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When Darkness Sleeps Beside You

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1.

Three Manhattans, more hoity toity canapés than Steve wants to think about later, and he’s still depressingly sober, painfully hungry and mind numbingly bored. His date is deeply immersed in a conversation with what looks like a bunch of lawyers or equally dull types and Steve does his best not to yawn. The party has been going on for long enough to permit tugging at his black tie and unbuttoning the top of his shirt.

Ditching the polite conversation he isn’t taking part in, Steve takes his drink and saunters over to the window. The view is impressive, New York City small and stretched out below him, even at this hour a hum of activity. He lets his mind wander over lines and shapes, sketching the city in quick, harsh strokes, drawing light and dark contrast to captivate the never sleeping vibe.

Later, he thinks, closing his eyes to burn the image on his lids.

“You’re way too young and pretty to be here voluntarily,” someone murmurs close to his ear and Steve startles, spilling a little of his drink over his thumb.

“Tony Stark,” Steve says, when he turns around and sucks the alcohol off his hand. He looks the part. Genius playboy, like the papers suggest, and billionaire philanthropist. Steve wonders if it’s all true.

“The one and only. So what’s your price? I’ll pay double.”

That’s a yes, then. “That’s not very polite, is it Mr Stark,” Steve says and he feels his damned cheeks burning.

“Tony. And if you’re looking for polite, you’re in the wrong place. If you’re looking to fool me, well.” Tony looks away for a second, toward the skyline view behind them but Steve doesn’t think he really sees it. “You wouldn’t be the first. Anyway, I’m not wrong this time, am I? What’ll it be? I’m busy and important.”

Steve lets out a laugh and glances at Esther, who is nursing her fourth, if not fifth martini. She’s not going to expect anything but a lift home from him tonight. He turns his gaze on Tony again, taking in the grin that borders a leer, the amber liquid in a crystal glass and finds that he’s already drawing that jawline, etching the shadow of his goatee. The man is handsome, Steve’ll give him that, but he’s definitely tipsy if not drunk. Still, Steve’s not going to pass up the opportunity to make a quick buck.

“Depends on what you’re after,” he says, leaning in a little. The way Stark has to look up at him is strangely satisfying. “Got a place we could go to?”

Stark smirks, tips his glass and drains it. “My room’s an elevator ride away.”

Steve dips his head and smiles, thinks of course, as he watches him walk off, Stark Tower.

Ten feet away Stark presses an elevator button and quirks his eyebrow in a, well?

Steve takes a breath and drains his own glass, leaving it on a table without looking who’s occupying it, and goes.

“Drink?” Tony asks, as soon as the lift doors slide open silently. He’s already halfway across the room when Steve says,

“Sure”. He won’t drink it, but it might stop him from gaping around like an idiot. The place is spectacular. One wall is complete glass, the carpet so lush he can feel it through his shoes. There’s an organized mess of technology he can’t begin to understand and he’s about to pick up an odd disk that reads ‘Proof Tony Stark has a Heart’ when Tony appears in his field of vision.

“What do I call you, gorgeous,” Tony says before waving a casual hand, inviting Steve into the living room. He’s looking at him as if he’s expecting something along the lines of, “What would you like it to be”. So Steve thinks he surprises them both when he says,

“Steve, Steve Rogers.”

Tony’s eyebrows rise a little but he smiles and sits down on a large leather couch, arms stretched over the back, legs crossed at the ankle. Is he posing, Steve wonders, or is Tony Stark really that confident.

“Well, Steve ––” Tony says, amusement dancing in his dark eyes. Steve would use his black micron pen to capture the night in those pupils. “–– do you top or bottom?”

“I,” Steve feels the blush rising to his cheeks, making Tony smile wider. He can’t help it, with his pale complexion. If he tries to suppress it, he’ll only blush harder. “Either way,” he says, glad for the scotch in his hand, taking a drink after all.

“Hmm,” Tony says, stretching deeper into his seat. “The decision’s mine then. Let me look at you, Steve. Strip.”

Steve swallows, his hand tightening slightly around the crystal before setting his glass down on the coffee table. He pulls his tie further out of its knot while stepping out of his shoes. Tony says nothing, just eyes him up and down, completely at ease and Steve wonders if he’d misjudged, if Tony’s even drunk at all. He lets the tie slip to the ground and begins to unbutton his shirt. He’s not self-conscious, has no reason to be, but he can’t quite make a show out of it either.

Tony doesn’t seem to mind, says, “C’mere,” when Steve’s shirt whispers to the ground, spreading his knees and holding out his hands. Steve steps between his legs and Tony slowly pulls his belt from between its loops, unbuttons his fly and drags down the zip. Steve can’t help a small sound when Tony palms his dick through his boxers, because Esther’s lovely, but no woman has ever done it for him quite like men do and it’s been a while.

“That’s right,” Tony says, moving his hand up, letting it rise and fall over Steve’s muscles. “That’s right darling, you’re beautiful.”

“You should’ve seen me when I was kid, I was scrawny,” Steve says, carding his fingers through Tony’s hair. He stills, shoulders going rigid, because what the fuck? Why on earth did he say that?

Tony only gives a surprised little laugh. “Were you now,” he says and tugs down Steve’s pants. “Oh yes,” he goes on, running his thumbs over the V of Steve’s groin. “I knew you’d be gorgeous everywhere. Yes,” his eyes grow hooded, “I think I’d like you to fuck me.”

“Really?” Steve asks, surprised. He steps out of his pants, pulls off his socks because naked with socks doesn’t look good on anyone.

“Yeah,” Tony murmurs against his stomach, hands moving over his arms and Steve drops to his knees. “Just go easy, it’s been a while.”

Same here, Steve wants to say but he bites his tongue just in time. Instead he sets to slipping Tony’s jacket off his shoulders, pulling the bow tie loose. And of course it’s a real one.

“Do you tie these yourself?” he wonders out loud, wrapping the ends around his palms and pulling Tony closer, “or do you have a butler.”

“My butler is an artificial intelligence, so yes I tie them myself. Are you going to kiss me?”

“Any objections?” Steve asks, pulling a little harder, brushing his mouth along Tony’s jaw.

“None what so ever, I just thought that was against the rules.”

“To hell with the rules,” Steve says, feeling a little giddy.

“My kind of guy,” Tony murmurs, and then his hand is tangling in Steve’s hair holding him in place.

It’s instantly fast and deep and demanding. Steve stops playing around, undoes Tony’s shirt with practiced ease while he loses himself in the kiss, eyes closed. He lets his hands trail along Tony’s sides while Tony hums appreciative noises in his mouth. Then he parts the shirt, and something blue lights up behind his eyelids.

“What’s that?” Steve asks, already touching the lit up disk before he fully has his eyes open. Tony’s chest is dusted with faded scars. Whitened lines he’d smudge with charcoal. Tony takes his hand and stills it, but doesn’t push him away.

“Let’s call it a fancy pacemaker. Bothers you?”

“Not at all. You sure it’s fancy? I thought those things were supposed to be invisible.”

“Smartass.”

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

Tony opens his mouth to respond but Steve’s faster, has Tony’s bottom lip between his teeth and all that follows is a soft, oh. He sets to work again, fumbles with the cufflinks of Tony’s shirt for a moment before he can tug it off.

“Tell me what you want,” he says, moving his mouth across Tony’s jaw, below his ear –– and that brings a sigh, Steve’ll remember that later –– kisses along the taut muscle atop Tony’s shoulder and then bites, gently.

“JARVIS,” Tony says, his voice already rough, “lights thirty percent.”

Immediately the room is dimmed and the blue light casts fascinating shadows across Tony’s skin. Steve sits back on his heels and looks, memorizes patterns and shades, contours and lines he’ll recreate later. He can already see how Tony’s shoulders will take shape beneath his pencil, how he’ll use blue chalk on black paper to replicate the disk’s glow.

Tony leans back, his smile knowing. Admire me, his eyes seem to say, no sign of unease. Steve unties his shoes, rolls down his socks, and takes his merry time kissing Tony’s chest, drawing a shiver from him when his lips brush the device in his chest.

“It doesn’t put you off?” he hears Tony ask, with the first tremor of doubt he’s noticed since they met. Steve looks up, carefully places his palm against the disk and shakes his head. It’s neither hot nor cold, just the same as Tony’s skin.

“Not at all,” he says. “It’s... unique. It’s you. I kind of like it. You never have to sleep in the dark.” And jesus, he needs to stop talking. Where is all this honesty coming from?

“That’s one way to look at it,” Tony says, and he sits up again, takes Steve’s face between his hands and kisses him once, twice, before edging Steve’s bottom lip between his teeth, sucking gently. Steve lets him explore a while, learns what Tony likes, that the first kiss was maybe a bit of bravado and that this soft searching is more his thing. He starts to unbuckle Tony’s belt, then eases him out of the rest of his clothes. Tony’s hands move from his hair to his shoulders, down his chest and tickle his ribs.

“Can I go down on you?” Steve asks with his mouth pressed against the dip between Tony’s clavicles.

