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The Heat and Breeze

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PART ONE

 

 

Tony

Summer, 1936


The heat was stifling, even with the breeze coming off the lake and the daily-cleaned windows pushed wide open, the fans of every room spinning at high. That was how summers on the New York countryside were - merciless and thick, coercing sweat and migraines, making children restless.

Downstairs, the twin cousins were running rampant, bored no doubt, and Anthony felt sorry for them despite their peskiness. It was too hot to do anything but lie around, and eight year olds didn’t tend to enjoy idleness. He promised them he would take them for a swim once the sun was a bit lower in the sky; their skin was far too ginger and fair to go running around in the noon sun.

The elder cousin, a near-fifteen year old girl with the same red hair and freckled skin as the coupled boys, was more bothersome than her brothers, no doubt. Her voice was shrill and carried through the house much louder than the sound of the boys bouncing a ball around or breaking a vase.

Anthony had never been like any of the northern cousins. In fact, neither had his brother and sister, but he couldn’t figure out who was better off. He’d been raised on dinner parties and wine, expensive slacks and summer equestrian lessons, not that he cared much for more than the slacks. Still, he knew how to bear the idleness, the boredom, even on the stillest of summer days.

“Tony,” came a wafting voice from the doorway of his bedroom, the coolest room in the house with its white colored walls and bay windows, double ceiling fans at high speed. Even if he didn’t cherish much of the glamour that being a Stark child granted, laying across the chaise with the cool air baring down on him made him feel like a king, and he was okay with that today.

When Anthony looked over his shoulder, he realized the omnipotent sound of a typewriter had stopped clicking from the bedroom next. At the start of summer, the sound had annoyed the piss from him, but he’d gotten used to it, and now that it was gone, the air seemed mighty loud.

“Yes, doll,” he said invitingly, putting his book down and waving his sister in. Briony. With her alabaster skin and chocolate brown bob haircut.

She sat at the end of the chaise where his feet were kicked up. “I finished my play.”

Tony hummed but asked no questions. He returned to his book, staring at the bookmark mindlessly for longer than he realized, then glanced over his shoulder at the window; a cool breeze came through and distracted him. He was grateful for it. His book, The Great Gatsby, was starting to feel convoluted, and not in the way he liked.

Looking at his sister now, with her starched posture and thin lips - the prim chasteness of a high-born thirteen year - he closed his book and tapped it against his thigh thoughtfully. “Let’s lay out, shall we?”

The country home was almost like a castle, made from stone as opposed to brick, unlike most of the expensive houses that lined the plush fields of upstate New York. The land in the Stark name was surrounded by wildflowers and fields of tame grass and trails marked through the distant brush. Something about living out his summers away from the industrialized mess of the city made Tony think that his father had a heart after all, not just an alcohol-ridden liver.

He lay in the grass now, on his stomach, listening to Briony chat away about something or another while he read. It was a beautiful day, and Tony realized he didn’t very much mind the heat. The fountain was whispering only twenty feet away from them, and the breeze was humbling against his skin. His loose crème colored button down was big enough to hang off of his slender frame like a summer tunic, and his pants of the same color were a loose cotton, allowing enough air to cool his legs.

“Steve asked to read it, and I realized suddenly that it wasn’t complete. It’s only a shade of who I am. Perhaps I need a second draft.”

“Perhaps it only need be read aloud, sweet Briony,” Tony suggested airily, and if it hadn’t been for the short name that slipped from his sister’s tongue, he wouldn’t have heard a word she said.

Tony closed the novel and rolled onto his back, then brought himself up on his elbows to look out over the land. And, as the devil often appears at the mention of his name, Steve Rogers was rolling a wheelbarrow across the land.

God damn it all if he wasn’t looking their way, offering a small smile that wasn’t quite a smile.

Tony sucked in a breath and drew his eyes away, toying his tongue in the sudden bitter taste of his mouth.

 

 

Chapter Text

Steve

Steve didn’t enjoy the heat so much, as his body reacted hardheartedly to temperature; he would feel like a block of ice in the dead of winter, then melt on the first hot day of spring. Still, the heat was better than the cold, he supposed. If only he could lay down and enjoy it for a moment instead of working.

But, he wasn’t one to complain. This was his life, and so, he must live it.

An eight foot tunneled walkway lead to the Stark’s large mahogany front door, and Steve was leaning on one side of it now, catching a bit of shade. With his pocketknife, he dug at the stone wedged into the groove of his boot. It had worried his foot all day, forming a bruise on his heel, and he couldn’t take much more of it.

“Stevie.”

He looked up to see Briony, young and pale in a simple white dress looking down at him from the open door. “I hear you’re up to trouble,” he told her with a smile.

“How could you hear that?”

He hummed. “Jungle drums.”

“I finished my play. I wrote it for Bruce – well, myself – but Bruce happens to be coming down today – did you know? The cousins will be performing it later on, if I can convince them. If they’re any good, I suppose.” She finally paused to take a breath, seeming unsure of herself, but Steve smiled encouragingly. “Will you come?” she asked.

Steve swallowed. “I’m not sure that’s – why don’t you let me read it?”

She hesitated, and her hand toyed with her ear. “I don’t think it’s ready for a reader’s eye.”

“Suit yourself. I’d love a copy once you deem it suitable.” He winked, and she blushed before going quickstepped into the house.

He’d finished most of the day’s work before the sun came up, and so, he leisurely attended to the small work around the skirts of the house, collecting fallen branches from the night’s storm, laying out new mulch for the flowerbeds. He’d seen Briony and Tony lying out in the sun in that time, and when he offered an smile and nod in hello, he got nothing in return. He expected as such.

The workload really wasn’t a bother. It never had been. In the end, he was sort of glad to see his handiwork. The Stark’s country home set rather high on a hill, with a large terrace, stone stairs going every which way, leading down to a massive greenway meant for parties and kite flying.

Three o’ clock came and he found himself sitting down at the top stair of the terrace, looking out at the flowers and the shrubbery, towards his house (it too far off, past the thickets of the property to see, but he looked anyway). Admittedly, he longed for a cigarette, even in his trying to quit. He told himself that he deserved the treat, and rolled one with natural leaves he’d gotten in the village.

His ears pricked up after a while, hearing sure footsteps. He glanced over his shoulder, and there was Tony, coming out of the house with an ironically flowered vase tucked under his arm like a baby. He was dressed in all crème, a good color on him, the breeze flowing through him as if he were meant for flight.

Steve looked up when Tony stopped, standing right at his shoulder. “Could I get one of those?” he asked, and he sounded distracted, if not nervous.

“Yes, of course,” he nodded, swallowing. Before he could say anything more, Tony was taking off down the stairs, floating on the pads of his bare feet. The hems of his pants were cuffed to show his ankles and the dark brown hairs of his legs. Even on a hot day, when most were sweating and hard of breath, Tony Stark could look chilled, angelic even.

Steve stood and followed, jogging to catch up with him at the bottom of the stair, rolling the cigarette more hastily. “Your book. How are you liking it?”

Tony stopped with a huff of breath. “Not very much at all,” he hummed, squinting up at the sun.

Steve’s fingers ticked. His nerves left him feeling prickled, but he managed not to drop the cigarette. “Really? I thought you might like it.”

“Because it is about my sort of people, yeah?”

Steve shook his head at Tony’s presumption, then put the square between his lips. Well aware that Tony was watching this closely, he lit it and handed it over. “Fitzgerald is romantic and eccentric. I thought you might enjoy that.”

“It’s passionate. I’ll give you that.” With a careful look, Tony took a drag of smoke from the rolled paper, shrugged, and bounded off the steps, marching easily towards the fountain. “Bruce is coming down today, did you hear?”

“I heard a rumor,” Steve said, following, taking that bit of information as an invitation to join Tony in wherever he was being sent to task. Steve enjoyed Bruce, the elder Stark brother, the scientist who did a lot of medical work through the northeast region.

“He’s bringing a friend – some Richards man. I hear he’s charming.”

“I’m sure.”

“Probably a scheme of father’s, or Bruce’s, either one. Being the fag son suddenly becomes acceptable once you find someone with the right name to court him, or rather.”

“Well, if he’s charming enough, you’ll be graced by him.” Steve smirked when, as always, the fast-talking Tony was already on to the next subject. Whether it was because he found the conversation unsuitable to have with a servant, uncomfortable to have with a friend, or plain boring, Steve didn’t know.

“The old prick insists on filling all of the nice vases with flowers – as if the fresh scent of gardenia and freesia will convince Bruce that he’s got a good father.” Tony took a quick glance to the right, to be sure that Steve was following. Steve decided on keeping an odd lagging distance, just a foot behind Tony’s shoulder; Steve’s legs were much longer, and he could already be paces ahead if he wanted.

Tony seemed to observe him, quickly but surely. He was still wearing his work clothes: khaki pants, streaked with dirt here and there, and a short-sleeved plaid shirt – blue, both royal and sky – tucked neatly, but buttoned only high enough to be decent. He couldn’t be blamed, working in the heat this way.

“The road to hell,” Steve said, a smirk on his subtle pink lips once Tony tore his eyes away.

“Yes, was paved with chocolate and rose-gold, I’m sure,” he replied quickly. “I… I didn’t know you’d be working here for the summer.”

“Well, where else would I be?”

Gods, the fountain shouldn’t be taking this long to get to. “You didn’t mention it at the end of graduation. Dad said you were thinking of art school.”

“I was, yes.”

“That’s how many more years of schooling?”

“A few, plus time for building a portfolio.”

“I’m sure Dad will be thrilled to tear off a few pages from the checkbook to help you.”

Steve stopped. “I’m going to pay him back. I’ve always said that.”

Tony turned on his heel, took a pouty drag from the cigarette and tossed it aside. “That’s not what I meant at all.”

Perhaps Steve should have known he hadn’t meant any harm, but before he could acknowledge his slip-up, Tony was gone, again, walking steadfast, quickly approaching the ornate stone fountain, the pride of the property. It was vast, the basin only coming up to the waist, but deceptively deep. Stars and moons were carved into the stone, and the centerpiece was the Venus goddess, stretched languidly, reaching out for the skies.

Steve jogged up as Tony sat down on the edge of the basin and removed the flowers from the vase. “Let me do that,” Steve said, grasping at one of the handles.

“I’ve got it.”

“No, really. I should be-“

“I said-!”

And, like that, the vase gave way, snapping so that the handle was now much lighter in Steve’s hand, no longer attached to the gallon body. And now, a large chunk of ceramic was soaring and plopping into the water, other bits and pieces falling to the ground; most of it was still very much in tact, held in Tony’s hand.

They stared at one another, Steve looking unsure, and Tony unreadable. Suddenly, Steve thought of their days growing up together. Or growing up near one another, more so. His mother had been a housekeeper for the Stark’s for years, and once Steve was fourteen, he started to work for them as well, spending his summers at the country home, living in a small cabin on the edge of the property, tending to the property before the sun came up and well after it went down.

That was just close enough to see Tony riding horseback, lazing around in the grass with his elder brother or younger sister or whatever cousins were around to visit this time.

When they started college, both making it at NYU, they were closer, close enough to touch it seemed, and still, there wasn’t much to their relationship except small glances and waves across the quad. They ran into one another in a bookstore once, and Steve suggested a copy of The Good Earth. And since then, he’d made it a pseudo-habit to take a book from the shelf of his dorm room (Howard Stark paid for that, the peculiar man with an offering hand), find Tony when he was alone in the library or at the café or catching sun on the lawn, and hand it to him.

Always a small note tucked into the front page. You won’t like this one, but I’ll hope that you will. –S. Always finding something charming or condescending, a humor they shared. As far as Steve knew, Tony would use those notes as bookmarks.

Finally, when Steve felt himself blink, a breath escaped Tony, followed by a harsh “You idiot.”

And Steve got up to walk away, stifling his laughter, because this surely would be something that Tony would throw a fit about.

“Do you realize that that is the most expensive thing we own?” he called after him, still leaning over the edge of the fountain, trying to spot the broken piece.

Steve turned. “Oh, is it not the gold-plated forks and spoons?” he teased.

Tony stood, as if to challenge him.

Steve shot a hand out, pointing at the broken pieces of ceramic on the ground. “Wait!”

And they stood, looking at each other for a very long moment.

“For fuck’s sake,” Tony finally groaned, and he started to unbutton his shirt.

Steve scoffed a laugh, because he wasn’t sure what to do or say, watching Tony strip down to his boxers. Only then did Steve think that this would be one of those sights that would drive Howard into a rage, another Tony stunt.

Tony approached the fountain, sun shining off him (there was a beauty mark on his lower back, to the right of his rigid spine, Steve now realized), took one quick glance over his shoulder, then slipped into the water amongst the petals and lily pads.

Steve took a cautious step forward. He could hear the bubbles of oxygen coming up from the water, and as the seconds turned to a full minute, Tony emerged gracefully, taking a deep inhale of oxygen. He pulled himself up and stood on the stone edge, his prize in hand, chest rising and falling with heavy breaths.

The water clung to him, reflecting the sunlight, and his boxers, white and clean as they were, hugged him, soaked, leaving no mystery about the almost-curve of his crotch.

And, again, they stared.

But, this time, Steve knew better to look away (to hide his blush). It was hot out. God, it was hot.

He listened, gripping the small handle in his hand, stroking it until the pads of his thumb burned.

When the sound of Tony getting dressed ceased, Steve turned and watched him nervously collecting his things – the broken pieces, the flowers – then walking toward Steve.

“I’m sor-”

He barely got the words out before Tony snatched the handle from his hand and headed up to the house.

Steve watched, watched him walk, his white shirt and pants clinging to him, merciless, the curve of his ass rocking gently with the quick steps.

He huffed and turned back to the fountain.

As he took a seat on the edge, he stared down into the basin, jealous that the water had gotten to hold and caress Anthony Edward Stark, relieve him of the heat, become a second skin.

Carefully, Steve palmed the top of the water, and for a moment, he imagined that Tony’s warmth was still there.

Chapter Text

Tony

Sitting at his window seat, Tony clipped his fingernails down to smooth curves, bare toes tapping to a lost rhythm on the warm floor. He’d slipped into a soft cotton pair of pants after having stripped of his soiled day fit; it felt a lot better to enjoy the heat and breeze coming in from the window when he wasn’t wearing a shirt.

A squealing honk soon sang through the property, and Tony looked up to see an annoyingly yellow Ford driving up at the distance. Even more interesting was Steve, who’d apparently been walking along, approaching the car as it came to a stop. Tony watched him shake hands with Bruce in the passenger seat.

Tony rolled his eyes and turned away from the window. “Don’t fucking encourage him.”

Dressed in high-wasted charcoal slacks and a lilac collared polo, he made it to the ground floor, hearing Bruce calling out for him.

At the sight of his older brother, all tussle haired and stocky and bright smiled, dressed in a beautiful tan summer suit, Tony couldn’t help but laugh and nearly skip into his embrace.

“Goddammit, you’re a sight,” Tony whispered, breathing in the smell of mint and cologne.

“And you’ve been smoking,” Bruce observed, taking Tony’s hand and noticing the burns at his fingertips. “Sure that makes the old man happy.”

“More so than homosexuality?” Tony mumbled from the earshot of Bruce’s friend.

“Doubt that very much,” Bruce laughed from his belly. He cleared his throat. “And where’s mother dearest?”

“Sleeping off a headache.”

“I don’t blame her. This heat is damn near maddening.” Bruce took a step to his friend. “Tony, I’d like you to meet a colleague of mine, Mr. Reed Richards.”

Tony held a hand out, as was proper, greeting Richards with a wistful smirk. He was handsome enough, tall and lithe, an odd streak of grey through his hair that defied his middle-twenties. Still, as far as Tony was concerned, he wasn’t the type he’d catch himself day dreaming about, with that awful yellow suit and poncey smile.

“Nice to meet you,” Richards said, feigning some sort of humbleness.

“Likewise,” Tony assured. “Drinks, yes?”

They went into the study and Bruce poured whiskeys all around. “And how was the end of school?”

“Ghastly, you ask me,” Tony groaned, taking only a sip of his drink before sitting it on the grand piano and lazing his body across it like a yawning cat. “You know how it goes: if it’s green, it’s biology,-”

“-stinks, it’s chemistry,-”

“-if it works, it’s physics, and if it works but nobody knows why, it’s engineering, yes.” Tony and Bruce shared a laugh. “I hate school, but I hate being here more.”

“And you’ve thought of what you want to do now that you have your degree?” Richards asked, apparently not keen on staying out of a conversation.

Tony swallowed. “Waiting around for the old bastard to die so I can take over the company.”

Richards seemed shocked at how easily Tony thought of his father dying, but Bruce rolled his eyes, chuckling.

“I think you need a swim, brother,” Bruce announced, clapping his hands together. “The heat is making you antsy.”

“Plenty of things make me antsy, but I’m not sure the heat is one of them.”

Out on the lake, Tony realized that he wasn’t keen on Richards at all. He talked as much as the red-haired girl in the house, cousin Lola, voice low, a tongue quick with knowledge, not wit. He was creative, but only as much as a scientist could be, talking about the new uniforms for soldiers going into the might-be war clouding over them. He’d apparently had a hand in their creation – something about water canisters he was particularly proud of.

“I need a cigarette,” Tony said, sitting up from where he was laying on the diving board, staring up into the gracious blue sky, the same color that had been in Steve’s shirt, he realized.

Richards came to him with a lit cigarette, and Tony, not one to be unnecessarily rude, smiled a thank you.

“Guess who we ran into on the drive,” Bruce said as Richards settled back into his beach chair.

Tony huffed. “Stevie.”

“Mmm. What’s a kid like that doing tossing around in flowerbeds?” Bruce asked.

“He’s thinking of art school, you’ll know,” Tony said before he could stop himself.

“Ah. And Dad thinks that is alright?”

“Your dad?” Richards questioned. “Is he a cousin?”

Bruce shook his head. “Housekeeper’s son. His father did a bunk years ago, and the old man offered to put him through school once the time came ‘round. Smart kid. Went on scholarship, so dad paid for his room and board. Was at school at the same time as Tone, and they come back every summer without saying a word to one another. No doubt Tony keeps him away from his lacrosse buddies.”

There was silence as Tony glared – softly, mind you – at his elder brother.

“I invited him to dinner,” Bruce said finally.

“Please say you didn’t,” Tony nearly choked, standing on the firm end of the diving board. He caught the eye of Richards glancing down his low-riding and molding swim shorts. Tony knew that he was a sight for the eyes of men and women alike, but Richards seemed rather pathetic.

Tony, the observant one, figured that all of his speculation had been true. It was rumored that Mr. Richards and his now ex-wife had divorced because of his addiction to work and rare play. With the rumors of Richards liking women but having a very thick taste for men, Tony assumed that the Misses became tired of being a beard and took off with their only child.

It was a shame really. If Tony were Mrs. Richards, he would’ve left because Reed was an asshole, not because he liked cock. Still, he couldn't blame her either way .

Bruce huffed. “Of course I invited him. I like the guy’s company. He makes you smile on the best days, yeah?”

Tony turned away before he could allow a blush to sink in. After a thoughtful drag of his cigarette, he took a glance back. “I think you should head down and uninvite him.”

“Well that’s just ridiculous, Tone. Did something happen between you two?”

Tony groaned, tossing his cigarette way. “For Christ’s sake,” he mumbled, running and diving off into the lake, letting the warm summer water slink over him for the second time today.

Chapter Text

Steve

 

Steve emerged from the bath, gasping for air and shaking the water from his ears. He settled his hands on either side of the tub and laid his head back, staring up into the small window in the ceiling. A plane was flying through a thick white cloud, and, if he listened carefully, he could hear the roar of its engine and propellers.

When he shut his eyes, he saw Tony, lean and sun kissed and lovely. Tony, who walked like a dancer (he was a fine dancer, Steve knew). Tony, who always had a book nearby, not because he particularly loved reading, but because he liked the option of escaping the world he was born into.

God, he’d made a fool of himself, hadn’t he? Staring like that, wearing his desperate curiosity in his ice blue eyes and tense broad shoulders.

Tony had to know… He had to, didn’t he?

Out of the bath and dressed in easy cotton pants and sleeveless shirt, he put on a record, an opera his mother played when he was a child that he couldn’t quite let go of. Then, he rolled a new sheet of paper into his typewriter, because he had to find a way to communicate with Tony that wouldn’t require much of an actual conversation; Tony was too domineering to have any sort of conversation go as Steve wanted it to.

