The end of the twentieth century was a wholly different world to the one he had known, and Steve had, after his defrosting, sat through the endless rounds of debriefings with an air of astonishment. Mutants had equal rights now, even if mutant relations seemed to be a trifle frosty on certain areas involving the sovereignty of some new country called Genosha, and more strangely, the process of imprinting, a basic social mechanism, had now been fundamentally altered.
The handsome man in his early forties striding half an hour late into the SHIELD meeting apparently had a hand in the latter. Tony Stark, CEO and successor to the Stark technology empire, smiled breezily in the face of Fury's stormy expression and slouched into the closest chair, dressed in an expensive-looking pinstripe black suit that moulded close to his lithe frame. As he sat down, the matte-black, so-called 'equalization' bracers that were now Stark Industries' most iconic invention, slipped briefly into view under his white cuffs.
Steve swallowed a sigh as Fury began to harangue Stark for being late. If the son was anything like the father, military authority was not so much an institution to be respected but to be used or derided, and judging from Stark's impishly unrepentant grin, he'd clearly inherited more than his brain and his looks from Howard.
Most of the other men and women whom Fury had summoned wore the bracers - the slender man with the penetrating stare called Clint, the shapely woman in a rather, well, improperly tight leather... suit... named Natasha, and even the stolidly sensible-looking African American in the military trappings, Rhodes. Fury didn't wear them, nor did the jovial, big blonde man that Fury had called Thor, but Fury was the spitting image of a Dom if Steve knew anything about it, and Thor apparently wasn't human. The bracers worked to suppress instincts and imprinting for both Doms and Subs, but an imprinted Dom wouldn't have much use for a pair, compared to an imprinted Sub, who could still be susceptible to other Doms and their suggestions.
"... and this is Captain America. Steve Rogers," Fury concluded, seemingly running out of invective for now. "Rogers, this is Tony Stark."
"Morning, sir," Steve waited until Fury had introduced everyone else before he greeted Stark politely, even as Tony eyed him with apparent disinterest. "The briefing mentioned you quite prominently."
Stark peered at Fury, who snorted. "Since you nearly started two fucking wars, first with the suppression bracelets, then with your neutralization shit, you had to have some face time in the cultural brief. And then there was that goddamn fiasco when you got kidnapped and built your suit. Happy?"
"Admit it, SHIELD loves me," Stark pressed a hand dramatically over his chest. "I'm touched."
"Don't be, you still owe me those blueprints for a new helicarrier," Fury groused. "I've called all of you here today to invite you to become part of the new Avengers Initiative. You'll be called upon as a team to respond to threats both-"
"Hold on," Stark's hand shot up.
"What do you want, Stark?" Fury frowned at him.
"I'm a busy man, Fury, and you've already got War Machine."
Rhodes sighed. "Tony, I'm not going to be in the Initiative. I've already explained matters to Fury before you got here. The military wants to run the War Machine as a mobile emergency foreign peacekeeping force."
"So that my stolen, weaponized-by-Hammer suit can now add to the mounting civilian casualties caused by our 'emergency peacekeeping'?" Stark snapped, his playful tone suddenly whip-hard.
"We've asked you to help calibrate the targeting systems-"
"I don't make weapons any more!"
"The two of you, shut up," Fury growled. "Have your fucking spat in your own time. Inviting you here was a bit of a long shot, Stark. If you ever want to be part of something bigger than your goddamned ego-"
"You're saying that to me?" Stark interjected, sounding incredulous. "I've changed the world twice, old man. How many others-" Thor rumbled into life for a moment, "Sorry, Norse Gods excepted, and okay, maybe secret-asshole-one-eyed-bastard-agents - how many of the others here can claim that?"
"You made the bracers for yourself, Stark. The first time to impress your daddy, and the second time to impress the Professor. I'm talking about that bloody red and gold get up that you like to fly around in. About using it for something more than correcting your mistakes."
Stark glared at Fury, his jaw working, then he stood up abruptly, and when he spoke, his tone was syrupy. "I just remembered that I have an urgent meeting with the South Korean trade minister. Sorry about that, got to go."
Steve started to rise from his chair, but sat down again when Fury shook his head at him. Stark stormed out, followed by a scurrying Rhodes, and Fury sighed, as the metal doors hissed shut.
"That didn't go well, boss," Clint noted idly from a safe distance.
"That mortal is a prideful man," Thor agreed. "Prideful men are difficult to sway."
"He did exactly what I thought he would do," Fury retorted, even as he typed into a console and brought up a pale hologram of New York, that flickered in blue lattice over the war room's round table. "He'll be back. This is the Triskelion. You'll all be operating from there once it's completed..."
"Nice place," Stark remarked behind him, just as Steve was struggling with the remote control for the large television set in the rec room of the Triskelion. He'd managed to get it to change into the sports channel, and then he had pressed something instead of the volume control, and now the screen stayed stubbornly on some sort of gray, fizzing static.
Stark plucked the control from his hands, pressed a few buttons, and the screen cleared back into the game of football. "Thanks."
"No problem. The newer StarkTech sets can be a bit fiddly," Stark handed the remote back, and was now inspecting the wiring at the back of the screen. "I'll have to let Development know."
"Um," Steve had never liked getting people into trouble needlessly. "It's probably just a matter of getting used to the future."
