Chapter 1: Prologues and Revelations
C1: Prologues and Revelations
The first time they slept together, they broke the bed.
And the table. And a wall. And three chairs, and a priceless fourteenth-century marble statue that Pepper was bound to kill them for.
That should have been a warning for what they could expect out of the rest of their relationship.
It would have been a lie to call what they had any less than dysfunctional. There was very little healthy about it, in fact. It happened because Tony didn't have to worry about hurting Steve, and Steve didn't have to be perfect for Tony (so Tony said). But Tony's tongue was as sharp as steel, and Steve was strong but sometimes things didn't bounce off like people thought they did.
Steve had a nightmare one night and woke up to discover he'd broken Tony's nose, thrashing in his sleep. He apologized profusely, wrecked with guilt, but the brunette assured him it was nothing at all and he should just go back to sleep.
The next day, Tony 'accidentally' locked Steve in a Hulk-proof glass chamber he'd been working on for the Avengers. He'd treated himself out to a nice dinner that evolved into an all-night party.
He'd come home to find Steve a trembling wreck, drenched in sweat, his eyes glassy and unseeing because he was trapped; always trapped. Bodies everywhere; he couldn't move. The ice was his prison. He couldn't even scream.
It took weeks for that one to blow over. Weeks of avoidance and heavy silence and Steve waking up screaming in the night.
Tony didn't know how to apologize. Steve didn't know how to live in a world that had moved on without him. They hurt each other. Tony lied and Steve drew into himself further and further every time they fought.
But they never ended it. Whatever 'it' was, it was what they needed. They needed each other in the violence and sex and sweat-slicked bodies, in the knowing eyes and warm touches when everything was too much to handle. They fought, they physically battled like arch-enemies. The peace was inside, and it felt so good sometimes. But physically? It never lasted.
Maybe, Steve suggested late one night as he nursed a black eye, it was in their nature.
Tony poured himself another drink and watched Jarvis sweep up the remains of his coffee table.
The man behind the iron suit had made it clear, on too many occasions to recall, that they weren't exclusive. Steve nodded and pretended he understood, and watched silently as Tony left with another long-legged blonde.
But the next time they had attended a briefing aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. Hellicarrier and Tony caught Clint making a pass at Steve, he exploded. Their ensuing fistfight knocked out the power in an entire deck and earned them both a stern conversation with Fury and a prompt ejection from the ship.
Steve had never meant to mention it. He really hadn't. He'd accepted his relational position and had allowed his relegation into silence and submission, and they didn't talk about things like this as a rule.
But he had. He'd brought it up and what was done was done.
Because it didn't matter which angle he looked at it from: it hurt. That Tony was so willing to throw himself after anything with two legs while Steve was not allowed a conversation with a teammate burned deeper than any slight before. When he thought about it, what hurt the most was that he had almost been ready to accept the possibility of this beautiful trainwreck. He'd been ready to accept that this was all they would have, and that it would never make either of them completely happy, but that neither of them could be happy without it.
So he brought it up, and the way that Tony looked at him made him feel like a complete idiot. But that was just Tony for you. He'd remarked on more than one occasion that Steve was all the heart they needed and Tony was all the brains they needed. Steve had pretended that bounced off, too. He was no genius, and he knew that. But somehow, it only hurt when Tony pointed it out.
It had been a long moment; dark eyes narrowing into blue ones. Tony was probing Steve's soul for something, and the super-soldier didn't know if his heart was ready for the blow to come but he steeled himself and squared his shoulders anyway, and simply stared back.
"I was wondering when you'd figure it out, meat-head." Tony's words had been sharp but his tone had not, and he smiled into his glass as he took another pull.
Steve wasn't sure what that meant.
Tony took his time setting his glass down on the bar, and then advanced on Steve so suddenly that the super-soldier wound up falling backwards onto the couch. His muffled sound of surprise was muted by a mouth crashing into his, all sharp teeth and hot breath and unrestrained feeling. They had an on switch and an off switch, and nothing in-between.
And so, they decided to give it a try. They wouldn't see anyone else, and they would make a shot at pulling whatever they could out of the rubble of their current relationship. Maybe, Tony shrugged, they could turn it into something worth looking at.
That night, as they lay in bed, Tony watched Steve as the soldier's eyes moved rapidly behind his lids, sweat beading on his forehead as a nightmare dug it's talons into his mind.
If Steve could have seen the expression on his lover's face as the first quiet sound of distress broke through the soldier's lips, he would have understood everything.
Tony pulled Steve into his arms and held him. He pretended that he did it because he was cold. It wasn't concern or fear or tenderness, he told himself. He pretended it wasn't love.
Chapter 2: Falling
The wind that swept down ninth street was chill and oddly peaceful, just brisk enough to keep silent bystanders from losing themselves in the memories and emotions that were cohabitants of places like this. It was a much-needed anchor in a sea of nostalgia, a balm to wounds waiting to reopen.
King's Hill was a spacious lot that had long ago seen too many gravestones and mausoleums crammed between its iron gates. No-one had been buried there in twenty-eight years, and many of the relatives of the dead had moved away or moved on, and no longer visited. The grass hadn't been cut in weeks, it appeared, and for a location in the heart of Brooklyn, the landscape held an aura of quiet and calm that easily transported one to a time and place where the man beneath the sod was more important than the monument that marked his final home.
Steve Rogers knelt silently in front of a simple stone marker, the kind no-one used nowadays because lavish monuments and intricate symbolism had driven them out of style. Moss and age had dulled the edges of the once-crisp engraving, but the name "James Buchanan Barnes" could still be read clearly. This name, with a date of birth and a date of death, were all that was necessary to mark the habitant of the plot as a war hero and a great man.
Tony didn't know that Steve still came here. He probably wouldn't say much about it, especially considering the regular trips the pair still made to Phil Coulson's memorial site, but the soldier knew Tony didn't like it when Steve got too caught up in the past. Said it was unhealthy, and Steve secretly had to agree with him... but some things were harder to let go of than others.
You'd think that being asleep for seventy years would have dimmed the pain somewhat.
Steve traced the stone-carved letters with his eyes, continuing the ongoing mental conversation the two had shared for months now. His own words in Bucky's voice still made more sense, as illogical as it was. His old friend had always made sense.
A car horn blared on a nearby street, and the super-soldier jumped. He laughed quietly to himself at the image—Captain America startled from his memories by the din of New York—and slowly climbed to his feet. He dusted off his slacks and spent another wistful moment gazing downwards.
His eyes traveled slowly upwards, taking in the sea of headstones lit only by the dim New York streetlights. Some of those stones showed familiar names. Many of them he'd known... shaken hands with, led into battle. Some had been lost as they fought by his side. Still more he had never known, never seen. Their names had been unfamiliar.
He knew them now.
He would never admit it out loud, but there were days... hell, there were entire weeks... when he felt like this was where he really belonged. Maybe the only place. If nature had run its course, he would share a quiet night with these men. Not as a living ghost in a land of sleeping spirits, but as a fellow body, cool and still beneath the earth. He would have a plain stone plaque of his own, and it would have his name on it. Nothing else, because his sacrifice would have spoken for him.
Instead he stood, breathing, a transplant in an unfamiliar world, while the natural order stared up at him from uncut grass and faded stone.
"G'night, Buck." The captain mumbled downwards, his voice caught up in the tugging wind. He zipped up his jacket and turned away.
Steve had moved in with Tony before they'd known this would last. He'd had nowhere to go with S.H.I.E.L.D. off his trust list and the billionaire hadn't blinked before offering him a home, as temporary or long-lasting as he chose.
Steve's duffel sat, packed and waiting by the door for almost six months.
He'd never imagined this would be permanent. Even after they'd connected, Tony and Steve had never discussed future living arrangements. They'd simply migrated together, falling into a pace that was neither constant nor simple, but that fit their tumultuous lives like it was tailor-made for them.
And so it was that when Steve drove 'home', it was to a forty story tower that could be seen from all corners of the city, and not the white picket fence and golden retriever he'd envisioned for himself in his youth.
The times had changed. They were just waiting for him to catch up.
His old motorcycle was a 1938 Harley Knucklehead 1000, and he'd spent nearly a year and about as much of his earnings hunting it down. The paint was faded and the chrome was dull, but it was one of the few things he'd ever found that seemed to bridge the yawning gap between where he was now and where he'd come from. As much as Tony hated the "outdated death-trap", it had it's own spot in the underground parking garage marked by a simple, painted, white star. Tony had ensured him that this was, in fact, hilarious, and when Steve deigned to grace them with his presence in the 21st century and an up-to-date vehicle, then he could have his full name on it. Steve didn't understand the necessity for having his name on a concrete space, so he kept his old bike and Tony kept up his griping.
Steve stepped off the lift onto the 20th story suite to find Iron Man in the kitchen.
Not just Tony, but the full red-and-gold ensemble that the rest of the world both feared and loved. He was sure that Tony was in there, naturally—but finding a huge suit of armor pouring drinks at your wet bar isn't exactly the first thing you expect when you step into your suite.
"What's the occasion?" Steve asked hesitantly when Tony didn't seem to notice his entry.
The suit turned, leveling featureless white eyes at him. Steve wasn't sure he would ever get used to that.