“Has anyone actually ever said no to that?” Tony asks when Steve shifts to look at him, and there’s that smirk again, but it’s softened by the warmth in his eyes. “Or I’m clean, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Okay,” Steve says, pressing his palm against Tony’s half erect cock, feeling it swell beneath his fingers. “Don’t come in my mouth.”

“Blow my mind, precious,” Tony says, his voice low as he sinks deeper into the sofa, spreading his knees wider.

“Amongst other things,” Steve answers, smiling as he searches his pants for a packet of lube and a condom, leaving them within reach. He licks his lips, places his hands on Tony’s hips and then slides his mouth over his cock. Tony lets out a soft sigh, urges gently deeper and Steve takes it, sucking on the way back up. He feels Tony thickening further, curls a thumb and middle finger around the base to keep all that blood trapped and lets his lips slide up and down the head, teasing.

Fuck,” Tony whispers, his hands moving to Steve’s hair, wiping it from his forehead and then touching the corners of his stretched mouth. Steve tastes a drop of precome and pumps his hand up and down a few times as he pushes his tongue against the sensitive ridge. Then he pulls off, draws patterns with his tongue over Tony’s balls as he reaches for the lube and sits back on his knees.

“You’re too good,” Tony says, sounding a little out of breath. “People who look like boy scouts shouldn’t be allowed to suck dick like that.”

“Boy scouts?” Steve says, “Really?” He rips open the packet so Tony can see what he’s doing and raises an eyebrow in question.

“Go for it,” Tony says. A faint flush dyes his chest, which rises and falls with irregular depth. Steve takes a moment to trail it with his fingers, before he slicks them and slides Tony back into his mouth. He takes his time, circling Tony’s rim before slipping a finger inside, waiting for the tension to give and then presses in knuckle deep. When Tony relaxes again, he starts to move his finger in and out, all the while sliding his lips up and down Tony’s cock, only applying the gentlest pressure with his tongue. When Tony’s breathing deepens instead of being held, Steve slips in another slick finger, waits a moment, sucking hard to distract Tony from the burn he knows is there and then begins to scissor his fingers ever so slightly.

Tony moves a hand beneath Steve’s chin and thumbs his bottom lip. “Ease up there soldier, if you don’t want me to come in your mouth.”

Steve pulls off, stills his fingers for a moment and waits for Tony’s eyes to open. Then he asks, “Ready for another one?” and Tony nods, bites his lip while he arches off the sofa as Steve presses in three fingers. “Too much?” he asks, holding still but Tony’s pressing down, breathing in short, hard bursts.

“No, it’s good, it’s good, it’s all good,” he says, the words almost tumbling over one another. “Almost ready for you. Just get on with it before I start expressing my feelings in equations. Trust me, it happened before, oh god. Oh god. Are you going to make it good? Will you be good to me, Steve?”

Steve realizes he’s babbling, distracting himself until the ache becomes a need and Steve whispers, “So good Tony. It’ll be so good, you’ll see. I can be gentle if you want. Or I can fuck you so hard you’ll feel it for days.”

“Yeah,” Tony sighs, “that sounds, oh god, right there that’s, that’s it, oh fuck. C’mere I wanna kiss you again.”

Steve carefully keeps his hand still, while leaning the other by Tony’s hip as he reaches over and allows Tony to drag his fingers through his hair again. He chases his lips over Steve’s mouth, then angles his head to make the kiss a perfect fit. It’s languid and soft and Steve lazily moves his fingers inside Tony, is rewarded with quiet groans in his mouth whenever his fingers brush sensitive nerve endings.

“We’re making a mess of your couch,” he says as lube drips down his wrist. Their foreheads are pressed together and Steve feels Tony’s knee tremble slightly against his leg.

“Cleaning crew,” Tony says. “I think I’m ––” He stops and bites his lip while his eyes flutter closed when Steve curls his fingertips. “–– yeah, I’m ready. Come on.” Steve stills his hand and gently pulls back. Tony’s fingers tighten momentarily around his shoulders. “Do you need a hand?” he asks and Steve looks down. He’s rock hard and hadn’t even noticed. “Apparently not,” Tony says.

“No need to be so smug,” Steve says but he’s grinning and Tony grins back. Steve sits on his heels and picks up the condom.

“Here, let me,” Tony says, dropping down off the couch, his knees spread against Steve’s. “I haven’t even touched you yet, which is a sin I’m pretty sure.”

Steve huffs a laugh but hands over the condom, moans a soft ah when Tony wraps his fingers around his dick, while tearing the packet open with his teeth.

“Shit, you’re like a sculpture,” Tony says around the packet still wedged between his teeth as he moves his hand up and down a few times, fist tight and Steve lets his head fall back. Tony moves in, presses wet kisses along the muscle of his neck and then Steve feels the cool touch of the condom sliding down. He empties the rest of the lube in his palm and slicks himself, whispers,

“Bend over the footrest, Tony. It’ll be easier on you.” Steve pats the large leather footstool beside them and Tony grabs him by the back of the neck one more time and kisses him, wet and hard, blending anticipation with need, before kneeling in front of the footrest. Steve presses a hand to his back, pale fingers emphasizing the golden skin tone, and gently pushes him down. He leans in, trails kisses along Tony’s shoulder blade, whispers, “Ready?”

Tony nods against the leather, stretches his arms out so he can grip the edge of the seat and says, “Go.” Steve moves between his legs, spreads them wide with his knees, and then guides himself against Tony’s hole. He tilts his hips, enough to just slip the tip inside and waits for Tony’s fingers to stop scrabbling against the leather.

“You feel fantastic, Tony,” he says, voice tight. He runs his hands all over Tony’s skin, chasing the shivers. “Push back against me, come on. Take it as slow as you like, we got time.”

Tony just breathes for a few seconds and then pushes himself up on his elbows. Steve braces his hands on Tony’s hips when he starts to press down, counting to ten to stop himself from shoving forward. “Good god,” he hisses, when Tony groans and gains another inch. “You feel amazing, you’re so amazing.”

“Jesus fuck, shut up Steve,” Tony manages to say, between clenched teeth from the sound of it, “I’m trying not to come here, and oh ––” Steve’s fingers dig hard into Tony’s hips as he sinks down completely, “–– your voice is driving me crazy. Don’t move. Don’t you dare move. Fuck, you’re big.”

“Say when,” Steve says. He knows he sounds completely wrecked but he doesn’t care. Sweat starts pooling between the ridges of his abs, his breathing is scattered and shallow, and his whole body trembles with the need to pull out and push back in. He doesn’t. Instead he carefully uses his weight to lean into Tony and kiss between his shoulder blades. “Ease down, sweetheart,” he whispers. Tony’s head hangs between his shoulders and his arms are stretched taut. At Steve’s words he bends his elbows and lays his forehead on his arms. The move makes him clench down on Steve, who feels his balls contract.

“Fuck,” he says, lips pressed against Tony’s skin. “I can’t believe how good this feels. I could do this all night. Just hold you here and kiss your spine.” He rocks gently, not even pulling out really, just using his weight to create a momentum, and Tony follows him, letting out breaths that are no more than little sighs. “You’re so beautiful,” he says. “When I go home later, I will draw you. Just like this. I wish I could see your face. I want to know what you look like when you come.”

“When, when,” Tony whines, “move, Steve, now.” Steve draws out then, nearly all the way, and pushes slowly back in.

Ohhhh,” Tony goes and Steve can see the tendons in his calves flex. “Again. Do that again Steve, shit you feel brilliant.”

Steve does it again, twice. “I’m going to sketch the lines of your body,” he says, and beneath him Tony trembles, “and every stroke will be a reminder of how you feel around me.”

“Steve,” Tony says, but Steve doesn’t wait for the rest, wraps one arm around Tony’s chest and begins to move. Long and deep, he listens for every hitch in Tony’s breathing, and when he finds the angle he’s looking for, he picks up the pace. A litany of muffled curses and endearments wrapped around Steve’s name falls from Tony’s mouth and at one point Steve thinks he hears him mumble something about staying but he pretends he doesn’t hear it. Just holds Tony tighter, kisses promises he can’t keep into his skin.

They move together in silence for minutes at a time, and it’s too intimate, it’s not at all what a quick fuck should be, but neither of them seems to be able to do something about it. They just combine like paint on a canvas.

“Can you come like this?” Steve asks, breath ragged and hard. “Without me touching you?”

“If you can, oh, if you can speed up, I think so, oh god, like that yes, fuck. Steve.” Tony grapples for Steve’s hand, their fingers tangling together. Steve presses his forehead against Tony’s back, puts all his strength into increasing the momentum, hangs on to Tony’s hand as if that’s the only thing grounding him. “Yes,” Tony keeps repeating, over and over, the breath being knocked out of him with every thrust. Yes bleeds into Steve and becomes a long, drawn out now on a moan and then Tony is clenching down on Steve. Hard, rhythmic pulses that require every last bit of Steve to keep going, to keep pushing Tony through the aftershocks until he goes limp. Then Steve pulls out, yanks off the condom too hard but he doesn’t care, jerks himself off brutal and fast. His vision goes white as he comes in thick white ropes on Tony’s back. He slumps forward, ignoring the stickiness between them and relishing the languid heat.

