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Inside the Absence

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"Inside my heart
There's an empty room
It's waiting for lightning
It's waiting for you."
- Jewel Kilcher, Absence of Fear

There's just something about the season. Tony had always pretended it didn't mean much, but he'd smiled so bright each time the Avengers stayed (first at the Mansion, then at the Tower) for Christmas and none of them spent the holiday alone. The team had been the only family Steve had for a long time, with Tony at the heart of it—almost all of Steve's holiday traditions have been built around the Avengers since they pulled him out of the ice, around the team's camaraderie and Tony's generosity and the certain knowledge that he belonged, even if he spent the rest of the year feeling adrift in the city he grew up in.

But all that was in the past. The Tower, the Avengers, it wasn't quite enough, on its own. It was Tony who made it home, and Steve had let himself forget, time and time again, but Tony had been there to remind him, over and over—until he wasn't anymore, and everything was wrongwrongwrong.

It's still wrong.

The Tower's full of people, people he calls friends, people he'd gladly risk his life for, and the halls are practically bursting with light and holiday cheer, but somehow he still feels like he's alone in the dark, stumbling his way through rooms full of ghosts, an empty space at his side and a gap under his ribs. He smiles when he's expected to and he answers the questions, but as soon as no one's looking he runs down, below the Tower, to the lab only he still knows how to access, and he sits alone and touches the armor that will never be fixed again.

It still doesn't quite seem real. Tony doesn't leave things unfinished—it's one of the things they could always agree on. To have this be part of his legacy is jarring, a puzzle-piece out of place. Some nights Steve wakes up convinced he'll come down here and see Tony working on it, setting things right, putting Steve's universe back in balance with a blowtorch and a screwdriver and a thousand new ideas bright in his eyes.

Steve's tried to sketch him that way, but he can't; he's drawn a million sketches of Tony from memory before, but he can't do that now, when he knows memory is all he'll ever have, that he'll never see sun touch Tony's face again, that Tony will never pull a protective mask away to smile at Steve when he's finished welding something. Steve can't lie to himself by drawing Tony again—and there's something else, too, because what if he remembers wrong, what if he forgets something, some detail, what if he can no longer tell exactly what Tony looked, smiled, joked like; what Tony was like.

He can't even talk to the others about it. He tried, once, after the funeral, but none their descriptions matched the image in his memory. They all talked about things Tony did, his intelligence, his inventions, his conviction, his burning drive to succeed and his generosity to his friends, his sacrifice. None of it was anything like what Steve wanted to say. He can't find words for the way Tony breathed life into him when he was at his lowest, the fierceness of being that kept him engaged even when it would have been far, far better to walk away. He doesn't even know what he would say to him, given a chance, all his thoughts and emotions tangled into a knot in his gut, impossible to separate the good from the bad. Impossible to tease into a sentence, a conversation, another year of shouted arguments and desperate kisses and whispered confessions.

Carol looks at him sometimes like she thinks she understands, but she can't, no one can, no one knew Tony like he did, not even Rhodey and not Pepper. Sometimes he's willing to admit maybe he didn't know their Tony either, but it doesn't make him feel any better, it doesn't change that Tony's gone, and Steve has no one to share what he feels with. He thinks Tony was a stronger man than he is; Tony coped with Steve being gone after all, and Steve—can't.

But he can't let the others see that, either. He can't just disappear, no matter how much he wants to. The Avengers expect him to be around, to be present and hopeful and commanding even when he isn't actually Captain America, even if he's not leading the team. Their expectations are nothing like the prodding and cajoling Tony would use to pull him back into the world any time he thought Steve was sulking too much—it's heavy and draining and there are days he thinks he can't bear the weight of it. And somehow, the world keeps going. Time spinning out whether he wants it to or not. Same as always, even when he feels like he'll never be the same again.

He goes on because ultimately he knows that's what Tony would want him to do, but Tony isn't here to see anymore. Sometimes Steve wishes he could ignore each new threat that requires him to lead and inspire, and sometimes he remembers the way Tony so carelessly threw himself in front of danger again and again, and he still hates to think of it, but maybe he understands it better, now.

He runs his fingers over the jagged edges of the chest plate one more time and makes himself go back upstairs. It's probably time to set the table, time to carve the turkey, time to start thinking about making toasts. There has to be something he can do in all that bustle. Something more than stand at the fringe of the crowd and hold up a wall, anyway. As long as no one tries to make him engage in small talk he might just make it through the evening.

He goes to the kitchen and asks Jarvis if he needs any help. Jarvis gestures towards the dishes set on the kitchen table. “I was just about to move them to the dining room.”

Steve doesn't think of how Tony used to stand in the doorway of the kitchen, testing Jarvis' ban on his presence to the limits, amused smile on his lips as he watched Steve work, sometimes offering to help Steve with dessert; he doesn't think of anything, just the motions he has to get through. Tony is in every shadow, always, but he isn't there.

The place settings aren't real silver—not with the lack of care superheroes are apt to show with even stainless-steel utensils—and the fine-cut crystal has long been swapped for more standard glasses, but the candles are tall and straight and Jarvis still unpacks the Christmas china. For one meal a year, every Avenger has a matching plate, even if the chairs that ring the table are a riot of different styles from around the Tower.

There's one empty place at the table—a tradition he and Jarvis both still insist on—and Steve sits at the bottom of the table next to it.

He doesn't hope an unexpected guest will show up, and he doesn't hope it'll be Tony. It's Christmas, the day of miracles, but he's not stupid. It's just that it always feels wrong to have anyone but Tony at his right side.

Carol stands at the head of the table and raises her glass. She meets Steve's eyes. "To absent friends," she says. He nods at her and sips his cider as the murmur goes around the table.

He's grateful she said it; Steve can never quite bring himself to. Someone will start talking in a moment—Peter, or maybe Clint—there'll be jokes, laughter, and Steve will only allow himself a moment more before he'll summon a smile—he's gotten very good at pretending. Everything is as it should be, everything but this one wrong thing that can never be fixed, and he won't spoil Christmas for everyone else.