"Customers like 'user-friendly', and we're not targeting just the young and the tech-savvy," Stark shot back a marketing spiel with the flair of practice, then he grinned at Steve over his shoulder, impish and friendly. "Besides, Stark Industries understands the value of endorsement, and you, my friend, you're the most famous living American icon right now. Do you need a watch? Or a cell phone? I'm still working on reception and size on the latter, but you can have one of the prototypes."
"In red and gold?" Steve couldn't help himself; he grinned.
"Oh, well, I can do blue and white and red, if you prefer." Stark straightened from the set. "Where's Fury? He wasn't at the SHIELD HQ. I've got his plans." Stark was carrying a sleek black suitcase.
"I'm not sure," Steve admitted honestly. 'It's been a slow day. Sorry. Have you tried calling him?"
"Not picking up," Stark had the ingenuous look of someone who had made a token effort at communication, but had come over quite likely out of curiosity rather than anything else.
"Delivery in person? You're a busy man, aren't you?" Steve raised an eyebrow.
"Ah, well, a contract of this size needs a little personal touch," Stark declared dismissively, though there was a brief flash of a grin. "What about you, Captain? Aren't there American kittens to save, somewhere? World evils to right?"
"The game's nearly over," Steve replied. Stark's tone had been playful, rather than malicious, as though testing the waters.
"Got to have priorities, I suppose." Stark drawled, even as Steve's gaze dropped back to his wrists when he shrugged. "They told you about these in the briefing?"
"Yeah." Steve had struggled with the concept. "Er. Are you a..."
"What do you think?" Stark asked, when Steve trailed off, wondering whether it was still a done thing to ask something so personal. It hadn't been a problem before, not in the Army. Knowing which of your squad were Doms and which were Subs and which were paired up was essential; if injury or death happened, it was necessary to know which members might break down on the spot.
"I, uh," Steve frowned. "A Dom, I guess. Just like Fury."
"Hah. I was brought up that way," Stark smirked, as though at some private joke. "Did you want a pair, Captain? Free of charge, compliments of Stark Industries."
"No, there's no need," Steve shook his head.
This time, Stark sobered fast. "You left someone behind?"
"No, it's not that. I've never bonded," Steve corrected Stark quickly. "I was thinking that maybe it wasn't possible, due to the serum. There was another soldier I knew once," he added, when Stark opened his mouth. "Met him briefly. He knew your father, too. His name was-"
"Logan?" Stark supplied, his mouth quirking. "Well, well. You might want to pop down to Westchester or Brooklyn sometime, depending. I'm... aware of Logan. His healing factor makes him unable to imprint. The biological changes 'don't take', apparently."
Steve made a mental note to ask Fury about Logan. "Yeah. I've heard that. The serum makes me heal fast, as well - not as fast as Logan, and I'll probably die if I got shot - but I think I can't imprint, either. I never have, and I've met a lot of people, in the war."
"Makes sense." Instead of the pitying looks that Steve usually got, Stark sounded... envious. Strange. At least in his time, imprinting was considered desirable. It was a part of life, gaining a complete soul, as popular literature opined.
Puzzled, Steve asked, "What does wearing those bracers feel like? Can they come off?"
"They're just like pieces of jewelry, Captain." Stark placed the suitcase on an armchair and padded closer, wrists out for Steve to inspect. "Lightweight. Doesn't chafe. Comes in other colors if necessary," he added, his tone facetious now. "It's just some lateral thinking from the suppression devices. A canceling out of mental synapses. Seems that the effects vary. Clint told me that if he wears his set for too long he gets headaches. He's a Sub. You could try them on, if you like," Stark added, as Steve carefully lifted one of the bracers. "Not that I think that you would feel anything. Logan doesn't."
"I suppose there's no harm," Steve decided, because most of his teammates were wearing the bracers, and because he had always firmly believed that part of leadership involved developing some form of understanding.
"Right. See that. There's a double catch here," Stark tapped at a barely visible panel on the underside of his wrist. "I'm rather proud of it, actually. It won't dislodge, and it won't get loose. The bracers don't break, don't freeze, and aren't affected by magnetic fields like watches would be."
"Okay." Steve filed that away. "Breaking in the middle of combat could be a disaster. Natasha's a close combat specialist, in particular. She might have to use it to block blows. Blades."
"Nothing short of adamantium would get hers off unless she wants it off. I've been improving them, though, for Avengers-issue. The ones for public use don't have to be so hardy, to keep it available for mass production and use, but the ones that we have, I'll alter."
'We', Stark had said. So Fury was right, after all. "Glad to have you with us," Steve noted carefully.
Stark looked startled for a moment, then he tried to scowl. "Well, I'm a craftsman. Modifying a few bangles to suit the customer does not an Avenger member make."
"Anyone who catches someone wearing these could take the bracer off forcibly, though." Steve decided to let that pass, for now.
"Yeah. I'm working on that. Voice recognition and fingerprint tech won't work, since, well, if the wearer is captured torture could take care of that. Passwords, too. I was thinking maybe a remote lock, but then that assumes that you don't ever need to take them off, and people like Clint who get headaches might not like that. Anyway, the catch goes like this."