“Oh my god,” Tony says quietly. Steve straightens, sits back on his heels, taking Tony with him in his lap. Tony’s hand comes up, tangles in Steve’s hair so he can tilt his head, brushing soft kisses against his mouth. Steve runs a hand over Tony’s chest until it rests on his stomach and Steve can feel him breathe. Tony tastes of alcohol and blueberries, oddly enough, his mouth soft and swollen where he’d bitten around the moans. It’s cherished and dear, something Steve could find himself wanting and that’s––

He pulls away with a jerk, wincing at the cooled fluid on his belly. Without looking at Tony, he reaches for the kleenex on the coffee table and wipes himself clean.

“Steve?” Tony asks and Steve hates how soft his voice sounds, as if this wasn’t ––

“I have to get back to the party,” he says and he can’t look. He can’t. If he looks at Tony now and finds anything but the veneer he’d seen so many times in magazines, he’d be lost.

“Ah yes,” Tony says, and there it is. All softness gone. “Back to your date. Who’re you with anyway?”

“Esther ––” Steve says, and stops himself. But it’s too late. He knows it by the brief silence, because clearly they aren’t lying when they call Tony Stark a genius.

“Esther Randolphe?” Tony asks and Steve looks at him then. Tony is already on his way to being fully dressed. Steve pulls on his underwear and pants in one go. “She’s not the type to bring an escort anywhere.” He pauses, eyes narrowing. “You’re not are you? You’re her boytoy.”

“What difference does that make,” Steve snaps, and this is good, anger is good, better than whatever else he felt while he was curled around ––

“Does she know you take commissions on the side, or am I special?”

Steve grits his teeth, buttons up his shirt and gives up his tie for lost. He should check himself out in the mirror before he goes back down but he can only think about getting out of there, about leaving this place and not looking back.

“So you fuck her on schedule and you get what in return, exactly?”

Steve punches the elevator button because he can’t see stairs anywhere. He’s not hearing hurt in Tony’s voice. He’s not. “She pays for my art school,” he says as the doors slide open. Steve doesn’t want to think about the emotions that wage war on Tony’s face before they close between them, but he feels all wrong, like a painting ruined by one erroneous line.

 

2.

By Wednesday morning any and all of Steve’s resistance has worn away under a constant trickle of curiosity and self-torment. He installs himself with his back against the bedroom door, feet planted on the art supply boxes at the end of the bed. Steve opens his laptop, flexes his fingers over the keyboard and then quickly types Tony Stark in the google window.

He blinks at the ten million results that take zero point twenty two seconds to pop up and clicks on the first link. It’s Stark Industries, and while Steve takes a few minutes to check out the bio, and to read the short paragraph on Howard Stark, it’s not really what he’s looking for.

There is a cover on Rolling Stone that makes him smile despite himself. Another one for Vanity Fair that makes his palms moist. After that there is gossip blog after trashy magazine after fairly respectable magazine article that tells him, sometimes in great detail if the other half –– or two thirds –– of the encounter had been willing to share, all about Tony’s hook-ups. Men, women, men and women, two people he’s not exactly sure about what gender they are and then that one year where he had worked his way from January to December on the Maxim calendar. The male and female edition.

See, the thought comes, it’s what Tony Stark does. I meant nothing.

Steve had thought this would make him feel better. But it doesn’t. The jittery nerves have turned into a sort of grey of emotions blending all wrong. He remembers the sex, sure, but it’s the soft illumination of the machine in Tony’s chest that haunts him. The way he had looked in that light right before Steve kissed him. The way they had fit together like two pieces of an incomplete puzzle. He wants it to mean nothing, but now that he knows it doesn’t, all he feels is blue.

He keeps clicking on the articles and they keep getting worse and worse. He stops himself from hitting what claims to be a sex tape and shuts his laptop down. It’s ten am, he needs to be at Esther’s at twelve, which gives him an hour to paint. The panel for the exhibition in two weeks is still bothering him, not coming together. There is something missing and he can’t put his finger on it. Instead of pulling himself together –– he needs to sort it out because his end of year grades depend on it –– he settles a new piece of rose grey charcoal paper on his easel and loses himself.

“Steve,” Esther says two hours later, cupping his cheek and reaching up to kiss him softly on the mouth. “Come in.” She takes him by the hand and leads him into the loft, all warm colors and dark wooden floors. As always he takes a moment to dream over the view of Central Park and she lets him.

“Drink?” she asks.

“Sure.”

She brings him a glass of water and slips a hand around his waist. “I don’t have much time this afternoon. I have a meeting later, so how about we move this to the bed?”

“Esther, I need ––” Steve begins, gently resisting the pull on his hand.

“Later honey,” she tells him. There is a shade of sadness in her eyes, and Steve lets her lead him away.

The loft has no bedroom to speak of, just a partitioned corner with a large iron canopy bed draped in white linens. Skipping any introductions, Esther slips off her robe, pushes Steve back onto the bed and for an hour, he forgets about the world, gives her what she wants.

“Now,” she tells him, after, “what did you want to talk about, I need to leave soon.”

“I ––” Steve begins, and for all his rehearsals the words fail him. Esther puts her hand over his heart and he feels it pound against it.

“You want to put an end to our arrangement,” she says and Steve blinks at her, startled.

“I, yes. Yes, I do,” he says hoarsely. “How, how did you guess?”

“I tried paying for your fall tuition today and it was rejected. They told me it was taken care of.” She sounds sharp, eyes cold, and Steve winces. He’s never had her prosecutor side turned on him before and he suddenly understands why she makes the big bucks. Then her words sink in.

“What?” is all he manages and Esther frowns. He pushes himself up on one elbow.

“You didn’t know?”

“No, I had no idea. Are you sure? It must be some kind of mistake, I’ll call and––”

“Steve,” she interrupts, straight to the point. “If you aren’t moving on to another arrangement, then why are you ending ours? I thought things were going well.”

“They were. They are, I just. God, Esther I’m so sorry. I,” Steve looks down, swallowing hard and then swings his legs over the edge of the bed, his back to Esther. “I cheated on you.”

There is a short silence, and then Esther laughs. “Steve,” she said, “we were never exclusive.”

“Have you been seeing other people?” he asks her, glancing over his shoulder.

“Well, no,” she says, “I don’t have time. That’s why I had you.” She scoots over and wraps an arm across his chest, kissing his shoulder blades. “But I never expected you to avoid dating. What we had wasn’t the kind of thing that required fidelity, Steve.”

He doesn’t miss the past tense in those words and feels a little more miserable. “Well, I never––” he says, the tips of his ears burning. “Until last weekend, at, at the party. And I feel terrible, and I can’t go on.”

“God,” she says. “You are too good for this world, Steve. At least it explains where you disappeared to. Who was it?”

Steve bites his lip, closes his eyes, weighs his options. “Tony Stark.”

“Goodness. No wonder you couldn’t say no. That man is sex on legs.”

“Esther!” Steve says, shocked.

“What? It’s the truth. Well, at least you have to look no further for your benefactor.”

“What do you mean?” Steve asks, shifting so he can look at her. The sheet has slipped to Esther’s waist, and despite being fifteen years older than him, she’s absolutely gorgeous. He feels his face flush when he sees the bitemark he has left just above her left nipple.

“He’s the one who paid your tuition, clearly.”

“I––” he begins, but has no idea how to finish. Surely that can’t be it. Instead he asks her, “If you knew I was going to end this, why did you still let me ––”

“Steve,” Esther says, narrowing her eyes at him. “Let me make one thing very clear. I never let you anything. I took what I wanted from you and I hope you received something you liked in return. And I’m not talking about the money. Don’t––”

“Of course I di––” he starts but Esther holds up a red-nailed finger.

“Don’t,” she interrupts him, “ever believe for one second that you took advantage of me. I am not the type of person to allow that to happen. I saw you at the IHOP and knew you’d look much better between my sheets than in that horrid get-up. So if this is you feeling guilty, don’t. It’s insulting on so many levels, I can’t even begin to explain.”

“Okay,” Steve says. “Okay. I just, I want you to know that I genuinely like you, Esther. If I didn’t, I could probably put this all behind me and carry on as we were. But I can’t.”

“You’re in love,” she says, wonder in her eyes and voice.

“What? No! I, what?”

“Ah, honey.” Esther pats him gently on the cheek, shakes her head and stands. “I’m going to have a shower. I’d like you to be gone when I come out. No offense, Steve, I’m okay with this, I really am. But it still stings.”

“I understand,” he says and gently lifts her hand to his lips. For a moment she looks at him fondly and then she’s gone.

He feels sad on his way home. But relieved in a way, too. He thinks about his time with Esther, about how, maybe, he should return the things she’d given him. The laptop for instance, and the two suits. But this isn’t some teenage break-up and Steve knows she’d be angry if he showed up to give back a box of her stuff. He’ll miss her, and maybe someday he’ll call her and they can have coffee and become friends. But not yet.

No one is there when he returns home. Thor working at the flower shop and Natasha doing whatever it is she does, no one knows. Steve goes to his room and falls asleep and doesn’t wake up until his alarm goes off the next morning.

