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But Your Spirit is Untainted; I Can Dedicate You Still

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It had been a long time since they’d shared the same bed.  They hadn’t even been sleeping together regularly back . . . when things had been good, before everything had happened; it just hadn’t worked out that way.  And then, with all of it, all the lies, all his lies, all of it, everything he’d done—how guilty he felt just smiling at Steve or bringing him a cup of coffee or calling him honey, the word choking in his throat, the last thing Tony had wanted was to intensify that false intimacy, to cuddle up in bed beside Steve like a lover.  Even if that was, technically, what he still was. 

 

Even now, he supposed he was Steve’s lover, despite the distance between them—the tension when their eyes made contact, their halted, stilting conversations except when words got pointed and short and heated again, the uncertainty in every touch. But it wasn’t just Tony longing after their past closeness, averting his eyes hurriedly when Steve looked at him, clinging to the word.  Steve had kissed him, afterward, after everything, and not stopped with the simple soft touch of their mouths, instead slipping his tongue softly between Tony’s lips and smoothing it soft and slow over Tony’s, shocked and slow to respond, overwhelming him with warmth until his throat had felt thick and his chest hurt and there had been a steady ache behind his eyes that he had to blink against more than once.  There had been times since then, after everything, when they had shared the warmth of their bodies, too, times with Tony down on his knees in front of Steve, beneath him on the bed despite his weight, loving every moment of the pressure, or Steve’s chest warm and firm and immovable against Tony’s back in the shower, his cock heavy between Tony’s thighs, the rush of heat and pleasure and the strange intense intimacy of it all every time it happened, the intimacy that felt so lacking from most of the rest of their interactions these days, the intimacy that made Tony’s heart turn over and twist up painfully in his chest, and his stomach ache and flip-flop, fluttering with little warm jolts and feeling sick at the same time.

 

It felt so strange, Steve wanting him again, after everything, that Tony wasn’t sure what to do with it, or how to act. Even how to please him, really. It didn’t help that the difficulties that had plagued him for weeks now with maintaining an erection were still rearing their ugly heads, humiliatingly enough (or not rearing them, or anything, as it turned out, he thought wryly to himself), his own continuing dull depression and the anxiety he couldn’t seem to banish, that dogged him every moment he was awake, it felt like, like a worn track in his mind from living with it for so long, interacting with that uncertainty, that confusion about why Steve would want him at all.  Once that got in his head, it could kill his erection no matter how excited he’d felt. He hated it, it was humiliating as hell, and it didn’t seem fair, when just looking at Steve made his heart jump into his throat and pound, his hands go a little trembly with passion and feeling and the same flush of heat would rise over the back of his neck and coil in his belly whenever Steve looked at him with dark heat in his eyes, or touched him, just as much as ever—but there it was.  Sometimes Tony would rather just suck Steve off or let him come between his thighs or over his skin, pushing Steve’s hands away from his own cock after Steve finished rather than risk the humiliation of not being able to stay hard long enough to finish for himself.  Steve didn’t seem happy about it, frustrated or maybe concerned, or both, but there was really nothing Tony could do about that.  Steve wanted to have sex with him, so that was how it was going to be, that was how it was, right then, and if Steve wanted him, this was how he was going to have to take him—and it wasn’t like Tony wasn’t getting anything out of it, even if he didn’t come.  Just having Steve’s hands on his shoulders, in his hair, on his hips, felt like enough intense warmth and sensation to last him for weeks, almost too much, after . . . after everything.  But Steve certainly didn’t seem as satisfied as he could be, as satisfied as Tony wanted, no matter how hard Tony tried to make up for it. Tony had so much to make up for, but he kept feeling like he might just be digging the hole he was in even deeper for himself.

 

Tony had been so surprised when Steve had brought it up, suggested it, Steve sleeping in Tony’s own wide bed, but if Steve wanted it . . . wanted that, something so simple, who was Tony to deny him? Even if it was the last thing he’d expected Steve to want now, of all times.  If Steve wanted it, it was the least he could do.  And he . . . he wanted it, too.  So much so it made him feel ashamed with it, and he tried not to think about it.  He was trying not to think about what he wanted too much.  It made things so much harder, twisted his head around and confused him when he needed to keep his mind on what Steve wanted, on making things right again. And it didn’t feel much like he deserved to be dwelling on things like that, anyway.

 

So they were doing that, now. Every night, no matter how the day had gone, Steve showed up at Tony’s door, and Tony would let him in, and they would get ready for bed.  It was awkward, at first, to change his clothes in front of Steve again, like that, in that quiet, nonsexual intimacy, somehow, even though it would have been easy enough to get undressed to have sex with him, but Tony pushed himself to do it all the same, feeling like if he put that boundary between them now, they’d never get past it.  The first night, he offered to help Steve out of his uniform, not that Steve needed his help, the way he’d used to, when things between them had been warm, and intimate, and it had been a sweet, playful thing he did with his lover.  But it felt distant, hollow.  He found his eyes resting on the curve of Steve’s shoulder, the strong muscles there, at the back of his neck, wanting to press his lips to that clear, smooth skin, just beneath the crux of his shoulder, and not doing it, not closing that distance, like it was impossible for him to lean forward and press his lips, warm and soft, to Steve’s skin, like that would be crossing a barrier he hadn’t been invited to bridge.  Just touching Steve felt like too much already, even if all he wanted was to wrap his arms around him, press himself against his back, rest his head against the back of Steve’s neck, so he . . . didn’t.  He wasn’t sure how to.  He wasn’t sure he had the right, anymore.  So he didn’t, and he felt strange offering again, after that, even though he wanted to. Sometimes Steve would lean forward, cup Tony’s neck in his palm and touch their lips together in a kiss, soft and simple and barely there, a good night kiss, and Tony would suck in his breath and freeze and try to make himself kiss back without fumbling too much—and sometimes Steve wouldn’t.  Tony never knew when it was going to happen, and so he just . . . let Steve decide, and leaned forward into the kiss when it came.

 

Then they’d get into bed, each on either side of it, with most of the wide expanse of Egyptian cotton sheets and pillows and blankets between them.  They wouldn’t touch, or curl around each other like they had once, but despite all of it, it was still easier to sleep when Tony could listen to the sound of Steve’s breathing in the dark, behind him, feel his body warm on that side of the bed. It had been so long, it felt like, since Tony had gotten a good night’s sleep, that he found himself dropping off almost immediately, counting the rhythm of Steve’s breaths enough to relax him for that lurking exhaustion to take over and drag him down into it. It was better than being alone. That was the honest, humiliating truth—despite the way it threw the distance between them into high relief, it was so much better than lying there without him and remembering the times they’d lain there together, that it was impossible to quantify. Just having Steve there again—it felt like everything.  Even though it wasn’t, it was so far from what he’d had, it still felt like everything, like too much.  Like more than he deserved.