"M'drunk." Said Iron Man, and Steve bravely repressed a grin.
"I can see that. What's with the suit?"
"Pepper says I wear it to feel powerful." One red-armored shoulder shrugged with a mechanical sound. "Thought I would test the theory."
Steve frowned, walking towards the counter. "You need to... feel powerful?"
Tony laughed at a joke to which the super-solider was not privy, and tried to take a drink through his helmet. He paused, and then the face plates folded away one after another. He downed the entirety of his drink in one long, burning swig.
Steve stood by the bar, and waited silently.
"Why don't you just... get angry?" Tony waved his glass, only turning to face the object of his comment when Steve said nothing, at first.
"I do get angry," Steve pointed out unnecessarily, "just not as often as you do."
"See, that's it." Tony pointed accusingly at his boyfriend, eye narrowing. "You really think that's enough."
"You know I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, don't play so stupid." Tony's voice was rising with his temper, the glass finding a home loudly on the marble countertop. He reached angrily for a bottle of bourbon and poured gracelessly, mostly missing the glass. "Don't pretend this isn't happening. I know that you've got your little martyr persona wrapped around yourself so tightly it's become part of your skin. I know what you think about; what you don't say."
Steve didn't realize how hard he was clenching his jaw until the sharp pain made him loosen it a little. "Tony." He warned, voice tight with stress. "You don't know what you're talking about right now."
"I know enough." Tony laughed, swirling the liquid in his cup and listening to the ice cubes clink together. "I know stocks are down, I know the Yankees are on a losing streak, and I know twenty-six theories of quantum physics your little back-in-the-day doctors never even dreamed existed."
Tony was rambling again. Steve allowed his mind to wander. Specifically, to how he was going to get Tony to bed and this mess cleaned up before Pepper came in tomorrow and turned those knowing, slightly disapproving eyes on him. She never said it outright, but Steve was fairly certain that she didn't particularly approve of this. He couldn't blame her, honestly. He probably wouldn't have either if he were in her shoes.
"I don't know who that is." Steve studied the shot glasses on the counter, mentally gauging how much liquor Tony had consumed in his absence. This was an old game anyway, particularly when Tony had any amount of alcohol in him. It no longer bothered him much, oddly enough.
"iPads. The second iPad."
"I don't know what that is, either." The solider inserted plainly, and was ignored.
"Flash mobs. The Kardashian zombie horde. Anything with the word 'social media' attached."
"What are you doing, Tony?"
Steve tried not to sound as exasperated as he felt, while wondering if running through the familiar lines would ever produce a different result. Their script was getting stale, but the super-soldier could barely keep up with his lover when he got like this, all snide remarks and veiled jabs and illogical rants. Steve was a simple man of simple words, and Tony knew it. It was why they played these games. Because Tony needed to feel in control—powerful, like his suit—and this was the only way he knew how.
"Jesus," Tony was saying now, and Steve must have missed something he'd said, "It's like talking to my grandfather."
Steve's jaw was hurting again, and he made a list of all the angry and hurtful things he wanted to say; building behind his tongue, scratching at his lips and begging for air. He locked them away and moved on.
"We're not doing this, Tony." Steve's tone held resignation and carefully guarded sadness as he reached for the drink in the iron-clad hand. "Not tonight."
Tony snatched his hand away, and didn't seem to notice when in doing so, he spilled bourbon all over the arm of his suit. "I'm inclined to disagree."
"You're inclined to get drunk," Steve retorted with what was, to his mind, the irrefutable logic that should have ended the conversation. There was no point in trying to have any kind of peaceful interaction with the other man when he was in this state. But old habits were hard to break.
"So?" Tony lunged forward in what was probably meant to be an intimidating gesture; Steve automatically held out his arms to catch him if he toppled.
"Maybe we should—have more conversations when I'm drunk." Tony laughed to himself as he tried to take another sip and missed his mouth.
Steve winced. "I don't think that's going to be a good idea. Ever."
Some days, he really wished he could join his boyfriend in alcohol-induced temporary insanity. That way, neither of them would remember the conversation the next day, and they could nurse a hangover together. Somehow, that seemed like a simpler option.
Tony cursed unintelligablly, and Steve gave up on the effort. The solider turned away in disgust, dropping his duffel onto the tile beside the bar. He would pick it up later. For now, he needed to change the outcome of this all-too-familiar situation, and the only way he knew how to do that was by removing himself from it completely.
Glass exploded against his back, and he turned around, wide-eyed, to find Tony standing right where Steve left him. Minus his drink.
"Did you just...?"
Tony answered by swiping another glass off the countertop, this one empty, and chucking it straight at Steve.
The super-soldier ducked, and the glass exploded against the television behind him. Pepper was going to be... unhappy about that.
"I can't believe you." Steve shook his head, batting away another glass—a bottle, this time—that came sailing towards him. It shattered against his hand and sprayed against the bar. He absently brushed the shards of glass off his sleeve, eying the growing mess distastefully. "I think your immaturity just reached new levels. Congratulations."
"Oh, you haven't seen..." (a pause to burp), "nothin yet."
"I don't think I need to see any more." Steve approached carefully, reaching for Tony.
The explosion that followed was not entirely unexpected.
Steve was no pushover. The super-soldier serum combined with the now-natural strength he honed daily allowed him to stand toe-to-toe with some of the most powerful beings on earth. But when a mechanical suit set at full capacity punched him through a brick wall—and his shield was nowhere to be found—it damn well hurt.
Steve hauled himself out from beneath the rubble that had once been the glass patio doors and part of the exterior wall, shaking his head and wiping dust from his eyes.
"That was uncalled for," he remarked mildly, dusting chunks of concrete out of his hair.
He had to quell the flash of resentment that churned up in his gut, because Tony was always on his case about having preternatural strength, but this wasn't the first time they'd had to replace a wall because of Tony's reckless temper. It was always Tony who started the physical violence, and yet Steve always felt that he wasn't allowed to retaliate, because Tony never missed a chance to point out the advantage his natural abilities gave him. This was never going to work out unless they saw one another as equals.
The couch that came sailing at Steve's head definitely didn't make him feel like an equal.
The super-soldier braced himself and crossed his arms, heaving upwards to fling the piece of furniture over his head to crash against the wall. The force of the hit still knocked him on his ass and sent him sliding backwards across the marble, all the way out onto the balcony. The wind was howling up the sloped glass surface of the tower, whipping at his hair and making it hard to hear.
"Tony!" Steve barked angrily, hauling himself up. "That's enough!" His bones ached with the force of impact, and his heart ached because why the hell did they always do this?
"What, you can't fight me because I'm human?" Stark was hovering over the rubble unsteadily, his boosters firing out of sync in his disoriented state.
"Dammit Tony, I don't want to fight you!" Steve's restraint snapped like a fraying thread, fists clenching. "Not because you're human, but because you're you."
Tony laughed, and there were few sounds that got under the soldier's skin quicker. Because Tony was laughing at him; Tony thought he was stupid or naïve or idealistic or one of the hundred other condescending things the billionaire saw in his lover.
And Steve understood. They were not equals.
"Don't hold back, Captain." Tony, now thankfully earthbound, was laughing, barely able to stand up straight. "Don't pull your punches just because my bones can break."
"I don't have my shield, Tony." Steve spread his hands imploringly. "I'm not in a suit; I'm not a solider. I'm just me."
"You're always a soldier," Tony hissed, mirth gone, "it's who you are, and you don't even know how to do anything else."
The blood in Steve's veins was boiling, and his head was throbbing and he wanted to badly to lash out, to hurt Tony back. But deep down, he knew that wouldn't solve anything. Whatever happened tonight; whatever they said to one another in hurt and anger... Tony wouldn't remember it in the morning. But Steve would, and he would have to carry the regret with him for years if he said anything stupid now.
Breathing heavily through his nose, Steve braced himself as Tony stormed forward, straight towards him. He was convinced the billionaire would take a swing—they were going by the script, here, after all—but instead the armored hand wrapped around the back of Steve's neck and the soldier was being pulled forward, his anger swallowed by a hot, demanding mouth. He hesitated to ever call this kissing, because he didn't remember the gesture as being so violent, so harsh and unyielding. He had a hard time associating this with love.
His first reaction, admittedly, was to punch Tony right in the arc-reactor glow of his chest.
Who did he think he was? How did Tony think he could act this way and then try this? A part of him was feeling more betrayed that his lover was going off-book, when their relationship didn't work that way, and he had never wanted to badly to swing. Not because Tony wanted him to (and he was sure he did) but this time, simply because Steve was so damn angry.
But he couldn't. Because this was Tony, and if Steve had ever loved anyone, he loved this mess of a man. And he'd never been more certain that if anyone could ever learn to love him back... it was Tony. They were a disaster. But together, they had hope: anger and flying insults and blinding pain, but also real hope.
An involuntary moan rumbled up out of Steve's chest, and the metal-clad hand on his neck tightened painfully. He tried to push away, planting his fists on the immovable chest in front of him, but whatever was in control of his boyfriend's mind would have none of it. Soon, Steve wasn't going to be able to breathe, and his mind cleared enough to let him know that was a problem.