Jan hands around the rolls and the chatter starts up again as they all fill their plates. The food, as always, is delicious, and Steve gamely adds a bit of everything to his plate. It's a table full of superheroes, the portions are big, but by the time the dinner is through not much will be left. Tony never put himself much, but he would steal food from Steve's plate, and Steve has to remind himself to only take enough for himself.

The meal is bright and lively and everyone's in a good mood, but by the end of it Steve's spent more time than he'd care to admit running his fork through the remains of gravy and cranberry sauce on his plate and wishing he could be in his rooms, staring out at the lights of New York, or even back in the lab, grinding his teeth fruitlessly over a problem he can't see the end of.

It's always worse when he should be celebrating, and it's worst at Christmas.

He volunteers to wash the dishes and waves off the offers of help—he needs to keep his hands busy, and Jarvis won't ask any questions the way the others might. Carol and Jan usher the rest of the team into the TV room and Steve starts collecting plates.

It doesn't require thinking, but he focuses on his every move all the same. He'd prefer to hit the gym, but it's Christmas. There are stars in the night sky, and Steve turns his head from the window. They don't hold the beauty and wonder they used to anymore. They just make him feel cold.

The stars had taken Tony from him. They'd never even been able to retrieve a body from all that darkness between points of light.

After a while Carol comes back and leans against the counter, a cup of Jarvis' homemade eggnog between her hands and just a hint of a smile on her lips. She keeps her back to the windows and watches him rinse and dry and stack and doesn't say anything. They don't need to share words. Not for this.

He's putting the last plate away when someone else walks in, and Steve turns, feeling annoyed; he thought the Avengers had learnt not to disturb them—the plate shatters, and Steve can only stare at the man standing in the kitchen with them. He wonders if Carol can see him too, but he doesn't dare look away, he thinks he'll never look away again.

"Was that one of the Christmas set?" Tony asks, looking at the shards of porcelain around Steve's socked feet. "Is it Christmas? Did I miss Christmas?"

Steve isn't sure what he's going to do as he steps over the glass toward Tony, because it's so impossible, and Tony is watching him with questions in his eyes, but before Steve reaches him, Carol stands between them, glowing with power.

"Who are you," she says, voice cold with fury, and Steve freezes in place. He wants to think it's Tony, but he can't. Tony is dead.

He's dead.

"Crap." The thing that looks like Tony pinches the bridge of its nose, eyes squeezed shut. "Does this mean I have to go find the Skrull detector?" It opens its eyes and waves its hands. "It's me. I'm Tony. Tony Stark, Iron Man. I swear on—on the Avengers Mansion. How long has it been? What happened?"

Steve can't let himself hope. He can't—he has to do something.

"Carol, keep an eye on . . ." He doesn't know on who. But he knows where the Skrull detector is in Tony's lab. He knows Tony's lab better than ever, probably, after the hours and hours he's spent there. He can hear more questions, asked in Tony's voice, but he doesn't let himself listen. He runs for the elevator.

He has to pass the ruined armor to get to the Skrull detector, and for a moment doubt and fear drag at his limbs and he's tempted to just stay in the lab. The others will get things figured out eventually and he can just . . . wait here, instead of staring at the visitor's face and telling himself not to hope. Because even if it isn't a Skrull, it might not be his Tony, for all that both Tony and Reed assured them all that inter-dimensional travel should be impossible after the incursions were fixed. They're Avengers. "Impossible" is just another word for "surprising." He shakes his head and picks up the device. It wouldn't help. He'll be better off knowing.

He goes back upstairs. Using the device is simple enough, press a button and look; he wonders, as he waits in the elevator, how Reed Richards managed to build something so user-friendly.

Carol and . . . not-Tony are still in the kitchen, just like Steve left them, silent now. There's an air of resignation about not-Tony, and something almost hopeful under the tangible layer of Carol's anger. Steve presses the button and closes his eyes. He doesn't want to look. Except then not-Tony says, "Told you I'm me," and Carol makes a sound like a sob. Steve lets himself look and there, in the unnatural blue light, stands Tony, human as ever.

It's like the breath's been knocked out of him. He can't speak. He can't move. He doesn't even know what he wants to do.

Carol takes a few steps and hugs Tony tight, and he wraps his arms around her but he doesn't stop staring at Steve.

Steve sees the moment curiosity turns into worry, but he still can't move.

"Steve? Steve, how long . . . ?"

Carol answers in his place, two years, it's been two years, and Tony looks stricken. Carol steps away, and then he's pushing into Steve's space, and he holds Steve's hand and presses it to his chest. He's warm. Steve can feel his steady heartbeat, the rim of the RT casing. He's here, he's really here, alive.

Out of the corner of his eye Steve can see Carol moving away, giving them space to do—whatever it is they're going to do now.

"I'm sorry," Tony whispers. "I thought I'd get back sooner. I thought—" He shakes his head. His hair's grown out a bit, curling slightly at the ends and shaggy over his forehead. His grip on Steve's hand tightens. "Steve. Please say something."

Steve shakes his head. His fingers close over the material of Tony's shirt, to keep him from moving away. He isn't sure if he wants to pull him close and wrap his arms around him, or to keep looking at him, because Tony is here and it is Tony and how.

"Tony," he says finally, and it's too much, he thought he'd never get to talk to him again, and—he thinks he'll fall down, but then Tony's arms are around him, holding him up, and Steve can admit he's shaking, but Tony's here, so it's okay.

Tony murmurs something in his ear, but Steve isn't really listening. He just clings on, his fingers tight in the fabric of Tony's shirt, Tony's bony shoulder under his chin and his warmth solid against Steve's chest.

"You're here," he whispers. "You're really here." Steve has all the evidence, he's touching him, but it still feels so impossible.

"I'm here," Tony says, and if his arms are almost painfully tight around Steve, well, Steve doesn't care.

"Hey, Carol, is there any—oh my god. Is that Tony?" Steve opens his eyes to see Jan peering at them over Carol's shoulder, hopping up on her tiptoes as Carol tries to block her view.

"It's me," Tony says, but he doesn't let Steve go, doesn't move an inch. Steve's glad. He's not really interested in letting go either, not even for Jan.

"It's . . . really good to see you," Jan says as Carol nudges her out of the room. "We'll um. Talk later."