 

Things stayed that way for more than a week. Steve moved his pajamas (mostly boxers and t-shirts) into Tony’s room, brought his toothbrush, but they lay no closer together, and Tony was certain that Steve never touched him once they were already in bed.  They had sex, certainly.  In bed, even. But not at night, not once they’d climbed into bed together, and Steve kept handling Tony almost ridiculously gently, despite Tony’s not so well-hidden frustration with that, like Steve thought he was made of glass, or like he’d break him if he gripped too hard. He wasn’t going to, and Tony thought he would rather Steve scream at him, rather he showed how he actually felt, than this restraint, distant, far-away and so carefully controlled, like he wasn’t about to let on to Tony about the truth.  He didn’t know how Steve actually felt, but he knew this wasn’t it. Steve wasn’t like this, careful, controlled, distant, underneath.  Steve burned hot and pure and furious and brilliant, like a furnace that could burn Tony if he touched it, but touchable, within reach, not like a distant star.

 

If he wasn’t going to show Tony how he felt, then what was the point of doing this again, anyway?  What good was he doing Steve if they just kept orbiting each other and never really touched?  Even when they were touching. 

 

Tony thought he might have given almost anything to touch Steve again, and know it had made a difference—almost anything, except the things he wouldn’t ever give, and those things were how he had broken this between them in the first place, weren’t they?  So what was the point of promises, or grand gestures to try to reach Steve, or win him back somehow, or recapture the sweet, easy closeness that had meant so much to him?  They were all a lie, when the truth was he’d have shattered what the two of them had all over again if the same situation came up.  He couldn’t offer Steve any assurance, any safety, anything real at all except the warning of more lies, and more betrayals.  So of course Steve didn’t want to touch the real him, he figured. Tony wouldn’t have either.

 

So maybe there really wasn’t any point, and it was only his own selfish needinesss that kept him from ending this with Steve then and there.   The words burned on his lips so many times, on the verge of being uttered.  But something always stopped him.  Maybe it was simply the knowledge that they had been so good together, that Tony had been so happy, and more importantly, that Steve had been happy, too, the memory of him lying with his head in Tony’s lap, brushing Tony’s jaw with his thumb, his fingers, and saying, quietly, “It’s never been like this before for me, Shellhead.”  Or maybe it was that Steve had approached him, had been the one to kiss him, after everything had happened, had stayed with Tony while he recovered from his injuries, still seemed to look to him for . . . something, even if it was just simple physical pleasure—but no, something more, too, whatever led him to want to spend his nights in Tony’s bed.  Tony couldn’t turn his back on that.  A look in Steve’s eyes or the way he sighed when Tony laid a tentative hand on his shoulder, the way he’d put his arms around Tony, kissed his neck, when they’d had sex in the shower, and sighed thickly against his skin—there was something there, and whatever Steve was thinking, or working through, Tony wasn’t going to be the one to break it for him.  Not this time. It was Steve’s call.

 

He just wasn’t sure that he could ever be what Steve wanted.  What he was looking for. The Tony Steve wanted. He wasn’t even sure if the Tony Steve wanted really existed.

 

Maybe Steve was finally realizing how idealized the picture of Tony he’d fallen in love with had been, all along. That the real Tony Stark really was the . . . the traitor he’d despised.  The man who had deserved every bit of his anger.

 

But the least he could do was to stay, to stay, and wait, and let Steve decide.  He owed him that much.  Not to be the one to walk away from him.

 

And the real Tony Stark did love Steve Rogers, whatever his other sins.  There was that, too. Tony had never been quite sure where that left him.  His heart ached with a sweet, sharp pain when he looked at Steve, or thought of him, and being allowed to slide his arms around him, or rest against his body, felt like completing the most perfect equation of all time, and the way Steve touched him sometimes made his throat seize up and close and he couldn’t stop himself from following Steve with his eyes.  And the last thing he had ever wanted was to make Steve as messed up and confused as Tony was, to drag him into the muck with him, and it was all he ever seemed to do, and he didn’t know what was wrong with him, that he couldn’t help dragging Steve down with him.  He loved him, didn’t he? Why couldn’t he keep him out of it? Why couldn’t he keep him away?

 

But he knew why.  It was because Steve followed him, every time, just like he couldn’t help but follow Steve, because Steve was his lodestone, his Pole Star, the rudder on his ship, and he didn’t know what he was to Steve, but Steve didn’t seem to think he was nothing at all, or the bilge Tony felt had felt like sometimes over the past however long when Steve smiled at him as his boyfriend, his lover, and he had to swallow his bile when he remembered Steve yelling at them all across the table, betrayal and fury and disappointment in his eyes, and what had come after that—

 

Tony knew he loved him.  It was just that sometimes he felt like his love was the vector for a terrible, crippling, debilitating disease, and he wanted to spare the people he loved that pain.  And he knew that was self-pity, and that behind that door was a way he’d spiraled out of all control before, but God, sometimes the self-loathing just got so thick and dark, and he couldn’t push past it anymore, and it wasn’t like he could ask for Steve’s strong hands to pull him out.  Not after everything.  Not when Steve deserved to be the one to push him further in, and maybe kick him in the guts for good measure.  He kept remembering the look in Steve’s eyes as he’d hauled back and punched him, and he knew Steve had beaten on him before, that they’d fought in the streets of New York City, but he couldn’t remember that, not the way he remembered that punch sending him flying back across the room, sprawling, the way his head had snapped back and bright lights had flashed in his eyes and he couldn’t breathe for the shock for long moments.

 

Tony was trying so hard not to be selfish, or take more than what Steve wanted to give, just love him, and offer himself, and be here for Steve to take if he wanted him, and push away if he didn’t, but the uncertainty was hard to handle.  Tony had never been good with uncertainty, and he found himself worrying it, fretting over it, dissecting it into little pieces and taking it apart over and over, unable to leave it be.

 

The exhaustion that had pulled him down into sleep like a drug for days must have started to wear off as the second week of them sharing a bed wore on, because Tony found himself waking up in the middle of the night, gasping with a nightmare that was already nothing but fragmented images (dead worlds, Steve vanishing before his eyes in a flash of light and Tony knowing, knowing he was gone)—he bit it back viciously, made his breathing go quiet, and then blinked into the darkness of the room, rolled back, startled, to look behind him, because he could feel a hand, fingers, palm, warm and heavy on his hip, curved over it, fingers curled slightly in the fabric of his boxers, tightened just enough to bunch it up against his skin.

 

Steve had moved over across the bed, closer to him, was sprawled out across it, one arm underneath him, the other stretched out across the space between them to rest against Tony’s hip. He wasn’t pulling him closer, but it was a hold with some strength behind it.  Tony didn’t have the heart to shake it off.  He swallowed, turned back to face his own side a bit, then, hesitantly, moved his hand down, let his fingers rest, barely touching, over Steve’s.