"Tony, stop..." The gasped words were garbled against that searching mouth,which may have been a mistake because it made the other man moan back and press both hands hard into Steve's neck, almost crushing him. He could feel the bones grinding together, creaking under the unbelievable pressure. The sounds were lost in the wind.
They never did it like this. Steve walked on glass around Tony, always terrified of even scratching his lover because that was who he was: he cared. He felt and ached and loved, and he wouldn't apologize for that even if Tony mocked it constantly. He cared about everyone, and so deeply, and he was so careful around Tony. But if Tony hurt Steve, on the other hand, they never spoke of it. Steve didn't show it; Tony didn't acknowledge it. Because they both knew how much the super-solider could take, and how much stronger he was than the average man.
But sometimes Tony forgot, maybe on purpose, that the great Captain America was not invincible. He was not unbreakable, and Steve knew the day would come when Tony was going to test that theory, willingly or not. He'd been dreading it for the whirl-storm of emotion and insanity that had been the last year, and he was determined that when the day came, it wouldn't break them. He wouldn't let it break them.
Even so... he wasn't ready for it to happen just yet. Not now. Not today.
Plying all of his considerable strength, Steve struck a heavy downward blow to Tony's arms, and it damn well nearly ripped the super-soldier's skull off but at least it broke the iron hold. He staggered back, grateful for the air, and Tony looked at him oddly.
"Now you don't want me?" The billionaire tilted his head, voice quiet. Steve heard it clearly, an eerie overtone in moaning wind.
"I want you, Tony." Steve's voice held a desperation and emotion he hadn't meant to betray, and he was suddenly immeasurably grateful that Tony would never remember this conversation. "But not like this. Not any more. This is—"
"This is all we are." Tony hissed, encroaching into Steve's personal space again, until they could feel one another's breath on their skin.
"We can be more." The words slipped out, and they were way, way off-book now, but Steve meant it. He just wished he'd had the strength to say it when Tony was sober.
Tony laughed in his face, and the predictability of it all hit Steve like a slap in the face. What had he thought would happen? Nothing was going to change.
The punch was predictable, too. Steve rolled with it, and gave up trying to be the restrained, diplomatic one.
He swung back, his momentum leaving a fist-sized dent in the concrete because Tony wasn't stupid, and he knew how this was going to play out just as well as Steve did: maybe better. They traded blows; deflections and blocks, all so expected and sure it made him sick. Occasionally one of them would connect with the full force of their respective weapons—Steve his raw strength, Tony his suit—and one of them would go flying. They'd torn Tony's loft apart, just like this, more times than they could count. Some things never changed.
But tonight, there was a change. It was small, and it shouldn't have meant much. It shouldn't have altered everything so drastically.
Tony used his thrusters on Steve. This had never happened before, because despite their mutual brutality and aggression, neither of them had ever actually wanted to hurt the other. They avoided lethal tactics by unspoken agreement, and part of that was the thrusters on Tony's suit. Not because they were strictly dangerous, but because when they fought like this, Tony didn't hold back. And at full strength, those thrusters were deadly.
Steve recoiled with a cry of pain as heat and light and force combined to blind him, and for a moment it was all he could think of and this wasn't real, because they didn't fight like this. They didn't try to hurt each other. It just happened.
A blast of crushing, white-hot energy collided with Steve's chest and he had no warning. He was flying backwards, smashing through the glass of the balcony railing and spinning out into terrifying nothingness.
Chapter 3: Broken
Six months ago, the team was in Uzbekistan.
A skyhook had been used to transfer soldiers from one plane to another. Steve, Natasha, and Clint had rappelled onto a cargo transport mid-air in the dead of night and taken out the black ops team en route to crash a peace treaty signing in Israel.
Taking out the team had been easy. Steve had left them to Hawkeye and the Black Widow. He'd been a little more concerned about the four serum-enhanced mercenaries piggybacking the trip. Predictably, the world was still trying to unravel the serum that had created him and so far these were their best attempts. They were still trying to get it right.
The fight had been short enough. Guys with that much bulk, that much raw, untrained strength, tended not to have a lot going for them in the brains department. But sometimes, they got lucky.
He'd thrown two off the plane, careening out the cargo door and spinning off into the foggy night before the others had even had time to react. One had responded with a spray of bullets from a gun that handled him better than he handled it, and the other went straight for the attack.
They'd traded blows; bone-crushing, no-holds-barred hits landing left and right as they danced around the chaos that was the two assassins and the black ops team locked in battle around them, turning the small space into a warzone.
Natasha took a hit. She stumbled and scrambled for purchase on the mist-clicked rubber matting and lurched dangerously close to the open doors. Steve lunged for her hand and pulled her back inside, his arm wrenching painfully as he caught a hold of a support.
One of his targets, the enhanced merc—had his opening. Cold steel slid between sinew and tissue.
Steve channeled his pain into a burst of adrenaline, and managing to get his legs wrapped around the merc's. He twisted, and the larger soldier was moving, falling. The man managed to lodge his hand into Steve's harness, and before the super soldier could stop him, the mercenary and Steve's parachute were sliding away into the night.
Steve's grip, slick with blood, slipped.
He remembered catching Clint's eye, seeing the archer's face go pale with sudden understanding. The assassin lunged for Steve's hand, but he was a beat too late. Gloved fingers brushed, black on navy blue, and then slipped away.
The sensation of falling, picking up speed and momentum, spinning in space with no purchase... there was nothing quite so terrifying. He caught flashes of light, brief glimpses of stars and farmhouses blinking down below, all in quick succession, too fast to stay orientated. Blood was the only warmth in the chill air, drops splattering onto his clothes, defying gravity, rushing against his face and neck as he spun out of control.
He closed his eyes, and refused to scream.
All the breath left his lungs in a painful whoosh as an iron band closed tight around his chest without warning, stopping his fall so abruptly that it made him dizzy. His good hand came up automatically to grip the new support, eyes screwed shut as he tried to get his bearings. He'd never felt so out of control in his life.
"Try using a chute next time, Cap." The mechanical voice in his ear was all the proof he needed that he wasn't dead and hallucinating. Relief flooded his senses. Tony had him. Of course Tony had him.
In a rush of speed and movement, the pair made it safely back to the transport, where Natasha was tossing the last body out the bay doors. Steve crumpled onto the deck, his legs made of jello, and tried not to heave as the vertigo slowly subsided. He pretended not to notice the way Clint looked at him, or the way that he hovered protectively for the rest of the mission.
That seemed like a lifetime ago.
This time, there was no iron angel falling out of the sky to stop his descent. There were no strong arms, no flash of white light to signal salvation.
There was only Steve, and the whistle of empty air roaring in his ears.
And then there was pain.
He couldn't hear himself cry out, but he felt the sudden rumble exploding up out of his chest, ripped from him by forces outside his control as his body connected with metal and stone. He was falling, sliding, colliding with everything in his path. It seemed to last forever.
When the world stopped spinning around him—or at least, slowed down—he found himself staring up with blurred vision into the midnight sky of New York.
Stark Tower stood highlighted against the skyline above, deceptively calm and peaceful in the clear night.
The soldier drew in a sobbing breath, and immediately regretted it. Agony rolled over him in nauseating waves, and his vision turned black.
Several harsh breaths later he was able to convince his body to stay alert, and he reached a trembling hand down to his side, the place from which the pain seemed to be radiating. A three-inch shard of metal was protruding through his side, jutting up angrily towards the tower above like an accusing finger.
It took a beat for everything to sink in as Steve's lethargic gaze slid from the glowing balcony twenty stories overhead and across, taking in the twisting metal and torn cloth of what had once been the awning of the adjoining building. It had stopped his fall, he realized, and probably saved his life. From there he could trace the path of destruction where he had cannonballed downwards through streetlamps and glass overhangs, street signs and broken tree branches. It looked for all the world like someone had dropped an aircraft down into the streets.
Steve wasn't sure how long he simply lay there, trying to rally enough strength to move without blacking out again. He knew it was imperative that he move soon, or his body would eventually begin to heal itself around the intrusion. It had happened before with bullets, and he'd been forced to undergo surgery to reopen the wound and remove the offending piece of metal. It didn't help that his post-serum metabolism rejected any form of sedation.
The memories of such procedures were enough to convince him to try again. He grit his teeth and pushed himself upwards, metal sliding slick through damage flesh, tearing new edges and pulling pieces of skin with it.
When the blackness receded again, Steve found himself collapsed forward, half on his side, half on his knees, dragging in broken breaths. Blood was welling up between his fingers, around his hand where he pressed it as tight as he dared to the jagged wound.
Another man would have been dead already. The fall alone would have killed another man. He'd been lucky. It had only been a matter of time before something like this had happened.
He dragged his gaze upwards, seeing double as another shower of glass exploded from the balcony so far above the street. It looked like Tony wasn't done raging. In fact, he probably hadn't even noticed Steve fall. The thought sent an unexpected pang through the super-soldier's heart... or maybe that was just residual pain from the gaping hole in his side.
He didn't blame Tony for this... How could he? Sure, this time Steve had taken the harsher-than-usual brunt of their dysfunctionality, but it could have just as easily been the other way around. He was lucky, if anything: lucky it had been him to hit rock bottom, and not Tony. At least Steve could survive this.
