Tony loved Steve, he did, but the guy got him into more trouble than he could ever get into himself. Don't get Tony wrong, he was a natural troublemaker, he *loved* making trouble. He had no problem stealing one of Howard's cars for a joyride or pulling some prank or even getting drunk and making a public spectacle of himself. Hey, what were a few hours of community service?
But Steve took it to a new level. The sort of trouble he got into with Steve tended to be more of the "if we get caught, we'll wind up doing twenty-five to life in a federal penitentiary" sort of trouble.
You know, like hacking into the DOD or sneaking Steve out of the infirmary of a top-secret intelligence base so that he could break up with his boyfriend. That sort of thing.
Not that Tony had any regrets. Steve was his best friend and that's the sort of things you did; go to prison, hide the body sort of things.
That was why he was here now, even though that Fury guy kept coming in and glaring at him. And what the fuck was up with that eye-patch? Was Fury a pirate? Maybe Tony would offer to make Fury a cybernetic eye. Was that creepy? Maybe that was creepy.
"Are cybernetic eyes creepy?" Tony asked, staring up at the ceiling, stroking Steve's hair as he cried (and fuck feelings, seriously, fuck them) into Tony's shirt.
"W-What?" Steve rubbed the tears from his eyes. "Are you thinking about Nick again? Seriously, Tony, I don't think he's going to let you build him a robotic eyeball."
"But it would be so cool! He'd be able to see in the dark. Wouldn’t you like to see in infrared?" he asked, looking into the security camera, which promptly swiveled away. "Hey, don't turn away from me when I'm talking to you! I know you're listening, Fury." He turned to Steve. "He's probably taping us so he can sell it on the black market. There are probably some weird fetishists out there that'd pay top dollar to see two white boys cuddling on a hospital bed. Do you think he'd give me a cut?"
"I think you had way too many double espressos today," Steve said, laying his head back on Tony's chest. "You don't have to stay here, you know."
"Shut up." Tony tugged on Steve's earlobe. "I'm not going anywhere. I was promised hair braiding and a pedicure."
"I forgot my nail polish."
"Goddammit, Steve! Now the whole night's ruined."
"I'm serious, Tony. You should be out celebrating."
'Tony rolled his eyes. "Celebrating what?"
Steve lifted his head. "You just graduated summa cum laude from MIT, that's what. We were gonna drive down last week and surprise you with a special dinner. He didn't say anything? What about your mom, she didn't throw you a party?"
"Are you kidding? We're talking about Howard and Maria Stark." Tony snorted. "Mom called to congratulate me and berate me for not attending the graduation ceremony and despite the dinner I know that *you* planned, Howard's got his head up his ass. Like always."
"You shouldn't talk about him that way, Tony. He's your dad." Steve's breath hitched slightly and his lower lip wobbled, but he didn’t start crying again, for which Tony was grateful.
"I don't know why you're defending him, Steve. He was an utter asshole to you."
Steve rolled away onto his back. "I know it's sick, but I still love him. I miss him. And I know you're just trying to be a good friend, but I just… I can't hear that right now. I can't hear you say bad things about him."
"Okay. Okay, I can try, but no promises. After all, my history with Howard is longer than yours and I may have some legitimate parental gripes. You know, like the fact that he didn't fucking congratulate me on graduating from his fucking alma mater."
"What a jerk," Steve said, wiping his eyes. "But hey, when I get out of here, officially, we should do something. Go out to eat or go to a club or something. I bet my mom would make you a cake."
Yeah, yeah, Tony bet she would. Sarah was good about those sorts of things. "I wouldn't say no to cake."
Steve smiled. "You never say no to cake."
"I can't help it, it's a failing of mine. So when are they letting you out of here anyway. Officially, I mean."
"A couple of days. They want to make sure the fever doesn’t come back." Steve sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. "I'll be glad when I can get out of here. It's so boring and they keep sending a psychiatrist to talk to me. It's kind of weird."
"Psychiatrists are all weird. At least all the ones I've gone to have been weird. I usually just make up shit. You know, like dreaming about my dad stabbing me with his sword or flying through a tunnel with my mom."
"You want me to tell the psychiatrist that I dream about your dad stabbing me with his sword? That's sick, Tony."
Tony stuck out his tongue. "Your face is sick."
"*Your* face is sick." Steve flicked the end of Tony's nose.
"Ouch! Jerk!" Tony elbowed him in the stomach, gently. "I'm bored, let's watch another movie. What do you want to see first, Terminator or Aliens?
Steve stretched out on the bed. "Terminator."