 

What was Steve doing?  Had he had a nightmare, too?  It made a certain amount of sense, if he had, if he was just reaching out in search of comfort, and Tony was just there, a warm body to hold onto instead of a pillow.  He could have been anyone. And Tony, he—he was happy to be Steve’s pillow any time.  He was. He really was, but—

 

It felt good.  So good.  Tony let his fingers settle onto Steve’s a little more, set his jaw and turned his face into the pillow as he failed to keep back a ragged gasp for breath.

 

He couldn't make anything out of it, let himself behave—feel—like it meant something.  That wouldn’t be right.  Steve was fast asleep, and it wasn’t as if Tony had any intention of putting him on the spot by mentioning it, by calling him on his actions in his dreams. But it felt like . . . it didn’t feel like the way things had been, the two of them entwined in each other’s arms, or curled around each other, but it felt so much closer to that. And Tony was being an idiot, because it wasn’t real—it wasn’t real. 

 

He forced himself not to think about it, moved his hand off of Steve’s, took a deep breath, but it was hard not to pay attention to the warmth of that hand curled over his hip, on top of Steve’s steady breathing behind him, the vivid evidence of Steve’s presence in his bed and that connection he’d never expected, and he ended up lying there awake for a long time. 

 

Steve’s hand felt so warm.

 

He eventually fell asleep, and then, as always, Steve got up before he did, and he woke up alone.  As if it had never happened.  Steve brought him breakfast, and Tony ate it because Steve had brought it, feeling painfully awkward, trying to put Steve’s warm hand curled over his hip out of his mind and force himself to smile at him and make eye contact. He leaned in and kissed Steve good morning, though, after his coffee, and he didn’t think he’d imagined the way Steve smiled at the kiss, the way something kindled in his face and he lit up like a lightbulb.  That was nice, and Tony couldn’t deny the warmth it sent through him.  That was one of those things, one of those things that kept him from trying to break it off, for Steve’s sake.  If he could still make him smile . . . he didn’t know.

 

Tony noticed it again, the next night, though. Steve rolled over, and his hand came to rest against Tony’s back, making him jump, shivering with surprise. But Steve didn’t move it, just sighed out another slow, sleepy breath and subsided against the bed. Tony swallowed, staring into the dark, but Steve just stayed like that, his hand as warm and heavy and incredibly, inexpressibly comforting as ever against his skin.

 

He closed his eyes.  It surprised him how much more quickly sleep came for him this time.

 

After that he realized that it wasn’t just a one-time thing.  Or a two-time thing, or even just an occasional thing.  Every night, Steve would roll over, and his hand would find Tony, curling against his thigh, against his hip, or knotting in his t-shirt.  Whenever Tony woke up in the middle of the night, he would find Steve’s hand there, resting against him, somewhere. Steve never pulled him closer, he just . . . held on.  Tony had no idea how he’d missed it for that long.  He felt ridiculous.  And, well, it had to mean . . . something, didn’t it?  He started to wonder if maybe he should mention it, after all. If Steve was doing it every night, reaching out—maybe it was true that it was just an urge to reach out in his dreams, for comfort, that he would have done the same thing with anyone there, but Tony felt like he should at least ask, maybe, if Steve wanted to sleep closer together in the bed, if maybe he wanted what Tony wanted, and missed that remembered closeness.  Or even if he only just wanted someone to hold onto in bed, closer would be better, right?

 

He told himself to do it that night, and he was getting himself up to it, taking a deep breath and squaring his shoulders, when he realized Steve was pacing.  They’d taken a shower together, had sex again (Tony still felt a little breathless from it, the way Steve had effortlessly picked him up off his feet so that they dangled off the floor, pressed him into the wall of the shower, covering him with his body until the pressure and heat and the shape of Steve’s muscular body alone kept Tony suspended between him and the wall, pressed wet, hot kisses into his mouth until Tony’s lips fell open for him on breathless moans, covered his neck and chest in damp dragging kisses and the heat of his open mouth, the shower streaming hot and wet down over them, until Tony had just been clutching at him for balance, squirming desperately to rub his cock against Steve’s chest, and Steve had held him still until he had relaxed in Steve’s hold, then coaxed him to move at the pace Steve set, working himself against Steve’s body and lost in the way Steve had held him, the way Steve held his gaze, the look in his eyes, and when Steve had come, it had been all over Tony’s skin before the water of the shower washed it away), and Tony had come out of the bathroom after trying his best to put himself back together and scrape his composure off the floor, get his brain back in gear somehow, to find Steve pacing at the foot of the bed and pressing his hands together.

 

Maybe Steve had regretted it, was Tony’s immediate thought.  Reaching out to him that way.  Tony had clearly done something wrong, Steve looked deep in thought, and—Tony swallowed, watching him and trying not to react too obviously.  It had felt incredible to Tony, freeing, impossibly vivid and intense—but it didn’t necessarily follow that it had felt like that to Steve.

 

He was probably tired of Tony’s weight, of holding him up.  By now. What had Tony ever done to make that worth his while, anyway?

 

Tony sat on the bed, almost opened his mouth again to ask Steve the question he’d come in geared up to ask, then closed his mouth and subsided again, watching him.  After a moment, Steve raised his head, looked over at him.

 

Their eyes met.  Tony was taken aback by the look in Steve’s, soft, somehow, but torn, conflicted, like he didn’t know what he wanted to say.  He didn’t know what he wanted to say, either, in response. He ended up not saying anything, his mind scrambling for something and finding nothing, and then Steve turned toward him a little more, squaring himself up.  Tony swallowed.

 

“What’s up, honey?” he finally managed to murmur, and immediately winced at the banality of it.  Maybe this was it, he thought, and was suddenly glad he hadn’t made a fool of himself by asking if Steve wanted to lie closer in bed. Wanted to cuddle. Of all things. He was such an idiot, he really was.

 

Maybe it was something else, he told himself, but he couldn’t think what.

 

“There’s something I was wondering,” Steve said, quickly, and then looked like he thought he’d blurted that out too fast.

 

Not fast enough, if you asked Tony. “Yeah,” he said, and took a deep breath to steady himself.  Here it came. “I kind of gathered. What is it?”

 

Steve frowned, took a deep breath, blew it out again. He opened his mouth, then closed it. Tony bit the inside of his cheek. What was he going to say—was this finally it, the end, the sex in the shower one last go at it before Steve broke it off for good?  It wasn’t like Tony could have blamed him.  He tried very hard to cut off how he felt, not dwell on the dark, cold aching hole that felt like it was opening in his heart and the emptiness it brought with it, the way that hurt.  He’d been half-waiting for that ever since they’d started this again, since Steve had said, not quite hesitantly, we never actually did break up, did we? and kissed him that first time, after it all had happened. He’d been ready. Hadn’t he?

 

“Do you still want me to hurt you?” Steve said, his voice quick, a little bit too loud and even, like he was trying very hard to control it.

 

Tony stared at him.  Out of anything he might have been expecting, that . . . that wasn’t it.  He was left scrambling, stalling, left without anything to say in response.  “What?” he finally managed.  It was just so far away from what he’d expected.

