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One Thing Leads to Another

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After Zamira goes home, after the Tower is finally settled back into some semblance of peace and quiet, Steve corners Tony in the kitchen.

It's very late – or very early on Christmas morning, depending on your perspective. The snow stopped a couple hours ago, but it's still bitterly cold out, and local authorities are urging people to stay off the streets. Bruce and Natasha are in bed, or so Steve supposes; he hasn't seen or heard either of them in a little while. Only Tony is still up, headed for the kitchen in a shuffling gait just one step short of zombiehood.

Steve lets him pour a cup of coffee before ambushing him, but only because he wants to make sure Tony is coherent for this conversation. He sits on a stool tucked away in the corner of the kitchen and watches Tony drink half the cup in one swallow, head tipped back, throat working. It's a mesmerizing sight, and Steve shifts his weight a little, feeling too warm in his own skin all of a sudden.

It's not the first time this has happened, but it's the first time since Tony laughed and informed Steve that from now on the security system in the Tower would only respond to him if he called himself "Captain Handsome." At the time, he had assumed it was only a joke, but yesterday had definitely proven him wrong on that score.

Which makes him wonder what other assumptions he's made about Tony that are all wrong.

Tony sets his coffee cup down with a barely audible sound that is part groan, part sigh. He braces both arms on the edge of the counter, closes his eyes, and lets his head drop. He's got that slightly pinched look around the eyes that means he's nursing a headache. And as Steve watches, he reaches up with one hand to rub at the back of his neck.

Steve doesn't move, but that doesn't stop prickly heat from breaking out all over his body. He's always had an artist's appreciation for Tony's hands, with their long fingers and worker's callouses. But there is something new about the way Tony massages at his neck, knuckles brushing against the dark hair curling above his collar.

And it's something that Steve doesn't quite know what to do with.

So he chooses to ignore it for now. The same way he impulsively sets aside his original intention in wanting to talk to Tony. "Captain Handsome" and all that name implies can wait until later. There are other things that matter more.

He doesn't make noise to announce his presence; he just gets up and walks forward from where he is. It's not exactly fair, but it means that he's able to catch Tony in the act of quickly dropping his arm back to his side and straightening up.

"Merry Christmas, Tony," he says. "Here. Let me." And before Tony can say anything, he's got both hands on Tony's shoulders, rubbing away the knots.

It's not the first time he's given one of the Avengers a shoulder massage; he has strong hands, and everyone knows it. But it's the first time in a long while that he's done it for Tony, and suddenly this thing that normally is just another gesture of friendship feels fraught with tension.

He isn't the only one to think so, apparently, because Tony is not relaxing beneath his hands. Quite the opposite. Steve can feel the knots in his shoulders, but more to the point, there is an anxious rigidity in Tony's entire posture. It could not be more clear that he is uncomfortable with what Steve is doing.

Keenly disappointed without really understanding why, Steve takes the hint nonetheless. He drops his hands and steps back. "Long day," he says, because he has to fill the silence with words of some kind, even if they are inane.

"You can say that again," Tony says. He sounds relieved, and he clutches at his coffee cup with both hands.

"How's the clean-up in the lab coming?" Steve asks. It's a perfectly normal question, as though he didn't just have his hands on Tony. He opens the cabinet and reaches for his own coffee mug.

Tony makes a disgusted noise. "Well, at least it looks better than it did," he says. "It's going to take some time to put everything in order again." Then, although Steve says nothing and in fact doesn't even move, he adds, "But it'll get done. Don't worry." He says it quickly, as though he expects Steve to scold him for being lazy or something.

Something clenches painfully in Steve's chest at that realization. Tony looks so tired, and the worst thing is, he can hardly remember a time when Tony didn't look that way, like he was one step away from just curling up on the floor right where he stands and going to sleep for two straight days.

When did they get this way, he wonders sadly. When did they all become so determined to put on a brave face for the rest of the world that they forgot to take it off for their friends? When did Bruce decide that he would pretend to go to Geneva so the others would think he was hard at work? When did Tony decide to lie about going on vacation even though he never planned to leave the Tower at all?

"I know," he says, hoping to convey his faith in Tony without making it sound like an order.

Tony nods and sips at his coffee.

Steve stares into the shadows at the far end of the kitchen, his own interest in the coffee completely forgotten. He's thinking now about what happened yesterday, how Zamira totally blindsided them with her doppelgangers and very nearly brought about the destruction of Avengers Tower.

He's thinking about Tony dismissing almost everything they encountered during that incident as a "side project."

He's thinking about the way the bland electronic voice of the Tower said, "Protocol 9 has been activated."

"So," he says, trying very hard to sound casual, "Protocol 9, huh?"

Tony grimaces. "Already been shelved. Sorry about that."

Steve nods. "And Protocol 10?"

"Nothing," Tony says hastily. "Just another side project."

This is exactly the answer Steve expected – and feared. "'Side project?' Exactly how many side projects are you working on, Tony?"

Tony stares at him, and for a second Steve can almost see his mind racing as he tries to come up with the right answer. He hates that, hates that Tony feels like he has to lie, even as he wonders if they will ever be able to be honest with each other again after everything that's happened to them over the years.

He raises his voice slightly. "Tower, activate Protocol 20."

"Password required," responds the electronic voice of the Tower's AI.

Tony's eyes widen a little as he realizes Steve's plan. "Steve."

Undaunted, Steve goes on. "Tower, activate Protocol 30."

"Password required," is the immediate response.

"Steve." Tony sets his coffee cup down with an emphatic thunk. "Enough. You made your point."

He is unflinching. He has to know. "Tower, activate Protocol 40."

"Password required."

"Stop it," Tony says. "You're never going to guess, and it doesn't matter anyway."

But it does matter. It matters a lot. It's Christmas morning and right now this is the only thing Steve cares about. "Tower, activate Protocol 75."

"Password required."

Tony finally seems to understand that Steve is not going to just let this drop. "Most of them are small little things, they hardly require any real work at all, this is just stupid, Steve, just stop."

"Tower, activate Protocol 101," Steve says.

"Password required," returns the bland electronic voice.

He does stop then, because the true number doesn't matter. He already knows everything he needs to know. "Tony, you have over one hundred side projects going on in this Tower alone! I don't even know what to say to that. When do you sleep? When do you eat? You're going to work yourself to death at this rate!"

Tony looks almost alarmed by his outburst, backed up against the counter like he's one step away from bolting altogether. Maybe he is, for all Steve knows.

Over one hundred projects. Jesus Christ. How is Tony even upright and walking around? He can't even fathom it. Over one hundred projects, and no matter what Tony says, Steve doesn't believe for one instant that they don't require "real work." And those are just the ones for Avengers Tower. That's not even taking into account whatever Tony's working on for Stark Resilient, and the constant upgrades he's always making to the Iron Man armor.

