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in the line of fire

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Steve can recall the taste of dirt until he’s twenty-three years old. By then, it’s replaced with the harsh grit of sand between his teeth and coating his tongue. He can’t close his eyes without them stinging, and he sure as hell can’t keep them open for the same reason. The Army gives him goggles, sunglasses, uniforms, guns, canteens: anything he can use for survival except a way to get the sand out of his eyes.

He finds that it’s the least of his worries.

---

When the blast hits their hummer, no one sees it coming. One second Steve’s sitting next to Bucky, laughing at some awful joke and the next they’re rolling, and the front corner of the hummer is just gone. (And so, Steve realizes too late, is Bucky.)

He braces his arms against the top of the vehicle as soon as the blast hits so he doesn’t fly out and when the vehicle’s stopped, he’s upside down. He can’t hear anything except a low sort of buzzing in the back of his mind that escalates to ringing when he unclips his seatbelt and falls to the ground. There’s dust and sand everywhere, and it’s hot-- everything is just so hot. Steve can’t breathe. And he’s alone.

“Barnes!” His voice is scratchy, and it’s hard to yell-- broken ribs, potential concussion even with the helmet, hopefully no internal bleeding-- much less walk. He does it anyway. “Barnes! Bucky!

His voice echoes, and there’s no answer.

---

Steve Rogers can recall the taste of dirt until he’s twenty-three years old, when it’s replaced with the harsh grit of sand between his teeth. Before the sand coats his mouth and eyes and clothing, Steve spends most of his time picking dirt out of scrapes on his hands and knees.

He hits the ground in the lot next to the blacktop with a nasty crunch, his already torn jeans doing nothing to stop the bite of loose gravel. His palms are scraped from where he’s thrown his hands out to catch himself each day for the past week, and his back leg throbs, cramping from the blow that dead-legged him. A shoe connects with his rear end and he falls forward, unable to keep his face from hitting this time. He gasps for breath but inhales earth and gravel. He coughs and tastes blood. He just wanted to play foursquare with them. This is what he gets.

“You gonna fight back?” The kid’s voice is harsh, cold, and Steve doesn’t remember his name. He picks himself up but is kicked down again with another sharp pain.

“No, no, don’t get up. You can’t fight back. You’re too chicken. Poor and wimpy. No parents to stick up for you and no friends.” He laughs and the other children join in, but their laughter sounds like the ringing in Steve’s ears. Again, he picks himself up, only to be kicked, and this time with the added pressure and outline of a shoe on his back. Someone holding him in place. He feels his chest constrict, and knows he’s about to have a panic attack. Squeezing his eyes shut, he doesn’t respond to anything else they say-- in fact, he doesn’t even hear it. He just stays curled on the ground, breathing in dust and dirt and blood. The teacher must call them back in, because the pressure on his back goes away and he inhales a shaky breath.

Steve can feel the imprint of the shoe on his back even as he hears the crunch of gravel as the other children walk away.

He’s a scrawny kid and he knows it. Growing up poor in Brooklyn isn’t that uncommon, but gets old really fast when you throw in being flung from foster family to foster family and always being the new, ‘too-smart-for-his-own-good’ kid and then the whole ‘getting shoved into lockers and trash cans’ thing. Thankfully, none of Steve’s ever-rotating families seem to notice if he comes home with bruises and scrapes. (Once, he’d come home with a dislocated shoulder. His family at the time, the Dwyers, noticed that. They were nice people. Steve liked them.)

Basically, Steve’s used to being the underdog. He’s used to getting shoved face-first to the ground and being the bottom of the pyramid so others can use him to get to the top. He knows he’s smart and has the grades to prove it, and he knows he could do something with his life if he ever got the chance. He also knows that he’s not the kind of guy to get a chance like that. Anything he has, he worked for, and he’s not used to things being dropped in his lap.

It’s a shock, then, when the family that takes him in at the age of ten-- the Bartons, who live on the Upper East Side and are richer than anyone has ever dreamed of meeting-- adopts him for good, he isn’t quite sure what to do with his life.

---

The Bartons, Natasha and Clint, are nice people. Mr. Barton-- or Clint, as he insists Steve calls him-- is a world-class archer-turned government hack, and his wife Natasha works with him. Steve assumes they met through their jobs, but he doesn’t know for sure because they don’t really tell him much. They seem to genuinely like him though, which is more than Steve can say for any of the other families that have taken him in.

The day they bring him home, he gets picked up from the orphanage in a sleek black car that’s nicer than anything he’s ever seen, let alone ridden in. He stares at himself in the reflection on the tinted window until he hears the click of the door opening.

A woman-- Natasha, Steve thinks, because it’s important to remember their names-- dressed in a fitted black top and pants steps out. Her hair is a fiery red, and the first thing that Steve thinks is that she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. He takes a step back when she bends to look him in the eye. He runs into the legs of his caseworker, Sara, who puts a firm hand on his shoulder and gently pushes him forward. Natasha extends her hand and all Steve can do is stare at it.

“He’s a little shy,” Sara says, and Steve looks away from Natasha’s hand, down to the ground.

“That’s okay.” Natasha’s voice is soft, like she’s speaking only for him. He looks up to catch her gaze. “I’m a little shy sometimes too.”

He bites his lip and, after a long moment takes her hand, letting her lead him into the car.

The Bartons enroll him in the best private school in the Upper East Side, buy him an entirely new wardrobe (not that he needs it, since he has to wear a uniform most days), more technology than he can handle, and send him on his way.

That’s when he meets Tony Stark.

---

Steve has no idea who anyone is. He’s used to being the new kid, being thrust from classroom to classroom, and not taking the time to remember anyone’s faces, because he knows how much it hurts to know he’ll never see them again. But, he supposes he could start remembering these people.

Even though, he isn’t sure he wants to.

Everyone around him is the child of somebody important. Celebrity children who have spent their first decade of life in and out of the spotlight, getting attention from everyone except for their parents. Steve understands it in a strange sort of way: feeling abandoned by people who’ve promised to take care of you. He knows the sting of a hand in his face, but he also knows the ache caused by indifference. He’s not sure which one hurts more.

But these children don’t understand him. He’s still the ‘new kid’ with a weird haircut and ratty shoes. (Natasha had insisted on buying him a new pair, but Steve won’t wear them. He’s too intimidated by the perfect stitching and pristine color to even put them on. They’re not shoes that a kid like him should wear. Instead, he keeps them neatly in the box, hidden under his bed.) So they make fun of him, pick fights with him and make his life miserable. It’s fine: Steve is mostly used to it by now, but by the time his second semester of school comes around, he’s not sure if it’s going to get any better. Usually he’s gone, or the other kids have lost interest. But not this school. Not anymore.

There’s one kid in particular, a weird, dark-haired kid named Loki who shoves Steve in the dirt and makes him tear the knees on his khakis. It happens every day, and every time Steve tries to stick up for himself he ends up face-first on the ground. The more he comes home with the knees of his khakis bloodied and torn and a new bruises, the more questions Clint and Natasha ask him. He doesn’t want to worry them. They don’t deserve that.