 

Steve swallowed, and his jaw went square; he shifted his weight like he half-wanted to be in parade rest, but instead his hands came forward, and he clasped one of them over the other. “Before . . . I . . . remembered,” he said haltingly, “we were in a scene, and you . . . asked me to hurt you. I said I wouldn’t. You pushed me on it. But you were down. I wouldn’t do it.”

 

Tony swallowed convulsively, then hoped it hadn’t been too loud, too obvious.  He . . . did remember that, yes.  He remembered being so miserable it had felt like it was crushing him under it, the guilt, and being down in it, and suddenly it had just been too much, the guilt all around him, heavy and dark and overwhelming, like he’d lost his footing, taken his eyes off the goal and now there was nothing else. Feeling like his own guilt and shame and self-loathing and the truth of his sins were seeping through him, poisoning him, every millimeter of him, and feeling like maybe if there was pain from Steve, from Steve’s good hands, from the man he loved and had wronged, that it would feel as if it were searing the darkness away, cleansing him. Instead of simply burning him like ice against his skin, sinking him down further into the darkness of his sins, the way Steve’s kindness, his gentle care and efforts at affection, his innocence of it all and the bright light in his eyes, had done. He remembered seizing on that idea like a dying man seized on an offhand comment from a doctor about a new treatment plan, desperately, with both hands, the way he’d fixated on it, convinced that it would help, that it was the only thing that would make any of it all right again, even if only for a few moments, even if only when he was hurting.

 

He had been wrong, of course. When he’d come back up, and Steve had been there, and he could think straight through how humiliated he’d felt, he’d realized that it probably wouldn’t have helped at all. Worse than that, it would have been using Steve in another way, selfishly, hurting him by making him hurt Tony then, when he hadn’t had any desire to, because Tony wanted it, instead of later, when he knew Steve would want to for his own reasons.  Tony owed it to Steve, to wait, he’d decided. And so he had. And Steve had ended up wanting to hurt him, and that had been . . . fine, he’d had every right, and now . . . well, here they were.

 

He looked at Steve a moment.  This, what Steve was talking about now, wasn’t the same as a barely-pulled punch to the face, though, that was clear. Tony wasn’t so messed up that he’d just have stood there and let Steve smack him around like that in the name of their relationship, anyway.  Yet, he thought with wry, black humor. He could see the anxiety in Steve’s face, the way he was looking at him—

 

“I remember,” Tony said, thickly. “It wasn’t my finest moment, was it?”

 

“I understand why you did it now,” Steve said, eyes wide and sincere, and swallowed, himself.  “The . . . burden you were under.”

 

“Okay, no,” Tony said, abruptly, that same deep, surprisingly sharp pain cutting into him that he’d felt so often during the time when he was lying to Steve and still pretending to carry on a relationship, like a blade cutting a deep, arcing swath of it into his heart. Tony knew he deserved that pain, but still, this was so—it was so wrong. “Let’s not.  Don’t do that, Steve.” 

 

Steve frowned.  “What?” he said, quietly.

 

“Don't try to make excuses for me,” Tony returned, and now his voice was too loud, and he couldn’t seem to get it back under control.  “I lied to you.  I betrayed you. I—”

 

“So you deserved to suffer?” Steve demanded.

 

Tony stared at him, taken aback.

 

“That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it?” Steve asked, his jaw tensing.

 

“I’m just saying,” Tony said. He didn’t want Steve to try to . . . make up a story now where Tony hadn’t done anything that bad, or make excuses for him in order to forgive him.  “I made that bed for myself.  It’s my own fault I ended up lying in it.  And the way I manipulated you—”

 

“I’ll decide how I feel about the way you manipulated me,” Steve said, stolid as ever, and crossed his arms across his chest. He sighed, and loosened his arms. There was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “I know that, Tony.  You don’t have to remind me.”

 

“Well, it seems like I do,” Tony said, still stinging from that exchange.

 

“You don’t,” Steve said, with finality. Tony knew better than to push when Steve’s voice got that ring to it, though sometimes he still did. Sometimes it was worth it. But not now, definitely not now.

 

“Okay,” he said, letting it go.

 

“Okay,” Steve said, with a slight little quirk of a smile, almost questioning, then his face sobered again, but into softer lines than it had before, that same soft solemnity he’d had earlier. “I have mixed feelings about it,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean I’m incapable of understanding that you were under a lot of pressure.”  He raised his eyebrows at Tony.  “Wherever it came from, whether it was your fault, or my fault, or what, it was still there. What I’m saying is that . . . I understand, a little more, where you were coming from.  And I . . .” but here he got hung up again, and he stopped, and swallowed, wet his lips.  “I . . .”

 

Tony shifted uncomfortably.  The last thing he wanted to do right now was to talk about his own weakness, the time he had given in under that pressure, his own failures. He opened his mouth to respond, with what he wasn’t quite sure, another attempt to get Steve off this topic, but before he could Steve had his head up and was speaking again.

 

“I wanted to ask you,” he said, “if you still wanted that.”

 

“Are you offering?” Tony asked bluntly. None of this made any sense, and he wasn’t sure where he was standing here, or where the conversation was going, forget being on solid ground, but he figured it was best to get it all out there as quickly as possibly, now that Steve had started that way.

 

Steve blinked, swallowed, flushed, but didn’t look away.  “Yes,” he said. “I am.”

 

Tony sat back on the bed, satisfied, now, that he at least knew what they were talking about, but no less confused for all that. So they weren’t breaking up. Did this mean that was what Steve wanted? 

 

Hell, did he want that?  Steve to hurt him. He could imagine it, vividly, the strength of Steve’s grip on his wrists, or his hips, pushing him into any position Steve wanted, the force behind a blow with a belt or a whip or even his hand across his ass, Steve standing over him not after laying him out on the mat in the gym (or after hauling off and punching him across the room), but after covering Tony with welts, Tony’s hands bound—they’d never done anything like that before, not with Tony being the one to take it, but Tony had some experience. With other—other partners. He’d never gotten into it, the pain, the rough handling, only when it had been in pursuit of adrenaline-driven heat or urgency, not for its own sake, but somehow, imagining Steve in the place of any other partner, in that role, made heat jump and twist in Tony’s belly, hot and urgent, shockingly so.  It wasn’t the idea of the pain, it was the idea of Steve. Offering it to him. Giving it to him. Because Tony had asked him to—Tony had asked him to, and he’d agreed.  He swallowed, ran his hands down his forearms and linked his hands, trying to get a grip.

 

What did that mean?

 

“If I said yes,” Tony said slowly, “what would happen then?”  He forced himself to look up at Steve, not blinking or wavering.

 

“You mean, do I have a game plan?” Steve asked.