"Terminator it is. Hey, Fury, order us a couple of pizzas. The works, no anchovies! Oh, and have one of your lackeys bring us some Cokes. And some nail polish, too, because I'm getting my fucking pedicure."
After a few days, the novelty of hanging out in a super-secret spy base wore off and Tony was getting bored, so Steve sent him home to unpack and eat a home cooked meal and let Jarvis know that he was alive. Tony was willing to stick around, but after the third time Tony tried—and succeeded, thank you very much— hacking SHIELD's computers, Steve told him to get out and not to come back for twenty-four hours.
"Nick's eye keeps twitching," Steve told him. "That's never a good sign."
"How can you tell with that patch? Alright, alright, I’m out." He jumped off the bed and flipped off the cameras. "Down with jackboots and tyranny! Except for you, Fury." Tony winked and blew a kiss. "You really pull off the militaristic thug look."
Then Steve threw a pillow and it smacked him in the face "Get out of here, Tony."
Tony blew him a kiss, too. "Love you, cupcake. Be a good boy while I'm gone."
Ha! He managed to duck out of the way of the second pillow.
"Honey, I'm home," Tony called out as he strode into the house. "Hello?" He rolled his eyes, of course no one came out to greet him. He headed straight for the kitchen, and, oh, yeah, judging from the smell, Jarvis was definitely there. "Are those cupcakes?"
"Yes, sir," said Jarvis, who handed him one. "Welcome home and congratulations on your graduation."
Tony smiled and blinked rapidly. "Thanks, Jarvis. How did you know I was going to be home today?"
"That would be telling, young sir." Jarvis poured Tony a glass of milk.
"Steve call you?" He licked at the chocolate frosting and Jarvis smiled. "So where's the old man? Off kicking puppies and setting fire to orphanages?"
Jarvis's smile faded away and he began to wipe down the already very clean kitchen island.
"What?" Tony narrowed his eyes. "Today *is* Sunday right? It's hard to tell when you're in an underground bunker."
"It is. Mr. Stark is in his bedroom." Jarvis rubbed at a spot almost obsessively. "He's been there all day."
"I don't think you can rub the color out of the marble, Jarvis. But thanks for trying." Tony took a bite of his cupcake, then washed it down with some of the milk. "Does he have a guy up there?"
"No, sir, he's alone." Jarvis gave up on wiping the counter and rearranged the cupcakes.
"It's one in the afternoon. What the hell is he doing up there?"
"I couldn't say, sir." Which, in Jarvis-speak, meant that he knew, but he wasn’t saying.
Tony finished his cupcake and milk. "I'm going to go unpack," he said and Jarvis raised an eyebrow because that was such a lie. He never unpacked his own clothes. Jarvis gave him a couple of weeks to do it himself, but he never did.
"Very good, sir," Jarvis said blandly.
Tony saluted Jarvis, then went up to find out what was making Jarvis so twitchy When he got to Howard's bedroom door, he hesitated a moment, but his curiosity got the better of him He twisted the handle and slowly opened the door. And, okay, wow, it smelled a bit like New Orleans at Mardi Gras, which, not a great smell for a bedroom.
Tony took a deep breath and slipped into the dim room, only to be greeted by Howard, who was sort of sprawled on the bed, the headboard propping him up. He looked like shit: his clothes were wrinkled and dirty, his hair was greasy, and his eyes were puffy and red like he'd been… huh.
"Hey," Howard slurred, lifting up a bottle of vodka, then taking a swig. He grimaced. "Ugh, even the good stuff tastes like paint thinner."
"You're disgusting." Tony wrinkled his nose and looked at the bottles littering the bed. "Did you drink of all of that yourself?"
"Don't worry, 'm pacing myself so I don't choke on my own vomit." Howard grinned. Well, he tried to grin, but didn't quite make it; it looked more like he was baring his teeth. "Hey, pull up a bottle and join me. Get a head start on your future. You got your mom's eyes and your impending alcoholism from me! You're welcome!"
Tony shook his head; he'd seen Howard drunk before, but never like this. Never several days into a bender drunk. "Maybe you should stop while you're ahead."
Howard brought the bottle to his mouth again, but didn't drink. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then did it again. "Yeah, yeah, maybe you're right. Gotta pace myself."
"Right," Tony said. God, Howard was pathetic. What Steve saw in him, Tony would never know. "I just got back from visiting Steve."
Howard cradled the bottle of vodka to his chest and gave Tony a stunned sort of look. "Is… Is he all right?"