Under Stark's deft fingers, the left bracer flicked open, then the right, a second after, and Steve looked up at Stark's sudden, sharp intake of breath. "Is something-" wrong, Steve wanted to say, but the question strangled in his throat, and he was dimly aware of the faint line of thought that read so this is what it is like, an intense, visceral rush, a sense of rightness so strong that he felt that his heart could burst, like a missing piece of him slotting into place, and most of all, a surge of possessiveness so strong that he nearly recoiled. Mine, he thought, the word and the knowing of it humming through every inch of his body with a fierce sort of joy, through his sense of self, even as he got to his feet.
Stark took a wooden step forward, then he sucked in a sharp, high breath of panic and desperation and clicked the bracers shut.
It felt rather like being suddenly punched in the gut, as all the intense sensation abruptly banked, slammed into a wall. Steve reeled back and overbalanced in an ungainly sprawl over the couch even as Stark babbled, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, don't tell anyone, please," and fled.
Steve winced as he felt a twinge, in his chest, an ache that grew the moment Stark backed out of sight, and he lurched to his feet, dizzy. "Tony, wait!"
For a businessman, Stark could put on an impressive turn of speed; Steve only caught up with him when Stark had made it to one of the Triskelion helipads, to the small, bright red helicopter emblazoned with the Stark Industries logo. Stark was already rooting frantically behind the single pilot's seat, ignoring the murmurs and glances from from the hangar staff, and as Steve approached, he pulled out a box, nearly fumbling it in his haste, and thrust it in Steve's direction. "Put those on!"
"I... what..." Steve opened the box, revealing a pair of the bracers, nestled in padding. "Why? Tony-"
"It's Mister Stark to you," Stark hissed, then he quickly lowered his voice as though abruptly realizing that they had an audience. "Look. The bracers are designed for accidents like this, all right? We both wear a set, the problem goes away. Capisce?"
"Can we talk?" Steve asked, as meekly as possible, even as every fiber of his being wanted to shove Stark up against the helicopter and... Steve sucked in a quick breath, suppressing the impulse. "Somewhere quiet?"
"What's there to talk about?" Stark snapped, his voice still wrung tight with panic.
"You're not going to fly this thing by yourself in your state. You need to calm down," Steve tried his most reasonable tone. "Please?"
"You put those on first," Stark growled, his fingers clenched tightly.
"All right. I'm putting them on." It was awkward, and the fit was too tight; Steve winced as he snapped the bracers onto his wrists; the cool, hard material bit into his skin. Instantly, the impulses dulled, into a faint, background ache, like a continuous headache, but it was bearable. Barely.
"I'll get you a better set that fits when I'm back at Stark Towers. That's my spare," Stark looked visibly calmer. "Within the day. And if you want to talk, I'll really rather it not be in the Triskelion. Almost everything here's under video surveillance. I did the designs."
"You mean, there's something else that could happen?" Steve asked, dryly, and Stark managed a stuttered laugh.
"I suppose I can't do any more damage. Hell. Fury's going to have a fucking field day over this. Come on, then. Let's get back to my suitcase."
Stark calmed down enough to shoot him a self-deprecating smile when they were back in the rec room, though his dark eyes were still wild with residual panic. "All right. Talk."
"I can still feel something," Steve admitted, wincing as he tried to shift the wristbands as far as they could go up his wrist. "Is that intended?"
"Yes. No. Well," Stark took in a deep, tight breath and curled his fingers into the back of the couch, clawed. "They were tested on volunteers, both imprinted and non imprinted people. They work best when both the Dom and the Sub are wearing a pair. But I guess we didn't test them on couples who had just imprinted. That's when the bond is the strongest, for the first few months. Bit of an oversight, there."
Stark was still in a panic, though he was trying his best, and he kept glancing nervously up at seemingly empty patches on the walls. "Is there any place in the Triskelion without video surveillance? You said 'almost everything'."
Stark's handsome face screwed up briefly in thought. "Bathrooms. Bedrooms. Why?"
"The closest bathroom is over in a corner. Come on." Steve started to walk, then hesitated when Stark picked up and clutched his suitcase to his chest, like a shield. "Mister Stark?"
"I'm sure that Fury and the entire surveillance team are watching us right now," Steve pointed out, as mildly as he could, "And I'll rather not give them any further entertainment." When Stark still hesitated, Steve sighed, and rubbed a hand through his hair. "Mister Stark, this was an accident. I'm not going to... to hit you on the head, sling you over my shoulder and make for the bedrooms, or whatever you think that I'm about to do to you."
That got a laugh, at least, although it was strained, and Steve was sure that he hadn't been able to keep all the hurt from his voice, but Stark nodded, and made a bee-line for the rec room's bathroom. Steve locked the door behind him, and Stark flinched for a moment at the sound before setting his briefcase down at the far end of the sink bench and washing his face, his shoulders shaking.
When Stark had dried off, Steve asked, as neutrally as he could, "Did something change when I was sleeping?"
"You're going to have to be specific there," Stark was trying for calm, but his voice kept cracking at the edges. "A hell lot of things changed between the 1940s and now."
"I meant, between Doms and Subs," Steve fought for patience. He could feel the dull press of instinct at the back of his mind, could remember the near overwhelming surge of want, the need to command Stark over to him, to get him on his knees, to- "You're acting like your worst nightmare just happened."