It has to stop. Otherwise Tony is going to end up passing out one day from exhaustion right in the middle of a battle against the bad guys. Steve would almost be tempted to let it happen, just to prove his point, except he knows that if anyone gets hurt as a result, Tony would never forgive himself. He would just drive himself to do better and work harder, and the vicious cycle would start all over again.

But it's Christmas Day, and he has to do something. He has to find a way to show Tony that he cares.

"Look," Steve says. "I know I'm not one to talk, but you need to take a vacation, Tony. A real vacation, even if it's just to some private island you own. Anything that's not just hiding away in an unfinished bathroom in the Tower."

He had that particular story from Bruce. He knows exactly what Tony was doing in there. Or not doing, as the case may be. He even saw the security footage, those ridiculous flippers and the floatie, as though Tony really had been seaside in the moments before the attack on the Tower. He knows Tony has participated in virtual reality before, and he knows too that Tony doesn't like it. What was happening in that bathroom was not virtual reality. It was…

Well, he doesn't really know what it was. Funny, yes. Sad, though, too.

"You're right," Tony says, and his voice is stiff with defensive anger. "You're not one to talk, Steve. And may I remind you that if it weren't for my hundred-and-one side projects, this Tower – and half of Manhattan – would be a smoking crater right now. So if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to work."

"It's Christmas," Steve says quietly.

Tony hesitates a little on his way out of the kitchen. "Merry Christmas, Steve," he says tersely. And then he's gone.

This time Steve lets him go without a murmur of protest. Already he's busy laying plans.

It's so obvious, now that he's thought of it. For as long as Steve has known him, Tony has been working non-stop. He thrives on it, in truth. But everyone needs to stop and take a break every now and then. And Tony is long overdue.

So Steve is going to give him that vacation, the one he didn't get to take, the one he lied about yesterday. He's going to make sure Tony gets the chance to rest. No Iron Man, no Avengers business, no work. Just rest and relaxation, and hopefully some fun.

And maybe something more, but Steve doesn't let himself think about that for too long.

Not more than a few seconds, anyway.

****

He gets started the very next day. First on his list is a visit to Pepper Potts. She's a little surprised to see that he's alone, but she hides it quickly and gets right down to business. She listens as Steve outlines his plan, and she doesn't speak until he's finished. Then she says, "Do you know how long I've been trying to get Tony to take a vacation?"

Steve can only imagine it; she's known Tony longer than anyone else. There were times in the past when he wondered about the exact nature of their relationship, but any suspicions he had on that score have long since been laid to rest.

"The odds of actually getting him to do this are—"

"—insurmountable?" Steve suggests. "That's okay. I've been dealing with insurmountable odds for a while now. I think I can handle Tony."

Or so he hopes.

Pepper gives him an arch look. Incredibly, she looks like she's trying not to laugh – which is not exactly the reaction Steve expected. "Well, that's a little melodramatic," she says dryly. "I was going to say, 'slim to none.'"

Feeling like a total ass, Steve looks away.

Pepper relents and smiles at him. "So what do you need from me?"

****

Next is a talk with Carol and Sam. He tells them his plan, then gets them both to promise not to tell anyone about it. The various members of the Avengers come and go all the time, and a lot of them are still away for the holiday, anyway. There's a better than even chance that he can do this without anyone being any the wiser.

"If anything happens while I'm gone," he says, "I need to know you—"

"We can handle it," Sam says.

"We got it," Carol says.

He knows they're right, but it's in his nature to fret a little. He can't help it.

"Think it'll work?" Sam asks him.

"I don't know," Steve says.

Carol glances at Sam, then says, "Good luck. You're gonna need it."

And Steve doesn't disagree.

****

Last on the agenda is another meeting with Pepper. She's done all the background research he needs, and she hands him a suitcase and a piece of paper with a pair of coordinates written on it in red ink. "That's the one," she says.

Steve nods and slides the paper into his pocket.

As it turns out, Tony happens to own several private islands – although he hasn't actually been to any of them. Steve's counting on that fact, along with the hope that Tony won't recognize the coordinates. It's entirely possible that the armor's database will relay the information that the island is his own, but then again, it might not. Information like that isn't exactly a priority.

And if Tony does recognize the coordinates? Well, his suspicions might be aroused, but Steve knows that ultimately it won't matter.

If he calls, Tony will come.

****

It's New Year's Eve and freezing out when Steve leaves New York. Six hours later, he's on a small private island where a sea breeze constantly tosses the palm trees, and the sun seems to just completely fill the sky.

The husbands who take care of the house and grounds live four islands over from this one. In the ten years they've been well-paid for their work, they've never had any guests. Tony himself has never stayed here or even visited. They know who Steve is, of course, and they welcome him with delight. Anything he needs, they tell him, he only has to call. They'll be more than happy to come over at once.

All this Steve learns on the boat ride to the island – which is the only way to get there for someone who lacks a flying suit of armor.

The house is just off the beach, reached by a narrow trail that leads through an area of gently swaying palm trees that are alive with birdsong. It's painted a pale shade of peach that gleams in the afternoon sun. Steve sets his two suitcases down in a large guest room decorated in shades of blue, and then lets his eager hosts give him the grand tour.

And what a tour it is. The house has two swimming pools, an enormous hot tub, seven bedrooms, a billiard room, a gym, and a huge kitchen well-stocked with everything a guest could possibly want to eat or drink. Steve asks that the liquor be removed, and one of the caretakers immediately apologizes and starts pulling bottles out of the cabinet.

"Is there anything else you need?" the other man asks.

Steve shakes his head. Already he's looking ahead to tonight, when Tony arrives.

If Tony arrives.

****

The house has a widow's walk, the wooden railings painted the same peach color as the stucco walls. There is a telescope up here, its lens aimed at the northern sky. Without any urban light to get in the way, Steve can only imagine how beautiful the night sky is when viewed through that scope. He stands beside it and gazes out at the endless expanse of sea stretching in front of him.

Inside, everything is as ready as he can make it. Even after years of living in Avengers Mansion, looked after by the inestimable Jarvis, Steve is still not entirely comfortable with the wealthy lifestyle. This isn't about money or luxury, though, and it helps to remember that. This is about Tony, and giving him what he needs.

So the kitchen is stocked with Tony's favorite coffee, brought all the way from New York. His clothes and toiletries are unpacked in the master bedroom; Pepper packed that suitcase, as Steve didn't feel right going through Tony's personal things. There are no computers in sight, although Steve has his cell phone and his Avengers card if anyone needs to contact them in case of an emergency.