But it was the moment he'd been waiting for.. and he was going to find a way to fix it. He had to.
He could hear sirens in the distance, and became slowly aware of the small crowd that had gathered across the street, pointing up at the damage; at Stark towers... at him. Even at one o' clock in the morning, there were always people around. He needed to get off the street. Before this thing got blown out of proportion and people started to recognize him.
Fury would just love that hitting the news...
His leather jacket was in shreds, but he managed to pull a fairly intact edge around his side to staunch the flow of blood as he staggered to his feet. Once he let the initial shockwave of agony wash over him, he found it wasn't impossible to make his way slowly back towards the entrance to Stark tower. The distance across the street and the small park between the buildings had never seemed to daunting.
The doorman knew Steve and let him in, making some crack about superheroes arguing and maybe next time they should just order both kinds of pizza. He seemed strangely unaffected by the soldier's hunched posture and bloodstained clothing. Maybe he'd been around Tony too long.
Steve grinned around a mouthful of blood and reached with fumbling hands for the phone behind the desk.
It took him far too long to remember the number he needed.
"Clint," he rasped, his eyes fluttering shut in relief when the line was picked up. The assassin worked more missions with S.H.I.E.L.D. than his super-powered counterparts and was consequentially a pain to get a hold of. Tonight, Steve must have had someone watching over him.
"Steve?" The sleep-fogged voice was quick to disappear, and the super-soldier could practically hear the assassin checking the phone's caller ID. Steve had never quite grasped the magic of it, but nowadays people seemed to have ways of knowing exactly who was calling and usually, where from. All Steve knew was that when Tony called him on the tiny, easily-misplaced little electronic device he'd insisted he carry, a little picture of him popped up. That was about as far as Steve had gotten with translating the thing's mysteries.
Something must have alerted the other man to Steve's whereabouts this time, because he knew he wasn't on his own cell. "Where's your phone?"
"Oh, you know me." Steve swiped at a fresh trickle of blood as it dripped down his chin. His fingers were shaking so badly he had to try it twice. "I could never keep track of that thing—" His voice disintegrated into a cough, which wouldn't have been painful in itself if it didn't pull so horrendously at his mauled abdomen.
"Steve." Clint was pulling on his jacket; the soldier could hear it. "I'm coming to get you. Are you safe?"
Steve laughed in spite of the pain, because Clint meant well, but he couldn't understand how this worked with Tony. How all of it worked. The assassin was all too ready to see something that wasn't there; to paint Tony as the villain because he'd never really trusted the billionaire. It wasn't like that, but there was no way to explain it properly.
"Steve." Clint was the only person the soldier knew who could sound enraged and terrified at the same time.
"Yeah." The effort to speak was exhausting. "I'm fine, just... could use a place to crash tonight..."
Steve absently watched the blood pooling under his boot.
"I'll be there in a few minutes," Barton promised, "stay where you are."
Steve wanted to calm the archer down; allay the fears and suspicions that were undoubtedly building in his mind, but he found that he didn't actually have the energy to say anything more. And then the phone line clicked, and it wasn't hard to let the device slide out of his blood-slicked grip and bounce against the cradle. He didn't bother putting it back properly.
When blurry, ringing alertness faded back in—and when had he blacked out, again?—it was to a familiar face close to his own, shaking him hard.
"You with me, cap?" There was something strained and almost angry in Hawkeye's voice that Steve couldn't understand.
"Yeah," he tried to say, but it came out as a cough again.
Relief flooded the green eyes swimming before his vision, and deceptively strong arms were under his own, hauling him upwards into a fresh barrage of mind-numbing pain.
He caught inchoerent snatches of light and sound as he was half-carried, half-dragged out to the deceptively plain-looking SUV that was the assassin's current form of transportation and deposited gently into the front seat.
Even while he was gasping for air like a fish out of water, Steve let his forehead thunk forward against the cool glass and tried his best not to get blood all over the vehicle. It was humiliating enough that he was subjecting Clint to his weakened state... he didn't need to be ruining the man's car, too. The soldier was going to need to do some serious apologizing when he regained the power of speech, he realized.
The opposite door slammed; a key turned in the ignition. The car began to move. The siren lights flashing just outside the window were nauseating and spinning far too fast, so he shut them out behind heavy lids.
Steve remembered nothing more.
Tony sat—more like sprawled, really—across the only piece of furniture that remained intact in the suite. It was a leather love seat that now sagged in the middle. It had creaked alarmingly and made a loud snapping noise when he'd plopped down onto it, but he was so far past caring that the sound had simply been amusing.
The brunette's mouth was dry and his throat begging for another drink, but his last glass had somehow vanished from his hand, and the bar seemed so far away. He wasn't sure if he could make it all the way over there with the room spinning like it was. So decided, he stayed put, letting his helmet-clad hair drop back against the arm of the couch.
"Steeeeve." He groaned, scrunching up his face to stare through his visor at the ceiling. "Nee'a'drink..." Steve had never specifically said it, but the billionaire knew he didn't like it when Tony drank. He was a nice guy, though—nicer than Tony deserved—so he'd probably get him one anyway.
When his boyfriend didn't answer after a few minutes, the billionaire sluggishly pulled his head up to look around the apartment for him.
His voice fell flat in the wreckage.
By all accounts, Steve was gone. Not surprising, really. Most of their fights ended like this. They'd have another one in the morning—on a smaller scale as Tony bemoaned a hangover—or better yet, they'd pretend it had never happened.
Well... as long as they got the mess cleaned up in time for dinner. Otherwise, there would be a completely new argument to be had.
"Gone... Gone, gone." Tony sing-songed to the empty room, his armor-clad hand directing an inaudible symphony in the settling dust. "Steve... you're always gone."
A sharp laugh turned into a dry sob, and Tony settled down into his destroyed love seat and let his eyes slide shut. It was just as well, he supposed.
In so many ways, Steve was always gone.
He was there, but he wasn't there. Steve lived in a world of shifting shadows that ran its course parallel to his own; an alternate view of even the simplest moments, the briefest touches, that left the pair looking inwards from two sides of the same mirror.
Tony saw it. Every moment the soldier was so sure went unnoticed. But his thoughts were on his sleeve, his heart turned inside-out to the man who knew him better than he knew himself.
He saw it when Steve spent a beat too long studying a magazine advertisement, or frowned at the TV screen like the newscaster was speaking another language. Sometimes the soldier still hesitated when they stepped into the elevator, hoping Tony would be the first to press the button because he still wasn't sure how to work them.
Tony would never admit it; never breathe it aloud. He had a hard time even thinking it. But he was terrified.
He was scared that one day, he would turn around and Steve would dissolve before his eyes. He would fade out of this reality and back into the one from which he'd been ripped. This would all be some cruel dream snatched from his grasp, and the ghost he'd fallen in love with against his will would simply melt back into the pages of time.
Sometimes Steve would pause at the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over the city and just stand there, unmoving, silent. Barely breathing. This could go on for hours. Tony would sit back on the arm of his couch and watch the super-soldier sadly, wishing he could climb inside his head and center him in the here and now... truly bring him back from wherever he went in those moments. The billionaire was convinced that Steve had no idea he did this. He certainly had no idea how much it well and truly terrified Tony.
Eventually the phone would ring, or Jarvis would announce a visitor, or Tony would clear his throat. Anything, really, to break the moment.
Today, it had been one of those mornings.
Tony woke late to an empty bed, and had shuffled groggily down the hall to the living area. He caught Steve standing there, just like that—a statue at the glass. His hair was brushed (and still so out of style) and he'd made it into a clean pair of jeans, but the edge of his white shirt was hitched up at the hem like he'd never completely finished pulling it on. He didn't move. Didn't breathe. His face was reflected in the glass, so Tony could see that his lips were parted just slightly, his blue eyes fixed unseeingly on the traffic below.
It damn well broke his heart.
Tony didn't know what to say. Wit escaped him; logic fled. He had no cure for this.
"I'm going out." He remarked a little louder than necessary, regretting it immediately when Steve jumped.
"Oh." The soldier mumbled, blinking his way back to the present and pulling at the forgotten edges of his shirt. "Right..."
Tony bit back the ache in his chest and headed for the fridge, allowing Steve a moment of semi-privacy to recollect his thoughts.
"Yeah, Pepper and I are going to go pick out a little token of appreciation for our new Japanese partners. Something trademark American, you know." Tony contemplated a drink, but considering it wasn't yet ten in the morning he let the thought slide. He reached for the milk instead. "Any suggestions? I was thinking some kind of a show or movie, you know. Sacrilegious and crude, of course."
"Abbot and Costello?" Steve joked dryly as he joined Tony in the kitchen, and it fell even flatter as he caught Tony's grimace.
"Kidding, kidding..." The soldier mumbled, catching the fridge door as Tony swung it close.
"Anyway," Tony cleared his throat, seeking in vain for a way to dispel the mounting tension between them, "I may not be back for a while. Got any plans for the day?"
"Thought I would hit the gym..." Steve frowned at the contents of the refrigerator, and then closed it slowly without pulling anything out.
Tony rolled his eyes and waved a hand impatiently. "Beyond the usual."
"No." The soldier slid onto one of the barstools, crossing his arms on the counter as he blankly watched Tony pour a bowl of cereal. His gaze started to slide back to the windows.