"That's a rather accurate way of putting it," Stark admitted, and when Steve's expression twisted, he sighed. "Captain, I've got nothing against you, all right? When I was a kid, I loved listening to my dad talk about the adventures that he had with you. You're an American hero. You save kittens and help old ladies across the street-"
"So what's wrong with me, then?" Steve asked, and he couldn't hold back the hurt bewilderment, this time.
"I don't know what the property laws were like in the 1940s, but everything I've got now, my business empire, my houses, my cars, down to the shirt off my back, it all also belongs to you now," Stark pointed out, bitterly. "You work for SHIELD, don't you? Fury's going to be over the fucking moon."
"But that's crazy," Steve blinked, astonished. "Why? Is that the law?"
"They made it to get around duties taxes, I think," Stark nodded curtly. "There's new laws getting introduced, in cases of separation, but I think they're still in the works. So you're a billionaire now, Captain. Congratulations."
"I don't want a cent of your money, Mister Stark," Steve shot back hotly, stung by the insinuation. "I'll swear to it."
Stark stared at him, intensely, then he dropped his eyes, exhaling. "All right. I'm sorry, all right? I'm sorry. This was my fault, anyway, I shouldn't have assumed... Fuck. I don't know how the board of directors is going to react, that's all. I'm going to have to... have to ease into this. I don't tend to react very well to bad surprises."
"It's your company, isn't it?"
"Stark Industries is public listed, Captain. It's not that simple. I'm also the chief engineer, they need me, but... I'll have to think about this," Stark was picking nervously at the cuffs of his shirt. "Maybe Fury will cooperate. No one else needs to learn about this, anyway. Right?" Stark suddenly looked up, hopeful. "This could be our secret."
"You mean, between you, me, and half of SHIELD?"
"I'll talk to Fury." Stark glanced back, regretfully, at the suitcase. "I'm going to have to give him a discount on those plans. Damnation."
"I'll come with you. To talk to Fury." Fury was an intractable, surly old man, but he seemed marginally friendly with Steve.
"There's no need, I know exactly what he's going to say. I need some space," Stark added, when Steve opened his mouth to object. "Please."
Steve took in a deep, measured breath in the name of self-control, because the anxious, uncertain way that Stark had said that last word had sent a hot pulse through him that was not innocent in the least. He wanted... no he needed to take off the bracers on their wrists, pull Stark into his arms and kiss him and never let him go again; instead, when Stark seemed to tense up, Steve stood aside instead, backing away from the door.
Stark looked so visibly relieved that it hurt. "Thank you, Captain."
"Mister Stark," Steve tried again, off-balance, "Are you going to just... just pretend that this never happened?"
"I'll send over the new bracers. Tomorrow, at the latest."
"I don't mean about the bracers," Steve struggled for calm. "I meant... in my time, imprinting wasn't seen as some sort of personal disaster. It's still permanent, isn't it? I'm sorry that it was so sudden, and that we don't even know each other, but that's just a matter of time. You don't need to worry about your money. Nor am I going to make you do anything that you don't want to, especially if it's SHIELD business, all right? And if you don't want anyone else to know, that's fine, I'm sure that we can work something out. But I want to get to know you, and-"
Stark's expressive features assumed a hunted look. "People who usually get to know me often end up regretting it, Captain. Besides, if we want to keep things on the down low, we're going to have a devil of a time explaining the proximity to anyone."
"Fury made you an offer earlier," Steve thought quickly. "Accept it. Then you'll be part of the team. It won't look odd in the least, then. And if after a few months, if we end up being unable to stand each other, we'll part ways, if you want. But at least we'll have tried."
"If you don't want my money," Stark asked, suspiciously, "And if SHIELD isn't going to be involved, then what do you want from me?"
Steve stared at Stark, astonished, and then he felt his heart break a little for the other man. Was money and technology all that anyone had ever wanted from Tony Stark? His mother had once said, in passing, that after a certain point, money only made its owners miserable, and he'd never seen the logic in that - until now. "Tony..."
Stark shut his eyes briefly. "Don't you use that tone on me. God! I've heard it from Ch... from someone else far too many times, thank you." There was a long, frustrated pause, in which Steve wondered whether or not to try again, and then Stark sighed gustily. "All right. Since this was my fault, and we're stuck with the consequences, I guess I owe you. I'll join the team. You and Fury will regret that sooner or later. After a few months, the bond will stabilize, and the bracers would then be fully functional. I'll go back to my company, and you can keep on saving kittens and puppies."
"All right," Steve conceded reluctantly. "It's a plan." A few months was plenty of time to get to know Stark better. And if it didn't work out at all, at least the modern world had options, now.
"Now that that's decided," Stark squared his shoulders, "I'm going to have to talk to that one-eyed bastard."
Tony had conceded the matter of moving onto a first name basis after a couple of days, if with clear reluctance, but remained either neutral or borderline unfriendly despite all of Steve's overtures, and finally, Steve turned to Fury for help, as a last resort. Fury had interrupted him in the middle of an increasingly awkward description of the precise nature of the problem with an address scribbled on a piece of scrap paper, and now Steve found himself in an apartment block on the outskirts of Brooklyn, feeling self-conscious.
Fury had called ahead on his behalf, apparently, but on hindsight, this probably made things more awkward. Save where matters of international importance were involved, Fury's approach to diplomacy or even normal conversation tended to be explosively irascible.