"Try not to spend all night standing in the kitchen," Carol says over her shoulder.

And then they're alone.

All night, Steve thinks. They have it. They have tomorrow, now. There's a future again.

Tony steps away from him, and Steve immediately pulls him closer again. He can't let go. Not yet. Not ever.

"Steve?" Tony asks.

"You were dead," Steve says, and his breath catches a bit in his throat.

Tony goes absolutely still for a second, and then he says, "Well, Carol had a good idea. Let's sit down."

Tony guides him a few steps further away from the shattered remains of the plate and pulls him down. The floor is cold. Steve doesn't care. Tony sits cross-legged, his knees and feet pressed against Steve's, constant points of contact even as he brushes his bangs out his face and tugs his shirt straight. He smiles, sweet and rueful. "I know it's not much, but I am sorry. I thought I'd be back sooner. A few months, tops. I never meant to . . . put you through that."

"What happened?" Steve asks quietly. He doesn't need apologies, he doesn't even really need an explanation, not right now, not as long as Tony is here—but he wants to hear Tony's voice, he wants to watch him as he talks.

"I was wrong," Tony says. "About travel between universes."

No, Steve thinks. No no no—

Tony leans in, puts his hands on Steve's shoulders. "I'm me," he says seriously. "I'm your Tony. Earth 616. I can—ask me anything, Steve."

Steve cups Tony's elbows, strokes his thumbs over his biceps. He runs his palms up Tony's forearms until Tony's grip relaxes a bit and he lets Steve take his hands.

"You gave me an override code—" he starts.

"Steve Rogers. 34-44-54-64. It only works with your voiceprint though," Tony answers.

"When I found out you were Iron Man—"

"Molecule Man destroyed the armor." Tony grins. "Outed Thor at the same time. I said I felt silly for not telling you sooner."

Steve bites back a grin of his own and squeezes Tony's fingers. "The first time you kissed me—"

"Nice try, Winghead," Tony snorts. "You kissed me. In this kitchen, actually. I seem to remember mistletoe being involved."

"And then you . . ."

Tony winces. "Go on, remind me what an idiot I was."

Steve feels himself smiling. "I still don't get it, you know."

"There are better people for you."

"No." He's just getting Tony back. They've had this argument too many times. He won't repeat it now.

Tony looks down. "I love you," he says quietly. "But it's been years for you. I can't expect—" he cuts himself off.

Steve reaches out and tilts Tony's chin back up so they're eye to eye. Tony's stubble is prickly under his hand, his expression resigned.

"You really think the time matters?" Steve asks, trying to inch closer even though their legs are already pressed tightly together.

Tony closes his eyes and leans into Steve's hand. The he pulls back and opens his eyes just slightly—slits of blue under dark lashes.

"I think circumstances change, in that much time. And I know this was never exactly easy."

"Tony." Steve leans forward and takes Tony's face in both hands this time. "Loving you was always the easy part."

Tony makes a move like he wants to shake his head and stops himself. Steve knows what the difficult part is: convincing Tony he means these words, even if he's angry, even if they're fighting. But he's never minded that. He'll remind him as often as he needs to, with words, touches, kisses. He's certain he'll never grow tired of it.

"Trust me," he says, and Tony smiles helplessly.

"That's one thing you never have to ask for," he says. He grabs Steve's hand in his and runs his thumb over Steve's palm. But Steve needs more. More contact, more words, more everything. He presses a kiss to Tony's forehead. To his nose, his cheekbone, his earlobe. He nuzzles his way down Tony's neck and rests his forehead against his shoulder, breathing him in.

"Steve," Tony says. His fingers are in Steve's hair.

Steve lets himself believe, really believe, that Tony is here, and that he'll stay. He lets Tony guide him up again, and then Tony leans in and kisses him, like it was Steve who disappeared from him.

Tony's got a fistful of Steve's shirt, the tension in his grip at odds with the featherlight touch of his fingertips at Steve's temple and over the curve of his ear. Steve rubs his thumb over the waistband of Tony's jeans and fits his other hand under Tony's arm, curving over his ribs. He presses closer, drags his teeth over Tony's bottom lip. It's as if no time had passed—when, even for Tony, it's probably been months since he saw Steve last, before he left to travel the stars again.

For a moment Steve manages to forget about the complications—the time, the grief, the room full of Avengers just a few doors away and the jumbled mess their lives are going to be for a while. He just chases the familiar comfort of Tony's mouth on his and Tony's fingers in his hair, Tony's heartbeat steady under his palm.

"God, Steve," Tony whispers against his mouth.

Steve's had so many questions and none matter. He kisses Tony again, and again, and then Tony puts his hand flat on Steve's chest. "Kitchen floor," he says.

Steve feels laughter bubbling out of him, because it's ridiculous, and it's right.

"Come on then," he says, chuckling. He pushes himself to his feet and offers Tony a hand up. "Let's find somewhere more comfortable."

Tony gives him a smirk and takes his hand. "How could I refuse an invitation like that?"

Steve pulls Tony up and keeps holding his hand. He's not letting go now. He feels a new scar under his fingers and tells himself he'll ask later. There might be others, too, but Steve hopes it's not true. The image of Tony's shattered armor comes to his mind again. He pushes it away and kisses Tony's knuckles, watching the way his smirk softens. His whole frame sways toward Steve like he's going to start kissing him again, but then he gets his feet under him and steps backward, tugging Steve with him.

"Anything I should know about changes in the Tower?" he asks. "Rooms to avoid, stairs installed or walls torn down?"

Steve thinks of Tony's room, unchanged, and thinks he's not up to explaining it now. "Not really," he says. "Jan moved in."

Tony smiles softly. "Good," he says. Steve spins them a bit and pulls him toward the door.

They make it to Steve's room without running into anyone (or anything, though there's a tricky moment when Tony's hip just barely clips a side-table and they nearly knock a pot of poinsettias onto the floor), and Steve shuts the door without flipping on the light. The glow of the city through the windows is enough to see by, and he's still not sure what he actually wants here. Part of him wants to climb on top of Tony and map his skin with lips and fingertips and not let him up until they're both too elated and spent to remember the time apart. But there's a little thread of desperate need tracing behind his eyes and down his spine into his gut that just wants to wrap Tony up tight and listen to his heartbeat and feel his ribs expand and contract with his breath and not let go at least until the sun rises and he fails to melt away.