With his brain swimming, he decided to type way the first set of sentences that came to mind. Once he was finished, he slouched in his chair and read them aloud.

“'Dear Anthony – I feel awful for being so rude and inconsiderate earlier today by the fountain. I hope you’ll forgive me.'” Steve huffed. “Well, that’s incredibly sincere. Right to the point, Rogers.”

He ripped the page from the typewriter, sending it towards the floor in a crunched-up ball.

Again. “'Anthony – I’m an idiot, you’re right. I’d be happy to pay for whatever damages I caused to your family’s vase. Please-'” He tore this page away before he could finish it, because this was ridiculous.

He went to the record player as the long piece ended, moving the needle back to the beginning. He walked lazily through the small space of his room and sitting area, stretching, having a cigarette because what the hell, and finally went back to his typewriter with a more focused mind.

Staring at the fresh blank page, he sat up straight and put his fingers to the keys:

 

Tony –

Quite often, I lose time thinking about touching you, sinking into you, feeling your ass squeezing around my cock like a pleasurable vice. I dream that you need those same things.

– Steve


Steve stared at the page, the words - God, the words – and finally laughed, covering his lips, hiding his blush from the ghosts of his room.

He tore the letter away, folded it in half, and set it on his desk. Then, with a pen and fresh piece of paper, he scrawled out more heartfelt words.

 

Dearest Tony –

I don’t blame you for thinking me mad for the way I’ve acted around you lately. The truth is, I feel foolish, perhaps even light-headed in your presence, and I don’t think I can blame the heat. Please forgive, and think of me as gently as I think of you.

– Steve

 

Steve smiled at the letter, as it was much better, much more appropriate.

Running late, he dressed in his tux, brushing his golden hair into its flawless coiffed position, making sure his shoes shined brightly and that his bowtie wasn’t crooked. As he tucked the final draft of his letter into an envelope and marked the letter ‘T’ beautifully at the center, his mother came in, leaning into the doorjamb with a small smile and curious eyes.

“Bruce invited me for dinner,” Steve explained, tucking the letter in his breast-pocket.

“Is that why I’ve been shining silverware all afternoon?”

“I’ll think of you when I see my smile in the reflection.” He kissed the bridge of her nose and moved around her, starting down the stairs.

“That letter,” she called out, smiling down at him. “Is it for-”

“It’s nothing, Ma,” he sighed. He couldn’t very well allow himself to say the words aloud, words that he could barely say himself. It would make his mother chew her fingernails down to nubs to think that her son was making trouble with a Stark heir. Not when she owed the Senior Stark so much. “Just…” His brows furrowed, and when he couldn’t find the words, he chuckled to himself. “No big deal.”

She nodded. “I love you, son.”

“And I love you,” he told her.

He enjoyed the walk to the manor, as it was long and beautiful while the sun fell from the sky. Even if the summer caused a provocative heat, the evenings were Steve’s favorite times, when the breeze became more important than the sunlight, and the moon made an early head, round in the sky.

Along the way, he happened across the thicket, blockaded by a rickety old fence, an old boundary to the property. Whacking away at the tall grass with a large stick was playwright Briony.

Feeling the letter burning in his pocket, he called out to her.

“What are you doing out here?” he asked gently once she was standing promptly on the other side of the fence.

“Taking out frustrations. There wasn’t a play.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

She gazed up at him strangely, quietly.

Finally, he pulled the letter from his pocket, and he stared at the T drawn on the envelope with a quiet chuckle. “Would you mind giving this to Tony?” he asked the girl. “It seems I’d feel a bit foolish handing it over to him myself.”

She nodded, almost anxiously, and he handed it to her with a thank you.

No sooner than it was in her hand, she’d taken off through the thicket, set to make it the half mile back to the house without stopping for a breath, the skinny and energetic thing.

And then.

Then, Steve retraced the words on his tongue, the strokes of his pen, the outline of Tony’s half-hard cock as he came up from the water, the sound of a scratchy old record, the roar of an airplane above his window, the click-click-click of his typewriter, the words of I love you coming from his mother’s mouth.

The letter.

The letter meant for Tony, written in his scratchy hand, was laying open faced on his desk, he was sure.

The letter written out of his desire, his lust, was in the hand of a thirteen year old girl, the youngest Stark, and was probably passing the fountain now, that goddamn fountain.

“BRIONY!”

Chapter Text

Tony

 

Some might think him a narcissist, and maybe they were right. Tony was incredibly attentive to his looks, spending plenty of time in the mirror, if not in admiration, then to stare at himself while in deep thought. He found that there was no self-actualization quite like watching his own face unravel around a thought.

Today, he was both thoughtful and attentive. It seemed that his mind and gut felt heavy the same, and his skin was flushed, his mouth more pink and wet than usual, which said plenty. He traced a finger along his bottom lip, stroking the skin slowly, thinking, undeniably, of Steve Rogers, the bastard.

He decided on a light grey suit, a new one. The pants rode high and slim on the waist, and the jacket fit nicely around his shoulders. The shirt, black and fitting, he left unbuttoned, just enough to let his neck breathe, because it was too fucking hot to do otherwise, he didn’t care what the old fuck said. He probably wouldn’t even show up.

He found Bruce in the study, sitting at the piano, lazing his fingers across it in a delicate summer song that, actually, sounded a lot more like spring if you asked Tony.

“I had a chat with Mother Dear,” Bruce said as Tony leaned on the piano. “Her headaches happening more often now, yes?”

“I’d say it is more to do with the cousins bouncing around like baboons and that pitiful Lola girl shrieking from sun up to sun down.” Tony sighed. “Not that we could blame them. They don’t want to be here, just as we didn’t want to be here as kids.”

“Difference is we wanted our parents to divorce; we didn’t mind the house or the heat. Those kids are here by force, and actually love their mom and dad.”

“I love my mother, thank you very much,” Tony teased, moving to sit next to his brother. He joined in on the song, making up his own counter-melody at the top of the staff. “I miss you terribly.”

“I miss you as well. You know that.” Bruce huffed. “You have Briony.”

“Is that a joke?”

Bruce laughed. “Yes. Yes it is. And what is it you think of Reed?”

Tony scoffed. “Was that your idea or dad’s?”

“He’s a good egg, Tone. I wouldn’t have brought him otherwise.”

“So dad’s idea,” Tony confirmed with himself. “Having a fag for a son is okay when you can sell him off as the closet slag to a reputable genius.”

“Oh, Tony.”

He continued quietly. “Because I wouldn’t be able to figure any of it out on my own – start my own business, find my own lover, make my own way.”

“Of course you’re capable of that,” Bruce sighed. “You’ll get away – as I did – when the time is right.”

“Time is a fickle bitch, you ask me.”

Briony’s voice went ringing through the house, her fast footpaces going rampant across the hardwood. “Bruce! Bruce!” she yelled.

“In the study, heart!” Bruce laughed, standing from the piano.

Tony went to pour himself a drink, and halfway to the small table, Briony shot through the room, shoving a piece of paper into his hands as she passed, and nearly falling into her eldest brother’s arms.

She began the dramatics of how badly she’d missed him, dancing in a circle.

Tony clicked his tongue as he opened the once-folded paper.

Slowly his smirk dropped, his eyes skimming the three printed lines, his heart jumping and getting caught in his throat. If he hadn’t been near the piano, he would’ve surely fallen to the floor.

The words jumped out at him, those hot and breathy words coming off the paper.

Touching you.

Sinking into you.

Around my cock.

Need me.

Steve.

Tony, realizing the consequence of those small deft fingers plunging the letter into his hands, looked at his sister, and she was staring back at him, as if she was waiting on his reaction.

“Did you read this?” he asked her, but she continued on with her nonsensical conversation with Bruce. “Bri, did you read this?” he asked again.

“I fear the heat has gotten to the northern cousins,” she told Bruce. “Lola locked herself in her room after bickering and fighting with the twins. I’ll have to recast the play.”

“Go tell mom to ring dad in the city. Have him bring some chocolates from Manhattan to cheer up our playwright-slash-director.”

Tony grabbed his sister’s arm before she could shoot out of the room. “Wasn’t there an envelope?” he asked quietly, but she yanked herself away and ran off.

Bruce crossed his arms, and Tony saw his eyes linger on the letter in his hands. “What’s going on?” the eldest asked.

Tony looked at the letter again, skin flushing because New York summers were too goddamned hot. I lose time thinking about touching you, sinking into you. “Nothing.”

Tony found himself locked in a bathroom, hunched over the sink, staring at himself in the mirror. Not for admiration or knowledge, but because he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t feel anything but the heat swimming in his stomach and atop his skin.

He pulled at his collar, trying to give his throat – God, the throat that he’d love to have Steve Rogers sinking into – room to breathe, but it barely helped. His lungs just weren’t big enough for his liking, and his heart was pumping too quickly.

And then, the shrill of the doorbell rang out, and there was only one person it could be.

Chapter Text

Steve

 

Steve pulled gently on the handle of the doorbell, listening to it ring out, and suddenly, he felt nervous, as if that bell was calling out the words of his surely read letter, alerting the whole house of his choice vocabulary. Cock.

He went back to the bottom of the stairs, just because he couldn’t stand still (which was odd, since he didn’t mind idleness), and when he looked down, he noticed his once-buffed shoes were now slightly scuffed from his half-jog to the house. He leaned over and scrubbed away a more visible mark with this handkerchief.

When he stood upright, Tony was standing there, looking down at him from his elevated stair, and Steve knew that he’d read it, knew that he’d seen the words blaring on that stupid fucking letter, that honest fucking page.

“I didn’t mean-”

“You didn’t?” Tony quickly asked, a brow raising, an amused blush in his cheeks, and goddammit if he didn’t look beautiful in that suit, hanging off him easily and in all of the right ways.

“Well, yes, but-”

“Briony read it.”

Steve swallowed. Fuck. “I’m sorry. That… wasn’t meant to be read, see.” He climbed a single step and slipped his hands into his pockets. “It was the wrong version. That- that one was never meant to be read.”

“So you said.”

Tony’s eyes said nothing, and the blush in his cheeks could have just been from the heat. He stood there, confident, without the ire of being haughty or expectant. Yes - confident, not conceited.

This surprised Steve, as now Tony knew the whole truth. Steve's confession had not been muttered or given with bated breath. The words were clear without a single stutter, laid out on a single page. All of the tension and space between them had been boiled down to just a few sentences, and yes - Tony had read the words, probably thrice over. He now knew without shadow or doubt that Steve dreamt of his curves, his inches, his heat.

Steve waited, throat threatening to close up. Tony stared at him, his lips parted and blushed, wet and rose-colored.

Then, without a word, Tony turned on his heels and walked into the house with a slow but purposeful footsteps. He took a moment to glance over his shoulder, and it looked everything like an invitation. Steve followed, because what else would he do? He was a slave to Tony’s trail, to his stroll. If there were ever a shadow that Steve would be happy sinking into, it was Tony’s.

Tony took him into Howard's office. It was dark until Tony turned on a small soft-lit lamp on the desk.

Steve cleared his throat and closed the door behind him, taking a deep breath as he did so. When he faced Tony, there were dark blue eyes casting over him, observing. Steve had little reason to feel self-conscious, with his broad frame and white teeth and golden hair, but here he was, desperate to know if Tony was satisfied with what he was seeing. The only confidence he could manage holding onto now - for some reason - was knowing that Tony wasn't about to yell at him. He knew what Tony's anger looked like; he was fierce and guarded and snarling when he felt offended. It wasn't the case here. He stood with relaxed shoulders, with his collared shirt unbuttoned to show his thick swallows and Adam's apple, his pupils blown in the darkness. He looked warm.

Tony exhaled, and Steve realized he'd been holding his breath. “And did you say in the letter I was meant to read?”

Steve licked his lips. “It was much more romant – uh, formal. Less-”

“Anatomical?”

“Uh, yes.”

“And less graphic,” Tony presumed, quiet, coming off the desk to walk further into the office space.

“I suppose so, yes,” Steve said gently, taking the same length of steps as his partner, like a dance, only stopping because Tony stopped. He couldn’t let him get away. He wouldn't. Not this time.

“It’s been there for… so long now between us,” Tony said, head down. Then, he turned and met Steve’s gaze. Steve, who still had his hands in his pockets, watching. “And then today by the fountain, we... had a moment.” Tony faltered. "A moment of many, I think..."

The memories and lost opportunities were dancing in the space between them now, and guilt was riding Tony’s face, but for the life of him, Steve couldn't deduce why. How could Tony have looked so beautiful and confident just moments ago, and now be so filled with...

It couldn’t be sadness. It couldn’t be heartbreak, could it?

“I thought that I’d be happy if you went away to art school,” he said, backing slowly, slowly towards the crammed bookshelf. Tony would never read any of these books, Steve was sure; Tony didn't want to follow in Howard's footsteps, if Steve were allowed to assume as much. “I thought if I could get you out of my sights, if you could get the hell away from me, I could finally breathe." Tony stopped, taking in a large breath as if he may never get the chance to breathe again. "I don’t know how I could’ve been so ignorant about myself.”

Steve stared, watching as tears indeed began to form in Tony’s beautiful eyes, such gorgeous blues as dark as an ocean, but they didn’t fall.

“But you knew before I did,” Tony said, quiet. “You… you’re so smart. You knew all this before I realized it.”

Steve swallowed, his brows tightening. “Why are you crying?”

Tony’s face weakened. And he was silent other than his hitch of breath.

Steve looked down at Tony’s hands, and they were shuddering at his side, desperate to be stilled. He gazed back up, and still, the tormented face, the needy eyes.

“You have to know,” Tony said gently, and it was almost begging. “Please say that you know.”

And Steve was stepping forward, taking Tony by his hips, and pushing him back, saying “Of course I know” before catching his mouth with his own, and slipping into a kiss, desperate and needed kiss.

And this was it, what they’d waited and wanted for so long, so wet and swallowing and full, like a Hollywood story come to life, like Bogart and Bacall, like the songs of jazz singers.

And then it stopped. Steve had his hands tight at Tony’s hips – oh, those hips – and Tony had wrapped his arms up around Steve’s neck, a hand already buried in Steve’s hair. They hovered at each other’s mouths, nose tucked to nose, stomach’s rubbing.

They needed more. This was no time for Hollywood or a romantic song on the wireless. They needed to be Tony Stark and Steve Rogers at last. They needed to stop and taste, to tease, to bask.

With an gentle smirk, Tony leaned up again, open-mouthed, and gave Steve a half-kiss, a tease, a test, and he pulled away, leaving Steve breathless. And he did it again. This time, Steve was ready, immediately sliding his tongue across Tony’s bottom lip, just enough to tell him that he was there, that he wasn’t going anywhere, and that he could tease, too.

And this was right. These kisses were lovely, kind and biting all the same, no longer desperate, but confident. Confident that they had one another. And that was enough.

Soon, Tony was unbuttoning Steve’s trousers, and Steve buried his head in Tony’s neck, kissing him at his collar, not hard enough to leave a bruise, even if he wanted to so badly. He wanted to mark Tony. He wanted to hear people on the street ask Tony questions about who'd touched him, who'd kissed him and left shadows behind. He fantasized about those things before now.

Tony yanked Steve’s shirt out of his pants and slipped his hands underneath, rubbing at the notches in his stomach, groaning and scratching at him, then looked up with a weak smile, a knowing look. A look that said he’d thought of this, too, and Steve’s skin felt exactly like he hoped it would.

And then he turned around, slipping out of his jacket and tossing it to the side. Steve huffed, watching as Tony leaned his ass back into his tented pants. Steve held his breath and pushed the shirt up a few inches, just enough to feel his skin, to see the beauty mark he’d learned about at the fountain. He gave Tony's hips a firm tug so that they were pressed together tight, and Tony groaned, surprised.

With confidence and need still trying to peak, Steve let his hands slide up Tony’s body, to his shoulders, then down his arms to his hands. As he kissed the back of Tony’s neck - so warm and smooth - he raised those hands, forcing them to hold onto a high shelf, then stepped so close that Tony was tight against the books, and Steve was grinding against that round and soft ass he often stared at.

Tony let out a hot sigh, letting his head fall back against Steve’s shoulder, falling into the rhythm, making Steve harder and harder without mercy. Just like this, they hummed and hissed at one another, until Steve caught Tony’s ear with his teeth, biting gently, and whispered for him to turn around.

Tony did as he was asked, and without a second thought, he slipped a hand down into Steve’s pants, wrapping a firm hand around him, sending Steve into a shudder, a weak sigh as he leaned his weight into Tony, resting his forehead against his lover’s shoulder, holding his breath.

Then, they were hastily unbuttoning one another until their pants were hanging around their thighs, their cocks rubbing as they kissed and breathed into one another.

Steve took Tony by the waist and lifted him just enough so that Tony could wrap his legs around him.

Tony leaned his weight back on the shelves and placed a hand on either side of Steve’s neck, stroking his thumbs against his skin, slowly, gazing at him, offering a gentle half-smile. An invitation. A silent ‘I want you’.

Steve snaked a hand beneath Tony’s bum, and his breath caught when he found his rim already giving, slick.

When Steve shot him a confronting smirk, Tony looked absolutely flushed, almost irritated, anxious to be taken.

“I…” Tony faltered in his breathing when Steve slid a finger into him, only to the knuckle. “I knew you were coming,” he finally managed, digging fingertips into Steve’s neck with a groan, grateful. “I don’t want that, though. I want – I need you.”

Steve, having always known that he’d give Tony whatever he wanted from the moment he asked, positioned himself right where Tony needed him, and God, he was warm and tight and wet and prepared for him. Only for him.

He moved into him with one firm stroke, and it hadn’t been easy, but he wanted Tony’s body to encase him, to glove him, and he wouldn’t have done it if he thought Tony wanted otherwise.

Steve growled and Tony whimpered, his lip pulling into his mouth, biting down, body gone stiff.

And they stared at one another, quietly, not moving, not breathing, connected, wanting it forever, if forever could possibly be enough.

“Steve?” His voice was faulty.

“Anthony?”

There was a brief second where it felt like the world had lent itself to stillness, and with Tony wrapped around Steve, wound so fucking tight, nothing else mattered. They would have other days to talk about this, other moments to atone for this sin, but right now, there was nothing to do but be.

“I love you,” Tony whispered.

“And I love you,” Steve said without hesitation.

And then Tony was grasping at him, rocking down into him, whimpering, and God he felt good. And Steve could barely keep himself controlled, holding Tony’s hands above his head again and pushing into him until the shelves were shuddering the books, threatening to make them all fall. He groaned, mouth limp as Tony kissed at him, moaning, moaning. His body was so tight, cuffed around him like he’d so desperately needed it to be, and he wanted this forever. He needed to feel this until time –

And then.

And then.

Tony’s body went stiff. “Someone’s come in.”

And then.

The soft and scared voice of Briony. “Anthony?”

 

Chapter Text

Tony

 

Once, when Tony and Bruce were just kids, they ran into their parents' bedroom during a thunderstorm to find them in a compromising position. Tony hadn’t been more than four years old at the time, so he hadn’t understood what he’d seen, but his brother explained it to him, and then, Howard in a less colorful language.

Perhaps it was then, at that very young and impressionable age, that he figured out he would want to have love with a man as opposed to a woman.

And, ever so young, he figured those desires would be seen as ill in everyone else's eyes. After all, he'd always been told he would grow up and meet a beautiful girl, never a beautiful man.

So, maybe it was always meant to be like this...

He whispered against the shell of Steve's ear - maybe instructions, maybe gibberish, as he was too shellshocked to understand his own words. Whatever he'd said, Steve must have understood him clear, because he pulled out and away from him, leaving Tony empty, set to stand on his own.

Quietly, they stayed standing close, pulling their pants up on their waists. Tony even dared to push a lock of hair back into Steve’s perfect cut, and he received a broken smile for that.

Zipped and buttoned, Tony scooped his jacket up from the floor and started to leave, only to stop near Briony, who was watching him with wide eyes. In her hands was a shiny silver cufflink with the letter ‘T’. The damn thing was always falling off, and must have escaped his wrist while walking through the foyer, just close enough for Briony to have heard low groans coming from the office door when she picked it up.

He looked into his sister’s blue eyes, and she looked… frightened.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Briony,” he said irritably, snatching his cufflink away and making a quick exit.

Tony entered the dining room and found his mother at the head of the table, in Howard’s spot. He rolled his eyes and kissed the top of her head as he passed her, not wanting to draw any attention or ruin whatever story Reed Richards was telling.