Logan opened the door before he could knock, and startled, Steve gaped at him for a long moment. Logan looked exactly the same as he had when Steve had first seen him, lounging against a muddy jeep in Malta, all casual insouciance and non-regulation-cut hair, a thick cigar wound between two fingers, the sharp, direct stare almost feral in its intensity.
"Rogers," Logan inclined his head, as though no time had passed at all, and dazed, Steve still managed to shake the proffered hand firmly.
"God, Logan, it's been years," he burst out, then hesitated; it had been more than that, after all. It had been decades.
Logan, however, merely padded back into the apartment, even as Steve let himself in and closed the door. Logan lived in a tiny flat, not much larger than the rec room in the Triskelion in floor space, with a kitchenette in a corner, a closed door that probably led to a bathroom in the other corner, a neatly made bed beside a wardrobe, partially open to reveal rows of flannel shirts, and a boxing bag dangling from the ceiling to the far right of the room. A sliding door opened into a narrow balcony.
To Steve's right was another door, into an incongruous looking room, wood-panelled and containing floor to ceiling shelves stacked with books. It looked like some sort of study, from the narrow slice of it that he could see behind the almost closed door, and it didn't really seem like something that Logan would have used. Perhaps the man had hidden depths.
"Yeah. Fury said they found you in the Arctic. World's biggest novelty ice cube."
"That's accurate," Steve smiled, suddenly at ease. "You're the only one I know from back then who's still alive, Logan. You have no idea how great it is to see you."
Logan smirked, already back in the balcony and smoking. "Don't hear that often, bub. Fury said that you wanted to see us?"
"Us?" Steve repeated, puzzled, and then he looked over to the side as he heard a door creak. A slender, slight man was stepping out of the study, dressed primly in a brown jacket over pressed trousers, a pale gray woolen vest beneath it, and crisp white shirt. His rich walnut hair was liberally laced with silver, and crows' feet had etched themselves into the corners of brilliant blue eyes. The man smiled, and extended a hand.
"Charles Xavier. You must be Captain Rogers."
"'Steve', please." Xavier was wearing a heavy pair of dog tags that looked rather familiar. Particularly the name engraved on the tag. Glancing up at Logan even as he shook Xavier by the hand, Steve said, "Congratulations. I thought that you couldn't imprint."
"You've no idea how many times I've heard people say that to me since, bub," Logan drawled, even as Xavier padded over to his side and Logan tucked an arm absently around his waist. "No, I didn't imprint, yes, it's complicated. You've been out for a while, Rogers. How're you finding the new world?"
"Very complicated," Steve admitted. "I guess that's what Fury wanted me to talk to the both of you about." That would make sense. Logan had lived through the 1940s all the way to the present, after all. Maybe Fury thought that Logan would be able to explain matters-
"That brat finally imprinted, eh."
"How did you guess?" Steve blinked. "Did Fury tell you?" Stark was going to be furious.
Xavier sighed, but Logan was the one who drawled, "No, we guessed. Tony ain't been acting right for days. Wouldn't even tell Charlie here what was wrong. Ain't happened before. 'Sides, Charlie here is a Prof, he knows the signs."
"Logan said that you're a good man, and that's high praise from him," Xavier noted, with a gentle smile. "It's about time that Tony found someone, if by accident, I presume. What do you wish to know?"
It was probably predictable of him, but Steve rather enjoyed polishing his shield. Other than the small box of effects that Fury had retrieved for him from the safe deposit box that he had purchased after he'd finally successfully enlisted into the Army, it was the only thing that had survived with him through the decades.
He was buffing it with a rag when the door to his room hissed open, and instincts pushed him off the chair and into a crouch, shield at the ready. Tony looked startled as the door closed behind him, and Steve straightened up, a little embarrassed. "Ah. Sorry. I thought that the door was automatically locked."
"It was. Never design a fortress that you don't have a master pass to," Tony meandered over, a little unsteadily, and poured himself into a spare chair. He smelled of whisky, the white dress shirt that he was wearing was rumpled, and Steve wrinkled his nose even as he carefully put down his shield.
"You've been drinking."
"Enhanced senses! Can't do without them." Tony declared expansively. "And you've been talking to people who don't know better. Fury put you up to it, Rogers? Dig into my personal life and see what worms out?"
Steve swallowed a sigh. Tony was furious, that was clear enough from his hard stare and the tension strung taut in his shoulders, despite his playful smile and demeanor. "You're referring to Logan and Charles?"
"We'll make a lawyer out of you yet, Captain."
"Logan's been a friend of mine since before you were born, Tony," Steve pointed out evenly. "And before you ask, no, I didn't know who or what was at the address that Fury handed to me."
Tony glared at him for a long moment, then he looked away, fingers drumming on the armrests. "No. I suppose you wouldn't have. But why did he even give you that address in the first place?"
"Well," Steve hesitated, then he plunged on, "I asked him why you didn't seem to like me very much. I mean," he added quickly, when Tony raised both his eyebrows, "A lot of people don't feel comfortable around soldiers, or maybe you prefer er, women or something, and-"
"And what did Fury say?" Tony asked, seemingly fascinated.