Tony seems to have clearer ideas. His hands sneak under Steve's sweater and then Tony's pulling it off over Steve's head. He throws it away, grins, and runs his fingers through Steve's hair. Steve leans down to kiss him, and Tony kisses him sweetly back, but soon, too soon, he steps away. He takes Steve's hand and pulls him to the bed, down onto the mattress, and then he just curls around him, his head on Steve's chest. "You're always so warm," he says quietly.

Steve's arms tighten around him. You're here, he thinks. He plays with the hair at the nape of Tony's neck—longer that he remembers it ever being in years and years—and concentrates on the weight of Tony's head on his chest, Tony's arm slung over his side and Tony's legs tangled with his own. Here. Real and solid and really, finally, here.

Tony must know what Steve's doing, but he doesn't comment. He stays pressed close to him, breathing slowly, and Steve is sure Tony has fallen asleep when he speaks again, quietly, "I can't promise to never leave again, but I'll do my best to stay."

Something tightens in Steve's chest. He rolls onto his side, so they're face to face and chest to chest, and buries his face in the crook of Tony's neck, his hands tight in Tony's shirt. He's probably stretching the fabric beyond repair but he feels like he can't breathe, like his ribs are broken and the bandage is too tight, and there's something caught in his throat, something almost physical and almost sound.

Tony wraps himself around Steve, and he's saying something in a soothing voice, but Steve doesn't really understand the words. Tony is here, this is what counts, and Steve was sure he believed it wasn't a dream, but now he can't bear to even think that it might be. He doesn't realize he's crying until he feels Tony's collar damp under his chin, and then he can't stop, the well of grief and frustration and strangled hope under his sternum is fathomless, tearing out of his chest in mangled sobs and harsh gasps of breath.

Tony's pressing small kisses to his face, and Steve is trying to calm down, he really is, but he can't; Tony's been gone and he's back and it's too much. He'd never let himself hope, not even in their line of work, but now he can admit there was a part of him that expected to learn Tony was alive—and he is, why can't Steve just focus on that . . .

"It's okay," Tony says. "I love you."

Steve tries to say something, but he can't. He hasn't let himself feel this for years, and now Tony is back, Tony'sback, Tonytonytonytony.

Eventually his sobs quiet into miserable little hiccups and his tears dry, his body overwhelmed even if his heart is still a knot of emotions he can't quite put a name to. His limbs feel impossibly heavy and his joints ache. Tony shifts underneath him, presses a kiss to the crown of his head and sits up. Steve's arms clenching around his waist is a convulsive action, entirely involuntary.

"Shhh, it's alright," Tony whispers. His hand moves over the back of Steve's head, fingers stroking through his hair. "I'm just going to get you a washcloth and a cup of water. I'll leave the bathroom door open and everything. I promise I'm coming back."

Steve makes himself let go. It's hard, but Tony's twisted 'round to face him, and his eyes are serious. He'll be back.

It's probably not even a minute, but it feels a bit like forever before Tony touches him again, just a hand on his arm, and then he carefully presses a cold towel to Steve's face.

Tony's always been so good at taking care of everyone but himself.

"I'm so sorry, Steve," Tony says, his voice soft and his hands gentle. "I wish . . ." he sighs and lowers the towel. He looks unexpectedly thin, strung out and more exhausted than Steve feels. His face is tense and his hand trembles a little against Steve's shoulder. "I never wanted to put you through that," he whispers.

Steve realises he doesn't know how Tony got here. He has no idea what happened to him or how long it's been for him. But here he is, focused just on Steve. Of course.

"You're back," Steve says aloud. "That's what counts."

"Is it really?" Tony asks. He sits on the bed beside Steve, towel still in his hand, his shoulders curled in around his chest. "I mean, I can't change any of it, but—I left you here. For years. I didn't want to or intend to, but that's still what happened. How can that ever be ok?"

"You're back," Steve repeats, because it's as simple as that.

Tony laughs mirthlessly. "Because that makes up for it."

"Don't push me away to punish yourself," Steve implores him. He's not sure he has the strength to deal with that right now, wrung out as he is.

Tony won't look at him. His mouth is pinched and his eyes look hollow, the shadows underneath them starker somehow in the half-light.

"Tony," Steve says, reaching out to him again. He puts his arm around Tony's torso and pulls him close, till their hips and thighs touch and he can hook his chin over Tony's bony shoulder. "This is all I want," he murmurs. "You, here. With me."

Tony used to believe him when he said that, Steve can't help but think.

"I promised myself never to hurt you again," Tony whispers. "And yet ..."

"Stop," Steve says. "Just. Stop."

Tony moves Steve's hand away from his side and leans out from under Steve's chin. He snags the cup of water from the night-stand and holds it out.

"You should drink something," he says, head down, bangs falling over his eyes.

Steve sighs, but he doesn't argue. He downs the glass and sneaks his arms around Tony again. It takes a long while, but eventually Tony relaxes against him. It's probably late by now, but Steve doesn't feel like sleeping. He's content to sit here next to Tony all night.

“Okay,” Tony says quietly, as if answering some question Steve hasn't quite asked. Then he kisses Steve's neck. His ear, then his cheekbone, and Steve turns toward him to meet the next kiss. Tony just looks at him for a moment, half his face lighted by the glow from the window, the other half in shadow. His hands come up, one cradling Steve's jaw as he leans in, the other pressing insistently under his arm, urging him all the way onto the bed.

It's Tony, who's always better with physical affection than words. Steve suspects Tony thinks he can hide this way, but he's so wrong. Tony's eyes tell everything for him, his gentle touch speaks volumes, the way his lips don't want to let Steve's go.

Tony wants to stay.

Steve doesn't want anything else.