Tony snapped his fingers under his boyfriend's nose, not caring that it was rude. He needed Steve with him in the here and now, and that unspoken need translated into simple assholery sometimes. He could live with that if it kept the displaced soldier grounded.
"Eat up." Tony slid the bowl of cereal in front of Steve and began to make another. He was hyper-aware of how extremely little the other man actually ate, even if he never approached the subject directly.
The super-soldier looked like he was a breath away from protesting, and Tony raised an eyebrow at him. "You want to be hitting the gym later, you hit that first. I don't want another call telling me that you passed out on the bag again."
"That was one time," Steve griped, but Tony noticed that he picked up his spoon anyway, looking properly contrite.
Tony was, by now, an expert at observing others while seeming completely engrossed in his own activities, and it was a skill that came in handy on a regular basis where Steve was involved. For example, he chose to occupy himself now by perusing the morning paper. Subsequently, he ensured that Steve downed his entire breakfast before he snatched both their bowls away and tossed them in the sink.
They barely exchanged another half-dozen words as Tony dressed and groomed. Jarvis eventually alerted him that Miss Potts was waiting in the lobby.
Tony contemplated pressing a goodbye kiss to the soldier's lip, but Steve had already fallen back into his head, gaze fixed unseeingly on the marble countertop where he still sat.
The billionaire set his jaw and silently left.
Tony and Pepper stopped for a lazy, late-morning second breakfast and a latte on the way to the outlet center, trading the kind of easy conversation and sharp witticisms that the billionaire had never shared with Steve. It felt like a breath of fresh air, and since he was Tony Stark, he felt absolutely no guilt in thinking so.
Pepper inquired after Steve; Tony recited some easy brogue about the joys of boyfriend-ed life. Pepper smiled condescendingly and slid the stack of bills for the last round of repairs to the tower across the table.
He thanked her, his voice heavy with sarcasm, and tucked them into his jacket as they returned to the car.
"A DVD set?" He could hear the disapproval in her voice as he pitched his thoughts on a suitable gift for the Japanese super-company they were slated to sign with the next week. "I don't know, Tony..."
"Oh, come on," the billionaire insisted as he narrowly avoided rear-ending another car in the thick traffic. "It's witty."
"It is not." Tony pretended to be offended. "It's American."
"Americans are tacky."
Tony nodded and conceded the point.
They continued the conversation-slash-argument all the way to the top floor of FAO Schwarz, where Pepper immediately departed his side to explore the racks of foreign wine imports. Normally, he would have joined her—far be it from Tony to turn down a good bottle of Port—but he'd made up his mind for the moment and made a beeline of his own for the media section. So maybe a small part of him was already convinced that this was a terrible idea, but for appearance's sake he thought he should at least make a show of browsing.
The first thing he laid eyes on as he stepped up to the "A" labeled shelf was a thin-bound box set that read "Abbott and Costello".
The billionaire made a face and stuck his sunglasses between his teeth so he could pull the box set off the shelf, rotating it in his hands.
"This looks stupid..." He muttered to himself around his glasses, examining the black and white illustrations. "What does he see in these guys?"
He reached to put the box back on the shelf and paused, waging an inner battle of sentimentality.
He might buy them for Steve, he thought abruptly. He had no idea if his boyfriend would appreciate the gesture; it might just make him uncomfortable because buying each other stupid little gifts was nowhere near inside the realm of their relationship.
It might be nothing; a meaningless little token of good humor. But on the other hand, it might mean everything... change everything.
"You know, I'm really not sure how cheap, Asian-made DVD sets are going to make a good impression on these guys..." Pepper was thinking out loud from the next aisle, humoring Tony's poor taste in gifts by joining the search. Clearly, she hadn't found any satisfactory vino.
"Agreed." Tony struggled silently before finally tucking the box under his arm.
Pepper rounded the corner. "So... classic engraved cigar case?" She raised an eyebrow at him.
"Yeah, let's do that."
Tony followed her to the register and paid for the DVD's while Pepper stepped outside to take a call. At least he could give himself an "A" for effort, he congratulated himself inwardly. He even had the cashier gift-wrap the box in an obnoxious white and blue polka dot print that looked slightly retro if you squinted at it. Steve would appreciate that, he hoped.
The self-encouragement was, admittedly, mostly to quell the little tickle of uncertainty that blossomed in the pit of his stomach at the overly-sentimental idea of buying a gift for his boyfriend. Sure, he wouldn't have thought twice about it if Steve were a woman... but he wasn't, and they didn't bullshit one another that way. In a lot of other ways, yes. But romanticism had no part in their lives and it was something neither of them had questioned yet.
Tony wasn't an idiot. He knew Steve wanted more out of this; out of them. But Steve had always been a little (a lot) old-fashioned and who were they kidding? They were two extraordinary men in an ordinary, extremely hostile world, and if they could give each other a little comfort in darkened moments and passionate nights, then no-one had to be the wiser. But anything more complex? It was out of their league. It was dangerous and controversial and compromising and it just didn't fit.
Yes, Tony Stark was mad in love with Steve. But at the moment, he was the only one who knew that, and he fully intended to keep it that way, because Tony Stark didn't do love.
Tony returned that evening to an empty, eerily quiet apartment. Steve's cell phone sat, forgotten as usual, in its charging cradle on the shelf. Tony picked it up with a gentle smile. It was an expression that faltered when he saw the two missed calls from Clint Barton, and that was suddenly all it took to sour his mood completely.
He realized, with sudden, astounding clarity, that maybe he had been the one who had been lying to himself all along.
Steve was already miles away in his mind. It was only a matter of time before he left physically, too.
Anger and disgust coiled up in his stomach like a venomous snake, sapping away the good mood of the day and bubbling inside like a reactor slowly building to critical mass.
He dropped the gift-wrapped box onto the table and started making drinks.
Chapter 4: Sleep
He was cold. Horribly, unbelievably cold. His eyes were open, but he couldn't see anything. A foggy white film had descended over his vision, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't close his eyes.
Bodies of the dead. The report of artillery. Fighters overhead, bombs were falling.
The countryside was all on fire.
A low, intense voice that sounded vaguely familiar was buzzing somewhere close to his ear, spewing words in a language he couldn't understand. Occasionally, a second voice would answer the first... quieter, deeper. Periods of silence punctuated the strange atmosphere; moments when even the deafening sounds of exploding mortars faded out completely, like when Tony had the news on but the sound off.
The sound was off. It was what first tipped him off to the shifting shades of reality buzzing in the gray space around his consciousness. After so many years, it was a feeling he readily recognized... because it felt familiar. He'd spent more time in pseudo-awareness, trapped in his own mind, than he had awake. Years could pass this way, he knew. He'd missed too much already.
He fought his way back. Sifting through color and thought, throwing out elements that were clearly fabrications of his own mind and memory, latching onto the lifelines of what he assumed to be truth.
The only thing that remained consistent was the unbelievable coldness that seemed to be seeping straight into his bones.
Two patches of warmth interrupted the cold: one on his upper arm, hot and tight like a brand being pressed to his skin. The other on his left side, piercing through muscle and tissue to tickle at his internal organs, sparking pain and memory with it.
Tony, he thought with a hollow ache.
He couldn't resist hoping as memory flooded back in that maybe, his lover hadn't even noticed he was gone yet. If he had some time, he was sure he could get back and fix this... this mess. He wasn't sure what time it was; what day... But it couldn't have been long if he was still in this much pain.
They'd needed this, he realized. This had needed to happen.
He'd been a moth drawn to the light, he'd joked with Clint about moving in with Tony.
Clint had been strangely silent, until Steve prodded him for some response.
What are you going to do when you touch it? Clint had wanted to know. The light. Don't get burned, Steve.
Don't get burned.
His eyes were open, he realized.
"Shit, he's awake."
"Shit," echoed the deeper voice. "The sedatives won't—"
"It's okay. He can handle it."
"I know. But he shouldn't have to."
"Working on it. Keep him still."
"Steve?" A face intruded upon his shaky vision, all worn lines and soft green eyes.
"Clint..." Steve found the name hard to mumble past split and swollen lips, and he licked the chapped skin experimentally. "What's... what's going on?"
Hawkeye said something in rapid Russian. He sounded relieved, but beyond that, no sense could be made of the phrase.
"Sorry." Clint gave a strained smile, and Steve noticed how hard the archer was gripping his arm. "Good to see those baby blues again, my friend."
Steve's gaze slid sluggishly across to the figure hunched over his side. It took him a moment to recognize Doctor Banner. He hadn't seen the other man in months.
"Bruce." Steve must have sounded surprised, because the doctor looked up at him and smiled tersely.
"What he said." Bruce nodded his head towards Hawkeye, raising one arm to wipe his forehead with the back of his wrist. His hands were covered in blood. "Wasn't looking so good there for a bit, Cap."
Steve frowned, head falling back because holding it up at all was exhausting.
Clint's other hand snaked it's way into Steve's, and it was only then that the soldier realized how tightly his fingers had been twisted in the sheets beneath his body. He transferred that iron grip to the hand in his own, trying to breathe through the agony. Subsequently, he tried not to crush the fragile human bones in his grip. The thought kept him centered; gave him something to focus on. Clint probably knew how much he needed that.