 

3.

Steve has spent the entire afternoon and most of the evening in the studio, working on his art project, and he heaves a deep sigh when he opens their front door. Any chance to go hide in his room is ruined when Steve hears the television blaring loudly from the living room. He drops his bag with supplies and leans the picture he’d been working on face first against the wall.

“Hey,” he says, sticking his head inside the door.

“Steven!” Thor calls, pausing the movie. Point Break. Again. “I’ve not seen you in so long, have you been visiting your lady friend?”

Steve shakes his head, smiling ruefully into the unavoidable bear hug. “Been working on my school project,” he says. They flop down on the couch, Thor staring at him as if it’s a real pleasure to see Steve. It’s why he likes him so much; whenever anyone talks to Thor, they have his undivided attention. The problem with that is ––

“Is something bothering you, Steven?” Thor asks and Steve manages not to wince, plucks at a rim of red paint underneath his nail. He considers lying but knows Thor will see right through it, even if he’ll be too polite to call him out.

“You know of my arrangement with Esther?”

“You provide company for the lady and she helps you pay for school.” Steve ducks his head and smiles. There is absolutely no judgement in Thor’s voice.

“That’s right. I, uh, I ended it.”

“Why’s that?” Thor asks, shifting in his seat and nearly causing the couch to topple over. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“I slept with someone else,” Steve says, quiet. Guilty, still. “And I couldn’t continue even though she said we weren’t exclusive. It felt too much like I was using her.”

“That’s because you are a good man, Steven. You did the right thing,” Thor says softly, his hand coming to rest on Steve’s shoulder. “You always do. And an arrangement like that was never meant to last, you know that too.”

“But I do like her.”

“Of course you do, or you’d never have been able to go through with it. This other person. Did it mean something?”

Steve closes his eyes, thinks of Tony’s hand in his hair, reaching back for a kiss after what hadn’t been a meaningless screw at all. “No,” he whispers. “Not at all.”

Thor says nothing, eyes too knowing.

Steve sighs. He’s learned nothing new, but he’s glad at least, someone still has faith in him. “Thanks Thor.”

“No problem, my friend. Oh, a package arrived for you earlier. I believe Natasha has it.”

“Really? Where is––” Steve jerks in his seat at the sight of Natasha sitting on the opposite sofa. He should know better than to be startled by her ninja skills after living together for two years, but she still manages to sneak up on both of them.

“Here,” she says, tossing a small brown box at him. He carefully opens it and a small cell phone drops out.

“No way, that’s the new Stark phone,” Natasha says behind him and Steve closes his eyes, suppressing a sigh. “It’s not supposed to be out for another two months, who did you screw to get ––”

He hears her intake of breath and damn it, why is he surrounded by people of exceptional talent everywhere.

“You didn’t,” she breathes, and it’s possibly the most emotion he’s ever heard from her. “Steve Rogers, tell me you did not.”

“Did not what?” Thor asks beside him, peering curiously at the mobile.

“Nothing,” he mumbles, turning on the phone.

“It’s fully charged,” Natasha says, and he can hear the frown in her voice. “That’s odd.”

“Is it?” Steve asks, just as there is a small musical tingle. A little white envelope appears, with Tony written beneath it.

“I knew it,” Natasha hisses.

“Knew what?” Thor asks, as Steve excuses himself and retreats to the kitchen. He stares at the small silver phone until the screen goes dark, then presses the green button.

 

Who doesn’t own a phone in this day and age.

That’s just ridiculous.

Call me. TS

.

 

Steve sits in the dark for a long time, begins a reply that he erases three times. The fourth time he writes,

 

What do you want. SR.

 

and sends it before he can change his mind. He twists back and forth on his barstool, palms turning sweatier by the second, and just decides to get up and go to his room when the phone lights up again.

To see you again.

 

Steve looks up at the ceiling with a sigh, then closes his eyes. Thinks of the drawing hidden beneath his bed, nothing more than an outline for now, black lines barely forming a shape, but every time he looks at it, his cheeks flare.

I can’t.

 

He presses his lips together and leaves the kitchen. If the others hear him go upstairs with his things, they don’t call him back down. He takes his time unpacking his art supplies, looks at his project, mentally taking note of the changes he’ll make tomorrow. It’s a work in acrylic, the image of a man down on one knee, one fist planted on the ground as if he just landed, a red and gold iron suit superimposed on him. Behind him the world explodes and everything in the iron man’s eyes speaks of avenging the loss.

By the time he looks back at the phone, there are two messages there.

 

Yes you can.
Tomorrow.
A car will come for you at 7.

Be ready.

Steve stares at it until the screen goes dark again. He doesn’t sleep all night.

His job at the library is too quiet and too calm to provide any distraction at all. Three times he picks up the small phone and begins to type a refusal of their meeting but three times he fails to press the send button. By the afternoon he’s jittery with nerves, as if he’s had too much caffeine, and he gives up, pulling the drawing from underneath his bed.

Charcoal clings to his body, a fine layer as difficult to shake off as the memories he’s pouring onto paper. He has to resist running his fingers across the lines, he’s smudged them too much once already and he’s staring, almost waiting for the picture to move, when the doorbell rings.

Shit.

It’s seven o’clock.

Steve hears no footsteps so he knows it’s Natasha’s knock against the door.

“Steve,” she calls from the other side, “there’s a Happy dude at the front door. He says he’s picking you up for your date.”

Steve ignores the thick question in her voice and calls, “Invite him in and give him a beer or something, I’ll be out in ten!” while he’s already pulling his t-shirt over his head, bumping his shin painfully against the bed on his way to the bathroom.

Eight minutes later his shirt collar sits uncomfortably wet against his neck as Steve rushes down the stairs. In the kitchen there’s a big man nursing a glass of water while giving Natasha terrified looks. Steve’d think it was funny if he hadn’t been on the receiving end of those himself.

“I don’t think, um, miss, I mean, um Natasha, that I can get you one of those phones. It’s um ––” He’s staring at her as if he expects her to floor him with a thigh-grip any second.

“Hey, I’m ready to go,” Steve interrupts, taking pity.

“Oh thank god,” Happy mumbles, putting the glass down on the counter. “My name is Happy, I’ll take you to Mr Stark and home again tonight.”

Steve raises an eyebrow but says nothing, just shakes Happy’s hand. “Bye, Natasha,” he says as he leads Happy out.

“Have fun Steve,” she says and he wonders how she manages to make it sound so judgemental.

Once outside, Steve reaches for the front passenger door of a car that looks expensive in its nondescript-ness. Behind him Happy coughs politely, holding the backdoor open. Steve pulls a face. “Do I have to?” he asks.

“No,” Happy says, looking, well, happy. “Not at all.”

Steve grins at him and gets in.

“You’re not like Mr Stark’s usual dates,” Happy says, “if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“Say whatever you like, man,” Steve says, fiddling with the radio. “Do you pick up a lot of dates for Tony?”

Happy is quiet for a minute, slipping easily into traffic. “I used to,” he says. “But not recently, not since...”

“Since?” Steve asks.

“It’s not my place to say, Mr Rogers.”

“Steve.”

“Steve. You’ll have to ask Mr Stark.”

“I might just do that.”

“Since you’re not like his other dates, Steve, and you want me to speak frankly, you won’t mind me saying,” Happy trails off again and Steve shifts in his seat a little, so he can face him.

“What?” he asks.

“Well, the thing is. Your fly’s undone. Sir.”

Steve scrambles for his jeans and spends the rest of the ride attempting to make his blush go down.

When they arrive at a restaurant twenty minutes later, it’s oddly dark. Steve looks up at it from the car. “You sure this is the place, Happy?”

“Positive. Are you going to let me open the car door for you?”

Steve grins over his shoulder. “Not a chance.” He hesitates, then turns back in his seat to look at Happy. “I don’t know how this is going to go,” he says. “Will you be taking me home?”

“I will, Sir.”

“Well, I might be back in five minutes.”

“Steve,” Happy says, putting a hand on his shoulder. “He’s –– Mr Stark, give him a chance. Beneath it all, he’s a good man.”

Steve smiles, doesn’t say, that’s not the problem, I am. He gets out of the car instead, determined to keep his honesty at bay tonight.

The restaurant is so dark, it’s a little creepy. Steve almost turns around and leaves, because they’re in the middle of Manhattan and no restaurant is ever empty, when a waiter appears out of nowhere.

“Mr Rogers?”

“Yes?”

“Mr Stark is waiting for you, Sir. If you’d follow me.”

There is no one else there, but Steve feels underdressed compared to the waiter, and that is never a good sign. He’s lead up a narrow winding staircase, the metal rail cold beneath his hand. Upstairs is a VIP room, empty but for Tony. He’s sitting in a deep leather chair, one leg crossed over the other, brandy or something else expensive-looking swirling around the glass in his hand.

“Here you are, Sir,” the waiter says, stepping aside so Steve can go in. “Can I bring you something to drink?”

“A coke, please,” Steve says.

“Certainly, Sir.”