He sat down across from Bruce, and just as he splayed a napkin in his lap, carefully not to press against his half-hard cock, Steve came in, still flushed. They caught one another’s eyes, and Tony instantly looked away, afraid that the whole table would know their secret, their truth. He took his bottom lip into his mouth, suckling, and found that he was bleeding, having bit too hard in a fit of passion.

Steve slid into the seat next to him, and, as if magnetized, Tony couldn’t help but dare a look at him.

Briony came in, sitting next to Bruce, and there was nothing like a naive thirteen year old staring as if she were passing down God’s judgment. It certainly killed what little good mood Tony had left in his chest, so he listened to his mother.

"My mother always kept us in the house when the days got too hot. Like the full moon, the heat tends to make people misbehave." She offered a smile in Briony's direction. “Has the warm weather made you act up today, my Briony?” she asked.

“I’ve done nothing wrong,” the haughty girl said sharply, and Tony scoffed, ready to reach across the table and grab her.

And then, Steve’s hand was on his knee, and a shot of coolness swam through him. God, his hand was so big and strong. Tony could never imagine the task of fighting him off. Not that he'd want to do such a thing.

“And what about you, Tone?” Bruce asked, begging his attention. “Has the heat made you behave badly?”

Tony, usually able to sport a grand poker face, found his throat going wet, and he had to look away, had to bite his tongue from saying I was just cocked within an inch of orgasm, but otherwise, no.

“Dear God, you’re blushing,” Bruce chuckled, but he actually seemed confused more so than amused.

“It’s just the heat,” Tony managed coolly enough.

“I don’t blame you for removing your jacket, dear,” Maria called down the table. “Now where are the twins?”

Steve cleared his throat. “I saw them on my way up to the house. They didn’t seem particularly happy.”

“You know nothing, Rogers,” Briony snapped.

“What in the world is wrong with you, young lady?” Maria bit back. “Don’t you ever raise your voice to any of your elders that way. Surely I’ve raised you better than that.”

“You have, Mother Dearest,” Bruce assured. "Briony, what has gotten into you this evening?"

And then Briony was going on about how the cousins had been fighting and shoving one another around, and Richard had to split up a fight between them, hence the bruise on his chin, and then Lola locked them from her room for being so rude to him, but it all sounded like a jumbled mess to Tony, as, underneath the table, he’d begun to stroke Steve Rogers’ hand, the hand that had been tightly gripped against his hip only minutes ago, and God, he’d never longed for a library so badly.

It wasn’t until the words “There’s a letter” rang through the kitchen that Tony realized Briony had left the dining room and returned, and he nearly shot out of his chair, demanding that she hand it over.

Briony cut her eyes at her brother. “It’s from the twins.”

Tony sank easily back into his chair, looked to Steve, and nearly laughed at how pale his skin was. He then looked down the table, realizing that the twins were missing, noticeable empty chairs, one next to Lola, and one across from her, next to Richards.

Briony read the note aloud. “’We’ve run away. We hate it here, and Lola is mean to us. Also, there wasn’t a play.’”

Tony swallowed, because this was all rather silly, but Bruce stood firmly. “We’ll send out searches for them. Tony, you’re with me.”

“Briony. Lola. You go to your rooms and stay there,” Maria commanded.

“But-!”

“Listen to her, Bri,” Bruce said, backing away from the table.

Amongst the chaos, the phone calls and the worried voices, the searching for flashlights and lanterns, Tony managed to catch Steve in a closed space, stealing a small kiss.

“I believe that you loved me about twenty minutes ago,” Tony whispered, fingering Steve’s collar.

“I did.”

“Is it true now like it was then?”

“Yes.”

“Be careful.”

Bruce was waiting for Tony on the terrace. Steve announced he would run, to get a head start, just in case the boys were hurt or had gotten too far. Maria nodded at him thankfully, Bruce managed to smile, and Tony stared at the moon.

Tony fell into step with his brother as they headed out onto the land. “Looks like the old bastard has to come home after-all,” Tony grunted, eyes gauged forward as Steve’s large figure was disappearing far into the fog.

“He was coming anyway,” Bruce said. “He was running late.”

“Who are you trying to kid?” Tony nearly laughed. “I’m not a naïve child who still believes that daddy would rather be at home having family time. In fact, I still doubt he’ll grace us with his presence, even at this turn of events.”

“This is serious, Tony.” Bruce’s voice went even, and Tony knew that he was irritated now, but he didn’t care.

“I’m the one that’s here searching. Try telling your beloved father how serious this is.”

They searched in silence then, going through the nooks and crannies of the property, in the rich and stabby thickets and around the lake. Finally, they saw two figures coming out of the boathouse, and it was Briony, escorting a limping Lola.

"Hey! What are you doing out of the house?" Bruce yelled.

When Briony saw their flashlights, she yelled for them, informing them that Lola had been attacked.

They ran together down the hill, and Bruce instantly took Lola up with cradled arms while Tony asked what happened. The red haired girl was sputtering, shaking, only saying ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’, breathless. Tony rolled his eyes at the poor girl, and not because he was annoyed, but because the poor thing was frightened to the point of apology, ashamed, and he wanted to take her in his own arms to hold her.

There she was, hugging herself, her once lovely dress torn and muddied. The lipstick she’d been wearing, red and far too mature for her age, was smeared onto her cheeks. It was truly the saddest sight Tony had ever seen.

Still, Tony was observant enough to see Briony’s tight-lipped face in the moonlight. She looked neither frightened nor scarred, as a girl her age sure should be. In fact, he very much expected to see the look she bore when she’d caught him in library only hours ago.

No such face appeared.

“What’s happened, Briony?” he asked her. “Who was it?”

“We need to get her inside, Anthony,” Bruce said urgently, already walking away. “Run ahead and let them know what’s happened.”

Tony nodded, running quickly up to the house. Once he was inside, he informed Maria and Reed Richards (who’d apparently already given up on his part of the search) of what they’d found, and she instantly went to ring Howard.

(Tony scoffed when Maria got an answer. Missing dinner was one thing, but they’d called him over an hour ago with news of the twins. As expected, the northern cousins having run off was a trivial prank, not worth him leaving the office sooner than his usual nine-thirty.)

“Your father is on his way,” she whispered. “He’s bringing a physician with him.” She left the living room to meet Bruce and her niece at the terrace.

“Of course he is,” Tony grunted to himself. Now that Lola the precious niece had been found red and raped, it was an entirely different situation, one worth rushing home for.

Still, he was thankful that his father had some heart, and was sure to show up now.

And then there was chaos as Bruce rushed in and took a now faintly Lola into a spare room off the foyer, Briony, Maria, and the chief investigator in tow.

Tony looked toward the window. Suddenly, he realized that somewhere, on that dark property, Steve was still searching for Jackson and Pierrot, and their plight was now just a ghost of a problem. Surely, those missing boys would only be flogged and forgotten when they finally made their way home.

Too much drama for one day, Tony decided, wistful.

Tony was standing on the terrace, smoking, waiting for Steve’s return or Howard’s arrival (whichever came first) when Bruce came out.

“What news?” Tony asked lowly, tossing away his third cigarette and stamping it out with his shoe.

"Apparently, Briony found Lola's bedroom empty when we went off to search, and, opposed to being left out on an adventure, she snuck out of the house as well. Only, she came across Lola being attacked."

Tony blinked. "She saw who did it?"

Bruce cleared his throat, slipping his hands into his pockets. “They are saying it was Steve Rogers,” he whispered, almost like he was admitting his own crimes.

And, like that, Tony felt his heart drop into his stomach. Shock wasn’t a proper word to describe it. He was absolutely struck. “You’re full of it,” he finally managed to get off of his heavy tongue. “Who is saying this? Who?”

“Her and Briony say-”

“Briony,” Tony repeated knowingly, but he didn’t have time to dwell, because God damn all, Steve Rogers was not the name he wanted to hear associated with such a crime. An accusation like this was the end of a man’s reputation. And with what little power a man – a boy – as lowborn as Steve Rogers had, nothing could save him from a dirtied name.

And all Tony could think of was doing… something. Anything.

“You know that isn’t true,” Tony told his brother. “You know...”

Bruce said nothing, and that was more shocking than anything Steve could’ve imagined him voicing aloud.

“Brother,” Tony said quietly, incredulous as Bruce headed back into the house. Of course, Tony followed.  “You know that Steve didn’t do this. That’s… that’s insane. It had to be one of the other servants – anyone else.” When Bruce wasn’t stopping, Tony moved so that he was walking in front of him, facing him, holding his hands out as a wall to stop the man from proceeding.

Bruce huffed. “She said-”

“When we found her, she was barely saying a word,” Tony growled, pointing towards the back of the house, to the room Lola was confined in.  “And you know he wouldn’t-”

“Wait for Dad to-”

“Are you kidding me? Why do we have to wait for him? We’ve spent our lives waiting on him. I am looking you in your eyes and telling you that Steve didn’t do this, and he would never, Bruce. You know that in your heart of hearts. You have to say something. They won’t listen to me, but they will listen to you.”

Tony watched as his older brother toyed with the words in his mind, and then, the booming voice of Howard Stark came through the house, followed by his doctor. He looked as if he’d driven at high speed – he’d made it from the city in less than an hour – and that he feared he wasn’t fast enough.

Tony pointed the doctor in the direction of Lola’s room, and he went urgently. The silver-haired man who’d lent his looks to Tony more so than his other children, stopped in front of his sons.

“What the hell is going on?” he snapped lowly.

Tony swallowed and looked to his brother, because Bruce was older, wiser. Bruce had been his protector on quite a few occasions. Still, Bruce was Tony’s hero, and he always let him speak first.

And then, as if everything that was once sweet had no choice but to be sour, as if every sunny hot day would be stormy and cold from now on, as if every childish dream could now only be a nightmare, Bruce looked to his father with his dark eyes and said, “She’s saying that it was Steve Rogers.”

Tony couldn’t bite his tongue. Those words had been the small flame to ignite ill bones. “You have to be fucking kidding me,” he spat, starting to walk away.

“Tony!” Howard bellowed.

With a groan, he turned on his heel. But he wasn’t returning for his father. He was looking at his brother. “You looked me in the eyes and said you enjoyed Steve. That he is a good kid. You…” He managed a glance at his father, and surprisingly, the man looked like he’d taken a punch to the gut; he’d raised Steve Rogers, in a way. “You said that you knew he made me happy,” Tony admitted, eyes still on his father.

“A little girl is telling us she was raped,” Bruce said adamantly. “What kind of men are we to run in and say she was a liar?”

“I’m not saying she is lying about being raped. I’m telling you that it wasn’t by this one!” Tony, close to a small hall table that held a vase he’d prepared himself, grabbed it and shoved it over. “Is this your judgment, Bruce? Is this what you’re going to let happen?”

Howard put his hands up. “Enough. Where is my Briony?”

“In the kitchens being interviewed by the investigator,” Bruce muttered.

“And Steve Rogers?” He asked with his eyes on Tony, an unreadable look.

Tony’s throat went harshly dry, and he took a heavy sounding breath. “He left to look for the twins nearly two hours ago.”

“Shit. They’re still missing as well?” Howard rubbed at his brow bone.

“Yes,” Bruce and Tony said.

“And nobody has seen Steve since he left?”

“No,” the brothers said in unison again, Bruce factual and Tony disdained.

Howard nodded, conflicted in his stance, looking at his sons, his sons who never fought. “Whatever the investigator decides, goes. We will not make front page news regarding the rape of a little girl.”

“Dad,” Tony pleaded, and he’d never begged Howard Stark for anything. “You know he didn’t do this.”

For a moment, just a moment, it seemed that Howard would nod his head, but he didn’t. “I know nothing, son. Perhaps you – all of us – perhaps all of us were too trusting.”

With that, he left the brothers to stand alone.

Tony stared at the shattered vase, the tangled flowers, the puddle of water. Just hours ago, he was making love to the only person on this Earth that looked at him with understanding, with warmth, even if he might not deserve it. Just an hour ago, he thought that time had literally stood still for them, that their ranks in the world had suddenly dissipated, and the only thing that mattered was the soft and whispered expressions of true and pure love.

Bruce started to speak, sounding something like an apology, but Tony put up a hand, stopping him.

With dark eyes and thin unexpressive lips, he glanced over his brother’s frame, the big brother who was also his best friend. “You are letting this happen,” Tony accused. “And I will never forgive you for that.”

Chapter Text

Steve

 

The moon was large and bright in the sky, dousing even the darkest brushes of the Stark acres with a milky white light. So much so, Steve didn’t need a lantern for his search now, and he left it sitting against a tree he would pass on his way back.

“Boys!” he yelled out against the strain of his worked vocal chords, and, as assumed, he received no response besides the owls and other night critters.

Continuing his journey, he brought a hand to the side of his neck, tracing the ghostly memory of Tony’s fingers rubbing against him, and God, he couldn’t wait to be touched again. And, not by just any old person. Anthony Stark. Only Anthony could set a blazing trail across his skin and leave him feeling cool and pleased. Just a small touch, a stroke of skin, and it amounted higher than any satisfaction he’d ever known.

This was a high unlike any experimented highs he’d had at university. This was a high that made him believe – even more so – in God. The God of his mother, the God who’d been his only father, the God who made the moon shine down on him like this. He wished that he could swim in this light, bask in it, pretend that it was Tony, feel his energy melting all around him. That would be enough for right now, he thought. Until God granted them more moments.

He remembered the last time they spoke to one another at length (what few times there were) and not on passed café napkins about whatever novel the other was reading. He’d been sitting in the library just a few weeks before senior finals, and looked up to have Tony standing over him, inviting him outside in the middle of the night.

He had a habit of just… appearing like that.

Out on the quad, they lay under a moonlight like this one, and Tony said “I don’t know why I brought you out here, but I did it anyway.” And they talked about mostly nothing, but few words meant everything – Steve knew that now. They just lay with their hands tucked under their necks, and their elbows were touching, and when Tony got a bit chilly, Steve gave him his sweatshirt, and now, Steve wondered if Tony still had it.

But of course Tony still had it. He could imagine Tony pulling out the sweatshirt when his unrequited needs went unheeded, when he would lay sleepless in the middle of the night, unable to deny what he wanted. Clearly, he could imagine Tony finding the sweatshirt in the bottom of a chest or the back of his closet, then slipping into it or under it or holding it close. Of course Tony did that. Because Tony said that he loved him - said it first - and that carried incredible weight.

Maybe they were like an earthy planet and the sun, Steve incredibly willing to encircle and watch over, Tony giving off his heat and light. They had the stars in common, the dark and mystery of the universe. While that notion used to seem daunting, it seemed like it was finally enough.

They had moments to dwell on now, tangible touches and kisses and connections that made their love real, loud.

Yes, that was enough.

In the a small clearing on the edge of the property, right before the thicket became overgrown and impenetrable, sat two red-headed and freckled boys, one sleeping, the other tying a long piece of straw in knots.

Quietly, Steve approached, and when the alert boy looked up, he offered a small tired smile.

Steve sat in the grass with them. “You know,” he said softly. “The names Jackson and Pierrot are fantastic names.”

“Pierrot hates his name,” the boy said gently, and Steve now knew which was which.

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” Steve nodded. “Now, why in the world would you go running off like that?”

“We hate it here. We want to go home.”

“So I heard,” Steve chuckled. “Look, I know what it’s like to feel a bit overwhelmed, what, with your parents divorcing and being here at the Stark’s, but you’re surrounded by people that care about you, believe you me. I think you’ll realize that if you just… come on home. Yeah?”

The boy contemplated, and Steve smiled. God, he remembered being that innocent and young.

“Okay,” he said finally.

Steve shook Pierrot gently, waking him, then lifted him up so that he could ride with his legs straddling his shoulders. Steve took hold of the other boys hand, letting him lean into his hip as they began the long trek back to the manor. He hummed his mother’s opera record, and it kept the boys half-lulled, but made his own mind dizzy.

All he could see was Tony.

Once, when they were seventeen, the Starks held a party, one of many parties, and the house was filled with people, friends and allies to Howard and Maria Stark, becoming drunker and drunker as the night became late.

Steve could hear the music before the house was in sight, and it made him smile. As he made his way up the greenway and past the fountain, he wondered what it would have been like to be on the other side of his own situation. He wondered what his life could have been if his father hadn’t left before he was old enough to hold memories. He wondered if the name Rogers could have ever made it onto a crème colored invitation to the Stark home.

Steve didn’t often dwell on his have-nots. He was rather content with life, had received many blessings that seemed impossible otherwise, such as Howard Stark offering to pay his schooling, or the set of charcoal pencils and paint brushes Maria Stark had given him as a Christmas gift last year. Those were things that made him sure that the Starks were good people.

Steve’s mother was serving the drinks at this particular party, and, like a good son should, he’d come up to the manor to walk her home safely. He knew that Howard would have been proper enough to drive her, but Ms. Rogers took the generosity of her employers hesitantly, and she may have even rejected the offer, the stubborn lady. Steve couldn’t stand the thought of her making the trek back on her own, with all of the snakes and uneven ground.

When he made it inside the house, he found that the live band was going strong, as if it wasn’t nearly one in the morning. Steve had spent most of the day clearing the room of the furniture, and he was glad to see the guests happy, drinking and laughing, dancing.

When he spotted his mother, still working, he almost turned to go wait outside. Almost, because there was Tony, probably having snuck a few glasses of champagne, dancing in the middle of the floor with his little sister, white suit and perfectly mussed hair. And a sight like that had always stopped Steve in his footsteps.

And then, in the middle of spinning his sister around, Tony happened to look up, a look of surprise when he caught Steve’s eye.

And he smiled.

And then, he seemed to tell his sister that that was the last dance, and it was time for her to go to bed.

Then, the girl took off, and Tony looked at Steve from across the room, hands slipping into his pockets, just staring, that beautiful little smirk, before he finally walked over.

“And where have you been?” Tony asked accusingly, grinning wider now.

“I, uh, wasn’t invited,” Steve said with a chuckle, as if that must be obvious. “And I have worked since early this morning, so I decided to have a nap before coming to pick up my mom.”

Tony nodded, understanding.

Steve realized how close they were now, could smell the wafting of rich wine and sweat on Tony’s pores. Tony was a few inches shorter, so he had his head tilted up a bit, exposing the length of his neck, and Steve imagined touching him there.

The few seconds that they stood like that in the doorway felt like hours.

Tony was the one the speak, to interrupt. “You know… Ever since you started working here for the summers, you’ve gotten…” His eyes paced almost languidly over Steve’s frame; he’d only thrown on a white t-shirt and khaki shorts before coming up to the house, so he stuck out like a sore thumb. In fact, Steve usually looked out of place, so tall and muscled and golden.

 “…bigger,” was the word Tony chose. “You look bigger.”

Steve blushed deep in his cheeks. “I do a lot of heavy lifting, I suppose.”

“The results are plenty,” Tony nodded, looking over his shoulder at the party. “Would you like to go outside with me?”

Of course, Steve said yes.

Outside on the stairs, Tony slipped out of his jacket and started to roll a cigarette. Steve watched his fingers, and they were unsteady with the alcohol buzzing through him.

“Let me,” Steve said taking it.

“Do you smoke?” Tony asked, raising his brows.

“I try not to, but it is rather nice after a long day, yeah?”

Tony gave an amused laugh. “I always thought you were some sort of saint. I can’t imagine you making any bad decisions.”

Steve dragged his tongue along the edge of the square once the tobacco was packed. “Well, I’ve made a few,” he finally said, handing the roll-up over.

When Tony realized he’d left his lighter in his bedroom, Steve pulled out his own Zippo, held his hand around the end of the cigarette to block the wind, and lit it.

When Tony inhaled, the tip of the paper burned red and hot, smoking.

“So, what’s the party for?” Steve asked after a long silence.

“Who knows? I only need put on my best suit.” Tony laughed. “Appearances mean a lot, you know?”

“But not to you,” Steve offered unsurely.

Tony, surprised, looked at Steve, waiting for his elucidation.

Suddenly, Steve felt a bit nervous. “I mean that you don’t hardly seem so preoccupied with what people think of you. Not like… others.”

They kept eye contact for a few seconds more, then Tony smiled to himself and looked away, staring off into the distance. “You’re right. I don’t. Doesn’t mean I don’t have an image. Even when I’m myself, I’m expected to always be the same way. Acting within the box of other people.”

Steve hummed.

“I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors – and don’t slight me, Steve, I’m not stupid. ‘Oh, that Anthony. Pulled out of boarding school for kissing too many boys. Howard can handle his business, but not his family, it seems’.” He scoffed. “Someone’s always fucking watching, set to review,” he mumbled into another drag of his cigarette.

