he set down his tools and he stood up. He wiped his hands on his jeans, then raked his hair back. "Then I guess we better go inside."
Together they went in, and Tony headed for the same bar where he had once offered Loki a drink. "Want anything?"
"Uh, no," Steve said.
"You sure? Glass of scotch? Bottle of whiskey?" Tony asked. He gave Steve a look. "Because something tells me this is going to be the kind of conversation that requires one."
"I'm sure," Steve said, now with some exasperation of his own. He watched as Tony poured himself a drink and came around the bar to sit on one of the black leather sofas. And he noticed that although Tony held onto the glass, he didn't actually take a drink from it.
"So," Tony said. "Are you gonna tell me what's going on, or do I have to guess?"
Steve walked over to the couch opposite him and sat down. Lately it was so easy to talk to Tony, but now that the moment was here, he felt flutterings of anxiety in his stomach. He should have told Tony before this. He shouldn't have waited so long. Things had gotten out of hand – way out of hand – and all because he had thought he could simply ignore the problem of Colin Thomas and his e-mails.
No. That wasn't it, was it? He had to be honest with himself now. And the truth was, he hadn't really thought there was a problem at all. And if there was, it was something he could handle by himself. Something that didn't include anyone else, or affect anyone besides himself.
Was it pride or embarrassment, he wondered now, that had kept him silent? Had he thought he was being selfless by keeping it from everyone?
Maybe it was just the fact that he didn't like bullies. That he was finally getting somewhere with Tony, they were finally becoming true friends – and potentially more. And he hadn't wanted to think about being forced to put a stop to that and lose what he had just so recently found.
Or maybe he just hadn't thought at all. Maybe that was his problem.
"I've been getting some e-mails," he said. "From…a fan. Some guy here in New York. I thought…" He blew out his breath. "I thought they were harmless. And they were. At first. But…not anymore."
Tony stared at him. His teeth were sunk in his lower lip, and his eyes glittered with amusement. "You've got yourself a stalker," he said.
"I guess," Steve admitted.
Tony couldn't stop himself from smiling any longer. "Congratulations, Capsicle. You finally made it to the big leagues."
"It's not what you think," Steve protested. He hated the sight of that smile on Tony's face, of knowing that Tony had it all wrong.
"Oh, I'm sure it's not," Tony said. He leaned forward and set his drink on the coffee table. "Let me guess. Single guy, big fan, wishes he could be more like you. You're his role model in everything. If only you could meet face to face, he's just sure you guys would be best friends forever. Stop me if I got it wrong."
"You're not wrong," Steve admitted. "But you're not right, either."
"Oh?" Tony sat back, still perfectly relaxed. "How's that?"
"Because I don't think it's really me he's fixated on," he said. "I think it's you."
That took Tony by surprise. He blinked, and for a moment his face went blank with shock. Then he smiled again, loose and easy. "Well, he's got good taste, then."
"He's threatening you," Steve said.
Tony's smile froze for a second, then returned. There was a sardonic twist to his mouth now, however. "Well," he said. "He might have good taste, but he's not very original."
Steve didn't like the sound of that. Not one bit. "Tony—"
"No, it's okay," Tony said. "It's fine. You don't think I haven't been threatened before? I've been getting death threats since I was eighteen. Everyone else gets catalogs and credit card offers in their junk mail. I get death threats." He shrugged.
His casual attitude didn't make Steve feel any better about the situation. "This is different."
"Let me guess," Tony said. "This guy. He's sending them to your old SHIELD e-mail."
Steve pursed his lips. He wasn't going to let this drop, but this was a conversation they needed to have. "Yes. It was supposed to be private."
Tony made a rude noise. "Please. After SHIELD was outed like that? Besides, nothing is private. You wouldn't believe what people send to email@example.com."
That seemed entirely too easy. "Is that really your e-mail address?" he asked.
"No, but everyone thinks it is," Tony said. "All my official e-mail correspondence comes from that address. Or so it appears." He shrugged again, a lazy lifting of one shoulder. "It's not hard to do."
Intrigued in spite of himself, Steve said, "What's your real e-mail?"
Tony just looked at him.
He smiled a little. "You don't know, do you?"
"It doesn't matter what it is," Tony said with some impatience. "That's not the point. The point is that any e-mail that might be mine is all forwarded into the dummy account."
"For the record sir," JARVIS said, surprising them both, "your e-mail is Ironmanisno1@starkindustries.com."
"Traitor," Tony said.
"Want me to set one up for you?" Tony asked. "'Captainamericaisnumbertwo' has a nice ring to it."
"No," Steve said. He wasn't amused anymore. "I don't want to miss any other e-mails from this guy. I want to know if he's planning anything." He frowned, then said aloud the one thing that had been nagging at him for the past several weeks. "Maybe I should write him back."
"Absolutely not," Tony said with certainty. "Never give them an opportunity. You'll never lose him if you do."
"And I suppose you know this from experience," Steve said dryly.
"Steve." Tony gazed at him, completely serious now. "Believe me, you do not want to engage with this guy."
"He's threatening you," Steve said. "I can't just do nothing."
"J, you on this?" Tony said without looking away from Steve.
"I have the e-mails," JARVIS said. "Would you care to hear them?"
Steve colored bright red. There wasn't anything incriminating in any of those e-mails, but he still felt they were private. This man, Colin Thomas, had poured his heart into them. He was clearly dangerous and possibly crazy, but that didn't mean he was fair game for mockery.
"Not right now," Tony said. He gave Steve a funny look. "You know what to do, though."
"As always, sir, I am one step ahead of you," JARVIS said with some smugness.
"I hope not," Tony said faintly. "Or one day I'm gonna wake up and find myself banished to the corner with Dummy."
"I would never do such a thing, sir," JARVIS said, humor ringing in his cultured voice. "I believe several times you have expressed your preference to end up stuffed in a museum somewhere."
"See," Tony said, "this is why you have to watch what you say around small children and artificial intelligences. They remember everything."
Steve shifted on the couch, unwilling to be distracted this time. Seeing that, Tony got back down to business. "Look," he said. "It happens. It's okay. I promise you, nothing's gonna happen. Sooner or later your guy will take the hint and stop contacting you." One side of his mouth rose in a smile. "And a month later, a new one will take his place."
"That's not funny," Steve said firmly. He didn't know how he had expected Tony to react to his news, but this laidback approach was starting to rub him the wrong way. How could Tony not care about this? How could he be so unconcerned?
"No, it's not," Tony said. "But it's how things work." He stood up. "Face it, Steve. You're a celebrity now. And this is part of being a celebrity. You've got groupies now, fans, and stalkers. Most of them are probably perfectly ordinary people, but there's always a few whackjobs in the mix. Not saying you need to worry about them. Just saying you need to be aware they're out there. Just leave them alone, do your own thing, and eventually they'll go away." He gazed out the windows at the New York skyline. "Sometimes it takes lawyers to make that happen, I admit, but either way, eventually they do go away." He looked back at Steve again. "Are you going to be okay?"
It wasn't like he had much choice. And he couldn’t make Tony take him seriously. He had done all he could for now. Maybe later, when JARVIS had shown him the e-mails, Tony would see things in a different light.
"Don't you want to know why someone who's writing to me is threatening you?" he asked.
"I already know why," Tony said simply. "You're such a good person, I'm a terrible influence, I'm not good enough for you…is any of this ringing a bell?"
He said he hadn't read the e-mails and Steve believed him. So how did he know what they said? And worse, how could he be so nonchalant about it? Did he truly not care when people said such hateful things about him?
His thoughts must have showed on his face, because Tony gave him a small smile only slightly touched with bitterness. And there at last was the evidence that he did care. "Pepper got them too, when we were together."
A nasty jolt went through Steve's chest upon hearing that. "What did she do?"
"The same thing I'm telling you to do," Tony said. "Absolutely nothing. Do not write this guy back. Do not change your e-mail. Just…nothing."
Reluctantly, Steve nodded. "Okay."
"Unless," Tony said. His expression was suddenly hard to decipher; his dark eyes gave away nothing. "Unless you'd rather call this whole thing off."
Steve held his breath. He had the distinct feeling that he had just been challenged. That if he said yes, he could kiss any chance of a relationship with Tony Stark good-bye forever. He didn't even know what he really wanted from Tony yet, and he definitely didn't know what Tony wanted from him. All he knew was that everything hinged on his answer.
Fortunately, there was never any doubt what he would say. "I don't give in to bullies," he said quietly. "I thought everyone knew that about me."
Tony's face relaxed a little, although he didn't exactly smile. "Okay," he said. "Good deal." He nodded. "So we're still on for dinner tonight?"
"You bet we are," Steve said, and it sounded a little too fake and hearty. He wondered if Tony was happy that Steve still wanted to go out with him, or if Tony thought he was only doing this in order to stand up to Colin Thomas and everything that man stood for.
He hoped not. He hoped Tony knew how much he valued their friendship and…and whatever else it was they were doing.
"Good," Tony said. "Because this is boring. Let's not talk about this anymore. Instead let's talk about something interesting, like the charity auction the Maria Stark Foundation is hosting next week. You don't mind being sold to complete strangers, do you?"
"Um," Steve said. He was thrown by the sudden change in subject, along with the rather unexpected question he had just been asked.
"Don't worry," Tony said. "It's just for the evening." He grinned. "And it's all for charity."
"Oh," Steve said faintly; most of his attention was still on the Colin Thomas problem. "Well, if it's for charity then."
"Great," Tony said. "I'll count that as a yes."
On the night of the charity function, they almost didn't make it there.
Tony always looked good in a suit and tie, but in a tuxedo he was so devastatingly handsome that the first sight of him stole Steve's breath away. And maybe Tony felt the same way about him, because when Steve stepped into his bedroom, all dressed and ready to go, his eyes widened and he smiled, slow and appreciative. "You're like a birthday and Christmas present all rolled into one." His gaze raked Steve from head to toe. "I'm going to have so much fun unwrapping you later tonight."
Steve smiled back. "Funny, I was just thinking the same thing about you."
Tony walked toward him. His vest and bow tie were a dark crimson, the color matching Iron Man's armor. A hint of white showed at his cuffs, and his trousers were perfectly pressed. He smelled of his favorite cologne, a scent Steve enjoyed far more than he probably should, because at the first hint of it, warmth uncurled in the pit of his stomach.
"Why wait?" Tony asked, still with that shark's smile. "We've got time."
He would have liked nothing more, but they really couldn't. "Tony," he said with mild reproof.
"What?" Tony said, all exaggerated, wounded innocence. "There's always time for a quickie."
"Not now there's not," Steve said. "We really do need to go." Everyone else was already assembled downstairs; any moment now Clint or Sam was going to come up here, exasperated at having to wait on them.
"Yeah," Tony said, plainly disappointed.
Steve said nothing. He wished they had more time. He wanted to slowly unknot Tony's bow tie and see it draped loosely around his neck, the red so bright against that blinding white shirt. He wanted to undo the buttons of that crisp shirt and kiss the exposed skin of Tony's chest. He wanted to push Tony's trousers down and palm his erection through the black silk briefs he wore and listen to the sounds Tony made, low and in the back of his throat.
"We should do this more often," he said.
"Do what?" Tony asked.
"Get dressed up," he said. "You look good. Real good."
"I clean up pretty nicely, don't I?" Tony preened a little, holding the lapels of his jacket.
He definitely did, and it was growing more and more difficult to ignore that fact. "What about me?" he teased.
"You," Tony said as he sidled closer, "are always drop dead gorgeous." He ran his palms up the front of Steve's shirt and fussed with his bow tie. "But tonight you have outdone yourself. I would give you a round of applause, but I can't seem to take my hands off you."
As always, his outrageous flirting made Steve feel loose and warm all over, along with a faint amazement that someone like Tony Stark would want him. "Well, you're going to have to," he said, "if we ever want to make it to dinner."
"Forget dinner," Tony said. He leaned up to give Steve a quick kiss. "I'd rather eat you." One hand slipped downward between them to press against Steve's crotch. "And I think you want me to."
He groaned. He did want that. Of course he did. But they couldn't be late. Tony had spent too much time and effort putting this event together. He didn't want to do anything to ruin that.
So he backed away. "Later," he promised.
Tony let him go, reluctant but still smiling. "Dessert?"
Steve nodded. "You bet."
The auction was being held in the ballroom of a very expensive hotel. Tickets had not been cheap, but they hadn't been priced so dear that the average person couldn't attend, either. The event had sold out in less than an hour, and looking out at the crowd gathered in the lobby, Steve could easily believe that half of New York City was here.