He was hyper-aware of the sensation of a needle sliding, slick and cold, through his torn flesh.
"—a lot of blood, but we managed to get a hold of an IV." Clint was saying in his best soothing voice. It was a tone he reserved for children and Natasha and victims of unspeakable wars... and Steve.
"Bad?" Steve gasped, his body choosing that moment to make him aware of the fact that he'd recently fallen off of a skyscraper.
Something flickered through Barton's eyes; something too quick and complex to catch. "Yeah." He answered quietly, not bothering to lie. "It's bad, Steve."
Steve spent the next hour in agony-induced delirium, the pain seeming to build with every moment he spent in consciousness. But conscious he remained, counting every one of the forty-two stitches that were pulled through his inflamed and bleeding side, clenching onto Clint's hand and trying his damnedest not to hurt him, tying to simply remember how to breathe.
In and out.
Colors changed and faded, voices toned in and faded out. There were moments when he felt like he was high, others when dying would have been a welcome retreat. If he'd felt this kind of pain before, he didn't remember it.
A dog was barking, somewhere in the twilight gray. A car drove over a manhole, and the lid clattered and rang down the empty street. Glen Miller drifted through an open window. Mom probably had dinner ready. It smelled like stew. Where had she gotten the money for groceries? He needed to find a second job; needed to fix this. Needed to try enlisting, one more time...
"Hey. Still here, Cap?"
It seemed like years before Clint was shaking him again, slapping his face harshly and commanding him to return to full awareness.
The super-soldier blinked dully, bringing lines and shapes and colors into better, though not perfect, focus. Bruce stood across the room at a stainless steel sink, washing off the blood that was now caked up to his elbows. He didn't remember the pain stopping... but that was because it hadn't. It was difficult to differentiate the feel of hands sifting through his internal organs and the raw pain left in the aftermath of... whatever Bruce had done. Whatever he'd done to himself.
"You need to... get rid of some stuff..." He slurred at Clint, because if he said much else he might crumble.
Looking tired, Clint pretended to throw an appraising look around his apartment, small and filled from floor to ceiling with industrial shelving and metal weaponry cases. Though jammed to overflowing with gear and personal affects, it couldn't really be called messy. It was simply Clint.
"Home is home." The archer replied simply, allowing the first expressions of real mirth to drift across his features.
"I haven't... n't been home in years..." Steve stared through half-lidded eyes at the wall, thinking of a tiny white house in Brooklyn with peeling paint and sagging eaves. He didn't realize how that had sounded until after he'd said it.
"I don't know," Clint's tone still held that uncharacteristic gentleness, a sound that would have been more unnerving to the solider if he'd been fully aware of his surroundings.
Tired eyes, drooping bags beneath them. Sad smiles. His mother was dead.
"I think you've got more than one home waiting for you." Clint hadn't noticed the soldier's mental lapse.
"Tony... Tony's home." Tony is my home.
Clint said nothing, and Steve didn't need to look at his face to know how much that wasn't at all what the archer had wanted to hear.
Thank god for Clint. Thank god for someone who knew when to stay silent and stay strong. The soldier was fairly certain it was a skill Steve had personally abandoned about a year ago... about the time he'd moved in with Tony. It wasn't hard to pinpoint the event as the day things had started going downhill—just hard to admit it.
Bruce was saying something from across the room, wiping his hands on a dishrag. He approached carefully, picking his way around stacks of boxes and piles of magazines. He pried the soldier's eyelid open and gave a him a critical once over, and then tossed a few quiet sentences at the assassin who still sat by Steve's head.
Through blurring vision, Steve watched the doctor hand over two small bottles of... something, before sliding into his jacket and swinging a suitcase-sized bag over his shoulder.
As the door shut behind Bruce, Clint was saying something reassuring to Steve, a warm hand on his cold forehead. The soldier couldn't make out a word of it, but he allowed himself to remember that here, for now, he was safe. He shivered in the aching cold, and turned his forehead into that soothing warmth.
Few things in the chaotic new world of 2012 were as ugly and colorless as sleep.
Most people remembered their dreams. They discussed them fondly and skeptically and traded laughter with one another over misplaced imagery and seemingly-random memories. They were sad, they were funny, they were sweet.
Steve awoke, and sold his soul for the strength to forget his dreams.
Clint was singing out loud to himself, toneless and lazy. He leaned back in a metal chair and peeled an orange with a knife the size of his arm, impaling the blade in the table when he finished with it. Steve watched him silently, paying undue attention to the way deft fingers picked the piece of fruit apart.
"They say watching people is creepy." Clint's voice broke the stillness. "I say, its the only way you really learn anything about them."
The archer had never moved, never turned a moment's gaze towards Steve. He flipped the magazine in his lap and took a bite out of his orange.
"How long?" The soldier rasped.
"Have you been watching me?" The archer spared a glance and a half-smile. "About fourteen seconds. You've been out for about ten hours, on the other hand."
Steve frowned at the ceiling, trying to convince his lethargic brain to calculate the current time from that information.
"Eleven o'clock. You're welcome." The archer approached the bed, squatting by Steve's side to examine the red-stained dressings wrapped around his abdomen.
"I have to... have to go." Steve came to the conclusion slowly, but made no move to sit up. He didn't think he'd be able to quite yet.
The silence that followed was loaded and heavy. Steve could physically feel all that Clint had not yet said; wanted to say, needed to. They knew each other too well, by now.
"You have to leave him."
The words were so calm and final, like it was the only possible solution.
Steve laughed aloud. He couldn't help it. The sound was torn from him, sparked by the ridiculousness of the whole situation.
Clint didn't look amused.
"I'm not leaving him."
Hawkeye's jaw was visibly clenched, and he turned away, standing and moving across the room as if he couldn't stand to look Steve in the eye for another second.
"Clint." Steve reached out with his words, trying to placate, to soothe whatever damage he'd inadvertently done. "I know what you think—"
"You don't." The assassin's words cut through Steve's like steel, leaving no room for argument or elaboration. He refused to turn around again and face the super-soldier, but Steve could read the anger in the line of his shoulders, rolling off of him in palpable waves.
"You have no idea what I think." The assassin went on, and the words came out like poison.
Steve swallowed hard and pressed his aching head back into the borrowed pillow. He couldn't help but wish for Tony's familiar smell in the fabric, the cologne and musk that were so uniquely Tony, usually tinged by equal parts engine grease and alcohol. The billionaire wold call him crazy if he knew, but when Steve was hurt—physically or emotionally—there was nothing in the world that sounded better than curling into his lover's arms and scent and simply existing. No words, no pressure. Just being. Healing.
Even now, after everything—that was what he wanted most.
Clint was suddenly close to him, clasping the soldier's face in both his hands. Steve's eyes snapped to the green ones of his friend, bewildered.
"You're really, truly, insane, aren't you?" Clint breathed, shaking the soldier gently as he searched his eyes. "You're not—you can't—really be thinking about going back... pretending that nothing happened?"
"I have to," was all the Steve could honestly say.
"Dammit, Steve!" The archer hissed, "you came inches—moments from..." The archer's voice cut off, and he swallowed hard, seeming to need a moment to compose himself. "If I had been a few minutes later—if you hadn't called me; if I hadn't answered my phone—"
"Clint." Steve cut his friend off, rallying enough strength to lift a heavy hand to clasp the archer's wrist. "I'm okay."
"You're not," was the simple response. "Not as long as you're with him."
Steve swallowed, wondering why those words were so hard to hear. "You don't understand..." was the only, and possibly the lamest thing that he could think of to say.
"I understand that I pulled you out of his building covered in blood and glass. I understand that Banner pumped four pints of blood back into your body before he was convinced you'd wake up again." Clint was angry—it was in his voice, quiet and cold. In the line of his shoulders and the color of his eyes.
"You didn't have to come," Steve retorted in anger before he really thought about it.
Clint pulled back like he'd been burned. "You're right. I didn't." He glared at the super-soldier, rage burning behind his gaze like a fire Steve could physically feel. "But I came anyway."
The meaning of his words went unspoken: I came. Tony didn't.
"You're not immortal, Steve." Clint's face was shrouded in the darkness, shadows hiding his eyes. "You can be hurt."
"You can be killed."
Steve swallowed. "Yeah, well we'll see about that."
"I guess we will."
Steve said nothing more.
Clint left his side and returned to his chair and his magazine, his posture radiating anger.
Steve wasn't sure when his body betrayed him, but at some point his eyes had closed. Confusion, hurt, and worry plagued his mind as he slipped soundlessly back into darkness.
Clint and Steve had fallen together, like coins into a slot machine. There had been no defining moment or sudden revelation that cemented their friendship. They were both men whose lives were ruled by their occupations, and whose occupations were governed by skill, composure, and rationale. They worked together, even lived together in some cases. Fought together, and for the same things. It simply made sense.
Shortly after the incident with the Shitari, they'd been called back together. That second mission had been... ugly.
Steve remembered finding Clint sitting alone on the empty air deck of the S.H.I.E.L.D. hellicarrier. Selfishly, a small part of him wanted to turn away; find his own isolated corner to sit, to shield his eyes and nurse his aching heart. They'd lost so many men... too many men. He felt the desperate need to pull himself together before facing the rest of his team.