“And that doesn’t stop you?”

“If I stopped being myself every time someone looked at me, I’d never know who I actually am.”

Steve swallowed. “So this is the real you?”

“Excuse me?”

“The person you are right now. Talking to me. That’s really you? You’re not just acting out of the sake of being polite?”

Tony laughed. “I’ll have you know, I detest ‘being polite’.” With that, he handed Steve the cigarette, and watched him take a drag. “And you?”

“ ‘And me’ what?”

“Do you talk to me because you feel that you must appease me, or because it’s your own desire?”

Steve smiled nervously. “I’ll talk to you whenever you talk to me.”

“Does that answer my question?”

“I think so.”

Tony nodded. “Well, I think you scare the hell out of me,” he concluded.

Steve didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing, and that was the end of the conversation. They shared the cigarette and sat there with knees touching, staring off onto the property until the roll-up was burnt to a nub.

Then, Tony stood, slipped his jacket back on, and returned to the party without so much as a nod or good-bye.

That hadn’t been particularly odd, Steve thought now. Tony was quick spoken and clear, perhaps even potty-mouthed, but he never spoke more than he deemed necessary, and rarely out of turn. In all of the years of knowing one another, not once had he said the words good-bye to him, and Steve hadn’t either.

When the manor was in sight through the fog, Steve realized how tired he was, how lost in thought he’d been. He didn’t even remember having past the halfway point and grabbing the lantern, now in his hand lighting the way.

And, when he was close enough to see the family standing there on the terrace, to see Tony standing there, so beautiful with his jacket lost somewhere in the house and the sleeves of his shirt rolled to the elbows and his hair mussed, he realized that he was - and had been for a very long time -  in love.

As he climbed the stairs, he noticed the very unenthused looks on the family’s faces, and he hoped they wouldn’t be so hard on the boys; they were very young and didn’t know any better.

He let the sleeping boy down from his shoulders.

Then, he saw that Tony’s face wasn’t the same as his family’s, as the assorted officers’. His eyes were filled with a subtle fear, with contempt, with sorrow, a look he’d never once seen in Tony’s eyes in all of the time that they’d know one another. Not even in the office, with Tony thinking that Steve didn’t know, that Steve couldn’t possibly love him back.

And all Steve could do was offer a faint smile, as if to say it was all okay now. Everything would be okay.

 

Chapter Text

Tony

 

Tony sat cross-legged on a barstool, staring patiently at the chief investigator across from him. The old grey man was staring at Tony expectantly, but if he knew what was best for his well-being, he wouldn’t say a fucking word until Tony was ready. Until the tobacco was kicking through Tony’s lungs and he felt a sense of calm.

Between them was the letter. That wonderful letter that Steve hadn't meant to give to Tony. That honest letter that meant so much just hours ago. A letter that made Tony’s skin go warm and tight, making him touch himself in the landing bathroom.

And this was why Tony was so prickled and tight, nearly seething with anger.

Apparently, Briony thought the letter was significant and had lifted it from Tony’s room while she was supposed to be in bed. Apparently, Briony thought that this made Steve some sort of deviant, a sex maniac ready to pounce.

And, apparently, the adults deemed it worthy of consideration.

“Why am I here?” Tony finally bit, gripping his roll-up too tightly. He didn’t really need another. He only needed to feel something in his hands, remembering the ghost of Steve’s fingers still toying between the spaces of his own.

“Procedure, Mr. Stark,” the investigator said. “Everyone on the property is being asked what they know.”

Tony huffed. “My brother and I found the girls down by the boathouse. Lola was barely speaking, and Briony was saying even less.”

“Well, she was rather anxious to speak with me, your sister. She seems rather sure that Steve Rogers attacked her cousin.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Excuse me if I’m not entirely pegged on Briony being truthful. She’s rather… fanciful.”

“And what do you mean by that?”

“It means that she can be an imaginative cunt, is what it means.” He outted his cigarette on the ashtray, then sat forward, offering an intense gaze. “I’m telling you that he didn’t do this. I’m the most honest person you’re going to talk to in this house, and I’m saying that you’re going to arrest the wrong person.”

“Well, who was it then?”

“I don’t fucking know!” Tony snapped, slamming his fists on the table. “If I knew, I’d tell you, but I’m not going to start naming people just for the sake of a witch hunt!”

“Both girls named-”

“I don’t give a shit what those girls said,” Tony said, his voice calming towards the end. His eyes fell to the letter between them. He tapped it. “And if this is ‘evidence’, I’m afraid you’ve missed the entire point.”

The investigator huffed out an uneasy breath. “Well, the girl was sodomized-”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” Tony stood and was out of the door before the chief could call him back. “Where is she?” he snapped, looking for his chocolate-haired sister.

Bruce appeared once he made it to the foyer. “What is going on, Tone?” He put a hand on his arm.

Tony shook him away and jutted out a warning finger. “Don’t fucking touch me. Where is Briony? Briony!” he yelled, eyes skimming the open entrance to the living room. He only saw a handful of officers, his shell-shocked mother and father, a sleeping Reed Richards.

Then, he took off into the foyer and up the stairs, bound for Briony’s room, voices yelling after him.

He barged through her door, startling the girl who was looking through her bedroom window. He went right to her, grabbed her by the arms and gave her a firm shake. “You look me in the eyes and tell me that you saw him!”

“Anthony, let her go!” Howard boomed, coming into the room.

“You answer me Briony Stark!” he yelled again, unaffected by her frightened blue eyes. “Tell me what you saw!”

“I know it was him!”

“I didn’t ask what you know. What did you see with those big eyes of yours?”

“I saw him! I know it was him!”

“Enough!” Howard yanked Tony off the canopy bed, shoving him to the other side of the room. “You stop this right now. Don’t talk to her that way!”

“Did you see him as you see me?” Tony continued, looking over his father’s shoulder. His voice was quieter, but still yelling for all intents and purposes.

“I saw him,” Briony said clearly. “I saw him with my own eyes.”

Tony felt his breath catch in his throat, and suddenly, he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t get enough air, couldn’t stay in the same room with that girl.

He went down the hall to his room and locked the door, then scratched and pulled at the skin of his throat as he collapsed on the floor. Tears were welling behind his eyes, tears of anger, of lostness, but they wouldn’t fall. They suffocated him, held his anguish together like thick glue.

He got up and went to the window, staring out onto the property, and he prayed, although he wasn’t sure what for. Perhaps it was only hope. Hope that Steve, wherever he was, would find those boys and bring them back, holding them in either hand as tickets of innocence. Hope that Steve, whatever he was thinking, knew that Tony loved him without the fear of consequence.

And he stared, thinking of those times he should’ve said something to Steve, the times he should’ve smiled. He’d gone so long not realizing that the tightness in his chest had been the repression of love, not fear, or even contempt. There were so many chances, so much time, and now it seemed that a library was all they truly had left.

Then, through the fog, there was a figure and a small light. A towering silhouette with a smaller one to the right of it. And then, clearer, it was obviously Steve with one of the twins perched on his shoulders and holding the hand of another.

Tony ran downstairs then, and it seemed that one of the policemen keeping watch had already alerted the house of Steve approaching, as everyone was standing on the terrace now.

Tony walked past them all, out to the edge, feeling almost faint as Steve, all tall and muscled and blond, emerged from the fog with the twin cousins, and God, he was the only thing Tony had ever wanted, even if he’d only just learned to admit it to himself.

And he thought of the times they hadn’t had yet. The days that had yet to be spent. Gloom filled his chest, because he knew already. He knew that this was it. He was watching Steve walk towards a group of people who thought him guilty of a crime he was unaware had taken place, and that he’d’ve never committed in his wildest of dreams anyway.

And Tony could do nothing.

Steve was there now, and the boys were taken in by one of the officers, and everyone stood in silence, staring.

And then Steve seemed to know that something was wrong.

“Are you Steve Rogers?” asked the investigator.

And Steve, poor Steve, chuckled. “Yeah. That’s me.”

The investigator cleared his throat, and then, one of his officers was going towards Steve, handcuffs out.

“Stop this!” Tony yelled at Howard. “You can stop all of this. You know him. He – he found those boys! He wouldn’t have had time! Daddy, listen to me!”

“Son.”

“Anthony,” came a softer voice, a calming one.

Tony turned to see Steve being pulled away, down the stairs and towards the dark police car, hands cuffed behind his back. He bounded down the stairs, yelling for the officer to stop. Thankfully, the man obliged.

In Steve’s face now, he saw how beautiful his eyes were, a much icier blue than Tony’s own. How had that gone unnoticed? The curve of his jaw was strong, and his lashes were long, and his scent was strong, still mixed with a hint of Anthony Stark. He was beautiful, and Tony couldn’t stop from reaching out to touch him, sliding a hand up his cheek.

Then he leaned into his ear. “Come back to me.”

Steve was yanked away, but they kept their eyes locked until Steve was locked in the car and driven off the property.

Tony turned around to look at his family, then up to the window where he was sure that Briony was watching.

He couldn’t find a word to say as he finally climbed the steps, feeling every organ of his body curl up tightly. He thought he might be sick.

Bruce took a step forward, and he gestured a hand nervously. “Tony, if he makes it through the trial-”

“He won’t,” Tony snapped, voice strained. “If a load of healthily minded people who knew him wouldn’t take his side here, there will not be a difference in a court of law.” He paused, taking a moment to match eyes with his sweet mother, his distant father, his only brother. “If there was any guilt to be had, it will be shared by all of you.”

Chapter Text

Part Two

 

Steve

Spring, 1940 

He found Bucky miles and two weeks ago, sleeping in an abandoned farmhouse deep in the French countryside. Noticing the British uniform, Steve nudged him awake, startling him, and the dark haired man yelled and yelled until they were sure they were on the same side.

Bucky was only one man, but he was the only ally Steve had within reach.

Steve’s battalion had been attacked a month ago, and he was the only one left standing, left to face the war alone. Such a scattered war effort it was, so many men with so many names, fighting a global war. One would think that after World War I, humanity would never lift their guns with that magnitude again.

But, here they were. And they were losing.

Six days ago, they had a run in with a group of Italians, and they came away from the gunfight successfully. Otherwise, Steve didn’t do much fighting, although he stayed alert and paranoid. He and Bucky merely trekked, going from small village to small village, just hoping to hit the ocean or allied men.

Tonight, they settled into the rafters of a dilapidated barn, a bottle of wine and canvas sack of stale scones between them. Hours ago, as the sun went down, they’d run into three Frenchman on their own journey.

Both wary, the soldiers pulled their pistols on them.

“On a quelque chose pour vous,” the oldest traveler said, hands in the air.

“Wha’s that?” Bucky asked, loudly, as if the foreigner would understand him in increased volume.

“He has something for us,” Steve translated, lowering the nose of his pistol warily. Their new friends didn’t seem very threatening. “Quoi, monsieur?”

“Du pain,” said one, lifting a small sack.

“Et du vin!” said one with a bottle.

“Ne pas nous tuer!”

“Wha’s he sayin’?” Bucky asked Steve.

Steve knocked Bucky’s pistol away from where he aimed. “He asked us not to kill them. They are offering us food.” He turned to the men. “Merci beaucoup. Vous nous benir.” You bless us.

For a while, they walked in the same direction, Steve speaking on behalf of himself and Bucky, explaining their plights. The Frenchman happened to be refugees, escaping their town as it had been invaded by the Italians.

In the end, they’d bid each other fair voyages and went their separate ways.

Now, lying across from one another, wine in their bellies and looking at one another by the lights of their cigarettes and the moon, Bucky was more than curious.

“You know, mate” he said. “I’ve come to a conclusion about you, and it’s that you don’t talk so much.”

Steve hummed, nodded.

“We’ve been trekkin’ together for a while here, and I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout you. How’s that?”

Steve shrugged. “I don’t find much use speaking if I have nothing to say.”

“You sayin’ I talk too much?”

“I’m saying you talk enough for the both of us.” He chuckled, offering a gentle smile, and Bucky returned it.

“How’s an old toff like you, speakin’ his French and whatnot, wind up over here as a fightin’ private for the good of the Queen?”

Steve nearly rolled his eyes. Bucky was the definition of a cockney know-it-all, and it was hard to keep up with his rantish speech, but Steve figured he finally owed him some piece of an autobiography.

“When you join the military from prison, you don’t have a shot at becoming an officer. I'll never be a captain.”

Bucky’s eyes went rather wide. “A goody like you was in prison?”

“I’m no goody. They gave American prisoners opportunity to fight on the side of the English until the rest of our military officially stepped up.” He gazed at the rollup between his fingers. He’d meant to quit smoking, but it seemed the odds were against him. “And let me tell you, it’s not much of a choice, choosing between finishing out your sentence and going to war. This barn is luxury compared to cell walls.”

“Well I’ll be damned.”

Steve nodded, then looked at Bucky curiously. “And what’s a toff?”

“A rich kid.”

And like that, Steve laughed, incredulous. “I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.”

“How’s it you come to know French, then?”

Steve flicked his cigarette away, then adjusted his knapsack into a pillow. As he lay back, he noticed a snowy white owl perched atop one of the high beams. It was staring at him. “I was a servant’s kid for Howard Stark.”

“Stark? The bloke who made that gun over there?”

Steve nodded, staring unblinkingly at the owl. “My mother was a housekeeper at his home in Manhattan, and his country home over the summers. When I was too young to be left at home alone, I sat around with the Stark’s children. They had a tutor – French lessons – and I pretended not to listen. Sort of decided to keep up with it on my own with French grammar books through high school, and taking classes in college. Thought it might be useful.”

Bucky swallowed back the last of his wine. “Tha’s the most you’ve ever said to me, and it was about the bloody French.”

Steve laughed, because Bucky was rather funny.

“Didn’t that Stark bloke and his wife die a while back here?” Bucky asked.

The owl finally broke its eye contact with Steve, uninterested.

“Yes, they did,” Steve confirmed, turning his head so that he could take in the sight of his friend.

“Can I ask what you did, mate?”

Steve reached behind his head, digging into one of the pockets of his bag and pulling out a bundle of letters and postcards held together by thin twine. The top card happened to be a photo, a stone cabin on an ocean shore.

“Not tonight, Barnes,” he said gently, stroking the photo, remembering the exact spot in which Tony had held it when handing it over.

It seemed like ages ago, and he clung to his last memories of Tony like it was the string holding his life together. And perhaps it was.

Six months before, he was stalking through Brighton, heading towards a hotel café he couldn’t remember the name of now. The weather was brisk, and he had his hands in the pockets of his kit, stroking the envelope that was there, separate from the bundle of letters in his bag.

During his time in prison, he’d received letters from Anthony, sparse but usually long. And they’d smelled like him, like his sweet skin. Steve would read them repeatedly, memorizing them, from the words to the slant of the letters. He even imagined Tony leaning over it as he wrote, a cigarette in hand, his dark hair mussed and hanging in his eyes. These mind-photos were just projections of memories, but it was enough to get him through rough nights.

Steve never wrote back. Not in the three years he’d spent in prison. Not until he learned he would be shipped off to war. On that day, he scrawled out a new address, and that was all.

Because what else could he say? Even if Tony wrote the most beautiful of words, assured Steve of his loyalty, of his love, Steve couldn’t put pen to paper. Couldn’t write down the words, what words there were.

Then, there was the most important of letters, four years since that fateful night where a girl had been raped and Steve was the accused man. Tony told him that he’d moved out of New York, moved to Brighton with what money he had raised on his own, and completely denounced any ties he had to his family.

Brighton.

In his second letter to Anthony Stark, Steve told him that, in the coming months, he would be in Brighton to be trucked out to France. Why he’d decided to tell him was unclear. All of these years had passed, and the moments between them were ghosts. Those letters soothed wounds, but created nothing new. They’d never belonged to one another outside of one night, and that was still true today.

But, it was quite clear when Anthony replied in a short letter, the shortest of them all, that when Steve was in town, he was to call, and they would have coffee together. It was neither a request nor a demand, but Steve did exactly that when the day came.

And, walking into that hotel lobby, gazing through the glass doors of the on-site restaurant, he thought that maybe it was a mistake. He saw the back of Tony’s head, his hair, the hair he’d run his fingers through, and he wanted to run away.

So he did. He walked away, into the coatroom, just to… collect himself. He couldn’t do it, but he was here, and he wanted to so desperately that it was painful.

He went back to those glass doors, and there. There Tony was, standing in the middle of the busy café, looking right back at him.

Steve took a hesitant breath and went inside, walking carefully through the tables, clutching at the bag over his shoulder, until he was standing only a few feet from the dark-haired blue-eyed boy who’d fallen in love with him despite propriety.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Steve said carefully. “I got lost.”

“Hello,” Tony said, as if he hadn’t heard a word Steve said. Because that was Tony. His rounded cheeks and dilated eyes said that he didn’t care where Steve had been or where he was going. He was here, and nothing else mattered beside that. At least, not now. Not in this moment.

“Hello,” Steve mustered finally, letting his eyes sink over him. He was still Anthony, still a beautiful thing, all slender and youthful and clean shaven. He was dressed in grey slacks and a white button down, a navy blue cardigan, large and misshapen, hanging over him to keep him warm.

“Let’s sit,” Tony said, pointing at the small table. “I ordered a coffee pot for us.”

They sat and Tony poured. Steve watched until Tony hesitated to lift the spoon from the sugar bowl.

“I’m sorry. I… don’t know how you-”

“Two sugars,” Steve nodded, swallowing.

Tony obliged, and Steve began to stir his cup when Tony’s hand clasped his, stopping his movement.

And Steve could feel memories sinking back into his chest, hear Tony’s moans in his ear, feel the damp heat against his neck, hear the gavel slamming down and the word ‘guilty’ flying from the judge’s mouth rather easily.

He couldn’t take it.

He pushed Tony’s hand aside, then returned to stirring. “Where are you living?”

Tony cleared his throat, folding his hands in his lap, not bothering with his own cup. “A flat not three blocks away. Probably smaller than my old room, and its ghastly. My landlady is an absolute crazy woman. But…” He didn’t have to finish. Steve knew that Tony was just happy to be away, to be on his own. He’d be happy living in a cardboard box if it meant he had his independence.

Steve took a glance to the left of them. A pair of older women were sitting at the table nearest them, and one was looking their way nosily.

He licked his lips. “And have you talked to your siblings?”

Tony was obviously shocked by that question. “I told you that I wouldn’t, and I haven’t.” Then, a sly smirk appeared on his lips. “Bruce found out I’d gotten a physical therapist position and calls the hospital nearly every day now. I don’t take his call.” He seemed proud of himself, thought Steve would be happy to hear that.

“You don’t…” Steve took a deep breath. “You don’t… owe me anything, Tony.”

Tony was hurt, and it showed in those lovely eyes of his. “Did you not read my letters? I think of you every day. If my parents had let me visit you in prison, I would have been there every goddamn day. You have no idea the lengths at which they went to keep me from you.”

“Yes, but if all we have to believe in is based on a few moments in your father’s office three and a half years ago, I don’t know -”

“Steve.”

“-if this is-“

“Stevie, please.”

“-worth the fight you’re giving.”

Steve had tears in his eyes now, because here they were, and here he was. Here they were together, and he’d been so desperate for it, and he was so fearful that it didn’t matter. Or worse, that this wasn’t real. That they’d built a passionate romance in their minds and they were making something of nothing.

“Will you come with me?” Tony finally asked.

“What?’

Tony slid his hand onto the table and covered Steve’s. “I can’t promise you anything more than my heart. That’s… all I have to offer.” He breathed in. “Just… come with me. Come to my apartment. Please?”

The apartment was on a very cramped road, the rows of old flats made of brick and covered in vines. There were only two rooms. The main room was split into small areas defined by their rugs and furniture: a couch sitting near a radio and a crammed bookshelf, a rickety old table under the window that served as a dining room, and a small kitchen, humming fridge and stove and sink. Technically, from where Steve was standing, he was in every room.

For a moment, he wondered if Tony found it claustrophobic, having been raised in massive houses all of his life, servants around to clean for him. But, as Tony took his knapsack from him, he seemed to move around the place just fine, content with the home he’d made for himself.

The second room was behind a sliding set of doors. There was a bed, another bookshelf, a rocking chair under the window, a desk, and a closet, and it was only slightly smaller than the front room. The bed was made, and laying on the large afghan, was Steve’s old sweatshirt, the one he’d given to Tony before they’d graduated school.

“I told you it was a shit place,” Tony said hesitantly, folding his arms across his chest and standing in front of Steve with a small smile.