He's done everything he can think of. Which means it's time to call Tony.

He uses his Avengers card, although not without a pang of conscience. This isn't Avengers business, and by using the card he's automatically guaranteeing that Tony will be worried. Hopefully he can apologize later, and Tony will forgive him.

"Tony," he says. "I've found something I need you to see."

"What is it?" Tony asks. He sounds alert, but not alarmed. Not yet, at any rate. There is a murmur of voices in the background, low and discreet. He must be at the Stark Resilient offices, most likely in the middle of a meeting. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Steve reassures him. "But I really think you need to come down here. Just you, though." He doesn't say anything else on that score. He doesn't want to raise Tony's suspicions. Telling him not to involve the other Avengers is practically waving a red flag in front of him.

And if Tony does decide to tell the Avengers, Carol and Sam will be there to listen to his story, assure him that it's all right to go on ahead, and promise that they'll join him as soon as they can. They'll be lying through their teeth, of course, but that's why they're Steve's friends – because he knows he can count on them.

Tony doesn't hesitate at all, which means he's either completely on board with what Steve is asking, or else he's already made up his mind to go behind Steve's back and tell everyone. With Tony it's sometimes hard to tell. "Okay. Absolutely. Can you at least tell me what we're dealing with? Is it AIM? Hydra? Secret option C?"

Maybe Sam and Carol are capable of telling Tony only what he wants to hear, but Steve can't do it. He's never been able to lie. Today is no exception. Besides, he already feels guilty enough taking Tony away from whatever work he's doing right now. It could be important work. It could be making a difference in a lot of lives.

But this matters, too.

"You'll have to see for yourself," he says.

After the slightest pause, Tony says, "Okay. Stay put and stay safe. I'm on my way."

"Roger that," Steve says, and pockets his Avengers card. The beacon is already activated; as Tony draws near, the suit will lock onto it and bring him right to Steve's precise location.

But that won't be for another two to four hours, depending on where Tony is right now, and how quickly he can make his excuses to whoever he is with, retrieve the armor, and then leave. Which means Steve has plenty of time to kill.

He ends up in the gym. It isn't nearly as large or fully-equipped as the one in Avengers Tower, but it has free weights and an elliptical, which is really all Steve needs. He strips down completely – there's no one to see and he doesn't want to get his clothes all sweaty – and he starts on the elliptical.

The physical exercise relaxes him, letting him focus on what his body is doing, not what is going to happen later today. He doesn't understand why he's so nervous, why it matters so much that he gets this exactly right. All he knows is that he has to do this, and it has to be done right.

An hour goes by. The elliptical remains silent beneath him. There are no pre-recorded snarky remarks about his unrelenting pace, no electronic voice asking him if he would like to go for a new record number of steps. It's just a machine, untouched by Tony Stark's genius.

It's something he never even really thinks about anymore, the way all the tech in the Tower is a product of Tony's brilliant mind. Steve doesn't know if all that programming and whatnot requires "real work," as Tony put it, but the fact remains that he does it, and quite often. He thinks of scenarios that might come up, and then he creates and crafts the response, whether it's a defense program consisting of a dozen robot cheerleaders or the security system refusing to accept Steve's commands until he identified himself as Captain Handsome. All of that takes time and effort, and the worst thing is, the Avengers all take it for granted. For them it's just part of living with Tony Stark.

Even Steve has to admit that he is guilty of it. He thinks nothing anymore about the coffeepot asking if he's really sure he wants that third cup. Or the elevator remarking on the weather outside and suggesting an umbrella from the stash kept in the lobby. Or the security system needing him to identify himself as Captain Handsome.

Well, maybe that one is a little bit different.

He remembers that scene vividly, and he smiles to himself as he runs, pushing himself to go faster, the machine beneath him clacking loudly.

It was shortly before Christmas. He had gone down to the armory, bringing his lunch with him. He had deliberately brought more food than even he could finish, so that Tony could absently pick up a sandwich and start eating – which is exactly what had happened.

Tony had been wearing one of his favorite sleeveless T-shirts and black jeans that were so old they had faded to an almost charcoal gray color. He had been in a good mood, too, pleased with the progress of his latest project, which was something to do with facial recognition software.

"See, this is how it works, just, okay, stand there," Tony had said, his eyes shining, flush with his success. Even the RT had seemed to shine brighter in response to his mood. He had typed in something on one of his computers, then said, "Now strike a pose."

And Steve, caught up in Tony's enthusiasm, had responded with foolishness of his own. He had immediately stiffened his spine, thrust out his chest, and held an invisible shield up high.

Tony had blinked, and for a moment his expression was blank with surprise. Then he had smiled. "There he is. Captain Handsome."

Steve had immediately felt hot all over at the sound of those two little words. His pulse had suddenly increased and he had felt almost light-headed. He hadn't understood why the thought of Tony calling him handsome should affect him that way – but it had.

Nor had he known how to respond to those words, spoken with a combination of admiration and affection. So he had just laughed, hoping it was only a joke, one that Tony would not take any further.

But to his chagrin, Tony had looked utterly delighted with himself. "That's it," he had said. "That's how the security system is going to recognize you when I'm on vacation. 'This is Captain Handsome ordering you to rock and roll on that 45.'"

Steve hadn't known whether he should keep laughing, or turn around and walk away. At that moment, both options had seemed perfectly viable. So he had done the only thing he could think of, and tried to steer them out of those dangerous waters. "Yeah," he had said dryly, "that'll be easy to say when there's an emergency requiring me to activate the security system in a hurry."

"Oh," Tony had said, and most of the amusement had gone out of his eyes. "Well, if it's truly an emergency just state your Avengers password as usual."

Steve had kicked himself for ruining the moment, annoyed that he couldn't ever seem to just enjoy a joke anymore. He had still felt oddly flustered, like he couldn't catch his breath, the fluttery sensation in his chest reminding him of those long-ago days before the serum.

Tony hadn't seemed to notice, though, which had been the only saving grace in the situation. He had gone on to explain what the software he was working on was for, and how it could help the Avengers in their constant battle to protect the innocent. And Steve had moved on with him, more than willing to forget all about what Tony had said. Which he had done – right up until Christmas Eve, when he actually had to say those words out loud.

Now, running so fast that the elliptical is shaking all over, Steve remembers his shock when he realized that Tony had followed through with his promise. Having to name himself Captain Handsome had been extremely embarrassing. But he couldn't deny – not then and definitely not now – that they had also given him a strange feeling of warmth. Silly as they were, those words reminded him that Tony had been thinking of him, that Tony had cared enough to take time out of his busy schedule and program the security system to accept only that ridiculous password.