He lets Tony push him back against the covers, doesn't comment when Tony straddles his hips and leans over him, just puts his hands on the outside of Tony's thighs and strokes his thumbs over his knees, reassuring. Tony presses kisses to his shoulders, the inside of his arms, in a line up his sternum and tracing along his collarbone. He's got his hands planted on either side of Steve's head, and Steve turns just enough to kiss the inside of his wrist, a feather-light brush of lips.

He could turn them around and pin Tony down without much effort, and he's tempted to, but he thinks having Tony over him instead of running away is enough. More than enough.

Tony's hand lifts, then strokes through Steve's hair. Steve can't read his expression, shadowed as it is.

And then Tony's leaning down and kissing him again, locking their mouths together like he can crawl inside Steve this way, like if he holds on tight enough and kisses hard enough he'll make up for the grief and lost time through sheer presence and closeness.

Steve almost believes it's possible. It's hard to remember the dark despair when Tony is right here—

Tony straightens up, and Steve grips at him blindly.

"I love you," Tony says. "And I'll be the voice of reason here. You look exhausted."

"Says the man who looks like he hasn't slept in a year," Steve retorts.

"So we should both get some sleep then," Tony says. He scoots off of Steve and starts undoing his pants. He shimmies out of his jeans and looks back expectantly. "Come on, Cap." He kisses Steve's cheek, an affectionate peck this time. "I know sleeping in those pants isn't comfortable for you. Let's go. Bed time."

Steve sits up, but doesn't start on his own belt.

"I don't want to sleep," he admits. "I don't even want to close my eyes."

"Your eyes are closing on their own," Tony tries to joke, and then he gets serious. "Look, we can—" He moves back into Steve's space and starts undoing his belt himself. Steve doesn't stop him.

"You know, Tony, having you undress me isn't usually an invitation to sleep," he says.

Tony rolls his eyes. He throws Steve's pants on the floor and lies back down.

"Tony . . ."

"Come on." Tony pulls Steve on top of himself. "I'm not going anywhere."

Steve sighs. He appreciates the effort, but . . . "You can't be comfortable."

"I'm fine," Tony says, but Steve's already moving, shifting off to lie in his side. Tony gives him an exasperated look but doesn't protest when Steve slides down the bed and pillows his head on Tony's shoulder, one arm flung over his hips. Steve watches his chest rises and fall and tries to match his own breaths to Tony's. The RT is a low glow in the dark. It makes him feel safe.

Tony strokes his hair slowly and it's good, it's perfect, Steve can't doubt he's here now. He doesn't close his eyes, but keeping them open is taking more and more effort.

"I missed you out there," Tony whispers, after the quiet's started to bleed through the dizzy rush of thought and memory in Steve's head. It's the voice he uses when Steve's woken up from a nightmare, soft and steady. "I kept seeing all these magnificent things—beautiful galaxies and impossible architecture. Amazing scientific advances and the strangest plants and animals, and I kept thinking I wish Steve were here, I wish he could see this."

"You'd have loved it," Tony says. He describes rainbow skies and alien planets, breathtaking landscapes and the sometimes brilliant and sometimes difficult species that lived in them. He's a good story-teller, his eye for detail exact; Steve can see all of it on the backs of his eyelids, clear enough to paint from.

He dreams of distant galaxies.

He wakes to sunlight on his face and Tony curled against his side, under his arm. He still looks tired, even asleep, but his breathing is steady, his eyelashes flickering a little in the morning light as he dreams, and there's no doubting his presence now. He kisses the dip of shadow over Tony's temple and nuzzles along his hairline, revelling in his sleep-heavy warmth.

Tony stirs and opens his eyes, incredibly blue in the low sunlight. "Steve," he breathes.

"I didn't mean to wake you," Steve says apologetically. Tony just smiles.

He snuggles closer and kisses Steve's jaw.

"Hardly a trial, waking up to you," he says, his hand sliding up Steve's side, then back down to his hip.

Steve can't remember the last time he didn't wake up alone—or, he can, but he's been trying not to think of it for years. But now he can, and he remembers Tony kissing him awake on the day he went to the stars again. Nothing else from that day, but Tony's wistful smile and the press of his forehead against Steve's before he slipped out of bed.

He's back.

He's finally back.

Steve leans in and catches Tony's lips in a kiss.

Tony hums approvingly against his mouth, his fingers digging in a bit around Steve's hip bone, one foot rubbing at Steve's calf. Steve pulls back and peppers butterfly kisses over Tony's brow, across his cheek and down his nose, and Tony lunges up a bit to catch his lips again, his palm flat on Steve's shoulder blade, holding him in place.

Tony's beard is tickling him, and Steve laughs against his mouth, pulls Tony even closer. "Welcome home, Shellhead," he murmurs.

Tony smiles, so wide that he can't seem to pucker up enough to actually kiss back.

"Happy to be home," he whispers, and Steve closes his eyes and holds on for all he's worth. He doesn't want sex as much as he needs to just soak in Tony's presence right now, and Tony seems content to let him stay there, stroking his hand over Steve's shoulders and back.

There's a thump above them, the sound of water running somewhere else in the Tower, and he feels Tony startle a little. Not that Steve can blame him—he'd mostly forgotten about their housemates himself.

"So," Tony says after a moment, his frame slowly relaxing against Steve again. "Carol and Jan are on the team now?"

"Carol leads it," Steve answers, still holding him tight. He can feel Tony's frown against his hairline.

"What happened? She's awesome, I know she is, but . . ."

But why isn't it you? he doesn't say, but that doesn't mean Steve can't hear it anyway.

He doesn't want to admit that there are still days he can hardly make it out of bed. That he still has moments of disconnect in the field sometimes, when sees a flash of red and gold off Carol's costume, or someone cracks a joke over the comms and he realizes he's waiting for Tony to chime in.

He can't quite say It wasn't the same without you, because that sounds stupid and obvious even inside his head, and it's not like he hasn't led team that didn't include Tony in the past, so instead he shifts onto his back and stares up at the ceiling and tries to come up with something sufficiently neutral.

"She was the best person for the job," he says, because it's true.

The Avengers machine Tony had designed years ago—he'd thought he was doing it for Steve, that Steve was the centerpiece of it, but he was so wrong. It didn't work without Tony there.

"You're terrible at following orders," Tony quips.

"She hasn't thrown me off the team yet," Steve says.