Still, he’s outside on a Tuesday, sitting on a bench under a big tree, eating the peanut butter and jelly sandwich Clint made for him for lunch.

“Rogers,” Loki says from behind him, and Steve goes still, frowning at his sandwich.

“Loki,” he says back, setting his jaw. He wonders briefly how large of a scene they’re going to make today.

“I thought I told you, you can’t sit here.”

Steve turns on his bench to face him, placing the sandwich carefully back into his lunchbox.

“You don’t make the rules, Loki,” he says, and Loki’s eyebrow quirks up. That’s never a good sign. Steve hopes Natasha remembered to buy more stain remover.

“I don’t? Then why does everyone else do what I say?”

Steve frowns and stands, fists curling at his sides. “Because you’re a bully, and they won’t stand up to you.”

“And you will?” Loki laughs-- laced with too much cruelty and disgust for a child’s laugh, and it reminds Steve of a former foster father. He’s speaking before he even knows what he’s going to say.

“If I have to. Someone needs to. Why not me?”

Loki’s laughing again, as if scrawny little Steve Rogers trying to fight him is the funniest thing he’s ever heard. It makes Steve’s heart beat faster, his knuckles turn white at his sides, his nails bite into his palms. He moves forward-- to fight, presumably, or at least to knock Loki a good one, Steve’s not really sure himself-- but he’s stopped by a body in front of his, arms spread-eagled. This kid has to be Steve’s age, because he’s not more than three inches taller than him, but he’s still standing there, shielding him from Loki, who’s stopped laughing.

“Stark,” he says, and Steve swears it’s the first time he’s ever heard Loki sound like anything but a jerk.

“Loki,” Stark says, putting his arms down. “What seems to be the problem here?”

“Rogers was sitting in my spot.”

“Your what?”

“My spot.”

Stark looks around, eyebrows raised. “I don’t see your name on it.”

Loki flushes red, and Steve can’t tell if it’s anger or embarrassment. He doesn’t respond, and Stark just keeps looking at him until he slinks off to a large blond boy, who speaks to him with a lot of harsh hand gestures.

“Uh, thanks,” Steve says to Stark’s back, making him jump and turn around, seeming much more timid than five seconds ago.

“It’s nothing. That guy--” Stark shakes his head. “He’s crazy. Don’t worry about it.” He pauses for a moment, and Steve can’t speak with his gaze on him. “I’m Tony.”

Steve sticks out a hand, smiling when Tony grabs it. “Steve.”

---

“You didn’t have to do that, you know,” Steve says a few days later, when he and Tony are sitting on the bench, eating their lunches.

Tony raises an eyebrow, pauses with his sandwich halfway to his mouth. “Do what?”

“Defend me. From Loki the other day. And you don’t--” Steve feels his cheeks heat. “You don’t have to sit with me. You can go back to your other friends.”

Tony looks at him for a moment, and bursts out laughing. “I don’t have other friends,” he says, shrugging like it’s nothing, but something in Tony’s expression makes Steve frown. “And Loki’s a jerkface, okay? No one deserves that.” He takes a bite of his sandwich and Steve looks away.

“Besides, I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t want to be.”

Steve smiles, and Tony shifts on the bench. “You wanna come over today?” Tony looks down while he asks it, and Steve smiles even bigger and nods.

“Yeah. That’d be fun. I have to ask Natasha, though.”

“Who’s Natasha?” Tony scrunches up his eyebrows, like he’s confused. Right. Steve forgot that most kids call their parents ‘mom’ and ‘dad.’ Most kids also aren’t adopted.

“My mom.”

“She lets you call her Natasha?”
“She told me to call her what makes me feel comfortable,” Steve says, repeating what she’d told him almost exactly. Tony still looks confused.

“That’s weird. My dad would yell at me if I called him by his real name.”

Steve shrugs, letting it go. He doesn’t want to explain the fact that he’s adopted. It would take too long, and whenever he tells people, they get this weird look on their faces. He doesn’t like it. He just wants to be normal, for once, and he doesn’t want Tony to be scared off.

But he also doesn’t want to lie. “I’m adopted,” he says, with another shrug, not looking at Tony. “So I guess we’re different.”

Tony doesn’t say anything for a long time, and Steve finally looks up to see him staring.

“Huh.” Tony shrugs. “Never met someone adopted. That’s cool.”

It’s easy for them to become friends after that. Steve learns that Tony is the only child of Howard and Maria, and it’s probably for the best that way. Tony never goes into details, but Steve’s pretty sure that he and Tony understand each other on a different sort of level. There are some scars you can share that don’t need any explanation.

In any case, Tony’s funny, if not a little weird (kind of like Steve’s adoptive parents, really), and he’s kind, even though he doesn’t seem to want to admit it. Steve’s seen him help out someone in trouble on more than one occasion, but any time he asks Tony about it, Tony just shrugs and doesn’t offer an answer. Clint and Natasha think he’s great, and never seem to mind that he’s always over at the house, helping Steve with his homework. They think it’s excellent that Steve has an older friend that’s so willing to tutor him.

Tony’s definitely the best friend that Steve’s ever had. In fact, he’s his only friend, but Steve figures that one friend like Tony is good enough for a lifetime.

---

“Steeeeeeeeeeve. Steve. Steeeeve. Ssssssssstttttttttteeeeeeve. Steve. Steve. Stevie. Stevie-poo. Steve.”

Steve looks up from his novel and raises an eyebrow. “Yes, Tony?”

Tony’s head rolls on his shoulders, meeting Steve’s gaze. He shrugs. “I don’t know. I’m bored.”

Steve barely manages to hold back a sigh. It’s been like this for almost three weeks. Summer’s almost over, and he and Tony will be in different schools for the first time ever. Steve will enter 7th grade and Tony will enter 9th. High school. (Well, a prep school, technically, but Steve doesn’t really know the difference.) Steve can tell he’s nervous from the way he keeps avoiding the subject in conversation and the way he keeps trying to make Steve do a bunch of strange, reckless things. Things like jumping into swimming pools from way too high up on the roof of the mansion. (Thankfully, Jarvis, the Stark’s butler, catches them every time.)

“You know I have to do this summer reading, Tony,” Steve says, knowing Tony won’t listen. He’s tried to explain that the honors course he just got put in-- much thanks to Tony’s tutoring-- is pretty serious about their summer reading requirement.

“You can read it later, it’s fine, let’s go do something,” Tony says, looking at Steve again with puppy dog eyes. Steve does sigh, this time, and closes his book.

“Fine, but if it’s dangerous, I’m coming back here.”

Tony grins like he does when he figures out an advanced math problem, and Steve can’t help but smile back.

---

They really shouldn’t be doing this. Steve knows that. He’s pretty sure Tony knows it, too, from the way his hands shake against the railing of the building.

Steve doesn’t remember whose idea it was to sneak onto the roof of Stark Industries, but he’s pretty sure it was Tony. He does remember one time when he went to Coney Island and rode a roller coaster, and then vomited up his lunch. He also remembers the pull in his stomach as the coaster would climb the hill and zip down the track. As the building sways-- Steve read once that they build skyscrapers with a certain amount of give, so it’s harder for them to collapse-- Steve feels that pull in his stomach. He’s thankful he hasn’t eaten much today.