“It’s fine.” Steve rocked on his heels, and suddenly, his uniform felt tight around his neck.

Tony slipped a hesitant hand to Steve’s cheek, and oh, God have it all, Steve couldn’t help but sink into the warmth of it, the softness of it.

“I have to go,” Tony whispered.

And Steve’s eyes shot open. “What?” he asked breathlessly.

“I have a patient in twenty minutes,” Tony told him, slipping his other hand up. “I just… I wanted you to be here when I came home. Please say you’ll stay?”

“I leave tomorrow afternoon.”

He took a step closer. “Just… say you’ll stay. I’ll be back before you realize.”

Steve’s eyes shut as he basked in the warmth of Tony’s hands, felt the man’s wet breath. He was sinking towards him until their foreheads touched. “Okay.”

Then he stood there as Tony walked around, telling Steve that he could help himself to whatever he wanted, that he was welcome to catch some shuteye.

Steve liked seeing Tony like this, he realized. The Stark prince was now just a twenty-something trying to survive on his own, and doing better than anyone would’ve imagined. Anyone but Steve. Steve had always known Tony’s power, his strength. This wasn’t surprising.

And, for the first time in years, Steve felt full of softness, of admiration, of that fuzzy warmth he used to know when he looked at Tony.

“Will you be alright?” Tony finally asked, slipping a lanyard with his hospital identification around his neck, keys in hand.

Steve lifted the I.D. and looked at it. And slowly, he smiled. “Anthony Stark: Therapist,” he read.

“Yes. I work mostly with soldiers. Loss of limb and dead nerves.”

“Why soldiers?”

“Just… be here when I get back.”

Once Steve was alone, he went into the bedroom, stepped out of his boots, hung up his uniform, then slipped into the shower. The pressure was weak, but he got the water as hot as it would go, then stood there, letting the warmth take over.

He took Tony’s bottle of shampoo and smelled it longingly, trying to make a memory of it. He did the same with the soap, rubbing it against him, cleaning every inch he could get to.

And then, dried and wrapped in a towel, he crawled into Tony’s bed and fell asleep in an instant.

He dreamt of fields of red flowers, of a massive fountain, of birds and their songs, and he woke up to the sound of Tony’s key in the front door.

He lay there on his side, watching as Tony came in, hanging his keys on its hook, then stood there, noticing Steve in his bed. He made his way through the open doors, then slid them closed to keep the warmth in. The only light was from the moon in the window, and that wasn’t enough, so Tony turned on the bedside lamp. He kicked off his shoes and shrugged out of his sweater, and Steve watched and watched as Tony climbed onto the bed, right up to him.

“You stayed.”

“There’s no place else.”

Tony leaned down and kissed him, sank against him with ease, and Steve wrapped his arms tight around him, because he couldn't deny himself the satisfaction Tony offered, of crippling love.

Tony spent a long time discovering, and Steve let him. He watched as Tony kissed along his scars, old and new, as he nabbed his tongue along every line and crook. Steve was much frailer than he’d been last they saw one another, as prisoners and soldiers didn’t eat very well, but still, Tony didn’t seem to mind it.

And finally, Steve was sinking into him again, pushing him down into a creaking mattress, nose against his ear. Tony dug his fingers into Steve’s shoulder blades and held on, eyes so full of familiarity, of sorrow and completion.

“I never stopped loving you,” Steve finally mustered, because he couldn’t string Tony along, couldn’t let him feel alone, even if they were as physically connected as any two people could be. “I never stopped.”

And Tony moaned, pulling him close, kissing him, encouraging him, rolling his hips into a climax that Steve shamelessly followed.

Steve lay on his back, and Tony lay hooked to him, chin resting against his chest, looking up at him as if there was nothing he’d rather do.

“Why did you move to Europe?” Steve asked him, fingering a lock of his lover’s hair.

“When you wrote me your change of address, I figured you were going to war,” Tony explained. “I wanted to be here. I… I didn’t want an ocean between us.”

“I heard about your parents’ car wreck. I’m sorry.”

They hadn’t talked about it yet. Only two months after whatever gave Tony the confidence to move to Europe, Maria and Howard were killed in a car wreck after the brakes gave out. Tony never wrote that in a letter, but the Stark name was important enough that the news of the industrialist’s death reached across the globe. When Steve got his hands on a newspaper, he saw that Tony hadn’t attended the funeral, a solemn picture of Briony and Bruce Stark on the front page. Although Tony was meant to follow in his father's footsteps, word was that that Stark prince had been estranged from his family, and Bruce had no choice but to take his father’s place. That had been something Bruce never wanted to do, as he enjoyed working with medicine. Whether or not Tony considered that as a punishment, Steve didn’t know. He could see in his eyes that he had no desire to talk about it, and he didn’t push.

“There was nothing you could have done,” Steve assured him, and he wasn’t talking about the wreck. “I never… blamed you. Not for a moment.”

“I don’t want you to go,” Tony told him, kissing his chest.

“I have to.”

“Say you’ll come back to me.”

“I’ll come back to you.”

Tony reached over to his night table, slid open the drawer, and found a photograph. He handed it to Steve. It was a cottage, a beautiful one, and looked like something on a postcard.

“It’s a place in Scotland. I work with a girl, Natasha, and I… I’ve told her about you. It’s where she spends her summers, and she said that we can stay there next time you’re on leave. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

Steve offered an honest smile. “If that makes you happy.”

“Happiness is wherever I can be near you,” he said gently, a tiny yawn.

“Go to sleep, Anthony.”

The next day, Tony walked Steve to the train station, walking close enough that their sleeves brushed. The promises time had made the night before seemed strong, as the future finally seemed heavier than the past. Making love and sharing a mug of coffee in bed, showering together, taking every chance they could to touch within Tony’s four walls – it was all confirmation. As long as they found their way back to one another, time would do its duty to stretch the minutes as far as it could.

And one day, time wouldn’t matter at all. There would be no obligations but love.

And now, laying in a barn, listening to Bucky Barnes snoring, listening to the animals cry in the night, and imagining he could feel Tony’s breath, Steve believed that those days would come.

Chapter Text

Tony

 

Tony started his mornings the same way: a short shower, then toast and a coffee. He was weaning off cigarettes, but still had one when there was a particularly long day ahead. He’d sit at his small nook table, listening to the traffic of milk trucks and bicyclists and cars, daydreaming.

Then, he would take out the first full-length letter Steve had written him, post-marked six months ago, just weeks after he left Brighton to face more war. He would stare at it, at the small handwriting, at the dirt smudges, at the worn creases from being folded and unfolded. He didn’t need to read it anymore, because it was memorized, but he would do it anyway, just to hear Steve’s voice in his head.

 

My Dearest Anthony,

It seems that our story can resume. The one I was planning on that evening walk. I can become again the man who once walked along your father’s property as the sun fell from the sky, dressed in my only tux, swaggering on the promise of life; the man who, with the clarity of passion, made love to you in the library. The story can resume.

As I write this, I imagine you, but you are nothing that a dream can do justice to. You, in all of your coy smiles and surprising humility, offer me so much hope, hope that I once lost as I was pushed into the back of a policeman’s car, staring at you through a dirty window until you were nothing but dust in the distance.

Writing to you is not enough, and I apologize for having never replied to any of your lovely letters before this day. These nights away from you, trying to survive a war that is more daunting than any previous turmoil, are tortuous, and I need you. I think of your friend’s home in Scotland, the escape that awaits us once I am home on leave. I can already feel the sand between my toes, taste the salt of the ocean, feel your body against mine, where it belongs.

And then, I want us to go back to New York, because escaping the ghosts of our past will only leave us weary. I want to have you in Brooklyn, to share it with you and you with it.

I will return. Find you and love you. Bind myself to you and live without shame. The story can resume. Our story must resume. I will simply resume.

 Yours,

Steve

 

And he would tuck the letter in the day’s sweater, and walk the mile to the hospital.

This was a beautiful existence, he’d realized. Imperfect in many ways, as Steve was not within reach, and the ground he was walking on could be bombed to bits at any moment for the sake of war, but there was beauty nonetheless. The faces of women and children in the streets, still smiling their good mornings despite their men at war. The breeze of late spring dancing with the sun. Living on his own and enjoying the start of his career. Having a friend he truly trusted.

Natasha Romanoff was a beautiful Russian girl with bright red hair and quick enough wit to entertain Tony throughout the day. She'd left her country with her grandmother in the wake of her parents' murder; she was only four years old, and she'd witnessed it. That was all that Tony knew. Either she didn't know the reason for her parents death, or she was waiting for a somber moment to share those details. Regardless, Tony trusted her, had told her plenty, and enjoyed seeing her smile. She had calm maternal nature, much like Maria's had been, and after some long days, he'd rest his head on her shoulder and say how glad he was to have her.

The physical therapy ward was a separate building from the hospital, sitting across the street. It wasn't in the best shape and was only one floor, but yielded their needs. The extra space had been bought during World War I specifically for the aid of broken soldiers being transported from overgrown London hospitals. It served the same purpose now.

Tony came through the back entrance, which led into the workroom. Said workroom was rather small, but him and Natasha were usually the only therapists there on any given day, so it did its job. There was a round table made of scratchy old glass, a refrigerator that made noises it shouldn't, and a stove that didn't work. The workroom reflected the rest of the ward. Just outside the door was a small hall leading into a waiting area and secretary's desk (there was no secretary). From there were doors to two large rooms where they worked with their patients. Large mats and walking bars and standard weights, amongst other things. Again, it wasn't much, but it suggested a comfortable environment, and that's why Tony was here.

With his name, he could've easily attained a job in London, received a higher pay, and gotten more recognition for his skill. None of that mattered to him. He wanted to build relationships, not names on paper. He’d learned that physical therapy was as much of a mind game as it was a training of the body, and the environment the building provided seemed to help bring those two things together.

“There was a letter for you in the post,” Natasha said when he walked in. She was sitting at the table, legs crossed and drinking tea, wearing her lime-green scrub pants (which meant she was in a good mood today) and a black cotton shirt. She pointed her finger lazily at the counter space between the fridge and stove where they threw the mail.

Tony grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl and bit into it, looking down at the envelope addressed to him.

“Seems your brother has resorted to the written styles of groveling,” Natasha said with a  snorting laugh. “Good thing. The phone ringing was giving me headaches.”

Tony shook his head, lifting the letter and waving it to her. “It’s from my sister.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I assure you I can come up with better jokes than that.” He held the apple in his mouth as he ripped the envelope open.

 

Anthony,

I hope you’ll read this with an understanding heart I don’t deserve. As you can see from the letterhead, I have, in lieu of university, started nurse’s training in Paris, hoping to be of help as the war becomes more crippling. I want to be of use, as Bruce and you are, as our parents were.

Still, even as I heal broken soldiers, I can’t escape the heavy weight of what I’ve done, and what it meant, the full extent of which I’m only now beginning to grasp.

The words I wish to share with you cannot be told in a letter. I hope that you will let me come to you, to see you so that we may speak.

Your sister,

Briony

 

Tony stared blinkingly at the page, then to Natasha, who was waiting to hear the news. “She wants to meet me. Apparently, she’s had some sort of self-actualization.” He hastily closed the letter up and shoved it into the pocket of his sweater that didn’t hold Steve’s letter. That would be tainting.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Natasha huffed. “She wants to apologize nearly five years later?”

“So it seems.” He went to the metal basket hanging on the back of the workroom door, pulling out the clipboard for his patient today. “I have a new one. Clint Barton. Foot severed. He was a captain. American Special Forces.”

“Hmm,” she said. “There’s only one guy in the waiting room. He showed up not too long ago. A handsome devil.”

“Yeah, we’ll see.”

Tony collected the man from the waiting room, waiting patiently as he got out his chair and up on his crutches, then led him to the room he’d chosen for his work. The green room. A positive color for those who need positivity so desperately.

Tony helped him onto a high-seated chair, then sat down on his low and rolling stool. “Like I was saying outside, I’m Tony, and I’m going to be helping you lose those crutches. Anything that makes you uncomfortable, let me know. In order for the process to move smoothly, it is best to be open with one another. This is your world. I just happen to be helping you through it. Yeah?”

He nodded. “Understood.”

“How are you feeling today?” Tony asked gently, the way he started with every patient he’d come across. Barton seemed particularly weary, but truly was, as Natasha said, handsome. His jaw was strong, and his body was muscled, stocky for his rather short frame. Still, he had the presence of a respected soldier and an honorable man.

“Not so much pain. Doctor gave me a stronger pain reliever.”

Tony hummed, looking at his chart. “No negative side effects?”

“Not as far as I can tell.”

“Well, why don’t we have a look? Is that alright?” Patients with loss of limb were often very self-conscious about their injuries, so Tony asked permission every time.

Clint nodded, lifting his right leg slowly.

Tony removed the large boot that went all the way to his knee, finding Clint’s foot bandaged, an odd shape, as he’d been cut from his second toe to his arch. Almost a perfect angle.

He removed the bandage, and didn’t wince at all as the sight was revealed. He’d seen quite a lot, and much worse. How he’d come from being a spoiled Stark child to a therapist who could handle such horrific sights was a surprise even to him. “It has healed beautifully,” Tony offered honestly, looking up at his patient.

The man gave a wistful smile.

“I’d say you could lose the bandage and start wearing socks, if you think that may make you comfortable. We have a tailor that helps many of our patients. I could give you her number and you can contact her. She'll help you with fitting socks, and eventually shoes when you are ready for that step.”

“That would be nice,” he nodded.

“Any concerns before we get to work?”

The soldier sighed. “I still haven’t gotten past the… ghost feelings. I think I feel an itch or a pain but nothing is there.”

“That’s normal,” Tony assured him, letting a finger trail carefully near Clint’s mostly-healed stitches. “Your mind still knows your foot as whole. As you go through therapy, that will happen less and less. My job is to help you let go of your past condition and learn to live with what you have currently. How does that sound?”

“Sounds like you have your work cut out for you.”

Tony removed Clint’s foot from his lap and stood. “Believe you me. We’ll grow together.”

During his lunch, Tony pulled out Briony’s letter, reading it again. Knowing that Briony once held that paper made him feel strange. And, God, just reading the words and seeing her handwriting was enough to make his skin crawl.

The truth was that he didn’t miss her. He didn’t long for her. Some days, he wished that he did. He wished that he could find a space in his heart to let her in again, because she was family, and he didn’t want to feel hatred or numbness. He knew just how capable he was of love because of his Steve, and he wanted to give more of it.

And maybe one day he would find it in his heart to answer Bruce’s calls, to have his brother back. Maybe he would love him again one day. But he couldn’t imagine extending that same branch to his young sister.

He took a sheet of paper and decided that he would write to Steve now instead of waiting to go home.

 

My Steve,

Briony wrote me. She must have gotten the address of my hospital from Bruce. Apparently she has taken up nurse’s training here in Europe. I think she may be doing this as some sort of penance. She wants to come and talk to me about what happened with cousin Lola in that summer, such an awful and lovely summer it was. How one hot day could give me you and then rip you away in the same breath still leaves me displaced.

I had a new patient today. His name is Clint Barton, and he lost a great part of his foot in battle. I thought of you the whole time, as I do on most days, with most patients. His eyes were distant and his cheeks were weathered, as yours are now in this time of war. He was handsome, and had seen one mission too many for his age. I hope that I can help him, and that he will help me.

I love you. I’ll wait for you.

Love,

Your Anthony

 

On his way home, he stopped by the post drop. Kissing the envelope and looking to the sky, he dropped it in.

Tonight, he drank coffee with two sugars - the way that Steve liked it – and pulled out a copy of Ash Wednesday from his bedroom bookshelf .

The day Steve handed him this particular book of poetry, it had been a bad day. Tony’d taken it without a word and shoved it into his bag, forgetting it was there for days.

When he did find it again, Steve’s note was there on a scrap of yellow-colored paper.

Some days, I wonder what you believe in. - Steve

Now, he lay across his bed, dressed in that tattered old sweatshirt, reading the weathered pages, holding the note between his fingers. And, as he fell asleep, he thought of the moon, of the heat and breeze, and could hear Steve Rogers’ voice, humming a gentle lullaby.

Chapter Text

Steve

 

Waking with the sun was a habit Steve formed early in life. No matter how many hours of rest he managed, his body ticked awake with the sunrise, and it was true even now, as he’d laid awake most of the night, wine in his blood and his ears ringing with the humming voice of his Anthony Stark, skin itching for his touch.

He left Bucky in the rafters to sleep; he liked spending the mornings in peace with nature. Standing outside against an old rusted farming crane, Steve had a rollup, staring off into the plains at the rising sun. The sky was breaking into pinks and oranges, and it was lovely. On mornings like this, he missing upstate New York, rising at dawn to start the day, the sight of Anthony reading on the terrace in the early afternoon.

Steve pulled his small charcoal pencil and flip pad out from one of his pockets, and with the vision of teenage Tony fresh in his mind - always fresh in his mind - he sketched him lazily. It had become a second natured thing now – drawing Tony. He knew the curve of his chin, the length of his neck, how to shade the pink fullness of his mouth. And those big Stark eyes.

He didn’t have a photograph. Only these sketches. Only these memories.

With it finished, he replaced the pad in his kit, then, looking to make sure Bucky wouldn’t appear from the barn doors, he pulled at the collar of his shirt, unbuttoning it enough to reveal his week old wound on his solar plexus. A small knife had pierced him in their run-in with the Italians. The fucking Italians.

It didn’t look bad, but it could’ve surely been better. The skin around the bloody hole was black and blue, and, as he pressed at it, the blood and pus let itself be known.

He hissed, wishing that they had bandages left. And hoping there wasn’t an infection.

As he buttoned his shirt over it again, he caught sight of a spider building a web across the old rusty crane.

It was dark brown and decently sized, and suddenly, he was thinking of Briony, with her chocolate colored hair and thin lips.

Weeks after the Starks held the party where Tony invited Steve outside for a smoke, he invited Steve for a swim. Steve hadn’t even seen it coming. He was sitting under a tree with his sketchpad and charcoal pencils, sketching a squirrel that was sleeping in a high branch.

When a shadow cast over his light, he looked up to find Tony and Briony, both in their swimsuits and sandals. Briony looked like any lovely twelve year old should, with her yellow polka-dotted one-piece and matching swimcap, a towel wrapped around her shoulders.

Tony’s trunks were short and fitting. Incredibly so on both counts. Even the birds would blush at the sight of him, so lean and, God, those hips.

“We’re going to the riverspot,” Briony said excitedly.

Steve cocked his head, looking specifically at Tony who was wearing oversized sunglasses, hiding his eyes. “I thought Mr. Stark didn’t want you guys going out there?”

Tony scoffed. “Mr. Stark isn’t here.”

“It’s really lovely down there!” Briony told him. “If you won’t come swim, you could get some nice sketches. Please do come!”

“Yes,” Tony said boredly, already walking away. “Please come.”

Just off the edge of the Stark property, the temperamental river ran through the woods. It was safe to swim in for a rather good stretch, but there was a small waterfall (only six or seven feet) that caused a cataclysmic current in the final few feet of the brink. The landing was intimidatingly deep with plenty of underwater plants to be caught on. A novice swimmer without the arm strength could easily get lost in the water and dragged along to their death.

Still, the clearing was deceptively lovely, surrounded by tall trees with the sun poking through, shedding every surface with yellow and green light. Plenty of wildflowers and lily pads were scattered along the landing, and - Briony was right - it made a great drawing.

Steve sat down near the plush hill that formed the waterfall, boots and socks to the side, pants rolled up to stick his feet into the water. Tony was lying out on the other side of the river on his towel, right where the sun was shining through the most. From yards away, Steve could see the way Tony’s shiny orange swim shorts cut into his hipbone, squeezed him comfortably, and it made him feel warm.  

Leave it to Anthony to be so lovely, so teasing, and to not care one bit how distracting he was.

Briony was swimming around safely up river, singing and playing, calling out to Steve occasionally just to wave or show him her backstroke.

When an hour passed, Tony packed up his book and towel. “I’m heading back,” he called out. “Coming?”

“I’m not ready to go yet,” Briony whined.

“I’ll bring her back,” Steve offered.

Tony waved them off, and Steve watched him walk through the woods towards home. It wasn’t until Tony was far out of sight that Steve looked down at his sketchpad and realized he’d been drawing him.

And then, Briony was plopping down next to him, eyes on the sketch.

“Will you draw me?” she asked.

Steve smiled. “Of course I can, pal,” he said, flipping to a clean page. “Look out over the water. Keep your chin up. There.”

