“I’m sorry, Steve, but without a Dominant, you’re stuck here.”
It takes a while for the words to really sink in, to realize that Nick is serious and isn’t going to back down.
“You can’t expect me to follow a regulation that wasn’t even in place when I was in the army.”
“I can and I do.”
He eventually becomes reconciled to the idea after Nick shows him paper after paper about the effects of PTSD on Submissives and Dominants and suggested treatments for both. They’re different for the two groups, and the researchers posit that isolation is the last thing a Submissive needs when dealing with trauma. Thus, the rule that Submissives who’ve seen battle have to stay in base housing unless they’re contracted.
While Steve could argue that not all Submissives are the same, that he’s different, that it actually feels more isolating to be around all these people who can’t understand than it does to be alone, he doesn’t try it. It’s commendable that the military’s trying to take care of the Dominants and Submissives who’ve served, and this isn’t one of those rules he feels justified in circumventing. Nick’s already skirting the line by not assigning him a roommate, something he’s thankfully never suggested; Steve isn’t going to ask him for more.
Choosing a Dominant seems the lesser of the two evils—one person trying to help him and being frustrated when it doesn’t work versus a whole barracks-full—so he takes the many, many personnel files Nick gives him, and he looks carefully through each one. If none of the Dominants is the person he really wants, that’s nobody’s business but his own.
For all that he’s willing to cooperate, however, it’s not an easy decision. All the potential Dominants have exemplary records and are decorated with medals, and Steve has no doubt that Nick had them vetted before he ever put their photographs in front of him. But while he can read their profiles and even think “that one looks cheerful” and “this one has a nice smile,” all the information piled in front of him doesn’t make any one of them stand out. They all seem strangely flat to him, colorless and somewhat abstract, and he can barely remember anything he’s read about them after he's done or bring to mind a specific face.
He knows he has to make a decision soon—he’d promised Nick he’d have a short-list of candidates by the end of the week—but he’s starting to think he’s going to have to pin all their pictures to the wall and throw darts in order to narrow down his options.
Except then it all changes.
He’s in the gym when it happens. There’s a certain mindless comfort in hitting a punching bag, in taking all his turmoil and throwing it outward and exhausting himself in the process. He goes down to the gym once a day, sometimes more when he really needs it, like now, and he takes his frustrations out on things that can’t hit back, no matter how much he wants them to.
Tonight, however, he can’t seem to find his rhythm, can’t get lost in the feel of his fist hitting the leather, and he’s more keyed up by the time he calls it quits than he was when he started.
Since he’s the last one there, he does the polite thing and goes over to turn the television off, even though he hadn’t been watching it. He’s not a big fan of TV. Everything happens too fast, like they’re trying to jam as much into thirty minutes as possible, so a person barely has time to understand what’s going on before they’re jumping to the next thing, and there’s this fascination with sex and violence that he just can’t condone. It makes him jittery to watch it, so he uses his iPod to drown out the noise whenever it’s on—which is why he’s completely unprepared when he finally gets close enough to the TV to hears, “Tony Stark.”
He knew Howard had a son and had envisioned a little dark-haired boy with Howard’s mischievous smile and flair for dramatics, but he hadn’t given it much thought.
He got the hair and the smile right at least, he thinks distantly, as he stares at Howard’s son, all grown up, and rather well at that.
He spares a second to wonder if it’s wrong to notice that Tony is attractive—very, very attractive—but by that point, it’s already too late.
Steve turns off his iPod. They’re just playing the highlights from a press conference that happened earlier in the day, something to do with Stark Industries, but it’s Tony that Steve pays attention to, the way he charms his audience, laughing freely and acting kind of ridiculous, although no one seems to mind. He flirts shamelessly, with Dominants and Submissives alike, and he reminds Steve of—
His heart clenches, and he has to look away for a second.
He turns right back around, however, when the anchorwoman introduces the next segment, and he’s disappointed that the news clip is already over, absently reaching out to turn off the television like he’d planned to before.
Obviously, less than a minute of coverage can’t provide Steve a fair representation of what Tony is like, but he knows that Tony’s definitely gotten his showmanship from his father. His lips twitch at the memory of some of Howard’s antics, and he wonders how similar the two men are, what else Tony has picked up from him besides that and his good looks. Not that Steve had ever been partial to Howard himself, especially since he’d considered him a rival for Peggy’s affections before he’d been set straight, but he’d heard enough other people talking about him to know he was in the minority. Tony seems just as popular as his father had been, if not more so, and Steve ruefully acknowledges that this time, he hasn’t been spared from the attraction.