“A coke?” Tony asks, still completely at ease in his chesterfield. “Really? Still, I’ll take it as a good sign. If you’re having at least something to drink, even if it’s an overcaffeinated, sugarbomb, it means you’re not just here to tell me you don’t want to see me.”

“Overcaffeinated sugarbomb?” Steve says, and he knows he’s rising to the wrong part of the argument, but for now, that’s easier. “And that’s obviously much worse than what you’re having.”

“What? This?” Tony says, eyebrows rising high. “This could be ginger ale. Diet ginger ale. No caffeine.”

Steve snorts. “I doubt that.”

“True, but still, never assume.”

Steve, in the middle of sinking down in a chair on the other side of the fireplace stiffens. “Never assume? Like you didn’t assume at the party?”

“I asked,” Tony says quietly. “And you didn’t deny.”

“You didn’t give me much chance.”

“You didn’t have to follow me upstairs.”

Steve bites the inside of his cheek, looks away.

“Hey,” Tony says and he’s leaning closer, Steve can tell but he fights the temptation to look. “Let’s at least enjoy some good food before we start wallowing, all right?”

“What is this, Tony?” Steve asks him, slowly turning. “What is this thing that you’ve reserved an entire restaurant for in the middle of New York on a Friday night?”

Tony doesn’t answer straight away, waits for the waiter to put Steve’s coke on a small table by his elbow.

“Your food will be brought up momentarily,” he says, and disappears just as quietly.

“I don’t know Steve,” Tony says. “I thought maybe this could be a date.”

“A date? In an empty restaurant?” He breathes in and out deeply and fuck it, he won’t be able to keep his thoughts to himself. “You don’t want to be seen with a whore.” There goes the no-honesty policy.

“I never called you a whore.”

“How did you think I felt, then, when I found out you paid my school tuition for the next two years? I never asked that of you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t insult me, Tony. Who else would it be.”

Tony shakes his head, looks like he’s going to say something, then stops himself. He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose, taking a deep breath. He takes a deep gulp from his glass and sighs. “You’re not a prostitute Steve, and actually I thought you might not want to be seen with me.”

That pulls Steve up short. He looks at Tony, opens his mouth, but he can’t think of anything to say. Sorry might be a good start, but he knows it should be too little too late, and doesn’t even want to start thinking about what it means that it’s not. “I don’t know what you want from me Tony,” is what he says in the end. The wrong thing, he knows, but he can’t see a right way out. “Why are you doing this?”

“Maybe I just want to spend some time with you, get to know you.”

“Why? You met me once. We had sex. I was your whore for the night. It meant nothing.”

“Is that so?” Tony says quietly. He puts his glass down, and leans in, elbows on his knees. “If it meant nothing, you would’ve waited for me to write your check instead of running like the devil was on your heels.”

And shit. Steve hadn’t even considered, hadn’t even thought about the fact that Tony never paid him. “Fuck,” he mumbles, dropping his head in his hands. “What are you doing, Tony? What is this? You have everything you could possibly want, so, what? You go for the impossible? Am I a challenge?”

“You’re certainly being challenging right now,” Tony says, and his face is closing down, his dark eyes becoming hard and cold. “It was obviously my mistake to think I could ask you on a date and we could have a nice time.”

“You never asked, Tony.”

“Yes I did,” Tony says, straightening and looking a little perplexed. “I sent you ––”

“A phone, yes. To which you sent me text messages telling me a car would pick me up at seven. I haven’t gone on many dates Tony, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how it’s done.”

“It’s how I do it,” Tony says, and god, he’s pouting. Steve can’t not laugh at that. The sound makes Tony’s face light up and, ah. Steve’s back where he started. Drawing longing and desire in features he hasn’t been able to get out of his mind.

“I have a sketch,” he blurts out and immediately bites his tongue. Steve closes his eyes and swears inwardly because what is it about Tony that annuls his brain-mouth filter?

“A sketch?” Tony prompts when Steve doesn’t continue.

He takes his glass and drinks, the Coke watered down from the melted ice. How long have they sat there, he wonders, just when the waiter reappears, balancing a tray filled with half a dozen dishes. They watch in silence as he sets the only made up table in the room.

“Can I get you gentlemen anything else?” he asks.

Tony says, “That’ll be all,” and Steve glares at him, adds a pointed,

“Thank you.”

The waiter gives them a small bow and leaves.

Steve’s busy chewing his lip to stop himself from commenting on Tony’s manners, when Tony says, “You were saying about a sketch?” while giving him a knowing look, grinning a little. As if on cue, Steve begins to redden. “There’s that blush, I was wondering when it would come out. I love it.” Tony laughs softly at Steve’s expression and stands, motioning for Steve to take a seat at the table.

There is a bottle of red wine already left to breathe, and the food looks simple but delicious. I should leave, Steve thinks. I should tell him I’m sorry, give him back his phone and walk away. He sits down instead, finds himself, against better judgement, wanting to stay.

Their knees brush far too frequently during dinner and Steve ends up blushing and stumbling over his words as he avoids the subject of the drawing. Tony keeps looking at him though, through his long, thick lashes, and Steve knows he’s guessed. Still, if it’s up to Steve he’ll be kept guessing.

“Come back to mine,” Tony says when they stand at the top of the stairs, blood warmed by wine, good food and something else Steve has to ignore or he’ll go mad. Tony brushes his knuckles against Steve’s jaw and the excruciating need that overwhelms him is frightening.

“This is a bad idea, Tony, I––”

“Come on,” Tony coaxes, takes a step closer, into Steve’s space and Steve can feel the heat coming off his body, can pick up his expensive aftershave mingled with another scent that triggers impressions of his hands on Tony’s skin, of his face buried in the crook of his neck. This is madness.

“I know your track record, Tony,” Steve says, almost desperately. “What’s so special about me?”

“I don’t know,” Tony says, his voice soft and breakable. “I honestly don’t know, I just, you make me feel––” Tony sighs, says, almost inaudible, “––safe. Come home with me.”

“Tony, I –– I can’t,” Steve chokes out.

“Don’t make me beg,” Tony whispers, leaning in to brush his mouth against Steve’s jaw.

“Like you’ve ever begged for anything,” Steve tells him. He’s lashing out, clawing for a way out, frightened of the sudden intensity of this, he knows he is, and regrets it instantly. But not as much as he will be, because it’s like Tony’s been slapped.

Too quiet, he says, “For my life.”

Steve feels his heart stutter, remembers the scars on Tony’s chest. On their way down, his eyes catch on the faint blue light shining through the shirt, now that he knows how to look. “Tony,” he whispers, “I––” but it’s already too late.

Tony has closed himself off carefully, the dark want in his eyes replaced with black ice. He’s turning away from Steve, expression bored, when he says, “Yeah, you’re right, this is a bad idea. I don’t do double dealing. You’d better go. Happy will drop you off anywhere you want. Hell, maybe you want to go see Esther, since she’s the one paying you.” He unstoppers a crystal decanter with scotch or whiskey.

“Tony...”

“Bye Steve.”

“At least take back the phone, I ––”

“That was a gift,” Tony says, voice low, body bent around another invisible blow. “Now get the fuck out.”

 

4.

 

He doesn’t get into the car with Happy, just sends him a sorrowful smile and walks away. New York is as alive as ever at this hour, and Steve wanders for a long time, he’s not sure how long really, until his feet carry him to Battery Park. He stares at a lit up Lady Liberty for a long time, and then hails a cab to take him to Brooklyn and home.

Thor is snoring like a foghorn on the couch and Steve briefly wonders if he’d been waiting up, before dismissing the idea. He probably fell asleep watching disney movies again. Thor has a strange affinity for Captain Jack.

It’s late, but sleep won’t come. It’s hot beneath his covers, and the longer he wrestles with himself, the sweatier he gets. Eventually Steve kicks his legs out of the bed and grabs his laptop.

Tony Stark Injury, he googles, and for the next minute, he doesn’t breathe.

 

Billionaire playboy, industrialist, and ingenious engineer, Anthony ‘Tony’ Edward Stark, has been found after being kidnapped and held in Afghanistan for three months. He has suffered severe injuries and was tortured when he refused to build weapons of mass destruction for a group of terrorists who call themselves the Ten Rings. He managed to survive and escape with the help of professor Ho Yinsen who did not make it out––

 

Steve snaps his laptop shut, gulping air into his protesting lungs. He grabs the jeans he’d discarded on the floor and pulls out the phone. With trembling fingers he manages to type in a text message.

 

I’m sorry.

Tony, I’m so sorry.

I had no idea.

He decides to check one more thing, flips his laptop open again and searches his browser history for the previous articles he’d found on Tony living the playboy life. None of them are dated after his return from Afghanistan. He’ll do better tomorrow. It’s the thought he falls asleep with, phone clutched in his cramping fingers. Even though Tony never replies to his message. I’ll do better tomorrow.

Only Tony never answers the phone and who can blame him, really. Steve leaves every kind of apology on Tony’s voicemail he can think of. Tells him that he doesn’t see Esther anymore, that he meant to tell him in person, so could Tony please pick up. He starts leaving him messages with little tales of his day after a while, as if Tony listens and cares. Steve tries to set it aside, tries to forget and concentrate on his art. The exhibition is in a week, and he still hasn’t finished his painting. Something’s not quite right, but he can’t put his finger on it. “I can’t get it quite right,” he tells Tony’s voicemail late Sunday night. “It’s like something’s missing. Maybe it’s the face. Anyway, goodnight Tony. Sleep well.”