He didn't turn away.
The soldier approached and sat quietly down next to the archer, glancing at the single broken arrowhead Clint was turning over and over in his hands. Their knees touched, warm through canvas and cloth. Steve crossed his arms tight over his chest and leaned back, letting the stillness and warmth act as a gentle balm to his raging headache and crashing adrenaline.
They'd sat there for hours, undisturbed, quiet and thoughtful in their mutual exhausted haze. Neither spoke a word to the other. They didn't feel the need to.
Eventually, one of the deck agents came hunting for Clint, and Steve had retreated to the quarters he was sharing with Tony. The billionaire was grieving too—looking for validation at the bottom of a bottle and wailing his anger and hurt out at anyone who came within hearing distance. The rest of the team was giving him a wide berth, unsurprisingly, but Steve didn't have that luxury.
After that, Steve and Clint had simply coexisted in a peaceful way. It might even be called actively positive, some days. They worked together like a well-oiled machine, needing little action and fewer words to communicate. Their relationship had always been comfortable and effortless, easy, and in a world full of Tony, that was a welcome port in the storm.
Tony, predictably, had a possessive streak a mile wide, but considering theirs was a brand new relationship at the time and he wasn't keen on nuking it right away, he made a valiant effort not to read anything into the growing friendship. Sure, he made regular jabs about the pair, and was particularly vicious about the archer when he was inebriated, but Steve had never given him any reason not to trust him.
Tony and Clint, on the other hand, could barely stand to be in the same room as one another. Tony turned his weaponized words against the assassin at every possible turn, and Clint refused to work smoothly with the billionaire, causing more than one hitch in their operations since then.
It took Steve months—far, far too long—to begin to suspect that this was his fault. He'd gotten as far as acknowledging the problem. Fixing it, on the other hand, was proving to be a bit more difficult.
Clint was convinced that Tony was unhealthy for Steve. He'd never said it outright—not until today—but it was in the little comments; in all the things he didn't say. It was in the way he looked at Tony, sometimes, after something he said to the soldier. It was in the averted glances and clenched jaws, the tensed shoulders and furrowed brows.
Steve didn't know what to do. And so, he did nothing.
Clint glared and Tony jabbed and Steve kept his head down. It was the best they could manage. Until now.
Everything was about to change.
Chapter 5: Home
Steve awoke to the sound of gunfire.
By the time he understood that it was hailing on the thin roof and rattling windows, his heart was racing and he'd shot halfway into an upright position. His body was quick to punish him for this knee-jerk reaction, and he cradled his ripped abdomen and tried to get a grip on his surroundings.
It was daylight, but the light coming through the single uncurtained window was dim and gray, lending an eerie caste to the stacks and piles of gear that lined the walls and shelves. More boxes, crates, and lockers loomed around the single mattress on which he lay, looming over the cot like accusing figures. For some reason, the cramped space made him nervous.
The soldier carefully shifted upright, wedging his bare feet into the narrow clear space on the floor that served as a walkway from the bed straight forward to the kitchen. Standing was another matter, and the first time he tried he found himself falling gracelessly back to the mattress, breathing heavily and biting his lip to keep from crying out. It hadn't felt this bad when he was immobile, but he supposed he'd deserved that.
The second attempt was marginally more successful, and with the support of the wire-grate shelves to his immediate left, he was able to remain standing. Thankfully, the shelves were sturdier than they looked. He limped his way to the window and only source of light, his body making itself aware of every forgotten bump and bruise as he did so. He caught hold of the thin sill, sweat beading on his brow, but feeling extremely accomplished for making it the short distance.
Clint lived on the second floor of a small, extremely old apartment complex that was probably violating a dozen different health and safety codes simply by existing. The sounds of the city roaring by and the dreary rain reminded Steve of the apartment in which S.H.I.E.L.D had put him up before he'd joined the Avengers. Minus all the stuff. He'd never had the heart to collect much. Even now, living with Tony, most of his personal belongings could fit into an army duffel.
The single window overlooked the complex parking lot, where rows of carports housed the tenants' vehicles. Steve had to squint for it, but he was eventually able to pick out the dark SUV Clint had picked him up in... yesterday? The day before? The assassin was leaning in the passenger side, wielding rubber gloves and a large bottle of bleach.
Steve felt slightly sick. He resolved to send Clint a check for the damage he'd done to the car. He didn't remember much of what had happened last night (if it had really only been one day) but he did remember being soaked in his own blood, almost drowning in it.
Turning away from the window and the hail that still barraged it angrily, Steve limped gracelessly into the small bathroom on the other side of the kitchen. His breath hitched when he caught sight of himself in the mirror, all mottled skin and bloody bandages. He looked like he'd been hit by a train... and felt it... though he supposed the truth was just slightly more startling. He was wearing Clint's clothes, he noticed. Guilt spiked again through his mind, leaving a splitting headache in it's wake.
How had everything gone so wrong?
Making a poitned effort not to look at himself again in the small mirror, Steve ran a hand gingerly through his hair and breathed out slowly. He tried to take stock of his body; to get an idea of where all the pain was coming from. If he'd broken any bones, they'd begun to heal already. He supposed he should be counting his blessings and not his stitches. All told, he'd gotten off easy. Working his jaw, he reached for the faucet.
"What are you doing?"
The voice startled him, and Steve latched onto the flimsy metal sink in front of him so quickly it made the pipes creak in protest as he nearly pulled it out of the wall.
Clint was at his side in an instant, supporting him when the soldier's sudden movements and burst of adrenaline sent the room spinning.
"Idiot..." Clint swore as he pulled the soldier back out towards the kitchen and pushed him down to sit on a sturdy metal ammunition case. "What the hell are you doing on your feet?"
"I—" Steve rasped, but if he was honest he had no idea what he'd been doing or looking for. "Needed to stretch," he finished dumbly.
Clint scoffed. "How about you 'stretch' when your intestines aren't falling out through your ribs, huh? Christ, Rogers."
Properly scolded, Steve tightened his arm where it curled around his aching side and fixed his eyes on the worn, but shockingly clean linoleum beneath his bare feet.
Clint was silent for a moment, but eventually pulled up another crate next to the sink to sit beside his friend. "How are you feeling?" He asked eventually, his voice gentler now.
"I'm still breathing." Steve tried for a lopsided grin. It fell away quickly.
Clint nodded. Silence reigned between them, made less uncomfortable only by the barrage of rain against the window. At least the hail had stopped, Steve thought gratefully. Now he could hear himself think.
"Can we talk about this?" Clint asked awkwardly at last, his voice barely louder than the rain.
"About what?" Steve clenched his jaw.
"About what happened."
Steve wanted to say no, wanted to power through this until he could get back on his feet and back to Tony, who was doubtless a wrecked mess by now... whether he realized what had happened or not. But Clint had helped him, had come to pull him out of his own mess when he was too weak to help himself... had probably saved his life. He owed him more than excuses and deflections.
"Yeah." He responded quietly. "What do you want to know?"
Clint clearly hadn't expected such an easy surrender, and Steve could hear his surprise in the moments of quiet that followed.
"Well, I guess... what did happen, Steve?" There was that all-too-familiar undercurrent of bitterness hiding in Clint's voice, but it was clear that he was also making a real effort to understand. To be supportive and withhold his judgment, for what that was worth. The olive branch was clear.
Steve swallowed. "I fell."
Clint's silence was loud.
"You fell." A statement, not a question, as if he was giving Steve the chance to revise it.
Clint nodded, hands clasped in front of him as he leaned forward on his knees. "Care to explain the burns, then?"
Steve frowned, and tried to remember if he'd actually been burned at any point.
Clint saw his confusion. "You had burns," he clarified, "all over your neck and chest. "Call me crazy, but they kind of looked like thruster burns."
He must have been quiet for too long, because Clint was giving him a veiled look of worry.
"What happened, Steve?"
"I don't know."
Clint looked like he was gearing up to get angry again, a response that was probably more than justified by Steve's stubbornness and evasive answers, but something in the soldier's expression stopped him.
"Look, I don't know how to say this," Clint tried for brutal honesty, "or how to put it in a way that isn't going to ruffle your feathers or put you on the defense. You know I'm not much for words."
"Just say it." Steve's tone was defeated, eyes fixed firmly on the floor.
Clint pursed his lips. "Something's gotta change, Steve."
"Yeah. I know."
"I know we aren't the most functional people in the world..." A smile that was almost real ghosted over Clint's face. "But we're all we've got. If we can't treat each other right... well, nobody else is going to."
"What do you want to hear?" Steve twisted his hand in his borrowed shirt to hide a fresh wave of pain coursing throughout his body. "I'm not leaving Tony. That isn't an option."
"Yeah, I got that."
"This—what happened—it wasn't his fault."
"That, I didn't get."
Steve allowed his eyes to flutter shut in brief frustration, his tone growing sharp in anger and pain. "Would you be this paranoid if it had been the other way around?"
The question wasn't fair, and he knew it. But he didn't know how much more of this he could take.
"If Tony had been the one to fall. If I'd been okay. Would you even be having this conversation?"