It’s late, but he heads to the computer lab anyway. He likes the internet much more than he does television, even if the ubiquitous advertisements give him a headache. He doesn’t take advantage of it as much as he should, however, because he suspects SHIELD is monitoring him—it’s just too convenient that he has to input his username and password every time he wants to use the computer—and he really doesn’t want to give all the psychologists more ammunition to use against him.
He’s curious about Tony, though, and if he’s honest, it’s been a long time since he’s been interested in something. Besides, there’s a connection there between the two of them, a small one, true, but there all the same, and isn’t it worth exploring? Maybe Howard talked about him to Tony once or twice. Maybe Tony even met some of their joint friends while he was growing up. The possibility of having something to share with someone is enough to make him ignore the feeling of eyes on him and he logs into the terminal (is it odd that he misses the loud clack of typewriter keys?) and starts pulling up information about Tony Stark.
“What do you mean you want Stark as your Dominant?” Nick asks, and Steve is almost tempted to smile at the appalled confusion on his face.
“He’s my choice,” Steve says, and he’s surprised by the feeling that kind of spreads through him right after he tells Nick that, something sharp but almost sweet, and it makes his stomach flutter, makes him want to bounce up on his toes—
It’s anticipation, he realizes, and he frowns a little. He’s looking forward to this.
“His wasn’t one of the names I gave you.”
There’s a lot that he could say to that, but he’s trying to get Nick to agree with him, so he throws out most of it and says, “No, but he’s still a SHIELD—”
“Stark is not associated with SHIELD,” Nick snaps, and there’s some weird tension there, enough that Steve wonders if Tony turned them down, or if Nick’s just horrified by the idea, or what, because he knows they’ve worked together before.
“He’s flagged for the Avenger’s Initiative, though,” Steve points out reasonably, “so you must have some confidence in him.”
“This has nothing to do with Stark’s abilities or how he reacts on a battlefield.”
“Then . . . you just don’t like him,” Steve guesses, because he can imagine that Tony’s arrogance and maverick attitude probably don’t mix well with Nick’s no-nonsense approach to things.
“I like Stark just fine,” Nick says surprisingly. “I just don’t like him for you.”
“How about the fact that he’s a jet-setting, attention-seeking philanderer who not only enjoys parading a different Submissive on his arm every chance he gets, but who’s never settled down in a long-time contract? Or that he’s somewhat of a megalomaniac and has been known to lock himself in his lab for days on end when he’s in the middle of inventing something? Or that he’s been kidnapped—twice—and nearly died multiple times in the last year alone?”
Nick has a loud voice, Steve notes, and he puts it to good use.
“Stark isn’t the type of Dominant that I’d hope for you, Steve. Believe me, I understand you wanting to get out from under SHIELD’s umbrella, but you need someone who’ll give you time to adjust, someone stable who’ll be patient and understanding—”
Steve doesn’t mean to ignore Nick, not really, but he doesn’t want to listen anymore either. It’s not like he hasn’t heard it before or read about how everyone need a support network, Submissives in particular, and he knows he’s suffered through a traumatic event and that he’s not okay. He knows. He’s lost everyone he loved. He has nightmares every night. There are some days when he has to convince himself to even get out of bed. How can he not know?
The thing is, though, he doesn’t want someone to mollycoddle him, someone who’ll be unbearably kind and will handle him with kid gloves. What he wants is to go back, to be with Peggy and Bucky and everyone else, to have a chance at things that were only vague possibilities during the war. That’s impossible, though, and no matter how much he wishes otherwise and how much it hurts, that’s not going to change. So in lieu of what he wants, he’ll settle for taking what he can get. And he thinks he can get Tony. Not for forever; he doesn’t expect that. But Tony seems enough like Howard with his brilliant mind, ready laugh, and hedonistic attitude that Steve thinks Tony can help him forget for a while everything he’s lost. Maybe it’ll only be for a minute here and there, maybe an hour if he’s lucky; but that’d be enough for him, if Tony could teach him how to smile again and mean it, could help him to laugh without feeling guilty for doing it.
Steve’s realistic, though. It’s entirely possible that Tony isn’t the right Dominant for that, that he won’t know what to do with Steve, or that Steve will get fed up with his lifestyle and ask to be released from his contract. He still wants to try, though, wants to succeed or fail based on his own decisions, wants some kind of control over his own life, because he doesn’t feel like he has any right now.
“—and you’re not listening to a single word out of my mouth,” Nick says, throwing his hands up into the air.
Steve glances at him sheepishly, but knows better than to deny it.