"What do you care?" Tony went to the window and opened it to let in fresh air.
"Tony, please," Howard said, his voice shaking. "Tell me that he's all right."
Anger surged through Tony and he whirled around. "He's not all right, Dad. He almost died a week ago. He almost died and the one person he needed the most wasn't there! And not only wasn't he there, he made it quite clear he didn’t give a shit! So, no, Dad, I’m not going to tell you that Steve's all right when he's not."
"You have to understand. You--
"No, I don't. I don’t have to understand a goddamn thing!" Tony grabbed the bottle out of Howard's hands and threw it across the room. The bottle hit the wall and broke, splattering vodka everywhere. "You make me sick!"
Howard flinched at the words and Tony felt the slow burn of satisfaction in his belly. "I make myself sick. I… I had to let him go, Tony. I had to. You were right, Sarah was right. You were *all* so right! I try so hard to be *good.*"
"This is you *trying?*
"So hard." Howard hunched his shoulders, his eyes shiny. "But I'm not. I'm not good. My mom and dad knew, that's why they—" He squeezed his eyes closed and let out a choked sob. "I'm broken inside. I'm broken, Tony. That's why when Sarah—She knew, knows I'm broken. She had to protect Steve from me."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Tony suddenly felt uneasy.
"I wanted to stay." Howard opened his eyes. "I wanted to stay so bad. I promised Steve, I promised him. But they wouldn’t let me! They made me go!" His voice broke and curled in on himself, tears streaming down his face. "They knew I'd hurt him."
Tony took a step back because he wasn't… Steve crying was one thing, but Howard… Howard didn't cry. Howard never cried. Hell, Howard didn't let other people cry in his presence because it might contaminate him.
"I'm a monster," Howard said, his breath coming in gasps. "Maybe if… if I didn't love him so much. But I do, God, I do. And when he asks, he needs so much, and when he asks I just want to give him *everything.* God, what's wrong with me, Tony? What's wrong with me?"
Tony had a long list of shit that was wrong with Howard, but he found he couldn't do it. He couldn't kick Howard when he was down. Instead, he-- and oh, God, he'd regret it later—walked over and put his hand on Howard's shoulder. "It's going to be okay, Dad."
Howard sobbed and lunged forward, pressing his face to Tony's chest. And there it was, Tony's punishment for trying to be nice. Yeah, this was great, nice and awkward. Howard babbled drunkenly and his tears soaked the front of Tony's shirt.
Tony patted his back, murmuring softly, until Howard slumped against him. He carefully laid Howard back against the bed. "Why don't you rest, Dad," he said, surprising himself with the gentleness of his tone. "I'll have Jarvis bring you some coffee."
Howard turned away, curling into a ball. "Why can't I be good, Tony? Why do I have to be broken." He sounded exhausted and resigned. "It's lonely."
"I don't know, Dad. I just… I don't know." Then before Howard could ask any more questions, Tony turned and fled.
Jarvis was waiting for him at the top of the stairs, looking worried.
"Should we call somebody?" Tony asked, gesturing to Howard's room. "A doctor or 911 or something."
"No, sir." Jarvis put a hand on Tony's shoulder and squeezed gently.
"We can't leave him like that! He's going to drink himself to death or… or… hang himself."
"He'll be fine in another week or so."
Dammit! How could Jarvis be so calm! Tony flung his hands in the air. "You don't know that!"
"Actually, sir, I do," Jarvis said, quietly and Tony stared at him in surprise.
"He's done this before? When?"
"Only once." Jarvis swallowed hard and looked into Tony's eyes. "When your mother left. He locked himself in his bedroom with all the alcohol in the house and didn't leave his room for two weeks."
"He—" Tony's chest hurt and forced himself to breathe around the pain. "He said that he wanted to stay with Steve but he was forced to go."
Jarvis raised an eyebrow as if that piece of news wasn't a surprise. "Indeed?"
And Tony fucking hated that tone in Jarvis's voice because he knew what it meant. "He doesn’t deserve Steve, Jarvis! He doesn't!"
"That's not for you to decide, sir."
"No, I won't tell him! I won't!" Tony clenched his hands into fists and shook his head.
"You would leave your best friend in pain just to spite your father?" Jarvis gave him a disappointed look.
Tony cursed because dammit, Jarvis was right. Jarvis was always right; he couldn't do that to Steve. Fuck, he couldn't do that to Howard either. "This is a train wreck waiting to happen. Another train wreck. A *bigger* train wreck."
"Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Stranger things have happened."