"Tell me again why I let you talk me into these things," he murmured. They were still in the mingling portion of the night's festivities. His job now was to chat up the people and encourage them to spend their money on him. It was all for charity, he kept reminding himself, and he only had to spend a few hours with the people who "won" him for the night. He could do this. Hell, it might even be fun.
"Because I'm a very persuasive guy," Tony said. He grinned at someone from across the room and raised his half-empty glass in a toast, then touched Steve lightly on the shoulder. "See that? Even Bruce is getting into it."
Steve looked at where Bruce stood in one corner, facing three older gentlemen who were all talking animatedly at him without seeming to expect answers. He looked slightly dazed, like he couldn't quite figure out where he was or how he had gotten here.
"I think we should rescue him," Steve said. "And soon. Or we might have a large, green problem on our hands."
"Nah, he's got this," Tony said. "But I do like the idea of making a daring escape." Amusement danced in his eyes.
"We just got here," Steve protested.
"So what's your point?" Tony said.
"I…guess I don't have one," Steve admitted. It would be good to get away for a little bit, he thought. Once they went in the ballroom and the auction was underway, there would be no opportunity for privacy.
Tony set his drink on the tray of a passing waiter, then began to make his way toward the edges of the lobby. Steve followed him, weaving through the elegant dresses and dark suits until they found themselves headed down a deserted hallway.
"I'm pretty sure there was a sign back there saying 'Employees Only'," Steve said.
"We're Avengers," Tony said. "We can go wherever we want."
Up ahead, a set of swinging doors opened up and two waiters came out, each bearing trays of hors d'oeuvres. They glanced curiously at Tony and Steve, then moved a little faster as recognition dawned on their faces. Not wanting to be caught dawdling, they hurried back toward the lobby.
"You should kiss me," Tony said.
Steve looked at him. "Here? Now?"
"Why not?" Tony said.
Because at any moment someone else would come out of the kitchen, or approach from down the hall. Because they should be back in the lobby, working to drum up interest in the auction so the Maria Stark Foundation would make more money tonight. Because this was selfish and unprofessional.
Steve bent his head and kissed Tony.
Almost immediately he forgot every reason why he shouldn't be doing this. Tony kissed him back with such abandon that Steve groaned in the back of his throat. He felt hot all over, his skin flushed, his blood heating up as it flowed through him.
After all this time, he still couldn't believe that Tony could make him feel this way with just a kiss.
He set his hands on Tony's back. Not needing the encouragement, Tony leaned in closer, pressing up against him.
And from behind them, someone cleared their throat, sounding very embarrassed.
Steve backed away in a hurry, a different kind of heat rushing to his cheeks now. He turned around and saw one of the waiters standing there, staring at them both.
Tony did not seem embarrassed at all, though. He just nodded at the waiter and then began to walk back toward the ballroom.
"St—Captain?" the waiter asked. He wasn't very tall, and his blond hair was thin and already falling out of its neat comb over. "Could I just…"
"No time," Tony said briskly as he took hold of Steve's elbow. "The auction's about to start. You should head back, too. You won't want to miss it."
Steve gave the waiter a slightly apologetic smile and let himself be towed down the hall. He hoped his lips weren't swollen from Tony's kisses. He hoped he wasn't red in the face. He hoped he would make Tony proud tonight.
"Okay then," Tony said just before they entered the lobby. "Ready to spend an excruciatingly boring evening having dinner with total strangers, answering inane questions, and fending off not-so-polite inquiries into your private life?"
"You make it sound like so much fun," Steve said dryly.
Tony grinned. "Oh trust me," he said. "It's gonna be a blast."
The auction, the dinner, everything happening tonight had all been Tony's idea. All the proceeds were going to the Maria Stark Foundation, and Tony had pledged to match every dollar raised here tonight with one from his own pocket.
The main ballroom had been arranged with seven large – and empty – round tables in the center of the room. All around them were the slightly smaller tables normally seen at a gathering like this. At the head of the room was a long banquet table, where the Avengers were currently sitting. In front of this table stood a lone microphone.
As Steve watched, a short man with a bristly crewcut walked up the microphone. Although that wasn't strictly true. The man didn't walk so much as he strutted.
At once the ballroom fell silent. The man at the microphone, better known for his blistering editorials in the Daily Bugle than his auctioneering skills, held out his hands. "Ladies and gentlemen!" he called. "Let's get this shindig started!"
Steve glanced at Tony, who was seated on his right. "Tell me again why it had to be J. Jonah Jameson?" he murmured.
"Name me someone else who could do this with a straight face," said Tony. He barely moved his lips as he spoke; he was still smiling for the audience's benefit. "Besides, he hates superheroes. He'll badmouth us all and drive up the bids."
And so the auction began. The rules were simple. No groups larger than ten, and during dinner itself, the Avengers were not to be pawed at, baited, mocked, or otherwise antagonized. Mostly these rules existed to protect everyone here from an untimely emergence of the Hulk, although Steve doubted most of them realized this.
Jameson was good at keeping up a rapid-fire chatter, and the bidding wars commenced. Two groups of women vied for the honor of having War Machine sit with them, and the winners cheered loudly when they were announced. A group of young people who looked suspiciously like off-duty scientists won Bruce's company. Sam's price soared as high as he did, but Thor's time ultimately commanded the most money that night, gathering an even hundred thousand from the assembled group that won.
The group who won Steve's time seemed normal enough, which was a relief. He joined them in the center of the ballroom and took his seat at the chair assigned to him. "Thank you all," he said.
"No, Captain," said their spokesperson. "Thank you."
And then the questions began. Just as Tony had predicted.
All in all, though, it wasn't a bad evening. The food was delicious and the service was excellent. The people at his table were all young and attractive, and although they started out the dinner rather starstruck, it wore off quickly once they saw that he used a fork and drank water like the rest of them. After that they became open and friendly, and seemed eager to talk to him. Steve was more than happy to answer their questions and join in the conversation, although he never did really relax. Still, it wasn't as stressful as he had feared. He only had to get firm once, and that was when they asked him for the third time if he was dating anyone – he had been spotted an awful lot lately with Tony Stark, they said, wink wink nudge nudge.
"My personal life is just that," he said. "Personal. And I will not be sharing it with any of you tonight."
None of the people at his table so much as blinked. They just moved on to the next topic on their agenda, which was trying to get his opinion on the latest current events of the day. Since Fox News tried almost daily to get him to commit to saying something political, dodging that question was more familiar ground for Steve, and he was able to handle the change of subject just fine.
Nonetheless, when dessert was finally served and the dinner was officially over, he breathed a small sigh of relief. His step was somewhat hurried as he rejoined the other Avengers at the long table at the front of the room while they waited for Tony to announce how much money they had raised for charity tonight.
But Tony did not appear. His chair beside Steve's remained empty. The people in the ballroom, unaware that the schedule for tonight had been derailed, continued to mingle and talk and finish their dessert.
Steve tried to catch Sam's eye. He hoped his worry wasn't showing on his face. He wondered if he could get away with excusing himself while he went to find Tony.
And then, a few chairs down, Jim Rhodes pulled a phone out of his pocket. He glanced down at it, face impassive. After a moment, he put the phone away, spoke quietly to Clint on his left, and then stood up.
Immediately a hush began to go around the ballroom. There was applause as Jim went up to the microphone – along with a lot of loud cheering once he announced how much money they had raised for charity tonight. Jim ended his impromptu speech by saying he hoped everyone was having a good time, and that their DJ would now lead them into the dancing portion of tonight's fun.
On his way back to the table, Jim touched Steve's shoulder. "Bathroom," he murmured without moving his lips.
Steve nodded, counted to five, and then was up like a shot.
The Avengers had been granted access to a private bathroom just off the ballroom, one that was lushly appointed and safe from any gawking members of the public. A passcode was required to get in, and there was no sign on the door, just in case anyone happened to decide that they would stake out the spot in the hope of running into a famous Avenger who needed to take a piss.
Tony was inside, just as Rhodey had said. He was sitting on a low chaise longue which had been set up opposite the row of sinks. An unpleasant smell hung in the air, and Tony himself was very pale. "Hey."
"Hey," Steve said. "You okay?"
"I knew I shouldn't have had those oysters," Tony said with a weak smile. There were beads of sweat along his hairline.
"We didn't have oysters," Steve said gently.
"Oh yeah," Tony muttered.
"You want to go?" Steve asked.
"No…" Tony shook his head. "Every time I move, my guts try to come out one end or the other. Better stay put for a bit." He grimaced, looking embarrassed.
"Okay," Steve said.
"You don't have to stay," Tony said. "In fact, you really shouldn't stay."
He nodded. "Okay," he said. But still he hesitated, not liking the idea of leaving Tony here alone when he was obviously so sick. "You sure you're gonna be okay?"
"I'm fine," Tony said, somewhat testily. "Just go."
Steve still didn't want to leave, but he didn't see that he had any other choice. He wasn't prone to stomach upsets anymore, but he knew perfectly well that it was humiliating for Tony to have someone here with him now. "All right. Text me when you're ready to go and I'll meet you."
Tony nodded back and gave him a wan smile, his relief obvious. "Yeah. Sure."
It was almost 11:00 when he returned to the ballroom, but the party was just getting started. All the tables had been moved to one side to make room for the dancing. Colored lights sprayed about the room, and the music was loud and thumping. Everyone seemed to be having a blast.
Clint and Sam were out there on the dance floor, but Steve had no inclination to join them. He saw Thor holding court with a group of young admirers in one corner. Bruce was slowly strolling around the edges of the crowd, not stopping long enough to be pulled into conversation by anyone. Jim Rhodes was nowhere in sight.
Steve sighed. He hoped Tony was okay, and not too sick. It was disappointing that this would happen on such a night, when he had been looking forward to getting Tony alone in that tuxedo. But there would be other nights, he told himself.
He made his way toward the head table. As he passed by a group of people talking among themselves, he heard one of them wonder out loud why Black Widow wasn't here.
Steve did not stop to answer their question. He wished he hadn't heard that. Now that Natasha had been brought to mind, he couldn't help but wonder if tonight would be one of those nights when she had contact with Bucky. He wondered what was happening in DC, and how long it would be before he got the call saying that Bucky finally wanted to talk to him. He wondered what he would do when she told him the news, and what he would say. He wondered—
In his pocket, his cell phone vibrated.
He jumped nearly a foot, clapping one hand at his thigh and grabbing for the phone. Already his heart was racing. This was it, he knew it. He had just been thinking about Bucky and now here was the call he had been waiting for…
Quickly he took a seat at the head table. He barely noticed when Bruce sat down beside him, he was so eager to read the e-mail he had just received.
But it wasn't from Natasha.
I'm so sorry it's come to this, but you've left me with no choice.
I saw you tonight. I was here, you know. Remember how I told you I'm a waiter?
"Oh my God." Steve sprang to his feet and scanned the ballroom. The waiters were gone, though, the tables all cleared away; only the bar was still open.
But Colin Thomas had been here. Might still be here.
Slowly he sat back down. Beside him, Bruce asked if he was okay, but Steve ignored him.
I saw you with Tony Stark. I saw what you were doing. I tried to talk to you, but Stark just pulled you away. And you let him do it.
Steve knew who Colin was then. He remembered the blond waiter who had caught them kissing in the hall. He remembered the way Colin had tried to speak to him, saying his name before catching himself and using his title instead.
You broke my heart, Steve. I know that sounds cheesy, but I don't care. It's true. You can't be with him, Steve. You can't. He's wrong for you. Your so much better than he is.
I poisoned Stark's drink tonight. It was so easy.
Steve made an inarticulate noise of horror. Tony. Oh God. Tony, sick in the bathroom, so pale and in pain. Tony, poisoned.
I poisoned Stark's drink tonight. It was so easy. He never even looked at me when he took the glass I offered. He didn't say thank-you, either. If he had, maybe I would've reconsidered. But he never did. Don't you see, Steve? He is not right for you. You would have said thank you. I know you would've. I watched you all night.
You wouldn't talk to me earlier, but I bet you will now. You have 24 hours to meet with me. If you do, I'll give you the antidote for Stark – but only if you swear never to see him again.
I'll be waiting for your answer,
PS -- Your going to think you know how to fix this, but you don't, Steve. I can promise you that. What I gave Stark was altered from the source venom. You'll never figure this out without me. You see, you need me. I've been trying to tell you all along. I bet you believe me now.
Tony. Oh God.