 

Tony gave a wry smile.  “That’s your business,” he said.  “I mean . . .” what did he mean, though?  He remembered Steve saying with such firmness, you don’t like it like that.  It was true.  He thought that if Steve had hurt him then, he’d have been in agony.  Miserable.  It would have felt terrible, like deserved punishment.  It would have felt like breaking something.  But that was what he’d destructively, desperately, been pushing himself toward.  “Do you see me differently?” he finally asked.  “Would you do it?” Steve had redded out before. Would he even really want to do it? Tony had no idea.

 

But then, maybe Steve’s capacity for violent fantasies involving him had been upped recently.  That would make a certain amount of sense. Tony swallowed again, even though that thought made his throat ache.  He imagined himself the focus for Steve’s violent fantasies, assuming he had any, and had to swallow again.  He wondered how much that would hurt.

 

He wondered if he’d enjoy it if it did.

 

He wondered if that would feel searing, cleansing, or just like breaking something.

 

Steve wasn’t like that, anyway. Steve wouldn’t try to break him. Tony knew that. The only one of them that had been trying to break Tony had been Tony himself, back there, and Steve had put his arms around him and gently held him back from that edge, and then been kind enough not to push him more than that.

 

Steve wasn’t like that.

 

“If you said you wanted it, I would,” Steve said.

 

Uh-huh.  What did that mean? If Tony said he wanted it. “So why now?” Tony asked.

 

Steve swallowed, and his unwavering gaze flickered at that.  He looked down. “Things changed,” he said. “And you asked me. I understand why now. I think.”  He took a deep breath.  “I’d never even thought of it that way,” he said, “before you asked. And it . . . I thought about it a lot, after. It.  Bothered me, I guess.”

 

Tony swallowed, feeling a wave of guilt. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I . . . wasn’t thinking, when I asked you before, I—”

 

“It was fine,” Steve said, cutting him off, his eyes fixed on him again and very sincere.  “I know.  You were spaced out, you’re not supposed to be thinking. It’s fine, Tony.”

 

“It’s not fine,” Tony murmured, swallowing, “if it bothered you.”

 

“You said what you were feeling,” Steve said. “It’s my business . . . to work it out.” He took a deep breath. “I’d rather you be honest than leave me guessing, even if it’s tough,” he said, and, well, ow. That certainly put things into perspective, didn’t it?

 

“Understood,” Tony said, feeling his mouth twist up. What else could he say, after all?

 

Steve’s face did something strange, almost painful, and his mouth looked soft and vulnerable and a little guilty, suddenly. “It’s just that you don’t . . . let me see that side of you all the time,” he said.

 

Tony made a face, couldn’t help it, scrunching his mouth to one side.  “Yeah,” he said. “I know.  Secretive and emotionally unavailable, that’s me. You’re right on target there.” It wasn’t a coincidence that he spent most of his time encased in armor, he knew how it went.

 

“Tony,” Steve said, sounding honestly pained now.

 

“What?” Tony said.  His stomach hurt, but that didn’t matter.  He’d always known the truth hurt.  “It’s true, isn’t it?  I know that just as well as you do.”

 

“That wasn’t why I brought this up,” Steve said, and he sounded frustrated now, upset.

 

“Okay,” Tony said, and he did believe that, he really did.  “Why did you, then?”

 

Steve looked at him a moment, took a deep breath, as if he was about to speak, then blew it out.  “I want to know the answer to the question first,” he said, looking uncharacteristically uncertain, though his voice was firm enough.

 

“What if I can’t give it to you right now?” Tony said, suddenly uncomfortable.  Because he really didn’t think he could, but he didn’t want to . . . this felt like something that he . . . that he didn’t want to just write off. The way Steve was looking at him right now—the way they were talking—

 

“That’s fine,” Steve said.  “Then I’ll wait.  Take your time.”

 

Tony frowned.  He hated it when things didn’t make sense, and none of this did, and the softness in Steve’s voice, the fact that they’d actually talked, and it had been tense and hard, but Steve hadn’t left, even if it had been, it made him just want—all he wanted was to reach out toward Steve, and ask him for things he told himself he wouldn’t ask for, that he’d let Steve decide whether he ever wanted to give him again.

 

“But Tony . . .” Steve said, and hesitated, then came around the end of the bed, let his hand rest on Tony’s shoulder, the weight of it very warm even through the fabric of his shirt, heavy, making Tony shiver a little despite his efforts to control his response.  Just having Steve’s hand heavy on his shoulder made him feel warm all over, and that was . . . it was pathetic, the way it made his chest feel tight, made him feel flushed and a little lightheaded.  Steve looked at him a moment, his thumb rubbing lightly just above the neck of the t-shirt Tony was wearing, and then he leaned forward and brushed a light, soft, barely-there kiss to Tony’s forehead, the warmth of his breath ruffling his hair there, and Tony couldn’t seem to help the way his breath caught at that.  “It doesn’t make any difference to whether I want this with you or not,” Steve said, voice quiet and serious.  “Our . . . relationship. Whatever you say. It doesn’t matter. I’ll still want to be with you. Just like this. There’s no . . . no reason you should do anything you don’t want to do.  Understood?”

 

Tony swallowed hard.  “All right,” he said.  He still didn’t understand why Steve wanted to be with him at all. But he could see what Steve was saying. It even made him feel a little warm, and yeah, a little relieved.  More than a little, as what Steve had just said started to sink in and he realized what that meant, what it really meant, and he started to feel a little weak with it, dizzy and even warmer all over.  Here he’d been thinking that Steve was about to break things off between them, that it was practically inevitable, just a matter of time, but that wasn’t how Steve was talking, not at all.  So it wasn’t over.  For whatever reason, however insane it might seem to Tony, Steve wasn’t giving up. And maybe that meant he could still fix things, make it work again between them.  Maybe, somehow, they still had a chance.  “I get it, champ.”  It was amazing, how even his voice sounded, even if he did feel rather warm in the face.

 

Steve hesitated, looking down at him, and then he flushed a little, turned his head a little to one side and his mouth tightened, worked, and he flushed a little more, then shook his head, almost minutely, as if at himself, and started to turn away, and—before could talk himself out of it, Tony pushed himself up just enough to catch Steve’s neck against his palm, press a soft kiss to his lips.  Steve gasped a little, then went pink, and squeezed his eyes shut, just for a moment, pressing back into the kiss without opening his mouth in an artlessly straightforward way that had nothing on how Steve usually kissed, but somehow felt all the sweeter for all that.  Tony was struck by that response, had a lump in his throat as he pulled away that made him catch his hands in the sides of Steve’s shirt, curl his fingers in against the fabric.  “What’s up?” he said.

 

Steve flushed a little more, deep pink all along his cheeks and into his ears.  “You kissed me,” he said, then swallowed.  “You kissed me good night,” he said, in the tone of someone elaborating, then smiled, looked down a little sheepishly.  His words were quick, almost embarrassed, and he put his hands on his hips as he looked down.  “You haven’t, for a . . . a long time, and I thought maybe you didn’t want it, and you were just . . . going along.  I thought maybe I should quit it.”