Tony gave him a dirty look. "You're a freaking ray of sunshine, you know that, Jarvis?"
"So I've been told."
Tony stretched out on his bed and tried to quiet his mind long enough for a nap. A micro-nap. A few minutes of relaxation. But his mind kept returning to Howard. Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck! He ran his fingers through his hair, sat up, and grabbed his laptop.
Maybe if he worked on a few projects that would help.
His mind flitted from project to project to project, until, you know what, to hell with it. He hacked into SHIELD's computer—easier now that he put in a backdoor, and seriously, SHIELD needed to hire a better class of IT staff—and pulled up the security footage from the night Steve was brought in. He fast-forwarded through most of it, until he got to the part where Sarah decked Howard. He watched that in slow motion, then at regular speed.
And immediately wished he hadn't because… because…
He listened to it several times, his eyes closed so that he could concentrate on the tones of their voices. He swallowed hard against the sick feeling crawling up his throat as Howard… Howard didn’t deny it. Didn’t deny anything. Tony opened his eyes and rubbed away the wetness.
He snapped shut his laptop and fought the sudden urge to storm into Howard's room and kill him. No, no, Steve didn't need that. Tony took a deep breath and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Tony'd let the bastard drink himself to death. He was halfway there anyway.
Steve doesn't like lies or unfairness.
This is from Steve's POV. Obviously.
Also, I hate my brain. It now wants to write about Howard and Maria's divorce. Oh, broken!Howard, why do I love you so much?
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Steve had one rule: no one was allowed to talk about Howard in his presence—the rule didn't apply to Tony, he'd just do the exact opposite of whatever rule Steve imposed, that was just his way, besides Howard was his dad and he had a right to complain if he wanted to.
Anyway, no one was allowed to talk about Howard; the pain was still too new, too fresh. A few people tried—Mom, Fury, Doc Samson—but Steve just walked out of the room when they did. It was rude, yes, but he couldn't find it in himself to care.
Of course, not talking about Howard didn't mean that Steve didn't think about him. Because Steve did, all the time. And it hurt and it was horrible, but he dealt with it. He was *fine.*
No, he was more than fine now that he was out of the SHIELD infirmary and back home. He was great. Fantastic. Perfect.
He was perfect and it was summer vacation and he was just going to lie back on his bed and relax. Steve took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Perfect.
There was a knock on his door; he sighed and sat up. "Come in."
The door opened and Mom poked her head in. "I'm headed out to the mall. Care to join me?"
"No, I'm okay." He played with a loose thread on his duvet.
"Sweetheart, you can't stay in your room all summer."
"I know, I'm not." He shrugged. "Tony's coming over. We're going to play video games and he's going to upgrade my computer. It'll probably talk when he's done with it."
She sighed and walked over to him. She gently stroked his hair. "Steve, you know I love Tony, I do. But maybe you should spend some time with your other friends."
Steve jerked away from her hand and stared up at her incredulously. "Tony's my best friend."
"I know," she said gently. "But he's also—"
"No!" Steve clenched his jaw. "No."
"Just think about it, please,"
Steve looked away until she left.
God, Tony was his best friend. Steve wasn't going to abandon him just because… because of stuff.
"This computer is horrible and old! Are you sure you don't want me to get you a new one? I can get you a new one." Tony frowned at Steve's computer and poked it with his finger.
Steve rolled his eyes and popped a Cheesy Puff into Tony's mouth. "My computer is fine, it just needs an upgrade."
"If you say so. Ugh. I want to take it out back and shoot it."
Steve shook his head and flopped down on the bed. "You know… we could go to your place. We don't always have to hang around here."
"I don’t mind," Tony said, staring hard at the computer screen.
"I know you don't mind, but… but I need to learn to deal with it right? Seeing him." Steve's pulse fluttered at the thought of seeing Howard again. "After all, I'm PAing for you at the Expo."
"Actually, I'm not doing the Expo."
"What! Are you crazy?" Steve sat up and stared at Tony incredulously. "You have to! This is your debut!"
"Please, Dad just wants to rebrand the company using my face. And I don't feel like playing." Tony glared at the computer, his fingers flying over the keyboard.
"Tony, making you the face of Stark Industries is a good thing." Steve bit his bottom lip. "You don't have to do this for me. I can be professional."
"Professional!" Tony pushed away from the desk and flung his hands in the air. "After what that asshole did to you? He's lucky you're not bringing him up on charges!"