“Alright!” Nick shakes his head and sighs. “Alright. It may have been a while ago, but I still remember what it was like to be young and have my heart set on something. I’ll arrange an introduction. But that’s it!” he says, pointing a finger at Steve. “You’re going to have to convince him to take you on yourself, and I still want three backup candidates in case he refuses.”
“Yes, Sir,” is all Steve says, giving in gracefully since he’s gotten what he wanted, but the feeling of anticipation is back, stronger than before, and it’s almost unsettling how eager he is for this.
Steve’s in the next room when Nick explains the situation to Tony, but he can hear the, “You called me here for what?” through the door. He smooths the front of his shirt down and takes a deep breath, but it doesn’t do much to calm his nerves.
It seems like forever before the two of them finally enter the room, but Steve takes it as a positive sign that Tony’s agreed to meet him.
“Hello, Mr. Stark,” he says, extending his hand, and it’s strange to call him that when he’s been calling Tony by his first name in his head for over a week now—weirder still when he thinks he only called Tony’s father that once or twice—and he’s not quite sure how to feel about all of this now that it’s happening.
Although if nothing else, he can say that Tony is even more handsome face to face than he is in his pictures.
“Um, yes, hi, hello,” Tony says, and his hand rises and falls before finally coming up to take Steve’s. It’s a Dominant’s handshake, firm and almost too hard, and he can still feel the phantom pressure after they let go, flexes his fingers minutely, just to make it flare up some more.
There’s a brief silence where no one says anything, but Steve’s in no rush to fill it, content with the way things are for the moment as he looks at Tony. As Tony looks back at him.
“Call me Tony,” he eventually tells him, somewhat grudgingly, and it kind of makes Steve want to smile.
“Yes, Sir,” he murmurs, not really thinking about it, just habit, but when Tony’s eyebrows go up, Steve knows that’s not how Tony took it.
Steve can feel his cheeks get warm, but he doesn’t look away.
“Look. Kid,” Tony says, taking off his sunglasses as he looks to the side. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m flattered that you’d consider me, but you’re like, what, twelve—”
“I’m nineteen. Not counting the seventy years I was frozen,” he says, and it’s the first time he’s ever made a reference to what happened without wanting to hit something. Although that might be because he kind of wants to hit Tony a little for making his age an issue, and so he just doesn’t notice the difference.
“Right. Well . . . congratulations on that. No longer being a capsic—on being unfrozen, I mean,” Tony says, rubbing his jaw, and it’s awkward, but Steve doesn’t care.
“I don’t see what my age has to do with anything,” he says, standing up as straight as he can, and he hopes he conveys a sense of wounded dignity versus childish petulance. “I’m old enough to have fought in a war—”
“Look, I’m not arguing that you’ve been through a lot,” Tony says, holding up his hands defensively. “You’re probably extremely mature for your age, and hell, arguably more mature than I am, but I just don’t feel comfortable with contracting with someone who’s basically—”
He folds his arms across his chest. “Didn’t I see you on the news the other day at some movie premiere with a twenty-one year old model?”
“Okay, see, but, there’s a big difference between that situation and this one. First,” Tony says, starting to tick off his fingers, “a lot can happen in two years.”
Steve thinks about how his life has changed in the last couple of years of his life and can’t disagree.
“Second, at twenty one, she’s legally an adult and able to drink alcohol, something you’re technically not allowed to do—”
“The minimum age was eighteen in my day, and I think that biologically being eighty nine years old has to count for something.”
“Third,” Tony continues, talking right over him, “she was a civilian, and you’re not. I don’t contract with active duty military. That’s one too many masters for me.”
“I’m not exactly in the chain of command anymore. If anything, I’m more a free agent. Like you.”
“And finally, fourth,” Tony says, starting to look harried, “there’s a difference between going on a date with someone and entering into a contract—”
“You mean sex. You mean it’s alright to have sex with someone significantly younger than you, but it’s not alright to be committed to them.”
“That’s not what I said. I didn’t—that is not—” Tony turns to Nick and demands, “Is this what you’re teaching young kids these days?”
“Oh, I think Steve’s handling himself just fine,” Nick drawls.
“Of course you do,” Tony mutters and faces Steve, and there’s a hint of annoyance in his eyes, but his gaze seems sharper too, like Tony’s actually focusing on him instead of seeing all the ghosts that stand around him. “Look, maybe I don’t always abide by it, but I’m a big believer in the half-your-age-plus-seven minimum, and at nineteen, you’re five years out of bounds.”
“If you’re being technical, I’m—”
“See, then I’m out of bounds. Please tell me you’re not one of those creepers that dates Dominants fifty years your junior?” Tony asks, looking at him askance, and Steve’s mouth twitches.