And that's what he wants to ask Tony today. What he meant to ask back in New York on that snowy Christmas morning, before he got distracted by the growing horror of realizing how much work Tony did for them all.

Abruptly he stops running. He stares at his reflection in the mirror that lines the opposite wall. He sees his face streaked with sweat, his hair damp and plastered to his head. He is definitely not handsome right now.

"Did you mean it, Tony?" he says out loud. "Do you think I'm handsome?"

It sounds horrible, spoken like that. He winces angrily and steps off the elliptical. Hopefully when the time comes he can phrase it better and not sound so desperate.

He's glad he waited, though. If he had asked when he first intended to, he knows he wouldn't have gotten a straight answer. Tony would have smiled glibly and given him a response that was at best a half-truth, no doubt something about how no one in their right mind could look at Captain America and not think he was handsome.

But maybe now he can uncover the truth. There are no Avengers here. Iron Man isn't here, and neither is Captain America – he didn't even bring the shield.

Here in this place, there is only Steve and Tony.

He can't remember the last time it was that way. And maybe, he thinks, that's part of the problem.

****

He takes a shower and gets changed into a white button-down and jeans. He only brought comfortable clothing with him, and he asked that Pepper pack the same thing for Tony. No suits, no ties, no six-hundred dollar shoes. This isn't a business trip. It's supposed to be a vacation.

He checks his watch half a dozen times and wanders through the empty house, trying to see it through Tony's eyes. He wishes he knew what else to do. He thinks of all the fancy hotels they've stayed in over the years as they travel on SHIELD- or Avengers-related business. Places like that often have fresh flowers laid out. He could maybe pick some, but it feels wrong somehow. Flowers convey a message he isn't entirely sure he's ready to send.

So at last he gives up on the house and he waits alone on the beach, watching the waves roll in and listening to the lonely cry of the seabirds as they wheel overhead. Despite his nervous tension for what is to come, the scene is calming, and he finds himself breathing easier.

He can do this, he tells himself.

It's nearly sunset when he spots movement in the sky. He deactivates his Avengers card, knowing that Tony has locked onto his position; the beacon is no longer needed.

The dot in the sky draws nearer. It has color now, the red standing out brightly against the clouds. Steve watches Iron Man approach, and his heart lifts at the sight, the way it always does. It's one thing that has never changed throughout the years. Even when they were at their worst, fighting each other from opposite sides of an impossible schism, he still felt that jolt in his heart to see Iron Man soaring through the skies.

Iron Man flies toward the beach in a graceful arc and lands, sand pluming up from his boots. "You said you had something to show me?"

Steve nods.

"On an island I own," Tony says, and there goes any question of whether or not he recognized the coordinates Steve sent him. "Also, you're not suited up."

"You won't be needing it," Steve says.

"Do you have any idea how hard it is to get sand out of the armor?" Tony quips. He flips the faceplate up and looks at Steve with some puzzlement.

At the sight of those blue eyes, so like and unlike his own, a silent explosion goes off in the pit of Steve's stomach. He gets it then, oh he gets it.

And for the first time, he thinks that he might be in over his head.

He's never turned away from what has to be done, though, and he won't start now. He's managed to get Tony out here, but he knows better than to consider it a victory. Bringing Tony here is the easy part.

Keeping him here is what's going to be difficult.

"Well, come on in," he says. He turns away and starts to walk toward the house.

Tony does not follow. "Steve, what's going on here?"

Steve stops and glances back at him. "I said I had something to show you," he says. "Are you coming or not?"

The look Tony gives him cuts Steve to the quick. Tony probably isn't even aware he's doing it, but Steve sees the distrust in his eyes plain as day.

It's a little bit frightening how much that hurts. He knows it's instinctual, that Tony really does trust him. No, the problem isn't with Steve. It's with the whole set-up, with the mostly-buried fears of someone who has had too many terrible things happen to him in too short a time frame. He knows that in that first fleeting second when nothing seemed to make sense, Tony thought of Skrulls, of mind-control, of what could possibly be coercing Steve to do this. Because lying about invitations to private islands is simply not something Steve Rogers does.

Then Tony blinks and the moment is gone. "Well, when you put it like that," he says, "how can I resist?" He smiles, the easy smile he gives to paparazzi and wealthy socialites and US Senators.

Steve turns away again. That charming smile is even worse, because he knows it for the lie it is. He would rather take Tony's mistrust. At least he knows that is real.

This time Tony follows him as he walks up the beach, through the stand of palm trees, and up to the house. He opens the door to the screened-in back porch, and holds it open for Tony. He tells himself that he's only imagining the slight hesitation Tony makes before joining him inside.

Steve holds out his arm and gestures to the house. "This," he says. "This is what I wanted to show you."

"My house," Tony says. He sounds puzzled again.

"Your vacation," Steve replies.

The look on Tony's face could almost be funny. Except Steve doesn't see anything remotely amusing about it.

"At Christmas," he explains. "You said you were going on vacation, but you really didn't. And then that thing with Zamira happened, and that's when I realized just how much work you do for us, with all your side projects."

Tony presses his lips together mutinously, clearly on the verge of protesting.

"And it got me thinking," Steve hurries on. He's very aware that Tony is still in the suit right now; he can be up in the sky and flying away even before Steve could get the words out to try and stop him.

"I said to you on Christmas that you deserve a real vacation, and I meant it." He takes a deep breath. "So that's what this is about. Happy New Year, Tony." He smiles, cautious and hopeful.

Tony stares at him, at a loss for words. He looks like he can't figure out what Steve is saying. "But… I don't…"

"Everything is all set," Steve says, trying to forestall any objections. "All you need to do is say yes, and come inside."

Still Tony stares at him. His eyes are so blue. He looks tired and pale, and not just because it's winter. But there is something in his face as he gazes at Steve, some terrible, wordless yearning that Steve can scarcely comprehend. As though he is being offered something he has never before dared to let himself hope he might attain.

Tony looks away. The silence draws out, growing more and more uncomfortable. It's not going to work, Steve thinks with resignation. Pepper tried to tell him, but he wouldn't listen. He was so certain he was doing the right thing, that he would be able to convince Tony to stay. Instead all he's done is create a new tension between them, and set himself up for what now seems like an inevitable heartbreak.

Without warning, the crimson armor suddenly comes undone. It collapses into a pile at Tony's feet, clattering on the tile floor. Tony stands there in a rumpled white dress shirt and tie, looking oddly small for a man his size.

"Okay," he says.

****

Once they're inside, Tony walks around slowly, taking it all in. "Huh," he finally says.

"What does that mean?" Steve says.

"I've never been here," Tony says. "It's pretty nice."