Steve was taken aback by the force of Tony's anger. He did a double-take and blinked. "Um, for… for not visiting me in the infirmary? I don't think that's a criminal offense." He got that people were angry on his behalf, and he appreciated it, he did, but it wasn't like Howard was the one who *made* him sick or anything.
"Not for that! For the other thing." Tony looked away, nervously, and swallowed hard.
Steve shook his head. "What other thing?"
"Steve, we know," Tony said, exasperated. "We all know."
He had no idea what Tony was talking about or not talking about. "Know what?"
Tony got up and sat on the bed next to Steve's legs. He put a hand on Steve's knee and looked sad. "We know that my dad has been physically abusing you."
"He *what?*" Steve's voice went up a few octaves, but he was too shocked to feel embarrassed about it. "What the *hell* are you talking about, Tony? Howard never… He would *never*..." And Steve just couldn't get the rest out, he was too shocked.
"Steve, you don’t have to be ashamed. It's not your fault. My dad… Howard is sick."
Steve rubbed his face and took a deep breath. "Okay, I'm going to say this very slowly so you understand. Howard has never, ever, abused me."
"Yeah? Well, what's this then?" Tony grabbed his laptop, opened a file on it, and shoved it into Steve's hands.
"Is this my SHIELD hospital file?" He skimmed his file; he knew all that already. "Tony, that's a gigantic invasion of my privacy. Why—oh." Steve's face heated as he stared down at the pictures of himself, of the marks Howard put on his body. He reached out and touched the screen, remembered the sharp pain of the bite marks, the scores down his thigh, the ache of the bruises where Howard gripped just right.
"Yeah." Tony rubbed at a smudge of oil on the back of his hand. "I'm not big on shrinks, but maybe you should talk to one of the doctors SHIELD is throwing at you."
"Oh, God, Nick knows. My *mom.*" Steve groaned and covered his face Oh, God, he just wanted to die. His *mom* knew about his sex life. She… "Oh my God!"
"It's okay, Steve. We're all here for you."
Steve probably shouldn't want to punch Tony in the face, but he sort of did. "Did my mom make Howard leave, Tony? Did she and Nick make him stay away?"
Guilt twisted Tony's mouth. "They were protecting you."
It was all slotting in place, every concerned glance and strange comment Steve had received in the past week suddenly made sense. Heck, he could even guess why Howard might lie to him.
That was when it really hit him: they lied to him. Mom and Nick, lied to him. And suddenly, he was furious. How *dare* they keep things from him! Like he was a kid or *fragile* or something.
"Everything's gonna be all right." Tony gave him an awkward look. "You can cry if you want."
"Oh for the love of—Howard didn't abuse me!" Steve got to his feet and glared at Tony. "Did Nick and Mom make Howard leave and not come back? Did they?"
"Can you blame them? Steve, I know you think that it wasn't abuse, but it was. And it doesn't make you weak or anything. It—"
Steve put his hand over Tony's mouth to shut him up. "Don’t talk, just… God, this is embarrassing." He pulled his and away and reached under his mattress to pull out the S&M 101 book he bought online a few months ago. Blushing furiously, he handed the dog-eared book to Tony.
Tony frowned and stared at the cover for a moment. Then he looked up at Steve. "What—oh. Oh!" Tony's face turned a dark shade of red, then he made a face. "Oh, ew, that's more information than I needed about what you and Dad get up to in bed. Although, Steve, just because it feels good doesn't mean he still isn't abusing you."
"He isn't." Steve ducked his head and stared at the carpet. "Howard's pretty vanilla. Anytime I want to try something new, I have to spend an hour trying to convince him that I really want it and that I'll tell him if I change my mind." He looked up at Tony. "He's really good to me. He takes care of me and… and he makes sure I don't get in over my head."
"Fuck!" Tony ran his fingers through his hair and flopped back on the bed. "Well, I guess that explains why Dad is practically killing himself then."
"What?" Steve reached down, grabbed a fistful of Tony's t-shirt, and yanked him into a sitting position. "What do you mean, Tony?"
"Jesus, Steve!" Tony tried to smooth away the wrinkles. "He… He's been holed up in his room, drinking, since you broke up with him."
"That was a week ago!" Steve stared at Tony in horror.
"Jarvis checks on him a couple times a day to make sure he hasn't choked on his own vomit." Tony flushed, but he didn't look away from Steve's gaze.
"We have to go. We have to… I have to talk to him. I have to apologize." Steve grabbed his sneakers and pulled them on. God, what Howard must be going through! Not only was everyone accusing him of beating Steve, but he had to deal with it all alone.
"Steve." Tony grabbed him by the wrist. "You can't go."