“Tony, I don’t think that we should be up here,” he says, but Tony waves a hand at him like he does whenever he’s saying things that make too much sense.

“It’s fine. We’re fine,” Tony says, walking over to the railing, grabbing it with shaking hands. He looks over the edge and stares down at the city. Steve sees his face get that glazed over look it gets when he’s thinking really hard about something, and he takes a step forward.

“Tony?”

“Yeah?” Tony doesn’t even turn his head to look when he says it. Steve chews at his lower lip as Tony leans over even more.

“You can see everything from up here.” His voice is distant, and Steve furrows his brow. “It’s so big. Everyone down there is so small. Everyone’s so small.” Tony’s right; the view is amazing. Steve knows he could get lost up here while staring at the city.

Tony’s hands tighten on the rail briefly before his leg swings up, trying to get over the barrier.

“Tony--” Steve needs to do something. He needs to pull Tony down and away and save him, but he’s too small. He can barely pick up weights in gym class. How could he possibly hope to pull Tony, who outweighs him by a fair amount, down off of a railing? Steve’s stomach lurches as Tony’s foot gets some traction and he starts to stand.

Steve’s frozen. He can’t do anything. His best friend in the world is going to fall off a building to his death and Steve can’t even stop him. He’s so useless.

“Tony,what the hell do you think you’re doing? You know this is off-limits, how many times do I need to tell you? What are you thinking?” The tone of Howard’s voice makes Steve bristle as as Howard rushes past. He grabs Tony by the back of the shirt and hauls him down, letting go of him as soon as his feet touch, causing Tony to stumble into Steve, who tries to catch him. It mostly works. Steve knows it’s not technically his business how Howard raises his son, but it becomes his business when Howard’s son is his best friend. His only friend. It makes Steve so angry to see Tony treated that way, especially by someone who’s supposed to love him.

“I just wanted to get a better look,” Tony says, shrugging, but there’s something challenging in it, like he’s daring either one of them to disagree. Howard raises a hand like he’s going to slap him and Steve straightens, fists curling at his sides, but Howard cups Tony’s cheek briefly and claps him on the shoulder, fingers pressing in hard enough so that Steve can see the faint dents left in the fabric of Tony’s shirt.

“Don’t come up here unsupervised again. They pulled me out of an important meeting. You know I don’t have time for this kind of thing,” Howard says, wrapping an arm around Tony’s shoulders in what Steve knows should seem a fatherly way, but it’s wrong. It’s fake, and makes the pull in Steve’s stomach even worse. He wants to push between them so maybe Tony won’t look so miserable anymore.

“Sorry, Dad,” Tony says, and Howard just nods, leading him back to the door to the stairs.

Steve follows, even though no one asked him to.

---

The air is muggy because it’s the end of September and Steve’s on someone’s back porch in New York state. He came to this party with Tony, which isn’t at all surprising, because Tony’s always getting Steve to do things he shouldn’t. He has a red cup in his hand, filled with something that smells vile and Tony’s by his side, making him feel crowded and claustrophobic, even though there’s so much space out here.

Tony’s been in high school for two years and Steve starts next week. Tony keeps telling him he’s gonna have the time of his life, but if it’s all parties where people are jammed too close together and grinding to the beat of some song Steve doesn’t like-- well, he’s not sure he’s going to like high school much.

“Hey.” Steve feels a hand on his lower back and he looks up to find Tony, who’s frowning at him. “You alright?”

Steve nods and forces his mouth into a smile. “Yeah. Just thinking.”

Tony smiles at him, ruffles his hair and opens his mouth like he’s about to say something, but someone calls his name and he turns, getting swept up in conversation. He walks away, leaving Steve by the keg, but that’s okay; Steve’s used to being left alone.

The next time Steve catches a glimpse of Tony at the party, he’s laughing with his head thrown back. Steve’s seen him laugh like that a few times, and it makes something warm unfurl in his chest.

Tony has an arm around some girl-- blonde and blue-eyed, but Steve doesn’t catch the connection-- and he’s saying something into her ear. The girl blushes, nods and Tony takes her hand and they walk away together.

Steve is irrationally jealous.

How dare he? How is it fair to bring your friend to a party that he can’t get home from and go off with some girl? Steve understands that they’re both at an age where they should be interested in girls and dating and-- and sex, but Steve’s not. He’s interested in art and books and music and hanging out with Tony. Besides, he’s still a hair over five foot and skinny as a rail. No girls are interested in that, and if they were, they’d never tell him about it.

Steve scoffs, shakes his head and walks outside to call Clint.

---

Clint picks him up in twenty minutes-- about the time it takes Tony to get back downstairs and find Steve again. The blonde girl is nowhere in sight.

“You’re leaving?” Tony’s frowning at him like he’s hurt. That’s rich.

“Yeah,” Steve says, keeping his eyes on the familiar sleek black car that Clint pulls up to the house. “This isn’t really my scene. Sorry. You have fun, though.” He forces a smile at Tony, but it doesn’t seem to help. Tony just frowns deeper.

“Okay.” His voice is soft, higher than normal, like he’s confused. Steve just gives him a nod and slides into the car.

It takes everything he has not to look at Tony in the side mirror as they pull away.

“Everything okay?”

Steve likes Clint because he knows when to stay quiet, but he also knows when Steve needs him to talk, and they’ve been sitting in the car for about five minutes in complete silence. He’s not sure yet if this is a talking situation or not.

“Yeah,” Steve says, picking at a thread on his jeans.

“I think you’re lyin’ to me.” Clint sighs, turns down a street, but doesn’t press the issue.

The car smells as new as it did the day they picked him up five years ago and the leather of the seats is smooth, almost too smooth for anyone to sit on safely. Steve runs his thumb over it until he’s ready to speak.

“I don’t--” He frowns. Clint’s head tilts slightly towards him, but he keeps his eye on the road. “I’m not so sure I’m excited for high school.”

“Why not?”

Steve bites his lip, tugs at the thread in his jeans and watches it tighten down his leg. “I don’t think I’ll have any friends.”

“You never seemed worried about that before.”

“Well, I always had Tony. But now he’s different. I’m not--” Good enough to be his friend. “I think we’re growing apart.” Steve feels Clint’s gaze shift over to him, and he can’t even imagine what must be on his face. He feels bad; Clint isn’t his real father and he shouldn’t have to deal with this. “I’m sorry.”

“Hey.” Clint’s voice is soft but stern. “Hey, kiddo. Look at me.” Steve looks, blinks a couple of times. “People change, okay? But it doesn’t mean Tony wants to stop being your friend, or that you need to find new friends. Or even that you won’t find other friends. The important ones always come back.”

Steve nods, and the rest of the drive home is silent.

---

The next day, Steve texts Tony a total of five times before he decides that Tony’s probably mad at him. He doesn’t apologize, because Tony doesn’t deserve an apology. Steve didn’t do anything wrong. He got ditched, so he decided to leave; he doesn’t understand why Tony would be mad about that.