The tour has wrapped up in the master bedroom. Tony looks around at his own clothing hung up neatly in the closet, sandals on the floor next to the door, toothbrush in the bathroom. "You really did plan this, didn't you?"

There is no accusation in his tone. Nothing but wonder and a hint of bewilderment. Like he's still waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Steve to reveal the catch. "So what happens now?"

Steve opens his mouth to reply – and realizes that he doesn't have the faintest idea what to say. "I don't know," he admits. "I've never exactly gone on vacation, either."

Tony stares at him for a moment, and then laughs. There is no derision in his voice, though, only genuine amusement. "Okay," he says. "Well, let's head downstairs. I'm sure between the two of us we can figure something out."

****

Steve wakes up the next morning to the unfamiliar sound of seabirds calling out, and the sight of mid-morning sunlight streaming onto a blue comforter that is definitely not his own. Disorientation seizes him and he sits bolt upright, his heart suddenly racing. For a moment all he can feel is the terror of waking up in a strange place, and his first agonized thought is to wonder how long he's been asleep and how much time he's missing.

Then he looks around and he sees his shoes on the floor and his watch on the nightstand, and memory returns. He knows where he is then, and he remembers everything that happened last night.

For two superheroes desperately in need of a vacation, it turns out that he and Tony are terrible at relaxing.

He smiles a little as he climbs out of bed. He remembers the two of them in the kitchen last night, opening cabinets and figuring out where things were, working together to create a meal that neither one of them really knew how to make. The end result had been surprisingly edible, though, and he's pretty sure there weren't any leftovers.

The best part though, wasn't the meal itself. It was working with Tony, discovering that they moved in harmony off the battlefield just as easily as they did on it. It was looking up to search for the flour, only to be handed a measuring cup of the stuff with the exact amount he needed. It was Tony turning toward the fridge to get the butter, only for Steve to toss it to him from across the kitchen. It was the quiet pleasure of sharing an activity with someone he cared about.

After dinner, they had cleaned up, Tony washing the dishes and Steve drying. They hadn't really talked then, being focused on the task at hand, but it had been an easy silence, free from tension. Standing there with Tony at the sink, Steve had finally let himself believe that this was really going to work out, that Tony wasn't going to get back in the armor and fly home.

The rest of the evening had stretched out slowly, neither one of them able to get settled. It wasn't in their nature to sit around and do nothing, and turning on the television had felt like blasphemy. Steve had examined the bookshelves, looking for something interesting to read, but Tony was the one who had found the chess set.

So they had played chess for a few hours. Steve had lost every game, but he hadn't minded. He enjoyed seeing Tony's mind at work, and he liked the game for itself, for the strategy and the follow-through. They had promised each other a rematch, and then they had gone to bed shortly before midnight.

Now it's almost 9:00 by his watch, and Steve can't remember the last time he slept so late. He makes his bed quickly and steps out into the hall still wearing nothing but a loose pair of sleep pants.

The door to the master bedroom is open, but Tony is not inside. He's not in the bathroom, either. Nor is he in the kitchen or the living room.

"Damnit, Tony," Steve whispers, and hurries through the house. He flings open the sliding glass door that leads onto the porch, and there is the armor, still lying in a jumbled heap right where it fell.

His shoulders slump in relief. Until that moment, he was convinced that Tony had decided that this whole thing was just too weird, and taken the armor and flown back to New York. Faced now with evidence that says otherwise, he stands there on the porch, unsure what to do next. If Tony is not in the house, and he didn't fly off, that leaves only one place he could be. The only question is, is Steve going to follow after him?

It's not a hard choice. He goes back inside and quickly uses the bathroom and brushes his teeth. He puts on a T-shirt and jeans, thrusts his feet into a battered pair of flip-flops, then heads down the path that leads toward the beach. He's not worried about finding Tony. It's a small island, after all. There's only so many places he could be. Besides, all he needs to do is look for footprints in the sand.

The walk to the beach is not long at all. Before long he emerges from the dappled shade of the palm trees and onto the white sand of the beach.

And there is Tony. Completely naked, rising from the sea like a creature out of mythology. Dripping water and pushing his hair back with both hands.

Steve's mouth goes dry. His heart begins to pound. His skin feels hot and prickly all over.

He knows for sure now that he's in way over his head.

And he doesn't give a damn.

As casually as he can – which isn't very casual at all, in truth – he walks down to join Tony on the sand. There is a red-and-white striped towel spread out, with a crumpled T-shirt and pair of swim trunks lying on the sand beside it. Expensive designer sunglasses lie atop the T-shirt, the lenses lightly coated with sand.

"How's the water?" he asks. He can't help looking at Tony, at all of him. It's certainly not the first time he's seen Tony naked, but for some reason it's different now. He's never felt like this before, flushed all over and his heart racing.

And Tony, oh God Tony is beautiful. In the morning sunlight he doesn't look as tired or pale as he did yesterday. The RT shines brightly in his chest, surrounded by thick scar tissue. There are other scars on his body, ones he acquired after Extremis and its healing factor were gone from him. Steve knows how some of them came to be there. Others are new to him, though – and he finds that he wants to know how they got there. He wants to touch them, to soothe away the memory of those old hurts and the pain Tony suffered when they were created.

"It's great," Tony says.

For a moment Steve can't process it. The disconnect between the sight of Tony's body and what Tony just said is too great. Then he remembers his question, and he hears himself say, "Mind if I join you?"

Tony nods, but there is a hint of wariness in his eyes now. "Sure."

Slowly Steve removes his clothes. He's not trying to be seductive about it, but all the same, Tony watches him intently the entire time. For his part, Steve keeps his eyes on Tony's face; he refuses to let himself look at what physical reaction – or lack of – Tony might have to the sight of his bare body. He feels strangely self-conscious, although he's done this many times before, both as Steve Rogers and as Captain America. But this is not simply disrobing in a locker room or the rear of the Quinjet, and no villain has stripped him of his costume. This is one man deliberately and intentionally standing naked in front of another man. This is a pounding heart and sweaty palms and the desperate hope that he's doing the right thing.

He can't just stand here, though. It's too much, and he's already gone so much further than he ever imagined he might. So he walks down to the water. This close to the shore, the ocean is a brilliant aquamarine that first laps at his feet, then covers his ankles. Foam from incoming waves curls about his knees, and then he pushes himself forward and strikes out for the horizon.

He swims without thinking about it, powerful strokes that quickly take him further and further away from the beach. He's very aware of the warm water on his erect cock.

A thousand things race through his mind at once, but one thing stands out above the rest: he's pretty sure Tony feels the same way about him.

So many things over the years all add up now. So many memories of things he and Tony have shared, things that have happened to them.