He pulled away. "The hell I can't! He needs me!"
Tony made a face. "No, seriously, you can't. If your mom finds out, that could spell a lot of trouble for my dad. It's one thing to screw a sixteen year old, it's another to… you know, perform sadistic acts upon said sixteen year old's body."
"They weren't sadistic acts, Tony," he said furiously.
"Fine" Tony threw his hands up in the air. "They were loving acts that left some pretty brutal marks on your body and it doesn't matter that you liked them, Steve, okay? Because most people are gonna be horrified about it. So while my dad can be a complete dick, I don't think he deserves to go to prison for this. He looks terrible in orange and synthetic fabrics give him a rash."
"So what am I supposed to do, then?" Steve asked, sinking heavily onto the bed, and rubbing his face.
"Convince your mom not to rip my dad's balls off or call the police the next time he touches you."
"That's not helpful." Steve bumped Tony with his shoulder.
"You could scream at her all night until she gives in. That worked with me."
Steve glared at him.
"Nobody respects genius anymore," Tony sighed.
Steve sent Tony home. Whatever happened between him and Mom, whatever argument they had, should stay between them. He waited for her on the sofa, book clutched tightly in his hands, his heart pounding in his chest.
When the front door opened, he jumped slightly and swallowed hard.
"Hi," she said, cheerfully, setting her purse and bags on the couch next to him. "What happened to Tony?"
"He left." Steve cleared his throat. "Mom, I need to talk to you."
"That sounds serious." She sat in the chair opposite him and slipped off her shoes with a groan. "About what?"
"Howard," he said, watching as she stilled.
"All right." Her tone was gentle, soothing. It was the tone she used when Steve was sick. "What about him?"
"Did you keep him from seeing me when I was in the SHIELD infirmary?" He wanted her to say no, and he wanted her to say yes.
She folded her hands on her lap, completely calm, and Steve knew the answer. He still wanted her to say it though. "Who told you that?"
"Does it matter? Did you keep him from seeing me? Did you lie?"
"I didn't lie," she said sharply. "I told you he left the night you were brought in and that he didn’t come back."
"Because you told him not to! Because you threatened him!" Steve shook and fought to keep his voice from rising. He wasn't doing a very good job.
"Yes, because he hurt you. Steve, sweetheart, I know he hurt you." Her eyes filled with tears and a part of Steve just wanted to curl up against her and tell her he was safe, he would always be safe, and leave it at that.
"You've got it all wrong. Howard loves me, he'd never hurt me."
"Oh, sweetheart." She rushed to sit at his side. She put her arms around him and stroked his hair and he wanted to cry. "I know you think that, but he has you all twisted up inside. He's been taking advantage of your inexperience."
"No, no, he hasn't." Steve pulled away from her. "If anything, I've been taking advantage of him. Those marks, Mom, he—" He blushed furiously, but looked her in the eyes. "I asked him to put them there. I asked him to scratch me and bite me and… and bruise me."
"Steve—" she started, but he shoved the book in her hands before she could say another word. She looked down at the cover, underlined the title with her finger, then shook her head. "No, you're confused."
"I'm not confused."
"Yes, you are! Because this, Steve, this is… is… not normal." She tossed the book on the coffee table as if it burned her. "Steve, he's not a good man. A good man wouldn’t do those things to you, even if you asked."
"He is a good man. He's a very good man and I'm sorry you can't see it, Mom. I'm sorry you can't see how wonderful he is. I can only hope he'll take me back when I apologize to him."
"You're not going over there, Steve."
"Yes, I am." He got to his feet and looked down at her.
She stood up, too; he was taller than her now. "No, you're not."
"What are you doing?" he asked. "What's going on with you? You lied to me. You *lied* and you let me blame Howard for your actions. That's not how you brought me up. That's not who you taught me to be. You said that I should always be honest and that I should always be fair. And you're not being honest and you're not being fair."
"I'm trying to protect you." She touched his arm and she felt so fragile.
"I love him. I love being with him. I love the things we do together and the way he makes me feel. I don't need you to protect me from him."
"He's changing you, and not for the better."
Steve flinched at her words and his voice trembled when he spoke. "I'm sorry you feel that way."
"If you go to him, I'll call the police."
He took her hands in his. "No, you won't. You know how I know that, Mom? Because you're not that kind of person. You're strong and you're honest and you're righteous and you're my compass. Mom, you're the best person I know." He was crying and he didn't care.
"Steve," she said, sounding broken and close to tears herself.