But still, the silence continues up until their first day of classes, when the Stark’s town car pulls up in front of Steve’s building. Steve frowns at it and very nearly doesn’t get in. Tony can’t treat him like this. He can’t just ignore him for weeks and then send a car to pick him up for the first day of school!

But the realization that arriving in the Stark’s car with Tony will keep him safe for at least a week is what makes Steve swallow his pride and get in. It has nothing to do with the fact that he hopes Tony has finally come to his senses. Really.

Tony doesn’t speak to him though, during the whole ride to the school. He barely even glances at him as he gets in, and Steve spends as much time as he can looking out the window. He decides, when they get out at the school and Tony rushes away from him and into the building, that from now on he’ll just take his chances walking.

---

On a Wednesday during Steve’s third week of high school, Tony seemingly decides they can speak again. Steve sees him with a girl-- another blonde, a hand on his shoulder and his hand around her waist and Steve feels that jealousy flare up again-- and his hand tightens on the strap of his bag as he watches them.

Tony kisses the girl on the cheek and turns around to find Steve staring, making Steve blush. They both stop for a moment, looking at each other.

“Steve--” The bell rings, cutting Tony off, and Steve shrugs. How dramatic.

“Sorry. See you later,” he says and quickly strides away, leaving Tony in the middle of the courtyard.

Tony plops down next to him at lunch that day, leans his elbow on the table and his head in his hands.

“Hey gorgeous,” he says, grinning at Steve, who blushes again. Twice in one day is too much, and that nickname has always been Tony’s idea of a joke. Oh Christ. Why is this happening? His life was easier when Tony was ignoring him.

“Tony,” he says, giving a short nod.

“Why are we doing this?” Tony leans forward, and Steve notices his eyes are a little glassy, his breath a little rank.

“Are you drunk?” Steve frowns, turns to face him and give him the attention he knows he wants.

“Vodka in the water bottle, oldest trick in the book.”

“It’s eleven-thirty.”

“It’s five-thirty in England.”

Steve’s frown deepens. “I don’t think they have happy hour in London.”

Tony grins at him. “Come on, don’t be such a spoilsport. I’m fine, you’re fine, we’re all fine. You want some?” He offers a green plastic nalgene bottle that smells like fingernail polish remover and Steve wrinkles his nose.

“No, thanks.”

“You’re harshing my mellow, gorgeous.”

Ah, the blush again. Steve really hates this. “Tony, stop it.”

Tony frowns, withdraws the bottle and straightens. “Fine. Just wanted to talk to you. Sorry.”

Steve sighs, looks around the lunchroom and then back to Tony, putting a hand on his arm. “You don’t have to be drunk to talk to me. You’re my best friend. I prefer you sober.”

Tony looks down at Steve’s hand and then back up to his face, licking his lips. “Yeah?”

Steve nods. “Yeah. Of course.”

The bell rings, and Steve sighs again. The inconvenient bells makes his life feel like one of those cheesy made-for-tv movies that Natasha always watching when he gets home from school. He didn’t think things like that happened in real life.

“Come over later,” he says, shaking Tony’s shoulder. “Natasha and Clint miss you too.”

Tony nods, but Steve doesn’t hear him say anything as he walks away.

---

Steve finds him at the end of the school day, surrounded by a group of people, all laughing and talking. He stands by a large oak tree on the grounds and waits for their group to disperse before approaching Tony.

“Hey,” he says, and Tony smiles. It’s the happiest Steve’s seen him look all week-- okay, maybe Steve’s kind of been watching him, which he knows is creepy, but he can’t stop doing it-- which makes him feel good, like he’s accomplished something.

“Let’s go,” Tony says, hooking an arm around Steve’s shoulders. “I’ll drive.”

They slip into the car that’s been toting Tony around as long as Steve can remember and Tony tells Happy, the driver, to go to Steve’s today instead, please.

Steve usually walks home from school, because the traffic usually makes Clint late to work at his night shifts otherwise and Steve’s not actually used to being in cars. The only ones he’s ever been in, besides Tony’s or the Bartons’, is cars owned by the orphanage or the state. They were never in good repair, and the first time he got into Tony’s sleek town car-- well, he couldn’t quite believe it. He still can’t believe it, really.

“It’s so cute,” Tony says, looking at him and smiling. “You’re so cute. How you always look so amazed at the car.”

Steve feels his face tighten up almost instantly and Tony sighs. “No, not in like, a bad way. Or a patronizing way. Though I guess that does sound pretty patronizing, huh. Anyway, no, it’s just-- everyone else is so jaded, you know? You’re not. I like that.”

Steve’s pretty sure that’s a compliment, but his brow quirks up anyway. “Uh, thanks, I guess.” He doesn’t quite understand why Tony would be having this epiphany right now since they’ve been friends for so long, but he figures it might have something to do with that vodka from earlier.

“Yeah, hey, no problem.”

The car pulls up next to Steve’s building and they clamber out, colliding when Tony stops suddenly in the doorway. Steve doesn’t stop quite in time, so he ends up pressed against Tony’s back. He’s suddenly very warm all over.

“Uh, beep beep?” He’s sort of talking into Tony’s ear, and it’s weird, but Tony doesn’t seem to mind. Steve can feel his body shaking. Laughter, probably. It makes the most sense. Steve frowns and Tony grabs both of his arms, wraps them around his neck and lunges forward, keeping Steve on his back. Steve yelps as Tony rights himself on the sidewalk and starts to move. He has to wrap his thin legs around Tony’s waist to keep from falling.

“Put me down!” Tony’s hands tighten around Steve’s arms, and he doesn’t stop until they’re right in front of the door. Coulson, the doorman, opens it for them and Tony zips through, making Steve laugh, loud and bright.

“Seriously, come on,” Steve says, starting to wriggle, and Tony shakes his head, letting him down once they reach the elevator. Steve’s a little breathless, and he can feel the pink spots on his cheeks. Tony doesn’t even look winded. It’s unfair.

The door dings open and Tony steps on, staring at Steve once he’s inside. Steve stands out there for a moment, taking in Tony’s mussed up hair and huge grin before stepping inside as well.

He stands next to Tony, who puts his arm around Steve’s shoulders, holding him close. It’s a little strange, but Steve only feels the slightest bit awkward. Usually he hates standing close to people, because it makes him realize how small he is when he’s tucked up under someone’s shoulder, but Steve finds he doesn’t mind standing pressed up against Tony’s side. It’s comforting, in a weird sort of way. They ride that way until the door opens on Steve’s floor, and they have to separate.

---

The day of Tony’s Graduation/Going Away Party is not actually one Steve remembers very well.

That’s not true. He remembers the day just fine, but anything after ten at night is a blur of heat, skin and alcohol. Tony throws the biggest rager the school’s ever seen, and of course Steve’s invited.

He goes, but he doesn’t plan on drinking much, but Tony has other plans, apparently.

Steve spends most of the night being ignored. He tries not to be sensitive about it; there’s a lot of people at the party and Tony is hosting, so he does have certain duties to fulfill. But every time Steve tries to get close to him to talk or to just say hello, Tony veers away, grabbing some girl and another drink and disappearing into an empty room. (Steve hopes they’re empty, at least. That’d just be rude otherwise.)