It all makes sense now.

Tony can be astonishingly self-absorbed, but he's never been anything less than thoughtful and generous when it comes to Steve. From those very first few days when he woke from the ice, Tony was there to guide him into this strange new world. Tony was the one who took him around to various places, introducing him to the modern era with a combination of grace and humor that immediately won Steve over.

And over the years, Tony has always been there. When Steve lost the super soldier serum and was reduced to his sickly, skinny form, Tony is the one he went to for help, knowing that he could count on him for anything. And Tony always knows what he is thinking, either when he needs to be cajoled out of a dark mood, or simply when he wants a sesame seed bagel for breakfast.

And if Tony doesn't want him, doesn't love him, then how else can he explain the number of times Tony has sacrificed himself for Steve without a moment's hesitation? Like that time with the Red Skull's plague, when Tony exposed himself to the toxin so he could breathe for Steve. Or when he stopped his heart in order to save Steve from the crushing grip of the Hulkbuster armor.

Steve stops swimming and treads water. Far in the distance, Tony's private island is just a tan smudge against a bright blue sky.

He has to go back. He has to say something to Tony, but he doesn't know what. Their friendship is too hard-won, and there are too many minefields strewn about – most of which Tony doesn't even remember exist. One careless word could bring it all crashing down about their heads.

But then he remembers the way Tony looked at him when he said, Be safe, Steve, before sending him off to fight Thanos. And he remembers the anguish in Tony's eyes when they met in the ruins of the mansion during the war that tore them apart.

And he knows then that nothing he can ever say could hurt Tony more than Tony hurts himself.

He starts to swim back.

It seems to take twice as long to return to the beach than it did to swim all the way out here. But that might just be because his heart is racing again. He walks up the sand, water pouring off him in sheets.

Tony is sitting on the red-and-white towel, absently twirling his sunglasses. He looks up at Steve. "I thought you were maybe planning to swim all the way back home."

With one hand, Steve rakes his wet hair back. "No," he says. He doesn't stop, just keeps on walking, sand kicking up from his feet in little plumes.

Tony drops the sunglasses and scrambles to his feet. He's still completely naked, and his hair is almost dry.

Steve stops in his tracks. He thought he knew what he was doing and what he wanted, but now he's not so sure. Maybe he got it all wrong after all. Let Tony make the first move – if there's going to be one.

And there is. Tony suddenly comes toward him, his gaze focused and intent, every bit of that amazing mind fixed on him. Steve barely has time to register how incredible that feels, when Tony is right there in front of him, kissing him.

That kiss is everything he could ever have imagined. Years of friendship and laughter and anger and pain and love, so much love, and Steve clutches at Tony's arms the way he would clutch at a tree in the midst of a hurricane. He needs to anchor himself or he will fly apart.

And just before they fall onto the sand, still kissing, Tony's hands hot on his skin, Steve realizes that he has his answer. He doesn't have to ask anymore if Tony meant it when he called him Captain Handsome.

Now he knows.

****

Afterward, he lies sprawled half on the sand, half on top of Tony. One leg is hooked over Tony's knees. His head is pillowed on Tony's shoulder, his arm draped across Tony's chest. Warm wetness is slowly growing sticky on his stomach, which is somewhat embarrassing, but Tony is in the exact same situation and he doesn't seem to care at all.

They don't speak. Tony's fingers slip through his hair, tugging lightly. It feels good, relaxing Steve still further into a sated lassitude that wants to lull him down into sleep.

He stays awake, though. He wants to forever remember this moment. He wants to remember how it felt to look down into Tony's eyes and see his own heart reflected back at him. He wants to remember the feel of Tony's skin on his, the heat of their bodies as they moved against each other, Tony's hand wrapped around both of them. He wants to remember collapsing onto Tony with a broken groan, and the way Tony held him so close afterward without even a murmur of protest at how heavy he was.

Waves roll up the beach as the tide comes in. The sun climbs higher into the cloudless sky. The sea breeze toys with his hair. Steve closes his eyes and breathes in deep.

He can't remember the last time he felt so happy.

He's so relaxed that in spite of himself, he dozes off a little. What wakes him is Tony's shoulder jerking beneath his head. He's awake instantly, halfway to sitting up before he even realizes what he's doing.

Tony grimaces. "Sorry. I didn't mean to wake you up. My arm was falling asleep."

"I'm sorry," Steve says, contrite.

"It's okay," Tony says. He smiles as he sits up. "I don't mind being your pillow."

Steve smiles back. He thinks about leaning in to kiss Tony, but just as he starts to do it, he's reminded – a bit unpleasantly – that there is dried come on his stomach and sand stuck in places he never dreamed of before.

"Um," he says.

Tony's smile widens. "Yeah," he says, sounding like the aged voice of wisdom and experience. "I know."

"Ugh," Steve says, and wiggles his ass a little, trying to dislodge some of the sand. It doesn't really work.

"You know what gets sand out the best?" Tony says with a teasing smile. "A hot shower with someone else."

That sounds like just the right thing, and Steve smiles back.

Tony looks back at him, and oddly enough, he looks relieved. Like he was expecting Steve to react badly to what they did. Like he was using humor to deflect from the seriousness of the moment, and hide what he is really feeling.

Which probably isn't too far off the mark, sadly enough.

Not that Steve can blame him. Until today he wouldn't have ever thought they would be in this position, either.

He stands up and holds out his hand. Tony doesn't hesitate before taking it and letting Steve help pull him to his feet.

They get dressed and Steve shakes the sand out of the beach towel, and then they head back up to the house. They don't talk as they go, and there is an inexplicable tension in the silence between them. Steve wonders all over again if he's managed to ruin his friendship with Tony, and he still doesn't have the faintest idea what Tony is thinking.

Once they get inside, though, it's a lot better. They head for the master bedroom, and the enormous bathroom with its glass-and-tile shower. Tony's shampoo is set out on the shelf in the shower, and Steve smiles a little to himself. He doesn't know the name brand Tony prefers, but he would know that scent anywhere.

They wash the sand and sea salt off their skin and out of their hair. Steve helps Tony do his back, and Tony helps him in turn, and then they're pressed up against the tile, kissing each other beneath the hot water. Steve is quick to get aroused again, and it isn't long before Tony is right there with him.

On the beach everything happened so quickly, but now Steve has a better idea of what to expect. He wants to slow things down and enjoy what they're doing, but at the same time he's so excited for this new and amazing thing that he's eager to give in to his growing urgency and let it take over. He's also a little bit apprehensive of where this is headed and what Tony might expect of him, and so he does what he always does – he meets his fears head on.