 

“Oh,” Tony said, quietly, a little surprised. “Oh.  I.”  Wow, he thought.  Good going, Stark. He gave a rough, self-deprecating laugh, mostly directed at himself, as he pulled his hands away. “No, it’s not—I do want . . . that. Them.  I . . . always liked them.”  And he did, he loved that Steve kissed him good night, the warm, sweet softness, the simple intimacy of it.  He always had.  But he hadn’t known what Steve wanted from him after everything, so he hadn’t even thought that Steve might be waiting for him to reciprocate.  He hadn’t thought about how much he liked anything; he’d been so focused on trying to figure out what Steve wanted from him.  He thought maybe . . . he should probably think about that a little bit more. He could feel the realization washing over him. Assuming Steve cared for him—which he did seem to, against all odds—he was the type of person who would care about what Tony liked and didn’t like.  He knew that.  That much was obvious. Steve was a good man. Of course he would care, and he’d feel badly if Tony ignored what he himself wanted entirely, just to make Steve happy.

 

Tony really had been being an idiot lately. He was so stupid. Of course Steve would want to know how much Tony wanted him.  He’d need to know to make a decision, any kind of a decision, and even if it felt terrifying, a lot like just deciding to leave the chestplate of the armor off in a firefight, to let him see it, well—

 

It was Steve.  Tony could be brave, especially to see him smile like that, to see him lit up and pink with pleasure in his cheeks.  The fluttering feeling in Tony’s stomach was back, stronger than ever.

 

“Okay,” Steve said, still smiling, and bent down, brushed two fingers under Tony’s chin and tilted it up.  When Tony was looking at him, he feathered a quick, soft kiss over Tony’s lips, then released him.  Tony struggled to catch his breath, feeling oddly short of it. He hadn’t seen Steve smile like that for a . . . while, not at him.  God, worth it was right.  It was so worth it. No matter how terrifying it might feel. “Good night,” Steve said.

 

“Good night, sweetheart,” Tony murmured half-automatically, responding instinctively to the fondness in Steve’s face and voice, then bit the inside of his cheek.  But Steve didn't seem to mind—instead, his smile only grew.

 

“I’m going to brush my teeth,” he said. “Be back in a second.”

 

“Sure thing,” Tony told him.  He lay back against the pillows as Steve walked toward the bathroom, then pulled the blankets over himself and turned onto his side, curling one arm under the pillow to grip it close and closing his eyes.

 

He had a lot to think about.

 

He was glad he hadn’t gotten around to asking the question about sleeping closer in bed for a different reason now—this was going to be tough to think through as it was, and sleeping pressed up close against Steve after everything, when just touching Steve or being touched by him felt as all-encompassing and intense as it did to him right now, was a good way to scramble his brains completely, if Steve had wanted it. And if he didn’t want to, Tony knew he would have felt rejected despite his best efforts not to yearn after Steve’s presence that way, to wait for whatever Steve wanted, and his mood would have soured and dropped, also pretty effectively preventing him from thinking clearly. In that situation, he’d probably have agreed—to pain, to sensory deprivation or predicament bondage or whatever the hell Steve wanted—just for the sake of feeling close to Steve again, and maybe pleasing him with his body, his submission.  Since he didn’t think Steve would actually be pleased by that at all, it was better to just avoid that whole spiral.

 

Besides, Steve had asked him a very different question—he’d asked if Tony wanted it. Of course, Tony could always lie, but . . . no. There was no way he was lying to Steve if he could avoid it.  Not right now. Not about this. Just the thought of it made him feel more than a little like he wanted to throw up.

 

He turned his face in toward the pillow and sighed. Which meant he had to figure out what the truth was, and then say it, then tell Steve, out loud, for real. Neither of those were the easiest things in the world.  But he owed Steve that much, that was for sure.

 

Tony knew he didn’t have the greatest idea of his own personal preferences for sex.  He’d always been willing to go with the flow, do whatever his partner seemed to get the most pleasure out of.  That in itself was so good, most of the time, that figuring out what he wanted the most just seemed kind of superfluous, plus more likely to frustrate him if he couldn’t get it.  He was of the school of thought that said if you wanted vanilla ice cream, French vanilla and chocolate vanilla swirl were both close enough to the target.  He knew that frustrated Steve sometimes, because Steve liked having ideas of where to shoot for, and sometimes liked to be guided, and having Tony say, “well, go to town,” left him feeling directionless, like he was just flailing around.  (Which, uh, he wasn’t.  Tony knew better than most people how little anything Steve did in the bedroom resembled flailing around.)

 

But Steve was right when he said that Tony’s preference, even with kinky stuff, wasn’t to be hurt.  Not really.  He could take it, for sure.  He’d taken it before, and pretty hard.  Not from Steve, but other partners he’d had.  Once Sunset had hit him with a whip until he’d cried, like a little bitch, her words. Not the proudest moment of his life, though he’d agreed to the whole thing.  But as humiliating as that memory was, he was a little bit proud of how hard he’d been able to take it other times without dissolving into tears like that. Indries had loved taking him past that point, though, breaking down his pride, until he couldn’t help but end up shaking and sniveling and gasping and broken down way past any control he’d had. That was one reason he didn't get into pain so much, in an intimate setting, anyway, he was pretty sure—what felt easy to endure with equanimity when he was gritting his teeth on the field seemed a million times harder to take when it was a lover with his or her hands on him. And it just didn’t feel that good. It never seemed to get to a point where it excited him, no matter how hard he tried to please, or push himself, or trick his body into enjoying it.

 

But now, with Steve—suddenly the idea sent waves of heat through him, made him shiver with the thought of it, in a way totally different from the desperate, self-destructive begging from before, and he had no idea why.  Maybe he really was just starved for affection from Steve, so that the thought of any kind of contact turned him on.  The thought of that possibility was purely humiliating.  But . . . no, it was different.  It wasn’t that when he thought of Steve touching him at all, in any way, it sent the same feelings of desperate, tingling desire through him, made him go hot all over, like thinking of what Steve had suggested did.  Like . . . thinking of Steve’s arms around him in bed made him feel trembling and warm and tender and bruised in his chest, overwhelmed and overemotional, but it didn’t twist at the pit of his stomach, didn’t tug at his groin, didn’t make him feel hot and dizzy.  So it couldn’t be simple deprivation, or anything, everything, else would be having the same effect, and it just wasn’t.  It was different. 

 

But was he crazy?  Why was he thinking of it so differently now that Steve had brought it up?

 

Maybe he really was going crazy. After everything that had happened, it would make a certain amount of sense.

 

Well, crazy for Steve?  There were worse things.  Maybe it wasn’t that big a change, after all.

 

Steve came back; Tony heard his steps on the floor, as always, surprisingly quiet for such a big man.  It surprised Tony when he felt Steve’s hand slide gently over Tony’s shoulder, in toward his spine, as Steve got into bed. It was the first time in a long while that, as far as Tony knew, they’d both been awake and aware for that sort of touch in bed.  Steve let his hand skim down and rest against one side of Tony’s spine, left his hand on his back, warm and heavy, for just a moment before he pulled it away and said, “G’night, Tony,” quietly, settling back onto his side.