As he started to draw, she spoke. “Tony is being homeschooled for his senior year. Did you know?”

“Uhm, no. I – I heard that your father was pulling him out of boarding school.”

“Oh, quite the opposite. Daddy would rather him finish out his last year in London, but apparently Tony’s extra-curriculars were causing too much of a stir and Daddy’s checks weren’t enough to appease the headmaster.”

Steve hummed, unsure if he wanted to hear secondhand accounts of Tony’s life.

“My Anthony didn’t seem to care either way,” she said finally, sighing.

They sat in silence for a few minutes as Steve sketched. He realized now, for the first time, that Briony actually did favor Anthony in some ways. It was obvious in family portraits that Bruce and Briony were their mother’s children, but Tony was surely Howard Stark’s son, a spitting image.

Now, Steve saw that Briony had her brother’s high cheekbones and long neck.

“Tony likes boys the way that you like girls,” she said hesitantly, but still with the air of her matter-of-factness. “Did you know that?”

“Yes, pal. I’ve heard such. Keep your chin up, please.”

She did as he asked. “Do you think Anthony’s eyes are pretty?”

Steve licked his lips and took in a deep breath. “I suppose so, sure.”

“I wish I had eyes like him. He says that they are his best feature. Do you think so?”

“I’m finished,” he said handing the pad over. “You’re a lovely girl, Briony.”

She smiled and thanked him, then ran off to take another swim.

He returned to Tony’s page and finished the smaller details of the woods and flowers when he realized how much time had passed, and he should get Briony back home. He called out to her and started to put on his socks and boots.

“Stevie!” she called out.

He looked up and saw her on the other side of the river, standing on the plush evergreen near the edge of the fall. “Yes, pal?”

“If I fell into the river, would you save me?” she asked.

“Of course.” He tied his shoelaces, one after the other, then heard a loud splash. When he looked up, Briony was gone, and there were telling ripples at the landing of the falls.

He shot up and down the hill, searching for only a moment before diving in.

As expected, Briony was deep under the water, and the overgrown greenery and vines were reaching out, her legs in danger of being tangled in it as the current swept her forward.

He made it over, grabbed her by her waist, and dragged her back up to the surface, swimming her to the edge and throwing her up into the grass with an easy lift of his arm. When he lifted himself out, she was already on her feet, looking oddly delighted.

“Thank you! Thank you!” she was yelling, nearly giggling.

“That was such a stupid thing to do, Briony,” he said, leaning down to her height, taking her slender shoulders into his hands and giving her a subtle shake. When he realized his own anger, he pulled away from her and started walking back up the hill, shaking water out of his ears.

“I wanted you to save me!” she cried out.

He looked over his shoulders. “Come get your things. We’re leaving.” He grabbed his notepad. “Do you know how easily you could have drowned?” he spat.

“You saved me,” she said softly.

He turned completely now and she nearly ran into him. “You stupid child. You could have killed us both! Is this some sort of joke to you?”

She was shocked by his tone, he could tell. He prided himself on never gaining a temper, never raising his voice unless he was calling someone at a far distance. Few things upset him, and he knew his place as a Stark servant, but God have it all.

She cleared her throat, and, in her tinny voice, she said, “I want to thank you for saving my life. I’ll be eternally grateful.”

He stared at her, with her swim cap hiding her chocolate hair, her flushed and fair skin, a mind too developed for her own good. “I’m leaving now. You’ll do best to keep up.”

He turned his back and headed up to the manor, never looking back, although he listened attentively to her walking behind him, attempting to keep up with his long strides.

Steve never assumed anything of that day. Perhaps Briony had a schoolgirl crush on him. Perhaps she noticed Steve had eyes for Tony and desired that same attention. Perhaps it meant absolutely nothing. The only thing that was sure was that Briony never pulled a stunt like that again.

Of course, until the night that Lola was assaulted.

 

The sun was high enough now that Steve figured he should wake Bucky and start their trek. They shared a canteen of water and ate their bread, walking through small forests and cornfields. As was expected, Bucky was talking his lungs away.

“Let’s see Jerry come and have a go at us in fucking Southend. Or, better still, Trafalgar Square. No one speaks the fucking lingo out here. You can’t say ‘Pass the biscuit’ or ‘Where’s me hand grenade?’ They just shrug. Because they hate us too! I mean, that’s the point. We fight in France and the French fuckin’ hate us.

“Make me Home Secretary, I’ll sort this all out in a fucking minute. We got India and Africa, right? Jerry can have France and Belgium and whatever else they want. Who’s fucking ever been to Poland, righ’? It’s all about room and empire. They want more empire. Give ‘em this shithole, we keep ours, and it’s Bob’s your uncle and Fanny’s your fucking aunt. Think about it.”

Steve chuckled. “First thing’s first. When you become Home Secretary, try to have that plan of yours in English.”

“Fuck off, yeah?”

Steve licked his lips. “I was charged for assaulting a fifteen year old girl. Howard Stark’s niece.”

“You’re pulling my tit!”

“No.”

“You didn’t do it, of course.”

“No.”

“Why’d they think it was you?”

“Briony Stark says she saw me do it.”

“Why in the world would she do a thing like that?”

“You tell me and we’ll both know.”

“Do me a right favor, yeah? When you see her next, give her a proper smack on my behalf. Sort of person goes and sullies a man’s name for the kicks?”

“I smell the sea.”

“Excuse me?”

They were walking on a gravel trail now, surrounded by nothing but tall grass, a large embankment forming to their left side. Steve instantly took off through it, Bucky yelling behind him, telling him to slow up, until they’d finally broken through the tall thicket and found themselves on sand.

And then, at the brink of the hill, they were overlooking a beach, and in every direction, thousands upon thousands of soldiers, horses, and tanks.

“Well fuck on me,” Bucky whispered, putting a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Wha’s this all about?”

They learned soon enough that Churchill had ordered an evacuation of soldiers from the beach of Dunkirk, and that tomorrow, June 4th, would be the last day. Every soldier on this beach would be piled onto ships and taken back home, so as to refocus their war efforts. In other words, the Axis powers were stronger than expected, and the Allies were retreating.

And the beach was filled with their brothers in arms, many waiting to pass the time by playing checkers and singing songs and drinking beer. And they walked together, him and Bucky, along the length of the beach, looking at every soldier they could, just happy to see other people who’d become as weathered as them, people who’d fought for the same purpose.

It was almost daunting to find eighteen-year-old boys with dirty faces and tired eyes, worn from war. Boys who’d seen more death than most could truly handle. Boys who so desperately wanted to be home with their families.

They found that any mail addressed to soldiers had been collected and there was a station at the far end of the beach to collect anything that had been sent.

Steve had two letters. One was very short.

 

My Steve –

I dreamt of you last night. I placed my hand over your heart and said that I loved you. You smiled at me because you knew it was true. I hope that I will find the same results in reality.

Come back to me, love.

-Anthony


The second was longer, and the most daunting.

Briony, after years of silence, was seeking atonement.

“You’re lookin’ rather pale, mate,” Bucky said, taking Steve’s arm and turning him to look in his eyes.

This didn’t surprise Steve, because suddenly, he felt his body break into a cold sweat and his limbs go heavy. There wasn’t much food in his stomach, but what little was there threatened to become bile in his throat. “I need…” He could barely get the words right.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, gov’na’,” Bucky said with his arms around Steve’s waist, which made him realize he was falling over. “Wha’s goin’ on with you?”

Steve pulled at his collar. “My chest,” was the last phrase he could muster before he felt the world go black.

Chapter Text

Tony

 

Three weeks ago, Natasha came knocking on Tony’s apartment door, yelling his name to force him from his weekend slumber. He rolled out of bed, calling ‘Yes, yes, I’m coming’, pawing through his living room slowly but surely.

The door swung open before he could get to it.

He stood, slightly baffled at her standing there. “I must get that lock fixed.”

“Nevermind that,” she spat, holding up a newspaper. “Soldiers are being brought home. Churchill is evacuating the English and French. Steve is coming home to you!”

Tony snatched the paper from her and then fell into the couch, skimming the article through eyes quickly blurring with tears.

“Can you believe it?” she squealed, hitting him gently on his leg. “Gods, I mean. It is rather scary that we are retreating so soon. What do you think that means for the war? But, God, it would be nice to see your true smile. To meet the man who makes you stare into space like you do.”

Now, soldiers had been returned to their wives and children, days turned easily into nights, and Tony had yet to see or hear from the blond who held his heart, who owned his thoughts.

Tonight, he sat in the center of his bed with Steve’s school shirt draped over him like a blanket, and Natasha was lying at the end of his bed like a cat.

Sweet Natasha, who didn't want her friend to feel lonelier than necessary, had slept over for two nights now and showed no sign of leaving. That was fine with Tony, and he didn't question or deny her maternity (there was no stopping Natasha from her bidding). He knew that her intentions were that of a true friend. With every day that Steve didn’t return, she was witnessing Tony’s heart going heavy and his faith dwindling, and she was only doing what he would do for her if the tables were turned.

Tony was sure that he felt love in his heart for the woman.

“I don’t blame your hesitance,” she said softly, moving off her stomach and onto her ribs, stretching her body. Her shirt rose a bit and revealed her tattoo of a black widow spider, the legs hugging high around her hip. She said she’d gotten it years ago, but never explained its significance. “But I feel that calling your brother would be less about your relationship with him and more about finding Steve.”

Tony nodded, looking at the phone sitting between them.

“I know you’re scared,” she said, taking the phone from its cradle, holding it out to him. The look in her green eyes said that if he didn’t call, she would.

And, with that, he took the mint colored handset, dialed for the operator, and was transferred to Bruce Stark’s home in Manhattan, New York.

It rang and rang, and just when Tony said that his brother might still be at the office, as it was only early evening back home, there was an answer.

“This is Bruce.”

Tony sat in silence, and before he could realize, his throat had gone tight and tears were welling in his eyes.

But those tears - those salty and thick tears - were not for the sound of his brother’s voice, for finally forgiving his brother’s decisions years ago. There would be other days for that maybe, but that day wasn’t now.

The sadness creeping up in his chest was for Steve Rogers. Steve Rogers, who, on one summer afternoon, wrote two very differently worded letters while thinking of his Anthony – one of lust (which was never meant to be read) and one of love (which Tony would never see). Steve Rogers, who, in all of his loveliness, would never hurt a fly, and would’ve never laid an ill finger on anyone who hadn’t hurt him first. Especially not a little girl like Lola Quincey.

In all of Tony’s young age, he’d never felt a wall of sadness crash down on him like the one he felt now. It was a wall that had stacked and stacked and stacked from the moment Steve was pulled away from him and shoved into a police car, and when he received news of his prison sentencing, and when Steve refused to reply to his letters for years. He’d fought through all of those things with the assurance that Steve would belong to him in due time, and that love would be strong enough if only he was patient. If only he believed.

But now Steve had not returned. The Steve who’d told him he’d come back and love him with all of his body and mind had not returned from war as the other soldiers had.

Tony had never thought of Steve Rogers dying, and now, he had no choice but to let that possibility – that truth – prickle his mind.

With all the strength he could muster, he took a deep breath. “Steve hasn’t come back.”

Natasha sat up now, crawling across the bed and curling next to him, rubbing small circles into his lower back. She leaned her ear into the phone to hear what Bruce would say.

“Anthony?” the man asked.

“Yes. It is me. I need you to – anything.”

“When was the last time you heard from him?” There was rustling in the background, as if he was rummaging through his desk.

“I-I don’t know. My last letter from him was nearly two months ago. He – he’s never gone that long without writing.” He swallowed and looked to Natasha. “I don’t know what I can do.”

“Let me make some phone calls, okay?” Bruce said gently. “I will call you the moment I know anything.”

Tony nodded, although his brother couldn’t see that from an ocean away. “My phone number is-”

“I have the number, dear brother. Of course I have the number.”

With the phone on its hook and the lights turned out, Natasha pulled Tony into her chest and they lay in silence, Tony wrapping his arms around her, listening to her steady heartbeat. She brushed her fingers through his hair, and hummed a song that made him think of the summers he’d had with Steve, and the summers that he didn’t. He thought of his mother’s perfume and English charm. He remembered the burliness of his father’s voice, the first sip of whiskey he’d offered. He remembered Sandra Fabrini and Michael Feldman, the boys he’d kissed before Steve. He remembered the look in Clint Barton’s eye this morning when Natasha came in to offer them a lunch break. He remembered the feel of Steve – his Steve – hovering over him and locking his lips into his mouth.

And, he remembered looking down into Steve’s eyes as he was held against his father’s library shelf, breath coming easy and fingers at Steve’s speeding pulse. It was the most relaxed he’d ever felt in his life, and the words came so easy. There were no other truths, and no thoughts of consequence. I love you. He’d said it, and it was true then, and it was true now as he drifted into sleep.

When he rose the next morning, Natasha was in his kitchen with the radio playing. He yawned to alert her that he was awake, and she turned with a smile. She was a morning person.

“You’re a skinny thing,” she said in her hybrid Russian and English accent. “I’ll cook and you will eat.”

He smiled, positioning himself to lie across the width of his bed, to watch her work. “I was raised with servants, love. The most I can manage is toast and coffee and soup.”

“I managed to get bacon from the butcher.”

“You’ve left?”

“Mhm,” she said proudly. “You slept late.”

“How’d you manage to get meat? What little the butcher has is gone when I go out to do the shopping.”

“I can be convincing,” she said slyly, tossing her red locks.

“Well, thank God for you.”

Natasha treated him with crisp bacon and fried eggs and orange slices. They sat in silence on the middle of his bed, listening to the radio play, enjoying the freedom of a late workday.

She cleared her throat after a while. “How did your parents feel about your desiring men?”

He snorted a laugh as he scooped eggs onto his fork. “Is that proper conversation for breakfast?”

“I’m not sure it is proper conversation anytime. But, you know me.”

“I was young, so I thought most of my indiscretions were written off as rebellions. It wasn’t until I was kicked out of school that my father finally addressed it. My mother I was never worried about. She would love me regardless, although I’m sure she fretted that I would get arrested or worse for my ‘behaviors’. Daddy though…”

Age seventeen felt like so long ago, but Tony could remember Howard coming into his room (such a rare occasion) and pulling the desk chair up to Tony’s chaise. They hadn’t spoken since flying back from London, and Tony wasn’t sure whether his father was angry or not. When money couldn’t do his bidding, he was a rather silent man, and completely unreadable. Tony felt the respect and the fear that any boy should feel for his father.

“You are no fool, my Anthony,” he’d said, looking down at the space between his Italian leather shoes. “You never have been. Of all my children, I’ve trusted you most to carry yourself as a respectable man, to know the balance between your mind and heart, and choose accordingly. And, I can’t say you’ve made a mistake yet, even now.”

Tony swallowed. He’d been kicked out of boarding school for being too much of a distraction to the other boys. (Mind you, Tony was never very camp, outside of his niche for style. And he hadn’t been the one to make the move on either of those boys, and yet, he carried the brunt of the punishment.) He’d risked rumor to his family’s name, or worse. Great Britain was not Manhattan or the New York countryside. Men did not lay with men, it was known, but a New Yorker only need find a private gathering place to live his life in those times.  That wasn’t necessarily the truth for a prestigious London school.

And still, Howard was paying his middle-child with a loving speech.

“I just ask that you be careful,” he continued. “Losing you would be my worst day. I’m certain of that. Even in what you think of me, you are my greatest accomplishment. You have lived for yourself, and will continue to do so if you remain diligent and smart. I worry about you less and less these days. Bruce was always a good kid, but he’d never stand up for himself, it seems. And Briony is too smart and fickle for her age. They will make the mistakes that you won’t.”

After a long silence, of Howard having turned his attention to a stack of books on Tony’s bedside table on the other side of the room, the younger Stark spoke up. “Are you alright, Dad?”

Howard hummed and looked over to his middle-child. “You are my son, and I will forever love you as such. I know that we will never pretend to understand one another’s ways, as we are both rather stubborn and righteous, but I will love you and try to protect you as is my duty as a father. You can always expect that of me.”

Tony swallowed and nodded, and that, in its roundabout way, was their only discussion about it.

“There are plenty of men sticking their dicks in other men,” Tony told Natasha airily. “The world wide, and it has happened for centuries. I think nothing past it. What makes me moan is only the business of mine and the man who makes it happen, and the friends we choose to tell, not my neighbors or my government.”

“You’re so headstrong.”

“I have never known how to be anything but,” he chuckled, setting his empty plate aside and falling back into his pillow. “I hate this conversation. Convinces me of how stupid the world is, and I’d like to keep a bit of faith.”

“We have an hour before work. What would you like to talk about?”

He blushed, and she grinned.

“Well, come on then. I love a good story about your Mr. Rogers.”

“Perhaps if you went ahead and gave Clint Barton your attention, you’d have your own love story instead of living vicariously through mine, how awful mine is.”

“Yours is hardly awful, if only a bit unrequited.” She tapped him on his leg before collecting their plates and going to the kitchen. “And you shut up about that Clint Barton, cheeky bum.”

“Oh, Natasha.”

“Come on then,” she egged, going into the fridge to pour herself a glass of milk. “Don’t bite your tongue.”

Tony sat up on his elbows and watched her walk lazily to the bookshelf in his living room. “I miss him, even though I never once told him goodbye. I always thought that if you never tell someone goodbye, it helps to fade the pain of missing them. I was incredibly wrong about that, it seems. Probably the most naïve thought I’ve ever had.”

Natasha picked up a book, looked at either side, put it down and took up another.

“He has the greatest smile you’ll ever see,” Tony told her, because these were the things that mattered. “I swear it. You’ll never come across someone with a brighter smile. It is one of the few things I choose to believe in.”

“That’s enough to make an old girl cry,” she said, putting another book away. She re-entered the bedroom and went into the bathroom.  “I want to know more.”

Tony watched her undress, but felt nothing but admiration, as she was a beautiful woman, no doubt. As she showered, as she dressed in his clothes, he told her about love. About Steve’s odd strength and his artistic talents. About the summers of sitting in his window and on his terrace with big sunglasses and a book, pretending he didn’t see Steve working in the yard. He was muscled and golden and beautiful, and Tony fell in love with every inch, and had loved him for a long time before he ever realized.

“You will have him back,” Natasha said in a low whisper, nuzzling her nose into Tony’s neck once they arrived at the hospital for the day’s work. She’d been listening quietly, only speaking to ask for more. “Your brother will call you with good news. I feel it.”

“And how good are you with feelings?” he asked gently.

She licked her lips, staring at him thoughtfully. “I only hope that God will finally give you the mercy you deserve.”

Tony hummed. Mercy was a fickle thing.

Chapter Text

Tony

Clint Barton had come a long way during his weeks of therapy, as Tony expected he would. He was headstrong and determined, if not too hard on himself, and it didn’t go unnoticed. The key to Tony’s form of therapy was recognizing that every small bit of success was actually a giant leap, and nothing was unimportant.

Clint was standing there on his own now, between the ballet bars, holding onto nothing, body erect in a soldier's stance.

“Seems you’ve conquered your balance, Clint,” Tony smiled, tapping the bar in compliment. “How’s it feel?”

“I don’t feel like a pigeon-toed bow-legged toddler, if that’s what you mean,” he chuckled. Then he sighed. “It feels good. To stand on my own. To feel like a whole man.”

“Your shell may have been damaged, but you were always a whole man,” Tony told him with a caring nod. “Want to try walking towards me without the bars?”

“I’ll probably fall over.”

“You almost definitely will,” Tony corrected with half a smile. “But I’m right here.”

Contemplation rode through the ex-soldier’s face, his full lips pulling into his mouth and the lines in his forehead going stronger. Then, he stepped forward with his damaged foot. And, as expected, he faltered, losing the balance he’d only just relearned, but Tony was there to catch him in open arms.

“There you go, there you go,” Tony said, pulling him upright.

Clint took hold of the bars and started to laugh. “I suppose that could have gone worse.”

“Now you’ll know what to expect,” Tony told him. “We’ll try that again next time. We aren’t in any rush.”

Clint nodded. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” he said, eyes concentrated as Clint began to walk forward from his end of the balance beams. He was getting along faster and faster these days, and his favoring of his right leg wasn’t so obvious anymore.

“Your girlfriend. She’s gone, isn’t she?”

Tony’s expression changed in surprise.

“I’m sorry if that’s prying,” Clint said, stopping in his tracks. “I just… I see it in you sometimes. There are pieces of you missing. I’m not saying you seem weak – believe me, that’s not it. I just notice because I’ve been there, too.”