"How do we do this?" he breathes into Tony's neck in between burning kisses. One of Tony's hands is stroking up and down his back and along the curve of his ass; the other arm is wrapped around him, holding him close.

Tony kisses him, tongue deep in his mouth. His fingers dig into Steve's ass. "What do you mean?"

"How do we… I mean, who's going to…" He feels a flush creep over him that has nothing to do with arousal.

Tony tilts his head back and looks at him with quizzical amusement. He lets go of Steve's ass, and Steve has the horrible feeling that he would actually back up a little if he wasn't standing with the shower wall at his back.

Still, when Tony speaks, his voice is gentle. "Steve, honey, I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but we're going to have to slow down. This isn't exactly what I was expecting when I came out here, and I didn't bring anything with me that we could use for lubricant. Also…" He winces a little, clearly embarrassed. "It's been a long time since I did this, and I'm not exactly ready for it, either."

"Oh," Steve says. His skin prickles with needles of humiliation. He feels incredibly stupid, like an overeager kid just rushing into things heedless of the practicalities involved.

But on the bright side, he doesn't feel like he's going to explode with need anymore.

"It's okay," Tony says. He smiles – one of his rare, genuine smiles. "You have no idea how long I've wanted this to happen. I can't even really believe this is real. I keep thinking I'm going to wake up and find myself in that boardroom in New York, that I fell asleep during the meeting and everyone left me sitting there with my head down, drooling on the hundred-thousand dollar conference table."

Steve reaches out and lays his hand on the side of Tony's face, his fingers curled around the back of Tony's neck. "It's real," he says. He gives Tony a long kiss. It's a sweet kiss, his lips soft on Tony's, the strange but pleasurable rasp of Tony's facial hair adding to the sensations coursing through him.

"I know," Tony sighs. "I don't know how it happened but—"

Steve stops him with another kiss. He knows exactly where this is headed and what Tony is thinking. And the last thing he wants is for Tony to start questioning whether or not he deserves to have this.

He lifts his head. "So tell me what happens now," he says.

Tony looks at him for a moment, those brilliant eyes seeming to see right through him. He knows exactly what Steve just did and why, Steve has no doubt of that. But he plays along, following willingly onto this new conversational path.

"We take it slow," he says. He smiles again, a look full of promise. "And believe me, that's the most fun part. Exploring, getting to know each other." He trails his fingertips down Steve's stomach and encircles his half-hard cock. Steve's breath catches and he pushes into Tony's hand involuntarily. Tony grins. "Like that."

"I--I think I get it," Steve stammers.

"And there's plenty of other things we can do," Tony says. "You'll be amazed."

"You always amaze me," Steve says, and it's both earnest and corny and he doesn't care in the slightest.

Tony turns off the shower. "Come on," he says. "Dry off and I'll show you a thing or two."

****

The next three days are like something out of a dream. When Steve first made his plans to bring Tony out to this island and make him take a vacation, he hadn't been exactly sure how they were supposed to fill the hours. At the time he had been too focused on just getting Tony out here and keeping him here.

He never imagined it would be like this.

He and Tony spend every moment together. They cook enormous breakfasts and eat them on the porch. They read books and talk about the authors and the characters and their motivations. They go for walks on the beach and challenge each other to swim out as far as they can. At night they sit on the widow's walk and take turns using the telescope to look up at the stars.

They have a lot of sex. Steve learns an awful lot in those three days, what Tony likes, what he likes, what kinds of things two men can do together.

Sometimes he looks over at Tony and he's struck by how unreal this all is. All he ever wanted was to give Tony the chance to relax, to give up his hundred and one side projects and take some time out for himself. Instead he's done the one thing he would have sworn was impossible – he's brought them even closer together.

Tony isn't the only one waiting to wake up from the dream.

It's everything he could have ever wanted, but it can't last. By the fourth day, Tony shows signs of being restless. Playing chess and board games will only keep that genius mind occupied for so long, and sex can't fill up all the hours of the day. So Steve waits until Tony is in the shower, and then he calls home to New York.

Carol sounds happy to hear from him. "Steve!"

"How are things going?" he asks.

"Fine," Carol replies. "We had a bit of a Doc Ock situation yesterday, but we handled it just fine."

"What?" Steve exclaims. "You should have called us."

"It was over before it hardly even began," Carol says. "You would have gotten here too late anyway. Besides, it's fine. We had it under control." She sounds a bit aggrieved, like he's implying that the Avengers can't handle things without Captain America and Iron Man there to help them out.

"No, no, I know you can," he assures her. "I just worry, that's all."

"Well, don't," she says. "You're supposed to be on vacation. No worrying allowed. Speaking of which, how's that working out for you?"

Steve gazes out the window, to where he can see sunlight sparkling on the water. He smiles. "Real well," he says.

****

By mutual consent, they decide that the next day is their last one on the island.

Part of Steve wishes it didn't have to be this way. That part of him wishes he could stay forever in this place of golden sunlight and warm ocean waters. That part of him doesn't want to give up the love and laughter he discovered here and exchange it for the duty and dreariness of New York.

But deep in his heart he knows that this isn't the life for him. Tony isn't the only one starting to feel restless. He needs to be out there doing things to make the world a better place. He will never be content to rest for long, to sit back and let others do, while he watches from the sidelines. That's never been who he is, and that will never change.

He knows Tony feels the same way. It's one of the things he loves about Tony, actually, the way Tony forever strives to be a better man than everyone expects from him. The Iron Man armor hasn't moved from where Tony let it fall to the ground when he first arrived, but Steve hasn't been blind to the lengthening looks Tony casts its way. And he would swear that he heard voices last night when he was in the shower; he's pretty certain Tony called someone, probably Rhodey, and they talked for a while.

It's okay, though. He will always have the memories of what happened here, and so will Tony. Because never again will he ever let Tony go to such extremes that he loses all his memories and everything that makes him Tony Stark.

Never again will he let Tony be hurt.

They spend the last night out on the beach, swimming naked under the moonlight and then walking halfway around the island. Tony reaches for his hand, and Steve takes it immediately, closing his fingers about Tony's and holding on tight. He doesn't know how long they walk, but it's very late when they finally get back to the house.

Steve left the light on over the stove, and it's the only light in the kitchen as they come inside. He goes to the refrigerator and pours them both a glass of apple juice. They're almost out of food already, both of them having eaten enormously over the last few days.

He hands Tony the glass and leans against the granite countertop. The kitchen is full of shadows that the single light can't completely banish. The shadows make it harder to read Tony's face and see what he's thinking.

He wants to ask what will happen when they get back to Avengers Tower. He's ready to go back, but he also dreads it. He doesn't want them to slide into their old routines, especially Tony. Not after everything that's happened here.