Steve decides to make a game out of it. Every time he tries to catch Tony’s eye and it doesn’t work: drink. Every time he walks close to Tony and Tony goes the opposite direction: drink. Every time Tony outright ignores him: drink.

Steve’s on his fourth drink within the hour.

For someone who usually never gets drunk, Steve has a pretty high tolerance. He doesn’t feel tipsy until halfway through his second drink-- and for someone his size and how fast he’s drinking, that’s something-- but a quarter of the way through his third and he’s feeling it pretty hard. He can walk, but it’s a small thing, really.

He ends up being accidentally shoved into a door while people are dancing, but the door’s not latched all the way, so Steve’s falling for what seems like forever before he hits the hardwood, breath leaving him in a big rush.

“Whoa, hey there tough guy, you alright?”

Tony. That’s Tony’s voice. Christ, how humiliating. He’s probably with some beautiful girl too. Steve sits up and when he feels a hand on his arm, he tugs away sharply. He doesn’t need Tony’s help. He’s fine.

“I’m fine,” he says, even though ok, he’s not. He’s pissed. Pissed as in, drunk and pissed as in pissed at Tony for throwing this party and pissed at Tony for inviting him to this party and pissed at Tony for ignoring him at this party and pissed at Tony for leaving for school, and he’s just pissed.

“I can see that,” Tony says, and it takes Steve entirely too long to realize that he said all of that aloud. Tony’s face is all pinched up like he’s about to laugh, and Steve can’t take it anymore.

“I didn’t come here to be made fun of,” he says, managing to stand with the last shred of dignity he has left.

“Yeah? Why did you come?” Tony asks it like a challenge, because it is. Everything Tony does nowadays is a challenge: going to school so far away, throwing a party he knows Steve will hate, all of it daring Steve to follow-- to try and stay friends. To see if he’s worthy. Steve knows he should lie and try to hurt Tony like he hurts right now. If he were a worse person, he might do it, too.

“Because you’re my best friend.” Steve hates that he can’t do anything but tell the truth when it comes to Tony. “You’re my only friend. I thought it would make you happy.”

Tony looks away, down at his hands and clears his throat like he’s about to say something. Steve knows there’s music playing in the house and that he should be able to hear it, but he can’t hear anything. He’s tuned into Tony-radio and everything else is static.

The moment stretches too long. Steve can feel it break between them and he looks away before Tony answers.

“Who knew you’d be such a morose drunk?”

When Steve looks back, Tony’s got a grin on his face. Drunk or not, Steve knows better than to think it’s real.

“Full of surprises, I guess,” Steve says and turns, walking out of the room.

Steve goes straight to Howard’s study because he knows there’s a big leather couch there. He’s one of the only people besides the Stark family (and most of their staff) who’s allowed in there, and while he doesn’t really understand how or why that happened, he’s grateful for it right now.

There’s a blanket on the end of it and Steve takes the time to remove his shoes, belt, khakis and sweater before snuggling with his face into the cushions.

---

He wakes the next morning with a pounding headache and an arm wrapped around his waist. A warm body pressed along his back that he only notices when he stretches. The person makes a noise, nuzzles into the back of Steve’s neck, and sighs. Steve, though sleep-dazed, registers that this is a strange situation. He’s definitely never woken up in the same bed with someone, much less smushed together on a couch. He has no idea who it even is. Who would want to sleep with him?

Then, Steve thinks about it-- thinks about where he is exactly and who has access to this room and comes up with two options. One: it’s Tony on the couch with him or two: it’s Tony’s father.

Steve really hopes it’s number one.

He turns slowly, trying not to wake up the person-- who is Tony, thank goodness-- but it seems he’s already awake.

“Hey,” Tony says, voice quiet and rough from sleep. He reaches up and smoothes a section of hair back from Steve’s face. Steve feels his face heat and tries to look away, but the hand in his hair tightens, keeping him still. It keeps getting weirder. How does he get out of this?

“Don’t--” Tony starts, but stops, letting go of Steve’s hair, smoothing it down.

“I’m not a dog,” Steve says. Gentle suggestions of his uncomfortableness have never really worked with Tony, but at least he takes his hand out of his hair.

“I’m sorry about last night.”

Steve looks away again, frowning. “It’s nothing.”

“It’s not.” Tony touches the side of Steve’s face, gently coaxing him back. Steve tries not to wince at the feel of his fingertips. He isn’t used to this, all this touching. “I’m-- I’m an asshole, okay? And I’m sorry. You’re-- you’re my best friend. I mean it.”

Steve lifts his hand to cover Tony’s, pulling it away from his face. “Yeah, I know,” he says, laying it on the armrest. “It’s really okay.”

“You sure?” Tony’s gnawing on his lower lip so hard that when it slips from between his teeth, it’s bright red. Steve wants to reach out and touch his thumb to it to stop him, but that feels too strange. Too intimate, even though they’re laying on a couch with their legs tangled together.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Steve says, trying to sit up, but Tony’s limbs prove to be quite the trap. “You’re just worried about leaving. We both are. It’s fine. I’m not mad. That wouldn’t be fair.”

Tony puts a hand to Steve’s chest, so large that his finger stretch over Steve’s collarbone. “You’re a much better friend than I deserve,” he says, mumbling, and Steve just smiles at him. It makes his face hurt.

He doesn’t respond with the fact that he agrees.

---

Tony doesn’t say goodbye.

Really, Steve should have figured he wouldn’t because Tony’s horribly unorganized when it comes to things like packing and getting ready for a huge move to another state, not to mention the fact that saying goodbye is probably the one thing Tony Stark can’t do well.

Steve knows he should have taken it upon himself to say goodbye, but he couldn’t. He wanted to know that Tony cared at least enough to make the effort to say goodbye to him. He feels stupid for it, because he should have known better. He should have just swallowed his pride and called him or something.

Natasha finds him a few days after Tony’s departure in the library, stretched out along one of the leather couches, reading. She comes in like she usually does-- so silently that anyone who hasn’t lived with her for six years wouldn’t even know she was there. Steve knows what to listen for now, though. The change in air pressure when the door opens and the sound of her hand touching the back of the leather couch. They’re small sounds but expected-- comforting.

“Hey,” he says, putting the book down and smiling at her.

“Hey kiddo,” she says, leaning against the couch. “Are you busy?” Steve shakes his head and sits up, moving his legs so she can sit down with him. He’s been growing lately, about six inches in the whole summer. All his pants are too short.

“You need anything?” Natasha’s asking about Tony, in her own way. Steve knows she is and that’s okay. She can ask about him. He doesn’t mind. He’s just not sure he has much to say.

“I’m okay. I think I need to go school shopping, though. Is that okay?” He screws up his mouth when he asks, and Natasha smiles at him.

“Steve, you don’t have to ask like that each time. You’re my son. I love you. Of course I can buy you pants that fit.”