He kissed her on the cheek. "I've got to go. I… I'll probably stay for a few days. I'll let you know. He really does need me as much as I need him." She didn't try to stop him as he headed out. He grabbed the overnight bag he had stashed near the door, then stopped to look over his shoulder. "He deserves an apology from you, too. I know you… I know you won't apologize and I know you don't like him, but at least try to be civil. For me. Please?"
She crossed her arms over her chest and looked away.
"Steven," Jarvis said and ushered him inside.
Steve didn't think he was imagining the relief in Jarvis's voice. "How is he, Mr. Jarvis?"
Jarvis hesitated a moment, but didn't pretend to misunderstand. "Not well. However, as of yesterday, he is no longer drinking."
He nodded thoughtfully. "Good. I'm going to talk to him."
"Perhaps I should go with you, Steven."
"He's not going to hurt me," Steve said, irritated.
"I know that. But you may need me."
Steve had a sinking feeling in his stomach and he wiped his hands on his jeans. But he took a deep breath and headed upstairs. "Where's Tony?"
"I sent him on a few errands," Jarvis said, though there was an underlying tone that Steve couldn't quite decipher.
"Oh." Steve hesitated at the door, afraid of what he'd find when he opened it. He scratched his nose, let out a soft huff, turned the knob, and pushed the door open. The smell hit first—booze and vomit and unwashed body—then his eyes adjusted to the dark and he saw Howard curled in a ball on the bed, shivering. He rushed to the bed and laid a hand on Howard's shoulder. "Why didn't you call a doctor?"
Jarvis entered the room slowly, looking pale and guilty. "Tony called Mr. Stane a few days ago for help. He… persuaded me to let Mr. Stark deal with this on his own terms."
Steve looked up at Jarvis and narrowed his eyes. He wanted to ask Jarvis what threats Stane used, but decided it didn’t matter. Not now anyway. "I'm going to get him in the shower. I need you to clean up in here. Then I want you to bring up some water, chicken broth, and a glass of orange juice."
"Would you like me to call a doctor?"
Steve bit his bottom lip, then checked Howard's pulse and his breathing. "No, no, I think we can manage it. But keep the number handy."
"Very good, sir," Jarvis said, then hurried out of the room.
Steve gently gathered up Howard and pulled him close. He was a mess: skin pale under the scruff of his facial hair, eyes bloodshot with dark circles under them, hair greasy and wild, and his clothes, which he usually kept so neat, were rumpled and dirty. "God, babe," Steve said, pressing a kiss to his forehead. "You're a mess."
Howard stared up at him with a dazed, utterly exhausted expression.
"I know." Steve began to slowly remove Howard's clothes, trying not to jostle him too much. "You stink, babe. I bet a shower sounds really good right now."
"You're not real," Howard said, softly, slurring his words. "I know you're not real."
"What am I then?" Steve ran his fingers through Howard's hair.
"A nightmare." Howard closed his eyes and swallowed convulsively. "You- You'll d-die. You always d-die."
"I'm sorry," he said, because he was. He had left Howard alone to deal with the nightmares and the pain. "But I'll do better. I promise I'll do better." He stripped Howard out of the rest of his clothes, then got rid of his own. "Come on, into the shower."
Steve half-carried Howard to the bathroom, then held him under the hot spray of water in the shower. Howard, for all that he said this was a nightmare waiting to happen, leaned against Steve's chest, face buried in the crook of Steve's neck, and shook like he was falling apart.
Steve didn't rush the shower; massaging shampoo into Howard's hair, rubbing the back of his neck as he heaved and retched, then scrubbed his skin until it was flushed and clean. Steve pressed warm kisses against his ear, and murmured quiet reassurances. Howard never lost the dazed look and every once in awhile his eyes would unfocus and his body would go completely lax, before he'd shake himself back to semi-consciousness.
Steve considered calling Mom, but was afraid she wouldn't help.
He got Howard out of the shower and dried off, then hauled him back to bed. Thankfully, Jarvis was quick; the sheets were clean and the room smelled overwhelmingly of cedar. He plied Howard with water and juice and chicken broth, then curled against him. "Try to sleep," he said.
"Can't." Howard shuddered, his eyes fluttering closed as Steve gently scratched his scalp. "You'll go away."
"Never," he promised. "I'm never going away again.
Steve held Howard tight every time he woke screaming and sobbing from nightmares. "I'm okay, Howard," he said as Howard curled against him. "I'm not dying. I'm right here and I'm *safe.*"
"I'm a m-m-monster," Howard stuttered out the way he had all the other times.