Still, Tony couldn’t say anything.

“I’d only been married a couple of months before I joined the military. She died of pneumonia not long after. Never even got to go to her funeral.” He leaned his elbows onto the bars, then lifted his half-foot into the air, examining it in a lost sort of gaze. “It’s been a long time, but I remember how it felt to miss her and wonder if I’d ever get back to her. I happen to see it in you.”

Tony swallowed, because for some reason, he felt trust. In all of the betrayal he’d encountered, and all of the secrets he had to keep from the world, Clint Barton was egging out his truth with a single thread. “My boyfriend, actually,” he said, voice soft. “He’s a soldier, and he hasn’t come home yet.”

Clint, as expected, seemed a bit stunned, but it was only for a moment. Then, he nodded, as if it made no difference to him. “How long have you known one another?”

“My whole life,” Tony said, and he’d only just realized it. Some of his first memories included Steve, the housekeeper’s son, sitting in the back of the room not saying a word.

“I wish I knew what to say,” Clint sighed, shaking his head. “I really do.”

Tony licked his lips in thought. “You don’t have to say anything.”

Clint started to walk again, and they worked in silence for a long while, Clint going back and forth between the beams. During a return trip, Tony found himself smiling.

“You should ask Natasha out for lunch,” he suggested with a half chuckle.

A blush seeped into Clint’s stubbled face. “You noticed, huh?”

Tony nodded. “It wasn’t very difficult, I’m afraid.”

“I wear my heart on my sleeve these days,” Clint admitted. “She’s beautiful. You think she’d say yes?”

“Of course she would,” Tony assured. “Just don’t pull any fast ones. She keeps a knife beneath those scrubs.”

Clint laughed from his belly. “I think I can handle it.”

At the end of their session, Clint got onto his crutches and followed Ton to the workroom. Natasha was sitting at the table, waiting for Tony to finish so that they could go home. She was surprised to see Clint, but said nothing.

Tony went to the fridge and grabbed a soda. He shot Clint an encouraging smile as he leaned into the fridge door.

“I know I don’t seem like much of a guy,” Clint said to Natasha, and, God, he looked scared as all hell for someone who’d been through a war. Natasha had that effect on men. “But I was wondering if you’d let me take you to lunch one day this week.”

Natasha laughed and looked to Anthony. “Did you put him up to this?” She looked at Clint again, reiterating. “Did he make you do this?”

“No ma’am. I want you on my own accord.”

Tony couldn’t hold in his laughter, because it was quite a good line, and anyone that could make Natasha blush like that deserved every moment of her time.

“How about an early dinner?” Natasha said standing. “Are you busy right now?”

Clint was surprised. “Well, no.”

And, just like that, she was getting out of her chair and nodding for him to follow her out of the building. “Should I come to see you later tonight?” she asked Tony.

Tony smiled sincerely. “No. Enjoy a night from babysitting me, yes?”

She wrapped her arms around him as Clint propped the door open for her, waiting. “I’ll talk to you tonight,” she whispered.

“Or in the morning,” Tony teased, loud enough for Clint to hear. “If that is your convenience.”

“You’re a right git, Anthony Stark.”

Once he was alone, he smiled to himself, because Natasha deserved her happiness. She was so young and vibrant. She didn’t need to be caught up in the house with Tony, distracting him from his loneliness.

He grabbed his clipboard with Clint’s paperwork on it, jotted down a few notes about the day’s successes, then slipped it back into the carriage on the door.

And then, when he went to the front to lock up the doors, he found his brother, sitting in one of the waiting room chairs, elbows on the arm rests, leaning forward to look at the space between his feet.

“What in the…” He paused to take a breath when Bruce looked up at him slightly startled. “ When did - How did you-?”

“I took the jet early this morning,” Bruce said standing, rubbing his hand together. His nervous tick. “I only showed up a few minutes ago. I didn’t want to call with this news.”

Tony was stuck in his stance. “What news?”

Bruce took a wary step forward. “I made some phone calls, Anthony.”

This was not the tone of voice Tony wanted to hear or the facial expression he wanted to see. When he called Bruce two days ago, he’d called him with hope, subconsciously thinking that his brother – his big brother – could save the day. “Don’t do this to me right now, Bruce,” he begged quietly.

“Steve’s unit had been missing for months.”

“No.”

“They crossed paths with a group of Italian soldiers in middle France. Nobody survived.”

“Don’t say that to me.”

“I’m sorry, Anthony,” Bruce managed.

The door was opening and Natasha was coming in, explaining that she saw a car parked in front and she was coming back to check on him and-

As soon as Tony met her gaze, and as soon as Natasha saw Bruce Stark standing there with the fearful eyes of a messenger, a guttural cry ran out of his throat. The edges of Natasha’s frame went blurry as tears filled his eyes, and then he felt weightless, and then, and then his brother and friend were catching him to ease him onto the floor.

And then.

He could hear himself screaming, saying no, but he couldn’t feel the words coming off his tongue, couldn’t understand the sympathetic sentences his brother and friend were offering. Hands were on him but he was numb to it. The sun was coming through the glass door, but brightness wasn’t a term that he knew anymore.

Tony read about out of body experiences in fiction, and always found it peculiar. Characters who couldn’t take hold of themselves, couldn’t bear containing their pain. He thought that maybe it was simply a creative tick of authors wanting to incorporate a visceral blur on the world.

Now, it was an experience that had come out of the pages of books and encased his reality.

In his numbness, Natasha and Bruce piled him into the backseat of Bruce’s car. Natasha was hushing him, holding him into his chest, running her fingers through hair. He wondered where Clint Barton was. He wondered if they would still have dinner together one day. He wondered what he would do without her, his sweet Natasha, so willing to drop everything to help him.

And Bruce suddenly seemed like Howard, sitting on the opposite side of them, fingers gripping the leather seat, watching. He’d refused to let them walk, even though Natasha’s flat was only two blocks away. From what Tony could tell, the driver was moving rather slow, but maybe it was his imagination. Maybe everything was slowing down as he felt his world ending.

Was this the mercy that Natasha had spoken of? Was the God of All dimming Tony’s pain as an apology? Had Tony brought this on himself? So long ago, he’d opened a letter from the housekeeper’s son and felt something like wildfire in his chest. He thought that, if ever he felt something stronger, it would surely kill him. He thought that it was beautiful to feel something so enigmatic and raw, to want a connection that left him lost between his body and another’s, to feel the vibration of love swell through him.

Apparently, he’d been wrong.

Before long, he was lying on his back in Natasha’s bed, and Bruce was kneeling to the side of him, saying… something. Something Tony couldn’t decipher. He only saw those big dark eyes, colored brown like their mother, sorrow-filled.

Tony shut his own eyes, needing darkness, needing to sink. He felt a strong hand on his cheek, then a pair of lips pressing into his forehead. His brother’s goodbye.

The darkness behind his eyelids was cold and empty, and somehow welcoming. His mind had turned off and allowed no memories in, no projections of the past, no ghosts.

And then.

He felt Natasha next him, body curved into his. Yes. He felt that. And her hand soothing down his ribs, her breath on the back of his neck.

And then she began to hum a melody.

He didn’t hear it at first. Only felt the vibrations against his back. The pulses, the rhythms. And they were familiar. So familiar that he forced his eyes open.

Steve Rogers.

The first and last time they’d laid together, Steve held him like this, humming against him. He said it was his mother’s favorite song. A Russian opera piece that reminded him of heaven. That brought him peace when stress was all around him. That assured him of love.

It had made Tony smile and turn into him.

“But I’m a horrible singer,” Steve admitted, his voice hoarse but loving. “I’ll stop if you’d like.”

“Don’t you dare,” Tony said, slipping his hand to Steve’s hip. “Don’t ever stop.”

And now, he was seeing it, feeling it, realizing it. Tears started to burn and streak down his face, and the weight in his chest finally collapsed, choking away his air. He was croaking out Steve’s name, just to feel it in his mouth, as if his cries would bring him back. As if the calls would be answered.

Steve Rogers was dead.

Natasha stopped singing and yanked him into her chest. He started to fight her, to push and scratch and pull at her clothes, to scream at her, to tell her ‘Fucking let me go!’ but she held tight, refusing.

And then, he thought he might be sick.

“Anthony, oh, Anthony,” she started to say, helping him lean over the side of her bed to the trash can. “Breathe, love. Just breathe.”

He couldn’t get enough air and no bile would come from his stomach. His body tried to reject the anguish, the guilt, the sadness, and loss. He tried to let in any comfort, any sign of God. Nothing would come. Nothing would go.  Nothing.

And he cried until his body was weary. Until he let Natasha pull him under the sheets, still holding him, hushing him until he could finally manage steady breaths, until he had no energy to fight it.

And he dreamt of red flowers, of his old country home, of his mother’s dark brown eyes, of walking through heavy heat, of Steve – his Steve – coming towards him, breeze all around him, of Russian arias, of things that never happened.

He came out of his slumber like he would come up from a pool, breathless and startled. The sun was nearly all of the way down now, leaking golden light into the room. Natasha was asleep as well, her hand resting on his stomach.

He couldn’t stay.

As soon as he moved away from her, she came awake, watching him.

“Come back to bed, friend,” she asked carefully.

“I need to go.”

“Anthony, please.” She came off the mattress and put a hand on either of his shoulders. “Please, stay here with me. You need-”

“I can’t stay here,” Tony told her. “I need to be where he’s been. I need to go home.”

“I will come with you.”

“I want to be alone, Natasha.”

And he left her there.

His walking felt aimless and cold. He wrapped his arms around himself, eyeing the streets, the empty streets that were losing its afternoon light. The streetlamps clicked on and the headlights of slow-moving cars seemed brighter. His mind was blank, and his chest, as heavy as it had been, felt empty. So empty that he feared his heart and stomach had somehow evaporated.

Which, as he thought over it, did not sound so bad. Permanent emptiness did not sound so bad. Death did not sound so bad.

He made it to his flat without realizing. He slipped his key into the door and thought of leaving Brighton, finding a new place, or perhaps no place at all. There was no place in the world that could feel like home. He thought that maybe, in time, he would find comfort with Natasha again, re-establish his brotherhood with Bruce, go to his parents graves.

But he didn’t want to wait for time. He did not want to be patient in his healing. He wanted his emptiness to end as quickly as it began.

And then he was looking at him. Yes. Him. He’d pushed open the door and hung his keys on the hook and finally noticed that the small lamp on the end table was shedding light on a golden blonde man on his couch. Him. He was sprawled on his back, lips ajar, a book lying open on his stomach. A Bible that had no doubt come from the unzipped duffel at his feet.

If the door hadn’t swung close, the man would’ve never opened his eyes, as Tony was stuck in place, immobile and unbreathing and shell-shocked.

That man – the blond and tall man who could not possibly be real – managed a tired and weak smile, standing. And, just as easy as the smile came, it faltered.

And Tony felt himself starting to shake.

“Tony?”

And it was his voice. His low and warm voice, so full of care and contentment. The voice that haunted Tony with love and compassion and hope.

“Anthony, are-”

“Are you real?” Tony heard himself say.

The man stepped forward, but Tony put his hands up to stop him, his brows lowering.

“Are you real?” he shouted, unsteady, cracking with emotion and defeat. His throat was filled with salt and anxiety. His pores were burning. He demanded an answer, a truth.

“Of course I’m real.” And the man came forward until they were toe to toe. “Of course I’m real,” he repeated, voice quiet, slipping his hands up to Tony’s cheeks.

“I thought you – you -.” Tony couldn’t manage the words, letting himself feel the warmth of the hands on his face. Calloused and familiar hands. Steve’s hands. His Steve. “They said you were dead.”

The man spoke of a small battle in which he was the last to stand, a beach full of soldiers waiting to come home, an infection from a stab wound, an emergency surgery in a hospital in London, an induced coma, but Tony’s mind was clouded with grey. He barely heard a word.

“They said you were gone,” Tony said again, because minutes before, he was alone, contemplating joining his love in death. Moments ago, he was wondering what life could ever grant him that surmounted the love and happiness he’d already felt in Steve's arms.

“I am not,” Steve said, voice light. “I am here with you. Where I should be. Now look at me.”

Tony’s eyes were clenched shut, tears falling, basking, but he couldn’t allow himself to see. He was too afraid to open his eyes and find an empty room, to learn that this wasn’t real. That the ghost had finally arrived to torment him. That his weariness had caught up with him, to tease him with shadows, with angels. “I can’t,” he finally breathed. “I can’t, I can’t-”

“Please, love.” And the hands tightened, stroking the tears away. “Let me see the eyes that I dreamt of for so long. Let me find your soul again.”

And then.

Tony let his eyes flutter open, and yes. There Steve was, looking into him, holding onto him. He smelled of soft soap and his eyes were the color of the brightest ocean blue, and his skin gave off a sweeter heat than any summer Tony had ever known.

Tony lifted his hands to cover the larger ones on his face, locking his fingers into the spaces and squeezing tight. “Say that you’re real.”

“I’m real.”

“Tell me that you’ve come back to me.”

Steve ducked down to Tony’s mouth, breath shallow and wet. “I’ve come back to you,” he whispered, taking Tony into a kiss, a very true and real hello.

Chapter Text

Steve & Tony

 

Steve didn’t have very many habits. Smoking was one, and he realized now that he would never manage to quit. If being the 'strong and silent' type was a habit, he had that, too. He missed Bucky, it seemed; he loved to talk Steve’s ear off. He wondered how long it would be before he saw him next.

The habit riding him hardest was Tony.

Two weeks ago, Steve walked out of a hospital and hitched a ride into Brighton, right to his Tony's door. The door in question had a shit lock, and when he got no answer, he let himself in and sat down on the couch, waiting. He went through stages of anxiety, then patience, and finally acceptance, as he realized he was in Tony’s space, and he had no place else to go, nothing to do but wait. And he was okay with that.

And then, Anthony – oh, his Anthony – walked in and thought that he was a ghost. Steve had never felt more sorrow, more love. He’d made a promise to himself then and there that he’d prove himself alive, prove himself a man, prove himself worthy. Now, at every moment he could, he was touching Tony, kissing the length of his neck, squeezing his hip, walking him to work, bringing him lunch, listening to him talk about his days. And making love to him when days were finishing, when days were beginning.

Yes. Tony was the greatest habit, a lovely addiction for which there was no cure. If that was a hindrance, Steve did not care. He’d escaped death for this. No, not for the sake of living or because the heavens scared him – that wasn’t true at all. He believed he fought through circumstances of death because Tony gave him a sense of being, of self-actualization. He believed that his only purpose was to love Tony, and he couldn’t exit this life without accomplishing that goal.

Now, he woke up with Tony sleeping next to him - snores as delicate as a Stark prince’s should be - and he watched. In fact, he watched everything that Tony did. Remembering the parts he’d forgotten, learning the parts he never knew. Like the reading glasses he had to wear when his eyes got strained from being awake too late. How he tended to clap and bump and snap his hands when he was telling a story or giving an intense observation. Or that he was an incredibly quick reader. And he could memorize quotes verbatim after only reading them once. (Steve would call him a genius, and Tony only shrugged, neither confirming nor denying.) There were so few memories where they’d touched, and so much that they didn’t know about one another, and they were desperate to reach the peak of fruition. As far as they knew, this was the start of a life together. The past was done, and they had been delivered at last. They needed to bask.

Steve inched over to Tony’s side of the bed. (The right side used to be Tony’s but when Steve moved in, he’d relinquished it. Steve, the soldier, wanted to be closest to the door, on the side of the protector.) He nipped his nose against the back of Tony’s shoulder, then kissed it, humming.

Tony, who didn’t rise before ten unless he had an early patient, barely even stirred. The sun hadn’t risen, but Steve surely had, and he wanted to touch, to feel. They’d spent quite a few mornings like this, with Steve anxious to make up for lost time.

He snaked his way on top of Tony, pressing his chest into his back, kneeing  his legs apart. Finally, Tony started to hum and shift beneath him. Steve mumbled a ‘good morning’ into his neck, slipping both of his hands under Tony’s breastbone.

“Is it morning?” Tony asked, voice thick with sarcasm. “I thought that sun came with morning. Seems it is still dark.”

“I could postpone making sweet love to you,” Steve mumbled, still kissing. “If you need the sun so badly.”

Tony huffed, because of course he wanted him now.

Steve pushed his hands higher until one was slipping under Tony’s chin and turning his face to kiss him.

Tony moaned into his mouth, half-laughing until Steve was easing into him with his offering. Then, his mind was set on completion, and he was pushing himself back against Steve’s full weight.

Tony wouldn’t say it, but he knew that Steve was afraid of becoming lost again. Between them, Steve had carried the most ache and pain, and now, he was living with scars that hadn’t quite healed. Sometimes he slept deeper than any human should, and sometimes he woke up as if the world were ending. He watched Tony with careful eyes, as if they would suddenly be yanked from one another again. He made love to him as if he were trying to convince Tony not to leave. As if Tony would see him as the lost man he was and end their relationship to find something better. Someone else.

For years, Tony thought that Steve deserved better than what he could offer. Someone with a larger heart who was as saintly and righteous. For years, he asked Steve to come back to him, to return, but he never once thought he was entitled to it. Never once did he think that Steve would be the one to think himself unworthy. That Steve would feel inadequate.

Tony had changed, matured and become full-fledged, but he was still the prince Steve had always known. He’d done everything he could to retain whatever it was in his youth that Steve had loved. He needed Steve to return to him and find that he could depend on him to be whatever he wanted.

But Steve.

Steve was a man with a tarnished name who’d seen the blood of war, a man who’d escaped death when it seemed he was out of time. Reality would say that it didn’t matter who Tony was - Steve was too damaged now for love. He’d been knocked on his feet and left to grovel. Any affection offered to him should be held at a distance and only taken in for the sake of being satiated. There should’ve been a steel cage around him now.

But no.

Still, he loved Tony with honest smiles, wanted every inch of him. God knew that there were things that Steve held in the darkness of his mind, secrets that would unravel with time, but these were days for making love and loving the life they were in. He showed no change in how he’d loved Tony, if only the love was more intense, more expressed.

And, as long as Steve would have Tony, Tony would receive him with every breath, assure him in every declaration, and love him past his last breath. And, even if Steve walked away, Tony would surely love no one else.

Neither of them would have to worry about that now. Steve had no intentions of leaving, and anyone who tried pull him away from Tony was in for quite a challenge.

As always, being completely sunken into Tony made Steve tremble around the edges, made his weight fall. And Tony loved it that way. He loved feeling every inch and every pound collapsing into him. Especially so early in the morning, halfway out of sleep with no control of their senses.

Steve gripped around Tony’s neck, possessive but loving, and Tony reached back around Steve’s middle to give encouraging scratches to his ribs.

“You’re so good to me,” Tony managed to get out.

“And you’re good for me,” Steve replied without hesitation, his breath heavy and wet in Tony’s ear. He bit the skin of his shoulder, grunting, and Tony backed into him, trying desperately to get closer, closer.

The difference between these moments of lovemaking and their quick moments in the Stark library was simply familiarity. The first time Steve pushed himself into Tony, he could only feel heat and seconds ticking and air leaving his lungs. The first time, Tony had been moments away from crying, from making nearly vile and lustful commands. The first time, they needed love, needed to feel their threads come undone.

Now, there was time, and always would be time. There was no rush or desperation boiling over. It was only them. Steve and Tony. And now, Steve knew nearly every tick and committed each one to memory. The way Tony’s breaths caught in his throat, and how he fought to take control by winding his hips back, and the way his right shoulder twitched back right as his body starts to plead for orgasm. Steve knew every single one of those signals, and he catered to them immediately, because there was nothing quite like being the finger to unhinge Anthony Stark.

“You are certainly getting good at that,” Tony whispered once they were wrapped into one another, empty and spent. He lay on his side, looking down onto Steve who lay with his eyes shut, hands tucked behind his head. 

A crooked smile slipped into the corner of his mouth.

Tony gave him a playful nudge. “Are you getting smug with me?”

Steve squinted through one eye. “I think I’m allowed, seeing as I managed to leave you absolutely shattered. And I beat the sun. I believe that's just cause for arrogance.”

Tony shrugged, accepting it. “And you’re going back to sleep now, aren’t you?”

Steve laughed from his belly, shutting his eye and nodded. “I’ve done all I wanted to do today.”

Tony leaned in and bit his ear. “I’m glad to be of assistance.”

As Steve promised he would, he went back to sleep with dark blue eyes watching him, a soft finger tracing over the still new scar on his chest.