Steve laughs and rubs the back of his neck. He feels strange sometimes, asking for things from Natasha and Clint. It’s not that he doesn’t trust them, because he does. He loves them and he knows they love him most at times like this, when Natasha sits next to him while he’s on the couch and cleverly asks him about losing his best friend. But he’s never gotten used to the idea that he could probably have anything he wanted.

He slides his socked feet over and tucks his toes beneath her thigh, smiling when she pinches at his ankle.

“Do you just want more of the same?” she asks, quirking an eyebrow. “Chinos and plaid shirts?”

Steve wiggles his toes for a moment, considering. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s time for something different,” he says in what he hopes is an offhand way. “Maybe more jeans. Less plaid.”

Natasha nods. “Sure thing. We can go tomorrow, how’s that?”

“Yeah. Good. Thank you, Natasha,” he says as she gets up to leave.

“You’re welcome. Dinner’s at seven.”

---

The first day of junior year is a strange one for Steve.

For one thing, he’s about half a foot taller than he used to be (and still growing) which makes people notice him more than they used to (read: not at all). His voice is a little deeper too, and the clothes Natasha bought him fit like nothing he’s ever owned. He’s still skinny, but the height makes a difference for some reason, because people watch him as he walks down the hall. It’s weird. He’s not sure he likes it.

He stops at his locker to switch his books out and a girl-- Sharon Carter, who Steve is fairly certain has never looked at him before-- approaches him. She has dark brown hair and eyes that remind him of a girl he knew named Peggy back in Brooklyn. It’s a little off-putting.

“Hey,” she says, tilting her head and smiling up at him through her lashes. Steve furrows his brow.

“Hi.”

“So, do you know where your first class is?”

“Uh, yeah.” Steve pulls out his schedule. He likes to use it for the first couple of days, just to get acclimatized. “Miller, English, 331.”

Sharon’s eyes light up, and she smiles wider. “Oh my god! I’m in that class too! I can walk you there if you want, and show you around.”

Steve doesn’t need to be shown around. He knows where room 331 is. But, she is being nice to him, and maybe if he lets her think he’s an idiot, she’ll be friends with him. No, no. He doesn’t need friends like that. He knows that.

“Actually, I know where it is.”

Sharon doesn’t seem fazed at all. “Oh, did they give you a tour when you got here?”

“Yes?” When he was a freshman he got a tour, just like everyone else. “And going to school here for the past two years has helped too.”

Sharon’s eyes narrow at him, and then widen in what Steve can only guess is realization. And then she starts laughing.

“Oh my god! I’m sorry! That’s--” She puts a hand to her chest, bending over for a moment. “Oh my god. You must think I’m an idiot.”

Steve smiles at her and shakes his head.

“Well, please. Walk with me to class so I feel like less of a jerk.” She looks up at him again through her lashes and Steve blinks. He thinks briefly of Tony, who claimed to be his best friend but never once hung out with him in school. Maybe Sharon only wants to be his friend now that he’s acceptably attractive or something, but at least she’ll be seen with him. And is making the first move.

“Sure,” he says, and the smile he gets from Sharon is worth it.

---

He and Sharon end up dating for all of Junior year. They go to Homecoming together, spend the holidays in a cabin in Canada with Natasha and Clint-- which is not nearly as awkward as Steve thinks it’s going to be-- and Steve’s actually kind of excited to go to prom with her.

He’s not a dance or a party person, never has been and probably never will be, but he is excited that he gets to see Sharon in a lovely dress and have a nice dinner with everyone he’s become friends with. He’s happy for the first time in a long time. It’s nice.

That is, until Clint comes into his room one day to give him The Talk.

“This is a condom,” Clint says as he closes the door, throwing a small square into Steve’s lap. Steve picks it up gingerly, like it might break.

“I know what a condom is,” he says, holding back a laugh, and Clint glares at him.

“Look, you’re a kid, that’s fine. You want to have sex? Whatever, I can’t stop you. You don’t want to have sex? That’s fine too. You do what you want, you make your own choices. I trust you. But, if you do have sex or are having sex, use protection for Christ’s sake. No one needs a kid at your age. I promise.” Clint opens the door and slips out, leaving Steve sort of dumbfounded on his bed.

---

“I got us a hotel room.” Sharon’s voice is warm against Steve’s ear and the rhinestones in her dress are digging through his shirt. He knew it was a bad idea to take off his jacket. He half-turns toward her.

“Yeah? What for?”

She smiles at him, something dark in her eyes that hits Steve right in the stomach. He feels himself licking his lips, but he doesn’t mean to.

“Yeah,” she says, coming close again, wrapping her arms around his neck and sliding to his front, grinding like everyone else is. Steve gets it, now. “For that.”

Later, while Sharon’s in the shower and Steve’s lounging on the bed in the hotel room, his phone vibrates with a text message. It’s from Tony.

Back in town for a few days before Cali for the summer. Lunch? Dinner?

It’s hard to swallow around the lump in his throat, but somehow Steve manages, and deletes the message.

“Something wrong?” Sharon asks later while they’re watching a movie. Steve keeps checking his phone, which he knows is stupid. He hadn’t sent a reply.

“Ah, no,” he says, turning it on silent and putting it on the bedside table. He leans down to kiss her, cupping her cheek. “Nothing’s wrong at all.”

---

Steve and Sharon break up over the summer. For a high school romance, it lasts a long time, but Sharon wants to go off to college at the end of their senior year. Steve doesn’t. He wants to join the military, because he thinks it’ll give him some kind of purpose in life. Everyone he says that too, though, looks at him like he’s crazy.

In the end, they decide it’s easier to break up now rather than later. Sharon’s worried about how heartbroken she’ll be but Steve-- and he feels terrible about this-- figures he’ll feel less obligated to be sad later on. He goes back to being a hermit, mostly, and trains to enlist.

“You know son, you’ll have a better chance of commissioning if you go to school. The military gives out great scholarships,” his recruiter tells him, the day he signs up.

“Never had much interest in school,” Steve says, lying, because he loves to learn. He’d love to go to college and study, but he wants to study things like Art and History. There’s no place for art in the military. He’d feel bad taking their money. (And he’d never let Natasha and Clint pay for his education. They’ve done so much for him already.)

The recruiter frowns at him and then shrugs. “It’s your choice.”

“I know, sir. This is what I’d like to choose.”

---

Boot camp reminds Steve entirely too much of his childhood.

He’s yelled at almost day and night, spends most of his time on the ground with dirt in his mouth and being generally miserable. But he gets through it with flying colors, and they tell him they’re sending him to officer school.

By the time he gets back to New York City, it’s been almost a year since he’s graduated. But still, when he opens the door to the apartment and flops down on the couch in the living room for a nap, he feels like nothing’s changed. It’s nice.

“Well, look what the cat dragged in.”

Steve opens one eye to see Clint standing in the doorway to the kitchen, drying off a fork. He smiles and sits up, giving a little wave.

“You look beat,” Clint says, and Steve nods.

“Takes a lot out of you.”

“I know.”

“Your mother will want to see you, you know. You should head up to your room.”

Steve sighs and stands, arching his back to pop it. “Yeah, alright.” He heads for the hallway, and Clint disappears into the kitchen, only to pop back out a moment later.