That unending parade of side projects has to come to an end. The Avengers need to stop taking Tony and his tech for granted. They need to step up and do more to help out. And Steve needs to lead by example.

"When we get back," he starts to say.

Just as Tony says, "So when we get home—"

They both stop at the same time.

Tony huffs out a little laugh, but it sounds forced. Already he looks tense again, like the last four days haven't existed.

Steve hates that.

"When we get back," he says again, moving quickly to fill the silence before Tony can, "some things need to change."

Tony says nothing at first. He clutches his glass and stares blankly into the middle distance, at a spot not too far from where Steve is standing. "Okay," he says tonelessly. "Sure. That makes sense."

Just like that, the space separating them seems to widen. The temperature in the room drops twenty degrees. They aren't merely standing a few feet apart in a kitchen anymore. Walls are springing up between them, cracks are opening in the ground.

Terribly aware that it might already be too late, Steve panics. "Tony, wait. What did you think I meant?"

"It's okay," Tony says. He gives Steve a brittle, fake smile. "I understand. It's better this way. There's just too many questions, and too many people around. Someone might see us and freak out."

"No," Steve says. He crosses the kitchen in three strides until he's standing right in front of Tony. "No," he repeats, louder this time. "That's not what I meant."

To prove it he gently takes the glass of juice from Tony's hands. He sets it down on the counter, then he wraps both arms around Tony and kisses him.

Tony's kiss is searching, almost desperate. He clutches at Steve's shoulders and pulls him still closer. He might be trembling, but it's hard to tell; every inch of him is in motion, his body and his hands and his mouth all asking the same terrible, silent question.

"I want this," Steve whispers. He kisses Tony's lips, his cheek, the line of his jaw. "I want this more than I've ever wanted anything." He kisses the shell of Tony's ear, the soft skin of his temple. "I want you, Tony Stark." He hugs Tony with nearly every ounce of his strength.

Tony hugs him back with equal ferocity. "I love you," he breathes. "God, Steve, I love you so much."

It's the first time all week one of them has said the words. Steve's heart leaps in his chest to hear them spoken out loud.

He wishes he had had the courage to say them first.

"I love you, too," he says.

They stand for a little while, just holding each other. Tony is definitely shaking, but then, Steve is pretty sure he's doing the same thing. It takes a little while for his racing heart to slow down, to feel like it's safe to release Tony and not lose him.

He takes a deep breath. "What I was trying to say was that when we get back, I don't want you to work yourself to death for us anymore. Things need to change. The Avengers need to pitch in and do their share. We need to stop relying on you for every little thing around the Tower."

Tony blinks at him in astonishment. "But that's what we do," he says.

"I know," Steve says. "But that doesn't make it right."

"Then what do you…?" Tony looks bewildered, and not a little obstinate. "Steve, you're not going to shut me out of my own armory. That's not up for debate."

Steve smiles. "I wouldn't dream of it," he says. "I just don't want you to think you have to do everything for us. It's not fair and it's not right. We take advantage of you and all the things you can do. We've done it right from the start." He thinks about all those years living with the Avengers, first in the mansion, then in the Tower. All those incredible inventions Tony has shared with them, all the tech and gear and equipment he's created for them, all without being asked, or even thanked for it. "I don't want that to happen anymore."

"I'm happy to do it," Tony says. "Honestly, Steve. It's okay." He looks somewhat annoyed then, but also a little bit lost, like he doesn't quite know what to say. Like no one's ever tried to tell him this before.

Most likely they haven't. And that's another thing Steve intends to change, starting right now. He wants Tony to feel appreciated. He wants Tony to feel loved.

"All right," he says, and lets it drop. For now. They can discuss it again when they get back to the Tower.

"I was actually going to say," Tony says, "that when we get back, I'll go through my list of projects and see which ones I can farm out to Stark Resilient R & D. And I'm pretty sure Bruce would like to play around with some of them. Or Peter; I think one or two of them might be right up his alley."

"That sounds great," Steve says, and he means it. Anything that will take away those lines of pinched exhaustion that were constantly on Tony's face before they came out here. He knows five days isn't enough time to completely recover from the kind of workload Tony labored under before, but hopefully it's a good start.

"Can I ask you something?" he says.

"Of course," Tony says.

"At Christmas," he says, "why did you call me Captain Handsome?"

Tony stares at him. "Why wouldn't I?" he says, incredulous. "Have you looked in the mirror lately?"

"That's not an answer," Steve frowns. After everything that's happened this week, he feels he deserves the truth.

"Steve," Tony says gently, "I'm in love with you. I've been in love with you for as long as I can remember. I say things like that sometimes because I'm an idiot and apparently I am terrible at keeping secrets – like the fact that I'm in love with you. So when that happens I play it off as a joke because that's what I do." He takes a step forward and rests his hands on Steve's chest. "But now I get to say it out loud." He smiles, slow and wondering, his blue eyes alight with happiness. "I love you."

There's more to his answer, but after that the words get lost among the kisses, and after a while, there are no more words at all.

********

Epilogue

 

It's snowing in New York. Standing in front of the window, it's cold enough to raise goosebumps on his skin, but if he closes his eyes, Steve can still feel warm sunlight on his face, and hear the ocean lapping on a golden beach.

"What are you doing over there?" Tony murmurs. He came to bed a little over an hour ago, when it was just past midnight. Steve made him wash his hands thoroughly before he climbed under the covers, in an attempt at removing all the engine grease grimed underneath his fingernails. He sounds half-asleep now, propped up on one elbow, his dark hair standing up all over the place.

"Just checking the weather," Steve says. They're scheduled to fly to Madripoor tomorrow for a weapons expo; Tony's idea, not his own. But if the weather doesn't cooperate, they won't be flying anywhere for a while.

Tony throws the blankets back and climbs out of bed. He walks over to where Steve stands and wraps his arms around him from behind. "Come back to bed," he invites. He kisses that soft spot where Steve's ear meets his jaw, then rests his chin on Steve's shoulder. "Your side of the bed is getting cold."

Steve lays his arms over Tony's where they rest on his abdomen. He tilts his head so he can rest it on Tony's hair. "Is that an order?" he asks with a smile.

"It might be," Tony says. He sounds wide awake now. "I guess that's up to you."

Steve turns around, and Tony lets go of him and steps back a little. Immediately he misses the warmth of Tony's body, and the feel of those strong arms holding him. "In that case," he says, and straightens his spine. "This is Captain Handsome reporting for duty."

Tony laughs and holds out his hand. "Ready to rock and roll on that 45?" he teases.

Steve smiles and takes his hand. Together they head back to bed, leaving the window and the cold behind.