There's a knock at the door, three short raps, and Steve sighs. Christmas morning probably isn't the most inconspicuous day to vary his routine.

"It's 10:30 already," Carol yells. "Breakfast is over! We're starting the Tony's-still-alive party in ten minutes whether you're there or not!"

Tony raises one doubting eyebrow at him.

"Maybe she's about to," he teases.

"Don't I deserve some rest?" he calls, louder. He extricates himself from Steve's arms, and Steve tells himself to let go. He sits up under the sheets and watches Tony pull his jeans on over his boxers, sun playing on his skin.

"Not after—"

Tony opens the door in the middle of Carol's sentence, and she stops talking, staring at him.

"It's really you," she says after a beat.

Steve can see the same disbelieving hope in her expression that he still hasn't quite been able to shake himself.

"What, you were going to throw a party for someone you weren't even sure was me?" Tony asks. He spreads his arms wide, gesturing at himself. "I'm real, I promise. The Skrull detector tells no lies. Couple new scars, maybe, but still me."

Carol takes the single step separating them and wraps her arms tight around him.

"You're never leaving again," she says, and Steve nods his agreement even though Tony can't see him now.

"Sure, Captain," Tony says, patting her back. “Whatever you say.”

“I mean it, mister.” Carol leans back and points an accusing finger at him. “I had to fish bits of your armor out of open space after that explosion, and then I had to tell Steve that you weren't—” she breaks off, her eyes glassy.

Tony reaches out to her again but she just takes his hand, squeezes it tight.

“Sorry,” she says. She takes a deep breath.

I'm the one who's sorry,” Tony insists.

Carol shakes her head. "You're back."

Steve knows what Tony wants to say, but of course Carol knows him too, and she speaks over him.

"You're back," she repeats. "And now come show yourself to the others."

Tony glances back at Steve and Carol huffs.

"Ten minutes," she says giving him a mock stern look. Then she turns it on Steve. "Both of you. Fully clothed, preferably. Living room. Ten minutes."

"What if I want breakfast?" Tony asks, but Steve can hear the smile in his voice.

"Jarvis is making more coffee," Carol tells him. She darts in and hugs him again, then holds him at arms length, just looking at him for a moment.

"It's good to have you back," she says. She steps back out into the hall and closes the door behind her.

Tony turns to look at Steve and smiles. "Not fully clothed is a good look on you," he says, stalking back toward the bed.

"Listen to your team leader, Avenger," Steve tells him.

"Ten minutes is nothing," Tony pouts.

"I'm pretty sure that's the point," Steve teases him, pushing back the sheets and slinging his legs over the side of the bed. Tony steps between his knees, hands on his hips.

"You owe me 'hurray-you're-not-dead-sex', Rogers," he says, but he's grinning, already reaching out to pull Steve to his feet.

"I'll be sure to remember that," Steve says as he stands. He tugs Tony a little closer by their clasped hands and kisses him gently, more benediction and affection than lust, shivering at the touch of Tony's hands sliding up his ribs.

"Ten minutes," Steve reminds him when Tony tries to deepen the kiss.

"One would think people would be nicer when you're back from the not-really-dead," Tony says.

"No." Steve shakes his head and grins. "There's a lot of paperwork though."

"Cruel, Steve." Tony jabs his finger in Steve's ribs. "You'll better make it up to me later."

Steve catches his hand and brings it to his lips.

"I promise," he says, holding Tony's gaze steadily. He kisses Tony's knuckles, then steps past him and leads him toward the bathroom.

"Come on. We should clean up before anyone else comes knocking."

"Oh, a shower together, I like this idea," Tony drawls.

Steve goes hot, but he shakes his head all the same. "Time, Tony."

"Spoilsport," Tony mutters behind him.

"You're the one who wanted to sleep last night," Steve reminds him as he starts the shower warming up. A spit-bath will have to do for the moment.

"A decision I am regretting more and more," Tony quips. When Steve turns around he's slid out of his jeans and underwear, stretching his arms over his head. When he sees Steve looking he shifts closer and hooks one finger into the elastic of Steve's briefs, tugging it down under his hipbone. Steve starts to remind him again that they really should move along, and Tony just leans in and slips his tongue past Steve's lips, his thumb pressing hot against the inside of his hip.

Steve doesn't realize he's closed his eyes until Tony pulls away and he opens them again, half stumbling after him as he steps into the shower.

"You should get undressed," he says, and his grin is positively wicked. "Tight schedule, remember?"

It's hard to coordinate his movements enough when Tony's standing there with water sliding down his body, and then Tony presses shower gel on his palm and runs it over his chest and down his stomach.

Steve steps in and stills his hand.

"Time, soldier," Tony says. "Not that I'm going to complain about your underwear being see-through now," he adds and smiles, tongue between his teeth, and only then Steve realises he hasn't actually finished undressing.

Damn Tony Stark, he thinks as he leans for a kiss.

Tony puts a finger on his lips and shakes his head. "Someone told me to listen to our team leader."

He's right, of course. But Steve's pretty sure he could palm Tony's cock right now and that smirk would slide right off his face.

Still. Tony's not the only one who can play this game.

Steve runs his hand up Tony's stomach, watches his eyes widen, then soften as he leans into the touch, his hands falling back to his sides. Then he nudges Tony out of the water and starts spreading the soap more liberally, stroking over Tony's shoulders and down his arms, pulling his thumbs down the center of Tony's palms. By the time he stops to get another handful of gel Tony's half-hard and open-mouthed, swaying a little on his feet.

"Steve," he murmurs. It would be easy to claim that kiss now, to turn this into something that would most definitely make them late for Carol's party. Possibly they would miss it altogether.

Instead, Steve spins him by the shoulders and crowds him against the wall a bit and soaps down his neck and back as efficiently as he can manage. He slips his hands under Tony's arms and over his ribs, down over his hips and ass, trying to ignore what the arch of Tony's spine is doing to his control. He crouches down and rubs lather into Tony's thighs and over his knees, down his trembling calves and over the tops of his feet.

Then he stands and pulls Tony back under the spray, holds him flat against his chest and bends his head to whisper in Tony's ear.