He couldn't breathe. Cold, he was so cold, he was locked in the ice all over again, unable to speak or even move.
"Steve? Cap? Are you okay?" A hand touched his shoulder. He started violently, and could almost hear the sound of ice breaking, slivers of it falling to the ground around him.
Bruce drew back a little. "Steve? You okay?"
The room came in focus around him again, and he swallowed hard. "No." He wanted to leap up and run to Tony, but he could still barely feel his body, and he knew if he tried, he wouldn't get very far. Instead he looked around wildly, as though he could summon Colin Thomas just by wanting it badly enough.
"What is it?" Bruce asked.
Steve turned to him. "Tony's been poisoned."
Bruce's jaw dropped. "What?"
At last the grip of the ice eased enough that Steve felt in control of himself once more. He stood up. "Come with me." Tony hadn't returned to the ballroom yet – and now Steve knew he wouldn't be.
Now that he could move, he had to exert all his self-restraint not to break into a run. Not here in front of all these people. If Colin Thomas was still here, there was no telling what he might do to an innocent bystander if they learned the truth of what was going on. It was bad enough that Tony had been hurt. He would never forgive himself if anyone else was harmed because of him.
"How do you know Tony's been poisoned?" Bruce asked as they made their way out of the ballroom.
Steve brandished his phone. "Because the guy who did it told me."
"Oh, Captain!" Seeing their chance, an older couple approached, smiling shyly, hands held out to impede his progress forward.
"Sorry," Steve mumbled as he sidestepped them. "Duty calls."
Bruce hurried to keep up with him. "What do you need me to do?"
They left the ballroom. The air was cooler in the lobby, and some of the tightness in Steve's chest eased up as he was finally able to pull in a deep breath. A few people were out here talking in small groups, but thankfully none of them seemed interested in the two Avengers who suddenly appeared in their midst.
"I need you to stand guard," Steve said. He looked at Bruce. "And depending on how bad it is, I might need you to take him home – and then get to work."
Comprehension flickered – green and immediate – in Bruce's eyes. The Hulk could cover amazing distances in a single leap, and he had learned to control himself as he jumped. It would be a rough trip on Tony, and technically Thor could fly him back faster, but Thor would be useless once they got back to the Tower. Bruce, on the other hand, could start working on an antidote right away. And time was working against them, if Colin's e-mail was anything to go by.
The bathroom was empty, which momentarily threw Steve for a loop. Tony, where was Tony, where…? Then reason reasserted itself, and he leaned over to peek beneath the stalls.
And there in the last one in the row, was Tony. Sitting on the floor in front of the toilet, legs sprawled into the stall next over.
"It's just me," Steve said, knowing Tony would have heard the door opening and closing again.
Tony swore under his breath.
This perfectly normal reaction made Steve feel a tiny bit better. He moved down the row of stalls and gently pushed open the last door. "Hey."
Tony glared up at him. He had taken off his jacket, vest, and tie, and undone half the buttons of his shirt. Despite all this, he was soaked in sweat, his shirt clinging to his chest, his hair plastered to his forehead. He was extremely pale. "Go away," he said irritably.
Steve lowered himself to one knee. There wasn't enough room for him to enter the stall, so he stayed just outside, still holding the door open. He tried his best to remain calm and not let his fear for Tony blossom into outright panic.
But it was hard. It was very hard. He hadn't been gone that long at all, but already Tony seemed so much worse.
He kept his voice low. "You've been poisoned."
Tony sighed. "Tell me about it."
Steve took a deep breath. "No. Tony, you've been poisoned."
Tony's eyes widened, and he seemed to go even paler. "Oh fuck," he said faintly.
Steve clutched the door so hard it creaked beneath his hand. Seeing Tony's fear was worse than any physical pain he might have endured. He could suffer anything for himself. Knowing that Tony was scared and hurting was far, far worse.
"We have to get you home," he said.
Tony nodded. He still looked dazed and in shock, but he was recovering rapidly. "I'll… I'll call the suit."
"No," Steve said. "That'll take too long." Tony looked at him uncomprehendingly – and with a touch of irritation, too, taking offense at hearing the suit called slow. Steve smiled a little in spite of himself, just to see that. "Bruce is here."
"Faster than a speeding bullet," Tony muttered. He swallowed hard, looking rather green himself. "He knows I'll probably throw up all over him?"
"I don't think he'll mind," Steve said. The Hulk had always had a soft spot for Tony.
Tony made a low humming noise that could have been agreement or could have been denial. Steve said nothing and waited impatiently – but not showing it – for him to accept the inevitable.
And at last Tony sighed. "Fine. Whatever. This floor is cold anyway."
Given his current state, the cold probably felt good, but Steve wasn't about to argue the point. He had what he wanted, and that was what mattered.
He reached out a hand. Tony clasped his wrist, and Steve pulled him to his feet. Tony swayed and gulped audibly. Steve braced himself for Tony to get sick again, ready to propel him toward the toilet, but Tony managed to hang on, and the moment passed.
"Are you okay?" he asked. "How do you feel?"
"You mean besides the fact that I think I've completely emptied out my entire body in the last hour?" Tony grumbled. "Fine. I feel fine."
Steve glowered at him. "This isn't the time to play that card, Tony. I need you to be honest with me."
"I am being honest," Tony snapped. He started walking forward, forcing Steve to move with him. "Just let me wash up and then we can go."
Steve gathered up his discarded clothing, but then there was nothing for him to do but stand back as Tony bent over the sink and washed his face and hands. He watched Tony grab one of the thick paper towels from the pile stacked beside the sink and hold it beneath the faucet, then rub at his neck and upper chest. He worried that Tony was running a fever, although he hadn't felt any unnatural heat when he had been holding him.
Tony straightened up, groaned a little, and then stood up all the way. "Okay," he said. He patted at his pockets. "Although I seem to have lost my ticket for the Hulk ride. I hope that's okay."
Steve managed a smile. He admired Tony's ability to make jokes at a time like this, even though he suspected the dark humor was just a way for Tony to hold the horror at bay instead of letting himself truly think about what had happened to him. Whatever the reason though, he was glad to see it – and he hoped Tony would be able to hold onto that sense of humor in the hours to come.
They would both need it.
He left the bathroom first, poking just his head out in order to make sure they wouldn't encounter anyone except Bruce. When he saw the coast was clear, he beckoned for Tony to follow him.
With a roll of his eyes, Tony stepped out into the hall. "I didn't realize you had taken lessons from James Bond."
Steve chose to ignore this. "Take him home," he said to Bruce. "I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Hello? Standing right here," Tony grumbled.
Bruce nodded. "I know someone I can call," he said. "He might be able to help with the antidote."
Steve hesitated, then said, "Okay." He trusted Bruce's judgment.
He turned to Tony, who was buttoning up his shirt. He wanted to hug him and hold on tight. He wanted to kiss him and say that everything would be all right, that they would find a way to save him.
Instead he just said, "Be safe." And he left them.
Thor agreed to fly him back right away. He got the impression, actually, that Thor would have preferred to stay and do some righteous smiting of the wicked with Mjolnir, but that wasn't exactly an option.
He didn't tell the other Avengers, either. This way the party would still continue, although in a much reduced state, which was what he wanted. He still didn't trust that Colin Thomas wouldn't do something to any of the guests here if he knew the Avengers were on the move. It was a hard decision to make, and he knew they would be pissed at him for it – especially Jim Rhodes – but he didn't regret making it. In a choice between angering his friends and keeping innocent people safe, well, it wasn't really a choice at all. And he knew Jim and Sam and Clint would forgive him for it.
Quick as Thor was, by the time they arrived back at the Tower, Tony was already in Bruce's lab, and Bruce himself was hard at work. He had called his colleague, a mutant named Hank McCoy, who was on his way. "He shouldn't be long," Bruce said. He didn't look at Steve as he said it. He was already deeply involved in his work, having taken samples of Tony's blood for study.
Tony himself had changed out of his tux and was in more comfortable clothing, a loose pair of yoga pants and a black tank top that showed off his arms to advantage. Normally such a sight would have made Steve smile, but tonight he just noticed the sweat gleaming on Tony's bare skin, and he felt another jolt of fear cut through his heart.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
"The same as I was twenty minutes ago," Tony said dryly. He glanced at Bruce, then said, "So tell me how you knew I was poisoned."
Steve brought his phone out. "Because the guy told me."
Tony's expression went flat. "Let me guess. Your number one fan."
"The one and only," Steve said. He held the phone out.
Tony read the e-mail quickly, then handed him back the phone. "Please tell me you haven't written him back."
"I didn't," Steve said.
"Good," Tony said. "Don't."
"Don't you think I should?" he asked. He put the phone in his pocket and began to undo his bow tie. It was going to be a long night; he might as well settle in and get comfortable.
"No," Tony said. "I don't. Because first, I can already promise you that there is no antidote. And second, if you write back you're just giving him what he wants."
Steve resisted the urge to say that keeping Tony alive was what he wanted. "So what do we do?"
"You are going to do nothing," Tony said. "My friend Bruce here has it all under control. Don't you?"
Distracted, Bruce glanced up at the sound of his name. "What?"
"Never mind," Tony said. He looked back at Steve, and when he did, Steve saw that his brisk, businesslike way of handling the situation so far was only a mask. It wasn't crimson and gold, and it wasn't made of a titanium-gold alloy, but the face it presented to the world was just as fake. Beneath it, Tony was absolutely terrified.
"They'll figure it out," Steve said quietly. He glanced at Bruce to make sure he wasn't looking, then took Tony's hand. The fingers were cold, and he chafed them gently. "You'll be okay."
Tony exhaled slowly, shakily. "I know," he murmured.
But Steve wondered who exactly he was trying to convince.
An hour later, they had left Bruce's lab, and Tony was really starting to feeling the effects of the poison.
Not that he had said anything. But Steve knew him by now, and he saw the way the skin around Tony's eyes had tightened, and he knew Tony had a headache. He knew that Tony hadn't taken any painkillers for it, either, because nobody knew how the drugs would affect the poison in his blood.
And he knew, too, that it would only get worse from here.
The good news was that Tony hadn't gotten sick again since their return to the Tower. He had confessed though that it wasn't for a lack of feeling nauseous. He just no longer had anything left in his stomach to bring up.
Steve had changed out of his formal clothing and now was in a T-shirt and jeans. He sat on an empty stool and watched as Tony moved around the workshop, his gait stiff and measured; the way Tony carried himself left no doubt that he was hurting.
But Tony had gone on working under far more painful conditions, and Steve knew he would continue to work on this problem until he physically could not do so anymore. And then he would probably still try to go on.
"JARVIS, you gotta give me something here," Tony said in exasperation.
"I'm sorry, sir," replied JARVIS. "But I am simply unfamiliar with this type of blood chemistry. I can recommend several courses of action, but they would be recommendations only."
Tony sighed and shook his head. "So much for having the world's smartest artificial intelligence."
Steve said nothing. He didn't know how much Tony knew about biochemistry, although he suspected the answer was actually quite a lot, given what had happened with the palladium-based arc reactor. He wasn't sure, though, if Tony even knew what he was looking for, or how he was going about it.
A few floors above them, Bruce was hard at work with Hank McCoy. Steve had never met the mutant who called himself Beast before, and the blue fur had thrown him off guard for a couple seconds. But no longer than that. It didn't matter what the man looked like. What mattered was that he was a brilliant scientist – and possibly Tony's only hope of discovering the antidote to the poison in his blood.
They were all working to save Tony – and here Steve sat, utterly useless. It was a feeling he had always hated, but now it was compounded by sick guilt.
He could have prevented this, he thought. If he had written back to Colin, if he had made the man feel like he had a friend instead of just ignoring him, maybe none of this would have happened. Maybe he could have saved Tony. They would be lying in bed together right now, kissing each other and murmuring all those things that only seemed possible in the dark of night.
Instead they were here. Tony was dying, and he was helpless.
"Stop it," Tony said.
Steve looked up at him. "What?"
"I know what you're doing," Tony said. "And I'm telling you, stop it."
"You don't know what I'm doing," Steve said.
"You're blaming yourself," Tony said matter-of-factly. "You're thinking you could have stopped it if you had only written back to that guy and acted like you were his best friend."
Steve ducked his head. "So what if I am?"
"Wrong," Tony said. "Don't. That guy is crazy. Nothing you did could have stopped him."
"I could have stopped seeing you," he said. "Taken you out of his sights."