"No, you're not. You're not." Steve rocked him gently and sighed, his eyes gritty.
"It's my fault. It's all my fault. I'm broken, Steve, and I broke you, too. I did. I did, I did, I did."
"No," Steve said, angrily. "We're not broken and we're not monsters. We're not. Now close your eyes and go back to sleep. You're delirious with exhaustion."
Steve woke to the feel of fingers tracing patterns against his back. He held still and kept breathing deep and even. The fingers stilled, Howard's fingers stilled, and Steve felt Howard's lips press against his shoulder.
"I know you're awake," Howard said, his voice hoarse, and rolled away.
He opened his eyes and levered himself up; Howard was staring at him warily. He smiled, and slid over, wrapping his arm around Howard's waist and pressing a kiss to his mouth. Howard didn't kiss back and oh, that wasn't right at all. Steve licked at his lips, nuzzling them, making quiet little, happy sounds, until he relaxed and his lips parted.
Steve deepened the kiss, and God, he didn't care about morning breath or the fact that Howard still smelled a bit like alcohol because he missed this, he missed every moment of this and he would have kept kissing Howard forever.
But Howard had other ideas. He pressed a hand to Steve's chest and pushed him away. "You shouldn't be here."
Steve licked at his bottom lip. "And you shouldn't have lied to me."
Howard's gaze skittered away from Steve's face. "They were just protecting you."
"I don't need to be protected. Especially not from you." Steve put a hand on Howard's chest. "I don’t like being lied to and I can make my own decisions about what's good for me and what isn't."
"Seventeen, Howard! I'm going to be seventeen and we've been doing this for ten months. You shouldn't have lied to me! None of you should have. I'm so pissed at you, all of you!" He took a deep breath. "Also, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have thought the worst of you. I should have known that you'd never leave me, that you would have stayed if you could have. I hope you can forgive me."
Howard stared at him, eyes wide. "Steve," he said. "God, Steve, only you. Only you."
"I love you." Steve touched his face. "I don't care that you're twenty-five years older than I am. And I don’t care that you drink or that you've had a ton of lovers or that you're my best friend's dad. When I'm with you, Howard, I feel like… like I'm flying."
"Steve, I'm not a good man."
"Yes, you are. And even if you aren't, even if I'm deluding myself, I don't care! I don't fucking care, Howard." Steve grabbed a fistful of his hair and jerked his head close so they could kiss. "You are not the villain of this story. You're not the villain of *any* story. And you're not a monster either. So stop it. just stop it. I love what we are together and I love what we do together. Do you love me?"
Howard laughed. "That's not a fair question."
"I know." Steve smiled. "Do you?"
"With all my heart," he said softly.
"Sap." Steve leaned down and kissed him.
"What about your mom?"
"We talked. She understands the situation now." Steve licked at Howard's new growth of facial hair.
"And she still let you come over?" Howard lifted his chin and stroked his hands up Steve's torso.
"I love my mom, Howard. I'll always love my mom, but… you make me happy. You make me whole." Steve licked down Howard's neck and scrapped his teeth against Howard's collarbone. "You should let your beard grow in. It looks nice."
Howard gasped softly as Steve laved a nipple. "Too hot for the summer and it itches."
"In winter then?" Steve moved to the other nipple and bit it gently.
"M-Maybe. S-Stop." Howard pushed him away.
Howard flushed and looked at him apologetically. "I'm gonna need a bit more than twenty-four hours to recover from that bender."
"Oh." Steve let out a huff of annoyance. "Well, I guess you need to make an appearance downstairs anyway. Mr. Jarvis and Tony are really worried about you."
"They are!" He tugged on a lock of Howard's hair. "They are. Go take a shower and brush your teeth. Maybe Mr. Jarvis will make us something to eat. I'm starving."
Howard blanched. "Could you not say that, please?"
"That you're starving." Howard shuddered and ran a hand over his eyes.
"Okay, I can do that." Steve gripped his shoulder and squeezed gently. "So, downstairs? Food?"
"Sounds good." Howard slowly sat up and grimaced slightly. "Fuck, I feel like shit."
"Look like it, too," Steve said cheerfully.
"Thanks." Howard gave Steve a dirty look, then touched his hair. "I love you, too, you know?"
"I know." He rubbed his head against Howard's hand, like a cat. "Shower, now."
"Yes, sir." Howard smiled and saluted.
When the door to the bathroom closed, Steve flopped back on the bed, and gave a shaky sigh of relief.
So many issues undealt with. So, so, so many issues.