"Five minutes, Avenger."

He steps back.

Tony's looking at him with dark eyes, and for a moment Steve's tempted to pull him back in, but no, he has other plans, he reminds himself.

Something shifts in Tony's expression that looks dangerously as if he's planning something. "Thank you, dear," he smiles brightly, and leaves Steve alone under the showerhead.

Steve finally pulls off his briefs, washes himself with a few efficient moves, and then turns the water ice cold for a moment. That's not cheating, he tells himself.

Tony's already gone from the bathroom when Steve towels off. He walks back into his bedroom and freezes.

Tony's bathed in sunlight, wearing a pair of Steve's red briefs and just putting on one of Steve's shirts. He looks at Steve through his eyelashes. "You should get dressed, we're on the clock."

Steve's not sure what he expected. Logically, he knows Tony's only got the one set of clothes in this room, and it's perfectly reasonable for him to want to wear fresh things. And it's not as if this is a precisely new situation. They've certainly shared clothing before.

He just wasn't quite prepared for the sunlit glow over Tony's calves, or the straight blue edge of the shirt collar against Tony's neck.

Tony's looking at him like he's expecting Steve to escalate the game somehow, or maybe give in and peel those briefs down around his knees, but Steve's still a bit stuck on seeing Tony in his space, in his clothes, casual and comfortable like it's exactly where he belongs.

Even in the bright sunlight, the glow of the RT illuminates Tony's hands as he buttons the shirt. His expression changes slowly, and then he's just standing there, blinking uncertainly. "Steve?"

Steve shakes himself. "I'm enjoying the view," he says.

"You'd better," Tony says, but his eyes say he's not tricked.

Steve crosses to his wardrobe and pulls out a pair of briefs for himself, setting aside socks, shirt and trousers.

"It's just . . . good to see you here," he says as he slips them on. He can feel himself smiling, a warm swell of emotion rising through him, like maybe he can just relax into Tony's alive. Tony's home instead of worrying that this is a dream he'll wake up from. He pulls on his pants and reaches for the rest of his clothes.

He drags a t-shirt over his head and Tony snorts, walks up to him and puts a hand over the white star on the front. "Never change," he says, laughing.

Steve just shakes his head. He pulls Tony in for a quick, sweet kiss, nips at his lip. "You can't talk," he says, poking at Tony's chest pocket, where a smaller star is embroidered.

"Your closet is practically star-spangled," Tony teases him. He reaches into the wardrobe and chooses black pants for himself. They hang low on his hips; Steve might be similar height as him, but Tony is more slender. "I was lucky to find anything this understated."

Steve rolls his eyes and nudges Tony toward the door.

"It's not that bad," he insists in the face of Tony's wide grin.

"You're probably too used to it," Tony says as they step into the hallway. "You're not colorblind, are you? Because that would really explain a lot.

"Or maybe it's the serum," Tony continues. "Makes you unable to wear plain clothes. I remember your secret ops suit, Steve.

"I wore your clothes at times," Steve reminds him.

"Yeah, well." Tony turns a bright smile on him. "I'm special."

"I don't think anyone's debating that," Steve says, taking his hand. Tony flicks a look at him like he's not sure Steve's serious.

"There are alien species that offered to make me king-engineer of their whole planet, you know," he says as they clatter down the stairs. "And a civilization in another universe who wanted to worship me as a god."

"It's wonder you ever came back," Steve tells him. He means it to be teasing, but his voice cracks a bit near the end and he's suddenly not sure he wants to go join all their friends. It'd be so much easier to just stay in his room and hold on to Tony forever.

Tony turns to him at that, fully face to face.

"I'll always come back to you," he promises, his voice fierce. He squeezes Steve's fingers. "Always."

Steve can already hear the murmur of conversations, quiet music in the background, but Tony is far more important right now. "Tony . . ."

"Never doubt that," Tony asks.

Steve spent two years thinking him dead—but he nods without hesitation all the same. It's Tony. He'll keep his word.

It's as much of a guarantee as Steve's ever likely to get.

Tony nods back at him, his lips pressed thin.

"Come on," he urges. "I hear there's a party, and someone said I was the guest of honor."

Steve follows him to the living room. It's decorated with red and gold streamers. Tony smiles with delight.

"And you comment on my clothes," Steve says.

"There's nothing wrong with red and gold," Tony replies. They stand in the doorway, hesitating for a moment. Steve thinks more people than just the Avengers are there, but he's not surprised. It's not every day someone comes back from the dead, after all, even for superheroes.

He's still tempted to keep Tony all to himself for a while longer, but before he can even suggest it, Jan notices them. She throws herself at Tony, and he catches her and spins her around.

"Welcome home," she says, kissing him on the cheek.

"Glad to be home," Tony says.

They're attracting more attention now, the little groups of conversation and laughter are pausing and turning toward them. Steve can see Pepper pushing her way through the mix of casual clothes and costumes in the crowd toward them, and Rhodey looks similarly determined.

"A most heartfelt welcome, Anthony," Thor intones, and there's a general murmur of agreement. Rhodey makes it to the edge of the little half-circle of space around the doorway and steps forward eagerly.

Jan flings out her arm. "Wait, Wait!" She backs up."We forgot about the mistletoe."

Tony looks confused, but Steve was around when Jan started decorating—he's pretty sure there's mistletoe in all the common doorways. He remembers avoiding the room when Jan had been putting mistletoe everywhere, but now, with Tony at his side, he thinks it's just perfect.

He wraps his arms around Tony and catches his lips in a kiss, and Tony isn't confused about this. He leans up into the kiss, utterly undisturbed by everyone surely staring at them. His lips are hot and one of his hands is at the back of Steve's neck, keeping him close.

And then someone—Steve's pretty sure it's Clint—eggs them on with a wolf whistle and Tony grins against his mouth and shifts his hips and . . . well, the kiss gets a bit dirtier than Jan was probably expecting. They'd given him ten minutes to get ready for being around people; they should've known it wasn't nearly enough. Steve's pretty sure it continues for longer than is precisely socially acceptable too, and by the time Tony lets him go he can hear someone muttering about not missing the PDA.