 

“Good night,” Tony murmured in return, an acknowledgement.  He was proud of how even his voice sounded despite the emotions hot and tangled in his chest. He thought he wouldn’t be able to sleep, that he’d spend the whole night thinking over the question Steve had asked, but before he knew it, he was waking up with the sun on his face.

 

Steve was nowhere to be found, as usual, but when Tony rolled onto his back, his hand hit something that didn’t feel like the soft folds of sheet and blankets and he blinked, surprised, to find a sheet of paper laid against Steve’s pillow, a note in Steve’s neat, square handwriting. Tony, it said on the top, folded over.  Tony smiled to himself—a real handwritten note, it was the little things where Steve was the most endearingly old-fashioned—and picked it up.

 

Tony, it started on the inside, too, take your time on an answer to that question I asked.  I’ll see you tonight if the mission doesn’t go sideways, and if it does, I’ll see you later than that.  Don’t worry about having an answer for me the next time I see you.

 

I never told you this, but one of the things I like best about sleeping beside you is how peaceful you look asleep when I’m getting up.  I hope you sleep well with me there.  I know I sure do.

 

Take care.

 

Yours, Steve.

 

Tony swallowed, his chest feeling a little tight and his throat oddly dry, and swiped his thumb over Steve’s signature. Yours, he thought.

 

He slept so much better with Steve beside him. He did.  Every time.  To know that it was the same for Steve . . . that he was getting something out of this, too, after all, that he did feel the same way Tony did, about at least one thing . . . .

 

The light coming into the room felt brighter. Tony got up, left the note carefully on his desk, and went to take a shower.  He couldn’t help smiling to himself, just a little.

 

It was good, to have that reassurance, because he had plenty to think about.  If he had woken up just to concentrate on that, well, he could see himself getting pretty worked up over it.  It was good to have a reminder of everything else Steve had said.  That he’d still want to be with Tony, no matter what his answer was to Steve’s question ended up being.  Tony was still working on believing that Steve still wanted to be with him, but remembering those words still made him feel a little warm, from the inside out, and it wasn’t a bad feeling, not at all.

 

The hot water pounding down over his shoulders and back was soothing, as always, and he crossed his arms against the wall and thought about Steve pushing him into this wall and holding him there, holding him still, the night before, heat pooling in his groin at the memories. Steve’s blue eyes dark with desire, the feel of his hands on Tony’s wrists, his hips, controlling his movements, his pace, the moment when Tony had stopped struggling for his own pleasure, stared into Steve’s eyes and let himself go, and Steve had so easily held him up with the leverage of his body and his hand around Tony’s wrists, tenderly bracing that arm to shield Tony’s face from the spray even as he coaxed Tony to move at the pace Steve set with the other.  Tony’s cock twitched, but he ignored it; he wanted to think more than he wanted to get himself off.

 

He’d known for a long time that he had desires that tended toward the more submissive side of things.  He ran his hands back over his hair, thought about Steve’s hands there, and blew his breath out explosively.  Distracting, God.

 

He knew that there were plenty of people out there who were more submissive, or more entirely submissive than he was, some people who didn’t like taking on the other role at all, and he did, he really liked it, taking charge, with Steve, when Steve wanted to submit, he loved it, it was some of the most fulfilled he’d ever felt, sexually.  But there was still that desire in him, to let go sometimes.  Sometimes it was almost an ache.  And Steve was better than anyone he’d ever met at somehow knowing when he was aching like that, twisted up and tangled and heavy in his chest, and reaching out, and taking control from Tony, pushing him until everything came apart in him all at once and not letting him fall, and the ache loosened and was gone.  But they usually didn’t . . . play.  Not how Tony had come to understand the term.  When Steve subbed, he and Tony played, there was a beginning and an end to the scene, it was bounded and clear.  And he and Steve had done it like that.  Tony had done it like that plenty of times in his life.  But so often with Steve, during sex, something would happen, Steve would push, and Tony would let him, and the next thing he knew he was blinking and things felt very slow and soft.  And Steve had him, he had never once doubted that Steve had him when he felt like that. Never.  It was usually like how things had been in the shower, they just slid into it.  It happened with Steve bottoming sometimes, too, Tony would see him fuzzing out, his gaze going open and vulnerable, the language of his body loosening under Tony’s hands, but, well, less often.  Tony wasn’t quite sure what that meant.

 

With any other partner, that would have scared him more than it did with Steve.  Somehow, he wasn’t afraid that Steve would take that openness he showed him in bed and think less of him for it.  Maybe it was because Steve was so willing with his own submission, maybe that made it easier to trust in that with him.  Maybe it was that they’d fought together, led the team together, lived together, or maybe it was just simply that Steve was the most trustworthy individual Tony had ever known.  Whatever it was, it had always been so easy to let Steve take his wrists, or push his head down, or listen when he said, so low and even, “No, Tony, let me.”

 

Tony squirted shampoo into his palm, ran it back into his hair, lathering it up with his fingers.  All of that stuff, it was—or it felt—simple.  Power exchange, he supposed he’d have called it if he had to put a name to it, or one that wasn’t just Steve’s eyes pulling me in, his mouth at the crux of my neck, the sound of his voice, letting him take me, lifting me off the ground like I don’t weigh anything at all, the feel of his hands on my skin.  Tony leaned his head against the tiled side of the shower and closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths, concentrating on the coolness of the tile against his cheek.

 

In some ways, it wasn’t simple at all, but it felt simple, because it came down to basic truths—Tony trusted Steve. He trusted him to take his weight, not to mind if Tony leaned on him, just a little bit, for a while, if Tony let Steve take over Tony’s pleasure instead of just concentrating on pleasing Steve himself and not to mind or resent Tony’s lack of focus on him, to know what he was doing, to be there, trusted the look he got in his eyes, of concentration, of pleasure in Tony’s pleasure, of affection.  If Tony let go, nothing bad would happen, Steve would be happy, he wouldn’t blame him for it.  Tony could give himself to Steve for a while and Steve wouldn’t wonder why the hell Tony was bothering to give him something so flawed and unworthy, he’d be happy for the gift.  If Steve told Tony to close his eyes and wait for whatever Steve wanted to do to him, nothing terrible would happen if he did it.