"You could have," Tony said. "Not that I would have let you. Well, maybe I would have. I don't know." He shrugged a little, but the gesture was too studied, too casual, and Steve wondered what he was really thinking. "Anyway, it wouldn't have mattered. I was never the target. You were. If it hadn't been me, it would have been someone else. Sam. Bucky."
Steve inhaled deeply. He knew that rationally Tony was right. Colin Thomas was fixated on him. No one would ever have been good enough for him, in Colin's eyes. Sooner or later, he would have found himself in this exact same situation.
"So what do I do?" he said.
"You need to get out of here," Tony said.
He bristled at first, thinking he was being ordered to leave, which, yeah, that was not going to happen. But then a second later, Tony clarified. "Go to this guy's place. See if you can find anything there."
"I don't know where he lives," Steve said.
Tony looked up, and through the glitter of fever in his eyes, Steve saw something else. It was the look Tony got when he was furious about something. Here was the same intense ferocity, the same single-minded focus on one target. "But I do."
"How?" he asked.
"I had JARVIS trace the IP address of those e-mails he sent you. They're all from the same phone. Do you even know how easy it is track a Starkphone – if you have the right programming and technology? Which, of course, I do." Tony gave him a humorless grin. "And I know what you're thinking, and I promise not to use my powers for evil, but did you really think I wouldn't find out everything I could about this guy when I saw what he was doing to you?"
Steve just shook his head a little, not sure what to say to that.
"Anyway, I'll give you his address. Take Sam. Hell, take Thor too, I don't care. Just see what you can find out."
Already he liked the sound of this. It could be dangerous; someone like Colin might have left booby traps behind for them, having surely anticipated that they would discover where he lived. But Steve was ready for anything at this point. Whatever got him out of this place of sickness and out there where he belonged, doing what was right.
He stood up. "He won't be there."
"Of course he won't," said Tony. He winced a little, then said, "But you're still going."
"You better believe it," Steve said.
He ended up taking Sam and Rhodey with him. He didn't know if he would need either of them, or what kind of danger they were walking into, but he wasn't about to take any chances. He would not underestimate Colin Thomas again.
The apartment where Colin lived was small and cluttered with all kinds of Captain America merchandise; comics, art, toys and other assorted memorabilia took up every available inch of space. There was nobody here.
Unless you counted all the snakes.
Steve counted fourteen glass cages. Every single one of them was empty. But here and there, he could see the scaled curve of a snake hidden beneath the couch, or coiled on the kitchen counter, and he knew they were still there, deliberately set loose in the apartment.
He had been expecting something different. One last note from Colin taunting them, maybe. But this was far worse. Those empty cages dared him to find the snake whose venom had contributed to the poison coursing through Tony's veins.
"You gotta be kidding me," Falcon muttered under his breath. He had furled his wings, and he eyed the snakes they could see with apprehension.
"Calling it in," said War Machine. He still had the gray metal faceplate down, but his voice was tight with tension; he obviously didn't like snakes any more than Sam did.
Steve stood very still and turned in a slow circle. They were standing in the living room right now, and he could see four snakes, possibly five, if that shadowy blot behind the armchair was a snake and not a lamp cord. There was no telling where the others were hiding. He knew too that just because he counted fourteen cages didn't mean there were fourteen snakes in the apartment. Some of the cages might have been empty. Others might have held more than one snake.
It was a stalling tactic, a way of keeping them here and occupied. A way of showing him just how thoroughly in control Colin was. A way of demonstrating who had the power.
Bruce was on the comm now, responding to War Machine's report. "Guys? I know it sucks, but I need you to get a venom sample from each of the snakes."
Steve met Sam's eyes. "Oh, hell no," Sam said.
"I can't leave here," Bruce said. He sounded just the tiniest bit annoyed with their reluctance. "That means you have to bring the samples to us."
"We don't have any way of doing that," Steve said. "We'll bring you the snakes."
"Fine," Bruce sighed. "Just get back as quickly as you can."
"Are you crazy?" Sam hissed. "We don't even know how many there are."
"Well, then we better start looking," Steve said. He wasn't exactly eager to hunt down venomous snakes either, but this was not the time to stand around arguing about it. Tony's life was at stake. The sooner they found the missing snakes and brought them back to Bruce and Hank, the sooner they could find the antidote.
It took time to search the apartment, time they couldn't really afford. But the alternative, to miss the one snake they needed, was unthinkable. They stuck together, although in the end, War Machine had to scoop up most of the snakes, his metal gauntlets protecting him from fangs and bites. Rhodey wasn't pleased about it, but he didn't complain; he too would do anything to save Tony.
When all fourteen cases contained a snake, Steve called off the search. He wanted to check in with Bruce again and ask how Tony was doing, but he was afraid to hear the answer. It wouldn't matter, he told himself. There was nothing he could do except move forward with his current course of action.
So do it, he told himself fiercely.
There was no way to simultaneously carry fourteen glass cages containing heavy snakes in them. They could have saved space by putting more than one snake into a cage, but Steve wouldn't risk it. Bruce and Hank would need the snakes alive in order to extract their venom and figure out which ones had created the poison. He couldn't take the chance that the reptiles might turn on each other in close quarters and kill each other.
He turned and saw Sam looking at him kindly. "Go," he said. "We got this."
He knew they could handle it, but he didn't want to leave them. It wasn't right to abandon them now. He had to see this through. It was the only thing he could do to help Tony.
"Go on," Jim said. "We'll get 'em all back."
He looked again at Sam, who gave him a small, encouraging nod.
"Thank you," he breathed, and then he was gone.
The night air was cool on his face as he rode his motorcycle through the city, going far faster than he dared during the daylight hours. His reflexes were keen and the bike responded eagerly to his need for speed. Despite the distance he had to travel, it seemed like no time had passed before he found himself back at the Tower.
He pushed the cowl back as the doors of the private elevator closed. "Take me to him, JARVIS, please," he said.
JARVIS did not respond verbally, but a button on the wall panel lit up, letting him know that he was headed for Tony's workshop.
That had to be a good sign, he thought.
The workshop was silent. Steve stood in the center of the room and stopped dead. He had only been gone for four hours, but in that brief span of time, Tony's condition had deteriorated shockingly fast.
"Hey," he said.
Tony squinted up at him through eyes glazed with fever. "Hey," he muttered.
Steve walked over, glancing at the contents of the nearby lab tables as though he could figure out just how far Tony had gotten in his work. Not that it mattered now. Whatever progress he had made on his own, it was clear that Tony couldn't go on.
He knelt down. "How you doing?"
It was almost five in the morning now, which meant it had been seven hours since Tony had been poisoned. He was on the floor, leaning crookedly against the wall with all his weight on his left hip and shoulder, his legs bent at the knee. His head was turned to one side and his hair was damp with sweat. He was very pale, and his breathing was rapid and unsteady. But when he saw Steve, he managed a faint smile. "You're back."
Steve swallowed hard and smiled like it was nothing, like his heart wasn't shattering in his chest to see Tony suffering like this. "I'm back," he said.
"Find anything?" Tony asked. His voice still sounded normal enough, although he spoke more quietly than usual.
"Bunch of snakes," Steve said.
"Huh," Tony said, and closed his eyes.
"Falcon and War Machine are bringing them back," he said. It helped a tiny bit to use their superhero names, to think of this as just another bit of Avengers business. He needed that right now, something to give him the emotional distance he needed in order to keep from falling apart.
"Bet they loved that," Tony murmured.
"Not so much," Steve said. He started to reach out, then stopped. "Tony."
"Mmm?" Tony didn't open his eyes.
"How about we get you upstairs," he suggested.
"Anything to get me in your bed, hey, Cap?" Tony's mouth curved in another weak, but still beautiful, smile.
"You see right through me," Steve said.
"Always did," Tony sighed. He drew in a couple deep breaths, then opened his eyes. He had to blink a few times in order to focus his gaze.
"Tony?" Steve prompted. He leaned in, ready to help Tony to his feet.
"Yeah," Tony said. Then, "No."
He froze. "No?"
Tony looked at him. "No," he repeated. "I'm staying here."
Immediately he protested. "But you can't—"
"Yes, I can," Tony said. "I just got dizzy for a bit and I had to sit down. That's all. I can still work. Now help me up." He glared at Steve, not pleading but demanding.
Steve remained where he was for a moment longer. He wanted to physically drag Tony upstairs and put him in bed so he could rest and conserve his strength. But at the same time, he understood Tony's determination to remain on his feet, working for as long as he could. Because once Tony did succumb and take to his bed, there was every chance that he would not be getting out of it again.
And that was something Steve understood. That driving need to stay upright and fighting for as long as you could – and beyond. Nor could he deny Tony, he realized. His own needs meant nothing anymore. All that mattered was finding the antidote, and keeping Tony as comfortable as possible for as long as they could. Burying himself in his work would keep Tony busy enough that he would be able to ignore his symptoms for a while longer. And maybe, just maybe, he would find the solution on his own.
"Okay," Steve said. He held out his hand.
Sam and Jim returned with the snakes, and Bruce and Hank got to work right away extracting venom samples and studying them. All this, of course, Steve heard secondhand from JARVIS. He flatly refused to leave Tony again. Last time he had left, he had returned to find Tony's condition much worse. He feared what would happen if he left a second time.
He knew that fear was irrational, but he couldn't shake it. Going to Colin Thomas's apartment had briefly given him purpose and taken his mind off the horror Tony was suffering, but now he had nothing. He had become useless again. Helpless.
All he could do, then, was stand vigil. Twice he watched as Tony swayed dizzily on his feet and nearly fell. Both times he was there right away, supporting Tony and holding him upright until Tony was able to stand on his own again. When they came in contact, his skin prickled with the rising heat of Tony's fever, but he didn't say anything, didn't ask Tony if he was ready to give in and go to bed. It wasn't time yet.
That time was drawing near, though. More and more often Tony had to pause in his work. He couldn't study his own blood samples through the microscope because he couldn't focus his eyes enough anymore. He was obviously in pain now, wincing hard on occasion, his hands curling into fists. But he kept going, pushing himself to his limits.
Despite his helpless frustration, Steve admired the hell out of him. He had always respected Tony, but this was something entirely new. For the first time, he was seeing the iron will that had enabled Tony to survive his kidnapping and torture in Afghanistan, and kept him going through palladium poisoning. This Tony was grimly focused on his goal, and nothing would make him stop.
Nothing that was, except a sudden appearance by Natasha.
Her arrival took them both by surprise. Steve had been so focused on Tony that her arrival caught him completely off guard. He found himself reflexively sinking into a battle stance, while Tony looked up so fast that he lost his balance and staggered into the edge of the lab table. He cursed loudly, and Steve slid over to catch him as he fell.
"You okay?" he asked.
Tony grunted an affirmative; he had stopped nodding a little while ago, because of his mounting headache.
Only when he was sure that Tony wouldn't fall did Steve loosen his hold on his waist and turn toward Natasha. "I didn't know you were here."
She looked good, he thought. Her hair was still short. She was dressed simply in black jeans and a red sweater. And even though she was quite obviously alone, Steve couldn't help glancing past her, as though he might see a shadowy companion lurking behind her.
She shook her head. "No," she said. "James didn't come with me. He doesn't know."
Steve blinked in shock to hear her use that name. Even he didn't call Bucky by his real name.
"Not a real good time for a happy reunion anyway," Tony grumbled. He was breathing lightly, one hand gripping the table edge so hard his knuckles were white.
"Not really," Natasha agreed. "Clint called me, so here I am. Thought I'd see if I could contribute anything."
She was their resident poisons expert, no one disputed that. Yet somehow Steve doubted she could help. He appreciated her coming all this way, though. It made him feel better to know that they were all under one roof again, the Avengers finally made whole.
And he hoped that once all this was over, and Tony was healthy again and there was time for conversation, that he would have a chance to talk to Natasha about what was happening with Bucky. Starting with why she felt so comfortable calling him James.
"And?" Tony said. He still clung tightly to the table, and Steve made sure he remained close by, in case he fell again.
Natasha's mouth thinned. "It doesn't sound like anything I'm familiar with," she said.
"But you did just get here," Steve said hopefully. "Give it time."
He knew his mistake even before she responded. "I've been here for an hour," she said gently.
"You're fired," Tony muttered. He caught his breath in an indrawn hissing sound, and his hand bore down on the table.
"I'll keep trying," Natasha said. "We all will. I just wanted to let you know I'm here." She hesitated, then she turned around and showed herself out.
Steve stared after her. "They'll find the antidote, Tony," he said.