“Five years isn’t really a long time,” he says to test the waters, although he knows he’s not going to win this argument if he focuses on his age.
“Five years is a lifetime,” Tony counters. “Twenty six point three percent of your lifetime as a matter of fact. Not counting the years you were asleep, of course.”
Steve considers him for a moment before glancing at Nick, who obligingly looks away. He can’t believe what he’s about to do, but Tony is cutting off his options. If he doesn’t do something drastic, he’s going to lose his chance, and he’s tired of regretting all the things he’s never done. If he’s going to kick himself for his choices, it’s not going to be because he was too scared to admit what he wanted.
He moves closer to Tony, who raises an eyebrow at him but doesn’t back away, not even when their chests are almost touching and Steve leans in to whisper into his ear, glad he can’t see Tony’s face because he’s sure his own is bright red, “What if I told you I’m more interested in having sex than in committing to you too?”
“What?” Tony says in what Steve can only describe as a squeak. “What did you—?” He grabs Steve by the upper arm and drags him away from the side of the room Nick is in. “I cannot believe you just—and with Fury right there—I would actually like to leave SHIELD in one piece—” Tony shakes his head in an apparent effort to clear his thoughts. “I get it, okay? I get it. You were sick and then there was the war and then being on ice, and now things are settling down, and puberty is kicking you in the balls for making it wait so long—”
“Did you just—?”
“—and there are all these hormones swirling all over the place, and you’ve got these urges you don’t know what to do with, and it’s all very confusing, but trust me, alright? It’s okay to wait. You don’t have to—”
“Tony,” he says, and even with the absurdity of the things spewing from Tony’s mouth, he takes a second to appreciate the way his name feels on his tongue. He says it again just because he can. “Tony, will you stop with the age jokes? You can take a joke too far, you know, and you reached that point about five minutes ago. And as for waiting, I’ve been waiting long enough. I don’t want to wait anymore.”
Not when he’s already wasted all the opportunities he’s had.
“The contract . . . the contract is because I have to. I need a Dominant if I want to have any kind of independence,” he says, and the irony doesn’t escape him, but he’s accepted that it won’t change. “But it’s only for six months. Five years may be a long time, but six months is nothing at all.”
He licks his lips, a nervous slip of his tongue to wet them, and it’s a revelation when Tony’s eyes dart down.
“You don’t know me, and you don’t owe me anything, and I’ll understand if you say no.” He swallows, and it feels like there are butterflies the size of baseballs launching themselves around his stomach in a mini-tornado, crashing into each other in dizzying, swooping dives. “But please don’t say no, ” he says, his voice coming out much lower than he’d intended, husky, and even to his own ears, imploring.
“Alright, break it up,” Nick says, and Steve could curse his sense of timing. “A little whispering is fine, but enough’s enough. If you’re trading secrets over there, I should be part of the discussion.”
“Yeah, because that makes sense,” Tony says, and Steve wonders if he’s just imagining the hoarseness of his voice. “I never thought I’d see the day that you were acting as my Negotiator, Fury.”
“Well, I never thought I’d see a man in a metal suit sitting in the middle of a donut, but shows what we know. Now, I haven’t got all day, Stark. You’re not the only Dominant Steve is meeting with today—”
Steve manages to keep a blank expression, but that’s the first he’s heard that he’s got anything else scheduled.
“—so I need some kind of sign of intention, one way or the other. By the way, Steve, I just noticed you’re not wearing the white bracelet that I left out for you—”
“White?” Tony exclaims, and he grabs Steve’s left wrist, yanking his shirt sleeve up to expose his bare arm. Steve has no idea what bracelet they’re referring to since identifying bracelets are blue for Submissives, black for Dominants, or blue and black for Switches, but Tony looks horrified by its absence.
“Hey! I let you get away with touching once already. You’ve reached your limit,” Nick snaps, and Tony drops his arm but only in order to crowd into the other man’s space.
“What are you thinking? I knew the military was old-fashioned about a lot of things, but we stopped putting Submissives on the auction block decades ago—”
“Cut the drama, Stark. It’s none of your damn business what Steve does, and if he wants to—”
“You can’t parade someone in white in front of a bunch of jaded, war-hardened, perverted assholes who no doubt get their kinks out of crushing—”
“As if you’re one to talk! When was the last time you settled down with someone for longer than a few months? Never as a matter of fact,” Nick says, and Steve is starting to feel like he’s watching a tennis match as control volleys between the two opponents. “The only reason I even set up this introduction was because Steve wanted me to, but you weren’t my first choice, or my second, or even my—
“Well, then, I’m just thrilled to be disappointing you, because I’m making it my business. I want him. I want Steve to be my Submissive.”