“Hey, also?” Steve stops, turns to look at him. “Tony called a couple of times. Came by, too. I think he wants to talk to you.”

Tony came by? Steve feels dizzy, like the floor is moving. It’s not moving, no. It’s fine. Okay. That was odd. He nods at Clint. “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

---

Steve remembers hearing about the death of Tony’s parents at the beginning of boot camp. One of the guys was talking about it like it wasn’t a big deal, and Steve sat on his cot and listened to the whole thing. Car accident, mysterious circumstances. Some say Howard was drunk, some say they were run off the road. All he knows for sure is that it was a closed casket ceremony.

And that he didn’t send Tony a letter.

He feels like it’s too late for them. For him and Tony. Too much time has passed for it to be okay for Steve to send him a condolence card, and he knows Tony wouldn’t want it anyway. So, he hadn’t done anything for lack of anything better to do.

He sits on his bed once he’s upstairs, thumbing the screen of the phone his parents bought for him as a graduation gift. He still has Tony’s number, he could call him. It’d be so easy. Just one tap and the number would dial and that would be it. He’d hear his voice again. But Steve’s not sure he wants to know what Tony sounds like full of grief. He doesn’t know that he can handle it.

He puts the phone down and kicks off his shoes instead, laying back on the bed. It’s not five minutes later that his phone beeps with a text message.

Tony.

I know you’re back. Please. Can I come over?

Steve stares at the message for a long time before typing out a reply.

Dinner’s at seven. Don’t be late.

And disappoint Natasha? What are you, new?

Steve smiles at the screen and gets out of bed to change into his civilian clothing.

---

Tony arrives at 6:45pm, knocking obnoxiously on the door. Steve opens it, quirking an eyebrow at the look on Tony’s face. His mouth is open, as if he’s about to say something but it’s frozen, and his hand is still in the air, curled into a fist for knocking. He looks different; taller, thinner, and he has a weird beard thing on his face that Steve’s not sure he likes. He’s wearing sunglasses and an expensive gray suit. Steve finds himself inexplicably happy.

“You gonna come in, or are you gonna stand there and look ridiculous?” he says, fighting a grin. Tony blinks a few times and lowers his hand, but he’s still gaping.

“You’re staring, Tony,” he says, more gently, and that snaps Tony out of it.

“Hello, gorgeous, and really, I mean that,” Tony says, and something in Steve’s chest jumps. He also blushes, which is ridiculous too, because he hasn’t blushed in four years. Really. Tony steps forward to come in, brushing by Steve. He smells good. Mostly the same, but a little richer, like his cologne changed and Christ, why does Steve remember this stuff? There must be something wrong with him.

“Don’t call me that.”

“What should I call you, then? Captain Muscles? Sergeant Steve? Yeah, did you really think I wouldn’t find out about you joining the military, Steve? Jesus. Really?” Tony’s voice has a strange edge to it, just a little too strained to really be joking.

“It’s not like you asked,” Steve says, and that makes Tony stop, rub his hands over his thighs and take a deep breath.

“You’re right,” he says, and it’s not what Steve expects at all. “You’re right. I should have-- I just left you-- I’m a bad friend.”

That implies you were a friend at all, Steve wants to bite back, but he doesn’t. Tony doesn’t deserve that. He’s trying. Steve can tell he’s trying.

“You are, but it’s okay,” he says instead, smiling. “Let’s eat?”

“Please.”

---

Dinner passes without much incident. Clint and Natasha are too excited for Steve to be back to really notice anything wrong between him and Tony, and if they do, they don’t mention it.

Tony leaves that night and comes back the next day and then again the next. Steve only has about three weeks before he leaves to go overseas, so he’s grateful for the time they do get to spend together. It’s strange at first, like he doesn’t quite remember how to act around Tony. Steve feels like he’s changed a lot in four years. He’s not the scrawny kid who depends on Tony to keep him safe anymore. He can take care of himself, but just because he doesn’t need Tony around doesn’t mean he doesn’t want Tony around. He also doesn’t know how to tell Tony he wants him around. It’s a complicated thing.

It doesn’t really matter, though, because Tony comes over around the same time each day for a week and half and eventually they learn to be friends again.

“So what do you do?” Steve asks him one day while they’re in the library, lounging on the couch. Steve’s reading the newspaper with his feet tucked up under Tony’s thighs, while Tony-- who doesn’t seem to mind keeping Steve’s toes warm-- skims a magazine.

“What?” He asks, turning his head only slightly.

“What do you do? Now that you’ve graduated. Do you just have your Dad’s job or--”

“I run Stark Industries. I’m the CEO.” He doesn’t sound too happy about it, Steve notes.

“Oh. Sounds interesting.”

“It’s not.” Tony goes back to his magazine and Steve chews on his lower lip as he reads the paper.

“I didn’t mean to pry,” he says a moment later, and sees Tony’s shoulders slump.

“You weren’t. I just-- it’s still hard. Adjusting to it. No one there thinks I’m doing a good job. I can tell.”

Steve frowns. “That’s ridiculous. Of course you’re good at your job. Don’t worry about what they think.”

“They run the board, Steve,” Tony says, exasperated and acting like Steve’s an idiot. It catches him off-guard and makes him angry, angrier than he really has any right to be. “They think I’m incompetent.”

“Then you prove them wrong,” Steve says, voice tense. He feels Tony stiffen again next to him.

“Oooookay, note to self: Steve’s different, don’t piss him off.”

“What did you expect? It’s been four years. And I’m not that different.”

“You sure about that?” Tony asks with an eyebrow raised at him, and Steve wants very much to hit him.

“Yeah, I’m sure. I was never afraid to stand up for myself. Don’t know why that’d change.”

Tony’s jaw clenches, like he’s holding something back, and then he stands, smoothing down his jacket.

“Well, it’s been nice talking to you, Steve. Nice catching up. Talk to you later.” He’s out the door before Steve can stop him. Instead, he just sits on his bed and watches him go.

---

Tony doesn’t come back for dinner the next night.

In fact, he doesn’t come back until the day Steve’s set to go. Steve’s in his uniform, carrying his duffel bag down to the car when he spots Tony.

“Hey,” Tony says, tugging at the hem of his undershirt. He’s wearing a long-sleeved shirt under a deep red t-shirt. It’s a style that Steve’s never really understood, but it looks good on Tony. Everything looks good on Tony, it seems, but this isn’t the right time for him to be thinking about that.

Steve’s hand tightens on the strap of his bag and he stands a little straighter, glancing at Tony. “Hey.” He wasn’t planning on saying goodbye. He isn’t good at them, and he’s spent the past week convinced that Tony hates him. It’s not a good thing.

“What are you doing here?” Steve doesn’t mean to sound so harsh. He’s genuinely curious. Tony isn’t the type to be good at goodbyes either.

“Just came to wish you luck, Captain,” Tony says with a shrug.

“Thank you.” This is the worst. Steve can’t tell if he’s supposed to be mad or forgive him. He came to say goodbye, but he also hasn’t apologized. Steve doesn’t know what to do.