At two pm that Monday, Steve has an appointment with a Virginia Potts. He couldn’t make the rounds of the gallery with the other students because he was working, and had been allowed to make a private appointment. He’s instantly nervous and his hands turn sweaty, when a tall, strict looking woman briskly enters her office.

“Miss Potts,” he says, standing to shake her hand.

“Please call me Pepper. I’m sorry, I just got back from an emergency meeting and I didn’t have a chance to check my diary. What’s your name?”

“Um, I’m Steve Rogers,” he says and her eyes narrow a little but she’s still smiling.

“Are you now,” she says, pursing her lips and Steve has to revise his opinion on Natasha being the scariest woman he’s ever met. “Well, Steve, take a seat and show me your piece.”

Steve swallows hard and sits down in front of her desk. He expects Pepper to take the executive chair on the other side, but she perches on the edge of the table. He opens the protective sleeve and takes out the painting. “I’m still not finished,” he says apologetically, glancing up. Pepper waves a dismissive hand.

“As long as you’re done by Thursday,” she says, already looking over the piece. “This is very good, can I?” she asks, reaching out. Steve nods and Pepper takes it, puts it on an easel by the window and steps back. “What exactly are you unhappy with?”

“The face,” he says. “I’m not quite sure what to do with the face. Everything I’ve tried has turned out pretty bad.”

“Hmm,” she says, sounding distracted. “I’m sure something will come to you. This is very good Steve, I’m impressed. Come, I’ll show you your spot. I’ll have to do some rearranging but well, that can’t be helped.”

Nerves run up and down his spine like small currents when they cross the exhibition room. It’s large and well lit and Steve can’t wait to see all the works displayed here on Friday night. At the same time he feels terrified, even though he can’t quite pinpoint why.

“There will be various important people of the art world here on Friday, who will no doubt have questions about your work. I suggest you prepare something, a little speech maybe, so you’re not overcome by nerves. There will be alcohol here but I advise you not to indulge.” She pinches the bridge of her nose. “It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had … incidents.”

“Of course,” Steve says.

“This will be you.” They stop at a white wall opposite the main entrance and Steve gapes. His work won’t be the first people will see when they walk in, but it will be positioned to be a centerpiece.

When he turns to Pepper, she’s looking at him fondly. “You deserve this space,” she tells him like she can read his mind, gently patting him on the arm. “Bring it by on Thursday evening before nine pm, so we can test the lighting. I’ll be here all day. All right?”

“Yes, I’ll be there. Thank you.”

“Good,” she smiles at him and frowns at her phone. “Now I’m going to have to hurry you along I’m afraid. I have to go deal with a whole other kind of emergency.”

Steve goes back to her office to get his painting, gives his goodbyes and sets off to the studio, determined to work his ass off for the next three days.

His good intentions last until that night, when he comes home paint stained and tired eyed. He doesn’t notice the black car parked on the curb by his house, just climbs the steps to the front door and fiddles with his keys.

“Hey,” someone says behind him, and Steve nearly drops them.

“Tony,” he says, only a heartbeat away from clutching his chest. They don’t live in the worst part of Brooklyn, but it’s not the best either. “What are you doing here?”

“I’ve been waiting for you,” Tony says, slowly. He leans forward a little, folding a hand around Steve’s wrist. “You’ve got yellow paint on your cheek.” Tony reaches out to rub it off, but instead, somehow, his hand ends up on the back of Steve’s neck, and Steve has time to think, oh shit, he’s drunk, before he’s pulled into a kiss.

“Tony,” he breathes, because oh, does this feel too familiar and too good already, “we shouldn’t ––”

“Yes, yes we should,” Tony says, and he’s wrapping his arms around Steve’s waist pushing closer, but it’s clear he’s hardly sober enough to stand.

“What about Happy?” he tries between kisses, because god help him, he can’t resist, can’t stop returning those soft presses against his mouth, can’t stop chasing that flicker of wetness against his tongue.

Tony fishes out his cellphone, presses a button, slurs, “Go home, Happy,” and Steve hears Happy reply, “Are you sure, sir?”

Steve leans closer to the phone Tony is pressing to his ear. “I’ll take care of him Happy,” Steve says, “pick him up in the morning.”

“All right, Steve,” he hears Happy say and then Tony’s shutting off the phone and shoving it back into his pocket.

“Happy’s good to me,” he mumbles against Steve’s neck. “You gonna be good to me too, Steve?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, closing his eyes because he knows Tony means it to sound indecent, but it doesn’t. It sounds small and a little bit scared. Steve runs his hand over Tony’s hair, reassuring. “Yeah, I’ll always be good to you, Tony. Come on.” He fits an arm around Tony’s waist, practically lifting him off the ground. “Let’s get you inside.”

It’s late, and everyone’s in bed, thank goodness. Steve ascends the stairs as quietly as he can, Tony leaning heavily against him. He pushes his way into his room without turning the light on, setting Tony down on the bed, and says, “I’m going to get some water, I’ll be right back okay?”

“Okay,” Tony says and Steve hurries out of the room.

When he returns with two glasses, he nearly drops them on the spot. His light is on, and Tony is standing in front of his easel, eyes wide.

Steve forgot to put the drawing away.

“Shit,” he says, feeling dizzy. There’s cold sweat breaking out all over and he feels suddenly sick as if his blood pressure just plummeted. “Tony, I’m sorry, I should never, you weren’t meant to see––” He swallows, hard, and turns, wants to get away even though this is his bedroom and there is nowhere to go, nowhere to run from this.

“Steve.”

Tony is beside him, there is a hand on his arm and then the glasses are taken from his shaking palms. “Steve,” Tony says again, and Steve looks at him. He doesn’t exactly look sober, but certainly more alert. His eyes are wide still, but at least he’s not looking at Steve as if he’s the scum of the earth.

“I’m sorry,” Steve says again, ducking his head. Tony puts the glasses of water on his desk and then returns, dragging him into the room.

“Don’t be,” Tony says and his voice sounds... odd. “Steve, this is... it’s gorgeous. I’ve never seen anything like it. Is that how you––” Tony breaks off, can’t seem to finish the thought. Steve does it for him.

“How I remember that night? Yes, it is.”

Tony takes a step toward the drawing, reaches out a hand as if to touch but drops it to his side again before he does. His eyes roam the two entwined figures. Their faces are practically unrecognizable as they kneel stomach to back, but the device glowing blue in the chest of the one facing out leaves no doubt about who it is. It’s Tony who kisses Steve over his shoulder, as they kneel naked on a bed, Steve’s one hand pressed to Tony’s groin, the other splayed wide and possessive on his belly. The kiss looks deep and unhurried, their bodies relaxed in obvious post-sex haze. The blue light brings out every muscle pulled taut in the arch of their bodies, the biceps of Tony’s arms defined by the shadow around them.

There is no mistaking this drawing for anything but what it is; a love letter.

“I want to buy this from you,” Tony says and Steve bristles, but only for a moment, understands now that this is how Tony shows appreciation, that it might be the only way he knows how.

“You can’t,” Steve says and Tony turns to him, frowning and still unsteady on his legs.

“Why not.”

“Because I’m giving the drawing to you,” Steve whispers. “Come on. Come to bed.”

“Yes,” Tony says and he starts to grin. Steve rolls his eyes.

“To sleep,” he says. He digs through his drawers and pulls out a t-shirt. “You can sleep in this,” he says before turning off the light.

And he was right, that time in Tony’s penthouse. With him there, the room is never dark.

 

5.

When he stares blearily at his alarm clock and it reads three AM, it takes a minute for Steve to realize why he has woken up. He blinks a few more times and that’s when the light from Tony’s chest filters through to his brain.

Steve turns to watch him, smiling in anticipation, but something’s wrong. Tony’s lying on his back, too stiff. His breathing is erratic and shallow and his eyes are open, but when Steve says, “Tony?” there’s no response. He touches Tony’s arm, and Tony jerks violently but still doesn’t wake up. His breathing becomes labored, his chest working hard for every inhale. Steve doesn’t know what to do, has heard something about not waking sleepwalkers but has no idea if that extends to someone suffering from what seems to be night terrors. So he just begins to talk.

“Tony,” he says softly. “You’re with me, Steve. You’re in my house in Brooklyn, in my bed, and believe it or not, we didn’t have sex. Not for lack of you trying though, I still can’t believe the dirty tricks you get up to, to get what you want.” Steve sighs, sits up against the headboard and rubs his face. “But I didn’t want it to happen like this,” he admits quietly. “That first time you thought I was a ... well. And this time, you were so drunk, and if we’re going to do this again, I want you here with me. Completely. I want the Tony Stark the world doesn’t know. The one who doesn’t know how to say what he means, but shows it instead. I didn’t see it before, because I didn’t know how to look. I want that Tony Stark, the one I can see when your armor glitches.” Steve stops, thinks of something, files it away for later. He glances at Tony, and the perfect round shape shining through the t-shirt Steve gave him. His breathing has calmed a little and his eyes are closed.