Tony decided to start his day earlier than usual, which he didn’t mind, as he enjoyed the feeling of Sundays. He showered, straightened up the mess of clothes around the bedroom, organized the bookshelf, cleaned the kitchen, put on a kettle to boil for tea, and finally settled at the table to look over patient notes.  All the while, Steve was in a deep slumber.

It seemed that Tony couldn’t get very far in his notes without glancing up just to see the rise and fall of Steve’s chest. Just to be sure that his love drew breath.

Then, as if Sundays weren’t sacred, the shrill voice of his landlady called out for him.

“Christ,” he mumbled. He realized then that he hadn’t put on clothes a single time since he walked in from work Friday afternoon and Steve pulled him into bed. Neither of them had. Clothes were just a hindrance to two people focused on making love and having pillow talks every chance they got.

Pulling on a pair of athletic cotton shorts that belonged to Steve and a basic t-shirt, he yanked the door open. The old hag was calling again, and he yelled “Alright, alright” as he jogged down the stairway to the landing.

And, when he opened the front door, his weight fell against the doorjamb, because there was Briony Stark, standing there at his gate, all big eyed with chocolate hair and round cheeks.

“Someone’s here for you,” the landlady told him.

If Tony had a breath to take, he would’ve probably said something rude to her obviousness.

“Hello, Anthony,” the girl said.

Last he’d seen her in person, she was a blush-cheeked sixteen year old watching him pack his bags. And the time after was on the front page of a newspaper when their parents died. Since then, the only real image he could muster of her was when he’d barged into her room on the night of Lola Quincey’s attack. She’d turned from her window with her eyes bright and fearful, certainly afraid that he was going to break her neck. And he may very well have done it if Howard hadn’t pulled him away.

“You haven’t answered my letters,” she said.

Finally he took a breath. “You were always the observant one.”

“We need to talk,” she said stiffly, but it wasn’t out of confidence. It was in fear.

Tony swallowed, because this wasn’t what he’d expected on this wonderful Sunday. Then, without word, he turned and headed back up to his apartment, and listened to the hesitant footfalls of his sister at a safe distance behind him.

As soon as he was inside, he slid the doors of his bedroom shut, making another double check that Steve was there, breathing and dreaming. When he turned around, Briony had just come in and was standing there, truly looking like a ghost of his past. She was wearing a cotton blue dress, no doubt from wherever she was enduring her nurses training. She looked like a baby doll, with her porcelain skin and blank stare.

Christ, he needed a cigarette. He was just one inch from completely tossing the habit, and here he was, second-guessing himself.

They stood a few feet from one another, staring, watching, noticing how the other had changed. And the more Tony saw, the more younger he felt. And, even more than that, the more intense his anger built in his chest, anger that he’d managed to lock away for so long.

Finally, Briony started to sputter out a few breaths. “My Tony, I-“

And he snapped. “Don’t call me that.” He’d taken a step forward, as if he just might run her over, then caught himself and turned around to face the window. He was changed. He was a man of compassion. He was a man that worked his hardest to heal others. To have them overlook their scars. He needed to practice the sermons he preached. “I am not yours and you are not mine, Briony,” he told her, voice just loud enough to be audible.

She cleared her throat. “Anthony,” she started firmly. “I didn’t come here for forgiveness.”

He turned, taking in the sight of her again. “Of course you did.”

“I don’t expect-”

“Of course you do. Don’t have me for a fool.”

Briony swallowed what little pride and confidence she’d probably stowed away for this visit. Tony watched it disappear from her small frame, and he was glad for it. Once, when she was a nose-high and fickle adolescent, she would bite back at anyone who challenged her, although Tony had rarely been one of those people; most wouldn’t think it, but he was not keen on conflict. Rarely did he defend himself, but he often found himself fighting on the behalf of others.

Today, he didn’t know exactly who he was trying to protect. But his defenses were ablaze, and Briony was afraid of them. And he would let her bear that fear. She had no right to stand in this space and have any semblance of confidence.

“Why are you here, Briony?”

She looked down at her clean loafers, hands folded together and fidgeting. When she met his eye again, she gave a nervous nod. “I want to change my evidence. I want to right my wrongs.”

“You’re an unreliable witness. Nobody would listen to you.”

“I-I’ll tell anyone that-”

“Did you ever admit to mother and father that you lied?” he questioned, crossing his arms around his chest.

“Well, no. I-”

“Such a tiny inconvenience that they are dead in their graves now that you want to tell truths. Or maybe that is exactly how you might rather it. You could scream to the world that you lied and it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference. All of that untidiness is stowed away in the past now. How clever you always were, Briony.”

“Don’t speak about mummy and daddy like-”

Tony stepped forward again. And this time, she stepped back, too afraid to be close to him. “Have you really just opened your mouth to tell me how to speak?”

“Anthony I-”

“The ice you walk on is very thin, sweet sweet Briony. You come here, in all of your knowledge and wisdom, and think that I would intercept you? Help you find the righteousness you lost long ago? Did you think that, by way of my forgiving you, it would retroactively circumvent the lies our parents died with? Please, spare me the fucking perfection of whatever story or play you’ve concocted in your mind.”

The teakettle started to whistle, but Tony was planted in his place, feet heavy as stone, eyes barreling towards his younger sibling. She was trembling, but trying her best to hold her ground.

Finally, he went to the stove and turned off the flame. “Tell me something. Tell me something that I have always wondered.” He took his large mug and prepped it with his water and teabag and lemon and honey, all the while silent, listening to Briony waiting on the edge of her breath. Once his cuppa was sitting on the table waiting to cool, he looked at her again. “What made you so damaged and depraved to tell a lie like that?”

She rocked on her heels. “I- I don’t know, I-” Her eyes shot to the bedroom door.

“Don’t look away. Look at me.” Tony moved forward until they were nearly nose-to-nose, and he’d never felt so capable of hurting someone in his life. Never before this day. “I want to hear you say it. I want to hear the excuses that you’ve formulated in your mind. I want you, sweet Briony Stark, to tell me what story you built in your mind after all of these years, the words that will convince me not to toss you down the stairs.”

“Tony.”

He grabbed her shoulders. “I told you to never call me that again,” he bit, shaking her. “Any privilege you had for familiarity and affection has been lost for ages, and you will do your best to remember that. Do you hear me?”

She nodded and he let her go.

“Why?” he asked again.

And, before she could answer, the doors to the bedroom were sliding open, and Steve was standing there, staring at her, dressed in his boxers and a sleeveless shirt, blond hair tussled from sleep. Bright blue eyes incredibly focused.

And Briony was stuck in her place. Suddenly, she was more scared than she seemed with Tony, skin having gone pale at the man in that doorway.

And, if Tony were to be honest, there was a sudden fear in his own heart.

When Steve finally broke his stare and made his way to Tony, Briony walked to the bookshelf, facing it like a child in time out, her shoulders rising and falling as she caught her breath.

Steve wrapped his arms around Tony’s waist and leaned down to his ear. “Are you okay?”

Tony swallowed, pulling back enough to look into his eyes. “I should ask you that.”

Steve looked hesitant, his nose flaring a bit as he looked away. “I need a moment,” he said, giving him a small kiss before turning on his heel and exiting the apartment with one small glance at Briony’s back.

Tony clicked his tongue, watching his sister. She was glancing towards the bedroom, no doubt curious about the warm spot that Steve had once lain on.

“If you were going to tell the truth – to change your testimony – why did you come here? Why not go to New York and do it on your own?”

She turned to him. “I wanted to see you first.”

“And what makes you think that you deserve even that?”

“Because you are my brother.”

“I don’t think that I am, Briony. We share a brother and a name and a handful of memories, but you are not my family. If I could trade bloodlines with a stranger, I would surely do it just to be further displaced from you.”

“You don’t mean that,” she said, her voice tiny.

“Of course I do,” he spat.

And then, Steve had come back in, shutting the door behind him, silencing whatever conversation had been taking place. With a few heavy steps, he walked toward Briony Stark until there were a few feet between them, just enough so that she was out of arm’s length, and she seemed so shaken that she might faint. He could see Tony move closer from the corner of his eye, but that almost didn’t matter.

“What is she doing here?” Steve asked lowly. His hand went up when she seemed like she was going to speak. “I didn’t ask you. I asked him.”

Tony hummed. “She came to talk to me.”

“Yes? What about?” He lowered his hand and gave a curt nod, giving her permission to speak.

She felt threatened, her frame being towered over by someone much larger, but he didn’t wish to make her feel comfortable. “A-About the terrible thing that I’ve done.”

He felt his blood rise to a boiling point in less than a second, hearing her say those words, and he had to back away. He’d underestimated his own anger. He hadn’t expected this day to come so soon, or without warning.

And, when Tony was standing in front of him sliding a hand over his cheek and brushing the other one through his hair, he realized his own tears.

Steve took his lover’s wrists, kissed the inside of each one, then lowered them with a nod. “I’m fine,” he said.

Tony turned to speak to the girl. “Did you think that he assaulted our cousin?”

Briony was startled by the question, but cleared her throat. “No.”

“Did you think it that day?”

“Ye-yes, but no, I mean-”

“Which is it?”

“I saw him with you-”

“What has that to do with anything?”

“I-I saw you and him, and later-”

“You mistook and superimposed a moment of passion onto the rape of a fifteen year old girl?”

“I was only thirteen.”

“How old do you have to be to know the difference between willingness and force? Between right and wrong?”

She was near tears. “It looked the s-same Ton-Anthony, I-”

 “Did you see him rape Lola Quincey with your own eyes?”

“No.”

“You didn’t?”

“No, I-”

“And you lied why? Who were you trying to hurt?”

“I was confused. I-”

“What did I do to hurt you, Briony? What did Steve do to deserve the brunt of your deceit? What made you invoke such a punishment on a man who never did ill of you? How could you stare into the eyes of our parents, of a police force, of a courtroom, of your brother, goddamn you, and accuse someone of something that they did not do? You knew your power then, and you’ve seen it acted out, and now you’re here, five years later, wishing to retract your lies as if it is as simple as erasing some lines of speech in a play. Do think his pain so erasable?”

And suddenly, he was being pulled away from her. Somewhere during their conversation, he had inched to her, had started screaming in her face, had started to shake in his anger. And Steve, who’d watched in silence, had finally pulled him back.

Tony’s skin was hot, but he was not done. He was breaking. “You knew the consequences of those lies, Briony! You fucking knew what would happen! Were you gleeful when they tossed him into a jail cell? Did it make you happy knowing that I was crying in the next bedroom? Why the FUCK are you here?” he shouted. When she said nothing, he could swear his heart was lashing out in his chest. “Answer me goddammit!”

“I only came to give you your happiness, Tony!” she finally burst.

And then, with Tony settled in his arms, breathing heavily with hot tears on his cheeks, Steve turned his head towards the girl, and she went still as the dead. “What did you say?”

“I want you to know-”

He shook his head and let Tony stand on his own. “That’s not what you said.” He wasn’t sure how his voice could remain so calm, but it was spilling out of him in coolness. And that seemed to scare her more than anything did. “Tell me exactly what you said, exactly as you said it.”

She licked her lips, and in her tinny voice, she repeated herself. “I only came to give you your happiness.”

It took a moment to gather himself. And again, his voice was cool and calm. Almost without energy. As if he were speaking to a friend. “You come here with words like that, and it truly makes me question your sanity, Briony Stark. More so than I ever did.” He kept himself at a conversational distance from her. “What makes you think, in your heart of hearts, that you were ever capable of carrying any happiness on our behalf? How selfish must you be to think that your half-apologizes and regrets would grant us freedom from the pain you caused so long ago? What possesses you enough to stand before me and think that you have something to offer that we could not accomplish on our own?

“I’m afraid you have come here mistakenly. Whatever you have to offer us is surely not happiness. It might be the tarnished bits of your guilt, or some ghostly interpretation of the love you thought your brother and I shared, but I guarantee it is not happiness, and neither Tony nor I want it. In fact, I don’t lament the thought of you carrying those tainted pieces for the rest of your natural days, letting them poison you to your rotten core.

“But you are never to think yourself worthy of my happiness with your brother ever again. Don’t you ever allow yourself to think that you have an offering I’m desperate for. We did not need you for happiness then, and we do not need you for it now. Do you understand that?”

It took a moment for her to realize he was waiting for her to answer, then she nodded silently.

“I saved your life once,” he reminded her, and her eyes said that she knew exactly what he was talking about. She flicked her attention over his shoulder to where Tony was standing. Steve was sure that his lover’s brows were drawn tight, confused, having never been told the story of that day. “Don’t look at him. Look at me.”

Briony snapped her attention his way.

“I followed you into that water and pulled you out. And for five years I have cursed that day.” He breathed in, because he was quite close to falling over. “I thought that, if I ever came within inches of you, I’d wring your neck and enjoy watching you lose your last breath. Lucky for you, I am a better man because of Anthony, and even in his hatred towards you, I could never harm the blood of his blood. I no longer harbor any ill will for what little humanness you possess.

“After this day, you will leave, and you will consider yourself forgotten by us. You will sit down at our table and you will answer my questions, and then you will leave and never lift a thumb to search for us. Do you understand these terms as I have told them to you?”

Again, she nodded, breathless.

He finally turned away from her, because still, the sight of her pale skin and brown eyes and bobbed haircut haunted him. Why was it that she deserved space in the back of his mind, next to the memory of his mother and his childhood? No matter how much he prayed, he couldn’t manage to exorcise the vision of his demon, and as she stood only footsteps away from him, he could feel the coolness of his jail cell, see the blood of soldiers he’d met against his will, remember the sight of Tony standing on his terrace, screaming at his father, asking him to stop this all. The damage had been done long ago, but the healing had only just begun.

He hadn’t been ready for her. Again, she’d barged in to play with him on her own accord. He wouldn’t let her win.

Tony told the girl to sit, and she did as she was told. Tony sat across from her, and he drank from the tea that was waiting for him. Steve watched him, because, God, how he loved him.

Tony spoke first. “You and Bruce will go to the solicitor from Steve’s case and make a statement. You will convince whomever you need to of Steve Rogers’ innocence. Have it signed and have Bruce send us a copy – he will have the address.”

She nodded.

Steve cleared his throat. “And then you will write a detailed letter about everything you saw that night, and your reasons for lying, and how you convinced Lola that it was me and not another servant.”

“Another servant?” she questioned.

“Yes,” Tony snapped, impatient.

Briony fumbled over a few words, then sat up straight. “It wasn’t another servant. It was Bruce’s friend. Richards.”

Tony nearly dropped his mug onto the table. “You lie.”

“It is true,” Briony told him quietly. “And I’ve… just come from their wedding.”

Tony looked up at Steve, who was as motionless as a statue, then back to Briony. “She…” He couldn’t muster any words that would make sense, and he stared at her, waiting.

Cousin Lola, clever and beautiful, had feared the suffrage of her family’s finances when her parents divorced. And Reed Richards, ever gullible and wealthy, had made her an offer at a very young age, when she’d flirtatiously tossed her young hips his way, trying to grow up too fast. While the summer heat was busy toying with Tony and Steve near the fountain, she’d locked the twins from her bedroom, then kissed Reed Richards with a fervor no young teenager should know just yet. And he’d allowed it Taken it willingly.

But, upon being caught in the act in the boathouse, Lola found herself heavy with embarrassment, of guilt. Reed Richards had run off into the shadows, and she was left without an explanation. Only blood and tears.

“I could have said any name other than his and she would’ve agreed,” Briony whispered. “If Reed was arrested, she’d never become his wife, and never have the life she desired.”

Silence fell over the room, and Tony was staring at his boyfriend, and Steve hadn’t drawn a breath during her entire story.

“Lola can’t testify against him now,” Tony mustered. “She’s immune.”

And then Steve was walking away, into the bedroom. The first thing he managed to lock eyes with – a bedside lamp – he picked up and threw, screaming from the hollow of his stomach as it crashed onto the floor. He couldn’t get the pain out fast enough. He couldn’t yell loud enough. He couldn’t stop the burning in his chest.

Tony and Briony were both startled, but Tony was the only one to stand and go over to him.

“Shh, shh, stop,” Tony cooed, grabbing at him. Steve nearly smacked his hands away, but Tony fought until he had his wrist firm in his grasp. “Come back, love. Come back. I’m right here. You’re right here with me.”

Steve calmed in his arms, breath heavy. He hadn’t been ready for any of this. He’d been forced into corners and played like a pawn, snatched from the comfort of the life he’d known before. He couldn’t return to that summer and re-write the results. Even as he tried to run, his feet were moving through sludge, not allowing him his freedom.

“Listen to me,” Tony said, holding either side of his face. “None of that matters now. None of it. Do you hear me?” He kissed him, delicate and cautious.

“Tell me you’re here with me,” Steve managed.

“I’m here with you.”

Steve sat on the side of their bed, face in his hands, trying his best to steady his breathing again, and Tony went back to Briony.

“You will do what he asked you,” he told her. “And then I never want to see you near him again. Do not underestimate us for the mercy you found here today. So help me, Briony Stark, if I ever lay eyes on you again, I will not be responsible for whatever actions I take against you.”

Briony rose from her seat. Her gaze spilled over the small apartment, then to Steve, who’d managed to look up from his hands, then to Tony, who was waiting with a blank expression.

She sniffed, and a tear fell from her eyes. “I am very very sorry for the trouble I have caused. I am very sorry for-”

“Go, Briony,” Steve called from the bed, his voice small and weary as neither of the Stark children had ever heard it.

She swallowed, and then she was gone.

For a long time, Tony stood in the middle of the apartment, listening to the noises of Sunday. The rickety gate opening and closing below their window. The few streetcars. The chirping of birds. There were grey clouds in the distance, he could see. Rain was coming.

“Is it an excuse?” Steve whispered, drawing his attention.

Tony swallowed, waiting, heart swelling at the sight of Steve Rogers so diminished. So vulnerable. “What, my love?”

“She saw us, and then she saw her cousin. She said it looked the same.”

Tony shook his head. “The lie is the lie. She saw what she wanted to see.” He went to Steve and kneeled in front of him.

“I’m so… sick of being angry,” Steve croaked. “I’m so tired, Tony.”

Tony took the man’s face in his hands, the face he loved so much, and always would. “Then go to sleep, my love.” He pushed Steve back onto the mattress, then lay curved into him, a hand drawing small circles into his skin, soothing him. “You’ll wake up, and you’ll be with me. That’s all that matters.”

He hummed a sweet song. A Russian love song that he’d only ever heard secondhand.

It brought them peace.

Chapter Text

EPILOGUE

 

The breeze came off the ocean, sweeping into Tony’s dark black hair and oversized cardigan. Steve smiled, hands in his pockets, watching as the man toed the wet sand from the high tide. Steve remembered the days of watching Tony when they were living through that dreadful and sweltering summer. Observing inch that he could take in. He remembered his blushing cheeks and lanky frame. He remembered his daydreams of kissing him until there wasn’t a single space of untouched skin.

And now, he had done just that, and he could do it whenever he wished. He could press his lips into every contour and straight, from his hairline to the point of his lovely ankles.

Fantasy had become a commonplace reality.

“How many messages do you think have been written in this sand and washed away?” Tony asked, looking over his shoulder, eyes squinted to block what little sun peeked through the clouds over Scotland.

Steve shrugged, rocking on his heels. “I don’t know. Thousands. Millions.”

Tony nodded to himself, returning to writing his message. “And what do you think they’ve said?”

Steve walked over until he was standing behind Tony. He wrapped his arms around him, resting his chin on his shoulder. “Plenty of things. ‘I was here.’ ‘Save our souls’ seems most likely.”

Tony chuckled, sliding his fingers into the spaces of Steve’s, holding him them tight against his navel. “And how many that said ‘I love you’?”

Steve looked at the small stone cabin sitting on the far end of the beach. They’d left the fire going, and the smoke was slipping from the chimney, joining the clouds in the sky. “More than I can imagine,” he finally whispered, pressing his lips into the pulse of Tony’s neck.

“What if somewhere in the world - in the universe - there is another pair just like us? People who’ve seen the same pains, and shared the same love. Do you think that’s possible?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“And what would you say to them?”

Steve hummed as Tony turned toward him, staring expectantly with those dark blue eyes. Steve kept his fingers locked so that Tony was held against him, completely encased in the strength of his arms.

Then, after a long and thoughtful silence, Steve gave a small smile, kissing the tip of Tony’s nose. “I would assure them that it was worth it.”

Tony nodded. “Yes. Me too.”