"Sure," Tony said, but he didn't sound convinced at all. "Yeah."
Just before noon, Tony fell and could not get back up again.
Steve was just returning from a trip to the bathroom when he saw it happen, so he was too far away to do anything about it. All he could do was watch as Tony suddenly doubled over, a sharp cry of pain wrung from his throat.
He broke into a run then, but he was still too late. Tony flailed for the lab table and missed. With nothing to break his fall, he dropped heavily to his knees, both arms pressed tight to his midsection.
His heart thudding in his chest, Steve rushed over to him. He had watched all morning as the muscle cramps Tony was suffering grew more intense, but this was the first time he had given voice to his pain.
"Tony." He sank to his knees beside him. "Are you okay?"
His eyes squeezed shut, Tony nodded grimly.
"Maybe we should go upstairs," he suggested.
Tony glared at him. "No," he growled. "Just help me up."
Steve shook his head. "I don't think that's such a good idea."
"Just do it," Tony said. His eyes were overly bright with fever, but the red on his cheeks came from angry humiliation.
Literally biting his lip to keep from fussing, Steve slid his arm around Tony's shoulders and helped him stand up. The moment he tried to let go, though, Tony's knees buckled and he would have fallen again.
He was there this time to prevent it. He didn't say anything, though. He just stood there, holding Tony upright, feeling the heat of Tony's fever in the air between them.
"It's too soon," Tony said dully. "I just need…a little more time. I just…"
"It's okay," Steve said. "I'll bring up a tablet, you'll still have access to JARVIS and the computers. You can still do this."
Tony looked up at him, and for a moment Steve saw how frightened he was, before grim resignation took its place. "I'm not giving up," he said. "I'm not."
"I know," Steve said. He smiled encouragingly and wondered how many more times Tony could break his heart on this day.
Immediately he wished he hadn't thought such a thing. Unless they could synthesize the antidote in the next ten hours, Tony was going to die. And then Steve would find just how badly his heart could be broken.
"And don't you carry me," Tony warned. "I can still walk."
Steve nodded, and hoped that in a few minutes that would actually be true. "I know."
"Just…let me sit for a bit," Tony said.
"Okay," Steve said. He glanced around, wondering if he should just deposit Tony on the nearest lab stool, or if he should aim for the battered old couch at the far end of the workshop.
Before he could decide on anything, though, Tony's whole body stiffened as another agonizing cramp struck him. Tony uttered a thick moan and hunched in on himself as much as Steve's encircling arms would allow. "Oh God."
"It's okay," Steve said helplessly. "Breathe. Just breathe."
"Shut up, just shut up," Tony snarled between clenched jaws.
Steve obeyed. He knew how proud Tony was – and he knew how much he would hate to be coddled if their roles were reversed and he was the one suffering the poison's effects. The best thing he could do right now was to shut his mouth and simply be there for Tony.
With a low groan of relief, Tony slumped in his arms. "This really sucks," he sighed.
"I know," Steve said.
For a while longer, Tony didn't try to move. He let Steve hold him up while he gathered his strength, his head slightly bowed, his eyes closed.
Eventually, though, he lifted his head. "Okay," he said, and just like that, he bore his own weight again and stood up straight. "Let's go."
Together they left the workshop. They walked slowly, and Steve remained tense and ready to catch Tony again should he fall, but it turned out to be unnecessary. They moved at a pace that would have made a turtle impatient, but eventually they made it all the way up to Tony's bedroom, and without further incident.
"Can I get you anything?" he asked. "Have you tried eating anything?"
The sour look Tony gave him made Steve feel rather stupid. "Forget I asked."
With clear reluctance, Tony pulled back the comforter on his bed. He sat down on the edge of the mattress and pulled off his shoes. "This doesn't mean I'm giving up," he said.
Whether he remembered saying that downstairs or not, Steve knew his job here. "I know that," he said. He hoped this was just Tony being stubborn and making sure he understood his feelings on the matter, and not due to memory loss and damage being done by the poison.
Tony sighed, then winced. Seeing that, Steve held his breath, but this time, fortunately, it wasn't the precursor of another round of muscle cramps.
"Ah, damnit," Tony muttered. He crawled beneath the covers and lay down.
The hours crept by. As Tony's distress grew, so did his temper. More and more often he snapped at Steve and whoever else happened to be present, displaying an ugly side to his personality that Steve hadn't seen since those early days when they had constantly argued with each other.
Jim Rhodes told him not to take it personally. "That's just how he is when he's hurt."
Steve thought about this. They were in the hall outside Tony's room, talking in quiet voices that weren't quite a whisper. He hadn't wanted to leave, but Tony had insisted, wanting nobody to bear witness while he spoke to Pepper via video.
"Was he like this before?" he asked. "I mean, before he…well, before Iron Man?"
Jim shook his head. He had both hands thrust deep into his pockets, and he looked like he wanted to be anywhere except here right now. "No," he said. "Well, kind of. Tony wasn't always a very nice guy before what happened in Afghanistan."
Steve knew this. After the Battle of New York, when he had found time to learn about his fellow Avengers, he had watched old interviews with Tony. Some of them had been funny, while others had been almost painful to watch. When he was talking about something that excited him, there was no hiding the light in Tony's eyes. At other times, most notably when he was asked about Howard Stark's legacy – or his own – the thin veneer of civility would fall away and he would turn almost hostile.
The common thread in all those interviews was the flippant attitude Tony displayed toward everyone except himself. He was arrogant, aloof, and heavily sarcastic. It was clear that he didn't care what anyone thought about him, that he fully intended to go his own way and do his own thing, and to hell with anyone who disagreed with him.
Now that old Tony was back, in a way. And Steve, who knew him well enough by now, recognized that the old persona was just another mask. Tony was hurt and afraid, and so he lashed out at everyone around him, because he was rapidly running out of options and he simply didn't know what else to do.
"But no," Jim Rhodes said. "He's just scared. That's all." He sounded defensive, ready to spring into battle for Tony. "Don't let it get to you."
That loyalty was just one of the many reasons Steve was glad Rhodey was on his team. "I know," he said. "I won't."
Jim gave him a long look, then nodded.
"Colonel Rhodes." JARVIS spoke quietly, his cultured voice emanating from somewhere in the ceiling. "Mr. Stark wishes to see you privately."
"I'll be right there," Jim said. He didn't go right away, though. He just stared at Steve.
"It might not…" Steve started to say.
"Cut the bull," Jim said harshly. "We both know what he's doing."
Yes, Steve knew, though he hadn't wanted to admit it until now. First the private phone call to Pepper, and now a private talk with Jim.
Tony was wrapping things up. Putting his affairs in order. Call it whatever you wanted, but in the end it all amounted to the same thing.
He was getting ready to die.
Jim took a deep breath and slowly released it. As Steve watched, he smoothed out his expression, removing all traces of the anguish he had just displayed. He took another deep breath, then he knocked once on the door and let himself into Tony's bedroom.
Alone in the hall, Steve tipped leaned back against the wall and shut his eyes.
He thought the private meetings might continue, but after Rhodey came back downstairs, JARVIS said that Tony wished to be alone right now.
Bruce and Hank McCoy were still at work, but the other Avengers were gathered in the kitchen. Someone had made a pot of soup, but judging from how full it remained, most of them weren't that hungry.
"He's talking to JARVIS," Jim said. "Giving out his last instructions, all that kind of bullshit." He sounded angry and helpless; Steve suspected he had been crying earlier.
"Do we…?" Clint looked around at them. "I mean, do we really think that's necessary?"
No one answered him.
"Fuck," Clint said under his breath.
Steve couldn't stand it. Maybe the other Avengers found solace in each other's company at a time like this, but for him their presence was just another torment. They liked Tony and they respected him, but only Jim Rhodes cared about Tony the way he did. And even that was something separate, because only Steve lo—
Without a word, he pushed himself to his feet. He walked out of the kitchen.
"Where are you going?" Clint asked.
"Let him go," Sam said, and then Steve was out of earshot, thankfully alone.
He knew of only one way to unleash his angry frustration, and so he headed now for the enormous gym and training room Tony had built for them all. It encompassed one entire floor of the Tower, and was full of obstacle courses and challenges designed personally for each of the Avengers. The sight of those things now made Steve's heart cramp with fresh pain. Had anyone ever bothered to thank Tony for doing this? For giving them a home? For anything he had done for them?
He couldn't bear to think about such things. Not while there was still a chance that Tony would live, that they would look back on this someday and smile at each other, the kind of smile that two people shared when they had been through something devastating together, and survived.
Startled, he looked up. He hadn't heard anyone approach.
"I would join you, if you like," said Thor.
Abruptly Steve abandoned his original plan to beat some punching bags into sawdust and pulp. It would be far more satisfying to hit Thor.
He nodded. "All right."
Usually when he was pounding away at a punching bag or sparring with someone, Steve lost track of time. The exertion of demanding physical activity took him over and blotted out all external concerns, letting him forget everything else.
Today he was keenly aware of every passing moment. Time had become his biggest enemy, and it was impossible not to think of it. As he and Thor struck out at each other, as he feinted and kicked and punched, he realized that only his body was participating in the fight. His mind was several floors above, with Tony.
What was Tony doing now? Had some new symptoms manifested? Was he in pain? Was he even conscious?
And what was he thinking? What was he feeling? Was he scared? Angry? Considering taking his own life rather than die this slow, miserable death?
His concentration faltered; he was too slow in dodging a punch from Thor. The blow landed on his jaw and snapped his head back. Stars exploded in front of him, and he staggered and almost fell.
"Steve!" He blinked to clear his vision and saw Thor looking at him with contrite apology. "I am sorry."
"No," he said. "It's okay. It was my fault." He rubbed at his chin. "Still, maybe we ought to stop."
Thor did not argue. He stood there, the strongest warrior Steve had ever known, a look of anguished helplessness on his face. He put one hand on Steve's shoulder. "My friend. I am so sorry."
He wasn't talking about the punch anymore, but Steve couldn't bring himself to acknowledge what Thor really meant. The best he could muster was a brief nod. Then he turned away, removing Thor's hand from his shoulder.
There was still time, he told himself. Bruce and Hank would synthesize the antidote, Tony would take it, and it would work. This time tomorrow they would be discussing where they wanted to go for dinner. They would go out and he would smile at Tony from across the table, and when they left the restaurant he would take Tony's hand and let the paparazzi snap their picture without complaining about it like he usually did. They would return here and go to his bedroom and they would lie down together, already kissing, so eager to press skin upon skin that their clothes would end up a tangled mess on the floor, and neither one of them would even care.
It would happen, he swore. It would.
"Captain Rogers?" The voice from above startled them both, and set Steve's heart to racing.
"Yes," he said.
"Mr. Stark would like to see you now," JARVIS said.
Steve met Thor's eyes. He had no idea what to say; the enormity of the request had rendered him speechless.
"He will be there," Thor answered for him.
Gratefully, Steve could only nod.
Every minute that ticked away now was one less minute he got to spend with Tony. But some things were more important. He didn't want to spend what might be his last few hours with Tony while he was sweaty and smelly, bruises on his face from where Thor had hit him. So even though he begrudged the time, he made himself take a hot shower and wash his hair.
By the time he was ready to face Tony, his hair was damp and combed back, the bruising was nearly gone, and he felt calmer. His hand as he knocked on Tony's door was steady.
The door opened on its own, JARVIS granting him entry. Steve took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and walked in.
Tony was in bed, which actually took Steve by surprise. He had half-expected to find Tony pacing back and forth, refusing to lie down and act sick.
He was sort of right. Tony was in bed, but he was sitting up, a couple pillows between his back and the headboard. There was a tablet on his lap and another on the bed beside him. He had put a long-sleeved shirt on over his tank top, and the bedspread was pulled up to cover his legs. His eyes were dull with fever and his face was drawn with pain, but he smiled a little to see Steve.
It was almost five o'clock in the afternoon, and he had just five hours to live.
"Hey," Steve said.
"Hey," Tony said. His voice had degenerated into a painful-sounding rasp not much above a whisper.
Steve hesitated. He had no idea what to say next. Normal conversation had no place in this room. Not anymore. But the alternatives were even worse. The time for encouragement and hopeful words had come and gone. But he refused to even consider that Tony might actually die here tonight.
So what was left?
"I've given orders to JARVIS," Tony said. "No one comes in. Not anymore."
Steve nodded. He could understand that. Beneath the helpless physical manifestations of his condition, Tony was humiliated and angry. He would not want people to see him like this.
"Just you," Tony said.