“Tony?” he tries, reaching out again but thinking better of it.

Tony moans softly, moves his head from side to side a couple of times and then his eyes open, but this time they’re not as unfocussed as they were before. “Steve?” he says, and Steve resolves to think about that later, to try and work out what it means that this is the first word out of Tony’s mouth.

“I’m here,” he says instead. “Are you all right?”

“What happened?” Tony asks. He’s frowning when he rolls onto his side, looking up at Steve. “What are you doing up there?”

Steve shuffles down again, so they lie facing each other. “I think you had a nightmare,” Steve whispers. “I didn’t know what to do, so I just talked to you.”

“Oh yeah? What did you say?” Tony asks. He’s diverting and Steve knows it.

“I spilled all my secrets,” Steve tells him and smiles.

“Is that so.”

“Yeah.”

They stare at each other and Steve bites his lip, decides to risk it because Tony looks soft around the edges now that the fear is gone. He looks sleepy, and while he’s doing his best to hide it, he looks happy to see Steve. “Did it have to do with this?” Steve asks. Gingerly he reaches for the thing in Tony’s chest, slowly so Tony can stop him if he wants. Tony doesn’t, and even though Steve has touched it before, now that he knows why it’s there, he feels intimidated by it.

But Tony just looks at him, so Steve touches the light where it shines through the shirt and Tony breathes in deeply, like he’s making up his mind.

“Yes,” he says and then nothing, but Steve knows when to keep quiet. Eventually, Tony goes on. “It’s called an arc reactor. Before I was kidnapped, I was hit by a shrapnel bomb. One of my ––” He shuts his eyes and without thinking Steve reaches out and takes his hand. Tony opens his eyes again, face unreadable. “One of my own designs,” he continues a little steadier. “It hit me square in the chest. This,” he taps the arc reactor, “keeps the shrapnel from penetrating my heart. Messy death, or so I’m told.”

“So not just a fancy pacemaker,” Steve says quietly.

“Not quite,” Tony tells him, smiling a little. “I dream about waking up with nothing but a gaping hole in my chest. Sometimes I’m back in that cave. Sometimes they’re drowning me in a barrel again and sometimes I remember flashes of Yinsen operating on me, trying to keep me alive with a car battery.” He laughs, humorlessly. Steve knows Tony doesn’t want sympathy, so he just holds his hand and says nothing.

“I built them a weapon, all right,” Tony goes on. “One I blew up the whole cave with. Yinsen died making sure I got out and I don’t ––” deserve it, Tony doesn’t say, doesn’t need to. “He, he said I am a man who has everything and nothing. I didn’t want to be that man anymore. I vowed never to make a weapon again, and I haven’t.”

“You make cellphones instead,” Steve says, “very good ones too.”

Tony smiles. “Yes, I do and what would you know about the quality. You didn’t even own one before.” The grip on Steve’s hand loosens a little. “I hope I didn’t scare the shit out of you,” Tony says, aiming for light but missing by a mile. “I must have been out of my head drunk to allow you to tuck me into your bed.”

Steve wants to ask if the nightmares occur that often, but Tony derails them again, expertly. “Did I at least grope you?”

“Inappropriately so,” Steve tells him. He wants to wrap his arms around Tony, kiss his eyelids and his mouth, kiss every scar on his body as if it’d make everything better.

“Good. Never let it be told that Tony Stark slept in a bed with a specimen of human perfection and all he did was whine about bad dreams.”

“They’re not just bad dreams, Tony,” Steve tells him but he can see Tony’s done talking, is maybe already regretting saying so much. There will be consequences, Steve knows. A man like Tony Stark doesn’t bare his soul, no matter how small a sliver of it, without trying to plug the revelations with hard words and cold shoulders. As if they are flaws in his character that need to be sealed. So Steve moves, doesn’t give the regret a chance to surface, covers Tony’s mouth with his own before words he’s not ready to hear spill over. He presses kisses to the curves of Tony’s clavicles, murmuring things that are too soon and too honest again, but he can’t help it. He hopes it’ll be dismissed as babble in the heat of the moment. When Tony presses back against him a little, he feels something heal inside, some ache he didn’t know he had. This is like coming home, he wants to say, this is like waking up after being numb, being asleep my whole life. He doesn’t, mouths at the hollows above Tony’s hipbones to keep the words in.

 

When Steve wakes up to dawn pouring over the city and through his curtains, Tony’s gone. But so is the drawing of the two of them. Maybe not all is lost.

 

6.

“Miss Potts? Eh, Pepper?” Steve says into his phone, eyes burning with fatigue and blood buzzing with adrenalin.

“Yes, sorry, I’m listening.”

“I’ve finished the painting,” he says and he feels giddy. There’s red paint staining his jeans and shirt because he hadn’t bothered changing, and judging by the slight pinch on his right jaw, Steve’s sure his face isn’t fairing any better. “I’ve been working on it for twelve hours straight, but it’s done. And I uh, was wondering if you needed to see it before Thursday.”

“I don’t need to see it, but I want to,” Pepper says to him. He hears her hesitate, and then she says, “Hang on.” There is a muffled noise, he hears her say, “Are you going to need––” but then her voice breaks off. Steve waits, hears her come back. “... one of the students, so I will meet him here if you have no objections... all right. Yes, yes off you go but don’t forget about the meeting tomorrow.” Another pause and then clearer; “Steve?”

“Still here.”

“Great. I’m doing some work right now, because clearly my boss is a slave driver,” Steve hears some indistinct shouting in the background, “so if you could meet me here, that would be great.”

“Now?” Steve asks. “But it’s after ten.”

“Well you should have thought about that before you called me,” she says but he can hear the amusement in her voice.

“I’m sorry,” he tells her, contrite.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be here until late, so why don’t you swing by. Do you have a pen? I will give you the address.”

Steve writes it down and finds himself, painting, stained clothing and all, outside the college studio hailing a cab fifteen minutes later. The driver gives him an unreadable look when Steve spells out the address but says nothing and they drive in silence for about half an hour.

“This is it,” the driver says as he pulls to a stop and Steve gapes out of the window.

“Are you sure?” he asks and the driver squints at him in the rearview mirror.

“You gave me this address man, so are you getting out or what.”

“Uh, yeah,” Steve says, pressing money into the guy’s hand. He steps out of the car and presses the doorbell by the gate. It opens without a sound and Steve walks up the drive.

“Mr Rogers,” a disembodied voice says when he reaches the front door, which swings open before he has a chance to knock, “welcome. Please come in, Miss Potts is expecting you.”

“I –– thanks,” Steve says, looking around, wide-eyed.

“Steve,” Pepper says to his right and he sighs in relief.

“Pepper.” He shakes her hand. “What is this place? Who was talking?”

She waves a hand in dismissal and reaches for his painting. She takes it out of its cover and put it on the stairs before taking a few steps back.

“Oh,” she says, pressing her fingertips softly against her lips. Steve looks at her, feeling a little anxious. He hopes it’s not too obvious. He hopes not everyone will be able to tell, to recognize the sharp lines of the goatee, the dark-chocolate eyes that pierce the viewer, the mouth that is set strong and determined. He hopes the red and golden armor that outlines Tony Stark will draw eyes away from his features.

“Is it,” he begins and swallows. “Is it no good?”

“It’s,” Pepper says, kneeling by the painting and hovering her fingers over where Steve signed his name in the bottom right corner, without actually touching the canvas. “I need to show you something,” she says, rising to her feet, looking determined. “Leave this here,” she adds when he reaches for the painting. “It’s safe, there is no one else in.”

“Who lives here?” Steve asks, but Pepper ignores him, presses an elevator button and then ushers him through the opening doors. Steve casts curious and slightly worried glances at her profile as they descend to the basement but her face gives nothing away. When the doors slide open again, it’s to some sort of workshop. There is equipment everywhere. A mixture of delicate looking technology and wires, of welding torches and carpenter tools, laptops and computers scattered around like toys.

“What is ––” Steve says, about to step out of the elevator but a hand on his arm stills him.

“Apart from me and one other, no one has entered this place, Steve. I want you to remember this. It’s his sanctuary. Don’t betray it.”

“Who’s?” he says, but Pepper steps out of the lift and he follows. He looks around and then his eyes fall on the drawing blue-tacked to the wall on his right. “Oh my god,” he breathes, and he feels like someone sucker punched him in the gut.

It’s his drawing. The drawing of him and Tony.

“I don’t understand,” he says dumbly. He can’t stop staring even though there is a blush working its way up his neck, because that is him and Tony, naked, and Pepper is standing right behind him.

“This is Tony’s workshop. This is his mansion, in fact. Not many people know that either. I suspected when I first met you, and then when I saw this, I knew. I didn’t know it was mutual until I saw your painting.”

“Mutual?” Steve asks, bewildered. Behind him Pepper groans.

“Not you too,” she says, then mutters something about oblivious. “He put up your drawing on the wall, Steve. What do you think that means?”