"No." Clint answered bluntly, and he didn't seem to have to think about it. "I wouldn't. Because never in a million years would I believe that you would hurt Tony, even unintentionally. You treat the guy with kid gloves. You think no-one notices?
The soldier swallowed and looked away.
"That's the difference between you two, Steve... you would never hurt him."
"He didn't mean to hurt me." The simple words admitted more than the soldier had meant to.
"I know." Clint hesitated, and reached awkwardly for Steve's arm. "That's what really freaks me out."
Steve shrugged Clint off and stood. He pretended not to need the steadying hand that quickly returned to support him, holding him upright and giving him space at the same time. In that moment, he cursed himself for all that he was putting Clint through. The archer didn't deserve this.
"Stay here, Steve." There was something so broken in Clint's voice, like he was just running through the motions of what he already knew to be a hopeless play.
"Sorry about the clothes," Steve mumbled in place of a reply, feeling exhausted. "I'll have them cleaned and sent back."
"You don't need to worry about that."
Steve was sweating again by the time he made it back to the mattress, sitting shakily and reaching for the now-clean boots that sat nearby. He didn't answer.
The soldier faltered, fingers slipping on laces, but still couldn't meet the assassin's eyes. The words nearly undid him, nearly caused his weak resolve to crumble entirely. He'd never felt so low.
Clint stood, silent and still, simply watching the soldier. Simply waiting.
Steve released a shaky breath and pulled on his left boot. By the time he had finished lacing them both up, the simple task of leaning over was putting enough strain on his damaged side to leave him covered in sweat and feeling dizzy.
It took him a moment as he sat up, gripping the edges of the mattress hard enough to make it creak in protest, to notice Clint standing in front of him with a heavy black jacket in his hand. He accepted it gratefully with shaking hands, and didn't protest when Clint gently helped him pull it on.
The archer retreated to lean against the counter in the kitchen, letting Steve have a moment to regain his composure. For what seemed like hours, Steve slumped there, panting, and Clint tossed a folded knife back and forth between his hands, staring stubbornly out the rain-drenched window.
He shuffled gingerly into the kitchen, hand pressed protectively to his burning side.
"Thanks, Clint." He murmured quietly, joining the archer in watching the heavy rain trace paths of fractured light and color down the glass. "For everything."
The archer pocketed his knife, and said nothing.
"I should go."
Clint dropped his head into his hand, rubbing at his forehead tiredly.
He didn't offer to drive Steve home.
Steve didn't offer to stay.
Tony woke up face down in his own mattress. He must have shed the suit sometime in the night, because it was nowhere to be seen. His sheets were a twisted, rumpled mess, and his head had become home to a splitting headache that could have woken the dead with its incessant pounding, but otherwise the place looked spotless. He must have been out cold if the combination of Jarvis and the maids cleaning up hadn't woken him.
"Sir," Jarvis was announcing patiently for probably the umpteenth time, "Doctor Banner is in the lobby. I informed him that you were indisposed, but he insisted on waiting for you."
"Banner?" Tony frowned groggily, running a hand through his messy hair and down over his face. "What the hell is he doing here?"
Jarvis did not grace him with a response, waiting patiently until Tony had hauled himself up and into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. One of his mechanical creations, specifically designed for post-hangover mornings, waited by his bathroom door with a tall bottle of Voss and a handful of aspirin.
"Good boy," Tony told the mechanical arm as he chugged the pills and replaced the bottle.
The living area was empty. The broken furniture had been hauled away, the rubble and glass swept up, and the mess generally compacted into the empty floors and conspicuous lack of furnishings. The hole in the wall had been neatly covered over in plastic, with a note on the mercifully intact bar to let him know contractors would be in at four to patch it up.
Sitting beside the note on the bar was a slightly dusty, gift-wrapped package with a rumpled bow. The billionaire spent several long moments standing where he was, staring down at it. He wasn't sure why, but some niggling little worry inside him was convinced that it had more meaning than was immediately apparent.
Shrugging when memory didn't return, Tony fetched a bottle of juice from the refrigerator and stood quietly at the window, eying the shattered glass balcony and wondering why the damage there sparked such a strange uneasiness in his gut.
"Sir, Doctor Banner is in the elevator." Jarvis intoned, "shall I grant him access?"
"Yeah, sure, let him in." Tony waved the voice away, frowning one last time at the missing balcony glass before turning away to greet his guest.
"Bruce." Tony opened his arms in welcome as the doctor stepped off the elevator, "to what do I owe this pleasure?"
"Oh, just thought I'd stop in." Bruce shook Tony's hand like it was a piece of dead meat, his gaze traveling over the empty room appraisingly. His eyes lingered on the plastic sheets and broken glass, but he said nothing about it.
"Well, it's always lovely to see the rest of the freak show." Tony grinned, stepping behind the bar. "Can I get you a drink?"
"Oh, no." Bruce waved him off. "I've gotta drive."
"Eh, suit yourself. I guess it is a little early." Tony shrugged. He watched Bruce take in the room, as if searching for something. "You'll have to forgive the mess, I'm afraid. Going through a bit of a remodel."
"I can see that," said the doctor quietly, eyes darting, drinking in everything that wasn't there. He finally turned dark eyes to Tony, that ever-present half-smile giving the billionaire the impression that the doctor had a secret to which he wasn't privy. "Didn't like the color scheme?"
Tony shrugged, still trying to gauge the other man's thoughts. "Eh, it was more of the whole vibe, if you know what I mean. We had kind of an earthy, neutral-tone going on. I'm looking for something a little more classy."
"French, perhaps?" Bruce trailed a finger over the edge of the bar, checking it as if for dust.
"I was thinking of keeping it local, actually." Tony narrowed his eyes. "Maybe something a little retro."
"Steve would like that."
For some reason, the comment irritated Tony. "Yeah, that's what I was thinking," he lied.
"Speaking of..." Bruce glanced around again, frowning. "Where is he? Steve?"
Tony shrugged one shoulder, wondering why he felt like there was something huge he was missing here. "Out doing whatever Steve does, I would suspect. We don't exactly keep each other on a running satellite feed. It's a little something called 'trust'."
Bruce nodded knowingly, and that put the billionaire on edge even more.
"Uh, sorry. What are you doing here, exactly?"
Bruce looked at him. There was no animosity there, or blame or hostility of any kind... simply the amused, slightly condescending glance of a man who knew infinitely more than his student.
"Can't I stop in to say hello, Tony?" Bruce spread his hands, but it was that stupid half-smile, both knowing and pitying, that got under the billionaire's skin.
"Not smiling like that, you can't." Tony pointed at Bruce accusingly with his juice bottle.
They were quiet for a few long, thick moments, and Tony still wasn't comfortable with the way Bruce was studying the shattered balcony so intently.
"Something I can help you out with?" Tony tried again, "You here to talk me into something for Fury? Cause I gotta say, he really should have sent someone with more curves—"
Bruce was waving him off dismissively again, smiling. "No, no, Tony, relax. I just wanted to see how you and Steve were doing."
"We, are doing just fine." Tony made sure to stress the 'we'. "Happy as larks, and all that."
Tony really didn't like the tone of that. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing, Tony. Don't be so defensive."
"Well, I can't help it." Tony took a long swing of his juice, emptying the bottle. "You're creepin' me out, doc."
Banner laughed at him, and damn but that was starting to get on his nerves. Tony tossed his empty bottle into the trash and slumped down the stairs.
"Well, you look busy...'' Bruce nodded, as if to himself. "So I guess I'm just... gonna go."
That was unusually relieving to hear, and Tony smiled graciously as he followed the doctor towards the elevator.
"Well, don't let the door hit you on the way—"
Tony saw stars.
The billionaire blinked at the spinning ceiling when his vision cleared, hot pain radiating out from his chin. He was flat on his back on the marble tile, he realized. He wasn't sure when that had happened. He breathed out, touching his chin gingerly. It took a moment for his eyes to slide up to Bruce, who stood where he had left him by the elevator, rubbing his right hand.
"Did you just punch me?"
The doctor looked down at his hand, flexing his fingers experimentally. "Yeah. I guess I did."
Tony nodded, blinking, and hauled himself up into a sitting position. "Okay, then. Why?"
"I don't know, Stark." The doctor shrugged, his eyes fixed distantly on the windows. "I guess we'll find out."
Bruce waved mildly as he stepped into the elevator, leaving Tony where he was sitting, rubbing his jaw. The doors closed between them with a soft chime, and the billionaire was left sitting on his ass and trying to figure out what the hell had just happened.
Working his jaw, he glared across the room at Steve's forgotten cell phone. Not that his boyfriend ever answered it even when he had it on him, but at that particular moment, Tony would have killed to be able to call him.
Standing with some effort, Tony leaned on the bar and seethed down at that stupid package with that stupid wrapping paper and that stupid bow. He remembered buying it; remembered why he'd picked out that ridiculous wrapping paper, even. What he didn't remember was why he hadn't given it to Steve already. From the shadows and light seeping in through the glass, it must have been late afternoon... and the soldier wasn't home. Whatever fight they'd had last night must have been a real doozy.
Feeling anxious and inexplicably sore, Tony resigned himself to not having any answers. But when Steve got back, he was sure as hell going to have some serious explaining to do.