"You won't hurt my feelings, Captain. Having bloody flaming rows with Fury is a Stark family tradition."
"He said that you were a conceited, spoiled brat with a wide streak of self-destructiveness and a truckload of daddy issues," Steve confessed, reluctantly. "But also that you were a genius and he needs you to build his helicopter-"
"-instead of throwing a tantrum, and as such since he has a meeting with Alpha Flight in half an hour I should instead go to that Brooklyn address, and not to waste his time any further."
"Father always liked Fury," Tony observed, as Steve trailed into silence.
"Really?" Howard Stark had been a stubborn man, just like his son, and just as conceited where technology was involved, but he was also brave, loyal, and Steve was all too aware that he owed the Starks everything. Without the Super Soldier program...
"It's surprising how many... Dad called them 'fakers'... you meet once you accumulate a ridiculous amount of money." Tony explained. "Fury never hesitates to tell it as it is. Often in great length. Punctuated with creative expletive. Besides, SHIELD is an important Stark Industries client."
"I'm sure that what he said about you is-"
"Entirely accurate. I note that he forgot the 'textbook narcissism' and all the railing about irresponsibility. He had to be in a rush." Tony grinned, amused, and the anger seemed to have gone. "Well then, did you learn anything interesting from Logan and Charles?"
There was no real point in edging around the truth. "You're... involved with them, aren't you?" This revelation had been rather obvious, on a close look at the flat. Sketches marked with Tony's crabbed handwriting littered the study, and interspaced with thick books on social philosophy, genetics, biology and other human sciences books had been relatively newer books on aeronautical engineering, particle physics and other subjects that would have been irrelevant to a genetics professor.
Tony watched him carefully for a long moment, then he leaned further back in his chair. "Not anymore. Not for a while."
Steve had been prepared to offer a painfully insincere assertion that he would have been happy not to interfere. Relief flooded. "Oh."
"The Prof got sucked into mutant-human politics, and then there was all that business with the board of directors in Stark Industries and Afghanistan, and... yeah. I guess I grew up." Tony added, thoughtfully, then he cracked one of his gorgeous, playful grins. "Just a little."
He needed us for a while, Logan had said, bluntly. Characteristically, it had been a simple statement of fact, uncolored by resentment or wistfulness, anything, and Charles had smiled a gentle smile, untroubled. Steve had left the Brooklyn flat feeling vaguely unnerved and greatly disappointed. He'd thought that the accidental imprinting had upended Tony's rather unusual relationship. But if he wasn't with Charles and Logan, then...
"Are you... involved with anyone else right now, then?"
"I am not 'pause-involved' with anyone," Tony retorted, a touch acerbic, "Don't you read the gossip rags? I'm 'pause-involved' with everyone, apparently. Supermodels, actresses, and a brat pack of other stars."
"I meant, seriously," Steve mumbled, his cheeks coloring. Come to think of it, Howard Stark hadn't yet been married, during the war, and he had been excessively friendly with any pretty young thing in a skirt.
"No. So you can forget about that speech you were building up, the one about being willing to stand aside," Tony's tone sharpened at Steve's blink. "You're that sort of person. I don't need telepathy to read you. This isn't going to work, Captain. We've got polar opposite personalities. You asked Fury why I don't like you? I like my freedom and I like being in the driving seat. I don't take orders well and I've never understood the point of authority figures-"
"It's really not me after all," Steve realized, feeling rather slow. "It's the dom-sub system."
"Very good, Captain," Tony noted, sarcastically, "And to think that I've only ever been belting you over the head with that at every available moment."
"But," Steve said helplessly, "We can't really-"
"Help ourselves? We're not animals. Civilisation's been kicking around for centuries. Hell, we've flown to the moon. But if we both took the bracers off right now, what do you think would happen?"
Steve knew all too well. He spent most nights thinking about it. In detail. Flushing, he muttered, "Well-"
"Exactly," Tony growled, though he dropped his eyes again quickly. "Don't you think that it's bloody unnerving? I don't even know you. When the accident happened, that was the second time that I've even seen you, ever. I'm one of the richest men in the world and I've reinvented social politics and I'm working on doing the same to the energy race-"
Tony was beginning to panic again. Steve held up his hands, palms up, and tried to interject as soothingly as he could. "Tony..."
Tony ignored him. "But even with the bracers back on, I very nearly went right down on my knees there and then and kissed your feet," he bit out, his voice stuttered with stress and humiliation and anger.
Steve exhaled. "You're a proud man, Tony. There's nothing wrong with that. And if it's any comfort to you at all, I wouldn't have let you do that."
Tony's simmering temper seemed to come to a sudden halt. "Really?"
Steve squirmed under Tony's penetrating stare. "I know... I mean I knew people who liked that sort of thing but I've always felt it was disrespectful," he muttered, looking down at his feet, "Why would I want to make someone feel small? I was small once, and frail. People used to push me around and look down on me. It wasn't nice. Why would I want to make someone else feel that way? I mean, if both sides consent it's... But I don't think that I'll feel comfortable about it," Steve concluded, lamely.
Tony blinked, seemingly fascinated. "Those brochures were around since before the 1940s. I know that for a fact."