“Well.” He thinks for a moment. “It’s... nice? I guess? Of him? To hang it up. I mean, he didn’t have to––”

“Nice?” Pepper says, her heels sharp against the concrete as she moves to stand in front of him. Her eyebrows have risen so high, they disappear beneath her fringe. “Nice, Steve? Tony has a Monet in storage. He has a Picasso in storage. Very expensive, temperature and light controlled storage, but storage none the less. He has spent a fortune on an art collection he’s never seen, Steve. Just sends me out to buy it for him. But he has your work hanging on his wall.”

“In his basement though,” Steve says, voice small because he needs all his strength to remain standing and not sink to his knees in what must be exhaustion. It’s the only explanation.

“And where, Steve. Steve, look at me.” He does. Pepper regards him for a long, hard and meaningful time. “And where,” she says slowly, “do you think he spends most of his time?”

Steve looks at her, but his eyes keep wandering to chaos around him, and he can imagine Tony working away in here, lost to the world, every so often looking up to see ––

“Then why doesn’t he answer my calls,” he says, which isn’t at all what he meant to say. What he meant to say is, I don’t understand this. I hardly know him, but all I can think about is being there, in case he needs me.

Pepper opens her mouth but the sentiment drifts out silently. “That’s a conversation you should be having with him, Steve,” she says instead. Her eyelids drift closed. “But Tony’s his own worst enemy. And he will do anything in his power to drive you away.”

“Why?” Steve asks.

“Because he’s been hurt every single time he trusts someone. I know what the press makes him look like. And he plays on that. Uses it as an armor to deflect people, and,” she points a red-nailed finger at him, “don’t think I don’t know exactly what you did there, with that painting upstairs. You already know him better than you think, you just have to allow yourself to let go. If he keeps people out before they get under his skin, he can’t get hurt. And I think you do the same, just in a way no one notices. Tony is loud about it. He thinks if he fills the silence with an endless stream of words, no one will actually listen to the meaning between the lines. And then someone comes along who does listen, someone like you, and he has no idea what to do with that. You both feel exposed in each other’s presence because you both have the means to hurt beyond repair. It makes you vulnerable and you’re both scared. But you’re exact opposites and you’d make each other great. If you’d just be willing to give it a chance.” Pepper breathes deeply and blinks, as if she’s as surprised as Steve is at the stream of words that just fell from her mouth.

“I said too much,” she tells him, shaking her head. She moves toward the elevator and pushes the button. Steve wants to say something, but he doesn’t know what.

 

 

7.

There is a lull in the endless stream of people who want to talk to Steve about his ‘Iron Man; the Second Avenger’ painting and Steve suppresses the urge to tug his tie loose. From across the room, Thor gives him a thumbs up. A waiter approaches him with a platter of hors d'oeuvres, Thor looks at him, takes it out of his hands, claps him on the shoulder and begins to eat. The waiter gives Thor a baffled look, glances to his left, to his right, and slinks away. Steve laughs and is about to go looking for a drink when Natasha appears by his side.

“Here,” she says, handing him a glass of champagne.

“Thanks.” Steve takes a grateful gulp, his eyes stinging when the bubbles prickle the roof of his mouth. Natasha glances at the painting behind him, and for a moment she looks like she’s going to say something but then her eyes widen. They flick back to Steve’s face and she gives him the smuggest smile he’s ever seen on her face before disappearing into the crowd. Steve’s about to turn around to see what that was about when he stiffens.

“Pepper,” he hears a familiar voice say behind him. “I will never, ever understand why I don’t just marry you and be done with it.” Steve turns very slowly, to see Tony and Pepper walking toward him, Tony walking backwards while holding two drinks, Pepper giving him a fondly irritated look, if such a thing exists.

“Because next to being your assistant, your secretary, your lifeline, your plus one, your right hand –– actually no, scrap that one, ew –– I also run your company and make sure you eat and sleep. If I was your wife, I’d have to do all those things for free, noooo thank you,” Pepper says. She notices Steve watching them and grins, before arranging her features back into a picture of innocence when Tony’s done drinking from his glass.

“Did I say that out loud? I was talking out loud. I didn’t mean to say that out loud. Maybe I shouldn’t have had that second ––” Pepper lifts an eyebrow, “third––” the eyebrow raises, impossibly, higher, “okay fifth scotch but you know I hate doing charity things and do I have to give a speech? If I have to give a speech, I need to at least know where we are. Is that art? Why is there art everywhere, Pepper if you have dragged me to a museum I will ––”

“For the fifth time tonight, Tony, It’s the art school’s annual expo which you attend every year since you fund it.”

“I do?”

“You do. Now walk around and look interested.” Pepper looks over Tony’s shoulder again and smiles. Steve feels his eyes widen and is frantically shaking his head when she adds, “Here why don’t you start with this one.”

Steve just has time to slink back a little when Tony turns and allows himself to be lead toward Steve’s painting, bottom lip jutting out in a ridiculous pout. “Do I have to?” he whines and Steve laughs. It dies in his throat when Tony steps in front of the Iron Man.

“Oh,” Tony says, eyes narrowing. “This is actually pretty int––, wait. That glow in his chest, is that an arc–– hold on a minute. Is that my face? Who––?” Tony leans closer to read the artist’s plaque beside the painting and he audibly chokes. Tony begins to turn and Steve’s about to run when Pepper’s small but viselike hand closes around his wrist and pulls him forward.

“Uh,” he says when he’s suddenly face to face with Tony, who looks like he’s considering fight or flight himself.

“Steve,” Tony says, very quietly and it’s obvious he’s trying to pull himself together but not quite managing to. Pepper swoops in and grabs the two champagne flutes Tony’s holding on to. “I need those,” he hisses at her but she just glares and then she’s gone, taking the glasses with her. “That’s me,” he says eventually to Steve, eyes still wide.

Steve winces. “Sorry,” he says, again apologizing for his work. “I thought no one would notice.” He looks down at the glass still in his own hands.

“But why,” Tony asks, still so quiet. So unlike him.

“What?”

“Why is that me? I don’t understand, what does it mean?”

Steve thinks hard, biting his bottom lip and comes up blank. So he goes for the truth, the one he’s been telling everyone all night anyway. “It’s part of a series,” he says, eyes on the gold and red armor. “The first in a series in fact. The Avengers Initiative, it’s called. A group of misfit demi-gods and metahumans brought together to save the world. This is Iron Man. Flawed and angry and hurt when he’s just a man. But strong and brave and a little bit reckless once he puts on the suit. The man is the disguise, you see,” Steve says, his voice growing more confident and he notices people around them turning, listening in. In the periphery of the fray he sees a camera flash. “The man is the armor, really. Flamboyant and loud, a veneer to keep anyone from seeing his vulnerabilities. He thinks his life is worth less than anyone elses, so he never hesitates to throw himself into the path of danger if he thinks it’ll save one life. He thinks,” Steve swallows, glances at Tony but he can’t keep his eyes on him so he looks back at the painting. “He thinks the only way to redeem himself from past mistakes is to go through life alone.”

Tony grabs the champagne glass Steve’s still clutching and downs it in one gulp. Steve turns to face him, flushing pink, he knows, but he steels himself and keeps looking at Tony, whose eyes are wide.

“I’ll screw up,” Tony says, whispers almost.

“I won’t let you,” Steve says, gently reaching out and brushing his fingertips over the back of Tony’s hand.

“You’ll hate me and leave.”

“I can’t,” Steve begins. He takes a deep breath and steps a little closer. “I can’t promise forever, no one can, but I can promise that I want. This. You. And that I will do anything to make this work. That I won’t let you drive me away. That I won’t, that I won’t stop until I’ve given it my everything.”

“Esther?” Tony asks, turning his hand to tangle their fingers together. Steve shakes his head.

“Not since that first time.”

Tony hunches forward a little, like he’s been punched, lets out a matching breath and Steve’s frowning, about to ask if he’s all right but then Tony straightens and he’s smiling. Steve feels his own face break into a wide grin, relief washing through him and then he’s pulling Tony close, kissing him for all he’s worth. Tony hums against him and Steve feels shaky when Tony’s hand slips around his waist, inside his tuxedo jacket and fits them close.

When they break apart, Steve presses his forehead to Tony’s temple. Tony laughs a little, their hands holding on tight, trapped between their chests, and says, “That’ll be a headline tomorrow.”

Happy is waiting in the car outside and Steve practically shoves Tony onto the backseat.

“Home,” Tony manages to say before his mouth is covered by Steve’s. “Oh fuck.”

“Right you are, sir,” Happy says, not missing a beat and sliding up the panel separating him from the back of the car. Steve’s on his knees in front of Tony, thanking the stars for Tony’s apparent need to be driven around in limos all the time, and he’s mouthing his way down Tony’s chest when the car door opens again. Steve freezes, his hand pressed to the bulge in Tony’s pants, face hidden against Tony’s chest and no money in the world could make him look up.

“Your schedule for tomorrow,” he hears Pepper say. “I’ve cleared as much as I can. Will that be all Mr Stark?”

“That will be all, Miss Potts,” Tony says and Steve smiles against his stomach at the breathless burr in Tony’s voice.

~fin~