It's probably Logan, and Steve can't bring himself to care.

He's trying to catch his breath, and Tony is grinning at him, looking pleased with himself. And he's right there, still under the mistletoe; and it's almost like their first kiss had been.

Everyone is looking at them, and Steve doesn't even care now. Tony's here, all their friends are here; it's good, it's home.

"Alright, loverboy," Rhodey says, stepping closer. "Steve's not the only one that's missed you, you know."

"Aw, you want a kiss too?" Tony asks, but he squeezes Steve's hand one last time and breaks away to give Rhodey a hug, and then Pepper joins in, and from there he's pretty much passed through the crowd—hugs and handshakes, laughter and insistence on stories.

Carol nudges his elbow and Steve looks over and accepts the glass of cider she offers him.

"You're smiling," she says, settling in next to him.

"So are you," he says.

"You know what I mean." She bumps her hip into his.

"Yes," he admits. Across the room, Tony catches Steve's eyes between hugging Peter and Jess. He's grinning, his eyes twinkling. Steve feels his heart swell at the sight.

"He's home," Steve says, and it's like the statement loosens something in his chest. Like he'd been trying to walk a tightrope in the dark and someone's turned on the lights and he can finally see the other side.

He watches Tony pull Jarvis into a tight hug and blinks hard against the stinging in his eyes.

"Seems like we got you both back," Sam says beside him. "I gotta say, I was starting to miss you."

Steve doesn't answer. He's not sure what he could say. Sam's right, Steve knows he's been—absent—but . . . Tony's back; Steve doesn't want to think about the time he was gone.

"Thanks for dealing with me," he says finally.

"That's what friends do," Sam says.

The general huddle around Tony slowly disperses into smaller groups again. Jarvis brings more food and Natasha and Jess start some kind of card game in the official meeting room that Steve's pretty sure he doesn't want to know anything about. Any pretence at keeping order is Carol's job these days, anyway. He snacks on little treats from the buffet table and talks to Sam and watches Tony move through the room, talking and hugging people and shaking hands.

Eventually, he makes his way back to Steve.

He's still laughing, but he's fingering his pants pocket with his right hand and there's a little line of stress between his eyes, and when Hank McCoy hauls him in for another hug and pat on the back Steve can see his genuine enjoyment starting to crack a little.

He excuses himself from Sam and hovers until Hanks sets Tony back on the ground. Then he hands Tony the cider and tries not to let his smile take over his face when he feels Tony's arm slip around his waist.

Tony kisses the corner of his mouth. "How long do you think we should stay?" he asks in a low voice.

Steve swallows. "It's your party." He tries to pretend he's not thinking of having Tony all to himself again.

"And I feel very welcome," Tony says with a grin. "But . . ."

"I know," Steve tells him. The Avengers can be too much to deal with even when they aren't all gathered in a small handful of rooms, and there's nothing quite like being at the center of all that attention. He puts his arm around Tony's shoulders and squeezes his upper arm reassuringly. Most people have returned to their little knots of conversation, and Clint seems to have started some kind of video game competition in the TV room, but there's still enough people Tony hasn't talked to that they probably can't slip away quite yet.

Still, Tony's getting overwhelmed, and Steve wants to finally have the chance to kiss every inch of his skin. Watching Tony touch pretty much everyone from across the room hasn't done much for his more private desires. "Twenty minutes?" he suggests, proud of how steady his voice sounds. "Wouldn't want to seem rude, and all."

Tony smiles as if he knows exactly what Steve is thinking. He sips his cider and watches the room. Steve doesn't look away from his face. Tony raises his eyebrows a few times—Steve guesses at Peter's antics, or maybe the Young Avengers—but mostly he's smiling, his soft private smile that not many people get to see.

“Have you eaten anything?” Steve asks, and Tony nods.

“I could probably have a little more though,” he admits.

Steve steers them toward the buffet and feeds Tony a small muffin. He's not exactly intending it to turn into anything more than food, but Tony takes the chance to lick at hiss fingers when he's taking his hand back.

"You're still in public," Jan says from behind them, but she's laughing.

"Sorry," Steve says, jerking his hand back on instinct. Tony seems to be licking crumbs off his lips as seductively as possible, only slightly hampered by his smirk, and Steve makes himself look at Jan instead.

Jan puts her hands on her hips, her expression mock-stern.

"Yes, how dare you," she agrees. "Tony is clearly not to blame at all."

"Oh, but I'm not sorry," Tony says.

Jan snickers. "That's a shame, I'd forgive you this time," she says. "Also," she looks him up and down, "You're going to get my new line of suits."

"You don't appreciate my clothes?" Tony asks with raised eyebrows. "I'm offended, Jan. Deeply hurt."

Steve imagines Tony in a fitted suit and coughs to cover the sound threatening to get out of his throat. Jan shoots him a knowing look.

"I just think you should have something to wear that's not out of Steve's closet," she says. "But that can wait. I came over to say that if you want to drag Steve off somewhere not quite so public before the man expires of jealousy I'll cover for you two."

"I'm not—" Steve protests, but he's pretty sure Tony and Jan are ignoring him.

"Is there something we should be running from?" Tony asks, his voice lowered conspiratorially.

"Reed's been trying to ambush you with questions about the multiverse or something for the past half-hour," Jan whispers back. "Sue's been keeping him busy but that's not going to work much longer."

Steve glances over to where Sue has her arm around Reed. He looks distracted, like Tony sometimes does when there's an engineering problem on his mind, and Steve can see what Jan means. Any minute now he's going to lose patience with the mundane conversations around him and seek out more technical entertainment.

"Well, I wouldn't want to get Steve bored, would I," Tony says with a grin.

Jan nods. "Of course not. See you later."

"Those twenty minutes didn't last long," Tony comments as they head out.

Steve really doesn't care. He stops them in the doorway and leans to kiss Tony under the mistletoe again.

Tony hooks a finger through his belt loop and laughs against his mouth.

"You know, you don't need mistletoe to kiss me," he says.

"It's tradition," Steve tells him. He doesn't mean just Christmas tradition either, but he's pretty sure Tony knows that.

"Tradition. Yeah." Tony says, and leans in for one more kiss.