"Oh... you mean those that taught you how to, uh, well, I guess I don't have anything against them, and anyway, I felt they mostly contained suggestions." Steve mumbled, his cheeks turning redder. Part of the debriefing had included the updated government-issue brochures on dom/sub relations and recommended safety procedures, as well as a lot of basic... exercises... of some sort... "And besides, the brochures don't say it, but it's all about trust. Both the Dom and the Sub must trust each other and know their limits. Umm. Risk-awareness."
"And so," Steve cut in sharply, looking up to hold Tony's eyes, "I'm never going to make you do anything that you don't want to do, Tony. If you really want to walk away and be your own man, that's fine. But I want you to be fair. This isn't just something that you have to live with. It's something that I have to live with, too. And I want to try it. I've waited my whole life to meet you, Tony," Steve added earnestly, "I just never knew it."
Tony shuddered visibly, then he clenched his hands tight, closing his eyes. After a long pause, he mumbled, "Okay. Maybe I overreacted."
"You're not smirking at me, are you?"
Steve hastily schooled his face. "I don't smirk."
"You're an unlucky bastard, you know. Twenty-nine years, then what, five decades, and you're stuck with me, rather than some pretty, obliging little lady."
"I don't know, Tony, you said something about changing the world twice and reinventing the energy race." Steve pointed out, as solemnly as he could. "Seems like you're a really amazing person."
"The bit of my brain that creates things is amazing. It just happens to be attached to... you did hear what Fury said, didn't you?"
"Yes, Tony. So did the entire floor, I think."
"And no one's perfect, Mister Stark," Steve smiled when Tony glanced over at him, frowning, "I think you're far more than the sum of your vices."
"Hah!" Tony, however, smiled tentatively in return, and pushed himself up from the couch, then to Steve's surprise, stepped right into Steve's personal space and pressed his palms over his shoulders.
For a moment, Steve didn't know what to do with his hands, then he rested them tentatively on Tony's hips, relaxing only when Tony didn't immediately flinch back. "Tony?"
"America's golden poster boy," Tony mused, studying him critically. "I'm beginning to get this urge to try and buy war bonds. Even though there aren't any to buy."
"It's part of the super soldier effect," Steve replied soberly. "Soon you'll try and enlist."
Tony shuddered theatrically, then he grinned, a lopsided, mischievous grin that made Steve swallow quickly. "I'll be disqualified due to my heart problem, I think."
"That's... not important right now," Tony looked evasive. "So are you going to kiss me, or do you need something in writing?"
"Oh," Steve blinked, startled, then when Tony started to smirk, he asked, "Really? Now?"
"You're sure that you're a Dom, right?" Tony teased, though he still tensed up when Steve leaned close, keeping the kiss chaste until Tony sighed and curled his arms around Steve's neck, his lips parting in silent invitation.
Their first time had been frantic, despite the bracers and Steve's efforts, pieces of Iron Man armor and the Captain America costume littering a meandering trail through Tony's living room all the way up to his bedroom, Tony's teeth sunk in his neck even as Steve had nearly broken the side-table trying to jerk the drawer open for lubricant, and their coupling was rough, messy, glorious, Steve buried deep and panting against Tony's ear, Tony's thighs wrapped tight over his waist.
Later, when they had caught their breath, Tony had asked, "Didn't they teach you about safe sex?" and then had laughed for a whole minute when Steve had stammered some sort of horrified apology, and then had admitted that he was clean and that he knew Steve was clean as well, he'd hacked into Steve's SHIELD file, obviously.
Tony was going to be a handful and more. Steve tucked Tony's smaller frame against his, and traced his thumb over the rim of the arc reactor buried in Tony's chest, the constant blue glow throwing soft shadows over the sheets. It had taken a lot of cajoling, but Tony was also wearing a token now: Steve's mother's scratched gold wedding band, strung on a chain around his neck. Tony usually wore it under his clothes, but knowing that it was there was enough.
"If you're not going to be able to sleep, I'll pull on a shirt."
"I'm a soldier, Tony. Being able to sleep anywhere is a learned trait."
Tony snorted, then he began to toy with the edges of the bracer on Steve's right wrist, running his thumb over the metal. "It's going to be a month and a half, soon."
Steve made a non-committal sound, his nose pressed into Tony's unruly, dark curls. Tony always seemed to smell so good. He wasn't entirely sure whether this was because of the imprinting.
"If I took these off..." Tony laughed when Steve muffled a moan, unable to stop himself from canting his hips forward. "Okay. Message received, loud and clear."
"Sorry," Steve muttered, insincerely, and squirmed. He was growing hard again, pressed against Tony's pert, still slick ass, and Tony wasn't helping by bracing himself on the bed and grinding himself back, experimentally. "Tony..."
"Round two, your pace," Tony flashed a grin over his shoulder. "Don't mind me if I don't get up to speed. It'll still be good."
"All right," Steve pressed a kiss to the back of Tony's neck, and their second time was slow, with Tony pressed down on the sheets with his back against Steve's chest, lovemaking, even with Tony's rasping curses and wicked, rolling hips; eventually Tony shuddered and twisted his fingers with Steve's, punctuating every slow, deep thrust with soft, gasping moans that wound Steve tighter and tighter. Eventually, Tony spent himself again, with a wet, strangled curse, and Steve buried his mouth against Tony's neck as he rode out the tremors. This could be so much more, he wanted to say, but he bit down the words and kissed Tony's shoulders instead until Tony relaxed, liquid with satiation.