And that caught Steve off guard. It shouldn't be him, he thought almost frantically. Jim Rhodes should be in here. Or Pepper. Or…
But there was no one else. That was somehow the worst thing of all. The list of people Tony Stark trusted and respected – and cared for – was depressingly short.
"Okay," he said.
He came forward and sat on the edge of the bed, his left leg bent at the knee and resting on the bedspread. "Can I get you anything?"
Tony shook his head. "No."
He wanted to protest that surely there must be something Tony wanted, something he could do to make him feel even a little bit better. But he stopped himself before he could say anything out loud. If he said that, it wouldn't be for Tony's sake. It would be for his own, some pitiful attempt to make himself feel better by trying to help Tony.
"I've given JARVIS some instructions," Tony said. "For…for after. He knows what to do, but some people won't understand." He gave Steve a long look. "I need you to make sure he can do what needs to be done."
Steve nodded. "I'll do whatever I can," he said, and hoped he hadn't just promised to help an artificial intelligence system take over the world.
"There you go, J," Tony said wearily.
"Thank you, Captain Rogers," JARVIS said.
"I want—" Tony started to say, and then he froze up in pain, his breath whistling in between clenched jaws. One hand bore down on the comforter so fiercely his knuckles turned white. He actually moaned a little, a low sound that he instantly looked ashamed of.
There was nothing Steve could do. A dozen ideas flashed through his mind – a hot towel, water, aspirin, an ice pack – but before he could decide on any of them, the spasm passed and Tony relaxed back against the pillows again.
"God," Tony sighed. He closed his eyes.
"It's getting worse, isn't it," Steve said. He wasn't asking.
Tony opened his eyes but remained where he was, leaning against the pillows. "Don't worry," he said flatly. "I'm not going to start screaming or anything like that."
Steve flushed a little with embarrassment. "I wouldn't care if you did," he said, determined to act supportive, no matter what.
Tony's eyes flashed with anger. He sat up, refusing the support behind him. "Yeah, well I'd care."
"Well, I'll still be here even if you do start screaming," Steve promised. And prayed that he wouldn't need to keep that promise.
Silence stretched out between them as Tony stared at him. Steve returned that gaze steadily, unafraid. "What if I didn't want you to?" Tony asked quietly.
Words of protest rose in his throat. He clamped down on them, though – along with the fear that suddenly galloped through his chest. Tony didn't mean that. He couldn't mean that. He had just said that Steve was the only person he wanted to be with him. Besides, Steve knew that he couldn't leave now. These might very well be the last hours of Tony Stark's life. He couldn't allow himself to be banished from this room, couldn't be forced to spend those hours in the company of people who were equally as useless as he was.
He couldn't let Tony die alone.
He drew in a deep breath. "If you really want, I'll go," he said. "But I would like to stay."
"Why?" Tony said. He tensed up as another wave of pain washed over him but it was mercifully brief, and he was able to remain silent this time. "I mean, this can't be fun for you."
Because you asked me to be here, he thought. Because you trust me enough to bear witness to your final hours. And because I know how precious that trust is, and I will never betray it.
"Because I want to be with you," he said. "Because I care." He stopped before he could say anything more, afraid of what might come out of his mouth if he didn't. He still wasn't entirely sure what exactly he felt for Tony, and he feared what he might say or do if he were to explore those feelings too deeply right now.
Later, he told himself. Because there would be a later. They would beat this, and then they would have all the time in the world to sit together and talk and kiss and make love and work out just what they had and what they wanted from each other.
Tony looked vaguely alarmed by all this, however. His eyes darted from side to side, and he took a breath like he was about to say something. Before he had a chance to speak, though, another muscle spasm started, and he went rigid all over.
Instinctively Steve started to lean in toward him, overcome by the desire to do something, anything, to ease Tony's suffering. But when Tony saw this he turned his head away, which was about the only thing he could do when he was otherwise paralyzed by the pain that had seized him.
Furious at himself, Steve slowly sat back. He counted the seconds between each of Tony's agonized breaths, and he thought of something Bucky had told him once, after he had taken the serum.
It was hell watching you back then, Bucky had said. When you had an asthma attack, or when you got sick. I just sat there and watched you try to breathe, and hoped like hell there would be a next breath. And all the time I kept wondering what I would do if there wasn't.
He had never really understood that. At the time he had clapped Bucky on the shoulder and thanked him gravely for being there for him through his miserable childhood of poverty and sickness. He had focused then on their friendship, on Bucky's presence beside him, often when there had been no one else.
But he understood now what Bucky had really been saying. The overwhelming frustration, the sick sense of helplessness, the pain of watching someone you cared about suffer, and worse, knowing there wasn't a damn thing you could do about it.
Except that wasn't true, and he knew it. There was something he could do about it. Something he should have done hours ago.
He pulled his phone out and opened up his e-mail. "I'm writing him back," he said. He found the last e-mail from Colin Thomas and tapped Reply. Then he looked up.
Tony was looking at him. Not with scorn or impatience or exasperation at his stubbornness. It was hard to know exactly what Tony was thinking then. He might have held out some hope that Colin would indeed have the antidote he claimed to possess. If he was thinking anything like that, though, Steve couldn't tell.
"You aren't going to try and stop me?" he asked.
"What would be the point?" Tony said wearily. "You're gonna do what you want anyway."
"Damn right I am," Steve said, and he began to type.
His response was brief and to the point. I will meet you. Where and when?
He didn't sign it.
"You know it won't matter," Tony rasped. "There is no antidote."
"You don't know that," Steve said. He refused to believe that. Colin Thomas wanted to be Captain America's best friend. Killing Tony Stark would gain him nothing. In fact, he stood to lose everything he wanted if he actually followed through with this.
No, he had the antidote. Steve was certain of it.
So he would meet with Colin. He would get the antidote. And then he would see the man arrested for his crimes.
But first, he would save Tony.
It took Colin half an hour to write back. In those thirty minutes, Steve died a hundred little deaths. He was convinced that he had waited too long, that Colin had decided he wasn't going to cooperate and had simply abandoned him and Tony to their fate
But when he saw the e-mail, he realized two horrible truths. The first was that Colin had been planning this for a very long time. And in light of that fact, the second truth was even worse: Colin had deliberately waited to reply. He wanted Steve to suffer as punishment for taking so long to respond to his overtures of friendship, and ignoring his warnings about seeing Tony.
"There's an old abandoned greenhouse on the roof of my building. Meet me there at 9:00. Come alone," Steve read aloud, his phone clenched in his hand. He looked up at Tony. "Oh my God."
"What," Tony said. He was beginning to have trouble breathing; every so often his chest would hitch as he gasped for air.
"He was there," Steve said. "He was there on the roof the whole time we were there. He was waiting for us. Watching us." It made him hot with rage to think about it, their tormentor sitting on the roof, peeking out onto the street below and watching as the Avengers arrived, then left a while later with their precious venom samples.
"Probably," Tony said. He didn't sound too interested in this revelation. "What are you going to say back?"
That was easy; he spoke the words out loud as he typed them in. "Tony is coming with me. That is non-negotiable. We will be there."
"Great," Tony sighed. "Looking forward to it."
Steve said nothing. Already he was thinking ahead and planning for their encounter with Colin Thomas. Nine o'clock would be cutting it kind of close, if Colin was right about Tony only having 24 hours to live from the time he had been poisoned. But it would be enough time.
It had to be.
They argued over when to leave for their meeting with Colin; Steve wanted to go right now, while Tony said they shouldn't bother, Colin wouldn't be there until 9:00. Tony won that one, although Steve did get him to agree to arrive early. Together they made their plans and went over them until Steve felt confident that things would go smoothly on that rooftop.
After that they fought over whether or not Tony should fly them there in the suit; Steve said Colin might not show if he thought he would be attacked. Tony won this one too, with the simple but devastating statement that this might well be his last time to be Iron Man. It was a low blow, but one Steve simply could not argue with. Tony said he would give the suit the appearance of being powered down, so it would not pose as much of a threat, but the gleam in his eye as he said this was proof of the lie. With a single command, Tony said, JARVIS would take over the suit and spring into action as required.
Despite the circumstances, it felt almost normal to bicker with Tony again, like nothing had happened. Steve knew he should take no pleasure from these conversations, but it was good to see Tony dig his heels in and stand his ground. Even now, when his fate seemed all but inevitable, he was still determined to do things his own way. And Steve got the distinct impression that as long as Tony was fighting with him, he was able to focus on the argument itself and ignore his increasing physical deterioration.
If bickering with Tony was what it took to make him feel better, even temporarily, Steve was all for it.
He would do whatever he had to.
It took them longer to reach Colin's apartment than Steve had anticipated. Tony was alarmingly weak, and Steve was forced to practically carry him over to the elevator that took them to the roof of the Tower. The Iron Man assembly rig was poised and waiting for them, and Steve watched with a lump in his throat as the crimson armor sealed itself about Tony's slight form. It would not be for the last time, he vowed. It would not be.
Once Tony was in the armor, he was able to let JARVIS take over. The flight to Queens shouldn't have taken long at all, yet it still took them twice as long to arrive than it should have. Part of that, Steve knew, was because Tony had to slow down when he was carrying a passenger, even someone as durable as Captain America. But he suspected the larger reason was far more simple. Tony wanted to make his final flight last as long as possible.
Flying through the night air, Iron Man's arm holding him securely, Steve felt tears sting his eyes that had nothing to do with the bite of the wind. It wasn't supposed to be like this, he thought. They were supposed to have a shining future ahead of them, a future they shared together.
But now the only thing they were sharing was this, this last flight through the sky. And the future that should have been so bright was so dim it could be measured in minutes.
Although it was night, the lights of the city made the rooftop as bright as day. They landed without a hitch; JARVIS controlled the suit so that Tony remained as graceful as ever. Steve stepped away from him and rolled his shoulders, feeling the reassuring weight of the shield on his back. He was in civilian clothes, having decided that it was better to go into this meeting as Steve Rogers rather than Captain America. But the shield was part of him. There had never been a question of leaving it behind.
Tony stumbled as the armor opened up and he stepped out. Immediately Steve was there to catch hold of him and prevent him from falling. He could feel the heat of Tony's fever, along with the way Tony shivered in the cool night air.
As if hearing his thoughts, Tony gave him a little push and said, "Go on, then. Go save the day. Don't worry about me." He gave Steve a brittle smile. "I'll be fine. I'll just hang out over here."
Steve lowered his arm and looked over at him. No one could look at Tony now and think he was "fine." He was deathly pale and shivering, his shoulders and upper body hunched in a little against the pain. His breathing was strained and shallow and he gave the impression of being one step away from complete collapse.
Yet Steve knew he wouldn't. Not yet. Not while everything hinged on this meeting with Colin Thomas. He would stand here and project silent strength, and he would do whatever he had to do in order to survive. Because that strength was at the core of what made Tony Stark the man he was. Because he never surrendered, not really. He just found new ways to keep on fighting.
And looking at him now, Steve finally accepted the truth. He loved Tony. He had loved him for some time now. He just hadn't wanted to admit it.
And it was all so stupid, he thought angrily. He had kept silent – even to himself – because he hadn't wanted to lose what they had. He hadn't wanted to frighten Tony away, or ruin their friendship. He had forgotten the most basic truth of life: that everything you had could be lost in the blink of an eye.
The way he was about to lose Tony.
"Cap, we got movement." A quiet voice in the comm nestled in his ear forced him back to the present. He drew in a deep breath, and yes, there was Colin Thomas emerging from behind the air conditioning equipment on the rooftop.
Steve took a couple steps forward, then stopped and just stared at the man. Colin was so unassuming, it seemed impossible that he could be responsible for so much pain. But he had done it – and so far he had shown no remorse for it, either.
"Steve," Colin said. His blond hair was carefully combed into place. "You came." He smiled a little. "Alone, I take it?"
"Yes," Steve said, and it wasn't a lie. Hawkeye had gotten into position nearly an hour ago, arriving well ahead of them. Lying on the roof of the slightly taller building next door gave Clint an uninterrupted view of this rooftop, which had allowed him to give Steve those few seconds of warning when Colin finally decided to show himself.
Colin glanced behind him, to where Tony stood. His eyes widened in surprise, and for a single instant he looked almost guilt-stricken. Then he swallowed and cleared his throat, and the moment was gone.
"Let's get this over with," Steve said. "Give us the antidote."
"I said you could have it on one condition," Colin said. "Did you even read my e-mail?"