 

Tony wiped shampoo out of his eyes with his arm, took a deep breath, and went back to washing it out of his hair. Of course, that had been before. He hadn’t been sure if Steve would ever want that again—but then Steve had pushed him into the wall of the shower last night and taken his weight, and then afterward, asked if Tony had been serious about wanting to be hurt.  Clearly, Steve still wanted it.  And last night had felt . . . it had felt the same as it always had.  Steve’s eyes hadn’t been any harder, more angry. There hadn’t been an edge there where there hadn’t been one before.  He hadn’t left bruises on Tony’s wrists, or slammed his head back against the tile, had even slid a protective hand behind his head for a moment when it knocked back. Tony looked down at his own wrist, thinking about how easily Steve’s big hand encircled it.  He had slender wrists and ankles for a man his size and weight, certainly, but Steve also just had incredibly broad hands. When Steve pinned Tony down to the mat, or in bed, or in, say, the shower, it was always incredible to realize just how strong he really was.  How little Tony could move against his hold, and how helpless Steve could make him, could hold him, with that near-superhuman strength.

 

Tony had had less pleasant reminders, of course. He’d had that strength turned on him more than once, times he could remember, and times he couldn’t. He finished with his hair, turning his head up into the spray to wash it clean, then started on his conditioner, the rest of his routine.

 

But somehow that made it all the more incredible that Steve still touched him so gently.  Even now.  Even if it was frustrating, sometimes, because surely that carefulness, that extreme gentleness, was starting to be a bit much for both of them?  Maybe that was why Tony had slid into it so quickly with him the night before—Steve had still been gentle, but he’d hoisted him up without much ado of any kind, pushed him around to where he’d wanted him, treated him firmly, if not roughly.  Right now, Tony thought he wanted Steve’s honesty more than anything.  Roughness and all.  He knew full well how hypocritical that was of him after everything he’d done to break this between them, but that didn’t change how it felt, the desperation to know what Steve really thought, what he was really feeling.

 

Even if that honesty meant Steve hurting him, Tony wondered?  He wondered if that might feel more honest than anything.  He made himself imagine it.  Steve didn’t strike him as the type to go in for whips, so would he use the toys they already had, if they did this?  They had quite a few floggers already, mostly ones that Tony had commissioned so he could use them on Steve, because if anyone had a pain kink, it was Steve, Jesus Christ, but a few of them he’d used on Tony before, and that hadn’t felt . . . awful. It had felt pretty damn good, actually, but he’d known Steve had been going almost ridiculously easy on him, purposefully not letting it hurt at all, even a little bit, even in the thud of the pressure against his skin.  Paddles, a crop or two, one with feathers on the end for teasing, clamps, and most of which Tony had always been too chicken to actually use.  He knew Steve liked it, that wasn’t the question, it was just—seeing him flinch, hearing him let out actual noises of pain, noises Tony was all too familiar with from years on the field and actual injuries, because of something he was doing, seeing marks rise on Steve’s perfect, resilient skin—it made Tony’s hands shake, his stomach knot up, made him feel sick and guilty.  Maybe if he himself had had more fun with scenes that involved pain that would be easier, Tony reflected suddenly.  He’d know better that it wasn’t really hurting Steve—would it work like that?  Or was it just that Tony wasn’t suited to it, and nothing he could do would change that?

 

He really had no idea what Steve would go for. When he’d begged him so desperately before, he’d had no idea what he’d wanted Steve to do, what he’d been thinking he would do.  Hurt him, like Sunset (or Indries, or . . . well, anyway, it didn’t matter, other people) had hurt him, he guessed.  Whatever that entailed, until he was broken, wrecked and jumbled, at Steve’s feet, gasping and messy and pathetic despite all his control, all the toughness he tried so hard to cling to.  Tony was pretty sure he’d just been picturing Steve roughing him up barehanded.  He had a good imagination, and he was vividly, mathematically aware of what Steve’s bare hands could do to his body with even half the force they could exert, even without Steve being serious about hurting him, even with Steve consciously not inflicting lasting damage.

 

Even if he hadn’t been able to picture it for himself, he’d had a few fun little demonstrations lately, hadn’t he? Yeah, he had a pretty damn good idea of what Steve could do, even holding back.

 

Tony sighed, and admitted to himself that if Steve wanted to hurt him, there was a part of him, a big part of him, that wanted nothing more than to take whatever he dished out, because he adored Steve in a soul-deep, complicated way that hurt sometimes all on its own, and if Steve wanted to hurt him he wanted to be hurt.  And he knew that was fucked up, even he knew that, and nothing to bring into a scene, ever.  If he did this—God, was he really seriously thinking about doing this—that couldn’t be why.  It wasn’t going to be why.  But it was there, and . . . and if he was going to do this, if he was even thinking about it, he couldn’t deny it.  It was there and it was self-destructive and Steve would hate it. Tony knew Steve would hate it, if he knew.

 

He thought Steve might already know. The way he looked at Tony sometimes . . . and, well, Tony had seen the footage of their battle in New York, during the superhero Civil War.  Steve wasn’t an idiot, and Tony wasn’t either.  Even without remembering it, he knew what had been going on with him there, in his own head.  He wondered if Steve knew, that was all.  If Steve did know, he’d have done exactly what he’d been doing, and never mentioned it even once, so . . . there you were.  Could go either way.

 

He trusted Steve anyway, Tony thought as he finished up in the shower, soaping himself up and washing himself off, shaving, moving mostly on autopilot while his thoughts circled themselves. No matter what. Sure, Steve had punched him a few times, sure, they fought, they didn’t always get along. But it wasn’t that, it was that—Steve was always honest about when he lashed out, he never hurt Tony for no reason, he was never cruel. He was always real, and he would always, always be fair. He never pushed Tony just to see how far it would take to make him actually cry, and there was no way he ever would.  He didn’t play games with Tony’s head, and Tony sure couldn’t claim that in return. He chuckled a little wryly at the thought that he would rather be hurt by Steve than kissed by a few of the lovers he’d had in his lifetime, because it would hurt less in the long run, but, well, it was true.  He wondered what Steve would have said, about him—how Steve fell in the area of trust right now. Tony had never been as . . . as honest with him, as trustworthy as Steve was.  Not that that was a big surprise, considering the two of them, he figured. Steve was so perfectly honest, and Tony . . . well.

 

He stepped out of the shower, toweling himself off, and sighed.  He was no closer to figuring this out, not really, and now he had to get ready for work, and focus, not let his mind wander, obsessing over this thing and trying to take it apart.   He brushed his towel back over his hair, rubbing it roughly, then let it settle around his shoulders, letting his reflection in the mirror catch his eye for a moment.

 

He had still dark circles under his eyes, but they were finally starting to fade, and he was still underweight, but it wasn’t as bad, as obvious, as it had been.  At least the lingering bruises and scrapes had finally all healed up. He wasn’t going to have to use makeup to hide the most obvious effects of his exhaustion or the bruises today.  But the biggest difference was his eyes—they looked different, brighter, more alive than they’d looked in a long time. 

 

He gave himself a wry, self-mocking smirk. “You’re a sap, Stark,” he said. Steve kissed him a few times and touched his back, left him a note, and he was walking on air. That easy.  But it was true, there was nothing he could do about it, and he’d pass muster for now, anyway.  He turned his mind to his work and started to get dressed.  He hesitated, but he slipped the note Steve had left him into his breast pocket before he left.