In the morning, Steve woke to Tony toying with his bracer again, the one on the left, this time, and he sighed, gently extracting his hand. Tony blinked at him, warily, though he allowed Steve to tug him down and pull him close. "Sleep well?"
"I don't think I'm fit to walk right now," Tony joked, with a touch of his usual humor. "So..."
Tony leaned up on an arm, to look him searchingly in the eyes, then he dropped his gaze. "Nevermind."
"Tony," Steve chose his words carefully, "I know where I stand. But if you don't want them off, then they'll stay. If you can't trust me without them, then I'll wear the bracers for as long as you want."
Tony made a frustrated sound. "It's not that I don't trust you-"
"Then what is it?"
"Subspace," Tony conceded, reluctantly. "I don't like going under."
Steve narrowed his eyes. He'd toyed with a potential explanation for Tony's easily spooked approach to the entire process, and he hadn't liked it at the least. "Tony, in the past... did anyone hurt you? Badly? Some Dom?"
Tony let out a startled laugh. "No. Very few people know that I'm a Sub, actually. Why?"
The edges of a red rage subsided in relief. "Just a thought. But you've been with a Dom before, haven't you? With Logan." Steve had seen Logan calm battle-shattered Subs before, with artillery booming in the background, with a word and a touch. He'd had decades of experience, and under that surly exterior and his feral nature was a good man. Logan wouldn't have hurt Tony.
"Yeah. My brain switches off," Tony recalled, his voice edged, "Even done slow, it was kind of like what dying would have felt like. And it was done really slow. I don't go under easily. And before you ask, I was the one who pestered Logan to try."
"Ah." Steve rubbed his roughened palm in a slow circle over Tony's belly, over the muscle definition. For his age, and with his job, Tony still kept himself fit. It was very attractive. "We don't have to do that, if you don't want to."
"You're very obliging, Captain. Some days I'm convinced that you're imaginary." Tony twisted in his arms until he was facing him.
"This is about-"
"Trust, I know." Tony cut in, soberly. "All right, Steve. Later I'll blame my overwhelming curiosity, but for now, let's try this without the bracers. You first."
"Are you sure?" Steve asked, even as his heart beat a little faster.
"No, I'm not sure," Tony snapped, acerbic again, "But you keep staring wistfully at my wrists whenever you think that I'm not looking at you and it's like repeatedly kicking a puppy, somehow, and... yes, Steve, I'm sure. You can start breathing now."
"But you just said-"
"Oh, for God's sake," Tony leaned over and undid the catch on Steve's left bracer. The right clicked open, as well, and Steve sucked in a sharp breath, curling his hands tightly into the sheets as the knot of impulses and wants banked in the back of his mind intensified tenfold, then a hundredfold, when Tony sucked in a tight breath between clenched teeth and undid his pair.
Dimly, he was aware of Tony's fingers, digging so deeply into his shoulders that he was going to bleed, of Tony scrambling up to straddle him, and then they were kissing desperately as though the world had stopped for them. The metal edge of the arc reactor was pressed into his skin and Tony's bony knees felt sharp against his flanks, the air had been sucked out of the bedroom, somehow, their mingling breaths shallow, urgent.
"Jesus Christ," Tony panted, dazed and wild-eyed, "I didn't... This is-"
"Shh, shh." Steve rolled them onto their flanks, tucked Tony's head under his chin and rubbed his palms down trembling shoulders, using a technique that he had learned in the War. Subs that went into shock had to be calmed quickly. "Breathe with me."
Tony took in a shaky breath, then he obeyed, his breathing going slow, matching Steve's, the grip he had on Steve's shoulders slowly relaxing. Steve wasn't sure how long they stayed locked together, murmuring nonsense words into Tony's hair. When Tony's portable StarkTech phone suddenly started vibrating, skittering over the side table, Tony flinched.
"No, let me." Tony grabbed at the phone. "Hi, Pepper, I'm sort of in the middle of... Yes, the South Koreans... No, we're not going any lower than thirty-seven. Non-exclusive. Sure, run that past the pet accountant monkeys."
Steve winced as Tony's elbows jabbed him in the ribs; oblivious, Tony kept up a steady stream of business chatter until he ended with a "No, cancel everything scheduled for today. Medical leave. No, I'm not dying. Well, if you must know... Code zero, Pepper." Tony held the phone briefly away from his ear even as Steve heard a tinny shriek. "Who? Guess. Hah! No. No. Captain Ameri... What do you mean, what did I do? Yes. I'm not joking, and as to the board of directors... Yeah. We'll play by ear. Bye. My secretary," Tony explained, as he placed the phone back at the side table.
"You took the day off?"
"Seemed necessary," Tony stated, with studied nonchalance. The business call had steadied him.
"I don't want to keep you if you're busy, Tony," Steve told him reluctantly, even though letting go of Tony was going to take some effort.
Tony stared at him, oddly, then he grinned, sly and playful. "Do you have a refractory period?"
"I'm not sure," Steve flushed a little as he felt himself stir at the prospect of having Tony again. Christ. "But don't you need breakfast-"
"Overrated," Tony declared, and rolled back on top. It was going, Steve decided, as Tony licked greedily into his mouth, to be a perfect day.