Tony takes a step toward him, a hand outstretched. “I also-- uh-- I need to tell you something.” He takes another step forward and his hand connects with Steve’s jacket. Steve wants to pull away but he can’t. His legs won’t move, and his whole body has gone stiff, frozen.

“What’s that?” They’re so close, Steve doesn’t feel the need to speak at a normal volume. Tony takes another step forward and grabs his tie, curling it around his hand. Steve’s blushing now, and can feel his own heartbeat in the pulse point in his neck. It’s a strange feeling. He focuses on it to calm himself down.

“I need you to stay. I-- You’re all I-- I need you to stay, Steve. Please.” He’s grabbed the handle of Steve’s duffle now, and is trying to pull it out of Steve’s hand. Steve registers the movement in the back of his mind and tightens his grip.

“No.” It’s an automatic response. Defensive, even, but Steve isn’t entirely sure. All he knows is that he made a promise to go somewhere and do something, and he’s going to do it. “I can’t back out. It’s a military contract, Tony. I’m commiss--”

“No, please,” Tony says, and Steve’s never heard him beg like that before. A sharp pain goes through his chest, like he’s run into something sharp. “Please. I need you. I have connections, I can get you out of--”

“Tony, no.” Steve feels wet. His cheeks feel wet and his eyes sting for some reason. Oh, tears. He’s crying. He doesn’t know why. “I can’t just do that. I have to go, I have to--” He wrenches free, pushing Tony back with a hand on his chest. “I need to go.”

Steve backs away from Tony as quickly as he can and gets in the car. He doesn’t look through the rear view window to see Tony sit on the ground and put his face in his hands.

And if he has to put his head between his knees to get himself under control, well-- that’s no one’s business but his own.

---

The blast hits the hummer and Steve is the only known survivor.

The radio’s shot, so Steve’s best bet is to get back to base by walking. Except the desert’s hot and he has little to no water and truthfully-- because Steve’s always been one for the truth-- he’s not sure he’s gonna make it.

He tries to find shady spots to sleep in for most of the day so he can do his walking in the evening and night, to combat dehydration, but he’s still in a warzone. He’s still in danger with every step he takes, and he isn’t sure where base camp is by now.

On his third day, he hears the roar of helicopter blades above him and he looks, thinking he’s finally gone insane. Or died. He shouts for joy when he sees the familiar insignia and falls to his knees as it lands, waiting for them to come find him.

“You alright there, tough guy?” Tony. That’s Tony’s voice. This must be a hallucination, he’s wrong. He’s going to die out here. Still.

“Been better,” he says, looking up, and yep, that’s Tony’s face, looking so relieved that he might actually cry. Wouldn’t that be a laugh. Tony Stark never cries.

“Yeah, I bet you have,” Tony says, kneeling down next to him and wrapping his arms around Steve’s shoulders. He wonders briefly if this is a strange, tactile hallucination before his vision is swimming and everything goes dark.

---

Steve wakes in a bright hospital room, shielding his eyes against the harsh glare. Once his eyes have adjusted, Steve looks around, and immediately spots Tony, asleep in one of the uncomfortable chairs.

“I wasn’t hallucinating, then,” Steve says, and it hurts to talk. Tony stirs at the sound, blinks a few times and then seems to realize that Steve is awake. He’s up in a flash, grabbing a cup of water with a straw and bringing it to him.

“Hey gorgeous,” he says with a grin, and damn it, Steve blushes. Every time.

“You only do that so I’ll blush,” Steve says, taking the cup from him to drink.

“Maybe, or maybe I really think it.” Tony tilts his head, and it’s like they’re eleven and thirteen again, and Tony’s daring him to prove him wrong.

“How’d you find me?” Steve asks, looking away to break the tension. Tony pulls out a little device and hits a button, and something on Steve’s bedside table lights up. “What’s that?”

“Tracking device. Stark Industries’ new line.” Tony clicks the button again and puts the device down. “Remember when I told you I sucked at my job? Well, you were right. I don’t. It just took--” Tony takes a deep breath, biting his lip. “It just took almost losing you to realize it.”

“What?” Steve doesn’t understand. He doesn’t even know what Tony does. He thought Stark Industries only had contracts with the military for weapons.

“They do,” Tony answers, and okay, Steve must have a concussion because he only says what he’s thinking when he’s drunk. “But I changed that. I didn’t want to kill people anymore, even people who are supposed to be out enemy. I-- I just wanted to protect, you know?”

“Protect and serve,” Steve says, and Tony nods.

“Exactly. And then I heard that you joined, and I just--” He stops again, looking away and then back at Steve, coming closer to the bed to grab his hand. “I didn’t want to lose you, all right? I’ve lost enough of you already. God, that sounds stupid. I swear I’m not usually this stupid. I’m a genius, did you know?”

“I did,” Steve says, barely managing to get it out. This is a lot to process. He’s not really sure what Tony’s trying to tell him. He’s not sure what it all means. “So you were worried about me?” That seems a safe thing to ask.

Tony sighs, rolls his eyes, but Steve knows it’s an affectionate sort of thing. He’s not being truly patronizing. Hopefully. He doesn’t really have much time to ponder it, though, because Tony leans down, takes Steve’s face in his hand and kisses him.

All at once, everything Steve has ever felt makes sense. He realizes that’s a stupid, cliched way to feel, but he knows that he and Tony have been on the edge of something most of their lives and this is it. It makes sense. It makes so much sense. Unfortunately, in the time it takes Steve to have this realization, Tony stops kissing him, and that’s not okay.

“Am I wrong here?” Tony asks, brow furrowed and that’s genuine worry in his eyes that Steve can see.

“I don’t think you are,” Steve says, reaching out to grasp the collar of Tony’s wrinkled button-down. He pulls Tony close, presses their foreheads together for a moment and then kisses him again. It’s so much better when Steve’s not thinking about the past and all the time they wasted and is instead just kissing-- running his hand into Tony’s hair, pushing his tongue into Tony’s mouth and scraping his teeth along Tony’s lower lip.

Tony makes a noise against his mouth and pulls away, breathing hard. Steve can see some pink, high on his cheeks and feels ridiculously satisfied. “Okay, we need to stop.”

“I don’t want to,” Steve says, pulling him in again and it’s a few moments before Tony wrenches himself free.

“No, if we start again, I’m not stopping and I can’t-- I have to do this right, Steve.” He puts a hand on Steve’s chest, slides it up to cup his neck and run his thumb over Steve’s jaw. “You’re too important. I can’t screw it up.”

Steve presses his lips together and meets Tony’s gaze. This is a lot to hear in a hospital bed after a near-death experience. His life still feels like one of those awful movies Natasha watches. Or maybe a tragic romance novel.

Except, with the way Tony’s looking at him, he can’t imagine this can turn out awfully. Well, no, he can, but he’s ignoring it. They can work through those issues later, but right now, Steve’s okay with this. He scoots over in the tiny hospital bed and pats the empty space. Tony climbs in and settles himself next to Steve.

For the time being, it’s where they’re both meant to be, and Steve knows that things may change, but things are always changing. It’s not always a bad thing. He knows they’ll cross those bridges when they come to them.