The condescension in his voice made Steve's hands curl into fists. More than anything he longed to throw the shield at this man and force him to give Steve what he wanted. And it was tempting, so tempting. He had nothing to lose by doing it, except if something happened to Colin before he handed over the antidote, then Tony's last chance would be gone forever.
So he would do this the hard way. "I read it," he said.
"Then you know what I want," Colin said. He folded his arms across his chest. He looked prepared to stand there all night.
"You want me to stop going out in public with Tony," Steve said. "You want me to stop being his friend." He didn't dare glance behind him to see how Tony was reacting to this. "You want me to be your friend, instead."
Colin nodded a little.
"That's not gonna happen," Steve said flatly.
Colin blinked in shock. "What?"
"You heard me," Steve said. He repeated himself, slowly this time. "That's not going to happen."
"But I have—" Colin began.
"You have nothing," Steve interrupted. "Nothing I would ever want. I look at you and I don't see someone I would want to be friends with. How could I ever be friends with someone who would hurt an innocent man?"
Rage contorted Colin's face as he pointed at Tony. "Stark? He's not innocent! He's covered in blood. His hands are dripping with it!"
"And what about my hands?" Steve asked.
"W--what?" Startled, Colin lost most of his rage, which was enough to convince Steve that it had mostly been an act. Despite what he said, Colin didn't really care about Tony's past as a weapons manufacturer and seller. That was only his excuse for doing this. If Steve had been seen with Sam, then Colin would have claimed that Sam's stint in the military meant he was unfit to be with Steve. If it had been Natasha, he would have said she was a spy and a traitor as part of SHIELD. Whoever Steve had chosen to be with, Colin would have found fault with all of them.
"I've killed people before," Steve said. "Some of them were innocent, too. Did you forget where I got my start? That I fought in a world war?"
"That…" Colin shook his head. He looked confused now, the wind blowing his hair out of its careful styling. "That's not the same. I know you didn't mean to do those things."
"The same way Tony never meant for innocent people to be hurt by his weapons," Steve said. He felt a cautious sense of hope; maybe they could still get out of this with no further damages.
"No! It's not the same!" Colin balled his hands into fists. "Don't say that!"
"It is the same," Steve said. "You know I never lie."
"But…" Colin looked from him to Tony and then back again. "No."
Seeing his chance, Steve pressed his advantage. "What Tony and I did in the past made us who we are today. And I'll be the first to admit that we did things we aren't proud of. But we're taking those things and we're doing something about them. We're trying to make this world a better place. Doesn't that count for something?"
Colin stared at him. "But you're not supposed to be with him," he whispered.
Steve risked glancing behind him. Tony was still standing there, but it was clear he wouldn't be able to do that much longer. "Look at him," Steve pleaded. "Look at what you're doing to him. Tony may have made weapons, and yes, he did some terrible things, but he would never do this to a person. I would never do this. And how could I ever want to be with someone who would?"
His eyes wide with horror, Colin shook his head. "Steve. Please."
"Just give me the antidote," Steve said. "This doesn't have to go any further, Colin. You know this is the right thing to do." He held out his hand.
He saw the moment when Colin cracked, when his terrible need to be as good a person as Steve Rogers became his undoing. "I can't," Colin admitted. His shoulders slumped. "There is no antidote."
Behind him, Tony made a weak laugh. "Told you."
"There has to be," Steve insisted. "Colin, please. Save him."
"I can't," Colin said again. He looked utterly defeated.
"You have to save him!" Steve cried. He had pinned everything on this last, desperate gamble, and it had failed. He could not believe it. He would not believe it.
"Why?" Colin asked. He stared at Steve, imploring him to explain this thing he could not understand. "Why do you care? Why do you care about him and not me?"
Steve took a deep, calming breath. He turned slightly so he could look at Tony. "Because I love him."
The look on Tony's face broke his heart then, because in it he saw that Tony had known all along. And worse, that Tony loved him back.
All that time wasted, he thought sickly. All that time gone forever.
He looked back at Colin. "I love Tony," he said. "And I'm not afraid to say that. I don't care who knows."
Colin had been staring at him in bewildered astonishment, but now a change swept over him. He leaned forward, his upper lip lifting from his teeth in a snarl of rage. "You can't!" he shouted. "You're just as corrupt as he is! I should have known!"
Steve held out one hand. "Colin."
Crying out wordlessly, Colin ran at him.
There was no real danger from that reckless charge; Colin was unarmed and Steve not only had his shield, he had the strength of his two hands. But evidently it was enough for the Avengers to break cover. Colin had barely taken two steps when an arrow lodged itself in the roof just in front of Colin's feet. A loud bang and a shockingly bright ball of light exploded from the arrow.
Steve turned away, his arm held protectively over his face. He heard Colin scream in mingled pain and rage as he was suddenly blinded and deafened by that explosion.
A bare second later, both War Machine and Falcon were there, flying in from above and seizing Colin by his arms. "We got him," Sam said over the comm.
"Good," Steve said, and he turned and went to Tony.
He was just in time, too. Tony had finally reached the limits of his endurance. As Steve came up to him, his knees buckled and he fell.
Steve caught him and went down on one knee, holding Tony in his arms. "Hey," he said.
Tony gasped for breath. He reached up with one hand, searching blindly for something to hold onto; his palm smacked Steve's chest and he latched onto the zippered edge of Steve's jacket. "Steve."
"I'm here," Steve said. His chest felt too tight. The back of his throat burned with unshed tears.
"Sorry," Tony whispered. He stared upward, but his eyes were unfocused; he couldn't see anything, Steve realized. "I'm sorry."
"Don't," Steve pleaded. "It's not your fault, Tony. It's not your fault."
"Love you, too, you know," Tony said. He gasped, arching up a little in Steve's grip as he struggled to get enough oxygen. "I tried not to. I really did. But you…you make it so damn hard."
"I love you," Steve said. "I wish I had told you before."
"'s okay," Tony sighed. "I wouldn't…have listened before." He uttered a thin cry of pain, twisting against Steve's arms. "Oh God."
"Breathe," Steve urged. "Just keep breathing, Tony. Just hold on."
"I'm sorry," Tony whispered. "Steve." His chest hitched. "I'm sorry…" His eyes closed, and he slumped back in Steve's embrace.
Frozen still, Steve could not move. He stared down at Tony, and he blinked rapidly, willing himself not to cry. Not here. Not now.
"Steve?" Sam spoke gently, having landed beside him. "Is he…?"
"Just unconscious," Steve said. For now, Tony still lived. But it was the end, all the same. He knew Tony would not wake up again.
"Let's get you guys back home," Sam said. He put a hand on Steve's shoulder.
Still holding Tony close, still down on one knee, Steve finally looked up. He saw Sam, but no one else. "Did Rhodey…?"
"He's got your guy," Sam said. "He's taking him to the police. What they do with him then isn't something I give a shit about." He softened his voice. "What I care about is you, Steve. And that means getting you and Tony back to the Tower."
He didn't say anything about what he and Clint and Jim had heard over the comm, and for that Steve was grateful. He knew they wouldn't, either. Not today and probably not ever. The secret he had confessed to a dying man would stay between them.
He eased his other arm beneath Tony's knees, then carefully stood up. "Okay," he said. "Let's go."
Back in the Tower, there was nothing to do but wait for Tony to die.
Even though it hadn't happened yet, he felt numb all over. When Bruce came up to him, in tears and apologizing for his failure, Steve hugged him and didn't feel a thing. "It's not your fault," he said, and it was like someone else was speaking the words. "I know you tried."
"We haven't given up yet," Bruce vowed, but they both knew it was already too late.
Natasha offered to try and contact Bucky and bring him here, but Steve refused. His first meeting with Bucky would be fraught with all kinds of emotion. He didn't want to add his grief over Tony to that list.
"But someone should call Pepper," he said.
"I'll do it," Natasha said, and it was a measure of how helpless she must feel that she looked relieved to have something to do, even if it was something this awful.
Steve looked around. Bruce had already returned to his lab. Clint and Rhodey were still gone, dealing with Colin Thomas and the police. He didn't know where Thor was. Only Sam and Natasha remained here, looking at him with such quiet sympathy that he couldn't stand it.
"I should…" He couldn't finish. He didn't even bother trying. He just turned around and left them.
Upstairs, all was quiet in Tony's bedroom. Here at last he found Thor, standing beside the bed and looking enormous against the stillness of the figure lying there. When he came inside, Thor looked up. "I wished to speak to him one last time," Thor said. His voice was rough with grief. "I will leave you now."
"Thank you," Steve said.
Thor embraced him on his way out. Steve hugged him back, but again he felt nothing.
Alone with Tony, he sat down heavily on the edge of the bed.
"It's not supposed to be like this," he said quietly.
Tony did not respond. He simply lay there. He didn't fight for breath anymore; he had progressed beyond simple unconsciousness. This was coma, Steve understood. This was the last stage.
After this, there would be nothing.
Slowly he reached out and brushed the hair back from Tony's forehead. He leaned down to press a kiss to Tony's lips. As he did, tears he hadn't even known he was holding back began to fall.
"You are the most amazing person," he said. "You have the biggest heart of anyone I ever met. I know you hated it when people realized that about you, and you tried so hard to hide it, but it's true." He sniffled and wiped at his eyes, then managed a watery smile. "You couldn't really hide it, you know. Actually you were pretty bad at it."
He dashed away the tears. He had to stop crying now. If he didn't, he would never stop.
"I love you so much," he said. "You are brilliant, and beautiful, and I don't know what I'm going to do without you."
Well, he would go on. That was what he did. He lost everyone he cared about, and he found a way to go on, anyway. At least this time he wouldn't have to go it alone. He had Sam and Natasha and the Avengers. And maybe someday he would have Bucky again, too.
He gave Tony another gentle kiss. Then he removed the shield and his jacket and his boots. Carefully he lay down on the bed with his head on Tony's shoulder. He reached for one of Tony's slack hands and entwined their fingers.
"I had plans for today, you know," he said. He rubbed his thumb over the back of Tony's hand. "And tomorrow. And the day after. There were so many things I wanted to do with you. So many places I wanted to go. You had a way of making me see things I wouldn't have seen otherwise."
He brought their joined hands to his lips so he could kiss Tony's fingers. "I wanted everyone to see us. I wanted them to know about us. I wanted to see you smile at those paparazzi people in that way you had, like you knew something wicked about them, but it was your little secret."
He smiled a little to remember it. "You had such a beautiful smile. It lit up your whole face."
For a moment he indulged himself in memory, thinking of all the times he had seen Tony smile like that for the cameras. Then he remembered what he was supposed to be saying. "So we would go out, and we would show the world how in love we were. And then when we were done with that, we would come back here, and show each other in private." He knew how corny that sounded, but he didn't care. He spoke from the heart now. He didn't know if Tony could hear him or not. He had read once that people in comas could sometimes hear what was happening around them, so if there was even the slightest chance that Tony could hear him, he would continue to say the words out loud.
"So I would kiss you, and you would make those little noises I loved to hear. And you would grab at my clothes and say they were too tight and call me a show-off, and I would just laugh a little and say you loved it and you knew it. And you would just nod and peel the shirt off me and throw it to the floor."
Just yesterday morning it would have aroused him to think about them doing those things, envisioning them in his head. Now he was just filled with sorrow to think they would never happen again, and tears threatened once more.
"And I would kiss you then," he said, "and I wouldn't be able to stop. Because you always did that to me, you made me feel like my blood was on fire, like I had to keep kissing you, like—"
He stopped, transfixed by the sound of the words ringing in the air.
Like my blood was on fire.
"My blood," he whispered.
He sat up and stared down at Tony. "My blood. Oh my God."
His heart began to race. Could it really be that simple?
"JARVIS." Gently he disentangled his hand from Tony's, then got off the bed. "Where's Bruce?"
"Drs. Banner and McCoy are in Lab 7A," JARVIS replied. He sounded as composed as ever. Maybe he didn't know Tony was dying. Maybe he didn't even understand what "dying" meant.
"Tell them I'm on my way," Steve ordered. He flung open the bedroom door and began to run.
The halls of the Tower didn't let him reach his top running speed, but he still made good time. In less than a minute, he was at the lab, already pushing up his sleeve. "My blood," he said. "You have to take my blood."
Bruce and Hank McCoy stared at him as if he had gone crazy.
"My blood!" Steve repeated impatiently. "My healing factor! That's what you need for the antidote!"
"Steve," Bruce said kindly, "we already thought of that. Trust me."
"And I'm telling you," Steve said, "this is what you need." He thrust his arm at them. "Now do it!"
Hank looked at Bruce. "Might as well," he said. It was hard to tell on his furry face, but he seemed exhausted.
"We ran the numbers," Bruce said. "It won't work." He was already reaching for a vial, though, as he said it.
"Numbers aren't the real thing," Steve said. "And no offense, but you of all people should know that when it comes to the super soldier serum, guesswork isn't enough."
Bruce flinched a little, which made Steve feel bad. Not enough, though, to back down. He just stood there stolidly while Bruce swabbed at his arm and then stuck him with the needle and began to draw his blood.
When they had three vials full, Steve backed up a couple steps. "Do what you need to do," he said. "But whatever it is, do it quick. He doesn't have much time." If Tony had died while he was down here, if they synthesized the antidote too late, if it didn't even work at all…
He shook his head and refused to think of such things.
"Let JARVIS know if you need me for anything else," he said.
He was nearly at the door when Bruce called his name. He paused, one hand on the doorknob, and turned around.
"Steve…" Bruce looked miserable. "We'll do what we can, but you shouldn't get your hopes up," he said.
Steve gave him a smile. "I never hope for anything," he said. "I learned that a long time ago." He started to close the door behind him, then stopped. He looked back at Bruce and Hank. "If you want something to happen," he said, "you make it happen. It's that simple."
Bruce showed up forty minutes later, running so fast he nearly missed the turn into Tony's bedroom. He struck the doorframe hard with one shoulder, bounced off it, and then staggered into the room. He had a vial in one hand and a syringe in the other; as he hurried forward, he leaned down and tore the cap off the syringe with his teeth, then spat it to one side.
"His arm," Bruce commanded.
Steve didn't hesitate. He yanked down the bedclothes and bared Tony's right arm. "You got it?"
"We think so," Bruce said. He jammed the needle into the vial and began to draw in the precious fluid it contained. He glanced at Steve, then looked back at what he was doing. "And if we didn't, I don't think it will really matter."
That was certainly true. The end was not far off now. The pause between each breath Tony drew had grown agonizingly long. Soon there simply wouldn't be a next breath at all.
Bruce set the empty vial down on the bed and leaned over Tony. He closed his eyes briefly, trying to regain some sense of calm, then injected the antidote into Tony's vein.
"How soon will we know?" Steve asked.
"Minutes? Hours? I don't know," Bruce said. "I haven't exactly done this before."
If Tony survived even half an hour past this point, it would indicate a success. Steve could live with waiting, if that was what it meant. He smiled at Bruce. "But you did it." He put a hand on Bruce's shoulder. "I'm sorry for what I said to you earlier. That wasn't right."
"But it was fair," Bruce said with one of his crooked smiles. He backed away a little. "I'll let the others know."
"Thank you," Steve said, and he wasn't just referring to Bruce spreading the word.
Bruce nodded at him, apparently realizing this. He gathered up the empty vial and thrust it into the pocket of his lab coat, then he turned and left.
Steve turned back to Tony and carefully sat down. He took Tony's hand in his, and settled himself to wait.
He wasn't really sure what he expected, but as the seconds stretched into minutes with nothing happening, he felt fear crowding at the back of his throat. Why wasn't it working yet? How much more would Tony have to endure? He heard footsteps out in the hall and he knew the other Avengers had come to bear witness to whatever might happen, but he didn't turn around to look at them. He had eyes only for Tony.
No one spoke to him. No one jostled their neighbor. They just stood there, so still and silent that the only sound in the room was Tony's deep, even breathing.
And it hit Steve all of a sudden.
The way Tony was breathing. So calm, so steady. Like he was merely asleep, not so deep in coma his body was beginning to shut down from the effects of the poison.
Like the antidote had worked.
A wordless sound escaped him. He leaned forward, then turned Tony's hand over in his and laid two fingers against his wrist. Hardly daring to hope, he began to count the pulse beats beneath his fingertips.
Tony's heart rate was normal. His breathing was normal. The first hint of color was starting to return to his face.
"Steve?" Sam said his name very quietly.
He looked around, still holding Tony's wrist. Only then did he realize that he was crying. "He's okay," he said. He gave them all a tearful smile, a smile of purest joy. "He's gonna be okay."
The other Avengers, including Hank McCoy, cheered out loud. Out of deference for Tony's condition, they kept their voices down, but it was still very definitely a cheer.
Steve smiled back at them, feeling lighter than he had in over twenty-four hours. He was still sitting there, smiling like a fool, when he felt Tony's hand move in his.
Immediately he turned back around. "Tony?"
Whether it was the cheering of the Avengers or a natural reaction to the antidote now coursing through his blood, Tony was waking up. He seemed to have difficulty opening his eyes, and he made some rather undignified noises as he stirred, but there was no doubt about it: he was awake.
Steve remained very still, waiting for him to come around. He knew a few moments of trepidation when he worried that the poison would have lasting effects, some terrible consequence he couldn't even conceive of that would alter Tony forever. But in the next instant he cast those worries aside. Even if that turned out to be the case, it wouldn't change anything. He would still love Tony with all his heart.
At last Tony managed to open his eyes. He stared blankly up at the ceiling for a little bit, then he blinked, and his eyes focused. His hand moved, his fingers curling about Steve's. He turned his head and he gazed at Steve.
"Hey," Steve said.
"Hey," Tony rasped. The glitter of fever was gone from his eyes. He looked terrible, unshaven and still too pale, with deep circles beneath his eyes. But at the same time, Steve thought he had never been more beautiful.
"Welcome back," he said. Then he couldn't hold back for another second. He leaned down and he kissed Tony.
Behind him he heard voices making fussing noises, then footsteps shuffling away, granting them privacy. He didn't care. Every single one of the Avengers could have stayed there watching them and he wouldn't have cared about that, either. All he cared about just then was Tony's lips on his, Tony's breath mingling with his, Tony's hand warm on his skin.
They broke apart, and Steve leaned his forehead against Tony's. The flesh there was warm to the touch, but not feverish. "I love you," he said. "But you are not allowed to scare me like that ever again."
"I love you, too," Tony said. "But I make no promises." Already he sounded like he was ready to go back to sleep.
Steve would not make him stay awake. Right now Tony needed rest more than anything else. His body had been through hell in the last twenty-four hours, and although the antidote had combatted the poison, only sleep would give him the chance to fully recover.
He lifted his head so he could gaze down into Tony's eyes. "I only need one," he said quietly.
"One what?" Tony murmured.
"Promise," Steve said.
Tony's eyes fluttered shut. "What's that," he said.
"That you'll wake up again tomorrow," Steve said.
"I can do that," Tony breathed. "Promise."
"Good," Steve said. He gave Tony a kiss. "Because I'm going to hold you to that."
Tony did not respond. He was asleep again.
Smiling, Steve sat up. It was all right. Tony was going to live. He would wake up tomorrow just like he had promised, and Steve would offer him a light breakfast, and then they would talk about some things. He didn't know what those things would be just yet, but he was looking forward to it all the same.
After months of trying to figure out just what he had with Tony, he finally knew.
And it was everything he had ever wanted.
Away from the city, the sunrise was spectacular. With no buildings to get in the way, the colors streaking the sky were wonderful to behold. In the west, stars still clung to the last remnants of night. But their time was numbered, and they seemed to know it, judging by how feverishly they glittered.
"I want you to know," Tony said, "that I don't get up this early for just anyone."
Steve looked at him. "I don't think it counts if we never really went to sleep."
"Eh, who's keeping score anyway?" Tony said. It had been his idea to come out here to the house he had in the Hamptons. Away from the city, away from Avengers Tower, away from the media who only wanted to interview Tony Stark about his narrow escape from an attempt on his life.
Away from all the cameras and smartphones recording them as they walked through the city streets, hand in hand for all the world to see.
"Not you," Steve said with a straight face. "You're not competitive at all."
"Damn straight I'm not," Tony said. "At least, not when I already have what I want."
"And what's that?" Steve asked.
Tony turned away from the sunrise to look at him. "You," he said simply. "Just you."
Steve smiled. It had been a week since the incident with Colin Thomas. Seven days of Steve hovering protectively over Tony while trying his hardest not to appear like he was doing that very thing. Six days of Tony grumbling that was fine, damnit, he didn't need a third doctor to declare that he was poison-free, thank you very much. Five days of statements made to lawyers and the police regarding what had happened. Four days of the media feeding frenzy following the announcement that Captain America and Iron Man were dating and in love. Three days of dodging the press and walking hand in hand through the streets of New York, pausing occasionally to peer into windows and steal kisses that everyone around them took pictures of. Two days of deciding that they needed to get away, and making plans. One day to fly out here, secure in the scarlet embrace of Iron Man, anticipating this chance to be by themselves.
And last night. Coming together on the bed, on the floor, on the couch. Driving each other wild with kisses and touches and teasing smiles. Falling still at last, capable of no more, and just holding each other.
And finally this now. This moment. Sitting on expensive lounge chairs on the deck of this house he hadn't even known Tony owned until two days ago. Watching the sunrise.
Saying all those things they now had time for.
"I'm sorry," he said.
Tony gave him a puzzled look.
"I should never have let things get as far they did," he said. He would forever carry that guilt, the knowledge that if he had responded to Colin sooner, maybe none of this would have happened. "I thought—"
"No," Tony said. He sat up a little bit. "We are not going to talk about this, okay? It happened, it's over, it wasn't your fault, we're moving on." He pointed at the color-streaked sky. "New beginnings, Cap. Just in case you missed the symbolism of the moment."
Steve flushed. He didn't know if he wanted to be absolved of his guilt so easily.
He stood up and walked over to the deck railing. He set his hands on it and stared out at the sunrise. "And what if—"
"If someone tries again?" Tony asked from behind him. He sounded light-hearted, as though he didn't care. Steve turned around and saw him stand up. "Someone will. Someone always does." He started walking toward Steve. "But we'll find an answer. Because that's what we do."
As Tony came up to stand beside him, Steve slid an arm around him. "We'll find an answer together," he said.
"Well, yeah," Tony said, and eased his arm around Steve's waist. "I was leaving it unspoken, though. Going for the dramatic effect and all."
In spite of himself, Steve chuckled, because God, he loved this man so much.
Tony turned toward him, and as always, Steve was mesmerized by the intensity of his undivided attention. Tony's eyes had such incredible depths that he would happily remain lost in them for as long as Tony would let him.
"Listen to me," Tony said. "I love you, okay? I don't blame you for any of this."
"I know," Steve said. Tony didn't have to blame him. He blamed himself – and always would.
"I love you," Tony repeated. "And I tried not to, you know. I really did. For so long I was kind of hoping we could just be friends with benefits, that sort of thing."
With that single statement, a hundred little things from the past couple months abruptly fell into place. All those arguments at the start of their relationship. The way Tony had refused at first to remain in his bed after sex, while shutting down any conversation Steve tried to make afterward. It wasn't that Tony hadn't wanted to be with him. It was the exact opposite. All that time Tony had been railing against the inevitable, trying his hardest to hold onto his heart.
"Except I couldn't do it," Tony said. "Because here's the thing. Someone wiser than me once told me that the whole 'friends with benefits' thing only works if you're actually friends."
That had to be Rhodey, Steve thought. He suddenly saw his conversation with Sam in a whole new light. Apparently at some point Sam and Rhodey had got to talking and decided that enough was enough and it was time to take matters into their own hands. Time to urge their two annoying friends to get their heads out of their asses and start acting like grown men.
"So I finally stopped fighting it," Tony said. "And I fell in love with you. Stubborn, aggravating, beautiful you. Tony Stark's greatest failure." He grinned.
"Wow, you really know how to make a guy feel special," Steve said dryly.
"You know what I mean," Tony said. "Now shut up and kiss me. You're letting all this glorious symbolism go to waste." He gestured at the dawn-blue sky.
Steve smiled. "I love you too. Stubborn, aggravating, beautiful you." He kissed Tony as directed, but he took his time about it, keeping it slow and sweet, teasing with his lips and his tongue until Tony was panting into him and clutching at him.
"How was that?" Steve asked.
"Perfect," Tony murmured. "You know me too well."
Steve wasn't so sure about that – but he did know that he was definitely going to enjoy spending his future getting to unravel the mystery that was Tony Stark.
Tony leaned into him, and Steve wrapped both arms around him and held him close. He closed his eyes, feeling happier than he had in a very long time. They had the whole day ahead of them, with no plans whatsoever, and he was absolutely fine with that.
After all, they had all the time in the world.